What is responsible for the rise of atheism in history? According to Nick Spencer the answer lies in politics, not science. And it’s politics, he thinks, that explains why only 2% of American report being atheists, and why those atheists continue to be regarded more negatively than religious believers.

Spencer’s general argument rests on two claims. First, that the history of science demonstrates that scientific advance does not entail atheism. Second, that the history Britain, France, Russia, and America, show that atheism’s fate has varied with its political contexts. In other words, those atheists who think science has been the primary reason for the historical growth of atheism are wrong, and are in the thralls of their own “creation myth”. Is Spencer’s story any better?

It is an oversimplification to suggest, as Spencer does, that the major scientific developments of the sixteenth, seventeenth, and nineteenth centuries were “hardly atheistic at all.” Yes, Copernicus was a priest. So was Galileo. Yet David Wootton has argued that Galileo was in fact a closet unbeliever (Galileo: Watcher of the Skies, Yale, 2010). Yes, Bacon argued that his new natural philosophy was really an aid to theology. But did all his contemporaries think likewise? Christopher Riggs has argued that Bacon’s contemporary, Christopher Marlowe, was an unbeliever for reasons related to the new science (The World of Christopher Marlowe, Faber and Faber, 2004). What about more challenging examples, such as Hobbes or Spinoza? Surely it would be difficult to sustain the claim that their deeply heterodox – and perhaps atheistic – views had nothing to do with recent developments in science? No, the history of science does not fully explain the history of atheism, but it is misleading to suggest that the two are unrelated.

Spencer is right to look to politics as an alternate source for an explanation of atheism’s history, but he does so in rather simplistic terms. Apparently atheism emerged in France because of its supposedly intellectual and political backwardness, was avoided in Britain because of its antipathy to absolutist and revolutionary France, and was effectively negated in America because of the separation of church and state. But this way of looking at the history of France, Britain, and America rests on taking French anticlericalism, British whiggism, and American exceptionalism at their word. What evidence does Spencer offer here, other than a series of declarative statements with fairly thin evidentiary argumentation?

Consider Britain. While British identity was partially formed in opposition to France (see L. Colley, Britons: Forging a Nation, 1707-1837, Yale, 3rd ed., 2009), this hardly applies across the board. Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France was, after all, written in response to British supporters of the French revolution, particularly that offered by the radical Protestant dissenter Richard Price. This is to say nothing of other supporters of the French revolution in Britain, including many of the British romantic poets, such as Coleridge, Blake, Shelley, Byron, and Keats (see M. Priestman, Romantic Atheism: Poetry and Freethought, 1780-1830, Cambridge, 2006). Many more examples could be cited. Yes, the history of politics and political thought undoubtedly helps explain the history of atheism, but certainly not to the exclusion of a broader social, cultural, or intellectual history (perhaps Spencer addresses this better in his book). Moreover, any attempt to understand contemporary attitudes towards atheism that doesn’t consider the very longstanding roots of anti-atheism in European and American history is, in my view, bound to be shallow (see my other Patrol posts tagged “atheism”).

If the New Atheists give us myth, then Spencer does not, as he claims, give us historical “reality”.

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About The Author

Kenneth Sheppard

Kenneth Sheppard's book, Anti-Atheism in Early Modern England 1580-1720, was published in 2015. You can follow him on Twitter.

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