Alan Charles Kors
This article discusses the meanings, origin, context, scope, and central intellectual claims of atheism in the Age of the European Enlightenment. It emphasizes debates about proofs of the existence of God and about the problem of categorical naturalism, that is, of whether or not the world we observe and its seeming design could be the product of unintelligent causes. It explores the philosophical origins of Enlightenment atheism both in prior heterodox and Epicurean thought, and, of even greater importance, in the orthodox debates, scholarship, and mutual contestations that generated so many of the themes and often arguments of Enlightenment atheists. It pays special attention to the complexity of the relationship between philosophical skepticism and atheistic thought. Given the flowering of explicitly atheistic thought in the late French Enlightenment, the article looks closely at the work of Denis Diderot, the baron d’Holbach, and Jacques-André Naigeon.
Atheists, conservative theists, and religious liberals often read the history of science in ways that support their own position. Atheists expect continual mutual support between science and nonbelief, conservatives emphasize theistic metaphysical foundations for science; and liberals find a historical development toward separate spheres for science and religion. The rise of science was more complicated than anticipated by any of these stories. Atheism and science have usually developed almost independently, with weak connections. Today, the naturalism of modern scientific descriptions of the world is consonant with an atheistic position. But even now, significant tensions between science and atheism remain.
Irena Borowik, Branko Ančić, and Radosław Tyrała
This essay offers a fresh exploration of atheism in post-communist Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), while also providing an overview of existing research into atheism and non-religion in the region. In light of the legacy of state-imposed atheism, and the subsequent (apparent) ‘religious awakening’ in some countries, the authors demonstrate the significance of national religious traditions and confessional structures for understanding diversity of atheism’s nature and extent within the area. Analysis of European Values Survey data show that confessional structures of societies play more important role in spread of atheism than religious tradition (Catholicism or Orthodoxy) and that religious mono-confessionality supports vitality of religion, while religious pluralism makes more space for further differentiations of world-views, including atheism. The analysis also confirm that in CEE atheists, both ‘soft’ and ‘hard’, are not coherent as a group, and that some of them profess belief in supernatural powers and/or declare a religious affiliation.
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.
‘Atheism’ is a term that has historically carried a wide range of meanings and connotations. Popular speech, in particular, admits of a range of definitions, but the same is true of contemporary scholarly usage also. This chapter therefore surveys the sheer variety of ways of defining ‘atheism’, before outlining the pressing need for a generally agreed-upon usage in the growing—and, thus far, Babel-like—field of scholarship on atheism. It then outlines and explains the precise definition used throughout the Handbook: an absence of belief in the existence of a God or gods. The utility of such a broad definition, taking atheism to be an ‘umbrella concept’ that admits of a range of subdivisions (e.g., ‘positive’ and ‘negative’), is then explored and defended at length.
The most significant contemporary challenges to humanism do not come from critics who relegate it to anti-religiousness or exclusively immanent concerns, but from those who critique humanitarianism and human rights as the most powerful humanist discourses of our time. These critics bring two important insights: they identify humanism as both religious and secular in character, and they point to it as an enacted rather than merely an intellectual disposition. The critics in question, however, sustain a narrow, Western centric understanding of what humanism is. This chapter seeks to destabilize that view but also to move beyond the mere “critique of critics” (Rita Felski, The Limits of Critique) to gesture toward the particularity and plurality of humanist traditions as platforms for ethical and political practices—humanitarianism and human rights included.
Cor van der Weele and Henk van den Belt
The chapter argues that in human relations with technology, assumptions about ourselves are just as crucial as assumptions about technology. Neither the optimistic traditional humanist belief in human freedom and autonomy, nor the pessimistic view that humans are necessarily anthropocentric, will do for building sound relations with technology. The chapter develops this argument through three debates. First, Heidegger’s antihumanism, in which humans do not have any agency in their relations with technology, may not be convincing, yet lack of control is still a relevant theme. Second, the section on evolutionary humanism (turning to transhumanism and AI) shows that humans now often look vulnerable rather than masterful in their relations with technology. Third, Anthropocene debates tend to rest on bleak views of human beings, so that hard-to-control technologies may then seem to be our only hope. The chapter argues for a need to develop more detailed insights into how we function by facing and exploring our weaknesses and vulnerabilities, as well our under-recognized abilities for responsibility. This may open perspectives on more modest and entangled forms of agency, more humane technologies, and more de-centered relations with nature.
Atheism, humanism, and naturalism are three expressions of nontheism. They are “ideal types,” abstractions from the empirical messiness of the phenomena they describe. These types represent three levels of complexity and depth. Humanism sublates atheism, that is, transforms and lifts it higher. In turn, naturalism sublates (aufheben) humanism. At its best, naturalism assumes a pragmatic form. After an arguing for a serial relationship of increasing sophistication and intensification among atheism, humanism, and naturalism, the chapter culminates with an overview of George Santayana’s pragmatic religious naturalism. The thesis of the chapter is that Santayana provides the most sophisticated and capacious account of anti-supernaturalism and nontheism as a religious orientation.
This chapter addresses secular humanism in Europe and the way it is “lived” by and within its major institutions and organizations. It examines how national and international secular humanist bodies founded after World War II took up, cultivated, and transformed free-religious, free-thought, ethical, atheist, and rationalist roots from nineteenth century Europe and adjusted them to changing social, cultural, and political environments. Giving examples from some selected national contexts, the development of a nonreligious Humanism in Europe exemplifies what Wohlrab-Sahr and Burchardt call “Multiple Secularities”: different local or national trajectories produced a variety of cultures of secularity and, thus, different understandings of secular humanism. Apart from this cultural historization, the chapter reconstructs two transnational, ideal types of secular humanism, the social practice type, and the secularist pressure group type. These types share similar worldviews and values, but have to be distinguished in terms of organizational forms, practices, and especially policy.
This article points to the influence of medieval debates about the possible non-existence of a God on the formation of modern atheist discourse. On the basis of sources composed by Muslims, Christians and Jews, alleged appearances of disbelief like apostasy, blasphemy, and immoral behaviour (Epicureanism) are reconsidered. Medieval Latin conceptions of atheism are described as acedia (rejection of and indifference in faith), temptation (non-belief as an experience of crisis), and murmur (protest and non-belief in emergency situations). It is made clear, that doubts or nonbelief in God’s existence were neither rare nor forbidden nor persecuted. Nonbelievers were regarded as fools, rather than as a threat. At the same time, heretics as representatives of opposing teachings were construed as threatening, and indeed persecuted violently in the Latin Christian world and in some Muslim realms.
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.
This essay examines the evolution and growth of the secular movement in nineteenth-century England. It traces the different strands of atheist and agnostic thought and shows how these were galvanized and lead by a succession of leaders with different aptitudes and ideological agendas. Carlile inherited the anti-clericalism of the French Revolution whilst George Jacob Holyoake and Charles Bradlaugh made it a more respectable indigenous movement which nonetheless offered a home for species of radical religious thought throughout the second half of the century. The essay also investigates the ideological undercurrents that exerted influence upon the movement and individuals within it alongside the campaigns which motivated and demanded sustained action from both of these.
Callum G. Brown
Disaffection from organized religion in the twentieth century led to rising levels of religious apathy as well as atheism. This is explored in this essay by enumerating the scale of change in a number of nations, and then by listening to the accounts of those who have lost religion. The influence of parents, childhood alienation, adult trauma, wartime combat, and scientific reasoning are each examined through the narratives of those who have left the religious tradition of family and community. To conclude, the essay reflects on the nature of being of no religion, including the impulses to a new secular morality, and to humanistic service in charitable work or providing celebrants for weddings and funerals.