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Art. III.—WHAT AM I TO BELIEVE ?
om conscientis apt to be as tens of man being
No. I. It is a remarkable fact in the history of advancing knowledge, that every new Truth is resisted by those who, under the sanction of civil law, have assumed the direction of mankind in religious affairs. The resistance seems to be proportional to the palpability, increasing in the ratio of clearness of demonstration. It would appear that Truth is held in terror by the men styled spiritual guides, and what is false cherished: but charity de. mands that we believe this, in very many cases, (it is feared not in all, to arise from conscientiousness, which, when not guided by the senses or the intellect, is apt to be as tenacious of error as of Truth. They seem to measure the chance of man being saved, by the degree of influence they fancy they have a right to exercise over the human mind; and by the submission and prostration of the intellect, to whatever dogmas they may be pleased to invent, or pretend to twist out of the pure religion taught, in humble simplicity, by Jesus Christ. These remarks are not made in a spirit of vituperation, but of lamentation over the miserable state to which the minds of numbers of excellent persons are reduced by the influence of what, with regret, must be styled Jesuitical chicanery, and of pharisaical externals, of which modern Christianity appears alas ! to consist. To censure such things, to hold them up to the detestation of good men, is not the result of an evil spirit of ill-will, but of an humble imitation of that spirit which exposed the Scribes and Pharisees of old, and denounced them, and the thraldom under which they had brought their countrymen to labour and to suffer- of a desire to thrust buyers and sellers out of the temple.
Priests began by sacrificing animals and making libations, to flatter or appease the Deity; and even human beings were sacrificed. When our part of the world became too wise to endure this, the offering next demanded by the priest, was that of the human understanding, which he sacrificed with the leaden club of ignorance; sending back the spirit to its Maker, unenlightened by the book of knowledge which God had made and opened ; and disfigured and degraded from the rank which He had designed it to attain. Long were the leaves of the book, in which it was said everlasting happiness was to be found, glued together by the meed of superstition; and when some master minds attempted to moisten and separate them, and succeeded in exhi.
biting but a glimpse of Truth, a dungeon or the stake was their
In our day, in our, so called, happy land, in the land which boasts to be the cradle of liberty, what is the lot of the man who dares to say, “ The eyes of the people shall be opened ?” He is held up to the unhappy beings whom their spiritual guides have made the slaves of their dogmas, as one who, if listened to, will unfit them for Heaven and prepare them for Hell. How is that man treated who dares to say, “ In the Bible I find no such dogmas as those you wish me to embrace; they are contradicted by it, as well as by every thing discovered to be an established law of nature ?” He is denounced as a poisoner, a corrupter of the mind; and it is declared that his purpose is not to disseminate Truth, but to undermine and overthrow religion !-as if this were in the power of man! He is reviled and abused, not because he may hold certain dogmas to be false, but because Churchmen feel that the unchristian domination which they exercise must cease, the moment when Education shall have unfolded Truth to the ignorant.
Much has been said of the evils attending an established church; and perhaps the only one of great importance is, that the necessity for a creed being formed, and adhered to, shuts out all possibility of error in the adopted creed being acknowledged, though it may be felt. Right or wrong, young priests must adopt what is demanded by old priests backed by the law: they must forfeit all liberty of conscience; and in their turn propagate and hand down a dogmatic creed as it was invented by their predecessors, no matter whether it be founded on just views and interpretations, or otherwise. Men thus bound down, become careless of investigating truth; their minds imperceptibly arrive at a condition (which they nevertheless deny) that imposes on them an obligation to resist the demonstration of Truth, whenever it may show to be false, the deductions drawn by the church from unwarranted interpretations; and to hold up these as of such sanctity that, to impeach them, to impeach the doctrines of men, incurs the penalty of expulsion and damnation. Here we may also perceive the origin of the pretended love for old metaphysical systems of mental philosophy, and the reasons for keeping the mind from being too curious, by means of Greek and Latin, and academical honours, as they are called. It must happen that some minds come to be united with the profession of a churchman, which are powerful enough to perceive that these systems and Truth do not go hand in hand. It is seen, however, that, while unfounded on any tangible and true principle, such systems are admirably calculated to occupy powerful minds, and to divert them from the paths in which Truth is likely to be found. To keep everything like true and just Philosophy out of the schools, seems to be the avowed aim of the church establishments of the present day. They will use every effort to prevent attacks on their dogmas being read, but not a member of them will stir a finger to refute the honest expression of honest opi. nion. They know that there are yet in the world multitudes of weak minds, ready to take for granted whatever they may please to say of a book or of its author; and small is the courage which Truth and Honesty inspire, if an author can be annoyed at this time by the puny hostility of men who pervert pure Christianity, and give that name to a yoke of ignorance, that has bent the neck of humanity to the dust. It is forgotten that Christianity was propagated by its founder to elevate the human character, to enlighten human understanding, and to point out the way for man to approach the Perfection which created him. Pure Christianity cannot fail to produce such effects : but the so-called Christianity that tends to render man wretched by degrading him in his own eyes must fail.
We might not, perhaps, feel so hostile to church establishments, were they not exclusive, and bound down to abstain from the improvement of religious creeds, when the discovery of Truth may authorize it, and to resist Truth when known. Were Churchmen not nursed in prejudice, not enlisted in the service of dogmatism; were they free to regard their predecessors as not entitled to exclusive wisdom, to exercise their own powers in separating the chaff from the wheat; were they free to allow to laymen the privilege of interpreting and assisting to arrive at just views of Christianity; could they look, without jealousy and envy, on the efforts of freely-educated men, and permit those who aspired to the sacred office to be freely educated; then there might be harmony, peace and good-will to men, and acceptable service to the God of all; then might establishments be supported, and be serviceable because reasonable. Differences of opinion might then be maintained without rancour, and argued without hostility or personality ; Power and wealth would cease to be the aims and idols of those called to teach meekness and humility. They would do unto others, as they would that others should do unto them, and they would love their neighbour as themselves. At the present time Christian morality is a dead letter, and vague idealism is made the anchor of hope : Faith is founded on abstraction, and Charity is pushed to the wall.
A review of the doctrines contained in the Westminster Con
fession of Faith, which is the creed of the churches in Great Britain distinguished by having the support of legislative authority, and of the points of difference subsisting between those who hold fast by the established Churches and those who dissent from them, together with a general view of the religious state of the whole world, have led the writer of these pages to ask himself the question he has taken as a title to the expression of his thoughts. It is a question of great moment to the well-being of individuals and of society; for, until mankind shall have been so well instructed as to be able to perceive the Law of God connecting all creation, and to resolve to obey that law, there will be no end to unprofitable religious controversy. Priests have denied to man the exercise of reason in matters connected with religion. On what ground this denial is made is not easily perceived ; it is, however, proper to inquire whether man has a just right to apply his reasoning powers, in ascertaining on what authority Divines have declared belief in certain doctrines to be necessary to salvation.
God has made man, and given to him a definite constitution. We are accustomed to divide that constitution into two parts, distinguished by the terms corporeal and mental. These two parts are most intimately blended together : and the state of the one most materially affects the state of the other. In the mental part of the human constitution are certain faculties or powers, the operations of which are made manifest to others by action and speech. These operations are known to the individual man by what is termed consciousness; but this does not make known to him by what means he is enabled to call mental power into action. The consciousness of possessing certain powers leads us to exert them in order to discover the source from which they are derived; and the steps by which we ascend to the Great First Cause, or arrive at any conclusion drawn from observation and reflection, are the operations of certain faculties denoted by the term reason. Reason distinguishes man from other created beings—not that they are totally devoid of mental power, and that man is the exclusive possessor of itbut that he possesses the powers constituting reason in a degree very far above that which can be claimed for inferior creatures. This distinction has been bestowed by God;—an affirmation which will not be denied, though it is sometimes kept out of sight, by those who do not choose the world to be too curious in examining the natural revelations of the Creator. Reason has been given to man for the purpose of guiding him to discover God in his works, to perceive the laws impressed on all nature, and to prompt him to obey those laws for the sake of the happiness which obedience ensures.
The laws of nature, which are the laws of God, are arranged in three classes in reference to man and his position. The first class comprehends the Physical laws—those which regulate what are termed material substances, giving them certain qualities and properties, so that when two or more of them meet and are combined under every circumstance and condition, certain definite effects uniformly follow, and no others.
In the second class are placed the Organic laws, or those which regulate material substances when combined in forms originally given to them by the Creator for special purposes, and endowed with life. Anything which disturbs function by obstructing action intended by the Creator to promote the growth and support of animal or vegetable structures, or their reproduction, is an infraction of the organic law.
The third class includes the Moral law, according to which mental operations connected with our relations to God and our fellow-creatures ought to be regulated, so that our speech and actions may not be disrespectful to the author of our being, nor injurious to our fellow-men. Our reasoning powers enable us to take into consideration all the probable results of a course of action, and when these come before the faculty which takes cognizance of right and wrong, it directs, or ought to direct, our conduct. The moral feelings or sentiments, assisted and directed by the reasoning powers, are intended to govern all other faculties, and their operation is known by what is termed conscience.
It becomes obvious to those who study nature, that God governs the world by Physical, Organic, and Moral laws, the infringement of any of which inevitably brings punishment, in some shape or other, on the defaulter. This, then, being the system of God's government, and as no other being could have bestowed upon us powers to guide ourselves during the term of life, it cannot be affirmed that God has done anything in vain
that He has given powers, but enjoined us not to employ them. If He has implanted reason in the human frame to give us power over creation, by enabling us to search for and discover the laws by which all things are governed, it seems impossible that the use of the same power to determine what is true and what is false, in reference to God himself, should be prohibited. Reason enables us to say, that a man who affirms that he must be believed at once, without any inquiry on our part, and without any proof of veracity on his, is an impostor.