Modern Atheism under its forms of Pantheism, Materialism, Secularism, Development, and Natural Laws
by James Buchanan
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Transcriber's Notes:

1. Several misprints (including Greek) were corrected. A full list of corrections can be found at the end of the text. Misspelling and inconsistencies in the French quotations, unless otherwise noted, have been preserved.

2. Footnotes have been renumbered and moved to the end of chapters.

3. Footnote 138 had no footnote marker within the text; the reference was added in a possible place.

4. Symbol of a hand pointing right has been replaced with a right arrow: ==>.








Entered according to Act of Congress, in the year 1856, by


In the Clerk's Office of the District Court of the District of Massachusetts.

Electro-Stereotyped by G. J. STILES & COMPANY, 23 Congress Street, Boston.


The contents of this volume originally constituted about one half of a work, entitled "Faith in God and Modern Atheism compared, in their Essential Nature, Theoretic Grounds, and Practical Influence." Simultaneously with the first issue of that work in Scotland, the five principal chapters in this volume were published separately, accompanied with the announcement that each was complete in itself. The hint thus given by the author, has been acted upon by the present publishers. On examining the whole work, it was found to be divided into four Sections. Of these, the third was devoted exclusively to "Modern Atheism." It embraced the five chapters already alluded to, together with a general introduction and four shorter chapters. It appeared, in fact, to be a complete treatise by itself; and it is now presented to the American public in the conviction that such a work is peculiarly demanded by the present state of religious opinion in this country.

The author is one of the most distinguished divines of the Free Church of Scotland. In 1845, he was appointed Professor of Apologetic Theology in the New College, Edinburgh; and, on the death of Dr. Chalmers, in 1847, he was translated to the Chair of Systematic Theology thus made vacant. In the former position, it became his duty to prepare a complete course of Lectures on Natural Religion. His work on "Faith in God," &c., contains, in an altered form, adapted to general readers, the substance of those Lectures.

Respecting this work, the British press generally has spoken in the highest terms. The distinguished geologist, Hugh Miller, says, in the Edinburgh Witness: "It is one of, at once, the most readable and solid which we have ever perused;" and the News of the Churches, the organ of the Free Church, describes it as "a work of which nothing less can be said than that, both in spirit and substance, style and argument, it fixes irreversibly the name of its author as a leading classic in the Christian literature of Britain." An American critic says: "His succinct analysis of the doctrines held by the various schools of modern atheism are admirable, and his criticisms on their doctrines original and profound; while his arguments in defence of the Christian faith against philosophical objectors are unsurpassed by those of any modern writer. Clear, vigorous, logical, learned, and strong as a Titan, he fairly vanquishes all antagonists by pure mental superiority; never understating their views or evading their arguments, but meeting them in all their force and crushing them." Another critic says: "It is a great argument for Theism and against Atheism, magnificent in its strength, order, and beauty.... The style is lucid, grave, harmonious, and every way commensurate with the dignity and importance of the subject.... The chapter on Pantheism is admirable. Regarding it as 'the most formidable rival of Christian Theism at the present day,' Dr. Buchanan seems to have specially addressed himself to the task of exposing and refuting this error. His statement of Spinoza's system is beautifully clear."

The reader will find that there is no exaggeration in these encomiums. Hugh Miller, always felicitous in his choice of words, has exactly described the two leading characteristics of "Modern Atheism," by the phrase "readable and solid." Every one who begins the book will find himself drawn strongly onward to the end; and no one can rise from its perusal without a conviction that it contains a weight of argument against all the forms of Atheism such as never before has been combined in one book.

Should the reception of this volume by the public furnish sufficient encouragement, it is the intention of the publishers to issue the remainder of the work ("Faith in God," &c.), in uniform style.

BOSTON, December, 1856.



























A Treatise on the Being and Perfections of God, as the Creator and Governor of the world, can scarcely be adapted to the exigencies of modern society, unless it be framed with express reference to the existing forms of unbelief, and the prevailing tendencies both of philosophical thought and of popular opinion. It is quite possible, indeed, to construct a scheme of evidence on this subject out of the ample materials which the storehouse of nature affords, without entering into any discussion of the questions, whether Physical or Metaphysical, which have been raised respecting it. But this method, although it might be sufficient for many, perhaps for most, of our readers—for all, indeed, who come to the study of the subject with reflective but unsophisticated minds—could scarcely be expected to meet the case or to satisfy the wants of those who stand most in need of instruction; the men, and especially the young men, in all educated communities, who, imbued with the spirit of philosophical speculation, and instructed, more or less fully, in the principles of modern science, have been led, under the influence of certain celebrated names, to adopt opinions which prevent them from seriously considering any theological question, and to regard the whole subject of religion with indifference or contempt, as one that lies beyond the possible range of science,—the only legitimate domain of human thought. In such cases (and they are neither few nor unimportant), it may be useful and even necessary to neutralize those adverse presumptions or "prejudicate opinions," which prevent them from considering the evidence to which Theism appeals, and to review the various theories from which they spring, so as to show that they afford no valid reason for discarding the subject, and no ground for alleging that it is not fit to go to proof. It is true that we must ultimately rely, for the establishment of our main positions, on that body of natural and historical evidence, which depends little, if at all, on any of the Theories of Philosophical Speculation, or even on any of the discoveries of Physical Science; but it is equally true that the evidence, however conclusive in itself, cannot be expected to produce conviction unless it be candidly examined and weighed; and if there be anything in the existing state of public opinion which leads men to regard the whole subject with indifference or suspicion, to conceive of it as a problem insoluble by the human faculties, and to treat Theology as a fond fancy or a waking dream, it were surely well to examine the grounds of such opinions, to expose their fallacy so as to counteract their influence, and to refute those theories which prevent men from judging of the evidence as they would on any other topic of Inductive Inquiry. In adopting this course, we are only following the footsteps of the profound author of the "Analogy," who finding it, he knew not how, "to be taken for granted, by many persons, that Christianity is not so much as a subject of inquiry," set himself, in the first instance, to prove "that it is not, however, so clear a case that there is nothing in it;"—this preliminary proof being designed to neutralize objections, and to disburden the subject of all adverse presumptions, so as to be judged on its own proper and independent merits. We are imitating, too, the example of another sagacious writer on a kindred theme, who thought that "Apologists had paid too little attention to the prejudices of their opponents, and had been too confident of accomplishing their object at once, by an overpowering statement of the direct evidence, forgetting that the influence of prejudice renders the human mind very nearly inaccessible to both evidence and argument."[1]

If this method was ever necessary or expedient, it is peculiarly so in the present age. Opinions are afloat in society, and are even avowed by men of high philosophical repute, which formally exclude Theology from the domain of human thought, and represent it as utterly inaccessible to the human faculties. They amount to a denial, not merely of its truth, but of its very possibility. They place it among the dreams of the past—with the fables of the Genii, or the follies of Alchemy, or the phantoms of Astrology. They intimate, in no ambiguous terms, not only that Catholicism is effete, and Christianity itself dead or dying, but that Theology of every kind, even the simplest and purest form of Theism, must speedily vanish from the earth. Admitting that the religious element was necessarily developed in the infancy of the species, and that its influence was alike inevitable and salutary during the world's minority, when it was placed provisionally "under tutors and governors," they proclaim that mankind have outgrown the vestments which suited them in earlier times, and that now they must "put away childish things." That such sentiments have been publicly avowed, that they have been proclaimed as the scientific results of speculative thought, and that they have been widely circulated in the vehicles both of philosophic discussion and of popular literature, will be proved by evidence, equally sad and conclusive, in the succeeding chapters; in the meantime we refer to them merely for the purpose of showing that, in so far as their influence prevails, they must necessarily tend, unless they be counteracted by some effective antidote, to generate such a prejudice against the whole scheme of Theology, whether Natural or Revealed, as may be expected, especially in the case of young, inexperienced, and ardent minds, to prevent them from entertaining the subject at all, or examining, with serious and candid interest, any kind or amount of evidence that might be adduced in regard to it. For this reason, we propose to review the various Theories or Systems which may be said to embody and exhibit these prevailing tendencies, to meet our opponents on their own chosen ground, and to subject their favorite speculations to a rigorous and sifting scrutiny; and this, not for the purpose of proving our fundamental position, for that must rest on its proper and independent evidence, but simply with the view of neutralizing the adverse presumptions which prevent many from considering its claims, and proving that it is a subject that demands and deserves their serious and sustained attention.

Taking a comprehensive view of European Science and Literature during the last half century, we may discern the great currents, or chief tendencies, of speculative thought, in so far as it bears on the evidences and doctrines of Religion, in several distinct but closely related systems of opinion, which, whether considered severally or collectively, must exert, in proportion to their prevalence, a powerful influence on the side of Atheism. These systems may be divided generally into two great classes, according as they relate to the substance or to the evidence of Theism, to the truths which it involves, or the proofs to which it appeals. The interval between the first and second French Revolutions may be regarded as the season during which the theories to which we refer were progressively developed, and ultimately consolidated in their existing forms. The germ of each of them may have existed before, and traces of them may be detected in the literature of the ancient world, and even in the writings of mediaeval times; nay, it might not be too much to affirm that in the systems of Oriental Superstition, and in the Schools of Grecian Skepticism, several of them were more fully taught in early times than they have yet been in Modern Europe, and that the recent attempts to reconstruct and reproduce them in a shape adapted to the present stage of civilization, have been poor and meagre in comparison with those more ancient efforts of unenlightened reason. What modern system of Skepticism can rival that of Sextus Empiricus? What code of Pantheism, French or German, can be said to equal the mystic dreams of the Vedanta School? What godless theory of Natural Law can compete with the Epicurean philosophy, as illustrated in the poetry of Lucretius? The errors of these ancient systems have been revived even amidst the light of the nineteenth century, and prevail to an extent that may seem to justify the apprehension, frequently expressed on the Continent of late years, of the restoration of a sort of Semi-Paganism in Modern Europe; and it is still necessary, therefore, for the defence of a pure Theism, to reexamine those ancient forms of error which have reaeppeared on the scene after it might have been supposed that they had vanished for ever. For the very tenacity with which they cleave to the human mind, and their perpetual recurrence at intervals along the whole course of the world's history, show that there must be something in the wants, or at least in the weaknesses of our nature, which induces men to tolerate and even to embrace them. But the chief danger, as we conceive, lies in those new, or at least newly organized, theories that have only recently received their full development in the Inductive and Scientific pursuits which constitute the peculiar glory of modern times; and which, commencing with the era of Bacon and Descartes, and gradually matured by Newton, Leibnitz, and their successors, have at length issued in the construction of a solid fabric of Science. To Theism there is no danger in Science, in so far as it is true, for all truth is self-consistent and harmonious; but there may be much danger in the use that is made of it, or in the spirit in which it is applied. In the hands of Bacon, and Newton, and Boyle, the doctrine of Natural Laws was treated as an ally, not as an antagonist, to Theology; in the hands of Comte it becomes a plea for Atheism; and even in the hands of Combe an argument against a special Providence and the efficacy of prayer. Here the danger is the greater just by reason of the acknowledged truth and practical value of the Inductive Philosophy; for its certainty is so well ascertained, and its manifold uses so generally appreciated, that if it shall come to be regarded as incompatible with the recognition of God and Religion, Society will soon find itself on the verge of universal Atheism. And this is the fearful issue to which the more recent schools of speculation are manifestly tending. The first French Revolution was brought about by the labors of men who fought against Christianity, at least ostensibly, under the banner of Deism or Natural Religion; the second Revolution was consummated under the auspices, not of a Deistic, but of an Atheistic philosophy. The school of Voltaire and Rousseau has given place to the school of Comte and Leroux. The difference between the two indicates a rapid and alarming advance. It may not be apparent at first sight, or on a superficial survey; but it will become evident to any one who compares the two French Encyclopaedias, which may be regarded as the exponents of the reigning philosophy of the two great revolutionary eras. The first, the Encyclopedie of D'Alembert, Voltaire, and Diderot, sought to malign and extirpate Christianity, while it did frequent homage to Natural Theology; the second, the "Nouvelle Encyclopedie" of Pierre Leroux and his coadjutors, proclaims the deification of Humanity, and the dethronement of God!


[1] BISHOP BUTLER, "Analogy," Preface, p. II.

DR. INGLIS, "Vindication of the Christian Faith," p. VI.




Before entering on a detailed discussion of the theories to which it appeals, it may be useful to offer some general reflections on ATHEISM itself, its generic nature and specific varieties, its causes and springs, whether permanent or occasional, and its moral and social influence, as illustrated alike by individual experience and by public history.

By Atheism we mean any system of opinion which leads men either to doubt or to deny the Existence, Providence, and Government of a living, personal, and holy God, as the Creator and Lord of the world. In its practical aspect, it is that state of mind which leads them to forget, disown, or disobey Him.

We are met, however, at the outset, by a previous question, Whether Atheism be a real or even a possible thing? a question which was wont to be discussed by divines under the head, an dentur Athei?[2] and which has recently been revived by the strong protestations of some philosophic writers, who deny not only the existence, but the very possibility of Atheism. On this point the policy which infidels have pursued has been widely different at different times. On some occasions, they have sought to exaggerate the number of Atheists, claiming as their own adherents or allies a large majority of the intellectual classes, as well as whole tribes or nations of barbarians, in order to impress the public mind with the conviction that belief in God is neither natural nor universal; at other times, they have sought to allay the prejudice which avowed Atheism seldom fails to awaken, by disclaiming much that had been imputed to them, by professing a sort of mystic reverence for the Spirit of Nature, and by denying that their speculations involve a disbelief in God. In following these opposite courses at different times, they have been actuated by a politic regard to the exigencies of their wretched cause, and have alternately adopted the one or the other, just as it might seem, in existing circumstances, to be more expedient either to brave or to conciliate public opinion. It is incumbent, therefore, on every enlightened advocate of Christian Theism to exercise a prudent discretion in the treatment of this topic, and to guard equally against the danger either of being led to exaggerate the extent, or of being blinded to the existence of the evil. Nor is it difficult to discover a safe middle path between the opposite extremes: it is only necessary to define, in the first instance, what we mean when we speak of Theism or Atheism respectively, and then to ascertain, in the second place, whether any, and what, parties have avowed principles which should fairly serve to connect them with the one system or with the other. A clear conception of the radical principle or essential nature of Atheism is indispensable; for without this, we shall be liable, on the one hand, to the risk of imputing Atheism to many who are not justly chargeable with it—a fault which should be most carefully avoided;[3] and equally liable, on the other hand, to the danger of overlooking the wide gulf which separates Religion from Irreligion, and Theism from Atheism. There is much room for the exercise both of Christian candor and of critical discrimination, in forming our estimate of the characters of men from the opinions which they hold, when these opinions relate not to the vital truths of religion, but to collateral topics, more or less directly connected with them. It is eminently necessary, in treating this subject, to discriminate aright between systems which are essentially and avowedly atheistic, and those particular opinions on cognate topics which have sometimes been applied in support of Atheism, but which may, nevertheless, be held by some salva fide, and without conscious, still less avowed, Infidelity. And hence Buddaeus and other divines have carefully distinguished between the radical principles or grounds of Atheism, and those opinions which are often, but not invariably, associated with it.[4]

But it is equally or still more dangerous, on the other hand, to admit a mere nominal recognition of God as a sufficient disproof of Atheism, without inquiring what conception is entertained of His nature and perfections; whether He be conceived of as different from, or identical with, Nature; as a living, personal, and intelligent Being, distinct from the universe, or as the mere sum of existing things; as a free Creator and Moral Governor, or as a blind Destiny and inexorable Fate. These are vital questions, and they cannot be evaded without serious detriment to the cause of religion. A few examples will suffice to prove our assertion. M. Cousin contends that Atheism is impossible, and assigns no other reason for his conviction than this,—that the existence of God is necessarily implied in every affirmation, and may be logically deduced from the premises on which that affirmation depends.[5] His reasoning may possibly be quite conclusive in point of logic, in so far as it is an attempt to show that the existence of God ought to be deduced from the consciousness of thought; but it cannot be held conclusive as to the matter of fact, that there is no Atheism in the world, unless it can be further shown that all men know and acknowledge His existence as a truth involved in, and deducible from, their conscious experience. Yet he does not hesitate to affirm that "every thought implies a spontaneous faith in God;" nay, he advances further, and adds that even when the sage "denies the existence of God, still his words imply the idea of God, and that belief in God remains unconsciously at the bottom of his heart." Surely the denial or the doubt of God's existence amounts to Atheism, however inconsistent that Atheism may be with the natural laws of thought, or the legitimate exercise of speech.

Yet the bold paradox of COUSIN was neither an original discovery nor an unprecedented delusion. It was taught, in a different form, but with equal confidence, by several writers belonging to the era of the first French Revolution. Thus HELVETIUS, in his work on MAN, says expressly: "There is no man of understanding who does not acknowledge an active power in Nature; there is, therefore, no Atheist. He is not an Atheist who says that motion is God; because, in fact, motion is incomprehensible, as we have no clear idea of it, since it does not manifest itself but by its effects, and because by it all things are performed in the universe. He is not an Atheist who says, on the contrary, that motion is not God, because motion is not a being, but a mode of being. They are not Atheists who maintain that motion is essential to matter, and regard it as the invisible and moving force that spreads itself through all its parts," "as the universal soul of matter, and the divinity that alone penetrates its substance. Are the philosophers of this last opinion Atheists? No; they equally acknowledge an unknown force in the universe. Are even those who have no ideas of God Atheists? No; because then all men would be so, because no one has a clear idea of the Divinity."[6]

A more recent writer, the ABBE LAMENNAIS, is equally explicit, and very much for the same reasons: "The Atheist himself has his own notion of God, only he transfers it from the Creator to the creation; he ascribes to finite, relative, and contingent being the properties of the necessary Being; he confounds the work with the workman. Matter being, according to him, eternal, is endowed with certain primitive, unchangeable properties, which, having their own reason in themselves, are themselves the reasons of all successive phenomena;" and "it matters little whether he rejects the name of God or not," or "whether he has, or has not, an explicit knowledge of Him;" he cannot but acknowledge an eternal First Cause.[7] And so a whole host of Pantheistic Spiritualists will indignantly disclaim the imputation of Atheism, and even attempt to vindicate Spinoza himself from the odious charge.[8] Nay, some of the grossest Materialists, such as Atkinson and Martineau, while they explicitly deny the existence of a living personal God, will affirm that Pantheism is not Atheism.[9] Now, unquestionably, if by Theism we mean nothing more than the recognition of an active power in nature,—such a power as may or may not be identified with motion, and as may be designated indifferently as the Divinity, or as the Soul of the world,—the possibility of Atheism may be effectually excluded; but this only serves to show the indispensable necessity of a correct definition of the terms which are employed in this discussion, since it is perfectly manifest that they are not used in the same sense by the contending parties, and that consequently the disputants are not arguing about the same thing. For Pantheism, whatever form it may assume, and whatever language it may adopt, can be regarded in no other light than as a system of Atheism, by all who have any definite conception of what is meant when we either affirm or deny the existence and government of a living, intelligent, personal God.

As Atheism has appeared in several distinct forms, it is necessary to consider both its generic nature and its specific varieties. It may be defined, generally, as that state of mind which involves either the denial or the doubt of the existence and government of God as an all-perfect Being, distinct from the created universe; or which leads to the habitual forgetfulness and wilful neglect of His claims as our Creator, Preserver, and Lord. This state of mind, whether evinced by words or by actions, contains in it the essence of Atheism, and it is recognized in Scripture, in each of its two aspects, as an evil alike natural and prevalent. The words of the Psalmist, "The fool hath said in his heart, No God,"[10] whether they be interpreted as the expression of an opinion or of a wish, indicate in either case the existence of that state of mind which has just been described, and which may issue either in practical or speculative Atheism, according to the temperament of individual minds, and the influences which are brought to bear upon them. The same inspired writer has said,[11] that "The wicked through the pride of his countenance will not seek after God; God is not in all his thoughts;"—"He hath said in his heart, God hath forgotten; He hideth his face; He will never see it."—"Wherefore doth the wicked contemn God? he hath said in his heart, Thou wilt not require it;" And these words exhibit a graphic delineation, of that state of mind in which occasional thoughts of God are neutralized by habitual unbelief, and the warnings of conscience silenced by the denial of a supreme moral government. In like manner, when the apostle tells the Ephesian converts that at one time "they were without God in the world,"[12] and the Galatians, that "when they knew not God, they did service unto them which by nature are no gods;" when he further speaks of some as "lovers of pleasures more than lovers of God," as "having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof," as "professing that they know God, but in works denying Him;"[13]—in all these statements we see the generic nature of that ungodliness which cleaves as an inveterate disease to our fallen nature, and which, whether it appears only in the form of practical unbelief and habitual forgetfulness, or assumes the more daring aspect of avowed infidelity, contains in it the essence of Atheism.

While such is its generic nature, we must further discriminate between its specific varieties; for it does not always wear the same aspect, or rest on the same grounds. It may be divided, first of all, into speculative and practical Atheism: the former implying a denial, or a doubt of the existence and government of God, either openly avowed or secretly cherished; while the latter is perfectly compatible with a nominal religious profession, and consists in the habitual forgetfulness of God and of the duties which arise out of His relation to us as His creatures and subjects. Speculative Atheism is comparatively rare; Practical Atheism is widely prevalent, and may be justly regarded as the grand parent sin, the universal characteristic of fallen humanity.[14] It is not Atheism in profession, it is Atheism in practice. Those who are chargeable with it may "profess that they know God, but in works they deny Him." As distinguished from theoretical or speculative Atheism, it is fitly termed ungodliness. It does not necessarily imply either the denial or the doubt of the existence or government of God, but consists mainly in the forgetfulness of His character and claims. Speculative Atheism always implies habitual ungodliness; but the latter may exist where the former has never been embraced, and has even been openly and sincerely disclaimed. Yet such is the connection between the two, that Speculative Atheism invariably presupposes and perpetuates practical ungodliness; and that the latter has also a tendency to produce the former, since the habitual disregard of God in the practical conduct of life indicates a state of mind in which men are peculiarly exposed to the seductions of infidelity and prone to yield to them, especially in seasons of revolutionary excitement or of prevailing epidemic unbelief. It would be wrong to rank every ungodly man among professed or even conscious Atheists, for he may never have denied or even doubted the existence and government of God; yet it were equally wrong to represent or treat him as a true believer, since he shows that, practically, "God is not in all his thoughts;" and hence the necessity of our first distinction between [Transcriber's note: Original had "beetween"] theoretical or speculative, and practical or habitual Atheism.

Speculative Atheism, again, is either dogmatic or skeptical. It is dogmatic, when it amounts to an affirmation, either that there is no God, or that the question of his existence is necessarily insoluble by the human faculties. Atheism has been distinguished from Anti-theism; and the former has been supposed to imply merely the non-recognition of God, while the latter asserts His non-existence. This distinction is founded on the difference between unbelief and disbelief;[15] and its validity is admitted in so far as it discriminates merely between dogmatic and skeptical Atheism. But Anti-theism is maintained, in the strictest sense of the term, where it is affirmed either that there is no God, or that the existence of the Supreme Being cannot in any circumstances become an object of human knowledge. In each of these forms, Atheism is dogmatic; it denies the existence of God, or it denies the possibility of His being known. But there is also a skeptical Atheism, which does not affirm absolutely either that there is no God, or that the knowledge of God is necessarily excluded by the limitations of human reason, but contents itself with saying, "non-liquet,"—i.e., with denying the sufficiency of the evidence. It answers every appeal to that evidence by saying that, however satisfactory it may be to the minds of some, it does not carry conviction to the minds of all, and that for this reason it may be justly regarded as doubtful or inconclusive. These two forms of Atheism—the Dogmatic and the Skeptical—are widely different from each other; they rest on distinct grounds, and they require, therefore, to be discussed separately, each on its own peculiar and independent merits. The Dogmatic Atheist feels no force in the arguments which are directed merely against his skeptical ally; for, strong in his own position and confident in his ability to maintain it, he is conscious of no speculative doubt, and affirms boldly what he unhesitatingly believes. The Skeptical Atheist, again, feels no force in the arguments which are directed against a Dogmatic System such as he utterly disclaims; he is equally unwilling to affirm either that there is, or that there is not, a God: he takes refuge in doubt, and refuses alike to affirm or to deny; his only plea is, the want or the weakness of evidence on either side. From this radical difference between the two forms of Speculative Atheism, there arises a necessity for discussing each of them on its own merits; and yet, although theoretically they may be easily distinguished, it will be found that practically they are often conjoined, since the same mind will often fluctuate between the two, and shift its ground by betaking itself alternately to the one or the other, according to the exigencies of the argument. Assail the Dogmatic Atheist with the unanswerable statement of John Foster, that it would require nothing less than Omniscience to warrant the denial of a God, and he will probably defer to it so far as to admit that he cannot prove his negative conclusion, but will add that he is not bound to do so, and that all that can be reasonably required of him is to show that the evidence adduced on the opposite side is insufficient to establish the Divine existence, or that the phenomena which supply that evidence may be as well, or more satisfactorily, explained in some other way. Assail, in like manner, the Skeptical Atheist with the self-evident truth that, even on his own principles, he is not entitled to assume or to act upon the assumption, that there is no God, since the result of his reasonings is doubt merely, and such doubt as implies that there may be a Creator, Governor, and Judge, he will probably defer to it so far as to admit that this is the only logical result of his system, but will add that, where there is no conclusive evidence on either side, there can be no moral obligation to a religious life, and no guilt in living "without God in the world." It will be found, too, that, distinct as these two forms of Speculative Atheism may appear to be, yet they have often been made to rest on a common ground, and the self-same arguments have been adduced in support of both. Thus the doctrine of Materialism, the theory of Development, and the system of Natural Laws, have all been applied by the Dogmatic Atheist to justify his denial of the existence and government of God, on the ground that all the phenomena of Nature may be accounted for without the supposition of a Supreme Mind; while the very same doctrines or theories have been also applied by the Skeptical Atheist to justify, not his denial, but his doubt, and to vindicate his verdict of "non-liquet" on the evidence adduced. And as the same arguments are often employed by both parties in support of their respective views, so they make use, for the most part, of the same objections in assailing the cause of Theism; insomuch that it would be impossible, and even were it possible it would be superfluous, to attempt a formal refutation of either, without discussing those more general principles which are applicable to both. For this reason, we propose to examine in the sequel the various theories which have been applied in support alike of Dogmatic and of Skeptical Atheism, so as to illustrate the grounds that are common to both, while we consider also the distinctive peculiarities of the two systems, and more particularly the grounds of Religious Skepticism.

Besides the radical distinction between Dogmatic and Skeptical Atheism, we must consider the difference between the four great leading systems which have been applied to account for the existing order of Nature, without the recognition of a living, intelligent, personal God. There are many specific varieties of Atheism; but, ultimately, they may be reduced to four classes. The first system assumes and asserts the eternal existence of THE COSMOS; that is, of the present order of Nature, with all its laws and processes, its tribes and races, whether of vegetable or animal life; and affirms that the world, as now constituted, never had a beginning, and that it will never have an end. This has been called the Aristotelian Hypothesis, because Aristotle, while he spoke of a Supreme Mind or Reason, maintained not only the eternity of matter, but also the eternity of "substantial forms and qualities."

The second system affirms, not the eternal existence of THE COSMOS,—for the commencement of the existing order of Nature is admitted to be comparatively recent,—but the eternal existence of Matter and Motion; and attempts to account for the origin of the world and of the races by which it is peopled, either by ascribing it, with Epicurus, to a fortuitous concourse of atoms, or, with more modern Speculatists, to a law of progressive development. This has been called the Epicurean Hypothesis, because Epicurus, while nominally admitting the existence of God, denied the creation of the world, and ascribed its origin to atoms supposed to have been endued with motion or certain inherent properties and powers, and to have been self-existent and eternal.

The third system affirms the coexistence and coeternity of God and the World; and, while it admits a distinction between the two, represents them as so closely and necessarily conjoined, that God can be regarded only as the Soul of the World,—superior to matter, as soul is to body, but neither anterior to it, nor independent of it, and subject, as matter itself is, to the laws of necessity and fate. This has been called the Stoical System; since the Stoics, notwithstanding all their sublime moral speculations and their frequent recognition of God, taught that God sustains the same relation to the World as the soul of man does to his body.

The fourth system denies the distinction between God and the World, and affirms that all is God, and God is all; that there exists only one substance in the Universe, of which all existing beings are only so many modes or manifestations; that these beings proceed from that one substance, not by creation, but by emanation; that when they disappear, they are not destroyed, but reaebsorbed; and that thus, through endless cycles of change, of reproduction and decay, it is one and the same eternal being that is continually modified and manifested. This has been called the Pantheistic Hypothesis, and it is exemplified, on a large scale, in the speculations of the Brahmins in India, and, in Europe, in those of Spinoza and his numerous followers.

If this be a correct analysis of Speculative Atheism, in so far as it assumes a positive or dogmatic shape, we have only to conjoin with it the peculiar characteristics of that which is merely Skeptical, and we shall obtain a comprehensive view of the whole subject, which may serve as a useful guide in the selection and treatment of the topics which demand our chief attention in the prosecution of this inquiry.

It is necessary, however, in discussing this subject, to bear in mind that there is a wide difference between Systems of Atheism, such as we have briefly described, and certain doctrines which have sometimes been associated with it, or even applied in its support or vindication. These doctrines may have been connected, historically, with the promulgation and defence of atheistic views; they may even seem to have a tendency adverse to the evidence or truths of Christian Theism; but they must not on that account be summarily characterized as atheistic, nor must those who have at any time maintained them be forthwith classed among avowed infidels.[16] The doctrine of Philosophical Necessity, which in the hands of Jonathan Edwards was applied, whether consistently or otherwise, in illustration and defence of Christian truth, became in the hands of Collins and Godwin an associate and ally of anti-Christian error; the doctrine of the natural Mortality of the Soul, which in the hands of Dodwell was applied, whether consistently or otherwise, to vindicate the peculiar privileges of the Christian Covenant, has often been applied by infidels as a weapon of assault against the fundamental articles of Natural Religion itself; the doctrine of Materialism, which in the hands of Priestly was maintained, whether consistently or otherwise, in connection with an avowed belief in God as the Creator and Governor of the world, became in the hands of Baron D'Holbach and his associates the corner-stone of the atheistic "System of Nature;" the doctrine of "Natural Laws," which in the hands of Bishop Butler is so powerfully applied in proof of a system of Divine Government, has become in the hands of Mr. Combe a plausible pretext for denying a special Providence and the efficacy of prayer; and the mere fact that these doctrines have been applied to such different and even opposite uses, is a sufficient proof of itself that they are not in their own nature essentially atheistic, and that they should be carefully discriminated from the systems with which they have been occasionally associated. We are not entitled to identify them with Atheism, in the case of those by whom Atheism is explicitly disclaimed; and yet there may be such an apparent connection between the two, and such a tendency in the human mind to pass from the one to the other, as may afford a sufficient reason for examining these cognate doctrines, each on its proper merits, for defining the sense in which they should be severally understood, for estimating the evidence which may be adduced for or against them individually, and for showing in what way, and to what extent, they may have a legitimate bearing on the grounds of our Theistic belief. For this reason, we shall bring under review, not only several systems of avowed Atheism, but also various theories, not necessarily atheistic, which have been applied to the support and defence of Atheism, and which have a tendency, as thus applied, to induce an irreligious frame of mind.

The causes and springs of Atheism may easily be distinguished from the reasons on which it is founded. In the present state of human nature, there is a permanent cause which is abundantly sufficient to account for this species of unbelief, notwithstanding all the evidence which Nature affords of the being, perfections, and providence of God. Our Lord explained in a single sentence the whole Philosophy of Unbelief, when he said that "men loved the darkness rather than the light, because their deeds are evil; for whoso doeth evil hateth the light, neither cometh to the light, lest his deeds should be reproved." No thoughtful man can seriously reflect on his own conscious experience, without discovering, in the disordered state of his moral nature, a reason which sufficiently explains his natural aversion from God; he finds there an evidence, which he can neither overlook nor deny, of his own personal turpitude and guilt; he is self-convinced and self-condemned at the bar of his own conscience; he remembers with remorse and shame many cases of actual transgression in which he resisted the dictates of reason, and resigned himself to the dominion of evil passions; and when, with these convictions and feelings, he is asked to conceive of God as a living, personal Being, everywhere present, beholding the evil and the good, whose "eyes are as a flame of fire," and can discern "the very thoughts and intents of the heart;" when he conceives of such a Being as his Lawgiver, Governor, and Judge, as one who demands the homage of the heart and the obedience of the life, and who has power to enforce His rightful claims by the sanctions of reward and punishment, he will be sensible, in the first instance, of an instinctive disposition to recoil from the contemplation of his character, and a strong desire to deny, or at least to forget, His claims; and just in proportion as the idea of God becomes more vivid, or is more frequently presented to his mind, it will become the more intolerable, insomuch that he will be tempted either to banish the subject altogether from his thoughts, or, if he cannot succeed in this, to alter and modify his view of the Divine character so as to bring it into accordance with his own wishes, and to obtain some relief from the fears and forebodings which it would otherwise awaken in his mind. If he should succeed in this attempt, he will fall into one or other of two opposite states of mind, which, however apparently different, do nevertheless spring from the same latent source,—a state of security, or a state of servitude. In the former, he either forgets God altogether,—"God is not in all his thoughts;" or he conceives of Him as "one like unto himself," indulgent to sin, and neither strict to mark nor just to punish it: in the latter, he either "remembers God and is troubled," or, if he would allay the remorse and forebodings of an uneasy conscience, he has recourse to penance and mortification, to painful sacrifices and ritual observances, in the hope, that by these he may propitiate an offended Deity. In the one case, the conflict ends in practical Atheism, in the other, in abject Superstition. And these two, Atheism and Superstition, however different and even opposite they may seem to be, are really offshoots from the same corrupt root,—"the evil heart of unbelief which departeth from the living God." In the case of the great majority of mankind, who are little addicted to speculative inquiry, or to serious thought of any kind, it may be safely affirmed that, in the absence of Revelation, they will inevitably fall into one or other of these two extremes, or rather, that they will oscillate alternately between the two,—in seasons of ease and prosperity living "without God in the world," and in seasons of distress or danger betaking themselves for relief to the rites of a superstitious worship. The apostle describes at once the secret cause and the successive steps of this sad degeneracy, when, speaking of the Gentiles, he says that "when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful, but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened; professing themselves wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man."—"And even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a reprobate mind."[17] The secret cause of all these evils was a latent "enmity against God,"—"they did not like to retain God in their knowledge." From this proceeded, in the first instance, a practical habit of Atheism,—"they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful;" and from hence proceeded, in the second instance, the gross superstition of Polytheistic belief and worship,—"they changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man,"—"they changed the truth of God into a lie, and worshipped and served the creature more than the Creator, who is blessed forever."

But, while practical Atheism and blind Superstition are the two extremes which divide among them the great majority of mankind, there have always been some more thoughtful and inquiring spirits, who have sought to penetrate the mysteries of their being, and to account for the present order of things. They have asked, and have attempted to answer, such questions as these: What are we? what was our origin? what is our destination? Whence came this stupendous fabric of Nature? Is it self-existent and eternal? or did it come into being at some definite time? If not eternal, how was it produced? by chance or by design? by inevitable fate or by spontaneous will? Whence the order which pervades it, and the beauty by which it is adorned? Whence, above all, the evil, moral and physical, by which it is disfigured and cursed? And, in reply to these thoughtful questionings, various theories have been invented to account for the existing order of things, while not a few of the most daring thinkers have abandoned the subject in despair, and, holding it to be an insoluble problem, have resigned themselves to the cheerless gloom of Skepticism. In reviewing all these speculations and theories, we must bear in mind that their authors and advocates, although more thoughtful and inquisitive than the great majority of mankind, were equally subject to the same corrupting influence,—"the evil heart of unbelief,"—and that the same cause which produced practical Atheism in some, and abject Superstition in others, may also have operated, but more insidiously, in producing Speculative Infidelity in the minds of those who are more addicted to abstruse philosophical inquiries. We must seek to get down to the root of the evil, if we would suggest or apply an effectual remedy; we must not deal with the symptoms merely, but search for and probe the seat of the disease; and if that be the disordered state of our moral nature, which gives rise to fears and forebodings as often as we think of God, no remedy will be effectual which does not remove our distrust, suspicion, and jealousy; and no argument, however conclusive, will have any practical power which does not present such views of God as to make him an object of confidence, and trust, and love. It is of vast importance that this fundamental truth should be kept steadily in view; for, as the disordered state of our moral nature is the rudimental source both of practical Atheism and of popular Superstition, so it is also the prolific parent of Speculative Infidelity in every variety of form: and as long as the remedy is not applied to the root of the disease, the Atheist, if forced to relinquish one theory, will only betake himself to another, and after having gone the round of them all, will rather throw himself into the vortex of utter and hopeless skepticism, than acknowledge a God whom he cannot love, a Judge whom he cannot but dread. Christianity alone can supply an effectual remedy, and it is such a remedy as is fitted to cure alike the habitual ungodliness, the abject superstition, and the speculative infidelity, which have all sprung from the same prolific source. It exhibits such a view of the character and will of God as may relieve us from the fears and forebodings of guilt, and, by revealing a divine method of reconciliation, may place us in a position the most favorable for a calm and dispassionate consideration of the natural evidence in favor of His Being, Perfections, and Moral Government.

But, while the grand parent cause of all Atheism—whether practical or speculative, dogmatic or skeptical—is to be found in the disordered state of our own moral nature, there are other subordinate causes in operation, which may be regarded either as incidental occasions, or as plausible pretexts, for this form of unbelief. The internal causes are the primary and most powerful; but there are external influences which cooeperate with these, and serve to stimulate and strengthen them. Among the incidental occasions of Atheism, we might mention a defective, because irreligious, education in early life, the influence of ungodly example and profane converse, and the authority of a few great names in literature or science which have become associated with the cause of Infidelity; and among the plausible pretexts for Atheism we might mention the inconsistencies of professed believers and especially of the clergy, the divided state of the religious world, as indicated by the multiplicity of sects, the bitterness of religious controversy, the supposed opposition of the Church to the progress of science and the extension of civil and religious liberty, and the gross superstitions which have been incorporated with Christianity itself in some of the oldest and most powerful states of Europe. These and similar topics may be justly said to be the "loci communes of Atheism," and they are often employed in eloquent declamation or indignant invective, so as to make a much deeper impression, especially on young and ardent minds, than their intrinsic weight or real argumentative value can either justify or explain. Infidel writers have not been slow to avail themselves of these pretexts for unbelief, in regard alike to Natural and Revealed Religion; and have artfully identified Religion with Superstition, and Christianity with Popery, as if there were no consistent or tenable medium between the two. And, perhaps, of all the incidental occasions or external inducements to Atheism, none has exerted so much influence over reflecting minds as the wide-spread prevalence of Superstition; for never was Atheism more general among the cultivated classes in ancient times than in the States of Greece, whose hospitable Pantheon enclosed the gods of all nations, and whose inhabitants were "exceedingly given to idolatry;" and nowhere, in modern times, has Atheism been more explicitly avowed or more zealously propagated than in those countries of Europe which are most thoroughly subjugated to the superstitions of the Papacy. In the graphic words of Robert Hall, "Infidelity was bred in the stagnant marshes of corrupted Christianity."[18]

Having described the nature, evinced the reality, and referred to the permanent and occasional causes of Atheism, we may briefly advert to its moral and social influence. On this point three distinct questions have been raised: First, whether Atheism be conducive to personal happiness? Secondly, whether it be compatible with pure morality and virtue? and, thirdly, whether it be consistent with social well-being, with the authority of the laws, and the safety or comfort of the community? In considering these questions, it is necessary to remember that in no age, and in no region of the world, has Speculative Atheism been universal, or even so prevalent as to exhibit on a large scale a full development of its legitimate results. It has always been in a minority, and has been continually checked, modified and controlled, by the prevailing beliefs of society; and, whether these beliefs were purely religious or grossly superstitious, they have exerted a powerful influence in counteracting the native tendencies of atheistic speculation. "The effects of Atheism," as Mr. Estlin justly observes, "we have not yet in any great degree experienced, as the mental habits of those who hold it in speculation were in general formed, before they had adopted their present principles, by the imperceptible influence of that religion which they now traduce."[19] Perhaps the nearest approach to a state of prevailing Atheism which has ever been exhibited in the history of the world, is to be found in France at the era of the first Revolution, when Christianity was publicly abjured, and the goddess of Reason substituted for the God of the Bible. But that even this fearful outburst of impiety did not proceed from the universal prevalence of Speculative Atheism among the great body of the people; that there still existed in the heart of society some germs of religious feeling, and certain instinctive or traditionary beliefs which operated as a restraint and check even during that season of revolutionary frenzy, is sufficiently evinced by the reaction which speedily occurred in the public mind, and which restored Catholicism itself, as if by magic, to its wonted supremacy; while the anti-social tendency of Atheism, in so far as it did prevail, was strikingly attested by the fact, that the leading actors in that fearful drama found themselves compelled to provide for the public safety by restoring at least the forms of religious worship, and to acknowledge that "if there were no God, it would be necessary to invent one."—"The true light," says the eloquent Robert Hall, "in which the French Revolution ought to be contemplated is that of a grand experiment on human nature." "God permitted the trial to be made. In one country, and that the centre of Christendom, Revelation underwent a total eclipse, while Atheism, performing on a darkened theatre its strange and fearful tragedy, confounded the first elements of society, blended every age, rank, and sex, in indiscriminate proscription and massacre, and convulsed all Europe to its centre, that the imperishable memorial of these events might teach the last generations of mankind to consider Religion as the pillar of society, the safeguard of nations, the parent of social order, which alone has power to curb the fury of the passions, and secure to every one his rights; to the laborious the reward of their industry, to the rich the enjoyment of their wealth, to nobles the preservation of their honors, and to princes the stability of their thrones."[20]

In the case of individuals holding atheistic opinions, but living in the midst of Christian society, the full influence of these opinions cannot be felt, nor their effects fully developed, in the presence of those restraints and checks which are imposed by the religious beliefs and observances of others. We cannot estimate their influence either on the personal happiness, or the moral character, or the social welfare of men, without taking this circumstance into account. To arrive at even a tolerable approximation to a correct judgment, we must endeavor to conceive of Atheism as prevailing universally in the community, as emancipated from all restraint, and free to develop itself without let or hindrance of any kind, as tolerated by law, and sanctioned by public opinion, and unopposed by any remaining forms either of domestic piety or of public worship, as reigning supreme in every heart, and as forming the creed of every household; and thus conceiving of it as an inveterate, universal epidemic, we are then to inquire whether, and on what conditions, society would in such a case be possible, and how far the prevalence of Atheism might be expected to affect the morals and welfare of mankind.

The question has been raised whether Atheism might not be more conducive than religion to the personal happiness of individuals; and some, who have confounded Religion with Superstition, have not hesitated to answer that question in the affirmative. The conviction that there is no God, and no moral government, and no state of future retribution, could it only be steadfastly and invariably maintained, might serve, it has been thought, to relieve the mind of many forebodings and fears which disturb its peace, and, if it could not ensure perfect happiness, might act at least as an opiate or sedative to a restless and uneasy conscience. In the opinion of Epicurus and Lucretius, tranquillity of mind was the grand practical benefit of that unbelief which they sought to inculcate respecting the doctrine of Providence and Immortality. They frequently affirmed that fear generated superstition, and that superstition, in its turn, deepened and perpetuated the fear from which it sprung; that the minds of men must necessarily be overcast with anxiety and gloom as long as they continued to believe in a moral government and a future state; and that the only sovereign and effectual antidote to superstitious terror is the spirit of philosophical unbelief. Similar views are perpetually repeated in the eloquent but declamatory pages of "The System of Nature." But the remedy proposed seems to be subject to grave suspicion, as one that may be utterly powerless, or at the best, exceedingly precarious; for, first of all, the fears which are supposed to have generated Religion must have been anterior to it, and must have arisen from some natural cause, which will continue to operate even after Religion has been disowned. They spring, in fact, necessarily out of our present condition as dependent, responsible, and dying creatures; and they can neither be prevented nor cured by the mere negations of Atheism; we can only be raised above their depressing influence by a rational belief and well-grounded trust in the being and character of God. Again, if the denial of a Providence and of a future state might serve, were it associated with a full assurance of certainty, to relieve us from the fear of retribution hereafter, it must equally destroy all hope of immortality, and reduce us to the dreary prospect of annihilation at death,—a prospect from which the soul of man instinctively recoils, and by which his whole life would be embittered just in proportion as he became more thoughtful and reflective. Unbelief can operate as a sedative to fear only in so far as it is habitual, uniform, undisturbed by any inward misgivings or apparent uncertainty; but, in the case of men not utterly thoughtless or insensible, it is rarely, if ever, found to possess this character. It is often shaken, and always liable to be disquieted, by occasional convictions, which no amount of vigilance can ward off, and no strength of resolution repress. It is maintained only by a painful and sustained conflict, which is but ill-concealed by the vehemence of its protestations, and often significantly indicated by the very extravagance of its zeal. Add to this, that Atheism itself affords no guarantee against future suffering. It may deny a Providence here and a judgment hereafter, it may even deny a future state of conscious existence, and take refuge in the hope of annihilation that it may escape from the dread prospect of retribution; but it cannot affirm the impossibility, it can only doubt the certainty of these things; and in their bare possibility there is enough at once to impose an obligation to serious inquiry, and to occasion the deepest anxiety, especially in seasons of affliction or danger, which awaken reflective thought. "Atheism," said the acute but skeptical Bayle, "does not shelter us from the fear of eternal suffering." But, even if it did, what influence would it exert on our present happiness? Would it not limit our enjoyments, by confining our views within the narrow range of things seen and temporal? Would it not deprive us of the loftiest hopes? Would it not repress our highest aspirations, by interdicting the contemplation of the noblest Object of thought, the Ideal Standard of truth and excellence, the Moral Glory of the Universe? Would it not diminish the pleasure which we derive even from earthly objects, and aggravate the bitterness of every trial? How wretched must be the condition of those who are "proud of being the offspring of chance, in love with universal disorder, whose happiness is involved in the belief of there being no witness to their designs, and who are at ease only because they suppose themselves inhabitants of a forsaken and fatherless world!"[21] "No one in creation," said Jean Paul, "is so alone as the denier of God: he mourns, with an orphaned heart that has lost its great Father, by the corpse of Nature which no World-Spirit moves and holds together, and which grows in its grave; and he mourns by that corpse till he himself crumble off from it. The whole world lies before him, like the Egyptian Sphynx of stone, half-buried in the sand; and the All is the cold iron mask of a formless Eternity."[22]

But the malign influence of Atheism on personal happiness will become more apparent, if we consider its tendency to affect the moral springs of action, on which happiness mainly depends. The question whether Atheism be compatible with moral virtue, or whether an Atheist may be a virtuous man, is one of those that can only be answered by discriminating aright between the different senses of the same term. In the Christian sense of virtue, which comprehends the duties of both tables of the Law, and includes the love of God as well as of man, it is clear that the Atheist cannot be reputed virtuous, since he wants that which is declared to be the radical principle of obedience, the very spirit and substance of true morality. But, in the worldly sense of the term, as denoting the decent observance of relative duty, it is possible that he may be so far influenced by considerations of prudence or policy, or even by certain natural instincts and affections, as to be just in his dealings, faithful to his word, courteous in his manners, and obedient to the laws. But this secular, prudential morality, is as precarious in its practical influence as it is defective in its radical principle. Atheism saps and undermines the very foundation of Ethics. The only law which it can recognize (if that can be called a law in any sense which is not conceived of as the expression of a Supreme Will) is, either the greatest happiness of the individual, or the greatest happiness of the greatest number; but, whether it assumes the form of Felicitarian or of Utilitarian calculation, it degenerates into a process of arithmetic, and is no longer a code of morals. The fundamental idea of DUTY is awanting, and can only be supplied from a source which the Atheist ignores. By denying the existence of God, he robs the universe of its highest glory, obliterates the idea of perfect wisdom and goodness, and leaves nothing better and holier as an object of thought than the qualities and relations of earthly things. He degrades human nature, by doing what he can to sever the tie which binds man to his Maker, and which connects the earth with Heaven. He circumscribes his prospects within the narrow range of "things seen and temporal," and thus removes every stimulus to dignity of sentiment, and every incentive to elevation of character. His wretched creed (if a series of cold negations may be called a creed) must be fatal to every disinterested and heroic virtue; let it prevail, and the spirit of self-sacrifice will give place to Epicurean indulgence, and the age of martyrdom will return no more. Substitute Nature, or even Humanity, for God, and the eternal standard of truth and holiness and goodness being superseded, every moral sentiment will be blighted and obscured. Conscience has a relation to God similar to that which a chronometer bears to the sun. Blot the sun from the sky, and the chronometer is useless; deny God, and conscience is powerless. And the vices which, if not subdued, were yet curbed and restrained by the overawing sense of an unseen omnipresent Power, will burst forth with devastating fury, snapping asunder the feebler fetters of human law, and overleaping the barriers of selfish prudence itself; vanity and pride, ambition and covetousness, sensual indulgence and ferocious cruelty, will rise into the ascendancy, and establish their dark throne on the ruins of Religion.

If such be the natural and legitimate effect of Atheism on the personal happiness and moral character of individuals, we can be at no loss to discover what must be its influence on society at large. For society is composed of individuals, and its character and welfare depend on the aggregate sentiments of its constituent members. The question whether Atheism might not be consistent with social well-being, with the continued authority of the laws, and the general comfort of the community, is answered historically by the fact, that in modern France the Reign of Atheism was the Reign of Terror, and that in ancient Rome its prevalence was followed by such scenes of proscription, confiscation, and blood, as were then unparalleled in the history of the world. The truth is that, wherever Atheism prevails, GOVERNMENT BY LAW must give place to GOVERNMENT BY FORCE; for law needs some auxiliary sanction; and if it be deprived of the sanction of Religion, it must have recourse, for its own preservation, and the prevention of utter anarchy, to the brute power of the temporal sword. It is worse than useless to discuss, in this connection, the question, revived by Bayle,[23] whether Atheism or Superstition should be regarded as the worst enemy to the Commonwealth, for it has no relevancy to our present inquiry; we are not contending for either, we are objecting to both; and we are under no necessity of choosing the least of two evils, when we have the option of "pure and undefined Religion." But we may observe, in passing, that, historically it has been found possible to keep society together, and to maintain the authority of law with a greater or less measure of civil liberty, where Superstition has been generally prevalent; whereas there is no instance on record of anything approaching to national Atheism, in which government by law was not speedily superseded by anarchy and despotism. And the reason of this difference may be that in every system of Superstition, whether it be a corruption of Natural or of Revealed Religion, "some faint embers of sacred truth remain unextinguished," some convictions which still connect man with the spiritual and the eternal, and which are sufficient, if not to enlighten and pacify the conscience, yet to keep alive a sense of responsibility and a fear of retribution; "certain sparks," as Hooker calls them, "of the light of truth intermingled with the darkness of error," which may have served a good purpose in maintaining civil virtue and social order, although these would have been far better secured by the prevalence of a purer faith.

There are some circumstances, of a novel and unprecedented nature, which impart a solemn interest to our present inquiry. At the beginning of the present century, Robert Hall, referring to the unbelief which preceded and accompanied the first outburst of the Revolution in France, mentioned three circumstances which appeared to him to be "equally new and alarming." He regarded it as the first attempt which had ever been witnessed on an extensive scale to establish the principles of Atheism, as the first attempt to popularize these principles by means of a literature addressed and adapted to the common people, and as the first systematic attempt to undermine the foundations, and to innovate on the very substance of Morals.[24] But if we compare the first with the new Encyclopedie,—the former concocted by Voltaire, D'Alembert and Diderot, the latter by Pierre Leroux and his associates,—we shall find that Infidelity has assumed greater hardihood, and has appeared under less restraint in recent than in former times; while the speculations of Comte and Crousse are as thoroughly atheistic as those of D'Holbach himself. For, however irreligious and profane Voltaire and his associates might be, and however devoted to their avowed object of crushing Christ and his cause, so significantly indicated by their motto and watchword, "Ecrasez l'Infame;"[25] yet they continued, as a party, to advocate Deism, and seemed at least to oppose the bolder speculations of the author of the "Systeme de la Nature." Both Voltaire and Frederick the Great wrote in reply to its atheistic tenets.[26] But now, in France, these tenets are openly avowed and zealously propagated. Nor is this fatal moral epidemic confined to our continental neighbors: there is too much reason to fear that it has infected, to some extent, the artisans of our own manufacturing towns, and even, in some quarters, the inhabitants of our rural districts. The Communists of France have their analogues in the Socialists of Britain; and the periodical press, although for the most part sound, or at least innocuous, has lent its aid to the dissemination of the grossest infidelity which the Continent has produced. The "Leader" gives forth Lewes's version of Comte's Philosophy; and the "Glasgow Mechanics' Journal," a digest of his Law of Human Progress, which is essentially atheistic.[27] Nor is indigenous Atheism wanting. Mr. Mackay in his "Progress of the Intellect," Atkinson and Martineau in their "Letters on the Laws of Man's Nature and Development," and Mr. G. Holyoake in "The Reasoner," have sufficiently proved that if Atheism be an exotic, it is capable of taking root and growing up in the land of Bacon, Newton, and Boyle.


[2] BUDDAEI, "Theses Theologicae de Atheismo et Superstitione," cap. I.

[3] J. C. WOLFIUS, "De Atheismi falso Suspectis."

[4] BUDDAEI, "Theses Theologicae," cap. III., "De dogmatibus quae cum Atheismo conjuncta sunt, aut ad eum ducunt," p. 240.

[5] COUSIN, "Introduction Generale a l'Histoire de la Philosophie," I. 169:—"Que toute pensee implique une foi spontanee a Dieu, et qu'il n'y a pas d'Atheisme naturel. Croit-il qu'il existe, par exemple? S'il croit cela, cela me suffit,"—"il a donc foi au principe de la pensee;—or la est Dieu,"—"Selon moi, toute parole prononcee avec confiance, n'est pas moins qu'une profession de la foi a la pensee,—a la raison en soi,—c'est a dire a Dieu."

[6] M. HELVETIUS, "Treatise on Man, his Intellectual Faculties and Education: translated by W. Hooper, M. D.," I. 247.

[7] M. LAMENNAIS, "Esquisse d'une Philosophie," I. 95.

[8] "Spinoza is a God-intoxicated man."—NOVALIS, quoted in T. Carlyle's Essays, II. 43.

[9] "Letters on the Laws of Man's Nature and Development, by H. G. ATKINSON and HARRIET MARTINEAU," p. 241.

[10] Psalm 14: 1; 53: 1.

[11] Psalm 10: 4, 11, 13.

[12] Eph. 2: 12, [Greek: Atheoi en to kosmo].

[13] Gal. 4: 8; 2 Tim. 3: 4; Titus 1: 16.

[14] ESTLIN, "Discourse on Atheism," pp. 8, 19, 28. DR. CHALMERS, "Institutes," I. 375.

[15] DR. CHALMERS, Works, "Natural Theology," I. 58. "The Reasoner," edited by HOLYOAKE, XI. 15, 232.

[16] ROBERT HALL'S Works, I. 58.

[17] Romans 1: 21, 28.

[18] HALL'S "Works," I. 128.

[19] ESTLIN'S "Discourse," p. 57.

[20] ROBERT HALL, "Modern Infidelity Considered," I. 38, 67.

[21] ROBERT HALL on Modern Infidelity, I. 70.

[22] T. CARLYLE, "Essays," II. 142.

[23] P. BAYLE, "Pensees diverses Ecrites a un Docteur de Sorbonne a l'Occasion de la Comete," 4 vols. Also his "Reponse aux Questions d'un Provincial," II. 688, IV. 101, 112.

[24] HALL on Modern Infidelity, I. 59, 64.

[25] ABBE [TRANSCRIBER'S NOTE: ORIGINAL HAD "ABBE"] BARRUEL, "Memoires pour servir a l'Histoire du Jacobinisme," I. 31, 131, 135, 184, 357.

[26] ABBE BARRUEL, "Memoires pour servir a l'Histoire du Jacobinisme," I. 22, II. 190, 193.

[27] "The Leader;" a series of articles on Comte's Philosophy, by G. H. LEWES, April 7, 10, 17, etc., etc., 1852.—"The Glasgow Mechanics' Journal."



There have been various applications of the general principle of Development, by means of which an attempt has been made to explain the origin of all things by Natural Laws, so as to exclude the necessity of any Divine interposition, either for the creation of the world, or for the introduction and establishment of Christianity itself. It has been applied, first, to explain the origin of worlds and planetary systems, by showing that, certain specified conditions being presupposed, there are fixed mechanical laws which might sufficiently account for the production of the earth and of the other planets and satellites of our Solar System, without any special interposition of Divine power at the commencement of the existing order of things. It has been applied, secondly, to explain the origin of the various tribes or races of vegetable and animal life, and especially the production of the human race, by showing that the existing types may have sprung, by a process of gradual development, from inferior races previously existing, and that these again may have been produced by the action of chemical agents in certain favorable conditions. It has been applied, thirdly, to explain all the most important phenomena of Human History, and to illustrate the law which is supposed to determine and regulate the progressive course of civilization, so as to account, on natural principles, for the origin and prevalence of the various forms of Religion, and even for the introduction, in its appointed season, of Christianity itself, without having recourse to anything so utterly unphilosophical as the idea of a Divine Revelation, or the supposition of supernatural agency. And it has been applied, fourthly, to explain the order, and to vindicate the use, of those additions both to the doctrines and rites of primitive Christianity, which Protestants have denounced as corruptions, but which Popish and Tractarian writers defend as developments, of the system that was originally deposited, like a prolific germ or seed, in the bosom of the Catholic Church.

It is the more necessary to examine the various forms of this theory, because unquestionably it can appeal to not a few natural analogies, which may serve, on a superficial view, to give it the aspect of verisimilitude. For many of the most signal works of God have been manifestly framed on the principle of gradual growth, and matured by a process of progressive development. We see in the natural world a small seed deposited in the earth, which, under the agency of certain suitable influences, germinates and springs up, producing first a tender shoot, then a stem, and branches, and leaves, and blossoms, and fruit; and every herb or tree, "having seed in itself," makes provision for the repetition of the same process, and the perpetuation and indefinite increase of its kind. The same law is observed in the animal kingdom, where a continuous race is produced from a single pair. And even in the supernatural scheme of Revelation itself, the truth was gradually unfolded in a series of successive dispensations; the First Promise being the germ, which expanded as the Church advanced, until it reached its full development in the Scriptures of the New Testament. These and similar instances may suffice to show that, both in the natural and supernatural Providence of God, He has been pleased to act on the principle of gradual and progressive, as contradistinguished from that of instant and perfect production; and they may seem, at first sight, to afford some natural analogies in favor of the radical idea on which the various modern Theories of Development are based. In such circumstances it would be an unwise and dangerous course either to overlook the palpable facts which Nature and Revelation equally attest, or to deny that they may afford signal manifestations of the manifold wisdom of God. Nor is it necessary for any enlightened advocate of Theism to betake himself to these expedients; he may freely admit the existence of such cases of gradual development, he may even appeal to them as illustrative of the order of Nature, and the design which that order displays; and the only question which he is at all concerned to discuss amounts in substance to this: Whether the method of production which is pursued in the ordinary course of Nature can account for the original commencement of the present system of things?

But the state of the question, and the right application of the argument, may be best illustrated by considering each of the four forms of the theory separately and in succession.



The doctrine of a Nebular Cosmogony was first suggested by some observations of the elder Herschell on those cloud-like appearances which may be discerned in various parts of the heavens by the aid of the telescope, or even, in some cases, by the naked eye. It assumed a more definite form in the hands of La Place, although even by him it was offered, not as an ascertained discovery of science, but simply as a hypothetical explanation of the way in which the production of the planets and their satellites might possibly be accounted for by the operation of the known laws of Nature.

The explanation of the whole theory may be best understood by dividing it into two parts: the first being that which attempts to account for the formation of planets and satellites, on the assumption of the existence of a central sun, and of certain other specified conditions; the second being that which undertakes to account for the formation of the sun itself, on the assumption of the existence of a diffused nebulous matter in space, or, as it has been aptly called, "a universal Fire-Mist."[28]

When the theory is limited to the explanation of the origin of the planets and their satellites, the original condition of our solar system is assumed to have been widely different from what it now is; the sun is supposed to have existed for a time alone, to have revolved upon his axis, and to have been surrounded with an atmosphere expanded by intense heat, and extending far beyond the limits of our system as it now exists. This solar atmosphere revolved, like the sun itself, around its axis; but its heat, constantly radiated into sidereal space, gradually diminished, and the atmosphere being contracted in proportion as it cooled, the rapidity of its rotation was accelerated, until it reached the point at which the central attraction was overcome by the centrifugal force, and then a zone of vapor would be detached or thrown off, which might either retain its form as a nebulous ring, like the ring of Saturn, or first breaking into fragments, from some want of continuity in its structure, and afterwards coalescing into one mass, might be condensed into a planet as the vapor continued to cool. These rings or planets, thus detached from the central atmospheric mass, would continue to revolve, in virtue of the force originally impressed upon them, and their motion would be nearly circular, in the same plane and in the same direction with that of the sun. The first planet, so formed, must have been that at the extreme limit of our solar system; the second the next in point of remoteness from the centre, and so on; each resulting from the operation of the same natural laws, and emerging into distinct existence at that precise point in the gradual cooling and contraction of the atmosphere at which the centrifugal became stronger than the centripetal force. But each planet might also be subjected to the same process of cooling and contracting, and might therefore throw off, under the operation of the same mechanical laws, zones of vapor more or less dense, which might consolidate into moons or satellites, and which should also revolve, like the planets, round their primary. Thus, Uranus has six satellites, and Saturn seven; while the latter has also thrown off two zones so perfectly uniform in their internal structure that they remain unbroken, and constitute a double ring around the planet.

In this first form of the theory, which assumes the existence of the sun and its atmosphere, and the rotation of both round an axis, La Place sought to give a scientific form to the speculations of Sir William Herschell on the condensation of Nebulae, by proving simply the dynamical possibility of the formation of a planetary system by such means, according to the known laws of matter and motion; but he did not affirm the scientific certainty of his conjecture, and far less the actual production of the solar system in this way. He has been followed by M. Comte, who has attempted to furnish, if not a complete demonstration, at least a plausible mathematical verification, of the hypothesis.[29] Utterly excluding all supernatural agency in the work of creation, he equally excludes from the problem which he attempts to solve, the origin of the sun and its atmosphere; and confining himself to the task of accounting, in the way not of demonstrative certainty, but merely of plausible hypothesis, for the formation of the planets and satellites of our solar system, he conceives the theory of La Place to be susceptible of such a numerical verification as is sufficient to give it a high degree of verisimilitude. Assuming that the periodic time of each planet must be equal to that of the portion of the solar atmosphere of which it was formed at the era when it was thrown off, and combining the theorems of Huygens on the measure of centrifugal forces with Newton's law of gravitation, he establishes a simple equation between the time of the rotation of each zone or section of the solar atmosphere, and the distance of the corresponding planets. On applying this equation to the various bodies of our system, he found that the periodic time of the moon agrees, at least within the tenth of a day, with the duration of the earth's revolution, when her atmosphere is supposed to have extended to the moon; and that the periodic times of the planets maintain a similar correspondence with what must have been the duration of the solar revolution when they were severally thrown off from its atmosphere. It is the less necessary, however, to enter on a detailed exposition of his argument, because he admits that it can afford at the utmost only a probable proof of an hypothesis; and further, because it is expressly limited to the production of the planets and their satellites, while not only is the existence of the solar atmosphere presupposed, but also its existence in a certain state, and with several determinate conditions; while no account whatever is given of the origin either of the sun or its atmosphere, and none of the laws or conditions on which the whole process of development is confessedly dependent.

But the author of "The Vestiges" takes a much wider range, and attempts a more arduous task. He seeks to account for the origin both of suns and of solar systems by the agency of natural laws. Not content with the more limited form of the theory, which M. Comte holds to be the only legitimate or practical object of scientific treatment, he holds that the origin of the sun itself, and the forms, the positions, the relations, and the motions, of all the heavenly bodies, may be accounted for by supposing a previous state of matter, fluid or gasiform, subject only to the law of gravitation. The Nebular Cosmogony, which is well characterized by himself as his "version of the romance of Nature," is based on the assumption that "the nebulous matter of space, previously to the formation of stellar and planetary bodies, must have been a universal FIRE-MIST,"[30] in other words, a diffused luminous vapor, intensely hot, which might be gradually condensed into a fluid, and then into a solid state, by losing less or more of its heat. The existence of such a luminous matter being assumed, and it being further supposed that it was not entirely uniform or homogeneous, but that it existed in various states of condensation, and that it had "certain nuclei established in it which might become centres of aggregation for the neighboring diffused matter,"—the author attempts to show that on such centres a rotatory motion would be established wherever, as was the most likely case, there was any obliquity in the lines of direction in which the opposing currents met each other; that this motion would increase as the agglomeration proceeded; that at certain intervals the centrifugal force, acting on the remoter part of the rotating mass, would overcome the agglomerating force; and that a series of rings would thus be left apart, each possessing the motion proper to itself at the crisis of separation. These, again, would only continue in their annular form, if they were entirely uniform in their internal structure. There being many chances against this, they would probably break up in the first instance, and be thereafter "agglomerated into one or several masses, which would become representatives of the primary mass, and perhaps give rise to a progeny of inferior masses." In support of this theory, reference is made to the existence, at the present moment, of certain cloud-like nebulae, or masses of diffused luminous matter, exhibiting a variety of appearances, as if they were in various degrees of condensation, and which are described as "solar systems in the process of being formed" out of a previous condition of matter. And the observations of M. Plateau, of Ghent, are adduced as affording an experimental verification of some parts of the theory, and, especially, as serving to explain the spherical form of the planets, the flattening at the poles, and the swelling out at the equator.

It does not belong to our proper province, nor is it necessary for our present purpose, to discuss the merits of this theory, considered as a question of science. This has been already done, with various degrees of ability, but with unwonted unanimity, by some of the ablest men of the age,—by Whewell, Sedgwick and Mason, in England, by Sir David Brewster and Mr. Miller, in Scotland, and by Professor Dod and President Hitchcock, in America.[31] But, viewing it simply in its relation to the Theistic argument, we conceive that the adverse presumption which it may possibly generate in some minds against the evidence of Natural Theology, will be effectually neutralized by establishing the following positions:

That it is a mere hypothesis, and one which, from the very nature of the case, is incapable of being proved by such evidence as is necessary to establish a matter of fact.

That the progress of scientific discovery, so far from tending to verify and confirm, has served rather to disprove and invalidate the fundamental assumption on which it rests.

That even were it admitted, either as a possible, or probable, or certain explanation of the origin of the present planetary systems, it would not necessarily destroy the evidence of Theology, nor establish on its ruins the cause of Atheism.

Each of these positions may be conclusively established, and the three combined constitute a complete answer to the theory of Development, in so far as it has been applied in the support or defence of Atheism.

1. That it is a mere hypothesis or conjecture, designed, not to establish the historical fact, but to explain merely the dynamical possibility of the production of the planetary bodies by the operation of known natural laws, must be admitted, I think, even by its most enthusiastic admirers. It might have seemed, indeed, to have something like a basis of fact to rest upon, had the conception of the elder Herschell been verified, when he announced the existence of a nebulous fluid, capable of being distinguished, by certain well-defined marks, from unresolved clusters of stars; but even then it presupposed so many postulates, which could in no way be established by experimental or historical evidence, that it could scarcely be regarded in any other light than as an ingenious speculation or a splendid conjecture. For, let it be considered, first of all, that the theory proceeds on the assumption of the existence and wide diffusion of a nebulous fluid of whose reality there is no actual proof; secondly, that it necessarily requires, also, the supposed existence of certain favorable conditions; and, thirdly, the operation of certain invariable laws; and it will be manifest at once that it is purely hypothetical throughout, and that it includes a variety of topics which never have been, and never can be made the subjects of experimental verification. For it postulates, in the words of an acute writer, "the establishment of nuclei in the body of the elemental mass, as well as the action of heat on its substance, and then seeks to explain the concentration of the nebulous particles into these nuclei by the force of gravitation, the rotation of the bodies so produced by the confluence of the nebulous fluid, the separation of a portion of the outer surface of these revolving masses in the form of rings, the disruption of these rings, and the subsequent recomposition of their fragments into separate spheres, answering to the planets and satellites of our system."[32] But even were the existence of a nebulous fluid admitted, we have no access to know what was its internal structure; we cannot determine whether it was uniform and homogeneous throughout, or whether it contained nuclei which might become centres of aggregation; we have no means of estimating the intensity of the heat which belonged to it, or of calculating the process by which it was dispersed, so as to occasion the condensation of successive portions of the mass. No eye ever saw the separation of any part of it in the form of a ring, or the disruption of that ring, or the subsequent recomposition of its fragments into a solid sphere. And even had all this been matter, not of mere conjecture, but of actual observation, it would still have left much to be explained which can only be accounted for by ascribing it to a designing Intelligent Cause.

2. The progress of scientific discovery, so far from tending to verify, has served rather to invalidate the fundamental assumption on which the whole theory depends. That assumption was the existence of a Nebulous Fluid or Fire-Mist, capable of being distinguished, by certain characteristic marks, from unresolved nebulae or clusters of stars. The existence of any such fluid has become more and more doubtful, in proportion as astronomers have been enabled, with the aid of larger and better constructed telescopes, to resolve several nebulae which had previously defied the power of less perfect instruments. We do not affirm that every cluster has been already resolved, nor is it necessary for the purposes of our argument to suppose that, at any future time, this stupendous achievement is likely to be effected; for it is a very obvious consideration, that just in proportion as our telescopic powers are enlarged so as to enable us to resolve many of the nearer nebulae, they must also bring within the range of our extended vision others more remote and hitherto unperceived, which may continue to exhibit the same cloud-like appearance as the former, until, by a new improvement of the telescope, we may succeed in separating them into distinct stars; and even then the march of discovery is not ended,—we may reasonably expect that with every fresh increase of telescopic vision, new clusters will be brought into view, and new clouds appear in the utmost verge of the horizon. But, unquestionably, the progress which has already been made in this direction affords a strong presumption in favor of the idea, that the apparent nebulosity of those masses which still appear, even to our best telescopes, as cloud-like vapors, is to be ascribed rather to the imperfection of our instruments than to any difference between them and such as have been already resolved. Sir John Herschell, a high authority in such a case, tells us that "we have every reason to believe, at least in the generality of cases, that a nebula is nothing more than a cluster of stars."[33] Sir David Brewster is equally explicit: "It was certainly a rash generalization to maintain that nebulae differed essentially from clusters of stars, because existing telescopes could not resolve them. The very first application of Lord Rosse's telescopes to the heavens overturned the hypothesis; and with such unequivocal facts as that instrument has brought to light, we regard it as a most unwarrantable assumption to suppose that there are in the heavenly spaces any masses of matter different from solid bodies, composing planetary systems."[34] And Professor Nichol, while he gracefully acknowledges that he has "somewhat altered the views which he formerly gave to the public, as the highest then known and generally entertained, regarding the structure of the heavens," states, as the result of more mature reflection, that "the supposed distribution of a self-luminous fluid, in separate patches, through the heavens, has, beyond all doubt, been proved fallacious by that most remarkable of telescopic achievements,—the resolution of the great nebula in Orion into a superb cluster of stars; and that this discovery necessitates important changes in previous speculations on Cosmogony."[35]

In short, Lord Rosse's observations at Parsonstown have conclusively proved that what appeared to be a nebula was in reality a cluster of stars; and while they still leave many nebulae unresolved, they afford a strong warrant for believing that discoveries in the same direction might be indefinitely extended in proportion to the increase of telescopic power.

3. But even were the Nebular Hypothesis admitted, and were the Theory of Development by Natural Laws conceived to afford a satisfactory explanation of the origin of the planetary systems, it would not follow, as a necessary consequence, that the peculiar evidence of Theism—that on which it mainly depends, and to which it makes its most confident appeal—would be thereby destroyed, or even diminished. The only legitimate result of such a doctrine would seem to be, that we must distinguish aright between a work of Mediate, and a work of Immediate Creation. In the Bible each of these is distinctly recognized. We have a specimen of the one in the creation of the first man by the direct agency of Divine power; we have a specimen of the other in the creation, less direct but equally real, of all his natural posterity, through the medium of ordinary generation. Men do not cease to be the creatures of God because they are born of their parents, in virtue of that creative word, "Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth;" and hence children are admonished "to remember their Creator in the days of their youth."[36] The work of creation is equally real and equally Divine, whether it be effected mediately or immediately, with or without the intervention of means, by the direct and instantaneous exertion of Almighty power, or by the gradual and successive operation of second causes acting according to established laws. In the ordinary course of Providence, the method of mediate production, gradual growth, and progressive development, may be observed in innumerable instances; but it can never be justly held to exclude, or even to obscure, the evidence of a presiding Intelligence and a supernatural Power. On the contrary, it may serve rather to enhance that evidence; since the very arrangements and provisions which have been made with a view to the reproduction of every thing after its kind, may bear on them the legible impress of a designing Mind and an ordaining Will. Thus, year by year continually, the whole inhabitants of the world are supported by the fruits of harvest, which are produced and matured under the action of natural laws; yet every intelligent Theist ascribes the result ultimately to the goodness, wisdom, and power of God, and sees in the very processes by which it is brought to pass some of the most signal proofs of these Divine perfections.

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