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.


33 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.

    • 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.

      • “but but but y did God make everyone and only reveal to ppl around Israel”

        God’s message was delivered to Israel but obviously spread to the entire world, as it was commanded to.

        “mmmmm ok then but y in this case r there different ways to worship God? HUH? DID U THINK ABOUT THAT NOW??”

        Different ways to worship God? Clarification needed for this weird objection.

        • The first homo sapiens came on the scene on planet earth around 100,000 BC. Living alongside their cousins the Neanderthals they lived a miserable existence with a life expectancy of 30 and usually dying of an infection In their teeth. Living terrified of thunder, eclipses, earthquakes, floods, Lions, Tigers, Bears, they trudged along for 98,000 years until one day god decides to reveal himself to man. But does he reveal himself in China, where man can read and write or in Central America where they practice astronomy and have calendars, alphabets and knowledge? No God decides to reveal himself to a small tribe of illiterate farmers in bronze age Palestine. What do you think is more likely? God was created by man or man was created by God? Is God too powerless to stop suffering or does he decide not to stop suffering? Either answer describes a god that a thinking man would just assume not need…

    • Another thing to consider is that a great many Americans came here to escape religious persecution. These were generally devout people in their Christian faith. Also, in Europe you did not have and still do not have the religious freedoms guaranteed by a constitution. One must also consider that Catholicism wasn’t very open to religious freedom and tried to keep Christians ignorant of their own faith, so many only had a superficial faith without knowledge of the scriptures. Remember that the Catholic Church opposed the printing of the Bible in native vernacular to maintain the control that it had for about 1,000 years. The protestant reformation began shortly after the printing of the Gutenburg Bible. The Catholic Church was repressive and the populous revolted against the church. Later repressive movements spawned from this hatred of the Catholic Church, like the French revolution, the NAZI movement, and the Communist movement, repressed and even killed countless Christians regardless of what denomination they belonged to. Indoctrination in Atheist ideology, which helped spawned Nazism and Communism, has been thoroughly inculcated into European Society with very few groups opposing this. Now finally, I will say that Europe probably never accepted Christianity, but maintained a thin veneer of Christianity covering their old pagan beliefs since Constantine became Emperor. The new state religion created by Constantine was not by faith but by force. Ephesians 2:8-9 says, “for it is by faith that you have been saved and not by works so that no man may boast.”

  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.

    • Portugal converted t the Gregorian calendar in 1582. Under the Gregorian calendar, November 1, 1755 was a Saturday.

  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.

  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?

      • 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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  11. Philosophy since the Lisbon Earthquake has advanced, and we now know that this objection of natural disasters is irrelevant. The renaissance of Christianity in academia should soon, hopefully, end up stamping out this pervasively annoying fiction of atheism.

    • Both of your statements are quite odd. First, there’s no renaissance of Christianity. On the contrary, it’s on the decline in Europe, Australia, the US and in other educated regions of the world. In Europe, empty churches have been going up for sale for many years now. The same is true in the US. Pew Research studies show a continued rise of those who identify as “not affiliated with any religion”.

      Second, attempting to dismiss the point regarding natural disasters — that many people do believe there are gods who cause natural disasters — is unfounded. In the US, for example, prominent Christian leaders routinely preach the connection of their sovereign god’s hand in natural disasters, and Christians are constantly thanking their unseen god for sparing their lives (while their neighbors are often UN-spared).

      • “Both of your statements are quite odd. First, there’s no renaissance of Christianity. On the contrary, it’s on the decline in Europe, Australia, the US and in other educated regions of the world. ”

        I checked over my comment and realized that I didn’t make a mistake. This is what I precisely said;

        “The renaissance of Christianity in academia…”

        I said that Christianity is undergoing a renaissance in academia, not the Western world. Which is correct. See for example, the academic reign of Alvin Plantinga, perhaps the worlds top philosopher, who won the Templeton Prize this year. The Templeton Foundation explains his achievements which earned him the award;

        Read the full thing.

        As for natural disasters again, philosophy has answered the objections from natural disasters. Something I noted, personally, which I found interesting, is that God Himself declares to create disasters.

        Isaiah 45:7: I form light and create darkness, I make success and create disaster; I am the Lord, who does all these things.

        So, natural disasters not only are not a challenge to God’s omnibenevolence in the first place, it seems that God Himself causes disasters and hence their existence is not at all incompatible with God.

  12. Since I’m Australian, I hought I’d share the news that Australia has joined Europe in its level of atheism. It’s been heading there for decades. There’s quite a lot of evidence it would have shown up much earlier in the censuses, but 2016 was the first time the Australian Bureau of Statistics put the “no religion” category at the top. It seems people used to go through the list and tick the box that applied to the religion their parents and grandparents identified as and baptised them into before that- so we ended up with a lot of cultural christians who knew nothing about christianity other than tv movies at Easter and Christmas and hadn’t attended any kind of church service other than baptisms, weddings and funerals in their lives.

    Incidentally, the lower the levels of a society’s inequality, the lower its levels of religiosity. Australia and Europe are less inequitable societies than the US. Single payer public health care, liveable minimum wages- we have stuff like that.

    Census 2016 results Australia: ‘No religion’ is our leading religion –

    I’m glad I stumbled onto the blog, Logan. I found it through a link on a “Church and State” article and I’m really enjoying it. Thank you, and thanks also to everyone who comments on the entries.

  13. Religion is only useful to societies and people who are afraid of death. If you look at societies who are not afraid of death, there is no need to trade worship and fear for internal life. The West is so scared of dying they forget how to live. We starts wars and invade countries because we are afraid they might kill us or hurt us. But the amount of resources and lives spent versus the reality of what could happen does not add up. Everyone is going to die. No matter what you do you will die. Go to your death at peace. Live a good life, not because you are afraid of hell, but because you are a brother of man and you want to do go because it is the right thing to do. This is what the enlightened movement was all about.

    If someone would become a murderer or a rapist if he found out God does not exist, do you really believe those people are good? Does your god embrace the sociopaths in heaven because they “behaved” on earth for fear of Hell. Think long and hard about this.

    Religion is a way to control the poor and uneducated. It allows for the formation of tribes not based upon birth location or blood line. Religion is powerful and you can do anything to anyone and justify it using Religion…

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  17. Imagine a scenario… a young family with twins is driving and there’s a tragic accident, leaving the twins orphaned. One is adopted by a devout Christian family, the other by a devout Muslim family. Both children grow up immersed in their (adopted) familial faith. Both strive to live their adult lives based on their earnest devotion to their faith.

    Both twins can vigorously defend their religious views, testifying to the role of faith and a sense of divinity revealed through learning and prayer. Both believe God is real. Yet, in spite of their ardent beliefs, the fundamental teachings of their religions contradict each other. No honest interpretation of either doctrine allows both to be simultaneously true. What evidence can either sibling offer to prove their religion and their faith is true, or the other is false? None of course. This same test can be applied to any Religion A vs. Religion B. The inevitable conclusion is that all religions are false. The best the faithful can honestly do, is ascribe to a deist or agnostic view- but in reality this is a veneer to hold onto views that are as ingrained in our psyche as our native language is. Agnosticism and atheism are really just two sides of the same coin.

    Interestingly, if one follows science deeply enough into quantum and cosmological theories and the attempts to understand and unify them- we run into some of the same conundrums of infinities, causality and anthropic motivation that religionists stumble over. This leads to fad science like multiverses, or even for some theorists to imagine a universal God-force behind everything. To be clear- I’m not reversing myself and suggesting some new-agey mysticism, but I find the “Who created God?” and “What was before the big bang?” conundrums to be fascinating. This is greatly simplifying, but it’s hard to ignore that they’re kind of asking the same question! What is the universe? What is infinity? The stubborn fact remains, whether you’re a religionist or scientist, you can’t divide by zero. Maybe God can. Maybe She did…

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