How a Huguenot philosopher realised that atheists could be virtuous


Comet critique; the case for moral atheists. The Great Comet of 1577 by Jiri Daschitzsky. PHOTO/Wikimedia

For centuries in the West, the idea of a morally good atheist struck people as contradictory. Moral goodness was understood primarily in terms of possessing a good conscience, and good conscience was understood in terms of Christian theology. Being a good person meant hearing and intentionally following God’s voice (conscience). Since an atheist cannot knowingly recognise the voice of God, he is deaf to God’s moral commands, fundamentally and essentially lawless and immoral. But today, it is widely – if not completely – understood that an atheist can indeed be morally good. How did this assumption change? And who helped to change it?

One of the most important figures in this history is the Huguenot philosopher and historian, Pierre Bayle (1647-1706). His Various Thoughts on the Occasion of a Comet (1682), nominally dedicated towards taking down erroneous and popular opinions about comets, was a controversial bestseller, and a foundational work for the French Enlightenment. In it, Bayle launches a battery of arguments for the possibility of a virtuous atheist.

He begins his apology on behalf of atheists with a then-scandalous observation:

It is no stranger for an atheist to live virtuously than it is strange for a Christian to live criminally. We see the latter sort of monster all the time, so why should we think the former is impossible?

Bayle introduces his readers to virtuous atheists of past ages: Diagoras, Theodorus, Euhemerus, Nicanor, Hippo and Epicurus. He notes that the morals of these men were so highly regarded that Christians later were forced to deny that they were atheists in order to sustain the superstition that atheists were always immoral. From his own age, Bayle introduces the Italian philosopher Lucilio Vanini (1585-1619), who had his tongue cut out before being strangled and burned at the stake for denying the existence of God. Of course, those who killed Vanini in such a fine way were not atheists. The really pressing question, Bayle suggests, is whether religious believers ­– and not atheists – can ever be moral.

Bayle concedes that Christians possess true principles about the nature of God and morality (we’ll never know whether Bayle himself was an atheist). But, in our fallen world, people do not act on the basis of their principles. Moral action, which concerns outward behaviour and not inward belief, is motivated by passions, not theories. Pride, self-love, the desire for honour, the pursuit of a good reputation, the fear of punishment, and a thousand customs picked up in one’s family and country, are far more effective springs of action than any theoretical beliefs about a self-created being called God, or the First Cause argument. Bayle writes:

Thus we see that from the fact that a man has no religion it does not follow necessarily that he will be led to every sort of crime or to every sort of pleasure. It follows only that he will be led to the things to which his temperament and his turn of mind make him sensitive.

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