Freethought Archives > G.W. Foote > Arrows of Freethought (1882)


(January, 1879.)

Professor Blackie is a man with whom we cannot be angry, however greatly his utterances are calculated to arouse that feeling. He is so impulsive, frank, and essentially good-natured, that even his most provoking words call forth rather a smile of compassion than a frown of resentment. Those who know his character and position will yield him the widest allowance. His fiery nature prompts him to energetic speech on all occasions. But when his temper has been fretted, as it frequently is, by the boisterous whims of his Greek students in that most boisterous of universities, it is not surprising if his expressions become splenetic even to rashness. The ingenuous Professor is quite impartial in his denunciations. He strikes out right and left against various objects of his dislike. Everything he dissents from receives one and the same kind of treatment, so that no opinion he assails has any special reason to complain; and every blow he deals is accompanied with such a jolly smile, sometimes verging into a hearty laugh, that no opponent can well refuse to shake hands with him when all is over.

This temper, however, is somewhat inconsistent with the scientific purpose indicated in the title of Professor Blackie's book. A zoologist who had such a particular and unconquerable aversion to one species of animals that the bare mention of its name made his gorge rise, would naturally give us a very inadequate and unsatisfactory account of it. So, in this case, instead of getting a true natural history of Atheism, which would be of immense service to every thinker, we get only an emphatic statement of the authors' hatred of it under different aspects. Atheism is styled "a hollow absurdity," "that culmination of all speculative absurdities," "a disease of the speculative faculty," "a monstrous disease of the reasoning faculty," and so on.

The chapter on "Its Specific Varieties and General Root" is significantly headed with that hackneyed declaration of the Psalmist, "The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God," as though impertinence were better from a Jew than from a Christian, or more respectable for being three thousand years old. Perhaps Professor Blackie has never heard of the sceptical critic who exonerated the Psalmist on the ground that he was speaking jocosely, and really meant that the man who said in his heart only "There is no God," without saying so openly, was the fool. But this interpretation is as profane as the other is impertinent; and in fact does a great injustice to the Atheist, who has never been accustomed to say "There is no God," an assertion which involves the arrogance of infinite knowledge, since nothing less than that is requisite to prove an universal negative: but simply "I know not of such an existence," which is a modest statement intellectually and morally, and quite unlike the presumption of certain theologians who, as Mr. Arnold says, speak familiarly of God as though he were a man living in the next street.

For his own sake Professor Blackie should a little curb his proneness to the use of uncomplimentary epithets. He does himself injustice when he condescends to describe David Hume's theory of causation as "wretched cavil." Carlyle is more just to this great representative of an antagonistic school of thought. He exempts him from the sweeping condemnation of his contemporaries in Scottish prose literature, and admits that he was "too rich a man to borrow" from France or elsewhere. And surely Hume was no less honest than rich in thought. Jest and captiousness were entirely foreign to his mind. Wincing under his inexorable logic, the ontologist may try to console himself with the thought that the great sceptic was playing with arguments like a mere dialectician of wondrous skill; but in reality Hume was quite in earnest, and always meant what he said. We may also observe that it is Professor Blackie and not Darwin who suffers from the asking of such questions as these:—"What monkey ever wrote an epic poem, or composed a tragedy or a comedy, or even a sonnet? What monkey professed his belief in any thirty-nine articles, or well-compacted Calvinistic confession, or gave in his adhesion to any Church, established or disestablished?" If Mr. Darwin heard these questions he might answer with a good humored smile, "My dear sir, you quite mistake my theories, and your questions travesty them. I would further observe that while the composition of poems would unquestionably be creditable to monkeys, I, who have some regard for them as relatives, however distant, am heartily glad they have never done any of the other things you mention, which I deem a negative proof that their reason, though limited, is fortunately sane."

Professor Blackie's opening chapter on "Presumptions" fully justifies its title. The general consent of mankind in favor of Theism is assumed to have established its validity, and to have put Atheists altogether out of court; and a long list of illustrious Theists, from Solomon to Hegel, is contrasted with a meagre catalogue of Atheists, comprising only the names of David Hume, Jeremy Bentham, and John Stuart Mill.[*] Confucius and Buddha are classed apart, as lying "outside of our Western European Culture altogether," but with a promise that "in so far as they seem to have taught a morality without religion, or a religion without God, we shall say a word or two about them by-and-by." So far as Buddha is concerned this promise is kept; but in relation to Confucius it is broken. Probably the Chinese sage was found too tough and embarrassing a subject, and so it was thought expedient to ignore him for the more tractable prophet of India, whose doctrine of Transmigration might with a little sophistry be made to resemble the Christian doctrine of Immortality, and his Nirvana the Kingdom of Heaven.

What does the general consent of mankind prove in regard to beliefs like Theism? Simply nothing. Professor Blackie himself sees that on some subjects it is worthless, particularly when special knowledge or special faculty is required. But there are questions, he contends, which public opinion rightly decides, even though opposed to the conclusions of subtle thinkers. "Perhaps," he says, "we shall hit the mark here if we say broadly that, as nature is always right, the general and normal sentiment of the majority must always be right, in so far as it is rooted in the universal and abiding instincts of humanity; and public opinion, as the opinion of the majority, will be right also in all matters which belong to the general conduct of life among all classes, and with respect to which the mind of the majority has been allowed a perfectly free, natural, and healthy exercise." Now, in the first place, we must reiterate our opinion that the general consent of mankind on a subject like Theism proves absolutely nothing. It is perfectly valid on questions of ordinary taste and feeling, but loses all logical efficacy in relation to questions which cannot be determined by a direct appeal to experience. And undeniably Theism is one of those questions, unless we admit with the transcendentalist what is contrary to evident fact, that men have an intuitive perception of God. In the next place, the minor premise of this argument is assumed. There is no general consent of mankind in favor of Theism, but only a very extensive consent. Mr. Gladstone, not long since, in the Nineteenth Century, went so far as to claim the general consent of mankind in favor of Christianity, by simply excluding all heathen nations from a right to be heard. Professor Blackie does not go to this length, but his logical process is no different. Lastly, our author's concluding proviso vitiates his whole case; for if there be one question on which "the mind of the majority" has not been allowed a "perfectly free, natural, and healthy exercise," it is that of the existence of God. We are all prepossessed hi its favor by early training, custom, and authority. Our minds have never been permitted to play freely upon it. A century ago Atheists stood in danger of death; only recently have penal and invidious statutes against them been cancelled or mitigated; and even now bigotry against honest disbelief in Theism is so strong that a man often incurs greater odium in publicly avowing it than in constantly violating all the decalogue save the commandment against murder. Murderers and thieves, though punished here, are either forgotten or compassionated after death; but not even the grave effectually shields the Atheist from the malignity of pious zeal. Fortunately, however, a wise and humane tolerance is growing in the world, and extending towards the most flagrant heresies. Perhaps we shall ultimately admit with sage old Felltham, that "we fill the world with cruel brawls in the obstinate defence of that whereof we might with more honor confess ourselves to be ignorant," and that "it is no shame for man not to know that which is not in his possibility."

The causes of Atheism are, according to Professor Blackie, very numerous. He finds seven or eight distinct ones. The lowest class of Atheists are "Atheists of imbecility," persons of stunted intellect, incapable of comprehending the idea of God. These, however, he will not waste his time with, nor will we. He then passes to the second class of reprobates, whose Atheism springs not from defect of intellect, but from moral disorder, and who delight to conceive the universe as resembling their own chaos. These we shall dismiss, with a passing remark that if moral disorder naturally induces Atheism, some very eminent Christians have been marvellous hypocrites. Lack of reverence is the next cause of Atheism, and is indeed its "natural soil." But as Professor Blackie thinks this may be "congenital, like a lack of taste for music, or an incapacity of understanding a mathematical problem," we are obliged to consider this third class of Atheists as hopeless as the first. Having admitted that their malady may be congenital, our author inflicts upon these unfortunates a great deal of superfluous abuse, apparently forgetting that they are less to blame than their omnipotent maker. The fourth cause of Atheism is pride or self-will. But this seems very erratic in its operations, since the only two instances cited—namely, Napoleon the Great and Napoleon the Little, were certainly Theists. Next comes democracy, between which and irreverence there is a natural connexion, and from which, "as from a hotbed, Atheism in its rankest stage naturally shoots up." Professor Blackie, as may be surmised, tilts madly against this horrible foe. But it will not thus be subdued. Democracy is here and daily extending itself, overwhelming slowly but surely all impediments to its supremacy. If Theism is incompatible with it, then the days of Theism are numbered. Professor Blackie's peculiar Natural History of atheism is more likely to please the opposite ranks than his own, who may naturally cry out, with a sense of being sold, "call you that backing of your friends?"

Pride of intellect is the next cause of Atheism. Don Juan sells himself to perdition for a liberal share of pleasure, but Faust hankers only after forbidden knowledge. This is of various kinds; but "of all kinds, that which has long had the most evil reputation of begetting Atheism is Physical Science." Again does the fervid Professor set lance in rest, and dash against this new foe to Theism, much as Don Quixote charged the famous windmill. But science, like the windmill, is too big and strong to suffer from such assaults. The "father of this sort of nonsense," in modern times was David Hume, who, we are elegantly informed, was "a very clever fellow, a very agreeable, gentlemanly fellow too." His "nonsense about causation" is to be traced to a want of reverence in his character. Indeed, it seems that all persons who adhere to a philosophy alien to Professor Blackie's have something radically wrong with them. Let this Edinburgh Professor rail as he may, David Hume's theory of causation will suffer no harm, and his contrast of human architecture, which is mechanism, with natural architecture, which is growth, will still form an insuperable obstacle to that "natural theology" which, as Garth Wilkinson says with grim humor, seeks to elicit, or rather "construct," "a scientific abstraction answering to the concrete figure of the Vulcan of the Greeks—that is to say a universal Smith"!

Eventually Professor Blackie gets so sick of philosophers, that he turns from them to poets, who may more safely be trusted "in matters of healthy human sentiment." But here fresh difficulties arise. Although "a poet is naturally a religious animal," we find that the greatest of Roman poets Lucretius, was an Atheist, while even "some of our most brilliant notorieties in the modern world of song are not the most notable for piety." But our versatile Professor easily accounts for this by assuming that there "may be an idolatry of the imaginative, as well as of the knowing faculty." Never did natural historian so jauntily provide for every fact contravening his theories. Professor Blackie will never understand Atheism, or write profitably upon it, while he pursues this course. Let him restrain his discursive propensities, and deal scientifically with this one fact, which explodes his whole theory of Atheism. The supreme glory of our modern poetry is Shelley, and if ever a man combined splendor of imagination with keen intelligence and saintly character it was he. Raphael incarnate he seems, yet he stands outside all the creeds, and to his prophetic vision, in the sunlight of the world's great age begun anew, the—

Faiths and empires gleam
Like wrecks of a dissolving dream.

In his treatment of Buddhism Professor Blackie is candid and impartial, until he comes to consider its Atheistic character. Then his reason seems almost entirely to forsake him. After saying that "what Buddha preached was a gospel of pure human ethics, divorced not only from Brahma and the Brahminic Trinity, but even from the existence of God;" and describing Buddha himself as "a rare, exceptional, and altogether transcendental incarnation of moral perfection;" he first tries to show that Nirvana is the same as the Christian eternal life, and transmigration of souls a faithful counterpart of the Christian doctrine of future reward and punishment. Feeling, perhaps, how miserably he has failed in this attempt, he turns with exasperation on Buddhism, and affirms that it "can in no wise be looked upon as anything but an abnormal manifestation of the religious life of man." We believe that Professor Blackie himself must have already perceived the futility and absurdity of this.

The last chapter of Professor Blackie's book is entitled "The Atheism of Reaction." In it he strikes characteristically at the five points of Calvinism, at Original Guilt, Eternal Punishment, Creation out of Nothing, and Special Providence; which he charges with largely contributing to the spread of Atheism. While welcoming these assaults on superstition, we are constrained to observe that the Christian dogmas which Professor Blackie impugns and denounces are not specific causes of Atheism. Again he is on the wrong scent. The revolt against Theism at the present time is indeed mainly moral, but the preparation for it has been an intellectual one. Modern Science has demonstrated, for all practical purposes, the inexorable reign of law. The God of miracles, answering prayer and intimately related to his children of men, is an idea exploded and henceforth impossible. The only idea of God at all possible, is that of a supreme universal intelligence, governing nature by fixed laws, and apparently quite heedless whether their operation brings us joy or pain. This idea is intellectually permissible, but it is beyond all proof, and can be entertained only as a speculation. Now, the development of knowledge which makes this the only permissible idea of God, also changes Immortality from a religious certitude to an unverifiable supposition. The rectification of the evils of this life cannot, therefore, be reasonably expected in another; so that man stands alone, fighting a terrible battle, with no aid save from his own strength and skill. To believe that Omnipotence is the passive spectator of this fearful strife, is for many minds altogether too hard. They prefer to believe that the woes and pangs of sentient life were not designed; that madness, anguish, and despair, result from the interplay of unconscious forces. They thus set Theism aside, and unable to recognise the fatherhood of God, they cling more closely to the brotherhood of Man.

[*] Professor Blackie is singularly silent as to James Mill, the father of the celebrated Utilitarian philosopher, far more robust in intellect and character than his son. He is the dominant figure of Mill's "Autobiography," and has about him a more august air than his son ever wore.

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