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Evidences of the Christian Religion, with Additional Discourses . . .
« Prev Sect. VIII. Against Atheism and Infidelity. Next »

SECT. VIII.

AGAINST ATHEISM AND INFIDELITY.

—Procul O! Procul este profani!

Virg. Æn. vi. I. 258.

Hence! far hence, O ye profane!

THE watchman, who does me particular honours, as being the chief man in the lane, gave so very great a thump at my door last night that I awakened at the knock, and heard myself complimented with the usual salutation of Good-morrow, Mr. Bickerstaff, Good-morrow, my masters all. The silence and darkness of the night disposed me to be more than ordinarily serious; and as my attention was not drawn out among exterior objects by the avocations of sense, my thoughts naturally fell upon myself. I was considering, amidst the stillness of the night, what was the proper employment of a thinking being; what were the perfections it should propose to itself; and what the end it should aim at. My mind is of such a particular cast, that the falling of a shower of rain, or the whistling of wind, at such a time, is apt to fill my thoughts with something awful and solemn. I was in this disposition, when our bellman began his midnight homily (which he has been repeating to us every winter night for these twenty years) with the usual exordium,

Oh! mortal man, thou that art born in sin!

Sentiments of this nature, which are in themselves just and reasonable, however debased by the circumstances that accompany them, do not fail to produce their natural effect in a mind that is not perverted and depraved by wrong notions of gallantry, politeness, and ridicule. The temper which I now found myself in, as well as the time of the year, put me in mind of those lines in Shakespeare, wherein, according to his agreeable wildness of imagination, he has wrought a country tradition into a beautiful piece of poetry. In the tragedy of Hamlet, where the ghost vanishes upon the cock’s crowing, he takes occasion to mention its crowing all hours of the night about Christmas time, and to insinuate a kind of religious veneration for that season.

It faded on the crowing of the cock.

Some say, that ever ’gainst that season comes

Wherein our Saviour’s birth is celebrated,

The bird of dawning singeth all night long;

And then, say they, no spirit walks abroad;

The nights are wholesome, then no planets strike,

No fairy takes, no witch hath power to charm:

So hallow’d and so gracious is the time.

This admirable author, as well as the best and greatest men of all ages, and of all nations, seems to have had his mind thoroughly seasoned with religion, as is evident by many passages in his plays that would not be suffered by a modern audience; and are therefore certain instances that the age he lived in had a much greater sense of virtue than the present.

It is indeed a melancholy reflection to consider that the British nation, which is now at a greater height of glory for its councils and conquests than it ever was before, should distinguish itself by a certain looseness of principles, and a falling off from those schemes of thinking which conduce to the happiness and perfection of human nature. This evil comes upon us from the works of a few solemn blockheads, that meet together with the zeal and seriousness of apostles, to extirpate common sense, and propagate infidelity. These are the wretches, who, without any show of wit, learning, or reason, publish their crude conceptions with an ambition of appearing more wise than the rest of mankind, upon no other pretence than that of dissenting from them. One gets by heart a catalogue of title-pages and editions, and immediately to become conspicuous, declares that he is an unbeliever. Another knows how to write a receipt, or cut up a dog, and forthwith argues again the immortality of the soul. I have known many a little wit, in the ostentation of his parts, rally the truth of the scripture, who was not able to read a chapter in it. Those poor wretches talk blasphemy for want of discourse, and are rather the objects of scorn or pity than of our indignation; but the grave disputant that reads and writes, and spends all his time in convincing himself and the world that he is no better than a brute, ought to be whipped out of a government, as a blot to a civil society, and a defamer of mankind. I love to consider an infidel, whether distinguished by the title of Deist, Atheist, or Free-thinker, in three different lights; in his solitudes, his afflictions, and his last moments.

A wise man, that lives up to the principles of reason and virtue, if one considers him in his solitude, as taking in the system of the universe, observing the mutual dependence and harmony, by which the whole frame of it hangs together, beating down his passions or swelling his thoughts with magnificent ideas of Providence, makes a nobler figure in the eye of an intelligent being than the greatest conqueror amidst all the pomps and solemnities of a triumph. On the contrary, there is not a more ridiculous animal than an Atheist in his retirement. His mind is incapable of rapture or elevation; he can only consider himself as an insignificant figure in a landscape, and wandering up and down in a field or a meadow, under the same terms as the meanest animals about him, and as subject to as total a mortality as they; with this aggravation, that he is the only one amongst them who lies under the apprehension of it.

In distresses, he must be of all creatures the most helpless and forlorn; he feels the whole pressure of a present calamity without being relieved by the memory of any thing that is past, or the prospect of any thing that is to come. Annihilation is the greatest blessing that he proposes to himself, and an halter or a pistol the only refuge he can fly to. But if you would behold one of those gloomy miscreants in his poorest figure; you must consider him under the terrors, or at the approach of death.

About thirty years ago I was a-shipboard with one of these vermine, when there arose a brisk gale, which could frighten nobody but himself. Upon the rolling of the ship, he fell upon his knees, and confessed to the chaplain, that he had been a vile Atheist, and had denied a Supreme Being ever since he came to his estate. The good wan was astonished, and a report immediately ran through the ship that there was an Atheist upon the upper deck. Several of the common seamen, who had never heard the word before, thought it had been some strange fish; but they were more surprised when they saw it was a man, and heard out of his own mouth, that he never believed, till that day, that there was a God. As he lay in the agonies of confession, one of the honest tars whispered to the boatswain, that it would be a good deed to heave him over board. But we were now within sight of port, when of a sudden the wind fell, and the penitent relapsed, begging all of us that were present, as we were Gentlemen, not to say any thing of what had passed.

He had not been ashore above two days, when one of the company began to rally him upon his devotion on shipboard, which the other denied in so high terms, that it produced the lie on both sides, and ended in a duel. The Atheist was run thro’ the body, and after some loss of blood, became as good a Christian as he was at sea, till he found that his wound was not mortal. He is at present one of the Free-thinkers of the age, and now writing a pamphlet against several received opinions concerning the existence of fairies.


AFTER having treated of false zealots in religion,22   See Spect. vol. III. No. 185. I cannot forbear mentioning a monstrous species of men, who, one would not think had any existence in nature, were they not to be met with in ordinary conversation, I mean the zealots in Atheism. One would fancy that these men, though they fall short, in every other respect, of those who make a profession of religion, would at least out shine them in this particular, and be exempt from that single fault which seems to grow out of the imprudent fervors of religion: but so it is, that Infidelity is propagated with as much fierceness and contention, wrath and indignation, as if the safety of mankind depended upon it. There is something so ridiculous and perverse in this kind of zealots, that one does not know how to set them out in their proper colours. They are a sort of gamesters who are eternally upon the fret, though they play for nothing. They are perpetually teizing their friends to come over to them, though, at the same time, they allow that neither of them shall get any thing by the bargain. In short, the zeal of spreading Atheism is, if possible, more absurd than Atheism itself.

Since I have mentioned this unaccountable zeal which appears in Atheists, and Infidels, I must further observe that they are likewise in a most particular manner possessed with the spirit of bigotry. They are wedded to opinions full of contradiction and impossibility, and, at the same time, look upon the smallest difficulty in an article of faith as a sufficient reason for rejecting it. Notions that fall in with the common reason of mankind, that are conformable to the sense of all ages and all nations, not to mention their tendency for promoting the happiness of societies, or of particular persons, are exploded as errors and prejudices; and schemes erected in their stead that are altogether monstrous and irrational, and require the most extravagant credulity to embrace them. I would fain ask one of these bigotted Infidels, supposing all the great points of Atheism, as the casual or eternal formation of the world, the materiality of a thinking substance, the mortality of the soul, the fortuitous organization of the body, the motions and gravitation of matter, with the like particulars, were laid together and formed into a kind of creed, according to the opinions of the most celebrated Atheists, I say, supposing such a creed as this were formed, and imposed upon any one people in the world whether it would not require an infinitely greater measure of faith, than any set of articles which they so violently oppose. Let me therefore advise this generation of wranglers, for their own and for the public good, to act a least so confidently with themselves, as not to burn with zeal for irreligion, and with bigotry for nonsense.


Cahum ipsum petimus stultitia.

Hot. Od. III. I. 1. v. 38.

—Scarce the Gods, and heavenly climes

Are safe from our audacious crimes.

Dryden:

UPON my return to my lodgings last night, I found a letter from my worthy friend the clergyman, whom I have given some account of in my former papers. He tells me in it, that he was particularly pleased with the latter part of my yesterday’s speculation; and at the same time inclosed the following essay, which he desires me to publish as the sequel of that discourse. It consists partly of uncommon reflections, and partly of such as have been already used, but now set in a stronger light.

A believer may be excused by the most hardened Atheist for endeavouring to make him a convert, because he does it with an eye to both their interests. The Atheist is inexcusable who tries to gain over a believer, because he does not propose the doing himself or the believer any good by such a conversion.

The prospect of a future state is the secret comfort and refreshment of my soul; it is that which makes nature look gay about me: it doubles all my pleasures and supports me under all my afflictions. I can look at disappointments and misfortunes, pain and sickness, death itself, and what is worse than death, the loss of those who are dearest to me, with indifference, so long as I keep in view the pleasures of eternity, and the state of being, in which there will be no fears nor apprehensions, pains nor sorrows, sickness nor separation. Why will a man be so impertinently officious, as to tell me this is only fancy and delusion? Is there any merit in being the messenger of ill news? If it is a dream let me enjoy it, since it makes me both the happier and the better man.

I must confess I do not know how to trust a man who believes neither heaven nor hell, or, in other words, a future state of rewards and punishments. Not only natural self-love, but reason directs us to promote our own interest above all things. It can never be for the interest of a believer to do me a mischief, because he is sure, upon the balance of accompts, to find himself a loser by it. On the contrary, if he considers his own welfare in his behaviour towards me, it will lead him to do me all the good he can, and at the same time restrain him from doing me any injury. An unbeliever does not act like a reasonable creature, if he favours me contrary to his present interest, or does not distress me when it turns to his present advantage. Honour and good nature may indeed tie up his hands; but as these would be very much strengthened by reason and principle, so without them they are only instincts, or wavering unsettled notions, which rest on no foundation.

Infidelity has been attacked with so good success of late years, that it is driven out of all its outworks. The Atheist has not found his post tenable, and is therefore retired into Deism, and a disbelief of revealed religion only. But the truth of it is, the greatest number of this set of men, are those who, for want of a virtuous education, or examining the grounds of religion, know so very little of the matter in question, that their Infidelity is but another term for their ignorance.

As folly and inconsiderateness are the foundations of Infidelity, the great pillars and supports of it are either vanity of appearing wiser than the rest of mankind, or an ostentation of courage in despising the terrors of another world, which have so great an influence on what they call weaker minds, or an aversion to a belief that must cut them off from many of those pleasures they propose to themselves, and fill them with remorse for many of those they have already tasted.

The great received articles of the Christian religion have been so clearly proved, from the authority of that divine revelation in which they are delivered, that it is impossible for those who have ears to hear, and eyes to see, not to be convinced of them, But were it possible for any thing in the Christian faith to be erroneous, I can find no ill consequences in adhering to it. The great points of the incarnation and sufferings of our Saviour produce naturally such habits of virtue in the mind of man, that, I say, supposing it were possible for us to be mistaken in them, the Infidel himself must at least allow that no other system of religion could so effectually contribute to the heightening of morality. They give us great ideas of dignity of human nature, and of the love which the Supreme Being bears to his creatures, and consequently engage us in the highest acts of our duty towards our Creator, our neighbour, and ourselves. How many noble arguments has St. Paul raised from the chief articles of our religion, for the advancing of morality in its three great branches? To give a single example in each kind: What can be a stronger motive to a firm trust and reliance on the mercies of our Maker, than the giving us his Son to suffer for us? What can make us love and esteem even the most inconsiderable of mankind, more than the thought that Christ died for him? Or what dispose us to set a stricter guard upon the purity of our own hearts than our being members of Christ, and a part of the society of which that immaculate person is the head? But these are only a specimen of those admirable enforcements of morality which the apostle has drawn from the history of our blessed Saviour.

If our modern Infidels considered these matters with that candour and seriousness which they deserve, we should not see them act with such a spirit of bitterness, arrogance, and malice; they would not be raising such insignificant cavils, doubts, and scruples, as may be started against every thing that is not capable of mathematical demonstration; in order to unsettle the minds of the ignorant, disturb the public peace, subvert morality, and throw all things into confusion and disorder. If none of these reflections can have any influence on them, there is one that perhaps may, because it is adapted to their vanity by which they seem to be guided much more than their reason. I would therefore have them consider, that the wisest and best of men in all ages of the world have been those who lived up to the religion of their country, when they saw nothing in it opposite to morality, and to the best lights they had of the divine nature. Pythagoras’ first rule directs us to worship the gods as it is ordained by law; for that is the most natural interpretation of the precept. Socrates, who was the most renowned among the Heathens, both for wisdom and virtue, in his last moments desires his friends to offer a cock to Æsculapius; doubtless out of a submissive deference to the established worship of his country. Xenophon tells us that his prince (whom he sets forth as a patern of perfection,) when he found his death approaching, offered sacrifices on the mountains to the Persian Jupiter, and the sun, according to the customs of the Persians; for those are the words of the historian. Nay, the Epicureans and anatomical philosophers shewed a very remarkable modesty in this particular; for, though the being of a God was entirely repugnant to their schemes of natural philosophy, they contented themselves with the denial of a providence, asserting at the same time the existence of gods in general: because they would not shock the common belief of mankind, and the religion of their country.

Qua ratione queas traducere lemite ævum:
Ne te semper inops agitet, vexetque cupido;
Ne pavor el rerum mediocriter utilium spes.

Hor I. 1. Epist. XVIII v. 97.

How thou may’st live, how spend thine age in peace;

Lest avarice, still poor, disturb thy ease;

Or fears should shake, or cares thy mind abuse,

Or ardent hope for things of little use.

Creech.

HAVING endeavoured, in my last Saturday’s paper, to shew the great excellency of faith, I shall here consider what are the proper means of strengthening and confirming it in the mind of man. Those who delight in reading books of controversy, which are written on both sides of the question in points of faith, do very seldom arrive at a fixed and settled habit of it. They are one day entirely convinced of its important truths, and they next meet with something that shakes and disturbs them. The doubt which was laid revives again, and shews itself in new difficulties; and that generally for this reason, because the mind, which is perpetually tossed, in controversies and disputes, is apt to forget the reasons which had once set it at rest; and to be disquieted with any former perplexity, when it appears in a new shape, or is started by a different hand. As nothing is more laudable than an inquiry after truth, so nothing is more irrational than to pass away our whole lives without determining ourselves one way or other in those points which are of the last importance to us. There are indeed many things from which we may withhold our assent: but in cases by which we are to regulate our lives, it is the greatest absurdity to be wavering and unsettled, without closing with that side which appears the most safe and the most probable.

The first rule therefore which I shall lay down is this, that when, by reading or discourse, we find .ourselves thoroughly convinced of the truth of any article,, and of the reasonableness of our belief in it, we should never after suffer ourselves to call it into question. We may perhaps forget the arguments which occasioned our conviction, but we ought to remember the strength they had with us, and therefore still to retain the conviction which they once produced. This is no more than what we do in every art or science: nor is it possible to act otherwise considering the weakness and limitations of our intellectual faculties. It was thus that Latimer, one of the glorious army of martyrs, who introduce reformation in England, behaved himself in that great conference which was managed between the most learned among the Protestants and Papists in the reign of Queen Mary. This venerable old man, knowing how his abilities were impaired by age, and that it was impossible for him to recollect all those reasons which had directed him in the choice of his religion, lest his companions, who were in the full possession of their parts and learning, to baffle and confound their antagonists by the force of reason. As for himself, he only repeated to his adversaries the articles in which he firmly believed, and in the profession of which he was determined to die. It is in this manner that the mathematician proceeds upon propositions which he has once demonstrated and though the demonstration may have slipt out of his memory, he builds upon the truth, because he knows it was demonstrated. This rule is absolutely necessary for weaker minds, and in some measure for men of the greatest abilities.

But to there last I would propose, in the second place, that they should lay up in their memories, and always keep by them in a readiness, those arguments which appear to them of the greatest strength, and which cannot be got over by all the doubts and cavil of Infidelity.

But, in the third place, there is nothing which strenghtens faith more than morality. Faith and morality naturally produce each other. A man is quickly convinced of the truth of religion who finds it is not against his interest that it should be true. The pleasure he receives at present, and the happiness which he promises himself from it hereafter, will both dispose him very powerfully to give credit to it, according to the ordinary observation, that we are easy to believe what we wish. It is very certain that a man of sound reason cannot forbear closing with religion upon an impartial examination of it: but at the same time it is as certain that faith is kept alive in us, and gathers strength from practice more than from speculation.

There is still another method which is more persuasive than any of the former, and that is, an habitual adoration of the Supreme Being, as well in constant acts of mental worship as in outward forms. The devout man does not only believe but feels there is a Deity. He has actual sensations of him: his experience concurs with his reason; he sees him more and more in all his intercourses with him, and even in this life almost loses his faith in conviction.

The last method which I shall mention for the giving life to a man’s faith, is frequent retirement from the world, accompanied with religious meditation. When a man thinks of any thing in the darkness of the night, whatever deep impressions it may make in his mind, they are apt to vanish as soon as the day breaks about him. The light and noise of the day, which are perpetually soliciting his senses, and calling off his attention, wear out of his mind the thoughts that imprinted themselves in it with so much strength, during the silence and darkness of the night. A man finds the same difference as to himself in a crowd, and in a solitude; the mind is stunned and dazzled amidst that variety of objects which press upon her in a great city; she cannot apply herself to the consideration of those things which are of the utmost concern to her. The cares or pleasures of the world strike in with every thought, and a multitude of vicious examples give a kind of justification to our folly. In our retirements every thing disposes us to be serious. In courts and cities we are entertained with the works of men; in the country with those of God. One is the province of art, the other of nature. Faith and devotion naturally grow in the mind of every reasonable man, who sees the impressions of divine power and wisdom in every object on which he casts his eye. The Supreme Being has made the best arguments for his own existence in the formation of the heavens and the earth; and these are arguments which a man of sense cannot forbear attending to, who is out of the noise and hurry of human affairs. Aristotle says, that should a man live under ground, and there converse with works of art and mechanism, and should afterwards be brought up into the open day, and see the several glories of the heaven and earth, he would immediately pronounce them the works of such a being, as we define God to be. The Psalmist has very beautiful strokes of poetry to this purpose in that exalted strain, “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handy-work. One day telleth another; and one night certifieth another. There is neither speech nor language, but their voices are heard among them. Their sound is gone out into all lands, and their words into the ends of the world.” As such a bold and sublime manner of thinking furnishes very noble matter for an ode, the reader may see it wrought into the following one.

I.

The spacious firmament on high,

With all the blue etherial sky,

And spangled heav’ns, a shining frame,

Their great Original proclaim:

Th’ unweary’d sun, from day to day,

Does his Creator’s power display,

And publishes to every land

The work of an almighty hand.

II.

Soon as the ev’ning shades prevail,

The moon takes up the wondrous tale,

And nightly to the list’ning earth

Repeats the story of her birth:

Whilst all the stars that round her burn,

And all the planets in their turn,

Confirm the tidings as they roll,

And spread the truth from pole to pole.

III.

What though, in solemn silence all

Move round the dark terrestrial ball!

What though no real voice nor sound

Amid their radiant orbs be found!

In reason’s ear they all rejoice,

And utter forth a glorious voice:

For ever singing as they shine;

The hand that made us is divine.


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