Like new Labour, so-called New Atheism did not just replace the old variety but, for a while at least, almost totally occluded it. Atheism is now sometimes discussed as though it began with the publication of Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion in 2006.
To put these recent debates – or more often than not, flaming rows – in some sort of perspective, a thorough history of atheism is long overdue. The godless may not at first be pleased to discover that the person who has stepped up to the plate to write it comes from the ranks of the opposition. But Nick Spencer, research director of the Christian thinktank Theos, is the kind of intelligent, thoughtful, sympathetic critic that atheists need, if only to remind them that belief in God does not necessarily require a loss of all reason.
Spencer’s story is designed to illuminate our present, so he understandably restricts himself to western Europe from the late middle ages onwards. It is a compendious though not definitive account, which shows why atheism is not simply the natural result of the rise of scientific knowledge, and religion a simplistic vestige of more ignorant times. Spencer rightly points out that, far from being enemies of religion, science and rationality were often most enthusiastically championed by men and women of faith. Locke and Newton were, for instance, both profoundly motivated by their Christianity.
In the long run, however, the church is being slowly undermined by the critical powers of inquiry it helped unleash. As Spencer himself argues, a “fateful shift” occurred in the 17th century when rationalists such as Descartes and the Cambridge Platonist Henry More sought to justify Christianity with reason. The idea was that atheism would be “defeated on the battleground of its own choosing”, but once the fight moved there, religion found itself permanently on the defensive, on a long-term retreat despite the odd counterattack.
Much of the narrative is strictly historical, but there is also a polemical edge. Spencer wants his history to support three contentions, two of which should not be contentious at all. That we should talk about “atheisms rather than atheism” is self-evident. While the likes of Saint-Simon and Comte had a naive faith in the power of science and reason to create an orderly, happy utopia, later existentialist thinkers such as Nietzsche saw that “much must collapse because it was built on this faith” and looked forward only to a “long dense succession of demolition, destruction, downfall, upheaval”.
Nor is there much to disagree with in the claim that atheism was from the start “a constructive and creative phenomenon”, not just concerned to tear down the old order but to erect something more enlightened and rational in its place. Even the various atheistic libertines who thought all morality was an illusion believed that a world without constraint would be superior to the religious status quo.
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