Posts Tagged ‘Animism’

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.