The Catholic Church’s Persecution of Atheists

This post by James McDonald originally appeared at Bad News About Christianity.

Pomponio Algerio was accused of heresy and atheism. He was burnt alive in a cauldron of boiling oil, pitch, and turpentine at Rome in 1566. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

Outright atheism had been known in ancient Greece. Some of the best known philosophers in the ancient world had been atheists. Before Christianity appeared, many educated Romans were also atheists, regarding all gods, including the Christian one, as man-made.

People in Islamic countries were also able to express their atheism in medieval times. The blind Syrian Poet Abul ‘Ala Al-Ma’arri taught that religion was a “fable invented by the ancients”, worthless except to those who exploit the credulous masses.

“Do not suppose the statements of the prophets to be true; they are all fabrications. Men lived comfortably till they came and spoiled life. The sacred books are only such a set of idle tales as any age could have and indeed did actually produce.”
cited by James Hastings, Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, Part 3, Kessinger Publishing, page 190

His religious scepticism and antireligious views are famously expressed in a poem which states “The inhabitants of the earth are of two sorts: those with brains, but no religion, and those with religion, but no brains.”

Christianity would not countenance such ideas. Atheism was plainly blasphemous, which meant that atheists could expect to die unpleasant deaths if they admitted to their lack of belief. Those original enough to work out their own atheist ideas were generally intelligent enough to keep their ideas to themselves, although there were occasional exceptions. In Ireland Adam Duff O’Toole espoused views that had been common in early times but seemed blasphemous in the fourteenth century: he denied the Trinity, doubted the Virgin Birth, and regarded Bible stories as fables. For these beliefs he was burned alive in Dublin in 1327.

Pomponio Algerio, a youth of Nola, had studied at Padua. He was accused of heresy and Atheism. He was burnt alive in a cauldron of boiling oil, pitch, and turpentine at Rome in 1566.

The Church had suppressed many beliefs that had been held by early followers of Jesus, or by his critics. Somehow these beliefs survived and emerged again and again throughout the centuries. These claims struck conventional Christians as highly offensive: the Bible was a fiction; the Trinity was an unwarranted innovation; Jesus had been not God incarnate but an ordinary, if illegitimate and homosexual, man; far from being divine his father was either a Roman centurion or a pimp; Mary had not been a virgin but a prostitute; conventional Christianity was an imposition. All of these views dated from early times, and survived down the centuries, even though those caught repeating them could expect death. Christopher Marlowe, the poet and dramatist, was one of many who echoed the ancient charges. He commented that the angel Gabriel had been a bawd (i.e. pimp) for the Holy Ghost. He held that Jesus had been a bastard and a homosexual, and noted that the New Testament was “filthily written”. He was facing a charge of atheism when he was murdered in mysterious circumstances in 1593.

Sir Walter Raleigh, a suspected atheist, was condemned to be hanged, drawn and quartered in 1604, not only for treason but also for holding “the most heathenish and blasphemous opinions”. In fact, he was beheaded instead. Alexander Agnew of Dumfries (known as Jock of Broad Scotland) held that the Bible was false. There was no God, no Christ, no Heaven or Hell, and no human soul. There was only nature. For these beliefs he was hanged from a gibbet on 21 st May 1651. In 1675 John Taylor of Surrey was accused of blasphemy and brought before the House of Lords. He had uttered a number of blasphemies, including the ancient charge that religion was a cheat and “the virgin Mary was a whore and Jesus Christ was a bastard”. The Lords were reluctant to be heavy-handed because of memories of the James Naylor case twenty years earlier, when the Commons had harshly punished an eccentric Quaker (see page 341). Naylor’s treatment had generated public sympathy, and the Lords did not want to make the same mistake. They locked John Taylor up in Bedlam on a diet of bread and water, supplemented by “bodily corrections”. In 1676, he was sent to trial before the King’s Bench, where he received a relatively lenient sentence from Matthew Hale, the Lord Chief Justice (a fine of 1000 marks, which he could not possibly pay, ensuring that he would spend the rest of his life in prison). This case established that Christianity was part of the laws of England. From now on blasphemy would be recognised as a common law offence, and Rex v Taylor could be cited as a precedent in any jurisdiction that recognised the English common law.

Casimir Liszinski was a Pole of noble birth. Among the statements in Liszinski’s papers was that man was the creator of God, whom he had formed out of nothing. He was denounced as an Atheist in 1688 by the Bishop of Wilna and Posnovia, he was decapitated and burnt at Grodno on 30 March, 1689. His ashes were placed in a cannon and scattered.

Atheism was something of an intellectual problem for Church scholars. Although men like Hobbes, Spinoza and Paine never claimed to be atheists, Christian apologists nevertheless described them as such. This seems to have been the first time that the Church had fully countenanced the reality of atheism since it had eliminated it from the educated classes of the Roman Empire many centuries earlier[7]. The idea of it was apparently seen as such a threat that Christians in the eighteenth century started to proclaim that there could be no such thing as atheism. It was literally unthinkable that there was no God. Scholars debated whether there were, or had ever been, any genuine atheists. Atheism seemed so perverse, so bizarre, that a prevalent view in Britain was that atheism simply could not exist[8]. Lord Hardwicke’s Act of 1754, which did away with traditional secular marriages in England, made no provision for the marriage of atheists. Nevertheless the theoretical impossibility of atheism did not prevent Christians executing philosophers like Kazimierz Lyszczynski (or Casimir Liszinski) for the crime of atheism.

Christians continued to assert that atheism could not exist during the entire course of the century, although it became increasingly possible for influential people to admit to being atheists without suffering the full force of the law. Atheism became a sort of open secret. In 1770 Baron d’Holbach had become the first person in Christendom to dare to publish an openly atheistic work[9]. When David Hume mentioned at a dinner given by d’Holbach that he had never seen an atheist, the Baron pointed out that there were fifteen of them among the eighteen at the table. By 1781 a man called William Hammon felt safe enough to try to publicly dispel remaining doubts in Britain about the existence of atheists: ” …as to the question whether there is such an existent Being as an atheist, to put that out of all manner of doubt, I do declare upon my honour that I am one”[10].

It was not until around 1830 that more than a few isolated people dared to profess open and explicit atheism at all. Early claimants included Feuerbach, Nietzsche and Marx. All suffered from Christian intolerance in various forms. It might be possible to be an atheist and live, but publicising the fact could still invite problems. As an undergraduate at University College, Oxford, the poet Shelley had published a pamphlet entitled The Necessity of Atheism in 1811. He escaped prosecution because of his family background and the fact that the pamphlet was successfully suppressed, but he was sent down from the university for it.

Publishing radical ideas was also felt to warrant severe punishment. When a publisher reprinted some of Thomas Paine’s writings in 1812, he was imprisoned and pilloried. But times were changing: instead of attacking him in his pillory, the public applauded him. The public would not now tolerate death sentences for atheism, and using the law at all to curb free thought often resulted in positive publicity for the cause of the godless. Prosecutions of sceptics for blasphemy were almost always successful, but the prosecution of men and women for honestly held views only served to propagate their arguments. As more and more people heard the evidence, more and more became sceptical. As it has always done, the creation of martyrs helped their cause enormously. Each new case put one or two sceptics out of circulation but resulted in the conversion of hundreds or thousands.

Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason has never been out of print, and is still seen as a danger by the mainstream Churches. In the nineteenth century William Wilberforce, Vice-President of the Society for Suppressing Vice, organised prosecutions against both publishers and sellers of it. Richard Carlile was prosecuted in 1819 for republishing the works of Paine and others. He suffered huge fines that he could not possibly pay and was imprisoned as a result. Despite his business premises being repeatedly ransacked, his wife Jane continued to edit his magazines and publish his books, until she was also imprisoned (along with her baby) in 1821. Carlile’s sister Mary Anne then took over. When she was imprisoned as well, a succession of others took over. Scores were prosecuted, but support came from all over the country. The law was falling into disrepute.

Without the fear of torture and death people were now more willing to break the law. Most who did so used pure reason, but some were more liberal in their approach. Charles Haslam described the Bible as a vile compound of filth, blasphemy and nonsense; as a fraud and a cheat. It would, he said, disgrace orang-utans, let alone men. Its author must have been a random idiot, and people should burn it “in order that posterity may never know we believed in such abominable trash”. When the authorities investigated, the author could not be found, so his publishers were prosecuted in his stead[11].

Despite the combative position of people like Haslam, public opinion continued to become more liberal and sympathetic to secular ideas. After voicing uncomplimentary views about Christianity and colonisation in 1842, George Holyoake was imprisoned. While he was in gaol his daughter died of starvation. The public had by now had enough, and prosecutions dried up. Christian vigilante organisations tried private prosecutions, but they failed to win the verdicts they wanted. No serious work of literature would be successfully prosecuted in England for blasphemy for well over 100 years — until 1979, when the Christian cause found a new champion in Mrs Mary Whitehouse.

The British authorities still had the option of using the Press Acts, which had been framed to suppress radical publications like those of Carlile. In the 1860s the government acted against Charles Bradlaugh, requiring large sureties against the possibility that his weekly publication National Reformer might print something blasphemous or seditious — although he had never published material warranting prosecution. He soon incurred penalties of millions of pounds for failing to raise the required sureties. Once again the law was falling into disrepute, and as a result the Press Acts were repealed in 1869.

The treatment of Bradlaugh showed up other problems with the law. According to a judgement handed down by Lord Justice Sir Edward Coke (1552-1634) unbelievers (“infidels”) had no rights at all in law. Thus for example, contracts with them need not be kept and debts need not be paid. “All infidels are in law perpetui inimici; for between them, as with devils whose subjects they be, and the Christian, there is perpetual hostility…. ”. This still represented the law in the nineteenth century. When Bradlaugh had been prosecuted in the 1860s, his atheism had been held to amount to sedition. Since he did not believe in God he was not permitted to give evidence in court. This problem was resolved by the Evidence Amendment Act of 1869, which allowed atheists to affirm. But a similar problem arose when Bradlaugh was elected to the House of Commons in 1880. When he tried to take his seat, he was prevented from taking the oath that all new Members of Parliament were required to take, and excluded from the House. Several times he was re-elected and each time the Speaker excluded him from the House, even though he was willing to take the oath. He finally took his seat years later under a new Speaker, and the law was subsequently changed by the Parliamentary Oaths Act of 1885. Similar restrictions in Scotland were removed by another Oaths Act in 1888.

The last vestiges of persecution and discrimination were disappearing. Open agnosticism also became possible. T. H. Huxley coined the word in 1868, originally to express the idea that if there was a God, he was unknowable, but agnosticism has now come to denote the state of being undecided about whether God exists. In the twentieth century, for the first time since pre-Christian times, anyone could safely espouse agnosticism or atheism, although the Blasphemy Statute of 1698 survived until recent times. The clause about the Trinity had already been rescinded in 1813, and the rest of Act was quietly repealed in 1967.

Many Christians now espouse views that were once blasphemous and that people were burned for. Examples are denying the inerrency of the Bible, denying the Virgin Birth, and doubting the Resurrection. Many clergymen share these views but most are wary of expressing them too freely. Blasphemy is still an offence at common law, and sceptics still run the risk of prosecution. It was only in the most indirect way that Monty Python’s Life of Brian, a film released in the 1980s, could hint at the ancient traditions concerning Jesus’ parentage.

Blasphemy laws exist in many European countries and in some states of the supposedly secular USA. The founding fathers of the USA had been heavily influenced by eighteenth century deism and rationalism, and these influences ensured that the Constitution of the USA was firmly secular. Even so, the Constitution could easily be circumvented. As already mentioned, the case of Rex v Taylor in 1676 stated that blasphemy was a common law offence, and this precedent was to be cited not only in England but also in America — since the English common law carried over to the common law of the USA. Courts in New York, Pennsylvania and Delaware have all agreed that blasphemy was a criminal offence under the common law.

Like England, colonial America had blasphemy statutes as well as the common law. They punished atheists and blasphemers in much the same way as the mother country. Offenders were sometimes executed, sometimes flogged. Sometimes they were pilloried as well. Their tongues were bored with hot irons, bodkins or stilettos. Ears were cropped, noses split, and faces branded. In Maryland profane words concerning the Holy Trinity were punishable by torture, branding and ultimately death. As in England, atheists were not permitted to testify in court, and so were effectively debarred from filing both civil suits and criminal charges, and were thus denied access to justice. The Supreme Court of Tennessee made the following statement in 1871:

The man who has the hardihood to avow that he does not believe in a God, shows a recklessness of moral character and utter want of moral responsibility, such as very little entitles him to be heard or believed in a court of justice in a country designated as Christian[12].

Atheists have been denied not only legal redress themselves but also the right to sit on juries. The underlying idea is that people cannot be trusted unless their morality is conditioned by a fear of God.

This sort of view survived, even among influential people, into recent times. Ronald Reagan, while President of the United States, observed that one could not believe anything the Soviets said because they did not believe in God.

Atheists are still discriminated against in the courts, for example in child custody cases where Christian judges have taken the view that a Christian parent is more likely to be moral than an atheist one, despite the available evidence[13]. In 2010, Cherie Booth QC sitting as a judge in Inner London Crown Court in England, spared a criminal from prison because he was religious. Had he been an atheist, he would have been imprisoned[14]. In 1987 the future president of the USA, George H.W. Bush could say “I don’t know that atheists should be considered as citizens.” Six state constitutions (Arkansas, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee & Texas) include religious tests that prevent atheists from holding public office. Organisations like the Boy Scouts excluded atheists into the twenty first century.

Theologians still wonder whether atheists really exist, though they tend to be more circumspect in their words than one Jesuit who opined just a generation ago “…the man who does not fear God somehow does not exist, and his nature is somehow not human”[15].

Notes

[7] St Basil the Great had spoken in the fourth century of atheists who “imagine a universe free of direction and order as if at the mercy of chance”. For well over a thousand years atheists who voiced such imaginings risked death so tended to keep their ideas to themselves. By the eighteenth century Christians apparently genuinely doubted the possibility of the existence of atheists.

[8] Berman, A History of Atheism in Britain, Chapter 1.

[9] D’Holbach, Système de la Nature, ou des lois du monde physique et du monde moral (London/Amsterdam, 1770).

[10] William Hammon, Prefatory Address to An Answer to Dr Priestley’s Letters to a Philosophical Unbeliever ( London, 1782), p 17, cited by David Berman, A History of Atheism in Britain, p 43.

[11] Haslam’s principle publisher was prosecuted in Regina v Heatherington (1840). See John E. P. Wallis (ed.), State Trials, New Series ( London, 1892), vol. 4, p 569.

[12] Cited by Frank Swancara, The Separation of Religion and Government (New York, Truth Seeker Co., 1950), p 140.

[13] A range of arguments have been put forward by judges wishing to deny adoptions to atheist parents. Some have been spectacularly ill founded, especially in the USA.

[14] http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/8497365.stm

[15] John Courtney Murray, SJ, Theological Studies (March 1962), quoted by Martin E. Marty, Varieties of Unbelief, Doubleday & Co. Inc. (New York, 1966), pp 11-12.

Reprinted with permission from the author.

James McDonald is Fellow of the Royal Geographic Society in Britain, and holds a number of professional qualifications. He also holds an MA in mathematics from Oxford University, and an MSc in Operational Research from Sussex University. He lives in the South of France. His newest book is Beyond Belief: Two Thousand Years of Bad Faith in the Christian Church (Garnet Publishing, 2009). His website is badnewsaboutchristianity.com.

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