Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature: An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891. Vols. VIVIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 18351860
The Belief in God
By James Freeman Clarke (18101888)
[Born in Hanover, N. H., 1810. Died at Jamaica Plain, Mass., 1888. Ten Great Religions. 1888.]
WHENCE was this belief in God, which we find so universal, derived? We have seen that all men believe in and adore unseen powers, higher than themselves. This worship begins in one great faith, universal and the same,the belief in the presence and power of invisible spirits. It passes up through various phases of belief, and then at last becomes once more the same faith; namely, belief in one Supreme Spiritual Being. It is one in its lowest form as Animism; one, finally, in its highest form, as Monotheism.
The only source from which mans belief in spirits could have been derived is the consciousness that he is himself a soul, a soul with a body for its present organ, but capable of existing without this organism. Apart from this consciousness, it is difficult to see how his belief in disembodied spirits could have come.
The second step is taken by means of another universal and necessary law of thoughtbelief in causation. All things around are in perpetual change; but a law of the mind compels us to believe that every event must have a cause; that for every change there must exist a motive force.
This notion of cause is deeply rooted in every human mind. It is a universal idea, for all men have it. It is a necessary idea, for we cannot help having it, even if we deny its existence. It probably arises first in the mind on the occasion of our making an effort and seeing some result follow. Cause is an idea connected intimately with personal action, effort, choice, the exercise of an intelligent will. Childlike races, looking out on the phenomena of nature, the coming of dawn, day and night, storm and sunshine, spring-time and harvest, flowers and fruits, and, seeing that these were caused by the sun, the atmosphere, the spring rains and summer heats, personified these causes as the Sun-god and Rain-god, as Agin, God of fire, and Indra, God of Storms. Thus the second step in religious belief was taken.
The next idea associated with the gods is that of creation. This belief in a God, who has created the heavens and the earth, we have also found to be very widely disseminated among races in every degree of civilization.
What was the origin of this belief? It seems to have risen in the mind by adding to the idea of causation that of finality or design. There is a universal law of thought, by which from the perception of adaptation we infer design. I do not here undertake to decide if this be an original intuition or not, but at present it is a law of thought which works like an instinct. Nearly the whole life of man is spent in adapting means to foreseen and intended ends. From the hunter setting his trap to catch game, up to Shakespeare designing the play of Hamlet, or the Apostle Paul planning the conversion of Europe, through all human industries, arts, amusements, man is adapting means to ends during all his life. When the Pilgrim Fathers landed on Cape Cod, before they knew whether the region was inhabited they came to a tree where a young sprit was bowed down, and some acorns strewed under it. As we were looking at it William Bradford came up, and as he went about, it gave a sudden jerk up, and he was caught by the leg. Stephen Hopkins said, It was made to catch some deer. It is a very pretty device. No one thought it a freak of nature. Adaptation proved design. In a stratum of sand belonging to a geological epoch where the presence of man had not then been suspected, there were found stones rudely shaped into some kind of tools. Their adaptation to cutting and grinding was at once regarded as a sufficient proof of design, therefore as evidence that men had existed on the earth at that remote period. No one can contemplate the myriad adaptations of means to ends in nature without being impressed with the sense of intelligent purpose. We do not stop now to consider the modern metaphysical objections to finality in nature. Such objections certainly never disturbed the primitive reason of mankind. To the common sense of the childlike races, no less than to the penetrating thought of Socrates, it was enough to look at the immense order of the universe, its infinite variety and majestic unity, its thousandfold adaptations to life, growth, and the progress of the creature, to lead to the conclusion that it was the work of some divine architect, some celestial Demiurg.
One more step was to be taken. If there are supernatural beings above man, yet caring for man, and if among these there is a Supreme Being maintaining the order of the universe, it needs only to proceed a little farther in this process of thought to reach the pure Monotheism of the Greek philosophy and the Egyptian mysteries. A contemplation of the world without shows universal law, fixed and invariable order, the permanence of being; and on this permanence of existing law our whole mind and heart repose securely. The invariable order of things is the only guarantee of our sanity, and to maintain this order we need infinite power, infinite wisdom, and infinite goodness. This conception of Infinite Being, existing in boundless space and eternal duration, is given us by another law of thought behind which we cannot go. Given the finite, there is a necessity to believe in the infinite. This is a conception so lofty as to seem above the capacity of a created mind, and yet it is one of the primal truths from which no human reason can escape. It is one of those of which Epictetus says: He who denies self-evident truths cannot be reasoned with.