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Apr 17, 2015

Freethought and Freedom: John Toland and the Nature of Reason

Smith explains the controversial arguments of the deist John Toland, as defended in Christianity not Mysterious.

The Irishman John Toland (1670-1722) journeyed from Catholicism to Presbyterianism to latitudinarianism (a liberal form of Protestantism) to deism to pantheism—the latter being a word that Toland, under the influence of Spinoza’s ideas, apparently coined. Having studied at the universities of Glasgow, Edinburgh, and Leyden, Toland set out to earn his way as a freelance writer and publicist for libertarian causes. Nearly 200 works and translations have been attributed to Toland; and as the historian David Berman remarked, he was “perhaps the first professional freethinker.”

Modern scholars have probably devoted more attention to Toland than to any other eighteenth-century British freethinker, as we see in books like John Toland and the Deist Controversy; A Study in Adaptations (1982), by Robert E. Sullivan; and Republican Learning: John Toland and the Crisis of Christian Culture, 1696-1722 (2003), by Justin Champion (an excellent account of Toland’s political life and relationships). Toland is a major character in Margaret C. Jacob’s pathbreaking study, The Radical Enlightenment: Pantheists, Freemasons and Republicans (1981; second revised edition, 2006); and he is discussed by Jonathan Israel in his massive, erudite volumes on the Enlightenment, including Radical Enlightenment (2001) and Enlightenment Contested (2006).

In The Eighteenth-Century Commonwealthman (1959), Caroline Robbins said of Toland that his “significance for the student of libertarian thought is not inconsiderable, but neither is it easy to define.” Always in search of wealthy patrons who would finance his writings, Toland sometimes wrote pieces about particular political controversies that are difficult to reconcile with his basic political principles. He formed friendships with important contemporary liberals, such as John Locke (who eventually severed their relationship owing to Toland’s overt religious radicalism) and Lord Shaftesbury (who financed some of Toland’s projects and remained friends with him throughout his life). Toland associated with various freethinkers and libertarians in Holland, which at that time was a haven for radical thinkers and printers, and those connections enabled him to reprint important seventeenth-century libertarian works by Milton, Harrington, Sidney, and others. In brief, to trace the life of John Toland is to undertake a fascinating tour of the leading libertarians of his day, their relationships and clandestine literary productions. This web of relationships and underground projects largely accounts for the interest in Toland shown by modern scholars.  

Toland’s most important contribution to freethought and philosophy was Christianity not Mysterious, published in 1696, when Toland was twenty-six. A nineteenth-century historian of deism, Leslie Stephen, called Toland’s book “the signal gun” of the deistic controversy that would dominate English theology for several decades. Things got off to a fiery start when the Irish Parliament ordered the book to “be publickly burnt by the hands of the Common Hangman,” and further declared that Toland “be taken into the Custody of the Serjeant at Arms and be prosecuted by Mr. Attorney General, for writing and publishing said Book.” In addition, “an Address should be made to the Lords Justices to give Directions that no more Copies of that Book be brought into the Kingdom, and to prevent the selling of those already imported.” Toland, having no desire to play the martyr, fled Ireland to England, which was somewhat more tolerant than his native country.

The reaction by one of Toland’s major critics, Peter Brown, a fellow of Trinity College in Dublin, nicely illustrates the connection that the establishment drew between criticisms of orthodox Christianity and political radicalism. Employing the standard analogy between heresy and an infectious disease, Brown wrote:

I have no more to do here but to deliver [Toland] up into the hands of our Gouvernors. We may confute his Errours, but ‘tis they only can suppress his Insolence; we only can endeavor to heal those already infected, ‘tis they alone can hinder the Infection from spreading further.

Although Christianity not Mysterious did not address political issues, Brown proceeded to warn against the dangerous and seditious political beliefs typically held by deists.

How far Men in power, according to their several Stations, are obliged to intermeddle in point of Conscience, I shall not now enquire. But sure I am in point of Policy it is become no less than necessary: for the writers of this strain [i.e., deists] have given broad hints that they are as little friends to our Government, as our Religion. This Man can say that MAGISTRATES are made for the PEOPLE, and every one knows what Doctrines of REBELLION Men are wont to insinuate by this SAYING.

In An Apology for Mr. Toland, which was appended to later printings of his book, Toland related some options considered by members of the Irish Parliament while they were deliberating his fate.

[I]t was moved by one that Mr. Toland himself should be burnt, and by another that he should be made to burn his Book with his own hands; and a third desir’d it should be done before the Door of the House, that he might have the pleasure of treading the Ashes under his feet.

Toland, while declining to comment in detail on the practice of burning books, noted “how fruitless this sort of proceeding has prov’d in all ages, since the Custom was first introduc’d by the Popish Inquisitors, who performed that Execution on the Book when they could not seize the Author whom they had destined to the Flames.” The invocation of “popery” became a standard talking point for Protestant defenders of a free press after 1644, when John Milton linked censorship to Catholicism in Areopagitica. And Toland, like Milton, called attention to “the great Stop and Discouragement which this Practice brings to all Learning and Discoveries.”

So what did Toland say in his book that so alarmed the religious and political establishment? A clue may be found in the complete title: Christianity not Mysterious: or, a TREATISE Shewing, That there is nothing in the GOSPEL Contrary to REASON, Nor Above it: And that no Christian Doctrine can be properly call’d A MYSTERY. The title page also bears a quotation from Archbishop Tillotson, a liberal, rationalistic Anglican who was much admired by deists: “We need not desire a better Evidence that any Man is in the wrong, than to hear him declare against Reason, and thereby acknowledg[e] that Reason is against him.”

In the fashion of many deists, Toland insisted that he was a sincere Christian who wished only to purge Christianity of its irrational accretions (mysteries) and restore it to its pure, undefiled (rational) condition. Despite his protestations, Toland was widely accused of attacking Christianity, not defending it. It is difficult to say whether or not Toland was sincere, but he may have let the cat out of the bag when, in the Preface, he lamented “the deplorable Condition of our Age, that a Man dares not openly and directly own what he thinks of Divine Matters.” One was forced to remain silent “or to propose his Sentiments to the World by way of Paradox under a borrow’d or fictitious Name.” (Toland’s name did not appear in the first printing of Christianity not Mysterious.) Those who had the courage to say what they really thought risked serious legal penalties. As these remarks suggest, Toland’s profession of Christianity may have been a ruse to protect himself. If so, he was neither the first nor the last freethinker to employ this dodge.

Toland was firm in his commitment to reason: “I hold nothing as an Article of my Religion, but what the highest Evidence forc’d me to embrace.” He refused to captivate his understanding “to any Man or Society whatsoever.” Religion, as Toland saw the matter, should be reasonable, and he provided this classic statement of the freethinking deistic ideal:

Since Religion is calculated for reasonable Creatures, ‘tis Conviction and not Authority that should bear Weight with them. A wise and good Man will judg[e] of the Merits of a Cause consider’d only in itself, without any regard to Times, Places, or Persons.

Toland was unimpressed with religious scholars who flaunted their knowledge of ancient languages and declared themselves authorities to whom less educated people should defer. The “vulgar,” Toland maintained, were able to assess the Bible critically and make up their own minds about its veracity, regardless of what supposed authorities told them they should believe.

Truth is always and every where the same. And an unintelligible or absurd Proposition is never the more respected for being ancient or strange, for being originally written in Latin, Greek or Hebrew.

Contrary to some theologians, who “gravely tell us that we must adore what we do not comprehend, Toland insisted that everything, even revelation, must pass the test of reason or be rejected. Why? Because humans are fallible and easily deceived. Reason enables us to distinguish between fact and fancy, certainty and probability. If we abandon or ignore the dictates of reason, then we will be cast adrift in a sea of conflicting opinions (including conflicting religious opinions) with no rudder to steer our course. Questionable propositions will be accepted as axioms, old wives’ fables will be mistaken for knowledge, and human impostures will be accepted as divine revelations.

Essential to Toland’s case was his conception of reason, which he defined as “that Faculty of the soul which discovers the Certainty of any thing dubious or obscure, by comparing it with something evidently known.” Following John Locke, Toland argued that sense perception provides us with simple and distinct ideas, which we then compound into complex ideas. Reason is the faculty by which we perceive the agreement or disagreement of our ideas.

Like Locke, Toland said that some knowledge is self-evidently true, as we find with axioms. Strictly speaking, reason is not used in these cases, since we perceive the truth of self-evident propositions immediately and without the aid of intervening ideas. But when the agreement between ideas cannot be immediately perceived, then intermediate ideas—connecting links, so to speak—are required, and this is where reason plays an indispensable role. Reason compares a new, untested idea with an idea that is already known, thereby determining whether the new idea is consistent with our store of knowledge.

Although Toland relied heavily on Locke’s epistemology, he pushed his conception of reason farther than Locke was willing to go. According to Toland, if we wish to compare ideas for their compatibility, then those ideas must be clear and distinct to begin with. Otherwise, no comparison is possible, because “when we have no Notions or Ideas of a thing, we cannot reason about it at all.” Toland’s theory of reason was a serious threat to venerable Christian “mysteries,” such as the Trinity, because it was intrinsically hostile to truths that supposedly transcend reason. Thus, by using Locke’s theory of knowledge, Toland dragged an unwilling Locke into the deistic controversy.

In 1696 Edward Stillingfleet, Bishop of Worcester, published A Discourse in Vindication of the Trinity, wherein he argued that Locke’s epistemology, as adapted by Toland to attack religious mysteries that transcend reason, promotes infidelity and skepticism, especially in regard to the Trinity—which was the classic example in Christianity of a doctrine that we cannot understand but must believe nonetheless. Locke, however, maintained that Toland misunderstood his theory of knowledge. Toland “made, or supposed, clear and distinct ideas necessary to certainty; but that is not my notion.” Locke, it should be noted, nowhere affirmed his belief in the Trinity, and it is highly unlikely that he endorsed it; but he was a cautious man who tried to avoid public controversies over religion, so he maintained that his theory of knowledge was irrelevant to belief in the Trinity, one way or the other. But as Toland saw the matter, he was simply extending Locke’s conception of reason to its logical conclusion—for how can reason compare ideas unless those ideas are clear and distinct to begin with? Indeed, Toland maintained that the nature of the human intellect is such that we cannot truly assent to a proposition unless we clearly understand its meaning.

A man may give his verbal Assent to he knows not what, out of Fear, Superstition, Indifference, Interest, and the like feeble and unfair Motives: but as long as he conceives not what he believes, he cannot sincerely acquiesce in it, and remains depriv’d of all solid Satisfaction.

Faith is of no help here, for we must at least understand the meaning of a proposition before we can accept it on faith. The Christian may claim to believe in the unintelligible, but this is meaningless verbal assent—“rash presumption and an obstinate prejudice.” The Christian may just as well claim to believe in a Blictri (a traditional nonsense word).

Could that Person justly value himself upon being wiser than his Neighbors, who having infallible Assurance that something call’d Blictri had a Being in Nature, in the mean time knew not what this Blictri was?

Where does revelation fit into this approach? Revelation, according to Toland, is a “means of information,” not a “motive of assent.” We should carefully distinguish the method by which we acquire knowledge claims from the justification we have to believe those claims. If a person tells us something and expects us to believe it, then his communication must be intelligible or it signifies nothing. Suppose this person claims to have seen a cane without two ends. We cannot believe this statement, even if we want to, because we don’t know what it means. But what if that person, claiming divine inspiration, calls the peculiar cane a “mystery” that transcends reason? This would be no help, Toland argued; we still wouldn’t know what he is talking about, and neither would he. Hence: “Whoever reveals any thing, that is, whoever tells us something we did not know before, his Words must be intelligible, and the Matter possible. This Rule holds good, let God or Man be the Revealer.”

According to Toland, if we are to rescue the Bible from the depths of absurdity, then we must interpret much of it figuratively; otherwise, “the highest Follies and Blasphemies may be deduc’d from the Letter of Scripture.” What of those theologians who claim that a literal reading only seems to conflict with reason? This won’t do, said Toland: “A seeming contradiction is to us as good as a real one.” We cannot make sense of a contradiction, real or apparent, so it is “certainly but lost labour for us to trouble ourselves about it.”

Indeed, it is impious to suggest that God, after endowing humans with the faculty of reason, would require belief in the irrational as a condition of salvation. This supposition would also breed skepticism, for if reason demands one thing while God demands another, then we will never be certain which to follow. Toland concluded with a spirited statement of the deistic credo: “I acknowledge no ORTHODOXY but the TRUTH; and, I’m sure, wherever the TRUTH is there must also [be] the CHURCH, of God.”

I have taken the time to explain Toland’s basic ideas because, in addition to their inherent interest, they are so typical of what the deists generally believed. And it is interesting to note that those ideas are much less controversial today than they were in Toland’s day. Toland risked his freedom and possibly his life in expressing them publicly, but today even many Christians would have no serious problems with Toland’s approach, even if they disagree with his conclusions. And it is not difficult to see how Toland’s call for conceptual clarity could easily be applied to the political realm, especially during an age when political authority and the demand for unconditional obedience were grounded in religious claims that were highly vulnerable to critical scrutiny.  

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