Night closed in beautifully. The atmosphere presented a vault of transparent azure, spangled with golden stars. Such a spectacle always affects man, and inspires him with pleasant reveries. The worthy Parouba admired the heavens, like a German when he beholds St. Peter's at Rome, or the Opera at Naples, for the first time.
"What a boldly arched vault," said he to Freind.
"It is no arch at all," replied Freind. "The blue dome you behold is nothing more than a collection of vapors, which God has so disposed and combined with the mechanism of your eyes, that, wherever you may be, you are still in the centre of your promenade, and perceive what is called heaven, arched above your head."
"And those stars, Mr. Freind?"
"As I have already said, they are so many suns, round which other worlds revolve. Far from being attached to that blue vault, remember that they are at various and prodigious distances from us. That star is twelve hundred millions of miles from our sun."
Then, showing him the telescope he had brought, he pointed out to him the planets;—Jupiter, with his four moons; Saturn, with his five moons and mysterious ring.
"It is the same light," said he, "which proceeds from all these luminaries, and comes to us from this planet, in a quarter of an hour, and from that star, in six months."
Parouba was deeply impressed, and said: "The heavens proclaim a God." All the crew looked on with admiration. But the pertinacious Birton, unmoved, continued as follows:
BIRTON.—Be it so! There is a God, I grant it. But what is that to you and me? What connection is there between the superior Being and worms of the earth? What relation is there between his essence and ours? Epicurus, when he supposed a God in the planets, did well to conclude that he took no part in our horrors and follies; that we could neither please nor offend him; that he had no need of us; nor we of him. You admit a God, more worthy of the human mind than the God of Epicurus, or the gods of the east and west: but if you assert, with so many others, that God made the world and man for his own glory; that he formerly required sacrifices of oxen for his glory; that he appeared for his glory in our biped form, you would, I think, be asserting an absurdity. The love of glory is nothing but pride. A proud man is a conceited fellow, such as Shakespeare would introduce in his plays. This epithet cannot suit God—it does not agree with the divine nature—any more than injustice, cruelty or inconstancy. If God condescended to regulate the universe, it could only be to make others happy. Has he done so?
FREIND.—He has doubtless succeeded with all just spirits. They will be happy one day; if they are not so now.
BIRTON.—Happy! How? When? Who told you so?
BIRTON.—Will you tell me that we shall live eternally—that we have immortal souls, after admitting that the Jews, whom you boast of having succeeded, did not entertain this notion of immortality up to the time of Herod? This idea of an immortal soul was invented by the Brahmins, adopted by the Persians, Chaldeans, and Greeks, and was for a long time unknown to the insignificant and superstitious Jewish tribes. Alas! sir, how do we know that we have souls? or how do we know but other animals, who have similar passions, wills, appetites, and memories, so incomprehensible to us, have not souls as well?
Hitherto I have thought that there is in nature a power by which we have the faculty of life in all our body,—walking with our feet,—taking with our hands,—seeing with our eyes, feeling with our nerves, thinking with our brain,—and that all this is called the soul, which is merely a vague word, signifying the unknown principle of our faculties. With you, I will call God the intelligent principle animating nature; but has he condescended to reveal himself to us?
FREIND. Yes, by his works.
BIRTON.—Has he revealed his laws, or spoken to us?
FREIND.—Yes, by the voice of conscience. Is it true, that, if you killed your Father and mother, your conscience would be a prey to a remorse as terrible as it would be involuntary? Is not this truth avowed and felt throughout the world? To come down to lesser crimes,—do they not all revolt us at the first glance,—make us turn pale when we commit them for the first time,—and leave in our hearts the stings of repentance?
BIRTON.—I must confess it.
FREIND.—God, in thus speaking to your heart, has commanded you to abstain from crime. As for equivocal actions, which some condemn and others approve, what can we do better than follow the grand rule of Zoroaster,—"When you are not sure whether the action you are about to commit is good or bad, abstain from it."
BIRTON.—An admirable maxim, and doubtless the most beautiful ever advanced in morals. I admit that, from time to time, God has raised up men to teach virtue to their degraded fellows. I apologize to you for speaking lightly of virtue.
FREIND.—Rather apologize to the Supreme Being, who can reward and punish eternally.
BIRTON.—What! will God punish me for yielding to passions he has given me?
FREIND.—He has given you passions, with which you can do both good and evil. I do not tell you he will punish eternally; nor how he will punish; for no one can know that. The Brahmins were the first to conceive a place of imprisonment for those who had revolted from God; they were shut up in a description of hell, called Onderah, but were gradually liberated at various periods. Hence we have our mixture of virtues, vices, pleasures, and calamities. This conceit is ingenious;—and that of Pandora and Prometheus more so. Less polished nations have vulgurly imitated the same fable. These inventions are the fancies of Eastern philosophy. All I can say is, that if by abusing your liberty you have done evil, you cannot say God will not punish you.
BIRTON.—I have tried to convince myself that he could not; but in vain. I confess I have abused my liberty, and that God may well punish me. But I cannot be punished when I have ceased to exist.
FREIND.—The best course is to do well, while you exist.
BIRTON.—To do well! Well, I confess I think you are right. It is the best course.
I wish, my dear friend, you had witnessed the effect of Freind's discourse on both the English and Americans. The light saucy Birton became thoughtful and modest. John fell at his father's feet, with tears in his eyes, and his father embraced him. I shall now proceed to relate the last scene of this interesting disputation.
BIRTON.—I conceive that the great master of the universe is eternal; but we, who are but of yesterday, may we presume to expect immortality? All beings around us perish, from the insect devoured by the swallow, to the elephant, eaten by worms.
FREIND.—Nothing perishes; but all things change. The genus of animals and vegetables subsist, develop, and multiply. Why can you not allow that God might preserve the principle which makes us act and think, of whatever nature it may be? God preserve me from making a system; but certainly there is in us something that wills and thinks. This something, formerly called a monad, is imperceptible. God has given it us, or, rather, God has given us to it. Are you sure he cannot preserve it in being? Can you give me any proof?
BIRTON.—No! I have sought for a proof in all the atheistical books within my reach; and especially in the third Book of Lucrece; but I never found any thing but conjectures.
FREIND.—And shall we on simple conjecture give ourselves up to fatal passions, and live like brutes, with no other restraint upon us than the fear of men, rendered eternally cruel to each other by their mutual dread? For we always wish to destroy what we fear. Think, sir! think seriously, my son John. To expect neither reward nor punishment is the true spirit of atheism. What is the use of a God who has no power over you? As though one should say, "There is a very powerful king in China," I reply, "Success to him, let him keep in his territory,—I, in mine. I care no more for him than he cares for me. He has no more control over me than a canon of Windsor over a member of parliament." Then should I be a God to myself,—Sacrificing the whole world to my caprice? And, recognizing no law, I should only consider myself? If others are sheep, I should become the wolf. If they choose to play the chicken, I should play the fox.
I will presume, (God forbid it), that all Englishmen are atheists. I will allow that there may be some peaceable citizens, quiet by nature, rich enough to be honest, regulated by honor, and so attentive to demeanor, that they contrive to live together in society. They cultivate the arts which improve morals; they live at peace in the innocent gaiety of honest people. But the poor and needy atheist, sure of impunity, would be a fool if he did not assassinate or steal to get money. Then would all the bonds of society be sundered. All secret crimes would inundate the world, and, like locusts, though at first imperceptible, would overspread the earth. The common people would become hordes of thieves, like those of our day, of whom not a tenth part are hung at our sessions. They would pass their wretched lives in taverns, with bad women. They would fight together, and fall down drunk amidst the pewter pots with which they break each other's heads. Nor would they rise but to steal and murder again,—-to recommence the same round of hideous brutality. Who, then, would restrain great kings in their fury? An atheist king is more dangerous than a fanatical Ravaillac.
Atheism abounded in Italy during the fifteenth century. What was the consequence? It was as common a matter to poison another, as to invite him to supper. The stroke of the stiletto was as frequent as an embrace. There were then professors of crime; as we now have professors of music and mathematics. Churches, even, were the favorite scenes of murder, and princes were slain at the altar. In this way, Pope Sextus IV. and archbishop of Pisa put to death two of the most accomplished princes of Europe. Explain, my dear friend, to Parouba and his children, what I mean by a pope and an archbishop; but tell them we have no such monsters now. But to resume: A Duke of Milan was also slain in a church. Every one knows the astonishing horrors of Alexander VI. Had such morals continued, Italy would have been more desolate than Peru after the invasion.
Faith, then, in a God who rewards good actions, punishes the bad, and forgives lesser faults, is most useful to mankind. It is the only restraint on powerful men, who insolently commit crimes on the public, and on others who skillfully perpetrate offences. I do not tell you to mingle, with this necessary faith, superstitious notions that disgrace it. Atheism is a monster that would prey on mankind only to satisfy its voracity. Superstition is another phantom, preying upon men as a deity. I have often observed that an atheist may be cured; but we rarely cure superstition radically. The atheist is generally an inquiring man, who is deceived; the superstitious man is a brutal fool, having no ideas of his own. An atheist might assault Ephigenia when on the point of marrying Achilles; but a fanatic would piously sacrifice her on the altar, and think he did service to Jupiter. An atheist would steal a golden vessel from the altar to feast his favorites, but the fanatic would celebrate an auto-da-fe in the same church, and sing hymns while he was causing Jews to be burned alive. Yes, my friends, superstition and atheism are the two poles of a universe in confusion. Tread these paths with a firm step; believe in a good God, and be good. This is all that the great philosophers, Penn and Locke, require of their people.
Answer me, Mr. Birton,—and you, my friends,—what harm can the worship of God, joined to the happiness of a virtuous life, do you? We might be seized with mortal sickness, even now while I am speaking; who, then, would not wish to have lived innocently? Read, in Shakespeare, the death of our wicked Richard III., and see how the ghosts of those he had murdered haunted his imagination. Witness the death of Charles IX. after the horrors of St. Bartholomew. In vain his chaplain assured him he had done well. His blood started from every pore; all the blood he had shed cried out against him! Believe me, all these monsters were tortured by remorse, and died in despair.
Birton and his friends could contain themselves no longer. They fell at Freind's feet, "Yes," said Birton, "I believe in God, and I believe you."