Cato's Letter No. 137

Of the different and absurd Notions which Men entertain of God.

John Trenchard (Saturday, July 20, 1723)

SIR, In my paper, which treats about the use of words, I have promised to shew how absurd and impious it is for men to fall together by the ears, on account of their difference in trifles, when they scarce agree in any one thing in the world, not even in the attributes annexed to the object of all worship, though they know nothing of him but from his attributes. I will now perform that promise.

There is no proposition about which mankind have agreed and disagreed so much, as about the meaning of the word god. I think, very few instances excepted, they have all agreed that there is such a being; and yet I apprehend, that no two nations, two sects, or scarce two men of the same sect, have essentially agreed in all the ideas which they have annexed to the sound. All have asserted, that he has existed from all eternity, and must for ever exist; and that he has made or produced every thing else: And thus far heathens and Jews, Mahometans and Christians, Protestants and papists, deists and free-thinkers, materialists and immaterialists, Stoicks, peripateticks and Epicureans, are all orthodox; for the last could not have doubted but some being must have existed before the fortuitous concourse of atoms; and in this sense there are very few, if there be one atheist, in the world. But when they go farther, and explain what they mean by the sound, I doubt most, or many of them, are atheists to one another, as not believing in the being which the one and the other call God.

All the differences amongst mankind, as to their belief of the deity, are owing to their different conceptions of him; as they disagree in his attributes, in the modes of his operations, and worship him under various images and representations. As to his substance, essence, the manner or sensorium of his existence, we neither know nor can know any thing, nor can have any conception about it, and consequently can believe nothing concerning it; and therefore all that we can believe (besides what I above said every man agrees in) is concerning his attributes, and the modus wherein he has communicated or represented himself to us: That is, we can only believe in the ideas which we have annexed in our minds to the word god; and if we annex different images to the word, we are of a different religion, or rather are atheists to one another, though we call the object of all our worship by the same name. For since, as I have said, we can only worship our own conceptions or images of the deity, or (by new placing the words) the deity under our conceptions and images, if those images be false, we worship only an idol of our own imaginations, and pay divine homage to nothing. For, what is the difference to us in saying, that another man believes in nothing, or believes in what we know to be nothing, which equally is atheism. From hence I think it appears, that no man has a right to call another atheist, in any other sense, than as I shall make appear, that most men have a right to call those who differ from themselves, in their conception of the deity, atheists.

Now, to begin with the heathens, who worshipped Jupiter, Mars, Venus, Mercury, &c. which were only bare sounds and non-entities: Their paying divine honours to nothing, was worshipping nothing: and believing in nothing, is the same thing in substance as having no belief. And therefore they were certainly atheists, though they did not know themselves to be so. For what is atheism, but not believing in a god? And can any man be said to believe in a god, whose whole belief is in an imaginary being that is not God; though I confess such a fancied belief may influence his actions, and answer many of the purposes of society? It was the same thing when they believed in real beings, as images, stocks, stones, monkeys, garlick, &c. For they worshipped them for powers which they supposed were in them, but which were not in them; and so worshipped those supposed powers, and consequently worshipped nothing, and believed in nothing which was God; and consequently were atheists in fact, though devout religionists in shew, and in their own opinion too.

But without annihilating the heathen deities, the Stoicks and Epicureans (who differed much in the same manner as some of the deists and orthodox do amongst us), were atheists to one another, as not believing in the attributes that each annexed to their different divinities. The Stoicks annexed the attributes of wisdom, mercy, and justice, to the being of the deity; who was supposed by them to dispense those attributes occasionally to the actions and necessities of men. The Epicureans thought the deity to be sufficient in his own felicity; and that he did not concern himself with our affairs here below; but that all things depended upon fate, and an eternal cause, which controlled and was superior to even Jupiter himself; which fate must have been their eternal god, which produced all things at first.

They had no notion of what was meant by wise, merciful, and just, when applied to the deity; and thought that these could not be analogous to what was meant by the same qualities in men: For they said, that wisdom in men, was only balancing the motives of doing or not doing an action, and choosing which was best; which wisdom was a knowledge acquired by habit and experience, and by observing the relations of things to one another, and conveyed to them through the organs of sense: But they said, that the deity had no organs, but saw all things intuitively from all eternity, and could not err. So they said, that mercy in men was a passion caused by the feeling or apprehension of the sufferings of others: But they believed that the divinity could have no passions, because no agent could operate upon him, he himself being eternal, and before all things, and producing all things; nor could suffer temporary anguish and uneasiness, always produced by compassion. In like manner, they said, that justice was an adherence to certain rules, dictated by superior powers, or agreed upon by men for their mutual convenience; but no rules could be set to the divinity, who the Stoicks confessed had made every thing, and had a right to do what he pleased with his own creatures. He that made the relation of all things, might alter that relation, and dispense with his own laws, when and how he thought fit.

They therefore said, that when those attributes were applied to the deity, nothing could be meant by them, but to express our reverence for him, our admiration of his power, and to sacrifice to him our best conceptions; not that we pretend to define his essence, nor the modus of his actions, which are wholly incomprehensible to us. They concluded that he that had done all things could do all things; but did not pretend to know how he did them; but thought themselves very sure that he did not do them as we do, by weighing the difficulties on each side the question, because nothing could be difficult to him; nor could he deliberate, because deliberation would imply doubt; and the deity could not doubt, being necessitated by the excellency of his nature always to do the best.

They thought, that a being that could never have any cause before it, nor without it, or after it, but what it produced, nor any objects to work upon it, must have been always uniform and entire; that is, its attributes, its will, and its actions must have been one with its essence. It must have been constantly moving, or acting or, as late divines very elegantly express themselves, eternally proceeding. For there could be no beginning of action, without being at rest before; and then they said that it must have been from all eternity at rest, as finding it difficult to conceive, that a being that had self-motion should never have exerted that principle till a particular period of time, and in a particular portion of space, when eternity and infinity (its inseparable attributes) can have no periods and limits; nor can any intervals of time and space measure such a being.

Hence philosophers have called eternity a nunc sans, or an instant, or punctum, which cannot be divided even in imagination; and though they could not convey any distinct images by that way of speaking, yet they found themselves reduced to it, from the difficulties which would arise in dividing the operations of a being in all respects indivisible. Now, can any one say that these sects believe in God? Certainly the object of the belief of one of them was not God, but only an idol of their own brains, and consequently that sect believed in nothing, and were atheists.

The same observations run through the different sects of religionists in the world, and great numbers of particular men in every sect of religion. Some represent the deity as a capricious, angry, revengeful being, fond of commendation and flattery, prescribing and dictating partial rules to his creatures, laying useless burdens upon them, and making their future happiness to depend upon the actions of others, and upon such performances, or believing such speculations, as are out of their power. Others think that the deity has satiety of happiness within itself, and must be incapable of any passions to interrupt that happiness; and therefore, as we cannot do good or harm to him, the only way to recommend ourselves to him, is to do good to one another. These cannot apprehend, that any manís future felicity lies in anotherís power; or, that useless speculations or actions, as bows, cringes, forms, grimaces, rotes of words, or any thing but a good conscience, and a virtuous life, can make us acceptable to the deity. Now Ďtis certain that there are great numbers of men in the world of both these opinions, and they undoubtedly do not believe in the same being; but some of them believe in a non-entity, and consequently are atheists.

If this argument were to be traced through all its subdivisions, it would fill a volume instead of a single paper; and therefore I shall tire you no farther upon the subject; my design in entering upon it being to warn my countrymen how cautious they ought to be in calling odious names, which may with equal justice be retorted upon themselves. Let us therefore leave such appellations to those who scold for hire; and rest fully assured, that as most certainly there is a God, so he is the best being in the universe, that he expects no more from us than he has given us means to perform; that when we have done all in our power to please him, we shall please him, however, or how much soever, we mistake his being or attributes; and then it will be of very little consequence whom else we displease.

T I am, &c.

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