Myths about Science and Religion: That the Scientific Revolution Liberated Science from Religion

the-enlightenment-1On May 12 of 2010, the general reading public witnessed a robust, if not at times acerbic, exchange between two prominent scholars of modern European history. It began with the publication of a review essay entitled “Mind the Enlightenment” in The Nation magazine by Samuel Moyn, professor of modern history at Columbia University. In that article he attacks Jonathan Israel’s massive multivolume history of the Enlightenment. Israel, professor of the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton University, is a recognized expert on early modern European history. Much of his work is concerned with European colonial history, with a particular emphasis on the history of ideas. He is an authority on the Dutch Golden Age (1590-1713), including the Dutch global trade system, seventeenth-century Dutch Jewry and Baruch Spinoza (1632-77), and the Glorious Revolution (1688-91) in Britain. In his article, however, Moyn’s primary concern is Israel’s recent multivolume series on the Enlightenment, beginning with his Radical Enlightenment (2001), Enlightenment Contested (2006), and his latest, which happens to be only an interlude, A Revolution of the Mind (2010).

Israel’s thesis in this series of writings is that the impetus for the “radical” Enlightenment was largely “Spinozist.” That is, a great number of eighteenth-century philosophes adopted Spinoza’s materialist monism and his critique of revelation and religion. For Israel, Spinoza acts as the progenitor of modern thought, who seemingly dismissed all authority grounded in tradition. In other words, Spinoza’s thought was the sui generis which propelled the “general process of rationalization and secularization” that produced “modernity.”  Other scholars, however, have recently not only pointed to the overall moderate nature of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, but have also demonstrated a preference for a “family” of Enlightenments, distinguished by geographical boundaries.

Israel, by contrast, dismisses both positions. It was the radical, monist, incredulous, and antireligious wing that emerged victorious from the intellectual crisis of the eighteenth century. In the Radical Enlightenment, Israel believes that the unity of the European Enlightenment can and should be defended, arguing that there was indeed a single, unified Enlightenment, a movement with a general intellectual integrity and unity, and one  which transcended national boundaries. And the prime mover of this Enlightenment was Spinoza. What was so radical about Spinoza’s philosophy? According to Israel, “the essence of the radical intellectual tradition from Spinoza to Diderot is the philosophical rejection of revealed religion, miracles, and divine Providence, replacing the idea of salvation in the hereafter with a highest good in the here and now.”  In Enlightenment Contested, Israel continues this narrative by accentuating the controversies and polemics between the radical and moderate wings of the Enlightenment. As thoroughly documented as the first volume, Israel attempts to demonstrate two central themes: first, that the radical positions were philosophically more consistent than those championed by the moderates; and, second, that the radicals were universalistic, egalitarian, and democratically minded, while their moderate opponents acceded various modes of exclusion along sexual, racial, religious, social, and political lines.  Indeed, in a lengthy Postscript Israel defends the radical wing unreservedly, not only in the historical context of the eighteenth century, but also in the intellectual debates of today. Israel concludes that the thinkers of the radical Enlightenment were the veritable trailblazers of modernity, freedom, and equality. Finally, Israel explicitly follows this thought in his A Revolution of the Mind, arguing that the

Radical Enlightenment is the system of ideas that, historically, has principally shaped the Western World’s most basic social and cultural values…democracy; racial and sexual equality; individual liberty of lifestyle; full freedom of thought, expression, and press; eradication of religious authority from the legislative process and education; and full separation of church and state.

In short, Israel’s work on the Enlightenment expresses the conviction that the revolution in thought, which seemingly received its impetus from the atheistic, deistic, or materialist philosophy of Spinoza, ultimately inspired a profound and deeply progressive advance in society and culture.

But “after a number of years of stunned silence,” Moyn proclaims in his article, “critics have begun to circle Israel’s colossus, even as he finishes the extraordinary task of raising it to completion.” Indeed, Moyn claims that his critics, like vultures, are “gnawing at the flesh of Israel’s creation.” Moyn begins by arguing that “Israel’s monomaniacal Spinoza worship…leaves him without a story of the Enlightenment’s intellectual or cultural origins.” Citing French historian Antoine Lilti,  one of Israel’s most outspoken critics, Moyn’s first contention is that “it strains credulity to organize what was a massive and century-long cultural phenomenon around the philosophical breakthrough of a single thinker.” While Spinoza did defend a more robust version of freedom of thought than that of Locke and others, Moyn objects to Spinoza and his followers as “chiefly responsible for the rise of wider toleration of speech and opinion.”

Further, Moyn finds Israel’s A Revolution of the Mind supported by a faulty premise: namely, “that a philosophy of naturalism and liberal-democratic politics are inextricably linked.” By arguing that the universe was only one substance, Spinoza, as it were, “knocked the legs out from under priests and kings alike.” But according to Moyn, this “leitmotif” is deeply flawed. Israel ignores the impact of other thinkers, for example, Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), who, a whole generation before Spinoza, declared a politics likewise based on a materialist metaphysics. On a methodological level then, Moyn contends that Israel selectively subordinates all thinkers under a categorical “Spinozism.” This has led another critic, Anthony J. La Vopa,  to argue that Israel’s central fallacy is a sort of “package logic.” As Moyn puts it, “the result of evaluating a century’s worth of thought according to how closely it conforms to a checklist is strange history, and arguably not history at all.” Constrained by his own constructed categories, Israel has evoked not only with a presentist, metahistory of the Enlightenment, but an oversimplified classification of the “radical” and “moderate” camps.

Indeed, it is this “package logic” that concerns Moyn most in his article. He sees Israel as working under presuppositions that are “dogmatic” and which act as “a profession of faith.” As a result, “Israel is tempted to cast those with alternative views as enemies not of his argument but of the Enlightenment itself.” Moyn again cites another critic for support, historian J.B. Shank,  who has said that “Israel’s works breathe the spirit of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens.” Moyn’s central complaint against Israel, therefore, is his belief that “the moral horizon of today’s partisans of Radical Enlightenment is crystal clear.” On the contrary, says Moyn, there was profound ambiguity of what counted as radicalism to seventeenth- and eighteenth-century thinkers. In saying this Moyn depends most exclusively on Dan Edelstein’s recent work, The Terror of Natural Right (2009),  which argues, contra Israel, that Enlightenment naturalism or materialism “turned out to be a recipe for terrible wrongs.” In short, Moyn wants readers to see that the “Enlightenment had many rival features from the outset, and could still have many possible versions to come.”

Israel, in turn, has directly responded to Moyn’s criticisms. His first response “Spinoza and Vultures and Gnats, Oh My!” was published in the “Exchange” column in The Nation’s 2010 July issue.  It is a biting rejoinder, calling Moyn’s interpretation of his argument “unbelievably inaccurate.” Israel responds first by saying that his work accounts for the Enlightenment’s origins and development by “setting out various social and cultural factors pivoting on the philosophical revolution of the late seventeenth century,” with contributions from Descartes, Hobbes, Spinoza, Locke, Bayle, and Leibniz. All shaped, Israel maintains, “the moderate and radical wings of the Enlightenment.” Yet he continues to uphold Spinoza, who “surpassed the others in contributing to the Radical Enlightenment.” He argues that there is no “faulty premise” in his connection of naturalism with liberal-democratic politics: “The only way to break the ancient régime system conceptually…was to destroy the notion that the existing order was divinely authorized, directed by divine providence and legitimately presided over by the clergy and monarchy.” He concludes by saying that Moyn’s understanding of the French Revolution is “absurdly wrong,” and accuses him of not having the “faintest clue” of the argument of the books under his review.

In the same “Exchange” column, Moyn tersely responds that Israel has missed the point of his original criticism. Israel not only continues to measure the thoughts of other philosophers “against the singular yardstick that Spinoza [allegedly] provided,” but fails to see the “Enlightenment’s multiple possible versions, and therefore its continually problematic character, now and in the future.”

But Israel was not quite finished with Moyn. The exchange continued—and still very publicly—on George Mason University’s online newsletter, History News Network.  In a piece as long as Moyn’s original review article, Israel provides an extended response to Moyn’s criticisms. And once more Moyn responds to it.  Rehearsing both responses here is unnecessary. What needs to be emphasized however is twofold. First is Israel’s continued espousal of Spinozism as the basis for not only the Enlightenment, but political revolution: “the radical encyclopedism that underlay their ideology [viz. Diderot, d’Holbach, Helevétius and Raynal] was what in the eighteenth century was called Spinozism.” Second, and related to it, is Israel’s unabashed “package logic,” which he maintains is simply the recurring “package logic” of the radical thinkers he studies. These thinkers, Israel argues, promoted equality, individual liberty, freedom of the press and expression, basic human rights, and democracy, whereas the more moderate thinkers quite often capitulated to aristocratic domination of society. Accordingly, Spinoza’s radical influence was undoubtedly subversive, politically as well as religiously, and thus lies as the foundation of modern democratic values. In his turn, Moyn facetiously claims that Israel is “one of the most Christian historians of the day.” He writes (perhaps unfairly, however) that “the point of writing church history is not to complicate the past but to show how it might inspire new victories, as Israel clearly wants his project to do,” and it is in this sense that Israel “fails entirely to reflect on the Christian template for his plot.”

Besides these many criticisms hurled at Israel’s multivolume work, Margaret J. Osler too, her entry in Galileo goes to Jail, takes a jab at Israel’s “package logic.”  She begins by quoting from his Radical Enlightenment: “It was unquestionably the rise of powerful new philosophical systems, rooted in the scientific advances of the early seventeenth century and especially the mechanistic views of Galileo, which chiefly generated that vast Kulturkampf between traditional, theologically sanctioned ideas about Man, God, and the universe and the secular, mechanistic conceptions which stood independently of any theological sanction.”

This amounts to the belief that the scientific revolution liberated science from religion. After the scientific revolution, the story goes, it was inevitable that God would eventually be pushed entirely out of nature and that science would deny the existence of God. But according to Osler, these are ultimately unsubstantiated claims. “A closer look at history,” she writes, “reveals an entirely different story.”

To begin with, science and religion as terms did not have the same meanings then that they do today. There was no such creature as the scientist (see forthcoming post on Steven Shapin’s Images of the Man of Science). Physics, and science in general, was called natural philosophy (as the title cover of Newton’s Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, translated Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, demonstrates), and its study included consideration of God’s creation of the world, the evidence of divine design in the world, and the immortality of the human soul. Indeed, “natural philosophy encompassed many topics now considered theological or metaphysical.”

The close relationship between natural philosophy and theology is evident in almost every area of inquiry about the natural world during the scientific revolution. The debates about the new heliocentric astronomy, the arguments for a new philosophy of nature to replace medieval Aristotelianism, the development of a new concept of the laws of nature, and discussions of the scope and limits of human knowledge were all infused with religious commitments and theological presuppositions.

For example, many seventeenth-century natural philosophers rejected Aristotelianism and adopted some version of the mechanical philosophy. But virtually all the mechanical philosopher claimed that God had created matter and had set it into motion. “God infused his purposes into the creation either by programming the motions of the particles or by creating particles with very particular properties.” As Osler puts it, “even a mechanical world had room for purpose and design.”

Another common theme in seventeenth-century discussions was expressed in the metaphor of God’s two books: the book of God word (the Bible) and the book of God’s work (the created world). Natural philosopher regarded both books as legitimate sources of knowledge.

Thus despite the claims of Israel and other modern commentators, that the seventeenth century witnessed the “rise of powerful new philosophical systems,” theology and natural philosophy were closely aligned. The entire enterprise of studying the natural world was embedded in a theological framework that emphasized divine creation, design, and providence. “Newton himself,” writes Osler, “took seriously both God’s work and God’s word, as he demonstrated by devoting even more effort to the understanding of Scripture than he did to the natural world.”

Natural philosopher undoubtedly disagreed about exactly how God related to the world. But to study the created world produced knowledge both of the phenomena and the laws of nature and revealed God’s relationship to his creation.

In the final analysis, seventeenth-century natural philosophers were not modern scientists. Reading the past from the standpoint of later developments, as Israel certainly does, leads to serious misunderstandings of not only the scientific revolution but these seminal historical figures as well. “For many of the natural philosophers of the seventeenth century, science and religion—or, better, natural philosophy and theology—were inseparable, part and parcel of the endeavor to understand our world.”


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