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the truth unfavourable to morality nor the morality capable of being injured by truth would deserve, or could be expected to receive, the homage due to truth and morality when allied and accordant.
Atheism has not unfrequently been advocated on political grounds. Religion has been presented as the support of tyranny and the cause of strife. Its abolition, it has been argued, would emancipate the mind and secure peace. This view will always be found to rest on the confusion of religion with superstition. But superstition is as distinct from religion as from atheism. Superstition and atheism are both contraries to religion, and, as was long ago remarked, are closely akin. They are related to religion as the alternating feverish heat and shivering cold of bodily disease are related to the equable temperature of health. The one gives rise to the other; the one easily passes into the other. Each is to a large extent chargeable, not only with the evils which it directly produces, but with those which it originates by way of reaction. Both flow from ignorance and erroneous views of Divine things. "The atheist," as Plutarch tells us, "thinks that there is no God ; the superstitious man would fain think so, but believes against his will, for he fears to do otherwise. Superstition generates atheism, and afterwards furnishes it with an apology, which, although neither true nor lovely, yet lacks not a specious pretence." On the other hand, atheism drives men into superstition. Wherever it spreads, religious credulity and servility spread along with it, or spring up rapidly after it. A reasonable religion is the only effective barrier against either atheism or superstition.
It has been disputed whether atheism or superstition be politically the more injurious. Perhaps the problem is too vague to be resolved. But certainly the spread of atheism in a land may well be regarded with the most serious alarm. In the measure that a people ceases to believe in God and an eternal world, it must become debased, disorganised, and incapable of achieving noble deeds. History confirms this on many a page. "All epochs," wrote Goethe, "in which faith, under whatever form, has prevailed, have been brilliant, heart-elevating, and fruitful, both to contemporaries and posterity. All epochs, on the contrary, in which unbelief, under whatever form, has maintained a sad supremacy, even if for the moment they glitter with a false splendour, vanish from the memory of posterity, because none care to torment themselves with the knowledge of that which has been barren."
"The idea of an intelligent First Cause," says Mazzini, "once destroyed, — the existence of a moral law, supreme over men, and constituting an obligation, a duty imposed upon all men, is destroyed with it; so also all possibility of a law of progress, or intelligent design, regulating the life of humanity. Both progress and morality then become mere transitory facts, having no deeper source than the tendency or impulse of individual organisation; no other sanction than the arbitrary will or varying interest of individuals, or — force. In fact, the only imaginable sources of life are—God, chance, or the blind, insuperable force of things; and if we deny the first to accept either of the others, in the name of whom, or of what, can we assume any right to educate? In the name of whom, or of what, can we condemn the man who abandons the pursuit of the general good through egotism? In the name of whom, or of what, can you protest against injustice, or assert your duty and right of contending against it? Whence can you deduce the existence of an aim common to all men, and therefore giving you an authority to declare to them that they are bound by duty to fraternal association in pursuit of that common aim?"
The prevalence of atheism in any land must bring with it national decay and disaster. Its triumph in our land would bring with it, I believe, hopeless national ruin. If the workmen of the large towns of this country were, as a body, to adopt the principles which have at certain periods swayed the minds of the workmen of Paris and Lyons,—were as a body to adopt atheism and its concomitant beliefs,—utter anarchy would be inevitable. In such a case, owing to the very prosperity we have reached, and the consequent extreme concentration of population within a narrow circuit, the problem of government would be a hundredfold more difficult in England than it has been in France and Germany even in their darkest days. But no man who examines the signs of the times can fail to see much tending to show that atheism may possibly come to have its day of fatal supremacy. Polytheism there is nothing to fear from. Pantheism, except in forms in which it is hardly distinguishable from atheism, there is comparatively little to fear from. It is improbable that this country will be afflicted to any great extent with a fever of idealistic pantheism resembling that which Germany has passed through. What chiefly threatens us is atheism in the forms of agnosticism, positivism, secularism, materialism, &c.; and it does so directly and seriously. The most influential authorities in science and philosophy, and a host of the most popular representatives of literature, are strenuously propagating it. Through the periodical press it exerts a formidable power. It has in our large centres of population missionaries who, I fear, are better qualified for their work than many of those whom our Churches send forth to advocate to the same classes the cause of Christianity. There is a great deal in current modes of thought and feeling, and in the whole constitution and character of contemporary society, to favour its progress. Atheism is a foe opposition to which, and to what tends to produce it, ought to draw together into earnest co-operation all who believe in God and love their country.1