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History of Philosophy
The Deistic Controversy
by Turner, William (S.T.D.)


Before the time of Locke, Lord Herbert of Cherbury (1581-1648) had advocated a naturalistic philosophy of religion, thus planting the seed of the deistic doctrines which appeared after the days of Locke and found a congenial soil in English empiricism. Deism may be described as a movement tending to free religious thought from the control of authority. Its chief thesis is that there is a universal natural religion, the principal tenet of which is, "Believe in God and do your duty"; that positive religion is the creation of cunning rulers and crafty priests; that Christianity, in its original form, was a simple though perfect expression of natural religion; and that whatever is positive in Christianity is a useless and harmful accretion. These principles naturally provoked opposition on the part of the defenders of Christianity, and there resulted a controversy between the deists, or freethinkers, as they were called, and the representatives of orthodoxy. [18]
[18] Consult Leslie Stephen, History of English Thought in the Eighteenth Century (London, 1876); Hunt, History of Religious Thought in England (London, 1871-1873).
To the deistic side of the argument John Toland (1670-1722) contributed Christianity not Mysterious; Anthony Collins (1676-1729), a Discourse on Freethinking; Matthew Tindal (1657-1733) Christianity as old as the Creation; and Thomas Chubb (1679-1747), The True Gospel of Jesus Christ. Thomas Morgan (died 1743), author of The Moral Philosopher, and, according to some, Henry St. John, Viscount Bolingbroke (1678-1751), are also to be reckoned among the deistic opponents of Christianity.

Chief among the defenders of Christianity were Samuel Clarke (1675-1729), who is best known by his controversy with Leibniz concerning space and time, William Wollaston (1659-1724), George Berkeley (1685-1753), Joseph Butler (1692-1752), author of the Analogy of Religion, and George Campbell (1719-1796).

While this controversy was being waged, the principles of empiricism were being applied to psychology by the founders of the association school, and to ethical problems by the founders of the British schools of morals. As we shall have occasion to return to the beginnings of the association school when we come to deal with the English philosophy of the nineteenth century, we shall now take up the study of the British schools of morals.

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