When Atheism Meant Something Broader

Kenneth Sheppard has an interesting article in Patrol magazine about the history of the word “atheism.” He notes that the term used to mean something much broader, that it was used to describe anyone who was a cultural non-conformist, whether religious, political or sexual.

Between 1550 and 1750 early modern Europeans used the word atheism in a much more diffuse set of ways than we do today. When Cicero’s De natura deorum was translated in the seventeenth century, for example, there was often little difficulty in equating Diagoras’ or Theodorus’ impious unbelief as atheism – doubt about the Greek gods was often understood to be a rejection of religious belief altogether. When it first entered the vernacular languages of Europe in the early modern period, the word atheism implied not simply an intellectual denial of God’s existence, but almost any non-orthodox understanding of God and any non-orthodox practices which were taken to imply a denial of God’s existence – deviants, whether religious, social, or sexual, were conveniently portrayed as inversions of Christian belief and practice. Very often atheism was a synonym for a disturbing “other”: in early modern England accusations of atheism were closely linked to anxieties about the “foreign imports” of so-called Machiavellianism (Italy) and libertinism (France). Atheism was thus a rhetorically polemical term used in a period of intense confessional dispute.

In other words, as he defines it, atheism was simply a question of practice — a failure to act the way the dominant society told you to act made one an atheist, regardless of what one actually believed about a god or gods. The whole thing is worth reading, if you find that sort of question interesting.

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  • Reginald Selkirk

    Was it really defined to mean all those things, or was it just used as a pejorative?

  • divalent

    It seems to me that the term “atheist” still evokes that broader meaning in the minds of many theists today. It is sometimes used to imply a lot more than merely a lack of belief in a deity; particularly a lack of moral grounding.

  • matty1

    I seem to remember reading that some Roman authors considered early Christians atheists because they denied the gods.

  • grumpyoldfart

    So all those god-fearing Christians who went to church every week would be considered an atheist if they happened to have non-orthodox political opinions? Sounds bloody stupid to me.

  • matty1

    So all those god-fearing Christians who went to church every week would be considered an atheist if they happened to have non-orthodox political opinions? Sounds bloody stupid to me.

    Bear in mind that the lines between religion and politics were not the same in the ancient world. To sacrifice to the Emperor was an expression of religious and political loyalty and to refuse to do so questioned both.

    That said the idea that atheist means ‘rejects the true religion’ rather than ‘doesn’t believe in any kind of God’ still survives in places. I was once given a book by Christian preacher John Blanchard in which he argued, apparently seriously, that Muslims count as atheists because their God is not the same as his. I think that is the only time I’ve thrown a book across the room in frustration.

    On the subject of changing meanings I also have a vague memory of 19th Century sources using Christian as a synonym for kind or generous. As in “That’s a very Christian thing to do”

  • iangould

    Socrates, of course, was condemned both for teaching atheism and for promoting the worship of foreign Gods.

  • Scott Simmons

    Aha! So Thomas Paine was an atheist!

  • Poggio

    I’m sure Ken is a good scholar, but his knowledge of ancient literature and philosophy is sorely lacking. That he can discover a definition of atheism as social or political ‘other’ in a pre-modern translation of Cicero’s De natura rerum is, frankly, ludicrous. Like all classically trained scholars of the period, their definition of ‘atheism’ is literal and linguistic, not social. Translators are academics, after all, not politicians, even in the 17th century. Moreover, it should come as no surprise that these early scholars misunderstood Cicero’s Stoicism since their philosophical training was predominantly medieval Christian.

    Modern western ideas of proper religious behaviour, among them the sense of the antithetical ‘atheism’, were shaped by a narrow time and place in history: the centuries following the collapse of Roman rule in Gaul, Italy and Spain when the minority Roman orthodoxy, Trinitarianism in particular, was severely challenged by Paganism, Arianism, Pelagianism and other Eastern influences. Western europe was beset on all sides by unorthodox belief systems, and the resulting balkanization had the effect of isolating western europe from the east and Greek thought, in particular. As a result of this isolation, Western Europe, for the next 1000 years, was in a position of having always to ‘rediscover’ Greek thought; but to the west it was always unorthodox, always non-western, always foreign. Americans with a western/Roman sense of religious propriety are all heirs of this historical phenomenum.

    Euhemerism (the Gods as men) was the early Christian justification for marginalizing Greek and Roman paganism among the apologists like Augustine, but these arguments died out by the 8th century. The pre-modern translators of Cicero’s De Natura rerum were educated in later medieval christian definitions of atheism, which they called epicurianism: but it was nothing more than a dimly understood association with the writings of Epicurus and Theodorus’ On the Gods. By this time, western european philosophers were so distant from greek thought they had no idea what they were talking about when they came across snippets of them in the ancient writers.

  • @5 matty1

    I also have a vague memory of 19th Century sources using Christian as a synonym for kind or generous. As in “That’s a very Christian thing to do”

    By that do you mean that people who were not Christians (as we would use the term today — followers of the Christian religion) were called Christians simply for being kind or generous? Because otherwise that meaning is still applied today. (A recent example I can think of was in NFL football where Mike McCarthy, head coach of the Green Bay packers, was reported to have said he was in a “Christian mood” in regards to a replacement referee who made a call that lost his team the game.)

  • laurentweppe

    Socrates, of course, was condemned both for teaching atheism and for promoting the worship of foreign Gods.

    Socrates was mosly condemned for being a Sparta fanboy and for saying that in fine, democracy sucked because people like him were not certain to hold power.

  • Their are still people who use the term atheist to mean anyone who isn’t their definition of a Christian. My father is one.

  • Pierce R. Butler

    matty1 @ # 5: … 19th Century sources using Christian as a synonym for kind or generous.

    For an interval during Patrick O’Brien’s Aubrey/Maturin series (novels set during the Napoleonic wars of the early 1800s), the protagonists are assigned to a clumsy and poorly balanced sailing ship, frequently referred to as “the horrible old Leopard“. After a great deal of work, they get the barky fixed up and functional, and repeatedly congratulate each other on having her maneuver “like a Christian ship, by God!”

  • jimmiraybob

    Poggio @ #8 – “The pre-modern translators of Cicero’s De Natura rerum…”

    Were you thinking Lucretius’ De Natura rerum?

  • Poggio

    Sorry, yes. Cicero De Natura Deorum

  • Poggio

    Despite my criticism of Ken’s little blurb, he is onto describing a genuine phenomenum, but its roots go farther back than post reformation classicists. Disbelief was far more common and widespread in the Middle Ages in Western Europe than has been appreciated by historians; as my book will shortly demonstrate. When modern historians approach the subject of medieval anticlericalism and what they called ‘epicurianism’, they invariably describe such activities as a social, rather than a philosophical, problem; but this is not how medieval writers viewed it. For better or worse, the reformation and counter reformation taint everyone’s understanding of the Middle Ages; the philosophical stakes were ‘gravely’ increased, as it were.

  • I’m skeptical that its denotation was really that different back then. It sounds more like people threw “atheist!” around the way wingnuts are throwing “Muslim!” and “Socialist!” today without regard for their actual definitions, or as accusations that the opponents are really in shadowy alliances with the hated groups.

  • jimmiraybob

    Poggio @ #15 – “as my book will shortly demonstrate.”

    Well. This sounds interesting. How can I track this? I’ve been creeping toward your thesis for a while starting with considering Jefferson’s comment,

    “I have sometimes thought of translating Epictetus (for he has never been tolerably translated into English) by adding the genuine doctrines of Epicurus from the Syntagma of Gassendi,…”

    – (Letter to William Short, October 31, 1819).

    Gassendi being Pierre Gassendi, a 17th century philosopher priest scientist that apparently attempted to reconcile Epicureanism with Christianity (the Syntagma philosophiae Epicuri).

    Inquiring minds and all that.

  • Poggio

    Gassendi’s and Jefferson’s interest in Epicurus: this is all part and parcel of Enlightenment thinking. There was a movement to investigate whether the atomism of democritus and epicurus and their school could be reconciled with contemporary discoveries: the general belief being that these Greeks, unburdened as they were by medieval philosophy, had somehow worked out scientific truths that had been lost to ignorant medieval thinkers. Gassendi and others believed these truths had been transmitted, albeit dimly, through Christian teachings. Jefferson likely believed similarly.

    Strange as it may sound, medieval ‘epicurianism’ had little to do with the Greek Epicurus, or the writings of the atomists, which were unknown to medieval thinkers except through oblique and misunderstood references in Roman authors. Epicurus was rather a figure, an ideal dimly gained through Roman writers, but used to describe a particular habit of mind which we would describe as Atheist; and the fact that the Greek atomists are still called atheists in modern reference works attests to the longevity of this medieval idea.

  • jimmiraybob

    Poggio – You referenced “my book”, which, if you are producing a book on the subject, is what I’d be interested in keeping track of. I’m not trying to pry away the nom de blog but If this is the case, then is there any hint as to how I can do so.

  • slc1

    OT but Michiganders, how about them Tigers!