Published online by Cambridge University Press: 25 September 2021
The subject of atheism in the Reformation era is caught awkwardly between two ill-fitting facts. First, ‘atheism’, strictly defined, was rare if not actively impossible in this period. Second, accusations of atheism, and moral panic about its spread, were nevertheless ubiquitous. It is in trying to reconcile these two facts that we can reach some understanding of how the Reformation era proved to be a decisive phase in the history of unbelief.
The claim that atheism was inconceivable in the Reformation age is usually associated with the great French literary scholar Lucien Febvre, and it is conventional for modern historians of the subject to begin by ridiculing this claim as overblown, but in fact Febvre’s position was subtler than is usually allowed.
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