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Although many scholars trace atheism, the disbelief in God or denial of his existence, back to eighteenth-century philosopher and historian David Hume (1711-56) or to Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) of the previous century, avowed atheism in Great Britain begins in 1782, the year that Matthew Turner, a physician from Liverpool, published his Answer to Dr. Priestley's Letters to a Philosophical Unbeliever. Until Turner, atheists concealed their disbelief in God by pretending to be deists or by stating such disbelief in some esoteric form comprehended only by the initiate.

According to Colin Brewer (who sent e-mail to this effect on 4 January 2009), Jean Meslier (1664-1729), a French priest, was probably the first post-classical atheist to set down his ideas in writing. His Memoire or Testament denounced "all supernatural religions and the institutions, notably monarchy, that kept them in place." However, unlike the later British physician, Turner, Meslier did not publish his book, which was discovered after his death.

Although almost all major Victorian authors experienced major crises of faith, some ending in agnosticism or idiosyncratic belief, few authors became declared atheists, like the poet James Thompson, though Ruskin and Carlyle both seem to have gone through an atheistic phase.

A Twenty-First Century Defense of Atheism

Yuval Noah Harari, who employs the more positive term Securalism to atheism, explains that “The most important secular commitment is to the truth, which is based on observation and evidence rather than on mere faith. Secularists strive not to confuse truth with belief. If you have a very strong belief in some story, that may tell us a lot of interesting things about your psychology, about your childhood, and about your brain structure—but it does not prove that the story is true. (Often, strong beliefs are needed precisely when the story isn’t true.) In addition, secularists do not sanctify any group, person, or book as if it and it alone has sole custody of the truth.

The second “chief commitment of secular people is to compassion. Secular ethics relies not on obeying the edicts of this or that god, but rather on a deep appreciation of suffering. For example, secular people abstain from murder not because some ancient book forbids it but because killing inflicts immense suffering on sentient beings. There is something deeply troubling and dangerous about people who avoid killing just because “God says so.” Such people are motivated by obedience rather than compassion, and what will they do if they come to believe that their god commands them to kill heretics, witches, adulterers, or foreigners?” (210-11). Earlier in his book he draws upon ideas essentially the same as eighteenth- and nineteenth-century theories of moral sympathy to argue that doing harm to others, or even wanting to do harm to others, significantly damages ourselves (206-07).

Related Materials

Text of Victorian Works on This Site

Some Major Texts and Available E-texts (outside This Site)

Charles Bradlaugh, What Did Jesus Teach? (HTML at Infidels.org)

Charles Bradlaugh, Who Was Jesus Christ? (HTML at Infidels.org)

Percy B. Shelley, The Necessity of Atheism (HTML at Infidels.org)

Bibliography

Berman, David. A History of Atheism in Britain: From Hobbes to Russell. Croom Helm, 1988/

Buckley, Michael J.. At the Origins of Modern Atheism. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988. [he sources of atheism in French rationalism.]

Harai, Yuval Noah. 21 Lessons for the 21st Century. New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2019.

Meslier, Jean. Testament. The first English translation of the complete work. Trans. Michael Shreve. New York. Prometheus. 2009.

Whitmarsh, Tim. Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World. New York : Alfred A. Knopf, 2015.


Last modified 8 April 2020