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Sun Jun 29, 2014, 08:03 AM

'Nature's God' explores 'heretical origins' of religion in U.S. [View all]


The book "Nature's God" focuses on Ethan Allen, left, and Thomas Young, two notable revolutionaries who were outspoken deists. In the book, deism is considered to be what philosophically drove the American Revolution. (MPI / Getty Images)

June 27, 2014

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.

Rooted in the philosophy of Epicurus, who saw happiness as the highest good, this tradition flowered in the 17th century to produce wide-ranging inquiries into the nature of God, humanity, religion and society that got Benedict de Spinoza labeled "the atheist Jew." Meanwhile, the more circumspect John Locke (careful to mask his iconoclasm with boilerplate declarations of conventional piety) ended up praised by historians as "the single greatest intellectual influence on America's revolutionaries."

Yet Spinoza the radical, no less than Locke the moderate, shaped an agnostic world view that shook America loose from Britain. Stewart pays particular attention to two fire-breathers Ethan Allen, surprise conqueror of Ft. Ticonderoga, and Thomas Young, instigator of the Boston Tea Party as the most outspoken proponents of a heterodox creed shared by (at minimum) Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and George Washington. Contemporaries called them deists when not calling them infidels or atheists, and Stewart devotes considerable care to explaining that Deism, the philosophical engine of the Revolution, is not the Christianity Lite some 21st century conservatives have proclaimed it.

"America's revolutionary deists," Stewart writes, "saw themselves as and they were participants in an international movement that drew on most of the same literary sources across the civilized world." His detailed explication of those sources ranges from Epicurus and his Roman popularizer, Lucretius, through early modern Italian freethinkers Giordano Bruno and Lucilio Vanini (both executed at the stake for their apostasy) to the diverse array of English and French intellectuals reacting to Spinoza and Locke.

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Reply 'Nature's God' explores 'heretical origins' of religion in U.S. [View all]
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