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The word mystery answered
this purpose, and thus it has happened that religion, which is in itself
without mystery, has been corrupted into a fog of mysteries.

As mystery answered all general purposes, miracle followed as an
occasional auxiliary. The former served to bewilder the mind, the latter
to puzzle the senses. The one was the lingo, the other the legerdemain.

But before going further into this subject, it will be proper to inquire
what is to be understood by a miracle.

In the same sense that every thing may be said to be a mystery, so also
may it be said that every thing is a miracle, and that no one thing is
a greater miracle than another. The elephant, though larger, is not a
greater miracle than a mite: nor a mountain a greater miracle than an
atom. To an almighty power it is no more difficult to make the one than
the other, and no more difficult to make a million of worlds than to
make one. Every thing, therefore, is a miracle, in one sense; whilst,
in the other sense, there is no such thing as a miracle. It is a miracle
when compared to our power, and to our comprehension. It is not a
miracle compared to the power that performs it. But as nothing in this
description conveys the idea that is affixed to the word miracle, it is
necessary to carry the inquiry further.

Mankind have conceived to themselves certain laws, by which what they
call nature is supposed to act; and that a miracle is something contrary
to the operation and effect of those laws. But unless we know the whole
extent of those laws, and of what are commonly called the powers of
nature, we are not able to judge whether any thing that may appear to us
wonderful or miraculous, be within, or be beyond, or be contrary to, her
natural power of acting.

The ascension of a man several miles high into the air, would have
everything in it that constitutes the idea of a miracle, if it were not
known that a species of air can be generated several times lighter than
the common atmospheric air, and yet possess elasticity enough to prevent
the balloon, in which that light air is inclosed, from being compressed
into as many times less bulk, by the common air that surrounds it. In
like manner, extracting flashes or sparks of fire from the human body,
as visibly as from a steel struck with a flint, and causing iron or
steel to move without any visible agent, would also give the idea of a
miracle, if we were not acquainted with electricity and magnetism; so
also would many other experiments in natural philosophy, to those who
are not acquainted with the subject. The restoring persons to life who
are to appearance dead as is practised upon drowned persons, would also
be a miracle, if it were not known that animation is capable of being
suspended without being extinct.

Besides these, there are performances by slight of hand, and by persons
acting in concert, that have a miraculous appearance, which, when known,
are thought nothing of. And, besides these, there are mechanical and
optical deceptions. There is now an exhibition in Paris of ghosts or
spectres, which, though it is not imposed upon the spectators as a fact,
has an astonishing appearance. As, therefore, we know not the extent to
which either nature or art can go, there is no criterion to determine
what a miracle is; and mankind, in giving credit to appearances, under
the idea of their being miracles, are subject to be continually imposed
upon.

Since then appearances are so capable of deceiving, and things not
real have a strong resemblance to things that are, nothing can be more
inconsistent than to suppose that the Almighty would make use of means,
such as are called miracles, that would subject the person who performed
them to the suspicion of being an impostor, and the person who related
them to be suspected of lying, and the doctrine intended to be supported
thereby to be suspected as a fabulous invention.

Of all the modes of evidence that ever were invented to obtain belief to
any system or opinion to which the name of religion has been given, that
of miracle, however successful the imposition may have been, is the most
inconsistent. For, in the first place, whenever recourse is had to show,
for the purpose of procuring that belief (for a miracle, under any
idea of the word, is a show) it implies a lameness or weakness in the
doctrine that is preached. And, in the second place, it is degrading the
Almighty into the character of a show-man, playing tricks to amuse and
make the people stare and wonder. It is also the most equivocal sort of
evidence that can be set up; for the belief is not to depend upon the
thing called a miracle, but upon the credit of the reporter, who says
that he saw it; and, therefore, the thing, were it true, would have no
better chance of being believed than if it were a lie.

Suppose I were to say, that when I sat down to write this book, a hand
presented itself in the air, took up the pen and wrote every word that
is herein written; would any body believe me? Certainly they would not.
Would they believe me a whit the more if the thing had been a fact?
Certainly they would not. Since then a real miracle, were it to happen,
would be subject to the same fate as the falsehood, the inconsistency
becomes the greater of supposing the Almighty would make use of means
that would not answer the purpose for which they were intended, even if
they were real.

If we are to suppose a miracle to be something so entirely out of the
course of what is called nature, that she must go out of that course
to accomplish it, and we see an account given of such a miracle by the
person who said he saw it, it raises a question in the mind very easily
decided, which is,--Is it more probable that nature should go out of
her course, or that a man should tell a lie? We have never seen, in our
time, nature go out of her course; but we have good reason to believe
that millions of lies have been told in the same time; it is, therefore,
at least millions to one, that the reporter of a miracle tells a lie.

The story of the whale swallowing Jonah, though a whale is large
enough to do it, borders greatly on the marvellous; but it would have
approached nearer to the idea of a miracle, if Jonah had swallowed the
whale. In this, which may serve for all cases of miracles, the matter
would decide itself as before stated, namely, Is it more probable that a
man should have, swallowed a whale, or told a lie?

But suppose that Jonah had really swallowed the whale, and gone with
it in his belly to Nineveh, and to convince the people that it was true
have cast it up in their sight, of the full length and size of a whale,
would they not have believed him to have been the devil instead of a
prophet? or if the whale had carried Jonah to Nineveh, and cast him up
in the same public manner, would they not have believed the whale to
have been the devil, and Jonah one of his imps?

The most extraordinary of all the things called miracles, related in the
New Testament, is that of the devil flying away with Jesus Christ,
and carrying him to the top of a high mountain; and to the top of the
highest pinnacle of the temple, and showing him and promising to him
all the kingdoms of the world. How happened it that he did not discover
America? or is it only with kingdoms that his sooty highness has any
interest.

I have too much respect for the moral character of Christ to believe
that he told this whale of a miracle himself: neither is it easy to
account for what purpose it could have been fabricated, unless it were
to impose upon the connoisseurs of miracles, as is sometimes practised
upon the connoisseurs of Queen Anne's farthings, and collectors of
relics and antiquities; or to render the belief of miracles ridiculous,
by outdoing miracle, as Don Quixote outdid chivalry; or to embarrass the
belief of miracles, by making it doubtful by what power, whether of God
or of the devil, any thing called a miracle was performed. It requires,
however, a great deal of faith in the devil to believe this miracle.

In every point of view in which those things called miracles can be
placed and considered, the reality of them is improbable, and their
existence unnecessary. They would not, as before observed, answer any
useful purpose, even if they were true; for it is more difficult to
obtain belief to a miracle, than to a principle evidently moral, without
any miracle. Moral principle speaks universally for itself. Miracle
could be but a thing of the moment, and seen but by a few; after this it
requires a transfer of faith from God to man to believe a miracle upon
man's report. Instead, therefore, of admitting the recitals of miracles
as evidence of any system of religion being true, they ought to be
considered as symptoms of its being fabulous. It is necessary to the
full and upright character of truth that it rejects the crutch; and it
is consistent with the character of fable to seek the aid that truth
rejects. Thus much for Mystery and Miracle.

As Mystery and Miracle took charge of the past and the present, Prophecy
took charge of the future, and rounded the tenses of faith. It was
not sufficient to know what had been done, but what would be done. The
supposed prophet was the supposed historian of times to come; and if
he happened, in shooting with a long bow of a thousand years, to strike
within a thousand miles of a mark, the ingenuity of posterity could make
it point-blank; and if he happened to be directly wrong, it was only
to suppose, as in the case of Jonah and Nineveh, that God had repented
himself and changed his mind. What a fool do fabulous systems make of
man!

It has been shewn, in a former part of this work, that the original
meaning of the words prophet and prophesying has been changed, and that
a prophet, in the sense of the word as now used, is a creature of modern
invention; and it is owing to this change in the meaning of the words,
that the flights and metaphors of the Jewish poets, and phrases and
expressions now rendered obscure by our not being acquainted with the
local circumstances to which they applied at the time they were used,
have been erected into prophecies, and made to bend to explanations
at the will and whimsical conceits of sectaries, expounders, and
commentators.



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