Atheist Identity and Ideology in Eighteenth-Century France

  • Author / Creator
    Apps, Lara M.
  • This dissertation examines atheist identity and ideology in eighteenth-century France up to 1776 through an analysis of numerous atheist texts, including several little-known clandestine works and the more familiar books of Jean Meslier, Julien Offray de La Mettrie and the Baron d’Holbach. It departs from most previous historiography on pre-modern atheism by fusing intellectual- and cultural-historical approaches; most importantly, it incorporates gender analysis in the interpretation of atheist texts. This research demonstrates the importance of the eighteenth century to our understanding of the continuities and ruptures in the development of atheism. For eighteenth-century atheists, writing and sharing their views was a way of resisting repression, practicing atheism within a hostile environment, and changing the social imaginary by intervening in a discourse that dehumanized them. Further, the atheist texts express a sense of identity by defining atheists as different from other members of society in several specific ways, including intellectual and moral superiority. This identity re-humanized atheists but also excluded women and the common people, on the grounds that they were not capable of understanding virtuous atheism. Atheists thus claimed for themselves the positions of wise fathers and leaders. Finally, some atheist writers presented ideological visions of ideal societies, based on the core concepts of the materiality of the world, the necessity of organizing societies rationally in accordance with nature’s laws, and the subordination of individuality to the common good and social or moral order. The atheist ideology was essentially optimistic concerning human progress, but its elitist and patriarchal aspects challenge the view of atheism as necessarily democratic and progressive.

  • Subjects / Keywords
  • Graduation date
    Fall 2016
  • Type of Item
  • Degree
    Doctor of Philosophy
  • DOI
  • License
    This thesis is made available by the University of Alberta Libraries with permission of the copyright owner solely for non-commercial purposes. This thesis, or any portion thereof, may not otherwise be copied or reproduced without the written consent of the copyright owner, except to the extent permitted by Canadian copyright law.