A SHORT DISCOURSE OF ATHEISM.
Job 21. 14, 15.
They say unto God, Depart from us; for we desire not the knowledge of thy waies. What is the Almighty that we should serve him? and what profit should we have if we pray unto him?
Plutarchus περὶ Ἴσιδος καὶ Ὀσίριδος.
Ἔνιοι ἀποσφαλέντες παντάπασιν εἰς δεισιδαιμονίαν ὤλισθον. οἱ δὲ φεύγοντες ὥσπερ ἕλος τὴν δεισιδαιμονίαν, ἔλαθον αὖθις ὥσπερ εἰς κρημνὸν ἐμπεσόντες τὴν ἀθεότητα.
Plutarch. περὶ Δεισιδαιμονίαν.
Ἔνιοι φεύγοντες τὴν δεισιδαιμονίαν, ἐμπίπτουσιν εἰς ἀθεότητα τραχεῖαν καὶ ἀντίτυπον, ὑπερπηδήσαντες ἐν μέσῳ κειμένην τὴν ἐυσέβειαν.
The Contents of the ensuing Discourse.
That there is a near Affinity between Atheism and Superstition.
That Superstition doth not onely prepare the way for Atheism, but promotes and strengthens it.
That Epicurism is but Atheism under a mask.
A Confutation of Epicurus his Master-notion, together with some other pretences and Dogmata of his Sect.
The true knowledge of Nature is advantageous to Religion.
That Superstition is more tolerable then Atheism.
That Atheism is both ignoble and uncomfortable.
What low and unworthy Notions the Epicureans had concerning Man's Happiness: and What trouble they were put to How to define, and Where to place true Happinesse.
A true belief of a Deity supports the Soul with a present Tranquillity and future Hopes.
Were it not for a Deity, the World would be unhabitable.
A SHORT DISCOURSE
WE have now done with what we intended concerning Superstition, and shall a little consider and search into the Pedigree of ATHEISM, which indeed hath so much affinity with Superstition that it may seem to have the same Father with it. Οὐκ οἴεται θεοὺς εἰναι ὁ ἄθεος, ὁ δὲ δεισιδαίμων οὐ βούλεται. Superstition could be well con <42> tent there were no God to trouble or disquiet it, and Atheism thinks there is none. And as Superstition is engendred by a base opinion of the Deity as cruell and tyrannicall (though it be afterwards brooded and hatcht by a slavish fear and abject thoughts) so also is Atheism: and that sowre and ghastly apprehension of God, when it meets with more stout and surly Natures, is apt to enrage them, and cankering them with Malice against the Deity they so little brook, provokes them to fight against it and undermine the Notion of it; as this Plastick Nature which intends to form Living creatures, when it meets with stubborn and unruly Matter, is fain to yield to it, and to produce that which answers not her own Idea; whence the Signatures and impressions of Nature sometimes vary so much from that Seal that Nature would have stamp'd upon them. Ὁ δεισιδαιμων τῇ προαιρήσει ἄθεος ὢν, ἀσθενέστερος ἐστιν ἢ τοῦ δοξάζειν περὶ θεῶν ὃ βούλεται. If these Melancholick Opinions and disquieting Fears of the Deity mould not the Minds of men into Devotion, as finding them too churlish and untameable to receive any such impressions; they are then apt to exasperate men against it, and stir them up to contend with that Being which they cannot bear, and to destroy that which would deprive them of their own Liberty. These unreasonable fears of a Deity will alwaies be moving into Flattery or Wrath. Atheism could never have so easily crept into the world, had not Superstition made way and open'd a Back-door for it; it could not so easily have banish'd the Belief of a Deity, had not that first accused and condemn'd it as destructive to the Peace of Mankind; and therefore it hath alwaies justified and defended it self by Superstition: as Plutarch hath well exprest it, ἡ δὲ δεισιδαιμονία τῇ ἀθεότητι καὶ <43> γενέσθαι παρέσχεν ἀρχὴν, καὶ γενομένῃ δίδωσιν ἀπολογίαν, οὐκ ἀληθῆ μὲν οὐδὲ καλὴν, προφάσεος δέ τινος οὐκ ἄμοιρον οὖσαν, Superstition afforded the principle of Generation to Atheism, and afterwards furnish'd it with an Apology, which though it be neither true nor lovely, yet wants it not a specious pretence. And therefore Simplicius (as we heard before) calls the Notion of Superstition ἀθείας λόγον, as having an ill savour of Atheism in it, seeing (as he gives an account of it) it disrobes the Deity of true Majesty and Perfection, and represents it as weak and infirme, cloth'd with such fond, feeble and impotent passions as men themselves are. And Dionysius Longinus, that noble Rhetorician, fears not to challenge Homer as Atheisticall for his unsavoury language of the Gods, which indeed was only the Brat of his Superstition. If the Superstitious man thinks that God is altogether like himself (which indeed is a character most proper to such) the Atheist will soon say in his heart, There is no God; and will judge it not without some appearance of Reason to be better there were none; as Plutarch hath discours'd it, οὐκ ἄμεινον ἦν Γαλάταις ἐκείνοις καὶ Σκύθαις τοπαράπαν μήτε ἔννοιαν ἔχειν θεῶν, μήτε φαντασίαν, μήτε ἱστορίαν, ἢ θεοὺς εἶναι νομίζειν χαίροντας ἀνθρώπον σφαττομένων αἴμασι, καὶ τελειοτάτην θυσίαν καὶ ἱερουργίαν ταύτην νομίζοντας; Were it not better for the Gaules and Scythians, not to have had any Notion, fansy or History of the Gods, then to think them such as delighted in the Blood of men offered up in sacrifices upon their Altars, as reckoning this the most perfect kind of Sacrifice and consummate Devotion? For thus his words are to be translated in reference to those ancient Gauls and Scythians, whom almost all Histories testifie to have been ἀνθρωποθύται. which horrid and monstrous Superstition was anciently very frequent among the <45> Heathen, and was sharply taxed by Empedocles of old, Μορφὴν ευ᾽ ἀλλάξαντα πατὴρ φίλον υἱὸν ἀείρας Σφαζει, ἐπευχόμενος μέγα νήπιος— This made Lucretius cry out with so much indignation, when he took notice of Agamemnon's Diabolicall devotion in sacrificing his Daughter Iphigenia to make expiation at his Trojan Expedition, Tantum Relligio potuit suadere malorum. And indeed what sober man could brook such an esteem of himself as this blinde Superstition (which overspread the Heathen world and (I doubt) is not sufficiently rooted out of the Christian) fastned upon God himself? which made Plutarch so much in defiance of it cry out, as willing almost to be an Atheist as to entertain the Vulgar Superstition, As for me (saith he) I had rather men should say that there is no such man nor ever was as Plutarch, then to say that he is or was ἄνθρωπος ἀβέβαιος, ἐυμεταβολος, ἐυχερὴς πρὸς ὀργὴν, ἐπι τοῖς τυχοῦσι τιμωρητικὸς, an inconstant fickle man, apt to be angry, and for every trifle revengefull, &c. as he goes on farther to expresse this Blasphemy of Superstition.
But it may not be amisse to learn from Atheists themselves what was the Impulsive cause that mov'd them to banish away all thoughts and sober fear of a Deity, what was the Principle upon which this black Opinion was built and by which it was sustein'd. And this we may have from the confessions of the Epicureans, who though they seemed to acknowledg a Deity, yet I doubt not but those that search into their Writings will soon embrace Tully's censure of them, Verbis quidem ponunt, reipsa tollunt Deos. Indeed it was not safe for Epicurus (though he had a good mind to let the World know how little he cared for their Deities) <46> to profess he believed there was none, lest he should have met with the same entertainment for it that Protagoras did at Athens, who for declaring himself doubtfull εἴτε εἰσὶ, εἴτε μή εἰσι θεοὶ, was himself put to Death, and his books burnt in the streets of Athens, ὑπὸ κήρυκα sub voce Præconis, as Diogenes Laertius and others record: and indeed the world was never so degenerated any where as to suffer Atheism to appear in publick View.
But that we may return, and take the Confessions a little of these secret Atheists of the Epicurean sect: and of these Tully gives us a large account in his Books de Finibus and other parts of his Philosophy. Torquatus the Epicurean in his first book de Finibus liberally spends his breath to cool that too-much heat of Religion, as he thought, in those that could not apprehend God as any other then curiosum & plenum negotii Deum (as one of that Sect doth phrase it Lib. 1. de Nat. Deor.) and so he states this Maxim of the Religion that then was most in use, Superstitione qui est imbutus, quietus esse nunquam potest. By the way, it may be worth our observing, how this monstrous progeny of men, when they would seem to acknowledge a Deity, could not forget their own beloved Image which was always before their eyes; and therefore they would have it as careless of any thing but its own pleasure and idle life as they themselves were. So easy is it for all Sects some way or other to slide into a compliance with the Anthropomorphitæ, and to bring down the Deity to a conformity to their own Image.
But we shall rather chuse a litle to examine Lucretius in this point, who hath in the name of all his Sect largely told us the Rise and Originall of this Design. After a short Ceremony to his following Discourse of <46a> Nature, he thus begins his Prologue in commendation of Epicurus his exploit, as he fancies it. Humana ante oculos foedè cùm vita jaceret, In terris oppressa gravi sub Relligione, Quæ caput è cœli regionibus ostendebat Horribili aspectu semper mortalibus instans; Primùm Graius homo mortales tendere contra Est oculos ausus, primúsque obsistere contra: Quem nec fama Deûm, nec Fulmina, nec minitanti Murmure compressit Cœlum— And a little after in a sorry Ovation, proudly cries out, Quare Relligio pedibus subjecta vicissim Obteritur; nos exæquat victoria cœlo. But to proceed; Our Author observing the timorous minds of men to have been struck with this dreadful Superstition from the observation of some stupendious Effects and Events (as he pleaseth rather to call them) in Nature; he therefore, following herein the steps of his great Master Epicurus, undertakes so to solve all those knots which Superstition was tied up into, by unfolding the Secrets of Nature, as that men might find themselves loosned from those sævi Domini and crudeles Tyranni, as he calls the vulgar Creeds of the Deity. And so begins with a simple Confutation of the Opinion of the Creation, which he supposed to contein a sure and sensible Demonstration of a Deity, and to have sprung up from an admiring ignorance of Natural productions.
And towards the end of this first Book, <47> Primùm quòd magnis doceo de rebus, & arctis Relligionum animos nodis exsolvere pergo. But herein all the Epicureans (who are not the true, but foster-fathers of that Natural Philosophy they brag of, and which indeed Democritus was the first Author of) doe miserably blunder themselves. For though a lawful acquaintance with all the Events and Phænomena that shew themselves upon this mundane stage would contribute much to free mens Minds from the slavery of dull Superstition: yet would it also breed a sober & amiable Belief of the Deity, as it did in all the Pythagoreans, Platonists and other Sects of Philosophers, if we may believe themselves; and an ingenuous knowledge hereof would be as fertile with Religion, as the ignorance thereof in affrighted and base Minds is with Superstition.
For which purpose I shall need onely to touch upon Epicurus his master-notion by which he undertakes to salve all difficulties that might hold our thoughts in suspence about a δημιουργὸς, or a Creator, which is that Plenum (which is all one with Corpus) and Inane, that this Body (which in his Philosophy is nothing else but an Infinity of Insensible Atomes moving to and fro in an Empty Space) is, together with that Space in which it is, sufficient to beget all those Phænomena which we see in Nature. Which however it might be true, Motion being once granted, yet herein Tully hath well scotcht the wheel of this over-hasty Philosophy, Lib. 1. de Finibus, Cùm in Rerum natura duo sint quærenda, unum, quæ Materia sit ex qua quæque res efficiatur; alterum, quæ Vis sit quæ quidque efficiat: de Materia disseruerunt Epicurei; Vim & causam efficiendi reliquerunt. Which is as much as if some conceited piece of Sophistry should go about to prove that an Automaton had no dependency upon the skill of an Artificer, by descanting upon <48> the several parts of it, without taking notice in the mean-while of some external Weight or Spring that moves it: or, to use his own Similitude, as if one that undertakes to Analyse any Learned Book, should tell us how so many Letters meeting together in several Combinations, should beget all that sense that is conteined therein, without minding that Wit that cast them all into their several Ranks. And this made Aristotle, otherwise not over-zealous of Religion, soberly to acknowledge some First mover, τὸ πρῶτον κινοῦν ἀκίνητον.
And yet could we allow Epicurus this power of Motion to be seated in Nature, yet that he might perform the true task of a Naturalist, he must also give us an account how such a force and power in Nature should subsist: which indeed is easy to doe, if we call in Θεὸν ἀπὸ μηχανῆς, God himself as the Architect and mover of this Divine Artifice; but without some Infinite power, impossible.
And we should further inquire, How these moveable & rambling Atomes come to place themselves so orderly in the Universe, and observe that absolute Harmony & Decorum in all their Motions, as if they kept time with the Musical laws of some Almighty Mind that compos'd all their lessons & measured out their Dances up and down in the Universe; and also how it comes to pass, if they be only mov'd by Chance & Accident, that such Regular mutations and generations should be begotten by a fortuitous concurse of Atomes, as sometimes they speak of, they having no centre to seat themselves about in an infinite Vacuity, as Tully argues; and how these Bodies that are once mov'd by some impulse from their former station, return again, or at least come to stay themselves, and doe not rather move perpe <49> tually the same way the First impulse and direction carried them; or why they doe not there rest where their Motion first began to cease, if they were interrupted by any thing without them: or again, if the proper motion of these Atomes be alwaies toward some Centre, as Epicurus sometimes is pleased to state the business, Lineis Rectis, as he saith, then how comes there, as Tully replies, to be any Generation? or if there be a Motus declinationis joyn'd with this Motion of Gravity (which was one of Epicurus his κυρίαι δοξαι which he borrowed not from Democritus) then why should not all tend the same way? and so all those Motions, Generations and Appearances in Nature all vanish, seeing all Variety of Motion would be taken away which way soever this unhallowed Opinion be stated?
Thus we see, though we should allow Epicurus his Principle and fundamental absurdity in the frame of Nature, yet it is too aiery and weak a thing to support that massie bulk of Absurdities which he would build upon it. But it was not the lot of any of his stamp to be over-wise (however they did boast most in the title of Sophi) as is well observed of them; for then they might have been so happy too as to have dispelled these thick and filthy mists of Atheism, by those bright beams of Truth that shine in the frame of this inferiour world, wherein, as S. Paul speaks, the τὸ γνωστὸν τοῦ θεοῦ is made manifest.
Atheism most commonly lurks in confinio scientiæ & ignorantiæ; when the Mindes of men begin to draw those gross, earthly vapours of sensuall and materiall Speculations by dark and cloudy disputes, they are then most in danger of being benighted in them. There is a Natural Sense of God that lodges in the <50> minds of the lowest and dullest sort of vulgar men, which is alwaies roving after him, catching at him, though it cannot lay any sure hold on him; which works like a natural Instinct antecedent to any mature knowledge, as being indeed the First principle of it: and if I were to speak precisely in the mode of the Stoicks, I would rather call it ὁρμὴν πρὸς τὸν θεὸν then with Plutarch θεοῦ νόησιν. But when contentious disputes, and frothy reasonings, and contemplations informed by fleshly affections, conversant onely about the out-side of Nature, begin to rise up in mens Soules; they may then be in some danger of depressing all those In-bred notions of a Deity, and to reason themselves out of their own sense, as the old Scepticks did: and therefore it may be it might be wish'd that some men that have not Religion, had had more Superstition to accompany them in their passage from Ignorance to Knowledge.
But we have run out too farre in this Digression: we shall now return, and observe how our former Author takes notice of another piece of Vulgar Superstition, which he thinks fit to be chas'd away by Atheism, and that is The terrours of the world to come, which he thus sets upon in his Third book,
And afterwards he tells us how this Fear of the Gods thus proceeding from the former Causes, and from those Spectres and gastly Apparitions with which men were sometimes terrified, begat all those Fantastick rites and ceremonies in use amongst them, as their <51> Temples, sacred Lakes and Pools, their Groves, Altars, Images, and other like Vanities, as so many idle toyes to please these Deities with; and at last concludes himself thus into Atheism, as a strong Fort to preserve himself from these cruel Deities that Superstition had made, because he could not find the way to true Religion,
Thus we see how Superstition strengthened the wicked hands of Atheism; so far is a Formal and Ritual way of Religion proceeding from baseness and Servility of Mind (though back'd with never so much rigour and severity) from keeping it out. And I wish some of our Opinions in Religion in these dayes may not have the same evil influences as the notorious Gentile-Superstition of old had, as well for the begetting this brat of Atheism, as I doubt it is too manifest they have for some other.
Thus we should now leave this Argument; only before we passe from it, we shall observe two things which Plutarch hath suggested to us. The first whereof is, That howsoever Superstition be never so unlovely a thing, yet it is more tolerable then Atheism: which I shall repeat in his words, Δεῖ μὲν ἀμέλει τῆς περὶ θεῶν δόξης, ὥσπερ ὄψεως λήμην, ἀφαιρεῖν τὴν δεισιδαιμονίαν. εἰ δὲ τοῦτο ἀδυνατον, μὴ συνεκκόπτειν, μηδὲ τυφλοῦν τὴν πίστιν ἢν οἱ πλεῖστοι περὶ θεῶν ἔχουσι, We should endeavor to take off Su <52> perstition from our Mindes, as a Film from our Eyes; but if that cannot be, we must not therefore pluck out our Eyes, and blind the faith that generally we have of the Deity. Superstition may keep men from the outward acts of sin sometimes, and so their future punishment may have some abatement. Besides that Atheism offers the greatest violence to mens Souls that may be, pulling up the Notions of a Deity, which have spread their Roots quite through all the Powers of mens Souls.
The second is this, That Atheism it self is a most ignoble and uncomfortable thing, as Tully hath largely discussed it, and especially Plutarch in the above-named Tractate of his, written by way of Confutation of Colotes the Epicurean, who writ a Book to prove That a man could not live quietly by following any other sects of Philosophers besides his owne; as if all true good were onely conversant περὶ γαστέρα, καὶ τοὺς ἄλλους πόρους τῆς Σαρκὸς ἄπαντας, about the belly, and all the pores and passages of the Body, and the way to true happinesse was Συρκοποιεῖν τὸν ἄνθρωπον ὄλον, or else τὴν ψυχὴν ταῖς τοῦ σώματος ἡδοναῖς κατασυβωτεῖν, as Plutarch hath not more wittily then judiciously replied upon him.
What is all that Happiness that ariseth from these bodily pleasures to any one that hath any high or noble sense within him? This gross, muddy, and stupid Opinion is nothing else but a Dehonestamentum humani generis, that casts as great a scorn and reproach upon the nature of mankind as may be, and sinks it into the deepest Abysse of Baseness. And certainly were the Highest happiness of mankind such a thing as might be felt by a corporeal touch, were it of so ignoble a birth as to spring out of this earth, and to grow up out of this mire and clay; we might well sit down, and bewail our unhappy fates, that we should rather be born <53> Men then Brute beasts, which enjoy more of this worlds happiness then we can doe, without any sin or guilt. How little of Pleasure these short lives tast here, which onely lasts so long as the Indigency of nature is in supplying, and after that, onely σκιά τις καὶ ὄναρ ἐν τῇ ψυχῇ, a flying shadow, or flitting dreame of that pleasure (which is choak'd as soon as craving Nature is satisfied) remains in the Fancy, οἷον ὑπέκκαυμα των ἐπιθυμιῶν, as Plutarch hath well observed in the same Discourse!
And therefore Epicurus seeing how slippery the Soule was to all Sensual pleasure, which was apt to slide away perpetually from it, and again how little of it the Body was capable of where it had a shorter stay; he and his followers could not well tell where to place this beggarly guest: and therefore, as Plutarch speaks, ἄνω καὶ κάτω μεταίροντες, ἐκ τοῦ σώματος εἰς τὴν ψυχὴν, εἶτα πάλιν ἐκ ταύτης εἰς ἐκεῖνο, one while they would place it in the Body, and then lead it back again into the Soul, not knowing where to bestow it. And Diodorus, and the Cyreniaci, and the Epicureans, as Tully tells us, who all could fancy nothing but a Bodily happiness, yet could not agree whether it should be Voluptas, or Vacuitas doloris, or something else; it being ever found so hard a thing to define, like that base Matter of which it is begotten, which by reason of it's penurie & scantness of Beings as Philosophers tell us, doth effugere intellectum, and is nothing else but a shady kinde of Nothing, something that hath a name but nothing else. I dare say that all those that have any just esteem of humanity, cannot but with a noble scorn defy such a base-born Happiness as this is, generated onely out of the slime of this earth: and yet this is all the portion of Atheism, which teaches the entertainers of it to be <54> lieve themselves nothing else but so many Heapes of more refined dust, fortuitously gathered together, which at last must be all blown away again.
But a true Belief of a Deity is a sure Support to all serious minds, which besides the future hopes it is pregnant with, entertains them here with Tranquillity and inward serenity. What the Stoick said in his cool and mature thoughts, οὐκ ἔστι ζῇν ἐν τῷ κόσμῳ κενῷ θεῶν καὶ κενῷ προνοὶας, it is not worth the while to live in a world empty of God and Providence, is the sense of all those that know what a Deity means. Indeed it were the greatest unhappiness that might be, to have been born into such a world, where we should be perpetually tossed up and down by a rude and blind Fortune, and be perpetually liable to all those abuses which the savage Lusts and Passions of the world would put upon us. It is not possible for any thing well to bear up the spirit of that man that shall calmly meditate with himself the true state and condition of this world, should that Mind and Wisedome be taken away from it which governs every part of it, and overrules all those disorders that at any time begin to break forth in it. Were there not an Omniscient skill to temper, and fitly to rank up in their due places all those quarrelsome and extravagant spirits that are in the world, it would soon prove an unhabitable place, and sink under the heavy weight of it's own confusion; which was wittily signified in that Fable of Phæton, who being admitted to drive the chariot of the Sun but for one day, by his rude and unskilful guidance of it made it fall down, and burn the world. Remove God and Providence out of the world, and then we have nothing to depend upon but Chance and Fortune, the Humours and Passions of men; and he that could then live in it, had need be as <55> blind as these Lords would be, that he might not see his own misery alwaies staring upon him; and had need be more sensless and stupid, that he might not be affected with it.
Psal. 10. 4.
The wicked through the pride of his countenance will not seek after God: God is not in all his thoughts.
Ecclus 23. 4.
O Lord, Father and God of my life, give me not a proud look; but turn away from thy servants a Giant-like minde.
 Lib. 1.
 Lib. 5.
 Lib. Ὅτι οὐδὲ ζῇν ἐστιν ἣδέως κατ᾽ Ἐπίκουρον.
 γιγαντώδ ψυχήν. Sic Edit. Complut.
Cite as: John Smith, ‘A Short Discourse of Atheism’, from Select Discourses (1660), pp. 39-55, https://www.cambridge-platonism.divinity.cam.ac.uk/view/texts/normalised/Smith1660C-excerpt003, accessed 2024-02-21.