May 19

Foundations of New Atheism in the Radical Enlightenment

If you ask an educated person to name prominent French figures of the Enlightenment, there is a pretty good chance he or she will name Voltaire and/or Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Atheists will likely view these Enlightenment figures positively, especially Voltaire, for laying the foundations for modern secular thought. In this essay, I want to discuss just how right atheists are to think their foundations lay in the Enlightenment, but their views are more closely shared by forgotten figures that Voltaire actually opposed. There was a socially subversive group of intellectuals that were an important and influential component of the European Enlightenment, especially in France. Despite their influence at the time, we rarely hear their names in popular forums today. This subversive movement is commonly called the Radical Enlightenment.


Philipp Blom, in A Wicked Company: The Forgotten Radicals of the European Enlightenment, illustrates one present day manifestation of this divide by recounting his personal search for the graves of two of these radical figures—Denis Diderot and the Baron Paul-Henri Thiry d’Holbach. Both Voltaire and Rousseau were honored by being buried in the Pantheon in Paris (shown below).



This lavish and grandiose method of burial is quite distinct from the resting places of Diderot and d’Holbach. It is widely believed that both men were interred beneath a church near Baron d’Holbach’s home. Blom discovers “they are resting in unmarked graves, under the well-worn stone slabs in front of the main alter”[i] of the church Saint-Roche. The situation becomes even more bleak when the priest of Saint-Roche tells him that the ossuary has been desecrated multiple times and no one knows anymore which scattered bones beneath the alter belong to who. While Voltaire and Rousseau lie in places of honor, these two important figures are in an unmarked heap of bones.


Such disparity is one useful way to illustrate the relative importance placed on certain figures of the Enlightenment over others. So, just who were Diderot and d’Holbach? What were their ideas and why are they not honored? I’ll very briefly discuss a few of their ideas to show just how much common ground they share with modern “New Atheists”; they even faced similar criticisms. These are the figures we ought to be honoring when we discuss our roots in Enlightenment thinking.


It is difficult to understand the culture of eighteenth-century French intellectual circles without understanding the importance of salons. The salons offered a gathering place for intellectuals where ideas could be shared more freely than in the public square. As Blom points out, there was still significant censorship at this time:


In eighteenth-century France, no work could legally appear in print without a royal privilege indicating that it had gone through the hands of the church censors and been approved.[ii]


Most successful salons were run by women, but d’Holbach’s was an exception in this regard. Attendees included Diderot, Rousseau, David Hume, Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon, John Wilkes, Adam Smith, and possibly even Benjamin Franklin, though, the latter has never been confirmed. Those were probably the best known names, but several other important French intellectuals and authors, both men and women, also attended.


The members of d’Holbach’s salon expressed radical opinions on a number of topics, including politics, biology, religion, and morality. They produced works, such as the infamous Encyclopédie, that sought to introduce these opinions to the world outside the salon in a subtle manner. Many of their articles drew criticism from Voltaire and others. Several members of d’Holbach’s salon were known to be outspoken atheists, including d’Holbach himself and Diderot. While the Enlightenment was progressive in some respects, the world still did not seem ready to embrace atheism as a viable position. Even deists, like Voltaire, thought it was contrary to reason to be an atheist and was seen as potentially dangerous to many. As Shirley Roe points out:


Were nature to be separated from God as creator and explained solely in terms of natural or material categories, this source of religious belief would be seriously threatened. And thus the foundations of morality and social order could be undermined.[iii]


This response to atheism should not surprise us too much, since we have public figures today that still hold that view. Newt Gingrich and Ronald Reagan, as well as Christian apologists, have expressed concern over what atheism entails for morality in the public sphere.


The members of d’Holbach’s salon, however, actually saw the problems lying within claiming religion was the impetus for morality:


Why would God trouble to carve the commandments of the law into stone tablets if he could have engraved it directly into every human heart?[iv]


They approached morality not as something revealed through a holy scripture, but as something akin to common sense. There seemed to be self-evident axioms from which moral obligations could follow.


What was giving rise to this outspoken and combative atheism amidst a largely religious society? We know that atheism and doubt were not new, by any means, but it did seem to be gaining acceptance among public intellectuals. Advances in biology (and remember, these ideas were even before Darwin) certainly contributed, as did the increased importance placed on reason by Enlightenment thinkers. Combining reason with the quickly growing corpus of scientific work led to some radical ideas.


The Breton La Mettrie, who influenced d’Holbach, especially in his younger years, had taken the anti-Cartesian stance that the mind could not be separate from the body. Instead, La Mettrie argued that the mind depended on the body. Blom describes his views as follows:


If a bodily state, having a fever, could be translated into a clear mental reality such as a hallucination, then mental activity could be seen as merely an aspect of physical activity, not something existing separately.[v]


Bodily states clearly gave rise to mental states and this relationship appeared to be causal. This was problematic for a dualist view. As we’ve seen today, injuries to the brain affect so-called mental capacities. If such a body-to-mind causal direction is not the true picture, then some explanation is needed by the dualist.


Buffon had similar ideas about a materialist picture of human beings:


Far from being the crown of creation, humans are a part of nature, different from all other animals by degree, not by kind, only a few nuances away from monkeys, dogs, and horses. The fossil record […] suggested not only that a human was an animal among others, but that all animals contend to change in patterns much like a game of chance.[vi]


There was a developing materialist picture of biology describing humans as part of the animal kingdom and possibly a product of chance. As Roe tells us, these ideas concerning biology definitely influenced Diderot and d’Holbach and appeared in their later work and were also opposed by Voltaire:


Another effect [of the new theories of generation] was to promote materialism and to provide biological evidence for the existence of active and self-creative matter. This is most clearly seen in the works of Diderot and d’Holbach, and in the rising concern over materialism expressed by Voltaire.[vii]


With theories of self-creation, God was no longer needed as an explanation for human life and intelligence. This idea was, and still is, vehemently resisted by the devoutly religious members of society. Even those sympathetic to forms of biological evolution, though, may still think we have a lot to explain before ridding ourselves of a creator. For example, how did the Universe come into existence? Diderot described his response to such questions in nearly the same terms used by Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion:


The knot of nature may be impossible to disentangle, but introducing the idea of a being who does not obey laws such as cause and effect and who cannot be perceived, an uncreated Creator, simply makes the knot more complicated.[viii]


It does not help us much to introduce a solution to a problem of complexity and uncertainty that introduces even more complexity and uncertainty. The traditional notion of God as a Creator operating outside of natural law seemed almost unfathomable to Diderot. And it is difficult to hold a belief that an unfathomable thing exists.


We see very similar ideas in d’Holbach regarding explanations. For example, Blom quotes d’Holbach as saying:


Nature, you say, is totally inexplicable without God: that means that to explain something you understand badly, you need a reason which you do not understand at all.[ix]


These materialistic ideas if left in the salon may not have been so detrimental, but Diderot sought fame and influence through the publication of the Encyclopédie. This was a project spearheaded by Diderot which featured articles written by fellow members of the salon, including several by d’Holbach on scientific subjects. The stated goal of the project was to present in an ordered manner a summary of current knowledge on a huge variety of topics, especially topics of natural philosophy. You can imagine, though, the slant of such a project given the outlook of those writing it. They may not have been able to overtly promote materialism for fear of the church, but they could do so subtly. The Encyclopédie was published over decades, featured thousands of articles, and was wildly successful.


In the end, though, the views discussed here were too radical, even for the Enlightenment. Blom succinctly describes the dilemma as follows:


From its inception the bold moral vision articulated by the friends of the rue Royale met with fierce resistance from critics who argued that godlessness would lead to immorality and debauchery, that the pleasure calculus would automatically turn the world into a Hobbesian war against all.[x]


This distrust, which is still prevalent regarding atheists, was just too much to allow these radical figures to be honored in the manner of Voltaire and Rousseau, who eventually broke ties with the group. And still today, you’ll never hear their names unless talking to a historian. But as modern atheists, we can clearly see the foundation of modern ideas regarding religion, the mind-brain connection, a natural basis for morality, and a materialist picture of biology. They were also willing to speak out about their ideas in a time when that set them against the religious mainstream. Despite being hundreds of years old, their ideas would still seamlessly fit into the discussion today.



[i] A Wicked Company, p. xii

[ii] A Wicked Company, p. 4

[iii] Biology, atheism, and politics in eighteenth-century France, p. 37

[iv] A Wicked Company, p. 87

[v] A Wicked Company, p. 32

[vi] A Wicked Company, p. 60-61

[vii] Biology, atheism, and politics in eighteenth-century France, p. 46

[viii] A Wicked Company, p. 48

[ix] A Wicked Company, p. 161

[x] A Wicked Company, p. 305

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  1. JJ Anderson

    Thank you for writing this post. I am even more impressed with Diderot and d’Holbach than I was before, and look forward to reading Philipp Blom’s book.

  2. Mike

    Thanks. The book by Blom was really good and very readable. I highly recommend it. You’ll get a lot more background than I’ve provided here.

  3. Matt DeStefano

    Great post, I might have to pick up a copy of the book. I knew very little about Diderot and d’Holbach especially, and definitely undervalue their contributions.

  4. lafranceprofonde

    Thank you for the post. I have just downloaded A Wicked Company on to my Kindle and look forward to reading it. It is sad that they were not honoured as they should have been and that they are little spoken about today because although adherence to religion is still very much a part of the fabric of certain groups in France, particularly the aristocracy, atheism is not regarded with as much horror as it seems to be in the US.

  5. I.C.

    Hello again!
    Please stop by, I have some interesting tests for you to solve. Maybe you’ll like it.

  6. Marisha Guidroz

    I dont suppose Ive learn something like this before.

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