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Nature and the Gods From "The Atheistic Platform", Twelve Lectures   By: (1855-)

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From "The Atheistic Platform", Twelve Lectures

By Arthur B. Moss

London: Freethought Publishing Company

63, Fleet Street, E.C.



Ladies and Gentlemen, No word has played a more important part in the discussion of scientific and philosophical questions than the word Nature. Everyone thinks he knows the meaning of it. Yet how few have used it to express the same idea; indeed it has been employed to convey such a variety of impressions that John Stuart Mill asserts that it has been the "fruitful source" of the propagation of "false taste, false philosophy, false morality, and even bad law." Now, I propose in this lecture that we start with some clear ideas concerning the meaning of such words, upon the right understanding of which the whole force of my arguments depends. What, then, is meant by the word Nature? When used by a materialist it has two important meanings. In its large and philosophical sense it means, as Mr. Mill says: "The sum of all phenomena, together with the causes which produce them, including not only all that happens, but all that is capable of happening the unused capabilities of matter being as much a part of the idea of Nature as those which take effect." But the word Nature is often used, and rightly used, to distinguish the "natural" from the "artificial" object that is, to indicate the difference between a thing produced spontaneously by Nature, from a thing wrought by the skill and labor of man.

But it must not be supposed that the artificial object forms no part of Nature. All art belongs to Nature. Art simply means the adaptation, the moulding into certain forms of the things of Nature, and therefore the artistic productions of man are included in the comprehensive sense of the term Nature which I just now used.

Now in Nature there is a permanent and a changeable element, but man only takes cognisance of the changeable or phenomenal element; of the substratum underlying phenomena he knows and can know nothing whatever; that is, man does not know what matter and force are in themselves in the abstract, he only knows them in the concrete, as they affect him through the medium of his senses.

Now I allege that nearly all the mistakes of theology have arisen from the ignorance of man in regard to Nature and her mode of operation. Let us consider for a moment a few facts in reference to man. Of course I don't want to take you back to his origin. But suppose we go back no further than a few thousand years, we shall find that man lived in holes in the earth; that he moved about in fear and trembling; that not only did he fight against his fellow creatures, but that he went in constant fear of animals who sought him as their prey. Under these circumstances he looked to Nature for assistance. He felt how unspeakably helpless he was, and he cried aloud for help. Sometimes he imagined that he received what in his agony he had yearned for. Then it was that he thought that Nature was most kind. Perhaps he wanted food to eat and had tried in vain to procure it. But presently a poor beast comes across his path, and he slays it and satisfies his hunger. Or perhaps he himself is in danger. A ferocious animal is in pursuit of him and he sees no means of escape, but presently comes in view a narrow stream of water which he can swim across, but which his pursuer cannot. When he is again secure he utters a deep sigh of relief. In time he makes rapid strides of progress. He learns to keep himself warm while the animals about him are perishing with cold; he learns to make weapons wherewith to destroy his enemies; but his greatest triumph of all is when he has learned how to communicate his thoughts to his fellows. Up to now it would be pretty safe to say that man was destitute of all ideas concerning the existence of god or gods. But he advances one stage further, and his thoughts begin to take something like definite shape. He forms for himself a theory as to the cause of the events happening about him... Continue reading book >>

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