William Warburton’s 18th-Century Defense of Christianity


The 18th century produced a great many thinkers who made lasting contributions to the study of Christianity’s credentials. On the skeptical side, David Hume has been most significant. William Paley and Bishop Butler have had the greatest enduring influence on behalf of Christianity. Lesser lights from today’s vantage point were leading figures in their time. Among them, William Warburton, who died June 7, 1779—236 years ago today. Warburton’s greatest work was the nine-volume treatise with the odd title The Divine Legation of Moses. The full title was The Divine Legation of Moses, demonstrated on the principles of a Religious Deist. Deist contemporaries, who claimed they believed the doctrine of immortality, argued against the divine authorship of the “Law of Moses.” They reasoned that if the Law of Moses was divine, it would propound the doctrine of an afterlife, which it does not.

  1. Any divinely authored text will affirm a doctrine of immortality.
  2. The Law of Moses does not affirm a doctrine of immortality.
  3. Therefore, the Law of Moses is not a divinely authored text.

The argument has an odd appearance. It isn’t immediately obvious why deist writers, or anyone else for that matter, would think that a divinely inspired text must teach a doctrine of immortality. But, of course, the books of Moses were all there was of the Bible for generations of God’s people. As the source of their knowledge of God’s ways and plans for humanity, it may seem odd, if it is of divine origin, that nothing is ever said for immortality of the self in that source. Surely, if men and women are immortal, and this is by God’s design, then God’s revelation to humanity would indicate that this is so. Men and women are immortal, said these deists, but the Law of Moses says nothing about this. The implication is that the Law of Moses could not have been written under God’s own guidance.

William Warburton

William Warburton (1698-1779)

You don’t come across an argument of this sort much these days. And you don’t encounter the sort of argument Warburton made in direct response. Warburton turned the deistic argument on its head, arguing that silence on the question of immortality was actually evidence of divine authorship. The Law of Mose was the “Divine Legation,” and the absence of any direct reference to life after death is evidence of this. If the deist argument seems at all strange, Warburton’s reply seems more so. But the strategy intrigues. Ancient religions contemporaneous with the Jewish religion were unanimous in affirming an afterlife. These were, all of them, manufactured religions. The Jewish religion differed in this one striking respect: no doctrine of an afterlife. This anomaly in the history and sociology of religious belief invites explanation. For Warburton, the best explanation is that the Jewish religious system, rooted in the Pentateuch, was of divine origin. Warburton’s argument was sufficiently compelling that many critics took pains to respond. But this isn’t only because of the core argument. Into the Divine Legation, Warburton squeezed a host of other evidences for Christianity. Among them was the argument from prophecy, which he considered sufficient in itself to establish the truth of Christianity with moral certainty. Warburton was a colorful figure, with many enemies and some surprising friends. He crossed swords with the famed Conyers Middleton in public, but got on well with him personally. The story of Warburton’s life is told with candor, in the Preface to the Divine Legation, by his friend, agent, and executor, R. Worcester (signed at Hartlebury Castle, August 12, 1794). For a catalog of Warburton’s writings, available in PDF, click here.

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Other posts in this series . . .

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Death Is a Big Deal—Mortal Motivation Theory in Psychology


Death is a big deal. Most of us know it, or acknowledge it. Those of us who don’t are in denial—a fairly typical way of coping with unpleasant or unwelcome realities.

A handful of psychologists have developed a theory about how the fear or anticipation of our personal demise influences the way we make sense of our world.

On their view, our notions about death drive much of our behavior, and in ways we little suspect. This may seem obvious for some people, organizations, religious groups, and such. But these psychologists propose a completely general thesis with universal application. What is most controversial is their claim about each of us as individuals:

At a more personal level, recognition of our mortality leads us to love fancy cars, tan ourselves to an unhealthy crisp, max out our credit cards, drive like lunatics, itch for a fight with a perceived enemy, and crave fame, however ephemeral, even if we have to drink yak urine on Survivor to get it.

This movement within the field of psychology has come to be called “terror-management theory.”

Some who demand an evolutionary explanation for our psychological constitution, in all of its rich complexity, apparently feel some uneasiness about the proposal. But Sheldon Solomon, one of the theory’s chief architects, doesn’t seem to be fazed by this. He has no trouble referring to a human person as a “breathing piece of defecating meat.” I would imagine we have evolution to thank for that.

His book, a co-authored treatise, is called The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life. William James (1842-1910), the philosopher and psychologist, provided the authors with their title in his own reference to death as “the worm at the core” of the human condition. I suspect, though, that similarities between their conception of human persons and William James’s don’t extend much further than this borrowing.

Also, I wonder if they’ve thought very deeply about how the Christian religion locates the problem of our mortality within the total picture of human meaning and purpose. More likely than not, they would explain the hold of a Christian worldview on the minds and psyches of so many people as a fear-of-death management-system. That would make for an ironic parallel and discontinuity between their perspective and that of the Christian Bible.

That the anticipation of death reverberates throughout our sensibilities and actions has been thought before. The authors themselves credit Ernest Becker (1924-1974), author of The Denial of Death, for setting them on this particular research path. But the notion may have special appeal in a social context dominated by scientific naturalism. In such a context, one advantage of their theory is that it lends support to convenient debunking of claims about life after death. Doctrines of immortality are reduced to coping mechanisms. And that’s about all there is to it.

If belief in immortality provides a person with psychic support in the face of death, it may be supposed, then we have a psychological explanation for his belief in immortality.

Or not. The trouble is, the move made in this explanation for belief is a non sequitur. For a doctrine might actually be true and a believer in immortality might actually be justified, on reasonable grounds, for affirming that doctrine, even if immortality does provide believers with psychic support. In fact, belief in immortality would be a triple advantage if (1) the doctrine of immortality is true, (2) there’s good reason to affirm the doctrine, and (3) the doctrine provides powerful psychological support (in the form of hope, for example) in a world of mixed blessings.

Of course, the believer must reckon with the specter of a modus tollens reversal:

  1. If the doctrine of immortality is true, then the doctrine of scientific naturalism is false.
  2. The doctrine of scientific naturalism is true.
  3. Therefore, the doctrine of immortality is false.

This isn’t a serious obstacle, if the doctrine of scientific naturalism is false. It isn’t an obstacle if there is little evidence or argument that scientific naturalism is true. And since the evidence for scientific naturalism is ambiguous at best, the doctrinaire naturalist still has reason to consider the significance of his life within the framework of the possibility that some doctrine of immortality is true. And this may induce fear for anyone clinging to scientific naturalism.

No naturalistic explanation for the psychic power that derives from hope for an afterlife can dispense with this challenge to naturalism.

So what if belief in immortality aids in managing the fear of our eventual earthly demise? I suppose it’s as likely that the denial of immortality could also be a terror-management strategy. How convenient to think that death is not a threshold of crossing between the known and the unknown, but just the end of it all?

The Stoics advised composure in the face of death on the grounds that when it comes there will be no regret because no one left to regret it. Or at least no basis for fearing it. Why fear now what you won’t fear when it actually happens? But that isn’t the problem, is it, this side of the fatal divide? The real problem is knowing whether there is something in it for us beyond the threshold of death, and knowing, if there is, what it might be, and whether there are different possibilities, depending on your existential and doxastic commitments here and now.

There is room, I think, for more than one version of “mortal motivation theory” in psychology. There is the secularist-naturalist version promoted by the authors of The Worm at the Core. And there is the religiously serious version according to which death is a fitting device for contemplating our place in a super-naturalistically haunted universe and reflecting on where it might all be leading.

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For a detailed review of the book in The Chronicle of Higher Education, click here: Mortal Motivation – The Chronicle Review – The Chronicle of Higher Education. Direct quotations in this post are from the Chronicle review by Marc Parry.

Dodgy Ruminations about an Afterlife


“God bless non-scientific narratives,” writes Jacques Belinerblau, a professor at Georgetown University. Of course, this is with tongue in cheek, since, though he’s Jewish, Berlinerblau is an atheist.

He speaks sincerely, however, about a hopefulness grounded in certain non-scientific narratives, for he’d like to believe that there’s an afterlife. Actually, he finds it hard to believe that there is not an afterlife of some kind.

So he believes that God does not exist, and sorta-kinda believes that there is an afterlife.

This lede sets the context for Berlinerblau’s review, titled “You’re Dead. Now What?” of four books on the topic:

Berlinblau is a touch dismissive of D’Souza. But Berlinblau, I believe, is right that there really isn’t good strictly scientific evidence for an afterlife.

If Berlinerblau’s review of Frohock is rooted in a reliable summary of the book, I’d say it’s worth a look. But it sounds like Frohock is working from some sort of pantheist or neo-pagan metaphysics (or worldview). I wish Berlinerblau had said more about this.

This reviewer makes Casey’s book sounds especially dull. But he has positive things to say about it. And I must say that the pages of this book are cloaked in the most impressive cover of the bunch.

Johnston appears to be one of those philosophers who has to be brilliant simply because it’s frequently impossible to understand what he’s saying. I suspect he’s of the “continental” variety. Berlinerblau’s sample quote from the book is almost a dead give-away.

I probably will read Frohock, eventually. He’s supposed to be ambivalent about whether science could yield evidence for an afterlife. And yet, says Berlinerblau, he’s a materialist. Like Berlinerblau, I find this confusing. If an individual person is completely constituted by material stuff and its physical organization, and this stuff dissolves—or its structure breaks down—following death, then what is the nature of the life beyond death?

The review is published in The Chronicle of Higher Education, of all places. This indicates re-entry of the possibility of an afterlife into academic surmise. Until recently, most scholars would rather die than enter a conversation about such things. Possibly, most scholars still have this preference. (It has not always been so.)

It’s equally fascinating that the traditional Christian doctrine of the afterlife is waved off with an almost pious flick of the wrist. (Check out the review and see if you agree.)

Berlinerblau’s book review enters a general conversation that is cautiously making its way back into serious discourse. But this discourse is dominated by a distinctly secular hope for a pleasant afterlife. Does this sound to anyone else like whistling past the graveyard?

Afternotes:

1. Berlinerblau adorns his essay with a choice literary quote:

The flesh would shrink and go, the blood would dry, but no one believes in his mind of minds or heart of hearts that the pictures do stop.

—Saul Bellow, Ravelstei

2. Christopher Benson reviews the Casey book, together with A Very Brief History of Eternity, by Carlos Eire, for the Christian periodical Books and Culture. Benson titles his review “Without End—Changing conceptions of the afterlife.” Indeed.

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What do you think?

  1. What is the best evidence for an afterlife?
  2. If you believe in an afterlife, what will it be like?
  3. What is the best argument that there is no afterlife?
  4. Would there have to be a God for there to be an afterlife?
  5. Are you hoping for an afterlife?
  6. Are you expecting an afterlife?

Quotations: On Death and Immortality


Ted Kooser, Poet

“When the heart stops, my contemporaries say,/Shrugging their shoulders, that’s it.”

—Czeslaw Milosz’s poem “Treatise on Theology,” in his collection Second Space

“. . . after all, the manner in which a person dies, the little details of an autopsy, say, whether the corpse has spots on its liver or lungs, doesn’t in any way cancel the loss.”

—Ted Kooser, The Poetry Home Repair Manual

Writing about an important passage in Joseph Conrad’s canonical work Heart of Darkness, David Denby says, “It is perhaps the most famous death scene written after Shakespeare.” He then quotes at length in demonstration of his claim:

“Anything approaching the change that came over his [Mr. Kurtz’s] features I have never seen before and hope never to see again. Oh, I wasn’t touched. I was fascinated. It was as though a veil had been rent. I saw on that ivory face the expression of somber pride, of ruthless power, of craven terror—of an intense and hopeless despair. Did he live his life again in every detail of desire, temptation, and surrender during that brief moment of complete knowledge? He cried in a whisper at some image, at some vision—he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath:

“‘The horror! The horror!’ . . .”

—David Denby, Great Books

“I think, just as you do Socrates, that although it is very difficult if not impossible in this life to achieve certainty about these questions, at the same time it is utterly feeble not to use every effort in testing the available theories, or to leave off until we have considered them in every way, and come to the end of our resources. It is our duty to do one of two things, either to ascertain the facts, whether by seeking instruction or by personal discovery, or, if this is impossible, to select the best and most dependable theory which human intelligence can supply, and use it as a raft to ride the seas of life—that is, assuming that we cannot make our journey with greater confidence and security by the surer means of a divine revelation.”

—Simmias, in Plato’s dialogue Phaedo 85 c-d

“A man should be mourned at his birth, not his death.”

—Charles de Montesquieu, Lettres Persanes (1721)

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