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Chapter 8

DIALOGUE BETWEEN FREIND AND BIRTON ON ATHEISM.


FREIND.—I will not repeat to you, sir, the metaphysical arguments of our celebrated Clarke; I only exhort you to read them again. They are rather intended to convince than affect you. I shall confine myself to arguments calculated to touch your heart.

BIRTON.—You will gratify me very much. I like to be amused and interested. I hate sophisms. Metaphysical arguments seem to me like balloons filled with air used between the disputants. The bladders burst; and nothing remains.

FREIND.—It is possible there may be some obscurity—some bladders—in the deep things of Clarke, the respectable Arian. Perhaps he was deceived on the subject of actual infinity. Perhaps, when he took upon himself to comment on God, he follows too closely a commentator of Homer, who attributes ideas to his author which he never entertained.

At the words "infinity," "Homer," "commentators," the worthy Parouba and his daughter, and even a few of the English, seemed disposed to go and take an airing on the deck. But Freind promising to be intelligible, they consented to remain. I explained in a whisper to Parouba scientific expressions, which a native of the Blue Mountains was not likely to understand so well as a doctor of Oxford or Cambridge.

FREIND.—It would be sad, indeed, if we could not be sure of the existence of God without being metaphysicians. In all England, scarcely a hundred minds would be found capable of fathoming the mysteries of the for and against; and the rest of the world would be enveloped in ignorance,—a prey to brutal passions,—swayed by instinct alone,—and only capable of reasoning on the vulgar notions of their carnal interests. To find out God, I only require you to make one effort,—to open your eyes.

BIRTON.—I see your aim. You are returning to the worn-out arguments that the sun turns on its axis in twenty-five days and a half, in spite of the absurd inquisition of Rome;—that the light comes to us reflected from Saturn in fifteen minutes, in spite of the absurd supposition of Descartes;—that every fixed star is a sun, like ours, surrounded by planets; that the countless stars, scattered through space, obey mathematical laws, discovered and proved by the great Newton;—that a catechist announces God to children, and that Newton reveals him to the sage, as a philosophical Frenchman said, who was persecuted in his own country for asserting as much. Do not trouble yourself to bring before me the ceaseless order which prevails in all parts of the universe. All that exists must have order of some sort. Rarefied matter must take a higher place than denser substances. The strongest press upon the weakest. Bodies moved with a greater impulse, progress more rapidly than those moved with less. Things arrange themselves in this way of their own accord. In vain, after drinking a pint of wine, like Esdras, would you talk to me for a hundred and sixty hours together without shutting the mouth, I should not be convinced. Do you wish me to adopt an eternal being, infinite and immutable, who saw fit, (I do not know when,) to create from nothing, things which change every moment, and spiders to disembowel flies? Would you have me suppose, with the gossip Niewentyt, that God gave us ears that we might have faith? since faith cometh by hearing. No! No! I will not believe these quacks who have sold their drugs at a good price to fools. I keep to the little book of a Frenchman, who maintains that nothing exists nor can exist but nature; that nature does all, and is all; that it is impossible and contradictory that any thing can exist beyond ALL. In a word, I only believe in nature.

FREIND.—What if I tell you there is no such thing as nature; and that in us, around us, a thousand millions of leagues from us, all is art, without any exception.

BIRTON.—What? All art! That's something new.

FREIND.—Few observe that. Nothing, however, is more true. I shall always say, make use of your eyes, and you will recognize and adore God. Think how those vast globes, which you see revolve in their immense orbits, observe deep mathematical laws. There is then a great calculator whom Plato called the eternal geometrician. You admire those newly invented machines, called orreries, because Lord Orrery invented them by imitating the maker. It is a feeble copy of our planetary system and its revolutions; also the periods of the changes of the solstice and equinox which bring us from day to day a new polar planet. This period, this slow course of about twenty-six thousand years, could not be effected in our feeble hands by human orreries. The machine is very imperfect; it must be turned by a handle; yet it is a chef-d'œuvre of the skill of our artisans. Conceive, then, the power and patience, the genius, of the eternal architect, if we may apply such terms to the supreme being.

When I described an orrery to Parouba, he said:

"If the copy indicates genius, how much more must there be in the original?"

All present, English and American, felt the force of these words, and raised their hands to heaven.

Birton remained thoughtful. Then he cried:

"What, all art? Nature the result of art? Can it be possible?"

FREIND.—Now, consider yourself; examine with what art, never sufficiently explored, all is constructed within and without for all your wishes and actions. I do not pretend now to lecture on anatomy. You know well enough there is not one superfluous vessel, nor one that does not, in the exercise of its functions, depend on neighboring vessels. So artificial is the arrangement throughout the body, that there is not a single vein without valves and sluices, making a passage for the blood. From the roots of the hair to the toes, all is art, design, cause, and effect. Indeed, we cannot suppress feelings of indignation toward those who presume to deny final causes, and have the rashness to say that the mouth was not made to eat and speak with—that the eyes are not admirably contrived for seeing, the ears for hearing, the nerves for feeling. Such audacity is madness. I cannot conceive it.

Let us admit that every animal renders testimony to the supreme fabricator.

The smallest herb perplexes human intellect. So true is this that the aggregate toil of all men could not create a straw unless the seed be sown in the earth. Let it not be said that the seed must rot in the earth to produce. Such nonsense should not be listened to now.



The company felt the force of these proofs more forcibly than the others, because they were more palpable. Birton murmured: "Must I then acknowledge God? We shall see. It is not yet proved."

John remained thoughtful, and seemed affected.



FREIND.—No, my friends. We make nothing, we can do nothing. It is in our power to arrange, unite, calculate, weigh, measure, but, to make! What a word! The essential Being, existing by Himself, alone can make. This is why quacks, who labor at the philosopher's stone, prove themselves such fools. They boast that they create gold, and they cannot even create clay. Let us then confess, my friends, that there is a necessary and incomprehensible Being who made us.

BIRTON.—If he exist, where is he? Why is he concealed? Has any one ever seen him? Should the creator of good hide himself?

FREIND.—Did you ever see Sir Christopher Wren, the architect of Saint Paul's, when you were in London? Yet it is clear that church is the work of a great architect.

BIRTON.—Every one knows that Wren erected, at a great expense, the vast edifice in which Burgess, when he preaches, sends us to sleep. We know very well why and how our fathers built it. But why and how did God make the universe from nothing? You know well the ancient maxim: "Nothing can create nothing; nothing returns to nothing." No one ever doubted that truth. Your Bible itself says that your God made heaven and earth, though the heaven, that is, the assemblage of stars, is as superior to the earth, as the earth itself is to one blade of grass. But your Bible does not tell us that God made heaven and earth from nothing. It does not pretend that the Lord made woman from nothing. She was kneaded in a very singular way, from a rib taken from her husband's side. According to the Bible, chaos existed before the world; therefore matter must be as eternal as your God.



A slight murmur then went round the company; "Birton might be right," they said.



FREIND.—I think I have proved to you that there is a supreme intelligence; an eternal power to whom we owe our passing existence. I have not engaged to tell you the how and the why. God has given me sufficient reason to know that he exists, but not enough to discover whether matter has been subject to him from eternity, or whether he created it in time. What have you to do with the creation of matter, provided you acknowledge a God the ruler of matter and of yourself? You ask me where God is? I do not know. I ought not to know. I know that he is; I know that he is my maker; that he makes all, and that we ought to depend on his goodness.

BIRTON.—His goodness! Are you jesting with me? Did you not tell me to make use of my eyes? Make use of yours. Glance at the world, and then talk of the goodness of God.



Mr. Freind saw that he had now reached the most difficult part of the dispute, and that Birton was preparing a rude assault. He saw that the hearers, especially the Americans, together with himself, required a little respite. Recommending himself therefore to God, they went on deck for exercise. When tea was served, the disputation was renewed.



Francois-Marie Arouet Voltaire

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