Ernest Naville.

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Lectures on Modern Atheism.







- "To this deplorable error I desire to oppose faith in GOD as it
has been given to the world by the Gospel - faith in the HEAVENLY
_Author's Letter to Professor Faraday_ (v. p. 193).







These Lectures, in their original form, were delivered at Geneva, and
afterwards at Lausanne, before two auditories which together numbered
about two thousand five hundred men. A Swiss Review published
considerable portions of them, which had been taken down in short-hand,
and on reading these portions, several persons, belonging to different
countries, conceived the idea of translating the work when completed by
the Author, and corrected for publication. Proof-sheets were accordingly
sent to the translators as they came from the press: and thus this
volume will appear pretty nearly at the same time in several of the
languages of Europe.

The hearty kindness with which my fellow-countrymen received my words
has been to me both a delight and an encouragement. The expressions of
sympathy which have reached me from abroad allow me to hope that these
pages, notwithstanding the deficiencies and imperfections of which I am
keenly sensible, reflect some few of the rays of the truth which God has
deposited on the earth, thereby to unite in the same faith and hope men
of every tongue and every nation.


GENEVA, _May, 1865_.


The appearance of this translation so long after that of the original
work is in contradiction to the foregoing statement of the Author, that
it would appear at nearly the same time with it. The delay has been due
to causes beyond the translator's control - in part to the difficulty of
revising the press at so great a distance from the place of publication,
the translator being resident at Geneva. This latter circumstance causes
an exception in another particular as regards this translation, the
proposal to translate the Lectures having been made to the Author, and
kindly accepted by him, during the course of their delivery at Geneva.

The mere statement by the Author of the numbers, large as they were, of
those who formed the auditories, can give but a small idea of the
enthusiasm with which they were received by the crowds which thronged to
hear them, and which were composed of all classes of persons, from the
most distinguished savant to the intelligent artisan.

It is not to be expected that the Lectures when read, even in the
original, and still less in a translation, can produce the vivid
impression which they made on those, who, with the translator, had the
privilege of hearing them delivered, - the Author having few rivals, on
the Continent or elsewhere, in the graces of polished eloquence; but the
subjects treated are, it is to be feared, of increasing importance, not
abroad only, but in England; and in fact one Lecture, the fourth, is in
a large measure occupied with forms of atheism which owe their chief
support to English authors. In that Lecture the Author shows that the
spiritual origin of man cannot "be put out of sight beneath details of
physiology and researches of natural history," and that these not only
"cannot settle," but "cannot so much as touch the question."

The same Lecture is occupied in part by a practical refutation of the
prejudice against religion drawn from the irreligious character of many
men of science. The Author's subject has led him in the present work to
confine his illustrations on this head to the question of natural
religion: but the translator will avow that a main motive with him to
undertake the labor of this translation has been the wish to prove, in
the instance of the distinguished Author himself, that men of
incontestable eminence as metaphysical philosophers may hold and profess
boldly their faith in doctrines, which many who affect to guide the
religious opinions of our youth would teach them to despise as the
heritage of narrow minds, and to cast away as incompatible with the
highest intellectual cultivation. Such doctrines are those of the fall
and ruin of man by nature, the necessity for Divine agency in his
recovery, his need of propitiation by the sacrifice of the
God-Man - _l'Homme-Dieu_. These truths are explicitly stated by the
Author in his former course of lectures - _La Vie Eternelle_,[1] in
which, while discoursing eloquently on that eternal life which is the
portion of the righteous, he does not shrink from declaring his belief
in its awful counterpart, the eternal condemnation of the wicked.

"The offence of the Cross" has not "ceased," and many finding that these
are the opinions of this Author, will perhaps lay down his book as
unworthy of their attention: yet the editor, biographer, and expositor
of the great French thinker, Maine de Biran, will not need introduction
to the intellectual magnates of our own or of any country. The
translator will be thankful, if some of those, - the youth more
especially, - of his own country, who have been dazzled by the glare of
false science, shall find in this work a help to the reassuring of their
faith, while they learn in a fresh example that there are men quite
competent to deal with the profoundest problems which can exercise our
thoughts, who at the same time have come to a conviction, - compatible as
they believe with principles of the clearest reason, - of the truth of
those very doctrines which form the substance of evangelical
Christianity. In saying this, the translator is far from claiming the
Author as belonging to the same school of theology with himself: but
differing with him on some important points, he has yet believed that
this volume is calculated to be of much use in the present condition of
religious thought in England, and in this hope and prayer he commends it
to the blessing of Him, whose being and attributes, as our God and
Father in Jesus Christ, are therein asserted and defended.

GENEVA, _November, 1865_.


[1] A translation of this work, by an English lady, has been published
by Mr. Dalton, 28, Cockspur street.

















(At Geneva, 17th Nov. 1863. - At Lausanne, 11th Jan. 1864.)


Some five-and-twenty or thirty years ago, a German writer published a
piece of verse which began in this way: "Our hearts are oppressed with
the emotions of a pious sadness, at the thought of the ancient Jehovah
who is preparing to die." The verses were a dirge upon the death of the
living God; and the author, like a well educated son of the nineteenth
century, bestowed a few poetic tears upon the obsequies of the Eternal.

I was young when these strange words met my eyes, and they produced in
me a kind of painful bewilderment, which has, I think, for ever engraven
them in my memory. Since then, I have had occasion to learn by many
tokens that this fact was not at all an exceptional one, but that men
of influence, famous schools, important tendencies of the modern mind,
are agreed in proclaiming that the time of religion is over, of religion
in all its forms, of religion in the largest sense of the word. Beneath
the social disturbances of the day, beneath the discussions of science,
beneath the anxiety of some and the sadness of others, beneath the
ironical and more or less insulting joy of a few, we read at the
foundation of many intellectual manifestations of our time these gloomy
words: "Henceforth no more God for humanity!" What may well send a
shudder of fright through society - more than threatening war, more than
possible revolution, more than the plots which may be hatching in the
dark against the security of persons or of property - is, the number, the
importance, and the extent of the efforts which are making in our days
to extinguish in men's souls their faith in the living God.

This fear, Gentlemen, I should wish to communicate to you, but I should
wish also to confine it within its just limits. Religion (I take this
term in its most general acceptation) is not, as many say that it is,
either dead or dying. I want no other proof of this than the pains which
so many people are taking to kill it. It is often those who say that it
is dead, or falling rapidly into dissolution, who apply themselves to
this work. They are too generous, no doubt, to make a violent attack
upon a corpse; and it is easy to understand, judging by the intensity of
their exertions, that in their own opinion they have something else to
do than to give a finishing stroke to the dying.

Present circumstances are serious, not for religion itself, which cannot
be imperilled, but for minds which run the risk of losing their balance
and their support. Let it be observed, however, that when it is said
that we are living in extraordinary times, that we are passing through
an unequalled crisis, that the like of what we see was never seen
before, and so on, we must always regard conclusions of this nature with
distrust. Our personal interest in the circumstances which immediately
surround us produces on them for us the magnifying effect of a
microscope: and our principal reason for thinking that our epoch is more
extraordinary than others, is for the most part that we are living in
our own epoch, and have not lived in others. A mind attentive to this
fact, and so placed upon its guard against all tendency to
exaggeration, will easily perceive that religious thought has in former
times passed through shocks as profound and as dangerous as those of
which we are witnesses. Still the crisis is a real one. Taking into
account its extent in our days, we may say that it is new for the
generation to which we belong; and it is worthy of close consideration.
To-day, as an introduction to this grave subject, I should wish first to
determine as precisely as possible what is our idea of God; to inquire
next from what sources we derive it; and lastly to point out, as clearly
as I may, the limits and the nature of the discussion to which I invite

In asking what sense we must give to the word "God," I am not going to
propose to you a metaphysical definition, or any system of my own: I am
inquiring what is in fact the idea of God in the bosom of modern
society, in the souls which live by this idea, in the hearts of which it
constitutes the joy, in the consciences of which it is the support.

When our thoughts rise above nature and humanity to that invisible Being
whom we speak of as God, what is it which passes in our souls? They
fear, they hope, they pray, they offer thanksgiving. If a man finds
himself in one of those desperate positions in which all human help
fails, he turns towards Heaven, and says, My God! If we are witnesses of
one of those instances of revolting injustice which stir the conscience
in its profoundest depths, and which could not on earth meet with
adequate punishment, we think within ourselves, - There is a Judge on
high! If we are reproved by our own conscience, the voice of that
conscience, which disturbs and sometimes torments us, reminds us that
though we may be shut out from all human view, there is no less an Eye
which sees us, and a just award awaiting us. Thus it is (I am seeking to
establish facts) that the thought of God operates, so to speak, in the
souls of those who believe in Him. If you look for the meaning common to
all these manifestations of man's heart, what do you find? Fear, hope,
thanksgiving, prayer. To whom is all this addressed? To a Power
intelligent and free, which knows us, and is able to act upon our
destinies. This is the idea which is found at the basis of all
religions; not only of the religion of the only God, but of the most
degraded forms of idolatrous worship. All religion rests upon the
sentiment of one or more invisible Powers, superior to nature and to

When philosophical curiosity is awakened, it disengages from the general
sentiment of power the definite idea of the cause which becomes the
explanation of the phenomena. The reason of man, by virtue of its very
constitution, finds a need of conceiving of an absolute cause which
escapes by its eternity the lapse of time, and by its infinite character
the bounds of limited existences; a principle, the necessary being of
which depends on no other; in a word a unique cause, establishing by its
unity the universal harmony. So, when reason meets with the idea of the
sole and Almighty Creator, it attaches itself to it as the only thought
which accounts to it for the world and for itself.

The Creator is, first of all, He whose glory the heavens declare, while
the earth makes known the work of His hands. He is the Mighty One and
the Wise, whose will has given being to nature, and who directs at once
the chorus of stars in the depths of the heavens, and the drop of vital
moisture in the herb which we tread under foot.

If, after having looked around, we turn our regard in upon ourselves, we
then discover other heavens, spiritual heavens, in which shine, like
stars of the first magnitude, those objects which cause the heart of man
to beat, so long as he is not self-degraded: truth, goodness, beauty.
Now we feel that we are made for this higher world. Material enjoyments
may enchain our will; we may, in the indulgence of unworthy passions,
pursue what in its essence is only evil, error, and deformity; but, if
all the rays of our true nature are not extinguished, a voice issues
from the depth of our souls and protests against our debasement. Our
aspirations toward these spiritual excellences are unlimited. Our
thought sets out on its course: have we solved one question? immediately
new questions arise, which press, no less than the former, for an
answer. Our conscience speaks: have we come in a certain degree to
realize what is right and good? immediately conscience demands of us
still more. Is our feeling for beauty awakened? Well, sirs, when an
artist is satisfied with the work of his hands, do you not know at once
what to think of him? Do you not know that that man will never do any
thing great, who does not see shining in his horizon an ideal which
stamps as imperfect all that he has been able to realize? The voice
which urges us on through life from the cradle to the grave, and which,
without allowing us a moment's pause, is ever crying - Forward! forward!
this voice is not more imperious than the noble instinct which, in the
view of beauty, of truth, of good, is also saying to us - Forward!
forward! and, with the American poet, _Excelsior!_ higher, ever higher!
Many of you know that instinct familiar to the _climbers of the
Alps_,[2] as they are called, who, arrived at one summit, have no rest
so long as there remains a loftier height in view. Such is our destiny;
but the last peak is veiled in shining clouds which conceal it from our
sight. Perfection, - this is the point to which our nature aspires; but
it is the ladder of Jacob: we see the foot which rests upon the earth;
the summit hides itself from our feeble view amidst the splendors of the

These objects of our highest desires - beauty in its supreme
manifestation, absolute holiness, infinite truth - are united in one and
the same thought - God! The attributes of the spiritual are never in us
but as borrowed attributes; they dwell naturally in Him who is their
source. God is the truth, not only because He knows all things, but
because He is the very object of our thoughts; because, when we study
the universe, we do but spell out some few of the laws which He has
imposed on things; because, to know truth is never any thing else than
to know the creation or the Creator, the world or its eternal Cause. God
it is who must be Himself the satisfaction of that craving of the
conscience which urges us towards holiness. If we had arrived at the
highest degree of virtue, what should we have done? We should have
realized the plan which He has proposed to spiritual creatures in their
freedom, at the same time that He is directing the stars in their
courses by that other word which they accomplish without having heard
it. God is the eternal source of beauty. He it is who has shed grace
upon our valleys, and majesty upon our mountains; and He, again, it is
(I quote St. Augustine) who acts within the souls of artists, those
great artists, who, urged unceasingly towards the regions of the ideal,
feel themselves drawn onwards towards a divine world.

God then above all is He who _is_, - the Absolute, the Infinite, the
Eternal, - in the ever mysterious depths of His own essence. In His
relation to the world, He is the cause; in His relation to the lofty
aspirations of the soul, He is the ideal. He is the ideal, because being
the absolute cause, He is the unique source, at the same time that He is
the object, of our aspirations: He is the absolute cause, because being
He who _is_, in His supreme unity, nothing could have existence except
by the act of His power. We are able already to recognize here, in
passing, the source at which are fed the most serious aberrations of
religious thought. Are truth, holiness, beauty considered separately
from the real and infinite Spirit in which is found their reason for
existing? We see thus appear philosophies noble in their commencement,
but which soon descend a fatal slope. The divine, so-called, is spoken
of still; but the divine is an abstraction, and apart from God has no
real existence. If truth, beauty, holiness are not the attributes of an
eternal mind, but the simple expression of the tendencies of our soul,
man may render at first a sort of worship to these lofty manifestations
of his own nature; but logic, inexorable logic, forces him soon to
dismiss the divine to the region of chimeras. These rays are
extinguished together with their luminous centre; the soul loses the
secret of its destinies, and, in the measureless grief which possesses
it, it proclaims at length that all is vanity. We shall have, in the
sequel, to be witnesses together of this sorrowful spectacle.

Such is the basis of our idea of God: we must now discover its summit.
Before the thought of this Sovereign Being, by whose Will are all
things, and who is without cause and without beginning, our soul is
overwhelmed. We are so feeble! the thought of absolute power crushes us.
Creatures of a day, how should we understand the Eternal? Frail as we
are, and evil, we tremble at the idea of holiness. But milder accents,
as you know, have been heard upon the earth: This Sovereign God - He
loves us. In proportion as this idea gains possession of our
understanding, in the same proportion our soul has glimpses of the paths
of peace. He loves us, and we take courage. He hears us, and prayer
rises to Him with the hope of being heard. He governs all, and we
confide in His Providence. When your gaze is directed towards the depths
of the sky, does it never happen to you to remain in a manner terrified,
as you contemplate those worlds which without end are added to other
worlds? As you fix your thoughts upon the immeasurable abysses of the
firmament, - as you say to yourselves that how far soever you put back
the boundary of the skies, if the universe ended there, then the
universe, with its suns and its groups of stars, would still be but a
solitary lamp, shining as a point in the midst of the limitless
darkness, - have you never experienced a sort of mysterious fright and
giddiness? At such a time turn your eyes upon nearer objects. He who has
made the heavens with their immensity, is He who makes the corn to
spring forth for your sustenance, who clothes the fields with the
flowers which rejoice your sight, who gives you the fresh breath of
morning, and the calm of a lovely evening: it is He, without whose
permission nothing occurs, who watches over you and over those you love.
Possess yourselves thoroughly with this thought of love, then lift once
more your eyes to the sky, and from every star, and from the worlds
which are lost in the furthest depths of space, shall fall upon your
brow, no longer clouded, a ray of love and of peace. Then with a feeling
of sweet affiance you will adopt as your own those words of an ancient
prophet: "Whither shall I go from Thy Spirit, or whither shall I flee
from Thy Presence? If I ascend up into heaven, Thou art there: if I make
my bed in hell, behold, Thou art there. If I take the wings of the
morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea; even there shall
Thy hand lead me, and Thy right hand shall hold me:"[3] then you will
understand those grand and sweet words of Saint Augustine, some of the
most beautiful that ever fell from the lips of a man: "Are you afraid of
God? Run to His arms!"

Thus our idea of God is completed, - the idea of Him whom, in a feeling
of filial confidence, we name the Father, and whom we call the
_Heavenly_ Father, while we adore that absolute holiness, of which the
pure brightness of the firmament is for us the visible and magnificent
symbol. Goodness is the secret of the universe; goodness it is which has
directed power, and placed wisdom at its service.

My object is not to teach this idea, but to defend it: it is not, I say,
to teach it, for we all possess it. There is no one here who has not
received his portion of the sacred deposit. This sacred idea may be
veiled by our sorrows, perverted by our errors, obscured by our faults;
but, however thick be the layer of ashes heaped together in the depth of
our souls - look closely: the sacred spark is not extinguished, and a
favorable breath may still rekindle the flame.

We have considered the essential elements of which our idea of God is
composed. And whence comes this idea? What is its historical origin? I
do not ask what is the historical origin of religion, for religion does
not take its rise in history; it is met with everywhere and always in
humanity. Those who deny this are compelled to "search in the darkness
for some obscure example known only to themselves, as if all natural
inclinations were destroyed by the corruption of a people, and as if, as
soon as there are any monsters, the species were no longer any
thing."[4] The consciousness of a world superior to the domain of
experience is one of the attributes characteristic of our nature. "If
there had ever been, or if there still anywhere existed, a people
entirely destitute of religion, it would be in consequence of an
exceptional downfall which would be tantamount to a lapse into
animality."[5] I am not therefore inquiring after the origin of the
idea and sentiment of the Deity, in a general sense, but after the
origin of the idea of the only and Almighty Creator as we possess it. In
fact, if religion is universal, distinct knowledge of the Creator is not

Our own past strikes its roots into the historic soil which, in the
matter of creeds, is known by the name of paganism or idolatry. At first
sight what do we find in the opinions of that ancient world? No trace of
the divine unity. Adoration is dispersed over a thousand different
beings. Not only are the heavenly bodies adored and the powers of
nature, but men, animals, and inanimate objects. The feeling of the
holiness of God is not less wanting, it would seem, than the idea of His
unity. Religion serves as a pretext for the unchaining of human
passions. This is the case unfortunately with religion in general, and
the true religion is no exception to the rule: but what characterizes
paganism is that in its case religion, by its own proper nature, favors
the development of immorality. Celebrated shrines become the dens of a
prostitution which forms part of the homage rendered to the gods; the

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Online LibraryErnest NavilleThe Heavenly Father Lectures on Modern Atheism → online text (page 1 of 19)