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The Historical Library is provided for those doing research into the history of nontheism. It is not intended to be--and should not be used as--a source of modern, up-to-date information regarding atheistic issues. DO NOT CONTACT US ABOUT THESE DOCUMENTS. Please read the full Historical Library Disclaimer

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Crumbling Creeds (1890)

Robert Green Ingersoll

THERE is a desire in each brain to harmonize the knowledge that it has. If a man knows, or thinks he knows, a few facts, he will naturally use those facts for the purpose of determining the accuracy of his opinions on other subjects. This is simply an effort to establish or prove the unknown by the known -- a process that is constantly going on in the minds of all intelligent people.

It is natural for a man not governed by fear, to use what he knows in one department of human inquiry, in every other department that he investigates. The average of intelligence has in the last few years greatly increased. Man may have as much credulity as he ever had, on some subjects, but certainly on the old subjects he has less. There is not as great difference to-day between the members of the learned professions and the common people. Man is governed less and less by authority. He cares but little for the conclusions of the universities. He does not feel bound by the actions of synods or ecumenical councils -- neither does he bow to the decisions of the highest tribunals, unless the reasons given for the decision satisfy his intellect. One reason for this is, that the so-called "learned" do not agree among themselves -- that the universities dispute each other -- that the synod attacks the ecumenical council -- that the parson snaps his fingers at the priest, and even the Protestant bishop holds the pope in contempt. If the learned can thus disagree, there is no reason why the common people should hold to one opinion. They are at least called upon to decide as between the universities or synods; and in order to decide, they must examine both sides, and having examined both sides, they generally have an opinion of their own.

There was a time when the average man knew nothing of medicine -- he simply opened his mouth and took the dose. If he died, it was simply a dispensation of Providence -- if he got well, it was a triumph of science. Now this average man not only asks the doctor what is the matter with him -- not only asks what medicine will be good for him, -- but insists on knowing the philosophy of the cure -- asks the doctor why he gives it -- what result he expects -- and, as a rule, has a judgment of his own.

So in law. The average business man has an exceedingly good idea of the law affecting his business. There is nothing now mysterious about what goes on in courts or in the decisions of judges -- they are published in every direction, and all intelligent people who happen to read these opinions have their ideas as to whether the opinions are right or wrong. They are no longer the victims of doctors, or of lawyers, or of courts.

The same is true in the world of art and literature. The average man has an opinion of his own. He is no longer a parrot repeating what somebody else says. He not only has opinions, but he has the courage to express them. In literature the old models fail to satisfy him. He has the courage to say that Milton is tiresome -- that Dante is prolix -- that they deal with subjects having no human interest. He laughs at Young's "Night, Thoughts" and Pollok's "Course of Time" -- knowing that both are filled with hypocrisies and absurdities. He no longer falls upon his knees before the mechanical poetry of Mr. Pope. He chooses -- and stands by his own opinion. I do not mean that he is entirely independent, but that he is going in that direction.

The same is true of pictures. He prefers the modern to the old masters. He prefers Corot to Raphael. He gets more real pleasure from Millet and Troyon than from all the pictures of all the saints and donkeys of the Middle Ages.

In other words, the days of authority are passing away.

The same is true in music. The old no longer satisfies, and there is a breadth, color, wealth, in the new that makes the old poor and barren in comparison.

To a far greater extent this advance, this individual independence, is seen in the religious world. The religion of our day -- that is to say, the creeds -- at the time they were made, were in perfect harmony with the knowledge, or rather with the ignorance, of man in all other departments of human inquiry. All orthodox creeds agreed with the sciences of their day -- with the astronomy and geology and biology and political conceptions of the Middle Ages. These creeds were declared to be the absolute and eternal truth. They could not be changed without abandoning the claim that made them authority. The priests, through a kind of unconscious self-defence, clung to every word. They denied the truth of all discovery. They measured every assertion in every other department by their creeds. At last the facts against them became so numerous -- their congregations became so intelligent -- that it was necessary to give new meanings to the old words. The cruel was softened -- the absurd was partially explained, and they kept these old words, although the original meanings had fallen out. They became empty purses, but they retained them still.

Slowly but surely came the time when this course could not longer be pursued. The words must be thrown away -- the creeds must be changed -- they were no longer believed -- only occasionally were they preached. The ministers became a little ashamed -- they began to apologize. Apology is the prelude to retreat.

Of all the creeds, the Presbyterian, the old Congregational, were the most explicit, and for that reason the most absurd. When these creeds were written, those who wrote them had perfect confidence in their truth. They did not shrink because of their cruelty. They cared nothing for what others called absurdity. They failed not to declare what they believed to be "the whole counsel of God."

At that time, cruel punishments were inflicted by all governments. People were torn asunder, mutilated, burned. Every atrocity was perpetrated in the name of justice, and the limit of pain was the limit of endurance. These people imagined that God would do as they would do. If they had had it in their power to keep the victim alive for years in the flames, they would most cheerfully have supplied the fagots. They believed that God could keep the victim alive forever, and that therefore his punishment would be eternal. As man becomes civilized he becomes merciful, and the time came when civilized Presbyterians and Congregationalists read their own creeds with horror.

I am not saying that the Presbyterian creed is any worse than the Catholic. It is only a little more specific. Neither am I saying that it is more horrible than the Episcopal. It is not. All orthodox creeds are alike infamous. All of them have good things, and all of them have bad things. You will find in every creed the blossom of mercy and the oak of justice, but under the one and around the other are coiled the serpents of infinite cruelty.

The time came when orthodox Christians began dimly to perceive that God ought at least to be as good as they were. They felt that they were incapable of inflicting eternal pain, and they began to doubt the propriety of saying that God would do that which a civilized Christian would be incapable of.

We have improved in all directions for the same reasons. We have better laws now because we have a better sense of justice. We are believing more and more in the government of the people. Consequently we are believing more and more in the education of the people, and from that naturally results greater individuality and a greater desire to hear the honest opinions of all.

The moment the expression of opinion is allowed in any department, progress begins. We are using our knowledge in every direction. The tendency is to test all opinions by the facts we know. All claims are put in the crucible of investigation -- the object being to separate the true from the false. He who objects to having his opinions thus tested is regarded as a bigot.

If the professors of all the sciences had claimed that the knowledge they had was given by inspiration -- that it was absolutely true, and that there was no necessity of examining further, not only, but that it was a kind of blasphemy to doubt -- all the sciences would have remained as stationary as religion has. Just to the extent that the Bible was appealed to in matters of science, science was retarded; and just to the extent that science has been appealed to in matters of religion, religion has advanced -- so that now the object of intelligent religionists is to adopt a creed that will bear the test and criticism of science.

Another thing may be alluded to in this connection. All the countries of the world are now, and have been for years, open to us. The ideas of ether people -- their theories, their religions -- are now known; and we have ascertained that the religions of all people have exactly the same foundation as our own -- that they all arose in the same way, were substantiated in the same way, were maintained by the same means, having precisely the same objects in view.

For many years, the learned of the religious world were examining the religions of other countries, and in that work they established certain rules of criticism -- pursued certain lines of argument -- by which they overturned the claims of those religions to supernatural origin. After this had been successfully done, others, using the same methods on our religion, pursuing the same line of argument, succeeded in overturning ours. We have found that all miracles rest on the same basis -- that all wonders were born of substantially the same ignorance and the same fear.

The intelligence of the world is far better distributed than ever before. The historical outlines of all countries are well known. The arguments for and against all systems of religion are generally understood. The average of intelligence is far higher than ever before. All discoveries become almost immediately the property of the whole civilized world, and all thoughts are distributed by the telegraph and press with such rapidity, that provincialism is almost unknown. The egotism of ignorance and seclusion is passing away. The prejudice of race and religion is growing feebler, and everywhere, to a greater extent than ever before, the light is welcome.

These are a few of the reasons why creeds are crumbling, and why such a change has taken place in the religious world.

Only a few years ago the pulpit was an intellectual power. The pews listened with wonder, and accepted without question. There was something sacred about the preacher. He was different from Other mortals. He had bread to eat which they knew not of. He was oracular, solemn, dignified, stupid.

The pulpit has lost its position. It speaks no longer with authority. The pews determine what shall be preached. They pay only for that which they wish to buy -- for that which they wish to hear. Of course in every church there is an advance guard and a conservative party, and nearly every minister is obliged to preach a little for both. He now and then says a radical thing for one part of his congregation, and takes it mostly back on the next Sabbath, for the sake of the others. Most of them ride two horses, and their time is taken up in urging one forward and in holding the other back.

The great reason why the orthodox creeds have become unpopular is, that all teach the dogma of eternal pain.

In old times, when men were nearly wild beasts, it was natural enough for them to suppose that God would do as they would do in his place, and so they attributed to this God infinite cruelty, infinite revenge. This revenge, this cruelty, wore the mask of justice. They took the ground that God, having made man, had the right to do with him as he pleased. At that time they were not civilized to the extent of seeing that a God would not have the right to make a failure, and that a being of infinite wisdom and power would be under obligation to do the right, and that he would have no right to create any being whose life would not be a blessing. The very fact that be made man, would put him under obligation to see to it that life should not be a curse.

The doctrine of eternal punishment is in perfect harmony with the savagery of the men who made the orthodox creeds. It is in harmony with torture, with flaying alive and with burnings. The men who burned their fellow-men for a moment, believed that God would burn his enemies forever.

No civilized men ever believed in this dogma. The belief in eternal punishment has driven millions from the church. It was easy enough for people to imagine that the children of others had gone to hell; that foreigners had been doomed to eternal pain; but when it was brought home when fathers and mothers bent above their dead who had died in their sins -- when wives shed their tears on the faces of husbands who had been born but once -- love suggested doubts and love fought the dogma of eternal revenge.

This doctrine is as cruel as the hunger of hyenas, and is infamous beyond the power of any language to express -- yet a creed with this doctrine has been called "the glad tidings of great joy" -- a consolation to the weeping world. It is a source of great pleasure to me to know that all intelligent people are ashamed to admit that they believe it -- that no intelligent clergyman now preaches it, except with a preface to the effect that it is probably untrue.

I have been blamed for taking this consolation from the world -- for putting out, or trying to put out, the fires of hell; and many orthodox people have wondered how I could be so wicked as to deprive the world of this hope.

The church clung to the doctrine because it seemed a necessary excuse for the existence of the church. The ministers said: "No hell, no atonement; no atonement, no fall of man; no fall of man, no inspired book; no inspired book, no preachers; no preachers, no salary; no hell, no missionaries; no sulphur, no salvation."

At last, the people are becoming enlightened enough to ask for a better philosophy. The doctrine of hell is now only for the poor, the ragged, the ignorant. Well-dressed people won't have it. Nobody goes to hell in a carriage -- they foot it. Hell is for strangers and tramps. No soul leaves a brown-stone front for hell -- they start from the tenements, from jails and reformatories. In other words, hell is for the poor. It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a poor man to get into heaven, or for a rich man to get into hell. The ministers stand by their supporters. Their salaries are paid by the well-to-do, and they can hardly afford to send the subscribers to hell. Every creed in which is the dogma of eternal pain is doomed. Every church teaching the infinite lie must fall, and the sooner the better. --

The Twentieth Century, N. Y., April 24, 1890.


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The Historical Library is provided for those doing research into the history of nontheism. It is not intended to be--and should not be used as--a source of modern, up-to-date information regarding atheistic issues. DO NOT CONTACT US ABOUT THESE DOCUMENTS. Please read the full Historical Library Disclaimer
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