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4: Alciphron, 1732

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  • I want to consider the various things that a free-thinker can be—atheist, libertine, fanatic, scorner, critic, metaphysician, fatalist, sceptic—but you shouldn’t think that ·according to me· every individual free-thinker is all of these. All I am saying is that each item on that list characterizes some freethinkers. You may think that no free-thinker is an atheist. It has often been said that although there are admittedly some atheists who claim to be philosophical theorists, no-one is really an atheist as a matter of philosophical theory. I know these things are said; but I am well assured that one of the most noted writers against Christianity in our times claims to have discovered a demonstration [= ‘knock-down proof’] that there is no God. If you take the trouble to consult conversation and books to inform yourself about the principles and tenets of our modern free-thinkers, I’m sure you’ll find that every item on my list is true to life.

    I am not writing only against books. Don’t think that the free-thinking authors are being misrepresented if every notion of Alciphron or Lysicles is not found precisely in what the authors have written. We can expect that a man in a private conversation will speak more openly than others write, to •improve on the hints given by authors of books, and •draw conclusions from their principles.

    Whatever they may claim, I believe that all those who write either explicitly or by insinuation against the dignity, freedom, and immortality of the human soul can on that account be fairly accused of unsettling the principles of morality and destroying the means of making men rationally virtuous. We can expect from that direction a lot that is harmful to the interests of virtue. A certain admired writer has expressed the view that •the cause of virtue is likely to suffer less from •those who mock it than from •those who tenderly nurse it, because the nurses are apt to bundle it up too warmly and kill it with excess of care and cherishing, and also make it a mercenary thing by talking so much of its rewards.

    I leave it to you to decide whether this is a fair statement of the situation.

    [The Dialogues are reported in a long letter written to a friend by a fictional gentleman named Dion—all the names are Greek. His opening words echo Berkeley’s situation when composing this work: he was in Rhode Island, facing the probable failure of his plan to start a college in Bermuda. The Dialogues, however, are located in a quietly rural part of England.]

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