Tuesday, October 31, 2023

Michael Hunter's "Atheists and Atheism before the Enlightenment"

Michael Hunter is Emeritus Professor of History at Birkbeck, University of London, and a Fellow of the British Academy. He is well known for his publications on Robert Boyle and on the early Royal Society and its milieu. His books include The Decline of Magic: Britain in the Enlightenment (2020).

Hunter applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Atheists and Atheism before the Enlightenment: The English and Scottish Experience, and reported the following:
Page 99 of Atheists and Atheism before the Enlightenment represents a climactic moment in the book – the trial and condemnation to death of Thomas Aikenhead, one the ‘atheists’ in Scotland and England whose case-studies the volume presents. This verdict was reached on 24 December 1696 and Aikenhead was hanged on 8 January 1697, a cruel and shocking event which still reverberates today. Yet it is possible to understand the outrage that he caused in strait-laced Presbyterian Scotland by his caustic attack on Christianity, which he claimed would be extinct by 1800. He labelled the New Testament ‘the History of the Impostor Christ’, dismissing Christ’s miracles as ‘pranks’ and rejecting the doctrine of the Trinity as absurd. He even claimed that Mahomet was to be preferred to Jesus, writing off the Old Testament as ‘Ezra’s Fables’, concocted by the ancient scribe of that name. Aikenhead perfectly encapsulates what my book describes as the ‘assurance’ of atheists, their bold and confident presentation of their views, frequently in public. This is also exemplified by the other cases on which the book focuses, namely the Cambridge cleric, Tinkler Ducket, expelled from the university in 1739 for his openly-expressed atheist opinions, and the Scottish physician, Archibald Pitcairne, who, although reputedly ‘a great mocker of religion’, prudently kept to himself Pitcairneana, the manuscript dialogue in which he advocated a fully atheistic viewpoint (it was published only in the 21st century). My book also deals more briefly with other irreligious figures of the time, including perhaps the most notorious of all, the Elizabethan dramatist, Christopher Marlowe, as divulged in the infamous ‘Baines note’. All these men were notable for their swagger and bravado. Their attitude contrasts strongly with the doubts expressed privately, and often with acute embarrassment, by Christians of their day -- although the two phenomena have sometimes been wrongly conflated. In retrospect, such ‘true infidels’ as Aikenhead deserve to be celebrated for their courage and steadfastness against overwhelming opposition.
Learn more about Atheists and Atheism before the Enlightenment at the Cambridge University Press website.

The Page 99 Test: The Decline of Magic.

--Marshal Zeringue