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December 13, 2005

Cast of Characters

The book in question is intended as a narrative history of disbelief. Here is a list of some of the individuals whose stories might be told.

Note: I am aware of the rather startling gender imbalance in this list. (It is very weak in persons of color, too.) This was clearly a difficult subject for females (and other oppressed groups) to be heard on before the nineteenth century, but they must have done their share of thinking about it. I hope, with further research, to recover some of their stories and their thought.

Carvaka the Raxasa--mentioned in a text that may date from 600 BCE; the reputed founder of a long-lived Indian sect of nonbelievers, which asserted that only the material world exists, rejected all notions of an afterlife ("After a body is reduced to ashes where will it come back from?"), had no use for "fasting" and "penance," extolled "embraces."

Diagoras of Melos--according to one account, gave up belief in gods in anger over a lost manuscript, then prosecuted for impiety in Athens. 5th century BCE.

Protagoras of Abdera--"Of all things," he announced, "the measure is man"--not gods; also reported to have been prosecuted for impiety. Greece, 5th century BCE.

Democritus--had an eerily modern understanding of atoms and space--one that left no room for gods. Greece, 5th and 4th centuries BCE.

Carneades of Cyrene--the great skeptic; capable of taking both sides of any issue--except, it seems, religion, to which he applied his most withering analyses. Athens, 3rd and 2nd centuries BCE.

Cicero--also a skeptic; wrote one of the great dialogues questioning belief in the gods: "It is difficult, you will say, to deny that they exist. I would agree if we were arguing the matter in a public assembly, but in a private discussion of this kind it is perfectly easy to do so." Rome, 1st century BCE.

Elisha ben Abuyah--a rabbi who became a nonbeliever; when he examined the world, he saw neither justice nor a judge; expelled from the faith. Palestine, 1st and 2nd centuries.

Abu Nuwas--an uninhibited gay poet; an outspoken nonbeliever. Baghdad, 8th and 9th centuries.

Abu Bakr al-Razi--the most renowned Arab physician; questioned all religions, his religion and even the status of "the Prophet." Baghdad, 9th and 10th centuries.

Averroes--a Moor who helped bring Greek writings and a respect for reason back to Europe, where they would pave the way for a return of disbelief; his scholarship made him suspect in the Islamic world and he was, for a time, banished for heresy. Morocco and Spain, 1126-1198.

Thomas Hobbes--his conception of the universe--"all that is real is material, and what is not material is not real"--carried him dangerously close to atheism; the Great Fire seen by some as God's response to Hobbes' insufficiently pious view. London, 1588-1679.

Thomas Aikenhead--a Scottish university student who found "madness, nonsense and contradictions" in the Bible; said as much; was hanged for blasphemy. Edinburgh, 1676-1697.

Jean Meslier--a Catholic priest who revealed his atheism only in a book he left to his parishioners after his death; became, posthumously, an Enlightenment hero. France, 1678-1733.

Denis Diderot--editor of the first great encyclopedia; arrived at atheism through his study of science and the blind; became one of its most influential proponents: "Wandering in a vast forest at night, I have only a faint light to guide me. A stranger appears and says to me: 'My friend, you should blow out your candle in order to find your way more clearly.' This stranger is a theologian"; spent three months in prison for such views. Paris, 1713-1784.

Baron d'Holbach--once Diderot converted him to atheism, became a one-man publishing house on the subject: "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"; gathered what may have been history's most impressive concentration of nonbelievers in his salon; he escaped prosecution; the poor who trafficked in his books did not. Paris, 1723-1789.

Marquis de Sade--his lack of belief in God did not stop him from trying to insult God; can be said to have experimented with the notion that without God everything is permitted. France, 1740-1814.

Jacques-René Hébert--under the leadership of this radical revolutionary, atheism finally gained control of a country--briefly, ingloriously; churches were shut; a statue of Meslier planned; but Hébert's political career ended shortly afterwards, at the guillotine. Paris, 1757-1794.

Pierre Simon Laplace--physicist whose masterly, five-volume account of the universe neglected to include a role for God; Napoleon noticed. Paris, 1749-1827.

Thomas Paine--put so much stock in reason that he was reviled as an atheist and is still celebrated by atheists; statements like this helped: "The Christian system of religion is an outrage on common sense." England, America. France, 1737 - 1809.

Percy Bysshe Shelley--a pamphlet endorsing atheism led to his expulsion from Oxford; returned to the subject in additional essays and poems, including "Queen Mab": "And priests dare babble of a God of peace,/Even whilst their hands are red with guiltless blood,/Murdering the while, uprooting every germ/Of truth, exterminating, spoiling all,/Making the earth a slaughter-house!" England, 1792-1822.

Frances Wright--was the first woman in America to lecture before an audience of men and women; friend of Jefferson and Jackson; on the side of science and progress; against religion: "Time is it to arrest our speculations respecting unseen worlds and inconceivable mysteries, and to address our inquiries to the improvement of our human condition." Scotland, United States, 1795-1852.

Harriet Martineau--this erstwhile writer of religious books was converted during a visit to the Holy Land; she then announced: "There is no theory of a God, of an author of Nature, of an origin of the Universe, which is not utterly repugnant to my faculties." England, 1802-1876.

John Stuart Mill-- the liberal political philosopher had been presented as a boy with one of the more powerful of the arguments against the existence of God: If God made us, who made God? Called himself "one of the few examples in this country of one who has not thrown off religious belief, but never had it." England, 1806-1873.

Ernestine Rose--eloquent and unbending in support of her causes: freedom for slaves and women, freedom from superstition; searched for freedom in her life, too; rarely have the intolerant been given so many reasons to hiss. Poland, Germany, England, United States, 1810-1892.

Karl Marx--religious as a child; his atheism would eventually spread around the world. Germany, London, 1818-1883.

Charles Bradlaugh--expelled from Sunday school and eventually his parents' home for his freethinking; became a radical leader and an outspoken atheist; spoke and debated before jammed halls full of working people; elected to Parliament. England, 1833-1891.

Frederick Nietzsche--the parson's son who announced, with proper gravity, the "death of God." Germany, Italy, 1844-1900.

Sigmund Freud--bold in his challenge to the "illusion" of religion, which, he suggested, is "the universal obsessional neurosis of humanity." Vienna, London, 1856-1939.

Bertrand Russell--in his philosophy, pushed reason to, and perhaps beyond, its limits; in his politics, stood consistently against war and against gods: "I do not think that their existence is an alternative that is sufficiently probable to be worth serious consideration"; behaved with less consistency in his personal life. England, 1872-1970.

Jean-Paul Sartre--important thinking on the question of where meaning might be found if it is not God-given; can be accused of having stumbled a bit on his own personal and political searches for meaning. Paris, 1905-1980.

Simone de Beauvoir--an atheist before she was a feminist: "I cannot be angry at God, in whom I do not believe." Paris, 1908-1986.

John Lennon--atheism was just one stop on his erratic wanderings: "God is a concept by which we measure our pain"; but what a line: "Above us only sky." England, New York, 1940-1980.

Jacques Derrida--I've had occasion to discuss the subject with him; his point, I believe, was that one cannot remove this one brick from our cultural foundations and expect the rest to stand undisturbed. Algeria, France, 1930-2004.

Barbara Ehrenreich--one possible candidate for a contemporary example; an outspoken, fourth-generation, "family-values" atheist: "God, if there is one, has never shown any great interest in stopping wars, ending poverty, feeding the hungry, stopping patriarchy, racism or anything like that." United States, 1941-.

Salman Rushdie--"I do not need the idea of God to explain the world I live in"; the best-known contemporary example of the price that is sometimes still paid by those who dare question religion. Bombay, London, New York, 1947-.

Posted by Mitchell Stephens at December 13, 2005 9:45 PM


A suggestion via a friend of mine: Tariq Ali.

Posted by: Dayv at December 23, 2005 12:34 PM

Interesting fellow. Do we know he was an atheist?

Posted by: mitch at December 24, 2005 12:40 AM

Since you concede the point about the lack of women... what about George Eliot, who, regardless of being included in a book called "What Great Men Think About Religion" is, of course, most decidedly a woman, and definitely and atheist. George Sand--another woman--came pretty close to atheism, but I guess wouldn't count. Meanwhile, I think instead of taking "elsie" as my name, I should have said George for credibility.

"When the soul is just liberated from the wretched giant's bed of dogmas on which it has been racked and stretched ever since it began to think, there is a feeling of exultation and strong hope."
-- George Eliot, from "What Great Men Think About Religion" by Ira D. Cardiff.

Posted by: elsie at December 24, 2005 2:16 PM

thanks for the tips, George. I'll look into them. Would be great to get such robust characters into the book. and the "exultation and strong hope" may have something to do with the positive idea of atheism we have been discussing.

Posted by: mitch at December 24, 2005 10:32 PM

A quick google search on his name and "atheist" turns up a number of sources describing Tariq Ali as an atheist, usually in counterpoint to the muslim society in which he was raised.

Most usefully, he characterises himself as an atheist in this interview.

Posted by: Dayv at December 26, 2005 3:11 AM

It's Friedrich Nietsche.

Otherwise: very interesting site. Best luck for your book!

Posted by: rootsandtheruins at December 26, 2005 10:19 AM

"Carvaka the Raxasa--mentioned in a text that may date from 600 BCE; the reputed founder of a long-lived Indian sect of nonbelievers, which asserted that only the material world exists, rejected all notions of an afterlife ("After a body is reduced to ashes where will it come back from?"), had no use for "fasting" and "penance," extolled "embraces.""

He sounds awesome.

Posted by: NoahSD at December 26, 2005 10:52 PM

Since you are in India, or going to India (!!), what about checking out the Hindi variant? As you yourself noted, Buddha was not a god. As I understand it, at least some Hindu philosophy suggests that the notion of gods is lower level pandering to the needs of the unsophisticated. But more to the point, PM Jawaharlal Nehru was an "out" atheist (by the way, quick digression to the converse: Is it possible that just as some Jews secretly practiced their beliefs during the Inquisition, as Marranos, so some atheists, to this day, are marranos?); and maybe India's first president, S. Radhakrishnan?

and for more women: Margaret Sanger, who might interest you as a journalist; and the poet Aphra Behn?

Posted by: george at December 29, 2005 8:27 PM

How about Lucretius? I read once that he "told anyone who would listen that religion did more harm than good."

Posted by: Tom Buckner at January 15, 2006 4:33 AM

Ayn Rand

Posted by: Amus Ala at February 20, 2006 1:21 PM

Christopher Marlowe

and you're surely not going to leave out Madalyn Murray O'Hare???

Hitler, Lenin, Stalin, Mao, pretty important atheists, no?
the argument that atheism leads to the death of morality (in individuals and societies) is by no means unsupported historically. Please don't neglect atheistic criminals: Gary Gilmore spoke directly on the subject. Also hope you will touch on the relationship between atheism and despair -- much documented in the reaction to Darwin.

Posted by: Mark Shulgasser at March 26, 2006 2:54 AM

fair enough. I will look into all of the above. and the Marquis de Sade is coming.

Posted by: mitch at March 27, 2006 12:34 PM

Belief in a God starts off as a very personal and subjective thing. What the world at large and individuals have reacted to, is the gathering of such believers, the formal believers group or institutionalised committee of "believers".

As soon as a committee of any kind is formed, it drafts rules, history, myths, for propping up its raison d'etre, and the rest follows. If such a group exists long enough, it grows further and further from the original "immediate reality" and its roots, and becomes a goal in itself: viz. the Roman Church with all its trappings.

Atheism could be a revolt/reaction against institutionalised myths, I believe. But, it also institutionalises and standardises thought patterns for critique against any formal religious belief.

It is powerless (like its "opposite", the institutionalised religion/church) against individualised and largely unexpressed private conceptions of a God. Individualised and private belief in a God goes with the conviction that the individual, not the group (refer Kierkegaard), will have to finally account before a God.

Posted by: Manny Otto at May 26, 2006 8:13 AM

Couple quick thoughts: Jane Ellen Harrison, one of the Cambridge myth critics at the turn of the century, an important source for V. Woolf (she should of course be in your cast of characters, no?)on the pre-Socratic greeks. Recommend _Themis: A study of the social origins of Greek religion_ (1963), with a forward by Gilber Murray.

Also, the real or imagined character of Diotima in Plato's _Symposium_ would, I surmise, prove very very interesting in your reclamation process.

Posted by: JM at June 12, 2006 10:27 PM

Have you read Jennifer Michael Hecht's _Doubt: A History_? Big survey of religious doubt, and she mentioned a fair number of women from unexpected centuries.

Posted by: Damien at June 16, 2006 12:28 AM

Yeah, hers was one of the first books I read on the subject after it stared at me from the table at an upstate bookstore once. I will double check for more women; however, her definition of doubters is quite broad -- Jesus and Socrates count. I am trying, for the most part, to stick to those who say ain't a god and this world is the only world.

Posted by: mitch at June 16, 2006 10:30 AM

Just found this online program by Richard Dawkins, "The Root of All Evil"


Posted by: Jay Saul at June 27, 2006 7:55 AM

George wrote:
"How about Lucretius? I read once that he "told anyone who would listen that religion did more harm than good."

Well actually Lucretius and Epicurus, his Idol, belived in "Gods" (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Emimens Philosophers, X. 1-about 157), but only Gods who where totally not interested in human affairs.

But when Mitchell mentions Democritus, who Epicurus follows in his workings (His theory on atoms), I would think it strange that Epicurus and Lucretius not where mentioned also, because they to believed that the soul went down with the body and that there was nothing past death.

According to Diogenes Laertius, Epicurus in some writings even denies Gods altogather (Diogenes, Lives, X, letter to a Menekoi or something).

Humans die and are no more therefore death is nothing to us.

But even Lucretius starts his book "De Rerum Natura" by praising "Venus", its only the explanation for these Gods that is totally different than the general view in the public.

But I would agree, that this picture of Gods is close to weak atheism or agnosticism even though its not strong atheism. The Gods are there in some way but they dont do anything concerning nature or humans. This was surely atheism in ancient greece, but likewise were judaism and christianity in the roman empire, because they did not worship the cultreligion or the emperors of God.

This has probably seemed like at form for atheism: they denied all the roman Gods while Epicurus denied the roman explanation of these Gods. But Remember the word by Epicurus: Surely, there are Gods, this accounts for Lucretius also.

But its a bit tricky: there are no Gods acting in the world for Epicurus and the life ends on earth, no soul living on, its a total schisma between "world" and "Gods".


Posted by: Magnusson at June 27, 2006 2:39 PM

I guess one question actually is concerning Epicurus: Why did he say: Surely, there are Gods? What was his backround, what were his arguments fore this conclusion, how to relate this to the things Diogenes writes about him, that he in some writings denies Gods altogather not delivered to us? What do other writers say about him f.ex. Lucretius, Plutarch, Cicero and Seneca? What has more dominance, that they are not or that they are? Why did he maintain the reality of Gods, when they actually had no impact on human lives on earth?

This I wounder why...

Posted by: Magnusson at June 27, 2006 3:53 PM

Mention Ernest Becker. Though he never claimed be an atheist, as far as I know, he believed this was the last world and death was the end of it. He followed Freud, taking his arguement to the next level. Very important person, and book (The Denial of Death). He also addresses ALL the difficulties that individuals without religion/God can face, and suggests that they can still have morals and that life can still be enjoyable for them - if they take responsibility for their own well-being.

Posted by: Lisa at August 20, 2006 7:01 PM

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