- The Atheist’s Bible: The Most Dangerous Book That Never Existed by Georges Minois
In this engaging, comprehensive study, the noted French historian Georges Minois traces the shadowy lineage of an atheistic text called the Treatise of the Three Impostors (in its Latin version, De tribus impostoribus; in the French, Traité des trois imposteurs). This menacing document was first hinted at in [End Page 307] 1239 in a letter in which Pope Gregory IX accused his archenemy, the freethinking and twice excommunicated Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, of “openly stat[ing] that...the whole world has been fooled by three impostors, Jesus Christ, Moses, and Muhammad” (1). Gregory accused Frederick of proclaiming that these men were charlatans and that their respective religious traditions were hoaxes perpetrated on the credulous and simple-minded. This accusation quickly morphed into the widespread belief that one of the emperor’s chief intellectual advisers had composed a treatise on the subject, the Treatise of the Three Impostors (the titular “Atheist’s Bible”), scandalous both because it suggested that Christ was a faker, and further because it grouped him with Moses and Mohammad and thus put Christianity on the same level as Judaism and Islam. The actual text, however, remained elusive; although it was whispered about for generations, and associated over the years with a number of heterodox, heretical, and atheistic figures who were accused of writing or possessing it, the treatise itself was never actually seen. Not, that is, until manuscripts and then printed editions began to appear in related but independent Latin and French editions (the latter associated with the work of Benedict de Spinoza, although he himself is unlikely to have written it) in the late-seventeenth and early-eighteenth centuries when an increase in religious toleration and scientific atheism finally made its contents appear at least somewhat less incendiary.
To tell this tale, Minois, who has a gift for relating a complex story in a comprehensible way, assembles and stitches together a vast array of details to solve the mystery of the origins of a text that challenged the fundamental social and political premises of Europe from the Middle Ages through the Enlightenment. It is therefore also the more general story of the intellectual transformations and revolutions that shaped the trajectory of the continent’s development toward the world that is familiar to us today, and Minois is at his best when he pairs his painstaking reconstruction of the history of this phantom menace with an intellectual-historical account of the growth and development of atheistic and secular thought over this long period. In this way, The Atheist’s Bible stands as a testament, so to speak, to the ways in which book history and intellectual history are mutually illuminating when paired together to investigate broader cultural movements.
In the final chapter of his study, Minois, having traced the emergence of the text in print over four and a half centuries, finally turns to an extended discussion of its content. The Treatise of the Three Impostors maintains that religion was a tool invented to captivate and control the ignorant (hence its claim that the world’s prophets were “impostors”), designed to keep the people in fear of an afterlife in order to make their social and political domination possible in this world. Here, the approach of the earlier chapters in tracing the roots of atheistic thought bears its fruit; the importance of this earlier legwork—the discussions of Averroes and Moses Maimonides, of Machiavelli and Boccaccio, of Hobbes and Spinoza—becomes apparent, because the eventual printed versions of the text are, in part, accretions of various strains of the materialistic and potentially heterodox writings of these titanic figures. This is the sense in which the appearance of the text can be understood in part as a manifestation of a long, if somewhat tenuous, counter-history of heterodox [End Page 308] intellectual life in Europe. That is why, as Minois puts it, borrowing from and paraphrasing Voltaire (who was himself accused of...