In this article, Liam Jerrold Fraser explains how an examination of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century English freethought can help us to understand contemporary New Atheism. By using a historical case study, Fraser hopes to push back against viewing atheism as either a purely political or purely intellectual phenomenon and instead suggests that only a multi-disciplinary study can fully make sense of atheism.
It is a common belief in many Western societies that politics and religion should be separate, and that religion should play little or no role in the governance of modern states. This belief, in turn, can support two other assumptions: first, that it is possible to have religious beliefs whose significance is purely intellectual, and which possess no political meaning; and second, that the absence or rejection of religious language, symbols, and narratives in political life implies neutrality or indifference toward the intellectual cogency of religious belief. These beliefs can affect the methodologies we use, as is seen in different approaches toward New Atheism. On the one hand are a range of polemical works that seek to defend or refute the intellectual plausibility of its core arguments, with little consideration of its social and political significance. On the other hand are works by Schulzke, Kettell, and McAnulla, which have sought to move beyond this intellectual and polemical approach by conceptualising New Atheism as a primarily political movement (Schulzke, 2013; Kettell, 2013; McAnulla, 2014; LeDrew, 2016).
In contrast to these overly intellectual or political methods, historians of Protestant freethought such as Budd, Reventlow, and Champion have long noted the inter-dependent relationship between atheism, theology, and political protest (Budd, 1977; Reventlow, 1984; Champion, 1992). Although largely forgotten today, the Protestant freethinkers of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries question many popular assumptions about the boundaries between politics and religion, as they fought political and social battles with theology, and challenged Christianity not with ‘Enlightenment’ or ‘science’ but with Protestant Christianity’s own teachings. My own research on Protestant freethought suggests that this period – perhaps unexpectedly – holds three definitional and methodological principles that are potentially useful for the study of present-day New Atheism: one, that atheism is a social and political phenomenon whose expression is frequently intellectual; two, that its intellectual expression involves the use of theological categories; and three, for these reasons, atheism must be studied in its social, political, and theological aspects.
The political and social background to the first flowering of anti-Christian thought in Britain is the chaos of the English Civil War (1642-1651) and its aftermath. The Civil War had witnessed an explosion in religious heterodoxy, as a multiplicity of sects, reading the Bible for themselves, rejected traditional doctrine and conventional morality, and adopted beliefs and practices considered immoral and even treasonous. In order to curtail this hermeneutical, moral, and political pluralism, and defend against the persistent threat of Roman Catholicism, figures such as John Locke altered English Protestant thought in two ways. First, against Protestant enthusiasts who claimed to possess private revelation, Locke set reason as the judge of revelation, rather than presupposing revelation as the basis of all theological thought. This meant that revelation was to be assessed and investigated just like anything else. Second, against Roman Catholicism, Locke divorced the reading of Scripture from its interpretive context within confessions, creeds, and the liturgy of the Church, and argued that there was an objective meaning to Scriptural texts that could be discerned by any person, irrespective of the theological tradition in which they were raised (Locke 1695; 1999; 2012). These theological changes were accompanied by a second consequence of the Civil War – the Great Ejection. This saw hundreds of nonconformist clergy and their congregations ejected from the Church of England, and a series of laws known as the Clarendon Code enacted, which severely limited the civil and political rights of non-Anglicans.
It was the combination of these two theological and political factors that would lead to the first flowering of anti-Christian freethought in England. In order to illustrate this, I will briefly survey two representative figures from this period.
The first is John Toland (1670-1722). Toland adopted Locke’s epistemology almost wholesale, but differed from him in his willingness to use reason not simply to verify that Scripture is revelation, but to question whether Scripture is revelation at all. To believe something contrary to reason simply because it is found in Scripture, argues Toland, is to give license to every absurdity. Moreover, to claim that any doctrine is above reason, and hence ‘mysterious’, is to play into the hands of priests, who use mysteries to cement their own religious power. In arguing this, Toland explicitly places himself within the line of the Protestant Reformers, arguing that he can no more be blamed for encouraging religious doubt than Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli can be, for they too opposed the prevailing religious authorities of their day (Toland, 1696; 1997).
The second of our representative figures is Anthony Collins (1676-1729). Like Toland, Collins also adopted Locke’s epistemology, yet took its implications much further. The continuing possibility of a reversal of legal toleration for nonconformists led Collins to marshal older puritan arguments against the “Popish trappings” of the Church of England to push for a new rationalist agenda against Church authority. The Twentieth Article of the Thirty-Nine Articles gave the Church of England the authority ‘to decree rites or ceremonies and authority in controversies of faith’. Collins argues that, if authority is the basis of the Church’s power, then there should have been no Reformation, for the Roman Catholic Church also claims such authority for itself (Collins, 1710; 1770). In addition to this direct attack upon Church authority came an indirect one based on the new biblical hermeneutics. A literal reading of biblical prophecies such as Isaiah 7:14 shows that Christ cannot be the prophet’s intended object. Yet if the prophecy fails to be fulfilled in Christ then Jesus, his apostles, and the Church of England are shown to be wrong, and their religious authority crumbles (Collins, 1737).
English freethought, then, drew its intellectual structure from ambiguities within prevailing forms of Protestant theology, and its social and political motivation from the persecution of nonconformists. Due to the theological and political factors in play, the arguments of Toland and Collins – and many other freethinkers – display a range of ambiguous features. First, they employ Protestant arguments to advance an anti-Christian, rationalist worldview. Second, while they are couched as theology, their object is clearly the political one of undermining the authority of the Church of England and the Establishment it supported.
The ambiguity of this period means that no single methodology, whether historical, political, or theological, is sufficient to account for it, and this necessitates the adoption of alternative methodological principles. First, this period suggests that anti-Christian thought is a social and political phenomenon which commonly manifests itself in the intellectual critique of religion; two, that its intellectual expression involves the use of theology; and three, for these reasons, atheism must be studied in its social, political, and theological aspects.
While derived from the study of eighteenth-century freethought, I believe these principles are also useful for the study of present-day New Atheism, offering helpful corrections to the work of a number of commentators. The first principle corrects polemical works of all stripes that treat New Atheism as a primarily intellectual issue, as well as works by the likes of Schulzke, Kettell, McAnulla, and LeDrew that treat it as a primarily political phenomenon. The second principle corrects writers such as Julian Baggini, Sam Harris, and AC Grayling, who argue that there is no dependence of atheism upon the religion it rejects [Baggini, 2003; Harris, 2007; Grayling, 2013]. On the contrary, there is no motivation, structure, vocabulary, or audience for atheism unless it has a positive religious content to critique, negate, and invert. The third and final principle offers assurance to those who are wary of engaging in theology, which, rather unfortunately, has the reputation of being something of a non-subject. On the contrary, the history of Protestant freethought suggests that there is no way to properly understand anti-Christian movements such as New Atheism without considering the theology that generates and structures them.
The strength of these principles arises from their acceptance of existing disciplinary boundaries, yet also from their ability to integrate different methodologies into a multi-disciplinary approach that captures the complex intellectual and political nature of anti-Christian movements. And for a phenomenon as contentious and complex as New Atheism, that is no bad thing.
Baggini, J., 2003. Atheism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
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Champion, J.A.I, 1992. The Pillars of Priestcraft Shaken. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Collins, A., 1737. Grounds and Reasons of the Christian Religion. London.
Collins, A., 1770. Priestcraft in Perfection. London: B. Bragg.
Grayling, A.C., 2013. The God Argument. London: Bloomsbury.
Harris, S., 2007. Letter to a Christian Nation. London: Bantam Press.
Kettell, S., 2013. ‘Faithless: The Politics of New Atheism’. Secularism and Nonreligion, 2, pp.61–72.
LeDrew, S., 2016. The Evolution of Atheism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Locke, J., 1695, 1999. The Reasonableness of Christianity, by John Locke. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Locke, J., 1695, 2012. Vindications of the Reasonableness of Christianity. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
McAnulla, M. 2014. ‘Secular Fundamentalists? Characterising the New Atheist Approach to Secularism, Religion and Politics’. British Politics, 9, pp. 124–145.
Reventlow, H.G., 1984. The Authority of the Bible and the Rise of the Modern World. London: SCM Press.
Schulzke, M., 2013. ‘The Politics of New Atheism’. Politics and Religion, 6(4), pp. 778-799.
Toland, J., 1696, 1997. Christianity not Mysterious. Dublin; Lilliput Press.
Liam Jerrold Fraser recently completed a doctorate at the University of Edinburgh, where he examined the Protestant origins of British and American atheism, and the way in which this Protestant heritage informs the theological assumptions of contemporary New Atheists. He serves on the ministry team at Greyfriars Kirk, Edinburgh.