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Apr 24, 2015

Freethought and Freedom: The Politics of Deism

Smith explains the political implications of the deistic repudiation of special revelation and miracles.

So far my series on “Freethought and Freedom” has covered some ideas defended by early deists and other freethinkers. And though I have mentioned some political implications of the deistic criticisms of orthodox Christianity, I have not presented a comprehensive overview of those implications. To do so is the purpose of this essay.

Many deists were in the Lockean political tradition. According to John Locke, in the state of nature (before the formation of political society) people enjoyed “natural liberty.” This referred to an anarchistic society without government, a condition of equal rights in which there is no political authority, dominion, or subordination—a society in which (in Locke’s words) all “Power and Jurisdiction is reciprocal, no one having more [rights] than another.” Political sovereignty, which demands that subjects obey rulers, is not a natural condition of mankind; no one is born with the moral authority to rule over others. Only through a process of consent can individuals alienate some of their rights by transferring them, or the power to enforce them, to a sovereign. This is done, according to Lockeans, to render the rest of our rights—especially the rights to life, liberty, and property—more secure than they would be in a state of nature.

Although Locke did not originate the notion of equal rights and liberty in a society without government—similar theoretical models had been posited by previous philosophers—it was Locke’s formulation that exerted the most influence among deists and other classical-liberal freethinkers. This point is essential if we are to understand the characteristic hostility shown by deists to special revelation, in contrast to natural revelation. Unlike natural revelation, or the knowledge of nature acquired by the natural faculty of reason, special revelation refers to a divine communication supposedly transmitted directly from God to a particular person or group of persons. Thereafter, those special, inspired agents who received the divine message—commonly known as prophets—tell others what God supposedly told them.

Deists rejected this approach, which is found in all revealed religions (including Christianity, Judaism, and Islam), because the prophet, in claiming to have received a special revelation from God, cloaks his knowledge claims with a special cognitive status; that is to say, the prophet claims to possess knowledge that others cannot verify directly by the use of reason. Moreover, the prophet, claiming to act on God’s behalf, will sometimes assert a special political authority over others. And this entails that the doctrine of natural and equal rights, which generates a theory of government by consent, may be overridden by divine commands, as revealed through God’s appointed human agent. 

Consider this hypothetical: A self-proclaimed prophet enters a town and announces that he has been personally authorized and ordered by God to rule over that town and to punish sinners. God is angry with the inhabitants of that town, so he appointed his agent, the prophet, to communicate his displeasure and to punish sinners in his name. Skeptical Christians, having learned from the Bible about false prophets, would repudiate the would-be dictator as an imposter, but this raises the question: By what objective criteria can we differentiate between true and false prophets? One sign of an authentic prophet, as traditionally accepted in Christianity, was the ability to perform miracles. Even this sign was problematic, however, for leading Christian theoreticians, such as Augustine, conceded that demons and other minions of Satan can also perform miracles. But let’s bypass this glitch and focus on the implications if a self-identified prophet is able to persuade others of his divine mission through the performance of apparent miracles. If this happens, then the prophet will have legitimized his political dominion and his right to punish sinners. This political right to rule will be a special, revealed right with divine authorization, not a natural right possessed by everyone. And that revealed right will not depend on the consent of the governed, since it was bestowed on the prophet directly by God, who does not require the consent of his creatures to enforce his will.

My hypothetical—which is really not all that hypothetical—illustrates the enormous political implications of special revelation. Political absolutism was typically defended by appealing to the will of God as revealed in that repository of special revelation known as the Bible. Consider, for instance, the following passage by Paul (Romans 13.1-2, RSV), which had an incalculable impact on Christian political theory and was the pillar passage used by defenders of unconditional obedience to an established government.

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore he who resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.

Now, if Paul had been viewed as a philosopher like any other philosopher, then his injunction to obey established governments would have carried no special significance. But since Christians believed Paul to be a major prophet inspired by God, his injunction was given special status as a divine command communicated through special revelation. In short, to disobey Paul’s injunction would be to disobey the will of God.

A similar and oft-quoted passage appears in I Peter 2.13-14.

Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right.

This passage was often invoked to justify our duty to obey even tyrannical governments, since tyrants were sent by God to punish a sinful nation. Of course, those Christians who later defended the rights of resistance and revolution against tyrannical governments found ways around the doctrine of passive obedience, but for this they needed to depart from the traditional interpretation of the two New Testament passages (quoted above) and offer their own interpretation in its place.  

The likelihood of conflicting interpretations of special revelation did not pose as much of a theoretical problem for Catholics as it did for Protestants. In the Catholic Church the pope was the ultimate arbiter of doctrinal controversies. His function was rather like that of the Supreme Court in American law; what the pope said was final, and that was the end of the matter (at least in theory). But Protestants, in rejecting papal authority and in maintaining that each person should use his or her own conscience to understand Scripture, generated a serious problem for themselves. Hundreds of Protestant sects arose, and their conflicting interpretations of the Bible frequently spilled over into politics. Thus Catholic critics of Luther, Calvin, and other Reformers were basically correct when they predicted that the Protestant approach to the Bible would result in a type of religious anarchy, as each individual viewed himself as the supreme authority in religious matters. Reverting to my previous analogy, the result was similar to what would happen if America had no Supreme Court, or judicial system of any kind, and each American was free to interpret and implement law according to his own judgment.

The English deists cut through this Gordian Knot by denying altogether the reasonableness of special revelation, especially if that revelation could not be verified independently by rational means. And as part of this critical project, they also argued that it is irrational to believe in miracles—for, as noted above, miracles were a sign by which a true prophet, a supposed communicator of special revelation, could allegedly be identified. Hence the deistic assault on Christian orthodoxy was anything but pointless, random criticisms of sincere religious believers. The deists, contrary to their critics (then and now), did not wish to undermine the moral foundations of society. Profound political issues were involved in the deistic controversy; in particular, the liberal deists wished to block the path by which defenders of political sovereignty demanded the unconditional obedience of subjects, on the basis of claims to special revelation that attempted to bypass rational justification.

There were many facets to the deistic agenda, but it is important to understand their basic attitude to special revelation and miracles. As believers in an omnipotent, omniscient, and benevolent God of Nature, the deists did not deny the ability of God to communicate personally with selected individuals. Nor did deists deny the ability of God to perform miracles. Their criticisms (as we shall see in subsequent essays) were more complicated than that. For example, their typical criticism of miracles—as presented most famously by David Hume—focused not on the impossibility of miracles per se, but on the irrationality of believing reports of historical miracles. To witness an apparent miracle first-hand is one thing, but to accept the report of another person who claims to have witnessed a miracle is another thing entirely. To assess the plausibility of historical miracles requires that we apply rational canons of historical judgment, and no historical miracle, according to the deists, will be able to pass that test.

Since the Bible is the basis of Christianity, and since Christians accepted the Bible as a historical document that relates authentic miracles, the deistic assault on historical miracles threatened to undercut the very foundation of Christianity; for to reject the authenticity of biblical miracles was to strip the Bible of its divine status and reduce it to the level of any other book. This is why Christian theologians reacted to the deistic movement with angry denunciations and vehement criticisms. Critics also understood the radical political implications of deism. If New Testament writers could not legitimately claim any special divine authority, then their theory of government and obedience, like any other political theory, required rational justification. If Christian rulers could not base their sovereignty on a special revelation from God, as reported in the Bible, then the Lockean theory of equal rights prevailed. No person was born with a natural authority or special rights over any other person, so Christian monarchs needed to explain and justify their supposed moral right to demand obedience from others.

Appeals to the equal rights of individuals—rights that cannot be overridden or nullified by a sovereign who seeks to justify his power by appealing to the Bible or other special revelation—appear in many deistic writings. Here is a typical passage from one of the most widely read deistic books of the eighteenth century, a book that elicited over 150 replies: Mathew Tindal’s Christianity as Old as the Creation, first published in 1730.

Human legislators are so far from having a right to deprive their subjects of this [natural] liberty, that their main end in submitting to government is, to be protected in acting as they think fit in such cases where no one is injured; and herein the whole of human liberty consists, the contrary being a state of mere vassalage; and men are more or less miserable, according as they are more or less deprived of this liberty; especially in matters of mere religion, wherein they ought to be most free.

The liberal deists attempted to safeguard the equal rights of individuals by discrediting all appeals to special revelation that sought to do an end run around natural rights and thereby justify political dominion over unwilling subjects. Of course, the deists knew that many orthodox Christians valued freedom and had no desire to use special revelation for nefarious political purposes. But the liberal deists also understood that freedom requires more than good intentions. They believed that a major Christian theory that had been used to justify despotism in the name of God should be dissected and refuted, point by point. This critical project, through detailed analyses of special revelation and miracles, resulted in the outright repudiation of anyone who claims to possess special rights bestowed by God.

This is part of a series