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Eighteenth-Century Studies 35.2 (2002) 323-325
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The Most Perfect Protestant:
Romantic Politics and Religion
Eric W. Nye,
University of Wyoming
!IR" Martin Priestman. Romantic Atheism: Poetry and Freethought, 1780-1830 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999). Pp 307. $59.95 cloth. "
Robert M. Ryan. The Romantic Reformation: Religious Politics in English Literature 1789-1824 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997). Pp 292. $64.95 cloth.
For years the study of religion and Romanticism has worked backwards from its teleology in high Romantic transcendentalism. Impressive results have been achieved such as M. H. Abrams' Natural Supernaturalism (1971). But these two recent and complementary volumes study the genesis of Romantic religion in the political turmoil of the late eighteenth century and thereby open up a rich new vein of primary material, less idealist and more Enlightenment. Both see religion wedded intimately with political revolution, aiming to reform or supplant a bland ecclesiastical establishment in England. Ryan finds revealing prototypes, too, in the religious reform of Milton's time. In both epochs religion was an agency of social change, not social stability. He reminds us of Burke's ironic declaration, "A man is certainly the most perfect Protestant who protests against the whole Christian religion" (46), and the spirit of that protest is tracked here. The revolution would be won in the hearts and minds of the people, and there for the most part religion stood guard. [End Page 323]
The fool may say in his heart, "There is no God," but Priestman assembles an array of atheistic thinkers who hardly seem fools. Atheism is a slippery term, resisting definition except in contradistinction from religiousness. Still, he maintains that many of its declared adherents after 1782 were attacking religion because they "believed there was something better." That attack is defined in political terms that leave a conceptual vacuum where dogma used to be. Yet vacuums tend to get filled, and Priestman supplies the dogma of humanism--"a belief in the power of, and necessity for, human meaning out of the known facts of nature rather than the unknowable postulates of religion" (6)--as a common substitute. Of course, those "known facts" and "unknowable postulates" are the very battleground of the most serious Romantic debates about religion, and to dismiss them in favor of an atheistic counter-ideology may indeed seem dogmatic.
Yet this godless company developed its own rhetoric of religious subversion and a very respectable literature of coded protest. Priestman identifies certain recurring strategies: comparative mythography, celebration of prolific energy, antinomianism, Lucretian materialism. His opening narrative of contention among atheists 1780 to 1800 features Joseph Priestley as "one of the stars of this chapter and indeed this book" (12). Priestley illustrated the options open to infidels in his controversies with opponents who were both too orthodox and too heretical. Nothing could more clearly evince the importance of Priestley's Unitarian opinions than the attack upon them in William Hamilton Reid's The Rise and Dissolution of the Infidel Societies(1800). The seeds of infidelity had been well-planted and nourished to some extent by its reactionary opponents.
Before engaging the Romantic poets, Priestman examines a trio of poet-philosophers all inheriting a Lucretian skepticism. Sir William Jones served as a jurist in India where he became "the leading Orientalist of his day" (49). Though he mingled in circles of freethinking, his faith remained Christian "with a strong deist inflection" (50). His hymns to various Hindu deities, accompanied with prose arguments and explanations, showed sympathy for comparative religions while affirming the "special status of Christian revelation" (54). Richard Payne Knight offered no such affirmation. Participating in the Society of Dilettanti, Knight combined sexual libertinism with anticlerical mockery and declared the prototype of all human religions in phallic cults in his controversial The Worship of Priapus(1786). The energy celebrated here in sexual terms reoccurs in Knight's other works in aesthetics and social theory as an alternative to religion. The most Lucretian of the trio isErasmus Darwin who imaginatively replaced biblical etiologies with his own syncretistic myths. Drawn from the experiments...