Ask An Atheist: Would you have been an atheist 300 years ago?

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Q. Setting aside intensity of persecution, do you think you would be an atheist if you lived 300 years ago? Do you feel you could sustain contentment without today’s scientific cosmological understanding?

SPO_House-ad_Ask-an-atheist_0425133A. Three hundred years ago would be 1713, but it was still a pretty big world, with lots of Hindus, and Muslims outside of Europe, while within Europe there were enclaves of Jews and others in a world of an assortment of competing Christian sects who were just getting weaned off of slaughtering each other in the previous century as the Enlightenment began to dawn, and off in the Americas there were increasingly threatened Native American believers in their own faiths, while several centuries of colonial domination had converted other tribes to Christianity (Catholic or Protestant — not much Eastern Orthodox missionary work in the Americas as I recall).

So plop my geist down in Spokane 300 years ago and odds are I might not be grappling with Christianity’s truth at all.  In any event, before the Enlightenment made the concept of none-of-the-above atheism clearer, it wasn’t easy in any religious frame to conceptualize unbelief or to do so without jeopardizing social standing or risk more overt ostracism.  But let’s assume that I am living somewhere where Christianity is the dominant religion, so we can compare that with my ideas today.

Compared to today where I had access to all manner of broader information, my 18th century incarnation might never have a chance to read anything other than the Bible, and maybe not even that if I never got much of an education.  To what extent my skeptical scholarly temperament would have got short-circuited because I had nothing to read to compare against one another is hard to say, but I suspect a great contributor to my 21st century version is that I can read and have access to lots of things to read.

Had I bean literate though, and had access to things without fear of being suspected of nasty antisocial speculations, I would like to think my critical eye would have operated as much as Thomas Payne would be doing later in the century, in the Age of Reason (1794).  In that case all the modern cosmological data would be irrelevant.  One can legitimately have doubts about the Bible because of its internal implausibilities. Matthew and Luke are at odds on the Bethlehem birth stories and the Davidic ancestry of Joseph quite independently of later science, from Einstein to Hubble to Darwin. Thomas Payne knew naught of the Big Bang and didn’t need it to raise eyebrows about what he read in the Bible.

Unfortunately, knowing of the disease and violence circulating in 1713 apart from overt persecution based on religion, odds are that by the time I got to be my current age of 61, my 18th century version would have been dead quite a while, atheism or not.

About Jim Downard

Jim Downard is a Spokane native (with a sojourn in Southern California back in the early 1960s) who was raised in a secular family, so says had no personal faith to lose.

He's always been a history and science buff (getting a bachelor's in the former area at what was then Eastern Washington University in the early 1970s).

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  1. Your ending made me laugh.

  2. Oops, Thomas Paine not Payne … at least I caught it ahead of other readers.

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