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I HAVE lately met with a book of yours, entitledTHE AGE OF REASON, Part the Second, being an Investigation of True and of Fabulous Theology; and I think it not inconsistent with my station, and the duty I owe to society, to trouble you and the world with some observations on so extraordinary a performance. Extraordinary I esteem it; not from any novelty in the objections which you have produced against revealed religion (for I find little or no novelty in them), but from the zeal with which you labour to disseminate your opinions, and from the confidence with which esteem them true.-You perceive, by this, that I give you credit for your sincerity, how much soever I may question your wisdom in writing in such a manner on such a subject: and I have no reluctance in acknowledging, that you possess a considerable share of energy of language, and acuteness of investigation; though I must be allowed to lament, that these talents have not been applied in a manner more useful to human kind, and more creditable to yourself.
I begin with your preface. You therein state that you had long had an intention of publishing your
thoughts upon religion, but that you had originally reserved it to a later period in life. I hope there is no want of charity in saying, that it would have been fortunate for the Christian world, had your life been terminated before you had fulfilled your intention. In accomplishing your purpose, you will have unsettled the faith of thousands; rooted from the minds of the unhappy virtuous, all their comfortable assurance of a future recompense; have annihilated in the minds of the flagitious, all their fears of future punishment: you will have given the reins to the domination of every passion, and have thereby contributed to the introduction of the public insecurity, and of the private unhappiness usually and almost necessarily accompanying a state of corrupted morals.
No one can think worse of confession to a priest, and subsequent absolution, as practised in the church of Rome, than I do : but I cannot, with you, attribute the guillotine massacres to that cause Men's minds were not prepared, as you suppose, for the commission of all manner of crimes, by any doctrines of the church of Rome, corrupted as I esteem it, but by their not thoroughly believing even that religion. What may not society expect from those who shall imbibe the principles of your book?
A fever, which you and those about you expected would prove mortal, made you remember, with renewed satisfaction, that you had written the former part of your Age of Reason-and you know therefore, you say, by experience, the conscientious trial of your own principles. I admit this declaration to be a proof of the sincerity of your persuasion, but I cannot admit it to be any proof of the truth of your principles. What is conscience? Is it, as has been thought, an internal monitor implanted in us by the Supreme Being, and dictating to us, on all occasions, what is right or wrong? Or is it merely our own judgement of the moral rectitude or turpitude of our own actions? I take the word (with Mr. Locke) in the latter, as in
the only intelligible sense. Now, who sees not that our judgements of virtue and vice, right and wrong, are not always formed from an enlightened and dispassion. ate use of our reason, in the investigation of truth? They are more generally formed from the nature of the religion we profess; from the quality of the civil government under which we live; from the general manners of the age, or the particular manners of the persons with whom we associate; from the education we have had in our youth; from the books we have read at a more advanced period; and from other accidental causes. Who sees not that, on this account, conscience may be conformable or repugnant to the law of nature?—may be certain or doubtful?—and that it can be no criterion of moral rectitude, even when it is certain, because the certainty of an opinion is no proof of its being a right opinion? A man may be certainly persuaded of an error in reasoning, or of an untruth in matters of fact. It is a maxim of every law, human and divine, that a man ought never to act in opposition to his conscience: but it will not from thence follow, that he will, in obeying the dietates of his conscience, on all occa ions act right. An inquisitor who burns Jews and heretics; a Robespierre, who massacres innocent and harmless women; a robber, who thinks that all things ought to be in common, and that a state of property is an unjust infringement of natural liberty-these, and a thousand perpetrators of different crimes, may all follow the dictates of conscience; and may, at the real or supposed approach of death, remember with renewed satisfaction" the worst of their transactions; and experience, without dismay, "a conscientious trial of their principles." But this their conscientious composure can be no proof to others of the rectitude of their principles, and ought to be no pledge to themselves of their innocence in adhering to them.
I have thought fit to make this remark, with a view of suggesting to you a consideration of great import
ance-whether you have examined calmly, and according to the best of your ability, the arguments by which the truth of revealed religion may, in the judgement of learned and impartial men, be established? You will allow, that thousands of learned and impartial men, (I speak not of priests, who, however, are, I trust, as learned and impartial as yourself, but of laymen of the most splendid talents)-you will allow, that thousands of these, in all ages, have embraced revealed religion as true. Whether these men have all been in an error, enveloped in the darkness of ignorance, shackled by the chains of superstition, whilst you and a few others have enjoyed light and liberty, is a question I submit to the decision of your readers.
If you have made the best examination you can, and yet reject revealed religion as an imposture, I pray that God may pardon what I esteem your error. whether you have made this examination or not, does not become me or any man to determine. That Gospel, which you despise, has taught me this moderation; it has said to me "Who art thou that judgest another man's servant? To his own master he standeth or falleth," I think that you are in an error; but whether that error be to you a vincible or an invincible error, I presume not to determine. I know, indeed, where it is said" that the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness,”—and that "if the Gospel be hid, it is hid to them that are lost." The consequence of your unbelief, must be left to the just and merciful judgement of Him who alone knoweth the mechanism and the liberty of our understandings; the origin of our opinions; the strength of our prejudices; the excellencies and the defects of our reasoning faculties.
I shall, designedly, write this and the following letter in a popular manner; hoping that thereby they may stand a chance of being perused by that class of readers for whom your work seems to be particularly