Book: The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Nonbeliever

The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Nonbeliever

the Portable Atheist



Hostage to History: Cyprus from the Ottomans to Kissinger

Blood, Class and Nostalgia: Anglo-American Ironies

Imperial Spoils: The Curious Case of the Elgin Marbles

Why Orwell Matters

No One Left to Lie To: The Triangulations of William Jefferson Clinton

Letters to a Young Contrarian

The Trial of Henry Kissinger

Thomas Jefferson: Author of America

Thomas Paine’s “Rights of Man”: A Biography

God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything


Karl Marx and the Paris Commune

The Monarchy: A Critique of Britain’s, Favorite Fetish

The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice

A Long Short War: The Postponed Liberation of Iraq

Collected Essays

Prepared for the Worst: Essays and Minority Reports

For the Sake of Argument

Unacknowledged Legislation: Writers in the Public Sphere

Love, Poverty and War: Journeys and Essays


James Callaghan: The Road to Number Ten (with Peter Kellner)

Blaming the Victims (edited with Edward Said)

When the Borders Bleed: The Struggle of the Kurds (photographs by Ed Kashi)

International Territory: The United Nations (photographs by Adam Bartos)

Vanity Fair’s Hollywood (with Graydon Carter and David Friend)

the Portable Atheist


selected and with introductions by


The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Nonbeliever


A Member of the Perseus Books Group

List of credits/permissions can be found on back matter.

Every effort has been made to contact or trace all copyright holders. The publisher will be glad to make good any errors or omissions brought to our attention in future additions.

Introductions copyright © 2007 by Christopher Hitchens

Published in the United States by Da Capo Press, a member of the Perseus Books Group,

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher. Printed in the United States of America.

Cataloging-in-Publication data for this book is available from the Library of Congress

ISBN: 978-0-306-81608-6

Dedicated to the memory of Primo Levi (1919–1987) who had the moral fortitude to refuse false consolation even while enduring the “selection” process in Auschwitz:

“Silence slowly prevails and then, from my bunk on the top row, I see and hear old Kuhn praying aloud, with his beret on his head, swaying backwards and forwards violently. Kuhn is thanking God because he has not been chosen.Kuhn is out of his senses. Does he not see Beppo the Greek in the bunk next to him, Beppo who is twenty years old and is going to the gas-chamber the day after tomorrow and knows it and lies there looking fixedly at the light without saying anything and without even thinking anymore? Can Kuhn fail to realize that next time it will be his turn? Does Kuhn not understand that what has happened today is an abomination, which no propitiatory prayer, no pardon, no expiation by the guilty, which nothing at all in the power of man can ever clean again?If I was God, I would spit at Kuhn’s prayer.”—FROM PRIMO LEVI: IF THIS IS A MAN (1959)“I too entered the Lager as a nonbeliever, and as a nonbeliever I was liberated and have lived to this day. Actually, the experience of the Lager with its frightful iniquity confirmed me in my nonbelief. It has prevented me, and still prevents me, from conceiving of any form of providence or transcendent justice…I must nevertheless admit that I experienced (and again only once) the temptation to yield, to seek refuge in prayer. This happened in October 1944, in the one moment in which I lucidly perceived the imminence of death…naked and compressed among my naked companions with my personal index card in hand, I was waiting to file past the ‘commission’ that with one glance would decide whether I should go immediately into the gas chamber or was instead strong enough to go on working. For one instance I felt the need to ask for help and asylum; then, despite my anguish, equanimity prevailed: one does not change the rules of the game at the end of the match, nor when you are losing. A prayer under these conditions would have been not only absurd (what rights could I claim? and from whom?) but blasphemous, obscene, laden with the greatest impiety of which a nonbeliever is capable. I rejected the temptation: I knew that otherwise were I to survive, I would have to be ashamed of it.”—FROM PRIMO LEVI: THE DROWNED AND THE SAVED (1986)



Introduction, Christopher Hitchens

1. LUCRETIUS, from De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things), Book I, Translated by W. Hannaford Brown 2. OMAR KHAYYÁM, from Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám: A Paraphrase from Several Literal Translations by Richard Le Gallienne 3. THOMAS HOBBES, Of Religion, from Leviathan 4. BENEDICT DE SPINOZA, Theological-Political Treatise 5. DAVID HUME, The Natural History of Religion Of Miracles 6. JAMES BOSWELL, An Account of My Last Interview with David Hume, Esq. 7. PERCY BYSSHE SHELLEY, A Refutation of Deism 8. JOHN STUART MILL, Moral Influences in My Early Youth, From Autobiography 9. KARL MARX, Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right 10. GEORGE ELIOT, Evangelical Teaching 11. CHARLES DARWIN, Autobiography 12. LESLIE STEPHEN, An Agnostic’s Apology 13. ANATOLE FRANCE, Miracle 14. MARK TWAIN, Thoughts of God, From Fables of Man Bible Teaching and Religious Practice, From Europe and Elsewhere and A Pen Warmed Up In Hell 15. JOSEPH CONRAD, Author’s Note to The Shadow Line 16. THOMAS HARDY, God’s Funeral 17. EMMA GOLDMAN, The Philosophy of Atheism 18. H. P. LOVECRAFT, A Letter on Religion 19. CARL VAN DOREN, Why I Am An Unbeliever 20. H. L. MENCKEN, Memorial Service 21. SIGMUND FREUD, From The Future of an Illusion, Translated and edited by James Strachey 22. ALBERT EINSTEIN, Selected Writings on Religion 23. GEORGE ORWELL, From A Clergyman’s Daughter 24. JOHN BETJEMAN, In Westminster Abbey 25. CHAPMAN COHEN, Monism and Religion An Old Story 26. BERTRAND RUSSELL, An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish 27. PHILIP LARKIN, Aubade Church Going 28. MARTIN GARDNER, The Wandering Jew and the Second Coming 29. CARL SAGAN, The Demon-Haunted World The God Hypothesis 30. JOHN UPDIKE, From Roger’s Version 31. J. L. MACKIE, Conclusions and Implications, From The Miracle of Theism: Arguments for and against the Existence of God 32. MICHAEL SHERMER, Genesis Revisited: A Scientific Creation Story 33. A. J. AYER, That Undiscovered Country 34. DANIEL C. DENNETT, Thank Goodness! 35. CHARLES TEMPLETON, From A Farewell to God, A Personal Word Questions to Ask Yourself 36. RICHARD DAWKINS, Why There Almost Certainly Is No God Gerin Oil Atheists for Jesus 37. VICTOR STENGER, From God: the Failed Hypothesis, Cosmic Evidence 38. DANIEL C. DENNETT, A Working Definition of Religion, From “Breaking Which Spell?” 39. ELIZABETH ANDERSON, If God Is Dead, Is Everything Permitted? 40. PENN JILLETTE, There Is No God 41. IAN MCEWAN, End of the World Blues 42. STEVEN WEINBERG, What About God? From Dreams of a Final Theory 43. SALMAN RUSHDIE, “Imagine There’s No Heaven”: A Letter to the Six Billionth World Citizen 44. IBN WARRAQ, The Koran The Totalitarian Nature of Islam 45. SAM HARRIS, In the Shadow of God, From The End of Faith 46. A. C. GRAYLING, Can an Athiest Be a Fundamentalist? From Against All Gods 47. AYAAN HIRSI ALI, How (and Why) I Became an Infidel

Credits and Permissions



My warmest thanks are due to my agent, Steve Wasserman, and my publisher and editor, Ben Schafer, for the collaboration which initiated this volume. I ’s safe to say that without the devoted skill of Lori Hobkirk as copy editor and project editor and Cliff Corcoran as copyright and permissions editor, the scope and range of the collection would have been considerably less than it is.

When accused—probably correctly—of scientific plagiarism, Sir Isaac Newton was careful to say (again plagiarizing from an ancient acknowledgement) that he had “stood on the shoulders of giants.” I am, in this effort as in all my other ones, immensely indebted to a small but growing group of devoted rationalists, who reject the absurd and wicked claims of the religious and who look for answers in the marvels and complexities of science, as well as in the higher and deeper reaches of literature. I am more proud than I can say that Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali contributed some hitherto unpublished work to this anthology. In the realm of the natural and physical sciences, the labors of Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Michael Shermer, Steven Weinberg, Anthony Grayling, and Sam Harris have been at once courageous, witty, and original, and it is my dearest hope that anybody picking up this book of excerpts will be impelled to read all these distinguished authors at their full length and full strength.

—Christopher Hitchens

Introduction Christopher Hitchens

At the close of his imperishable novel La Peste (“The Plague”), Albert Camus gives us a picture of the thoughts of the good Dr. Rieux, as the town of Oran celebrates its recovery from—its survival of—a terrible visitation of disease. Rieux determines to remain lucid and to “complete this chronicle,” in order that: He should not be one of those who held their peace but should bear witness in favor of those plague-stricken people; so that some memorial of the injustice and outrage done them might endure; and to state quite simply what we learn in a time of pestilence: that there are more things to admire in men than to despise.

This is part of the work, both of conscience and of memory. The pre-history of our species is hag-ridden with episodes of nightmarish ignorance and calamity, for which religion used to identify, not just the wrong explanation but the wrong culprit. Human sacrifices were made preeminently in times of epidemics, useless prayers were uttered, bogus “miracles” attested to, and scapegoats—such as Jews or heretics or witches—hunted down and burned. The few men of science and reason and medicine had all they could do to keep their libraries and laboratories intact, or their very lives safe from harm. Of course, when the evil had “passed over,” there were equally idiotic ceremonies of hysterical thanksgiving, propitiating whatever local deities there might be… And indeed, as he listened to the cries of joy rising from the town, Rieux remembered that such joy is always imperiled. He knew what those jubilant crowds did not know but could have learned from books: that the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good; that it can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linen-chests; that it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks and bookshelves; and that perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and the enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city.

One is continually told, as an unbeliever, that it is old-fashioned to rail against the primitive stupidities and cruelties of religion because after all, in these enlightened times, the old superstitions have died away. Nine times out of ten, in debate with a cleric, one will be told not of some dogma of religious certitude but of some instance of charitable or humanitarian work undertaken by a religious person. Of course, this says nothing about the belief system involved: it may be true that Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam succeeds in weaning young black men off narcotics, but this would not alter the fact that the NoI is a racist crackpot organization. And has not Hamas—which publishes The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion on its Web site—won a reputation for its provision of social services? My own response has been to issue a challenge: name me an ethical statement made or an action performed by a believer that could not have been made or performed by a non-believer. As yet, I have had no takers. (Whereas, oddly enough, if you ask an audience to name a wicked statement or action directly attributable to religious faith, nobody has any difficulty in finding an example.)

No, the fact is that the bacilli are always lurking in the old texts and are latent in the theory and practice of religion. This anthology hopes to identify and isolate the bacilli more precisely, and also to vindicate Dr. Rieux by giving prominence to those who, then and now, have always counterposed enlightenment to the bane: The record of what had had to be done, and what assuredly would have to be done again in the never-ending fight against terror and its relentless onslaughts, despite their personal afflictions, by all who, while unable to be saints but refusing to bow down to pestilences, strive their utmost to be healers.

I am writing these words on July 4, 2007, the anniversary of the proclamation of the world’s first secular republic. The men who wrote the Declaration were—as will appear in the following pages—men of an Enlightenment temper, who quite understood that religion could be (in the words of William Blake) a “mind-forg’d manacle.” As I scan the newspapers, I cannot help but notice that in one happy city—London—the rats have come vomiting from the sewers again. Car bombs have been planted outside nightclubs, in the hope of maiming and dismembering young women who have the nerve to be immodest in public. Blood-curdling yells, thirsty for the murder of Jews, Indians, and other riff-raff, issue from mosques and from tapes and films sold in their precincts. In one of the most secular and multicultural capitals in human history, the lives of everyone are being poisoned by hatred and violence. It then became clear that most of the principals in the bomb-plot were physicians, as if a special code of horror had just been disencrypted. The shock of this was considerable: men who took the Hippocratic oath were secretly committed to murder. Such naiveté. Dr. Rieux would have understood, as would Camus himself. “Medical men” have always been in attendance at torture sessions and executions, brought there by the clerics to lend extra tone and authority to the scene. The worst offenders in the Final Solution were doctors who saw a chance to conduct vile experiments. None was ever threatened by the Church with excommunication (they would have had to assist at a termination of an unwanted pregnancy in order to run such an awful risk). And today, those who award themselves permission to destroy the lives of others need only say that they have divine permission in order to read excuses for their actions from clerical authorities—excuses and euphemisms that are often published in respectable newspapers. An especially revolting example was provided by the murderous Dr. Baruch Goldstein and his apologists, which is recorded later in these pages.

As it happened, on the same weekend as the discovery of the London and Glasgow bomb plot there came some devastating floods to the north of England, leaving thousands of people homeless. The Church of England was not slow to rush to the aid of the stricken. “This is a strong and definite judgment,” announced the Bishop of Carlisle, “because the world has been arrogant in going its own way. We are reaping the consequences of our moral degradation.” From a list of possible transgressions the Bishop (who has sources of information denied to the rest of us) selected recent legal moves to allow more rights to homosexuals. These, he said, placed us “in a situation where we are liable for God’s judgment, which is intended to call us to repentance.” Many of his senior colleagues, including one who has been spoken of as a future Archbishop of Canterbury, joined him in blaming the floods—which had only hit one geographical section of the country—on sexual preference. I have chosen this example because most people would agree that the Anglican/Episcopalian “communion” is among the most moderate and humane of modern religious institutions.

Yet who said this, and when, and while speaking of the likelihood of a nuclear holocaust? “The very worst it could do would be to sweep a vast number of people at one moment from this world into the other and more vital world, into which anyhow they must pass at one time.” That was not Rafsanjani or Ahmadinejad, both of whom have gloatingly said that Islam could survive a nuclear exchange while the Jewish state could not. It was the mild, sheep-faced Archbishop of Canterbury, Geoffrey Fisher, who spoke not very many years ago. And, in a sense, and while we may laugh or jeer at the old fool, he would have been untrue to his faith if he had said otherwise. To admit that a thermonuclear catastrophe would be the end of civilization and of the biosphere would be, in religious terms, profane and defeatist. All religions must, at their core, look forward to the end of this world and to the longed-for moment when all will be revealed and when the sheep will be divided from the goats, or whatever other bucolic Bronze-Age desert analogy might seem apt. (In Papua New Guinea, where as in most tropical climes there are no sheep, the Christians use the most valued animal of the locals and refer to the congregation as “swine.” Flock, herd: what difference does it make?)

Against this insane eschatology, with its death wish and its deep contempt for the life of the mind, atheists have always argued that this world is all that we have, and that our duty is to one another to make the very most and best of it. Theism cannot coexist with this unexceptionable conclusion. If we stay with animal analogies for a moment, owners of dogs will have noticed that, if you provide them with food and water and shelter and affection, they will think you are god. Whereas owners of cats are compelled to realize that, if you provide them with food and water and shelter and affection, they draw the conclusion that they are god. (Cats may sometimes share the cold entrails of a kill with you, but this is just what a god might do if he was in a good mood.) Religion, then, partakes of equal elements of the canine and the feline. It exacts maximum servility and abjection, requiring you to regard yourself as conceived and born in sin and owing a duty to a stern creator. But in return, it places you at the center of the universe and assures you that you are the personal object of a heavenly plan. Indeed, if you make the right propitiations you may even find that death has no sting, and that an exception to the rules of physical annihilation may be made in your own case. It cannot be said often enough that this preachment is immoral as well as irrational.

To be charitable, one may admit that the religious often seem unaware of how insulting their main proposition actually is. Exchange views with a believer even for a short time, and let us make the assumption that this is a mild and decent believer who does not open the bidding by telling you that your unbelief will endanger your soul and condemn you to hell. It will not be long until you are politely asked how you can possibly know right from wrong. Without holy awe, what is to prevent you from resorting to theft, murder, rape, and perjury? It will sometimes be conceded that non-believers have led ethical lives, and it will also be conceded (as it had better be) that many believers have been responsible for terrible crimes. Nonetheless, the working assumption is that we should have no moral compass if we were not somehow in thrall to an unalterable and unchallengeable celestial dictatorship. What a repulsive idea! As well as taking the axe to the root of everything that we have learned about evolutionary biology (societies that tolerate murder and theft and perjury will not last long, and those that violate the taboos on incest and cannibalism do in fact simply die out), it constitutes a radical attack on the very concept of human self-respect. It does so by suggesting that one could not do a right action or avoid a wrong one, except for the hope of a divine reward or the fear of divine retribution. Many of us, even the less unselfish, might hope to do better than that on our own. When I give blood, for example (something that several religions forbid), I do not lose a pint, but someone else gains one. There is something about this that appeals to me, and I derive other satisfactions as well from being of assistance to a fellow creature. Furthermore, I have a very rare blood type and I hope very much that when I am in need of a transfusion someone else will have thought and acted in precisely the same way that I have. Indeed, I can almost count on it. Nobody had to teach me any of this, let alone reinforce the teaching with sinister fairy-tales about appearances by the Archangel Gabriel. The so-called Golden Rule is innate in us, or is innate except in the sociopaths who do not care about others, and the psychopaths who take pleasure from cruelty. Evolution has no more weeded these out than it has succeeded in reducing the percentage of good people who are naturally homosexual. Religion invents a problem where none exists by describing the wicked as also made in the image of god and the sexually nonconformist as existing in a state of incurable mortal sin that can incidentally cause floods and earthquakes.

How did such evil nonsense ever come to be so influential? And why are we so continually locked in combat with its violent and intolerant votaries? Well, religion was the race’s first (and worst) attempt to make sense of reality. It was the best the species could do at a time when we had no concept of physics, chemistry, biology or medicine. We did not know that we lived on a round planet, let alone that the said planet was in orbit in a minor and obscure solar system, which was also on the edge of an unimaginably vast cosmos that was exploding away from its original source of energy. We did not know that micro-organisms were so powerful and lived in our digestive systems in order to enable us to live, as well as mounting lethal attacks on us as parasites. We did not know of our close kinship with other animals. We believed that sprites, imps, demons, and djinns were hovering in the air about us. We imagined that thunder and lightning were portentous. It has taken us a long time to shrug off this heavy coat of ignorance and fear, and every time we do there are self-interested forces who want to compel us to put it back on again.

By all means let us agree that we are pattern-seeking mammals and that, owing to our restless intelligence and inquisitiveness, we will still prefer a conspiracy theory to no explanation at all. Religion was our first attempt at philosophy, just as alchemy was our first attempt at chemistry and astrology our first attempt to make sense of the movem nts of the heavens. I myself am a strong believer in the study of religion, first because culture and education involve a respect for tradition and for origins, and also because some of the early religious texts were among our first attempts at literature. But there is a reason why religions insist so much on strange events in the sky, as well as on less quantifiable phenomena such as dreams and visions. All of these things cater to our inborn stupidity, and our willingness to be persuaded against all the evidence that we are indeed the center of the universe and that everything is arranged with us in mind.

This pathetic solipsism can be noticed in all the arguments against the interpretations—with increasing desperation—offered by the schools of Darwin and Einstein. We now have better and simpler explanations of the origins of the species, and of the cosmos. (“Simpler” only because these explanations are more testable and consistent, not because they are not very much more complex.) But wait, pleads the believer. Let me grant you—finally!—the record of natural selection and the Hubble evidence for the big bang. Does this not show that the maker of all things was even more ingenious than we had thought? With the assistance of others who will be cited at proper length later in this book, let me try to put this poor argument out of its misery. Let us grant the assumption of the religious. Some one or some thing was indeed “present at the creation,” and gave the order to let matter explode and then let the evolutionary process begin on this planet. Never mind that this assumption could never conceivably be proved. Make the assumption, anyway. After all, it cannot be decisively disproved, either, any more than any other random unsupported assumption.

The godly person still has all his work ahead of him. On what authority can he hope to show that the original flying-apart of matter was set in motion with the object of influencing life on a minute speck of a planet, billions of years later, at the very margins of the whirling nebulae and amid the extinction of innumerable other worlds? How is it to be demonstrated that the planner of this inconceivably vast enterprise had in mind the cretinous figure of the Bishop of Carlisle, wielding his shepherd’s crook while connecting the sex-life of his parishioners to the weather?

Or again, and coming down in point of scale by several titanic orders of magnitude, and given that at least 98 percent of all species on this tiny speck of a planet made only a few hesitant steps “forward” before succumbing to extinction, on what warrant is it proposed that all this massive dying-out and occasional vast life-explosion (as in the Cambrian period) also had as its sole object the presence of ourselves? And isn’t it odd that religion, which continually enjoins an almost masochistic modesty upon us in the face of god, should encourage such an extreme and impossible form of self-centeredness and self-regard? By trying to adjust to the findings that it once tried so viciously to ban and repress, religion has only succeeded in restating the same questions that undermined it in earlier epochs. What kind of designer or creator is so wasteful and capricious and approximate? What kind of designer or creator is so cruel and indifferent? And—most of all—what kind of designer or creator only chooses to “reveal” himself to semi-stupefied peasants in desert regions? I have met some highly intelligent believers, but history has no record of any human being who was remotely qualified to say that he knew or understood the mind of god. Yet this is precisely the qualification which the godly must claim—so modestly and so humbly—to possess. It is time to withdraw our “respect” from such fantastic claims, all of them aimed at the exertion of power over other humans in the real and material world.

There is no moral or intellectual equivalent between the different degrees of uncertainty here. The atheist generally says (though the bold Dr. Victor Stenger goes a bit further) that the existence of a deity cannot be dis-proved. It can only be found to be entirely lacking in evidence or proof. The theist can opt to be a mere deist, and to say that the magnificence of the natural order strongly implies an ordering force. (This was the view taken, at least in public, by opponents of religion such as Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine.) But the religious person must go further and say that this creative force is also an intervening one: one that cares for our human affairs and is interested in what we eat and with whom we have sexual relations, as well as in the outcomes of battles and wars. To assert this is quite simply to assert more than any human can possibly claim to know, and thus it falls, and should be discarded, and should have been discarded long ago.

Some things can be believed and some things simply cannot. I might choose to believe that Jesus of Nazareth was born of a virgin in Bethlehem, and that later he both did and did not die, since he was seen again by humans after the time of his apparent decease. Many have argued that the sheer unlikelihood of this story makes it fractionally more probable. Again, then, suppose that I grant the virgin birth and the resurrection. The religious still have all of their work ahead of them. These events, even if confirmed, would not prove that Jesus was the son of god. Nor would they prove the truth or morality of his teachings. Nor would they prove that there was an afterlife or a last judgment. His miracles, if verified, would likewise leave him one among many shamans and magicians, some of them mentioned in the Old Testament, who could apparently work wonders by sorcery. Many of the philosophers and logicians cited in this book take the view that miracles cannot and did not occur, and Albert Einstein took the view (which some stubbornly consider to be a deist one) that the miracle is that there are no miracles or other interruptions of a wondrous natural order. This is not a difference that can be split: either faith is sufficient or else miracles are required to reassure those—including the preachers—whose faith would otherwise not be strong enough. For me, witnessing an act of faith-healing or conjury would simply not be persuasive, even if I could credit it and even if I did not know people who could—and can and do—replicate such wonders on stage.

But here is something that is impossible for anyone to believe. The human species has been in existence as Homo sapiens for (let us not quarrel about the exact total) at least one hundred and fifty thousand years. An instant in evolutionary time, this is nonetheless a vast history when contemplated by primates with brains and imaginations of the dimensions that we can boast. In order to subscribe to monotheistic religion, one must believe that humans were born, struggled, and expired during this time, often dying in childbirth or for want of elementary nurture, and with a life-expectancy of perhaps three decades at most. Add to these factors the turf wars between discrepant groups and tribes, alarming outbreaks of disease, which had no germ theory to explain let alone palliate them, and associated natural disasters and human tragedies. And yet, for all these millennia, heaven watched with indifference and then—and only in the last six thousand years at the very least—decided that it was time to intervene as well as redeem. And heaven would only intervene and redeem in remote areas of the Middle East, thus ensuring that many more generations would expire before the news could begin to spread! Let me send a voice to Sinai and cement a pact with just one tribe of dogged and greedy yokels. Let me lend a son to be torn to pieces because he is misunderstood…. Let me tell the angel Gabriel to prompt an illiterate and uncultured merchant into rhetorical flights. At last the darkness that I have imposed will lift! The willingness even to entertain such elaborately mad ideas involves much more than the suspension of disbelief, or the dumb credulity that greets magic tricks.

It also involves ignoring or explaining away the many religious beliefs that antedated Moses. Our primeval ancestors were by no means atheistic: they raised temples and altars and offered the requisite terrified obsequies and sacrifices. Their religion was man-made, like all the others. There was a time when Greek thinkers denounced Christians and Zoroastrians denounced Muslims as “atheists” for their destruction of old sites and their prohibition of ancient rituals. The source of desecration and profanity is religious, as we can see from the way that today’s believers violate the sanctity of each other’s temples, from Bamiyan to Belfast to Baghdad. Richard Dawkins may have phrased it most pungently when he argued that everybody is an atheist in saying that there is a god—from Ra to Shiva—in which he does not believe. All that the serious and objective atheist does is to take the next step and to say that there is just one more god to disbelieve in. Human solipsism can generally be counted upon to become enraged and to maintain that this discountable god must not be the one in which the believer himself has invested so much credence. So it goes. But the man-made character of religion, from which monotheism swore to deliver us at least in its pagan form, persists in a terrifying shape in our own time, as believers fight each other over the correct interpretation and even kill members of their own faiths in battles over doctrine. Civilization has been immensely retarded by such arcane interfaith quarrels and could now be destroyed by their modern versions.

There is an argument within the community of those who reject all this fantasy about the utility of the word “atheist.” For one thing, it is a pure negative: a statement of mere unbelief or disbelief. Dr. Jonathan Miller, for example, a distinguished physician and theater and opera director, is uneasy with the term for this reason: “I do not have,” he once told me, “a special word for saying that I do not believe in the tooth fairy or in Santa Claus. I presume that my intelligent friends do not suppose that I believe such things.” True enough—but we do not have to emerge from a past when tooth fairies and Father Christmas (both rather recent inventions) held sway. The fans of the tooth fairy do not bang on your door and try to convert you. They do not insist that their pseudo-science be taught in schools. They do not condemn believers in rival tooth fairies to death and damnation. They do not say that all morality comes from tooth fairy ceremonies, and that without the tooth fairy there would be fornication in the streets and the abolition of private property. They do not say that the tooth fairy made the world, and that all of us must therefore bow the knee to the Big Brother tooth fairy. They do not say that the tooth fairy will order you to kill your sister if she is seen in public with a man who is not her brother.

Thus it seems to me that there is what the poet Shelley once called the necessity of atheism. One cannot avoid taking a position. Either one attributes one’s presence here to the laws of biology and physics, or one attributes it to a divine design. (You can tell a lot about friend or foe, depending on how he or she answers this inescapable question, and on how he or she faces its implications.) Yet, just like the believer, once we have made up our minds, we still have the bulk of our work lying ahead of us.

The rejection of the man-made concept of god is not a sufficient condition for intellectual or moral emancipation. Atheists have no right to go around looking superior. They have only fulfilled the necessary condition by throwing off the infancy of the species and disclaiming a special place in the natural scheme. They are now free, if they so choose, to become nihilists or sadists or solipsists on their own account. Some theories of the Superman derive from atheism, and a person who thought that heaven and hell were empty could conclude that he was free to do exactly as he wished. The fear that this might be the outcome—well-expressed by Fyodor Dostoyevsky—underlies many people’s reluctance to abandon religious dogma. Yet many sadists and mass-murderers also claim to be hearing heavenly “voices” ordering them to commit their crimes, which would not in itself discredit religious faith. The argument about ethics and morality will have to go on in a post-religious society, just as it had to go on when religion was regnant and was often ordering good people to agree to evil things such as torture, slavery, or cruelty to children. The fact seems to be that there is a natural human revulsion from such things, whatever the super-ambient political or religious context may be.

There is also (and here I make a slightly different stress than does Dawkins) no special reason to credit “science” as the father or godfather of reason. As in the case of the doctors mentioned earlier, a commitment to experiment and find evidence is no guarantee of immunity to superstition and worse. Sir Isaac Newton was prey to the most idiotic opinions about alchemy. Joseph Priestley, the courageous Unitarian and skeptic who discovered oxygen, was a believer in the phlogiston theory. Alfred Russel Wallace, one of Darwin’s greatest collaborators and progenitors, was a dedicated attender of spiritualist sessions where “ectoplasm” was produced by frauds to the applause of morons. Even today, there are important men of science—admittedly a minority—who maintain that their findings are compatible with belief in a creator. They may not be able to derive the one from the other, or even to claim to do so, but they testify to the extreme stubbornness with which intelligent people will cling to unsupported opinions.

However, the original form of tyranny of man over man, and of man over the mind of man (sometimes called totalitarianism) was certainly theocratic, and no overcoming of the absolutist or of the arbitrary is complete unless it includes a clear-eyed rejection of any dictator whose rule is founded on the supernatural. I myself have tried to formulate a position I call “anti-theist.” There are, after all, atheists who say that they wish the fable were true but are unable to suspend the requisite disbelief, or have relinquished belief only with regret. To this I reply: who wishes that there was a permanent, unalterable celestial despotism that subjected us to continual surveillance and could convict us of thought-crime, and who regarded us as its private property even after we died? How happy we ought to be, at the reflection that there exists not a shred of respectable evidence to support such a horrible hypothesis. And how grateful we should be to those of our predecessors who repudiated this utter negation of human freedom. There were many people long before Darwin or Einstein or even Galileo who saw through the claims of the rabbis and priests and imams. In earlier times, such repudiation often involved extraordinary courage. The ensuing pages will, I hope, introduce you to some of those who manifested this quality. Acquaintance with such minds will also, I think, help dissolve another objection to atheism.

It is sometimes argued that disbelief in a fearful and tempting heavenly despotism makes life into something arid and tedious and cynical: a mere existence without any consolation or any awareness of the numinous or the transcendent. What nonsense this is. In the first place, it commits an obvious error. It seems to say that we ought not to believe that we are an evolved animal species with faulty components and a short lifespan for ourselves and our globe, lest the consequences of the belief be unwelcome or discreditable to us. Could anything show more clearly the bad effects of wish-thinking? There can be no serious ethical position based on denial or a refusal to look the facts squarely in the face. But this does not mean that we must stare into the abyss all the time. (Only religion, oddly enough, has ever required that we obsessively do that.)

Believing then—as this religious objection implicitly concedes—that human life is actually worth living, one can combat one’s natural pessimism by stoicism and the refusal of illusion, while embellishing the scene with any one of the following. There are the beauties of science and the extraordinary marvels of nature. There is the consolation and irony of philosophy. There are the infinite splendors of literature and poetry, not excluding the liturgical and devotional aspects of these, such as those found in John Donne or George Herbert. There is the grand resource of art and music and architecture, again not excluding those elements that aspire to the sublime. In all of these pursuits, any one of them enough to absorb a lifetime, there may be found a sense of awe and magnificence that does not depend at all on any invocation of the supernatural. Indeed, nobody armed by art and culture and literature and philosophy is likely to be anything but bored and sickened by ghost stories, UFO tales, spiritualist experiences, or babblings from the beyond. One can appreciate and treasure the symmetry and grandeur of the ancient Greek Parthenon, for example, without needing any share in the cults of Athena or Eleusis, or the imperatives of Athenian imperialism, just as one may listen to Mozart or admire Chartres and Durham without any nostalgia for feudalism, monarchism, and the sale of indulgences. The whole concept of culture, indeed, may partly consist in discriminating between these things. Religion asks us to do the opposite and to preserve the ancient dreads and prohibitions, even as we dwell amid modern architecture and modern weapons.

It is very often argued that religion must have some sort of potency and relevance, since it occurs so strongly at all times and in all places. None of the authors collected here would ever have denied that. Some of them would argue that religion is so much a part of our human or animal nature that it is actually ineradicable. This, for what it may be worth, is my own view. We are unlikely to cease making gods or inventing ceremonies to please them for as long as we are afraid of death, or of the dark, and for as long as we persist in self-centeredness. That could be a lengthy stretch of time. However, it is just as certain that we shall continue to cast a skeptical and ironic and even witty eye on what we have ourselves invented. If religion is innate in us, then so is our doubt of it and our contempt for our own weakness.

Some of the authors and writers and thinkers assembled in these pages are famous for other reasons than their intelligence and their moral courage on this point. Several of them are chiefly celebrated because they took on the most inflated reputation of all: the elevation into a godhead of all mankind’s distilled fears and hatreds and stupidities. Some of them have had the experience of faith and the experience of losing it, while others were and are, in the words of Blaise Pascal, so made that they cannot believe.

Arguments for atheism can be divided into two main categories: those that dispute the existence of god and those that demonstrate the ill effects of religion. It might be better if I broadened this somewhat, and said those that dispute the existence of an intervening god. Religion is, after all, more than the belief in a supreme being. It is the cult of that supreme being and the belief that his or her wishes have been made known or can be determined. Defining matters in this way, I can allow myself to mention great critics such as Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine, who perhaps paradoxically regarded religion as an insult to god. And sooner or later, one must take a position on agnosticism. This word has not been with us for very long—it was coined by the great Thomas Huxley, one of Darwin’s stalwart defenders in the original argument over natural selection. It is sometimes used as a half-way house by those who cannot make a profession of faith but are unwilling to repudiate either religion or god absolutely. Since, once again, I am defining as religious those who claim to know, I feel I can lay claim to some at least of those who do not claim to know. An agnostic does not believe in god, or disbelieve in him. Non-belief is not quite unbelief, but I shall press it into service and annex as many agnostics as I can for this collection.

Authors as diverse as Matthew Arnold and George Orwell have given thought to the serious question: what is to be done about morals and ethics now that religion has so much decayed? Arnold went almost as far as to propose that the study of literature replace the study of religion. I must say that I slightly dread the effect that this might have had on literary pursuit, but as a source of ethical reflection and as a mirror in which to see our human dilemmas reflected, the literary tradition is infinitely superior to the childish parables and morality tales, let alone the sanguinary and sectarian admonitions, of the “holy” books. So I have included what many serious novelists and poets have had to say on this most freighted of all subjects. And who, really, will turn away from George Eliot and James Joyce and Joseph Conrad in order to rescrutinize the bare and narrow and constipated and fearful world of Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, and Osama bin Laden?

It is often unconsciously assumed that religious faith is somehow conservative and that atheism or “freethinking” are a part of the liberal tradition. This is for good and sufficient historical reason, having to do with the origins of the American and French revolutions. However, many honorable and intelligent conservatives have rejected “faith” on several grounds. These grounds may include sheer implausibility, or the apparent privilege given by religion to one of its main constituencies—that of the losers, the diseased, the inert, the mendicants, and the helpless. To many an upright poor person, it seems needless to invent a god who will wash the feet of beggars and exalt those who do not care to labor. What is this but a denial of thrift and a sickly obsession with the victim? The so-called common people are quite able to penetrate this ruse (“The good lord must indeed love the poor, since he made so many of them”). Many decent people are made uneasy by the constant injunction to give alms and to dwell among those who have lost their self-respect. They can also see the hook sticking out of the bait: abandon this useless life, leave your family, and follow the prophet who says that the world is soon to pass away. Such an injunction coupled with an implicit or explicit “or else” is repulsive to many conservatives who believe in self-reliance and personal integrity, and who distrust “charity,” just as it was repulsive to the early socialists who did not think that poverty was an ideal or romantic or ennobled state.

Finally, I want to come to the question of sex. If anything proves that religion is not just man-made but masculine-made, it is the incessant repetition of rules and taboos governing the sexual life. The disease is pervasive, from the weird obsession with virginity and the one-way birth canal through which prophets are “delivered,” through the horror of menstrual blood, all the way to the fascinated disgust with homosexuality and the pretended concern with children (who suffer worse at the hands of the faithful than any other group). Male and female genital mutilation; the terrifying of infants with hideous fictions about guilt and hell; the wild prohibition of masturbation: religion will never be able to live down the shame with which it has stained itself for generations in this regard, anymore than it can purge its own guilt for the ruining of formative periods of precious life.

A saving grace of the human condition (if I may phrase it like that) is a sense of humor. Many writers and witnesses, guessing the connection between sexual repression and religious fervor, have managed to rescue themselves and others from its deadly grip by the exercise of wit. And much of religion is so laughable on its face that writers from Voltaire to Bertrand Russell to Chapman Cohen have had great fun at its expense. In our own day, the humor of scientists such as Richard Dawkins and Carl Sagan has ridiculed the apparent inability of the creator to know, let alone to understand, what he has created. Gods seem not to know of any animals except the ones tended by their immediate worshippers and seem to be ignorant as well of microbes and the laws of physics. The self-evident man-madeness of religion, as well as its masculine-madeness in respect of religion’s universal commitment to male domination, is one of the first things to strike the eye.

A terrible thing has now happened to religion. Except in the places where it can still enforce itself by fear superimposed on ignorance, it has become one opinion among many. It is forced to compete in the free market of ideas and, even when it strives to retain the old advantage of inculcating its teachings into children (for reasons that are too obvious to need underlining), it has to stand up in open debate and submit to free inquiry. In the summer of 2007, I was sitting in a studio in Dublin, debating with a lay spokesman of the Roman Catholic Church who turned out to be the only believing Christian on a discussion panel of five people. He was a perfectly nice and rather modest logic-chopping polemicist, happy enough to go for a glass of refreshment after the program, and I suddenly felt a piercing stab of pity for him. A generation ago in Ireland, the Church did not have to lower itself in this way. It raised its voice only slightly, and was instantly obeyed by the Parliament, the schools, and the media. It could and did forbid divorce, contraception, the publication of certain books, and the utterance of certain opinions. Now it is discredited and in decline. Its once-absolute doctrines appear ridiculous: only a few weeks before this radio show the Vatican had finally admitted that “Limbo” (traditional destination for the souls of unbaptised children) did not exist after all. There are also local reasons for the decline, the reverberations of the child-rape scandal being prominent among them, but the secularization of Ireland is a part of a wider enlightenment in which well-grounded unbelief has become a genuinely strong and rooted presence. The availability and accessibility of well-produced books, cassettes, and DVDs, emphasizing the triumphs of science and reason, is a large part of this success. And so, of course, is the increasingly clear realization, on the part of civilized people, that the main enemy we face is “faith-based.”

Open the newspaper or turn on the television and see what the parties of god are doing to Iraq, in their attempt to reduce a once-advanced society to the level of Afghanistan or Somalia (the last two countries where the parties of god had things all their own way). Observe the menacing developments in neighboring Iran, where the believers in the imminent return of a tooth fairy known as the Twelfth Imam are reinforcing their apocalyptic talk by the acquisition of doomsday weaponry. Or shift your gaz to the western bank of the Jordan, where Messianic settlers hope, by stealing the land of others in accordance with biblical directives, to bring on Armageddon in their own way. The chief international backers of these religious colonists, the American evangelical fundamentalists, are simultaneously trying to teach stultifying pseudo-science in schools, criminalize homosexuality, forbid stem-cell research, and display Mosaic law in courtrooms. From Rome, the Holy Father proposes to remedy the situation by restoring the historically anti-Semitic “Tridentine” form of the Mass, preaching crusading rhetoric with one hand while capitulating to Islamism on the other and maintaining that condoms are worse than AIDS. In Europe and America, newspapers and theaters and universities quail at the demands of Muslim fundamentalists, sleepless in their search for things at which to take “offense.”

So the enlightenment of which I was writing is by no means developing in a straight line. The alternative to it, however, is being delineated for us with extraordinary vividness. It is in the hope of strengthening and arming the resistance to the faith-based, and to faith itself, that this anthology of combat with humanity’s oldest enemy is respectfully offered.

From De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things)

Translated by W. Hannaford Brown

LUCRETIUSIn January 1821, Thomas Jefferson wrote John Adams to “encourage a hope that the human mind will some day get back to the freedom it enjoyed 2000 years ago.” This wish for a return to the era of philosophy would put Jefferson in the same period as Titus Lucretius Carus, thanks to whose six-volume poem De Rerum Naturum (On the Nature of Things) we have a distillation of the work of the first true materialists: Leucippus, Democritus, and Epicurus. These men concluded that the world was composed of atoms in perpetual motion, and Epicurus, in particular, went on to argue that the gods, if they existed, played no part in human affairs. It followed that events like thunderstorms were natural and not supernatural, that ceremonies of worship and propitiation were a waste of time, and that there was nothing to be feared in death.Lucretius, addressing his friend Memmius and acting as his Virgil through this labyrinth of radical ideas, revived the “atomist” theory at a time of brute religious revival in Rome. He argued that religion was immoral as well as untrue: his reference to Iphianassa here is the Latin version of the Greek and Trojan story of Iphigenia, sacrificial victim to her own father in the House of Atreus.Atomism was viciously persecuted as heresy throughout the early Christian era, and only one printed manuscript of De Rerum Naturum survived the flames. There are several translations; I have chosen the one translated by my fellow Devonian and Oxonian, W. Hannaford Brown. Brown’s own manuscript was almost destroyed during the Nazi bombardment of England in 1943: if a religious book had survived so many vicissitudes we can easily imagine what the faithful would say. But Lucretius teaches us to live without such piffle.

From Book I

2 Now, for the rest, lend ears unstopped, and the intellect’s keen edge;Severed from cares, attend to a true philosophical system;Lest it should hap that my gifts which I zealously set forth before you,Scorned, you abandon untouched before they can be comprehended.For ’tis high lore of heaven and of gods that I shall endeavourClearly to speak as I tell of the primary atoms of matterOut of which Nature forms things: ’tis “things” she increases and fosters;Then back to atoms again she resolves them and makes them to vanish.“Things,” for argument’s sake, my wont is to speak of as “matter”;Also the “seeds” of those things to name the small parts which beget them:Further, those infinitesimal parts, (an alternative figure)Primary “atoms” to call, whereof matter was all first created.

3 When in full view on the earth man’s life lay rotting and loathsome,Crushed ’neath the ponderous load of Religion’s cruel burdensome shackles,Who out of heaven displayed her forehead of withering aspect,Lowering over the heads of mortals with hideous menace,Upraising mortal eyes ’twas a Greek who first, daring, defied her;’Gainst man’s relentless foe ’twas Man first framed to do battle.Him could nor tales of the gods nor heaven’s fierce thunderbolts’ crashesCurb; nay rather they inflamed his spirit’s keen courage to covet.His it should first be to shiver the close-bolted portals of Nature.Therefore his soul’s live energy triumphed, and far and wide compassedWorld’s walls’ blazing lights, and the boundless Universe traversedThought-winged; from realms of space he comes back victorious and tells usWhat we may, what we must not perceive; what law universalLimits the ken of each, what deep-set boundary landmark:Then how in turn underfoot Religion is hurled down and trampled,Then how that victory lifts mankind to high level of heaven.

4 One apprehension assails me here, that haply you reckonGodless the pathway you tread which leads to the Science of NatureAs to the highroad of sin. But rather how much more oftenHas that same vaunted Religion brought forth deeds sinful and godless.Thus the chosen Greek chiefs, the first of their heroes, at Aulis,Trivia’s altar befouled with the blood of Iphianassa.For when the equal-trimmed ribbons, her virgin tresses encircling,Unfurled from each fair cheek so bravely, so gallantly fluttered;Soon as she saw her sorrowing sire in front of the altarStanding, with serving-men near, their gleaming knives vainly concealing,And, at the sight of her plight, her countrymen bitter tears shedding;Dumb with fear, her knees giving way, to earth she fell sinking.Nor in her woe could it be of avail to the hapless maidenThat it was she first gave to the king the title of father.For, by men’s hands upborne, she was, quivering, led to the altar;Not, forsooth, to the end that, sacred rites duly completed,With ringing clarion song of marriage she might be escorted;But, pure maid foully slain in wedlock’s appropriate season,That she a victim might fall ’neath the slaughter stroke of her father,So that a happy and lucky dispatch to the fleet might be granted!Such are the darksome deeds brought to pass by Religion’s fell promptings!

6 Now this terror and darkness of mind must surely be scattered,Not by rays of the sun, nor by gleaming arrows of daylight,But by the outward display and unseen workings of Nature.And her first rule for us from this premiss shall take its beginning;“Never did will of gods bring anything forth out of nothing.”For, in good sooth, it is thus that fear restraineth all mortals,Since both in earth and sky they see that many things happenWhereof they cannot by any known law determine the causes;So their occurrence they ascribe to supernatural power.Therefore when we have seen that naught can be made out of nothing,Afterwards we shall more rightly discern the thing which we search for:—Both out of what it is that everything can be created,And in what way all came, without help of gods, into being.

7 If out of nothing things sprang into life, then every speciesFrom all alike could be born, and none would need any seed-germ.First, mature men might rise from the sea, and scale-bearing fishesOut of the earth; or again, fledged birds burst full-grown from heaven.Cattle and other beasts, and the whole tribe of wild herds, ungovernedBy any fixed law of birth, would of desert and tilth take possession.Nor would each fruit be wont to remain to its own tree peculiar,But all would change about, so that all could bear all kinds of produce.How, if for each distinct kind there were no producing corpuscles,Could any matrix for matter exist that is fixed and unchanging?But, as it is, since all from definite seeds are created,Therefore each is born and comes into regions of daylightFrom out the place where dwells its substance, the primary atoms.Thus each cannot spring from all in promiscuous fashion,Since a peculiar power indwells each fixed kind of matter.Secondly, why do we see spring flowers, see golden grain wavingRipe in the sun, see grape clusters swell at the urge of the autumn,If not because when, in their own time, the fixed seeds of matterHave coalesced, then each creation comes forth into full viewWhen the recurrent seasons for each are propitious, and safelyQuickening Earth brings forth to the light her delicate offspring?But if from nothing they came, then each would spring up unexpectedAt undetermined times and in unfavouring seasons,Seeing that there would then not be any primary atomsWhich from untimely creative conjunction could be kept asunder.Nor, again, thirdly, would time be needed for growing of matterWhen the seeds unite, if things can grow out of nothing;For in a trice little children would reach the fulness of manhood:Trees, again, would spring up by surprise, from earth sheer outleaping.But ’tis apparent that none of this happens, since all things grow slowly,As is but normal when each from a fixed seed in a fixed seasonGrows, and growing, preserves its kind: thus telling us clearlyThat from appropriate atoms each creature grows great and is nourished.

From Book II

5 But do not think that the gods condescend to consider such matters,Or that they mark the careers of individual atomsSo as to study the laws of Nature whereunto they conform.Nevertheless there are some, unaware of the fixed laws of matter,Who think that Nature cannot, without supernatural power,Thus nicely fit to manners of men the sequence of seasons,Bringing forth corn, yea, all earth’s fruits, which heavenly Pleasure,Pilot of life, prompts men to approach, herself them escorting,As by Venus’ wiles she beguiles them their race to continueSo that humanity may not fail. When therefore they settleThat for the sake of man the gods designed all things, most widelyIn all respects do they seem to have strayed from the path of true reason.For even if I knew nothing concerning the nature of atoms,Yet from heaven’s very lore and legend’s diversified storyI would make bold to aver and maintain that the order of NatureNever by will of the gods for us mortals was ever created…

From Book III

15 Now then, in order that you may learn that the minds of live creaturesAnd their imponderable souls are to birth and death alike subject,I will proceed to compose such verse as shall earn your attention,By long study amassed, and devised by delightful endeavour.Please comprise these natures twain ’neath one appellation:When I pass on, for example, to speak of the soul, how ’tis mortal,Know that I speak of the mind as well, inasmuch as togetherBoth one single entity form, one composite substance.Firstly, then, since I have shewn that ’tis rare, and composed of small bodies;Shaped from much smaller atoms than fashion a liquid like water,Atoms far smaller than those which constitute mizzling and smoke-clouds—For it is nimbler by far, and a far feebler blow sets it moving,Stirred as it is by the films which mist and smoke shed around them,As for example when steeped in sleep we seem to see altarsBreathing forth flames of fire, and exalting their smoke to the heavens;Doubtless from objects like these such films as I speak of are gendered.Since too, when vessels are shattered, you see how in every directionGushes the liquid flood, and the contents utterly vanish;Since once again the mists and the smoke are dispersed by the breezes;Know that the soul, too, is scattered abroad, and dies much more quickly,And is the sooner resolved back into its primary atoms,Once it has quitted the limbs of a man and abandoned his body.For when the body, which forms its receptacle, cannot contain it,Being from any cause crushed, or by issue of life-blood enfeebled,How can you think that the soul can by fluid air be encompassed?How can the air, than our body more rare, be able to hold it?

From Book V

39 Next, having gotten them huts and skins and fire; and when womanMated with man shared a man’s abode; and when family dutiesTherein were learnt; and as soon as they saw their own offspring arising;Then ’twas that mankind first began to lose power of endurance.Fire made their gelid frames less able to bear the cold weatherOut ’neath the open sky; their virility Venus exhausted:Childrens’ caresses too easily sapped the proud spirit of parents.Neighbours in those days, too, began to form friendly agreementsNeither to inflict nor receive any hurt, and asked for indulgenceTowards their women and bairns, as with cries and gesticulationsAnd in their stammering speech they tried to explain to each otherThat it is meet and right that all should pity the helpless.And although harmony could not be won in every instance,Yet did the greater part observe the conventions uprightly;Else long since would the human race have been wholly abolished,Nor could their seed till this present day have continued the species.

From Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám

A Paraphrase from Several Literal Translations by Richard Le Gallienne

OMAR KHAYYÁMMedieval Persia also produced a long and beautiful poem satirizing the claims and practices of religion. Though Omar Khayyám (1048–1131) is best remembered for his warm recommendations of wine, women, and song (preferences that would land him in trouble in today’s Iran, as well) he was actually a very serious astronomer and mathematician who made many contributions to algebra, helped refine the calendar, and may have been an early proponent of the idea that the earth revolved around the sun.Khayyám clearly doubted that god had revealed himself to some men and not to others, especially in light of the very obvious fact that those who claimed to interpret the revelation were fond of using their claim in order to acquire and wield power over others in this world. He was not the first to notice this aspect of religion, but he was among the wittiest.The most celebrated translation of his immortal Rubáiyát into English was done by Edward Fitzgerald, but the verses as rendered by Richard Le Gallienne are sometimes better at conveying the pungency that underlies the ironic charm of these quatrains.The bird of life is singing on the boughHis two eternal notes of “I and Thou”—O! hearken well, for soon the song sings throughAnd, would we hear it, we must hear it now.The bird of life is singing in the sun,Short is his song, nor only just begun,—A call, a trill, a rapture, then—so soon!—A silence, and the song is done—is done.Yea! what is man that deems himself divine?Man is a flagon, and his soul the wine;Man is a reed, his soul the sound therein;Man is a lantern, and his soul the shine.Would you be happy! hearken, then, the way:Heed not TO-MORROW, heed not YESTERDAY;The magic words of life are HERE and NOW—O fools, that after some tomorrow stray!Were I a Sultan, say what greater blissWere mine to summon to my side than this,—Dear gleaming face, far brighter than the moon!O Love! and this immortalizing kiss.To all of us the thought of heaven is dear—Why not be sure of it and make it here?No doubt there is a heaven yonder too,But ’tis so far away—and you are near.Men talk of heaven,—there is no heaven but here;Men talk of hell,—there is no hell but here;Men of hereafters talk, and future lives,—O love, there is no other life—but here.Gay little moon, that hath not understood!She claps her hands, and calls the red wine good;O careless and beloved, if she knewThis wine she fancies is my true heart’s blood.Girl, have you any thought what your eyes mean?You must have stolen them from some dead queen.O little empty laughing soul that singsAnd dances, tell me—What do your eyes mean?And all this body of ivory and myrrh,O guard it with some little love and care;Know your own wonder, worship it with me,See how I fall before it deep in prayer.Nor idle I who speak it, nor profane,This playful wisdom growing out of pain;How many midnights whitened into mornBefore the seeker knew he sought in vain.You want to know the Secret—so did I,Low in the dust I sought it, and on highSought it in awful flight from star to star,The Sultan’s watchman of the starry sky.Up, up, where Parwín’s hoofs stamp heaven’s floor,My soul went knocking at each starry door,Till on the stilly top of heaven’s stair,Clear-eyed I looked—and laughed—and climbed no more.Of all my seeking this is all my gain:No agony of any mortal brainShall wrest the secret of the life of man;The Search has taught me that the Search is vain.Yet sometimes on a sudden all seems clear—Hush! hush! my soul, the Secret draweth near;Make silence ready for the speech divine—If Heaven should speak, and there be none to hear!Yea! sometimes on the instant all seems plain,The simple sun could tell us, or the rain;The world, caught dreaming with a look of heaven,Seems on a sudden tip-toe to explain.Like to a maid who exquisitely turnsA promising face to him who, waiting, burnsIn hell to hear her answer—so the worldTricks all, and hints what no man ever learns.Look not above, there is no answer there;Pray not, for no one listens to your prayer;NEAR is as near to God as any FAR,And HERE is just the same deceit as THERE.But here are wine and beautiful young girls,Be wise and hide your sorrows in their curls,Dive as you will in life’s mysterious sea,You shall not bring us any better pearls.Allah, perchance, the secret word might spell;If Allah be, He keeps His secret well;What He hath hidden, who shall hope to find?Shall God His secret to a maggot tell?So since with all my passion and my skill,The world’s mysterious meaning mocks me still,Shall I not piously believe that IAm kept in darkness by the heavenly will?How sad to be a woman—not to knowAught of the glory of this breast of snow,All unconcerned to comb this mighty hair;To be a woman and yet never know!Were I a woman, I would all day longSing my own beauty in some holy song,Bend low before it, hushed and half afraid,And say “I am a woman” all day long.The Koran! well, come put me to the test—Lovely old book in hideous error drest—Believe me, I can quote the Koran too,The unbeliever knows his Koran best.And do you think that unto such as you,A maggot-minded, starved, fanatic crew,God gave the Secret, and denied it me?—Well, well, what matters it! believe that too.Old Khayyám, say you, is a debauchee;If only you were half so good as he!He sins no sins but gentle drunkenness,Great-hearted mirth, and kind adultery.But yours the cold heart, and the murderous tongue,The wintry soul that hates to hear a song,The close-shut fist, the mean and measuring eye,And all the little poisoned ways of wrong.So I be written in the Book of Love,I have no care about that book above;Erase my name, or write it, as you please—So I be written in the Book of Love.What care I, love, for what the Sufis say?The Sufis are but drunk another way;So you be drunk, it matters not the means,So you be drunk—and glorify your clay.Drunken myself, and with a merry mind,An old man passed me, all in vine-leaves twined;I said, “Old man, hast thou forgotten God?”“Go, drink yourself,” he said, “for God is kind.”“Did God set grapes a-growing, do you think,And at the same time make it sin to drink?Give thanks to HIM who foreordained it thus—Surely HE loves to hear the glasses clink!”From God’s own hand this earthly vessel came,He shaped it thus, be it for fame or shame;If it be fair—to God be all the praise,If it be foul—to God alone the blame.To me there is much comfort in the thoughtThat all our agonies can alter nought,Our lives are written to their latest word,We but repeat a lesson HE hath taught.Our wildest wrong is part of His great Right,Our weakness is the shadow of His might,Our sins are His, forgiven long ago,To make His mercy more exceeding bright.When first the stars were made and planets seven,Already was it told of me in HeavenThat God had chosen me to sing His Vine,And in my dust had thrown the vinous leaven.

Of Religion

From Leviathan

THOMAS HOBBESAtomist ideas began to revive in the seventeenth century. Sir Isaac Newton included ninety lines of De Rerum Natura in the early drafts of his Principia. Galileo’s 1623 work, Saggiatore, was so infused with the atomic theory that its friends and critics both referred to it as an Epicurean book.However, at no time was it other than extremely dangerous to profess any public doubt about religious orthodoxy. Galileo was to discover this to his cost. Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679), who had to live in exile and who was suspected of unsoundness by both sides in the English Civil War, took great care to make formal professions of loyalty to the established Church but found ways in his writing to throw doubt on faith. The heresy-hunters were probably shrewd, if literal-minded, to threaten him with a trial by Parliament on charges of atheism in 1666.In Chapter XII of Leviathan, his massive essay on statecraft, Hobbes ridicules religion by supposedly defending true faith against paganism.

Seeing there are no signs, nor fruit of religion, but in man only; there is no cause to doubt, but that the seed of religion, is also only in man; and consisteth in some peculiar quality, or at least in some eminent degree thereof, not to be found in any other living creatures.

And first, it is peculiar to the nature of man, to be inquisitive into the causes of the events they see, some more, some less; but all men so much, as to be curious in the search of the causes of their own good and evil fortune.

Secondly, upon the sight of any thing that hath a beginning to think also it had a cause, which determined the same to begin, then when it did, rather than sooner or later.

Thirdly, whereas there is no other felicity of beasts, but the enjoying of their quotidian food, ease, and lusts; as having little or no foresight of the time to come, for want of observation, and memory of the order, consequence, and dependence of the things they see; man observeth how one event hath been produced by another; and remembereth in them antecedence and consequence; and when he cannot assure himself of the true causes of things (for the causes of good and evil fortune for the most part are invisible), he supposes causes of them, either such as his own fancy sug esteth; or trusteth the authority of other men, such as he thinks to be his friends, and wiser than himself.

The two first, make anxiety. For being assured that there be causes of all things that have arrived hitherto, or shall arrive hereafter; it is impossible for a man, who continually endeavoureth to secure himself against the evil he fears, and procure the good he desireth, not to be in a perpetual solicitude of the time to come; so that every man, especially those that are over provident, are in a state like to that of Prometheus. For as Prometheus, which interpreted, is, the prudent man, was bound to the hill Caucasus, a place of large prospect, where, an eagle feeding on his liver, devoured in the day, as much as was repaired in the night: so that man, which looks too far before him, in the care of future time, hath his heart all the day long, gnawed on by fear of death, poverty, or other calamity; and has no repose, nor pause of his anxiety, but in sleep.

This perpetual fear, always accompanying mankind in the ignorance of causes, as it were in the dark, must needs have for object something. And therefore when there is nothing to be seen, there is nothing to accuse, either of their good, or evil fortune, but some power, or agent invisible: in which sense perhaps it was, that some of the old poets said, that the gods were at first created by human fear: which spoken of the gods, that is to say, of the many gods of the Gentiles, is very true. But the acknowledging of one God, eternal, infinite, and omnipotent, may more easily be derived, from the desire men have to know the causes of natural bodies, and their several virtues, and operations; than from the fear of what was to befall them in time to come. For he that from any effect he seeth come to pass, should reason to the next and immediate cause thereof, and from thence to the cause of that cause, and plunge himself profoundly in the pursuit of causes; shall at last come to this, that there must be, as even the heathen philosophers confessed, one first mover; that is, a first, and an eternal cause of all things; which is that which men mean by the name of God: and all this without thought of their fortune; the solicitude whereof, both inclines to fear, and hinders them from the search of the causes of other things; and thereby gives occasion of feigning of as many gods, as there be men that feign them.

And for the matter, or substance of the invisible agents, so fancied; they could not by natural cogitation, fall upon any other conceit, but that it was the same with that of the soul of man; and that the soul of man, was of the same substance, with that which appeareth in a dream, to one that sleepeth; or in a looking-glass, to one that is awake; which, men not knowing that such apparitions are nothing else but creatures of the fancy, think to be real, and external substances; and therefore call them ghosts; as the Latins called them imagines, and umbræ; and thought them spirits, that is, thin aërial bodies; and those invisible agents, which they feared, to be like them; save that they appear, and vanish when they please. But the opinion that such spirits were incorporeal, or immaterial, could never enter into the mind of any man by nature; because, though men may put together words of contradictory signification, as spirit, and incorporeal; yet they can never have the imagination of any thing answering to them: and therefore, men that by their own meditation, arrive to the acknowledgment of one infinite, omnipotent, and eternal God, chose rather to confess he is incomprehensible, and above their understanding, than to define his nature by spirit incorporeal, and then confess their definition to be unintelligible: or if they give him such a title, it is not dogmatically, with intention to make the divine nature understood; but piously, to honour him with attributes, of significations, as remote as they can from the grossness of bodies visible.

Then, for the way by which they think these invisible agents wrought their effects; that is to say, what immediate causes they used, in bringing things to pass, men that know not what it is that we call causing, that is, almost all men, have no other rule to guess by, but by observing, and remembering what they have seen to precede the like effect at some other time, or times before, without seeing between the antecedent and subsequent event, any dependence or connexion at all: and therefore from the like things past, they expect the like things to come; and hope for good or evil luck, superstitiously, from things that have no part at all in the causing of it: as the Athenians did for their war at Lepanto, demand another Phormio; the Pompeian faction for their war in Africa, another Scipio; and others have done in diverse other occasions since. In like manner they attribute their fortune to a stander by, to a lucky or unlucky place, to words spoken, especially if the name of God be amongst them; as charming and conjuring, the liturgy of witches; insomuch as to believe, they have power to turn a stone into bread, bread into a man, or any thing into any thing.

Thirdly, for the worship which naturally men exhibit to powers invisible, it can be no other, but such expressions of their reverence, as they would use towards men; gifts, petitions, thanks, submission of body, considerate addresses, sober behavior, premeditated words, swearing, that is, assuring one another of their promises, by invoking them. Beyond that reason suggesteth nothing; but leaves them either to rest there; or for further ceremonies, to rely on those they believe to be wiser than themselves.

Lastly, concerning how these invisible powers declare to men the things which shall hereafter come to pass, especially concerning their good or evil fortune in general, or good or ill success in any particular undertaking, men are naturally at a stand: save that using to conjecture of the time to come, by the time past, they are very apt, not only to take casual things, after one or two encounters, for prognostics of the like encounter ever after, but also to believe the like prognostics from other men, of whom they have once conceived a good opinion.

And in these four things, opinion of ghosts, ignorance of second causes, devotion towards what men fear, and taking of things casual for prognostics, consisteth the natural seed of religion; which by reason of the different fancies, judgments, and passions of several men, hath grown up into ceremonies so different, that those which are used by one man, are for the most part ridiculous to another.

For these seeds have received culture from two sorts of men. One sort have been they, that have nourished, and ordered them, according to their own invention. The other have done it, by God’s commandment, and direction: but both sorts have done it, with a purpose to make those men that relied on them, the more apt to obedience, laws, peace, charity, and civil society. So that the religion of the former sort, is a part of human politics; and teacheth part of the duty which earthly kings require of their subjects. And the religion of the latter sort is divine politics; and containeth precepts to those that have yielded themselves subjects in the kingdom of God. Of the former sort, were all the founders of commonwealths, and the lawgivers of the Gentiles: of the latter sort, were Abraham, Moses, and our blessed Saviour; by whom have been derived unto us the laws of the kingdom of God.

And for that part of religion, which consisteth in opinions concerning the nature of powers invisible, there is almost nothing that has a name, that has not been esteemed amongst the Gentiles, in one place or another, a god, or devil; or by their poets feigned to be inanimated, inhabited, or possessed by some spirit or other.

The unformed matter of the world, was a god, by the name of Chaos.

The heaven, the ocean, the planets, the fire, the earth, the winds, were so many gods.

Men, women, a bird, a crocodile, a calf, a dog, a snake, an onion, a leek, were deified. Besides that, they filled almost all places, with spirits called demons: the plains, with Pan, and Panises, or Satyrs; the woods, with Fawns, and Nymphs; the sea, with Tritons, and other Nymphs; every river, and fountain, with a ghost of his name, and with Nymphs; every house with its Lares, or familiars; every man with his Genius; hell with ghosts, and spiritual officers, as Charon, Cerberus, and the Furies; and in the night time, all places with larvæ, lemures, ghosts of men deceased, and a whole kingdom of fairies and bugbears. They have also ascribed divinity, and built temples to mere accidents, and qualities; such as are time, night, day, peace, concord, love, contention, virtue, honour, health, rust, fever, and the like; which when they prayed for, or against, they prayed to, as if there were ghosts of those names hanging over their heads, and letting fall, or withholding that good, or evil, for, or against which they prayed. They invoked also their own wit, by the name of Muses; their own ignorance, by the name of Fortune; their own lusts by the name of Cupid; their own rage, by the name of Furies; their own privy members, by the name of Priapus; and attributed their pollutions, to Incubi, and Succubæ: insomuch as there was nothing, which a poet could introduce as a person in his poem, which they did not make either a god, or a devil.

The same authors of the religion of the Gentiles, observing the second ground for religion, which is men’s ignorance of causes; and thereby their aptness to attribute their fortune to causes, on which there was no dependence at all apparent, took occasion to obtrude on their ignorance, instead of second causes, a kind of second and ministerial gods; ascribing the cause of fecundity, to Venus; the cause of arts, to Apollo; of subtlety and craft, to Mercury; of tempests and storms, to Æolus; and of other effects, to other gods; insomuch as there was amongst the heathen almost as great variety of gods, as of business.

And to the worship, which naturally men conceived fit to be used towards their gods, namely, oblations, prayers, thanks, and the rest formerly named; the same legislators of the Gentiles have added their images, both in picture, and sculpture; that the more ignorant sort, that is to say, the most part or generality of the people, thinking the gods for whose representation they were made, were really included, and as it were housed within them, might so much the more stand in fear of them: and endowed them with lands, and houses, and officers, and revenues, set apart from all other human uses; that is, consecrated, and made holy to those their idols; as caverns, groves, woods, mountains, and whole islands; and have attributed to them, not only the shapes, some of men, some of beasts, some of monsters; but also the faculties, and passions of men and beasts: as sense, speech, sex, lust, generation, and this not only by mixing one with another, to propagate the kind of gods; but also by mixing with men, and women, to beget mongrel gods, and but inmates of heaven, as Bacchus, Hercules, and others; besides anger, revenge, and other passions of living creatures, and the actions proceeding from them, as fraud, theft, adultery, sodomy, and any vice that may be taken for an effect of power, or a cause of pleasure; and all su h vices, as amongst men are taken to be against law, rather than against honour.

Lastly, to the prognostics of time to come; which are naturally, but conjectures upon experience of time past; and supernaturally, divine revelation; the same authors of the religion of the Gentiles, partly upon pretended experience, partly upon pretended revelation, have added innumerable other superstitious ways of divination; and made men believe they should find their fortunes, sometimes in the ambiguous or senseless answers of the priests at Delphi, Delos, Ammon, and other famous oracles; which answers, were made ambiguous by design, to own the event both ways; or absurd, by the intoxicating vapour of the place, which is very frequent in sulphurous caverns: sometimes in the leaves of the Sybils; of whose prophecies, like those perhaps of Nostradamus (for the fragments now extant seem to be the invention of later times), there were some books in reputation in the time of the Roman republic: sometimes in the insignificant speeches of madmen, supposed to be possessed with a divine spirit, which possession they called enthusiasm; and these kinds of foretelling events, were accounted theomancy, or prophecy: sometimes in the aspect of the stars at their nativity; which was called horoscopy, and esteemed a part of judiciary astrology: sometimes in their own hopes and fears, called thumomancy, or presage: sometimes in the prediction of witches, that pretended conference with the dead; which is called necromancy, conjuring, and witchcraft; and is but juggling and confederate knavery: sometimes in the casual flight, or feeding of birds; called augury: sometimes in the entrails of a sacrificed beast; which was aruspicina: sometimes in dreams: sometimes in croaking of ravens, or chattering of birds: sometimes in the lineaments of the face; which was called metoposcopy; or by palmistry in the lines of the hand; in casual words, called omina: sometimes in monsters, or unusual accidents; as eclipses, comets, rare meteors, earthquakes, inundations, uncouth births, and the like, which they called portenta, and ostenta, because they thought them to portend, or foreshow some great calamity to come; sometimes, in mere lottery, as cross and pile; counting holes in a sieve; dipping of verses in Homer, and Virgil; and innumerable other such vain conceits. So easy are men to be drawn to believe any thing, from such men as have gotten credit with them; and can with gentleness, and dexterity, take hold of their fear, and ignorance.

And therefore the first founders, and legislators of commonwealths among the Gentiles, whose ends were only to keep the people in obedience, and peace, have in all places taken care; first, to imprint in their minds a belief, that those precepts which they gave concerning religion, might not be thought to proceed from their own device, but from the dictates of some god, or other spirit; or else that they themselves were of a higher nature than mere mortals, that their laws might the more easily be received: so Numa Pompilius pretended to receive the ceremonies he instituted amongst the Romans, from the nymph Egeria: and the first king and founder of the kingdom of Peru, pretended himself and his wife to be the children of the Sun; and Mahomet, to set up his new religion, pretended to have conferences with the Holy Ghost, in form of a dove. Secondly, they have had a care, to make it believed, that the same things were displeasing to the gods, which were forbidden by the laws. Thirdly, to prescribe ceremonies, supplications, sacrifices, and festivals, by which they were to believe, the anger of the gods might be appeased; and that ill success in war, great contagions of sickness, earthquakes, and each man’s private misery, came from the anger of the gods, and their anger from the neglect of their worship, or the forgetting, or mistaking some point of the ceremonies require . And though amongst the ancient Romans, men were not forbidden to deny, that which in the poets is written of the pains, and pleasures after this life: which divers of great authority, and gravity in that state have in their harangues openly derided; yet that belief was always more cherished, than the contrary.

And by these, and such other institutions, they obtained in order to their end, which was the peace of the commonwealth, that the common people in their misfortunes, laying the fault on neglect, or error in their ceremonies, or on their own disobedience to the laws, were the less apt to mutiny against their governors; and being entertained with the pomp, and pastime of festivals, and public games, made in honour of the gods, needed nothing else but bread to keep them from discontent, murmuring, and commotion against the state. And therefore the Romans, that had conquered the greatest part of the then known world, made no scruple of tolerating any religion whatsoever in the city of Rome itself; unless it had something in it, that could not consist with their civil government; nor do we read, that any religion was there forbidden, but that of the Jews; who, being the peculiar kingdom of God, thought it unlawful to acknowledge subjection to any mortal king or state whatsoever. And thus you see how the religion of the Gentiles was a part of their policy.

But where God himself, by supernatural revelation, planted religion; there he also made to himself a peculiar kingdom: and gave laws, not only of behaviour towards himself, but also towards one another; and thereby in the kingdom of God, the policy, and laws civil, are a part of religion; and therefore the distinction of temporal, and spiritual domination, hath there no place. It is true, that God is king of all the earth: yet may he be king of a peculiar, and chosen nation. For there is no more incongruity therein, than that he that hath the general command of the whole army, should have withal a peculiar regiment, or company of his own. God is king of all the earth by his power: but of his chosen people, he is king by covenant. But to speak more largely of the kingdom of God, both by nature, and covenant, I have in the following discourse assigned another place.

From the propagation of religion, it is not hard to understand the causes of the resolution of the same into its first seeds, or principles; which are only an opinion of a deity, and powers invisible, and supernatural; that can never be so abolished out of human nature, but that new religions may again be made to spring out of them, by the culture of such men, as for such purpose are in reputation.

For seeing all formed religion, is founded at first, upon the faith which a multitude hath in some one person, whom they believe not only to be a wise man, and to labour to procure their happiness, but also to be a holy man, to whom God himself vouchsafeth to declare his will supernaturally; it followeth necessarily, when they that have the government of religion, shall come to have either the wisdom of those men, their sincerity, or their love suspected; or when they shall be unable to show any probable token of divine revelation; that the religion which they desire to uphold, must be suspected likewise; and, without the fear of the civil sword, contradicted and rejected.

That which taketh away the reputation of wisdom, in him that formeth a religion, or addeth to it when it is already formed, is the enjoining of a belief of contradictories: for both parts of a contradiction cannot possibly be true: and therefore to enjoin the belief of them, is an argument of ignorance; which detects the author in that; and discredits him in all things else he shall propound as from revelation supernatural: which revelation a man may indeed have of many things above, but of nothing against natural reason.

That which taketh away the reputation of sincerity, is the doing or saying of such hings, as appear to be signs, that what they require other men to believe, is not believed by themselves; all which doings, or sayings are therefore called scandalous, because they be stumbling blocks, that make men to fall in the way of religion; as injustice, cruelty, profaneness, avarice, and luxury. For who can believe, that he that doth ordinarily such actions as proceed from any of these roots, believeth there is any such invisible power to be feared, as he affrighteth other men withal, for lesser faults?

That which taketh away the reputation of love, is the being detected of private ends: as when the belief they require of others, conduceth or seemeth to conduce to the acquiring of dominion, riches, dignity, or secure pleasure, to themselves only, or specially. For that which men reap benefit by to themselves, they are thought to do for their own sakes, and not for love of others.

Lastly, the testimony that men can render of divine calling, can be no other, than the operation of miracles; or true prophecy, which also is a miracle; or extraordinary felicity. And therefore, to those points of religion, which have been received from them that did such miracles; those that are added by such, as approve not their calling by some miracle, obtain no greater belief, than what the custom and laws of the places, in which they be educated, have wrought into them. For as in natural things, men of judgment require natural signs, and arguments; so in supernatural things, they require signs supernatural, which are miracles, before they consent inwardly, and from their hearts.

All which causes of the weakening of men’s faith, do manifestly appear in the examples following. First, we have the example of the children of Israel; who when Moses, that had approved his calling to them by miracles, and by the happy conduct of them out of Egypt, was absent but forty days, revolted from the worship of the true God, recommended to them by him; and setting up (Exod. xxxii. 1, 2) a golden calf for their god, relapsed into the idolatry of the Egyptians; from whom they had been so lately delivered. And again, after Moses, Aaron, Joshua, and that generation which had seen the great works of God in Israel (Judges ii. 11) were dead; another generation arose, and served Baal. So that miracles failing, faith also failed.

Again, when the sons of Samuel, (1 Sam. viii. 3) being constituted by their father judges in Bersabee, received bribes, and judged unjustly, the people of Israel refused any more to have God to be their king, in other manner than he was king of other people; and therefore cried out to Samuel, to choose them a king after the manner of the nations. So that justice failing, faith also failed; insomuch, as they deposed their God, from reigning over them.

And whereas in the planting of Christian religion, the oracles ceased in all parts of the Roman empire, and the number of Christians increased wonderfully every day, and in every place, by the preaching of the Apostles, and Evangelists; a great part of that success, may reasonably be attributed, to the contempt, into which the priests of the Gentiles of that time, had brought themselves, by their uncleanness, avarice, and juggling between princes. Also the religion of the church of Rome, was partly, for the same cause abolished in England, and many other parts of Christendom; insomuch, as the failing of virtue in the pastors, maketh faith fail in the people: and partly from bringing of the philosophy, and doctrine of Aristotle into religion, by the Schoolmen; from whence there arose so many contradictions, and absurdities, as brought the clergy into a reputation both of ignorance, and of fraudulent intention; and inclined people to revolt from them, either against the will of their own princes, as in France and Holland; or with their will, as in England.

Last y, amongst the points by the church of Rome declared necessary for salvation, there be so many, manifestly to the advantage of the Pope, and of his spiritual subjects, residing in the territories of other Christian princes, that were it not for the mutual emulation of those princes, they might without war, or trouble, exclude all foreign authority, as easily as it has been excluded in England. For who is there that does not see, to whose benefit it conduceth, to have it believed, that a king hath not his authority from Christ, unless a bishop crown him? That a king, if he be a priest, cannot marry? That whether a prince be born in lawful marriage, or not, must be judged by authority from Rome? That subjects may be freed from their allegiance, if by the court of Rome, the king be judged an heretic? That a king, as Childeric of France, may be deposed by a pope, as Pope Zachary, for no cause; and his kingdom given to one of his subjects? That the clergy and regulars, in what country soever, shall be exempt from the jurisdiction of their king in cases criminal? Or who does not see, to whose profit redound the fees of private masses, and vales of purgatory; with other signs of private interest, enough to mortify the most lively faith, if, as I said, the civil magistrate, and custom did not more sustain it, than any opinion they have of the sanctity, wisdom, or probity of their teachers? So that I may attribute all the changes of religion in the world, to one and the same cause; and that is, unpleasing priests; and those not only amongst Catholics, but even in that church that hath presumed most of reformation.

Theological-Political Treatise BENEDICT DE SPINOZAThe seventeenth century saw The Netherlands emerge as a place of shelter for religious dissidents and dissidents from religion. Pierre Bayle and Rene Descartes both took advantage of its more tolerant atmosphere. However, there were limits to this latitude. Born Baruch de Spinoza in 1632—a year after the indictment of Galileo by the Inquisition—the young man followed the religious practice of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews who had moved to Amsterdam to escape Catholic persecution. But in 1656, Spinoza was anathematized and excommunicated by the elders of the synagogue for doubting the immortality of the soul and for recommending the separation of church and state. The Calvinist and Catholic authorities, ecumenical for once, heartily endorsed this condemnation. Changing his name to Benedict, Spinoza lived until 1677, supporting himself as a grinder of lenses and continuing to publish his philosophical meditations.There are those who argue that he was not really an atheist because he never formally renounced the idea of a Supreme Being. However, once again the general climate of persecution makes it difficult to be certain of his innermost convictions. In his correspondence he would write the word Caute! (Latin for “take care”) and place a little sub rosa drawing of a rose underneath. He gave a false name for the printer of this very work, and he left the author’s page blank. Moreover, it can be doubted whether a pantheist is truly a theist, in that a god made manifest throughout Nature, who is part of what he “creates,” is in some sense everywhere and nowhere. Certainly the idea of a personal or intervening god is made very much more difficult to defend as a result of Spinoza’s intellectual exertions.

Men would never be superstitious, if they could govern all their circumstances by set rules, or if they were always favoured by fortune: but being frequently driven into straits where rules are useless, and being often kept fluctuating pitiably between hope and fear by the uncertainty of fortune’s greedily coveted favours, they are consequently, for the most part, very prone to credulity. The human mind is readily swayed this way or that in times of doubt, especially when hope and fear are struggling for the mastery, though usually it is boastful, over-confident, and vain.

This as a general fact I suppose everyone knows, though few, I believe, know their own nature; no one can have lived in the world without observing that most people, when in prosperity, are so over-brimming with wisdom (however inexperienced they may be), that they take every offer of advice as a personal insult, whereas in adversity they know not where to turn, but beg and pray for counsel from every passer-by. No plan is then too futile, too absurd, or too fatuous for their adoption; the most frivolous causes will raise them to hope, or plunge them into despair—if anything happens during their fright which reminds them of some past good or ill, they think it portends a happy or unhappy issue, and therefore (though it may have proved abortive a hundred times before) style it a lucky or unlucky omen. Anything that excites their astonishment they believe to be a portent signifying the anger of the gods or of the Supreme Being, and, mistaking superstition for religion, account it impious not to avert the evil with prayer and sacrifice. Signs and wonders of this sort they conjure up perpetually, till one might think Nature as mad as themselves, they interpret her so fantastically.

Thus it is brought prominently before us, that superstition’s chief victims are those persons who greedily covet temporal advantages; they it is, who (especially when they are in danger, and cannot help themselves) are wont with prayers and womanish tears to implore help from God: upbraiding Reason as blind, because she cannot show a sure path to the shadows they pursue, and rejecting human wisdom as vain; but believing the phantoms of imagination, dreams, and other childish absurdities, to be the very oracles of Heaven. As though God had turned away from the wise, and written His decrees, not in the mind of man but in the entrails of beasts, or left them to be proclaimed by the inspiration and instinct of fools, madmen, and birds. Such is the unreason to which terror can drive mankind!

Superstition, then, is engendered, preserved, and fostered by fear. If anyone desire an example, let him take Alexander, who only began superstitiously to seek guidance from seers, when he first learnt to fear fortune in the passes of Sysis (Curtius, v. 4); whereas after he had conquered Darius he consulted prophets no more, till a second time frightened by reverses. When the Scythians were provoking a battle, the Bactrians had deserted, and he himself was lying sick of his wounds, “he once more turned to superstition, the mockery of human wisdom, and bade Aristander, to whom he confided his credulity, inquire the issue of affairs with sacrificed victims.” Very numerous examples of a like nature might be cited, clearly showing the fact, that only while under the dominion of fear do men fall a prey to superstition; that all the portents ever invested with the reverence of misguided religion are mere phantoms of dejected and fearful minds; and lastly, that prophets have most power among the people, and are most formidable to rulers, precisely at those times when the state is in most peril. I think this is sufficiently plain to all, and will therefore say no more on the subject.

The origin of superstition above given affords us a clear reason for the fact, that it comes to all men naturally, though some refer its rise to a dim notion of God, universal to mankind, and also tends to show, that it is no less inconsistent and variable than other mental hallucinations and emotional impulses, and further that it can only be maintained by hope, hatred, anger, and deceit; since it springs, not from reason, but solely from the more powerful phases of emotion. Furthermore, we may readily understand how difficult it is, to maintain in the same course men prone to every form of credulity. For, as the mass of mankind remains always at about the same pitch of misery, it never assents long to any one remedy, but is always best pleased by a novelty, which has not yet proved illusive.

This element of inconsistency has been the cause of many terrible wars and revolutions; for, as Curtius well says (lib. iv. chap. 10): “The mob has no ruler more potent than superstition,” and is easily led, on the plea of religion, at one moment to adore its kings as gods, and anon to execrate and abjure them as humanity’s common bane. Immense pains have therefore been taken to counteract this evil by investing religion, whether true or false, with such pomp and ceremony, that it may rise superior to every shock, and be always observed with studious reverence by the whole people—a system which has been brought to great perfection by the Turks, for they consider even controversy impious, and so clog men’s minds with dogmatic formulas, that they leave no room for sound reason, not even enough to doubt with.

But if, in despotic statecraft, the supreme and essential mystery be to hoodwink the subjects, and to mask the fear, which keeps them down, with the specious garb of religion, so that men may fight as bravely for slavery as for safety, and count it not shame but highest honour to risk their blood and their lives for the vainglory of a tyrant; yet in a free state no more mischievous expedient could be planned or attempted. Wholly repugnant to the general freedom are such devices as enthralling men’s minds with prejudices, forcing their judgment, or employing any of the weapons of quasi-religious sedition; indeed, such seditions only spring up, when law enters the domain of speculative thought, and opinions are put on trial and condemned on the same footing as crimes, while those who defend and follow them are sacrificed, not to public safety, but to their opponents’ hatred and cruelty. If deeds only could be made the grounds of criminal charges, and words were always allowed to pass free, such seditions would be divested of every semblance of justification, and would be separated from mere controversies by a hard and fast line.

Now, seeing that we have the rare happiness of living in a republic, where everyone’s judgment is free and unshackled, where each may worship God as his conscience dictates, and where freedom is esteemed before all things dear and precious, I have believed that I should be undertaking no ungrateful or unprofitable task, in demonstrating that not only can such freedom be granted without prejudice to the public peace, but also, that without such freedom, piety cannot flourish nor the public peace be secure.

Such is the chief conclusion I seek to establish in this treatise; but, in order to reach it, I must first point out the misconceptions which, like scars of our former bondage, still disfigure our notion of religion, and must expose the false views about the civil authority which many have most impudently advocated, endeavouring to turn the mind of the people, still prone to heathen superstition, away from its legitimate rulers, and so bring us again into slavery. As to the order of my treatise I will speak presently, but first I will recount the causes, which led me to write.

I have often wondered, that persons who make a boast of professing the Christian religion, namely, love, joy, peace, temperance, and charity to all men, should quarrel with such rancorous animosity, and display daily towards one another such bitter hatred, that this, rather than the virtues they claim, is the readiest criterion of their faith. Matters have long since come to such a pass, that one can only pronounce a man Christian, Turk, Jew, or Heathen, by his general appearance and attire, by his frequenting this or that place of worship, or employing the phraseology of a particular sect—as for manner of life, it is in all cases the same. Inquiry into the cause of this anomaly leads me unhesitatingly to ascribe it to the fact, that the ministries of the Church are regarded by the masses merely as dignities, her offices as posts of emolument—in short, popular religion may be summed up as respect for ecclesiastics. The spread of this misconception inflamed every worthless fellow with an intense desire to enter holy orders, and thus the love of diffusing God’s religion degenerated into sordid avarice and ambition. Every church became a theatre, where orators, instead of church teachers, harangued, caring not to instruct the people, but striving to attract admiration, to bring opponents to public scorn, and to preach only novelties and paradoxes, such as would tickle the ears of their congregation. This state of things necessarily stirred up an amount of controversy, envy, and hatred, which no lapse of time could appease; so that we can scarcely wonder that of the old religion nothing survives but its outward forms (even these, in the mouth of the multitude, seem rather adulation than adoration of the Deity), and that faith has become a mere compound of credulity and prejudices—aye, prejudices too, which degrade man from rational being to beast, which completely stifle the power of judgment between true and false, which seem, in fact, carefully fostered for the purpose of extinguishing the last spark of reason! Piety, great God! and religion are become a tissue of ridiculous mysteries; men, who flatly despise reason, who reject and turn away from understanding as naturally corrupt, these, I say, these of all men, are thought, O lie most horrible! to possess light from on High. Verily, if they had but one spark of light from on High, they would not insolently rave, but would learn to worship God more wisely, and would be as marked among their fellows for mercy as they now are for malice; if they were concerned for their opponents’ souls, instead of for their own reputations, they would no longer fiercely persecute, but rather be filled with pity and compassion.

Furthermore, if any Divine light were in them, it would appear from their doctrine. I grant that they are never tired of professing their wonder at the profound mysteries of Holy Writ; still I cannot discover that they teach anything but speculations of Platonists and Aristotelians, to which (in order to save their credit for Christianity) they have made Holy Writ conform; not content to rave with the Greeks themselves, they want to make the prophets rave also; showing conclusively, that never even in sleep have they caught a glimpse of Scripture’s Divine nature. The very vehemence of their admiration for the mysteries plainly attests, that their belief in the Bible is a formal assent rather than a living faith: and the fact is made still more apparent by their laying down beforehand, as a foundation for the study and true interpretation of Scripture, the principle that it is in every passage true and divine. Such a doctrine should be reached only after strict scrutiny and thorough comprehension of the Sacred Books (which would teach it much better, for they stand in need of no human fictions), and not be set up on the threshold, as it were, of inquiry.

As I pondered over the facts that the light of reason is not only despised, but by many even execrated as a source of impiety, that human commentaries are accepted as divine records, and that credulity is extolled as faith; as I marked the fierce controversies of philosophers raging in Church and State, the source of bitter hatred and dissension, the ready instruments of sedition and other ills innumerable, I determined to examine the Bible afresh in a careful, impartial, and unfettered spirit, making no assumptions concerning it, and attributing to it no doctrines, which I do not find dearly therein set down. With these precautions I constructed a method of Scriptural interpretation, and thus equipped proceeded to inquire—What is prophecy? in what sense did God reveal Himself to the prophets, and why were these particular men chosen by Him? Was it on account of the sublimity of their thoughts about the Deity and nature, or was it solely on account of their piety? These questions being answered, I was easily able to conclude, that the authority of the prophets has weight only in matters of morality, and that their speculative doctrines affect us little.

The Natural History of Religion DAVID HUMEOf the many distinguished thinkers of the eighteenth century Enlightenment, I have chosen the brilliant Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711–1776). He was less flamboyant in his criticism of religion than Baron d’Holbach or Edward Gibbon, with both of whom he was in contact, but his dry understatement and rigor are in many ways more persuasive. After his treatment, it was no longer possible to discuss miracles or the argument from so-called “design” with quite the same confidence as before.In the first passage here, Hume shows the man-made origins of faith and its reliance upon superstition. In the second, he subjects miraculous claims to a commonsense interrogation that reveals their spurious nature.It was an axiom among the faithful (and still is in some quarters) that atheists on their deathbeds would recant and call for a priest. Many false and cynical rumors of this kind were spread by the godly, about Thomas Paine in particular. We are extremely fortunate in having a firsthand account by the greatest of English biographers of David Hume’s last hours.

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 phænomena: It is esteemed a sufficient confirmation of them, that they give us more magnificent ideas of the divine objects of our worship and adoration.

Here therefore 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 understanding….

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 believe, 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 dæmonism; 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 forever haunted.

Lucian1 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. T e 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 Ægina, 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, as far as we can learn, with any sounder notions of the measures of acceptance with the deity, than were familiar to the other 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, everywhere, 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 Talapoins5; 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 forever 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, do not seem merely owing to his benefactor or children; nor can he e 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 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 no-wise 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 enterprises 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 crimes, 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 ot er 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.

Of Miracles

From An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding


Part One

1 There is, in Dr. Tillotson’s writings, an argument against the real presence, which is as concise, and elegant, and strong as any argument can possibly be supposed against a doctrine, so little worthy of a serious refutation. It is acknowledged on all hands, says that learned prelate, that the authority, either of the scripture or of tradition, is founded merely in the testimony of the Apostles, who were eyewitnesses to those miracles of our Saviour, by which he proved his divine mission. Our evidence, then, for the truth of the Christian religion is less than the evidence for the truth of our senses; because, even in the first authors of our religion, it was no greater; and it is evident it must diminish in passing from them to their disciples; nor can any one rest such confidence in their testimony, as in the immediate object of his senses. But a weaker evidence can never destroy a stronger; and therefore, were the doctrine of the real presence ever so clearly revealed in scripture, it were directly contrary to the rules of just reasoning to give our assent to it. It contradicts sense, though both the scripture and tradition, on which it is supposed to be built, carry not such evidence with them as sense; when they are considered merely as external evidences, and are not brought home to every one’s breast, by the immediate operation of the Holy Spirit.

2 Nothing is so convenient as a decisive argument of this kind, which must at least silence the most arrogant bigotry and superstition, and free us from their impertinent solicitations. I flatter myself, that I have discovered an argument of a like nature, which, if just, will, with the wise and learned, be an everlasting check to all kinds of superstitious delusion, and consequently, will be useful as long as the world endures. For so long, I presume, will the accounts of miracles and prodigies be found in all history, sacred and profane.

3 Though experience be our only guide in reasoning concerning matters of fact; it must be acknowledged, that this guide is not altogether infallible, but in some cases is apt to lead us into errors. One, who in our climate, should expect better weather in any week of June than in one of December, would reason justly, and c nformably to experience; but it is certain, that he may happen, in the event, to find himself mistaken. However, we may observe, that, in such a case, he would have no cause to complain of experience; because it commonly informs us beforehand of the uncertainty, by that contrariety of events, which we may learn from a diligent observation. All effects follow not with like certainty from their supposed causes. Some events are found, in all countries and all ages, to have been constantly conjoined together: Others are found to have been more variable, and sometimes to disappoint our expectations; so that, in our reasonings concerning matter of fact, there are all imaginable degrees of assurance, from the highest certainty to the lowest species of moral evidence.

4 A wise man, therefore, proportions his belief to the evidence. In such conclusions as are founded on an infallible experience, he expects the event with the last degree of assurance, and regards his past experience as a full proof of the future existence of that event. In other cases, he proceeds with more caution: He weighs the opposite experiments: He considers which side is supported by the greater number of experiments: To that side he inclines, with doubt and hesitation; and when at last he fixes his judgment, the evidence exceeds not what we properly call probability. All probability, then, supposes an opposition of experiments and observations, where the one side is found to overbalance the other, and to produce a degree of evidence, proportioned to the superiority. A hundred instances or experiments on one side, and fifty on another, afford a doubtful expectation of any event; though a hundred uniform experiments, with only one that is contradictory, reasonably beget a pretty strong degree of assurance. In all cases, we must balance the opposite experiments, where they are opposite, and deduct the smaller number from the greater, in order to know the exact force of the superior evidence.

5 To apply these principles to a particular instance; we may observe, that there is no species of reasoning more common, more useful, and even necessary to human life, than that which is derived from the testimony of men, and the reports of eyewitnesses and spectators. This species of reasoning, perhaps, one may deny to be founded on the relation of cause and effect. I shall not dispute about a word. It will be sufficient to observe that our assurance in any argument of this kind is derived from no other principle than our observation of the veracity of human testimony, and of the usual conformity of facts to the reports of witnesses. It being a general maxim, that no objects have any discoverable connexion together, and that all the inferences, which we can draw from one to another, are founded merely on our experience of their constant and regular conjunction; it is evident, that we ought not to make an exception to this maxim in favour of human testimony, whose connexion with any event seems, in itself, as little necessary as any other. Were not the memory tenacious to a certain degree; had not men commonly an inclination to truth and a principle of probity; were they not sensible to shame, when detected in a falsehood: Were not these, I say, discovered by experience to be qualities, inherent in human nature, we should never repose the least confidence in human testimony. A man delirious, or noted for falsehood and villainy, has no manner of authority with us.

6 And as the evidence, derived from witnesses and human testimony, is founded on past experience, so it varies with the experience, and is regarded either as a proof or a probability, according as the conjunction between any particular kind of report and any kind of object has been found to be constant or variable. There are a number of circumstances to be taken into consideration in all judgments of this kind; and the ultimate standard, by which we determine all disputes, that may arise concerning them, is always derived from experience and observation. Where this experience is not entirely uniform on any side, it is attended with an unavoidable contrariety in our judgments, and with the same opposition and mutual destruction of argument as in every other kind of evidence. We frequently hesitate concerning the reports of others. We balance the opposite circumstances, which cause any doubt or uncertainty; and when we discover a superiority on any side, we incline to it; but still with a diminution of assurance, in proportion to the force of its antagonist.

7 This contrariety of evidence, in the present case, may be derived from several different causes; from the opposition of contrary testimony; from the character or number of the witnesses; from the manner of their delivering their testimony; or from the union of all these circumstances. We entertain a suspicion concerning any matter of fact, when the witnesses contradict each other; when they are but few, or of a doubtful character; when they have an interest in what they affirm; when they deliver their testimony with hesitation, or on the contrary, with too violent asseverations. There are many other particulars of the same kind, which may diminish or destroy the force of any argument, derived from human testimony.

8 Suppose, for instance, that the fact, which the testimony endeavours to establish, partakes of the extraordinary and the marvellous; in that case, the evidence, resulting from the testimony, admits of a diminution, greater or less, in proportion as the fact is more or less unusual. The reason why we place any credit in witnesses and historians, is not derived from any connexion, which we perceive a priori, between testimony and reality, but because we are accustomed to find a conformity between them. But when the fact attested is such a one as has seldom fallen under our observation, here is a contest of two opposite experiences; of which the one destroys the other, as far as its force goes, and the superior can only operate on the mind by the force, which remains. The very same principle of experience, which gives us a certain degree of assurance in the testimony of witnesses, gives us also, in this case, another degree of assurance against the fact, which they endeavour to establish; from which contradiction there necessarily arises a counterpoise, and mutual destruction of belief and authority.

9 I should not believe such a story were it told me by Cato, was a proverbial saving in Rome, even during the lifetime of that philosophical patriot. The incredibility of a fact, it was allowed, might invalidate so great an authority.

10 The Indian prince, who refused to believe the first relations concerning the effects of frost, reasoned justly; and it naturally required very strong testimony to engage his assent to facts, that arose from a state of nature, with which he was unacquainted, and which bore so little analogy to those events, of which he had had constant and uniform experience. Though they were not contrary to his experience, they were not conformable to it.

11 But in order to increase the probability against the testimony of witnesses, let us suppose, that the fact, which they affirm, instead of being only marvelous, is really miraculous; and suppose also, that the testimony considered apart and in itself, amounts to an entire proof; in that case, there is proof against proof, of which the strongest must prevail, but still with a diminution of its force in proportion to that of its antagonist.

12 A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature; and as a firm and unalterable experience has established these laws, the proof against a miracle, from the very nature of the fact, is as entire as any argument from experience can poss bly be imagined. Why is it more than probable, that all men must die; that lead cannot, of itself, remain suspended in the air; that fire consumes wood, and is extinguished by water; unless it be, that these events are found agreeable to the laws of nature, and there is required a violation of these laws, or in other words, a miracle to prevent them? Nothing is esteemed a miracle, if it ever happen in the common course of nature. It is no miracle that a man, seemingly in good health, should die on a sudden; because such a kind of death, though more unusual than any other, has yet been frequently observed to happen. But it is a miracle, that a dead man should come to life; because that has never been observed in any age or country. There must, therefore, be a uniform experience against every miraculous event, otherwise the event would not merit that appellation. And as a uniform experience amounts to a proof, there is here a direct and full proof, from the nature of the fact, against the existence of any miracle; nor can such a proof be destroyed, or the miracle rendered credible, but by an opposite proof, which is superior.

13 The plain consequence is (and it is a general maxim worthy of our attention), “That no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavours to establish: And even in that case there is a mutual destruction of arguments, and the superior only gives us an assurance suitable to that degree of force, which remains, after deducting the inferior.” When anyone tells me, that he saw a dead man restored to life, I immediately consider with myself, whether it be more probable, that this person should either deceive or be deceived, or that the fact, which he relates, should really have happened. I weigh the one miracle against the other; and according to the superiority, which I discover, I pronounce my decision, and always reject the greater miracle. If the falsehood of his testimony would be more miraculous, than the event which he relates; then, and not till then, can he pretend to command my belief or opinion.

Part 2

14 In the foregoing reasoning we have supposed, that the testimony, upon which a miracle is founded, may possibly amount to an entire proof, and that the falsehood of that testimony would be a real prodigy: But it is easy to show, that we have been a great deal too liberal in our concession, and that there never was a miraculous event established on so full an evidence.

15 For first, there is not to be found, in all history, any miracle attested by a sufficient number of men, of such unquestioned 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 and reputation 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 and in so celebrated a part of the world, as to render the detection unavoidable: All which circumstances are requisite to give us a full assurance in the testimony of men.

16 Secondly, we may observe in human nature a principle which, if strictly examined, will be found to diminish extremely the assurance, which we might, from human testimony, have in any kind of prodigy. The maxim, by which we commonly conduct ourselves in our reasonings, is, that the objects, of which we have no experience, resemble those, of which we have; that what we have found to be most usual is always most probable; and that where there is an opposition of arguments, we ought to give the preference to such as are founded on the greatest number of past observations. But th ugh, in proceeding by this rule, we readily reject any fact which is unusual and incredible in an ordinary degree; yet in advancing farther, the mind observes not always the same rule; but when anything is affirmed utterly absurd and miraculous, it rather the more readily admits of such a fact, upon account of that very circumstance, which ought to destroy all its authority. The passion of surprise and wonder, arising from miracles, being an agreeable emotion, gives a sensible tendency towards the belief of those events, from which it is derived. And this goes so far, that even those who cannot enjoy this pleasure immediately, nor can believe those miraculous events, of which they are informed, yet love to partake of the satisfaction at secondhand or by rebound, and place a pride and delight in exciting the admiration of others.

17 With what greediness are the miraculous accounts of travelers received, their descriptions of sea and land monsters, their relations of wonderful adventures, strange men, and uncouth manners? But if the spirit of religion join itself to the love of wonder, there is an end of common sense; and human testimony, in these circumstances, loses all pretensions to authority. A religionist may be an enthusiast, and imagine he sees what has no reality: He may know his narrative to be false, and yet persevere in it, with the best intentions in the world, for the sake of promoting so holy a cause: Or even where this delusion has not place, vanity, excited by so strong a temptation, operates on him more powerfully than on the rest of mankind in any other circumstances; and self-interest with equal force. His auditors may not have, and commonly have not, sufficient judgment to canvass his evidence: What judgment they have, they renounce by principle, in these sublime and mysterious subjects: Or if they were ever so willing to employ it, passion and a heated imagination disturb the regularity of its operations. Their credulity increases his impudence: And his impudence overpowers their credulity.

18 Eloquence, when at its highest pitch, leaves little room for reason or reflection; but addressing itself entirely to the fancy or the affections, captivates the willing hearers, and subdues their understanding. Happily, this pitch it seldom attains. But what a Tully or a Demosthenes could scarcely effect over a Roman or Athenian audience, every Capuchin, every itinerant or stationary teacher can perform over the generality of mankind, and in a higher degree, by touching such gross and vulgar passions.

19 The many instances of forged miracles, and prophecies, and supernatural events, which, in all ages, have either been detected by contrary evidence, or which detect themselves by their absurdity, prove sufficiently the strong propensity of mankind to the extraordinary and the marvellous, and ought reasonably to beget a suspicion against all relations of this kind. This is our natural way of thinking, even with regard to the most common and most credible events. For instance: There is no kind of report which rises so easily, and spreads so quickly, especially in country places and provincial towns, as those concerning marriages; insomuch that two young persons of equal condition never see each other twice, but the whole neighbourhood immediately join them together. The pleasure of telling a piece of news so interesting, of propagating it, and of being the first reporters of it, spreads the intelligence. And this is so well known, that no man of sense gives attention to these reports, till he find them confirmed by some greater evidence. Do not the same passions, and others still stronger, incline the generality of mankind to believe and report, with the greatest vehemence and assurance, all religious miracles?

20 Thirdly, It forms a strong presumption against all supernatural and miraculous relations, that they are observed chiefly to a ound among ignorant and barbarous nations; or if a civilized people has ever given admission to any of them, that people will be found to have received them from ignorant and barbarous ancestors, who transmitted them with that inviolable sanction and authority, which always attend received opinions. When we peruse the first histories of all nations, we are apt to imagine ourselves transported into some new world; where the whole frame of nature is disjointed, and every element performs its operations in a different manner, from what it does at present. Battles, revolutions, pestilence, famine and death, are never the effect of those natural causes, which we experience. Prodigies, omens, oracles, judgments, quite obscure the few natural events that are intermingled with them. But as the former grow thinner every page, in proportion as we advance nearer the enlightened ages, we soon learn, that there is nothing mysterious or supernatural in the case, but that all proceeds from the usual propensity of mankind towards the marvelous, and that, though this inclination may at intervals receive a check from sense and learning, it can never be thoroughly extirpated from human nature.

21 It is strange, a judicious reader is apt to say, upon the perusal of these wonderful historians, that such prodigious events never happen in our days. But it is nothing strange, I hope, that men should lie in all ages. You must surely have seen instances enough of that frailty. You have yourself heard many such marvellous relations started, which, being treated with scorn by all the wise and judicious, have at last been abandoned even by the vulgar. Be assured, that those renowned lies, which have spread and flourished to such a monstrous height, arose from like beginnings; but being sown in a more proper soil, shot up at last into prodigies almost equal to those which they relate.

22 It was a wise policy in that false prophet, Alexander, who though now forgotten, was once so famous, to lay the first scene of his impostures in Paphlagonia, where, as Lucian tells us, the people were extremely ignorant and stupid, and ready to swallow even the grossest delusion. People at a distance, who are weak enough to think the matter at all worth enquiry, have no opportunity of receiving better information. The stories come magnified to them by a hundred circumstances. Fools are industrious in propagating the imposture; while the wise and learned are contented, in general, to deride its absurdity, without informing themselves of the particular facts, by which it may be distinctly refuted. And thus the impostor above mentioned was enabled to proceed, from his ignorant Paphlagonians, to the enlisting of votaries, even among the Grecian philosophers, and men of the most eminent rank and distinction in Rome; nay, could engage the attention of that sage emperor Marcus Aurelius; so far as to make him trust the success of a military expedition to his delusive prophecies.

23 The advantages are so great, of starting an imposture among an ignorant people, that, even though the delusion should be too gross to impose on the generality of them (which, though seldom, is sometimes the case) it has a much better chance for succeeding in remote countries, than if the first scene had been laid in a city renowned for arts and knowledge. The most ignorant and barbarous of these barbarians carry the report abroad. None of their countrymen have a large correspondence, or sufficient credit and authority to contradict and beat down the delusion. Men’s inclination to the marvellous has full opportunity to display itself. And thus a story, which is universally exploded in the place where it was first started, shall pass for certain at a thousand miles distance. But had Alexander fixed his residence at Athens, the philosophers of that renowned mart of learning had immediately spread, throughout the whole Roman empire, their sen e of the matter; which, being supported by so great authority, and displayed by all the force of reason and eloquence, had entirely opened the eyes of mankind. It is true; Lucian, passing by chance through Paphlagonia, had an opportunity of performing this good office. But, though much to be wished, it does not always happen, that every Alexander meets with a Lucian, ready to expose and detect his impostures.

24 I may add as a fourth reason, which diminishes the authority of prodigies, that there is no testimony for any, even those which have not been expressly detected, that is not opposed by an infinite number of witnesses; so that not only the miracle destroys the credit of testimony, but the testimony destroys itself. To make this the better understood, let us consider, that, in matters of religion, whatever is different is contrary; and that it is impossible the religions of ancient Rome, of Turkey, of Siam, and of China should, all of them, be established on any solid foundation. Every miracle, therefore, pretended to have been wrought in any of these religions (and all of them abound in miracles), as its direct scope is to establish the particular system to which it is attributed; so has it the same force, though more indirectly, to overthrow every other system. In destroying a rival system, it likewise destroys the credit of those miracles, on which that system was established; so that all the prodigies of different religions are to be regarded as contrary facts, and the evidences of these prodigies, whether weak or strong, as opposite to each other. According to this method of reasoning, when we believe any miracle of Mahomet or his successors, we have for our warrant the testimony of a few barbarous Arabians: And on the other hand, we are to regard the authority of Titus Livius, Plutarch, Tacitus, and, in short, of all the authors and witnesses, Grecian, Chinese, and Roman Catholic, who have related any miracle in their particular religion; I say, we are to regard their testimony in the same light as if they had mentioned that Mahometan miracle, and had in express terms contradicted it, with the same certainty as they have for the miracle they relate. This argument may appear over subtle and refined; but is not in reality different from the reasoning of a judge, who supposes, that the credit of two witnesses, maintaining a crime against any one, is destroyed by the testimony of two others, who affirm him to have been two hundred leagues distant, at the same instant when the crime is said to have been committed.

25 One of the best attested miracles in all profane history, is that which Tacitus reports of Vespasian, who cured a blind man in Alexandria, by means of his spittle, and a lame man by the mere touch of his foot; in obedience to a vision of the god Serapis, who had enjoined them to have recourse to the Emperor, for these miraculous cures. The story may be seen in that fine historian where every circumstance seems to add weight to the testimony, and might be displayed at large with all the force of argument and eloquence, if any one were now concerned to enforce the evidence of that exploded and idolatrous superstition. The gravity, solidity, age, and probity of so great an emperor, who, through the whole course of his life, conversed in a familiar manner with his friends and courtiers, and never affected those extraordinary airs of divinity assumed by Alexander and Demetrius. The historian, a contemporary writer, noted for candour and veracity, and withal, the greatest and most penetrating genius, perhaps, of all antiquity; and so free from any tendency to credulity, that he even lies under the contrary imputation, of atheism and profaneness: The persons, from whose authority he related the miracle, of established character for judgment and veracity, as we may well presume; eyewitnesses of the fact, and confirming their testimony, after the Flavian family was despoiled of the empire, and could no longer give any reward, as the p ice of a lie. Utrumque, qui interfuere, nunc quoque memorant, postquam nullum mendacio pretium. To which if we add the public nature of the facts, as related, it will appear, that no evidence can well be supposed stronger for so gross and so palpable a falsehood.

26 There is also a memorable story related by Cardinal de Retz, which may well deserve our consideration. When that intriguing politician fled into Spain, to avoid the persecution of his enemies, he passed through Saragossa, the capital of Aragon, where he was shown, in the cathedral, a man, who had served seven years as a doorkeeper, and was well known to every body in town, that had ever paid his devotions at that church. He had been seen, for so long a time, wanting a leg; but recovered that limb by the rubbing of holy oil upon the stump; and the cardinal assures us that he saw him with two legs. This miracle was vouched by all the canons of the church; and the whole company in town were appealed to for a confirmation of the fact; that the cardinal found, by their zealous devotion, to be thorough believers of the miracle. Here the relater was also contemporary to the supposed prodigy, of an incredulous and libertine character, as well as of great genius; the miracle of so singular a nature as could scarcely admit of a counterfeit, and the witnesses very numerous, and all of them, in a manner, spectators of the fact, to which they gave their testimony. And what adds mightily to the force of the evidence, and may double our surprise on this occasion, is, that the cardinal himself, who relates the story, seems not to give any credit to it, and consequently cannot be suspected of any concurrence in the holy fraud. He considered justly, that it was not requisite, in order to reject a fact of this nature, to be able accurately to disprove the testimony, and to trace its falsehood, through all the circumstances of knavery and credulity which produced it. He knew, that, as this was commonly altogether impossible at any small distance of time and place; so was it extremely difficult, even where one was immediately present, by reason of the bigotry, ignorance, cunning, and roguery of a great part of mankind. He therefore concluded, like a just reasoner, that such an evidence carried falsehood upon the very face of it, and that a miracle, supported by any human testimony, was more properly a subject of derision than of argument.

27 There surely never was a greater number of miracles ascribed to one person, than those, which were lately said to have been wrought in France upon the tomb of Abbé Paris, the famous Jansenist, with whose sanctity the people were so long deluded. The curing of the sick, giving hearing to the deaf, and sight to the blind, were everywhere talked of as the usual effects of that holy sepulchre. But what is more extraordinary; many of the miracles were immediately proved upon the spot, before judges of unquestioned integrity, attested by witnesses of credit and distinction, in a learned age, and on the most eminent theatre that is now in the world. Nor is this all: A relation of them was published and dispersed everywhere; nor were the Jesuits, though a learned body, supported by the civil magistrate, and determined enemies to those opinions, in whose favour the miracles were said to have been wrought, ever able distinctly to refute or detect them. Where shall we find such a number of circumstances, agreeing to the corroboration of one fact? And what have we to oppose to such a cloud of witnesses, but the absolute impossibility or miraculous nature of the events, which they relate? And this surely, in the eyes of all reasonable people, will alone be regarded as a sufficient refutation.

28 Is the consequence just, because some human testimony has the utmost force and authority in some cases, when it relates the battle of Philippi or Pharsalia for instance; that therefore all kinds of testimony must, in all cases, hav equal force and authority? Suppose that the Caesarean and Pompeian factions had, each of them, claimed the victory in these battles, and that the historians of each party had uniformly ascribed the advantage to their own side; how could mankind, at this distance, have been able to determine between them? The contrariety is equally strong between the miracles related by Herodotus or Plutarch, and those delivered by Mariana, Bede, or any monkish historian.

29 The wise lend a very academic faith to every report which favours the passion of the reporter; whether it magnifies his country, his family, or himself, or in any other way strikes in with his natural inclinations and propensities. But what greater temptation than to appear a missionary, a prophet, an ambassador from heaven? Who would not encounter many dangers and difficulties, in order to attain so sublime a character? Or if, by the help of vanity and a heated imagination, a man has first made a convert of himself, and entered seriously into the delusion; who ever scruples to make use of pious frauds, in support of so holy and meritorious a cause?

30 The smallest spark may here kindle into the greatest flame; because the materials are always prepared for it. The avidum genus auricularum, the gazing populace, receive greedily, without examination, whatever sooths superstition, and promotes wonder.

31 How many stories of this nature have, in all ages, been detected and exploded in their infancy? How many more have been celebrated for a time, and have afterwards sunk into neglect and oblivion? Where such reports, therefore, fly about, the solution of the phenomenon is obvious; and we judge in conformity to regular experience and observation, when we account for it by the known and natural principles of credulity and delusion. And shall we, rather than have recourse to so natural a solution, allow of a miraculous violation of the most established laws of nature?

32 I need not mention the difficulty of detecting a falsehood in any private or even public history, at the place, where it is said to happen; much more when the scene is removed to ever so small a distance. Even a court of judicature, with all the authority, accuracy, and judgment, which they can employ, find themselves often at a loss to distinguish between truth and falsehood in the most recent actions. But the matter never comes to any issue, if trusted to the common method of altercations and debate and flying rumours; especially when men’s passions have taken part on either side.

33 In the infancy of new religions, the wise and learned commonly esteem the matter too inconsiderable to deserve their attention or regard. And when afterwards they would willingly detect the cheat in order to undeceive the deluded multitude, the season is now past, and the records and witnesses, which might clear up the matter, have perished beyond recovery.

34 No means of detection remain, but those which must be drawn from the very testimony itself of the reporters: And these, though always sufficient with the judicious and knowing, are commonly too fine to fall under the comprehension of the vulgar.

35 Upon the whole, then, it appears, that no testimony for any kind of miracle has ever amounted to a probability, much less to a proof; and that, even supposing it amounted to a proof, it would be opposed by another proof; derived from the very nature of the fact, which it would endeavour to establish. It is experience only, which gives authority to human testimony; and it is the same experience, which assures us of the laws of nature. When, therefore, these two kinds of experience are contrary, we have nothing to do but subtract the one from the other, and embrace an opinion, either on one side, or the other, with that assurance which arises from the remainder. But according to the principle here explained, this subtraction, with r gard to all popular religions, amounts to an entire annihilation; and therefore we may establish it as a maxim, that no human testimony can have such force as to prove a miracle, and make it a just foundation for any such system of religion.

36 I beg the limitations here made may be remarked, when I say, that a miracle can never be proved, so as to be the foundation of a system of religion. For I own, that otherwise, there may possibly be miracles, or violations of the usual course of nature, of such a kind as to admit of proof from human testimony; though, perhaps, it will be impossible to find any such in all the records of history. Thus, suppose, all authors, in all languages, agree, that, from the first of January 1600, there was a total darkness over the whole earth for eight days: Suppose that the tradition of this extraordinary event is still strong and lively among the people: That all travelers, who return from foreign countries, bring us accounts of the same tradition, without the least variation or contradiction: It is evident that our present philosophers, instead of doubting the fact, ought to receive it as certain, and ought to search for the causes whence it might he derived. The decay, corruption, and dissolution of nature, is an event rendered probable by so many analogies, that any phenomenon, which seems to have a tendency towards that catastrophe, comes within the reach of human testimony, if that testimony be very extensive and uniform.

37 But suppose, that all the historians who treat of England, should agree, that, on the first of January 1600, Queen Elizabeth died; that both before and after her death she was seen by her physicians and the whole court, as is usual with persons of her rank; that her successor was acknowledged and proclaimed by the parliament; and that, after being interred a month, she again appeared, resumed the throne, and governed England for three years: I must confess that I should be surprised at the concurrence of so many odd circumstances, but should not have the least inclination to believe so miraculous an event. I should not doubt of her pretended death, and of those other public circumstances that followed it: I should only assert it to have been pretended, and that it neither was, nor possibly could be real. You would in vain object to me the difficulty, and almost impossibility of deceiving the world in an affair of such consequence; the wisdom and solid judgment of that renowned queen; with the little or no advantage which she could reap from so poor an artifice: All this might astonish me; but I would still reply, that the knavery and folly of men are such common phenomena, that I should rather believe the most extraordinary events to arise from their concurrence, than admit of so signal a violation of the laws of nature.

38 But should this miracle be ascribed to any new system of religion; men, in all ages, have been so much imposed on by ridiculous stories of that kind, that this very circumstance would be a full proof of a cheat, and sufficient, with all men of sense, not only to make them reject the fact, but even reject it without farther examination. Though the Being to whom the miracle is ascribed, be, in this case, Almighty, it does not, upon that account, become a whit more probable; since it is impossible for us to know the attributes or actions of such a Being, otherwise than from the experience which we have of his productions, in the usual course of nature. This still reduces us to past observation, and obliges us to compare the instances of the violation of truth in the testimony of men, with those of the violation of the laws of nature by miracles, in order to judge which of them is most likely and probable. As the violations of truth are more common in the testimony concerning religious miracles, than in that concerning any other matter of fact; this must diminish very much the authority of the former testimony, and make us form a general resolution, never to lend any attention t it, with whatever specious pretence it may be covered.

39 Lord Bacon seems to have embraced the same principles of reasoning. “We ought,” says he, “to make a collection or particular history of all monsters and prodigious births or productions, and in a word of every thing new, rare, and extraordinary in nature. But this must be done with the most severe scrutiny, lest we depart from truth. Above all, every relation must be considered as suspicious, which depends in any degree upon religion, as the prodigies of Livy: And no less so, everything that is to be found in the writers of natural magic or alchemy, or such authors, who seem, all of them, to have an unconquerable appetite for falsehood and fable.”

40 I am the better pleased with the method of reasoning here delivered, as I think it may serve to confound those dangerous friends or disguised enemies to the Christian religion, who have undertaken to defend it by the principles of human reason. Our most holy religion is founded on faith, not on reason; and it is a sure method of exposing it to put it to such a trial, as it is, by no means, fitted to endure. To make this more evident, let us examine those miracles, related in scripture; and not to lose ourselves in too wide a field, let us confine ourselves to such as we find in the Pentateuch, which we shall examine, according to the principles of these pretended Christians, not as the word or testimony of God himself, but as the production of a mere human writer and historian. Here then we are first to consider a book, presented to us by a barbarous and ignorant people, written in an age when they were still more barbarous, and in all probability long after the facts which it relates, corroborated by no concurring testimony, and resembling those fabulous accounts, which every nation gives of its origin. Upon reading this book, we find it full of prodigies and miracles. It gives an account of a state of the world and of human nature entirely different from the present: Of our fall from that state: Of the age of man, extended to near a thousand years: Of the destruction of the world by a deluge: Of the arbitrary choice of one people, as the favourites of heaven; and that people the countrymen of the author: Of their deliverance from bondage by prodigies the most astonishing imaginable: I desire any one to lay his hand upon his heart, and after a serious consideration declare, whether he thinks that the falsehood of such a book, supported by such a testimony, would be more extraordinary and miraculous than all the miracles it relates; which is, however, necessary to make it be received, according to the measures of probability above established.

41 What we have said of miracles may be applied, without any variation, to prophecies; and indeed, all prophecies are real miracles, and as such only, can be admitted as proofs of any revelation. If it did not exceed the capacity of human nature to foretell future events, it would be absurd to employ any prophecy as an argument for a divine mission or authority from heaven. So that, upon the whole, we may conclude, that the Christian religion not only was at first attended with miracles, but even at this day cannot be believed by any reasonable person without one. Mere reason is insufficient to convince us of its veracity: And whoever is moved by faith to assent to it, is conscious of a continued miracle in his own person, which subverts all the principles of his understanding, and gives him a determination to believe what is most contrary to custom and experience.

An Account of My Last Interview With David Hume, Esq.

[Partly rec rded in my Journal, partly enlarged from my memory, 3 March 1777.]

JAMES BOSWELLJames Boswell was reluctant to believe in Hume’s stoicism, which is what helps lend the account its authenticity. Hume died just as the American Revolution—which he had foreseen and supported—was breaking out. His own views had a marked effect on many of those who signed the Declaration of Independence.

On Sunday forenoon the 7 of July 1776, being too late for church, I went to see Mr. David Hume, who was returned from London and Bath, just a-dying. I found him alone, in a reclining posture in his drawing room. He was lean, ghastly, and quite of an earthy appearance. He was dressed in a suit of grey cloth with white metal buttons, and a kind of scratch wig. He was quite different from the plump figure, which he used to present. He had before him Dr. Campbell’s Philosophy of Rhetoric. He seemed to be placid and even cheerful. He said he was just approaching to his end. I think these were his words. I know not how I contrived to get the subject of immortality introduced. He said he never had entertained any belief in religion since he began to read Locke and Clarke. I asked him if he was not religious when he was young. He said he was, and he used to read The Whole Duty of Man; that he made an abstract from the catalogue of vices at the end of it, and examined himself by this, leaving out murder and theft and such vices as he had no chance of committing, having no inclination to commit them. This, he said, was strange work; for instance, to try if, notwithstanding his excelling his schoolfellows, he had no pride or vanity. He smiled in ridicule of this as absurd and contrary to fixed principles and necessary consequences, not adverting that religious discipline does not mean to extinguish, but to moderate, the passions; and certainly an excess of pride or vanity is dangerous and generally hurtful. He then said flatly that the morality of every religion was bad, and, I really thought, was not jocular when he said that when he heard a man was religious, he concluded he was a rascal, though he had known some instances of very good men being religious. This was just an extravagant reverse of the common remark as to infidels.

I had a strong curiosity to be satisfied if he persisted in disbelieving a future state even when he had death before his eyes. I was persuaded from what he now said, and from his manner of saying it, that he did persist. I asked him if it was not possible that there might be a future state. He answered it was possible that a piece of coal put upon the fire would not burn; and he added that it was a most unreasonable fancy that we should exist forever. That immortality, if it were at all, must be general; that a great proportion of the human race has hardly any intellectual qualities; that a great proportion dies in infancy before being possessed of reason; yet all these must be immortal; that a porter who gets drunk by ten o’clock with gin must be immortal; that the trash of every age must be preserved, and that new universes must be created to contain such infinite numbers. This appeared to me an unphilosophical objection, and I said, “Mr. Hume, you know spirit does not take up space.”

I may illustrate what he last said by mentioning that in a former conversation with me on this subject he used pretty much the same mode of reasoning, and urged that Wilkes and his mob must be immortal. One night last May as I was coming up King Street, Westminster, I met Wilkes, who carried me into Parliament Street to see a curious procession pass: the funeral of a lamplighter attended by some hundreds of his fraternity with torches. Wilkes, who either is, or affects to be, an infidel, was rattling away, “I think there’s an end of that fellow. I think he won’t rise again.” I very calmly said to him, “You bring into my mind the strongest argument that ever I heard against a future state”; and then told him David Hume’s objection that Wilkes and his mob must be immortal. It seemed to make a proper impression, for he grinned abashment, as a Negro grows whiter when he blushes. But to return to my last interview with Mr. Hume.

I asked him if the thought of annihilation never gave him any uneasiness. He said not the least; no more than the thought that he had not been, as Lucretius observes. “Well,” said I, “Mr. Hume, 1 hope to triumph over you when I meet you in a future state; and remember you are not to pretend that you was joking with all this infidelity.” “No, no,” said he. “But I shall have been so long there before you come that it will be nothing new.” In this style of good humour and levity did I conduct the conversation. Perhaps it was wrong on so awful a subject. But as nobody was present, I thought it could have no bad effect. I however felt a degree of horror, mixed with a sort of wild, strange, hurrying recollection of my excellent mother’s pious instructions, of Dr. Johnson’s noble lessons, and of my religious sentiments and affections during the course of my life. I was like a man in sudden danger eagerly seeking his defensive arms; and I could not but be assailed by momentary doubts while I had actually before me a man of such strong abilities and extensive inquiry dying in the persuasion of being annihilated. But I maintained my faith. I told him that I believed the Christian religion as I believed history. Said he: “You do not believe it as you believe the Revolution.” “Yes,” said I, “but the difference is that I am not so much interested in the truth of the Revolution; otherwise I should have anxious doubts concerning it. A man who is in love has doubts of the affection of his mistress, without cause.” I mentioned Soame Jenyns’s little book in defense of Christianity, which was just published but which I had not yet read. Mr. Hume said, “I am told there is nothing of his usual spirit in it.”

He had once said to me, on a forenoon while the sun was shining bright, that he did not wish to be immortal. This was a most wonderful thought. The reason he gave was that he was very well in this state of being, and that the chances were very much against his being so well in another state; and he would rather not be more than be worse. I answered that it was reasonable to hope he would be better; that there would be a progressive improvement. I tried him at this interview with that topic, saying that a future state was surely a pleasing idea. He said no, for that it was always seen through a gloomy medium; there was always a Phlegethon or a hell. “But,” said I, “would it not be agreeable to have hopes of seeing our friends again?” and I mentioned three men lately deceased, for whom I knew he had a high value: Ambassador Keith, Lord Alemoor, and Baron Mure. He owned it would be agreeable, but added that none of them entertained such a notion. I believe he said, such a foolish, or such an absurd, notion; for he was indecently and impolitely positive in incredulity. “Yes,” said I, “Lord Alemoor was a believer.” David acknowledged that he had some belief.

I somehow or other brought Dr. Johnson’s name into our conversation. I had often heard him speak of that great man in a very illiberal manner. He said upon this occasion, “Johnson should be pleased with my History.” Nettled by Hume’s frequent attacks upon my revered friend in former conversations, I told him n w that Dr. Johnson did not allow him much credit; for he said, “Sir, the fellow is a Tory by chance.” I am sorry that I mentioned this at such a time. I was off my guard; for the truth is that Mr. Hume’s pleasantry was such that there was no solemnity in the scene; and death for the time did not seem dismal. It surprised me to find him talking of different matters with a tranquility of mind and a clearness of head, which few men possess at any time. Two particulars I remember: Smith’s Wealth of Nations, which he commended much, and Monboddo’s Origin of Language, which he treated contemptuously. I said, “If I were you, I should regret annihilation. Had I written such an admirable history I should be sorry to leave it.” He said, “I shall leave that history, of which you are pleased to speak so favourably, as perfect as I can.” He said, too, that all the great abilities with which men had ever been endowed were relative to this world. He said he became a greater friend to the Stuart family as he advanced in studying for his history; and he hoped he had vindicated the two first of them so effectually that they would never again be attacked.

Mr. Lauder, his surgeon, came in for a little, and Mr. Mure, the Baron’s son, for another small interval. He was, as far as I could judge, quite easy with both. He said he had no pain, but was wasting away. I left him with impressions that disturbed me for some time.

(Additions from memory, January 22, 1778.) Speaking of his singular notion that men of religion were generally bad men, he said, “One of the men” (or “The man”—I am not sure which) “of the greatest honour that I ever knew is my Lord Marischal, who is a downright atheist. I remember I once hinted something as if I believed in the being of a God, and he would not speak to me for a week.” He said this with his usual grunting pleasantry, with that thick breath which fatness had rendered habitual to him, and that smile of simplicity, which his good humour constantly produced.

When he spoke against Monboddo, I told him that Monboddo said to me that he believed the abusive criticism upon his book in The Edinburgh Magazine and Review was written by Mr. Hume’s direction. David seemed irritated, and said, “Does the scoundrel” (I am sure either that or “rascal”) “say so?” He then told me that he had observed to one of the Faculty of Advocates that Monboddo was wrong in his observation that and gave as a proof the line in Milton. When the review came out, he found this very remark in it, and said to that advocate, “Oho! I have discovered you”—reminding him of the circumstance.1

It was amazing to find him so keen in such a state. I must add one other circumstance, which is material, as it shows that he perhaps was not without some hope of a future state, and that his spirits were supported by a consciousness (or at least a notion) that his conduct had been virtuous. He said, “If there were a future state, Mr. Boswell, I think I could give as good an account of my life as most people.”

A Refutation of Deism PERCY BYSSHE SHELLEYIt isn’t so long since a test of Anglican orthodoxy was applied to anyone seeking to study or teach at Oxford and Cambridge universities. One of the most celebrated victims of this theocratic policy was Shelley (1792–1811) who was expelled from University College, Oxford, for writing a pamphlet entitled The Necessity of Atheism. He and his poetry were much influenced by the climate of skepticism engendered by the French and Scottish enlightenments, and he himself was to marry the daughter of the freethinker William Godwin. In this extract from A Refutation of Deism, Shelley sets about the propaganda of the creationists.

Design must be proved before a designer can be inferred. The matter in controversy is the existence of design in the Universe, and it is not permitted to assume the contested premises and thence infer the matter in dispute. Insidiously to employ the words contrivance, design, and adaptation before these circumstances are made apparent in the Universe, thence justly inferring a contriver is a popular sophism against which it behooves us to be watchful.

To assert that motion is an attribute of mind, that matter is inert, that every combination is the result of intelligence is also an assumption of the matter in dispute.

Why do we admit design in any machine of human contrivance? Simply, because innumerable instances of machines having been contrived by human art are present to our mind, because we are acquainted with persons who could construct such machines; but if, having no previous knowledge of any artificial contrivance, we had accidentally found a watch upon the ground, we should have been justified in concluding that it was a thing of Nature, that it was a combination of matter with whose cause we were unacquainted, and that any attempt to account for the origin of its existence would be equally presumptuous and unsatisfactory.

The analogy, which you attempt to establish between the contrivances of human art and the various existences of the Universe, is inadmissible. We attribute these effects to human intelligence, because we know before hand that human intelligence is capable of producing them. Take away this knowledge, and the grounds of our reasoning will be destroyed. Our entire ignorance, therefore, of the Divine Nature leaves this analogy defective in its most essential point of comparison.

What consideration remains to be urged in support of the creation of the Universe by a supreme Being? Its admirable fitness for the production of certain effects, that wonderful consent of all its parts, that universal harmony by whose changeless laws innumerable systems of worlds perform their stated revolutions, and the blood is driven through the veins of the minutest animalcule that sports in the corruption of an insect’s lymph: on this account did the Universe require an intelligent Creator, because it exists producing invariable effects, and inasmuch as it is admirably organized for the production of these effects, so the more did it require a creative intelligence.

Thus have we arrived at the substance of your assertion, “That whatever exists, producing certain effects, stands in need of a Creator, and the more conspicuous is its fitness for the production of these effects, the more certain will be our conclusion that it would not have existed from eternity, but must have derived its origin from an intelligent creator.”

In what respect then do these arguments apply to the Universe, and not apply to God? From the fitness of the Universe to its end you infer the necessity of an intelligent Creator. But if the fitness of the Universe, to produce certain effects, be thus conspicuous and evident, how much more exquisite fitness to his end must exist in the Author of this Universe? If we find great difficulty from its admirable arrangement, in conceiving that the Universe has existed from all eternity, and to resolve this difficulty suppose a Creat r, how much more clearly must we perceive the necessity of this very Creator’s creation whose perfections comprehend an arrangement far more accurate and just.

The belief of an infinity of creative and created Gods, each more eminently requiring an intelligent author of his being than the foregoing, is a direct consequence of the premises, which you have stated. The assumption that the Universe is a design, leads to a conclusion that there are infinity of creative and created Gods, which is absurd. It is impossible indeed to prescribe limits to learned error, when Philosophy relinquishes experience and feeling for speculation.

Until it is clearly proved that the Universe was created, we may reasonably suppose that it has endured from all eternity. In a case where two propositions are diametrically opposite, the mind believes that which is less incomprehensible: it is easier to suppose that the Universe has existed from all eternity, than to conceive an eternal being capable of creating it. If the mind sinks beneath the weight of one, is it an alleviation to encrease the intolerability of the burthen?

A man knows, not only that he now is, but also that there was a time when he did not exist; consequently there must have been a cause. But we can only infer, from effects, causes exactly adequate to those effects. There certainly is a generative power which is effected by particular instruments; we cannot prove that it is inherent in these instruments, nor is the contrary hypothesis capable of demonstration. We admit that the generative power is incomprehensible, but to suppose that the same effects are produced by an eternal Omnipotent and Omniscient Being, leaves the cause in the same obscurity, but renders it more incomprehensible.

We can only infer from effects causes exactly adequate to those effects. An infinite number of effects demand an infinite number of causes, nor is the philosopher justified in supposing a greater connection or unity in the latter, than is perceptible in the former. The same energy cannot be at once the cause of the serpent and the sheep; of the blight by which the harvest is destroyed, and the sunshine by which it is matured; of the ferocious propensities by which man becomes a victim to himself, and of the accurate judgment by which his institutions are improved. The spirit of our accurate and exact philosophy is outraged by conclusions that contradict each other so glaringly.

The greatest, equally with the smallest motions of the Universe, are subjected to the rigid necessity of inevitable laws. These laws are the unknown causes of the known effects perceivable in the Universe. Their effects are the boundaries of our knowledge, their names the expressions of our ignorance. To suppose some existence beyond, or above them, is to invent a second and superfluous hypothesis to account for what has already been accounted for by the laws of motion and the properties of matter. I admit that the nature of these laws is incomprehensible, but the hypothesis of a Deity adds a gratuitous difficulty, which so far from alleviating those that it is adduced to explain, requires new hypotheses for the elucidation of its own inherent contradictions.

The laws of attraction and repulsion, desire and aversion, suffice to account for every phenomenon of the moral and physical world. A precise knowledge of the properties of any object is alone requisite to determine its manner of action. Let the mathematician be acquainted with the weight and volume of a cannonball, together with the degree of velocity and inclination with which it is impelled, and he will accurately delineate the course it must describe, and determine the force with which it will strike an object at a given distance. Let the influencing motive, present to the mind of any person be given, and the knowledge of his consequent conduct will result. Let the bulk and velocity of a comet be discovered, and the a tronomer, by the accurate estimation of the equal and contrary actions of the centripetal and centrifugal forces, will justly predict the period of its return.

The anomalous motions of the heavenly bodies, their unequal velocities and frequent aberrations, are corrected by that gravitation by which they are caused. The illustrious Laplace has shewn, that the approach of the Moon to the Earth, and the Earth to the Sun, is only a secular equation of a very long period, which has its maximum and minimum. The system of the Universe then is upheld solely by physical powers. The necessity of matter is the ruler of the world. It is vain philosophy that supposes more causes than are exactly adequate to explain the phenomena of things….

You assert that the construction of the animal machine, the fitness of certain animals to certain situations, the connexion between the organs of perception and that which is perceived; the relation between every thing which exists, and that which tends to preserve it in its existence, imply design. It is manifest that if the eye could not see, nor the stomach digest, the human frame could not preserve its present mode of existence. It is equally certain, however, that the elements of its composition, if they did not exist in one form, must exist in another; and that the combinations which they would form, must so long as they endured, derive support for their peculiar mode of being from their fitness to the circumstances of their situation.

It by no means follows, that because a being exists, performing certain functions, he was fitted by another being to the performance of these functions. So rash a conclusion would conduct, as I have before shewn, to an absurdity; and it becomes infinitely more unwarrantable from the consideration that the known laws of matter and motion, suffice to unravel, even in the present imperfect state of moral and physical science, the majority of those difficulties which the hypothesis of a Deity was invented to explain.

Doubtless no disposition of inert matter, or matter deprived of qualities, could ever have composed an animal, a tree, or even a stone. But matter deprived of qualities, is an abstraction, concerning which it is impossible to form an idea. Matter, such as we behold it, is not inert. It is infinitely active and subtile. Light, electricity and magnetism are fluids not surpassed by thought itself in tenuity and activity; like thought they are sometimes the cause and sometimes the effect of motion; and, distinct as they are from every other class of substances, with which we are acquainted, seem to possess equal claims with thought to the unmeaning distinction of immateriality.

The laws of motion and the properties of matter suffice to account for every phenomenon, or combination of phenomena exhibited in the Universe. That certain animals exist in certain climates, results from the consentaneity of their frames to the circumstances of their situation: let these circumstances be altered to a sufficient degree, and the elements of their composition must exist in some new combination no less resulting than the former from those inevitable laws by which the Universe is governed….

What then is this harmony, this order that you maintain to have required for its establishment, what it needs not for its maintenance, the agency of a supernatural intelligence? Inasmuch as the order visible in the Universe requires one cause, so does the disorder whose operation is not less clearly apparent demand another. Order and disorder are no more than modifications of our own perceptions of the relations which subsist between ourselves and external objects, and if we are justified in inferring the operation of a benevolent power from the advantages attendant on the former, the evils of the latter bear equal testimony to the activity of a malignant principle, no less pertinacious in inducing evil out of good, than the other is unremitting in procuring good from evil.

If we permit our imagination to traverse the obscure regions of possibility, we may doubtless imagine, according to the complexion of our minds, that disorder may have a relative tendency to unmingled good, or order be relatively replete with exquisite and subtile evil. To neither of these conclusions, which are equally presumptuous and unfounded, will it become the philosopher to assent. Order and disorder are expressions denoting our perceptions of what is injurious or beneficial to ourselves, or to the beings in whose welfare we are compelled to sympathize by the similarity of their conformation to our own.

A beautiful antelope panting under the fangs of a tiger, a defenceless ox, groaning beneath the butcher’s axe, is a spectacle, which instantly awakens compassion in a virtuous and unvitiated breast. Many there are, however, sufficiently hardened to the rebukes of justice and the precepts of humanity, as to regard the deliberate butchery of thousands of their species, as a theme of exultation and a source of honour, and to consider any failure in these remorseless enterprises as a defect in the system of things. The criteria of order and disorder are as various as those beings from whose opinions and feelings they result.

Populous cities are destroyed by earthquakes, and desolated by pestilence. Ambition is every where devoting its millions to incalculable calamity. Superstition, in a thousand shapes, is employed in brutalizing and degrading the human species, and fitting it to endure without a murmur the oppression of its innumerable tyrants. All this is abstractedly neither good nor evil because good and evil are words employed to designate that peculiar state of our own perceptions, resulting from the encounter of any object calculated to produce pleasure or pain. Exclude the idea of relation, and the words good and evil are deprived of import.

Earthquakes are injurious to the cities that they destroy, beneficial to those whose commerce was injured by their prosperity, and indifferent to others which are too remote to be affected by their influence. Famine is good to the corn-merchant, evil to the poor, and indifferent to those whose fortunes can at all times command a superfluity. Ambition is evil to the restless bosom it inhabits, to the innumerable victims who are dragged by its ruthless thirst for infamy, to expire in every variety of anguish, to the inhabitants of the country it depopulates, and to the human race whose improvement it retards; it is indifferent with regard to the system of the Universe, and is good only to the vultures and the jackals that track the conqueror’s career, and to the worms who feast in security on the desolation of his progress. It is manifest that we cannot reason with respect to the universal system from that which only exists in relation to our own perceptions.

You allege some considerations in favor of a Deity from the universality of a belief in his existence.

The superstitions of the savage, and the religion of civilized Europe appear to you to conspire to prove a first cause. I maintain that it is from the evidence of revelation alone that this belief derives the slightest countenance.

That credulity should be gross in proportion to the ignorance of the mind that it enslaves, is in strict consistency with the principles of human nature. The idiot, the child and the savage, agree in attributing their own passions and propensities to the inanimate substances by which they are either benefited or injured. The former become Gods and the latter Demons; hence prayers and sacrifices, by the means of which the rude Theologian imagines that he may confirm the benevolence of the one, or mitigate the malignity of the other. He has averted the wrath of a powerful enemy by supplications and submission; he has secured the assistance of his neighbour by offerings; he ha felt his own anger subside before the entreaties of a vanquished foe, and has cherished gratitude for the kindness of another. Therefore does he believe that the elements will listen to his vows. He is capable of love and hatred towards his fellow beings, and is variously impelled by those principles to benefit or injure them. The source of his error is sufficiently obvious. When the winds, the waves and the atmosphere act in such a manner as to thwart or forward his designs, he attributes to them the same propensities of whose existence within himself he is conscious when he is instigated by benefits to kindness, or by injuries to revenge. The bigot of the woods can form no conception of beings possessed of properties differing from his own: it requires, indeed, a mind considerably tinctured with science, and enlarged by cultivation to contemplate itself, not as the centre and model of the Universe, but as one of the infinitely various multitude of beings of which it is actually composed.

There is no attribute of God which is not either borrowed from the passions and powers of the human mind, or which is not a negation. Omniscience, Omnipotence, Omnipresence, Infinity, Immutability, Incomprehensibility, and Immateriality, are all words that designate properties and powers peculiar to organised beings, with the addition of negations, by which the idea of limitation is excluded.

That the frequency of a belief in God (for it is not Universal) should be any argument in its favor, none to whom the innumerable mistakes of men are familiar, will assert. It is among men of genius and science that Atheism alone is found, but among these alone is cherished an hostility to those errors, with which the illiterate and vulgar are infected.

How small is the proportion of whose who really believe in God, to the thousands who are prevented by their occupations from ever bestowing a serious thought upon the subject, and the millions who worship butterflies, bones, feathers, monkeys, calabashes and serpents. The word God, like other abstractions, signifies the agreement of certain propositions, rather than the presence of any idea. If we found our belief in the existence of God on the universal consent of mankind, we are duped by the most palpable of sophisms. The word God cannot mean at the same time an ape, a snake, a bone, a calabash, a Trinity, and a Unity. Nor can that belief be accounted universal against which men of powerful intellect and spotless virtue have in every age protested….

Intelligence is that attribute of the Deity, which you hold to be most apparent in the Universe. Intelligence is only known to us as a mode of animal being. We cannot conceive intelligence distinct from sensation and perception, which are attributes to organized bodies. To assert that God is intelligent, is to assert that he has ideas; and Locke has proved that ideas result from sensation. Sensation can exist only in an organized body, an organized body is necessarily limited both in extent and operation. The God of the rational Theosophist is a vast and wise animal….

Thus, from the principles of that reason to which you so rashly appealed as the ultimate arbiter of our dispute, have I shewn that the popular arguments in favor of the being of God are totally destitute of colour. I have shewn the absurdity of attributing intelligence to the cause of those effects that we perceive in the Universe, and the fallacy that lurks in the argument from design. I have shewn that order is no more than a peculiar manner of contemplating the operation of necessary agents, that mind is the effect, not the cause of motion, that power is the attribute, not the origin of Being. I have proved that we can have no evidence of the existence of a God from the principles of reason.

Moral Influences in Early Youth: My Father’s Character and Opinions

From Autobiography

JOHN STUART MILLThe son of another Scotsman, the philosopher James Mill, John Stuart Mill (1806–1873) is best remembered for the terrifying precocity of his education at the hands of his distinguished parent, and of other great contemporaries such as David Ricardo and Jeremy Bentham, whose theory of “the greatest happiness for the greatest number” he was to go on to refine. Mill’s political career was distinguished by firm opposition to slavery and by advocacy of the rights of women. Even this great and brave Victorian was afraid to affirm his irreligious views in public: his three essays on the subject (including a brilliant critique of the notion of immortality) were not published until after his death. By a nice coincidence, he was a godfather to Bertrand Russell.

In my education, as in that of every one, the moral influences, which are so much more important than all others, are also the most complicated, and the most difficult to specify with any approach to completeness. Without attempting the hopeless task of detailing the circumstances by which, in this respect, my early character may have been shaped, I shall confine myself to a few leading points, which form an indispensable part of any true account of my education.

I was brought up from the first without any religious belief, in the ordinary acceptation of the term. My father, educated in the creed of Scotch presbyterianism, had by his own studies and reflexions been early led to reject not only the belief in revelation, also the foundations of what is commonly called Natural Religion. I have heard him say, that the turning point of his mind on the subject was reading Butler’s Analogy. That work, of which he always continued to speak with respect, kept him, as he said, for some considerable time, a believer in the divine authority of Christianity; by proving to him, that whatever are the difficulties in believing that the Old and New Testaments proceed from, or record the acts of, a perfectly wise and good being, the same and still greater difficulties stand in the way of the belief, that a being of such a character can have been the Maker of the universe. He considered Butler’s argument as conclusive against the only opponents for whom it was intended. Those who admit an omnipotent as well as perfectly just and benevolent maker and ruler of such a world as this, can say little against Christianity but what can, with at least equal force, be retorted against themselves. Finding, therefore, no halting place in Deism, he remained in a state of perplexity, until, doubtless after many struggles, he yielded to the conviction, that concerning the origin of things nothing whatever can be known. This is the only correct statement of his opinion; for dogmatic atheism he looked upon as absurd; as most of those, whom the world has considered atheists, have always done. These particulars are important, because they shew that my father’s rejection of all that is called religious belief, was not, as many might suppose, primarily a matter of logic and evidence: the grounds of it were moral, still more than intellectual. He found it impossible to believe that a world so full of evil was the work of an Author combining infinite power with perfect goodness and righteousness. His intellect spurned the subtleties by which men attempt to blind themselves to this open contradiction. The Sabæan, or Manichæan theory of a Good and an Evil Principle, struggling a ainst each other for the government of the universe, he would not have usually condemned; and I have heard him express surprise, that no one revived it in our time. He would have regarded it as a mere hypothesis; but he would have ascribed to it no depraving influence. As it was, his aversion to religion, in the sense usually attached to the term, was of same kind with that of Lucretius: he regarded it with the feelings due not to a mere mental delusion, but to a great moral evil. He looked upon it as the greatest enemy of morality: first, by setting up factitious excellencies,—belief in creeds, devotional feelings, and ceremonies, not connected with the good of human kind,—and causing these to be accepted as substitutes for genuine virtues: but above all, by radically vitiating the standard of morals; making it consist in doing the will of a being, on whom it lavishes indeed all the phrases of adulation, but whom in sober truth it depicts as eminently hateful. I have a hundred times heard him say, that all ages and nations have represented their gods as wicked, in a constantly increasing progression; that mankind have gone on adding trait after trait till they reached the most perfect conception of wickedness which the human mind could devise, and have called this God, and prostrated themselves before it. This ne plus ultra of wickedness he considered to be embodied in what is commonly presented to mankind as the creed of Christianity. Think (he used to say) of a being who would make a Hell—who would create the human race with the infallible foreknowledge, and therefore with the intention, that the great majority of them were to be consigned to horrible and everlasting torment. The time, I believe, is drawing near when this dreadful conception of an object of worship will be no longer identified with Christianity; and when all persons, with any sense of moral good and evil, will look upon it with the same indignation with which my father regarded it. My father was as well aware as any one that Christians do not, in general, undergo the demoralizing consequences which seem inherent in such a creed, in the manner or to the extent which might have been expected from it. The same slovenliness of thought, and subjection of the reason to fears, wishes, and affections, which enable them to accept a theory involving a contradiction in terms, prevents them from perceiving the logical consequences of the theory. Such is the facility with which mankind believe at one and the same time things inconsistent with one another, and so few are those who draw from what they receive as truths, any consequences but those recommended to them by their feelings, that multitudes have held the undoubting belief in an Omnipotent Author of Hell, and have nevertheless identified that being with the best conception they were able to form of perfect goodness. Their worship was not paid to the demon which such a Being as they imagined would really be, but to their own ideal of excellence. The evil is, that such a belief keeps the ideal wretchedly low; and opposes the most obstinate resistance to all thought which has a tendency to raise it higher. Believers shrink from every train of ideas that would lead the mind to a clear conception and an elevated standard of excellence, because they feel (even when they do not distinctly see) that such a standard would conflict with many of the dispensations of nature, and with much of what they are accustomed to consider as the Christian creed. And thus morality continues a matter of blind tradition, with no consistent principle, nor even any consistent feeling, to guide it.

It would have been wholly inconsistent with my father’s ideas of duty, to allow me to acquire impressions contrary to his convictions and feelings respecting religion: and he impressed upon me from the first, that the manner in which the world came into existence was a subject on which nothing was known: that the question “Who made me?” cannot be answered, because we have no experience or authentic information from which to answer it; and that any answer only throws the difficulty a step further back, since the question immediately presents itself, Who made God? He, at the same time, took care that I should be acquainted with what had been thought by mankind on these impenetrable problems. I have mentioned at how early an age he made me a reader of ecclesiastical history; and he taught me to take the strongest interest in the Reformation, as the great and decisive contest against priestly tyranny for liberty of thought.

I am thus one of the very few examples, in this country, of one who has, not thrown off religious belief, but never had it: I grew up in a negative state with regard to it. I looked upon the modern exactly as I did upon the ancient religion, as something that in no way concerned me. It did not seem to me more strange that English people should believe what I did not, than that the men whom I read of in Herodotus should have done so. History had made the variety of opinions among mankind a fact familiar to me, and this was but a prolongation of that fact. This point in my early education had however incidentally one bad consequence deserving notice. In giving me an opinion contrary to that of the world, my father thought it necessary to give it as one which could not prudently be avowed to the world. This lesson of keeping my thoughts to myself, at that early age, was attended with some moral disadvantages; though my limited intercourse with strangers, especially such as were likely to speak to me on religion, prevented me from being placed in the alternative of avowal or hypocrisy. I remember two occasions in my boyhood, on which I felt myself in this alternative, and in both cases I avowed my disbelief and defended it. My opponents were boys, considerably older than myself: one of them I certainly staggered at the time, but the subject was never renewed between us: the other, who was surprised and somewhat shocked, did his best to convince me for some time, without effect.

The great advance in liberty of discussion, which is one of the most important differences between the present time and that of my childhood, has greatly altered the moralities of this question and I think that few men of my father’s intellect and public spirit, holding with such intensity of moral conviction as he did, unpopular opinions on religion, or on any other of the great subjects of thought, would now either practise or inculcate the withholding of them from the world, unless in the cases, becoming fewer every day, in which frankness on these subjects would either risk the loss of means of subsistence, or would amount to exclusion from some sphere of usefulness peculiarly suitable to the capacities of the individual. On religion in particular the time appears to me to have come, when it is the duty of all who being qualified in point of knowledge, have on mature consideration satisfied themselves that the current opinions are not only false but hurtful, to make their dissent known; at least, if they are among those whose station, or reputation, gives their opinion a chance of being attended to. Such an avowal would put an end, at once and for ever, to the vulgar prejudice, that what is called, very improperly, unbelief, is connected with any bad qualities either of mind or heart. The world would be astonished if it knew how great a proportion of its brightest ornaments—of those most distinguished even in popular estimation for wisdom and virtue—are complete sceptics in religion; many of them refraining from avowal, less from personal considerations, than from a conscientious, though now in my opinion a most mistaken apprehension lest by speaking out what would tend to weaken existing beliefs, and by consequence (as they suppose) existing restraints, they should do harm instead of good.

Of unbelievers (so called) as well as of believers, there are many species, including almost every variety of moral type. But the best among them, as no one who has had opportunities of really knowing them will hesitate to affirm (believers rarely have that opportunity), are more genuinely religious, in the best sense of the word religion, than those who exclusively arrogate to themselves the title. The liberality of the age, or in other words the weakening of the obstinate prejudice, which makes men unable to see what is before their eyes because it is contrary to their expectations, has caused it to be very commonly admitted that a Deist may be truly religious: but if religion stands for any graces of character and not for mere dogma, the assertion may equally be made of many whose belief is far short of Deism. Though they may think the proof incomplete that the universe is a work of design, and though they assuredly disbelieve that it can have an Author and Governor who is absolute in power as well as perfect in goodness, they have that which constitutes the principal worth of all religions whatever, an ideal conception of a Perfect Being, to which they habitually refer as the guide of their conscience; and this ideal of Good is usually far nearer to perfection than the objective Deity of those, who think themselves obliged to find absolute goodness in the author of a world so crowded with suffering and so deformed by injustice as ours.

My father’s moral convictions, wholly dissevered from religion, were very much of the character of those of the Greek philosophers; and were delivered with the force and decision which characterized all that came from him. Even at the very early age at which I read with him the Memorabilia of Xenophon, I imbibed from that work and from his comments a deep respect for the character of Socrates; who stood in my mind as a model of ideal excellence: and I well remember how my father at that time impressed upon me the lesson of the “Choice of Hercules.” At a somewhat later period the lofty moral standard exhibited in the writings of Plato operated upon me with great force. My father’s moral inculcations were at all times mainly those of the Socratici viri; justice, temperance (to which he gave a very extended application), veracity, perseverance, readiness to encounter pain and especially labour, regard for the public good; estimation of persons according to their merits, and of things according to their intrinsic usefulness; a life of exertion, in contradiction to one of self-indulgent sloth. These and other moralities he conveyed in brief sentences, uttered as occasion arose, of grave exhortation, or stern reprobation and contempt.

But though direct moral teaching does much, indirect does more; and the effect my father produced on my character, did not depend solely on what he said or did with that direct object, but also, and still more, on what manner of man he was.

In his views of life he partook of the character of the Stoic, the Epicurean, and the Cynic, not in the modern but the ancient sense of the word. In his personal qualities the Stoic predominated. His standard of morals was Epicurean, inasmuch as it was utilitarian, taking as the exclusive test of right and wrong, the tendency of actions to produce pleasure or pain. But he had (and this was the Cynic element) scarcely any belief in pleasure; at least in his later years, of which alone, on this point, I can speak confidently. He was not insensible to pleasures; but he deemed very few of them worth the price which, at least in the present state of society, must be paid for them. The greatest number of miscarriages in life, he considered to be attributable to the overvaluing of pleasures. Accordingly, temperance, in the large sense intended by the Greek philosophers—stopping short at the point of moderation in all indulgences—was with him, as with them, almost the central point of educational precept. His inculcations of this virtue fill a large place in my childish remembrances. He thought human life a poor thing at best, after the freshness of youth and of unsatisfied curiosity had gone by. This was a topic on which he did not often speak, especially, it may be supposed, in the presence of young persons: but when he did, it was with an air of settled and profound conviction. He would sometimes say, that if life were made what it might be, by good government and good education, it would be worth having: but he never spoke with anything like enthusiasm even of that possibility. He never varied in rating intellectual enjoyments above all others, even in value as pleasures, independently of their ulterior benefits. The pleasures of the benevolent affections he placed high in the scale; and used to say, that he had never known a happy old man, except those who were able to live over again in the pleasures of the young. For passionate emotions of all sorts, and for everything which has been said or written in exaltation of them, he professed the greatest contempt. He regarded them as a form of madness. “The intense” was with him a bye-word of scornful disapprobation. He regarded as an aberration of the moral standard of modern times, compared with that of the ancients, the great stress laid upon feeling. Feelings, as such, he considered to be no proper subjects of praise or blame. Right and wrong, good and bad, he regarded as qualities solely of conduct—of acts and omissions; there being no feeling which may not lead, and does not frequently lead, either to good or to bad actions: conscience itself, the very desire to act right, often leading people to act wrong. Consistently carrying out the doctrine, that the object of praise and blame should be the discouragement of wrong conduct and the encouragement of right, he refused to let his praise or blame be influenced by the motive of the agent. He blamed as severely what he thought a bad action, when the motive was a feeling of duty, as if the agents had been consciously evil doers. He would not have accepted as a plea in mitigation for inquisitors, that they sincerely believed burning heretics to be an obligation of conscience. But though he did not allow honesty of purpose to soften his disapprobation of actions, it had its full effect on his estimation of characters. No one prized conscientiousness and rectitude of intention more highly, or was more incapable of valuing any person in whom he did not feel assurance of it. But he disliked people quite as much for any other deficiency, provided he thought it equally likely to make them act ill. He disliked, for instance, a fanatic in any bad cause, as much or more than one who adopted the same cause from self-interest, because he thought him even more likely to be practically mischievous. And thus, his aversion to many intellectual errors, or what he regarded as such, partook, in a certain sense, of the character of a moral feeling. All this is merely saying that he, in a degree once common, but now very unusual, threw his feelings into his opinions; which truly it is difficult to understand how any one, who possesses much of both, can fail to do. None but those who do not care about opinions will confound it with intolerance. Those who, having opinions which they hold to be immensely important, and the contraries to be prodigiously hurtful, have any deep regard for the general good, will necessarily dislike, as a class and in the abstract, those who think wrong what they think right, and right what they think wrong: though they need not therefore be, nor was my father, insensible to good qualities in an opponent, nor governed in their estimation of individuals by one general presumption, instead of by the whole of their character. I grant that an earnest person, being no more infallible than other men, is liable to dislike people on account of opinions which do not merit dislike; but if he neither himself does them any ill office, nor connives at its being done by others, he is not intolerant: and the forbearance, which flows from a conscientious sense of the importance to mankind of the equal freedom of all opinions, is the only tolerance which is commendable, or, to the highest moral order of minds, possible.

Contribution to the Critique of

Hegel’s Philosophy of Right


KARL MARXThe founder of the attempt to make socialism scientific rather than utopian was a man who had repudiated the Judaism of his ancestors, a man who hoped in vain to do for political economy what Charles Darwin had done for the natural sciences, and the author of perhaps the most widely quoted anti-religious remark ever made. In this discussion of Hegel, it can be seen that Marx was not as simplistic about the sources of belief as most people think. When read in context, the “opium” observation becomes more profound. Few now doubt that wars between different factions of religion (the subject of the rest of this essay) are the product of unresolved contradictions in the material world.

For Germany the criticism of religion is in the main complete, and criticism of religion is the premise of all criticism.

The profane existence of error is discredited after its heavenly oratio pro aris et focis has been rejected. Man, who looked for a superman in the fantastic reality of heaven and found nothing there but the reflexion of himself, will no longer be disposed to find but the semblance of himself, the non-human [Unmensch] where he seeks and must seek his true reality.

The basis of irreligious criticism is: Man makes religion, religion does not make man. In other words, religion is the self-consciousness and self-feeling of man who has either not yet found himself or has already lost himself again. But man is no abstract being squatting outside the world. Man is the world of man, the state, society. This state, this society, produce religion, a reversed world-consciousness, because they are a reversed world. Religion is the general theory of that world, its encyclopaedic compendium, its logic in a popular form, its spiritualistic point d’honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn completion, its universal ground for consolation and justification. It is the fantastic realization of the human essence because the human essence has no true reality. The struggle against religion is therefore mediately the fight against the other world, of which religion is the spiritual aroma.

Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people.

The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness. The demand to give up the illusions about its condition is the demand to give up a condition which needs illusions. The criticism of religion is therefore in embryo the criticism of the vale of woe, the halo of which is religion.

Criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers from the chain not so that man will wear the chain without any fantasy or consolation but so that he will shake off the chain and cull the living flower. The criticism of religion disillusions man to make him think and act and shape his reality like a man who has been disillusioned and has come to reason, so that he will revolve round himself and therefore round his true sun. Religion is only the illusory sun which revolves round man as long as he does not revolve round himself.

The task of history, therefore, once the world beyond the truth has disappeared, is to establish the truth of this world. The immediate task of philosophy, which is at the service of history, once the saintly form of human self-alienation has been unmasked, is to unmask self-alienation in its unholy forms. Thus the criticism of heaven turns into the criticism of the earth, the criticism of religion into the criticism of right and the criticism of theology into the criticism of politics.

The following exposition—a contribution to that work—bears immediately not on the original, but on a copy, the German philosophy of state and of right, for the single reason that it is written in Germany.

If one wanted to proceed from the status quo itself in Germany, even in the only appropriate way, i.e., negatively, the result would still be an anachronism. Even the negation of our political present is already covered with dust in the historical lumber-room of modern nations. If I negate the powdered pigtail, I still have an unpowdered pigtail. If I negate the German state of affairs in 1843, then, according to the French computation of time, I am hardly in the year 1789, and still less in the focus of the present.

Yes, German history flatters itself with a movement which no people in the heaven of history went through before it or will go through after it. For we shared the restorations of the modern nations although we had not shared their revolutions. We were restored, first because other nations dared to carry out a revolution and second because other nations suffered a counter-revolution, the first time because our rulers were afraid, and the second because our rulers were not afraid. Led by our shepherds, we never found ourselves in the company of freedom except once—on the day of its burial.

A school which legalizes the baseness of today by the baseness of yesterday, a school that declares rebellious every cry of the serf against the knout once that knout is a time-honoured, ancestral, historical one, a school to which history only shows its a posteriori as the God of Israel did to his servant Moses—the historical school of right— would hence have discovered German history had it not been a discovery of German history itself. Shylock, but Shylock the servant, it swears on its bond, its historical bond, its Christian-Germanic bond, to have every pound of flesh cut from the heart of the people.

Good-natured enthusiasts, Germanomaniacs by extraction and free-thinkers by reflexion, on the contrary, seek our history of freedom beyond our history in the ancient Teutonic forests. But what difference is there between the history of our freedom and the history of the boar’s freedom if it can be found only in the forests? Besides, it is common knowledge that the forest echoes back what you shout into it. So peace to the ancient Teutonic forests!

War on the German state of affairs! By all means! They are below the level of history, they are beneath any criticism, but they are still an object of criticism like the criminal who is below the level of humanity but still an object for the executioner. In the struggle against that state of affairs criticism is no passion of the head, it is the head of passion. It is not a lancet, it is a weapon. Its object is its enemy, which it wants not to refute but to exterminate. For the spirit of that state of affairs is refuted. In itself it is no object worthy of thought, it is an existence which is as despicable as it is despised. Criticism does not need to make things clear to itself as regards this object, for it has already settled accounts with it. It no longer assumes the quality of an end in itself, but only of a means. Its essential pathos is indignation, its essential work is denunciation.

It is a case of describing the dull reciprocal pressure of all social spheres one on another, a general inactive ill humour, a limitedness which recognizes itself as much as it mistakes itself, within the frame of a government system which, living on the preservation of all wretchedness, is itself nothing but wretchedness in office.

What a sight! This infinitely proceeding division of society into the most manifold races opposed to one another by petty antipathies, uneasy consciences and brutal mediocrity, and which, precisely because of their reciprocal ambiguous and distrustful attitude, are all, without exception although with various formalities, treated by their rulers as conceded existences. And they must recognize and acknowledge as a concession of heaven the very fact that they are mastered, ruled, possessed! And on the other side are the rulers themselves, whose greatness is in inverse proportion to their number!

Criticism dealing with this content is criticism in a hand-to-hand fight, and in such a fight the point is not whether the opponent is a noble, equal, interesting opponent, the point is to strike him. The point is not to let the Germans have a minute for self-deception and resignation. The actual pressure must be made more pressing by adding to it consciousness of pressure, the shame must be made more shameful by publicizing it. Every sphere of German society must be shown as the partie honteuse of German society; these petrified relations must be forced to dance by singing their own tune to them! The people must be taught to be terrified at itself in order to give it courage. This will be fulfilling an imperative need of the German nation, and the needs of the nations are in themselves the ultimate reason for their satisfaction.

This struggle against the limited content of the German status quo cannot be without interest even for the modern nations, for the German status quo is the open completion of the ancien régime, and the ancien régime is the concealed deficiency of the modern state. Th struggle against the German political present is the struggle against the past of the modern nations, and they are still burdened with reminders of that past. It is instructive for them to see the ancien régime, which has been through its tragedy with them, playing its comedy as a German revenant. Tragic indeed was the history of the ancien régime so long as it was the pre-existing power of the world, and freedom, on the other hand, was a personal notion; in short, as long as it believed and had to believe in its own justification. As long as the ancien régime, as an existing world order, struggled against a world that was only coming into being, there was on its side a historical error, not a personal one. That is why its downfall was tragic.

On the other hand, the present German régime, an anachronism, a flagrant contradiction of generally recognized axioms, the nothingness of the ancien régime exhibited to the world, only imagines that it believes in itself and demands that the world should imagine the same thing. If it believed in its own essence, would it try to hide that essence under the semblance of an alien essence and seek refuge in hypocrisy and sophism? The modern ancien régime is rather only the comedian of a world order whose true heroes are dead. History is thorough and goes through many phases when carrying an old form to the grave. The last phase of a world-historical form is its comedy. The gods of Greece, already tragically wounded to death in Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound, had to re-die a comic death in Lucian’s Dialogues. Why this course of history? So that humanity should part with its past cheerfully. This cheerful historical destiny is what we vindicate for the political authorities of Germany.

Meanwhile, once modern politico-social reality itself is subjected to criticism, once criticism rises to truly human problems, it finds itself outside the German status quo or else it would reach out for its object below its object. An example. The relation of industry, of the world of wealth generally, to the political world is one of the major problems of modern times. In what form is this problem beginning to engage the attention of the Germans? In the form of protective duties, of the prohibitive system, of national economy. Germanomania has passed out of man into matter, and thus one morning our cotton barons and iron heroes saw themselves turned into patriots. People are therefore beginning in Germany to acknowledge the sovereignty of monopoly on the inside through lending it sovereignty on the outside. People are therefore now about to begin in Germany with what people in France and England are about to end. The old corrupt condition against which these countries are revolting in theory and which they only bear as one bears chains is greeted in Germany as the dawn of a beautiful future which still hardly dares to pass from crafty theory to the most ruthless practice. Whereas the problem in France and England is: Political economy or the rule of society over wealth, in Germany it is: National economy or the mastery of private property over nationality. In France and England, then, it is a case of abolish ng monopoly that has proceeded to its last consequences; in Germany it is a case of proceeding to the last consequences of monopoly. There it is a case of solution, here as yet a case of collision. This is an adequate example of the German form of modern problems, an example of how our history, like a clumsy recruit, still has to do extra drill on things that are old and hackneyed in history.

If therefore the whole German development did not exceed the German political development, a German could at the most have the share in the problems of the present that a Russian has. But, when the separate individual is not bound by the limitations of the nation, the nation as a whole is still less liberated by the liberation of one individual. The fact that Greece had a Scythian among its philosophers did not help the Scythians to make a single step towards Greek culture.

Luckily we Germans are not Scythians.

As the ancient peoples went through their pre-history in imagination, in mythology, so we Germans have gone through our post-history in thought, in philosophy. We are philosophical contemporaries of the present without being its historical contemporaries. German philosophy is the ideal prolongation of German history. If therefore, instead of the œuvres incomplètes of our real history, we criticize the œuvres posthumes of our ideal history, philosophy, our criticism is in the midst of the questions of which the present says: that is the question. What in progressive nations is a practical break with modern state conditions is in Germany, where even those conditions do not yet exist, at first a critical break with the philosophical reflexion of those conditions.

German philosophy of right and state is the only German history which is al pari with the official modern present. The German nation must therefore join this its dream-history to its present conditions and subject to criticism not only these existing conditions, but at the same time their abstract continuation. Its future cannot be limited either to the immediate negation of its real conditions of state and right or to the immediate implementation of its ideal state and right conditions, for it has the immediate negation of its real conditions in its ideal conditions, and it has almost outlived the immediate implementation of its ideal conditions in the contemplation of neighbouring nations. Hence it is with good reason that the practical political party in Germany demands the negation of philosophy. It is wrong, not in its demand, but in stopping at the demand, which it neither seriously implements nor can implement. It believes that it implements that negation by turning its back to philosophy and its head away from it and muttering a few trite and angry phrases about it. Owing to the limitation of its outlook it does not include philosophy in the circle of German reality or it even fancies it is beneath German practice and the theories that serve it. You demand that real life embryos be made the starting-point but you forget that the real life embryo of the German nation has grown so far only inside its cranium. In a word—You cannot abolish philosophy without making it a reality.

The same mistake, but with the factors reversed, was made by the theoretical party originating from philosophy.

In the present struggle it saw only the critical struggle of philosophy against the German world; it did not give a thought to the fact that philosophy up to the present itself belongs to this world and is its completion, although an ideal one. Critical towards its counterpart, it was uncritical towards itself when, proceeding from the premises of philosophy, it either stopped at the results given by philosophy or passed off demands and results from somewhere else as immediate demands and results of philosophy, although these, provided they are justified, can be obtained only by the negation of philosophy up to the present, of philosophy as such. We reserve ourselves the right to a more detailed description of this section. Its basic deficiency may be reduced to the following: It thought it could make philosophy a reality without abolishing it.

The criticism of the German philosophy of state and right, which attained its most consistent, richest and last formulation through Hegel, is both a critical analysis of the modern state and of the reality connected with it, and the resolute negation of the whole manner of the German consciousness in politics and right as practised hereto, the most distinguished, most universal expression of which, raised to the level of a science, is the speculative philosophy of right itself. If the speculative philosophy of right, that abstract extravagant thinking on the modern state, the reality of which remains a thing of the beyond, if only beyond the Rhine, was possible only in Germany, inversely the German thought-image of the modern state which makes abstraction of real man was possible only because and insofar as the modern state itself makes abstraction of real man or satisfies the whole of man only in imagination. In politics the Germans thought what other nations did. Germany was their theoretical conscience. The abstraction and presumption of its thought was always in step with the one-sidedness and lowliness of its reality. If therefore the status quo of German statehood expresses the completion of the ancien régime, the completion of the thorn in the flesh of the modern state, the status quo of German state science expresses the incompletion of the modern state, the defectiveness of its flesh itself.

Already as the resolute opponent of the previous form of German political consciousness the criticism of speculative philosophy of right strays, not into itself, but into problems which there is only one means of solving—practice.

It is asked: can Germany attain a practice à la hauteur des principes, i.e., a revolution which will raise it not only to the official level of the modern nations but to the height of humanity which will be the near future of those nations?

The weapon of criticism cannot, of course, replace criticism of the weapon, material force must be overthrown by material force; but theory also becomes a material force as soon as it has gripped the masses. Theory is capable of gripping the masses as soon as it demonstrates ad hominem, and it demonstrates ad hominem as soon as it becomes radical. To be radical is to grasp the root of the matter. But for man the root is man himself. The evident proof of the radicalism of German theory, and hence of its practical energy, is that it proceeds from a resolute positive abolition of religion. The criticism of religion ends with the teaching that man is the highest essence for man, hence with the categoric imperative to overthrow all relations in which man is a debased, enslaved, abandoned, despicable essence, relations which cannot be better described than by the cry of a Frenchman when it was planned to introduce a tax on dogs: Poor dogs! They want to treat you as human beings!

Even historically, theoretical emancipation has specific practical significance for Germany. For Germany’s revolutionary past is theoretical, it is the Reformation. As the revolution then began in the brain of the monk, so now it begins in the brain of the philosopher.

Luther, we grant, overcame bondage out of devotion by replacing it by bondage out of conviction. He shattered faith in authority because he restored the authority of faith. He turned priests into laymen because he turned laymen into priests. He freed man from outer religiosity because he made religiosity the inner man. He freed the body from chains because he enchained the heart.

But if Protestantism was not the true solution of the problem it was at least the true setting of it. It was no longer a case of the layman’s struggle against the priest outside himself but of his struggle against his own priest inside himself, his priestly nature. And if the Protestant transformation of the German laymen into priests emancipated the lay popes, the princes, with the whole of their priestly clique, the privileged and philistines, the philosophical transformation of priestly Germans into men will emancipate the people. But secularization will not stop at the confiscation of church estates set in motion mainly by hypocritical Prussia any more than emancipation stops at princes. The Peasant War, the most radical fact of German history, came to grief because of theology. Today, when theology itself has come to grief, the most unfree fact of German history, our status quo, will be shattered against philosophy. On the eve of the Reformation official Germany was the most unconditional slave of Rome. On the eve of its revolution it is the unconditional slave of less than Rome, of Prussia and Austria, of country junkers and philistines.

Meanwhile, a major difficulty seems to stand in the way of a radical German revolution.

For revolutions require a passive element, a material basis. Theory is fulfilled in a people only insofar as it is the fulfillment of the needs of that people. But will the monstrous discrepancy between the demands of German thought and the answers of German reality find a corresponding discrepancy between civil society and the state and between civil society and itself? Will the theoretical needs be immediate practical needs? It is not enough for thought to strive for realization, reality must itself strive towards thought.

But Germany did not rise to the intermediary stage of political emancipation at the same time as the modern nations. It has not yet reached in practice the stages which it has surpassed in theory. How can it do a somersault, not only over its own limitations, but also at the same time over the limitations of the modern nations, over limitations which it must in reality feel and strive for as for emancipation from its real limitations? Only a revolution of radical needs can be a radical revolution and it seems that precisely the preconditions and ground for such needs are lacking.

If Germany has accompanied the development of the modern nations only with the abstract activity of thought without taking an effective share in the real struggle of that development, it has, on the other hand, shared the sufferings of that development, without sharing in its enjoyment or its partial satisfaction. To the abstract activity on the one hand corresponds the abstract suffering on the other. That is why Germany will one day find itself on the level of European decadence before ever having been on the level of European emancipation. It will be comparable to a fetish worshipper pining away with the diseases of Christianity.

If we now consider the German governments we find that because of the circumstances of the time, because of Germany’s condition, because of the standpoint of German education and finally under the impulse of its own fortunate instinct, they are driven to combine the civilized shortcomings of the modern state world, the advantages of which we do not enjoy, with the barbaric deficiencies of the ancien régime, which we enjoy in full; hence Germany must share more and more, if not in the reasonableness, at least in the unreasonableness of those state formations which are beyond the bounds of its status quo. Is there in the world, for example, a country which shares so naively in all the illusions of constitutional statehood without sharing in its realities as so-called constitutional Germany? And was it not perforce the notion of a German government to combine the tortures of censorship with the tortures of the French September laws which provide for freedom of the press? As you could find the gods of all nations in the Roman Pantheon, so you will find in the Germans’ Holy Roman Empire all the sins of all state forms. That this eclecticism will reach a so far unprecedented height is guaranteed in particular by the political-aesthetic gourmanderie of a German king who intended to play all the roles of monarchy, whether feudal or bureaucratic, absolute or constitutional, autocratic or democratic, if not in the person of the people, at least in his own person, and if not for the people, at least for himself. Germany, as the deficiency of the political present constituted as a world of its own, will not be able to throw down the specific German limitations without throwing down the general limitation of the political present.

It is not the radical revolution, not the general human emancipation which is a utopian dream for Germany, but rather the partial, the merely political revolution, the revolution which leaves the pillars of the house standing. On what is a partial, a merely political revolution based? On part of civil society emancipating itself and attaining general domination; on a definite class, proceeding from its particular situation, undertaking the general emancipation of society. This class emancipates the whole of society but only provided the whole of soc ety is in the same situation as this class, e.g., possesses money and education or can acquire them at will.

No class of civil society can play this role without arousing a moment of enthusiasm in itself and in the masses, a moment in which it fraternizes and merges with society in general, becomes confused with it and is perceived and acknowledged as its general representative, a moment in which its claims and rights are truly the claims and rights of society itself, a moment in which it is truly the social head and the social heart. Only in the name of the general rights of society can a particular class vindicate for itself general domination. For the storming of this emancipatory position, and hence for the political exploitation of all sections of society in the interests of its own section, revolutionary energy and spiritual self-feeling alone are not sufficient. For the revolution of a nation and the emancipation of a particular class of civil society to coincide, for one estate to be acknowledged as the estate of the whole society, all the defects of society must conversely be concentrated in another class, a particular estate must be the estate of the general stumbling-block, the incorporation of the general limitation, a particular social sphere must be recognized as the notorious crime of the whole of society, so that liberation from that sphere appears as general self-liberation. For one estate to be par excellence the estate of liberation, another estate must conversely be the obvious estate of oppression. The negative general significance of the French nobility and the French clergy determined the positive general significance of the nearest neighbouring and opposed class of the bourgeoisie.

But no particular class in Germany has the consistency, the penetration, the courage, or the ruthlessness that could mark it out as the negative representative of society. No more has any estate the breadth of soul that identifies itself, even for a moment, with the soul of the nation, the geniality that inspires material might to political violence, or that revolutionary daring which flings at the adversary the defiant words: I am nothing but I must be everything. The main stem of German morals and honesty, of the classes as well as of individuals, is rather that modest egoism which asserts its limitedness and allows it to be asserted against itself. The relation of the various sections of German society is therefore not dramatic but epic. Each of them begins to be aware of itself and begins to camp beside the others with all its particular claims not as soon as it is oppressed, but as soon as the circumstances of the time relations, without the section’s own participation, create a social substratum on which it can in turn exert pressure. Even the moral self-feeling of the German middle class rests only on the consciousness that it is the common representative of the philistine mediocrity of all the other classes. It is therefore not only the German kings who accede to the throne mal a propos, it is every section of civil society which goes through a defeat before it celebrates victory and develops its own limitations before it overcomes the limitations facing it, asserts its narrow-hearted essence before it has been able to assert its magnanimous essence; thus the very opportunity of a great role has passed away before it is to hand, and every class, once it begins the struggle against the class opposed to it, is involved in the struggle against the class below it. Hence the higher nobility is struggling against the monarchy, the bureaucrat against the nobility, and the bourgeois against them all, while the proletariat is already beg nning to find itself struggling against the bourgeoisie. The middle class hardly dares to grasp the thought of emancipation from its own standpoint when the development of the social conditions and the progress of political theory already declare that standpoint antiquated or at least problematic.

In France it is enough for somebody to be something for him to want to be everything; in Germany nobody can be anything if he is not prepared to renounce everything. In France partial emancipation is the basis of universal emancipation; in Germany universal emancipation is the conditio sine qua non of any partial emancipation. In France it is the reality of gradual liberation that must give birth to complete freedom, in Germany the impossibility of gradual liberation. In France every class of the nation is a political idealist and becomes aware of itself at first not as a particular class but as a representative of social requirements generally. The role of emancipator therefore passes in dramatic motion to the various classes of the French nation one after the other until it finally comes to the class which implements social freedom no longer with the provision of certain conditions lying outside man and yet created by human society, but rather organizes all conditions of human existence on the premises of social freedom. On the contrary, in Germany, where practical life is as spiritless as spiritual life is unpractical, no class in civil society has any need or capacity for general emancipation until it is forced by its immediate condition, by material necessity, by its very chains.

Where, then, is the positive possibility of a German emancipation?

Answer: In the formation of a class with radical chains, a class of civil society which is not a class of civil society, an estate which is the dissolution of all estates, a sphere which has a universal character by its universal suffering and claims no particular right because no particular wrong but wrong generally is perpetrated against it; which can invoke no historical but only its human title, which does not stand in any one-sided antithesis to the consequences but in all-round antithesis to the premises of German statehood; a sphere, finally, which cannot emancipate itself without emancipating itself from all other spheres of society and thereby emancipating all other spheres of society, which, in a word, is the complete loss of man and hence can win itself only through the complete re-winning of man. This dissolution of society as a particular estate is the proletariat.

The proletariat is beginning to appear in Germany as a result of the rising industrial movement. For it is not the naturally arising poor but the artificially impoverished, not the human masses mechanically oppressed by the gravity of society but the masses resulting from the drastic dissolution of society, mainly of the middle estate, that form the proletariat; although, as is easily understood, the naturally arising poor and the Christian-Germanic serfs gradually join its ranks.

By heralding the dissolution of the hereto existing world order the proletariat merely proclaims the secret of its own existence, for it is the factual dissolution of that world order. By demanding the negation of private property, the proletariat merely ra ses to the rank of a principle of society what society has raised to the rank of its principle, what is already incorporated in it as the negative result of society without its own participation. The proletarian then finds himself possessing the same right in regard to the world which is coming into being as the German king in regard to the world which has come into being when he calls the people his people as he calls the horse his horse. By declaring the people his private property the king merely proclaims that the private owner is king.

As philosophy finds its material weapon in the proletariat, so the proletariat finds its spiritual weapon in philosophy. And once the lightning of thought has squarely struck this ingenuous soil of the people the emancipation of the Germans into men will be accomplished.

Let us sum up the result:

The only practically possible liberation of Germany is liberation from the point of view of the theory which proclaims man to be the highest essence of man. In Germany emancipation from the Middle Ages is possible only as emancipation from the partial victories over the Middle Ages as well. In Germany no kind of bondage can be shattered without every kind of bondage being shattered. The fundamental Germany cannot revolutionize without revolutionizing from the foundation. The emancipation of the German is the emancipation of man. The head of this emancipation is philosophy, its heart is the proletariat. Philosophy cannot be made a reality without the abolition of the proletariat, the proletariat cannot be abolished without philosophy being made a reality.

When all inner requisites are fulfilled the day of German resurrection will be proclaimed by the crowing of the cock of Gaul.


Evangelical Teaching GEORGE ELIOTAnother student of Hegel (and Feuerbach and the other German idealists) was Mary Ann Evans (1819–1890) who wrote imperishable novels under the nom de plume of George Eliot. She translated David Friedrich Strauss’s book Das Leben Jesu, with its subversive claim that the purported events of the New Testament were mythical. In defiance of Victorian morality, she set up a home with the married freethinker George Henry Lewes. George Eliot was one of the editors of the Westminster Review and in 1855 published an attack on a then well-known evangelical divine. I shall be surprised if this essay does not remind you of some more recent religious performers.

Given, a man with moderate intellect, a moral standard not higher than the average, some rhetorical affluence and great glibness of speech, what is the career in which, without the aid of birth or money, he may most easily attain power and reputation in English society? Where is that Goshen of me iocrity in which a smattering of science and learning will pass for profound instruction, where platitudes will be accepted as wisdom, bigoted narrowness as holy zeal, unctuous egoism as God-given piety? Let such a man become an evangelical preacher; he will then find it possible to reconcile small ability with great ambition, superficial knowledge with the prestige of erudition, a middling morale with a high reputation for sanctity. Let him shun practical extremes and be ultra only in what is purely theoretic: let him be stringent on predestination, but latitudinarian on fasting; unflinching in insisting on the eternity of punishment, but diffident of curtailing the substantial comforts of time; ardent and imaginative on the premillennial advent of Christ, but cold and cautious towards every other infringement of the status quo. Let him fish for souls not with the bait of inconvenient singularity, but with the dragnet of comfortable conformity. Let him be hard and literal in his interpretation only when he wants to hurl texts at the heads of unbelievers and adversaries, but when the letter of the Scriptures presses too closely on the genteel Christianity of the nineteenth century, let him use his spiritualizing alembic and disperse it into impalpable ether. Let him preach less of Christ than of Antichrist; let him be less definite in showing what sin is than in showing who is the Man of Sin, less expansive on the blessedness of faith than on the accursedness of infidelity. Above all, let him set up as an interpreter of prophecy, and rival Moore’s Almanack in the prediction of political events, tickling the interest of hearers who are but moderately spiritual by showing how the Holy Spirit has dictated problems and charades for their benefit, and how, if they are ingenious enough to solve these, they may have their Christian graces nourished by learning precisely to whom they may point as the “horn that had eyes,” “the lying prophet,” and the “unclean spirits.” In this way he will draw men to him by the strong cords of their passions, made reason-proof by being baptized with the name of piety. In this way he may gain a metropolitan pulpit; the avenues to his church will be as crowded as the passages to the opera; he has but to print his prophetic sermons and bind them in lilac and gold, and they will adorn the drawing-room table of all evangelical ladies, who will regard as a sort of pious “light reading” the demonstration that the prophecy of the locusts, whose sting is in their tail, is fulfilled in the fact of the Turkish commander’s having taken a horse’s tail for his standard, and that the French are the very frogs predicted in the Revelation.

Pleasant to the clerical flesh under such circumstances is the arrival of Sunday! Somewhat at a disadvantage during the week, in the presence of working-day interests and lay splendours, on Sunday the preacher becomes the cynosure of a thousand eyes, and predominates at once over the Amphitryon with whom he dines, and the most captious member of his church or vestry. He has an immense advantage over all other public speakers. The platform orator is subject to the criticism of hisses and groans. Counsel for the plaintiff expects the retort of counsel for the defendant. The honorable gentleman on one side of the House is liable to have his facts and figures shown up by his honourable friend on the opposite side. Even the scientific or literary lecturer, if he is dull or incompetent, may see the best part of his audience slip quietly out one by one. But the preacher is completely master of the situation: no one may hiss, no one may depart. Like the writer of imaginary conversations, he may put what imbecilities he pleases into the mouths of his antagonists, and swell with triumph when he has refuted them. He may riot in gratuitous assertions, confident that no man will contradict him; he may exercise perfect free-will in logic, and invent illustrative experience he may give an evangelical edition of history with the inconvenient facts omitted;—all this he may do with impunity, certain that those of his hearers who are not sympathizing are not listening. For the Press has no band of critics who go the round of the churches and chapels, and are on the watch for a slip or defect in the preacher, to make a “feature” in their article: the clergy are practically the most irresponsible of all talkers. For this reason, at least, it is well that they do not always allow their discourses to be merely fugitive, but are often induced to fix them in that black and white in which they are open to the criticism of any man who has the courage and patience to treat them with thorough freedom of speech and pen.

It is because we think this criticism of clerical teaching desirable for the public good that we devote some pages to Dr. Cumming. He is, as every one knows, a preacher of immense popularity, and of the numerous publications in which he perpetuates his pulpit labours, all circulate widely, and some, according to their title-page, have reached the sixteenth thousand. Now our opinion of these publications is the very opposite of that given by a newspaper eulogist: we do not “believe that the repeated issues of Dr. Cumming’s thoughts are having a beneficial effect on society,” but the reverse; and hence, little inclined as we are to dwell on his pages, we think it worth while to do so, for the sake of pointing out in them what we believe to be profoundly mistaken and pernicious. Of Dr. Cumming personally we know absolutely nothing: our acquaintance with him is confined to a perusal of his works; our judgment of him is founded solely on the manner in which he has written himself down on his pages. We know neither how he looks nor how he lives. We are ignorant whether, like Saint Paul, he has a bodily presence that is weak and contemptible, or whether his person is as florid and as prone to amplification as his style. For aught we know, he may not only have the gift of prophecy but may bestow the profits of all his works to feed the poor, and be ready to give his own body to be burned with as much alacrity as he infers the everlasting burning of Roman Catholics and Puseyites. Out of the pulpit he may be a model of justice, truthfulness, and the love that thinketh no evil; but we are obliged to judge of his charity by the spirit we find in his sermons, and shall only be glad to learn that his practice is, in many respects, an amiable non sequitur from his teaching….

One of the most striking characteristics of Dr. Cumming’s writings is unscrupulosity of statement. His motto apparently is, Christianitatem, quocunque modo, Christianitatem; and the only system he includes under the term Christianity is Calvinistic Protestantism. Experience has so long shown that the human brain is a congenial nidus for inconsistent beliefs that we do not pause to inquire how Dr. Cumming, who attributes the conversion of the unbelieving to the Divine Spirit, can think it necessary to co-operate with that Spirit by argumentative white lies. Nor do we for a moment impugn the genuineness of his zeal for Christianity, or the sincerity of his conviction that the doctrines he preaches are necessary to salvation; on the contrary, we regard the flagrant unveracity found on his pages as an indirect result of that conviction—as a result, namely, of the intellectual and moral distortion of view which is inevitably produced by assigning to dogmas, based on a very complex structure of evidence, the place and authority of first truths. A distinct appreciation of the value of evidence—in other words, the intellectual perception of truth—is more closely allied to truthfulness of statement, or the moral quality of veracity, than is generally admitted. That highest moral habit, the constant preference of truth, both theoretically and practically, pre-eminently demands the co-operation of the intellect with the impulses—as is indicated by the fact that it is only found in anything like completeness in the highest class of minds. And it is commonly seen that, in proportion as religious sects believe themselves to be guided by direct inspiration rather than by a spontaneous exertion of their faculties, their sense of truthfulness is misty and confused. No one can have talked to the more enthusiastic Methodists and listened to their stories of miracles without perceiving that they require no other passport to a statement than that it accords with their wishes and their general conception of God’s dealings; nay, they regard as a symptom of sinful skepticism an inquiry into the evidence for a story which they think unquestionably tends to the glory of God, and in retailing such stories, new particulars, further tending to His glory, are “borne in” upon their minds. Now, Dr. Cumming, as we have said, is no enthusiastic pietist: within a certain circle—within the mill of evangelical orthodoxy—his intellect is perpetually at work; but that principle of sophistication which our friends the Methodists derive from the predominance of their pietistic feelings is involved for him in the doctrine of verbal inspiration; what is for them a state of emotion submerging the intellect is with him a formula imprisoning the intellect, depriving it of its proper function—the free search for truth—and making it the mere servant-of-all-work to a foregone conclusion. Minds fettered by this doctrine no longer inquire concerning a proposition whether it is attested by sufficient evidence, but whether it accords with Scripture; they do not search for facts, as such, but for facts that will bear out their doctrine. They become accustomed to reject the more direct evidence in favour of the less direct, and where adverse evidence reaches demonstration they must resort to devices and expedients in order to explain away contradiction. It is easy to see that this mental habit blunts not only the perception of truth, but the sense of truthfulness, and that the man whose faith drives him into fallacies treads close upon the precipice of falsehood.

We have entered into this digression for the sake of mitigating the inference that is likely to be drawn from that characteristic of Dr. Cumming’s works to which we have pointed. He is much in the same intellectual condition as that professor of Padua, who, in order to disprove Galileo’s discovery of Jupiter’s satellites, urged that as there were only seven metals there could not be more than seven planets—a mental condition scarcely compatible with candour. And we may well suppose that if the professor had held the belief in seven planets, and no more, to be a necessary condition of salvation, his mental vision would have been so dazed that even if he had consented to look through Galileo’s telescope, his eyes would have reported in accordance with his inward alarms rather than with the external fact. So long as a belief in propositions is regarded as indispensable to salvation, the pursuit of truth as such is not possible, any more than it is possible for a man who is swimming for his life to make meteorological observations on the storm which threatens to overwhelm him. The sense of alarm and haste, the anxiety for personal safety, which Dr. Cumming insists upon as the proper religious attitude, unmans the nature, and allows no thorough, calm thinking, no truly noble, disinterested feeling. Hence, we by no means suspect that the unscrupulosity of statement with which we charge Dr. Cumming extends beyond the sphere of his theological prejudices: religion apart, he probably appreciates and practices veracity….

In marshalling the evidences of Christianity, Dr. Cumming directs most of his arguments against opinions that are either totally imaginary, or that belong to the past rather than to the present; while he entirely fails to meet the difficulties actually felt and urged by those who are unable to accept Revelation. There can hardly be a stronger proof of misconception as to the character of free-thinking in the present day than the recommendation of Leland’s Short and Easy Method with the Deists,—a method which is unquestionably short and easy for preachers disinclined to consider their stereotyped modes of thinking and arguing, but which has quite ceased to realize those epithets in the conversion of Deists. Yet Dr. Cumming not only recommends this book, but also takes the trouble himself to write a feebler version of its arguments. For example, on the question of the genuineness and authenticity of the New Testament writings, he says: If, therefore, at a period long subsequent to the death of Christ, a number of men had appeared in the world, drawn up a book which they christened by the name of Holy Scripture, and recorded these things which appear in it as facts when they were only the fancies of their own imagination, surely the Jews would have instantly reclaimed that no such events transpired, that no such person as Jesus Christ appeared in their capital, and that their crucifixion of Him, and their alleged evil treatment of His apostles, were mere fictions.

It is scarcely necessary to say that, in such argument as this, Dr. Cumming is beating the air. He is meeting a hypothesis which no one holds, and totally missing the real question. The only type of “infidel” whose existence Dr. Cumming recognizes is that fossil personage who “calls the Bible a lie and a forgery.” He seems to be ignorant—or he chooses to ignore the fact—that there is a large body of eminently instructed and earnest men who regard the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures as a series of historical documents, to be dealt with according to the rules of historical criticism; and that an equally large number of men, who are not historical critics, find the dogmatic scheme built on the letter of the Scriptures opposed to their profoundest moral convictions. Dr. Cumming’s infidel is a man who, because his life is vicious, tries to convince himself that there is no God, and that Christianity is an imposture, but who is all the while secretly conscious that he is opposing the truth, and cannot help “letting out” admissions “that the Bible is the Book of God.” We are favoured with the following “Creed of the Infidel”: I believe that there is no God, but that matter is God, and God is matter; and that it is no matter whether there is any God or not. I believe also that the world was not made, but that the world made itself, or that it had no beginning, and that it will last for ever. I believe that man is a beast; that the soul is the body, and that the body is the soul; and that after death there is neither body nor soul. I believe that there is no religion, that natural religion is the only religion, and all religion unnatural. I believe not in Moses; I believe in the first philosophers. I believe not in the evangelists; I believe in Chubb, Collins, Toland, Tindal, and Hobbes. I believe in Lord Bolingbroke, and I believe not in Saint Paul. I believe not in revelation; I believe in tradition; I believe in the Talmud; I believe in the Koran; I believe not in the Bible. I believe in Socrates; I believe in Confucius; I believe in Mahomet; I believe not in Christ. And lastly, I believe in all unbelief.

The intellectual and moral monster whose creed is this complex web of contradictions is, moreover, according to Dr. Cumming, a being who unites much simplicity and imbecility with his Satanic hardihood,—much tenderness of conscience with his obdurate vice. Hear the “proof”: I once met with an acute and enlightened infidel, with whom I reasoned day after day, and for hours together; I submitted to him the internal, the external, and the experimental evidences, but made no impression on his scorn and unbelief. At length I entertained a suspicion that there was something morally, rather than intellectually wrong, and that the bias was not in the intellect, but in the heart; one day therefore I said to him—“I must now state my conviction, and you may call me uncharitable, but duty compels me: you are living in some known and gross sin.” The man’s countenance became pale; he bowed and left me.

Here we have the remarkable psychological phenomenon of an “acute and enlightened” man who, deliberately purposing to indulge in a favourite sin, and regarding the Gospel with scorn and unbelief, is nevertheless so much more scrupulous than the majority of Christians that he cannot “embrace sin and the Gospel simultaneously”; who is so alarmed at the Gospel in which he does not believe that he cannot be easy without trying to crush it; whose acuteness and enlightenment suggest to him, as a means of crushing the Gospel, to argue from day to day with Dr. Cumming; and who is withal so naive that he is taken by surprise when Dr. Cumming, failing in argument, resorts to accusation, and so tender in conscience that, at the mention of his sin, he turns pale and leaves the spot. If there be any human mind in existence capable of holding Dr. Cumming’s “Creed of the Infidel,” of at the same time believing in tradition and “believing in all unbelief,” it must be the mind of the infidel just described, for whose existence we have Dr. Cumming’s ex officio word as a theologian; and to theologians we may apply what Sancho Panza says of the bachelors of Salamanca, that they never tell lies—except when it suits their purpose.

The total absence from Dr. Cumming’s theological mind of any demarcation between fact and rhetoric is exhibited in another passage, where he adopts the dramatic form: Ask the peasant on the hills—and I have asked amid the mountains of Braemar and Deeside—“How do you know that this book is divine, and that the religion you profess is true? You never read Paley?” “No, I never heard of him.” “You have never read Butler?” “No, I have never heard of him.” “Nor Chalmers?” “No, I do not know him.” “You have never read any books on evidence?” “No, I have read no such books. Then, how do you know this book is true?” “Know it! Tell me that the Dee, the Clunie, and the Garrawalt, the streams at my feet, do not run; that the winds do not sigh amid the gorges of these blue hills; that the sun does not kindle the peaks of Loch-na-Gar,—tell me my heart does not beat, and I will believe you; but do not tell me the Bible is not divine. I have found its truth illuminating my footsteps; its consolations sustaining my heart. May my tongue cleave to my mouth’s roof, and my right hand forget its cunning, if I ever deny what is my deepest inner experience, that this blessed book is the Book of God.

Dr. Cumming is so slippery and lax in his mode of presentation that we find it impossible to gather whether he means to assert that this is what a peasant on the mountains of Braemar did say, or that it is what such a peasant would say: in the one case, the passage may be taken as a measure of his truthfulness; in the other, of his judgment.

His own faith, apparently, has not been altogether intuitive, like that of his rhetorical peasant, for he tells us that he has himself experienced what it is to have religious doubts. “I was tainted while at the University by this spirit of skepticism. I thought Christianity might not be true. The very possibility of its being true was the thought I felt I must meet and settle. Conscience could give me no peace till I had settled it. I read, and I have read from that day, for fourteen or fifteen years, till this, and now I am as convinced, upon the clearest evidence, that this book is the Book of God, as that I now address you.” This experience, however, instead of impressing on him the fact that doubt may be the stamp of a truth-loving mind—that sunt quibus non credidisse honor est, et fidei futurae pignus—seems to have produced precisely the contrary effect. It has not enabled him even to conceive the condition of a mind “perplext in faith but pure in deed,” craving light, yearning for a faith that will harmonize and cherish its highest powers and aspirations, but unable to find that faith in dogmatic Christianity. His own doubts apparently were of a different kind. Nowhere in his pages have we found a humble, candid, sympathetic attempt to meet the difficulties that may be felt by an ingenuous mind. Everywhere he supposes that the doubter is hardened, conceited, consciously shutting his eyes to the light—a fool who is to be answered according to his folly—that is, with ready replies made up of reckless assertions, of apocryphal anecdotes, and, where other resources fail, of vituperative imputations. As to the reading which he has prosecuted for fifteen years—either it has left him totally ignorant of the relation which his own religious creed bears to the criticism and philosophy of the nineteenth century, or he systematically blinks that criticism and that philosophy; and instead of honestly and seriously endeavouring to meet and solve what he knows to be the real difficulties, contents himself with setting up popinjays to shoot at, for the sake of confirming the ignorance and winning the cheap admiration of his evangelical hearers and readers. Like the Catholic preacher who, after throwing down his cap and apostrophizing it as Luther, turned to his audience and said, “You see this heretical fellow has not a word to say for himself,” Dr. Cumming, having drawn his ugly portrait of the infidel, and put arguments of a convenient quality into his mouth, finds a “short and easy method” of confounding this “croaking frog.”

In his treatment of infidels, we imagine he is guided by a mental process which may be expressed in the following syllogism: Whatever tends to the glory of God is true; it is for the glory of God that infidels should be as bad as possible; therefore, whatever tends to show that infidels are as bad as possible is true. All infidels, he tells us, have been men of “gross and licentious lives.” Is there not some well-known unbeliever—David Hume, for example—of whom even Dr. Cumming’s readers may have heard as an exception? No matter. Some one suspected that he was not an exception; and as that suspicion tends to the glory of God, it is one for a Christian to entertain. If we were unable to imagine this kind of self-sophistication, we should be obliged to suppose that, relying on the ignorance of his evangelical disciples, he fed them with direct and conscious falsehoods. “Voltaire,” he informs them, “declares there is no God”; he was “an antitheist—that is, one who deliberately and avowedly opposed and hated God; who swore in his blasphemy that he would dethrone Him”; and “advocated the very depths of the lowest sensuality.” With regard to many statements of a similar kind, equally at variance with truth, in Dr. Cumming’s volumes, we presume that he has been misled by hearsay or by the second-hand character of his acquaintance with free-thinking literature. An evangelical preacher is not obliged to be well read. Here, however, is a case which the extremist supposition of educated ignorance will not reach. Even books of “evidences” quote from Voltaire the line— Si Dieu n’existait pas, il faudrait l’inventer

even persons fed on the mere whey and buttermilk of literature must know that in philosophy Voltaire was nothing if not a theist—must know that he wrote not against God, but against Jehovah, the God of the Jews, whom he believed to be a false God—must know that to say Voltaire was an atheist on this ground is as absurd as to say that a Jacobite opposed hereditary monarchy because he declared the Brunswick family had no title to the throne. That Dr. Cumming should repeat the vulgar fables about Voltaire’s death is merely what we might expect from the specimens we have seen of his illustrative stories. A man whose accounts of his own experience are apocryphal is not likely to put borrowed narratives to any severe test.

The alliance between intellectual and moral perversion is strikingly typified by the way in which he alternates from the unveracious to the absurd, from misrepresentation to contradiction. Side by side with the adduction of “facts” such as those we have quoted, we find him arguing on one page that the doctrine of the Trinity was too grand to have been conceived by man, and was therefore Divine; and on another page, that the Incarnation had been preconceived by man, and is therefore to be accepted as Divine. But we are less concerned with the fallacy of his “ready replies” than with their falsity; and even of this we can only afford space for a very few specimens. Here is one: “There is a thousand times more proof that the Gospel of John was written by him than there is that the “Anabasis” was written by Xenophon, or the “Ars Poetica” by Horace.” If Dr. Cumming had chosen Plato’s Epistles or Anacreon’s Poems, instead of the “Anabasis” or the “Ars Poetica,” he would have reduced the extent of the falsehood, and would have furnished a ready reply, which would have been equally effective with his Sunday-school teachers and their disputants. Hence we conclude this prodigality of misstatement, this exuberance of mendacity, is an effervescence of zeal in majorem gloriam Dei. Elsewhere he tells us that “the idea of the author of the ‘Vestiges’ is that man is the development of a monkey, that the monkey is the embryo man; so that if you keep a baboon long enough, it will develop itself into a man.” How well Dr. Cumming has qualified himself to judge of the ideas in “that very unphilosophical book,” as he pronounces it, may be inferred from the fact that he implies the author of the “Vestiges” to have originated the nebular hypothesis.

In the volume from which the last extract is taken, even the hardihood of assertion is surpassed by the suicidal character of the argument. It is called The Church before the Flood, and is devoted chiefly to the adjustment of the question between the Bible and Geology. Keeping within the limits we have prescribed to ourselves, we do not enter into the matter of this discussion; we merely pause a little over the volume in order to point out Dr. Cumming’s mode of treating the question. He first tells us that “the Bible has not a single scientific error in it”; that “its slightest intimations of scientific principles or natural phenomena have in every instance been demonstrated to be exactly and strictly true”; and he asks: How is it that Moses, with no greater education than the Hindoo or the ancient philosopher, has written his book, touching science at a thousand points, so accurately that scientific research has discovered no flaws in it; and yet in those investigations which have taken place in more recent centuries, it has not been shown that he has committed one single error, or made one solitary assertion which can be proved by the maturest science, or by the most eagle-eyed philosopher, to be incorrect, scientifically or historically?

According to this, the relation of the Bible to science should be one of the strong points of apologists for revelation: the scientific accuracy of Moses should stand at the head of their evidences; and they might urge with some cogency that, since Aristotle, who devoted himself to science, and lived many ages after Moses, does little else than err ingeniously, this fact, that the Jewish lawgiver, though touching science at a thousand points, has written nothing that has not been “demonstrated to be exactly and strictly true,” is an irrefragable proof of his having derived his knowledge from a supernatural source. How does it happen, then, that Dr. Cumming forsakes this strong position? How is it that we find him, some pages further on, engaged in reconciling Genesis with the discoveries of science, by means of imaginative hypotheses and feats of “interpretation”? Surely that which has been demonstrated to be exactly and strictly true does not require hypothesis and critical argument, in order to show that it may possibly agree with those very discoveries by means of which its exact and strict truth has been demonstrated. And why should Dr. Cumming suppose, as we shall presently find him supposing, that men of science hesitate to accept the Bible because it appears to contradict their discoveries? By his own statement, that appearance of contradiction does not exist; on the contrary, it has been demonstrated that the Bible precisely agrees with their discoveries. Perhaps, however, in saying of the Bible that its “slightest intimations of scientific principles or natural phenomena have in every instance been demonstrated to be exactly and strictly true,” Dr. Cumming merely means to imply that theologians have found out a way of explaining the Biblical text so that it no longer, in their opinion, appears to be in contradiction with the discoveries of science. One of two things, therefore: either, he uses language without the slightest appreciation of its real meaning; or, the assertions he makes on one page are directly contradicted by the arguments he urges on another.

Dr. Cumming’s principles—or, we should rather say, confused notions—of Biblical interpretation, as exhibited in this volume, are particularly significant of his mental caliber. He says: Men of science, who are full of scientific investigation, and enamoured of scientific discovery, will hesitate before they accept a book which, they think, contradicts the plainest and the most unequivocal disclosures they have made in the bowels of the earth, or among the stars of the sky. To all these we answer, as we have already indicated, there is not the least dissonance between God’s written book and the most mature discoveries of geological science. One thing, however, there may be: there may be a contradiction between the discoveries of geology and our preconceived interpretations of the Bible. But this is not because the Bible is wrong, but because our interpretation is wrong. (The italics in all cases are our own.)

Elsewhere he says: It seems to me plainly evident that the record of Genesis, when read fairly, and not in the light of our prejudices,—and mind you, the essence of Popery is to read the Bible in the light of our opinions, instead of viewing our opinions in the light of the Bible, in its plain and obvious sense,—falls in perfectly with the assertion of geologists.

On comparing these two passages, we gather that when Dr. Cumming, under stress of geological discovery, assigns to the Biblical text a meaning entirely different from that which, on his own showing, was universally ascribed to it for more than three thousand years, he regards himself as “viewing his opinions in the light of the Bible in its plain and obvious sense”! Now he is reduced to one of two alternatives: either, he must hold that the “plain and obvious meaning” lies in the sum of knowledge possessed by each successive age—the Bible being an elastic garment for the growing thought of mankind; or, he must hold that some portions are amenable to this criterion, and others not so. In the former case, he accepts the principle of interpretation adopted by the early German rationalists; in the latter case, he has to show a further criterion by which we can judge what parts of the Bible are elastic and what rigid. If he says that the interpretation of the text is rigid wherever it treats of doctrines necessary to salvation, we answer, that for doctrines to be necessary to salvation they must first be true; and in order to be true, according to his own principle, they must be founded on a correct interpretation of the Biblical text. Thus he makes the necessity of doctrines to salvation the criterion of infallible interpretation, and infallible interpretation the criterion of doctrines being necessary to salvation. He is whirled round in a circle, having, by admitting the principle of novelty in interpretation, completely deprived himself of a basis. That he should seize the very moment in which he is most palpably betraying that he has no test of Biblical truth beyond his own opinion, as an appropriate occasion for flinging the rather novel reproach against Popery that its essence is to “read the Bible in the light of our opinions,” would be an almost pathetic self-exposure, if it were not disgusting. Imbecility that is not even meek, ceases to be pitiable, and becomes simply odious.

Parenthetic lashes of this kind against Popery are very frequent with Dr. Cumming, and occur even in his more devout passages, where their introduction must surely disturb the spiritual exercises of his hearers. Indeed, Roman Catholics fare worse with him even than infidels. Infidels are the small vermin—the mice to be bagged en passant. The main object of his chase—the rats which are to be nailed up as trophies—are the Roman Catholics. Romanism is the masterpiece of Satan. But reassure yourselves! Dr. Cumming has been created. Antichrist is enthroned in the Vatican; but he is stoutly withstood by the Boanerges of Crown Court. The personality of Satan, as might be expected, is a very prominent tenet in Dr. Cumming’s discourses; those who doubt it are, he thinks, “generally specimens of the victims of Satan as a triumphant seducer”; and it is through the medium of this doctrine that he habitually contemplates Roman Catholics. They are the puppets of which the Devil holds the strings. It is only exceptionally that he speaks of them as fellow men, acted on by the same desires, fears, and hopes as himself; his rule is to hold them up to his hearers as foredoomed instruments of Satan, and vessels of wrath. If he is obliged to admit that they are “no shams,” that they are “thoroughly in earnest”—that is because they are inspired by hell, because they are under an “infranatural” influence. If their missionaries are found wherever Protestant missionaries go, this zeal in propagating their faith is not in them a consistent virtue, as it is in Protestants, but a “melancholy fact,” affording additional evidence that they are instigated and assisted by the Devil. And Dr. Cumming is inclined to think that they work miracles, because that is no more than might be expected from the known ability of Satan who inspires them. He admits, indeed, that “there is a fragment of the Church of Christ in the very bosom of that awful apostasy,” and that there are members of the Church of Rome in glory; but this admission is rare and episodical—is a declaration, pro forma, about as influential on the general disposition and habits as an aristocrat’s profession of democracy.

This leads us to mention another conspicuous characteristic of Dr. Cumming’s teaching—the absence of genuine charity. It is true that he makes large profession of tolerance and liberality within a certain circle; he exhorts Christians to Unity; he would have Churchmen fraternize with Dissenters, and exhorts these two branches of God’s family to defer the settlement of their differences till the millennium. But the love thus taught is the love of the clan, which is the correlative of antagonism to the rest of mankind. It is not sympathy and helpfulness towards men as men, but towards men as Christians, and as Christians in the sense of a small minority. Dr. Cumming’s religion may demand a tribute of love, but it gives a charter to hatred; it may enjoin charity, but it fosters all un-charitableness. If I believe that God tells me to love my enemies, but at the same time hates His own enemies and requires me to have one will with Him, which has the larger scope, love or hatred? And we refer to those pages of Dr. Cumming’s in which he opposes Roman Catholics, Puseyites, and infidels—pages which form the larger proportion of what he has published—for proof that the idea of God which both the logic and spirit of his discourses keep present to his hearers is that of a God who hates His enemies, a God who teaches love by fierce denunciations of wrath—a God who encourages obedience to His precepts by elaborately revealing to us that His own government is in precise opposition to those precepts. We know the usual evasions on this subject. We know Dr. Cumming would say that even Roman Catholics are to be loved and succored as men; that he would help even that “unclean spirit,” Cardinal Wiseman, out of a ditch. But who that is in the slightest degree acquainted with the action of the human mind will believe that any genuine and large charity can grow out of an exercise of love which is always to have an arrière-pensée of hatred? Of what quality would be the conjugal love of a husband who loved his spouse as a wife, but hated her as a woman? It is reserved for the regenerate mind, according to Dr. Cumming’s conception of it, to be “wise, amazed, temperate and furious, loyal and neutral, in a moment.” Precepts of charity uttered with faint breath at the end of a sermon are perfectly futile, when all the force of the lungs has been spent in keeping the hearer’s mind fixed on the conception of his fellow men, not as fellow sinners and fellow sufferers, but as agents of hell, as automata through whom Satan plays his game upon earth,—not on objects which call forth their reverence, their love, their hope of good even in the most strayed and perverted, but on a minute identification of human things with such symbols as the scarlet whore, the beast out of the abyss, scorpions whose sting is in their tails, men who have the mark of the beast, and unclean spirits like frogs. You might as well attempt to educate a child’s sense of beauty by hanging its nursery with the horrible and grotesque pictures in which the early painters represented the Last Judgment, as expect Christian graces to flourish on that prophetic interpretation which Dr. Cumming offers as the principal nutriment of his flock. Quite apart from the critical basis of that interpretation, quite apart from the degree of truth there may be in Dr. Cumming’s prognostications—questions into which we do not choose to enter—his use of prophecy must be a priori condemned, in the judgment of right-minded persons, by its results as testified in the net moral effect of his sermons. The best minds that accept Christianity as a divinely inspired system believe that the great end of the Gospel is not merely the saving but the educating of men’s souls, the creating within them of holy dispositions, the subduing of egoistical pretensions, and the perpetual enhancing of the desire that the will of God—a will synonymous with goodness and truth—may be done on earth. But what relation to all this has a system of interpretation which keeps the mind of the Christian in the position of a spectator at a gladiatorial show, of which Satan is the wild beast in the shape of the great red dragon, the two thirds of mankind the victims—the whole provided and got up by God for the edification of the saints? The demonstration that the Second Advent is at hand, if true, can have no really holy, spiritual effect; the highest state of mind inculcated by the Gospel is resignation to the disposal of God’s providence—” Whether we live, we live unto the Lord; whether we die, we die unto the Lord”—not an eagerness to see a temporal manifestation which shall confound the enemies of God and give exaltation to the saints; it is to dwell in Christ by spiritual communion with His nature, not to fix the date when He shall appear in the sky. Dr. Cumming’s delight in shadowing forth the downfall of the Man of Sin, in prognosticating the battle of Gog and Magog, and in advertising the premillennial Advent, is simply the transportation of political passions on to a so-called religious platform; it is the anticipation of the triumph of “our party,” accomplished by our principal men being “sent for” into the clouds. Let us be understood to speak in all seriousness. If we were in search of amusement, we should not seek for it by examining Dr. Cumming’s works in order to ridicule them. We are simply discharging a disagreeable duty in delivering our opinion that, judged by the highest standard even of orthodox Christianity, they are little calculated to produce

A closer walk with God, A calm and heavenly frame

but are more likely to nourish egoistic complacency and pretension, a hard and condemnatory spirit towards one’s fellow men, and a busy occupation with the minutiae of events, instead of a reverent contemplation of great facts and a wise application of great principles. It would be idle to consider Dr. Cumming’s theory of prophecy in any other light,—as a philosophy of history or a specimen of Biblical interpretation; it bears about the same relation to the extension of genuine knowledge as the astrological “house” in the heavens bears to the true structure and relations of the universe….

One more characteristic of Dr. Cumming’s writings, and we have done. This is the perverted moral judgment that everywhere reigns in them. Not that this perversion is peculiar to Dr. Cumming; it belongs to the dogmatic system which he shares with all evangelical believers. But the abstract tendencies of systems are represented in very different degrees, according to the different characters of those who embrace them; just as the same food tells differently on different constitutions: and there are certain qualities in Dr. Cumming that cause the perversion of which we speak to exhibit itself with peculiar prominence in his teaching. A single extract will enable us to explain what we mean: The “thoughts” are evil. If it were possible for human eye to discern and to detect the thoughts that flutter round the heart of an unregenerate man—to mark their hue and their multitude—it would be found that they are indeed “evil.” We speak not of the thief, and the murderer, and the adulterer, and such-like, whose crimes draw down the cognizance of earthly tribunals, and whose unenviable character it is to take the lead in the paths of sin; but we refer to the men who are marked out by their practice of many of the seemliest moralities of life—by the exercise of the kindliest affections, and the interchange of the sweetest reciprocities—and of these men, if unrenewed and unchanged, we pronounce that their thoughts are evil. To ascertain this, we must refer to the object around which our thoughts ought continually to circulate. The Scriptures assert that this object is the glory of God; that for this we ought to think, to act, and to speak; and that in thus thinking, acting, and speaking, there is involved the purest and most endearing bliss. Now it will be found true of the most amiable men that with all their good society and kindliness of heart, and all their strict and unbending integrity, they never or rarely think of the glory of God. The question never occurs to them—Will this redound to the glory of God? Will this make His name more known, His being more loved, His praise more sung? And just inasmuch as their every thought comes short of this lofty aim, in so much does it come short of good, and entitle itself to the character of evil. If the glory of God is not the absorbing and the influential aim of their thoughts, then they are evil; but God’s glory never enters into their minds. They are amiable, because it chances to be one of the constitutional tendencies of their individual character, left uneffaced by the Fall; and they are just and upright, because they have perhaps no occasion to be otherwise, or find it subservient to their interests to maintain such a character.

Again we read: There are traits in the Christian character which the mere worldly man cannot understand. He can understand the outward morality, but he cannot understand the inner spring of it; he can understand Dorcas’s liberality to the poor, but he cannot penetrate the ground of Dorcas’s liberality. Some men give to the poor because they are ostentatious, or because they think the poor will ultimately avenge their neglect; but the Christian gives to the poor, not only because he has sensibilities like other men, but because inasmuch as ye did it to the least of these my brethren, ye did it unto me.

Before entering on the more general question involved in these quotations, we must point to the clauses we have marked with italics, where Dr. Cumming appears to express sentiments which, we are happy to think, are not shared by the majority of his brethren in the faith. Dr. Cumming, it seems, is unable to conceive that the natural man can have any other motive for being just and upright than that it is useless to be otherwise, or that a character for honesty is profitable; according to his experience, between the feelings of ostentation and selfish alarm and the feeling of love to Christ, there lie no sensibilities which can lead a man to relieve want. Granting, as we should prefer to think, that it is Dr. Cumming’s exposition of his sentiments which is deficient rather than his sentiments themselves, still, the fact that the deficiency lies precisely here, and that he can overlook it not only in the haste of oral delivery but in the examination of proof-sheets is strongly significant of his mental bias—of the faint degree in which he sympathizes with the disinterested elements of human feeling, and of the fact, which we are about to dwell upon, that those feelings are totally absent from his religious theory. Now, Dr. Cumming invariably assumes that, in fulminating against those who differ from him, he is standing on a moral elevation to which they are compelled reluctantly to look up; that his theory of motives and conduct is in its loftiness and purity a perpetual rebuke to their low and vicious desires and practice. It is time he should be told that the reverse is the fact; that there are men who do not merely cast a superficial glance at his doctrine, and fail to see its beauty or justice, but who, after a close consideration of that doctrine, pronounce it to be subversive of true moral development, and therefore positively noxious. Dr. Cumming is fond of showing-up the teaching of Romanism, and accusing it of undermining true morality: it is time he should be told that there is a large body, both of thinkers and practical men, who hold precisely the same opinion of his own teaching—with this difference, that they do not regard it as the inspiration of Satan, but as the natural crop of a human mind where the soil is chiefly made up of egoistic passions and dogmatic beliefs.

Dr. Cumming’s theory, as we have seen, is that actions are good or evil according as they are prompted or not prompted by an exclusive reference to the “glory of God.” God, then, in Dr. Cumming’s conception, is a Being who has no pleasure in the exercise of love and truthfulness and justice, considered as affecting the well-being of His creatures; He has satisfaction in us only in so far as we exhaust our motives and dispositions of all relation to our fellow beings, and replace sympathy with men by anxiety for the “glory of God.” The deed of Grace Darling, when she took a boat in the storm to rescue drowning men and women, was not good if it was only compassion that nerved her arm and impelled her to brave death for the chance of saving others; it was only good if she asked herself—Will this redound to the glory of God? The man who endures tortures rather than betray a trust, the man who spends years in toil in order to discharge an obligation from which the law declares him free, must be animated not by the spirit of fidelity to his fellow man, but by a desire to make “the name of God more known.” The sweet charities of domestic life—the ready hand and the soothing word in sickness, the forbearance towards frailties, the prompt helpfulness in all efforts and sympathy in all joys—are simply evil if they result from a “constitutional tendency,” or from dispositions disciplined by the experience of suffering and the perception of moral loveliness. A wife is not to devote herself to her husband out of love to him and a sense of the duties implied by a dose relation—she is to be a faithful wife for the glory of God; if she feels her natural affections welling up too strongly, she is to repress them; it would not do to act from natural affection—she must think of the glory of God. A man is to guide his affairs with energy and discretion, not from an honest desire to fulfill his responsibilities as a member of society and a father, but—that “God’s praise may be sung.” Dr. Cumming’s Christian pays his debts for the glory of God: were it not for the coercion of that supreme motive, it would be evil to pay them. A man is not to be just from a feeling of justice; he is not to help his fellow men out of good will to his fellow men; he is not to be a tender husband and father out of affection; all his natural muscles and fibers are to be torn away and replaced by a patent steel-spring—anxiety for the “glory of God.”

Happily, the constitution of human nature forbids the complete prevalence of such a theory. Fatally powerful as religious systems have been, human nature is stronger and wider than religious systems, and though dogmas may hamper, they cannot absolutely repress its growth: build walls round the living tree as you will, the bricks and mortar have by and by to give way before the slow and sure operation of the sap. But next to that hatred of the enemies of God which is the principle of persecution, there perhaps has been no perversion more obstructive of true moral development than this substitution of a reference to the glory of God for the direct promptings of the sympathetic feelings. Benevolence and justice are strong only in proportion as they are directly and inevitably called into activity by their proper objects: pity is strong only because we are strongly impressed by suffering; and only in proportion as it is compassion that speaks through the eyes when we soothe, and moves the arm when we succour, is a deed strictly benevolent. If the soothing or the succour be given because another being wishes or approves it, the deed ceases to be one of benevolence, and becomes one of deference, of obedience, of self-interest, or vanity. Accessory motives may aid in producing an action, but they presuppose the weakness of the direct motive; and conversely, when the direct motive is strong, the action of accessory motives will be excluded. If then, as Dr. Cumming inculcates, the glory of God is to be “the absorbing and the influential aim” in our thoughts and actions, this must tend to neutralize the human sympathies; the stream of feeling will be diverted from its natural current in order to feed an artificial canal. The idea of God is really moral in its influence—it really cherishes all that is best and loveliest in man—only when God is contemplated as sympathizing with the pure elements of human feeling, as possessing infinitely all those attributes which we recognize to be moral in humanity. In this light, the idea of God and the sense of His presence intensify all noble feeling, and encourage all noble effort, on the same principle that human sympathy is found a source of strength: the brave man feels braver when he knows that another stout heart is beating time with his; the devoted woman who is wearing out her years in patient effort to alleviate suffering or save vice from the last stages of degradation finds aid in the pressure of a friendly hand which tells her that there is one who understands her deeds, and in her place would do the like. The idea of a God who not only sympathizes with all we feel and endure for our fellow men, but who will pour new life into our too languid love, and give firmness to our vacillating purpose, is an extension and multiplication of the effects produced by human sympathy; and it has been intensified for the better spirits who have been under the influence of orthodox Christianity, by the contemplation of Jesus as “God manifest in the flesh.” But Dr. Cumming’s God is the very opposite of all this: He is a God who, instead of sharing and aiding our human sympathies, is directly in collision with them; who, instead of strengthening the bond between man and man, by encouraging the sense that they are both alike the objects of His love and care, thrusts Himself between them and forbids them to feel for each other except as they have relation to Him. He is a God who, instead of adding His solar force to swell the tide of those impulses that tend to give humanity a common life in which the good of one is the good of all, commands us to check those impulses, lest they should prevent us from thinking of His glory. It is in vain for Dr. Cumming to say that we are to love man for God’s sake: with the conception of God which his teaching presents, the love of man for God’s sake involves, as his writings abundantly show, a strong principle of hatred. We can only love one being for the sake of another when there is an habitual delight in associating the idea of those two beings—that is, when the object of our indirect love is a source of joy and honour to the object of our direct love. But, according to Dr. Cumming’s theory, the majority of mankind—the majority of his neighbours—are in precisely the opposite relation to God. His soul has no pleasure in them: they belong more to Satan than to Him; and if they contribute to His glory, it is against their will. Dr. Cumming, then, can only love some men for God’s sake; the rest he must in consistency hate for God’s sake.

There must be many, even in the circle of Dr. Cumming’s admirers, who would be revolted by the doctrine we have just exposed, if their natural good sense and healthy feeling were not early stifled by dogmatic beliefs, and their reverence misled by pious phrases. But as it is, many a rational question, many a generous instinct, is repelled as the suggestion of a supernatural enemy, or as the ebullition of human pride and corruption. This state of inward contradiction can be put an end to only by the conviction that the free and diligent exertion of the intellect, instead of being a sin, is a part of their responsibility—that Right and Reason are synonymous. The fundamental faith for man is faith in the result of a brave, honest, and steady use of all his faculties: Let knowledge grow from more to more,But more of reverence in us dwell;That mind and soul according wellMay make one music as before,But vaster.

Before taking leave of Dr. Cumming, let us express a hope that we have in no case exaggerated the unfavourable character of the inferences to be drawn from his pages. His creed often obliges him to hope the worst of men, and to exert himself in proving that the worst is true; but thus far we are happier than he. We have no theory which requires us to attribute unworthy motives to Dr. Cumming, no opinions, religious or irreligious, which can make it a gratification to us to detect him in delinquencies. On the contrary, the better we are able to think of him as a man, while we are obliged to disapprove him as a theologian, the stronger will be the evidence for our conviction, that the tendency towards good in human nature has a force which no creed can utterly counteract, and which ensures the ultimate triumph of that tendency over all dogmatic perversions.


Autobiography CHARLES DARWINThe founder of modern biology (1809–1882) was another of those who did not abandon his religious views with a light heart. At Cambridge University he was proud to occupy the same rooms as had been lived in by William Paley, whose book Theology was the foundation text of the argument from design. Darwin even considered the priesthood as a young man, and embarked on his study of the natural world in the belief that it demonstrated the glory of God. Having voyaged to South America and the Galapagos Islands on board the good ship Beagle, however, he found himself confronting the evidence of evolution by natural selection. His Origin of Species, published in 1859, was very reluctant to accept its own implications and referred throughout to “creation” without mentioning “evolution.” (The author himself feared that these very implications, if followed, would be like “confessing a murder.”) By the time that he published The Descent of Man in 1871, Darwin felt able to be a little more explicit, but the religiosity of his wife, Emma, was a continued inhibition, and it was only in his Autobiography, from which this excerpt comes, and in a few letters to trusted friends, that he admitted that his work and his life had slowly abolished his faith.

During these two years [October 1836 to January 1839] I was led to think much about religion. Whilst on board the Beagle I was quite orthodox, and I remember being heartily laughed at by several of the officers (though themselves orthodox) for quoting the Bible as an unanswerable authority on some point of morality. I suppose it was the novelty of the argument that amused them. But I had gradually come by this time, i.e., 1836 to 1839, to see that the Old Testament was no more to be trusted than the sacred books of the Hindoos. The question then continually rose before my mind and would not be banished,—is it credible that if God were now to make a revelation to the Hindoos, he would permit it to be connected with the belief in Vishnu, Siva, &c., as Christianity is connected with the Old Testament? This appeared to me utterly incredible.

By further reflecting that the clearest evidence would be requisite to make any sane man believe in the miracles by which Christianity is supported,—and that the more we know of the fixed laws of nature the more incredible do miracles become,—that the men at that time were ignorant and credulous to a degree almost incomprehensible by us,—that the Gospels cannot be proved to have been written simultaneously with the events,—that they differ in many important details, far too important, as it seemed to me, to be admitted as the usual inaccuracies of eye-witnesses;—by such reflections as these, which I give not as having the least novelty or value, but as they influenced me, I gradually came to disbelieve in Christianity as a divine revelation. The fact that many false religions have spread over large portions of the earth like wild-fire had some weight with me.

But I was very unwilling to give up my belief; I feel sure of this, for I can well remember often and often inventing day-dreams of old letters between distinguished Romans, and manuscripts being discovered at Pompeii or elsewhere, which confirmed in the most striking manner all that was written in the Gospels. But I found it more and more difficult, with free scope given to my imagination, to invent evidence which would suffice to convince me. Thus disbelief crept over me at a very slow rate, but was at last complete. The rate was so slow that I felt no distress.

Although I did not think much about the existence of a personal God until a considerably later period of my life, I will here give the vague conclusions to which I have been driven. The old argument from design in Nature, as given by Paley, which formerly seemed to me so conclusive, fails, now that the law of natural selection has been discovered. We can no longer argue that, for instance, the beautiful hinge of a bivalve shell must have been made by an intelligent being, like the hinge of a door by man. There seems to be no more design in the variability of organic beings, and in the action of natural selection, than in the course which the wind blows. But I have discussed this subject at the end of my book on the Variation of Domesticated Animals and Plants, and the argument there given has never, as far as I can see, been answered.

But passing over the endless beautiful adaptations which we everywhere meet with, it may be asked how can the generally beneficent arrangement of the world be accounted for? Some writers indeed are so much impressed with the amount of suffering in the world, that they doubt, if we look to all sentient beings, whether there is more of misery or of happiness; whether the world as a whole is a good or bad one. According to my judgment happiness decidedly prevails, though this would be very difficult to prove. If the truth of this conclusion be granted, it harmonizes well with the effects which we might expect from natural selection. If all the individuals of any species were habitually to suffer to an extreme degree, they would neglect to propagate their kind; but we have no reason to believe that this has ever, or at least often occurred. Some other considerations, moreover, lead to the belief that all sentient beings have been formed so as to enjoy, as a general rule, happiness.

Every one who believes, as I do, that all the corporeal and mental organs (excepting those which are neither advantageous nor disadvantageous to the possessor) of all beings have been developed through natural selection, or the survival of the fittest, together with use or habit, will admit that these organs have been formed so that their possessors may compete successfully with other beings, and thus increase in number. Now an animal may be led to pursue that course of action which is most beneficial to the species by suffering, such as pain, hunger, thirst, and fear; or by pleasure, as in eating and drinking, and in the propagation of the species, &c.; or by both means combined, as in the search for food. But pain or suffering of any kind, if long continued, causes depression and lessens the power of action, yet is well adapted to make a creature guard itself against any great or sudden evil. Pleasurable sensations, on the other hand, may be long continued without any depressing effect; on the contrary, they stimulate the whole system to increased action. Hence it has come to pass that most or all sentient beings have been developed in such a manner, through natural selection, that pleasurable sensations serve as their habitual guides. We see this in the pleasure from exertion, even occasionally from great exertion of the body or mind,—in the pleasure of our daily meals, and especially in the pleasure derived from sociability, and from loving our families. The sum of such pleasures as these, which are habitual or frequently recurrent, give, as I can hardly doubt, to most sentient beings an excess of happiness over misery, although many occasionally suffer much. Such suffering is quite compatible with the belief in Natural Selection, which is not perfect in its action, but tends only to render each species as successful as possible in the battle for life with other species, in wonderfully complex and changing circumstances.

That there is much suffering in the world no one disputes. Some have attempted to explain this with reference to man by imagining that it serves for his moral improvement. But the number of men in the world is as nothing compared with that of all other sentient beings, and they often suffer greatly without any moral improvement. This very old argument from the existence of suffering against the existence of an intelligent First Cause seems to me a strong one; whereas, as just remarked, the presence of much suffering agrees well with the view that all organic beings have been developed through variation and natural selection.

At the present day the most usual argument for the existence of an intelligent God is drawn from the deep inward conviction and feelings which are experienced by most persons.

Formerly I was led by feelings such as those just referred to (although I do not think that the religious sentiment was ever strongly developed in me), to the firm conviction of the existence of God, and of the immortality of the soul. In my Journal I wrote that whilst standing in the midst of the grandeur of a Brazilian forest, “it is not possible to give an adequate idea of the higher feelings of wonder, admiration, and devotion, which fill and elevate the mind.” I well remember my conviction that there is more in man than the mere breath of his body. But now the grandest scenes would not cause any such convictions and feelings to rise in my mind. It may be truly said that I am like a man who has become colour-blind, and the universal belief by men of the existence of redness makes my present loss of perception of not the least value as evidence. This argument would be a valid one if all men of all races had the same inward conviction of the existence of one God; but we know that this is very far from being the case. Therefore I cannot see that such inward convictions and feelings are of any weight as evidence of what really exists. The state of mind which grand scenes formerly excited in me, and which was intimately connected with a belief in God, did not essentially differ from that which is often called the sense of sublimity; and however difficult it may be to explain the genesis of this sense, it can hardly be advanced as an argument for the existence of God, any more than the powerful though vague and similar feelings excited by music.

With respect to immortality, nothing shows me [so clearly] how strong and almost instinctive a belief it is, as the consideration of the view now held by most physicists, namely, that the sun with all the planets will in time grow too cold for life, unless indeed some great body dashes into the sun, and thus gives it fresh life. Believing as I do that man in the distant future will be a far more perfect creature than he now is, it is an intolerable thought that he and all other sentient beings are doomed to complete annihilation after such long-continued slow progress. To those who fully admit the immortality of the human soul, the destruction of our world will not appear so dreadful.

Another source of conviction in the existence of God, connected with the reason, and not with the feelings, impresses me as having much more weight. This follows from the extreme difficulty or rather impossibility of conceiving this immense and wonderful universe, including man with his capacity of looking far backwards and far into futurity, as the result of blind chance or necessity. When thus reflecting I feel compelled to look to a First Cause having an intelligent mind in some degree analogous to that of man; and I deserve to be called a Theist. This conclusion was strong in my mind about the time, as far as I can remember, when I wrote the Origin of Species; and it is since that time that it has very gradually, with many fluctuations, become weaker. But then arises the doubt, can the mind of man, which has, as I fully believe, been developed from a mind as low as that possessed by the lowest animals, be trusted when it draws such grand conclusions?

I cannot pretend to throw the least light on such abstruse problems. The mystery of the beginning of all things is insoluble by us; and I for one must be content to remain an Agnostic.


An Agnostic’s Apology LESLIE STEPHENAnother victim of Oxford and Cambridge theocracy, that other great Victorian Leslie Stephen (1832–1904) chafed at the idea that he had to become an ordained minister in order to teach at Trinity Hall. He accordingly resigned his post and became celebrated as the biographer of Thomas Hobbes, Samuel Johnson, and George Eliot. Best remembered in some circles as the founder of Britain’s Dictionary of National Biography, Stephen earned himself another place in that volume as the father of Virginia Woolf. This essay is a defense of Thomas Huxley who, despite his rather crude “social Darwinist” principles, had routed Bishop Wilberforce in a historic ebate on the theory of evolution that took place at Oxford shortly after the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species.

The name agnostic, originally coined by Professor Huxley about 1869, has gained general acceptance. It is sometimes used to indicate the philosophical theory which Mr. Herbert Spencer, as he tells us, developed from the doctrine of Hamilton and Mansel. Upon that theory I express no opinion. I take the word in a vaguer sense, and am glad to believe that its use indicates an advance in the courtesies of controversy. The old theological phrase for an intellectual opponent was Atheist—a name which still retains a certain flavour as of the stake in this world and hell-fire in the next, and which, moreover, implies an inaccuracy of some importance. Dogmatic Atheism—the doctrine that there is no God, whatever may be meant by God—is, to say the least, a rare phase of opinion. The word Agnosticism, on the other hand, seems to imply a fairly accurate appreciation of a form of creed already common and daily spreading. The Agnostic is one who asserts—what no one denies—that there are limits to the sphere of human intelligence. He asserts, further, what many theologians have expressly maintained, that those limits are such as to exclude at least what Lewes called “metempirical” knowledge. But he goes farther, and asserts, in opposition to theologians, that theology lies within this forbidden sphere. This last assertion raises the important issue; and, though I have no pretension to invent an opposition nickname, I may venture, for the purposes of this article, to describe the rival school as Gnostics.

The Gnostic holds that our reason can, in some sense, transcend the narrow limits of experience. He holds that we can attain truths not capable of verification, and not needing verification, by actual experiment or observation. He holds, further, that a knowledge of those truths is essential to the highest interests of mankind, and enables us in some sort to solve the dark riddle of the universe. A complete solution, as everyone admits, is beyond our power. But some answer may be given to the doubts which harass and perplex us when we try to frame any adequate conception of the vast order of which we form an insignificant portion. We cannot say why this or that arrangement is what it is; we can say, though obscurely, that some answer exists, and would be satisfactory, if we could only find it. Overpowered, as every honest and serious thinker is at times overpowered, by the sight of pain, folly, and helplessness, by the jarring discords which run through the vast harmony of the universe, we are yet enabled to hear at times a whisper that all is well, to trust to it as coming from the most authentic source, and that only the temporary bars of sense prevent us from recognizing with certainty that the harmony beneath the discords is a reality and not a dream. This knowledge is embodied in the central dogma of theology. God is the name of the harmony; and God is knowable. Who would not be happy in accepting this belief, if he could accept it honestly? Who would not be glad if he could say with confidence: “the evil is transitory, the good eternal: our doubts are due to limitations destined to be abolished, and the world is really an embodiment of love and wisdom, however dark it may appear to our faculties”? And yet, if the so-called knowledge be illusory, are we not bound by the most sacred obligations to recognise the facts? Our brief path is dark enough on any hypothesis. We cannot afford to turn aside after every ignis fatuus without asking whether it leads to sounder footing or to hopeless quagmires. Dreams may be pleasanter for the moment than realities; but happiness must be won by adapting our lives to the realities. And who, that has felt the burden of existence, and suffered under well-meant efforts at consolation, will deny that such consolations are the bitterest of mockeries? Pain is not an evil; death is not a separation; sickness is but a blessing in disguise. Have the gloomiest speculations of avowed pessimists ever tortured sufferers like those kindly platitudes? Is there a more cutting piece of satire in the language than the reference in our funeral service to the “sure and certain hope of a blessed resurrection”? To dispel genuine hopes might be painful, however salutary. To suppress these spasmodic efforts to fly in the face of facts would be some comfort, even in the distress which they are meant to alleviate.

Besides the important question whether the Gnostic can prove his dogmas, there is, therefore, the further question whether the dogmas, if granted, have any meaning. Do they answer our doubts, or mock us with the appearance of an answer? The Gnostics rejoice in their knowledge. Have they anything to tell us? They rebuke what they call the “pride of reason” in the name of a still more exalted pride. The scientific reasoner is arrogant because he sets limits to the faculty in which he trusts, and denies the existence of any other faculty. They are humble because they dare to tread in the regions which he declares to be inaccessible. But without bandying such accusations, or asking which pride is the greatest, the Gnostics are at least bound to show some ostensible justification for their complacency. Have they discovered a firm resting place from which they are entitled to look down in compassion or contempt upon those who hold it to be a mere edifice of moonshine? If they have diminished by a scruple the weight of one passing doubt, we should be grateful: perhaps we should be converts. If not, why condemn Agnosticism?

I have said that our knowledge is in any case limited. I may add that, on any showing, there is a danger in failing to recognise the limits of possible knowledge. The word Gnostic has some awkward associations. It once described certain heretics who got into trouble from fancying that men could frame theories of the Divine mode of existence. The sects have been dead for many centuries. Their fundamental assumptions can hardly be quite extinct. Not long ago, at least, there appeared in the papers a string of propositions framed—so we were assured—by some of the most candid and most learned of living theologians. These propositions defined by the help of various languages the precise relations which exist between the persons of the Trinity. It is an odd, though far from an unprecedented, circumstance that the unbeliever cannot quote them for fear of profanity. If they were transplanted into the pages of the Fortnightly Review, it would be impossible to convince anyone that the intention was not to mock the simple-minded persons who, we must suppose, were not themselves intentionally irreverent. It is enough to say that they defined the nature of God Almighty with an accuracy from which modest naturalists would shrink in describing the genesis of a black-beetle. I know not whether these dogmas were put forward as articles of faith, as pious conjectures, or as tentative contributions to sound theory. At any rate, it was supposed that they were interesting to beings of flesh and blood. If so, one can only ask in wonder whether an utter want of reverence is most strongly implied in this mode of dealing with sacred mysteries; or an utter ignorance of the existing state of the world in the assumption that the question which really divides mankind is the double procession of the Holy Ghost; or an utter incapacity for speculation in the confusion of these dead exuviviæ of long-past modes of thought with living intellectual tissue; or an utter want of imagination, or of even a rudimentary sense of humour, in the hypothesis that the promulgation of such dogmas could produce anything but the laughter of sceptics and the contempt of the healthy human intellect?

The sect which requires to be encountered in these days is not one which boggles over the filioque, but certain successors of those Ephesians who told Paul that they did not even know “whether there were any Holy Ghost.” But it explains some modern phenomena when we find that the leaders of theology hope to reconcile faith and reason, and to show that the old symbols have still a right to the allegiance of our hearts and brains, by putting forth these portentous propositions. We are struggling with hard facts, and they would arm us with the forgotten tools of scholasticism. We wish for spiritual food, and are to be put off with these ancient mummeries of forgotten dogma. If Agnosticism is the frame of mind which summarily rejects these imbecilities, and would restrain the human intellect from wasting its powers on the attempt to galvanise into sham activity this caput mortuum of old theology, nobody need be afraid of the name. Argument against such adversaries would be itself a foolish waste of time. Let the dead bury their dead, and Old Catholics decide whether the Holy Ghost proceeds from the Father and the Son, or from the Father alone. Gentlemen, indeed, who still read the Athanasian Creed, and profess to attach some meaning to its statements, have no right to sneer at their brethren who persist in taking things seriously. But for men who long for facts instead of phrases, the only possible course is to allow such vagaries to take their own course to the limbo to which they are naturally destined, simply noting, by the way, that modern Gnosticism may lead to puerilities which one blushes even to notice.

It is not with such phenomena that we have seriously to deal. Nobody maintains that the unassisted human intellect can discover the true theory of the Trinity; and the charge of Agnosticism refers, of course, to the sphere of reason, not to the sphere of revelation. Yet those who attack the doctrine are chiefly believers in revelation; and as such they should condescend to answer one important question. Is not the denunciation of reason a commonplace with theologians? What could be easier than to form a catena of the most philosophical defenders of Christianity who have exhausted language in declaring the impotence of the unassisted intellect? Comte has not more explicitly enounced the incapacity of man to deal with the Absolute and the Infinite than a whole series of orthodox writers. Trust your reason, we have been told till we are tired of the phrase, and you will become Atheists or Agnostics. We take you at your word: we become Agnostics. What right have you to turn round and rate us for being a degree more logical than yourselves? Our right, you reply, is founded upon a Divine revelation to ourselves or our Church. Let us grant—it is a very liberal concession—that the right may conceivably be established; but still you are at one with us in philosophy, as we say, that the natural man can know nothing of the Divine nature. That is Agnosticism. Our fundamental principle is not only granted, but asserted. By what logical device you succeed in overleaping the barriers which you have declared to be insuperable is another question. At least you have no prima facie ground for attacking our assumption that the limits of the human intellect are what you declare them to be. This is no mere verbal retort. Half, or more than half, of our adversaries agree formally with our leading principle. They cannot attack us without upsetting the very ground upon which the ablest advocates of their own case rely. The last English writer who professed to defend Christianity with weapons drawn from wide and genuine philosophical knowledge was Dean Mansel. The whole substance of his argument was simply and solely the assertion of the first principles of Agnosticism. Mr. Herbert Spencer, the prophet of the Unknowable, the foremost representative of Agnosticism, professes in his programme to be carrying “a step further the doctrine put into shape by Hamilton and Mansel.” Nobody, I suspect, would now deny, nobody except Dean Mansel himself, and the “religious” newspapers, ever denied very seriously, that the “further step” thus taken was the logical step. Opponents both from within and without the Church, Mr. Maurice and Mr. Mill, agreed that this affiliation was legitimate. The Old Testament represents Jehovah as human, as vindictive, as prescribing immoralities; therefore, Jehovah was not the true God; that was the contention of the infidel. We know nothing whatever about the true God was the reply; for God means the Absolute and the Infinite. Any special act may come from God, for it may be a moral miracle; any attribute may represent the character of God to man, for we know nothing whatever of His real attributes and cannot even conceive Him as endowed with attributes. The doctrine of the Atonement cannot be revolting, because it cannot have any meaning. Mr. Spencer hardly goes a step beyond his original, except, indeed, in candour.

Most believers repudiate Dean Mansel’s arguments. They were an anachronism. They were fatal to the decaying creed of pure Theism, and powerless against the growing creed of Agnosticism. When theology had vital power enough to throw out fresh branches, the orthodox could venture to attack the Deist, and the Deist could assail the traditional beliefs. As the impulse grows fainter, it is seen that such a warfare is suicidal. The old rivals must make an alliance against the common enemy. The theologian must appeal for help to the metaphysician whom he reviled. Orthodoxy used to call Spinoza an Atheist; it is now glad to argue that even Spinoza is a witness on its own side. Yet the most genuine theology still avows its hatred of reason and distrusts sham alliances. Newman was not, like Dean Mansel, a profound metaphysician, but his admirable rhetoric expressed a far finer religious instinct. He felt more keenly, if he did not reason so systematically; and the force of one side of his case is undeniable. He holds that the unassisted reason cannot afford a sufficient support for a belief in God. He declares, as innumerable writers of less power have declared, that there is “no medium, in true philosophy, between Atheism and Catholicity, and that a perfectly consistent mind, under those circumstances in which it finds itself here below, must embrace either the one or the other.” He looks in vain for any antagonist, except the Catholic Church, capable of baffling and withstanding “the fierce energy of passion, and the all-corroding, all-dissolving skepticism of the intellect in religious matters.” Some such doctrine is in fact but a natural corollary from the doctrine of human corruption held by all genuine theologians. The very basis of orthodox theology is the actual separation of the creation from the Creator. In the Grammar of Assent, Newman tells us that we “can only glean from the surface of the world some faint and fragmentary views” of God. “I see,” he proceeds, “only a choice of alternatives in view of so critical a fact; either there is no Creator, or He has disowned His creatures.” The absence of God from His own world is the one prominent fact which startles and appalls him. Newman, of course, does not see or does not admit the obvious consequence. He asserts most emphatically that he believes in the existence of God as firmly as in his own existence; and he finds the ultimate proof of this doctrine—a proof not to be put into mood and figure—in the testimony of the conscience. But he apparently admits that Atheism is as logical, that is, as free from self-contradiction, as Catholicism. He certainly declares that though the ordinary arguments are conclusive, they are not in practice convincing. Sound reason would, of course, establish theology; but corrupt man does not and cannot reason soundly. Newman, however, goes further than this. His Theism can only be supported by help of his Catholicity. If, therefore, Newman had never heard of the Catholic Church—if, that is, he were in the position of the great majority of men now living, and of the overwhelming majority of the race which has lived since its first appearance, he would be driven to one of two alternatives. Either he would be an Atheist or he would be an Agnostic. His conscience might say, there is a God; his observation would say, there is no God. Moreover, the voice of conscience has been very differently interpreted. Newman’s interpretation has no force for anyone who, like most men, does not share his intuitions. To such persons, therefore, there can be, on Newman’s own showing, no refuge except the admittedly logical refuge of Atheism. Even if they shared his intuitions, they would be necessarily skeptics until the Catholic Church came to their aid, for their intuitions would be in hopeless conflict with their experience. I need hardly add that, to some minds, the proposed alliance with reason of a Church, which admits that its tenets are corroded and dissolved wherever free reason is allowed to play upon them, is rather suspicious. At any rate, Newman’s arguments go to prove that man, as guided by reason, ought to be an Agnostic, and that, at the present moment, Agnosticism is the only reasonable faith for at least three-quarters of the race.

All, then, who think that men should not be dogmatic about matters beyond the sphere of reason or even conceivability, who hold that reason, however weak, is our sole guide, or who find that their conscience does not testify to the divinity of the Catholic God, but declares the moral doctrines of Catholicity to be demonstrably erroneous, are entitled to claim such orthodox writers as sharing their fundamental principles, though refusing to draw the legitimate inferences. The authority of Dean Mansel and Newman may of course be repudiated. In one sense, however, they are simply stating an undeniable fact. The race collectively is agnostic, whatever may be the case with individuals. Newton might be certain of the truth of his doctrines, whilst other thinkers were still convinced of their falsity. It could not be said that the doctrines were certainly true, so long as they were doubted in good faith by competent reasoners. Newman may be as much convinced of the truth of his theology as Professor Huxley of its error. But speaking of the race, and not of the individual, there is no plainer fact in history than the fact that hitherto no knowledge has been attained. There is not a single proof of natural theology of which the negative has not been maintained as vigorously as the affirmative.

You tell us to be ashamed of professing ignorance. Where is the shame of ignorance in matters still involved in endless and hopeless controversy? Is it not rather a duty? Why should a lad who has just run the gauntlet of examinations and escaped to a country parsonage be dogmatic, when his dogmas are denounced as erroneous by half the philosophers of the world? What theory of the universe am I to accept as demonstrably established? At the very earliest dawn of philosophy men were divided by earlier forms of the same problems which divide them now. Shall I be a Platonist or an Aristotelian? Shall I admit or deny the existence of innate ideas? Shall I believe in the possibility or in the impossibility of transcending experience? Go to the mediæval philosophy, says one controversialist. To which mediæval philosophy, pray? Shall I be a nominalist or a realist? And why should I believe you rather than the great thinkers of the seventeenth century, who agreed with one accord that the first condition of intellectual progress was the destruction of that philosophy? There would be no difficulty if it were a question of physical science. I might believe in Galileo and Newton and their successors down to Adams and Leverrier without hesitation, because they all substantially agree. But when men deal with the old problems there are still the old doubts. Shall I believe in Hobbes or in Descartes? Can I stop where Descartes stopped, or must I go on to Spinoza? Or shall I follow Locke’s guidance, and end with Hume’s skepticism? Or listen to Kant, and, if so, shall I decide that he is right in destroying theology, or in reconstructing it, or in both performances? Does Hegel hold the key of the secret, or is he a mere spinner of jargon? May not Feuerbach or Schopenhauer represent the true development of metaphysical inquiry? Shall I put faith in Hamilton and Mansel, and, if so, shall I read their conclusions by the help of Mr. Spencer, or shall I believe in Mill or in Green? State any one proposition in which all philosophers agree, and I will admit it to be true; or any one which has a manifest balance of authority, and I will agree that it is probable. But so long as every philosopher flatly contradicts the first principles of his predecessors, why affect certainty? The only agreement I can discover is, that there is no philosopher of whom his opponents have not said that his opinions lead logically either to Pantheism or to Atheism.

When all the witnesses thus contradict each other, the prima facie result is pure skepticism. There is no certainty. Who am I, if I were the ablest of modern thinkers, to say summarily that all the great men who differed from me are wrong, and so wrong that their difference should not even raise a doubt in my mind? From such skepticism there is indeed one, and, so far as I can see, but one, escape. The very hopelessness of the controversy shows that the reasoners have been transcending the limits of reason. They have reached a point where, as at the pole, the compass points indifferently to every quarter. Thus there is a chance that I may retain what is valuable in the chaos of speculation, and reject what is bewildering by confining the mind to its proper limits. But has any limit ever been suggested, except a limit which comes in substance to an exclusion of all ontology? In short, if I would avoid utter skepticism, must I not be an Agnostic?

Let us suppose, however, that this difficulty can be evaded. Suppose that, after calling witnesses from all schools and all ages, I can find ground for excluding all the witnesses who make against me. Let me say, for example, that the whole school which refuses to transcend experience errs from the wickedness of its heart and the consequent dullness of its intellect. Some people seem to think that a plausible and happy suggestion. Let the theologian have his necessary laws of thought, which enable him to evolve truth beyond all need of verification from experience. Where will the process end? The question answers itself. The path has been trodden again and again, till it is as familiar as the first rule of arithmetic. Admit that the mind can reason about the Absolute and the Infinite, and you will get to the position of Spinoza, or to a position substantially equivalent. In fact, the chain of reasoning is substantially too short and simple to be for a moment doubtful. Theology, if logical, leads straight to Pantheism. The Infinite God is everything. All things are bound together as cause and effect. God, the first cause, is the cause of all effects down to the most remote. In one form or other, that is the conclusion to which all theology approximates as it is pushed to its legitimate result.

Here, then, we have an apparent triumph over Agnosticism. But nobody can accept Spinoza without rejecting all the doctrines for which the Gnostics really contend. In the first place, revelation and the God of revelation disappear. The argument according to Spinoza against supernaturalism differs from the argument according to Hume in being more peremptory. Hume only denies that a past miracle can be proved by evidence: Spinoza denies that it could ever have happened. As a fact, miracles and a local revelation were first assailed by Deists more effectually than by skeptics. T e old Theology was seen to be unworthy of the God of nature, before it was said that nature could not be regarded through the theological representation. And, in the next place, the orthodox assault upon the value of Pantheism is irresistible. Pantheism can give no ground for morality, for nature is as much the cause of vice as the cause of virtue; it can give no ground for an optimist view of the universe, for nature causes evil as much as it causes good. We no longer doubt, it is true, whether there be a God, for our God means all reality; but every doubt which we entertained about the universe is transferred to the God upon whom the universe is molded. The attempt to transfer to pure being or to the abstraction Nature the feelings with which we are taught to regard a person of transcendent wisdom and benevolence is, as theologians assert, hopeless. To deny the existence of God is in this sense the same as to deny the existence of no-God. We keep the old word; we have altered the whole of its contents. A Pantheist is, as a rule, one who looks upon the universe through his feelings instead of his reason, and who regards it with love because his habitual frame of mind is amiable. But he has no logical argument as against the Pessimist, who regards it with dread unqualified by love, or the Agnostic, who finds it impossible to regard it with any but a colourless emotion….

There are two questions, in short, about the universe which must be answered to escape from Agnosticism. The great fact which puzzles the mind is the vast amount of evil. It may be answered that evil is an illusion, because God is benevolent; or it may be answered that evil is deserved, because God is just. In one case the doubt is removed by denying the existence of the difficulty, in the other it is made tolerable by satisfying our consciences. We have seen what natural reason can do towards justifying these answers. To escape from Agnosticism we become Pantheists; then the divine reality must be the counterpart of phenomenal nature, and all the difficulties recur. We escape from Pantheism by the illogical device of free-will. Then God is indeed good and wise, but God is no longer omnipotent. By His side we erect a fetish called free-will, which is potent enough to defeat all God’s good purposes, and to make His absence from His own universe the most conspicuous fact given by observation; and which, at the same time, is by its own nature intrinsically arbitrary in its action. Your Gnosticism tells us that an almighty benevolence is watching over everything, and bringing good out of all evil. Whence, then, comes the evil? By free-will; that is, by chance! It is an exception, an exception which covers, say, half the phenomena, and includes all that puzzle us. Say boldly at once no explanation can be given, and then proceed to denounce Agnosticism. If, again, we take the moral problem, the Pantheist view shows desert as before God to be a contradiction in terms. We are what He has made us; nay, we are but manifestations of Himself—how can He complain? Escape from the dilemma by making us independent of God, and God, so far as the observed universe can tell us, becomes systematically unjust. He rewards the good and the bad, and gives equal reward to the free agent and the slave of fate. Where are we to turn for a solution?

Let us turn to revelation; that is the most obvious reply. By all means, though this is to admit that natural reason cannot help us; or, in other words, it directly produces more Agnosticism, though indirectly it makes an opening for revelation. There is, indeed, a difficulty here. Pure theism, as we have observed, is in reality as vitally opposed to historical revelation as simple skepticism. The word God is used by the metaphysician and the savage. It may mean anything, from “pure Being” down to the most degraded fetish. The “universal consent” is a consent to use the same phrase for antagonistic conceptions—for order and chaos, for absolute unity or utter heterogeneity, for a universe governed by a human will, or by a will of which man cannot form the slightest conception. This is, of course, a difficulty which runs off the orthodox disputant like water from a duck’s back. He appeals to his conscience, and his conscience tells him just what he wants. It reveals a Being just at that point in the scale between the two extremes which is convenient for his purposes. I open, for example, a harmless little treatise by a divine who need not be named. He knows intuitively, so he says, that there is a God, who is benevolent and wise, and endowed with personality, that is to say, conceived anthropomorphically enough to be capable of acting upon the universe, and yet so far different from man as to be able to throw a decent veil of mystery over His more questionable actions. Well, I reply, my intuition tells me of no such Being. Then, says the divine, I can’t prove my statements, but you would recognise their truth if your heart or your intellect were not corrupted: that is, you must be a knave or a fool. This is a kind of argument to which one is perfectly accustomed in theology. I am right, and you are wrong; and I am right because I am good and wise. By all means; and now let us see what your wisdom and goodness can tell us.

The Christian revelation makes statements which, if true, are undoubtedly of the very highest importance. God is angry with man. Unless we believe and repent we shall all be damned. It is impossible, indeed, for its advocates even to say this without instantly contradicting themselves. Their doctrine frightens them. They explain in various ways that a great many people will be saved without believing, and that eternal damnation is not eternal nor damnation. It is only the vulgar who hold such views, and who, of course, must not be disturbed in them; but they are not for the intelligent. God grants “uncovenanted mercies”—that is, He sometimes lets a sinner off, though He has not made a legal bargain about it—an explanation calculated to exalt our conceptions of the Deity! But let us pass over these endless shufflings from the horrible to the meaningless. Christianity tells us in various ways how the wrath of the Creator may be appeased and His goodwill ensured. The doctrine is manifestly important to believers; but does it give us a dearer or happier view of the universe? That is what is required for the confusion of Agnostics; and, if the mystery were in part solved, or the clouds thinned in the slightest degree, Christianity would triumph by its inherent merits. Let us, then, ask once more, Does Christianity exhibit the ruler of the universe as benevolent or as just?

If I were to assert that of every ten beings born into this world nine would be damned, that all who refused to believe what they did not hold to be proved, and all who sinned from overwhelming temptation, and all who had not had the good-fortune to be the subjects of a miraculous conversion or the recipients of a grace conveyed by a magical charm, would be tortured to all eternity, what would an orthodox theologian reply? He could not say, “That is false”; I might appeal to the highest authorities for my justification; nor, in fact, could he on his own showing deny the possibility. Hell, he says, exists; he does not know who will be damned; though he does know that all men are by nature corrupt and liable to be damned if not saved by supernatural grace. He might, and probably would, now say, “That is rash. You have no authority for saying how many will be lost and how many saved: you cannot even say what is meant by hell or heaven: you cannot tell how far God may be better than His word, though you may be sure that He won’t be worse than His word.” And what is all this but to say, We know nothing about it? In other words, to fall back on Agnosticism. The difficulty, as theologians truly say, is not so much that evil is eternal, as that evil exists. That is in substance a frank admission that, as nobody can explain evil, nobody can explain anything. Your revelation, which was to prove the benevolence of God, has proved only that God’s benevolence may be consistent with the eternal and infinite misery of most of His creatures; you escape only by saying that it is also consistent with their not being eternally and infinitely miserable. That is, the revelation reveals nothing.

But the revelation shows God to be just. Now, if the free-will hypothesis be rejected—and it is rejected, not only by infidels, but by the most consistent theologians—this question cannot really arise at all. Jonathan Edwards will prove that there cannot be a question of justice as between man and God. The creature has no rights against his Creator. The question of justice merges in the question of benevolence; and Edwards will go on to say that most men are damned, and that the blessed will thank God for their tortures. That is logical, but not consoling. Passing this over, can revelation prove that God is just, assuming that justice is a word applicable to dealings between the potter and the pot?

And here we are sent to the “great argument of Butler.” Like some other theological arguments already noticed, that great argument is to many minds—those of James Mill and of Dr. Martineau, for example—a direct assault upon Theism, or, in other words, an argument for Agnosticism. Briefly stated, it comes to this. The God of revelation cannot be the God of nature, said the Deists, because the God of revelation is unjust. The God of revelation, replied Butler, may be the God of nature, for the God of nature is unjust. Stripped of its various involutions, that is the sum and substance of this celebrated piece of reasoning. Butler, I must say in passing, deserves high credit for two things. The first is that he is the only theologian who has ever had the courage to admit that any difficulty existed when he was struggling most desperately to meet the difficulty; though even Butler could not admit that such a difficulty should affect a man’s conduct. Secondly, Butler’s argument really rests upon a moral theory, mistaken indeed in some senses, but possessing a stoical grandeur. To admit, however, that Butler was a noble and a comparatively candid thinker is not to admit that he ever faced the real difficulty. It need not be asked here by what means he evaded it. His position is in any case plain. Christianity tells us, as he thinks, that God damns men for being bad, whether they could help it or not; and that He lets them off, or lets some of them off, for the sufferings of others. He damns the helpless and punishes the innocent. Horrible! exclaims the infidel. Possibly, replies Butler, but nature is just as bad. All suffering is punishment. It strikes the good as well as the wicked. The father sins, and the son suffers. I drink too much, and my son has the gout. In another world we may suppose that the same system will be carried out more thoroughly. God will pardon some sinners because He punished Christ, and He will damn others everlastingly. That is His way. A certain degree of wrongdoing here leads to irremediable suffering, or rather to suffering remediable by death alone. In the next world there is no death; therefore, the suffering won’t be remediable at all. The world is a scene of probation, destined to fit us for a better life. As a matter of fact, most men make it a discipline of vice instead of a discipline of virtue; and most men, therefore, will presumably be damned. We see the same thing in the waste of seeds and animal life, and may suppose, therefore, that it is part of the general scheme of Providence.

This is the Christian revelation according to Butler. Does it make the world better? Does it not, rather, add indefinitely to the terror produced by the sight of all its miseries, and justify James Mill for feeling that rather than such a God he would have no God? What escape can be suggested? The obvious one: it is all a mystery; and what is mystery but the theological phrase for Agnosticism? God has spoken, and endorsed all our most hideous doubts. He has said, let there be light, and there is no light—no light, but rather darkness visible, serving only to discover sights of woe.

The believers who desire to soften away the old dogmas—in other words, to take refuge from the unpleasant results of their doctrine with the Agnostics, and to retain the pleasant results with the Gnostics—have a different mode of escape. They know that God is good and just; that evil will somehow disappear and apparent injustice be somehow redressed. The practical objection to this amiable creed suggests a sad comment upon the whole controversy. We fly to religion to escape from our dark forebodings. But a religion which stifles these forebodings always fails to satisfy us. We long to hear that they are groundless. As soon as we are told that they are groundless we mistrust our authority. No poetry lives which reflects only the cheerful emotions. Our sweetest songs are those which tell of saddest thought. We can bring harmony out of melancholy; we cannot banish melancholy from the world. And the religious utterances, which are the highest form of poetry, are bound by the same law. There is a deep sadness in the world. Turn and twist the thought as you may, there is no escape. Optimism would be soothing if it were possible; in fact, it is impossible, and therefore a constant mockery; and of all dogmas that ever were invented, that which has least vitality is the dogma that whatever is, is right.

Let us, however, consider for a moment what is the net result of this pleasant creed. Its philosophical basis may be sought in pure reason or in experience; but, as a rule, its adherents are ready to admit that the pure reason requires the support of the emotions before such a doctrine can be established, and are therefore marked by a certain tinge of mysticism. They feel rather than know. The awe with which they regard the universe, the tender glow of reverence and love with which the bare sight of nature affects them, is to them the ultimate guarantee of their beliefs. Happy those who feel such emotions! Only, when they try to extract definite statements of fact from these impalpable sentiments, they should beware how far such statements are apt to come into terrible collision with reality. And, meanwhile, those who have been disabused with Candide, who have felt the weariness and pain of all “this unintelligible world,” and have not been able to escape into any mystic rapture, have as much to say for their own version of the facts. Is happiness a dream, or misery, or is it all a dream? Does not our answer vary with our health and with our condition? When, rapt in the security of a happy life, we cannot even conceive that our happiness will fail, we are practical optimists. When some random blow out of the dark crushes the pillars round which our life has been entwined as recklessly as a boy sweeps away a cobweb, when at a single step we plunge through the flimsy crust of happiness into the deep gulfs beneath, we are tempted to turn to Pessimism. Who shall decide, and how? Of all questions that can be asked, the most important is surely this: Is the tangled web of this world composed chiefly of happiness or of misery? And of all questions that can be asked, it is surely the most unanswerable. For in no other problem is the difficulty of discarding the illusions arising from our own experience, of eliminating “the personal error” and gaining an outside standing-point, so hopeless.

In any case the real appeal must be to experience. Ontologists may manufacture libraries of jargon without touching the point. They have never made, or suggested the barest possibility of making, a bridge from the world of pure reason to the contingent world in which we live. To the thinker who tries to construct the universe out of pure reason, the actual existence of error in our minds and disorder in the outside world presents a difficulty as hopeless as that which the existence of vice and misery presents to the optimist who tries to construct the universe out of pure goodness. To say that misery does not exist is to contradict the primary testimony of consciousness; to argue on à priori grounds that misery or happiness predominates, is as hopeless a task as to deduce from the principle of the excluded middle the distance from St. Paul’s to Westminster Abbey. Questions of fact can only be solved by examining facts. Perhaps such evidence would show—and if a guess were worth anything, I should add that I guess that it would show—that happiness predominates over misery in the composition of the known world. I am, therefore, not prejudiced against the Gnostic’s conclusion; but I add that the evidence is just as open to me as to him. The whole world in which we live may be an illusion—a veil to be withdrawn in some higher state of being. But be it what it may, it supplies all the evidence upon which we can rely. If evil predominates here, we have no reason to suppose that good predominates elsewhere. All the ingenuity of theologians can never shake our conviction that facts are what we feel them to be, nor invert the plain inference from facts; and facts are just as open to one school of thought as to another.

What, then, is the net result? One insoluble doubt has haunted men’s minds since thought began in the world. No answer has ever been suggested. One school of philosophers hands it to the next. It is denied in one form only to reappear in another. The question is not which system excludes the doubt, but how it expresses the doubt. Admit or deny the competence of reason in theory, we all agree that it fails in practice. Theologians revile reason as much as Agnostics; they then appeal to it, and it decides against them. They amend their plea by excluding certain questions from its jurisdiction, and those questions include the whole difficulty. They go to revelation, and revelation replies by calling doubt, mystery. They declare that their consciousness declares just what they want it to declare. Ours declares something else. Who is to decide? The only appeal is to experience, and to appeal to experience is to admit the fundamental dogma of Agnosticism.

Is it not, then, the very height of audacity, in face of a difficulty which meets us at every turn, which has perplexed all the ablest thinkers in proportion to their ability, which vanishes in one shape only to show itself in another, to declare roundly, not only that the difficulty can be solved, but that it does not exist? Why, when no honest man will deny in private that every ultimate problem is wrapped in the profoundest mystery, do honest men proclaim in pulpits that unhesitating certainty is the duty of the most foolish and ignorant? Is it not a spectacle to make the angels laugh? We are a company of ignorant beings, feeling our way through mists and darkness, learning only by incessantly repeated blunders, obtaining a glimmering of truth by falling into every conceivable error, dimly discerning light enough for our daily needs, but hopelessly differing whenever we attempt to describe the ultimate origin or end of our paths; and yet when one of us ventures to declare that we don’t know the map of the universe as well as the map of our infinitesimal parish, he is hooted, reviled, and perhaps told that he will be damned to all eternity for his faithlessness. Amidst all the endless and hopeless controversies which have left nothing but bare husks of meaningless words, we have been able to discover certain reliable truths. They don’t take us very far, and the condition of discovering them has been distrust of a priori guesses, and the systematic interrogation of experience. Let us, say some of us, follow at least this clue. Here we shall find sufficient guidance for the needs of life, though we renounce for ever the attempt to get behind the veil which no one has succeeded in raising; if, indeed, there be anything behind. You miserable Agnostics! is the retort throw aside such rubbish, and cling to the old husks. Stick to the words which profess to explain everything; call your doubts mysteries, and they won’t disturb you any longer; and believe in those necessary truths of which no two philosophers have ever succeeded in giving the same version.

Gentlemen, we can only reply, wait till you have some show of agreement amongst yourselves. Wait till you can give some answer not palpably a verbal answer, to some one of the doubts which oppress us as they oppress you. Wait till you can point to some single truth, however trifling, which has been discovered by your method, and will stand the test of discussion and verification. Wait till you can appeal to reason without in the same breath vilifying reason. Wait till your Divine revelations have something more to reveal than the hope that the hideous doubts which they suggest may possibly be without foundation. Till then we shall be content to admit openly, what you whisper under your breath or hide in technical jargon, that the ancient secret is a secret still; that man knows nothing of the Infinite and Absolute; and that, knowing nothing, he had better not be dogmatic about his ignorance. And, meanwhile, we will endeavour to be as charitable as possible, and whilst you trumpet forth officially your contempt for our skepticism, we will at least try to believe that you are imposed upon by your own bluster.


Miracle ANATOLE FRANCEAn enjoyable squib from Anatole France (1844–1924), winner of the 1921 Nobel Prize for Literature and lifelong foe of French clericalism, whose true name was Jacques-Anatole-François Thibault. It’s nice to know that the title of the book from which this is taken was Le Jardin d’Epicure, or The Garden of Epicurus—a respectful nod to one of the Greek founders of skepticism.

We should not say: There are no miracles, because none has ever been proved. This always leaves it open to the Orthodox to appeal to a more complete state of knowledge. The truth is, no miracle can, from the nature of things, be stated as an established fact; to do so will always involve drawing a premature conclusion. A deeply rooted instinct tells us that whatever Nature embraces in her bosom is conformable to her laws, either known or occult. But, even supposing he could silence this presentiment of his, a man will never be in a position to say: “Such and such a fact is outside the limits of Nature.” Our researches will never carry us as far as that. Moreover, if it is of the essence of miracle to elude scientific investigation, every dogma attesting it invokes an intangible witness that is bound to evade our grasp to the end of time.

This notion of miracles belongs to the infancy of the mind, and cannot continue when once the human intellect has begun to frame a systematic picture of the universe. The wise Greeks could not tolerate the idea. Hippocrates said, speaking of epilepsy: “This malady is called divine; but all diseases are divine, and all alike come from the gods.” There he spoke as a natural philosopher. Human reason is less assured of itself nowadays. What annoys me above all is when people say: “We do not believe in miracles, because no miracle is proved.”

Happening to be at Lourdes, in August, I paid a visit to the grotto where innumerable crutches were hung up in token of a cure. My companion pointed to these trophies of the sick-room and hospital ward, and whispered in my ear:

“One wooden leg would be more to the point.” It was the word of a man of sense; but speaking philosophically, the wooden leg would be no whit more convincing than a crutch. If an observer of a genuinely scientific spirit were called upon to verify that a man’s leg, after amputation, had suddenly grown again as before, whether in a miraculous pool or anywhere else, he would not cry: “Lo! a miracle.” He would say this: “An observation, so far unique, points us to a presumption that under conditions still undetermined, the tissues of a human leg have the property of reorganizing themselves like a crab’s or lobster’s claws and a lizard’s tail, but much more rapidly. Here we have a fact of nature in apparent contradiction with several other facts of the like sort. The contradiction arises from our ignorance, and clearly shows that the science of animal physiology must be reconstituted, or to speak more accurately, that it has never yet been properly constituted. It is little more than two hundred years since we first had any true conception of the circulation of the blood. It is barely a century since we learned what is implied in the act of breathing.” I admit it would need some boldness to speak in this strain. But the man of science should be above surprise. At the same time, let us hasten to add, none of them have ever been put to such a proof, and nothing leads us to apprehend any such prodigy. Such miraculous cures as the doctors have been able to verify to their satisfaction are all quite in accordance with physiology. So far the tombs of the Saints, the magic springs and sacred grottoes, have never proved efficient except in the case of patients suffering from complaints either curable or susceptible of instantaneous relief. But were a dead man revived before our eyes, no miracle would be proved, unless we knew what life is and death is, and that we shall never know.

What is the definition of a miracle? We are told: a breach of the laws of nature. But we do not know the laws of nature; how, then, are we to know whether a particular fact is a breach of these laws or no?

“But surely we know some of these laws?”

“True, we have arrived at some idea of the correlation of things. But failing as we do to grasp all the natural laws, we can be sure of none, seeing they are mutually interdependent.”

“Still, we might verify our miracle in those series of correlations we have arrived at.”

“No, not with anything like philosophical certainty. Besides, it is precisely those series we regard as the most stable and best determined which suffer least interruption from the miraculous. Miracles never, for instance, try to interfere with the mechanism of the heavens. They never disturb the course of the celestial bodies, and never advance or retard the calculated date of an eclipse. On the contrary, their favourite field is the obscure domain of pathology as concerned with the internal organs, and above all nervous diseases. However, we must not confound a question of fact with one of principle. In principle the man of science is ill-qualified to verify a supernatural occurrence. Such verification presupposes a complete and final knowledge of nature, which he does not possess, and will never possess, and which no one ever did possess in this world. It is just because I would not believe our most skilful oculists as to the miraculous healing of a blind man that a fortiori I do not believe Matthew or Mark either, who were not oculists. A miracle is by definition unidentifiable and unknowable.”

The savants cannot in any case certify that a fa t is in contradiction with the universal order that is with the unknown ordinance of the Divinity. Even God could do this only by formulating a pettifogging distinction between the general manifestations and the particular manifestations of His activity, acknowledging that from time to time He gives little timid finishing touches to His work and condescending to the humiliating admission that the cumbersome machine He has set agoing needs every hour or so, to get it to jog along indifferently well, a push from its contriver’s hand.

Science is well fitted, on the other hand, to bring back under the data of positive knowledge facts which seemed to be outside its limits. It often succeeds very happily in accounting by physical causes for phenomena that had for centuries been regarded as supernatural. Cures of spinal affections were confidently believed to have taken place at the tomb of the Deacon Paris at Saint-Médard and in other holy places. These cures have ceased to surprise since it has become known that hysteria occasionally simulates the symptoms associated with lesions of the spinal marrow.

The appearance of a new star to the mysterious personages whom the Gospels call the “Wise Men of the East” (I assume the incident to be authentic historically) was undoubtedly a miracle to the Astrologers of the Middle Ages, who believed that the firmament, in which the stars were stuck like nails, was subject to no change whatever. But, whether real or supposed, the star of the Magi has lost its miraculous character for us, who know that the heavens are incessantly perturbed by the birth and death of worlds, and who in 1866 saw a star suddenly blaze forth in the Corona Borealis, shine for a month, and then go out.

It did not proclaim the Messiah; all it announced was that, at an infinitely remote distance from our earth, an appalling conflagration was burning up a world in a few days,—or rather had burnt it up long ago, for the ray that brought us the news of this disaster in the heavens had been on the road for five hundred years and possibly longer.

The miracle of Bolsena is familiar to everybody, immortalized as it is in one of Raphael’s Stanze at the Vatican. A skeptical priest was celebrating Mass; the host, when he broke it for Communion, appeared bespattered with blood. It is only within the last ten years that the Academies of Science would not have been sorely puzzled to explain so strange a phenomenon. Now no one thinks of denying it, since the discovery of a microscopic fungus, the spores of which, having germinated in the meal or dough, offer the appearance of clotted blood. The naturalist who first found it, rightly thinking that here were the red blotches on the wafer in the Bolsena miracle, named the fungus micrococcus prodigiosus.

There will always be a fungus, a star, or a disease that human science does not know of; and for this reason it must always behoove the philosopher, in the name of the undying ignorance of man, to deny every miracle and say of the most startling wonders,—the host of Bolsena, the star in the East, the cure of the paralytic and the like: Either it is not, or it is; and if it is, it is part of nature and therefore natural.


Thoughts of God

From Fables of Man

MARK TWAINLike Anatole France choosing a nom de plume less cumbersome than his given one, Samuel Langhorne Clemens became immortal as the author of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. Beloved as an avuncular raconteur and as a humorous public speaker, Twain often had difficulty being taken seriously when he pronounced on graver topics. But those who have read his polemics against war and imperialism, and against the cruelties of religion, are aware that his wit could be mordant. As we keep finding in this story, the climate of bigotry often meant that these essays could not be published in Twain’s lifetime.

How often we are moved to admit the intelligence exhibited in both the designing and the execution of some of His works. Take the fly, for instance. The planning of the fly was an application of pure intelligence, morals not being concerned. Not one of us could have planned the fly, not one of us could have constructed him; and no one would have considered it wise to try, except under an assumed name. It is believed by some that the fly was introduced to meet a long-felt want. In the course of ages, for some reason or other, there have been millions of these persons, but out of this vast multitude there has not been one who has been willing to explain what the want was. At least satisfactorily. A few have explained that there was need of a creature to remove disease-breeding garbage; but these being then asked to explain what long-felt want the disease-breeding garbage was introduced to supply, they have not been willing to undertake the contract.

There is much inconsistency concerning the fly. In all the ages he has not had a friend, there has never been a person in the earth who could have been persuaded to intervene between him and extermination; yet billions of persons have excused the Hand that made him—and this without a blush. Would they have excused a Man in the same circumstances, a man positively known to have invented the fly? On the contrary. For the credit of the race let us believe it would have been all day with that man. Would persons consider it just to reprobate in a child, with its undeveloped morals, a scandal that they would overlook in the Pope?

When we reflect that the fly was as not invented for pastime, but in the way of business; that he was not flung off in a heedless moment and with no object in view but to pass the time, but was the fruit of long and pains-taking labor and calculation, and with a definite and far-reaching, purpose in view; that his character and conduct were planned out with cold deliberation, that his career was foreseen and fore-ordered, and that there was no want which he could supply, we are hopelessly puzzled, we cannot understand the moral lapse that was able to render possible the conceiving and the consummation of this squalid and malevolent creature.

Let us try to think the unthinkable: let us try to imagine a Man of a sort willing to invent the fly; that is to say, a man destitute of feeling; a man willing to wantonly torture and harass and persecute myriads of creatures who had never done him any harm and could not if they wanted to, and—the majority of them—poor dumb things not even aware of his existence. In a word, let us try to imagine a man with so singular and so lumbering a code of morals as this: that it is fair and right to send afflictions upon the just—upon the unoffending as well as upon the offending, without discrimination.

If we can imagine such a man, that is the man that could invent the fly, and send him out on his mission and furnish him his orders: “Depart into the uttermost corners of the earth, and diligently do your appointed work. Persecute the sick child; settle upon its eyes, its face, its hands, and gnaw and pester and sting; worry and fret and madden the worn and tired mother who watches by the child, and who humbly prays for mercy and relief with the pathetic faith of the deceived and the unteachable. Settle upon the soldier’s festering wounds in field and hospital and drive him frantic while he also prays, and betweentimes curses, with none to listen but you, Fly, who get all the petting and all the protection, without even praying for it. Harry and persecute the forlorn and forsaken wretch who is perishing of the plague, and in his terror and despair praying; bite, sting, feed upon his ulcers, dabble your feet in his rotten blood, gum them thick with plague-germs—feet cunningly designed and perfected for this function ages ago in the beginning—carry this freight to a hundred tables, among the just and the unjust, the high and the low, and walk over the food and gaum it with filth and death. Visit all; allow no man peace till he get it in the grave; visit and afflict the hard-worked and unoffending horse, mule, ox, ass, pester the patient cow, and all the kindly animals that labor without fair reward here and perish without hope of it hereafter; spare no creature, wild or tame; but wheresoever you find one, make his life a misery, treat him as the innocent deserve; and so please Me and increase My glory Who made the fly.

We hear much about His patience and forbearance and long-suffering; we hear nothing about our own, which much exceeds it. We hear much about His mercy and kindness and goodness—in words—the words of His Book and of His pulpit—and the meek multitude is content with this evidence, such as it is, seeking no further; but whoso searcheth after a concreted sample of it will in time acquire fatigue. There being no instances of it. For what are gilded as mercies are not in any recorded case more than mere common justices, and due—due without thanks or compliment. To rescue without personal risk a cripple from a burning house is not a mercy, it is a mere commonplace duty; anybody would do it that could. And not by proxy, either—delegating the work but confiscating the credit for it. If men neglected “God’s poor” and “God’s stricken and helpless ones” as He does, what would become of them? The answer is to be found in those dark lands where man follows His example and turns his indifferent back upon them: they get no help at all; they cry, and plead and pray in vain, they linger and suffer, and miserably die. If you will look at the matter rationally and without prejudice, the proper place to hunt for the facts of His mercy, is not where man does the mercies and He collects the praise, but in those regions where He has the field to Himself.

It is plain that there is one moral law for heaven and another for the earth. The pulpit assures us that wherever we see suffering and sorrow, which we can relieve and do not do it, we sin, heavily. There was never yet a case of suffering or sorrow which God could not relieve. Does He sin, then? If He is the Source of Morals He does—certainly nothing can be plainer than that, you will admit. Surely the Source of law cannot violate law and stand unsmirched; surely the judge upon the bench cannot forbid crime and then revel in it himself unreproached. Nevertheless we have this curious spectacle: daily the trained parrot in the pulpit gravely delivers himself of these ironies, which he has acquired at second-hand and adopted without examination, to a trained congregation which accepts them without examination, and neither the speaker nor the hearer laughs at himself. It does seem as if we ought to be humble when we are at a bench-show, and not put on airs of intellectual superiority there.

Bible Teaching and Religious Practice

From Europe and Elsewhere and A Pen Warmed Up In Hell


Religion had its share in the changes of civilization and national character, of course. What share? The lion’s. In the history of the human race this has always been the case, will always be the case, to the end of time, no doubt; or at least until man by the slow processes of evolution shall develop into something really fine and high—some billions of years hence, say.

The Christian Bible is a drug store. Its contents remain the same; but the medical practice changes. For eighteen hundred years these changes were slight—scarcely noticeable. The practice was allopathic—allopathic in its rudest and crudest form. The dull and ignorant physician day and night, and all the days and all the nights, drenched his patient with vast and hideous doses of the most repulsive drugs to be found in the store’s stock; he bled him, cupped him, purged him, puked him, salivated him, never gave his system a chance to rally, nor nature a chance to help. He kept him religion sick for eighteen centuries, and allowed him not a well day during all that time. The stock in the store was made up of about equal portions of baleful and debilitating poisons, and healing and comforting medicines; but the practice of the time confined the physician to the use of the former; by consequence, he could only damage his patient, and that is what he did.

Not until far within our century was any considerable change in the practice introduced; and then mainly, or in effect only, in Great Britain and the United States. In the other countries today, the patient either still takes the ancient treatment or does not call the physician at all. In the English-speaking countries the changes observable in our century were forced by that very thing just referred to—the revolt of the patient against the system; they were not projected by the physician. The patient fell to doctoring himself, and the physician’s practice began to fall off. He modified his method to get back his trade. He did it gradually, reluctantly; and never yielded more at a time than the pressure compelled. At first he relinquished the daily dose of hell and damnation, and administered it every other day only; next he allowed another day to pass; then another and presently another; when he had restricted it at last to Sundays, and imagined that now there would surely be a truce, the homeopath arrived on the field and made him abandon hell and damnation altogether, and administered Christ’s love, and comfort, and charity and compassion in its stead. These had been in the drug store all the time, gold labeled and conspicuous among the long shelfloads of repulsive purges and vomits and poisons, and so the practice was to blame that they had remained unused, not the pharmacy. To the ecclesiastical physician of fifty years ago, his predecessor for eighteen centuries was a quack; to the ecclesiastical physician of today, his predecessor of fifty years ago was a quack. To the every-man-his-own-ecclesiastical-doctor of—when?—what will the ecclesiastical physician of today be? Unless evolution, which has been a truth ever since the globes, suns, and planets of the solar system were but wandering films of meteor dust, shall reach a limit and become a lie, there is but one fate in store for him.

The methods of the priest and the parson have been very curious; their history is very entertaining. In all the ages the Roman Church has owned slaves, bought and sold slaves, authorized and encouraged her children to trade in them. Long after some Christian peoples had freed their slaves the Church still held on to hers. If any could know, to absolute certainty, that all this was right, and according to God’s will and desire, surely it was she, since she was God’s specially appointed representative in the earth and sole authorized and infallible expounder of his Bible. There were the texts; there was no mistaking their meaning; she was right, she was doing in this thing what the Bible had mapped out for her to do. So unassailable was her position that in all the centuries she had no word to say against human slavery. Yet now at last, in our immediate day, we hear a Pope saying slave trading is wrong, and we see him sending an expedition to Africa to stop it. The texts remain: it is the practice that has changed. Why? Because the world has corrected the Bible. The Church never corrects it; and also never fails to drop in at the tail of the procession—and take the credit of the correction. As she will presently do in this instance.

Christian England supported slavery and encouraged it for two hundred and fifty years, and her church’s consecrated ministers looked on, sometimes taking an active hand, the rest of the time indifferent. England’s interest in the business may be called a Christian interest, a Christian industry. She had her full share in its revival after a long period of inactivity, and his revival was a Christian monopoly; that is to say, it was in the hands of Christian countries exclusively. English parliaments aided the slave traffic and protected it; two English kings held stock in slave-catching companies. The first regular English slave hunter—John Hawkins, of still revered memory—made such successful havoc, on his second voyage, in the matter of surprising and burning villages, and maiming, slaughtering, capturing, and selling their unoffending inhabitants, that his delighted queen conferred the chivalric honor of knighthood on him—a rank which had acquired its chief esteem and distinction in other and earlier fields of Christian effort. The new knight, with characteristic English frankness and brusque simplicity, chose as his device the figure of a Negro slave, kneeling and in chains. Sir John’s work was the invention of Christians, was to remain a bloody and awful monopoly in the hands of Christians for a quarter of a millennium, was to destroy homes, separate families, enslave friendless men and women, and break a myriad of human hearts, to the end that Christian nations might be prosperous and comfortable, Christian churches be built, and the gospel of the meek and merciful Redeemer be spread abroad in the earth; and so in the name of his ship, unsuspected but eloquent and clear, lay hidden prophecy. She was called The Jesus.

But at last in England, an illegitimate Christian rose against slavery. It is curious that when a Christian rises against a rooted wrong at all, he is usually an illegitimate Christian, member of some despised and bastard sect. There was a bitter struggle, but in the end the slave trade had to go—and went. The Biblical authorization remained, but the practice changed.

Then—the usual thing happened; the visiting English critic among us began straightway to hold up his pious hands in horror at our slavery. His distress was unappeasable, his words full of bitterness and contempt. It is true we had not so many as fifteen hundred thousand slaves for him to worry about, while his England still owned twelve million, in her foreign possessions; but that fact did not modify his wail any, or stay his tears, or soften his censure. The fact that every time we had tried to get rid of our slavery in previous generations, but had always been obstructed, balked, and defeated by England, was a matter of no consequence to him; it was ancient history, and not worth the telling.

Our own conversion came at last. We began to stir against slavery. Hearts grew soft, here, there, and yonder. There was no place in the land where the seeker could not find some small budding sign of pity for the slave. No place in all the land but one—the pulpit. It yielded at last; it always does. It fought a strong and stubborn fight, and then did what it always does, joined the procession—at the tail end. Slavery fell. The slavery text remained; the practice changed, that was all.

During many ages there were witches. The Bible said so. The Bible commanded that they should not be allowed to live. Therefore the Church, after doing its duty in but a lazy and indolent way for eight hundred years, gathered up its halters, thumbscrews, and firebrands, and set about its holy work in earnest. She worked hard at it night and day during nine centuries and imprisoned, tortured, hanged, and burned whole hordes and armies of witches, and washed the Christian world clean with their foul blood.

Then it was discovered that there was no such thing as witches, and never had been. One does not know whether to laugh or to cry. Who discovered that there was no such thing as a witch—the priest, the parson? No, these never discover anything. At Salem, the parson clung pathetically to his witch text after the laity had abandoned it in remorse and tears for the crimes and cruelties it has persuaded them to do. The parson wanted more blood, more shame, more brutalities; it was the unconsecrated laity that stayed his hand. In Scotland the parson killed the witch after the magistrate had pronounced her innocent; and when the merciful legislature proposed to sweep the hideous laws against witches from the statute book, it was the parson who came imploring, with tears and imprecations, that they be suffered to stand.

There are no witches. The witch text remains; only the practice has changed. Hell fire is gone, but the text remains. Infant damnation is gone, but the text remains. More than two hundred death penalties are gone from the law books, but the texts that authorized them remain.

It is not well worthy of note that of all the multitude of texts through which man has driven his annihilating pen he has never once made the mistake of obliterating a good and useful one? It does certainly seem to suggest that if man continues in the direction of enlightenment, his religious practice may, in the end, attain some semblance of human decency.


Author’s Note to The Shadow Line JOSEPH CONRADA dislike or distrust of superstition and the supernatural need not mean there is a deafness to the marvelous and the mysterious. Here Joseph Conrad makes the distinction finely in his preface to one of his most powerful novels.

This story, which I admit to be in its brevity a fairly complex piece of work, was not intended to touch on the supernatural. Yet more than one critic has been inclined to take it in that way, seeing in it an attempt on my part to give the fullest scope to my imagination by taking it beyond the confines of the world of living, suffering humanity. But as a matter of fact my imagination is not made of stuff so elastic as all that. I believe that if I attempted to put the strain of the Supernatural on it, it would fail deplorably and exhibit an unlovely gap. But I could never have attempted such a thing, because all my moral and intellectual being is penetrated by an invincible conviction that whatever falls under the dominion of our senses must be in nature and, however exceptional, cannot differ in its essence from all the other effects of the visible and tangible world of which we are a self-conscious part. The world of the living contains enough marvels and mysteries as it is; marvels and mysteries acting upon our emotions and intelligence in ways so inexplicable that it would almost justify the conception of life as an enchanted state. No, I am too firm in my consciousness of the marvelous to be ever fascinated by the mere supernatural, which (take it any way you like) is but a manufactured article, the fabrication of minds insensitive to the intimate delicacies of our relation to the dead and to the living, in their countless multitudes; a desecration of our tenderest memories; an outrage on our dignity.

Whatever my native modesty may be it will never condescend so low as to seek help for my imagination within those vain imaginings common to all ages and that in themselves are enough to fill all lovers of mankind with unutterable sadness. As to the effect of a mental or moral shock on a common mind, it is quite a legitimate subject for study and description. Mr. Burns’ moral being receives a severe shock in his relations with his late captain, and this in his diseased state turns into a mere superstitious fancy compounded of fear and animosity. This fact is one of the elements of the story, but there is nothing supernatural in it, nothing so to speak from beyond the confines of this world, which in all conscience holds enough mystery and terror in itself.

Perhaps if I had published this tale, which I have had for a long time in my mind, under the title of “First Command” no suggestion of the Supernatural would have been found in it by any impartial reader, critical or otherwise. I will not consider here the origins of the feeling in which its actual title, “The Shadow-Line,” occurred to my mind. Primarily the aim of this piece of writing was the presentation of certain facts, which certainly were associated with the change from youth, carefree and fervent, to the more self-conscious and more poignant period of maturer life. Nobody can doubt that before the supreme trial of a whole generation I had an acute consciousness of the minute and insignificant character of my own obscure experience. There could be no question here of any parallelism. That notion never entered my bead. But there was a feeling of identity, though with an enormous difference of scale—as of one single drop measured against the bitter and stormy immensity of an ocean. And this was very natural too. For when we begin to meditate on the meaning of our own past it seems to fill all the world in its profundity and its magnitude. This book was written in the last three months of the year 1916. Of all the subjects of which a writer of tales is more or less conscious within himself this is the only one I found it possible to attempt at the time. The depth and the nature of the mood with which I approached it is best expressed perhaps in the dedication which strikes me now as a most disproportionate thing—as but another instance of the overwhelming greatness of our own emotion to ourselves.

This much having been said, I may pass on now to a few remarks about the mere material of the story. As to locality it belongs to that part of the Eastern Seas from which I have carried away into my writing life the greatest number of suggestions. From my statement that I thought of this story for a long time under the title of “First Command” the reader may guess that it is concerned with my personal experience. And as a matter of fact it is personal experience seen in perspective with the eye of the mind and coloured by that affection one can’t help feeling for such events of one’s life as one has no reason to be ashamed of. And that affection is as intense (I appeal here to universal experience) as the shame, and almost the anguish with which one remembers some unfortunate occurrences, down to mere mistakes in speech, that have been perpetrated by one in the past. The effect of perspective in memory is to make things loom large because the essentials stand out isolated from their surroundings of insignificant daily facts which have naturally faded out of one’s mind. I remember that period of my sea-life with pleasure because begun inauspiciously it turned out in the end a success from a personal point of view, leaving a tangible proof in the terms of the letter the owners of the ship wrote to me two years afterwards when I resigned my command in order to come home. This resignation marked the beginning of another phase of my seaman’s life, its terminal phase, if I may say so, which in its own way has coloured another portion of my writings. I didn’t know then how near its end my sea-life was, and therefore I felt no sorrow except at parting with the ship. I was sorry also to break my connection with the firm who owned her and who were pleased to receive with friendly kindness and give their confidence to a man who had entered their service in an accidental manner and in very adverse circumstances. Without disparaging the earnestness of my purpose I suspect now that luck had no small part in the success of the trust reposed in me. And one cannot help remembering with pleasure the time when one’s best efforts were seconded by a run of luck.

The words “Worthy of my undying regard” selected by me for the motto on the title page are quoted from the text of the book itself; and, though one of my critics surmised that they applied to the ship, it is evident from the place where they stand that they refer to the men of that ship’s company: complete strangers to their new captain and who yet stood by him so well during those twenty days that seemed to have been passed on the brink of a slow and agonizing destruction. And that is the greatest memory of all! For surely it is a great thing to have commanded a handful of men worthy of one’s undying regard.


God’s Funeral THOMAS HARDYFor many people, as atheists are duly bound to recognize, the loss of faith is experienced not so much as a liberation as a bereavement. The great novelist Thomas Hardy strove to retain belief as long as he could, but when it fell away he felt it deserved a proper and moving poetic obsequy.

I I saw a slowly-stepping train—Lined on the brows, scoop-eyed and bent and hoar—Following in files across a twilit plainA strange and mystic form the foremost bore.

II And by contagious throbs of thoughtOr latent knowledge that within me layAnd had already stirred me, I was wroughtTo consciousness of sorrow even as they.

III The fore-borne shape, to my blurred eyes,At first seemed man-like, and anon to changeTo an amorphous cloud of marvellous size,At times endowed with wings of glorious range.

IV And this phantasmal variousnessEver possessed it as they drew along:Yet throughout all it symboled none the lessPotency vast and loving-kindness strong.

V Almost before I knew I bentTowards the moving columns without a word;They, growing in bulk and numbers as they went,Struck out sick thoughts that could be overheard:—

VI “O man-projected Figure, of lateImaged as we, thy knell who shall survive?Whence came it we were tempted to createOne whom we can no longer keep alive?

VII “Framing him jealous, fierce, at first,We gave him justice as the ages rolled,Will to bless those by circumstance accurst,And long suffering, and mercies manifold.

VIII “And, tricked by our own early dreamAnd need of solace, we grew self-deceived,Our making soon our maker did we deem,And what we had imagined we believed.

IX “Till, in Time’s stayless Stealthy swing,Uncompromising rude realityMangled the Monarch of our fashioning,Who quavered, sank; and now has ceased to be.

X “So, toward our myth’s oblivion,Darkling, and languid-lipped, we creep and gropeSadlier than those who wept in Babylon,Whose Zion was a still abiding hope.

XI “How sweet it was in years far hiedTo scan the wheels of day with trustful prayer,To lie down liegely at the eventideAnd feel a blest assurance he was there!

XII “And who or what shall fill his place?Whither will wanderers turn distracted eyesFor some fixed star to stimulate their paceTowards the goal of their enterprise?”…

XIII Some in the background then I saw,Sweet women, youths, men, all incredulous,Who chimed: “This is a counterfeit of straw,This requiem mockery! Still he lives to us!”

XIV I could not buoy their faith: and yetMany I had known: with all I sympathized;And though struck speechless, I did not forgetThat what was mourned for, I, too, long had prized.

XV Still, how to hear such loss I deemedThe insistent question for each animate mind,And gazing, to my growing sight there seemedA pale yet positive gleam low down behind,

XVI Whereof, to lift the general night,A certain few who stood aloof had said,“See you upon the horizon that small light—Swelling somewhat?” Each mourner shook his head.

XVII And they composed a crowd of whomSome were right good, and many nigh the best…Thus dazed and puzzled ’twixt the gleam and gloomMechanically I followed with the rest.


The Philosophy of Atheism EMMA GOLDMANNot enough women contributors, I hear you say. Most religions have directed their worst repression at impious females, burning or stoning them according to taste, but those women who have resisted such tyranny are usually (see George Eliot above and Ayaan Hirsi Ali below) worth more than their equivalent male weight. Emma Goldman (1869–1940) was a Russian-born anarchist who became a great champion of civil liberties and the rights of labor in the United States. Deported by an unfeeling American administration to Bolshevik Russia in 1919 because of her opposition to militarism and war, she was an early opponent of the Soviet “experiment” and in this essay groups religion with other man-made systems of absolutism and unfreedom.

To give an adequate exposition of the philosophy of Atheism, it would be necessary to go into the historical changes of the belief in a Deity, from its earliest beginning to the present day. But that is not within the scope of the present paper. However, it is not out of place to mention, in passing, that the concept God, Supernatural Power, Spirit, Deity, or in whatever other term the essence of Theism may have found expression, has become more indefinite and obscure in the course of time and progress. In other words, the God idea is growing more impersonal and nebulous in proportion as the human mind is learning to understand natural phenomena and in the degree that science progressively correlates human and social events.

God, today, no longer represents the same forces as in the beginning of His existence; neither does He direct human destiny with the same iron hand as of yore. Rather does the God idea express a sort of spiritualistic stimulus to satisfy the fads and fancies of every shade of human weakness. In the course of human development the God idea has been forced to adapt itself to every phase of human affairs, which is perfectly consistent with the origin of the idea itself.

The conception of gods originated in fear and curiosity. Primitive man, unable to understand the phenomena of nature and harassed by them, saw in every terrifying manifestation some sinister force expressly directed against him; and as ignorance and fear are the parents of all superstition, the troubled fancy of primitive man wove the God idea.

Very aptly, the world-renowned atheist and anarchist, Michael Bakunin, says in his great work God and the State: “All religions, with their demi-gods, and their prophets, their messiahs and their saints, were created by the prejudiced fancy of men who had not attained the full development and full possession of their faculties. Consequently, the religious heaven is nothing but the mirage in which man, exalted by ignorance and faith, discovered his own image, but enlarged and reversed—that is, divinized. The history of religions, of the birth, grandeur, and the decline of the gods who had succeeded one another in human belief, is nothing, therefore, but the development of the collective intelligence and conscience of mankind. As fast as they discovered, in the course of their historically progressive advance, either in themselves or in external nature, a quality, or even any great defect whatever, they attributed them to their gods, after having exaggerated and enlarged them beyond measure, after the manner of children, by an act of their religious fancy…. With all due respect, then, to the metaphysicians and religious idealists, philosophers, politicians or poets: the idea of God implies the abdication of human reason and justice; it is the most decisive negation of human liberty, and necessarily ends in the enslavement of mankind, both in theory and practice.”

Thus the God idea revived, readjusted, and enlarged or narrowed, according to the necessity of the time, has dominated humanity and will continue to do so until man will raise his head to the sunlit day, unafraid and with an awakened will to himself. In proportion as man learns to realize himself and mold his own destiny, theism becomes superfluous. How far man will be able to find his relation to his fellows will depend entirely upon how much he can outgrow his dependence upon God.

Already there are indications that theism, which is the theory of speculation, is being replaced by Atheism, the science of demonstration; the one hangs in the metaphysical clouds of the Beyond, while the other has its roots firmly in the soil. It is the earth, not heaven, which man must rescue if he is truly to be saved.

The decline of theism is a most interesting spectacle, especially as manifested in the anxiety of the theists, whatever their particular brand. They realize, much to their distress, that the masses are growing daily more atheistic, more anti-religious; that they are quite willing to leave the Great Beyond and its heavenly domain to the angels and sparrows; because more and more the masses are becoming engrossed in the problems of their immediate existence.

How to bring the masses back to the God idea, the spirit, the First Cause, etc.—that is the most pressing question to all theists. Metaphysical as all these questions seem to be, they yet have a very marked physical background. Inasmuch as religion, “Divine Truth,” rewards and punishments are the trademarks of the largest, the most corrupt and pernicious, the most powerful and lucrative industry in the world, not excepting the industry of manufacturing guns and munitions. It is the industry of befogging the human mind and stifling the human heart. Necessity knows no law; hence the majority of theists are compelled to take up every subject, even if it has no bearing upon a deity or revelation or the Great Beyond. Perhaps they sense the fact that humanity is growing weary of the hundred and one brands of God.

How to raise this dead level of theistic belief is really a matter of life and death for all denominations. Therefore their tolerance; but it is a tolerance not of understanding, but of weakness. Perhaps that explains the efforts fostered in all religious publications to combine variegated religious philosophies and conflicting theistic theories into one denominational trust. More and more, the various concepts “of the only true God, the only pure spirit, the only true religion” are tolerantly glossed over in the frantic effort to establish a common ground to rescue the modern mass from the “pernicious” influence of atheistic ideas.

It is characteristic of theistic “tolerance” that no one really cares what the people believe in, just so they believe or pretend to believe. To accomplish this end, the crudest and vulgarest methods are being used. Religious endeavor meetings and revivals with Billy Sunday as their champion—methods which must outrage every refined sense, and which in their effect upon the ignorant and curious often tend to create a mild state of insanity not infrequently coupled with erotomania. All these frantic efforts find approval and support from the earthly powers; from the Russian despot to the American President; from Rockefeller and Wanamaker down to the pettiest businessman. They know that capital invested in Billy Sunday, the YMCA, Christian Science, and various other religious institutions will return enormous profits from the subdued, tamed, and dull masses.

Consciously or unconsciously, most theists see in gods and devils, heaven and hell, reward and punishment, a whip to lash the people into obedience, meekness and contentment. The truth is that theism would have lost its footing long before this but for the combined support of Mammon and power. How thoroughly bankrupt it really is, is being demonstrated in the trenches and battlefields of Europe today.

Have not all theists painted their Deity as the god of love and goodness? Yet after thousands of years of such preachments the gods remain deaf to the agony of the human race. Confucius cares not for the poverty, squalor and misery of the people of China. Buddha remains undisturbed in his philosophical indifference to the famine and starvation of the outraged Hindoos; Jahve continues deaf to the bitter cry of Israel; while Jesus refuses to rise from the dead against his Christians who are butchering each other.

The burden of all song and praise, “unto the Highest” has been that God stands for justice and mercy. Yet injustice among men is ever on the increase; the outrages committed against the masses in this country alone would seem enough to overflow the very heavens. But where are the gods to make an end to all these horrors, these wrongs, this inhumanity to man? No, not the gods, but MAN must rise in his mighty wrath. He, deceived by all the deities, betrayed by their emissaries, he, himself, must undertake to usher in justice upon the earth.

The philosophy of Atheism expresses the expansion and growth of the human mind. The philosophy of theism, if we can call it philosophy, is static and fixed. Even the mere attempt to pierce these mysteries represents, from the theistic point of view, non-belief in the all embracing omnipotence, and even a denial of the wisdom of the divine powers outside of man. Fortunately, however, the human mind never was, and never can be, bound by fixities. Hence it is forging ahead in its restless march towards knowledge and life. The human mind is realizing “that the universe is not the result of a creative fiat by some divine intelligence, out of nothing, producing a masterpiece in perfect operation,” but that it is the product of chaotic forces operating through æons of time, of clashes and cataclysms, of repulsion and attraction crystallizing through the principle of selection into what the theists call “the universe guided into order and beauty.” As Joseph McCabe well points out in his Existence of God: “a law of nature is not a formula drawn up by a legislator, but a mere summary of the observed facts—a ‘bundle of facts.’ Things do not act in a particular way because there is a law, but we state the ‘law’ because they act in that way.”

The philosophy of Atheism represents a concept of life without any metaphysical Beyond or Divine Regulator. It is the concept of an actual, real world with its liberating, expanding and beautifying possibilities, as against an unreal world, which, with its spirits, oracles, and mean contentment, has kept humanity in helpless degradation.

It may seem a wild paradox, and yet it is pathetically true, that this real, visible world and our life should have been so long under the influence of metaphysical speculation, rather than of physical demonstrable forces. Under the lash of the theistic idea, this earth has served no other purpose than as a temporary station to test man’s capacity for immolation to the will of God. But the moment man attempted to ascertain the nature of that will, he was told that it was utterly futile for “finite human intelligence” to get beyond the all-powerful infinite will. Under the terrific weight of this omnipotence, man has been bowed into the dust,—a will-less creature, broken and swarting in the dark. The triumph of the philosophy of Atheism is to free man from the nightmare of gods; it means the dissolution of the phantoms of the beyond. Again and again the light of reason has dispelled the theistic nightmare, but poverty, misery and fear have recreated the phantoms—though whether old or new, whatever their external form, they differed little in their essence. Atheism, on the other hand, in its philosophic aspect refuses allegiance not merely to a definite concept of God, but it refuses all servitude to the God idea, and opposes the theistic principle as such. Gods in their individual function are not half as pernicious as the principle of theism, which represents the belief in a supernatural, or even omnipotent, power to rule the earth and man upon it. It is the absolutism of theism, its pernicious influence upon humanity, its paralyzing effect upon thought and action, which Atheism is fighting with all its power.

The philosophy of Atheism has its root in the earth, in this life; its aim is the emancipation of the human race from all God-heads, be they Judaic, Christian, Mohammedan, Buddhistic, Brahministic, or what not. Mankind has been punished long and heavily for having created its gods; nothing but pain and persecution have been man’s lot since gods began. There is but one way out of this blunder: Man must break his fetters which have chained him to the gates of heaven and hell, so that he can begin to fashion out of his reawakened and illumined consciousness a new world upon earth.

Only after the triumph of the Atheistic philosophy in the minds and hearts of man will freedom and beauty be realized. Beauty as a gift from heaven has proved useless. It will, however, become the essence and impetus of life when man learns to see in the earth the only heaven fit for man. Atheism is already helping to free man from his dependence upon punishment and reward as the heavenly bargain-counter for the poor in spirit.

Do not all theists insist that there can be no morality, no justice, honesty, or fidelity without the belief in a Divine Power? Based upon fear and hope, such morality has always been a vile product, imbued partly with self-righteousness, partly with hypocrisy. As to truth, justice, and fidelity, who have been their brave exponents and daring proclaimers? Nearly always the godless ones: the Atheists; they lived, fought, and died for them. They knew that justice, truth, and fidelity are not conditioned in heaven, but that they are related to and interwoven with the tremendous changes going on in the social and material life of the human race; not fixed and eternal, but fluctuating, even as life itself. To what heights the philosophy of Atheism may yet attain, no one can prophesy. But this much can already be predicted: only by its regenerating fire will human relations be purged from the horrors of the past.

Thoughtful people are beginning to realize that moral precepts, imposed upon humanity through religious terror, have become stereotyped and have therefore lost all vitality. A glance at life today, at its disintegrating character, its conflicting interests with their hatreds, crimes, and greed, suffices to prove the sterility of theistic morality.

Man must get back to himself before he can learn his relation to his fellows. Prometheus chained to the Rock of Ages is doomed to remain the prey of the vultures of darkness. Unbind Prometheus, and you dispel the night and its horrors.

Atheism in its negation of gods is at the same time the strongest affirmation of man, and through man, the eternal yea to life, purpose, and beauty.


A Letter on Religion H. P. LOVECRAFTAnother master of the mysterious in fiction was Howard Phillips Lovecraft (1890–1937) whose extraordinary work is, it seems, always being “revived.” However, as his letters demonstrate, he had no use for religion. Here, he is writing to a friend named Maurice W. Moe in 1918.

Your wonderment “What I have against religion” reminds me of your recent Vagrant essay—which I had the honour of perusing in manuscript some three years ago. To my mind, that essay misses one point altogether. Your “agnostic” has neglected to mention the very crux of all agnosticism—namely that the Judaeo-Christian mythology is NOT TRUE. I can see that in your philosophy truth per se has so small a place that you can scarcely realise what it is that Galpin and I are insisting upon. In your mind, MAN is the centre of everything, and his exact conformation to certain regulations of conduct HOWEVER EFFECTED, the only problem in the universe. Your world (if you will pardon my saying so) is contracted. All the mental vigour and erudition of the ages fail to disturb your complacent endorsement of empirical doctrines and purely pragmatic notions, because you voluntarily limit your horizon—excluding certain facts, and certain undeniable mental tendencies of mankind. In your eyes, man is torn between only two influences: the degrading instincts of the savage, and the temperate impulses of the philanthropist. To you, men are of but two classes—lovers of self and lovers of the race. To you, men have but two types of emotion—self-gratification, to be combated; and altruism, to be fostered. But you, consciously or unconsciously, are leaving out a vast and potent tertium quid—making an omission, which cannot but interfere with the validity of your philosophical conceptions. You are forgetting a human impulse that, despite its restriction to a relatively small number of men, has all through history proved itself as real and as vital as hunger—as potent as thirst or greed. I need not say that I refer to that simplest yet most exalted attribute of our species—the acute, persistent, unquenchable craving TO KNOW. Do you realise that to many men it makes a vast and profound difference whether or not the things about them are as they appear?…

I recognise a distinction between dream life and real life, between appearances and actualities. I confess to an overpowering desire to know whether I am asleep or awake—whether the environment and laws that affect me are external and permanent, or the transitory products of my own brain. I admit that I am very much interested in the relation I bear to the things about me—the time relation, the space relation, and the causative relation. I desire to know approximately what my life is in terms of history—human, terrestrial, solar, and cosmical; what my magnitude may be in terms of extension,—terrestrial, solar, and cosmical; and above all, what may be my manner of linkage to the general system—in what way, through what agency, and to what extent, the obvious guiding forces of creation act upon me and govern my existence. And if there be any less obvious forces, I desire to know them and their relation to me as well. Foolish, do I hear you say? Undoubtedly! I had better be a consistent pragmatist: get drunk and confine myself to a happy, swinish, contented little world—the gutter—till some policeman’s No. 13 boot intrudes upon my philosophic repose. But I cannot. Why? Because some well-defined human impulse prompts me to discard the relative for the absolute. You would encourage me as far as the moral stage. You would agree with me that I had better see the world as it is than to forget my woes in the flowing bowl. But because I have a certain momentum, and am carried a step further from the merely relative, you frown upon me and declare me to be a queer, unaccountable creature, “immersed…in the VICIOUS abstractions of philosophy!”

Here, then, is the beginning of my religious or philosophical thought. I have not begun talking about morality yet, because I have not reached that point in the argument. Entity precedes morality. It is a prerequisite. What am I? What is the nature of the energy about me, and how does it affect me? So far I have seen nothing which could possibly give me the notion that cosmic force is the manifestation of a mind and will like my own infinitely magnified; a potent and purposeful consciousness which deals individually and directly with the: miserable denizens of a wretched little flyspeck on the back door of a microscopic universe, and which singles this putrid excrescence out as the one spot whereto to send an onlie-begotten Son, whose mission is to redeem those accursed flyspeck-inhabiting lice which we call human beings—bah!! Pardon the “bah!” I feel several “bahs!,” but out of courtesy I only say one. But it is all so very childish. I cannot help taking exception to a philosophy that would force this rubbish down my throat. “What have I against religion?” That is what I have against it!…

Now let us view morality—which despite your preconceived classification and identification has nothing to do with any particular form of religion. Morality is the adjustment of matter to its environment—the natural arrangement of molecules. More especially it may be considered as dealing with organic molecules. Conventionally it is the science of reconciling the animal Homo (more or less) sapiens to the forces and conditions with which he is surrounded. It is linked with religion only so far as the natural elements it deals with are deified and personified. Morality antedated the Christian religion, and has many times risen superior to coexistent religions. It has powerful support from very non-religious human impulses. Personally, I am intensely moral and intensely irreligious. My morality can be traced to two distinct sources, scientific and aesthetic. My love of truth is outraged by the flagrant disturbance of sociological relations involved in so-called wrong; whilst my aesthetic sense is outraged and disgusted with the violations of taste and harmony thereupon attendant. But to me the question presents no ground for connexion with the grovelling instinct of religion. However—you may exclude me from the argument, if you will. I am unduly secluded though unavoidably so. We will deal only with materials that may presumably lie within my feeble reach. Only one more touch of ego. I am not at all passive or indifferent in my zeal for a high morality. But I cannot consider morality the essence of religion, as you seem to. In discussing religion, the whole fabric must bear examination before the uses or purposes are considered. We must investigate the cause as well as alleged effects if we are to define the relation between the two, and the reality of the former. And more, granting that the phenomenon of faith is indeed the true cause of the observed moral effects; the absolute basis of that phenomenon remains to be examined. The issue between theists and atheists is certainly not, as you seem to think, the mere question of whether religion is useful or detrimental. In your intensely pragmatic mind, this question stands paramount—to such an extent that you presented no other subject of discussion in your very clever Vagrant article. But the “agnostic” of your essay must have been a very utilitarian agnostic (that such “utilitarian Agnostics” do exist, I will not deny. Vide any issue of The Truth-seeker! But are they typical?)! What the honest thinker wishes to know, has nothing to do with complex human conduct. He simply demands a scientific explanation of the things he sees. His only animus toward the church concerns its deliberate inculcation of demonstrable untruths in the community. This is human nature. No matter how white a lie may be—no matter how much good it may do—we are always more or less disgusted by its diffusion. The honest agnostic regards the church with respect for what it has done in the direction of virtue. He even supports it if he is magnanimous, and he certainly does nothing to impair whatever public usefulness it may possess. But in private, he would be more than a mere mortal if he were able to suppress a certain abstract resentment, or to curb the feeling of humour and so-called irreverence which inevitably arises from the contemplation of pious fraud, howsoever high-minded and benevolent.

The good effects of Christianity are neither to be denied, nor lightly esteemed, though candidly I will admit that I think them overrated. For example, the insignia of the Red Cross is practically the only religious thing about it. It is purely humanitarian and philanthropic, and has received just as much of its vitality from agnostic—or Jewish—sources, as from Christian sources…. These nominally Christian societies usurp the lion’s share of social service merely because they are on the ground first. Free and rational thought is relatively new, and rationalists find it just as practicable to support these exiting Christian charities as to organise new ones that might create a division of energy and therefore decrease the efficiency of organised charity as a whole. And by the way—was not Belgium relief work largely non-religious? I may be mistken—but all this is aside from my main argument anyway. I am not protesting against the recognition of Christianity’s accomplishments. This has nothing to do with absolute bases of faith.


Why I Am an Unbeliever CARL VAN DORENThere have always been those who, as Blaise Pascal phrased it, are “so made that they cannot believe.” (And there are more of us than the faithful would like to think.) A conspicuous example was Carl Van Doren (1885–1950), a distinguished professor of English at Columbia University and biographer of Benjamin Franklin. Here, he confronts the tired, old argument that without faith there can be no foundation for ethics.

Let us be honest. There have always been men and women without the gift of faith. They lack it, do not desire it, and would not know what to do with it if they had it. They are apparently no less intelligent than the faithful, and apparently no less virtuous. How great the number of them is it would be difficult to say, but they exist in all communities and are most numerous where there is most enlightenment. As they have no organization and no creed, they can of course have no official spokesman. Nevertheless, any one of them who speaks out can be trusted to speak, in a way, for all of them. Like the mystics, the unbelievers, wherever found, are essentially of one spirit and one language. I cannot, however, pretend to represent more than a single complexion of unbelief.

The very terms that I am forced to use put me at the outset in a trying position. Belief, being first in the field, naturally took a positive term for itself and gave a negative term to unbelief. As an unbeliever, I am therefore obliged to seem merely to dissent from the believers no matter how much more I may do. Actually I do more. What they call unbelief, I call belief. Doubtless I was born to it, but I have tested it with reading and speculation, and I hold it firmly. What I have referred to as the gift of faith I do not, to be exact, regard as a gift. I regard it, rather, as a survival from an earlier stage of thinking and feeling: in short, as a form of superstition. It, and not the thing I am forced to name unbelief, seems to me negative. It denies the reason. It denies the evidences in the case, in the sense that it insists upon introducing elements that come not from the facts as shown but from the imaginations and wishes of mortals. Unbelief does not deny the reason and it sticks as closely as it can to the evidences.

I shall have to be more explicit. When I say I am an unbeliever, I do not mean merely that I am no Mormon or no Methodist, or even that I am no Christian or no Buddhist. These seem to me relatively unimportant divisions and subdivisions of belief. I mean that I do not believe in any god that has ever been devised, in any doctrine that has ever claimed to be revealed, in any scheme of immortality that has ever been expounded.

As to gods, they have been, I find, countless, but even the names, of most of them lie in the deep compost which is known as civilization, and the memories of few of them are green. There does not seem to me to be good reason for holding that some of them are false and some of them, or one of them, true. Each was created by the imaginations and wishes of men who could not account for the behavior of the universe in any other satisfactory way. But no god has satisfied his worshipers forever. Sooner or later they have realized that the attributes once ascribed to him, such as selfishness or lustfulness or vengefulness, are unworthy of the moral systems that men have evolved among themselves. Thereupon follows the gradual doom of the god, however long certain of the faithful may cling to his cult. In the case of the god who still survives in the loyalty of men after centuries of scrutiny, it can always be noted that little besides his name has endured. His attributes wil have been so revised that he is really another god. Nor is this objection met by the argument that the concept of the god has been purified while the essence of him survived. In the concept alone can he be studied; the essence eludes the grasp of the human mind. I may prefer among the various gods that god who seems to me most thoroughly purged of what I regard as undivine elements, but I make my choice, obviously, upon principles that come from observation of the conduct of men. Whether a god has been created in the image of gross desires or of pure desires does not greatly matter. The difference proves merely that different men have desired gods and have furnished themselves with the gods they were able to conceive. Behind all their conceptions still lies the abyss of ignorance. There is no trustworthy evidence as to a god’s absolute existence.

Nor does the thing called revelation, as I see it, carry the proof further. All the prophets swear that a god speaks through them, and yet they prophesy contradictions. Once more, men must choose in accordance with their own principles. That a revelation was announced long ago makes it difficult to examine, but does not otherwise attest its soundness. That some revealed doctrine has lasted for ages and has met the needs of many generations proves that it is the kind of doctrine that endures and satisfies, but not that it is divine. Secular doctrines that turned out to be perfectly false have also endured and satisfied. If belief in a god has to proceed from the assumption that he exists, belief in revelation has first to proceed from the assumption that a god exists and then to go further to the assumption that he communicates his will to certain men. But both are mere assumptions. Neither is, in the present state of knowledge, at all capable of proof. Suppose a god did exist, and suppose he did communicate his will to any of his creatures. What man among them could comprehend that language? What man could take that dictation? And what man could overwhelmingly persuade his fellows that he had been selected and that they must accept him as authentic? The best they could do would be to have faith in two assumptions and to test the revealed will by its correspondence to their imaginations and wishes. At this point it may be contended that revelation must be real because it arouses so much response in so many human bosoms. This does not follow without a leap of the reason into the realm of hypothesis. Nothing is proved by this general response except that men are everywhere very much alike. They have the same members, the same organs, the same glands, in varying degrees of activity. Being so much alike, they tend to agree upon a few primary desires. Fortunate the religion by which those desires appear to be gratified.

One desire by which the human mind is often teased is the desire to live after death. It is not difficult to explain. Men live so briefly that their plans far outrun their ability to execute them. They see themselves cut off before their will to live is exhausted. Naturally enough, they •wish to survive, and, being men, believe in their chances for survival. But their wishes afford no possible proof. Life covers the earth with wishes, as it covers the earth with plants and animals. No wish, however, is evidence of anything beyond itself. Let millions hold it, and it is still only a wish. Let each separate race exhibit it, and it is still only a wish. Let the wisest hold it as strongly as the foolishest, and it is still only a wish. Whoever says he knows that immortality is a fact is merely hoping that it is. And whoever argues, as men often do, that life would be meaningless without immortality because it alone brings justice into human fate, must first argue, as no man has ever quite convincingly done, that life has an unmistakable meaning and that it is just. I, at least, am convinced on neither of these two points. Though I am, I believe, familiar with all the arguments, I do not find any of them notably b tter than the others. All I see is that the wish for immortality is widespread, that certain schemes of immortality imagined from it have here or there proved more agreeable than rival schemes and that they have been more generally accepted. The religions that provide these successful schemes I can credit with keener insight into human wishes than other religions have had, but I cannot credit them with greater authority as regards the truth. They are all guesswork.

That I think thus about gods, revelation, and immortality ought to be sufficient answer to the question why I am an unbeliever. It would be if the question were always reasonably asked, but it is not. There is also an emotional aspect to be considered. Many believers, I am told, have the same doubts, and yet have the knack of putting their doubts to sleep and entering ardently into the communion of the faithful. The process is incomprehensible to me. So far as I understand it, such believers are moved by their desires to the extent of letting them rule not only their conduct but also their thoughts. An unbeliever’s desires have, apparently, less power over his reason. Perhaps this is only another way of saying that his strongest desire is to be as reasonable as he can. However the condition be interpreted, the consequence is the same. An honest unbeliever can no more make himself believe against his reason than he can make himself free of the pull of gravitation. For myself, I feel no obligation whatever to believe. I might once have felt it prudent to keep silence, for I perceive that the race of men, while sheep in credulity, are wolves for conformity; but just now, happily, in this breathing-spell of toleration, there are so many varieties of belief that even an unbeliever may speak out.

In so doing, I must answer certain secondary questions which unbelievers are often asked. Does it not persuade me, one question runs, to realize that many learned men have pondered upon supernatural matters and have been won over to belief? I answer, not in the least. With respect to the gods, revelation, and immortality no man is enough more learned than his fellows to have the right to insist that they follow him into the regions about which all men are ignorant. I am not a particle more impressed by some good old man’s conviction that he is in the confidence of the gods than I am by any boy’s conviction that there are fish in the horse-pond from which no fish has ever been taken. Does it not impress me to see some good old woman serene in the faith of a blessed immortality? No more than it impresses me to see a little girl full of trust in the universal munificence of a Christmas saint. Am I not moved by the spectacle of a great tradition of worship which has broadened out over continents and which brings all its worshipers punctually together in the observance of noble and dignified rites? Yes, but I am moved precisely by that as I am moved by the spectacle of men everywhere putting their seed seasonably in the ground, tending its increase, and patiently gathering in their harvests.

Finally, do I never suspect in myself some moral obliquity, or do I not at least regret the bleak outlook of unbelief? On these points I am, in my own mind, as secure as I know how to be. There is no moral obligation to believe what is unbelievable any more than there is a moral obligation to do what is undoable. Even in religion, honesty is a virtue. Obliquity, I should say, shows itself rather in prudent pretense or in voluntary self-delusion. Furthermore, the unbelievers have, as I read history, done less harm to the world than the believers. They have not filled it with savage wars or snarled casuistries, with crusades or persecutions, with complacency or ignorance. They have, instead, done what they could to fill it with knowledge and beauty, with temperance and justice, with manners and laughter. They have numbered among themselves some of the most distinguished specimens of mankind. And when they have been undistinguished, they have surely not been inferior to the believers in the fine art of minding their own affairs and so of enlarging the territories of peace.

Nor is the outlook of unbelief, to my way of thinking, a bleak one. It is merely rooted in courage and not in fear. Belief is still in the plight of those ancient races who out of a lack of knowledge peopled the forest with satyrs and the sea with ominous monsters and the ends of the earth with misshapen anthropophagi. So the pessimists among believers have peopled the void with witches and devils, and the optimists among them have peopled it with angels and gods. Both alike have been afraid to furnish the house of life simply. They have cluttered it with the furniture of faith. Much of this furniture, the most reasonable unbeliever would never think of denying, is very beautiful. There are breathing myths, there are comforting legends, there are consoling hopes. But they have, as the unbeliever sees them, no authority beyond that of poetry. That is, they may captivate if they can, but they have no right to insist upon conquering. Beliefs, like tastes, may differ. The unbeliever’s taste and belief are austere. In the wilderness of worlds he does not yield to the temptation to belittle the others by magnifying his own. Among the dangers of chance he does not look for safety to any watchful providence whose special concern he imagines he is. Though he knows that knowledge is imperfect, he trusts it alone. If he takes, therefore, the less delight in metaphysics, he takes the more in physics. Each discovery of a new truth brings him a vivid joy. He builds himself up, so far as he can, upon truth, and barricades himself with it. Thus doing, he never sags into superstition, but grows steadily more robust and blithe in his courage. However many fears he may prove unable to escape, he does not multiply them in his imagination and then combat them with his wishes. Austerity may be simplicity and not bleakness.

Does the unbeliever lack certain of the gentler virtues of the believer, the quiet confidence, the unquestioning obedience? He may, yet it must always be remembered that the greatest believers are the greatest tyrants. If the freedom rather than the tyranny of faith is to better the world, then the betterment lies in the hands, I think, of the unbelievers. At any rate, I take my stand with them.


Memorial Service H. L. MENCKENIt can’t be said of Henry Louis Mencken (1880–1956) that he bid adieu to faith with any reluctance. He seems to have been born with a contempt for it, which was vividly expressed in his early work on Friedrich Nietzsche. Tempted too much by eugenics and “social Darwinism” again, Mencken nonetheless did invaluable work against the biblical fundamentalists and other fanatics who tried to ban both alcohol and the teaching of evolution, and his accounts of the famous Scopes “monkey trial” in Tennessee in 1925 have deservedly become classics of reporting. Here he trains his lynx-like eye on ancient gods and delivers a funeral oration much less regretful than Thomas Hardy’s.

Where is the graveyard of dead gods? What lingering mourner waters their mounds? There was a day when Jupiter was the king of the gods, and any man who doubted his puissance was ipso facto a barbarian and an ignoramus. But where in all the world is there a man who worships Jupiter today? And what of Huitzilopochtli? In one year—and it is no more than five hundred years ago—fifty thousand youths and maidens were slain in sacrifice to him. Today, if he is remembered at all, it is only by some vagrant savage in the depths of the Mexican forest. Huitzilopochtli, like many other gods, had no human father; his mother was a virtuous widow; he was born of an apparently innocent flirtation that she carried on with the sun. When he frowned, his father, the sun, stood still. When he roared with rage, earthquakes engulfed whole cities. When he thirsted he was watered with ten thousand gallons of human blood. But today Huitzilopochtli is as magnificently forgotten as Alien G. Thurman. Once the peer of Allah, Buddha and Wotan, he is now the peer of General Coxey, Richmond P. Hobson, Nan Patterson, Alton B. Parker, Adelina Patti, General Weyler, and Tom Sharkey.

Speaking of Huitzilopochtli recalls his brother, Tezcatilpoca. Tezcatilpoca was almost as powerful: he consumed twenty-five thousand virgins a year. Lead me to his tomb: I would weep, and hang a couronne des perles. But who knows where it is? Or where the grave of Quetzalcoatl is? Or Tialoc? Or Chalchihuitlicue? Or Xiehtecutli? Or Centeotl, that sweet one? Or Tlazolteotl, the goddess of love? Or Mictlan? Or Ixtlilton? Or Omacatl? Or Yacatecutli? Or Mixcoatl? Or Xipe? Or all the host of Tzitzimitles? Where are their bones? Where is the willow on which they hung their harps? In what forlorn and unheard-of hell do they await the resurrection morn? Who enjoys their residuary estates? Or that of Dis, whom Cæsar found to be the chief god of the Celts? Or that of Tarves, the bull? Or that of Moccos, the pig? Or that of Epona, the mare? Or that of Mullo, the celestial jack-ass? There was a time when the Irish revered all these gods as violently as they now hate the English. But today even the drunkest Irishman laughs at them.

But they have company in oblivion: the hell of dead gods is as crowded as the Presbyterian hell for babies. Damona is there, and Esus, and Drunemeton, and Silvana, and Dervones, and Adsalluta, and Deva, and Belisama, and Axona, and Vintios, and Taranuous, and Sulis, and Cocidius, and Adsmerius, and Dumiatis, and Caletos, and Moccus, and Ollovidius, and Albiorix, and Leucitius, and Vitucadrus, and Ogmios, and Uxellimus, and Borvo, and Grannos, and Mogons. All mighty gods in their day, worshiped by millions, full of demands and impositions, able to bind and loose—all gods of the first class, not dilettanti. Men labored for generations to build vast temples to them—temples with stones as large as hay-wagons. The business of interpreting their whims occupied thousands of priests, wizards, archdeacons, evangelists, haruspices, bishops, archbishops. To doubt them was to die, usually at the stake. Armies took to the field to defend them against infidels: villages were burned, women and children were butchered, cattle were driven off. Yet in the end they all withered and died, and today there is none so poor to do them reverence. Worse, the very tombs in which they lie are lost, and so even a respectful stranger is debarred from paying them the slightest and politest homage.

What has become of Sutekh, once the high god of the whole Nile valley? What has become of:

























All these were once gods of the highest eminence. Many of them are mentioned with fear and trembling in the Old Testament. They ranked, five or six thousand years ago, with Jahveh himself; the worst of them stood far higher than Thor. Yet they have all gone down the chute, and with them the following:






Nuada Argetlam








Llaw Gyffes











Dea Dia










Iuno Lucina

Diana of Ephesus


























U-Tin-dir ki





















































You may think I spoof. That I invent the names. I do not. Ask the rector to lend you any good treatise on comparative religion: you will find them all listed. They were gods of the highest standing and dignity—gods of civilized peoples—worshipped and believed in by millions. All were theoretically omnipotent, omniscient, and immortal. And all are dead.


From The Future of an Illusion

Translated and edited by James Strachey

SIGMUND FREUDRichard Wollheim once described Sigmund Freud’s work as an essay “in the deafness of the mind” and, whatever we may now think about the father of modern psychology, it is impossible not to regard his insights into the unconscious as seminal and revolutionary. Fascinated by totem and taboo and by the manacles that the mind forges for itself, Freud here subjects religious belief to a calm and even quite sympathetic—if pitying—diagnosis.


I think we have prepared the way sufficiently for an answer to both these questions. It will be found if we turn our attention to the psychical origin of religious ideas. These which are given out as teachings are not precipitates of experience or end-results of thinking: they are illusions, fulfillments of the oldest, strongest, and most urgent wishes of mankind. The secret of their strength lies in the strength of those wishes. As we already know, the terrifying impression of helplessness in childhood aroused the need for protection—for protection through love—which was provided by the father; and the recognition that this helplessness lasts throughout life made it necessary to cling to the existence of a father, but this time a more powerful one. Thus the benevolent rule of a divine Providence allays our fear of the dangers of life; the establishment of a moral world-order ensures the fulfillment of the demands of justice, which have so often remained unfulfilled in human civilization; and the prolongation of earthly existence in a future life provides the local and temporal framework in which these wish-fulfillments shall take place. Answers to the riddles that tempt the curiosity of man, such as how the universe began or what the relation is between body and mind, are developed in conformity with the underlying assumptions of this system. It is an enormous relief to the individual psyche if the conflicts of its childhood arising from the father-complex—conflicts which it has never wholly overcome—are removed from it and brought to a solution which is universally accepted.

When I say that these things are all illusions, I must define the meaning of the word. An illusion is not the same thing as an error; nor is it necessarily an error. Aristotle’s belief that vermin are developed out of dung (a belief to which ignorant people still cling) was an error; so was the belief of a former generation of doctors that tabes dorsalis is the result of sexual excess. It would be incorrect to call these errors illusions. On the other hand, it was an illusion of Columbus’s that he had discovered a new sea-route to the Indies. The part played by his wish in this error is very clear. One may describe as an illusion the assertion made by certain nationalists that the Indo-Germanic race is the only one capable of civilization; or the belief, which was only destroyed by psycho-analysis, that children are creatures without sexuality. What is characteristic of illusions is that they are derived from human wishes. In this respect they come near to psychiatric delusions. But they differ from them, too, apart from the more complicated structure of delusions. In the case of delusions, we emphasize as essential their being in contradiction with reality. Illusions need not necessarily be false—that is to say unrealizable or in contradiction to reality. For instance, a middleclass girl may have the illusion that a prince will come and marry her. This is possible; and a few such cases have occurred. That the Messiah will come and found a golden age is much less likely. Whether one classifies this belief as an illusion or as something analogous to a delusion will depend on one’s personal attitude. Examples of illusions which have proved true are not easy to find, but the illusion of the alchemists that all metals can be turned into gold might be one of them. The wish to have a great deal of gold, as much gold as possible, has, it is true, been a good deal damped by our present-day knowledge of the determinants of wealth, but chemistry no longer regards the transmutation of metals into gold as impossible. Thus we call a belief an illusion when a wish-fulfillment is a prominent factor in its motivation, and in doing so we disregard its relations to reality, just as the illusion itself sets no store by verification.

Having thus taken our bearings, let us return once more to the question of religious doctrines. We can now repeat that all of them are illusions and insusceptible of proof. No one can be compelled to think them true, to believe in them. Some of them are so improbable, so incompatible with everything we have laboriously discovered about the reality of the world, that we may compare them—if we pay proper regard to the psychological differences—to delusions. Of the reality value of most of them we cannot judge; just as they cannot be proved, so they cannot be refuted. We still know too little to make a critical approach to them. The riddles of the universe reveal themselves only slowly to our investigation; there are many questions to which science today can give no answer. But scientific work is the only road which can lead us to a knowledge of reality outside ourselves. It is once again merely an illusion to expect anything from intuition and introspection; they can give us nothing but particulars about our own mental life, which are hard to interpret, never any information about the questions which religious doctrine finds it so easy to answer. It would be insolent to let one’s own arbitrary will step into the breach and, according to one’s personal estimate, declare this or that part of the religious system to be less or more acceptable. Such questions are too momentous for that; they might be called too sacred.

At this point one must expect to meet with an objection. “Well then, if even obdurate skeptics admit that the assertions of religion cannot be refuted by reason, why should I not believe in them, since they have so much on their side—tradition, the agreement of mankind, and all the consolations they offer?” Why not, indeed? Just as no one can be forced to believe, so no one can be forced to disbelieve. But do not let us be satisfied with deceiving ourselves that arguments like these take us along the road of correct thinking. If ever there was a case of a lame excuse we have it here. Ignorance is ignorance; no right to believe anything can be derived from it. In other matters no sensible person will behave so irresponsibly or rest content with such feeble grounds for his opinions and for the line he takes. It is only in the highest and most sacred things that he allows himself to do so. In reality these are only attempts at pretending to oneself or to other people that one is still firmly attached to religion, when one has long since cut oneself loose from it. Where questions of religion are concerned, people are guilty of every possible sort of dishonesty and intellectual misdemeanour. Philosophers stretch the meaning of words until they retain scarcely anything of their original sense. They give the name of “God” to some vague abstraction which they have created for themselves; having done so they can pose before all the world as deists, as believers in God, and they can even boast that they have recognized a higher, purer concept of God, notwithstanding that their God is now nothing more than an insubstantial shadow and no longer the mighty personality of religious doctrines. Critics persist in describing as “deeply religious” anyone who admits to a sense of man’s insignificance or impotence in the face of the universe, although what constitutes the essence of the religious attitude is not this feeling but only the next step after it, the reaction to it which seeks a remedy for it. The man who goes no further, but humbly acquiesces in the small part which human beings play in the great world—such a man is, on the contrary, irreligious in the truest sense of the word.

To assess the truth-value of religious doctrines does not lie within the scope of the present enquiry. It is enough for us that we have recognized them as being, in their psychological nature, illusions. But we do not have to conceal the fact that this discovery also strongly influences our attitude to the question which must appear to many to be the most important of all. We know approximately at what periods and by what kind of men religious doctrines were created. If in addition we discover the motives which led to this, our attitude to the problem of religion will undergo a marked displacement. We shall tell ourselves that it would be very nice if there were a God who created the world and was a benevolent Providence, and if there were a moral order in the universe and an after-life; but it is a very striking fact that all this is exactly as we are bound to wish it to be. And it would be more remarkable still if our wretched, ignorant, and downtrodden ancestors had succeeded in solving all these difficult riddles of the universe.


Having recognized religious doctrines as illusions, we are at once faced by a further question: may not other cultural assets of which we hold a high opinion and by which we let our lives be ruled be of a similar nature? Must not the assumptions that determine our political regulations be called illusions as well? And is it not the case that in our civilization the relations between the sexes are disturbed by an erotic illusion or a number of such illusions? And once our suspicion has been aroused, we shall not shrink from asking too whether our conviction that we can learn something about external reality through the use of observation and reasoning in scientific work—whether this conviction has any better foundation. Nothing ought to keep us from directing our observation to our own selves or from applying our thought to criticism of itself. In this field a number of investigations open out before us, whose results could not but be decisive for the construction of a Weltanschauung. We surmise, moreover, that such an effort would not be wasted and that it would at least in part justify our suspicion. But the author does not dispose of the means for undertaking so comprehensive a task; he needs must confine his work to following out one only of these illusions—that, namely, of religion.

But now the loud voice of our opponent brings us to a halt. We are called to account for our wrong-doing: Archaeological interests are no doubt most praiseworthy, but no one undertakes an excavation if by doing so he is going to undermine the habitations of the living so that they collapse and bury people under their ruins. The doctrines of religion are not a subject one can quibble about like any other. Our civilization is built up on them, and the maintenance of human society is based on the majority of men’s believing in the truth of those doctrines. If men are taught that there is no almighty and all-just God, no divine world-order and no future life, they will feel exempt from all obligation to obey the precepts of civilization. Everyone will, without inhibition or fear, follow his asocial, egoistic instincts and seek to exercise his power; Chaos, which we have banished through many thousands of years of the work of civilization, will come again. Even if we knew, and could prove, that religion was not in possession of the truth, we ought to conceal the fact and behave in the way prescribed by the philosophy of “As if”—and this in the interest of the preservation of us all. And apart from the danger of the undertaking, it would be a purposeless cruelty. Countless people find their one consolation in religious doctrines, and can only bear life with their help. You would rob them of their support, without having anything better to give them in exchange. It is admitted that so far science has not achieved much, but even if it had advanced much further it would not suffice for man. Man has imperative needs of another sort, which can never be satisfied by cold science; and it is very strange—indeed, it is the height of inconsistency—that a psychologist who has always insisted on what a minor part is played in human affairs by the intelligence as compared with the life of the instincts—that such a psychologist should now try to rob mankind of a precious wish-fulfillment and should propose to compensate them for it with intellectual nourishment.

What a lot of accusations all at once! Nevertheless I am ready with rebuttals for them all; and, what is more, I shall assert the view that civilization runs a greater risk if we maintain our present attitude to religion than if we give it up.

But I hardly know where to begin my reply. Perhaps with the assurance that I myself regard my undertaking as completely harmless and free of risk. It is not I who am overvaluing the intellect this time. If people are as my opponents describe them—and I should not like to contradict them—then there is no danger of a devout believer’s being overcome by my arguments and deprived of his faith. Besides, I have said nothing which other and better men have not said before me in a much more complete, forcible, and impressive manner. Their names are well known, and I shall not cite them, for I should not like to give an impression that I am seeking to rank myself as one of them. All I have done—and this is the only thing that is new in my exposition—is to add some psychological foundation to the criticisms of my great predecessors. It is hardly to be expected that precisely this addition will produce the effect which was denied to those earlier efforts. No doubt I might be asked here what is the point of writing these things if I am certain that they will be ineffective. But I shall come back to that later.

The one person this publication may injure is myself. I shall have to listen to the most disagreeable reproaches for my shallowness, narrow-mindedness, and lack of idealism or of understanding for the highest interests of mankind. But on the one hand, such remonstrances are not new to me; and on the other, if a man has already learnt in his youth to rise superior to the disapproval of his contemporaries, what can it matter to him in his old age when he is certain soon to be beyond the reach of all favour or disfavour? In former times it was different. Then utterances such as mine brought with them a sure curtailment of one’s earthly existence and an effective speeding-up of the opportunity for gaining a personal experience of the after-life. But, I repeat, those times are past and today writings such as this bring no more danger to their author than to their readers. The most that can happen is that the translation and distribution of his book will be forbidden in one country or another—and precisely, of course, in a country that is convinced of the high standard of its culture. But if one puts in any plea at all for the renunciation of wishes and for acquiescence in Fate, one must be able to tolerate this kind of injury too.

The further question occurred to me whether the publication of this work might not after all do harm. Not to a person, however, but to a cause—the cause of psycho-analysis. For it cannot be denied that psycho-analysis is my creation, and it has met with plenty of mistrust and ill-will. If I now come forward with such displeasing pronouncements, people will be only too ready to make a displacement from my person to psycho-analysis. “Now we see,” they will say, “where psycho-analysis leads to. The mask has fallen; it leads to a denial of God and of a moral ideal, as we always suspected. To keep us from this discovery we have been deluded into thinking that psycho-analysis has no Weltanschauung and never can construct one.”

An outcry of this kind will really be disagreeable to me on account of my many fellow-workers, some of whom do not by any means share my attitude to the problems of religion. But psycho-analysis has already weathered many storms and now it must brave this fresh one. In point of fact psycho-analysis is a method of research, an impartial instrument, like the infinitesimal calculus, as it were. If a physicist were to discover with the latter’s help that after a certain time the earth would be destroyed, we would nevertheless hesitate to attribute destructive tendencies to the calculus itself and therefore to proscribe it. Nothing that I have said here against the truth-value of religions needed the support of psycho-analysis; it had been said by others long before analysis came into existence. If the application of the psycho-analytic method makes it possible to find a new argument against the truths of religion, tant pis for religion; but defenders of religion will by the same right make use of psycho-analysis in order to give full value to the affective significance of religious doctrines.

And now to proceed with our defence. Religion has clearly performed great services for human civilization. It has contributed much towards the taming of the asocial instincts. But not enough. It has ruled human society for many thousands of years and has had time to show what it can achieve. If it had succeeded in making the majority of mankind happy, in comforting them, in reconciling them to life and in making them into vehicles of civilization, no one would dream of attempting to alter the existing conditions. But what do we see instead? We see that an appallingly large number of people are dissatisfied with civilization and unhappy in it, and feel it as a yoke which must be shaken off; and that these people either do everything in their power to change that civilization, or else go so far in their hostility to it that they will have nothing to do with civilization or with a restriction of instinct. At this point it will be objected against us that this state of affairs is due to the very fact that religion has lost a part of its influence over human masses precisely because of the deplorable effect of the advances of science. We will note this admission and the reason given for it, and we shall make use of it later for our own purposes; but the objection itself has no force.

It is doubtful whether men were in general happier at a time when religious doctrines held unrestricted sway; more moral they certainly were not. They have always known how to externalize the precepts of religion and thus to nullify their intentions. The priests, whose duty it was to ensure obedience to religion, met them half-way in this. God’s kindness must lay a restraining hand on His justice. One sinned, and then one made a sacrifice or did penance and then one was free to sin once more. Russian introspectiveness has reached the pitch of concluding that sin is indispensable for the enjoyment of all the blessings of divine grace, so that, at bottom, sin is pleasing to God. It is no secret that the priests could only keep the masses submissive to religion by making such large concessions as these to the instinctual nature of man. Thus it was agreed: God alone is strong and good, man is weak and sinful. In every age immorality has found no less support in religion than morality has. If the achievements of religion in respect to man’s happiness, susceptibility to culture and moral control are no better than this, the question cannot but arise whether we are not overrating its necessity for mankind, and whether we do wisely in basing our cultural demands upon it.

Let us consider the unmistakable situation as it is today. We have heard the admission that religion no longer has the same influence on people that it used to. (We are here concerned with European Christian civilization.) And this is not because its promises have grown less but because people find them less credible. Let us admit that the reason—though perhaps not the only reason—for this change is the increase of the scientific spirit in the higher strata of human society. Criticism has whittled away the evidential value of religious documents, natural science has shown up the errors in them, and comparative research has been struck by the fatal resemblance between the religious ideas which we revere and the mental products of primitive peoples and times.

The scientific spirit brings about a particular attitude towards worldly matters; before religious matters it pauses for a little, hesitates, and finally there too crosses the threshold. In this process there is no stopping; the greater the number of men to whom the treasures of knowledge become accessible, the more widespread is the falling-away from religious belief—at first only from its obsolete and objectionable trappings, but later from its fundamental postulates as well. The Americans who instituted the “monkey trial” at Dayton have alone shown themselves consistent. Elsewhere the inevitable transition is accomplished by way of half-measures and insincerities.

Civilization has little to fear from educated people and brain-workers. In them the replacement of religious motives for civilized behaviour by other, secular motives would proceed unobtrusively; moreover, such people are to a large extent themselves vehicles of civilization. But it is another matter with the great mass of the uneducated and oppressed, who have every reason for being enemies of civilization. So long as they do not discover that people no longer believe in God, all is well. But they will discover it, infallibly, even if this piece of writing of mine is not published. And they are ready to accept the results of scientific thinking, but without the change having taken place in them which scientific thinking brings about in people. Is there not a danger here that the hostility of these masses to civilization will throw itself against the weak spot that they have found in their task-mistress? If the sole reason why you must not kill your neighbour is because God has forbidden it and will severely punish you for it in this or the next life—then, when you learn that there is no God and that you need not fear His punishment, you will certainly kill your neighbour without hesitation, and you can only be prevented from doing so by mundane force. Thus either these dangerous masses must be held down most severely and kept most carefully away from any chance of intellectual awakening, or else the relationship between civilization and religion must undergo a fundamental revision.


Selected Writings on Religion ALBERT EINSTEINAnother master of the modern world, to whom we owe an enormously expanded idea of the nature of the universe, Albert Einstein (1879–1955) was a great humanist and humanitarian. His opinion on religious matters was eagerly sought because it seemed, to many people, that his own intelligence was almost godlike. Declining such idolatry, Einstein always insisted that the miraculous thing about the natural order was that there were no miracles, and that it operated according to astonishing regularities. This placed him firmly in the tradition of Spinoza in repudiating the notion of a god who took an interest in human affairs. The following excerpts from his frequent commentary on religious matters should suffice to answer those (most notably his most recent biographer Walter Isaacson) who attempt to conscript him posthumously into the camp of belief.

“It was, of course, a lie what you read about my religious convictions, a lie which is being systematically repeated. I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it.”

—Albert Einstein, in a letter March 24, 1954; from Albert Einstein, the Human Side, Helen Dukas and Banesh Hoffman, eds., Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1981, Chapter 5.

“When I was a fairly precocious young man I became thoroughly impressed with the futility of the hopes and strivings that chase most men restlessly through life. Moreover, I soon discovered the cruelty of that chase, which in those years was much more carefully covered up by hypocrisy and glittering words than is the case today. By the mere existence of his stomach everyone was condemned to participate in that chase. The stomach might well be satisfied by such participation, but not man insofar as he is a thinking and feeling being.

“As the first way out there was religion, which is implanted into every child by way of the traditional education-machine. Thus I came—though the child of entirely irreligious (Jewish) parents—to a deep religiousness, which, however, reached an abrupt end at the age of twelve. Through the reading of popular scientific books I soon reached the conviction that much in the stories of the Bible could not be true. The consequence was a positively fanatic orgy of freethinking coupled with the impression that youth is intentionally being deceived by the state through lies; it was a crushing impression. Mistrust of every kind of authority grew out of this experience, a skeptical attitude toward the convictions that were alive in any specific social environment—an attitude that has never again left me, even though, later on, it has been tempered by a better insight into the causal connections. It is quite clear to me that the religious paradise of youth, which was thus lost, was a first attempt to free myself from the chains of the ‘merely personal,’ from an existence dominated by wishes, hopes, and primitive feelings. Out yonder there was this huge world, which exists independently of us human beings and which stands before us like a great, eternal riddle, at least partially accessible to our inspection and thinking. The contemplation of this world beckoned as a liberation, and I soon noticed that many a man whom I had learned to esteem and to admire had found inner freedom and security in its pursuit. The mental grasp of this extra-personal world within the frame of our capabilities presented itself to my mind, half consciously, half unconsciously, as a supreme goal. Similarly motivated men of the present and of the past, as well as the insights they had achieved, were the friends who could not be lost. The road to this paradise was not as comfortable and alluring as the road to the religious paradise; but it has shown itself reliable, and I have never regretted having chosen it.”

—Albert Einstein, Autobiographical Notes, Chicago, Illinois: Open Court Publishing Company, 1979, pp. 3–5.

“My position concerning God is that of an agnostic. I am convinced that a vivid consciousness of the primary importance of moral principles for the betterment and ennoblement of life does not need the idea of a law-giver, especially a lawgiver who works on the basis of reward and punishment.”

—Albert Einstein in a letter to M. Berkowitz, October 25, 1950; Einstein Archive 59–215; from Alice Calaprice, ed., The Expanded Quotable Einstein, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2000, Chapter 28.

“The fairest thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science. He who knows it not and can no longer wonder, no longer feel amazement, is as good as dead, a snuffed-out candle. It was the experience of mystery—even if mixed with fear—that engendered religion. A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, of the manifestations of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which are only accessible to our reason in their most elementary forms—it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute the truly religious attitude; in this sense, and in this alone, I am a deeply religious man. I cannot conceive of a God who rewards and punishes his creatures, or has a will of the type of which we are conscious in ourselves. An individual who should survive his physical death is also beyond my comprehension, nor do I wish it otherwise; such notions are for the fears or absurd egoism of feeble souls. Enough for me the mystery of the eternity of life, and the inkling of the marvelous structure of reality, together with the single-hearted endeavour to comprehend a portion, be it never so tiny, of the reason that manifests itself in nature.”

—Albert Einstein, The World as I See It, Secaucus, New Jersey: The Citadel Press, 1999, Chapter 1.

“The idea of a personal God is quite alien to me and seems even naïve.”

—Albert Einstein in a letter to Beatrice Frohlich, December 17, 1952; Einstein Archive 59–797; from The Expanded Quotable Einstein, Chapter 28.

“It seems to me that the idea of a personal God is an anthropological concept which I cannot take seriously. I feel also not able to imagine some will or goal outside the human sphere. My views are near those of Spinoza: admiration for the beauty of and belief in the logical simplicity of the order which we can grasp humbly and only imperfectly. I believe that we have to content ourselves with our imperfect knowledge and understanding and treat values and moral obligations as a purely human problem—the most important of all human problems.”

—Albert Einstein, 1947; from Banesh Hoffmann, Albert Einstein: Creator and Rebel, New York: New American Library, 1972, Chapter 11.

“I am a deeply religious nonbeliever…. This is a somewhat new kind of religion.”

—Albert Einstein, in a letter to Hans Muehsam, March 30, 1954; Einstein Archive 38–434; from The Expanded Quotable Einstein, Chapter 29.

“I believe in Spinoza’s God who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns himself with fates and actions of human beings.”

—Albert Einstein, upon being asked if he believed in God by Rabbi Herbert Goldstein of the Institutional Synagogue, New York, April 24, 1921, published in The New York Times, April 25, 1929; from Einstein: The Life and Times, Ronald W. Clark, New York: World Publishing Co., 1971, Chapter 44; also cited as a telegram to a Jewish newspaper, 1929, Einstein Archive 33–272, from The Expanded Quotable Einstein, Chapter 26.

“I do not believe in immortality of the individual, and I consider ethics to be an exclusively human concern with no superhuman authority behind it.”

—Albert Einstein, letter to a Baptist pastor in 1953; from Albert Einstein the Human Side, Chapter 5.

“Why do you write to me ‘God should punish the English’? I have no close connection to either one or the other. I see only with deep regret that God punishes so many of His children for their numerous stupidities, for which only He Himself can be held responsible; in my opinion, only His nonexistence could excuse Him.”

—Albert Einstein, letter to Edgar Meyer, a Swiss colleague, January 2, 1915; from The Expanded Quotable Einstein, Chapter 26.

“It is quite possible that we can do greater things than Jesus, for what is written in the Bible about him is poetically embellished.”

—Albert Einstein, quoted in W. I. Hermanns, “A Talk with Einstein,” October 1943, Einstein Archive 55–285; from The Expanded Quotable Einstein, Chapter 28.

“I cannot imagine a God who rewards and punishes the objects of his creation, whose purposes are modeled after our own—a God, in short, who is but a reflection of human frailty. Neither can I believe that the individual survives the death of his body, although feeble souls harbor such thoughts through fear or ridiculous egotisms.”

—Albert Einstein, quoted in The New York Times obituary, April 19, 1955; from George Seldes, ed., The Great Thoughts, New York: Ballantine Books, 1996, Chapter 18.

“The most important human endeavor is the striving for morality in our actions. Our inner balance and even our very existence depend on it. Only morality in our actions can give beauty and dignity to life. To make this a living force and bring it to clear consciousness is perhaps the foremost task of education. The foundation of morality should not be made dependent on myth nor tied to any authority lest doubt about the myth or about the legitimacy of the authority imperil the foundation of sound judgment and action.”

—Albert Einstein, letter to a minister November 20, 1950; from Albert Einstein, the Human Side, Chapter 11.

“A God who rewards and punishes is inconceivable to him for the simple reason that a man’s actions are determined by necessity, external and internal, so that in God’s eyes he cannot be responsible, any more than an inanimate object is responsible for the motions it undergoes. Science has therefore been charged with undermining morality, but the charge is unjust. A man’s ethical behavior should be based effectually on sympathy, education, and social ties and needs; no religious basis is necessary. Man would indeed be in a poor way if he had to be restrained by fear of punishment and hopes of reward after death. It is therefore easy to see why the churches have always fought science and persecuted its devotees.”

—Albert Einstein, “Religion and Science,” in The New York Times Magazine, November 9, 1930, pp. 3–4; from The Expanded Quotable Einstein, pp. 205–206.

“The religious feeling engendered by experiencing the logical comprehensibility of profound interrelations is of a somewhat different sort from the feeling that one usually calls religious. It is more a feeling of awe at the scheme that is manifested in the material universe. It does not lead us to take the step of fashioning a god-like being in our own image—a personage who makes demands of us and who takes an interest in us as individuals. There is in this neither a will nor a goal, nor a must, but only sheer being. For this reason, people of our type see in morality a purely human matter, albeit the most important in the human sphere.”

—Albert Einstein, letter to a Rabbi in Chicago; from Albert Einstein, the Human Side, pp. 69–70.

“I have never imputed to Nature a purpose or a goal, or anything that could be understood as anthropomorphic. What I see in Nature is a magnificent structure that we can comprehend only very imperfectly, and that must fill a thinking person with a feeling of humility. This is a genuinely religious feeling that has nothing to do with mysticism.”

—Albert Einstein, replying to a letter in 1954 or 1955; from Albert Einstein, the Human Side, Chapter 5.

“I do not believe that a man should be restrained in his daily actions by being afraid of punishment after death or that he should do things only because in this way he will be rewarded after he dies. This does not make sense. The proper guidance during the life of a man should be the weight that he puts upon ethics and the amount of consideration that he has for others.”

—Albert Einstein; from Peter A. Bucky, The Private Albert Einstein, Kansas City: Andrews & McMeel, 1992, Chapter 10.

“Scientific research is based on the idea that everything that takes place is determined by laws of nature, and therefore this holds for the action of people. For this reason, a research scientist will hardly be inclined to believe that events could be influenced by a prayer, i.e. by a wish addressed to a supernatural Being.”

—Albert Einstein in response to a child who had written him in 1936 and asked if scientists pray; from Albert Einstein, the Human Side, Chapter 5.

“I cannot conceive of a personal God who would directly influence the actions of individuals, or would directly sit in judgment on creatures of his own creation. I cannot do this in spite of the fact that mechanistic causality has, to a certain extent, been placed in doubt by modern science. [He was speaking of Quantum Mechanics and the breaking down of determinism.] My religiosity consists in a humble admiration of the infinitely superior spirit that reveals itself in the little that we, with our weak and transitory understanding, can comprehend of reality. Morality is of the highest importance—but for us, not for God.”

—Albert Einstein; from Albert Einstein, the Human Side, Chapter 9.

“The finest emotion of which we are capable is the mystic emotion. Herein lies the germ of all art and all true science. Anyone to whom this feeling is alien, who is no longer capable of wonderment and lives in a state of fear is a dead man. To know that what is impenetrable for us really exists and manifests itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty, whose gross forms alone are intelligible to our poor faculties—this knowledge, this feeling…that is the core of the true religious sentiment. In this sense, and in this sense alone, I rank myself among profoundly religious men.”

“The idea of a personal God is an anthropological concept which I am unable to take seriously.”

—Albert Einstein, letter to Hoffman and Dukas, 1946; from Albert Einstein, the Human Side.

“The further the spiritual evolution of mankind advances, the more certain it seems to me that the path to genuine religiosity does not lie through the fear of life, and the fear of death, and blind faith, but through striving after rational knowledge.”

—Albert Einstein, Science, Philosophy, and Religion, a 1934 symposium published by the Conference on Science, Philosophy, and Religion in Their Relation to the Democratic Way of Life, Inc., New York, 1941; from Einstein’s Out of My Later Years, Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1970, pp. 29–30.

“I cannot believe that God plays dice with the cosmos.”

—Albert Einstein on quantum mechanics, published in the London Observer, April 5, 1964; also quoted as “God does not play dice with the world,” in Einstein: The Life and Times, Ronald W. Clark, New York: World Publishing Co., 1971, Chapter 3.

“I cannot accept any concept of God based on the fear of life or the fear of death or blind faith. I cannot prove to you that there is no personal God, but if I were to speak of him I would be a liar.”

—Albert Einstein; from Einstein: The Life and Times, p. 622.

“During the youthful period of mankind’s spiritual evolution human fantasy created gods in man’s own image, who, by the operations of their will were supposed to determine, or at any rate to influence, the phenomenal world. Man sought to alter the disposition of these gods in his own favor by means of magic and prayer. The idea of God in the religions taught at present is a sublimation of that old concept of the gods. Its anthropomorphic character is shown, for instance, by the fact that men appeal to the Divine Being in prayers and plead for the fulfillment of their wishes.

“Nobody, certainly, will deny that the idea of the existence of an omnipotent, just, and omnibeneficent personal God is able to accord man solace, help, and guidance; also, by virtue of its simplicity it is accessible to the most undeveloped mind. But, on the other hand, there are decisive weaknesses attached to this idea in itself, which have been painfully felt since the beginning of history. That is, if this being is omnipotent, then every occurrence, including every human action, every human thought, and every human feeling and aspiration is also His work; how is it possible to think of holding men responsible for their deeds and thoughts before such an almighty Being? In giving out punishment and rewards He would to a certain extent be passing judgment on Himself. How can this be combined with the goodness and righteousness ascribed to Him?

“The main source of the present-day conflicts between the spheres of religion and of science lies in this concept of a personal God. It is the aim of science to establish general rules which determine the reciprocal connection of objects and events in time and space. For these rules, or laws of nature, absolutely general validity is required—not proven. It is mainly a program, and faith in the possibility of its accomplishment in principle is only founded on partial successes. But hardly anyone could be found who would deny these partial successes and ascribe them to human self-deception. The fact that on the basis of such laws we are able to predict the temporal behavior of phenomena in certain domains with great precision and certainty is deeply embedded in the consciousness of the modern man, even though he may have grasped very little of the contents of those laws. He need only consider that planetary courses within the solar system may be calculated in advance with great exactitude on the basis of a limited number of simple laws. In a similar way, though not with the same precision, it is possible to calculate in advance the mode of operation of an electric motor, a transmission system, or of a wireless apparatus, even when dealing with a novel development.

“To be sure, when the number of factors coming into play in a phenomenological complex is too large, scientific method in most cases fails us. One need only think of the weather, in which case prediction even for a few days ahead is impossible. Nevertheless no one doubts that we are confronted with a causal connection whose causal components are in the main known to us. Occurrences in this domain are beyond the reach of exact prediction because of the variety of factors in operation, not because of any lack of order in nature.

“We have penetrated far less deeply into the regularities obtaining within the realm of living things, but deeply enough nevertheless to sense at least the rule of fixed necessity. One need only think of the systematic order in heredity, and in the effect of poisons, as for instance alcohol, on the behavior of organic beings. What is still lacking here is a grasp of connections of profound generality, but not a knowledge of order in itself.

“The more a man is imbued with the ordered regularity of all events the firmer becomes his conviction that there is no room left by the side of this ordered regularity for causes of a different nature. For him neither the rule of human nor the rule of divine will exists as an independent cause of natural events. To be sure, the doctrine of a personal God interfering with natural events could never be refuted, in the real sense, by science, for this doctrine can always take refuge in those domains in which scientific knowledge has not yet been able to set foot.

“But I am persuaded that such behavior on the part of the representatives of religion would not only be unworthy but also fatal. For a doctrine which is able to maintain itself not in clear light but only in the dark, will of necessity lose its effect on mankind, with incalculable harm to human progress. In their struggle for the ethical good, teachers of religion must have the stature to give up the doctrine of a personal God, that is, give up that source of fear and hope which in the past placed such vast power in the hands of priests. In their labors they will have to avail themselves of those forces which are capable of cultivating the Good, the True, and the Beautiful in humanity itself. This is, to be sure, a more difficult but an incomparably more worthy task.”

—Albert Einstein, Science, Philosophy, and Religion; from Einstein’s Out of My Later Years, pp. 26–29.

“I cannot then believe in this concept of an anthropomorphic God who has the powers of interfering with these natural laws. As I said before, the most beautiful and most profound religious emotion that we can experience is the sensation of the mystical. And this mysticality is the power of all true science.”

—Albert Einstein; from Peter A. Bucky, The Private Albert Einstein, Kansas City: Andrews & McMeel, 1992, Chapter 10.

“The mystical trend of our time, which shows itself particularly in the rampant growth of the so-called Theosophy and Spiritualism, is for me no more than a symptom of weakness and confusion. Since our inner experiences consist of reproductions, and combinations of sensory impressions, the concept of a soul without a body seems to me to be empty and devoid of meaning.”

—Albert Einstein, in a letter February 5, 1921; from Albert Einstein, the Human Side, Chapter 5.

“Mere unbelief in a personal God is no philosophy at all.”

—Albert Einstein, letter to V. T. Aaltonen, May 7, 1952, Einstein Archive 59–059; from The Expanded Quotable Einstein, Chapter 28.

“I have repeatedly said that in my opinion the idea of a personal God is a childlike one. You may call me an agnostic, but I do not share the crusading spirit of the professional atheist whose fervor is mostly due to a painful act of liberation from the fetters of religious indoctrination received in youth. I prefer an attitude of humility corresponding to the weakness of our intellectual understanding of nature and of our own being.”

—Albert Einstein, to Guy H. Raner, Jr., September 28, 1949; from Michael R. Gilmore, “Einstein’s God: Just What Did Einstein Believe About God?,” Skeptic, 1997, 5(2): 64.

“For science can only ascertain what is, but not what should be, and outside of its domain value judgments of all kinds remain necessary. Religion, on the other hand, deals only with evaluations of human thought and action: it cannot justifiably speak of facts and relationships between facts.”

—Albert Einstein, Out of My Later Years, Chapter 4.

“In view of such harmony in the cosmos which I, with my limited human mind, am able to recognize, there are yet people who say there is no God. But what really makes me angry is that they quote me for the support of such views.”

—Albert Einstein, according to the testimony of Prince Hubertus of Lowenstein; as quoted by Ronald W. Clark, Einstein: The Life and Times, Chapter 44.

“I received your letter of June 10th. I have never talked to a Jesuit priest in my life and I am astonished by the audacity to tell such lies about me. From the viewpoint of a Jesuit priest I am, of course, and have always been an atheist. Your counter-arguments seem to me very correct and could hardly be better formulated. It is always misleading to use anthropomorphical concepts in dealing with things outside the human sphere—childish analogies. We have to admire in humility the beautiful harmony of the structure of this world as far—as we can grasp it. And that is all.”

—Albert Einstein, to Guy H. Raner, Jr., July 2, 1945, responding to a rumor that a Jesuit priest had caused Einstein to convert from atheism; from Michael R. Gilmore, “Einstein’s God: Just What Did Einstein Believe About God?,” Skeptic, 1997, 5(2): 62.

“I am convinced that some political and social activities and practices of the Catholic organizations are detrimental and even dangerous for the community as a whole, here and everywhere. I mention here only the fight against birth control at a time when overpopulation in various countries has become a serious threat to the health of people and a grave obstacle to any attempt to organize peace on this planet.”

—Albert Einstein in a letter, 1954; from Paul Blanshard, American Freedom and Catholic Power, New Jersey: Greenwood Publishing, 1984, Chapter 2.

“His [Einstein] was not a life of prayer and worship. Yet he lived by a deep faith—a faith not capable of rational foundation—that there are laws of Nature to be discovered. His lifelong pursuit was to discover them. His realism and his optimism are illuminated by his remark: ‘Subtle is the Lord, but malicious He is not’ (Raffiniert ist der Herrgott aber boshaft ist er nicht). When asked by a colleague what he meant by that, he replied: ‘Nature hides her secret because of her essential loftiness, but not by means of ruse’ (Die Natur verbirgt ihr Geheimnis durch die Erhabenheit ihres Wesens, aber nicht durch List).”

—Abraham Pais, Subtle Is the Lord: The Science and the Life of Albert Einstein, Oxford University Press, New York, 1982.

“However, Einstein’s God was not the God of most other men. When he wrote of religion, as he often did in middle and later life, he tended to adopt the belief of Alice’s Red Queen that ‘words mean what you want them to mean,’ and to clothe with different names what to more ordinary mortals—and to most Jews—looked like a variant of simple agnosticism. Replying in 1929 to a cabled inquiry from Rabbi Goldstein of New York, he said that he believed ‘in Spinoza’s God who reveals himself in the harmony of all that exists, not in a God who concerns himself with the fate and actions of men.’ And it is claimed that years later, asked by Ben-Gurion whether he believed in God, ‘even he, with his great formula about energy and mass, agreed that there must be something behind the energy.’ No doubt. But much of Einstein’s writing gives the impression of belief in a God even more intangible and impersonal than a celestial machine minder, running the universe with indisputable authority and expert touch. Instead, Einstein’s God appears as the physical world itself, with its infinitely marvelous structure operating at atomic level with the beauty of a craftsman’s wristwatch, and at stellar level with the majesty of a massive cyclotron. This was belief enough. It grew early and rooted deep. Only later was it dignified by the title of cosmic religion, a phrase which gave plausible respectability to the views of a man who did not believe in a life after death and who felt that if virtue paid off in the earthly one, then this was the result of cause and effect rather than celestial reward. Einstein’s God thus stood for an orderly system obeying rules which could be discovered by those who had the courage, imagination, and persistence to go on searching for them. It was to this past which he began to turn his mind soon after the age of twelve. The rest of his life everything else was to seem almost trivial by comparison.”

—Ronald W. Clark, Einstein: The Life and Times, New York: World Publishing, 1971, pp. 19–20.

“That a man can take pleasure in marching in formation to the strains of a band is enough to make me despise him. He has only been given his big brain by mistake; a backbone was all he needed. This plague-spot of civilization ought to be abolished with all possible speed.”

“A hundred times every day I remind myself that my inner and outer life depend on the labors of other men, living and dead, and that I must exert myself in order to give in the measure as I have received and am still receiving.”

—Albert Einstein


From A Clergyman’s Daughter GEORGE ORWELLKierkegaard’s famous “leap of faith” suffers from the huge moral and practical disadvantage that it cannot be made only once, but has to be performed again and again. George Orwell (1903–1950) believed that the decline of religion, and especially the decline of the belief in personal immortality, required us to evolve a post-theistic basis for morality. Here, in his first novel, A Clergyman’s Daughter, we see his protagonist Dorothy, her lonely mind upon a knife-edge as she discovers that the “leap” suffers from acutely diminishing returns.

Kneeling, with head bent and hands clasped against her knees, she set herself swiftly to pray for forgiveness before her father should reach her with the wafer. But the current of her thoughts had been broken. Suddenly it was quite useless attempting to pray; her lips moved, but there was neither heart nor meaning in her prayers. She could hear Proggett’s boots shuffling and her father’s clear low voice murmuring “Take and eat,” she could see the worn strip of red carpet beneath her knees, she could smell dust and eau-de-Cologne and mothballs; but of the Body and Blood of Christ, of the purpose for which she had come here, she was as though deprived of the power to think. A deadly blankness had descended upon her mind. It seemed to her that actually she could not pray. She struggled, collected her thoughts, uttered mechanically the opening phrases of a prayer; but they were useless, meaningless—nothing but the dead shells of words. Her father was holding the wafer before her in his shapely, aged hand. He held it between finger and thumb, fastidiously, somehow distastefully, as though it had been a spoon of medicine. His eye was upon Miss Mayfill, who was doubling herself up like a geometrid caterpillar, with many creakings, and crossing herself so elaborately that one might have imagined that she was sketching a series of braid frogs on the front of her coat. For several seconds Dorothy hesitated and did not take the wafer. She dared not take it. Better, far better to step down from the altar than to accept the sacrament with such chaos in her heart!

Then it happened that she glanced sidelong, through the open south door. A momentary spear of sunlight had pierced the clouds. It struck downwards through the leaves of the limes, and a spray of leaves in the doorway gleamed with a transient, matchless green, greener than jade or emerald or Atlantic waters. It was as though some jewel of unimaginable splendour had flashed for an instant, filling the doorway with green light, and then faded. A flood of joy ran through Dorothy’s heart. The flash of living colour had brought back to her, by a process deeper than reason, her peace of mind, her love of God, her power of worship. Somehow, because of the greenness of the leaves, it was again possible to pray. O all ye green things upon the earth, praise ye the Lord! She began to pray, ardently, joyfully, thankfully. The wafer melted upon her tongue.


In Westminster Abbey JOHN BETJEMANIf the Church of England ever had a national bard after George Herbert, that bard was certainly John Betjeman, whose love of architecture and liturgy was expressed in numerous (and humorous) works of near-devotion. However, he was not blind to the absurdity and self-centeredness of personal prayer, as this gentle but biting little satire, written in 1940, will show.Let me take this other glove offAs the vox humana swells,And the beauteous fields of EdenBask beneath the Abbey bells.Here, where England’s statesmen lie,Listen to a lady’s cry.Gracious Lord, oh bomb the Germans.Spare their women for Thy Sake,And if that is not too easyWe will pardon Thy Mistake.But, gracious Lord, whate’er shall be,Don’t let anyone bomb me.Keep our Empire undismemberedGuide our Forces by Thy Hand,Gallant blacks from far Jamaica,Honduras and Togoland;Protect them Lord in all their fights,And, even more, protect the whites.Think of what our Nation stands for,Books from Boots and country lanes,Free speech, free passes, class distinction,Democracy and proper drains.Lord, put beneath Thy special careOne-eighty-nine Cadogan Square.Although dear Lord I am a sinner,I have done no major crime;Now I’ll come to Evening ServiceWhensoever I have the time.So, Lord, reserve for me a crown.And do not let my shares go down.I will labour for Thy Kingdom,Help our lads to win the war,Send white feathers to the cowardsJoin the Women’s Army Corps,Then wash the Steps around Thy ThroneIn the Eternal Safety Zone Now I feel a little better,What a treat to hear Thy word,Where the bones of leading statesmen,Have so often been interr’d.And now, dear Lord, I cannot waitBecause I have a luncheon date.


Monism and Religion CHAPMAN COHENI must include one of my personal favorites: a little-known champion of the Freethought movement. Born in 1868 and self-educated, Chapman Cohen (1868–1954) became the third president of the National Secular Society in Britain: the organization founded after Charles Bradlaugh had been denied his seat in Parliament for refusing to swear a religious oath of allegiance. Cohen kept his private life close, and little is known about him apart from his refusal to join a separate secular movement for Jews. His monument is “Essays In Freethinking,” from which this selection is drawn.

It was a sound instinct that led the religious world to brand the Pantheism of Spinoza as Atheism. Equally sound was the judgment of Charles Bradlaugh in resting his Atheism upon a Monistic interpretation of nature. Every intelligible Theism involves a dualism or a pluralism, while every non-theism is as inevitably driven, sooner or later, to a monism. With an instinct sharpened by perpetual conflict, the Churches saw that, no matter the terminology in which the monism is disguised, its final outcome is Atheism. For the essence of the Atheistic position is not the establishment of any particular theory of matter, or force, or volition, but that, given a first principle as a starting-point, all else follows as a matter of the most rigid necessity. It thus dispenses with interference, or, to use a favourite mystifying expression of Sir Oliver Lodge, guidance, at any step of the cosmic process. To call the monism advocated a spiritual monism does not alter the fact; it only disguises it from superficial observers and shallow thinkers. Spiritual and material are mere words, and words, as we have been told, are the counters of wise men and the money of fools. It is the thing, the conception, that matters, and the mechanical conception of cosmic evolution is Atheism, under whatever form it may be disguised.

Monism—too much emphasis cannot be placed upon this truth—admits of no breaks, allows for no interference, no guidance, no special providence. From star mist to planet, on through protoplasm to man, it asserts the existence of an unbroken sequence. If there are any gaps they are in our knowledge, not in things themselves. The promise and potency of all subsequent phenomena is, for Monism, contained in the primitive substance, whatever its nature may be. Every advance in scientific research is based, tacitly or avowedly, upon an acceptance of this belief.

What place does the individual hold in such a conception of things? Clearly he can be no exception to the general principle of causation. The same principle that accounts for the development of the species as a biological phenomenon must also explain the individual as a sociological or psychological product. Either the individual is the necessary product of his antecedents or he is not. If he is, we have merely another phase of a general problem, only in a highly complex form. If he is not, then we have an absolute creation of something, a reintroduction of a disguised supernaturalism, and our scientific principle breaks down. The greatest genius, the most striking individual the world has ever seen, forms no exception to this universal principle of causation. Indeed, when the believer throws at the head of the Atheist the names of Shakespeare or Beethoven, and asks how can natural processes explain their existence, he is needlessly confusing the issue. First, because the problem of explaining the existence of the genius is no greater, fundamentally, than explaining the existence of the fool. Show me how to explain the complex processes that result in the existence of a penny-a-liner, and I will explain the existence of the author of Hamlet. The problem is substantially the same whichever we take. And, secondly, to take either the genius or the fool as a finished project, and study him in isolation, is emphatically not the way to set to work. We could not explain a man, or an animal, or a plant by such a method. Evolution ought to at least have taught us that the explanation of a thing is to be sought in its history. Behind the greatest musician and behind the greatest poet there lies that long history of the race leading to the rude rhythmical howlings and gutteral ejaculations of the primitive savage, without which, as a starting-point, neither poet nor musician would have existed. The greatest and the least of men are links in a chain of being, and can neither separate themselves from all that has gone before nor from that which will come after them.

I have put the claims of a Monistic conception of nature as strongly and as plainly as possible, in order to meet fairly a challenge raised by a prominent clergyman, in a recent issue of a religious weekly. We are told that the issue today lies between Monism and Christianity, and Monism is ruled out of court on account of its supposed depreciation of the individual. Even were this depreciation of the individual admitted it might still be argued that the real value of any theory depends ultimately upon its truth. The argument from consequences is only valid if it can be shown that these are in obvious conflict with facts. In that case, we should have to admit that our first principles were faulty, and revise them accordingly. Facts are facts, and sooner or later we are compelled to deal with them. Theories may ignore them, but the consequences follow just the same. It is not merely our duty to face the facts, it is to our interest to do so. All life is an adaptation of organism to environment, and all healthy mental life is the expression of a harmony between our ideas of facts and the facts themselves. And without posing as a philosophical Gradgrind, one may confidently assert that the man or the philosophy that ignores facts will sooner or later come to grief.

The article in question is headed, “Is the Individual Doomed?” and the answer is that he is if Monism prevails. With Christianity, we are told, the individual is everything; with Monism the individual is nothing. The Christian view of the individual acts as a powerful incentive to progress; the Monistic view “is utterly devoid of the dynamic which can generate any great social reform.” While the conception of humanity as an organic structure in which the individual is ultimately merged is brushed aside in the following: The smallest and forlornest actual slum baby appeals to our sympathy immeasurably more than a vast, dim, aggregate of indistinguishable items called the Race, for we have actually met the slum baby, and we have never met—and what is more, we never shall meet—the Race…. No matter by how many times we multiply nothing, the result is still—nothing…. If we wish to be social reformers in earnest, we must take care of the individual and the race will take care of itself.

That the concrete example of a suffering slum baby appeals to us more than an abstract proposition about the race is true; but instead of this proving the case, it is, as will be seen later, dependent upon the fact of race, and is only an illustration of its influence. And to say that we must take care of the individual if we wish to take care of the race is a mere ipse dixit, since the question at issue is whether or not we are best promoting the interests of the individual when we keep our mind steadily on the question of race welfare. Finally, when we are told that the conception of man as a mere cell in the social tissue, an item in the long story of human progress is “devoid of the dynamic which can generate any social reform,” the reply is that no other factor has shown itself of such inspiring force with social reformers. One need go no further back than the French Revolution of 1789—one of the most “dynamic” events of modern history—to prove this. The schools of St. Simon, Owen, Fourier, with the modern development of Socialism on its higher side, are all permeated by a conception of human development that we are told is fatal to social progress. In fact it is next to impossible to point to a great social movement that has not been inspired by the conception of humanity as a slowly developing organism from which the individual springs, and in which the individual is ultimately merged.

Our preacher may be correct in saying that with Christianity the individual is everything; he is quite wrong in saying that with Monism the individual is nothing. The question is ultimately one of the nature and function of the individual, and to assume that unless we assert that he is independent of the social structure we are destroying him is quite beside the point. We do not annihilate the earth by showing its place in the solar system; we do not annihilate the cell by showing its place in the organism; nor do we destroy the individual by showing him to be a cell in the social tissue. On the contrary, it is only when man is thought of in this sense that we really begin to form a genuine conception of individuality.

One of the errors of Christianity has been to make constant appeals to the individual without considering those conditions of which individual life is the expression. It has preached purity of thought and deed while leaving untouched conditions that make purity of life an impossibility. It has taught morality without realizing that morality is not something that is grafted on life, but something that springs from social life and is conditioned in its expression by the prevailing social conditions. All the ethical failures and extravagances of moral teaching that dog the history of Christianity are attributable to this initial error. It may be quite correct to say the Christian teaching is that we must look to the individual and leave the race to attend to itself; but it is none the less a mistaken teaching. For you can only permanently affect the individual through a modification of those conditions that are summed up in the phrase “social environment.” I do not mean here an environment that covers only the material conditions of existence, but include all those mental forces that play so large a part in moulding the life of each of us. If man is to be morally, mentally, and physically healthy, he must live in an environment which permits health in all these directions. Otherwise we may appeal to the individual as long as we choose; our appeal even in the most favourable of circumstances, will only be in the nature of a stimulant, and like all such will be of a temporary nature only. Doctors, scientists, sociologists, all shades of real thinkers, are fast realizing that it is the race problem that is the vital one, and this, not in the interests of an abstract entity called the Race, but in the best interests of the individual himself.

In thus contrasting the Monistic and the Christian view of the function of the individual, there is raised the old question of the relations of the individual to society. And although the limited influence of social conditions is admitted, the main position is that of a species of sociological atomism. Our preacher would agree with those writers who argue that society is a mere aggregate of individual human beings. On the other hand, one may submit that, while society is an aggregate of individuals, it is yet something more than is given in any number of individuals merely added together. The strength of an army is not the mere sum total of the strengths of the individual members composing it; it is that plus the addition of what results from combination. The product of a chemical compound is not to be discovered by adding together the properties or qualities of its constituents. Some quality is given in the combination not to be found in its constituent parts. And in the same way no amount of adding together of individuals can give us all that we find in a social structure. We cannot, try how we may, derive society from the individual. We can, as will be seen, derive the individual from society.

I am not claiming the existence of some mysterious social ego presiding over society, as theologians conceived a soul dominating the organism. My point is that just as I am made up of the various parts of my organism plus the combination of these parts, and that just as the relations between the parts are as real as the parts themselves, so there develops a social force which expresses the relations existing between all individuals, and which is as real as the individuals themselves. And this is strictly analogous to all that we know, scientifically, of other forces. The law of gravitation, the laws of heat, light, and sound are the expressions of a relation, and have no existence apart from the relations between atoms of matter. And it would be as absurd to deny the existence of gravitation, because it cannot be shown apart from matter, as it is to deny the existence of this social force, because we cannot separate it from the individuals that comprise society.

It is perfectly true that, apart from individuals, society has no existence, but it is equally true that, apart from society, the individual ceases to be. Society is no more an abstraction than is the individual. When we speak of society it is true that we are expressing the totality of individual actions, but it is also true that when we speak of the individual we are expressing the result of a whole complex of social forces. Take from the individual all that society gives him in the shape of language, beliefs, clothing, institutions, take away the relations existing between him and his fellows, and the individual, as we know him, has ceased to exist. One view of the case is certainly as true as the other; and when such opposing conclusions can be logically reached, it is highly probable that the truth lies between the two, or in a combination of both. The truth is that either aspect alone represents a one-sided view of the subject. Neither individual nor society can, or ought to be, considered separately. Both are aspects of the same fact. The individual is a concrete expression of social forces; society is an organism precisely because, like all organisms, one cannot understand aright any one of the parts without considering its relation to the whole, and because one cannot appreciate the whole without understanding the nature and function of each of the parts.

One may reach the same conclusion by another method. Much is often made of the statement that the end of social action is the production of strong individuals. This is true; but individuation is the product, biologically, of a differentiation, and this, instead of making the part less dependent on the whole, really involves a greater coherence and a more profound interdependence of parts. In the animal organism he taking on of specific functions by certain groups of cells involves the performance of other functions by other groups; and thus, while in view of a specific function a particular cell group may be said to acquire a greater individuality, from another point of view its individuality is an expression of the organized cell life of the entire organism. With equal truth this generalisation holds good of the individual in relation to society. Social action necessarily results, not in the production of individuals who are above social forces and who control them, but in the production of individualities that express the highly elaborated social forces behind and around them. There is positively no other source for their existence. An individual cannot create new forces; he can only utilize those already existing. And unless he is the exact equivalent of all the forces that preceded him, neither more nor less, we have in the individual something that is impossible of explanation, and which cuts the ground from under all scientific and all coherent thinking. The very feeling of the individual that he is controlling social forces is a trick of the imagination, which ultimately expresses the deeper truth I have indicated.

The most striking apparent exceptions will be seen to enforce this truth. Probably in thinking of strong, almost lawless individualities, many would light upon these “money kings” whose actions seem to be fettered by no consideration of social service. And yet, putting on one side that we are here dealing with the old predatory instincts modified to meet new conditions, the fact remains that the most lawless of the group are as dependent upon social forces as any others. For these men hold the wealth they have, and pursue the methods they employ, wholly in virtue of the social discipline—respect for private property, for freedom of action, habits of obedience, which the people have been subjected to, and to the laws—expressions of the same social discipline—which protects them from assault. So that, paradoxical as it may sound, the very people who imagine themselves free from the control of the social forces, are those who are most dependent upon their existence and operation.

We can, now, I think, see more clearly the futility of the remark that “the smallest and forlornest actual slum baby appeals to our sympathy immeasurably more than a vast dim aggregate of indistinguishable items called the Race.” Naturally, because we have here a concrete illustration of a universal fact, without which the general fact would not be appreciated. But the very sympathy which is excited is race-born, is an expression of that race solidarity which is thought of so little value. And sympathy, while immediately directed towards the individual, is ultimately directed towards race-welfare. The love of the mother for her child is nature’s method of securing race preservation; and the sympathy of one person with another is nature’s method of securing that social cooperation and efficiency without which human life would cease to exist. It is always good not to lose the particular in the general, but it is also good not to lose sight of the fact that the particular is only what it is because of its relation to the general.

If what has been said be correct, what, it may be asked, becomes of the individual? Well, the individual is as much there as ever; we simply realize his true worth and function in the social organism. The individual is no more doomed than an analysis of the laws of light destroys the beauty of a sunset. We are as able as ever to appreciate the individual, but it is an intelligent appreciation that comes from a perception of his true nature and of his relations to humanity as a whole, in place of the unreasoning and helpless wonder of a disguised supernaturalism. The individual stands, not as the chance product of incomprehensible powers, but as the necessary result and expression of social forces always in operation.

That this conception robs us of the incentive to progress I do not for a moment believe. In the first place, progress itself is not such a chance thing as to be dependent upon the voluntary cooperation of any one person or of any group of persons. Those who study carefully the history of ideas of progress in general will see the truth of Spencer’s statement that human progress is all of a piece with the unfolding of a flower and the development of a planet, a complex illustration of the laws of causation. All ideas are born of the past operating upon the present; and although ideas cannot run without feet, they must find a particular human vehicle for their expression, yet it is much nearer the truth to say that these find their vent in individuals than that individuals create the ideas themselves. Flattering to self-esteem as is the notion that ideas depend for their existence upon this or that individual, it is one that is quite devoid of scientific foundation.

Secondly, it is largely a question of how we are to set to work. If the individual originates social forces, our efforts must be concentrated on individuals, or, as it is said, “We must take care of the individual and leave the race to take care of itself.” If, however, the individual is the expression of countless social actions and reactions, then the line of effort must be in the direction of modifying social conditions so as to make for a more desirable manhood. And if we are to be guided by experience, one need have no hesitation in declaring for the latter method. For all experience testifies to the futility of our expecting ideas and beliefs to flourish in an unsuitable environment. Moral teaching is equally futile unless the general environment is such as gives it countenance. To do Christianity justice, one must admit that there has never been with it any lack of mere moral instruction; but there has been a fatal neglect of the conditions that would give the moral instruction force. A people is always what its environment makes it; only we must be careful to count in the environment the biological and psychological forces along with the purely material ones.

Finally, there is the question of inspiration. This is ultimately a question of imagination. Our preacher thinks the slum baby more effective than anything else. Others there are who find little inspiration in particular individuals, who may be quite unattractive objects. To them the story of human progress appeals far more powerfully. They feel that, unlovely and undesirable as certain individuals may be, their unloveliness and undesirability are atoned for by the worthiness of humanity as a whole. It is not that they multiply nothing to get something, or that they hope by a multiplication of ugliness to get beauty, but the conception of a slowly developing humanity compensates for the partial failures and for the marred beauty of isolated instances. And surely there is in this human story, from cave man to poet, philosopher, and scientist, enough inspiration to fire the most sluggish imagination. There is enough to make one feel that, whatever our failures may be, they are neither eternal nor irremediable; that the course of evolution has loaded the dice in our favour; and that even though as individuals we are mere links in the chain of beings, as links we still play our parts, and so serve to provide a finer metal out of which may be forged the links that follow.

Spiritual Vision

In one of his writings Mr. G. K. Chesterton says that the real question at issue between the Christian and the Freethinker is, “Are there or are there not certain powers and experiences possible to the human mind which really occur when the mind is suitably disposed? Is the religious history of mankind a chronicle of accidental lies, delusions, and coincidences, or is it a chronicle of real things which we happen not to be able to do and real visions which we happen not to be able to see?” As is not unusual with Mr. Chesterton, he succeeds here in saying nothing in particular, while apparently expressing a deal in a small compass. For, far from meeting the case of the scientific Freethinker, it shows no real appreciation of it. Mr. Chesterton’s case is that the Christian saint or mystic is, by the exercise of certain spiritual expriences, brought into another world of being. The Freethinker does not deny the experiences—without the qualifying “spiritual”—but he submits there is another and more rational explanation at hand.

Let us take a few examples. The [Roman] Catholic Church will produce clouds of testimony from men and women to the effect that certain visions were seen under certain circumstances. These circumstances are usually long vigils, fasting, praying, a more or less solitary life, and constant meditation upon mystical matters. These witnesses will dilate upon the feeling of exaltation that accompanied and preceded such visions, and will describe the subjective experiences with all the detail that one might use in describing a fit of indigestion, or an attack of the toothache. Now, no Freethinker who understands his case would say these witnesses were all liars. Nor would he say that they were all insane in the general sense of the word. Neither would he deny that under the same conditions he himself would in all probability experience the same kind of visions and feelings. What he would say, and what he does say, is that all this religious testimony can be explained on pathological grounds as due to an unwholesome nervous strain. If any modern cares to try the experiment, and sit, like some Hindoo fakir, for so many hours per day contemplating his stomach, and repeating the sacred word “Om,” we do not hesitate in saying that he, too, will see visions; and in that case he need not cite a “cloud of witnesses”—he can cite himself.

An Old Story


“Now the birth of Jesus Christ was in this wise. When his mother, Mary, was espoused to Joseph, before they came together she was found with child of the Holy Ghost.” Now the birth of the Greek demi-god, Perseus, was in this wise. When Acristus, King of Argon, was warned that he would be killed by the son of his daughter Danae, he built a tower of brass, in which she was imprisoned, and so hoped to frustrate the oracle. But the God Jupiter visited the maiden in a shower of gold, and thus was Perseus born. And the birth of the Aztec God, Huitzilopochtli, was in this wise. When Catlicus, the serpent-skirted, was in the open air, a little ball of feathers floated down from the heavens. She caught it and hid it in her bosom. And of this was the god born. The birth of the God Attis was in this wise. From the blood of the murdered Agdestris sprang a pomegranate tree, and some of the fruit thereof the virgin Nana gathered and laid it in her bosom, and thus was the god born. Also the founder of the Manchu dynasty of China was born in this wise. A heavenly maiden was bathing one day when she found on the skirt of her raiment a certain red fruit. She ate, and was delivered of a son. Likewise was Fo-Hi born of a virgin. And the virgin daughter of a king of the Mongols awakened one night and found herself embraced by a great light and gave birth to three boys, one of whom was the famous Genghis Khan. In Korea, the daughter of the river Ho was fertilized by the rays of the sun, and gave birth to a wonderful boy. Likewise was Chrishna [sic] born of the virgin Devaka; Horus was born of the virgin Isis; Mercury was born of the virgin Maia; and Romulus was born of the virgin Rhea Sylvia. Many other stories might be related, but of all these there is none true but the first. Millions of Christians say so. For it is in the New Testament, and none of the others are. And to the eye of faith the distinction is of profound importance.

What is the meaning of it all? Why were all these gods and demi-gods born in this manner? Well, thereby hangs a tale, and its complete unravelment would carry us back a very long way in the history of human nature. The first point to be grasped is that most of the things that to us are commonplace, are really discoveries that are made only after the passing of many generations. Nothing seems to us, for example, more certain and more natural than death. Yet there exists ample proof that death, as a natural fact, is as much of a discovery as is the nature of the moon’s phases. Primitive mankind treats death as the result of being bewitched by an enemy, or killed by one of the tribal spirits. Only slowly is the true nature of death recognized. And the same principle holds good of birth. Nothing seems more certain than that birth is the result of the union of two people—a man and a woman. But this, too, is a discovery that mankind has to make, and although the discovery has now been made practically all over the world, there are some exceptions, and the prevalence of certain customs and superstitions is enough to prove that they resemble, in the intellectual world, those rudimentary organs which man carries about with him in his physical structure. They are the surviving indications of a lower state of culture from which the higher and truer has been derived. And a comprehension of the process enables us to understand why “the birth of Jesus Christ was in this wise.” Nothing else can.

In his Legend of Perseus and in his Primitive Paternity, Mr. E. S. Hartland has brought forward a mass of illustrations to prove two things. First, the widespread belief in the supernatural birth of gods and national heroes; and, second, the equally widespread vogue of superstitious and magical practices to obtain children, and which are a practical ignoring of the biological laws governing their production. Thus, a tribe of natives in Northwestern Australia believe that birth is quite independent of sexual intercourse. The North Queenslanders believe that babies are brought to women by Nature spirits, the function of the husband being apparently to invoke the spirits to do their work. On the Proserpine River, a supernatural being named Kunya inserts the baby in a woman while she is bathing. Some places are held to be the favourite ground for these unincarnated spirits, and women who have no desire for children will, when passing these spots, ape the walk and appearance of extreme age, in order to deceive the waiting spirit. On the Slave Coast of West Africa, it is believed that the child is derived from the ancestral spirits. Other parts of the world furnish similar examples. And as a product of beliefs such as these we have world-wide magical practices in order to obtain children. For these there is no need to travel far. They exist all over Europe, and almost any comprehensive work on comparative mythology will give illustrations of the practices current among Christian peoples who believe that by them fecundity is secured. And the whole point to the once almost universal belief that the child is not the physiological consequence of the union of the sexes, but is in sober truth a supernatural product.

Now, what has been said is well known to all writers on comparative mythology and anthropology. But these works have an aggravating knack of stopping short at just the point where they begin to be of real importance. For the value, perhaps the whole value, of a comprehension of the religious beliefs of the lower races lies in their relation to the religious beliefs of the races that are more advanced. But, owing to the widespread fear of vested interests, this is very seldom done. The origin of the savage gods is clearly indicated in scores of authoritative works; but there are few, if any, of our first-class men that have the courage to point to the further truth that our modern ideas of god are descended from these primitive and clearly mistaken beliefs, and rest on no other and no better foundations. The consequence is that, when one tries to trace the development of the Christian belief in the Virgin Birth from such savage and primitive beliefs as have been above indicated one finds oneself almost on virgin soil. But, starting from the fact that the nature of procreation and birth is a genuine discovery that is made by man in the course of his intellectual development, one may dimly see how the belief in the supernatural birth of the scores of gods that have ruled over the minds of men came to be established. At any rate, its persistence only serves to drive home the lesson that all religion, no matter how refined, has its roots in the delusions that have their sway over the mind of mankind in its most primitive stages.

To our mind it is quite clear that in the Christian story of the Virgin Birth, as in the other classical versions of the same legend that have been quoted, we have a survival of the primitive belief that all birth is supernatural. And it is not difficult to conceive that as a better knowledge of procreation—at least of the fact, if not of the process—gained ground, the interference of the spiritual world in the matter of birth would be restricted to the appearance of striking personalities. In this we are only following the ordinary course of the history of the supernatural, where from everything being thought of as being due to the gods, we get their interference only on special occasions—occasions that become more and more rare as human knowledge becomes more and more precise. Thus, in course of time, it is not every man who is born of the tribal spirits and gods, but only the specially favoured individual. Sexual intercourse between human beings and the gods, such as appears in plain form in some of the legends, and in a veiled form in others, thus carries us back far beyond the period of the classical mythologies to the most primitive form of human thought. The mythologies are themselves late survivals, and their ready acceptance may be partly accounted for by the fact that, as popular folk-lore shows, there are still active in all parts of the world beliefs and practices which associate birth with supernatural intervention. Into the course of the development that derived the Gospel story from the belief of the primitive savage we have now neither the time nor the space to enter, but that the one is derived from the other there cannot be reasonable doubt. Later there gathers round the sexual act all sorts of mystical interpretation, but here, as in other cases, it is the savage that provides the true starting-point. And to the informed the truth of religion is no longer a question of historical or philosophical enquiry, it is the psychology of religion that is of consequence. Not whether men are justified in their belief, but how they came to believe these things to be true is the pertinent enquiry. Anthropology holds within it the secret of divinity. When the missionary sets forth to convert the savage, he is attacking the parent of his religion. For the savage alone can tell him why “the birth of Jesus was in this wise.”


An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish BERTRAND RUSSELLThe godson of John Stuart Mill had several careers as philosopher, mathematician, and opponent of injustice. His rather disordered private life also helped furnish the material for a notable autobiography. At different times, his stubborn views on sexual freedom and the dangers of war and empire caused him to be banned from teaching in the United States and imprisoned in the United Kingdom. A single pamphlet, Why I Am Not A Christian, became a classic from which the Christian churches have yet to recover. I chose this essay, written in the very dark year of 1943, because it expresses a certain stoical optimism and because it connects the nonsense of religious belief to the prevalence of other popular superstitions. In his extraordinarily prescient Practice and Theory of Bolshevism, written just after the Russian revolution, Russell distinguished himself by being one of the first to notice the connection between modern totalitarian thought and the religious impulse toward subjection.

Man is a rational animal—so at least I have been told. Throughout a long life, I have looked diligently for evidence in favor of this statement, but so far I have not had the good fortune to come across it, though I have searched in many countries spread over three continents. On the contrary, I have seen the world plunging continually further into madness. I have seen great nations, formerly leaders of civilization, led astray by preachers of bombastic nonsense. I have seen cruelty, persecution, and superstition increasing by leaps and bounds, until we have almost reached the point where praise of rationality is held to mark a man as an old fogey regrettably surviving from a bygone age. All this is depressing, but gloom is a useless emotion. In order to escape from it, I have been driven to study the past with more attention than I had formerly given to it, and have found, as Erasmus found, that folly is perennial and yet the human race has survived. The follies of our own times are easier to bear when they are seen against the background of past follies. In what follows I shall mix the sillinesses of our day with those of former centuries. Perhaps the result may help in seeing our own times in perspective, and as not much worse than other ages that our ancestors lived through without ultimate disaster.

Aristotle, so far as I know, was the first man to proclaim explicitly that man is a rational animal. His reason for this view was one which does not now seem very impressive; it was, that some people can do sums. He thought that there are three kinds of soul: the vegetable soul, possessed by all living things, both plants and animals, and concerned only with nourishment and growth; the animal soul, concerned with locomotion, and shared by man with the lower animals; and finally the rational soul, or intellect, which is the Divine mind, but in which men participate to a greater or less degree in proportion to their wisdom. It is in virtue of the intellect that man is a rational animal. The intellect is shown in various ways, but most emphatically by mastery of arithmetic. The Greek system of numerals was very bad, so that the multiplication table was quite difficult, and complicated calculations could only be made by very clever people. Now-a-days, however, calculating machines do sums better than even the cleverest people, yet no one contends that these useful instruments are immortal, or work by divine inspiration. As arithmetic has grown easier, it has come to be less respected. The consequence is that, though many philosophers continue to tell us what fine fellows we are, it is no longer on account of our arithmetical skill that they praise us.

Since the fashion of the age no longer allows us to point to calculating boys as evidence that man is rational and the soul, at least in part, immortal, let us look elsewhere. Where shall we look first? Shall we look among eminent statesmen, who have so triumphantly guided the world into its present condition? Or shall we choose the men of letters? Or the philosophers? All these have their claims, but I think we should begin with those whom all right-thinking people acknowledge to be the wisest as well as the best of men, namely the clergy. If they fail to be rational, what hope is there for us lesser mortals? And alas—though I say it with all due respect—there have been times when their wisdom has not been very obvious, and, strange to say, these were especially the times when the power of the clergy was greatest.

The Ages of Faith, which are praised by our neo-scholastics, were the time when the clergy had things all their own way. Daily life was full of miracles wrought by saints and wizardry perpetrated by devils and necromancers. Many thousands of witches were burnt at the stake. Men’s sins were punished by pestilence and famine, by earthquake, flood, and fire. And yet, strange to say, they were even more sinful than they are now-a-days. Very little was known scientifically about the world. A few learned men remembered Greek proofs that the earth is round, but most people made fun of the notion that there are antipodes. To suppose that there are human beings at the antipodes was heresy. It was generally held (though modern Catholics take a milder view) that the immense majority of mankind are damned. Dangers were held to lurk at every turn. Devils would settle on the food that monks were about to eat, and would take possession of the bodies of incautious feeders who omitted to make the sign of the Cross before each mouthful. Old-fashioned people still say “bless you” when one sneezes, but they have forgotten the reason for the custom. The reason was that people were thought to sneeze out their souls, and before their souls could get back lurking demons were apt to enter the unsouled body; but if any one said “God bless you,” the demons were frightened off.

Throughout the last 400 years, during which the growth of science had gradually shown men how to acquire knowledge of the ways of nature and mastery over natural forces, the clergy have fought a losing battle against science, in astronomy and geology, in anatomy and physiology, in biology and psychology and sociology. Ousted from one position, they have taken up another. After being worsted in astronomy, they did their best to prevent the rise of geology; they fought against Darwin in biology, and at the present time they fight against scientific theories of psychology and education. At each stage, they try to make the public forget their earlier obscurantism, in order that their present obscurantism may not be recognized for what it is. Let us note a few instances of irrationality among the clergy since the rise of science, and then inquire whether the rest of mankind are any better.

When Benjamin Franklin invented the lightning rod, the clergy, both in England and America, with the enthusiastic support of George III, condemned it as an impious attempt to defeat the will of God. For, as all right-thinking people were aware, lightning is sent by God to punish impiety or some other grave sin—the virtuous are never struck by lightning. Therefore if God wants to strike any one, Benjamin Franklin ought not to defeat His design; indeed, to do so is helping criminals to escape. But God was equal to the occasion, if we are to believe the eminent Dr. Price, one of the leading divines of Boston. Lightning having been rendered ineffectual by the “iron points invented by the sagacious Dr. Franklin,” Massachusetts was shaken by earthquakes, which Dr. Price perceived to be due to God’s wrath at the “iron points.” In a sermon on the subject he said, “In Boston are more erected than elsewhere in New England, and Boston seems to be more dreadfully shaken. Oh! there is no getting out of the mighty hand of God.” Apparently, however, Providence gave up all hope of curing Boston of its wickedness, for, though lightning rods became more and more common, earthquakes in Massachusetts have remained rare. Nevertheless, Dr. Price’s point of view, or something very like it, is still held by one of the most influential of living men. When, at one time, there were several bad earthquakes in India, Mahatma Gandhi solemnly warned his compatriots that these disasters had been sent as a punishment for their sins.

Even in my own native island this point of view still exists. During the last war, the British Government did much to stimulate the production of food at home. In 1916, when things were not going well, a Scottish clergyman wrote to the newspapers to say that military failure was due to the fact that, with government sanction, potatoes had been planted on the Sabbath. However, disaster was averted, owing to the fact that the Germans disobeyed all the Ten Commandments, and not only one of them.

Sometimes, if pious men are to be believed, God’s mercies are curiously selective. Toplady, the author of “Rock of Ages,” moved from one vicarage to another; a week after the move, the vicarage he had formerly occupied burnt down, with great loss to the new vicar. Thereupon Toplady thanked God; but what the new vicar did is not known. Borrow, in his “Bible in Spain,” records how without mishap he crossed a mountain pass infested by bandits. The next party to cross, however, were set upon, robbed, and some of them murdered; when Borrow heard of this, he, like Toplady, thanked God.

Although we are taught the Copernican astronomy in our textbooks, it has not yet penetrated to our religion or our morals, and has not even succeeded in destroying belief in astrology. People still think that the Divine Plan has special reference to human beings, and that a special Providence not only looks after the good, but also punishes the wicked. I am sometimes shocked by the blasphemies of those who think themselves pious—for instance, the nuns who never take a bath without wearing a bathrobe all the time. When asked why, since no man can see them, they reply: “Oh, but you forget the good God.” Apparently they conceive of the Deity as a Peeping Tom, whose omnipotence enables Him to see through bathroom walls, but who is foiled by bathrobes. This view strikes me as curious.

The whole conception of “Sin” is one which I find very puzzling, doubtless owing to my sinful nature. If “Sin” consisted in causing needless suffering, I could understand; but on the contrary, sin often consists in avoiding needless suffering. Some years ago, in the English House of Lords, a bill was introduced to legalize euthanasia in cases of painful and incurable disease. The patient’s consent was to be necessary, as well as several medical certificates. To me, in my simplicity, it would seem natural to require the patient’s consent, but the late Archbishop of Canterbury, the English official expert on Sin, explained the erroneousness of such a view. The patient’s consent turns euthanasia into suicide, and suicide is sin. Their Lordships listened to the voice of authority, and rejected the bill. Consequently, to please the Archbishop—and his God, if he reports truly—victims of cancer still have to endure months of wholly useless agony, unless their doctors or nurses are sufficiently humane to risk a charge of murder. I find difficulty in the conception of a God who gets pleasure from contemplating such tortures; and if there were a God capable of such wanton cruelty, I should certainly not think Him worthy of worship. But that only proves how sunk I am in moral depravity.

I am equally puzzled by the things that are sin and by the things that are not. When the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals asked the pope for his support, he refused it, on the ground that human beings owe no duty to the lower animals, and that ill-treating animals is not sinful. This is because animals have no souls. On the other hand, it is wicked to marry your deceased wife’s sister—so at least the Church teaches—however much you and she may wish to marry. This is not because of any unhappiness that might result, but because of certain texts in the Bible.

The resurrection of the body, which is an article of the Apostles’ Creed, is a dogma which has various curious consequences. There was an author not very many years ago, who had an ingenious method of calculating the date of the end of the world. He argued that there must be enough of the necessary ingredients of a human body to provide everybody with the requisites at the Last Day. By carefully calculating the available raw material, he decided that it would all have been used up by a certain date. When that date comes, the world must end, since otherwise the resurrection of the body would become impossible. Unfortunately I have forgotten what the date was, but I believe it is not very distant.

St. Thomas Aquinas, the official philosopher of the Catholic Church, discussed lengthily and seriously a very grave problem, which, I fear, modern theologians unduly neglect. He imagines a cannibal who has never eaten anything but human flesh, and whose father and mother before him had like propensities. Every particle of his body belongs rightfully to someone else. We cannot suppose that those who have been eaten by cannibals are to go short through all eternity. But, if not, what is left for the cannibal? How is he to be properly roasted in hell, if all his body is restored to its original owners? This is a puzzling question, as the Saint rightly perceives.

In this connection the orthodox have a curious objection to cremation, which seems to show an insufficient realization of God’s omnipotence. It is thought that a body which has been burnt will be more difficult for Him to collect together again than one which has been put underground and transformed into worms. No doubt collecting the particles from the air and undoing the chemical work of combustion would be somewhat laborious, but it is surely blasphemous to suppose such a work impossible for the Deity. I conclude that the objection to cremation implies grave heresy. But I doubt whether my opinion will carry much weight with the orthodox.

It was only very slowly and reluctantly that the Church sanctioned the dissection of corpses in connection with the study of medicine. The pioneer in dissection was Vesalius, who was Court physician to the Emperor Charles V. His medical skill led the emperor to protect him, but after the emperor was dead he got into trouble. A corpse which he was dissecting was said to have shown signs of life under the knife, and he was accused of murder. The Inquisition was induced by King Phillip II to take a lenient view, and only sentenced him to a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. On the way home he was shipwrecked and died of exhaustion. For centuries after this time, medical students at the Papal University in Rome were only allowed to operate on lay figures, from which the sexual parts were omitted.

The sacredness of corpses is a widespread belief. It was carried furthest by the Egyptians, among whom it led to the practice of mummification. It still exists in full force in China. A French surgeon, who was employed by the Chinese to teach Western medicine, relates that his demand for corpses to dissect was received with horror, but he was assured that he could have instead an unlimited supply of live criminals. His objection to this alternative was totally unintelligible to his Chinese employers.

Although there are many kinds of sin, seven of which are deadly, the most fruitful field for Satan’s wiles is sex. The orthodox Catholic doctrine on this subject is to be found in St. Paul, St. Augustine, and St. Thomas Aquinas. It is best to be celibate, but those who have not the gift of continence may marry. Intercourse in marriage is not sin, provided it is motivated by desire for offspring. All intercourse outside marriage is sin, and so is intercourse within marriage if any measures are adopted to prevent conception. Interruption of pregnancy is sin, even if, in medical opinion, it is the only way of saving the mother’s life; for medical opinion is fallible, and God can always save a life by miracle if He sees fit. (This view is embodied in the law of Connecticut.) Venereal disease is God’s punishment for sin. It is true that, through a guilty husband, this punishment may fall on an innocent woman and her children, but this is a mysterious dispensation of Providence, which it would be impious to question. We must also not inquire why venereal disease was not divinely instituted until the time of Columbus. Since it is the appointed penalty for sin, all measures for its avoidance are also sin—except, of course, a virtuous life. Marriage is nominally indissoluble, but many people who seem to be married are not. In the case of influential Catholics, some ground for nullity can often be found, but for the poor there is no such outlet, except perhaps in cases of impotence. Persons who divorce and remarry are guilty of adultery in the sight of God.

The phrase “in the sight of God” puzzles me. One would suppose that God sees everything, but apparently this is a mistake. He does not see Reno, for you cannot be divorced in the sight of God. Registry offices are a doubtful point. I notice that respectable people, who would not call on anybody who lives in open sin, are quite willing to call on people who have had only a civil marriage; so apparently God does see registry offices.

Some eminent men think even the doctrine of the Catholic Church deplorably lax where sex is concerned. Tolstoy and Mahatma Gandhi, in their old age, laid it down that all sexual intercourse is wicked, even in marriage and with a view to offspring. The Manicheans thought likewise, relying upon men’s native sinfulness to supply them with a continually fresh crop of disciples. This doctrine, however, is heretical, though it is equally heretical to maintain that marriage is as praiseworthy as celibacy. Tolstoy thinks tobacco almost as bad as sex; in one of his novels, a man who is contemplating murder smokes a cigarette first in order to generate the necessary homicidal fury. Tobacco, however, is not prohibited in the Scriptures, though, as Samuel Butler points at, St. Paul would no doubt have denounced it if he had known of it.

It is odd that neither the Church nor modern public opinion condemns petting, provided it stops short at a certain point. At what point sin begins is a matter as to which casuists differ. One eminently orthodox Catholic divine laid it down that a confessor may fondle a nun’s breasts, provided he does it without evil intent. But I doubt whether modern authorities would agree with him on this point.

Modern morals are a mixture of two elements: on the one hand, rational precepts as to how to live together peaceably in a society, and on the other hand traditional taboos derived originally from some ancient superstition, but proximately from sacred books, Christian, Mohammedan, Hindu, or Buddhist. To some extent the two agree; the prohibition of murder and theft, for instance, is supported both by human reason and by Divine command. But the prohibition of pork or beef has only scriptural authority, and that only in certain religions. It is odd that modern men, who are aware of what science has done in the way of bringing new knowledge and altering the conditions of social life, should still be willing to accept the authority of texts embodying the outlook of very ancient and very ignorant pastoral or agricultural tribes. It is discouraging that many of the precepts whose sacred character is thus uncritically acknowledged should be such as to inflict much wholly unnecessary misery. If men’s kindly impulses were stronger, they would find some way of explaining that these precepts are not to be taken literally, any more than the command to “sell all that thou hast and give to the poor.”

There are logical difficulties in the notion of sin. We are told that sin consists in disobedience to God’s commands, but we are also told that God is omnipotent. If He is, nothing contrary to His will can occur; therefore when the sinner disobeys His commands, He must have intended this to happen. St. Augustine boldly accepts this view, and asserts that men are led to sin by a blindness with which God afflicts them. But most theologians, in modern times, have felt that, if God causes men to sin, it is not fair to send them to hell for what they cannot help. We are told that sin consists in acting contrary to God’s will. This, however, does not get rid of the difficulty. Those who, like Spinoza, take God’s omnipotence seriously, deduce that there can be no such thing as sin. This leads to frightful results. What! said Spinoza’s contemporaries, was it not wicked of Nero to murder his mother? Was it not wicked of Adam to eat the apple? Is one action just as good as another? Spinoza wriggles, but does not find any satisfactory answer. If everything happens in accordance with God’s will, God must have wanted Nero to murder his mother; therefore, since God is good, the murder must have been a good thing. From this argument there is no escape.

On the other hand, those who are in earnest in thinking that sin is disobedience to God are compelled to say that God is not omnipotent. This gets out of all the logical puzzles, and is the view adopted by a certain school of liberal theologians. It has, however, its own difficulties. How are we to know what really is God’s will? If the forces of evil have a certain share of power, they may deceive us into accepting as Scripture what is really their work. This was the view of the Gnostics, who thought that the Old Testament was the work of an evil spirit.

As soon as we abandon our own reason, and are content to rely upon authority, there is no end to our troubles. Whose authority? The Old Testament? The New Testament? The Koran? In practice, people choose the book considered sacred by the community in which they are born, and out of that book they choose the parts they like, ignoring the others. At one time, the most influential text in the Bible was: “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” Now-a-days, people pass over this text, in silence if possible; if not, with an apology. And so, even when we have a sacred book, we still choose as truth whatever suits our own prejudices. No Catholic, for instance, takes seriously the text which says that a bishop should be the husband of one wife.

People’s beliefs have various causes. One is that there is some evidence for the belief in question. We apply this to matters of fact, such as “what is so-and-so’s telephone number?” or “who won the World Series?” But as soon as it comes to anything more debatable, the causes of belief become less defensible. We believe, first and foremost, what makes us feel that we are fine fellows. Mr. Homo, if he has a good digestion and a sound income, thinks to himself how much more sensible he is than his neighbor so-and-so, who married a flighty wife and is always losing money. He thinks how superior his city is to the one 50 miles away: it has a bigger Chamber of Commerce and a more enterprising Rotary Club, and its mayor has never been in prison. He thinks how immeasurably his country surpasses all others. If he is an Englishman, he thinks of Shakespeare and Milton, or of Newton and Darwin, or of Nelson and Wellington, according to his temperament. If he is a Frenchman, he congratulates himself on the fact that for centuries France has led the world in culture, fashions, and cookery. If he is a Russian, he eflects that he belongs to the only nation which is truly international. If he is a Yugoslav, he boasts of his nation’s pigs; if a native of the Principality of Monaco, he boasts of leading the world in the matter of gambling.

But these are not the only matters on which he has to congratulate himself. For is he not an individual of the species homo sapiens? Alone among animals he has an immortal soul, and is rational; he knows the difference between good and evil, and has learnt the multiplication table. Did not God make him in His own image? And was not everything created for man’s convenience? The sun was made to light the day, and the moon to light the night—though the moon, by some oversight, only shines during half the nocturnal hours. The raw fruits of the earth were made for human sustenance. Even the white tails of rabbits, according to some theologians, have a purpose, namely to make it easier for sportsmen to shoot them. There are, it is true, some inconveniences: lions and tigers are too fierce, the summer is too hot, and the winter too cold. But these things only began after Adam ate the apple; before that, all animals were vegetarians, and the season was always spring. If only Adam had been content with peaches and nectarines, grapes and pears and pineapples, these blessings would still be ours.

Self-importance, individual or generic, is the source of most of our religious beliefs. Even sin is a conception derived from self-importance. Borrow relates how he met a Welsh preacher who was always melancholy. By sympathetic questioning he was brought to confess the source of his sorrow: that at the age of seven he had committed the sin against the Holy Ghost. “My dear fellow,” said Borrow, “don’t let that trouble you; I know dozens of people in like case. Do not imagine yourself cut off from the rest of mankind by this occurrence; if you inquire, you will find multitudes who suffer from the same misfortune.” From that moment, the man was cured. He had enjoyed feeling singular, but there was no pleasure in being one of a herd of sinners. Most sinners are rather less egotistical; but theologians undoubtedly enjoy the feeling that Man is the special object of God’s wrath, as well as of His love. After the Fall—so Milton assures us— The SunHad first his precept so to move, so shine,As might affect the Earth with cold and heatScarce tolerable, and from the North to callDecrepit Winter, from the South to bringSolstitial summer’s heat.

However disagreeable the results may have been, Adam could hardly help feeling flattered that such vast astronomical phenomena should be brought about to teach him a lesson. The whole of theology, in regard to hell no less than to heaven, takes it for granted that Man is what is of most importance in the Universe of created beings. Since all theologians are men, this postulate has met with little opposition.

Since evolution became fashionable, the glorification of Man has taken a new form. We are told that evolution has been guided by one great Purpose: through the millions of years when there were only slime, or trilobites, throughout the ages of dinosaurs and giant ferns, of bees and wild flowers, God was preparing the Great Climax. At last, in the fullness of time, He produced Man, including such specimens as Nero and Caligula, Hitler and Mussolini, whose transcendent glory justified the long painful process. For my part, I find even eternal damnation less incredible, and certainly less ridiculous, than this lame and impotent conclusion which we are asked to admire as the supreme effort of Omnipotence. And if God is indeed omnipotent, why could He not have produced the glorious result without such a long and tedious prologue?

Apart from the question whether Man is really so glorious as the theologians of evolution say he is, there is the further difficulty that life on this planet is almost certainly temporary. The earth will grow cold, or the atmosphere will gradually fly off, or there will be an insufficiency of water, or, as Sir James Jeans genially prophesies, the sun will burst and all the planets will be turned into gas. Which of those will happen first, no one knows; but in any case the human race will ultimately die out. Of course, such an event is of little importance from the point of view of orthodox theology, since men are immortal, and will continue to exist in heaven and hell when none are left on earth. But in that case why bother about terrestrial developments? Those who lay stress on the gradual progress from the primitive slime to Man attach an importance to this mundane sphere which should make them shrink from the conclusion that all life on earth is only a brief interlude between the nebula and the eternal frost, or perhaps between one nebula and another. The importance of Man, which is the one indispensable dogma of the theologians, receives no support from a scientific view of the future of the solar system.

There are many other sources of false belief besides self-importance. One of these is love of the marvelous. I knew at one time a scientifically minded conjuror, who used to perform his tricks before a small audience, and then get them, each separately, to write down what they had seen happen. Almost always they wrote down something much more astonishing than the reality, and usually something which no conjuror could have achieved; yet they all thought they were reporting truly what they had seen with their own eyes. This sort of falsification is still more true of rumors. A tells B that last night he saw Mr.—, the eminent prohibitionist, slightly the worse for liquor; B tells C that A saw the good man reeling drunk, C tells D that he was picked up unconscious in the ditch, D tells E that he is well known to pass out every evening. Here, it is true, another motive comes in, namely malice. We like to think ill of our neighbors, and are prepared to believe the worst on very little evidence. But even where there is no such motive, what is marvelous is readily believed unless it goes against some strong prejudice. All history until the eighteenth century is full of prodigies and wonders which modern historians ignore, not because they are less well attested than facts which the historians accept, but because modern taste among the learned prefers what science regards as probable. Shakespeare relates how on the night before Caesar was killed, A common slave—you know him well by sight—Held up his left hand, which did flame and burnLike twenty torches join’d; and yet his hand,Not sensible of fire, remain’d unscorch’d.Besides—I have not since put up my sword—Against the Capitol I met a lion,Who glar’d upon me, and went surly by,Without annoying me; and there were drawnUpon a heap a hundred ghastly women,Transformed with their fear, who swore they sawMen all in fire walk up and down the streets.

Shakespeare did not invent these marvels; he found them in reputable historians, who are among those upon whom we depend for our knowledge concerning Julius Caesar. This sort of thing always used to happen at the death of a great man or the beginning of an important war. Even so recently as 1914 the “angels of Mons” encouraged the British troops. The evidence for such events is very seldom first-hand, and modern historians refuse to accept it—except, of course, where the event is one that has religious importance.

Every powerful emotion has its own myth-making tendency. When the emotion is peculiar to an individual, he is considered more or less mad if he gives credence to such myths as he has invented. But when an emotion is collective, as in war, there is no one to correct the myths that naturally arise. Consequently in all times of great collective excitement unfounded rumors obtain wide credence. In September, 1914, almost everybody in England believed that Russian troops had passed through England on the way to the Western Front. Everybody knew someone who had seen them, though no one had seen them himself.

This myth-making faculty is often allied with cruelty. Ever since the middle ages, the Jews have been accused of practicing ritual murder. There is not an iota of evidence for this accusation, and no sane person who has examined it believes it. Nevertheless it persists. I have met white Russians who were convinced of its truth, and among many Nazis it is accepted without question. Such myths give an excuse for the infliction of torture, and the unfounded belief in them is evidence of the unconscious desire to find some victim to persecute.

There was, until the end of the eighteenth century, a theory that insanity is due to possession by devils. It was inferred that any pain suffered by the patient is also suffered by the devils, so that the best cure is to make the patient suffer so much that the devils will decide to abandon him. The insane, in accordance with this theory, were savagely beaten. This treatment was tried on King George III when he was mad, but without success. It is a curious and painful fact that almost all the completely futile treatments that have been believed in during the long history of medical folly have been such as caused acute suffering to the patient. When anaesthetics were discovered, pious people considered them an attempt to evade the will of God. It was pointed out, however, that when God extracted Adam’s rib He put him into a deep sleep. This proved that anaesthetics are all right for men; women, however, ought to suffer, because of the curse of Eve. In the West votes for women proved this doctrine mistaken, but in Japan, to this day, women in childbirth are not allowed any alleviation through anaesthetics. As the Japanese do not believe in Genesis, this piece of sadism must have some other justification.

The fallacies about “race” and “blood,” which have always been popular, and which the Nazis have embodied in their official creed, have no objective justification; they are believed solely because they minister to self-esteem and to the impulse toward cruelty. In one form or another, these beliefs are as old as civilization; their forms change, but their essence remains. Herodotus tells how Cyrus was brought up by peasants, in complete ignorance of his royal blood; at the age of twelve his kingly bearing toward other peasant boys revealed the truth. This is a variant of an old story which is found in all Indo-European countries. Even quite modern people say that “blood will tell.” It is no use for scientific physiologists to assure the world that there is no difference between the blood of a Negro and the blood of a white man. The American Red Cross, in obedience to popular prejudice, at first, when America became involved in the present war, decreed that no Negro blood should be used for blood transfusion. As a result of an agitation, it was conceded that Negro blood might be used, but only for Negro patients. Similarly, in Germany, the Aryan soldier who needs blood transfusion is carefully protected from the contamination of Jewish blood.

In the matter of race, there are different beliefs in different societies. Where monarchy is firmly established, kings are of a higher race than their subjects. Until very recently, it was universally believed that men are congenitally more intelligent than women; even so enlightened a man as Spinoza decides against votes for women on this ground. Among white men, it is held that white men are by nature superior to men of other colors, and especially to black men; in Japan, on the contrary, it is thought that yellow is the best color. In Haiti, when they make statues of Christ and Satan, they make Christ black and Satan white. Aristotle and Plato considered Greeks so innately superior to barbarians that slavery is justified so long as the master is Greek and the slave barbarian. The Nazis and the American legislators who made the immigration laws consider the Nordics superior to Slavs or Latins or any other white men. But the Nazis, under the stress of war, have been led to the conclusion that there are hardly any true Nordics outside Germany; the Norwegians, except Quisling and his few followers, have been corrupted by intermixture with Finns and Laps and such. Thus politics are a clue to descent. The biologically pure Nordic loves Hitler, and if you do not love Hitler, that is proof of tainted blood.

All this is, of course, pure nonsense, known to be such by everyone who has studied the subject. In schools in America, children of the most diverse origins are subjected to the same educational system, and those whose business it is to measure intelligence quotients and otherwise estimate the native ability of students are unable to make any such racial distinctions as are postulated by the theorists of race. In every national or racial group there are clever children and stupid children. It is not likely that, in the United States, colored children will develop as successfully as white children, because of the stigma of social inferiority; but in so far as congenital ability can be detached from environmental influence, there is no clear distinction among different groups. The whole conception of superior races is merely a myth generated by the overweening self-esteem of the holders of power. It may be that, some day, better evidence will be forthcoming; perhaps, in time, educators will be able to prove (say) that Jews are on the average more intelligent than gentiles. But as yet no such evidence exists, and all talk of superior races must be dismissed as nonsense.

There is a special absurdity in applying racial theories to the various populations of Europe. There is not in Europe any such thing as a pure race. Russians have an admixture of Tartar blood, Germans are largely Slavonic, France is a mixture of Celts, Germans, and people of Mediterranean race, Italy the same with the addition of the descendants of slaves imported by the Romans. The English are perhaps the most mixed of all. There is no evidence that there is any advantage in belonging to a pure race. The purest races now in existence are the Pygmies, the Hottentots, and the Australian aborigines; the Tasmanians, who were probably even purer, are extinct. They were not the bearers of a brilliant culture. The ancient Greeks, on the other hand, emerged from an amalgamation of northern barbarians and an indigenous population; the Athenians and Ionians, who were the most civilized, were also the most mixed. The supposed merits of racial purity are, it would seem, wholly imaginary.

Superstitions about blood have many forms that have nothing to do with race. The objection to homicide seems to have been, originally, based on the ritual pollution caused by the blood of the victim. God said to Cain: “The voice of thy brother’s blood crieth nto me from the ground.” According to some anthropologists, the mark of Cain was a disguise to prevent Abel’s blood from finding him; this appears also to be the original reason for wearing mourning. In many ancient communities no difference was made between murder and accidental homicide; in either case equally ritual ablution was necessary. The feeling that blood defiles still lingers, for example in the Churching of Women and in taboos connected with menstruation. The idea that a child is of his father’s “blood” has the same superstitious origin. So far as actual blood is concerned, the mother’s enters into the child, but not the father’s. If blood were as important as is supposed, matriarchy would be the only proper way of tracing descent.

In Russia, where, under the influence of Karl Marx, people since the revolution have been classified by their economic origin, difficulties have arisen not unlike those of German race theorists over the Scandinavian Nordics. There were two theories that had to be reconciled: on the one hand, proletarians were good and other people were bad; on the other hand, communists were good and other people were bad. The only way of effecting a reconciliation was to alter the meaning of words. A “proletarian” came to mean a supporter of the government; Lenin, though born a Prince, was reckoned a member of the proletariat. On the other hand, the word “kulak,” which was supposed to mean a rich peasant, came to mean any peasant who opposed collectivization. This sort of absurdity always arises when one group of human beings is supposed to be inherently better than another. In America, the highest praise that can be bestowed on an eminent colored man after he is safely dead is to say, “he was a white man.” A courageous woman is called “masculine”: Macbeth, praising his wife’s courage, says: Bring forth men children only,For thy undaunted mettle should composeNothing but males.

All these ways of speaking come of unwillingness to abandon foolish generalizations.

In the economic sphere there are many widespread superstitions. Why do people value gold and precious stones? Not simply because of their rarity: there are a number of elements called “rare earths” which are much rarer than gold, but no one will give a penny for them except a few men of science. There is a theory, for which there is much to be said, that gold and gems were valued originally on account of their supposed magical properties. The mistakes of governments in modern times seem to show that this belief still exists among the sort of men who are called “practical.” At the end of the last war, it was agreed that Germany should pay vast sums to England and France, and they in turn should pay vast sums to the United States. Every one wanted to be paid in money rather than goods; the “practical” men failed to notice that there is not that amount of money in the world. They also failed to notice that money is no use unless it is used to buy goods. As they would not use it in this way, it did no good to anyone. There was supposed to be some mystic virtue about gold that made it worth while to dig it up in the Transvaal and put it underground again in bank vaults in America. In the end, of course, the debtor countries had no more money, and, since they were not allowed to pay in goods, they went bankrupt. The Great Depression was the direct result of the surviving belief in the magical properties of gold. It is to be feared that some similar superstition will cause equally bad results after the end of the present war.

Politics is largely governed by sententious platitudes which are devoid of truth.

One of the most widespread popular maxims is, “human nature cannot be changed.” No one can say whether this is true or not without first defining “human nature.” But as used it is certainly false. When Mr. A utters the maxim, with an air of portentous and conclusive wisdom, what he means is that all men everywhere will always continue to behave as they do in his own home town. A little anthropology will dispel this belief. Among the Tibetans, one wife has many husbands, because men are too poor to support a whole wife; yet family life, according to travellers, is no more unhappy than elsewhere. The practice of lending one’s wife to a guest is very common among uncivilized tribes. The Australian aborigines, at puberty, undergo a very painful operation which, throughout the rest of their lives, greatly diminishes sexual potency. Infanticide, which might seem contrary to human nature, was almost universal before the rise of Christianity, and is recommended by Plato to prevent over-population. Private property is not recognized among some savage tribes. Even among highly civilized people, economic considerations will override what is called “human nature.” In Moscow, where there is an acute housing shortage, when an unmarried woman is pregnant, it often happens that a number of men contend for the legal right to be considered the father of the prospective child, because whoever is judged to be the father acquires the right to share the woman’s room, and half a room is better than no room.

In fact, adult “human nature” is extremely variable, according to the circumstances of education. Food and sex are very general requirements, but the hermits of the Thebaid eschewed sex altogether and reduced food to the lowest point compatible with survival. By diet and training, people can be made ferocious or meek, masterful or slavish, as may suit the educator. There is no nonsense so arrant that it cannot be made the creed of the vast majority by adequate governmental action. Plato intended his Republic to be founded on a myth which he admitted to be absurd, but he was rightly confident that the populace could be induced to believe it. Hobbes, who thought it important that people should reverence the government however unworthy it might be, meets the argument that it might be difficult to obtain general assent to anything so irrational by pointing out that people have been brought to believe in the Christian religion, and, in particular, in the dogma of transubstantiation. If he had been alive now, he would have found ample confirmation in the devotion of German youth to the Nazis.

The power of governments over men’s beliefs has been very great ever since the rise of large States. The great majority of Romans became Christian after the Roman emperors had been converted. In the parts of the Roman Empire that were conquered by the Arabs, most people abandoned Christianity for Islam. The division of Western Europe into Protestant and Catholic regions was determined by the attitude of governments in the sixteenth century. But the power of governments over belief in the present day is vastly greater than at any earlier time. A belief, however untrue, is important when it dominates the actions of large masses of men. In this sense, the beliefs inculcated by the Japanese, Russian, and German governments are important. Since they are completely divergent, they cannot all be true, though they may well all be false. Unfortunately they are such as to inspire men with an ardent desire to kill one another, even to the point of almost completely inhibiting the impulse of self-preservation. No one can deny, in face of the evidence, that it is easy, given military power, to produce a population of fanatical lunatics. It would be equally easy to produce a population of sane and reasonable people, but many governments do not wish to do so, since such people would fail to admire the politicians who are at the head of these governments.

There is one peculiarly pernicious application of the doctrine that human nature cannot be changed. This is the dogmatic assertion that there will always be wars, because we are so constituted that we feel a need of them. What is true is that a man who has had the kind of diet and education that most men have will wish to fight when provoked. But he will not actually fight unless he has a chance of victory. It is very annoying to be stopped by a speed cop, but we do not fight him because we know that he has the overwhelming forces of the State at his back. People who have no occasion for war do not make any impression of being psychologically thwarted. Sweden has had no war since 1814, but the Swedes were, a few years ago, one of the happiest and most contented nations in the world. I doubt whether they are so still, but that is because, though neutral, they are unable to escape many of the evils of war. If political organization were such as to make war obviously unprofitable, there is nothing in human nature that would compel its occurrence, or make average people unhappy because of its not occurring. Exactly the same arguments that are now used about the impossibility of preventing war were formerly used in defense of dueling, yet few of us feel thwarted because we are not allowed to fight duels.

I am persuaded that there is absolutely no limit to the absurdities that can, by government action, come to be generally believed. Give me an adequate army, with power to provide it with more pay and better food than falls to the lot of the average man, and I will undertake, within thirty years, to make the majority of the population believe that two and two are three, that water freezes when it gets hot and boils when it gets cold, or any other nonsense that might seem to serve the interest of the State. Of course, even when these beliefs had been generated, people would not put the kettle in the ice-box when they wanted it to boil. That cold makes water boil would be a Sunday truth, sacred and mystical, to be professed in awed tones, but not to be acted on in daily life. What would happen would be that any verbal denial of the mystic doctrine would be made illegal, and obstinate heretics would be “frozen” at the stake. No person who did not enthusiastically accept the official doctrine would be allowed to teach or to have any position of power. Only the very highest officials, in their cups, would whisper to each other what rubbish it all is; then they would laugh and drink again. This is hardly a caricature of what happens under some modern governments.

The discovery that man can be scientifically manipulated, and that governments can turn large masses this way or that as they choose, is one of the causes of our misfortunes. There is as much difference between a collection of mentally free citizens and a community molded by modern methods of propaganda as there is between a heap of raw materials and a battleship. Education, which was at first made universal in order that all might be able to read and write, has been found capable of serving quite other purposes. By instilling nonsense it unifies populations and generates collective enthusiasm. If all governments taught the same nonsense, the harm would not be so great. Unfortunately each has its own brand, and the diversity serves to produce hostility between the devotees of different creeds. If there is ever to be peace in the world, governments will have to agree either to inculcate no dogmas, or all to inculcate the same. The former, I fear, is a Utopian ideal, but perhaps they could agree to teach collectively that all public men, everywhere, are completely virtuous and perfectly wise. Perhaps, when the war is over, the surviving politicians may find it prudent to combine on some such programme.

But if conformity has its dangers, so has nonconformity.

Some “advanced thinkers” are of the opinion that any one who differs from the conv ntional opinion must be in the right. This is a delusion; if it were not, truth would be easier to come by than it is. There are infinite possibilities of error, and more cranks take up unfashionable errors than unfashionable truths. I met once an electrical engineer whose first words to me were: “How do you do? There are two methods of faith-healing, the one practised by Christ and the one practised by most Christian Scientists. I practice the method practiced by Christ.” Shortly afterwards, he was sent to prison for making out fraudulent balance-sheets. The law does not look kindly on the intrusion of faith into this region. I knew also an eminent lunacy doctor who took to philosophy, and taught a new logic which, as he frankly confessed, he had learnt from his lunatics. When he died he left a will founding a professorship for the teaching of his new scientific methods, but unfortunately he left no assets. Arithmetic proved recalcitrant to lunatic logic. On one occasion a man came to ask me to recommend some of my books, as he was interested in philosophy. I did so, but he returned next day saying that he had been reading one of them, and had found only one statement he could understand, and that one seemed to him false. I asked him what it was, and he said it was the statement that Julius Caesar is dead. When I asked him why he did not agree, he drew himself up and said: “Because I am Julius Caesar.” These examples may suffice to show that you cannot make sure of being right by being eccentric.

Science, which has always had to fight its way against popular beliefs, now has one of its most difficult battles in the sphere of psychology.

People who think they know all about human nature are always hopelessly at sea when they have to do with any abnormality. Some boys never learn to be what, in animals, is called “house trained.” The sort of person who won’t stand any nonsense deals with such cases by punishment; the boy is beaten, and when he repeats the offense he is beaten worse. All medical men who have studied the matter know that punishment only aggravates the trouble. Sometimes the cause is physical, but usually it is psychological, and only curable by removing some deep-seated and probably unconscious grievance. But most people enjoy punishing anyone who irritates them, and so the medical view is rejected as fancy nonsense. The same sort of thing applies to men who are exhibitionists; they are sent to prison over and over again, but as soon as they come out they repeat the offense. A medical man who specialized in such ailments assured me that the exhibitionist can be cured by the simple device of having trousers that button up the back instead of the front. But this method is not tried because it does not satisfy people’s vindictive impulses.

Broadly speaking, punishment is likely to prevent crimes that are sane in origin, but not those that spring from some psychological abnormality. This is now partially recognized; we distinguish between plain theft, which springs from what may be called rational self-interest, and kleptomania, which is a mark of something queer. And homicidal maniacs are not treated like ordinary murderers. But sexual aberrations rouse so much disgust that it is still impossible to have them treated medically rather than punitively. Indignation, though on the whole a useful social force, becomes harmful when it is directed against the victims of maladies that only medical skill can cure.

The same sort of thing happens as regards whole nations. During the last war, very naturally, people’s vindictive feelings were aroused against the Germans, who were severely punished after their defeat. Now many people are arguing that the Versailles Treaty was ridiculously mild, since it failed to teach a lesson; this time, we are told, there must be real severity. To my mind, we shall be more likely to prevent a repetition of German aggression if we regard the rank and file of the Nazis as we regard lunatics than if we think of them as merely and simply criminals. Lunatics, of course, have to be restrained; we do not allow them to carry firearms. Similarly the German nation will have to be disarmed. But lunatics are restrained from prudence, not as a punishment, and so far as prudence permits we try to make them happy. Everybody recognizes that a homicidal maniac will only become more homicidal if he is made miserable. In Germany at the present day, there are, of course, many men among the Nazis who are plain criminals, but there must also be many who are more or less mad. Leaving the leaders out of account (I do not urge leniency toward them), the bulk of the German nation is much more likely to learn cooperation with the rest of the world if it is subjected to a kind but firm curative treatment than if it is regarded as an outcast among the nations. Those who are being punished seldom learn to feel kindly toward the men who punish them. And so long as the Germans hate the rest of mankind peace will be precarious.

When one reads of the beliefs of savages, or of the ancient Babylonians and Egyptians, they seem surprising by their capricious absurdity. But beliefs that are just as absurd are still entertained by the uneducated even in the most modern and civilized societies. I have been gravely assured, in America, that people born in March are unlucky and people born in May are peculiarly liable to corns. I do not know the history of these superstitions, but probably they are derived from Babylonian or Egyptian priestly love. Beliefs begin in the higher social strata, and then, like mud in a river, sink gradually downward in the educational scale; they may take 3,000 or 4,000 years to sink all the way. You may find your colored help making some remark that comes straight out of Plato—not the parts of Plato that scholars quote, but the parts where he utters obvious nonsense, such as that men who do not pursue wisdom in this life will be born again as women. Commentators on great philosophers always politely ignore their silly remarks.

Aristotle, in spite of his reputation, is full of absurdities. He says that children should be conceived in the Winter, when the wind is in the North, and that if people marry too young the children will be female. He tells us that the blood of females is blacker then that of males; that the pig is the only animal liable to measles; that an elephant suffering from insomnia should have its shoulders rubbed with salt, olive oil, and warm water; that women have fewer teeth than men, and so on. Nevertheless, he is considered by the great majority of philosophers a paragon of wisdom.

Superstitions about lucky and unlucky days are almost universal. In ancient times they governed the actions of generals. Among ourselves the prejudice against Friday and the number thirteen is very active; sailors do not like to sail on Friday, and many hotels have no thirteenth floor. The superstitions about Friday and thirteen were once believed by those reputed wise; now such men regard them as harmless follies. But probably 2,000 years hence many beliefs of the wise of our day will have come to seem equally foolish. Man is a credulous animal, and must believe something; in the absence of good grounds for belief, he will be satisfied with bad ones.

Belief in “nature” and what is “natural” is a source of many errors. It used to be, and to some extent still is, powerfully operative in medicine. The human body, left to itself, has a certain power of curing itself; small cuts usually heal, colds pass off, and even serious diseases sometimes disappear without medical treatment. But aids to nature are very desirable, even in these cases. Cuts may turn septic if not disinfected, colds may turn to pneumonia, and serious diseases are only left without treatment by explorers and travellers in remote regions, who have no option. Many practices which have come to seem “natural” were originally “unnatural,” for instance clothing and washing. Before men adopted clothing they must have found it impossible to live in cold climates. Where there is not a modicum of cleanliness, populations suffer from various diseases, such as typhus, from which Western nations have become exempt. Vaccination was (and by some still is) objected to as “unnatural.” But there is no consistency in such objections, for no one supposes that a broken bone can be mended by “natural” behavior. Eating cooked food is “unnatural”; so is heating our houses. The Chinese philosopher Lao-tse, whose traditional date is about 600 B.C., objected to roads and bridges and boats as “unnatural,” and in his disgust at such mechanistic devices left China and went to live among the Western barbarians. Every advance in civilization has been denounced as unnatural while it was recent.

The commonest objection to birth control is that it is against “nature.” (For some reason we are not allowed to say that celibacy is against nature; the only reason I can think of is that it is not new.) Malthus saw only three ways of keeping down the population; moral restraint, vice, and misery. Moral restraint, he admitted, was not likely to be practised on a large scale. “Vice,” i.e., birth control, he, as a clergyman, viewed with abhorrence. There remained misery. In his comfortable parsonage, he contemplated the misery of the great majority of mankind with equanimity, and pointed out the fallacies of reformers who hoped to alleviate it. Modern theological opponents of birth control are less honest. They pretend to think that God will provide, however many mouths there may be to feed. They ignore the fact that He has never done so hitherto, but has left mankind exposed to periodical famines in which millions died of hunger. They must be deemed to hold—if they are saying what they believe—that from this moment onward God will work a continual miracle of loaves and fishes which He has hitherto thought unnecessary. Or perhaps they will say that suffering here below is of no importance; what matters is the hereafter. By their own theology, most of the children whom their opposition to birth control will cause to exist will go to hell. We must suppose, therefore, that they oppose the amelioration of life on earth because they think it a good thing that many millions should suffer eternal torment. By comparison with them, Malthus appears merciful.

Women, as the object of our strongest love and aversion, rouse complex emotions which are embodied in proverbial “wisdom.”

Almost everybody allows himself or herself some entirely unjustifiable generalization on the subject of woman. Married men, when they generalize on that subject, judge by their wives; women judge by themselves. It would be amusing to write a history of men’s views on women. In antiquity, when male supremacy was unquestioned and Christian ethics were still unknown, women were harmless but rather silly, and a man who took them seriously was somewhat despised. Plato thinks it a grave objection to the drama that the playwright has to imitate women in creating his female roles. With the coming of Christianity woman took on a new part, that of the temptress; but at the same time she was also found capable of being a saint. In Victorian days the saint was much more emphasized than the temptress; Victorian men could not admit themselves susceptible to temptation. The superior virtue of women was made a reason for keeping them out of politics, where, it was held, a lofty virtue is impossible. But the early feminists turned the argument round, and contended that the participation of women would ennoble politics. Since this has turned out to be an illusion, there has been less talk of women’s superior virtue, but there are still a number of men who adhere to the monkish view of woman as the temptress. Women themselves, for the most part, think of themselves as the sensible sex, whose business it is to undo the harm that comes of men’s impetuous follies. For my part I distrust all generalizations about women, favorable and unfavorable, masculine and feminine, ancient and modern; all alike, I should say, result from paucity of experience.

The deeply irrational attitude of each sex toward women may be seen in novels, particularly in bad novels. In bad novels by men, there is the woman with whom the author is in love, who usually possesses every charm, but is somewhat helpless, and requires male protection; sometimes, however, like Shakespeare’s Cleopatra, she is an object of exasperated hatred, and is thought to be deeply and desperately wicked. In portraying the heroine, the male author does not write from observation, but merely objectifies his own emotions. In regard to his other female characters, he is more objective, and may even depend upon his notebook; but when he is in love, his passion makes a mist between him and the object of his devotion. Women novelists, also, have two kinds of women in their books. One is themselves, glamorous and kind, and object of lust to the wicked and of love to the good, sensitive, high-souled, and constantly misjudged. The other kind is represented by all other women, and is usually portrayed as petty, spiteful, cruel, and deceitful. It would seem that to judge women without bias is not easy either for men or for women.

Generalizations about national characteristics are just as common and just as unwarranted as generalizations about women. Until 1870, the Germans were thought of as a nation of spectacled professors, evolving everything out of their inner consciousness, and scarcely aware of the outer world, but since 1870 this conception has had to be very sharply revised. Frenchmen seem to be thought of by most Americans as perpetually engaged in amorous intrigue; Walt Whitman, in one of his catalogues, speaks of “the adulterous French couple on the sly settee.” Americans who go to live in France are astonished, and perhaps disappointed, by the intensity of family life. Before the Russian Revolution, the Russians were credited with a mystical Slav soul, which, while it incapacitated them for ordinary sensible behavior, gave them a kind of deep wisdom to which more practical nations could not hope to attain. Suddenly everything was changed: mysticism was taboo, and only the most earthly ideals were tolerated. The truth is that what appears to one nation as the national character of another depends upon a few prominent individuals, or upon the class that happens to have power. For this reason, all generalizations on this subject are liable to be completely upset by any important political change.

To avoid the various foolish opinions to which mankind are prone, no superhuman genius is required. A few simple rules will keep you, not from all error, but from silly error.

If the matter is one that can be settled by observation, make the observation yourself. Aristotle could have avoided the mistake of thinking that women have fewer teeth than men, by the simple device of asking Mrs. Aristotle to keep her mouth open while he counted. He did not do so because he thought he knew. Thinking that you know when in fact you don’t is a fatal mistake, to which we are all prone. I believe myself that hedgehogs eat black beetles, because I have been told that they do; but if I were writing a book on the habits of hedgehogs, I should not commit myself until I had seen one enjoying this unappetizing diet. Aristotle, however, was less cautious. Ancient and medieval authors knew all about unicorns and salamanders; not one of them thought it necessary to avoid dogmatic statements about them because he had never seen one of them.

Many matters, however, are less easily brought to the test of experience. If, like most of mankind, you have passionate convictions on many such matters, there are ways in which you can make yourself aware of your own bias. If an opinion contrary to your own makes you angry, that is a sign that you are subconsciously aware of having no good reason for thinking as you do. If some one maintains that two and two are five, or that Iceland is on the equator, you feel pity rather than anger, unless you know so little of arithmetic or geography that his opinion shakes your own contrary conviction. The most savage controversies are those about matters as to which there is no good evidence either way. Persecution is used in theology, not in arithmetic, because in arithmetic there is knowledge, but in theology there is only opinion. So whenever you find yourself getting angry about a difference of opinion, be on your guard; you will probably find, on examination, that your belief is going beyond what the evidence warrants.

A good way of ridding yourself of certain kinds of dogmatism is to become aware of opinions held in social circles different from your own. When I was young, I lived much outside my own country in France, Germany, Italy, and the United States. I found this very profitable in diminishing the intensity of insular prejudice. If you cannot travel, seek out people with whom you disagree, and read a newspaper belonging to a party that is not yours. If the people and the newspaper seem mad, perverse, and wicked, remind yourself that you seem so to them. In this opinion both parties may be right, but they cannot both be wrong. This reflection should generate a certain caution.

Becoming aware of foreign customs, however, does not always have a beneficial effect. In the seventeenth century, when the Manchus conquered China, it was the custom among the Chinese for the women to have small feet, and among the Manchus for the men to wear pigtails. Instead of each dropping their own foolish custom, they each adopted the foolish custom of the other, and the Chinese continued to wear pigtails until they shook off the dominion of the Manchus in the revolution of 1911.

For those who have enough psychological imagination, it is a good plan to imagine an argument with a person having a different bias. This has one advantage, and only one, as compared with actual conversation with opponents; this one advantage is that the method is not subject to the same limitations of time or space. Mahatma Gandhi deplores railways and steamboats and machinery; he would like to undo the whole of the industrial revolution. You may never have an opportunity of actually meeting any one who holds this opinion, because in Western countries most people take the advantage of modern technique for granted. But if you want to make sure that you are right in agreeing with the prevailing opinion, you will find it a good plan to test the arguments that occur to you by considering what Gandhi might say in refutation of them. I have sometimes been led actually to change my mind as a result of this kind of imaginary dialogue, and, short of this, I have frequently found myself growing less dogmatic and cocksure through realizing the possible reasonableness of a hypothetical opponent.

Be very wary of opinions that flatter your self-esteem. Both men and women, nine times out of ten, are firmly convinced of the superior excellence of their own sex. There is abundant evidence on both sides. If you are a man, you can point out that most poets and men of science are male; if you are a woman, you can retort that so are most criminals. The question is inherently insoluble, but self-esteem conceals this from most people. We are all, whatever part of the world we come from, persuaded that our own nation is superior to all others. Seeing that each nation has its characteristic merits and demerits, we adjust our standard of values so as to make out that the merits possessed by our nation are the really imp rtant ones, while its demerits are comparatively trivial. Here, again, the rational man will admit that the question is one to which there is no demonstrably right answer. It is more difficult to deal with the self-esteem of man as man, because we cannot argue out the matter with some nonhuman mind. The only way I know of dealing with this general human conceit is to remind ourselves that man is a brief episode in the life of a small planet in a little corner of the universe, and that, for aught we know, other parts of the cosmos may contain beings as superior to ourselves as we are to jellyfish.

Other passions besides self-esteem are common sources of error; of these perhaps the most important is fear. Fear sometimes operates directly, by inventing rumors of disaster in war-time, or by imagining objects of terror, such as ghosts; sometimes it operates indirectly, by creating belief in something comforting, such as the elixir of life, or heaven for ourselves and hell for our enemies. Fear has many forms—fear of death, fear of the dark, fear of the unknown, fear of the herd, and that vague generalized fear that comes to those who conceal from themselves their more specific terrors. Until you have admitted your own fears to yourself, and have guarded yourself by a difficult effort of will against their mythmaking power, you cannot hope to think truly about many matters of great importance, especially those with which religious beliefs are concerned. Fear is the main source of superstition and one of the main sources of cruelty. To conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom, in the pursuit of truth as in the endeavor after a worthy manner of life.

There are two ways of avoiding fear: one is by persuading ourselves that we are immune from disaster, and the other is by the practice of sheer courage. The latter is difficult, and to everybody becomes impossible at a certain point. The former has therefore always been more popular. Primitive magic has the purpose of securing safety, either by injuring enemies, or by protecting oneself by talismans, spells, or incantations. Without any essential change, belief in such ways of avoiding danger survived throughout the many centuries of Babylonian civilization, spread from Babylon throughout the empire of Alexander, and was acquired by the Romans in the course of their absorption of Hellenistic culture. From the Romans it descended to medieval Christendom and Islam. Science has now lessened the belief in magic, but many people place more faith in mascots than they are willing to avow, and sorcery, while condemned by the Church, is still officially a possible sin.

Magic, however, was a crude way of avoiding terrors, and, moreover, not a very effective way, for wicked magicians might always prove stronger than good ones. In the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries, dread of witches and sorcerers led to the burning of hundreds of thousands convicted of these crimes. But newer beliefs, particularly as to the future life, sought more effective ways of combating fear. Socrates on the day of his death (if Plato is to be believed) expressed the conviction that in the next world he would live in the company of the gods and heroes, and surrounded by just spirits who would never object to his endless argumentation. Plato, in his “Republic,” laid it down that cheerful views of the next world must be enforced by the State, not because they were true, but to make soldiers more willing to die in battle. He would have none of the traditional myths about Hades, because they represented the spirits of the dead as unhappy.

Orthodox Christianity, in the Ages of Faith, laid down very definite rules for salvation. First, you must be baptized; then, you must avoid all theological error; last, you must, before dying, repent of your sins and receive absolution. All this would not save you from purgatory, but it would insure your ultimate arrival in heaven. It was not necessary to know theology. An eminent cardinal stated authoritatively that the requirements of orthodoxy would be satisfied if you murmured on your death-bed: “I believe all that the Church believes; the Church believes all that I believe.” These very definite directions ought to have made Catholics sure of finding the way to heaven. Nevertheless, the dread of hell persisted, and has caused, in recent times, a great softening of the dogmas as to who will be damned. The doctrine, professed by many modern Christians, that everybody will go to heaven, ought to do away with the fear of death, but in fact this fear is too instinctive to be easily vanquished. F. W. H. Myers, whom spiritualism had converted to belief in a future life, questioned a woman who had lately lost her daughter as to what she supposed had become of her soul. The mother replied: “Oh, well, I suppose she is enjoying eternal bliss, but I wish you wouldn’t talk about such unpleasant subjects.” In spite of all that theology can do, heaven remains, to most people, an “unpleasant subject.”

The most refined religions, such as those of Marcus Aurelius and Spinoza, are still concerned with the conquest of fear. The Stoic doctrine was simple: it maintained that the only true good is virtue, of which no enemy can deprive me; consequently, there is no need to fear enemies. The difficulty was that no one could really believe virtue to be the only good, not even Marcus Aurelius, who, as emperor, sought not only to make his subjects virtuous, but to protect them against barbarians, pestilences, and famines. Spinoza taught a somewhat similar doctrine. According to him, our true good consists in indifference to our mundane fortunes. Both these men sought to escape from fear by pretending that such things as physical suffering are not really evil. This is a noble way of escaping from fear, but is still based upon false belief. And if genuinely accepted, it would have the bad effect of making men indifferent, not only to their own sufferings, but also to those of others.

Under the influence of great fear, almost everybody becomes superstitious. The sailors who threw Jonah overboard imagined his presence to be the cause of the storm which threatened to wreck their ship. In a similar spirit the Japanese, at the time of the Tokyo earthquake took to massacring Koreans and Liberals. When the Romans won victories in the Punic wars, the Carthaginians became persuaded that their misfortunes were due to a certain laxity which had crept into the worship of Moloch. Moloch liked having children sacrificed to him, and preferred them aristocratic; but the noble families of Carthage had adopted the practice of surreptitiously substituting plebeian children for their own offspring. This, it was thought, had displeased the god, and at the worst moments even the most aristocratic children were duly consumed in the fire. Strange to say, the Romans were victorious in spite of this democratic reform on the part of their enemies.

Collective fear stimulates herd instinct, and tends to produce ferocity toward those who are not regarded as members of the herd. So it was in the French Revolution, when dread of foreign armies produced the reign of terror. And it is to be feared that the Nazis, as defeat draws nearer, will increase the intensity of their campaign for exterminating Jews. Fear generates impulses of cruelty, and therefore promotes such superstitious beliefs as seem to justify cruelty. Neither a man nor a crowd nor a nation can be trusted to act humanely or to think sanely under the influence of a great fear. And for this reason poltroons are more prone to cruelty than brave men, and are also more prone to superstition. When I say this, I am thinking of men who are brave in all respects, not only in facing death. Many a man will have the courage to die gallantly, but will not have the courage to say, or even to think, that the cause for which he s asked to die is an unworthy one. Obloquy is, to most men, more painful than death; that is one reason why, in times of collective excitement, so few men venture to dissent from the prevailing opinion. No Carthaginian denied Moloch, because to do so would have required more courage than was required to face death in battle.

But we have been getting too solemn. Superstitions are not always dark and cruel; often they add to the gaiety of life. I received once a communication from the god Osiris, giving me his telephone number; he lived, at that time, in a suburb of Boston. Although I did not enroll myself among his worshipers, his letter gave me pleasure. I have frequently received letters from men announcing themselves as the Messiah, and urging me not to omit to mention this important fact in my lectures. During prohibition, there was a sect which maintained that the communion service ought to be celebrated in whiskey, not in wine; this tenet gave them a legal right to a supply of hard liquor, and the sect grew rapidly. There is in England a sect which maintains that the English are the lost ten tribes; there is a stricter sect, which maintains that they are only the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh. Whenever I encounter a member of either of these sects, I profess myself an adherent of the other, and much pleasant argumentation results. I like also the men who study the Great Pyramid, with a view to deciphering its mystical lore. Many great books have been written on this subject, some of which have been presented to me by their authors. It is a singular fact that the Great Pyramid always predicts the history of the world accurately up to the date of publication of the book in question, but after that date it becomes less reliable. Generally the author expects, very soon, wars in Egypt, followed by Armageddon and the coming of Antichrist, but by this time so many people have been recognized as Antichrist that the reader is reluctantly driven to skepticism.

I admire especially a certain prophetess who lived beside a lake in Northern New York State about the year 1820. She announced to her numerous followers that she possessed the power of walking on water, and that she proposed to do so at 11 o’clock on a certain morning. At the stated time, the faithful assembled in their thousands beside the lake. She spoke to them, saying: “Are you all entirely persuaded that I can walk on water?” With one voice they replied: “We are.” “In that case,” she announced, “there is not need for me to do so.” And they all went home much edified.

Perhaps the world would lose some of its interest and variety if such beliefs were wholly replaced by cold science. Perhaps we may allow ourselves to be glad of the Abecedarians, who were so-called because, having rejected all profane learning, they thought it wicked to learn the ABC. And we may enjoy the perplexity of the South American Jesuit who wondered how the sloth could have traveled, since the Flood, all the way from Mount Ararat to Peru—a journey which its extreme tardiness of locomotion rendered almost incredible. A wise man will enjoy the goods of which there is a plentiful supply, and of intellectual rubbish he will find an abundant diet, in our own age as in every other.


Aubade PHILIP LARKINCherished and even revered by many people who did and do not share his pessimistic reactionary opinions, Philip Larkin has a fair claim to be the exemplary English poet of the late twentieth century. Wedded as he was to a traditional and even hierarchic view of society, Larkin could not make himself believe in the Anglican orthodoxy that was the moral keystone of that mentality. An aubade is a poem about lovers parting at dawn; in this instance, Larkin’s love is life itself, accompanied by the grim but honest realization that it does not extend beyond the grave and that we delude ourselves by imagining otherwise.Of Church Going I would simply want to say that—not unlike Thomas Hardy’s verses—it combines the maximum of respect with the minimum of credulity.I work all day, and get half drunk at night.Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.In time the curtain edges will grow light.Till then I see what’s really always there:Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,Making all thought impossible but howAnd where and when I shall myself die.Arid interrogation: yet the dreadOf dying, and being dead,Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse—The good not used, the love not given, timeTorn off unused—nor wretchedly becauseAn only life can take so long to climbClear of its wrong beginnings, and may never:But at the total emptiness forever,The sure extinction that we travel toAnd shall be lost in always. Not to be here,Not to be anywhere,And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.This is a special way of being afraidNo trick dispels. Religion used to try,That vast moth-eaten musical brocadeCreated to pretend we never dieAnd specious stuff that says no rational beingCan fear a thing it cannot feel, not seeingthat this is what we fear—no sight, no sound,No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,Nothing to love or link with,The anaesthetic from which none come round.And so it stays just on the edge of vision,A small unfocused blur, a standing chillThat slows each impulse down to indecisionMost things may never happen: this one will,And realisation of it rages outIn furnace fear when we are caught withoutPeople or drink. Courage is no good:It means not scaring others. Being braveLets no-one off the grave.Death is no different whined at than withstood.Slowly light strengthens, and the room takes shape.It stands plain as a wardrobe, what we know,Have always known, know that we can’t escapeYet can’t accept. One side will have to go.Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ringIn locked-up offices, and all the uncaringIntricate rented world begins to rouse.The sky is white as clay, with no sun.Work has to be done.Postmen like doctors go from house to house.

Church Going

PHILIP LARKIN Once I am sure there’s nothing going onI step inside, letting the door thud shut.Another church: matting, seats, and stone,And little books; sprawlings of flowers, cutFor Sunday, brownish now; some brass and stuffUp at the holy end; the small neat organ;And a tense, musty, unignorable silence,Brewed God knows how long. Hatless, I take offMy cycle-clips in awkward reverence,Move forward, run my hand around the font.From where I stand, the roof looks almost new—Cleaned or restored? Someone would know: I don’t.Mounting the lectern, I peruse a fewHectoring large-scale verses, and pronounce“Here endeth” much more loudly than I’d meant.The echoes snigger briefly. Back at the doorI sign the book, donate an Irish sixpence,Reflect the place was not worth stopping for.Yet stop I did: in fact I often do,And always end much at a loss like this,Wondering what to look for; wondering, too,When churches fall completely out of useWhat we shall turn them into, if we shall keepA few cathedrals chronically on show,Their parchment, plate, and pyx in locked cases,And let the rest rent-free to rain and sheep.Shall we avoid them as unlucky places?Or, after dark, will dubious women comeTo make their children touch a particular stone;Pick simples for a cancer; or on someAdvised night see walking a dead one?Power of some sort or other will go onIn games, in riddles, seemingly at random;But superstition, like belief, must die,And what remains when disbelief has gone?Grass, weedy pavement, brambles, buttress, sky,A shape less recognizable each week,A purpose more obscure. I wonder whoWill be the last, the very last, to seekThis place for what it was; one of the crewThat tap and jot and know what rood-lofts were?Some ruin-bibber, randy for antique,Or Christmas-addict, counting on a whiffOf gown-and-bands and organ-pipes and myrrh?Or will he be my representative,Bored, uninformed, knowing the ghostly siltDispersed, yet tending to this cross of groundThrough suburb scrub because it held unspiltSo long and equably what since is foundOnly in separation? marriage, and birth,And death, and thoughts of these? for whom was builtThis special shell? For, though I’ve no ideaWhat this accoutred frowsty barn is worth,It pleases me to stand in silence here;A serious house on serious earth it is,In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,Are recognised, and robed as destinies.And that much never can be obsolete,Since someone will forever be surprisingA hunger in himself to be more serious,And gravitating with t to this ground,Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,If only that so many dead lie round


The Wandering Jew and the Second Coming MARTIN GARDNERAll “scriptural” pseudo-scholarship is a strenuous attempt to make things come out right and to square a circle. Here, a serious mind trains itself on one such attempt, and shows that stupid ideas have stupid consequences—and nasty consequences as well.

The legend of a wandering Jew, unable to die until the Second Coming, is surely the strangest of all myths intended to combat the notion that Jesus was mistaken when he said he would return within the lifetime of someone then living. I have summarized its sad, colorful history in an essay that appeared in Free Inquiry (Summer 1995).

As the year 2000 approaches, it would not surprise me to see a picture of the Wandering Jew on the front page of one of the supermarket tabloids. Some intrepid photographer will spot him trudging a dusty road, with his sturdy walking stick and long white beard, and perhaps obtain an interview about his sufferings over the past two millennia. For the son of man shall come in the glory of his Father, with his angels, and then he shall reward every man according to his works. Verily I say unto you. There be some standing here, which shall not taste of death till they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom.—Matthew 16; 27, 28

The statement of Jesus quoted above from Matthew, and repeated in similar words by Mark (8.38, 9:1) and Luke (9:26,27) is for Bible fundamentalists one of the most troublesome of all New Testament passages.

It is possible, of course, that Jesus never spoke those sentences, but all scholars agree that the first-century Christians expected the Second Coming in their lifetimes. In Matthew 24, after describing dramatic signs of his imminent return, such as the falling of stars and the darkening of the moon and sun, Jesus added: Verily I say unto you. This generation shall not pass until all these things be fulfilled.”

Until about 1933 Seventh-Day Adventists had a clever way of rationalizing this prophecy. They argued that a spectacular meteor shower of 1833 was the falling of the stars, and that there was a mysterious darkening of sun and moon in the United States in 1870. Jesus meant that a future generation witnessing these celestial events would be the one to experience his Second Coming.

For almost a hundred years Adventist preachers and writers of books assured the world that Jesus would return within the lifetimes of some who had seen the great meteor shower of 1833. After 1933 passed, the church gradually abandoned this interpretation of Christ’s words. Few of today’s faithful are even aware that their church once trumpeted such a view. Although Adventists still believe Jesus will return very soon, they no longer set conditions for an approximate date.

How do they explain the statements of Jesus quoted in the epigraph? Following the lead of Saint Augustine and other early Christian commentators, they take the promise to refer to Christ’s Transfiguration. Ellen White, the prophetess who with her husband founded Seventh-day Adventism, said it this way in her life of Christ, The Desire of Ages: “The Savior’s promise to the disciples was now fulfilled. Upon the mount the future kingdom of glory was represented in miniature….”

Hundreds of adventist sects since the time of Jesus, starting with the Montanists of the second century, have all interpreted Christ’s prophetic statements about his return to refer to their generation. Apocalyptic excitement surged as the year 1000 approached. Similar excitement is now gathering momentum as the year 2000 draws near. Expectation of the Second Coming is not confined to adventist sects. Fundamentalists in mainstream Protestant denominations are increasingly stressing the imminence of Jesus’ return. Baptist Billy Graham, for example, regularly warns of the approaching battle of Armageddon and the appearance of the Anti-Christ. He likes to emphasize the Bible’s assertion that the Second Coming will occur after the gospel is preached to all nations. This could not take place, Graham insists, until the rise of radio and television.

Preacher Jerry Falwell is so convinced that he will soon be raptured—caught up in the air to meet the return of Jesus—that he once said he has no plans for a burial plot. Austin Miles, who once worked for Pat Robertson, reveals in his book Don’t Call Me Brother (1989) that Pat once seriously considered plans to televise the Lord’s appearance in the skies! Today’s top native drumbeater for a soon Second Coming is Hal Lindsey. His many books on the topic, starting with The Late Great Planet Earth, have sold by the millions.

For the past two thousand years individuals and sects have been setting dates for the Second Coming. When the Lord fails to show, there is often no recognition of total failure. Instead, errors are found in the calculations and new dates set. In New Harmony, Indiana, an adventist sect called the Rappites was established by George Rapp. When he became ill he said that were he not absolutely certain the Lord intended him and his flock to witness the return of Jesus, he would think this was his last hour. So saying, he died.

The Catholic Church, following Augustine, long ago moved the Second Coming far into the future at some unspecified date. Liberal Protestants have tended to take the Second Coming as little more than a metaphor for the gradual establishment of peace and justice on earth. Julia Ward Howe, a Unitarian minister, had this interpretation in mind when she began her famous Battle Hymn of the Republic with “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord….” Protestant fundamentalists, on the other hand, believe that Jesus described actual historical events that would precede his literal return to earth to banish Satan and judge the quick and the dead. They also find it unthinkable that the Lord could have blundered about the time of his Second Coming.

The difficulty in interpreting Christ’s statement about some of his listeners not tasting of death until he returned is that he described the event in exactly the same phrases he used in Matthew 24. He clearly was not there referring to his transfiguration, or perhaps (as another “out” has it) to the fact that his kingdom would soon be established by the formation of the early church. Assuming that Jesus meant exactly what he said, and that he was not mistaken, how can his promise be unambiguously justified?

During the Middle Ages several wonderful legends arose to preserve the accuracy of Christ’s prophecies. Some were based on John 21. When Jesus said to Peter “Follow me,” Peter noticed John walking behind him and asked, “Lord, what shall this man do?” The Lord’s enigmatic answer was, “If I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee?”

We are told that this led to a rumor that John would not die. However, the writer of the fourth gospel adds: “Yet Jesus said not unto him, He shall not die; but if I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee?” Theologians in the Middle Ages speculated that perhaps John did not die. He was either wandering about the earth, or perhaps he ascended bodily into heaven. A more popular legend was that John had been buried in a state of suspended animation, his heart faintly throbbing, to remain in an unknown grave until Jesus returns.

These speculations about John rapidly faded as a new and more powerful legend slowly took shape Perhaps Jesus was not referring to John when he said he could ask someone to tarry, but to someone else. This would also explain the remarks quoted in the epigraph. Someone not mentioned in the gospels, alive in Jesus’s day, was somehow cursed to remain alive for centuries until judgment day, wandering over the earth and longing for death.

Who was this Wandering Jew? Some said it was Malchus, whose ear Peter sliced off. Others thought it might be the impenitent thief who was crucified beside Jesus. Maybe it was Pilate, or one of Pilate’s servants. The version that became dominant identified the Wandering Jew as a shopkeeper—his name varied—who watched Jesus go by his doorstep, staggering under the weight of the cross he carried. Seeing how slowly and painfully the Lord walked, the man struck Jesus on the back, urging him to go faster. “I go,” Jesus replied, “but you will tarry until I return.”

As punishment for his rudeness, the shopkeeper’s doom is to wander the earth, longing desperately to die but unable to do so. In some versions of the legend, he stays the same age. In others, he repeatedly reaches old age only to be restored over and over again to his youth. The legend seems to have first been recorded in England in the thirteenth century before it rapidly spread throughout Europe. It received an enormous boost in the early seventeenth century when a pamphlet appeared in Germany about a Jewish shoemaker named Ahasuerus who claimed to be the Wanderer. The pamphlet was endlessly reprinted in Germany and translated into other languages. The result was a mania comparable to today’s obsessions with UFOs, Abominable Snowmen, and Elvis Presley. Scores of persons claiming to be the Wandering Jew turned up in cities all over England and Europe during the next two centuries. In the U.S. as late as 1868 a Wandering Jew popped up in Salt Lake City, home of the Mormon adventist sect. It is impossible now to decide in individual cases whether these were rumors, hoaxes by imposters, or cases of self-deceived psychotics.

The Wandering Jew became a favorite topic for hundreds of poems, novels, and plays, especially in Germany where such works continue to proliferate to this day. Even Goethe intended to write an epic about the Wanderer, but only finished a few fragments. It is not hard to understand how anti-Semites in Germany and elsewhere would see the cobbler as representing all of Israel, its people under God’s condemnation for having rejected his Son as their Messiah.

Gustave Doré produced twelve remarkable woodcuts depicting episodes in the Wanderer’s life. They were first published in Paris in 1856 to accompany a poem by Pierre Dupont. English editions followed with translations of the verse.

By far the best known novel about the Wanderer is Eugene Sue’s French work Le Juif Errant (The Wandering Jew), first serialized in Paris in 1844–1845 and published in ten volumes. George Croly’s three-volume Salathiel (1827), later retitled Tarry Thou Till I Come, was an enourmously popular earlier novel. (In Don Juan, Canto 11, Stanza 57, Byron calls the author Reverend Roley-Poley.) In Lew Wallace’s Prince of India (1893), the Wanderer is a wealthy Oriental potentate.

George Macdonald’s Thomas Wingfold, Curate (1876) introduces the Wandering Jew as an Anglican minister. Having witnessed the Crucifixion, and in constant agony over his sin, Wingfold is powerless to overcome a strange compulsion. Whenever he passes a roadside cross, or even a cross on top of a church, he has an irresistible impulse to climb on the cross, wrap his arms and legs around it, and cling there until he drops to the ground unconscious! He falls in love, but realizing that his beloved will age and die while he remains young, he tries to kill himself by walking into an active volcano. His beloved follows, and is incinerated by the molten lava. There is a surprisingly happy ending. Jesus appears, forgives the Wanderer, and leads him off to Paradise to reunite with the woman who died for him. The novel is not among the best of this Scottish writer’s many admired fantasies.

My First Two Thousand Years, by George Sylvester Viereck and Paul Eldridge(1928) purports to be the erotic autobiography of the Wandering Jew. The same two authors, in 1930, wrote Salome, the Wandering Jewess, an equally erotic novel covering her two thousand years of lovemaking. The most recent novel about the Wanderer is by German ex-Communist Stefan Heym, a pseudonym for Hellmuth Flieg. In his The Wandering Jew, published in West Germany in 1981 and in a U.S. edition three years later, the Wanderer is a hunchback who tramps the roads with Lucifer as his companion. The fantasy ends with the Second Coming, Armageddon, and the Wanderer’s forgiveness.

Sue’s famous novel is worth a quick further comment. The Wanderer is Ahasuerus, a cobbler. His sister Herodias, the wife of King Herod, becomes the Wandering Jewess. The siblings are minor characters in a complex plot. Ahasuerus is tall, with a single black eyebrow stretching over both eyes like a Mark of Cain. Seven nails on the soles of his iron boots produce crosses when he walks across snow. Wherever he goes an outbreak of cholera follows. Eventually the two siblings are pardoned and allowed “the happiness of eternal sleep.” Sue was a French socialist. His Wanderer is a symbol of exploited labor, Herodias a symbol of exploited women. Indeed, the novel is an angry blast at Catholicism, capitalism, and greed.

The Wandering Jew appears in several recent science fiction novels, notably Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz (1960), and Wilson Tucker’s The Planet King (1959) where he becomes the last man alive on earth. At least two movies have dealt with the legend, the most recent a 1948 Italian film starring Vittorio Gassman.

Rafts of poems by British and U.S. authors have retold the legend. The American John Saxe, best known for his verse about the blind men and the elephant, wrote a seventeen-stanza poem about the Wanderer. British poet Caroline Elizabeth Sarah Norton’s forgettable “Undying One” runs to more than a hundred pages. Oliver Herford, an American writer of light verse, in “Overheard in a Garden” turns the Wanderer into a traveling salesman peddling a book about himself. “The Wandering Jew” (1920) by Edwin Arlington Robinson, is surely the best of such poems by an American writer.

Charles Timothy Brooks (1813–1883) was a New England Unitarian minister as well as a prolific versifier and translator of Goethe and other German poets. His “Wandering Jew,” based on a German poem whose author I d not know, was reprinted in dozens of pre–1900 American anthologies. The Wandering Jew once said to me,I passed through a city in the cool of the year;A man in the garden plucked fruit from a tree.I asked, “How long has the city been here?”And he answered me, as he plucked away—“It has always stood where it stands today,And here it will stand forever and aye.”Five hundred years rolled by, and thenI traveled the self-same road again.No trace of the city there I found:A shepherd sat blowing his pipe alone;His flock went quietly nibbling round.I asked, “How long has the city been gone?”And he answered me, and he piped away—“The new ones bloom and the old decay,This is my pasture ground for aye.”Five hundred years rolled by, and thenI traveled the self-same road again.And I came to the sea, and the waves did roar,And a fisherman threw his net out clear,And when heavy laden he dragged it ashore.I asked, “How long has the sea been here?”And he laughed, and he said, and he laughed away—“As long as yon billows have tossed their sprayThey’ve fished and they’ve fished in this self-same bay.”Five hundred years rolled by, and thenI traveled the self-same road again.And I came to a forest, vast and free.And a woodman stood in the thicket near—His axe he laid at the foot of a tree.I asked., “How long have the woods been here?”And he answered. “These woods are a covert for aye;My ancestors dwelt here alway,And trees have been here since creation’s day.”Five hundred years rolled by, and thenI traveled the self-same road again.And I found there a city, and far and nearResounded the hum of toil and glee,And I asked, “How long has the city been here?And where is the pipe, and the wood, and the sea?”And they answered me, as they went their way.“Things always have stood as they stand today.And so they will stand forever and aye.”I’ll wait five hundred years, and thenI’ll travel the selfsame road again.

In England, Shelley was the most famous poet to become fascinated by the legend. In his lengthy poem “The Wandering Jew,” written or partly written when he was seventeen, the Wanderer is called Paulo. A fiery cross on his forehead is kept concealed under a cloth band. In the third Canto, after sixteen centuries of wandering, Paulo recounts the origin of his suffering to Rosa, a woman he loves: How can I paint that dreadful day,That time of terror and dismay,When, for our sins, a Saviour died,And the meek Lamb was crucified!As dread that day, when, borne alongTo slaughter by the insulting throng,Infuriate for Deicide.I mocked our Saviour, and I cried,“Go, go,” “Ah! I will go,” said he,“Where scenes of endless bliss invite;To the blest regions of the lightI go, but thou shall here remain—Thou diest not till I come again.”

The Wandering Jew is also featured in Shelley’s short poem “The Wandering Jew’s Soliloquy,” and in two much longer works, “Hellas” and “Queen Mab.” In “Queen Mab,” as a ghost whose body casts no shadow, Ahasuerus bitterly denounces God as an evil tyrant. In a lengthy note about this Shelley quotes from a fragment of a German work “whose title I have vainly endeavored to discover. I picked it up, dirty and torn, some years ago….”

In this fragment the Wanderer describes his endless efforts to kill himself. He tries vainly to drown. He leaps into an erupting Mount Etna where he suffers intense heat for ten months before the volcano belches him out. Forest fires fail to consume him. He tries to get killed in wars but arrows, spears, clubs, swords, bullets, mines, and trampling elephants have no effect on him.


The Demon-Haunted World CARL SAGANA tremendous number of people owe their portion of scientific education to the elegant and witty Carl Sagan (1934–1996). His academic work in astronomy and his gift for clear exposition took him from the pinnacles of Harvard and Cornell to the more demotic arena of television and film and fiction, where his novel Contact won him widespread renown. Not unlike Bertrand Russell, Sagan had the faculty of connecting ancient superstitions to modern ones: in The Demon-Haunted World he calmly showed how religion drew on primitive fears and helped to reinforce them, and in his Gifford lectures at the University of Glasgow he connected the slavish belief in gods to the idiotic cult of UFOs and other post-modern delusions.There are demon-haunted worlds, regions of utter darkness.THE ISA UPANISHAD (INDIA, CA. 600 B.C.)Fear of things invisible is the natural seed of that which every one in himself calleth religion.—THOMAS HOBBES, LEVIATHAN (1651)

The gods watch over us and guide our destinies, many human cultures teach; other entities, more malevolent, are responsible for the existence of evil. Both classes of beings, whether considered natural or supernatural, real or imaginary, serve human needs. Even if they’re wholly fanciful, people feel better believing in them. So in an age when traditional religions have been under withering fire from science, is it not natural to wrap up the old gods and demons in scientific raiment and call them aliens?

Belief in demons was widespread in the ancient world. They were thought of as natural rather than supernatural beings. Hesiod casually mentions them. 218 Socrates described his philosophical inspiration as the work of a personal, benign demon. His teacher, Diotima of Mantineia, tells him (in Plato’s Symposium) that “Everything demonic is intermediate between God and mortal. God has no contact with man,” she continues; “only through the demonic is there intercourse and conversation between man and gods, whether in the waking state or during sleep.”

Plato, Socrates’ most celebrated student, assigned a high role to demons: “No human nature invested with supreme power is able to order human affairs,” he said, “and not overflow with insolence and wrong….” We do not appoint oxen to be the lords of oxen, or goats of goats, but we ourselves are a superior race and rule over them. In like manner God, in his love of mankind, placed over us the demons, who are a superior race, and they with great ease and pleasure to themselves, and no less to us, taking care of us and giving us peace and reverence and order and justice never failing, made the tribes of men happy and united.

He stoutly denied that demons were a source of evil, and represented Eros, the keeper of sexual passions, as a demon, not a god, “neither mortal nor immortal, neither good nor bad.” But all later Platonists, including the Neo-Platonists who powerfully influenced Christian philosophy, held that some demons were good and others evil. The pendulum was swinging. Aristotle, Plato’s famous student, seriously considered the contention that dreams are scripted by demons. Plutarch and Porphyry proposed that the demons, who filled the upper air, came from the Moon.

The early Church Fathers, despite having imbibed Neo-Platonism from the culture they swam in, were anxious to separate themselves from “pagan” belief-systems. They taught that all of pagan religion consisted of the worship of demons and men, both misconstrued as gods. When St. Paul complained (Ephesians 6:14) about wickedness in high places, he was referring not to government corruption, but to demons, who lived in high places: For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.

From the beginning, much more was intended than demons as a mere poetic metaphor for evil in the hearts of men.

St. Augustine was much vexed with demons. He quotes the pagan thinking prevalent in his time: “The gods occupy the loftiest regions, men the lowest, the demons the middle region…. They have immortality of body, but passions of the mind in common with men.” In Book VIII of The City of God (begun in 413), Augustine assimilates this ancient tradition, replaces gods by God, and demonizes the demons—arguing that they are, without exception, malign. They have no redeeming virtues. They are the fount of all spiritual and material evil. He calls them “aerial animals…most eager to inflict harm, utterly alien from righteousness, swollen with pride, pale with envy, subtle in deceit.” They may profess to carry messages between God and man, disguising themselves as angels of the Lord, but this pose is a snare to lure us to our destruction. They can assume any form, and know many things—”demon” means “knowledge” in Greek—especially about the material world. However intelligent, they are deficient in charity. They prey on “the captive and outwitted minds of men,” wrote Tertullian. “They have their abode in the air, the stars are their neighbors, their commerce is with the clouds.”

In the eleventh century, the influential Byzantine theologian, philosopher, and shady politician, Michael Psellus, described demons in these words: These animals exist in our own life, which is full of passions, for they are present abundantly in the passions, and their dwelling-place is that of matter, as is their rank and degree. For this reason they are also subject to passions and fettered to them.

One Richalmus, abbot of Schönthal, around 1270 penned an entire treatise on demons, rich in first-hand experience: He sees (but only when his eyes are shut) countless malevolent demons, like motes of dust, buzzing around his head—and everyone else’s. Despite successive waves of rationalist, Persian, Jewish, Christian, and Moslem world views, despite revolutionary social, political, and philosophical ferment, the existence, much of the character, and even the name of demons remained unchanged from Hesiod through the Crusades.

Demons, the “powers of the air,” come down from the skies and have unlawful sexual congress with women. Augustine believed that witches were the offspring of these forbidden unions. In the Middle Ages, as in classical antiquity, nearly everyone believed such stories. The demons were also called devils, or fallen angels. The demonic seducers of women were labeled incubi; of men, succubi. There are cases in which nuns reported, in some befuddlement, a striking resemblance between the incubus and the priest-confessor, or the bishop, and awoke the next morning, as one fifteenth-century chronicler put it, to “find themselves polluted just as if they had commingled with a man.” There are similar accounts, but in harems not convents, in ancient China. So many women reported incubi, argued the Presbyterian religious writer Richard Baxter (in his Certainty of the World of Spirits, 1691), “that ‘tis impudence to deny it.”

As they seduced, the incubi and succubi were perceived as a weight bearing down on the chest of the dreamer. Mare, despite its Latin meaning, is the Old English word for incubus, and nightmare meant originally the demon that sits on the chests of sleepers, tormenting them with dreams. In Athanasius’ Life of St. Anthony (written around 360) demons are described as coming and going at will in locked rooms; 1400 years later, in his work De Daemonialitate, the Franciscan scholar Ludovico Sinistrari assures us that demons pass through walls.

The external reality of demons was almost entirely unquestioned from antiquity through late medieval times. Maimonides denied their reality, but the overwhelming majority of rabbis believed in dybbuks. One of the few cases I can find where it is even hinted that demons might be internal, generated in our minds, is when Abba Poemen—one of the desert fathers of the early Church—was asked, “How do the demons fight against me?”

“The demons fight against you?” Father Poemen asked in turn. “Our own wills become the demons, and it is these which attack us.”

The medieval attitudes on incubi and succubi were influenced by Macrobius’ fourth-century Commentary on the Dream of Scipio, which went through dozens of editions before the European Enlightenment. Macrobius described phantoms (phantasmata) seen “in the moment between wakefulness and slumber.” The dreamer “imagines” the phantoms as predatory. Macrobius had a skeptical side which his medieval readers tended to ignore.

Obsession with demons began to reach a crescendo when, in his famous Bull of 1484, Pope Innocent VIII declared, It has come to Our ears that members of both sexes do not avoid to have intercourse with evil angels, incubi, and succubi, and that by their sorceries, and by their incantations, charms, and conjurations, they suffocate, extinguish, and cause to perish the births of women

as well as generate numerous other calamities. With this Bull, Innocent initiated the systematic accusation, torture, and execution of countless “witches” all over Europe. They were guilty of what Augustine had described as “a criminal tampering with the unseen world.” Despite the evenhanded “members of both sexes” in the language of the Bull, unsurprisingly it was mainly girls and women who were so persecuted.

Many leading Protestants of the following centuries, their differences with the Catholic Church notwithstanding, adopted nearly identical views. Even humanists such as Desiderius Erasmus and Thomas More believed in witches. “The giving up of witchcraft,” said John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, “is in effect the giving up of the Bible.” William Blackstone, the celebrated jurist, in his Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765), asserted: To deny the possibility, nay, actual existence of witchcraft and sorcery is at once flatly to contradict the revealed word of God in various passages of both the Old and New Testament.

Innocent commended “Our dear sons Henry Kramer and James Sprenger,” who “have been by Letters Apostolic delegated as Inquisitors of these heretical [de]pravities.” If “the abominations and enormities in question remain unpunished,” the souls of multitudes face eternal damnation.

The pope appointed Kramer and Sprenger to write a comprehensive analysis, using the full academic armory of the late fifteenth century. With exhaustive citations of Scripture and of ancient and modern scholars, they produced the Malleus Maleficarum, the “Hammer of Witches”—aptly described as one of the most terrifying documents in human history. Thomas Ady, in A Candle in the Dark, condemned it as “villainous Doctrines & Inventions,” “horrible lyes and impossibilities,” serving to hide “their unparalleled cruelty from the ears of the world.” What the Malleus comes down to, pretty much, is that if you’re accused of witchcraft, you’re a witch. Torture is an unfailing means to demonstrate the validity of the accusation. There are no rights of the defendant. There is no opportunity to confront the accusers. Little attention is given to the possibility that accusations might be made for impious purposes—jealousy, say, or revenge, or the greed of the inquisitors who routinely confiscated for their own private benefit the property of the accused. This technical manual for torturers also includes methods of punishment tailored to release demons from the victim’s body before the process kills her. The Malleus in hand, the Pope’s encouragement guaranteed, inquisitors began springing up all over Europe.

It quickly became an expense account scam. All costs of investigation, trial, and execution were borne by the accused or her relatives—down to per diems for the private detectives hired to spy on her, wine for her guards, banquets for her judges, the travel expenses of a messenger sent to fetch a more experienced torturer from another city, and the faggots, tar and hangman’s rope. Then there was a bonus to the members of the tribunal for each witch burned. The convicted witch’s remaining property, if any, was divided between Church and State. As this legally and morally sanctioned mass murder and theft became institutionalized, as a vast bureaucracy arose to serve it, attention was turned from poor hags and crones to the middle class and well-to-do of both sexes.

The more who, under torture, confessed to witchcraft, the harder it was to maintain that the whole business was mere fantasy. Since each “witch” was made to implicate others, the numbers grew exponentially. These constituted “frightful proofs that the Devil is still alive,” as it was later put in America in the Salem witch trials. In a credulous age, the most fantastic testimony was soberly accepted—that tens of thousands of witches had gathered for a Sabbath in public squares in France, or that 12,000 of them darkened the skies as they flew to Newfoundland. The Bible had counseled, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” Legions of women were burnt to death. And the most horrendous tortures were routinely applied to every defendant, young or old, after the instruments of torture were first blessed by the priests. Innocent himself died in 1492, following unsuccessful attempts to keep him alive by transfusion (which resulted in the deaths of three boys) and by suckling at the breast of a nursing mother. He was mourned by his mistress and their children.

In Britain witch-finders, also called “prickers,” were employed, receiving a handsome bounty for each girl or woman they turned over for execution. They had no incentive to be cautious in their accusations. Typically they looked for “devil’s marks”—scars or birthmarks or nevi—that when pricked with a pin neither hurt nor bled. A simple sleight of hand often gave the appearance that the pin penetrated deep into the witch’s flesh. When no visible marks were apparent, “invisible marks” sufficed. Upon the gallows, one mid-seventeenth-century pricker “confessed he had been the death of above 220 women in England and Scotland, for the gain of twenty shillings apiece.”

In the witch trials, mitigating evidence or defense witnesses were inadmissible. In any case, it was nearly impossible to provide compelling alibis for accused witches: The rules of evidence had a special character. For example, in more than one case a husband attested that his wife was asleep in his arms at the very moment she was accused of frolicking with the devil at a witch’s Sabbath; but the archbishop patiently explained that a demon had taken the place of the wife. The husbands were not to imagine that their powers of perception could exceed Satan’s powers of deception. The beautiful young women were perforce consigned to the flames.

There were strong erotic and misogynistic elements—as might be expected in a sexually repressed, male-dominated society with inquisitors drawn from the class of nominally celibate priests. The trials paid close attention to the quality and quantity of orgasm in the supposed copulations of defendants with demons or the Devil (although Augustine had been certain “we cannot call the Devil a fornicator”), and to the nature of the Devil’s “member” (cold, by all reports). “Devil’s marks” were found “generally on the breasts or private parts” according to Ludovico Sinistrari’s 1700 book. As a result pubic hair was shaved, and the genitalia were carefully inspected by the exclusively male inquisitors. In the immolation of the 20-year-old Joan of Arc, after her dress had caught fire the Hangman of Rouen slaked the flames so onlookers could view “all the secrets which can or should be in a woman.”

The chronicle of those who were consumed by fire in the single German city of Würzburg in the single year 1598 penetrates the statistics and lets us confront a little of the human reality: The steward of the senate named Gering; old Mrs. Kanzler; the tailor’s fat wife; the woman cook of Mr. Mengerdorf; a stranger; a strange woman; Baunach, a senator, the fattest citizen in Würtzburg; the old smith of the court; an old woman; a little girl, nine or ten years old; a younger girl, her little sister; the mother of the two little aforementioned girls; Liebler’s daughter; Goebel’s child, the most beautiful girl in Würtzburg; a student who knew many languages; two boys from the Minster, each twelve years old; Stepper’s little daughter; the woman who kept the bridge gate; an old woman; the little son of the town council bailiff; the wife of Knertz, the butcher; the infant daughter of Dr. Schultz; a little girl; Schwartz, canon at Hach….

On and on it goes. Some were given special humane attention: “The little daughter of Valkenberger was privately executed and burnt.” There were 28 public immolations, each with 4 to 6 victims on average, in that small city in a single year. This was a microcosm of what was happening all across Europe. No one knows how many were killed altogether—perhaps hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions. Those responsible for prosecuting, torturing, judging, burning, and justifying were selfless. Just ask them.

They could not be mistaken. The confessions of witchcraft could not be based on hallucinations, say, or desperate attempts to satisfy the inquisitors and stop the torture. In such a case, explained the witch judge Pierre de Lancre (in his 1612 book, Description of the Inconstancy of Evil Angels), the Catholic Church would be committing a great crime by burning witches. Those who raise such possibilities are thus attacking the Church and ipso facto committing a mortal sin. Critics of witch-burning were punished and, in some cases, themselves burnt. The inquisitors and torturers were doing God’s work. They were saving souls. They were foiling demons.

Witchcraft of course was not the only offense that merited torture and burning at the stake. Heresy was a still more serious crime, and both Catholics and Protestants punished it ruthlessly. In the sixteenth century the scholar William Tyndale had the temerity to contemplate translating the New Testament into English. But if people could actually read the Bible in their own language instead of arcane Latin, they could form their own, independent religious views. They might conceive of their own private unintermediated line to God. This was a challenge to the job security of Roman Catholic priests. When Tyndale tried to publish his translation, he was hounded and pursued all over Europe. Eventually he was captured, garroted, and then, for good measure, burned at the stake. His copies of the New Testament (which a century later became the basis of the exquisite King James translation) were then hunted down house-to-house by armed posses—Christians piously defending Christianity by preventing other Christians from knowing the words of Christ. Such a cast of mind, such a climate of absolute confidence that knowledge should be rewarded by torture and death were unlikely to help those accused of witchcraft.

Burning witches is a feature of Western civilization that has, with occasional political exceptions, declined since the sixteenth century. In the last judicial execution of witches in England a woman and her nine-year-old daughter were hanged. Their crime was raising a rainstorm by taking their stockings off. In our time, witches and djinns are found as regular fare in children’s entertainment, exorcism of demons is still practiced by the Roman Catholic and other churches, and the proponents of one cult still denounce as sorcery the cultic practices of another. We still use the word “pandemonium” (literally, all demons). A crazed and violent person is still said to be demonic. (Not until the eighteenth century was mental illness no longer generally ascribed to supernatural causes; even insomnia had been considered a punishment inflicted by demons.) More than half of Americans tell pollsters they “believe” in the Devil’s existence, and 10 percent have communicated with him, as Martin Luther reported he did regularly. In a 1992 “spiritual warfare manual” called Prepare for War, Rebecca Brown informs us that abortion and sex outside of marriage “will almost always result in demonic infestation”; that meditation, yoga and martial arts are designed so unsuspecting Christians will be seduced into worshiping demons; and that “rock music didn’t ‘just happen,’ it was a carefully masterminded plan by none other than Satan himself.” Sometimes “your loved ones are demonically bound and blinded.” Demonology is today still part and parcel of many earnest faiths.

And what is it that demons do? In the Malleus, Kramer and Sprenger reveal that “devils…busy themselves by interfering with the process of normal copulation and conception, by obtaining human semen, and themselves transferring it.” Demonic artificial insemination in the Middle Ages goes back at least to St. Thomas Aquinas, who tells us in On the Trinity that “demons can transfer the semen which they have collected and inject it into the bodies of others.” His contemporary, St. Bonaventura, spells it out in a little more detail: Succubi “yield to males and receive their semen; by cunning skill, the demons preserve its potency, and afterwards, with the permission of God, they become incubi and pour it out into female repositories.” The products of these demon-mediated unions are also, when they grow up, visited by demons. A multi-generational transspecies sexual bond is forged. And these creatures, we recall, are well known to fly; indeed they inhabit the upper air.

There is no spaceship in these stories. But most of the central elements of the alien abduction account are present, including sexually obsessive non-humans who live in the sky, walk through walls, communicate telepathically, and perform breeding experiments on the human species. Unless we believe that demons really exist, how can we understand so strange a belief system, embraced by the whole Western world (including those considered the wisest among us), reinforced by personal experience in every generation, and taught by Church and State? Is there any real alternative besides a shared delusion based on common brain wiring and chemistry?

The God Hypothesis


The Gifford Lectures are supposed to be on the topic of natural theology. Natural theology has long been understood to mean theological knowledge that can be established by reason and experience and experiment alone. Not by revelation, not by mystical experience, but by reason. And this is, in the long, historical sweep of the human species, a reasonably novel view. For example, we might look at the following sentence written by Leonardo da Vinci. In his notebooks he says, “Whoever in discussion adduces authority uses not intellect but rather memory.”

This was an extremely heterodox remark for the early sixteenth century, when most knowledge was derived from authority. Leonardo himself had many clashes of this sort. During a trip to an Apennine mountaintop, he had discovered the fossilized remains of shellfish that ordinarily lived on the ocean floor. How did this come about? The conventional theological wisdom was that the Great Flood of Noah had inundated the mountaintops and carried the clams and oysters with it. Leonardo, remembering that the Bible says that the flood lasted only forty days, attempted to calculate whether this would be sufficient time to carry the shellfish with them, even if the mountaintops were inundated. During what state in the life cycle of the shellfish had they been deposited?—and so on. He came to the conclusion this didn’t work, and proposed a quite daring alternative; namely, that over immense vistas of geological time the mountaintops had pushed up through the oceans. And that posed all sorts of theological difficulties. But it is the correct answer, as I think it’s fair to say it has been definitively established in our time.

If we are to discuss the idea of God and be restricted to rational arguments, then it is probably useful to know what we are talking about when we say “God.” This turns out not to be easy. The Romans called the Christians atheists. Why? Well, the Christians had a god of sorts, but it wasn’t a real god. They didn’t believe in the divinity of apotheosized emperors or Olympian gods. They had a peculiar, different kind of god. So it was very easy to call people who believed in a different kind of god atheists. And that general sense that an atheist is anybody who doesn’t believe exactly as I do prevails in our own time.

Now, there is a constellation of properties that we generally think of when we in the West, or more generally in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition, think of God. The fundamental differences among Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are trivial compared to their similarities. We think of some being who is omnipotent, omniscient, compassionate, who created the universe, is responsive to prayer, intervenes in human affairs, and so on.

But suppose there were definitive proof of some being who had some but not all of these properties. Suppose somehow it were demonstrated that there was a being who originated the universe but is indifferent to prayer…. Or, worse, a god who was oblivious to the existence of humans. That’s very much like Aristotle’s god. Would that be God or not? Suppose it were someone who was omnipotent but not omniscient, or vice versa. Suppose this god understood all the consequences of his actions but there were many things he was unable to do, so he was condemned to a universe in which his desired ends could not be accomplished. These alternative kinds of gods are hardly ever thought about or discussed. A priori there is no reason they should not be as likely as the more conventional sorts of gods.

And the subject is further confused by the fact that prominent theologians such as Paul Tillich, for example, who gave the Gifford Lectures many years ago, explicitly denied God’s existence, at least as a supernatural power. Well, if an esteemed theologian (and he’s by no means the only one) denies that God is a supernatural being, the subject seems to me to be somewhat confused. The range of hypotheses that are seriously covered under the rubric “God” is immense. A naive Western view of God is an outsize, light-skinned male with a long white beard, who sits on a very large throne in the sky and tallies the fall of every sparrow.

Contrast this with a quite different vision of God, one proposed by Baruch Spinoza and by Albert Einstein. And this second kind of god they called God in a very straightforward way. Einstein was constantly interpreting the world in terms of what God would or wouldn’t do. But by God they meant something not very different from the sum total of the physical laws of the universe; that is, gravitation plus quantum mechanics plus grand unified field theories plus a few other things equaled God. And by that all they meant was that here were a set of exquisitely powerful physical principles that seemed to explain a great deal that was otherwise inexplicable about the universe. Laws of nature, as I have said earlier, that apply not just locally, not just in Glasgow, but far beyond: Edinburgh, Moscow, Peking, Mars, Alpha Centauri, the center of the Milky Way, and out by the most distant quasars known. That the same laws of physics apply everywhere is quite remarkable. Certainly that represents a power greater than any of us. It represents an unexpected regularity to the universe. It need not have been. It could have been that every province of the cosmos had its own laws of nature. It’s not apparent from the start that the same laws have to apply everywhere.

Now, it would be wholly foolish to deny the existence of laws of nature. And if that is what we are talking about when we say God, then no one can possibly be an atheist, or at least anyone who would profess atheism would have to give a coherent argument about why the laws of nat re are inapplicable.

I think he or she would be hard-pressed. So with this latter definition of God, we all believe in God. The former definition of God is much more dubious. And there is a wide range of other sorts of gods. And in every case we have to ask, “What kind of god are you talking about, and what is the evidence that this god exists?”

Certainly if we are restricted to natural theology, it is insufficient to say, “I believe in that sort of god, because that’s what I was told when I was young,” because other people are told different things about quite different religions that contradict those of my parents. So they can’t all be right. And in fact they all may be wrong. It is certainly true that many different religions are mutually inconsistent. It’s not that they just aren’t perfect simulacrums of each other but rather that they grossly contradict each other.

I’ll give you a simple example; there are many. In the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition, the world is a finite number of years old. By counting up the begats in the Old Testament, you can come to the conclusion that the world is a good deal less than ten thousand years old. In the seventeenth century, the archbishop of Armagh, James Ussher, made a courageous but fundamentally flawed effort to count them up precisely. He came to a specific date on which God created the world. It was October 23 in 4004 B.C., a Sunday.

Now, think again of all the possibilities: worlds without gods; gods without worlds; gods that are made by preexisting gods; gods that were always here; gods that never die; gods that do die; gods that die more than once; different degrees of divine intervention in human affairs; zero, one, or many prophets; zero, one, or many saviors; zero, one, or many resurrections; zero, one, or many gods. And related questions about sacrament, religious mutilation, and scarification, baptism, monastic orders, ascetic expectations, the presence or absence of an afterlife, days to eat fish, days not to eat at all, how many afterlives you have coming to you, justice in this world or the next world or no world at all, reincarnation, human sacrifice, temple prostitution, jihads, and so forth. It’s a vast array of things that people believe. Different religions believe different things. There’s a grab bag of religious alternatives. And there are clearly more combinations of alternatives than there are religions, even though there are something like a few thousand religions on the planet today. In the history of the world, there probably were many tens, maybe hundreds of thousands, if you think back to our hunter-gatherer ancestors when the typical human community was a hundred or so people. Back then there were as many religions as there were hunter-gatherer bands, although the differences between them were probably not all that great. But nobody knows, since, unfortunately, we have virtually no knowledge left of what our ancestors for the greatest part of the tenure of humans on this planet believed, because word-of-mouth tradition is inadequate and writing had not been invented.

So, considering this range of alternatives, one thing that comes to my mind is how striking it is that when someone has a religious-conversion experience, it is almost always to the religion or one of the religions that are mainly believed in his or her community. Because there are so many other possibilities. For example, it’s very rare in the West that someone has a religious-conversion experience in which the principal deity has the head of an elephant and is painted blue. That is quite rare. But in India there is a blue, elephant-headed god that has many devotees. And seeing depictions of this god there is not so rare. How is it that the apparition of elephant gods is restricted to Indians and doesn’t happen except in places where there is a strong Indian tradition? How is that apparit ons of the Virgin Mary are common in the West but rarely occur in places in the East where there isn’t a strong Christian tradition? Why don’t the details of the religious belief cross over the cultural barriers? It is hard to explain unless the details are entirely determined by the local culture and have nothing to do with something that is externally valid.

Put another way, any preexisting predisposition to religious belief can be powerfully influenced by the indigenous culture, wherever you happen to grow up. And especially if the children are exposed early to a particular set of doctrine and music and art and ritual, then it is as natural as breathing, which is why religions make such a large effort to attract the very young.

Or let’s take another possibility. Suppose a new prophet arises who claims a revelation from God, and that revelation contravenes the revelations of all previous religions. How is the average person, someone not so fortunate as to have received this revelation personally, to decide whether this new revelation is valid or not? The only dependable way is through natural theology. You have to ask, “What is the evidence?” And it’s insufficient to say, “Well, there is this extremely charismatic person who said that he had a conversion experience.” Not enough. There are lots of charismatic people who have all sorts of mutually exclusive conversion experiences. They can’t all be right. Some of them have to be wrong. Many of them have to be wrong. It’s even possible that all of them are wrong. We cannot depend entirely on what people say. We have to look at what the evidence is.

I would like now to turn to the issue of alleged evidence or, as they’re called, proofs of the existence of God. And I will mainly spend my time on the Western proofs. But to show an ecumenical spirit, let me begin with some Hindu proofs, which in many ways are as sophisticated and certainly more ancient than the Western arguments.

Udayana, an eleventh-century logician, had a set of seven proofs of the existence of God, and I won’t mention all of them; I’ll just try to convey a sense of it. And, by the way, the kind of god that Udayana is talking about is not exactly the same, as you might imagine, as the Judeo-Christian-Islamic god. His god is all-knowing and imperishable but not necessarily omnipotent and compassionate.

First, Udayana reasons that all things must have a cause. The world is full of things. Something must have made those things. And this is very similar to a Western argument that we’ll come to shortly.

Secondly, an argument not heard in the West is the argument from atomic combinations. It is quite sophisticated. It says at the beginning of Creation, atoms had to be bonded with each other to make bigger things. And such a bonding of atoms always requires the activity of a conscious agent. Well, now we know that’s false. Or we know, at least, that there are laws of atomic interaction that determine how atoms bind together. It’s a subject called chemistry. And you might say that this is due to the intervention of a deity but it does not require the direct intervention of a deity. All the deity has to do is establish the laws of chemistry and retire.

Third is an argument from the suspension of the world. The world isn’t falling, as is clear by just looking out. We’re not hurtling through space, apparently, and therefore something is holding the world up, and that something is God. Well, this is a quite natural view of things. It’s connected with the idea that we are stationary and at the center of the universe, a misapprehension that all peoples all over the world have had. In fact we are falling at a terrific rate of speed in orbit around the Sun. And every year we go 2 pi times the radius of the Earth orbit. If you work that out, you’ll find it’s extremely fast.

Fourth is an argument from the existence of human skills. And this is very close to the von Daniken argument that if someone didn’t show us how to do things, we wouldn’t know how to do it. I think there’s plentiful argument against that.

Then there is the existence of authoritative knowledge separate from human skills. How would we know things that are in, for example, the Vedas, the Hindu holy books, unless God had written them? The idea that humans were able to write the Vedas was difficult for Udayana to accept.

Well, this gives a sense of these arguments and shows that there is a pervasive human wish to give a rational explanation for the existence of a God or gods, and also, I maintain, it demonstrates that these arguments are not always highly successful. Let me now go to some of the Western arguments, which may be entirely familiar to everyone, in which case I apologize.

First of all, there is the cosmological argument, which is not very different from the argument we just heard. The cosmological argument in the West essentially has to do with causality. There are things all around us; those things were caused by something else. And so, after a while, you find yourself back to remote times and causes. Well, it can’t go on forever, an infinite regress of causes, as Aristotle and later Thomas Aquinas argued, and therefore you need to come to an uncaused first cause. Something that started everything going that was not itself caused; that is, that was always there. And this is defined as God.

There are two conflicting hypotheses here, two alternative hypotheses. One is that the universe was always here, and the other is that God was always here. Why is it immediately obvious that one of these is more likely than the other? Or, put another way, if we say that God made the universe, it is reasonable to then ask, “And who made God?”

Virtually every child asks that question and is usually shushed by the parents and told not to ask embarrassing questions. But how does saying that God made the universe, and never mind asking where God came from, how is that more satisfying than to say the universe was always here?

In modern astrophysics there are two contending views. First of all, there is no doubt in my mind, and I think almost all astrophysicists agree, that the evidence from the expansion of the universe, the mutual recession of the galaxies and from what is called the three-degree black-body background radiation, suggests that something like 13 or 15 billion years ago all the matter in the universe was compressed into an extremely small volume, and that something that can surely be called an explosion happened at that time, and that the subsequent expansion of the universe and the condensation of matter led to galaxies, stars, planets, living beings, and all the rest of the details of the universe we see around us.

Now, what happened before that? There are two views. One is “Don’t ask that question,” which is very close to saying that God did it. And the other is that we live in an oscillating universe in which there is an infinite number of expansions and contractions.1

We happen to be roughly 15,000 million years out from the last expansion. And some, let’s say, 80,000 million years from now, the expansion will stop, to be replaced by a compression, and all the matter will fly together to a very small volume and then expand again with no information trickling through the cusps in the expansion process.

The former of these views happens, by chance, to be close to the Judeo-Christian-Islamic view, the latter close to the standard Hindu views. And so, if you like, you can think of the varying contentions of these two major religious views being fought out on the field o contemporary satellite astronomy. Because that’s where the answer to this question will very likely be decided. Is there enough matter in the universe to prevent the expansion from continuing forever, so that the self-gravity will make the expansion stop and be followed by a contraction? Or is there not enough matter in the universe to stop the expansion, so everything keeps expanding forever? This is an experimental question. And it is very likely that in our lifetime we will have the answer to it. And I stress that this is very different from the usual theological approach, where there is never an experiment that can be performed to test out any contentious issue.

Here there is one. So we don’t have to make judgments now. All we have to do is maintain some tolerance for ambiguity until the data are in, which may happen in a decade or less. It is possible that the Hubble Space Telescope, scheduled for launch next summer, will provide the answer to this question. It’s not guaranteed, but it is possible.2

Now, by the way, on this issue of who’s older, God or the universe, there’s actually a three-by-three matrix: God can have always existed but will not exist for all future time. That is to say God might have no beginning but might have an end. God might have a beginning but no end. God might have no beginning and no end. Likewise for the universe. The universe might be infinitely old, but it will end. The universe might have begun a finite time ago but will go on forever, or it might have always existed and will never end. Those are just the logical possibilities. And it’s curious that human myth has some of those possibilities but not others. I think in the West it’s quite clear that there is a human or animal life-cycle model that has been imposed on the cosmos. It’s a natural thing to think about, but after a while its limitations, I think, become clear.

Also, I should say something about the Second Law of Thermodynamics. An argument that is sometimes used to justify a belief in God is that the Second Law of Thermodynamics says that the universe as a whole runs down, that is, the net amount of order in the universe must decline. Chaos must increase as time goes on; that is, in the entire universe. It doesn’t say that in a given locale, such as the Earth, the amount of order can’t increase, and clearly it has. Living things are much more complex, have much more order in them, than the raw materials from which life formed some 4,000 million years ago. But this increase in order on the Earth is done, it is easy enough to calculate, at the expense of a decrease in order on the Sun, which is the source of the energy that drives terrestrial biology. It’s by no means clear, by the way, that the Second Law of Thermodynamics applies to the universe as a whole, because it is an experimental law, and we don’t have experience with the universe as a whole. But it’s always struck me as curious that those who wish to apply the Second Law to theological issues do not ask whether God is subject to the Second Law. Because if God were subject to the Second Law of Thermodynamics, then God could have only a finite lifetime. And again, there is an asymmetric use of the principles of physics when theology confronts thermodynamics.

Also, by the way, if there were an uncaused first cause, that by no means says anything about omnipotence or omniscience, or compassion, or even monotheism. And Aristotle, in fact, deduced several dozen first causes in his theology.

The second standard Western argument using reason for God is the so-called argument from design, which we have already talked about, both in its biological context and in the recent astrophysical incarnation called the anthropic principle. It is at best an argument from analogy; that is, that some things were made by humans and now here is something more complex th t wasn’t made by us, so maybe it was made by an intelligent being smarter than us. Well, maybe, but that is not a compelling argument. I tried to stress earlier the extent to which misunderstandings, failure of the imagination, and especially the lack of awareness of new underlying principles may lead us into error with the argument from design. The extraordinary insights of Charles Darwin on the biological end of the argument of design provide clear warning that there may be principles that we do not yet divine (if I may use that word) underlying apparent order.

There is certainly a lot of order in the universe, but there is also a lot of chaos. The centers of galaxies routinely explode, and if there are inhabited worlds and civilizations there, they are destroyed by the millions, with each explosion of the galactic nucleus or a quasar. That does not sound very much like a god who knows what he, she, or it is doing. It sounds more like an apprentice god in over his head. Maybe they start them out at the centers of galaxies and then after a while, when they get some experience, move them on to more important assignments.

Then there is the moral argument for the existence of God generally attributed to Immanuel Kant, who was very good at showing the deficiencies of some of the other arguments. Kant’s argument is very simple. It’s just that we are moral beings; therefore God exists. That is, how else would we know to be moral?

Well, first of all you might argue that the premise is dubious. The degree to which humans can be said to be moral beings without the existence of some police force is open at least to debate. But let’s put that aside for the moment. Many animals have codes of behavior. Altruism, incest taboos, compassion for the young, you find in all sorts of animals. Nile crocodiles carry their eggs in their mouths for enormous distances to protect the young. They could make an omelette out of it, but they choose not to do so. Why not? Because those crocodiles who enjoy eating the eggs of their young leave no offspring. And after a while all you have is crocodiles who know how to take care of the young. It’s very easy to see. And yet we have a sense of thinking of that as being somehow ethical behavior. I’m not against taking care of children; I’m strongly for it. All I’m saying is, it does not follow if we are powerfully motivated to take care of our young or the young of everybody on the planet, that God made us do it. Natural selection can make us do it, and almost surely has. What’s more, once humans reach the point of awareness of their surroundings, we can figure things out, and we can see what’s good for our own survival as a community or a nation or a species and take steps to ensure our survival. It’s not hopelessly beyond our ability. It’s not clear to me that this requires the existence of God to explain the limited but definite degree of moral and ethical behavior that is apparent in human society.

Then there is the curious argument, unique to the West, called the “ontological argument,” which is generally associated with [St.] Anselm, who died in 1109. His argument can be very simply stated: God is perfect. Existence is an essential attribute of perfection. Therefore, God exists. Got it? I’ll say it again. God is perfect. Existence is an essential attribute of perfection. You can’t be perfect if you don’t exist, Anselm says. Therefore God exists. While this argument has for brief moments captured very significant thinkers (Bertrand Russell describes how it suddenly hit him that Anselm might be right—for about fifteen minutes), this is not considered a successful argument. The twentieth-century logician Ernest Nagel described it as “confounding grammar with logic.”

What does it mean, “God is perfect”? You need a separate description of what constitutes perfection. It’s not enough to say “perfect” and do not ask what “perfect” means. And how do you know God is perfect? Maybe that’s not the god that exists, the perfect one. Maybe it’s only imperfect ones that exist. And then why is it that existence is an essential attribute of perfection? Why isn’t nonexistence an essential attribute of perfection? We are talking words. In fact, there is the remark that is sometimes made about Buddhism, I think in a kindly light, that their god is so great he doesn’t even have to exist. And that is the perfect counterpoise to the ontological argument. In any case, I do not think that the ontological argument is compelling.

Then there’s the argument from consciousness. I think, therefore, God exists; that is, how could consciousness come into being? And, indeed, we do not know the details in any but the very broadest brush about the evolution of consciousness. That is on the agenda of future neurological science. But we do know, for example, that an earthworm introduced into a Y-shaped glass tube with, let’s say, an electric shock on the right-hand fork and food in the left-hand fork, rapidly learns to take the left fork. Does an earthworm have consciousness if it is able after a certain number of trials invariably to know where the food is and the shock isn’t? And if an earthworm has consciousness, could a protozoan have consciousness? Many phototropic microorganisms know to go to the light. They have some kind of internal perception of where the light is, and nobody taught them that it’s good to go to the light. They had that information in their hereditary material. It’s encoded into their genes and chromosomes. Well, did God put that information there, or might it have evolved through natural selection?

It is clearly good for the survival of microorganisms to know where the light is, especially the ones that photosynthesize. It is certainly good for earthworms to know where the food is. Those earthworms that can’t figure out where the food is leave few offspring. After a while the ones that survive know where the food is. Those phototropic or phototactic offspring have encoded into their genetic material how to find the light. It is not apparent that God has entered into the process. Maybe, but it’s not a compelling argument. And the general view of many, not all, neurobiologists is that consciousness is a function of the number and complexity of neuronal linkages of the architecture of the brain. Human consciousness is what happens when you get to something like 1011 neurons and 1014 synapses. This raises all sorts of other questions: What is consciousness like when you have 1020 synapses or 1030? What would such a being have to say to us any more than we would have to say to the ants? So at least it does not seem to me that the argument from consciousness, a continuum of consciousness running through the animal and plant kingdoms, proves the existence of God. We have an alternative explanation that seems to work pretty well. We don’t know the details, although work on artificial intelligence may help to clarify that. But we don’t know the details of the alternative hypothesis either. So it could hardly be said that this is compelling.

Then there’s the argument from experience. People have religious experiences. No question about it. They have them worldwide, and there are some interesting similarities in the religious experiences that are had worldwide. They are powerful, emotionally extremely convincing, and they often lead to people reforming their lives and doing good works, although the opposite also happens. Now, what about this? Well, I do not mean in any way to object to or deride religious experiences. But the question is, can any such experience provide other than anecdotal evidence of the existence of God or gods? One million UFO cases since 1947. And yet as far as we can tell, they do not correspond—any of them—to visitations to the Earth by spacecraft from elsewhere. Large numbers of people can have experiences that can be profound and moving and still not correspond to anything like an exact sense of external reality. And the same can be said not just about UFOs but also about extrasensory perception and ghosts and leprechauns and so on. Every culture has things of this sort. That doesn’t mean that they all exist; it doesn’t mean that any of them exist.

I also note that religious experiences can be brought on by specific molecules. There are many cultures that consciously imbibe or ingest those molecules in order to bring on a religious experience. The peyote cult of some Native Americans is exactly that, as is the use of wine as a sacrament in many Western religions. It’s a very long list of materials that are taken by humans in order to produce a religious experience. This suggests that there is some molecular basis for the religious experience and that it need not correspond to some external reality. I think it’s a fairly central point—that religious experiences, personal religious experiences, not the natural theological evidence for God, if any, can be brought on by molecules of finite complexity.

So if I then run through these arguments—the cosmological argument, the argument from design, the moral argument, the ontological argument, the argument from consciousness, and the argument from experience—I must say that the net result is not very impressive. It is very much as if we are seeking a rational justification for something that we otherwise hope will be true.

And then there are certain classical problems with the existence of God. Let me mention a few of them. One is the famous problem of evil. This basically goes as follows: Grant for a moment that evil exists in the world and that unjust actions sometimes go unpunished. And grant also that there is a God that is benevolent toward human beings, omniscient, and omnipotent. This God loves justice, this God observes all human actions, and this God is capable of intervening decisively in human affairs. Well, it was understood by the pre-Socratic philosophers that all four of these propositions cannot simultaneously be true. At least one has to be false. Let me say again what they are. That evil exists, that God is benevolent, that God is omniscient, that God is omnipotent. Let’s just see about each of them.

First of all, you might say, “Well, evil doesn’t exist in the world. We can’t see the big picture, that a little pool of evil here is awash in a great sea of good that it makes possible.” Or, as medieval theologians used to say, “God uses the Devil for his own purposes.” This is clearly the three-monkey argument about “hear no evil…” and has been described by a leading contemporary theologian as a gratuitous insult to mankind, a symptom of insensitivity and indifference to human suffering. To be assured that all the miseries and agonies men and women experience are only illusory. Pretty strong.

This is clearly hoping that the disquieting facts go away if you merely call them something else. It is argued that some pain is necessary for a greater good. But why, exactly? If God is omnipotent, why can’t He arrange it so there is no pain? It seems to me a very telling point.

The other alternatives are that God is not benevolent or compassionate. Epicurus held that God was okay but that humans were the least of His worries. There are a number of Eastern religions that have something like that same flavor. Or God isn’t omniscient; He doesn’t know everything; He has business elsewhere and so doesn’t know that humans are in trouble. One way to think about it is there are several times 1011 worlds in every galaxy and several times 1011 galaxies, and God’s busy.

The other possibility is that God isn’t omnipotent. He can’t do everything. He could maybe start the Earth off or create life, intervene occasionally in human history, but can’t be bothered day in and day out to set things right here on Earth. Now, I don’t claim to know which of these four possibilities is right, but it’s clear that there is a fundamental contradiction at the heart of the Western theological view produced by the problem of evil. And I’ve read an account of a recent theological conference devoted to this problem, and it clearly was an embarrassment to the assembled theologians.

This raises an additional question—a related question—and that has to do with microintervention. Why in any case is it necessary for God to intervene in human history, in human affairs, as almost every religion assumes happens? That God or the gods come down and tell humans, “No, don’t do that, do this, don’t forget this, don’t pray in this way, don’t worship anybody else, mutilate your children as follows.” Why is there such a long list of things that God tells people to do? Why didn’t God do it right in the first place? You start out the universe, you can do anything. You can see all future consequences of your present action. You want a certain desired end. Why don’t you arrange it in the beginning? The intervention of God in human affairs speaks of incompetence. I don’t say incompetence on a human scale. Clearly all of the views of God are much more competent than the most competent human. But it does not speak of omnicompetence. It says there are limitations.

I therefore conclude that the alleged natural theological arguments for the existence of God, the sort we’re talking about, simply are not very compelling. They are trotting after the emotions, hoping to keep up. But they do not provide any satisfactory argument on their own. And yet it is perfectly possible to imagine that God, not an omnipotent or an omniscient god, just a reasonably competent god, could have made absolutely clear-cut evidence of His existence. Let me give a few examples.

Imagine that there is a set of holy books in all cultures in which there are a few enigmatic phrases that God or the gods tell our ancestors are to be passed on to the future with no change. Very important to get it exactly right. Now, so far that’s not very different from the actual circumstances of alleged holy books. But suppose that the phrases in question were phrases that we would recognize today that could not have been recognized then. Simple example: The Sun is a star. Now, nobody knew that, let’s say, in the sixth century B.C., when the Jews were in the Babylonian exile and picked up the Babylonian cosmology from the principal astronomers of the time. Ancient Babylonian science is the cosmology that is still enshrined in the book of Genesis. Suppose instead the story was “Don’t forget, the Sun is a star.” Or “Don’t forget, Mars is a rusty place with volcanoes. Mars, you know, that red star? That’s a world. It has volcanoes, it’s rusty, there are clouds, there used to be rivers. There aren’t anymore. You’ll understand this later. Trust me. Right now, don’t forget.”

Or, “A body in motion tends to remain in motion. Don’t think that bodies have to be moved to keep going. It’s just the opposite, really. So later on you’ll understand that if you didn’t have friction, a moving object would just keep moving.” Now, we can imagine the patriarchs scratching their heads in bewilderment, but after all it’s God telling them. So they would copy it down dutifully, and this would be one of the many mysteries in holy books that would then go on to the future until we could recognize the truth, realize that no one back then could possibly have figured it out, and therefore deduce the existence of God.

There are many cases that you can imagine like this. How about “Thou shalt not travel faster than light”? Okay, you might argue that nobody was at imminent risk of breaking that commandment. It would have been a curiosity: “We don’t understand what that one’s about, but all the others we abide by.” Or “There are no privileged frames of reference.” Or how about some equations? Maxwell’s laws in Egyptian hieroglyphics or ancient Chinese characters or ancient Hebrew. And all the terms are defined: “This is the electric field, this is the magnetic field.” We don’t know what those are, but we’ll just copy them down, and then later, sure enough, it’s Maxwell’s laws or the Schrodinger equation. Anything like that would have been possible had God existed and had God wanted us to have evidence of His existence. Or in biology. How about, “Two strands entwined is the secret of life”? You may say that the Greeks were onto that because of the caduceus. You know, in the American army all the physicians wore the caduceus on their lapels, and various medical insurance schemes also use it. And it is connected with, if not the existence of life, at least saving it. But there are very few people who use this to say that the correct religion is the religion of the ancient Greeks, because they had the one symbol that survives critical scrutiny later on.

This business of proofs of God, had God wished to give us some, need not be restricted to this somewhat questionable method of making enigmatic statements to ancient sages and hoping they would survive. God could have engraved the Ten Commandments on the Moon. Large. Ten kilometers across per commandment. And nobody could see it from the Earth but then one day large telescopes would be invented or spacecraft would approach the Moon, and there it would be, engraved on the lunar surface. People would say, “How could that have gotten there?” And then there would be various hypotheses, most of which would be extremely interesting.

Or why not a hundred-kilometer crucifix in Earth orbit? God could certainly do that. Right? Certainly, create the universe? A simple thing like putting a crucifix in Earth orbit? Perfectly possible. Why didn’t God do things of that sort? Or, put another way, why should God be so clear in the Bible and so obscure in the world?

I think this is a serious issue. If we believe, as most of the great theologians hold, that religious truth occurs only when there is a convergence between our knowledge of the natural world and revelation, why is it that this convergence is so feeble when it could easily have been so robust?

So, to conclude, I would like to quote from Protagoras in the fifth century B.C., the opening lines of his Essay on the Gods: About the gods I have no means of knowing either that they exist or that they do not exist or what they are to look at. Many things prevent my knowing.Among others, the fact that they are never seen.


From Roger’s Version JOHN UPDIKEThis great American writer is as far as I know not an atheist, but he has the novelist’s ability to put an admirable argument into the mouth of an unsympathetic character. Here, Kriegman deals with a frequ ntly heard cocktail-party argument about the supposedly marvelous contingencies that make our existence possible in the first place. (We shall be returning to this point in less literary and less vernacular forms.)

“You go, sweetheart. O.K., young fella, hit me with those theories of yours.”

To Dale at the moment these theories are as hatefully irrelevant and obscure as the exact words being exchanged in the cheerful cacophony of these many rooms of mine, where the word “Bitburg” keeps sounding like a bird chirp. Esther’s closeness, and the ambiguity of their conversation, have tantalized him; his renewed glimpse and scent of the woman-lover, that radiant animal who waits crouching at the head of the stairs, at the end of all these crooked, noisy, obstructed social corridors, have left him dazed. His mind aches like an overexercised body. Yet he politely offers, as on the other side of the world priests peddle candles in the clamor of the weary holy places, the cosmic arguments: the hugely long odds against the big bang’s having worked out so well, the horizon, smoothness, and flatness problems, the incredible necessary precision of the weak-and strong-force constants, not to mention that of the gravitational-coupling constant and the neutron mass, were any of which different by even a few ten-thousandths the universe would have been too explosive or diffuse, too short-lived or too utterly homogenous to contain galaxies, stars, planets, life, and Man.

Kriegman hears all this out with bursts of rapid nodding that bounce his chins on the knot of his necktie and wag the blossoms of the azalea garland he still wears. As if better to understand, he has put on large squarish horn-rims, trifocals; behind their lenses, between sips from his flexible plastic glass of white wine (Almaden Mountain Rhine, $8.87 per three-liter jug at Boulevard Bottle), his small eyes jump and change size as they jiggle among the three levels of focal length. “Well,” he says at last, smiling like a man who even as he talks is listening to a background music with sentimental associations, “nobody denies the big bang has a few wrinkles we don’t comprehend yet, we may never comprehend for that matter; for example, I was reading the other day that even the oldest star clusters show traces of the heavy elements, which is strange because there’s no older generation of stars to have cooked them up and as you know the particle mechanics of the big bang could only have supplied helium and hydrogen, right?”

Dale wonders if he’s supposed to say, “Right.” He foresees that he will not have to say very much.

“Listen, there’s always going to be wrinkles,” Kriegman is telling him with a fatherly gruffness. “This primal fireball et cetera, and all this field theory in those first fractions of a second, we’re talking about virtually incomprehensible events, ridiculously long ago. These astrophysicists are just whistling ‘Dixie’ three-quarters of the time.”

“Right,” Dale says. “That’s what I say.”

“Yeah, but no need to go all obscurantist either. Let me give you a homework assignment. Want a homework assignment?”

Dale nods, feeling weak, with a child’s grateful weakness when he is told he is sick and must be put to bed.

“Look up in Sky and Telescope, one of last summer’s issues I think it was, a helluva funny piece in this connection they reprinted from some book in which a bunch of rotifers—you know what rotifers are, don’t you?—microscopic aquatic doohickeys with an anterior retractile disc of cilia that makes them look like their heads are spinning—of course they aren’t really, any more than owls can turn their heads clear around, it just gives that impression—anyway, a bunch of these rotifers are imagined in learned conversation concerning why their puddle had to be exactly the way it was—temperature, alkalinity, mud at the bottom sheltering methane-producing bacteria, all the rest of it—it was clever as hell like I said—and from the fact that if any of these things were even a little bit different—if the heat necessary to vaporize water was any lower, for example, or the freezing temperature of water any higher—this Little Puddlian Philosophical Society, I think it was called, but you can check that when you look it up, deduced that the whole operation was providential and obviously the universe existed to produce their little puddle and them! That’s more or less what you’re trying to tell me, young fella, except you ain’t no rotifer!”

Kriegman’s constant benign smile widens into an audible chuckle. His lips are curious in being the exact same shade of swarthiness as his face, like muscles in a sepia anatomy print. As he raises his glass to these exemplary lips Dale intervenes with “I think, sir—”

“Fuck the ‘sir’ stuff. Name’s Myron. Not Ron, mind you. Myron.”

“I think it’s a little more than that, what I’m trying to say; the puddle analogy is as if the anthropic principle were being argued from the Earth as opposed to the other planets, which of course we can now see, if we ever doubted it, aren’t suitable for life. In that sense, yes, we’re here because we’re here. But in the case of the universe, where you have only one, why should, say, the observed recessional velocity so exactly equal the necessary escape velocity?”

“How do you know there’s only one universe? There might be zillions. There’s no logical reason to say the universe we can observe is the only one.”

“I know there’s no logical reason—”

“Are we talking logic or not? Don’t start getting all intuitive and subjective on me, my pal, because I’m pretty much a pragmatist myself on some scores. If it helps you through the night to believe the moon is green cheese—”

“I don’t—”

“Don’t believe it is? Good for you. I don’t either. Those rocks they brought back didn’t test out as green cheese. But my daughter Florence does; some zonked-out punk with purple hair tells her it is when she’s as stoned as he is. She thinks she’s a Tibetan Buddhist, except on weekends. Her sister Miriam talks about joining some Sufi commune over in New York State. I don’t let it get to me, it’s their lives. But you, if I size you up right, young fella, you’re pulling my leg.”


“You really give a damn about cosmology, I’ll tell you where the interesting work is being done right now: it’s the explanation of how things popped up out of nothing. The picture’s filling in from a number of directions, as clear as the hand in front of your face.” He tipped his head back to see Dale better and his eyes seemed to multiply in the trifocals. “As you know,” he said, “inside the Planck length and the Planck duration you have this space-time foam where the quantum fluctuations from matter to non-matter really have very little meaning, mathematically speaking. You have a Higgs field tunneling in a quantum fluctuation through the energy barrier in a false-vacuum state, and you get this bubble of broken symmetry that by negative pressure expands exponentially, and in a couple of microseconds you can have something go from next to nothing to the size and mass of the observable present universe. How about a drink? You look pretty dry, standing there.”

Kriegman takes another plastic glass of white wine from the tray one of the Irish girls is reluctantly passing, and Dale shakes his head, refusing. His stomach has been nervous all this spring. Pastrami and milk don’t mix.

My dear friend and neighbor Myron Kriegman takes a lusty swallow, licks his smiling lips, and continues in his rapid rasping voice. “O.K.; still, you say, you have to begin with something before you have a Higgs field; how do you get to almost nothing from absolutely nothing? Well, the answer turns out to be good old simple geometry. You’re a mathematician, you’ll dig this. What do we know about the simplest structures yet, the quarks? We know—come on, fella, think.

Dale gropes. The party noise has increased, a corner high in his stomach hurts, Esther is laughing on the other side of the living room, beneath the knob-and-spindle header of the archway, exhaling smoke in a plume, her little face tipped back jauntily. “They come in colors and flavors,” he says, “and carry positive or negative charges in increments of a third—”

Kriegman pounces: “You’ve got it! They invariably occur in threes, and cannot be pried apart. Now what does that suggest to you? Think. Three things, inseparable.”

Father, Son, and Holy Ghost floats across Dale’s field of inner vision but does not make it to his lips. Nor does Id, Ego, and Superego. Nor Kriegman’s three daughters.

“The three dimensions of space!” Kriegman proclaims. “They can’t be pried apart, either. Now, let’s ask ourselves, what’s so hot about three dimensions? Why don’t we live in two, or four, or twenty-four?”

Odd that the man would mention those almost-magic, almost-revelatory numbers that Dale used to circle painstakingly in red; he now sees them to have been illusions, ripples in nothingness such as Kriegman is rhapsodizing about.

“You’re not thinking. Because,” the answer gleefully runs, “you need no more or less than three dimensions to make a knot, a knot that tightens on itself and won’t pull apart, and that’s what the ultimate particles are—knots in space-time. You can’t make a knot in two dimensions because there’s no over or under, and—here’s the fascinating thing, see if you can picture it—you can make a ravelling in four dimensions but it isn’t a knot, it won’t hold, it will just pull apart, it won’t persist. Hey, you’re going to ask me—I can see it in your face—what’s this concept, persistence? For persistence you need time, right? And that’s the key right there: without time you don’t have anything, and if time was two-dimensional instead of one, you wouldn’t have anything either, since you could turn around in it and there wouldn’t be any causality. Without causality, there wouldn’t be a universe, it would keep reversing itself. I know this stuff must be pretty elementary to you, I can see from the way you keep looking over my shoulder.”

“No, I just—”

“If you’ve changed your mind about wanting a drink, it’s not Esther’s going to get it for you, you should ask one of the girls.”

Dale blushes, and tries to focus on this tireless exposition, though he feels like a knot in four dimensions, unravelling. “I beg your pardon,” he says, “how did you say we get from nothing to something?”

Kriegman lightly pats himself on the top of his head to make sure the garland is still in place. “O.K. Good question. I was just filling in the geometry so you can see the necessity behind space-time as it is and don’t go getting all teleological on me. A lesser number of spatial dimensions, it just so happens, couldn’t provide enough juxtapositions to get molecules of any complexity, let alone, say, brain cells. More than four, which is what you have with space-time, the complexity increases but not significantly: four is plenty, sufficient. O.K.?”

Dale nods, thinking of Esther and myself, himself and Verna. Juxtapositions.

“So,” says Kriegman. “Imagine nothing, a total vacuum. But wait! There’s something in it! Points, potential geometry. A kind of dust of structureless points. Or, if that’s too woolly for you, try ‘a Borel set of points not yet assembled into a manifold of any particular dimensionality.’ Think of this dust as swirling; since there’s no dimension yet, no nearness or farness, it’s not exactly swirling as you and I know swirling but, anyway, some of them blow into straight lines and then vanish, because there’s nothing to hold the structure. Same thing if they happen, by chance—all this is chance, blind chance it has to be, Jesus”—Kriegman is shrinking, growing stooped; his chins are melting more solidly into his chest; he bobs like a man being given repeated blows on the back of his head—“if they configurate into two dimensions, into three, even into four where the fourth isn’t time; they all vanish, just accidents in this dust of points, nothing could be said to exist, until—even the word ‘until’ is deceptive, implying duration, which doesn’t exist yet—until bingo! Space-time. Three spatial dimensions, plus time. It knots. It freezes. The seed of the universe has come into being. Out of nothing. Out of nothing and brute geometry, laws that can’t be otherwise, nobody handed them to Moses, nobody had to. Once you’ve got that seed, that little itty-bitty mustard seed—ka-boom! Big Bang is right around the corner.”

“But—” Dale is awed not so much by what this man says as by his fervor, the light of faith in his little tripartite spectacles, the tan monotone of his face and its cascading folds, his receding springy hair, his thick eyebrows thrust outward and up like tiny rhinoceros horns. This man is living, he is on top of his life, life is no burden to him. Dale feels crushed beneath his beady, shuttling, joyful, and unembarrassed gaze. “But,” he weakly argues, “‘dust of points,’ ‘freezes,’ ‘seed’—this is all metaphor.”

“What isn’t?” Kriegman says. “Like Plato says, shadows at the back of the cave. Still, you can’t quit on reason; next thing you’ll get somebody like Hitler or Bonzo’s pal running things. Look. You know computers. Think binary. When matter meets antimatter, both vanish, into pure energy. But both existed; I mean, there was a condition we’ll call ‘existence.’ Think of one and minus one. Together they add up to zero, nothing, nada, niente, right? Picture them together, then picture them separating—peeling apart.” He hands Dale his drink and demonstrates separating with his thick hairy hands palm to palm, then gliding upward and apart. “Get it?” He makes two fists at the level of his shoulders. “Now you have something, you have two somethings, where once you had nothing.”

“But in the binary system,” Dale points out, handing back the squeezable glass, “the alternative to one isn’t minus one, it’s zero. That’s the beauty of it, mechanically.”

“O.K. Gotcha. You’re asking me, What’s this minus one? I’ll tell you. It’s a plus one moving backward in time. This is all in the space-time foam, inside the Planck duration, don’t forget. The dust of points gives birth to time, and time gives birth to the dust of points. Elegant, huh? It has to be. It’s blind chance, plus pure math. They’re proving it, every day. Astronomy, particle physics, it’s all coming together. Relax into it, young fella. It feels great. Space-time foam.”

Kriegman is joking; Dale prefers him zealous, evangelical on behalf of nonbelief. Esther has vanished from the archway. New guests keep arriving: Noreen Davis, the black receptionist who so smilingly gave him those forms seven months ago, with her bald co-worker in the Divinity School front office, and somebody who looks like Amy Eubank but can’t be, his recognition apparatus must be out of whack. He masochistically asks Kriegman, “How about the origin of life? Those odds are pretty impossible, too. I mean, to get a self-replicating organism with its own energy system.”

Kriegman snorts; he twists his face downward as if suddenly very shy; his whole body beneath its garland, in its dirty corduroy jacket with patched elbows and loose buttons, appears to melt and then to straighten again into a bearing almost military. “Now that just happens to be right up my alley,” he tells Dale. “That other stuff was just glorified bullshit, way out of my field, I don’t know what the hell a Borel set of points are. But I happen to know exactly how life arose; it’s brand-new news, at least to the average layman like yourself. Clay. Clay is the answer. Crystal formation in fine clays provided the template, the scaffolding, for the organic compounds and the primitive forms of life. All life did, you see, was take over the phenotype that crystalline clays had evolved on their own, the genetic pass-down factor being entirely controlled by the crystal growth and epitaxy, and the mutation factor deriving from crystal defects, which supply, you don’t need me to tell you, the stable alternative configurations you need for information storage. So, you’re going to ask, where’s the evolution? Picture the pore space of a sandstone, young fella. Every rainstorm, all sorts of mineral solutions are percolating through. Various types of replicating crystals are present, each reproducing its characteristic defects. Some fit together so tightly they form an impervious plug: this is no good. Others are so loose they’re washed away when the rains come: this is no good either. But a third type both hangs in there and lets the geochemical solutions, let’s even call them nutrients, wash through: this is good. This type of crystal multiplies and grows. It grows. Now in that sandstone pore you have a sticky, permeable paste that replicates itself. You have a prototype of life.” Kriegman takes a long swallow of my Almaden and smacks his lips. A half-empty glass sits abandoned on the walnut end table beside the red settee, and my beloved neighbor deftly swaps it with his own, emptied glass.

“But—” Dale says, expecting to be interrupted. “But, you’re going to say, how about us? How were the organic molecules introduced? And why? Well, not to get too technical, some of the amino acids, di- and tricarboxylic acids, make some metal ions, like aluminum, more soluble. This gives us a proto-enzyme. Others, like the polyphosphates, are especially adhesive, which, like I say, has survival value in this prezoic world we’re trying to picture. Heterocyclic bases like adenine have a tendency to stick between the layers of clay; pretty soon, relatively speaking, you’re going to get some RNA-like polymer, with its negatively charged backbone, interacting with the edges of clay particles, which tend to bear a positive charge. Then—listen, I know I’m boring the pants off you, I can see from your eyes you’re dying to mix it up with somebody over my shoulder, maybe one of my girls. Miriam’s the one you might take a shine to, if you don’t mind a little Sufi propaganda; it’s the no-alcohol part of it that I couldn’t hack. Then, as I was saying, once you’ve got something like RNA in not the primordial soup this time—nobody in the know ever was too comfortable with that crackbrained theory: too—what’s the word?—soupy—but a nice crisp paste of clay genes, organic replication is right around the corner, first as a subsystem, a kind of optional extra parallel with the crystal growth, and then taking over with that gene swap I mentioned earlier, and the clay genes falling away, since the organic molecules, mostly carbon, can do the job better, once they’re established. Believe me, pal, it fills a lot of theoretical holes. Nothing to matter, dead matter to life, smooth as silk. God? Forget the old bluffer.”


Conclusions and Implications

From The Miracle of Theism: Arguments for and Against the Existence of God

J. L. MACKIEFor some reason, many of the arguments about Church and State, and about divine will versus natural selection, have taken place at Oxford University. If Shelley or Huxley had known that J. L. Mackie (of Shelley’s own college) would be intervening in this old dispute in the late twentieth century, they could have relaxed in the knowledge that a brilliant philosopher had laid waste to the enemy camp.

(a) The Challenge of Nihilism

We may approach our conclusion by considering Hans Küng’s massive work, Does God Exist?1 Subtitled “An Answer for Today,” this book not only brings together many lines of thought that bear upon this question, but also sets out to interpret our whole present moral and intellectual situation. It displays a fantastic wealth of learning; it is also extremely diffuse. Time and again after raising an issue Küng will slightly change the subject, and often when we need an argument he gives us a quotation, a report of the views of yet another thinker, or even a fragment of biography. I think he is also unduly concerned with contemporary relevance, and is liable to tell us that some statement or argument is out of date, when all that matters is whether it is true or false, sound or unsound. Nevertheless, as we shall find, there is a main connecting thread of argument, and his final answer, at least, is explicit(p. 702): After the difficult passage through the history of the modern age from the time of Descartes and Pascal, Kant and Hegel, considering in detail the objections raised in the critique of religion by Feuerbach, Marx and Freud, seriously confronting Nietzsche’s nihilism, seeking the reason for our fundamental trust and the answer in trust in God, in comparing finally the alternatives of the Eastern religions, entering also into the question “Who is God?” and of the God of Israel and of Jesus Christ: after all this, it will be understood why the question “Does God exist?” can now be answered by a clear, convinced Yes, justifiable at the bar of critical reason.

However, the substance of his discussion is far less satisfactory. One crucial question is whether his final “Yes” is to the god of traditional theism or to some “replacement for God”; but the answer to this question is far from clear. For example, in his Interim Results II: Theses on secularity and historicity of God we find this (pp. 185–186): God is not a supramundane being above the clouds, in the physical heaven. The naive, anthropomorphic idea is obsolete…For man’s being and action, this means that God is not an almighty, absolute ruler exercising unlimited power just as he chooses over world and man.God is not an extramundane being, beyond the stars, in the metaphysical heaven. The rationalistic-deistic idea is obsolete…For man’s being and action, this means that God is not now—so to speak—a constitutionally reigning monarch who is bound, for his part, by a constitution based on natural and moral law and who has largely retired from the concrete life of the world and man.God is in this world, and this world is in God. There must be a uniform understanding of reality. God is not only a (supreme) finite…alongside finite things. He is in fact the infinite in the finite, transcendence in immanence, the absolute in the relative. It is precisely as the absolute that God can enter into a relationship with the world of man…God is therefore the absolute who includes and creates relativity, who, precisely as free, makes possible and actualizes relationship: God as the absolute-relative, here-hereafter, transcendent-immanent, all-embracing and all-permeating most real reality in the heart of things, in man, in the history of mankind, in the world…For man’s being and action, this means that God is the close-distant, secular-nonsecular God, who precisely as sustaining, upholding us in all life and movement, failure and falling, is also always present and encompassing us.

And, after rejecting both the “Greek-metaphysical” and the “medieval-metaphysical” concepts of God, he adds (Chapter 26): God is the living God, always the selfsame, dynamically actual and continually active in history. Precisely as the eternally perfect, he is free to seize the “possibility” of becoming historical…. For man’s being and action, this means that God is the living God who in all his indisposability and freedom knows and loves man, acts, moves, and attracts in man’s history.

Later, for comparison with Eastern religions, he reports and seems to endorse “the Western tradition of a negative theology from Pseudo-Dionysius to Heidegger”: (pp. 601–602): God cannot be grasped in any concept, cannot be fully expressed in any statement, cannot be defined in any definition: he is the incomprehensible, inexpressible, indefinable.Neither does the concept of being embrace him…he is not an existent: he transcends everything…but…he is not outside all that is; inherent in the world and man, he determines their being from within…In God therefore transcendence and immanence coincide…Before God, all talk emerges from listening silence and leads to speaking silence.

Later again, in discussing “the God of the Bible,” he says (p. 632): God is not a person as man is a person. The all-embracing and all-penetrating is never an object that man can view from a distance in order to make statements about it. The primal ground, primal support and primal goal of all reality…is not an individual person among other persons, is not a superman or superego.

But also (p. 633): A God who founds personality cannot himself be nonpersonal…God is not neuter, not an “it,” but a God of men…He is spirit in creative freedom, the primordial identity of justice and love, one who faces me as founding and embracing all interhuman personality…. It will be better to call the most real reality not personal or impersonal but…transpersonal or suprapersonal.

But, despite all this, Küng also accepts in some sense the God of the Bible who, he says, is wholly and entirely essentially a “God with a human face” (p. 666). It is “overhasty” to dissociate the God of the philosophers from the God of the Bible, but also “superficial” simply to harmonize them. Rather, we should “see the relationship in a truly dialectical way. In the God of the Bible, the God of the philosophers is the best, threefold sense of the Hegelian term “sublated” (aufgehoben)—at one and the same time affirmed, negated, and transcended.” What is more, he “venture[s] without hesitation to declare: Credo in Jesum Christum, filium Dei unigenitum” (I believe in Jesus Christ, the only-begotten son of God) and “can confidently say even now: Credo in Spiritum Sanctum” (I believe in the Holy Spirit) (pp. 688, 699). That is, for all the contrary appearances, he affirms his own orthodoxy.

Küng is obviously fond of having it all ways at once. This is further illustrated by his remarks about miracles (pp. 650–651). Miracles recorded in the Bible “cannot be proved historically to be violations of the laws of nature”; a miracle is merely “everything that arouses man’s wonder,” not necessarily a divine intervention violating natural law. The miracle stories are “lighthearted popular narratives intended to provoke admiring faith.” (If so, we may comment, they have no tendency to support any kind of supernaturalism or theism.) Yet “no one who links belief in God with miracles is to be disturbed in his religious feelings. The sole aim here is to provide a helpful answer to modern man for whom miracles are a hindrance to his belief in God.” That is, if your belief in God is supported by miracles, Küng will endorse them for you; but if you find them an obstacle to belief, he will explain them away! Similarly he quotes with approval Bultmann’s remark: “By faith I can understand an idea or a decision as a divine inspiration, without detaching the idea or decision from its link with its psychological justification” (p. 653).

One main strand in Küng’s thinking brings him close to Hume’s Demea, who stands for an infinite and incomprehensible god against the anthropomorphism of Cleanthes. But then we should recall how Hume uses Demea’s view to prepare the way for Philo’s skepticism. A god as indescribable and indeterminate as the one Küng seems to offer provides no purchase for reasoning, nothing of which argument can take hold in order to support the thesis that such a god exists.

Nevertheless, Küng claims to have given an argument. As we saw, he says that his “Yes” is “justifiable at the bar of critical reason.” Against such writers as Norman Malcolm and D. Z. Phillips, he says firmly that “the question of truth cannot be avoided. And this truth can be tested by experience, as we shall see, by indirect verification through the experience of reality” (p. 505). And again (p. 528): No, theology cannot evade the demands for confirmation of belief in God: Not a blind, but a justifiable belief: a person should not be abused, but convinced by arguments, so that he can make a responsible decision of faith. Not a belief devoid of reality, but a belief related to reality.

Part of his case consists of his replies to the various arguments for atheism, essentially various proposed natural histories of religion. As we saw there, despite the weaknesses of some oversimplified theories, a satisfactory natural history of religion can be outlined. Küng’s criticisms come in the end to no more than what we have conceded and stressed, that such an explanation of religious beliefs is not a primary argument against their truth. He still needs a positive argument for theism; and indeed he tries to give one.

He concedes (p. 533) that “There is no direct experience of God.” Equally he explicitly rejects (though for inadequately stated reasons) the cosmological, teleological, and ontological proofs (pp. 534–535). But he says that though “the probative character of the proofs of God is finished today,” yet their “non-demonstrable content” remains important. For the ontological proof, he offers only the (deplorable) suggestion that it should be “understood less as a proof than as an expression of trusting faith”; but, as we shall see, he really uses the cosmological and teleological arguments in an altered form—indeed, in a form that has some resemblance to Swinburne’s, in that he proposes that “belief in God is to be verified but not proved” (p. 536). Küng, however, combines this with echoes both of the moral proofs and of the will to believe: “an inductive lead does not seem impossible, attempting to throw light on the experience of uncertain reality, which is accessible to each and everyone, in order thus—as it were, by way of “practical reason,” of the “ought,” or (better) of the “whole man’—to confront man as thinking and acting with a rationally justifiable decision that goes beyond pure reason and demands the whole person.” Since his argument thus brings together several different strands, we may be able to use discussion of it to introduce the fulfillment of the undertaking…not merely to examine separately the various arguments for the existence of a god, but also to consider their combined effect, and to weigh them together against the various arguments on the other side, before reaching our final conclusion. This conclusion will be reached in section (b) below.

For Küng the question is not whether we can or cannot advance from an already established knowledge of the natural world, or of consciousness, or of morality, to further, specifically theistic, hypotheses or conclusions. His strategy is rather to argue that in present day thought rationality, both speculative and practical, is threatened along with theism by a pervasive tendency to nihilism. This nihilism, of which he finds the most powerful exponent in Nietzsche, is summed up as the denial of the three classical transcendentals: there is no unity, no truth, no goodness. Man deludes himself in thinking he has found any totality, system, or organization in events; he has sought a meaning in events that is not there; there is no absolute nature of things nor a “thing-in-itself”; the world is valueless and purposeless. Nihilism presents itself “as insight into the nothingness, contradictoriness, meaninglessness, worthlessness, of reality” (Chapter 44).

Küng insists that “The thoroughgoing uncertainty of reality itself makes nihilism possible, whether in practical life…or in philosophical or unphilosophical reflection.” Moreover, it is irrefutable: “There is no rationally conclusive argument against the possibility of nihilism. It is indeed at least possible that this human life, in the last resort, is meaningless, that chance, blind fate, chaos, absurdity and illusion rule the world” (Chapter 44). On the other hand, nihilism is not provable. It is not a priori impossible that “in the last resort, everything is nevertheless identical, meaningful, valuable, real” (Chapter 44). Consequently the basic question is, “Can nihilism be overcome, and, if so, how?” (Chapter 44).

The fundamental alternative, Küng says, is between trust and mistrust, “in which I stake myself without security or guarantee…either I regard reality…as trustworthy and reliable—or not”—a choice which he explicitly compares with Pascal’s wager (Chapter 44). Fundamental trust, he adds, is natural to man, it makes us “open to reality,” and “The Yes can be consistently maintained in practice,” whereas the opposite of each of these holds for fundamental distrust (pp. 443–446). There is a “way of critical rationality” which is ‘a middle way between an irrational ‘uncritical dogmatism’ and a ‘critical rationalism’ that also, in the last resort, rests on irrational foundations”; it is a “completely reasonable risk, which, however, always remains a risk” (Chapter 44).

So far so good, though Küng has rather exaggerated the threat. That there is some reality is beyond doubt. The extreme of nihilism would be to deny that reality is discoverable or understandable; but there is no serious case for this denial. Küng differentiates the critical rationality which he defends from the “critical rationalism” which he rejects (and which he finds, perhaps mistakenly, in Karl Popper and Hans Albert), on the ground that the latter dispenses, as the former does not, with any critical examination of the foundations of our knowledge and so involves an irrational faith in reason. We can agree that nothing is to be exempt from criticism, not even the critical method itself, though of course not everything can be criticized at once: while we are examining any one issue, we must take various other things for granted. This precludes the attainment of certainty, and it should exclude the search for certainty. But there is no great mystery about this, nor any great modernity. Some of the essential points…were made by William James in defence of a fallibilist, experimental, but optimistic and risk-taking empiricism. As James says, a risk which gives us our only chance of discovering the truth, or even approaching it, is indeed a reasonable risk.

Further, the assumption that there is some order, some regularity, to be found in the world—not necessarily strict causal determinism—both is a regulative principle which we can and do use in developing and testing other hypotheses and also is itself a hypothesis of a very broad kind, which in turn is open to testing and confirmation.2 This seems to be the main thing that Küng means by “unity,” so this too is covered by “critical rationality,” that is, by a fallibilistic but optimistic empiricism. Such an approach, whatever name we give it, can thus be seen to be reasonable in itself, and not in need of any further justification or support.

The reply to nihilism about unity and truth is therefore straightforward, and we can agree with the substance of what Küng says about this. His reply to nihilism about goodness or value is trickier and more controversial. He quotes with approval the view of H. Sachsse that there is a present and pressing need for the development of “relevant and practical norms” (Chapter 45). He concedes that “Today less than ever can we call down from heaven ready-made solutions, or deduce them theologically from an immutable universal essential nature of man.” He concedes, too, that “There is in fact what Nietzsche called a ‘genealogy of morals’”—that is, that concrete existing ethical systems have been developed by a socio-historical process—and that today we have to “work out ‘on earth’ discriminating solutions for all the difficult problems. We are responsible for our morality” (Chapter 45). All this is strikingly similar to the main theme of my Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong3—and, what is more important, it is in itself an adequate reply to nihilism about value. But then Küng seems to slide to a very different thesis (Chapter 45): Any acceptance of meaning, truth and rationality, of values and ideals…presupposes a fundamental trust in uncertain reality: by contrast with nihilism, an assent in principle to its fundamental identity, meaningfulness and value…Only if the reality of the world and man, as accepted in fundamental trust, is characterized by an ultimate identity, meaningfulness and value, can individual norms of genuinely human behavior and action be deduced in an appropriate way from this reality and—decisively—from the essential human needs, pressures and necessities…

This is radically different. Now Küng is suggesting that we must after all postulate an objective value from which (along with the empirical facts of human needs, and so on) we might deduce specific norms. But this is an error, and in contrast with it we must hold fast to the thesis that value itself is a human and social product. This is not to deny, however, that there is an ethical variety of “fundamental trust” which is needed at the basis of our moral systems. We require, perhaps, a confident hope that we can find principles of co-operation in the midst of competition. This would be a generalization of the practical “precursive faith” of which William James speaks: only if people trust one another before each can be sure that the others are trustworthy will they have a chance of establishing effective cooperation.

There is, then, a reply to nihilism about goodness or value, which again can be seen to be reasonable in itself, and not in need of any further justification or support. But it is significantly different from the reply that Küng gives. Or rather, he both suggests this reply and slides to a different one.

But where, we may ask, does God come into all this? With comic condescension, Küng allows that “On the basis of fundamental trust, even an atheist can lead a genuinely human, that is, humane, and in this sense moral, life,” and that “Even atheists and agnostics are not necessarily nihilists, but can be humanists and moralists” (Chapter 45). Nevertheless, he now makes the crucial step in the direction of theism: “It must now be obvious that the fundamental trust in the identity, meaningfulness and value of reality, which is the presupposition of human science and autonomous ethics, is justified in the last resort only if reality itself—of which man is also a part—is not groundless, unsupported and aimless” (Chapter 46).

No. This is not obvious at all. Indeed it is false, and Küng’s own argument shows it to be false. The kind of fundamental trust that counters nihilism about truth and “unity,” the “critical rationality” of which he speaks, is reasonable in its own right for the reasons he has given. And the same is true of the motives for the invention of value. There is no need to look for or postulate any “ground, support, or goal” for reality. The broad hypothesis that there is some order in the world is one which it is reasonable to adopt tentatively, but also to test; and it has been strongly confirmed by the inquiries which have (implicitly) tested it. Likewise, though the inventing of moral values has gone on mainly spontaneously, it is reasonable in the sense that it is only by having the attitudes which that invention expresses that we are able to live together without destroying one another. Each of these is defensible on its own: neither needs any further support.

But it is upon this utterly unwarranted step that Küng bases his further case for a god. He is seeking not, indeed, a demonstrative proof, but an “indirect verification,” of God as the supposedly required primal ground, primal support, and primal goal of all reality.

He first asserts that “If God exists, then the grounding reality is not ultimately groundless…the supporting reality is not ultimately unsupported…evolving reality is not ultimately without aim… and reality suspended between being and not being is not ultimately under suspicion of being a void.” He adds that while this hypothesis opposes nihilism, it can also explain the appearance of nihilism: reality appears to be ultimately groundless, unsupported, and aimless “Because uncertain reality is itself not God.” Similarly, the hypothesis that God exists can give ultimate meaning and hope to one’s own life; but it can also explain the appearance of meaninglessness and emptiness here “Because man is not God” (pp. 566–568).

By contrast, he thinks, atheism would imply an ultimately unjustified fundamental trust in reality, and therefore the danger of “the possible disunion, meaninglessness, worthlessness, hollowness of reality as a whole” (p. 571).

Küng concludes that “Affirmation of God implies an ultimately justified fundamental trust in reality. If someone affirms God, he knows why he can trust reality.” Hence “there is no stalemate between belief in God and atheism” (p. 572). Though this affirmation “rests, in the last resort, on a decision” (p. 569), because there is no conclusive argument either for or against it, yet “trust in God is by no means irrational…I know…by the very fact of doing this, that I am doing the right thing…what cannot be proved in advance I experience in the accomplishment,” and this provides “a fundamental certainty.” Thus understood, “Belief in God…is a matter not only of human reason but of the whole concrete, living man” (pp. 573–574).

I have summarized Küng’s argument as far as possible in his own words, because a paraphrase would not only detract from its eloquence but also risk distorting a view that contains so many complexities and contrasts. My criticisms must, and can, be briefer.

Küng’s final step seems to claim that the very act of believing in God is self-verifying; but he gives no reason at all for this claim. The act may carry with it a conviction of certainty: the relief of ceasing to doubt is pleasantly reassuring. But this is purely subjective: to rely on this would be merely another form of the assumption that there is a kind of experience which guarantees the objective validity of its content or intentional object which Küng himself has rightly dismissed (p. 533). Alternatively, the suggestion may be that in postulating a god one is postulating that which grounds both itself and everything else. But to claim that the very content of this postulation gives it objective certainty is to employ yet again the ontological argument, and Küng has rightly dismissed this too (pp. 533, 535).

If we delete this unsound final step, Küng’s argument turns essentially upon the confirming of a hypothesis, and in particular upon the relative confirmation of the god-hypothesis as against that of an objective natural world (including human beings) which has no further ground or support or goal. As for the explanation of the appearance of nihilism, the god-hypothesis is in exactly the same position as its naturalistic rival. The one says that though there is a god, this god is not obvious, and “uncertain reality” is not this god, that is, is not its own primal ground, support, or goal; the other says simply that there is no such primal ground, support, or goal. In either case the lack of any obvious primal ground leaves room for nihilism. The two rival hypotheses are equal also in their explanations of the appearance of meaninglessness in human life. But though they are equally able to explain the appearance of nihilism, the god-hypothesis is the less economical. Its merits, if any, must be due to the other aspect, to its allegedly providing reality with a ground, support, and goal, and man with an objectively valid aim. But Küng has said nothing to explain how the god-hypothesis is supposed to do this. Indeed, the Demea-like indeterminacy of his account of God would make it hard for him to do so. But what he hints at is, in fact, a set of suggestions which we have already explicitly stated and examined, especially in Swinburne’s inductive versions of the cosmological and design arguments, in Leslie’s extreme axiarchism. To avoid assuming “the groundlessness and instability of reality as a whole,” Küng suggests that it may be reasonable to assume “a cause of all causes”; and to avoid assuming the meaninglessness and aimlessness of reality as a whole it may be reasonable to assume “an end of ends” (pp. 534–535), or again “a God who will bring to perfection the world and man” (p. 657). “Believing in God as Finisher of the world means coolly and realistically—and even more, without succumbing to the violent benefactors of the people—to work for a better future, a better society, in peace, freedom and justice, and at the same time to know without illusions that this can always only be sought but never completely realized by man” (p. 659).

But the explanations at which Küng hints are completely undermined by the criticisms we have given of the specific arguments in Chapters 5, 6, 7, 8, and 13. As I have said, we have no empirical basis, in a knowledge of direct, unmediated, fulfilments of will, from which we might extrapolate to anything like Swinburne’s personal explanation as a way of using a god to explain the world or its details. Nor, correspondingly, do we have any empirical basis for the axiarchist’s suggestion that value as such may be intrinsically creative. Nor, again, could we find any ultimately plausible account of how moral values might rest upon or be created or sustained by a god. Still less do we need anything like a god to counter the supposed threat of aimlessness. Men are themselves purposive beings. In their own nature they unavoidably pursue aims and goals; they do not need these to be given them from outside. To be sure, their purposes are limited, specific, and above all conflicting: diverse strivings do not automatically resolve themselves into any grand harmonious everlasting Purpose. That is why there is a real and continuing task of inventing norms and principles through which we can achieve some rough approximation to harmony or at least contain within tolerable limits the inescapable conflicts of purpose.4 We can welcome Küng’s realistic appreciation of this task and his readiness to take part in it. But neither participation in this task, nor the generalization of William James’s “precursive faith” which we may need to bring to it, depends in any way on a belief in “God as Finisher”; rather, their reasonability arises directly out of a human appreciation of the human situation, as Küng’s own argument shows. Nor are the difficult details of this task made any easier by postulating any sort of god.

If the specific suggestions of personal explanation, creative value, and the various forms of the moral argument fail, we are left with the postulation of a god as merely that which somehow supplies a ground, support, or goal for reality. But to postulate an entity as that which does something gives us no real additional explanation. If we say, for example, that reality is supported because there is something that supports it, the alleged explanation merely repeats what was to be explained; at best, we have a place-holder for a real explanation. Moreover, even if this god-hypothesis did somehow explain the world or moral values or human purposes, we should face again the familiar objection: Why is this (uncertain) god not as much in need of further explanation or support as “uncertain reality”? To say that God is introduced by definition as that which explains itself, that which terminates the regress of explanation, is again empty and useless; but any attempt to explain and justify the claim that he has such a special status leads us, as we have seen, to the concept which underlies the ontological proof….

Küng’s strategy, as we have seen, is to incorporate the question of the existence of a god within the wider question of how modern man is to meet the challenge of nihilism, and to suggest that the latter can be solved only by a decision in favour of an affirmative answer to the former. But this is wrong. Ironically, he has himself supplied all the materials for showing that the challenge of both intellectual and moral or practical nihilism can be met in purely human terms, by what Küng calls a “fundamental trust” which is reasonable in its own right—that is, equivalently, by a fallibilist empiricism on the intellectual side and on the practical side by the invention of value. The further postulation of a god, even as indeterminate and mysterious a god as Küng’s, is a gratuitous addition to this solution, an attempted underpinning which is as needless as it is incomprehensible.

(b) The Balance of Probabilities

We can now bring together the many different arguments for theism which we have discussed, and consider their combined effect. But some of them cannot be combined with one another. The thesis that there is a Berkeleian god is so different from any view that adds a god, either immanent or transcendent (or both immanent and transcendent, like Küng’s), to the ordinary material or spatiotemporal world, that arguments for the one cannot assist those for the other. There is a similar discrepancy between Swinburne’s (or Cleanthes’) explicitly personal god and the creative value proposed by extreme axiarchism, though Küng’s god is perhaps so medially placed between these that he could share some arguments with each of them. Moreover, the ontological argument, in all its forms, has been shown to be simply unsound; it can contribute no weight at all to the case for theism. On the contrary, its failure does, as Kant said, though not exactly in the way that Kant thought, undermine the various forms of cosmological argument: even if the concept of a being whose essence includes existence is admissible, such a being would not exist in all logically possible worlds, and its existence in the actual world would not be a priori certain or self-explanatory; it would not terminate the regress of explanation. But there is at least one interesting and important possibility of consilience, namely that which would bring together (1) reported miracles, (2) inductive versions of the design and consciousness arguments, picking out as “marks of design” both the fact that there are causal regularities at all and the fact that the fundamental natural laws and physical constants are such as to make possible the development of life and consciousness, (3) an inductive version of the cosmological argument, seeking an answer to the question “Why is there any world at all?” (4) the suggestion that there are objective moral values whose occurrence likewise calls for further explanation, and (5) the suggestion that some kinds of religious experience can be best understood as direct awareness of something supernatural. These various considerations might be held jointly to support the hypothesis that there is a personal or quasi-personal god.

In evaluating this possibility, we must note how in principle a hypothesis can be supported by the consilience of different considerations, each of which, on its own, leaves the balance of probabilities against that hypothesis. Suppose that there are several pieces of evidence, e1, e2 and e3 each of which would fit in with a hypothesis h, but each of which, on its own, is explained with less initial improbability on some other grounds, say by g1, g2, and g3 respectively. Yet if the improbability involved in postulating h is less than the sum of the improbabilities involved in the rival explanations g1, g2, and g3, though it is greater than each of these improbabilities separately, the balance of probabilities when we take e1, e2 and e3 together will favour the hypothesis h. It is important that it is just the one initial improbability of h that is weighed in turn against the improbabilities of g1, g2, g3, and then against the sum of these.

But the supposed consilience of theistic arguments does not satisfy the requirements of this formal pattern. As we have seen, the fi st and fifth of these considerations are extremely weak: all the evidence that they can muster is easily explained in natural terms, without any improbabilities worth taking into account. Consciousness and the actual phenomena of morality and valuing as a human activity are explained without further improbabilities, given that the natural world is such as to allow life to evolve, so the only improbabilities to be scored against the naturalistic kind of explanation are whatever may be involved in there being causal regularities, the fundamental laws and physical constants being as they are, and there being any world at all. Against the rival theistic hypothesis we should have to score the (significant) improbability that if there were a god he (or it) would create a world with causal laws, and one with our specific causal laws and constants, but also the great improbability of there being a process of the unmediated fulfilment of will, and, besides, the basic improbability of there being a god at all. For while the naturalist had admittedly no reply to Leibniz’s question “Why is there a world at all?” the theist, once deprived of the illusory support of the ontological argument, is equally embarrassed by the question “Why is there a god at all?” Whatever initial improbability there may be in the unexplained brute fact that there is a world, there is a far greater initial improbability in what the theist has to assert as the unexplained brute fact that there is a god capable of creating a world.

In the end, therefore, we can agree with what Laplace said about God: we have no need of that hypothesis. This conclusion can be reached by an examination precisely of the arguments advanced in favour of theism, without even bringing into play what have been regarded as the strongest considerations on the other side, the problem of evil and the various natural histories of religion. When these are thrown into the scales, the balance tilts still further against theism. Although we could not (in Chapter 9) rule out the possibility that some acceptable modification of traditional theism might enable it to accommodate the occurrence of evils, we saw that no sound solution of this sort has yet been offered; the extreme difficulty that theism has in reconciling its own doctrines with one another in this respect must tell heavily against it. Also, although the clear possibility of developing an adequate natural explanation of the origin, evolution, and persistence of religious belief is not a primary argument against theism, and could be brushed aside if there were any cogent positive case for the existence of a god, yet, since there is no such case, it helps to make the negative case still more conclusive. It removes the vague but obstinate feeling that where so many people have believed so firmly—and sometimes fervently—and where religious thought and organization have been so tenacious and so resilient “there must be something in it.” We do not need to invoke the “higher causes” by which Machiavelli (with his tongue in his cheek) said that ecclesiastical principalities are upheld.5 The occurrence, even the continuing occurrence, of theism is not, in Hume’s phrase, a continued miracle which subverts all the principles of our understanding.

The balance of probabilities, therefore, comes out strongly against the existence of a god. Chapter 11 has shown that we cannot escape the implications of this result by making a voluntary faith intellectually respectable. The most that we could allow was James’s experimental approach, and, as we saw, it would be very hard for this to yield a favourable result. In Chapter 12 we saw the failure of some popular attempts to free religion from the need to defend its traditional factual beliefs; and in Chapter 13 we considered, but rejected, some replacements for a god of the traditional sort. There is at any rate no easy way of defending religion once it is admitted that the literal, factual claim that there is a god cannot be rationally sustained.

(c) The Moral Consequences of Atheism

But some readers, I know, even some thoughtful and fairminded readers, will not be satisfied. I suspect that the most lasting obstacle to the acceptance of atheism is a lingering notion that such acceptance would be morally and practically disastrous. It may, therefore, be relevant to end with a brief survey of the moral consequences of atheism.

There are four main kinds of view about the general nature and status of morality. The first of these sees moral rules and principles, whatever other functions they may serve, as being essentially the commands or requirements of a god (or gods), backed up by the promise of rewards and the threat of penalties either in this life or in an afterlife. The second (Kantian, rationalist, or intuitionist) sees moral principles as objectively valid prescriptions, formulated or discovered by human reason or intellect, and autonomously authoritative, independently of any god; if someone who holds this view also believes that there is a god, he will see the goodness of this god as consisting in his exemplifying these independent principles. A third view is that which we considered at the end of Chapter 6, according to which there are objectively valid principles as the second view maintains, but they are in some way created and sustained in existence by a god. The fourth (Humean, sentimentalist, subjectivist, or naturalistic) view is that morality is essentially a human, social product, that moral concepts, principles, and practices have developed by some process of biological and social evolution. Their origin and persistence are due somehow to the fact that they enable human beings, whose natural situation includes a mixture of competitive and co-operative forces, and a need for co-operation, to survive and nourish better, by limiting the competition and facilitating the co-operation. But morality is not, on this view, necessarily understood in this light by those who adhere to it: it is possible that its adherents should hold one of the other three views, and yet that a correct description, from the outside, of their thinking and conduct should be given by this naturalistic account.

Now if some adherent to a morality has held either the first or the third of these views, so that he has seen morality as essentially dependent upon some god, then it is indeed possible that if he then ceases to believe in that god his adherence to that morality will be undermined: the immediate moral consequences of his atheism may be deplorable. This is a good reason for not tying morality to religious teaching at a time when religious belief is itself fragile. The point is well made by Richard Robinson’s story of a priest saying to a pair of well-behaved atheists, “I can’t understand you boys; if I didn’t believe in God I should be having a high old time.”6 But if either our second view (of an autonomous objective ethics) or our fourth (naturalist or sentimentalist) view is correct, there is no reason to suppose that such undermining will be either a lasting or a general effect of the decay of religious belief. Indeed, it is hardly even necessary that either of these views should be correct: it is enough that they are available to the atheist. But in particular if, as I have argued elsewhere, the fourth view is correct, then morality has a genuine causal source of its own.7 It is basically a matter of feelings and attitudes, partly instinctive, developed by biological evolution, and partly acquired, developed by socio-historical evolution and passed on from generation to generation less by deliberate education than by the automati transmission of cultural traits. Since it has such a source, quite independent of religion, it is certain to survive when religion decays.

However, this may seem to be too abstract, too a priori, an argument. Is there any better, more empirical, evidence about the contrasting moral consequences of theism and of atheism? The only simple answer to this question is that there is no simple answer. Neither theists nor atheists have any monopoly of either the vices or the virtues. Nor is any statistical survey likely to establish a clear causal tendency for religious belief, or the lack of it, to encourage either virtue or vice. This is partly because the determination of what is to count as virtue or as vice, or of the relative importance of particular virtues and vices, is itself relevantly controversial; this is one of the issues on which believers and non-believers are divided. Another reason is that there are indefinitely many degrees of belief and disbelief. But even if we confined our survey to an agreed core of virtues on the one hand and of vices on the other, and to unequivocal samples of theists and atheists, any statistical results would still be indecisive. For if there were, as I suspect there would then be, some positive correlation between atheism and virtue, this would still not establish a causal tendency for atheism as such to promote virtue. It could be too easily explained away by the fact that, other things being equal, there is likely to be a higher incidence of disbelief among the “wise and learned,” for the reason hinted at by Hume in his essay on miracles.8

Since there is little prospect of reliable direct empirical evidence, we must fall back on some general considerations. What differences would it make to morality if there were, or if there were not, a god, and again if people associated, or did not associate, their morality with religious belief?

The unsatisfactory character of the first, divine command, view of morality was pointed out by Plato, whose objections have been echoed many times.9 If moral values were constituted wholly by divine commands, so that goodness consisted in conformity to God’s will, we could make no sense of the theist’s own claims that God is good and that he seeks the good of his creation. However, it would be possible to hold coherently that while the goodness of some states of affairs—for example, of one sort of human life as contrasted with others—is independent of God’s will, it is only his commands that supply the prescriptive element in morality. Or they could be seen as supplying an additional prescriptive element. A religious morality might then be seen as imposing stronger obligations.

Both these variants, however, as Kant pointed out, tend to corrupt morality, replacing the characteristically moral motives—whether these are construed as a rational sense of duty and fairness, or as specific virtuous dispositions, or as generous, co-operative, and sympathetic feelings—by a purely selfish concern for the agent’s own happiness, the desire to avoid divine punishments and to enjoy the rewards of God’s favour, in this life or in an afterlife. This divine command view can also lead people to accept, as moral, requirements that have no discoverable connection—indeed, no connection at all—with human purposes or well-being, or with the well-being of any sentient creatures. That is, it can foster a tyrannical, irrational morality. Of course, if there were not only a benevolent god but also a reliable revelation of his will, then we might be able to get from it expert moral advice about difficult issues, where we could not discover for ourselves what are the best policies. But there is no such reliable revelation. Even a theist must see that the purported revelations, such as the Bible and the Koran, condemn themselves by enshrining rules which we must reject as narrow, out-dated, or barbarous. As Küng says, “We are responsible for our morality.” More generally, tying morality to religious belief is liable to devalue it, not only by undermining it, temporarily, if the belief decays, but also by subordinating it to other concerns while the belief persists.

There is, indeed, a strain in religion that positively welcomes sin as a precondition for salvation. Jesus himself is reported as saying “I am not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” Luther says that “God is the god of the humble, the miserable, the oppressed, and the desperate,” and that “that pernicious and pestilent opinion of man’s own righteousness…suffereth not God to come to his own natural and proper work.” And William James reports (at second hand) an orthodox minister who said that Dr. Channing (the eminent Unitarian) “is excluded from the highest form of religious life by the extraordinary rectitude of his character.”10

It is widely supposed that Christian morality is particularly admirable. Here it is important to distinguish between the original moral teachings of Jesus, so far as we can determine them, and later developments in the Christian tradition. Richard Robinson has examined the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) as the best evidence for Jesus’s own teaching, and he finds in them five major precepts: “love God, believe in me, love man, be pure in heart, be humble.” The reasons given for these precepts are “a plain matter of promises and threats”: they are “that the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” and that “those who obey these precepts will be rewarded in heaven, while those who disobey will have weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Robinson notes that “Certain ideals that are prominent elsewhere are rather conspicuously absent from the synoptic gospels.” These include beauty, truth, knowledge, and reason: As Jesus never recommends knowledge, so he never recommends the virtue that seeks and leads to knowledge, namely reason. On the contrary, he regards certain beliefs as in themselves sinful…whereas it is an essential part of the ideal of reason to hold that no belief can be morally wrong if reached in the attempt to believe truly. Jesus again and again demands faith; and by faith he means believing certain very improbable things without considering evidence or estimating probabilities; and that is contrary to reason. (Chapter 21)

Robinson adds: Jesus says nothing on any social question except divorce, and all ascriptions of any political doctrine to him are false. He does not pronounce about war, capital punishment, gambling, justice, the administration of law, the distribution of goods, socialism, equality of income, equality of sex, equality of colour, equality of opportunity, tyranny, freedom, slavery, self-determination, or contraception. There is nothing Christian about being for any of these things, nor about being against them, if we mean by “Christian” what Jesus taught according to the synoptic gospels.The Jesus of the synoptic gospels says little on the subject of sex. He is against divorce. He speaks of adultery as a vice, and perhaps includes in adultery all extramarital intercourse. The story of the woman taken in adultery, which is of a synoptic character though it appears in texts of John, preaches a humane and forgiving attitude towards sexual errors. Jesus shows no trace of that dreadful hatred of sex as such which has disfigured the subsequent history of the Christian churches…(Chapte 21)

Robinson goes on to comment on the morality of the Bible: Newman said that when non-Christians read the Christian Bible “they are much struck with the high tone of its precepts” (Sermon on John xiii. 17). That is contrary to my experience. I shall never forget the first time I read the Old Testament after I had acquired the habit of independent judgment. I was horrified at its barbarity, and bewildered that it had been widely held up as a store of ideals. It seemed to describe a savage people, fierce and brutal, no more admirable than the worse of the savage cultures that anthropologists describe to us today, and a great deal less admirable than the gentler cultures they report.Nor will Newman’s words fit the impression made by the synoptic gospels. They are a beautiful and fascinating piece of literature; and they preach the great precept “love thy neighbour.” But this precept is overshadowed in them both by the harsh unloving behaviour of the preacher, and by its absolute subordination to the unreasonable commands to love God and believe in Jesus. (pp. 150–151)

Robinson urges us to reject these commands and the associated values of piety, faith, and improvidence. He reminds us that “many of man’s most terrible actions have been done out of piety, and that piety is responsible for our shameful wars of religion.” He also characterizes the view that belief, or disbelief, can be sinful as a “blasphemy against reason.” He says that we should accept the precept to love our neighbours, “extended as Jesus perhaps extended it to love of all humanity, and still further to love of all life, as he certainly did not extend it”(Chapter 21), and such consequential attitudes as generosity, gentleness, mercy, and the observance of the golden rule. However, we might well query (though Robinson does not) the precise command to love your neighbour as yourself. This seems unrealistically to prescribe a degree of altruism that is in general not humanly possible, and so to make of morality a fantasy rather than something that people can seriously try to practise and can ask of one another. Robinson does query the injunction to be pure in heart, and also the call for humility: it is better to make true estimates both of oneself and of others, and not lie about them, though in public “the right choice will usually be to refrain from drawing attention either to our superiorities or to our inferiorities” (pp. 153–154).

The later tradition of Christian ethics has tended to add to Jesus’s teaching some deplorable elements, such as hostility to sex, and many more admirable ones, such as concern with justice and the other requirements for the nourishing of human life in society, and ideals of beauty, truth, knowledge, and (up to a point) reason. But it has in general retained the concern with salvation and an afterlife, and the view that disbelief, or even doubt, or criticism of belief, is sinful, with the resulting tendencies to the persecution of opponents—including, of course, the adherents of rival Christian sects and rival religions—the discouragement of discussion, hostility (even now in some places) to the teaching of well-confirmed scientific truths, like the theory of evolution, and the propagation of contrary errors, and the intellectual dishonesty of trying to suppress one’s own well-founded doubts. Many people are shocked at the way in which the Unification Church (‘the Moonies’) entraps converts and enslaves their minds and emotions; but the same methods have been and are used by many more orthodox sects. Religion has, indeed, a remarkable ability to give vices the air of virtues, providing a sanctified outlet for some of the nastiest human motives. It is fashionable to ascribe the horrors of Nazism to an atheistic nationalism; but in fact the attitudes to the Jews which it expressed had long been established within the Christian tradition in Germany and elsewhere (sanctioned, for example, by Luther’s writing11), and the Old Testament itself reports many atrocities as having been not merely approved but positively demanded by God and his spokesmen.12 And while, following Robinson, I have spoken here particularly of Christian ethics, it is only too obvious that Islamic fundamentalism displays today, more clearly than Christianity has done recently, the worst aspects of religious morality. We do not need to go back in history to illustrate the dictum of Lucretius: Tantum religio potuit suadere malorum (So great are the evils that religion could prompt!)13 By contrast, there is a long tradition of an essentially humanist morality, from Epicurus to John Stuart Mill and modern writers, including Richard Robinson himself, centred on the conditions for the flourishing of human life and stressing intellectual honesty, tolerance, free inquiry, and individual rights.

There are, then, some marked dangers in a distinctively religious morality. But they are dangers only, not inevitable consequences of associating morality with religion. We can echo, in reverse, Küng’s concession: it is possible—for even a religious believer “to lead a genuinely human, that is humane, and in this sense moral life”; even theists are not necessarily narrow-minded dogmatists, intolerant persecutors, or propagators of timid credulity and a crudely calculating selfish version of morality itself. Even within Islam there have been thinkers who have tried to develop its humane and liberal tendencies, and to tone down its cruelty, intolerance, and its unfairness between the sexes, though at present their influence is in decline.

But are there no corresponding dangers in a distinctively non-religious morality? Admittedly, there are. As Robinson says, the Roman Catholic church is only “The second most intolerant and active body in the world today” (Chapter 28). Communist parties are expressly anti-religious, and profess an overriding concern with human welfare, but they are also intolerant, ruthless, and, once in power, they too make virtues of tyranny and persecution. And one must recognize that the Catholic church, despite its own illiberal tendencies, sometimes contributes significantly to the resistance to tyrannical states, whether communist or not. More generally, humanist moral thinking is prone either to illusions about necessary progress or to an over-optimistic voluntarism—that is, to assuming that “we” (whoever that may be) can make or remake the world as we would wish it to be, forgetting that the interplay of many different purposes is liable to result in the fulfillment of none of them.

An alleged weakness, not of non-religious moralities in general, but specifically of moralities explained and understood in the naturalistic way outlined above, is that different groups of people can develop different moral views, which will produce conflict when these groups are in contact with one another, and that there is, on this basis, no clear way of resolving such conflicts. This is true. But it is not a distinctive weakness of the naturalistic approach. Absolutist and objectivist moralities, including ones with religious attachments, also differ from one another, and there is no clear way of resolving their conflicts either. That each party believes that some one morality is objectively right is no guarantee that they will be able to agree on what it is. Indeed, conflicts between rival absolutists are likely to be less resolvable than conflicts between those who understand morality in a naturalistic way, for the latter can more easily appreciate the merits of compromise and adjustment, or of finding, for the areas of contact, a ius gentium, a common core of principles on which they can agree.

Another supposed weakness is this: it may be thought particularly difficult to derive any respect for non-human life, any valuing of nature in general, from a purely secular, human approach. But it is worth noting that Robinson, for example, specifically includes among his “atheist’s values” a “love of all life” (Chapter 21; see also pp. 186–187). In fact there is no question of deriving a morality from the facts of the human situation. What we can do is to understand how moral thinking can develop and what functions it serves; and we can also understand how it naturally extends itself beyond a quasi-contractual system by the operation of what Hume called “sympathy.”14

In contrast with any such real or supposed weaknesses in non-religious morality, we should note its distinctive merits, in particular its cultivation of a courageous realism in the face of the less palatable facts of life—and of death. But we need not dwell on this merit, since, as we have seen, it is dramatically recognized in Phillips’s attempt to take over, in the name of religion, the traditional non-believers’ attitude to the loss of one’s friends, the attitude of coming to terms with such loss without either denying it or suppressing it. The non-believer comes to terms with the inevitability of his own death in a similar way. Küng has likewise tried to take over in the name of religion the traditional non-believers’ view of morality itself: “We are responsible for our morality.” Robinson says that “The main irrationality of religion is preferring comfort to truth”(Chapter 14). Phillips and Küng are implicitly recognizing this traditional weakness in religion, and are proposing that religion should follow atheism in doing without it.

In Phillips, the moral take-over bid is linked with a strong tendency to disguise atheism on the theoretical side, and (Küng’s concept of God is so complex and so indeterminate that his position, too, may not be really so far removed from atheism. Should we then object to such take-overs? So long as the position adopted is, in substance, atheistic, what does it matter if it is called religion? After all, Epicurus was willing to postulate happy and immortal gods safely isolated from all contact with human affairs; Spinoza was willing to speak of Deus sive natura, identifying nature with God; and even Hume proposed a compromise: The theist allows, that the original intelligence is very different from human reason: The atheist allows, that the original principle of order bears some remote analogy to it. Will you quarrel, Gentlemen, about the degrees, and enter into a controversy, which admits not of any precise meaning, nor consequently of any determination.15

Today, however, it is more honest and less misleading to reject such compromises and evasions, which can too easily serve as a cover for the reintroduction of characteristically theistic views both on the intellectual and on the moral side.

Alternatively, is there any merit in Braithwaite’s approach, in retaining the religious “stories” as a psychological support for a morality, while explicitly rejecting any suggestion that they are factually true? This we might allow, provided that the morality they support is not of the kind we have been criticizing as distinctively religious. Apart from their other faults, such moralities have a tendency to be dangerously over-optimistic. Particularly in the field of international affairs, leaders who have too strong or too fundamentalist a faith may pursue policies which they know to be reckless, in the expectation that God will prevent the worst—and, for humanity, final-disasters. Such reliance would be quite different from the “fundamental trust” which Küng has reasonably advocated on purely human grounds. There are inevitable uncertainties in human affairs. Machiavelli speculated that “fortune is the ruler of one half of our actions, but…she allows the other half, or a little less, to be governed by us.”16 Damon Runyon put it more briefly: “Nothing human is better than two to one.” If so, the only reasonable plan is to do the best we can, taking all possible precautions against the worst disasters, but then to meet the uncertainties with cheerful confidence. “Trust in God and keep your powder dry,” understood as Braithwaite might understand it, may be good practical advice. But to trust God to keep your powder dry for you is the height of folly.


Genesis Revisted

A Scientific Creation Story

MICHAEL SHERMERIt was a black day for fundamentalist Christianity when Dr. Michael Shermer stopped trying to believe in the impossible and became a convert to reason and objective investigation. His elegant contributions to the magazine Skeptical Inquirer have attracted a wide audience and his book Why Darwin Matters became an instant classic of scientific explanation.

Originally published in Darwin: A Norton Critical Edition, selected and edited by Philip Appleman (New York: W. W. Norton, 2001), 625–626. To convey the logical absurdity of trying to squeeze the round peg of science into the square hole of religion, I penned the following scientific revision of the Genesis creation story. It is not intended as a sacrilege of the poetic beauty of Genesis; rather, it is a mere extension of what the creationists have already done to Genesis in their insistence that it be read not as mythic saga but as scientific prose. If Genesis were written in the language of modern science, it would read something like this.

In the beginning—specifically on October 23, 4004 B.C., at noon—out of quantum foam fluctuation God created the Big Bang, followed by cosmological inflation and an expanding universe. And darkness was upon the face of the deep, so He commanded hydrogen atoms (which He created from Quarks) to fuse and become helium atoms and in the process release energy in the form of light. And the light maker he called the sun, and the process He called fusion. And He saw the light was good because now He could see what he was doing, so he created Earth. And the evening and the morning were the first day.

And God said, Let there be lots of fusion light makers in the sky. Some of these fusion makers He grouped into collections He called galaxies, and these appeared to be millions and even billions of light years from Earth, which would mean that they were created before the first creation in 4004 B.C. This was confusing, so God created tired light, and the creation story was preserved. And created He many wondrous splendors such as Red Giants, White Dwarfs, Quasars, Pulsars, Supernova, Worm Holes, and even Black Holes out of which nothing can escape. But since God cannot be constrained by nothing, He created Hawking radiation through which information can escape from Black Holes. This made God even more tired than tired light, and the evening and the morning were the second day.

And God said, Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together unto one place, and let the continents drift apart by plate tectonics. He decreed sea floor spreading would create zones of emergence, and He caused subduction zones to build mountains and cause earthquakes. In weak points in the crust God created volcanic islands, where the next day He would place organisms that were similar to but different from their relatives on the continents, so that still later created creatures called humans would mistake them for evolved descendants created by adaptive radiation. And the evening and the morning were the third day.

And God saw that the land was barren, so He created animals bearing their own kind, declaring Thou shalt not evolve into new species, and thy equilibrium shall not be punctuated. And God placed into the rocks, fossils that appeared older than 4004 B.C. that were similar to but different from living creatures. And the sequence resembled descent with modification. And the evening and morning were the fourth day.

And God said, Let the waters bring forth abundantly the moving creatures that hath life, the fishes. And God created great whales whose skeletal structure and physiology were homologous with the land mammals he would create later that day. God then brought forth abundantly all creatures, great and small, declaring that microevolution was permitted, but not macroevolution. And God said, Natura non facit saltum—Nature shall not make leaps. And the evening and morning were the fifth day.

And God created the pongidids and hominids with 98 percent genetic similarity, naming two of them Adam and Eve. In the book in which God explained how He did all this, in one chapter He said he created Adam and Eve together out of the dust at the same time, but in another chapter He said He created Adam first, then later created Eve out of one of Adam’s ribs. This caused confusion in the valley of the shadow of doubt, so God created theologians to sort it out.

And in the ground placed He in abundance teeth, jaws, skulls, and pelvises of transitional fossils from pre-Adamite creatures. One chosen as his special creation He named Lucy, who could walk upright like a human but had a small brain like an ape. And God realized this too was confusing, so he created pale-oanthropologists to figure it out.

Just as He was finishing up the loose ends of the creation God realized that Adam’s immediate descendants would not understand inflationary cosmology, global general relativity, quantum mechanics, astrophysics, biochemistry, paleontology, and evolutionary biology, so he created creation myths. But there were so many creation stories throughout the world God realized this too was confusing, so created He anthropologists and mythologists.

By now the valley of the shadow of doubt was overrunneth with skepticism, so God became angry, so angry that God lost His temper and cursed the first humans, telling them to go forth and multiply themselves (but not in those words). But the humans took God literally and now there are six billion of them. And the evening and morning were the sixth day.

By now God was tired, so He proclaimed, “Thank me it’s Friday,” and He made the weekend. It was a good idea.


That Undiscovered Country A. J. AYERPlease forgive another Oxonian. Sir Alfred Ayer, the author of Language Truth and Logic and one of the importers of the ideas of the Vienna Circle to the English-speaking world, was a splendid teacher of philosophy and a tireless defender of free expression. In an episode of the kind that will become more familiar to us as medicine advances, he appeared to “die” at least once before his actual death. Here is his response to those who—like the slanderers of Thomas Paine and the ghouls who haunted David Hume—misunderstood what he had meant to say.

My first attack of pneumonia occurred in the United States. I was in hospital for ten days in New York, after which the doctors said that I was well enough to leave. A final X-ray, however, which I underwent on the last morning, revealed that one of my lungs was not yet free from infection. This caused the most sympathetic of my doctors to suggest that it would be good for me to spend a few more days in hospital. I respected his opinion but since I was already dressed and psychologically disposed to put my illness behind me, I decided to take the risk. I spent the next few days in my stepdaughter’s apartment, and then made arrangements to fly back to England.

When I arrived I believed myself to be cured and incontinently plunged into an even more hectic social round than that to which I had become habituated before I went to America. Retribution struck me on Sunday, May 30. I had gone out to lunch, had a great deal to eat and drink, and chattered incessantly. That evening I had a relapse. I could eat almost none of the food that a friend had brought to cook in my house.

On the next day, which was a bank holiday, I had a long-standing engagement to lunch at the Savoy with a friend who was very eager for me to meet her son. I would have put them off if I could, but my friend lives in Exeter and I had no idea how to reach her in London. So I took a taxi to the Savoy and just managed to stagger into the lobby. I could eat hardly any of the delicious grilled sole that I ordered but forced myself to keep up my end of the conversation. I left early and took a taxi home.

That evening I felt still worse. Once more I could eat almost none of the dinner another friend had brought me. Indeed, she was so alarmed by my weakness that she stayed overnight. When I was no better the next morning, she telephoned to my general practitioner and to my elder son, Julian. The doctor did little more than promise to try to get in touch with the specialist, but Julian, who is unobtrusively very efficient, immediately rang for an ambulance. The ambulance came quickly with two strong attendants, and yet another friend, who had called opportunely to pick up a key, accompanied it and me to University College Hospital.

I remember very little of what happened from then on. I was taken to a room in the private wing, which had been reserved for me by the specialist, who had a consulting room on the same floor. After being X-rayed and subjected to a number of tests, which proved beyond question that I was suffering gravely from pneumonia, I was moved into intensive care in the main wing of the hospital.

Fortunately for me, the young doctor who was primarily responsible for me had been an undergraduate at New College, Oxford, while I was a Fellow. This made him extremely anxious to see that I recovered; almost too much so, in fact, for he was so much in awe of me that he forbade me to be disturbed at night, even when the experienced sister and nurse believed it to be necessary.

Under his care and theirs I made such good progress that I expected to be moved out of intensive care and back into the private wing within a week. My disappointment was my own fault. I did not attempt to eat the hospital food. My family and friends supplied all the food I needed. I am particularly fond of smoked salmon, and one evening I carelessly tossed a slice of it into my throat. It went down the wrong way and almost immediately the graph recording my heartbeats plummeted. The ward sister rushed to the rescue, but she was unable to prevent my heart from stopping. She and the doctor subsequently told me that I died in this sense for four minutes, and I have had no reason to disbelieve them.

The doctor alarmed my son Nicholas, who had flown from New York to be by my bedside, by saying that it was not probable that I should recover, and moreover, that if I did recover physically it was not probable that my mental powers would be restored. The nurses were more optimistic, and Nicholas sensibly chose to believe them.

I have no recollection of anything that was done to me at that time. Friends have told me that I was festooned with tubes, but I have never learned how many of them there were or, with one exception, what purposes they served. I do not remember having a tube inserted in my throat to bring up the quantity of phlegm which had lodged in my lungs. I was not even aware of my numerous visitors, so many of them, in fact, that the sister had to set a quota. I know that the doctors and nurses were surprised by the speed of my recovery and that when I started speaking, the specialist expressed astonishment that anyone with so little oxygen in his lungs should be so lucid.

My first recorded utterance, which convinced those who heard it that I had not lost my wits, was the exclamation: “You are all mad.” I am not sure how this should be interpreted. It is possible that I took my audience to be Christians and was telling them that I had not discovered anything “on the other side.” It is also possible that I took them to be skeptics and was implying that I had discovered something. I think the former is more probable, as in the latter case I should more properly have exclaimed, “We are all mad.” All the same, I cannot be sure.

The earliest remarks of which I have any cognizance, apart from my first exclamation, were made several hours after my return to life. They were addressed to a Frenchwoman with whom I had been friends for over 15 years. I woke to find her seated by my bedside and started talking to her in French as soon as I recognized her. My French is fluent and I spoke rapidly, approximately as follows: “Did you know that I was dead? The first time that I tried to cross the river I was frustrated, but my second attempt succeeded. It was most extraordinary. My thoughts became persons.”

The content of those remarks suggests that I have not wholly put my classical education behind me. In Greek mythology the souls of the dead, now only shadowly embodied, were obliged to cross the river Styx in order to reach Hades, after paying an obol to the ferryman, Charon. I may also have been reminded of my favorite philosopher, David Hume, who, during his last illness, “a disorder of the bowels,” imagined that Charon, growing impatient, was calling him “a lazy loitering rogue.” With his usual politeness, Hume replied that he saw without regret his death approaching and that he was making no effort to postpone it. This is one of the rare occasions on which I have failed to follow Hume. Clearly I had made an effort to prolong my life.

The only memory that I have of an experience, closely encompassing my death, is very vivid. I was confronted by a red light, exceedingly bright, and also very painful even when I turned away from it. I was aware that this light was responsible for the government of the universe. Among its ministers were two creatures who had been put in charge of space. These ministers periodicall inspected space and had recently carried out such an inspection. They had, however, failed to do their work properly, with the result that space, like a badly fitting jigsaw puzzle, was slightly out of joint.

A further consequence was that the laws of nature had ceased to function as they should. I felt that it was up to me to put things right. I also had the motive of finding a way to extinguish the painful light. I assumed that it was signaling that space was awry and that it would switch itself off when order was restored. Unfortunately, I had no idea where the guardians of space had gone and feared that even if I found them I should not be able to communicate with them. It then occurred to me that whereas, until the present century, physicists accepted the Newtonian severance of space and time, it had become customary, since the vindication of Einstein’s general theory of relativity, to treat space-time as a single whole. Accordingly, I thought that I could cure space by operating upon time.

I was vaguely aware that the ministers who had been given charge of time were in my neighborhood and I proceeded to hail them. I was again frustrated. Either they did not hear me, or they chose to ignore me, or they did not understand me. I then hit upon the expedient of walking up and down, waving my watch, in the hope of drawing their attention not to my watch itself but to the time which it measured. This elicited no response. I became more and more desperate, until the experience suddenly came to an end.

This experience could well have been delusive. A slight indication that it might have been veridical has been supplied by my French friend, or rather by her mother, who also underwent a heart arrest many years ago. When her daughter asked her what it had been like, she replied that all that she remembered was that she must stay close to the red light.

On the face of it, these experiences, on the assumption that the last one was veridical, are rather strong evidence that death does not put an end to consciousness. Does it follow that there is a future life? Not necessarily. The trouble is that there are different criteria for being dead, which are indeed logically compatible but may not always be satisfied together.

In this instance, I am given to understand that the arrest of the heart does not entail, either logically or causally, the arrest of the brain. In view of the very strong evidence in favor of the dependence of thoughts upon the brain, the most probable hypothesis is that my brain continued to function although my heart had stopped.

If I had acquired good reason to believe in a future life, it would have applied not only to myself. Admittedly, the philosophical problem of justifying one’s confident belief in the existence and contents of other minds has not yet been satisfactorily solved. Even so, with the possible exception of Fichte, who proclaimed that the world was his idea but may not have meant it literally, no philosopher has acquiesced in solipsism. No philosopher has seriously asserted that of all the objects in the universe, he alone was conscious. Moreover it is commonly taken for granted, not only by philosophers, that the minds of others bear a sufficiently close analogy to one’s own. Consequently, if I had been vouchsafed a reasonable expectation of a future life, other human beings could expect one too.

Let us grant, for the sake of argument, that we could have future lives. What form could they take? The easiest answer is that they would consist in the prolongation of our experiences, without any physical attachment. This is the theory that should appeal to radical empiricists. It is, indeed, consistent with the concept of personal identity which was adopted both by Hume and by William James, according to which one’s identity consists, not in the possession of an enduring soul, but in the sequence of one’s ex eriences, guaranteed by memory. They did not apply their theory to a future life, in which Hume at any rate disbelieved.

For those who are attracted by this theory, as I am, the main problem, which Hume admitted that he was unable to solve, is to discover the relation, or relations, which have to hold between experiences for them to belong to one and the same self.

William James thought that he had found the answers with his relations of the felt togetherness and continuity of our thoughts and sensations, coupled with memory, in order to unite experiences that are separated in time. But while memory is undoubtedly necessary, it can be shown that it is not wholly sufficient.

I myself carried out a thorough examination and development of the theory in my book The Origins of Pragmatism. I was reluctantly forced to conclude that I could not account for personal identity without falling back on the identity, through time, of one or more bodies that the person might successively occupy. Even then, I was unable to give a satisfactory account of the way in which a series of experiences is tied to a particular body at any given time.

The admission that personal identity through time requires the identity of a body is a surprising feature of Christianity. I call it surprising because it seems to me that Christians are apt to forget that the resurrection of the body is an element in their creed. The question of how bodily identity is sustained over intervals of time is not so difficult. The answer might consist in postulating a reunion of the same atoms, perhaps in there being no more than a strong physical resemblance, possibly fortified by a similarity of behavior.

A prevalent fallacy is the assumption that a proof of an afterlife would also be a proof of the existence of a deity. This is far from being the case. If, as I hold, there is no good reason to believe that a god either created or presides over this world, there is equally no good reason to believe that a god created or presides over the next world, on the unlikely supposition that such a thing exists.

It is conceivable that one’s experiences in the next world, if there are any, will supply evidence of a god’s existence, but we have no right to presume on such evidence, when we have not had the relevant experiences.

It is worth remarking, in this connection, that the two important Cambridge philosophers in this century, J. E. McTaggart and C. D. Broad, who have believed—in McTaggart’s case that he would certainly survive his death, in Broad’s that there was about a 50 percent probability that he would—were both of them atheists. McTaggart derived his certainty from his metaphysics, which implied that what we confusedly perceive as material objects, in some cases housing minds, are really souls, eternally viewing one another with something of the order of love.

The less fanciful Broad was impressed by the findings of psychical research. He was certainly too intelligent to think that the superior performances of a few persons in the game of guessing unseen cards, which he painstakingly proved to be statistically significant, had any bearing upon the likelihood of a future life. He must therefore have been persuaded by the testimony of mediums. He was surely aware that most mediums have been shown to be frauds, but he was convinced that some have not been.

Not that this made him optimistic. He took the view that this world was very nasty and that there was a fair chance that the next world, if it existed, was even nastier. Consequently, he had no compelling desire to survive. He just thought that there was an even chance of his doing so. One of his better epigrams was that if one went by the reports of mediums, life in the next world was like a perpetual bump supper at a Welsh university.

If Broad was an atheist, my friend Dr. Alfred Ewing was not. Ewing, who considered Broad to be a better philosopher than Wittgenstein, was naive, unworldly even by academic standards, intellectually shrewd, unswervingly honest, and a devout Christian. Once, to tease him, I said: “Tell me, Alfred, what do you most look forward to in the next world?” He replied immediately: “God will tell me whether there are a priori propositions.” It is a wry comment on the strange character of our subject that this answer should be so funny.

My excuse for repeating this story is that such philosophical problems as the question whether the propositions of logic and pure mathematics are deductively analytic or factually synthetic, and, if they are analytic, whether they are true by convention, are not to be solved by acquiring more information. What is needed is that we succeed in obtaining a clearer view of what the problems involve. One might hope to achieve this in a future life, but really we have no good reason to believe that our intellects will be any sharper in the next world, if there is one, than they are in this. A god, if one exists, might make them so, but this is not something that even the most enthusiastic deist can count on.

The only philosophical problem that our finding ourselves landed on a future life might clarify would be that of the relation between mind and body, if our future lives consisted, not in the resurrection of our bodies, but in the prolongation of the series of our present experiences. We should then be witnessing the triumph of dualism, though not the dualism which Descartes thought that he had established. If our lives consisted in an extended series of experiences, we should still have no good reason to regard ourselves as spiritual substances.

So there it is. My recent experiences have slightly weakened my conviction that my genuine death, which is due fairly soon, will be the end of me, though I continue to hope that it will be. They have not weakened my conviction that there is no god. I trust that my remaining an atheist will allay the anxieties of my fellow supporters of the British Humanist Association, the Rationalist Press Association and the South Place Ethical Society.

Later Developments

Ayer’s article was published in the United States by the National Review on October 14,1988. It was featured on the cover as “A. J. Ayer’s Intimations of Immortality.” Its subtitle—“What Happens When the World’s Most Eminent Atheist Dies”—was no more misleading than the title chosen by the Sunday Telegraph. Scientists interviewed by the Manchester Guardian were skeptical about any “intimations of immortality.” According to Colin Blakemore, professor of physiology at Cambridge, “What happened to Freddie Ayer was that lack of oxygen disordered the interpretative methods of his cortex, which led to hallucinations.” Sir Herman Bondi, a distinguished physicist who is master of Churchill College, Cambridge, and president of the Rationalist Press Association, is quoted as “totally unimpressed,” adding that “it is difficult enough to be wise when one is well.” Ayer himself published what amounted to a retraction in the Spectator of October 15, 1988, entitled “Postscript to a Postmortem.” He now asserted that his experience had not weakened and “never did weaken” his conviction that death means annihilation. “I said in my article,” he went on, “that the most probable explanation of my experiences was that my brain had not ceased to function during the four minutes of my heart arrest. I have since been told, rightly or wrongly, that it would not have functioned on its own for any longer period without being damaged. I thought it so obvious that the persistence of my brain was the most probable explanation that I did not bother to stress it. I stress it now. No other hypothesis comes anywhere near to superseding it.”


Thank Goodness! DANIEL C. DENNETTThe great Daniel Dennet, professor of philosophy and director of the Center of Cognitive Studies at Tufts University, adds his own contribution to the literature of the “near-death experience.” With this number of humorous and courageous and thoughtful witnesses, we have a fighting chance of destroying the whole perverted myth of the unbeliever’s last-minute wonderment and abjection.

There are no atheists in foxholes, according to an old but dubious saying, and there is at least a little anecdotal evidence in favor of it in the notorious cases of famous atheists who have emerged from near-death experiences to announce to the world that they have changed their minds. The British philosopher Sir A. J. Ayer, who died in 1989, is a fairly recent example. Here is another anecdote to ponder.

Two weeks ago, I was rushed by ambulance to a hospital where it was determined by c-t scan that I had a “dissection of the aorta”—the lining of the main output vessel carrying blood from my heart had been torn up, creating a two-channel pipe where there should only be one. Fortunately for me, the fact that I’d had a coronary artery bypass graft seven years ago probably saved my life, since the tangle of scar tissue that had grown like ivy around my heart in the intervening years reinforced the aorta, preventing catastrophic leakage from the tear in the aorta itself. After a nine-hour surgery, in which my heart was stopped entirely and my body and brain were chilled down to about 45 degrees to prevent brain damage from lack of oxygen until they could get the heart-lung machine pumping, I am now the proud possessor of a new aorta and aortic arch, made of strong Dacron fabric tubing sewn into shape on the spot by the surgeon, attached to my heart by a carbon-fiber valve that makes a reassuring little click every time my heart beats.

As I now enter a gentle period of recuperation, I have much to reflect on, about the harrowing experience itself and even more about the flood of supporting messages I’ve received since word got out about my latest adventure. Friends were anxious to learn if I had had a near-death experience, and if so, what effect it had had on my longstanding public atheism. Had I had an epiphany? Was I going to follow in the footsteps of Ayer (who recovered his aplomb and insisted a few days later “what I should have said is that my experiences have weakened, not my belief that there is no life after death, but my inflexible attitude towards that belief”), or was my atheism still intact and unchanged?

Yes, I did have an epiphany. I saw with greater clarity than ever before in my life that when I say “Thank goodness!” this is not merely a euphemism for “Thank God!” (We atheists don’t believe that there is any God to thank.) I really do mean thank goodness! There is a lot of goodness in this world, and more goodness every day, and this fantastic human-made fabric of excellence is genuinely responsible for the fact that I am alive today. It is a worthy recipient of the gratitude I feel today, and I want to celebrate that fact here and now.

To whom, then, do I owe a debt of gratitude? To the cardiologist who has kept me alive and ticking for years, and who swiftly and confidently rejected the original diagnosis of nothing worse than pneumonia. To the surgeons, neurologists, anesthesiologists, and the perfusionist, who kept my systems going for many hours under daunting circumstances. To the dozen or so physician assistants, and to nurses and physical therapists and X-ray technicians and a small army of phlebotomists so deft that you hardly know they are drawing your blood, and the people who brought the meals, kept my room clean, did the mountains of laundry generated by such a messy case, wheel-chaired me to X-ray, and so forth. These people came from Uganda, Kenya, Liberia, Haiti, the Philippines, Croatia, Russia, China, Korea, India—and the United States, of course—and I have never seen more impressive mutual respect, as they helped each other out and checked each other’s work. But for all their teamwork, this local gang could not have done their jobs without the huge background of contributions from others. I remember with gratitude my late friend and Tufts colleague, physicist Allan Cormack, who shared the Nobel Prize for his invention of the c-t scanner. Allan—you have posthumously saved yet another life, but who’s counting? The world is better for the work you did. Thank goodness. Then there is the whole system of medicine, both the science and the technology, without which the best-intentioned efforts of individuals would be roughly useless. So I am grateful to the editorial boards and referees, past and present, of Science, Nature, Journal of the American Medical Association, Lancet, and all the other institutions of science and medicine that keep churning out improvements, detecting and correcting flaws.

Do I worship modern medicine? Is science my religion? Not at all; there is no aspect of modern medicine or science that I would exempt from the most rigorous scrutiny, and I can readily identify a host of serious problems that still need to be fixed. That’s easy to do, of course, because the worlds of medicine and science are already engaged in the most obsessive, intensive, and humble self-assessments yet known to human institutions, and they regularly make public the results of their self-examinations. Moreover, this open-ended rational criticism, imperfect as it is, is the secret of the astounding success of these human enterprises. There are measurable improvements every day. Had I had my blasted aorta a decade ago, there would have been no prayer of saving me. It’s hardly routine today, but the odds of my survival were actually not so bad (these days, roughly 33 percent of aortic dissection patients die in the first twenty-four hours after onset without treatment, and the odds get worse by the hour thereafter).

One thing in particular struck me when I compared the medical world on which my life now depended with the religious institutions I have been studying so intensively in recent years. One of the gentler, more supportive themes to be found in every religion (so far as I know) is the idea that what really matters is what is in your heart: if you have good intentions, and are trying to do what (God says) is right, that is all anyone can ask. Not so in medicine! If you are wrong—especially if you should have known better—your good intentions count for almost nothing. And whereas taking a leap of faith and acting without further scrutiny of one’s options is often celebrated by religions, it is considered a grave sin in medicine. A doctor whose devout faith in his personal revelations about how to treat aortic aneurysm led him to engage in untested trials with human patients would be severely reprimanded if not driven out of medicine altogether. There are exceptions, of course. A few swashbuckling, risk-taking pioneers are tolerated and (if they prove to be right) eventually honored, but they can exist only as rare exceptions to the ideal of the methodical investigator who scrupulously rules out alternative theories before putting his own into practice. Good intentions and inspiration are simply not enough.

In other words, whereas religions may serve a benign purpose by letting many people feel comfortable with the level of morality they themselves can attain, no religion holds its members to the high standards of moral responsibility that the secular world of science and medicine does! And I’m not just talking about the standards “at the top”—among the surgeons and doctors who make life or death decisions every day. I’m talking about the standards of conscientiousness endorsed by the lab technicians and meal preparers, too. This tradition puts its faith in the unlimited application of reason and empirical inquiry, checking and re-checking, and getting in the habit of asking “What if I’m wrong?” Appeals to faith or membership are never tolerated. Imagine the reception a scientist would get if he tried to suggest that others couldn’t replicate his results because they just didn’t share the faith of the people in his lab! And, to return to my main point, it is the goodness of this tradition of reason and open inquiry that I thank for my being alive today.

What, though, do I say to those of my religious friends (and yes, I have quite a few religious friends) who have had the courage and honesty to tell me that they have been praying for me? I have gladly forgiven them, for there are few circumstances more frustrating than not being able to help a loved one in any more direct way. I confess to regretting that I could not pray (sincerely) for my friends and family in time of need, so I appreciate the urge, however clearly I recognize its futility. I translate my religious friends’ remarks readily enough into one version or another of what my fellow brights have been telling me: “I’ve been thinking about you, and wishing with all my heart [another ineffective but irresistible self-indulgence] that you come through this OK.” The fact that these dear friends have been thinking of me in this way, and have taken an effort to let me know, is in itself, without any need for a supernatural supplement, a wonderful tonic. These messages from my family and from friends around the world have been literally heart-warming in my case, and I am grateful for the boost in morale (to truly manic heights, I fear!) that it has produced in me. But I am not joking when I say that I have had to forgive my friends who said that they were praying for me. I have resisted the temptation to respond “Thanks, I appreciate it, but did you also sacrifice a goat?” I feel about this the same way I would feel if one of them said “I just paid a voodoo doctor to cast a spell for your health.” What a gullible waste of money that could have been spent on more important projects! Don’t expect me to be grateful, or even indifferent. I do appreciate the affection and generosity of spirit that motivated you, but wish you had found a more reasonable way of expressing it.

But isn’t this awfully harsh? Surely it does the world no harm if those who can honestly do so pray for me! No, I’m not at all sure about that. For one thing, if they really wanted to do something useful, they could devote their prayer time and energy to some pressing project that they can do something about. For another, we now have quite solid grounds (e.g., the recently released Benson study at Harvard) for believing that intercessory prayer simply doesn’t work. Anybody whose practice shrugs off that research is subtly undermining respect for the very goodness I am thanking. If you insist on keeping the myth of the effectiveness of prayer alive, you owe the rest of us a justification in the face of the evidence. Pending such a justification, I will excuse you for indulging in your tradition; I know how comforting tradition can be. But I want you to recognize that what you are doing is morally problematic at best. If you would even consider filing a malpractice suit against a doctor who made a mistake in treating you, or suing a pharmaceutical company that didn’t conduct all the proper control tests before selling you a drug that harmed you, you must acknowledge your tacit appreciation of the high standards of rational inquiry to which the medical world holds itself, and yet you continue to indulge in a practice for which there is no known rational justification at all, and take yourself to be actually making a contribution. (Try to imagine your outrage if a pharmaceutical company responded to your suit by blithely replying “But we prayed good and hard for the success of the drug! What more do you want?”)

The best thing about saying thank goodness in place of thank God is that there really are lots of ways of repaying your debt to goodness—by setting out to create more of it, for the benefit of those to come. Goodness comes in many forms, not just medicine and science. Thank goodness for the music of, say, Randy Newman, which could not exist without all those wonderful pianos and recording studios, to say nothing of the musical contributions of every great composer from Bach through Wagner to Scott Joplin and the Beatles. Thank goodness for fresh drinking water in the tap, and food on our table. Thank goodness for fair elections and truthful journalism. If you want to express your gratitude to goodness, you can plant a tree, feed an orphan, buy books for schoolgirls in the Islamic world, or contribute in thousands of other ways to the manifest improvement of life on this planet now and in the near future.

Or you can thank God—but the very idea of repaying God is ludicrous. What could an omniscient, omnipotent Being (the Man Who has Everything?) do with any paltry repayments from you? (And besides, according to the Christian tradition God has already redeemed the debt for all time, by sacrificing his own son. Try to repay that loan!) Yes, I know, those themes are not to be understood literally; they are symbolic. I grant it, but then the idea that by thanking God you are actually doing some good has got to be understood to be just symbolic, too. I prefer real good to symbolic good.

Still, I excuse those who pray for me. I see them as like tenacious scientists who resist the evidence for theories they don’t like long after a graceful concession would have been the appropriate response. I applaud you for your loyalty to your own position—but remember: loyalty to tradition is not enough. You’ve got to keep asking yourself: What if I’m wrong? In the long run, I think religious people can be asked to live up to the same moral standards as secular people in science and medicine.


A Personal Word

From A Farewell to God

CHARLES TEMPLETONThe road to Damascus was not and is not a one-way street. For many years, Charles Templeton (1915–2001) was the second string to the boring racist charlatan Billy Graham: addressing massive crowds in sports stadiums and allegedly bringing thousands of the credulous to Christ, there came a time when he found he could not participate in the racket any longer. His de-conversion is a testament from an honest if simple man, and also contains a close-up of the mediocre demagogue who has served as spiritual counselor to successive American presidents.

Early that summer, I flew to Montreat, North Carolina, to spend a day with Billy and Ruth Graham. Billy and I had become close friends, although our backgrounds were radically different. Billy was a country boy, raised in a deeply religious household on a farm in the American South. He had graduated from Bob Jones College in Tennessee and Wheaton College in Illinois—both Christian fundamentalist schools—and had a B.A. in anthropology.

We talked long and earnestly about my decision. Both of us sensed that, for all our avowed intentions to maintain our friendship, our feet were now set on divergent paths.

Later that summer, just before I enrolled at Princeton, we met again in New York City. On this occasion we spent the better part of two days closeted in a room in the Taft Hotel. All our differences came to a head in a discussion, which better than anything I know explains Billy Graham and his phenomenal success as an evangelist.

In the course of our conversation I said, “But, Billy, it’s simply not possible any longer to believe, for instance, the biblical account of creation. The world wasn’t created over a period of days a few thousand years ago; it has evolved over millions of years. It’s not a matter of speculation; it’s demonstrable fact.”

“I don’t accept that,” Billy said. “And there are reputable scholars who don’t.” 282

“Who are these scholars?” I said. “Men in conservative Christian colleges?”

“Most of them, yes,” he said. “But that’s not the point. I believe the Genesis account of creation because it’s in the Bible. I’ve discovered something in my ministry: when I take the Bible literally, when I proclaim it as the Word of God, my preaching has power. When I stand on the platform and say, ‘God says,’ or ‘the Bible says,’ the Holy Spirit uses me. There are results. Wiser men than you and I have been arguing questions like this for centuries. I don’t have the time or the intellect to examine all sides of each theological dispute, so I’ve decided, once and for all, to stop questioning and accept the Bible as God’s Word.”

“But, Billy,” I protested, “you can’t do that. You don’t dare stop thinking about the most important question in life. Do it and you begin to die. It’s intellectual suicide.”

“I don’t know about anybody else,” he said, “but I’ve decided that that’s the path for me.”

We talked about my going to Princeton and I pressed him to go with me. “Bill,” I said, “face it. We’ve been successful in large part because of our abilities on the platform. Part of that stems from our energy, our convictions, our youth. But we won’t always be young. We need to grow, to develop some intellectual sinew. Come with me to Princeton.”

“I can’t go to a university here in the States,” he said. “I’m president of a Bible college, for goodness’ sake!” He was—Northwestern Bible College, a fundamentalist school in Minneapolis.

“Resign,” I said. “That’s not what you’re best fitted for; you’re an evangelist. Come with me to Princeton.”

There was an extended silence. Then, suddenly, he got up and came toward me. “Chuck,” he said, “I can’t go to a college here in the States. But I can and will do this: if we can get accepted by a university outside the country, maybe in England—Oxford, for instance—I’ll go with you.”

He stood in front of me, his hand outstretched. I know Billy well enough to know that, had I taken his hand, he would have kept his word. But I couldn’t do it. I had resigned my church. I had been accepted at Princeton. The fall term was only weeks away. It was too late.

Not many months later, Billy travelled to Los Angeles to begin the campaign that would catapult him overnight to international prominence. I have sometimes wondered what would have happened had I taken his hand that day. I am certain of this: he would not be the Billy Graham he has become, and the history of mass-evangelism would be quite different.

As was inevitable, Billy and I drifted apart. We often talked on the telephone and got together on occasion but, with the years, the occasions became fewer. One afternoon in the early 1970s he telephoned to say that he was in Toronto and suggested that he have dinner at my home. He wanted to meet my wife and children and to spend a long evening talking.

The evening ended earlier than planned; we simply ran out of subjects of mutual interest. As I drove him to his hotel in downtown Toronto, the conversation became desultory. On the drive home I felt a profound sense of sorrow. Marshall Frady in his book, Billy Graham, quotes Billy as saying to him: “I love Chuck to this very day. He’s one of the few men I have ever loved in my life. He and I had been so close. But then, all of a sudden, our paths were parting. He began to be a little cool to me then. I think…” He pauses and then offers with a faint little smile, “I think that Chuck felt sorry for me.”

It will sound unforgivably condescending, but I do. He has given up the life of unrestricted thought. I occasionally watch Billy in his televised campaigns. Forty years after our working together he is saying the same things, using the same phrases, following the same pattern. When he gives the invitation to come forward, the sequence, even the words, are the same. I turn off the set and am sometimes overtaken by sadness.

I think Billy is what he has to be. I disagree with him at almost every point in his views on God and Christianity and think that much of what he says in the pulpit is puerile, archaic nonsense. But there is no feigning in Billy Graham: he believes what he believes with an invincible innocence. He is the only mass-evangelist I would trust.

And I miss him.

Questions to Ask Yourself


Is it not foolish to close one’s eyes to the reality that much of the Christian faith is simply impossible to accept as fact? And is it not a fundamental error to base one’s life on theological concepts formulated centuries ago by relatively primitive men who believed that the world was flat, that Heaven was “up there” somewhere, and that the universe had been created and was controlled by a jingoistic and intemperate deity who would punish you forever if you did not behave exactly as instructed?

Listed below is a repetition of some of the questions raised in the preceding pages [of A Farewell to God]. Put them to yourself.

Is it not likely that had you been born in Cairo you would be a Muslim and, as 840 million people do, would believe that “there is no God but God and Muhammad is his prophet”?

If you have been born in Calcutta would you not in all probability be a Hindu and, as 650 million people do, accept the Vedas and the Upanishads as sacred scriptures and hope sometime in the future to dwell in Nirvana?

Is it not probable that, had you been born in Jerusalem, you would be a Jew and, as some 13 million people do, believe that Yahweh is God and that the Torah is God’s Word?

Is it not likely that had you been born in Peking, you would be one of the millions who accept the teachings of the Buddha or Confucius or Lao-Tse and strive to follow their teachings and example?

Is it not likely that you, the reader, are a Christian because your parents were before you?

If there is a loving God, why does he permit—much less create—earthquakes, droughts, floods, tornadoes, and other natural disasters which kill thousands of innocent men, women, and children every year?

How can a loving, omnipotent God permit—much less create—encephalitis, cerebral palsy, brain cancer, leprosy, Alzheimer’s, and other incurable illnesses to afflict millions of men, women, and children, most of whom are decent people?

How could a loving Heavenly Father create an endless Hell and, over the centuries, consign millions of people to it because they do not or cannot or will not accept certain religious beliefs? And, having done so, how could he torment them forever?

Why are there literally hundreds of Christian denominations and independent congregations, all of them basing their beliefs on the Bible, and most of them convinced that all the others are, in some ways, wrong?

If all Christians worship the same God, why can they not put aside their theological differences and co-operate actively with one another?

If God is a loving Father, why does he so seldom answer his needy children’s prayers?

How can one believe the biblical account of the creation of the world in six days when every eminent physicist agrees that all living species have evolved over millions of years from primitive beginnings?

Is it possible for an intelligent man or woman to believe that God fashioned the first male human being from a handful of dust and the first woman from one of the man’s ribs?

Is it possible to believe that the Creator of the universe would personally impregnate a Palestinian virgin in order to facilitate getting his Son into the world as a man?

The Bible says that “the Lord thy God is a jealous God.” But if you are omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, eternal, and the creator of all that exists, of whom could you possibly be jealous?

Why, in a world filled with suffering and starvation, do Christians spend millions on cathedrals and sanctuaries and relatively little on aid to the poor and the needy?

Why does the omnipotent God, knowing that there are tens of thousands of men, women, and children starving to death in a parched land, simply let them waste away and die when all that is needed is rain? • Why would the Father of all mankind have a Chosen People and favor them over the other nations on earth?

Why would a God who is “no respecter of persons” prohibit adultery and then bless, honour, and allow to prosper a king who had seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines?

Why is the largest Christian church controlled entirely by men, with no woman—no matter how pious or gifted—permitted to become a priest, a monsignor, a bishop, an archbishop, a cardinal, or pope?

Jesus’s last words to his followers were “Go ye into all the world and preach the Gospel to every creature. And, lo, I am with you always.” But, despite this and to this date—some two thousand years later—billions of men and women have never so much as heard the Christian Gospel. Why?


Why There Almost Certainly Is No God

From The God Delusion

RICHARD DAWKINSAll right, one more Oxonian. In a time of expanding and indeed exploding knowledge of biology, Richard Dawkins has educated a generation of people in the intricacies and wonders (far more impressive than anything supernatural) of our species and of others. It will be a long time before his books—The Selfish Gene, The Blind Watchmaker, and Climbing Mount Improbable among many others—are superseded as works of explication and indeed innovation in their field. Professor Dawkins reminds us that evolution by natural selection is indeed “only a theory”: the most successful and the most testable theory in human history. He further reminds us that there are competing explanations for how this theory operates in practice. This is as it should be. There are some believers in scientific method who hold that evolution does not contradict or even overlap with the weird world of theology. Dawkins is impatient with such a fuzzy view of the matter and here gives a hint or two about the ultimate incompatibility of the scientific outlook with the religious one. Had he not chosen to abandon his religion for the materialist worldview, he might have earned a living as a satirist, as the ensuing two feuilletons demonstrate.The priests of the different religions sects…dread the advance of science as witches do the approach of daylight, and scowl on the fatal harbinger announcing the subdivision of the duperies on which they live.—THOMAS JEFFERSON

The Ultimate Boeing 747

The argument from improbability is the big one. In the traditional guise of the argument from design, it is easily today’s most popular argument offered in favor of the existence of God and it is seen, by an amazingly large number of theists, as completely and utterly convincing. It is indeed a very strong and, I suspect, unanswerable argument—but in precisely the opposite direction from the theist’s intention. The argument from improbability, properly deployed, comes close to proving that God does not exist. My name for the statistical demonstration that God almost certainly does not exist is the Ultimate Boeing 747 gambit.

The name comes from Fred Hoyle’s amusing image of the Boeing 747 and the scrapyard. I am not sure whether Hoyle ever wrote it down himself, but it was attributed to him by his close colleague Chandra Wickramasinghe and is presumably authentic. Hoyle said that the probability of life originating on Earth is no greater than the chance that a hurricane, sweeping through a scrapyard, would have the luck to assemble a Boeing 747. Others have borrowed the metaphor to refer to the later evolution of complex living bodies, where it has a spurious plausibility. The odds against assembling a fully functioning horse, beetle, or ostrich by randomly shuffling its parts are up there in 747 territory. This, in a nutshell, is the creationist’s favourite argument—an argument that could be made only by somebody who doesn’t understand the first thing about natural selection: somebody who thinks natural selection is a theory of chance whereas—in the relevant sense of chance—it is the opposite.

The creationist misappropriation of the argument from improbability always takes the same general form, and it doesn’t make any difference if the creationist chooses to masquerade in the politically expedient fancy dress of “intelligent design” (ID).1 Some observed phenomenon—often a living creature or one of its more complex organs, but it could be anything from a molecule up to the universe itself—is correctly extolled as statistically improbable. Sometimes the language of information theory is used: the Darwinian is challenged to explain the source of all the information in living matter, in the technical sense of information content as a measure of improbability or “surprise value.” Or the argument may invoke the economist’s hackneyed motto: there’s no such thing as a free lunch—and Darwinism is accused of trying to get something for nothing. In fact, as I shall show in this chapter, Darwinian natural selection is the only known solution to the otherwise unanswerable riddle of where the information comes from. It turns out to be the God Hypothesis that tries to get something for nothing. God tries to have his free lunch and be it too. However statistically improbable the entity you seek to explain by invoking a designer, the designer himself has got to be at least as improbable. God is the Ultimate Boeing 747.

The argument for improbability states that complex things could not have come about by chance. But many people define “come about by chance” as “a synonym for come about in the absence of deliberate design.” Not surprisingly, therefore, they think improbability is evidence of design. Darwinian natural selection shows how wrong this is with respect to biological improbability. And although Darwinism may not be directly relevant to the inanimate world—cosmology, for example—it raises our consciousness in areas outside its original territory of biology.

A deep understanding of Darwinism teaches us to be wary of the easy assumption that design is the only alternative to chance, and teaches us to seek out graded ramps of slowly increasing complexity. Before Darwin, philosophers such as Hume understood that the improbability of life did not mean it had to be designed, but they couldn’t imagine the alternative. After Darwin, we all should feel, deep in our bones, suspicious of the very idea of design. The illusion of design is a trap that has caught us before, and Darwin should have immunized us by raising our consciousness. Would that he had succeeded with all of us.

Natural Selection as a Consciousness-Raiser

In a science-fiction starship, the astronauts were homesick: “Just to think that it’s springtime back on Earth!” You may not immediately see what’s wrong with this, so deeply ingrained is the unconscious northern hemisphere chauvinism in those of us who live there, and even some who don’t. “Unconscious” is exactly right. That is where consciousness-raising comes in. It is for a deeper reason than gimmicky fun that, in Australia and New Zealand, you can buy maps of the world with the South Pole on top. What splendid consciousness-raisers those maps would be, pinned to the walls of our northern hemisphere classrooms. Day after day, the children would be reminded that “north” is an arbitrary polarity which has no monopoly on “up.” The map would intrigue them as well as raise their consciousness. They’d go home and tell their parents—and, by the way, giving children something with which to surprise their parents is one of the greatest gifts a teacher can bestow.

It was the feminists who raised my consciousness of the power of consciousness-raising. “Herstory” is obviously ridiculous, if only because the “his” in “history” has no etymological connection with the masculine pronoun. It is as etymologically silly as the sacking, in 1999, of a Washington official whose use of “niggardly” was held to give racial offence. But even daft examples like “niggardly” or “herstory” succeed in raising consciousness. Once we have smoothed our philological hackles and stopped laughing, herstory shows us history from a different point of view. Gendered pronouns notoriously are the front line of such consciousness-raising. He or she must ask himself or herself whether his or her sense of style could ever allow himself or herself to write like this. But if we can just get over the clunking infelicity of the language, it raises our consciousness to the sensitivities of half the human race. Man, mankind, the Rights of Man, all men are created equal, one man one vote—English too often seems to exclude woman.2 When I was young, it never occurred to me that women might feel slighted by a phrase like “the future of man.” During the intervening decades, we have all had our consciousness raised. Even those who still use “man” instead of “human” do so with an air of self-conscious apology—or truculence, taking a stand for traditional language, even deliberately to rile feminists. All participants in the Zeitgeist have had their consciousness raised, even those who choose to respond negatively by digging in their heels and redoubling the offence.

Feminism shows us the power of consciousness-raising, and I want to borrow the technique for natural selection. Natural selection not only explains the whole of life; it also raises our consciousness to the power of science to explain how organized complexity can emerge from simple beginnings without any deliberate guidance. A full understanding of natural selection encourages us to move boldly into other fields. It arouses our suspicion, in those other fields, of the kind of false alternatives that once, in pre-Darwinian days, beguiled biology. Who, before Darwin, could have guessed that something so apparently designed as a dragonfly’s wing or an eagle’s eye was really the end product of a long sequence of non-random but purely natural causes?

Douglas Adams’s moving and funny account of his own conversion to radical atheism—he insisted on the “radical” in case anybody should mistake him for an agnostic—is testimony to the power of Darwinism as a consciousness-raiser. I hope I shall be forgiven the self-indulgence that will become apparent in the following quotation. My excuse is that Douglas’s conversion by my earlier books—which did not set out to convert anyone—inspired me to dedicate to his memory this book—which does! In an interview, reprinted posthumously in The Salmon of Doubt, he was asked by a journalist how he became an atheist. He began his reply by explaining how he became an agnostic, and then proceeded: And I thought and thought and thought. But I just didn’t have enough to go on, so I didn’t really come to any resolution. I was extremely doubtful about the idea of god, but I just didn’t know enough about anything to have a good working model of any other explanation for, well, life, the universe, and everything to put in its place. But I kept at it, and I kept reading and I kept thinking. Sometime around my early thirties I stumbled upon evolutionary biology, particularly in the form of Richard Dawkins’s books The Selfish Gene and then The Blind Watchmaker, and suddenly (on, I think the second reading of The Selfish Gene) it all fell into place. It was a concept of such stunning simplicity, but it gave rise, naturally, to all of the infinite and baffling complexity of life. The awe it inspired in me made the awe that people talk about in respect of religious experience seem, frankly, silly beside it. I’d take the awe of understanding over the awe of ignorance any day.

The concept of stunning simplicity that he was talking about was, of course, nothing to do with me. It was Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection—the ultimate scientific consciousness-raiser. Douglas, I miss you. You are my cleverest, funniest, most open-minded, wittiest, tallest, and possibly only convert. I hope this book might have made you laugh—though not as much as you made me.

That scientifically savvy philosopher Daniel Dennett pointed out that evolution counters one of the oldest ideas we have: “the idea that it takes a big fancy smart thing to make a lesser thing. I call that the trickle-down theory of creation. You’ll never see a spear making a spear maker. You’ll never see a horse shoe making a blacksmith. You’ll never see a pot making a potter.” Darwin’s discovery of a workable process that does that very counterintuitive thing is what makes his contribution to human thought so revolutionary, and so loaded with the power to raise consciousness.

It is surprising how necessary such consciousness-raising is, even in the minds of excellent scientists in fields other than biology. Fred Hoyle was a brilliant physicist and cosmologist, but his Boeing 747 misunderstanding, and other mistakes in biology such as his attempt to dismiss the fossil Archaeopteryx as a hoax, suggest that he needed to have his consciousness raised by some good exposure to the world of natural selection. At an intellectual level, I suppose he understood natural selection. But perhaps you need to be steeped in natural selection, immersed in it, swim about in it, before you can truly appreciate its power.

Other sciences raise our consciousness in different ways. Fred Hoyle’s own science of astronomy puts us in our place, metaphorically as well as literally, scaling down our vanity to fit the tiny stage on which we play out our lives—our speck of debris from the cosmic explosion. Geology reminds us of our brief existence both as individuals and as a species. It raised John Ruskin’s consciousness and provoked his memorable heart cry of 1851: “If only the Geologists would let me alone, I could do very well, but those dreadful hammers! I hear the clink of them at the end of every cadence of the Bible verses.” Evolution does the same thing for our sense of time—not surprisingly, since it works on the geological timescale. But Darwinian evolution, specifically natural selection, does something more. It shatters the illusion of design within the domain of biology, and teaches us to be suspicious of any kind of design hypothesis in physics and cosmology as well. I think the physicist Leonard Susskind had this in mind when he wrote, “I’m not an historian but I’ll venture an opinion: Modern cosmology really began with Darwin and Wallace. Unlike anyone before them, they provided explanations of our existence that completely rejected supernatural agents…Darwin and Wallace set a standard not only for the life sciences but for cosmology as well.” Other physical scientists who are far above needing any such consciousness-raising are Victor Stenger, whose book Has Science Found God? (the answer is no) I strongly recommend, and Peter Atkins, whose Creation Revisited is my favourite work of scientific prose poetry.

I am continually astonished by those theists who, far from having their consciousness raised in the way that I propose, seem to rejoice in natural selection as “God’s way of achieving his creation.” They note that evolution by natural selection would be a very easy and neat way to achieve a world full of life. God wouldn’t need to do anything at all! Peter Atkins, in the book just mentioned, takes this line of thought to a sensibly godless conclusion when he postulates a hypothetically lazy God who tries to get away with as little as possible in order to make a universe containing life. Atkins’s lazy God is even lazier than the deist God of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment: deus otiosus—literally God at leisure, unoccupied, unemployed, superfluous, useless. Step by step, Atkins succeeds in reducing the amount of work the lazy God has to do until he finally ends up doing nothing at all: he might as well not bother to exist. My memory vividly hears Woody Allen’s perceptive whine: “If it turns out that there is a God, I don’t think that he’s evil. But the worst that you can say about him is that basically he’s an under-achiever.”

Irreducible Complexity

It is impossible to exaggerate the magnitude of the problem that Darwin and Wallace solved. I could mention the anatomy, cellular structure, biochemistry, and behaviour of literally any living organism by example. But the most striking feats of apparent design are those picked out—for obvious reasons—by creationist authors, and it is with gentle irony that I derive mine from a creationist book. Life—How Did It Get Here?, with no named author but published by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society in sixteen languages and eleven million copies, is obviously a firm favourite because no fewer than six of those eleven million copies have been sent to me as unsolicited gifts by well-wishers from around the world.

Picking a page at random from this anonymous and lavishly distributed work, we find the sponge known as Venus’ Flower Basket (Euplectella), accompanied by a quotation from Sir David Attenborough, no less: “When you look at a complex sponge skeleton such as that made of silica spicules which is known as Venus’ Flower Basket, the imagination is baffled. How could quasi-independent microscopic cells collaborate to secrete a million glassy splinters and construct such an intricate and beautiful lattice? We do not know.” The Watchtower authors lose no time in adding their own punchline: “But one thing we do know: Chance is not the likely designer.” No indeed, chance is not the likely designer. That is one thing on which we can all agree. The statistical improbability of phenomena such as Euplectella’s skeleton is the central problem that any theory of life must solve. The greater the statistical improbability, the less plausible is chance as a solution: that is what improbable means. But the candidate solutions to the riddle of improbability are not, as is falsely implied, design and chance. They are design and natural selection. Chance is not a solution, given the high levels of improbability we see in living organisms, and no sane biologist ever suggested that it was. Design is not a real solution either, as we shall see later; but for the moment I want to continue demonstrating the problem that any theory of life must solve: the problem of how to escape from chance.

Turning Watchtower’s page, we find the wonderful plant known as Dutchman’s Pipe (Aristolochia trilobata), all of whose parts seem elegantly designed to trap insects, cover them with pollen and send them on their way to another Dutchman’s Pipe. The intricate elegance of the flower moves Watchtower to ask: “Did all of this happen by chance? Or did it happen by intelligent design?” Once again, no of course it didn’t happen by chance. Once again, intelligent design is not the proper alternative to chance. Natural selection is not only a parsimonious, plausible, and elegant solution; it is the only workable alternative to chance that has ever been suggested. Intelligent design suffers from exactly the same objection as chance. It is simply not a plausible solution to the riddle of statistical improbability. And the higher the improbability, the more implausible intelligent design becomes. Seen clearly, intelligent design will turn out to be a redoubling of the problem. Once again, this is because the designer himself (/herself/itself) immediately raises the bigger problem of his own origin. Any entity capable of intelligently designing something as improbable as a Dutchman’s Pipe (or a universe) would have to be even more improbable than a Dutchman’s Pipe. Far from terminating the vicious regress, God aggravates it with a vengeance.

Turn another Watchtower page for an eloquent account of the giant redwood (Sequoiadendron giganteum), a tree for which I have a special affection because I have one in my garden—a mere baby, scarcely more than a century old, but still the tallest tree in the neighbourhood. “A puny man, standing at a sequoia’s base, can only gaze upward in silent awe at its massive grandeur. Does it make sense to believe that the shaping of this majestic giant and of the tiny seed that packages it was not by design?” Yet again, if you think the only alternative to design is chance then, no, it does not make sense. But again the authors omit all mention of the real alternative, natural selection, either because they genuinely don’t understand it or because they don’t want to.

The process by which plants, whether tiny pimpernels or massive wellingtonias, acquire the energy to build themselves is photosynthesis. Watchtower again: “‘There are about seventy separate chemical reactions involved in photosynthesis,’ one biologist said. ‘It is truly a miraculous event.’ Green plants have been called nature’s ‘factories’—beautiful, quiet, nonpolluting, producing oxygen, recycling water and feeding the world. Did they just happen by chance? Is that truly believable?” No, it is not believable; but the repetition of example after example gets us nowhere. Creationist “logic” is always the same. Some natural phenomenon is too statistically improbable, too complex, too beautiful, too awe-inspiring to have come into existence by chance. Design is the only alternative to chance that the authors can imagine. Therefore a designer must have done it. And science’s answer to this faulty logic is also always the same. Design is not the only alternative to chance. Natural selection is a better alternative. Indeed, design is not a real alternative at all because it raises an even bigger problem than it solves: who designed the designer? Chance and design both fail as solutions to the problem of statistical improbability, because one of them is the problem, and the other one regresses to it. Natural selection is a real solution. It is the only workable solution that has ever been suggested. And it is not only a workable solution, it is a solution of stunning elegance and power.

What is it that makes natural selection succeed as a solution to the problem of improbability, where chance and design both fail at the starting gate? The answer is that natural selection is a cumulative process, which breaks the problem of improbability up into small pieces. Each of the small pieces is slightly improbable, but not prohibitively so. When large numbers of these slightly improbable events are stacked up in series, the end product of the accumulation is very very improbable indeed, improbable enough to be far beyond the reach of chance. It is these end products that form the subjects of the creationist’s wearisomely recycled argument. The creationist completely misses the point, because he (women should for once not mind being excluded by the pronoun) insists on treating the genesis of statistical improbability as a single, one-off event. He doesn’t understand the power of accumulation.

In Climbing Mount Improbable, I expressed the point in a parable. One side of the mountain is a sheer cliff, impossible to climb, but on the other side is a gentle slope to the summit. On the summit sits a complex device such as an eye or a bacterial flagellar motor. The absurd notion that such complexity could spontaneously self-assemble is symbolized by leaping from the foot of the cliff to the top in one bound. Evolution, by contrast, goes around the back of the mountain and creeps up the gentle slope to the summit: easy! The principle of climbing the gentle slope as opposed to leaping up the precipice is so simple, one is tempted to marvel that it took so long for a Darwin to arrive on the scene and discover it. By the time he did, nearly three centuries had elapsed since Newton’s annus mirabilis, although his achievement seems, on the face of it, harder than Darwin’s.

Another favourite metaphor for extreme improbability is the combination lock on a bank vault. Theoretically, a bank robber could get lucky and hit upon the right combination of numbers by chance. In practice, the bank’s combination lock is designed with enough improbability to make this tantamount to impossible—almost as unlikely as Fred Hoyle’s Boeing 747. But imagine a badly designed combination lock that gave out little hints progressively—the equivalent of the “getting warmer” of children playing Hunt the Slipper. Suppose that when each one of the dials approaches its correct setting, the vault door opens another chink, and a dribble of money trickles out. The burglar would home in on the jackpot in no time.

Creationists who attempt to deploy the argument from improbability in their favour always assume that biological adaptation is a question of the jackpot or nothing. Another name for the “jackpot or nothing” fallacy is “irreducible complexity” (IC). Either the eye sees or it doesn’t. Either the wing flies or it doesn’t. There are assumed to be no useful intermediates. But this is simply wrong. Such intermediates abound in practice—which is exactly what we should expect in theory. The combination lock of life is a “getting warmer, getting cooler, getting warmer” Hunt the Slipper device. Real life seeks the gentle slopes at the back of Mount Improbable, while Creationists are blind to all but the daunting precipice at the front.

Darwin devoted an entire chapter of the Origin of Species to “Difficulties on the theory of descent with modification,” and it is fair to say that this brief chapter anticipated and disposed of every single one of the alleged difficulties that have since been proposed, right up to the present day. The most formidable difficulties are Darwin’s “organs of extreme perfection and complication,” sometimes erroneously described as “irreducibly complex.” Darwin singled out the eye as posing a particularly challenging problem: “To suppose that the eye with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest degree.” Creationists gleefully quote this sentence again and again. Needless to say, they never quote what follows. Darwin’s fulsomely free confession turned out to be a rhetorical device. He was drawing his opponents towards him so that his punch, when it came, struck the harder. The punch, of course, was Darwin’s effortless explanation of exactly how the eye evolved by gradual degrees. Darwin may not have used the phrase “irreducible complexity,” or “the smooth gradient up Mount Improbable,” but he clearly understood the principle of both.

“What is the use of half an eye?” and “What is the use of half a wing?” are both instances of the argument from “irreducible complexity.” A functioning unit is said to be irreducibly complex if the removal of one of its parts causes the whole to cease functioning. This has been assumed to be self-evident for both eyes and wings. But as soon as we give these assumptions a moment’s thought, we immediately see the fallacy. A cataract patient with the lens of her eye surgically removed can’t see clear images without glasses, but can see enough not to bump into a tree or fall over a cliff. Half a wing is indeed not as good as a whole wing, but it is certainly better than no wing at all. Half a wing could save your life by easing your fall from a tree of a certain height. And 51 percent of a wing could save you if you fall from a slightly taller tree. Whatever fraction of a wing you have, there is a fall from which it will save your life where a slightly smaller winglet would not. The thought experiment of trees of different height, from which one might fall, is just one way to see, in theory, that there must be a smooth gradient of advantage all the way from 1 per cent of a wing to 100 percent. The forests are replete with gliding or parachuting animals illustrating, in practice, every step of the way up that particular slope of Mount Improbable.

By analogy with the trees of different height, it is easy to imagine situations in which half an eye would save the life of an animal where 49 percent of an eye would not. Smooth gradients are provided by variations in lighting conditions, variations in the distance at which you catch sight of your prey—or your predators. And, as with wings and flight surfaces, plausible intermediates are not only easy to imagine: they are abundant all around the animal kingdom. A flatworm has an eye that, by any sensible measure, is less than half a human eye. Nautilus (and perhaps its extinct ammonite cousins who dominated Paleozoic and Mesozoic seas) has an eye that is intermediate in quality between flatworm and human. Unlike the flatworm eye, which can detect light and shade but see no image, the Nautilus ‘“pinhole camera” eye makes a real image; but it is a blurred and dim image compared to ours. It would be spurious precision to put numbers on the improvement, but nobody could sanely deny that these invertebrate eyes, and many others, are all better than no eye at all, and all lie on a continuous and shallow slope up Mount Improbable, with our eyes near a peak—not the highest peak but a high one. In Climbing Mount Improbable, I devoted a whole chapter each to the eye and the wing, demonstrating how easy it was for them to evolve by slow (or even, maybe, not all that slow) gradual degrees, and I will leave the subject here.

So, we have seen that eyes and wings are certainly not irreducibly complex; but what is more interesting than these particular examples is the general lesson we should draw. The fact that so many people have been dead wrong over these obvious cases should serve to warn us of other examples that are less obvious, such as the cellular and biochemical cases now being touted by those creationists who shelter under the politically expedient euphemism of “intelligent design theorists.”

We have a cautionary tale here, and it is telling us this: do not just declare things to be irreducibly complex; the chances are that you haven’t looked carefully enough at the details, or thought carefully enough about them. On the other hand, we on the science side must not be too dogmatically confident. Maybe there is something out there in nature that really does preclude, by its genuinely irreducible complexity, the smooth gradient of Mount Improbable. The creationists are right that, if genuinely irreducible complexity could be properly demonstrated, it would wreck Darwin’s theory. Darwin himself said as much: “If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down. But I can find no such case.” Darwin could find no such case, and nor has anybody since Darwin’s time, despite strenuous, indeed desperate, efforts. Many candidates for this holy grail of creationism have been proposed. None has stood up to analysis.

In any case, even though genuinely irreducible complexity would wreck Darwin’s theory if it were ever found, who is to say that it wouldn’t wreck the intelligent design theory as well? Indeed, it already has wrecked the intelligent design theory, for, as I keep saying and will say again, however little we know about God, the one thing we can be sure of is that he would have to be very very complex and presumably irreducibly so!

The Worship of Gaps

Searching for particular examples of irreducible complexity is a fundamentally unscientific way to proceed: a special case of arguing from present ignorance. It appeals to the same faulty logic as “the God of the Gaps” strategy condemned by the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Creationists eagerly seek a gap in present-day knowledge or understanding. If an apparent gap is found, it is assumed that God, by default, must fill it. What worries thoughtful theologians such as Bonhoeffer is that gaps shrink as science advances, and God is threatened with eventually having nothing to do and nowhere to hide. What worries scientists is something else. It is an essential part of the scientific enterprise to admit ignorance, even to exult in ignorance as a challenge to future conquests. As my friend Matt Ridley has written, “Most scientists are bored by what they have already discovered. It is ignorance that drives them on.” Mystics exult in mystery and want it to stay mysterious. Scientists exult in mystery for a different reason: it gives them something to do. More generally, as I shall repeat in Chapter 8, one of the truly bad effects of religion is that it teaches us that it is a virtue to be satisfied with not understanding.

Admissions of ignorance and temporary mystification are vital to good science. It is therefore unfortunate, to say the least, that the main strategy of creation propagandists is the negative one of seeking out gaps in scientific knowledge and claiming t fill them with “intelligent design” by default. The following is hypothetical but entirely typical. A creationist speaking: “The elbow joint of the lesser spotted weasel frog is irreducibly complex. No part of it would do any good at all until the whole was assembled. Bet you can’t think of a way in which the weasel frog’s elbow could have evolved by slow gradual degrees.” If the scientist fails to give an immediate and comprehensive answer, the creationist draws a default conclusion: “Right then, the alternative theory, ‘intelligent design,’ wins by default.” Notice the biased logic: if theory A fails in some particular, theory B must be right. Needless to say, the argument is not applied the other way around. We are encouraged to leap to the default theory without even looking to see whether it fails in the very same particular as the theory it is alleged to replace. Intelligent design—ID—is granted a Get Out Of Jail Free card, a charmed immunity to the rigorous demands made of evolution.

But my present point is that the creationist ploy undermines the scientist’s natural—indeed necessary—rejoicing in (temporary) uncertainty. For purely political reasons, today’s scientist might hesitate before saying: “Hm, interesting point. I wonder how the weasel frog’s ancestors did evolve their elbow joint. I’m not a specialist in weasel frogs, I’ll have to go to the University Library and take a look. Might make an interesting project for a graduate student.” The moment a scientist said something like that—and long before the student began the project—the default conclusion would become a headline in a creationist pamphlet: “Weasel frog could only have been designed by God.”

There is, then, an unfortunate hook-up between science’s methodological need to seek out areas of ignorance in order to target research, and ID’s need to seek out areas of ignorance in order to claim victory by default. It is precisely the fact that ID has no evidence of its own, but thrives like a weed in gaps left by scientific knowledge, that sits uneasily with science’s need to identify and proclaim the very same gaps as a prelude to researching them. In this respect, science finds itself in alliance with sophisticated theologians like Bonhoeffer, united against the common enemies of naive, populist theology and the gap theology of intelligent design.

The creationists’ love affair with “gaps” in the fossil record symbolizes their whole gap theology. I once introduced a chapter on the so-called Cambrian Explosion with the sentence, “It is as though the fossils were planted there without any evolutionary history.” Again, this was a rhetorical overture, intended to whet the reader’s appetite for the full explanation that was to follow. Sad hindsight tells me now how predictable it was that my patient explanation would be excised and my overture itself gleefully quoted out of context. Creationists adore “gaps” in the fossil record, just as they adore gaps generally.

Many evolutionary transitions are elegantly documented by more or less continuous series of gradually changing intermediate fossils. Some are not, and these are the famous “gaps.” Michael Shermer has wittily pointed out that if a new fossil discovery neatly bisects a “gap,” the creationist will declare that there are now twice as many gaps! But in any case, note yet again the unwarranted use of a default. If there are no fossils to document a postulated evolutionary transition, the default assumption is that there was no evolutionary transition, therefore God must have intervened.

It is utterly illogical to demand complete documentation of every step of any narrative, whether in evolution or any other science. You might as well demand, before convicting somebody of murder, a complete cinematic record of the murderer’s every step leading up to the crime, with no missing frames. Only a tiny fraction of corpses fossilize, and we are lucky to have as many intermediate fossils as we do. We could easily have had no fossils at all, and still the evidence for evolution from other sources, such as molecular genetics and geographical distribution, would be overwhelmingly strong. On the other hand, evolution makes the strong prediction that if a single fossil turned up in the wrong geological stratum, the theory would be blown out of the water. When challenged by a zealous Popperian to say how evolution could ever be falsified, J. B. S. Haldane famously growled: “Fossil rabbits in the Precambrian.” No such anachronistic fossils have ever been authentically found, despite discredited creationist legends of human skulls in the Coal Measures and human footprints interspersed with dinosaurs’.

Gaps, by default in the mind of the creationist, are filled by God. The same applies to all apparent precipices on the massif of Mount Improbable, where the graded slope is not immediately obvious or is otherwise overlooked. Areas where there is a lack of data, or a lack of understanding, are automatically assumed to belong, by default, to God. The speedy resort to a dramatic proclamation of “irreducible complexity” represents a failure of the imagination. Some biological organ, if not an eye then a bacterial flagellar motor or a biochemical pathway, is decreed without further argument to be irreducibly complex. No attempt is made to demonstrate irreducible complexity. Notwithstanding the cautionary tales of eyes, wings, and many other things, each new candidate for the dubious accolade is assumed to be transparently, self-evidently irreducibly complex, its status asserted by fiat. But think about it. Since irreducible complexity is being deployed as an argument for design, it should no more be asserted by fiat than design itself. You might as well simply assert that the weasel frog (bombardier beetle, etc.) demonstrates design, without further argument or justification. That is no way to do science.

The logic turns out to be no more convincing than this: “I [insert own name] am personally unable to think of any way in which [insert biological phenomenon] could have been built up step by step. Therefore it is irreducibly complex. That means it is designed.” Put it like that, and you immediately see that it is vulnerable to some scientist coming along and finding an intermediate; or at least imagining a plausible intermediate. Even if no scientists do come up with an explanation, it is plain bad logic to assume that “design” will fare any better. The reasoning that underlies “intelligent design” theory is lazy and defeatist—classic “God of the Gaps” reasoning. I have previously dubbed it the Argument from Personal Incredulity.

Imagine that you are watching a really great magic trick. The celebrated conjuring duo Penn and Teller have a routine in which they simultaneously appear to shoot each other with pistols, and each appears to catch the bullet in his teeth. Elaborate precautions are taken to scratch identifying marks on the bullets before they are put in the guns, the whole procedure is witnessed at close range by volunteers from the audience who have experience of firearms, and apparently all possibilities for trickery are eliminated. Teller’s marked bullet ends up in Penn’s mouth and Penn’s marked bullet ends up in Teller’s. I [Richard Dawkins] am utterly unable to think of any way in which this could be a trick. The Argument from Personal Incredulity screams from the depths of my prescientific brain centres, and almost compels me to say, “It must be a miracle. There is no scientific explanation. It’s got to be supernatural.” But the still small voice of scientific education speaks a different message. Penn and Teller are world-class illusionists. There is a perfectly good explanation. It is just that I am too naive, or too unobservant, or too unimaginative, to think of it. That is the proper response to a conjuring trick. It is also the proper response to a biological phenomenon that appears to be irreducibly complex. Those people who leap from personal bafflement at a natural phenomenon straight to a hasty invocation of the supernatural are no better than the fools who see a conjuror bending a spoon and leap to the conclusion that it is “paranormal.”

In his book Seven Clues to the Origin of Life, the Scottish chemist A. G. Cairns-Smith makes an additional point, using the analogy of an arch. A free-standing arch of rough-hewn stones and no mortar can be a stable structure, but it is irreducibly complex: it collapses if any one stone is removed. How, then, was it built in the first place? One way is to pile a solid heap of stones, then carefully remove stones one by one. More generally, there are many structures that are irreducible in the sense that they cannot survive the subtraction of any part, but which were built with the aid of scaffolding that was subsequently subtracted and is no longer visible. Once the structure is completed, the scaffolding can be removed safely and the structure remains standing. In evolution, too, the organ or structure you are looking at may have had scaffolding in an ancestor which has since been removed.

“Irreducible complexity” is not a new idea, but the phrase itself was invented by the creationist Michael Behe in 1996. He is credited (if credited is the word) with moving creationism into a new area of biology: biochemistry and cell biology, which he saw as perhaps a happier hunting ground for gaps than eyes or wings. His best approach to a good example (still a bad one) was the bacterial flagellar motor.

The flagellar motor of bacteria is a prodigy of nature. It drives the only known example, outside human technology, of a freely rotating axle. Wheels for big animals would, I suspect, be genuine examples of irreducible complexity, and this is probably why they don’t exist. How would the nerves and blood vessels get across the bearing?3 The flagellum is a thread-like propeller, with which the bacterium burrows its way through the water. I say “burrows” rather than “swims” because, on the bacterial scale of existence, a liquid such as water would not feel as a liquid feels to us. It would feel more like treacle, or jelly, or even sand, and the bacterium would seem to burrow or screw its way through the water rather than swim. Unlike the so-called flagellum of larger organisms like protozoans, the bacterial flagellum doesn’t just wave about like a whip, or row like an oar. It has a true, freely rotating axle which turns continuously inside a bearing, driven by a remarkable little molecular motor. At the molecular level, the motor uses essentially the same principle as muscle, but in free rotation rather than in intermittent contraction.4 It has been happily described as a tiny outboard motor (although by engineering standards—and unusually for a biological mechanism—it is a spectacularly inefficient one).

Without a word of justification, explanation or amplification, Behe simply proclaims the bacterial flagellar motor to be irreducibly complex. Since he offers no argument in favour of his assertion, we may begin by suspecting a failure of his imagination. He further alleges that specialist biological literature has ignored the problem. The falsehood of this allegation was massively and (to Behe) embarrassingly documented in the court of Judge John E. Jones in Pennsylvania in 2005, where Behe was testifying as an expert witness on behalf of a group of creationists who had tried to impose “intelligent design” creationism on the science curriculum of a local public school—a move of “breathtaking inanity,” to quote Judge Jones (phrase and man surely destined for lasting fame). This wasn’t the only embarrassment Behe suffered at the hearing, as we shall see.

The key to demonstrating irreducible complexity is to show that none of the parts could have been useful on its own. They all needed to be in place before any of them could do any good (Behe’s favourite analogy is a mousetrap). In fact, molecular biologists have no difficulty in finding parts functioning outside the whole, both for the flagellar motor and for Behe’s other alleged examples of irreducible complexity. The point is well put by Kenneth Miller of Brown University, for my money the most persuasive nemesis of “intelligent design,” not least because he is a devout Christian. I frequently recommend Miller’s book, Finding Darwin’s God, to religious people who write to me having been bamboozled by Behe.

In the case of the bacterial rotary engine, Miller calls our attention to a mechanism called the Type Three Secretory System or TTSS. The TTSS is not used for rotatory movement. It is one of several systems used by parasitic bacteria for pumping toxic substances through their cell walls to poison their host organism. On our human scale, we might think of pouring or squirting a liquid through a hole; but, once again, on the bacterial scale things look different. Each molecule of secreted substance is a large protein with a definite, three-dimensional structure on the same scale as the TTSS’s own: more like a solid sculpture than a liquid. Each molecule is individually propelled through a carefully shaped mechanism, like an automated slot machine dispensing, say, toys or bottles, rather than a simple hole through which a substance might “flow.” The goods-dispenser itself is made of a rather small number of protein molecules, each one comparable in size and complexity to the molecules being dispensed through it. Interestingly, these bacterial slot machines are often similar across bacteria that are not closely related. The genes for making them have probably been “copied and pasted” from other bacteria: something that bacteria are remarkably adept at doing, and a fascinating topic in its own right, but I must press on.

The protein molecules that form the structure of the TTSS are very similar to components of the flagellar motor. To the evolutionist it is clear that TTSS components were commandeered for a new, but not wholly unrelated, function when the flagellar motor evolved. Given that the TTSS is tugging molecules through itself, it is not surprising that it uses a rudimentary version of the principle used by the flagellar motor, which tugs the molecules of the axle round and round. Evidently, crucial components of the flagellar motor were already in place and working before the flagellar motor evolved. Commandeering existing mechanisms is an obvious way in which an apparently irreducibly complex piece of apparatus could climb Mount Improbable.

A lot more work needs to be done, of course, and I’m sure it will be. Such work would never be done if scientists were satisfied with a lazy default such as “intelligent design theory” would encourage. Here is the message that an imaginary “intelligent design theorist” might broadcast to scientists: “If you don’t understand how something works, never mind: just give up and say God did it. You don’t know how the nerve impulse works? Good! You don’t understand how memories are laid down in the brain? Excellent! Is photosynthesis a bafflingly complex process? Wonderful! Please don’t go to work on the problem, just give up, and appeal to God. Dear scientist, don’t work on your mysteries. Bring us your mysteries, for we can use them. Don’t squander precious ignorance by researching it away. We need those glorious gaps as a last refuge for God.” St. Augustine said it quite openly: “There is another form of temptation, even more fraught with danger. This is the disease of curiosity. It is this which drives us to try and discover the secrets of nature, those secrets which are beyond our understanding, which can avail us nothing and which man should not wish to learn” (quoted in Freeman 2002).

Another of Behe’s favourite alleged examples of “irreducible complexity” is the immune system. Let Judge Jones himself take up the story: In fact, on cross-examination, Professor Behe was questioned concerning his 1996 claim that science would never find an evolutionary explanation for the immune system. He was presented with fifty-eight peer-reviewed publications, nine books, and several immunology textbook chapters about the evolution of the immune system; however, he simply insisted that this was still not sufficient evidence of evolution, and that it was not “good enough.”

Behe, under cross-examination, by Eric Rothschild, chief counsel for the plaintiffs, was forced to admit that he hadn’t read most of those fifty-eight peer-reviewed papers. Hardly surprising, for immunology is hard work. Less forgivable is that Behe dismissed such research as “unfruitful.” It certainly is unfruitful if your aim is to make propaganda among gullible laypeople and politicians, rather than to discover important truths about the real world. After listening to Behe, Rothschild eloquently summed up what every honest person in that courtroom must have felt: Thankfully, there are scientists who do search for answers to the question of the origin of the immune system…It’s our defense against debilitating and fatal diseases. The scientists who wrote those books and articles toil in obscurity, without book royalties or speaking engagements. Their efforts help us combat and cure serious medical conditions. By contrast, Professor Behe and the entire intelligent design movement are doing nothing to advance scientific or medical knowledge and are telling future generations of scientists, don’t bother.

As the American geneticist Jerry Coyne put it in his review of Behe’s book: “If the history of science shows us anything, it is that we get nowhere by labelling our ignorance ‘God.’” Or, in the words of an eloquent blogger, commenting on an article on intelligent design in the Guardian by Coyne and me, Why is God considered an explanation for anything? It’s not—it’s a failure to explain, a shrug of the shoulders, an “I dunno” dressed up in spirituality and ritual. If someone credits something to God, generally what it means is that they haven’t a clue, so they’re attributing it to an unreachable, unknowable sky-fairy. Ask for an explanation of where that bloke came from, and odds are you’ll get a vague, pseudo-philosophical reply about having always existed, or being outside nature. Which, of course, explains nothing.

Darwinism raises our consciousness in other ways. Evolved organs, elegant and efficient as they often are, also demonstrate revealing flaws—exactly as you’d expect if they have an evolutionary history, and exactly as you would not expect if they were designed. I have discussed examples in other books: the recurrent laryngeal nerve, for one, which betrays its evolutionary history in a massive and wasteful detour on its way to its destination. Many of our human ailments, from lower back pain to hernias, prolapsed uteruses and our susceptibility to sinus infections, result directly from the fact that we now walk upright with a body that was shaped over hundreds of millions of years to walk on all fours. Our consciousness is also raised by the cruelty and wastefulness of natural selection. Predators seem beautifully “designed” to catch prey animals, while the prey animals seem equally beautifully “designed” to escape them. Whose side is God on?

Gerin Oil


Gerin Oil (or Geriniol to give it its scientific name) is a powerful drug which acts directly on the central nervous system to produce a range of symptoms, often of an anti-social or self-damaging nature. It can permanently modify the child brain to produce adult disorders, including dangerous delusions, which are hard to treat. The four doomed flights of September 11, 2001, were Gerin Oil trips: all nineteen of the hijackers were high on the drug at the time. Historically, Gerinoilism was responsible for atrocities such as the Salem witch hunts and the massacres of Native South Americans by conquistadors. Gerin Oil fuelled most of the wars of the European Middle Ages and, in more recent times, the carnage that attended the partitioning of the Indian subcontinent and of Ireland.

Gerin Oil intoxication can drive previously sane individuals to run away from a normally fulfilled human life and retreat to closed communities of confirmed addicts. These communities are usually limited to one sex only, and they vigorously, often obsessively, forbid sexual activity. Indeed, a tendency towards agonized sexual prohibition emerges as a drably recurring theme amid all the colorful variations of Gerin Oil symptomatology. Gerin Oil does not seem to reduce the libido per se, but it frequently leads to a preoccupation with reducing the sexual pleasure of others. A current example is the prurience with which many habitual “Oilers” condemn homosexuality.

As with other drugs, refined Gerin Oil in low doses is largely harmless, and can serve as a lubricant on social occasions such as marriages, funerals, and state ceremonies. Experts differ over whether such social tripping, though harmless in itself, is a risk factor for upgrading to harder and more addictive forms of the drug.

Medium doses of Gerin Oil, though not in themselves dangerous, can distort perceptions of reality. Beliefs that have no basis in fact are immunized, by the drug’s direct effects on the nervous system, against evidence from the real world. Oil-heads can be heard talking to thin air or muttering to themselves, apparently in the belief that private wishes so expressed will come true, even at the cost of other people’s welfare and mild violation of the laws of physics. This autolocutory disorder is often accompanied by weird tics and hand gestures, manic stereotypes such as rhythmic head-nodding toward a wall, or obsessive compulsive orientation syndrome (OCOS: facing towards the east five times a day).

Gerin Oil in strong doses is hallucinogenic. Hardcore mainliners may hear voices in the head, or experience visual illusions which seem to the sufferers so real that they often succeed in persuading others of their reality. An individual who convincingly reports high-grade hallucinations may be venerated, and even followed as some kind of leader, by others who regard themselves as less fortunate. Such follower-pathology can long post-date the original leader’s death, and may xpand into bizarre psychedelia such as the cannibalistic fantasy of “drinking the blood and eating the flesh” of the leader.

Chronic abuse of Geriniol can lead to “bad trips,” in which the user suffers terrifying delusions, including fears of being tortured, not in the real world but in a postmortem fantasy world. Bad trips of this kind are bound up with a morbid punishment-lore, which is as characteristic of this drug as the obsessive fear of sexuality already noted. The punishment-culture fostered by Gerin Oil ranges from “smack” through “lash” to getting “stoned” (especially adulteresses and rape victims), and “demanifestation” (amputation of one hand), up to the sinister fantasy of allo-punishment or “cross-topping,” the execution of one individual for the sins of others.

You might think that such a potentially dangerous and addictive drug would head the list of proscribed intoxicants, with exemplary sentences handed out for pushing it. But no, it is readily obtainable anywhere in the world and you don’t even need a prescription. Professional traffickers are numerous, and organized in hierarchical cartels, openly trading on street corners and in purpose-made buildings. Some of these cartels are adept at fleecing poor people desperate to feed their habit. “Godfathers” occupy influential positions in high places, and they have the ear of royalty, of presidents and prime ministers. Governments don’t just turn a blind eye to the trade, they grant it tax-exempt status. Worse, they subsidize schools founded with the specific intention of getting children hooked.

I was prompted to write this article by the smiling face of a happy man in Bali. He was ecstatically greeting his death sentence for the brutal murder of large numbers of innocent holidaymakers whom he had never met, and against whom he bore no personal grudge. Some people in the court were shocked at his lack of remorse. Far from remorse, his response was one of obvious exhilaration. He punched the air, delirious with joy that he was to be “martyred,” to use the jargon of his group of abusers. Make no mistake about it, that beatific smile, looking forward with unalloyed pleasure to the firing squad, is the smile of a junkie. Here we have the archetypal mainliner, doped up with hard, unrefined, unadulterated, high-octane Gerin Oil.

Whatever your view of the vengeance and deterrence theories of capital punishment, it should be obvious that this case is special. Martyrdom is a strange revenge against those who crave it, and, far from deterring, it always recruits more martyrs than it kills. The important point is that the problem would not arise in the first place if children were protected from getting hooked on a drug with such a bad prognosis for their adult minds.

Atheists for Jesus


The argument, like a good recipe, needs to be built up gradually, with the ingredients mustered in advance. First, the apparently oxymoronic title. In a society where the majority of theists are at least nominally Christian, the two words are treated as near synonyms. Bertrand Russell’s famous advocacy of atheism was called Why I Am Not a Christian rather than, as it probably should have been, Why I Am Not a Theist. All Christians are theists, it seems to go without saying.

Of course Jesus was a theist, but that is the least interesting thing about him. He was a theist because, in his time, everybody was. Atheism was not an option, eve for so radical a thinker as Jesus. What was interesting and remarkable about Jesus was not the obvious fact that he believed in the God of his Jewish religion, but that he rebelled against many aspects of Yahweh’s vengeful nastiness. At least in the teachings that are attributed to him, he publicly advocated niceness and was one of the first to do so. To those steeped in the Sharia-like cruelties of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, to those brought up to fear the vindictive, Ayatollah-like God of Abraham and Isaac, a charismatic young preacher who advocated generous forgiveness must have seemed radical to the point of subversion. No wonder they nailed him. Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloke also. And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain. Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away. Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.

My second ingredient is another paradox, which begins in my own field of Darwinism. Natural selection is a deeply nasty process. Darwin himself remarked, What a book a devil’s chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering low and horridly cruel works of nature.

It was not just the facts of nature, among which he singled out the larvae of Ichneumon wasps and their habit of feeding within the bodies of live caterpillars. The theory of natural selection itself seems calculated to foster selfishness at the expense of public good, violence, callous indifference to suffering, short term greed at the expense of long term foresight. If scientific theories could vote, evolution would surely vote Republican. My paradox comes from the un-Darwinian fact, which any of us can observe in our own circle of acquaintances, that so many individual people are kind, generous, helpful, compassionate, nice: the sort of people of whom we say, “She’s a real saint.” Or, “He’s a true Good Samaritan.”

We all know people (is it significant that the ones I can think of are mostly women?) to whom we can sincerely say: “If only everybody were like you, the world’s troubles would melt away.” The milk of human kindness is only a metaphor but, naive as it sounds, I contemplate some of my friends and I feel like trying to bottle whatever it is that makes them so kind, so selfless, so apparently un-Darwinian.

Darwinians can come up with explanations for human niceness: generalisations of the well-established models of kin selection and reciprocal altruism, the stocks-in-trade of the ‘selfish gene’ theory, which sets out to explain how altruism and cooperation among individual animals can stem from self-interest at the genetic level. But the sort of super niceness I am talking about in humans goes too far. It is a misfiring, even a perversion of the Darwinian take on niceness. Well, if that’s a perversion, it’s the kind of perversion we need to encourage and spread.

Human super niceness is a perversion of Darwinism because, in a wild population, it would be removed by natural selection. It is also, although I haven’t the space to go into detail about this third ingredient of my recipe, an apparent perversion of the sort of rational choice theory by which economists explain human behaviour as calculated to maximize self-interest.

Let’s put it even more bluntly. From a rational choice point of view, or from a Darwinian point of view, human super niceness is just plain dumb. And yes, it is the kind of dumb that should be encouraged—which is the purpose of my article. How can we do it? How shall we take the minority of super nice humans that we all know, and increase their number, perhaps until they even become a majority in the population? Could super niceness be induced to spread like an epidemic? Could super niceness be packaged in such a form that it passes down the generations in swelling traditions of longitudinal propagation?

Well, do we know of any comparable examples, where stupid ideas have been known to spread like an epidemic? Yes, by God! Religion. Religious beliefs are irrational. Religious beliefs are dumb and dumber: super dumb. Religion drives otherwise sensible people into celibate monasteries, or crashing into New York skyscrapers. Religion motivates people to whip their own backs, to set fire to themselves or their daughters, to denounce their own grandmothers as witches, or, in less extreme cases, simply to stand or kneel, week after week, through ceremonies of stupefying boredom. If people can be infected with such self-harming stupidity, infecting them with niceness should be child’s play.

Religious beliefs most certainly spread in epidemics and, even more obviously, they pass down the generations to form longitudinal traditions and promote enclaves of locally peculiar irrationality. We may not understand why humans behave in the weird ways we label religious, but it is a manifest fact that they do. The existence of religion is evidence that humans eagerly adopt irrational beliefs and spread them, both longitudinally in traditions and horizontally in epidemics of evangelism. Could this susceptibility, this palpable vulnerability to infections of irrationality be put to genuinely good use?

Humans undoubtedly have a strong tendency to learn from and copy admired role models. Under propitious circumstances, the epidemiological consequences can be dramatic. The hairstyle of a footballer, the dress sense of a singer, the speech mannerisms of a game show host, such trivial idiosyncrasies can spread through a susceptible age cohort like a virus. The advertising industry is professionally dedicated to the science—or it may be an art—of launching memetic epidemics and nurturing their spread. Christianity itself was spread by the equivalents of such techniques, originally by St. Paul and later by priests and missionaries who systematically set out to increase the numbers of converts in what turned out to be exponential growth. Could we achieve exponential amplification of the numbers of super nice people?

This week I had a public conversation in Edinburgh with Richard Holloway, former bishop of that beautiful city. Bishop Holloway has evidently outgrown the supernaturalism which most Christians still identify with their religion (he describes himself as post-Christian and as a “recovering Christian”). He retains a reverence for the poetry of religious myth, which is enough to keep him going to church. And in the course of our Edinburgh discussion he made a suggestion which went straight to my core. Borrowing a poetic myth from the worlds of mathematics and cosmology, he described humanity as a “singularity” in evolution. He meant exactly what I have been talking about in this essay, although he expressed it differently. The advent of human super niceness is something unprecedented in four billion years of evolutionary history. It seems likely that, after the Homo sapiens singularity, evolution may never be the same again.

Be under no illusions, for Bishop Holloway was not. The singularity is a product of blind evolution itself, not the creation of any unevolved intelligence. It resulted from the natural evolution of the human brain which, under the blind forces of natural selection, expanded to the point where, all unforeseen, it over-reached itself and started to behave insanely from the selfish gene’s point of view. The most transparently un-Darwinian misfiring is contraception, which divorces sexual pleasure from its natural function of gene-propagation. More subtle over-reachings include intellectual and artistic pursuits which squander, by the selfish genes’ lights, time and energy that should be devoted to surviving and reproducing. The big brain achieved the evolutionarily unprecedented feat of genuine foresight: became capable of calculating long-term consequences beyond short-term selfish gain. And, at least in some individuals, the brain over-reached itself to the extent of indulging in that super niceness whose singular existence is the central paradox of my thesis. Big brains can take the driving, goal-seeking mechanisms that were originally favoured for selfish gene reasons, and divert (subvert? pervert?) them away from their Darwinian goals and into other paths.

I am no memetic engineer, and I have very little idea how to increase the numbers of the super nice and spread their memes through the meme pool. The best I can offer is what I hope may be a catchy slogan. “Atheists for Jesus” would grace a T-shirt. There is no strong reason to choose Jesus as icon, rather than some other role model from the ranks of the super nice such as Mahatma Gandhi (not the odiously self-righteous Mother Teresa, heavens no). I think we owe Jesus the honour of separating his genuinely original and radical ethics from the supernatural nonsense which he inevitably espoused as a man of his time. And perhaps the oxymoronic impact of “Atheists for Jesus” might be just what is needed to kick start the meme of super niceness in a post-Christian society. If we play our cards right—could we lead society away from the nether regions of its Darwinian origins into kinder and more compassionate uplands of post-singularity enlightenment?

I think a reborn Jesus would wear the T-shirt. It has become a commonplace belief that, were he to return today, he would be appalled at what is being done in his name, by Christians ranging from the Catholic Church to the fundamentalist Religious Right. Less obviously but still plausibly, in the light of modern scientific knowledge I think he would see through supernaturalist obscurantism. But of course, modesty would compel him to turn his T-shirt around: “Jesus for Atheists.”


Cosmic Evidence

From God: The Failed Hypothesis

VICTOR STENGERThe majority view of the atheist school is that the existence of god can neither be proved nor disproved, and that therefore the theistic position must collapse because its adherents must claim to know more than anyone can possibly know (not just about the existence of a creator, but about his thoughts on sex, diet, war, and other matters). Greatly daring, Professor Victor Stenger advances the argument that we now know enough to discard the god hypothesis altogether.The only laws of matter are those which our minds must fabricate, and the only laws of mind are fabricated for it by matter.—JAMES CLERK MAXWELL


Let us now move from Earth to the cosmos in our search for evidence of the creator God of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. From a modern scientific perspective, what are the empirical and theoretical implications of the hypothesis of a supernatural creation? We need to seek evidence that the universe (1) had an origin and (2) that origin cannot have happened naturally. One sign of a supernatural creation would be a direct empirical confirmation that a miracle was necessary in order to bring the universe into existence. That is, cosmological data should either show evidence for one or more violations of well-established laws of nature or the models developed to describe those data should require some causal ingredient that cannot be understood—and be probably not understandable—in purely material or natural terms.

Now, as philosopher David Hume pointed out centuries ago, many problems exist with the whole notion of miracles. Three types of possible miracles can be identified: (1) violations of established laws of nature, (2) inexplicable events, and (3) highly unlikely coincidences. The latter two can be subsumed into the first since they also would imply a disagreement with current knowledge.

In previous chapters I have given examples of observations that would confirm the reality of supernatural powers of the human mind. We can easily imagine cosmic phenomena that would forever defy material expectations. Suppose a new planet were to suddenly appear in the solar system. Such an observation would violate energy conservation and reasonably be classified as a supernatural event.

Scientists will make every effort to find a natural mechanism for any unusual event, and the layperson is likely to agree that such a mechanism might be possible since “science does not know everything.”

However, science knows a lot more than most people realize. Despite the talk of “scientific revolutions” and “paradigm shifts,” the basic laws of physics are essentially the same today as they were at the time of Newton. Of course they have been expanded and revised, especially with the twentieth-century developments of relativity and quantum mechanics. But anyone familiar with modern physics will have to agree that certain fundamentals, in particular the great conservation principles of energy and momentum, have not changed in four hundred years.1 The conservation principles and Newton’s laws of motion still appear in relativity and quantum mechanics. Newton’s law of gravity is still used to calculate the orbits of spacecraft.

Conservation of energy and other basic laws hold true in the most distant observed galaxy and in the cosmic microwave background, implying that these laws have been valid for over thirteen billion years. Surely any observation of their violation during the puny human life span would be reasonably termed a miracle.

Theologian Richard Swinburne suggests that we define a miracle as a nonrepeatable exception to a law of nature.2 Of course, we can always redefine the law to include the exception, but that would be somewhat arbitrary. Laws are meant to describe repeatable events. So, we will seek evidence for violations of well-established laws that do not repeat themselves in any lawful pattern.

No doubt God, if he exists, is capable of repeating miracles if he so desires. However, repeatable events provide more information that may lead to an eventual natural description, while a mysterious, unrepeated event is likely to remain mysterious. Let us give the God hypothesis every benefit of the doubt and keep open the possibility of a miraculous origin for inexplicable events and unlikely coincidences, examining any such occurrences on an individual basis. If even with the loosest definition of a miracle none is observed to occur, then we will have obtained strong support for the case against the existence of a God who directs miraculous events.

Let us proceed to look for evidence of a miraculous creation in our observations of the cosmos.

Creating Matter

Until early in the twentieth century, there were strong indications that one or more miracles were required to create the universe. The universe currently contains a large amount of matter that is characterized by the physical quantity we define as mass. Prior to the twentieth century, it was believed that matter could neither be created nor destroyed, just changed from one type to another. So the very existence of matter seemed to be a miracle, a violation of the assumed law of conservation of mass that occurred just once—at the creation.

However, in his special theory of relativity published in 1905, Albert Einstein showed that matter can be created out of energy and can disappear into energy. What all science writers call “Einstein’s famous equation,” E = mc2, relates the mass m of a body to an equivalent rest energy, E, where c is a universal constant, the speed of light in a vacuum. That is, a body at rest still contains energy.

When a body is moving, it carries an additional energy of motion called kinetic energy. In chemical and nuclear interactions, kinetic energy can be converted into rest energy, which is equivalent to generating mass.3 Also, the reverse happens; mass or rest energy can be converted into kinetic energy. In that way, chemical and nuclear interactions can generate kinetic energy, which then can be used to run engines or blow things up.

So, the existence of mass in the universe violates no law of nature. Mass can come from energy. But, then, where does the energy come from? The law of conservation of energy, also known as the first law of thermodynamics, requires that energy come from somewhere. In principle, the creation hypothesis could be confirmed by the direct observation or theoretical requirement that conservation of energy was violated 13.7 billion years ago at the start of the big bang.

However, neither observations nor theory indicates this to have been the case. The first law allows energy to convert from one type to another as long as the total for a closed system remains fixed. Remarkably, the total energy of the universe appears to be zero. As famed cosmologist Stephen Hawking said in his 1988 best seller, A Brief History of Time, “In the case of a universe that is approximately uniform in space, one can show that the negative gravitational energy exactly cancels the positive energy represented by the matter. So the total energy of the universe is zero.4 Specifically, within small measurement errors, the mean energy density of the universe is exactly what it should be for a universe that appeared from an initial state of zero energy, within a small quantum uncertainty.5

A close balance between positive and negative energy is predicted by the modern extension of the big bang theory called the inflationary big bang, according to which the universe underwent a period of rapid, exponential inflation during a tiny fraction of its first second.6 The inflationary theory has recently undergone a number of stringent observational tests that would have been sufficient to prove it false. So far, it has successfully passed all these tests.

In short, the existence of matter and energy in the universe did not require the violation of energy conservation at the assumed creation. In fact, the data strongly support the hypothesis that no such miracle occurred. If we regard such a miracle as predicted by the creator hypothesis, then that prediction is not confirmed.

This example also serves to once more refute the assertion that science has nothing to say about God. Suppose our measurement of the mass density of the universe had not turned out to be exactly the value required for a universe to have begun from a state of zero energy. Then we would have had a legitimate, scientific reason to conclude that a miracle, namely, a violation of energy conservation, was needed to bring the universe into being. While this might not conclusively prove the existence of a creator to everyone’s satisfaction, it would certainly be a strong mark in his favor.

Creating Order

Another prediction of the creator hypothesis also fails to be confirmed by the data. If the universe were created, then it should have possessed some degree of order at the creation—the design that was inserted at that point by the Grand Designer. This expectation of order is usually expressed in terms of the second law of thermodynamics, which states that the total entropy or disorder of a closed system must remain constant or increase with time. It would seem to follow that if the universe today is a closed system, it could not always have been so. At some point in the past, order must have been imparted from the outside.

Prior to 1929, this was a strong argument for a miraculous creation. However, in that year astronomer Edwin Hubble reported that the galaxies are moving away from one another at speeds approximately proportional to their distance, indicating that the universe is expanding. This provided the earliest evidence for the big bang. For our purposes, an expanding universe could have started in total chaos and still formed localized order consistent with the second law.

The simplest way to see this is with a (literally) homey example. Suppose that whenever you clean your house, you empty the collected rubbish by tossing it out the window into your yard. Eventually the yard would be filled with rubbish. However, you can continue doing this with a simple expedient. Just keep buying up the land around your house and you will always have more room to toss the rubbish. You are able to maintain localized order—in your house—at the expense of increased disorder in the rest of the universe.

Similarly, parts of the universe can become more orderly as the rubbish, or entropy, produced during the ordering process (think of it as disorder being removed from the system being ordered) is tossed out into the larger, ever-expanding surrounding space. As illustrated in figure 4.1, the total entropy of the universe increases as the universe expands, as required by the second law.7 However, the maximum possible entropy increases even faster, leaving increasingly more room for order to form. The reason for this is that the maximum entropy of a sphere of a certain radius (we are thinking of the universe as a sphere) is that of a black hole of that radius. The expanding universe is not a black hole and so has less than maximum entropy. Thus, while becoming more disorderly on the whole as time goes by, our expanding universe is not maximally disordered. But, once it was.

Suppose we extrapolate the expansion back 13.7 billion years to the earliest definable moment, the Planck time, 6.4 x 10–44 second when the universe was confined to the smallest possible region of space that can be operationally defined, a Planck sphere that has a radius equal to the Planck length, 1.6 x 10–35 meter. As expected from the second law, the universe at that time had lower entropy than it has now. However, that entropy was also as high as it possibly could have been for an object that small, because a sphere of Planck dimensions is equivalent to a black hole.

This requires further elaboration. I seem to be saying that the entropy of the universe was maximal when the universe began, yet it has been increasing ever since. Indeed, that’s exactly what I am saying. When the universe began, its entropy was as high as it could be for an object of that size because the universe was equivalent to a black hole from which no information can be extracted. Currently the entropy is higher but not maximal, that is, not as high as it could be for an object of the universe’s current size. The universe is no longer a black hole.

I also need to respond here to an objection that has been raised by physicists who have heard me make this statement. They point out, correctly, that we currently do not have a theory of quantum gravity that we can apply to describe physics earlier than the Planck time. I have adopted Einstein’s operational definition of time as what you read on a clock. In order to measure a time interval smaller than the Planck time, you would need to make that measurement in a region smaller than the Planck length, which equals the Planck time multiplied by the speed of light. According to the Heisenberg uncertainty principle of quantum mechanics, such a region would be a black hole, from which no information can escape. This implies that no time interval can be defined that is smaller than the Planck time.8

Consider the present time. Clearly we do not have any qualms about applying established physics “now” and for short times earlier or later, as long as we do not try to do so for time intervals shorter than the Planck time. Basically, by definition time is counted off as an integral number of units where one unit equals the Planck time. We can get away with treating time as a continuous variable in our mathematical physics, such as we do when we use calculus, because the units are so small compared to anything we measure in practice. We essentially extrapolate our equations through the Planck intervals within which time is unmeasurable and thus indefinable. If we can do this “now,” we can do it at the end of the earliest Planck interval where we must begin our description of the beginning of the big bang.

At that time, our extrapolation from later times tells us that the entropy was maximal. In that case, the disorder was complete and no structure could have been present. Thus, the universe began with no structure. It has structure today consistent with the fact that its entropy is no longer maximal.

In short, according to our best current cosmological understanding, our universe began with no structure or organization, designed or otherwise. It was a state of chaos.

We are thus forced to conclude that the complex order we now observe could not have been the result of any initial design built into the universe at the so-called creation. The universe preserves no record of what went on before the big bang. The Creator, if he existed, left no imprint. Thus he might as well have been nonexistent.

Once again we have a result that might have turned out otherwise and provided strong scientific evidence for a creator. If the universe were not expanding but a firmament, as described in the Bible, then the second law would have required that the entropy of the universe was lower than its maximum allowed value in the past. Thus, if the universe had a beginning, it would have begun in a state of high order nec ssarily imposed from the outside. Even if the universe extended into the infinite past, it would be increasingly orderly in that direction, and the source of that order would defy natural description.

The empirical fact of the big bang has led some theists to argue that this, in itself, demonstrates the existence of a creator. In 1951 Pope Pius XII told the Pontifical Academy, “Creation took place in time, therefore there is a Creator, therefore God exists.”9 The astronomer/priest Georges-Henri Lemaitre, who first proposed the idea of a big bang, wisely advised the pope not make this statement “infallible.”

Christian apologist William Lane Craig has made a number of sophisticated arguments that he claims show that the universe must have had a beginning and that beginning implies a personal creator.10 One such argument is based on general relativity, the modern theory of gravity that was published by Einstein in 1916 and that has, since then, passed many stringent empirical tests.”11

In 1970 cosmologist Stephen Hawking and mathematician Roger Penrose, using a theorem derived earlier by Penrose, “proved” that a singularity exists at the beginning of the big bang.12 Extrapolating general relativity back to zero time, the universe gets smaller and smaller while the density of the universe and the gravitational field increases. As the size of the universe goes to zero, the density and gravitational field, at least according to the mathematics of general relativity, become infinite. At that point, Craig claims, time must stop and, therefore, no prior time can exist.

However, Hawking has repudiated his own earlier proof. In his best seller A Brief History of Time, he avers, “There was in fact no singularity at the beginning of the universe.”13 This revised conclusion, concurred with by Penrose, follows from quantum mechanics, the theory of atomic processes that was developed in the years following the introduction of Einstein’s theories of relativity. Quantum mechanics, which also is now confirmed to great precision, tells us that general relativity, at least as currently formulated, must break down at times less than the Planck time and at distances smaller than the Planck length, mentioned earlier. It follows that general relativity cannot be used to imply that a singularity occurred prior to the Planck time and that Craig’s use of the singularity theorem for a beginning of time is invalid.

Craig and other theists also make another, related argument that the universe had to have had a beginning at some point, because if it were infinitely old, it would have taken an infinite time to reach the present. However, as philosopher Keith Parsons has pointed out, “To say the universe is infinitely old is to say that it had no beginning—not a beginning that was infinitely long ago.”14

Infinity is an abstract mathematical concept that was precisely formulated in the work of mathematician Georg Cantor in the late nineteenth century. However, the symbol for infinity, “©,” is used in physics simply as a shorthand for “a very big number.” Physics is counting. In physics, time is simply the count of ticks on a clock. You can count backward as well as forward. Counting forward you can get a very big but never mathematically infinite positive number and time “never ends.” Counting backward you can get a very big but never mathematically infinite negative number and time “never begins.” Just as we never reach positive infinity, we never reach negative infinity. Even if the universe does not have a mathematically infinite number of events in the future, it still need not have an end. Similarly, even if the universe does not have a mathematically infinite number of events in the past, it still need not have a beginning. We can always have one event follow another, and we can always have one event precede another.

Craig claims that if it can be shown that the universe had a beginning, this is sufficient to demonstrate the existence of a personal creator. He casts this in terms of the kalâm cosmological argument, which is drawn from Islamic theology.15 The argument is posed as a syllogism:

Whatever begins to exist has a cause.

The universe began to exist.

Therefore, the universe has a cause.

The kalâm argument has been severely challenged by philosophers on logical grounds,16 which need not be repeated here since we are focusing on the science.

In his writings, Craig takes the first premise to be self-evident, with no justification other than common, everyday experience. That’s the type of experience that tells us the world is flat. In fact, physical events at the atomic and subatomic level are observed to have no evident cause. For example, when an atom in an excited energy level drops to a lower level and emits a photon, a particle of light, we find no cause of that event. Similarly, no cause is evident in the decay of a radioactive nucleus.

Craig has retorted that quantum events are still “caused,” just caused in a nonpredetermined manner—what he calls “probabilistic causality.” In effect, Craig is thereby admitting that the “cause” in his first premise could be an accidental one, something spontaneous—something not predetermined. By allowing probabilistic cause, he destroys his own case for a predetermined creation.

We have a highly successful theory of probabilistic causes—quantum mechanics. It does not predict when a given event will occur and, indeed, assumes that individual events are not predetermined. The one exception occurs in the interpretation of quantum mechanics given by David Bohm.17 This assumes the existence of yet-undetected subquantum forces. While this interpretation has some supporters, it is not generally accepted because it requires superluminal connections that violate the principles of special relativity.18 More important, no evidence for subquantum forces has been found.

Instead of predicting individual events, quantum mechanics is used to predict the statistical distribution of outcomes of ensembles of similar events. This it can do with high precision. For example, a quantum calculation will tell you how many nuclei in a large sample will have decayed after a given time. Or you can predict the intensity of light from a group of excited atoms, which is a measure of the total number of photons emitted. But neither quantum mechanics nor any other existing theory—including Bohm’s—can say anything about the behavior of an individual nucleus or atom. The photons emitted in atomic transitions come into existence spontaneously, as do the particles emitted in nuclear radiation. By so appearing, without predetermination, they contradict the first premise.

In the case of radioactivity, the decays are observed to follow an exponential decay “law.” However, this statistical law is exactly what you expect if the probability for decay in a given small time interval is the same for all time intervals of the same duration. In other words, the decay curve itself is evidence for each individual event occurring unpredictably and, by inference, without being predetermined.

Quantum mechanics and classical (Newtonian) mechanics are not as separate and distinct from one another as is generally thought. Indeed, quantum mechanics changes smoothly into classical mechanics when the parameters of the system, such as masses, distances, and speeds, approach the classical regime.19 When that happens, quantum probabilities collapse to either zero or 100 percent, which then gives us certainty at that level. However, we have many examples where the probabilities are not zero or 100 percent. The quantum probability calculations agree precisely with the observations made on ensembles of similar events.

Note that even if the kalâm conclusion were sound and the universe had a cause, why could that cause itself not be natural? As it is, the kalâm argument fails both empirically and theoretically without ever having to bring up the second premise about the universe having a beginning.

The Origin

Nevertheless, another nail in the coffin of the kalâm argument is provided by the fact that the second premise also fails. As we saw above, the claim that the universe began with the big bang has no basis in current physical and cosmological knowledge.

The observations confirming the big bang do not rule out the possibility of a prior universe. Theoretical models have been published suggesting mechanisms by which our current universe appeared from a preexisting one, for example, by a process called quantum tunneling or so-called quantum fluctuations.20 The equations of cosmology that describe the early universe apply equally for the other side of the time axis, so we have no reason to assume that the universe began with the big bang.

In The Comprehensible Cosmos, I presented a specific scenario for the purely natural origin of the universe, worked out mathematically at a level accessible to anyone with an undergraduate mathematics or physics background.21 This was based on the no boundary model of James Hartle and Stephen Hawking.22 In that model, the universe has no beginning or end in space or time. In the scenario I presented, our universe is described as having “tunneled” through the chaos at the Planck time from a prior universe that existed for all previous time.

While he avoided technical details in A Brief History of Time, the no boundary model was the basis of Hawking’s oft-quoted statement: “So long as the universe had a beginning, we could suppose it had a creator. But if the universe is really completely self-contained, having no boundary or edge, it would have neither beginning nor end; it would simply be. What place then, for a creator?”23

Prominent physicists and cosmologists have published, in reputable scientific journals, a number of other scenarios by which the universe could have come about “from nothing” naturally.24 None can be “proved” at this time to represent the exact way the universe appeared, but they serve to illustrate that any argument for the existence of God based on this gap in scientific knowledge fails, since plausible natural mechanisms can be given within the framework of existing knowledge.

As I have emphasized, the God of the gaps argument for God fails when a plausible scientific account for a gap in current knowledge can be given. I do not dispute that the exact nature of the origin of the universe remains a g p in scientific knowledge.

But I deny that we are bereft of any conceivable way to account for that origin scientifically.

In short, empirical data and the theories that successfully describe those data indicate that the universe did not come about by a purposeful creation. Based on our best current scientific knowledge, it follows that no creator exists who left a cosmological imprint of a purposeful creation.

Intervening in the Cosmos

This still leaves open the possibility that a god exists who may have created the universe in such a way that did not require any miracles and did not leave any imprint of his intentions. Of course, this is no longer the traditional Judeo-Christian-Islamic God, whose imprint is supposedly everywhere. But, perhaps those religions can modify their theologies and posit a god who steps in later, after the Planck time, to ensure that his purposes are still served despite whatever plans he had of creation being wiped out by the chaos at the Planck time.

In that case, we can again expect to find, in observations or well-established theories, some evidence of places where this god has intervened in the history of the cosmos. In previous chapters we sought such evidence on Earth, in the phenomena of life and mind. Here we move to the vast space beyond Earth.

History gives us many examples of unexpected events in the heavens that at first appeared miraculous. In 585 BCE a total eclipse of the sun over Asia Minor ended a battle between the Medes and the Lydians, with both sides fleeing in terror. In probably the first known case of a scientific prediction, Thales of Miletus had predicted the eclipse based on Babylonian records.

Eclipses are sufficiently rare that they are not so regular a part of normal human experience as are the rising and setting of the sun and the phases of the moon. However, they do repeat and behave lawfully, as do these more familiar phenomena. That’s why today we can give the exact date (on our current calendar) of Thales’s eclipse: May 28, 585 BCE. This demonstrates the remarkable power of science to both predict the future and postdict the past. About that time, Nebuchadnezzar II destroyed Jerusalem and carried the Judeans off into exile in Babylonia (where they would pick up their creation myth). The Buddha is said to have attained enlightenment at almost exactly the same time. Confucius would be born a few decades later.

Comets are a similar example of spectacular astronomical phenomena that ancient people commonly regarded as supernatural omens but science has since described in natural terms, that is, with purely material models. In the seventeenth century, Edmund Halley (d. 1742) used the mechanical theories developed by his friend Isaac Newton (d. 1727) to predict that a comet seen in 1682 would return in 1759. Indeed it did, after Halley’s death, and has done so every seventy-six years since. Most comets appear unexpectedly, having such extended orbits that they have spent human history outside our view. However, records indicate that Halley’s comet has appeared perhaps twenty-nine times in history.

In more recent times, other astronomical phenomena have occurred unexpectedly and could not be immediately understood. These include pulsars, supernovas, quasars, and gamma-ray bursts. But, as with other examples, these phenomena eventually repeated in one way or another, in time or in space. This allowed us to learn enough to eventually understand their nature in purely physical terms.

At no time and at no place in the sky have we run across an event above the noise that did not repeat sometime or someplace and could not be accounted for in terms of established natural science. We have yet to encounter an observable astronomical phenomenon that requires a supernatural element o be added to a model in order to describe the event. In fact, we have no cosmic phenomenon that meets the Swinburne criterion for a miracle. A God who plays a sufficiently active role to produce miraculous events in the cosmos has not been even glimpsed at by our best astronomical instruments to date. Observations in cosmology look just as they can be expected to look if there is no God.

Where Do the Laws of Physics Come From?

We have seen that the origin and the operation of the universe do not require any violations of laws of physics. This probably will come as a surprise to the layperson who may have heard otherwise from the pulpit or the media. However, the scientifically savvy believer might concede this point for the sake of argument and then retort, “Okay, then where did the laws of physics come from?” The common belief is that they had to come from somewhere outside the universe. But that is not a demonstrable fact. There is no reason why the laws of physics cannot have come from within the universe itself.

Physicists invent mathematical models to describe their observations of the world. These models contain certain general principles that have been traditionally called “laws” because of the common belief that these are rules that actually govern the universe the way civil laws govern nations. However, as I showed in my previous book, The Comprehensible Cosmos, the most fundamental laws of physics are not restrictions on the behavior of matter. Rather they are restrictions on the way physicists may describe that behavior.25

In order for any principle of nature we write down to be objective and universal, it must be formulated in such a way that it does not depend on the point of view of any particular observer. The principle must be true for all points of view, from every “frame of reference.” And so, for example, no objective law can depend on a special moment in time or a position in space that may be singled out by some preferred observer.

Suppose I were to formulate a law that said that all objects move naturally toward me. That would not be very objective. But this was precisely what people once thought—that Earth was the center of the universe and the natural motion of bodies was toward Earth. The Copernican revolution showed this was wrong and was the first step in the gradual realization of scientists that their laws must not depend on frame of reference.

In 1918 mathematician Emmy Noether proved that the most important physical laws of all—conservation of energy, linear momentum, and angular momentum—will automatically appear in any model that does not single out a special moment in time, position in space, and direction in space.26 Later it was realized that Einstein’s special theory of relativity follows if we do not single out any special direction in four-dimensional space-time.

These properties of space-time are called symmetries. For example, the rotational symmetry of a sphere is a result of the sphere singling out no particular direction in space. The four space-time symmetries described above are just the natural symmetries of a universe with no matter, that is, a void. They are just what they should be if the universe appeared from an initial state in which there was no matter—from nothing.

Other laws of physics, such as conservation of electric charge and the various force laws, arise from the generalization of space-time symmetries to the abstract spaces physicists use in their mathematic models. This generalization is called gauge invariance, which is likened to a principle I more descriptively refer to as point-of-view invariance.

The mathematical formulations of these models (which are provided in The Comprehensible Cosmos) must reflect this requirement if they are to be objective and universal. Surprisingly, when this is done, most of the familiar laws of physics appear naturally. Those that are not immediately obvious can be seen to plausibly arise by a process, known as spontaneous symmetry breaking.

So where did the laws of physics come from? They came from nothing! Most are statements composed by humans that follow from the symmetries of the void out of which the universe spontaneously arose. Rather than being handed down from above, like the Ten Commandments, they look exactly as they should look if they were not handed down from anywhere. And this is why, for example, a violation of energy conservation at the beginning of the big bang would be evidence for some external creator. Even though they invented it, physicists could not simply change the “law.” It would imply a miracle or, more explicitly, some external agency that acted to break the time symmetry that leads to conservation of energy. But, as we have seen, no such miracle is required by the data.

Thus we are justified in applying the conservation laws to the beginning of the big bang at the Planck time. At that time, as we saw earlier in this chapter, the universe had no structure. That meant that it had no distinguishable place, direction, or time. In such a situation, the conservation laws apply.

Now, this is certainly not a commonly understood view. Normally we think of laws of physics as part of the structure of the universe. But here I am arguing that the three great conservation laws are not part of any structure. Rather they follow from the very lack of structure at the earliest moment.

No doubt this concept is difficult to grasp. My views on this particular issue are not recognized by a consensus of physicists, although I insist that the science I have used is well established and conventional. I am proposing no new physics or cosmology but merely providing an interpretation of established knowledge in those fields as it bears on the question of the origin of physical law, a question few physicists ever ponder.

I must emphasize another important point, which has been frequently misunderstood. I am not suggesting that the laws of physics can be anything we want them to be, that they are merely “cultural narratives,” as has been suggested by authors associated with the movement called postmodernism.27 They are what they are because they agree with the data.

Whether or not you will buy into my account of the origin of physical law, I hope you will allow that I have at minimum provided a plausible natural scenario for a gap in scientific knowledge, that gap being a clear consensus on the origin of physical law. Once again, I do not have the burden of proving this scenario. The believer who wishes to argue that God is the source of physical law has the burden of proving (1) that my account is wrong, (2) that no other natural account is possible, and (3) that God did it.

Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing?

If the laws of physics follow naturally from empty space-time, then where did that empty space-time come from? Why is there something rather than nothing? This question is often the last recourse of the theist who seeks to argue for the existence of God from physics and cosmology and finds that all his other arguments fail. Philosopher Bede Rundle calls it “philosophy’s central, and most perplexing, question.” His simple (but book-length) answer: “There has to be something.”28

Clearly many conceptual problems are associated with this question. How do we def ne “nothing”? What are its properties? If it has properties, doesn’t that make it something? The theist claims that God is the answer. But, then, why is there God rather than nothing? Assuming we can define “nothing,” why should nothing be a more natural state of affairs than something? In fact, we can give a plausible scientific reason based on our best current knowledge of physics and cosmology that something is more natural than nothing!

In Chapter 2 we saw how nature is capable of building complex structures by processes of self-organization, how simplicity begets complexity. Consider the example of the snowflake, the beautiful six-pointed pattern of ice crystals that results from the direct freezing of water vapor in the atmosphere. Our experience tells us that a snowflake is very ephemeral, melting quickly into drops of liquid water that exhibit far less structure. But that is only because we live in a relatively high-temperature environment, where heat reduces the fragile arrangement of crystals to a simpler liquid. Energy is required to break the symmetry of a snowflake.

In an environment where the ambient temperature is well below the melting point of ice, as it is in most of the universe far from the highly localized effects of stellar heating, any water vapor would readily crystallize into complex, asymmetric structures. Snowflakes would be eternal, or at least would remain intact until cosmic rays tore them apart.

This example illustrates that many simple systems of particles are unstable, that is, have limited lifetimes as they undergo spontaneous phase transitions to more complex structures of lower energy. Since “nothing” is as simple as it gets, we cannot expect it to be very stable. It would likely undergo a spontaneous phase transition to something more complicated, like a universe containing matter. The transition of nothing-to-something is a natural one, not requiring any agent. As Nobel laureate physicist Frank Wilczek has put it, “The answer to the ancient question ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’ would then be that ‘nothing’ is unstable.”29

In the nonboundary scenario for the natural origin of the universe I mentioned earlier, the probability for there being something rather than nothing actually can be calculated; it is over 60 percent.30

In short, the natural state of affairs is something rather than nothing. An empty universe requires supernatural intervention—not a full one. Only by the constant action of an agent outside the universe, such as God, could a state of nothingness be maintained. The fact that we have something is just what we would expect if there is no God.


A Working Definition of Religion

From “Breaking Which Spell?”

DANIEL C. DENNETTAny atheist in any argument with the religious will soon find that many, if not most, “believers” are choosing á la carte from an infinite menu of possible affirmations. We wish them luck, even as we wish that they could make their incoherent beliefs consistent. With great generosity, Daniel Dennett suggests that “belief in belief” is at the root of all this, and that people really would rather assert some vague faith than none at all. He even concedes that this may sometimes have been helpful. However, he inquires politely whether people who talk in this fashion can possibly mean what they appear to say.Philosophers stretch the meaning of words until they retainscarcely anything of their original sense; by calling “God” somevague abstraction which they have created for themselves, theypose as deists, as believers, before the world; they may even pridethemselves on having attained a higher and purer idea of God,although their God is nothing but an insubstantial shadow andno longer the mighty personality of religious doctrine.—SIGMUND FREUD, THE FUTURE OF AN ILLUSION

How do I define religion? It doesn’t matter just how I define it, since I plan to examine and discuss the neighboring phenomena that (probably) aren’t religions—spirituality, commitment to secular organizations, fanatical devotion to ethnic groups (or sports teams), superstition…. So, wherever I “draw the line,” I’ll be going over the line in any case. As you will see, what we usually call religions are composed of a variety of quite different phenomena, arising from different circumstances and having different implications, forming a loose family of phenomena, not a “natural kind” like a chemical element or a species.

What is the essence of religion? This question should be considered askance. Even if there is a deep and important affinity between many or even most of the world’s religions, there are sure to be variants that share some typical features while lacking one or another “essential” feature. As evolutionary biology advanced during the last century, we gradually came to appreciate the deep reasons for grouping living things the way we do—sponges are animals, and birds are more closely related to dinosaurs than frogs are—and new surprises are still being discovered every year. So we should expect—and tolerate—some difficulty in arriving at a counterexample-proof definition of something as diverse and complex as religion. Sharks and dolphins look very much alike and behave in many similar ways, but they are not the same sort of thing at all. Perhaps, once we understand the whole field better, we will see that Buddhism and Islam, for all their similarities, deserve to be considered two entirely different species of cultural phenomenon. We can start with common sense and tradition and consider them both to be religions, but we shouldn’t blind ourselves to the prospect that our initial sorting may have to be adjusted as we learn more. Why is suckling one’s young more fundamental than living in the ocean? Why is having a backbone more fundamental than having wings? It may be obvious now, but it wasn’t obvious at the dawn of biology.

In the United Kingdom, the law regarding cruelty to animals draws an important moral line at whether the animal is a vertebrate: as far as the law is concerned, you may do what you like to a live worm or fly or shrimp, but not to a live bird or frog or mouse. It’s a pretty good place to draw the line, but laws can be amended, and this one was. Cephalopods—octopus, squid, cuttlefish—were recently made honorary vertebrates, in effect, because they, unlike their close mollusc cousins the clams and oysters, have such strikingly sophisticated nervous systems. This seems to me a wise political adjustment, since the similarities that mattered to the law and morality didn’t line up perfectly with the deep principles of biology.

We may find that drawing a boundary between religion and its nearest neighbors among cultural phenomena is beset with similar, but more vexing, problems. For instance, since the law (in the United States, at least) singles out religions for special status, declaring something that has been regarded as a religion to be really something else is bound to be of more than academic interest to those involved. Wicca (witchcraft) and other New Age phenomena have been championed as religions by their adherents precisely in order to elevate them to the legal and social status that religions have traditionally enjoyed. And, coming from the other direction, there are those who have claimed that evolutionary biology is really “just another religion,” and hence its doctrines have no place in the public-school curriculum. Legal protection, honor, prestige, and a traditional exemption from certain sorts of analysis and criticism—a great deal hinges on how we define religion. How should I handle this delicate issue?

Tentatively, I propose to define religions as social systems whose participants avow belief in a supernatural agent or agents whose approval is to be sought. This is, of course, a circuitous way of articulating the idea that a religion without God or gods is like a vertebrate without a backbone. Some of the reasons for this roundabout language are fairly obvious; others will emerge over time—and the definition is subject to revision, a place to start, not something carved in stone to be defended to the death. According to this definition, a devout Elvis Presley fan club is not a religion, because, although the members may, in a fairly obvious sense, worship Elvis, he is not deemed by them to be literally supernatural, but just to have been a particularly superb human being. (And if some fan clubs decide that Elvis is truly immortal and divine, then they are indeed on the way to starting a new religion.) A supernatural agent need not be very anthropomorphic. The Old Testament Jehovah is definitely a sort of divine man (not a woman), who sees with eyes and hears with ears—and talks and acts in real time. (God waited to see what Job would do, and then he spoke to him.) Many contemporary Christians, Jews, and Muslims insist that God, or Allah, being omniscient, has no need for anything like sense organs, and, being eternal, does not act in real time. This is puzzling, since many of them continue to pray to God, to hope that God will answer their prayers tomorrow, to express gratitude to God for creating the universe, and to use such locutions as “what God intends us to do” and “God have mercy,” acts that seem to be in flat contradiction to their insistence that their God is not at all anthropomorphic. According to a long-standing tradition, this tension between God as agent and God as eternal and immutable Being is one of those things that are simply beyond human comprehension, and it would be foolish and arrogant to try to understand it. That is as it may be, and this topic will be carefully treated later in the book, but we cannot proceed with my definition of religion (or any other definition, really) until we (tentatively, pending further illumination) get a little clearer about the spectrum of views that are discernible through this pious fog of modest incomprehension. We need to seek further interpretation before we can decide how to classify the doctrines these people espouse.

For some people, prayer is not literally talking to God but, rather, a “symbolic” activity, a way of talking to oneself about one’s deepest concerns, expressed metaphorically. It is rather like beginning a diary entry with “Dear Diary.” If what they call God is really not an agent in their eyes, a being that can answer prayers, approve and disapprove, receive sacrifices, and mete out punishment or forgiveness, then, although they may call this Being God, and stand in awe of it (not Him), their creed, whatever it is, is not really a religion according to my definition. It is, perhaps, a wonderful (or terrible) surrogate for religion, or a former religion, an offspring of a genuine religion that bears many family resemblances to religion, but it is another species altogether. In order to get clear about what religions are, we will have to allow that some religions may have turned into things that aren’t religions anymore. This has certainly happened to particular practices and traditions that used to be parts of genuine religions. The rituals of Halloween are no longer religious rituals, at least in America. The people who go to great effort and expense to participate in them are not, thereby, practicing religion, even though their activities can be placed in a clear line of descent from religious practices. Belief in Santa Claus has also lost its status as a religious belief.

For others, prayer really is talking to God, who (not which) really does listen, and forgive. Their creed is a religion, according to my definition, provided that they are part of a larger social system or community, not a congregation of one. In this regard, my definition is profoundly at odds with that of William James, who defined religion as “the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine” (1902, Chapter 5). He would have no difficulty identifying a lone believer as a person with a religion; he himself was apparently such a one. This concentration on individual, private religious experience was a tactical choice for James; he thought that the creeds, rituals, trappings, and political hierarchies of “organized” religion were a distraction from the root phenomenon, and his tactical path bore wonderful fruit, but he could hardly deny that those social and cultural factors hugely affect the content and structure of the individual’s experience. Today, there are reasons for trading in James’s psychological microscope for a wide-angle biological and social telescope, looking at the factors, over large expanses of both space and time, that shape the experiences and actions of individual religious people.

But just as James could hardly deny the social and cultural factors, I could hardly deny the existence of individuals who very sincerely and devoutly take themselves to be the lone communicants of what we might call private religions. Typically these people have had considerable experience with one or more world religions and have chosen not to be joiners. Not wanting to ignore them, but needing to distinguish them from the much, much more typical religious people who identify themselves with a particular creed or church that has many other members, I shall call them spiritual people, but not religious. They are, if you like, honorary vertebrates.

There are many other variants to be considered in due course—for instance, people who pray, and believe in the efficacy of prayer, but don’t believe that this efficacy is channeled through an agent God who literally hears the prayer. I want to postpone consideration of all these issues until we have a clearer sense of where these doctrines sprang from. The core phenomenon of religion, I am proposing, invokes gods who are effective agents in real time, and who play a central role in the way participants think about what they ought to do. I use the evasive word “invokes” here because, as we shall see in a later chapter, the standard word “belief” tends to distort and camouflage some of the most interesting features of religion. To put it provocatively, religious belief isn’t always belief. And why is the approval of the supernatural agent or agents to be sought? That clause is included to distinguish religion from “black magic” of various sorts. There are people—very few, actually, although juicy urban legends about “satanic cults” would have us think otherwise—who take themselves to be able to command demons with whom they form some sort of unholy alliance. These (barely existent) social systems are on the boundary with religion, but I think it is appropriate to leave them out, since our intuitions recoil at the idea that people who engage in this kind of tripe deserve the special status of the devout. What apparently grounds the widespread respect in which religions of all kinds are held is the sense that those who are religious are well-intentioned, trying to lead morally good lives, earnest in their desire not to do evil, and to make amends for their transgressions. Somebody who is both so selfish and so gullible as to try to make a pact with evil supernatural agents in order to get his way in the world lives in a comic-book world of superstition and deserves no such respect.


If God Is Dead, Is Everything Permitted? ELIZABETH ANDERSONHow could we stop ourselves from indulging in murder, rape, theft, perjury, and genocide if we believed the heavens were empty? The question is posed upside-down and inside out and wrong-way round, as this elegant and tough-minded essay confirms.

At the Institute for Creation Research Museum in Santee, California, visitors begin their tour by viewing a plaque displaying the “tree of evolutionism,” which, it is said (following Matt. 7:18), “bears only corrupt fruits.” The “evil tree” of evolution is a stock metaphor among proponents of the literal truth of the biblical story of creation. In different versions, it represents evolutionary theory as leading to abortion, suicide, homosexuality, the drug culture, hard rock, alcohol, “dirty books,” sex education, alcoholism, crime, government regulation, inflation, racism, Nazism, communism, terrorism, socialism, moral relativism, secularism, feminism, and humanism, among other phenomena regarded as evil. The roots of the evil tree grow in the soil of “unbelief,” which nourishes the tree with “sin.” The base of its trunk represents “no God”—that is, atheism.

The evil tree vividly displays two important ideas. First, the fundamental religious objection to the theory of evolution is not scientific but moral. Evolutionary theory must be opposed because it leads to rampant immorality, on both the personal and political scales. Second, the basic cause of this immorality is atheism. Evolutionary theory bears corrupt fruit because it is rooted in denial of the existence of God.

Most forms of theism today are reconciled to the truth of evolutionary theory. But the idea of the evil tree still accurately depicts a core objection to atheism. Few people of religious faith object to atheism because they think the evidence for the existence of God is compelling to any rational inquirer. Most of the faithful haven’t considered the evidence for the existence of God in a spirit of rational inquiry—that is, with openness to the possibility that the evidence goes against their faith. Rather, I believe that people object to atheism because they think that without God, morality is impossible. In the famous words (mis) attributed to Dostoyevsky, “If God is dead, then everything is permitted.” Or, in the less-famous words of Senator Joe Lieberman, we must not suppose “that morality can be maintained without religion.”

Why think that religion is necessary for morality? It might be thought that people wouldn’t know the difference between right and wrong if God did not reveal it to them. But that can’t be right. Every society, whether or not it was founded on theism, has acknowledged the basic principles of morality, excluding religious observance, which are laid down in the Ten Commandments. Every stable society punishes murder, theft, and bearing false witness; teaches children to honor their parents; and condemns envy of one’s neighbor’s possessions, at least when such envy leads one to treat one’s neighbors badly. People figured out these rules long before they were exposed to any of the major monotheistic religions. This fact suggests that moral knowledge springs not from revelation but from people’s experiences in living together, in which they have learned that they must adjust their own conduct in light of others’ claims.

Perhaps, then, the idea that religion is necessary for morality means that people wouldn’t care about the difference between right and wrong if God did not promise salvation for good behavior and threaten damnation for bad behavior. On this view, people must be goaded into behaving morally through divine sanction. But this can’t be right, either. People have many motives, such as love, a sense of honor, and respect for others, that motivate moral behavior. Pagan societies have not been noticeably more immoral than theistic ones. In any event, most theistic doctrines repudiate the divine sanction theory of the motive to be moral. Judaism places little emphasis on hell. Christianity today is dominated by two rival doctrines of salvation. One says that the belief that Jesus is one’s savior is the one thing necessary for salvation. The other says that salvation is a free gift from God that cannot be earned by anything a person may do or believe. Both doctrines are inconsistent with the use of heaven and hell as incentives to morality.

A better interpretation of the claim that religion is necessary for morality is that there wouldn’t be a difference between right and wrong if God did not make it so. Nothing would really be morally required or prohibited, so everything would be permitted. William Lane Craig, one of the leading popular defenders of Christianity, advances this view. Think of it in terms of the authority of moral rules. Suppose a person or group proposes a moral rule—say, against murder. What would give this rule authority over those who disagree with it? Craig argues that, in the absence of God, nothing would. Without God, moral disputes reduce to mere disputes over subjective preferences. There would be no right or wrong answer. Since no individual has any inherent authority over another, each would be free to act on his or her own taste. To get authoritative moral rules, we need an authoritative commander. Only God fills that role. So, the moral rules get their authority, their capacity to obligate us, from the fact that God commands them.

Sophisticates will tell you that this moralistic reasoning against atheism is illogical. They say that whether God exists depends wholly on the factual evidence, not on the moral implications of God’s existence. Do not believe them. We know the basic moral rules—that it is wrong to engage in murder, plunder, rape, and torture, to brutally punish people for the wrongs of others or for blameless error, to enslave others, to engage in ethnic cleansing and genocide—with greater confidence than we know any conclusions drawn from elaborate factual or logical reasoning. If you find a train of reasoning that leads to the conclusion that everything, or even just these things, is permitted, this is a good reason for you to reject it. Call this “the moralistic argument.” So, if it is true that atheism entails that everything is permitted, this is a strong reason to reject atheism.

While I accept the general form of the moralistic argument, I think it applies more forcefully to theism than to atheism. This objection is as old as philosophy. Plato, the first systematic philosopher, raised it against divine command theories of morality in the fifth century BCE. He asked divine-command moralists: are actions right because God commands them, or does God command them because they are right? If the latter is true, then actions are right independent of whether God commands them, and God is not needed to underwrite the authority of morality. But if the former is true, then God could make any action right simply by willing it or by ordering others to do it. This establishes that, if the authority of morality depends on God’s will, then, in principle, anything is permitted.

This argument is not decisive against theism, considered as a purely philosophical idea. Theists reply that because God is necessarily good, He would never do anything morally reprehensible Himself, nor command us to perform heinous acts. The argument is better applied to the purported evidence for theism. I shall argue that if we take the evidence for theism with utmost seriousness, we will find ourselves committed to the proposition that the most heinous acts are permitted. Since we know that these acts are not morally permitted, we must therefore doubt the evidence for theism.

Now “theism” is a pretty big idea, and the lines of evidence taken to support one or another form of it are various. So I need to say more about theism and the evidence for it. By “theism” I mean belief in the God of Scripture. This is the God of the Old and New Testaments and the Koran—the God of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. It is also the God of any other religion that accepts one or more of these texts as containing divine revelation, such as the Mormon Church, the Unification Church, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. God, as represented in Scripture, has plans for human beings and intervenes in history to realize those plans. God has a moral relationship to human beings and tells humans how to live. By focusing on theism in the Scriptural sense, I narrow my focus in two ways. First, my argument doesn’t immediately address polytheism or paganism, as is found, for example, in the religions of Zeus and Baal, Hinduism, Wicca. (I’ll argue later that, since the evidence for polytheism is on a par with the evidence for theism, any argument that undermines the latter undermines the former.) Second, my argument doesn’t immediately address deism, the philosophical idea of God as a first cause of the universe, who lays down the laws of nature and then lets them run like clockwork, indifferent to the fate of the people subject to them.

What, then, is the evidence for theism? It is Scripture, plus any historical or contemporary evidence of the same kind as presented in Scripture: testimonies of miracles, revelations in dreams, or what people take to be direct encounters with God: experiences of divine presence, and prophecies that have been subject to test. Call these things “extraordinary evidence,” for short. Other arguments for the existence of God offer cold comfort to theists. Purely theoretical arguments, such as for the necessity of a first cause of the universe, can at most support deism. They do nothing to show that the deity in question cares about human beings or has any moral significance. I would say the same about attempts to trace some intelligent design in the evolution of life. Let us suppose, contrary to the scientific evidence, that life is the product of design. Then the prevalence of predation, parasitism, disease, and imperfect human organs strongly supports the view that the designer is indifferent to us.

The core evidence for theism, then, is Scripture. What if we accept Scripture as offering evidence of a God who has a moral character and plans for human beings, who intervenes in history and tells us how to live? What conclusions should we draw from Scripture about God’s moral character and about how we ought to behave? Let us begin with the position of the fundamentalist, of one who takes Scripture with utmost seriousness, as the inerrant source of knowledge about God and morality. It we accept biblical inerrancy, I’ll argue, we must conclude that much of what we take to be morally evil is in fact morally permissible and even required.

Consider first God’s moral character, as revealed in the Bible. He routinely punishes people for the sins of others. He punishes all mothers by condemning them to painful childbirth, for Eve’s sin. He punishes all human beings by condemning them to labor, for Adam’s sin (Gen. 3:16–18). He regrets His creation, and in a fit of pique, commits genocide and ecocide by flooding the earth (Gen. 6:7). He hardens Pharaoh’s heart against freeing the Israelites (Ex. 7:3), so as to provide the occasion for visiting plagues upon the Egyptians, who, as helpless subjects of a tyrant, had no part in Pharaoh’s decision. (So much for respecting free will, the standard justification for the existence of evil in the world.) He kills all the firstborn sons, even of slave girls who had no part in oppressing the Israelites (Ex. 11:5). He punishes the children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and great great-grandchildren of those who worship any other god (Ex. 20:3–5). He sets a plague upon the Israelites, killing twenty-four thousand, because some of them had sex with the Baal-worshiping Midianites (Num. 25:1–9). He lays a three-year famine on David’s people for Saul’s slaughter of the Gibeonites (2 Sam. 21:1). He orders David to take a census of his men, and then sends a plague on Israel, killing seventy thousand for David’s sin in taking the census (2 Sam. 24:10–15). He sends two bears out of the woods to tear forty-two children to pieces, because they called the prophet Elisha a bald head (2 Kings 2:23–24). He condemns the Samarians, telling them that their children will be “dashed to the ground, their pregnant women ripped open” (Hosea 13:16). This is but a sample of the evils celebrated in the Bible.

Can all this cruelty and injustice be excused on the ground that God may do what humans may not? Look, then, at what God commands humans to do. He commands us to put to death adulterers (Lev. 20:10), homosexuals (Lev. 20:13), and people who work on the Sabbath (Ex. 35:2). He commands us to cas into exile people who eat blood (Lev. 7:27), who have skin diseases (Lev. 13:46), and who have sex with their wives while they are menstruating (Lev. 20:18). Blasphemers must be stoned (Lev. 24:16), and prostitutes whose fathers are priests must be burned to death (Lev. 21:9). That’s just the tip of the iceberg. God repeatedly directs the Israelites to commit ethnic cleansing (Ex. 34:11–14, Lev. 26:7–9) and genocide against numerous cities and tribes: the city of Hormah (Num. 21:2–3), the land of Bashan (Num. 21:33–35), the land of Heshbon (Deut. 2:26–35), the Canaanites, Hittites, Hivites, Perizzites, Girgashites, Amorites, and Jebusites (Josh. 1–12). He commands them to show their victims “no mercy” (Deut. 7:2), to “not leave alive anything that breathes” (Deut. 20:16). In order to ensure their complete extermination, he thwarts the free will of the victims by hardening their hearts (Deut. 2:30, Josh. 11:20) so that they do not sue for peace. These genocides are, of course, instrumental to the wholesale theft of their land (Josh. 1:1–6) and the rest of their property (Deut. 20:14, Josh. 11:14). He tells eleven tribes of Israel to nearly exterminate the twelfth tribe, the Benjamites, because a few of them raped and killed a Levite’s concubine. The resulting bloodbath takes the lives of 40,000 Israelites and 25,100 Benjamites (Judg. 20:21, 25, 35). He helps Abijiah kill half a million Israelites (2 Chron. 13:15–20) and helps Asa kill a million Cushites, so his men can plunder all their property (2 Chron. 14:8–13).

Consider also what the Bible permits. Slavery is allowed (Lev. 25:44–46, Eph. 6:5, Col. 3:22). Fathers may sell their daughters into slavery (Ex. 21:7). Slaves may be beaten, as long as they survive for two days after (Ex. 21:20—21, Luke 12:45–48). Female captives from a foreign war may be raped or seized as wives (Deut. 21:10–14). Disobedient children should be beaten with rods (Prov. 13:24, 23:13). In the Old Testament, men may take as many wives and concubines as they like because adultery for men consists only in having sex with a woman who is married (Lev. 18:20) or engaged to someone else (Deut. 22:23). Prisoners of war may be tossed off a cliff (2 Chron. 24:12). Children may be sacrificed to God in return for His aid in battle (2 Kings 3:26–27, Judg. n), or to persuade Him to end a famine (2 Sam. 21).

Christian apologists would observe that most of these transgressions occur in the Old Testament. Isn’t the Old Testament God a stern and angry God, while Jesus of the New Testament is all-loving? We should examine, then, the quality of the love that Jesus promises to bring to humans. It is not only Jehovah who is jealous. Jesus tells us his mission is to make family members hate one another, so that they shall love him more than their kin (Matt. 10:35–37). He promises salvation to those who abandon their wives and children for him (Matt. 19:29, Mark 10:29–30, Luke 18:29–30). Disciples must hate their parents, siblings, wives, and children (Luke 14:26). The rod is not enough for children who curse their parents; they must be killed (Matt. 15:4–7, Mark 7:9–10, following Lev. 20:9). These are Jesus’s “family values.” Peter and Paul add to these family values the despotic rule of husbands over their silenced wives, who must obey their husbands as gods (1 Cor. 11:3, 14:34–5; Eph. 5:22–24; Col. 3:18; 1 Tim. 2:11–12; i Pet. 3:1).

To be sure, genocide, God-sent plagues, and torture do not occur in the times chronicled by the New Testament. But they are prophesied there, as they are repeatedly in the Old Testament (for instance, in Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Micah, and Zepheniah). At the second coming, any city that does not accept Jesus will be destroyed, and the people will suffer even more than they did when God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah (Matt. 10:14–15, Luke 10:12). God will flood the Earth as in Noah’s time (Matt. 24:37). Or perhaps He will set the Earth on fire instead, to destroy the unbelievers (2 Pet. 3:7, 10). But not before God sends Death and Hell to kill one quarter of the Earth “by sword, famine and plague, and by the wild beasts” (Rev. 6:8). Apparently, it is not enough to kill people once; they have to be killed more than once to satisfy the genocidal mathematics of the New Testament. For we are also told that an angel will burn up one third of the Earth (8:7), another will poison a third of its water (8:10–11), four angels will kill another third of humanity by plagues of fire, smoke, and sulfur (9:13, 17–18), two of God’s witnesses will visit plagues on the Earth as much as they like (11:6), and there will be assorted deaths by earthquakes (11:13, 16:18–19) and hailstones (16:21). Death is not bad enough for unbelievers, however; they must be tortured first. Locusts will sting them like scorpions until they want to die, but they will be denied the relief of death (9:3–6). Seven angels will pour seven bowls of God’s wrath, delivering plagues of painful sores, seas and rivers of blood, burns from solar flares, darkness and tongue-biting (16:2–10).

That’s just what’s in store for people while they inhabit the Earth. Eternal damnation awaits most people upon their deaths (Matt. 7:13–14). They will be cast into a fiery furnace (Matt. 13:42, 25:41), an unquenchable fire (Luke 3:17). For what reason? The New Testament is not consistent on this point. Paul preaches the doctrine of predestination, according to which salvation is granted as an arbitrary gift from God, wholly unaffected by any choice humans may make (Eph. 1: 4–9). This implies that the rest are cast into the eternal torments of hell on God’s whim. Sometimes salvation is promised to those who abandon their families to follow Christ (Matt. 19:27–30, Mark 10:28–30, Luke 9:59–62). This conditions salvation on a shocking indifference to family members. More often, the Synoptic Gospels promise salvation on the basis of good works, especially righteousness and helping the poor (for example, Matt. 16:27, 19:16–17; Mark 10:17–25; Luke 18:18–22, 19:8–9). This at least has the form of justice, since it is based on considerations of desert. But it metes out rewards and punishments grossly disproportional to the deeds people commit in their lifetimes. Finite sins cannot justify eternal punishment. Since the Reformation, Christian thought has tended to favor either predestination or justification by faith. In the latter view, the saved are all and only those who believe that Jesus is their savior. Everyone else is damned. This is the view of the Gospel of John (John 3:15–16, 18, 36; 6:47; 11:25–26). It follows that infants and anyone who never had the opportunity to hear about Christ are damned, through no fault of their own. Moreover, it is not clear that even those who hear about Christ have a fair chance to assess the merits of the tales about him. God not only thwarts our free will so as to visit harsher punishments upon us than we would have received had we been free to choose. He also messes with our heads. He sends people “powerful delusions” so they will not believe what is needed for salvation, to make sure that they are condemned (2 Thess. 2:11–12). Faith itself may be a gift of God rather than a product of rational assessment under our control and for which we could be held responsible. If so, then justification by faith reduces to God’s arbitrary whim, as Paul held (Eph. 2:8–9). This at least has the merit of acknowledging that the evidence offered in favor of Christianity is far from sufficient to rationally justify belief in it. Granting this fact, those who do not believe are blameless and cannot be justly punished, even if Jesus really did die for our sins.

And what are we to make of the thought that Jesus died for our sins (Rom. 5:8–9, 15–18; 1 John 2:2; Rev. 1:5)? This core religious teaching of Christianity takes Jesus to be a scapegoat for humanity. The practice of scapegoating contradicts the whole moral principle of personal responsibility. It also contradicts any moral idea of God. If God is merciful and loving, why doesn’t He forgive humanity for its sins straightaway, rather than demanding His 150 pounds of flesh, in the form of His own son? How could any loving father do that to his son?

I find it hard to resist the conclusion that the God of the Bible is cruel and unjust and commands and permits us to be cruel and unjust to others. Here are religious doctrines that on their face claim that it is all right to mercilessly punish people for the wrongs of others and for blameless error, that license or even command murder, plunder, rape, torture, slavery, ethnic cleansing, and genocide. We know such actions are wrong. So we should reject the doctrines that represent them as right.

Of course, thoughtful Christians and Jews have struggled with this difficulty for centuries. Nothing I have said would come as a surprise to any reflective person of faith. Nor are theists without options for dealing with these moral embarrassments. Let us consider them.

One option is to bite the bullet. This is the only option open to hard-core fundamentalists, who accept the inerrancy of the Bible. In this view, the fact that God performed, commanded, or permitted these actions demonstrates that they are morally right. This view concedes my objection to theism, that it promotes terrible acts of genocide, slavery, and so forth. But it denies the moral force of this objection. We know where this option has led: to holy war, the systematic extirpation of heretics, the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Thirty Years War, the English Civil War, witch-hunts, the cultural genocide of Mayan civilization, the brutal conquest of the Aztecs and the Inca, religious support for ethnic cleansing of Native Americans, slavery of Africans in the Americas, colonialist tyranny across the globe, confinement of the Jews to ghettos, and periodic pogroms against them, ultimately preparing the way for the Holocaust. In other words, it has led to centuries steeped in bloodshed, cruelty, and hatred without limit across continents.

Since this is clearly reprehensible, one might try a stopgap measure. One could deny that the dangerous principles in the Bible have any application after biblical times. For example, one might hold that, while it is in principle perfectly all right to slaughter whoever God tells us to, in fact, God has stopped speaking to us. This argument runs into the difficulty that many people even today claim that God has spoken to them. It is hard to identify any reason to be comprehensively skeptical about current claims to have heard divine revelation that does not apply equally to the past. But to apply such skepticism to the past is to toss out revelation and hence the core evidence for God.

Another option is to try to soften the moral implications of embarrassing biblical episodes by filling in unmentioned details that make them seem less bad. There is a tradition of thinking about “hard sayings” that tries to do this. It imagines some elaborate context in which, for instance, it would be all right for God to command Abraham to sacrifice his son, or for God to inflict unspeakable suffering on His blameless servant Job, and then insists that that was the context in which God actually acted. I have found such excuses for God’s depravity to be invariably lame. To take a typical example, it is said of David’s seemingly innocent census of his army that he sinned by counting what was not his, but God’s. Even if we were to grant this, it still does not excuse God for slaughtering seventy thousand of David’s men, rather han focusing His wrath on David alone. I also find such casuistic exercises to be morally dangerous. To devote one’s moral reflections to constructing elaborate rationales for past genocides, human sacrifices, and the like is to invite applications of similar reasoning to future actions.

I conclude that there is no way to cabin off or soft-pedal the reprehensible moral implications of these biblical passages. They must be categorically rejected as false and depraved moral teachings. Morally decent theists have always done so in practice. Nevertheless, they insist that there is much worthy moral teaching that can be salvaged from the Bible. They would complain that the sample of biblical moral lessons I cited above is biased. I hasten to agree. There are many admirable moral teachings in the Bible, even beyond the obvious moral rules—against murder, stealing, lying, and the like—that are acknowledged by all societies. “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18, Matt. 22:39, Mark 12:31, Luke 10:27, James 2:8) concisely encapsulates the moral point of view. The Bible courageously extends this teaching to the downtrodden, demanding not just decency and charity to the poor and disabled (Ex. 23:6, 23:11; Lev. 19:10, 23:22; Deut. 15:7–8, 24:14–15; Prov. 22:22; Eph. 4:28; James 2:15–16), but provisions in the structure of property rights to liberate people from landlessness and oppressive debts (Deut. 15, Lev. 25:10–28). Although the details of these provisions make little economic sense (for instance, canceling debts every seven years prevents people from taking out loans for a longer term), their general idea, that property rights should be structured so as to enable everyone to avoid oppression, is sound. Such teachings were not only morally advanced for their day but would dramatically improve the world if practiced today.

So, the Bible contains both good and evil teachings. This fact bears upon the standing of Scripture, both as a source of evidence for moral claims, and as a source of evidence for theism. Consider first the use of Scripture as a source of evidence for moral claims. We have seen that the Bible is morally inconsistent. If we try to draw moral lessons from a contradictory source, we must pick and choose which ones to accept. This requires that we use our own independent moral judgment, founded on some source other than revelation or the supposed authority of God, to decide which biblical passages to accept. In fact, once we recognize the moral inconsistencies in the Bible, it’s clear that the hard-core fundamentalists who today preach hatred toward gay people and the subordination of women, and who at other times and places have, with biblical support, claimed God’s authority for slavery, apartheid, and ethnic cleansing, have been picking and choosing all along. What distinguishes them from other believers is precisely their attraction to the cruel and despotic passages in the Bible. Far from being a truly independent guide to moral conduct, the Bible is more like a Rorschach test: which passages people choose to emphasize reflects as much as it shapes their moral character and interests.

Moral considerations, then, should draw theists inexorably away from fundamentalism and toward liberal theology—that is, toward forms of theism that deny the literal truth of the Bible and that attribute much of its content to ancient confusion, credulity, and cruelty. Only by moving toward liberal theology can theists avoid refutation at the hands of the moralistic argument that is thought to undermine atheism. Only in this way can theists affirm that the heinous acts supposedly committed or commanded by God and reported in the Bible are just plain morally wrong.

The great Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant took this line of reasoning to its logical conclusion for morality. He considered the case of an inquisitor who claims divine authority for executing unbelievers. That the Bible commends such acts is undeniable (see Ex. 22:20, 2 Chron. 15:13, Luke 19:27, Acts 3:23). But how do we know that the Bible accurately records God’s revealed word? Kant said: That it is wrong to deprive a man of his life because of his religious faith is certain, unless…a Divine Will, made known in extraordinary fashion, has ordered it otherwise. But that God has ever ordered this terrible injunction can be asserted only on the basis of historical documents and is never apodictically certain. After all, the revelation has reached the inquisitor only through men and has been interpreted by men, and even did it appear to have come from God Himself (like the command delivered to Abraham to slaughter his own son like a sheep) it is at least possible that in this instance a mistake has prevailed. But if this is so, the inquisitor would risk the danger of doing what would be wrong in the highest degree; and in this very act he is behaving unconscientiously.

Kant advances a moral criterion for judging the authenticity of any supposed revelation. If you hear a voice or some testimony purportedly revealing God’s word and it tells you to do something you know is wrong, don’t believe that it’s really God telling you to do these things.

I believe that Kant correctly identified the maximum permissible moral limits of belief in extraordinary evidence concerning God. These limits require that we reject the literal truth of the Bible. My colleague Jamie Tappenden argues in this volume that such a liberal approach to faith is theologically incoherent. Perhaps it is. Still, given a choice between grave moral error and theological muddle, I recommend theological muddle every time.

But these are not our only alternatives. We must further ask whether we should accept any part of the Bible as offering evidence about the existence and nature of God. Once we have mustered enough doubt in the Bible to reject its inerrancy, is there any stable position short of rejecting altogether its claims to extraordinary evidence about God? And once we reject its claims, would this not undermine all the extra-biblical extraordinary evidence for God that is of the same kind alleged by believers in the Bible? Here we have a body of purported evidence for theism, consisting of what seem to be experiences of divine presence, revelation, and miracles, testimonies of the same, and prophecies. We have seen that such experiences, testimonies, and prophecies are at least as likely to assert grave moral errors as they are to assert moral truths. This shows that these sources of extraordinary evidence are deeply unreliable. They can’t be trusted. So not only should we think that they offer no independent support for moral claims, but we should not think they offer independent support for theological claims.

Against this, defenders of liberal theology need to argue that the claims derived from these extraordinary sources fall into two radically distinct groups. In one group, there are the purported revelations that assert moral error, which should not be accepted as having come from God and offer no independent support for any claim about God. In the other group there are the genuine revelations that assert moral truths or some morally neutral proposition (for example, claims about historical events and prophecies of the future), as well as testimonies of miracles and experiences of divine presence, which should be accepted as having come from God and do provide evidence for the existence and nature of God.

I think this fallback position should be rejected for two reasons. First, it does not explain why these extraordinary types of evidence should be thought to fall in o two radically distinct groups. Why should they ever have generated grave moral errors? Second, it does not explain why all religions, whether monotheistic, polytheistic, or non-theistic, appear to have access to the same sources of evidence. Believers in any one religion can offer no independent criteria for accepting their own revelations, miracles, and religious experiences while rejecting the revelations, miracles, and religious experiences that appear to support contradictory religious claims. I believe that the best explanation for both of these phenomena—that the extraordinary sources of evidence generate grave moral error as well as moral truth and that they offer equal support for contradictory religious claims—undermines the credibility of these extraordinary sources of evidence altogether.

So first, why were the ancient biblical peoples as ready to ascribe evil as good deeds to God? Why did they think God was so angry that He chronically unleashed tides of brutal destruction on humanity? The answer is that they took it for granted that all events bearing on human well-being are willed by some agent for the purpose of affecting humans for good or ill. If no human was observed to have caused the event, or if the event was of a kind (e.g., a plague, drought, or good weather) that no human would have the power to cause, then they assumed that some unseen, more-powerful agent had to have willed it, precisely for its good or bad effects on humans. So, if the event was good for people, they assumed that God willed it out of love for them; if it was bad, they assumed that God willed it out of anger at them. This mode of explanation is universally observed among people who lack scientific understanding of natural events. It appears to be a deeply rooted cognitive bias of humans to reject the thought of meaningless suffering. If we are suffering, someone must be responsible for it!

Why did these representations of God as cruel and unjust not make God repugnant to the authors of Scripture and their followers? They were too busy trembling in their sandals to question what they took to be God’s will. The seventeenth-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes observed that people honor raw power irrespective of its moral justification: Nor does it alter the case of honour, whether an action (so it be great and difficult, and consequently a sign of much power) be just or unjust: for honour consisteth only in the opinion of power. Therefore the ancient heathen did not think they dishonoured, but greatly honoured the Gods, when they introduced them in their poems, committing rapes, thefts, and other great, but unjust, or unclean acts: insomuch as nothing is so much celebrated in Jupiter, as his adulteries; nor in Mercury, as his frauds, and thefts: of whose praises, in a hymn of Homer, the greatest is this, that being born in the morning, he had invented music at noon, and before night, stolen away the cattle of Apollo, from his herdsmen.

Hobbes’s psychological explanation applies even more emphatically to the authors Scripture, the ancient Hebrews and the early Christians, whose God commits deeds several orders of magnitude more terrible than anything the Greek gods did.

Ancient social conditions also made God’s injustice less obvious to the early Jews and Christians. Norms of honor and revenge deeply structure the social order of tribal societies. These norms treat whole clans and tribes, rather than individuals, as the basic units of responsibility. A wrong committed by a member of a tribe could therefore be avenged by an injury inflicted on any other member of that tribe, including descendents of the wrongdoer. Given that people in these societies habitually visited the iniquities of the fathers on the sons, it did not strike the early Hebrews and Christians as strange that God would do so as well, although on a far grander scale.

So the tendency, in the absence of scientific knowledge, to ascribe events having good and bad consequences for human beings to corresponding benevolent and malevolent intentions of unseen spirits, whether these be gods, angels, ancestors, demons, or human beings who deploy magical powers borrowed from some spirit world, explains the belief in a divine spirit as well as its (im) moral character. This explanatory tendency is pan-cultural. The spiritual world everywhere reflects the hopes and fears, loves and hatreds, aspirations and depravities of those who believe in it. This is just as we would expect if beliefs in the supernatural are, like Rorschach tests, projections of the mental states of believers, rather than based on independent evidence. The same cognitive bias that leads pagans to believe in witches and multiple gods leads theists to believe in God. Indeed, once the explanatory principle—to ascribe worldly events that bear on human well-being to the intentions and powers of unseen spirits, when no actual person is observed to have caused them—is admitted, it is hard to deny that the evidence for polytheism and spiritualism of all heretical varieties is exactly on a par with the evidence for theism. Every year in my town, Ann Arbor, Michigan, there is a summer art fair. Not just artists, but political and religious groups, set up booths to promote their wares, be these artworks or ideas. Along one street one finds booths of Catholics, Baptists, Calvinists, Christian Orthodox, other denominational and nondenominational Christians of all sons, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Baha’i, Mormons, Christian Scientists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jews for Jesus, Wiccans, Scientologists, New Age believers—representatives of nearly every religion that has a significant presence in the United States. The believers in each booth offer evidence of exactly the same kind to advance their religion. Every faith points to its own holy texts and oral traditions, its spiritual experiences, miracles and prophets, its testimonies of wayward lives turned around by conversion, rebirth of faith, or return to the church.

Each religion takes these experiences and reports them as conclusive evidence for its peculiar set of beliefs. Here we have purported sources of evidence for higher, unseen spirits or divinity, which systematically point to contradictory beliefs. Is there one God, or many? Was Jesus God, the son of God, God’s prophet, or just a man? Was the last prophet Jesus, Muhammad, Joseph Smith, or the Rev. Sun Myung Moon?

Consider how this scene looks to someone like me, who was raised outside of any faith. My father is nominally Lutheran, in practice religiously indifferent. My mother is culturally Jewish but not practicing. Having been rejected by both the local Lutheran minister and the local rabbi (in both cases, for being in a mixed marriage), but thinking that some kind of religious education would be good for their children, my parents helped found the local Unitarian church in the town where I grew up. Unitarianism is a church without a creed; there are no doctrinal requirements of membership. (Although Bertrand Russell once quipped that Unitarianism stands for the proposition that there is at most one God, these days pagans are as welcome as all others.) It was a pretty good fit for us, until New Age spiritualists started to take over the church. That was too loopy for my father’s rationalistic outlook, so we left. Thus, religious doctrines never had a chance to insinuate themselves into my head as a child. So I have none by default or habit.

Surveying the religious booths every year at the Ann Arbor art fair, I am always struck by the fact that they are staffed by people who are convinced of their own revelations and miracles, while most so readily disparage the revelations and miracles of other faiths. To a mainstream Christian, Jew, or Muslim, nothing is more obvious than that founders and prophets of other religions, such as Joseph Smith, the Rev. Moon, Mary Baker Eddy, and L. Ron Hubbard, are either frauds or delusional, their purported miracles or cures are tricks played upon a credulous audience (or worse, exercises of black magic), their prophecies false, their metaphysics absurd. To me, nothing is more obvious than that the evidence cited on behalf of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam is of exactly the same type and qualify as that cited on behalf of such despised religions. Indeed, it is on a par with the evidence for Zeus, Baal, Thor, and other long-abandoned gods, who are now considered ridiculous by nearly everyone.

The perfect symmetry of evidence for all faiths persuades me that the types of extraordinary evidence to which they appeal are not credible. The sources of evidence for theism—revelations, miracles, religious experiences, and prophecies, nearly all known only by testimony transmitted through uncertain chains of long-lost original sources—systematically generate contradictory beliefs, many of which are known to be morally abhorrent or otherwise false. Of course, ordinary sources of evidence, such as eyewitness testimony of ordinary events, also often lead to conflicting beliefs. But in the latter case, we have independent ways to test the credibility of the evidence—for instance, by looking for corroborating physical evidence. In the former cases, the tests advanced by believers tend to be circular: don’t believe that other religion’s testimonies of miracles or revelations, since they come from those who teach a false religion (Deut. 13:1–5). It is equally useless to appeal to the certainty in one’s heart of some experience of divine presence. For exactly the same certainty has been felt by those who think they’ve seen ghosts, been kidnapped by aliens, or been possessed by Dionysus or Apollo. Furthermore, where independent tests exist, they either disconfirm or fail to confirm the extraordinary evidence. There is no geological evidence of a worldwide flood, no archaeological evidence that Pharaoh’s army drowned in the Red Sea after Moses parted it to enable the Israelites to escape. Jesus’ central prophecy, that oppressive regimes would be destroyed in an apocalypse, and the Kingdom of God established on Earth, within the lifetime of those witnessing his preaching (Mark 8:38–9:1, 13:24–27, 30), did not come to pass. If any instance of these extraordinary sources of evidence is what it purports to be, it is like the proverbial needle in the haystack—except that there is no way to tell the difference between it and the hay. I conclude that none of the evidence for theism—that is, for the God of Scripture—is credible. Since exactly the same types of evidence are the basis for belief in pagan Gods, I reject pagan religions too.

It follows that we cannot appeal to God to underwrite the authority of morality. How, then, can I answer the moralistic challenge to atheism, that without God moral rules lack any authority? I say: the authority of moral rules lies not with God, but with each of us. We each have moral authority with respect to one another. This authority is, of course, not absolute. No one has the authority to order anyone else to blind obedience. Rather, each of us has the authority to make claims on others, to call upon people to heed our interests and concerns. Whenever we lodge a complaint, or otherwise lay a claim on others’ attention and conduct, we presuppose our own authority to give others reasons for action that are not dependent on appealing to the desires and preferences they already have. But whatever grounds we have for assuming our own authority to make claims is equally well possessed by anyone who we expect to heed our own claims. For, in addressing others as people to whom our claims are justified, we acknowledge them as judges of claims, and hence as moral authorities. Moral rules spring from our practices of reciprocal claim making, in which we work out together the kinds of considerations that count as reasons that all of us must heed, and thereby devise rules for living together peacefully and cooperatively, on a basis of mutual accountability.

What of someone who refuses to accept such accountability? Doesn’t this possibility vindicate Craig’s worry, that without some kind of higher authority external to humans, moral claims amount to nothing more than assertions of personal preference, backed up by power? No. We deal with people who refuse accountability by restraining and deterring their objectionable behavior. Such people have no proper complaint against this treatment. For, in the very act of lodging a complaint, they address others as judges of their claims, and thereby step into the very system of moral adjudication that demands their accountability.

I am arguing that morality, understood as a system of reciprocal claim making, in which everyone is accountable to everyone else, does not need its authority underwritten by some higher, external authority. It is underwritten by the authority we all have to make claims on one another. Far from bolstering the authority of morality, appeals to divine authority can undermine it. For divine command theories of morality may make believers feel entitled to look only to their idea of God to determine what they are justified in doing. It is all too easy under such a system to ignore the complaints of those injured by one’s actions, since they are not acknowledged as moral authorities in their own right. But to ignore the complaints of others is to deprive oneself of the main source of information one needs to improve one’s conduct. Appealing to God rather than those affected by one’s actions amounts to an attempt to escape accountability to one’s fellow human beings.

This is not an indictment of the conduct of theists in general. Theistic moralities, like secular ones, have historically inspired both highly moral and highly immoral action. For every bloodthirsty holy warrior we can find an equally violent communist or fascist, enthusiastically butchering and enslaving others in the name of some dogmatically held ideal. Such observations are irrelevant to my argument. For my argument has not been about the causal consequences of belief for action. It has been about the logical implications of accepting or rejecting the core evidence for theism.

I have argued that if we take with utmost seriousness the core evidence for theism, which is the testimonies of revelations, miracles, religious experiences, and prophecies found in Scripture, then we are committed to the view that the most heinous acts are morally right, because Scripture tells us that God performs or commands them. Since we know that such acts are morally wrong, we cannot take at face value the extraordinary evidence for theism recorded in Scripture. We must at least reject that part of the evidence that supports morally repugnant actions. Once we have stepped this far toward liberal theological approaches to the evidence for God, however, we open ourselves up to two further challenges to this evidence. First, the best explanation of extraordinary evidence—the only explanation that accounts for its tendency to commend heinous acts as well as good acts—shows it to reflect either our own hopes and feelings, whether these be loving or hateful, just or merciless, or else the stubborn and systematically erroneous cognitive bias of representing all events of consequence to our welfare as intended by some agent who cares about us, for good or for ill. Extraordinary evidence, in other words, is a projection of our own wishes, fears, and fantasies onto an imaginary deity. Second, all religions claim the same sorts of extraordinary evidence on their behalf. The perfect symmetry of this type of evidence for completely contradictory theological systems, and the absence of any independent ordinary evidence that corroborates one system more than another, strongly supports the view that such types of evidence are not credible at all. And once we reject such evidence altogether, there is nothing left that supports theism (or polytheism, either). The moralistic argument, far from threatening atheism, is a critical wedge that should open morally sensitive theists to the evidence against the existence of God.


There Is No God PENN JILLETTETogether with his sidekick Teller and his comrade James Randi, Penn Jillette can discredit any levitating or spoon-bending guru, restage any “miracle,” expose any cruel exploitation by any “faith-healer,” and shame any water-diviner, astrologer, card-reader, or spiritualist. In the grand tradition of Harry Houdini, Penn puts his own powers at the service of the rational and the humane.

I believe that there is no God. I’m beyond atheism. Atheism is not believing in God. Not believing in God is easy—you can’t prove a negative, so there’s no work to do. You can’t prove that there isn’t an elephant inside the trunk of my car. You sure? How about now? Maybe he was just hiding before. Check again. Did I mention that