Bayle, Meslier, d’Holbach, Diderot
- ISBN: 9781474478434
- Published By: Edinburgh University Press
- Published: February 2021
Charles Devellennes’ Positive Atheism: Bayle, Meslier, d’Holbach, Diderot examines the transformation of atheism from a negative conception, denying the existence of god, to a positive one, asserting that there is no god as a doctrine on its own merits. The narrative examines four 18th-century thinkers named in the book’s subtitle, and three arguments in the introduction set the stage for this positive atheism project. Firstly, building on the work of Michael Buckley and Alan Charles Kors, Devellennes reasserts that “starting with the accusers of ‘atheists’ is counterproductive to the study of atheism as a phenomenon” (2). This seems reason enough for the description “positive atheism,” for atheism as a pejorative seems to have been the dominant mode until recent history. Second, “atheism itself is a radical doctrine” (2), thus any description of atheism must unpack what the concept contains, and following the first point, must separate the doctrine from unhelpful caricatures. Finally, Devellennes notes that his approach of critical history and hermeneutics provides an important angle to the study of atheism. The introduction does a good job clarifying terms, including “positive atheism” as a constructive doctrine rather than an apologetic definition meaning active denial of God (11) and the differing “radicalisms” the studied figures advanced.
The role of each writer in Devellennes’ narrative of positive atheism is clear. Pierre Bayle establishes the possibility of a virtuous atheist and the importance of critical methodologies. Jean Meslier, a priest, writes in his memoirs of his atheism and outlines the revolutionary politics which flow from his secret confession (or lack thereof). Paul-Henri Thiry, Holbach, develops from his materialism a comprehensive virtue utilitarianism. Finally, Holbach’s friend Denis Diderot demonstrates a position that “moves past” atheism, not settling on a doctrinal formulation of the divine but developing a social contract theory and ethical stance rooted in a commitment to materialism.
Devellennes does a wonderful job presenting a consistent reading of Bayle on atheism across not only the philosopher’s Dictionnaire historique et critique (1697), but Bayle’s less well known works as well. Yet the standout study for this reviewer was the chapter on Meslier. Although less well known than Bayle, Holbach, or Diderot, Devellennes aptly demonstrates Meslier’s importance in the development of positive atheism. Meslier is positioned as the exemplar of Bayle’s virtuous atheist within European culture and his importance in formulating a self-avowed atheism is well demonstrated in Devellennes’ narrative (77).
Devellennes’ concluding chapter seeks to demonstrate that, post-Diderot and by the end of the 18th century, a “metatheism” had arrived on the scene. Drawing on Hans-Georg Gadamer and G. W. F. Hegel, Devellennes describes metatheism as a dialectic between a negative atheism that reacts to theistic positions and a positive atheism that establishes the doctrine as “worthy of independent evaluation” (26). With the arrival of metatheism, atheism can exist as a tool for revolutionary critique, without constant reference to theistic opponents or its own doctrinal legitimacy. As Devellennes writes, “Both the reaction to other positions and the building of a positive doctrine are needed to be able to move past atheism” (207). A metatheism exists alongside the negative and positive conceptions of atheism, but is no longer restricted to “talking” about atheism. Rather, it moves into the space atheism has opened up, whether in new political configurations or ethical theories.
One potential drawback of Devellennes’ study is its regional focus. Recent studies of religion in the Enlightenment have drawn attention to the traditional focus on France within foundational studies of the period (Peter Gay, Ernst Cassirer) while also indicating that other regions did not experience such a hostile relationship with religion. Now, Devellennes is aware of this regionality and suggests “the precise national character of this doctrine is not the message to remember here” (4). I admit to being unsatisfied with this lack of exposition on the “particularly French flavour” of positive atheism. The universality of this intellectual history could be stated more strongly by dealing more explicitly with the French-centric nature of the narrative, even if it is only a contingent feature of the book.
Though I was skeptical of such a constructive project emerging from the studied cases, I am persuaded by Devellennes’ trajectory. Despite the great differences between chosen figures' beliefs, politics, and social circles, their shared arguments for positive atheism also propel a shared vision of tolerance. All four propose radical change to political systems based on their formulations of positive atheism, even as they differ in their views of what means should be taken to achieve those goals. Finally, I should draw attention to how delightfully concise this book is, containing studies of four thinkers together with a constructive proposal in 200 pages. The reader is well served by necessary benchmarks and overviews of fields being quickly summarized and left to oneself to pursue further. Devellennes has written an important contribution to our understanding of Enlightenment religion and the history of atheism.
Parker Cotton is a doctoral candidate in theology at Wycliffe College, University of Toronto.Parker CottonDate Of Review:October 30, 2023