Friday, December 18, 2009

Voltaire on Pluralism, and that clergymen basically suck

It was the anti-religionist Enlightenment philosophe Voltaire, of all people, who realized in his On the Church of England the genius of what we call religious "pluralism," that if differences in dogma are multiple enough, that's a good thing for all practical purposes.

I'll put his last paragraph first because it's the best, and go on from there, because it applies to Founding-era America even more than England in 1733:

If there were only one religion in England, there would be danger of tyranny; if there were two, they would cut each other's throats; but there are thirty, and they live happily together in peace.

And as historian Gordon Wood notes about the Founding:

There were not just Presbyterians, but Old and New School Presbyterians, Cumberland Presbyterians, Springfield Presbyterians, Reformed Presbyterians, and Associated Presby­terians; not just Baptists, but General Baptists, Regular Baptists, Free Will Baptists, Separate Baptists, Dutch River Baptists, Permanent Baptists, and Two-Seed-in-the-Spirit Baptists.

Oy. That's a lotta Presbyterians and even more Baptists. And that's just the tip of the pluralist iceberg. Thank God for heresy.

Let's yield the floor back to Voltaire with some excerpts on Anglo-America, and read his England of 1733 as America in 1776:

This is the country of sects. An Englishman, as a free man, goes to Heaven by whatever road he pleases.

Yet, though everyone here may serve God in his own fashion, their genuine Religion, the one in which people make their fortune, is the sect of Episcopalians, called the Church of England, or preeminently The Church. No one can hold office in England or in Ireland unless he is a faithful Anglican. This argument, in itself, a convincing proof, has converted so many nonconformists that today not a twentieth of the population lives outside the lap of the established Church.

The Anglican clergy has retained many of the Catholic ceremonies, particularly that of gathering in tithes with the most scrupulous attention. They also have the pious ambition of being the Masters.

With regard to morals, the Anglican clergy are better ordered than those of France, and this is the reason: all clergymen are brought up in Oxford University, or in Cambridge far from the corruption of the capital. They are not called to high station in the Church until very late, and at an age when men have no other passion but avarice, if their ambition goes unfed.

Clergymen go to the tavern sometimes, for custom allows it; if they get drunk they do so in a serious-minded way and with perfect propriety.

That indefinable being which is neither ecclesiastical nor secular—in a word, that which is called an Abbé is a species unknown in England. Clergymen here are all reserved, by temperament, and almost all pedantic. When they learn that in France young men, who are known for their debauchery and who have been raised to the prelacy by the plots of women, make love in public, divert themselves with the composing of sentimental songs, entertain daily with long and exquisite supper parties, and go from there to beseech the light of the Holy Spirit, and boldly to call themselves the successors of the Apostles—then the English thank God they are Protestants. But they are nasty heretics, fit to be burned to Hell and back, as Master François Rabelais says. That's why I keep out of it.

These gentlemen, who also have some churches in England, have made grave airs and severe expressions all the fashion in this country. To them is owing the sanctification of Sunday in the three kingdoms. On that day it is forbidden to work and play, which is double the severity of the Catholic churches. No opera, no plays, no concerts in London on Sunday; even cards are so expressly forbidden that only the aristocracy, and those we call well-bred people, play on that day. The rest of the nation go to church, to the tavern, and to the brothel.

Although the Episcopalian and the Presbyterian are the two main sects in Great Britain, all others are welcome there and live pretty comfortably together, though most of their preachers detest one another almost as cordially as a Jansenist damns a Jesuit.

Go into the Exchange in London, that place more venerable than many a court, and you will see representatives of all the nations assembled there for the profit of mankind. There the Jew, the Mahometan, and the Christian deal with one another as if they were of the same religion and reserve the name of infidel for those who go bankrupt. There the Presbyterian trusts the Anabaptist, and the Church of England man accepts the promise of the Quaker. On leaving these peaceable and free assemblies, some go to the synagogue, others in search of a drink; this man is on the way to be baptized in a great tub in the name of the Father, by the Son, to the Holy Ghost; that man is having the foreskin of his son cut off, and a Hebraic formula mumbled over the child that he himself can make nothing of; these others are going to their church to await the inspiration of God with their hats on; and all are satisfied.

If there were only one religion in England, there would be danger of tyranny; if there were two, they would cut each other's throats; but there are thirty, and they live happily together in peace.

Well, if you got all that, it's no surprise that America circa 1776 didn't like bishops or even clergymen much. Always stirring up trouble between the sects and ruining everybody else's fun, when they're not drunk and out having fun themselves.

Everybody else, the normal people, were pretty mellow about the whole thing. That was the American Founding too.


Jonathan Rowe said...

Great post. I just linked to it at Positive Liberty.

bpabbott said...

I agree. Nice post.

I'd never come across the perspective you led with on Voltaire and religious pluralism.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Thx. It illustrates that one more heresy wouldn't make much difference, and why the Unitarian Controversy didn't spill over into politics.

Toleration as a practical matter was clearly desirable after the sectarian bloodshed of the previous 100 years in Europe, and Locke's Letter on Toleration made sense to everyone; however, it's "rational" only in that it's reasonable, and its arguments are quite religious in their logic:

First, that bloodshed in the name of Christ is hardly kind or loving, and Protestantly second,

That the thing may be made clearer by an example, let us suppose two churches- the one of Arminians, the other of Calvinists- residing in the city of Constantinople. Will anyone say that either of these churches has right to deprive the members of the other of their estates and liberty (as we see practised elsewhere) because of their differing from it in some doctrines and ceremonies, whilst the Turks, in the meanwhile, silently stand by and laugh to see with what inhuman cruelty Christians thus rage against Christians? But if one of these churches hath this power of treating the other ill, I ask which of them it is to whom that power belongs, and by what right? It will be answered, undoubtedly, that it is the orthodox church which has the right of authority over the erroneous or heretical. This is, in great and specious words, to say just nothing at all. For every church is orthodox to itself; to others, erroneous or heretical.

For whatsoever any church believes, it believes to be true and the contrary unto those things it pronounce; to be error.

So that the controversy between these churches about the truth of their doctrines and the purity of their worship is on both sides equal; nor is there any judge, either at Constantinople or elsewhere upon earth, by whose sentence it can be determined.

The decision of that question belongs only to the Supreme judge of all men, to whom also alone belongs the punishment of the erroneous.

King of Ireland said...


This ties right in with a post I was going to quoting the debate over the first amendment. It hits on this same issue.

King of Ireland said...

The NC debate that is. Great post at the exact right time.