Atheism and the Modern World

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Many Americans view atheism as an odd and obnoxious intrusion into American life – just look at the Gallup polls that have repeatedly placed atheism at the top of the list of qualities Americans would not want in a president. But atheism in fact has been a major contributor to the Enlightenment worldview that has shaped the core political and intellectual values of the United States.

Indeed, the path that leads to the modern world can be said to have begun with an atheist – an unlikely one: a French country priest who died in 1729 and had been unknown outside his two tiny parishes in northeastern France.
That priest’s name was Jean Meslier, and after his death four copies were discovered in his home of a lengthy handwritten manuscript attacking all religions – most definitely including the one he preached. “I did not dare say it during my life,” he wrote. “But I will say it at least in dying.” He says that what has been preached about “miracles,” about “the magnificence of the rewards of heaven,” about “the dreadful castigations of hell,” about the existence of God, is “nothing but delusions, errors, lies, fictions and impostures.”
Jean Meslier’s manuscript stands as perhaps the first argument for atheism published in Christian Europe to which a real name, albeit that of a man who was now dead, was attached. It became an underground sensation in Paris. “I believe that nothing will ever make more of an impression than the pamphlet of Meslier,” Voltaire gushed in a letter. Voltaire printed an excerpt himself. (Although in Voltaire’s version Meslier becomes a Voltaire-like deist rather than the atheist he was.) Denis Diderot would borrow some of Meslier’s ideas. At one point during the French Revolution the National Convention proposed erecting a statue in Paris of Jean Meslier.

For on the cusp of the Enlightenment, this priest produced a lengthy argument that was not only shockingly irreligious but shockingly egalitarian. He attacked the nobility and “the vexations, the violence, the injustices and the ill-treatment which they commit on poor people.” (Voltaire did not include these sentences.) Indeed, this priest made the argument that religion had helped institute and preserve those “injustices,” that religion has held the poor down. “On the pretext of being willing to drive you to heaven,” Meslier wrote to the peasants and poor farmers who were his parishioners, “they prevent you from enjoying your life on earth in any way; and finally pretending to keep you away in some other life from the imaginary pains of a hell that does not exist . . ., they compel you to suffer in this life, which is the only one that you can claim to, the pains of a real hell.” Meslier’s advice to his parishioners: “Open your eyes, my dear friends, open your eyes.”
This is a rather modern political analysis. Jean Meslier was not, of course, the only one noticing the injustices of European society at the beginning of the eighteenth century. But he was early in his critique of religion’s role in supporting those injustices. Indeed, that was a large part of what attracted Voltaire, who was anti-Church if not anti-religion, and then Diderot, who was both, to Meslier’s posthumous writing.
And the French atheists who followed Meslier in the second half of the eighteenth century – Diderot and the crowd that gathered at his friend Baron d’Holbach’s salon in Paris – did as much as any group to further and promulgate such political ideas: anti-monarchial, anti-slavery, anti-colonial, pro-divorce, as well as anti-religious. In his book, Democratic Enlightenment, the historian Jonathan I. Israel has detailed the large contribution d’Holbach’s coterie of nonbelievers made to the struggle for human rights. Atheists were crucial to the Enlightenment. And the Enlightenment was crucial to the blossoming of democracy. The United States was not founded “in the gloomy age of Ignorance and Superstition,” explained George Washington. To the contrary: it was founded, he declared, “in this enlightened Age.”
However, those who believe atheism has been a negative force in the history of the West often point to what happened during the other eighteenth-century revolution inspired by the Enlightenment. The Terror did not stop when the atheists who wanted to erect a statue of Jean Meslier were in control of the French Revolution – in the winter of 1793-1794. The guillotine did not slow. Outside of Paris church bell-towers were being torn down so that they would not presume to stand above “the ground level of the nation.” Priests were being forced to marry or even killed.
Our atheist priest cannot be absolved of all blame for such violent attacks on religion though they took place more than six decades after his death. A bloody scenario – seized upon by those horrified by the French Revolution – first appears in Jean Meslier’s manuscript: “that all the rulers of the earth and all the nobles be hanged and strangled with the guts of priests.” Voltaire and Diderot or their characters later took positions of their own on who might be strangled in whose guts.
And Meslier’s solutions to society’s “injustices” were quite radical. Not only did this village priest insist, 47 years before the Declaration of Independence, “that all men are by nature equal”; he condemned private ownership of property and called for common ownership 119 years before the Communist Manifesto. Indeed, Meslier would become a hero in the Soviet Union – his name inscribed upon an obelisk. And, of course, it was this other, much-longer period when atheists were in power – the time of Stalin and other ruthless Communists – that provides further evidence for the argument that those who fail to believe in something divine cannot be trusted with political power.
In 1751 Benjamin Franklin, writing as “Poor Richard,” quipped:

Talking against Religion is unchaining a Tiger;
The Beast let loose may worry his Deliverer.

Meslier was among those who unchained that particular Tiger. Were the Terror and the Soviet repressions and atrocities a result?
Undoubtedly Meslier and Diderot, who died half a decade before the French Revolution, were insufficiently aware of the dangers of violent upheaval as a route to egalitarianism. This was a particular form of modern or postmodern wisdom they – like Karl Marx – did not possess. Others did: One of Marx’ opponent in debates about communist revolution in London in the middle years of the nineteenth century was Charles Bradlaugh, perhaps the world’s leading atheist at the time and a staunch progressive. Bradlaugh rejected communism precisely because of the violence required to achieve it.
It is also true that Meslier and Diderot were insufficiently aware of the dangers of substituting – as so many Marxists would do – a new utopian vision, justifying killing and dying, for the messianic or otherworldly utopian visions of religion. In this, too, they were insufficiently modern or postmodern.
Nonetheless, the politics that is now much of the world’s politics – self rule, popular sovereignty, protection of minority rights – passed through the minds and the writings of a group of thinkers, beginning with Jean Meslier, who rejected religious fantasies about messiahs, heaven and hell, and thought through how we might improve life here on earth.
And if we see the modern world as embodying a struggle for learning as well as liberty, then the role of the eighteenth-century French atheists is less equivocal and no less crucial. Exhibit A is the thirty-five-volume Encyclopédie – a compilation of Europe’s, if not all the world’s, knowledge; composed by many of the most renowned thinkers of the day; the crowning, if you will, achievement of the Enlightenment. The Encyclopédie was conceived, edited and in large part written by Denis Diderot and his fellow atheists.
“Everything must be examined,” is how Diderot explained the guiding principle of the Encyclopédie, “everything must be shaken up, without exception and without circumspection.” “Everything” in eighteenth-century Europe usually meant two things: the church and the monarchy. Religion as well as government, the point was, could not be immune to honest, searching examination if social, political and intellectual progress was to continue. The critique of religion in the Encyclopédie was in fact circumspect, but it was apparent to those familiar with the arguments. Indeed, Voltaire, concerned that this was dangerous and outraged that it slighted his deism, ended his participation after Encyclopédie‘s alphabetical progression reached the letter “G.”
“Religion retreats to the extent that philosophy advances,” Diderot had concluded when he was losing his belief in even the wispiest of gods. But it works the other way, too. The Encyclopédie – itself a great advance for philosophy, for intellectual progress in general – was not just infused with half-concealed atheism, it was made possible by it.
For the pronouncements of ancient holy books – “So the sun stood still…till the nation avenged itself on its enemies” – often can, as Galileo learned, retard the development of science. Charles Darwin delayed publication of his theory of evolution by natural selection for 21 years because he was afraid, as he wrote in a notebook, of revealing to a still mostly religious society “how far I believe in Materialism.”
Looking to God as an explanation for the workings of the heavens or the development of the species also interfered with the process of accumulating scientific explanations. Isaac Newton appears to have been a religious man, but there is no mention of God in the first edition of Principia Mathematica, his monumental effort to explain the workings of the heavens. The distraction of the supernatural had to be ignored if not always overcome for us to investigate the natural. “Arguing from experiments and observations,” Newton wrote shortly before he died, “. . . is the best way of arguing which the nature of things admits.” Arguing based on holy texts, dogma and fairy stories – based on the pronouncements of authorities – just gets in the way.
And religion with its authoritative answers, even if frequently enigmatic, kept its adherents looking back. It discouraged exploration of radically new answers. The number of forward-looking figures in twentieth-century science who were nonbelievers is significant in this regard. Among them were Marie Curie, Alan Turing, James Watson, Francis Crick and, probably, Albert Einstein. (The question appears to have been settled for Einstein by the reappearance of a late-life letter in which he writes: “The word god is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses.”)
Art in the twentieth century also benefited greatly from the struggle against received wisdom. Not all the creators of modernism were atheists, but it is extraordinary how many of those who were most influential – James Joyce, for example, Virginia Woolf, Pablo Picasso – were.
“Everything must be examined” for the universe and its inhabitants to be understood. When “everything” is “examined,” much can be improved. It is out of such examinations that we find the way to the new. Some versions of religion today may be sufficiently unobtrusive, pluralistic, and open-minded to allow such examinations. Most versions of religion for most of human history have not been.
Modernity has taken and undoubtedly continues to take wrong turns. Some of them have been horrific. But much of what has been most vibrant, stimulating and liberating in the modern world has come from letting go of what Jean Meslier, in that manuscript discovered after his death in 1729, dismissed as “the imaginary God.”

Mitchell Stephens is the author of Imagine There’s No Heaven: How Atheism Helped Create the Modern World.