Atheism as an Unpopular Position

The Death of Socrates, by Jacque Louis David, 1787. (Credit: Jacques-Louis David / Wikimedia Commons Public Domain)

Excerpt from The Secular Outlook: In Defense of Moral and Political Secularism, by Paul Cliteur (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010). Reprinted with permission from the author.

From Chapter 1: Atheism, Agnosticism, and Theism

Atheism as an Unpopular Position

Atheism has always been a very unpopular position, to say the least. Theologian and classics scholar Richard Bentley (1662-1742) wrote in 1724 in Eight Sermons that an atheist can never be a loyal friend.[26] He also proclaimed that an affective relation is impossible with an atheist and that an atheist can never be a loyal citizen. The Protestant theologian Robert Flint (1838-1910) asserted that in every country where atheism became dominant, “national decay and disaster” would be the result. In France, it was impossible to publish books defending atheism until the French Revolution. That is why famous atheist philosophers, such as the Baron d’Holbach (1723-1789) and Denis Diderot (1713-1784), wrote anonymously.[27]

In classical antiquity the attitude towards unbelievers was more tolerant, but in Greek society too there was no complete freedom of religion (including the possibility of rejecting a religion). Plato (c. 428-347 bce) discerned four categories of “atheists,” but all deserved the punishment of death.[28]

The attitude towards atheism in the middle ages was, as one would expect, even more severe. Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225-1274), like Plato, proposed the death penalty for atheists.[29] Even John Locke (1632-1704), the writer of several treatises defending tolerance, was vehemently opposed to atheists. One of the reasons he put forward was that promises made by atheists would not be kept. When d’Holbach’s Le système de la nature [The System of Nature] (1770) was published, the hangman complained that only the book could be burned and not the author.

Obviously, past atheists had to be cautious. And Joseph McCabe (1867-1955) rightly censured the Danish philologist A.B. Drachmann (1860-1935), writer of a book entitled Atheism in Pagan Antiquity (1922), for not having taken this sufficiently into account.[30] According to Drachmann, only ten known Greek and Roman thinkers, and few others, had been atheists over a period of more than a thousand years. McCabe calls such a remark misleading: “Professor Drachmann means that very few stood out in the cities of Greece and said that the gods did not exist.” But what can you expect after Socrates had been condemned to drink the hemlock?[31]

What McCabe wrote about the Greek philosophers in particular could be said about other philosophers as well. A case in point is that of Spinoza (1632-1677), nowadays considered to be one of the most important influences on the European Enlightenment.[32] Because of his unorthodox views he was excommunicated from the Jewish community in 1656, and he changed his name from Baruch to Benedict. In 1670 his Tractatus Theologico-Politicus was published – anonymously. His Ethica (1677) was only published after his death. The Ethics rejected the idea of a personal creator, free will, and personal immortality. On the criteria outlined before, Spinoza should be characterized as an atheist.

Like Kant and Hume,[33] Spinoza was extremely careful not to offend the authorities. He was well aware that freedom of speech (or freedom of expression) was far from accepted even in a relatively free country such as the Dutch Republic. The most vehement reactions to Spinozistic doctrines were directed at disciples of Spinoza, such as Adriaan Koerbagh.

Adriaan Koerbagh (1632-1669) is regarded as one of the most radical thinkers of the early Enlightenment.[34] During the early 1660s Adriaan and his brother Johannes Koerbagh (1634-1672) became strongly involved with the heterodox Spinozistic circles in Amsterdam, and eventually with Spinoza himself. In 1668 Adriaan published two books, Bloemhof and Ligt, which struck at the very roots of Christianity. Adriaan, however, did what Spinoza himself was always too cautious to do: he published in the vernacular language. The reason for this was that he wanted to enlighten not only the academic elite, but the common people as well. He was sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment in the Rasphuis (a prison) in 1668 and subsequent banishment from Holland. He died in prison three months later due to the harsh conditions.

Although severe punishments such as those inflicted upon Koerbagh are unheard of in the modern Western world, that should not make us forget that atheism, or even changing one’s religion for another religion, is sometimes still not possible without fear of death or serious reprisals. If the stake could still be invoked as the ultima ratio theologorum [theologians’ final argument] it certainly would be, Schopenhauer remarked cynically.[35]

It is difficult to understand how atheism can ignite so much hatred in many people. Recent rebuttals of atheism usually try to credit it with colossal pretensions. This is, for instance, the case with a recent wave of criticism directed against the so-called “New Atheism” of Richard Dawkins,[36] Daniel Dennett,[37] Sam Harris,[38] Victor Stenger[39] and Christopher Hitchens.[40] One of those criticisms contains the following sentence:

Those who believe they know how to bring about a conclusion to life seek to eradicate all other schemes for human perfection. These competing visions, in their eyes, pollute society, lead people astray, and stymie the ultimate possibilities of human happiness. The new atheists, like all true believers, want these competing visions destroyed.[41]

Destroyed? These are very strange ideas. The average atheist, like Spinoza or Hume, is far removed from the fanatic frame of mind that this author associates with atheism. Apparently, atheists are not only feared but hated.

Atheism – or rather charges of atheism – can still pose great problems for the writers involved. The most serious recent attack on the principle of freedom of thought and religion was perpetrated by the Iranian cleric Ayatollah Khomeini (1902-1989). If Khomeini had had his way, the British writer Salman Rushdie would have been killed for writing a novel.[42] The same fate might have befallen the Bengali novelist Taslima Nasreen (1962- ), who had to flee India for criticizing religion and openly advocating atheism. In the Middle East several people have, in fact, been killed by religious fanatics, for example, the Egyptian thinker Farag Foda (1946-1992).[43] So, although atheism is not legally prohibited in many parts of the world, and is even protected by the clauses on freedom of speech, freedom of thought, freedom of religion and freedom of worship in declarations of human rights and national constitutions, this situation is far from effective in securing freedom of conscience and the right to free discussion. What these examples make clear is that those favoring free speech, freedom of conscience, and the right to critique (including criticism of religious ideas) have more to refer to than the well-known historical examples of religious violence against Giordano Bruno (1548-1600), burned at the stake in 1600, or Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), intimidated by the Church and placed under house arrest in 1633.

It is rather odd that even in the twenty-first century atheism is highly unpopular: “would you confess to atheism in Texas, let alone Jeddah?” two writers of a recent overview of the comeback of religion in the public arena ask us.[44] It seems that the nature of the rejection of atheism has changed, but there still is, so it seems, a widespread condemnation of it. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the atheist was criticized because his worldview was said to undermine sound morals and deprive life of meaning. The contemporary complaints are that atheists show no “respect” for other people’s religion or do not want to enter into “dialogue” with believers. Other complaints frequently voiced are that atheists are “polarizing” society or are “just as dogmatic” as religious fundamentalists.

These complaints are hardly convincing. Philosopher A.C. Grayling (1949- ) seems right when he says: “Religious apologists charge the non-religious with being ‘fundamentalist’ if they attack religion too robustly.”[45] He continues with the contention that “it is time to reverse the prevailing notion that religious commitment is intrinsically deserving of respect, and that it should be handled with kid gloves and protected by custom and in some cases law against criticism and ridicule.”[46] His point of view regarding religious criticism is that “nothing that people choose in the way of politics, lifestyle or religion should be immune from criticism and (when, as so often it does, it merits it) ridicule.”[47] Dawkins makes the same point. He castigates the view that “religious faith is particularly vulnerable to offence and should be protected by an abnormally thick wall of respect, in a different class from the respect that any human being should pay to any other.”[48] He goes on:

I am not in favor of offending or hurting anyone just for the sake of it. But I am intrigued and mystified by the disproportionate privileging of religion in our otherwise secular societies. All politicians must be used to disrespectful cartoons of their faces, and nobody riots in their defense. What is so special about religion that we grant it such uniquely privileged respect?[49]

But Dawkins’ attitude is far from common nowadays.

Against the background of the universal unpopularity of atheism it is hardly surprising that the epithet is usually rejected and seldom vindicated. Only a few philosophers have insisted on being called “atheists.”[50] Most people, Hume being one example, have been labeled “atheists” by their opponents, often with unfortunate consequences. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689-1762) confided that the philosophy of Hume could be characterized as follows: “Take the ‘not’ out of the Decalogue and put it in the Creed.”

Excerpted from The Secular Outlook by Paul Cliteur. Copyright © Paul Cliteur, 2010. All rights reserved.

[26] In this overview of reactions towards atheism I am indebted to: Edwards, Paul, “Atheism,” in: The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Paul Edwards, ed., Vol. I, MacMillan & The Free Press, New York 1967, pp. 174-189; Edwards, Paul, “God and the Philosophers. Part I: From Aristotle to Locke,” Free Inquiry, 18, no. 3, 1998; Edwards, Paul, “God and the Philosophers. Part II: From Fideism to Pragmatism,” Free Inquiry, 18, no. 4, 1998; Edwards, Paul, God and the Philosophers, Introduction by Timothy J. Madigan, Prometheus Books, Amherst, NY 2009; Nagel, Ernest, “A Defense of Atheism,” in: Paul Edwards and Arthur Pap, eds., A Modern Introduction to Philosophy, revised edition, The Free Press, Collier-MacMillan, New York 1967, pp. 460-473.

[27] Paul-Henri Thiry, Baron d’Holbach was the pre-eminent eighteenth-century theoretician of atheism and the author of, among other works, a Critical History of Jesus Christ and The Sacred Contagion, a Natural History of Superstition. For other authors, see: Graille, Patrick, & Kozul, Mladen, Discours anti-religieux français du dix-huitième siècle. Du curé Meslier au Marquis de Sade [French Eighteenth-Century Anti-Religious Texts. From the Curé Meslier to the Marquis de Sade], Les Presses de l’Université Laval, Paris 2003.

[28] Plato, The Laws, Book X, and: Schofield, Malcolm, Plato: Political Philosophy, Oxford University Press, Oxford 2006, p. 313.

[29] Summa Theologica, 2-2. I-16.

[30] Drachmann, A.B., Atheism in Pagan Antiquity, Kessinger Publishing, Whitefish 2005 (1922).

[31] McCabe, Joseph, The Existence of God, Watts & Co., London 1933, p. 31.

[32] See: Israel, Jonathan I., Radical Enlightenment. Philosophy and the Making of Modernity 1650-1750, Oxford University Press, Oxford 2001; Israel, Jonathan I., Enlightenment Contested. Philosophy, Modernity, and the Emancipation of Man 1670-1752, Oxford University Press, Oxford 2006.

[33] See on this: Mossner, Ernest C., “The Enigma of Hume,” Mind, New Series, 45, no. 179 1936, pp. 334-349; Mossner, Ernest C., “The Religion of David Hume,” Journal of the History of Ideas, 39, no. 4 1970, pp. 653-663. But, for all his cautiousness, Hume could not avoid a reputation for being a radical. “Throughout his life he would be dogged with the unfair accusation of atheism,” writes Roderick Graham in The Great Infidel: A Life of David Hume, John Donald, Edinburgh 2004, p. 27. See also: Ross, J.M., “Introduction,” in: Cicero, The Nature of the Gods, translated by Horace C.P. McGregor, Penguin Books, London 1972, pp. 7-63, p. 60: “Hume was a complete sceptic in religion but felt he had to cast his work in dialogue form and pay verbal respect to current religious beliefs because otherwise he could never have got a hearing in eighteenth-century Scotland.”

[34] Wielema, M.R., “Adriaan Koerbagh,” in: Wiep van Bunge, et al. (eds.), The Dictionary of Seventeenth and Eighteenth-Century Dutch Philosophers, Thoemmes Press, Bristol 2003, pp. 571-574.

[35] Schopenhauer, Arthur, Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung [The World as Will and Representation], II, Cotta-Verlag/Insel-Verlag, Stuttgart/Frankfurt am Main 1976, p. 212.

[36] Dawkins, Richard, The God Delusion, Black Swan, Transworld Publishers, London 2006.

[37] Dennett, Daniel C., Breaking the Spell. Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, Allen Lane, Penguin Books, New York 2006.

[38] Harris, Sam, Letter to a Christian Nation, Alfred A. Knopf, New York 2006; Harris, Sam, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, The Free Press, London 2005.

[39] Stenger, Victor J., The New Atheism: Taking a Stand for Science and Reason, Prometheus Books, Amherst, NY 2009.

[40] Hitchens, Christopher, God is not Great.

[41] Hedges, Chris, I Don’t Believe in Atheists, The Free Press, New York 2008, p. 99.

[42] Pipes, Daniel, The Rushdie Affair: The Novel, the Ayatollah, and the West, second edition with a postscript by Koenraad Elst, Transaction Publishers, New Brunswick (USA) and London (UK) 2003.

[43] See on this: Jansen, Johannes J.G., The Dual Nature of Islamic Fundamentalism, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, New York 1997, pp. 113-116.

[44] Micklethwait, John, and Wooldridge, Adrian, God Is Back: How the Global Rise of Faith Is Changing the World, Allen Lane, Penguin Books, London 2009, p. 26.

[45] Grayling, A.C., Against All Gods: Six Polemics on Religion and an Essay on Kindness, Oberon Books, London 2007, p. 7.

[46] Ibid. p. 15.

[47] Ibid., p. 19.

[48] Dawkins, The God Delusion, p. 42.

[49] Ibid., p. 50.

[50] Edwards, “Atheism,” p. 175.

[51] Quoted in Beck, Lewis White, “Hume,” in: Lewis White Beck, Six Secular Philosophers. Religious Thought of Spinoza, Hume, Kant, Nietzsche, William James and Santayana, Thoemmes Press, Bristol 1997, pp. 41-63, p. 41.

Paul Cliteur is professor of Jurisprudence at Leiden University, the Netherlands. He was also professor of Philosophy at the Delft University, the Netherlands (1995-2002), and visiting professor of Philosophical Anthropology, Ghent University, Belgium (2014). Prof. Cliteur’s research is in the field of ethics, the philosophical foundations of the law, more in particular moral dilemmas around multicultural society, fundamental rights and the relationship between law and worldviews. He is the author of The Secular Outlook (Wiley-Blackwell, Chichester, 2010).

The Secular Outlook: In Defense of Moral and Political Secularism
By Paul Cliteur
Wiley-Blackwell; 1 edition (13 Aug. 2010)
ISBN-10: 1444335219
ISBN-13: 978-1444335217

Paul Cliteur: Towards a Secular Europe

In Humanity We Trust (on behalf of the Giordano Bruno Foundation, 2014)

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  1. I think I am correct in saying that public polls show that atheism is seen as politically disqualifying in a greater degree than any category of race, gender, sexual orientation, or religion.


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