A History of Atheism: From Sophists to the XXI Century


In its broadest sense, the word “atheism” (from Greek “atheos,” “godless,” composed of a privative alpha and “theos,” “god”), defines both the position of those who don’t believe in the existence of one – or even more – divinities and the opinion of those who positively claim the inexistence of such divinities; it is opposed to theism and deism. It is also different from agnosticism, a category which embraces all those who prefer not to issue any opinion or are uncertain about this topic. It has to be noticed that, in the past, with the word “atheist”, some believers would even define – improperly and even disparagingly – those who would belong to another, different, religion.

Atheism is not necessarily synonymous with religiousity. In fact, many “open” atheists do believe in concepts like “universal strength” or similar ones, which do not show any actual “theistic” trait, but still keep some certain religiosity elements. Similarly, “atheism” is not necessarily synonymous with “anticlericalism,” which is rather characterized as an attitude aiming towards an opposition against the temporal interference of the clergy in civil life and that, then, can also belong to believers who will to keep the two spheres detached.

Even if many among those who support atheism share a common basic skepticism towards the supernatural and the spiritual, the convictions of atheists are the direct result of several cultural, philosophical, social and historical sources and this triggers a rummy phenomenon: the absolute lack of identity of thought, behavior and action among atheists.

The first thinkers who denied the existence of the gods (theorical atheism) were some Greek sophists, such as Diagoras of Miletus, Critias, Protagoras, while it is possible to talk about “practical atheism” in relation with the main supporters of materialism, such as Epicurus and Lucretius, who didn’t explicitly deny the existence of divinities, though, as they would just claim the logical and physical impossibility of any interaction of the gods within human activities.

There is no evidence of any meaningful atheism case during the middle ages, while this vision of the world showed up again with some Renaissance philosophers, such as Giulio Cesare Vanini and Pietro Pomponazzi. Atheism has a remarkable reprise valor in relation with the Illuminism: we can mention baron Paul Henri Thiry d’Holbach and Julien Offray de La Mettrie. Another very important character is definitely Jean Meslier, parish priest in Etrepigny, close to Mezieres, Ardennes, for more than 40 years. After having diligently carried his task out, showing a deep faith beyond any suspicion, this priest, just before his death, which occurred in 1729, left two shocking letters and an enormous 3500 printed pages work where he underlined several inconsistencies between passages of the Gospels adopted by the Christian Church. Then, the development of the research in physics and mathematics would lead towards an important debate about determinism (Laplace).

The popularity of atheism grew up exponentially throughout the XIX century, as a result of the scientific achievements in biology (the evolution theory by Darwin), anthropology and the idea of mastering the nature, an attitude generated by the industrial revolution. Atheism would be sustained by the so-called “Hegelian left wing philosophers”, such as Ludwig Feuerbach and became a fundamental element of the dialectical materialism which characterizes Marx and Engels’ philosophy, as well as positivism (Auguste Comte, Felix Le Dantec).

Marx, in particular, investigated the phenomenon of religion within the contemporary society, where the capitalistic production model rules and managed to identify a reason of such a strong presence of religion in the society as the relations of productions which generated alienation and fetishism (meant as inversion between subject and object which makes social relations appear like relationships among objects and vice versa). This alienation would prevent the subjects from being aware of the ontological reality hidden behind the economic and social issues, as well as the ignorance of the Nature laws would prevent people from opening their eyes up and providing a rational and scientific explanation of the natural phenomena in the past. This triggered the escape to religion and superstition, which could be exceeded only by means of the organization of the society in accordance with aware and meaningful decisions made by associated men and not by the impersonal and spontaneous mechanisms of the markets.

Max Stirner, also known as Johann Kaspar Schmidt, contemporary of Marx, published in 1845 “The Ego and Its Own,” a work that will be celebrated and hated throughout the following years, where, by means of a sharp and strong atheism, he criticizes Feuerbach, Bauer and the communists, makes a clean sweep of the whole previous philosophy and the ghosts of irrationality, advocating an extreme form of individualism and adopting, indeed, the actual term “egoism”. Stirner was, from time to time, defined “prophet” of anarchists, fascists and libertarian. Friedrich Nietzsche himself was struck by Stirner, so that he was often accused of plagiarism. Finally, it is impossible not to mention Schopenhauer’s atheism, which was defined “the atheism of desperation.”

In the XIX century, most Western nations would adopt Christianity as official state religion and atheists could be accused of blasphemy. In the Great Britain, the free thinker Charles Bradlaugh was repeatedly named for the Parliament, but he was prevented from executing his office until his fourth election, as he would refuse to oath on the Bible. In the XX century, these binding and constrictive laws were dismissed or their application got actually abandoned. During the Cold War period, the Soviet Union and most communist countries promoted a form of “state atheism” and the opposition against religions in general. Even the actual private religious practice had to face hard oppositions and ostracisms in several countries and times, despite of the fact that the private cult freedom was recognized everywhere.

In modern times, atheism grew enormously up and is often related to rationalism; this is the key to understand the British philosopher Bertrand Russell.

In 2005, Michel Onfray published an “Atheology Treatise,” which carries a meaningful subtitle: “Physics of Metaphysics.” In fact, Onfray underlines and explains the cardinal principles of a science named “atheology” by Georges Bataille, basing them on a scientific criticism of religions, starting with a deep review of the sacred texts of the three main monotheistic religions. He also borrows from Nietzche the conviction that God represents an opposition to life, that the invention of an immortal soul has the purpose to despise the body, its care and its pleasures. Therefore, “the real mortal sin” would be “the offer of another world,” which would make us lose “the use of the benefits of the only existing world.”