This essay aims to explain what Aquinas does and does not mean when using the word ‘God’. It also tries to explain why Aquinas thinks it reasonable to conclude that God exists and how Aquinas can be compared and contrasted with certain thinkers both agreeing and disagreeing with this conclusion. The essay places emphasis on Aquinas’s notion of esse and on the fact that he consistently asserts that we do not know what God is.
While Sceptics canvassed arguments against the existence of any gods, and Cynics were abrasive in their strictures on conventional religion, late antiquity offers no indubitable evidence of naked disbelief in the divine. Christians were called atheists because they abstained from popular and mandatory acts of worship, Epicureans because they denied the providential ordering of the world. In Christian literature the term is applied both to pagans, on account of their failure to recognise the true God, and to heretics who denied God any part in the creation or governance of the material realm. The ‘fool’ of Psalm 53.1 was characterized by some commentators as an absolute atheist by others only as a practical atheist. Christians of the early middle ages often accepted that the pagan gods had existed, either as demons or (according to the theory of Euhemerus) as humans who had merited special notoriety.
Denis J.-J. Robichaud
Were there atheists and was there atheism in the Renaissance and the Reformation? There are no clear records for self-professed atheists at the twilight of the period, yet it is largely at that time that the semantic field of atheism began to be assembled and articulated. In one way or another various strategies have been adopted to study the history of atheism and atheists in order to negotiate the lack of evidence of self-professed atheists. Some scholars categorically deny the existence of atheists beyond the level of accusations, while others point to esoteric atheists. Some look for more visible evidence by studying atheism as a product of modern secularism, others by studying the history of theism. The essay offers an overview of the major scholarly approaches of those who have sought to answer this historical question, and presents a concluding case study of the humanist and philosopher Marsilio Ficino’s engagement with atheism.