Saturday, September 12, 2009

Question from Zoe - Atheism in Tudor England

First of all, thanks to Lara for this amazing resource and to all the knowledgable contributors.

We all know that conforming to the Anglican church was required by law but does anyone have any examples of people who denied the very existence of God?
The only person I can think of who comes close is Christopher Marlowe but he would probably have denied it had be been questioned on his beliefs before his murder.
I just wonder how widespread atheism might have been amidst all the turmoil of the Reformation, and if there could have been a significant underground of unbelievers - folk more concerned with the daily chore of survival than with what distant churchmen were telling them to believe?
I realise these people would usually be undocumented but I thought it was worth asking anyway!
Thanks for any input


PhD Historian said...

Yours is a fascinating question, Zoe.

Yes, conformity to the English church was required by law in the last quarter of the 16th century. But only in the sense that one had to attend a certain number of religious services per month or year in the established Church. As Elizabeth herself supposedly once said, the law did not look into men's souls. She recognized from her own experience that belief could not be forced.

But atheism ... that is much more difficult to document, as you so correctly note. Documents written in the 16th century by atheists that outlined their position were probably considered so dangerous that they were destroyed whenever they were discovered, leaving us little to work with today. And there is some evidence from literary historians that the term “atheist” was sometimes used as a kind of slang to describe any kind of religious dissent, even when the dissenter did, in fact, believe in the existence of a deity. And the historian Lucien Lebvre, writing in 1942, argued that atheism simply did not exist in the 16th century (he wrote mostly about France, and his conclusion has since been extensively challenged). On the whole, atheism in the 16th century is so difficult to document that very little ... almost nothing ... has been written about it.

Atheism did not really become a subject of public debate until the so-called Scientific Enlightenment that began in the second half of the 1600s. And when historians study atheism, they tend to focus on this later period because the sources are so much more plentiful.

Yet we know that in the pre-Reformation era, denying the existence of God was heresy and punishable by death. That a specific punishment needed to be created indicates that it did exist. And certainly it existed in the post-Reformation period. But it is very difficult to tell how extensive atheism was, just as it is difficult to tell how extensive it really is today in the US or the UK.

Too, I wonder if perhaps “agnosticism” might be a better term? Certainly there is more documentary evidence for people questioning the existence of a deity in the Tudor period than there is for people outright denying that existence. Sitting on the edge of the question is usually safer than jumping all the way to one side, afterall.

Zoe said...

Thanks PhD Historian,
You've raised an interesting point about the definition of atheism in those days and how the need for heresy laws indicate that atheism probably existed.
It's a shame there's such a dearth of documentation - I wonder if historians studying the experience of Spain and Italy would have more luck? The inquisition made copious notes, albeit unreliable.

Anonymous said...

"The Reckoning: The Murder of Christopher Marlowe"
by Charles Nicholl considers Marlowe's personal belifs at considerable lemgth. Nicholl concludes that Marlowe acknowledged a personal deity, but did not believe that some sins most people considered mortal were particularly bad ("boys and tobacco"). Marlowe did enjoy being shocking, and perhaps succeeded all too well.