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lthough many scholars trace atheism, the disbelief in God or denial of his existence, back to eighteenth-century philosopher and historian David Hume (1711-56) or to Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) of the previous century, avowed atheism in Great Britain begins in 1782, the year that Matthew Turner, a physician from Liverpool, published his Answer to Dr. Priestley's Letters to a Philosophical Unbeliever. Until Turner, atheists concealed their disbelief in God by pretending to be deists or by stating such disbelief in some esoteric form comprehended only by the initiate.
According to Colin Brewer (who sent e-mail to this effect on 4 January 2009), Jean Meslier (1664-1729), a French priest, was probably the first post-classical atheist to set down his ideas in writing. His Memoire or Testament denounced "all supernatural religions and the institutions, notably monarchy, that kept them in place." However, unlike the later British physician, Turner, Meslier did not publish his book, which was discovered after his death.
Although almost all major Victorian authors experienced major crises of faith, some ending in agnosticism or idiosyncratic belief, few authors became declared atheists, like the poet James Thompson, though Ruskin and Carlyle both seem to have gone through an atheistic phase.
Two recent books on the subject may be consulted, David Berman, A History of Atheism in Britain: From Hobbes to Russell (Croom Helm, 1988) and Michael J. Buckley, At the Origins of Modern Atheism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988), which emphasizes the sources of atheism in French rationalism. Tim Whitmarsh’s Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World (2016) examines distant sources.
- Ethical Arguments against Religion in Victorian Britain
- Working-class atheism, materialism, and evolution
- Annie Besant: the road from devout Christian to freethinker to atheist
- Charles Bradlaugh: The Apostle of Victorian Freethought and Atheism
Text of works on this site
- “Humanity’s Gain from Unbelief” by Charles Bradlaugh
- “A Few Words about the Devil” by Charles Bradlaugh
- “A Plea for Atheism” by Charles Bradlaugh
- Atheistic satires on Christianity by James Thomson
A Bibliography of some major texts and available e-texts
Charles Bradlaugh, What Did Jesus Teach? (HTML at Infidels.org)
Charles Bradlaugh, Who Was Jesus Christ? (HTML at Infidels.org)
Meslier, Jean. Testament. The first English translation of the complete work. Trans. Michael Shreve. New York. Prometheus. 2009.
Percy B. Shelley, The Necessity of Atheism (HTML at Infidels.org)
Last modified 19 September 2016