Atheists Before Darwin

In his 1986 book "The Blind Watchmaker" Richard Dawkins recalls expressing his position that he couldn't imagine being an atheist before Darwin. As it happens, there WERE atheists before Darwin, and theories of evolution go back to ancient Greece. It's curious, because he also believes God is in itself a bad explanation (would it still be if evolution were false?). It's a shame if Mr. Dawkins (who I have recently met) is unaware of it, but there is a great legacy of atheist pioneers that helped forge the modern world and cut through the fog and terror of religious faith. As  such, I was inspired to add my own small contribution to masterful works such as "Doubt: A History" by Jennifer Hecht, "Battling The Gods: Atheism in the Classical World" by Tim Whitmarsh, "A History of Disbelief" by Jonathan Miller,BBC, and "2000 Years of Disbelief" by James Haught to make this legacy more widely known.

Since the most potent and consequential historical atheism before Darwin happened during the 1700's and the Age of Enlightenment, and since that is the era I'm most personally interested and read in, that will be the primary focus of this piece. Much of my source material comes from books I could not recommend enough, such as any book on the Enlightenment by Jonathan Israel or Peter Gay, "The Age of Voltaire" by Will and Ariel Durant, and particularly "A Wicked Company: The Forgotten Radicalism of the European Enlightenment" by Philip Blom. And though there were few outright atheists in America, several figures came close and drank deeply of the wider Enlightenment movement, as such books like "Nature's God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic" by Mathew Stewart, "Moral Minority" by Brooke Allen, and "Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism" by Susan Jacoby very much merit reading, together with letters of the American founders such as Jefferson and all the original material by the authors henceforth mentioned. Jefferson and Franklin both lived in France and knew and owned the works of the first great atheist authors in history.

Many of us know of names like the ancient Roman poet Lucretius who sparked the skepticism and naturalism of the Renaissance and beyond with the atomism of Democritus and Epicurus. There was Protagoras who stated he knew not whether the gods existed and many other great skeptical philosophers in ancient Greece (where the school of skepticism itself was born). By the Hellenisitc age Clitomachus and Carneades had identified atheism as a coherent movement and distinct philosophical position with its own deep history and varieties and compiled "On Atheism", a compendium of anti-religious thought. But after this, aside from some atheistic traditions that always endured in the Eastern world, the atheistic trail goes cold in the dark ages of faith before the central time of our focus here. If we skip ahead, we do indeed know about the proliferation of a continuous plethora of atheist names from the time of Darwin onward (Freud, Nietzsche, Godwin, Marx, Sartre, Camus, Russell),to the point where John Stuart Mill could talk of how astonished the world would be if it knew how many of its greatest "ornaments" were total unbelievers in religion, though not all of these were atheists in any way due to Darwin. Today, there are more ornaments than ever, from celebrities like Brad Pitt and Daniel Radcliffe to philanthropists like Bill Gates and Warren Buffet to 90 plus percent of the National Academy of Science and its counterparts.
But going back and focusing on our main era of interest, already there were enough atheists in the 1600's for Pierre Bayle to propose that a society of atheists is entirely possible and acceptable and no worse than a society of Christians, and for Francis Bacon to grant that "a little philosophy inclineth men to atheism." The same century saw Baruch Spinoza's pantheistic philosophy of rejection of all religion and equating of god making a monumental and indelible impact as well as  Thomas Hobbe's thoroughly atheistic materialism. We concentrate first on a quiet priest who seemed to lay the groundwork and first articulate many of the same points that would be touched upon equally as eloquently by the "new" atheists centuries later.

Jean Meslier:

Voltaire tried to make him into a deist, but once the actual manuscripts of his treatise "My Testament" which he left behind after his death came to light, the first complete and unambiguous statement of atheism caught fire.Jean Meslier (1678-1733) lived a lie as a priest in Champagne, France for his whole life, no one suspected what he secretly thought and put to paper. Every year he gave to the poor from his salary. As all the atheists immediately following him made the same points, it's worth stopping to cover some of Meslier's ideas in detail.  In his testament there was Biblical criticism, pointing out the great differences in the genealogies in Matthew and Luke, and asking how this is if they were both authored by God. Why do they both end with Joseph, who was soon to be excused from begetting Jesus? Why should the Son of God be complimented on being the son of David, an arrant adulterer and bandit? He pointed out that according to many the vast majority were doomed for hell, so heaven is hardly a consolation and apparently the devil has won, and God inexplicably sacrificed himself to himself to save us from himself for nothing. He asked: How could any civilized person believe in a god who condemns his creatures to everlasting hell? He pondered if there was ever a stranger God than this that for thousands of years kept himself hidden, and heard without any clear and visible response the prayers and praises of billions. He is supposed to be infinitely wise but his empire is ridden with disorder and destruction. He is supposed to be good, but he punishes like an inhuman fiend. He is supposed to be just be he lets the wicked prosper and his saints be tortured to death.

"All children are atheists" he writes, "they have no idea of God". "Very few people would have a god if care had not been taken to give them one." He continues: "Who made God? I say to you that matter acts on itself." Of Jesus he writes: " We see in him a fanatic, who, preaching to the wretched, advises them to be poor, to combat and extinguish nature, to hate pleasure, to seek suffering, to despise themselves. He tells them to leave their family, all the ties of life, to follow him. What beautiful morality! It must be divine because it is impracticable for men." Meslier, like D'Holbach and Diderot after him, proposes a common Enlightenment theme that priests and kings have formed an alliance to keep people under an oppressive and obedient absolute rule in fear. He asks: "Whom does the idea of God overwhelm? Weak men disappointed and disgusted with the world, persons whose passions are already extinguished by age, infirmities, or reverses of fortune." He propounds a morality that would also again be echoed loudly be the great figures we will turn to next, D'Holbach, Diderot and their large following, that: "virtue is an advantage and vice is an injury to beings of our species". Many observations and arguments came first from this lonely pastor. If he were alive today he would be one of the many secret atheist pastors who are attended to by the modern clergy project.

D'Holbach, Diderot,Helvetius:

"Christianity: Unveiled" of the 1760s was pretty much the first published public work dedicated to attacking Christianity and its morals. "The System of Nature" came out in 1770 and has been called the atheist bible. It was the most systematic work of philosophical atheism ever written, and perhaps still is. It was a phenomenon that spread through Europe and beyond, provoking all sorts of public rebuttals from prominent figures, as well as more secretive approvals. Both these works were written by Paul Henri Baron D"Holbach and were at the head of a flurry of atheistic books and pamphlets which flooded Europe in the 1770s and 1780s. D'Holbach, who avoided the book and man burning censors by attributing his works to dead friends, was also the owner of the salon in France that was the center of the intellectual world for decades and welcomed other immensely influential atheist philosophers like David Hume (who Dawkins actually did know about) and possibly Jeremy Bentham as well as all sorts of famous people from all over the world including skeptics like Benjamin Franklin and Edward Gibbon of "The Decline and Fall of The Roman Empire" fame. Atheism was the prime doctrine.
Denis Diderot is widely considered the third biggest name of the Enlightenment after Voltaire and Rousseau. Chief editor of the great Encyclopedia, he started a deist and ended up being a staunch atheist (a fact unknown by Dawkins in his Diderot "God Delusion" reference)and partner in crime of D'Holbach's (who contributed many scientific articles to the Encyclopedia) for many years, one of the boldest and most original writers of his era. He wrote passionate tracts against slavery. He added poetry to his philosophy with atheistic works like "D'Alembert's Dream" spreading widely. He rounded out his theory of evolution in Elements de Physiologie in 1774, and incorrectly predicted in 1783 that belief in God and submission to kings would everywhere be at an end within a few years. He conceived of nature as a half-blind, half-intelligent power operating on matter  and making it take a million experimental forms, improving this organ, discarding that one, giving birth and death creatively in a cosmic laboratory where thousands of species have appeared and dissapeared, and if she has any purpose or meaning it is unknown, we are among her transient and infinitesimal sports
Jean Claude Adrain Helvetius was a member of the D'Holbach circle who died early but whose work made an immense impact far after he was gone. His wife kept his ideas going, hosting her own salon, a prime meeting spot for philosophers and thinkers, decades after he passed. In his De l'Homme he attacked priests as venal peddlers of hope and fear, perpetrators of ignorance, and murderers of thought, much in the same way Thomas Jefferson would do after him. He points out that religious asceticism or devotion may appear virtuous, but it is only a long-term investment in celestial securities and that if there were a god he would be more likely to be the author of human reason than a particular book. He agreed with another friend of D'Holbach, Nicolas Boulanger, in his Antiquity Unveiled, that religion arose through primitive man's fears of floods and other apparently supernatural catastrophes, later organized by kings and priests to sanctify tyranny. Helvetius inspired many educational reforms. Cesare Beccaria testified that the works of Helvetius inspired him to write his historic plea for reform of penal law and policy. Bentham and William Godwin  stated they owed much to him for their ideas on justice and seeking morality and the greatest happiness of the greatest number in legislation. Mary Wollstonecraft was led to compose her Rights of Woman (1792) partly by Helvetius' claim that the intellectual inequalities between the sexes were largely due to inequalities of education and opportunity, The National Convention of the French Revolution, which we turn to next, in 1792 certified its sense of Helvetius' influence by giving his daughters the title filles de la nation.

Atheists of the French Revolution:

Jonathan Israel and others chronicle these French atheists during and just before the French Revolution. Not all were great people, but most of them were, and many had a direct part in the "liberty, equality, fraternity", the tolerance and cosmopolitanism that shaped the modern world:Condorcet, Sophie Condorcet, Volney, Mirabeau, Sylvain Marechal, Brissot, Jauqes Hebert, D'Alembert, Pierre Gaspard Chaumette, Naigeon, Grimm, John Oswald, Mathew Stewart, Anacharsis Cloots, La Mettrie, Francois Chabot, Lequino, Fouche, Camille Desmoulins, Bourdon, Dupont, Fabre dEglantine, Momoro, Dumont, Alexandre Deleyre, Augustin Roux, and Weishaupt aside from the names already mentioned, of which there were many more. Some of the names here were also previously involved in the DHolbach circle and the creation of the Encyclopedia.

The French Revolution actually did away with Christianity, it invented a new calendar and ditched the Christian one. There were festivals of Reason. Churches were closed and re-purposed. While some of this went too far and was done forcefully, the "Reign of Terror" was headed by the anti-atheist Robespierre who despised the works of the "Radical" Enlightenment, the egalitarian atheist works of D'Holbach, Diderot, Raynal, and Helvetius that so inspired the great ideals of the Revolution. When I played the game "Assassin's Creed: Unity" which takes place during the French Revolution (and which has an explicitly atheistic message,the ending speech having the main character stating: "There is no Supreme Being"), it has one chapter set at the festival of the Supreme Being which Robespierre instituted to counter the atheistic and reason-exalting tendencies still existent in the revolution, he is seen constantly preaching against atheism in the game. It was as humorous as it was accurate...


From the classical world to today, the supremely rich tradition of replacing revelation with investigation, which includes atheists, deists, agnostics, freethinkers, and humanists, has been the single most transformative and impactful tradition in human history, the life blood of progress. The Enlightenment, the crescendo that made Darwin possible, wasn't always purely atheistic, but it was almost always irreligious. Indeed it had to be, as religion was indeed at the core of what had to be fought to obtain knowledge, liberty, and amelioration. The giants upon whose shoulders we stand were rarely seen bowing, knowing that to do so meant to spill out the ambrosia that had been so bloodily wrestled from the gods, and there were indeed many who outright cursed them.

Quotes from and about the Atheists Before Darwin:

"Some have made the love of God the foundation of morality. If we did a good act merely from love of God and a belief that it is pleasing to Him, whence arises the morality of the Atheist? Diderot, D'Holbach, Condorcet, D'Alembert are known to have been among the most virtuous of men...Their virtue, then, must have had some other foundation than the love of God."-Thomas Jefferson, to Thomas Law, June 13, 1814

“Epicurus's old questions are still unanswered: Is he (God) willing to prevent evil, but not able? then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? then whence evil?” - David Hume

"The word God ought to be banished from the language of all those who desire to speak to be understood. These are abstract words, invented by ignorance; they are only calculated to satisfy men lacking in experience, men too idle or too timid to study nature and its ways." -Baron D"Holbach, The System of Nature, 1770

"Men always deceive themselves by abandoning experience to follow imaginary systems. The beings which he pictures to himself as above nature, or distinguished from her, are always chimeras formed after that which he has already seen. There is not, there can be nothing outside of that nature which includes all beings." - Baron D'Holbach, The System of Nature

"Nature is self-existent. She produces everything. Contains within herself he cause of everything. Her motion is a necessary consequence of her existence. Within herself she contains the remedies for all those who are patiently willing to investigate her laws." - Baron D'Holbach, The System of Nature

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“If we go back to the beginning we shall find that ignorance and fear created the gods; that fancy, enthusiasm, or deceit adorned or disfigured them; that weakness worships them; that credulity preserves them, and that custom, respect and tyranny support them in order to make the blindness of man serve its own interests.” - Baron D'Holbach, The System of Nature

"Have men then need of a God whom they know not, of an invisible legislator, of a mysterious religion and of chimerical fears, in order to learn that every excess evidently tends to destroy them, that to preserve health they must be temperate; that to gain the love of others it is necessary to do them good, that to do them evil is a sure means to incur their vengeance and hatred?... It suffices that man needs his fellow-creature, in order to know that he must fear to excite sentiments unfavourable to himself. Thus the feeling and thinking being has only to feel and think, in order to discover what he must do for himself and others. I feel, and another feels like me; this is the foundation of all morals." - Baron D’Holbach, Good Sense

“Whether God exists or does not exist, He has come to rank among the most sublime and useless truths.” - Denis Diderot

“A nation which thinks that it is belief in God and not good law which makes people honest does not seem to me very advanced.” - Denis Diderot

“If you want me to believe in God, you must make me touch him.” - Denis Diderot

“Men will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.” -Denis Diderot (possibly taken from Jean Meslier)

"For if men will not think for themselves, it remains only for them to take the opinions they have imbibed from their grandmothers, mothers, or priests. But taking that method they can only be right by chance; whereas by thinking and examination they have not only the mere accident of being in the right but have the evidence of things to determine them to the side of truth." -Anthony Collins, A Discourse on Freethinking, 1713

"There is no God."- Percy Bysshe Shelley (one of the greatest English poets, husband of Frankenstein creator Mary Shelley, daughter of feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft and atheist philosopher William Godwin), The Necessity of Atheism, 1811 opening line

"The being called God bears every mark of a veil woven by conceit, to hide the ignorance of men even from themselves. The threads of its texture is the anthropomorphism of the vulgar. They prostrate themselves and pray because their fathers taught them to prostrate themselves and pray. - Percy Bysshe Shelley, The Necessity of Atheism

"If God has spoken, why is the universe unconvinced?" - Percy Bysshe Shelley, The Necessity of Atheism

"Every time we say the God is the cause of some phenomenon, that signifies that we are ignorant of how such a phenomenon was caused by the forces of nature." - Percy Bysshe Shelley, Queen Mab, 1813

"It is among men of genius and science that atheism alone is found. Every reflecting mind must acknowledge that there is no proof of the existence of a deity." - Percy Bysshe Shelley, A Refutation of Deism, 1814

"Christianity peoples earth with demons, hell with men, and heaven with slaves."  - Percy Bysshe Shelley, A Refutation of Deism, 1814

See:  Good Sense- D'Holbach, 1772 Atheism as natural as belief History of Atheism A History of Disbelief, BBC  Evolution, Ancient Greece

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