A review of Nature’s God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic, by Matthew Stewart

The author of Nature’s God: the Heretical Origins of the American Republic, Matthew Stewart, will be a newcomer to most students of the American Founding. Online sites identify him as an “American philosopher,” apparently on the strength of his having majored in philosophy as an undergraduate and graduate student. He worked for seven years as a management consultant, later writing a book about his experiences. He is the author of a volume on Descartes and Spinoza as well as of two other books.

Stewart is what John Locke, a major figure in his book, once called an “Unmasker.” He is exercised over what he describes as a “misinformed…shamelessly deceitful” effort of Christian historians and apologists, including in our own day spokesmen for the “Religious Right,” to depict the leaders of the American Revolution as “paragons of piety, even miniature deities,” thus disguising the truth that the founders were deists, who subscribed to a potent brand of the doctrine “that teaches that God is just another word for Nature”—hence the title of his book. The founders’ deism, Stewart elaborates, was “functionally indistinguishable from what we would now call ‘pantheism’; and pantheism is really just a pretty word for atheism.” Stewart argues that this “essentially atheistic and revolutionary aspect of deism” is “central to any credible explanation of the revolutionary dimension of the American Revolution.”

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Stewart contends that the founders wanted to “bestow upon America the blessings of popular deism,” “the radical and essentially atheistic philosophy on which the modern liberal state rests.” Through the efforts of “radical philosophers and their fellow travelers,” otherwise unidentified, whom Stewart regards as the true heirs of the founders, “America’s mainstream religion” has been transformed into “one form or another of popular deism, and popular deism is just atheism adapted to the limitations of the common understanding of things.” The United States, Stewart concludes, is a “society founded on the principles of atheism,” and Americans are “in practice mostly atheists now—and for that we should be grateful.”

Stewart’s conclusions may be idiosyncratic, but his methodology is not. American scholarship has had plenty of unmaskers. Early in the 20th century, for example, Charles Beard marshaled evidence purporting to show that, far from being disinterested patriots, the founders were a band of stockjobbers, moneylenders, and land speculators who wrote the Constitution to promote, not the general welfare, but their private fortunes. Claims that some of the founders rejected orthodox Christian dogma have circulated before; in 1830 a British-born writer charged that “all the nobler host of worthies, who secured this country’s independence…disbelieved the compound Jewish and Christian system, and looked upon its mysteries and miracles as upon nursery tales.” Stewart’s desire to spread the truth about Thomas Jefferson’s religion adds him to a crowd of earlier writers, some of whom like Edwin Gaustad have written full-scale religious biographies of the third president. Stewart is not the first to call attention to the existence of deism in the founding period. In 2003, Frank Lambert wrote that the “significance of…Deism for the birth of the American republic…can hardly be overstated.” As for finding traces of ancient Roman atheists such as Lucretius in the founding period, even in the Declaration of Independence itself, Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve (2011) beat Stewart to the punch. Finally, Stewart is not the first “philosopher” who has analyzed the American Revolution. In 1978 Morton White, a professor of philosophy at Harvard and now a professor emeritus at the Institute for Advanced Study, investigated the subject.

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Stewart’s book, then, has a number of things in common with other studies of the American Founding. There is one striking difference, however, one which I have never encountered in the literature on the founding: a relentless, contemptuous, brass-knuckled polemic against religion in general and Christianity in particular. Stewart plants his standard early in his book: “Reformed religion brought carnage to Britain and Germany in the seventeenth century and madness to America in the eighteenth because it was a…pathology, not a theory.” Then he proceeds to rain down blow after blow on religion: “[o]therworldly religion is not a cure for nihilism but a symptom of it”; a religious “conception of morality” is “a kind of hallucination”; the Enlightenment “overthrows” the “ethical delusion of the common religious consciousness”; “the fictitious, meddling deity of the religious imagination” is a scandal; “religion [is] self-deception”; and, paraphrasing Samuel Johnson, “[u]tility…is the last refuge of religion.” The Christian God is ridiculed as an “interstellar grease monkey”; as a character who “must tug on his beard before actually rustling up the world.” The Christian conception of immortality is derided as “a meaty affair. It involves flesh and bones shuffling out of graves and reassembling themselves under the ferocious gaze of their Maker.” This torrent of derision—and there is more of it in the book—seems to indicate that Stewart is at home among the “grateful” atheists he finds populating present-day America.

If Stewart is one of this nation’s grateful atheists, if he is writing on behalf of soulmates whom he describes at the end of his book as a “tiny minority” in American society, then he is following a familiar strategy of attempting to secure for members of a minority a place in American history by connecting them to and calling attention to their achievements during the American Revolution. The question for the reviewer, then, becomes one of deciding whether Stewart’s book should be considered as a brief on behalf of atheism, posing as scholarship, or a work which offers a valuable new perspective on the American Founding.

Stewart begins his book by introducing two unlikely figures, Vermont’s Revolutionary military hero, Ethan Allen, and Thomas Young, a peripatetic physician and anti-British agitator, both of whom, Stewart tells us, contemporaries called “infidels” and “atheists” but also “more accurately, but mostly to the same effect—‘deists.’” Stewart weaves mini-biographies of Allen and Young through the book, which in Allen’s case tediously revisits the problem of how Allen, an uneducated man, could have written the book Reason: the Only Oracle of Man, explicating the fine points of radical deistical philosophy; Stewart presents Young as a principled deist/atheist, but the proof of this proposition frequently rests on conclusions deduced from anonymous publications. Stewart could have made a stronger case for his arguments had he focused on Elihu Palmer and John Fitch, both well-known founding period deists, who left behind richer paper trails than either Allen or Young.

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After 80 pages with Allen and Young, Stewart reaches the main event, his effort, recapitulating much of the account in Greenblatt’s The Swerve, to show how the materialist theories of Epicurus, “the most famous atheist in history,” reached the American Founders and how “the revolutionary force” of the Epicurean ideas “persisted undiminished.” Stewart is intent on demonstrating that the founders’ deistic “philosophical radicalism” was the “foundation” of their “revolutionary political project.” His first stab at finding a proof for this thesis rests on the assertion that Epicurus and his disciples were evolutionists along Darwinian lines; so was Jefferson, we are told, because one of his college teachers knew Darwin’s grandfather. Stewart calls Jefferson a Darwinian on “political,” not “biological” grounds. The only way to make sense of this is to assume that Stewart means that in politics Jefferson was a “social Darwinian,” a fact unknown to Richard Hofstadter, author of the compendious Social Darwinism in American Thought (1992). Besides, Darwin was not born until 1809, the year Jefferson’s presidency ended.

Stewart’s next effort to link Epicurean atheism to the founders’ politics is a section on virtue which, he claimed, the founders, following the Epicureans, believed to consist in the pursuit of an individual’s “own advantage.” The stalwart republicans among the founders believed almost the opposite, that virtue was personal self-abnegation on the public’s behalf; in John Adams’s words, a “positive passion for the public good.” Another example, offered by Stewart, of the “tremendous political impact of the radical philosophy” is his assertion that Jefferson’s concept of liberty of conscience was “freedom from religion.” He does not explain how this statement squares with Jefferson’s regular attendance at church services in Congress during his tenure as president and, as if to give the lie to opponents who charged him with hypocrisy, his continued attendance, upon retirement, at services in the Albemarle County Court House and his financial contributions two years before his death to the building funds of three different denominations of Charlottesville Christians. Stewart credits Epicurus’s successors, specifically Thomas Hobbes, with making natural right the source of natural rights; what actually happened, according to Michel Villey and Leo Strauss, was that Hobbes nearly drove the concept of natural right from political philosophy. Finally, Stewart applauds Thomas Young for inserting in 1776 “checks and balances” into the new “atheistic constitution of Pennsylvania,” which, incidentally, required officeholders to swear to a belief “in one God” and to the “Divine Inspiration” of the Old and New Testament: Young’s checks and balances were considered useless by the leading founders, who espoused a “mixed and balanced” government in which an upper house checked both the lower house and the chief executive, a structural concept which originated with Polybius not the Epicureans.

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Stewart might regard these holes in his Epicurean thesis as a distraction from the principal purpose of his book: to sell his readers on a thesis even more novel than his excoriation of religion in revolutionary America, namely, that a “notorious” Dutch atheist, Benedict Spinoza (1632–1677) was the inspiration for the “popular deism” which the most influential of the American Founders embraced and which amounted to nothing less than “the radical and essentially atheistic philosophy” for which Spinoza is noted.

John Locke is the key to Stewart’s thesis. Even scholars who respect Locke refer to what John Dunn calls his “zest for obfuscation.” Stewart parlays this aspect of Locke’s character into a mindset which locates him, behind a façade as a defender of the Christian faith, as a disciple of Spinoza. Stewart repeatedly identifies Spinoza as Locke’s “secret mentor” or “continental mentor.” Together the two are said to have developed a “deeply atheistic proof of a God.” Stewart describes Locke as the conduit through which Spinoza’s ideas reached the American Founders. According to Stewart, Thomas Jefferson, an admirer of Locke, helped to spread Spinoza’s atheistic gospel in the new republic in the process of which he himself became “Spinozistic.” The result, Stewart concludes, was that “Spinoza is the principal architect of the radical political philosophy that achieves its ultimate expression in the American Republic, and Locke is its acceptable face.”

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How does Stewart go about proving this remarkable thesis? To show that Locke was an atheist, coached in the dark side by Spinoza, Stewart relies on an unpublished manuscript, “Apple and Worm,” sent to Stewart by an admirer in the Netherlands. There is a leaven of Gnosticism here as Stewart relies on secret wisdom conveyed by a secret text—a kind of Gospel of Thomas or a Second Treatise to the Great Seth. For scholars, such a secret document cannot, of course, have any credibility; they must rely on such evidence as Stewart publicly offers to prove a connection between Locke and Spinoza. Some of it is of the following variety: Locke lived in Amsterdam a few years after Spinoza’s death; or sentiments from Spinoza’s writings appear to agree with sentiments found at various places in Locke’s works, e.g., that the ancient Hebrews ascribed ordinary events to the intervention of God, that rebellion against tyrants was a natural right, and that the rule of law was necessary for the public good. Stewart then assumes that this limited commonality of ideas proves that Locke subscribed to all of Spinoza’s sentiments, including his religious ones.

Encountering this kind of specious reasoning in attempts by opponents to prove that he was a Socinian, Locke ridiculed it in his Second Vindication of the Reasonableness of Christianity (1697). “Just as good an Argument” against him, he wrote, would be that since “I believe Jesus to be a Prophet, and so do the Mahometans; therefore I am a Mahometan.” A recent example of where this kind of reasoning, used by Stewart, can lead is the conclusion of some of Jefferson’s contemporaries that, because he owned a copy of the Koran and appeared to agree with some material which it contained, he was a “secret Muslim.” An even more egregious example of where arguing from a commonality of ideas can take us is Jonathan Edwards, from his college days an admirer of and close student of Locke, Spinoza’s alleged devotee. Gerald McDermott, a biographer of Edwards, described how Locke “‘liberated’ the young Edwards from his subjugation to Protestant scholasticism.” McDermott goes on to show how Edwards used “Locke’s terminology” to describe the nature of ideas. Another scholar, the former Yale philosopher Miklos Veto asserted that “Locke’s major role” in Edwards’s theology was “the metaphysical reformation of several doctrines of Christian dogma.” But if Locke was merely parroting Spinoza’s idea, Edwards, whom Stewart flays as the leader of the “lunatic fringe” of Great Awakening evangelism, must have been, by Stewart’s illogic, an atheist.

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There is a rich literature offering a variety of interpretations of Locke and different assessments of his relation to the American Founding. Stewart’s book has not benefited from it. He appears to believe that every mainstream scholar is a fraud. His favorite expression is “the common view gets the actual history of ideas almost exactly backwards” or “the common view” about the Enlightenment “amounts to a falsification of the history of ideas.” Page after page contains explanations of the folly of the “common view” or the “common conception.” Here, again, we encounter a whiff of Gnosticism which, according to Tobias Churton, holds that the received view conceals the truth and that a text has an “outer sense” for “ordinary” people and an “inner sense whose dimensions of meaning may be endless.” This attitude seems to have contributed to Stewart’s creation of a parallel universe in which atheists hijacked the American Revolution and “the contradictory impulses” of American religion today “belatedly converged along the path that begins with Spinoza and Jefferson.”

One more comment needs to be made about Stewart’s book; the size of the sample he uses to argue that the founders were personally committed to “popular deism” and to spreading it throughout the land. Stewart focuses on founders who number no more than the fingers on the hand: on Jefferson, principally, then on Adams and Benjamin Franklin, and, more marginally, on James Madison and George Washington. The first three used at times a heterodox vocabulary but they shared it with friends who they knew would not betray their confidences. They occasionally reached out to trusted individuals beyond their inner circle but again with confidence in the discretion of their correspondents. In these safe precincts Jefferson confessed 18 months before his death that he was a Unitarian, something Adams had admitted to confidantes years earlier. Stewart’s subjects took every precaution to conceal their views from the public. They had no interest in attracting followers. As Edmund Burke said of earlier English freethinkers, Stewart’s tiny knot of founders “never acted in corps, or were known as a faction in the state, nor presumed to influence in that name or character, or for the purposes of such a faction, on any of our public concerns.” In attempting to make these founders apostles of popular deism, rooted in a “radical, crypto-atheist core philosophy,” Stewart has tried to make bricks without straw.

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In an afterword, Stewart assesses the results of the founders’ efforts, as he described them, to create a state built on popular deism. Undercutting the rationale for his book, he confesses that his deists failed abjectly, burdening their posterity with “the connected institution of slavery and supernatural religion” (italics mine). From 1800 to the Civil War, Americans had a surfeit of supernatural religion in the form of the Second Great Awakening, which washed over the nation in wave after wave of evangelistic fervor. By 1850 the Methodist Church had grown from one thousand members in 1770 to over a million. Other evangelical denominations grew in similar proportions, spurred on by religious groups like the American Bible Society and the American Tract Society, which distributed 32 million publications between 1820 and 1850. From the Civil War forward American religious adherence increased, pollsters estimate, to something in the nature of 80% of Americans today.

Faced with these facts, how can Stewart assert that religion in the United States today is a form of atheism and that we are now mostly atheists? He does this by manipulating words, by pinning the term atheist on members of any church in the United States which appears to subscribe to ecumenical and social gospel-like principles. Put another way, Stewart contends that anyone in the United States today who is not a fundamentalist Christian, dreaming of imposing on the country a Biblical commonwealth, or a fundamentalist Muslim, fantasizing about a nation governed by sharia law, is an atheist. To depict the state of religion in the United States today in this way is a flight from reality.

How should Stewart’s book be classified? Should a cataloger assign it to the atheist section of the stacks? Or to the Gnostic section? Or, a remote possibility, to the philosophy section? The book, in my judgment, would be most appropriately placed in the fantasy section.