Against the Faith: Essays on Deists, Skeptics, and Atheists

Against the Faith: Essays on Deists, Skeptics, and Atheists

Against the Faith: Essays on Deists, Skeptics, and Atheists

Against the Faith: Essays on Deists, Skeptics, and Atheists

Excerpt

'I love to consider an Infidel, whether distinguished by the title of deist, atheist, or free-thinker ...' So wrote SirRichard Steele in The Tatler (No. III) in 1709. Steele displays the interchangeability of words describing those who criticized orthodox Christianity.He also demonstrates that the topic could by that time be one under general consideration — even if the deists, atheists and freethinkers whom he lumped together as 'Infidels' were a larger group in the fearful minds of the orthodox than in practice.

Steele elaborated by saying that he loved to consider the deist, atheist or freethinker 'by three different lights, in his solitude, his afflictions, and his last moments.' In these situations such people showed themselves in solitude 'incapable of rapture or elevation', 'in distress' with 'a halter or a pistol the only refuge [they] can fly to', and liable to conversion 'at the approach of death'. Thus Steele summarized and propagated the mythical view of the atheist or sceptic as joyless, without hope and prone to deathbed conversions — a view impossible to sustain once the lives of deists and atheists have been properly studied.Elsewhere Steele added to popular misconceptions by describing unbelievers as untrustworthy and immoral.This was a longstanding myth arising partly from the belief that, since they could not swear on the Bible with conviction, their word was of no worth and, since they did not believe in divine punishment, they would abandon themselves to unbridled lusts.As late as the nineteenth century this view survived in the words of the judge Sir John Coleridge, who attacked Shelley's poem Queen Mab in the sternest fashion: 'No atheist, as such, can be a true friend, an affectionate relation, or a loyal subject.... A disciple following his tenets would not hesitate to debauch, or, after debauching to abandon any woman....'

Attacks on atheists and sceptics such as those of Steele and . . .

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