September 23, 2020

History of Atheism

Stephen Nichols
History of Atheism

We are witnessing a rise of professing atheists and practical atheism in the 21st century. Where did all this unbelief come from? On this episode of 5 Minutes in Church History, Dr. Stephen Nichols outlines the development of atheistic thinking in the modern world.


Usually on Five Minutes in Church History we talk about things within theism; we are very much interested in the theistic tradition. But we are going to talk here about the opposite, the history of atheism. You could say atheism goes all the way back to the very beginning, back to the garden. You could say it goes back to the Psalms:  “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God’” (Ps. 14:1).

But we are talking about the history of atheism in the modern world. As an English term, the first time we see atheism is in the middle of the 1500s, but we see it especially in the modern world of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. If we look at today’s landscape, the latest poll I saw, which goes back to 2014, says that just under 3 percent of Americans claim to be atheist. Now, if you throw into that category the so-called nones, those with no religious affiliation or religious inclination, then we’re up in the 20 percentile. You might call them “practical atheists.” So we have confessing atheists and practical atheists. Where did they all come from?

In the 1720s, we find an atheist, but he seems to be a literary creation. Tom Puzzle, a fictional literary creation, shows up in the pages of various magazines in the colonies. He would be used from time to time to comment on or add some color to current events. But what we really find in the 1700s and into the 1800s is the precursor to atheism, which is deism. Theism believes in a God who created the world, a God who is active in sustaining the world. Theism contains the idea of sovereignty and providence, that God is controlling his universe. As R.C. Sproul would say, God controls every single molecule; there are no maverick molecules. And God is active in the lives of people and in his universe through the doctrine of providence. God is intimately involved, not only in creating the world but in sustaining the world and bringing it to the fruition and fulfillment of his good pleasure. That’s theism.

Deism removes God from daily life and from actively sustaining creation. It says God is like someone who starts a top and gets it spinning, then just lets it go. God created the world, and then he just let it go. He’s removed. That’s deism, a precursor to atheism. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as deism floats around, especially in the Academy, it gains traction among the intellectual and philosophical class.

Various philosophical schools promote atheism. We see this in Europe, and we see it in America. We see it in thinkers like Friedrich Nietzsche, who concluded that God is dead and that we have killed him. We have arrived at a point in the modern world where God is no longer a tenable thesis, and out of that comes a desperate, despairing, dark philosophy and worldview called nihilism. We see it in some of the schools of thought that are considered more sophisticated in the twentieth century. We see it in the logical positivism and some of the more scientific, or, more properly, scientism worldviews that want to reduce everything that is knowable to what is observable by the five senses. Creation, the act of creation, God himself, the transcendent world, the spiritual world, and the world of faith are outside of the realm of science, according to scientism. God is not part of that equation.

This brief sketch of the history of atheism takes us right back to Psalm 14:1: “The fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no God.’”