The Religion of the Founding Fathers and Voltaire

January 31, 2019 by Essay Writer

John Adams wrote in a letter to Thomas Jefferson: “The question before the human race is, whether the God of nature shall govern the world by his own laws, or whether priests and kings shall rule it by fictitious miracles” (Adams & Institute of Early American History and Culture, 1988). Adams’ statement, affirming the existence of God but denying the plausibility of miracles, espouses the philosophy of Deism—a popular school of religious thought during the Enlightenment. Due to Deism’s popularity, many authors and philosophers of the Enlightenment era included aspects of this philosophy in their work. These works have endured the test of time and are constantly being studied and analyzed by scholars. Voltaire can be counted among the Enlightenment philosophers who have included Deism in their works. Elements of Deism found in Voltaire’s Candide had a lasting impact on the thought of the Founding Fathers of the United States, specifically an anti-clerical tone, the ideas of reason over faith, and the affirmation of the existence of a Supreme Being.A brief background history of Deism is needed in order to thoroughly understand the significance of Candide’s impact on the Founding Fathers. Deism is the form of religion most associated with the Enlightenment. It originated in England between the 16th and 17th centuries, and remained prominent there until Voltaire brought the philosophy across the Channel to continental Europe in the early 18th century (Bristow, 2011). As can be seen, Deism as a philosophy spread as the Enlightenment traveled throughout the Western world. As such, the early colonists and Founding Fathers, being avid readers of Enlightenment philosophers including Voltaire and Rousseau, brought Deism to North America, where it remained popular throughout the 18th and early 19th centuries. Deism in America hit a peak in the year 1789 (Morais, 1932, p. 436). Considered to be a form of “natural religion,” Deism holds that God created the Universe according to the natural laws of science that hold true even until today, rather than believing in a supernatural creation narrative such as recorded in Genesis (Bristow, 2011). This is noteworthy because this philosophical system allowed intellectuals of the time, such as Voltaire and Paine, to reconcile a belief in some form of God in spite of their overwhelming passion for reason. In addition, Deists believe that the God who created the Universe does not interfere with any natural processes on Earth. This ideology reconciles a belief in a Supreme Being with belief in scientific reasoning. As such, Deism generally rejects the concept of miracles along with any other supernatural occurrences, such as the divinity and resurrection of Jesus. Institutions such as the Priesthood, as well as any form of organized religion are denounced, since Deists prefer “natural revelation” of their God (Bristow, 2011). This disdain for organized, institutionalized religion shaped the Founding Father’s belief in the separation of church and state, as will be discussed later in this paper.One important aspect of Deism found in Candide is the presence of anti-clericalism. Deism, rejecting miracles and divine intercession, also rejects the need for clerics. As such, Voltaire often satirizes and mocks the clerics found in Candide. While this criticism is not limited to Christian clerics—Voltaire mocks Jewish rabbis and Muslim imams in Candide as well—the most inflammatory remarks are reserved for the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church, which will be discussed further. During Voltaire’s time, the Catholic Church was considered to be an oppressive and backwards institution, and this attitude permeates the rhetoric of Candide.A paramount example of anti-clericalism in Candide is the portrayal of Roman Catholic priests as blood-thirsty monsters. The priests are always shown wanting to punish dissent, especially at the auto-da-fé of Pangloss and Candide. In fact, Candide is punished for merely appearing that he agreed with Pangloss’ purported heresies. Throughout the novella, the Catholic hierarchy is shown to be intolerant and backwards. Voltaire complements this rhetoric in his Philosophical Dictionary: “When a priest says… believe me, or you shall be burned; he is an assassin” (Voltaire, 1764/2012). Venomous language such as the above quote was commonplace during the Enlightenment, and the Founding Fathers wrote similar statements. Thomas Jefferson wrote in a letter to popular pastor Horatio Spafford: “In every country and every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty. He is always in alliance with the despot … they have perverted the purest religion ever preached” (Jefferson & Washington, 1854). It appears here that Jefferson is claiming that priests are antithetical to true worship of God, and that a priest is an enemy both to individual liberty and freedom of religion.Thomas Paine, an avid reader of Voltaire, (Morais, 1932) also wrote in his anthology Theological Works, “Accustom a people to believe that priests and clergy can forgive sins…and you will have sins in abundance”(Paine, 1859). Paine states his concern that a priesthood that can absolve a person of his sins can create a “moral hazard”, where men sin in excess because they know they can be forgiven. From this quote, it is apparent that prefers a religious system where men are held accountable for all their actions. Deism would indeed fit this paradigm.Voltaire also satirizes the clergy by connecting them to sexual impropriety. While many examples of this are evident, such as Cunegonde’s rape by both the Jewish Don Issachar and the Catholic Inquisator, the most robust example of this is the circumstances surrounding the birth of the Old Woman. Candide introduces the Old Woman as the daughter of the fictitious Pope Urban X. Creating a character who is the illegitimate child of the Pope would have been extremely risky for Voltaire, as the Pope is considered to be the holiest figure on Earth by most Catholics. Obviously, this was meant to make a statement on what Voltaire considered to be the sexual immorality of the Catholic Church. However, even he was not bold enough to give an existent Pope an illegitimate child (Beuchot & Voltaire, 1829).The theme of an immoral priesthood was echoed by the Founding Fathers—especially Thomas Paine in The Age of Reason and Theological Works. Paine writes, “When a man has so far corrupted and prostituted the chastity of his mind… He takes up the trade of a priest for the sake of gain” (Paine, 1859). As can be seen in the works of both Voltaire and Paine, rhetoric linking the priesthood to sexual immorality is rampant. Consequently, many of the Founding Fathers saw the Priesthood as an institution that was as diametrically opposed to liberty and equality as they were supportive of it. In addition to holding a primarily anti-clerical stance, Deists generally reject faith-based religion in favor of reason (Bristow, 2011). This extends into Voltaire’s work primarily through the rejection of Leibnizian optimism, which was a philosophical stance that held faith in God planning “the best of all possible worlds” even through times of hardship. Voltaire openly despised and condemned this philosophy, as it ran counter to reason and was based solely in blind faith on a “greater good.” In Candide, Voltaire mocks the idea of optimism primarily through satire. Master Pangloss, the primary Leibnizian philosopher in the novella is often the brunt of Candide’s humor. One of the opening quotes in the novella states, “Legs are visibly designed for stockings— and we have stockings” (Voltaire, 1759/2011, p. 9), along with Pangloss’ description of his Westphalian castle as “the best of all possible castles” exemplifies the ludicrous nature of Leibnizian optimism. As the narrative progresses, Candide begins to question the veracity of blind faith as the narrative progresses, especially after all of the hardships that he and Cunegonde have experienced. He dejectedly tells Master Pangloss, “Oh, Pangloss! Thou hast not guessed at this abomination; it is the end. I must at last renounce thy optimism” (Voltaire, 1759/2011, p. 65). After being beat, raped, and nearly killed, Candide cannot comprehend how a rational mind can claim that all of these hardships are part of the “best of all possible worlds.” Voltaire himself mirrors Candide’s musings in his Philosophical Dictionary: “I beg of you, gentlemen, to explain to me how everything is for the best; for I do not understand it” (Voltaire, 1764/2012). Voltaire writes this because as an Enlightenment thinker, placing blind faith in an unknown ideal would have appeared odd and irrational.In fact, in Candide, Voltaire gives his own conceptualization of how he believes society should function during the time Candide and his native page Cacambo are in Eldorado. This society believes in a Supreme Deity, but not in any mystical powers or magic. The ruler of this civilization bases his policies on rationalism, and acts as a “philosopher-ruler” rather than as a despotic monarch (Bottiglia, 1958, p. 339).Voltaire’s opinion of prayer also is exposed through the El Dorado Episode (Bottiglia, 1958, p. 339). When Candide asks the King in what manner his people pray to God, the wise king responds, “”We do not pray to Him…we have nothing to ask of Him; He has given us all we need” (Voltaire, 1759/2011, p.59). In this model, God has provided for his people when He created the world according to natural laws, but is not a deity that actively responds to prayer. Thomas Paine echoes this quote in The Age of Reason. He questions, “…what is the amount of all his prayers but an attempt to make the Almighty change his mind, and act otherwise than he does?” (Paine & Conway, 1807/2008, p. 22). The main idea of these two writings is to essentially question the necessity of offering intercession to God. Indeed, praying to a Supreme Being seems like an irrational idea—one that would not be received well by Enlightenment thinkers. In addition, why would Deists need to pray to God? Due to Deism’s basic conception of God as the “Supreme Clockmaker of the Universe,” prayer is completely incompatible with this religion. The Founding Fathers reflect Voltaire’s stance on the importance of reason in additional ways through both their writings and their actions. Just as Voltaire rejected miracles, both through his depiction of Eldorado and in his Philosophical Dictionary, (“…in this sense there are no miracles (Voltaire, 1764/2012).), Thomas Jefferson produced works rejecting such events. His Jefferson Bible: The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth can be considered an epitome of Deistic-era rationalism in that Jefferson includes all of Jesus’ parables and moral teachings, yet excludes all unnatural occurrences, including Christ’s Resurrection (Jefferson, 1895). Indeed, Jesus Christ as a philosopher was respected among Enlightenment circles, but Christianity as a religion was reviled. For instance, though he praised Jesus’ efforts to reform the irrational nature of the Jewish religion, Jefferson abhorred Paul’s epistles and other works that he considered to be “Rogueries, absurdities and untruths [that] were perpetrated upon the teachings of Jesus” (Jefferson & Washington, 1854). This disdain for organized religion could very be the reason that Jefferson, among other Founding Fathers, desired a nation that separated church and state. The third and final main tenant of Deism is the affirmation of the existence of God. This is the essential element that separates Deism from other freethinking philosophies such as atheism and agnosticism (Bristow, 2011). Voltaire includes this in his works, including Candide. In fact, nowhere in the novella is the existence of God questioned. While Candide himself questions many aspects of faith and active worship of a Supreme Being, he never doubts the existence of such a Supreme Being. In various places throughout the novella, Candide and the other characters talk about God and take his existence as a given. One such example occurs when Candide is reunited with Cunegonde. Rejoiced at the meeting, Cunegonde exclaims to Candide, “I praised God for bringing you back to me after so many trials…”(Voltaire, 1759/2011, p. 27). Neither this quote, nor any other passage within Candide refutes the existence of God. Likewise, the pivotal “Eldorado Episode,” as mentioned previously, affirms God’s existence.As can be evidenced from Candide, the affirmation of God’s existence is crucial to the philosophy of Deism. Voltaire himself states in a letter to an anonymous atheist author that “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent Him” (Voltaire, 1770). Often Voltaire is identified as an atheist or an agnostic, but this is entirely false. This statement, as well as most of Voltaire’s statements in the Philosophical Dictionary, indicate that Voltaire indeed was a Deist. This is also true of the Founding Fathers. Much confusion surrounds the actual religion of the Founding Fathers, with both atheists and Fundamentalist Christians claiming ownership of them. However, as this paper contends, the Founding Fathers were Deists, as they certainly acknowledged the existence of a God.God’s existence is affirmed in numerous letters and treatises written by the Founding Fathers. Like Voltaire, the Founding Fathers never denounce the idea of a Supreme Being. In fact, the number of Founding Fathers who were Freemasons, including Washington, Franklin, Madison and Lafayette, would have to acknowledge the existence of a Supreme Being as a requisite of that institution. Franklin himself believed that Deism sufficiently fulfilled his requirements of belief in God to join the Masons (Morais, 1933, p.438-439). This explains the historic connection between the Masons and Deism. Thomas Paine also acknowledges the existence of God, while denouncing faith-based endeavors in The Age of Reason: “I would not dare to so dishonor my Creator God by attaching His name to that Book [The Bible]” (Paine, 1859). Through this statement, Paine essentially condenses the whole of Deistic thought into one sentence. He admits the existence of God, and calls Him his “Creator,” however Paine distances himself from the Bible and other Christian writings as these were seen to be irrational and perverse to God.As evidenced in this paper, Voltaire espouses the Enlightenment-era religion of Deism in his magnum opus, Candide. The Founding Fathers, being avid readers of Enlightenment philosophers including Voltaire, were heavily influenced by these works. As such, many early American writings espouse Deistic ideals, especially the works of Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson. Since these two men were instrumental in the formation of the United States, Deism can very well be considered the philosophical backbone of the United States. Such “American” ideals as the triumph of reason, separation of church and state, and importance of individualism all stem from these important Deist roots. In conclusion, it is crucial that Americans remember these philosophical foundations, especially in an era that attempts to romanticize accounts of the Founding Fathers and add information to their lives that is simply not true. By acknowledging the influence of Deism in America’s ideological foundations, Americans can set forth policies and ideologies that are truly consistent with the vision that Voltaire and the Founding Fathers believed in.  ReferencesAdams, J., & Institute of Early American History and Culture (Williamsburg, Va.). (1988). The Adams-Jefferson letters: the complete correspondence between Thomas Jefferson and Abigail and John Adams. Chapel Hill: Published for the Institute of Early American History and Culture at Williamsburg, Virginia by the University of North Carolina Press.Beuchot, M., & Voltaire. (1759). Candide, ou l’Optimisme.Bottiglia, W. F. (1958). The Eldorado Episode in Candide. PMLA, 73(4), 339–347.Bristow, W. (2011, June 21). Enlightenment. In (E. N. Zalta, Ed.)Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Stanford, CA: Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University. Retrieved from, T. (1895). The Jefferson Bible: The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth. Wilder Publications.Paine, T. (1859). Theological Works. J.P MendumPaine, T., & Conway, M. D. (1807/2008). The age of reason : being an investigation of true and fabulous theology. Champaign, Ill.: Book Jungle.Voltaire. (1759/2011). Candide, or Optimism. New York, N.Y.: Chartwell Books.Voltaire. (1764/2012). Philosophical dictionary. Adelaide, South Australia: University of Adelaide Library. Retrieved from (1770). Letter to the author of The Three Impostors. Retrieved from

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