Bacon on Atheism
Are y'an atheist? Then I know my prayers and tears are spent in vain. Cyril Tourneur
One of the most wonderful things about Renaissance philosophers is how the they treat subjects that - seemingly allowing no more than a single truth, whatever that truth may be - have in more recent times been discussed in a manner that could most accurately be described as single-minded, if not actually insipid. Erasmus, More and Montaigne write with a masterful command of rhetoric, metaphor and irony that illuminate their topics although not to such a degree as to obfuscate the undoubted ambiguities. Even Descartes, superior prose stylist that he was, while inaugurating our era where every genuine philosophical issue required a single, albeit hard won, answer (Une foi, une loi, un roi after all), even Descartes displayed an uncommon expertise with the rochfoucauldian apothegm and the innovative first person narrative to drive home his relentlessly univocal doctrines (a remarkable example of using the enemy’s weapons against him). Bacon’s position in this mix, as one of its best prose stylists, is intriguing. Bacon’s views, at least as far as the instauration of science is concerned, are unequivocal; however, his more literary writing seems to both beg for and defy decipherment.
Bacon straddles, but one way to sort out the muddle is to distinguish between the single-minded pursuit of the new science, which, despite the lovely rhetoric, is meant to be very clear (the only exception being The New Atlantis), and the diverse other writings that deal with non-scientific Renaissance topoi, such as proper behavior on the part of the ambitious courtier. The Essays largely belong to the latter group. Among these writings two deal with atheism, first in the 1597 Religious Meditations and secondly in the 1625 Essays. So Bacon’s treatment of the subject could fairly be said to appear at both extremities of his literary career.
One should not overlook the comment on religion as a source of scientific observation in the Novum Organum: “We shall especially suspect things that depend in any way on religion….Facts should be taken from serious and credible history and from reliable reports. (p.149)" There can be no doubt of Bacon’s sincerity in matters religious and his devotion to the Psalms in particular. But equally there can be no doubt that religion had nothing to do with serious scientific research and experimentation in Bacon’s mind. Religion should not stand in the way of the new adventure.
Bacon’s talent for paradoxical aphorism is nowhere on better display than in the 1597 Meditation (pp. 95-96), a commentary on Psalm 14. Actually the least controversial observation comes at the end where Bacon gestures towards his ruling passion, natural philosophy or science. A first acquaintance with science, he says, disposes the mind the atheism, but much natural philosophy (the phrase is “wading deep into it") brings “men’s minds" back to religion. Bacon’s other thoughts are remarkably coy.
The penultimate observation or argument if it really is an argument is to impugn the personal character of atheists. Atheists are “light, scoffing and impudent" while believers are more inclined to “wisdom and moral gravity." The point seems to be that silly people are less likely to express truths than frowning graybeards. What of that? The only atheist most believers can adduce is Lucretius, among whose character traits “light, scoffing and impudent" are not the first to come to mind. Indeed the generation after Bacon produced Spinoza and our own times the venerable Russell, both of whom are rather painfully earnest moralists. Now the Fool in Lear was indeed light, scoffing and impudent, but one of the ironies of his situation was that he spoke the truth. Interestingly enough he protested to Lear the way he did because a more serious tone would have evoked the punishment of the King. Which leads to the next point:
The atheist, opines Bacon, says in his heart and not with his mouth that there is no God simply because if he said it aloud he would have to fear government (or the laws). “For if this bridle were removed there is no heresy which would contend more to spread, and multiply, and disseminate itself abroad than atheism." Men won’t say what they really think because of fear of punishment. This is hardly a ringing defense of belief.
To confuse things even further, Bacon’s examples of men of “wisdom and moral gravity" are limited to statesmen and politicians whose "wisdom" comes down to low cunning, for they “made their profit in seeming religious to the people." In other words, wise men like politicians do not say with their mouths that there is no God because of their fear of being punished and as a way of deceiving the people. Politicians do, according to Bacon, have an “inward sense" of the Deity, but this inward sense is nothing more than an acknowledgement that their success is due not solely to their own talents but also to good Fortune. Now the good fortune of politicians may have something to do with Bacon’s most startling concession:
He begins his essay with the observation that the atheist says there is no God because “it makes not for him that there should be a God," namely he derives no advantage from the existence of a God. This little phrase is not a little paradoxical. Does Bacon believe that there is no advantage to anyone that there should be a God or does he believe that atheists are what they are because they have suffered misfortune? If the former is true, Bacon might be considered an ethical atheist as opposed to a contemplative atheist. An ethical atheist is someone who sees no value in God. If Bacon believes the latter apparently extreme version of Calvinism, then he would have to meditate deeply on his own rather unhappy end. There is a God if you are fortunate but no God if you are unfortunate.
The final argument would be a straightforward irony in the mouth of Le Chevalier. Atheists need to proclaim aloud and repeatedly that there is no God because they secretly suspect that they are wrong. “Who so laboureth earnestly to prove an opinion to another, himself distrusts it." But we have just learned that atheists are afraid to speak out because of the prospect of governmental retribution. Indeed when it comes to verbosely, and, shall we say, nervously, proclaiming their beliefs over and over again, atheists don’t hold a candle to believers. Even the oft-cited Lucretius wrote many fewer (admittedly surviving) words than the fanatic Augstine the Hippo, not to mention the hordes of true believers who flood the libraries (and now of course the airwaves) with their professions of faith. If Bacon believes that you defend a position because deep down you don’t think it is true, he really should examine his on writings on religion. Yet we would do well to acknowledge that Bacon was such a good writer that he was even ironic about his irony.
The 1625 Essay (pp. 371-373) is either a clarification (or shift) in Bacon’s views, or else (an eventuality for which there appears to be no historical evidence) a forced return to orthodoxy and an elimination of the wink and the nod of the earlier Meditation.
First Bacon tries to clarify his earlier Sybillic comment that atheists deny in their hearts the existence of God because they derive no advantage from his existence. The 1625 position is much stronger. Those who deny the existence of God are people who would actually benefit from God’s non-existence. Yet this view is equally in need of explanation. Who would benefit? Certainly not politicians. And in what way? A few examples would be helpful. At the same time the level of rhetoric is stepped up. Atheism is in all respects hateful. The great atheists are hypocrites who need to be “cauterized" (Apparently this means being branded if not worse, an unworthy indulgence, on Bacon’s part, in the all too bloodthirsty inclinations of the godly).
This essay contains all jumbled together a number of curious arguments (not weak necessarily, just curious). Here’s a list: (1) Atheists repeat their professions of faithlessness to themselves by rote as if they really did not believe what they say; (2) Atheists show their discomfort with their beliefs by actively proselytizing and searching for disciples; (3) Epicurus wasn’t really an atheist and neither are the South American Indians; (4) There are not very many atheists (Appearances to the contrary are due to the fact that members of warring religious sects brand each other as atheists); (5) If atheism were true, then men would be no better than animals; (6) Men like dogs need Gods in order to be “generous and courageous;" (7) Nations become more “magnanimous" when they have a religion; (8) The causes of atheism, which ostensibly should be rooted out are religious divisions, the scandal of priests, profane scoffing and social peace and prosperity.
Philosophers would be inclined the respond to (2), (3) and (4) that truth is not subject to a vote. But they should be reminded that Bacon was not a philosopher in the strict sense. As Harvey observed, “He writes philosophy like a Lord Chancellor." One way of taking that would be to understand that Bacon relies heavily on lawyerly arguments and parliamentary rhetoric. His goals are not always to expose the truth so much as to sway minds (In The New Organon, p. 63 Bacon opines that "divine matters,' which he significantly assimilates to "political matters" are subject to a vote: Bruno Bauer avant la lettre). The parliamentary motive could lie behind (2)-(4) as well as (1) and parts of (8). (1), for example, is curious because it doesn’t seem to fit atheism which, the last time I checked, doesn’t have a doctrine that could be repeated by rote (De rerum natura contains nary a memorized shibboleth). By definition it doesn’t have much of a doctrine at all. (1) is in fact the charge usually leveled by English Protestants against popery. That appears to point to the references to sectarian battles in (4) and (8). Perhaps Bacon wants to calm sectarian division by focusing the mutual recriminations of various branches of Christianity on atheists, a group that has the double advantage of being despicable to all good Christians and of having almost no professed members, so the preachers could indulge in their invective with a minimum of actual bloodshed. If this was Bacon’s motive, he was spectacularly unsuccessful, at least in the short term.
(7) would not be very convincing to anyone who was not a Roman. The reliance on Cicero in this and the previous essay, such as animated the philosophers of the Enlightenment as well, does seem to point towards something like the Enlightenment proposal of a generalized and absolutely vague state religion as a means of preserving civil peace. This may also be an element in the remarkable comment in (8) that atheism is the product of peace and prosperity. (Does that mean we should remain in a perpetual state of war and poverty just to preserve a belief in God?)
(6) is unproven and simply bizarre. Besides, it seems to contradict (5). As regards (5) we are tempted to respond these days with a hearty, “Thou hast said it!" Or, as the poet says, “You and me, baby, ain’t nuthin’ but mammals, so let’s do it like they do on the Discovery Channel."
Bacon’s opening paragraph touches on two widely accepted proofs of the existence of God. The first is the so-called Design Theory: “And therefore God never wrought miracle to convince atheism, because his ordinary works convince it." The other is the Causal Proof: When the mind beholds the chain of causes “confederate and linked together, it must needs fly to Providence and Deity." Both types of proof have a history that extends far beyond Bacon and merit separate treatment.