Origins of Atheism

Nick Spencer (Atheists: The Origin of the Species) doesn’t believe the standard creation myths about atheism. According to the standard account, atheism is the produce of reason and science: “men began to work the metal, which they called ‘reason’, using it to forge a new weapon, which they called ‘science’, and they used ‘science’ to attack the monster, and the very clever men.”

The monster, of course, was religion, and the men of science “had to be very careful at first because if anyone was caught using ‘science’, they would be dragged into market squares where they would be burned alive, and indeed this was how many men lost their lives.”

Spencer argues that religion had a more positive role in forming atheism, and science had little to do with it: “Modern atheism did indeed emerge in Europe in the teeth of religious, i.e. Christian, opposition. But it had only a limited amount to do with reason and even less with science. The creation myth in which a few brave souls forged weapons made of a previously unknown material, to which the religious were relentlessly opposed, is an invention of the later nineteenth century, albeit one with ongoing popular appeal. In reality . . . modern atheism was primarily a political and social cause, its development in Europe having rather more to do with the (ab)use of theologically legitimized political authority than it does with developments in science or philosophy.”

The conflict was not science v. religion, or reason v. faith, but a battle over the sources and nature of authority: “the history of atheism is best seen as a series of disagreements about authority, the concept in which various concerns – does God exist, how do we know, how should we live and who should we obey—coalesce.”

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