If a hundred million people believe something stupid—it’s still something stupid. —Anatole France
And what is truth, Pilate said. —the Bible
Once when I was living in a remote forest area, where almost all my gear was carried twenty miles through deep forest in my bowl or in a shoulder bag, I allowed myself the luxury, in addition to a few tiny notebooks containing Buddhist texts, of two paperbacks that I had acquired at bookstores in Rangoon: One was Milton’s Paradise Lost, and the other was Hume on Human Nature and the Understanding, a collection of writings by the 18th-century Scottish philosopher David Hume. Not being a fundamentalist Christian, I admit that Milton didn’t impress me all that much (although the demons are interesting, and the scene towards the end where Eve is crying and offering to take all the blame for eating the fruit is very moving); but Hume really impressed me, and he became one of my favorite Western philosophers, almost a hero.
One thing I really admire about Hume is that he was such a damn radical. He questioned axioms that virtually everyone took for granted without examination, and which most people still take for granted, and that includes modern scientists. He pointed out that reason is a kind of animal instinct in humans, and that it is based upon irrationality—a point that made him an empiricist rather than a rationalist. He inspired Immanuel Kant, among others, and was a fundamental contributor to a kind of Copernican revolution in Western thought (in large part by “awakening” Kant). He has significantly influenced modern philosophers of science; and Bertrand Russell, a great advocate of scientific empiricism, appears to have been veritably haunted by Hume’s ghost: Russell’s book Human Knowledge: Its Scope and Limits may as well have been entitled What Can We Do about the David Hume Problem? Hume was a radical skeptic who attacked virtually all beliefs with fire and sword. He is considered by many to be the most important philosopher to write in the English language.
One of the people who inspired Hume was a strange fellow named Nicolas Malebranche, a quasi-Cartesian Christian philosopher of 17th-century France who endorsed an almost Islamic point of view called occasionalism. According to Malebranche (and to Muslims), God is omnipotent not only to the extent of being infinitely powerful but to the extreme of possessing all power whatsoever. Thus such apparent physical phenomena as inertia or motive force are an illusion. A car smashing through a fence, for example, has no more physical momentum to it than the image of a car smashing through a fence projected on a movie screen. God does absolutely everything, and only creates the appearance or seeming of physical force. Malebranche’s occasionalism rendered physical matter itself practically redundant, so the devout Anglican Christian philosopher George Berkeley took it one step further and denied the existence of physical matter altogether. Malebranche inspired Hume differently: Hume took Malebranche’s arguments against the existence of physical force (which after all cannot really be demonstrated as false even today) as a sign that causation itself cannot really be known. All we can do is see B following A again and again and then infer or assume that A is the cause of B. But we really can’t know it. I may as well add that Hume’s arguments against the knowability of causation deals a serious kick in the head to much of Buddhist philosophy also…but we needn’t get into that. Hume also endorsed a kind of anattā, i.e. the observation that who we think we are is really just an accumulation of mental states, with no “self” holding them all together. “Self” is merely a term conveniently superimposed upon this nebulous and constantly changing accumulation.
Anyway, the series of philosophical arguments in Hume’s A Treatise of Human Nature and also in An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding begin with his division of mental states into “impressions” and “ideas.” In his Inquiry he defines them as follows:
By the term “impression,” then, I mean all our more lively perceptions, when we hear, or see, or feel, or love, or hate, or desire, or will. And impressions are distinguished from ideas, which are the less lively perceptions of which we are conscious when we reflect on any of those sensations or movements above mentioned.
The average Westerner nowadays would probably be of the opinion that Hume’s “impressions” refer to sensory data received via our physical sense organs, while “ideas” are memory, reason, and imagination, mere thought. But this would be much too foolhardy of an assumption for a radical skeptic like Hume. Unlike modern Scientism which starts with what is uncertain (a physical external world) and tries to base certainty upon that, Hume and many other pre-Brave New World philosophers tried to start with what is certain—i.e. the experience of consciousness itself, and to build upon that foundation. So he simply differentiates these two main categories of mental phenomena and moves on.
The main reason I mention Hume’s division of mental phenomena is that later on in that book I brought into the woods with me, he attempts a similar definition of belief. He asks the question, What is Belief?
[Human imagination] can feign a train of events with all the appearance of reality, ascribe to them a particular time and place, conceive them as existent, and paint them out to itself with every circumstance that belongs to any historical fact which it believes with the greatest certainty. Wherein, therefore, consists the difference between such a fiction and belief? It lies not merely in any peculiar idea which is annexed to such a conception as commands our assent, and which is wanting to every known fiction. For as the mind has authority over all its ideas, it could voluntarily annex this particular idea to any fiction, and consequently be able to believe whatever it pleases, contrary to what we find by daily experience. We can, in our conception, join the head of a man to the body of a horse, but it is not in our power to believe that such an animal has ever really existed.
It follows, therefore, that the difference between fiction and belief lies in some sentiment or feeling which is annexed to the latter, not to the former, and which depends not on the will, nor can be demanded at pleasure. It must be excited by nature like all other sentiments and must rise from the particular situation in which the mind is placed at any particular juncture. Whenever any object is presented to the memory or senses, it immediately, by force of custom, carries the imagination to conceive that object which is usually conjoined to it; and this conception is attended with a feeling or sentiment different from the loose reveries of the fancy. In this consists the whole nature of belief. For as there is no matter of fact which we believe so firmly that we cannot conceive the contrary, there would be no difference between the conception assented to and that which is rejected were it not for some sentiment which distinguishes the one from the other. If I see a billiard ball moving toward another on a smooth table, I can easily conceive it to stop upon contact. This conception implies no contradiction, but still it feels very differently from that conception by which I represent to myself the impulse and the communication of motion from one ball to another.
Were we to attempt a definition of this sentiment, we should, perhaps, find it a very difficult, if not an impossible, task; in the same manner as if we should endeavor to define the feeling of cold, or passion of anger, to a creature who never had any experience of these sentiments. Belief is the true and proper name of this feeling, and no one is ever at a loss to know the meaning of that term, because every man is every moment conscious of the sentiment represented by it. It may not, however, be improper to attempt a description of this sentiment, in hopes we may by that means arrive at some analogies which may afford a more perfect explication of it. I say that belief is nothing but a more vivid, lively, forcible, firm, steady conception of an object than what the imagination alone is ever able to attain. [The emphasis on the last sentence is mine.]
The trouble is that the description of “belief” that he arrives at is, as you may have noticed, essentially the same as his earlier description or definition of “impression.” Both of them are explained as “livelier,” more vivid ideas or modes of thought than mere imagination. Consequently I was not satisfied with his explanation, and began trying to work it out for myself.
So although I greatly admire David Hume, to the extent that he is more or less of an intellectual hero for me, I don’t always agree with him. Genius and radical that he was, he was also, after all, like everyone else before or since, a product of his culture. For example, although he was a trailblazer with his idea that human intellect is “the slave of the passions,” to animal instinct, and was a radical skeptic besides, he belonged to an age, and to an intellectual movement—the so-called Enlightenment—that glorified the powers of the intellect to the extent of devaluing all else. A few decades after Hume this resulted in the antithetical Romantic Era, which attempted to restore some balance to Western civilization, but largely failed. Also, as an aside, I will observe that Hume’s behavior was not always particularly heroic from a philosophical point of view. Part of his trouble was that he was of noble ancestry and a member of the social elite, the beau monde, and openly to admit that he was not a Christian would have been social and professional suicide. As it was, he was turned down for two professorships on account of his atheism and impiety. While superficially pretending to be a Christian he pretty obviously despised the religion and wasted few opportunities to bash Christianity underhandedly, through the back door, so to speak. He did this partly by putting his refutations in the mouths of other people; and by attacking Roman Catholicism in particular, which was a politically correct thing to do in Great Britain in his day; and his most blatant attacks on Christianity were not published till after his death. So Hume stooped and knuckled under to political correctness hysteria. Compare this with the more outrageously heroic Benedict Spinoza, who brazenly published his heretical views in the face of curses, excommunication, and at least one murder attempt, and famously turned down a professorship at Heidelberg University because he felt such a high-profile position would hamper his freedom of thought and expression.
Before I stop meandering and jump right to my understanding of belief (which may not surprise people who have read my earlier essays anyway), I may as well give the common-sense definition. The average person, if asked What is Belief, would probably answer with something like, “Belief is considering something to be true.” That pretty much hits the nail on the head, doesn’t it. Here are the definitions given by the New Oxford American Dictionary:
1 an acceptance that a statement is true or that something exists: his belief in the value of hard work | a belief that solitude nourishes creativity.
• something one accepts as true or real; a firmly held opinion or conviction: contrary to popular belief, Aramaic is a living language | we're prepared to fight for our beliefs.
• a religious conviction: Christian beliefs | I'm afraid to say belief has gone | local beliefs and customs.
2 (belief in) trust, faith, or confidence in someone or something: a belief in democratic politics | I've still got belief in myself.
At a superficial level this is good enough. But it still doesn’t explain what Hume couldn’t explain, and that is the subjective essence of belief. And it would be nice to know, if we want to understand ourselves, what exactly it is that we are experiencing when we believe something, especially considering that we’re believing something pretty much all the time. So, what does this acceptance of truth consist of? Is it a deliberate act of intellection, an instinctual sentiment, direct contact with truth, an automatic brain reflex, a chimera? If we look at the question more deeply, the dictionary just replaces one ambiguous word with a larger number of ambiguous words. What, for example, would be the simplest possible element of belief? Modern physics is really keen on this approach—seeking the fundamental particles of things. So what would be the elemental credibility-tron? That is one approach to the question.
Also (before I stop this meandering) I will mention that nowadays I have the privilege of living with an intelligent Burmese Abhidhamma scholar, venerable Garudhamma, and I have taken the liberty of questioning him on the subject of how Abhidhamma explains the phenomenon of belief. So I will try to explain the orthodox Theravadin view of belief as well as I can understand it based on ven. Garudhamma’s explanations and some desultory searches through Dr. Mehm Tin Mon’s The Essence of Buddha Abhidhamma.
First off, my venerable colleague informed me that in Abhidhamma belief is called adhimokkha with regard to ordinary conventional truth, and saddhā (“faith”) with regard to Dhamma or ultimate truth. That was the gist of my first interrogation of him. So I looked up adhimokkha and found that it generally means something like decision or determination; and furthermore it is rare in the Suttas, with the only reference I could locate being a passing use of the word in M111, the Anupada Sutta. In Abhidhamma it is called a pakiṇṇaka cetasika or “miscellaneous mental state” which is found not in all states of mind, but in most of them—all that are not mere bare sensation or are not muddled by indecision. By this explanation belief would be essentially the decisive focusing of one’s attention on a perception. During a later interview ven. Garudhamma stated that adhimokkha isn’t exactly the same as belief, but apparently it is as close to it as exists in Abhidhamma philosophy with regard to mere worldly, relative truths like 1+1=2 or Abraham Lincoln was 16th president of the United States. Considering that the term is so rare in the Suttas, I suppose some other word is used therein to account for belief. Some good candidates would be diṭṭhi or “view,” diṭṭhigata or “resort to view,” and simply saññā, “perception.” In the Abhidhamma literature saññā has a much narrower, more technical meaning, although it does appear to be used much more loosely in the Suttas. Also, sometimes even dhamma can mean “belief,” especially if it is philosophical or religious belief.
Saddhā or faith, on the other hand, applies only to ultimate truth (and consequently only to the teachings of Abhidhamma, with all that disagrees with same being only conventional truth and “Wrong View”—yellow warning lights should be flashing now), and also does not exactly mean “belief.” Furthermore, adhimokkha accompanies this kind of belief also, the belief of “true faith.” Saddhā is compared in the Abhidhamma literature to a water purifying gem: It clarifies the mind, dispelling defilements so that ultimate truth may be seen and appreciated. Interestingly, this kind of “belief” coexists even with direct knowledge, so that belief and real knowledge are simultaneous, though not exactly the same. Knowledge does not render belief or faith redundant, which for me is counterintuitive. Even an enlightened being directly experiencing Nibbāna experiences it with faith accompanying, supposedly.
But all in all there there appears to be no single mental state in the Abhidhammic universe that can be equated with Hume’s sentiment of belief. There is no credibility-tron. At most it is interpreted as a compound of mental states, for example adhimokkha plus diṭṭhi for non-dhammic perceptions and adhimokkha plus saddhā plus paññā (wisdom) for belief in what is deeply and actually true (with several other mental factors contributing to the mental stew). And so, because belief consists of a nebulous accumulation of contributing mental states and can be broken down further into smaller parts, from an Abhidhammic point of view it would not really exist at all, but be only an example of sammuti-sacca, “conventional truth.” We just believe that belief exists.
It is interesting, though, that Abhidhamma does affirm that believing what is true, ultimately true, is fundamentally, constitutionally different from believing what is false. Somehow the universe is constructed in such a way that the mind inherently and necessarily differentiates objective truth from objective falsehood. This would seem to be denied by actual experience, however, especially since most of the wisest human beings in this world have not been Abhidhamma scholars. If only Abhidhamma scholars, or those who intuitively appreciate Abhidhamma without having to study it, have Right View……I don’t even want to go there.
It is also interesting that, according to my venerable informant, Abhidhamma does not bother to differentiate mere conventional distinctions such as those mentioned by Hume. To believe that a human being has a human head, and merely to imagine a human being with a horse’s head involves essentially the same mental states, contradicting Hume, or at least considering Hume’s supposition of some fundamental difference to be negligible. Also, whether Joe Schmoe believes himself to be Joe Schmoe or Jesus Christ, according to Abhidhamma essentially the same types of mental state are involved. Abhidhamma does not bother to stoop to anything below the level of ultimate truth—or at least what it considers to be ultimate truth. Abhidhamma may be very helpful for some; but considering that I don’t consider mere belief to have anything to do with ultimate truth anyhow, I do not find it particularly helpful in an understanding of what belief consists of. Unless, that is, we want to interpret Abhidhamma to mean that belief is little or nothing more than decisively focusing upon a certain perception. I would say that this wouldn’t be far from the mark, especially since, as I’ve already mentioned, the Suttas themselves have the word saññā, “perception,” appearing as though it means “belief.”
My hypothetical working definition of belief in its simplest state, of a credibility-tron, would be simply an attribution of meaning. This also would serve as my hypothetical working definition of perception. It could also serve as my definition of Samsara, and of delusion (moha). So in my hypothetical scheme of things belief (=delusion) and true knowledge cannot coexist unless one of them is somehow neutralized.
Before dealing with the possibly counterintuitive idea that belief is, in its simplest form, none other than significance or meaning, I suppose I should take care of the perception, Samsara, and delusion issues, so that they do not get left behind as messy loose ends. Perception should be easiest.
It should be fairly clear that in order to perceive something we must focus upon it to some degree and differentiate it from its background, which already, necessarily, attributes enough significance to the thing, whatever it is, for it to become a “this” or a “that.” As the Buddhist logician ven. Dharmottara wrote long ago, “Pure sensation without any perceptual judgement is as though it did not exist at all.” Even “this” is a very elementary attribution of meaning: it is acknowledging whatever it is as an existent something. As far as I understand Abhidhamma I think it also would agree thus far; saññā is responsible for our ability to recognize objects through memory, language, and generalization.
This is where delusion comes into the picture. The attribution of meaning begins with a separation of what is originally unseparated, a differentiation of what is undifferentiated, a reification of multiplicity. (Even this first step is extremely difficult for most people to follow, since they literally cannot conceive of anything other than human conception, and so assume that reality is as the human mind perceives it—at least to the extent of a plurality of “things” occupying space and time. But this is an artifact of human psychology.)
At the very least, in order to perceive something one must separate out from the universe some generic “this” standing out against everything else. In a way it is still extremely specific, as it is still a unique “this,” in a sense, but its “somethingness” itself is at the same time the most extreme of generalities, the broadest of all categories. Everything, when it becomes an object of perception, assumes some form of “this.” And in order for the object to become more meaningful than just “this,” it must be fitted into more discriminative, more meaningful categories. Thus perception necessarily involves generalizations and other symbols, which leads to another aspect of delusion: symbolism, and the failure to distinguish the symbols from what they attempt to represent. The symbol 0 is very different from what “zero” represents, as is the idea “a sheep” from the fleecy white being grazing in the meadow over yonder. Even the fleecy white being that we see is very different from what that “sheep” really is. For that matter, recognizing our friend Joe is also an example of generalization, since “Joe” is changing every moment, and the idea is simply a convenient handle for a recurring, vaguely associated accumulation of discernible qualities. It’s not the same Joe today that we met last week, yet for the sake of functioning in the world we assume him to be the very same Joe, and call him Joe accordingly. Joe does it himself even (unless he believes himself to be Jesus Christ). Without such generalization, with everything being absolutely specific and unique, we would be incapacitated; we would not recognize anything. But what we naturally, unthinkingly do is to confuse these convenient handles with reality itself, and that is delusion. Once reality is symbolized or generalized, it is no longer reality, but only a representation about reality. And as a general rule, people can’t tell the difference. We think we know when really we don’t know, and that is delusion. Or rather, the real knowledge of reality is there, but we don’t pay attention because we consider something else to be knowledge, and that is delusion.
This is why perception is also Samsara. This whole world of illusion, of māya, is a mentally generated world of artificially differentiated symbols masquerading as reality. That’s what we’re stuck in. That is our unenlightenment, or at least one way of describing that unenlightenment. The Matrix has us. Enough said about Samsara.
So now we return to the possibly even more counterintuitive notion that perception itself is the same as belief. This would seem to contradict Hume even if it doesn’t necessarily contradict the Abhidhamma scholars. If belief is simply the attribution of significance, then why does imagining a billiard ball hitting another ball and sticking feel obviously different from realistically expecting that ball to smack into the other ball and send it rolling? It may be best to start by reexamining the simplest of beliefs, the credibility-tron.
Even the most primitive attribution of significance to whatever we perceive requires, one may say, a leap of faith. When we differentiate a “something” we really already believe that we have before us a something—not a hypothesis to play with, but really something. Hypothetical or skeptical thinking is much more advanced than this; and at the very elemental and primitive level of the hypothetical credibility-tron there just is not sufficient complexity to allow for it. The elementary form of a perception is somewhat along the lines of “this has that significance” or rather “this is that”; so if we imagine a unicorn, and don’t believe in unicorns, even so we believe that “unicorn” has such and such significance. That much we consider implicitly to be true. We believe that a unicorn has such and such qualities (a single horn sprouting from its forehead, an otherwise close resemblance to a horse, usually a white one; a liking for medieval virgins, etc.), and it is only at a higher and more complex level, the level of comparing one set of perceptions with another, that we may classify unicorns as purely mythological, or whatever. Even a person who does not believe in unicorns might assert that it is more correct to suppose that a unicorn has one horn and not two. If the scope of our attention/perception is the “big picture” we may see unicorns as unreal (believe them to be unreal), but if we are watching a movie about a unicorn, or dreaming about riding one, the scope of our context is sufficiently reduced that, so long as we are absorbed in the story, we do not doubt the unicorn’s reality. Disbelief is much more sophisticated than belief, and comes from comparing the limited perception with a larger system. Belief is the rule, with disbelief (just another kind of belief, or meta-belief, tending in the opposite direction) being a rather sophisticated option for the more intelligent beings of this world. I doubt that a frog, for example, could positively disbelieve anything, or be hypothetical about something, much less play devil’s advocate. Whatever it perceives, it believes, if only very dimly and feebly.
The difference in “sentiment” that David Hume had in mind is of a higher order of perception than the humble credibility-tron. It has to do with the aforementioned big picture. At a more complex level than relatively isolated, almost meaningless images, as we may experience while drifting off to sleep, the kind of belief Hume was talking about involves the integration of perceptions with each other to form a “world view.” The more integrated the perception is with other perceptions, the stronger the feeling of harmony and “rightness.” Disbelief comes from an awareness of incongruity or disharmony between a given perception and the integrated system of perceptions that constitutes one’s view of the world. And Hume’s “loose reveries of the fancy” which bear little or no sentiment of conviction are simply detached ideas which one has not even attempted to integrate into the larger system of harmonious, or relatively harmonious, beliefs/perceptions. They are stray perceptions not fortified by connections with other perceptions. Belief, and perception, is by its very nature a relation; it is purely relative.
So long as were are functioning at the level of perception we are functioning at the level of delusion, even if it is universally agreed-upon mass delusion; and thus it is what Buddhist philosophy calls “conventional truth” as opposed to ultimate truth. Ultimate truth is not symbolic, and cannot be perceived or apprehended by the intellect without distorting it into something other than ultimate truth. As the philosopher John Locke once wrote, “Knowledge is the perception of the agreement or disagreement of two ideas.” Or to be a little more blatant about it, in the words of the Chinese Zen philosopher Yen-kuan Ch’i-an, “Deliberate thinking and discursive understanding amount to nothing; they belong to the household of ghosts; they are like a lamp in the broad daylight; nothing shines out of them.” That last is a perpetually recurring theme in Mahayana Buddhist philosophy.
The human mind arises from what is literally an unthinkable Void; in Buddhist lingo this Void is called suññatā, Emptiness. The human mind does not arise from a scientifically-verifiable material world, because that scientifically-verifiable material world is itself a construction of human perception. In the past people created gods in their own physical image; nowadays we’re a little more sophisticated, yet we still create a universe in conformity with our own psychological image. We assume that the real world functions in accordance with human perception, and human belief. In the past it was assumed that the earth is at the center of the universe, with everything else revolving around it, which nowadays is acknowledged to be pretty silly. But we still assume that the universe functions in accordance with human (primate, ape) perception, which ultimately is just as silly, and damn near as primitive. We still consider human beings to be the axis of the universe. The apparent fact that we all agree on certain fundamentals is no guarantee that those fundamentals are representations of reality: it may be that we agree on so much merely due to our psychological similarity with each other. A being very alien to us psychologically might be sitting in the same room with us and perceive its surroundings very differently than we do—so much so that it might not be possible for it to be in the same room with us at all. We may conjure radically different worlds from the same unthinkable Void, which could include radically different axioms and laws, let alone different rooms.
But still, we all have access to Ultimate Reality, which is this very same unthinkable Void. Reality must be unthinkable, because it cannot be symbolized without it being corrupted into gross unreality. (This is an ironic paradox: The only reality we can know, with absolute certainty, as opposed to mere inference and belief, is something that the intellect and the feelings cannot discern at all; perceptually it is mere nothingness.) That very same Void is the nucleus of any enlightened religion, or spiritual system, or philosophy. It is what religious historian Karen Armstrong has called “the transcendent element” which was seen by many sages, including Gotama Buddha, to be “crucial to the development of men and women as full human beings.” And modern humankind’s disdain for spirituality, even its attempts to deny or suppress it in favor of what makes sense intellectually, is about as insane as anything anyone could possibly do. It amounts to the denial and suppression of Reality, and a vehement insistence upon delusion. See the way of the world.
APPENDIX: THE INFAMOUS NOTE I ("EYE") FROM DAVID HUME’S NATURAL HISTORY OF RELIGION
Bacchus, a divine being, is represented by the heathen mythology as the inventor or dancing and the theatre. Plays were anciently even a part of public worship on the most solemn occasions, and often employed in times of pestilence, to appease the offended deities. But they have been zealously proscribed by the godly in later ages; and the play-house, according to a learned divine, is the porch of hell.
But in order to show more evidently, that it is possible for a religion to represent the divinity in still a more immoral and unamiable light than he was pictured by the ancients, we shall cite a long passage from an author of taste and imagination, who was surely no enemy to Christianity. It is the Chevalier Ramsay, a writer, who had so laudable an inclination to be orthodox, that his reason never found any difficulty, even in the doctrines which free-thinkers scruple the most, the trinity, incarnation, and satisfaction: His humanity alone, of which he seems to have had a great stock, rebelled against the doctrines of eternal reprobation and predestination. He expresses himself thus: ‘What strange ideas,’ says he, ‘would an Indian or a Chinese philosopher have of our holy religion, if they judged of the schemes given of it by our modern free-thinkers, and pharisaical doctors of all sects? According to the odious and too vulgar system of these incredulous scoffers and credulous scribblers, “The God of the Jews is a most cruel, unjust, partial, and fantastical being. He created, about 6000 years ago, a man and a woman, and placed them in a fine garden of Asia, of which there are no remains. This garden was furnished with all sorts of trees, fountains, and flowers. He allowed them the use of all the fruits of this beautiful garden, except one, that was planted in the midst thereof, and that had in it a secret virtue of preserving them in continual health and vigour of body and mind, of exalting their natural powers and making them wise. The devil entered into the body of a serpent, and solicited the first woman to eat of this forbidden fruit; she engaged her husband to do the same. To punish this slight curiosity and natural desire of life and knowledge, God not only threw our first parents out of paradise, but he condemned all their posterity to temporal misery, and the greatest part of them to eternal pains, though the souls of these innocent children have no more relation to that of Adam than to those of Nero and Mahomet; since, according to the scholastic drivellers, fabulists, and mythologists, all souls are created pure, and infused immediately into mortal bodies, so soon as the foetus is formed. To accomplish the barbarous, partial decree of predestination and reprobation, God abandoned all nations to darkness, idolatry, and superstition, without any saving knowledge or salutary graces; unless it was one particular nation, whom he chose as his peculiar people. This chosen nation was, however, the most stupid, ungrateful, rebellious, and perfidious of all nations. After God had thus kept the far greater part of all the human species, during near 4000 years, in a reprobate state, he changed all of a sudden, and took a fancy for other nations besides the Jews. Then he sent his only begotten Son to the world, under a human form, to appease his wrath, satisfy his vindictive justice, and die for the pardon of sin. Very few nations, however, have heard of this gospel; and all the rest, though left in invincible ignorance, are damned without exception, or any possibility of remission. The greatest part of those who have heard of it, have changed only some speculative notions about God, and some external forms of worship: For, in other aspects, the bulk of Christians have continued as corrupt as the rest of mankind in their morals; yea, so much the more perverse and criminal, that their lights were greater. Unless it be a very small select number, all other Christians, like the pagans, will be for ever damned; the great sacrifice offered up for them will become void and of no effect; God will take delight for ever, in their torments and blasphemies; and though he can, by one fiat change their hearts, yet they will remain for ever unconverted and unconvertible, because he will be for ever unappeasable and irreconcileable. It is true, that all this makes God odious, a hater of souls, rather than a lover of them; a cruel, vindictive tyrant, an impotent or a wrathful daemon, rather than an all-powerful, beneficent father of spirits: Yet all this is a mystery. He has secret reasons for his conduct, that are impenetrable; and though he appears unjust and barbarous, yet we must believe the contrary, because what is injustice, crime, cruelty, and the blackest malice in us, is in him justice, mercy, and sovereign goodness.” Thus the incredulous free-thinkers, the judaizing Christians, and the fatalistic doctors have disfigured and dishonoured the sublime mysteries of our holy faith; thus they have confounded the nature of good and evil; transformed the most monstrous passions into divine attributes, and surpassed the pagans in blasphemy, by ascribing to the eternal nature, as perfections, what makes the most horrid crimes amongst men. The grosser pagans contented themselves with divinizing lust, incest, and adultery; but the predestinarian doctors have divinized cruelty, wrath, fury, vengeance, and all the blackest vices.’ See the Chevalier Ramsay’s Philosophical Principles of Natural and Revealed Religion, Glasgow, 1748-9, Part II, p.401.
The same author asserts, in other places, that the Arminian and Molinist schemes serve very little to mend the matter: And having thus thrown himself out of all received sects of Christianity, he is obliged to advance a system of his own, which is a kind of Origenism, and supposes the pre-existence of the souls both of men and beasts, and the eternal salvation and conversion of all men, beasts, and devils. But this notion, being quite peculiar to himself, we need not treat of. I thought the opinions of this ingenious author very curious; but I pretend not to warrant the justness of them.