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Atheism Considered as a Christian Sect1

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  17 December 2014


Atheists in general need share no particular political or metaphysical views, but atheists of the most modern, Western, militant sort, escaping from a merely nihilistic mind-set, are usually humanists of an especially triumphalist kind. In this paper I offer a critical analysis and partial history of their claims, suggesting that they are members of a distinctively Christian heretical sect, formed in reaction to equally heretical forms of monotheistic idolatry.

Research Article
Copyright © The Royal Institute of Philosophy 2014 

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First presented as a Royal Institute of Philosophy lecture at the New Atheism conference at Lancaster University, 2nd to 3rd April 2012. My thanks especially to Sarah Hitchens, Brian Garvey, Fern Elsdon-Baker and Andrew Brown.


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29 For an empathetic account of Olympian religion see Otto, W.F. The Homeric Gods: The Spiritual Significance of Greek Religion, tr. Hadas, M. (Thames & Hudson: London 1954Google Scholar; 1st published as Die Götter Griechenlands in 1929).

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33 Steven Jones ‘Islam, Charles Darwin and the denial of science’: Daily Telegraph 3rd December 2011, (accessed 27th May 2014).

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38 Benedict XVI to Archbishop Rino Fisichella, on the occasion of the international congress ‘From Galileo's Telescope to Evolutionary Cosmology’ (30th November – 2nd December 2009),

39 Chambers, Robert Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (1844: reissued by Leicester University Press: Leicester, and by Humanities Press: New York, in 1969)Google Scholar, after Babbage, Charles Ninth Bridgewater Treatise Fragment (Frank Cass: London 1967Google Scholar; 1st published 1837), 34ff. Chambers' pre-Darwinian evolutionary theory was mocked – by T.H. Huxley amongst others – as rejecting proper scientific, inductive, method. The same charge was later made against Darwin.

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41 Paul the Apostle, in Acts 17.28, after Epimenides' Cretica.

42 The notion first appears in the record in that form in the twelfth century Book of 24 Philosophers and in Alain de Lille (c. 1128–1202). It quickly became a Platonic commonplace, and was variously attributed to Augustine and Empedocles.

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49 Athanasius On the Incarnation (written c.318 AD), ch.8, para.47.

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51 Dawkins, RichardGaps in the Mind’: Cavalieri, Paola & Singer, Peter, eds, The Great Ape Project: equality beyond humanity (Fourth Estate: London 1993), 8087Google Scholar; The Selfish Gene (Oxford: Oxford University Press 1976), 910Google Scholar.

52 Oddly, some physicists have suggested that the way things are ‘now’ is settled by how they will be ‘in the end’. The one and only ‘real’ history is the one consolidated and confirmed by the Final Observers. See Hawking, Stephen & Mlodinow, Leonard The Grand Design (Bantam Press: London 2010)Google Scholar, 82–3: ‘the (unobserved) past, like the future, is indefinite and exists only as a spectrum of possibilities’ until the very last days! This point does not seem, as far as I can tell, to have been picked up by evolutionary theorists.

53 See Whewell's, William – entirely orthodox – rebuttal of Richard Owen's argument that there must be intelligent life on Jupiter so that its moons could have an audience: William Whewell Of the Plurality of Worlds, ed., Ruse, Michael (University of Chicago Press: Chicago 2001Google Scholar; 1st published by John W. Parker: London, 1853), 183–4.

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58 Leviticus 19.15–18: that is, the demand and experience of such justice is the origin and end of human life. It was not only a Hebraic vision: see also Hesiod Works and Days 1.275ff, tr. Hugh G. Evelyn-White (London: Loeb Classical Library, Heinemann, 1914): ‘the son of Cronos has ordained this law for men, that fishes and beasts and winged fowls should devour one another, for right [dike] is not in them; but to mankind he gave right which proves far the best’.

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68 Micah 6.8.

69 1 John 4.1.

70 1 John 4.7–8.