A History of Freedom of Thought/Chapter 6

CHAPTER VI

THE GROWTH OF RATIONALISM

(SEVENTEENTH AND EIGHTEENTH CENTURIES)

During the last three hundred years reason has been slowly but steadily destroying Christian mythology and exposing the pretensions of supernatural revelation. The progress of rationalism falls naturally into two periods. (1) In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries those thinkers who rejected Christian theology and the book on which it relies were mainly influenced by the inconsistencies, contradictions, and absurdities which they discovered in the evidence, and by the moral difficulties of the creed. Some scientific facts were known which seemed to reflect on the accuracy of Revelation, but arguments based on science were subsidiary. (2) In the nineteenth century the discoveries of science in many fields bore with full force upon fabrics which had been constructed in a naïve and ignorant age; and historical criticism undermined methodically the authority of the sacred documents which had hitherto been exposed chiefly to the acute but unmethodical criticisms of common sense.

A disinterested love of facts, without any regard to the bearing which those facts may have on one's hopes or fears or destiny, is a rare quality in all ages, and it had been very rare indeed since the ancient days of Greece and Rome. It means the scientific spirit. Now in the seventeenth century we may say (without disrespect to a few precursors) that the modern study of natural science began, and in the same period we have a series of famous thinkers who were guided by a disinterested love of truth. Of the most acute minds some reached the conclusion that the Christian scheme of the world is irrational, and according to their temperament some rejected it, whilst others, like the great Frenchman Pascal, fell back upon an unreasoning act of faith. Bacon, who professed orthodoxy, was perhaps at heart a deist, but in any case the whole spirit of his writings was to exclude authority from the domain of scientific investigation which he did so much to stimulate. Descartes, illustrious not only as the founder of modern metaphysics but also by his original contributions to science, might seek to conciliate the ecclesiastical authorities—his temper was timid—but his philosophical method was a powerful incentive to rationalistic thought. The general tendency of superior intellects was to exalt reason at the expense of authority; and in England this principle was established so firmly by Locke, that throughout the theological warfare of the eighteenth century both parties relied on reason, and no theologian of repute assumed faith to be a higher faculty.

A striking illustration of the gradual encroachments of reason is the change which was silently wrought in public opinion on the subject of witchcraft. The famous efforts of James I to carry out the Biblical command, "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live," were outdone by the zeal of the Puritans under the Commonwealth to suppress the wicked old women who had commerce with Satan. After the Restoration, the belief in witchcraft declined among educated people—though some able writers maintained it—and there were few executions. The last trial of a witch was in 1712, when some clergymen in Hertfordshire prosecuted Jane Wenham. The jury found her guilty, but the judge, who had summed up in her favour, was able to procure the remission of her sentence; and the laws against witchcraft were repealed in 1735. John Wesley said with perfect truth that to disbelieve in witchcraft is to disbelieve in the Bible. In France and in Holland the decline of belief and interest in this particular form of Satan's activity was simultaneous. In Scotland, where theology was very powerful, a woman was burnt in 1722. It can be no mere coincidence that the general decline of this superstition belongs to the age which saw the rise of modern science and modern philosophy.

Hobbes, who was perhaps the most brilliant English thinker of the seventeenth century, was a freethinker and materialist. He had come under the influence of his friend the French philosopher Gassendi, who had revived materialism in its Epicurean shape. Yet he was a champion not of freedom of conscience but of coercion in its most uncompromising form. In the political theory which he expounded in Leviathan, the sovran has autocratic power in the domain of doctrine, as in everything else, and it is the duty of subjects to conform to the religion which the sovran imposes. Religious persecution is thus defended, but no independent power is left to the Church. But the principles on which Hobbes built up his theory were rationalistic. He separated morality from religion and identified "the true moral philosophy" with the "true doctrine of the laws of nature." What he really thought of religion could be inferred from his remark that the fanciful fear of things invisible (due to ignorance) is the natural seed of that feeling which, in himself, a man calls religion, but, in those who fear or worship the invisible power differently, superstition. In the reign of Charles II Hobbes was silenced and his books were burned.

Spinoza, the Jewish philosopher of Holland, owed a great deal to Descartes and (in political speculation) to Hobbes, but his philosophy meant a far wider and more open breach with orthodox opinion than either of his masters had ventured on. He conceived ultimate reality, which he called God, as an absolutely perfect, impersonal Being, a substance whose nature is constituted by two "attributes"—thought and spatial extension. When Spinoza speaks of love of God, in which he considered happiness to consist, he means knowledge and contemplation of the order of nature, including human nature, which is subject to fixed, invariable laws. He rejects free-will and the "superstition," as he calls it, of final causes in nature. If we want to label his philosophy, we may say that it is a form of pantheism. It has often been described as atheism. If atheism means, as I suppose in ordinary use it is generally taken to mean, rejection of a personal God, Spinoza was an atheist. It should be observed that in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries atheist was used in the wildest way as a term of abuse for freethinkers, and when we read of atheists (except in careful writers) we may generally assume that the persons so stigmatized were really deists, that is, they believed in a personal God but not in Revelation.[1]

Spinoza's daring philosophy was not in harmony with the general trend of speculation at the time, and did not exert any profound influence on thought till a much later period. The thinker whose writings appealed most to the men of his age and were most opportune and effective was John Locke, who professed more or less orthodox Anglicanism. His great contribution to philosophy is equivalent to a very powerful defence of reason against the usurpations of authority. The object of his Essay on the Human Understanding (1690) is to show that all knowledge is derived from experience. He subordinated faith completely to reason. While he accepted the Christian revelation, he held that revelation if it contradicted the higher tribunal of reason must be rejected, and that revelation cannot give us knowledge as certain as the knowledge which reason gives. "He that takes away reason to make room for revelation puts out the light of both; and does much what the same as if he would persuade a man to put out his eyes, the better to receive the remote light of an invisible star by a telescope." He wrote a book to show that the Christian revelation is not contrary to reason, and its title, The Reasonableness of Christianity, sounds the note of all religious controversy in England during the next hundred years. Both the orthodox and their opponents warmly agreed that reasonableness was the only test of the claims of revealed religion. It was under the direct influence of Locke that Toland, an Irishman who had been converted from Roman Catholicism, composed a sensational book, Christianity Not Mysterious (1696). He assumes that Christianity is true and argues that there can be no mysteries in it, because mysteries, that is, unintelligible dogmas, cannot be accepted by reason. And if a reasonable Deity gave a revelation, its purpose must be to enlighten, not to puzzle. The assumption of the truth of Christianity was a mere pretence, as an intelligent reader could not fail to see. The work was important because it drew the logical inference from Locke's philosophy, and it had a wide circulation. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu met a Turkish Effendi at Belgrade who asked her for news of Mr. Toland.

It is characteristic of this stage of the struggle between reason and authority that (excepting the leading French thinkers in the eighteenth century) the rationalists, who attacked theology, generally feigned to acknowledge the truth of the ideas which they were assailing. They pretended that their speculations did not affect religion; they could separate the domains of reason and of faith; they could show that Revelation was superfluous without questioning it; they could do homage to orthodoxy and lay down views with which orthodoxy was irreconcilable. The errors which they exposed in the sphere of reason were ironically allowed to be truths in the sphere of theology. The mediæval principle of double truth and other shifts were resorted to, in self-protection against the tyranny of orthodoxy—though they did not always avail; and in reading much of the rationalistic literature of this period we have to read between the lines. Bayle is an interesting instance.

If Locke's philosophy, by setting authority in its place and deriving all knowledge from experience, was a powerful aid to rationalism, his contemporary Bayle worked in the same direction by the investigation of history. Driven from France (see above, p. 107), he lived at Amsterdam, where he published his Philosophical Dictionary. He was really a freethinker, but he never dropped the disguise of orthodoxy, and this lends a particular piquancy to his work. He takes a delight in marshalling all the objections which heretics had made to essential Christian dogmas. He exposed without mercy the crimes and brutalities of David, and showed that this favourite of the Almighty was a person with whom one would refuse to shake hands. There was a great outcry at this unedifying candour. Bayle, in replying, adopted the attitude of Montaigne and Pascal, and opposed faith to reason.

The theological virtue of faith, he said, consists in believing revealed truths simply and solely on God's authority. If you believe in the immortality of the soul for philosophical reasons, you are orthodox, but you have no part in faith. The merit of faith becomes greater, in proportion as the revealed truth surpasses all the powers of our mind; the more incomprehensible the truth and the more repugnant to reason, the greater is the sacrifice we make in accepting it, the deeper our submission to God. Therefore a merciless inventory of the objections which reason has to urge against fundamental doctrines serves to exalt the merits of faith.

The Dictionary was also criticized for the justice done to the moral excellencies of persons who denied the existence of God. Bayle replies that if he had been able to find any atheistical thinkers who lived bad lives, he would have been delighted to dwell on their vices, but he knew of none such. As for the criminals you meet in history, whose abominable actions make you tremble, their impieties and blasphemies prove they believed in a Divinity. This is a natural consequence of the theological doctrine that the Devil, who is incapable of atheism, is the instigator of all the sins of men. For man's wickedness must clearly resemble that of the Devil and must therefore be joined to a belief in God's existence, since the Devil is not an atheist. And is it not a proof of the infinite wisdom of God that the worst criminals are not atheists, and that most of the atheists whose names are recorded have been honest men? By this arrangement Providence sets bounds to the corruption of man; for if atheism and moral wickedness were united in the same persons, the societies of earth would be exposed to a fatal inundation of sin.

There was much more in the same vein; and the upshot was, under the thin veil of serving faith, to show that the Christian dogmas were essentially unreasonable.

Bayle's work, marked by scholarship and extraordinary learning, had a great influence in England as well as in France. It supplied weapons to assailants of Christianity in both countries. At first the assault was carried on with most vigour and ability by the English deists, who, though their writings are little read now, did memorable work by their polemic against the authority of revealed religion.

The controversy between the deists and their orthodox opponents turned on the question whether the Deity of natural religion—the God whose existence, as was thought, could be proved by reason—can be identified with the author of the Christian revelation. To the deists this seemed impossible. The nature of the alleged revelation seemed inconsistent with the character of the God to whom reason pointed. The defenders of revelation, at least all the most competent, agreed with the deists in making reason supreme, and through this reliance on reason some of them fell into heresies. Clarke, for instance, one of the ablest, was very unsound on the dogma of the Trinity. It is also to be noticed that with both sections the interest of morality was the principal motive. The orthodox held that the revealed doctrine of future rewards and punishments is necessary for morality; the deists, that morality depends on reason alone, and that revelation contains a great deal that is repugnant to moral ideals. Throughout the eighteenth century morality was the guiding consideration with Anglican Churchmen, and religious emotion, finding no satisfaction within the Church, was driven, as it were, outside, and sought an outlet in the Methodism of Wesley and Whitefield.

Spinoza had laid down the principle that Scripture must be interpreted like any other book (1670),[2] and with the deists this principle was fundamental. In order to avoid persecution they generally veiled their conclusions under sufficiently thin disguises. Hitherto the Press Licensing Act (1662) had very effectually prevented the publication of heterodox works, and it is from orthodox works denouncing infidel opinions that we know how rationalism was spreading. But in 1695, the Press Law was allowed to drop, and immediately deistic literature began to appear. There was, however, the danger of prosecution under the Blasphemy laws. There were three legal weapons for coercing those who attacked Christianity: (1) The Ecclesiastical Courts had and have the power of imprisoning for a maximum term of six months, for atheism, blasphemy, heresy, and damnable opinions. (2) The common law as interpreted by Lord Chief Justice Hale in 1676, when a certain Taylor was charged with having said that religion was a cheat and blasphemed against Christ. The accused was condemned to a fine and the pillory by the Judge, who ruled that the Court of King's Bench has jurisdiction in such a case, inasmuch as blasphemous words of the kind are an offence against the laws and the State, and to speak against Christianity is to speak in subversion of the law, since Christianity is "parcel of the laws of England." (3) The statute of 1698 enacts that if any person educated in the Christian religion "shall by writing, printing, teaching, or advised speaking deny any one of the persons in the Holy Trinity to be God, or shall assert or maintain there are more gods than one, or shall deny the Christian religion to be true, or shall deny the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testament to be of divine authority," is convicted, he shall for the first offence be adjudged incapable to hold any public offices or employments, and on the second shall lose his civil rights and be imprisoned for three years. This Statute expressly states as its motive the fact that "many persons have of late years openly avowed and published many blasphemous and impious opinions contrary to the doctrine and principles of the Christian religion."

As a matter of fact, most trials for blasphemy during the past two hundred years fall under the second head. But the new Statute of 1698 was very intimidating, and we can easily understand how it drove heterodox writers to ambiguous disguises. One of these disguises was allegorical interpretation of Scripture. They showed that literal interpretation led to absurdities or to inconsistencies with the wisdom and justice of God, and pretended to infer that allegorical interpretation must be substituted. But they meant the reader to reject their pretended solution and draw a conclusion damaging to Revelation.

Among the arguments used in favour of the truth of Revelation the fulfilment of prophecies and the miracles of the New Testament were conspicuous. Anthony Collins, a country gentleman who was a disciple of Locke, published in 1733 his Discourse on the Grounds and Reasons of the Christian Religion, in which he drastically exposed the weakness of the evidence for fulfilment of prophecy, depending as it does on forced and unnatural figurative interpretations. Twenty years before he had written a Discourse of Free-thinking (in which Bayle's influence is evident) pleading for free discussion and the reference of all religious questions to reason. He complained of the general intolerance which prevailed; but the same facts which testify to intolerance testify also to the spread of unbelief.

Collins escaped with comparative impunity, but Thomas Woolston, a Fellow of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, who wrote six aggressive Discourses on the Miracles of our Saviour (1727–1730) paid the penalty for his audacity. Deprived of his Fellowship, he was prosecuted for libel, and sentenced to a fine of £100 and a year's imprisonment. Unable to pay, he died in prison. He does not adopt the line of arguing that miracles are incredible or impossible. He examines the chief miracles related in the Gospels, and shows with great ability and shrewd common sense that they are absurd or unworthy of the performer. He pointed out, as Huxley was to point out in a controversy with Gladstone, that the miraculous driving of devils into a herd of swine was an unwarrantable injury to somebody's property. On the story of the Divine blasting of the fig tree, he remarks: "What if a yeoman of Kent should go to look for pippins in his orchard at Easter (the supposed time that Jesus sought for these figs) and because of a disappointment cut down his trees? What then would his neighbours make of him? Nothing less than a laughing-stock; and if the story got into our Publick News, he would be the jest and ridicule of mankind."

Or take his comment on the miracle of the Pool of Bethesda, where an angel used to trouble the waters and the man who first entered the pool was cured of his infirmity. "An odd and a merry way of conferring a Divine mercy. And one would think that the angels of God did this for their own diversion more than to do good to mankind. Just as some throw a bone among a kennel of hounds for the pleasure of seeing them quarrel for it, or as others cast a piece of money among a company of boys for the sport of seeing them scramble for it, so was the pastime of the angels here." In dealing with the healing of the woman who suffered from a bloody flux, he asks: "What if we had been told of the Pope's curing an haemorrhage like this before us, what would Protestants have said to it? Why, 'that a foolish, credulous, and superstitious woman had fancied herself cured of some slight indisposition, and the crafty Pope and his adherents, aspiring after popular applause, magnified the presumed cure into a miracle.' The application of such a supposed story of a miracle wrought by the Pope is easy; and if Infidels, Jews, and Mahometans, who have no better opinion of Jesus than we have of the Pope, should make it, there's no help for it."

Woolston professed no doubts of the inspiration of Scripture. While he argued that it was out of the question to suppose the miracles literally true, he pretended to believe in the fantastic theory that they were intended allegorically as figures of Christ's mysterious operations in the soul of man. Origen, a not very orthodox Christian Father, had employed the allegorical method, and Woolston quotes him in his favour. His vigorous criticisms vary in value, but many of them hit the nail on the head, and the fashion of some modern critics to pass over Woolston's productions as unimportant because they are "ribald" or "coarse," is perfectly unjust. The pamphlets had an enormous sale, and Woolston's notoriety is illustrated by the anecdote of the "jolly young woman" who met him walking abroad and accosted him with "You old rogue, are you not hanged yet?" Mr. Woolston answered, "Good woman, I know you not; pray what have I done to offend you?" "You have writ against my Saviour," she said; "what would become of my poor sinful soul if it was not for my dear Saviour?"

About the same time, Matthew Tindal (a Fellow of All Souls) attacked Revelation from a more general point of view. In his Christianity as old as the Creation (1730) he undertook to show that the Bible as a revelation is superfluous, for it adds nothing to natural religion, which God revealed to man from the very first by the sole light of reason. He argues that those who defend Revealed religion by its agreement with Natural religion, and thus set up a double government of reason and authority, fall between the two. "It's an odd jumble," he observes, "to prove the truth of a book by the truth of the doctrines it contains, and at the same time conclude those doctrines to be true because contained in that book." He goes on to criticize the Bible in detail. In order to maintain its infallibility, without doing violence to reason, you have, when you find irrational statements, to torture them and depart from the literal sense. Would you think that a Mohammedan was governed by his Koran, who on all occasions departed from the literal sense? "Nay, would you not tell him that his inspired book fell infinitely short of Cicero's uninspired writings, where there is no such occasion to recede from the letter?"

As to chronological and physical errors, which seemed to endanger the infallibility of the Scriptures, a bishop had met the argument by saying, reasonably enough, that in the Bible God speaks according to the conceptions of those to whom he speaks, and that it is not the business of Revelation to rectify their opinions in such matters. Tindal made this rejoinder:—

"Is there no difference between God's not rectifying men's sentiments in those matters and using himself such sentiments as needs be rectified; or between God's not mending men's logic and rhetoric where 't is defective and using such himself; or between God's not contradicting vulgar notions and confirming them by speaking according to them? Can infinite wisdom despair of gaining or keeping people's affections without having recourse to such mean acts?"

He exposes with considerable effect the monstrosity of the doctrine of exclusive salvation. Must we not consider, he asks, whether one can be said to be sent as a Saviour of mankind, if he comes to shut Heaven's gate against those to whom, before he came, it was open provided they followed the dictates of their reason? He criticizes the inconsistency of the impartial and universal goodness of God, known to us by the light of nature, with acts committed by Jehovah or his prophets. Take the cases in which the order of nature is violated to punish men for crimes of which they were not guilty, such as Elijah's hindering rain from falling for three years and a half. If God could break in upon the ordinary rules of his providence to punish the innocent for the guilty, we have no guarantee that if he deals thus with us in this life, he will not act in the same way in the life to come, "since if the eternal rules of justice are once broken how can we imagine any stop?" But the ideals of holiness and justice in the Old Testament are strange indeed. The holier men are represented to be, the more cruel they seem and the more addicted to cursing. How surprising to find the holy prophet Elisha cursing in the name of the Lord little children for calling him Bald-pate! And, what is still more surprising, two she-bears immediately devoured forty-two little children.

I have remarked that theologians at this time generally took the line of basing Christianity on reason and not on faith. An interesting little book, Christianity not founded on Argument, couched in the form of a letter to a young gentleman at Oxford, by Henry Dodwell (Junior), appeared in 1741, and pointed out the dangers of such confidence in reason. It is an ironical development of the principle of Bayle, working out the thesis that Christianity is essentially unreasonable, and that if you want to believe, reasoning is fatal. The cultivation of faith and reasoning produce contrary effects; the philosopher is disqualified for Divine influences by his very progress in carnal wisdom; the Gospel must be received with all the obsequious submission of a babe who has no other disposition but to learn his lesson. Christ did not propose his doctrines to investigation; he did not lay the arguments for his mission before his disciples and give them time to consider calmly of their force, and liberty to determine as their reason should direct them; the apostles had no qualifications for the task, being the most artless and illiterate persons living. Dodwell exposes the absurdity of the Protestant position. To give all men liberty to judge for themselves and to expect at the same time that they shall be of the Preacher's mind is such a scheme for unanimity as one would scarcely imagine any one could be weak enough to devise in speculation and much less that any could ever be found hardy enough to avow and propose it to practice. The men of Rome "shall rise up in the judgment (of all considering persons) against this generation and shall condemn it; for they invented but the one absurdity of infallibility, and behold a greater absurdity than infallibility is here."

I have still to speak of the (Third) Earl of Shaftesbury, whose style has rescued his writings from entire neglect. His special interest was ethics. While the valuable work of most of the heterodox writers of this period lay in their destructive criticism of supernatural religion, they clung, as we have seen, to what was called natural religion—the belief in a kind and wise personal God, who created the world, governs it by natural laws, and desires our happiness. The idea was derived from ancient philosophers and had been revived by Lord Herbert of Cherbury in his Latin treatise On Truth (in the reign of James I). The deists contended that this was a sufficient basis for morality and that the Christian inducements to good behaviour were unnecessary Shaftesbury in his Inquiry concerning Virtue (1699) debated the question and argued that the scheme of heaven and hell, with the selfish hopes and fears which they inspire, corrupts morality and that the only worthy motive for conduct is the beauty of virtue in itself. He does not even consider deism a necessary assumption for a moral code; he admits that the opinion of atheists does not undermine ethics. But he thinks that the belief in a good governor of the universe is a powerful support to the practice of virtue. He is a thorough optimist, and is perfectly satisfied with the admirable adaptation of means to ends, whereby it is the function of one animal to be food for another. He makes no attempt to reconcile the red claws and teeth of nature with the beneficence of its powerful artist. "In the main all things are kindly and well disposed." The atheist might have said that he preferred to be at the mercy of blind chance than in the hands of an autocrat who, if he pleased Lord Shaftesbury's sense of order, had created flies to be devoured by spiders. But this was an aspect of the universe which did not much trouble thinkers in the eighteenth century. On the other hand, the character of the God of the Old Testament roused Shaftesbury's aversion. He attacks Scripture not directly, but by allusion or with irony. He hints that if there is a God, he would be less displeased with atheists than with those who accepted him in the guise of Jehovah. As Plutarch said, "I had rather men should say of me that there neither is nor ever was such a one as Plutarch, than they should say 'There was a Plutarch, an unsteady, changeable, easily provokable and revengeful man.'" Shaftesbury's significance is that he built up a positive theory of morals, and although it had no philosophical depth, his influence on French and German thinkers of the eighteenth century was immense.

In some ways perhaps the ablest of the deists, and certainly the most scholarly, was Rev. Conyers Middleton, who remained within the Church. He supported Christianity on grounds of utility. Even if it is an imposture, he said, it would be wrong to destroy it. For it is established by law and it has a long tradition behind it. Some traditional religion is necessary and it would be hopeless to supplant Christianity by reason. But his writings contain effective arguments which go to undermine Revelation. The most important was his Free Inquiry into Christian miracles (1748), which put in a new and dangerous light an old question: At what time did the Church cease to have the power of performing miracles? We shall see presently how Gibbon applied Middleton's method.

The leading adversaries of the deists appealed, like them, to reason, and, in appealing to reason, did much to undermine authority. The ablest defence of the faith, Bishop Butler's Analogy (1736), is suspected of having raised more doubts than it appeased. This was the experience of William Pitt the Younger, and the Analogy made James Mill (the utilitarian) an unbeliever. The deists argued that the unjust and cruel God of Revelation could not be the God of nature; Butler pointed to nature and said, There you behold cruelty and injustice. The argument was perfectly good against the optimism of Shaftesbury, but it plainly admitted of the conclusion—opposite to that which Butler wished to establish—that a just and beneficent God does not exist. Butler is driven to fall back on the sceptical argument that we are extremely ignorant; that all things are possible, even eternal hell fire; and that therefore the safe and prudent course is to accept the Christian doctrine. It may be remarked that this reasoning, with a few modifications, could be used in favour of other religions, at Mecca or at Timbuctoo. He has, in effect, revived the argument used by Pascal that if there is one chance in any very large number that Christianity is true, it is a man's interest to be a Christian; for, if it prove false, it will do him no harm to have believed it; if it prove true, he will be infinitely the gainer. Butler seeks indeed to show that the chances in favour amount to a probability, but his argument is essentially of the same intellectual and moral value as Pascal's. It has been pointed out that it leads by an easy logical step from the Anglican to the Roman Church. Catholics and Protestants (as King Henry IV of France argued) agree that a Catholic may be saved; the Catholics assert that a Protestant will be damned; therefore the safe course is to embrace Catholicism.[3]

I have dwelt at some length upon some of the English deists, because, while they occupy an important place in the history of rationalism in England, they also supplied, along with Bayle, a great deal of the thought which, manipulated by brilliant writers on the other side of the Channel, captured the educated classes in France. We are now in the age of Voltaire. He was a convinced deist. He considered that the nature of the universe proved that it was made by a conscious architect, he held that God was required in the interests of conduct, and he ardently combated atheism. His great achievements were his efficacious labour in the cause of toleration, and his systematic warfare against superstitions. He was profoundly influenced by English thinkers, especially Locke and Bolingbroke. This statesman had concealed his infidelity during his lifetime except from his intimates; he had lived long as an exile in France; and his rationalistic essays were published (1754) after his death. Voltaire, whose literary genius converted the work of the English thinkers into a world-force, did not begin his campaign against Christianity till after the middle of the century, when superstitious practices and religious persecutions were becoming a scandal in his country. He assailed the Catholic Church in every field with ridicule and satire. In a little work called The Tomb of Fanaticism (written 1736, published 1767), he begins by observing that a man who accepts his religion (as most people do) without examining it is like an ox which allows itself to be harnessed, and proceeds to review the difficulties in the Bible, the rise of Christianity, and the course of Church history; from which he concludes that every sensible man should hold the Christian sect in horror. "Men are blind to prefer an absurd and sanguinary creed, supported by executioners and surrounded by fiery faggots, a creed which can only be approved by those to whom it gives power and riches, a particular creed only accepted in a small part of the world—to a simple and universal religion." In the Sermon of the Fifty and the Questions of Zapata we can see what he owed to Bayle and English critics, but his touch is lighter and his irony more telling. His comment on geographical mistakes in the Old Testament is: "God was evidently not strong in geography." Having called attention to the "horrible crime" of Lot's wife in looking backward, and her conversion into a pillar of salt, he hopes that the stories of Scripture will make us better, if they do not make us more enlightened. One of his favourite methods is to approach Christian doctrines as a person who had just heard of the existence of Christians or Jews for the first time in his life.

His drama, Saul (1763), which the police tried to suppress, presents the career of David, the man after God's own heart, in all its naked horror. The scene in which Samuel reproves Saul for not having slain Agag will give an idea of the spirit of the piece.

Samuel: God commands me to tell you that he repents of having made you king.

Saul: God repents! Only they who commit errors repent. His eternal wisdom cannot be unwise. God cannot commit errors.

Samuel: He can repent of having set on the throne those who do.

Saul: Well, who does not? Tell me, what is my fault?

Samuel: You have pardoned a king.

Agag: What! Is the fairest of virtues considered a crime in Judea?

Samuel (to Agag): Silence! do not blaspheme. (To Saul). Saul, formerly king of the Jews, did not God command you by my mouth to destroy all the Amalekites, without sparing women, or maidens, or children at the breast?

Agag: Your god—gave such a command! You are mistaken, you meant to say, your devil.

Samuel: Saul, did you obey God?

Saul: I did not suppose such a command was positive. I thought that goodness was the first attribute of the Supreme Being, and that a compassionate heart could not displease him.

Samuel: You are mistaken, unbeliever. God reproves you, your sceptre will pass into other hands.

Perhaps no writer has ever roused more hatred in Christendom than Voltaire. He was looked on as a sort of anti-Christ. That was natural; his attacks were so tremendously effective at the time. But he has been sometimes decried on the ground that he only demolished and made no effort to build up where he had pulled down. This is a narrow complaint. It might be replied that when a sewer is spreading plague in a town, we cannot wait to remove it till we have a new system of drains, and it may fairly be said that religion as practised in contemporary France was a poisonous sewer. But the true answer is that knowledge, and therefore civilization, are advanced by criticism and negation, as well as by construction and positive discovery. When a man has the talent to attack with effect falsehood, prejudice, and imposture, it is his duty, if there are any social duties, to use it.

For constructive thinking we must go to the other great leader of French thought, Rousseau, who contributed to the growth of freedom in a different way. He was a deist, but his deism, unlike that of Voltaire, was religious and emotional. He regarded Christianity with a sort of reverent scepticism. But his thought was revolutionary and repugnant to orthodoxy; it made against authority in every sphere; and it had an enormous influence. The clergy perhaps dreaded his theories more than the scoffs and negations of Voltaire. For some years he was a fugitive on the face of the earth. Émile, his brilliant contribution to the theory of education, appeared in 1762. It contains some remarkable pages on religion, "the profession of faith of a Savoyard vicar," in which the author's deistic faith is strongly affirmed and revelation and theology rejected. The book was publicly burned in Paris and an order issued for Rousseau's arrest. Forced by his friends to flee, he was debarred from returning to Geneva, for the government of that canton followed the example of Paris. He sought refuge in the canton of Bern and was ordered to quit. He then fled to the principality of Neufchâtel which belonged to Prussia. Frederick the Great, the one really tolerant ruler of the age, gave him protection, but he was persecuted and calumniated by the local clergy, who but for Frederick would have expelled him, and he went to England for a few months (1766), then returning to France, where he was left unmolested till his death. The religious views of Rousseau are only a minor point in his heretical speculations. It was by his daring social and political theories that he set the world on fire. His Social Contract in which these theories were set forth was burned at Geneva. Though his principles will not stand criticism for a moment, and though his doctrine worked mischief by its extraordinary power of turning men into fanatics, yet it contributed to progress, by helping to discredit privilege and to establish the view that the object of a State is to secure the wellbeing of all its members.

Deism—whether in the semi-Christian form of Rousseau or the anti-Christian form of Voltaire—was a house built on the sand, and thinkers arose in France, England, and Germany to shatter its foundations. In France, it proved to be only a half-way inn to atheism. In 1770, French readers were startled by the appearance of Baron D'Holbach's System of Nature, in which God's existence and the immortality of the soul were denied and the world declared to be matter spontaneously moving.

Holbach was a friend of Diderot, who had also come to reject deism. All the leading ideas in the revolt against the Church had a place in Diderot's great work, the Encyclopædia, in which a number of leading thinkers collaborated with him. It was not merely a scientific book of reference. It was representative of the whole movement of the enemies of faith. It was intended to lead men from Christianity with its original sin to a new conception of the world as a place which can be made agreeable and in which the actual evils are due not to radical faults of human nature but to perverse institutions and perverse education. To divert interest from the dogmas of religion to the improvement of society, to persuade the world that man's felicity depends not on Revelation but on social transformation—this was what Diderot and Rousseau in their different ways did so much to effect. And their work influenced those who did not abandon orthodoxy; it affected the spirit of the Church itself. Contrast the Catholic Church in France in the eighteenth and in the nineteenth century. Without the work of Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, and their fellow-combatants, would it have been reformed? "The Christian Churches" (I quote Lord Morley) "are assimilating as rapidly as their formulæ will permit, the new light and the more generous moral ideas and the higher spirituality of teachers who have abandoned all churches and who are systematically denounced as enemies of the souls of men."

In England the prevalent deistic thought did not lead to the same intellectual consequences as in France; yet Hume, the greatest English philosopher of the century, showed that the arguments commonly adduced for a personal God were untenable. I may first speak of his discussion on miracles in his Essay on Miracles and in his philosophical Inquiry concerning Human Understanding (1748). Hitherto the credibility of miracles had not been submitted to a general examination independent of theological assumptions. Hume, pointing out that there must be a uniform experience against every miraculous event (otherwise it would not merit the name of miracle), and that it will require stronger testimony to establish a miracle than an event which is not contrary to experience, lays down the general maxim that "no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle unless the testimony is of such a kind that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavours to establish." But, as a matter of fact, no testimony exists of which the falsehood would be a prodigy. We cannot find in history any miracle attested by a sufficient number of men of such unquestionable good sense, education, and learning, as to secure us against all delusion in themselves; of such undoubted integrity as to place them beyond all suspicion of any design to deceive others; of such credit in the eyes of mankind as to have a great deal to lose in case of their being detected in any falsehood, and at the same time attesting facts performed in such a public manner as to render detection unavoidable—all which circumstances are requisite to give us a full assurance in the testimony of men.

In the Dialogues on Natural Religion which were not published till after his death (1776), Hume made an attack on the "argument from design," on which deists and Christians alike relied to prove the existence of a Deity. The argument is that the world presents clear marks of design, endless adaptation of means to ends, which can only be explained as due to the deliberate plan of a powerful intelligence. Hume disputes the inference on the ground that a mere intelligent being is not a sufficient cause to explain the effect. For the argument must be that the system of the material world demands as a cause a corresponding system of interconnected ideas; but such a mental system would demand an explanation of its existence just as much as the material world; and thus we find ourselves committed to an endless series of causes. But in any case, even if the argument held, it would prove only the existence of a Deity whose powers, though superior to man's, might be very limited and whose workmanship might be very imperfect. For this world may be very faulty, compared to a superior standard. It may be the first rude experiment "of some infant Deity who afterwards abandoned it, ashamed of his lame performance"; or the work of some inferior Deity at which his superior would scoff; or the production of some old superannuated Deity which since his death has pursued an adventurous career from the first impulse which he gave it. An argument which leaves such deities in the running is worse than useless for the purposes of Deism or of Christianity.

The sceptical philosophy of Hume had less influence on the general public than Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Of the numerous freethinking books that appeared in England in the eighteenth century, this is the only one which is still a widely read classic. In what a lady friend of Dr. Johnson called "the two offensive chapters" (XV and XVI) the causes of the rise and success of Christianity are for the first time critically investigated as a simple historical phenomenon. Like most freethinkers of the time Gibbon thought it well to protect himself and his work against the possibility of prosecution by paying ironical lip-homage to the orthodox creed. But even if there had been no such danger, he could not have chosen a more incisive weapon for his merciless criticism of orthodox opinion than the irony which he wielded with superb ease. Having pointed out that the victory of Christianity is obviously and satisfactorily explained by the convincing evidence of the doctrine and by the ruling providence of its great Author, he proceeds "with becoming submission" to inquire into the secondary causes. He traces the history of the faith up to the time of Constantine in such a way as clearly to suggest that the hypothesis of divine interposition is superfluous and that we have to do with a purely human development. He marshals, with ironical protests, the obvious objections to the alleged evidence for supernatural control. He does not himself criticize Moses and the prophets, but he reproduces the objections which were made against their authority by "the vain science of the gnostics." He notes that the doctrine of immortality is omitted in the law of Moses, but this doubtless was a mysterious dispensation of Providence. We cannot entirely remove "the imputation of ignorance and obscurity which has been so arrogantly cast on the first proselytes of Christianity," but we must "convert the occasion of scandal into a subject of edification" and remember that "the lower we depress the temporal condition of the first Christians, the more reason we shall find to admire their merit and success."

Gibbon's treatment of miracles from the purely historical point of view (he owed a great deal to Middleton, see above, p. 150) was particularly disconcerting. In the early age of Christianity "the laws of nature were frequently suspended for the benefit of the Church. But the sages of Greece and Rome turned aside from the awful spectacle, and, pursuing the ordinary occupations of life and study, appeared unconscious of any alterations in the moral or physical government of the world. Under the reign of Tiberius the whole earth, or at least a celebrated province of the Roman Empire, was involved in a praeternatural darkness of three hours. Even this miraculous event, which ought to have excited the wonder, the curiosity, and the devotion of mankind, passed without notice in an age of science and history. It happened during the lifetime of Seneca and the elder Pliny, who must have experienced the immediate effects, or received the earliest intelligence, of the prodigy. Each of these philosophers in a laborious work has recorded all the great phenomena of nature, earthquakes, meteors, comets, and eclipses, which his indefatigable curiosity could collect. Both the one and the other have omitted to mention the greatest phenomenon to which the mortal eye has been witness since the creation of the globe." How "shall we excuse the supine inattention of the pagan and philosophic world to those evidences which were presented by the hand of Omnipotence, not to their reason, but to their senses?"

Again, if every believer is convinced of the reality of miracles, every reasonable man is convinced of their cessation. Yet every age bears testimony to miracles, and the testimony seems no less respectable than that of the preceding generation. When did they cease? How was it that the generation which saw the last genuine miracles performed could not distinguish them from the impostures which followed? Had men so soon forgotten "the style of the divine artist"? The inference is that genuine and spurious miracles are indistinguishable. But the credulity or "softness of temper" among early believers was beneficial to the cause of truth and religion. "In modern times, a latent and even involuntary scepticism adheres to the most pious dispositions. Their admission of supernatural truths is much less an active consent than a cold and passive acquiescence. Accustomed long since to observe and to respect the invariable order of nature, our reason, or at least our imagination, is not sufficiently prepared to sustain the visible action of the Deity."

Gibbon had not the advantage of the minute critical labours which in the following century were expended on his sources of information, but his masterly exposure of the conventional history of the early Church remains in many of its most important points perfectly valid to-day. I suspect that his artillery has produced more effect on intelligent minds in subsequent generations than the archery of Voltaire. For his book became indispensable as the great history of the Middle Ages; the most orthodox could not do without it; and the poison must have often worked.

We have seen how theological controversy in the first half of the eighteenth century had turned on the question whether the revealed religion was consistent and compatible with natural religion. The deistic attacks, on this line, were almost exhausted by the middle of the century, and the orthodox thought that they had been satisfactorily answered. But it was not enough to show that the revelation is reasonable; it was necessary to prove that it is real and rests on a solid historical basis. This was the question raised in an acute form by the criticisms of Hume and Middleton (1748) on miracles. The ablest answer was given by Paley in his Evidences of Christianity (1794), the only one of the apologies of that age which is still read, though it has ceased to have any value. Paley's theology illustrates how orthodox opinions are coloured, unconsciously, by the spirit of the time. He proved (in his Natural Theology) the existence of God by the argument from design—without taking any account of the criticisms of Hume on that argument. Just as a watchmaker is inferred from a watch, so a divine workman is inferred from contrivances in nature. Paley takes his instances of such contrivance largely from the organs and constitution of the human body. His idea of God is that of an ingenious contriver dealing with rather obstinate material. Paley's "God" (Mr. Leslie Stephen remarked) "has been civilized like man; he has become scientific and ingenious; he is superior to Watt or Priestley in devising mechanical and chemical contrivances, and is therefore made in the image of that generation of which Watt and Priestley were conspicuous lights." When a God of this kind is established there is no difficulty about miracles, and it is on miracles that Paley bases the case for Christianity—all other arguments are subsidiary. And his proof of the New Testament miracles is that the apostles who were eye-witnesses believed in them, for otherwise they would not have acted and suffered in the cause of their new religion. Paley's defence is the performance of an able legal adviser to the Almighty.

The list of the English deistic writers of the eighteenth century closes with one whose name is more familiar than any of his predecessors, Thomas Paine. A Norfolk man, he migrated to America and played a leading part in the Revolution. Then he returned to England and in 1791 published his Rights of Man in two parts. I have been considering, almost exclusively, freedom of thought in religion, because it may be taken as the thermometer for freedom of thought in general. At this period it was as dangerous to publish revolutionary opinions in politics as in theology. Paine was an enthusiastic admirer of the American Constitution and a supporter of the French Revolution (in which also he was to play a part). His Rights of Man is an indictment of the monarchical form of government, and a plea for representative democracy. It had an enormous sale, a cheap edition was issued, and the government, finding that it was accessible to the poorer classes, decided to prosecute. Paine escaped to France, and received a brilliant ovation at Calais, which returned him as deputy to the National Convention. His trial for high treason came on at the end of 1792. Among the passages in his book, on which the charge was founded, were these: "All hereditary government is in its nature tyranny." "The time is not very distant when England will laugh at itself for sending to Holland, Hanover, Zell, or Brunswick for men" [meaning King William III and King George I] "at the expense of a million a year who understood neither her laws, her language, nor her interest, and whose capacities would scarcely have fitted them for the office of a parish constable. If government could be trusted to such hands, it must be some easy and simple thing indeed, and materials fit for all the purposes may be found in every town and village in England." Erskine was Paine's counsel, and he made a fine oration in defence of freedom of speech.

"Constraint," he said, "is the natural parent of resistance, and a pregnant proof that reason is not on the side of those who use it. You must all remember, gentlemen, Lucian's pleasant story: Jupiter and a countryman were walking together, conversing with great freedom and familiarity upon the subject of heaven and earth. The countryman listened with attention and acquiescence while Jupiter strove only to convince him; but happening to hint a doubt, Jupiter turned hastily around and threatened him with his thunder. 'Ah, ha!' says the countryman, 'now, Jupiter, I know that you are wrong; you are always wrong when you appeal to your thunder.' This is the case with me. I can reason with the people of England, but I cannot fight against the thunder of authority."

Paine was found guilty and outlawed. He soon committed a new offence by the publication of an anti-Christian work, The Age of Reason (1794 and 1796), which he began to write in the Paris prison into which he had been thrown by Robespierre. This book is remarkable as the first important English publication in which the Christian scheme of salvation and the Bible are assailed in plain language without any disguise or reserve. In the second place it was written in such a way as to reach the masses. And, thirdly, while the criticisms on the Bible are in the same vein as those of the earlier deists, Paine is the first to present with force the incongruity of the Christian scheme with the conception of the universe attained by astronomical science.

"Though it is not a direct article of the Christian system that this world that we inhabit is the whole of the inhabitable globe, yet it is so worked up therewith—from what is called the Mosaic account of the creation, the story of Eve and the apple, and the counterpart of that story, the death of the Son of God—that to believe otherwise (that is, to believe that God created a plurality of worlds at least as numerous as what we call stars) renders the Christian system of faith at once little and ridiculous, and scatters it in the mind like feathers in the air. The two beliefs cannot be held together in the same mind; and he who thinks that he believes both has thought but little of either."

As an ardent deist, who regarded nature as God's revelation, Paine was able to press this argument with particular force. Referring to some of the tales in the Old Testament, he says: "When we contemplate the immensity of that Being who directs and governs the incomprehensible Whole, of which the utmost ken of human sight can discover but a part, we ought to feel shame at calling such paltry stories the Word of God."

The book drew a reply from Bishop Watson, one of those admirable eighteenth-century divines, who admitted the right of private judgment and thought that argument should be met by argument and not by force. His reply had the rather significant title, An Apology for the Bible. George III remarked that he was not aware that any apology was needed for that book. It is a weak defence, but is remarkable for the concessions which it makes to several of Paine's criticisms of Scripture—admissions which were calculated to damage the doctrine of the infallibility of the Bible.

It was doubtless in consequence of the enormous circulation of the Age of Reason that a Society for the Suppression of Vice decided to prosecute the publisher. Unbelief was common among the ruling class, but the view was firmly held that religion was necessary for the populace and that any attempt to disseminate unbelief among the lower classes must be suppressed. Religion was regarded as a valuable instrument to keep the poor in order. It is notable that of the earlier rationalists (apart from the case of Woolston) the only one who was punished was Peter Annet, a schoolmaster, who tried to popularize freethought and was sentenced for diffusing "diabolical" opinions to the pillory and hard labour (1763). Paine held that the people at large had the right of access to all new ideas, and he wrote so as to reach the people. Hence his book must be suppressed. At the trial (1797) the judge placed every obstacle in the way of the defence. The publisher was sentenced to a year's imprisonment.

This was not the end of Paine prosecutions. In 1811 a Third Part of the Age of Reason appeared, and Eaton the publisher was condemned to eighteen months' imprisonment and to stand in the pillory once a month. The judge, Lord Ellenborough, said in his charge, that "to deny the truths of the book which is the foundation of our faith has never been permitted." The poet Shelley addressed to Lord Ellenborough a scathing letter. "Do you think to convert Mr. Eaton to your religion by embittering his existence? You might force him by torture to profess your tenets, but he could not believe them except you should make them credible, which perhaps exceeds your power. Do you think to please the God you worship by this exhibition of your zeal? If so, the demon to whom some nations offer human hecatombs is less barbarous than the deity of civilized society!" In 1819 Richard Carlisle was prosecuted for publishing the Age of Reason and sentenced to a large fine and three years' imprisonment. Unable to pay the fine he was kept in prison for three years. His wife and sister, who carried on the business and continued to sell the book, were fined and imprisoned soon afterwards and a whole host of shop assistants.

If his publishers suffered in England, the author himself suffered in America where bigotry did all it could to make the last years of his life bitter.

The age of enlightenment began in Germany in the middle of the eighteenth century. In most of the German States, thought was considerably less free than in England. Under Frederick the Great's father, the philospher Wolff was banished from Prussia for according to the moral teachings of the Chinese sage Confucius a praise which, it was thought, ought to be reserved for Christianity. He returned after the accession of Frederick, under whose tolerant rule Prussia was an asylum for those writers who suffered for their opinions in neighbouring States. Frederick, indeed, held the view which was held by so many English rationalists of the time, and is still held widely enough, that freethought is not desirable for the multitude, because they are incapable of understanding philosophy. Germany felt the influence of the English Deists, of the French freethinkers, and of Spinoza; but in the German rationalistic propaganda of this period there is nothing very original or interesting. The names of Edelmann and Bahrdt may be mentioned. The works of Edelmann, who attacked the inspiration of the Bible, were burned in various cities, and he was forced to seek Frederick's protection at Berlin. Bahrdt was more aggressive than any other writer of the time. Originally a preacher, it was by slow degrees that he moved away from the orthodox faith. His translation of the New Testament cut short his ecclesiastical career. His last years were spent as an inn-keeper. His writings, for instance his popular Letters on the Bible, must have had a considerable effect, if we may judge by the hatred which he excited among theologians.

It was not, however, in direct rationalistic propaganda, but in literature and philosophy, that the German enlightenment of this century expressed itself. The most illustrious men of letters, Goethe (who was profoundly influenced by Spinoza) and Schiller, stood outside the Churches, and the effect of their writings and of the whole literary movement of the time made for the freest treatment of human experience.

One German thinker shook the world—the philosopher Kant. His Critic of Pure Reason demonstrated that when we attempt to prove by the light of the intellect the existence of God and the immortality of the Soul, we fall helplessly into contradictions. His destructive criticism of the argument from design and all natural theology was more complete than that of Hume; and his philosophy, different though his system was, issued in the same practical result as that of Locke, to confine knowledge to experience. It is true that afterwards, in the interest of ethics, he tried to smuggle in by a back-door the Deity whom he had turned out by the front gate, but the attempt was not a success. His philosophy—while it led to new speculative systems in which the name of God was used to mean something very different from the Deistic conception—was a significant step further in the deliverance of reason from the yoke of authority.


  1. For the sake of simplicity I use "deist" in this sense throughout, though "theist" is now the usual term.
  2. Spinoza's Theological Political Treatise, which deals with the interpretation of Scripture, was translated into English in 1689.
  3. See Benn, Rationalism in the Nineteenth Century, vol. i, p. 138 seq., for a good exposure of the fallacies and sophistries of Butler.