Walters describes Deism as a revolutionary movement in religious and political thought. The parallels between the early American ideological movement called Deism and modern day Objectivism are fascinating to say the least.
Consider these excerpts from Kerrys opening chapter:
"When Alexis de Tocqueville published the second volume of his massive Democracy in America in 1840, one of the aspects of the culture of the early Republic that he examined was religious sensibility.. . His conclusion was that for the Americans the ideas of Christianity and liberty are so completely mingled that it is almost impossible to get them to conceive of the one without the other.. . . It is obvious that de Tocqueville's 1840 description could, with a few qualifications, equally well describe America religious belief today. . . Had an eighteenthcentury de Tocqueville visited America sometime between, roughly, 1725 and 1810, he would have received a much less homogenous impression of religious sensibility in America. In those years, orthodox Christian belief was systematically and at times savagely criticized by a group of thinkers who called themselves Deists.. . .(pp. 15-16)
"Although deism in America erupted into a national and militant movement toward the end of the 18th century, its early and middle periods were relatively sedate. Early American intellectuals such as Benjamin Franklin were sympathetic to the idea of rational religion, but wary about publicly trumpeting their infidelity. . . [Early] sympathizers with theistic rationalism hesitated to go public because of their fear that dissemination of the new way of thinking would undermine social stability.. .In addition, "freethinkers who publicly advertised their apostasy suffered social opprobrium as well as sanctions.. . .[pp. 17-19]
The individual chapters devoted to each of these thinkers reveal a vast diversity of opinion. There are major disagreements with regard to ethics, for example. (I was particularly impressed by the striking similarity between Elihu Palmer's biologically based ethical system and Objectivist ethics.) "Still, in spite of the wide divergences of opinion among Enlightenment thinkers, most of them were in solid agreement over fundamental methodological and philosophical issues, and it is possible therefore to speak of the movement in somewhat general terms. This near unanimity in regards to basic principles stemmed from the periods enthusiastic endorsement of the thought of three seventeenth-century thinkers: Francis Bacon, Isaac Newton, and John Locke.. . [p. 23]
The last chapter in the book, subtitled The Decline and Fall of American Deism, is particularly illuminating from the perspective of what it means for the future of Objectivism. Walters closely considers "the philosophical, theological, and methodological presuppositions upon which deism built its case. Gradually, certain weaknesses began to emerge. "In short, American Deism collapsed in part because the foundation upon which it stood ceased to exercise the intellectual authority and appeal it once had. In broad terms, the reason for this breakdown was that the deistic worldview, founded squarely upon the New Learning's allegiance to mechanism and rationalism, began to be perceived as too simplistic, and hence a distortion of reality."[p. 249]
One of the cracks in the system" was orchestrated by David Hume. "The philosophical crack was Humes trenchant criticism of the assumption that our ideas of causality actually conform to objective phenomena. . . Hume succeeded in undermining Newtonianism by attacking the notion of a necessary connection between events or objects. Hume argued that such a "necessary connection" is merely inferred on the basis of our impressions of contiguity, temporal priority, and constant conjunction. Given the centrality of necessary causality to the Newtonian worldview, "this crack was enough to undermine the entire Newtonian superstructure."[p. 250-251]
Beyond that, there was also the gradual development of a certain cultural uneasiness with Newtonianism. In the nineteenth century, as the full implications of Newton's universe became obvious, people started getting anxious. "In the minds of many, the mechanistic worldview increasingly came to be seen as an austere, cold, lifeless, and generally forbidding structure. . . The impersonal perfection of the cosmic machine began to alienate more than enrapture. . . [p. 252]
"It is not too much to suggest that the resurgence of Christian revivalism and the emergence of transcendentalism in the early nineteenth century were both, in their separate ways, reactions to the psychological malaise prompted by the forbidding austerity of the deistic worldview. . .[p. 253]
Another aspect of this was the erosion of the "assumption of reasons adequacy as a basis for human knowledge" [p. 253] This was particularly true with respect to the rational appraisal of human experience. "In their efforts to extend the domain of scientific method to all arenas of investigation, [deists] tended to ignore or dismiss those elements in experience that resisted such incorporation. In the case of their analysis of what it meant to be human, this resulted in a radical de-subjectivization of persons: humans were little more than animated physical objects that, like all other objects, necessarily conformed to immutable natural laws. [p. 255]
"Inspired by Romanticism, the transcendentalist movement argued, to the contrary, that there were depths within the human soul inaccessible to rational investigation, and that a surer, although by no means certain, route to self-knowledge was through a harkening to one's moods, intuition, and passions.. .[p. 254]
"In summary, deism in America began to fail when the Enlightenment view on which it was founded was seen to have severe shortcomings. . . It began to look like deism reduced reality, reason, and the human condition to a limpid but one-dimensional set of explanations. . . [p. 255]
Walters also criticizes the deists one-dimensional attacks on Christianity and the Bible, which had the impact of alienating those who came from a religious perspective. "The deists by and large read Scripture in the same way they perused a book of history. . . By approaching the Scriptures in such a simplistic, literal way, they appear to have had no appreciation for the rich functional diversity of human discourse. It never occurred to them, for example, that at least some tales in the New Testament can be read allegorically, or that certain Old Testament stories that do not conform to reason or experience might nonetheless serve to express a point metaphorically or symbolically.. [p. 257]
Lastly, of course, there is the issue of a cold and distant God. "[The] deistic God was, in point of fact, a superfluity, a kind of deus ex machina. His only real purpose, when it came right down to it, was to supply a convenient explanation for the existence of reality.
"One recent commentator has described deism as the most masculine of all religious sensibilities. This appraisal is based upon the perception that deisms religion of nature is remorselessly intellectual in character and almost completely lacking in those affective elements that seem to be such a vital aspect of living religious traditions.. . God is a distant, inaccessible, impersonal, monarchical Principle that engenders, perhaps, awe and fascination, but not affective reverence. . Such an abstract deity might meet the religious and emotional needs of a disembodied intellect, but it is scarcely sufficient for most flesh-and-blood humans, who long for and require a more personal relationship with the divine…[pp. 260-261]
Walters offers the following conclusion:
"There are, then, a number of explanations for the early nineteenth-century demise of American deism. It attracted no new leaders, and was eventually swamped by the religious revivalism of the Second Great Awakening and by the rise of transcendentalism because its Enlightenment-based worldview ceased to strike resonant chords in either intellectuals or laypersons. Its mechanistic cosmology reeled from the blows of a Humean skepticism. Its pan-rationalistic attempt to reduce all explanations to the epistemic standards of the New Learning ignored the complexity of modes of knowing and the complexity of human and physical nature. Its defense of both a deterministic universe and a distant, impersonal deity alienated secular as well as religious individuals. Deisms worldview and its religion of nature, in short, offered a formal, pristine, aesthetically classical vision of reality and God that ultimately failed to paint either a realistic or a psychologically satisfying portrait of the world. [p. 263]
Some of deism's shortcomings have clearly been addressed by Objectivism. We can easily deflect the critical arrows of Humean skepticism, for instance, by demonstrating the superiority of the Aristotelian view of causality over the modern billiard ball version. And we can show how human volition fits into the mechanistic causality that ultimately rules the universe. This kind of theoretical correction, however, may not address the apparent psychological/emotional handicaps that both deism and Objectivism share. Will American society ever be ready to grow up and face the cold, harsh reality of a Godless universe? I dont know about you, but I have my doubts.
Revolutionary Deists/Early American Rational Infidels, by Kerry Walters, Prometheus Books, 2011
Edited by Dennis Hardin, 04 July 2011 - 12:55 AM.