If you think the current wash of atheism is springing up from some deep well of originality, think again. It’s all been done before, and done a lot better (or perhaps we should say, it’s all been done before, and done a lot worse).
Let’s transport ourselves back to the latter part of the 1600s, and visit the Netherlands. At the close of that century, the celebrated skeptic Pierre Bayle (himself, often accused of being an atheist!), wrote an article on Benedict Spinoza in his famous Historical and Critical Dictionary. Spinoza, the “atheist…from Amsterdam,” had written a “pernicious and detestable book” containing all the “seeds of atheism,” seeds derived from the rotten fruit of his “monstrous” philosophical system.
Spinoza’s book (the Tractatus theologico-politicus) introduced readers to a new method of approaching Scripture, one that inaugurated the “modern” approach to biblical scholarship. Spinoza’s monstrous philosophy was pantheism, a system that collapsed God into nature, so that nature itself became the highest object of our devotion.
Lesson one. The contemporary debunking of Scripture we find in non-believers from scripture scholar Bart Ehrman to professional atheist Richard Dawkins is old hat. It is not very surprising that a method of approaching Scripture largely designed by an alleged atheist four centuries ago would yield conclusions cheerfully compatible with atheism now. Furthermore, the current rash of nature worship displacing God worship can be traced back to the same cause, Spinoza.
There are many who regard Spinoza as sincerely religious precisely because of his high-flown religious reveries (forgetting that, since he was a pantheist, his devotions were directed at a deified nature). One way to help us judge would be to glimpse the circle of Spinoza’s friends. Here we find men (much like our present day clique of Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens) dedicated to Radical Enlightenment.
To look at just one example from Spinoza’s circle, Johannes and Adriaen Koerbagh. Adriaen got into trouble with the Dutch authorities for living, unmarried, with a woman and fathering a child out of wedlock and Johannes for spreading atheism (denying the Trinity, the divinity of Christ, the inspired unity of the Bible, miracles, the resurrection, the afterlife, and, significantly in regard to Spinoza’s influence, asserting the identity of God and nature).
In 1668 the brothers Koerbagh published A Garden of All Kinds of Loveliness without Sorrow, which amounted to a dictionary that denied the basic tenets of Christianity, and charged that Christian doctrines were merely political obfuscations used to control the masses.
The Radical Enlightenment became a kind of underground movement, bent on converting Europe to an entirely new way of thinking, one that was directly opposed to Christianity. One of the most famous publications that issued from this growing group was The Treatise of the Three Imposters, which first appeared in 1719. The treatise was a handy collection of anti-Christian tirades (much like Christopher Hitchens’ current The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Nonbeliever).
Who were the three imposters? Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed. Witness the downright nastiness, that would (perhaps) even make Richard Dawkins blush.
“Jesus Christ…gave currency to the opinion [that he was divine when] he thought it suited his designs. Considering how much Moses had made himself famous, although he had commanded but a people of ignoramuses, he [Jesus] undertook to build on this foundation [of Moses], & got himself followed by some imbeciles whom he persuaded that the Holy Spirit was his Father; & his Mother a Virgin: these good people, accustomed to indulge themselves in dreams & fancies, adopted his notions & believed all that he wanted,…As the number of fools is infinite, Jesus Christ found Subjects everywhere;…”
For the authors of The Treatise of the Three Imposters, all religion was a travesty perpetrated by imposters upon the ignorant masses. It is time to throw off the chains of superstition, and embrace reason!
Sound familiar? The Treatise circulated all over Europe, and became a kind of atheist underground bestseller, spreading unbelief to the like-minded. Just like Dawkins’ The God Delusion, Harris’ The End of Faith, Hitchens, God is Not Great, and Dennett’s Breaking the Spell.
There is very little difference between the ideas and aims of the underground Radical Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th century, and the ideas and aims of our contemporary Four Horsemen of Atheism. There is a simple reason for this. It’s just the same old thing. The more things change, the more they stay the same.