God has conferred upon and added to man a distinctive power — the faculty of intellectual investigation into the secrets of creation, the acquisition of higher knowledge — the greatest virtue of which is scientific enlightenment.
Feb 3, 2013. Deism – according to Wikipedia – is “the belief that reason and observation of the natural world are sufficient to determine the existence of God.”
Bahá’is – like myself – believe that there is strong evidence for the existence of God in the natural world, and even more evidence in the powers of our mind and intellect, but that the strongest evidence comes from divine revelation as revealed by the Manifestations of God – Moses, Jesus, Mohammed, the Buddha, Bahá’u'llah, and the like.
Deists typically believed that there was little or no need for divine revelation. Yes, Christ may have been an exemplary moral teacher, and yes, Christianity may be beneficial to the state and to society, but it is not necessary for the enlightened to abide within its embrace. As the years went by and deism became more radical, Christianity itself came to be seen as poisoning “natural religion.” Roy Porter in The Creation of the Modern World puts it this way:
[Deists] granted that reason lighted the way to a knowledge of a Supreme Being and of man’s duties – atheism was as blind as superstition – but further held that Christianity either added nothing at all to ‘natural religion’ or contained foolish and false elements, and hence must be purged, reinterpreted or rejected.
Especially doubtful – according to deists – are miracles, ancient scripture, the need for ecclesiastical institutions, and theological conceptions, Trinitarianism being a frequent target.
Several American founding fathers – Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson – were deists. James Madison and Abraham Lincoln likely were too. The radical political activist Thomas Paine wrote a popular deist tract – The Age of Reason – that characterizes deist belief thus:
I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish church, by the Roman church, by the Greek church, by the Turkish church, by the Protestant church, nor by any church that I know of. My own mind is my own church. All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit.
I believe in one God, and no more; and I hope for happiness beyond this life. I believe in the equality of man; and I believe that religious duties consist in doing justice, loving mercy, and endeavoring to make our fellow-creatures happy.
Deism was a slippery slope that – accompanied by the frequent wars, intrigues, arguments, prejudices, hatreds, and controversies associated with religion and its institutions – led many Europeans, must notably the elite and the educated, to reject belief in God. The view that the study of nature – and right philosophical thinking – was the correct path to the knowledge of God seems to have led inexorably to a rejection of Christianity and revealed religion. Deists believed in God as revealed in “natural religion” but not in God as revealed in Christianity.
The Origins of Deism
Modern deism is primarily a British creation, although there were strong contributions from Spinoza’s thought and the Netherlands.
Religious belief – and theological politics – was a complicated business in England and the United Kingdom in the 16th and 17th centuries. Henry VIII created the English church in 1534 so that he could divorce and remarry, and the church allied itself with the Reformation. Mary returned England to Catholicism in 1554, burning hundreds at the stake for heresy. Elizabeth restored Protestantism, stayed pragmatic and moderate, but angered the more radical Puritans. Charles I – succeeding his father James I – infuriated Parliament and the Puritans, thereby losing his head. Oliver Cromwell’s republic ended with Charles’s sons – Charles II and James II on the throne. Both were Catholic in their sympathies – leading to an intense distrust on the part of their subjects. The Glorious Revolution of 1688 overthrew James II, putting the Protestant William of Orange of the Netherlands in his place as a constitutional monarch. The result was anger, new sects, multiple denominations, intense debates over theology, a visceral distrust of Catholicism and priests, and paradoxically, growing tolerance and religious freedom.
In this environment, its easy to see how the “sweet light of reason and science” could come to be considered the way to God, especially in light of Newton’s profound and world-changing scientific developments. Reason, science, and philosophy – rather than ideologies, conflicting superstitions, battling prelates, and ancient custom – came to be seen as the true path, rather than Christianity.
Two thinkers – Thomas Hobbes and Lord Herbert of Cherbury- led the way. Hobbes wasn’t a deist, but he espoused a materialist conception of the universe that held that all things – including thought, heaven, hell and even God – were “corporeal” and “matter in motion”. There were, Hobbes held, no supernatural explanations, undermining traditional theological explanation.
Herbert argued that true religions shared five points in common:
- There is one Supreme God.
- He ought to be worshipped.
- Virtue and piety are the chief parts of divine worship.
- We ought to be sorry for our sins and repent of them
- Divine goodness doth dispense rewards and punishments both in this life and after it.
Why then were there so many differences between religions? Herbert’s answer was self-deception, the workings of imagination, and priestly guile.
Four English Deists
John Toland (1670 – 1722), Anthony Collins (1676 – 1729), Matthew Tindal (1657 – 1733), and Bernard Mandeville (1670 – 1733) are not household names, nor are they usually mentioned as leading Enlightenment thinkers, but their influence was instrumental in leading the enlightened away from a belief in Christianity – especially belief in the Christian clergy – and towards hostility to religion. Writing three centuries ago, they argue points of view that can seem as current now as they were when written.
Toland, born in Ireland, educated in Scotland, Holland and at Oxford, published Christianity not Mysterious in 1696. Its aim, according to The Cambridge History of English and American Literature (see Bartlesby.com), was to show that Christianity should not be contrary to reason. The Cambridge History summarizes his views as follows:
Toland’s [goal was] to demonstrate that nothing contrary to reason, and nothing above reason, can be part of Christian doctrine. There are no mysteries in it. Revelation has unveiled what was formerly mysterious. Whoever reveals anything must do so in words that are intelligible, and the matter must be possible. The things revealed, therefore, are no longer mysteries. This holds, whether the revelation come from God or from man. The only difference between the two cases is that a man may lie, and God can not.
Everything mysterious about Christianity must be discarded, Toland declared.
The wealthy Collins wrote a number of books that closely engaged with the central English philosophical and religion controversies of the time. In his An Essay Concerning the Use of Reason of 1707, his first book, he argued that revelation must agree with a philosophical understanding of natural religion. In A Discourse of Freethinking, published in 1713, he argued that only reasoning could determine what was true or not in religion. He also accused the clergy of feuding and engaging in the ‘vile arts’. In a Discourse of the Grounds and Reasons of the Christian Religion, published in 1724, Collins denies authority to prophecies and miracles on the grounds of incompatibility with Enlightenment reason and philosophy.
Tindall was a lawyer, known for his important contributions in prosecuting pirates and in encouraging press freedom. His Christianity as Old as the Creation, first published in 1730, came to be known as the “Bible” of deism. In it, Tindall argues that the most important role of Christianity is to confirm what man can know about God through reason. Here is how the Cambridge History summarizes Tindall:
Tindal grasps firmly the principles of natural religion, as they were taught by … theologians of the day. Reason convinces us of the being and attributes of God, and of the truths of morality; the goodness of God makes it impossible that He should have concealed from any of His creatures what was necessary to their well-being. Christianity, therefore, cannot displace deism … it can only confirm it.
How then did so much religious conflict and controversy come about? It was the fault of the priests:
… the pride, ambition, and covetousness of the priests … has been the cause … of the great corruption of religion.
Mandeville – like Freud later – saw power, pride, vice and self-interest as the root of human behaviour. In his most famous book, The Fable of the Bees published in 1714, he argued that what made the world function was vice and self-interest. In Free Thoughts on Religion, the Church, and National Happiness, published in 1720, he charged (as summarized by Irwin Primer) that:
… clergy everywhere—pagan and Christian, Catholic and Protestant—have always perpetrated frauds, abuses, and even shocking crimes to advance their worldly power and wealth. His anticlerical argument is easily summarized: when the clergy have the power to force consciences and persecute in the name of their creed, they always do so. Ecclesiastics will continue to foster disputes and social upheavals from the safety of their pulpits if they are not restrained by the state.
Modern readings of Mandeville – someone who was a forerunner to Adam Smith and modern capitalism – see him as an anthropologist studying the roots of religious functioning and dysfunctionalism. Irwin Primer again:
Mandeville the naturalist was primarily interested in the springs of human behavior, and throughout this book he writes as a psychologist investigating the conduct of human beings in religious contexts; his subject is really the psychology of religion. Indeed, in the one place in his book where he announces his purpose, he dwells not on the politics of religion or religious controversies, but on the more basic understanding of the motives that drive human behavior:
“My aim is to make Men penetrate into their Consciences, and by searching without Flattery into the true Motives of their Actions, learn to know themselves …“
As we discussed in our last blog, Voltaire and the like-minded in France and on the continent, picked up British Deist beliefs and modes of argument and wielded them as weapons against Christianity in their battles with the European clergy.
Growing up in a modern secular environment – for me it was a college campus where religion was deemed hopelessly outdated – one imbibes deism and its beliefs with one’s mother’s milk. Religion is corrupt, or it is for the simple. Priests and clerics are essentially in it for their own interests. If one doesn’t deny the existence of God outright, it is best not to go to Church to find him. All of these prejudices – a kind of educated secular cultural heritage – owe much to the deists.
Yet deism seems to also have been part of complex and lengthy process of moving away from religions run and administered by specialist groups – priests, clergy, and the ordained – and towards, even if slowly and painfully, an age where all are responsible for their own spiritual growth and nourishment.
If this sentiment is true – and I think it is – perhaps we ought to be forgiving of the rampant sarcasm, causal arrogance, and cruel characterizations of religion of the deists we describe above.
Next time, we start to examine atheism – a venerable and radical belief system that burst onto the world stage in the French revolution. Modern atheism has its spiritual forebears in extraordinarily cynical critiques of the Bible and ecclesiastical institutions advance by Spinoza and his near-contemporary Pierre Bayle. We will start with them.
This is the 13th in a series of blogs on the Enlightenment Vision of Science. The author, Stephen Friberg, is a Bahá’í living in Mountain View, California. A research physicist by training, he wrote Religion and Evolution Reconciled: ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Comments on Evolution with Courosh Mehanian. He worked at NTT in Japan before joining the semiconductor industry in Silicon Valley.