Philosophical and Historical Foundations of American Secularism 9 – The British


Dr. Herb Silverman is the Founder of the Secular Coalition for America, the Founder of the Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry, and the Founder of the Atheist/Humanist Alliance student group at the College of Charleston. He authored Complex variables (1975), Candidate Without a Prayer: An Autobiography of a Jewish Atheist in the Bible Belt (2012) and An Atheist Stranger in a Strange Religious Land: Selected Writings from the Bible Belt (2017). He co-authored The Fundamentals of Extremism: The Christian Right in America (2003) with Kimberley Blaker and Edward S. Buckner, Complex Variables with Applications (2007) with Saminathan Ponnusamy, and Short Reflections on Secularism (2019).

Here we talk about the British and the Americans, and the American Revolutionary War.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: The British Empire produced some of the prominent Western philosophers, empiricists, and others. Obviously, the Americans and the British had a strained relationship for some time. What were some of the statements and ideas of the freethinkers on the American and the British sides during the American Revolutionary War? What were the different reactions to the American Revolution of the 13 colonies and the British Empire? What happened to the secular, men and women, during this time of war – common in American history?

Dr. Herb Silverman: The term freethinker emerged towards the end of the 17th century in England to describe people who stood in opposition to Christian churches and literal belief in the Bible. These people believed that they could understand the world through consideration of nature. In the United States, freethought was an anti-Christian and anti-clerical movement to make an individual politically and spiritually free to decide for himself on religious matters.

John Toland, an Irish philosopher and freethinker in the 18th century, was the first person called a freethinker (by George Berkeley, a Bishop in Ireland). Toland wrote over a hundred books, mostly dedicated to criticizing ecclesiastical institutions. In Christianity Not Mysterious, the book for which he is best known, Toland challenged not just the authority of the established church, but all inherited and unquestioned authority. Because of this book, he was prosecuted by a grand jury in London. The Parliament of Ireland proposed that he should be burnt at the stake, and in his absence three copies of the book were burnt by the public hangman.

British deists and freethinkers including John Toland, Anthony Collins, and Matthew Tindal focused on the human roots of Judaism, Christianity, Islam and ancient Paganism. They advocated tolerance and freedom of thought and fought against the influence of Christian doctrine on political and social life. They also denied the supernatural foundations of Christianity and analyzed the Bible with the aim to promote the free search for truth. They helped bring about Enlightenment views of religion and the secularization of Europe.

John Locke, who was British, inspired both the American and French revolutions. His arguments concerning liberty and the social contract motivated written works by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and other founding fathers of the United States. One of Locke’s passages is reproduced verbatim in the Declaration of Independence, the reference to a “long train of abuses.” Thomas Jefferson wrote, “Bacon, Locke, and Newton. I consider them as the three greatest men that have ever lived.”

Locke’s theory of the “social contract” influenced the belief of many founders that the right of the people to overthrow their leaders was one of the “natural rights” of man. He also argued that all humans were created equally free, and governments therefore needed the “consent of the governed.” Many scholars trace the phrase “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” in the American Declaration of Independence to Locke’s theory of natural rights. At the time of the American revolution, the belief that rights came from God was widespread. British citizens believed in the divine right of kings.

Unlike many American founders, Locke was not a deist or a freethinker. He was a theist who accepted the cosmological (first cause) argument for the existence of God. Had Locke been born in our time, he might well have been an atheist.

Locke also had a strong influence on the French deist Voltaire, who called him “le sage Locke.” Voltaire’s major contribution to our founding fathers was his tireless quest for civil rights and his support for freedom of religion as well as separation of church and state. Voltaire’s reasoning may be summed up in his well-known saying, “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.” But my favorite quote of Voltaire is, “I have never made but one prayer to God, a very short one: ‘O Lord make my enemies ridiculous.’ And God granted it.”

Many Americans at the time of the Revolution were attracted to “secular millennialism,” a belief that we would someday be transformed into a utopian world of peace, justice, prosperity, and fellowship. The focus is on “worldly” transformation as opposed to “other-worldly” promises of spiritual salvation after death. Such predictions of America’s destiny came from people like Thomas Paine and his enormously influential pamphlet Common Sense. The pamphlet’s millennial-style passages include “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.” Paine added, “The birthday of a new world is at hand.” In Paine’s view this new world would be far from theocracy, grounded not on ecclesiastical authority, but on the principles of a democratic republic and equal rights.

While religious ideology was an important inspiration for many Americans, the military of the new American nation had no religious policy. Soldiers mostly appeared to have been indifferent to the religious consequence of the Revolutionary War. The war was over the birth of a new nation, rather than a new nation-with-church. Both the British and American sides tried to recruit Americans from every background for their cause. For many Americans, the ecclesiastical tyranny of tax-supported religious establishments was another form of oppression they were fighting against

The American Revolution hurt the Church of England in America more than any other denomination because the King of England was the head of that church. Anglican priests in America swore allegiance to the King. The Book of Common Prayer offered prayers asking God to give the king victory over all his enemies. In 1776, the King’s enemies were American soldiers and loyalty to that church could be construed as treason. So, Anglicans in America revised The Book of Common Prayer to conform to political realities, eliminating allegiance to the king.

The Franco-American Alliance brought thousands of French troops onto American soil, exposing American soldiers to advanced forms of freethinking and anticlericalism. The American Declaration of Independence, Bill of Rights, and Constitution of the United States also inspired the French revolutionaries of 1789, offering an example of liberty for the world and an example for modern constitutional democracies. The French Revolution motivated people to put irreligious ideas of the Enlightenment into practice and later extended beyond France to other European countries, and to the American colonies. For Americans at that time, irreligion more often took deistic rather than an atheistic form.

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Dr. Silverman.

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