DEISM, ENLIGHTENMENT AND REVOLUTION
It was in the 17th and 18th centuries that Europe began clearly to become a 'post-Christian' civilization. It was a period not only during which the Church as an institution began to lose much of its political power and social influence, but during which many persons — educated and uneducated alike - began more openly to reject the Christian story and to adopt alternate narratives of reality.
In some cases, this shift of attitude meant the embrace of a 'rational' theism or 'Deism', shorn (so its adherents believed) of the absurd tangle of superstition and metaphysical obscurantism that made the old faith incredible to them. In other, rarer cases, however, it meant the total rejection of all faith in transcendent reality.
Deists and Metaphysical Optimists
Beginning as early as the mid-16th century, 'Deism' was a style of religious philosophy that enjoyed its greatest vogue from the early 17th to the late 18th centuries. It varied in form, but its content was fairly uniform: it was an attempt at a 'natural' or 'rational' religion, common to all nations and cultures, available to all reflective minds without recourse to childish mythologies, 'revealed' truth, miracles or abstruse metaphysical systems. The 'Bible of Deism' was Christianity as Old as the Creation (first edition 1730) by Matthew Tindal (1657-1733); but the 'father' of the movement was Edward, Lord Herbert of Cherbury (1583-1648), and it was he who first enunciated its general principles: belief in a supreme being who created the cosmos, who is a moral being, who is worthy of our reverence, who requires moral goodness of us all and who assigns rewards and punishments to human souls. Not all Deists retained Lord Herbert's belief in the immortal soul, but most did; and all shared his certainty that this sort of 'reasonable faith' was the true form of religion before its degeneration into cult, superstition and intolerance.
Deist writers tended to imagine God principally as the designer of nature, and sought evidences of his existence in the intricacy and regularity of nature's laws, and reserved a special antipathy for any form of religion that involved belief in God's miraculous interventions in the operation of those laws. One of the principal intellectual projects of developed Deism, in fact, was the elaboration of 'theodicy'— that is, the attempt to defend the justice of God in light of the sufferings of his creatures — meant to demonstrate the impossibility of a created order governed by uniform natural laws that does not involve chance, catastrophe, pain and moral evil; and hence to prove that ours is the best of all possible worlds. This sort of 'metaphysical optimism' was a tremendous fashion in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, and became the common intellectual currency even of many traditional Christians; it was given especially sophisticated metaphysical form, for instance, by the Lutheran philosopher G.W. Leibniz (1646-1716).
By the latter half of the 18th century, Deism was perhaps the most respectable religious philosophy among the educated classes of England, Germany, France and North America; it was the system of belief favoured by - to choose a few notable examples—Thomas Paine (1737—1809), Benjamin Franklin (1706-90), and Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826). Soon, however, the fashion would fade, defeated in part by the devastating assaults upon the argument for God's existence from cosmic design mounted by David Hume (1711-76) and others, and in part by Deism's own inherent blandness; and what vestiges of Deism remained were swept away in the 19th century by the rise of Darwinism.
Atheists and Revolutionaries
[The philosopher Gotttfried Wilhelm Leibniz argued that, in creating the universe, God had ensured that a rational harmony reigns in the 'best of all possible worlds'. Voltaire satirized this position in Candide]
The rise and fall of Deism was part of that larger cultural movement traditionally called the 'Enlightenment', the chief tenet of which was that human reason possesses the power not only to penetrate to the natural laws underlying the world, but to determine the nature of a just society, to advance the cause of human freedom, to discover the rational basis of morality and to instill moral behaviour in individuals and nations. And though there were many fairly orthodox Christians who shared the aims of the Enlightenment, the general tendency of those who held to the ideal implicit in this 'new awakening of reason' was either towards a more 'rational' religion, or towards an even more 'rational' irreligion.
The greatest thinker of the time to retain the idea of God - but then only as a deduction of reason - was Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), who argued forcefully against traditional metaphysics, but who believed that God and the soul were necessary postulates of the 'metaphysics of morals' (though, one must add, Kant's moral philosophy depends
[Secularization of a Church During the Revolution, by the French painter Jacques Francois de Fontaine (1769-1823). Under the ancien regime, the Catholic Church had been the largest landowner in France, and now found itself dispossessed. The revolutionary regime sought to replace religion with the 'Cult of Reason']
upon no supernatural premises). Others, though, believed that true enlightenment was possible for mankind only if every concept of God was rejected, as an irrational superaddition to the evidences of experience, and only if all religion was repudiated, as a system of fanciful deceptions, invented principally by priests for their own benefit. Paul-HenriThiry, Baron d'Holbach (1723-89), for instance — most especially in his 1770 book The System of Nature — argued that all religion is the work of ignorance and dread, exploited by tyranny, that reality consists in nothing more than matter in motion, and that the conventions of morality are simply that, and ought - where they interfere with the happiness of the individual — to be abandoned. Denis Diderot (1713—84), an equally fervent (and more brilliantly insightful) materialist, famously declared that 'Never shall man be free until the last king has been strangled with the entrails of the last priest'.
Such sentiments, if they are in any way amusing, remain so only until someone takes them literally; and among the more radical political champions of a 'progressive' or 'enlightened' social revolution there were many disposed to do just that. It was natural, of course, for the society that emerged from the French Revolution of 1789 and after to include a certain powerful tendency towards anti-clericalism, given how closely the Roman Catholic Church in France - for all intents and purposes, little more than a Gallican establishment — had been associated with the interests of the ancien regime. But the revolutionary government of 1793 to 1794, which instituted the 'Reign of Terror', and which was administered according to the 'ideals' of the radical Jacobin Club, not only closed the churches in Paris, and forbade most public worship and the display of the cross, but directly participated in the murder of hundreds or perhaps thousands of 'non-juring' priests (that is, priests who would not vow allegiance to the new government), bishops and nuns. Massacres, rigged trials and summary executions were routine; and, throughout the country, the killing was often accompanied by one or another sadistic mockery of the beliefs of the victims — for instance, the rite of 'republican matrimony', which consisted in tying a naked priest to a naked nun and drowning them together in a lake or pool. Even after the Terror had subsided, the persecution of Catholic clergy continued, ending only when the revolutionary regime itself was replaced by the rule of Napoleon (1769—1821), who in 1801 signed a Concordat with Rome restoring (limited) liberties to the Church in France.
However, a pattern had been established that other 'utopian' revolutionary movements of later years would repeat, on an ever greater scale: a radical hostility to religion, emphasized by mass murder.
(AS JESUS SAID THOSE WHO LIVE BY THE SWORD SHALL DIE BY THE SWORD - CHRISTIANITY HAD SHARED IN VARIOUS WAYS OVER THE CENTURIES TO TOTURE AND KILL [LIKE THE CRUSADES] IN THE NAME OF "GOD." HENCE IT CAME BACK ON THEM - Keith Hunt)
VOLTAIRE AND THE LISBON EARTHQUAKE
Voltaire's most passionate and most eloquent assault on the arguments of those (such as Leibniz) who thought this the best of all possible worlds was his great Poem on the Disaster of Lisbon, written soon after that city - the resplendent capital of the Portuguese empire - was devastated by a massive earthquake on All Saints' Day (I November) 1755.
The quake struck just off shore, in three discrete shocks, with what is now estimated as a Richter force of 9.0. As it was Sunday morning, and a Feast Day, most people were in church. In a matter of moments, thousands were killed, crushed beneath collapsing buildings, or swallowed by the crevices that opened in the streets; soon thereafter, many more - including the invalid patients of the city's great hospital -perished in the fires that raged through the city; and many thousands more who had fled to the mouth of the River Tagus and to the shore to escape the catastrophe were killed by the enormous tsunamis that reached land half an hour later. At least 60,000 died in the city, and many thousands more were killed by the waters in North Africa, Spain and the Algarve.
Voltaire was a theist, but of a rather austere variety. He may not have been convinced by the Christian idea that creation has been corrupted by the fall of rational creatures, but he was quite certain that the cosmos does not reflect a morally or metaphysically necessary order. In his poem, he disdainfully dismisses the notion that the world is governed by a 'universal law' set in place to assure the greatest possible good for the greatest possible number of persons. He asks by what moral calculus we can reconcile ourselves to infants crushed upon their mothers' breasts, thousands devoured by the earth, thousands more slowly expiring in their broken bodies or buried alive beneath their fallen roofs, all crying out in torment. Was this, he asks, divine vengeance on the city's iniquities? Was Lisbon more wicked than other cities, were the children who died there guilty of some crime? And would the natural and moral order of the universe have somehow been worse had the city not been engulfed in this 'hellish abyss?' Does the cosmos become morally beautiful if we imagine that some sort of 'general happiness' is somehow mysteriously preserved by this 'fatal chaos of individual miseries?'
TO BE CONTINUED
FEW UNDERSTOOD THE GOD OF THE BIBLE AND INDEED WHAT THE BIBLE CLEARLY SAYS. SOLOMON'S WORDS...."THERE IS A TIME......FOR....." AND "TIME AND CHANCE HAPPEN TO EVERYONE" - A GENERAL STATEMENT THAT IS SAYING TIME AND CHANCE CAN HAPPEN TO ANYONE.
THE COURSE OF NATURAL HAPPENINGS IN THE EARTH, THE PHYSICAL EARTHQUAKES, WEATHER STORMS, VOLCANOES EXPLODING, AND ETC. IS PART OF THIS EARTH, AND IT WILL BE SO UNTIL THE AGE TO COME ARRIVES. THEN ADD ALL THE WARS AND UNHEALTHY WAY OF LIVING FOR MANY NATIONS, AND THERE IS NOT A GOOD RESULT; AT TIMES THAT WAY OF LIFE WILL COME CRASHING DOWN ON PEOPLE - Keith Hunt