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Robert Ingersoll On New Religion

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On New Religion

Robert Green Ingersoll



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

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.

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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,

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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

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

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

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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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