The 1755 Lisbon Earthquake – The Start of Atheism in Europe?

Growing up, history was one of my least favorite subjects in school. Maybe it was the dull uninspiring teachers who seemed to drone on with dates, names and dusty facts. Or maybe my personality simply preferred math, science and logic. But I didn’t like history. In college, I finally realized how significant history was. My church history class was truly fascinating, and world history became interesting as well.

Combination photo shows main Lisbon cathedral Se de Lisboa before and after its rebuildingSomehow, I totally missed the history lesson on the natural disaster that befell Lisbon Portugal in 1755. I also never knew about the surge of philosophical thought that came as a result. Here’s a quick summary if you’re unfamiliar with it.

The year was 1755. The place was Lisbon, which was Portugal’s capital and the largest city in the area. It was known as one of the biggest ports on the Atlantic Ocean, and the city played a critical role in world trade. It was also a pious city of devout Christians. It was November 1, All Saints Day. Most people were gathered in their churches and synagogues. They were praying and worshiping. Suddenly, an earthquake that likely had a magnitude of 8.0, struck the area. Contemporary reports said it lasted between 3 – 6 minutes, causing fissures 5 meters (15 feet) in length to open in the city centre. Roughly 85% of Lisbon’s buildings were destroyed, which includes nearly all of the churches whose structures tended to be among the tallest, and thus the most deadly when they collapsed on their occupants. The screams of terror must have been horrific. It would be later known as one of the deadliest earthquakes ever recorded.

Lisbon-burningTo make matters worse, forty minutes later a tsunami engulfed the area killing many more. Close to the coast, a 6 meter (20-foot) tall wave rushed ashore, the first of three. And if collapsing buildings and huge waves of water wasn’t bad enough, fires broke out which raged for 5 days. If the earthquake didn’t get you, the water or fire likely did. The death toll estimates ranged between 10,000 – 50,000 from these natural disasters. An exact number isn’t known since accurate records were either not kept or any records of the populace that existed were destroyed by the disasters.

Many that survived, which included escaped prisoners, fled Lisbon immediately. The survivors soon began to ask the question, why did this happen? Was God the cause? If God is love, how could this happen? Was it divine judgment?



Religious authorities did proclaim that the earthquake was the wrath of God against the sins of the people. It was a common reaction of the time to look to the heavens when disaster struck. Many philosophers rejected those notions, in part, because Lisbon’s red-light district suffered only minor damage while nearly all of the churches were destroyed in this very devout Christian city. Voltaire later parodied the religious thinking in the book Candide. Voltaire was a French writer, playwright and philosopher. I remember hearing his name most often from preachers who condemned him as an atheist and/or as anti-Christian. While Voltaire was probably more of a deist, he expressed his sentiments about Christianity in his later years in a letter:

“[Christianity] is assuredly the most ridiculous, the most absurd and the most bloody religion which has ever infected this world. Your Majesty will do the human race an eternal service by extirpating this infamous superstition, I do not say among the rabble, who are not worthy of being enlightened and who are apt for every yoke; I say among honest people, among men who think, among those who wish to think. … My one regret in dying is that I cannot aid you in this noble enterprise, the finest and most respectable which the human mind can point out..”

Some say that modern atheism had its roots in the devastation that occurred in 1755. Voltaire certainly didn’t mince his feelings about Christianity. I have wondered if events like the 1755 quake are one of the reasons that much of Europe is ahead of the U.S. in regard to leaving man-made religion behind? What are your thoughts?


Map of Irreligion (No religion)

One good thing that came from the disasters that befell Lisbon: a strong start to the science of seismology. An earlier hypothesis as to the cause of the quake involved the shifting of huge subterranean caverns filled with hot gases. This early attempt to explain the disaster was later replaced with the science of tectonics. The reconstruction of the city of Lisbon also gave us some of the earliest designs for earthquake-proof building design.



17 thoughts on “The 1755 Lisbon Earthquake – The Start of Atheism in Europe?

  1. The evidential argument is tough to get around when you believe in an omni-god. The Lisbon earthquake is one of the clearest examples of this. Nasty, excruciating diseases which plague people of all ages and religions is another major issue – why some people and not others?

    I hated history growing up as well, which is why I’m the wrong person to try and answer your question. Sounds reasonable that it was at least one factor in Europe being further along.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I think anyone who wants to figure out whether or not God made man or man made God need only consider one thing. Why would an all powerful God like, the Judeo-Christian God, create the world and all its people and then only tell the people living around Isreal about himself. Conversely, why would a God create all that and give CONFLICTING ways to worship him? I don’t just mean current religious animosity but look back to the origins, they all reflect thoughts and customs of the small area of the people who worship(made) the gods. Not the other way around.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Why would people have been gathered in synagogues? 1 Nov 1775 was a Wednesday, and I’m pretty sure Jews don’t celebrate All Saints Day.


    • Hi Mike, it was reported to be a Saturday, and the protestant churches in the area were celebrating All Saints Day. I don’t know if there were any Jewish synagogues in the city (I never read of any), but it was a devout Christian city.


    • In 1496, the king of Portugal expelled the Jews, following the example of the King of Spain 4 years before. Jews did not return to the country until the early 19th century.

      Those that remained had to convert to Christianity, at least in public.


  3. Athiest thought has been around since the beginning of organized religion. Modern athiesm may have some roots in the Lisbon disaster by creating a few more doubters but it didn’t START there. It’s hard to say since, traditionally, athiests and other “heretics” were killed for thier thoughts so most people who didn’t believe kept it to themselves. I’d say the reason there are more athiests in Europe is because they lived through the Inquisition and witnessed the destruction caused by Carholic vs. Protestant fighting. Also, Europe is better educated and America was started by people who thought Europe wasn’t strict enough in enforcing theism like Quakers, Amish, etc so fundimentalism is much more rooted in America, unfortunately.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. A really remarkable treatment of Christianty’s real view of faith in the midst of suffering and evil is written by Randy Alcorn: IF GOD IS GOOD–by Multnomah Books 2009. You owe it to yourself and others to interact with this excellent text.


  5. I think there are two things to consider when comparing religiosity in USA vs. Europe.

    One is the punishment for leaving religion. America was originally a rural country where people had to rely largely on themselves for resources and protection. In order to survive in such communities when times go tough it was very important to socialize well with your neighbors who can help you in a crisis. Religion does connect people pretty well in local communities and there is hardly anything else that replace it in that manner. When I lived in Arizona I realized that my friends who moved in at roughly the same time and who were religious (i.e., frequented the church every Sunday) had that instant social advantage over myself – they made much more local friends and much more quickly. I can imagine that people who lived in rural USA in the past and indeed until now could have very hard times leaving their religion. So I think in the US there is also a great tradition of pretending being religious.

    The other thing is that in Europe most of the organized religion got out of touch with normal people. Most of it is goverened by a very old-school, conservative and obsolete institution. When you go to a church in the continental Europe, you’re likely to find yourself in a Baroque- or Gothic-style building, singing songs that could have been composed by JS Bach’s great-great grandfather and the priest will likely be dressed in a silly medieval dress. Now, compare this to a Christian church in Harlem. Great music played on a Hammond B-3 by a fabulous musician. Modern choir sings great songs. I think it is not far from the truth to say that (mostly black) American religious music revolutionized pop music all over the world. Also, in the US, Christianity is much more connected to bussines and even show business. Take Billy Graham, for example.


  6. Portugal is still very christian country, in Porto and Lisbon you can see a lot of religious paintings not just in the churches. But there was always violence and suffering happening to millions of animals, people throughout the history. So for sure there is no God that is loving and merciful, we are toys for this psycho or atheism is truth.


  7. god rains – voltair dead
    the bible is the answer. while cathlic church in the history didn’t always give an answer to out of reflecting god’s nature. his warth was put on the cross.sorry for the deaths in lisbon 1755. but people will continue die.


    • Thanks for stopping by to comment. I agree with you: people will continue to die. Death is a natural part of life. The question is, does the god of the bible cause natural disasters and calamities? If he does and if he did so to send a message to the people of Lisbon, how would they know what “message” was meant to be conveyed by death and disaster? Couldn’t people interpret the disaster in a hundred different ways? And why destroy nearly all of the churches and Christians but leave the “red light district” mostly undamaged? What message does that send?

      Liked by 1 person

      • The Bible actually has a common theme that unites it –The Kingdom (or government) of God that held sway in Eden before the fall. So much that happened after the Garden of Eden was to allow people who wanted to do things THEIR way to follow their free will. At the same time, God can hardly be blamed for the bad things happening to people. Question: Has there EVER been a government that took really good care of all it’s ciizens Do you think It would have been fair of God to have destroyed the first people after giving mankind free will? I do think almost all organized religion has given God and religious faith a very bad (but deserved) reputation.


  8. If we only believe this life is it, than there is great frustration at the shortness and the suffering and injustice of it all–but what if there is justice? What if there is an afterlife and a heaven? When you start from that point of faith, it creates hope in the face of calamity. Without that faith–that there is hope–a cataclysm overwhelms us with despair. Jesus came to save sinners–everyday is another opportunity–today is the day of salvation. Of course Jesus commented specifically on a random accident–a tower collapse. He said it could happen to anyone. Why did the red light district people survive? I’m not sure, but again, God loved them and allowed them to survive another day. What did they do with that opportunity?


    • A person still has to ask the hard question… If there’s a God who exists and is in control of the things happening on this little remote planet, why would that God cause catastrophic events that terrorize and kill his followers while leaving one area (the red light district) intact to continue to stick their middle finger up at that God?

      I think we can all appreciate the desire for eternal life. We all know that life can be short and occasionally tragic. We can also agree that we see a tremendous amount of suffering and injustice. Who wouldn’t want to have eternal life combined with the thought that injustice will eventually be set right??

      But if a person starts from a perspective of wishful thinking, the end result won’t be the truth. Wishing for something to be true doesn’t make it so. Hindus have wishful thinking that they will be reincarnated into a better life if they live right in this life. Mormon’s have wishful thinking that they will rule over a planet in the future. Jehovah Witnesses have wishful thinking that they will be one of the 144,000 who are promised a future on a new earth. This sort of list could go on and on.

      Our world is filled with competing and contradictory religions that formed from a combination of wishful thinking plus the need to control others through fear.

      I think most (or nearly all) of us who are either agnostic or atheist are quite open to evidence for eternal life. But that’s the key — hard non-subjective evidence. Instead, if a person lives by wishful conjecture and happy platitudes, they are subject to any sort of religion that blows by. Scientific evidence sets us apart from the primitive and superstitious.


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