One of the 2 best English philosophers. He
produced a number of essays on religion, enough to be compiled into a book, available through Prometheus Press. His short autobiography is a gem.
IMPIOUS CONCEPTIONS OF THE DIVINE NATURE IN POPULAR RELIGIONS OF BOTH KINDS
THE PRIMARY RELIGION OF MANKIND arises
chiefly from an anxious fear of future events; and what ideas will naturally be entertained of invisible, unknown powers,
while men lie under dismal apprehensions of any kind, may easily be conceived. Every image of vengeance, severity, cruelty,
and malice must occur, and must augment the ghastliness and horror, which oppresses the amazed religionist. A panic having
once seized the mind, the active fancy still farther multiplies the objects of terror; while that profound darkness, or, what
is worse, that glimmering light, with which we are environed, represents the spectres of divinity under the most dreadful
appearances imaginable. And no idea of perverse wickedness can be framed, which those terrified devotees do not readily,
without scruple, apply to their deity. This
appears the natural state of religion, when surveyed in one light. But if we consider, on the other hand, that spirit of praise
and eulogy, which necessarily has place in all religions, and which is the consequence of these very terrors, we must
expect a quite contrary system of theology to prevail. Every virtue, every excellence, must be ascribed to the divinity, and
no exaggeration will be deemed sufficient to reach those perfections, with which he is endowed. Whatever strains of panegyric
can be invented, are immediately embraced, without consulting any arguments of phonomena: It is esteemed a sufficient confirmation
of them, that they give us more magnificent ideas of the divine objects of our worship and adoration.
is a kind of contradiction between the different principles of human nature, which enter into religion. Our natural terrors
present the notion of a devilish and malicious deity: Our propensity to adulation leads us to acknowledge an excellent
and divine. And the influence of these opposite principles are various, according to the different situation of the human
But as men farther exalt their idea of their divinity;
it is their notion of his power and knowledge only, not of his goodness, which is improved. On the contrary, in proportion
to the supposed extent of his science and authority, their terrors naturally augment; while they hope that no secrecy can conceal them from his scrutiny, and that even the inmost
recesses of their breast lie open before him. They must then be careful not to form expressly any sentiment of blame and disapprobation.
All must be applause, ravishment, extacy. And while their gloomy apprehensions make them ascribe to him measures of conduct,
which, in human creatures, would be highly blamed, they must still affect to praise and admire that conduct in the object
of their devotional addresses. Thus it may safely be affirmed, that popular religions are really, in the conception of their
more vulgar votaries, a species of demonism; and the higher the deity is exalted in power and knowledge, the lower of course
is he depressed in goodness and benevolence; whatever epithets of praise may be bestowed on him by his amazed adorers.
Among idolaters, the words may be false, and belie the secret opinion. But among more exalted religionists, the opinion itself contracts a kind of falsehood,
and belies the inward sentiment. The heart secretly detests such measures of cruel and implacable vengeance; but the judgment
dares not but pronounce them perfect and adorable. And the additional misery of this inward struggle aggravates all the other
terrors, by which these unhappy victims to superstition are for ever haunted.
Lucian’ observes that a young man,
who reads the history of the gods in Homer or Hesiod, and finds their factions, wars, injustice, incest, adultery, and other
immoralities so highly celebrated, is much surprised afterwards, when he comes into the world, to observe that punishments
are by law inflicted on the same actions, which he had been taught to ascribe to superior beings. The contradiction is still
perhaps stronger between the representations given us by some later religions and our natural ideas of generosity,
lenity, impartiality, and justice; and in proportion to the multiplied terrors of these religions, the barbarous conceptions
of the divinity are multiplied upon us. Nothing can preserve untainted the genuine principles of morals in our judgment
of human conduct, but the absolute necessity of these principles to the existence of society. If common conception can indulge
princes in a system of ethics, somewhat different from that which should regulate private persons; how much more those
superior beings, whose attributes, views, and nature are so totally unknown to us? Sunt superis sua jura.2 The
gods have maxims of justice peculiar to themselves.
BAD INFLUENCE OF POPULAR RELIGIONS ON MORALITY
Here I cannot forbear observing a fact,
which may be worth the attention of such as make human nature the object of their enquiry. It is certain, that,
in every religion, however sublime the verbal definition which it gives of its divinity, many of the votaries, perhaps the greatest number, will still seek
the divine favor, not by virtue and good morals, which alone can be acceptable to a perfect being, but either by frivolous
observances, by intemperate zeal, by rapturous extasies, or by the belief of mysterious and absurd opinions. The least part
of the Sadder, as well as of the Pentateuch,3 consists in precepts of morality; and we may also be
assured, that that part was always the least observed and regarded. When the old Romans were attacked with a pestilence, they
never ascribed their sufferings to their vices, or dreamed of repentance and amendment. They never thought, that they were
the general robbers of the world, whose ambition and avarice made desolate the earth, and reduced opulent nations to want
and beggary. They only created a dictator, in order to drive a nail into a door; and by that means, they thought that
they had sufficiently appeased their incensed deity.
In Aegina, one
faction forming a conspiracy, barbarously and treacherously assassinated seven hundred of their fellow-citizens; and
carried their fury so far, that, one miserable fugitive having fled to the temple, they cut off his hands, by which he clung
to the gates, and carrying him out of holy ground, immediately murdered him. By this impiety, says Herodotus, (not
by the other many cruel assassinations) they offended the gods, and contracted an inexpiable guilt.
Nay, if we should suppose,
what never happens, that a popular religion were found, in which it was expressly declared, that nothing but morality
could gain the divine favor; if an order of priests were instituted to inculcate this opinion, in daily sermons, and
with all the arts of persuasion; yet so inveterate are the people’s prejudices, that, for want of some other superstition,
they would make the very attendance on these sermons the essentials of religion, rather than place them in virtue and good
morals. The sublime prologue of Zaleucus’s4 laws inspired not the Locrians, so far as we can learn, with
any sounder notions of the measures of acceptance with the deity, than were familiar to the Greeks.
This observation, then, holds universally:
But still one may be at some loss to account for it. It is not sufficient to observe, that the people, every where, degrade
their deities into a similitude with themselves, and consider them merely as a species of human creatures, somewhat more
potent and intelligent. This will not remove the difficulty. For there is no man so stupid, as that, judging by
his natural reason, he would not esteem virtue and honesty the most valuable qualities, which any person could possess. Why
not ascribe the same sentiment to his deity? Why not make all religion, or the chief part of it, to consist in these attainments?
Nor is it satisfactory to say, that the
practice of morality is more difficult than that of superstition; and is therefore rejected. For, not to mention the
excessive penances of the Brachmans and Talapoins;5 it is certain, that the Rhamadan6 of
the Turks, during which the poor wretches, for many days, often in the hottest months of the year, and in some of the hottest
climates of the world, remain without eating or drinking from the rising to the setting sun; this Rhamadan, I say,
must be more severe than the practice of any moral duty, even to the most vicious and depraved of mankind. The four lents
of the Muscovites, and the austerities of some Roman Catholics, appear more disagreeable than meekness and benevolence.
In short, all virtue, when men are reconciled to it by ever so little practice, is agreeable: All superstition is for
ever odious and burthensome.
Perhaps, the following account may be received as a true solution of the difficulty.
The duties, which a man performs as a friend or parent, seem merely owing to his benefactor or children; nor can he be wanting
to these duties, without breaking through all the ties of nature and morality. A strong inclination may prompt him to the
performance: A sentiment of order and moral obligation joins its force to these natural ties: And the whole man, if truly
virtuous, is drawn to his duty, without any effort or endeavour. Even with regard to the virtues, which are more austere,
and more founded on reflection, such as public spirit, filial duty, temperance, or integrity; the moral obligation, in our
apprehension, removes all pretension to religious merit; and the virtuous conduct is deemed no more than what we
owe to society and to ourselves. In all this, a superstitious man finds nothing, which he has properly performed for the sake
of his deity, or which can peculiarly recommend him to the divine favor and protection. He considers not, that the most genuine
method of serving the divinity is by promoting the happiness of his creatures. He still looks out for some more immediate
service of the supreme Being, in order to allay those terrors, with which he is haunted. And any practice, recommended to
him, which either serves to no purpose in life, or offers the strongest violence to his natural inclinations; that practice
he will the more readily embrace, on account of those very circumstances, which should make him absolutely reject it. It seems
the more purely religious, because it proceeds from no mixture of any other motive or consideration. And if, for its sake,
he sacrifices much of his ease and quiet, his claim of merit appears still to rise upon him, in proportion to the zeal and
devotion which he discovers. In restoring a loan, or paying a debt, his divinity is nowise beholden to him; because these
acts of justice are what he was bound to perform, and what many would have performed, were there no god in the universe.
But if he fast a day, or give himself a sound whipping this has a direct reference, in his opinion, to the service of God.
No other motive could engage him to such austerities. By these distinguished marks of devotion, he has now acquired the divine
favor; and may expect, in recompense, protection and safety in this world, and eternal happiness in the next.
Hence the greatest
crimes have been found, in many instances, compatible with a superstitious piety and devotion; Hence, it is justly regarded
as unsafe to draw any certain inference in favor of a man’s morals, from the fervour or strictness of his religious
exercises, even though he himself believe them sincere. Nay, it has been observed, that enormities of the blackest dye have
been rather apt to produce superstitious terrors, and increase the religious passion. Bomilcar, having formed a conspiracy
for assassinating at once the whole senate of Carthage, and invading the liberties of his country, lost the opportunity, from
a continual regard to omens and prophecies.7 Those who undertake the most criminal and most dangerous enterprizes
are commonly the most superstitious; as an ancient historian remarks on this occasion. Their devotion and spiritual faith
rise with their fears. Catiline was not contented with the established deities and received rites of the national religion:
His anxious terrors made him seek new inventions of this kind; which he never probably had dreamed of, had he remained a good
citizen, and obedient to the laws of his country.8
To which we may add, that, after the commission
of crime, there arise remorses and secret horrors, which give no rest to the mind, but
make it have recourse to religious rites and ceremonies, as expiations of its offences. Whatever weakens or disorders the
internal frame promotes the interests of superstition: And nothing is more destructive to them than a manly, steady virtue,
which either preserves us from disastrous, melancholy accidents, or teaches us to bear them. During such calm sunshine
of the mind, these spectres of false divinity never make their appearance. On the other hand, while we abandon ourselves to
the natural undisciplined suggestions of our timid and anxious hearts, every kind of barbarity is ascribed to the supreme
Being, from the terrors with which we are agitated; and every kind of caprice, from the methods which we embrace in order
to appease him. Barbarity caprice; these qualities, however nominally disguised, we may universally observe, form
the ruling character of the deity in popular religions. Even priests, instead of correcting these depraved ideas of mankind,
have often been found ready to foster and encourage them. The more tremendous the divinity is represented, the more tame and
submissive do men become his ministers: And the more unaccountable the measures of acceptance required by him, the more necessary
does it become to abandon our natural reason, and yield to their ghostly guidance and direction. Thus it may be allowed,
that the artifices of men aggravate our natural infirmities and follies of this kind, but never originally beget them.
Their root strikes deeper into the mind, and springs from the essential and universal properties of human nature.
One of the 2 best English philosophers. He produced a number of essays on religion, enough to be compiled into a book, available through Prometheus
Press. There are a number of interesting facts about his life, which I will soon