Dialogue III

The succeeding evening we renewed our subject, and after making some cursory observations on what had been said before:

May I now request your opinion on a very grave subject, said I, the subject of religion; I mean, so far, at least, as liberty may appear to be concerned in it? I know very well you think on that, as well as on other subjects of less serious import, with great freedom: but I desire nothing so much as that you will express yourself with your usual frankness and sincerity, because we can by no other means come to a true understanding of any subject.

I will, replied he, endeavor to satisfy you in the way you desire, but generally, and without entering into too many particulars on a subject so delicate.

What then, continued he, must we call that general apprehension of superior beings, or of One Supreme, which seems so naturally and so universally to possess the minds of all men? Must we not, in a general sense, call it religion, interrogated he?

To be sure, said I.

And, replied he, it appears so like an innate principle that will be found hard to imagine it to be anything less. However, it being unnecessary to our present purpose to endeavor to prove it to be so, we will, at this time, pass it by; only we may observe from it, with what prodigious facility and ease men receive religious impressions of various and even opposite kinds: with so much facility, and so necessary does religion seem to the mind of man, that it cannot rest without possessing itself of such notions of the religious kind (whether justly or rationally founded or not) as may happily prove, in some degree, satisfactory to itself.

Neither do I think it necessary here to enter into any dispute concerning what religion may be fortunate enough to be the only true one; our present business being only to discover, if we can, in what manner religion may be rendered most favorable to the just liberties of mankind.

Were I inclined to libertine wit, said I, I might answer you “Not in any manner at all.” But I only impertinently interrupt you.

Not at all, replied he; for I am not quite certain that there may not be some truth in the observation; at least, if we were to be governed by our past experience of all religions, when not properly controlled by the civil power.

There is in religions (or perhaps more properly, in religionists) of every denomination, something naturally intolerant and tyrannical, whenever there is any degree of sincerity and zeal in the worshiper. And perhaps it may be an incontestable truth that, the more erroneous and false his notions be, the stronger will these dispositions be in him. And there is nothing in all this but what is very natural, and even in some cases almost meritorious, when we consider the intention, and not the consequences. For there is such a natural charm and beauty in truth that even false images of it, when believed to be the true, warmly engage the affections: and even in very uninteresting and insignificant things, where the mind finds itself thoroughly, though perhaps falsely, convinced (and men act freely and devoid of that caution which polite or crafty men possess) it cannot resist its propensity to zeal; which is generally accompanied with an obstinate and positive humor which carries the same marks of tyranny and intolerance.

Now religious truths, or what are believed to be religious truths, being of a much more important nature than any other; the zeal, the intolerance and the tyranny in their behalf must naturally be stronger, and consequently much more troublesome and dangerous to the just liberty of mankind.

It proves indeed unfortunate for mankind that what are generally thought the most important truths of religion are either hidden in impenetrable mysteries or are absolutely beyond the reach of human understanding and nature; so that it is impossible for men to be convinced of their truth by any sound philosophical reasoning. And doubtless on this account it is, among others, that faith hath ever been esteemed so very meritorious in all religions; for it saves a world of pains to the worthy tribe of zealous proselyte-makers.

And here you perceive, continued he, that the sublimer truths of religion are of a kind very different from all other truths. For in other truths the reasoning and evidences are founded in nature, and lie level to the senses, understanding, and capacity of man; so that it is generally not very difficult to prove or disprove any interesting truth or falsehood. And if it should happen that some good men (which has very frequently been the case) should be troubled with chimerical and unphilosophical whimsies, which they may zealously endeavor to propagate for truths, there cannot well arise much harm from it; because as no opinions are deemed sacred but religious ones, such whimsies will either fall into the neglect and contempt they may ill-fatedly deserve, or every one will be at liberty to ridicule or refute them.

But the mysterious truths of religion are not to be treated in this ordinary and familiar manner. Their defenders have, by faith, which is always so much superior to argument, so strong a sense of their sublimity; and they attach such very important and interesting consequences to a right or wrong conception and belief of them; that, when in earnest, they cannot choose but feel themselves extraordinarily zealous and strenuous in their propagation and defense.

It were undoubtedly vain, and perhaps foolish, to think of treating men thus enlightened in the ordinary way of argumentation. The just and necessary cautions which prudent men are apt to use on other subjects are branded with opprobrious names, and perhaps themselves too; and wit and ridicule, those cruel enemies to grave imposture, are held in utter detestation and abhorrence. And perhaps indeed we ought to treat with some degree of respect and tenderness so great and serious, and so universal an infirmity of human nature, even when the falsity and absurdity of their notions are indisputable.

Now if this account of religion and its effects, when seriously and zealously embraced, be true (and I trust past experience, and the very nature of the thing when impartially considered, will abundantly evince the truth of it) can we reasonably conclude that religion, in the general sense of the word, is naturally favorable to the just liberties of mankind?

I should think not, answered I.

Is it not strongly inimical, interrogated he again?

Why, it seems so, replied I. And you may be right with regard to religion in general, but I hope you make a difference in religions in that respect, for they certainly are not all equally so.

The thing, answered he, is too evident to be disputed; there are doubtless great differences in their nature and tendencies. But if some be much more moderate than others, we must not forget to attribute a great deal of that moderation to the degree of their subordination to the civil authority. And here I cannot but observe that, without that subordination, experience has taught us that there would be no trusting to the moderation of any set of religionists, how mild soever the religion might profess.

But, said I, the fault would not then be in the religion, but in its professors.

It might be so, he replied, but that, in a political view, makes no difference. Politically, our business is with men and their actions; and if – professing a religion the most pure and innocent – they either so misconceive or misapply its precepts and doctrines as to become turbulent and refractory intruders on the just liberties of mankind, it must surely be as reasonable and necessary to keep them in due subordination as any other disturbers of the public peace, and invaders of the public liberty.

Do you then, demanded I, allow nothing to the divine authority by which they act, at least in the true religion?

A well-governed state, answered he, will allow of no authority among men within its own jurisdictions superior to itself. Indeed, a government founded on the just principles we have described in our preceding discourses will act by a divine authority to which nothing can be superior on earth. But men may be allowed the liberty of pretending to what they please so long as they refrain from encroaching on the natural freedom of mankind. But when they will not do that, where is the fault in making them understand that they must?

Why truly, said I, I cannot very readily tell you: but yet methinks your doctrine makes somewhat too free with so serious a subject.

”What, when the object is liberty?” interrogated he.

To be sure, answered I; for have not you (in our first conversation) taught me that liberty should be restrained within certain bounds?

True, true, replied he: and within those bounds I am content to be restrained. But I cannot allow our religionists more liberty than I do myself, not withstanding their divine pretensions.

But this restraint cannot naturally extend to the thoughts: and speech may be exercised very freely without any dangerous consequences to liberty: and I should think it could never be deemed injurious to the just pretensions of any set of religionists, if they were kind enough to allow the same freedom of thought and of speech to others which they are generally disposed to exercise so liberally themselves. Freedom of thought, in respect of the rights of humanity, is perfectly innocent: and freedom of speech, when employed in the search for truth, is not only beneficial, but it is absolutely necessary, and equally the right of all men. What advantage the free exercise of this right hath been of, towards the discovery of many truths in polite literature, is pretty well known; nor has it indeed thrown a little light on religious subjects, although under much restraint, even in the freest countries.

But would you then, said I, take off all restraint in matters of religion? I ask this question because that freedom of speech for which you contend, if exercised on religious subjects, would evidently have such a tendency.

Undoubtedly, answered he; for I know of no just restraint which can be laid on that freedom but that which ought to restrain men (as we have agreed) in all other cases: I mean respect for the just rights of human nature. And besides, men have not a clearer right in nature than that of paying their devotions to their God in their own manner.

Such freedom, continued he, might be productive of still greater diversity in the modes of worship than we are now practiced. But how very favorable that diversity has ever been to liberty, by blunting the edge of that cruel zeal which admits of but one true mode, is known from dear-bought experience: and the causes not being very difficult to understand, it is surprising how men could ever be so wrought on as to think otherwise.

Do we not see the infinite diversity of men’s thoughts and opinion on subjects which are generally thought by no means difficult to understand? And whence does this arise, but from causes which can never be entirely removed? The different degrees of the understandings of men, of the strength or weakness of their affections and passions, of their application to the proper means of information and correction, their jarring interests, and a thousand other various and opposite circumstances, as in other things, so in religion, create differences in the ideas of human minds as utterly irreconcilable to each other as the most contrary things in nature.

This being the case, what can be expected from the endeavors of those who blindly strive to reduce men to an uniformity of opinions and modes in religion? Can there be any thing more tyrannical than the latter, or more impossible in nature than the former?

He paused.

I looked assent.

Commend me, rather than to such a vile tyranny, continued he, to the generous and liberal Pagans, under whose free constitutions every man might choose a religion for himself, and among whom the gods of all countries were admitted, and even courted to come: for such a free tolerance is certainly more favorable to our just liberties than any forced uniformity of worship, even of the most true religion, can be. Besides, I do not conceive that were uniformity established, and that in a mode which may be thought the most pure imaginable, that mental idolatry, which is the most faulty part of idolatry, would be at all cured by such uniformity. It never can be cured, for those very causes of the diversity of men’s ideas which have been enumerated above.

It has been thought no mean stretch of the human understanding to form tolerably just ideas of the sublime perfections of the Deity: and it falls not to the lot of many men to be nearly consistent on a subject so dazzling, so immense! Perfect clearness is, doubtless, much beyond the utmost capacity of the most enlarged human mind. If the wisest and ablest then be incapable of attaining notions truly worthy of the Supreme Being, what must we say of that rude and incongruous mixture which possesses and agitates the minds of the mass of mankind, clouded as they are with all the various and numerous obstructions to a just apprehension?

Indeed I know now, said I; unless that their ideas must be very unworthy of the Supreme Being. But what do you conclude from that?

I conclude, answered he, that be the modes of worship what they may, the ideas of the Deity, in the minds of vulgar worshipers in general, are, and ever will be, false, erroneous, and idolatrous; and that the case can never be otherwise as long as men form their ideas of the attributes and perfections of the Deity from unjust and ill-founded fears, and senseless hopes, and from all the variable and fluctuating passions and affections with which they feel themselves agitated.

That is, in short, said I, as long as men shall be men.

True, it is so, replied he; and for that very reason. I also conclude that it is tyranny to attempt to force men to practice any particular modes of worship, though perfectly right and true; and that they ought to be left free to exercise themselves in the religious way so as may be most suitable to their own capacities and will; provided only that they offend not against the just laws of human nature.

Supposing, said I, all you have said to be true; yet you seem to me to carry your love of religious liberty much farther than would be found advantageous to civil liberty.

If so, replied he, I must be wrong.

For I have always understood, continued I, that religion, under the direction of a wise government, might be employed very usefully, as well to strengthen the bonds of civil society as to confirm the morals of men. And certainly its influence would be much more strong and equal where uniformity prevailed than where there was an unbounded diversity; or it would be strong or weak in proportion to the uniformity, or diversity, of the modes of worship.

I think, replied he, I have nowhere said any thing contrary to your first observation; if I have, I here retract it.

But as to your last, experience has demonstrated your mistake. Not but what you advance might be true if an uniformity could be obtained freely, and founded on a thorough conviction of the minds of men. But as that can never be, for the causes which have already been assigned above, I think your observation cannot be supported.

A conviction of the mind is absolutely necessary in all cases in which we would engage the heart. Were men, on such a conviction, without force, to run into an useful uniformity; perhaps it would be a very desirable thing. Yet I cannot but doubt of it, because God (certainly for wise ends) seems to have constituted the nature of man in opposition to it.

However they are much more likely to be so disposed, after having had time to canvas and examine things in their own way freely, than by any effort of power whatsoever. And I must again repeat that it is a cruel tyranny to attempt to force men in matters of religion as long as their conduct remain inoffensive to the rights of humanity.

But we do not find, by experience, that diversity in religion hath any natural tendency to weaken the force of states; even although that diversity be extravagant and monstrous, as it is represented to have been among the Pagans. We do not find any material divisions among the Greeks or Romans on religious accounts; nor that state affairs were carried on less successfully on account of the great number of their gods and goddesses. Nor do we find in our own country that toleration, so far as it extends, has at all weakened our strength as a nation. Nay we are sure of the contrary.

I know of but one reason therefore for refusing toleration to any religion, and that is, when we are certain its principles and professors are intolerant themselves. Such was, formerly, the temper of the Jews, and such still is the temper of some religionists, even in these enlightened days.

I will only add, in favor of religious liberty, that an extensive diversity has some great and undeniable advantages over a forced uniformity, or a very limited toleration.

In a great diversity, men find very little difficulty of unloading their minds of their burdens of superstition in their own way; and this facility must naturally prove a great cooler of religious zeal, which is always more heated by difficulty and opposition. And where a man finds a thousand different modes of worship already formed and established, and a thousand different arguments in favor of each mode, his eagerness to embrace any one must be very much retarded, and a proper moderation and coolness will, most probably, be the result of his delay: an effect the most favorable imaginable to religious liberty, and a preparation indispensably necessary to the clear comprehension of abstruse and difficult truths.

Here he paused, seeming to expect a reply.

I do not find myself, said I, much disposed to controvert the general tendency of your reasoning; yet I cannot allow myself so much freedom of thought on this subject as to believe it would be beneficial to mankind to allow so extensive a liberty in religious matters as you contend for. You seem desirous of regulating the operation and modes of religion (as well as those of civil Laws) by the principles or laws of human nature; which appears to me an inversion of the natural order of things: for certainly religion must be prior in dignity, and given unto mankind to regulate and supply the defects of the laws of nature, and not to be controlled and regulated by those laws.

I shall not dispute the priority in dignity with you, replied he; it has been too long assumed by priestly modesty. But if I mistake not, a very essential part of the duties of religion consists in a due obedience to the laws of nature: for they are, indubitably, revelations which God hath made of his will in the soul of man. Do we not then so far as we obey the laws of our nature, obey the will of the Deity who hath made those laws? And are they not marks of a truly religious and well-disposed mind to be inclined ourselves to obey, and to endeavor by all reasonable means to promote obedience in others? Obedience to those laws, or those revelations, call them what you will, continued he, is the true and natural felicity of human creatures: the true and only just end of all civil institutions is to enforce the obedience of mankind to those laws, as indispensably necessary to the general happiness of the species.

And religion, when justly employed, assumes no airs of superiority over the laws of our nature: she finds herself never so well or so usefully employed as when all her influence is exerted in inculcating the true principles of nature, and in confirming and establishing men in obedience to them. This I take to be a sound practical employment of religion, and that part of it which comes within the comprehension of every man; and therefore more immediately relative to the liberty of mankind.

Here he paused again.

As far as your doctrine extends, replied I, I believe it may be true; for true religion is not inimical to the laws of nature, as you have described them. But, I observe, you decline speaking of the sublimer part of religion, the contemplative, as not so immediately relative to the subject; some reason for that, if you please, and I have done.

Because, answered he, the contemplative part, considered as merely contemplative, every man may freely enjoy without any inconvenience to others: nor can it justly come under the regulation of any human institutions.

But suppose, interrogated I, there should be too much sociability in the nature of men to allow them to enjoy their contemplations in silence, and they will communicate for the good of society?

Why then, answered he, they must expect to meet with that free sort of examination which every man may use who has as good a right to communicate as they have.

I could not but agree.

And thus ended our dialogue on this subject.