"An Atheist Laugh's A Poor Exchange For Deity Offended"

(Magill's Quotations in Context)

Context: Robert Burns was fond of a pretty lassie and a rollicking carousal, and when he wrote this poem of sage advice to the young son of a friend, he closed it with the lines: "And may you better reck the rede,/ Than ever did th' adviser!" The advice he gives is nevertheless sound. He begins by warning the young friend that men are weak, and that their greatest weakness is their selfishness. But few men, he adds, are genuinely evil. In society he warns the youth to keep something of his own counsel while closely observing others. The young man is to treasure "weel-placed love," but avoid the illicit kind because it "petrifies the feeling." (Interestingly, a stanza omitted in the printed version admonishes the young man to carry a misstep with good face and society will in time forget it.) Wealth brings independence, but should only be got with honor, honor defined by instinct, not fear of hell. Then Burns, a deist, warns against sanctimonious piety and against atheism:

The great Creator to revere
Must sure become the creature;
But still the preaching cant forbear,
And ev'n the rigid feature:
Yet ne'er with wits profane to range
Be complaisance extended;
An atheist laugh's a poor exchange
For Deity offended.