Page images

possess, in regard to other essential articles, he manifests complete infatuation in relation to this which is closely connected with every other. If, in matters of speculation and doctrine, he proceeds to treat with violence, or to load with opprobrious imputations, those who honestly differ from him, he proves that he has no regard to the morality of religion.

It is astonishing that the real nature of religious principle and opinion, as solely directed to influence the mind, and as residing entirely there, should be so little understood. The superstitious person places religion in external rites and ceremonies; the fanatic, in rapturous emotions and fervours of the imagination ; the bigot, in the adoption of a peculiar system, the use of an appropriate phraseology, and in the practice of prescribed ceremonies. It is true that sound religious principles are the spring of salutary practice. But how are these to be introduced into the mind, but by argument and persuasion ? I readily grant that our prejudices, passions, and tempers, have a great influence on the formation of our speculative opinions ; but the exact proportion in which they possess this influence, is not so easily determined. - The bigot, however, uniformly ascribes to vicious inclinations, what he denounces as erroneous doctrine, and, placed in this light, reprobates it as a crime. He never considers the right of every

human being, who honestly inquires, to form and settle his own judgment in religious matters ; and assumes to himself that power of decision which belongs to God. He is not aware that he is thus equally guilty of rebellion against the searcher of hearts, and of tyranny in regard to mankind.

I mean not here to insinuate either that all religious opinions are to be viewed in the same light, or that we are precluded from defending and propagating those of whose truth we are intimately convinced. The former of these suppositions is sufficiently repelled by what has been already stated in the preceding chapter. The latter, as I have observed above, I hold to be a sacred duty incumbent, according to his talents and opportunities, on every friend to true piety, and to the best interests of mankind. Not only are we bound to maintain and illustrate true religious doctrine, but also to point out the pernicious consequences of that which we deem to be fundamentally erroneous. But this is to be done with that candour, mildness, and charity, which pure religion prescribes and inspires, and in that manner which is consistent with its nature ; not by dictatorial arrogance and violence, but by fair argument and legitimate persuasion. If these are unsuccessful, the ultimate decision must be left to him, who, being omniscient, can alone ascertain the secret springs which have inAuenced the judgment. Bigotry, however, precludes such a rational and equitable procedure, and never fails to injure the cause of genuine piety, and to place it on the same footing with the grossest superstition and fanatical frenzy.

IV. The forms of false and perverted religion, already considered, are consistent with sincerity, however ill informed. But religious imposture or hypocrisy absolutely precludes it. As religion seems to imply, in its nature, a certain persuasion of its reality, I know not whether I ought to include imposture under the category of false religious principles. But as it has acted so conspicuous and mischievous a part on the stage of religion, and really rendered the whole sphere of this noble principle a mere stage, some observations on this detestable perversion cannot be useless.

Religious imposture, or hypocrisy, bears the strongest testimony to the influence which piety, in some form or other, possesses over the minds of the generality of mankind, and even to that which, when pure, it is entitled to claim. By assuming its appearance, though totally destitute of its reality, the hypocrite addresses himself to the best principles of the human breast, and wears that livery which is the mark of the most honourable service. No man ever assumes a semblance which can contribute neither to his

honour nor to his interest, and whenever religious hypocrisy has existed, it has been practised with a view to the one or the other, or to both. The frequency of this abominable vice will always be in proportion to the esteem in which religious principle is held. It will prevail most in times when religion, true or erroneous, has the greatest power over the hearts of men ; and least, when it is less regarded. Nothing, it is true, is so conducive as hypocrisy to destroy the power of the reality which it affects to resemble. For, the prevalence of this vice superinduces a suspicion of religious profession, and, instead of contributing to its honour, exposes it to contempt or hatred, even when rational and sincere. Thus, like other vices, hypocrisy tends, at last, to defeat its own purposes, and, by prostituting religion, renders its semblance less imposing.

From these observations it is evident that this vice is not only destructive of the best interests of mankind, by exposing genuine piety to their contempt, but also betrays ultimately its own folly.

Religious imposture renders subservient to its purposes all the other forms of false religion already considered. But of these superstition is its fittest engine. Here fraud and craft have their widest scope ; for, superstitious times are also the most credulous. The purposes of religious imposture are of two classes ; publicly political, and privately selfish. The latter comprises the reputation and interest of the individual; the former, the advancement or maintenance of a peculiar species of state policy. Many a hypocrite pursues only his own particular emolument or advancement by assuming a religious garb; and the less he believes, the more flaming will be his profession. But the most prominent and extensive display of hypocrisy is when religion is used as a political engine. That it was so employed by the heathen priests, statesmen, and philosophers, cannot be doubted. Cato said that he could not conceive how, when two augurs met, they could abstain from laughing in each other's faces. The absurdities of pagan superstition were so obvious to every intelligent mind, that they could not be entirely believed and practised by any person of reflection; and every priest to whom this character belonged must have been conscious of their folly and wickedness, even when he was performing the public offices of religion. The wiser statesmen, and almost all the ancient philosophers, viewed their religious ceremonies merely as means for inspiring the people with awe and retaining them in obedience to the established government, and as closely incorporated with the frame and administration of the state. While other impostures were punished, the most abominable of all was considered as highly meritorious and laudable by those who affected the widest range

« PreviousContinue »