Moments in Atheism

Big Problems Curriculum, University of Chicago
Shadi Bartsch (Classics) and Sean Carroll (Physics)

gd1Winter quarter, 2004


Atheism is as old as religion. As religion and its place in society have evolved throughout history, so have the standing and philosophical justification for non-belief. This course will examine the intellectual and cultural history of atheism in Western thought from antiquity to the present. We will be concerned with the evolution of arguments for a non-religious worldview, as well as the attitude of society toward atheism and atheists.

The course is listed as Big Problems 24600, and cross-listed as Classics 22400, History 29402, and Religious Studies 25200.

Grades will be based on an in-class midterm, research paper, and a final exam. Extensions will be granted with 48 hours notice.


Classes will meet Tuesdays and Thursdays at 1:30-2:50 p.m. during Winter Quarter, 2004. Lectures will be in Judd 126.

Class on February 19th will be led by Michael Buckley, S.J., of Boston College. On Friday the 20th Father Buckley will deliver a public lecture on “Atheism and Contemplation.” The lecture will be at 3:00 p.m. at the Franke Institute.

Final papers will be due Tuesday, March 2nd, at the beginning of class (1:30 p.m.). Don’t believe what the syllabus says.

There will be no class on Thursday, March 4th. (Or on Thursday, March 11th, which is reading day in the College.)

The final exam will be on Thursday, March 18th, from 1:30 to 3:30 in Judd 126.


Here is a pdf version of the syllabus. We haven’t been following it slavishly. Here is a list of some important “isms” to help you keep them straight.

  • The Ancient World (Democritus, Sophists, Lucretius)
  • Faith and Reason (Tertullian, Augustine, Gibbon, Roger Bacon, Aquinas, Ockham)
  • The Clockwork Universe (Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Newton)
  • Enlightenment I (Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Voltaire)
  • Enlightenment II (Hume, Kant, d’Holbach, de La Mettrie, Paine)
  • Evolution and the Argument from Design (Paley, Hume, Darwin, Huxley)
  • Unmasking Religion (Feuerbach, Marx, Nietzsche, Freud)
  • 20th Century Explorations: Advocacy to Existentialism (Goldman, O’Hair, Russell, Dawkins, Camus)
  • The Pointless Universe (Weinberg, Hawking, Rorty)


These are required books; we will also assemble a course packet of shorter readings. Books can be purchased at the Seminary Coop.

Here is a link to Voltaire’s Philosophical Dictionary. You should read the entries on Atheism (I & II), Religion, and Free Will.

Click on the titles to see the entry for each book.

Shadi Bartsch
Sean Carroll
TA: Brendan Boyle

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