Atheists and Atheism before the Enlightenment: The English and Scottish Experience 
by Michael Hunter.
Cambridge, 223 pp., £30, July 2023, 978 1 009 26877 6
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In​ 1607 John Derpier, an argumentative Wiltshire gentleman, was hauled before an ecclesiastical court for publicly proclaiming ‘the most hereticall & damnable opinion (that there was noe god & noe resurrection, & that men died a death like beastes)’. Derpier’s audacity was compounded by the fact that he had made his assertion in a church and in the hearing of the impressionable youth of the parish. For them, the spectacle of one of their elders and betters disputing solemn religious truths with the local vicar must have been as entertaining as it was scandalous and shocking. Thirty years later, Peter Vavasour from Yorkshire was prosecuted by the High Commission for similarly provocative words about the Christian doctrine of life after death. ‘Tush tush,’ he declared. ‘That is but a tricke of the clergye, to cause the people to beleeve … to gett money and to catch fooles withal.’ For Vavasour, prayers ‘were noe better then the barkeinge of doggs’. Statements like these leap from the page: revealing the presence of outspoken unbelievers in an age of ardent faith, they seem to foreshadow secular modernity.

Such cases are very rare in the historical records of early modern Britain. People who overtly rejected the existence of God turn out to be an exotic and elusive species: sources suggest that few dared to question it directly or explicitly. Yet contemporaries were convinced that the problem of atheism was both pervasive and growing. As Thomas Nashe put it, ‘there is no Sect now in England so scattered as Atheisme.’ The Spanish ambassador, Diego Sarmiento de Acuña, Count of Gondomar, reported in 1617 that some 900,000 people (more than a quarter of England’s estimated population), were atheists. By 1695 the Protestant divine John Edwards surmised that ‘there is scarcely a Town where there are not some that may justly be reckon’d in this number.’ The widespread anxiety about the rise of irreligion reflected in sermons, pamphlets and tracts is hard to reconcile with the shortage of actual instances of articulate unbelief. This intriguing paradox lies at the heart of Michael Hunter’s book, which combines lightly revised versions of his previously published essays with newly written chapters to advance a distinctive argument about the significance of atheism in England and Scotland before the Enlightenment. Building on his extensive work on science and intellectual culture in the 17th and 18th centuries, it serves as a companion to The Decline of Magic (2020), his influential study of the role of freethinkers and sceptics in the much contested process that Max Weber called ‘the disenchantment of the world’. Atheistical opinion is seen as part of the prolonged shift in perception that slowly evacuated the category of the supernatural from contemporary thinking.

Hunter probes atheism as both an abstract concept and a documented phenomenon, as an amalgam of the imaginary and the real. He sees the link between the two as key to explaining the emergence of the religiously pluralistic world in which we now live. His interest in excavating evidence of self-professed atheists stands in counterpoint to Lucien Febvre’s celebrated claim that unbelief (l’incroyance) was a philosophical and logical impossibility in the 16th century. The long shadow cast by Febvre’s thesis has not only inhibited serious scrutiny of the small group of radical thinkers who did repudiate God’s existence but has also fuelled the view that the term ‘atheist’ was a slippery, capacious and overused term of abuse, bandied about so loosely that it had no useful or concrete meaning. On this reading, the incidence of the word ‘atheism’ in early modern discourse alerts us less to a genuine seam of unbelief than to the spiritual and ethical preoccupations of the post-Reformation era. In an environment in which binary thinking prevailed, atheism was a potent ‘other’ against which devout Christianity defined itself. At its most extreme, this line of interpretation has led to the suggestion that if atheism had not existed it would have had to be invented. Into the stereotype of ‘atheist’ were bundled all the tendencies that pious ministers and laypeople feared were undermining the religious integrity of society: from hypocrisy and epicureanism to an instinct to attribute too much autonomy to nature and an unwillingness to acknowledge God’s providential interventions to reward virtue and punish sin. Symptomatic of moral panic, it functioned as a stick with which to beat the forces that appeared to be undermining the Church from without and within.

Some contemporary writers anticipated modern scholars in dismissing atheism as a ‘mere Chimaera’, an optical illusion. The Latitudinarian minister Joseph Glanvill acknowledged its status as a derogatory label, launched against others as a weapon ‘like the bolt of one that throws hard words in haste, and without aim or judgment’. By implication, its targets were simply the unfortunate victims of a form of character assassination. Hunter offers a more subtle exposition. Anti-atheistical literature helped to create and crystallise proliferating anxieties about declining piety, but it also changed the way people saw the world around them. This explains why so many worried that the ‘godless’ constituted a growing proportion of the population and why the eminent Presbyterian Richard Baxter was convinced that a large proportion of those ‘born of Christian Parents’ had ‘banished’ faith from their ‘Hearts and Lives’. Often described as ‘worldlings’, these were people who denied God less in thoughts and words than in deeds.

In some ways, such anxieties were a by-product of the Reformation. As Ethan Shagan argued in The Birth of Modern Belief (2018), the Reformation raised the stakes when it came to what it meant to be a true believer. The yardstick by which the English Protestant clergy judged sincere piety reflected the high standards of zeal they shared with the Catholic missionaries who were their rivals. The schism within Christendom precipitated by Martin Luther’s protest against the papacy not only fostered fierce competition between the Churches in the spheres of moral righteousness and religious fervour; it also had the effect of focusing fresh attention on the difference between real commitment and merely formal adherence to particular creeds. Indifference became the default position of the majority, while the achievement of belief came to seem a profoundly burdensome task. This was despite the fact that, according to reformed theology, human beings owed the gift of soul-saving grace to the Almighty, who had foreseen and decided their fate before they had even been conceived in the womb. Uncertain about whether they numbered among the elect or the reprobate, godly people were recurrently wracked with doubt about their eschatological status. Sometimes this extended to temporary disbelief in the very existence of heaven and hell, God and the devil. In Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners (1666), John Bunyan described the ‘whole floods of blasphemies’ by which he was afflicted, which included suspicion that Holy Scripture was just a ‘cunning story’ or ‘fable’. Many devout Protestants evidently had similar experiences, as their diaries and journals reveal. This variety of Puritan ‘atheism’ was a natural – if uncomfortable – part of the pilgrim’s progress to faith: such scruples were hallmarks of the process by which they sought and gained assurance of their salvation. Some retrospectively read it as evidence of their election. For others, it may have been a stepping stone to deeper disillusionment with all forms of organised religion.

Hunter insists that godly doubt must be distinguished from bold and unabashed atheism of the kind espoused by Derpier and Vavasour. He critiques the instinct to conflate them in some recent work, such as Alec Ryrie’s Unbelievers: An Emotional History of Doubt (2019). The religious misgivings of the devout were apologetic, shameful and secretive, ingredients of a ‘covert history’ that contrasts starkly with the swaggering self-confidence and certainty of well-known freethinkers such as Christopher Marlowe. These men were not only willing to defend and disseminate their dissident views publicly, but deliberately set out to provoke their hearers. Their offensive pronouncements about religion as a Machiavellian instrument of awe and an insidious invention of priests had an aggressive, proselytising ring. This typically found expression in impious jests and sarcastic jokes. But the bravado of the atheist was itself part of an evolving literary trope. It should be situated in the context of a culture of playful satire and wit that extended from drunken scoffing in taverns and pubs to the erudite humour of the gentlemen’s club and coffeehouse. The Jesuit Robert Persons claimed that Walter Raleigh taught the ‘schollers’ in his ‘schoole of Atheisme’ to spell God backwards – as ‘dog’. It remains difficult to unravel caricature and commonplace from the idiosyncrasies of individual personalities.

Episodes and texts like these fed fears that Christianity was being threatened by an epidemic of atheism and licentious living. The chaos of the revolutionary decades, when the structures of religious and political control broke down, created the conditions in which heterodox ideas appeared to be spreading rapidly. The Blasphemy Act of 1650 was one response to the circulation of ‘execrable Opinions, derogatory to the honour of God, and destructive to humane Society’. Unease about these tendencies intensified after 1660, fed by the cynicism of Hobbes’s Leviathan and the ‘Sadducism’ of those who denied conventional assumptions about the vitality of the spirit world. Divine judgments, diabolical apparitions, ghosts, omens and witchcraft were harnessed to hold back the tide of unbelief and to demonstrate that God still ruled the world. The controversial publications of Charles Blount and John Wilmot, the libertine earl of Rochester, horrified the orthodox. The dean of Canterbury, John Tillotson, spoke feelingly of their ‘degenerate age … miserably overrun with scepticism and infidelity’. The scientist Robert Boyle, who wrangled with his own religious doubts throughout his life, made provision in his will for the endowment of a series of lectures ‘proving the Christian Religion’ against the arguments of atheists and deists. By the end of the 17th century, in both England and Scotland, anxiety about the menace presented by irreligion was reaching its peak.

Thisis the backdrop against which Hunter sets the cases of three notorious unbelievers. Executed for blasphemy in January 1697, Thomas Aikenhead, a student at Edinburgh University, denounced the Old Testament as ‘Ezra’s fables’, declared Christ an impostor and condemned theology as ‘a rapsidie of faigned and ill-invented nonsense’. He was alleged to have predicted that Christianity itself would be ‘utterly extirpat[ed]’ as soon as 1800. Reputedly, he died repentant, with a Bible in his hand, leaving behind a manuscript entitled ‘Cygnea Cantio’, a swansong that gave an account of the origins of his unorthodox opinions.

The danger that intellectual scepticism posed to godly Protestantism was also demonstrated by the physician, polymath and Episcopalian Archibald Pitcairne, whose mechanistic views and ridicule of revealed religion brought him to the attention of the Scottish Presbyterian authorities and earned him a reputation as a subversive freethinker. It was said in 1711 that he and others met every Sunday to read and lampoon scripture, in a mocking inversion of Christian worship. Pitcairne’s outlook is most clearly illuminated by the overtly irreligious dialogue between ‘Incredulous’ and ‘Credulous’ found among the papers in his study after his death, rediscovered by Hunter in the Houghton Library at Harvard.

A third figure, an Essex curate evocatively called Tinkler Ducket, emerged, like Aikenhead, from an academic milieu. Ducket held deviant philosophical views, which led to a trial in the vice chancellor’s court and his expulsion from the University of Cambridge for atheism and immorality in 1739. These included the claim that he had made sexual advances to a local widow and tried to persuade her to go to bed with him by saying that ‘matrimony was Priestcraft’ and that ‘she made a mere Bugbear of God to think that he wou’d punish his Creatures for gratifying the Passions he had implanted in them.’ A key piece of evidence was an incriminating letter to a fellow of Gonville and Caius, in which he boasted of having reached ‘the Top, the ne plus ultra’ of atheism. When confronted with it, Ducket apparently seized it and tore it into pieces ‘with intent utterly to destroy the same’. Ducket’s disgrace reflects the ready equation of sin and scepticism in mainstream thinking. Required to express remorse for his errors, he was, according to Hunter, ‘made a scapegoat for a phenomenon of much wider cultural significance’.

The scrutiny to which Hunter subjects each of these figures self-consciously recalls the microhistorical technique employed by Carlo Ginzburg in The Cheese and the Worms (1976), his classic account of Menocchio, a Friulian miller burned at the stake for his heretical beliefs in 1599. Aikenhead, Pitcairne and Ducket are the Menocchios of early modern Britain. Are they the tip of a hidden iceberg of unbelief? Or does this colourful trio simply cast the values of a society that retained an enduring commitment to Christianity into sharp relief? Hunter can’t hide his admiration for the ‘breathtaking’ radicalism of these ‘pioneers’, who ‘deserve to be celebrated for taking a heroic stance against the prevailing orthodoxy’.

The question of how representative they are of wider opinion in early modern Britain remains. One issue is gender. The story of atheism Hunter tells is largely located in a male and masculine domain; women are conspicuous by their virtual absence. He refers to a tortured soul known only by her initials M.K., who became convinced ‘that there was no heaven, no God, no Jesus, no good angels, only a hell there was, and devils to carry me thither’. We also hear of Elizabeth, wife of the Nonconformist minister Oliver Heywood, who battled throughout her life with ‘the unbeleefe of her own heart’. But these are exceptions that seem to prove Hunter’s rule that Christian doubt differs from the rational scepticism of the (educated and impatient young) men that he primarily places under his lens.

A second neglected element is the irreligion of ordinary people. Hunter’s book is not a social history of plebeian unbelief. He notes rather than tests Keith Thomas’s interlinked suggestions that some members of Tudor and Stuart society rarely went to church and that ‘the hold of organised religion … was never so complete as to leave no room for rival systems of belief.’ Little attention is paid to the opinions that landed humbler parishioners in the ecclesiastical courts and that led the bishop of Exeter to complain in 1600 that in his diocese it was ‘a matter very common to dispute whether there be a God or not’. In 1631, Margaret Gimlett of Old Cleeve in Somerset found herself in trouble for an angry outburst: ‘that she did despise God and all his works, and did spit at it’. Husbandmen, ploughwrights and labourers who denied the existence of the devil and the deity declared that they would only believe what they could see, opening a window into a world of subaltern scepticism that cries out for fuller investigation. The origins of these unorthodox ideas and their connections with better-documented examples of aristocratic infidelity deserve to be the subject of future studies. So too does their relationship with the polemics against confessional enemies unleashed by the Reformation: the virulent anti-Catholicism and anti-Puritanism that was such a long-lasting legacy of the religious revolution of the 16th century. A sermon of 1712 entitled Popery Near A-Kin to Paganism and Atheism articulated a commonplace about the affinities between the two that shouldn’t be overlooked. After all, the charge that popish rituals and doctrines were traditions forged by corrupt monks and priests to delude the laity was a standard part of Protestant rhetoric. Repudiating one strand of Christianity could be a route to abandoning religion in its entirety.

In the end, as Hunter recognises, the archive of early modern atheism is skewed – since atheistical thoughts were often, perhaps predominantly, expressed orally rather than in writing. Unbelievers prudently confined their opinions to the ephemeral realm of speech and engaged in forms of self-censorship to deflect charges levelled against them. When incriminating written evidence about him came to light, Tinkler Ducket ‘did by force and violence seize the said scandalous paper or Letter and tear the same into pieces’. Later scholars and curators have compounded the gaps and distortions in the historical record by sanitising it. The antiquary Thomas Baker found Marlowe’s sentiments so ‘horribly blasphemous’ that he dared ‘not transcribe them, or be any way Instrumentall in preserving them’. Christian decorum dictated the effacement of sentiments that threatened moral and religious values, and continued to do so: this was certainly the case in the Victorian and Edwardian eras. Even now, in some circles, a degree of embarrassment surrounds them.

Hunter leads us into his subject with authority, deftly uncovering the irreligious underbelly of pre-Enlightenment England and Scotland. But puzzles persist. Ultimately, the student of atheism remains in a hall of mirrors. Bedazzled by images of doubt and disbelief, we still can’t easily tell if our eyes are deceiving us. Do contemporary reports and records conceal as much as they reveal? Do they illuminate the subjectivity and priorities of an intensely Christian society or provide evidence of the presence and influence of those who defied it? Exactly how many shared the startling opinions of Aikenhead, Pitcairne and Ducket is still a mystery.

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