Refuting a Sneer
I’ve long been impressed by William Paley’s rhetorical questions, “Who can refute a sneer?” And I finally found the context. Reading through Paley’s assessment of Christianity’s critics gives us one more excerpt for the “nothing new under the sun” file.
The passages is found in volume four of The Works of William Paley (pp. 313-317). Paragraphs are added to this rather lengthy quote.
Finally; the knowledge of what is due to the solemnity of those interests concerning which Revelation professes to inform and direct us, may teach even those who are least inclined to respect the prejudices of mankind, to observe a decorum in the style and conduct of religious disquisitions with the neglect of which many adversaries of Christianity are justly chargeable.
Serious arguments are fair on all sides. Christianity is but ill defended by refusing audience or toleration to the objections of unbelievers. But whilst we would have freedom of inquiry restrained by no laws but those of decency, we are entitled to demand, on behalf of a religion which holds forth to mankind assurances of immortality, that its credit be assailed by no other weapons than those of sober discussion and legitimate reasoning –that the truth or falsehood of Christianity be never made a topic of raillery, a theme for the exercise of wit or eloquence, or a subject of contention for literary fame and victory;– that the cause be tried upon its merits:– that all applications to the fancy, passions, or prejudices of the reader, all attempts to pre-occupy, ensnare, or perplex his judgement, by any art, influence, or impression whatsoever, extrinsic to the proper grounds and evidence upon which his assent ought to proceed be rejected from a question which involves in its determination the hopes, the virtue, and the repose of millions:– that the controversy be managed on both sides with sincerity; that is, that nothing be produced, in the writings of either, contrary to or beyond, the writer’s own knowledge and persuasion:– that objections and difficulties be proposed, from no other motive than an honest and serious desire to obtain satisfaction, or to communicate information which may promote the discovery and progress of truth:– that in conformity with this design, every thing be stated with integrity, with method, precision, and simplicity; and above all that whatever is published in opposition to received and confessedly beneficial persuasions, be set forth under a form which is likely to invite inquiry and to meet examination.
If with these moderate and equitable conditions be compared the manner in which hostilities have been waged against the Christian religion, not only the votaries of the prevailing faith, but every man who looks forward with anxiety to the destination of his being, will see much to blame and to complain of.
By one unbeliever, all the follies which have adhered, in a long course of dark and superstitious ages, to the popular creed, are assumed as so many doctrines of Christ and his apostles, for the purpose of subverting the whole system by the absurdities which it is thus represented to contain.
By another the ignorance and vices of the sacerdotal order their mutual dissensions and persecutions, their usurpations and encroachments upon the intellectual liberty and civil rights of mankind, have been displayed with no small triumph and invective; not so much to guard the Christian laity against a repetition of the same injuries (which is the only proper use to be made of the most flagrant examples of the past), as to prepare the way for an insinuation, that the religion itself is nothing but a profitable fable, imposed upon the fears and credulity of the multitude, and upheld by the frauds and influence of an interested and crafty priesthood. And yet, how remotely is the character of the clergy connected with the truth of Christianity! What, after all, do the most disgraceful pages of ecclesiastical history prove, but that the passions of our common nature are not altered or excluded by distinctions of name, and that the characters of men are formed much more by the temptations than the duties of their profession?
A third finds delight in collecting and repeating accounts of wars and massacres, of tumults and insurrections, excited in almost every age of the Christian era by religious zeal; as though the vices of Christians were parts of Christianity; intolerance and extirpation precepts of the Gospel; or as if its spirit could be judged of from the counsels of princes, the intrigues of statesmen, the pretenses of malice and ambition, or the unauthorized cruelties of some gloomy and virulent superstition.
By a fourth the succession and variety of popular religions; the vicissitudes with which sects and tenets have flourished and decayed; the zeal with which they were once supported, the negligence with which they are now remembered; the little share which reason and argument appear to have had in framing the creed, or regulating the religious conduct, of the multitude; the indifference and submission with which the religion of the state is generally received by the common people; the caprice and vehemence with which it is sometimes opposed; the phrensy with which men have been brought to contend for opinions and ceremonies, of which they knew neither the proof, the meaning, nor the original: lastly the equal and undoubting confidence with which we hear the doctrines of Christ or of Confucius, the law of Moses or of Mahomet, the Bible, the Koran, or the Shaster, maintained or anathematized, taught or abjured, revered or derided, according as we live on this or on that side of a river; keep within or step over the boundaries of a state; or even in the same country, and by the same people, so often as the event of a battle, or the issue of a negotiation, delivers them to the dominion of a new master;– points, I say, of this sort are exhibited to the public attention as so many arguments against the truth of the Christian religion;– and with success. For these topics, being brought together, and set off with some aggravation of circumstances, and with a vivacity of style and description familiar enough to the writings and conversation of free-thinkers, insensibly lead the imagination into a habit of classing Christianity with the delusions that have taken possession, by turns, of the public belief; and of regarding it, as what the scoffers of our faith represent it to be, the superstition of the day.
But is this to deal honestly by the subject, or with the world? May not the same things be said, may not the same prejudices be excited by these representations whether Christianity be true or false or by whatever proofs its truth be attested May not truth as well as falsehood be taken upon credit May not a religion be founded upon evidence accessible and satisfactory to every mind competent to the inquiry which yet by the greatest part of its professors is received upon authority.
But if the matter of those objections be reprehensible, as calculated to produce an effect upon the reader beyond what their real weight and place in the argument deserve, still more shall we discover of management and disingenuousness in the form under which they are dispersed among the public.
Infidelity is served up in every shape that is likely to allure, surprise, or beguile the imagination; in a fable, a tale, a novel, a poem; in interspersed and broken hints, remote and oblique; surmises in books of travels, of philosophy, of natural history; in a word, in any form rather than the right one, that of a professed and regular disquisition. And because the coarse buffoonery, and broad laugh, of the old and rude adversaries of the Christian faith, would offend the taste, perhaps, rather than the virtue, of this cultivated age, a graver irony, a more skillful and delicate banter is substituted in their place. An eloquent historian, beside his more direct, and therefore fairer, attacks upon the credibility of Evangelic story, has contrived to weave into his narration one continued sneer upon the cause of Christianity, and upon the writings and characters of its ancient patrons.
The knowledge which this author possesses of the frame and conduct of the human mind, must have led him to observe, that such attacks do their execution without inquiry. Who can refute a sneer? Who can compute the number, much less, one by one, scrutinize the justice, of those disparaging insinuations which crowd the pages of this elaborate history? What reader suspends his curiosity, or calls off his attention from the principal narrative, to examine references, to search into the foundation, or to weigh the reason, propriety, and force, of every transient sarcasm, and sly allusion, by which the Christian testimony is depreciated and traduced; and by which, nevertheless, he may find his persuasion afterwards unsettled and perplexed?