Posts Tagged ‘Deism’

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.

Lamarck: The Faith of An Evolutionist

April 27, 2013

In the last post, I criticised the otherwise excellent BBC series with Bill Bailey on Wallace for presenting evolutionary as leading to atheism. During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, some of the founders of evolutionary theory were convinced it led in the other direction: to God. Darwin’s grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, also formed a theory of evolution in his Zoonomia. This was a best-seller, though its popularity was cut short when the French Revolutionary Wars broke out. Scientific attempts to investigate the origin of species, in Charles Darwin’s later phrase, became associated with atheism, revolution and carnage. Erasmus Darwin, however, beleived his theory made the existence of the Lord ‘mathematically certain’.

The other, major figure of evolutionary theory before Charles Darwin was Jean-Baptiste Lamarck. Lamarck was the professor of Insects, Worms and Microscopic Animals at the Jardin des Plantes. He articulated his theory of evolution in a seris of books, the Systeme des Animaux sans Vertbres of 1801, the Philosophie Zoologique, of 1809 and the Histoire Naturelle des Aminaux sans Vertebres of 1815. In his view, which became known as Lamarckianism after him, evolution progressed as animals acquired new characteristics, which were then passed down to their offspring. As a theory of evolution its has long been discarded, though the recent studies of epigenetics does show how the environment can affect the physiology and structure of living creatures as well as their genetic inheritance. Unlike some of his contemporaries, Lamarck was a Deist rather than an atheist. He appears to have followed the 18th century German philosopher Leibnitz in believing that God created all possible things. He also had a teleological view of evolution, in which evolution led to higher forms of life. He also followed the ancient philosophers in believing that ‘Nature made no jumps’ – in other words, that organisms ultimately shaded into each other. Like later theistic evolutionists, he believed that evolution was only an instrument through which God produced new forms of life. In the first volume of his Animaux sans Vertebres he wrote:

‘The general power which holds in its domain all the things we can perceive .. is truly a limited power, and in a manner blind; a power which has neither intention, nor end in view, nor choice; a power which, great as it may be, can do nothing but what in fact it does; in a word, a power which only exists by the will of a higher and limitless power, which, having founded it, is in turth the author of all that it produces, that is, of all that exists …

‘And nature … is only an instrument, only the particular means which it has pleased the supreme power to employ in the production of various bodies, in their diversification; to give them properties, or even abilities… She is, in a way,, only an intermediary between GOD and the parts of the physical universe, for the execution of the divine will.’

Like Richard Dawkins, Lamarck believed that there was a blind watchmaker. This watchmaker, however, was wielded by one who was All-Seeing, and whose powers stretched beyond the tool He used for crafting His Creatures.

Rebecca Stott, Darwin’s Ghosts: In Search of the First Evolutionists (London: Bloomsbury 2012)

J.S. Wilkie, ‘Buffon, Lamarck and Darwin: The Originality of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution’ in C.A. Russell, (ed.) Science and Religious Belief: A Selection of Recent Historical Studies (London: University of London Press 1973)238-281.