Enlightenment Contested: Philosophy, Modernity, and the Emancipation of Man, 1670-1752

By Jonathan I. Israel | Go to book overview

7

Germany and the Baltic: Enlightenment,
Society, and the Universities

1. THE PROBLEM OF 'ATHEISM'

If the entire moderate mainstream concurred that 'atheism' should not be tolerated in a Christian society, an obvious symptom of spiritual crisis in the Early Enlightenment was the growing stream of both moderate 'enlightened' and Counter-Enlightenment books and debates, from the 1670s onwards, deploring the propagation of what contemporaries called 'atheism'. By this was meant not 'atheism' in today's strict sense, of not believing in any notion of God, but a far more sweeping concept, characteristic of the time, meaning rejection of belief in a personal God who created the world, ordained morality, and rewards and punishes in the hereafter, a notion which also left 'no room', as Locke puts it, 'for the admittance of spirits, or the allowing any such things as immaterial beings in rerum natura'. }

That the 'atheist' has no awareness of right and wrong, and no respect for justice was an almost universally held conviction. As one theologian, Valentin Loescher, put it in 1708, 'atheism is pernicious both to virtue and the republic';2 as another put it in 1710, 'atheism' is worse than any other human evil as it overthrows everything in matters both human and divine.3 Since awareness of God, as it was put in a Marburg disputation in 1725, 'radix est et fundamentum omnis politiae notitia Dei' "is the root and foundation of every polity", 'atheism' was deemed the quintessence of all denial of the existing order.4 'Atheism' in this comprehensive Early Enlightenment sense had been known in Germany, according to the remarkably ambitious history of books in German lands published in 1713 by Jakob Friedrich Reimmann (1668–1743), Lutheran superintendent from 1717 at Hildesheim, since the twelfth century when it arose in the wake of Averroism, the Emperor Friedrich II (1215–50), he notes, figuring among its earliest representatives. But for several centuries it had been prodigiously rare and was in no way a serious social problem.

1 Locke, Some Thoughts, 246.

2 Loescher, Praenotiones, 20, 22.

3 Jäger, Spinocismus, A2.

4Ries, Dissertatio philosophica de atheis, 35; Beermann, Impietas atheistica, 139, 144.

-164-

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