Atheism was not a popular movement in antiquity and it did not have a substantial following. The first use of the term atheism can be traced back to the Greek scholar Sir John Cheke, born in 1514, in a translation of Plutarch's On Superstition.
In France during the 1600s, atheism inspired polemical writings and socio-political measures against its worldview. Atheism was perceived as a threat even as early as the 1700s in Britain. The celebrated playwright and essayist Joseph Addison wrote a book titled The Evidence of the Christian Religion, which had a section against atheism.
Although atheism was not a popular movement in Britain, the seeds of disbelief had already been planted and some of their fruits were already growing.
The 17th and 18th centuries were marked by significant intellectual achievements that paved the way for an academic type of scepticism and a form of non-dogmatic atheism. There were many philosophers and thinkers responsible for this.
In 1689, the Polish thinker Kazimierz Lyszczynski denied the existence of God in his De non existential dei. Lyszczynski maintained that God is a creation of man and that humans created the concept of God to oppress others.
In 1674 Matthias Knutzen, who had a large following across Europe, produced writings in support of atheism.
In the 1700s the likes of David Hume and Voltaire presented arguments and ideas that would provide the necessary intellectual seeds for atheism to take root. Voltaire argued for deism, which is a philosophical and theological position which asserts that a single creator exists, but rejects the role of revelation and the authority of religious knowledge. David Hume wrote a corpus of material on the issue of God and religion. He argued that the idea of God was incomprehensible. He also contended the idea of God's necessary existence and attempted to expose the weakness and limitations of the argument from design.
During the 19th century, an important figure in the fight to make atheism acceptable was Charles Bradlaugh. A member of the British parliament, he fought a long battle to make atheism acceptable to society. Although he did not achieve his goals, by the end of the 19th century he paved the way for others to continue the battle for acceptability and respect.
Bradlaugh's activism was not solely focused on convincing British society to accept atheism; it was also dedicated to show that atheism makes humanity happier and increases the well-being of man. He wrote in his essay, Humanity's Gain from Unbelief "As an unbeliever, I ask leave to plead that humanity has been a real gainer from scepticism and that the gradual and growing rejection of Christianity-like the rejection of the faiths which preceded it-has in fact added and will add, to man's happiness and wellbeing."
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