Matthew Turner.

Answer to Dr. Priestley's Letters to a Philosophical Unbeliever online

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Attributed to Matthew Turner (d. 1788?) and William Hammon.

Transcribed by the Freethought Archives

NOTE: Irregularities in orthography and punctuation have been
reproduced without emendation from the first edition of 1782.





The Editor of this publication has more in object to answer Dr. Priestley
than to deliver his own sentiments upon Natural Religion, which however
he has no inclination to disguise: but he does not mean to be answerable
for them farther, than as by reason and nature he is at present
instructed. The question here handled is not so much, whether a
Deity and his attributed excellences exist, as whether there is any
Natural or Moral proof of his existence and of those attributes.
Revealed knowledge is not descanted upon; therefore Christians at least
need take no offence. Doubts upon Natural Religion have not hitherto
been looked upon as attacks upon Revelation, but rather as corroborations
of it. What the Editor believes as a Christian (if he is one is
therefore another affair, nor does he reckon himself so infallible or
incapable of alteration in his sentiments, as not at another time to
adopt different ones upon more reflexion and better information;
therefore, though he has at present little or no doubt of what he
asserts (taken upon the principles laid down) he shall hold himself
totally freed from any necessity of defending the contents of this
publication if brought into controversy; and as he has no desire of
making converts, hopes he shall not himself be marked out as an object
of persecution.

Speculative points have always been esteemed fair matters for a free
discussion. The religion established in this country is not the
religion of Nature, but the religion of Moses and Jesus, with whom the
writer has nothing to do. He trusts therefore he shall not be received
as a malevolent disturber of such common opinions as are esteemed to
keep in order a set of low wretches so inclinable to be lawless. At
least, if he attempts to substitute better foundations for morality,
malevolence can be no just charge. Truth is his aim; and no professors
of religion will allow their system to be false. Or if he should be
thought too bold a speculator, such of the ecclesiastics as will be his
opponents may rather laugh at him than fear him. They have a thousand
ways of making their sentiments go down with the bulk of mankind, to
one this poor writer has. They are an army ready marshalled for the
support of their own thesis; they are in the habit of controversy;
pulpits are open to them as well as the press; and while the present
author will be looked upon as a miracle of hardiness for daring to put
his name to what he publishes, they can without fear or imputation lift
up their heads; and should they even be known to transgress the bounds
of good sense or politeness, they will only be esteemed as more zealous
labourers in their own vocation.


Dr. Priestley,

Your Letters addressed to a Philosophical Unbeliever I perused, not
because I was a Philosopher or an Unbeliever; it were presumption to
give myself the former title, and at that time I certainly did not
deserve the latter; but as I was acquainted with another, who in
reality, as far as I and others who know him can judge, deserves the
title of a Philosopher and is neither ashamed nor afraid of that of an
Unbeliever, I conceived them apt to be sent to my friend, and when I
presented them to him, he said he was the person whom he should suppose
you meant to address, if you had a particular person in view; but he
had too much understanding of the world, though much abstracted from
the dregs of it, not to conceive it more probable that you meant your
Letters to be perused by thinking men in general, Believers and
Unbelievers, to confirm the former in their creed, and to convert the
latter from their error. You shall speedily know the effect they have
had in both ways. For myself I must inform you that I was brought up a
Believer from my infancy; a Theist, if a Christian is such; for I
suppose the word will be allowed, though the equivalent term of Deist
is so generally reprobated by Christians; I had before my eyes the
example of a most amiable parent; a moral man, a Christian undoubtedly;
who, when I have been attending upon him, as much from affection as
from duty upon a sick and nearly dying bed, has prayed I might be
stedfast in the faith he held, in accents still sounding in my
intellectual ear; a parent, whom for his virtues and love of his
offspring, like a Chinese, I am tempted to worship, and I could exclaim
with the first of poets,

_"Erit ille mihi semper Deus."_

With such habits of education then, such fervent advice and such
reverence for my instructor, what can have turned me from my belief;
for I confess I am turned? Immorallity it is not; that I assert has not
preceded my unbelief, and I trust never will follow it; there has not
indeed yet been time for it to follow; whether it is a probable
consequence will presently be discussed; but it is _thought_, free
thought upon the subject; when I began freely to think I proceeded
boldly to doubt; your Letters gave me the cause for thinking, and my
scepticism was exchanged for conviction; not entirely by the perusal of
your Letters; for I do not think they would quite have made me an
Atheist! but by attention to that answer from my friend, which I have
his permission to subjoin.

In mentioning that doubts arose by reading your very Letters, which
were written to eradicate all doubts, let me not accuse you of being
unequal to the task assumed. I mean no such charge. You have in my
opinion been fully equal to the discussion, and have bandied the
argument ably, pleasingly and politely. I am certain from the extracts
you have made from Dr. Clarke, the first of other Divines, I should
have been converted from my superstition by his reasoning, even without
perusal of an answer: I pay you however the compliment of having only
brought me to doubt, and I find I am not the only person who have been
led to disbelieve by reading books expressly written to confirm the
Believer. Stackhouse's Comment upon the Bible, and Leland's View of
Deistical Writers have perhaps made as many renegado's in this country
as all the allurements of Mahometanism has in others. What can be said
to this? They were both undoubtedly men of abilities, and meant well to
the cause they had to support. All that I shall observe upon the matter
is, that what cannot bear discussion cannot be true. Reasoning in other
sciences is the way to arrive at truth: the learned for a while may
differ, but argument at last finds its force, and the controversy
usually ends in general conviction. Reasoning upon the science of
divinity will equally have its weight, and all men of letters would
long ago have got rid of all superstitious notions of a Deity, but that
men of letters are frequently men of weak nerves; such as Dr. Johnson
is well known to be, that great triumph to religionists; it requires
courage as well as sense to break the shackles of a pious education;
but if merely a resolve to reason upon their force can break them, what
can we observe in conclusion but

_"Magnus est veritas et prevalebit."_

That religion or belief of a Deity cannot bear the force of argument is
well known by Divines in general, is manifest by their annexing an idea
of reproach to the very term of arguing upon the subject. These arguers
they call Free-thinkers, and this appellation has obtained, in the
understanding of pious believers, the most odious disgrace. Yet we
cannot argue without thinking; nor can we either think or argue to any
purpose without freedom. Therefore free-thinking, so far from being a
disgrace, is a virtue, a most commendable quality. How absurd, and how
cruel it is in the professors of divinity, to address the understanding
of men on the subject of their belief, and to upbraid those very men
who shall exercise their understanding in attending to their arguments!
No tyranny is greater than that of ecclesiastics. These chain down our
very ideas, other tyrants only confine our limbs. They invite us to the
argument, yet damn us to eternal punishment for the use of reason on
the subject. They give to man an essence distinct from his corporeal
appearance and this they call his soul, a very ray and particle of the
Divine Being; the principal faculty of this soul they allow to be that
of reasoning, and yet they call reason a dark lanthorn, an erroneous
vapour, a false medium, and at last the very instrument of another
fancied Being of their own to lead men into their own destruction.
_"In the image of himself made he man."_ A favourite text with
theologians; but surely they do not mean that this God Almighty of
theirs has got a face and person like a man. No; that they exclaim
against, and, when we push them for the resemblance, they confess
it is in the use of reason; it is in the soul.

I am aware that I am not here to mix questions of Christianity with the
general question of a Divinity; subjects of a very distinct enquiry,
and which in the Letters to a Philosophical Unbeliever are very
carefully separated. The subject of revelation is indeed promised
afterwards to be taken up, provided the argument in favour of Natural
Religion meets with a good reception. How, Dr. Priestley, you can judge
of that reception I am at a loss to know, otherwise than by the number
of editions you publish. It is then in the sum total just as much as if
you had said, "provided this book sells well I will write another." Yet
it may be sold to many such readers as I have been, though you will
hardly call such reception good. You that have wrote so much, to whom
it is so easy to write more, who profess a belief of revelation, such a
laborious enquirer, and so great a master of the art of reasoning,
should rather have engaged at once to prove in a subsequent publication
the truth of revealed religion in arguments, as candid and as fairly
drawn as those you have used in proof of a Deity independent of
revelation. Different as I am in qualifications from you, not very
learned, far from industrious, unused to publish, I do now promise
that when you shall have brought into light your intended letters in
behalf of revelation I will answer them. I hope you will take it as an
encouragement to write that you are sure you shall have an answer. I
mean you should, and I am sure I shall think myself greatly honoured if
you will descend so far as to reply to my present answer. I know you
have been used in controversies to have the last word, and in this I
shall not baulk your ambition; for notwithstanding any defect of my
plea in favour of atheism I mean to join issue upon your replication,
and by no means, according to the practice and language of the lawyers,
to put in a rejoinder. Should your arguments be defectively answered by
me, should your learning and your reasoning be more conspicuous than
mine, I shall bear your triumph without repining.

I declare I am rather pleased there are so few atheists than at all
anxious to make more. I triumph in my superior light. I am like the Jew
or the Bramin who equally think themselves privileged in their superior
knowledge of the Deity. With me and with my friend the comparison holds
by way of contrast, for we are so proud in our singularity of being
atheists that we will hardly open our lips in company, when the
question is started for fear of making converts, and so lessening our
own enjoyment by a numerous division of our privilege with others. It
has indeed often been disputed, whether there is or ever was such a
character in the world as an atheist. That it should be disputed is to
me no wonder. Every thing may be, and almost every thing has been
disputed. There are few or none who will venture openly to acknowledge
themselves to be atheists. I know none among my acquaintance, except
that one friend, to whom as a Philosophical Unbeliever I presented your
Letters, and to whose answer I only mean this address as an
introduction. I shall therefore not enter here into the main argument
of Deity or no Deity. My address is only preliminary to the subject;
but I do not therefore think myself precluded from entering into some
considerations that may be thought incidental to it. I mean such
considerations as whether immorality, unhappiness or timidity
necessarily do or naturally ought to ensue from a system of atheism.
But as to the question whether there is such an existent Being as an
atheist, to put that out of all manner of doubt, I do declare upon my
honour that I am one. Be it therefore for the future remembered, that
in London in the kingdom of England, in the year of our Lord one
thousand seven hundred and eighty-one, a man has publickly declared
himself an atheist. When my friend returned me your Letters, addressing
me with a grave face he said, "I hope, if you have any doubts, these
Letters will have as good effect upon you as they have had upon me."
My countenance brightened up and I replied, "You are then, my friend,
convinced ?" "Yes, he said, I am convinced; that is, I am most
thoroughly convinced there is no such thing as a God." Behold then,
if we are to be believed, two atheists instead of one.

Another question has been raised "whether a society of atheists can
exist?" In other words "whether honesty sufficient for the purposes
of civil society can be insured by other motives than the belief of
a Deity?" Bayle has handled that question well. [Footnote: _Pensees
sur la Comete_.] Few who know how to reason (and it is in vain to speak
or think of those who lay reason out of the case) can fail to be convinced
by the arguments of Bayle. I shall discuss the question no farther
than as it is necessarily included in the discussion of some of those
supposed results of atheism, such as I have before mentioned in the
instances of immorality, unhappiness and timidity. In my argument
upon this subject I shall carefully avoid all abuse and ridicule.
Controversies are apt to be acrimonious. You, Sir, have certainly shewn
instances to the contrary. You have charity beyond your fellows in the
ecclesiastical line, and your answerers seem not to me to have a right
in fair argument to step out of the limits you have prescribed
yourself. To dispute with you is a pleasure equal almost to that of
agreeing with another person. You have candour enough to allow it
possible that an atheist may be a moral man. Where is that other
ecclesiastic who will allow the same? Your answerers ought also to
hold themselves precluded from using ridicule in handling this subject.
I am no great supporter of Lord Shaftesbury's doctrine that ridicule
is the test of truth. I own truth can never be ridiculous, that is,
it can never be worthy of laughter, but still it may be laughed at.
To use the other term, I may say, truth can never be worthy of ridicule,
but still it may be ridiculed. Just ridicule is a sufficient test
of truth; but after all we should be driven to an inquiry, upon
the principles of reasoning, whether the ridicule were just or not.
Boldness, which is not incompatible with decency and candour, I do
hold to be an absolute requisite in all speech and argument, where
truth is the object of inquiry. Therefore when I am asked, whether
there is a God or no God, I do not mince the matter, but I boldly
answer there is none, and give my reason for my disbelief; for I
adopt my friend's answer by the publication of it.

That mischief may ensue to society by such freedom of discussion is
also another argument for me to consider; I do not say to combat, for
though I were convinced or could not resist the argument that mischief
would ensue to society by such a discussion, yet I should think myself
intitled to enter into it. I have a right to truth, and to publish
truth, let society suffer or not suffer by it. That society which
suffers by truth should be otherwise constituted; and as I cannot well
think that truth will hurt any society rightly constituted, so I should
rather be inclined to doubt the force of the argument in case atheism
being found to be truth should apparently be proved prejudicial to such
a society.

I come unprejudiced to the question, and when I have promised you an
answer to your future Letters in support of revelation, I have neither
anticipated your argument nor prejudged the cause. I hold myself open
to be convinced, and if I am convinced I shall say so, which is equally
answering as if I denied the force of your observations. In that sense
only I promise an answer. If I believe I shall say, I do; but I shall
not believe and tremble, confident as I am, that if I act an honest
part in life, whether there be a Deity and a future existence or not,
whatever reason I may have to rejoice in case such ideas he realised, I
can upon such an issue have none to tremble. I look upon myself to have
more reason to be temporally afraid than eternally so. Dr. Priestley or
any other Doctor can put his name boldly to a book in favour of Theism,
loudly call the supporters of a contrary doctrine to the argument, and
if no answer is produced, assert their own reasoning to be unanswerable.
In that sense their sort of reasoning has been frequently unanswerable.
Here however is an instance of a poor unknown individual, making
experience of the candour of the ecclesiastics and the equity of
the laws of England, for he ventures to subscribe his publication with
his name as well as Dr. Priestley does his Letters, to which this
publication is an answer. Perhaps he may have cause to repent of his
hardiness, but if he has, he is equally resolved to glory in his
martyrdom, as to suffer it. Whatever advantage religion has had in the
enumeration of it's martyrs, the cause of atheism may boast the same.
As to the instances of the professors of any particular form of
religion, or modification of that form, such as Christians or sects of
Christians, suffering martyrdom for their belief, I shall no more allow
them to be martyrs for theism than Pagans similarly suffering for their
belief, shall I call martyrs for atheism. Theism very likely has had
it's martyrs. I can instance one I think in Socrates, and I shall
mention Vanini as a martyr for atheism. The conduct of those two great
men in their last moments may be worth attending to. The variety of
other poor heretical wretches, who have been immolated at the shrine of
absurdity for all the possible errors of human credence, let them have
their legendary fame. I put them out of the scale in this important

Not that I really think the argument to be much advanced by naming the
great supporters of one opinion or of another. In mathematics,
mechanics, natural philosophy, in literature, taste, and politics the
sentiments of great men of great genius are certainly of weight. There
are some subjects capable of demonstration, many indeed which the
ingenuity of one man can go farther to illustrate than that of another.
The force of high authority is greater in the three former sciences
than in the latter. Theism and Atheism I hold to be neither of them
strictly demonstrable. You, Dr. Priestley, agree with me in that. Still
I hold the question capable of being illustrated by argument, and I
should hold the authority of great men's names to be of more weight in
this subject, were I not necessarily forced to consider that all
education is strongly calculated to support the idea of a Deity; by
this education prejudice is introduced, and prejudice is nothing else
than a corruption of the understanding. Certain principles, call them,
if you please, data, must be agreed upon before any reasoning can take
place. Disputants must at least agree in the ideas which they annex to
the language they use. But when prejudice has made a stand,
argumentation is set at so wide a distance, through a want of fixt data
to proceed upon, that attention is in vain applied to the dispute.
Besides, the nature of the subject upon which this prejudice takes
place, is such, that the finest genius is nearly equally liable to an
undue bias with the most vulgar. To question with boldness and
indifference, whether an individual, all-forming, all-seeing and
all-governing Being exists, to whom, if he exists, we may possibly be
responsible for our actions, whose intelligence and power must be
infinitely superior to our own, requires a great conquest of former
habitude, a firmness of nerves, as well as of understanding; it will
therefore be no great wonder, if such men as Locke and Newton can be
named among the believers in a Deity. They were christians as well as
theists, so that their authority goes as far in one respect as in the
other. But if the opinions of men of great genius are to have weight,
what is to be said of modern men of genius? You, Sir, are of opinion
that the world is getting wiser as well as better. There is all the
reason in the world it should get wiser at least, since wisdom is only
a collection of experience, and there must be more experience as the
world is older. Modern Philosophers are nearly all atheists. I take the
term atheist here in the popular sense. Hume, Helvetius, Diderot,
D'Alembert. Can they not weigh against Locke and Newton, and even more
than Locke and Newton, since their store of knowledge and learning was
at hand to be added to their own, and among them are those who singly
possessed equal science in mathematics as in metaphysics? It is not
impossible, perhaps not improbable, from his course of learning and
inquiries, that if Dr. Priestley had not from his first initiation into
science been dedicated for what is called the immediate service of God,
he himself might have been one of the greatest disprovers of his
pretended divinity.

In England you think, Sir, that atheism is not prevalent among men of
free reasoning, though you acknowledge it to be much so in other
countries. It is not the first time it has been observed that the
greater the superstition of the common people the less is that of men
of letters. In the heart of the Papal territories perhaps is the
greatest number of atheists, and in the reformed countries the greatest
number of deists. Yet it is a common observation, especially by
divines, that deism leads to atheism, and I believe the observation is
well founded. I hardly need explain here, that by deism in this sense
is meant a belief in the existence of a Deity from natural and
philosophical principles, and a disbelief in all immediate revelation
by the Deity of his own existence. Such is the force of habit, that it
is by degrees only, that even men of sense and firmness shake off one
prejudice after another. They begin by getting rid of the absurdities
of all popular religions. This leaves them simple deists, but the force
of reasoning next carries them a step farther, and whoever trusts to
this reasoning, devoid of all fear and prejudice, is very likely to end
at last in being an atheist. Nor do I admit it to be an argument either
for Revelation or Natural Religion, that the same turn for speculation
that would convert a christian into a theist, will carry him on to be
an atheist, though I know the argument has been often used. If upon
sick beds or in dying moments men revert to their old weakness and
superstitions, their falling off may afford triumph to religionists;
for my part I care not so much for the opinions of sick and dying men,
as of those who at the time are strong and healthy. But in the opinion
of the one or the other I put no great stress. My faith is in
reasoning, for though ridicule is not a complete test of truth,
reasoning I hold certainly to be so. I own belief may be imprest on the
mind otherwise than by the force of reason. The mind may be diseased.
All I shall say is that though I have formerly believed many things
without reason, and even many against it, as is very common, I hope I
shall never more. My mind (I was going to say, thank God) is sane at
present, and I intend to keep it so. I am aware that at the expression
just used some will exclaim in triumph, that the poor wretch could not
help thinking of his God at the same time he was denying him. The
observation would hold good, if it were not that we often speak and
write unpremeditately and though what is in this manner unpremeditately
expressed upon a revision should be certainly expunged, yet I chuse to
leave the expression to shew the force of habit.

In fear lies the origin of all fancied deities, whether sole or

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Online LibraryMatthew TurnerAnswer to Dr. Priestley's Letters to a Philosophical Unbeliever → online text (page 1 of 5)