My question is, that how could it be possible for Marlowe to deny the existence of God while at the same time, produce such a masterpiece like Dr. Faustus whose topics are God, Lucifer, angels, virtue and sin, Heaven and hell and most of all, the conclusion itself. If this is the work of Marlowe, then why is he called an atheist?

  • 17
    Do you think being an atheist prevents one from writing fiction that involves religion? Why would it? It is fiction after all.
    – muru
    Commented Apr 28, 2020 at 1:07
  • @Muru One can also write fiction for the sake of criticism, and one has to be an atheist for that. But my point is, that considering the play's evangelistic nature and the conclusion that it has, the intent of the writer is quite clear. If we do an auto biographical analysis of the play, then Marlowe doesn't stay an atheist anymore. Commented Apr 28, 2020 at 6:13
  • 2
    You use the present tense ("is" instead of "was") for your question. Can you cite any modern examples of scholars who claim that Marlowe was an atheist?
    – Tsundoku
    Commented Apr 28, 2020 at 10:18
  • 5
    Also, “write fiction for the sake of criticism, and one has to be an atheist for that,” doesn’t follow any more than your initial premise that to write Dr. Faustus requires theism. The faithful can (and, to my mind, should) explore, question, and critique their faith. The Bible is certainly full of characters critical of God—Abraham notably has an ethical debate with God and wins, that is, he convinces God that God’s stated course of action would be immoral. There are, of course, ways to square that with an omniscient and benevolent God, but the process of doing so is still critical.
    – KRyan
    Commented Apr 28, 2020 at 13:06
  • I thought his play Tamburlaine the Great earned Marlowe that reputation for atheism. (It did provoke Robert Greene to comment upon that play with similar words.) Nevertheless, sometimes Marlowe was too smart for his own good.
    – llywrch
    Commented Apr 28, 2020 at 20:26

1 Answer 1


TLDR: 1 - Marlow was not an atheist in the modern sense. 2- Dr Faustus is not as clearly religious as it first appears

Let's start by pointing out that "atheism" doesn't necessarily stop an author from writing about theism. Umberto Eco, for example, is a professed atheist yet is the author of The Name of the Rose, a novel set in a medieval monastery which examines many themes in religion and belief. There is no particular problem, therefore, in reconciling the religious elements in Dr. Faustus with having been written by an atheist.

That said, the question of Marlowe's atheism is not a straightforward one. Not least because the definition of "atheism" used in the Elizabethan era is not the same as the one used today.

Elizabeth's father, Henry VIII had founded the church of England and made himself the head of that church. Therefore, to be an atheist in England was literally equivalent to treason: in denying God, you are denying the monarch's divine right to rule. By Elizabeth's time, this was even more problematic because her succession to the throne was dependent on the legality of Henry's divorce from Katherine of Aragon, which he was only able to push through as the head of his own church. So, by the time of Marlowe, the term "atheist" had acquired a wider subtext equivalent to "anarchist" in modern usage.

For example, Marlowe is often counted among the "School of Night", a loose group of critical thinkers including Sir Walter Raleigh. These men were often referred to as atheists in their era but a modern examination of their writing and behaviour suggests they are more what we would today call religious dissenters or perhaps agnostics. People who doubted the literal truth of the Bible and its interpretation and practices as laid down by the Church of England not, necessarily, people who denied the existence of God outright.

Take Raleigh as an example. In his book "The History of the World" he wrote:

For the rest; I do also account it not the meanest, but an impiety monstrous, to confound God and Nature; be it but in terms. .... It is God that commandeth all: it is Nature that is obedient to all: it is God that doth good unto all, knowing and loving the good He doth: It is Nature, that secondarily doth also good, but it neither knoweth nor loveth the good it doth.

In other words, God is good and lord over all nature. Does that sound like the writing of someone who rejects the existence of God? Raleigh was also known as an aider and supporter of puritan priests. Rather, Raleigh was someone who saw the value of rational thinking and was prepared to use that thinking to challenge the orthodox dogma of the church and - by extension - the state.

So, having established that "atheism" in the 16th century had a much wider meaning than it does today, let's return to Marlowe. Much of the evidence we have of his atheism rests on the charge of a single informer, Richard Baines. Baines was a spy, whose work was to ferret out Catholic sympathisers in protestant England. His continued employment was, to some extent, thus dependent on him finding such sympathisers. He is the only direct source we have for Marlowe's atheism which, in itself, seems a valid reason to question whether Marlowe was, in fact, an atheist.

If we presume that Baines was telling the truth, here are some of the things he claims Marlowe to have written:

Christ was a bastard and his mother dishonest

the woman of Samaria and her sister were whores and that Christ knew them dishonestly

St John the Evangelist was bedfellow to Christ and leaned always in his bosom ... that he used him as the sinners of Sodom

Looking at these statements in the light of how Elizabethans defined "atheism" it seems likely, then, that Marlowe was an "atheist" in the same way Raleigh was: someone who doubted the literal truth of scripture rather than doubted God outright. Nothing in these statements or any of the other 14 items Baines laid against Marlowe suggests an absolute rejection of God.

In fact, if we look at Dr. Faustus, it is arguable that the play itself is espousing this kind of "atheism", which rejects dogma but not Christianity as a whole. The ending of the play falls in with the dominant Christian concept of heaven and hell, suggesting a broad acceptance of scripture. But as for the details, take the following lines from the play:

Within this circle is Jehovah’s name/ Forward and backward anagrammatized;/ The abbreviated names of holy saints.

How! Bell, book, and candle, book and bell, / Anon you shall hear a hog grunt, a calf bleat, and an ass bray, / Because it is St. Peter’s holy day

In both these cases, Faustus can be seen as critiquing organised religion. In the first instance, he is subverting the value placed on the holy name of Jehovah. In the second he is comparing the liturgies of religious rituals with animal noises.

Later in the play, the Pope's men urge God to curse Faustus for his behaviour, chanting in Latin. But nothing happens. This pokes fun at the idea that God can be invoked through religious ritual. It can also, of course, be read as suggesting that God does not exist. By the end of the play, all we can be certain of, in a religious sense, is that the devil exists. In which case we could argue that the play is, in fact, wholly atheist: rejecting God and using Satan merely as a plot device.


Boas, Frederick Samuel (1940). Christopher Marlowe: a biographical and critical study. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Kocher, Paul H. (1940). Marlowe's Atheist Lecture. The Journal of English and Germanic Philology.

Webb, Susanne S (1969). Raleigh, Hariot, and Atheism in Elizabethan and Early Stuart England. Albion: A Quarterly Journal Concerned with British Studies.

  • My take on that is slightly different and a tad dialectic too. The tragedy of Dr. Faustus is undeniably an auto biography since the character of Dr. Faustus is arguably the most adjacent to Marlow's own personality. a bulk of Faustus' attributes are the reflection of the traits Marlow himself possessed . Moreover, the beginning of the play has a direct link with the early days of Marlow's life. Commented Nov 17, 2020 at 12:33

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