Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Laurie on “Famous Last Words”

There is a long history of false claims of deathbed conversions becoming popular among what we might loosely call the religious right. From Jefferson to Darwin to Bertrand Russell, it seems that no man whose beliefs conflict with those of the faithful can be allowed to die without the fashioning of stories about how their last moments were filled with terror at the thought of hell and how they cried out to God and converted on the spot, admitting that all that they had believed was untrue. So when I came across this article by Greg Laurie in the Worldnutdaily about “famous last words”, I just had to read it.

To Laurie’s credit, he doesn’t repeat the ridiculous Lady Hope story of Darwin’s deathbed conversion. He also leaves Jefferson alone, thankfully. And while he doesn’t claim that Voltaire converted, he does try to build some sort of moral lesson into his death through his nurse:

And on his deathbed, a nurse who attended him was reported to have said, “For all the wealth in Europe, I would not see another atheist die.”


What this is supposed to highlight other than the nurse’s ignorance, I have no idea. Of course, it also highlights Laurie’s ignorance, as he also declares Voltaire to be an atheist:

History tells the story of the renowned atheist Voltaire, who was one of the most aggressive antagonists of Christianity.

But Voltaire was not an atheist, renowned or otherwise. He was a deist (he actually used the word for “theist” instead of deist) who believed strongly in a Creator to whom we owe a moral obligation. Laurie here simply makes the most common mistake made by fundamentalists, assuming that anything non-Christian is atheism.

Comments

  1. #1 Dave Snyder
    July 15, 2006

    Ed,

    I think you’re on to some sort of intellectual/narrative tendency among the fundamentalist faithful.

    For years my sister and I were told by my fundamentalist father’s family that my Jewish mother experienced a conversion on her deathbed, asking Jesus to take her home literally with her last words.

    Of course I believed it, until I became an adult and learned that my mother was not nearly so weak-willed.

  2. #2 386sx
    July 15, 2006

    He was a deist (he actually used the word for “theist” instead of deist) who believed strongly in a Creator to whom we owe a moral obligation.

    Voltaire didn’t care about whether or not atheists were right about the existence of God. He was against the idea of atheism, period. He thought it was bad for the social order.

    “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.”

  3. #3 Chris Noble
    July 15, 2006

    The phenonemom is not just restricted to Christian fundamentalists.

    Louis Pasteur is supposed to have said “.. the microbe is nothing, the terrain is everything” on his deathbed.

    I provide a typical reference for this claim.

    http://www.whale.to/v/pasteur.html

  4. #4 Nick
    July 16, 2006

    I don’t suppose Laurie has read Voltaire’s Dictionnaire Philosophique, where he imagines going to Heaven and seeing the last judgement:

    [My readers] will easily believe me to have been dazzled; but will not so easily believe that I saw the judgement of the dead. And who were the judges? They were all those who have done good to mankind. Confucius, Solon, Socrates, Titus, the Antonines, Epictetus, all the great men who taught and practiced the virutes that God requires and were the only one who had the right to pronounce his decrees.

  5. #5 Bartholomew
    July 16, 2006

    I’m not so sure about the deist Voltaire. I found this quote from Theodore Besterman in my Penguin copy of the Philosophical Dictionary (1971 page 58, n3), after Voltaire mentions “the divine majesty”:

    As usual, Voltaire’s polemical writings cannot be taken at their face value; it is the present editor’s opnion that Voltaire was himself for all practical purposes an atheist; see my Voltaire (1969), chapter 17.

  6. #6 Ed Brayton
    July 16, 2006

    Bartholemew-

    That far more likely reflects Besterman’s bias and not reality. I’ve heard the same thing said about Paine and Jefferson as well, and both fervently believed in God (just not the Christian one).

  7. #7 Mike Horn
    July 16, 2006

    Ed,

    I found this blog a LONG time ago searching for information on Bill Hicks. There’s hardly a day that passes (especially with all the war news) where I don’t recall and share with others a few lines from one of his routines.

    During that search for information I remember reading an interview that ended by briefly mentioning how Bill went through a death bed conversion to appease his father. Do you recall reading anything like this?

    From “Rant in E-Minor”:

    “The whole image is that eternal suffering awaits anyone who questions God’s infinite love. That’s the message we’re brought up with, isn’t it? Believe or die! ‘Thank you, forgiving Lord, for all those options.’”

  8. #8 Ed Brayton
    July 16, 2006

    Mike:

    No. In fact, his father has said in interviews that Bill stopped talking two weeks before he died. He called up everyone he’d ever been friends with and gave them a message. The last one was Laurie, an old girlfriend. And after he reached her, he told his parents that he had said everything he wanted to say and he never spoke another word. That story comes straight from his parents, so that would conflict with any conversion. Hicks firmly believed in God, of course, just not the Christian one.

  9. #9 Mike Horn
    July 16, 2006

    Thanks Ed. I’ll have to find that interview because it left me really confused when I read that.

  10. #10 386sx
    July 17, 2006

    “[W]hen I see a watch with a hand marking the hours, I conclude that an intelligent being has designed the springs of this mechanism, so that the hand would mark the hours. So, when I see the springs of the human body, I conclude that an intelligent being has designed these organs to be received and nourished within the womb for nine months; for eyes to be given for seeing; hands for grasping, and so on.” — Voltaire (!)

  11. #11 Roman Werpachowski
    July 17, 2006

    Voltaire wrote many other stupid things, like praising the Russian authoritarianism and the partitions of Poland.

  12. #12 RickD
    July 17, 2006

    I think we can forgive Voltaire for not anticipating the theory of evolution, which didn’t develop until 75 years after his death.

  13. #13 Jason Kuznicki
    July 17, 2006

    Bestermann is certainly an expert on Voltaire. But then, so am I, and I disagree with him here. As evidence for my side, I would present Voltaire’s short story called “The Story of Jenny the Atheist.” The progagonist goes from Christian belief to atheism, and her morals go from bad to worse. Then, at the end, she is saved by deism, which brings her finally around to the good.

    Also, Voltaire had stormy relations with many of the genuine atheists of the Enlightenment, including Diderot, d’Holbach, and La Mettrie. He considered them entirely wrong on the question of God’s existence, and he often identified this disagreement as the heart of his philosophical breach with them.

    I have to admit, I haven’t a clue what Bestermann is talking about here. Usually he’s a reliable guide. Perhaps he means that in the context of opposing Christianity, Voltaire might as well have been an atheist. But that’s an awfully big qualifier.

  14. #14 Bartholomew
    July 17, 2006

    Voltaire also says that the Flood

    …is one of the mysteries we believe by faith…like…the tower of Babel, Balaam’s she-ass, the fall of Jericho by the sound of trumpets, water changed into blodd, the passage of the Red Sea, and all the prodigies god deigned to perform for the benefit of his people’s elect.

    Clearly he’s taking the piss, and one wonders how much of what else he wrote should be taken at face value. Could not his stressing of the moral usefulness of “rational” religion be in fact a subtle way of bringing into view its human origins? Just a thought, I’m sure others know more about it than me…

  15. #15 386sx
    July 17, 2006

    Clearly he’s taking the piss, and one wonders how much of what else he wrote should be taken at face value.

    You might be interested in some of these selected Voltaire letters:

    http://humanities.uchicago.edu/homes/VSA/letters/index.html

  16. #16 Roman Werpachowski
    July 18, 2006

    Clearly he’s taking the piss, and one wonders how much of what else he wrote should be taken at face value.

    Check who was the highest bidder.

  17. #17 386sx
    July 21, 2006

    http://www.deism.com/deism_defined.htm:

    What is the basis of Deism? Reason and nature. We see the design found throughout the known universe and this realization brings us to a sound belief in a Designer or God.

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