For Thoughts on Atheism by the Father of Empiricism UPDATED

For Thoughts on Atheism by the Father of Empiricism UPDATED December 20, 2012


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.

I’m not making this up!

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…


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

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