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There is a great difference between historical facts and speculative opinions; nor is the knowledge of the one propagated in the same manner with that of the other. An historical fact, while it passes by oral tradition from eye-witnesses and contemporaries, is disguised in every successive narration, and may at last retain but very small, if any, resemblance of the original truth, on which it was founded. The frail memories of men, their love of exaggeration, their supine carelessness; these principles, if not corrected by books and writing, foon pervert the account of historical events; where argument or reasoning has little or no place, nor can ever recal the truth, which has once escaped those narrations. It is thus the fables of Hercules, Theseus, Bacchus are suppored to have been originally founded in true hiftory, corrupted by tradition. But with regard to speculative opinions, the case is far otherwise. If these opinions be founded on arguments so clear and obvious as to carry conviction with the generality of inankind, the same arguments, which at first diffused the opinions, will still preserve them in their original purity. If the arguments be more abstruse, and more remote from vulgar apprehension, the opinions will always be' confined to a few persons; and as soon as men leave the contemplation of the arguments, the opinions will immediately be lost and buried in oblivion. Whichever side of this dilemma we take, it must appear impossible, that theism could, from reasoning, have been the primary religion of human race, and afterwards, by its corruption, given birth to polytheism and to all the various superstitions of the heathen world. Reason, when obyious, prevents these corruptions: When abstruse, it keeps the principles entirely from the know\edge of the vulgar, who are alone liable to corrupt any principle or opinion.
Sect. II. Origin of Polytheism. If we would, therefore, indulge our curiosity, in enquiring concerning the origin of religion, we must turn our thoughts towards polytheisin, the primitive religion of uninstructed mankind.
Were men led into the apprehension of invisible, intelligent power by a contemplation of the works of nature, they could never possibly entertain any conception but of one single being, who bestowed existence and order on this vast machine, and adjusted all its parts, according to one regular plan or connected system. For though, to persons of a certain turn of mind, it may not appear altogether absurd, that several independent beings, endowed with superior wisdom, might conspire in the contrivance and execution of one regular plan; yet is this a merely arbitrary supposition, which, even if allowed poilible, must be confessed neither to be supported by probability nor necessity.' All things in the universe are evidently of a piece. Every thing is adjusted to every thing. One design prevails throughout the whole, And this uniformity leads the mind to acknowledge one author ; because the conception of different authors, without any distinction of attributes or operations, serves only to give perplexity to the imagination, without bestowing any fatisfaction on the understanding. The statue of Laocoon, as we learn from Pliny, was the work of three artists : But it is certain, that, were we not told so, we should never have imagined, that a groupe of figures, cut from one stone, and united in one plan, was not the work and contrivance of one statuary. To ascribe any single effect to the combination of several causes, is not surely a natural and obvious supposition.
On the other hand, if, leaving the works of nature, we trace the footsteps of invisible power in the various and contrary events of human life, we are necessarily led into polytheism and to the acknowledgment of several limited and imperfect deities. Storms and tempeits ruin what is nourished by the sun. The sun destroys what is fostered by the moisture of dews and rains. War may be favourable to a nation, whom the inclemency of the seasons afficts with famine. Sickness and pestilence may depopulate a kingdom, amidst the most profuse plenty. The fanie nation is not, at the same time, equally successful by sea and by land. And a nation, which now triumphs over its enemies, may anon submit to their more prosperous arms. In short, the conduct of events, or what we call the plan of a particular providence, is so full of variety and uncertainty, that, if we suppose it immediately ordered by any intelligent beings, we must acknowledge a contrariety in their designs and intentions, a constant coinbat of opposite powers, and a repentance or change of intention in the same power, froin impotence or levity. Each nation has its tutelar deity. Each element is subjected to its invisible power or agent. The province of each god is separate from that of another. Nor are the operations of the same god always certain and invariable. To-day he protects: To-morrow he abandons us. Prayers and sacrifices, rites and ceremonies, well or ill performed, are the sources of his favour or enmity, and produce all the good or ill fortune, which are
to be found amongst mankind. 1 We may conclude, therefore, that, in all nations, which have embraced polytheism, the firft ideas of religion arose not from a contemplation of the works of nature, but from a concern with regard to the events of life, and from the inceffant hopes and fears, which actuate the human
inind. Accordingly, we find, that all idolaters, having separated the provinces of their deities, have recourse to that invisible agent, to whose authority they are immediately subjected, and whose province it is to superintend that course of actions, in which they are, at any time, engaged. Juno is invoked at marriages ; Lucina at births. Neptune receives the prayers of feamen; and Mars of warriors. The husbandman cultivates his field under the protection of Ceres; and the merchant acknowledges the authority of Mercury. Each natural event is supposed to be governed by some in- , telligent agent; and nothing prosperous or adverse can happen in life, which may not be the subject of peculiar prayers or thanksgivings *
It must necessarily, indeed, be allowed, that, in order to carry men's attention beyond the present course of things, or lead them into any inference concerning invisible intelligent power, they must be actuated by some passion, which prompts their thought and reflection; some motive, which urges their first enquiry. But what passion shall we here have recourse to, for explaining an effect of such mighty consequence ? Not speculative curiofity surely, or the pure love of truth. That motive is too refined for such grofs apprehensions ; and would lead men into enquiries concerning the frame of nature, a subject too large and comprehensive for their narrow capacities. No passions, therefore, can be supposed to work upon such barbarians, but the ordinary affections of human life; the anxious concern for happiness, the dread of future misery, the terror of death, the thirst of re- , venge, the appetite for food and other necesaries. Agitated by hopes and fears of this nacure, especially the latter, men scrutinize, with a trembling
* See NOTE [YY].
curiosity, the course of future causes, and exainine the various and contrary events of human life. And in this disordered scene, with eyes still more disordered and aftonished, they see the first obscure traces of divinity.
Sect. III. The same subječt continued."
We are placed in this world, as in a great theatre, where the true springs and causes of every event are entirely concealed from us; nor have we either sufficient wisdom to foresee, or power to prevent those ills, with which we are continually threatened. We hang in perpetual suspence between life and death, health and sickness, plenty and want; which are distributed amongst the human fpecies by secret and unknown causes, whose operation is oft unexpected, and always unaccountable. These unknown causes, then, become the constant object of our hope and fear; and while the passions are kept in perpetual alarm by an anxious expectation of the events, the imagination is equally employed in formning ideas of those powers, on which we have so entire a dependahce. Could men anatomize nature, according to the most probable, at least the most intelligible philosophy, they would find, that these causes are nothing but the particular fabric and structure of the minute parts of their own bodies and of external objects: and that, by a regular and constant machinery, all the events are produced, about which they are so much concerned. But this philosophy exceeds the comprehension of the ignorant multitude, who can only conceive the unknown caufes, in a general and confused manner; though their imagination, perpetually employed on the same subject, must labour to form fome particular and distinct idea of them. The