25 Annotations

First Reading

Paul Miller  •  Link

Among the many Priests of Jove,
Hir'd to draw Blessings from Above,
Some few were learn'd and eloquent,
But Thousands hot and ignorant:
Yet all past Muster, that could hide
Their Sloth, Lust, Avarice and Pride;
For which, they were as famed, as Taylors
For Cabbage; or for Brandy, Sailors:
Some meagre look'd, and meanly clad
Would mystically pray for Bread,
Meaning by that an ample Store,
Yet lit'rally receiv'd no more;
And, whilst these holy Drudges starv'd,
Some lazy Ones, for which they serv'd,
Indulg'd their Ease, with all the Graces
Of Health and Plenty in their Faces.

----- From "The Fable of the Bees" by Bernard Mandeville

PHE  •  Link

Having read much of Pepys before, I was amazed to learn that it was 'possible' to be atheist as far back as 1660. One or two appear in the diaries. We tend to assume that atheism is a relatively new development at a time when science is able to provide an alternative explanation of why we and the world are here. All societies throughout the world have developed a religion as a means to explain life as well as to set out the rules of living together. In general, atheism is much more widespread in more developed societies with a broad understanding of science. While there were many scientific discoveries in Pepys's time and an increasing understanding of astronomy and physics, you still have to wonder if someone was not a believer at that time, then what explanations did they have? Even Isaac Newton, a contemporary of Pepys and possibly England's greatest ever scientist had a very strong christian faith.

language hat  •  Link

I suspect there have been atheists as far back as there has been religion. PHE, you're missing the point about science: if atheism had to wait until humanity had full scientific explanations of everything, we'd all be believers still. In a century, I'm sure they'll be able to use your penultimate sentence about us. What is important is the scientific outlook, the refusal to be satisfied with just-so stories and dei ex machina and the search for explanations that make sense in terms that satisfy the reason. Those were as available in ancient Greece (see: Thales) as they are today; they have advanced in complexity as we learn more, but it would be a brave man who said our current set will stand the test of time. The thing is to keep looking and keep an open mind.

Emilio  •  Link

I'm curious what definitions people are going by when they write about atheism. The poem in the first post, for instance, seems to me about hypocrisy rather than atheism - paying lip service to a god is a far cry from denying its existence.
As for myself, I'm not so sure atheism has been around as long as there has been religion, at least not in the strict current sense of denying the existence of God, *any* God. Aristotle, for instance, was certainly a rationalist, but he was equally certain there needed to be some sort of God out there to explain where everything he saw around him came from. It's only recently that some have come to believe the universe came into being ex nihilo, without some kind of creator behind it.
What was generally meant by "atheist" before the 19th century was someone who didn't believe in *your* god. Thus the early Christians were considered atheists because they refused sacrifice to the Roman gods, and Blaise Pascal was called an atheist despite being a deeply religious man.
I'll be deeply interested to see the atheists when they show up in the diary, but I do doubt they will pass muster according to the modern standard.

language hat  •  Link

ancient atheists:
Well, here's a quick review of the usual Greek suspects:
And the same site has a nice summary of definitions of atheism:
Myself, I tend to go with the "strong" definition with the proviso that "believe" doesn't mean "believe blindly" but "am pretty damn sure, but could of course be convinced by proofs which I'm pretty damn sure will not be forthcoming."

And here's a history of atheism and freethinking that takes in the non-Western world as well:

Emilio  •  Link

Interesting sites - it's good to have a common yardstick to refer to.
The sites do confirm my suspicion, though, that we have different ideas of atheism, which certainly fits the variety of the postings so far. For me the 'strong' form of atheism is the only one that fits the name; the 'weak' form ("I do not believe in God") is simple skepticism, which indeed has probably existed for as long as religion. Note that the BBC site lumps together such wildly different viewpoints as secularism, Buddhism, and Unitarianism, and that the history page focuses almost entirely on skepticism, freethinking, and Deism. Most of these are not atheism to me, because they don't go so far as to deny the existence of God.
Modern atheism for me is a denial of religion per se, based on two necessary steps: First, a focus on the material world and the general laws by which it operates, an interest atheism shares with both skepticism and the scientific viewpoint in general. Crucially, atheism takes the further step of denying that anything exists beyond the material world that can be seen and tested. For most of recorded history the first step has been possible, but the only in the last few centuries have people been able to imagine the second. Being a skeptic but not an atheist myself, I find it vitally important to remember that the first step does not inevitably lead to the second.
Since we have such diversity of views even right now, I hope we keep in mind that the atheism of Pepys's time also is not necessarily going to be the same as ours. Karen Armstrong puts my argument nicely: "There is no objective view of 'God': every generation has to create the image of God that works for it. The same is true of atheism. The statement 'I do not believe in God' has meant something different at each period of history."
This statement comes from _A History of God,_ a book that I'd recommend highly to anyone interested in religion, atheism, and how both they have developed over the centuries.

Emilio  •  Link

More background on atheism heading into Pepys's time, also from A History of God:
By the sixteenth century, religion had begun to get a bad name due to the corruption of the Church and the violence of the Reformation. It was at this time that Europeans began to spot 'atheists,' almost as often as they spotted witches. And yet "a full-blown atheism in the sense that we use the word today was impossible. . . . From birth to baptism to death and burial in the churchyard, religion dominated the life of every single man and woman. Every activity of the day, which was punctuated with church bells summoning the faithful to prayer, was saturated with religious beliefs and institutions: they dominated professional and public life-even the guilds and the universities were religious organizations." Until the full birth of the scientific worldview, "nobody could deny the existence of a God whose religion shaped and dominated the moral, emotional, aesthetic and political life of Europe." (286-87)

language hat  •  Link

"a full-blown atheism in the sense that we use the word today was impossible"

This is simply not true. Difficult, yes; impossible, no. That's like saying it was impossible for a woman to join an army until recently. It was done throughout history, though we have no way of knowing how often, because most such male impersonators presumably carried it off without detection or were not recorded. But enough have left traces that we can see the pattern. It's a huge mistake to extend broad social patterns to all individual cases. There are *always* exceptions.

Emilio  •  Link

Armstrong's words rather than mine, but it's true that I don't disagree. I am willing to accept the possibility of an unrecorded exception or two, and would be especially interested if they did manage to leave yet undiscovered evidence of themselves. However, like you with God, I don't expect to be seeing the evidence any time soon.
For me the theory is straightforward: You can't throw out the old system entirely until you have something to put in its place. This is just a theory, but in accepting it I am simply following the evidence, as a rationalist and a skeptic will.

PHE  •  Link

Without looking them up, I recollect that what I assumed were 'atheists' were described by Pepys as something like "non believer" or "without faith", and nothing more comprehensive than that. I doubt that Pepys meant someone simply not of 'his' faith because he seemed to be fairly open minded about the shades of Christianity (eg. his wife was Catholic). I suspect it would have been difficult for someone at the time to believe that God didn't exist at all. It may have been more a case of being sceptical about such things as the existence of heaven and hell, eternal life and the moral authority of the Church. Disagreeing with Languagecap, we now have a scientific explanation for so many fundamental aspects of our world that can allow us to not believe in a great creator. Eg. evolution, species diversity, geological complexity, what are the stars and planets, etc, etc. While many questions remain unanswered, we have answered so many that we can now have the confidence that others eventually will be. I am intrigued by what a 'non believer' of the time would believe.

Paul Chapin  •  Link

PHE: "his wife was Catholic"
According to our annotations on Sam's wife Elizabeth, which is all I know about the matter, her father was Huguenot, i.e. a French protestant. One would therefore assume that this was Elizabeth's religion as well, unless PHE has some reason to believe she converted to Catholicism.

Pauline  •  Link

Elizabeth Pepys, religion
Her father (Alexandre de St. Michel) was born a French catholic, but converted to the Protestant faith as a young professional soldier fighting in Germany. He married Dorothea, the daughter of Sir Francis Kingsmill, in Ireland. Elizabeth and her brother Balthasar were both likely born in Devon. The family's fortunes and bad luck were such that "in 1652 Madame de St. Michel was alone in Paris with her two children. She was persuaded to hand them over to Catholic friends, who placed Elizabeth in an Ursuline convent and Balthasar as page to the papal nuncio, a recollection that provoked him to a flash of wit: with such a start he told Pepys, he might have ended up as either a cardinal or a catamite. The children were rescued by their indignant father, who carried the whole family off to London; this was shortly before Elizabeth met Pepys. The timing of Balthasar's story is vague and the accuracy doubtful, since he wrote it down with the specific intention of proving that his sister was a staunch Protestant, whereas it is clear from Pepys's own account that the Catholic faith never lost its hold on her; when, for instance, he bought a mass book for himself in 1660 and sat up late reading it, it gave "great pleasure to my wife to hear that that she long ago was so well acquainted with."

Although she said at the time of Sam's brother Tom's death "that she intended to die a Catholic," she died attended by the vicar of St. Olave's. In this decision, Sam "did what convention and prudence dictated. By then [Elizabeth] was no doubt past making any request or decision for herself."

Claire Tomalin, Samuel Pepys: The Unequaled Self.

michael f vincent  •  Link

Atheism- Religion or the lack of, mono- a- or theism. What people say or do, it's a question of survival for most part. For only a few have the temerity to stand up for what THEY believe in. The Question will always be asked.
In 1660, there was only one source of info - the day of rest - there were laws, sometimes enforced to get your weekly dose of brainwashing just like being in a chinese prison camp in early 50's the little red book.
now you lucky folks ye ave yer dot com., to get your fix- why things went your way Or did not.
my thought is that a non beleiver was one that did not agree the Speakers Divine right to be only source of correct answers.

vincent  •  Link

Atheism meaning Theism "god" "a" many meanings but it had a long history as a Latin/Greek prefix:- not,without, anti.
Remember only a very small group of the populace have recorded opinions;
Even Today in most cultures People are very careful about what is they really think and appear to go with the crowd until the opportunity to to join the winning side. I See Sp listening well and exploiting this concept of playing ones card close to his violin. Most of illiterate only made their views available for us to decipher thru revolution and riots after their energy has been compressed pass the explosive point.
The Vocal minority are the only views we are normally exposed too. But the 17th century disatisfied had other outlets, they could leave and express their ideas of "right way "like lemmings, each strain to their own new world.

PHE  •  Link

PHE on Fri 16 May 2003, 8:13 am | Link
"[Montagu is] wholly sceptical [of religion], as well as I"
At first reading, this could suggest Montagu was in some way an agnostic or atheist (see comments in Religion-Atheism), but we know that Pepys clearly seems to retain his faith. Therefore, he probably means cynical with respect to the more pompous or devout practices as well as the rivalries between denominations. Was there any true atheism in England or Europe at this time? Any further thoughts?

PHE  •  Link

vk on Fri 16 May 2003, 9:50 am | Link
There were atheists at least a century before this. One of the Maitlands - William or John - who held a great deal of power in Scoland while James VI was young famously described God as

vincent  •  Link

atheists threat " ....In the 16th Century, polemicists for the Roman Catholic church ..use the epithet, "atheist," for any Christian rejecting the authority of the Pope..." from :_
http://faculty.vassar.edu/foster/… if
Contary beliefs on any subject could have you in the "gulag of the day" or ones head in a basket.

Arbor  •  Link

Don't forget that Kit Marlowe, the dramatist and contemporary of Wm. Shakespeare was accused, not without foundation, of being 'and atheist"... and possibly was one of reasons that led to his death/murder in a 'tavern brawl'.

PHE  •  Link


"I perceive my Lord is grown a man very indifferent in all matters of religion, and so makes nothing of these things."

after stating:
"he that do get a wench with child and marry her afterwards is as if a man should shit in his hat and then clap it on his head."

PHE  •  Link

My Lord a Sceptic
Monday 22 October 1660
"... talking of religion, I found [my Lord] to be a perfect Sceptic, and said that all things would not be well while there was so much preaching, and that it would be better if nothing but Homilies were to be read in Churches."
This entry further supports the case that Montagu/Sandwich was not an atheist, but rather that he disapproved of the pomposity of contemporary religious practices.

cgs  •  Link

atheisticall :
atheist, n. (and a.)
atheistic, a.
atheistical, a.
atheistically, adv.
atheize, v.
athe_stically, adv. ]
[a. F. athéiste (16th c. in Littré), or It. atheista: see prec. and -IST.]

In an atheistical manner; as befits an atheist, impiously; with a leaning towards atheism.
1655 W. GURNALL Chr. in Arm. II. 251 Being by a neighbour excited to thank God for a rich crop of corn..atheistically replied, ‘Thank God? nay rather, thank my dung-cart.’ 1785

Disbelief in, or denial of, the existence of a God. Also, Disregard of duty to God, godlessness (practical atheism).
1587 GOLDING De Mornay xx. 310 Athisme, that is to say, vtter godlesnes. 1605 BACON Adv. Learn. I. i. §3 A little or superficial knowledge of philosophy may incline the mind of man to atheism. 1711

A. n.

1. One who denies or disbelieves the existence of a God.
[a1568 COVERDALE Hope of Faithf. Pref. Wks. II. 139 Eat we and drink we lustily; to-morrow we shall die: which all the epicures protest openly, and the Italian atheoi.
1660 STANLEY Hist. Philos. 323/2 An Atheist is taken two ways, for him who is an enemy to the Gods, and for him who believeth there are no Gods. 1667 MILTON P.L. I. 495 When the Priest Turns Atheist, as did Ely's Sons.

atheistic, a.
1. Of or befitting an atheist; pertaining to or involving atheism.
1634 HABINGTON Castara (1870) 78 Who will with silent piety confute Atheisticke Sophistry. 1871 R. H. HUTTON Ess. I. 45 A vague, general dread that Science..is atheistic in its tendency.

2. Of the nature of an atheist; denying the existence of a God; godless, impious.
1677 GALE Crt. Gentiles III. 179 A wide gate for atheistic blasphemous wits to impute to him the greatest sins.

2. One who practically denies the existence of a God by disregard of moral obligation to Him; a godless man.

B. attrib. as adj. Atheistic, impious.
1667 MILTON P.L. VI. 370 The Atheist crew.

CGS  •  Link

Atheist A character in Pilgrim's Progress versus Christine

CGS  •  Link

S/B Christian not Christine

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Chart showing the number of references in each month of the diary’s entries.