Pierre Bayle (2). Scepticism and Atheism. 1. Bayle, Natural and Revealed Religion. Three related distinctions:

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1 Pierre Bayle (2). Scepticism and Atheism. 1. Bayle, Natural and Revealed Religion. Three related distinctions: Natural Religion Reason The God of the philosophers (Pascal) Revealed Religion Faith The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The term natural religion meant doctrines about the existence and nature of God that were claimed to be based wholly on the exercise of human reason and whose credibility was supposed to rest entirely on rational criteria. Natural religion was contrasted with revealed religion by which was meant belief in religious teachings that were supposed to have been revealed by God through such people as Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Mohammed. The revelations of God s nature, purposes and commands that were believed to have occurred through such divinely ordained messengers, at particular times in history, were preserved in holy books and transmitted through the traditions and institutions of the religions they founded, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. This distinction between religious beliefs founded on natural reason and religious beliefs founded on revelation has been widely employed in the history of theology. Where theology is concerned solely with what human reason can establish about the existence and nature of God, that is where it is natural theology, it is part of philosophy. The medieval theologian, Thomas Aquinas, for example, says that natural theology can establish that there exists just one God who created the world and guides it providentially, for the good of all creatures, not only human beings. But, he argues, human reason alone cannot establish all the doctrines that a Christian should believe. Revelation is needed if human beings are to know, for example, the truth of the doctrines of the divinity of Christ and of the Trinity, for these truths can neither be understood nor made credible by human reason alone. The revealed truths are beyond human reason, although they are not contrary to reason. One who believes in revealed truths does so through the gift of faith. The position of Aquinas on the distinction between natural and revealed religion became dominant in the Catholic tradition of Christianity. Some later Protestant theologians, such as Luther and

2 Calvin, were more sceptical than was Aquinas about the possibilities of natural theology. In this tradition, human reason, like all other parts of human nature, is represented as weakened and blinded through the Fall, the wilful turning away from God that Adam and Eve made in Eden whose consequences the human race has inherited ever since. Protestant theologians of this persuasion insisted on the necessity of faith for all genuine religious belief, and expressed doubt whether human reason alone can establish any truths at all about God s nature and purposes. For such theologians, philosophy is more or less irrelevant to religious belief. 2. Bayle and true religion. For Bayle true religion has nothing to do with the arguments and conclusions of reason. True religious belief is not a matter of the understanding, of intellectual assent to doctrines; it is a matter of the heart, of the conviction of one s conscience. As a Calvinist, Bayle understood true religion as something brought about by God s grace, not by the individual s own understanding. Furthermore, no one can merit God s grace by the virtue of their life. Even among professing Christians, few are truly saved and endowed by God with living faith. Most Christians are only nominally so, and pay only lip service to religion. Their assent is still to doctrines and religious propositions. It is obvious, he says, that Christians are capable of vice and crime. History is full of examples. But, he argues, one cannot say that those Christians who live virtuous lives do so because they are true believers. Their religion, too, may be only nominal. The reason for this is that theoretical beliefs, including intellectual assent to religious doctrines, have in general very little influence on how people live. How people live is nearly always determined by temperament and inclination, which depends on what, in the period, was called sentiment or passion. The causes of varying temperaments and inclinations are not reason and understanding but education, training, custom, and habit. In sum, human behaviour results far more from passion than from reason. That is why Bayle makes the then shocking claim that atheists are not a social menace and that a society composed only of atheists would be perfectly viable. Convinced that human beings are incapable of putting their theoretical beliefs into practice if this means making even the slightest effort to dominate their ruling passions, Bayle

3 cannot see that an atheist is in any worse case than a nominal Christian. It is no more strange that an atheist should lead a virtuous life, than that a Christian should commit any kind of crime. Bayle doesn t say that philosophical and theological doctrines have no influence on how people live. Just that they do so in combination with passion and temperament. That s why fanaticism is such a scourge the conviction that you are on God s side and the other is on the side of the devil opens the way for injustice and cruelty on a vast scale as is seen in the idea of holy wars like the Crusades and the Wars of Religion in France. Bayle opposes the view that beliefs about of the existence and nature of God should be based on reasoned argument. He has no time for metaphysical arguments, whether they arrive at theistic or atheistic conclusions, and he discusses them in Pyrrhonian style, opposing one apparently persuasive argument with another to an opposite conclusion. So far as natural religion goes, Bayle considers that metaphysical arguments only arrive at philosophical ideas of God, such as of God as the First Cause, as a Necessary Being, as the source of laws of nature, and so on. Apart from the weaknesses he finds in them, Bayle s fundamental criticism is that God is not comprehensible by reason, but is the transcendent object of faith, the object of awe and worship. It is quite true that Bayle sometimes uses forms of the design argument, the a posteriori argument which infers God s existence from the order and beauty of nature. But this does not mean that he thought this argument is a proof; rather he uses it as something that people find persuasive, so that it can be used by the Pyrrhonian to counter philosophers like Epicurus who claimed that the order and beauty of nature could have arisen in a purely material universe by chance. Here we find another characteristic feature of the writings of Bayle and other sceptical fideists like Montaigne, which is the view that atheism is less offensive to God than idolatry, the worship of a false God. It as if Bayle is saying that God would rather be thought to be dead than to be like idolaters believe him to be. So it is better to say there is no god than to say that there are many gods, or that god is like a human being who acts from passions such as anger, lust, jealousy and revenge. Bayle s preference for atheism over superstition, idolatry and all forms of corrupt religion is clear in the

4 Dictionary and the Miscellaneous Reflections, and this is part of the reason why Bayle has been suspected on being a covert atheist. 3. Why was Bayle suspected of atheism? However the main reason many readers had for suspecting Bayle of being an atheist is his position on natural religion. As we noted, Aquinas taught that natural reason can establish some truths about the existence and nature of God, although many doctrines which a Christian should believe, such as the Incarnation, the Trinity, and the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, cannot be either proved or fully understood by reason. Nevertheless although these theological mysteries are so to speak beyond reason, they are not contrary to reason. A Christian is not required to abandon his or her reason in any area of thought where reason can operate. But according to Bayle, to be a sincere believing Christian it is absolutely necessary to abandon reason, that is to reject reason as any sort of guide to religious truth. This is clear in the way Bayle attacks Cartesian natural theology. Descartes had read Montaigne and was well aware of sceptical arguments. As we know, he set out to refute the Pyrrhonian position that there is no criterion of truth. Pyrrhonians often used a pattern of reasoning which tries to show that the opponent is either dogmatic (simply asserting something as true without any reason), or arguing in a circle (assuming what is to be proved), or involved in an unending regress (constantly needing to introduce additional premises, which in their turn require proof). Descartes claims that there is a criterion of truth, namely the kind of selfevidence possessed by the Cogito. This is something which it is impossible to doubt, for one cannot doubt it without at the same time demonstrating its truth. Thus there is a criterion of truth, self-evidence. Descartes proceeds to give arguments leading to the assertion of the existence of God, and from that to the existence of the external world, each step of which is supposed to be self-evident, while it is also self-evident that the logical form of the argument is valid. Bayle takes on Descartes in, among other places, note B of the article Pyrrho. Here we find the story of the two priests who argue about whether Pyrrhonism is a threat in the modern world. One says that it is understandable that ancient pagan philosophers

5 concluded that there is no criterion of truth, but Christians who are enlightened by the Gospel have nothing to fear from sceptics. The other replies that in fact the modern philosophy provides the Pyrrhonian with even better weapons than the ancient philosophers had. To show this, he refers to the discovery of modern philosophy that colours, tastes, sounds and other sensible qualities are not qualities of objects themselves, but affects of our sensibility. For generations people other than sceptics have believed for example that sugar really is sweet; but the modern philosophy teaches that this is not so and that all we can say is that sugar appears sweet. Now Cartesian philosophy maintains that bodies really are, and do not merely appear, to have shape and motion and to be extended in space. But if objects can appear cold or sweet or green and yet really are not why cannot they appear to have extension and motion and yet really do not? The modern philosophy seems to favour the suspension of judgement about the real nature of eternal objects. Is it not therefore possible that although we believe that bodies really exist, and are extended and mobile, nevertheless this is not true? The reply might be that if we are so made as to believe these things, then God has deceived us. But according to the modern philosophy for generations people have been deceived in believing that sugar is sweet. To avoid charging God with deception obviously we should say that he has made us in such a way that sugar appears sweet to us and bodies appear extended to us, but we are not made so that we must believe that this is how things really are. It looks therefore that if we are to be able to believe anything about how things really are, and not to be mistaken, God, if he is not to be a deceiver, must have provided us with a criterion of what is really true. This, according to the Cartesians, is the criterion of self-evidence. Bayle proceeds to a sceptical problem about self evidence, and the way he does is what caused consternation. He has the philosophical priest give a possible Pyrrhonian counter argument to self-evidence, which is: what is self-evident may be false. More precisely, the Pyrrhonian argument he gives is ad hominem and is directed at Christians who believe the theological mysteries like the Trinity and the Eucharist. It is self-evident that if x = z and y = z then x = y. But although this is self-evident and constantly relied upon in logic and mathematics, if the doctrine of the Trinity is true, then this axiom is not necessarily true. For the Son = God and the Holy Spirit = God,

6 but the Son does not = the Holy Spirit. Similarly, it is self-evident that one being cannot be in two different places at one and the same time. But this self-evident proposition is false if the Catholic doctrine of the Eucharist is true, for Christ is really and wholly present in the Host at mass in York at exactly the moment he is really and wholly present in the Host at mass in Manchester. More is to come. The philosophical priest imagines the Pyrrhonian now turns to ethics. It is self-evident that we ought to prevent evil if we can, and sin if we allow it. But this self evident ethical proposition is not true if Christian theology is true; for that theology teaches that God is not in any way less than perfect in permitting all sorts of evils in the world which, being omnipotent, he could have prevented. Similarly, it is self-evident that a person who does not exist at the time another commits a crime cannot be punished as an accomplice to that crime. But according to Christian theology, all later generations of human beings are guilty by Adam s original sin in the Garden of Eden. Further arguments are given of the same type. What is self-evident can be false if Christian theology is true. The conclusion is If there were a mark or characteristic by which truth could certainly be known, this would be self-evidence. Now, selfevidence is not such a mark, since it is compatible with falsities. Bayle s arguments against the Cartesian criterion of self-evidence turn on the incompatibility of reason, taken in its strong sense as reasoning from self-evident principles by self-evidently valid steps, with Christian doctrine. He is rejecting the position of Aquinas and many others that Christian doctrines may be beyond reason but are not contrary to it. His position is that Christian doctrines are rationally incredible. Not only is religious belief not provable by reason, it cannot even be made consistent with it. 4. The problem of evil. Bayle draws the same conclusion from his many discussions of the problem of evil. What he denies is that philosophical reasoning can reconcile the existence of suffering and evil with the goodness and omnipotence of God. A famous example is his article

7 in the Dictionary on Manicheanism. The Manicheans were a religious movement dating back to the third century AD, closely connected to the Persian religion called Zoroastrianism, and a major doctrine of theirs was the existence of two Gods, one the source of all goodness, the other the source of all evil. They believed that the world is the battleground of a struggle between these two gods or divine principles for dominance, and this struggle is manifested in the changing mixture of good and evil humans experience in their lives. Bayle remarks that clear reason tells us that there is only one God who is necessary, eternal, omnipotent and perfect, so the Manichean dualism can be rejected. This apparent endorsement of clear reason we know to take with a pinch of salt. His point is this: if we somehow know in advance of considering the mixture of good and evil in the world that there is only one God, perfect and omnipotent, then even if we cannot explain the existence of pain and suffering we know that it must be consistent in some way with the existence of this God. But, he says, if we were to reason on the basis of experience, a posteriori, it would be difficult to refute the Manichean hypothesis. If there is only one divine being who creates human beings, and that being is omnipotent and perfect, (call this being God), why do humans suffer so much and do so much evil? The defender of the hypothesis of God may reply that he did originally create human beings for virtue and happiness, but they did not follow the light of conscience as God intended, and became wicked. They thus deserved the punishment of suffering. God, then is not the cause of moral evil, but only of physical suffering, and this is consistent with his perfection for it manifests his justice. The Manichean can reply that God could have created human beings without any inclination to stray from his commands. The monotheist will reply that human beings sinned by their own free will, by a free choice not determined by their inclinations. The Manichean responds that it is not conceivable that human beings can be ontologically dependent for their existence on God and at the same time able to act entirely independently of God. But putting aside that metaphysical objection, there is the further objection that God, as omniscient, must have foreseen the possible ill use of human freedom. Then, if he is perfect, he would have acted like a good father who foresees that his children might misuse some good thing he has given them, and so takes steps to prevent them doing so. And so the dispute will continue, in an only too familiar way.

8 Bayle s conclusion about the problem of evil is not only that it is insoluble by reason, but also, more strongly, that according to all our ideas of ethics and logic, the existence of evil and suffering is logically inconsistent with the existence of an omnipotent and perfect deity. It is not just that reason does not see how to reconcile these things; it is that reason sees that they are irreconcilable. We have seen that Bayle s position about the relation between reason and religious belief is that they are, in essence, in conflict. If we were to follow reason not only would we not reach religious truth (as Luther and Calvin already maintained) but, more strongly, we would reject it as contrary to reason. According to Bayle, this is the point of his arguments. We can be sincere believing Christians only if we abandon the guide of reason. Now, to believe that P is to believe that P is true. If we are to be able to believe what is contrary to reason, we need to reject the view that reason is a sure guide to truth. And that is the value of Pyrrhonism. It enables us to suspend our judgement when faced with apparently logical proofs and apparently logically valid arguments. The rejection of reason as an essential step to accepting faith is the constant message of sceptical fideists. Many readers have questioned the sincerity of Bayle s piety. His arguments against the rational coherence of Christianity seem to them in many respects persuasive; and of course Bayle cannot offer any reason to accept faith, for according to him there can be none and faith is not even a free choice, but a divine gift. Yet in the absence of any belief in a divinity in the first place, one cannot accept that religious faith is a divine gift either. Bayle wrote thousands of words on the subject. But his own religion seems in the end close to that of Abraham, as portrayed by Kierkegaard in Fear and Trembling. The true knight of faith cannot speak his faith.

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