Atheism is trendy — again. Over the centuries it periodically raises its ugly head, from the ancients like Epicurus and Lucretius, who blithely described a purely material, pleasure-based, godless universe, to Europe’s 18th-century Enlightenment. And now something called New Atheism is clamoring for attention in America.
The zeitgeist favors it. Consumption-oriented young Americans are dropping out of religion at a historic rate: fully 22 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds now claim no religion, twice the number in 1990. The American Religious Identification Survey reports that those with no religion are growing in every corner of the country, from secular Northeast to conservative Bible Belt. New Atheism believers are egged on by the movement’s so-called Four Horsemen: Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel C. Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens. Their idea of a good bedtime book bears a title like The End of Faith, The God Delusion, God: The Failed Hypothesis, or God Is Not Great. They loudly and proudly put their faith in no faith at all.
Now from Europe comes a candidate fifth horseman. Philipp Blom’s A Wicked Company: The Forgotten Radicalism of the European Enlightenment (Basic Books, 361 pages, $29.95), is an erudite, detailed — and tendentious — account of the Paris literary salon where the wealthy Baron Paul Henri Thiry d’Holbach wined and dined some of the most passionate of the Enlightened. Blom, a German-born, Oxford-educated historian and novelist who lives in Vienna, is also author of a history of Europe from 1900 to 1914.
The forgotten radicalism he celebrates refers to the most anti-religion, anti-revelation, anti-God theorizing done during this period of ferment, when bold new thinking in science, mathematics, religion, and politics was in the air all over Europe. (The French called it the Siècle de Lumières, Germans the Aufklärung.) Blom gladly embraces the desolate world conceived at Holbach’s intellectual bull sessions, “a world of ignorant necessity and without higher meaning, into which kindness and lust can inject a fleeting beauty.”
Gathered on Thursdays and Sundays in Holbach’s elegant town house across the Seine from the Louvre to enjoy multi-course meals — 30 dishes often filled his groaning board — were not only the French philosophes like Denis Diderot, creator of the famous Encyclopédie, the father of Romanticism Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and the sharp-tongued opponent of tyranny, Voltaire. From the 1750s to the 1770s the salon was also a must for foreign visitors to Paris who wanted to make the avant-garde scene.
English historian Edward Gibbon dropped in occasionally, as did the skeptical Scottish philosopher David Hume and his fellow Scot, the free-market economist Adam Smith. The great English actor David Garrick puckishly dubbed Holbach’s group “a wicked company.” When Benjamin Franklin arrived in Paris in 1776, one of his first requests was, “Take me to the philosophes.” He had already heard that the salon was a place where intellectual sparks flew, cold, pure reason prevailed, the ignorant, churchgoing masses were despised, and a good time was had by all. The Irish-born English satirist Laurence Sterne noted that “Every man leaves the room with a better Opinion of his own Talents than when he entered.” Holbach knew how to flatter an intellectual.
Usually organized by aristocrats for their amusement and prestige, the literary salon was a Paris institution in these heady decades before the French Revolution. It was a stage where budding, rebellious philosophes could show off their wit and sing for their supper. It was also a way to circumvent the harsh censorship laws under Louis XVI. Penalties for publishing anything considered critical of the monarchy or the Catholic Church ranged from symbolic tearing and burning of the book by the hangman of Paris, to doing time in the Bastille, or public torture and execution. Diderot, once imprisoned for his writings, later disguised his atheistic thinking in fiction.
Holbach, whom Blom fulsomely praises as “a man of great intellectual courage and moral fortitude,” was born in Germany, became a naturalized French citizen, and wrote in French. His most popular book, Système de la nature (The System of Nature), derided religion and an afterlife as mere superstition. (Oddly for a man of such supposed courage and fortitude, he timidly published it in Holland under the name Mirabaud.) Man was simply a machine devoid of free will. As for belief in God, that could only be due to ignorance and fear. Another book, Le Christianisme dévoilé (Christianity Unveiled), proclaimed Christianity to be harmful nonsense, “in no way different from all other superstitions with which the universe is infected.”
BLOM CLEARLY ADMIRES THIS STUFF. But what his book actually reveals, unwittingly, is the dark side of an Enlightenment whose most radical theoreticians were misfits who held a contemptuous, ultra-cerebral, exclusively materialist view of the human condition. Dark as it may appear to some of us, it was catnip to the likes of Denis Diderot, a sybarite with alley cat morals who agreed wholeheartedly that God and religion interfered with the Good Life. In his case the wish obviously was father to the thought.
Diderot had attended a Jesuit school and became a tonsured abbé headed for an ecclesiastical career until piety yielded to lust. As he tells it, “I was going to take a doctorate in theology. On my way I meet a woman beautiful as an angel; I want to sleep with her, and I do.” His marriage to the simple seamstress was mainly a façade for affairs with a succession of women, including a threesome with two sisters. (No doubt good writer’s research for his two erotic novels.) His succinct philosophy, shorn of all the philosophical claptrap: “There is nothing dependable but drinking, eating, living, loving and sleeping.” Somehow all that living, loving, etc. did not interfere with his day job editing the monumental 28-volume, 20 million-word illustrated Encyclopédie.
His sometime friend Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the great Romantic, agreed. Civilized societies with their religion-based ethics, he held, enslaved men and perverted them from their “crude but natural” morality based on immediate desires and needs. Rousseau’s own desires and needs would have barred him from polite society anywhere but Holbach’s group. They ranged from obsessively describing how he had watched a man “manipulating himself” to seeking after women willing to spank him. (His subtle technique consisted of haunting alleys and dropping his pants to moon likely prospects.)
To his credit, even the unbalanced Rousseau was uncomfortable with bleak reason as the only basis for a philosophy of life, without meaning or spirituality of any kind. Increasingly paranoid and given to rages, convinced that Holbach and Diderot were plotting to destroy his reputation, he broke with them. Voltaire, a moderate deist, was also wary of godlessness for his own reasons: as he said, he wanted his servants to believe in God so they wouldn’t rob him blind, and his wife to be pious so he wouldn’t be cuckolded.
No matter. Holbach’s well-fed coterie became the dreaming flower children of the 18th century. Their favorite hallucination was a brave new world where, as Blom sympathetically explains, “desire, erotic and otherwise, would make their world beautiful and rich.… In this godless universe there would be no more sin, no reward or punishment in an afterlife, only the search for pleasure and fear of pain.” Just as today’s New Atheists are opinionated and preachy, the hard-core Paris Enlightenment scorned those who disagreed. Edward Gibbon, though a skeptic, was revolted by the “intolerant zeal” of the philosophes, who “preached the tenets of atheism with the bigotry of dogmatists, and damned all believers with ridicule and contempt.”
To be sure, Europe’s Enlightenment was an important development in Western intellectual, moral, and political history. Its critique of the arbitrary, authoritarian state and demand for individual freedom led to nothing less than the French and American revolutions with their insistence on the right to self-government. Most mainstream Enlightenment thinkers had the good sense to distrust the human and social implications of the more radical philosophes’ ideas.
But some of those ideas lent themselves to disastrous distortion. Rousseau’s utopian notions of an ideal society ultimately based on ideological manipulation and political oppression were later used by totalitarian lunatics. Maximilien Robespierre seized on them to justify brutally de-Christianizing France during the revolution and controlling its population with state-sponsored terror. In the 20th century Lenin and Cambodia’s murderous Pol Pot, who studied Rousseau in Paris in the 1950s, cherry-picked his philosophy of a society based on guilt and paranoia.
Ironically, the radicals of the French Revolution rejected the two arch-radicals of the Enlightenment. Robespierre and his Jacobin henchmen found the notions of God and religion, grotesquely secularized into the Goddess of Reason and worship of an abstract Supreme Being, more useful in manipulating the citizenry than outright atheism. Thus it was that the remains of Holbach and Diderot finished not in Paris’s Pantheon, final resting place of France’s official Great Men, but in unknown graves, their paeans to godlessness forgotten.