Freethought Archives > Matthew Turner & William Hammon > Answer to Dr. Priestley's Letters



YOUR Letters addressed to a Philosophical Unbeliever I perused, not because I was a Philosopher or an Unbeliever; it were presumption to give myself the former title, and at that time I certainly did not deserve the latter; but as I was acquainted with another, who in reality, as far as I and others who know him can judge, deserves the title of a Philosopher and is neither ashamed nor afraid of that of an Unbeliever, I conceived them apt to be sent to my friend, and when I presented them to him, he said he was the person whom he should suppose you meant to address, if you had a particular person in view; but he had too much understanding of the world, though much abstracted from the dregs of it, not to conceive it more probable that you meant your Letters to be perused by thinking men in general, Believers and Unbelievers, to confirm the former in their creed, and to convert the latter from their error. You shall speedily know the effect they have had in both ways. For myself I must inform you that I was brought up a Believer from my infancy; a Theist, if a Christian is such; for I suppose the word will be allowed, though the equivalent term of Deist is so generally reprobated by Christians; I had before my eyes the example of a most amiable parent; a moral man, a Christian undoubtedly; who, when I have been attending upon him, as much from affection as from duty upon a sick and nearly dying bed, has prayed I might be stedfast in the faith he held, in accents still sounding in my intellectual ear; a parent, whom for his virtues and love of his offspring, like a Chinese, I am tempted to worship, and I could exclaim with the first of poets,

"Erit ille mihi semper Deus."

With such habits of education then, such fervent advice and such reverence for my instructor, what can have turned me from my belief; for I confess I am turned? Immorallity it is not; that I assert has not preceded my unbelief, and I trust never will follow it; there has not indeed yet been time for it to follow; whether it is a probable consequence will presently be discussed; but it is thought, free thought upon the subject; when I began freely to think I proceeded boldly to doubt; your Letters gave me the cause for thinking, and my scepticism was exchanged for conviction; not entirely by the perusal of your Letters; for I do not think they would quite have made me an Atheist! but by attention to that answer from my friend, which I have his permission to subjoin.

In mentioning that doubts arose by reading your very Letters, which were written to eradicate all doubts, let me not accuse you of being unequal to the task assumed. I mean no such charge. You have in my opinion been fully equal to the discussion, and have bandied the argument ably, pleasingly and politely. I am certain from the extracts you have made from Dr. Clarke, the first of other Divines, I should have been converted from my superstition by his reasoning, even without perusal of an answer: I pay you however the compliment of having only brought me to doubt, and I find I am not the only person who have been led to disbelieve by reading books expressly written to confirm the Believer. Stackhouse's Comment upon the bible, and Leland's View of Deistical Writers have perhaps made as many renegado's in this country as all the allurements of Mahometanism has in others. What can be said to this? They were both undoubtedly men of abilities, and meant well to the cause they had to support. All that I shall observe upon the matter is, that what cannot bear discussion cannot be true. Reasoning in other sciences is the way to arrive at truth: the learned for a while may differ, but argument at last finds its force, and the controversy usually ends in general conviction. Reasoning upon the science of divinity will equally have its weight, and all men of letters would long ago have got rid of all superstitious notions of a Deity, but that men of letters are frequently men of weak nerves; such as Dr. Johnson is well known to be, that great triumph to religionists; it requires courage as well as sense to break the shackles of a pious education; but if merely a resolve to reason upon their force can break them, what can we observe in conclusion but

"Magnus est veritas et prevalebit."

That religion or belief of a Deity cannot bear the force of argument is well known by Divines in general, is manifest by their annexing an idea of reproach to the very term of arguing upon the subject. These arguers they call Free-thinkers, and this appellation has obtained, in the understanding of pious believers, the most odious disgrace. Yet we cannot argue without thinking; nor can we either think or argue to any purpose without freedom. Therefore free-thinking, so far from being a disgrace, is a virtue, a most commendable quality. How absurd, and how cruel it is in the professors of divinity, to address the understanding of men on the subject of their belief, and to upbraid those very men who shall exercise their understanding in attending to their arguments! No tyranny is greater than that of ecclesiastics. These chain down our very ideas, other tyrants only confine our limbs. They invite us to the argument, yet damn us to eternal punishment for the use of reason on the subject. They give to man an essence distinct from his corporeal appearance and this they call his soul, a very ray and particle of the Divine Being; the principal faculty of this soul they allow to be that of reasoning, and yet they call reason a dark lanthorn, an erroneous vapour, a false medium, and at last the very instrument of another fancied Being of their own to lead men into their own destruction. "In the image of himself made he man." A favourite text with theologians; but surely they do not mean that this God Almighty of theirs has got a face and person like a man. No; that they exclaim against, and, when we push them for the resemblance, they confess it is in the use of reason; it is in the soul.

I am aware that I am not here to mix questions of Christianity with the general question of a Divinity; subjects of a very distinct enquiry, and which in the Letters to a Philosophical Unbeliever are very carefully separated. The subject of revelation is indeed promised afterwards to be taken up, provided the argument in favour of Natural Religion meets with a good reception. How, Dr. Priestley, you can judge of that reception I am at a loss to know, otherwise than by the number of editions you publish. It is then in the sum total just as much as if you had said, "provided this book sells well I will write another." Yet it may be sold to many such readers as I have been, though you will hardly call such reception good. You that have wrote so much, to whom it is so easy to write more, who profess a belief of revelation, such a laborious enquirer, and so great a master of the art of reasoning, should rather have engaged at once to prove in a subsequent publication the truth of revealed religion in arguments, as candid and as fairly drawn as those you have used in proof of a Deity independent of revelation. Different as I am in qualifications from you, not very learned, far from industrious, unused to publish, I do now promise that when you shall have brought into light your intended letters in behalf of revelation I will answer them. I hope you will take it as an encouragement to write that you are sure you shall have an answer. I mean you should, and I am sure I shall think myself greatly honoured if you will descend so far as to reply to my present answer. I know you have been used in controversies to have the last word, and in this I shall not baulk your ambition; for notwithstanding any defect of my plea in favour of atheism I mean to join issue upon your replication, and by no means, according to the practice and language of the lawyers, to put in a rejoinder. Should your arguments be defectively answered by me, should your learning and your reasoning be more conspicuous than mine, I shall bear your triumph without repining.

I declare I am rather pleased there are so few atheists than at all anxious to make more. I triumph in my superior light. I am like the Jew or the Bramin who equally think themselves privileged in their superior knowledge of the Deity. With me and with my friend the comparison holds by way of contrast, for we are so proud in our singularity of being atheists that we will hardly open our lips in company, when the question is started for fear of making converts, and so lessening our own enjoyment by a numerous division of our privilege with others. It has indeed often been disputed, whether there is or ever was such a character in the world as an atheist. That it should be disputed is to me no wonder. Every thing may be, and almost every thing has been disputed. There are few or none who will venture openly to acknowledge themselves to be atheists. I know none among my acquaintance, except that one friend, to whom as a Philosophical Unbeliever I presented your Letters, and to whose answer I only mean this address as an introduction. I shall therefore not enter here into the main argument of Deity or no Deity. My address is only preliminary to the subject; but I do not therefore think myself precluded from entering into some considerations that may be thought incidental to it. I mean such considerations as whether immorality, unhappiness or timidity necessarily do or naturally ought to ensue from a system of atheism. But as to the question whether there is such an existent Being as an atheist, to put that out of all manner of doubt, I do declare upon my honour that I am one. Be it therefore for the future remembered, that in London in the kingdom of England, in the year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and eighty-one, a man has publickly declared himself an atheist. When my friend returned me your Letters, addressing me with a grave face he said, "I hope, if you have any doubts, these Letters will have as good effect upon you as they have had upon me." My countenance brightened up and I replied, "You are then, my friend, convinced ?" "Yes, he said, I am convinced; that is, I am most thoroughly convinced there is no such thing as a God." Behold then, if we are to be believed, two atheists instead of one.

Another question has been raised "whether a society of atheists can exist?" In other words "whether honesty sufficient for the purposes of civil society can be insured by other motives than the belief of a Deity?" Bayle has handled that question well (Pensees sur la Comète). Few who know how to reason (and it is in vain to speak or think of those who lay reason out of the case) can fail to be convinced by the arguments of Bayle. I shall discuss the question no farther than as it is necessarily included in the discussion of some of those supposed results of atheism, such as I have before mentioned in the instances of immorality, unhappiness and timidity. In my argument upon this subject I shall carefully avoid all abuse and ridicule. Controversies are apt to be acrimonious. You, Sir, have certainly shewn instances to the contrary. You have charity beyond your fellows in the ecclesiastical line, and your answerers seem not to me to have a right in fair argument to step out of the limits you have prescribed yourself. To dispute with you is a pleasure equal almost to that of agreeing with another person. You have candour enough to allow it possible that an atheist may be a moral man. Where is that other ecclesiastic who will allow the same? Your answerers ought also to hold themselves precluded from using ridicule in handling this subject. I am no great supporter of Lord Shaftesbury's doctrine that ridicule is the test of truth. I own truth can never be ridiculous, that is, it can never be worthy of laughter, but still it may be laughed at. To use the other term, I may say, truth can never be worthy of ridicule, but still it may be ridiculed. Just ridicule is a sufficient test of truth; but after all we should be driven to an inquiry, upon the principles of reasoning, whether the ridicule were just or not. Boldness, which is not incompatible with decency and candour, I do hold to be an absolute requisite in all speech and argument, where truth is the object of inquiry. Therefore when I am asked, whether there is a God or no God, I do not mince the matter, but I boldly answer there is none, and give my reason for my disbelief; for I adopt my friend's answer by the publication of it.

That mischief may ensue to society by such freedom of discussion is also another argument for me to consider; I do not say to combat, for though I were convinced or could not resist the argument that mischief would ensue to society by such a discussion, yet I should think myself intitled to enter into it. I have a right to truth, and to publish truth, let society suffer or not suffer by it. That society which suffers by truth should be otherwise constituted; and as I cannot well think that truth will hurt any society rightly constituted, so I should rather be inclined to doubt the force of the argument in case atheism being found to be truth should apparently be proved prejudicial to such a society.

I come unprejudiced to the question, and when I have promised you an answer to your future Letters in support of revelation, I have neither anticipated your argument nor prejudged the cause. I hold myself open to be convinced, and if I am convinced I shall say so, which is equally answering as if I denied the force of your observations. In that sense only I promise an answer. If I believe I shall say, I do; but I shall not believe and tremble, confident as I am, that if I act an honest part in life, whether there be a Deity and a future existence or not, whatever reason I may have to rejoice in case such ideas he realised, I can upon such an issue have none to tremble. I look upon myself to have more reason to be temporally afraid than eternally so. Dr. Priestley or any other Doctor can put his name boldly to a book in favour of Theism, loudly call the supporters of a contrary doctrine to the argument, and if no answer is produced, assert their own reasoning to be unanswerable. In that sense their sort of reasoning has been frequently unanswerable. Here however is an instance of a poor unknown individual, making experience of the candour of the ecclesiastics and the equity of the laws of England, for he ventures to subscribe his publication with his name as well as Dr. Priestley does his Letters, to which this publication is an answer. Perhaps he may have cause to repent of his hardiness, but if he has, he is equally resolved to glory in his martyrdom, as to suffer it. Whatever advantage religion has had in the enumeration of it's martyrs, the cause of atheism may boast the same. As to the instances of the professors of any particular form of religion, or modification of that form, such as Christians or sects of Christians, suffering martyrdom for their belief, I shall no more allow them to be martyrs for theism than Pagans similarly suffering for their belief, shall I call martyrs for atheism. Theism very likely has had it's martyrs. I can instance one I think in Socrates, and I shall mention Vanini as a martyr for atheism. The conduct of those two great men in their last moments may be worth attending to. The variety of other poor heretical wretches, who have been immolated at the shrine of absurdity for all the possible errors of human credence, let them have their legendary fame. I put them out of the scale in this important inquiry.

Not that I really think the argument to be much advanced by naming the great supporters of one opinion or of another. In mathematics, mechanics, natural philosophy, in literature, taste, and politics the sentiments of great men of great genius are certainly of weight. There are some subjects capable of demonstration, many indeed which the ingenuity of one man can go farther to illustrate than that of another. The force of high authority is greater in the three former sciences than in the latter. Theism and Atheism I hold to be neither of them strictly demonstrable. You, Dr. Priestley, agree with me in that. Still I hold the question capable of being illustrated by argument, and I should hold the authority of great men's names to be of more weight in this subject, were I not necessarily forced to consider that all education is strongly calculated to support the idea of a Deity; by this education prejudice is introduced, and prejudice is nothing else than a corruption of the understanding. Certain principles, call them, if you please, data, must be agreed upon before any reasoning can take place. Disputants must at least agree in the ideas which they annex to the language they use. But when prejudice has made a stand, argumentation is set at so wide a distance, through a want of fixt data to proceed upon, that attention is in vain applied to the dispute. Besides, the nature of the subject upon which this prejudice takes place, is such, that the finest genius is nearly equally liable to an undue bias with the most vulgar. To question with boldness and indifference, whether an individual, all-forming, all-seeing and all-governing Being exists, to whom, if he exists, we may possibly be responsible for our actions, whose intelligence and power must be infinitely superior to our own, requires a great conquest of former habitude, a firmness of nerves, as well as of understanding; it will therefore be no great wonder, if such men as Locke and Newton can be named among the believers in a Deity. They were christians as well as theists, so that their authority goes as far in one respect as in the other. But if the opinions of men of great genius are to have weight, what is to be said of modern men of genius? You, Sir, are of opinion that the world is getting wiser as well as better. There is all the reason in the world it should get wiser at least, since wisdom is only a collection of experience, and there must be more experience as the world is older. Modern Philosophers are nearly all atheists. I take the term atheist here in the popular sense. Hume, Helvetius, Diderot, D'Alembert. Can they not weigh against Locke and Newton, and even more than Locke and Newton, since their store of knowledge and learning was at hand to be added to their own, and among them are those who singly possessed equal science in mathematics as in metaphysics? It is not impossible, perhaps not improbable, from his course of learning and inquiries, that if Dr. Priestley had not from his first initiation into science been dedicated for what is called the immediate service of God, he himself might have been one of the greatest disprovers of his pretended divinity.

In England you think, Sir, that atheism is not prevalent among men of free reasoning, though you acknowledge it to be much so in other countries. It is not the first time it has been observed that the greater the superstition of the common people the less is that of men of letters. In the heart of the Papal territories perhaps is the greatest number of atheists, and in the reformed countries the greatest number of deists. Yet it is a common observation, especially by divines, that deism leads to atheism, and I believe the observation is well founded. I hardly need explain here, that by deism in this sense is meant a belief in the existence of a Deity from natural and philosophical principles, and a disbelief in all immediate revelation by the Deity of his own existence. Such is the force of habit, that it is by degrees only, that even men of sense and firmness shake off one prejudice after another. They begin by getting rid of the absurdities of all popular religions. This leaves them simple deists, but the force of reasoning next carries them a step farther, and whoever trusts to this reasoning, devoid of all fear and prejudice, is very likely to end at last in being an atheist. Nor do I admit it to be an argument either for Revelation or Natural Religion, that the same turn for speculation that would convert a christian into a theist, will carry him on to be an atheist, though I know the argument has been often used. If upon sick beds or in dying moments men revert to their old weakness and superstitions, their falling off may afford triumph to religionists; for my part I care not so much for the opinions of sick and dying men, as of those who at the time are strong and healthy. But in the opinion of the one or the other I put no great stress. My faith is in reasoning, for though ridicule is not a complete test of truth, reasoning I hold certainly to be so. I own belief may be imprest on the mind otherwise than by the force of reason. The mind may be diseased. All I shall say is that though I have formerly believed many things without reason, and even many against it, as is very common, I hope I shall never more. My mind (I was going to say, thank God) is sane at present, and I intend to keep it so. I am aware that at the expression just used some will exclaim in triumph, that the poor wretch could not help thinking of his God at the same time he was denying him. The observation would hold good, if it were not that we often speak and write unpremeditately and though what is in this manner unpremeditately expressed upon a revision should be certainly expunged, yet I chuse to leave the expression to shew the force of habit.

In fear lies the origin of all fancied deities, whether sole or numberless.

Primus in orbe Deos fecit Timor.

But the great debasement of the human mind is evidenced in the instance of attributing a merit to belief, which has come at last to be stiled a virtue, and is dignified by the name of faith, that most pitiful of all human qualities. When the apostle spoke of faith, hope and charity, he might as well have exclaimed the least of the three is faith, as the greatest is charity.

One enthusiast cries out un Roi and another un Dieu. The reality of the king I admit, because I feel his power. Against my feeling and my experience I cannot argue, for upon these sensations is built all argument. But not all the wondrous works of the creation, as I hear the visible operations of nature called, convince me in the least of the existence of a Deity. By nature I mean to express the whole of what I see and feel, that whole, I call self-existent from all eternity; I admit a principle of intelligence and design, but I deny that principle to be extraneous from itself. My creed in fine is the same with that of the Roman poet;

"Deus est ubicunque movemur."

If then I am admitted to explain my deity in this sense, I am not an atheist, nor can any one else in the world be such. The vis naturae, the perpetual industry, intelligence and provision of nature must be apparent to all who see, feel or think. I mean to distinguish this active, intelligent and designing principle, inherent as much in matter as the properties of gravity or any elastic, attractive or repulsive power, from any extraneous foreign force and design in an invisible agent, supreme though hidden lord and maker over all effects and appearances that present themselves to us in the course of nature. The last supposition makes the universe and all other organised matter a machine made or contrived by the arbitrary will of another Being, which other Being is called God; and my theory makes a God of this universe, or admits no other God or designing principle than matter itself and its various organisations.

The inquiry is said to be important. But why is it so! All truth is important. It is a question of little importance, merely whether a man had a maker or no, although it is of great importance to disprove the existence of such a Deity as theologians wish to establish, because appearances in the world go against it. Supposing however that it was granted, that the question, whether there is a Deity or not, was as little important as other truths, yet the question becomes important with this reflexion, that other events may follow as deductions; such as a particular providence, or a future state of rewards and punishments; but whether such deductions or either of them necessarily follow may well be queried. As to a particular providence you give up the reality of it, and I give it up too. But I cannot give up the argument, that if there were a God with all his allowed attributes of wisdom, power and justice, there ought to be a particular providence to counteract the general laws of nature, in favour of those who defend the interposition. Though the Deity should not interfere unless there be a worthy cause, agreeable to the Horation rule,

"Nec Deus interfuit nisi vindice nodus;"

Yet surely from the same principles it should follow that the Deity ought to interfere where there is a worthy cause. Here however arises another dilemma, for if the Deity has really those attributes of power and justice, there would never have been occasion for such temperaneous interpositions. A particular providence must indeed prove one of these two principles, either that God was imperfect in his design, or that inert matter is inimical to the properties of God. If that wished for interposition of the Deity is put off to a future existence, I cannot help observing, that future day has been already a long while waited for in vain, and any delay destroys some one attribute or other of the Deity. He wants justice, or he wants the power, or the will to do good and be just. That a future state of rewards and punishments may however exist without a Deity, you, Dr. Priestley, allow to be no impossibility. It may indeed be argued with apparent justness, that a principle of reviviscence may as well be admitted as a principle of production in the first instance: and as to rewards and punishments, judgement may be rendered, as well as now, by Beings less than Deities. For my part I firmly wish for such a future state, and though I cannot firmly believe it, I am resolved to live as if such a state were to ensue. This seems, I own, like doubting, and doubting may be said to be a miserable state of anxiety. "Better be confident than unhinged; better confide in ignorance than have no fixed system." So it may be argued; but I think the result will be as people feel. Those who do not feel bold enough, to be satisfied with their own thoughts, may abandon them and adopt the thoughts of others. For my part I am content with my own; and not the less so because they do not end in certainty upon matters, from the nature of them, beyond the complete reach of human intelligence.

There is nothing in fact important to human nature but happiness, which is or ought to be the end or aim of our being. I mean self-happiness; but fortunately for mankind, such is by nature our construction, that we cannot individually be happy unless we join also in promoting the happiness of others. Should immorality, timidity or other base principles arise from atheism it tends immediately, I will own, to the unhappiness of mankind. If it is asked me, "why am I honest and honourable?" I answer, because of the satisfaction I have in being so. "Do all people receive that satisfaction?" No, many who are ill educated, ill-exampled and perverted, do not. I do, that is enough for me. In short, I am well constructed, and I feel I can therefore act an honest and honourable part without any religious motive. Did I perceive, that belief in a Deity produced morality or inspired courage, I might be prompted to confess, that the contrary would ensue from atheism. But the bulk of the world has long believed, or long pretended to believe in a Deity, yet morality and every commendable quality seem at a stand. The believer and the unbeliever we often see equally base, equally immoral. Superstition is certainly only the excess of religion. That evidently is attended often with immorality and cowardice. I am tempted to say, from observation, that the belief of a Deity is apt to drive mankind into vice and baseness; but I check myself in the assertion, upon considering that very few indeed are those who really believe in a Deity out of such as pretend to do so. It is impossible for an intellectual being to believe firmly in that of which he can give no account, or of which he can form no conception. I hold the Deity, the fancied Deity, at least, of whom with all his attributes such pompous descriptions are set forth to the great terror of old women and the amusement of young children, to be an object of which we form (as appears when we scrutinise into our ideas) no conception and therefore can give no account. It is said, after all this, that men do still believe in such a Deity, I then do say in return, they do not make use of their intellects. The moment we go into a belief beyond what we feel, see and understand, we might as well believe in will-with-a-whisp as in God. But I would fix morality upon a better basis than belief in a Deity. If it has indeed at present no other basis, it is not morality, it is selfishness, it is timidity; it is the hope of reward, it is the dread of punishment. For a great and good man, shew me one who loves virtue because he finds a pleasure in it, who has acquired a taste for that pleasure by considering what and where happiness is, who is not such a fool as to seek misery in preference to happiness, whose honour is his Deity, whose conscience is his judge. Put such a man in combat against the superstitious son of Spain or Portugal, it were easy to say who would shew the truest courage. The question might be more voluminously discussed, but I feel already proof of conviction; if you, Dr. Priestley, do not, perhaps some other readers may. I have nothing to do with men of low minds. They will always have their religion or pretence of it, but I am mistaken if it is not the gallows or the pillory that more govern their morals than the gospel or the pulpit.

After all, atheism may be a system only for the learned. The ignorant of all ages have believed in God. The answer of a Philosophical Unbeliever though written in the vulgar tongue may probably not reach the vulgar. If argument had prevailed they were long converted from their superstitious belief. The sentiments of atheistical philosophers have long been published. If mischief therefore could ensue to society from such free discussions, that mischief society must long have felt. I think truth should never be hid, but few are those who mind it. I will therefore take upon myself but little importance though I have presumed to preface an answer from a Philosophical Unbeliever to Letters which you, Dr. Priestley have written. If you deem that answer detrimental to the interests of society, you will recollect that you invite the proposal of objections and promise to answer all as well as you can. If you should happen to be exasperated by the freedom of the language or the contrariety of the sentiment, this answer will gain weight in proportion as you lose in the credit of a tolerant Divine. Therefore if you reply at all, reply with candour and with coolness; heed the matter and not the man, though I subscribe my name, and am

Reverend Sir,
                          Your friend, admirer,
Oxford-Street, No. 418.            and humble servant,
Jan. 1, 1782.       WILLIAM HAMMON.

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