"At the Origins of Modern Atheism" by Michael J.              Buckley

At the Origins of Modern Atheism Michael J. Buckley

Publication date:
29 Aug 1990
Yale University Press
253 pages: 235 x 156mm


The rise of atheism in the modern world is a religious phenomenon unprecedented in history, both in the number of its adherents and in the security of its cultural establishment.  How did so revolutionary a conviction as this arise?  What can theological reflection learn from this massive shift in religious consciousness?


In this book, Michael J. Buckley investigates the origins and development of modern atheism and argues convincingly that its impetus lies paradoxically in the very attempts to counter it.  Although modern atheism finds its initial exponents in Denis Diderot and Paul d’Holbach in the eighteenth century, their works bring to completion a dialectical process that reaches back to the theologians and philosophers of an earlier period.  During the seventeenth century, theologians such as Leonard Lessius and Marin Mersenne determined that in order to defend the existence of god, religious apologetics must become philosophy, surrendering as its primary warrant any intrinsically religious experience or evidence.  The most influential philosophers of the period, René Descartes and Isaac Newton, and the theologians who followed them accepted this settlement, and the new sciences were enlisted to provide the foundation for religion.


Almost no one suspected the profound contradictions that this process entailed and that would eventually resolve themselves through the negation of god.  In transferring to other areas of human experience and inquiry its fundamental responsibility to deal with the existence of god, religion dialectically generated its own denial.  The origins and extraordinary power of modern atheism lie with this progressive self-alienation of religion itself.

"This study redefines an area of investigation. Its method sets new principles for the study of religion in the history of ideas. In addition, its witty and entertaining style renders it a pleasure to read."?Louis Dupr‚, Yale University               

"A splendid account of the development of modern atheism."?John Kent, Times Higher Education Supplement

"Buckley throws new light on familiar ground and is led into some seldom-trod byways of intellectual history. . . . The book is exhaustively researched and well written. It will be the rare historian who will not learn something new from this excellent book."?Choice

"[A] learned essay in the history of ideas."?Thomas V. Morris, Commonweal

"A book of outstanding significance. . . . An excellent book, one which anyone should read who is concerned about the question of Christianity's relation to current philosophical and scientific thought."?Anthony Hanson, Faith and Thought

"This capaciously learned and brilliantly written book sets out to answer a deceptively simple question: 'How did the idea of atheism emerge in the modern world and take so firm a hold?'. . . . Buckley argues persuasively that his kind of detailed intellectual history is not only germane to, but the very stuff of, authentically creative theology. . . . This is one of the most interesting and closely argued works on theology that I have read in the last decade."?Lawrence S. Cunningham, Theology Today

"More a history of theism than of atheism, but that as it should be; atheism is parasitic upon the beliefs whose truth it denies."?Stephen Grover, Times Literary Supplement

"This is a work of quite outstanding achievement. . . . Apart from wealth of historical knowledge displayed, what I found particularly valuable was Buckley's insistence that we see the writers as they saw themselves."?David Brown, Journal of Theological Studies

"Michael Buckley has gone for broke in his big, bold, highly readable book, At The Origins of Modern Atheism. Because this important new work treats a crucial but strangely little analyzed modern intellectual phenomenon in a serious, comprehensive, and lengthy fashion, it will undoubtedly be taken as an indispensable new focus for future discussions about the relation of reason to religious apologetics in the early modern period and about method in the history of ideas."?James E. Force, Journal of the History of Ideas

"Buckley explores the writings of these pivotal thinkers with impressive learning and care."?Frederick J. Crossen, Key Reporter

"I have learned much from this fine piece by Michael Buckley. After unraveling the warp of theism and the woof of atheism, he does not leave us simply with the empty loom. He leads us back to the inner resources of Christianity, as if to say with John of the Cross, "God spoke one Word, and then He kept silence."?John S. Dunne, Theological Studies 

"This robust book. . . . spells out, in magnificent detail, a disturbingly simple thesis: The rise of atheism in the Christian West is substantially rooted in a theological failure. . . . The book offers wonderful flashes of irony, wit and sophisticated common sense. . . . Father Buckley's book succeeds in lighting a candle; it stands as a monument to fortitude."?Frans Jozef Van Beeck, America

"Five centuries ago, the peoples of the West almost universally believed in a Creator God. Today, belief in God has ebbed. How did this change come about? In an erudite essay in the history of ideas, Michael Buckley, s.j. traces the sources of the change back to the theologians of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries who met the new challenges to theistic belief not by calling on Christology or religious experience but upon philosophy."?Ernan McMullin, Commonweal

"A work of great lucidity, significance, and historical understanding. Father Buckley has written a capacious book that is at once bold and compelling in its broadest thesis and incisive in its particular analyses. It links the Englightenment convincingly to the broader culture from which it emerged, and links both of these to the profoundest issues of the evolution of our civilization. It merits ongoing consideration and commentary from a variety of disciplines and perspectives, and should occupy an important place in eighteenth-century studies."?Alan Charles Kors, Eighteenth-Century Studies

"Buckley's book is most provocative. It has to be taken into account in forming a view of what has been involved in the making of the modern mind."?Richard H. Popkin, American Historical Review

"A thoughtful and illuminating probe into the philosophical and theological development of atheism since Thomas Aquinas. . . . Buckley's effortless prose melds philosophical and theological history without losing the rigor of sound argument and analysis."?Mark C. E. Peterson, Philosophy of Religion

"A splendid, bold endeavor."?John Milbank, Modern Theology

"As learned as it is eloquent, Buckley's study of the dialectics of modern atheism offers to scholars interested in Western intellectual history a compelling picture of how the systematic denial of God became not only thinkable, but even persuasive."?Michael Wolfe, Religious Studies Review