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Atheists: The Origin of the Species

Atheists: The Origin of the Species

A book recounting the historical development of atheism, showing that atheism has always been a cluster of different social and political phenomena. (2014)

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Atheism has become increasingly visible in recent years, but despite high profile books both promoting and attacking it, little has been written on its origins or history.

Atheists: The Origin of the Species tells that story – from Machiavelli and Marlowe to Dennett and and Dawkins – but goes beyond the usual godless suspects. It also tells the story of Thomas Aitkenhead hung for blasphemous atheism, Percy Shelley expelled for adolescent atheism, and the Marquis de Sade imprisoned for libertine atheism. It is the story of the French revolutionary Terror and the Soviet League of the Militant Godless; of working class British secularists and upper–class French Positivists; the religious fundamentalists and their Darwinian opponents. The Nazis even make a brief appearance.

This is not a single story. Atheists: The Origin of the Species argues that, rather than being a straightforward philosophical or scientific position about the non–existence of God, atheism was, and remains, a cluster of different social and political phenomena. Because modern atheism developed in reaction to the Christianity that dominated Europe’s intellectual, social and political life, it adopted and adapted its ideas and institutions, changing according to the authorities against which it was rebelling.

As the number of Western atheists increase, New Atheism dies with whimper and atheist churches spring up (again) in cities around the world, the stories of atheism, Nick Spencer argues, will continue to morph but, interlocked with the story of God, will remain the tales that define – and even perhaps dominate – the 21st century.

Atheists: The Origin of the Species (2014) is published by Bloomsbury Publishing (£15.29).

“In this scintillating new analysis, Nick Spencer shows that atheism is much more diverse and interesting than the New Atheists would have us believe. There have been many atheisms, continually mutating as authority in society is repeatedly challenged, and in different and changing forms atheism will always be with us—just as religion will be. Ranging across the ancient world, non–western traditions and twentieth century assaults on religion, this brilliantly illuminating account of the history and meanings of atheism will be indispensable to anyone who really wants to understand what is at stake in contemporary debates.” John Gray, author of The Silence of Animals: On Progress and other Modern Myths (2013)


Nick Spencer

Nick Spencer

Nick is Senior Fellow at Theos. He is the author of a number of books and reports, including Magisteria: the entangled histories of science and religion (Oneworld, 2023), The Political Samaritan: how power hijacked a parable (Bloomsbury, 2017), The Evolution of the West (SPCK, 2016) and Atheists: The Origin of the Species (Bloomsbury, 2014). He is host of the podcast Reading Our Times.

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