Thursday, July 24, 2014

Frazer: "Problems with Matthew Stewart’s Nature’s God (not in any particular order)"

Note: Dr. Gregg Frazer sends over what is reproduced below:

Problems with Matthew Stewart’s Nature’s God (not in any particular order):

Thesis: “Spinoza is the principle architect of the radical philosophy that achieves its ultimate expression in the American Republic, and Locke is its acceptable face.  So-called Lockean liberalism is really just Spinozistic radicalism adapted to the limitations of the common understanding of things.”

My two favorite lines: a) Locke and Spinoza produce a “deeply atheistic proof of a God.”
b) Consciousness “may be found in animals, plants, and even frying pans and thermostats.”

Stewart argues that people falsely identify many with Christianity and that we should not accept their use of that term uncritically. He then enormously expands the meaning of “deism” (without substantiation or support) and expects the reader to accept his use uncritically. Regarding the examples that he does give to try to show this very broad notion of deism, some were instances of opponents calling someone a “deist” as an epithet – i.e. derogatorily; some were simply references to unitarianism, and some merely denials of orthodox Christianity.  Later, he also takes derogatory charges of “atheist” as proof of someone’s atheism.

This leads to another problem: like the prominent “Christian America” advocates, Stewart assumes (without proving) a false dichotomy: that one was either a Christian or a deist (i.e. that those were the only options).  So Christian America advocates find a quote that “proves” that someone disbelieved a deist tenet and proclaim them a “Christian.” Stewart does the same thing in reverse: if someone is not incontrovertably an orthodox Christian, he proclaims them a “deist.” [of course, there was at least one other option: theistic rationalism]

Stewart makes far too much of the content of individual’s libraries.  One need not agree with every book in one’s library.  I have LOTS of books with which I disagree (including Stewart’s) and others that I have not read.  One must have the books of those with which one disagrees in order to deal with them knowledgably.  Stewart assumes that if a particular person had a certain book in his library he must have agreed with it.  The Christian America people do that, too.

He also makes far too much of notes taken on texts.  His assumption is that if someone copied something from a text or took  notes on it, that the individual was, by that action, showing agreement with the text/passage.  The simplest way to demonstrate the falsehood of this notion is to confess that I took LOTS of notes on Stewart’s book – the margins are filled – but I agreed with very little of it.  If someone using Stewart’s methodology were to pick up my copy of his book, they might conclude that I loved it because I took so many notes.

Related to this, Stewart also makes a specific error made by the guru of the Christian America movement – he acts on the assumption that Jefferson’s Notes on Religion reflect Jefferson’s own opinion rather than merely encyclopedic entries of what others believed.  The fact that Jefferson begins a relevant section with “Locke’s system of Christianity is this” and that most of it is nearly verbatim from Locke does not dissuade Stewart or that guru from attributing it to TJ.

In this same vein, Stewart (like his Christian America counterparts) assumes without demonstrating that students agree with all that their teachers believe/teach.  As a college professor, I only wish that were true. J  This saves them from having to show that someone believed what they attribute to them [which they often did not] – they just have to show that their teacher believed it.

Another annoying tactic that Stewart shares with his counterparts on the other side of the argument is regularly suggesting that first drafts and/or initial discussions tell us more of what someone wanted or thought than their final draft!  He does it re the Declaration and the Bill of Rights.  I confess I’ve never understood this logic when used by the Christian America people and I don’t understand it here: what someone REALLY wants or REALLY means is what they rejected/changed?  Hmmmm.

Stewart suggests throughout that the whole American project was an assault on religion -- particularly orthodox Christianity.  Apparently, the political aspects were more or less a byproduct.  Also, his analysis is all about the Revolution; for Stewart, revolutionary thought is definitive for “the American Republic.”  This, of course, ignores the significant changes that came due to experience in the critical years between 1776 and 1787.

Related to that, to accept Stewart’s thesis, one must believe that Ethan Allen, Thomas Young, a twentysomething Ben Franklin who never grew up [America’s Peter Pan], and a partially and conveniently quoted Thomas Jefferson were THE key political/historical figures in the establishment of America.  Others matter only tangentially.

To accept his thesis, one must believe that the Revolutionary/Founding writers did not know who their REAL influences were.  They quoted (as Stewart admits in a footnote) men such as Pufendorf, Grotius, Beccaria, Blackstone, Montesquieu, Vattel and others – but the real driving intellectual forces on them were the ancient Greek Epicurus and the early modern Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza. More precisely, it was Epicurus channeled by and improved by Spinoza. Stewart wrote an earlier well-received book on Spinoza and sees the modern world through Spinozist eyes – and says we should, too.  There are a number of hyperbolic statements to this effect.

He gives a very poor, deficient, and one-sided account of Franklin’s prayer proposal at the Constitutional Convention.  It fits his argument the way he selectively and creatively reports it, though.

In order to be able to use his favorite adjective – “Locke-Spinoza” – Stewart terribly abuses John Locke to the point that Locke scholars will not recognize him.  He quotes Locke partially (with his own commentary interspersed to make it look like Locke’s), regularly uses ellipses to change the meaning of Lockean statements, and quotes Locke out of context.  These are also all very familiar tactics for Stewart’s Christian America counterparts.  He takes a square Locke and forces him into a round Spinoza.  He does the same regarding Jefferson – Jefferson is forced to conform with Spinoza whether he will or not.  To be fair, Stewart gives a warning/explanation for his distortion of Locke – he explains that he (basically) subscribes to the Straussian notion of “esoteric” interpretation (while disagreeing with what Strauss does with it).  In other words, as Stewart takes it, Locke did not know what he meant or was too cowardly to say what he meant, so Stewart must channel the real Locke and explain what he meant to say or would have said if he had the nerve.  This, presumably, makes it fine to ignore parts of sentences that are inconvenient and places in which Locke’s words are diametrically opposed to what Stewart wants from him.  Often, what Stewart leaves out of a passage or where he cuts it off is more telling than what he quotes.

The same is true with Jefferson, although Stewart actually quotes passages from Jefferson which contradict Stewart’s take and he just moves on.  One of those cases is absolutely critical for Stewart’s whole thesis.  He argues that the first sentence of the Declaration is the key to the whole American enterprise and that they key to that sentence is the idea that God and Nature are synonymous (not related – synonymous).  He says that Jefferson held this view (pretty important since he wrote the sentence) – but quotes from Jefferson on pages 189, 190, and 194 clearly show Jefferson saying the contrary!  Undeterred, Stewart proceeds as if his take is confirmed.

Also re Jefferson: Stewart takes very seriously Jefferson’s statement: “I am an Epicurean” – not so much Jefferson’s statement: “I am a Christian” or his statement: “I am a sect unto myself.”

As noted briefly above, Stewart – like many who desperately want Franklin to be a deist – keeps Franklin at 19 years of age or in his twenties.  Stewart’s Franklin apparently died at 28.  He quotes Franklin’s famous/infamous confession that he became a deist (at age 19), but somehow (like others) misses Franklin’s statement two pages later that he grew out of it.  Stewart is also apparently unaware of Franklin’s essay On the Providence of God in the Government of the World in which he explicitly rejects deism as irrational (at the ripe old age of 24).  Stewart also cites Franklin’s Dissertation on Liberty and Necessity to show Franklin’s agreement with Stewart’s thesis, but Franklin wrote that at age 19 and years later considered it an embarrassment – he burned as many copies as he could find. Stewart says “he never gave reason to think that he [Peter Pan Franklin] ever departed from the convictions acquired as [a] youthful bibliophile” [meaning his twentysomething position].

The book vastly overemphasizes Hobbes’s influence in America.

Stewart seriously mangles the meaning/interpretation of several biblical passages.  At one point, he admits concerning a passage written by the apostle Paul: “the ultimate implications of this intuition about God are dramatically different from anything Paul seems to have contemplated.” Then that should call into serious question your implications/interpretation!

Stewart has his own idiosyncratic notion of the meaning and purpose of the First Amendment.  By his account, it does not – and was not designed to – guarantee religious freedom.

He constantly uses unqualified, universal terms such as “the founders of the American Republic” and “America’s founders” when ascribing ideas – as if they were all of the same mind.  I doubt that  he’s ever heard of Roger Sherman.

His constant condescending, arrogant, and rather snarky jabs at anyone foolish enough to be religious or to believe in God is equal parts annoying and inappropriate in an academic work.  The last chapter is devoted to making fun of religion and those who are superstitious or gullible enough to believe in something beyond Nature.  “Alert” readers or persons are those who share his views.  Conventional religion relies on “make-believe” and “self-deception,” but his preferred philosophers produce “knowledge.”  Philosophical assumption and/or “doctrine” is fact/”truths.”  Those who refuse to bow to the “obvious” superiority of atheism, simply show “the tenacity of their ignorance” and promote “hallucinations of divine agency.”

He argues that deism was not limited to the elite (pg. 37), then proceeds to talk throughout about the difference betweent the views of the elite and those of the common people who were conventionally religious (e.g. pgs. 32, 35, 68, 73, 122, 274, 404-05).

He argues without substantiation re the Great Awakening: “the revival, while pretending to unite the nation, in reality unified it only in the belief that there are aliens in our midst.” 

He criticizes “enthusiasts” for making personal, sensory judgments, but approves of so-called “deists” making them – ostensibly because he approves of the judgments.

Like certain groups today, he attempts to stifle alternate views and studies with which he would disagree: “The new Christian nationalists [which, in his example, includes Mark David Hall, Daniel Dreisbach, et al and yours truly] represent a powerful force within American history, but their success consists chiefly in creating the illusion of a debate where in substance there is none.  … scholars tout their ‘even-handedness’ by giving equal credence to every ‘narrative’ of the history, however fatuous.  A version of this false equivalence can be found in [Hall, Dreisbach, & Morrison’s] The Forgotten Founders on Religion and Public Life.”  Those who do not know should be aware that there are no chapters from the “Christian America”/David Barton extreme in this book – they are all written by established scholars in the field from places such as Stanford, George Mason, American University, James Madison Univ., Notre Dame, Univ. of Texas, etc.  But because they do not subscribe to Stewart’s “everyone was an atheist deist” view, their views are “fatuous” and unworthy of inclusion in discussion!

Stewart may have included his own marching orders on page 333: “Like revolutionaries throughout history, Young and his gang understood that in order to change the future it is necessary first to change the past.”  That appears to be Stewart’s real project.

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