Emancipation from what? To listen to some atheists, they want to free themselves from the shackles of religion in order to practice virtue. “In a world where God is no longer present,” Santiago Zabala writes in The Future of Religion, man is now free “to actively practice solidarity, charity, and irony.” What admirable motives! The only problem is that you don’t have to get rid of religion to be charitable in the name of human brotherhood. As Francis of Assisi or Mother Teresa could have told Zabala, charity and human kinship are two of Christianity’s central themes.

It is time to look more honestly and critically at the real motives behind modern atheism. These are often different and more interesting than the surface motives usually given by or ascribed to atheist figures. It is widely believed, for example, that Darwin lost his faith when he discovered that natural selection, not God, was responsible for the evolution of life forms. But Darwin himself says he lost his faith because he could not endure the Christian notion of eternal damnation. We also learn from his writings that Darwin suffered terribly from the loss of his ten-year-old daughter, Annie. One gets the powerful sense that he could not forgive God. Atheism, in some cases, is a form of revenge.

These are powerful motives for unbelief, but they are not the main motive. We have to probe deeper, and one way to do it is to go back in history, all the way back to the ancient philosophers Epicurus, Democritus, and Lucretius. My account of this is indebted to Ben Wiker’s marvelous book Moral Darwinism.” Epicurus is mainly known today as a hedonist, and he was. But like Lucretius and Democritus, he was also a materialist. All three of these pre-Socratic thinkers believed that material reality is all there is. Lucretius and Democritus even suggested that man is made up wholly-of atoms, an uncanny foreshadowing of modern physics. At the time that the pre-Socratics wrote, however, there was no scientific evidence to back up any of their mechanistic claims about the natural world. Why then were they so attracted to teachings that were completely without empirical basis?