Anti-Atheism in Early Modern England 1580-1720: The Atheist Answered and His Error Confuted

27 Jul

Atheists generated widespread anxieties between the Reformation and the Enlightenment. In response to such anxieties a distinct genre of religious apologetics emerged in England between 1580 and 1720. By examining the form and the content of the confutation of atheism, Anti-Atheism in Early Modern England demonstrates the prevalence of patterned assumptions and arguments about who an atheist was and what an atheist was supposed to believe, outlines and analyzes the major arguments against atheists, and traces the important changes and challenges to this apologetic discourse in the early Enlightenment.

With thanks to Brill for a review copy.

The author describes the work thusly:

This book is primarily an exposition and analysis of the defence of the Christian religion against alleged atheists through the technique of confutation between the Reformation and the Enlightenment in England. It focuses on the period between 1580 and 1720 because of the number and the significance of anti-atheist arguments expressed within religious texts in this period, and because anti-atheist apologists consistently utilized a rhetorically distinctive form of discourse derived from classical antiquity to do so: confutatio.


This study examines the discourse of anti-atheist confutation by studying responses to the challenges which derived especially from the recovery of ancient Greek and Roman texts during the European Renaissance, from the religious divisions within European Christendom during the Reformation, from the implications of the scientific revolution, and from shifting understandings of the relationship between church and state.

Of the historical period in focus, then,

This highly flexible and capacious genre thrived between 1580 and 1720 when many dozens of texts were written specifically to combat the perceived progress of atheism.

And when it comes to the volume’s understanding of the term ‘atheism’, we read these lines:

To the men and women living through the religious crises of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, atheism was much more than an intellectual denial of God’s existence. It included any deviation from the practices of the Christian religion which necessarily implied a denial of the true God, the true religion, and the personal, social, and political order in which these truths were inscribed.

Nonetheless the sort of atheism with which we are familiar today wasn’t the only sort, or even the primary sort, that the English had in mind:

Hypocritical atheists believed one thing internally and said or did another publicly, so that the fool who denied God in Psalm 14:1 was synonymous with the practical atheist. As Allestree put it in the Decay of Christian Piety, the hypocrite was “Davids Atheist.”

‘Christian atheism’, odd as that may seem to modern ears, was the most ridiculous sort of atheism in the England of old. Because

To early modern religious apologists speculative atheism was so absurd as to be incomprehensible.

Atheism, then, as counterpart to Christian faith was the object of both scorn and contempt. The present volume is a brilliantly written historical examination of the phenomenon of atheism but even more importantly it is a witness to the response of Christianity to the threat of unbelief in one particular kingdom during one fairly brief historical period. It is a snapshot of the Church versus unbelief and as such is deserving of the attention of historians and theologians.

The book is finely illustrated with plates and prints and copiously annotated.  I enjoyed it thoroughly and it is my conviction that many others will as well.  At the very least, it provides ample grist for the thought mill.  And hopefull it will provoke further research into the topic extending to other areas and eras.

Tolle, lege!

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Posted by on 27 Jul 2017 in Book Review, Books, Church History


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