Studies In Rationalism
Edited by E. Haldeman-Julius
BIG BLUE BOOK NO. B-7
THE ORDEAL OF INGERSOLL
A LIE can travel halfway around the world, said Mark Twain, while the truth is getting its clothes on. Robert G. Ingersoll, who began each day with an answer to a lie, put it this way: “It is almost impossible to overtake, and kill, and bury a lie. If you do, some one will erect a monument over the grave, and the lie is born again as an epitaph.” We cannot at once point to a man who was more a victim of the ubiquitous, irrepressible lie than was Ingersoll: and, while Ingersoll was too big a man to be destroyed by the liars, the latter were not dismayed but kept up their foolish, hateful gabble in the face of the strongest words of truth. A slight review of the trail of falsehood that wound itself crazily across the career of the agnostic orator reminds us forcibly that nothing can equal the recklessness and the hardihood of religions lying: nothing, unless it be the patriotic lying that is so notorious an instrument of Christian warfare. It is true that men will lie more contemptibly and more conscientiously — with less restraint of common honesty and a greater abandon of virtue — for God or country than for any other cause.
The lie for God or country is unique in the low demand of plausibility: really, any sort of lie will pass, and it appears indeed that the silliest and crudest lies are the most popular. The patriot is guarded carefully from contact with the lies of the enemy and is restricted, quite simply, to the home product of falsehood. God’s own liars have the advantage that their opponents, on the whole, do not try to retaliate with false weapons. For example, Ingersoll, although he was pursued and pestered all of his active life by liars and their lies, never stooped to lie in return. Of course, there was another reason for this than the fact that Ingersoll was naturally a truthful man. It was not simply forbearance that prevented him from trying to out-lie the religious liars. He had, in the long run, better weapons. He had wit, eloquence, intelligence, charm and force of personality far beyond those who spread the calumnies about him.
The ordeal of falsehood, tireless and unrestrained, through which Ingersoll passed is full of interest; and it is peculiarly interesting in that it reflects at its extreme the willingness of man to lie, as he persuades himself, for God. The facts of Ingersoll’s character and life were ill-suited to the aims of those who wished to attack him personally. The truth absolutely would not serve to oppose the man. He was beyond the reproach, as he was generally beyond the record, of the most righteous in honesty, honor, humanity — in his daily mode of life, public and private. He was a better man, every day and in every way, than most of the preachers who fulminated against him, who delighted to stick a coat of holy blacking upon his name, and who envied “Royal Bob” his power and fortune. We know that Ingersoll’s opinions would have been no less true if his character had been less good: as the rain falls upon the just and the unjust, so is truth open to all men without regard to their morals. It happened, however, that the limit of truth which could be urged against Ingersoll was what a village gossip said about a neighbor: “He was a bad man, who deceived everybody by leading a good life.”
On the other hand, had Ingersoll been a reprobate, a fool, and a hypocrite of the worst type, it is doubtful if the mere record of truth could have outrun the inventions of slander. There was no accusation so bad or so ridiculous that the pious haters of Ingersoll would falter in its utterance. The bigger the lie, the bolder was the assertion of it. It is remarkable how busy Ingersoll was, nearly his whole life, in answering the liars. He was like a giant fighting a swarm of vicious insects. The man could hardly turn around without running against a new or a vigorously repeated old lie. Friends were constantly defending him. Almost the chief task of the propagandists of rationalism was to deny, in season and out, that Ingersoll was a false-hearted, wicked man. The ‘Daily Transcript’ of Peoria, Ill., and John Warner, for a number of years mayor of that city, where Ingersoll was long a distinguished citizen, were more than once called upon to deny the most far- fetched tales of Ingersoll’s depravity.
It was common for preachers to devote long sermons to ranting, rancorous attacks upon Ingersoll. A fair example is the tirade of a South Dakota pulpit-pounder, who declared that the famous agnostic was profane in a large degree, vicious and depraved.” He was, in the bitter words of this follower of Jesus, a drunkard, a mixer in saloon brawls, “a drinking character.” As a young man he had been so unfortunately entangled in a saloon fight as to have received a cut on the forehead from a beer glass “in the hands of some man as low as himself.” He had once, in a very abandon of blasphemous immorality, mockingly baptized a little child with a glassful of beer. Often he had been so drunk that he could not lecture. His daughters had imbibed so liberally of wine at the Ingersoll family table that they had needed a guiding hand to lead them from the room. Again, as the last word in damnation, it was alleged that Ingersoll was not respected by his old neighbors in the city of Peoria. Yet, comically enough, the preachers resented a word by Ingersoll in behalf of temperance. A bit of oratory on the evils of excessive drinking, which Ingersoll used in a legal role, was attacked far and wide as being a plagiarism. The truth was that a lesser light stole Ingersoll’s words, adding to them with clumsy flights of piety, in which liquor was branded as “God’s worst enemy.” Yet again, when Ingersoll presented a bottle of whiskey to a sick friend, with a poetic eulogy of the “imprisoned light,” this was denounced as a vile encouragement to Demon Rum. Ingersoll was neither a puritan nor a sot. He was equally opposed to prohibition and drunkenness. He believed, quite sensibly, in a temperate use of the joys of life. Ingersoll drank, but he was not a worse man for that. The preachers who spat venom at him would, no doubt, have been more honest and genial if they had now and then felt a little the glow of alcohol. Ingersoll was not a whiskey drunkard: and, better still, he was not in the habit of getting drunk on hatred and superstition — a kind of intoxication from which ecclesiastics who berated him were seldom free.
Stories of the picturesque sinfulness of Ingersoll’s domestic life did not cease to circulate, although the true atmosphere of that life was frequently and finely described by men who were too big for slander. The truth of Ingersoll’s relations with his family was indeed well enough and easily to be learned by any one who was not inclined to falsehood by the force of prejudice. There was a flood of testimonials from journalists, public men, fellow citizens, emphatic in personal tribute to Ingersoll: but these did not serve to abate the mendacious industry of the clergy and their pious, easily duped flocks. The majority of the faithful agreed with the statement of one preacher that “Infidelity never had and never could produce a model, moral man.” Was it possible that a man who disputed the divine authority of the Bible could be a gentleman? a man of kindly courtesy and broad generosity in his home life? a man indeed who lived according to an exemplary code of domestic ideals? It simply could not be. He was an infidel, and, by the same token, a sinner of scarlet dye in all things. And, worst of all, wasn’t it known that he had damned (or helped God to damn) the souls of his wife and daughters with his infidelity? It did not matter that Mrs. Ingersoll had been “the skeptic daughter of a skeptic father”; or that the Ingersoll girls, having been left entirely free to form their own beliefs, bad followed the ways of intelligence. Fearful pictures were drawn of how Ingersoll had seduced his family into the downward path. The Christian liars were so, eager to defame their most brilliant foe in his character as a father that they spread the tale that his son had lost his mind by reading fiction and had ‘died in an asylum for the insane. Ingersoll’s reply to this yarn was amusingly complete: “1. My only son was not a great novel reader. 2. He did not go insane. 3. He was not sent to an asylum. 4. He did not die. 5. I never had a son.”
A lie that was often repeated and as often refuted, but never quite killed, was that of Ingersoll’s cowardice as a Union colonel in the Civil War. The preacher who descended to abuse of the Prince of Pagans, and who left this story untold, felt that he had been remiss in his duty. The story was that Ingersoll had been in a single fight only — a skirmish of little importance — and that he had ingloriously surrendered himself to a sixteen-year-old boy. Officers and men of Colonel Ingersoll’s regiment of Illinois cavalry came forward with the truth again and again. The Colonel was engaged ably and bravely in battle at Shiloh and at Corinth, led his cavalry as a scouting force, and at length, with six hundred men, was overwhelmed by ten thousand men under command of General Forrest; Ingersoll and a number of his men were inevitably captured, and the Colonel was placed in charge of a parole camp at St. Louis; when exchange finally appeared impossible, the Colonel left the army and served with immense effectiveness as an orator for the Union cause. From both Union and Confederate sources there was plenty of evidence of Ingersoll’s true war record, but this weighed less than nothing with the firm religious liars. It was also declared, with as little truth, that Ingersoll had been a loud pro-slavery man early in the war.
It was persistently charged that Ingersoll was led by greed alone to attack God. It is a stock-in-trade of ecclesiastical “argument” that any one who fights the church is simply trying to fill his pockets. It is perhaps as idle, but also fully as true and cogent, to retort that many preachers make ample, easy livings by talking for God. Quite often the statement cheerfully went the rounds that Ingersoll had candidly told a friend that he didn’t believe his own teachings and was an agnostic for profit only. Thus the pious not only wished to regard the man as a hypocrite but as an absolute fool to boot. It did not occur to their credulous minds that the agnostic, if he were so mercenary, would not be so blind to his own interests as to admit such a motive. One is reminded of a story told by Ingersoll. He was advised by a preacher that, even if he did believe as he talked, he should for policy’s sake hide that belief. Ingersoll aptly retorted that, in the light of such advice, he was bound to doubt the sincerity of the preacher. As a matter of fact, Ingersoll, as any well-informed man of the day knew, was able as a lawyer to make a very good living. He could have gained high (and probably the highest) political office had he been willing to keep quiet about his beliefs on religion. The extraordinary generosity of the man ran counter to the view that he was impelled by love of money. The theory of greed fails sharply to explain Ingersoll’s gift of the copyright of his works to his rationalist publishers. His many free lectures for charitable purposes, in behalf of associations and individuals, would hardly have been expected from a greedy man. There are innumerable stories of Ingersoll’s warm and ready generosity. He had a far better heart than most of the preachers who mouthed hypocritically about the love of Jesus. One preacher, indeed, described Ingersoll as a man who had “the heart of a Christian and the head of an atheist.” But as a rule the preachers could not bear to hear stories of the Pagan’s kindness to his fellow men: it was especially unpleasant for them to hear a story of the Pagan’s extending succor when preachers coldly ignored the sufferer. They would not even let it pass that Ingersoll was decent to members of his own family. It was said that he had been so indifferent to a sister, Mrs, Black, as to let her die in poverty. The truth was, as declared among others by Mrs. Black’s attorney, that for years Ingersoll had given his sister the sum of fifty dollars a month; and that, upon her death, he provided for her burial; he was with her when she died and her dying words did not point to neglect by an unkind brother: “I Would like to live, but die content, thanks to your philosophy.”
Now and then a preacher would smugly accuse Ingersoll of having slandered the memory of his own father. The elder Ingersoll was a minister, who eventually turned to the belief, or lack of belief, of his eloquent son: and who, dying, asked that son to read for his comfort Plato on immortality and breathed his last in “the happiness of believing that God was almost as good and generous as he was himself.” Ingersoll, the clergy charged, had laid the blame for his infidelity upon his father, and had insisted that the harshness of Ingersoll the divine had been responsible for the ungodly development of Ingersoll the skeptic. Ingersoll denied this lie often, but to little purpose in forcing upon the pulpit a respect for the truth. “My father,” said Ingersoll, “was infinitely better than the God he worshipped.” What he did say regarding the example of his father was exactly the opposite of the version that the holy liars put into his mouth. It was the very kindness and humanity of the Rev. Ingersoll that suggested to the young Robert the badness of orthodox theology. Thus: “He believed the Bible, and in the shadow of that frightful book he passed his life. He believed in the truth of its horrors, and for years, thinking of the fate of the human race, his eyes were filled with tears.” And so it was that Robert grew to hate a religion that was so cruel and hopeless that it condemned his good father to such unhappiness.
As to Ingersoll’s charity, which stung uncharitable divines to mean and snarling falsehood, it was said that he kept thirty families and gave away from $25,000 to $40,000 a year. At any rate, whatever the exact figures of his munificence, there can be no question in the mind of a candid reader of Ingersoll’s life that he was one of the most generous of men. Yet one tale circulated, in spite of its palpable absurdity, was that Ingersoll had cruelly struck a beggar who had approached him for assistance. This story was not quite a complete fabrication, having had its origin in the report of a Chicago paper that Ingersoll had defended himself against a burglar. There were also tales, springing up at every change of the wind, about occasions when Ingersoll refused to speak before freethought gatherings until money was put into his hands. The only foundation for these reports was that Ingersoll, far from making a dramatic demand for money on the spot, did time and again lecture without pay for benevolent or propaganda purposes. It was never denied that Ingersoll earned a great deal of money by lecturing. He was not ashamed of it, nor worried by sarcastic comments on his earning power. He declared that “it is a frightful commentary on the average intellect of the pulpit that a minister can’t get so large an audience when he preaches for nothing as an infidel can draw at a dollar a head.” It was true, as the Pagan orator remarked with too painful accuracy, that the preachers were angry to see crowds flocking to hear the Bible attacked; and that their wrath was increased by the reflection that the multitude was willing to pay for the evil, blasphemous show.
An obvious and ludicrous lie, that appeared in all manner of guises, was that Ingersoll had been converted to the Christian religion, it did not matter that such a story was contrary — absurdly so — to the reports of the Colonel’s hypocrisy; that, placed side by side, the story that he was in the habit of weeping bitter tears just before he walked upon the stage to orate against the God of his belief did not quite fit the tale that he had been turned from paganism to piety. At times one lie was in favor, at times another: and the “conversion” lie, even as the others, would be apparently killed only to spring into life more lustily than ever within a few years. One lie of this latter type was particularly fatuous. It was told, and the report found its way imposingly into print, that Ingersoll had been made a Christian, and specifically an Episcopalian, by the preaching of one Hine. This Hine was a freak hailing from England, who had a theory that the Englishmen were the lost tribes of Israel. It was this wild and woolly notion, that would not impress any one above the level of a moron, that was supposed to have knocked the props from under the celebrated exponent of agnosticism. Ingersoll had carefully studied and had riddled the most powerful arguments of Christianity. He was familiar with all the subtleties, with the labyrinthine logic, of the theologians. He had come through all this with intellect firm and unimpaired, only to fall prey to the crack-brained speculation of a Hine that, in the words of Ingersoll, “Englishmen and Americans are simply Jews in disguise.” Toward the end of his life, Ingersoll commended the aims and activities of the People’s Church, Kalamazoo, Mich. And this, too, grew into a story of Infidel Bob’s bowing the knee to God. The truth was that this institution was a church, judged by the ordinary use of the word, in name only. It demanded no kind of belief in its members. An atheist could belong to it as readily as a literal swallower of Genesis. It was an open forum, community hall, free educational institution and charitable society. It was no more tainted with Christian doctrine than an Ingersoll lecture. It was simply devoted to that religion of humanity (but why “religion”?) which Ingersoll had often praised as far better than the orthodox religion. When Ingersoll was not being “saved” by a Christian lie, his daughters were subject to these imaginary conversions. Five times, Miss Eva Ingersoll told a reporter, she had been “saved in print”: the story was very unconvincing, and it did not improve with age. It was also said, after Ingersoll’s death, that his wife was a Baptist — a lie which was evidently regarded as sublime proof of the error of Ingersoll’s philosophy of life.
The liars about Ingersoll never wearied in their inventions. At least, they never stopped, although some of the tales were symptomatic of brain-fag. It was undoubtedly a lie of sheer fatigue that Ingersoll gave Guiteau the money to buy the pistol with which he killed President Garfield. It was also an unconvincing though a typically Christian lie to accuse the Colonel of encouraging suicide: as if, when any one lost the belief in hell, he was robbed of the greatest joy in life. A sentimental, puerile tale was that the orator had been driven from the stage in one city when his Christian audience sang “Hold the Fort.” Again, it was said that Ingersoll, with tears streaming down his cheeks, had exclaimed to a good Christian lady that he would give anything in the world if he could be enfolded in the arms of her faith. It was a lean year in falsehood when a story was not produced about the alleged, and wholly fabricated, police record of Ingersoll as a young man. It was related that Henry Ward Beecher once jumped upon the Colonel with the assertion that the latter, in fighting the faith, was robbing Christian cripples of their crutches: and that the Colonel had been utterly flabbergasted by this witty, weighty, wonderful “argument.” Beecher promptly denied the lie — and no wonder. Beecher, of course, was too big a man to meet an opponent with falsehood; he would not be flattered by having petty, nonsensical dodges of Christian sophistry put down to his credit; he was in truth a great admirer of Ingersoll, saying of him: “He is the most brilliant speaker of the English tongue of all men on this globe.” A story of less pretension (though it is hard to measure the degrees of importance of such lies) had it that Ingersoll was keeping a record of all preachers who had fallen into sin or crime and who had landed in the penitentiary. Another tale was that Ingersoll had backed out of a discussion, in the North American Review, with a judge Black. As a matter of fact, as stated by Allen Thorndike Rice, editor of the Review, judge Black, after replying to Ingersoll’s first article, refused to reply to the second article. Another man, one George P. Fisher, wrote the reply, on the pledge (not complimentary to Christian courage) that it would end the controversy.
The final lie — the inevitable lie — was that Ingersoll repented, bewailed his misspent life, and embraced the Christian faith on his deathbed. Ingersoll naturally foresaw that such a lie would be told. He often expressed the wish that he might die slowly, conscious of the approaching end, and show the world that an agnostic could die as serene and steady in his belief as any Christian. It happened that Ingersoll died, in a chair and not in bed, suddenly of heart disease. He had known (though his family had not) for several years that he might die any minute — yet he continued to lecture against religion. Ingersoll had no opportunity in death to reaffirm or recant his beliefs. There is on record an affidavit of Mrs. Ingersoll and two friends, who were the only persons present, stating the very simple facts of Ingersoll’s last moments. This lie, as were the other lies, was immediately denounced. The truth was revealed for all honest men who wished to know it. Yet no one knew better than Ingersoll that a lie is deathless. Today one may hear a revivalist crying out in a backwoods tabernacle that Ingersoll died a fearful, sin-conscious penitent: almost the whole catalogue of lies about Ingersoll are, with very little refurbishing, occasionally put to use even in this day. They are not so popular, nor so powerful, as once they were. The story of Ingersoll’s ordeal reads, indeed, like an incredible tale out of a dark, remote, uncivilized past. But it is still true that lurid deathbed tales, and puerile personal attacks upon so- called infidels, are sweetly solemn and reassuring to the faithful. And perhaps another Ingersoll, or another Voltaire, will be assailed by such a host of liars as yelped upon the trail of Ingersoll. Such immense phenomena of falsehood, like miracles, are too extraordinary for everyday occurrence. The liars must have a rest. They cannot, in human nature, keep it up year after year with never a pause. They have tremendous, but surely not infinite, endurance. It must have been a relief to the liars when Ingersoll died. They could enjoy a long vacation, with merely an occasional, small, limited lie for the sake of keeping in practice.
“SOMETHING IN IT”
We only half live when we only half think. — Voltaire.
Clinging to the outskirts of every sham is a host of half- hearted fellows, who cannot quite think their way completely free from sham, and who are not so constituted as to be energetic adherents — but who still, as you will observe, hover around the edges of popular fooleries, ready in any little crisis of discussion to pipe: “There’s something in it.” What may surprise you is that they do not have a timid or blurred tone; but that an accent of strange if not thorough conviction is evident in their utterance, growing perceptibly in ardor in response to the hoot of the skeptic: until, having started out with a leaning, they end with a fall plump into the arms of sham. It is human nature (though not the wisest nor the noblest human nature) to defend a position taken, or even suggested as desirable; and the “something in it” fellow is driven, by the logic of illogical argumentation, farther into the heart of doubtful belief than he would venture solitary.
One smiles, even so, to see “Something-In-It” visibly take on flesh, fill out the hollows of uncertainty, describe curves of nicely fashioned credulity, reveal the color and sparkle of an intense faith — and stand out, apparently, in the very body of a proselyte that has conned well its rigmarole: Something turns by seeming magic into Everything; from “It May Be” we arrive at the explicit “It Is.”
Time and again, I have observed this process, and it has never ceased to amuse me. In my library not long ago a little group was galloping in talk; and it was not until well toward the close of this talkfest that the controversial note was struck. It was, let me say, a sudden and surprising note. We had been talking about shams and indeed destroying them (for the nonce) at a lively and friendly rate; and we were, one and all, agreed that Smashing Shams was the purpose for which the human mind was evolved in all its deadly cleverness. “Perhaps” said I, in that spirit of levity which is the distraction of the pious, “it is a game invented for the sport of God, to amuse God and save him from boredom. God molds certain minds to put up shams in order that other minds, also molded by him, can have the fun of knocking them down. And God is vastly entertained, so to speak, by this continual sham battle.” And then — hold your breath! — up spake one Yorick, a grave- digger, who had a mind to contemplate the skull of Astrology, whose carcass has long rotted in the world’s intellectual graveyard, side by side with other storied shams, but whose ghost indeed lurked still in dark corners.
God, weary of the harmonious atmosphere of enlightenment, jerked himself into a posture of attention. Here was a pretty show, One of the Sham Smashers immediately stood up and, said he, “There’s something in it” — It, of course, being Astrology. This dead one — this ghost of the superstitious past — put life into a peacefully expiring conclave.
Treason! Well, traitors must die. We leaped upon the base deserter. We reminded him that astrology was as archaic as alchemy — that astronomy had scientifically supplanted the one as had chemistry the other. We urged him to look carefully to the fact that no scientist of the slightest repute could be persuaded to offer a word in behalf of this moldered corpse of Astrology — the scientific world condemned it to a man. We pointed out derisively that the books of astrology revealed contradictions — oh, the most absurd! — on every page; and that the list of supposed characteristics for one lunar type could not possibly be contained in fewer than a dozen persons. We told our erstwhile friend that a philosopher had quite simply exposed the folly of the zodiacal theory with a single, obvious, devastating illustration: he had mentioned a certain battle in which some thousands of poor souls, all born under numerous signs, had fallen under the arms of the enemy on a single day. It might as well have been another battle; it might indeed have been any situation, any path, any field of life. Whatever the sign, the men and women born under it will be found to have the most widely varying fortunes and characteristics. The world, in short, is full of failures born under the sign of success; slaves born under the sign of leadership; fools born under the sign of wisdom. A theory that showed itself to be manifestly false at least as often as it appeared to be true — a theory that did not and could not work — was full of sham and nothing else.
And, despite our talk, the man held to this medieval magic. Opposition stirred and spurred him. He had said, “There’s something in it.” It was not long before we perceived that he was really a downright believer in astrology. He had himself been marked from the glittering heavens at the hour of his birth as a leader of men — and such indeed he had proved to be. The moon influenced the tides — and, by the same plain and infallible token, the stars did influence the individual dispositions and destinies of men. It was hopeless. The stars, if they could not win, could not absolutely lose.
Other shams, you will hear, are to be defended by that vague “something” which pretends to much more importance than inherently belongs to it — and which so often throws caution to the winds, ceases to be a “something” and reveals its true identity of unashamed and unquestioning sham. There is “something in” palmistry — and the pretty stenographer, in the temporary role of scientist, will tell your fortune. There is no less — always “something” at the very least — in phrenology: and the bumps in your head will prophesy and classify the bumps you are due to get in life. There is “something” in this superstition, about the weather or warts; and in that popular notion, which, to be sure, is distinctly apart from the world’s recognized and trustworthy knowledge, but which still entertains the fancy of those who are bound to believe that there is “something” in something. And this “something,” unless it steps boldly into the pose of being a great deal indeed, is not defined. WHAT is in this or that sham if it is worth an inch of standing room in the world of truth and reality? Give us, we implore, a real image that will fix this Something usefully or at least understandably in our minds. We get nothing — unless it be a retreat to the most interior defenses of sham and a struggle to uphold sham in toto.
A great deal of the strength of religion lies in the “something in it” tribe. There are men who disclaim the brand of orthodoxy, who ostensibly are of different mettle than the devout and the hymn-singing elect of the Lord, and who may even wear on occasion an air of skepticism. Yet they stand just outside the church door, as it were; they are ready to defend the altar if it is actually jeopardized; they are quick to protest, when some thinker asks why religion should continue to hold any degree of influence over the thoughts of mankind, that “There is something in it.” “Hold!” they cry. “We have followed you thus far in the attack on sham. We fire against superstition. We are against theology. We are against Churchianity. But leave us religion — a little of it, for God’s sake. Something — for pity and a fair chance leave us something.” We are familiar with the man who cries that — after all — there must have been something before the first cradle and there must be something beyond the last grave. They ask — oh! unanswerably: Who started this ball of mud to rolling? Who or what raised the curtain for the cosmic show? What is the spirit of man and whither goeth it? They ask as ineffectually as the poet struggling with the impenetrable. They know nothing and, by a queer stroke of logic, this becomes that Something which is the last refuge of the half-thinkers.
These men who are afraid to think straight through sham and emerge, wholly stripped of illusion and compromise, into the fresh air of reality — these men who cry “There is something in it” help perhaps more than they realize to make the wheels of sham go round. Full many and loud and earnest as are the shouters of religion, sufficient and sinister menace that they are, they alone could not maintain the sham of religion. God would be ill defended if he had to rest his safety with the prayer band and the altar crowd. He depends, as does all hokuin from the highest to the lowest, upon the innumerable reserves who are full of faint-hearted reservations, who are not willing to burn their bridges of belief and go boldly forth in quest of the truth whatever it may be — looking without fear, and with all honesty, upon a Nothing rather than leaning upon a vague, tricky, sham-serving Something.
This Something is simply the entering wedge of sham. It is the weak cry, and withal the insidious gesture, of the apologist of sham — who, however unsuspectingly, plays into the hands of the charlatans and the fanatics.
Something in it — It is sham. The something that is in it is the drug of credulity that has cultivated the worst habits known to man. “Something in it” is the slogan of the half-thinkers.
A POCKETFUL OF PREACHERS
And tell us what’s wrong and what’s right –“
The “inspirational” preacher; the preacher who is a “Power”; the preacher who is noted for his “heart talks”; the preacher who is a man among men”; the preacher who advocates “muscular Christianity”; the preacher who is “Christlike”: each helps to uphold the faith and the prestige and the business organization of Christianity in this modern day of doubt and sin. They are not content to be known simply as preachers; they call themselves teachers also. Solemnly they will quote: “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” They give vision to the people, thus assuring them life and safety from a retrogression to barbarism. These preachers are, by way of courtesy, known as leaders of community life; they are even regarded — also courteously — as intellectual lights; they are presumably the guardians of morality. One who seeks the best, in the way of thought and of ethics, will be directed to a church. Simply listen to a preacher — a preacher who is respectable, holding by a superstition that is dignified by a few centuries of age — and yon will hear wisdom that is not in the books nor on the tongues of other men; and that is not to be won by any degree of self-culture outside the church.
What do the preachers teach? What sort of wisdom do they offer? What is the truth back of this pretension of the great intellect, the great vision, the great ethical insight of the so- called man of God? We can learn in church; or by the radio; or in the newspapers. These are days of slack churchliness; and preachers try in other ways than the censorship of theaters and amusements generally to stirrpulate the trade of holiness; one of the most popular means, and very modern, being the press. So that on Saturday there is a page of advertisements urging the people to worship in the various temples; and on Monday there is a page of sermon-synopses, whereby those who were indifferent to the call may still receive the message. Thus I am able to learn from the Kansas City ‘Times’ (any paper in any city will do for the purpose) what the leading preachers have delivered by way of revelation and healing and uplift. The “high lights” of the sermons are, I presume, spread before me: the very essence of ecclesiastical wisdom. Looking over a page of preachments in the ‘Times’ of Monday, February 2, I observe (with such astonishment as I can easily control) that this supreme intelligence, this brilliant guidance, of the pulpit consists of the dreariest, emptiest platitudes — flights of bunk — appeals to credulity — emphasis upon the unreal, the unimportant and the uninteresting. We will be diverted, I believe, by a review of this symposium of “wit, wisdom and eloquence” on The Things Worth-While.
The moral influence of the church is revealed in the words of Rev. John W. Bradbury, Bales Baptist church. Being a Baptist rather than a Christian Scientist, he admits that “sin is real.” So, he adds, is forgiveness — that is to say, God’s forgiveness. Wisely and profoundly, he asks and answers: “How can a man relive his life? Or rebuild his career? He cannot.” We tremble at this thought, but we are at once reassured that “forgiveness will take care of it.” Again: “Sin is a thing that stands between us and God. But the barrier is removed by God’s mercy and forgiveness.” We are punished if we transgress the laws of nature or of man: but God is the great forgiver. It seems to me that Rev. Bradbury confuses the ethical issue; that his moral instruction is false and weak. Is it wise to point men to the easy way of throwing their burdens upon God? Is not this, at bottom, a teaching of irresponsibility? I am not precisely a moralist — certainly not as a judge of my fellows — but I do say that the highest morality is that which bids a man look to his own acts, to their effects upon his own character, and to their validity in the light of his own reason and conscience. The true ethic is that not all our piety or wit can turn back the clock, erase a word, nor and an escape from reality. We must pay and collect, learn and unlearn, suffer and enjoy in this life and not in another; we cannot let God “take care of it.” The man who looks, not to God, but to himself; who strives to pay, in character and effort, his way through life rather than to pray himself into heaven; who realizes that he will play out his role, for good or ill, in the real world and that no God, in a world beyond the sky, will enable him to “relive his life” — such a man is supported by a sounder morality than is the man who feels that a God is standing back of him to redeem his false promises, his poor character, his failure to recognize that he alone, and not another, must live his life. Self-reliance, in other words, is far better counsel than reliance on any man or any God. It is better to respect your own character and your neighbor’s rights than to put aside spiritual credit with a God as a means of paying, in the sweet bye-and-bye, for your lack of character and your offense against neighbors. Fine words may roll off the preacher’s tongue — but they are false words; they weaken character; they turn the individual’s gaze from himself, and from the real theater of his actions, to God and Paradise; they suggest to a man that he can pile up a mountain of debts to life, and that God will “take care of it.” Such is Christian morality, as Rev. Bradbury presents it brilliantly to view.
The “Reds” in politics and religion are the targets of Dr. Harry C. Rogets, Linwood Presbyterian church. Religiously speaking, a “Red” is one who scoffs at, regards lightly, or attacks creeds in general and, we suppose, the Presbyterian creed in particular. “A creed,” says the Doctor, with an ineffable air of wisdom, “is simply a statement of what one believes.” Very simple indeed — and quite meaningless. The important questions are how we arrive at a belief; what foundation there is for a belief; what purpose is served by a belief. In short, a creed is not to be defended by saying that it is what one believes. Is the belief true? Is it important? And is the belief held as sacred, beyond question or dispute, not to be profaned by the hand of reason? Again, to use the word “creed” more carefully, is our belief merely a formula? a little trick of words and symbols that we mumble and imagine that we have intoned the last phrase of truth? Does a creed mean a few narrow notions — hardly to be called ideas — that we are bent upon holding fast, not letting them go for any offer of truth in exchange? Apparently this is the sort of creed that Dr. Rogers would defend. He warns — this intellectual and spiritual leader — against the “open mind.” “On certain things,” he says, “a man ought to close his mind.” Undoubtedly, among the things on which a man should close his mind, the Presbyterian creed stands first. “There is no intellectual chaos,” we are told, “worse than always to have “‘an open mind.'” The good Doctor puzzles me. We can agree that a man who never has an opinion is a man who never uses his mind to very definite advantage. But does it follow that a man who is never willing to change an opinion is a wise man? Has Dr. Rogers, by chance, never heard the simple old adage, “A wise man changes his mind, a fool never does”? This, you observe, is the kind of wisdom that ennobled the minds, this the kind of ethical teaching that broadened the characters, of Presbyterian pewholders in Kansas City on the first Sunday in February. Hang for dear life to a dead creed — and don’t think! Be a Presbyterian — and keep your mind closed on that subject! The man who urges you to beware falling into a rut — who points out the folly of narrow creeds that exclude the broad possibilities and the meaning of life — who says that thinking is a good employment for the human mind: such a man is a “Red.” Dr. Rogers is the kind of teacher who advises his pupils to throw their books into the fire when they have learned the first lesson; or, worse, who reads the lesson aloud to them and tells them not to look inside the book to see whether he is right.
The best we can make of the words of Rev. J.W. Abet, Trinity Methodist Episcopal church, is that knowledge, intelligence, a good mind will not suffice to make one a Christian; and that one may be without these qualities and still be a Christian. Indeed this is true; and Rev. Abel goes even further and declares joyfully that it is a wonderful gift of Jesus to mankind. And, too, they are the “fundamental things” which the ignorant may gain — merely through belief that asks few questions — and which the “wise and prudent” may lose by refusing to believe too easily. “Humbler minds” may believe in God, while this marvel of theology may not impress great minds. The joy of belief in miracles is not denied to the most illiterate; but intellectuals, skeptics of the Voltaire type, wander in the bleak fields of mere human wisdom; limited, indeed, as these men will admit; but there is no despondency and no fear in their admission. We know, too, that “visions” of the end of this world and of the wonders of another world are invariably vouchsafed to lunatics, and withheld from sound-minded persons who are not sufficiently spiritual to be senseless. Rev. Abel, instead of bringing wisdom, comforts the ignorant by telling them that this ignorance is illuminated by the light and love of Jesus. Self- culture is not so important as self-surrender to the mouldy myth of God. Genius may have its triumphs of the spirit and intellect; mediocrity and stupidity have — priceless possessions! — that “spirituality” which is synonymous with superstition. Yawn, ye jolly skeptics; and perceive wearily that, while Rev. Abel may be able in belief and full to overflowing with Jesus, there is no wisdom in him. As a teacher, he is simply a pathetic example of the need of teaching — and, first, self-teaching.
“The sacred torch of truth” — this is held aloft by Rev. George Elton Harris, Calvary Baptist church. To be sure, Rev. Harris is not the original torch-bearer. He has but caught the torch as it fell from other hands. Yet he is modest — and careful not to arouse undue expectations. “The torch,” says he, “is not a flaring beacon light.” Not always. “There are times when it seems to be a flickering candle” — for example, at the present moment, with the Reverend waving it feebly with a hand that shakes, perhaps not from an excitement of desire to discover more truth, but in fear that the torch may flare up too cruelly and reveal truth that the Reverend cannot use in his business. And who, down the ages, have successively held this torch of truth that has finally fallen into the hands of Rev. Harris? Be slow to answer; you are likely to be wrong. These men were not Plato, Aristotle, Bruno, Voltaire, Diderot, Locke, Bacon, Schopenhauer, Goethe — no, nor any men in a list that might resemble them. They were — Paul, Augustine, Athanasius, Savonarola, Wycliffe, Huss, Waldo, Zwingli, Luther, Calvin, Wesley. These men held the torch — and indeed, so eager they were, sometimes a torch did not satisfy them and they had need of a large stake, a fire of considerable size, and the best of human fuel to light the world with truth. Others suffered martyrdom for holding aloft the torch — of truth? No; of theology; of church doctrine; of speculations about God and the way to commune with God, Athanasius is known, not as the Father of Truth, but as the “Father of Orthodoxy.” John Wesley, while he did not discover, stoutly upheld the great truth of witchcraft. Calvin served truth by advocating that Serviettes be put to death, not by burning — an “atrocity” — but by the sword; and he was not content with this limited chore for the truth, but engaged in a manly struggle with the Lutherans on the question of the Lord’s Supper — one side “holding that in the eucharist the body and blood of Christ are objectively and consubstantially present,” etc., and the other side that “there is only a virtual presence of the body and blood of Christ,” etc. I could tell you who believed which — but what does it matter? The point is that these fanatics, and not the great thinkers, have been responsible for the passage of the torch of truth from hand to hand along the centuries — and, when the torch flickered, they replenished its light at the next stake that marked a victory for truth. Now, in Rev. Harris’ hands, it flickers as you have seen. But hold! and despair not! for another light shines: “The true light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world.” This light is the Lord Jesus Christ.
So far, it appears, we have gained little wisdom. The intellect, the vision, and the ethics of the pulpit have shown themselves as very feeble, very hazy, very petty. We are led to believe that Kansas City is poorly guided indeed, and we do not wonder that a modicum of sin is to be found in a city that has this kind of “spiritual” leadership. It is not such a bad city, however, we are assured by Dr. Samuel D. Harkness; and, it being the seventy-fifth anniversary of the city, the Doctor entertains us with a booster sermon. Are there harlots, bandits and bootleggers in the metropolis? Even so, are there ‘not also the Y.M.C.A., the Art Institute, the Kansas City Theater, a Little Symphony Orchestra, newspapers, allied charities, etc.? And do not “the Catholic bishop and his priests, the Jewish rabbis and the ministers of Protestantism sit in council with the business and professional men of the city and work together for the common good”? There is the war memorial, too, though the Doctor forgets to include it; and, with a reliable weather man, the climate is good; and there are boulevards — although Dr. Andreas Bard, St. Mark’s Lutheran church, warns us that they are ill used for “joyrides and jazz tunes on the Lord’s day.” Dr. Bard further says that “As a matter of self-preservation we must hold on to the Gospel.” If “we” are the preachers, we in a manner agree. The divine Doctor, by the way, has a simple (and, of course, infallible) test of truth: Time is the Test of Truth. “The survival of Christian teaching through almost twenty centuries of struggle proves that it contains eternal elements of truth.” It is obvious, therefore, that Buddhism, being some centuries older, contains more of these elements — more eternal and more true; and that Mohammedanism, being a few centuries younger, is a little shorter on truth — eternal truth, at any rate — than is Christianity. … And if Rev. Harkness did not convince you that Kansas City, as a Kiwanis orator might declare, is “a mighty good little town,” then how can you doubt it when Rev. W.A. Tetley, Westport Methodist church., pays tribute to the city’s “atmosphere of spirituality”? Rev. Tetley has been preaching “Christ and His crucified” for twenty-one years: and his contribution to civic boosting is to say that in Kansas City it is “much easier to influence a man to accept Christ” than anywhere else that he knows of personally. This is the best, the subtlest, the most far-reaching tribute of all — the fact that Christ stands high in Kansas City and is almost as popular as Coolidge. … Interesting, if not exactly belonging under the head of wisdom, is the statement by Dr. James Edward Congdon, First Presbyterian church, that Judas betrayed Jesus of his own free will. God knew he would do it, but had no hand in it; although it was God’s whole purpose to get Jesus crucified and, as Dr. Congdon tells us, the damnation of Judas was the salvation of all mankind. One reflects that it is still an open question whether mankind owes more in this matter to Jesus or to Judas. The ineffable-wise teaching, the sublime philosophy and ethics, that Dr. Congdon has to offer is perhaps best revealed when he says: “When God created man with a likeness unto Himself He imparted to man a will. God never overrides that will. When in His foreknowledge He sees that man will destroy himself by choosing wrongly, He provides in advance for man’s protection and for recovery of the wreckage.”‘ Obviously, it would be impolite and impertinent and irrelevant to inquire why God refuses or neglects or is unable to provide for man before rather than after the latter destroys himself. … I select a single bright and beautiful gem from the sermon of Dr. Clarence Reidenback, Westminster Congregational church: “The best people are Christian people.” … Rev. V.C. Clark, Agnes Avenue Methodist Episcopal church, sermonized on the subject: “How to Fish for Men.” He says: “We do not fish for men as we do for fish. … The end in view is not to benefit the fish.” On the contrary, what is the object in fishing for men? This: “We try to catch men because they will be a help to our church.” Rev. Clark praises Jesus for having been a good fisherman — a man who knew how to bait his hook, as it were. “Jesus caught men by giving them something. He gave the blind eyes, the deaf ears, the sick health, the poor riches, the idle work, the weary rest, the sinful forgiveness.” Oh! the clever Jesus, who always knew what a man wanted most; and gave it to him on the spot; and caught him. Yes-
And tell us what’s wrong and what’s right –“
If there is anything, lower, anything more contemptible, anything more offensive to the nostrils of intelligence and sheer, down-right decency than evangelism as it disports itself at an – American crossroads, I want — no, please, I don’t want — to, be told of it.
In the first place, we have an imitator of Billy Sunday vileness come to raise the roof for God. And for the worst God, too, that man ever invented: the God of the Old Testament who, if the accounts be true as Bryan says, was guilty of more crimes than are mentioned in his own Decalogue. Before and after the Ten Commandments, this God gave his chosen tribe of savages commandments to kill, rape and steal without let or hindrance. He kept them in hot water, on the warpath and in a savage, superstitious furor continually, It is a God of jealousy, of hate, of slaughter, of chicanery — a God who is a firebrand, a pestilence and a terror — that our modern John the Baptist, who has subsisted on something wilder than wild honey, brings to the yokelry of Village Corners. Without the false excuse of religion, or the excuse of patriotism in wartime, any man exhibiting such a mad performance would be viewed correctly as an inciter to all possible crimes, a disturber of the peace on a tremendous scale. But in God’s behalf, Hell is freely realized.
We have in this evangelist, if he is typical of the tribe, an insane ignoramus. A ranter of the worst type, verbally shelling the woods for God. A man who cannot be described as primitive, without injustice to our remote ancestors. A man who belongs somewhere — his God, if any one, alone knows where — in “the dark backward and abysm of time.” A man who has as little respect for as he has knowledge of any civilized emotion or way of thought. A man who, himself incapable of thought, is filled with hate of all thinking men. A man who has every trick of the charlatan armed with every impulse of the fanatic. — A man, too, who cheaply and vulgarly attracts the crowd by his alleged reputation as a sinner of the most scarlet dye. Sin, in every crude or lurid or fantastic shape, is the head and front of the man’s appeal to these yeoman of the hinterland who are moved by enormous titillations at the vision of the glory and wickedness that is Babylon. The morbidity and hysteria of the Christian appeal is fully displayed as the people of the country-side sweat and tremble and listen, prurient and pop- eyed, in the tabernacle. Culture, if she wandered into this tabernacle, would be torn to pieces by the jackals driven crazy by frantic imaginings of sin and salvation. The evangelist, God’s mob orator, rules the roost.
This sin-killer’s stock in trade is every Christian trick and lie and miserable degradation of thought. There is hardly any variation of the performances of these men. Year after year, as they go the gaping, grovelling rounds, they bedevil the mob in the old, fearful, ranting style. There are denunciations of great free- thinkers. And in this, too, there is partly the appeal of the sinful and forbidden. As one mentions the Devil with bated breath at the crossroads, so does one utter the awful names of Voltaire, Tom Paine, Bob Ingersoll. What an unholy delight it is to hear these men named openly, with appropriate biblical curses. Damn them all! All of them wicked infidels, emissaries of the Devil, men who plucked God’s beard. Voltaire — as terrible and tantalizing a mouthful as the Scarlet Woman or the Demon Rum. Tom Paine — ah, here is witchcraft, here’s a potion brewed by Satan himself. Bob Ingersoll — verily God thunders in his wrath and the Devil chortles and puffs sulphuriously in his glee.
The “arguments” are the old ones, conditioned by the absolute absence of thought. First and last, here’s the Bible — and damn any man who doesn’t believe it, every word. God has spoken. John the Baptist repeats him. Of course, there is no room for doubt — and Hell is for the doubters. But — Suppose we agree with Bob Ingersoll — just to show him up — and say that we don’t know? Then why take a chance with your future? Play safe. As an ex- gambler, the evangelist can tell his crowd that no clever man overlooks a cinch. Believe in God, and you can’t lose. If the Bible is right — as every man not depraved by sin and crime knows it is — then the Christian draws the winning number. And the infidel Voltaire loses. If there is nothing after death, who has lost? Voltaire and the village idiot will sleep side by side in equal nothingness. Faith? We take everything on faith. We don’t know that such a man as Napoleon ever lived. Yet we believe it. We don’t know that there’s such a country as India. By the power of faith, oh brethren, do we believe it. Undoubtedly Christ was the Son of God: else why do we at the crossroads worship him as such? What better proof does any man want than the Bible? There the whole story is written, in black and white, and if a man is so illiterate as not to be able to read it, he can hearken to the preacher and still be saved. People want immortality. This is proof that they will get it. The Bible has lived. Tom Paine couldn’t destroy it. Then it must indeed be the Word of God. Man hasn’t written another Bible. Therefore God wrote it, and it is irreplaceable save by the divine hand. Did Ingersoll prove that there is no God? Then, by his failure to prove that there isn’t, he proved that there is a God. Out of his own mouth is he condemned.
But the supreme proof! The tales of deathbed repentance! Every wandering prophet and Bible-thumper has a quiver full of them. The infidel always gets cold feet when, dying, he thinks of Hell. Old sinners, who have denied God their lives long, on their deathbeds cry out for God’s mercy. Smart men, who have been puffed up by their intellects and sneered at the simple faith of the morons, have at last yielded up the ghost with a prayer and wildly imploring gesture. The infidel who has impiously read the books forgets them all when old Death stalks upon him, and he remembers then the lessons taught him at his mother’s knee. Or the reprobate who has rioted with the temptations of thought, as he kneels at the bedside of a dying loved one — daughter, sister or wife — sees a vision of The Pearly Gates Ajar. And along with these cheap, silly tales we have the old lies about Tom Paine and Bob Ingersoll. They repented at the last, the gaping mob is told. They denied their teachings. They wished to burn their books. They were not saved — oh, no. They were simply cowards, who tried at the last moment to cheat Hell of its human, heretic fuel. How this apostle of the jim- jams does heap filth and falsehood upon the graves of the freethinkers! These were monsters, who dared to think contrary to the jumping, jabbering witch-doctors. What’s a murderer, or any malefactor of the most vicious stripe, by the side of the infidel who has disputed the word of God and this hell-raising zealot? who has tried to liberate the human mind from the slavery of superstition? This rat of an evangelist gnaws furiously at the imaginary forms of dead men who, by his side, loom as very colossi of intellect and nobility. For a performance equal to this, we must turn to Swift’s Yahoos.
The evangelist, too, may confront man with God in a crudely melodramatic gesture. Brann tells how a preacher in a Texas city resorted to this trick of histrionic befuddlement. This iconoclast of the Texan wilds was writing editorials on a San Antonio or Houston paper; and he was laboring to inculcate a few religious notions slightly above those of human brutes. The man of God objected to this interference with his fetching vaudeville act and devoted a sermon to this villain of godless journalism. As a climax, the preacher suddenly waved before the mob a copy of the paper and a copy of the Bible, shouting: “Whom will you believe? Brann or God?” This is a perfect example of the methods of the evangelist. He is a trickster, a cheap befooler of the multitude, in every word and gesture. He is an actor, who is methodically mad. He plays every Possible note upon the name and fame of God, the Devil, the Paines and the Ingersolls. He pours forth an endless stream of billingsgate. He spits upon truth. He kicks reason. He turns on the sewers of holiness and decent men fly to escape the spectacle and the stench. Like the vile Yahoos, he treats man, proud man, to a bath of filth. He uses every trick of crude, bucolic bombast, stinking Billy Sunday invective, dodgings and twistings not sufficiently agile and robust to be called sophistry, sentimental drivel that would make the angels weep but not in grief, threats and blustering that only a yokel would heed.
Above all, this evangelist uses the trick of terror. He is appealing to ignorant people. Therefore he is appealing to people who, can be moved powerfully by fear of the unknown. And this fear he gives them in tremendous doses. From first to last, Hell is the main attraction and repulsion. It both attracts and repels. And it unfailingly terrifies. It drives men and women to their knees. There is crying aloud, rending of garments, rolling in agony. Always, this evangelist cracks the Devil’s whip over the heads of the mob. The roaring and crackling of the eternal flames, the terrible fumes that rise from the pit, Satan in his orthodox theological presentment — these are the devices that draw the shouts and the shekels. After weeks spent in giving the people Hell in exchange for a guarantee and the freewill offering, the evangelist chars the rafters and cracks the walls of the temple with a final sermon on Hell which will beat the Devil if anything will. Those who have held out thus long are not likely to show further hesitation. Whoever does fail to step lively in this great crisis is lost beyond the possibility of redemption. If a man doesn’t repent when the Devil actually singes his whiskers, so to speak, it’s dead certain that he’s bound in a bee-line for the land where Bob Ingersoll will go. As fear is the great, saving influence of religion, so the man who is unafraid, who can look calmly upon the contortions of the holy howlers, is proof against the religious spell.
Not calmly, though without the authentically God-inspired excitement of fear, do we look upon the spectacle. We react to it in varying moods. Disgust is what we most often and most strongly feel. And shame perhaps — shame for Man, to see him thus mocked and presented as worse than ape-like in the antics of this creature. We may see it humorously as an uproarious joke, or as a grim and ugly joke, a satire on man that no Swift with deadly pen could portray. And we may, quite properly, ponder certain of its social consequences — as a joke that should be laughed at with intent to kill. For it is an evil thing, and it has echoes and manifestations, not so obviously farcical, that extend far beyond the crossroads and are involved in shams of the most respectable and dignified type.
Perhaps we should waste our pity to bestow it upon the yokelry who are visited by these calamities known as camp meetings or revivals or orgies of evangelism. They enjoy it. It is a great show to them. No doubt they regard it somewhat as they do the circus or the travelling medicine fakir or the Uncle Tom’s Cabin company. It is the show of shows that fills the barren life of the crossroads with hectic, shivering joy. There is a type of mind that revels in the emotion of fear, that when drunk with the ecstasy of terror is happy in contrast with its usual dull functioning. This craziness of religion is a relief to the dullness of ordinary life. And there is plenty of company; it’s a herd debauch; all are fear-stricken, all shout when they see God face to face, and one witnesses the fears and the miraculous wild-eyed conversions of others. A simple, unimportant fellow may even win a moment’s glory by “pinch-hitting” at the mourners’ bench and yanking a neighbor out of Hell by his dangerously scorched coat-tails. And while sin is not unknown in this bare, weather-beaten environment, it is a crude, commonplace sort of sin, the very elemental unadorned sordidness of man the animal; but from this John the Baptist, who hails from the halls of Babylon and beyond, there can be heard tales of strange, gaudy, whirling sins that reveal amazingly the ingenuity of the Devil. One call hear scandals about the wicked doings of the outer world — not to forget the immemorial, never-old scandals about the skeptics (short, ugly “infidels” in the evangelist’s lexicon) who wallowed in intellect and other kinds of dissipation.
So on the whole, though the spectacle of men crazy and fear- struck and babbling of Gods and of moons made of green cheese is not an inspiring one, it is no doubt true that those whom the evangelist hits in the very bowels of superstition enjoy the blow. Yet if the community be large enough to contain a small body of intelligent men and women (and indeed the revivalist rage strikes towns that are higher in the scale than Dutch Hollow or Village Corners) one cannot but feel the distress of this minority that is exposed to weeks of the idiocy and savagery of old-fashioned religion. There are towns, too, in which the majority, if not downright unbelievers, are too civilized to practice religion to the full. It is not pleasant for them to have the fanatics stirred and the community torn emotionally asunder by the invasion of one hundred per cent religion with blood in its eye. They feel the blasts of hate. They are drawn, willy-nilly, into this feud between God and the Devil, between the sinners and the saved who can hardly restrain the impulse to anticipate the Devil and go after every sinner with a pitchfork and a flaming brand. The man who as a rule, whether unbelieving or faintly believing or indifferent, goes about his business without molestation is now liable to the interference (he being a foe or a possible convert) of every pious meddler and missionary who feels the gripe of God in his gizzard. He may be let alone personally, but he must live in this community that has suddenly reverted to pre-Voltairean type. And as there is the atmosphere of hate which no man can escape wholly, as there is the spectacle of emotional insanity which must impinge unpleasantly upon any civilized man, so there is always an extraordinary impulse of bigotry aroused by these outbursts and inundations of evangelism. The evangelist, in short, arouses the worst impulses of the herd in a community, so that they are articulate and menacing to a degree beyond their everyday, smug, pious habitude, A church- ridden bailiwick is bad enough; but when the bigots start on the warpath, when God actually appears in person at the First Metho-Bap Church, Hell’s to pay and the quiet, decent, self-respecting sinner may have t little of the pitch splashed upon him.
IS SCIENCE A SHAM?
What’s a sham? I’d really like to know. I have always had a rough, simple notion of what is sham. I have regarded as sham that which is false and hollow, which pretends (usually with much pomp and with stiff neck and bloodshot eye) to be what it is not, as something which may glitter deceptively but which is not gold, as mere “sound and fury” trying to pass itself off as wisdom.
An idea is a sham, I take it, when it claims to be the embodiment of eternal truth yet cannot stand the light of even temporary reason.
A man is a sham, in my humble, view, when he claims to have virtue and knowledge that are not even faintly concealed about his person and that may indeed be out of reach of the wisest men. A sham is a lie, it may be crude or clever, that appeals to the passionately prejudiced and uninstructed minds of men.
For example, patriotism is a sham when it lets out the howl that the people of another nation are a pack of beasts and criminals, unrelated to the human family, and unmoved by such motives as animate the breasts of the patriots that sweat and breed in our noble country. Politics is a sham when it is a mere trick of playing on the stupidity of the masses, of promising a new heaven and earth beyond the power or purpose of the glib politicians: when it spreads broadcast such a bald slogan as “Coolidge or Chaos”: when a Dawes rallies the right-thinking masses to protect the tyranny of the courts, pretending that these courts are the bulwarks of liberty.
Religion is a sham when it claims to reveal the secret of life and death, to possess the eternal supreme truth, when it says that he who does not believe shall be damned.
Words are a sham when they make a great display but mean nothing.
Actions are a sham when they parade themselves in dishonest motives: when the petty pretends to be noble, the selfish pretends to be altruistic, the shrewd and calculating pretends to be naive.
Sham is a windbag pretending to have guts and arteries, castor oil pretending to be champagne, a dunghill pretending to be a diamond mine.
I ruminate thus about sham, trying honestly to define the thing for myself, because I receive now and then a letter from a reader who seems to have quite another view of sham: a view, however, that is not at all clear to me. As an instance, here is a reader who tells me I shall do well to smash shams, but he adds that I should not forget to smash the sham of science while I am about it.
Now just what does my friend mean? Frankly, I am puzzled. Here is a vast body of knowledge, brought together from the ends of the earth — knowledge that is the result of careful thought and research, that has been acquired slowly a little at a time, that has tested itself, that is indeed a guide and servant to men in the practical affairs of life — and what is here that can be denominated sham? Grant that it is imperfect knowledge — still, it is the very best knowledge we have, and it is very useful knowledge, knowledge that we constantly employ and could not get along without. Admit that this knowledge leaves a large territory that must be marked as Unknown — still, that territory is smaller than it was a hundred or fifty years ago, and we have at least learned, thanks to science, not to be so terrified by it as our ancestors were.
Science has changed the face of this earth: it has harnessed the forces of Nature — forces whose secret laws it had first to discover — it has created practically a new world within the memory of men living: and is this, then, to be called sham?
There is a lot of theory in science: well, my friend, theory is an indispensable tool of the human mind: and so long as a theory works, why complain? And remember this: when a theory ceases to work, when newly discovered facts rob it of its usefulness, science drops it or trims it a little here and there, and goes ahead with the quiet and business-like air that distinguishes it from hollow, high-sounding fanaticism.
Science — the scientists — doesn’t pretend to have grasped in its fingers the Eternal Truth. Science doesn’t throw a God at one’s head. Science doesn’t demand that one believe or be damned. Science reasons. Science investigates. Science tests itself. The scientist is engaged in a constant search for truth: and being the servant of truth, and not of a creed or a myth, he is always ready to confess an error, is indeed scrupulous to detect an error in his own thought and investigation.
Science is not a sham but a tremendous reality. Science works — builds — quietly prevails — promises little and performs much.
What, I ask you, has religion accomplished that can stand fittingly by the work of Science? If religion had done one-half for the human race what science has done — and were it ever so imperfect, ever so tentative, ever so far from any final goat of all Good and all Truth — still, you would not find me calling religion a sham or attacking it as such. Religion has given nothing to the world, excepting tears and groans and cries of hate and gibberings of superstition. It has been a fraud, a parasite upon the human race, an enormous windbag gathering the millions who fondly imagine they shall discover treasures within. Religion is a sham. Science has paid its way — it has been a useful and brilliant and tireless worker — it has poured wealth and knowledge into the lap of the human race.
Science is not a sham.
RELIGION — A PILE OF GARBAGE
Religion, says H.L. Mencken, deserves no more respect than a pile of garbage. He says it with an eye that is fixed in particular disgust upon the rampant native Christianity that has bred such monstrosities as Cotton Mather, Sam Jones and Billy Sunday and that regularly produces its Talmadges and Parkhursts to boot. The kind of religion that flourishes at the crossroads is a subject for a Rabelais, forgetting his gusto in a sense of social duty, to handle with averted nostrils and a ten-foot pen. And the religion that displays itself elegantly in the city temple is different only in that it walks on soft carpets and knows how to use its knife and fork and mingles the terrible odor of sanctity with a dash of Parisian perfume. But religion, let us say (using Christianity not as the sole but only the worst and contiguous example) is exactly deserving in the manner and degree allotted to it by the just Mr. Mencken. Fine words are no strangers to Mencken, but he waste sweet adjectives upon rottenness. Contrary to statements that have been made, I say that Mencken is a master of literary style in that he uses words with a thought of their meaning. What better example could we have of Mr. Mencken’s stylistic aptness, honesty and vigor than his use of the phrase, “a pile of garbage”? The rhetoric of that statement can be defended as almost perfect: and indeed I would suggest only a slight change. Why not say that religion is a pile of garbage?
We shall have to look at this pile of garbage — not stir it to the, bottom nor ram our noses into it but poke investigatively around the edges. It is not likely that you will find in a pile of garbage any fresh, savory, wholesome food. A bit of good food, accidentally dumped upon the garbage pile, instantly loses its virtue. Garbage spoils whatever it touches. In the garbage pile of religion you will see, in the first place, certain messes that have been cooked and chewed over, and most gastrically used, until there is left in them nothing that well-regulated palate or stomach or a sane mind can find pleasant or useful. The dietitian has no place here, and only the scavenger is needed. Whether this food, when it was food, was good, healthful, natural food, who will bother to say? Formerly it may have been a gastric offense: now it is a ghastly offense. It may have been hard to digest: now it is hardly possible to see or smell, and it temporarily paralyzes the appetite.
This garbage of religion, we can plainly see, is full of the stuff of superstitious loaves and fishes that have cursed man with a vile, perpetual bellyache since prehistoric times. What old food is this that was a raw, bloody meal thousands of years ago when man lived precariously, filled with panic, mumbling his food and his fear-thoughts in terror! These are the endless regurgitated and rechewed remnants of the victuals of medicine men and myth-makers who subsisted as best they could in a strange world long before Christ appeared to feed the multitude, still hungry for signs and wonders. Holy hermits eating to grow thin, and holy-hilarious monks eating that flesh might follow gorging, rolled this religious stew on their tongues. Flea-bitten fanatics in the Dark Ages ground their teeth over this very flesh, slightly burnt in those days. And as men with enormous, panic-driven appetite and no taste have in every age slung this food into them as ravenously as a hobo dripping mulligan from his jaws: so we remember that honest, intelligent men in every age have ventured to try a spoonful of the mess and quickly spat it out in disgust.
In short, we observe that this garbage of religion consists largely of the oldest superstition known to man; that it is a brew and batch of creeds and myths and fear-thoughts and stupid, servile worship that have been guzzled and gnawed over wherever man has mistaken the rumble of an aching, empty belly for the voice of God; that when this slum-gullion, which has gone down so many throats and along the way of all flesh, was first concocted both man’s culinary and his culture were in a crude, savage state, We think we know garbage when we see it — when we smell it. There is more than one kind of garbage, though in truth the garbage pile and the dunghill are death to all distinction, being not readily measured except by the shovelful: but obviously a thing that belongs on the garbage Pile — that indeed a thrust of the stick turns up for our unpleasant gaze — is the stuff that is mixed with the saliva and bile of greasy-fingered generations, the fear of God in their bowels.
Among other things that we recognize in the garbage pile, there are bunches of decayed food — food that has missed its purpose of proper nourishment and that has rotted until it is no longer good in the eyes of sensible people. We agree that food is good only when it is not too far removed from a fresh state. when it has a right honest flavor. Vegetables that have grown stale and bitter to the taste — the blighted cabbage, the shrivelled carrot and the feeble, rancid tomato — are fit only to repose amid the corruption of the garbage pile. Yet many people, who will not eat decayed food, will swallow decayed notions and call themselves pious in the act: and they have only praise for the faculties of man as corrupted from their respectable, sensible and noble uses.
This decay of faculties, this corruption of the intellectual food of man, is rank in the pile of holy garbage that goes by the name of religion. Wherever it has touched the human mind, religion has, after the manner of garbage, spoiled what is good. So infinite in faculty is man, as the melancholy Dane did observe, but also how infinitely base or miserable or pitiful is man when his faculties have been decayed by religion. What shall we say of the man who, for love of God, hates and persecutes his fellow men? The touch of religion kills the generous enthusiasm in man and in its place we have fanaticism. The sense of wonder, while it now and then inspires a poet, more widely impels the poor millions in their folly to wriggle in the dust and mumble supplications to the Unknown. The poetry in man has been cheated by religion, which has given man the dry bones of faith to feed his sense of the mystery and mightiness of life and his hunger for the sublime. The man who falls into the spiritual decay of religion cannot see the real wonders of the universe. Beating his head at the altar, hiding in his pew with eyes cast down in prayer, he cannot look up at the stars. And if he happens to see the stars, the emotion that is proper to the beholding of grandeur decays in a pulpy reflection of piety.
There is in man a great capacity for admiring what seems greater than his individual self, what represents to him a certain loftiness and virtue. And how has religion treated this instinct of man to reach out to something better than himself? lt has given man gods and foolish saints and madmen rending their garments: it has given him the admiration of an awful nothingness, a heedful of chimerical images, a vain and worthless show of bubbles fit only to entertain children. This fraud of religion has persuaded men, not only that piety is a kind of excellence, but indeed that piety (especially the marauding brand of piety, armed with the dangerous zeal of the bigot) is the supreme virtue of man. The maid upon which the hypnotic spell of religion has been cast sees the preacher as greater than the philosopher: and sees the psalm- singing, shouting type of Christian as higher than the man who functions more quietly as a thinking animal.
The human imagination, with its creative possibilities, becomes a cowardly, contemptible thing when it is touched by the hand of religion. Fasting and prayer give rise to the sort of vision that belongs in the madhouse, yet that when cried up as sacred revelations meet with a success that is the envy of charlatans outside the church who are engaged in fooling the herd by the ways of man rather than the ways of God. Imagination may enable a Shakespeare to give us super-reality, an epitome of man, in art: or it may lead a Bunyan to give us Sunday-school morality in the guise of a Methodist fairy tale, a Swedenborg to give us wild visions of “the undiscovered country from whose bourne no traveler returns.” The desire for a feeling of permanence, for something more than a passing puppet’s role in life, which inspires a man uncorrupted by Christianity to build for the men of the future, to pass on his personality in a solid and splendid way to the coming race: this desire to escape being ignominiously snuffed out like a brief candle appears, in its perverted Christian form, as a petty longing for the prolongation of personal inaptitude into an endless Paradise beyond the grave: if a man is absolutely irreligious, he may want to give men culture, control of the forces of Nature, wiser and kinder laws of social life, the joys of art, philosophy to make the most of life: but the man whose mind has been wrung limp by the laying on of sacerdotal paws thinks of an eternity of vague, fatuous bliss and all he has to offer men is the choice of Heaven or Hell. So we observe that the man who tries to persuade his fellows that they can make this life somewhat more beautiful and intelligent is hooted by the mob; while the holy man who talks with a long face about mansions in the skies has no lack of a gaping audience.
We may be told that faith is the great gift of religion to man. Verily it is upon faith, as interpreted by Saint Paul and intended for simpletons, that religion finally pins its defense and justification and hope. Yet what an empty, trifling, purposeless faith! ‘Tis a faith that is mere blind credulity, that demands the surrender of the human mind. This is a faith in ghosts, not in men: in foolish incantations, not in realistic effort: in sanctified mumnieries and miracles, not in living possibilities. It is not the kind of faith or daring of the spirit which Napoleon expressed when he declared that nothing is impossible — that the human mind and will are instruments of marvelous, illimitable uses. It is not faith in the purposes of life — the kind of faith avowed by a Goethe — that leads a man to noble achievements that satisfy the intelligence. Faith that means the will to live or the willingness to be used by life — that means a healthy sort of illusion, sufficiently earthy and holding to life — that means a certain egoistic belief in the importance of ourselves and our actions: this kind of faith may inspire men to work for ends that are beyond their immediate fleeting day, to build for ages unborn and possibly condemned to futility. This is the faith that dares and does things, the faith that labors with intelligent human tools for intelligent and worthy human purposes. But this heart of energy and wise illusion, this pragmatic spirit of intimacy and identification with life, is in its aspect of Christian clearly the idle, ridiculous, meaningless bowing of heads and bending of knees in prayer: it is the attitude and the belief that moves the savage worshipping a wooden idol, It robs man of every vestige of dignity and intelligence.
The influence of religion, in all its manifestations, sends man flat in the dust, a pitiful, grovelling object. This lord of life, when religion gets hold of him, is the victim of decay and the slave of sickening superstition. The highest faculty of man — the reasoning faculty — is used (indeed abused) by religion to invent theological absurdities and monstrosities. What shameful thins are the creeds of man, when seen clearly as perversions of the human intellect, as the distortion of the mind by visions of terror and stupid, saintly tricks, as the bending of the noble faculty of reason to the squinting consideration of quiddities and all manner of mad trifles! Imagine this human mind — that in a Diderot could produce an Encyclopedia, in a Bacon a Novtim Organum, in a Goethe a Faust, in a Darwin or a Haeckel an immense structure of scientific knowledge — turning itself to farce in the skull of a Christian fanatic and gasping for divine light on the subject of baptism or witches or virgin birth or the divinity of Jesus! Think of men for ages wrangling about the quality of inspiration, human or divine, in a book — mere black on white — that is a jumble of concupiscence and murder and intrigue and the beliefs of half- civilized, wandering tribes who regarded this world as the footstool of a fatuous God, who never knew his own mind a week ahead, and who might kick the world over in a moment’s celestial caprice! And man, proud man who is distinguished from other animals by his ability to reason in lofty and tremendous and most intricate fashion, has argued interminably and shed blood and lit terrible, fantastic fires of martyrdom over the precise, piffling interpretation of little combinations of words in this so-called Holy Writ! This mighty being, Man, supreme on the earth, endowed with infinite faculties, wrestled through wretched centuries with imaginary angels and devils.
And the human mind today, in the midst of all the possibilities of culture and enlightenment, is still in millions of men and women wholly subject to the influence of terrors and trifles. The curse of religion still robs man of his reasoning faculty; of his potentially fine, artistic imagination; of his spirit of true poetry and of wonder that is not the mere witless gawking and trembling of holy-rolling morons; of his conception of the truly sublime, his admiration of great things, his impulse to seek higher levels of life and thought; of his sense of values, of his dignity and decent, true presentment as a human being, religion has robbed man in every please and faculty of living.
We see in religion the decay of every good thing in this world. Mencken is right. He hit upon the very phrase — the very name and habitation of this holy fraud. It is a pile of garbage. It is the reteaching of superstitions as old as the jungles. It is the dumping round of decayed human faculties, wilted and sour and rancid, blasted in base usage — fit only to smear the hands of fanatics who wish to throw something at the heads of civilized men trying to guide to noble uses the capacities of thought and emotion that have been so foully abused by religion.