Joseph Butler 16 June 1752
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Joseph Butler

Butler was born in 1692 and ordained in 1718. In 1726 he published Fifteen Sermons, preached at the Rolls Chapel (image) in London, and chiefly dealing with human nature and its implications for ethics and practical Christian life. He maintained that it is normal for a man to have an instinct of self-interest, which leads him to seek his own good, and equally normal for him to have an instinct of benevolence, which leads him to seek the good of others individually and generally, and that the two aims do not in fact conflict.

He served as parish priest in several parishes, and in 1736 was appointed chaplain to Queen Caroline, wife of King George II. In the same year he published his masterpiece, The Analogy of Religion, Natural and Revealed, to the Constitution and Course of Nature (often cited simply as "Butler's Analogy"), a work chiefly directed against Deism, of which more will be said below. Appended to the main work was a treatise, Of the Nature of Virtue, which establishes him as one of the foremost British writers on ethics, or moral philosophy. (For Butler's writings available through the Internet, please see Butler on the Web.)

When the Queen died in 1737, Butler was made Bishop of Bristol. (In England at that time, bishoprics and parish churches were supported each by a separate source of income that had been established for it perhaps centuries earlier, and in consequence the funding was very unequal. Bristol, being the lowest paid of all bishoprics, was where a new bishop usually started. Later, he might be promoted to another diocese. The Reform movement of the 1830's and its aftermath have remedied this situation.) However, George II had been impressed with him earlier, and in 1746 he was called back to court and the next year offered the post of Archbishop of Canterbury. He refused the post, but in 1750 he became Bishop of Durham (in the north of England, near the Scottish border, and well known even then as having a tradition of bishops whose speeches and writings attract public attention). He died there on 16 June 1752.

And now to return to the subject of Butler and Deism.

In the early 1700's, Deism was a religion rapidly gaining ground in intellectual circles in England and France. Not all who called themselves Deists were agreed on the tenets of the system, but in general it may be said that a Deist believed in God, and believed that God had revealed himself in two ways: "the starry heavens above us, and the moral law within us," as Kant put it. An examination of the physical world made it clear that it had been designed by some great intelligence. Our conscience, or moral faculty, made it clear that certain actions are wrong, and will surely be punished, here or hereafter. Thus, Deists believed in God the Creator and Judge, in the Moral Law, and in immortality, with rewards and punishments to come.

What a Deist emphatically did not believe was that God had revealed himself through prophets, visions, angels, miracles, inspired writings, and the like. Thus, a Deist was not a Christian, or a Jew, or a Moslem, or a Zoroastrian, or.... In the historical context, what chiefly mattered was that he was not a Christian. In speaking of Christianity, some Deists used conciliatory language, saying that the essence of Christianity was Christ's ethical teaching, which confirmed the teachings of the moral faculty, and so there was no real disagreement. Others were more assertive, and spoke at length of all the harm that had been done by false prophets (on their view the only kind). The second half of Thomas Paine's The Age of Reason is an example of this. In particular, he complained that the Old Testament often represents God as approving or commanding harsh, cruel, unjust, or murderous conduct; and that the New Testament claim that salvation comes only through Jesus is inconsistent with the idea of a just God, since justice means rewarding good deeds and punishing wicked ones. Paine believed that he had found many contradictions in the Bible, as well as historical inaccuracies and morally unacceptable teachings, and he did not hesitate to say so. (I am guilty of an anachronism here, in that Paine wrote in the 1790's, long after Butler was dead. I simply refer to him because he is the example that most readers of this list will find most familiar and most accessible. He represents in extreme form a point of view that had existed long before him, and which by his own time was in retreat, thanks in large measure to Butler.)

Butler's reply to the Deist objections to Christianity could be summarized in a single quote from Origen. "Those who believe the Author of Nature to be also the Author of Scripture must expect to find in Scripture the same sorts of difficulties that they find in Nature." Thus, for example, the Deists would say:

The Bible says that God visits the iniquities of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generation. In view of that teaching, can any decent man be a Christian?

Butler's reply would be:

According to Deists, we have a sufficient revelation of God in Nature, which he created. But in Nature, we find that a sexually promiscuous father may give syphilis to his children and grandchildren. If a pregnant woman abuses her body in various ways, her child is likely to have a low birth weight, lowered intelligence, and other problems. If we consult the Book of Nature to learn about God, we conclude that he visits the iniquities of the fathers on the children. In view of that teaching, can any decent man be a Deist?

He would then add that it is not a simple matter of finding that both Bible and Nature portray God as wicked, in which case it is better to repudiate both Christianity and Deism and adopt atheism as the only moral position. Rather, we find that God has so made the world that our actions affect others as well as ourselves. A world in which no one could hurt anyone would also be a world in which no one could help anyone. Now a world in which every thinking being had a planet all to himself would be a world without the possibility of injustice between man and man, but it would also be a world without the possibility of gratitude between man and man (do I really have to explain that Butler normally uses the word "man" in a gender-inclusive sense?), and it is not clear that it would be a better world than the one we have.

Again, the Deist complains bitterly against the doctrine that salvation is ours only through the action of Christ, and that the normal way, at least, of being saved is through faith in Christ. This seems unfair to the virtuous pagan, not to mention the virtuous atheist. The gist of Butler's reply is the same. He would say:

Consider the following speech:

I am an atheist, and I figure that I am great shape. I have all my bets covered. I can do anything I want, while my Christian friends are hemmed in by all kinds of silly restrictions. Sometimes they say to me: "But suppose that there is a God after all. Then your choice doesn't make sense in the long run." I reply that it makes perfect sense. If there is a God, he is not going to blame me for acting on my sincere convictions. He is supposed to be fair, and it is not fair to penalize someone for an honest mistake. Therefore, if there is a God, I am going to be right up there in heaven along with the Christians, so I haven't lost anything. And if, as I suppose, there is no God, then I am certainly better off not spending all that time and money on religion, and being otherwise hemmed in. So, as aforesaid, I have all the possibilities covered. Now, some of my friends have said that I ought not to be so sure that I have nothing to worry about if there is a God. But I say that if the Universe is ruled by a Being who is so unfair that he would punish someone for an honest mistake, then I want nothing to do with such a being. He is mean, and nasty, and unjust, and I defy him. So there!

Compare it with another speech:

Here I sit in my chemistry lab, with a nice cup of coffee in front of me, to which I have just added a spoonful of sugar, and which I am now about to drink. My lab partner has just said, "Stop! Don't drink that coffee. I was watching, and instead of adding sugar from the sugar jar, you added cyanide from the cyanide jar which is just next to it. If you drink it, it will surely kill you." But I shall pay no attention to this warning. I do not think that I am likely to make that sort of stupid mistake. Besides, if by any chance I am wrong, and this really is cyanide, I am in no danger, because I truly and sincerely believe that this is sugar. I am a chemist, and I have great faith in the Laws of Chemistry. I know that it is the Laws of Chemistry that enabled life to originate and evolve in the first place. (Some chemists have given reasons for supposing that, given the Laws of Chemistry, the development of life on any planet at a suitable distance from its sun is inevitable.) I owe my life to the Laws of Chemistry. I know that those laws are pro-life, that they are on my side. The suggestion that those laws would penalize me for an honest mistake, for acting on a sincerely held belief, is ridiculous and blasphemous. If the Laws of Chemistry are really as unjust as that, then I defy the Laws of Chemistry. So there!

Having mentioned the two speakers, Butler makes his point:

It is most perverse of a Deist to complain that Christians do not believe in a God who forgives honest error. If a Deist really got his views of God from a study of Nature, as he claims, he would find no reason to suppose that God makes any distinction whatever, as to consequences, between an act committed in honest error and the same act committed in wilful cussedness. The Laws of Chemistry, which God created, make no such distinction. Why should the Deist believe that God does? And why should he demand that the Christian believe that God does? In fact, we do have some grounds for supposing that God is gracious to those who do wrong out of honest error or ignorance (see Luke 23:34 and 1 Timothy 1:13), but we find these grounds in the study of Scripture, not in the study of Nature.

Again, the Deist objects:

We are agreed that God is Love, and that he cares for all those whom he has made. But the Bible describes him as slaying the first-born of Egypt, and commanding the Israelites to slay everyone in the city of Jericho, right down to the new-born babe. Does the Bible reveal a God of Love?

Butler replies:

Nature shows us entire towns destroyed by earthquakes or volcanos, or plague. Worse, every human eventually dies. Why is it consistent with the goodness of God to decide that everyone in Pompeii is to die now, and cause a volcano to kill them, but not consistent with the goodness of God to decide that everyone in Jericho is to die now, and order Joshua to kill them? We are agreed that there is a life after death, and that makes it easier to see that ending Jones's life on Tuesday is not necessarily inconsistent with Jones's longterm best interest. It may seem implausible that everyone in Pompeii, or everyone in Jericho, or everyone on the 747 that crashed, was at precisely that stage in his life where it was best for him to move on, but as long as we do not claim to be omniscient, we can hardly say that we know that it would have been better for some of them to live longer. What is certainly true is that this is no more a problem for the Christian than for the Deist.

It may seem that Butler, by proving that Deism has as many problems as Christianity, is simply encouraging Deists to become Atheists. He would say:

Deists and Christians both have reason to believe in God. Both have seen that without God the world simply does not make sense. Both see many things, in Nature or the Scriptures or both, that are not what we would expect from a good and powerful God. We wonder about the reasons for them. Sometimes we can make a plausible guess at the reasons. Sometimes we cannot begin to guess at why God caused or permitted some event, and yet we continue to believe that there is a good reason. Is this irrational? Why should it be thought so? I believe in what we may conveniently refer to as the laws of physics. When I see a good stage magician at work, he does things that I cannot explain in terms of the laws of physics. Nevertheless, I remain convinced that there is a perfectly good natural explanation for them. Faced with a choice between believing that Nature is in fact lawless and supposing that that there is some way that I have overlooked of sneaking the rabbit into the hat, even though I cannot begin to guess what it is, I opt for the latter every time. Likewise, faced with a death (for example) that seems to serve no purpose, and forced to choose between supposing that there is no God and supposing that God knows more than I do, I opt for the latter every time, because the latter gives me a universe with a few unsolved (by me) puzzles in it, but the former gives me a universe fundamentally without meaning.

Incidentally, the above are not quotations from Butler. They are my attempts to express the gist of Butler's arguments. One of the frustrating things about reading Butler, for me, is that he almost never uses examples or illustrations to bring an argument to life. Everything is stated in terms of general principles, and left there. This, plus the total lack of any devotional atmosphere, can make the book, in one sense, very dry reading. On the other hand, many of his sayings are perceptive, insightful, and memorable. I suspect that most readers of Butler will find themselves often pausing to make a check-mark in the margin (not, of course, if reading a borrowed copy) or reading a remark several times so as to remember it and quote it when appropriate.

In its own day, the book had a tremendous influence. David Hume, a radically skeptical philosopher, who did not admire most Christian apologists, admired Butler, and unsuccessfully sought permission to dedicate his own work to Butler.

written by James Kiefer


O God, who by your Holy Spirit give to some the word of wisdom, to others the word of knowledge, and to others the word of faith: We praise your Name for the gifts of grace manifested in your servant Joseph Butler, and we pray that your Church may never be destitute of such gifts; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Alternate Psalm and Readings

Psalm 119:89-96
Isaiah 6:6-10; Acts 13:38-44; John 3:11-16