Modern Thinkers (1888)
Robert Green Ingersoll
PREFACE TO PROF. VAN BUREN DENSLOW’S
IF others who read this book get as much information as I did from the advance sheets, they will feel repaid a hundred times. It is perfectly delightful to take advantage of the conscientious labors of those who go through and through volume after volume, divide with infinite patience the gold from the dross, and present us with the pure and shining coin. Such men may be likened to bees who save us numberless journeys by giving us the fruit of their own.
While this book will greatly add to the information of all who read it. it may not increase the happiness of some to find that Swedenborg was really insane. But when they remember that he was raised by a bishop, and disappointed in love, they will cease to wonder at his mental condition. Certainly an admixture of theology and "disprized love" is often sufficient to compel reason to abdicate the throne of the mightiest soul.
The trouble with Swedenborg was that he changed realities into dreams, and then out of the dreams made facts upon which he built, and with which he constructed his system.
He regarded all realities as shadows cast by ideas. To him the material was the unreal, and things were definitions of the ideas of God. He seemed to think that he had made a discovery when he found that ideas were back of words, and that language had a subjective as well as an objective origin; that is, that the interior meaning had been clothed upon. Of course, a man capable of drawing the conclusion that natural reason cannot harmonize with spiritual truth because in a dream, he had seen a beetle that could not use its feet, is capable of any absurdity of which the imagination can conceive. The fact is, that Swedenborg believed the Bible. That was his misfortune. His mind had been overpowered by the bishop, but the woman had not utterly destroyed his heart. He was shocked by the liberal interpretation of the Scriptures, and sought to avoid the difficulty by giving new meanings consistent with the decency and goodness of God. He pointed out a way to preserve the old Bible with a new interpretation. In this way Infidelity could be avoided; and, in his day, that was almost a necessity. Had Swedenborg taken the ground that the Bible was not inspired, the ears of the world would have been stopped. His readers believed in the dogma of inspiration, and asked, not how to destroy the Scriptures, but for some way in which they might be preserved. He and his followers unconsciously rendered immense service to the cause of intellectual enfranchisement by their efforts to show the necessity of giving new meanings to the barbarous laws, and cruel orders of Jehovah. For this purpose they attacked with great fury the literal text, taking the ground that if the old interpretation was right, the Bible was the work of savage men. They heightened in every way the absurdities, cruelties and contradictions of the Scriptures for the purpose of showing that a new interpretation must be found, and that the way pointed out by Swedenborg was the only one by which the Bible could be saved.
Great men are, after all, the instrumentalities of their time. The heart of the civilized world was beginning to revolt at the cruelties ascribed to God, and was seeking for some interpretation of the Bible that kind and loving people could accept. The method of interpretation found by Swedenborg was suitable for all. Each was permitted to construct his own "science of correspondence" and gather such fruits as he might prefer. In this way the ravings of revenge can instantly be changed to mercys melting tones, and murder’s dagger to a smile of love. In this way and in no other, can we explain the numberless mistakes and crimes ascribed to God. Thousands of most excellent people, afraid to throw away the idea of inspiration, hailed with joy a discovery that allowed them to write a Bible for themselves.
But, whether Swedenborg was right or not, every man who reads a book, necessarily gets from that book all that he is capable of receiving. Every man who walks in the forest, or gathers a flower, or looks at a picture, or stands by the sea, gets all the intellectual wealth he is capable of receiving. What the forest, the flower, the picture or the sea is to him, depends upon his mind, and upon the stage of development he has reached. So that after all, the Bible must be a different book to each person who reads it, as the revelations of nature depend upon the individual to whom they are revealed, or by whom they are discovered. And the extent of the revelation or discovery depends absolutely upon the intellectual and moral development of the person to whom, or by whom, the revelation or discovery is made. So that the Bible cannot be the same to any two people, but each one must necessarily interpret it for himself. Now, the moment the doctrine is established that we can give to this book such meanings as are consistent with our highest ideals; that we can treat the old words as purses or old stockings in which to put our gold, then, each one will, in effect, make a new inspired Bible for himself, and throw the old away. If his mind is narrow, if he has been raised by ignorance and nursed by fear, he will believe in the literal truth of what he reads. If he has a little courage he will doubt, and the doubt will with new interpretations modify the literal text; but if his soul is free he will with scorn reject it all.
Swedenborg did one thing for which I feel almost grateful. He gave an account of having met John Calvin in hell. Nothing connected with the supernatural could be more perfectly natural than this. The only thing detracting from the value of this report is, that if there is a hell, we know without visiting the place that John Calvin must be there.
All honest founders of religions have been the dreamers of dreams, the sport of insanity, the prey of visions, the deceivers of others and of themselves. All will admit that Swedenborg was a man of great intellect, of vast acquirements and of honest intentions; and I think it equally clear that upon one subject, at least, his mind was touched, shattered and shaken.
Misled by analogies, imposed upon by the bishop, deceived by the woman, borne to other worlds upon the wings of dreams, living in the twilight of reason and the dawn of insanity, he regarded every fact as a patched and ragged garment with a lining of the costliest silk, and insisted that the wrong side, even of the silk, was far more beautiful than the right,
Herbert Spencer is almost the opposite of Swedenborg, He relies upon evidence, upon demonstration, upon experience, and occupies himself with one world at a time. He perceives that there is a mental horizon that we cannot pierce, and that beyond that is the unknown — possibly the unknowable. He endeavors to examine only that which is capable of being examined, and considers the theological method as not only useless, but hurtful. After all, God is but a guess, throned and established by arrogance and assertion. Turning his attention to those things that have in some way affected the condition of mankind, Spencer leaves the unknowable to priests and to the believers in the "moral government" of the world. He sees only natural causes and natural results, and seeks to induce man to give up gazing into void and empty space, that he may give his entire attention to the world in which he lives. He sees that right and wrong do not depend upon the arbitrary will of even an infinite being, but upon the nature of things; that they are relations, not entities, and that they cannot exist, so far as we know, apart from human experience.
It may be that men will finally see that selfishness and self- sacrifice are both mistakes; that the first devours itself; that the second is not demanded by the good, and that the bad are unworthy of it. It may be that our race has never been, and never will be, deserving of a martyr. Sometime we may see that justice is the highest possible form of mercy and love, and that all should not only be allowed, but compelled to reap exactly what they sow; that industry should not support idleness, and that they who waste the spring and summer and autumn of their lives should bear the winter when it comes. The fortunate should assist the victims of accident; the strong should defend the weak, and the intellectual should lead, with loving hands, the mental poor; but justice should remove the bandage from her eyes long enough to distinguish between the vicious and the unfortunate.
Mr. Spencer is wise enough to declare that "acts are called good or bad according as they are well or ill adjusted to ends;" and he might have added, that ends are good or bad according as they affect the happiness of mankind.
it would be hard to over-estimate the influence of this great man. From an immense intellectual elevation he has surveyed the world of thought. He has rendered absurd the idea of special providence, born of the egotism of savagery. He has shown that the "will of God" is not a rule for human conduct; that morality is not a cold and heartless tyrant; that by the destruction of the individual will, a higher life cannot be reached, and that after all, an intelligent love of self extends the hand of help and kindness to all the human race.
But had it not been for such men as Thomas Paine, Herbert Spencer could not have existed for a century to come. Some one had to lead the way, to raise the standard of revolt, and draw the sword of war. Thomas Paine was a natural revolutionist. He was opposed to every government existing in his day. Next to establishing a wise and just republic based upon the equal rights of man, the best thing that can be done is to destroy a monarchy.
Paine had a sense of justice, and had imagination enough to put himself in the place of the oppressed. He had, also, what in these pages is so felicitously expressed, "a haughty intellectual pride, and a willingness to pit his individual thought against the clamor of a world."
I cannot believe that he wrote the letters of "Junius," although the two critiques combined in this volume, entitled "Paine" and "Junius," make by far the best argument upon that subject I have ever read. First, Paine could have had no personal hatred against the men so bitterly assailed by junius. Second, He knew, at that time, but little of English politicians, and certainly had never associated with men occupying the highest positions, and could not have been personally acquainted with the leading statesmen of England. Third, He was not an unjust man. He was neither a coward, a calumniator, nor a sneak. All these delightful qualities must have lovingly united in the character of Junius. Fourth, Paine could have had no reason for keeping the secret after coming to America.
I have always believed that Junius, after having written his letters, accepted office from the very men he had maligned, and at last became a pensioner of the victims of his slander. "Had he as many mouths as Hydra, such a course must have closed them all." Certainly the author must have kept the secret to prevent the loss of his reputation.
It cannot be denied that the style of Junius is much like that of Paine. Should it be established that Paine wrote the letters of Junius, it would not, in my judgment, add to his reputation as a writer. Regarded as literary efforts they cannot be compared with "Common Sense," "The Crisis," or "The Rights of Man."
The claim that Paine was the real author of the Declaration of Independence is much better founded. I am inclined to think that he actually wrote it; but whether this is true or not, every idea contained in it had been written by him long before. It is now claimed that the original document is in Paine’s handwriting. It certainly is not in Jefferson’s. Certain it is, that Jefferson could not have written anything so manly, so striking, so comprehensive, so clear, so convincing, and so faultless in rhetoric and rhythm as the Declaration of Independence.
Paine was the first man to write these words, "The United States of America." He was the first great champion of absolute separation from England. He was the first to urge the adoption of a Federal Constitution; and, more clearly than any other man of his time, he perceived the future greatness of this country.
He has been blamed for his attack on Washington. The truth is, he was in prison in France. He had committed the crime of voting against the execution of the king. It was the grandest act of his life, but at that time to be merciful was criminal. Paine, being an American citizen, asked Washington, then President, to say a word to Robespierre in his behalf. Washington remained silent. In the calmness of power, the serenity of fortune, Washington the President, read the request of Paine, the prisoner, and with the complacency of assured fame, consigned to the wastebasket of forgetfulness the patriot’s cry for help.
"Time hath, my lord, a wallet at his back,
Wherein he puts alms for oblivion,
A great-sized monster of ingratitudes.
Those scraps are good deeds past, which are devour’d
As fast as they are made, forgot as soon
In this controversy, my sympathies are with the prisoner.
Paine did more to free the mind, to destroy the power of ministers and priests in the New World, than any other man. In order to answer his arguments, the churches found it necessary to attack his character. There was a general resort to falsehood. In trying to destroy the reputation of Paine, the churches have demoralized themselves. Nearly every minister has been a willing witness against the truth, Upon the grave of Thomas Paine, the churches of America have sacrificed their honor. The influence of the Hero author increases every day, and there are more copies of the "Age of Reason" sold in the United States, than of any work written in defence of the Christian religion. Hypocrisy, with its forked tongue, its envious and malignant heart, lies coiled upon the memory of Paine, ready to fasten its poisonous fangs in the reputation of any man who dares defend the great and generous dead.
Leaving the dust and glory of revolutions, let us spend a moment of quiet with Adam Smith, I was glad to find that a man’s ideas upon the subject of protection and free trade depend almost entirely upon the country in which he lives, or the business in which he happens to be engaged, and that, after all, each man regards the universe as a circumference of which he is the center. It gratified me to learn that even Adam Smith was no exception to this rule, and that he regarded all "protection as a hurtful and ignorant interference," except when exercised for the good of Great Britain. Owing to the fact that his nationality quarreled with his philosophy, he succeeded in writing a book that is quoted with equal satisfaction by both parties, The protectionists rely upon the exceptions he made for England, and the free traders upon the doctrines laid down for other countries.
He seems to have reasoned upon the question of money precisely as we have, of late years, in the United States; and he has argued both sides equally well. Poverty asks for inflation. Wealth is conservative, and always says there is money enough.
Upon the question of money, this volume contains the best thing I have ever read: "The only mode of procuring the service of others, on any large scale, in the absence of money, is by force, which is slavery. Money, by constituting a medium in which the smallest services can be paid for, substitutes wages for the lash, and renders the liberty of the individual consistent with the maintenance and support of society." There is more philosophy in that one paragraph than Adam Smith expresses in his whole work. It may truthfully be said, that without money, liberty is impossible. No one, whatever his views may be, can read the article or, Adam Smith without profit and delight.
The discussion of the money question is in every respect admirable, and is as candid as able. The world will sooner or later learn that there is nothing miraculous in finance; that money is a real and tangible thing, a product of labor, serving not merely as a medium of exchange but as a basis of credit as well; that it cannot be created by an act of the legislature; that dreams cannot be coined, and that only labor, in some form, can put, upon the hand of want, Aladdin’s magic ring.
Adam Smith wrote upon the wealth of nations, while Charles Fourier labored for the happiness of mankind, In this country, few seem to understand communism. While here, it may be regarded as vicious idleness, armed with the assassin’s knife and the incendiary’s torch, in Europe, it is a different thing. There, it is a reaction from Feudalism. Nobility is communism in its worst possible form. Nothing can be worse than for idleness to eat the bread of industry. Communism in Europe is not the "stand and deliver" of the robber, but the protest of the robbed. Centuries ago, kings and priests, that is to say, thieves and hypocrites, divided Europe among themselves. Under this arrangement, the few were masters and the many slaves. Nearly every government in the Old World rests upon simple brute force. It is hard for the many to understand why the few should own the soil. Neither can they clearly see why they should give their brain and blood to those who steal their birthright and their bread. It has occurred to them that they who do the most should not receive the least, and that, after all, an industrious peasant is of far more value to the world than a vain and idle king.
The Communists of France, blinded as they are, made the Republic possible. Had they joined with their countrymen, the invaders would have been repelled, and some Napoleon would still have occupied the throne. Socialism perceives that Germany has been enslaved by victory, while France found liberty in defeat. In Russia the Nihilists prefer chaos to the government of the bayonet, Siberia and the knout, and these intrepid men have kept upon the coast of despotism one beacon fire of hope.
As a matter of fact, every society is a species of communism — a kind of co-operation in which selfishness, in spite of itself, benefits the community. Every industrious man adds to the wealth, not only of his nation, but to that of the world. Every inventor increases human power, and every sculptor, painter and poet adds to the value of human life.
Fourier, touched by the sufferings of the poor as well as by the barren joys of hoarded wealth, and discovering the vast advantages of combined effort, and the immense economy of cooperation, sought to find some way for men to help themselves by helping each other. He endeavored to do away with monopoly and competition, and to ascertain some method by which the sensuous, the moral, and the intellectual passions of man could be gratified.
For my part I can place no confidence in any system that does away, or tends to do away, with the institution of marriage. I can conceive of no civilization of which the family must not be the unit.
Societies cannot be made; they must grow. Philosophers may predict, but they cannot create. They may point out as many ways as they please; but after all, humanity will travel in paths of its own.
Fourier sustained about the same relation to this world that Swedenborg did to the other. There must be something wrong about the brain of one who solemnly asserts that, "the elephant, the ox and the diamond, were created by the sun; the horse, the lily and the ruby, by Saturn; the cow, the jonquil and the topaz by Jupiter; and the dog, the violet and the opal stones by the earth itself."
And yet, forgetting these aberrations of the mind, this lunacy of a great and loving soul, for one, I hold in tenderest regard the memory of Charles Fourier, one of the best and noblest of our race.
While Fourier was in his cradle, Jeremy Bentham, who read history when three years old, played on the violin at five, "and at fifteen detected the fallacies of Blackstone," was demonstrating that the good was the useful; that a thing was right because it paid in the highest and best sense; that utility was the basis of morals; that without allowing interest to be paid upon money commerce could not exist; and that the object of all human governments should be to secure the greatest happiness of the greatest number. He read Hume and Helvetius, threw away the Thirty- nine Articles, and endeavored to impress upon the English Law the fact that its ancestor was a feudal savage. He held the past in contempt, hated Westminster and despised Oxford. He combated the idea that governments were originally founded on contract. Locke and Blackstone talked as though men originally lived apart, and formed societies by agreement. These writers probably imagined that at one time the trees were separated like telegraph poles, and finally came together and made groves by agreement. I believe that it was Pufendorf who said that slavery was originally founded on contract. To which Voltaire replied: — "If my lord Pufendorf will produce the original contract signed by the party who was to be the slave, I will admit the truth of his statement."
A contract back of society is a myth manufactured by those in power to serve as a title to place, and to impress the multitude with the idea that they are, in some mysterious way, bound, fettered, and even benefitted by its terms.
The glory of Bentham is, that he gave the true basis of morals, and furnished statesmen with the star and compass of this sentence: — "The greatest happiness of the greatest number."
Most scientists have deferred to the theologians. They have admitted that some questions could not, at present, be solved. These admissions have been thankfully received by the clergy, who have always begged for some curtain to be left, behind which their God could still exist. Men calling themselves "scientific" have tried to harmonize the "apparent" discrepancies between the Bible and the other, works of Jehovah. In this way they have made reputations. They were at once quoted by the ministers as wonderful examples of piety and learning. These men discounted the future that they might enjoy the ignorant praise of the present. Agassiz preferred the applause of Boston, while he lived, to the reverence of a world after he was dead. Small men appear great only when they agree with the multitude.
The last Scientific Congress in America was opened with prayer. Think of a science that depends upon the efficacy of words addressed to the Unknown and Unknowable!
In our country, most of the so-called scientists are professors in sectarian colleges, in which Moses is considered a geologist, and Joshua an astronomer. For the most part their salaries depend upon the ingenuity with which they can explain away facts and dodge demonstration.
The situation is about the same in England. When Mr. Huxley saw fit to attack the Mosaic account of the creation, he did not deem it advisable to say plainly what he meant. He attacked the account of creation as given by Milton, although he knew that the Mosaic and Miltonic were substantially the same. Science has acted like a guest without a wedding garment, and has continually apologized for existing. In the presence of arrogant absurdity, overawed by the patronizing airs of a successful charlatan, it has played the role of a "poor relation," and accepted, while sitting below the salt, insults as horrors.
There can be no more pitiable sight than a scientist in the employ of superstition dishonoring himself without assisting his master. But there are a multitude of brave and tender men who give their honest thoughts, who are true to nature, who give the facts and let consequences shirk for themselves, who know the value and meaning of a truth, and who have bravely tried the creeds by scientific tests.
Among the bravest, side by side with the greatest of the world, in Germany, the land of science, stands Ernst Haeckel, who may be said to have not only demonstrated the theories of Darwin, but the Monistic conception of the world. Rejecting all the puerile ideas of a personal Creator, he has had the courage to adopt the noble words of Bruno: — "A spirit exists in all things, and no body is so small but it contains a part of the divine substance within itself, by which it is animated." He has endeavored — and I think with complete success — to show that there is not, and never was, and never can be the Creator of anything. There is no more a personal Creator than there is a personal destroyer. Matter and force must have existed from eternity, all generation must have been spontaneous, and the simplest organisms must have been the ancestors of the most perfect and complex.
Haeckel is one of the bitterest enemies of the church, and is, therefore, one of the bravest friends of man.
Catholicism was, at one time, the friend of education — of an education sufficient to make a Catholic out of a barbarian. Protestantism was also in favor of education — of an education sufficient to make a Protestant out of a Catholic. But now, it having been demonstrated that real education will make Freethinkers, Catholics and Protestants both are the enemies of true learning.
In all countries where human beings are held in bondage, it is a crime to teach a slave to read and write. Masters know that education is an abolitionist, and theologians know that science is the deadly foe of every creed in Christendom.
In the age of Faith, a personal god stood at the head of every department of ignorance, and was supposed to be the King of kings, the rewarder and punisher of individuals, and the governor of nations.
The worshipers of this god have always regarded the men in love with simple facts, as Atheists in disguise. And it must be admitted that nothing is more Atheistic than a fact. Pure science is necessarily godless. It is incapable of worship. It investigates, and cannot afford to shut its eyes even long enough to pray. There was a time when those who disputed the divine right of kings were denounced as blasphemous; but the time came when liberty demanded that a personal god should be retired from politics. In our country this was substantially done in 1776, when our fathers declared that all power to govern came from the consent of the governed. The cloud-theory was abandoned, and one government has been established for the benefit of mankind. Our fathers did not keep God out of the Constitution from principle, but from jealousy. Each church, in colonial times, preferred to live in single blessedness rather than see some rival wedded to the state. Mutual hatred planted our tree of religions liberty. A constitution without a god has at last given us a nation without a slave.
A personal god sustains the same relation to religion as to polities. The Deity is a master, and man a serf; and this relation is inconsistent with true progress. The Universe ought to be a pure democracy — an infinite republic without a tyrant and without a chain.
Auguste Comte endeavored to put humanity in the place of Jehovah, and no conceivable change can be more desirable than this. This great man did not, like some of his followers, put a mysterious something called law in the place of God, which is simply giving the old master a new name. Law is this side of phenomena, not the other. It is not the cause, neither is it the result of phenomena. The fact of succession and resemblance, that is to say, the same thing happening under the same conditions, is all we mean by law. No one can conceive of a law existing apart from matter, or controlling matter, any more than he can understand the eternal procession of the Holy Ghost, or motion apart from substance. We are beginning to see that law does not, and cannot exist as an entity, but that it is only a conception of the mind to express the fact that the same entities, under the same conditions, produce the same results. Law does not produce the entities, the conditions, or the results, or even the sameness of the results. Neither does it affect the relations of entities, nor the result of such relations, but it stands simply for the fact that the same causes, under the same conditions, eternally have produced and eternally will produce the same results.
The metaphysicians are always giving us explanations of phenomena which are as difficult to understand as the phenomena they seek to explain; and the believers in God establish their dogmas by miracles, and then substantiate the miracles by assertion.
The Designer of the teleologist, the First Cause of the religious philosopher, the Vital Force of the biologist, and the law of the half-orthodox scientist, are all the shadowy children of ignorance and fear.
The Universe is all there is. It is both subject and object; contemplator and contemplated; creator and created; destroyer and destroyed; preserver and preserved; and within itself are all causes, modes, motions and effects.
Unable in some things to rise above the superstitions of his day, Comte adopted not only the machinery, but some of the prejudices, of Catholicism. He made the mistake of Luther. He tried to reform the Church of Rome. Destruction is the only reformation of which that church is capable. Every religion is based upon a misconception, not only of the cause of phenomena, but of the real object of Life; that is to say, upon falsehood; and the moment the truth is known and understood, these religions must fall. In the field of thought, they are briers, thorns, and noxious weeds; on the shores of intellectual discovery, they are sirens, and in the forests that the brave thinkers are now penetrating, they are the wild beasts, fanged and monstrous. You cannot reform these weeds. Sirens cannot be changed into good citizens; and such wild beasts, even when tamed, are of no possible use. Destruction is the only remedy. Reformation is a hospital where the new philosophy exhausts its strength nursing the old religion.
There was, in the brain of the great Frenchman, the dawn of that happy day in which humanity will be the only religion, good the only god, happiness the only object, restitution the only atonement, mistake the only sin, and affection, guided by intelligence, the only savior of mankind. This dawn enriched his poverty, illuminated the darkness of his life, peopled his loneliness with the happy millions yet to be, and filled his eyes with proud and tender tears.
A few years ago I asked the superintendent of Pere La Chaise if he knew where I could find the tomb of Auguste Comte. He had never heard even the name of the author of the "Positive Philosophy." I asked him if he had ever heard of Napoleon Bonaparte. In a half-insulted tone, he replied, "Of course I have, why do you ask me such a question?" "Simply," was my answer, "that I might have the opportunity of saying, that when everything connected with Napoleon, except his crimes, shall have been forgotten, Auguste Comte will be lovingly remembered as a benefactor of the human race."
The Jewish God must be dethroned! A personal Deity must go back to the darkness of barbarism from whence he came. The theologians must abdicate, and popes, priests, and clergymen, labeled as "extinct species," must occupy the mental museums of the future.
In my judgment, this book, filled with original thought, will hasten the coming of that blessed time.
Washington, D.C., Nov. 29, 1879.
THE REV. DR. NEWTON’S SERMON ON A NEW RELIGION
I HAVE read the report of the Rev. R. Heber Newton’s sermon and I am satisfied, first, that Mr. Newton simply said what he thoroughly believes to be true, and second, that some of the conclusions at which he arrives are certainly correct. I do not regard Mr. Newton as a heretic or skeptic. Every man who reads the Bible must, to a greater or less extent, think for himself. He need not tell his thoughts; he has the right to keep them to himself. But if he undertakes to tell them, then he should be absolutely honest.
The Episcopal creed is a few ages behind the thought of the world. For many years the foremost members and clergymen in that church have been giving some new meanings to the old words and phrases. Words are no more exempt from change than other things in nature. A word at one time rough, jagged, harsh and cruel, is finally worn smooth. A word known as slang, picked out of the gutter, is cleaned, educated, becomes respectable and finally is found in the mouths of the best and purest.
We must remember that in the world of art the picture depends not alone on the painter, but on the one who sees it. So words must find some part of their meaning in the man who hears or the man who reads. In the old times the word "hell" gave to the hearer or reader the picture of a vast pit filled with an ocean of molten brimstone, in which innumerable souls were suffering the torments of fire, and where millions of devils were engaged in the cheerful occupation of increasing the torments of the damned. This was the real old orthodox view.
As man became civilized, however, the picture grew less and less vivid. Finally, some expressed their doubts about the brimstone, and others. began to think that if the Devil was, and is, really an enemy of God he would not spend his time punishing sinners to please God. Why should the Devil be in partnership with his enemy, and why should he inflict torments on poor souls who were his own friends, and who shared with him the feeling of hatred toward the Almighty?
As men became more and more civilized, the idea began to dawn in their minds that an infinitely good and wise being would not have created persons, knowing that they would be eternal failures, or that they were to suffer eternal punishment, because there could be no possible object in eternal punishment — no reformation, no good to be accomplished — and certainly the sight of all this torment would not add to the joy of heaven, neither would it tend to the happiness of God.
So the more civilized adopted the idea that punishment is a consequence and not an infliction. Then they took another step and concluded that every soul, in every world, in every age, should have at least the chance of doing right. And yet persons so believing still used the word "hell," but the old meaning had dropped out.
So with regard to the atonement. At one time it was regarded as a kind of bargain in which so much blood was shed for so many souls. This was a barbaric view. Afterward, the mind developing a little, the idea got in the brain that the life of Christ was worth its moral effect. And yet these people use the word "atonement," but the bargain idea has been lost.
Take for instance the word "justice." The meaning that is given to that word depends upon the man who uses it — depends for the most part on the age in which he lives, the country in which he was born. The same is true of the word "freedom." Millions and millions of people boasted that they were the friends of freedom, while at the same time they enslaved their fellow-men. So, in the name of justice every possible crime has been perpetrated and in the name of mercy every instrument of torture has been used.
Mr. Newton realizes the fact that everything in the world changes; that creeds are influenced by civilization, by the acquisition of knowledge, by the progress of the sciences and arts — in other words, that there is a tendency in man to harmonize his knowledge and to bring about a reconciliation between what he knows and what he believes. This will be fatal to superstition, provided the man knows anything.
Mr. Newton, moreover, clearly sees that people are losing confidence in the morality of the gospel; that its foundation lacks common sense; that the doctrine of forgiveness is unscientific, and that it is impossible to feel that the innocent can rightfully suffer for the guilty, or that the suffering of innocence can in any way justify the crimes of the wicked. I think he is mistaken, however, when he says that the early church softened or weakened the barbaric passions. I think the early church was as barbarous as any institution that ever gained a footing in this world. I do not believe that the creed of the early church, as understood, could soften anything. A church that preaches the eternity of punishment has within it the seed of all barbarism and the soil to make it grow.
So Mr. Newton is undoubtedly right when he says that the organized Christianity of to-day is not the leader in social progress. No one now goes to a synod to find a fact in science or on any subject. A man in doubt does not ask the average minister; he regards him as behind the times. He goes to the scientist, to the library. He depends upon the untrammelled thought of fearless men.
The church, for the most part, is in the control of the rich, of the respectable, of the well-to-do, of the unsympathetic, of the men who, having succeeded themselves, think that everybody ought to succeed. The spirit of caste is as well developed in the church as it is in the average club. There is the same exclusive feeling, and this feeling in the next world is to be heightened and deepened to such an extent that a large majority of our fellow-men are to be eternally excluded.
The peasants of Europe — the workingmen — do not go to the church for sympathy. If they do they come home empty, or rather empty hearted. So, in our own country the laboring classes, the mechanics, are not depending on the churches to right their wrongs. They do not expect the pulpits to increase their wages. The preachers get their money from the well-to-do — from the employer class — and their sympathies are with those from whom they receive their wages.
The ministers attack the pleasures of the world. They are not so much scandalized by murder and forgery as by dancing and eating meat on Friday. They regard unbelief as the greatest of all sins. They are not touching the real, vital issues of the day, and their hearts do not throb in unison with the hearts of the struggling, the aspiring, the enthusiastic and the real believers in the progress of the human race.
It is all well enough to say that we should depend on Providence, but experience has taught us that while it may do no harm to say it, it will do no good to do it. We have found that man must be the Providence of man, and that one plow will do more, properly pulled and properly held, toward feeding the world, than all the prayers that ever agitated the air.
So, Mr. Newton is correct in saying, as I understand him to say, that the hope of immortality has nothing to do with orthodox religion. Neither, in my judgment, has the belief in the existence of a God anything in fact to do with real religion. The old doctrine that God wanted man to do something for him, and that he kept a watchful eye upon all the children of men; that he rewarded the virtuous and punished the wicked, is gradually fading from the mind. We know that some of the worst men have what the world calls success. We know that some of the best men lie upon the straw of failure. We know that honesty goes hungry, while larceny sits at the banquet. We know that the vicious have every physical comfort, while the virtuous are often clad in rags.
Man is beginning to find that he must take care of himself; that special providence is a mistake. This being so, the old religions must go down, and in their place man must depend upon intelligence, industry, honesty; upon the facts that he can ascertain, upon his own experience, upon his own efforts. Then religion becomes a thing of this world — a religion to put a roof above our heads, a religion that gives to every man a home, a religion that rewards virtue here.
If Mr. Newton’s sermon is in accordance with the Episcopal creed, I congratulate the creed. In any event, I think Mr. Newton deserves great credit for speaking his thought. Do not understand that I imagine that he agrees with me. The most I will say is that in some things I agree with him, and probably there is a little too much truth and a little too much humanity in his remarks to please the bishop.
There is this wonderful fact, no man has ever yet been persecuted for thinking God bad. When any one has said that he believed God to be so good that he would, in his own time and way, redeem the entire human race, and that the time would come when every soul would be brought home and sit on an equality with the others around the great fireside of the universe, that man has been denounced as a poor, miserable, wicked wretch.
New York Herald, December 15, 1888
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