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OCCASIONED BY ONE OF
ARCHBISHOP TILLOTSON'S SERMONS.
I COME from reading, in Barbeyrac's translation of Tillotson's sermons, the discourse you mentioned on a late occasion; and the effect of it has been to confirm me in this opinion, that the theist is a much more formidable enemy to the atheist than the divine.
The former takes all the real advantages against a common adversary, which the latter has it in his power to take; but he gives none against himself, as the latter is forced to do. When the divine writes or disputes on any subject, relative to his profession, he is always embarrassed by his theological system; whether his mind be so, or not, his tongue and his pen cannot be otherwise. A theist is under no constraint of this kind. He may speak the truth, such as it appears to him, when the divine, though it appears the same to him, must be silent. The theist may be silent, by regards of prudence, when the divine is obliged to speak, by the obligation of his profession, and to maintain what he cannot defend, as well as what he can: and thus, if he imposes on some, he exposes himself to the attacks of others. When the theist has demonstrated the existence of a Supreme, all-perfect Being, and the moral obligations of his rational creatures, he stops, where the means of human knowledge stop, and makes no vain and presumptuous efforts to go beyond them, by the help of reason or revelation. Just so, when he has proved that the world had a beginning, on foundations of the highest probability tradition can give, he stops short likewise; because, in the nature of things, we can have no other proof of the fact. Not so the divine. His system drags him on. He attempts, most absurdly, to support, in the first case, a demonstrated truth by false arguments; and, in the second, to make tradition vouch for
more than any receivable tradition does or can vouch. The archbishop, himself, seems sensible of this in one place: for having asserted the universal assent of mankind to this great truth, that there is a God, and having ascribed the universality of this assent to the nature of the human mind, on which God has impressed an innate idea of himself, he tries to evade the absurdity by adding 6 or which, that is the human mind, is so disposed, that men may discover, by the due use of its faculties, the existence of God." He endeavors to evade the theological absurdity, which he could not maintain, but he endeavors it in vain: for it is evidently false, that the two propositions are in any sort the same. The difference between affirming that the mind of man is able, by a due use of its faculties, to discover the existence of God, and that the mind of man has an innate idea of this existence, which prevents and excludes the use of any mental faculties, except that of bare perception, is too obvious to be insisted upon.
Divines reason, sometimes, on this subject with more precaution. They slide over the doctrines of innate ideas, without maintaining, or renouncing it directly, and think it sufficient to say, that the belief of a God is founded on a certain patural proportion, which there is, between this great truth and the conceptions of the human mind. I inclined, as you know, to think in the same manner, and to believe, that the first men, at least, who knew that they were such, and who saw the material world begin, would be led, by the natural conceptions of their minds, to acknowledge a first cause of infinite wisdom and power, and far above all these conceptions. Thus it seemed to me, that the tradition of a fact, and of an opinion grounded on it, which are apt to be confounded, though they should be always distinguished, might come down together. But I confess myself obliged, on further reflection, to abandon this hypothesis. I abandon it with the less regret, because, whatever the first men might think, nay, whether the world had a beginning in time, as I am firmly persuaded it had, or not, the demonstration of God's existence will remain unshaken. But I am obliged to abandon it, because a natural and intimate proportion between the existence of God, and the universal conceptions of the human mind, may appear chimerical, and perhaps is so. It is, I doubt, chimerical, even when it is applied to the first men. The variety of the phenomena, which struck their senses, would lead the generality, most probably, to imagine a variety of causes, and more observations and deeper reflections, than the first men could make, were necessary to prove the unity of the first cause. That some made them, at least very early, can scarce be doubted. So that the orthodox belief and polytheism might grow up together, though the latter might spread wider and faster than the former.