This is a quick reflection on a book by the philosopher Matthew Stewart – Nature’s God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic.
I have an interest in the political and cultural influence of Christianity in the US. In recent years the claims that the US was founded as a Christian nation have been getting louder – as Christian fundamentalism has been more enthusiastically enlisted into a growing culture war.
But going back to the 1970s I came across assertions that America’s founding fathers were Freemasons. These were defended by claims that Masonic symbolism is to be found on the US dollar bill. Certainly the ‘great seal’ image supports this assertion.
However, I hadn’t come across as scholarly exploration of what the ‘founding fathers’ thought and believed – until now.
Deists and atheists
Stewart combines an historical account of the activity at the foundation of the split from England with a deep dive into the evolution of deistic thinking. He rescues Epicure’s philosophy from travesty of self-indulgence it had been reduced to, and traces it via Lucretius’ poem, On the Nature of Things, into the essential thought of western philosophy during the Enlightenment.
Emma Restall Orr’s The Wakeful World is the only other book I have encountered that takes a spiritual perspective on western philosophical thought.
Atheism, in this context, is not the denial of deity so much as asserting that god is not a being apart from nature – no separate creator and created. The two are one. There is a brief allusion to Epicure saying this unitary being is the goddess. Stewart also acknowledges ideas about gods in the same context but doesn’t elaborate to any useful degree. This is fine. It’s not his purpose. Nature is its own creator, its own god, so to speak.
The deists essentially acknowledged god as having made everything has no further engagement. This allows them to also insist that nature is the source of all we can know. No point in calling on a god that will not answer.
No so much anti-religionist as anti-superstition
The heroes of the book disposed of the idea of the God of the Bible being real on the logic that all descriptions of it offend against reason. That is all humanity has to work with – and to surrender it in favour of a rationally offensive fiction is an incomprehensible thing to do. They do not abandon piety, however – hence the idea of Nature’s God.
The anti-Christianity sentiments are strong. Quite apart from the faith’s superstition, its adherents’ insistence upon it being the only permissible belief system creates a tyranny. The wording of the Declaration of Independence makes it clear that not just the tyranny of England is being refuted. There is an essential reason none of the ‘founding fathers’ were Christian.
When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
People must be free to make choices essentially. Religious freedom was locked into the Constitution via the First Amendment. You really can’t imagine the Christians of the time ensuring religious liberty.
The value of this book
The conception of Nature’s God, so plainly asserted in the US’s Declaration of Independence, has not been previously explored with such clarity. That alone makes the book worth reading. But in that exploration, we are treated to an examination of the foundation of philosophical thought during the Enlightenment. It was spiritual in a way not usually acknowledged.
Here I use this term loosely – as an expression of piety – a humility before the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God. The only true instrument humans have is Reason. This, in a sense, makes this “Atheistic piety” scientific.
The focus on Reason in the common telling of the Enlightenment misses that sense of piety. It has permitted the impious atheist to evolve as the hero of our culture.
Materialism was once predicated upon the proposition that matter was the very foundation of being – Nature. It became an assertion that all there is gross matter, and there is no subtle domain of reality. True, the original conception supposed that atoms were the primary constituents of being – a forgivable error in 5th century BCE Greece.
Read the right way Nature’s God is an extraordinary examination of the thinking that is at the foundation of our civilization. Our propensity to develop dogmas and superstitions is still evident in some expressions of Christianity today. But it is equally present in the impious materialistic atheism that has come to dominate our culture.
If I declared myself a materialistic atheist these days, I would astonish those who know me well. But, strictly speaking, that is what a believer in the Goddess is. The One – that vast eternal and unknowable foundation of all being is neatly symbolised in the idea of a Goddess – rather than a God.
It would be truer to have asserted Nature’s Goddess, but ages have their limits and there is no way that Nature’s Goddess would have survived in the Declaration of Independence. In any case it hardly matters, since such a nuance is not something to be avowed in public, and certainly not in the presence of ardent Christians.
For me, the discovery that atheistic materialism had a deeper foundation than the crass dogmatic superstition it has become was a delicious insight. I was grateful to be reminded of the inherent spirituality of Enlightenment philosophy too.
The book didn’t explore deeper metaphysical ideas. That was not its purpose. The term superstition is now often employed as an insult asserting credulity and irrationality in the formation of a belief. It is essentially the formation of a belief without evidence or sound reason. Acceptance of the Christian God can be fairly called an act of superstition – without insulting intent – if there is no defensible rational foundation (misattribution is another, complicating, matter). But the term has been employed by the impious and dogmatic atheistic materialist to dismiss all things that do not fit with in their narrow frame.
It is just as superstitious to dismiss what does not fit with that narrow frame. Concluding without evidence or reason what does not exist is equally a folly. The better path avoids the hubris of intellectual conceit in favour of a gentler path of pious curiosity and humble intellectual discipline.
The Declaration of Independence was first published 1776. That’s 246 years ago and its not long in the scheme of things. What has driven our civilisation’s evolution since then has been Enlightenment values – not always perfectly expressed of course. What has brought us peril has been impiety, hubris, and intolerance.
I like to remind myself of John Dewey’s insight – there really isn’t such thing as Religion. There are religions and religious people. Likewise, there is no Science, only sciences and scientists. Is there is no Christianity – only sects and believers? Not all Christians can be tarred with the same brush, but the brand has become tainted. The style of Christianity that the US Founding Fathers so disliked was intolerant, hubristic and impious. It is worth wondering how the world might be now if an aversion to such a form of faith was absent in America’s founding.
The American passion for ‘Freedom’ was, in the words of the book’s title, born of a heretical determination framed by a profound commitment to Reason. That reminds me of Stephen Jay Gould’s assertion that Science and Religion are “non-overlapping magisterial”. If he means Reason and Superstition, he would be right in a way – save that superstition is mere innocence of mind and nothing else. Sciences and religions overlap all the time, and are the yin and yang of our consciousness.