You might think that, if you have no religion, no one will bother you. After all, the rivalry is between Catholics and Protestants — surely you can simply rise above the controversy? There you would be wrong. The atheist is the enemy of all, being utterly godless and therefore outside the scope of Elizabethan morality. As Francis Bacon writes in his essay ‘On Atheism’: ‘they that deny God destroy a man’s nobility; for certainly man is of kin to the beasts by his body; and, if he be not kin to God by his spirit, he is a base and ignoble creature’.
Not believing in God is like not believing in trees. Most people simply cannot conceive of a line dividing the metaphysical and the physical. To them the two are indivisibly linked. Creation cannot exist without its creator. However, from the middle of the century, certain people start to be labelled as ‘atheists’ by their enemies. Some even admit themselves to being nulla fidians, or ‘nothing believers’. Then, in 1583, Philip Stubbes writes his Anatomy of Abuses, which defines atheists as people who ‘deny there is any God’. Atheism as we know it is born.
Interesting. I went back and checked Jennifer Hecht’s book Doubt, but didn’t see any mention of Stubbes. My exhaustive scholarly research thus completed, I’m happy to take Mortimer’s word for it. Mainly, I was just glad for this passage reintroducing me to that wonderful word nullifidian, whose acquaintance I had first made over a decade ago, only for us to inexplicably lose touch with each other in recent years. Here, though, its description makes it sound like an assertive type of disbelief, similar to our conception of nihilism — “We believe in nothing, Lebowski, nothing.” But in my understanding, its modern usage indicates the mere absence of faith or religious belief. Yes, this would be the infamous “dictionary atheism”, condemned as insufficient by Peezus and his disciples and cast into the bottomless pit to be shut up with a seal placed upon it, so that it would deceive the nations no more. Perhaps, then, this term could be adopted by those wishing to differentiate themselves from the progressive atheist cult.