The changing meaning of atheism

The term ‘atheism’’ has rarely preserved the same meaning for a long time. Socrates was condemned for one kind of atheism and Epicurus was accused of another. Both of them believed in gods and today we regard neither as an atheist. Spinoza, that most religious thinker, was considered an atheist because he changed the relation between divine immanence and transcendence, though he continued to maintain a distinction between the two. In the eighteenth century, critics became less inclined to brand as atheist anyone who was not an orthodox Christian or Jew. Yet new candidates for the title appeared. In the preface to his long poem, Creation . . . Demonstrating the Existence and Providence of God (1702), Richard Blackmore states that two sorts of men have rightly been called atheists: ‘those who frankly and in plain terms have denied the being of a God; and those who though they asserted his being, denied those attributes and perfections, which the idea of a God includes.’’

Louis Dupré, The Enlightenment and the Intellectual Foundations of Modern Culture, p. 256

February 15, 2024