Francis Bacon

Of atheism

I had rather believe all the fables in the Legend, and the Talmud, and the Alcoran, than that this universal frame is without a mind; and, therefore, God never wrought miracle to convince atheism, because his ordinary works convince it. It is true, that a little philosophy inclineth man’s mind to atheism, but depth in philosophy bringeth men’s minds about to religion; for while the mind of man looketh upon second causes scattered, it may sometimes rest in them, and go no further; but when it beholdeth the chain of them confederate, and linked together, it must needs fly to Providence and Deity. Nay, even that school which is most accused of atheism doth most demonstrate religion: that is, the school of Leucippus and Democritus and Epicurus: for it is a thousand times more credible that four mutable elements, and one immutable fifth essence, duly and eternally placed, need no God, than that an army of infinite small portions or seeds unplaced should have produced this order and beauty without a divine marshal. The Scripture saith, The fool hath said in his heart, there is no God; it is not said, The fool hath thought in his heart; so as he rather saith it by rote to himself, as that he would have, than that he can thoroughly believe it, or be persuaded of it; for none deny there is a God, but those for whom it maketh that there were no God.

It appeareth in nothing more that atheism is rather in the lip than in the heart of man by this, that atheists will ever be talking of that their opinion, as if they fainted in it within themselves, and would be glad to be strengthened by the consent of others; nay more, you shall have atheists strive to get disciples, as it fareth with other sects; and, which is most of all, you shall have of them that will suffer for atheism, and not recant; whereas, if they did truly think that there were no such thing as God, why should they trouble themselves? Epicurus is charged, that he did but dissemble for his credit’s sake, when he affirmed there were blessed natures, but such as enjoyed themselves without having respect to the government of the world; wherein they say he did temporize, though in secret he thought there was no God. But certainly he is traduced, for his words are noble and divine:

Non Deos vulgi negare profanum; sed vulgi opiniones Diis applicare profanum.

[It is not profane to deny the existence of the gods of the people: the profanity is in attributing to the gods what the people believe of them. (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, X.123)].

Plato could have said no more; and although he had the confidence to deny the administration, he had not the power to deny the nature. The Indians of the West have names for their particular gods, though they have no name for God: as if the heathens should have had the names Jupiter, Apollo, Mars, &c., but not the word Deus, which shows that even those barbarous people have the notion, though they have not the latitude and extent of it; so that against atheists the very savages take part with the very subtlest philosophers. The contemplative atheist is rare; a Diagorus, a Bion, a Lucian perhaps, and some others; and yet they seem to be more than they are; for that all that impugn a received religion, or superstition, are, by the adverse part, branded with the name of atheists. But the great atheists indeed are hypocrites, which are ever handling holy things, but without feeling; so as they must needs be cauterized in the end.

The causes of atheism are: divisions in religion, if they be many; for any one main division addeth zeal to both sides, but many divisions introduce atheism. Another is, scandal of priests, when it is come to that which St. Bernard saith,

Non est jam dicere ut populus, sic sacerdos; quia nec sic populus, ut sacerdos

[One can no longer say ‘as the people are, so is the priest,’ but rather ‘as the people are, so the priest is not’].

A third is custom of profane scoffing in holy matters, which doth little by little deface the reverence of religion. And lastly, learned times, specially with peace and prosperity; for troubles and adversities do more bow men’s minds to religion. They that deny a God destroy man’s nobility; for certainly man is of kin to the beasts by his body; and, if he be not of kin to God by his spirit, he is a base and ignoble creature. It destroys likewise magnanimity, and the raising of human nature; for take an example of a dog, and mark what a generosity and courage he will put on when he finds himself maintained by a man, who to him is instead of a God or

melior natura

[a better nature (Ovid, Metamorphoses, I.21)];

which courage is manifestly such as that creature, without that confidence of a better nature than his own, could never attain. So man, when he resteth and assureth himself upon divine protection and favor, gathereth a force and faith which human nature in itself could not obtain; therefore, as atheism is in all respects hateful, so in this, that it depriveth human nature of the means to exalt itself above human frailty. As it is in particular persons, so it is in nations: never was there such a state for magnanimity as Rome. Of this state hear what Cicero saith;

Quam volumus, licet, Patres conscripti, nos amemus, tamen nec numero Hispanos, nec robore Gallso, nec calliditate Poenos, nec artibus Graccos, nec denique hoc ipso hujus gentis et terrae domestico nativoque sensu Italso ipsos et Latinos; sed pietate, ac religione, atque hac una sapientia, quod Deorum immortalium numine omnia regi gubernarique perspeximus, omnes gentes nationesque superavimus

[We may admire ourselves as much as we please, Senators, yet we cannot match the Spaniards in number, nor the Gauls in bodily strength, nor the Carthaginians in cunning, nor the Greeks in art, nor indeed our own Italians and Latins in the homebred and native good sense characteristic of this land and nation. But in our piety, and in our religion, and in our recognition of the one great truth that all things are ruled and ordered by the divine will of the immortal gods—in these things we have surpassed all peoples and nations (A Speech Concerning the Response of the Soothsayers, IX.19)].

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MLA Citation

Bacon, Francis. “Of atheism.” . Quotidiana. Ed. Patrick Madden. 12 Jan 2007. 16 Oct 2017 <http://essays.quotidiana.org/bacon/atheism/>.

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