An Apology for Atheism by Charles Southwell (1814-1860) First published anonymously in 1846
Transcribed by the Freethought Archives, www.freethought.vze.com
AN APOLOGY FOR ATHEISM:
ADDRESSED TO RELIGIOUS INVESTIGATORS OF EVERY DENOMINATION BY ONE OF ITS APOSTLES.
"Not one of you reflects, that you ought know your Gods before you worship them."
LONDON: J. WATSON, 5, PAUL'S ALLEY, PATERNOSTER ROW. AND ALL BOOKSELLERS.
AN APOLOGY FOR ATHEISM
It would be absurd to doubt that religion has an important bearing on all the relations and conditions of life. The connexion between religions faith and political practice is, in truth, far closer than is generally thought. Public opinion has not ripened into a knowledge that religious error is the intangible but real substratum of all political injustice. Though the 'schoolmaster' has done much, there still remain and hold some away among us, many honest and energetic assertors of 'the rights of man,' who have to learn that a people in the fetters of superstition, can never achieve political freedom. Many of these reformers admit the vast, the incalculable influence of Mahommedanism on the politics of Constantinople, and yet persist in acting as if Christianity had little or nothing to do with the politics of England.
At a recent meeting of the Anti-State Church Association it was remarked, that 'throw what we would into the political cauldron, out it came in an ecclesiastical shape'. If the newspaper report may be relied on, there was much laughing among the hearers of those words, the deep meaning of which it may safely be affirmed, only a select few of them could fathom.
Hostility to state churches by no means implies a knowledge of the close and important connection between ecclesiastical and political questions. Men may appreciate the justice of voluntaryism in religion, and yet have rather cloudy conceptions with respect to the influence of opinions and things ecclesiastical on the condition of nations. They may clearly see that he who needs the priest, should disdain to saddle others with the cost of him, while blind to the fact that no people having faith in the supernatural ever failed to mix up such faith with political affairs. Even leading members of the 'Third Estate' are constantly declaring their disinclination for religious controversy, and express particular anxiety to keep their journals free of everything 'strictly theological.' Their notion is, that newspaper writers should endeavour to keep clear of so 'awful' a topic. And yet seldom does a day pass in which this self-imposed editorial rule is not violated—a fact significant as fact can be, of that connection between religion and politics the author thinks has been far too little regarded.
It is quite possible the editors of newspapers have weighty reasons for their repugnance to agitate the much vexed question of religion, but it seems they cannot help doing so. In a leading article of this day's Post, [Endnote 4:1] we are told—'The stain and reproach of Romanism in Ireland is, that it is a political system, and a wicked political system, for it regards only the exercise of power, and neglects utterly the duty of improvement.' In journals supported by Romanists, and of course devoted to the interests of their church, the very same charge is made against English Protestantism. To denounce each other's 'holy apostolic religion' may be incompatible with the taste of 'gentlemen of the press,' but certainly they do it with a brisk and hearty vehemence that inclines one to think it a 'labour of love.' What men do con amore they usually do well, and no one can deny the wonderful talent for denunciation exhibited by journalists when writing down each other's 'true Christianity.' The unsparing invective quoted above from the Post is a good specimen. If just, Irish Romanism ought to be destroyed, and newspaper writers cannot be better employed than in helping on the work of its destruction, or the destruction of any other religion to which the same 'stain and reproach' may be fairly attached.
The author of this Apology has no spite or ill-will towards Roman Catholics, though opposed to their religion, and a willing subscriber to the opinion of Romanism in Ireland, expressed by the Post, because convinced of its truth. The past and present condition of that country is a deep disgrace to its priests, the bulk of whom, Protestant as well as Romanist, can justly be charged with 'regarding only the exercise of power, while neglecting utterly the duty of improvement.'
The intriguing and essentially political character of Romanism, it would be idle to deny. No one at all acquainted with its cunningly contrived 'system' will hesitate to characterise it as 'wickedly political,' productive of nothing but mischief—a system through whose accursed instrumentality millions are cheated of their sanity as well as substance, and trained like the dog to lick the hand that smites them. So perfect is their degradation that literally they 'take no thought for to-morrow,' it being their practice to wait 'till starvation stares them in the face,' [5:1] and then make an effort against it. Notwithstanding the purely Christian education of which they are taught to boast, nothing can exceed the superstitious recklessness displayed in their daily conduct.
The Globe of Thursday, October 30th, 1845, contains an article on the damage sustained by the potato crops here and in Ireland, full of matter calculated to enlighten our first rate reformers, who seem profoundly ignorant that superstition is the bane of intellect, and most formidable of all the obstacles which stand between the people and their rights: one paragraph is so peculiarly significant of the miserable condition to which Romanism and Protestantism have reduced a peasantry, said to be 'the finest in the world,' that we here subjoin it—
'The best means to arrest the progress of the pestilence in the people's food have occupied the attention of scientific men. The commission appointed by government, consisting of three of the most celebrated practical chemists, has published a preliminary report, in which several suggestions, rather than ascertained results, are communicated, by which the sound portions of the root may, it is hoped, be preserved from the epidemy, and possibly, the tainted be rendered innoxious, and even partially nutritious. Followed implicitly, their directions might mitigate the calamity. But the care, the diligence, the persevering industry which the various forms of process require, in order to effecting the purposes which might result if they were promptly adopted and properly carried out, are the very qualities in which the Irish peasantry are most deficient. In the present crisis, the people are more disposed to regard the extensive destruction of their crops in the light of an extraordinary visitation of Heaven, with which it is vain for human efforts to contend, than to employ counteracting or remedial applications. "Sure the Almighty sent the potato-plague, and we must bear it as well as we can!" is the remark of many; while, in other places, the copious sprinklings of holy water on the potato gardens, and on the produce, as it lies upon the surface, are more depended on for disinfecting the potatoes than the suggestions of science, which require the application of patient industry.'
Daniel O'Connell may continue to boast about Irish morale and Irish intellect—the handsome women, and stalwart men of his 'beloved country;' but no sensible persons will pay the least attention to him. It is, at all events, too late in the day for we 'Saxons' to be either cajoled or amused by such nonsense. An overwhelming majority of the Irish people have been proved indolent beyond all parallel, and not much more provident than those unhappy savages who sell their beds in the morning, not being able to foresee they shall again require them at night. A want of forethought so remarkable, and indolence so abominable, as characterize the peasantry of Ireland, are results of their religious education. Does any one suppose the religion of that peasantry has little, if anything, to do with their political condition; or can it be believed they will be fit for, much less achieve political emancipation, while priests, and priests alone, are their instructors? We may rely upon it, that intellectual freedom is the natural and necessary precursor of political freedom. Education, said Lord Brougham, makes men easy to lead, but difficult to drive; easy to govern, but impossible to enslave. The Irish peasantry clamour for 'Repeal,' never considering that did they get it, no essential change would be made in their social, moral, or to say all in one word, political condition; they would still be the tool of O'Connell and other unprincipled political mountebanks—themselves the tool of priests.
Great has been the outcry raised against the 'godless colleges, that Sir Robert Peel had the courageous good sense to inflict on Ireland. Protestant as well as Romanist priests are terribly alarmed lest those colleges should spoil the craft by which they live. Sagacious enough to perceive that whatever influence they possess must vanish with the ignorance on which it rests, they moved heaven and earth to disgust the Irish people with an educational measure of which religion formed no part. Their fury, like 'empty space,' is boundless. They cannot endure the thought that our ministers should so far play the game of 'infidelity' as to take from them the delightful task of teaching Ireland's young ideas 'how to shoot.' Sir Robert Inglis christened this 'odious' measure, a 'gigantic scheme of godless education,' and a large majority of Irish Roman Catholic Prelates have solemnly pronounced it 'dangerous to faith and morals,' Neither ministerial allurements, nor ministerial threats can subdue the cantankerous spirit of these bigots. They are all but frantic, and certainly not without reason, for the Irish Colleges Bill is the fine point of that wedge which, driven home, will shiver to pieces their 'wicked political system.' Whatever improves Irish intellect will play the mischief with its 'faith,' though not at all likely to deteriorate its 'morals.' The best guarantee for national morality is to be found in national intelligence; nor need any one feel alarmed at the progress of principles and measures inimical to faith in either Romanism or Protestantism. Let the people of Ireland be properly employed, as a preliminary to being well educated, and speedily they may deserve to be singled out as 'the most moral people on the face of the earth.'
An educated nation will never tamely submit to be priest-ridden, and well do Ireland's enslavers know it. The most stupid of her priests, equally with the shrewdest of her 'patriots,' are quite alive to the expediency of teaching as facts, the fraudulent fables of the 'dark ages.' To keep the people ignorant, or what is worse, to teach them only what is false, is the great end of their training; and if a British ministry propose anything better than the merest mockery of education, they call it 'dangerous to faith and morals.'
The sage who writes 'leaders' for the Morning Herald, is of opinion that Ireland would indeed be 'great, glorious, and free,' if its Roman Catholic people were to cease all efforts for Repeal, and turn good Protestants. But the Herald does greatly err not knowing human nature and the source of Irish evils. It is not by substituting Protestantism for Romanism that those evils are to be cured. Were every Romanist in Ireland at once to turn 'good Protestant,' their political emancipation would be far off as ever. Protestantism everywhere, like Romanism everywhere, is 'a political system, and a wicked political system, for it regards only the exercise of power, and neglects utterly the duty of improvement.'
Religion is the curse of Ireland. To the rival churches of that country may be traced nearly all the oppressions suffered by its people, who never can be materially improved till purged of their faith in priests. When that salutary work shall be accomplished, Ireland will indeed be 'a nation' in the secure enjoyment of political liberty. The priest-ridden may talk of freedom, but can never secure it; for, as truly said by one of our most admired poets—
Tis man's base grovelling nature makes the priest, Who always rides a superstitious beast.
And he is a poor politician who expects to see political liberty achieved or enjoyed by nations made up of 'base, grovelling' specimens of human nature.
What then can be thought of the first-rate reformers before alluded to, who are going to emancipate every body without the least offence to any body's superstition? It should be borne in memory that other people are superstitious as well as the Irish, and that the churches of all countries are as much parts of 'a wicked political system' as are the churches of Ireland. The judges of our own country frequently remind us that its laws have a religious sanction; nay they assure us Christianity is part and parcel of those laws. Do we not know that orthodox Christianity means Christianity as by law established? And can any one fail to perceive that such a religion must needs be political? The cunning few, who make a market of delusion, and esteem nothing apart from their own aggrandisement, are quite aware that the civil and criminal law of England is intimately associated with Christianity—they publicly proclaim their separation impossible, except at the cost of destruction to both. They are sagacious enough to perceive that a people totally untrammelled by the fears, the prejudices, and the wickedness of religion would never consent to remain in bondage.
Hence the pains taken by piety-mongers to perpetuate the dominion of that ignorance which proverbially is 'the mother of devotion.' What care they for universal emancipation? Free themselves, their grand object is to rivet the chains of others. So that those they defraud of their hard earned substance be kept down, they are not over scrupulous with respect to means. Among the most potent of their helps in the 'good work' are churches, various in name and character, but in principle the very same. All are pronounced true by priests who profit by them, and false by priests who do not. Every thing connected with them bears the mark of despotism. Whether we look at churches foreign or domestic, Popish or Protestant, that mark of the 'beast' appears in characters as legible as, it is fabled, the hand writing on the wall did to a tyrant of old. In connection with each is a hierarchy of intellect stultifiers, who explain doctrines without understanding them, or intending they should be understood by others; and true to their 'sacred trust,' throw every available impediment in the way of improvement. Knowledge is their devil. So far as antagonism to progression goes, there is no sensible difference between the hierarchies of Rome or of England, or of Constantinople. To diffuse the 'truth' that 'will set men free' is no part of their 'wicked political system.' On the contrary, they labour to excite a general disgust of truth, and in defence of bad governments preach fine sermons from some one of the many congenial texts to be gathered in their 'Holy Scripture.'
Nor is it found that non-established priesthoods are much more disposed to emancipate 'mind' and oil the wheels of political progression than those kept in state pay. The air of conventicles is not of the freest or most bracing description. No doubt the 'voluntary principle' is just—only brazen faced impostors will say it is right to tax a man for the support of those who promulgate doctrines abhorrent to his feelings and an insult to his judgment. Still, the fact is incontestable, that Dissenting Priests are, for the most part, opposed to the extension of political rights, or, what is equal, that' knowledge which would infallibly secure them. The Methodist preacher, who has the foolish effrontery to tell his congregation 'the flesh lusteth always contrary to the spirit; and, therefore, every person born into the world deserveth God's wrath and damnation,' may be a liberal politician, one well fitted to pilot his flock into the haven of true republicanism: but the author is extremely suspicious of such persons, and would not on any account place his liberty in their keeping. He has little faith in political fanaticism, especially when in alliance with the frightful doctrines enunciated from conventicle pulpits, and has no hesitation in saying that Anti-State Church Associations do not touch the root of all political evils. Their usefulness is great, because they give currency to a sound principle, but that principle, though important, is not all-important—though powerful, is not all-powerful. If universally adopted, it is questionable that any useful change of a lasting character would be worked in the economy of politics.
Priests of all religion are the same, said Dryden—the religions they teach are false, and in their tendency anti-progressive, say Atheists, who put no trust in doctrine which involves or assumes supernatural existence. Believing that supernaturalism reduced to 'system' cannot be other than 'wickedly political,' the Atheist, truly so called, sees no hope for 'slave classes,' apart from a general diffusion of anti-religious ideas. According to his theory, religion is in part a cunningly and in part a stupidly devised fable. He cannot reconcile the wisdom of theologians with undoubted facts, and though willing to admit that some 'modes of faith' are less absurd than others, is convinced they are all essentially alike, because all fundamentally erroneous. Rousseau said 'philosophy can do nothing that religion cannot do better, and religion can do many things which philosophy cannot do at all.' But Atheists believe religion the most formidable evil with which progressors have to cope, and see in philosophy that mighty agent in the work of improvement so beautifully described by Curran as the irresistible genius of universal emancipation.
Speculative thinkers of so decidedly irreligious a temper are not numerous. If esteemed, as happens to certain commodities, in proportion to their scarcity they would enjoy a large share of public respect. Indeed, they are so few and far between, or at least so seldom make their presence visible, that William Gillespie is convinced they are an anomalous species of animal, produced by our common parent 'in a moment of madness.' Other grave Christian writers, though horrified at Atheism—though persuaded its professors, 'of all earth's madmen, most deserve a chain;' and, though constantly abusing them, are still unable to believe in the reality of such persons. These, among all the opponents of Atheism and Atheists, may fairly claim to be considered most mysterious; for, while lavishing on deniers of their Gods every kind of sharp invective and opprobrious epithet, they cannot assure themselves the 'monsters' did, or do actually exist. With characteristic humour, David Hume observed 'There are not a greater number of philosophical reasonings displayed upon any subject than those which prove the existence of Deity, and refute the fallacies of Atheists, and yet the most religious philosophers still dispute whether any man can be so blinded as to be a speculative Atheist;' 'how (continues he) shall we reconcile these contradictions? The Knight-errants who wandered about to clear the world of dragons and of giants, never entertained the least doubt with regard to the existence of these monsters.' [10:1]
The same Hume who thus pleasantly rebuked 'most religious philosophers,' was himself a true Atheist. That he lacked faith in the supernatural must be apparent to every student of his writings, which abound with reflections far from flattering to the self-love of religionists, and little calculated to advance their cause. Many Deists have been called Atheists: among others Robert Owen and Richard Carlile, both of whom professed belief in something superior to nature, something acting upon and regulating matter, though not itself material. [11:1] This something they named power. But Hume has shown we may search 'in vain for an idea of power or necessary connection in all the sources from which we would suppose it to be derived. [11:2] Owen, Carlile, and other Atheists, falsely so called, supposed power the only entity worthy of deification. They dignified it with such appellations as 'internal or external cause of all existence,' and ascribed to it intelligence, with such other honourable attributes as are usually ascribed to 'deified, error.' But Hume astonished religious philosophers by declaring that, 'while we argue from the course of nature and infer a particular intelligent cause, which first bestowed, and still preserves order in the universe, we embrace a principle which is both uncertain and useless. It is uncertain, because the subject lies entirely beyond the reach of human experience. It is useless, because our knowledge of this cause being derived entirely from the course of nature, we can never, according to the rules of just reasoning, return back from the cause with any new inference, or making additions to the common and experienced course of nature, establish any principles of conduct and behaviour. [11:3]
Nor did Hume affect to consider Christianity less repugnant to reason than any other theory or system of supernaturalism. Though confessedly fast in friendship, generous in disposition, and blameless in all the relations of life, few sincere Divines can forgive his hostility to their faith. And without doubt it was hostility eminently calculated to exhaust their stock of patience, because eminently calculated to damage their religion, which has nothing to fear from the assaults of ignorant and immoral opponents; but when assailed by men of unblemished reputation, who know well how to wield the weapons of wit, sarcasm, and solid argumentation, its priests are not without reason alarmed lest their house should be set out of order.
It would be difficult to name a philosopher at once so subtle, so profound, so bold, and so good as Hume. Notwithstanding his heterodox reputation, many learned and excellent Christians openly enjoyed his friendship. A contemporary critic recently presented the public with 'a curious instance of contrast and of parallel,' between Robertson and Hume. 'Flourishing (says he) in the same walk of literature, living in the same society at the same time; similar in their habits and generous dispositions; equally pure in their morals, and blameless in all the relations of private life: the one was a devout believer, the other a most absolute atheist, and both from deep conviction, founded upon inquiries, carefully and anxiously conducted. The close and warm friendship which subsisted between these two men, may, after what we have said, be a matter of surprise to some; but Robertson's Christianity was enlarged and tolerant, and David Hume's principles were liberal and philosophical in a remarkable degree.' [12:1]
This testimony needs no comment. It clearly tells its own tale, and ought to have the effect of throwing discredit upon the vulgar notion that disgust of all religion is incompatible with talents and virtues of the highest order; for, in the person of David Hume, the world saw absolute Atheism co-existent with genius, learning, and moral excellence, rarely, if ever, surpassed.
The unpopularity of that creed it would be vain to deny. A vast majority of mankind associate with the idea of disbelief in their Gods every thing stupid, monstrous, absurd, and atrocious. Absolute Atheism is thought by them the inseparable ally of most shocking wickedness, involving as it manifestly does that 'blasphemy against the Holy Ghost' which we are assured shall not be forgiven unto men 'neither in this world nor in that which is to come.' Educated to consider it 'an inhuman, bloody, ferocious system, equally hostile to every restraint and to every virtuous affection,' the majority of all countries detest and shun its apostles. Their horror of them may be likened to that it is presumed the horse feels towards the camel, upon whom (so travellers tell us) he cannot look without shuddering.
To keep alive and make the most of this strong religious feeling has ever been the object of Christian priests, who rarely hesitate to make charges of Atheism, not only against opponents, but each other; not only against disbelievers but believers in God. The Jesuit Lafiteau, in a Preface to his 'Histoire des Sauvages Americanes,' [13:1] endeavours to prove that only Atheists will dare assert that God created the Americans. Scarcely a metaphysical writer of eminence has escaped the 'imputation' of Atheism. The great Clarke and his antagonist the greater Leibnitz were called Atheists. Even Newton was put in the same category. No sooner did sharp-sighted divines catch a glimpse of an 'Essay on the Human Understanding' than they loudly proclaimed the Atheism of its author. Julian Hibbert, in his learned account 'Of Persons Falsely Entitled Atheists,' says, 'the existence of some sort of a Deity has usually been considered undeniable, so the imputation of Atheism and the title of Atheist have usually been considered as insulting.' This author, after giving no fewer than thirty and two names of 'individuals among the Pagans who (with more or less injustice) have been accused of Atheism,' says, 'the list shews, I think, that almost all the most celebrated Grecian metaphysicians have been, either in their own or in following ages, considered, with more or less reason, to be Atheistically inclined. For though, the word Atheist was probably not often used till about a hundred years before Christ, yet the imputation of impiety was no doubt as easily and commonly bestowed, before that period, as it has been since.' [13:2]
Voltaire relates, in the eighteenth chapter of his 'Philosophie de L'Histoire,' [13:3] that a Frenchman named Maigrot, Bishop of Conon, who knew not a word of Chinese, was deputed by the then Pope to go and pass judgment on the opinions of certain Chinese philosophers: he treated Confucius as Atheist, because that sage had said 'the sky has given me virtue, and man can do me no hurt.'
On grounds no more solid than this, charges of Atheism are often erected by 'surpliced sophists.' Rather ridiculous have been the mistakes committed by some of them in their hurry to affix on objects of their hate the brand of impiety. These persons, no doubt, supposed they were privileged to write or talk any amount of nonsense and contradiction. Men who fancy themselves commissioned by Deity to interpret his 'mysteries,' or announce his 'will,' are apt to make blunders without being sensible of it, as did those worthy Jesuits who declared, in opposition to Bayle, that a society of Atheists was impossible, and at the same time assured the world that the government of China, by Voltaire and many others considered the most ancient on earth, was a society of Atheists. So difficult it is for men inflamed by religious prejudices, interests, and animosities to keep clear of sophisms, which can impose on none but themselves.
Many Atheists conceal their sentiments on account of the odium which would certainly be their reward did they avow them. But the unpopularity of those sentiments cannot, by persons of sense and candour be allowed, in itself, a sufficient reason for their rejection. The fact of a creed being unpopular is no proof it is false. The argument from general consent is at best a suspicious one, for the truth of any opinion or the validity of any practice. History proves that the generality of men are the slaves of prejudice, the sport of custom, and foes most bigotted to such opinions concerning religion as have not been drawn in from the sucking-bottles, or 'hatched within the narrow fences of their own conceit.' No prudent searcher after truth will accept an opinion because it is the current one, but rather view it with distrust for that very reason. The genius of him who said, in our journey to the other world the common road is the safest, was cowardly as deceptive, and therefore opposed to sound philosophy. Like horses yoked to a team, 'one's nose in t'others tail,' is a mode of journeying anywhere the opposite of dignified, pleasant, or improving. They who are enamoured of 'the common road,' unless handsomely paid for journeying thereon, must be slavish in feeling, and willing submitters to every indignity sanctioned by custom, that potent enemy of truth, which from time immemorial has been 'the law of fools.'
Every day experience demonstrates the fallibility of majorities. It palpably exhibits, too, the danger as well as the folly of presuming the unpopularity of certain speculative opinions an evidence of their falsity. A public intellect, untainted by gross superstition, can nowhere be appealed to. Even in this favoured country, 'the envy of surrounding nations and admiration of the world,' the multitude are anything but patterns of moral purity and intellectual excellence. They who assure us vox populi is the voice of God, are fairly open to the charge of ascribing to Him what orthodox pietists inform us exclusively belongs to the Father of evil. If by 'voice of God' is meant something different from noisy ebullitions of anger, intemperance, and fanaticism, they who would have us regulate our opinions in conformity therewith are respectfully requested to reconcile mob philosophy with the sober dictates of experience, and mob law with the law of reason.
A writer in the Edinburgh Review [15:1] assures us 'the majority of every nation consists of rude uneducated masses, ignorant, intolerant, suspicious, unjust, and uncandid, without the sagacity which discovers what is right, or the intelligence which comprehends it when pointed out, or the morality which requires it to be done.' And yet religious philosophers are fond of quoting the all but universal horror of Atheism as a formidable argument against that much misunderstood creed.
The least reflection will suffice to satisfy any reasonable man that the speculative notions of rude, uneducated masses, so faithfully described by the Scotch Reviewer, are for the most part grossly absurd and consequently the reverse of true. If the masses of all nations are ignorant, intolerant, suspicions, unjust, and uncandid, without the sagacity which discovers what is right, or the intelligence which comprehends it when pointed out, or the morality which requires it to be done; who with the least shadow of claim to be accounted reasonable will assert that a speculative heresy is the worse for being unpopular, or that Atheism is false, and must be demoralising in its influence because the majority of mankind declare it so.
The Author of this Apology does not desire it may be inferred from the foregoing remarks, that horror of Atheism, and detestation of its apostles, is confined to the low, the vulgar, the base, or the illiterate. Any such inference would be wrong, for it is certainly true that learned, benevolent, and very able Christian writers, have signalised themselves in the work of obstructing the progress of Atheism by denouncing its principles, and imputing all manner of wickedness to its defenders. It must indeed be admitted by the really enlightened of every name, that their conduct in this particular amply justifies pious Matthew Henry's confessions, that 'of all the christian graces, zeal is most apt to turn sour.'
One John Ryland, A.M. of Northampton, published a 'Preceptor, or General Repository of useful information, very necessary for the various ages and departments of life' in which 'pride and lust, a corrupt pride of heart, and a furious filthy lust of body,' are announced as the atheist's 'springs of action,' 'desire to act the beast without control, and live like a devil without a check of conscience,' his only 'reasons for opposing the existence of God;' in which he is told 'a world of creatures are up in arms against him to kill him as they would a venomous mad dog,' in which among other hard names he is called 'absurd fool,' 'beast,' 'dirty monster,' 'brute,' 'gloomy dark animal,' 'enemy of mankind,' 'wolf to civil society,' 'butcher and murderer of the human race,' in which moreover he is cursed in the following hearty terms:
'Let the glorious mass of fire burn him, let the moon light him to the gallows, let the stars in their courses fight against the atheist, let the force of the comets dash him to pieces, let the roar of thunders strike him deaf, let red lightnings blast his guilty soul, let the sea lift up her mighty waves to bury him, let the lion tear him to pieces, let dogs devour him, let the air poison him, let the next crumb of bread choke him, nay, let the dull ass spurn him to death.'
Dr. Balguy in the course of a Treatise which the 'liberal' author of a Sketch of the Denominations of the Christian World, 'considered an excellent antidote against atheistical tenets,' expresses himself in the following manner: 'Of all the false opinions which ever infested the mind of man, nothing can possibly equal that of atheism, which is such a monstrous contradiction of all evidence, to all the powers of the understanding and the dictates of common sense, that it may well be questioned whether any man can really fall into it by a deliberate use of his judgment. All nature so clearly points out, and so clearly proclaims a Creator of infinite power, wisdom, and goodness, that whoever hears not its voice and sees not its proofs may well be thought wilfully deaf and obstinately blind.'
These are notable specimens of zeal turned sour.
Now, when it is considered that such writings are carefully put into popular hands, and writings of an irreligious character as carefully kept out of them, astonishment at human intolerance must cease. So far, indeed, from wondering that the 'giddy multitude' shrink aghast from Atheists we shall conceive it little short of miraculous, that they do not fall upon and tear them to pieces.
Beattie, another Christian doctor, towards the close of his celebrated Essay on the Immutability of Truth, denounces every sincere outspoken unbeliever as a 'murderer of human souls,' and it being obvious that the murderer of a single soul must to the 'enlightened' majority of our people appear an act infinitely more horrible than the butchery of many bodies, it really does at first view seem 'passing strange' that body murderers are almost invariably hanged, whilst they who murder 'souls,' if punished at all, usually escape with some harmless abuse and a year or two's imprisonment.
Even the 'tolerant' Richard Watson, Lord Bishop of Llandaff, wrote with contemptuous bitterness of 'Atheistical madmen,' and in his Apology for the Bible, assured Deistical Thomas Paine, Deism was so much better than Atheism, he (Bishop Watson) meant 'not to say anything to its discredit.'
The Rev. Mr. Ward, whose 'Ideal of a Christian Church' spread such consternation in the anti-popish camp, describes his own hatred of Protestantism as 'fierce and burning.' Nothing can go beyond that—it is the ne plus ultra of bigotry, and just such hatred is displayed towards Atheists by at least nine-tenths of their opponents. Strange to say, in Christians, in the followers of him who is thought to have recommended, by act and word, unlimited charity, who is thought to have commanded that we judge not, that we be sat judged; the Atheist finds his most active foe, his bitterest and least scrupulous maligner. To exaggerate their bigotry would be difficult, for whether sage or simple, learned or unlearned, priests or priest-led, they regularly practise the denunciation of Atheists in language foul as it is false. They call them 'traitors to human kind,' yea 'murderers of the human soul,' and unless hypocrites, or much better than their sentiments, would rather see them swing upon the gibbet than murderers of the body, especially if like John Tawell, 'promoters of religion and Christian Missions.'
Robert Hall was a Divine of solid learning and unquestionable piety, whose memory is reverenced by a large and most respectable part of the Christian world. He ranked amongst the best of his class, and generally speaking, was so little disposed to persecute his opponents because of their heterodox opinions, that he wrote and published a Treatise on Moderation, in the course of which he eloquently condemns the practice of regulating, or rather attempting to regulate opinion by act of parliament: yet, incredible as it may appear, in that very Treatise he applauds Calvin on account of his conduct towards Servetus. Our authority for this statement is not 'Infidel' but Christian—the authority of Evans, who, after noticing the Treatise in question, says, 'he (Bishop Hall) has discussed the subject with that ability which is peculiar to all his writings. But this great and good man, towards the close of the same Treatise, forgetting the principles which he had been inculcating, devotes one solitary page to the cause of intolerance: this page he concludes with these remarkable expressions: "Master Calvin did well approve himself to God's Church in bringing Servetus to the stake in Geneva."'
Remarkable, indeed! and what is the moral that they point? To the Author of this Apology they are indicative of the startling truth, that neither eloquence nor learning, nor faith in God and his Scripture, nor all three combined, are incompatible with the cruelest spirit of persecution. The Treatise on Moderation will stand an everlasting memorial against its author, whose fine intellect, spoiled by superstitious education, urged him to approve a deed, the bare remembrance of which ought to excite in every breast, feelings of horror and indignation. That such a man should declare the aim of Atheists is 'to dethrone God and destroy man,' is not surprising. From genuine bigots they have no right to expect mercy. He who applauded the bringing of Servetus to the stake must have deemed the utter extermination of Atheists a religious duty.
That our street and field preaching Christians, with very few exceptions, heartily sympathise with the fire and faggot sentiments of Robert Hall, is well known; but happily, their absurd ravings are attended to by none save eminently pious people, whose brains are unclogged by any conceivable quantity of useful knowledge. In point of intellect they are utterly contemptible. Their ignorance, however, is fully matched by their impudence, which never forsakes them. They claim to be considered God's right-hand men, and of course duly qualified preachers of his 'word,' though unable to speak five minutes without taking the same number of liberties with the Queen's English. Swift was provoked by the prototypes of these pestiferous people, to declare that, 'formerly, the apostles received the gift of speaking several languages, a knowledge so remote from our dealers in the art of enthusiasm, that they neither understand propriety of speech nor phrases of their own, much less the gift of tongues.'
The millions of Christian people who have been trained up in the way they should not go, by this active class of fanatics, are naturally either opposed to reason or impervious to it. Hence, arguing with them is sheer waste of brains and leisure—a casting of pearls before swine. They are convinced not only that the wisdom of the world is foolishness with God, but that wisdom with God is foolishness with the world; nor will any one affirm their 'moderation' in respect to unbelievers one tittle more moderate than Robert Hall's; or that they are one tittle less disposed than 'that good and great man,' to think those who bring heretics to the stake at Geneva or elsewhere, 'do well approve themselves to God's Church.' Educated, that is to say, duped as they are, they cannot but think unbelief highly criminal, and when practicable, or convenient, deal with it as such. Atheists would, be 'astonished with a great astonishment' if they did not. Their crafty teachers adjure them to do so 'on peril of their souls;' and if, as Mr. Jay, of Bath, said in one of his best sermons, 'the readiest way in the world to thin heaven, and replenish the regions of hell, is to call in the spirit of bigotry,' the Author of this Apology would not for all the treasures of India stand in the shoes of these men, whose whole time and energies are employed in generating and perpetuating that detestable spirit. But when your Rylands, and Balguys and Beatties, and Watsons and Halls make a merit of abusing those who cannot believe as they believe, what can be hoped or expected from the tribe of illiterate canters, who 'go about Mawworming?'
It is nevertheless true, that Atheists have been helped to some of their best arguments by adversaries. Bishop Watson, to wit, has suggested objections to belief in the Christian's Deity, which they who hold no such belief, consider unanswerable. In his famous 'Apology' he desired to know what Paine thought 'of an uncaused cause of everything, and a Being who has no relation to time, not being older to day than he was yesterday, nor younger to day than he will be to-morrow—who has no relation to space, not being a part here and a part there, or a whole anywhere? of an omniscient Being who cannot know the future actions of man, or if his omniscience enables him to know them, of the contingency of human actions? of the distinction between vice and virtue, crime and innocence, sin and duty? of the infinite goodness of a Being who existed through eternity, without any emanation of his goodness manifested in the creation of sensitive beings? or if it be contended that there was an eternal creation of an effect coeval with its 'cause, of matter not posterior to its maker? of the existence of evil, moral and natural, in the work of an Infinite Being, powerful, wise, and good? finally, of the gift of freedom of will, when the abuse of freedom becomes the cause of general misery?' [20:1]
These questions imply what, to the author of this Apology, appears an ample justification of Atheism. That they flowed from the pen of a Bishop, is one of many extraordinary facts which have grown out of theological controversy. They are questions strongly suggestive of another. Is it possible to have experience of, or even to imagine a Being with attributes so strange, anomalous, and contradictory? To that question reason prompts an answer in the negative—It is plain that Bishop Watson was convinced 'no man by searching can find out God.' The case is, that he, in the hope of converting Deists, ventured to insinuate arguments highly favourable to Atheism, whose professors consider an admission of utter ignorance of God, tantamount to a denial of His existence. Many Christians, with more candour, perhaps, than prudence, have avowed the same opinion. Minutius Felix, for example, said to the Heathen, 'Not one of you reflects that you ought to know your gods before you worship them.' [20:2] As if he felt the absurdity of pretending to love and honour an unknown 'Perhaps.' That he did himself what he ridiculed in them proves nothing but his own inconsistency. To the Author of this Apology it seems certain, a God whose being is not as our being, whose thoughts are not as our thoughts, and whose ways are not as our ways, is neither more nor less than the merest figment of ill-regulated imagination. He is sure a Being, above nature, can only be conceived of by itself; it being obviously true that the natural cannot attain to the supernatural.
The Christian, equally with the Heathen, is open to the reproach of worshipping he knows not what. Yes, to idol-hating, enlightened Christians, may fairly be applied the severe sarcasm Minutius Felix so triumphantly levelled at idol-loving 'benighted Heathens.' Will any one say the Christian absolutely knows more about Jehovah than the Heathen did about Jupiter? The Author believes that few, if any, who have attentively considered Bishop Watson's queries, will say the 'dim Unknown,' they so darkly shadow forth, is conceivable by any effort, either of sense or imagination.
Under cover, then, of what reason Christians can escape the imputation of pretending to adore what they have no conception of, the Author of this Apology is unable to divine. The very 'book of books,' to which they so boldly appeal, is conclusive against them. In its pages they stand convicted of idolatry. Without doubt a God is revealed by revelation; but not their God; not a supernatural Being, infinite in power, in wisdom, and in goodness. The Bible Deity is superhuman in nothing; all that His adorers have ascribed to Him being mere amplification of human powers, human ideas, and human passions. The Bible Deity 'has mercy on whom he will have mercy, and whom he will he hardeneth;' is 'jealous,' especially of other Gods; changeful, vindictive, partial, cruel, unjust, 'angry with the wicked every day;' and altogether a Being far from respectable, or worthy to be considered infinite in wisdom, power, and goodness. Is it credible that a Being supernaturally wise and good, proclaimed the murderous adulterer David, a man after his own heart, and commanded the wholesale butchery of Canaanites? Or that a God of boundless power, 'whose tender mercies are over all his works,' decreed the extermination of entire nations for being what he made them? Jehovah did all three. Confessedly a God of armies and Lord of Hosts; confessedly, too, a hardener of men's hearts that he might destroy them: he authorised acts at which human nature shudders, and of which it is ashamed: yet to love, respect, yea, reverence Him, we are commanded by the self-styled 'stewards of his mysteries,' on peril of our 'immortal souls.' Verily, these pious anathematisers ask our credulity a little too much.' In their zeal for the God of Israel, they are apt to forget that only Himself can compass impossibilities, and altogether lose sight of the fact that where, who, or what Jehovah is, no man knoweth. Revelation (so-called) reveals nothing about the imagined creator of heaven and earth on which a cultivated intellect can repose with satisfaction. Men naturally desire positive information concerning the superhuman Deity, belief in whom is the sine qua non of all religion. But the Bible furnishes no such information concerning Jehovah. On the contrary, he is their pronounced 'past finding out,' incomprehensible, and the like. 'Canst thou, by searching, find out God? Canst thou find out the Almighty to perfection?' are questions put by an 'inspired writer,' who felt the cloudy and unsatisfactory nature of all human conceit about Gods.
Now, a Revelation from God, at least so thinks the Author of this Apology, might reasonably be expected to make the mode and nature of His existence manifest. But the Christian Bible falls infinitely short in this particular. It teaches there is a God; but throws no light on the dark questions, who, what, or where is God? Numerous and various as are Scripture texts, none can be cited in explanation of a Deity no older to-day than he was yesterday, nor younger to-day than he will be to-morrow; of a Deity who has no relation to space, not being a part here and a part there, or a whole anywhere: in short, of that Deity written about by Bishop Watson, who, like every other sincere Christian, made the mistake of resting his religious faith on 'words without knowledge.'
It is to this description of faith Atheists object. They think it the root of superstition, that greatest of all plagues, by which poor humanity is afflicted. Are they to blame for thus thinking? The Christian has no mercy on the superstition of the Heathen; and should scorn to complain when the bitter chalice is returned to his own lips. Atheists believe the God of Bishop Watson a supernatural chimera, and to its worshippers have a perfect right to say, 'not one of you reflects that you ought to know your Gods before you worship them.' These remarkable words, originally addressed to the Heathen, lose none of their force when directed against the Christian.
No one can conceive a supernatural Being, and what none can conceive, none ought to worship, or even assert the existence of. Who worships a something of which he knows nothing, is an idolater. To talk of, or bow down to it, is nonsensical; to pretend affection for it, is worse than nonsensical. Such conduct, however pious, involves the rankest hypocrisy; the meanest and most odious species of idolatry; for labouring to destroy which, Atheists are called 'murderers of the human soul,' 'blasphemers,' and other foolish names, too numerous to mention.
It would be well for all parties, if those who raise against Atheists the cry of 'blasphemy,' were made to perceive that godless unbelievers cannot be blasphemers; for, as contended by Lord Brougham in his Life of Voltaire, blasphemy implies belief, and, therefore, Atheists who do not believe in God, cannot logically or justly be said to blaspheme him. The blasphemer, properly so called, is he who imagines Deity, and ascribes to the idol of his own brain, all manner of folly, contradiction, inconsistency, and wickedness. Yes, the blasphemer is he who invents a monster and calls it God; while to reject belief therein, is an act both reasonable and virtuous.
Superstition is universally abhorred, but no one believes himself superstitious. There never was a religionist who believed his own religion mere superstition. All shrink indignantly from the charge of being superstitious; while all raise temples to, and bow down before, 'thingless names.' The 'masses' of every nation erect 'thingless names' into substantial realities, and woe to those, who follow not the insane example. The consequences—the fatal consequences—are everywhere apparent. In our own country, one consequence is social disunion on the grandest possible scale. Society is split up into an almost infinite variety of sects, whose members imagine themselves patented to think truth, and never to be wrong in the enunciation of it. This if no idle or frivolous charge, as the Author of this Apology can easily show.
Before him is Sanders' News Letter and Daily Advertiser of Feb. 18, 1845, which, among other curiosities, contains an 'Address of the Dublin Protestant Operative Association, and Reformation Society,' one sentence of which is—'We have raised our voices against the spirit of compromise, which is the opprobrium of the age; we have unfurled the banner of Protestant truth, and placed ourselves beneath it, we have insisted upon Protestant ascendancy as just and equitable, because Protestant principles are true and undeniable.'
Puseyite Protestants tell a tale the very reverse of that so modestly told by their nominal brethren of the Dublin Operative Association. They, as may be seen in Palmer's Letter to Golightly, 'utterly reject and anathematise the principle of Protestantism, as a heresy with all its forms, sects, or denominations.' Nor is that all our 'Romeward Divines' do, for in addition to rejecting utterly and cursing bitterly, as well the name as the principle of Protestantism, they eulogise the Church of Rome because forsooth 'she yields,' says Newman in his Letter to Jelf, 'free scope to feelings of awe, mystery, tenderness, reverence, and devotedness;' while we have it on the authority of Tract 90, that the Church of England is 'in bondage, working in chains, and (tell it not in Dublin) teaching with the stammering lips of ambiguous formularies.' Fierce and burning is the hatred of Dublin Operative Association Christians to Popery, but the reader has seen exactly that style of hatred to Protestantism is avowed by Mr. Ward. Both sets of Christians are quite sure they are right: but (alas! for infallibility) a third set of Christians insist that they are both wrong. There are Papists or Roman Catholics who consider Protestant principles the very reverse of true and undeniable, and treat with derisive scorn the 'fictitious Catholicism' of Puseyite Divines.
Count De Montalambert, in his recently published 'Letter to the Rev. Mr. Neale on the Architectural, Artistical, and Archaeological Movements of the Puseyites,' enters his 'protest' against the most unwarranted and unjustifiable assumption of the name of Catholic by people and things belonging to the actual Church of England. 'It is easy,' he observes, 'to take up a name, but it is not so easy to get it recognised by the world and by competent authority. Any man, for example, may come out to Madeira and call himself a Montmorency, or a Howard, and even enjoy the honour and consideration belonging to such a name till the real Montmorencys or Howards hear something about it, and denounce him, and then such a man would be justly scouted from society, and fall down much lower than the lowness from which he attempted to rise. The attempt to steal away from us and appropriate to the use of a fraction of the Church of England that glorious title of Catholic is proved to be an usurpation by every monument of the past and present; by the coronation oath of your sovereigns—by all the laws which have established your Church—even by the recent answer of your University of Oxford to the lay address against Dr. Pusey, &c., where the Church of England is justly styled the Reformed Protestant Church. The name itself is spurned at with indignation by the greater half, at least, of the inhabitants of the United Kingdom. The judgment of the whole indifferent world—the common sense of humanity—agrees with the judgment of the Church of Rome, and with the sense of her 150,000,000 of children, to dispossess you (Puseyites) of this name. The Church of England, who has denied her mother, is rightly without a sister. She has chosen to break the bonds of unity and obedience; let her therefore stand before the judgment-seat of God and of man. Again, supposing the spirit of the Camden Society ultimately to prevail over its Anglican adversaries; supposing you do one day get every old thing back again; copes, letters, roodlofts, candlesticks, and the abbey lands into the bargain, what will it all be but an empty pageant, like the Tournament of Eglington Castle, separated from the reality of Catholic truth and unity, by the abyss of three hundred years of schism? The question then is, have you, the Church of England, got the picture for your frame? have you got the truth, the one truth; the same truth as the men of the middle ages? The Camden Society says yes; but the whole Christian world, both Protestant and Catholic, says no; and the Catholic world adds that there is no truth but in unity, and this unity you most certainly have not. Once more; every Catholic will repeat to you the words of Manzoni, as quoted by M. Faber: 'The greatest deviations are none if the main point be recognised; the smallest are damnable heresies, if it be denied. That main point is the infallibility of the Church, or rather of the Pope.'
Our Anti-Romish priests would have us think the more and more we have of-faith, the more and more we have of happiness. Faith they exalt far, very far, above hope or even charity. 'Oh Lord, increase our faith,' is the text on which they love to enlarge. Faith is their panacea for all human ills: but their faith is worse than useless if it be not true faith. And how can we so test conflicting faiths as to distinguish the true from the false? Aye, there's the rub! Undoubtedly faith is to religion what the root is to the tree; and men in search of 'saving faith' are naturally anxious to find it. No one desires to be eternally punished; and therefore, if any one embrace a false faith it is because he makes the mistake of supposing it the true one. The three sets of Christians just adverted to, may all be equally sincere, but cannot all have the true faith. Protestant principles as taught by the Dublin Operative Association, may be true. Anglo-Catholic principles, as taught by the Oxford Tractmen, may be true. Roman Catholic principles, as taught by the Count de Montalambert, may be true; but they cannot all be true. It is impossible to reconcile that orthodox Papists' 'main point', i.e. the infallability of the (Romish) Church, or rather of the Pope, with the 'main point' of orthodox protestants, who denounce 'the great harlot of Babylon,' that 'scarlet lady who sitteth upon the seven hills, in the most unmeasured and virulent terms. Anti-Christ is the name they 'blasphemously' apply to the actual 'old chimera of a Pope.' Puseyite Divines treat his Holiness with more tenderness; but even they boggle at his infallibility, and seem to occupy a position between the rival churches of Rome and England analogous to that of Captain Macheath when singing between two favourite doxies—
How happy could I be with either, Were t'other dear charmer away; But while you thus teaze me together, The devil a word can I say.
The Infallibility of Popes is the doctrine insisted upon by Count De Montalambert as essential—as doctrine, the smallest deviation from which is damnable heresy. Believe and admit 'Antichrist' is not Antichrist, but God's accredited vicegerent upon earth, infinite is the mercy in store for you; but woe to those who either cannot or will not believe and admit anything of the kind. On them every sincere Roman Catholic is sure God will pour out the vials of his wrath, as if the 'Great Perhaps,'
Who sees with equal eye, as God of all, A hero perish, or a sparrow fall,
could be angry with creatures of his own creation for thinking what they cannot help thinking, and being what they cannot help being. Every one has heard of the Predestinarian, who, having talked much of his God, was asked by a bystander to speak worse of the Devil if he could; but comparatively few persons feel the full force of that question, or are prepared to admit God-worshippers in general, picture their Deities as if they were demons. 'Recognise,' exclaims the Roman Catholic Priest, 'the "main point" of our holy apostolic religion, or God will judge and eternally punish you.' The priests of nearly all religional denominations ascribe to Deity the low grovelling vindictive feelings which agitate and disgrace themselves. If Roman Catholic principles are true and undeniable, none but Roman Catholics will be saved from the wrath to come. If Anglo-Catholic principles are true and undeniable, none but Anglo-Catholic will be saved from the wrath to come. If orthodox Protestant principles are true and undeniable, none but orthodox Protestants will be saved from the wrath to come. Thus do religionists
Grunt and groan, And curse all systems but their own;
Never scrupling to assure the advocates of those systems a hell is waiting to receive them. Agreeing in little else save disagreement, the 'main point' of this class of believers is a matter of little consequence to that class of believers, and no matter at all to a third class of believers. Look at the thousand-and-one sects into which the Christian world is divided. 'Some reject Scripture; others admit no other writings but Scripture. Some say the devils shall be saved, others that they shall be damned; others that there are no devils at all. Some hold that it is lawful to dissemble in religion, others the contrary. Some say that Antichrist is come, some say not; others that he is a particular man, others that he is not a man, but the devil; and others that by Antichrist is meant a succession of men. Some will have him to be Nero, some Caligula, some Mohammed, some the Pope, some Luther, some the Turk, some of the tribe of Dan, and so each man according to his fancy will make an Antichrist. Some only will observe the Lord's day, some only the Sabbath; some both, and some neither. Some will have all things in common, some not. Some will have Christ's body only in Heaven, some everywhere; some in the bread, others with the bread, others about the bread, others under the bread, and others that Christ's body is the bread, or the bread his body. And others that his body is transformed into his divinity. Some will have the Eucharist administered in both kinds, some in one, some not at all. Some will have Christ descend to hell in respect of his soul, some only in his power, some in his divinity; some in his body, some not at all. Some by hell understand the place of the damned, some limbus partum, others the wrath of God, others the grave. Some will make Christ two persons, some give him but one nature and one will; some affirming him to be only God, some only man, some made up of both, some altogether deny him. Some will have his body come from Heaven, some from the Virgin, some from the elements. Some will have our souls mortal, some immortal; some bring them into the body by infusion, some by traduction. Some will have souls created. before the world, some after; some will have them created altogether, others severally; some will have them corporeal, some incorporeal; some of the substance of God, some of the substance of the body. So infinitely are men's conceits distracted with a variety of opinions, whereas there is but one Truth, which every man aims at, but few attain it; every man thinks he hath it, and yet few enjoy it.' [27:1]
The chiefs of these sects are, for the most part, ridiculously intolerant; so many small Popes, who fancy that whomsoever they bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whomsoever they loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. They remorselessly cobble the true faith, without which to their 'sole exclusive heaven,' none can be admitted;
As if religion were intended, For nothing else but to be mended,
and rarely seem so happy as when promising eternal misery to those who reject their chimeras. Even Dissenting ministers, from whom better things might be expected, have been heard to declare at public meetings, called by themselves for the purpose of sympathising with, and supporting one of themselves who was suffering for 'conscience sake,' that when they spoke of liberty to express opinions, they meant such liberty for religionists, not irreligionists. When learned and 'liberal' Dissenters gratuitously confess this species of faith, none have a right to be surprised that the 'still small voice of truth' should be drowned amid the clamour of fanaticism, or that Atheists should be so recklessly villified.
But wisdom, we read, is justified of her children; and to the wise of every nation the Atheist confidently appeals. He rejects religion, because religion is based on principles of imaginative ignorance. Bailly defines it as 'the worship of the unknown, piety, godliness, humility, before the unknown.' Lavater as 'Faith in the supernatural, invisible, unknown.' Vauvenargus as 'the duties of men towards the unknown.' Dr. Johnson as 'Virtue founded upon reverence of the unknown, and expectation of future rewards and punishments.' Rivarol as 'the science of serving the unknown.' La Bruyere as 'the respectful fear of the unknown.' Du Marsais, as 'the worship of the unknown, and the practice of all the virtues.' Walker as 'Virtue founded upon reverence of the unknown, and expectation of rewards or punishments: a system of divine faith and worship as opposed to other systems.' De Bonald as 'Social intercourse between man and the unknown.' Rees as 'the worship or homage that is due to the unknown as creator, preserver, and with Christians as redeemer of the world.' Lord Brougham as 'the subject of the science called Theology:' a science he defines as 'the knowledge and attributes of the unknown;' which definitions agree in making the essential principle of religion a principle of ignorance. That they are sufficiently correct definitions will not be disputed, and upon them the Atheist is satisfied to rest his case. To him the worship or adoration of what is confessedly unknown is mere superstition; and to him professors of theology are 'artists in words,' who pretend to teach what nobody has any conception of. Now, such persons may be well-intentioned; but their wisdom is by no means apparent. They must be wonderfully deficient of the invaluable sense so falsely called 'common.' Idolisers of 'thingless names,' they set at naught the admirable dictum of Locke, that it is 'unphilosophic to suppose names in books signify real entities in nature, unless we can frame clear and distinct ideas of those entities.'
Theists of every class would do well to calmly and fully consider this rule of philosophising, for it involves nothing less than the destruction of belief in the supernatural. The Jupiter of Mythologic History, the Allah of Alkoran, and the Jehovah of 'Holy Scripture,' if entities at all, are assuredly entities that baffle human conception. To 'frame clear and distinct ideas of them' is impossible. In respect to the attribute of unknowability all Gods are alike. They are all supernatural; and the merely natural cannot attach rational ideas to names assumed to stand for something above nature. It is easy to talk about seeing the Creator in creation, looking through nature up to nature's God, and the like, but very difficult to have any idea whatever of a God without body, parts, or passions; that is to say, the God set forth in one of the Church of England's Thirty-Nine Articles.
No such God can be believed to exist by reasoners who rigidly abide by John Locke's rule of philosophising, and if it be urged that he, the author of the rule, was a Theist and a Christian—our answer is, that in such case, like many other philosophers, he practically gave the lie to his own best precept.
Books have been written to exhibit the difficulties of (what priests choose to call) Infidelity; and without doubt unbelief has its difficulties. But according to a universally recognised rule of philosophising, of two difficulties we are in all cases to choose the least. From a rule so palpably just no one can reasonably depart, and the Atheist, while freely admitting a great difficulty on his own side, is satisfied there can be demonstrated an infinitely greater difficulty on the side of his opponents. The Atheist labours to convince mankind they are not warranted by the general course of Nature in assigning to it a Cause, inasmuch as it is more in accordance with experience to suppose Nature the uncaused cause, than to imagine, as religionists do, that there is an uncaused cause of Nature.
Theologians ask, who created Nature? without adducing satisfactory evidence that Nature was created, and without reflecting that if it is difficult to believe Nature self-existent, it is much more difficult to believe some self-existent Super-nature, capable of producing it. In their anxiety to get rid of a natural difficulty, they invent a supernatural one, and accuse Atheists of 'wilful blindness,' and 'obstinate deafness,' for not choosing so unphilosophic a mode of explaining universal mystery. Call upon them to define their 'all-creative Deity,' and they know not what to answer. Ask them who, what, or where He is, and at once you have them on the hip; at once you spy their utter ignorance, and reduce them to a condition very similar to that of Master Abraham Slender, when with stammering lips he 'sings small like a woman.' To assume everything they are always ready; but to prove anything concerning their Immense Supernatural, they are never prepared. Regularly drilled to argue in a circle, they foolishly imagine everybody else should do the same, and marvel at the man who rigidly adheres to just rules of philosophising and considers experience of natural derivation a far safer guide than their crude, undigested, extravagant, contradictory notions about the confessedly unknown.
The rule of philosophising just adverted to—that rule which forbids us, in any case, to choose the greater of two difficulties—is of immense importance, and should be carefully considered by every one anxious to arrive at correct conclusions with respect to theology. For if believers in God do depart from that rule—if their belief necessarily involve its violation—to persist in such belief is to persist in what is clearly opposed to pure reason. Now, it has been demonstrated, so far as words can demonstrate any truth whatever, that the difficulty of him who believes Nature never had an author, is infinitely less than the difficulty of him who believes it had a cause itself uncaused. In the 'Elements of Materialism,' an unequal but still admirable work by Dr. Knowlton, a well-known American writer, this question of comparative difficulty is well handled, and the Author of this Apology conceives most satisfactorily exhausted.
'The sentiment,' says the Doctor,' that a being exists which never commenced existence, or what is the same thing, that a being exists which has existed from all eternity, appears to us to favour Atheism, for if one being exist which never commenced existence—why not another—why not the universe? It weighs nothing, says the Atheist, in the eye of reason, to say the universe appears to man as though it were organised by an Almighty Designer; for the maker of a thing must be superior to the thing made; and if there be a maker of the universe there can be no doubt, but that if such maker were minutely examined by man, man would discover such indications of wisdom and design that it would be more difficult for him to admit that such maker was not caused or constructed by a pre-existing Designer, than to admit that the universe was not caused or constructed by a Designer. But no one will contend for an infinite series of Makers; and if, continues the Atheist, what would, if viewed, be indications of design, are no proofs of a designer in the one case, they are not; in the other; and as such indications are the only evidence we have of the existence of a Designer of the universe, we, as rational beings, contend there is no God. We do not suppose the existence of any being, of which there is no evidence, when such supposition, if admitted, so far from diminishing would only increase a difficulty, which at best is sufficiently great. Surely, if a superior being may have existed from all eternity, an inferior may have existed from all eternity; if a great God sufficiently mighty to make a world may have existed from all eternity, of course without beginning and without cause, such world may have existed from all eternity, without beginning, and without cause.' [31:1]
These are 'strong reasons' for Atheism—they prove that Theists set at nought the rule of philosophising which forbids us to choose the greater of two difficulties. Their system compels them to do so, for having no other groundwork than the strange hypotheses that time was when there was no time—something existed when there was nothing, which something created everything; its advocates would be tongue-tied and lost if reduced to the hard necessity of appealing to facts, or rigidly regarding rules of philosophising, which have only their reasonableness to recommend them. They profess ability to account for nature, and are of course exceedingly eager to justify a profession so presumptuous. This eagerness betrays them into courses, of which no one bent on rejecting whatever is either opposed to, or unsanctioned by experience, can possibly approve. It is plain that of the God they tell us to believe 'created the worlds,' no man has any experience. This granted, it follows that worship of such fancied Being is mere superstition. Until it be shown by reference to the general course of things, that things had an author, Himself uncreated or unauthorised, religious philosophers have no right to expect Atheists to abandon their Atheism. The duty of priests is to reconcile religion with reason, if they can, and admit their inability to do so, if they cannot.
Romanists will have nothing to do with reason whenever it appears at issue with their faith. All sects, as sects, play fast and loose with reason. Many members of all sects are forward enough to boast about being able to give a reason for the faith that is in them; but an overwhelming majority love to exalt faith above reason. Philosophy they call 'vain,' and some have been found so filled with contempt for it, as to openly maintain that what is theologically true, is philosophically false; or, in other terms, that the truths of religion and the truths of philosophy have nothing in common. According to them, religious truths are independent and superior to all other truths. Our faith, say they, if not agreeable to mere reason, is infinitely superior to it. Priests are 'at one' on the point. Dissenting and Protestant, as well as Romanising priests, find it convenient to abuse reason and extol faith. As priests, they can scarcely be expected to do otherwise; for reason is a stern and upright judge, whose decrees have hitherto been unfavourable to religion. Its professors who appeal to that judge, play a part most inconsistent and dangerous, as is evident in the case of Origen Bachelor, who more zealous and candid than prudent, declared the real and only question between Atheism and Theism a question of fact, reducing it to these terms—'Is there reason, all things considered, for believing that there is a God, an intelligent cause of things, infinite and perfect in all his attributes and moral qualities? [32:1]
Now, the reader has seen that the hypothesis of 'an intelligent cause of things' involves difficulties, greater, infinitely greater than the one difficulty, involved in the hypothesis that things always existed. He has seen the folly of explaining natural, by the invention of supernatural mystery, because it manifestly violates a rule of philosophising, the justness of which it would be ridiculous to dispute. Having clearly perceived thus much, he will perhaps think it rather 'too bad' as well as absurd, to call Atheists 'madmen' for lacking faith in the monstrous dogma that nature was caused by 'something amounting to nothing' itself uncaused.
There is something. That truth admits not of being evidenced. It is, nevertheless, accepted. It is accepted by men of all religious opinions, equally with men of no religious opinions. If any truth be self evident and eternal, here is that truth. To call it in question would be worse than idle. We may doubt the reality of an external world, we may be sceptical as to the reality of our own bodies, but we cannot doubt that there is something. The proposition falls not within the domain of scepticism. It must be true. To suppose it false is literally impossible. Its falsehood would involve a contradiction, and all contradiction involves impossibility. But if proof of this were needed, we have it in the fact that no man, sage or simple, ever pretended to deny there is something. Whatever men could doubt or deny they have doubted or denied, but in no country of the world, in no age, has the dogma—there is something, been denied or even treated as doubtful. Here then Atheists, Theists, and Polytheists agree. They agree of necessity. There is no escape from the conclusion that something is, except we adopt the unintelligible dogma there is nothing, which no human being can, as nothing amounts to nothing and of what amounts to nothing no one can have an idea. To define the word something by any other word, would be labour in vain. There is no other word in any language whose meaning is better understood, and they who do not under stand what it means, if such persons there be, are not likely to understand the meaning of any word or words whatever. Ideas of nothing none have. That there is something, we repeat, must be true; all dogmas or propositions being necessarily true whose denial involves an impossibility. What the nature of that something may be is a secondary question, and however determined cannot affect the primary dogma—things are things whatever may be their individual or their aggregate nature. Nor is it of the least consequence what name or names we may see fit to give things, so that each word has its fixed and true meaning. Whether, for example, we use for the sign of that something which is, the word Universe, or God, or Substance, or Spirit, or Matter, or the letter X, is of no importance, if we understand the word or letter used to be merely the sign of that something. Words are only useful, when they are the signs of true ideas; evidently therefore, their legitimate function is to convey such ideas; and words which convey no ideas at all, or what is worse, only those which are false, should at once be expunged from the vocabularies of nations. Something is. The Atheist calls it matter. Other persons may choose to call it other names; let them. He chooses to call it this one and no other.
There ever has been something. Here again, is a point of unity. All are equally assured there ever has been something. Something is, something must always have been, cry the religions, and the cry is echoed by the irreligious. This last dogma, like the first, admits not of being evidenced. As nothing is inconceivable, we cannot even imagine a time when there was nothing. Atheists say, something ever was, which something is matter. Theists say, something has been from all eternity, which something is not matter, but God. They boldly affirm that matter began to be. They affirm its creation from nothing, by a something, which was before the universe. Indeed, the notion of universal creation involves first, that of universal annihilation, and second, that of a something prior to everything. What creates everything must be before everything, in the same way that he who manufactures a watch must exist before the watch. As already remarked. Atheists agree with Theists, that something ever has been; but the point of difference lies here. The Atheist says, matter is the eternal something, and asks proof of its beginning to be. The Theist insists that matter is not the eternal something, but that God is, and when pushed for an account of what he means by God, he coolly answers, a Being, having nothing in common with anything, who, nevertheless, by his Almighty will created everything.
It may without injustice be affirmed, that the sincerest and strongest believers in this mysterious Deity, are often tormented by doubts, and, if candid, must own they believe in the existence of many things with a feeling much closer allied to certainty than they do in the reality of their 'Great First Cause, least understood.' No man can be so fully and perfectly satisfied there is a God in heaven as the Author of this Apology cannot but be of his own existence on earth. No man's faith in the imaginary is ever half so strong as his belief in the visible and tangible.
But few among professional mystifiers will admit this, obviously true as it is. Some have done so. Baxter, of pious memory, to wit, who said, 'I am not so foolish as to pretend my certainty be greater than it is, because it is dishonour to be less certain, nor will I by shame be kept from confessing those infirmities which those have as much as I, who hypocritically reproach with them. My certainty that I am a man is before my certainty that there is a God.'
So candid was Richard Baxter, and so candid are not the most part of our priests, who would fain have us think they have no more, and we ought to have no more, doubt about God's existence than our own. Nevertheless, they write abundance of books to convince us 'God is,' though they never penned a line in order to convince us, we actually are, and that to disbelieve we are is a 'deadly sin.'
Could God be known, could his existence be made 'palpable to feeling as to sight,' as unquestionably is the existence of matter, there would be no need of 'Demonstrations of the existence of God,' no need of arguments a priori or a posteriori to establish that existence. Saint John was right; 'No man hath seen God at any time,' to which 'open confession' he might truly have added, 'none ever will,' for the unreal is always unseeable. Yet have 'mystery men' with shameless and most insolent pertinacity asserted the existence of God while denying the existence of matter.
Define your terms, said Locke. Atheists do so, and where necessary insist upon others following the philosophic example. On this account they are 'ugly customers' to Priests, who, with exceptions, much dislike being called upon to explain their idealess language. Ask one to define the word God and you stagger him. If he do not fly into a passion deem yourself fortunate, but as to an intelligible definition, look for nothing of the sort. He can't furnish such definition however disposed to do so. The incomprehensible is not to be defined. It is difficult to give an intelligible account of an 'Immense Being' confessedly mysterious, and about whom his worshippers admit they only know, they know nothing, except that
'He is good, And that themselves are blind.'
Spinoza said, of things which have nothing in common, one cannot be the cause of the other; and to the Author of this Apology, it seems eminently unphilosophic to believe a Being having nothing in common with anything, capable of creating or causing everything. 'Only matter can be touched or touch;' and as the Christian's God is not material, his adorers are fairly open to the charge of superstition. An unknown Deity, without body, parts or passions, is of all idols the least tangible; and they who pretend to know and reverence him, are deceived or deceivers. Knowledge of, and reverence for an object, imply, the power of conceiving that object; but who is able to conceive a God without body, parts, or passions?
In this Christian country where men are expected to believe and called 'infidel' if they cannot believe in a 'crucified Saviour,' it seems strange so much fuss should be made about his immateriality. All but Unitarian Christians hold as an essential article of faith, that in him dwelt the fulness of the Godhead bodily, in other words, that our Redeemer and our Creator; though two persons are one God. It is true that Divines of our 'Reformed Protestant Church,' call everything but gentlemen those who lay claim to the equivocal privilege of feasting periodically upon the body and blood of Omnipotence. The pains taken by Protestants to show from Scripture, Reason and Nature, that Priests cannot change lumps of dough into the body, and bumpers of wine into the blood of their God, are well known and appreciated. But the Roman Catholics are neither to be argued nor laughed out of their 'awful doctrine' of the real presence, to which they cling with desperate earnestness. Proselytes are apt to misunderstand, and make sad mistakes about, that doctrine. Two cases are cited by Hume in his 'Essay of the Natural History of Religion,' which he announces as 'pleasant stories, though somewhat profane.' According to one, a Priest gave inadvertently, instead of the sacrament, a counter, which had by accident fallen among the holy wafers. The communicant waited patiently for some time, expecting that it would dissolve on his tongue, but finding that it still remained entire, he took it off. I hope, said he, to the Priest, you have not made a mistake; I hope you have not given me God the Father, he is so hard and tough that there is no swallowing him. The other story is thus related. A famous General, at that time in the Muscovite Service, having come to Paris for the recovery of his wounds, brought along with him a young Turk whom he had taken prisoner. Some of the doctors of the Sorbonne (who are altogether as positive as the dervises of Constantinople) thinking it a pity that the poor Turk should be damned for want of instruction, solicited Mustapha very hard to turn Christian, and promised him for encouragement, plenty of good wine in this world and paradise in the next. These allurements were too powerful to be resisted; and therefore having been well instructed and catechised, he at last agreed to receive the sacraments of baptism and Lord's Supper. Nevertheless, the Priest to make everything sure and solid, still continued his instructions, and began the next day with the usual question, How many God's are there? None at all, replied Benedict, for that was his new name. How! None at all? Cries the Priest. To be sure, said the honest proselyte, you have told me all along that there it but one God; and yesterday I ate him.
This is sufficiently ridiculous; and yet if we fairly consider the whole question of divinity there will be found no more absurdity in the notion of our Benedict eating the Creator, than in Jews crucifying Him. Both notions involve materiality. A God without body, parts, or passions, could no more be nailed upon a cross than taken into the stomach. And if it be urged there is something awful in the blasphemy of him who talks of swallowing his God, the Author of this Apology can as conscientiously urge that there is something very disgusting in the idea of a murdered Deity.
Locke wrote rather disparagingly of 'many among us,' who 'will be found upon inquiry, to fancy God in the shape of a man sitting in heaven, and have other absurd and unfit conceptions of him.' As though it were possible to think of shapeless Being, or as though it were criminal in the superstitious to believe 'God made man after his own image.' A 'Philosophical Unbeliever,' who made minced meat of Dr. Priestley's reasonings on the existence of God, well remarked that 'Theists are always for turning their God into an overgrown Man. Anthropomorphites has long been a term applied to them. They give him hand and eyes, nor can they conceive him otherwise than as a corporeal Being. We make a Deity ourselves, fall down and worship him. It is the molten calf over again. Idolatry is still practised. The only difference is that now we worship idols of our own imagination before of our hands.' [37:1]
This is bold language, but if the language of truth and soberness no one should take offence at it. That Christians as well as Turks 'have had whole sects earnestly contending that the Deity was corporeal and of human shapes,' is a fact, testified to by Locke, and so firmly established as to defy contradiction. And though every sincere subscriber to the Thirty Nine Articles must believe, or at least must believe he believes in Deity without body, parts, or passions, it is well known that 'whole sects' of Christians do even now 'fancy God in the shape a man sitting in heaven, and entertain other absurd and unfit conceptions of him.'
Mr. Collibeer, who is considered by Christian writers 'a most ingenious gentleman,' has told the world in his treatise entitled 'The Knowledge of God,' that Deity must have some form, and intimates it may probably be the spherical; an intimation which has grievously offended many learned Theists who consider going so far 'an abuse of reason,' and warn us that 'its extension beyond the assigned boundaries, has proved an ample source of error.' But what the 'assigned boundaries' of reason are, they don't state, nor by whom 'assigned.' That if there is a God, He must have some form is self-evident; and why Mr. Collibeer should be 'called over the coals' by his less daringly imaginative brethren, for preferring a spherical to a square or otherwise shaped Deity, is to my understanding what God's grace is to their's.
But admitting the unfitness, and absurdity, and 'blasphemy' of such conceptions, it is by no means clear that any other conceptions of the 'inconceivable' would be an improvement upon them. The Author's serious and deliberate opinion is, that ascribing to Deity a body analagous to our own, is less ridiculous than affirming he has no body; nor can he admire the wisdom of those Christians who prefer a partless, passionless God, to the substantial piece of supernaturalism adored by their forefathers. Undoubtedly, the matter-God-system has its difficulties, but they are trifles in comparison with those by which the spirit-God-system is encompassed: for, one obvious consequence of faith in bodiless Divinity is, an utter confusion of ideas in those who have it, as regards possibilities and impossibilities. The Author confidently submits that, no man having 'firm faith' in a Deity—without body parts and passions—can be half so wise as the famous cook of my Lord Hoppergollop, who said,
What is impossible can't be, And never never comes to pass.
He, moreover, confidently submits that, granting the existence of so utterly incomprehensible a Deity, still such Deity could not have caused nature, or matter, unless we deny the palpably true proposition of Spinoza, to wit—Of things which have nothing in common, one cannot be the cause of the other. In harmony with this proposition, Atheists cannot admit the supernatural caused the natural; for, between the natural and the supernatural it is impossible to imagine any thing in common.
The universe is an uncaused existence, or it was caused by something before it. By universe we mean matter, the sum total of things, whence all proceeds, and whither all returns. No truth is more obviously true than the truth that matter, or something not matter, exists of itself, and consequently is not an effect, but an uncaused cause of all effects.
From such conviction, repugnant though it be to vulgar ideas, there is no rational way of escape; for however much we may desire, however much we may struggle to believe there was a time when there was nothing, we cannot so believe. Human nature is constituted intuitively or instinctively to feel the eternity of something. To rid oneself of that feeling is impossible. Nature, or something not nature must ever have been, is a conclusion to which, what poets call Fate—
Leads the willing and drags the unwilling.
But does this undeniable truth make against Atheism? Far from it—so far, indeed, as to make for it: the reason is no mystery. Of matter we have ideas clear, precise, and indispensable, whereas, of something not matter we cannot have any idea whatever, good, bad, or indifferent. The Universe is extraordinary, no doubt, but so much of it as acts upon us is perfectly conceivable, whereas, any thing within, without, or apart from the Universe is perfectly inconceivable.
The notion of necessarily existing matter seems to the Author of this Apology fatal to belief in God; that is, if by the word God be understood something not matter, for 'tis precisely because priests were unable to reconcile such belief with the idea of matter's self-existence or eternity, that they took to imagining a 'First Cause.' In the 'forlorn hope' of clearing the difficulty of necessarily existing matter, they assent to a necessarily existing spirit; and when the nature of spirit is demanded from these assertors of its existence they are constrained to avow that it is material or nothing.
Yes, they are constrained to make directly or indirectly one or other of these admissions; for, as between truth and falsehood there is no middle passage, so between something and nothing there is no intermediate existence. Hence the serious dilemma of Spiritualists, who gravely tell us their God is a Spirit, and that a Spirit is not any thing, which not any thing or nothing (for the life of us we cannot distinguish between them) 'framed the worlds nay, created as well as framed them.
If it be granted, for the mere purpose of explanation, that Spirit is an entity, we can frame 'clear and distinct ideas of'—a real though not material existence, surely no man will pretend to say an uncreated reality called Spirit, is less inexplicable than uncreated Matter. All could not have been caused or created unless nothing can be a Cause, the very notion of which involves the grossest of absurdities.
'Whatever is produced,' said Hume, 'without any cause, is produced by nothing; or, in other words, has nothing for its cause. But nothing never can be a cause no more than it can be something or equal to two right angles. By the same intuition that we perceive nothing not to be equal to two right angles, or not to be something, we perceive that it can never be a cause and consequently must perceive that every object has a real cause, of its existence. When we exclude all causes we really do exclude them, and neither suppose nothing nor the object itself to be the causes of the existence, and consequently can draw no argument from the absurdity of these suppositions to prove the absurdity of that exclusion. If everything must have a cause, it follows that upon the exclusion of other causes we must accept of the object itself or nothing as causes. But it is the very point in question whether everything must have a cause or not, and therefore, according to all just reasoning ought not to be taken for granted. [40:1]
This reasoning amounts to logical demonstration (if logical demonstration there can be) of a most essential truth, which in all ages has been obstinately set at nought by dabblers in the supernatural. It demonstrates that something never was, never can be caused by nothing, which can no more be a cause, properly so called, than 'it can be something, or equal to two right angles;' and therefore that everything could not have had a cause which the reader has seen is the very point assumed by Theists—the very point on which as a pivot they so merrily and successfully turn their fine metaphysical theories, and immaterial systems.
The universe, quoth they, must have had a cause, and that cause must have been a First Cause, or cause number one, because nothing can exist of itself. Oh, most lame and impotent conclusion! How in consistency can they declare nothing can exist without a cause in the teeth of their oft repeated dogma that God is uncaused. If God never commenced to be He is an uncaused existence, that is to say, exists without a cause. The difference on this point between Theists and Atheists is very palpable. The former say, Spirit can exist without a cause; the latter say Matter can exist without a cause. Whole libraries of theologic dogma would be dearly purchased by Hume's profound remark—'if everything must have a cause, it follows that upon the exclusion of other causes we must accept of the object itself or of nothing as causes.'
If the God of our Deists and Christians is not matter, what is He? Upon them devolves the difficult duty of answering that question. They are morally bound to answer it or make the humiliating confession that they 'ignorantly worship;' that with all their boasted certainty as to the existence of their 'deified error' they can furnish no satisfactory, or even intelligible account of His [41:1] nature, if indeed a supernatural or rather Unnatural Being can properly be said to have a nature.