Robert Owen – Positive Deist?

In the lists of famous deists of the past, Robert Owen is, as far as I can discern, never mentioned. I suppose, as the father of British Socialism, he is too closely related to atheistic communism to be thought of in that light. However, Owen, despite being a vociferous opponent of the irrationalities and extravagances of revealed religions was nevertheless a staunch supporter of religious freedom. His idea of rational religion is captured in some of his writings of which I will mention just two here.

In a lecture he gave to the Mechanics’ Institute, London in 1840, he concluded a discussion about misrepresentation of his “Rational System of Society” with the following remark

My opinion then is, as I have often stated, that there is a Power which directs the atom and controls the aggregate of nature; a Power, in fact, which governs the universe as it is governed: but what this Power is, or what is the essence of the qualities which compose it – no man knows – the united experience of the world has not yet discovered.

In the same year, he published his Manifesto in which Law 12 states

That all facts yet known to man indicate that there is an external or internal Cause of all existences, by the fact of their existence; that this all-pervading cause of motion and change in the universe, is that Incomprehensible Power, which the nations of the world have called God, Jehovah, Lord, etc., etc.; but that the facts are yet unknown to man which define what that power is.

In the same document, his Law 11 stipulated

But all, of every religion, shall have equal right to express their opinions respecting the great Incomprehensible Power which moves the atom and controls the universe; and to worship that power under any form or in any manner agreeable to their consciences – not interfering with others.

and Law 9 held that

No one shall have any other power than fair and friendly argument to control the opinions or belief of another.

It all sounds pretty much like Positive Deism to me. Perhaps the failure of communist socialism is partly attributable to the exclusion of this kind of thinking from the socialist utopias of Marx and Engels? Please no political comments here – I am referring to their ideas of utopian societies – Owen’s obviously had a place for religious belief and Marxism obviously did not. But the key idea I am trying to get across is that Owen’s utopian religion was both rational and positive and he looked to science rather than revelation as the foundation of rational religious beliefs.

Having said all that, in his eighties, Owen turned to spiritualism, but the departed spirits to whom he turned for counsel from beyond the grave included those of Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, so perhaps he (and they?) had not abandoned Deism altogether.

I am indebted to the author of this blog for the idea for this post.


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