Archive for the ‘Deism’ Category

Hope Not Hate on the Banning of Nazi Group ‘National Action’

December 13, 2016

Yesterday the government banned National Action as a terrorist group under new legislation against anti-Semitism. National Action are truly vile. They see themselves very much as a Fascist youth group, and are a blatantly Nazi organisation. They really do subscribe to the stupid and murderous conspiracy theory that the Jews are attempting to enslave and destroy the White race, and have made speeches, which have openly called for their extermination. Hope Not Hate’s report on them states that one of their members called for a genocide in Britain of the same proportions as Pol Pot’s Cambodia. There’s also a piccie of two of these thugs desecrating the memory of those murdered at Buchenwald by making the Nazi salute in the part of the death camp where prisoners were executed.

Reporting the ban yesterday, Mike wondered whether banning them was the correct way to deal with these idiots on the grounds that banning them could force them underground, where they could fester and grow. He speculated on whether a better way of handling them might be to educate people, so that they aren’t fooled by their monstrous racist ideology.

Today I received this message about the ban from Nick Lowles of Hope Not Hate, explaining their position on the group’s banning.

Yesterday the British Government announced plans to proscribe the neo-nazi group National Action, describing it as a terrorist organisation. It is the first time a British far right group has been proscribed in the post-war period.

Enforce the law

HOPE not hate has cautiously welcomed the ban because National Action has been taking an increasingly alarming trajectory and its leadership and supporters have been openly advocating extreme violence and even murder.

We have produced this briefing on National Action.

However, we are under no illusions that banning National Action is the end of the story. Indeed, there are many reasons why a ban could be counter-productive. National Action leaders are already basking in their notoriety and the attention the group will have will only attract more young people to their cause. The group has already announced its intention to merely re-constitute itself under a different name, a tactic which Anjem Choudary’s Al-Muhajiroun organisation used so effectively for so many years.

There is also a risk that some National Action supporters will convince themselves that they are truly at war with the State and take matters to a new dangerous level.

We have long argued that the activities of National Action could have been severely hampered if the authorities had enforced the laws we have at the moment.

Why is it that the CPS still have not decided whether to prosecute NA leader Jack Renshaw for a strongly Antisemitic speech in Blackpool in February, where he threatened to execute antifascists and described Jews as a disease and parasites and said Hitler was too lenient on them?

Why has no action been taken against NA supporters for celebrating the murder of Jo Cox and calling for other politicians and so-called ‘traitors’ to be killed too?

So it is all very good for the Government to proscribe National Action, but just like the many laws that currently exist, the effectiveness of this ban will be in its enforcement.

HOPE not hate has successfully infiltrated National Action and we will continue to monitor and expose their violent activities.

Hope Not Hate’s report can be read here:

I’ve mixed feelings about the ban myself. Hope Not Hate are, as you might expect, absolutely correct in their statement that existing legislation could have been used to ban them long before this. This is the legislation that makes it an offence to foment racial hatred, amongst other provisions. It has been used countless times to prosecute and jail members of the extreme right, and succeeded in getting the BNP to admit members from ethnic minorities, if it wished to continue as a legal political party. National Action, with their celebration of Adolf Hitler, overt, venomous anti-Semitism and racism, clearly violate this.

I wonder if part of the government’s motive for this ban is to validate the new definition of anti-Semitism. This seems to follow the standard definition of anti-Semitism, which states that it is the hatred of Jews as Jews. It seems to me to be unproblematic, unlike the definition of anti-Semitism to which Jackie Walker objected, for which she herself was subsequently smeared as anti-Semitic by the organisers of a workshop on Holocaust Memorial Day. This explicitly defined anti-Semitism to include criticism of the state of Israel. Walker is part Jewish, and not only is she opposed to anti-Semitism, she is also like the others smeared as such by the Israel lobby in the Labour party, profoundly against all forms of racism. This included the Israeli state’s persecution of the Palestinians.

Recently, the American government has passed legislation, which also defines criticism of Israel as anti-Semitic, which is intended to prevent government organisations supporting the BDS – Boycott, Divest and Sanction movement. This is an organisation that encourages people not to buy goods produced by Israeli businesses in the occupied West Bank.

Although the phrasing of the new legislation appears not to allow this, my fear is that some way will be found to criminalise the BDS movement in this country as well. I am also afraid that special legislation intended to protect Jews will be seized upon as spurious evidence to support their stupid views. The far right on their websites frequently quote one of Voltaire’s sayings: If you want to know who rules you, look at who you can’t criticise. Or something like that. Voltaire undoubtedly meant the French monarchy and supernatural religion, particularly Christianity and the Roman Catholic church. But the EDL and various Fascist groups use it to claim that the legislation protecting ethnic minorities, including Jews and Muslims, means that they are being deliberately elevated above the white, gentile population.

That said, National Action’s explicit racism and calls for violence are very definitely potentially dangerous now after Jo Cox’s murder and the rise in racism following Brexit, and the government is right to try to prevent further racially motivated incidents and violence.

Tolstoy’s The Law of Violence and the Law of Love

January 24, 2016

Tolstoy Law Love

(Santa Barbara: Concord Grove Press, no date)

As well as being one of the great titans of world literature, Leo Tolstoy was a convinced anarchist and pacifist. The British philosopher and writer, Sir Isaiah Berlin, in his book, Russian Thinkers, states that Tolstoy’s anarchist beliefs even informed his great work, War and Peace. Instead of portraying world history as being shaped by the ideas and actions of great men, Tolstoy’s epic of the Napoleonic Wars shows instead how it is formed by the actions of millions of individuals.

The writer himself attempted to put his own ideas into practise. He was horrified by the poverty and squalor, both physical and moral, of the new, urban Russia which was arising as the country industrialised, and the degradation of its working and peasant peoples. After serving in the army he retreated to his estate, where he concentrated on writing. He also tried to live out his beliefs, dressing in peasant clothes and teaching himself their skills and crafts, like boot-making, in order to identify with them as the oppressed against the oppressive upper classes.

Tolstoy took his pacifism from a Chechen Sufi nationalist leader, who was finally captured and exiled from his native land by the Russians after a career resisting the Russian invasion. This Islamic mystic realised that military resistance was useless against the greater Russian armed forces. So instead, he preached a message of non-violent resistance and peaceful protest against the Russian imperial regime. Tolstoy had been an officer during the invasion of Chechnya, and had been impressed by its people and their leader’s doctrine of peaceful resistance. Tolstoy turned it into one of the central doctrines of his own evolving anarchist ideology. And he, in turn, influenced Gandhi in his stance of ahimsa – Hindu non-violence – and peaceful campaign against the British occupation of India. Among the book’s appendices is 1910 letter from Tolstoy to Gandhi. I also believe Tolstoy’s doctrine of peaceful resistance also influence Martin Luther King in his confrontation with the American authorities for civil rights for Black Americans.

Tolstoy considered himself a Christian, though his views are extremely heretical and were officially condemned as such by the Russian Orthodox Church. He wrote a number of books expounding his religious views, of which The Law of Violence and the Law of Love is one. One other is The Kingdom of God Is Within You. Tolstoy’s Christianity was basically the rationalised Christianity, formed during the 19th century by writers like David Strauss in Germany and Ernest Renan in France. In their view, Christ was a moral preacher, teaching devotion to a transcendent but non-interfering God, but did not perform any miracles or claim He was divine. It’s similar to the Deist forms of Christianity that appeared in the 18th century in works such as Christianity Not Mysterious. While there are still many Biblical scholars, who believe that Christ Himself did not claim to be divine, such as Geza Vermes, this view has come under increasing attack. Not least because it presents an ahistorical view of Jesus. The Deist conception of Christ was influenced by the classicising rationalism of the 18th century. It’s essentially Jesus recast as a Greek philosopher, like Plato or Socrates. More recent scholarship by Sandmel and Sanders from the 1970’s onwards, in works like the latter’s Jesus the Jew, have shown how much Christ’s life and teaching reflected the Judaism of the First Century, in which miracles and the supernatural were a fundamental part.

In The Law of Violence and the Law of Love, Tolstoy sets out his anarchist, pacifist Christian views. He sees the law of love as very core of Christianity, in much the same way the French Utopian Socialist Saint-Simon saw universal brotherhood as the fundamental teaching of Christianity. Tolstoy attacks the established church for what he sees as their distortion of this original, rational, non-miraculous Christianity, stating that it’s the reason so many working people are losing their faith. Like other religious reformers, he recommends his theological views, arguing that it will lead to a revival of genuine Christianity. At the same time, this renewed, reformed Christianity and the universal love it promotes, will overturn the corrupt and oppressive rule of governments, which are built on violence and the use of force.

Among the other arguments against state violence, Tolstoy discusses those, who have refused or condemned military service. These not only include modern conscientious objectors, such as 19th century radicals and Socialists, but also the Early Church itself. He quotes Christian saints and the Church Fathers, including Tertullian and Origen, who firmly condemned war and military service. For example, Tertullian wrote

It is not fitting to serve the emblem of Christ and the emblem of the devil, the fortress of light and the fortress of darkness. One soul cannot serve two masters. And besides, how can one fight without the sword, which the Lord himself has taken away? Is it possible to do sword exercises, when the Lord says that everyone who takes the sword shall perish by the sword? And how can a son of peace take part in a battle.

Some scholars of the Early Church have argued that its opposition to military service was based on opposition to the pagan ceremonies the soldiers would have to attend and perform as part of their duties. As believers in the only God, these were forbidden to Christians. Nevertheless, despite his condemnation, Tertullian admits elsewhere that there were Christians serving in the Roman army.

Other quotations from the Church Fathers make it clear that it was opposition to the bloodshed in war, which caused them to reject military service. Tolstoy cites Cyprian, who stated that

The world goes mad with the mutual shedding of blood, and murder, considered a crime when committed singly, is called a virtue when it is done in the mas. The multiplication of violence secures impunity for the criminals.

Tolstoy also cites a decree of the First Ecumenical Council of 325 proscribing a penance to Christians returning to the Roman army, after they had left it. He states that those, who remained in the army, had to vow never to kill an enemy. If they violated this, then Basil the Great declared that they could not receive communion for three years.

This pacifism was viable when the Church was a small, persecuted minority in the pagan Roman Empire. After Constantine’s conversion, Christians and the Christian church entered government as Christianity became the official religion. The Church’s pacifist stance was rejected as Christians became responsible for the defence of the empire and its peoples, as well as their spiritual wellbeing and secular administration. And as the centuries progressed, Christians became all too used to using force and violence against their enemies, as shown in the countless religious wars fought down through history. It’s a legacy which still understandably colours many people’s views of Christianity, and religion as a whole.

This edition of Tolstoy’s book is published by the Institute of World Culture, whose symbol appears on the front of the book. This appears from the list of other books they publish in the back to be devoted to promoting mysticism. This is mostly Hindu, but also contains some Zoroastrian and Gnostic Christian works, as well as the Zohar, one of the main texts of the Jewish Qabbala.

Pacifism is very much an issue for your personal conscience, though it is, of course, very much a part of the Quaker spirituality. Against this pacifist tradition there’s the ‘Just War’ doctrine articulated and developed over the centuries by St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas and other theologians and Christian philosophers. This examines and defines under which circumstances and for which reasons a war can be fought, and what moral restrictions should be imposed on the way it is fought. For example, combatants should not attack women, children and non-combatants. Despite this, the book is an interesting response to the muscular Christianity preached during the days of the British Empire, and which still survives in the American Right. Many Republicans, particularly the Tea Party, really do see Christianity as not only entirely compatible with gun rights, but as a vital part of it. Bill O’Reilly, one of the anchors on Fox News, has stated that Christ would fully approve of the shooting of violent criminals, even in circumstances others find highly dubious. These include some of the incidents where teh police have shot unarmed Blacks, or where such resistance from the suspect may have been the result of mental illness and the cops themselves were in no danger. In the Law of Violence and the Law of Love, you can read Tolstoy’s opinion of the official use of lethal force, and his condemnation of the capitalist statism O’Reilly and Fox stand for.

Swedish Church Threatened for Supporting Muslims

February 13, 2015

Religious Freedom Card

French Revolutionary Card celebrating religious freedom.

There’s been a lot of alarm recently about the massive growth of the German anti-Islamic organisation, Pegida. The group’s name is an acronym for ‘Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West’, in German, Patriotische Europeaer Gegen der Islamisierung des Abendlandes. In Germany the groups boasts tens of thousands of members, and has staged mass demonstrations and marches across the country. These have provoked in their turn large counterdemonstrations from liberal Germans fearing a return of the xenophobia that plunged their country in the Third Reich and culminated in the genocide of the Jews and the projected extermination of other groups judged genetically or racially inferior, like the Slavonic peoples of eastern Europe, Gypsies and the disabled. Angela Merkel herself has denounced Pegida and its bigotry. Pegida is not content to confine itself to Germany, however. It is expanding across Europe and plans to stage a rally in Newcastle on this side of the North Sea.

This story comes from Christian Today, a Christian news website, from the 10th a few days ago. The pastor at St. Petri’s church in Malmo was so alarmed at a Pegida demonstration in his city, that he staged a service the previous night (the 9th) supporting the city’s diverse population and its Muslim citizens in particular. Andres Ekhem, the Pastor, stated that he wanted to express solidarity with them and also “express joy for our city and our Muslim friends”.

“There is strong support for diverse cultures in Malmö and it is important that the church is there to support that,” he said.

“You can choose to stay silent and let them give a voice to something you don’t accept. Or, we can choose to show what we believe in, which is a multi-religious society where everyone is given the freedom to preach their own religions.” Pastor Ekhem received some criticism for his service, including ‘more or less clear threats’, according to an interview he gave with Sydsvenkan.

Pegida’s Cant about Kant

One of Pegida’s slogans is Kant Statt Koran: ‘Kant instead of Qu’ran’, referring to the great 18th century German Enlightenment philosopher, Immanuel Kant. Kant is one of the most brilliant European philosophers, and his ideas are still very influential today. He was one of the first to suggest that the Earth and the solar system were formed by condensing out of a primordial gas, an idea that has been confirmed by contemporary science and the study of the evolution of stars. He also believed that the human conscience pointed to the existence of God. The pangs of conscience one felt, he argued, were like someone knocking at your door. The implication is that in the case of the human soul, that someone is the Almighty.

You wonder what Kant, a man of the Enlightenment, would think of Pegida. Many of Enlightenment philosophers were religious sceptics, either Deists, like Voltaire, or outright atheists, like Mably and Diderot. The philosophes were revolted by the horrors committed by the Wars of the Religion in the 16th and 17th centuries, which pitched Protestant against Roman Catholic, and the adherents of Protestant sects and denominations against each other. They strongly argued for religious freedom and toleration.

The philosophes’ hostility to revealed religion eventually led in turn to the abolition of Christianity and its vicious persecution in the name of the Goddess of Pure Reason during the French Revolution. When the Revolution broke out, however, its supporters believed it would usher in a new age of complete freedom of conscience. The new rights, liberties and virtues inaugurated by the Revolution was celebrated in a series of playing cards. These included the card right at the head of this article. It says ‘Liberty of Cults’, and includes some of the holy books of the great Abrahamic faiths. Along with the Christian Gospels, there is the Talmud for Judaism, and the Qu’ran for Islam.

This pack of cards was also way ahead of its time in celebrating racial equality. Both rationalist philosophes and evangelical and reforming Christians, like the Quakers, Methodists, and the evangelical wing of the Anglican Church, were revolted by the cruelty inflicted on Africans by the slave trade. The French Revolutionaries initially freed the slaves in their colonies, only for it to be put back by Napoleon. This card is entitled ‘Egalite des Couleurs’ – Equality of the Colours, and shows a Black man with a gun. Alongside is the word ‘Courage’. The message is clear. Far from being degraded savages, who deserved their enslavement, Black people were every bit as courageous and deserving of freedom as Whites.

Race Equality Card

These cards together show the new ideas of racial and religious liberty and equality, which were part of the intellectual ferment of Kant’s age. Looking at them, I doubt whether Kant would have had much time for the bigotry and xenophobia of groups like Pegida.

Poverty Journalism and the Media Patronisation of the Poor

March 9, 2014

Thackeray Snob Cover

W.M. Thacheray’s The Book of Snobs (Alan Sutton 1989)

I’ve just reblogged Jaynelinney’s article criticising the media’s use of the poor as a kind of zoo, who can be patronised on camera by visits from ostensibly well-meaning celebrities and TV producers, expressing concerns about their plight. Her piece was inspired by the article, to which she links, in ‘Independent Voices’ in the Indie, about how the middle classes have been regularly traipsing into slums and working class poverty to see how the ‘other half’ live for almost 200 years now. That article mentions, amongst others, Henry Mayhew, the author of London Labour and the London Poor, and George Orwell’s classic, The Road to Wigan Pier, as well as more recent works by Polly Toynbee. Orwell comes in for something of a bashing as he undertook his journey to the heart of industrial darkness as a journo in search of a subject, not as a social campaigner. The book that followed annoyed a member of the National Unemployed Union so much, that he wrote his own book, tracing the journey in reverse, so that he travelled from the depressed areas to the leafy suburbs of Epsom. For the writer of the Independent article, what we need are fewer middle class writers patronising the working class, and more working class writers casting acerbic, jaundiced prose and writing at the Middle and Upper classes and their lives of wealth and luxury.

Thackeray and Snobs, Ancient and Modern

This would, actually, be an interesting experiment, and could produce something really radical. In the hands of a good writer, it could produce something like Thackeray’s The Book of Snobs, but with added social bite. Thackeray was, of course, solidly middle class, and certainly didn’t deny it. The book is subtitled ‘By One of Themselves’. It was originally published by Punch, when it was still slightly subversive, more like Private Eye today than the eminently respectable, establishment organ it later became. Each chapter describes a particular class of snob, who were defined as ‘someone who meanly admires mean things’. Reading it I was struck by how modern it still sounds, despite having first seen print in 1846-7. For example, Thackeray’s chapter on ‘University Snobs’ has this to say about the ‘Philosophical Snob’.

The Philosophical Snob of the 1840s and Their Modern University Descendants

Then there were Philosophical Snobs, who used to ape statesmen at the spouting-clubs, and who believed as a fact that Government always had an eye on the University for the selection of orators for the House of Commons. There were audacious young free-thinkers, who adored nobody or nothing, except perhaps Robespierre and the Koran, and panted for the day when the pale name of priest should shrink and dwindle away before the indignation of an enlightened world.

If you think of the earnest young people, who discovered radical politics at university, or who joined the Student Union and the various political associations with a view to starting a career in politics, or simply read Politics, Philosophy and Economics at Uni before joining the staff of an MP on graduation as a researcher, then Thackeray’s description above actually isn’t that different from what goes on today. Robespierre, of course, was the leader of the dreaded Committee for Public Safety, responsible for killing hundreds of thousands during the French Revolution in the name of republicanism, democracy and Deism, so you can easily see a parallel there between the snobs earnestly reading his works, and some of the radicals in the 1960s, who joined the various Communist parties and loudly hailed Mao’s Little Red Book. As for the free-thinkers, who used to toast the day when the last king would be strangled in the bowels of the last priest, that reminds me of the various atheist and secularist societies that sprang up on campuses a few years ago, all talking earnestly about the threat of religion to science and quoting Richard Dawkins and Lewis Wolpert.

the Upper Classes at Uni, and the Perils of their Lower Class Imitators

But it is the poor university students who try to copy their far wealthier social superiors, about whom Thackeray is most scathing. He states:

But the worst of all University Snobs are those unfortunates who go to rack and ruin from their desire to ape their betters. Smith becomes acquainted with great people at college, and is ashamed of his father the tradesman. Jones has fine acquaintances, and lives after their fashion like a gay free-hearted fellow as he is, and ruins his father, and robs his sister’s portion, and cripples his younger brother’s outset in life, for the pleasure of entertaining my lord, and riding by the side of Sir John And though it may be very good fun for Robinson to fuddle himself at home as he does at College, and to be brought home by the policeman he has just been trying to knock down-think what fun for the poor old soul his mother!-the half-pay captain’s widow, who has been pinching herself all her life long, in order that that jolly young fellow might have a university education.

Unfortunately, little also seems to have changed here in the last nearly 170 year since Thackeray wrote that. I did some voluntary work a few weeks ago for M Shed here in Bristol. Many of the other volunteers were also university students and graduates, who were hoping to find a career in museum work. Discussing the country’s problems, one older lady stated very forcefully that the problem was that none of the country’s leaders now came from the working class. Just about everyone agreed with her on this point. One of the university students made the point very many have also made, about politicians coming directly from Oxford, where they studied PPE, and haven’t done a proper day’s work in their lives. The girl told us that one of her friends, who was ‘a little bit posh’, had gone to Oxford and been shocked at how dominated it was by the aristocracy. And have I heard of students, who have managed to irritate their fellows by copying the manners of Oxford upper crust.

Domination of Society by the Upper Classes, regardless of Merit

As for the chapter ‘What Snobs Admire’, where Thackeray describes the life and career of a fictional snob, Lord Buckram, who goes and gets flogged at Eton, studies at Oxford, and then marries well on graduation to a rich heiress, before taking his place among the gilded youth. Thackeray could be describing modern snobbery in all its pomp today, especially, but not exclusively, amongst the cabinet:

Suppose he is a young nobleman of a literary turn, and that he published poems ever so foolish and feeble; the Snobs would purchase thousands of his volumes: the publishers (who refused my Passion-Flowers, and my grand Epic at any price) would give him his own. Suppose he is a nobleman of a jovial turn, and has a fancy for wrenching off knockers, frequenting gin-shops, and half murdering policemen: the public will sympathize good-naturedly with his amusements, and say he is a hearty, honest fellow. Suppose he is fond of play and the turf, and has a fancy to be a blackleg, and occasionally condescends to pluck a pigeon at cards; the public will pardon him, and many honest people will court him, as they would court a housebreaker if he happened to be a Lord. Suppose he is an idiot; yet, by the glorious constitution, he is good enough to govern us. Suppose he is an honest, high-minded gentleman; so much the better for himself. But he may be an ass, and yet respected; or a ruffian, and yet be exceeding popular; or a rogue, and yet excuses will be found for him. Snow sill still worship him. Male snobs will do him honour, and females look kindly on him, however hideous he may be.

Snobbishness Revived, and Britain Going Back to 19th century

This just about describes the social privileges and the expectations of immediate public deference of the entire Tory front bench. All this was, of course, supposed to have been done away in the ‘white heat’ of the ’60s, when, along with the development of new technology, and new classlessness was supposed to have swept through the nation. Well, that may have been the case then, but things have since gone backwards. There are now fewer Labour MPs, who come from a working class background, than there were before the ’60s. Hugh Massingberd, in one of his essays in the Times in the 1980s, celebrated the revival of the fortunes of the aristocracy and the country house under Maggie Thatcher as ‘a new social restoration’. The Libertarians have emerged from out of the Union of Conservative Students to preach Von Hayek and Von Mises’ revival of classical economics, with all its faults, with the exception that in general the 19th century economists approved of trade unions. Well, the new classlessness of the 1960s has thoroughly died down, and the Coalition is leading us forward into the 19th century.

18th Century Religious Scepticism Not Based on Science: Part 3 – David Hume and Scepticism

June 9, 2013

David Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion is one of the classic anti-religious texts. Hume was an agnostic sceptic, rather than an atheist materialist. Published after his death in 1779, the Dialogues are a sustained attack on Natural Theology. In them, Hume attacked the idea of the universe as a machine, and suggested other, organic metaphors. The universe could have grown instead like some kind of vegetable. He also criticised the idea that the features and characteristics of animals were proof of the existence of a Designer. He argued instead that an animal with a particular set of characteristics would have to follow a particular lifestyle or die out. This did not, however, show that those features were designed, or that the animal was intended to pursue this particular manner of existence. He also argued that the immense suffering in nature also argued against the existence of a benevolent deity. He also argued that the regular operation of natural laws also did not show that they were grounded in God’s will. He also argued that miracles were so highly improbably that they should not be accepted, and that if they did exist, they were not necessarily proof of God’s existence as every religion had them. As for the origin of religion itself, in his unpublished book, the Natural History of Religion, he believed that the original religion of humanity had been polytheism, the belief in many gods. This was in stark contrast to the Deists and orthodox Christians, who believed that the first religion had been monotheism. He also saw all religions as leading to fanaticism, and attacked religious virtues as being useless to society.

Hume’s Arguments not Accepted at Time, Criticism by Joseph Priestly

Hume’s Dialogues are considered by the majority of scholars as totally destroying the arguments for the Almighty’s existence based on nature. This is, however, very much a post-Darwinian view. Matt Ridley, in his collection of texts on evolution, places an extract from the dialogues in a section entitled ‘Philosophical Consequence of Evolution’. At the time it was felt that Joseph Priestley had decisively refuted Hume’s arguments in his 1780, Letters to a Philosophical Unbeliever. Priestley stated that

‘With respect to Mr. Hume’s metaphysical writings in general, my opinion is, that, on the whole, the world is very little the wider for them. For though, when the merits of any question were on his side, few men ever wrote with more perspicuity, the arrangement of his thoughts being natural, and his illustrations pecularliarly happy; yet I can hardly think that we are indebted to him for the least real advance in the knowledge of the human mind.’

Regarding Hume’s ideas on how humans form concepts, Priestley believed that they had all been refuted by Hartley’s Observations on Man, which Hume didn’t appear to have read.

‘He seems not to have given himself the trouble so much as to read Dr. Hartley’s Observations on Man, a work which he could not but have heard of, and which it certainly behoved him to study. The doctrine of association of ideas, as explained and extended by Dr. Hartley, supplies materials for th emost satisfactory solution of aolmost all the difficulties he has started, as I could easily show if I thought it any consequence; so that to a person acquainted with this theory of the human mind, Hume’s Essays appear the merest trifling. Compared iwth Dr. Hartley, I consider Mr. Hume as not even a child.’

Priestley was also highly critical of the quality of the arguments for the non-existence of God advanced by the character of Philo in the Dialogues. According to Priestly, the character of Philo advanced ‘nothing but common-place objections against the belief of a God, and hackneyed declamations against the plan of providence’.

Priestly was also unimpressed by Hume’s argument that analogies from animals and plants could also equally be used to explain the cosmos. Hume had suggested that if the universe were an animal, then comets could be viewed as this creature’s eggs. Priestley said of this

‘Had any friend of religion advanced an idea so completely absurd as this, what would not Mr. Hume have said to turn it into ridicule. With just a smuch probability might he have said that Glasgow grew from a seed yielded by Edinburgh, or that London and Edinburgh, marrying, by natural generation, produced York, which lies between them. With much more probability might he have said that pamphlets are the productions of large books, that boats are young ships, and the pistols will grow into great guns; and that either there never were any first towns, books, ships, or guns, or that, if there were, they no makers.

How it could come into any man’s head to imagine that a thing so complex as this world, consisting of land and water, earths and metals, plants and animals, &c &c &c should produce a seed, or egg, containing within it the elements of all its innumerable parts, is beyond my powers of comprehension.’

Hume’s Argument on Organic Nature of Universe Scientific Nonsense, According to Priestly

Priestly even suggested that this view of the origin of the cosmos was based on ignorance, not science.

‘What must have been that man’s knowledge of philosophy and nature, who could suppose for a moment, that a comet could possibly be the seed of a world? Do comets spiring from worlds, carrying with them the seeds of all the plants, &c that they contain? Do comets travel from sun to sun, or from star to star? By what force are they tossed into the unformed elements, which Mr. Hume supposes everywhere to surround the universe?> What are those elements: and what evidence has he of their existence? or supposing the comet to arrive among them, whence could arise its power of vegetating into a new system?’

Priestly had possibly missed the point about HUme’s organic analogies. They were not serious suggestions, but intended to show that the machine metaphors used for the universe were only one of several that could equally be used. Nevertheless, Priestly showed that these metaphors were just as, if not more vulnerable, to criticism as those which likened the cosmos to a machine.

Hume’s Spokesman for Design Champion of Science in these Debates

Most of Hume’s arguments against religion and the evidence for design in the universe are philosophical, not scientific. He does use Newton’s suggestion that the cosmos was permeated by an ether to argue that it was movements in this, rather than the actions of the Almighty, that resulted in the effects of gravity. Despite this it is Hume’s character, Cleanthes, who idealises and defends science. Cleanthes states that ‘The true system of the heavenly bodies is discovered and ascertained … Why must conclusions of a (relgious) nature be alone rejected on the general presumption of the insufficiency of human reason?’

Hume’s Empiricism also Used to Attack Not Yet Verified Scientific Concepts

Furthermore, Hume’s agnosticism could act against scientific investigation. Hume believed that just because two events were seen to occur together did not mean that one caused the other. Hume did not wish to attack science. He was an empiricist, and this attitude that no concepts should be accepted unless they were directly experienced could be used against scientific ideas as well as religious, if taken to extremes. Atoms and genes, for example, were theoretical suggestions long before they were verified by science. These concepts would have had to be rejected if the standards of evidence Hume levelled against religion were applied to science. Those secular scientists that did not believe in them frequently attacked them on the basis that such ideas were exactly like those of religion in their lack of a sound scientific basis. The great 19th century chemist, Marcellin Berthelot, stated:

‘I do not want chemistry to degenerate into a religion; I do not want the chemist to believe in the existence of atoms as the Christian believes in the existence of Christ in the communion wafter’.

Refutation of the Argument against Miracles and Other Arguments

As for Hume’s arguments against miracles, they have been refuted by the secular, agnostic philosopher Earman. Earman’s article attacking them was called ‘The complete Failure of Hume’s Arguments against Miracles’. Hume’s arguments against design in the cosmos have also been attacked by Robin Attfield in his Creation, Evolution and Meaning (Aldershot: Ashgate 2006). Attfield argues against atheism from a theistic evolutionist perspective.

As for Hume’s argument that monotheism originally arose from polytheism, this has been accepted by theologians as not actually affecting the truth of the Christian revelation. I was taught it at my old Anglican church school. There is another theory that the original religion was monotheism. This is based on similarities to Judeo-Christian conception of the Almighty in other cultures, and by the fact that rather than developing into monotheism, the number of gods in polytheist religions actually increases over time.

Conclusion: Hume’s Arguments Philosophical, Not Scientific, and Could be Used Against Science

Thus Hume’s arguments against religion have been attacked in turn, and were largely not based in science. Joseph Priestly, who was a scientist as well as Unitarian minister, attacked them for their lack of a scientific basis. Indeed, Hume’s empiricism, when taken to extremes, could and did occasionally act against scientific discovery, as Berthelot’s rejection of atoms shows.


John Hedley Brooke, Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1991).

18th Century Religious Scepticism Not Based on Science: Part 2 – Atheist Materialism

June 8, 2013

In the first part of this essay, I examined how most of the arguments against Christianity and revealed religion used by the Deists were philosophical, rather than scientific. Science did play a part in their attacks on Christianity, but it was a subordinate role. The same is true of 18th century atheism. Most of the arguments used by Jean Meslier in his Testament, for example are again, moral, philosophical and political, rather than scientific. Meslier was a former Roman Catholic priest, who attacked Christianity and particularly Roman Catholicism for its supposed immorality. He considered that religions were artificial creations of ruling elites, intended to justify and further their own power. He attacked Christian morality for supposedly preaching an acquiescent attitude towards tyranny, like monarchist rule in contemporary France. Like many later atheists, he also attacked the idea of an immortal soul and rewards in the hereafter for discouraging people from social reform here on Earth.

The Three Scientific Developments Used to Argue for Atheism in the 18th Century

Like some of the Deists, he also believed that matter had self-organising properties. The evidence for this came from three sources. These were John Turbeville Needham’s experiments into spontaneous generation, Haller’s discovery that muscles from recently deceased animals contracted when pricked, and the hydra’s ability to regenerate when cut. Needham was an English Roman Catholic priest. In his experiments he noted the appearance of microscopic organisms from the remains of vegetable matter and even the gravy from roast meat. Albrecht von Haller was a Swiss naturalist, who believed that there was an unknown force present in the heart. This indicated that matter had its was able to move itself independently of the soul. La Mettrie, the author of the materialist, L’homme machine (Man a Machine) of 1747 incorporated it into his own arguments against the existence of the soul. The dissection of polyps showed that this creature would become two or more when cut into pieces, and so apparently disproved the idea of indivisible animals. Finally, the great 18th century atheist, Denis Diderot argued living creatures may have evolved over millions of years to produce their present forms. He suggested a kind of natural selection, in which useless or defective physiological features had died out. This gave living creatures the appearance of design, even though they were simply the products of chance evolution.

These Experiments Do Not Necessarily Lead to Atheism

In fact all three of these scientific discoveries could be interpreted in other ways that did not support materialist atheism. Needham himself did not see any danger to religion in his results. Indeed, he was attacked by Voltaire as an Irish Jesuit monger of fraudulent miracles, despite the fact that he was English, not Irish, and not a Jesuit. As for the new force of motion supposedly inherent in muscle tissue, Haller believed it was similar to gravity. Both forces were known through their effects, but were ultimately instruments of a Creator God. He considered the presence of this so-called “irritability” in muscle tissue was much less important than contemporary debates in embryology in supporting or leading to atheism. At the time Haller was engaged in an argument with C.F. Wolff over the nature of the development of the embryo. The debate centred around two rival concepts, epigenesis and pre-formation. Epigenesis was the view that the embryo developed from the less organised material of the egg. Pref-formation, by contrast, was the view that creature already existed, pre-formed in the egg or sperm of the animal. Haller strongly supported pre-formation. He considered that the development of living beings from unorganised matter would indicate that similarly life itself had originated through these forces without the action of a creator God. Wolff believed that his observation of chick embryos had indeed shown that individual organisms develop from the primordial, undifferentiated matter of the egg. Unlike Haller, he did not see any theological difference whether one believed in either theory. He stated that ‘Nothing is demonstrated against the existence of divine power, even if bodies are produced by natural forces and causes, for these very forces and causes … claim an author for themselves just as much as organic bodies do.’ Thus immaterial forces and the matter they shaped were both grounded in God.

AS for Abraham Trembley’s experiments with the polyp, this was only felt to show that polyps did not have indivisible souls. It was not believed to be relevant to other animals and humans. Indeed, more conservative naturalists believed that the polyp was actually a missing link in God’s great chain of being between plants and animals.

Joseph Priestley: Scientist, Revolutionary and Unitarian, Rational Christianity

Some Unitarians, such as the Dissenting Minister Joseph Priestly, also managed to combine materialism with a form of Christianity. Priestly was an active scientific research. His experiments on the various gases included the production of what he termed ‘dephlogisticated air’, which was later called ‘oxygen’ by Lavoisier. Priestly attempted to show that materialist science would serve to purify Christianity of what he considered to be superstitious features derived from ancient Platonism, such as, he believed, the doctrine of the Trinity. Priestly was a philosophical monist, who believed that God worked through forces that were neither physical or immaterial as commonly understood. They could be identified with matter, but this was a matter that possessed active powers of motion and organisation. He did not believe in an immaterial soul, but did look forward to the Resurrection. He also accepted miracles, and argued as proof that without them, Christianity could not possibly have spread. He was also an egalitarian, who supported first the French, and then the American Revolutions. He finally moved to America after the War of Independence. In an 1802 letter to Thomas Jefferson, Priestly described how he was looking forward to living under the protection of the American Constitution. He praised this as ‘the most favourable to political liberty, and private happiness, of any in the world’. Despite his scientific scepticism of orthodox Christianity, he always denied that he was an atheist. When one of his French materialist friends at a dinner stated that he no more believed in Christianity than they did, he replied that he was indeed a Christian believer.

Science as Means for Purifying Christianity, Unitarians Active in Scientific Advances of Industrial Revolution

For Priestly, scientific progress was ‘the means under God of extirpating all error and prejudice, and of putting an end to all undue and usurped ahtority in the business of religion as well as science’. These views were shared by other Unitarians in the main British manufacturing towns. These Unitarians were active in scientific research and their practical application in industry. They were particularly prominent in the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society, but were also strongly present in most of scientific societies outside London. William Turner, another Unitarian, was the dominant figure behind the Newcastle Literary and Philosophical Society. Turner has been described as believing that the Industrial Revolution was not happening behind God’s back, but at His express command.

Conclusion: 18th Century Science Not Necessarily atheist, Could Lead instead to Rational, Unitarian Christianity

Thus, scientific developments also played only a small role in the atheist arguments that arose during the 18th century. Like the arguments of the Deists, these were also primarily moral, philosophical and political. The three major scientific observations that did seem to argue for atheism and materialism – Needham’s observation of spontaneous generation, the response of dissected muscle tissue to stimulation and the polyp were largely seen as having no relevance to the wider debate about the Almighty. In the case of the continued activity in muscle tissue, this was seen as like Newton’s force of gravity in being based in God, and as a force through which the Lord worked.
Finally, Joseph Priestly and his fellow Unitarian scientists showed how some Dissenters combined a belief in science to produce an unorthodox form of rational Christianity.

18th Century Religious Scepticism Not Based on Science: Part 1 – The Deists

June 7, 2013

Atheists and other critics of religion frequently state that their beliefs are scientific. The examination of religious scepticism in the 18th century actually reveals that most of the religious scepticism then was based on philosophical, political and moral objections to Christianity, rather than science. When science was used as part of their arguments, it was either a particular interpretation of a scientific fact or the science was altered in order to fit the point the religious sceptic was trying to make.

The Deist John Toland, for example, in his Christianity Not Mysterious of 1696 argued that Christianity should be reformed to reject everything that was paradoxical or miraculous. It was to become simply a set of rationalistic moral teachings. He believed that nature was self-sufficient and self-organising. He did so using the concepts of animist forces inherent in nature that permeated the work of Giordano Bruno. He explicitly rejected Newton’s interpretation of his physical laws, stating that they were instead ‘capable of r4eceiving an interpretation favourable to my opinion’.

Matthew Tindal, in his 1730 Christianity as Old as the Creation argued for a natural religion and the existence of a set of ancient moral obligations to which the Christian revelation could add nothing. The morality he advanced consisted in the citizen’s duty to obey society’s laws. He believed that God had placed the light of nature within humans to guide them. Happiness could be obtained by following this inner light, implanted by a benevolent deity. Tindal did base some of his arguments on science. He used the discovery of the Copernican system to argue that science and faith were rarely in agreement. Elsewhere he attacked Christ and St. Paul for stating that a seed died in the earth before it bore fruit. He also argued that the success of the sciences showed that people could have confidence in the ability of human reason to discover truth, and that the god of infinite wisdom and benevolence he advanced could be deduced from the laws of nature. Tindal mostly used science to try to make common religious practices appear superstitious and unreasonable. Science was not, however, his main line of argument. Instead Tindal argued from the existence of other cultures. The Chinese had a high civilisation despite knowing nothing of Christ. Most of his arguments were intended to show that reason, rather than scripture, was the only sure basis for religious faith. In fact the prospect of scientific argument was turned against Tindal by Christianity’s defenders. Joseph Butler in his The Analogy of Religion of 1736 argued that what was presently obscure in scripture might eventually be cleared up, in the way that science was gradually making clear everything that had previously been unknown about the natural world.

Thus science played only a subordinate role in 18th century Deist arguments against Christianity and revealed religion. Most of the arguments they used were moral, philosophical and political to establish the primacy of reason, and truth of a ‘religion of nature’, which they felt Christianity had obscured or perverted.

Robert Owen: Utopian Socialist, Promoter of ‘Rational Religion’

May 12, 2013

The founder of British Socialism was the 19th century Welsh reformer, Robert Owen. The son of a saddler and ironworker who was also the local postmaster, Own moved from Newtown in Wales to take over the mill at New Lanark in Scotland. There he improved the conditions of his workers through paternal management. Unlike other contemporary businesses, he did not employ children under ten, and the children of his workers were educated in the factory school. Owen later went on to denounce the social division, inequality, poverty and crime which he believed had their roots in private property, and advocated instead a series of utopian communities based on co-operation and the sharing of produce. He initially enjoyed the support of many members of the clergy and ruling aristocracy, including dukes and archbishops. He alienated them through his religious scepticism. His lecture on the New Religion given at the Freemason’s Hall in 1830 is essentially an attack on revealed religion. He believed that the revealed religions of the world kept people in ignorance and so prevented them from improving themselves, as well as creating bitter hatreds that served only to divide humanity. He also campaigned against the idea of marriage for life, which he viewed as chaining unhappy couples together permanently and consequently creating vice and crime through broken families that could nevertheless not be dissolved.

The 19th century was an age of social and political upheaval, with groups like the Chartists emerging to demand the extension of the franchise to the working class. The Christian Chartists, who were particularly strong in Scotland, objected to co-operation with the Owenites as they disliked being associated with ‘Socialists and infidels’. In fact, Owen was a Deist, and then later a Spiritualist, and took many of his ideas from the 17th century Quaker, John Bellers, the Moravians, and the Shakers and Rappites in America. He was also a firm advocate of freedom of conscience. Law 12 in his 1840 Manifesto states

‘That all facts yet known to man indicate that there is an external or internal Cause of all existences, by the fact of their existence; that this all-pervading cause of motion and change in the universe, is that Incomprehensible Power, which the nations of the world have called God, Jehovah, Lord, etc., etc.; but that the facts are yet unknown to man which define what that power is.’

He believed that God created human nature at birth, but that the good qualities of humanity could be brought out if developed in accordance with natural, rational laws.

‘Human nature in each individual is created, with its organs, faculties, and propensities, of body and mind, at birth, but the incomprehensible Creating Power of the universe; all of which qualities and powers are necessary for the continuation of the species, and the growth, health, progress, excellence and happiness, of the individual and of society; and these results will always be attained when, in the progress of nature, men shall have acquired sufficient experience to cultivate these powers, physical and mental, in accordance with the natural laws of humanity.’

He was also radical in arguing for complete religious freedom. Law 8 of his Manifesto states that ‘everyone shall have equal and full liberty to express the dictates of his conscience on religious and all other subjects.’ Law 9 laid down that ‘No one shall have any other power than fair and friendly argument to control the opinions or belief of another.’ Law 10 stated that ‘No praise or blame, no merit or demerit, no reward or punishment, shall be awarded for any opinion or beliefs’. Finally, Law 11 stipulated that

‘But all, of every religion, shall have equal right to express their opinions respecting the great Incomprehensible Power which moves the atom and controls the universe; and to worship that power under any form or in any manner agreeable to their consciences – not interfering with others.’

In many ways, Owen’s views are a product of 18th century rationalism. After the Fall of Communism, few would argue that a completely socialised economy can be successfully run. Nevertheless, the success of New Lanark did show 19th century businessmen that working conditions could be improved and the working classes provided for while still making a healthy profit. It also differs from later radical socialism in that, unlike later Communism, it was not atheist and specifically provided for freedom of conscience. Indeed, Owen is interesting for making the belief in God an article of his Manifesto, even if he looked to science, rather than revelation for establishing the Lord’s nature.