Centre for Ethics and Humanism
Centrum voor Ethiek en Humanisme

Guest Lecture: Winfried Schröder, ‘The Emergence of Atheism in Early Modern Philosophy’ – May 8th, 2014

March 17th, 2014 | Posted by admin in Events | News

One of the most significant events in the history of early modern philosophy is the emergence of atheism as a metaphysical position. While the critique of the Bible, the rejection of religious dogmas, anticlericalism and the opposition against the predominance of religion in the political and social sphere has a long history dating back to antiquity, the denial of the existence of god / a divine first cause and its philosophical justification is a surprisingly ‘new’ phenomenon. The earliest atheistic text known was written as late as in the mid-17th century: the anonymous Theophrastus redivivus which was followed by dozens of mainly clandestine treatises with the same message, like the famous Traité des trois imposteurs. On the other hand, the emergence of atheism in the 17th century seems to be somewhat premature. For the arguments on which atheism is usually based today – especially the Darwinist alternative to the theory of a divine creation – were, of course, not available in that era. In this sense, Richard Dawkins, today’s most prominent protagonist of atheism, confessed: “I cannot imagine being an atheist at any time before 1859, when Darwin’s Origin of Species was published.” Therefore the origin of atheism in the early modern period poses some puzzling questions: Why is it that atheism became a philosophical option so late? How can we explain the absence of atheistic thought in ancient or the Renaissance philosophy? How is the emergence of atheism connected with the history of the exact sciences (which seem to yield a secular world-view) and with the political history of that era (esp. the religiously motivated civil wars of the 16th and 17th centuries)? How could the early modern atheists argue against the existence of god, although they lacked the scientific arguments we possess now? Which was the role of political motives in the genesis of atheistic thought in the 17th and 18th centuries? What is the relationship between early modern and contemporary varieties of atheism?
Winfried Schröder is Professor of the History of Philosophy at the Philipps-Universität Marburg. He is the author of Spinoza in der deutschen Frühaufklärung (1987) and one of the world’s leading specialists on the clandestine philosophical literature of early modernity. He delivered a translation into German and critical edition of the Traité des trois imposteurs, Traktat über die drei Betrüger (1992). His Ursprünge des Atheismus (1998/2012) is a standard work and held to be the most authoritative treatment of the entire genre. He published Moralischer Nihilismus (2002/2005) and Athen und Jerusalem. Die philosophische Kritik am Christentum in Antike und Neuzeit (2011).
The Lecture is free and open to all interested staff and students.

Time: Thursday May 8th, 2014, 16u-18u
Location: room D.2.23, Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Pleinlaan 2, 1050 Brussels

For more information, please contact: sonja.lavaert@vub.ac.be.