Thursday, July 18, 2013

Christianity, The Enlightenment, The American Revolution And The French Revolution

Person A asserted that the leading minds of the Enlightenment were "almost all devout believers," and that the Enlightenment was an attempt to better understand God by using science to better understand His creation. I responded, and I quote:

"Descartes, Spinoza, Hobbes, Hume, Voltaire -- all devout believers? Hm. Another view is that they were all atheists, and came as close as they dared to openly saying so, often getting themselves into serious trouble just for suggesting it between the lines ("I advance masked," Descartes said. Will we ever know just exactly what he meant by that?), bravely preparing the ground so that later atheists could express themselves openly without getting tortured and burned alive for it."

(Of course, other leading minds of the period, such as Pascal, Leibniz and Newton, were in fact devout believers. And Berkeley was either a Christian or fooled some people into believing that he was. He was an Anglican-Irish Bishop, after all. I don't see anything in his philosophical speculations about consciousness and perception which is incompatible with atheism, but perhaps that's just me. The point is that the Enlightenment as a whole cannot be categorized as either pro- or anti-religion or pro- or anti-Christian, things simply weren't that clear-cut.)

At this point person B jumped in and said that "the Atheistic/Humanist Enlightenment French Revolution" resulted in "Robespierreian" slaughter, whilst Christian Enlightenment brought forth "Free America." And he greatly startled me by asserting that "Franklin & other Founders (who deeply understood implications of various philosophic thoughts) warned the American Revolution inspired French philosophers not to cut Christianity out of their model, that otherwise the coming French Revolution would fail." I'm writing this blog post instead of responding to B. Although I feel that perhaps I should respond to B. The Stoic side of me says I should, that it is my often-unpleasant duty to try to educate dullards, that that is what I can, and should, contribute to society. Of course, the Epicurean part of me not only avoids morons but strongly urges people I like to do the same. I'm here being Epicurean and avoiding getting all dirty by wrestling a pig.

So, "Free America." My immediate thought was that African and Native Americans might not think of America as particularly free. Many from both groups fought with the British against the rebels in the American Revolution. England and France and many other countries emancipated slaves long before the US did. "Free." Unions have faired much better in most of Europe than in the US. I have a feeling that B believes the "right to work" actually amounts to more freedom for workers, and that unions, with their much higher wages, health insurance, protection from mistreatment and unwarranted dismissal, somehow oppress workers.

Be that as it may, did Franklin warn French philosophers not to divorce themselves from Christianity, or the French Revolution would fail? I'm having trouble substantiating this. For one thing, to what extent did Franklin foresee the French Revolution? He died in 1790 when it was barely underway. He supported the movement to give full legal status to French citizens who weren't Catholic which finally came to success when Louis XVI signed the Edict of Versailles in 1787. Was this advocacy deism/stealth atheism, or everyday Protestant partisanship? Franklin's views on religion aren't at all clear -- not to me, at least. At times he seems like a tiresome pious old schoolmarm, lecturing the American Revolutionaries for not praying enough as a group, and at times he seems like a deist neocon in that he advocates traditional Christianity for "the masses" but not for clever people (such as himself of course) who see through it all. I suppose it's possible that he gave that sort of neocon-type advice to this or that French philosopher between bouts of chess and lechery. (Can you tell I'm not as impressed by Franklin as many others have been? Good.)

So, one, I can't find evidence that Franklin really did advise anyone who was planning the French Revolution to keep Christianity in it, and two, more importantly, I don't particularly care if he did. Many American atheists seem to have the unfortunate habit of treating the public and private utterances of the Founding Fathers, Tom Paine and Mark Twain as if they were Holy Scripture, quoting them as if the quotes were sufficient to settle disputes of all kinds. I don't.

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