Last Updated on December 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 532
Context: In May, 1736, the Reverend Joseph Butler, LL.D., signed his name to the Advertisement of his Analogy of Religion, Natural and Revealed, to the Constitution and Course of Nature. It is directed to those who consider Christianity fictitious and "a principle Subject of Mirth and Ridicule as it were by Way of Reprisals, for its having so long interrupted the Pleasures of the World." Its author was an English theologian whose preaching at the Rolls Chapel, London, had resulted in the influential book, Fifteen Sermons (1726). Then Butler became Rector of Stanhope, where he wrote the Analogy of Religion, to combat the influence in England of the Deists, which was a sect of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that held that the Natural world was sufficient proof of the existence of God, and therefore that any formal religion was unnecessary. Neither need there be any supernatural revelation. Nature was enough. Voltaire and Jean Jacques Rousseau in France, and Jefferson and Franklin in America, were among these Freethinkers. Their belief grew out of the rationalism of the period, so Butler attacked their thinking by logic. By the time the second edition appeared, in 1738, he had been advanced to Bishop of Bristol, and the third edition, in 1740, found him Dean of St. Paul's, and influential in the court of George II and Queen Charlotte. Two years later he was appointed head of the See of Durham, one of the richest in England, a position he enjoyed only two years until his death. As he argued, obviously there could be no demonstrated evidence of the beliefs of Religion. All that can be adduced is probable evidence which, he says, differs from demonstrative evidence in that it admits of degrees, from the highest moral certainty to the lowest presumption. Nothing can be called true by one presumption, since probabilities may exist on both sides. A man may observe the ebb and flow of the tide for one day and draw some presumption, though to a low degree, that it will happen again tomorrow; only observation of the event for months and ages provides full assurance. Probability is expressed by the word "likely"; that is, like some truth or true event. If we consider that something will probably happen, it is because the mind has found in it a likeness to some other event. So Bishop Butler compares the known course of things with what is said to be the Moral System of Nature; the acknowledged Dispensations of Providence or that government under which people live, with what Religion teaches them to believe and expect. Both can be traced to the same general laws and resolved with the same principles of divine conduct. While not completely assured, they are probable. As he explains it:
Probable Evidence, in its very Nature, affords but an imperfect kind of Information; and it is to be considered as relative only to Beings of limited Capacities. For Nothing which is the possible object of Knowledge, whether past, present, or future, can be probable to an infinite Intelligence; since it cannot but be discerned absolutely as to itself, certainly true, or certainly false. But to Us, Probability is the very Guide of Life.
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