Atheist Centre 50+ Golden Jubilee (1940-1990)
International Conference on
"Future of Atheism -- Humanism"
Vijayawada, December 29-31, 1990
[OCR, HTML, editing, Cliff Walker]

The History of
Freethought and Atheism
Dr. Gordon Stein Ph.D.
from "An Anthology of Atheism and Rationalism"

The idea that atheism has a long and colorful history may strike some people as unlikely. It is true, however, and those few people who have made an effort to study that history have found enough there to fill several thick volumes (and most of them barely scratched the surface).

There have undoubtedly always been unbelievers in the current religious belief of an area or a people. Before the invention of writing, however, we know of no specific unbelievers who left any record of their unbelief. In ancient India, there was a group of freethinkers known as the Lokayatas (before 600 B.C., although remnants of this group are found in India as late as the 14th century.) In China, both Confucius and Lao Tsze can be viewed as freethinkers in relation to the religion(s) prevalent in China at the time.

Early Greek Freethinkers

The first real freethinkers or atheists who seem to have produced work specifically dealing with religion in a negative way were found in ancient Greece. Although most of these works have not survived to the present day (and charges of atheism were often politically motivated and really not based upon fact), we know that Anaxagoras was accused of impiety and forced to leave Greece. He supposedly held that the sun was a red-hot body and that the moon was a physical object which was larger than Greece. He did not, however, apparently make an attack on the popular religious beliefs.

The Greek historian Thucydides never invoked the supernatural or attributed any historical events to that cause. This was quite a radical approach in those days and contrasts strongly with the writings of Herodotus, the other famous Greek historian. The third person usually lumped together with Thucydides and Anaxagoras as an atheist is Pericles. He was certainly friendly with the other two men, but there is nothing specifically atheistic in Pericles' surviving writings. Two other Greeks frequently accused of atheism were Hippo and Diogenes. None of Hippo's writing survives, so it is impossible to examine it while only a few scientific fragments of Diogenes are known to us. Aristophanes' play The Clouds put atheistic words in Diogenes' mouth, however, Protagoras was tried and had his work on gods publicly burned. The actual work seems to have merely stated that he did not and could not know whether the gods existed or not. Although Socrates was tried and condemned to death for atheism it is not at all clear whether this charge had any real basis in fact, or was merely "trumped up". Socrates dealt with ethics and left theological questions entirely alone. Finally we can say with confidence that Theodorus of Cyrene was an atheist from the contents of his work On the Gods.

Roman Skeptics

There is no sign of atheism in the early days of Rome. Much of Roman philosophy was simply borrowed from the Greeks, although even the Greek influence was not of major importance until the second century B.C. Epicurus held that the gods were totally isolated and aloof from human affairs, although they did exist. Although Epicurus was a Greek, his most famous follower (in the sense of someone who adopted his ideas) was the Roman poet Lucretius. His poem On the Nature of the Universe is one of the finest pieces of atheist poetry ever written, and is perhaps the only poem which has been able to successfully present a philosophical system. Cicero and Horace, in their writings, typify a secularist approach to the world, but this is not the same thing as saying they were atheists. The works of Seneca can also be viewed as secularist and perhaps Epicurean. Lucian was a sort of Roman Voltaire, poking fun at contemporary religious beliefs. The reason that he could get away with this is that the average Roman, if asked "Why do we believe in the gods?," would have answered "Because the State, in its laws, tells us to."

The Roman Emperor, Marcus Aurelius, took the attitude of neither believing nor disbelieving in the gods. He viewed this attitude as the proper one for men to take. In the second and third century A.D., there lived the last and perhaps greatest of the Roman skeptical philosophers. This was Sextus Empiricus. He held the view that nothing was evil in its nature and that men should seek a moral position beyond the struggle of good and evil. The idea was that freedom from mental excitement on these issues will secure a man peace of mind. Sextus Empiricus was especially important in that most of his works have survived, thereby being able to greatly influence the work of later philosophers. It should be mentioned in passing that the Romans had a tendency to view believers in all religions other than theirs as atheists. Thus the Jews and the early Christians were called atheists and were treated as atheists would be.

Re-awakening in Middle Ages

In the Dark Ages there was no philosophy as such, while in the Middle Ages the universities, where such things were discussed, were completely under the control of the Church. It was only with the growing independence of the universities from church control in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries that atheism and skepticism could again become possibilities. At the same time that the Dark Ages were engulfing Europe, there was still a flowering of civilization in the Moslem world. In the twelfth century, the philosopher Averroes was an able exponent of freethought in the Moslem world.

During the Middle Ages, there were many authors and thinkers who did much to help reawaken the belief in reason and the interest in science. Among these were Roger Bacon, Chaucer, Peter Abelard and William of Occam. While these men were not atheists, they helped break the grip that religion had upon the people of Europe.

Support from Renaissance

The Renaissance brought a flowering in all areas of human thought. There developed along with this a growth in freethought and atheist writing. One of the greatest opponents of accepting anything on the mere authority of the Church was Leonardo da Vinci. He insisted upon experiment as a means of obtaining knowledge. Niccolo Machiavelli was a constant critic of the Church, and reputed to be an atheist. He never avows his atheism in his writings, however (few at that time would). Bonaventure Des Perriers, the author of Cymbalum Mundi, openly ridiculed Christianity in that work. Rabelais mocks many of the Christian traditions in the early editions of his Gargantua and Pantagruel (even though Rabelais had been a monk for years).

Martyrs for Freethought

The beginnings of modern freethought can be traced to the 1500s and 1600s. One of the major influences upon thought in this period was Michael Montaigne. His Essays were highly skeptical, rather deistic (although this word was not used until much later) and very against the concept of witchcraft. In England, Christopher Marlowe had a reputation for atheism, and in fact a court case against him on the charge was pending when he was killed in a fight. Shakespeare rarely reveals his personal religious feelings, but his plays are characterized by a notable lack of religious piety.

The death of Giordano Bruno at the stake in 1600 marks the beginning of the modern period of freethought. Bruno was an Italian "theologian" and writer. After running into opposition from the Inquisition over his writings, Bruno traveled all over Europe, leaching, writing, and debating. He was often in great danger of being arrested. After fourteen years of this, he was in Venice when he was betrayed to the Inquisition by a former pupil. Bruno was in trouble with the Inquisition for having denied the divinity of Jesus, having said that the world was eternal and that there is transmigration of souls. He also accepted the Copernican idea of the solar system and often lectured on it. Bruno was tried, protesting his innocence, but the Inquisition did not find people innocent. Bruno spent the next seven years in prison in Rome. Finally, in February of 1600, he was burned at the stake. There were many other freethought martyrs during the next two hundred years.

Era of Deism

The era of deism began with the publication of Lord Herbert of Cherbury's De Veritate in 1624. The deistic movement began very slowly. Thomas Hobbes' rationalism helped deism make headway, but Hobbes was not a deist himself. The next major deistic writer was Charles Blount. His works in 1680 and in 1693 (published posthumously) stirred up the threat of a prosecution. Antideistic literature also began appearing. There were a number of deistic "best sellers," among them John Toland's Christianity Not Mysterious, Anthony Collins' Discourse of Freethinking, Mandeville's Fable of the Bees, and William Wollaston's The Religion of Nature Delineated. Some of the other major deistic writers in English were Thomas Woolston, Thomas Chubb, Thomas Morgan, and Peter Annet.

Deism lasted about one hundred years, but began and ended at different times in different countries. In England, deism was ending by the 1790s. In the United States, it was really just beginning at this time. Thomas Paine's The Age of Reason was published in 1794-95, and although it was in actuality a deistic book, it had little effect on British deism. In the United States, however, Paine's book was a great stimulus to organized deism at any rate. The deistic movement in the United States was just about dead by 1835.

The writings of David Hume and Conyers Middleton (possibly as well as those of Adam Smith and Lord Bolingbroke) in the mid to late 1700s, added a great deal of literary strength to the deistic movement. The contribution of Voltaire must not, of course, be overlooked, although much of his really anticlerical writings or those satirizing religion, were not translated from the French at his time. By 1784 the first anti-Christian book, Ethan Allen's Reason the Only Oracle of Man, was finally published in the United States.

The great popularity of Paine's The Age of Reason among the working classes in England caused the authorities to prohibit its publication. In 1819 Richard Carlile, a brave freethinker, defied the government and published an edition of the book, as well as one of Palmer's Principles of Nature, an American deistic book. Carlile received three years in jail, as well as a large fine for his activities. As soon as he was jailed, a number of people volunteered to run his shop and continue printing the prohibited books. Many people went to jail, but finally the prosecutions ended.

Freethought Bloom

During the rest of the nineteenth century, in both Britain and America, there was a large amount of freethought activity. Many freethought publishers were in business; many freethought organizations flourished; many freethought lecturers spoke; many freethought books were written.

Although the so-called "Golden Age of Freethought" has passed, and such men as Robert G. Ingersoll, Charles Bradlaugh and George Jacob Holyoake are gone forever, there is no question that there has been and will be enough developments in the history of freethought and atheism in the twentieth century to stimulate the writing of books. The lecturer is gone, from freethought as well as from most other fields. Rarely has atheism or freethought received the use of radio and television that the more orthodox religions receive. More people are now no longer afraid to openly state their lack of formal or orthodox religious beliefs. Some of the history of freethought and atheism has been chronicled, and such radical ideas as birth control, evolution, and the separation of church and state which originated with freethinkers have been popularly accepted.