Denis Diderot: Humanist, Avant-Lettrist, Philosopher, Polymath
A CAN’T MISS FILM: DIDEROT, COCTEAU & BRESSON: Les dames du Bois de Boulogne (1945) is a French film directed by Robert Bresson. It is a modern adaptation of a section of Diderot‘s Jacques le fataliste (1796), telling the story of a man who is tricked into marrying a former prostitute. The title means “the ladies of the Bois de Boulogne“, a park in Paris.
On Jefferson, Diderot and the Political Use of God
By GARY LEUPP
The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.
Thomas Jefferson, 1782
Question with boldness even the existence of a god; because if there be one he must approve of the homage of reason more than that of blindfolded fear.
Thomas Jefferson, 1787
Because religious belief, or non-belief, is such an important part of every person’s life, freedom of religion affects every individual. State churches that use government power to support themselves and force their views on persons of other faiths undermine all our civil rights Erecting the “wall of separation between church and state,” therefore, is absolutely essential in a free society.
Thomas Jefferson, 1808
The whole history of [the Gospels] is so defective and doubtful that it seems vain to attempt minute enquiry into it: and such tricks have been played with their text, and with the texts of other books relating to them, that we have a right, from that cause, to entertain much doubt what parts of them are genuine. In the New Testament there is internal evidence that parts of it have proceeded from an extraordinary man [Jesus]; and that other parts are of the fabric of very inferior minds. It is as easy to separate those parts, as to pick out diamonds from dunghills.
Thomas Jefferson (to John Adams, 1814)
The word itself has a foul sound: “atheist.” It did in ancient Rome, when it referred not to what we today understand as atheists, but to persons who declined to publicly worship the Roman deities. Odd though it may seem, Christians were condemned for their “atheism.” Many contemporary atheists will avoid the word, fearing hostility and misunderstanding, preferring the less provocative “agnostic.” Nevertheless atheists are all around us: people who are quite convinced that things in general don’t exist because some One, for some reason, as an act of will, made them—but because processes unknowable to our minds, preceding the existence of consciousness in general, caused them to happen.
The atheistic premise is simply, and maybe best, articulated by Friedrich Engels: “It is impossible to conceive of thought without matter that thinks.” Some people, having the option of thinking a primal Mind created everything, or else that minds, thoughts, neurological activity, “spirit” etc. postdatethe billions-old existence of much else, choose the latter option. Not necessarily because they want to, out of some willful anti-God inclination, but because they sincerely just can’t buy, not only a specific religious tradition, but the God-assumption generally. Their logic causes them to agree with Ludwig Feuerbach’s contention that humanity made God, not vice versa. Atheists are not bad people. They are just people who think, and their thought takes them to the sober conclusion that no Creator exists, and that conclusion tends to lead to the belief that when you die, and your brain activity ceases, you as a personality are gone forever.
Dr. Newdow’s Suit
One such thinking person, a physician as it happens, is suing the federal government for obliging his nine year old daughter to recite, in school, the statement that the U.S. republic is “under God.” He asks why, if he seeks to share his worldview with his child (as most parents want to share their beliefs with their kids), the state should intervene to promote a contrary view. He asks why, if the constitution mandates a separation of church and state, his daughter’s public school schedule every morning should include a verbal pledge indicating that she believes that she, and her country (indivisible, with liberty and justice for all), is “under God.”
This is a very reasonable question to ask, it seems to me, precisely comparable to the question a devout Christian, Jew or Muslim might ask if his or her child were asked to daily recite, “one nation, without gods, indivisible” Why should schoolchildren have to pledge any opinion on this issue? The pledge is by definition “a promise or agreement” (Webster’s), and when you have states requiring, by law, that kids stand hands-to-chest and publicly promise something—anything at all— “under God,” you’re asking them to either believe that thought preceded matter that thinks (thereby attempting to shape and skew their whole thought process) or to under duress pretend belief (to the advantage of those who really do believe this, and want their kids surrounded by other kids, in tax-payer funded institutions, who will dutifully intone the God-pledge and so shield their own innocents from the troubling existence of doubt and diversity). This is unreasonable.
But surely the Supreme Court will rule against Dr. Michael A. Newdow’s case, filed on behalf of his child. It will say that the inclusion of “under God” in a statement, the recitation of which many states require, does not conflict with the constitutional principle of separation of church and state. Justice Stephen G. Breyer has already suggested that “God” is so inclusive a concept that it should be inoffensive to atheists like Newdow. The doctor responded reasonably, “I don’t believe I can include ‘under God’ to mean no God, which is exactly what I think.” I’m not sure whether Breyer is being profound (drawing upon theUpanishads and the notion that God neither exists nor doesn’t exist, existence itself being a merely human concept); or absolutely stupid, (which Supreme Court justices can by law be); or just arrogantly dismissive of Dr. Newdrow’s argument.
Clearly the function of the God reference—not part of the original pledge but inserted during the 1950s (when schoolchildren were taught that the Free World faced Godless Communism)— is designed to inculcate belief that the cosmos has a Creator that the Republic acknowledges and reveres, and in so doing attaches itself to that which is ultimately powerful, rational, holy and good. Those who promote the pledge should honestly state this point in making their case. The neocons’ ideological mentor, atheist Leo Strauss, stressed that the masses should be imbued with religion, so that they might be better controlled. If they see in the actions of the state the unfolding of the will of the Creator, they will be far more inclined to support those actions than if they see them as the naked power-plays of mere humans—mere millionaires and billionaires— unimpeded by the simple commendable moral sense of the humbly devout, but eminently able to politically exploit it. (Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz know this very well, and have encouraged President Bush to depict their plans for a Middle East empire as a crusade to smite evildoers and do God’s will.)
So the Supreme Court will find no merit in the atheist’s case, will ridicule it as numerous politicians (from Bush to Tom Daschle) have, and will deny that anyone’s freedoms are diminished by the coerced public declaration, dutifully intoned by schoolchildren, of the thesis that in the sky over the U.S. there hovers God, who, even if their parents say nothing about capital-H Him at home, is someone who definitely is, and is important to their teacher (an object of respect) and to their schoolmates. Why, the justices will ask in legalese, should anyone at all, holding any belief system, have a problem with this or see it as a violation of their constitutional rights?
The Religious Views of the Founding Fathers
Religious fundamentalists incessantly repeat that the Founding Fathers of the American Republic were God-fearing Christians. This is simply untrue. They key figures were men of the Enlightenment, religious skeptics, generally persuaded that there was a logical Mind behind the marvelous machine which was the universe, but contemptuous of Biblical literalism. George Washington said little about religion (nothing about Jesus), rarely attended church (when he did, he indifferently visited Quaker, German Reformed and Catholic services) and was willing to hire on his estate “Mohometans, Jews or Christians of any Sect, or Atheists.” Thomas Paine specifically rejected Christianity as a religion abounding “in invented and torturing articles that shock our reason or offend our humanity” John Adams distanced himself from Christianity, asking “when or where has existed a Protestant or dissenting sect who would tolerate a free inquiry?” James Madison blamed the religion for “superstition, bigotry and persecution.” So did Benjamin Franklin. It would be highly inaccurate to term these men “Christians.”
The finest mind among the Founding Fathers, Thomas Jefferson, certainly did not believe that the God of the Old Testament—alternately loving, angry, punitive, regretful of his actions, reconciliatory—really existed out there in the cosmos, or that that God consisted of three parts, or that one part (the Son) had to be brutally crucified in Jerusalem seventeen centuries before his time in order to allow humans otherwise consigned, by that God’s decision, to fry forever, to instead live forever in Paradise if they embraced some suitable version of Christianity. Jefferson indeed dismissed this worldview as nonsensical. He was a keen student of the gospels, found much value in the words attributed to Jesus, and called himself a “Christian” only in that he held (as he wrote in a letter in 1820) “the precepts of Jesus to be the most pure, benevolent and sublime which have ever been preached to man.”
Diderot and the Christian Lady
Among the thinkers who influenced Jefferson (and others among the Founding Fathers) was the French philosophe Denis Diderot (1713-84). In 1814 Jefferson wrote that Diderot, whom he described as an “Atheist,” was “among the most virtuous of men,” whose virtue “must have had some other foundation than the love of God.” (So Jefferson expresses an opinion on that fundamental question: “Can people be good if they don’t believe in God?”) Diderot was among the French thinkers, during what’s called the “Enlightenment” prior to the Revolution of 1789, who pushed against the limits of the Old Regime’s censors in advancing human thought at the expense of irrational religious dogma. What thephilosophes achieved intellectually in the eighteenth century remains the bane of our twenty-first century Back-to-the-Bible neanderthals who wish the Enlightenment had never happened. Diderot authored much of the Encyclopédie, or Encyclopedia, which epitomized contemporary European rationalism and couldn’t help but antagonize the Church. While doing so, Diderot penned a little gem, published under a pseudonym in 1777, entitled “Entretien avec la Maréchale de —–” that has been translated by Lester G. Cocker into English as “Conversation with a Christian Lady.” It is a philosophical dialogue involving a fictitious Monsieur Thomas Crudeli and an aristocratic lady, who like many high-born Frenchwomen of the time was well-educated and enjoyed lively intellectualreparté in her salon.
The philosopher Crudeli happens by, intending to meet the lady’s husband, who is out. But she “at her toilette” courteously entertains his visit. She knows his reputation, and remarks that he’s a man who doesn’t believe in anything. When he confirms this, she asks curiously: “Yet your moral principles are the same as those of believer?” and he replies that they are. “You don’t steal? You don’t kill people? You don’t rob them?” she presses him. No, he replies, so she asks him: “Then what do you gain by not being a believer?”
Crudeli (Diderot) gently disabuses the noble lady of her expectation that nonbelief stems from a desire to engage in wanton crime. He does not aggressively promote atheism, but merely defends his intellectual position, noting in passing that much violence has occurred in the name of religion. But, the increasingly consternated maréchale asks him, “if you destroy religion, what will you put in its place?” He offers no alternative, just noting “there would at least be one terrible prejudice less in the world.” She points out the comfort people derive from the belief in an afterlife. He replies: “I myself do not entertain such a hope. But I do not wish to deny it to others.”
She asks, what if he’s wrong—and he dies and faces a Creator who will judge him? He responds with an allegory suggesting in essence that if, by chance, there is an ultimate intelligence that created the universe, it will not consign to eternal hellfire decent rational people unable, due to their own honest reasoning processes, to recognize itself. She asks him if, if called “before the magistrates” (atheism still a crime in France at this time) he would “tell them the truth?” He says no, he would aver religiosity so as to “spare those magistrates the responsibility for an appalling crime” (that is to say, his own execution). “You coward!” she chides. “And if you were at the point of death, would you submit to receiving the last rites of the church?” “Most conscientiously,” says the atheist. (It is one thing for the religious believer to endure martyrdom confident of a heavenly reward, another for a nonbeliever to nod to religious sentiment, to avoid conflict or make others happy or avoid a pointless death.) “You wicked hypocrite!” She replies.
Maybe she has a point. Maybe people should stand by their beliefs, whatever the consequences. Dr. Newdow (whose public profession of unbelief is fortunately legal in this country, although I imagine he gets a lot of hate-mail) is not a hypocrite. He is not simply averring his atheism, but, two and a half centuries after Diderot, in the country of the religious skeptic Thomas Jefferson, he’s demanding that his daughter not be forced, by the state, to be a hypocrite. Unfortunately, I fear, contra Jefferson, the Supreme Court will reinforce the bridges so far built between church and state, forcing through its theological view and undermining civil rights. The Founding Fathers would not be pleased. (But being dead, it’s likely they aren’t following this story.)
Under God, the “War on Terror”
A common criticism of Islamic societies, widely repeated lately, is that they never experienced an Enlightenment—a movement that could have weakened the hold of religious fundamentalism over the minds of Arabs and other Muslims. The charge is somewhat deceptive. The European Enlightenment of the eighteenth century was largely a correction of the intellectual stagnation bred though centuries of institutionalized Christian dogmatism. The kind of dogmatism that obliged Galileo to back off, under threat of torture, from his heart-felt conviction that the earth (despite Biblical references to its immobility) revolves around the sun, and not vice versa, in 1633. The Muslim world in contrast allowed for free scientific inquiry, and it is largely due to contact with that world that science came to revive in Europe during the Renaissance. Thus so many of our words pertaining to mathematics and astronomy—zero, cipher, nadir, zenith, algebra—come from Arabic. The Muslim world didn’t have a Dark Age from which it needed to emerge.
The widespread illiteracy, backwardness and religious fundamentalism in the present Muslim world results not from specifically Islamic traits, or a benighted past, or the content of the Qur’an and hadith, but power relations in recent history. Poverty, corruption, alliances between local tyrants and foreign patrons who have cleverly used Islamic religious passion when it served their purposes. Once upon a time, U.S. administrations (Carter and Reagan) happily built an anti-Soviet insurgency in Afghanistan drawing on Muslim fundamentalists from all over the world and specifically urged them to see their struggle as a jihad. Few issues were more crucial to these jihadis than the rejection of male-female equality and the maintenance of Muslim clerics’ leadership in society. If there was some prospect for “enlightened” policies in Afghanistan in the 1980s, the U.S. deliberately sabotaged them, delighting instead in the fact that some of the most backward forces on the planet shared its determination to topple secular Soviet-style rule and merge their religious agenda with America’s Cold War politics.
But one shouldn’t stereotype people from “Muslim countries” as religious fanatics. I’ve met lots of Muslims who believe in a Supreme Being but have little interest in or use for Islamic theology, and others who culturally identify with Islam but don’t really embrace religion at all. And in the history of Islam, one finds the occasional expression of deep religious doubt and dissent:
Alike for those who for TO-DAY prepare,
And those that after a TO-MORROW stare,
A Muezzin from the Tower of Darkness cries
“Fools! Your Reward is neither Here nor There!”
So wrote the Persian scientist Omar Khayyam around 1100, this translation provided by the nineteenth-century British Christian Edward Fitzgerald. Khayyam’sRubaiyat abounds with religious skepticism.
The Islamic world has had its skeptics, its Diderots, and has potential to generate more—as does the U.S.A., threatened as it is by Christian fundamentalists who want to blur distinctions between church and state, force worship into our schools, draw on public money to proselytize, bring religion into public health policy, institutionalize homophobia on religious grounds, and make kids publicly swear that they’re “under God”—whether or not God’s here or there, whether or not there’s ever a heavenly reward. We have lots of people, who like the third U.S. president, demand we “question with boldness even the existence of a god” and insist that the preaching of such existence falls outside “the legitimate powers of government.” But the forty-third U.S. president, like the fundamentalists of the Taliban, thinks government should promote religious belief.
“The American people, when we pledge our allegiance to the flag, feel renewed respect and love for all it represents,” said George W. Bush in July 2002, after Dr. Newdow won a decision from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals striking down the “God” reference in the Pledge. “And no authority of government can ever prevent an American from pledging allegiance to this one nation, under God.” (As though “government” was trying to “prevent” rather than promote religion.) This was not long after Bush had used that Pledge (Oct. 12, 2001) to try to get the nation’s schoolchildren behind his “War on Terrorism,” and behind his yet unannounced plans to use 9-11 to attack Iraq.
Stand there with me, kids, and pledge obedience to whatever I, your President, decide to do to smite all this scary evil out there threatening our Homeland. Doesn’t it feel good to all be together, all pledging, all under God?
Bush no doubt rests assured that the justices who upheld his election will uphold the “under God” language as well, and that the Pledge in which it occurs will remain serviceable as his war, rooted in and exploiting both mundane and religious delusions, spreads liberty and justice to all, everywhere under God that U.S. troops can occupy.
Gary Leupp is Professor of History at Tufts University, and Adjunct Professor of Comparative Religion. He is the author ofServants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa, Japan; Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa, Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900.
He can be reached at:email@example.com