Bacon's essays: Of Unity in Religions

Most of the troubles in England in the sixteenth century, apart from things like plagues and famines, were caused by disagreements about religion. Bacon advocates unity in this essay, to our non-surprise. Everyone in those days believed that everyone ought to believe the same thing in pretty much the same way. Still, Francis Bacon was prescient in so many areas, it’s a bit disappointing that he failed to forsee the satisfactory solution of pluralism. Let everyone believe whatever they want, within broad civil limits, and make it impolite to talk about religion with people outside your own religious circle. Works for us.

Zuni dancer

Zuni dancer

This essay begins with the observation that heathens did not suffer from divisions of religion. “The reason was, because the religion of the heathen, consisted rather in rites and ceremonies, than in any constant belief.” By “constant belief” he must mean “established doctrine.” This is an intellectual’s complaint. If you read Keith Thomas’s Religion and the Decline of Magic (Penguin; 2012), you’ll get the sense that the religion of most ordinary folks consists of rites and ceremonies, along with a vague general sense of a supernatural Somebody watching you. Your culture, related by your community’s priests and/or shamans, will tell you if that Somebody is with you or against you and how you ought to behave in order to retain the Somebody’s good regard. Only intellectuals dither about doctrine. Thomas’s book is awesome, by the way. The version I’ve linked to is a recently issued paperback, a mere $18 at Amazon, but also available at any university library. If you have the slightest interest in the way superstition and science rubbed shoulders in sixteenth century England, you must read it. It’s chock-full of fascinating anecdotes as well.

Anyway, back to Bacon.  When he says “heathen,” he means ancient Greeks and Romans, not contemporary shamanistic religions. He doesn’t know anything about the latter, but he knows his classics inside out.

Heathen god Neptune with his heathen mer-horses.

Heathen god Neptune with his heathen mer-horses.

The essay goes on to discuss the fruits of unity, in two long paragraphs that I find rather dense and unprofitable. He makes a point he made often in the advice letters he wrote to ministers of state, that nothing promotes atheism and skepticism like dissension inside the church. Remember that back in his day, “atheism” meant something more like “wild, lawless, outside the bounds of decent society,” not “lack of belief in gods” as it does today. Your sixteenth century atheist was a mad criminal, not a science-minded skeptic. Modern thinkers like Bacon and Ralegh believed in a Christian God, but without the elaborate architecture of heaven and hell populated thickly with angels and demons. Their God was almost an ideal of the Good, rather than a supernatural being. Almost; not quite.

“As for the fruit towards those that are within; it is peace; which containeth infinite blessings. It establisheth faith; it kindleth charity; the outward peace of the church, distilleth into peace of conscience; and it turneth the labors of writing, and reading of controversies, into treaties of mortification and devotion.” That’s the other side of the coin. And surely it is easier to be charitable toward people who agree with you.

Then Bacon tries to define the bounds of unity, how they should be determined. His main point is that “Men ought to take heed, of rending God’s church, by two kinds of controversies.” The first is getting into a lather about adiaphora, things indifferent. Is it really that important if you do or do not wear your hat in church? The second is making important things so complicated that nobody can understand them. He doesn’t give examples, but probably the whole consubstantation vs transubstantiation business falls into this class. The important thing is for worshippers to share in the act of communion; what exactly is going on with that bread and wine is not something the average worshipper needs to fret about.

Last, Bacon cautions, “Concerning the means of procuring unity; men must beware, that in the procuring, or muniting, of religious unity, they do not dissolve and deface the laws of charity, and of human society.” Don’t be like Spain, in other words, converting people by torture and conquest. Although he uses Mahomet as his example, the criticism of Spain is clearly implied.

“Muniting” is new to me. OED unhelpfully cites this passage in Bacon as the sole example. Circularity! But it defines “munite” as “To fortify, strengthen, protect.” I think I’ll refrain from adding that word to my repertoire. It sounds like you’re humming like a robot while saying “unite,” which doesn’t mean the same thing at all.

And that’s that. Not one single juicy quote in this longer-than-usual essay. Aren’t we glad to leave this whole religious controversy in the past where it belongs? Now let’s get out there and dance! 

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