Bacon's essays: Of atheism


A genie bearing gifts.

Bacon makes his position on atheism clear from the start: “I had rather believe all the fables in the Legend, and the Talmud, and the Alcoran, than that this universal frame is without a mind.” Everyone who knows him knows that he does not believe in fables, especially those of non-Christian religions. This statement is thus as strong as he could make it. He would rather believe in everything, however foolish and fanciful, than in nothing.

His first argument rests on the magnificence of the created world, which demands a Creator. His second argument is that even the savages of the New World postulate deities. Then he lists the four principal causes of atheism, which I’ll detail below. Last, he declares that without God, humans have no way to distinguish themselves from beasts, nor to rise above their baser natures.

Ordinary miracles

“God never wrought miracle, to convince atheism, because his ordinary works convince it.” And a bit later, “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.”

Nature could not have produced itself, Bacon believed. It’s simply too rich and too wonderful, and too filled with astounding connections and intricate inter-relations. Therefore a supernatural being of infinite power must have created everything.

Every thinking person believed this until Darwin rocked creation with the theory of evolution, except for a few wily old skeptics like Benjamin Franklin and total refuseniks like Christopher Marlowe.

Causes of atheism

“The causes of atheism are: [1] divisions in religion, if they be many; for any one main division, addeth zeal to both sides; but many divisions introduce atheism.” The acceptable main division would be that between Catholicism and Protestantism. Further division into (mostly Protestant) sects just caused trouble — lots of trouble, in Bacon’s day.

[2] “Another is, scandal of priests; when it is come to that which St. Bernard saith, non est jam dicere, ut populus sic sacerdos; quia nec sic populus ut sacerdos.” (It is not now to be said, as the people, so the priest; because the people are not such as the priests are.*) I think this means that priests must maintain themselves apart from their flocks, particularly in the area of sex and marriage.

[3] “A third is, custom of profane scoffing in holy matters; which doth, by little and little, deface the reverence of religion.” You could get into big trouble for profane scoffing in Elizabethan days!

[4] “And lastly, learned times, specially with peace and prosperity; for troubles and adversities do more bow men’s minds to religion.” This is an odd one. He seems to be suggesting that happy people have less need of gods. Maybe it’s true. If your life is one of grinding poverty and hardship, the lure of another life filled with pleasure and security would be very strong. Bacon may be guilty of idealizing the ancient cultures of Greece and Rome here, since those are the primary examples of atheists available to him.

Our better half


Centaur by William Blake

“They that deny a 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.” Speak for yourself, is my answer to that one. Why characterize non-humans as base and ignoble? The more we learn about the animal kingdom, the more we realize that we are citizens too.

This argument hearkens back to an earlier essay, Of Nobility. Monarchs ruled by divine right. Nobility was a quality of birth in Bacon’s time. Nobility descended through generations, thereby touching eternity, which is a property of the divine.

“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.” Shakespeare put it better: “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, else what’s a heaven for?”

This essay ends with a whole paragraph of Latin, a quote from our old pal Cicero: “Quam volumus licet, patres conscripti, nos amemus, tamen nec numero Hispanos, nec robore Gallos, nec calliditate Poenos, nec artibus Graecos, nec denique hoc ipso hujus gentis et terrae domestico nativoque sensu Italos ipsos et Latinos; sed pietate, ad religione, atque hac una sapientia, quod deorum immortalium numine omnia regi gubernarique perspeximus, omnes gentes nationesque superavimus.”

Let us be as partial to ourselves as we will, Conscript Fathers, yet we have not surpassed the Spaniards in number, nor the Gauls in strength, nor the Carthaginians in cunning, nor the Greeks in the arts, nor, lastly, the Latins and Italians of this nation and land, in natural intelligence about home matters; but we have excelled all nations and people in piety and religion, and in this one wisdom of fully recognizing that all things are ordered and governed by the power of the immortal gods.*


Talking the talk


American Southwest. Photo by Dale L. Johnson.

Bacon seems to have encountered many proselytizing atheists. “[A]theists 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.”

Today, Christians and Muslims are the missionaries. Science has filled the emptiness of non-belief with greater wonders than prophets ever imagined.


* Latin translations by Richard Whately via the University of Michigan.

Categories: Bacon's works Essays

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