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Some Live Topics

Robert Green Ingersoll


                        SOME LIVE TOPICS.

     Question. Shall you attend the Albany Freethought Convention?

     Answer. I have agreed to be present not only, but to address
the convention, on Sunday, the 13th of September. I am greatly
gratified to know that the interest in the question of intellectual
liberty is growing from year to year. Everywhere I go it seems to
be the topic of conversation. No matter upon what subject people
begin to talk, in a little while the discussion takes a religious
turn, and people who a few moments before had not the slightest
thought of saying a word about the churches, or about the Bible,
are giving their opinions in full. I hear discussions of this kind
in all the public conveyances, at the hotels, on the piazzas at the
seaside -- and they are not discussions in which I take any part,
because I rarely say anything upon these questions except in
public, unless I am directly addressed.

     There is a general feeling that the church has ruled the world
long enough. People are beginning to see that no amount of
eloquence, or faith, or erudition, or authority, can make the
records of barbarism satisfactory to the heart and brain of this
century. They have also found that a falsehood in Hebrew is no more
credible than in plain English. People at last are beginning to be
satisfied that cruel laws were never good laws, no matter whether
inspired or uninspired. The Christian religion, like every other
religion depending upon inspired writings, is necked upon the facts
of nature. So long as inspired writers confined themselves to the
supernatural world; so long as they talked about angels and Gods
and heavens and hells; so long as they described only things that
man has never seen, and never will see, they were safe, not from
contradiction, but from demonstration. But these writings had to
have a foundation, even for their falsehoods, and that foundation
was in Nature. The foundation had to be something about which
somebody knew something, or supposed they knew something. They told
something about this world that agreed with the then general
opinion. Had these inspired writers told the truth about Nature --
had they said that the world revolved on its axis, and made a
circuit about the sun -- they could have gained no credence for
their statements about other worlds. They were forced to agree with
their contemporaries about this world, and there is where they made
the fundamental mistake. Having grown in knowledge, the world has
discovered that these inspired men knew nothing about this earth;
that the inspired books are filled with mistakes -- not only
mistakes that we can contradict, but mistakes that we can
demonstrate to be mistakes. Had they told the truth in their day,
about this earth, they would not have been believed about other
worlds, because their contemporaries would have used their own
knowledge about this world to test the knowledge of these inspired
men. We pursue the same course; and what we know about this world
we use as the standard, and by that standard we have found that the
inspired men knew nothing about Nature as it is. Finding that they
were mistaken about this world, we have no confidence in what they
have said about another. Every religion has had its philosophy
about this world, and every one has been mistaken. As education
becomes general, as scientific modes are adopted, this will become
clearer and clearer, until "ignorant as inspiration" will be a
comparison.

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                        SOME LIVE TOPICS.

     Question. Have you seen the memorial to the New York
Legislature, to be presented this winter, asking for the repeal of
such laws as practically unite church and state?

     Answer. I have seen a memorial asking that church property be
taxed like other property; that no more money should be
appropriated from the public treasury for the support of
institutions managed by and in the interest of sectarian
denominations; for the repeal of all laws compelling the observance
of Sunday as a religious day. Such memorials ought to be addressed
to the Legislature of all the States. The money of the public
should only be used for the benefit of the public. Public money
should not be used for what a few gentlemen think is for the
benefit of the public. Personally, I think it would be for the
benefit of the public to have Infidel or scientific -- which is the
same thing -- lectures delivered in every town, in every State, on
every Sunday; but knowing that a great many men disagree with me on
this point, I do not claim that such lectures ought to be paid for
with public money. The Methodist Church ought not to be sustained
by taxation, nor the Catholic, nor any other church. To relieve
their property from taxation is to appropriate money, to the extent
of that tax, for the support of that church. Whenever a burden is
lifted from one piece of property, it is distributed over the rest
of the property of the State, and to release one kind of property
is to increase the tax on all other kinds.

     There was a time when people really supposed that churches
were saving souls from the eternal wrath of a God of infinite love.
Being engaged in such a philanthropic work, and at that time nobody
having the courage to deny it the church being all-powerful -- all
other property was taxed to support the church; but now the more
civilized part of the community, being satisfied that a God of
infinite love will not be eternally unjust, feel as though the
church should support herself. To exempt the church from taxation
is to pay a part of the priest's salary. The Catholic now objects
to being taxed to support a school in which his religion is not
taught. He is not satisfied with the school that says nothing on
the subject of religion. He insists that it is an outrage to tax
him to support a school where the teacher simply teaches what he
knows. And yet this same Catholic wants his church exempted from
taxation, and the tax of an Atheist or of a Jew increased, when he
teaches in his untaxed church that the Atheist and Jew will both be
eternally damned! Is it possible for impudence to go further?

     I insist that no religion should be taught in any school
supported by public money; and by religion I mean superstition.
Only that should be taught in a school that somebody can learn and
that somebody can know. In my judgment, every church should be
taxed precisely the same as other property. The church may claim
that it is one of the instruments of civilization and therefore
should be exempt. If you exempt that which is useful, you exempt
every trade and every profession. In my judgment, theaters have
done more to civilize mankind than churches; that is to say,
theaters have done something to civilize mankind -- churches
nothing. The effect of all superstition has been to render man
barbarous. I do not believe in the civilizing effects of falsehood.

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                        SOME LIVE TOPICS.

     There was a time when ministers were supposed to be in the
employ of God, and it was thought that God selected them with great
care -- that their profession had something sacred about it. These
ideas are no longer entertained by sensible people. Ministers
should be paid like other professional men, and those who like
their preaching should pay for the preach. They should depend, as
actors do, upon their popularity, upon the amount of sense, or
nonsense, that they have for sale. They should depend upon the
market like other people, and if people do not want to hear sermons
badly enough to build churches and pay for them, and pay the taxes
on them, and hire the preacher, let the money be diverted to some
other use. The pulpit should no longer be a pauper. I do not
believe in carrying on any business with the contribution box. All
the sectarian institutions ought to support themselves. There
should be no Methodist or Catholic or Presbyterian hospitals or
orphan asylums. All these should be supported by the State. There
is no such thing as Catholic charity, or Methodist charity. Charity
belongs to humanity, not to any particular form of faith or
religion. You will find as charitable people who never heard of
religion, as you can find in any church. The State should provide
for those who ought to be provided for. A few Methodists beg of
everybody they meet -- send women with subscription papers, asking
money from all classes of people, and nearly everybody gives
something from politeness, or to keep from being annoyed; and when
the institution is finished, it is pointed at as the result of
Methodism.

     Probably a majority of the people in this country suppose that
there was no charity in the world until the Christian religion was
founded. Great men have repeated this falsehood, until ignorance
and thoughtlessness believe it. There were orphan asylums in China,
in India, and in Egypt thousands of years before Christ was born;
and there certainly never was a time in the history of the whole
world when there was less charity in Europe than during the
centuries when the Church of Christ had absolute power. There were
hundreds of Mohammedan asylums before Christianity had built ten in
the entire world.

     All institutions for the care of unfortunate people should be
secular -- should be supported by the State. The money for the
purpose should be raised by taxation, to the end that the burden
may be borne by those able to bear it. As it is now, most of the
money is paid, not by the rich, but by the generous, and those most
able to help their needy fellow citizens are the very ones who do
nothing. If the money is raised by taxation, then the burden will
fall where it ought to fall, and these institutions will no longer
be supported by the generous and emotional, and the rich and stingy
will no longer be able to evade the duties of citizenship and
humanity.

     Now, as to the Sunday laws, we know that they are only
spasmodically enforced. Now and then a few people are arrested for
selling papers or cigars. Some unfortunate barber is grabbed by a
policeman because he has been caught shaving a Christian, Sunday
morning. Now and then some poor fellow with a hack, trying to make
a dollar or two to feed his horses, or to take care of his wife and

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                        SOME LIVE TOPICS.

children, is arrested as though he were a murderer. But in a few
days the public are inconvenienced to that degree that the arrests
stop and business goes on in its accustomed channels.

     Now and then society becomes so pious, so virtuous, that
people are compelled to enter saloons by the back door; others are
compelled to drink beer with the front shutters up; but otherwise
the stream that goes down the thirsty throats is unbroken. The
ministers have done their best to prevent all recreation on the
Sabbath. They would like to stop all the boats on the Hudson, and
the sea -- stop all the excursion trains. They would like to compel
every human being that lives in the city of New York to remain
within its limits twenty-four hours each Sunday. They hate the
parks; they hate music; they hate anything that keeps a man away
from church. Most of the churches are empty during the summer, and
now most of the ministers leave themselves, and give over the
entire city to the Devil and his emissaries. And yet if the
ministers had their way, there would be no form of human enjoyment
except prayer, signing subscription papers, putting money in
contribution boxes, listening to sermons, reading the cheerful
histories of the Old Testament, imagining the joys of heaven and
the torments of hell. The church is opposed to the theater, is the
enemy of the opera, looks upon dancing as a crime, hates billiards,
despises cards, opposes roller-skating, and even entertains a
certain kind of prejudice against croquet.

     Question. Do you think that the orthodox church gets its ideas
of the Sabbath from the teachings of Christ?

     Answer. I do not hold Christ responsible for these idiotic
ideas concerning the Sabbath. He regarded the Sabbath as something
made for man -- which was a very sensible view. The holiest day is
the happiest day. The most sacred day is the one in which have been

done the most good deeds. There are two reasons given in the Bible
for keeping the Sabbath. One is that God made the world in six
days, and rested on the seventh. Now that all the ministers admit
that he did not make the world in six days, but that he made it in
six "periods," this reason is no longer applicable. The other
reason is that he brought the Jews out of Egypt with a "mighty
hand." This may be a very good reason still for the observance of
the Sabbath by the Jews, but the real Sabbath, that is to say, the
day to be commemorated, is our Saturday, and why should we
commemorate the wrong day? That disposes of the second reason.

     Nothing can he more inconsistent than the theories and
practice of the churches about the Sabbath. The cars run Sundays,
and out of the profits hundreds of ministers are supported. The
great iron and steel works fill with smoke and fire the Sabbath
air, and the proprietors divide the profits with the churches. The
printers of the city are busy Sunday afternoons and evenings, and
the presses during the nights, so that the sermons of Sunday can
reach the heathen on Monday. The servants of the rich are denied
the privileges of the sanctuary. The coachman sits on the box
out-doors, while his employer kneels in church preparing himself
for the heavenly chariot. The iceman goes about on the holy day,
keeping believers cool, they knowing at the same time that he is
making it hot for himself in the world to come. Christians cross

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                        SOME LIVE TOPICS.

the Atlantic, knowing that the ship will pursue its way on the
Sabbath. They write letters to their friends knowing that they will
be carried in violation of Jehovah's law, by wicked men. Yet they
hate to see a pale-faced sewing girl enjoying a few hours by the
sea; a poor mechanic walking in the fields; or a tired mother
watching her children playing on the grass. Nothing ever was,
nothing ever will be, more utterly absurd and disgusting than a
Puritan Sunday. Nothing ever did make a home more hateful than the
strict observance of the Sabbath. It fills the house with hypocrisy
and the meanest kind of petty tyranny. The parents look sour and
stern, the children sad and sulky. They are compelled to talk upon
subjects about which they feel no interest, or to read books that
are thought good only because they are stupid.

     Question. What have you to say about the growth of
Catholicism, the activity of the Salvation Army, and the success of
revivalists like the Rev. Samuel Jones? Is Christianity really
gaining a strong hold on the masses?

     Answer. Catholicism is growing in this country, and it is the
only country on earth in which it is growing. Its growth here
depends entirely upon immigration, not upon intellectual conquest.
Catholic emigrants who leave their homes in the Old World because
they have never had any liberty, and who are Catholics for the same
reason, add to the number of Catholics here, but their children's
children will not be Catholics. Their children will not be very
good Catholics, and even these immigrants themselves, in a few
years, will not grovel quite so low in the presence of a priest.
The Catholic Church is gaining no ground in Catholic countries.

     The Salvation Army is the result of two thing -- the general
belief in what are known as the fundamentals of Christianity and
the heartlessness of the church. The church in England -- that is
to say, the Church of England -- having succeeded -- that is to
say, being supported by general taxation -- that is to say, being
a successful, well-fed parasite -- naturally neglected those who
did not in any way contribute to its support. It became
aristocratic. Splendid churches were built; younger sons with good
voices were put in the pulpits; the pulpit became the asylum for
aristocratic mediocrity, and in that way the Church of England lost
interest in the masses and the masses lost interest in the Church
of England. The neglected poor, who really had some belief in
religion, and who had not been absolutely petrified by forme and
patronage, were ready for the Salvation Army. They were not at home
in the church. They could not pay. They preferred the freedom of
the street. They preferred to attend a church where rags were no
objection. Had the church loved and labored with the poor the
Salvation Army never would have existed. These people are simply
giving their idea of Christianity, and in their way endeavoring to
do what they consider good. I don't suppose the Salvation Army will
accomplish much. To improve mankind you must change conditions. It
is not enough to work simply upon the emotional nature. The
surroundings must be such as naturally produce virtuous actions. If
we are to believe recent reports from London, the Church of
England, even with the assistance of the Salvation Army, has
accomplished but little. It would be hard to find any savage
country with less morality. You would search long in the jungles of
Africa to find greater depravity.

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                        SOME LIVE TOPICS.

     I account for revivalists like the Rev. Samuel Jones in the
same way. There is in every community an ignorant class -- what you
might call a literal class -- who believe in the real blood
atonement; who believe in heaven and hell, and harps and gridirons;
who have never had their faith weakened by reading commentators or
books harmonizing science and religion. They love to hear the good
old doctrine; they want hell described; they want it described so
that they can hear the moans and shrieks; they want heaven
described; they want to see God on a throne, and they want to feel
that they are finally to have the pleasure of looking over the
battlements of heaven and seeing all their enemies among the
damned. The Rev. Mr. Munger has suddenly become a revivalist.
According to the papers he is sought for in every direction. His
popularity seems to rest upon the fact that he brutally beat a girl
twelve years old because she did not say her prayers to suit him.
Muscular Christianity is what the ignorant people want. I regard
all these efforts -- including those made by Mr. Moody and Mr.
Hammond -- as evidence that Christianity, as an intellectual
factor, has almost spent its force. It no longer governs the
intellectual world.

     Question. Are not the Catholics the least progressive? And are
they not, in spite of their professions to the contrary, enemies to
republican liberty?

     Answer. Every church that has a standard higher than human
welfare is dangerous. A church that puts a book above the laws and
constitution of its country, that puts a book above the welfare of
mankind, is dangerous to human liberty. Every church that puts
itself above the legally expressed will of the people is dangerous.
Every church that holds itself under greater obligation to a pope
than to a people is dangerous to human liberty. Every church that
puts religion above humanity -- above the well-being of man in this
world -- is dangerous. The Catholic Church may be more dangerous,
not because its doctrines are more dangerous, but because, on the
average, its members more sincerely believe its doctrines, and
because that church can be hurled as a solid body in any given
direction. For these reasons it is more dangerous than other
churches; but its doctrines are no more dangerous than those of the
Protestant churches. The man who would sacrifice the well-being of
man to please an imaginary phantom that he calls God, is also
dangerous. The only safe standard is the well-being of man in this
world. Whenever this world is sacrificed for the sake of another,
a mistake has been made, The only God that man can know is the
aggregate of all beings capable of suffering and of joy within the
reach of his influence To increase the happiness of such beings is
to worship the only God that man can know.

     Question. What have you to say to the assertion of Dr, Deems
that there were never so many Christians as now?

     Answer. I suppose that the population of the earth is greater
now than at any other time within the historic period. This being
so, there may be more Christians, so-called, in the world than
there were a hundred years ago. Of course, the reverend doctor, in
making up his aggregate of Christians, counts all kinds and sects
-- Unitarians, Universalists, and all the other "ans" and "ists"

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                        SOME LIVE TOPICS.

and "ics" and "ites" and "ers." But Dr. Deems must admit that only
a few years ago most of the persons he now calls Christians would
have been burnt as heretics and Infidels. Let us compare the
average New York Christian with the Christian of two hundred years
ago. It is probably safe to say that there is not now in the city
of New York a genuine Presbyterian outside of an insane asylum.
Probably no one could be found who will to-day admit that he
believes absolutely in the Presbyterian Confession of Faith. There
is probably not an Episcopalian who believes in the Thirty-nine
Articles. Probably there is not an intelligent minister in the city
of New York, outside of the Catholic Church, who believes that
everything in the Bible is true. Probably no clergyman, of any
standing, would be willing to take the ground that everything in
the Old Testament -- leaving out the question of inspiration -- is
actually true. Very few ministers now preach the doctrine of
eternal punishment. Most of them would be ashamed to utter that
brutal falsehood. A large majority of gentlemen who attend church
take the liberty of disagreeing with the preacher. They would have
been very poor Christians two hundred years ago. A majority of the
ministers take the liberty of disagreeing, in many things, with
their Presbyters and Synods. They would have been very poor
preachers two hundred years ago. Dr. Deems forgets that most
Christians are only nominally so. Very few believe their creeds.
Very few even try to live in accordance with what they call
Christian doctrines. Nobody loves his enemies. No Christian when
smitten on one cheek turns the other. Most Christians do take a
little thought for the morrow. They do not depend entirely upon the
providence of God. Most Christians now have greater confidence in
the average life insurance company than in God -- feel easier when
dying to know that they have a policy, through which they expect
the widow will receive ten thousand dollars, than when thinking of
all the Scripture promises. Even church-members do not trust in God
to protect their own property. They insult heaven by putting up
lightning rods on their temples. They insure the churches against
the act of God. The experience of man has shown the wisdom of
relying on something that we know something about, instead of upon
the shadowy supernatural. The poor wretches to-day in Spain,
depending upon their priests, die like poisoned flies; die with
prayers between their pallid lips; die in their filth and faith.

     Question. What have you to say on the Mormon question?

     Answer. The institution of polygamy is infamous and disgusting
beyond expression. It destroys what we call, and what all civilized
people call," the family." It pollutes the fireside, and, above
all, as Burns would say, "petrifies the feeling." It is, however,
one of the institutions of Jehovah. It is protected by the Bible.
It has inspiration on its side. Sinai, with its barren, granite
peaks, is a perpetual witness in its favor. The beloved of God
practiced it, and, according to the sacred word, the wisest man
had, I believe, about seven hundred wives. This man received his
wisdom directly from God. It is hard for the average Bible
worshiper to attack this institution without casting a certain
stain upon his own book.

     Only a few years ago slavery was upheld by the same Bible.
Slavery having been abolished, the passages in the inspired volume
upholding it have been mostly forgotten; but polygamy lives, and

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                        SOME LIVE TOPICS.

the polygamists, with great volubility, repeat the passages in
their favor. We send our missionaries to Utah, with their Bibles,
to convert the Mormons.

     The Mormons show, by these very Bibles, that God is on their
side. Nothing remains now for the missionaries except to get back
their Bibles and come home. The preachers do not appeal to the
Bible for the purpose of putting down Mormonism. They say: "Send
the army." If the people of this country could only be honest; if
they would only admit that the Old Testament is but the record of
a barbarous people; if the Samson of the nineteenth century would
not allow its limbs to be bound by the Delilah of superstition, it
could with one blow destroy this monster. What shall we say of the
moral force of Christianity, when it utterly fails in the presence
of Mormonism? What shall we say of a Bible that we dare not read to
a Mormon as an argument against legalized lust, or as an argument
against illegal lust?

     I am opposed to polygamy. I want it exterminated by law; but
I hate to see the exterminators insist that God, only a few
thousand years ago, was as bad as the Mormons are to-day. In my
judgment, such a God ought to be exterminated.

     Question. What do you think of men like the Rev. Henry Ward
Beecher and the Rev. R. Heber Newton? Do they deserve any credit
for the course they have taken?

     Answer. Mr, Beecher is evidently endeavoring to shore up the
walls of the falling temple. He sees the cracks; he knows that the
building is out of plumb; he feels that the foundation is insecure.
Lies can take the place of stones only so long as they are
thoroughly believed. Mr. Beecher is trying to do something to
harmonize superstition and science. He is reading between the
lines, He has discovered that Darwin is only a later Saint Paul, or
that Saint Paul was the original Darwin. He is endeavoring to make
the New Testament a scientific text-book. Of course he will fail.
But his intentions are good. Thousands of people will read the New
Testament with more freedom than heretofore. They will look for new
meanings; and he who looks for new meanings will not be satisfied
with the old ones. Mr. Beecher, instead of strengthening the walls,
will make them weaker.

     There is no harmony between religion and science. When science
was a child, religion sought to strangle it in the cradle. Now that
science has attained its youth, and superstition is in its dotage,
the trembling, palsied wreck says to the athlete: "Let us be
friends." It reminds me of the bargain the cock wished to make with
the horse: "Let us agree not to step on each other's feet." Mr.
Beecher, having done away with hell, substitutes annihilation. His
doctrine at present is that only a fortunate few are immortal, and
that the great mass return to dreamless dust. This, of course, is
far better than hell, and is a great improvement on the orthodox
view. Mr. Beecher cannot believe that God would make such a mistake
as to make men doomed to suffer eternal pain. Why, I ask, should
God give life to men whom he knows are unworthy of life? Why should
he annihilate his mistakes? Why should he make mistakes that need
annihilation?

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                        SOME LIVE TOPICS.

     It can hardly be said that Mr. Beecher's idea is a new one It
was taught, with an addition, thousands of years ago, in India, and
the addition almost answers my objection. The old doctrine was that
only the soul that bears fruit, only the soul that bursts into
blossom, will at the death of the body rejoin the Infinite, and
that all other souls -- souls not having blossomed -- will go back
into low forms and make the journey up to man once more, and should
they then blossom and bear fruit, will be held worthy to join the
Infinite, but should they again fail, they again go back; and this
process is repeated until they do blossom, and in this way all
souls at last become perfect. I suggest that Mr. Beecher make at
least this addition to his doctrine.

     But allow me to say that, in my judgment, Mr. Beecher is doing
great good. He may not convince many people that he is right, but
he will certainly convince a great many people that Christianity is
wrong.

     Question. In what estimation do you hold Charles Watt and
Samuel Putnam, and what do you think of their labors in the cause
of Freethought?

     Answer. Mr. Watts is an extremely logical man, with a direct
and straightforward manner and mind. He has paid great attention to
what is called "Secularism." He thoroughly understands
organization, and he is undoubtedly one of the strongest debaters
in the field. He has had great experience, He has demolished more
divines than any man of my acquaintance. I have read several of his
debates. In discussion he is quick, pertinent, logical, and, above
all, good natured.

     There is not in all he says a touch of malice. He can afford
to be generous to his antagonists, because he is always the victor,
and is always sure of the victory. Last winter wherever I went, I
heard the most favorable accounts of Mr. Watts. All who heard him
were delighted.

     Mr. Putnam is one of the most thorough believers in
intellectual liberty in the world. He believes with all his heart,
is full of enthusiasm, ready to make any sacrifice, and to endure
any hardship. Had he lived a few years ago, he would have been a
martyr. He has written some of the most stirring appeals to the
Liberals of this country that I have ever read. He believes that
Freethought has a future; that the time is coming when the
superstitions of the world will either be forgotten, or remembered
-- some of them with smiles -- most of them with tears. Mr. Putnam,
although endowed with a poetic nature, with poetic insight, clings
to the known, builds upon the experience of man, and believes in
fancies only when they are used as the wings of a fact. I have
never met a man who appeared to be more thoroughly devoted to the
great cause of mental freedom. I have read his books with great
interest, and find in them many pages filled with philosophy and
pathos. I have met him often and I never heard him utter a harsh
word about any human being. His good nature is as unfailing as the
air. His abilities are of the highest order. It is a positive
pleasure to meet him. He is so enthusiastic, so unselfish, so
natural, so appreciative of others, so thoughtful for the cause,

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and so careless of himself, that he compels the admiration of every
one who really loves the just and true. --

                    The Truth Seeker, New York, September 5, 1885.

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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
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