Nature’s God

Book review sections, especially the weekly ones in the Los Angeles Times and New York Times, are useful for reading glosses on books of interest that I know I’ll never find the time to read in their entirely. Nonfiction books, especially, because reviews of nonfiction books tend to be largely (sometimes too largely) summary, without much evaluation, in contrast to reviews of novels, which tend to be more analytical and judgmental.

Here’s an LA Times review from last Sunday of a book by Matthew Stewart called Nature’s God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic, published by W.W. Norton.

Checking, I see that Stewart is a philosopher with degrees from Princeton and Oxford.

A few passages from the review:

Matthew Stewart wants to make one thing perfectly clear: The United States was not founded as a Christian nation. The principles that inspired the American Revolution, he argues in “Nature’s God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic,” belong to an intellectual tradition dating to ancient Greece and reviled by every variety of Christian — early church fathers, Catholic clergy and Protestant divines alike.

His main point is serious. The tradition the deists honored was opposed to the religious doctrines of their day, and they knew it. Epicurus asserted that nature operates according to laws that can be discovered and defined. As Copernicus and Galileo learned, discovering natural laws that contradicted Catholic dogma was a risky business, and Protestant sects were equally insistent on divine judgment as exempt from explanation.

Jefferson was one of many deists appalled by the Calvinist God, doling out salvation and damnation in a manner human beings must accept but could not understand. In place of this punitive figure, deists proposed “Nature’s God … a God of publicly promulgated laws, not of private and inscrutable acts.” For them, Stewart states, “belief [was] a matter of evidence, not choice.” When American deists applied that concept to the civil sphere, they found contemporary political systems as unsatisfactory as revealed religion.

The first thing to note, of course, is that this contradicts the dogma of the religious right, who (see previous post) are happy to twist history and evidence and facts to fit their own pre-conceived worldview — and justify their own self-righteousness.

The second thing to note, and my main reason for noting this review and this book, is how contemporary the themes of these “deists” who founded the US in opposition to religious tradition are. Another passage from the review:

Natural law was the basis for the core ideas of the Revolution: People are free and equal in nature. Government is a compact between human beings, not something handed down from above.

Most important, we must always have the liberty of thought to examine received wisdom, evaluate its utility, and change our ideas — and our institutions. This freedom is the essence of what Stewart unabashedly and repeatedly calls liberalism. “A genuinely liberal political system,” in his view, aims to “hold the actions of an entire collective accountable to reason. … It is both a republic of learning and a learning republic.”

Stewart spells out the present-day implications of all this in his closing chapter, “The Religion of Freedom.” The government created by our deist Founding Fathers does of course protect religious belief, he writes, “but only insofar as that belief is understood to be intrinsically private. It does not and ought not tolerate any form of religion that attempts to hold the power of the sovereign answerable to its private religious belief.”

These ideas, the valuation of “liberty of thought”, the notion that ideas are subject to examination and change, and that religious belief should be private and not thrust into the public sphere– are not new. But these are enlightenment ideas, ideas of maturity and education, and they will forever struggle against ignorance and tribalism and religious inculcation. Because every new child is born fresh, subject and prone to its culture and beliefs, and education to a larger worldview is hard — and rare.

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