Books on Science and Religion #37: Nick Spencer’s ‘Atheists and the Origin of the Species’ Part 5

Books on Science and Religion #37: Nick Spencer’s ‘Atheists and the Origin of the Species’ Part 5

Stephen Friberg

To believe in God means to see that the facts of the world are not the end of the matter. To believe in God means to see that life has a meaning.

Ludwig Wittgenstein

Mar 8, 2015

Why did atheism become a state religion in the Soviet Union Dead treeand not in, say, Britain?

Atheists: The Origin of the Species – by Nick Spencer – addresses this question by looking at the growth of atheism in 19th century pre-Soviet Russia and contrasting it with atheism in 19th century Britain.

Atheism has many causes and takes on many forms and colorations. Two causes in particular feature in the discussion of atheism in Russia versus atheism in Britain. One is what happens when a church or a religion become corrupt and ineffectual. The Baha’i writings describe this using the image of a tree. According to `Abdu’l-Baha, head of the Baha’i Faith from 1892 to 1921,

Religion has grown into a tree which has put forth leaves and branches, blossoms and fruit. After a time this tree has fallen into a condition of decay. The leaves and blossoms have withered and perished; the tree has become stricken and fruitless. It is not reasonable that man should hold to the old tree, claiming that its life forces are undiminished, its fruit unequaled, its existence eternal.

So people turn away, looking for something that is life-giving.

Russian Orthodox IconAnother cause, seen time and time again in these discussions, takes place when church and state become closely entwined and simultaneously oppressive, rigid, and intolerant. This was the case in France during the French Enlightenment and it was the case in 19th century Russia where the governing regime and the Russian Orthodox Church worked closely together and tolerated little or no dissent. Atheism, correspondingly, was particularly harsh in these environments. In contrast, 19th century Britain lacked powerful ecclesiastical institutions and was much more tolerant of different ways of thinking. Atheism, because of this tolerance, lacked targets and was unable to develop the same strong and powerful emotional response that it achieved in France, Germany, and Russia.

Russian Atheism

Karl Marx didn’t envision his ideas taking hold in Russia, the bulwark of orthodox Christianity. But things would change:

Marx’s ideas would transform Russian society far more than any in which he actually lived, but that was many years in the future. At the time, Russian atheism faced more determined opposition than anywhere else in Europe.

Imperial RussianRussia, in the 19th century was simultaneously one of the world’s mightiest empires and an isolated, economically backward, and poorly governed backwater.

And it was big! Wikipedia describes the Russian Empire’s extent:

In addition to almost the entire territory of modern Russia, prior to 1917 the Russian Empire included most of Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Finland, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, the Central Asian states of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, most of Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia as well as a significant portion of Poland, and Ardahan, Artvin, Iqdir, Kars, and Erzurum.

In the early 19th century, the country was held together by tsar, serfdom, military autocracy, the aristocracy, and a church that held enormous power. With respect to the latter, Spencer writes:

All of this was supported and encouraged by the Orthodox Church, which was woven into the identity and culture of the country in a way that was hard to conceive even among French Catholics. The relationship was perfectly symbiotic: the state preserved Orthodoxy as it was only Orthodoxy that could preserve the state. Confession and communion \ad been made a legal requirement for all Orthodox Christians since 1716. Laws on blasphemy and heresy were severe.

Crimean WarThe Russian Orthodox clergy were effectively a superior, hereditary caste, comprising about one per cent of the total population. ‘Orthodoxy, Autocracy, Nationality’, long the country’s rallying cry, was heard with particular clarity and determination in the early decades of the century.

Partly in response to Feuerbach’s writings imported from Germany, partly in reaction to the close connection between church and state, partly due to the loss of prestige that Russia experienced in the Crimean war at the hand of the industrialized Western European powers, there would be changes. Pressure for reform began early in the 19th century. By the 1840s, revolutionaries like Michael Bakunin, the father of Russian anarchism, urged the adaptation of radical reform platforms. Following the Crimean War, even the government agreed that reform was needed, abolishing the institution of serfdom and the  freeing 23 million serfs who were the source of traditional aristocratic power and privileges. But this neither prevent further radicalization nor the rise of nihilism, of a powerful populist movement, and of a radical Russia anarchism whose bomb-throwers assassinated Czar Alexander II in 1881. Alexander III (1881–1894) turned to conservative Orthodox Christianity, autocracy and nationalism to try to save his empire, but was unable to escape the consequences of the industrial revolution and the emergence of liberalism and radical socialism.

In this environment, atheism developed an aggressive and vehement style:

This combination of theo-political oppression and the assertion of human autonomy and capacity gave early Russian atheism an anger unmatched even in France. From as early as mid-century, some atheists, such as Nikolai Speshev, associated denial of God with revolutionary violence: ‟I intend … to disseminate socialism, atheism, terrorism, everything, everything good in this world’.

220px-LeninThe atheism of Karl Marx was close in spirit. Following Feuerbach, Marx looked at religion as caused by difficult social conditions. Man looked to the heavens for relief and escape, but the relief and escape that religion offered was illusory. And it made things worse through priestly manipulation and government exploitation. Consequently religion, Marx thought, “the opium of the people” had to be destroyed:

The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness.” It was a social evil and encouraged “cowardice, self-contempt, abasement, submission, [and] dejection.

This resonated strongly in Russian and became a central plank of Marxist-Leninist thought. Lenin put it as follows:

Religion is the opium of the people: this saying of Marx is the cornerstone of the entire ideology of Marxism about religion. All modern religions and churches, all and of every kind of religious organizations are always considered by Marxism as the organs of bourgeois reaction, used for the protection of the exploitation and the stupefaction of the working class.

English Atheism

EdmundBurke1771English atheism was altogether different than Russian atheism. For one thing the British wanted to avoid being like the French. Atheism, “long felt to be a vaguely and disreputably French dogma, became much more so with the [French] Revolution:”

[Edmund] Burke spoke for a generation when he denounced ‘the spirit of atheistical fanaticism’ that had been ‘inspired by a multitude of writings’. To be British was not to be French, and as the most notorious Frenchmen were infidels, it therefore also meant being religious. ‘We are not the converts of Rousseau; we are not the disciples of Voltaire; Helvetius has made no progress amongst us. Atheists are not our preachers; madmen are not our lawgivers.’

But it was more than wanting to not be French. According to Spencer:

Britain avoided the atheistic excess of the French philosophes in the eighteenth century not because it was any less scientifically or philosophically advanced but because it had a measure of religious and political tolerance built into its system. British atheists had less to upset them.

One of the consequences of this was that atheism was primarily a working-class phenomena – more about that in next week’s blog. The elite atheists were only three – Shelley, Bentham, and Darwin. And Darwin wasn’t really an atheist, but rather an agnostic.

ShelleyPercy Bysshe Shelley, regarded as one of finest poets in the English language, was the most blatant. In 1811, while still at Oxford, Shelley wrote an indiscrete pamphlet called The Necessity of Atheism. It caused a storm of protest and led to his expulsion, presumably in part because Shelley was a very good writer.  His pamphlet

proposed ‘impartially’ to examine the proofs of God’s existence, of which the author isolated three: the senses, followed by reason and lastly testimony. … The conclusion … ‘Every reflecting mind must allow that there is no proof of the existence of a Deity. Q.E.D.’

Jeremy Bentham, the founder of modern utilitarianism, kept his atheism secret. Bentham was a positivist who argued that “all God-talk, indeed all metaphysics, was impossible.” According to Bentham,

Christianity, with its preference for asceticism, destroyed the possibility of earthly happiness … Simple belief in an afterlife, not only in hellfire but in heaven also, caused misery, simply by focusing attention and labour on an illusory eternity. Belief in God, even without confessional details or an ecclesiastical establishment to compound the problem, would still be a curse.

Bentham’s atheistic world was a better one: wholly secular, structured on utilitarian principles, devoid of meaningless talk of God or the human soul, with no eternal sanction for morality …

Spencer sees an element of messianism in all this: “If there was no God, Bentham was his prophet.” Bentham’s utilitarianism, anticipating modern American objections to welfare relief, communist attitudes toward religion, and evolutionary models of social reform, demanded that:

… any form of charitable relief should make the conditions for the undeserving poor sufficiently atrocious as to serve as a serious deterrent. If people naturally chose the pleasurable over the painful, government needed to make the alternative to productive work so painful that it would deter any but the most work-shy. The path to the greatest happiness for the greatest number lay through fields of great unhappiness for a great number.

Charles DarwinDarwins Down House was a Christian atheist, but agnostic overall. Bought up a Christian of “skeptical stock” in a very wealthy family, he was an heir to the fortune of Josiah Wedgewood, one of the richest industrialists in England. His father pushed him towards a career in the church, but he avoided this by his self-financed voyage around the world on the Beagle.

He started to lose his belief in Christianity soon after back in England:

On his return in 1836, he spent three years thinking dangerous thoughts, which culminated in what would, 20 years later, become On the Origin of Species. His autobiography, written 40 years later, concentrated his loss of Christian faith into this period, claiming that three reasons – biblical doubts, moral objections and philosophical problems – pursued him to unbelief. …

Darwin’s notebooks from this period chart his intellectual journey, recording claims and counter-claims that had long been part of the atheist polemics, and would remain so in Darwin’s wake. … Was it not ‘grander’ to see all life emerging through a continuous process of law-governed evolution?

Although his Christian faith died with the “painful and humiliating death of his eldest daughter, and most loved child, Annie,” his belief in God apparently failed to disappear altogether:

Darwin was thus an atheist with regard to the Christian God, but not an atheist period. His beliefs fluctuated during the last three decades of his life. He was, in effect, pulled in two directions.

One problem for Darwin was doubt about whether or not our mind could be trusted given its evolutionary origins. Partly because of such thoughts

Darwin thus died a devout skeptic, not only not knowing about God but not knowing whether one could know. It was a problem that would come to haunt atheism, even more than it did theism.

English working class atheism was to be more influential in the short run.

Next Blog

In the next blog, we will continue our review of the history of atheism and the book Atheists: The Origin of the Species.


This is the 37th in a series of blogs on the modern science and religion literature. The author, Stephen Friberg, is a Bahá’í living in Mountain View, California. A research physicist by training, he wrote Religion and Evolution Reconciled: ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Comments on Evolution with Courosh Mehanian. He worked in Japan for 10 years before joining the semiconductor industry in Silicon Valley.

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2 thoughts on “Books on Science and Religion #37: Nick Spencer’s ‘Atheists and the Origin of the Species’ Part 5

  1. Was Mikhail Bakunin the father of anarchism? I thought William Godwin was, but when I Binged it to make sure, Bing said it was Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. The top ten Bing results do give contradictory answers depending on what source you use. I scrolled down and found some sources that gave the title to Peter Kropotkin. The book Seven Great Anarchists deals with William Godwin, Pierre-Jospeh Proudhon, Max Stirner, Mikhail Bakunin, Peter Kropotkin, Benjamin Tucker, and Leo Tolstoy. These seven people are famous anarchists, but the books gives the title to the first one listed, William Godwin.

    1. Hi Stephen.

      Agreed. It would probably be better to say father of Russian anarchism Here is how Wikipedia puts it:

      He is considered among the most influential figures of anarchism, and one of the principal founders of the “social anarchist” tradition.[2] Bakunin’s enormous prestige as an activist made him one of the most famous ideologues in Europe, and he gained substantial influence among radicals throughout Russia and Europe.


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