As John Calvin wrote in 1560, “there remaineth nothing else for the rest but the reproach of atheism.” Catholics, by contrast, argued that Protestantism was a negative rather than a positive religion, not a belief system at all but a subtraction from the beliefs of the church.
The brand-new word “atheist” emerged for the first time in the middle of the sixteenth century, almost simultaneously in every European language, as a way of signaling this new controversy.
As the Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor asked in his 2007 book A Secular Age: “Why was it virtually impossible not to believe in God in, say, 1500 in our Western society, while in 2000 many of us find this not only easy, but even inescapable?
” I think we’re looking at the wrong part of this question—atheists—when we should be looking at the really interesting part: belief.
Perhaps the most remarkable example comes from the German mystic Sebastian Franck—one of the most important of the so-called “radical reformers”—who insisted that authentic belief is only possible through union with the godhead.
He thus forthrightly declared in 1534 that “there is not a single believer on earth.” If Charles Taylor says that in 1500 it was virtually impossible not to believe in God, but Sebastian Franck wrote in 1534 that there is not a single believer on earth, then obviously we’re missing something.This framework reached the shores of North America most famously in Thomas Jefferson’s 1786 act establishing religious freedom in Virginia.There Jefferson wrote, “Our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions any more than our opinions in physics or geometry.” This statement would have been literally nonsensical in the sixteenth century—religion was not considered the stuff of opinion at all (neither, for that matter, was science, but that is a different story).Opinion is raised up to a new level, while religious belief is knocked down a peg.In this brave new world, I might believe a religious doctrine in much the same way I believe that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone, or that the sun is part of the Milky Way galaxy: I judge it to be true based upon whatever evidence I find most probative.But if you require a reason, and think that the subject demands inquiry, then you do not believe.” Of course, by these arguments, wrong belief could easily be dismissed as not really belief at all.It was instead merely a kind of opinion, the result of trusting in some profane evidence or argument rather than the perfection of God and the church.By this definition, opinion might sometimes contain some truth, but it always contained falsehood, so opinion could never be a religious virtue.Belief, by contrast, was virtuous because by definition it was assured.With the fragmentation of Western Christianity, “belief” became a way of asserting exclusive possession of rare and valuable truths, and the rival churches proved unwilling to grant belief-status to their enemies.Protestants doubled down on the authoritarian implications of medieval belief, arguing that “believers” were not those obedient to the church but the tiny minority whom God chose to save, the elect.