Nature's God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic

America’s mainstream religion is at bottom one form or another of popular deism, and popular deism is just atheism adapted to the limitations of the common understanding of things. To say that the United States is “one nation under God” is to conceal behind a euphemism the fact that it is and always has been one nation under nature. Whatever else we pretend to believe, we are in practice mostly atheists now--and for that we should be grateful.” p 426

And the civil state is the actual state that results from the attempt to build a bridge from the state of nature to the state of reason. Its aim is to induce naturally rebarbative human beings to behave as if they were reasonable.

But pantheism is better understood as the idea that God and Nature are two ways of talking about the same thing, and in this sense it is the core religious sensibility of the Enlightenment, from its beginning with Bruno’s rediscovery of Lucretius through Locke’s proof of a God to the American Revolution. Spinoza did not invent this movement; he epitomized it.

By “radical” I mean something more than that they aimed to change the order of society in a fundamental way or that they searched for the deepest roots of problems. The opposite of radical is not “moderate” or “conservative” but “common.

Consider, for example, Jefferson’s essay, penned in 1764 at the age of twenty-one, on the question, “Whether Christianity is part of the Common Law?”63 His answer was confident and unequivocal: “We may safely affirm (though contradicted by all the judges and writers on earth) that Christianity neither is, nor ever was, a part of the common law.

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Deism” in its own day referred not to a superficial theological doctrine but to a comprehensive intellectual tradition that ranged freely across the terrain we now associate with ethics, political theory, metaphysics, the philosophy of mind, and epistemology. It was an astonishingly coherent and systematic body of thought, closer to a way of being than any particular dogma, and it retained its essential elements over a span of centuries, not decades. In origin and substance, deism was neither British nor Christian, as the conventional view supposes, but largely ancient, pagan, and continental, and it spread in America far beyond the educated elite.

Happiness the aim of life. Virtue the foundation of happiness. Utility the test of virtue.

If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilisation, it expects what never was and never will be,” he explained.86

In a democracy, says Spinoza, “the welfare of the whole people, not the ruler, is the supreme law,

In his highly controversial Account of Denmark of 1694, for example, Molesworth argues that “it has been a general mistake” to think “that the popish religion is the only one of all the Christian sects proper to introduce and establish slavery in a nation . . . Other religions, and particularly the Lutheran, has succeeded as effectually in this design as Popery every did . . . It is not popery as such but the doctrine of a blind obedience, in what religion soever it be found, that is the destruction of liberty and consequently of all the happiness of any nation.”215

In the eyes of some religious conservatives, “the dangerous and sinfull practice of inoculation”1 represented an arrogation of God’s unalienable right to deal death to sinners.

It is certain in theory that the only moral foundation of government is, the consent of the people. But to what an extent shall we carry this principle?” he wanted to know. “Women will demand a vote,” he intoned with horror, as might “every man who has not a farthing.

Justice does not exist in the abstract,” Epicurus flatly asserts; it is just “a compact to not harm or be harmed”;

Notwithstanding the many variations and exceptions that prove the rule, the common experience of human beings naturally gives rise to a certain shared set of ideas about what we are, how the world works, and how we ought to organize our moral and political existence, or so I will argue. This common consciousness is useful in a limited way for the purpose of making it through the everyday struggles of lives that, in the scheme of things, are not very long or broad.

Of the many attributes that seem to mark America’s founders as residents of a foreign time and place, probably none is more astonishing today than their unapologetic confidence in the power of books—and in particular the books of the philosophers. At

On the contrary, as we know, our ideas are always imperfect or confused insofar as they derive from the external experience of things—and our ideas of our own body, our desires, and our very minds are certainly external in this sense. So we fall in love with the wrong person, fly into impotent rage over events that are beyond our control, and indulge ourselves in habits that can only hasten our own destruction. Our very own actions, just because they come from us, are not always explained through our essence, or that which accounts for our persistence in being. Which is to say, we often don’t know what we really want at all or who we really are. And when that happens, we are not free.

Philip Livingston, too, alludes to the virtuous atheist in his magazine from the 1750s: “It is an Opinion too generally received, that Man is led into all the Crimes and Extravagancies he commits, thro’ Unbelief. And no Wonder this Doctrine, false as it is, should be so vigorously inculcated by Men whose Interest consists in a Depression of rational Faculties.”174

Spinoza tells us that we do not desire or detest things because we judge them to be good or evil; we judge them good or evil because we desire or detest them.

The confidence in a spiritual cure to these very material anxieties really rested on two very deep assumptions. The first was a kind of belief in belief: that only a shared act of faith, or a passion that stirs every heart together, can make us whole. The other assumption, usually left unstated, was the one that human beings invariably make about the groups to which they so anxiously wish to belong: that it is only worth being a member of a group if someone else isn’t included. The strikingly cruel doctrines of election and predestination could be hedged and trimmed yet never quite extirpated from the religion of the revivals because they remained rooted in the very deep intuition that there is no “us” without a “them.

The history of ideas matters because ideas make actors out of human beings, and they make actors out of us precisely insofar as they occupy this open, uncontrollable, and inherently unlimited universe of explanations, not the stultifying dogma of a supposed conceptual scheme, not the inert, always epiphenomenal utterances we call doctrines or first principles.

The impious man is not he who denies the gods of the many,” Epicurus writes to a friend, “but he who attaches to the gods the beliefs of the many about them.”126 Lord Bacon repeats the message for the benefit of readers like Jefferson: “There is no profanity in refusing to believe in the gods of the vulgar: the profanity is in believing of the gods what the vulgar believe.

The opposite of the Empire of Reason is in reality the Empire of Faith. Hobbes calls it “the Kingdom of the Fairies”; in more modern terms, we could say that the opposite of democracy is theocracy.208

The Virginia Statue for Religious Freedom ranked for Jefferson as one of the three achievements worthy of gracing his tombstone (the Declaration of Independence and the University of Virginia were the other two).

Things are for a person “to enjoy,” says Locke. “As much as anyone can make use of to any advantage of life before it spoils; so much he may by his labour fix a Property in. Whatever is beyond this, is more than his share, and belongs to others.”136

What the United States is may be impossible to establish with any great precision; what it is supposed to be is less disputable. It is the republic dedicated to the proposition that all people are created equal.

When the hero of Ticonderoga returned from thirty-two very hard months as America’s first celebrity prisoner of war, George Washington himself was there to welcome him back with honors. “His fortitude and firmness seemed to have placed him out of the reach of misfortune. There is an original something about him that commands admiration, and his long captivity and sufferings have only served to increase, if possible, his enthusiastic Zeal,” Washington told the Continental Congress.6

When the revolutionaries of the early modern world peered through their telescopes into the night sky, the first thing they saw was injustice on earth.

When the safety of a state depends on any man’s good faith, and its affairs cannot be administered properly unless its rulers choose to act from good faith, it will be very unstable,” Spinoza notes.

With forty thousand or so inhabitants, Philadelphia was the largest metropolis in British America, and it offered just about everything money could buy. Yet half the population owned no taxable property, and the bottom 60 percent could claim a mere 8 percent of the total wealth.54 The entire colony was in a very real sense the private property of an aristocratic family in England—the well-fed descendants of William Penn—and it was divided internally between an extremely wealthy oligarchy, concentrated in Philadelphia and the southeast, and a vast population of farmers, laborers, slaves, and immigrant hordes, many of them German, who read newspapers in their own language and washed down their pickled cabbage with the bitter ale of resentment.