Read Nature's God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic by Matthew Stewart Online


America’s founders intended to liberate us not just from one king but from the ghostly tyranny of supernatural religion. Drawing deeply on the study of European philosophy, Matthew Stewart brilliantly tracks the ancient, pagan, and continental ideas from which America’s revolutionaries drew their inspiration. In the writings of Spinoza, Lucretius, and other great philosophAmerica’s founders intended to liberate us not just from one king but from the ghostly tyranny of supernatural religion. Drawing deeply on the study of European philosophy, Matthew Stewart brilliantly tracks the ancient, pagan, and continental ideas from which America’s revolutionaries drew their inspiration. In the writings of Spinoza, Lucretius, and other great philosophers, Stewart recovers the true meanings of “Nature’s God,” “the pursuit of happiness,” and the radical political theory with which the American experiment in self-government began....

Title : Nature's God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic
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ISBN : 9780393351293
Format Type : Paperback
Number of Pages : 576 Pages
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Nature's God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic Reviews

  • Caroline
    2019-04-25 18:09

    Prepare for a challenge when you pick this up, but it’s well worth the effort.Matthew Stewart is, like many of us, confounded by the claim that the founding fathers intended the United States to be a Christian nation. The difference is, he has the tools to mount a meticulous argument to the contrary. Stewart starts with two of the more extreme agitators—Ethan Allen (Fort Ticonderoga) and Thomas Young (Boston tea party instigator)—and traces the roots of their thinking to radical enlightenment roots. That means Epicurus to Lucretius, through Bruno to Hobbes, Descartes, Spinoza, Locke and Hume. Stewart then explains essential aspects of enlightenment thought, including its definitions of natural law, metaphysics, epistemology, theology, government, and much more, and shows direct linkages from the European philosophes to not only Young but to the men who wrote the revolution: Franklin, Jefferson, Adams, Madison, etc. He argues that while the majority of the 1770s populace may have still attended churches that preached revealed religion, the men who wrote the declaration, the constitution, and the bill of rights only got to those ideas from a radical enlightenment position that denied revealed religion.By quoting from their journals and letters, their deistic-to-atheistic views are made clear, even if they had to wrap the public versions of their ideas in a bit of religious prose to win wide backing. However, it’s important to note that the book covers the full range of the natural, political, and moral philosophy that influenced them, not just what pertains to whether God exists and if so what that means. I listened to this, so I can’t offer any quotes, but I recommend it very, very highly. The ideas come thick and fast, but Stewart writes clearly and the logic is always clear. He does have a strong point of view, and stretches a point here and there to hammer it home, but even without those conclusions the argument is clean and incontrovertible. I am going to listen again, because there is far too much here to fully understand in a first pass.

  • Peter Mcloughlin
    2019-04-04 22:53

    The founders have been invoked by the religious right as creators of a Christian republic. This book explodes this idea and shows them for the radical secularists that they were. The term deism is sometimes thrown about when talking about the founders but before Darwin this was a popular enlightenment opinion. God was a god of nature not a divine agent found in holy books. The position of a large number of founders was as close as one can come to atheism without completely discarding the idea of god. The tributaries that flowed into the founders thought were Spinoza, Locke, Hobbes, Voltaire, Diderot, Lucretius and other heretics to the Christian faith. Not only were Paine, Franklin, Jefferson, Madison infidels but so were more vocal lesser known founders like Ethan Allen and Thomas Young. In fact much of our idea of the role of religion in the state and modernity in general flow from the American Revolution as much as the French. Not only were the founders the founders of America but one could say they are major figures in the growth of modernity. People like Thomas Paine look much like Secular social democrats of the modern era and would be reviled as "socialists" in many quarters of modern America. While the sins of the founders are well to be remembered (the slavery and racism) it is well to keep in mind how radical they were in regards to religion and the state. Progressives and secularists should reclaim the founding tradition as there own.

  • Ron
    2019-04-07 19:20

    For those who persist in the delusion that our country was founded as a "Christian" nation, I recommend an honest reading of this scholarly book. Several chapters of the philosophical concepts are heavy going but well worth plowing through. From Amazon: Longlisted for the National Book Award. Where did the ideas come from that became the cornerstone of American democracy?Not only the erudite Thomas Jefferson, the wily and elusive Ben Franklin, and the underappreciated Thomas Paine, but also Ethan Allen, the hero of the Green Mountain Boys, and Thomas Young, the forgotten Founder who kicked off the Boston Tea Party—these radicals who founded America set their sights on a revolution of the mind. Derided as “infidels” and “atheists” in their own time, they wanted to liberate us not just from one king but from the tyranny of supernatural religion. The ideas that inspired them were neither British nor Christian but largely ancient, pagan, and continental: the fecund universe of the Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius, the potent (but nontranscendent) natural divinity of the Dutch heretic Benedict de Spinoza. Drawing deeply on the study of European philosophy, Matthew Stewart pursues a genealogy of the philosophical ideas from which America’s revolutionaries drew their inspiration, all scrupulously researched and documented and enlivened with storytelling of the highest order. Along the way, he uncovers the true meanings of “Nature’s God,” “self-evident,” and many other phrases crucial to our understanding of the American experiment but now widely misunderstood.Stewart’s lucid and passionate investigation surprises, challenges, enlightens, and entertains at every turn, as it spins a true tale and a persuasive, exhilarating argument about the founding principles of American government and the sources of our success in science, medicine, and the arts.

  • Linda
    2019-04-21 19:18

    Sometimes this book was a joy. Sometimes I felt like a slogged through it. When the author, Matthew Stewart, wrote about the founding fathers, especially when he wrote about Ethan Allen, the book was lots of fun. When he wrote about philosophers, I felt like it was way over my head. I could read several pages about the philosophers and feel like I didn't understand what I just read. It could just be me, but I'm not a stupid person and I wanted to know about the philosophers--it was too much schooling.But when he wrote about the founding fathers, people like Jefferson and Washington and Franklin, and Thomas Young who isn't remembered but should be, that's when the book felt exciting and flowed along. When he wrote about the men who brought about the American Revolution, it didn't feel as ponderous as the sections on philosophy. Sometimes they were even funny. Stewart had some good lines. I like this line about Newton's view of God. "Newton's vision has always had appeal among those who like their deity to win awards for scientific achievement but also want him to have a day job."I'd like to share this interesting part of Colonial American history. Ethan Allen and Thomas Young were friends. Young was a doctor and also a major player in the Boston Tea Party. In the colonies it was illegal to be vaccinated against disease because people thought disease was a punishment from God and to vaccinate was taking God's right to punish away from Him. So Ethan Allen decided he would very publically get vaccinated in the town's square in front of everybody. He had Thomas Young vaccinate him against small pox. Young vaccinated him and immediately skipped town. Ethan Allen stayed in town and was arrested for blasphemy. Isn't it amazing how times change? Now we frown upon people who don't get their children vaccinated. Two hundred and fifty years ago, we'd arrest people for getting vaccinated.

  • Bob Schnell
    2019-04-26 22:57

    Advance Reading Copy review Publication date July 1, 2014While I enjoyed this book more than 3 stars may indicate, sections of the book were just too dense and repetitive to really recommend it higher.The premise is basically that America was never a Christian nation as many of the Founding Fathers were deists who believed in private, independent spirituality. Thomas Jefferson, for example, would be surprised that we haven't all become Unitarians by now. The book centers on Ethan Allen's auto-biography which bears a striking similarity to the writings of Thomas Young (one of the Boston Tea Party perpetrators). Young's writings, in turn, are based largely on the works of Spinoza and Locke who can trace their philosophies back to Lucretius and Epicurus. This is where the reader's eyes are likely to start glazing over.The best parts are the when the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are interpreted to prove the founders' underlying deism. The chapter on the pursuit of happiness alone was worth the time and effort leading up to it. Unless you are a hardcore student of philosophy, best to skim over the deep end and head straight to the shallower, more enjoyable parts.

  • Jennifer
    2019-04-26 16:18

    Matthew Stewart's book is not a comfortable read, but I think he does have some valuable things to say about the philosophical ideas in which several important members of the Founding Fathers were grounded. (I will note here that Stewart clearly has an agenda, and tends to view Thomas Jefferson, Ethan Allen, et. al. as closet atheists. My opinion is that it's more complicated than that, though it's certainly clear that they had an understanding of the problems inherent in all sorts of organized religion. Anyway, since many historians have made facile religious connections for various of the Founding Fathers, seeing the situation through a different lens is valuable.) Certainly those who set out on the path of revolution were indeed heretics and radicals, whose ideas about freedom, government, and the nature of the world would change everything for future generations.

  • Robin
    2019-04-17 18:17

    A very interesting book that probably has the right-wing, tea party fools frothing at the mouth. Mr. Stewart presents the truth about the individual philosophies of the "Founding Fathers". America's revolutionaries were a group consisting of men educated in the Enlightenment and who followed radical ideas, many of which originated in the classical pagan past. This is a well-researched, well-thought out book that is also surprisingly easy to read. I highly recommend it.

  • Colin
    2019-04-10 19:00

    An astonishingly good summary of the role of religion - or lack thereof, to be more precise - in the creation of the American Republic, with special attention given to the issue of Epicurean philosophy, Deism, and Jefferson's conviction that not a living man existed in America who would not die a Unitarian, so great was his belief in the power of reason and that liberal religion compatible with reason would triumph . . .

  • David Melbie
    2019-04-09 18:05

    This is a superb account of what was really going down in the eighteenth century (and prior) with respect to how our founders were motived by some of the great thinkers and philosophers of the ancient and modern ages. In essence, the American Revolution is, according to Stewart (and I wholeheartedly agree), an ongoing affair. As long as all of our freedoms are intact we should be able to keep this ship afloat.

  • Bob
    2019-04-14 00:22

    Summary: An argument that the key ideas at the foundations of our country were not Christian but rather traceable back to Lucretius and to European thinkers, the foremost of whom was Spinoza, whose ideas were shaped by Enlightenment reason resulting more in a materialist atheism or nature pantheism/deism.There is an ongoing argument surrounding American beginnings as to whether these were Christian or more attributable to a kind of vague deism. While I as a Christian would love to believe it was the former, when I read the writings of Adams, Jefferson, Franklin and other founders, I find that while they recognize the place and importance of Christian churches, they are not Christian in any orthodox sense in the personal beliefs that shaped the thinking behind our Declaration of Independence and our Constitution (which omits even the mention of "God").Matthew Stewart explores the intellectual genealogy of the founders, but does so in an unusual fashion. He starts out with a book, The Oracles of Reason, written by Ethan Allen, of Green Mountain Boys and Fort Ticonderoga fame. This inelegantly written book conveys Allen's repugnance of the idea of the Christian deity, argues for a god of nature, the place of reason ("self evident truths") and a state free of control by the church. Where did Allen get these ideas, as an uneducated man? From Dr. Thomas Young, who exists around the edges of the more famous founders. Stewart will weave these two characters throughout the narrative.What I think Stewart is trying to demonstrate is how widely held these ideas, often classed under deism, but in fact were closer to pantheism ("all is god") or even outright atheism. He then follows back the lineage of these ideas to Lucretius, and Epicurean philosophy, which rather than being hedonistic, actually talked about the idea of living well, or moderately. Stewart follows these ideas into Europe to Benedict de Spinoza, Hobbes, and John Locke, who may clothe them at times in Christian language, but actually lays the groundwork for a view of reality that is sees God and Nature as synonymous (hence making this either pantheism, or outright atheism if nature is viewed simply as matter). Truth is "self-evident" in that what we think has an existence of its own that precedes all else. As with Lucretius, the pursuit of happiness is not wild pleasure-seeking but virtuous living. This leads to an "empire of reason," a rational rule of law that recognizes the equality of all, unalienable rights, government by the consent of the governed, the right to abolish governments that do not serve these ends and to institute new ones.The concluding chapter is titled "The Religion of Freedom". It explores the fact that the founders, while protecting the free exercise of religious faith, believing that popular religion served a certain good in inculcating morals necessary for a good society, ultimately envisioned a government free of religion's control, where the individual could believe what he or she wants without constraint. Stewart argues that many of the founders were free-thinkers who might be classified as atheists today. And while religion went through a resurgence, and continues to play an important role, by and large it conforms to liberal ideals and only causes problems when it is not content to exist in a very privatized form.One gets the sense in reading Stewart that he thinks that this is not only the truest account of the genealogy of ideas that formed our beginnings as a nation, but that this is as it ought to be, and that the continued existence of religion is an annoying hindrance. He writes, "The main thing we learn now from the persistence in modern America of supernatural religion and the reactionary nationalism with which it is so regularly accompanied is that there is still work to be done. For too long we have relied on silence to speak a certain truth. The noise tells us the time has come for some candor. It points to a piece of unfinished business of the American Revolution" (p. 431).What bothers me in Stewart's work is not the accuracy of the case he makes for the ideas that undergird our republic, but rather the selective treatment of Christian faith that presents a caricature featuring its most invidious expressions. Little attention, for example, is given to the educational enterprise, an extension of the churches, that brought together such a learned generation. No attention is given to another founder, Reverend John Witherspoon, President of the College of New Jersey (later Princeton), who thoughtfully sought to integrate Christian ethics and enlightenment thought, serving in the Continental Congress from 1776 to 1782. It seems to me that Stewart's intent is to marshal his evidence, as have some of our popular militant atheists, to make us want to eradicate "supernatural religion" (and one wonders if this also includes those who embrace it).Likewise, for all it vaunting of reason and virtue, the tacit admission of the power of religious faith to foster morals, and public order suggests a certain weakness in this "empire of reason." Might a more constructive course be one that admits both the distinctive contribution of founders who articulated a vision of a public square not dominated by a single faith, but open to all, and the vibrant, but messy competing ideologies that seek to shape the minds, hearts, and moral life of our people that allows a thing rare in the annals of human history--freedom of conscience?

  • Robin Friedman
    2019-04-15 16:18

    How The United States Became An "Empire Of Reason"Matthew Stewart's new book, "Nature's God: the Heretical Origins of the American Republic" (2014) offers a wide-ranging history of the importance of philosophical ideas to the American Revolution and to American democracy. Stewart has written widely about philosophy, including his book "The Courtier and the Heretic: Leibniz, Spinoza and the Fate of God in the Modern World." It will come as no surprise to readers of that book, that Spinoza emerges as one of the heroes of this new study. In his Preface, Stewart quotes the American Revolutionary figure Joel Barlow: "The present is an age of philosophy, and America the 'empire of reason'".Stewart tries to explain the way in which America is an "empire of reason" and to show that Barlow was correct in his assessment."Nature's God" is a lengthy, difficult and multi-faceted book that demands a great deal of perseverance and attention to read. The distinction between "popular" and "academic" writing frequently becomes blurred, no more so than it is in this book. The book examines historical events, such as the Boston Tea Party, the Second Continental Congress, the Battle of Ticonderoga, together with a large scope of philosophical and literary books. The love of learning and the erudition are inspiring. Yet, for all its length, it may move too fast in places over the complex intellectual arguments it conveys. The book frequently is an uneasy mix between disparate components of history, both well-known and obscure, and philosophy.Stewart's book has a passionate, teaching tone about the message it wishes to convey which I find admirable and with which I largely agree. The converse side is a tendency to polemic and perhaps to underestimate one's philosophical opponents. Sections of this long book are muddled and repetitive but the heart of Stewart's position is clearly stated. Stewart writes about Enlightenment thought and its influence on the American Revolution. He takes Enlightenment well beyond 17th and 18th century Europe to begin with the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus and the Roman poet, Lucretius in "The Nature of Things". Stewart argues that nature and ethics lack a supernatural base but instead rest upon reason, understanding, investigation, and what Stewart terms immanentism. He wants to reject Abrahamic theism and Christianity in favor of immanentism and understanding and he pursues and expands upon his path throughout the book.When it comes to the Enlightenment, Stewart distinguishes between its "moderate" and "radical" as discussed in a series of important, controversial books by the scholar Jonathan Israel, e.g.Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity 1650-1750. Moderate Enlightenment for Israel reached an uneasy compromise with theism and is personified by John Locke among others. Radical Enlightenment carried the project of reason further and its key figure was Spinoza. Having made Israel's distinction, Stewart tries to collapse it. He tries to show that Locke was, in fact, a Spinozist and hid his commitment to Spinoza's philosophical programme behind the waffling, equivocal, contradictory language of his books that will be familiar to those who have struggled with Locke. Stewart doesn't look as closely as he might at Spinoza's metaphysics and its difficulties and at Spinoza's own use of language. In any event the heretical Spinoza, as captured for Stewart in the equivocations of Locke, becomes the founder of the ideas of the American Revolution. A difficulty with this argument is that there is little or no evidence that the American Founders knew of or had read Spinoza. It thus becomes critical for Stewart to transmit Spinoza to the Founders through the works of Locke. The Founders did know their Locke.The book makes a great deal out of two early Americans whose achievements many will find unfamiliar. First, Ethan Allen, the hero of Ticonderoga, wrote, or at least claimed to write, and obscure philosophical book, "The Oracles of Reason" which expressed non-theistic, immanentist thinking. Allen's friend, Thomas Young, was self-taught and a physician and a hero of the Boston Tea Party. Young gets attention in another new book of more historical than philosophical scope by Nick Bunker, An Empire on the Edge: How Britain Came to Fight America. Stewart explores the parallel lives of Allen and Young in part to question the claim made by some scholars that Young wrote Allen's book. Some of this material on Allen and Young is fascinating. On the whole it is overdone and distracts from the flow and force of Stewart's presentation.The book finds the glory and lasting significance of America and its Revolution not in the overthrow of a king but in its efforts to take a transcendental deity and claimed Revelation out of public life. The book is sharp, pointed and eloquent in this aim. Stewart draws another distinction, this time between the "radical" thought of the Enlightenment and the "common" thought of unschooled common sense. He tries to find the source of theism in "common" thought, so defined. The leaders of the Revolution, to a greater or lesser degree were committed to the "radical" project under the term of deism. The tension between "radical" and "common" thought was palpable in the Revolutionary Era and remains so in the United States today. Stewart attributes the American Revolution and the values that make the United States important to "radicalism" -- in freedom, intellectual curiosity, openness, economic opportunity, individual growth, and arts and culture. For the most part, Stewart stays relatively clear of current topical political issues which one cast one position as unequivocally right and the other position is unequivocally wrong.The book brought to mind many discussions I have had with people about issues addressed in this book -- particularly a concern about the return of faith-based religions whether of a "conservative" or a "liberal" cast to American public life. For all their importance and complexity, the religious arguments in this book are done in places in an overly free-wheeling style. I have a great deal of sympathy with the approach and the argument and with Spinoza -- but that may be perceived by some as preaching to the choir.Stewart has written a wonderfully challenging and provocative book for readers willing to make the effort. Not the least of it is his positive portrayal of America, its origins, and its promise, in face of an age of skepticism. Another large value of the book is its commitment to reason and understanding. Stewart rejects postmodernism, the "narrative" theory of understanding and history, and other forms of relativism which sometimes get used to provide an excuse for continued religious thinking. A commitment to reason and the pursuit of truth is refreshing. The book stresses the importance of learning, study, and the life of the mind. It is inspiring to see their importance and their pursuit in this book tied in so well with a discussion of the intellectual foundations of American life.Robin Friedman

  • Bill Thompson
    2019-04-08 22:53

    Meticulously annotated, informed by imposing erudition, Matthew Stewart's book is a lively chronicle of the years leading up to the signing of the Declaration of Independence, especially noteworthy for detailing the unsung contributions (in word and deed) of such revolutionary figures as Ethan Allen and Thomas Young. It is also an admirably lucid survey of radical philosophical thought on the nature of man and the cosmos,

  • Pablo
    2019-03-31 18:12

    I only made it about 250 pages in. While it's fascinating stuff, and well written for the most part (that is generally accessible to relative novices in American history and philosophy) it was a little esoteric and rambling at times. I think it's an important book, if not a little speculative.

  • Douglas
    2019-04-02 17:02

    Some in this country believe the U.S. is a "Christian nation," having been founded by Christian believers on Christian principles. Others believe that the religion of the founders was "Deism," a largely rationalist piety that nonetheless focused religiosity on morality. Stewart's book falls in neither category, and in fact, it thoroughly refutes both points of view regarding the views that gave birth to the founding of this country.The book is a deep and thick historical treatment of the antecedents of the content of the founders' "faith." Stewart makes a compelling case for the notion that the "religion" of the founders wasn't "Deism" unless we qualify that -ism with it's origins in Epicurus and Lucretius and its development in Hobbes, Descartes, Spinoza, Locke, and Leibniz. In short, it was not reasoned belief in a non-theistic but benign cosmic machinist, but rather an enlightened and committed atheism that was largely dissembled for purposes of assuaging ecclesiastical and political authorities. In this work, Stewart offers extraordinary references to these philosophers and their views in the works of all the founders -- Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Madison, Adams, ... and Thomas Young and Ethan Allen. Overall, the argument and the sourcing demonstrate that the American Revolution is a work in progress, and the United States is the fruit not of rational piety or Christian faith, but of reasoned social and political philosophy that gave rise to the modern world.Rarely do I rate a book with five stars. but this one most certainly deserves it.

  • David Goldman
    2019-04-23 17:06

    Stewart's book is a fascinating mix of the history, political theory, religion, and philosophy. His main point is that many of the important founders (Jefferson, Washington, Franklin, Allen, Paine) were "radical Diest" - something is much closer to atheism (or at a minimum Universalism) than traditional christian religions. This philosophy deeply influenced the political structure of our early American republic which included the aim to protect the US from the influence of more traditional religious beliefs. Among his main points- The founders' philosophy has a straight line connection Spinoza and Epicurus, who's influence on Locke is usually underplayed. This philosophy sees God as essentially equivalent to the laws of nature, with no active role to play in human affairs. His chapter on Epicurus is excellent and well worth reading on it's own. - As such, once those laws of nature are established, human reason can be used to figure out the rest.- Stewart provides the Spinoza/Epicurus roots of many of the self evident trues and concepts such as the pursuit of happiness (which can be done only through living a virtuous life, which can be found through reason). - Often the founders' language sounds religious. This is basically a function of different language of the time (e.g. Nature's god was a clear reference to a pantheistic god, not the judo/Christian one, but if sounds very religious today ) and the skill of founders' of avoiding direct chritism from more traditional religionists . According to Stewart, these writings were seen at the times as heretical, atheistic by the religious community.- Traditional religion does a have role - to help the undeducted masses live a more life. But the founders saw traditional religion as basically a tool, not something true in itself.The book does have some important weaknesses. Stewart focuses on a handful of founders (Jefferson, Franklin, Allen, Paine). While very important, there were other key players, and it leaves open the question about the intent of founders as a whole. Also the chapters often seem repetitive and disorganized.Overall the book is a fascinating read for those who like the intersection of ideas and history.

  • Dale Wade
    2019-04-26 23:54

    This, my friends, is what we call reading. Overlooking Stewart's remark in the final chapter, " ... it is absurd to look to philosophers for the explanation of anything other than their own confusions," I not only enjoyed the book, but learned quite a lot.I was confused as well by some chapters, thus the 4 stars, not more. I never heard of Epicurus, and several others. I knew little about Spinoza and Locke. But, as far as people go, the best discovery was about Ethan Allen and Thomas Young. I look forward to further readings about them.Overall, this work provided plenty to contemplate. It gave me reinforcement about the founding fathers and their beliefs from which they produced the words upon which our country was founded. This is a Good Read.

  • Otto Lehto
    2019-04-14 00:17

    An exceptionally great book about the history of ideas. Very scholarly and erudite, so some lay readers may find it dry, but is is written with such passion, eloquence and wit that a lover of truth will feel positively overpowered - and in a good way. For a philosopher, it melts on the tongue like a delicious frothy mouthful of whipped cream.The Epicurean, Spinozist legacy of modernity deserves to be revived - and what better way to do it than by a necromancer of such caliber. The author is a wizard.All hail the Radical Enlightenment! All hail the Empire of Reason! All hail Nature's God!

  • Kevin Moynihan
    2019-04-24 17:07

    Enjoyable book. Too heavy on philosophy for me but the concept of tying philosophy to the various revolutionary figures is very interesting. They didn’t think this stuff up on their own. At its best when he ties the ideas of Ethan Allen, Thomas Young etc. to their actions. At its worst when it goes down the rabbit hole of competing philosophies of the era.Sent from my iPhone

  • Todd Stockslager
    2019-04-18 19:57

    Review Title: In whom do we trust? Based on the supposition that conspiracy theories are acceptable depending which conspiracy and whose theory it is, I suspect there is a segment of the political, historiography, and philosophy community that accepts and applauds Matthew Stewart's particular brand of conspiracy theory. He is writing directly to address those who he believes mistakenly misinterpret or maliciously misrepresent (and leaves no doubt he believes this the motive) America as a "Christian nation" whose founders had an explicitly orthodox Christian theology and intent in establishing the founding principles of the nation as expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. And no, that isn't the conspiracy part of his theory, and as far as a motive it is a valid one even if I and many other Americans don't accept the premise.The conspiracy theory comes in when Stewart tries to prove his point. What we (that is, everyone not named Matthew Stewart) have come to believe was written into the Declaration and the Constitution was not a sincere deism but was actually radical philosophical atheism that was so far around the spectrum that it was sometimes akin to lukewarm Christianity but ultimately nothing like it at all. So every Founding Father whom everyone thought was either a raging Calvinist, a lukewarm deist, or a heretical atheist, was in fact according to Stewart one of these radical philosophical atheists. This revisionist approach also extends to the original sources of the Fathers' ideas: Spinoza, Hobbes, and Locke.A key tenet of a conspiracy theory, Stewart tells us, is "credos and labels" that are worthless without context ("in isolation"), like the labels "atheism", "pantheism", and "deism" that conservative historians have created to identify the "them" in opposition to the "Christian nation" theory they represent (p. 195). Stewart then proceeds to create the credo and label "enthusiasm" for Calvinist Christians in the colonial era Great Awakening without context in isolation and then to write a whole book to attack the "them" he has just labeled.While his "everybody else seems to have missed this" approach becomes off-putting because so often repeated in different ways and context throughout the book, the three tenets of deism as defined by Steward:1. There is a (one) God2. He wants us to be good.3. He punishes, rewards, and forgives.are straight forward and his conclusion of how that deism influenced the young American government is actually hard to argue and well phrased: "True piety in a reasonable world is the pursuit of happiness through the improvement of the understanding. Call it the religion of freedom." (p. 418) In Stewart's equation the pursuit of happiness equals the pursuit of good equals freedom which equals doing what is best or us individually and hence as a society, (p. 290), again not objectionable if somewhat utopian.A major part of the book is taken up by interwoven parallel biographies of Ethan Allen, the backwoods leader who attacked and defeated Fort Ticonderoga, and Thomas Young, an itinerant physician and pamphleteer who popularized much of the philosophical basis of deism. Stewart tells their lesser known (in his conspiracy suppressed) stories to demonstrate the ubiquity of his theory amongst the Founding Fathers (handpicking references from Franklin and Jefferson to prove his point). He brings together all the threads of theory in the chapter "The Empire of Reason" where he uses the 1776 Pennsylvania election and declaration as models of the national Declaration soon to come and the Constitution to be written after ten long years of Revolution.As an explication of the philosophical roots of the Revolution and the prevalence of deism amongst the Founding Fathers, this would be an acceptable history if not for the overreaching conspiracy arguments that force Stewart into unnecessary and obfuscating complexity that detracts from what could have been an interesting study.When Stewart assesses the state of the American Republic today he concludes: "The persistence in modern America of supernatural religion and the reactionary nationalism with which it is regularly accompanied "is proof "that there is still work to be done" in completing the American Revolution of radical philosophical atheism. (quotes from p. 431) While accepting the validity of his motive on the one hand, and on the other the natural suspicion of conspiracy theories by which most have been rendered harmless throughout history, this conclusion is somewhat chilling. Let's hope our American ideals prevail.

  • Justin
    2019-03-28 21:00

    This book reminds me, in so many ways, of a long-period comet. At many points along the 'journey' the reader can see quite clearly a glowing core of radical (Enlightenment) thought that exists in the writings of many of America's Founding Fathers and their contemporaries.  This core burns brightest, in my opinion, as Stewart's account moves within the wider orbits of seventeeth- and eighteenth-century discussions of freedom and the coequivalency of the terms 'nature' and 'God'; discussions which themselves evolved from the Pre-Socratics and ancient Hellenistic schools. The juxtaposition of quotes and philosophical contexts found throughout the chapters show that the first Americans were indeed the intellectual children of Bruno, Gassendi, Descartes, Hobbes, Spinoza and Locke on these important points. Yet, long-term comets also spend a considerable amount of time heading away from the Sun, and so too does This book. Page upon page is devoted to the larger questions of seventeenth-century philosophy: the mind-body relationship, materialism, immortality of the soul, and the nature of revealed religion (to name but a few). Still more distance between the main subject and these 'satellite' subjects appears in the heavy examination of the era's reception of ancient, and particularly Epicurean, philosophy. These lengthy passages left me longing for a return back to the book's main consideration. Chapter Three, 'Epicurus's Dangerous Idea', is a particularly good example of where too much of the history of philosophy crowds out the main concern, leaving the American question far behind and fading into the deep background on seemingly every page. Less may very well be more in instances such as these.There are some bold claims made throughout and two particularly caught my attention: First, '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. So- called Lockean liberalism is really just Spinozistic radicalism adapted to the limitations of the common understanding of things.' This is, in many ways an extension of Jonathan Israel's strong thesis, which posits, contra the history of philosophy in the Anglo-American tradition, that Spinoza is the pivot on which the seventeenth and subsequent centuries turns. Stewart takes the next step by extending the argument to the American colonies. It's a bold extension to be sure but Stewart sells the case convincingly through close textual readings and knocks Locke's contributions down a few pegs in the process. Second, 'Liberalism became possible only after it was understood that souls do not have rights.'A move to link an emergent political philosophy with the wider discussions taking place around the world regarding the soul and the afterlife. This is a claim that is worth considering, for as Stewart argues, if the soul is immortal then governments and religions, which often make claims to owning them in some capacity, can never truly surrender their sovereignty and man can never have any useful notion of freedom to direct his own earthly affairs. In sum, this was a good but long-to-read book and not quite written as advertised. The influence of radical thought is discernible throughout, and the reader will take away that the Founders' God is certainly not what most either assume it is or have been told it is. But like the long-term comet, I felt the discussion strayed far away from the central premise for extended periods, and that as a result, I began to wish that the conversation would quickly return again to where it shone brightest, namely the American reception of radical philosophy. 

  • Daniel Cunningham
    2019-04-08 18:15

    I'm nearing the end of this book and have strongly mixed feelings.As a summary of philosophy and a 'history of philosophy' re: origins of modern democratic thought, it is great. 4 or even 5 stars. As a history of the irreligious origins of America... less so.The problem I keep coming up against is two fold. Stewart will go on at great length discussing the details of some philosophical point, who held that point, and -then, for the length- trace the origins and evolution of that idea from Hobbes, Spinoza, Locke, Shaftesbury, Pope, and then Young and/or Allen... and then (1) buried in discussing popular support and passion because of (or aligned with) these philosophical points are snippets, backgrounds, nods to the fact that these ideas, shorn of some of their religious implications, were popular while religious belief was simultaneously popular and, often, vehement, and (2) that the revolutionary elites themselves were divided similarly.I myself am an atheist, and a firm supporter of the 'heretical' tradition... but as an act of history, I'm not sure that Stewart sells the idea that the US government was founded on heretical... beliefs. This is a somewhat subtle point, having more to do with psychology, perhaps, than philosophy. But it is also a historical point. We're told that some point was championed by a set of 'heretical' thinkers, but that the language then had to be toned down for popular passage, and that some of the thinkers themselves bailed out over the 'atheistic' ideas/language. So... the hereticial/atheistic/Deistic ideas were there, no doubt, but there was popular and elite resistance to them "as such."I think this book is a welcome addition, and something of an antidote to the 'Christian nation' narrative. But it aims at showing that we're instead a 'heretical nation,' and much as I wish that, it fails (and somewhat badly, I think.) Or, if we are a 'heretical nation,' we were founded on an amalgam of heresy, conservatism, and common belief. Which in my mind means we're neither a 'heretical' nation nor a 'Christian' nation.As a history of philosophy, on the other hand, it is a book I will likely reread for its detail and analysis, even if it is very dense in parts.

  • bup
    2019-04-09 18:13

    The United States' founding fathers were not, as a group, Christians, as most even dilettante history readers know. If we want to paint with a broad brush, they were Deists, but there's really no need to paint with a broad br-Oh, what's that? There is a need to do that? And "Deist," if you really know your stuff, actually means "atheist," so all the founding fathers were atheists? And you have to have someone super smart like Stewart to show you how different quotes actually secretly mean "I'm an atheist!"?Or maybe Stewart has an agenda he's emotionally invested in.I loved the first hundred pages, which were really about the founding fathers and the religious environment of the times, then found the next two hundred dense solipsistic sophism*, the questionable conclusion of which was the founders were all atheists who knew better than the rest of the citizens of the country they were founding, and kept their brilliance on this point secret because the world just wasn't ready for their awesomeness. I stuck with the book out of sheer consarnedness.But I'm glad I did. It picked up again for the last hundred or so pages, and made a good case with a strong narrative about the separation of church and state, even if he pauses to say things like when George Washington mentions the nation being religious, he didn't really mean Religious religious, he was using a secret but obvious word that means morals based in atheism.Oh, I went off on a tangent again. If one can mentally numb oneself to that sort of stuff, the peoples' own writings (who he, to his credit, uses liberally) show a questioning, even a dismissal, of many of the supernatural elements of Jesus, and the trinity, and shows people like Ethan Allen to have had surprisingly fertile brains.It was also neat to hear people like John Adams speculating on how many other worlds there must be out in space, and how many inhabitants of those distant places there must be. I love it when John Adams does anything, you know? *Yeah, I know. But I used the phrase dense solipsistic sophism with a chick I was trying to impress, and it seemed to work! Please indulge me.

  • Don
    2019-04-05 16:22

    I enjoyed reading this book, but I do think that its appeal will be limited to certain individuals. The book is truly a joining of history and philosophy, as Stewart traces the history of various philosophical schools of thought and how they support his claim that many of the founders of the United States were, let's say, less than Christian. In this sense, if someone is willing to slog through the lengthy philosphical histories, which includes discussion and analysis from Epicurus to Hume, will ultimately arrive at a better understanding of some of the philosophical origins of the U.S.In some respects, though, it seems like Stewart overstates his case. Perhaps this is because I'm fairly well read on the history of the founding of the U.S., or have a pretty good background in philosophy, but it seems like he spent too much time trying to argue how extreme the concept of deism was at the time as compared to now. In other words, he spends so much time trying to show that deism in the 18th Century was akin to atheism today, that he forgets that even in showing that the founders were deist, by most any definition, is going to support his thesis that the origins of the country were not Christian. And because he spends so much time on the extreme forms of deism, he then spends too much time connecting that philosophy to some of the outliers of the founders - Ethan Allen, Matthew Young, Thomas Paine - which will instrumental, do not make his point as well as connecting the more moderate form of deism to Jefferson, and the moderate forms of its acceptance by individuals like Adams and Washington.That said, the book is very well researched and does convincly make Stewart's arguments regarding the "heretical" origins of the United States. But its not reading for the faint of heart, because Stewart's discussion of the various histories of philosophical thoughts are extensive and thorough. But for anyone who has a particular interest in founding of the United States and philosophy, the book will be enjoyable.

  • marcus miller
    2019-04-25 21:53

    In Nature’s God, Stewart sets out to reclaim America’s founding fathers from religious conservatives who argue the United States was founded as a Christian nation. Stewart examines what Jefferson and the others who wrote the Declaration of Independence meant when they used the phrase “Laws of Nature and Nature’s God.” Stewart focuses on Ethan Allen and Thomas Young, two lesser known characters involved in the events leading to the American Revolution, along with the better known Jefferson, Paine, Madison,Washington, Franklin and some of the Adams. Stewart goes deeper, going on extended discourses examining the thought of John Locke, Spinoza,and the Greeks, particularly Epicurus. This makes it one of those books where it is important to read the end notes. Stewart makes a convincing argument. The problem is, I don’t see a lot of the folks who claim the nation was founded by devout Christians taking the time to read this book. As Stewart acknowledges one can take the seemingly pious and devout statements made by the founding fathers at face value, or one can ask, what did they mean when they used a phrase like “Nature’s God.” Stewart tries to get in the founders heads, using correspondence and other writings to dig deeper and make the case that the majority of the founding fathers were Deists, pantheists, or in some cases outright atheists. I found the first and last chapters the most interesting. In between it was easy to get distracted, sleepy, or both. In the last chapter, Stewart makes the argument that while religion (Christianity) has played an influential role in American history, that for all intents and purposes, the Deists and secularists have won. Using data from the Pew surveys on religion, Stewart points to the many unorthodox Christian ideas held and promoted by what I will call American Civil Religion, a term Stewart doesn't use, but seems appropriate.

  • Eric
    2019-04-19 18:19

    A must read book for anyone looking for an in-depth account of Enlightenment origins of the American republican experiment, contra all the conservative Christian nonsense about the nation’s founders intention to create a Christian nation. Some highlights I find worthy of emphasizing:In the eighteenth century the term “Nature’s God”, found in the Declaration, was a Deist notion of theology. Note the term “God” after the possessive form of “Nature.” It’s essentially pantheism. God = Nature. What Einstein referred to when he said he believed in “Spinoza’s God.”In its heyday Deism was far more a complex philosophical system than the simple definition we think of today as just about “A clock-maker Deity”—a concept that was itself actually hotly debated by Deist thinkers.Deism in turn traces its intellectual origins back to the Epicureans in ancient Greece through Lucretius and up through Giordano Bruno and Hobbes and Spinoza. The Epicureans thought even the God’s were made of atoms, i.e. wholly material beings not overly interested in human affairs.Thomas Jefferson once proclaimed “I am an Epicurean” and owned several translations of Lucretius.Here’s a good irony for modern Republican Tea Partiers: The original tea party rabble-rousers were lead mostly by radical freethinkers like Thomas Young, Ethan Allen and Samuel Adams. Along with Thomas Paine they were considered the “left-wing” of the revolutionaries, always itching for a fight, not just against the British but against the elite power structure in Philadelphia as well, meaning they were looking for a genuine revolution, not just independence. More moderate founders like John Adams worked hard to actively suppress their brand of radicalism.And no, none of the founders were atheists in the sense we use the term today. I’m always annoyed when atheists these days make that ridiculous claim.Lot’s more illuminating material here for the history lover. Well worth the read!

  • Galen Weitkamp
    2019-04-03 00:13

    Matthew Stewart is a full time writer and philosopher. He studied political philosophy at Oxford University and Princeton University and holds a Ph.D. His book, Nature’s God, opens and closes with Ethan Allen’s penning of the Oracles of Reason. The Oracles (often called Ethan Allen’s Bible) set forth this rough hewn mountain-man’s individualistic version of frontier deism. Deism, an outgrowth of the Enlightenment, discredits all notions of revealed knowledge. It doesn’t necessarily discredit the existence of a deity, but it does emphasize that reason and evidence from nature are the only epistemologically viable routes to knowledge. Deists set science, freedom and human rights above superstition, slavery and the divine right of monarchs to rule. We are told the story of how in 1764 at Salisbury, Connecticut, Ethan Allen defied the law by getting inoculated against smallpox. The doctor administering the inoculation was Thomas Young. Such inoculations were outlawed in many colonial towns and provinces because 1) it was thought inoculated persons became carriers of smallpox and 2) inoculating against smallpox was an infringement on God’s purview over life and death. The latter point of view was preached from the pulpits throughout the colonies. Thomas Jefferson, also a Deist, traveled to Philadelphia to be legally immunized against the dreaded disease when he was twenty-three. But the two Deists in Salisbury not only defied the law but flaunted their defiance by performing the ceremony in the town square.This book is about deism in America, its historical and philosophical origins (in the philosophy of Spinoza, Locke and others), its development and deployment in the formation of the revolutionary government that joined the original thirteen colonies and how the natural philosophy of the founders continues to direct our evolving understanding of government, rights, morality and religion.

  • Eric Ruark
    2019-04-11 22:14

    I gave this book 5-Stars for a whole range of reasons, not just because it brought back fond memories of Dr. Tapke's Philosophy 101 course at Washington College back in 1969. This is a book for the hard core history buffs who really like to delve into a specific topic. In Mr. Stewart's case, it is the philosophical bent of certain of America's founding fathers.This book examines the driving philosophy behind men such as Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin, Thomas Paine, Ethan Allen and Thomas Young (the forgotten father who instigated the Boston Tea Party). Mr. Stewart shows that the ideas which inspired these men were neither British nor Christian nor "American" but largely pagan having been derived from the Roman poet Lucretius who espoused the philosophy of the even more ancient philosopher Epicurus.Mr. Stewart expertly connects the philosophical dots between Epicurus, Lucretius, Spinoza, Hobbs, Locke and others to show us exactly how their ideas ended up in such documents as the Declaration of Independence.If you enjoy philosophy, history, and biography, you will love this book.

  • Jamie
    2019-03-28 20:03

    4-/3+. In depth micro-history which focuses on the root tales of the doctrines which lead to the Declaration of Independence and Constitutional anti-establishment provision, emphasis on equality and the rule of law in a modern democracy and the bill of rights. Stewart explains the set of ideas known as Deism to which almost all the Founding Father's subscribed. The book centers around lesser known Founding Fathers, the colorful Ethan Allan and Dr. Thomas Young. Plenty of detailed research, citations to private letters, and funny anecdotes. Stewart's humor makes Nature's God a fun read. Stewart's analysis is strong, much like one should expect from someone with an Oxford Philosophy PHD, which Stewart has. Nature's God bounces around a bit. So, on the first read, I found the structure harder to follow than in Stewart's The Courtier and The Heretic. Chapters are organized mostly around ideas. Lots of good information. (For the theocrat crowd, Nature's God has a long list of writings they can claim were forged or not important, such as the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution's First Amendment.)

  • Pierre A Renaud
    2019-04-24 21:08

    "Stewart’s erudite analysis confidently rebuts the creeping campaign of Christian nationalism to “ ‘take back’ the nation and make it what it never in fact was.” The next time someone like Jerry Falwell asserts that the United States is “a Christian nation,” he’ll have to answer to “Nature’s God.’’ The United States, Stewart writes, was in fact founded by a “club of radical philosophers and their fellow travelers” who were known as deists in their day and today would be called “humanists, atheists, pantheists, freethinkers, [or] Universalists.” — Buzzy Jackson

  • Jim Kisela
    2019-04-09 22:13

    To be honest I couldn't finish this massive tome.The focus on Ethan Allen and Thomas Young, fringe actors on the stage during the Revolutionary War, attempts to show how "radical" and "heretical" the theological and philosophical ideas driving independence were.I found the logic confusing, the characters ordinary, and the direction of the analysis unconvincing. That said perhaps the author pulled it all off toward the end of the book, but he didn't carry me along far enough for me to get that.I already was convinced that most of the influential founding fathers were deists, but Mr. Stewart didn't enlighten me beyond that point.