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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 39

God or no God? — I

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God or no God?


It has been long my conviction—arrived at, I may say, against my deepest prejudices and the oldest tendencies of my mind—that Atheism is not merely a logical position or mental state, but as logical as any. It appears to me that, approach the subject from which side we will—the purely intellectual or the moral—philosophy leads inevitably up to Atheism. I can fully sympathise with the millions who look upon Atheism as a monster of absurdity and immorality, for I once had the same ideas and feelings myself, and no more dreamt of journeying to Atheism than to the moon. I have discovered several things in recent years which I formerly deemed impossible; among others, that Atheism is not in the least like what popular prejudice represents, and that Theism is as unfounded as Transubstantiation. Every argument yet produced in evidence of divine existence fails even to satisfy a previous believer. Judging from my own experience, I should say that the most unshaken faith in a God is found in him who never argued; the reasoner, even on the very smallest scale, starts doubts on the subject that can never be solved or destroyed. Once pass beyond the bounds of that innocent state of spontaneous faith, possible only to early life or to imbecility, and wrestle with a doubt respecting a God's existence, and I question if the struggle will ever terminate entirely, except in Atheism or death. It is true, Orthodoxy promises you peace and rest, a solution of your difficulties, to be found in certain arguments, which, if rightly conducted, will infallibly lead up to satisfaction. Alas! how fallacious the promise and the hope! I spent many years in following this will-o'-the-wisp; but neither logic, prayer, nor faith, nor all together could give settled satisfaction. This is not surprising, when the matter is fully examined. Let us see.

The teleological argument is no doubt the oldest of the so-called proofs of divine existence; it is, at least, as old as Xenophon's Memorabilia, and seems to have been used by page 4 Socrates. The argument, which is based upon a fallacy, runs thus :—"We see in works of handicraft and Art evidences of Design and adaptation of means to ends; we see similar marks of design, &c., in Nature; and as evidences of design in Art imply a designer, so do they in Nature." This, if logical, would be an exceedingly "short and easy method" of settling the dispute; but there is really not one point of analogy between Art and Nature, regarded either as a whole or in detail.

1. But for our education or experience in handicraft, &c., we could not possibly suspect anything like it in Nature. We could never have gathered the conception of design even from a work of art, were we not able, in some cases, at least, to see both the means and the end, and to watch the one resulting in the other. Now who can say what is the end of Nature in any one department, to say nothing of the final cause or ultimate aim of the whole? This I shall return to by-and-bye; at present I merely point to the want of analogy between an art production (whose whole theory and action, inception and results, we can grasp) and any particular part of Nature of which we know little or nothing beyond the barest phenomena.

2. The analogy fails in another and more serious point. We have seen and can see the maker of any human production. The identical man may be out of our reach, but we have thousands like him all around us continually; and though we may never have seen a given work in course of manufacture, yet we have seen artificers at work upon other artificial productions; and as all artificial things have certain points of resemblance, by the observation of which we can readily pass from the known to the unknown, we have little or no difficulty in recognising as a work of art even an article we never saw before. Now where is the analogy between this and any natural thing? In Nature the artificer has never once been seen, nor any one of his fellows; we never saw any one making a single natural product. Where, then, is the analogy? To establish it you must show us some natural thing in course of production, and the maker himself, or some part of him, must be seen at his work. Let this be done and our disputes end; but until we see some one making things in Nature—I don't say all things, but some—we have no right to institute an analogy between a thing we know to be made and one that may not be made at all.

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3. It is idle to say that the "Great Artificer" is invisible; that begs the question. First prove your Artificer, and then we must perforce admit his invisibility until we see him. We see all around us the processes of Nature going on—the revolution of the planets, and alternations of day and night, storm and calm, summer and winter. We see all this, but we never see the maker.

4. Not only have we never seen the Artificer of Nature, we may further say that we have never seen Nature's Art. Is there not necessarily a distinction between the two departments of Nature and Art? And is not that distinction essential? It is the height of linguistic impropriety to apply the terms of Art to the subjects and phenomena of Nature. We have the best of proofs that artificial things are made. Nature was never made; it is not in any sense a manufacture, it is an eternal existence as a whole, and its various phenomena are growths, not Art productions. To say the contrary is to abuse language and bewilder the reader. I ask any intelligent man to take a coat and a sheep, and say if there be any analogy between them. The animal was not made, it grew; the coat did not grow, it was made. The materials of the coat also grew; the act of putting them together was the making of something that did not and could not grow, any more than the sheep could have been made. To talk, therefore, of animals being made is not less incorrect than to speak of coats, boots, chairs, &c., growing. A wise man will try to avoid such confusion of language, while the wisest will see in natural phenomena nought but pure growths, and will thus escape the need of looking for a maker where none is possible. Theology and false philosophy have done much to confuse people on these matters, but there can be nothing more incorrect, in the present state of human knowledge, than to speak of the making or creation of the earth or of any natural thing in it. Therefore it is not reason that desiderates a maker or creator, it is faith that both demands and supplies one or more, according to its whims or circumstances.

5. But more serious objections remain. If nature does manifest design we can discover the fact only by discovering both the means and the end. This must be apparent at once. In Art, did we not know why things are made, the notion of design would be impossible; I don't say in every case. We cannot tell why some things have been made, page 6 they puzzle us; but these exceptions prove the rule, for if we were not accustomed to recognise the end or object in the majority of cases, we could never feel either curiosity or doubt respecting the end to be answered by the few exceptions. Now where is the man who will pretend to tell why Nature was created? Consider its vastness, its intricacy, how small a speck of the whole is known to us, and the immense periods occupied in some of its processes. Who can guess the meaning and the end of such immense and intricate changes? Only the most consummate rashness would venture to attempt an explanation here. And if we cannot tell the final cause of the whole, by what right do we pretend to explain the design of a part? Every part must contribute to the total results, and must therefore be subordinate to the whole, and without knowing the final upshot, the end and aim cannot be guessed. Let the bold theologian show us Nature's means and her ultimate aim, or confess that, like the rest of us, he is in total darkness respecting them.

If we cannot discover the end and means of Nature in her immensity, let us try on a smaller scale. Take the solar system. Was it designed, or is it the result of accident?—that is, the interaction of the materials and forces of the system? If designed, why are some planets so much farther from the sun than others? All might have been accommodated at distances much more nearly equal. As it is there is a great waste of light and heat. If two thousand millions of globes, each equal to the earth, were placed round the sun, side by side, and all at the same distance (from 90,000,000 to 100,000,000 miles), they would form a complete (omitting interstices) shell, with the sun in its centre. Now with the present expenditure of light and heat, the sun would light up and warm the whole interior of that enormous shell as brilliantly and intensely as he does the earth at present. Think of what this means. The sun which could, with the present emission of energy, amply supply with light and heat an area of 100,000,000,000,000,000 square miles and more, actually supplies about 50,000,000 square miles! In this estimate I omit all the planets except the earth, for their aggregate receipts of light and heat are a trifle compared with the solar waste. If, then, the solar system does manifest design, it is not design executed by either wisdom or economy.

Then consider how unequally the distances of the planets page 7 are arranged. How hot must Mercury or Vulcan (?) be! how cold Uranus and Neptune! Besides, some of the planets have satellites, others none, as far as yet known. Where is the design here? Our earth has but one satellite, though it is well known we could do with more. What! do we not need moonlight as much when it is absent as when it is shining? If one moon is good, it is my firm belief that two would be twice as good.

Leaving the earth as a mere planet, let us descend to particulars, regarding it as a home for man and other animals. Look at the distribution of light and heat. In the tropics the people have far too much of both; in the temperate regions, the alternations are dreadfully severe; but in polar regions they are simply monstrous. A long day of six months' duration is by-and-bye replaced by a night of equal length! Does that show design and wisdom? Then consider the cold—land and sea frozen to an extent to us almost incredible. What is the object? Is it to test the enduring powers of seals and polar bears? or to give the Esquimaux an opportunity of displaying his voracity upon blubber and his dexterity in travelling over the snow? Is there one good thing accomplished by such exaggerated cold? Will the natural theologian explain? He sees the "hand of God" and the "footsteps of deity" everywhere, his eyes are so completely opened that he sees "good in everything." He might, therefore, enlighten us a little on these mysteries of nature. I have never yet heard of an Esquimaux praising God for his wisdom and goodness as displayed in Arctic nights and snows. They are people of a milder clime, and whose civilisation enables them to defy the malice of Nature, that praise the blessings of so extreme a cold.

Winds and rains show equal want of design. One country is devastated by storms, another is panting for a breeze; one land is flooded by excessive rains, another is parched and famine-stricken for want of water. During the recent famines in Bengal, Bombay, and China, England was flooded. Is this design?—this wisdom? Let a water company follow the example of Nature, and flood one part of a town week after week, while the rest is parched and dusty as a desert, and your very Tories will demand reform. Where and what is that supernal wisdom, which cannot be imitated, except at the expense of common sense? What good thing is ever accomplished by a flood?—by a famine? page 8 by a hurricane? If the arrangements and processes of Nature manifest wisdom, the best and most regular actions of men are foolish in the extreme.

Now since we cannot discover the end or aim in the above cases, and multitudes more that time forbids me to mention, how can any one pretend to be able to discover design in them? And—

6. If we cannot discover the object or final cause of Nature's details, how can we discover it in any large department—say in the whole earth? Why was this planet made?—for the sake of man? Let us adopt that supposition, and then proceed to test it by human experience. If the earth was really made for man's sake, if man is the final cause of its creation and arrangement, I think he has abundant reason to grumble, being at once so honoured and so grossly outraged and insulted. He has no choice—it is not left to him to take this world or some other. He enters it as he enters into being; Nature throws him up like a waif tossed to shore by the waves. If he can endure her treatment and dodge her malicious blows, he survives; if not, he dies before he fairly lives. Let him survive, for what does he live? Ignorance, superstition, want, cold, hunger, fever, accidents, tempests, volcanoes, wars, and death! This the final cause of the world! What!—the lord of the estate knocked about in this fashion! He for whom all was made treated with contempt, get his bones broken, his blood corrupted, his person maltreated by the ill-arrangement of his natural and only home! How grotesque! How silly is theology! Was it worth while to expend all this care, pains, and thought in the production of man, if he was to be treated after all like the most worthless of beings?

It is here that theology most completely collapses; after going to the expense of producing what theology regards as the final cause of the world, the final cause is treated as of no conceivable value! Either, therefore, man is not the final cause of the world's creation, or the wisdom displayed in creation ends in a wretched farce. And if we cannot find the ultimate end aimed at, by what right can we assume that Nature shows any marks of design? And, further, is it not preposterous to speak of a final cause, or ultimate aim, in an endless series of natural and inevitable events? The natural theologian is neither scientist nor philosopher; he is a man of faith; and faith can find its basis anywhere—except in the region of fact and experience.

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7. If Nature in one or most parts manifests design, we must be prepared to find it in all: for every event of Nature must be as much designed as any that may be named. This consideration the divine quietly and conveniently ignores. He recognises design and divine goodness and wisdom in all agreeable things; the rest are explained or overlooked. It is our duty, however, to correct his mistakes and bring up his omissions.

Let us grant then that Nature does undoubtedly manifest design. (1) A hurricane that spreads devastation over large tracts of the globe must be designed for that purpose. Smashing houses, rooting up trees, sinking ships, and drowning or killing men and animals are the chief works performed by those storms. Let the divine show the wisdom and goodness of his deity in them. (2) The eruption of Vesuvius that buried Pompeii and Herculaneum must have been intended for that work; and the earthquake that swallowed up Lisbon was equally designed for that purpose. (3) The malaria that rises from the swamp and breeds a yellow fever epidemic, is designed for that; else why does it exist? What else does it accomplish? The evaporation that by-and-bye distils in the fruitful shower is not more natural than the rise of the poisonous effluvia that cause the death of thousands. (4) The coals stored up in the earth's strata were originally intended for—what?—to torture poor men, women, and children in extracting them, to exhale gases that should explode and kill the daring intruders into Nature's preserves, to burst steam boilers, and to drive machinery by which workers are maimed or crushed to death, to manufacture cannon, torpedoes, and other deadly instruments. And those coals perform evil deeds with as much earnestness and effect as good ones; a fire made of them will boil the kettle for tea or burn a child to death with equal indifference. What were they designed for? Only stupidity can assert that they were designed for good, and not evil.

If design shows itself in one part of Nature, we must expect it in all parts. (5) Theologians recognise design when Nature turns out a Newton, they are silent when she produces an idiot. And yet, there may be as great an expenditure of force and pains in producing the one as the other. Is the idiot designed or not? It is idle to lay the blame upon parents or adventitious circumstances—the forces and conditions that resulted in that idiot are as truly natural— page 10 as much a portion of the original plan as those were which culminated in the philosopher. How will the divine secure his dogmas in face of this? And what is the final cause of an idiot?

(6) I once read of the birth of an animal—a dog, I think—perfect and beautiful in all things, except in one respect—it lacked its head. Let us pause! In this case Nature worked as carefully as she ever does—bones, muscles, blood-vessels, skin, hair, and everything were carefully made, and all for what? A being that could not live. Did Nature, or Nature's author and ruler, know that the head was wanting? If so, why was the work not stopped, or the defect supplied? Now, either this dog was designed, or Nature worked independently of her maker : if it was designed, it reflects the highest discredit upon the designer, and the keenest ridicule. We have all heard of the wright who built a waggon in an upper room, never once considering how it was to be got out after it was finished. Is this case any more ridiculous than that of Nature turning out a dog that had no head? Verily, those who use the design argument employ a sword with two edges, a weapon that cuts its owners far more than their enemies. I beg the reader to consider that in speaking of Nature "making" and "working." I merely use the language of theology.

(7) A year or two since I visited a curious little museum kept by an old sailor in Stockton-on-Tees, and among other "queer" things I saw two that impressed me. One was a little piggy Siamese twins. They were perfect, as far as I could see, but fastened together, breast to breast, by a short tube, so that walking would have been an utter impossibility. The other was more curious still. It was a lamb, single as to the head and neck, but double from the shoulders backwards. There were eight legs and eight feet, and the two bodies slightly receded from each other the whole length behind the shoulders. One might have thought Nature would have been content without sporting or blundering further; but no. From the double shoulders of this compound animal there grew an extra pair of legs, which stretched backwards and slightly hung down between the two bodies. They were fully grown, and had their front parts turned upwards. I am writing from memory, but can vouch for the general correctness of what I say. Now, what could Nature mean—if she really meant anything—by producing such monsters? Twin pigs that could never have page 11 lived, and a compound lamb dreadfully overdone with bodies and limbs! Was it divine wisdom that produced these, or did blind Nature, operating by necessity, give rise to them? Let theologians say.

8. Many things in Nature are designed and adapted to produce pain, if designed at all, and they never do or can produce anything else. I may mention, as examples, excessive heat and cold, stings of insects, poisons of serpents, scorpions, &c., bites of beasts—many diseases, such as inflammation, cancer, and others. Perhaps one of the most dreadful is childbirth. What pangs, and how perfectly objectless! There is not one good thing, as far as I can learn, ever accomplished by any of the above. Indeed, if I am not much mistaken, ninety-nine per cent, of all the pain in the world is worse than useless. Theologians say that, under given circumstances, "labour is rest and pain is sweet"; but you should not understand them literally. As a French proverb says, "One can regard evils with equanimity—when they are another's." Theologians are no more fond of pain than the rest of us, and they despise it most thoroughly when they don't feel it. They may preach up the benefits of pain as long as they please; pain is pain, call it by what names you may, and the world has a deal too much of it to endure. If it was ever intended to do good, the world's designer miscalculated, and should long since have tried to work on some other plan.

It has been asserted by some who are anxious to defend their fancied deity, that animals which are devoured by beasts and birds of prey feel no pain. Their own Bible might have confuted them. Did Jonah feel no sort of pain in the whale's belly? And does not Paul say, "The whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now"? Perhaps a bite from a tiger, or even from a dog, might bring those divines to their senses. One thing is certain, the animals that are eaten up by others show all the signs of pain that man shows except those of speech, and none but the perverse can doubt that they really feel pain. The question to be answered is, Was pain designed? If so, what can be said of its designer? Did he ever feel pain, or would he like to?

9. Turn we next to another class of topics. What is to be said by a believer in design respecting parasites? I believe the true parasites cannot live except in or on the other living beings they inhabit Which way shall we read page 12 Nature's declaration of design in these cases? Must we read it, "Parasites were designed for other animals," or "Other animals were designed for their parasites"? This is a puzzle, and no divine can explain it. Leaving the less important parasites, let us ponder for a moment the case of trichina spiralis. This minute worm cannot live except in an animal body. In the muscles of a pig or of a man he can make himself very comfortable, though he gives great pain to his guest and living habitation. The tapeworm is worse still—the very thought of it is sufficient to give one the horrors! But to the point—Is man designed as the habitation of the trichina and tapeworm? If so, which is the greater, and which, after all, is the final cause of this world—the man who protects and feeds the tapeworm, or the tapeworm that dwells in and lives at the expense of the man? I think it cannot be doubted that the worm has the best of it. The man he inhabits is tortured with a horrible disease; the worm has every want supplied, and is as happy as his nature and conditions permit. It seems then, that not man, but the tapeworm, or some other human parasite, must be the great end of this world's creation! What an issue and a fate for the celebrated "argument from design"!

Having shown that the design argument, when fairly conducted to its logical conclusion, leads to the interesting discovery that human parasites are the final cause of the existence of the earth, I must next proceed to attack Theism in other directions. I do not think the above conclusion in the least flattering to human vanity; but that reflection by no means militates against its correctness. I suppose no one will deny that the less, where adaptation prevails, is subservient to the greater. It cannot be denied, the theologian affirms, that Nature manifests design, and it will not be pretended that man is benefited by the trichina, or tapeworm; it is equally impossible to deny that these most interesting beings, like princes and priests, are furnished gratuitously with everything they desire by and at the expense of man. If those parasites are of a superstitious turn, no doubt they spend much of their time in chanting "Te Deums" to the Bountiful Parent of All Good, who has created such a delightful world as a human body for them to dwell in.