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Were there Atheists in 17th-Century England

An in-depth study into the potential existence of atheists during the seventeenth century, asking if any contemporaries denied the existence of God during the period.

James Macrae

on 19 March 2013

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Transcript of Were there Atheists in 17th-Century England

Method The History of Atheist Thought Thomas Hobbes Confutations Commentaries & Tolerance Conclusion Historiography Leviathan - Not atheist? Historiography Was he an Atheist? What is a 'confutation'? Books which denied that it was possible to be an atheist.

Majority of authors were Christian

Grew in number during the late seventeenth-century. Seventeenth-Century Context Leviathan - Atheist? Were there Atheists in 17th-Century England? Why study this? How did we get to the society we live in today:

How did atheism grow through time?

When did people first start thinking in an atheist mind-set?

Who were the first 'atheists' of the Western tradition? Gunpowder Plot
1605 English Civil War
1642 Glorious Revolution
1688 Bill Of Rights
1689 Increased religious heterodoxy Definitely presents some unorthodox views.

But hard to say for certain

More important is the reaction to his work.

Many attacked him for being an 'atheist', and their usage of the term implies that atheism existed. Religion created out of fear:
'there are no signs nor fruit of religion but in man only, there is no cause to doubt the the seed of religion is also in man'

Mocks the diversity of religion:
'[religion] hath grown up into ceremonies so different that those which are used by one man are for the most part ridiculous to another' Frontispiece, Leviathan Man will 'at last come to this, that there must be... one first mover; that is, a first and eternal cause of all things; which is that which men mean by the name of God' Men will always conclude that God exists Contemporary Reception Richard Bentley Were there Atheists before 1600? D.Wootton: Atheists existed in Europe as early as the Sixteenth-Century

L.Febvre: Impossible to form atheist beliefs during the Sixteenth-Century. So, did atheism exist by the 17th-century? 17th-Century Atheists Burman: Denials of atheism prove the existence of atheists.

Thomas: Multiple examples of people who denied the existence of God. Seems to think it likely that atheists existed. Where do we fit in? Most works on the history of atheism are broad narratives which do not study one nation or short period.

Our project contributes a specific, in-depth study to the debate, offering 17th-century England as a case study. Wrote the Boyle lecture series, 1692

'The Folly of Atheism and Deism'
'real humane nature cannot be guilty of atheism'
'Matter and Motion Cannot Think'
'life and vital motion... are wholly owing to the power of God' Francis Bacon 'Essay of Atheism', 1625

'it is true that a little philosophy inclineth and man's mind to atheism, but depth in philosophy bringeth man's mind about to religion'
'atheism is in lip the rather than the heart' Justifying Religion - John Ray 'The Wisdom of God', 1700:
Atheist has more to lose than a religious man if he is wrong.
Religious men happy in knowing Heaven exists & suffer little inconvenience if they are wrong. Joseph Glanvill 'A Blow at Modern Sadducism', 1668:

Tells of how he convinced an atheist of God's existence
The world is so regular and accurate that it could not have formed by blind chance
Atheism merely a form of disillusionment from religion. Atheists simply confused? Initially the book, published in 1651, was not labelled as an 'atheist' text.

Instead, critics actually attributed Hobbes' opinions to a misreading of classical texts.

It was not until 1654 that he was accused of atheism in print. D.Wootton: Leviathan is designed to carefully undermine religion. 'It is clear that Hobbes is using... contradiction to communicate something by implication'.

AP.Martinich: Dismissed Hobbes' writings as a product of the Reformation, inspired by Calvin, and similar to other writers of his time. Analysing two types of primary sources:

1) Literature by suspected atheists

2) Literature commenting on or refuting people who did not believe in God Before that, we shall discuss what other historians have written on the subject What Did 'Atheism' Mean to Contemporaries? Impious Christian Any kind of immorality or non-conformity Someone who did not believe in God Lack of Source Material 1) Finding positive, written works by openly professed non-believers is very difficult.
Fear of execution
Destruction of sources
Religion necessary for social order

2) Very few publicly defended 'atheism' Source Limitations People were often falsely accused of being atheists - belief judged on action.

Ambiguity of primary sources

The word 'atheist' could be used to mean many things Ray suggests atheism is an alternative to religion. Notably, he also discusses the possibility that religion might be false. John Locke The Debate Religious equality & tolerance except for atheists.

'those are not at all to be tolerated who deny the being of a God... The taking away of God... dissolves all'.

'we should hear, more than we do, of [atheism], from others, did not fear of the Magistrate's Sword' 'Essay Concerning Human Understanding', 1689 'Letter Concerning Toleration', 1685 Pierre Bayle began to suggest private atheists could be pacific and virtuous.

However, the majority agreed with Locke that atheism was unacceptable and dangerous.

Nevertheless, all seem to agree that atheists existed. This debate indicates that atheism had become a significant issue in society. 17th-Century England Baron d'Holbach
'The System of Nature', 1770 The Enlightenment 16th-Century Europe
Could one be an atheist? It is almost certain that numerous atheists existed in 17th-century England Whilst there were no written works by avowed atheists, the increasing number of works written about atheism suggests that it was growing By 1700, an 'atheist' was widely understood to be someone who did not believe in God Richard Bentley - Continued 'Origins of the Human Bodies'
'God hath endued mankind with... reason and common sense'
'Origin and Frame of the World'
Refutes atheist ideas about the origins of the world

In reaffirming the existence of God, Bentley acknowledges the existence of non-believers. Any Questions?
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