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January 20, 2006

Where Were All the Atheists?

One of the great mysteries in the history of disbelief:

Why is there almost no evidence that atheists existed in Europe from, say, the Middle Ages through the end of the Renaissance?

One possible answer follows from the argument in the previous post: There weren't any atheists because a mind at that time, in those cultures, was simply unable to conceive of a world without God.

Another possible answer, as you probably have guessed, is that disbelievers -- skeptics, iconoclasts, freethinkers -- have always been around. It's just that in those centuries, when Europe was in the grip of something like a Christian version of the Taliban, it was impossible to express disbelief. Merely disputing the proportion of divinity in a member of the Trinity could get you burned at the stake.

The first answer exhibits an attractive cultural relativism. I lean toward the second, less condescending answer. And I think the latest historical evidence (of which there ain't much) is pointing this way.

Posted by Mitchell Stephens at January 20, 2006 6:12 AM


Taking your point, exactly, I remain interested in your theory (two posts ago you implied that you have one) of why at certain times in history atheists are punished, but not at other times. Maybe different explanations are necessary for ancient, middle, modern history.... Even so, what's your explanation? In the context of US over the last 200 years, say, something as specific as resentment of new immigrant group(s) has often explained culture wars (eg. resulting in the prohibition movement). But that account won't work here, given that immigrant groups have been, if nothing else, religious/pious. New scientific discoveries about origins would seem to be too obvious an explanation, although obviousness doesn't make it wrong. Does your narrative involve fear of intellectuals? Politics (hysteria about godless communism and the like)?

Posted by: george at January 20, 2006 11:51 AM

The best argument, of course, for the existence of atheists in the middle ages -- while noting that the term had a wide definition at the time -- is simply that so many church apologists spent time arguing against the idea.

I think, when you read the medieval romances, and things like the Icelandic sagas (some of the first naturalist fiction in the world), that we are left with a picture of a world much like ours -- with religiosity running the whole range.

Posted by: Gregory at January 20, 2006 9:59 PM

I'm reading A Room of One's Own right now. The answer is of course there were atheists, just as there were women writers; they just kept quiet or were ignored.

Posted by: K.G. Schneider at January 21, 2006 1:08 AM

Quick response to George's question above on why things have been tougher for atheists at some times rather than others: Don't know. Find myself theory-less. Want -- optimist that I am -- to locate some larger whiggish trend of underlying progress, but that certainly ain't gonna be easy. Will try to study the question and raise it in a post here (and keep George's suggestions in mind).

Posted by: mitch at January 21, 2006 8:49 PM

On the question of intolerance of atheist, I might wonder if it is more a question of religious tolerance generally. After all the Taliban were not just against atheist but any religious belief different from their own. The medieval church was against Jews, Muslims and in some contexts other forms of Christianity.

Posted by: Boelf at January 22, 2006 12:16 PM

There's another way to look at it: that religious intolerance generally comes from the fear of -- the attempt to repress all undercutting, nihilistic, terrifying thoughts of -- disbelief.

Bin Laden speaks of a world "split…into two camps: the camp of belief and the camp of disbelief."

In other words, Jews and Christians may be getting punished not just alongside atheists but because they sound, to the orthodox Islamic believer, like atheists.

Posted by: mitch at January 23, 2006 5:30 AM

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