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A tournament of atheists, then and now Add to ...

Proponents of atheism have found their comfort zone in the modern Western world, where penalties for infidelity are few but the residual sense of outrage is still strong enough to propel their attacks on a no-longer vengeful God to the top of the bestseller lists. Sometimes the battles they've mounted seem unfair and one-sided, since the atheists of today are so articulate, highly placed and media-savvy compared with their opponents among the pious (who don't often seem to know a religious war is being waged).

Which is why A Wicked Company, Philipp Blom's new book about a coterie of 18th-century Parisian atheists, is such a powerful reminder of an enlightened time not so long ago in the West when the denial of God and His earthly arbiters in church and state was a life-and-death issue. But it's not just the bravery of disbelief that stands out in Mr. Blom's vivid evocation of Baron Thiry d'Holbach's salon of well-fed free-thinkers, even though attendees like Denis Diderot faced the wrath of the thought police and served time in prison. What's even more amazing and heartening is that so many restless minds, fuelled by good food and drink, combined to undermine the enforced conventional thinking of their age, clearing a path toward modernity well before Charles Darwin and Christopher Hitchens made contrarian thoughts about the Deity so respectable.

The reputation of Holbach's radical guests, such as Diderot and David Hume, may endure, but historians of the 18th-century Enlightenment now cede much more intellectual influence to Voltaire and Rousseau - thinkers whom Mr. Blom disdains respectively as a cautious power-serving careerist and a dangerously self-promoting paranoid. The true intellectual heavyweights, he maintains, the real fighters for freedom of thought, come from Holbach's crowded dinner table. But how would these old-time atheists stack up against today's crusaders?

The rock stars: Christopher Hitchens vs. Denis Diderot

Nobody wants to face Christopher Hitchens. The onetime Trotskyite loves a fight, and doesn't plan to let his upcoming death (from esophageal cancer) slow him down. The legendary hard drinker has damned saintly Mother Teresa and Princess Di and promoted the Iraq invasion when all his left-wing friends insisted that George W. was doing the Devil's work. Arguing God out of existence is just another good way to taunt the intellectually timid.

Denis Diderot is less of a pugilist, a lover not a fighter. Atheism for this dinner-party philosophe is more of a clear-headed statement of the fact in a corrosively faith-based society than a declaration of war - though with imprisonment, torture and death as the penalty for public disbelief, he had to choose his words more carefully than modern polemicists. No great believer in the power of reason as an alternative to divine rule, his atheism subscribes more to the laws of nature, modulated by the survival skill of empathy.

The Scientists: Richard Dawkins vs. Baron Thiry d'Holbach

Trained as an evolutionary biologist, Richard Dawkins sees no role for God as an explanation for the workings of the universe. His atheistic critique is firmly science-based, and deals less with questions of faith or morality than with probabilities: He's the go-to guy if you're trying to prove that the Good Book isn't textbook truth. Serene in his Darwinian mindset, he's vulnerable to religious claims that don't submit so easily to rational disputation. Trained as a geologist, Holbach similarly worked his way toward a God-free worldview, though well before Darwin and at a dangerous time. A prolific writer(his titles included Christianity Unveiled and A Critical History of Jesus), the Baron made his well-supplied Paris dinner table the centre of 18th-century atheism - featuring the charming Diderot but welcoming such intellectual thrill-seekers as David Hume, Edward Gibbon and Laurence Sterne.

The Outliers: Sam Harris vs. David Hume

Sam Harris's books The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation are not so much paeans to atheism as critiques on the role of religion in American life. The 9/11 attacks were his turning point, a moment of clarification for the Stanford-trained philosopher and neuroscientist who recognized the motivating power of hateful religious certainty. Generous to spirituality's better side, he is less concerned with effacing God from the moral landscape than in advancing the human mind toward rational goodness. Scottish philosopher, historian and glutton David Hume delighted in the dangerous dinners served up chez Holbach, the first place he had encountered so many committed and convivial atheists. For pragmatic reasons, Hume counted himself an agnostic, since in his stringent philosophical terms he thought it presumed too much to be certain that God did not exist. Nonetheless he rejected all metaphysical structures in favour of more knowable scientific deductions: Values don't come from God but are human constructs based on habit and usefulness.

The Verdict

Well, they all go to hell, of course - lucky Satan. But beyond that last judgment, it's a harder call. The heavyweight David Hume could easily outpoint the lightweight Sam Harris, if he were so inclined. But the rotund Hume was endlessly cheerful in spite of his often dark view of the world, and he famously befriended the difficult Rousseau, only to be beaten up verbally by the object of his compassion. Still, give it to Hume, if only because Mr. Harris maintains a mystic streak that allows a little too much room for spiritual fuzziness.

Richard Dawkins is a clear victor over Baron Thiry d'Holbach if the influence of published books and public speeches is the measure of atheistic performance. Holbach wrote too much, most of it highly unreadable even in his own time. To help his ideas reach an audience, Diderot and his tablemates even crafted an Idiot's version of his lengthy book The System of Nature - "it is atheism put into the reach of chambermaids and wigmakers" said a friend.

Which leaves Mr. Hitchens and Diderot. Mr. Hitchens is such an accomplished fighter that it seems pointless to bet against him. But sometimes when the contest looks unequal, it's worth questioning the received wisdom. By supporting the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, he managed to help depose a secularist, foment greater religious strife in Iraq, encourage al-Qaeda's fundamentalist revival and give comfort to the Christians of the Republican Right. Nice one, Hitch. Diderot may have accepted a pension from Catherine the Great, but he was more averse to the egotism of power. He did time for his beliefs and still managed to shock thinkers like Voltaire with his continued devotion to atheistic principles. His influence in his era was Europe-wide. Give it to Diderot, and his wicked 18th-century salon.

John Allemang is a feature writer for the Globe and Mail.


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