Saturday, July 5, 2014

Two Reviews of "Nature's God The Heretical Origins of the American Republic"

A book by Matthew Stewart. Here is a more friendly review by the LA Times; and here is a more hostile review by Robert Tracy McKenzie.

From the later:
Apart from the hyperbole, what precisely is new about Stewart's reading of the founding? It's not his assertion that the religious views of the most prominent Founders were unorthodox. With apologies to David Barton, there is little evidence that the leading Founders were devout Christians who based their political philosophy primarily on Scripture. Whether we label them "deists" or "theistic rationalists" or "Enlightenment Christians," no historically sound argument can transform them into card-carrying evangelicals. Nor is Stewart being innovative in claiming that the Founders drew extensively from Enlightenment sources in thinking about the proper structure and function of government. Scholars of the Revolution almost unanimously agree with this, and that includes Christian historians who take religion's role with great seriousness. 
But the predominant view within the academy would complicate each of these conclusions. Scholars typically argue that the leading Founders were unorthodox, but not irreligious. Yes, they found much of value in Enlightenment philosophy, but they gravitated toward the Enlightenment's more moderate expressions, especially Scottish "Common Sense" writings that could be reconciled with Christianity. ...
Update: Here is a Q&A from the Boston Globe.


Tom Van Dyke said...

The LA Times is very fair. When a liberal writes a book, it's reviewed by a liberal. When a conservative writes a book, it's reviewed by a liberal.

jimmiraybob said...

Well, given the nature and range of the unorthodox religious positions that many of the leading founders/framers held*, it's hard to defend them against the charge of heresy...or heresies and of them being infidels to greater and smaller degrees. Certainly by European Christian standards of the time (Reformed and Catholic).

I've only gotten up to Chapter three (Epicurus's Dangerous Idea) but I'd say Stewart’s presentation is generally not new revelation following a year of reading Steven Nadler (on Spinoza)(1) and Jonathan Israel (on the moderate and radical Enlightenment)(2). However, Stewart does appear to succeed in tying together in greater detail some of the more radical elements of the Enlightenment with leading figures and ideas in the American founding and framing. (Have you ever wonder what Jefferson meant by declaring himself an Epicurean or why he referenced Pierre Gassendi or what was up with Giordano Bruno who was burned as a heretic? (hint: Epicurus and infinite worlds))

Stewart certainly writes with a viewpoint but the substance appears sound.

jimmiraybob said...

If you don't like the following you probably won't like the book; unless, of course, you value understanding things that challenge personal preconceptions(3).

In most versions of America’s revolutionary history, the term ‘deism,’ if it appears at all, is taken to refer to a superficial theological doctrine about a “watchmaker God” who fashions a world of mechanical wonders and then walks away to the sound of ticking noises. Deism, according to this line of interpretation, was just a watery expression of the Christian religion, adulterated somewhat with the platitudes of the Enlightenment. It was the opposite of atheism, as the dictionary tells us, and it should count as thumpingly religious by modern standards. It arose in Britain around the turn of the eighteenth century and arrived in America in a moderate and conciliatory mood, quite different from the atheistic Enlightenment that took hold in France and elsewhere. The informed consensus today further supposes that deism was a detachable doctrine, present to some degree among the educated elites in revolutionary America, but only incidentally connected with the political ideology of its revolutionaries.

All of this, I now think, is not quite right. ‘Deism’ in its own day referred not to a superficial theological doctrine but to a comprehensive intellectual tradition that ranged freely across the terrain we now associate with ethics, political theory, metaphysics, the philosophy of mind, and epistemology. It was an astonishingly coherent and systematic body of thought, closer to a way of being than any particular dogma, and it retained its essential elements over a span of centuries, not decades. In origin and substance, deism was neither British nor Christian, as the conventional view supposes, but largely ancient, pagan, and continental, and it spread to America far beyond the educational elite. Although America’s revolutionary deists lavished many sincere expressions of adoration upon their deity, deism is in fact functionally indistinguishable from what we would now call ‘pantheism’; and pantheism is really just a pretty word for atheism. While deism could often be associated with moderation in politics, it served principally to advance a system of thought that was revolutionary in its essence and effects. This essentially atheistic and revolutionary aspect of deism, I further contend, is central to any credible explanation of the revolutionary dimension of the American Revolution. In a word, America’s founders were philosophical radicals.”

*up to and including deistic and/or deistic-like and agnostic tendencies.

1) Steven Nadler, 2011. A Book Forged in Hell; Spinoza's Scandalous Treatise and the Birth of the Secular Age. Princeton University Press. Pp 304.

2) Jonathan Israel, 2001, Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity 1650-1750. Oxford University Press. Pp 810.

And the more user friendly (shorter):

Jonathan Israel, 2011, A Revolution of the Mind: Radical Enlightenment and the Intellectual Origins of Modern Democracy. Pp 296.

This one was highlighted here at AC:

3) Page 5 of Matthew’s Nature’s God

jimmiraybob said...

And, Chapter 4 (On The Genealogy of Nature's God) looks like it will be interesting. Time to get back to reading - might reach this one today.

Tom Van Dyke said...

"Deism, [Stewart] argues persuasively, “is in fact functionally indistinguishable from what we would now call 'pantheism'; and pantheism is really just a pretty word for atheism.”

Whatever, pal.

Tom Van Dyke said...

David Barton's take on history is many things, but "bigoted" is not one of them.

Matthew Stewart is a lying SOB.

jimmiraybob said...

TVD - ”David Barton's take on history is many things, but "bigoted" is not one of them.

”Matthew Stewart is a lying SOB.”

Maybe an opinionated SOB but not a lying SOB. The following is a bit of context and a definition of “bigoted.”

From the Boston Globe article (1):

Q. Where did this topic start for you?
A. I started making connections between Spinoza and Locke, and the American Revolution. But I didn’t understand that connection until I came across Ethan Allen’s “Oracles of Reason.’’ I was blown away by this 200-year-old curmudgeonly work, because it made clear that there was this continuity of radical thought from the Dutch Enlightenment to America.

I was amazed at the disconnect between the richness of these facts and the tawdry and quite bigoted version of the American Revolution of someone like [evangelical Christian writer] David Barton. The conservative interpretation of American history says that wherever the word “God” appears it’s obviously our God, it’s obviously a Christian God; it’s usually an evangelical God. The simplest point I’m making is: That is just absolutely not true.

Q. Where do you go in history to start proving that point?
A. I set out to interrogate those notions you heard in elementary school: The United States is an enlightenment nation, it was a product of enlightened thought . . . What is the Enlightenment? It’s been portrayed as a collection of platitudes: Use your head; look before you leap; and as being compatible with the existing religion. I disagree.

Q. So what role does religion play?
A. Most religions assume that you find purpose through some agent that sits above or outside the world and imbues it with purpose. Radical philosophers, beginning with Socrates, through Epicurus, Hobbes, Locke, and Spinoza, have undermined that idea. They say the way we find meaning is not through some transcendent source that lays it all out for us, but rather in an immanent way, from our own searching and our own drives.

Q. Where do you come down on the distinction between “immanent” and “transcendent”?
A. For me the only sources of moral values are the pursuit of understanding and the pursuit of happiness. I’m not too concerned about persuading people to accept some set of beliefs dogma to bring that about, because I think it comes from more inherent conditions.

Full definition of Bigot from Merriam Webster Dictionary (2):

: a person who is obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices; especially : one who regards or treats the members of a group (as a racial or ethnic group) with hatred and intolerance

Definition of Bigoted from Oxford Dictionary (3):

Having or revealing an obstinate belief in the superiority of one’s own opinions and a prejudiced intolerance of the opinions of others: a bigoted group of reactionaries, a thoughtless and bigoted article

Given the above, it’s apparent that Stewart is advocating a belief that Barton’s work is bigoted. This is not a lie if it is truly what he believes to be the case and goes on to substantiate it. He could be wrong and/or his case may not be convincing, but he’s hardly lying with this assertion. I would recommend buying and researching the book to see if he indeed makes material misrepresentations – that would be productive.

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