For Thoughts on Atheism by the Father of Empiricism UPDATED


Remember my affection for the Harvard Classics, the Five Foot Shelf of Books? Admittedly, I haven’t looked them over much since I became a Catholic. Not because I’ve outgrown them, but because there have been far too many other books to occupy my time since the spring of 2008. Mostly stuff from authors whose names begin with “S”,  as St. Philip Neri suggested when he counseled that reading the works of the saints is profitable.

But I dipped a toe back into the HCFFSB water today and found these thoughts of Sir Francis Bacon. I found them right here in volume #3, which Bacon shares with John Milton’s Areopagitica (?) and Tractate on Education (yawn) and a Sir Thomas Browe’s Religio Medici (again, I have no idea but it must be important or it wouldn’t be here!).

Sure, you’ll argue, Bacon wasn’t a Catholic. However, as the Catholic Encyclopedia citation notes,

Bacon’s position in regard to revelation is well known. Reason can attain no positive knowledge of God. This must come by faith alone. Religion is above reason, but is not opposed by it. On the contrary it is the office of reason to meet the objections and refute the arguments that are urged against the truths of revelation, whether Bacon was really a rationalist or a believer has been disputed. As a statesman, he was an Anglican and Erastian. As a philosopher, religion does not come within his purview. But there are passages in his writings that show a decidedly reverent and religious spirit, especially in some of the “Essays”.

You can say that again. Like in essay #16 (of fifty-nine) from his Essays, Civil and Moral. Though not an especially noteworthy scientist himself (he had no famous discoveries, etc.), Bacon is noted for being one of the founders of the modern scientific method. He is even known as the father of empiricism. Besides, he was more of a polymath than a specialist. That and he’s got practically the coolest last name going.

But contrary to what some folks would have you believe about Bacon (for instance, that he refuted Christianity, etc.) let’s see what he actually thought about atheism in his own words, shall we?

XVI On Atheisim by Sir Francis Bacon

I had rather believe all the fables in the The Golden Legend (a 13th century collection of saints’ lives), and the Talmud (The body of Jewish traditional law), and the Alcoran (the Koran, the sacred book of Islam), than that this universal frame is without a mind. And therefore God never wrought miracle to refute atheism, because his ordinary works convince it.

Democritus bears an uncanny resemblance to Santa Claus

It is true, that a little philosophy inclineth man’s mind to atheism; but depth in philosophy bringeth men’s minds about to religion. For while the mind of man looketh upon second causes scattered, it may sometimes rest in them, and go no further; but when it beholdeth the chain of them, confederate and linked together, it must needs fly to Providence and Deity. Nay, even that school which is most accused of atheism doth most demonstrate religion; that is, the school of Leucippus and Democritus and Epicurus.

Engaging in a little name dropping, eh? What, pray tell, are you getting at, Francis?

For it is a thousand times more credible, that four mutable elements, and one immutable fifth essence, duly and eternally placed, need no God, than that an army of infinite small portions or seeds unplaced, should have produced this order and beauty without a divine marshal. The Scripture saith, The fool hath said in his heart, there is no God; it is not said, The fool hath thought in his heart; so as he rather saith it by rote to himself, as that he would have, than that he can thoroughly believe it, or be persuaded of it. For none deny there is a God, but those for whom it profiteth that there were no God.

Brace yourselves. Francis is about to throw down the guantlet, or lift the curtain on the Great Oz, or something.

It appeareth in nothing more, that atheism is rather in the lip than in the heart of man, than by this; that atheists will ever be talking of that their opinion, as if they fainted in it within themselves, and would be glad to be strengthened by the consent of others. Nay more, you shall have atheists strive to get disciples, as it fareth with other sects. And, which is most of all, you shall have of them that will suffer for atheism, and not recant; whereas if they did truly think that there were no such thing as God, why should they trouble themselves?

Well, whaddayaknow? Ol’ Frankie had read the New Evangelical Atheists’ playbook a long, long time ago. Qoheleth is grinning like a Cheshire cat. I’ll just get out of the way, as the takedown begins.

Epicurus is charged that he did but dissemble for his credit’s sake, when he affirmed there were blessed natures, but such as enjoyed themselves without having respect to the government of the world. Wherein they say he did temporize; though in secret he thought there was no God. But certainly he is traduced; for his words are noble and divine: Non deos vulgi negare profanum; sed vulgi opiniones diis applicare profanum [There is no profanity in refusing to believe in the gods of the people: the profanity is in believing of the gods what the people believe of them].

Plato could have said no more. And although he had the confidence to deny the administration, he had not the power to deny the nature. The Indians of the West have names for their particular gods, though they have no name for God: as if the heathens should have had the names Jupiter, Apollo, Mars, etc. but not the word Deus; which shows that even those barbarous people have the notion, though they have not the latitude and extent of it. So that against atheists the very savages take part with the very subtlest philosophers.

Neat call on reminding folks about Wakan Tanka, “the Great Spirit” aka “the Great Mystery.” What else have you got Francis? By the way, I’m happy to provide the links that weren’t available when you wrote this.

The contemplative atheist is rare: a Diagoras, a Bion, a Lucian perhaps, and some others; and yet they seem to be more than they are; for that all that impugn a received religion or superstition are by the adverse part branded with the name of atheists. But the great atheists indeed are hypocrites; which are ever handling holy things, but without feeling; so as they must needs be cauterized in the end.

Ouch, Francis. You’re not pulling any punches, are you? Tell us what you really think. Speaking of thinking, in your opinion then, what are the causes of atheism?

The causes of atheism are: divisions in religion, if they be many; for any one main division addeth zeal to both sides; but many divisions introduce atheism. Another is, scandal of priests; when it is come to that which St. Bernard saith, One cannot now say the priest is as the people, for the truth is that the people are not so bad as the priest. A third is, custom of profane scoffing in holy matters; which doth by little and little deface the reverence of religion. And lastly, learned times, specially with peace and prosperity; for troubles and adversities do more bow men’s minds to religion.

Division in religion? Check. Scandals among clergy? Check. Scoffing at believers? Check. Learned times? Ain’t times never been more learned than nowadays. Did you take a ride on a time machine Francis? Do you know Bill and Ted from San Dimas? Just asking.

So what, in your opinion, results from all this confusion?

They that deny God destroy man’s nobility; for certainly man is of kin to the beasts by his body; and, if he be not of kin to God by his spirit, he is a base and ignoble creature. It destroys likewise magnanimity, and the raising of human nature; for take an example of a dog, and mark what a generosity and courage he will put on when he finds himself maintained by a man; who to him is instead of a God, or better nature; which courage is manifestly such as that creature, without that confidence of a better nature than his own, could never attain. So man, when he resteth and assureth himself upon divine protection and favor, gathered a force and faith which human nature in itself could not obtain.

Therefore, as atheism is in all respects hateful, so in this, that it depriveth human nature of the means to exalt itself above human frailty. As it is in particular persons, so it is in nations. Never was there such a state for magnanimity as Rome. Of this state hear what Cicero saith:

Pride ourselves as we may upon our country, yet are we not in number superior to the Spaniards, nor in strength to the Gauls, nor in cunning to the Carthaginians, not to the Greeks in arts, nor to the Italians and Latins themselves in the homely and native sense which belongs to his nation and land; it is in piety only and religion, and the wisdom of regarding the providence of the immortal gods as that which rules and governs all things, that we have surpassed all nations and peoples.

End of essay #16.

Francis? I’m not going to let you leave us with Cicero’s  genuflecting to the Pagan gods. I’m not quite satisfied with that ending so I’ll include another of your quotes here,

Of all virtues and dignities of the mind, goodness is the greatest, being the character of the Deity; and without it, man is a busy, mischievous, wretched thing.

Now you’re talkin’. All this talk of Bacon reminds me of something…

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Fast Forward: Rude and Uninformed. A reflection on a recent billboard campaign by Atheist Humanists.

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  • Philadelphia Catholic Outsider

    This is a great post. There’s lots of Bacon on the Internet, so it’s pretty easy to find other stuff that he’s written. One thing this post does is make me more comfortable liking Bacon. Thanks for writing it.

  • DKeane

    Not really very concerned about what Bacon thought about religion – we need to remember that his lens is focused through the 16th century. So while he made some advances in the scientific method (which have held over the course of time because they work), I’m not sure using Bacon to suggest that revelation is somehow a useful tool is valid (essentially an argument from authority). If someone were to argue that alchemy was valid through Newton because he is the father of classic physics and calculus -we would reject such a notion.

    Additionally, Bacon did not have another 400+ years of scientific discovery to show how poorly revelation actually is able to discover what is true – so he is speaking from a relatively ignorant position.

    Lastly, the “hard times = religion” along with other sayings like “no atheists in foxholes” or “deathbed conversions” really have no bearing on whether someting is true (and I would also state that these are generally false). Religion thrives in those areas that are poorer, less educated, and have an unstable society (government) – the correlation is clear.

    • Frank Weathers

      Yeah, the guy was clearly standing on the shoulders of lilliputians.

      • DKeane

        It is tough to tell sarcasm, so excuse me if the last post was serious.

        At the time – no microbiology (disease was a mystery), no genetics, no advanced physics (electricity, no understanding of the origins/formation of the earth, no evolution, atmospheric science. So in a metaphorical sense, yes – Lilliputians. As stated previously, their work is important as being the philosophical underpinnings of science, but it is nothing relative to what quantum or germ theory can tell us about what is actually true (or as close to the truth as possible, as everything in science is a model of the truth).

        • Frank Weathers

          Sarcasm off. :) I agree that revealed truth and scientific truth cannot contradict each other. Which is why Catholics generally dig science, and don’t see it as being opposed to faith in God. On the other hand, science doesn’t say much about virtue.

          • DKeane

            Science says absolutely nothing about virtue as no tool can., that is what humanism is for :). And I agree Catholics (today) are generally better than other denominations about the acceptance of evolution and so forth, but then there is still the whole miracle thing, efficacy of prayer, and few other items – which at the root are all truth claims that science can (and has) investigated. Have to head out now, enjoy your holiday – thanks for the discussion.

          • Frank Weathers

            Indeed, the mission of the Church is that of an integral and solidary humanism. Thank you too. Be well, and thanks for stopping in.

  • Steve Greene

    Thank you for the stroll through some of Francis Bacon’s anti-atheist rhetoric. It just goes to show that those religious believers (not just Catholics, of course) today who still spout the same old canards against atheism obviously haven’t learned anything in 400 years. It’s really pretty sad if you stop to think about it.

    • Frank Weathers

      It’s like Qoheleth said,

      What has been, that will be; what has been done, that will be done. Nothing is new under the sun! Even the thing of which we say, “See, this is new!” has already existed in the ages that preceded us.There is no remembrance of past generations; nor will future generations be remembered by those who come after them.

      Or Yogi Berra,

      “It’s déjà vu all over again.”

      Of course, Sir Francis Bacon himself stated it simply in the quote that started the post off,

      Reason can attain no positive knowledge of God. This must come by faith alone.

      Which is why the Church recognizes faith as being a gift from God, and why St. Paul notes that of faith, hope, and love, love is the strongest virtue of the three.

  • Jonathan

    There is mutually exclusive difference between how an atheist views the universe, and how a believer views the universe. Bacon asserts that faith alone cannot give positive knowledge of God. Except, faith is “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”

    Faith is believing in X when there is no reason to believe in X. It’s a celebration of belief without reason, a literal embrace of irrationality. Despite this, faith is viewed as an accurate way of understanding the universe. The method most likely to give an incorrect picture of how the universe is, is granted credence beyond the method most likely to give a correct picture of how the universe is.

    Faith is a romantic rejection of reason as a tool for asking some of the most profound questions a human being can ask. It is an embrace of the most emotionally driven elements of human thought and action. Any set of beliefs grounded in faith has no business being used to determine the behavior and actions of anyone.

    The believer will then ask what, if anything, should be used to determine value? Any honest atheist must answer that they do not know. Despite the desperate claims of Sam Harris, Hume demonstrated rather well the futility of challenging the is/ought problem.

    It’s inductive assumptions all the way down, because no matter how many beds you pile up on top of each other, the princess is still going to feel the pea at the bottom.

    If this sounds bleak, it’s because it is. Through reason, humans discovered there was no Reason, and no ubermen have arisen to give us one.