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.

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