East, Katherine A.: Exclusionary Rhetoric: The Language of Superstition in Enlightenment England, 1700-1730

In the debates concerning revelatory and natural religion which dominated early Enlightenment England, there was a rhetorical distinction which was regularly deployed as a means of excluding differing theological stances: the separation of ‘religion’ and ‘superstition’. Utilising a dichotomy which developed in the writings of Plutarch and Cicero, the accusation of superstitious beliefs and practices was used to exclude and discredit certain ideas and their champions, situating them without the sphere of the legitimate, ‘true’ religion. By declaring a position superstitious, it conveyed irrationality, misunderstanding of religious truth, inappropriate or illegitimate rituals and rites, and ultimately an absence of true belief, hence the exclusion from religion. This paper will consider the way in which the rhetoric of superstition, and its contrast to the inclusive notion of religion, was utilised in the debates by both sides as a means of stripping authority from opposing arguments. First, this paper will examine how radical champions of natural religion, such as John Trenchard, Anthony Collins and Matthew Tindal, attempted to appropriate the term superstition and define it as anything which is irrational in religion, and consequently using it to encompass revelation. It will then consider the orthodox responses to these efforts as articulated by men such as Richard Bentley, Francis Hare, and Daniel Waterland, and how they attempted to defuse the exclusionary power of superstition by redefining its meaning, so that their opponents became the enemies not of superstition, but of religion altogether. This forged the means for introducing another exclusionary term into the debate: atheism. This was a dispute which was directed towards determining which beliefs and understandings of God and the universe would ultimately be situated within the sphere of the established Church, and this paper intends to show that the rhetoric of superstition became a shorthand for what could be permitted as true, Anglican doctrine, and what – indeed who - must remain excluded from that significant community.