Thursday, February 08, 2007

Did Voltaire Kidnap Newton's Faith ?

Working on the chapter of Letter to an Atheist that addresses Sam Harris' assertion that religion always seeks to subvert scientific inquiry, I've run across a wonderful new book.

Rodney Stark, now a professor at Baylor, argues in The Glory of God that Isaac Newton (1643-1727) , along with Galileo probably the most influential originator of the Scientific Revolution, was an empiricist who believed that his scientific experiments confirmed the existence of a Biblical God.

Voltaire (1694-1778), living in exile in England from 1726 to 1729, never met Newton, but befriended his heir and niece, Catherine Conduitt. From her he learned of, and later popularized, the apocryphal story of Newton developing the theory of gravity while sitting under an apple tree. An apple falling from the tree, it was said, prompted his thinking on the matter.

Voltaire popularized and championed Newton's empirical scientific approach, but supplanted Newton's Christian faith with his own Anti-Christian Deism. And it is that intellectual legacy that began the perceived split between faith and scientific reason.

Voltaire's own committment to the discovery of truth through the application of reason, of course, is highly suspect, given his virulent anti-Semitism and clear racism towards the black race. A wealthy man through speculations on the French state lottery, Voltaire increased his wealth by investing in the infamous Compagnie des Indes, the government approved slave trading monopoly that transported over 1 million Africans to the French colonies during the 18th century.

Another example of how Sam Harris' vaunted "secular rationality" easily transforms itself into the deification of the rationalist's personal concepts.

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