A Plea For Atheism
by Charles Bradlaugh
Gillespie says that "an Atheist propagandist seems a nondescript
monster created by Nature in a moment of madness." Despite this
opinion, it is as the propagandist of Atheism that I pen the
following lines, in the hope that I may succeed in removing some
few of the many prejudices which have been created against not only
the actual holders of Atheistic opinions, but also against those
wrongfully suspected of entertaining such ideas. Men who have been
famous for depth of thought, for excellent wit, or great genius have
been recklessly assailed as Atheists by those who lacked the high
qualifications against which the spleen of the calumniators was
directed. Thus, not only has Voltaire been without ground accused
of Atheism, but Bacon, Locke, and Bishop Berkeley himself, have,
among others, been denounced by thoughtless or unscrupulous pietists
as inclining to Atheism, the ground for the accusation being that
they manifested an inclination to improve human thought.
It is too often the fashion with persons of pious reputation to speak
in unmeasured language of Atheism as favoring immorality, and of
Atheists as men whose conduct is necessarily vicious, and who have
adopted atheistic views as a desperate defiance against a Deity
justly offended by the badness of their lives. Such persons urge
that among the proximate causes of Atheism are vicious training,
immoral and profligate companions, licentious living, and the like.
Dr. John Pye Smith, in his "Instructions on Christian Theology,"
goes so far as to declare that "nearly all the Atheists upon record
have been men of extremely debauched and vile conduct." Such language
from the Christian advocate is not surprising, but there are others who,
professing great desire for the spread of Freethought, and with
pretensions to rank among acute and liberal thinkers, declare Atheism
impracticable, and its teachings cold, barren, and negative. In this
brief essay I shall except to each of the above allegations, and shall
endeavor to demonstrate that Atheism affords greater possibility for
human happiness than any system yet based on Theism, or possible to be
founded thereon, and that the lives of true Atheists must be more
virtuous, because more human, than those of the believers in Deity,
the humanity of the devout believer often finding itself neutralized
by a faith with which it is necessarily in constant collision. The
devotee piling the faggots at the "auto da fe" of a heretic, and that
heretic his son, might, notwithstanding, be a good father in every
respect but this. Heresy, in the eyes of the believer, is highest
criminality, and outweighs all claims of family or affection.
Atheism, properly understood, is in nowise a cold, barren negative;
it is, on the contrary, a hearty, fruitful affirmation of all truth,
and involves the positive assertion and action of highest humanity.
Let Atheism be fairly examined, and neither condemned--its defense
unheard--on the "ex parte" slanders of the professional preachers of
fashionable orthodoxy, whose courage is bold enough while the pulpit
protects the sermon, but whose valor becomes tempered with discretion
when a free platform is afforded and discussion claimed; nor misjudged
because it has been the custom to regard Atheism as so unpopular as to
render its advocacy impolitic. The best policy against all prejudice
is to assert firmly the verity. The Atheist does not say "There is no
God," but he says, "I know not what you mean by God: I am without idea
of God; the word 'God' is to me a sound conveying no clear or distinct
affirmation. I do not deny God, because I can not deny that of which
I have no conception, and the conception of which by its affirmer is so
imperfect that he is unable to define it to me."
If you speak to the Atheist of God as a creator, he answers that the
conception of creation is impossible. We are utterly unable to construe
it in thought as possible that the complement of existence has been either
increased or diminished, much less can we conceive an absolute origination
of substance. We can not conceive either, on the one hand, nothing becoming
something, or on the other, something becoming nothing. The Theist who
speaks of God creating the universe, must either suppose that Deity evolved
it out of himself, or that he produced it from nothing. But the Theist can
not regard the universe as evolution of Deity, because this would identify
Universe and Deity, and be Pantheism rather than Theism. There would be
no distinction of substance--in fact, no creation. Nor can the Theist
regard the universe as created out of nothing, because Deity is, according
to him, necessarily eternal and infinite. His existence being eternal and
infinite, precludes the possibility of the conception of vacuum to be
filled by the universe if created. No one can even think of any point of
existence in extent or duration and say here is the point of separation
between the creator and the created. Indeed, it is not possible for the
Theist to imagine a beginning to the universe. It is not possible to
conceive either an absolute commencement, or an absolute termination of
existence; that is, it is impossible to conceive a beginning before which
you have a period when the universe has yet to be: or to conceive an end,
after which the universe, having been, no longer exists. It is impossible
in thought to originate or annihilate the universe. The Atheist affirms
that he cognizes to-day effects, that these are at the same time causes
and effects--causes to the effects they precede, effects to the causes
they follow. Cause is simply everything without which the effect would
not result, and with which it must result. Cause is the means to an end,
consummating itself in that end. The Theist who argues for creation must
assert a point of time, that is, of duration, when the created did not yet
exist. At this point of time either something existed or nothing; but
something must have existed, for out of nothing nothing can come. Something
must have existed, because the point fixed upon is that of the duration of
something. This something must have been either finite or infinite; if
finite, it could not have been God; and if the something were infinite, then
creation was impossible, as it is impossible to add to infinite existence.
If you leave the question of creation and deal with the government of
the universe, the difficulties of Theism are by no means lessened. The
existence of evil is then a terrible stumbling-block to the Theist. Pain,
misery, crime, poverty, confront the advocate of eternal goodness, and
challenge with unanswerable potency his declaration of Deity as all-good,
all-wise, and all-powerful. Evil is either caused by God, or exists
independently; but it can not be caused by God, as in that case he would
not be all-good; nor can it exist independently, as in that case he would
not be all-powerful. Evil must either have had a beginning, or it must be
eternal; but, according to the Theist, it can not be eternal, because God
alone is eternal. Nor can it have had a beginning, for if it had it must
either have originated in God, or outside of God; but, according to the
Theist, it can not have originated in God, for he is all-good, and out of
all-goodness evil can not originate; nor can evil have originated outside
of God, for, according to the Theist, God is infinite, and it is impossible
to go outside of or beyond infinity.
To the Atheist this question of evil assumes an entirely different aspect.
He declares that evil is a result, but not a result from God or Devil.
He affirms that by conduct founded on knowledge of the laws of existence
it is possible to ameliorate and avoid present evil, and, as our knowledge
increases, to prevent its future recurrence.
Some declare that the belief in God is necessary as a check to crime.
They allege that the Atheist may commit murder, lie, or steal, without
fear of any consequences. To try the actual value of this argument, it is
not unfair to ask, Do Theists ever steal? If yes, then in each such theft,
the belief in God and his power to punish has been inefficient as a
preventive of the crime. Do Theists ever lie or murder? If yes, the
same remark has further force--hell-fire failing against the lesser as
against the greater crime. The fact is that those who use such an argument
overlook a great truth--i.e., that all men seek happiness, though in very
diverse fashions. Ignorant and miseducated men often mistake the true path
to happiness, and commit crime in the endeavor to obtain it. Atheists hold
that by teaching mankind the real road to human happiness, it is possible
to keep them from the by-ways of criminality and error. Atheists would
teach men to be moral now, not because God offers as an inducement reward
by and by, but because in the virtuous act itself immediate good is insured
to the doer and the circle surrounding him. Atheism would preserve man
from lying, stealing, murdering now, not from fear of an eternal agony
after death, but because these crimes make this life itself a course of
While Theism, asserting God as the creator and governor of the universe,
hinders and checks man's efforts by declaring God's will to be the sole
directing and controlling power, Atheism, by declaring all events to be in
accordance with natural laws--that is, happening in certain ascertainable
sequences--stimulates man to discover the best conditions of life, and
offers him the most powerful inducements to morality. While the Theist
provides future happiness for a scoundrel repentant on his death bed,
Atheism affirms present and certain happiness for the man who does his
best to live here so well as to have little cause for repenting hereafter.
Theism declares that God dispenses health and inflicts disease, and
sickness and illness are regarded by the Theist as visitations from an
angered Deity, to be borne with meekness and content. Atheism declares
that physiological knowledge may preserve us from disease by preventing
our infringing the law of health, and that sickness results not as the
ordinance of offended Deity, but from ill-ventilated dwellings and
workshops, bad and insufficient food, excessive toil, mental suffering,
exposure to inclement weather, and the like--all these finding root in
poverty, the chief source of crime and disease; that prayers and piety
afford no protection against fever, and that if the human being be kept
without food he will starve as quickly whether he be Theist or Atheist,
theology being no substitute for bread.
When the Theist ventures to affirm that his God is an existence other
than and separate from the so-called material universe, and when he
invests this separate, hypothetical existence with the several attributes
of omniscience, omnipresence, omnipotence, eternity, infinity, immutability,
and perfect goodness, then the Atheist, in reply says, "I deny the existence
of such a being."
It becomes very important, in order that injustice may not be done to the
Theistic argument, that we should have--in lieu of a clear definition,
which it seems useless to ask for--the best possible clue to the meaning
intended to be conveyed by the word God. If it were not that the word is
an arbitrary term, invented for the ignorant, and the notions suggested by
which are vague and entirely contingent upon individual fancies, such a
clue could be probably most easily and satisfactorily obtained by tracing
back the word "God," and ascertaining the sense in which it was used by
the uneducated worshipers who have gone before us; collating this with the
more modern Theism, qualified as it is by the superior knowledge of to-day.
Dupuis says: "The word God appears intended to express the force universal,
and eternally active, which endows all nature with motion according to the
laws of a constant and admirable harmony; which develops itself in the
diverse forms of organized matter, which mingles with all, gives life to
all; which seems to be one through all its infinitely varied modifications,
and inheres in itself alone."
In the "Bon Sens" of Cure Meslier, it is asked, "Qu'estce que Dieu?" and the
answer is: "It is an abstract word coined to designate the hidden force of
Nature, or rather it is a mathematical point having neither length, breadth,
The orthodox fringe of the Theism of to-day is Hebraistic in its origin--
that is, it finds its root in the superstition and ignorance of a petty
and barbarous people nearly destitute of literature, poor in language,
and almost entirely wanting in high conceptions of humanity. It might,
as Judaism is the foundation of Christianity, be fairly expected that the
ancient Jewish Records would aid us in our search after the meaning to be
attached to the word "God." The most prominent words in Hebrew rendered
God or Lord in English are "YHVH" Jeue, and "ALHYM" Aleim. The first
word, Jeue, called by our orthodox Jehovah, is equivalent to "that which
exists," and indeed embodies in itself the only possible trinity in unity--
i.e., past, present, and future. There is nothing in this Hebrew word to
help you to any such definition as is required for the sustenance of
modern Theism. The most you can make of it by any stretch of imagination
is equivalent to the declaration "I am, I have been, I shall be." The word
"YHVH" is hardly ever spoken by religious Jews, who actually in reading
substitute for it, Adonai, an entirely different word. Dr. Wall notices
the close resemblance in sound between the word Yehowa or Yeue, or Jehovah,
and Jove. In fact "Zeus pater," Jupiter and Jeue, pater, (God the father)
present still closer resemblance in sound. Jove is also "Zeus" or "Theos"
or "Deus," whence the word Deus and our Deity. The Greek mythology, far
more ancient than that of the Hebrews, has probably found for Christianity
many other and more important features of coincidence than that of a
similarly sounding name. The word "Theos" traced back affords us no help
beyond that it identifies Deity with the universe. Plato says that the
early Greeks thought that the only Gods ("THEOUS") were the sun, moon,
earth, stars and heaven. The word "ALHYM" Aleim, assists us still less
in defining the word God, for Parkhurst translates it as a plural noun
signifying "the curser," deriving it from the verb "ALH" (Ale), "to curse."
Finding that philology aids us but little, we must endeavor to arrive at
the meaning of the word "God" by another rule. It is utterly impossible
to fix the period of the rise of Theism among any particular people, but it
is, notwithstanding, comparatively easy, if not to trace out the development
of Theistic ideas, at any rate to point to their probable course of growth
among all peoples.
Keightley, in his "Origin of Mythology," says: "Supposing, for the sake of
hypothesis, a race of men in a state of total or partial ignorance of Deity,
their belief in many gods may have thus commenced. They saw around them
various changes brought about by human agency, and hence they knew the power
of intelligence to produce effects. When they beheld other and greater
effects, they ascribed them to some unseen being, similar but superior to
man." They associated particular events with special unknown beings (gods),
to each of whom they ascribed either a peculiarity of power, or a sphere of
action not common to other gods. Thus one was god of the sea, another god
of war, another god of love, another ruled the thunder and lightning; and
thus through the various elements of the universe and passions of humankind,
so far as they were then known.
This mythology became modified with the advancement of human knowledge.
The ability to think has proved itself oppugnant to and destructive of the
desire to worship. Science has razed altar after altar heretofore erected
to the unknown gods, and pulled down deity after deity from the pedestals
on which ignorance and superstition had erected them. The priest who had
formerly spoken as the oracle of God lost his sway, just in proportion as
the scientific teacher succeeded in impressing mankind with a knowledge of
the facts around them. The ignorant who had hitherto listened unquestioning
during centuries of abject submission to their spiritual preceptors, at
last commenced to search and examine for themselves, and were guided by
experience rather than by church doctrine. To-day it is that advancing
intellect which challenges the reserve guard of the old armies of
superstition, and compels a conflict which humankind, must in the end have
great gain by the forced enunciation of the truth.
From the word "God" the Theist derives no argument in his favor; it teaches
nothing, defines nothing, demonstrates nothing, explains nothing. The
Theist answers that this is no sufficient objection, that there are many
words which are in common use to which the same objection applies. Even
admitting that this were true, it does not answer the Atheist's objection.
Alleging a difficulty on the one side is not a removal of the obstacle
already pointed out on the other.
The Theist declares his God to be not only immutable, but also infinitely
intelligent, and says: "Matter is either essentially intelligent, or
essentially non-intelligent; if matter were essentially intelligent, no
matter could be without intelligence; but matter can not be essentially
intelligent, because some matter is not intelligent, therefore matter is
essentially non-intelligent: but there is intelligence, therefore there
must be a cause for the intelligence, independent of matter; this must
be an intelligent being--i.e., God." The Atheist answers, I do not know
what is meant, in the mouth of the Theist, by "matter." "Matter,"
"substance," "existence," are three words having the same signification
in the Atheist's vocabulary. It is not certain that the Theist expresses
any very clear idea when he uses the words "matter" and "intelligence."
Reason and understanding are sometimes treated as separate faculties, yet
it is not unfair to presume that the Theist would include them both under
the word intelligence. Perception is the foundation of the intellect.
The perceptive faculty, or perceptive faculties, differs or differ in each
animal, yet in speaking of matter that Theist uses the word "intelligence"
as though the same meaning were to be understood in every case. The
recollection of the perceptions is the exercise of a different faculty
from the perceptive faculty, and occasionally varies disproportionately;
thus an individual may have great perceptive faculties, and very little
memory, or the reverse, yet memory, as well as perception, is included in
intelligence. So also the faculty of comparing between two or more
perceptions; the faculty of judging and the faculty of reflecting--all
these are subject to the same remarks, and all these and other faculties
are included in the word intelligence.
We answer, then, that "God" (whatever that word may mean) can not be
intelligent. He can never perceive; the act of perception results in the
obtaining a new idea, but if God be omniscient his ideas have been
eternally the same. He has either been always and always will be
perceiving, or he has never perceived at all. But God can not have been
always perceiving, because if he had he would always have been obtaining
fresh knowledge, in which case he must have some time had less knowledge
than now; that is he would have been less perfect; that is, he would not
have been God: he can never recollect or forget, he can never compare,
reflect nor judge. There can not be perfect intelligence without
understanding; but following Coleridge, "understanding is the faculty of
judging according to sense." The faculty of whom? Of some person,
judging according to that person's senses? But has "God" senses? Is
there anything beyond "God" for "God" to sensate? There can not be
perfect intelligence without reason. By reason we mean that faculty or
aggregation of faculties which avails itself of past experience to
predetermine, more or less accurately, experience in the future, and to
affirm truths which sense perceives, experiment verifies, and experience
confirms. To God there can be neither past nor future, therefore to him
reason is impossible. There can not be perfect intelligence without will,
but has God will? If God wills, the will of the all-powerful must be
irresistible; the will of the infinite must exclude all other wills.
God can never perceive. Perception and sensation are identical. Every
sensation is accompanied by pleasure or pain. But God, if immutable, can
neither be pleased nor pained. Every fresh sensation involves a change
in mental and perhaps in physical condition. God, if immutable, can not
change. Sensation is the source of all ideas, but it is only objects
external to the mind which can be sensated. If God be infinite there
can be no objects external to him, and therefore sensation must be to
him impossible. Yet without perception where is intelligence?
God can not have memory or reason--memory is of the past, reason for
the future, but to God immutable there can be no past, no future. The
words past, present, and future, imply change; they assert progression
of duration. If God be immutable, to him change is impossible. Can you
have intelligence destitute of perception, memory, and reason? God can
not have the faculty of judgment--judgment implies in the act of judging
a conjoining or disjoining of two or more thoughts, but this involves
change of mental condition. To God, the immutable, change is impossible.
Can you have intelligence, yet no perception, no memory, no reason, no
judgment? God can not think. The law of the thinkable is that the thing
thought must be separated from the thing which is not thought. To think
otherwise would be to think of nothing--to have an impression with no
distinguishing mark, would be to have no impression. Yet this separation
implies change, and to God, immutable, change is impossible. Can you have
intelligence without thought? If the Theist replies to this that he does
not mean by infinite intelligence as an attribute of Deity an infinity of
the intelligence found in a finite degree of humankind, then he is bound
to explain, clearly and distinctly, what other "intelligence" he means,
and until this be done the foregoing statements require answer.
The Atheist does not regard "substance" as either essentially intelligent
or the reverse. Intelligence is the result of certain conditions of
existence. Burnished steel is bright--that is, brightness is the necessity
of a certain condition of existence. Alter the condition, and the
characteristic of the condition no longer exists. The only essential of
substance is its existence. Alter the wording of the Theist's objection.
Matter is either essentially bright, or essentially non-bright. If matter
were essentially bright, brightness should be the essence of all matter;
but matter can not be essentially bright, because some matter is not bright,
therefore matter is essentially non-bright; but there is brightness,
therefore there must be a cause for this brightness independent of matter;
that is, there must be an essentially bright being--i.e., God.
Another Theistic proposition is thus stated: "Every effect must have a
cause; the first cause universal must be eternal: ergo, the first cause
universal must be God." This is equivalent to saying that "God" is "first
cause." But what is to be understood by cause? Defined in the absolute,
the word has no real value. "Cause," therefore, can not be eternal.
What can be understood by "first cause?" To us the two words convey no
meaning greater than would be conveyed by the phrase "round triangle."
Cause and effect are correlative terms--each cause is the effect of some
precedent; each effect the cause of its consequent. It is impossible to
conceive existence terminated by a primal or initial cause. The
"beginning," as it is phrased, of the universe, is not thought out by
the Theist, but conceded without thought. To adopt the language of
Montaigne, "men make themselves believe that they believe." The so-called
belief in Creation is nothing more than the prostration of the intellect
on the threshold of the unknown.
We can only cognize the ever-succeeding phenomena of existence as a line
in continuous and eternal evolution. This line has to us no beginning;
we trace it back into the misty regions of the past but a little way;
and however far we may be able to journey, there is still the great beyond.
Then what is meant by "universal cause?" Spinoza gives the following
definition of cause, as used in its absolute signification: "By cause of
itself I understand that, the essence of which involves existence, or that,
the nature of which can only be considered as existent." That is, Spinoza
treats "cause" absolute and "existence" as two words having the same
meaning. If his mode of defining the word be contested, then it has no
meaning other than its relative signification of a means to an end.
"Every effect must have a cause." Every effect implies the plurality of
effects, and necessarily that each effect must be finite; but how is it
possible from a finite effect to logically deduce a universal, i.e.,
There are two modes of argument presented by Theists, and by which,
separately or combined, they seek to demonstrate the being of a God.
These are familiarly known as the arguments "a priori" and "a posteriori.
"The "a posteriori" argument has been popularized in England by Paley,
who has ably endeavored to hide the weakness of his demonstration under
an abundance of irrelevant illustration. The reasoning of Paley is very
deficient in the essential points where it most needed strength. It is
utterly impossible to prove by it the eternity or infinity of Deity.
As an argument founded on analogy, the design argument, at the best,
could only entitle its propounder to infer the existence of a finite
cause, or, rather, of a multitude of finite causes. It ought not to be
forgotten that the illustrations of the eye, the watch, and the man, even
if admitted as instances of design, or, rather, of adaptation, are
instances of eyes, watches, and men, designed or adapted out of pre-
existing substance, by a being of the same kind of substance, and afford,
therefore, no demonstration in favor of a designer, alleged to have
actually created substance out of nothing, and also alleged to have
created a substance entirely different from himself.
The a posteriori argument can never demonstrate infinity for Deity.
Arguing from an effect finite in extent, the most it could afford would
be a cause sufficient for that effect, such cause being possibly finite
in extent and duration. And as the argument does not demonstrate God's
infinity, neither can it, for the same reason, make out his omniscience,
as it is clearly impossible to logically claim infinite wisdom for a God
possibly only finite. God's omnipotence remains unproved for the same
reason, and because it is clearly absurd to argue that God exercises
power where he may not be. Nor can the a posteriori argument show God's
absolute freedom, for, as it does nothing more than seek to prove a finite
God, it is quite consistent with the argument that God's existence is
limited and controlled in a thousand ways. Nor does this argument show
that God always existed; at the best the proof is only that some cause,
enough for the effect, existed before it, but there is no evidence that
this cause differs from any other causes, which are often as transient
as the effect itself. And as it does not demonstrate that God has always
existed, neither does it demonstrate that he will always exist, or even
that he now exists. It is perfectly in accordance with the argument,
and with the analogy of cause and effect, that the effect may remain
after the cause has ceased to exist. Nor does the argument from design
demonstrate one God. It is quite consistent with this argument that a
separate cause existed for each effect, or mark of design, discovered,
or that several causes contributed to some or one of such effects.
So that if the argument be true, it might result in a multitude of petty
deities, limited in knowledge, extent, duration, and power; and, still
worse, each one of this multitude of gods may have had a cause which
would also be finite in extent and duration, and would require another,
and so on, until the design argument loses the reasoner among an
innumerable crowd of deities, none of whom can have the attributes
claimed for God.
The design argument is defective as an argument from analogy, because
it seeks to prove a Creator God who designed, but does not explain
whether this God has been eternally designing, which would be absurd;
or, if he at some time commenced to design, what then induced him so to
commence. It is illogical, for it seeks to prove an immutable Deity by
demonstrating a mutation on the part of Deity.
It is unnecessary to deal specially with each of the many writers who
have used from different standpoints the a posteriori form of argument
in order to prove the existence of Deity. The objections already stated
apply to the whole class; and, although probably each illustration used
by the theistic advocate is capable of an elucidation entirely at
variance with his argument, the main features of objection are the same.
The argument a posteriori is a method of proof in which the premises are
composed of some position of existing facts, and the conclusion asserts
a position antecedent to those facts. The argument is from given effects
to their causes. It is one form of this argument which asserts that man
has a moral nature, and from this seeks to deduce the existence of a
moral governor. This form has the disadvantage that its premises are
illusory. In alleging a moral nature for man, the Theist overlooks the
fact that the moral nature of man differs somewhat in each individual,
differs considerably in each nation, and differs entirely in some
peoples. It is dependent on organization and education: these are
influenced by climate, food, and mode of life. If the argument from
man's nature could demonstrate anything, it would prove a murdering
God for the murderer, a lascivious God for the licentious man, a
dishonest God for the thief, and so through the various phases of human
The a priori arguments are methods of proof in which the matter of the
premises exists in the order of conception antecedently to that of the
conclusion. The argument is from cause to effect. Among the prominent
Theistic advocates relying upon the a priori argument in England are
Dr. Samuel Clarke, the Rev. Moses Lowman, and William Gillespie. As
this last gentleman condemns his predecessors for having utterly failed
to demonstrate God's existence, and as his own treatise on the
"Necessary Existence of God" comes to us certified by the praise of
Lord Brougham and the approval of Sir William Hamilton, it is to
Mr. William Gillespie that the reader shall be directed.
The propositions are first stated entirely, so that Mr. Gillespie
may not complain of misrepresentation:
1. Infinity of extension is necessarily existing.
2. Infinity of extension is necessarily indivisible.
Corollary.--Infinity of extension is necessarily immovable.
3. There is necessarily a being of infinity of extension.
4. The being of infinity of extension is necessarily of unity and
simplicity. Sub-proposition.--The material universe is finite
5. There is necessarily but one being of infinity of expansion.
Part 2, Proposition 1.--Infinity of duration is necessarily existing.
2. Infinity of duration is necessarily indivisible.
Corollary.--Infinity of duration is necessarily immovable.
3. There is necessarily a being of infinity of duration.
4. The being of infinity of duration is necessarily of unity
and simplicity. Sub-proposition.--The material universe is
finite in duration. Corollary.--Every succession of substances
is finite in duration.
5. There is necessarily but one being of infinity of duration.
Part 3, Proposition 1.--There is necessarily a being of infinity of
expansion and infinity of duration.
2. The being of infinity of expansion and infinity of duration is
necessarily of unity and simplicity.
Division 2, Part 1.--The simple sole being of infinity of expansion
and of duration is necessarily intelligent and all-knowing.
Part 2.--The simple sole being of infinity of expansion and of
duration, who is all-knowing, is necessarily all-powerful.
Part 3.--The simple sole being of infinity of expansion and of
duration, who is all-knowing and all-powerful, is necessarily
Division 3.--The simple sole being of infinity of expansion and of
duration, who is all-knowing, all-powerful, and entirely free,
is necessarily completely happy.
Sub-proposition.--The simple sole being of infinity of expansion
and of duration, who is all-knowing, all-powerful, entirely free,
and completely happy, is necessarily perfectly good.
The first objection against the foregoing arguments is that it seeks to
prove too much. It affirms one existence (God) infinite in extent and
duration, and another entirely different and distinct existence (the
material universe) finite in extent and duration. It therefore seeks to
substantiate everything and something more. The first proposition is
curiously worded, and the argument to demonstrate it is undoubtedly open
to more than one objection.
Mr. Gillespie has not defined infinity, and it is possible therefore his
argument may be misapprehended in this paper. Infinite signifies nothing
more than indefinite. When a person speaks of infinite extension he can
only mean to refer to the extension of something to which he has been
unable to set limits. The mind can not conceive extension per se, either
absolute or finite. It can only conceive something extended. It might
be impossible mentally to define the extension of some substance. In such
a case its extension would be indefinite; or, as Mr. Gillespie uses the
word, infinite. No one can therefore possibly have any idea of infinity
of extension. Yet it is upon the existence of such an idea, and on the
impossibility of getting rid of it, that Mr. Gillespie grounds his first
proposition. If the idea does not exist, the argument is destroyed at the
Mr. Gillespie argues that it is utterly beyond power of the human mind to
conceive infinity of extension non-existent. He would have been more
correct in asserting that it is utterly beyond the power of the human mind
to conceive infinity of extension at all, either existent or non-existent.
Extension can only be conceived as quality of substance. It is possible
to conceive substance extended. It is impossible in thought to limit the
possible extension of substance. Mr. Gillespie having asserted that we
can not but believe that infinity of extension exists, proceeds to declare
that it exists necessarily. For, he says, everything the existence of
which we can not but believe, exists necessarily. It is not necessary
at present to examine what Mr. Gillespie means by existing necessarily;
it is sufficient to have shown that we do not believe in the existence of
infinity of extension, although we may and do believe in the existence of
substance, to the extension of which we may be unable to set limits.
But, says Mr. Gillespie, "everything the existence of which we can not
but believe is necessarily existing." Then as we can not but believe
in the existence of the universe (or, to adopt Mr. Gillespie's phrase,
the material universe), the material universe exists necessarily. If
by "anything necessarily existing," he means anything the essence of which
involves existence, or the nature of which can only be considered as
existent, then Mr. Gillespie, by demonstrating the necessary existence
of the universe, refutes his own later argument, that God is its creator.
Mr. Gillespie's argument, as before remarked, is open to misconception,
because he has left us without any definition of some of the most
important words he uses. To avoid the same objection, it is necessary
to state that by substance or existence I mean that which is in itself
and is conceived per se--that is, the conception of which does not
involve the conception of anything else as antecedent to it. By quality,
that by which I cognize any mode of existence. By mode, each cognized
condition of existence. Regarding extension as quality of mode of
substance, and not as substance itself, it appears absurd to argue that
the quality exists otherwise than as quality of mode.
The whole of the propositions following the first are so built upon it,
that if it fails they are baseless. The second proposition is, that
infinity of extension is necessarily indivisible. In dealing with this
proposition, Mr. Gillespie talks of the parts of infinity of extension,
and winds up by saying that he means parts in the sense of partial
consideration only. Now not only is it denied that you can have any
idea of infinity of extension, but it is also denied that infinity can
be the subject of partial consideration. Mr. Gillespie's whole proof
of this proposition is intended to affirm that the parts of infinity of
extension are necessarily indivisible from each other.
I have already denied the possibility of conceiving infinity in parts;
and, indeed, if it were possible to conceive infinity in parts, then
that infinity could not be indivisible, for Mr. Gillespie says that,
by indivisible, he means indivisible, either really or mentally.
Now each part of anything conceived is, in the act of conceiving,
mentally separated from, either other parts of, or from the remainder
of, the whole of which it is part. It is clearly impossible to have
a partial consideration of infinity, because the part considered must
be mentally distinguished from the unconsidered remainder, and, in that
case, you have, in thought, the part considered finite, and the residue
certainly limited, at least, by the extent of the part under consideration.
If any of the foregoing objections are well-founded, they are fatal to
Mr. Gillespie's argument.
The argument in favor of the corollary to the second proposition is that
the parts of infinity of extension are necessarily immovable among
themselves; but if there be no such thing as infinity of extension--that
is, if extension be only a quality and not necessarily infinite; if
infinite mean only indefiniteness or illimitability, and if infinity can
not have parts--this argument goes for very little. The acceptance of the
argument that the parts of infinity of extension are immovable is rendered
difficult when the reader considers Mr. Gillespie's subproposition (4)
that the parts of the material universe are movable and divisible from
each other. He urges that a part of the infinity of extension or of its
substratum must penetrate the material universe and every atom of it.
But if infinity can have no parts, no part of it can penetrate the material
universe. If infinity have parts (which is absurd), and if some part
penetrate every atom of the material universe, and if the part so
penetrating be immovable, how can the material universe be considered as
movable, and yet as penetrated in every atom by immovability? If
penetrated be a proper phrase, then, at the moment when the part of
infinity was penetrating the material universe, the part of infinity so
penetrating must have been in motion. Mr. Gillespie's logic is faulty.
Use his own language, and there is either no penetration, or there is no
In his argument for the fourth proposition, Mr. Gillespie--having by his
previous proposition demonstrated (?) what he calls a substratum for the
before demonstrated (?) infinity of extension--says, "it is intuitively
evident that the substratum of infinity of extension can be no more
divisible than infinity of extension." Is this so? Might not a complex
and divisible substratum be conceived by us as possible to underlie a
(to us) simple and indivisible indefinite extension, if the conception
of the latter were possible to us? There can not be any intuition.
It is mere assumption, as, indeed, is the assumption of extension at all,
other than as the extension of substance.
In his argument for proposition 5, Gillespie says that "any one who
asserts that he can suppose two or more necessarily existing beings,
each of infinity of expansion, is no more to be argued with than one
who denies, Whatever is, is. Why is it more difficult to suppose this
than to suppose one being of infinity, and, in addition to this infinity,
a material universe? Is it impossible to suppose a necessary being of
heat, one of light, and one of electricity, all occupying the same
indefinite expansion? If it be replied that you can not conceive two
distinct and different beings occupying the same point at the same
moment, then it must be equally impossible to conceive the material
universe and God existing together.
The second division of Mr. Gillespie's argument is also open to grave
objection. Having demonstrated to his own satisfaction an infinite
substance, and also having assumed in addition a finite substance, and
having called the first an infinite "being"--perhaps from a devout
objection to speak of God as substance--Mr. Gillespie seeks to prove
that the infinite being is intelligent. He says: "Intelligence either
began to be, or it never began to be. That it never began to be is
evident in this, that if it began to be, it must have had a cause; for
whatever begins to be must have a cause. And the cause of intelligence
must be of intelligence; for what is not of intelligence can not make
intelligence begin to be. Now intelligence being before intelligence
began to be is a contradiction. And this absurdity following from the
supposition that intelligence began to be, it is proved that intelligence
never began to be: to wit, is of infinity of duration." Mr. Gillespie
does not condescend to tell us why "what is not of intelligence can not
make intelligence begin to be;" but it is not unfair to suppose that he
means that of things which have nothing in common one can not be the
cause of the other. Let us apply Mr. Gillespie's argument to the
material universe, the existence of which is to him so certain that
he has treated it as a self-evident proposition.
The material universe--that is, matter--either began to be, or it never
began to be. That it never began to be is evident in this, that if it
began to be, it must have had a cause; for whatever begins to be must
have a cause. And the cause of matter must be of matter; for what is
not of matter can not make matter begin to be. Now matter being before
matter began to be is a contradiction. And this absurdity following from
the supposition that matter-i.e., the material universe--began to be, it
is proved that the material universe never began to be--to wit, is of
The argument as to the eternity of matter is at least as logical as the
argument for the eternity of intelligence. Mr. Gillespie may reply that
he affirms the material universe to be finite in duration, and that by
the argument for his proposition, part 2, he proves that the one infinite
being (God) is the creator of matter. His words are: "As the material
universe is finite in duration, or began to be, it must have had a cause;
for whatever begins to be must have a cause. And this cause must be [Mr.
Gillespie does not explain why], in one respect or other, the simple sole
being of infinity of expansion and duration, who is all-knowing [the all-
knowing or intelligence rests on the argument which has just been shown
to be equally applicable to matter], inasmuch as what being, or cause
independent of that being, could there be? And, therefore, that being
made matter begin to be." Taking Mr. Gillespie's own argument, that which
made matter begin to be must be of matter, for what is not matter can not
make matter begin to be, then Mr. Gillespie's infinite being (God) must be
matter. But there is yet another exception to the proposition, which is
that the infinite being (God) is all-powerful. Having, as above, argued
that the being made matter, he proceeds, "and this being shown, it must
be granted that the being is, necessarily, all-powerful." Nothing of the
kind need be granted. If it were true that it was demonstrated that the
infinite being (God) made matter, it would not prove him able to make
anything else; it might show the being cause enough for that effect, but
does not demonstrate him cause for all effects. So that if no better
argument can be found to prove God all-powerful, his omnipotence remains
Mr. Gillespie's last proposition is that the being (God) whose existence
he has so satisfactorily (?) made out is necessarily completely happy.
In dealing with this proposition, Mr. Gillespie talks of unhappiness as
existing in various kinds and degrees. But, to adopt his own style of
argument, unhappiness either began to be is evident in this, that
whatever began to be must have had a cause, for whatever begins to be
must have a cause. And the cause of unhappiness must be of unhappiness,
for what is not of unhappiness can not make unhappiness begin to be.
But unhappiness being before unhappiness began to be is a contradiction;
therefore unhappiness is of infinity of duration. But proposition 5,
part 2, says there is but one being of infinity of duration. The one
being of infinity of duration is therefore necessarily unhappy. Mr.
Gillespie's arguments recoil on himself, and are destructive of his own
In his argument for the sub-proposition, Mr. Gillespie says that God's
motive, or one of his motives, to create, must be believed to have been
a desire to make happiness, besides his own consummate happiness, begin
to be. That is, God, who is consummate happiness everywhere forever,
"desired" something. That is, he wanted more than then existed. That
is, his happiness was not complete. That is, Mr. Gillespie refutes
himself. But what did infinite and eternal complete happiness desire?
It desired (says Mr. Gillespie) to make more happiness--that is, to make
more than an infinity of complete happiness. Mr. Gillespie's proof, on
the whole, is at most that there exists necessarily substance, the
extension and duration which we can not limit. Part of his argument
involves of the use of the very "a posteriori" reasoning just considered,
regarded by himself as utterly worthless for the demonstration of the
existence of a being with such attributes as orthodox Theism tries to assert.
If Sir William Hamilton meant no flattery in writing that Mr. Gillespie's
works was one of the "very ablest" on the Theistic side, how wretched
indeed must, in his opinion, have been the logic of the less able
advocates for Theism. Every Theist must admit that if a God exists,
he could have so convinced all men of the fact of his existence that
doubt, disagreement, or disbelief would be impossible. If he could not
do this, he would not be omnipotent, or he would not be omniscient--that
is, he would not be God. Every Theist must also agree that if a God
exists, he would wish all men to have such a clear consciousness of his
existence and attributes that doubt, disagreement, or belief on this
subject would be impossible. And this, if for no other reason, because
that out of doubts and disagreements on religion have too often resulted
centuries of persecution, strife, and misery, which a good God would
desire to prevent. If God would not desire this, then he is not
all-good--that is he is not God. But as many men have doubts, a large
majority of mankind have disagreements, and some men have disbeliefs as
to God's existence and attributes, it follows either that God does not
exist, or that he is not all-wise, or that he is not all-powerful, or
that he is not all-good.
Every child is born into the world an Atheist; and if he grows into a
Theist, his Deity differs with the country in which the believer may
happen to be born, or the people among whom he may happen to be educated.
The belief is the result of education or organization. Religious belief
is powerful in proportion to the want of scientific knowledge on the part
of the believer. The more ignorant, the more credulous. In the mind of
the Theist "God" is equivalent to the sphere of the unknown; by the use of
the word he answers without thought problems which might otherwise obtain
scientific solution. The more ignorant the Theist, the greater his God.
Belief in God is not a faith founded on reason but a prostration of the
reasoning faculties on the threshold of the unknown. Theism is worse
than illogical; its teachings are not only without utility; but of itself
it has nothing to teach. Separated from Christianity with its almost
innumerable sects, from Mahometanism with its numerous division, and
separated also from every other preached system, Theism is a Will-o'-
the-wisp, without reality. Apart from orthodoxy, Theism is a boneless
skeleton; the various mythologies give it alike flesh and bone, otherwise
coherence it hath none. What does Christian Theism teach? That the
first man made perfect by the all-powerful, all-wise, all-good God, was
nevertheless imperfect, and by his imperfection brought misery into the
world, when the all-good God must have intended misery should never come.
That his God made men to share this misery--men whose fault was their
being what he made them. That his God begets a son, who is nevertheless
his unbegotten self, and that by belief in the birth of God's eternal son,
and in the death of the undying who died to satisfy God's vengeance, man
may escape the consequences of the first man's error. Christian Theism
declares that belief alone can save man, and yet recognizes the fact
that man's belief results from teaching, by establishing missionary
societies to spread the faith. Christian Theism teaches that God,
though no respecter of persons, selected as his favorites one nation in
preference to all others: that man can do no good of himself or without
God's aid, but yet that each man has a free will; that God is all-powerful,
but that few go to heaven and the majority to hell; that all are to love
God, who has predestined from eternity that by far the largest number of
human beings are to be burning in hell for ever. Yet the advocates for
Theism venture to upbraid those who argue against such a faith.
Either Theism is true or false. If true, discussion must help to spread
its influence; if false, the sooner it ceases to influence human conduct
the better for human kind. It will be useless for the clergy to urge
that such a pamphlet deserves no reply. It is true the writer is
unimportant, and the language in which his thoughts find expression
lacks the polish of a Macaulay, and the fervor of a Burke; but they are
nevertheless his thoughts, uttered because it is not only his right,
but his duty, to give them utterance. And this Plea for Atheism is put
forth challenging the Theists to battle for their cause, and in the hope
that the strugglers being sincere, truth may give laurels to the victor
and the vanquished; laurels to the victor in that he has upheld the truth;
laurels still welcome to the vanquished, whose defeat crowns him with a
truth he knew not of before.
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