« PreviousContinue »
unjustly accused the deists of representing God as having withdrawn from His universe, and abandoned it to its own resources, have frequently the same charge now brought against themselves. It is very common, for instance, to find Paley and other natural theologians of the eighteenth century censured as having imagined that God made the universe as a watchmaker makes a watch, and then left it to itself, merely looking on to see how it goes. Of course the censure has no foundation whatever, and only shows discreditable carelessness and ignorance in those who pronounce so unjust a judgment.
The terms atheism and anti-theism have been otherwise distinguished than they are in the lecture. Antitheism has sometimes been understood as not a more but a less general term than atheism—as, in fact, a species or division of atheism. For instance, Dr Chalmers (Nat. Theol., ch. ii. p. 59) writes thus: "Judging from the tendency and effect of his arguments, an atheist does not appear positively to refuse that a God may be; but he insists that He has not discovered Himself, whether by the utterance of His voice in audible revelation, or by the impress of His hand upon visible nature. His verdict on the doctrine of a God is only that it is not proven. It is not that it is disproven. He is but an atheist. He is not an anti-theist." And on p. 61: "Atheism might plead a lack of evidence within its own field of observation. But anti-theism pronounces both upon the things which are and the things which are not within that field. It breaks forth and beyond all those limits that have been prescribed to man's excursive spirit by the sound philosophy of experience; and by a presumption the most tremendous, even the usurpation of all space and of all time, it affirms that there is no God." Dr Chalmers, it will be perceived, limits atheism to critical and sceptical atheism, and identifies anti-theism with dogmatic atheism. On this account it is surprising that Mr Holyoake (Reasoner, xi. 15, 232) should have written: "The course to be taken is to use the term secularists as indicating general views, and accept the term atheist at the point at which ethics declines alliance with theology; always, however, explaining the term atheist to mean 'not seeing God,' visually or inferentially—never suffering it to be taken (as Chalmers, Foster, and many others represent it) for anti-theism—that is, hating God, denying God,—as hating implies personal knowledge as the ground of dislike, and denying implies- infinite knowledge as the ground of disproof." Chalmers and Foster obviously laboured not to efface but to emphasise the very distinction which Mr Holyoake himself draws.
My chief reason for preferring the distinction between atheism and anti-theism explained in the lecture to that drawn by Dr Chalmers and Mr Holyoake is, that it is of greater practical use. There is little need for a single term to specify dogmatic atheism; there is great need for a single term at once inclusive and distinctive of all theories opposed to theism. The word non-theistic is unsatisfactory, not merely because of its hybrid origin and character, but also because it is far too comprehensive. Theories of physical and mental science are nontheistic, even when in no degree, directly or indirectly, antagonistic to theism.
Note II., page 10. Absolute Atheism Implies Infinite Knowledge.
The passage from John Foster to which reference is made in the lecture is the following: "The wonder turns on the great process, by which a man could grow to the immense intelligence that can know there is no God. What ages and what lights are requisite for this attainment? This intelligence involves the very attributes of Divinity, while a God is denied. For unless this man is omnipresent—unless he is at this moment in every place in the universe,—he cannot know but there may be in some place manifestations of a Deity by which even he would be overpowered. If he does not absolutely know every agent in the universe, the one that he does not know may be God. If he is not himself the chief agent in the universe, and does not know what is so, that which is so may be God. If he is not in absolute possession of all the propositions that constitute universal truth, the one which he wants may be that there is a God. If he cannot with certainty assign the cause of all that he perceives to exist, that cause may be a God. If he does not know everything that has been done in the immeasurable ages that are past, some things may have been done by a God. Thus unless he knows all things—that is, precludes another Deity by being one himself—he cannot know that the Being whose existence he rejects does not exist."—(Essays, p. 35, 15th ed.
The criticism of Mr Holyoake on this argument, to which reference is also made in the lecture, will be found on pp. 75, 76 of his Trial of Theism, 1858. "Two points," he says, "are to be noticed. Foster puts a strict, an arbitrary, and an absolute sense upon the word 'denial.' Next, that he introduces a false element into the argument—that of personal knowledge—which is forbidden to the atheist when he introduces it into reasoning. A single remark will show the fallacy of this assumption. It is quite true that we do not'know' that God does not exist; it is also true that no theist knows that he does exist If I ask a theist the question, Have you any actual knowledge through the senses that God exists? he will probably tell me that I am both ignorant and presumptuous. He will remind me that 'no man hath seen God at any time.' He will tell me that the existence of Deity is not a fact of the senses—that it is not a matter of knowledge, but a matter of revelation, or an argument from analogy—a logical inference—or an intuition—or a feeling—or a question of probability, when we reason inductively from causes to effects—or a 'necessity of the intellect' when speculation tires on the wing, and thought has exhausted its utmost force. If, therefore, the theist is without the knowledge that God does exist, why should Foster demand of the atheist the knowledge that God does not exist? If the theist refuses the test of eyesight for his affirmation, why does he demand it of the atheist for his ' denial'? If the theist may use argument, why not the atheist? If the theist may reason and can reason only on the evidence of the intellect, why do Foster, Chalmers, and all divines demand from the atheist evidence of the senses? The case fairly stated stands thus: The theist says, all things considered—all present argument weighed—it is clear to me that God exists. The atheist says, all things considered—all present argument weighed—it appears to me that the infinite secret is beyond our finite powers to penetrate. Foster cannot be said to recognise this fact. He refutes our position by evading it; and those who do not know, or do not care to discern what it is, assume a question settled which indeed is not truly touched."
It often happens that even able and candid men attempt to refute arguments which they have failed to understand. Of this there could not be a clearer and more striking, almost startling, instance than these words of Mr Holyoake. It is impossible to read them without perceiving that, when he wrote them, he had not the most remote conception of what Foster meant or aimed at He plainly did not perceive that Foster's argument was in no degree or respect directed against critical atheism—against what Mr Holyoake calls "our position "—but entirely and exclusively against absolute or dogmatic atheism. Failing in some inexplicable way to perceive this, he naturally fell into those curious mistakes which he presents as criticisms.
Chalmers's restatement of Foster's argument is presented in the following passage: "To be able to say that there is a God, we may have only to look abroad on some definite territory, and point to the vestiges that are given of His power and His presence somewhere. To be able to say that there is no God, we must walk the whole expanse of infinity, and ascertain by observation that such vestiges are to be found nowhere. Grant that no trace of Him can be discerned in that quarter oj contemplation which our puny optics have explored, does it follow that, throughout all immensity, a Being with the essence and sovereignty of a God is nowhere to be found? Because through our loopholes of communi