Descartes (1596 – 1650) gave arguments against atheism, as did Blaise Pascal (1623 – 1662). Yet the first prominent atheist I can think of is David Hume (1711 - 1776), and even he wasn't explicit. From what I can see, it wasn't unit the 19th can century that you find explicitly atheist philosophy (Marx, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, etc...).

So who exactly were Descartes, Pascal, and others arguing against when they critiqued atheism? Were there any prominent atheist writers in the late renaissance or early enlightenment?

  • Just for reference, we are here defining atheism as belief that there is no god? (and in this case professed belief). Does it matter what definition of god is used?
    – virmaior
    Oct 23, 2017 at 4:51
  • @virmaior "we are here defining atheism as belief that there is no god?" Yes. "Does it matter what definition of god is used?" Not really. Although I guess that I was thinking mostly of the traditional definitions of the Abrahamic God. Oct 23, 2017 at 4:59
  • Already answered in your previous post: who-was-descartes-trying-to-refute-when-he-came-up-with-his-cogito Oct 23, 2017 at 6:03
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    For Descartes, the question of infidelity was not one of intellect but of a willful refusal to submit, so it seems more likely that his concern was infidels in general rather than any particular atheists whom he might have considered prominent thinkers: "The sin that Turks and other infidels commit by refusing to embrace the Christian religion does not arise from their unwillingness to assent to obscure matters [...], but from their resistance to the impulses of divine grace within them, or from the fact that they make themselves unworthy of grace by their other sins." (AT VII 148)
    – user3017
    Oct 23, 2017 at 13:30
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    Did you see Wikipedia's History of Atheism article? It has a section on the relevant period which explains the social context. The term was used as derogatory with deists, pantheists, mechanists, Bruno, Gassendi, Spinoza, Hobbes, Diderot, Voltaire, etc., liberally labeled "atheists".
    – Conifold
    Oct 25, 2017 at 21:01

2 Answers 2


Just a partial non-answer here: shortly after Luther, catholics and protestants started calling each other 'atheists' and the word rapidly became a disparaging description without literal content. A classic example is found in Mersenne's writings (Quaestiones celeberrimae in Genesim, Paris, 1623):

« Pour qu'on ne me soupçonne pas de me plaindre à tort et qu'on n'aille pas soutenir qu'il y a peu de gens qui nient Dieu ou qu'il n'y en a pas du tout, il faut qu'on sache qu'en France et dans les autres pays, le nombre de ces infâmes athées est tellement considérable, qu'il y a lieu de s'étonner que Dieu les laisse vivre. Boverius assure que ces suppôts du démon sont en France près de soixante mille. Mais pourquoi parler de toute la France? La ville de Paris en contient au moins cinquante mille pour sa part, et dans une seule maison on en pourrait compter quelquefois jusqu'à douze qui vomissent cette impieté. La Sagesse, de Charron, le Prince, de Machiavel, le livre de Cardan sur la Subtilité, les écrits de Campanella, les dialogues de Vanini, les ouvrages de Fludd et de beaucoup d'autres sont pleins d'athéisme. »

The numbers and names given here surely will cause eyebrows to raise but the wording is explicit.


My read of Pascal is that he was speaking to those who just didn't think religion was important personally. These people didn't have a specific atheistic philosophy, they were just not interested in things like worship, prayer, alms-giving, chastity etc., but preferred making money, sport, and warfare. "All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone." (Pensées)

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