Atheists Before Darwin

By Landon Haynes | 19 August 2020
Atheist Alliance International

Portrait of Denis Diderot by Louis-Michel van Loo. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

In his 1986 book The Blind Watchmaker, Richard Dawkins expressed 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 a shame if Professor Dawkins is unaware of this history, as there is a great legacy of atheist pioneers who helped forge the modern world by cutting through the fog and terror of religious faith. As such, I was inspired to add my own small contribution to make this legacy more widely known, such as these masterful works: Doubt: A History by Jennifer Hecht, Battling The Gods: Atheism in the Classical World by Tim Whitmarsh, A History of Disbelief by Jonathan Miller, and 2000 Years of Disbelief by James Haught.

Since the most potent and consequential historical atheism before Darwin happened during the 1700s and the Age of Enlightenment, that will be the primary focus of this piece. My source material comes from books I highly recommend, 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 Philipp Blom. And though there were few outright atheists in America, several figures came close and drank deeply of the wider Enlightenment movement, shown in 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, together with letters of the American founders such as Jefferson. Jefferson and Franklin both lived in France, and they knew and owned the works of the first great atheist authors in history.

Atheism up to The Early Enlightenment

Many in the atheist freethinking community are familiar with names like the ancient Roman poet, Lucretius, who sparked the skepticism and naturalism of the Renaissance and beyond with his odes to the atomism of Democritus and Epicurus. There was Strato, Antisthenes, and Protagoras who stated he knew not whether the gods existed, and many other great skeptical philosophers in ancient Greece, such as the pre-Socratic Ionians who were the first to seek non-theistic, scientifically rational explanations for nature. By the Hellenistic age, Clitomachus and Carneades had identified atheism as a coherent movement and philosophical position with its own history and varieties; documented in On Atheism, a compendium of anti-religious thought by Clitomachus. But after this, aside from some atheistic traditions that always endured in the Eastern world (see the Charvaka, certain Buddhist sects, and Confucian figures), the atheistic trail goes cold in the dark ages of faith before the central time of the 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 (Nietzsche, Freud, 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’ (read: public luminaries) were total unbelievers; though not all of them were atheists due to Darwin. Today, there are more ornaments than ever, from celebrities like Thandie Newton and Daniel Radcliffe, to philanthropists like Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, to the overwhelming majority of the National Academy of Science and its counterparts.

There were already enough atheists in the 1600s for Pierre Bayle—himself an atheist according to scholars—to propose that a society of atheists is entirely 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 Spinoza’s monumentally influential philosophy which rejected all religions and equated god with nature, as well as Thomas Hobbes’s materialism. By the early 18th century, atheistic and materialist naturalists, like Comte de Buffon, carried further the work by de Maillet showing that an evolution of natural forces, without supernatural intervention, had over immense time scales both slowly shaped the layers of the earth’s geology and organized the development of species.

The first example we stop to examine is a quiet priest who articulated many of the same points touched upon just as eloquently as new atheists centuries later.

Jean Meslier

Voltaire tried to make him into a deist, but once his atheist treatise, My Testament, was discovered and published after his death, it caught fire. Jean Meslier (1664-1729) 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 errant adulterer and bandit? He pointed out that according to some firebrand theists, like Calvin, the vast majority were doomed for hell, so heaven is improbable for most 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, but 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 formulated an argument that became a common Enlightenment theme: priests and kings have formed an unholy alliance to keep people under an oppressive and obedient absolute rule through 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 propounded a morality that ‘virtue is an advantage and vice is an injury to beings of our species.’ This sentiment would be echoed loudly by the great figures we turn to next, d’Holbach, Diderot and their large following. Many observations and arguments came first from this lonely pastor, who, if he were alive today, would be one of the many from the ministry seeking the career retraining and counseling services of the Clergy Project.

d’Holbach, Diderot, Helvetius

Christianity Unveiled (circa 1766) was among the first published public works dedicated to attacking Christianity and its morals. The System of Nature published in 1770, has been called the atheist bible and contains clear evolutionary ideas. 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 Thiry 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 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. In his salon, he welcomed other immensely influential atheist philosophers, like David Hume (Dawkins did actually know about him), and skeptics such as Benjamin Franklin and Edward Gibbon of The Decline and Fall of The Roman Empire fame. Atheism was the prime doctrine. d’Holbach contributed many scientific articles to the Encyclopedia, and was one of the boldest and most original writers of his era.

Denis Diderot is widely considered the third biggest name of the Enlightenment after Voltaire and Rousseau. Chief editor of the great Encyclopedia, he started as a deist and ended up being a staunch atheist (a fact unknown to Dawkins in his reference to Diderot in God Delusion) and partner in crime of d’Holbach. He wrote passionate tracts against slavery. Like most of the atheists of the Radical Enlightenment, he held erotic pleasure as one of our highest passions and fought for sexual emancipation. In an early work which he was imprisoned for, Letter on the Blind (1749), he clearly articulates evolution by natural selection and rejects the argument from design. In D’Alembert’s Dream (1769) he observed how the body affects the mind, predicted DNA, and reflected on what animals might have come before and what animals might come after us in our cosmically brief existence.

Claude Adrien Helvetius was a member of d’Holbach’s circle who died early but whose work made an immense impact. His wife kept his ideas going by hosting her own salon for decades after his passing, which was a prime meeting spot for philosophers and thinkers. In his De l’Homme, he attacked priests as 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. Atheist thinkers Jeremy Bentham and William Godwin (father of Frankenstein author Mary Shelley, who married the great atheist poet and philosopher, Percy Bysshe Shelley) stated they owed much to him for their ideas on justice, seeking morality, and the greatest happiness of the greatest number in legislation. Mary Wollstonecraft, Godwin’s wife, was led to compose 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 in 1792 acknowledged Helvetius’ influence by giving his daughters the title Filles de la Nation.

Atheists of the French Revolution

Jonathan Israel and others chronicle these atheists before and during the French Revolution. Many had a direct part in framing the tolerance, cosmopolitanism, and secular democracy that became embodied by ‘liberty, equality, fraternity’ which has helped shaped the modern Western world. Names like: Condorcet, a key figure of the early revolution and disciple of Diderot and d’Holbach who took black and female equality and education further than anyone before, and his wife Sophie; Volney; Mirabeau; Sylvain Marechal; Brissot; DuMarsais; Jauqes Hebert; D’Alembert (co-lead with Diderot on the Encyclopedia); Pierre Gaspard Chaumette; Naigeon; Grimm; John Oswald; Mathew Stewart; Anacharsis Cloots; La Mettrie (author of the important Man a Machine); Francois Chabot; Lequino; Fouche; Camille Desmoulins; Bourdon; Dupont; Fabre d’Églantine; Momoro; Dumont; Alexandre Deleyre; Augustin Roux; Jean Baptiste Lamarck; and Weishaupt. Some of the people mentioned were in d’Holbach’s circle and contributed to the creation of the Encyclopedia. More names can be added from the Enlightenment thinkers in England and other countries.

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. The game Assassin’s Creed: Unity takes place during the French Revolution and has an explicitly atheistic message—the ending speech has the main character stating: ‘No higher power sits in judgment of us. No supreme being watches to punish us. In the end only we ourselves can guard against our obsessions.’ The game 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, and he is seen constantly preaching against atheism. 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 lifeblood 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 at the core of what had to be fought to obtain knowledge, liberty, and betterment. 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

‘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

‘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.’ ~ Baron d’Holbach, Good Sense

‘If faith did not teach that animals sprang from the hands of their creator just as we now see them, and if it were permissible to entertain the slightest doubts about their beginnings and their end, might the philosopher not suspect that the particular elements needed to constitute animal life had existed from all eternity, scattered and mixed in with the whole mass of matter; that these elements, happening to come together, had combined because it was possible for them to do so; that the embryo formed by these elements passed through an infinite number of structural changes and developments; that it acquired, successively, motion, sensation, feelings, passions, thought, ideas, reflection, language, laws, sciences and arts; that millions of years elapsed between each of these developments; that, unknown to us, it may have further development still to undergo’. ~ Diderot, On the Interpretation of Nature, 1753

‘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, The Necessity of Atheism, 1811 opening line

‘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

‘Design must be proved before a designer can be inferred. The analogy between the contrivances of human art, and the various existences of the Universe, is inadmissible. We attribute these effects to human intelligence, because we know before hand that human intelligence is capable of producing them. Our entire ignorance, therefore, of the Divine Nature leaves this analogy defective in its most essential point of comparison. If whatever exists stands in need of a Creator, in what respect then do these arguments apply to the Universe, and not apply to God? How much more clearly must we perceive the necessity of this very Creator’s creation, whose perfections comprehend an arrangement far more accurate and just? The belief of an infinity of creative and created Gods, each more eminently requiring an intelligent author of his being than the foregoing, is a direct consequence of the premises stated. It by no means follows, that because a being exists, performing certain functions, he was fitted by another being to the performance of these functions. That certain animals exist in certain climates, results from the consentaneity of their frames to the circumstances of their situation: let these circumstances be altered to a sufficient degree, and the elements of their composition, must exist in some new combination no less resulting than the former from those inevitable laws by which the Universe is governed. The laws of attraction and repulsion, desire and aversion, suffice to account for every phenomenon of the moral and physical world. To suppose some existence beyond, or ​above them, is to invent a second and superfluous hypothesis to account for what has already been accounted for.’ ~ Percy Bysshe Shelley, A Refutation of Deism, 1814

What peculiar privilege has this little agitation of the brain which we call thought, that we must thus make it the model of the whole universe?…But were this world ever so perfect a production, it must still remain uncertain, whether all the excellences of the work can justly be ascribed to the workman. If we survey a ship, what an exalted idea must we form of the ingenuity of the carpenter, who framed so complicated and beautiful a machine? And what surprise must we entertain, when we find him a stupid mechanic, who imitated others, and copied an art, which, through a long succession of ages, after multiple trails, mistakes, corrections, had been gradually improving? ~ David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, 1776

The argument which Spinoza, Diderot and D’Holbach rest on as triumphant and unanswerable is that, in every hypothesis of cosmogony you must admit an eternal pre-existence of something; and according to the rule of sound philosophy, you are never to employ two principles to solve a difficulty when one will suffice. They say then that it is more simple to believe at once in the eternal pre-existence of the world, as it is now going on, and may forever go on by the principle of reproduction which we see and witness, than to believe in the eternal pre-existence of an ulterior cause, or Creator of the world, a being whom we see not, and know not, of whose form, substance and mode or place of existence, or of action no sense informs us, no power of the mind enables us to delineate or comprehend. ~ Thomas Jefferson to John Adams April 11, 1823

What if I told you that if we went back to the origin of things, we should meet a number of shapeless creatures, instead of creatures highly organized? That all the defective combinations of matter disappeared, and only those whose mechanism was not defective in any important particular and who were able to support and perpetuate themselves survived? The order now even is not so perfect as to exclude monstrosities. What if in remote regions of space worlds are formed and dispersed and formed again where motion continually combines masses of matter until some arrangement is found in which it may persevere?… If nature offers us a knotty problem, let’s not call in to cut it the hand of a being who immediately becomes a fresh knot and harder to untie than the first. I would say to the Indian as to you: my friend, drop the elephant supporting the world and the tortoise supposedly supporting it and confess your ignorance. ~ Diderot, Letter on the Blind, 1749

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