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A Look Backward And Prophecy (1898)

Robert Green Ingersoll

I CONGRATULATE The Truth Seeker on its twenty-fifth birthday. It has fought a good fight. It has always been at the front. It has carried the flag, and its flag is a torch that sheds light.

Twenty-five years ago the people of this country, for the most part, were quite orthodox. The great "fundamental" falsehoods of Christianity were generally accepted. Those who were not Christians, as a rule, admitted that they ought to be; that they ought to repent and join the church, and this they generally intended to do of them had.

The ministers had few doubts. The most of them had been educated not to think, but to believe. Thought was regarded as dangerous, and the clergy, as a rule, kept on the safe side. Investigation was discouraged. It was declared that faith was the only road that led to eternal joy.

Most of the schools and colleges were under sectarian control, and the presidents and professors were defenders of their creeds. The people were crammed with miracles and stuffed with absurdities. They were taught that the Bible was the "inspired" word of God, that it was absolutely perfect, that the contradictions were only apparent, and that it contained no mistakes in philosophy, none in science. The great scheme of salvation was declared to be the result of infinite wisdom and mercy. Heaven and hell were waiting for the human race. Only those could be saved who had faith and who had been born twice.

Most of the ministers taught the geology of Moses, the astronomy of Joshua, and the philosophy of Christ. They regarded scientists as enemies, and their principal business was to defend miracles and deny facts. They knew, however, that men were thinking, investigating in every direction, and they feared the result. They became a little malicious -- somewhat hateful. With their congregations they relied on sophistry, and they answered their enemies with epithets, with misrepresentations and slanders; and yet their minds were filled with a vague fear, with a sickening dread, Some of the people were reading and some were thinking. Lyell had told them something about geology, and in the light of facts they were reading Genesis again. The clergy called Lyell an Infidel, a blasphemer, but the facts seemed to care nothing for opprobrious names. Then the "called," the "set apart," the " Lord's anointed " began changing the "inspired" word. They erased the word "day" and inserted "period," and then triumphantly exclaimed: "The world was created in six periods." This answer satisfied bigotry, hypocrisy, and honest ignorance, but honest intelligence was not satisfied.

More and more was being found about the history of life, of living things, the order in which the various forms had appeared and the relations they had sustained to each other. Beneath the gaze of the biologist the fossils were again clothed with flesh, submerged continents and islands reappeared, the ancient forest grew once more, the air was filled with unknown birds, the seas with armored monsters, and the land with beasts of many forms that sought with tooth and claw each other's flesh.

Haeckel and Huxley followed life through all its changing forms from monad up to man. They found that men, women, and children had been on this poor world for hundreds of thousands of years.

The clergy could not dodge these facts, this conclusion by calling "days " periods, because the Bible gives the age of Adam when he died, the lives and ages to the flood, to Abraham, to David, and from David to Christ, so that, according to the Bible, man at the birth of Christ had been on this earth four thousand and four years and no more.

There was no way in which the sacred record could be changed, but of course the dear ministers could not admit the conclusion arrived at by Haeckel and Huxley. If they did they would have to give up original sin, the scheme of the atonement, and the consolation of eternal fire.

They took the only course they could. They promptly and solemnly, with upraised hands, denied the facts, denounced the biologists as irreverent wretches, and defended the Book. With tears in their voices they talked about "Mother's Bible," about the "faith of the fathers," about the prayers that the children had said, and they also talked about the wickedness of doubt. This satisfied bigotry, hypocrisy, and honest ignorance, but honest intelligence was not satisfied.

The works of Humboldt had been translated, and were being read; the intellectual horizon was enlarged, and the fact that the endless chain of cause and effect had never been broken, that Nature had never been interfered with, forced its way into many minds. This conception of nature was beyond the clergy. They did not believe it; they could not comprehend it. They did not answer Humboldt, but they attacked him with great virulence. They measured his works by the Bible, because the Bible was then the standard.

In examining a philosophy, a system, the ministers asked: "Does it agree with the sacred book?" With the Bible they separated the gold from the dross. Every science had to be tested by the Scriptures. Humboldt did not agree with Moses. He differed from Joshua. He had his doubts about the flood. That was enough.

Yet, after all, the ministers felt that they were standing on thin ice, that they were surrounded by masked batteries, and that something unfortunate was liable at any moment to happen. This increased their efforts to avoid, to escape. The truth was that they feared the truth. They were afraid of facts. They became exceedingly anxious for morality, for the young, for the inexperienced. They were afraid to trust human nature. They insisted that without the Bible the world would rush to crime. They warned the thoughtless of the danger of thinking. They knew that it would be impossible for civilization to exist without the Bible. They knew this because their God had tried it. He gave no Bible to the antediluvians, and they became so bad that he had to destroy them. He gave the Jews only the Old Testament, and they were dispersed. Irreverent people might say that Jehovah should have known this without a trial, but after all that has nothing to do with theology.

Attention had been called to the fact that two accounts of creation are in Genesis, and that they do not agree and cannot be harmonized, and that, in addition to that, the divine historian had made a mistake as to the order of creation; that according to one account Adam was made before the animals, and Eve last of all, from Adam's rib; and by the other account Adam and Eve were made after the animals, and both at the same time. A good many people were surprised to find that the Creator had written contradictory accounts of the creation, and had forgotten the order in which he created.

Then there was another difficulty. Jehovah had declared that on Tuesday, or during the second period, he had created the "firmament" to divide the waters which were below the firmament from the waters above the firmament. It was found that there is no firmament; that the moisture in the air is the result of evaporation, and that there was nothing to divide the waters above from the waters below. So that, according to the facts, Jehovah did nothing on the second day or period, because the moisture above the earth is not prevented from falling by the firmament, but because the mist is lighter than air.

The preachers, however, began to dodge, to evade, to talk about "oriental imagery." They declared that Genesis was a "sublime poem," a divine "panorama of creation," an "inspired vision;" that it was not intended to be exact in its details, but that it was true in a far higher sense, in a poetical sense, in a spiritual sense, conveying a truth much higher, much grander than simple fact. The contradictions were covered with the mantle of oriental imagery. This satisfied bigotry, hypocrisy, and honest ignorance, but honest intelligence was not satisfied.

People were reading Darwin. His works interested not only the scientific, but the intelligent in all the walks of life. Darwin was the keenest observer of all time, the greatest naturalist in all the world. He was patient, modest, logical, candid, courageous, and absolutely truthful. He told the actual facts. He colored nothing. He was anxious only to ascertain the truth. He had no prejudices, no theories, no creed. He was the apostle of the real.

The ministers greeted him with shouts of derision. From nearly all the pulpits came the sounds of ignorant laughter, one of the saddest of all sounds. The clergy in a vague kind of way believed the Bible account of creation; they accepted the Miltonic view; they believed that all animals, including man, had been made of clay, fashioned by Jehovah's hands, and that he had breathed into all forms, not only the breath of life, but instinct and reason. They were not in the habit of descending to particulars; they did not describe Jehovah as kneading the clay or modeling his forms like a sculptor, but what they did say included these things.

The theory of Darwin contradicted all their ideas on the subject, vague as they were. He showed that man had not appeared at first as man, that he had not fallen from perfection, but had slowly risen through many ages from lower forms. He took food, climate, and all conditions into consideration, and accounted for difference of form, function, instinct, and reason, by natural causes. He dispensed with the supernatural. He did away with Jehovah the potter.

Of course the theologians denounced him as a blasphemer, as a dethroner of God. They even went so far as to smile at his ignorance. They said: "If the theory of Darwin is true the Bible is false, our God is a myth, and our religion a fable."

In that they were right.

Against Darwin they rained texts of Scripture like shot and shell. They believed that they were victorious and their congregations were delighted. Poor little frightened professors in religious colleges sided with the clergy. Hundreds of backboneless "scientists" ranged themselves with the enemies of Darwin. It began to look as though the church was victorious.

Slowly, steadily, the ideas of Darwin gained ground. He began to be understood. Men of sense were reading what he said. Men of genius were on his side. In a little while the really great in all departments of human thought declared in his favor. The tide began to turn. The smile on the face of the theologian became a frozen grin. The preachers began to hedge, to dodge. They admitted that the Bible was not inspired for the purpose of teaching science -- only inspired about religion, about the spiritual, about the divine. The fortifications of faith were crumbling, the old guns had been spiked, and the armies of the "living God" were in retreat.

Great questions were being discussed, and freely discussed. People were not afraid to give their opinions, and they did give their honest thoughts. Draper had shown in his "Intellectual Development of Europe" that Catholicism had been the relentless enemy of progress, the bitter foe of all that is really useful. The Protestants were delighted with this book.

Buckle had shown in his "History of Civilization in England" that Protestantism had also enslaved the mind, had also persecuted to the extent of its power, and that Protestantism in its last analysis was substantially the same as the creed of Rome.

This book satisfied the thoughtful.

Hegel in his first book had done a great work and it did great good in spite of the fact that his second book was almost a surrender. Lecky in his first volume of "The History of Rationalism" shed a flood of light on the meanness, the cruelty, and the malevolence of "revealed religion," and this did good in spite of the fact that he almost apologizes in the second volume for what he had said in the first.

The Universalists had done good. They had civilized a great many Christians. They declared that eternal punishment was infinite revenge, and that the God of hell was an infinite savage.

Some of the Unitarians, following the example of Theodore Parker, denounced Jehovah as a brutal, tribal God. All these forces worked together for the development of the orthodox brain.

Herbert Spencer was being read and understood. The theories of this great philosopher were being adopted. He overwhelmed the theologians with facts, and from a great height he surveyed the world. Of course he was attacked, but not answered.

Emerson had sowed the seeds of thought -- of doubt -- in many minds, and from many directions the world was being flooded with light. The clergy became apologetic; they spoke with less certainty; with less emphasis, and lost a little confidence in the power of assertion. They felt the necessity of doing something, and they began to harmonize as best they could the old lies and the new truths. They tried to get the wreck ashore, and many of them were willing to surrender if they could keep their side-arms; that is to say, their salaries.

Conditions had been reversed. The Bible had ceased to be the standard. Science was the supreme and final test.

There was no peace for the pulpit; no peace for the shepherds. Students of the Bible in England and Germany had been examining the inspired Scriptures. They had been trying to find when and by whom the books of the Bible were written. They found that the Pentateuch was not written by Moses; that the authors of Joshua, Judges, Ruth, Samuel, Yangs, Chronicles, Esther, and Job were not known; that the Psalms were not written by David; that Solomon had nothing to do with Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, or the Song; that Isaiah was the work of at least three authors; that the prophecies of Daniel were written after the happening of the events prophesied. They found many mistakes and contradictions, and some of them went so far as to assert that the Hebrews had never been slaves in Egypt -- that the story of the plagues, the exodus, and the pursuit was only a myth.

The New Testament fared no better than the Old. These critics found that nearly all of the books of the New Testament had been written by unknown men; that it was impossible to fix the time when they were written; that many of the miracles were absurd and childish, and that in addition to all of this, the gospels were found filled with mistakes, with interpolations and contradictions; that the writers of Matthew, Mark, and Luke did not understand the Christian religion as it was understood by the author of the gospel according to John.

Of course, the critics were denounced from most of the pulpits, and the religious papers, edited generally by men who had failed as preachers, were filled with bitter denials and vicious attacks. The religious editors refused to be enlightened. They fought under the old flag. When dogmas became too absurd to be preached, they were taught in the Sunday schools; when worn out there, they were given to the missionaries; but the dear old religious weeklies, the Banners, the Covenants, the Evangelists, continued to feed their provincial subscribers with known mistakes and refuted lies.

There is another fact that should be taken into consideration. All religions are provincial. Mingled with them all and at the foundation of all are the egotism of ignorance, of isolation, the pride of race, and what is called patriotism. Every religion is a natural product -- the result of conditions. When one tribe became acquainted with another, the ideas of both were somewhat modified. So when nations and races come into contact a change in thought, in opinion, is a necessary result.

A few years ago nations were strangers, and consequently hated each other's institutions and religions. Commerce has done a great work in destroying provincialism. To trade commodities is to exchange ideas. So the press, the steamships, the railways, cables, and telegraphs have brought the nations together and enabled them to compare their prejudices, their religions, laws and customs.

Recently many scholars have been studying the religions of the world and have found them much the same. They have also found that there is nothing original in Christianity; that the legends, miracles, Christs, and conditions of salvation, the heavens, hells, angels, devils, and gods were the common property of the ancient world. They found that Christ was a new name for an old biography; that he was not a life, but a legend; not a man, but a myth.

People began to suspect that our religion had not been supernaturally revealed, while others, far older and substantially the same, had been naturally produced. They found it difficult to account for the fact that poor, ignorant savages had in the darkness of nature written so well that Jehovah thousands of years afterwards copied it and adopted it as his own. They thought it curious that God should be a plagiarist.

These scholars found that all the old religions had recognized the existence of devils, of evil spirits, who sought in countless ways to injure the children of Men. In this respect they found that the sacred books of other nations were just the same as our Bible, as our New Testament.

Take the Devil from our religion and the entire fabric falls. No Devil, no fall of man. No Devil, no atonement. No Devil, no hell.

The Devil is the keystone of the arch.

And yet for many years the belief in the existence of the Devil -- of evil spirits -- had been fading from the minds of intelligent people. This belief has now substantially vanished. The minister who now seriously talks about a personal Devil is regarded with a kind of pitying contempt.

The Devil has faded from his throne and the evil spirits have vanished from the air.

The man who has really given up a belief in the existence of the Devil cannot believe in the inspiration of the New Testament -- in the divinity of Christ. If Christ taught anything, if he believed in anything, he taught a belief in the existence of the Devil. His principal business was casting out devils. He himself was taken possession of by the Devil and carried to the top of the temple.

Thousands and thousands of people have ceased to believe the account in the New Testament regarding devils, and yet continue to believe in the dogma of "inspiration" and the divinity of Christ.

In the brain of the average Christian, contradictions dwell in unity.

While a belief in the existence of the Devil has almost faded away, the belief in the existence of a personal God has been somewhat weakened. The old belief that back of nature, back of all substance and force, was and is a personal God, an infinite intelligence who created and governs the world, began to be questioned. The scientists had shown the indestructibility of matter and force. Buchner's great work had convinced most readers that matter and force could not have been created. They also became satisfied that matter cannot exist apart from force and that force cannot exist apart from matter.

They found, too, that thought is a form of force, and that consequently intelligence could not have existed before matter, because without matter, force in any form cannot and could not exist.

The creator of anything is utterly unthinkable.

A few years ago God was supposed to govern the world. He rewarded the people with sunshine, with prosperity and health, or he punished with drought and flood, with plague and storm. He not only attended to the affairs of nations, but he watched the actions of individuals. He sank ships, derailed trains, caused conflagrations, killed men and women with his lightnings, destroyed some with earthquakes, and tore the homes and bodies of thousands into fragments with his cyclones.

In spite of the church, in spite of the ministers, the people began to lose confidence in Providence. The right did not seem always to triumph. Virtue was not always rewarded and vice was not always punished. The good failed; the vicious succeeded; the strong and cruel enslaved the weak; toil was paid with the lash; babes were sold from the breasts of mothers, and Providence seemed to be absolutely heartless.

In other words, people began to think that the God of the Christians and the God of nature were about the same, and that neither appeared to take any care of the human race.

The Deists of the last century scoffed at the Bible God. He was too cruel, too savage. At the same time they praised the God of nature. They laughed at the idea of inspiration and denied the supernatural origin of the Scriptures.

Now, if the Bible is not inspired, then it is a natural production, and nature, not God, should be held responsible for the Scriptures. Yet the Deists denied that God was the author and at the same time asserted the perfection of nature.

This shows that even in the minds of Deists contradictions dwell in unity.

Against all these facts and forces, these theories and tendencies, the clergy fought and prayed. It is not claimed that they were consciously dishonest, but it is claimed that they were prejudiced -- that they were incapable of examining the other side -- that they were utterly destitute of the philosophic spirit. They were not searchers for the facts, but defenders of the creeds, and undoubtedly they were the product of their conditions and surroundings, and acted as they must.

In spite of everything a few rays of light penetrated the orthodox mind. Many ministers accepted some of the new facts, and began to mingle with Christian mistakes a few scientific truths. In many instances they excited the indignation of their congregations. Some were tried for heresy and driven from their pulpits, and some organized new churches and gathered about them a few people willing to listen to the sincere thoughts of an honest man.

The great body of the church, however, held to the creed -- not quite believing it, but still insisting that it was true. in private conversation they would apologize and admit that the old ideas were outgrown, but in public they were as orthodox as ever. In every church, however, there were many priests who accepted the new gospel; that is to say, welcomed the truth.

To-day it may truthfully be said that the Bible in the old sense is no longer regarded as the inspired word of God. Jehovah is no longer accepted or believed in as the creator of the universe. His place has been taken by the Unknown, the Unseen, the Invisible, the Incomprehensible Something, the Cosmic Dust, the First Cause, the Inconceivable, the Original Force, the Mystery. The God of the Bible, the gentleman who walked in the cool of the evening, who talked face to face with Moses, who revenged himself on unbelievers and who gave laws written with his finger on tables of stone, has abdicated. He has become a myth.

So, too, the New Testament has lost its authority. People reason about it now as they do about other books, and even orthodox ministers pick out the miracles that ought to be believed, and when anything is attributed to Christ not in accordance with their views, they take the liberty of explaining it away by saying "interpolation."

In other words, we have lived to see Science the standard instead of the Bible. We have lived to see the Bible tested by Science, and, what is more, we have lived to see reason the standard not only in religion, but in all the domain of science. Now all civilized scientists appeal to reason. They get their facts, and then reason from the foundation. Now the theologian appeals to reason. Faith is no longer considered a foundation, The theologian has found that he must build upon the truth and that he must establish this truth by satisfying human reason.

This is where we are now.

What is to be the result? Is progress to stop? Are we to retrace our steps? Are we going back to superstition? Are we going to take authority for truth?

Let me prophesy.

In modern times we have slowly lost confidence in the supernatural and have slowly gained confidence in the natural. We have slowly lost confidence in gods and have slowly gained confidence in man. For the cure of disease, for the stopping of plague, we depend on the natural -- on science. We have lost confidence in holy water and religious processions. We have found that prayers are never answered.

In my judgment, all belief in the supernatural will be driven from the human mind. All religions must pass away. The augurs, the soothsayers, the seers, the preachers, the astrologers and alchemists will all lie in the same cemetery and one epitaph will do for them all. In a little while all will have had their day. They were naturally produced and they will be naturally destroyed. Man at last will depend entirely upon himself -- on the development of the brain -- to the end that he may take advantage of the forces of nature -- to the end that he may supply the wants of his body and feed the hunger of his mind.

In my judgment, teachers will take the place of preachers and the interpreters of mature will be the only priests.


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