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Deism and the Rationalist Mind


The Age of Reason, or the Enlightenment, began in Europe with the rationalist philosophers and scientists of the seventeenth century. Rationalism is the belief that we can arrive at truth by using our reason rather than by relying on the authority of the past, on religious faith, or on intuition.

The emergence of modern science and the scientific method had much to do with this new emphasis on reason and free inquiry. Discoveries made by physical scientists and mathematicians were changing the ways people viewed the universe. Scientific investigation seemed to show that the universe was organized according to certain unchanging laws, and that people could discover those laws through the use of their reason.

The Puritans saw God as actively and mysteriously involved in the workings of the universe; the rationalists saw God differently. Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727), who discovered the laws of gravity, compared God to a clockmaker who, having created the perfect mechanism of this universe, then left His creation to run on its own.

In the rationalist view, all human beings were born with an innate ethical sense, and all had the ability to regulate and improve their own lives.

The theoretical background for the Age of Reason, then, took shape in Europe in the work of such figures as Descartes, Newton, and John Locke. In America, however, as the story of Cotton Mather and the smallpox epidemic illustrates, a home-grown practicality already existed. This American pragmatism was characterized by an interest in the public welfare and a willingness to experiment, to try things out, no matter what the authorities might say.

The Age of Reason in America, then, combined common sense with ideas from European thinkers. From this mixture of ideas and outlooks came much of the triumph of eighteenth-century American life: the inventive and curious minds of Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson; the drive to improve living conditions, forms of government, and individual minds; and the thinking behind the important statement "We hold these truths to be self- evident."

Deism and the Rationalist Mind

Like the Puritan, the rationalist also discovered God through the medium of the natural world, but in a different way.

It seemed unlikely to rationalist thinkers that God would choose to reveal Himself only at particular times to particular people. It seemed much more reasonable to believe that God had made it possible for all people at all times to discover natural laws through their God-given faculty of reason. The title of a pamphlet attributed to Ethan Alien (1738-1789) gives a capsule summary of this point of view: Reason the Only Oracle of Man. (An oracle is someone through whom God speaks to the people.)

This outlook, called deism, was shared by many eighteenth century thinkers, including Franklin, Jefferson, Thomas Paine, and other founders of the American nation. American deists came from different religious backgrounds. But the deists avoided supporting specific religious sects. They sought, instead, the principles that united all religions.

Deists believed that the universe was orderly and good. In contrast to the Puritans, deists stressed humanity's inherent goodness. They believed in the perfectibility of every individual through the use of reason. God's objective, in the deist view, was the happiness of His creatures. Therefore, the best form of worship was to do good for others. There already existed in America an impulse to improve people's lives, as Cotton Mather's struggle to inoculate the citizens of Boston illustrates. But deism elevated this impulse to one of the nation's highest goals.

Deistic ideas were not shared by everyone in the Age of Reason. As rationalism spread in the 1730's and 1740's, a strongly emotional brand of religion, known as the Great Awakening, was flourishing. Nevertheless, the rationalist point of view was shared, in varying degrees, by the Founding Fathers, it provided the basis for the principles of the American Revolution and for the system of government. The struggle for independence was justified largely by appeals to rationalist principles.

Thomas Paine's Common Sense was such an appeal. Published in January of 1776, it was the most influential of many Revolutionary pamphlets and was read by virtually every American within months of its appearance. The very phrase common sense had come to mean the reasoning ability that all people share. Paine argued that Americans should seek independence in order to restore the natural rights that were evident to their reason but that had to be taken away by the British. Jefferson's Declaration of Independence based it arguments on the same rationalist assumptions about the relations between people, God, and the natural law.

Date: 2016-03-03; view: 1018

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