Here is an absolutely fascinating new book concerning a particular feature of French Christian culture and learning in the early modern period of the late 17th and early 18th centuries–the hypothetical atheist, which challenged and served as a counterpoint to, but was included well within, the traditional Christian intellectual world. That is, atheism was not an underground concept that disrupted established Christianity from the outside, but, in the author’s view, very much at the center of French Catholic debate, thought, and education.
The book is Naturalism and Unbelief in France: 1650-1729, by the eminent intellectual historian, Alan Charles Kors (OUP).
Atheism was the most fundamental challenge to early-modern French certainties. Leading educators, theologians and philosophers labelled such atheism as manifestly absurd, confident that neither the fact nor behaviour of nature was explicable without reference to God. The alternative was a categorical naturalism. This book demonstrates that the Christian learned world had always contained the naturalistic ‘atheist’ as an interlocutor and a polemical foil, and its early-modern engagement and use of the hypothetical atheist were major parts of its intellectual life. In the considerations and polemics of an increasingly fractious orthodox culture, the early-modern French learned world gave real voice and eventually life to that atheistic presence. Without understanding the actual context and convergence of the inheritance, scholarship, fierce disputes, and polemical modes of orthodox culture, the early-modern generation and dissemination of absolute naturalism are inexplicable. This book brings to life that Christian learned culture, its dilemmas, and its unintended consequences.