Preposterous Universe

Monday, March 01, 2004
Moments in Atheism

This quarter Shadi Bartsch and I are teaching Moments in Atheism, an undergraduate course in the Big Problems curriculum here at the University of Chicago. I'm not sure what is more surprising, the idea of a course on the history of atheism, or the fact that I could get a humanities course to count as a regular teaching credit.

Teaching the course has been a fantastic experience; it brings me back to my own days as an undergraduate, exploring great ideas in philosophy and history. Indeed, one of the interesting things we have realized along the way is how much the history of atheism parallels all of the major twists and turns in the intellectual history of Western civilization generally. This has to be one of the few courses ever taught with Thomas Aquinas, Karl Marx, and Stephen Hawking on the same syllabus.

We were concerned at first about the touchy nature of the material; we wanted everyone to feel comfortable, no matter what their personal beliefs about religion were. So far it seems to be a success; there is a range of views represented in the class, and nobody has yet complained (out loud, anyway) about being marginalized.

One interesting discovery is the paucity of scholarly work on the actual history of atheism. It's easy enough to find polemical books on either side of the issue, or careful philosophical works for and against the existence of God, but there's not so much done on how the ideas have actually developed through time. Maybe because it's a touchy subject? Also fascinating how reluctant people were to declare themselves atheists (until the 19th century), no matter how obviously the implications of their work were pushing them in that direction. Up at least through Hume, the pressure was so great that nobody could admit to disbelieving in God, even if they thought He was completely powerless in the world, or equal to the world.

Unfortunately we didn't have time to do much about the present day. It's still a touchy subject, of course; probably as much now as two hundred years ago. The elder George Bush famously said that he didn't think that atheists should be considered as citizens. I'm not sure why the US and Europe seem to have diverged so dramatically on this.

Ideas on culture, science, politics.
Sean Carroll

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