HomePlatoPlotinusSolomonAldous HuxleyAlan WattsCarl JungRalph W. EmersonFreud ReviewFromm EssaySelf-AnalysisRogers EssayGrof ArticleBecker PaperLocke & DeismEvolutionary TheismMcCullers EssayThree TheoristsSpiritual PhilosophyTheisim & ShamanismR. Waxman Info.

 

RESEARCH ON JOHN LOCKE'S INFLUENCE ON THE PHILOSOPHY OF DEISM DURING THE AGE OF ENLIGHTENMENT

                                           Robert Waxman                                           

Abstract

The historical time period known as the Age of Enlightenment (circa. 1650 - 1800) introduced original modes of thinking about religion, God, and humankind's relationship with nature. These illuminating ideas culminated in an ideology known as Deism, which was primarily influenced by the philosophy of John Locke (1632 - 1704). This paper focuses on the events leading up to the formation of Deism and its repudiation of Church dogma during the Age of Enlightenment. Additionally, Locke's influence on Deism is examined as a rational form of spiritual expression that helped to advance the theological branch of the Human Sciences.

Enlightenment was a desire for human affairs to be guided by rationality rather than by faith, superstition, or revelation; a belief in the power of human reason to change society and liberate the individual from the restraints of custom or arbitrary authority; all backed up by a world view increasingly validated by science rather than by religion or tradition - Dorinda Outram

           The beginnings of a Deistic philosophy appeared in England in the 17th Century when Lord Edward Herbert of Cherbury (1582 -1648) wrote De veritate (1624) and De religione gentilium (1645), which set forth a common set of spiritual principles found in world religions (Butler, 2007). Over the next fifty years, Deism became known as a religion of "free thought; the form of theological rationalism that believes in God on the basis of reason without reference to revelation" ("Deism", n.d.). As a result of Cherbury's progressive thinking, the strict dogma of the Church was openly challenged, and a new era of religious expression had begun. Cherbury was interested in creating a new religion based on reason, intellect, and natural intuition. He proposed five principles to form the basis of a non-denominational and non-sectarian form of theology: 

(1) that there is a supreme Deity, (2) that this Deity ought to be worshipped, (3) that virtue combined with piety is the chief part of divine worship, (4) that men should repent of their sins and turn from them, (5) that reward and punishment follow from the goodness and justice of God, both in this life and after it ("The Beginnings", 2010).

            Cherbury's unifying vision of a religious philosophy challenged the strong beliefs of a devoutly Christian world. He was suggesting that 1400 years of Christian history had little meaning and that the sacred scriptures were based on mythology. Even Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior was omitted from Cherbury's set of principles. Significantly, Cherbury was able to express this radical brand of theology without being ostracized by society or being burned at the stake. A new age of religious freedom had arrived in Western culture and the divine authority of the Church was openly being refuted. Prior to this time, millions of people had been murdered for speaking out against the Church, un-deifying Jesus, or refusing to convert to Christianity. However, beginning with Cherbury and others, a tidal wave of enlightened thought was about to spread across Europe. The time was ripe for a new religious philosophy that was based on human reason and not divine revelation. Therefore, the beginning of the Age of Enlightenment was marking a major turning point in the human religious experience.

Locke's Influence on Deism

           According to Smith (1997), Locke maintained that human beings had an innate understanding of the soul which was not in agreement with the Church's teaching of original sin. Although Locke never denied his affiliation with Christianity, much of his writing refuted the teachings of the Church. In 1695, he wrote The Reasonableness of Christianity (published anonymously) which challenged and criticized the prevailing Christian dogma of the time (Farrar, 1895). Locke rejected the notion that the "identity of the soul makes the man" and was well aware that most Christians believed their souls had a specific identity (Smith, 1997). Consequently, Locke's progressive thinking pushed aside the spiritual concerns of "saving the soul" and began stressing the importance of the "I" as the individual's true identity. Locke's belief was that if the mind were blank, there would be no continuation of thought, and subsequently, the self would have no identity (Smith, 1997). This theory presents a radical departure from Christian dogma which said the soul was an ever-present identity that (hopefully) returns to God. Locke's hypothesis was based on the idea that the "I" of the "thinking mind" was the real person that had the god-given ability to reason, attain knowledge, set moral standards, and improve the nature of the self (Smith, 1997). Accordingly, Locke could be described as an anti-authoritarian, and his beliefs on the nature of God, the soul, the mind, and the human experience were in direct opposition with the teachings of the Church. However, since Locke was philosophizing during the beginning of the Age of Enlightenment, he spoke his mind freely to the public, the Church, and the British academic community. In 1690, he wrote An Essay Concerning Humane Understanding which included his theories relating to the advancement of the human condition (Hefelhofer, 2009). His philosophy on human progress proposed the following: a) human beings can progress by acquiring knowledge, b) reason and action are subject to natural law, and c) the mind (as consciousness) is subject to scientific inquiry (Smith, 1997).

           Locke's writings on religion and theology had a major influence on progressive thinkers during the Age of Enlightenment.  His profound knowledge of human nature laid the foundations for the religious theology of Deism, which eventually became known as a philosophical system based largely on the writings of John Locke.     

Deism during the Age of Enlightenment

           According to Smith, the Deists believed that revelation was not a valid source of knowledge (1997). Consequently, they adopted John Locke's philosophy and created a religion based on reason, intellect, and natural intuition of the human mind. Additionally, Deism was an attempt to integrate pantheism into religious thought based on humanity's relationship with the natural world. The idea of God was not rejected, but the concept of an anthropomorphic God who was actively involved in the affairs of human beings was abandoned. With the inclusion of a God-concept in Deistic philosophy, many progressive thinkers accepted this new form of rationalism that defined the Age of Enlightenment (Armstrong, 1993). Additionally, both Deism and the Age of Enlightenment underscored the arrival of an "enlightened" consciousness, which eventually illumined the reasoning mind that redefined the human religious experience.

           Although Locke was a primary influence on Deism, many other philosophers such as Voltaire, Spinoza, Leibnitz, Tetens, Kant, Mendelssohn etc., contributed to the awakening of the human mind all across Europe during the 17th - 18th centuries. The core ideas of these philosophers included the power of human autonomy, freedom to think for oneself, the universal nature of all human beings, an understanding of progress as part of the human condition, separation of Church and State, and the notion that people can rule themselves ("Core Ideals," n.d.).   

Conclusion

            During the mid-1600's, there were seeds of enlightened thought beginning to blossom in Western Europe that set the stage for the Age of Enlightenment in the 18th century. John Locke revolutionized the prevailing philosophical thought of the late 1600's and made meaningful contributions to the fields of religion, politics, economics, social reform, and human rights. With his emphasis on human reason, he challenged the authority of existing institutions and especially, the dogma of the Church. As an alternative to the Christian theology of mystery, superstition, unexplained phenomena, and revelation, he proposed a sense of God that was based on human experience in conjunction with the infinite. Locke was proposing a God-concept that was a real abstract being, and Deism adopted this essential idea. Consequently, the first principle of Deism is symbolized by a Great Architect that is omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent. Furthermore, the Deists agreed with most of Locke's beliefs, which included the notion that nature and the natural sciences were created by God.  

            Locke's philosophy and the principles of Deism were a natural outgrowth of the radical change of thought taking place in England and Western Europe. By the beginning of the 18th century, the elements of enlightened thinking, such as human reason, individualism, ethics, and natural order were gathering momentum. From this point forward, the human experience was progressing and evolving beyond medieval thinking in this part of the world. Subsequently, progressive thinkers dared to challenge the status-quo, and the rights of the individual were defined. Through the natural ability of human understanding, it was believed that humankind could improve the quality of life for most people. John Locke and the founders of Deism contributed to these progressive changes during the Age of Enlightenment and opened the minds of the masses for the purpose of improving the human condition.

References

Armstrong, K. (1993). A history of god. New York: Ballantine Books.

Butler, J. (2007). Edward, lord Herbert of Chirbury (1582/83 - 1648). Retrieved from   

            http://www.luminarium.org/sevenlit/chirbury/chirbio.htm

Core ideals of the enlightenment. (n.d). Retrieved from Northern Arizona University website:

            http://jan.ucc.nau.edu/~jo52/POS254/Enlideals.html

Deism. (n.d.). In WorldNet a Lexical Database for English. Retrieved from WorldNet - 3.0

            http://wordnetweb.princeton.edu/perl/webwn?s=deism 

Farrar, A.S. (1895). A critical history of free thought in reference to the Christian religion.

           New York: D. Appleton & Co.

Hefelbower, S.G. (2009). The relationship of John Locke to English deism. New York: Cornell  

           University Library.

Smith, R. (1997). The Norton history of the human sciences. New York: W.W. Norton &

           Company, Inc.

The Beginnings of English Philosophy. (2010). Retrieved from Bartelby website:

            http://www.bartleby.com/214/1413.html