Thursday, May 19, 2011

Adam Smith on Natural Religion

[I found these notes from my manuscript papers written at various times and related to my current project ' Adam Smith On Religion', now nearing a close, as my first draft is completed (and some 600 words over my allotment from the editor.]

A former student, John Ramsay, who described Smith as a friend of ‘Hume the atheist’, claims that Smith ‘petitioned the Senatus … to be relieved of the duty of opening his class with a prayer’, but that his “petition”, was rejected (Ramsay 1888, 462-63) John Rae comments that: “no record of the alleged petition ... and its refusal remains in the College minutes” and speculates that it was “but a morsel of idle gossip” and indicative of “the atmosphere of jealous and censorious theological vigilance in which Smith and his brother professors were then obliged to do their work” (Rae 1895, p 60). The alleged petition is indicative of Smith’s attitude to Christian worship, and the alleged petition was more likely an expression of his opinion at a Senate meeting, of which he was a member.

Either way, Smith continued with the opening prayers, the content of which was left to him, causing Ramsay to assert that ‘[Smith’s] opening prayers’ (compulsory for the day's lectures) were always thought to ‘savour strongly of natural religion’, that ‘his lectures on natural theology were too flattering to human pride’ because they induced his students to ‘draw an unwarranted conclusion, viz. that the great truths of theology, together with the duties which man owes to God and his neighbours, may be discovered in the light of nature without any special revelation”.

Smith’s Moral Philosophy series of lectures which opened with Natural Religion (Stewart [1793] 1980, I.17.: 274), are now lost, so we cannot assess Ramsay’s veracity; however, his assertions accord with the implicit conflicts in doctrinal theological tensions between the works of God in Nature, as understood by individual practitioners of natural philosophy (science) and the Word of God in the Scriptures, as interpreted by the fundamentalist Christians zealots who dominated the Church. In these disputes, John Calvin, approved of the study of the physical world; he positively commended the study of astronomy and medicine, because they showed ‘evidence of the orderliness of the creation and the wisdom of the creator’ (McGrath, 2005, 259).

Smith was among those who took up the challenge, first signified by the time to research and to write his History of Astronomy (published posthumously in 1795), and then kept it safe and from the fire that he ordered for all of his other papers, when he died in 1790 (ESP, 1744 - c.50). Like many others, especially in the more secular times of the Scottish Enlightenment, when he began his drift away from Revealed Religion to Natural Philosophy, while an undergraduate student at Oxford (1740-46).

Ramsay’s brief comments claims that ‘[Smith’s] opening prayers’ were always thought to ‘savour strongly of natural religion’, that ‘his lectures on natural theology were too flattering to human pride’ and that they induced his students to ‘draw an unwarranted conclusion, viz. that the great truths of theology, together with the duties which man owes to God and his neighbours, may be discovered in the light of nature without any special revelation”.

From John Ramsay’s critical memoirs of the themes with which Smith addressed his students on Natural Theology and on the content of his opening prayers, Smith stepped beyond the narrow confirmatory proofs of the existence of God in nature and showed that biblical revelation was not necessary to discover ‘the great truths of theology’ or of ‘man’s duties to God’, as Calvin had intended. But the theology of revealed religion was a core belief of the Scottish Protestant Church to which Natural Theology was definitely subordinate, and yet Smith essentially denied the necessary primacy of the core belief – and one of his students remembered it years later when writing his memoirs, but, fortunately for Smith, the Glasgow Presbytery did not hear of it, otherwise young Adam Smith could have been in serious trouble. In these circumstances, there may be little mystery about the non-survival of his lecture notes on Natural Religion. Also, possibly, Smith confined his most irreligious remarks to his morning prayers, delivered in his extemporaneous style, and deliberately left no firm evidence of his heresies that could be used against him. The zealots had charged three successive Professors of Divinity (Simson, Hutcheson, and Leechman) with 'heresy', and were ever vigilant of those they regarded as too liberal or too modern.

See: Ramsay, J. 1888. ‘Scotland and Scotsmen’ in the Eighteenth Century from the Mss of John Ramsay, Esq. of Ochtertyre, ed. Alexander Allardice, Vol 1 (of 2), Edinburgh: William Blackwood.

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