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John Toland’s Pivotal Version of Secularism at the Turn of the Eighteenth Century

John Toland (1669-1728) sustained a life-long confrontation with Christianity as well as with religion and orthodox belief in general. His unprecedented advance from Irish Catholicism to secularism and finally outright atheism played a central role in European philosophy despite its having been all but forgotten in later times. He left Ireland to attend Edinburgh University in Scotland followed by Leyden University in the Netherlands and finally a faculty position at Oxford University preceding his career as an independent author. By his early death he had published as many as two hundred books, pamphlets, and tracts upon religion as well as a variety of other issues. He renewed interest in Bruno, and his first major debate was with his mentor John Locke regarding the biological aspect of the mind. He went on to suggest a revision of Spinoza’s pantheist version of atheism, and in his later years became a close friend of both Leibnitz, Germany’s dominant philosopher at the time, and Queen Sophia Charlotte, the wife of King Frederic I of Prussia as well as the mother of Frederick II, who later held a similar friendship with Voltaire. In response to sustained discussions with both Sophia and Leibnitz over a couple of years, Toland authored Letters to Serena and Christianity not Mysterious in vigorous defense of secular philosophy, followed two years before his death by two shorter texts, Clidophorous and Pantheisticon, in which he went so far as to identify religion as a collective fabrication needed by the populace but to be avoided by genuine philosophers.