Do The Divisions in Christianity From the Reformation, Actually Encourage Atheism?


I have been reading Philip Hughes’ A Popular History of The Catholic Church, (Macmillan, 1962). Beginning on page 221 Hughes wrote of the basic principal of the reformers, “the right of private judgment”, where the individual “with the Bible at his disposal would…come surely and safely to a knowledge of divine truth” without an “impersonal teaching authority in religious matters”.

He continued, “From the first months of the movement there were however, divergences among the Bible readers as to the meaning of what they read. With the centuries these divergences grew and the sects multiplied. Such a development was inevitable, and there being one solution to whatever difficulties the sacred text or the remnants of the traditional doctrine presented-namely the honest opinion of the individual-it was no long time before skepticism as to the truths alleged to be taught by the Bible began to grow, skepticism as to such fundamental truths even as the very existence of God”.

He wrote that there had always been an “undercurrent of atheism in Europe which was closely connected to the natural sciences and allied to the practice of an unmoral life”. And then he asserted “the breakdown of belief in religious authority throughout Europe brought about by the Lutheran-Calvinist revolution finally set it, (atheism), free to develop, scarcely hindered now save by convention”.

His contention that atheism was helped by dissention and revolution in the Church, due to its causing a more widespread skepticism in the world, is intriguing to me and I am asking if members of this forum have heard of or thought of that connection before, and does the fact that Christianity is so “decentralized/fragmented” and argues so much fuel atheism?

Peace to All


Definitely. And it furthered the rise of the state, which I think was one of the most powerful influences behind secularism because it gave people analternate source of identity and meaning.



Yes, more than if the Church were able to stay together. We are saved by Christ but still descendents of Adam and Eve. Christ came incarnationally into our midst, died for us and talked about unity. We should work hard to pick unity back up. It is our Christian calling to be one body. (Yet not a weak mamby, pamby unity. But a unity based on the truth.)


This seems like a plausible theory, but it isn’t scholarly. Take it for what it is worth. Atheism and states existed long before Christ and have since continued.


JS: 1. what would it take to make it scholarly?, and 2. the OP I submitted reported athesim existed at the time of the reformation, but asked if the fragmentation of the Church set free and encouraged atheists in a new way?

In Christ


The “Reformation”, if one wants to call it that, opened up the door to new thoughts and new ideas. “New” isn’t necessarily “good”. As a result of the “Reformation”, wars ensued. These wars, really about political goals that religion itself, engulfed Europe and spread to the New World. The American Revolution is one of those results, albeit indirectly.

The writings of Rousseau and Voltaire led to Robespierre, the French Revolution and Napoleon. Voltaire wanted the Catholic Church to be destroyed in France. Following that, Marx and Nietcshe (sic), so-called philosophers who hated religion, appeared on the scene.

Maybe it’s more a cause and effect kind of thing, but Protestantism has led to continued fractures in Christianity and a weaker Christianity to battle against secularism and its outgrowths, Nazism and Communism.


With all due respect, your statement is the one that is too simplistic (no doubt Hughes is oversimplifying as well). Whether there have actually been atheists in all periods of history is seriously open to question. And of course there have been “states” in the sense that there have been governing bodies of some sort. But there is a particular kind of political structure, the nation-state, that has its roots in the Middle Ages and began to coalesce into something more powerful and solid in the early modern period. A good case can be made that there were no “states” (in this narrow sense) in the Middle Ages, although of course there were various kinds of civil governments.



Edwin absolutely nailed it.

The Reformation led directly to absolute monarchies and upset the prior balance in the West between secular and religious authorities. It created centuries of extreme tension between the two spheres, resulted in the most devastating wars ever seen prior to the time, and led to the replacement of the concept of Christendom by nationalism. The State soon had a vested interest in controlling and channeling activities formerly considered religious in nature, from charitable works in the more liberal societies to the elevation of the State as god in the more authoritarian regimes.

All of this was a necessary consequence of the formerly unifying power of the Catholic Church waning in the West as a result of the Reformation.


I should also note that one can trace the inflection point between Church and State dominance to Napoleon seizing the crown of France out of the Pope’s hands and crowning himself Emperor of the French shortly after his victory at Austerlitz. David’s famous painting captures this moment perfectly.


We all must remember that just before these times, most of the known world, especially in the west, was a part of the Roman Empire. When the Empire began to shrink, then fall apart, that created a vacuum where small states, led by the strongman in the area, usually a prince, began to come to the forefront especially in countries like Italy and Germany. In addition larger countries led by monarchs were free to expand their own holdings as well.

I tend to agree with Hughes, that with all that going on in the period leading up to the reformation, when the socalled reformation began to take hold, where many of it’s subjects either battled with or left and ignored the Church, normally following the lead of their secular leaders, who held the real power in the area. Hughes continues on saying that with the example of so many becoming anti-Catholic Church, others , (as humans always seem to do), were free to go even further and not only challenge the authority of the Church, but the existence of God as well.

One of my favorite sayings to live by is “Never argue with an idiot because the spectators can’t tell the difference”. For the last 500 years, especially the last 100 years in America, when Christians have what seems like idiotic and public arguments, the not yet believing spectators can become very turned off towards religious thought all together.

We know from history that rebellion breeds further rebellion so did the public rebellion which began in the mid-1500s breed even further rebellion to the extent that we now live in a society which tries its best to eliminate everything of or about God.

Am I doing 2 plus 2 equals 5?

Peace to All


No, I think you’re right on. The difference between the Reformation and prior schisms is that the Reformed communities have no steadfast mechanisms for preventing further schisms within. This initially was less of a problem because they hitched their community to the princes—as long as the prince was a Lutheran or a Calvinist, they would take care of making sure their subjects were the same. This was all well and good of course for the Reformers until the prince either decided they were in fact something else or they resented clerical influence altogether.

Once people come to believe that religion is a function of their individual interpretations, that there is no need for clerical intervention, and that as long as they are convinced they are saved they are, what precisely stops them from forming their own sects or bouncing around until they find one that suits their idiosyncracies best?

The last refuge of the schismatic, therefore, is The Atomic Church of Me.


DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in these forums do not necessarily reflect those of Catholic Answers. For official apologetics resources please visit