Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. IV. Eighteenth Century
A Defence of Free Enquiry in Religion
By Conyers Middleton (16831750)
From Remarks on Observations to the Author of a Letter to Dr. Waterland
IF the religion of a country was to be considered only as an imposture; an engine of government to keep the people in order; even then an endeavour to unhinge it, unless with a design to substitute a better in its stead, would in my opinion be highly unreasonable. But should the priests of such a religion, for the sake of their authority and power, labour to impose their own failures for divine truths; to possess the people with an enthusiastic zeal for them; manageable only by themselves and to be played even against the government, as oft as it served their separate interests; in such a case, tis the duty of every man who loves his country and his fellow creatures, to oppose all such attempts; to confine religion to its proper bounds; to the use for which it was instituted; of inspiring benevolence, modesty, submission into the people; nor suffer the credit of it to grow too strong for that of the State; the authority of the priest, for that of the magistrate.
Was religion, I say, to be considered as an imposture, all men would think this conduct reasonable; and where it is really a revelation from heaven, the case is not altered, as far as the end of that revelation is perverted and abused by the arts or the folly of men; as the Jewish was by the Pharisees; the Christian by some of its modern advocates. In such circumstances, in proportion as a man values his religion, and believes it to be of God, he will exert himself to clear it from all human impositions; which render it either of no effect, or of a mischievous one to society; propagating rage and strife and every evil work, instead of the peace and happiness twas designed to introduce. And if the end of all revelation be to enforce with greater vigour, and by means more affecting to sense, the obligations of the natural law; those priests are the truest friends to God and man, who labour to adapt it the most effectually to that end; to expound it by the known principles of reason and morality; and to make it amiable, by making it plain, rational, intelligible to common understandings.
As for those, who take the contrary way; who either deny all natural law, or make it bend as they please, to their own comments on Scripture; who build religion on a principle of faith, distinct from reason; look on the latter with a jealous eye, as an instrument and engine of Satan; who measure all truth by authority; all credibility by testimony; by which authority still and testimony they mean little more than their own, and to draw the greater dependence on themselves; for these writers, I say, tis the duty of every rational Christian to expose their principles as slavish and superstitious; destructive of that good, for which all religion was given; turning the best thing in the world into the worst; a revelation from heaven, into a doctrine hurtful and pernicious to mankind.
And where religion, as with us, is received as of divine authority, and on the best grounds and reasons embraced as such, though I greatly condemn the perverseness of contesting truths so strongly established, yet I cannot think it agreeable either to reason or religion to punish even such as are hardy enough to call in question the reality of revelation itself, for tis the greatest weakness and absurdity to think that truth can ever be hurt by any examination whatsoever; it may be oppressed awhile by faction, stifled by power; but in a free debate, as in free air and exercise, it always regains its strength and vigour; controversy to truth is like a gentle wind to trees; it shakes the head but fastens the root. Truth is naturally so amiable, that wherever tis exposed to view it necessarily draws all to admire it, and the more tis exposed, the more strongly it attracts. Where artifice indeed and fraud prevail in the stead of it, there all inquiry must industriously be discouraged as a dangerous and fatal enemy, sure to detect and expose the cheat; and wherever tis discouraged, there is always some reason to suspect some latent imposture; now as sure as truth and falsehood are contrary to each other, so sure it is that the same method of treating them cannot possibly be of service in both.
As far as my experience has reached, either in ancient or modern history, theres not an instance on record, where a fair examination has ever done harm to a good cause. The attacks on Christianity, urged on by its warmest enemies, always turn to its advantage; they engage the clergy to study and search into the true grounds of it; keep them in breath and exercise, and train them by constant discipline to be able champions and defenders of it; they clear religion itself of all the dust and rubbish, which by the negligence or the art of its managers, it may have contracted; and above all, they enforce and lay open the genuine proofs of it, which by time itself, naturally grow languid and ineffectual, till a new debate like a new publication sends them fresh again into the world, in their original force and lustre.
Tis then my firm principle and persuasion that a free inquiry into all points of religion is always useful and beneficial; and for that reason never to be punished or prohibited. It opens the minds and reforms the manners of the people; makes them reasonable, sociable, governable; easy to such as differ from them, and as little scandalised at the different opinion, as the different complexion of their neighbour; whereas the restraint of this liberty, and the imposition of systems and articles, that must be called in question, nourishes a churlish spirit of bigotry, uncharitableness, enthusiasm, which no civil power can moderate; a spirit that has so oft involved mankind in wars and bloodshed; and by turns endangered the ruin of every Christian country in the world.