From Fideism to Pragmatism

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God and the Philosophers

In the Summer 1998 issue of FREE INQUIRY, noted philosopher Paul Edwards launched his comprehensive survey of the thoughts of philosophers about God with "God and the Philosophers: Part 1, From Aristotle to Locke." In Part 2 below, Edwards picks up the story with an examination of the work of David Hume and Immanuel Kant in the late eighteenth century. The development of atheism, materialism, and agnosticism are followed, and Edwards ends with a description of the pragmatist approach of William James. Part 3 will appear in FREE INQUIRY'S Winter 1998/99 issue.

Edwards teaches at the New School of Social Research. He is the editor of The Encyclopedia of Philosophy and a contributor to The Encyclopedia of Unbelief, The Encyclopedia of Ethics, and the Oxford Companion to Philosophy.


David Hume (1711-1776) has sometimes been called a deist, but in fact he was what we would now call an agnostic. His posthumously published Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion contain some of the most incisive criticism of the cosmological and the telcological arguments. In connection with the former he observes that a causal series is nothing over and above the members of the series, so that, if we have explained the origin of each member, there is nothing left to explain. The teleological argument rests on dubious analogies, and in any case it would not give us the omnipotent and perfectly good creator of the Universe. We also have no reason to suppose that there was a time when order of the kind described in our scientific laws did not characterize the universe.

Although not as radical as Hume, Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) had much greater influence on subsequent developments. His Critique of Pure Reason contains a devastating examination of the ontological, cosmological, and teleological arguments. Hume's discussion of the latter two arguments was greatly superior, but Kant's refutation of the ontological argument, which Hume barely touched, was masterful.

As long as Frederick the Great was alive there was no official interference with Kant's publications. Frederick died in 1786 and was succeeded by his religiously orthodox nephew, Frederick William H. Frederick William appointed a bigoted opponent of the Enlightenment by the name of Wollner as his "culture" minister. In 1788 Wollner issued two edicts - the Religionsedikt, which threatened dismissal of all civil servants (including university teachers) who deviated in any way from adherence to biblical doctrines, and the Zensuredikt, which required an official imprimatur for all publications dealing with religious topics. Kant managed to circumvent the censor in connection with his Religion innerhalb der Grenzen der blossen Vernunft (Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone) which appeared in 1793. In October 1794 he received a peremptory notice from the King:

Our most high person has for a long time observed with great displeasure how you misuse your philosophy to undermine and debase many of the most important and fundamental doctrines of the Holy Scriptures and Christianity; how, namely, you have done this in your book, Religion innerhalb der Grenzen der blossen Vernunft, as well as in other smaller works. . . . We demand of you immediately a most conscientious answer and expect that in the future, towards the avoidance of our highest disfavor, you will give no such cause for offense, . . . If you continue to resist, you may certainly expect unpleasant consequences to yourself.

Kant answered that his book had been misunderstood. So far from criticizing Christianity he had declared that the Bible was the best vehicle for moral instruction. He concluded with a pledge not to publish anything that might give the slightest offense: "I hereby, as Your Majesty's most faithful servant, solemnly declare that henceforth I will entirely refrain from all public statements on religion, both natural and revealed, either in lectures or in writings. …