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Holly Meldrum took the ‘Philosophical Britain‘ module at Queen Mary in 2016. In this post she writes about ‘atheism’ as a philosophical keyword in recent British cultural history.

‘Atheism’ – the disbelief or lack of belief in the existence of God or god.

This clip of Christopher Hitchens, is taken from a debate with his brother Peter Hitchens, on the 3rd April 2008. The late Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was one of the most notorious and outspoken proponents of the ‘New Atheism’ movement that developed in the 2000s. In the clip, Hitchens and his unique style that is both unapologetic and contemptuous, not only rejects the existence of God but condemns the idea of God as ‘totalitarian’ and likens this dictatorship as being akin to a ‘celestial North Korea’. For Hitchens, in one of his bestsellers, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, explains how belief in the supernatural and religion are detrimental to progression of humanity, because they destroy individual freedom, free expression and scientific discovery[1].

Hitchens, has been grouped with three other current intellectuals; Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins, who are collectively known as ‘The Four Horsemen of the Non-Apocalypse’. The infamous ‘Four Horsemen’ have brought their ideas on atheism and religion into mainstream media; through their television appearances, bestselling books and debates that are watched worldwide. Central to their thinking, is that there is no god, supernatural or divine being. They also contend that the world of religion and religious belief, is often morally corrupt and needs to be open to criticism. Current world affairs concerning religious fundamentalism, have propelled these intellectuals into the spotlight as authorities on secular opinion. Their prominence has given the ‘New Atheism’ movement substantial rise and has given atheist ideas recognition in today’s world.

Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris and Dennett

‘Atheism’ or the word ‘atheist’, was first used in the English language in the 16th Century, it derived from the French ‘athéisme’, which came from the Greek, ‘a’ meaning without and ‘theos’ meaning ‘God’. However in the 16th Century, the word ‘atheist’ was used as an insult to call someone, nobody would have used it as a description of their beliefs. Atheism can be traced back to the ancient Greeks, particularly to Diagoras of Melos, a 5th Century B.C. poet and sophist. Although Diagoras of Melos never wrote about atheism, it has been widely recognised that he was publically very candid of his views and was well-known to demystify the Eleusinian secret religion, in order to provoke his contemporaries into thought[2].

Despite being able to trace atheism as far back as the ancient Greeks, the key period for atheist thinking came during the Age of Enlightenment. The nature of the Enlightenment period, made it possible for intellectuals and philosophers to be forthright with their arguments, with the growing examination of religious orthodoxy. Key to the atheism movement during the Enlightenment was philosopher Baron d’Holbach (1723-1789), whose salon was renowned for being the popular haunt of the philosophers of the age, with revolutionary ideas on the existence of God. One of d’Holbach’s best known works, ‘Systéme de la Nature’ published in 1770, has been described by some as the “bible of atheism”. Systéme de la Nature, openly denies the existence of God and attributes such beliefs as the product of fear and a lack of understanding, ground-breaking for its time.  D’Holbach argues,

“What, indeed, is an atheist? He is one who destroys delusions which are harmful to humanity in order to lead men back to nature, to reality, to reason. He is a thinker who, having reflected on the nature of matter, its energy, properties and ways of acting, has no need of idealized powers or imaginary intelligences to explain the phenomena of the universe and the operations of nature.”[3]

Later in Britain, during the Victorian period, John Stewart Mill (1806-1873), a prominent English philosopher, though writing little on religion during his time, for fear of alienating his audience, posthumously published ‘Three Essays on Religion’ (1874). Mill’s decision to publish his essays after he died, shows us that society was not always accommodating to critical views on religion. For Mill, in his essay, ‘The Utility of Religion’, argues that religion’s utility in society derives from the moral code it imposes, not from its dogma or theology. Mill contends that the belief in the supernatural, is not needed anymore, though in the past it was useful in upholding the moral code, it now hinders the progress of humanity by preventing social change. Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), another English philosopher during the Victorian era and a contemporary of Mill, advocated the pre-eminence of science over religion. For Spencer, who was often a controversial figure, argued that knowledge of a phenomena required empirical demonstration, we cannot know anything non-empirical, therefore we cannot know whether there is a God or what his character may be[4]. We can see from these Victorian thinkers, who both were extremely prominent in their time for their views, both don’t expressly deny the existence of a God, rather highlight problems with the absolute faith that there is a supernatural God. In an era of avid church going in Britain, it is safe to assume that neither wanted to risk their reputation, by expressing too much doubt in God’s existence.

One of the most distinguished British philosophers of the 21st Century, Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) and also Godson to J.S. Mill, marked a move within the discussion of atheism and its difference to agnosticism. Russell very publically discussed why he turned his back on Christian faith and how he felt that there wasn’t adequate logical evidence for the existence of God or an afterlife[5]. For Russell, when trying to determine his position, by distinguishing between atheist and agnostic, proved to be a difficult question to answer. While in prison during the First World War, Russell recalls a warden asking his religion, to which he replied “agnostic”, having to spell it out for the warden, the warden remarked, “religions are many, but I suppose they all believe in the same God”[6]. For Russell, in his 1953 essay called, ‘What is an Agnostic’ he argues that the atheist claims that we can know that there is no God, while agnostics recognise that there is no conclusive argument for God’s non-existence. Yet in many respects, Russell struggled with the difference between atheist and agnostic, while describing himself as an agnostic, in the practical sense he could be described as an atheist as he see no logical explanation for believing in God in the Judeo-Christian sense. This change in philosophical thinking expressed by Russell, clearly defined atheism as the complete disbelief in a supernatural God, whereas agnostics recognise that it cannot be argued absolutely that there is no God.

Bertrand Russell

Today, a clear line has been drawn, with regard to what it means to be an atheist. The founding premise of atheism, which has been set out by modern thinkers, is that atheists do not believe in the existence of God or gods. In popular culture today, we know that when a ‘celebrity’ describes themselves as an atheist, we know exactly what they are referring to, which has enabled many to further their arguments for atheism beyond the existence of God foundation. This has been able to remove to some extent, the social stigma that once surrounded the likes of Mill. An excellent example of this in Britain today, is how mainstream British comedians have used the topic of atheism in their comedy. The likes of John Cleese, Ricky Gervais, Jimmy Carr, Stephen Fry and Eddy Izzard, have successfully promoted atheism through ridiculing the ideas of religion and God, as a thought provoking tool. Below, in this clip from the Irish television, Jimmy Carr discusses being an atheist on the Late Late Show, 18th September 2009. Carr with his use of comedy manages to mock the audience when they showed distaste for his jokes on Jesus.

To finish, with the rise of the ‘New Atheism’ movement and the widespread ridicule of religion by comedians, have led many to argue that atheists today have become ‘militant’ or ‘fundamental’, for their forthright views on God and religion. This I would argue, shows there is still room in society for progression and acceptance for ideas that disagree with traditional religious dogma. The stigma surrounding atheism, has condemned those who are opinionated on the subject, as extremist. Likewise, the world of atheism as it stands today, could take a few lessons from the religious world. As Swiss-British philosopher, Alain De Botton, has argued, that the atheist and religious sectors, need not be enemies of each other, and has promoted a much gentler philosophy of atheism. One which moves away from the traditional debates over God and morality of organised religion, and looks to the lessons that can be drawn from religion. He concludes his Ted Talk, appropriately titled ‘Atheism 2.0’, by saying, “You may not agree with religion, but at the end of the day, religions are so subtle, so intelligent in many ways, that they are not fit to be abandoned for the religious alone, they are for all of us”[7].

[1] Christopher Hitchens, God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (London: Atlantic Books, 2007)

[2] Jennifer Michael Hecht, “Whatever Happened to Zeus and Hera? 600 BCE – 1CE” in Doubt, A History (New York: HarperOne, 2003)

[3] Paul Henri Thiry (Baron d’Holbach), Systéme de la Nature, 1770.

[4] Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, [http://www.iep.utm.edu/spencer/#H4]

[5] Bertrand Russel on Religion, [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tP4FDLegX9s] 1959

[6] Bertrand Russell Society [http://bertrandrussell.org/archives/BRSpapers/2012/agnostic.php] 2012

[7] Alain De Botton, ‘Atheism 2.0’, Ted Talks [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2Oe6HUgrRlQ] July 2011

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