Book Review: Nature’s God

(Editor’s Note: This review was solicited and is written in accordance with this site’s policy for such reviews.)

Summary: A dense philosophical-historical synthesis that rewards the diligent reader by opening up a new window on the beliefs of America’s founders.

Matthew Stewart’s book Nature’s God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic, like Susan Jacoby’s Freethinkers or Jennifer Michael Hecht’s Doubt: A History, plumbs the freethinking ideals that played an outsize role in the founding of the United States. But while those books cast a broader sweep, this one zooms in on a very specific question: what philosophical principles were our founders guided by, and where did they get those principles from? (If you’re not familiar with Matthew Stewart, you may recognize his wife: Katherine Stewart, author of The Good News Club. Yes, they’re a family of writers! In the interests of full disclosure, I’m a friend of Katherine’s and she invited me to review the book.)

Stewart’s thesis is that America owes its existence and its national character to the ideals of deism, the so-called “natural religion” that counted many of the founders as adherents. Most atheists and secularists have heard of deism before, but you may have conceived of it as “basically like Christianity, except God doesn’t answer prayers”. I admit, that’s how I thought of it before I started this book.

But Stewart makes a compelling case that deism is no shabby knockoff of Christianity. It’s an independent and proud philosophical tradition in its own right, one that springs from a distinct stream of thought dating back to Epicurus, Lucretius and the ancient pagan atomists.

Atomist philosophy was lost after the fall of Rome, but rediscovered by the Renaissance book-hunters who birthed the Enlightenment (the story told in The Swerve, but Stewart also recaps it well). He makes a persuasive case that many of Europe’s most important thinkers – John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, Benedict Spinoza, Alexander Pope, Giordano Bruno and Galileo, among others – were influenced in one way or another by Epicureanism. Some of them, the most avowedly radical, were open about this; others took care to cloak their true sympathies in language that superficially resembled contemporary pieties, lest they be suspected of heresy. But all of them, he argues, furnished ideas that greatly influenced America’s founders and became the philosophical foundation for the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

Stewart traces the evidence through the centuries, showing how Epicurean language and ideas made their way into Enlightenment philosophy, and from there to American statesmen like Jefferson, Franklin, Adams and Madison. But where this book stands out is its meticulous examination of two other revolutionaries, both of whom are of lesser stature but equal importance.

One is Ethan Allen, the buckskin-clad Vermont mountain man and revolutionary firebrand. Although he’s known best for his capture of Fort Ticonderoga, Allen strove to cultivate a reputation as a thinker. His crowning effort was a book, Reason the Only Oracle of Man, which fiercely attacked Christianity and advanced deist ideas (anticipating Thomas Paine’s similar, but later, Age of Reason). Though Allen claimed to be self-taught, to be promoting nothing but principles of reason that he figured out himself in a backwoods shack, his work has clear and demonstrable similarities to other advocates of Epicureanism, showing that deist thinking was pervasive even on the rural American frontier.

The other is a figure who’s mostly forgotten, but deserves much wider acclaim: Dr. Thomas Young, one of the earliest, fiercest and most radical American patriots. The Boston Tea Party was his idea; he helped to found early revolutionary groups like the Albany Sons of Liberty and the Boston Committee of Correspondence; and he engineered a coup that tipped Pennsylvania into joining the independence movement, and then helped write its trailblazing state constitution. He died early, in 1777, while serving with the Continental Army, which probably has something to do with why he’s little remembered.

But another part of the reason is that Young, like Allen and Paine, was as radical in his religion as he was in his politics. He was regularly accused of being an “infidel”, a charge which he scarcely bothered to deny. Stewart marshals evidence to show that he’s the likely author of an anonymous tract, Sermon on Natural Religion, which ferociously attacked the divine inspiration of the Bible and other Christian ideas. And, like Paine, he was swept under the rug by subsequent generations who cherished the notion that America was established by men who professed a more conventional faith.

Tying all these historical threads together, Stewart makes the case that deism was humanity’s first attempt at a rational religion, in the sense of a religion that rests only on premises which are claimed to be demonstrable by reason. Following in the footsteps of Epicurus, it postulates an orderly and comprehensible universe, self-contained and self-sufficient, infinite and eternal, without center or edge, producing life endlessly in a constant flux of forms.

But more radical still were deism’s theological claims. Deist thinkers postulated that God isn’t an object in the world, but the fundamental principle of order that underlies existence. In short, they believed that what we call “God” is simply the sum total of the laws of nature – a position that we’d now refer to as pantheism – and that religious devotion consists solely of furthering our understanding of the world through science. This variety of religion allows for no miracles, postulates no individual afterlife of reward or punishment, and imposes no duty on humanity except striving to live virtuously. In short, and as Stewart doesn’t shy from pointing out, the philosophy that inspired America’s founders was in all practical respects indistinguishable from atheism.

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  • cipher

    I’m sure the book is well-researched and his argument well-presented, neither of which will stop the fundies from claiming the founders as conservative Christians.

    They’re operating at the developmental level of small children, and not particularly bright or mentally healthy children at that. Reality is what they want it to be.

  • http://musingsfromacorneroftheuniverse.blogspot.com/ Michael

    If you read a book like The Age of Reason, you’ll find that deism is *not at all* “indistinguishable from atheism.” They may have more in common than with Christianity and with other more traditional religions, true, but that does not make them the same. Paine firmly believed that nature was the work of a Creator-that the universe required one. Interestingly, he treats science as a form of worship, to learn more about the Creator’s works. I definitely see how deism could be a precursor to atheism though-we just move one step further. That said, there is a very important difference, and deists such as Paine were not only well aware of it, but hostile to atheism. Paine says that The Age of Reason was written to give people a rational religion that would replace Christianity and save them from atheism. Pantheism also seems to be a separate religion, with deism distinguishing the deity from its creation-although it’s sometimes merged as “pandeism.” I’ve also definitely read of deists that appeared to believe in some kind of afterlife. Deism wasn’t a religion like Christianity with specific creeds, so a lot of individual deists’ opinions varied about many subjects.

  • Agni Ashwin

    Not too many atheists would “hope for happiness beyond this life”, as Paine said.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Adam Lee

    Really? I must be a bad atheist:

    Perhaps there is a blissful afterlife and perhaps there is not, but it does no harm merely to hope. The harm comes when simple, humble hope transforms into arrogant, dogmatic faith, and believers begin to regard their promised afterlife reward as so certain and so important that they value it more highly than this life – which is, after all, the only one anyone can know with certainty that we have.

  • Agni Ashwin

    On a scale of 1 to 10 (1 being “very, very unlikely”), how would you rank the likelihood of there being a conscious life after the death of one’s present physical body?

  • http://musingsfromacorneroftheuniverse.blogspot.com/ Michael

    Quite so. While some atheists may appear to believe in an afterlife, then and now they are in the minority. Regardless, Paine’s deism doesn’t turn on his belief in the afterlife-it’s clear from his writings generally, with frequent references to the Creator, God, etc.

  • L.Long

    From your post you also see another very important point. Unlike pure atheism the deists had an advantage of not truly pissing off the other faith groups as they did believe in gawd. Also the xtians by this time had stopped killing people just for the hell of it. So the deists were able to influence the politics to form the American Constitution/BoR and our representative government. These things is what will make getting a rational government into islame controlled areas VERY difficult as ANY hint of non-islame thought is killed off. If the ‘merican xtians had been that fanatical and that cohesive the deists would most likely have been dead.
    So we owe not only the various deists our thanks but also the internal conflict of the various xtians our thanks for being so splintered.
    You made this into an interesting book to read, especially when you compare its ideas to what is happening in the world and with the growing delusional Religious Right. ANd unfortunately I agree with Cipher.

  • https://disqus.com/home/channel/antiscience/ Shem the Penman

    The point seems to be not necessarily that their theological beliefs made sense, but that the Founders created the basis of a secular society. Despite all the vague references to God and Providence, their documents outline a society where authority is vested in people and not any sort of divine will or dogma.

    And I disagree with L. Long and Cipher that problematic religious believers are like developmentally disabled children. They’re shrewd, selfish, reactionary adults who need to be recognized as such. Cheap shots aren’t going to prevent them from carrying out their political aims.

  • L.Long

    Well I don’t see any cheap shots in my post.
    And what is the definition of an adult…Someone who faces life, accepts responsibility for his actions and can think properly. The very opposite to xtians (and others) who like little kids do not take any responsibility…the devil made me do it—I’m possessed by demons…Satan is spreading evil…and other lame arguments for don’t nasty things. And then there is the Gawd (Mommy) or jesus(Daddy) help me whine of them praying, like that helps much, right definitely not like kids.
    ALso you give them to much credit they aren’t ‘reactionary’ they are bigoted-hateful-evil people. And the only reason it aint obvious is cuz their political powers are greatly reduced. Cuz if you think they are not then go live in the middle east as a gay atheist!!! Or do so in the xtian middle ages, or as a woman. The only way civilization can work smoothly is keep gov’mint secular and religion stamped into the dirt (metaphorically).

  • CATMAN

    It is unfortunate that our side doesn’t have the network that the fundies have to promote the works of revisionist assholes like David Barton. So, unfortunately, a book like Stewart’s, with a viewpoint that needs to be expressed, will probably languish on the shelves while Barton and his ilk sell hundreds of thousands of books. The fundies make large bulk purchases of books that they give away to their congregations to pump up sales numbers so the books they promote get on the best sellers list

  • GubbaBumpkin

    The other is a figure who’s mostly forgotten, but deserves much wider acclaim: Dr. Thomas Young

    If you follow the link, you will find an article at Politico by Stewart with the title “The Original Tea Partier Was an Atheist.” Young was clearly a desit, not an atheist. If Stewart cannot make the distinction, I don’t think I will bother reading an entire book by him.

  • http://musingsfromacorneroftheuniverse.blogspot.com/ Michael

    Well said. I left a comment on the article making the same point.