In alternative medieval Europe, there is a king who is (secretly) an atheist and wishes for (what we would call) a secular and humanist society. Unfortunately for him, in the same medieval Europe, the Christian Church as powerful and ruthless it was in our medieval Europe. Rest of the big picture is also the same, although exact details may be different.

Our king is very displeased by the situation and wants to change it as much as possible and see the change during his lifetime. How much can he achieve?

Being a king, he is a very powerful figure, but the Church is also very powerful, so it won't be so straightforward as one might think.

On the other hand, he is very smart, intelligent and genre savvy (Warning: TV Tropes link!), so he won't let somebody know of his unconventional thoughts until he makes sure he can do it safely.

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    $\begingroup$ I don't think it's worthy of a separate answer, but most kings welcomed Christianity as the concept of Divine Right gave them a lot of legitimacy and power. It's one of the main reasons the Scandinavian countries turned Christian. I can't remember which king it was off the top of my head but he basically converted for purely political reasons to increase his own power. So you've got to wonder how likely it is any king would try to destroy the church completely rather than reform it for their own purposes. $\endgroup$ Apr 13 '17 at 9:07
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    $\begingroup$ A good start would be starting their own (version of the existing) church, within which the importance of a central human conduit to the divine is diminished or removed. Churches become somewhere people can go to pray together and priests become people you can go to with spiritual matters - rather than places you must attend and people you must pray through or face damnation. $\endgroup$ Apr 13 '17 at 10:17
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    $\begingroup$ Why on earth would he do that? There were many real kings and emperors who competed against the Pope; many if not most rulers did not really have great religious convictions. Generally, religion is a tool to pacify the peasants. What you are proposing is a king who would induce his subjects to rebel against their betters -- to what purpose? $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Apr 13 '17 at 10:24
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    $\begingroup$ @pjc50 Yus, up to a point. But the English reformation placed the monarch as the head of the new church. It was mostly a power move. My extension of the idea is aimed to go further and make religious authority meaningless. $\endgroup$ Apr 13 '17 at 11:01
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    $\begingroup$ Narrow down your time period - "medieval" captures a rather wide span of time (roughly a thousand years) with significantly different circumstances. The migration period in the early middle ages with an 8th century populace still significantly pagan and Popes were occasionally deposed, was different from the early 12th century when Pope Innocent III ruled supreme, which was a dramatically different time than the late 14th century population recovering from the plague and a schism in the church with 2 Papacies at war with each other. Vastly different circumstances. $\endgroup$ Apr 13 '17 at 14:06

15 Answers 15


From a practical point of view, probably the best thing he can do to undermine the church would be to launch a massive campaign to educate the population and teach them all to read and to use logical constructs (If Then else kind of stuff).

Remember, at the time, ignorant villagers might just burn a neighbor (whom they have known for years) at the stake. They might use religion as a pretext for what amounts to murder, with cries of "Heretic" and "Heresy" (She's a Witch is out, I stand corrected). People, particularly serfs, had so little in the material world. They were worried about their immortal soul. This gave the clergy all kinds of power. The one thing a serf had was his soul, and that could be threatened by excommunication. The clergy (mostly higher up in the hierarchy) held the knowledge, and that imbalance spread out through society.

What you need to do to remain in power locally while eroding the power of the church is to return that power to the people in your country by teaching them to read and supplying them with bibles. This will undermine the power held by the clergy. They can no longer say "Do this, God wills it!" without at least some saying "Hold on, where does it say that?" or "That doesn't make any sense" It won't eradicate that knowledge differential overnight, but it WILL begin the erosion of power.

As a Bonus, edit the bibles to further erode the power of the papacy. Stress a personal relationship with the creator. Tell folks that they don't NEED the intercession of a priest to be forgiven of their sins.

Then begin teaching systematic logic. This should naturally lead to some more folks coming around to a more agnostic state of mind.

Of course, this may also jump start into something resembling some of the violent conflicts that started after Martin Luther, but either way, you move power away from the centralized Roman church.

I think he would not be able to admit Atheism in his own lifetime, but he could actually advance things quite a bit if he started young and focused on teaching kids as young as he possibly could. Get them questioning the priesthood as early as possible and stretch that education out as long as possible. With some good political tap dancing, he might even begin to get away with having his government run as an almost meritocracy, showing the peasantry that they can, in fact, make things better for themselves in this life. That could take another source of the churches power away. I'm thinking he might be able to do much of this without being declared a heretic.

Important Note:

Please excuse me. I was originally confusing the Gnostics with other violent religious conflicts in the middle ages. I did not wish to give offense.

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    $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$
    – Tim B
    Apr 15 '17 at 20:41
  • $\begingroup$ Most of your response references themes raised by Jean Wycliffe and his Lollards before Johannes Gutenberg was born. Their 1st and 6th conclusions imply a need for separation of church and state. In 1395. Access to Scripture by the layman fed the fire of the Reformation but did not cause it; and the Reformation is the more proximate cause of the separation of estates. $\endgroup$
    – wberry
    Apr 28 '17 at 4:42

In the European Middle Ages, nobody was an atheist, certainly not a militant atheist. They didn't even have the faintest notion of such a world-view. This being said, one does not have to be a militant atheist in order to want a secular and humanist society; there were people, including some powerful rulers, who worked towards a more secular society; there were other people, including some rulers, who were humanists, with the observation that the word humanist had a different meaning in those times. (In fact, the current tendency to make the word humanist almost a synonym for philanthropist is quite recent.)

Many kings and rulers were not particularly religious. Those who were devoted to their Christian or Muslim faith were rather the exception; examples such as Charles V (who at the age of 56 abdicated the throne and became a monk) are rare and far between. Most medieval rulers (emperors, kings, princes and even popes) saw the Church as a partner or an adversary, a tool or a hazard, a force to be used or opposed, but not necessarily as a divine institution.

Now the question asks what could a king achieve in his struggle against the Church. The answer is, quite a lot. Here are some examples of emperors and kings who fought valiantly against the power of the Church:

  • The most successful was Henry VIII of England, he of the countless wives, who eventually succeeded in taking his country completely out of the influence of the self-titled Universal Church, and set it on a course which would in the fullness of time result in an almost completely religion-free polity.

  • A remarkably good fight was fought by emperor Henry IV (there is something with the name Henry) of the Holy Roman Empire, who throughout his reign strived to consolidate the secular imperial power and to curtail the political power of the Church. For his pains he was excommunicated four times (which is quite a feat in itself); in the end, he failed in his attempt to reform the HRE, but he came close and might have succeeded had he not died after a sudden illness at the age of just 56. Henry IV living to exploit the consequences of his victory at Visé in March 1106 and convert the HRE from the loosest confederation ever into a more coherent political structure would make a very interesting point of departure in a speculation on alternative history.

  • Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa of the Holy Roman Empire was arguably the last great emperor of that archetypal medieval political structure who attempted to curb the influence of the Universal Church and increase the authority of the secular power. He was excommunicated (only once, boo), he fought actual wars against several popes, and, maybe most importantly, he actively promoted the use of Justinian's Corpus Juris Civilis as the basis of the legal and judicial system; in this last endeavor he was successful: with the exception of the insular realms of Great Britain and Ireland, European countries still use legal systems descended from Roman law.

    Like Henry IV before him, he ultimately failed in his attempt to consolidate the HRE into a viable political entity; a potential point of departure would be Frederic Barbarossa winning the Battle of Legnano in 1176 (it was touch and go, and Frederic only lost because he was gravely wounded and could no longer lead the army), thus enabling him to depose pope Alexander III and impose his view on the question of who exactly controlled the bishops -- the emperor or the pope?

  • King Francis I of France was maybe less flamboyant, but he eventually succeeded in 1516 in convincing (with the aid of military force) pope Leo X to sign the Concordat of Bologna, which gave the king control over the nominations of bishops in France, thus ending forever the political power of the Pope in that kingdom.

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    $\begingroup$ Great starting points for an alternate history! I think taking a potential pivotal moment and spinning it further along is a good way to get started. Several occasions of the church loosing influence, because a pope feared to lose his life show it being possible to change the church by controlling the right people. $\endgroup$
    – Falco
    Apr 13 '17 at 13:12
  • $\begingroup$ Awesome history lesson. +1 $\endgroup$
    – Paul TIKI
    Apr 13 '17 at 16:05
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    $\begingroup$ It is interesting the way you are casting the struggle between Henry IV and Pope Gregory VII. In my view it wasn't Henry IV valiantly resisting the power of the clergy, it was the Pope valiantly resisting the overwhelming secular power of the most powerful prince in Europe. Thus, the victory the Pope won at Canossa, was the true beginning of separation of Church and State. If the Emperor won, and subjugated the Pope, the Church/State relationship would not have been any different from the conditions in the Byzantine Empire, of the various Islamic states. $\endgroup$
    – kingledion
    Apr 15 '17 at 12:40
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    $\begingroup$ @kingledion: As a citizen of country of which the church descends directly from the once upon a time mighty Patriarchate of Constantinople, my opinion is that there is no better way to reduce the power of the Church with a Capital C than to put explicit political responsibility on it. As an example, the various national Orthodox Churches, among other attributes, are explicitly tasked with ethnarchy, that is, they must always be ready to function as a government of last resort. Explicit political responsibility does wonders in making the Church a political force among others. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Apr 15 '17 at 12:50
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    $\begingroup$ @wberry: By "no such wold-view" I was referring to militant atheism, a world-view assigning a positive value to the explicit denial of the existence of the supernatural, and attributing a moral duty to the propagation of said denial. And the Psalms were written (a) long before the Middle Age and (b) in a culture and civilization far far away. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Apr 28 '17 at 6:03

Religion in Middle Age was more about power than about spirituality. The Church was a power with the plus side of being (independently) blessed from high above, while other kings and emperors had to receive legitimation via the Church.

There are cases of kings which were known to be homosexual (a sin according to the Church) or even to have switched religion based on convenience (remember "Paris is worth a mass"?).

You also state he won't disclose his atheism, therefore it looks like he will behave like all other kings in those time: pragmatism to conserve power, as challenging the Church would have given a good reason to enemy kingdoms to attack.

  • $\begingroup$ Yep. The first crusade was an attempt by an exiled Pope to regain power. The church has enormous influence $\endgroup$ Apr 13 '17 at 8:39
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    $\begingroup$ And don't forget the beer and the influence on common people. Water wasn't safe so church imposing embargo on gruit (now replaced by hops) and ready beer could make your population sick. At the same time, priests' words was as good as law for many commoners, too. $\endgroup$
    – Mołot
    Apr 13 '17 at 9:07
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    $\begingroup$ Eh, that's not an accurate account of the 1at crusade at all $\endgroup$
    – Eloc
    Apr 13 '17 at 11:51
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    $\begingroup$ @RenegadePizzaGuy Which pope was exiled? This is completely wrong. $\endgroup$
    – kingledion
    Apr 15 '17 at 12:30
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    $\begingroup$ You are putting your own modern prejudices onto medieval civilization. Faith and spirituality were integral parts of the Middle Ages, and pretty much all ages in all places before the Modern. -1 $\endgroup$
    – kingledion
    Apr 15 '17 at 12:31

The nearest thing to a real-life example may be Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II (reigned 1220-1250). He was famed for his religious skepticism, embrace of science, patronage of learning, and tolerance of Muslims; and he was frequently at war with the Papacy. He probably took anti-religious behaviour about as far as any medieval monarch could without being overthrown.

In the long run, Frederick's reign did very little to weaken the central role of religion in Europe. That wasn't really challenged until the French Revolution in 1789. The revolution wasn't the work of a single individual; it was a mass popular movement, drawing on centuries of philosophical development and social change which didn't have any counterparts in medieval Europe.

Our hypothetical atheist king would not be able to overthrow the Church single-handed. Probably his best course is to promote learning, creating the conditions for something like the 18th-century Enlightenment to arrive ahead of schedule. For example he could found universities with a secular focus on science and philosophy, instead of theology (which was the main preoccupation of medieval universities like Oxford, Cambridge and the Sorbonne).

He might not see the Church fall in his lifetime, but from his perspective bringing it down in 200 years instead of 500 may count as a win.


AlexP has given you a wonderful start, as have all the other people.

Medieval is...a large time period, so generalizing seems dangerous, especially in respect to church and its power.

But I thought I would add my point of view, just to give you another angle.

While we might think of the church as an instrument of oppression, it was far, far more than that during this time period. Monastic orders were crucial to economies in some places, and it was the only thing keeping us from the total collapse of knowledge during the Dark Ages.

Taking away the Church during this time period may lead to less education. It really was the only place that a lot of old texts were preserved. And, it served to spread the Arabic numbers system.

They have all the books and educational resources. Pretty much. Some of the priests were even fairly secular, but since they benefited from the education and enjoyed the conversations about science and math, of course, they were good with devoting their lives to Christian ideals. We think of Church as a place which rejects logic entirely, but during the Middle Ages, it was a place where men of science could speak with other men of science and reason.

It's also the reason why areas with different language could communicate and get news of other places (aka Latin). The spread of ideas often happened because of this communication network--and nobles did talk to clergy specifically to gain knowledge of what other lands and rulers were doing. That is not to say that rulers did not write to each other, but this ready-made network meant that a priest interested in maths could write the Vatican (or other priests they had heard of) asking if there were other priests interested in that area of study. Once they had the info, they could start corresponding (and did). These messages could be sent via pilgrims or religious tourists.

And there's another blow to the economy--relics. Pilgrimages to visit holy relics were a big deal--making churches holding relics destinations which could be a boon for the local economies.

And lastly, the Church cared for the poor and ill. Most kings and governments did not do this--except through donations to the church. Therefore, most rulers were glad that the church provided something for people who would otherwise be driven to crime in their district.

My point here is that the church did a lot for civilization and was intertwined in a lot of different things.

Your king would have to work to replace all those things before people could accept it. Casting the Church as the villain of the piece seems like a modern point of view--but you have to realize that their place in Medieval society was more than just "we are the grand and oppressive church." Churches provided more than that and were woven into the very fabric of society then, often in very beneficial ways.

As to how far your King can get--this is the work of generations--not just one man--and it likely won't hold after he dies.

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    $\begingroup$ I like this. It shows a good bit of what the church did in the past. We all tend to focus on the jerks like Cardinal Richelaiu (sp?) and forget that the local priest was usually the only clergy that the peasants ever met and the poor parish priest was usually a decent person who actually Believed in the religion. $\endgroup$
    – Paul TIKI
    Apr 13 '17 at 16:09
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    $\begingroup$ Take away the church's notion of the equality of the soul in each human being, and you lose the last shred by which peasants and serfs avoided abject slavery in the eyes of society. How then should a king convince his vassal polities that slavery was ultimately very bad for the economy of his kingdom, or prevent them from raiding for slaves against his neighbors (bad for diplomacy)? He can suppress these behaviors through strength, but that will only breed resentment. In modern times we find it desirable to think of people as playing the game of life through pragmatics, but that's not all. $\endgroup$
    – Adam Wykes
    Apr 14 '17 at 2:05
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    $\begingroup$ The Catholic church was the engine by which two extremely important concepts became widespread: the separation of church and state, and the equality of all mankind (i.e. slavery is wrong). This isn't to say every Catholic country espoused these concepts at all times, but nowhere else on Earth other than the universally Catholic Middle Ages in Europe did these things evolve. Both these concepts are critical in the modern world order, and they would not have developed without Catholicism. $\endgroup$
    – kingledion
    Apr 15 '17 at 12:34
  • $\begingroup$ @Paul richelieu :) I guess for a non French the spelling makes no sense lol $\endgroup$
    – Patrice
    Apr 15 '17 at 13:41
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    $\begingroup$ @Patrice French doesn't make that much difference. I can't spell in any language. I'd be in trouble if it weren't for spell-check! :) $\endgroup$
    – Paul TIKI
    Apr 15 '17 at 14:20

Anything that RenegadePizzaGuy said. You also have to take into account that in medieval times there was no "atheism" as we see it now. Yes, there were people not believing in the church, but every had a "system" they believed it. There was simply no hint that there is no god.

Even better than undermining via the kings power would you be to give his subjects a bible in their language (like Luther did, which was almost the end of church) and let them revolt. One of the many reasons people let the church rule them is because they could not read the Latin bible and interpret it. So everything the priest said was a rule of god.

Educate the masses about Christianity, let them revolt, then kill the evil heart of the church.

/edit because I'm kind of mad at the comments claiming I'm wrong about atheism. So the following part is dictated to explaining why there was no atheism in medieval times/

Lets establish some terms. (all from Wikipedia)

Atheism is, in the broadest sense, the absence of belief in the existence of deities. Less broadly, atheism is the rejection of belief that any deities exist.

Heresy is any belief or theory that is strongly at variance with established beliefs or customs. A heretic is a proponent of such claims or beliefs.

Infidel (aka non-believer)(literally "unfaithful") is a pejorative term used in certain religions for those who do not believe the central tenets of one's own religion, are members of another religion, or are not religious.

Agnosticism is the view that the existence of God or the supernatural are unknown and unknowable

Some comments said my statement, at that time there was no atheism, is simply wrong. So i will prove now, that this statement is true

First we start with looking at the counter "arguments":

Diagoras of Melos was not alive in medieval times and Critias too, so what they spoke does not matter to us. Same with the bible, even more because its written about non-believers not about atheism.

Just picking one point in history and then saying, well because of that its safe to say: there was an atheist, so there will be always someone believing in this system is wrong. If i write now a text about my believe in a huge space fish that created everything wont mean that in 800 years there will be a person believing in the same thing.

Critias did not talk about atheism, just about religion is wrong. Not believing in religion does not exclude the believe in a higher force.

Someone trying to prove that there is god with science to combine two systems is not an indicator that there was an actual stream trying to do the opposite.

//edit forgot to include Heraclitus.

Heraclitus was in no way atheistic. His saying the path up and down are one and the same is now the base of many pagan systems where "as above so below" is the center. The statement the path up and down are one and the same in in fact deeply rooted in gnosticism.

So no argument that was brought up is actually valid.

And again to know that there is something like atheism it not the same as to practice it.

Lets look at the world view at those times:

Earth is a magical spinning disc, everything around us is there only because we are. There was no open theory that humans evolved from a tiny cell. Stars were body less lights in the night sky. To actually believe in atheism in this setting is nonsense. Any psychiatrist in this time would call an actual atheist delusional, schizophrenic or just insane.

Just imagine a conversation like: A: I don't believe that there is some higher power! B: Did you look at the sky? How would you explain the magical sphere giving you light each day, letting you live? who makes it rain to provide us with food?

Person A has no logical way to answer and explain why he is thinking like that. Believing in atheism was in no way a rational decision.

Now we look at the people actually believing is something different that the church:

Most of them had some other believe system in place to substitute the church, and practiced it in silence. There were too many different streams of these people to count them. These are the heretics and infidels.

Let's talk about actual educated humans and the scientific community:

Even though under these people it was a fact that earth is not flat, most did not believe in atheism. Researchers at that time had in fact a rather occult world view, based on religion but laced with their opinion on the world(Lets not forget science is rooted in occultism and was always closely intertwined). Many combined different believe-systems.

The closest stream within this community which could be called atheists were Aristotles followers (their research led to evolution theroy). They tried to explain the world with actual science, without considering god or anything like that. If asked if a god exists with would reply with i can't tell you, there could be or just maybe but they would not deny it. It was an agnostic stream of thought.

Feel free to prove me wrong. But until then my statement, that there is no actual reason the believe in atheism, stands.

Lets look at the people in actual power positions and the Vatican.

Almost none of them were actual Christian. Religion and the church was used to establish control, lower tier of the church had only the same information as the pleb and just did want they were told. Kings had mostly little interest in religion, for them it was too only a tool to gain power.

In conclusion:

Atheism was not known like it is today. In medieval times there was not even a word for this. It wrong to assume "rational" thinkers turn always to atheism. For the uneducated masses it was rational to assume there is a higher force, for the educated folks it was rational to say they can't know if there is a god, because they could not set up a complete system that worked without a higher force. On the other hand saying that the religion, the standard of approaching spiritualism, is not the right way does not implicate that there is no higher force. In the end actual atheism as we define the term was simply not logical and such a tiny fraction of all people were thinking this way that its is neglectable in terms of general world views. Not to mention people don't want to get killed because they practice a irrational believe, it was not worth it.

In terms of statistical relevance it's the same to say in those times there was no atheism, as to say there is no cannibalism in Europe today.

A quick look at the wikipedia entry of the story of atheism proves my point.

Writings of that time telling that there is no god were closer to neo satanism than to atheism. (Mankind is the higher force of the universe, their own gods)

I believe in the high standards of stackexchange sites and claiming some statement is false, even in comments, should not be accepted if there is no actual to the topic related proof or argument.

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    $\begingroup$ Wrong. Heraclitus: "this universe … has not been made by any god or man, but it always has been, is, and will be an ever-living fire…" Diagoras of Melos (sometimes referred to as "the 1st atheist") was strongly critical of religion, and discouraged people from getting initiated. Critias, uncle of Plato, said religion was a human invention to control people. These examples date back to 5th century BCE. As long as there has been religion, there have been atheists. It's just that in many times & places, it's dangerous to say so. $\endgroup$
    – Jerry B
    Apr 13 '17 at 12:36
  • $\begingroup$ @JerryB your examples are from people who lived long before medieval times. Do you have any examples of atheist views from medieval Europeans? $\endgroup$
    – user151841
    Apr 13 '17 at 18:45
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    $\begingroup$ @JDizzle Your statement was that there was no atheism. For that, "what counts" is that atheists existed, not that they were a minority. $\endgroup$
    – Jerry B
    Apr 15 '17 at 22:24
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    $\begingroup$ was known /= was practiced. Its all about the masses. Nobody cared for the thought of a handful "madman". It was not accepted, thats the point. $\endgroup$
    – JDizzle
    Apr 15 '17 at 23:27
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    $\begingroup$ @JDizzle Not accepted, surely. But that isn't what you said above. You said there was no atheism, and that there was "no hint that there is no god". Those statements are simply false. $\endgroup$
    – Jerry B
    Apr 17 '17 at 15:00

Unless you have a Stalin-esque dictatorship, I don't see how it would be, realistically, possible to accomplish this in the king's lifetime (especially considering the average lifespan of the time).

The church was as much a political power as a religious one. The first crusade was started as a power play by a deposed Pope. A full year before the actual crusade began, a peasant crusade had formed and was sent off to die, since they were of little consequence.

If I had to make a guess, the king would seek allies among the nobility, since the church basically has an iron grip on the populace. Like minded individuals could help to plant the seeds of doubt among the rest. Another possibility is to play the church against itself. Secretly support and finance more secular members of the church. Gain dirt on members and influence them.

I'd say the best that the king can do is undermine the church's authority and try to cause internal conflict. Getting the church to tear itself apart is perhaps the best move, since the populace is unlikely to budge otherwise

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    $\begingroup$ Who was the renegade pope? Who 'sent' the people's crusade? This is not history. -1 $\endgroup$
    – kingledion
    Apr 15 '17 at 12:36

Two comments already mentioned the reformation(s), and I think this is the answer you’re looking for:

As far as the Roman Catholic Church was concerned, leaders who embraced the Lutheran, Calvinist and English reformation were denouncing (the Catholic) god, and were effectively undistinguishable from atheism1. The resulting schism led to many conflicts and outright wars, but one of the consequences was in that domains that were reformed by their leader, the vassals followed. The divide can still be seen today.

To summarise, yes, an atheist king could end religious dominance within his lifetime. With brute force, if nothing else. It happened several times over.

1 Of course from a modern perspective these reformed faiths had nothing to do with atheism (except the subordination of the authority of the church). But at the time (and for the purpose of the question) the distinction was immaterial.


Your question seems to be assuming a behind-the-scenes scheming approach (not necessarily meant in a bad way; whether it is good or bad is a matter of opinion).

Your question can be answered more simply if you are willing to take a more direct approach.

If your king is of reasonable power, he can directly contradict or even war against whatever he opposes. Other answers here have already mentioned kings who fought against the catholic establishment, so I will skip the rest of this case.

The one case which is under-represented here is the powerful king who can do whatever he wants. Fortunately for me, this case does not need much explanation: the king is powerful enough that he can do whatever he wants.

There are rulers in history who have done exactly this, religiously. Generally this was not used to remove the dominance of religion overall; instead it was used to change the dominance from one religion to another, or to another form of the same religion. Notably, in Egypt and Japan the rulers claimed that they, themselves, were gods. That might be an oversimplification in Japan's case, which I am not as familiar with, but my layman's understanding is that the Japanese emperor was revered as a deity.

In the case of the Egyptian pharaohs, however, it was fairly simple: pharaohs could just pronounce that they, or someone close to them, was a god and this was to be accepted.

This was likely accepted with lip-service only by many people, no matter how powerful the ruler, and we do have historical accounts of people who refused to pay such lip-service to their rulers. One such famous account even ended well for the subjects: Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon demanded to be worshipped, but Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego refused, stating that their god would be with them. The king, furious, had these three thrown into a large, super-hot furnace (reportedly so hot that it killed the guards who threw in the prisoners), but they were protected by a fourth figure who could be seen walking in the blazing furnace with them. The king, astonished by the miracle he witnessed, did a complete 180 and ordered everyone to worship the god of the Hebrews. So everyone went in short order from worshipping whoever they were worshipping before, to worshipping the king via his statue he set up, to worshipping the god of the Hebrews, all in short order because of royal degree.

Power reigns in a land lacking in mutual respect, neighborly love, and honor/kindness. In such a place, whatever the entity with the power says is what goes.


One thing that one should keep in mind is that the medieval European view was that Monarchs ruled by Divine Right:

It asserts that a monarch is subject to no earthly authority, deriving the right to rule directly from the will of God. The king is thus not subject to the will of his people, the aristocracy, or any other estate of the realm. It implies that only God can judge an unjust king and that any attempt to depose, dethrone or restrict his powers runs contrary to the will of God and may constitute a sacrilegious act.

If an atheist king delegitimizes the church and the concept of God itself, then he might also delegitimize his own authority.

"There is no God!"

"Well, who made you king, then?"

Queue Dennis from Monty Python's Holy Grail

Unless, in your world, kings don't rule by Divine Right. In which case, you might have to come up with an alternate reason why monarchs should rule. At least, in medieval Europe, they thought they needed a reason, and that reason was Divine Right.


Many people have stated that doing "a lot" to the Middle Age Catholic Church would have been very hard in Europe. I agree with this assumption but would like to add a caveat.

In the Middle Ages power was regionally focused, meaning the further away the less grip it had on you, this is primarily due to the length of time it took to relay information. If your protagonist were located in France, or Germany then by all means RenegadePizzaGuy, Jdizzle, and L.Dutch are 100% correct.

Move further away and your king slowly becomes more influential. Places like Russia who were Eastern Orthodox would have tolerated your conversion more readily if you were Catholic. Going to Norway or Finland this would also be feasible as the local lords(Jarls) had actually encouraged Catholic conversion there. You also had mostly secular Arabian cities like Damascus which during Ottoman rule Christians and Jews could practice their religion without state persecution.

This fight for secularism would not be the fastest as others have said. The most you could probably do is remove priesthood as enforcers and definers of law in your kingdom. This would quickly make you an enemy to the church. Hopefully your kingdom is far enough away and there is other turmoil in the world to mask your plot.


Start at the bottom. Priests at the parish level were often poorly trained in doctrine and sometimes didn't even know much latin. This king could out compete for the hearts of his country by providing a person at the local level who could be a "spiritual" leader in a secular sense or by co-opting the education of parish priests.

  1. Among your opponents (ie., leaders of the religious body), identify the one who is most influential. See if he's caught up in something that will make him persona non grata among his co-religionists, and publicize any such findings to the max. Since the church is powerful and ruthless, it will also be as corrupt as Tammany Hall, so this should not be too difficult. Lather, rinse, repeat.

  2. Among your opponents, identify a few ambitious fellows who are only in it for the power. Make a deal with each: Help put the skids under High Priest X, and I'll be your best buddy when you take his place. Make sure that fatal "accidents" befall anyone who gets ideas about challenging you.

  • $\begingroup$ That is a very Machiavellian view of things. $\endgroup$
    – Paul TIKI
    Apr 15 '17 at 17:59
  • $\begingroup$ Ever heard of the phrase, "getting medieval"? $\endgroup$
    – EvilSnack
    Nov 2 '20 at 19:02

The king knows that the entire population has been indoctrinated and any attempts to openly try to re-educate the population will lead to his palace being stormed and he'll be burned at the Stake. This means that he has to start with a covert counter-indoctrination program. He can do that by asking for a few hundred small children who will get a first class education in his palace. He needs to invent a story why that's necessary that the people will find credible. In medieval Europe there was a lot of poverty, so it shouldn't be too difficult for a king to get hold of a few hundred children of poor parents in exchange for a lot of money.

Then suppose that the king gets 200 children of about 2 years old in his palace. These children then get indoctrinated with atheistic ideology, they also learn a lot about religion but that's to make clear why so many people end up becoming believers in the society they live. When they are a bit older, they get the best education available from the best professors, but here everything is censored. The king tells the professors that this is necessary because they are getting very special religious education from priests. The children are told to pretend as if they are believers when interacting with their professors.

Then when the children are about 16 years old, the king will have 200 geniuses who he would like to become the best scientists, engineers, generals, doctors etc. etc.. They are not held back because of religious nonsense. He'll kick start the scientific revolution from inside his palace, and a mini-industrial revolution, but this all largely hidden from public view (and cover stories invented to cover up what cannot be hidden). Twenty years later, he'll a WWI-like army equipped with primitive machine guns, poison gas and tanks ready to defeat the Church once and for all.


How much he could achieve? All of it. The church in the middle ages was a band of harlots. Remember the third Crusade?

So if you wanted to get rid of the pope and his guys you would release people from paying tithe and from servitude to churches and convents. Furthermore you would require them to pay taxes like everyone else.

Then you would have a backlash from papal states that can expel you from the church. Usually it meant that other rulers could attack you and you can't call for help (like The Teutonic Knights did for the war with Poland-Lithuania) and you are treated worse in economical deals (like countries outside the EU).

But, as we know from history, sometimes the expulsion did nothing. Polish kings were expelled for a few years, but Poland was too strong to be attacked. Henry the VIII farted in the general direction of the Pope and his Church.

BUT you need to remember that kings had very small armies on their own. They relied on vassals and common move. So if your king could convince people to atheism (which is not very likely, as religion is a great way to control the peasants) he could easily get away with the atheism.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ This is a melange of bad history and questionable argument. -1 $\endgroup$
    – kingledion
    Apr 15 '17 at 18:13

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