HAVING thus shown the irreconcileable inconsistencies
between the real word of God existing in the universe, and that which is
called the word of God, as shown to us in a printed book that any man might
make, I proceed to speak of the three principal means that have been
employed in all ages, and perhaps in all countries, to impose upon mankind.
Those three means are Mystery, Miracle, and Prophecy, The
first two are incompatible with true religion, and the third ought always to
With respect to Mystery, everything we behold is, in one
sense, a mystery to us. Our own existence is a mystery: the whole vegetable
world is a mystery. We cannot account how it is that an acorn, when put into
the ground, is made to develop itself and become an oak. We know not how it
is that the seed we sow unfolds and multiplies itself, and returns to us
such an abundant interest for so small a capital.
The fact however, as distinct from the operating cause,
is not a mystery, because we see it; and we know also the means we are to
use, which is no other than putting the seed in the ground. We know,
therefore, as much as is necessary for us to know; and that part of the
operation that we do not know, and which if we did, we could not perform,
the Creator takes upon himself and performs it for us. We are, therefore,
better off than if we had been let into the secret, and left to do it for
But though every created thing is, in this sense, a
mystery, the word mystery cannot be applied to moral truth, any more than
obscurity can be applied to light. The God in whom we believe is a God of
moral truth, and not a God of mystery or obscurity. Mystery is the
antagonist of truth. It is a fog of human invention that obscures truth, and
represents it in distortion. Truth never invelops itself in mystery; and the
mystery in which it is at any time enveloped, is the work of its antagonist,
and never of itself.
Religion, therefore, being the belief of a God, and the
practice of moral truth, cannot have connection with mystery. The belief of
a God, so far from having any thing of mystery in it, is of all beliefs the
most easy, because it arises to us, as is before observed, out of necessity.
And the practice of moral truth, or, in other words, a practical imitation
of the moral goodness of God, is no other than our acting towards each other
as he acts benignly towards all. We cannot serve God in the manner we serve
those who cannot do without such service; and, therefore, the only idea we
can have of serving God, is that of contributing to the happiness of the
living creation that God has made. This cannot be done by retiring ourselves
from the society of the world, and spending a recluse life in selfish
The very nature and design of religion, if I may so
express it, prove even to demonstration that it must be free from every
thing of mystery, and unincumbered with every thing that is mysterious.
Religion, considered as a duty, is incumbent upon every living soul alike,
and, therefore, must be on a level to the understanding and comprehension of
all. Man does not learn religion as he learns the secrets and mysteries of a
trade. He learns the theory of religion by reflection. It arises out of the
action of his own mind upon the things which he sees, or upon what he may
happen to hear or to read, and the practice joins itself thereto.
When men, whether from policy or pious fraud, set up
systems of religion incompatible with the word or works of God in the
creation, and not only above but repugnant to human comprehension, they were
under the necessity of inventing or adopting a word that should serve as a
bar to all questions, inquiries and speculations. The word mystery answered
this purpose, and thus it has happened that religion, which is in itself
without mystery, has been corrupted into a fog of mysteries.
As mystery answered all general purposes, miracle
followed as an occasional auxiliary. The former served to bewilder the mind,
the latter to puzzle the senses. The one was the lingo, the other the
But before going further into this subject, it will be
proper to inquire what is to be understood by a miracle.
In the same sense that every thing may be said to be a
mystery, so also may it be said that every thing is a miracle, and that no
one thing is a greater miracle than another. The elephant, though larger, is
not a greater miracle than a mite: nor a mountain a greater miracle than an
atom. To an almighty power it is no more difficult to make the one than the
other, and no more difficult to make a million of worlds than to make one.
Every thing, therefore, is a miracle, in one sense; whilst, in the other
sense, there is no such thing as a miracle. It is a miracle when compared to
our power, and to our comprehension. It is not a miracle compared to the
power that performs it. But as nothing in this description conveys the idea
that is affixed to the word miracle, it is necessary to carry the inquiry
Mankind have conceived to themselves certain laws, by
which what they call nature is supposed to act; and that a miracle is
something contrary to the operation and effect of those laws. But unless we
know the whole extent of those laws, and of what are commonly called the
powers of nature, we are not able to judge whether any thing that may appear
to us wonderful or miraculous, be within, or be beyond, or be contrary to,
her natural power of acting.
The ascension of a man several miles high into the air,
would have everything in it that constitutes the idea of a miracle, if it
were not known that a species of air can be generated several times lighter
than the common atmospheric air, and yet possess elasticity enough to
prevent the balloon, in which that light air is inclosed, from being
compressed into as many times less bulk, by the common air that surrounds
it. In like manner, extracting flashes or sparks of fire from the human
body, as visibly as from a steel struck with a flint, and causing iron or
steel to move without any visible agent, would also give the idea of a
miracle, if we were not acquainted with electricity and magnetism; so also
would many other experiments in natural philosophy, to those who are not
acquainted with the subject. The restoring persons to life who are to
appearance dead as is practised upon drowned persons, would also be a
miracle, if it were not known that animation is capable of being suspended
without being extinct.
Besides these, there are performances by slight of hand,
and by persons acting in concert, that have a miraculous appearance, which,
when known, are thought nothing of. And, besides these, there are mechanical
and optical deceptions. There is now an exhibition in Paris of ghosts or
spectres, which, though it is not imposed upon the spectators as a fact, has
an astonishing appearance. As, therefore, we know not the extent to which
either nature or art can go, there is no criterion to determine what a
miracle is; and mankind, in giving credit to appearances, under the idea of
their being miracles, are subject to be continually imposed upon.
Since then appearances are so capable of deceiving, and
things not real have a strong resemblance to things that are, nothing can be
more inconsistent than to suppose that the Almighty would make use of means,
such as are called miracles, that would subject the person who performed
them to the suspicion of being an impostor, and the person who related them
to be suspected of lying, and the doctrine intended to be supported thereby
to be suspected as a fabulous invention.
Of all the modes of evidence that ever were invented to
obtain belief to any system or opinion to which the name of religion has
been given, that of miracle, however successful the imposition may have
been, is the most inconsistent. For, in the first place, whenever recourse
is had to show, for the purpose of procuring that belief (for a miracle,
under any idea of the word, is a show) it implies a lameness or weakness in
the doctrine that is preached. And, in the second place, it is degrading the
Almighty into the character of a show-man, playing tricks to amuse and make
the people stare and wonder. It is also the most equivocal sort of evidence
that can be set up; for the belief is not to depend upon the thing called a
miracle, but upon the credit of the reporter, who says that he saw it; and,
therefore, the thing, were it true, would have no better chance of being
believed than if it were a lie.
Suppose I were to say, that when I sat down to write this
book, a hand presented itself in the air, took up the pen and wrote every
word that is herein written; would any body believe me? Certainly they would
not. Would they believe me a whit the more if the thing had been a fact?
Certainly they would not. Since then a real miracle, were it to happen,
would be subject to the same fate as the falsehood, the inconsistency
becomes the greater of supposing the Almighty would make use of means that
would not answer the purpose for which they were intended, even if they were
If we are to suppose a miracle to be something so
entirely out of the course of what is called nature, that she must go out of
that course to accomplish it, and we see an account given of such a miracle
by the person who said he saw it, it raises a question in the mind very
easily decided, which is,--Is it more probable that nature should go out of
her course, or that a man should tell a lie? We have never seen, in our
time, nature go out of her course; but we have good reason to believe that
millions of lies have been told in the same time; it is, therefore, at least
millions to one, that the reporter of a miracle tells a lie.
The story of the whale swallowing Jonah, though a whale
is large enough to do it, borders greatly on the marvellous.; but it would
have approached nearer to the idea of a miracle, if Jonah had swallowed the
whale. In this, which may serve for all cases of miracles, the matter would
decide itself as before stated, namely, Is it more probable that a man
should have, swallowed a whale, or told a lie?
But suppose that Jonah had really swallowed the whale,
and gone with it in his belly to Nineveh, and to convince the people that it
was true have cast it up in their sight, of the full length and size of a
whale, would they not have believed him to have been the devil instead of a
prophet? or if the whale had carried Jonah to Nineveh, and cast him up in
the same public manner, would they not have believed the whale to have been
the devil, and Jonah one of his imps?
The most extraordinary of all the things called miracles,
related in the New Testament, is that of the devil flying away with Jesus
Christ, and carrying him to the top of a high mountain; and to the top of
the highest pinnacle of the temple, and showing him and promising to him all
the kingdoms of the world. How happened it that he did not discover America?
or is it only with kingdoms that his sooty highness has any interest.
I have too much respect for the moral character of Christ
to believe that he told this whale of a miracle himself: neither is it easy
to account for what purpose it could have been fabricated, unless it were to
impose upon the connoisseurs of miracles, as is sometimes practised upon the
connoisseurs of Queen Anne's farthings, and collectors of relics and
antiquities; or to render the belief of miracles ridiculous, by outdoing
miracle, as Don Quixote outdid chivalry; or to embarrass the belief of
miracles, by making it doubtful by what power, whether of God or of the
devil, any thing called a miracle was performed. It requires, however, a
great deal of faith in the devil to believe this miracle.
In every point of view in which those things called
miracles can be placed and considered, the reality of them is improbable,
and their existence unnecessary. They would not, as before observed, answer
any useful purpose, even if they were true; for it is more difficult to
obtain belief to a miracle, than to a principle evidently moral, without any
miracle. Moral principle speaks universally for itself. Miracle could be but
a thing of the moment, and seen but by a few; after this it requires a
transfer of faith from God to man to believe a miracle upon man's report.
Instead, therefore, of admitting the recitals of miracles as evidence of any
system of religion being true, they ought to be considered as symptoms of
its being fabulous. It is necessary to the full and upright character of
truth that it rejects the crutch; and it is consistent with the character of
fable to seek the aid that truth rejects. Thus much for Mystery and Miracle.
As Mystery and Miracle took charge of the past and the
present, Prophecy took charge of the future, and rounded the tenses of
faith. It was not sufficient to know what had been done, but what would be
done. The supposed prophet was the supposed historian of times to come; and
if he happened, in shooting with a long bow of a thousand years, to strike
within a thousand miles of a mark, the ingenuity of posterity could make it
point-blank; and if he happened to be directly wrong, it was only to
suppose, as in the case of Jonah and Nineveh, that God had repented himself
and changed his mind. What a fool do fabulous systems make of man!
It has been shewn, in a former part of this work, that
the original meaning of the words prophet and prohesying has been changed,
and that a prophet, in the sense of the word as now used, is a creature of
modem invention; and it is owing to this change in the meaning of the words,
that the flights and metaphors of the Jewish poets, and phrases and
expressions now rendered obscure by our not being acquainted with the local
circumstances to which they applied at the time they were used, have been
erected into prophecies, and made to bend to explanations at the will and
whimsical conceits of sectaries, expounders, and commentators. Every thing
unintelligible was prophetical, and every thing insignificant was typical. A
blunder would have served for a prophecy; and a dish-clout for a type.
If by a prophet we are to suppose a man to whom the
Almighty communicated some event that would take place in future, either
there were such men, or there were not. If there were, it is consistent to
believe that the event so communicated would be told in terms that could be
understood, and not related in such a loose and obscure manner as to be out
of the comprehension of those that heard it, and so equivocal as to fit
almost any circumstance that might happen afterwards. It is conceiving very
irreverently of the Almighty, to suppose he would deal in this jesting
manner with mankind; yet all the things called prophecies in the book called
the Bible come under this description.
But it is with Prophecy as it is with Miracle. It could
not answer the purpose even if it were real. Those to whom a prophecy should
be told could not tell whether the man prophesied or lied, or whether it had
been revealed to him, or whether he conceited it; and if the thing that he
prophesied, or pretended to prophesy, should happen, or some thing like it,
among the multitunic of things that are daily happening, nobody could again
know whether he foreknew it, or guessed at it, or whether it was accidental.
A prophet, therefore, is a character useless and unnecessary; and the safe
side of the case is to guard against being imposed upon, by not giving
credit to such relations.
Upon the whole, Mystery, Miracle, and Prophecy, are
appendages that belong to fabulous and not to true religion. They are the
means by which so many Lo heres! and Lo theres! have been spread about the
world, and religion been made into a trade. The success of one impostor gave
encouragement to another, and the quieting salvo of doing some good by
keeping up a pious fraud protected them from remorse.
HAVING now extended the subject to a greater length than
I first intended, I shall bring it to a close by abstracting a summvy from
First, That the idea or belief of a word of God existing
in print, or in writing, or in speech, is inconsistent in itself for the
reasons already assigned. These reasons, among many others, are the want of
an universal language; the mutability of language; the errors to which
translations are subject, the possibility of totally suppressing such a
word; the probability of altering it, or of fabricating the whole, and
imposing it upon the world.
Secondly, That the Creation we behold is the real and
ever existing word of God, in which we cannot be deceived. It proclaimeth
his power, it demonstrates his wisdom, it manifests his goodness and
Thirdly, That the moral duty of man consists in imitating
the moral goodness and beneficence of God manifested in the creation towards
all his creatures. That seeing as we daily do the goodness of God to all
men, it is an example calling upon all men to practise the same towards each
other; and, consequently, that every thing of persecution and revenge
between man and man, and every thing of cruelty to animals, is a violation
of moral duty.
I trouble not myself about the manner of future
existence. I content myself with believing, even to positive conviction,
that the power that gave me existence is able to continue it, in any form
and manner he pleases, either with or without this body; and it appears more
probable to me that I shall continue to exist hereafter than that I should
have had existence, as I now have, before that existence began.
It is certain that, in one point, all nations of the
earth and all religions agree. All believe in a God, The things in which
they disagrce are the redundancies annexed to that belief; and therefore, if
ever an universal religion should prevail, it will not be believing any
thing new, but in getting rid of redundancies, and believing as man believed
at first. [In the childhood of the world," according to the first (French)
version; and the strict translation of the final sentence is: "Deism was the
religion of Adam, supposing him not an imaginary being; but none the less
must it be left to all men to follow, as is their right, the religion and
worship they prefer.--Editor.] Adam, if ever there was such a man, was
created a Deist; but in the mean time, let every man follow, as he has a
right to do, the religion and worship he prefers