Story type: Essay
Tuesday, October 2, 1711.
‘… Tantaene Animis coelestibus Irae?’
There is nothing in which Men more deceive themselves than in what the World calls Zeal. There are so many Passions which hide themselves under it, and so many Mischiefs arising from it, that some have gone so far as to say it would have been for the Benefit of Mankind if it had never been reckoned in the Catalogue of Virtues. It is certain, where it is once Laudable and Prudential, it is an hundred times Criminal and Erroneous; nor can it be otherwise, if we consider that it operates with equal Violence in all Religions, however opposite they may be to one another, and in all the Subdivisions of each Religion in particular.
We are told by some of the Jewish Rabbins, that the first Murder was occasioned by a religious Controversy; and if we had the whole History of Zeal from the Days of Cain to our own Times, we should see it filled with so many Scenes of Slaughter and Bloodshed, as would make a wise Man very careful how he suffers himself to be actuated by such a Principle, when it only regards Matters of Opinion and Speculation.
I would have every Zealous Man examine his Heart thoroughly, and, I believe, he will often find, that what he calls a Zeal for his Religion, is either Pride, Interest, or Ill-nature. [A Man who ] differs from another in Opinion, sets himself above him in his own Judgment, and in several Particulars pretends to be the wiser Person. This is a great Provocation to the proud Man, and gives a very keen Edge to what he calls his Zeal. And that this is the Case very often, we may observe from the Behaviour of some of the most zealous for Orthodoxy, who have often great Friendships and Intimacies with vicious immoral Men, provided they do but agree with them in the same Scheme of Belief. The Reason is, Because the vicious Believer gives the Precedency to the virtuous Man, and allows the good Christian to be the worthier Person, at the same time that he cannot come up to his Perfections. This we find exemplified in that trite Passage which we see quoted in almost every System of Ethicks, tho’ upon another Occasion.
‘… Video meliora proboque,
Deteriora sequor …’
On the contrary, it is certain, if our Zeal were true and genuine, we should be much more angry with a Sinner than a Heretick; since there are several Cases [which ] may excuse the latter before his great Judge, but none [which ] can excuse the former.
Interest is likewise a great Inflamer, and sets a Man on Persecution under the colour of Zeal. For this Reason we find none are so forward to promote the true Worship by Fire and Sword, as those who find their present Account in it. But I shall extend the Word Interest to a larger Meaning than what is generally given it, as it relates to our Spiritual Safety and Welfare, as well as to our Temporal. A Man is glad to gain Numbers on his Side, as they serve to strengthen him in his private Opinions. Every Proselyte is like a new Argument for the Establishment of his Faith. It makes him believe that his Principles carry Conviction with them, and are the more likely to be true, when he finds they are conformable to the Reason of others, as well as to his own. And that this Temper of Mind deludes a Man very often into an Opinion of his Zeal, may appear from the common Behaviour of the Atheist, who maintains and spreads his Opinions with as much Heat as those who believe they do it only out of Passion for God’s Glory.
Ill-nature is another dreadful Imitator of Zeal. Many a good Man may have a natural Rancour and Malice in his Heart, [which ] has been in some measure quelled and subdued by Religion; but if it finds any Pretence of breaking out, which does not seem to him inconsistent with the Duties of a Christian, it throws off all Restraint, and rages in its full Fury. Zeal is therefore a great Ease to a malicious Man, by making him believe he does God Service, whilst he is gratifying the Bent of a perverse revengeful Temper. For this Reason we find, that most of the Massacres and Devastations, [which ] have been in the World, have taken their Rise from a furious pretended Zeal.
I love to see a Man zealous in a good Matter, and especially when his Zeal shews it self for advancing Morality, and promoting the Happiness of Mankind: But when I find the Instruments he works with are Racks and Gibbets, Gallies and Dungeons; when he imprisons Mens Persons, confiscates their Estates, ruins their Families, and burns the Body to save the Soul, I cannot stick to pronounce of such a one, that (whatever he may think of his Faith and Religion) his Faith is vain, and his Religion unprofitable.
After having treated of these false Zealots in Religion, I cannot forbear mentioning a monstrous Species of Men, who one would not think had any Existence in Nature, were they not to be met with in ordinary Conversation, I mean the Zealots in Atheism. One would fancy that these Men, tho’ they fall short, in every other Respect, of those who make a Profession of Religion, would at least outshine them in this Particular, and be exempt from that single Fault which seems to grow out of the imprudent Fervours of Religion: But so it is, that Infidelity is propagated with as much Fierceness and Contention, Wrath and Indignation, as if the Safety of Mankind depended upon it. There is something so ridiculous and perverse in this kind of Zealots, that one does not know how to set them out in their proper Colours. They are a Sort of Gamesters [who ] are eternally upon the Fret, though they play for nothing. They are perpetually teizing their Friends to come over to them, though at the same time they allow that neither of them shall get any thing by the Bargain. In short, the Zeal of spreading Atheism is, if possible, more absurd than Atheism it self.
Since I have mentioned this unaccountable Zeal which appears in Atheists and Infidels, I must further observe that they are likewise in a most particular manner possessed with the Spirit of Bigotry. They are wedded to Opinions full of Contradiction and Impossibility, and at the same time look upon the smallest Difficulty in an Article of Faith as a sufficient Reason for rejecting it. Notions that fall in with the common Reason of Mankind, that are conformable to the Sense of all Ages and all Nations, not to mention their Tendency for promoting the Happiness of Societies, or of particular Persons, are exploded as Errors and Prejudices; and Schemes erected in their stead that are altogether monstrous and irrational, and require the most extravagant Credulity to embrace them. I would fain ask one of these bigotted Infidels, supposing all the great Points of Atheism, as the casual or eternal Formation of the World, the Materiality of a thinking Substance, the Mortality of the Soul, the fortuitous Organization of the Body, the Motions and Gravitation of Matter, with the like Particulars, were laid together and formed [into ] a kind of Creed, according to the Opinions of the most celebrated Atheists; I say, supposing such a Creed as this were formed, and imposed upon any one People in the World, whether it would not require an infinitely greater Measure of Faith, than any Set of Articles which they so violently oppose. Let me therefore advise this Generation of Wranglers, for their own and for the publick Good, to act at least so consistently with themselves, as not to burn with Zeal for Irreligion, and with Bigotry for Nonsense.
[Footnote 1: The Man that]
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