Have Atheists Ever Died for Their Lack of Faith?

Over at the New Oxonian blog, R. Joseph Hoffmann has written an interesting post addressing the issue of atheist martyrdom.

The piece entitled “Atheist Martyrs: Gnus to Me” wonders aloud if any atheists have actually died for their lack of faith (the term Gnu is a play on “New” in New Atheist. For those of you following the cyber-evolution of the New Atheist invective-based life form, Gnu is a term NA’s playfully use to refer to themselves). Hoffmann writes:

I understand that Gnu atheists, like the Christian community that was also Gnu once upon a time, crave the legitimacy that comes from being able to show it has suffered.  But history is against that. Being unpopular and being actually burned alive for your beliefs, or lack thereof, is an option foreclosed to atheists by the bravery of women and men who fought the battle against religious oppression one doctrine at a time, paving the way for the Enlightenment, free speech, and constitutional limitations of the church. That’s the real story. And it neither diminishes atheism nor requires it to “credit” its existence to religion in order to acknowledge it.

Hoffmann represents a rapidly growing contingent of atheists and agnostics who, for a variety of different reasons, are expressing increasing frustration with the New Atheist world-view. Many of them are affiliated with the school of “Secular Humanism.” I hope to write about this split at a later date.

In any case, Hoffmann’s essay makes the point that it is tremendously difficult to identify an atheist who has been martyred for his or her non-belief. The author notes that such martyrdom operations have usually been reserved for heretics and apostates—yet the heretics and apostates, of course, were believers themselves.

I have been thinking about this question for a few days and I myself can’t think of any atheist martyrs either. Maybe readers of this blog can help us crowd source a few examples. In the interim let me just say that I am very happy that we don’t have much to discuss on this score.

I do, however, want to add one important proviso. Students of early Christianity and early modern Europe are familiar with a curious and widespread use of the word “atheist”: It was used as a term of derision directed against a believer.

“Atheist” was what you called someone whose religious views you disagreed with—even though that someone thought God existed (see Alan Kors’ Atheism in France, 1650-1720, Volume I: The Orthodox Sources of Disbelief for a learned discussion of this question). That someone might come right back at you with a charge of “atheist,” even though you too were certain God existed!

In this sense, countless “atheists” were imprisoned, tortured, and murdered in Europe of the 16th-18th centuries. This was a Europe, incidentally, were historians are very hard pressed to find unambiguous atheists as we know them today—that is to say, people who explicitly denied the existence of any God whatsoever.

This suggests a multitude of possibilities and future areas of research for non-Gnu Atheism. One which I have been exploring in the book that I am currently writing concerns the “genetic” affinity between atheists and heretics.

Nonbelievers would gain much by seeing themselves as heirs of a skeptical tradition, one whose roots extend to religious forms of reasoning and dissent.

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