Is Atheism the Answer when God is the Question? Reading Schiller’s The Robbers from a contemporary atheist perspective

The question of whether god exists and criticisms of the socio-political effects of religious institutions is perhaps as old as god(s) and the institutions themselves.

Friedrich Schiller’s epic Enlightenment-era play
The Robbers continues to resonate to audiences at the dawn of the twenty-first century and is a powerful representation of the recurring arguments in atheist discourse, contrary to Schiller’s stated intentions for the play.

Recent contemporary atheist texts by Richard Dawkins, Michel Onfray and Christopher Hitchens, present an aggressive case against the three dominant monotheistic religions and attempt to open a dialogue concerning the new secular society they believe we are already shifting toward.

Comparing Schiller’s
The Robbers and these current atheist texts reveals some startling similarities that suggest atheism is the answer when god is in question.


1) Introduction
2) Contemporary Atheists and their Critical Reception
3) Friedrich Schiller and The Robbers
4) Origins of Atheism
5) The Robbers and Contemporary Atheism
6) The Atheist in Dramatic texts
7) The Dangers of Knowledge and The Robbers
8) Heaven, Hell and The Robbers
9) Death, Beckett, Conscience and Reason, Corruption,
Heaven and Hell Rethought and The Robbers
10) A Brief Search for the Origins of God and Religion
11) Conclusion
12) Bibliography


Dramatic texts from Ancient Greece to the present have contributed much to debates concerning the existence of god, religious dogma and their perceived imperfections and logic. Holding god and religion up to close scrutiny, these texts helped open the way for further avenues of enquiry and exploration of their profound effect on humanity. But while some playwrights have sought to question religious institutions, others have attempted to uphold religious principles with equal force. Poet, philosopher and playwright, Friedrich Schiller regarded himself as one of the latter. His first play
The Robbers (Die Raüber, 1783) is epic in scale and theme, which for the most part, asks legitimate questions about not only the existence of god but also the dubious nature of religion, its institutions and their corrupt collusion with the state. The play examines the nature of conscience and reason, reinforces religions fear of knowledge and the dangers of atheism. The fear of death, the cult of the virgin and the concepts of heaven and hell are also strengthened with dynamic potency. Contrary to Schiller’s stated intentions, The Robbers, portrays a stark reality with ample justification for cynicism toward god and religious institutions and perhaps is an unintended milestone in atheist discourse. Despite being an exigent attempt to present a powerful indictment of the power and righteousness of religion coupled with a dire warning of the dangers of impiety, it offers an insight into both the religious and atheistic mindset.

The question of whether god(s) exists or not is as old as the concept of god(s) itself: likewise the concept of atheism. For the most part official historical interpretations have tended to equate atheism with evil or immorality. Contemporary atheist texts such as Richard Dawkins’
The God Delusion (2006), Michel Onfray’s The Atheist Manifesto: A Case Against Christianity, Judaism and Islam (2007) and Christopher Hitchens’ God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (2007) endeavour to reconfigure the idea of atheism as quite the opposite. Using a vast spectrum of accumulated knowledge, from history, the arts, science and philosophy, these writers aggressively challenge the logic of an omniscient and omnipresent god, religion’s superstitious beliefs and its ineffective ritualistic practices. They highlight the corruption of religious institutions as well as the death and destruction committed in god’s name over two millennia. They also seek to open dialogue and imagine a new post-religious secular future as the next (perhaps unstoppable) evolutionary step for humankind.

With close consideration to contemporary perspectives espoused in Dawkins, Onfray and Hitchens, this thesis investigates whether these ideas compare with those of
The Robbers which, when it was first staged, caused outrage for being “the most blasphemous attack on religion in German literature up to that time” (Leidner:xiv). I explore several contentious ideas of Schiller’s contained in The Robbers viewed both in an historical context and within a contemporary atheistic paradigm. Given that many of these “blasphemous” arguments within The Robbers continue to persist today I wish to investigate the notion that when god is in question - whether now, in the Eighteenth century or any other time for that matter – if atheism, as we know it today, was, and still is, the answer.

Contemporary Atheists and their Reception by Critics

Explicit proponents of atheism today are prone to receiving somewhat emotionally charged responses – though not on the same level of hysteria as the original version of The Robbers. At the time of their respective release in 2006/2007, The God Delusion, Atheist Manifesto and God is Not Great received predominantly negative reviews by mainstream Australian newspaper and television critics.

The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins is a polemic against religion and the existence of god. Dawkins claims he seeks to raise our collective consciousness. Using the scientific disciplines of physics, chemistry, biology, anthropology, psychology, sociology, astronomy, quantum theory and others, he presents a passionate and aggressive case that all religions are ambiguous, illogical and dangerous man-made constructs which is possibly a “by-product of a particular built-in irrationality mechanism in the brain” (184). He dissects both the Old and New testaments for their inherent sado-masochism, historical inaccuracies and moral ambiguities. The institutionalised teaching of these texts ultimately fuels intolerance, “amplifies and exacerbates” fundamentalism and perpetrates a form of “child abuse” (315) by forced indoctrination of children, he says. Given the chance, religious fanaticism ultimately leads to more religious fundamentalist states (not unlike Iran is today) and further inter-religious self-righteous destruction.

An enthusiastic exponent of Darwin’s
Theory of Evolution, Dawkins challenges the belief of Creationism with cold hard scientific facts and comes to the conclusion that we, as a species, have all moved on, or evolved, since biblical times. A “moral zeitgeist” (262) has taken place in recent history, he observes - whether it be in regards to slavery, women, child rights, race, animal protection, language and so on - which is both undeniable, inevitable and evolutionary. While he admits there are some positive aspects to having faith in religion he asserts “religions power to console does not make it true” (352). Just as the arrival of monotheism annihilated many already existing gods, Dawkins insists he’s simply going “one god further” (53). But what happens if god disappears? What will fill the gap? He’s not sure but suggests “a good dose of science” is a start (351). At this time of transition, he says, “perhaps we may eventually discover there are no limits” (374).

On Dawkins,
The Age’s Religious Affairs Editor, Barney Zwartz bluntly stated “…when it comes to religion he is simply a bigot” who espouses as much “a dogmatic form of fundamentalist faith as those he despises” (24 Nov 06). The Sydney Morning Herald’s Jon Casimar found the most “confronting” aspect of the God Delusion “is not what it says, but the fact its being said at all”.(4.1106) P.J. Moss – a Sydney Lawyer – writing in the The Australian a week earlier was evasive but suggested the book is “an unpleasant eye-opener to Christians”(28.10.06). ABC TV’s The First Tuesday Book Club host Jennifer Byrne stated off the mark, “there’s nothing subtle, or tactful about it, it is a full frontal assault on religion”, but concludes rather diplomatically, “I must admit, I think it was a fascinating book”. Not so guest reviewer Germaine Greer who thinks atheists should “stop talking about God” and turn their attention to “the problem of evil”. Dawkins is “shrill in this book” she declares. It contains “some very bad science, and is a mess”. In addition, she curiously announces, “…he doesn’t understand another thing… and that’s the kind of atheist I am” (ABCTV, Dec 2006). Regular reviewer Marieke Hardy, who was uncharacteristically quiet, only managed to murmur, “Well he is a fundamentalist in his own regard.” (ABCTV, Dec 2006)

In the introduction of
The Atheist Manifesto, Michel Onfray announces “On a world stage saturated with monotheism, it is high time to expose the back side of the theological scenery. This is an opportunity for philosophical deconstruction” (7). Philosophers have long debated the concept of god(s) but was Nietzsche premature in his declaration that god is dead? Onfray suggests the question of god’s existence is “still undecided” (11) but whether god existed in the first place is hard to verify for example, “God has no date of birth” (14). Atheism, according to Onfray, “rejects the existence of God as a fiction” which was invented by people with an innate fear of death, unable to come to terms with the finite nature of their existence, “desperate to keep living” (15). Therefore Christianity, Islam and Judaism’s glorifies the perfect afterlife so their followers to live by a strict doctrine of submission and obedience to a what is essentially a fabricated myth.

Onfray delves into the documented history of the big three monotheistic religions to argue that “nothing of what remains can be trusted” (117). Whether Jesus actually existed is “reduced to a status of a mere hypothesis”(120). Paul of Tarsus according to Onfray was “hysterical, misogynistic, masochistic and impotent”(133), who as “an elect of God” (132) sought to create the world in his own image. Constantine’s Christian coup has left a “fatal heritage” (143) that we still live with today. It is the start, he says, of destruction in god’s name, the first totalitarian state and the dangerous collusion of church and state, the birth of theocracy ultimately leading to a denial of democracy.

The shared fundamentals of the three great monotheistic religions is hatred: hatred of intelligence, life in the here and now, science, the human body, women, and of each other. Neither Jew, Christian or Muslim can claim to hold a high moral ground, he says, as their respective histories exist in a place where “contradictions abound” (159) referencing texts that contain “two-thousand year logic” (189) and used selectively to justify a whole range of ignoble actions and deeds. These actions and deeds, Onfray suggests, is proof of widespread nihilism in our era in which our gods have become a “mere signifier” (209) and an “empty shell” (209). We are in a “new transition phase”, he says, not unlike the period when we went from paganism to Christianity. Despite the nihilism permeating much of the world today, a new atheism is called for which will “place morality and politics on a new base… post-Christian”. Onfray believes we can create a world where “all discourse carries equal weight”. A “Postmodern atheism” (58).

The release of
The Atheist Manifesto in early 2007 spawned much criticism. A vitriolic and unrelenting review in the Sydney Morning Herald by Gerard Windsor, an author whose “most recent book is a comic history of Australia” said it “is a bad, bad, book”, “a thoroughgoing dud”, “is no help to anyone”, “a series of shrill anathemas”, “it’s a dishonest cop-out” and “a tawdry bit of opportunism by a local publisher” (ie.MUP) to boot. (20.4.07). in the hands of The Age’s Religious Editor Barney Zwartz, its not much better. “It is another deliberately distorted, bile-filled jeremiad” that is “not going to persuade a fair-minded thinker” as “almost every sentence contains dramatic flourishes, florid rhetoric, elaborate metaphors, exaggerations, hyperbole - eventually it becomes tedious” (25.5.07). Interestingly, a review in the Canberra Times by Anglican Bishop to the Australian Defence Force, Dr Tom Frame is more diplomatic. He writes, “Although I disagree profoundly with Onfray's contentions and conclusions… he is, I must confess, more respectful of views with which he disagrees that I expected” and “should be read by Christians, Jews and Muslims” (21.4.07).

The title of Christopher Hitchens’ treatise
God is Not Great subverts the Muslim declaration “Allahuh Akhbar” - god is great. Hitchens, a socio/political commentator and contrarian, does not flinch when he takes aim at god(s) and religion. In the post-9/11 world, he believes, we should hear “a little less about how ‘people of faith’ possess moral advantages” superior to non-believers (32). In his book he makes three provisional conclusions: “religions and churches are manufactured”, ethics and morality “exist independently of faith” that religion is “immoral” (52).

The Bible, he declares, is a “nightmare” brimming with countless reprehensible examples of human depravity, that was essentially “put together by crude uncultured human mammals” (102). “All religions” he says “take care to silence or execute those who question them” (125) which he equates as being in line with “the very essence of the totalitarian” (234). Unapologetically presenting a forceful argument for why religion is immoral, he concludes that in the future the “odds rather favour the intelligence and curiosity of the atheists” (254). But before we are able to make a transition into a post-religious world we must first “transcend our history” (283).

Hitchens’ book received more favourable, or at least more balanced, responses from the media.
Sydney Morning Herald’s Matt Buchanan found it “a thrillingly fearless, impressively wide-ranging, thoroughly bilious and angry book… believers will find it challenging, perhaps diabolical, most certainly offensive.” Overall he found it “clever, broad, witty and brilliantly argued” (25.5.07). Michael McGirr, author and Head of Faith and Mission at St Kevins College Melbourne, speaking as guest reviewer on Romana Koval’s The Book Show on ABC Radio found Hitchens to be “often outrageous and unfair but never entirely predictable” and despite declaring “Hitchen’s… is doing a real service to both disbelievers and believers” he instructs that “Faith is not about knowing; it is about hoping” (5.7.07).

When comparisons of these three (and other similar) so-called “Militant Atheist” writers are made by critics, they soon became tangled in a web of conflicting opinions. Christopher Hitchens is better than Dawkins because the latter “notably lacks… a sense of humour and… a rich sense of irony” (ABC Radio Book Show 5.7.07). Compared to Onfray “Dawkins is… comprehensive, rational and entertaining. So read Dawkins. And Ignore Onfray” (SMH 20.4.2007). “Onfray is deeply erudite…” while Dawkins is “undergraduate diatribe” (The Age 25.5.07). “Unlike Dawkins, Onfray does not attack parodies of religious belief or set tip defenceless straw men to lay waste.” (CT 21.4.07). “Christopher Hitchens is far better company as a writer than Richard Dawkins” and so on (ABC Radio 5.7.07). When reviewed together as a group, the rhetoric becomes even more extreme. Writing in
The Australian, author and Jesuit Priest Frank Brennan, announces “these authors are proposing a scorched earth policy of killing off all religion”. Hitchens he says “is a belligerent, unyielding disputant”. Onfray’s book is “one of those books you can judge by its back cover” and like “Islamic fundamentalists” these writers “fail to understand the rules for civil discourse and engagement…” (2.6.07). Finally The Australian’s John Heard proclaims “God is not responsible for war and suffering” but instead it’s “the human heart”. He denounces Dawkins and Hitchens’ books as works where “a cacophony of historical, philosophical, political and more obviously silly reasons are advanced” (7.6.07). Whatever the opinion in the media, there is no doubt these books have generated much debate into the historic, scientific, cultural, political and social legacies of these three highly influential primordial monotheistic religions. Furthermore, with high sales recorded across Australia (most notably for The God Delusion) there is undoubtedly much interest from the general population in these provocative, aggressive and persuasive investigations from a distinctly contemporary atheist perspective.

Friedrich Schiller and The Robbers

Friedrich Schiller was part of the Sturm und Drang (Storm and Stress) literary movement in Germany during the mid to late eighteenth century. Although not an organised, self-conscious group with unifying philosophical and/or literary principles, their collective dramatic works, nevertheless, do contain similar traits. Taking inspiration from Shakespeare’s strong focus on character, Sturm und Drang writers, like Schiller, tended to create characters that were victims of their environment, reacting in either an explosive and violent way or with passive and chronic melancholy, or both. These writers did not focus solely on character but also on why a character develops the way it does within the realm of a broader moral and social order (Leidner:xi). In order to understand why these writers developed this unique perspective and style, a basic understanding of their social and political environment is required.

Germany during the eighteenth century was “a patchwork of some three hundred tiny states”, most ruled by “Fursten” who, while not actually being royalty, were “sovereigns in their own right” (Leidner: vii). This socio/political situation had arisen during the latter part of the seventeenth century establishing an “extravagant baroque court culture” which was to be a major source of contention in coming years (Sharpe:6). Not only was Parliament composed of clergy, wealthy established families, military and other civic figures, but it used an outdated constitution and system from the previous century. To add further tension, in 1773 Pope Clemens XIV abolished the Jesuit order. The Jesuits were a very well respected across Germany, including the people of the Swabian district, where Schiller grew up. The foundations of society were increasingly unstable as the ruling hierarchy were becoming more at odds and out of touch with the wider, and much poorer, community. This cultural and social shift, along with the socio/political ascent of a new middle-class created the basis for an aggressive and scrupulous critique of German society using the theatrical stage as its platform. Schiller was a major force in this nascent movement and created a unique style and point of view that continues to resonate over two hundred years later.

When Schiller’s first play
The Robbers was first performed at the Mannheim National Theatre in 1783, the reaction was verging on the hysterical as one eyewitness report noted: “The Theatre was like a madhouse: rolling eyeballs, clenched fists, stamping feet, hoarse cries in the auditorium! Complete strangers fell sobbing into each other’s arms. Women staggered almost fainting to the door” (Sharpe:29). The impact was so strong that, by order of the Duke of Württemberg, Schiller was placed under arrest and forbidden to write another play. Schiller took flight and left for Stuttgart. The main reason for this hysteria was the provocative inquiries into the existence of god by its two main characters: the brothers Karl and Franz. Karl is the much loved and respected first son. His quest is one of revolutionary anarchy. But unlike Franz, his real battles are taking place within his own conscience. Franz is the universally despised materialist and villain who is ruthlessly in pursuit of wealth and power. These two characters are rivals for their frail father’s (Old Moor) affection and when this is not forthcoming, embark on individual paths of deceit and destruction. Both confront their internal demons and both defiantly come to their own distinct conclusions. Written in the late eighteenth century, it is a play that looks at the nature of man as being subject to emotions, acting both irrationally and rationally using his idiosyncratic sense of reason and logic. Like Old Moor, god is distant and ineffectual leaving the protagonists ultimately responsible for their own actions. It is a play that sets the tone for the internalization of moral dilemmas and the voice of reason: the stark awareness of conscience. It is also a complex investigation into the notions of good and evil.

Two years after writing
The Robbers, Schiller explained his ideas about the role of theatre in his essay The Stage as a Moral Institution (1784). In it he states “Both laws and religion are strengthened by a union with the stage” (Gerould:250). The stage he believed was a place where people can “hear the truth”, where “purer and better principles and motives” can be discussed, and “opinions about governments and classes might be reformed”, as well as it being “a great school of practical wisdom, a guide for civil life, and a key to the mind”(250-254). The stage, he believed, should ultimately act as a “moral force” by reinforcing the religious principles which civil society abides. But his idea that the stage is the “handmaid of religion and philosophy” (251) presents some major conflicts of interest, as the two are not necessarily always aligned with each other, including during his time - the Enlightenment.

We recognise the Enlightenment as an intellectually fertile period when fresh ideas in philosophy, science and the arts began to filter out into the public arena challenging old currents of thought, practices and belief systems. With the culmination of previous knowledge and experience, there was a new optimistic attitude to the world of ideas and possibilities. New lines of thought were wearing down institutionalised traditions. Brash and diverse approaches to old institutions were setting the stage for even greater change to come. Amongst its achievements, it emancipated science and intellectual life from the ecclesiastical clutches of the church and thus opening the way for broader and at times radical discourses to cultivate.

The Enlightenment was a milestone in human history, one that has, perhaps, yet to be surpassed and one worth revisiting and expanding on. Michel Onfray is resolute; “We can and must subscribe to the Enlightenment project which remains as viable as ever” so that we as a species can lift ourselves out of our “infantile condition” and into “adulthood” (4). Christopher Hitchens exclaims “we are in need of a renewed enlightenment” (283) and finds it “of interest… how many great minds thought alike, and intersected with eachother” during the eighteenth century (266). One example of this intersection is that of philosopher Immanuel Kant and Schiller. Kant, though religious, “overthrew the cosmological proof of God” (265) challenging the idea that religion and only religion can form the foundation for what is considered moral behaviour. Kant’s basis for morality, says Dawkins, was “duty for duty’s sake rather than for God’s” as seen in his golden rule to “act only on that maxim whereby thou canst at the same time will that it should become a universal law” (231). The idea is that despite a person being detached from religion or god, one is able – and has a duty – to use reason to autonomously come to the conclusion that it is best to behave with scruples in the interest of both oneself and for the benefit of others. “Moral autonomy is the self-legislation of practical reason in a sensible rational human being. Schiller takes this concept from Kant” (Roehr:120). Therefore if we have “moral autonomy” and “practical reason” as well as the ability to act sensibly and rationally then perhaps an approach based on atheism could reasonably be a solution when the idea of god comes into question.

Writers and thinkers of all persuasions, during this time, paid close scrutiny, in particular, to the pious and religious institutions, something not lost on Schiller. He notes in the preface to
The Robbers; “These days it is in such good taste to exercise one’s sarcasm at the expense of religion that it is practically impossible to pass for a genius without deriding its most sacred truths” (Leidner:300). Being a religious man as well, his intention for writing The Robbers, he states, was firstly to copy “nature true to life” and hopefully provide “religion and morality no small revenge in depicting these malicious despisers of the holy scripture in the form of my most abominable robbers” (Leidner:300). It is ironic that by copying “nature verbatim” (300) Schiller endows his characters with the liberty of exercising their own free will which unintentionally aligns Schiller’s narrative with atheist discourse. Schiller was clearly a man of his time and The Robbers certainly challenged the dominant socio-politico-religious paradigm despite his nominal pro-religious intentions.

Despite the shock many felt initially, for many
The Robbers contains a direct revolutionary message, especially given the events that were to unfold a few years later in France. In fact, so strong was this perception that, in the aftermath of the French Revolution, Schiller was made an honorary French citizen by the French National Convention in 1792. Over ten years after its first performance its effects were still shocking people. In 1794 a young Coleridge exclaimed after reading the play, “Who is this Schiller? This convulser of the heart?” (Brandt:19). One hundred years after his birth Schiller was considered “simply a convenient emblem”, well respected and often quoted (Reed:106). Socialist revolutionary leader Rosa Luxemburg, in her letters from prison to friend Sonja Liebknecht writes that her mother thought Schiller and the Bible to be the “highest source(s) of wisdom” (Bronner:208). Luxemburg, who was actually born in Poland but relocated to Germany aged twenty-eight, was not so much interested in appropriating Schiller as the revolutionary figure but rather Schiller the idealist, though adds, “this could not be done without reading Karl Marx” (Martinson: 274). Some years later the Nazis had no qualms about appropriating Schiller as a comrade-in-arms and as a result, after World War Two, the works of Schiller were seen as tainted and “Nazi-infected” (281). It wasn’t until the 1950s that new perspectives on Schiller were investigated exploring beyond the image of the political agitator. However, it must be noted, the German Democratic Republic continued to view Schiller as a heroic symbol of communist ideals (281).

Post World War Two,
The Robbers is rarely performed and investigations into Schiller’s work are largely scholarly and intellectual endeavours. Some scholars suggest, “more research is needed on performances of his plays and their reception” in order to explore more fully the continued impact of Schiller (293). In February 2008 the University of Toronto in Canada produced an ambitious interpretation of The Robbers set in a high school classroom. The rewritten script, commissioned by The Gate Theatre London in 1995, shortens the play by half. They appear to be following the trend that “theatres seem to have few scruples in refashioning Schiller’s plays in the style of the day, to be sure, this can uncover new aspects of his texts” (290). Indeed post-production notes by Director Johanna Schall (Bertolt Brecht’s grand-daughter) illustrate the issues of god and religion caused no great fuss. Apart from suggesting the story of Karl and Franz is fundamentally the biblical parable of the lost son according to Luke and that religion (and the Law) are merely “social constraints” to an individuals pursuit of happiness; the religious question was not considered of paramount importance, certainly not shocking or outrageous. Discussions appear to focus more on issues such as fathers, happiness, robbery and the structure and historical context of the play. Statistics from Schall’s audience survey accounts (in order) that 153 people thought the play was about fathers, 145 thought it was about death and interestingly in third position, only 113 thought it was about god. A review from The Varsity (University of Toronto’s student newspaper) condescendingly concluded this rewritten version of The Robbers while enjoyable to watch holds “ideas and ideology easily held by the young” (11.2.08). Although Schall points out the discussions were “very exciting and quite wild” it, unsurprisingly, was not received in the same vein as the original production and the topic of atheism hardly even mentioned.

Origins of Atheism

The actual word ‘atheist’ wasn’t used in Europe until the sixteenth century, but the idea of atheism is as old as the idea of theism itself, they are in effect, two sides of the same coin. The word Atheos originates from around the seventh century BCE and was used in Ancient Greece and Rome to denounce someone as amoral who either didn’t worship a god, (namely the officially sanctioned crop of gods on offer) or worshipped the wrong gods (eg. foreigners). The demand for unquestioning devotion to god or gods, in particular by those in positions of authority was, predominantly “in the interest of consolidating power” (Onfray:15). Atheism very quickly became a convenient political tool to rebuke anybody who questioned the veracity of a belief system where the deity is “invisible, inaccessible, and therefore silent about what he can be made to say or endorse” (16).

In Act 5 Scene 1 of
The Robbers Franz declares “There is no God!... Peasant wisdom, peasant fears! – No one has yet discovered whether the past is not the past, or whether there is an eye watching beyond the stars – hmmm”. This invisibility and inaccessibility of god produces one of the fundamental bones of contention for sceptics because there is no tangible, scientific “evidence to support theological opinions, either way” (Dawkins:34). A genuine discourse on atheism didn’t start til the early eighteenth century when a French priest Abbe Meslier dedicated much of his life toward his masterwork (with the rather lengthy title) Thoughts and Feelings of Jean Meslier: Clear and Evident Demonstrations of the Vanity and Falsity of All the Religions of the World ; a book devoted to the question of atheism which was not published until after his death in 1729 - “The true history of atheism had begun” says Onfray, but why did we not know about it? (29)

Meslier’s book and the others asserting atheistic doctrines during the Enlightenment have all but been ignored; “The dominant historiography hides atheism from our sight” (Onfray:29). Onfray cites books like Baron d’Holbach’s
The System of Nature; a scathing attack of religion and its power as one of the many books on atheism that are rarely found in any library, likewise the critiques of his works by the likes of Rousseau, Diderot and Voltaire (31). D’Holbach, he says, is of “surprising contemporary relevance” as he presents a strong thesis on dismantling the power, wealth, intolerance, misogyny and fables of the church (31). Using knowledge to combat belief he postulates the concept of a post-Christian morality, redistributing the church’s wealth to the indigent and shifting governments focus on the political to an ethical position, amongst other things. This ‘cover-up’ extended even further, Onfray says, like Ludwig Andreas Feuerbach’s The Essence of Christianity (1841) – the “third great moment of western atheism” – where he reaches the conclusion that God (and everything that goes with it) is completely a man-made creation (31). These and other atheist voices continued to be suppressed or marginalised, to various degrees, by the dominant order and its agencies for many years to come.

Fortunately at the dawn of the twenty-first century, atheism has been repackaged; “Atheism is in harmony with the earth” declares Onfray (xvi). Atheists, it appears, are no longer the epitome of immorality; “We believe with certainty that an ethical life can be lived without religion” affirms Hitchens (6). And Dawkins assures us that just like everybody else, atheists can also be “happy, balanced, moral, and intellectually fulfilled” (1) and that “atheism nearly always indicates a healthy independence of mind, indeed a healthy mind” (3). So where does that leave the god-believers? To Hitchens, “The person who is certain, and who claims divine warrant for his certainty, belongs now to the infancy of our species” (11). For these writers, stealthy intellectual enquiry over centuries has produced fairly substantial evidence to refute any claims to a higher deity watching over and judging our every thought and action. “Literature” says Hitchens, “not scripture, sustains the mind… and the soul” (5). Furthermore given twenty-first century technology in which information is transferred with great speed, there is definitely no possibility this time of suppressing atheistic viewpoints.

From the perspective of Dawkins – the Scientist, “the existence of god is a scientific hypothesis like any other”(50). He estimates that given the readily accessible scientific evidence and the powers of reason, the probability of god’s existence would be “far from 50%” (50). To the atheist, the concept of a god is not only illogical but dangerous and for as long as the compulsion to believe in a divinity has existed, so too has the compulsion by some to question or even deny god’s existence. Questioning the established god(s) is akin to questioning the whole hierarchical belief system of which that community is built around. As the questioning of god permeates increasingly through a community, the threat to its socio-political order becomes real and steps need to be taken to restore this order; this is a recurring pattern. The pendulum shifts back and forth “depending on the need to create or immolate a divinity” (Onfray:14). Given the socio-economic conditions in Germany during the 18th Century the need to “immolate”, or at least turn a cold shoulder toward, god is understandable

The Robbers and Contemporary Atheism

The attacks and accusations toward Schiller as a dangerous blasphemer, in relation to the content of The Robbers, is predominantly because his characters Karl and Franz asks the hard questions concerning God that even gods representatives (the priest and Pastor Moser) are unable to answer satisfactorily. The fact that Karl sees the error of his ways and returns to a life of law-abiding piety while Franz commits suicide -metaphorically as a sign of atonement for his transgressions - was unconvincing to the plays eighteenth century audience. The audience appeared to react and remember only the relentless bombardment of what is essentially atheistic rhetoric. Writing in 1869 Thomas Carlyle points out that at the time of The Robbers first short season, Schiller was “accused of having injured the cause of morality” by providing a dissenting model of behaviour for the youth to follow which can only lead to their untimely self destruction (Carlyle:36). The question then arises, how is god represented by Schiller and what is Karl and Franz’s attitude to god?

The father figure is important to both Franz and Karl and operates as a metaphor for a frail absent god. The father according to Onfray, “is the incarnate locus of religion and therefore of politics and theocracy” (203). Karl refers to his father, Old Moor, as “god-like” several times; “that man shall be my friend, my angel, my god – I will worship him!” (Act 1:Sc 2). When he thinks his god-like father has rejected him he sinks into a world of confusion and cynicism, rejecting his Christian god in the process. He is a man who has a strong complex sense of morality and fairness. He is a revolutionary whose fundamental aim is to restore balance and equality within the community by directly attacking the corrupt hierarchies of church and state. The problem he faces is that with no god on hand to provide a moral foundation or anchor he is left to his own devises to make sense of the world and along with Franz are “at the mercy of their own extreme temperaments” (Sharpe:14). In turn, he then becomes almost deified by his fellow robbers who all take the oath of “loyalty and obedience” to Karl “til death” (Act 2: Sc 1). But Karl is no god as we find out. He is continually haunted by the memory of his “god-like” father and the omnipresence of his Christian god.

Despite this, he nevertheless holds onto his strong sense of individual morality, as seen in Act 2 Scene 3, when he dismisses fellow robber Shufterle who callously makes light of throwing a screaming baby into flames. Sounding god-like himself he warns the members of his band whom he suspects are like Shufterle; “But I shall come amongst you, and terrible shall be my judgement upon you.” (Act 2:Sc 3). Immediately after this denunciation his soliloquy exposes a mere mortal struggling with the prevalence of a miserable reality of “pestilence… famine… floods, murder of children, of women, of the sick” and so on, in front of his own eyes. “How can I prevent it? How can you prevent it…?” he asks a vacant god (Act 2:Sc 3). Just as he is limited in his power to stop wanton destruction within his own microcosmic community of robbers how could god possibly make right the wrongs of the whole world? Karl makes an important realisation that the concept of a god that allows such misery to occur and doesn’t intervene to stop it is an illogical and flawed concept. Interestingly though the comforting idea of a god still has a strong grip on him contributing further to his troubled mind. Karl’s train of thought had already shifted in the direction of atheism. Unknown to Karl – and prevented by Schiller – was the concept that atheism and morality can coexist. Could atheism have been the answer Karl was really looking for?

Franz’s Machiavellian nature has little to do with the fact he ridicules god and religion at every opportunity. It is his nature and lust for power that dictates his actions. The outrage over this play is partly due to Franz’s frenzied tirade on religion and an invisible god. As the stereotype atheist, the force and length that Franz goes to make his point far outweighs his dramatic demise by his own hands, surreptitiously as a symbol of universal justice. Perhaps once again it is simply because Schiller gives voice to these poignant questions that the viewing public at the time was so outraged. Franz has no love for his father or for the almighty father. He has no desire for love from anybody and seeks power and possession – whether its Old Moor’s castle and money or Amalia (Karl’s melancholic love interest). So what does the father symbolise in
The Robbers and how is that then related to the idea of god?

Old Moor and god are two traditional representatives of patriarchal established order in the world. Old Moor is weak and old and no longer has the ability to restrain either son; the same is inferred in relation to god. Lesley Sharpe observes what Old Moor “represents to them is more important than what he is”. For Franz, she continues, he represents an order “which deprives him of power, money and rank” while to Karl he represents “stability, continuity and a haven from the turbulent world” (Sharpe:16). But Franz tries to kill Old Moor and Karl accidentally succeeds in causing his sudden death upon revealing his disguise. And since both brothers continually try to provoke a response from god, the ultimate father, there is a direct correlation between Old Moor and god and their respective inept weaknesses. Old Moor can be seen as a metaphor for god who also comes under intense scrutiny. And perhaps the frightening thing for its original eighteenth century audience was the very suggestion that god was weak, ineffectual and powerless; in affect non existent. This idea, observes Sharpe, poses “an existential question” for Franz and Karl (18) and, we can presume for the audience. It postulates the idea that a world without a father or god leaves individuals and societies without a moral compass though, at the same time, illustrates the vast range of free, unrestricted thought is possible, as imperfect as it may be at times.

The moral compass that religion claims to hold appears, to contemporary atheists, to have been lost sometime ago, if it ever held it at all. The world’s woes are not linked to atheism in fact, exclaims Onfray, it’s “because of God’s existence (that) everything is permitted”(42). Historically, he further asserts, if religious leaders had actively chosen a path of “peace love and tolerance, we would have known of it, witnessed it” and thus be compelled to “support the three religions on the basis of their principles” (175). History, he says, tends to prove quite the opposite. Hitchens scoffs at the idea that the devoutly pious “possess moral advantages that others can only envy” (32). For example, the
Bible he declares, contains “a warrant for trafficking in humans, for ethnic cleansing, for slavery, for bride-price, and for indiscriminate massacre”, just for starters (102). Dawkins remarks that humankind must have significantly “low self-regard” to think if our world was without god or religion everybody would automatically become “callous and selfish hedonists, with no kindness, no charity, no generosity”; basically void of “goodness” (227). If this perception, to an extent, is true today, it was even more so the case in 1783.

The Robbers presents a reflection of a society in the grips of a dense intellectual flow of new ideas through the community, one that invariably includes the concept of god being non-existent. Unfortunately this community has no idea or vision of how to live without god’s instruction. This may be why Karl, in the end, returns to the very order that he knows is corrupt and callous. There is a sense of the unresolved in The Robbers here, of “social criticism having led into a blind alley” (Sharpe:23). The world of The Robbers clearly has some serious socio-economic problems that need addressing but how is it to be done? Part of the answer may be to dispose of an ineffectual absent god and its corrupted representative institutions and replace it with a new secular system. Schiller’s preoccupation with individual autonomy and freedom in his writings would suggest that both Karl and Franz exercise this freedom but are led astray by their own unchecked emotions and actions. Karl is by far the most destructive and dangerous of the two but this path is clearly not necessarily the only option. Is it that Schiller couldn’t possibly even conceive that Karl could realise the error of his murderous ways, not believe in god yet still be a good and moral person? Was this too scandalous a thought to even entertain in eighteenth century Germany? It would be about one hundred years before Nietzsche would propose that “we can choose not to choose” (Onfray:35). Perhaps without a viable, readily available, easily digested alternative, religion continues to hold it ground and powerful sway despite its defiance of logic and reason. Was Schiller’s Karl heading toward atheism but, like many atheist-like characters before him, was required to capitulate back to the established order or (like Franz) die, before the curtain fell?

In many respects Schiller presents Franz as the stereotype atheist. He constantly lies and deceives his father and attempts to deceive and steal Amalia from Karl. He emotionally manipulates Hermann – the bastard son of a nobleman – to swear his allegiance and help destroy Karl. He tries to hurry the immanent death of Old Moor and imprisons him in order to become the power-crazy Master of the house. And that’s only in the first two acts. Once in power Franz proceeds to blackmail Amalia to be his wife. He forces himself onto her only to be met with a slap in the face. Franz mocks and denounces god with great vitriolic fervour, though not without a sense of uncertainty. Realising his fate is sealed, both earthly and beyond, he strangles himself with wire from his clothing with his final words to god(?), “Ha! You then, take pity on me!” (Act 5:Sc 1). His behaviour is clearly manipulative, callous, degenerate and selfish to the point of his own destruction but can we blame Franz’s atheism for his actions or is it simply his own distorted reasoning? Atheism according to Onfray is “the product of a verbal creation by the manufacturers of God” (16). Franz, the stereotype atheist was in no sense the first in this mould to appear on stage.

The Atheist in Dramatic Texts

The negative perception of the atheist, as mentioned earlier, has been perpetuated since Ancient times, of which theatre has played its part. Perhaps much has to do with the origins of the art form itself in which the performance of the Tragedy, and later plays, were intrinsically linked to religious ritual and the upholding of such systems of belief. The Bacchae by Euripides for example depicts the androgynous and libidinous god Dionysus as callous and sinister, exacting horrific revenge on Pentheus and his parents for being very vocal non-believers, or in other words, atheos. Hitchens explains, “it is the case that some humans have always noticed the improbability of god, the evil done in his name, the likelihood that he is man-made, and the availability of less harmful alternative beliefs and explanations” (254). In religious texts it is either through instruction or by example (by god or other characters as role models) that morality lessons or rules are passed on. Analysing the Old Testament Dawkins observes, “The tragi-farce of God’s maniacal jealousy” is on display throughout (246). This idea (or template) of the intimidating and vengeful god is reiterated ad nauseam in just about all major religions. Nevertheless, just as there are many plays that question god’s existence, the stereotype atheist is present in several. While a full investigation into the history of the atheist in dramatic history is not possible within the confines of this thesis, there are some notable examples worth mentioning.

Cyril Tourneur’s Jacobean drama,
The Atheist’s Tragedy or the Honest Man’s Revenge - probably written in 1607 but not published until 1611 – was an attempt to illustrate the dangers of pursuing the path of atheism. The atheist of the title, D’Amville, is by definition void of any redeeming qualities. He is, because of his professed atheism, a one-dimensional villain with a huge appetite for sexual perversion, disloyalty, brutality and cruelty. He is emotionally barren and void of conscience as well. His behaviour rather than being ingeniously cunning, (of the Iago ilk in Shakespeare’s Othello) is really just delusional; “His ‘reason’ is really self-deception, not true reason at all” (Ribner:xli). In this sense Franz appears to be similar. But Tourneur’s atheist, at the moment of his demise, renounces his atheism despite the knowledge his eternal damnation is inescapable; “But nature is a fool. There is a power above her that hath overthrown the pride of all my projects and posterity” (Act IV, Sc III). It is interesting to note that Tourneur undoubtedly reaches his poetic peak in the scenes where D’amville and the other ignoble characters are in the throes of their immoral, namely sexual, activities. On the other hand, his devoutly pious characters, the star-crossed lovers, Charlamont and Castabella are such cardboard cut- outs they border on the absurd at times.

The Atheist Tragedy was in the repertory of the Kings Men at court for 29 years between 1612 and 1641 (Ribner: xx) perhaps, in part, to combat atheistic ideas, circulating in the community at the time, from taking hold. Afterall it was only about 20 years earlier that Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta was performed with the protagonist and non-believer Barabas declaring “I can see no fruits in all their faiths” (Act 1: Sc 1). Four years after the performance of The Jew of Malta - and several controversially-themed plays later - while “under investigation” for his religious (or rather atheistic) views, Marlowe was violently murdered in suspicious circumstances (Romany & Lindsay:xii). The so-called ‘Baines Note’ handed to the Privy Court close to the time of Marlowe’s death is blatant in its assessment of Marlowe, “almost every company he cometh he persuades men to atheism” and urges “all men in Christianity ought to endeavour that the mouth of so dangerous a member may be stopped” (xxxv). Was Marlowe murdered because of his atheistic views? We may never know but in the meantime, “speculation continues… that this is exactly what happened” (xxxii).

Thomas Otway’s atheist character, Daredevil, in his final play
The Atheist (1683), is also prone to (rather pathetically) renouncing his atheism at the slightest hint of danger; “Hah! Faith and Troth, I fancy, not so bad as I thought it was” (Act 5: Sc 4). This casual conversion to piety when he is convinced of his immanent death “is not convincing” (Warner:135). Though not unlike many Restoration plays, it was the ruling classes (in this case supporters of the corrupt British Whig Party) that were being parodied and it is they whom Otway portrays to be of dubious moral character. Most notable is the nouveau riche character of Beaugard who seeks what he calls “reasonable iniquity” (Act 4 : Sc 2) where he is able to maintain a libertine and fiercely independently wealthy existence while adhering – in appearance only – to religious and social obligations. Schiller’s antipathetic atheist Franz, by contrast, does not renounce his atheism. In the moment just prior to his death, he mockingly prays to god then takes his own life in defiance, though he is never totally sure if god (or the devil) really exists. The fire building around him is a perhaps a hint of things to come, “do I hear you hissing, serpents of the pit?”(Act 5: Sc 1), which sends him into a maniacal frenzy before finally committing suicide.

If Franz is the stereotypical amoral atheist, then Karl (minus the lawlessness) arguably has some characteristics of a contemporary atheist. He is very aware of the socio-political quagmire his country is in and seeks a solution (misguided as his is). He is a man who has the knowledge and intelligence to see through the façade created by the church and state. The key to his insight is Knowledge. As knowledge accumulates, answers are found and more questions are raised in the process. The fear of knowledge is arguably a mainstay of religion. Is knowledge the enemy of religion? This idea has also been explored in many dramatic texts since ancient times as well.

The Dangers of Knowledge and The Robbers

In 399BC Socrates was indicted for godlessness. He was “considered unsound for his advocacy of free thought and unrestricted inquiry and his refusal to give assent to any dogma” (Hitchens:256). Socrates became a figure of ridicule in Aristophanes’ The Clouds. Athens in the 5th Century BC was a vast hub of intellectual commotion. Aristophanes himself was cynical about these new ideas permeating Greek society at the time and believed that “the old were right” and The Clouds is his exposure of the dangers that this “’new learning’ stands for and what it leads to” (Sommerstein:107). In many people’s minds, the then forty-five year old Socrates represented new directions of thought, supposedly promoting ideas of atheism, science, rhetoric and the search for a new morality code. But Socrates was not predominantly interested in heralding a new code of behaviour but to provide the “foundations for the old one to stand on” (108). In the fifth century BCE impiety was a serious crime.

Arguments for and against the existence of gods and a feasible morality code permeate throughout
The Clouds, though no clear conclusions on those matters are reached. The play ends with the burning down of the ‘Thinkery’ (a school of scepticism and philosophical discussion); “How mad I was! I let Socrates persuade me to deny the gods!” (172), Strepsiades cries out to a statue of Hermes – the son of Zeus. After seeking forgiveness from the statue he asks it for some good advice. Aristophanes’ stage directions state; “pretending to see the statue indicating dissent” (172) to which Strepsiades replies, “I’ll go right off and burn the blighter’s school” (172). Is Aristophanes ridiculing belief in the gods, as in this scene there isn’t even the pretence of genuine communication with Hermes? Strepsiades hears what he wants to hear from the statue and acts accordingly. Of this scene in The Clouds Hitchens notes, “It is an attack on the right to free thought, free speech and free inquiry” as well as to “assert the literal and limited mind over the ironic and enquiring one” (258). This unexpected and horrific burning of the ‘Thinkery’ is a defiant and significant act of destruction that is prescient in the wake of over two millennia of religious zealotry justifying wanton destruction, murder and the suppression of knowledge.

It is not inconceivable that Karl’s attitude and subsequent behaviour could, in part, be attributed to the knowledge he has received from books outside the religious canon. In fact, surprisingly many of the other robbers also appear to be very aware of what’s happening in the broader community. In Act 1 Scene 2 robber Roller quips “its all the rage nowadays” to write an “anthology or almanac” or “reviews for a shilling or two”. Schulterle jokes they could turn “evangelical and hold weekly classes in spiritual improvement”. Grimm suggests they could alternatively “turn atheist, blaspheme against the four Gospels, have our book burnt by the hangman and we should do a roaring trade” The intellectual landscape at the time was brimming with activity perhaps so much so that as Grimm concludes “They are holding an auction in my head: evangelist, quack, doctor, reviewer and rogue. I’m to be had for the best offer” (Act 1: Sc 2). The search for knowledge has always been the antithesis of Christian piety.

The Abrahamic holy books illustrate that original sin “all stemmed from the decision of one woman, Eve” when she erroneously ate fruit from the tree of knowledge (Onfray:110). This ‘mistake’ has meant all her future ancestors be tarnished with the scourge of original sin and was used as ample justification for the subjugation of women. It has also led to an irrational fear that somehow women are “simultaneously defiled and unclean” and yet ironically “a temptation to sin that is impossible to resist” (Hitchens:55). This in turn has led to “the hysterical cult of virginity and of the virgin” (55). Karl’s love interest Amalia easily fits into this category of the vestal, submissive, ideal pious woman. Despite displaying some feistiness to Franz at times, she is nevertheless an uninspiring character who appears to spend most of her time melancholy and pining for her man. Perhaps her devout, chaste and somewhat tedious existence contributes to her hysteria at the end of the play, upon realising she will never receive the love from Karl she has painfully has craved for so long. Arguably Schiller displays, in part, a woman forcibly deprived of her natural emotional and physical needs, of which social mores based on religious doctrine played a significant role. So strong is this drive, she is even prepared to forsake her god for Karl, the “Murderer! Devil! Angel…” (Act 5:Sc 2). Ultimately though, she would rather die than live in such existential agony; “(Clasping his knees)” she cries “…I cannot bear it. You can see a woman cannot bear it. Death is my only wish” (Act 5: Sc 2). It is a wish that is fulfilled a minute later when Karl stabs her in order to appease his robbers and hopefully bring some sort of balance to his world. Amalia’s death is but one of millions we can attribute to the legacy of the mythical Eve’s natural curiosity for knowledge.

The fear of knowledge was at the forefront when the ancient world made the transition from paganism to monotheism. “Christians were convinced academic learning hindered access to God” (Onfray:150). Both Muslims and Christian’s waged a campaign of deicide and wanton destruction forcing submission to a new single god. The Great Library of Alexandria went up in flames in 391, “by order of the bishop of Alexandria” (151). Religion says Hitchens, “comes from a period of human history where nobody… had the smallest idea what was going on” and is itself a “babyish attempt to meet our inescapable demand for knowledge”; amongst other emotional and abstract needs (64). Religious texts have undoubtedly contributed much to societies globally if only, as Dawkins says, because “it is a major source book for literary culture” but like all religious myths should not be taken literally.

Obviously knowledge can be used for good or evil. Knowledge in Franz’s hands gets used for destructive purposes but, once again, this has nothing to do with god, the devil or religion. It is his personal choice to pursue this path. From the beginning of
The Robbers Franz displays an innate understanding of the manipulative power of religion. “It is the word of God” Franz tells Old Moor after trying to persuade him to disown his other son Karl, to which Old Moor decides “Oh it is true, it is all true! It is a judgement upon me! The Lord wills it so” (Act 1: Sc 1). Realising the potential of his power, using the psychology of religion, he moves to another level of deception and contemplates the possibilities; “Terror! What can terror not accomplish?” (Act 2: Sc 1). He challenges the forces of both hell and heaven to strike him and when this doesn’t happen it only encourages him descend further into the abyss unafraid of the wrath of god or the flames of hell.