Benjamin Franklin, Skepticism, and The Enlightenment

Franklin never questioned the existence of God, but posited that God could only be known through reason and nature, not (claims of) revelation.

Internal, individual guides to Truth – such as reason or our perception of Nature – have not panned out as Franklin and other skeptics had hoped. They understandably wished to move beyond the violence that had marked religious conflicts since the Reformation. But turning within one’s self for the Truth turned out to be as problematic as depending revelation.

 

As I have written previously at the Anxious Bench, I am skeptical about “The Enlightenment.” This ideologically-freighted term implies the inexorable progress of scientific humanist thought. Beginning in the eighteenth century, the theory goes, such enlightened thinking triumphed over “dark” religious views. Among the Enlightenment’s many problems today is that classic secularization theory lies in shambles in a contemporary world where religion is growing in importance.

Nevertheless, it is true that many young men in the eighteenth century did begin to question church authority, and especially the reliability of biblical revelation. Ben Franklin, the son of Puritan parents, certainly did so, after getting his hands on deist writings as a teenager. Typical of eighteenth-century skeptics, Franklin never questioned the existence of God, but posited that God could only be known through reason and nature, not (claims of) revelation.

I am continuing to investigate how Franklin’s journey played out in the religious biography I am writing about him. At one stage in the 1720s, Franklin proposed that we could not know or approach the one Supreme God. Thus that God had created multiple smaller gods, who were still enormously powerful, good, and wise. One of these was the god who ruled over our solar system, and toward whom Franklin directed his worship.

Most traditional believers as well as skeptics today would find this position deficient, if not laughable. Examples like this call into question reason’s power to lead us to Truth. That problem was obvious in the eighteenth century as well.

I have been reading Robert Zaretsky’s compelling Boswell’s Enlightenmentabout the celebrated Scottish writer James Boswell. Boswell and Franklin took a similar path to skepticism: both came out of Calvinist backgrounds, and both became convinced, through exposure to deistic writings, that biblical revelation was not trustworthy.

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