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Food for Thought

The Comet Cometh

Tim Madigan hears Pierre Bayle’s 17th century plea for religious toleration.

“Comets, importing change of times and states,
Brandish your crystal tresses in the sky,
And with them scourge the bad revolting stars
That have consented unto Henry’s death!
King Henry the Fifth, too famous to live long!
England ne’er lost a king of so much worth.”

– Shakespeare, Henry VI, Part One

Recently the night sky has been filled with meteors and asteroids coming uncomfortably close to the Earth, or even landing on us, as the Chelyabinsk meteor in Russia did in February 2013. Comet Lovejoy (or C/2011 W3 for the less romantic) fascinated stargazers for much of 2011 and beyond. But just what do such celestial sightings mean? Are they portents of things to come, messages from an angry God telling us to repent, or perhaps auguries of doom?

In his 1683 work, Various Thoughts on the Occasion of a Comet, French philosopher Pierre Bayle (1647-1706) tackled these very questions head-on, poking fun at popular superstitions connected with panic over objects in the sky. Like an anti-Chicken Little, he argued that all such appearances must have a natural basis, and should not be interpreted as any more than that. They are not messages from a Divine Being. Bayle went further, taking the opportunity to argue that a society of atheists would be every bit as virtuous – if not more virtuous – than a society of religious believers.

This was a rather unorthodox stance for the time, to put it mildly. Bayle’s arguments had a profound effect upon such skeptical and humanistic writers as David Hume, Voltaire, and Ludwig Feuerbach [see ‘Brief Lives’ this issue – Ed], and he is considered by many to be a father of the Enlightenment. Ironically, Bayle was most probably a devout Calvinist, who sincerely believed that most people were damned to Hell. Richard Popkin, who studied Bayle’s writings extensively, finally concluded that “The biographical data would suggest that, barring some strange private joke, Bayle was committed to some aspects of the French Reformed Church. He persisted in belonging to it, and proclaimed his sincere adherence to it” (Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Vol. 1, p.61, Macmillan, 1967). Yet Bayle offered one of the most courageous and well-argued defenses of toleration ever written, and he continues to be a provocative influence for freedom of thought and ideas of the separation of church and state.

Comets & Controversies

The appearance of comets still often generates considerable fear and trembling. I can attest to this myself, for in 1996, when I was an editor at Free Inquiry magazine, I received an article from a fellow named Thomas Bopp, an amateur astronomer living in Arizona. Along with Alan Hale, director of the Southwest Institute for Space Research, he had co-discovered a distant comet, which they had determined would make its closest approach to the sun in March 1997, and would be one of the brightest ever seen by the naked human eye. Appropriately named ‘Hale-Bopp’, the comet, Mr Bopp predicted, would likely elicit a great deal of attention. His fear, and the purpose of his contacting me, was that much of the coverage would be on the kooky side: rather than using the event as a way to further science education by being a ‘teaching moment’ to encourage people to learn more about comets and other such heavenly bodies, he felt that the popular media would likely use its appearance as an occasion to revive old superstitions about the end of times or portents of coming disaster.

We published his article in late 1996, and I had the chance to meet him at his personal observatory and view Hale-Bopp on his telescope, shortly before it entered the general consciousness. Little did either of us guess just how weird things would get once Hale-Bopp became better known. The most infamous connection was the Heaven’s Gate cult, a doomsday group based in San Diego who felt that a UFO was hidden behind the comet, and who committed mass suicide in order to somehow board it.

If the sudden appearance of a comet in 1997 could have such a bizarre impact, imagine how earlier appearances were conceived before the days of telescopes and astronomical knowledge. Many people during Bayle’s time fervently believed that comets were miraculous events ordained by God to upset the order of the universe for some Divine Purpose. That conception was the chief target of Bayle’s controversial first book. Originally written in 1682 as an anonymous series of letters about the Great Comet of 1680, in 1683 he published them in a book under his own name. It was an instant bestseller and made him a well-known figure in the theological debates of his day. (Bayle would later become even more famous for his Historical and Critical Dictionary, which had a tremendous influence on the Enlightenment.)

Bayle initially wrote the letters under a pseudonym while teaching in Sedan, France, pretending to be a Cartesian Catholic writing to a professor at the Sorbonne. This fooled the authorities – something he became quite good at (in his Dictionary, he put his most controversial statements in the footnotes, believing, rightly, that the censors would most likely not bother to read them). In the letters, he argued that comets must obey astronomical laws not yet discovered. It is astronomers, not clerics, who would best understand the reasons for such appearances in the sky. He compared this with the prestige of pagan priests, who were obsessed with astrology and gave fatuous arguments for why and when comets appeared. (It should be noted, this preceded Edmond Halley’s work by twenty-five years.)

His Various Thoughts is based around the popular hysteria over the comet, but it is a rich work, and argues against all manner of superstition and dogma. This is not surprising, as Bayle was at the center of the religious controversies of his day. His father had been a Calvinist pastor, and as a Protestant was persecuted for his beliefs in Catholic France. Pierre first went to a Calvinist school, but later attended a Jesuit College, where he converted to Catholicism. There was great social pressure on Protestants to do so, as well as financial and social rewards for those who did. It seems, though, that Bayle was motivated primarily by intellectual integrity; as demonstrated by the fact that shortly after he went back to Calvinism! Not surprisingly, this made him persona non grata with both the Catholic and Protestant communities in France, and he fled to Calvinist Geneva. He did return to France for a time, but wisely moved to the more tolerant Holland, where he was to spend the rest of his life.

Moral Commentary

It soon becomes clear in his Various Thoughts that he is making comparisons between ancient pagan and contemporary Christian authorities. Their modus operandi are similar: both are secretive, seizing on signs and wonders to shore up their power, interpreting sacred writings to their own benefit, and persecuting those who differ. They both engage in the age-old logical fallacy known as post hoc, ergo propter hoc (‘after this, therefore because of this’ [event]), and if their predictions prove wrong, they simply ignore them and move on. If pagans degraded the gods by making them partisan to their crimes, so too do Bayle’s contemporary authorities, both Catholic and Protestant, degrade God.

Bayle then asks an interesting question about the frequent comets appearing between the years 1665-1680: Ought such signs to occur that often? Don’t they lose much of their force when we become so used to them? And why exactly are we seeing so many of them now? Is it because they are more frequent, or is it because scientific advancements have made it easier to spot them? Above all, why are comets seen initially only by astronomers, who are often not very religious? Why would God allow them, of all people, the first glance, since they are unlikely to preach repentance to the world? Unbelievers, Bayle wisely notes, are the least likely to be moved to change their evil ways by celestial appearances.

It is here in the mid-section of Various Thoughts that Bayle makes his most controversial point. Surely nonbelievers in God should be more likely to act immorally, given that they do not feel that the Divine Eye is cast upon all their actions? And yet Bayle provides an overwhelming number of accounts of virtuous unbelievers from antiquity to the present day; and an equal number of accounts of religious horrors. The Crusaders, for instance, were devout Catholics, yet they committed unspeakable atrocities, all in the name of God.

There is a fascinating paradox in Bayle’s argument: he apparently felt that a true atheist should be a libertine, just as a true Christian should be virtuous. The fact that the evidence often goes the other way is proof, he holds, that at all times the majority of people are motivated by their passions, not by their reason (a theme that David Hume, who was well familiar with Bayle’s work, would pick up on). Many liberal Protestants at first assumed that he was agreeing with them that superstition should be stripped from religion, and Christianity demythologized. But he attacked them too, arguing that reason and religion are not compatible, and that attempts to found a theology on logic would never succeed. He later joked that he was of course a good Protestant, because he protested against everything that anyone thought or did.

Given the perverse nature of human beings, Bayle argued, perhaps all one could truly hope for was a reliance upon God’s grace. Luckily for all of us, God has placed a sense of virtue and vice in all people’s hearts. How best to cultivate such sensibility was foremost in Bayle’s thought, for he lived in a time when one’s religious beliefs could well determine one’s existence. In 1685, King Louis XIV of France ordered the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, which meant that Protestants in that country lost all of their rights. While Bayle wisely fled to Amsterdam, his family remained in France, and suffered greatly for it. His brother was imprisoned and tortured, and died partly as a result of Pierre’s writings; something which tormented Pierre for the rest of his life.

Bayle became a strong advocate of tolerance. Going further even than his contemporary John Locke, he argued for the universal toleration of belief of all groups: Jews, Muslims, Catholics, even atheists, should be allowed to live in peace. If God is truly good and just, He will see that all get their proper rewards and punishments in the world to come. There was no need to perpetuate a Hell on Earth for unbelievers.

So as comets and meteors come near the Earth, it is right to reflect on the paradoxical Pierre Bayle, who kept his good humor in times of bigotry, and managed to upset rationalists and religious devotees in equal measure. His eloquent and sincere defense of tolerance is still timely in our day and age, when sectarian differences continue to enflame passions. When it comes to vicious behavior, he notes that the fault lies not in our falling stars, but in ourselves.

© Dr Timothy J. Madigan 2014

Tim Madigan’s motto is “Keep watching the skies!”

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