Thomas Paine
Thomas Paine Age of Reason

Voltaire's Deism

Deism entered France, but only its materialistic and revolutionary phases were seized upon, to the exclusion of religious values which had never been lost in England or America. French Deism stood outside of theology and laid the groundwork for atheism, secular humanism, and cultural relativism. American Deists were mainly influenced by English Deism and perhaps French Deist Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

Michel de Montaigne is the father of moral and cultural relativism. It argues (falsely in my opinion) that all cultures be it cannibals in mud huts or Paris are equal because they rest on cultural habit rather than absolute truth. Who are Europeans to insist that Brazilian cannibals who merely consume dead human flesh instead of wasting it are morally inferior to Europeans who persecute and oppress those of whom they disapprove? This would also apply to morals as well: If we cannot be certain that our values are God-given, then we have no right to impose them by force on others. Thus homosexually, abortion, sex with animals, sex with children, etc. are a private matter that society has no right to regulate or interfere with.

French Deism was anti-Catholic and anti-religious in general, shading into skepticism, atheism, and materialism. When people speak of Deism today they often think of French Deism, which has little in common with English/American Deism which was known often as Unitarianism. While Deism began in England and influenced Voltaire, he would strip away all of the religious aspects.

Voltaire was attracted to the philosophy of John Locke and Isaac Newton. He studied England's Constitutional Monarchy, its religious tolerance, its philosophical rationalism and most important the natural sciences. Voltaire greatly admired English religious toleration and freedom of speech, and saw these as a necessary prerequisites for social and political progress. He saw England as a useful model for what he considered to be a backward France. Voltaire distrusted democracy, which he saw as propagating the idiocy of the masses.

To Voltaire only an enlightened monarch, advised by philosophers like himself, could bring about change as it was in the king's rational interest to improve the power and wealth of France in the world. Voltaire is quoted as saying that he "would rather obey one lion, than 200 rats of (his own) species." Voltaire essentially believed monarchy to be the key to progress and change. He is best known in this day and age for his novel Candide (1759) and saying such things as "If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him." To Voltaire God was so remote to the point of practical atheism.

Voltaire's chief adversary was Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who distrusted the aristocrats because he believed they were betraying decent traditional values. He shunned the aristocracy which Voltaire courted, and argued for something dangerously like democratic revolution. Voltaire argued that equality was impossible, Rousseau argued that inequality was not only unnatural, but that--when taken too far--it made decent government impossible. Rousseau seems to be the main French influence. True to the position of Deism in connecting this moral "sentiment " with a belief in God, Rousseau rejected the notion of separation between the two.

France and French culture would dominate Europe and export these ideas to the Muslim world and America. According to Bernard Lewis, by the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Muslim leaders realized that they were falling behind and began sending students to the West in order to learn about the new things-especially military things-to be found there. This raised the religious and legal question as to whether it was permissible to imitate the infidels. This is why there was great sympathy for the French Revolution at first, which projected itself in the East as anti-Christian. But under the Empire and the Restoration, France lost its appeal." France is still exporting garbage into the Muslim world even today.

It is this distorted materialism and closet atheism that we traditional Deists such as Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine rejected. What Voltaire wanted was the philosophy stripped of its religious roots and morals. This along with nationalism would directly influence men such as Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey. He had some good ideas, but I think he took secularization and nationalism too far. This has begun to create a fundamentalist backlash in Turkey. The Turkish record on human rights is terrible.

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