A Discourse of the Grounds and Reasons of the Christian Religion
The advantage of free debate to society is infinite. It is not only the way to true religion and to true peace but the way to knowledge and arts, which are the foundations of politeness, order, happiness, and prosperity; as ignorance is the foundation of brutality, disorder, misery, and declension in society. It is the way to make men honest and sincere in the profession of religion (as imposition is only the way to make men knaves and hypocrites); and that will introduce honesty in other respects, which is the best policy, and the best improvement of man.
The bulk of men do, I confess, reason and practise very differently from what I have asserted and defended. Most men, conscious of their own weakness, see plainly that they are unable by any application to inquiries to judge for themselves in many points. Thence they conclude they ought to be governed in their belief by the judgment of others. Then they take up with such guides as some chance or other directs them to; who not only form their opinions for them, but make them zealous for those opinions.
Upon which way of reasoning and practise I will only observe; that zeal and ignorance are a most absurd and ridiculous competition in the same persons; and that these men most manifestly determine the point before them wrong by taking sides in matters wherein, as understanding nothing, they have no concern and should not pretend to have any opinion at all. Would it not be excessively ridiculous to see ignorant people zealously engaged for or against propositions (as led by different guides chosen at a venture) in astronomy, whereof they neither do nor can understand anything? And is it less ridiculous for ignorant people zealously to concern themselves about other matters (as led by guides chosen at a venture) whereof they know as little?
Men have very different tempers and capacities from one another, naturally; have very different educations; do improve themselves very differently by study, according to their different capacities, application, and opportunities; have different interests, passions, and infirmities, by which they are influenced and acted; and are all fallible not only in matters that depend upon reason but in understanding the Scriptures, which though true in themselves and delivered to us by divine inspiration are in many places too obscure for men to be certain of their meaning.
Hence a foundation is laid for unavoidable differences of opinion among men, which differences are greatly encreased by the dogmatitic discipline that is infinitely more promoted and prevalent than those disciplines which teach men to doubt and distrust the truth of matters proposed to them: and God himself, by forming men as he has done, and by placing them in their present circumstances, seems to have designed that they should not agree in opininion; or at least seems not to have designed that they should agree.
What then can any violent attempt or project to hinder men from differing in opinion from one another be but an attempt to subvert the common state of human nature and the design of God; and not less ridiculous, romantic, and impossible to succeed, than an attempt to hinder speech or to make all men of the same size or height, or to quell the natural passion of love, or to build a tower up to heaven?
And must not the men of this project be perfect Don Quixotes, and the greatest fanatics, in setting about and pursuing so unaccountable a work?