Positive Atheism

Bayle, Meslier, d’Holbach, Diderot

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Charles Devellennes
  • Edinburgh: 
    Edinburgh University Press
    , February
     240 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Charles Devellennes looks at the the religious, social and political thought of the first four thinkers of the French Enlightenment: Pierre Bayle, Jean Meslier, Paul-Henri Thiry d’Holbach and Denis Diderot to explicitly argue for atheism as a positive philosophy.

Atheism evolved considerably over the century that spans the works of these four authors: from the possibility of the virtuous atheist in the late 17th century, to a deeply rooted materialist philosophy with radical social and political consequences by the eve of the French revolution. The metamorphosis of atheism from a purely negative phenomenon to one that became self-aware had profound consequences for establishing an ethics without God and the rise of republicanism as a political philosophy.

Culminating in the work of Diderot, atheism became increasingly critical of its own position. By the late 18th century, it had already proposed to move past its positive formulation into a form of metatheism. Diderot, who sees atheism as both a critical tool to assess religious, social and political institutions and as an object of his own critique, foreshadows the rise of a post-Enlightenment conception of atheism.

About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Charles Devellennes is senior lecturer in political and social thought at the University of Kent. He has written extensively on the history of political thought, including on d'Holbach and Meslier, as well as on atheism both in its historical context and contemporary expressions. His recent works include critiques of the new materialism, as well as a rethinking of the social contract for the Gilets Jaunes movement in France.


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