Monday, June 11, 2018

Nature's God: The Lucretian, Spinozist, and Darwinian Deity of the Declaration of Independence

It is often claimed that a Darwinian science of human evolution denies the political theory of natural rights in the Declaration of Independence by denying the Declaration's appeal to God as the Creator who has endowed human beings with unalienable rights.  Darwin seemed to clearly deny this when he wrote: "Man in his arrogance thinks himself a great work, worthy of the interposition of a deity, more humble, and I believe true, to consider him created from animals" (1987, 300).  If human beings have been "created from animals," it might seem that they have not been specially created by God in His image and thus endowed with that moral dignity that sets them apart from other animals.

For this reason, William Jennings Bryan (1922, 1924) warned that Darwinian evolution was an assault on the American political theology of the Declaration, which was one of his reasons for joining the prosecution in the famous Scopes trial in 1925, where John Scopes, a public school teacher, was charged with teaching that human beings evolved from a lower animals, in violation of a Tennessee law prohibiting such teaching.

As an alternative to teaching Darwinian evolution, Bryan and his followers have argued for teaching "creation science" or "intelligent design theory."  Proponents of intelligent design have been motivated by their belief that Darwinian evolution promotes a culturally degrading materialism that denies the creationist theology that is foundational not only for American life but for Western civilization in general.  The Discovery Institute, the leading organization promoting intelligent design theory, made this point clear in 1998 in the founding document for its "Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture," which has a reproduction of Michelangelo's "Creation of Adam" painting on its cover, and which begins:
"The proposition that human beings are created in the image of God is one of the bedrock principles on which Western civilization was built.  Its influence can be detected in most, if not all, of the West's greatest achievements, including representative democracy, human rights, free enterprise, and progress in the arts and sciences."
Thus, the Darwinian denial of the creationist theology of the Declaration of Independence can be seen as a general denial of the whole idea of human rights.  Theorists of human rights like Michael Perry (1998, 2007) have contended that international norms of human rights must be founded on the principle of the sacredness of human life as created in God's image (the subject of a previous post).

Against my argument for "Darwinian liberalism," Adam Seagrave (2011) and many others (Dilley et al. 2013), including the Straussians, have insisted that the Lockean liberal conception of natural rights depends on Locke's creationist anthropology, which is contrary to Darwin's evolutionary science (the subject of posts here and here).

Similarly, Carl Becker in his classic study in 1922 of the Declaration of Independence concluded that modern Darwinian science had refuted the Declaration's recourse to "God or the Transcendent Idea." After all, Becker explained, Darwin had shown how all forms of life could be explained as the result of purely natural material causes:
"When so much the greater part of the universe showed itself amenable to the reign of a purely material natural law, it was difficult to suppose that man (a creature in many respects astonishingly like the higher forms of apes) could have been permitted to live under a special dispensation.  it was much simpler to assume one origin for all life and one law for all growth; simpler to assume that man was only the most highly organized of the creatures (the missing link would doubtless shortly be found), and to think of his history accordingly, as only a more subtly negotiated struggle for existence and survival" (Becker 1941, 274-75).
This dispute over whether Darwinism contradicts the theology of the Declaration depends on how one identifies the God of the Declaration. If one interprets the Declaration's deity as a transcendent creative agent working against the laws of nature in  miraculously endowing human beings with a supernatural soul, that would contradict the Darwinian account of natural human evolution.  But if one interprets the Declaration's deity as an immanent creative power working through the laws of nature for the emergent evolution of human beings, that would be compatible with Darwinian science.  In this case, we could see the appeal in the first sentence of the Declaration to "the laws of Nature and of Nature's God" as implying that God and Nature are two ways of talking about the same thing.  Nature's God is the God of the deists, the God of Spinoza, a way of talking about God long after the death of God.

One of the first of America's revolutionaries to declare his belief in "Nature's God" was Thomas Young.  In 1770, three years before he would become the instigator of the Boston Tea Party, Young responded to a sermon by the revivalist George Whitefield denouncing American Deists as Satanic atheists.  In the Boston Evening Post (August 27, 1770), Young proudly professed his deist faith in the God who could be known by reasoning about nature rather than from biblical revelation: "That the religion of Nature, more properly stiled the Religion of Nature's God, in latin call'd Deus, hence Deism, is truth, I now boldly defy thee to contest."

To better understand this "Religion of Nature's God," Young recommended "[Alexander] Pope's little Essay on Man, confessedly deduced from the inspiration of Lord Bolingbroke, and perhaps every sentence adopted by me."  Indeed, the first appearance of the term "Nature's God" in English was in Pope's Essay on Man, a philosophical poem published in 1734, where in explaining how "Virtue alone is Happiness below," he observes:
"Slave to no sect, who takes no private road,
"But looks thro' Nature, up to Nature's God" (4.331-32)
Echoing the monistic naturalism of Epicurus, Lucretius, and Spinoza, Pope speaks of Nature and God interchangeably, in denying sectarian religion in favor of a natural religion in which "true piety," as Lucretius declared, is not to bow before the gods, but to contemplate nature's wondrous order (On the Nature of Things, 5.1197-1203).

Pope's Essay on Man also shows the first published use of the phrase "science of Human Nature" (Pope 2016, lv, 4).

Pope's book was dedicated to Henry St. John, Viscount Bolingbroke (1678-1751), who became notorious for his posthumously published Philosophical Works that attacked Christianity and promoted an Epicurean and Spinozist atheism or natural religion.  "The law of nature is the law of God," he explained, and therefore the laws of the Bible that contradict nature cannot truly be God's laws.  As a young man, Thomas Jefferson copied this and many other passages from Bolingbroke into his Literary Commonplace Book (sec. 36).

In his private correspondence, Jefferson affirmed his Epicurean materialism: "I too am an Epicurean" (letter to William Short, October 31, 1819).  In his correspondence with John Adams, he rejected the "spiritualism" of traditional Christianity and defended a monistic conception of human nature in which mind is an activity of the physical brain.  (I have written about that here.)  He thought that Jesus was originally a great teacher of natural morality, but then his moral teaching was corrupted by a tradition of Christian miracle-working spiritualism.  He edited his own personal version of the New Testament in which he cut out all of the stories of miracles and of the divinity of Jesus.

Although Jefferson kept all of this private during his lifetime, his published writing--and particularly his Notes on the State of Virginia (written in 1781 and published in 1787)--provided enough evidence for him to be generally identified as an "infidel."  In the presidential election of 1800, ministers published sermons warning Christians not to vote for this "open infidel."  John Mitchell Mason (1991 [originally 1800]) quoted one of the most infamous passages in the Notes on Virginia: "The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others.  But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty Gods or no God.  It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg."  Mason identified this as a clear statement of infidelity or atheism, because it affirmed that a society could be founded in atheism, and that religion was not necessary for social order.

Remarkably, Mason said that many Christians in 1800 were saying that "there is no prospect of obtaining a real Christian, and we had better choose an infidel than a hypocrite" (1991, 1468).  His reply was to argue that it was better to vote for hypocrites like George Washington and John Adams--who hide their infidelity behind their professions of religion--than to vote for an open infidel like Jefferson, because at least hypocrites show public respect for religion.  The fact that the Constitution of the United States never mentions God makes it even more imperative, Mason observes, for Christians to elect either Christians or hypocrites rather than open infidels, if there is to be any chance of slowing America's decline into atheism.

But even if Jefferson was infected with the Epicurean infidelity of Lucretius, Spinoza, Bolingbroke, and Pope, one might assume that the political theology of the Declaration of Independence echoes the Christian creationism of John Locke.  But many of Locke's Christian critics--including Bishop Stillingfleet, Leibniz, and William Carroll--accused Locke of hiding his Epicurean and Spinozist infidelity behind his pretensions of orthodox Christianity.  Carroll argued that Locke had advanced a "double View, double Design, intended to fool the pious while promoting Spinozism."  After all, a careful reading of Locke shows his slippery language--sliding between "the laws of God," "the laws of Nature," or "the laws of God and Nature," and moving from "God has designed" to "Nature has designed"--so that his deity looks like Spinoza's: "God or Nature" (see The Second Treatise of Government, secs. 1, 4, 60, 66, 142, 195; Essay Concerning Human Understanding, 2.9.12, 2.10.3).  (For a meticulous account of how Epicurean naturalism was transmitted through Lucretius, Spinoza, and Locke to the American founders, see Matthew Stewart's book Nature's God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic.)

How one interprets the theology of the Declaration of Independence is connected with one's interpretation of its Lockean morality of natural rights.  A transcendent conception of the Declaration's deity will support a transcendent conception of its morality, so that its Lockean morality will depend upon the supernatural authority of God's commands as revealed in the Bible.  Consequently, infidelity or atheism will deny that morality.  By contrast, an immanent conception of the Declaration's deity will support an immanent conception if its morality, so that its Lockean morality will depend upon human reason's grasp of a natural moral law known by human experience without any need for supernatural revelation.

The Declaration is open to both interpretations.  The openness to a transcendent deity was enhanced by the changes made to Jefferson's first draft.  In that first draft, "Nature's God" was Jefferson's only reference to a deity.  Later, other members of the Congress added three more references to deity: "they are endowed by their Creator" in the second sentence; "appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intensions" in the penultimate sentence; and "with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence" in the last sentence.  God as Creator, as Supreme Judge, and as Providential Caregiver does suggest a divine agency above or beyond the natural world that might intervene miraculously in the natural world against natural law to serve His purposes, and thus enforcing a transcendent morality.  (On the drafting of the Declaration, see Becker's book.)

So, for example, as I indicated in my previous posts, some American charismatic evangelicals can appeal to "the protection of divine Providence" in their belief that God intervened in the presidential election of 2016 to give Donald Trump a miraculous victory in response to prayers from Christians asking for His aid.

But if one interprets "Nature's God" as the immanent creative power of nature itself, one could affirm a natural Lockean morality rooted in human nature and reason.  That was Jefferson's position in arguing for a natural moral sense that did not necessarily depend on believing in a transcendent God of the Bible who enforced morality with supernatural rewards and punishments.  Darwin agreed with this, and it has been reinforced by recent developments in the evolutionary psychology of morality.

When Jefferson and Adams resumed their correspondence in 1812, after it had broken off during their period of being political opponents, much of what they wrote over the next 15 years was about their hope that Nature's God of the scientific Enlightenment would finally prevail over the priestly superstition enforcing tyranny over the human mind.  In his letter of September 14, 1813, Adams wrote to Jefferson saying that he would be happy to hear that the British Parliament had passed a bill to repeal the provisions of the Toleration Act of 1689 that made it illegal to deny the Christian doctrine of the Trinity; and he declared:
"The human Understanding is a revelation from its Maker which can never be disputed or doubted.  There can be no Scepticism, Pyrrhonism or Incredulity or Infidelity here.  No Prophecies, no Miracles are necessary to prove this celestial communication.  This revelation has made it certain that  two and one make three; and that one is not three; nor can three be one.  We can never be so certain of any Prophecy, or the fulfillment of any Prophecy; or of any miracle, or the design of any miracle as We are, from the revelation of nature i.e. nature's God that two and two are equal to four.  Miracles or Prophecies might fright Us out of our Wits; might scare us to death; might induce Us to lie; to say that We believe that 2 and 2 make 5. But We should not believe it. We should know the contrary" (Cappon, 1987, p. 373).
Clearly then, Nature's God is not three (Father, Son, Holy Spirit), but one with Nature itself; and Nature's God is known not by faith in miracles but by human understanding of the natural order of things.

Some of these points are elaborated in posts hereherehere, and here.


Becker, Carl. 1942. The Declaration of Independence: A Study in the History of  Political Ideas. New York: Random House.

Bryan, William Jennings. 1922. In His Image. New York: Fleming H. Revell.

Bryan, William Jennings. 1924. Seven Questions in Dispute. New York: Fleming H. Revell.

Cappon, Lester J., ed. 1987. The Adams-Jefferson Letters. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Darwin, Charles. 1987. Charles Darwin's Notebooks, 1836-1844. Ed. Paul H. Barrett et al. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Dilley, Stephen, ed. 2013. Darwinian Evolution and Classical Liberalism: Theories in Tension. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.

Jefferson, Thomas. 1989. Jefferson's Literary Commonplace Book. Ed. Douglas L. Wilson. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Mason, John Mitchell. 1991 (orig. 1800). "The Voice of Warning to Christians." In Political Sermons of the American Founding Era, 1447-1476. Ed. Ellis Sandoz. Indianapolis: Liberty Press.

Perry, Michael. 1998. The Idea of Human Rights. New York: Oxford University Press.

Perry, Michael. 2007. Toward a Theory of Human Rights. New York: Oxford University Press.

Pope, Alexander. 2016. An Essay on Man. Edited and with an Introduction by Tom Jones. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Seagrave. S. Adam. 2011. "Darwin and the Declaration." Politics and the Life Sciences 30: 2-16.

Stewart, Matthew. 2014. Nature's God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic. New York: Norton.


Anonymous said...

" But if one interprets "Nature's God" as the immanent creative power of nature itself, one could affirm a natural Lockean morality rooted in human nature and reason."

The problem with this position, is that,from a Darwinian perspective, since human "nature" isn't fixed and unchanging,
neither is a morality based on it.
Moral principles are, and have been, considered to be immutable, eternal, and universally applicable.
However, assuming the truth of Evolutionary Naturalism,this cannot be.

Larry Arnhart said...

I have responded to your point in my post for January 10, 2011.

Human nature is enduring but not eternal and invariant. The eternal invariance of human nature is very implausible. Do you really want to deny the fact of individual variability?

An enduring human nature is enough to support an enduring human morality.

Larry Arnhart said...

Also pertinent is the post for January 17, 2009.
You can explain to me why my responses are not persuasive.

Anonymous said...

I don't see how you avoid moral relativism basing a morality on an enduring but changing human nature.
Moral Relativism might be true,of course. Just because a conclusion might be unpleasant doesn't mean it's false.
However,while morality might be relative, facts about human behavior aren't.
Any objective evaluation of human behavior would have to consider it from an ethological point of view, not ethical.
Ethical behavior would have to be evaluated for its Darwinian fitness value, not in terms of "good,bad" .
No comparison between ways of life, political views, etc. on an ethical basis would be valid.
We could evaluate them only on a "fitness" basis.
Such an evaluation could lead to a very different conclusion about which behaviors to engage in as an individual and as a society.

Larry Arnhart said...

The good is the desirable, and thus the good is relative to the objective facts of what is desirable for human beings. Moral judgments are ultimately based on hypothetical imperatives.

Thus, the hypothetical imperative for the Declaration of Independence would be: given what we know about human nature and the circumstances of human action, if we want to pursue human happiness, then we need governments to secure our natural rights, and we need to rebel against governments that violate our natural rights. To decide whether the American revolutionaries were right, we must study human nature, human history, and individual judgment. Were they right about the human nature of rights? Were they right about the historical circumstances of British rule over them? Did Jefferson and the others exercise good judgment?

What's your alternative? Are you proposing a Kantian morality of eternal categorical imperatives that would hold for all rational beings in the universe? If so, how exactly would that apply here to decide whether the American revolutionaries were correct or not?

Larry Arnhart said...

In my post for January 9, 2010, I defended Darwin against Frances Cobbe's Kantian critique. Would you agree with her that morality is eternally the same for all animals, and so morality is not relative to the species?