As the religious wars injured religious belief in France, so the Civil War in England shared in generating theological doubts. Memories of the Puritan regime made irreligion popular among the triumphant royalists, and made atheism ribald and boisterous at the Restoration court. The first Earl of Shaftesbury, the second Duke of Buckingham, and the second Earl of Rochester were suspected of atheism; so, later, were Halifax and Bolingbroke.

The extension of geographical, historical, and scientific knowledge widened the skeptical current. Every day some traveler or chronicler told of great nations whose religion and morals were shockingly different from the Christian, but usually as virtuous, and seldom as homicidal. The mechanical view of the world encouraged by the pious Descartes and the apocalyptic Newton seemed to be pushing Providence out of sight; the discovery of law in nature was making miracles indigestible; the slow triumph of Copernicus and the dramatic prosecution of Galileo contributed to the erosion of belief. The brave attempt of many Christian theologians to demonstrate the creed by reason weakened the creed; no one, said Anthony Collins, doubted the existence of God until the Boyle lecturers undertook to prove it. 73

The refutations of atheism attested its spread. Sir William Temple wrote (1672) “of those who would pass for wits . . . by saying things which, David tells us, the fool hath said in his heart.” 74 In the same year Sir Charles Wolseley remarked that “irreligion in its practice hath been the companion of every age, but its open and public defense seems to be peculiar to this.” 75 According to Archdeacon Samuel Parker (1681),

. . . the ignorant and unlearned among ourselves are become the greatest pretenders to skepticism and infidelity. . . . Atheism and irreligion are at length become as common as vice and debauchery. . . . Plebeians and mechanics have philosophized themselves into principles of impiety, and read their lectures of atheism in the streets and highways. And they are able to demonstrate out of The Leviathan that there is no God. 76

Among the educated classes doubt sought a compromise in Unitarianism, “natural religion,” and deism. The Unitarians questioned the equality of Christ with the Father, but they usually accepted the divine authority of the Bible. The advocates of natural religion preferred a faith independent of Scripture and limited to beliefs which they thought universal—in God and immortality. The deists, who made their chief stir in England, required only a belief in God, whom they sometimes depersonalized into a synonym for Nature, or the Prime Pusher of the Cartesian or Newtonian world machine. The word deist first came into prominence in 1677, through Archdeacon Edward Stillingfleet’s Letter to a Deist, but the deistic literature had begun with Lord Herbert of Cherbury’s De Veritate in 1624.

Lord Herbert’s disciple, Charles Blount, carried on with Anima Mundi (1679). All organized religion, ran the argument, was the creation of impostors seeking political power or material gain; heaven and hell were among their clever inventions to control and milk the populace. The soul dies with the body. Men and beasts are so alike that “some authors are of opinion that man is nothing but an ape cultivated.” In Great Is Diana of the Ephesians, or The Origin of Idolatry (1680), Blount made priests themselves the tools of privileged classes that fattened on the patient labor and credulity of the people. With impish subtlety he translated Philostratus’ Life of Apollonius of Tyana, indicated the similarities between the miracles ascribed to the pagan wonder-worker and those attributed to Christians, and gently suggested their equal incredibility. In A Summary Account of the Deists’ Religion (1686) Blount proposed a religion free from all cult and ritual, and consisting only of the worship of God by a moral life. In The Oracles of Reason (1693) he pointed out that the Christian theology was at first based upon the erroneous expectation of an early end to the world. He ridiculed the Biblical stories of Creation, of Eve’s birth from Adam’s rib, of original sin, of the stopping of the sun by Joshua, as childish absurdities, and suggested that “to believe our modern earth (a blind and sordid particle of the universe, inferior to each of the fixed stars as well in bulk as in dignity) to be the heart, the most noble and vital part, of so vast a body, is irrational and repugnant to the nature of things.” An anonymous work uncertainly ascribed to Blount, Miracles No Violations of the Laws of Nature (1683), tried to explain many miracle stories as honest misconceptions, by simple minds, of natural causes and events. The Bible, it added, was written to “excite pious affections,” not to teach physics, and it should be interpreted accordingly. “Whatever is against Nature is against Reason, and whatever is against Reason is absurd, and should be rejected.” 77 Blount himself did not worship reason to the end, if we may believe the report that he killed himself (1693) because English law would not let him marry his deceased wife’s sister.

John Toland continued the campaign. Born in Ireland, he was brought up as a Roman Catholic, but was converted to Protestantism in his youth. He studied at Glasgow, Leiden, and Oxford. At twenty-six he issued anonymously Christianity Not Mysterious(1696), which he described as “a treatise showing that there is nothing in the Gospel contrary to reason, nor above it.” Accepting Locke’s recent Essay concerning Human Understanding as having proved the sense origin of all knowledge, he drew from it a thoroughgoing rationalism:

We hold that Reason is the only foundation of all our certitude, and that nothing revealed . . . is more exempted from its disquisitions than the ordinary phenomena of Nature. . . . To believe the divinity of Scripture, or the sense of any passage thereof, without rational proof and an evident consistency, is a blamable credulity . . . ordinarily grounded upon an ignorant and willful disposition, but more generally maintained out of a gainful prospect. 78

This was a declaration of war, but as Toland proceeded he unveiled an olive branch by arguing that the basic doctrines of Christianity, excepting transubstantiation, are quite reasonable. Nevertheless his challenge was not ignored. The grand juries of Middlesex and Dublin joined hands across the Irish Sea to condemn the book; it was officially burned before the doors of the Irish Parliament, and Toland was sentenced to jail. He escaped to England, but, unable to secure employment there, he migrated to the Continent. For a time he found welcome with Electress Sophia of Hanover and her daughter Sophia Charlotte, Queen of Prussia.

To the latter he addressed Letters to Serena (1704). One of these tried to trace the origin and growth of the belief in immortality; this was among the first attempts at a natural history of supernatural beliefs. Another letter disputed the view that matter is by itself inert and motionless; motion, said Toland, is inherent in matter, and no body is in absolute rest. All objective phenomena are the motions of matter, including the actions of animals, and this might be true of man as well. 79 Here, however, Toland checked himself; such thoughts should not be publicly expressed, for the uneducated multitude must be left in undisturbed orthodoxy as a means of moral and social control. Freethinking should be the duty, and the exclusive privilege, of the educated minority. Among these there should be no censorship; “let all men freely speak what they think, without being ever branded or punished but for wicked practices.” 80 The terms freethinker and pantheist were apparently coined by Toland. 81

His essay Nazarenus (1718) suggested that Christ had not intended to separate his followers from Judaism, and that the Jewish Christians, who continued to observe the Mosaic Law, represented “the true original plan of Christianity.” A pamphlet, Pantheisticus, expounded the creed and ritual of an imaginary secret society; perhaps Toland was a member of the “Mother Grand Lodge” of Freemasonry which was established in London in 1717. The society described by Toland rejected all supernatural revelations, proposed a new religion agreeing with philosophy, identified God with the universe, and replaced the saints of the Christian calendar with the heroes of liberty and thought. The society allowed its members to conform to the popular worship so long as, through their political influence, they could render fanaticism harmless. 82

After a fitful and varied career Toland retired to a life of poverty in England, kept from starvation by Lord Molesworth and the philosopher Shaftesbury. He bore up stoutly under the storm of refutations (fifty-four in sixty years) that fell upon his books. He claimed that philosophy had granted him “perfect tranquillity,” and had freed him from “the terrors of death.” 83 Attacked by an incurable disease at the age of fifty-two (1722), he composed his own proud epitaph:

Here lies John Toland, who was born . . . near Londonderry. . . . He cultivated the various literatures, and was acquainted with more than ten languages. The Champion of Truth, the Defender of Liberty, he bound himself to no man, on no man did he fawn. Neither threats nor misfortunes deterred him from his appointed course, which he pursued to the very end, subordinating his own interest to the pursuit of the Good. His soul is united with the Heavenly Father, from whom he first proceeded. Beyond all doubt he will live again unto all eternity, yet never will there be another Toland. . . . For the rest consult his writings. 84

Anthony Collins took up the deist cause with more skill and modesty. He had the advantages of money, a house in the country, a house in the town; he could not be refuted by starvation. He was a man of fine manners and irreproachable character. Locke, who knew him well, wrote to him: “To love truth for truth’s sake is the principal part of human perfection in this world, and the seed-plot of all other virtues; and, if I mistake not, you have as much of it as ever I met with in anybody.” 85 Collins’ Discourse ofFreethinking (1713) was the ablest exposition that deism received in this age.

He defined freethinking as “the use of the understanding in endeavoring to find out the meaning of any proposition whatsoever, in considering the nature of the evidence for or against it, and in judging of it according to the seeming force or weakness of the evidence. . . . There is no other way to discover the truth.” 86 The diversity of creeds, and the contradictory interpretations of Biblical passages, compel us to accept the judgment of reason; to what other court can we turn, unless it be to the arbitrament of force? How, except by evidence and reasoning, can we decide which books of the Bible are to be accepted as authentic, and which should be set aside as apocryphal? Collins quotes a divine as estimating at thirty thousand the number of different readings proposed by scholars for the text of the New Testament alone; and he refers to Richard Simon’s textual criticism of the Scriptures. 87

He tries to answer the objections that cautious men advanced against free thought: that most people have not the capacity to think both freely and harmlessly about fundamental problems; that such freedom would lead to endless divisions of opinion and sects, and therefore to disorders in society; that freethinking may conduce to atheism in religion and libertinism in morals. He gives ancient Greece and modern Turkey .as examples of social order maintained despite freedom of opinion or diversity of faiths. He denies that freethinking makes for atheism; he quotes and supports Bacon’s aphorism about a little thought inclining us to atheism, and more thought turning us away from it; ignorance, he adds, with apparent sincerity, “is the foundation of atheism, and freethinking the cure for it.” 88 He lists freethinkers who were “the most virtuous people in all ages”: Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus, Plutarch, Varro, Cato Censor, Cato of Utica, Cicero, Seneca, Solomon, the Prophets, Origen, Erasmus, Montaigne, Bacon, Hobbes, Milton, Tillotson, Locke; here and in Toland we have a model for Comte’s calendar of positivist saints. And (Collins suggests) another list could be made of those foes of free thought who disgraced humanity with barbarous cruelties under the pretext of glorifying God.

So many replies rained down upon him from pulpits and universities that Collins thought discretion required travel. His stay in Holland may have left upon him some influence from Spinoza and Bayle. Returning to England, he raised another storm with anInquiry concerning Human Liberty (1715), which stated with clarity and force the case for determinism; Collins found himself a freethinker slave to an unfree will. Nine years later he set the theological air astir by a Discourse on the Grounds and Reason of the Christian Religion. He quoted the Apostles and Pascal as basing their demonstration of Christianity on Old Testament prophecies which the new dispensation had seemingly fulfilled, and he argued that these predictions had no reference to Christianity or Christ. Thirty-five theologians answered him in thirty-five tracts. The controversy was still alive when Voltaire reached England in 1726; he enjoyed it mischievously, and imported it into France, where it entered into the skeptical Enlightenment.

The deistic movement was continued in England by William Whiston, Matthew Tindal, Thomas Chubb, and Conyers Middleton, and passed down through Bolingbroke and the philosopher Shaftesbury to Gibbon and Hume. It became unpopular with the ruling classes when they suspected it of encouraging democratic ideas; but its immediate influence was felt in a temporary decline of religious belief. In 1711 an official report on the subject was drawn up for the Upper House of Convocation of the English clergy in the province of Canterbury. It described a wide spread of unbelief and profanity, denials of Biblical inspiration, rejection of miracles as fables, ridicule of the doctrine of the Trinity, doubts of immortality, and much decrying of priests as impostors. 89 By the beginning of the eighteenth century in England “religion had sunk to deism.” 90 It was in this crisis that some of the ablest minds in Britain rose vigorously to the defense of Christianity.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!