GODLESS FICTIONS IN THE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY
A literary history of atheism
JAMES BRYANT REEVES
260pp. Cambridge University Press. 75 [pounds sterling].
"LET THE DOG BE AN ATHEIST, or worse, if worse can be", the painter Joseph Highmore wrote to Samuel Richardson about Lovelace, who abducts and rapes Clarissa in Richardson's novel of that name. Richardson disagreed, arguing that the pious Clarissa would never have been attracted by an atheist in the first place. While Lovelace is a libertine, he is carefully never made an unbeliever--which only adds to the tragedy of the story. But the exchange illustrates how, for many in the eighteenth century, atheists and villains were synonymous.
Lovelace could have been deemed a practical atheist, someone who acted as if there were no God to monitor and judge one's behaviour. This category could include those who only paid lipservice to religion: in his satirical pamphlet An Argument Against Abolishing Christianity, Jonathan Swift levelled the charge against ecclesiastical timeservers. It was routinely distinguished from speculative atheism--thinking one's way into an atheistical position--and the two were condemned for different reasons. In our own time, when mainstream commentators so often link religious belief with bigotry or intellectual naivety, it can be hard to remember that their eighteenth-century counterparts thought atheists stupid, quoting the Psalms for support: "The fool hath said in his heart, there is no God".
Of the writers covered by James Bryant Reeves in the main body of his book--William Cowper, Sarah Fielding, Phebe Gibbes and Alexander Pope...