Atheism in Islam and Turkey.
Pieter van Woensel, the making of an atheist.
In the ocean of eighteenth-century travel writers on Turkey and Islam, the work by Pieter van Woensel, a medical doctor, world traveller and writer, occupies a unique place, both for the study of travel literature, atheism, Islam and Turkey.
(The below text is a (paraphrased) anthology by author and exclusive copyright owner Laban Kaptein, based on text sections from his 3-vols. publication: Laban Kaptein (ed.), Pieter van Woensel, Remarks, Part I (translation of Remarks, 1791), and Commentary, Part II and III.)
For sample pages of Laban Kaptein’s edition of Remarks I (1791), click here for Part I: Translation (PDF), and here for Part II: Commentary (PDF), as well as the Cumulative Index.
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Pieter van Woensel was born in 1747 into a liberal Dissenter family in Haarlem. A critical elder observed in the Remonstrant Church Registers about Pieter’s father: ‘Joan van Woensel. Never went to church in my time.’ In addition, in the Baptismal Registers are several, unique, instances, that set both parents apart as ‘no members of our Chr. Congregation’. Still, seventeen-year old Pieter applied for admission to the Remonstrant Seminary, ‘with the intention to become qualified to serve in our Church’ (met oogmerk om zig tot den dienst onzer Kerken bekwaam te maken).
A full year later, in May 1765, he and a comrade were expelled from the Remonstrant Seminary for ‘lack of diligence and very indecent [immodest?] behaviour’ (gebrek aan naarstigheid en … zeer onzedig gedrag). Both promised to behave better in future, but the Board remained adamant. During the long hot summer months, Pieter’s mother Zusanna committed herself to monitoring her son, and not without success, as she wrote in a letter to the Board of Governors, and in October 1765 he was readmitted on probation subject to good conduct. But again one year later, on 28 October 1766, the pupil informed the Curators in writing that he abandoned his studies. With ‘his opinions not in agreement with those of the Remonstrants’, he saw himself unfit for a pastorate (zijn gevoelens niet overeenkomen met die der Remonstranten … hy zig … tot den predikantdienst niet geschikt oordeelt). Instead, he went to Leiden University, to study medicine.
As he later summed up in one of his famous oyster parables:
‘Our relationship to the Earth is broadly that of an oyster to her shell. Give her the capacity to think and reason, give her a bit of logic and metaphysics. (…) By opening a valve she usually sees a good foot far, and if a wave has stuck her on the point of some cliff , she can observe three-quarters of her universe up to several fathoms away from this her observatory. Enriched by more kinds of information, her mind is now occupied with arranging them, to make systems and boldly pronounce upon the nature of things, the universe, and even its Watch-maker! That’s how things stand with us oysters! (…)
Who realises that the things he perceives might be completely different from what he perceives? To whom does it occur that he is perhaps closely surrounded by a world of beings he cannot contact due to the nature of his senses, but maybe (this is frightening) they can? (…)
What would you say if such a grain [in the universe] pontificated about the spring that operates this clockwork, about the Watch-maker? That is precisely what we oysters have done for centuries. (…) The most intolerant swankpots see these matters so clearly, that they understand – and want us to understand too – that it is our duty, in fulfilment of our destiny inside or upon our shell, to know (…) exactly how it is with the Watch-maker (you would think they worked in that shop for years), who, so they say, is very much set on us oysters and atoms (…) glorifying the Workman with our approval.’
Instead, Pieter van Woensel believed that we and our world were formed in the same biochemical, chemical and physical processes that surround us today: our Sun and the planets once formed in a protostellar gas and dusk disk, and our Earth resulted in the same way, literally like a bun from a warm oven. It has since been chiselled into its present form by observable, verifiable geological dynamics. When looking at rock formations, we are actually beholding deep time. And since the stars strongly resemble our Sun, it stands to reason that there are more planets like ours, albeit with probably very different life forms.
Throughout his oeuvre, Pieter van Woensel opposed organised religions and their self-anointed Oyster Highpriests, who always seek to prescribe and control men’s thoughts: ‘The law forbids a citizen to dispose of the property of somebody else, yet would give the priest free play to dispose of my thoughts. Does my soul belong less to me than do my purse, my clothes or my heritage?’
It was abundantly clear to him that the inherently transgressive nature of religious authority must inevitably and fundamentally affect individual liberty and freedom of though. Therefore, societies must never allow the oyster police any role in the public space. As Spinoza had already fiercely advocated:
Freedom of religion must at all times remain secondary to freedom of thought and only apply to inward religious beliefs.
If not, to put it in plain Turkish, ‘Give a cat wings, and no sparrow will remain’ (kedinin kanadı olsaydı, serçenin adı kalmazdı).
Scepticism, atheism, secularisation.
In individuals like Pieter van Woensel we are able to observe a radical and fundamental intellectual shift (Scepticism) that was taking place in prominent circles in Western Europe. It had set out from belief in the Bible, through combatting the superstitious use of it, to the view that belief in the Bible is itself superstition. Over the years, we see him embracing atheism, urging his readers to believe 7/8 of all ordinary things; of all extra-ordinary things that happened in our place and time, not more than 1/8; of the new miraculous 1/100, and of the old miraculous… zero. For these are ‘Little Red Riding Hood fairy tales’, as he tells his readers in Remarks, made on a journey through Turkey.
By the time of writing, this was no longer a revolutionary and potentially life-endangering statement. A good hundred years earlier, in 1668, Adriaen Koerbagh had published his (partly mock) dictionary A Flower Garden of all kinds of loveliness without sorrow (Een Bloemhof van allerley lieflijkheyd sonder verdriet), to “explain” foreign words in Dutch. In it, the lemma Bible was defined as a compilation by human editors from various Jewish sources, and compared to (folk) books of legendary stories, such as Reynaert the Fox and Till Eulenspiegel. Koerbagh died in prison, leaving his good friend Baruch Spinoza, and many others cowed and much more cautious still.
In his De betoverde weereld (1691; English translation in 1695 as The World bewitched), Dutch exegete Balthasar Bekker questioned the canonical belief in the magical world, instead interpreting the devils and demons that people the New Testament as metaphors for spiritual warfare, and images for pathologies and mental disorders. There is no such creature as a real Devil, he concluded. The next step was represented by writers like Pieter Bakker, who, in his pamphlet De godsdienst zonder bygeloof, wrote about people who cite miracles in support of their religion while deriding the very same tales of others: ‘They see clearly the falsehood in others, yet in their own prophets none; (…) those who will not be misled by modern fairy tales, allow themselves to be duped by ancient miracles, or feign so for political reasons.’
But in Van Woensel’s time, people who openly confessed that they did not believe in the tales of any book, regardless of its status, had become more numerous. They no longer had to fear for their lives, property or publications, and before long the character of the (animated) atheist entered high literature. In the Dutch novel Sara Burgerhart (1782) by the female writing duo Betje Wolff and Aagje Deken, the immortal figure of Miss Cornelia Hartog, the exact sciences woman, congratulates the honest Lotje with the fine fairytale book she is reading, as the latter sits immersed in her new Book of Psalms. And she observes, in a letter to Miss Wilhelmina van Kwastama, (commenting on men like Mr. Edeling who prefer docile and devout women): ‘Religion, ma chère van Kwastama, is very convenient to maintain male dominance, and shackle an entire nation with the chains of bondage, for the gain of some tyrant. Whether Mr. Edeling himself believes those fairy tales, I don’t know, but he pretends it. (…) Could he be another Mr. R., who supposes that every nation must have both a religion, and laws, and that he, should he live in Turkey, would be a diligent Musulman? As you know, I love going to church, where I amuse myself with all the twaddle and the little flock listening to it.’
Around the same time, in a letter from St. Petersburg, Van Woensel wrote: ‘It is generally said, and quite rightly, that the age of miracles has passed – though there are people who might call into question the underlying assumption here that there ever was such an age.’
Atheism and atheists in Islam and Turkey.
His atheism makes Pieter van Woensel a unique source in travel writing on Turkey and Islam. The theme of atheism in Islam and Turkey itself, however, was not new in Orientalist publications. For, owing to its doctrine of outward acts of faith (orthopraxis), the paramount, overwhelming and principal aspect of Islam is exteriority. Not faith but form, as in ‘right practice’, defines who is a Muslim.
For Western visitors accustomed to orthodoxy, this zealousness in mundane matters, at the expense of pious inwardness, contained a tincture of irreligion, and irreverence to the sacred. They pointed out the thin divide between such a state of mind and unadulterated materialism. They could well imagine this to result in atheism. In the words of Oene Noordenbos: ‘There are forms of faith that are actually atheistic. A philosophical conception of God (Godsbegrip) that is without religious sentiment and does not constitute a special motivating force in life, has little religious importance, although it will not plainly be named atheism. For even a macchiavellian view on religion as a political instrument will avoid the word atheism.’
(As if the Islamist regime in Turkey wished to hammer home precisely that subtlety, the fledgling Turkish Association of Atheists (Ateizm Derneği, the first ever such organisation in the Middle East) was convicted of a ‘hate crime’ pursuant to article 216 of the Turkish penal code – ‘inciting the population to enmity or hatred and denigration’, in March 2015.)
As the majority of writers on Turkey continued to diligently copy out one other, Paul Rycaut’s authoritative and much plundered History (1665 and many reprints) became a major supplier of content well into the eighteenth century. Most of it was borrowed by, for example, Businello, whose work was in turn plagiarised by Habesci. In a chapter ‘Of the irreligion of the Turks, and its probable consequences’, he wrote: ‘Notwithstanding the great appearance of devotion amongst the Turks, the principle of whose religion is Deism, yet its very opposite, Atheism, has generally prevailed of late years. (…) as no people on earth entertain such doubts of their religion as the Turks do of their’s, it is not in the least surprising, that they have proceeded one step farther, and embraced Atheism.’
We also find various reports, dispersed through the travel literature, about individual atheists, and critics of Islam and of religion in general in Turkey. Lord Charlemont wrote out a down-to-earth dialogue he had ‘with a sensible Turk’ in the year 1749, d’Ohsson informs us of the top ulema turned preacher of atheism Nadazlı Sarı Abdurrahman Efendi (executed in 1602), and Thomas Smith relates the anecdote of Lari Efendi, the publicly known self-declared atheist in the Constantinople of the 1650s and 60s, allegedly an acquaintance of Dutch Resident Levinus Warner. ‘Whenever he went to visit Signor Warner (…) the first salute upon the very sight of him was, there is not, meaning a God; to which the Resident would immediately reply, there is; after which they would often descend to a close dispute about that dictate of universal nature, and right reason.’
In short, many writers would assent to the observation by D’Arvieux, (who was befriended with an easy-going religious judge (qadi) with whom he emptied many a bottle while discussing religious matters ‘as freely as if they were in England’), that one finds the pious, the superstitious, as well as ‘des esprits forts, des libertins’ (and atheists) in Islam, and in Turkey, like in any other religion or country.