The Historical Library is provided for those doing research into the history of nontheism. It is not intended to be--and should not be used as--a source of modern, up-to-date information regarding atheistic issues. DO NOT CONTACT US ABOUT THESE DOCUMENTS. Please read the full Historical Library Disclaimer

Order books by and about Joseph McCabe now.

The Story Of Religious Controversy
Chapter I

by Joseph McCabe


The Revolt Against Religion

Contents


The World-Revolt Against Religion

SOME years ago I sat with a group of scholars in a room of the beautiful Oxford University, in England, and we passed the time with a new game, a scholars' game. We were all masters of some branch of history or literature, and we each chose the age in which we would have preferred to live.

In quick review we traveled from solemn Egypt to wonderful Babylon and voluptuous Syria. Athens with its glorious art, Sparta with its stern discipline, Rome with its mighty triumphs, captivated one or others of us, and the springtime of the modern age, the Italy of the Renaissance, the France of Louis XIV, the England of Shakespeare, spread all their color and life and freedom before us.

But there was a general agreement that this age in which we live is the most interesting on which the sun has ever shone. It is an age of reconstruction. Somehow a finer earth than man ever knew before is struggling into form. We have at least such sense of mastery and power as the world never had before.

The great civilizations of early history remained feudal monarchies for thousands of years. In our time many thrones have been overturned in ten years, and more totter on their foundations. We bring to judgment every tradition and every institution that the past had bequeathed to us. We enslave giant forces, and do with them prodigious things, of which no ancient sage had the dimmest vision.

An inevitable part of the new spirit, the most dramatic and historic part for one who knows the long story of man, is that we summon before our revolutionary tribunal all the religions in the world. Our code is the Rights of Man -- new thing under the sun. Our justification is that we have found the world full of hoary illusions, like the divine right of kings and constitutions. Our standard is truth and service and we look placidly at the guillotine in the public square to which we commit everything of the "ancient order" that proves not its value in this.

Do not imagine that this is a pleasant picture of a group of pretentious youths and maidens remaking the world in an American city. There is a world-revolt against religion. The new rulers of Turkey are fighting orthodox Mohammedanism. The students of India, of China, of Japan, of Egypt, discuss their historic creeds and sacred books with as little reverence as an Open Forum in Chicago discusses -- when it condescends to discuss -- the Old Testament.

And from the cities of the world the revolt spreads to the valleys, even to the deserts. I met in London a full-blooded African, a doctor of philosophy, who had been deposed for teaching heresy in a central-African college. A realistic recent French novel, "Batouala," shows the natives pouring back from work on the coast to their primitive villages, to fling ridicule at all religious beliefs. We are broadcasting the revolt, and there is no kraal of blacks or group of Eskimo huts to which it will not penetrate tomorrow.

This is a new phenomenon in history. A strange and wonderful story is the history of religion. We will tell its beginnings in the next chapter, its long and weird developments in later chapters. It is a story of revolutions. Dynasties of gods fall like dynasties of kings, and new dynasties rise. "The gods pass, but God remains," said an eloquent preacher. Good rhetoric, but bad history.

It is a question today of God, not gods. More than two thousand years ago, in Asia, there was a phase of the history of religion something -- just a little -- like ours. Buddha in India, Kong-fu-tse in China, urged men to concentrate on human problems and "ignore spiritual beings, if there are any." But on the mass of the people they had no permanent influence. It was the same in ancient Greece and Rome. Never before in history was there any movement remotely approaching, in depth and breadth, the modern revolt against religion.

So undeniable is it, that a Christian periodical recently predicted, in an editorial, that the end of the world was at hand, since the reign of Anti-Christ had visibly begun. More serious religious writers, like Dean Inge, the famous spokesman of the Church of England, draw the more sober conclusion that "doctrinal Christianity is doomed." The reign of Christianity as a system of doctrines -- any doctrines -- is over.

But there are superficial folk who think that the revolt is just a temporary phase of modern life or thought. People have been seduced, they say, by the glamour of science, by the plausibility evolution. Already, they cry, science is disowning its offspring, and a new light breaks on the heavy spiritual horizon.

All this is as superficial and inaccurate as religious statistics are. The revolt is no passing phase, but the culmination of a steady historical development during two centuries. It is so little due to science that it was widespread before science began. It was quite general amongst educated people before Darwin wrote a line on evolution. We must understand it aright, and so I take the reader back to the beginning of the revolt and lightly sketch its progress.

 


A New Age Of Mankind

The period which inaugurated modern times, as we shall see, is known as the Renaissance or Re-Birth. It was an age of great nervous vitality, like ours: an age of mental intoxication. And one of the reasons was that the imagination of men was fired by the discovery of a new world, America, and of a new universe, for Galileo had shattered the toy universe which had hitherto cramped the thoughts of men.

How many in the seventeenth century knew of the work of Copernicus or Galileo? Comparatively few: for ninety per cent of the people of Europe were unable to read, after a thousand years of absolute domination of the religion which the late Mr. Bryan described as "the greatest patron learning ever had." Only the educated ten percent knew aught of Galileo and the new astronomy, yet the discovery ran like fire through the veins of Europe. The old creed was based, in a sense, on a conception of the universe which was now proved false. The solid firmament which men had imagined above them cracked and rolled away. The mind soared into vast spaces.

But the universe which Galileo and his successors revealed was still puny in comparison with the universe as we see it through the great eye at Mount Wilson Observatory. I will not speak of its vastness. That makes no difference in principle, except that it must disturb any man who persists in thinking that on this earth, this metal speck in a trillion-mile universe, there exists the only race of intelligent beings!

Far more important and unsettling is the discovery of the age of the stars. If all the stars were strewn by the hand of God over the heavens in creation's morn, it would not matter much if they numbered two thousand, or, as they do, over two billions. But if they were so strewn, we should expect them to be of approximately the same age. Yet they differ in age by billions of years. Stars are just rising from their cradles, or still lie in the giant wombs of nebulae; stars hundreds of billions of years old are slowly and feebly sinking out of luminous existence, and between the extremes is a vast population of stars as varied and graduated in age as the throng on a city street in the afternoon. It is a new universe. We see no hint of a beginning or an end. Life on the planet earth is a brief episode in an eternal process.

Yet, they do not know all this down yonder in the picture- theaters and cafes. But they feel it. The mightiest power that the earth has yet known, science, is vaguely understood to have discovered that the old story of creation and supreme ruler rested on a foundation which has been shattered. The dynasty of gods has fallen. Man must make a new constitution for his new republic, the commonwealth of men.

I touch here only, as a symbol of an illustration, one aspect of the new knowledge which has shaken the old creeds. That new knowledge is the most solid thing, the most permanent and growing thing, the greatest achievement of our age. No petty attempt to shut it out of schools will keep it back. It is the proudest symbol of the triumph of modern man. Of it was born the genius, applied science, which has transformed the face of the earth.

I mentioned schools. They are scattered all over this city, even amongst the grim tenements of the poor workers. Palatial high schools rise here and there, and a short distance away is a university. Downtown is a great public library, and here and there rise the steel towers of radio transmitting stations. We have such knowledge as the world never had before, and we have a machinery for distributing it just as immeasurably beyond anything that the world ever had before.

The greatest writer, one of the greatest thinkers, of the old world was Plato. How many Greeks, would you say, read one of Plato's dialogues during his lifetime? I should say, a few hundred. And now. ... Some years ago I translated a book, Ernest Haeckel's "Riddle of the Universe," and sold half a million copies of it in a few years. I wrote a defense of it, and sold fifty thousand copies of this in a few months. H.G. Wells has sold over five hundred thousand copies of his voluminous "Outline of History."

We thought that our cheap printing was the last word in the diffusion of knowledge, and suddenly a marvelous piece of new machinery, the radio, has been presented to us. From an obscure little room in the heart of London I have told the great story of the birth and death of worlds to a million hearers. From a room in the suburbs of Winnipeg I have talked on evolution to half the astonished farmers of central Canada. And the work, the educational work, of wireless is only in its infancy. Even now the man who has great truths to tell, and the power to articulate them, can speak from Denver or Chicago to the whole of the United States, to people in the remote aldeas of Mexico, even to such as can understand in Brazil and Peru. And when we get one universal language, as we will, the truths of science and history and sociology will roll out over the entire earth.

Knowledge spreads subtly, as it did in the Renaissance, and it begets a new spirit even in men who are not conscious of having any new knowledge. There is a new spirit in our generation. We are apt to resent all authority, but we certainly do resent the authority of dead men. Those generations who lived in ages of profound ignorance had no right to legislate for us. Creeds made in Dark Ages are like drawings made in dark rooms. We are going to reconsider all creeds and institutions which were framed before the light of modern knowledge broke upon the earth.

It is a reasonable attitude. I said "reconsider," remember, not reject." We will keep what is sound and useful -- in moral law or civil law, theory or practice. The profoundly unreasonable man is the one who refuses to reconsider what his fathers taught him, or the man who uses only a one-sided literature, written by interested people, in making his examination of his beliefs. The new generation demands freedom to read both sides and form its own judgment.

And it is precisely in the world of human interests that the new spirit finds its strongest support. What a mass of ancient illusions and delusions we have had to cast aside during the last fifty or hundred years, and how much better and happier the world is for discarding them! Protestant Americans ought to be the first to perceive this. Their fathers broke the tyranny of the Papacy and laughed at its divine claims. They rejected the asceticism (in theory) of medieval Christianity, and permitted the clergy to marry. They maintained that all the world had lied about religion for a thousand years.

Then they turned to illusions of State, and they smashed the supposed divine right of kings. Christian Europe was wrong, they said; pagan Greece and Rome were right. The proper human policy was the Republic. Then they broke the chains of the slave, which the church had blessed for ages. One by one they tore up a thousand ancient illusions: social, medical, economic, political, industrial and domestic. The floor of the nineteenth century was strewn with dishonored traditions and creeds and illusions. The "land of the free" prided itself, in the face of Europe, that it had the courage to dethrone the dead and assert its mastery of its own affairs.

Europe has slowly followed. The whole world rings with disillusion. The Turks tear up the most sacred traditions of their race. The Chinese cut off the pigtail and all that it symbolizes. The Egyptians and Hindus fight for freedom, religious as well as social and political. The Negroes of Africa aspire to form a republic. Mexico defies its church. Empires break up. Kings fly into exile. A hundred thousand pulpits are vacant.

A new age! There never was anything remotely like it under the sun. What a man does in Moscow or Shanghai or Tokyo today is known next morning in Memphis or in Lima. Even the monks in the forbidden city of Tibet listen and are moved. Nuns stir in their convents. Large bodies of Catholic priests petition Rome to abolish celibacy.

And there is a fine sentiment, as well as an assertion of liberty, in all this. Never in the world before was there such a flood of social idealism as there is in modern civilization. That is the most solid answer to those who say that we are degenerating in character. Our world rings with the cry of service and help. A mere list of the social, philanthropic, educational, humanitarian movements of our time would fill a chapter of this book. And they are all new in, and peculiar to, what preachers call scornfully "our materialistic age." Never in the world before was there this concern for peace and brotherhood, for justice to the poorer workers, for the sick and helpless and maimed, for children, for education, for temperance, for suppressing crime and cruelty, for gifts and holidays for poor children, for the thousand and one misfortunes that linger amongst us from the bad old times.

This finer sentiment reacts on religion. It is this, not science, which has forced more than half of Christendom to abandon one of the most distinctive dogmas of Christianity, eternal torment. It is this, not science, which refuses to believe in the primitive curse of the race and the atoning death of Christ. It shrinks from blood and bloody sacrifices and bells. It refuses to worship, because worship was the oriental flattery of sultans and czars.

The heart of man is as much in revolt against traditional religions as is his head. To think of stemming the tide of unbelief by excluding evolution from schools is on a level with the ancient practice of sprinkling vinegar and aromatic herbs in an infected room to check the infection.

It is an entirely new age, a revolutionary age. The struggle of new thoughts and old traditions must now proceed to a finish. It will never again be interrupted and suspended, as it was when the civilization of Athens and Rome perished. There are today forty civilizations with the same ideals, the same questions, the same revolts. If twenty perish, the other score will carry on the work.

 


The Origin Of The Rebellion

Voltaire began it all, someone will impatiently exclaim. It would certainly be difficult to exaggerate the share of that one brilliant writer in founding modern skepticism, but history does not run in that fashion. Movements do not issue, fully armed, from the brain of any Jupiter.

Skepticism goes far back in the history of the Middle Ages. The poet Dante, the very flower of medieval literature, tells us that there was a large group of skeptics of the most radical type at Florence in his day. But those were dangerous times for skeptics. The market-places stank with burning human flesh all over Europe. It was necessary first to break the power of the Papacy, as we will tell in later histories of the Renaissance and the Reformation.

We might assign a date for the birth of modern skepticism round about the year 1677, and the birthplace was England. Why, of all countries in the world, England, you will ask. Let me say at once that the germs came to English soil from abroad. The Italian writers, Boccaccio and Petrarch, the French writers Montaigne and Bayle, might be counted the progenitors. All those influences of the Renaissance to which I have referred -- the advance of astronomy, the discovery of the East and West Indies, printing, etc., -- made for criticism and skepticism. But in France and Italy the Roman Church was still all-powerful. The noble Giordano Bruno was burned alive as late as 1600 for teaching an enlightened philosophy of the universe.

England was comparatively free, and an English ambassador at Paris, Lord Herbert of Cherbury, brought home from the gay city, amongst his French laces and perfumes and clarets, the germs of the new skepticism.

Not that England had so far been quite innocent of radical doubts. Certain contemporaries of Shakespeare are well known to have been skeptics, or Rationalists, and a careful analysis of Shakespeare's plays shows that the great poet himself was probably a Rationalist. It was not, however, until the middle of the seventeenth century that the first heat of the Reformation abated, and men, tired of the mutual abuse of theologians, began to write freely about religion.

There was still no science worth speaking of, apart from astronomy, though the work of Lord Bacon and Sir Isaac Newton must have helped. But this first phase of skepticism was due rather to two literary influences: first, admiration of Greek and Roman literature and morality, secondly, a candid study of the Bible which the Protestants now urged all men to read. The Catholic taunt that in giving the world the Bible Protestantism led to skepticism, is quite sound. There were now, since the Renaissance, large numbers of gentlemen, besides the clergy, who could read. "Very good," they said, "we will read your Bible," and the result was deadly.

I mentioned the date 1677, because in that year an English bishop, Stellingfleet, published the first orthodox reply to skepticism ("Letter to a Deist"). From the middle of the seventeenth to the middle of the eighteenth century there was a long series of brilliant and learned skeptical writers in England: Herbert, Blount, Tindal, Toland, Lord Shaftesbury, Viscount Bolingbroke, Collins and many others. The dreary tyranny of the Puritans was over, or had passed to America. The land rung again with the joy and freedom of the Renaissance. The Church of England was lax and largely corrupt. Bishops had their mistresses at table in London. Statesmen made bishops of their illegitimate sons.

It is known to few, but it is an easily demonstrable fact, that a Queen of England at this time, Queen Caroline (1683-1737) was a skeptic. She scornfully refused the sacrament of the church when she was dying, and her courtiers and statesmen, who were in great part Rationalists, explicitly assure us that she rejected the Christian faith. As I have shown in my "Biographical Dictionary of Modern Rationalists," the evidence on the point is quite conclusive. Queen Caroline and the greatest statesmen of her time were Rationalists.

In this first phase the skeptics were known as Deists, that is to say, men who believed in God (Deus), but rejected all belief in miracles or revelations, and therefore discarded Christianity.

In modern literature there is some confusion of Deists and Theists. A Theist, properly speaking, is any person who believes in God, whether he believes in revealed religion or not. A Christian is a Theist. The Deist believes in God and immortality, but he regards all religions as natural growths, if not impostures. Infidels, unbelievers, skeptics were other, and vaguer, names given to these early Rationalists (or men who followed reason rather than tradition or authority). All that is material to remember here is that amongst educated people there has been a considerable and continuous body of anti-Christians for the last two hundred years.

And this body naturally grew with the spread of education and the improvement of printing. The Catholic who boasts that skepticism was rare before the Reformation conveniently forgets three things: skeptics were burned at the stake; very few people had any education except the clergy; and there were very few books to read. Skepticism grew precisely in proportion to the spread of education and of printed books. The industrial and commercial development of the world brought about a large educated middle class: merchants, doctors, lawyers, higher clerks, politicians, literary men, artists, etc. The works of the English Deists circulated amongst these, and the "Essays" of Montaigne, with occasional flashes of discreet skepticism and the more openly skeptical and exquisitely written "Dictionary" of Bayle were translated for them.

Before we come to Voltaire, the greatest of all the Deists, we have to notice an extension that ought to be known to every American. Most of the great figures in American history at the time of the War of Independence were Deists, some of them even Materialists. Thomas Paine -- ignorantly called by Theodore Roosevelt a "filthy little Atheist" -- was the second greatest Deist in the history of skepticism. His rejection of Christianity was as fervent as his faith in God. Benjamin Franklin was just as unquestionably a Deist, and he himself tells us that he got his ideas from the works of the English Deists. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were demonstrably skeptics.

It is notorious that the king of Prussia, Frederick the Great, the greatest monarch of Europe in his time, was a Deist. The evolution of Germany had been checked by the appalling religious war which had followed the Reformation. Now, in the eighteenth. century, the country was again settled and prosperous. A leisured middle class with a taste for letters appeared and increased. Skepticism grew, as it did everywhere, in the same proportion. And with German thoroughness the poets and philosophers -- the Goethes, Schillers and Kants -- who now appeared, struck a sterner note and carried skepticism to a deeper layer of the religious tradition.

Meantime a certain measure of liberty had been won in France. The Protestants had been massacred, but their deadly enemies, the Jesuits, had in turn been expelled for their notorious abuse of their position. Men were, as elsewhere, tired of the disputes of rival theologies, for Jesuits and Jansenists had fought as bitterly in France as Catholics and Protestants did in England.

Moreover, the French have a nimble wit and a quick sense of humor. Why quibble about doctrines when the clergy themselves, as well as the Court, were flagrantly immoral? Some religious writers talk of Voltaire's love-affairs as if they discredited his skepticism. These people do not seem to know that bishops and cardinals down to the time of the Revolution had their mistresses; that Jesuit priests murdered the frail consciences of the kings and their concubines without a murmur for several generations; that the nunneries of Paris were the classic homes of assignations, and the name abbe (cleric) was a title of gallantry. Moliere, the great French comedian, was a Rationalist.

Voltaire, as is known, learned Deism in England. But the labored treatises of the English philosophers on the naturalness of the moral law, and their somewhat heavy criticism of errors and absurdities in the Old Testament, now assumed a new form. Voltaire made biblical criticism sparkle. He sprinkled his pages with epigram, wit and naughtiness until ladies of the court and liberal clerics, as well as merchants, doctors and lawyers, found themselves shaking with laughter over stories and statements which had been deemed sacred.

His greai contemporary, Jean Jacques Rousseau, also a Deist, appealed to a different temperament. He was serious, emotional, idealistic. He preached a sentimental regard for Christ as a man, and stripped him of the halo of divinity. Voltaire, a most generous man in personal affairs, a man with a passion to attack injustice, was the embodiment of all the sunshine, gaiety, license and charm of the French character.

Deism had hitherto been a sober draught, for the sober few. It was now champagne. Men clamored for it, in spite of priests and police, all over France. They demanded it in Italy and Spain and Germany and large groups of Voltaireans appeared in every city of Europe. The ponderous answers of the clergy only aroused, by comparison, further laughter. The only priests and prelates who, like Bishop Talleyrand, could have met rapier with rapier, were themselves skeptics. Voltaire's quips and jokes about religion trickled down amongst the uneducated people. Valets and hostlers shouted them in the streets. Never hitherto in the history of the world had one writer had so mighty an influence. Voltaire was read in the Courts of Lisbon and Madrid, Naples and Vienna, England and Sweden, and not a class of society lay entirely beyond the range of his caustic wit.

Thus was modern skepticism established. The English Deists gave it a solid foundation of learning, as learning then went. Voltaire popularized it, and won the hearts of men for it. Clerics thought that Anti-Christ had appeared and the end of the world was at hand. Skepticism was world-wide. But it was skepticism about revealed religion, not about God, and we must now see how the spirit of criticism passed on to the most fundamental of religious beliefs.

 


The Battle Of The Nineteenth Century

At the close of the period of Deism which I have described there occurred one of the greatest events of all history, the French Revolution.

France, economically and politically, was in a scandalous condition. The mass of the people were horribly poor, and they were burdened with the most terrible taxes to support a frivolous Court and a corrupt Church. The result was a blaze of national indignation which lit up the whole world. Naturally, when Napoleon conquered the Revolution, and he in turn was conquered by the English and the Germans, there was a very stern reaction, and, as skepticism was blamed for the Revolution and all its horrors, there was a drastic effort all over Europe to check the growth of skepticism by political coercion and to restore the power of Christianity.

A special chapter will later be devoted to this question of skepticism and the French Revolution. Popular ideas on the subject, especially sermons and religious writings, are entirely wrong. The very common story, for instance, about a prostitute being enthroned as the goddess of Reason in the cathedral of Notre Dame at Paris is untrue. Skepticism had a great deal to do with the best features of the Revolution and nothing to do with the worst. But we must postpone that question. For the moment we have to note only that the check of the revolt against the churches at the beginning of the nineteenth century was a political check, not a spontaneous return to belief. The skeptical movement went on, and it became deeper and more iconoclastic than ever.

Thomas Paine, Rousseau and Voltaire, the three most powerful skeptical writers of the time, were Deists. All three firmly believed in a personal god, though in the case of Voltaire, perhaps, we can trace an occasional weakening of the belief. But before the Revolution occurred in France there arose a new generation of skeptics who doubted or denied the existence of God. Atheism (or what we now call Agnosticism) and Materialism appeared, and they had brilliant and learned defenders. I am not just now writing the history of this development and so I will merely say that such men as Diderot, Holbach, Condorcet and Helvetius headed the new movement. They were known as "the Philosophers" or (because they chiefly set forth their opinions in the first great encyclopedia) the Encyclopedists."

At present we want merely to trace in outline the steady growth of the modern revolt against religion, not to study the details of it. We want to understand that it is a normal and vital part of the modern immense extension of knowledge, not a passing fashion or phase. Even a writer like Professor Osborn, a scientific man who ought to know better, has joined with religious writers in representing the revolt as an outcome of the "materialism" of science in the last generation, and has said that this "wave of materialism" is over and we may look forward to a new growth of religion. Such statements are false in every syllable.

The deeper skepticism of the French "Philosophers" (who were not philosophers at all, because philosophy is an abstract science which they despised) was certainly tinged by science. An earlier French mathematician, the famous Descartes, had said that there was no such thing as a soul or vital principle in the animal. Even the body of an ape or an eagle was merely a machine. As one of the witty orthodox ladies of the time said: "According to M. Descartes, you put together a machine called a dog and a machine called a bitch, and you get a little machine called a puppy."

This was the origin of what is now called the mechanical theory or philosophy of life and the universe, of Materialism. The French Encyclopedists said: It is true of man just as well as of the dog. One of them wrote a famous work called "Man a Machine." Descartes had also given the world a theory of the evolution of stars and planets out of cosmic dust (or nebulae, as we now say). He had found the germ of this theory in ancient Greek thinkers, and his own theory was borrowed by Swedenborg (and called a revelation) and was improved by the German philosopher Kant and the great French naturalist Button. Such theories seemed to dispense with the idea of a creator of the universe.

Thus science had some influence on the growth of skepticism before the era of the eighteenth century. But this influence was very limited, and few people then took any interest in science. The general skeptical movement in Europe and America was Deistic. It praised the old pagan civilizations and it heavily criticized the Bible. It was a literary and historical movement.

So far it had been generally a superficial movement. It required no great penetration or learning to discover contradictions in the Bible and to ridicule the stories of Noah and Jonah, and so on. Toward the close of the eighteenth century it became more scientific, in the general sense of the word. Biblical criticism became a science, a very careful study and analysis of the Hebrew text. This led at once to the discovery that the Hebrew text of the Old Testament is a compilation of fragments of books of very different ages, all put together, and very considerably altered, by the Jewish priests a few centuries before Christ.

This is what is called the Higher Criticism of the Bible. Just as we can easily tell the English of the tenth century from that of the fifteenth or the nineteenth, so we can recognize different centuries in the Hebrew text of the Bible or the Talmud. It is a very solid science, especially when it is joined with the knowledge we now have of the ancient empires. This is one of the very important points overlooked by the Fundamentalists. The authority of the Bible, as they conceive it, goes to pieces without any assistance from evolution. Genesis is the most vulnerable book in the whole Bible, quite apart from what science says.

At the same time history was becoming scientific. The great English historians Hume and Gibbon were giving to the world volumes of history which made all earlier "histories" seem childish. They taught men, almost for the first time, to be critical about the authorities they quoted.

In particular, Gibbon's magnificent work, "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire," one section of which described the rise of Christianity, had a powerful influence on the spread of skepticism. For the first time the story of man was being written without fables, and it was seen to be a purely natural sequence of events without any supernatural interference. Gibbon himself, who began as a Deist, seems to have ended as an Agnostic. He found no more trace of the finger of God in history than Laplace, the great astronomer, found in the heavens.

History, therefore, was from the start more important as a foundation of skepticism than science was, and it is equally important today. To me science and history are one. What we call "history" is only the continuation of the story of man with which "science" crowns its description of the procession of life through the gloom of the remote past. But the latter part of the story, or history proper, is just as skeptical in its tendency as the former. Why does the anti-evolutionist quarrel with evolution? Mainly because it dispenses with a creator. Exactly in the same way modern history cuts out the miraculous from every page of the human record and depicts the onward march, or stumbling and tottering, of man as a pitilessly human and natural event.

Moreover, this new science of history soon found, in the nineteenth century, a most formidable auxiliary. One of the untruthful and unsound effects of the Reformation had been a contempt of all "pagan" nations. The myth began that all the nations lay in darkness and the shadow of death until Christ came on the earth, and this myth got so deeply rooted in the modern mind that even so un-Christian a writer as Mr. H.G. Wells has more or less embodied it in his "Outline of History." We shall see in later chapters that Mr. Wells has been very seriously unjust to the great pagan nations of antiquity.

I call this myth an outcome of the Reformation, though Catholics in recent times use it as freely as Protestants, because it really began, as a universal belief, with Martin Luther and the Reformers. Before that time there had been plenty of Christian scholars who recognized the greatness of ancient Greece and Rome. Dante, in his wonderful Christian epic, actually chooses the pagan poet Virgil as his guide, and, in defiance of his Church, refuses to put the great Romans and Greeks in hell. This reverence for Greece and Rome was naturally exaggerated at the Renaissance, especially in Rome (where many popes were more pagan than Christian), and the Reformers, just as naturally, went to the opposite extreme.

Modern history restores the balance. In one of my debates with Dr. Riley I was astonished to hear that fanatical leader of the Fundamentalists urge that we are no greater today than the Greeks and Romans of two thousand years ago! Where, I asked, is the result of two thousand years of Christian influence? Riley was right, and wrong. By the middle of the nineteenth century Europe had only just climbed once more to the level of ancient Greece and Rome, but since then -- while religious influence has sunk -- we have passed it.

The great moralists of Greece and Rome were fully vindicated by the new history. It was shown that every fine sentiment in the New Testament has a parallel in the words of Plato or the Stoics. It was another arm for skepticism. The world had been (and still largely is) deceived. But a more picturesque and more effective weapon was next found.

Napoleon's dreams of world-conquest had taken him to Egypt and, in his grand manner, he had taken scholars with him. The English followed the French, stole their finest discoveries -- which was considered a quite legitimate piece of enterprise in those pious days -- and in turn began to study Egypt. The key to the ancient Egyptian writing was discovered and soon the world was astonished to learn that the old "pagan" kingdom had been profoundly religious and moral. Egypt had even got as far as the worship of one eternal spiritual god before the days of Tut-ankh- amen.

It was next the turn of ancient Babylon, and the revelations made here by the spade of the archaeologist were even more astounding. The world had been completely deceived for two thousand years as to the character of the Babylonians. We found an immense literature and the clue to the language. We found even the Babylonian's code of laws. Babylon a sink of iniquity! Why, we found, they drowned people in the river for adultery and burned men alive for rape.

We recovered the record of their speculations about the origin of the universe and of man, and no man can read them and fail to recognize that Genesis is just a compilation -- altered into monotheistic language -- of stories which we can trace back for five or six thousand years. The story of creation, of the first human pair, of the garden and the fall, and of the deluge, correspond perfectly with the stories reproduced in Genesis. The world was astonished at this revelation, which was spread over the nineteenth century. Once more a literal faith in Genesis was demolished, quite apart from any conflict with modern geology.

There is hardly any educational need so acute in the United States just now (1929) as the spread of this information. Not one single leader of the Fundamentalists has the dimmest notion of what scholars have known for fifty years or more about the Babylonian stories in Genesis. All of them speak about "the Word of God" as if the ruins of ancient Babylon still lay undisturbed in Mesopotamia, and nobody had ever even suggested that the stories of creation, fall and deluge were familiar ancient legends. It would be a revelation to the millions of American Fundamentalists merely to read a literal translation of the tablets which we have found in the ruins of Mesopotamian cities which were destroyed ages before the Hebrews could write.

But, still without referring to what is popularly called "science," we are not yet at the end of the influences which brought about in the nineteenth century the great revolt against religion. The next influence was philosophy. It would be useless here to attempt to describe what philosophy is. Let it suffice to say that it is (or was at first) a study of our very power of thinking and of our most profound reflections on reality. Beginning with Kant in Germany in the second half of the eighteenth century, a long and brilliant line of philosophers, or metaphysicians, succeeded each other in Germany, England, France, Italy and, ultimately, America.

How could these abstruse thinkers influence the popular mind and encourage skepticism? It was quite easy. As the Deistic movement had shaken belief in revelation, there was an intense effort to prove by means of human reason the existence of God and the immortality of the soul. Every theologian, in fact, now recognizes, every reasonable man must recognize, that these things must be proved by the use of reason before we can appeal to revelation at all. We must first know of the existence of the revealer. Well, to cut short a long story, it was the business of the philosophers to study these "reasons" or "evidences," and the vast majority pronounced them invalid. Faith received another and more terrible blow, for the philosophers are the deepest thinkers of all culture.

Finally, the movement for social reform in the nineteenth century fostered the revolt against religion. Very few people, unfortunately, now know the history of the mighty struggle in the first half of the nineteenth century for the rights of man. In America this is, in a sense, easily understood. The American Constitution was, mainly by Rationalists, inspired with a just sense of human rights, and the industrial conditions in America were better than in Europe. The United States had not to witness the same fearful struggle for justice as Europe. But if any man desires to understand fully the anti-clerical movement of modern times, he must know something about this struggle, and we will tell the story later.

Briefly, when the feudal monarchs of Europe were restored after the fall of Napoleon, the churches were their strongest allies in every country. They formed together what is known in history as the Holy Alliance or the White Terror. Rebels, either against State or Church, were mercilessly punished. Every reform was refused, and the clergy were almost unanimous in the refusal. It was mainly a band of Freethinkers in every country who fought for the rights of man. Until the middle of the nineteenth century not a single well-known clergyman fought with them. The churches were either indifferent or hostile to the most urgent of human reforms education, industrial betterment, child labor, political rights, the rights of women, prison reform, and so on.

This glaring contrast between the supposed ethic of Christianity and the actual conduct of the churches stung the democracies of Europe, and the intellectual criticism of religion which was contained in the other influences we have described was now reinforced by the passionate appeal of human rights and wrongs. The heart rebelled with the head. From the educated wealthy and middle class the revolt spread to the millions, and the extension of education and cheapening of books completed the revolt of the masses.

 


Enter Science

So far I have hardly said a word about science, as the word is generally understood. It is most important to study the revolt gainst religion in this way. Evolution, even science in general, is only one element in the revolt. Nothing could be more erroneous than the widespread belief that, if evolution can be excluded from schools, the revolt will be checked and Christianity saved.

In the course of one of our debates Dr. Riley challenged me, as an honorable man," to tell our audience whether in my conviction evolution led to skepticism. The Fundamentalist leader glowed with triumph when I boldly answered: "Yes," but the glow quickly faded when I added: "So does all knowledge."

Yet it is science that has captured the imagination and become the symbol of the modern conflict of new truth and old tradition. That is easily understood. Science brought such fascinating revelations about the stars and flowers, the rocks and animals, the organs of the body and the atoms of matter, that the whole world listened and applauded. Science proved the truth of its revelations by building upon them such wonderful feats of engineering and chemistry that no one could doubt the soundness of the scientific principles. Science represents the greatest triumph of the human mind ever recorded in history. So when the scientist entered the arena against religion, he attracted far more attention than the historian or the philosopher.

"Yes," the Fundamentalists say, "we admit it. We recognize that true science is a mighty power." Well, who is to say when science is true," and when it is not? When the entire body of scientific experts in the world -- more than a hundred thousand -- are unanimously agreed that evolution is "true science," who is going to have the courage to say that he knows better?

Scientific men are not agreed about the particular process or mode of evolution. They are not agreed as to the value of all the arguments that are used for evolution. But they -- all the university professors in the world in seven or eight sciences concerned with evolution -- are unanimously agreed that evolution is certain, and they are unanimously agreed that certain lines of argument for it are "true" science.

The dramatic struggle of science and religion began with Charles Darwin's publication of the "Origin of Species." Incidentally, let me point out that the full title of the book, the real definition of "Darwinism," is "The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection." Darwinism is not the same thing as evolution. It is a special theory of the machinery of evolution, and it is disputed. But every writer and preacher who confuses Darwinism and evolution, who represents that they are the same thing, who quotes scientific men opposed to Darwinism as if they were opposed to evolution, is throwing dust in the eyes of his followers.

Darwin's great merit in science, and his great offense to the churches, is that he first put forward the theory of evolution in a form, and on a basis of fact, that commanded general attention. The theory was well known to scholars before his time, but earlier versions of it had been mere "hypotheses," as a Fundamentalist would say, without any large basis of fact. Darwin, by thirty years of patient labor, provided that basis. The world fell to discussing evolution, and the great conflict opened.

There had, of course, been earlier skirmishes between scientists and theologists. The Bible plainly teaches that man is only a little over six thousand years old. Those who lightly say that the Old Testament does not do this have never added together the ages assigned to the patriarchs. These figures, added together, take us back to about 4000 B.C. for the creation of Adam, though we may quite admit that the English bishop who gave the very date and hour of the creation was gifted with more imagination than English bishops usually are! In any case, long before the time of Darwin, men of science began to find prehistoric stone weapons, going back certainly tens of thousands of years, and there was a conflict over "the antiquity of man."

There was another struggle or skirmish around the tower of Babel and the confusion of tongues. One of the earliest branches of science in the nineteenth century was the science of languages, philology. Scientists found that the languages of widely different nations -- say, most of the Europeans, the Hindus and the Persians -- were closely related to each other. In short, long before it was known that species had evolved, it was clear that languages had evolved, and the tower of Babel story was rejected.

There was also a science of comparative religion, which was by no means favorable to the unique distinction claimed by Christianity. There was a science of geology, and long before Darwin's time it rejected the story of the deluge and taught that the crust of the earth had been formed gradually during millions of years. There was, in a word, a good deal of conflict before Darwin's time, but it did not attract anything like the attention that Darwin did, and it did not lead to such fundamental skepticism as philosophy and history did.

The fight over evolution fired the imagination of the world. We must remember that, as I said, the world had been prepared for it by one hundred and fifty years of Rationalism, and that the extension of education, the cheapening of literature, and the greater leisure and higher wages won for the workers in the course of the nineteenth century had created a vast new public. There was a new intellectual curiosity in the race. There were splendid popular exponents of science. There was a readiness to hear the clergy smitten on account of their social record. Huxley in England, Haeckel in Germany, boldly took up the hesitating thesis of the gentle Darwin and applied it to man. The world was in an uproar.

I repeat that there was nothing in all this more damaging to the Bible than the archeological discoveries of Babylonian legends, which are not "mere hypotheses," yet the Fundamentalist seems never to have heard of them. But the implications of the doctrine of evolution were more serious. If man has evolved from a lower form, there is not much room for a soul. If the development of life has been so slow and stumbling and bloody, the mind is disposed to exclude God from it. Huxley, disliking the word Atheism, which is generally supposed to mean a dogmatic denial of the existence of God -- and one cannot prove a negative -- coined the name "Agnostic": a man who "does not know" if there is a God, or thinks it not proved. Educated people in all ages had shrunk from the word Atheist. They now quite commonly adopted Agnosticism. Haeckel in Germany coined the word Monist, and millions adopted it.

Meantime evolution spread over the entire universe. As the science of astronomy advanced, it made clearer than ever the truth of the evolution of worlds. The science of prehistoric man had thousands of votaries raking the earth in all countries, and soon there was a mass of evidence covering the evolution of man for hundreds of thousands of years. Geology filled up many of the gaps in the record of life. Museums were established in every large town to exhibit these things to the public, and when you wander through the galleries of a large museum, it seems to you ironical to call evolution a "mere theory." It is stamped on every object in the museum.

Sociologists began to work out the evolution of social and political institutions. Experts on the science of comparative religion arranged all the religions of the world, including Christianity, in an evolutionary series. Moral ideas were discovered to be the outcome of evolution, and their origin and development were traced. Everything known to the mind of man, in fact, was proved to be a product of evolution and to be in a state of evolution today.

 


The Voice Of The Heart

There are said to be about five thousand scientists -- that is to say, teachers of science in universities and higher colleges and institutions -- in the United States. In view of the threat to exclude evolution from the schools because it disturbs religion, a number of these have signed and issued a public declaration that science is quite consistent with religion. These men are less than a score out of the five thousand. The silence of the others is eloquent, for we may be sure that at least all the more distinguished men of science were asked to sign it.

The Fundamentalist despises this manifesto, and in a sense he is right. What is the good of assuring the Fundamentalist that science is consistent with religion when you mean a totally different religion from his? No scientist in the world would admit that science is consistent with a literal belief in Genesis. Yet the document is interesting. It means that Christianity is prepared, or believes that it is prepared, to adjust its teaching to science.

What precise religion these American men of science meant no one knows. Professor Osborn says that he is a Christian, and Professor Pupin even says that he adheres to the Serb Orthodox Church. Does this mean that they accept the miraculous birth, the atoning death, and the resurrection of Christ? They certainly do not.

And what is the use of solemnly assuring people that science is consistent with the ethics of Christ? Naturally, science has nothing to do with it. The Fundamentalist suspects that these men are virtually trying to deceive him; that they really mean that they are Christians only in the ethical sense, but would like people to suppose that they are Christians in a doctrinal sense. I am not sure that the Fundamentalist is wrong.

No one is a Christian because he accepts the ethics of Christ, for this simple reason that, as we shall see, there is no ethic which is peculiar to Christ. But this sketch of the coming of skepticism and the passing of Christianity would not be complete unless we noticed the attempt to adjust Christian doctrine to the new thought. Will this Modernism, as it is called, save Christianity? Is there a possibility of getting the millions back to church by permitting them to read a new sense into the creeds?

We must judge this in the light of all that has preceded. Modernism takes the Bible as an "inspired book" or a "revelation" only in a new meaning of the words. It admits that the early chapters of the Old Testament mainly consist of legends borrowed, directly or indirectly, from the Babylonians. It admits that the supposed history of Deuteronomy, Kings, Judges, etc., is full of errors. The Bible, it says, was not meant to teach science and history. It admits that the Old Testament as we have it was put together and largely helped out with fiction, a few centuries before the birth of Christ. It says that the prophecies were not prophecies, the miracles were not miracles, and it confesses that the New Testament, as we have it, was written so many decades after the death of Christ that an historian would not regard it as a reliable biography.

Now, if you say all this in plain English, as some do, you certainly escape the pressure of many of the anti-Christian influences we have described. But you cannot fool this generation of ours. We want plain English, especially from the men who profess to teach us to be honest. You surrender Adam and Eve, the garden of Eden, the fall, the flood. Very good, but then tell us in plain English what you mean by original sin and the atonement. If all men did not die in Adam, all men were not redeemed by Christ. If the New testament was written decades after the death of Christ, we have no firm ground for belief in the resurrection.

As we are speculating on the passing of Christianity, let us understand clearly where we are. A few preachers say that they surrender all these things. They have a painful way, when they are called to account for it by bishops and conventions, of retiring behind a smoke-screen of obscure words. That is only a temporary little piece of strategy, they nervously assure us. Diplomacy is the middle stage between feudalism and freedom. Soon we will be quite free to say these things, and Christianity is saved.

Let us look at this Christianity, without hell or heaven, without atonement or resurrection, without virgin birth or miracles, without a divinity of Christ. It is an Ethical Culture Society with an oil-painting of Christ on the altar and God somewhere in the background.

That looks very like the passing of Christianity. But we will not quibble. There remain a moral code, God and a prophet, and as the prophet is Christ, not Buddha, one may call it Christianity. But are you now on firm ground? I am not thinking of future possibilities on the part of this restless and wicked race of ours. I am thinking of the actual teaching of science, history, sociology and philosophy; of things accepted by the majority of scholars.

Every line, every syllable, of the new Christianity is as much disputed as the old. The ethical code is disputed. To begin with, it is shorn by these Modernists of practically all that seems to be originally and peculiarly Christian: I say "seems," because, as we shall see, even the counsels of turning the other cheek to the smiter, loving your enemies, and giving your goods to the poor, are not peculiarly Christian. The rest plainly has nothing distinctively Christian about it.

Moreover, much of it never has been, and never will be, generally accepted. Up to the present people have pretended to accept the Christian code of sexual sin. It was heresy not to do it lip-service. It is now openly challenged by at least one-half the most influential writers and artists of our time, and it will never again be generally accepted, and every Modernist knows it.

Then there is the prophet, Christ. The doubt spreads in modern literature whether there ever was such a person. I believe that there probably was, but it is just a broad historical conclusion. No one can prove it.

In any case, why should we of the twentieth century listen to Galilean oracles of two thousand years ago? Why should we, who believe that two hundred million years of planetary life lie before us, look for social guidance to a prophet who thought that the end of the world was at hand? That is what our generation asks. The next will not ask it; the language will be less polite. A very frail foundation, this, on which to rest the large hope that Christianity will reconquer the world.

The third and chief element of the new Christianity is God, and it is the most disputed and disputable of the three. Pray, do not take this as a piece of dogmatism. I am merely surveying the modern world and setting down on paper its ideas and sentiments, so that we may see what hope even the most liberal Christianity has of surviving in it. God is the most disputed element of all religion. Philosophers, the men who ought to know most about it, are hopelessly divided as to what kind of a God we may believe in and the reasons why we should believe. The majority of them refuse to believe in a personal God.

Moreover, you get right here the full pressure of the facts of science and history.

Note carefully that I do not say, "the full pressure of science and history." It is not the business of either science or history to talk about God. Many scientific men throw as much dust in the eyes of people as Fundamentalist preachers do. "Science is not opposed to religion," they say, pompously. Sometimes they add that it is merely the popularizers and camp-followers of science who say so. But the good men have no more right to talk about religion than the preacher has to talk about science. They have studied religion as little as the preacher has studied science. They have as much right as anybody to say that they are religious, but the fact is not interesting, as they give no evidence of having studied it. When they go on to say that every other thoughtful person is, or ought to be, religious, they are merely impertinent.

When these men say that science is not opposed to religion, they mislead, because all that they, as scientists, can say is that science as such does not touch religion, yet they convey the impression that the facts brought to light by science are consistent with religious beliefs. On that they have no authority whatever.

We all know that science as such is not concerned with God and immortality. The question for serious people is whether the evolution of life and man (history included), as we know it, is consistent with such beliefs. The great majority of our scientists think not. But it is a question that each person must settle for himself. I say here only that in view of the ghastly, brutal, blundering blood and tear-stained record of life and man the belief in God is far more controversial than the belief in the virgin birth, and that modern philosophy generally denies the validity of the grounds on which nine hundred and ninety-nine people out of a thousand believe in God.

 

/library/historical/disclaimer.html
The Historical Library is provided for those doing research into the history of nontheism. It is not intended to be--and should not be used as--a source of modern, up-to-date information regarding atheistic issues. DO NOT CONTACT US ABOUT THESE DOCUMENTS. Please read the full Historical Library Disclaimer
Top