« ZurückWeiter »
frame of nature. We may as reasonably imagine, that men inhabited palaces before huts and cottages, or studi. ed geometry before agriculture; as assert that the Deity appeared to them a pure spirit, omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent, before he was apprehended to be a powerful, though limited being, with human passions and appetites, limbs and organs. The mind rises gradually, from inferior to superior: By abstracting from what is imperfect, it forms an idea of perfection: And slowly distinguishing the nobler parts of its own frame from the grosser, it learns to transfer only the former, much elevated and refined, to its divinity. "Nothing could disturb this natural progress of thought, but some obvious and invincible argument, which might immediately lead the mind into the pure principles of theism, and make it overleap, at one bound, the vast interval which is interposed between the human and the divine nature. But though I allow, that the order and frame of the universe, when accurately examined, affords such an argument; yet I can never think, that this consideration could have an influence on mankind, when they formed their first rude notions of religion.
The causes of such objects, as are quite familiar to us, never strike our attention and curiosity; and however extraordinary or surprising these objects in themselves, they are passed over, by the raw and ignorant multitude, without much examination or inquiry. ADAM, rising at once, in paradise, and in the full perfection of his faculties, would naturally, as represented by MILTON, be astonished at the glorious appearances of nature, the heavens, the air, the earth, his own organs and members; and would be led to ask, whence this wonderful scene arose? But a barbarous, necessitous animal (such as a man is on the first origin of society), pressed by such
numerous wants and passions, has no leisure to admire the regular face of nature, or make inquiries concerning the cause of those objects, to which, from his infancy, he has been gradually accustomed. On the contrary, the more regular and uniform, that is, the more perfect na, ture appears, the more is he familiarized to it, and the less inclined to scrutinize and examine it. A monstrous birth excites his curiosity, and is deemed a prodigy. It alarms him from its novelty; and immediately sets him a trembling, and sacrificing, and praying, But an ani. mal, complete in all its limbs and organs, is to him an ordinary spectacle, and produces no religious opinion or affection. Ask him, whence that animal arose ? he will tell you, from the copulation of its parents. And these, whence? From the copulation of theirs. A few removes satisfy his curiosity, and set the objects at such a distance, that he entirely loses sight of them, Imagine not, that he will so much as start the question, whence the first animal; much less, whence the whole system or united fabric of the universe arose. Or, if you start such a question to him, expect not that he will employ his mind with any anxiety about a subject, so remote, so uninteresting, and which so much exceeds the bounds of his capacity
But farther, if men were at first led into the belief of one Superior Being, by reasoning from the frame of nature, they could never possibly leave that belief, in order to embrace polytheism ; but the same principles of reason, which at first produced and diffused over mankind, so magnificent an opinion, must be able, with greater facility, to preserve it. The first invention and proof of any doctrine is much more difficult than the supporting and retaining of it. · 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 carlessness; these principles, if not corrected by books and writing, soon 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 supposed to have been originally founded in true history, corrupted by tradition. But with regard to speculativě opi: nions, the case is far otherwise." If these opinions be founded on arguments so clear and obvious as to carry conviction with the generality of mankind, the same ará guments, which at first diffused the opinions, will still preserve them in their original purity." If the argu: ments be more abstrůse, and more remote from vulgas apprehension, the opinions will always be confined to é few persons; and as soon as meni leave the contempla. tion of the arguments, the opinions will immediately bë lost and be 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 have afterwards, by its corruption, given birth to polytheism and to all the various super stitions of the heathen world. Reason, when obvious, prevents these corruptions: When abstruse, it keeps the principles entirely from the knowledge of the vulgar, who are alone liable to corrupt any principle or opinion "L
atvi !! . .
Sect. II. Origin of Polytheism. IF we would, therefore, indulge our curiosity, in inquiring concerning the origin of religion, we must turn our thoughts towards polytheism, 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 or. der 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 suppostion, which, even if al
lowed possible, 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 thoughout 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 bestow. ing any satisfaction 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 group of figures, cut from one stone, and united in one plan, was pot the work and contrivance of one statuary. To aşcribe 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 tempests 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 afflicts with famine. Sickness and pestilence may depopulate a kingdom, amidst the most profuse plenty. The same 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, à constant combat of opposite powers, and a repentance or change of intention in the same power, from impo tence or levity. Each nation has it tutelar deityEach
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 ceremo nies, 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.
We may conclude, therefore, that, in all nations, which have embraced polytheism, the first 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 incessant hopes and fears, which actu.