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On New Religion
Robert Green Ingersoll
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. Bank of Wisdom Box 926, Louisville, KY 40201 12 THE REV. DR. NEWTON'S SERMON ON A NEW RELIGION. 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, Bank of Wisdom Box 926, Louisville, KY 40201 13 THE REV. DR. NEWTON'S SERMON ON A NEW RELIGION. 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 Bank of Wisdom Box 926, Louisville, KY 40201 14 THE REV. DR. NEWTON'S SERMON ON A NEW RELIGION. 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. END