Atheist Martyrs? Gnus to me.
“If revolutionary rational thoughts were expressed in the Age of Reason, they were only made possible because of the long medieval tradition that established the use of reason as one of the most important of human activities.” (Edward Grant: God and Reason in the Middle Ages, Cambridge, 2001)
Have there been atheist martyrs–women and men who suffered and died as a consequence of their rejection of God?
This thoughtful question came up when I recently suggested that I detect a trend in the small but dwindling new atheist community to pad the bona fides of their young tradition with things that didn’t really happen. We know that real Gnus love science and aren’t too keen on history, especially a history that suggests that Once upon a Time there was a lonely wood-cutter living good without God by the edge of a forest outside Düsseldorf who kept his opinions about God to himself and was never molested, his humble house never burnt down. You have to admit, that’s pretty dull reading.
The Church did not invent martyrdom, but it perfected it in the ancient world. Christians seemed to thrive on persecution, or at least stories about persecution. The habit of naming churches after saints originates at the gravesites (real and legendary) of the sacrificed.
Every first year divinity student knows two things about the early Christian writer Tertullian: He said something like “I believe because it is absurd.” (Although he didn’t actually say it that way.) And he said “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church…the more we are mown down by you [pagans] the more our numbers grow,” which he did say.
Tertullian was an arrogant, heretic-bashing codpiece who was always unfair in rhetorical battle against his heretical opposites, most of whom were dead when he wrote about them. He would feel right at home in today’s climate. He still has his admirers.
Because they were certain they were right about the religion thing, Christians developed “martyrologies”–stories about martyrs and their brutal torture and dismemberment and rape at the spearpoint of their pagan oppressors. This no doubt helped fertilize the field of converts in the way Tertullian intended. After all, what is a martyr but an imitator of Christ, the ultimate sacrificial victim?
To die like Christ was to be holy–a saint–so that the terms (martyr-saint) became virtully synonymous in the early church. It was a short-cut, a virtual guaranteeing of heavenly bliss. It could only be compared to patriotism–dying on the field of battle. Furthermore, Christians thought it drove the Romans crazy, this immense bravery in the face of torture. –Except in the little that’s survived by way of commentary, the Romans actually thought Christian bravery was a sham because they expected, like the martyrs in the Middle East today, to wake up in glory and bliss before God’s throne. That was the payoff, to quote Marcus Aurelius, loosely.
It took until Gibbon’s day, in the eighteenth century, to sort out the strew. As the Catholic Church was fully in charge of its own story, he reckoned, the number of martyrs was far smaller–even during the reign of the most vicious of the so-called persecuting emperors, Diocletian (d. 311)–than the Church claimed. Only when other measures at control failed–normal things like ridicule, calling their men yokels and their women prostitutes, did things turn ugly. The result? Less than two years after the death of Diocletian the first edict of toleration was passed and by the close of the fourth century the Church was everything Tertullian hoped it would be. –Including powerful enough to initiate persecutions of its former oppressors. What goes around.
But the tendency remained strong in Christianity to use martyrdom as a kind of proof of dues-paying authenticity. There were Protestant martyrs–the famous “Boke” by John Foxe (1563) repeats the early Christian stories and then tells the rest as the tale of the Catholic Church’s persecution of Protestants down through the sixteenth century, creating the standard stereotype of the Catholic Church as the reincarnation of Old Rome. The competition to chalk up numbers continued: Joan of Arc (French, Catholic, a witch to the English cause, a protectress to the French); Miguel Servetus (a rationalist, executed by Calvin’s order in 1533); Johan Hus (Czech, who condemned indulgences, the Crusades, and lobbied for the liberal ideas of another heretic)–namely John Wycliffe, who escaped execution by sleight and a loyal troupe of students and was dug up after his death and his bones burned for his views on the papacy, the nature of the universe (he admired the atomic theory of Democritus) and his ashes scattered in the river Swift.
There are dozens and dozens of Wycliffes and Hus’s who were treated as badly by decress and councils and the Inquisition. What the Church seems to have learned from its own exaggerated history of martyrs is that, for organizational reasons, it paid to be more like the Roman persecutors than like the suffering saints.
But I stray. Surely if Christians preyed on the doctrinal irregularities of their own, they must have sniffed out the most radical opinion of all and punished it? I mean, of course, the “God question.” As well they did. But the most radical opinion of all as late as the seventeenth century was that God was not a trinity–Socinianism (early unitarianism) named after two Italian thinkers, the uncle-nephew team of Laelius and Fausto, who if they lived today would run a cake shop in Brooklyn. Both thought the trinity was non-biblical. Faustus, the nephew, escaped to (then) religiously liberal Poland to be out of the reach of church scrutiny and died there in 1604. The theology of the Spanish physician Miguel Servetus (mentioned above) was less accommodating but equally severe: he called the trinity a three-headed dog. Servetus was sentenced to death simultaneously in Geneva by the protestants and by the Catholic Inquisition at Lyons making him officially the first man without a country.
Not far away, or much removed in time, Giordano Bruno died in 1600, a Domincan priest and by all accounts a brilliant scientist. Bruno taught a version of the Copernican theory and taught it well enough to find himself in exile all over Europe.
Hounded by a reputation for being sarcastic and unable to keep quiet about his unorthodox views, he did what Servetus did: went to Geneva thinking that the Protestant ”capital” would be nore liberal than the largely autonomous cities of the Catholic world. Then to Paris, where he was spotted as an excommunicate; then to Oxford and London, where he may have worked as a spy for a very nervous Elizabeth’s secretary of State, Walsingham. Then to Frankfurt and Padua, where he was denied a chair in mathematics (it went to Galileo) and finally to Venice, where the Church lost patience with his maneuvers and had him hauled back to Rome for trial.
Bruno’s scientific views were not as well devloped as Galileo’s: at his trials in Rome, he was accused of denying the trinity (by now a favourite charge against intellectuals), believing in metempsychosis (reincarnation), denying the virginity of Mary, and the “real presence” of Jesus in the Eucharist. These were garden variety charges that could be trumped up against almost anyone who had become inconvenient to the Church, so the radical nature of his opinions is difficult to discover. He was probably also a pantheist and almost certainly a mystic and magician.
From the Church’s point of view he was another heretic at a time when the Church was fighting both ends against the middle, fragmented in Europe, unable to exercise its will against major problems like Luther, and now a spawn of lesser opinions that might have been greater had they developed into full-fledged movements. Bruno’s challenge like Wycliffe’s involved early scientific ideas that were echoed in the revolutions of Bacon and Newton, neither of whom, alas, had very revolutionary ideas about religion. Before Bruno was burned alive at the Camo di’Fiori, his tongue was nailed to the roof of his mouth “for all the wickedness he had spewed.” The Cardinal who tried Bruno, Bellarmino, was the same who summoned Galileo to the Inquisition sixteen years later.
Bruno, like Servetus, and Wycliffe, and Hus, and later on the deist Thomas Aikenhead (d. 1696 in Edinburgh) should be commemorated as pioneers in the rationalist tradition that leads from faith and credulity to shades of unbelief and finally to outright atheism. It is a slow progression, and atheism is a consequence, not the match that starts the fire.
Philosophically, these thinkers (even in the case of Hus and Wycliffe) don’t constitute a single opinion but grades of skepticism that move steadily from rejection of the core doctrine of the Christian faith for 1200 years–the trinity–to a much wider indictment of the Bible, superstition, the papacy, miracles, and the stranglehold of Aristotelian science.
Aikenhead at his trial was accused of all of this: “[He has taught] That the Holy Scriptures were stuffed with such madness, nonsense, and contradictions, that he admired the stupidity of the world in being so long deluded by them: That he rejected the mystery of the trinity as unworthy of refutation; and scoffed at the incarnation of Christ.”
“No defence was recorded, but the prisoner did have defence counsel. On December 24, the next day, came the verdict: “that. . . Thomas Aikenhead has railed against the first person, and also cursed and railed our blessed Lord and second person of the holy Trinity, and further finds the other crimes libelled proven, viz. The denying of the incarnation of our Saviour, the Holy Trinity, and scoffing at the Holy Scriptures.” He was sentenced to be hanged on the 8th of January…before making the long walk, under guard, to the gallows. He was said to have died Bible in hand, “with all the Marks of a true Penitent”.
So to the question: Have there been atheist martyrs. I think the answer is a conditional rather than a resounding No. Social marginalization and suspicion is not the same thing as martyrdom, not the same as systematic legal persecution.
I understand that Gnu atheists, like the Christian community that was also Gnu once upon a time, crave the legitimacy that comes from being able to show it has suffered. But history is against that. Being unpopular and being actually burned alive for your beliefs, or lack thereof, is an option foreclosed to atheists by the bravery of women and men who fought the battle against religious oppression one doctrine at a time, paving the way for the Enlightenment, free speech, and constitutional limitations of the church. That’s the real story. And it neither diminishes atheism nor requires it to “credit” its existence to religion in order to acknowledge it.
Yet this puts atheists in the difficult position of celebrating the work of people they regard as deluded, “faithheads,” to use the aspersion, as though history begins with Hume (maybe a deist, fundamentally cagey), Voltaire (a deist), and Tom Paine (not just a deist but one who wanted to surgically remove Jesus from the atrocity of the gospels). But none of these men died for their secular, anti- ecclesiastical and anti-Biblical ideas. They held a shred of faith disconnected from the realities of religion.
If we scour more thoroughly, we get Socrates and Jesus and maybe Anaxagoras. All three were charged with impiety by the dominant religious power of their day. If we believe Xenophon, Socrates took comfort in the fact that the gods would be pleased with his tranquility and that he was pious throughout his life. Anaxagoras chose the option of exile to Lampsacus for teaching “odd things” about the nature of matter and mind, that the material world was composed of “a thing of finer texture, alike in all its manifestations and everywhere the same–a subtle agent, possessed of all knowledge and power, especially seen ruling in all the forms of life” (Lucretius). But in either case, “piety” and impiety were connected to performing acts of ritual devotion, not to an intellectual conclusion about the existence of “God.” A great many historians and psychologists have puzzled that it may not have been psychologically possible, prior to this long progression of ideas, to entertain the sorts of doubts about the gods’ existence that is possible in the modern era. ( I disagree with that, but it’s another topic.)
That leaves Jesus, before he became one–a god that is. Radical doubters and dissenters like Paine, Renan, Loisy recognized Jesus as one of their own. The eminently sensible Matthew Arnold, no friend to biblically-based dogmatism, praised his “sweet reasonableness.”
In so many words Jesus rejected much of the Torah and hardly mentions other sections of the Hebrew tradition at all–though he is accused of violating it. He substitutes an ethic of love and forgiveness for one of pay-back and talion. He excoriates wealth in a culture that saw material possessions as a mark of divine favour. He mingles with women and “sinners” in a time when purity laws were scrupulously enforced and fear of contamination had reached superstitious highs. He shows compassion for people at the margins of a society that disowned the sick as being stricken by God as punishment for unknown sin. He, foolishly perhaps, argues his case openly, even when (like Socrates) he is cautioned not to.
Even if only a shadow of a shade of this story is respected, Jesus is an historical event, at least as much of an event as the historical Socrates who also suffers from his own “biography.” Knowing that his words and deeds are going to get him killed, he presses on. He’s only human after all. From the standpoint of first century Judaism–which is the only way history can fairly view this event–he dies a blasphemer and a heretic.
It seems to me that atheists should acknowledge that the private thoughts of a lonely woodcutter outside Düsseldorf do not form part of the progression of ideas that get us from Epicurus to Bertrand Russell.
When Professor Dawkins in his now famous remark says that “We are all atheists about most of the gods that societies have ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further,” he is right in one respect (as well as funny) but wrong in another. Because the process of rejecting 99% of the gods and most of what has been believed about the remainder is not a conclusion that atheism has forced. Unbelief has been forced to the surface of our consciousness by critical processes that are rooted in religion: in the empiricism of Maimonides; in Aquinas’s disputational method; in Luther’s critique of Catholicism and sacraments; in Abelard’s stress on the subjectivity of ethics and Roger Bacon’s contributions to scientific thinking. In so much more. Perhaps to state what is too obvious to be obvious to many people: in the fact that the transmission of knowledge through books was the labour of clerics and monks. Atheism historically–where and through what means–the gods began to be disbelieved in–has not been a conversion-experience, a single moment, or a shuddering recognition on a Tuesday that everything you have been taught is wrong. It’s also got to be about the freedom to reach that conclusion on the shoulders of the very bright people who suffered along the way, none of whom, as far as I can tell, would qualify as atheists today.
It is strange to me that men and women committed to the paradigm of evolution and historical change are often willing to postulate creation ex nihilo or spontaneous generation for their own ideas.