GONE TO GOD.
Stanley, the African traveller, is a man of piety. He seems to be on pretty familiar terms with the "one above." During his last expedition to relieve Emin—a sceptical gentleman, who gets along with less bloodshed than Stanley—he was troubled with "traitors"; that is, black fellows who thought they had a better right in Africa than the intrusive whites, and acted upon that opinion. This put Stanley in a towering rage. He resolved to teach the "traitors" a lesson. One of them was solemnly tried—by his executioners, and sentenced to be hung. A rope was noosed round his neck, and he was taken under a tree, which was to be his gallows. The poor devil screamed for mercy, but Stanley bent his inexorable brows, and cried, "Send him to God!"
"We were troubled with no more traitors," says Stanley. Very likely. But the great man forgot to say what he meant by the exclamation, "Send him to God!" Did he mean "Send him to God for judgment?" If so, it was rather rough to hang the prisoner before his proper trial. Did he mean, "The fellow isn't fit for earth, so send him to heaven?" If so, it was a poor compliment to Paradise. Or did he simply use a pious, impressive form of speech to awe the spectators, and give them the notion that he had as much traffic with God as any African mystery-man or Mohammedan dervish?
The middle one of these three theories fits in best with the general sentiment, or at any rate the working sentiment, of Christian England. Some brutal, drunken, or passionate wretch commits a murder. He is carefully tried, solemnly sentenced, and religiously hanged. He is declared unfit to live on this planet. But he is still a likely candidate for heaven, which apparently yawns to receive all the refuse of earth. He is sedulously taken in hand by the gaol chaplain, or some other spiritual guide to glory, and is generally brought to a better frame of mind. Finally, he expresses sorrow for his position, forgives everybody he has ever injured, delivers himself of a good deal of highly edifying advice, and then swings from the gallows clean into the Kingdom of Heaven.
The grotesque absurdity of all this is enough to wrinkle the face of a cab horse. Society and the murderer are both playing the hypocrite, and of course Society is the worse of the two, for it is acting deliberately and methodically, while the poor devil about to be hung is like a hunted thing in a corner, up to any shift to ease his last moments and make peace with the powers of the life to come. Society says he has killed somebody, and he shall be killed; that he is not fit to live, but fit to die; that it must strangle him, and call him "brother" when the white cap is over his face, and God must save his soul; that he is too bad to dwell on earth, but it hopes to meet him in heaven.
Religion does not generate sense, logic, or humaneness in the mind of Society. Its effect on the doomed assassin is simply horrible. He is really a more satisfactory figure when committing the murder than when he is posing, and shuffling and twisting, and talking piously, and exhibiting the intense, unmitigated selfishness which is at the bottom of all religious sentiment. The essence of piety comes out in this tragi-comedy. Personal fear, personal hope, self, self, sell, is the be-all and the end-all of this sorry exhibition.
A case in point has just occurred at Leeds. James Stockwell was hung there on Tuesday morning. While under sentence of death, the report says, he slept well and ate heartily, so that remorse does not appear to have injured his digestion or any other part of his physical apparatus. On learning that he would not be reprieved, and must die, he became very attentive to the chaplain's ministrations; in fact, he took to preaching himself, and wrote several letters to his relatives, giving them sound teetotal advice, and warning them against the evils of drink.
But the fellow lied all the time. His crime was particularly atrocious. He outraged a poor servant girl, sixteen years of age, and then cut her throat. He was himself thirty-two years of age, with a wife and one child, so that he had not even the miserable excuse of an unmated animal. A plea of insanity was put forward on his behalf, but it did not avail. When the wretched creature found he was not to be reprieved, and took kindly to the chaplain's religion, he started a fresh theory to cover his crime. He said he was drunk when he committed it. Now this was a lie. The porter's speech in Macbeth will explain our meaning. James Stockwell may have had a glass, but if he was really drunk, in the sense of not knowing what he was about, we believe it was simply impossible for him to make outrage the prelude to murder. If he had merely drunk enough to bring out the beast in him, without deranging the motor nerves, he was certainly not drunk in the proper sense of the word. He knew what he was doing, and both in the crime and in his flight he showed himself a perfect master of his actions.
Religion, therefore, did not "convict him of sin." It did not lay bare before him his awful wickedness. It simply made him hypocritical. It induced or permitted him to save his amour propre by a fresh falsehood.
James Stockwell's last letter from gaol was written the day before his execution. It was a comprehensive epistle, addressed to his father and mother and brothers and sisters. "God" and "Christ" appear in it like an eruption. The writer quotes the soothing text, "Come unto me all you that labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest." He was evidently familiar with Scripture, and thought this text especially applicable to himself. "Many a prayer," he says, "have I offered to God both on behalf of you and myself," and he winds up by "hoping to meet you all hereafter."
Not a word about his crime. Not a word about his injury to society. Not a word about the poor girl he outraged and murdered. James Stockwell had no thought for her or her relatives. He did not trouble about what had become of Kate Dennis. He was careless whether she was in heaven or hell. Not once, apparently, did it cross his mind that he had destroyed her young life after nameless horror; that he had killed her in the bloom of maidenhood; that at one fell swoop he had extinguished all that she might have been—perhaps a happy wife and mother, living to a white old age, with the prattle of grandchildren soothing her last steps to the grave. Such reflections do not occur to gentlemen who are anxious about their salvation, and in a hurry to get to heaven.
"I and mine"—my fate, my mother, my father, my sisters, my brothers—this was the sole concern of James Stockwell under the chaplain's ministrations. In this frame of mind, we presume, he has sailed to glory, and his family hope to meet him there snug in Abraham's bosom. Well, we don't. We hope to give the haunt of James Stockwell a wide berth. If he and others like him are in the upper circles, every decent person would rather be in the pit.
Let not the reader suppose that James Stockwell's case is uncommon. We have made a point of reading the letters of condemned murderers, and thev all bear a family likeness. Religion simply stimulates and sanctifies selfishness. In selfishness it began and in selfishness it ends. Extreme cases only show the principle in a glaring light; they do not alter it, and the light is the light of truth.
James Stockwell has gone to God. No doubt the chaplain of Leeds gaol feels sure of it. Probably the fellow's relatives are just as sure. But what of Kate Dennis. Is she with God? What an awful farce it would be if she were in hell. Perhaps she is. She had no time to prepare for death. She was cut off "in her sins." But her murderer had three weeks to prepare for his freehold in New Jerusalem. He qualified himself for a place with the sore-legged Lazarus. He dwells in the presence of the Lamb. He drinks of the river of life. He twangs his hallelujah harp and blows his hallelujah trumpet. Maybe he looks over the battlements and sees Kate Dennis in Hades. The murderer in heaven, and the victim in hell! Nay more. It has been held that the bliss of the saved will be heightened by witnessing the tortures of the damned. In that case Kate Dennis may burn to make James Stockwell's holiday. He will watch her writhings with more than the relish of a sportsman who has hooked a lusty trout. "Ha, ha," the worthy James may exclaim, "I tortured her before I killed her, and now I shall enjoy her tortures for ever."
The peculiarly selfish character of religion is often exemplified, but we do not remember a better illustration than the one which recently occurred at Folkestone. The twenty-seven seamen who were rescued from the Benvenue attended a thanksgiving service at the parish church, where the vicar delivered "a short address suitable to the occasion." Their captain and four of his crew were drowned, and the lucky survivors thanked the Lord for saving them, though he let the others perish in the yeasty waves.
We should like to see a copy of that vicar's suitable discourse. We suspect it would be an interesting study to a cynic. No doubt the man of God's chief motive was professional. The saving of those shipwrecked men was a splendid piece of work, but it required to be rounded off. It was not complete unless the parson blessed it and approved it with a text. He came in at the finish when the danger was all over, and gave the perfecting touch in the shape of a cheap benediction. Probably the man of God put in a good word for Providence. The poor sailors had been snatched from the jaws of death; their minds were therefore in a state of agitation, and at the very best they are not a logical or reflective race of men. Very likely, therefore, they assented to the theory that they owed their deliverance to the blessing of God, but a little quiet thought about the matter would possibly make them see it in a different light.
The persons who visibly did save them from drowning were gallant lifeboat-men, who put their own lives in deadly peril, fighting the storm inch by inch in the hope of rescuing a number of unknown fellow creatures. All honor to them! We would sooner doff the hat to them than to any prince in Christendom. Some of them, perhaps, take a drop too much occasionally, and their language may often be more vigorous than polite. But all that is superficial. The real test of a man is what he will do when he is put to it. When those rough fellows saw a brave task before them, all the skin-deep blackguardism dropped away; the heroic came out in supreme majesty, and they were consecrated by it more truly than any smug priest at his profitable altar. As they jumped into the boat they proved the nobility of human nature, and the damnable falsehood of the Christian doctrine of original sin.
What share Providence had in the matter is not very apparent. Strong arms and stout hearts were in the lifeboat, and that accounts for her reaching the wreck. Had the rowers the choice of a stimulus, we dare say they would have taken a swig of brandy in preference to any quantity of the Holy Spirit. What Providence might have done if he, she, or it was in the humor, was to keep the shipwrecked sailors safe until the lifeboat arrived. But this was not done, Those who were lashed to the rigging were saved, while the captain and four others, less fortunately situated, were lost. Where the material means were efficacious there was salvation, and where they failed there was disaster and death.
So much for the logical side of the matter. Now let us look at the moral side. Religion pretends to minister to the unselfish part of our nature. That is the theory, but how does it work out in practice? Thanking God for saving the survivors of a shipwreck implies that he could have saved those who perished. It also implies that he did not choose to do so. It further implies that the saved are more worthy, or more important, than the lost; at least, it implies that they are greater favorites in the "eye of heaven." Now this is a frightful piece of egotism, which everyone with a spark of manhood would be disgusted at if he saw it in its true colors.
Nor is this all. It is not even the worst. There is a viler aspect of this "thanksgiving" business. One man is saved in a disaster and another is killed. When the first realises his good luck he congratulates himself, This is natural and pardonable, but only for a moment. The least disinterestedness, the least sympathy, the least imagination, would make him think of his dead companion. "Did he suffer much, poor fellow? What will his wife do? How will his little ones get on without a father? After all, mightn't it have been better if he had been spared instead of me? Who knows?"
If these reflections did not occur under the stimulated instinct of self-preservation it would be bad enough. How much worse when the survivor keeps up the selfish attitude in cold blood, and deliberately goes about thanking God for his preservation! Ordinary reason and humanity would cry shame on such egotism, but religion steps in and sanctifies it.
Some of these days an honest man will be provoked into a bit of good strong "blasphemy." When he hears a fellow thanking Providence for his safety, while others perished, this honest man will shrug his shoulders. And when the fellow cries "Bless God!" this honest man will exclaim "Damn God!"
No doubt the priests would burn that honest man alive if they had the power. But his logic and his feelings will be better than theirs. He will abhor selfishness even in the disguise of piety, and he will argue that if God is to be credited with the lives of those who are saved, he should also be debited with the lives of those who are lost. And how would the account stand then?
The end of the world has been a fertile and profitable theme with pulpit mountebanks and pious adventurers. Ever since the primitive ages of Christianity it has served to frighten the credulous and feather the nests of their deceivers.
In the apostolic days the Second Coming of Christ was generally and constantly expected. According to the twenty-fourth of Matthew, Jesus predicted that the end of all things would soon arrive. The sun and moon were to be darkened; the stars were to fall from heaven; and the Son of Man was to come through the clouds with great power and glory, and gather the elect together from every quarter of the earth, According to the twenty-fifth of Matthew, this wondrous scene was to be followed by a Great Assize. All the nations were to be judged before the heavenly throne, and divided into two lots, one destined for heaven and the other for hell. And Jesus significantly added, "Verily I say unto you, this generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled."
St. Paul also, in the fourth chapter of the first of Thessalonians, said that the Lord would "descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air."
Nothing of the sort has happened. There is no sign of the Lord's coming, and he is already eighteen centuries behind date. "Behold I come quickly"—"Surely I come quickly." Such was the announcement. But, like many other divine promises, it has been falsified. The only orthodox way out of the difficulty is to say that the Lord does not reckon time as we do; with him a day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as a day.
The general public, however, eighteen hundred years ago, did not know how long the prophecy was to remain unfulfilled, and it had an extraordinary power over them. Being mostly very ignorant, and therefore very credulous, they were easily terrified by the notion that the world was to be burnt up speedily; and they as readily embraced the doctrine which promised to bring them safely through the catastrophe. From the way in which the game answers still with the Christian mob, after nearly two thousand years of exposure, we can understand what a splendid instrument of proselytising it must have been in the hands of the fanatical preachers of the early Church. Combine with it the Millennium promised to the saints after the Second Coming of Christ, in which they were to enjoy themselves royally, and you will feel the justice of Gibbon's remark that "it must have contributed in a very considerable degree to the progress of the Christian faith." It was inculcated by a succession of Fathers, from Justin Martyr to Lactantius. But when it had served its purpose it was allowed to drop. As Gibbon says, "it was at first treated as a profound allegory, was considered by degrees as a doubtful and useless opinion, and was at length rejected as the absurd invention of heresy and fanaticism." The Millennium is stigmatised, in what once stood as the forty-first Article of the English Church, as "a fable of Jewish dotage." We wonder whether the plain-spoken divines who drew up that article included Jesus Christ, St. Paul, and St. John among the Jewish dotards.
At the end of the tenth century the doctrine of the Second Coming was revived. The people were led to believe that the old serpent's thousand years of bondage was nearly up, that he would be let loose about the year 1,000, that Antichrist would then appear, and that the end of the world would follow. Churches and houses were therefore left to decay, as they would cease to be wanted. Whenever an eclipse of the sun or moon took place, the people ran into caverns and caves. Multitudes hurried off to Palestine, where they supposed Christ would make his descent. They transferred their property to the priests, who could say with Iago, "thus do I ever make my fool my purse." Others not only gave their property to the priests, but actually became their slaves; hoping, says Mosheim, that "the supreme Judge would be more favorable to them if they made themselves servants to his servants."
Jortin justly observes that the priests industriously cherished the delusion for the sake of filthy lucre. They accepted the gifts of their poor dupes, although earthly possessions would be as useless to them as to the laity if the last days were at hand. Donations to the Church were given by fools and received by knaves. The reason assigned for the gift is generally thus expressed: Appropinquante mundi termino—The end of the world being now at hand.*
When the tenth century ended without a sign of the Second Advent, people looked at each other and said "He is not come then." And the priests chuckled, "No, he has not come, but your property is gone." There was no chance of bringing an action for obtaining money under false pretences, and Holy Mother Church never gives back a farthing of what she obtains, for what is once devoted to God can never be alienated without sacrilege.
Although the delusion has been milder since then, it has always lurked among the ignorant, and occasionally become acute. Silly Christians still shake their heads when a comet is visible, and regard it as a blazing portent. They even hint that one of these wanderers through space may collide with our globe and cause the final smash; not knowing that comets are quite harmless, and that hundreds of cubic miles of their tails would not outweigh a jar-ful of air.
Dr. Cumming foretold the grand collapse several times. His books were read by thousands of superstitious people. Finally, he was played out, and he went to his grave a discredited prophet. Had he been wiser he would have fixed the event some time after he was likely to be buried. Then the game would have lasted his lifetime, and what does it matter if you are found out when you are dead?
How far Gumming believed his own prophecies is a moot point. It is said that he bought the lease of a house, which expired about twenty-five years after his date for the day of judgment.
Prophet Baxter, of the Christian Herald, now runs the business. He wrote a book to prove that Louis Napoleon was Antichrist. Louis Napoleon is dead and nearly forgotten. Then he proved that Gambetta was Antichrist. Gambetta is dead and not forgotten. Then he proved that Prince Jerome was Antichrist. Prince Jerome is nowhere, and Baxter is looking out for a fresh Antichrist. Yet his paper is read by hundreds of thousands. As Heine said, the fool-crop is perennial.
Over in America the Second Adventists are a numerous body. They watch and pray for the coming of Christ, and keep white robes ready for their ascension. Some time ago they donned their linen in the expectation that the Lord was coming that very night. But the Lord did not put in an appearance, and the robes were laid up in lavender again. A fat matron trying to fly in that outfit would be a sight worth seeing. It would take several angels to float some of them. Even the archangel Michael might shrink from tackling twenty-stone.
Like everything else in Christianity, except the accursed doctrine of salvation by faith, the idea of the end of the world and a day of judgment is derived from older sources.
The Hindu Kalpas, covering thousands of millions of years, are periods of creation and destruction, and each is called a day of Brahma. During this enormous interval the universe begins and ends. Brahma wakes from his slumbrous solitude, and his thoughts and emotions embody themselves in worlds and creatures. When he falls to rest again, the whole system of finite things vanishes like the baseless fabric of a vision.
The Stoics also believed in a periodical destruction and renovation of all things. They, as Alger says, "conceived of God as a pure artistic force or seed of universal energy, which exhibits its history in the evolution of the cosmos, and, on its completion, blossoms into fire and vanishes. The universal periodical conflagration destroys all evil, and leaves the indestructible God alone in his pure essence again."
The Persians entertained a similar conception, which more closely resembles the Christian doctrine. Ahura-Mazda creates all things good, and the race of men happy and immortal. But Angra-Mainyas, his adversary, the old serpent, corrupts them, brings upon them misery and death, and leads their souls to his dark abode. Good and evil spirits fill all creation with their conflict. But at last Ahura-Mazda subdues Angra-Mainyas, nullifies all the mischief he has done by means of a great deliverer, who is sent to instruct and redeem mankind, raises the dead, purifies the world with fire, and restores all nature to its paradisiacal condition.
The Scandinavians had their Ragnarok, or Twilight of the Gods, when all the powers of good and evil join in battle. The horn sounds, the last day dawns in fire and splendor from the sky, in fog and venom from the abyss. Flames destroy the earth, the combatants mostly slay each other, but Gimli, the heaven of the All-Father, is a refuge for the survivors, and the beginning of a new and fairer world.
Chiefly influenced by the Persian, and partly by other systems, the later Jewish theology, as represented by the Pharisees, taught that Jehovah would reappear in the last days; and the Day of the Lord, which in former ages meant any national calamity, became transformed into the Day of Judgment. What was to happen on that occasion is described in the Book of Enoch. This was written about a century before Christ, yet it is quoted in the Epistle of Jude as the work of old transported Enoch, the seventh from Adam; a fact which throws a singular light on the critical acumen of the early Christians. Jesus Christ, Paul, and especially the author of Revelation, are indebted to the Book of Enoch. It provided them with nearly all the plot, dialogue and scenery of their judgment drama.
As judges of the dead, the Greeks had Minos, who presided at the trial of souls from Europe; Rhada-mauthus, who examined those from Asia; and AEacus, who tried those from Africa, America and Australia were then unknown, and souls from those continents were not provided with inspectors. Of course the dead who held communication with the living, never told them more than they knew. The same thing continues to this day. All the messages from the departed given at all the Spiritist seances have not added a single fragment to the world's stock of information.
The ancient Egyptians believed in "after death the judgment." Souls were tried in the Hall of the two-Truths, or the double Justice. They were weighed in the balance. Thoth noted the result, and Osiris pronounced sentence. Before burial, also, the Egyptian dead underwent a saner trial. The friends and relatives, the enemies and accusers of the deceased, assembled around the sarcophagus before forty-two assessors. He was put on his trial before them; and if justified, awarded an honorable burial; but, if condemned, disgraced by the withholding of funeral rites. Kings, as well as commoners, were apparently subject to the same ordeal. Does this account for the beneficent character of their government, and the prosperous-content of the people, which is reflected in the placid smile of their sphinxes?
Probably the antique notion of a general Day of Judgment arose from the imposing trials, where the King sat in judgment, throned, jewelled, and guarded; where all were free to approach and claim justice; and where the sentences were executed by the soldiers-directly they were passed. Add to this scene a general auto da fe, in which Christ plays the part of Grand Inquisitor, the saints that of familiars, and the Devil; that of executioner, and you have a very fair idea of the Christian Day of Judgment.
"Day," we presume, must not be taken too literally. The Mohammedans believe the Great Assize will last thousands of years. In that case the people who are fond of hearing trials will have a fine time, until their own turn comes. After all, even the Mohammedan computation seems too slender. To say nothing of the scientific antiquity of man, and reckoning according to the Bible chronology, about two hundred thousand million souls have passed into eternity already, and the Lord knows how many more will join them. Imagination fails in conceiving the time it would take to try all that multitude, especially if there are a good number of Tichborne cases. Besides, the whole thing seems unfair. Those who get a ticket for heaven at the end of the Day will enjoy a few thousand years less of bliss than the more fortunate ones who came early; and those who get a ticket for hell in the first hour will suffer a few thousand years of torture more than those who are sentenced at the finish.
The criterion at the Day of Judgment will be Faith. That is a difficult virtue to wise men, and an easy one to fools. The ninnies, therefore, will have the best chance. This must be very consoling to mankind if Carlyle's estimate of England's population—"thirty millions, mostly fools"—may be extended to the rest of the world.
All who have faith enough to secure a seat in heaven are called "sheep," and they could not be labelled better. All the others are called "goats," that is, lusty, strong-legged fellows who despise the game of follow-my-leader, who object to walking along the road made for them, and are always leaping the fence to see what is on the other side. There was war in heaven once, we are told, but that was before Satan and his crew were kicked out. There will never be war in heaven again. Jesus Christ will easily be able to manage his sheep. But the Devil will have a tougher job with his goats. There will always be a kingdom in heaven, but ten to one there will be a republic in hell.
Christianity says we are to be saved by faith. Our view is different. Men are saved by thinking and acting. While Christian monks were trying to degrade men below the level of brutes, some unknown Secularists invented windmills and glass windows. While the Inquisition was exterminating heresy and purifying the faith, Galileo was inventing the telescope. While Church of Englandism and Methodism were fighting over the faith in England, Watt was discovering the use of steam. Faith never saved men here, and why should it save them hereafter? God, if he exist, must be too humane and sensible to judge men according to their belief; and if he endowed us with reason, he will never damn us for exercising it.
Wandering in an immense forest during the night, said Diderot, I have only one little light to guide me. A stranger comes to me and says, "My friend, blow out your candle to find your way better." That light is reason, and that stranger is a theologian.
Science, no less than common sense, dispels Christian superstition. Evolution destroys the idea of a general catastrophe. There was a time when life could not exist on the earth, and there will probably come a time when it will cease to exist. Long before then man will have disappeared. But the aeon of our race may extend to millions of years. Is not this time practically infinite? And do not those who make it a cause for lamentation and despair resemble the man that Spinoza ridicules, who refuses to eat his dinner to-day because he is not sure of a dinner for ever and ever? Sit down, you fool, and eat.
SHELLEY'S ATHEISM. *
* On August 4, 1892, the centenary of Shelley's birth was celebrated at Horsham, where it is intended to found a Shelley Library, if not a Shelley Museum. The celebrants were a motley collection. They were all concealing the poet's principles and paying honor to a bogus Shelley. A more honest celebration took place in the evening at the Hall of Science, Old-street, London, E.C. Six or seven hundred people were addressed by Dr. Furnivall, Gr. B. Shaw, and G. W. Foote; and every pointed reference to Shelley's religious, social, and political heresy was enthusiastically applauded.
Charles Darwin, the Newton of biology, was an Agnostic—which is only a respectable synonym for an Atheist. The more he looked for God the less he could find him. Yet the corpse of this great "infidel" lies in Westminster Abbey, We need not wonder, therefore, that Christians and even parsons are on the Shelley Centenary committee, or that Mr. Edmund Gosse was chosen to officiate as high pontiff at the Horsham celebration. Mr. Gosse is a young man with a promising past—to borrow a witticism from Heine. In the old Examiner days he hung about the army of revolt. Since then he has become a bit of a Philistine, though he still affects a superior air, and retains a pretty way of turning a sentence. The selection of such a man to pronounce the eulogy on Shelley was in keeping with the whole proceedings at Horsham, where everybody was lauding a "bogus Shelley," as Mr. Shaw remarked at the Hall of Science celebration.
Mr. Gosse was good enough to tell the Horsham celebrants that "it was not the poet who was attacked" in Shelley's case, but "the revolutionist, the enemy of kings and priests, the extravagant and paradoxical humanitarian." Mr. Gosse generously called this an "intelligent aversion," and in another sense than his it undoubtedly was so. The classes, interests, and abuses that were threatened by Shelley's principles, acted with the intelligence of self-preservation. They gave him an ill name and would gladly have hung him. Yes, it was, beyond all doubt, an "intelligent aversion." Byron only dallied with the false and foolish beliefs of his age, but Shelley meant mischief. This accounts for the hatred shown towards him by orthodoxy and privilege.
Mr. Gosse himself appears to have an "intelligent aversion" to Shelley's principles. He professes a great admiration for Shelley's poetry; but he regards it as a sort of beautiful landscape, which has no other purpose than gratifying the aesthetic taste of the spectator. For the poet's teaching he feels or affects a lofty contempt. Shelley the singer was a marvel of delicacy and power; but Shelley the thinker was at best a callow enthusiast. Had he lived as long as Mr. Gosse, and moved in the same dignified society, he would have acquired an "intelligent aversion" to the indiscretions of his youthful passion for reforming the world; but fate decided otherwise, and he is unfortunate enough to be the subject of Mr. Gosse's admonitions.
Shelley lived like a Spartan; a hunk of bread and a jug of water, dashed perhaps with milk, served him as a dinner. His income was spent on the poor, on struggling men of genius, and on necessitous friends. Now as the world goes, this is simply asinine; and Mr. Gosse plays to the Philistine gallery by sneering at Shelley's vegetarianism, and playfully describing him as an "eater of buns and raisins." It was also lamented by Mr. Gosse that Shelley, as a "hater of kings," had an attraction for "revolutionists," a set of persons with whom Mr. Gosse would have no sort of dealings except through the policeman. "Social anarchists," likewise, gathered "around the husband of Godwin's daughter"—a pregnant denunciation, though it leaves us in doubt whether Shelley, Godwin, or Mary was the anarch, or all three of them together; while the "husband" seems to imply that getting married was one of the gravest of Shelley's offences.
But the worst of all is to come: "Those to whom the restraints of religion were hateful marshalled themselves under the banner of the youth who had rashly styled himself as an Atheist, forgetful of the fact that All his best writings attest that, whatever name he might call himself, he, more than any other poet of the age, saw God in everything."
We beg to tell Mr. Gosse that he is libellous and impertinent. He knows little or nothing of Atheists if he thinks they are only repelled by the "restraints of religion." They have restraints of their own, quite as numerous and imperative as those of any religionist who fears his God. What is more, they have incentives which religion weakens. Mr. Gosse is perhaps in a state of ignorance on this matter. He probably speaks of the moral condition of Atheists as a famous American humorist proposed to lecture on science, with an imagination untrammeled by the least acquaintance with the subject.
So much (it is quite enough) for the libel; and now for the impertinence. Mr. Gosse pretends to know Shelley's mind better than he knew it himself. Shelley called himself an Atheist; that is indisputable; but he did so "rashly." He was mistaken about his own opinions; he knew a great many things, but he was ignorant of himself. But the omniscient Mr. Gosse was born (or was he born?) to rectify the poet's blunder, and assure the world that he was a Theist without knowing it—in fact, a really God-intoxicated person.
What wonder is it that Mr. Gosse became intoxicated in turn, and soared in a rapture of panegyric over a Shelley of his own construction? "The period of prejudice is over," he exclaimed, "and we are gathered here to-day under the auspices of the greatest poet our language has produced since Shelley died, encouraged by universal public opinion and by dignitaries of all the professions—yea, even by prelates of our national Church." Here the preacher's intoxication became maudlin, and there should have been an interval for soda-water.
Curiously enough, the very last page of Trelawny's Records of Shelley and Byron contains a conversation between that gallant friend of the two poets and a "prelate of our national Church."
"Some years ago, one of the most learned of the English Bishops questioned me regarding Shelley; he expressed both admiration and astonishment at his learning and writings. I said to the Bishop, 'You know he was an Atheist.' He said, 'Yes.' I answered: 'It is the key and the distinguishing quality of all he wrote. Now that people are beginning to distinguish men by their works, and not creeds, the critics, to bring him into vogue, are trying to make out that Shelley was not an Atheist, that he was rather a religious man. Would it be right in me, or anyone who knew him, to aid or sanction such a fraud?' The Bishop said: 'Certainly not, there is nothing righteous but truth.' And there our conversation ended."
Trelawny's bishop was willing (outside church, and in private conversation) to deprecate prejudice and acknowledge the supremacy of truth; and perhaps for that reason he allowed that Shelley was an Atheist. Mr. Gosse's bishops will soon be converting him into a pillar of the Church.
Trelawny knew Shelley a great deal better than Mr. Gosse. He enjoyed an intimate friendship with the poet, not in his callow days, but during the last year or two of his life, when his intellect was mature, and his genius was pouring forth the great works that secure his immortality. During that time Shelley professed the opinions he enunciated in Queen Mab. He said that the matter of that poem was good; it was only the treatment that was immature. Again and again he told Trelawny that he was content to know nothing of the origin of the universe; that religion was chiefly a means of deceiving and robbing the people; that it fomented hatred, malice, and all uncharitableness; and that it also fettered the intellect, deterring men from solving the problems of individual and social life, as well as the problems of nature, out of regard for the supposed oracles of Omniscience, which were after all the teachings of bigoted and designing priests. Shelley called himself an Atheist; he wrote "Atheist" after his name on a famous occasion; and Trelawny says "he never regretted having done this."
"The principal fault I have to find," wrote Trelawny, "is that the Shelleyan writers, being Christians themselves, seem to think that a man of genius cannot be an Atheist, and so they strain their own faculties to disprove what Shelley asserted from the earliest stage of his career to the last day of his life. He ignored all religions as superstitions."
On another occasion Shelley said to Trelawny—"The knaves are the cleverest; they profess to know everything; the fools believe them, and so they govern the world." Which is a most sagacious observation. He said that "Atheist!" in the mouth of orthodoxy was "a word of abuse to stop discussion, a painted devil to frighten the foolish, a threat to intimidate the wise and good."
Mr. Gosse may reply that Shelley's conversations with Trelawny are not absolute evidence; that they were written down long afterwards, and that we cannot be sure of Shelley's using the precise words attributed to him. Very well then; be it so. Mr. Gosse has appealed to Shelley's "writings," and to Shelley's writings we will go. True, the epithet "best" is inserted by Mr. Gosse as a saving qualification; but we shall disregard it, partly because "best" is a disputable adjective, but more because all Shelley's writings attest his Atheism.
Let us first go to Shelley's prose, not because it is his "best" work (though some parts of it are exquisitely beautiful, often very powerful, and always chaste), but because prose is less open than verse to false conception and interpretation. In the fine fragment "On Life" he acutely observes that "Mind, as far as we have any experience of its properties, and beyond that experience how vain is argument! cannot create, it can only perceive." And he concludes "It is infinitely improbable that the cause of mind, that is, of existence, is similar to mind." Be it observed, however, that Shelley does not dogmatise. He simply cannot conceive that mind is the basis of all things. The cause of life is still obscure. "All recorded generations of mankind," Shelley says, "have wearily-busied themselves in inventing answers to this question; and the result has been—Religion."
Shelley's essay "On a Future State" follows the same line of reasoning as his essay "On Life." He considers it highly probable that thought is "no more than the relation between certain parts of that infinitely varied mass, of which the rest of the universe is composed, and which ceases to exist as soon as those parts change their positions with regard to each other." His conclusion is that "the desire to be for ever as we are, the reluctance to a violent and unexperienced change," which is common to man and other living beings, is the "secret persuasion which has given birth to the opinions of a future state."
If we turn to Shelley's published letters we shall find abundant expressions of hostility to and contempt for religion. Those letters may deserve the praise of Matthew Arnold or the censure of Mr. Swinburne; but, in either case, they may be taken as honest documents, written to all sorts of private friends, and never intended for publication. Byron's letters were passed about freely, and largely written for effect; Shelley's were written under ordinary conditions, and he unbosomed himself with freedom and sincerity.
From one of his early letters we find that he contemplated a translation of the System of Nature, which is frequently quoted in the notes to Queen Mob. He couples Jehovah and Mammon together as fit for the worship of "those who delight in wickedness and slavery." In a letter to Henry Reveley he pictures God as delighted with his creation of the earth, and seeing it spin round the sun; and imagines him taking out "patents to supply all the suns in space with the same manufacture." When the poet was informed by Oilier that a certain gentleman (it was Archdeacon Hare) hoped he would humble his soul and "receive the spirit into him," Shelley replied: "if you know him personally, pray ask him from me what he means by receiving the spirit into me; and (if really it is any good) how one is to get at it." He goes on to say: "I was immeasurably amused by the quotation from Schlegel about the way in which the popular faith is destroyed—first the Devil, then the Holy Ghost, then God the Father. I had written a Lucianic essay to prove the same thing." In the very year of his death, writing to John Gisborne, he girds at the popular faith in God, and with reference to one of its most abhorrent doctrines he exclaims—"As if, after sixty years' suffering here, we were to be roasted alive for sixty million more in hell, or charitably annihilated by a coup de grace of the bungler who brought us into existence at first."—A dozen other quotations from Shelley's letters might be given, all to pretty much the same effect, but the foregoing must suffice.
A thorough analysis of Shelley's poetry, showing the essential Atheism which runs through it from beginning to end, would require more space than we have at our command. We shall therefore simply point out, by means of instances, how indignantly or contemptuously he always refers to religion as the great despot and impostor of mankind.
The Revolt of Islam stigmatises "Faith" as "an obscene worm." The sonnet on the Fall of Bonaparte concludes with a reference to "Bloody Faith, the foulest birth of time." Shelley frequently conceives Faith as serpentine and disgusting. In Rosalind and Helen he writes—
Grey Power was seated Safely on her ancestral throne; And Faith, the Python, undefeated, Even to its blood-stained steps dragged on Her foul and wounded train.
In the great and splendid Ode to Liberty the image undergoes a Miltonic sublimation.
Like one fierce cloud over a waste of waves Hung tyranny; beneath, sat deified The sister-pest, congregator of slaves.
Invariably does the poet class religion and oppression together—"Religion veils her eyes: Oppression shrinks aghast."—"Destruction's sceptred slaves, and Folly's mitred brood."—"And laughter fills the Fane, and curses shake the Throne."
Mr. Herbert Spencer writes with learning and eloquence about the Power of the Universe and the Unknowable. Shelley pricked this bubble of speculation in the following passage:
What is that Power? Some moonstruck sophist stood Watching the shade from his own soul upthrown Fill Heaven and darken Earth, and in such mood The Form he saw and worshipped was his own, His likeness in the world's vast mirror shown.
In one verse of the Ode to Liberty the poet exclaims:
O that the free would stamp the impious name Of ——— into the dust or write it there.
What is the omitted word? Mr. Swinburne says the only possible word is—God. We agree with him. Anything else would be a ridiculous anti-climax, and quite inconsistent with the powerful description of—
This foul gordian word, Which, weak itself as stubble, yet can bind Into a mass, irrefragably firm, The axes and the rods that awe mankind.
"Pope" and "Christ" are alike impossible. With respect to "mankind" they are but local designations. The word must be universal. It is God.
The glorious speech of the Spirit of the Hour, which terminates the third Act of Prometheus Unbound—that superb drama of emancipate Humanity—lumps together "Thrones, altars, judgment seats, and prisons," as parts of one gigantic system of spiritual and temporal misrule. Man, when redeemed from falsehood and evil, rejects his books "of reasoned wrong, glozed on by ignorance"; and the veil is torn aside from all "believed and hoped." And what is the result? Let the Spirit of the Hour answer.
The loathsome mask has fallen, the man remains Sceptreless, free, uncircumscribed, but man Equal, unclassed, tribeless, and nationless, Exempt from awe, worship, degree, the king Over himself; just, gentle, wise; but man Passionless? no, yet free from guilt or pain, Which were, for his will made or suffered them; Nor yet exempt, though ruling them like slaves, From chance, and death, and mutability, The clogs of that which else might oversoar The loftiest star of unascended heaven, Pinnacled dim in the intense inane.
What a triumphant flight! The poet springs from earth and is speedily away beyond sight—almost beyond conception—like an elemental thing. But his starting-point is definite enough. Man is exempt from awe and worship; from spiritual as well as political and social slavery; king over himself, ruling the anarchy of his own passions. And the same idea is sung by Demogorgon at the close of the fifth Act. The "Earth-born's spell yawns for heaven's despotism," and "Conquest is dragged captive through the deep."
Love, from its awful throne of patient power In the wise heart, from the last giddy hour Of dread endurance, from the slippery steep, And narrow verge of crag-like agony, springs And folds over the world its healing wings.
Gentleness, Virtue, Wisdom, and endurance, These are the seals of that most firm assurance Which bars the pit over Destruction's strength; And if, with infirm hand, Eternity, Mother of many acts and hours, should free The serpent that would clasp her with his length, These are the spells by which to re-assume An empire o'er the disentangled doom.
To suffer woes which Hope thinks infinite; To forgive wrongs darker than death or night; To defy Power, which seems omnipotent; To love, and bear; to hope till Hope creates From its own wreck the thing it contemplates; Neither to change, nor falter, nor repent; This, like thy glory, Titan! is to be Good, great and joyous, beautiful and free; This is alone Life, Joy, Empire, and Victory!
This is the Atheism of Shelley. Man is to conquer, by love and hope and thought and endurance, his birthright of happiness and dignity. Humanity is to take the place of God.
It has been argued that if Shelley had lived he would have repented the "indiscretions of his youth," and gravitated towards a more "respectable" philosophy. Well, it is easy to prophesy; and just as easy, and no less effectual, to meet the prophet with a flat contradiction. "Might have been" is no better than "might not have been." Was it not declared that Charles Bradlaugh would have become a Christian if he had lived long enough? Was not the same asserted of John Stuart Mill? One was nearly sixty, the other nearly seventy; and we have to wonder what is the real age of intellectual maturity. Only a few weeks before his death, Shelley wrote of Christianity that "no man of sense could think it true." That was his deliberate and final judgment. Had he lived long enough to lose his sense; had he fallen a victim to some nervous malady, or softening of the brain; had he lingered on to a more than ripe (a rotten) old age, in which senility may unsay the virile words of manhood; it is conceivable that Shelley might have become a devotee of the faith he had despised. But none of these things did happen. What Shelley was is the only object of sane discussion. And what he was we know—an Atheist, a lover of Humanity.
Every one who has turned over old volumes of sermons, adorned with the authors' portraits, must have been struck with the length of their faces. They seem to say—parodying the famous line of Dante—"Abandon jokes all ye who enter here." Those men preached a solemnly absurd creed, and they looked absurdly solemn. Their faces seemed as devoid of merriment as the faces of jackasses, and the heads above them were often as stupid. Justice forbid that I should run down a Hooker, a Barrow, a Taylor, or a South. They were men of genius, and all genius is of the blood royal. I read their writings with pleasure and profit, which is more than nine-tenths of the clergy can say with any approach to honesty. But a single swallow does not make a summer, and a few men of genius do not elevate a profession. I am perfectly convinced that the great bulk of the preaching fraternity have cultivated a solemn aspect—not perhaps deliberately, but at least instinctively—in order to impose on the ignorant and credulous multitude. The very tone of voice in which they pray, give out hymns, and preach, is artificial; in keeping with their artificial ideas and artificial sentiments; which, if they were expressed in natural tones, would excite universal contempt and derision.
Now this solemnity is the best trick in the priest's game. Gravity is always mistaken by the multitude for wisdom. A round-faced merry fellow shall make a bright, sensible speech, and he will be voted frivolous; but a long-faced, saturnine fellow shall utter a string of dull platitudes, and he will be voted a Solon. This is well known to the clergy, who have developed a perfect art of dullness. They talk an infinite deal of nothing, use a multitude of solemn words to hide an absurdity or no meaning at all, and utter the inherited shibboleths of their craft like the august oracles of a recent revelation.
Concede them the advantage of solemnity, or reverence, or whatever else it is called, and you give them the victory at the beginning of the battle. If you pull a long face over their nonsense, the spectators, after all your arguments, will say, "There must be something in it, though, for see how serious he is." Whereas a light jest and a merry smile will show you are heart-free, and beyond the range of clerical artillery.
I do not pretend, however, that the efforts of Free-thought critics should have no background of seriousness. Wit without reason, says Heine, is but a sneeze of the intelligence. But has not wit ever been the keenest weapon of the great emancipators of the human mind? Not the mere plaything of an idle mind in an idle hour, but the coruscating blade to pierce the weak places of folly and imposture. Aristophanes, Lucian, Rabelais, Erasmus, and Voltaire—to take a few great instances—were all serious in aim and intention. They valued truth, goodness, and beauty, as much as the dreariest preachers. But they felt, because of their temperament, that while the dry light of the intellect is suited to the study of science, it is inadequate in the realm of political, social, and religious debate, where everything is steeped in feeling, and hopes and fears strive together, and imagination kindles the very senses into keener play.
After all, perhaps, this word temperament is a solution in itself. When Bishop South was taken to task by a brother bishop for his witticisms, he replied, "Do you mean to say that if God had given you any wit you would not have used it?" Thus is wisdom justified of her children.
My friendly though severe critic, Dr. Coit, who recently discoursed at South-place Institute (or is it Chapel?) on the National Secular Society in general and myself in particular, could hardly deny that Voltaire was a master of wit, sarcasm, irony, and ridicule. Well, now, let us see what some serious writers have said of this nimble spirit. Robert Browning, in The Two Poets of Croisic thus salutes him:
Ay, sharpest shrewdest steel that ever stabbed To death Imposture through the armor-joints!
Carlyle says "He gave the death-stab to modern superstition," and "it was a most weighty service." Buckle says he "used ridicule, not as the test of truth, but as the scourge of folly," and thus "produced more effect than the gravest arguments could have done." "Nor can any one since the days of Luther be named," says Brougham, "to whom the spirit of free inquiry, nay, the emancipation of the human mind from spiritual tyranny, owes a more lasting debt of gratitude."
There is a story of the manuscript of Harrington's Oceana being filched and given to Cromwell, and the sagacious "usurper" returned it saying, "My government is not to be overturned with paper pellets." But the ironical pamphlet, Killing no Murder, produced a different effect. Nor did the royal and imperial despots, and their priestly abettors, in the eighteenth century, dread the solemn lovers of freedom. But the winged pen of Voltaire was a different matter. "Bigots and tyrants," says Macaulay, "who had never been moved by the wailing and cursing of millions, turned pale at his name."
If Dr. Coit imagines that Voltaire has lost his influence in France, I venture to say he is mistaken. The hand of Voltaire is on Renan, and on dozens of living soldiers in the French army of progress. And what man of letters in England—a country abounding in "the oxen of the gods," strong, slow, and stupid—is free from his influence? Carlyle's early essay on Voltaire is a mixture of hatred and admiration. But read the Life of Frederick, and see how the French snake fascinates the Scotch Puritan, until at last he flings every reservation aside, and hails with glowing panegyric the Savior of Calas.
Let me refer Dr. Coit to the delightful preface of a delightful book—Leland's introduction to his fine translation of Heine's Reisebilder. "Woe to those who are standing near," says Leland, "when a humorist of this stamp is turned loose upon the world. He knows nothing of your old laws,—like an Azrael-Napoleon he advances conscienceless, feeling nothing but an overpowering impulse, as of some higher power which bids him strike and spare not." But, after all, the main cause of progress is agitation, and though the agitation may be "eminently disagreeable to many, even friends, who are brought within its immediate action, it will be eminently beneficial in the end."
Yes, the hard-bound human mind, like the hardbound soil, has to be ploughed up. Let it shriek as it will, the work must be done, or the light and air will never penetrate, and an ocean of seeds will lie barren on the surface.
Dr. Coit need not fear that ridicule will excite apprehensions about the multiplication table. Ridicule has a fine scent for its proper prey. It must detect the ridiculous before it couches and springs. Truth, honor, consistency, disinterestedness, are invulnerable. What ridicule can kill deserves to die.
Mr. George Meredith writes of "that first-born of common-sense, the vigilant Comic, which is the genius of thoughtful laughter." Folly is the natural prey of this hunter, and Folly is found in the churches as well as in the streets. Some men, however, are non-laughers by birthright, and as men are apt to make a virtue of their deficiencies, it is not surprising if, as Mr. Meredith observes, the "laughter-hater soon learns to dignify this dislike as an objection in morality."
Persons who have read the Freethinker from the first do not need to be assured of the earnest spirit of its conductors. They fight no less sternly for the iridescent jewels in their swords. But Dr. Coit appears to object to fighting altogether. He seems to bid us rest content with what we have won. That is, he bids us leave superstition, with all its brood of lies and wrongs, in possession of the schools, the universities, the churches, the hospitals, the workhouses, and every other institution. He bids us leave it with its large grasp on the private and public life of the community, and go on with our constructive work in face of all this overwhelming frustration. No doubt he means well, but we are not foolish enough to take his advice. We tell Dr. Coit that he does not understand the obstructive power of theology, and that he is thus unable to appreciate the work of the National Secular Society.
But let us return to the point of ridicule, and the point of "blasphemy." Dr. Coit found two "lessons for the day" in my Philosophy of Secularism, and he spoke of my Shadow of the Sword as "a noble plea for peace." But he complained of my exposing the absurdities and immoralities of the Bible—a book which is thrust into the hands of little children in our public schools. He also complained of my dragging to light the Crimes of Christianity. But his anger was most excited by one of my "Bible Romances"—A Virgin Mother. Some fastidious persons even object to the title, thus showing their abysmal ignorance of Christian literature. The phrase is common in Catholic books of devotion, like the Mother of God. It occurs in Milton's Ode on the Nativity and in Paradise Lost. I have marked it a dozen times in Professor Palgrave's collection of Sacred Songs. But Dr. Coit objects to my comparison of the Holy Ghost's "overshadowing" of the Virgin Mary with the divine impregnations of earthly women by the gods of the Greek pantheon. He regards the one as a "mystery" and the others as vulgar amours. But this depends on your point of view. Lord Bacon found a mine of hidden wisdom in some of these "amours," and Mr. Morris makes beautiful poetry of the loves of Zeus and Danae, which is more than any one has ever succeeded in doing with the relations between the Holy Ghost and Mary. I admit, however, that taste is not disputable; and I refer Dr. Coit to the passage of my Virgin Mother in which I cite Justin Martyr as appealing to the Pagan not to mock at the Incarnation, on the express ground that they also taught the same doctrine in their stories-of the demi-gods who were born of women after the embraces of deities. Surely, then, it is idle to complain of my disrespect of this Christian dogma. Nor is it just to say that my criticism of it cannot be read to a mixed audience. That is the fault of the doctrine. So far as my words go, there is not a syllable to shock any but a prurient modesty.
With respect to Dr. Coit's plea for bringing the kindness of social intercourse into the war of ideas, I have this to say—It is impossible. Timid persons have always sighed for this policy, but when the fight began they have found themselves "between the fell incensed points of mighty opposites." Religion should be treated as freely as other subjects. That is all I claim, and I will not be satisfied with less. I cannot consent to relinquish any weapon that is legitimate in other warfare. Nor for the sake of temporary feeling will I be false to the permanent interests of my species. I will laugh at folly, scorn hypocrisy, expose falsehood, and bathe my sword in the heart's blood of imposture. But I will not descend to personalities. I do not war with persons, but with principles.
My object is to destroy the Christian superstition and prepare the way for a more rational and humane condition of society. I shall adapt myself, as well as I can, to the shifting conditions of the struggle. My aim is to succeed. My policy, therefore, will never be determined by a personal preference. I shall follow the path that promises victory. But I do not, and will not, dictate to others. Within the scope of our principles there is room for many policies. Let each do his best, according to his light and opportunity. Let Dr. Coit, too, go his way as I go mine. We travel by different routes, but perhaps we shall meet at the goal.
God's in his heaven, All's right with the world. —R. Browning, Pippa Passes.
The Apostles' Creed, with which the Apostles never had anything to do, begins with the words "I believe in God the Father Almighty." The last word, "Almighty," is an adjective which we owe to the metaphysical genius of Christian theologians; and the first words, "I believe," are the customary shibboleth of the priests of every religion. For the rest, this extract from the Creed is taken from the Lord's Prayer, which itself is a brief selection from common Jewish prayers before the days of Jesus. According to the evangelists—whoever they were—Jesus taught his disciples to pray to "Our Father which art in Heaven for a number of things which no one ever obtained by that process. Nevertheless the petition is offered up, generation after generation, by millions of Christians, whose hands are first folded in the gesture of prayer on their mothers' knees, and whose lips are taught at the same time a form of words that clings to them for life.
"Our Father!" The words are pretty and touching. When the child hears them he thinks of some one like his own father, but immensely bigger and more powerful; and as the child is taught that all the necessaries and comforts of life he enjoys, at the expense of his parents' labor and loving care, are really gifts from the Father behind the scenes, it is no wonder that this mysterious being becomes the object of gratitude and affection.
Which art in Heaven! Up there in the region of dreams, beyond the sailing clouds, far away through the deep blue, where imagination builds its fairy palace of delight, and God sits on his golden throne, and swift, bright angels speed forth to execute his commands. Tell a child anything you please about that land of fancy and you will be believed, especially if the tale comes from beloved lips, or from lips that bear the glamor of authority. And what the child is to the adult, early or savage man is to the civilisee. To the African negroes the highest god is the Sky; the great deity Dyu of our Aryan ancestors was the Sky; the Greek Zeue and the Latin Jupiter were both the Heaven-Father; and we still say "Heaven forgive me!" or "Fear the vengeance of Heaven!"
This Heaven, however, is no longer credible to any one with a tincture of science. Hard as the truth to a child or a savage, the sky is not a reality, but an optical illusion. For forty or forty-five miles from the earth's surface there is a belt of atmosphere, growing rarer and rarer as it approaches the infinite ocean of aether. Gone for ever is the old delusion of a solid Heaven overhead, with windows in it, through which God and the angels looked down upon the earth and its inhabitants. And what site is there for Heaven out in the cold blackness of space?
That Heaven is gone, and where is Our Father? Science shows us a world of absolute order, in which what we call the laws of nature—the observed sequence and recurrence of phenomena—are never broken. The world was not fashioned for man's dwelling, nor is it maintained for his benefit. Towards the poles he freezes, towards the equator he burns. The rain nourishes his crops or rots them, without asking his pleasure; the sea bears him or drowns him, with equal unconcern; the lightning slays him or spares him, whether good, bad or indifferent, as he happens to be in or out of the line of its dazzling flight; famine pinches his! cheeks if he cannot procure food; the pestilence seizes upon his nerves and blood unless he learns the antidote to its ravages. He stands amidst the play of terrific forces, and only preserves himself by vigilance, patience, courage and industry. If he falls the enemy is upon him, and the doom of the vanquished is death. Nature shows him no mercy. His mistakes are as fatal as his crimes.
"God" has been in his "Heaven" for eternity, but all is not right with the world. Man is always endeavoring to improve it, but what assistance comes from above? A Father in Heaven would be a glorious fact. But who can believe it? "Our Father" is utterly careless of his children. The celestial Rousseau sends all his offspring to the Foundling.
The late hard weather has thrown thousands of honest men out of employment, and increased the death-rate alarmingly. Where is the wisdom of this? Where is the goodness? The worst of men would alter it if they could. But God, they say, can do it, and he does not. Yet they still look up and say "Our Father." And the Father looks down with a face as blenchless as the Sphinx's, gazing forthright across the desert sands.
What father would permit in his family the gross disparities we see in human life? One gorges and another starves; one is bloated and another is death's counterfeit; one is dressed in three-piled velvet and another goes in looped and windowed rags; one is idle and another slaves; one is sated with pleasure and another is numbed with pain; one lolls in a palace and another shivers in a hovel. What human father would not be ashamed to treat his children with such infamous partiality?
Look at the physical and moral filth, and the mental abasement, in our great Christian cities, where new churches are constantly built for the worship of God, where Bibles are circulated by the million, and where hundreds of sleek gentlemen flourish on the spoils of philanthropy. Read Mr. Rudyard Kipling's story of East-end life; read the lucubrations of General Booth; listen to the ever-swelling wail over the poverty, misery, and degradation of hosts of our people; and then say if it is not high time to cease all this cant about Our Father which art in Heaven.
Man has always been his own Savior. His instrument is science, his wisdom is self-help. His redemption begins when he turns his eyes from the delusive Heaven and plucks up his heart from the fear of Hell. Despair vanishes before the steady gaze of instructed courage. Hope springs as a flower in the path of endeavor.
WAIT TILL YOU DIE.
Pascal remarked that, whether Christianity were true or false, the Christian was on the safe side; and Diderot replied that the priests and apologists of Mohammedanism, or any other creed, could say the very same thing with equal force. The argument, if it be an argument, implies the possibility of error, and what applies to one religion applies to all. The votaries of every creed may be mistaken if there is no absolute certitude; or, if there should be one true religion among the multitude, and but one, only the devotees of that single faith can be on the safe side. But as no one knows which is the only true religion, it follows, according to the law of probabilities, that the odds are greatly against any particular religion being the right one. The Christian therefore would have one chance of being right, and nine hundred and ninety-nine chances of being wrong. He has thus one chance in a thousand above the Atheist.
But, on the other hand, if all religions but one are certainly wrong, what is the chance of a single one being certainly right? Does not the Christian's slight percentage of safety fade into something quite inappreciable in the light of this question? And is what is left—if anything is left—an adequate price for the abnegation of manhood? Would it tempt an honest man, with a sense of human dignity, to play fast and loose with his intellect, and accept a creed because it appeals to his selfish hopes and fears? Could such a slender chance of profit in the next life compensate for slavery in this life?
If belief is the safe side, the proper course is to believe everything. And it is useless to cry that this is impossible. Faith enables men to believe against reason, and one act of credulity is little easier than a thousand. He whose creed is determined by his fears should give free scope to such emotions. If they are his guides let him follow them. Why should he argue when argument may mislead? Why should he stumble at trifles when he has surmounted the first great obstacle to credulity? Let him believe all the religions of the world at once. He can do this as easily as he can believe in the Trinity. And having embraced all, he may rest satisfied that if there be a true religion he undoubtedly possesses it.
We do not suppose, however, that this reasoning will have any effect on Christians, Buddhists, Brahmins, Mohammedans, or Jews. But that very fact shows the hollow character of the argument from which we started. When the Christian talks about the safe side he is only displaying the weakness of his faith, and appealing to timidity when he has no further appeal to reason.
The argument of "the safe side" would have no pertinency, even with the imbecile, if man were immortal. It seeks advantage from the fact that every man must die. It tries to paralyse reason with the clutch of fear.
How frequent is the superstitionist's remark, "Wait till you come to die!" He does not always use these very words, but this is the meaning of all his verbiage. He forgets, or does not know, that philosophy destroys the terror of death. A rational man is aware of the truth expressed by Mill, that death is but one incident in life, and often the least important. He recognises with Bacon that we die daily. He knows that every hour is a step towards death. He does not play, like an ostrich, with the universal law of mortality; nor, on the other hand, does he allow the tomb to cast its chill obscurity over the business and pleasure of life. He lives without hypocrisy, and when the time comes he will die without fear. As Hamlet says, "the readiness is all." Another word also comes from the wisest of men—"Cowards do often taste of death; the valiant die but once."
A belief that will do for life will do for death. The religionists prove this themselves. Whatever a man is confident of is sustaining. The Christian dies a Christian, and the Mohammedan a Mohammedan. The one has dying visions of angels—or may be of devils; the other sees heaven burst open, and the black-eyed houris of paradise beckon him with rosy fingers. What they leaned on in life supports them in death. Its truth or falsity makes no difference at that moment.
Freethinkers are sustained by convictions. Intellect and emotion concur in their case. They have no visions of angels or devils, but dear loved faces are better than phantoms, and he who has done a little good in the world, however humbly and obscurely, may dream of the happier and nobler days to come, when true words and good deeds will have brought forth the glorious fruit of happiness for the children of men.
We do not mean to assert that no Freethinker, at any time, ever relapsed on his death-bed. Such cases have apparently occurred during life, and while one particular religion is in the ascendant it is not difficult to understand them. The relapses are always to the creed a man finds about him, or to the creed of his childhood. They simply prove the power of environment and early training, and that a man needs all his strength to stand against big majorities. At best they are cases of mental pathology.
Great historic Freethinkers have always died true to their convictions. They were used to standing alone. For ample proof of this the reader is referred to my Infidel Death Beds. And when smaller Freethinkers are numerous enough they avoid the greatest danger of physical weakness. It is easy for Christian relatives or friends to pester a dying Freethinker; it is easy even, in the worst moments of weakness, to put words in his mouth. But if Freethought friends visit him, he feels strengthened and relieved. Allies may well be needed, sometimes, in such a battle with bigotry.
After all, "Wait till you die!" is an argument of folly and cowardice. What can we conjecture of any other life except from our experience of this? On this earth reason is the safe side, honesty is the safe side, humanity is the safe side; and what is the safe side here is likely to be the safe side elsewhere.
This is an age of "series." Every publisher issues one, and the number of them is legion. As far as possible they are written by "eminent hands," as old Jacob Tonson used to call his wretched scribblers in Grub-street garrets. But not every publisher can secure such an eminent hand as a live Archbishop, This has been achieved, however, by Messrs. Sampson, Low, Marston, and Company. Having projected a series of "Preachers of the Age," they were fortunate enough to enlist the Archbishop of Canterbury under their banner. His Grace, as it is etiquette to call him, though his natural name is Edward White Benson, leads off the publishers' attack on the British public with a volume of sermons entitled Living Theology. It is well printed on good paper, the binding is appropriate, and the price of three-and-sixpence puts it within the reach of the great middle-class public which cares for such things. We are far from sharing the opinion of a carper who remarked that, as sermons go, this volume is rather dear. Thirteen sermons by an Archbishop! Could any man in his senses expect them for less money? The real wonder is that a man with L15,000 a-year should condescend to publish at all. We ought to feel thankful that he does not charge us a guinea a volume.
Prefixed to the thirteen sermons, at fourpence apiece, including the binding, is an excellent photogravure portrait of the Archbishop. The face is keen and scholarly, and not unpleasant. A noticeable nose, a large fluent mouth, shrewd eyes, and a high well-shaped head, make on the whole an agreeable picture. Something about the features shows the preacher, and something more the ecclesiastic. It is the type, and the best type, of the learned priest. Nobody could look at this portrait and call Edward White Benson a fool. But is any one in danger of doing so? Would not every one admit some ability in the unhereditary recipient of fifteen thousand a year? Parsons are not a brilliant body, but to wriggle, or climb, or rise to the top of the Black Army involves the possession of uncommon faculties.
The Archbishop is seldom eloquent, in the popular sense of the word; but his style has a certain force and color, always within the limits of exquisite breeding. If he consigned you to Gehenna, he would do it with bland graciousness; and if he swore at all, he would swear in Latin. His language in these sermons, as in another volume we noticed a year ago, is pure and nervous, with an etymological reason for every word. Sometimes he is quite felicitous. Now and then he uses metaphor with skill and illumination. The habitual concreteness of his style shows the clearness of his perceptions. Occasionally he is epigrammatic "Strong enemies," he says in one place, "are better to us than weak friends. They show us our weak points." Finer and higher is another passage in the same sermon—"The yearning of multitudes is not in vain. After yearning comes impulse, volition, movement." It would be difficult, if not impossible, to better this, unless a great poet cast it in the mould of a metaphor.
We confess that, on the whole, we have read the Archbishop's sermons with some pleasure, as well as with much attention. It is to his credit that he defies a superficial reading. We do not expect to find another volume in the series at all comparable with his. Dr. Maclaren, who comes second, is on a lower level, and the next descent to Mr. Price Hughes is a fall into a slough of incapable and reckless sentimentalism.
Living Theology is the title of the Archbishop's volume, but this is a misnomer, for the title belongs only to the first sermon. It misled us in this general application, as it will probably mislead others. We took it to be a setting forth of so much theology as the Archbishop thought living, in contradistinction to what he allowed to be dead. But we find a very miscellaneous lot of sermons, sometimes rather on Church work than on Church teaching. The title, therefore, is what Walt Whitman would call "a suck and a sell." Yet it is hardly worth while to labor the complaint, for titles are often better than the pages that follow them. Sometimes, indeed, a writer puts all his head into the title, and the rest of the book displays his imbecility. But this cannot be said of the Archbishop.
Another difficulty is this. The Archbishop's sermons are hard for a Freethinker to criticise. He seldom expounds and rarely argues. He addresses an audience who take the fundamentals of Christianity for granted. Yet he lays himself open here and there, and where he does so we propose to meet him.
In the first sermon Dr. Benson is surely going beyond his actual belief in referring to "the earliest race of man, with whom the whole race so nearly passed away." He can scarcely take the early chapters of Genesis literally at this time of day. In the very next sermon he speaks cheerfully of the age of Evolution. That sermon was preached at St. Mary's, Southampton, to the British Association in 1882. It is on "The Spirit of Inquiry." "The Spirit of Inquiry," he says, "is God's spirit working in capable men, to enlarge the measure and the fulness of man's capacity." But if capable men are necessary, to say nothing of favorable conditions, the working of God's spirit seems lost in the natural explanation. Still, it is pleasant to find the Archbishop welcoming the Spirit of Inquiry, under any interpretation of its essence; and it may be hoped that he will vote accordingly when the Liberty of Bequest Bill reaches the Upper Chamber. It is also pleasant to read his admission that the Spirit of Inquiry (we keep his capitals) "has made short work not only of the baser religions, but of the baser forms of ours"—to wit, the Christian. Some of those "baser forms" are indicated in the following passage:
"I know not whether any stern or any sensuous religion of heathendom has held up before men's astonished eyes features more appalling or more repulsive than those of the vindictive father, or of the arbitrary distributor of two eternities, or again of the easy compromiser of offences in return for houses and lands. Dreadful shadows under which, thousands have been reared."
Dreadful shadows indeed! And not thousands, but countless millions, have been reared under them. Those dreadful shadows were for centuries the universal objects of Christian worship. They still hover over Spurgeon's tabernacle and a host of other houses of God. But they are hateful to Dr. Benson. To him the God of orthodoxy, the God of the Thirty-nine Articles, is dead. He dismisses Predestination, a vindictive God, and Everlasting Torment. He speaks of the very "prison" where Christ is said to have preached after his death, as a place "where spirits surely unlearn many a bias, many a self-wrought blindness, many a heedless error." Hell is therefore a place of purgation, which is certainly an infinite improvement on the orthodox idea of eternal and irremediable woe, however it fall(s) below the conception that the Creator has no right to punish his own failures.
Let the reader note who makes these admissions of the intellectual and moral death of the "baser forms" of Christianity. It is not an irresponsible franc-tireur of the Black Army, nor an expelled soldier like Mr. Voysey, nor a resigned soldier like Dr. Momerie. It is the Archbishop of Canterbury, the highest dignitary of the Church of England.
His Grace does not reflect—he cannot afford to reflect—that as the dead theology of to-day was the living theology of the past, so the living theology of to-day may be the dead theology of to-morrow.
The Archbishop still dogmatises, even in this sermon on the Spirit of Inquiry. In opposition to the man of science who knows of no limits to nature, he declares that "There is a sum of created things, and therefore a real end (however far off) to what can be known of them." In a certain sense, truly, there is an end to what can be known of nature, for human knowledge must ever be relative and not absolute. But the Archbishop's limit is not qualitative in man; it is quantitative in the universe. Herein he goes beyond the bounds of knowledge, and indulges in the very dogmatism for which he reprehends the materialist.
It is dogmatism also to assert that "the soul has every reason to believe itself absolutely eternal." Absolutely is a word of vast significance. How can it apply to "the soul"? Were "the soul" to subsist eternally in the future, it could not be absolutely eternal if it once began to be. "Every reason" is also too comprehensive. Dr. Benson may think he has good reasons for "the soul's" immortality, but he must be aware that divines of his own church have held the contrary doctrine.
Before the Spirit of Inquiry, says Dr. Benson, every other religion than Christianity fades away; though he has admitted that some parts of Christianity, the "baser forms," have shared the same fate. Every fresh conquest of the Spirit of Inquiry has "brought out some trait in the character, or some divine conception in the mind of Jesus of Nazareth." This sweeping statement is supported by "three very clearly marked" instances.
The first is that science shows us the unity of life. "The latest discovered laws involve at least this, that the Life of man is one Life." And this is "no more than the scientific verification of what was long ago stated, and by Christians (at least for a while) acted on."
In support of the Christian idea of the Unity of Life the Archbishop cites St. Paul, who once asked in a callous way if God cared for oxen. Had the Archbishop appealed to Jesus he would have found the oracle dumb, or something worse; for the Nazarene distinctly told his apostles to preach only to the Jews, and leave the Samaritans and Gentiles in darkness. St. Paul took a flight beyond this narrow patriotism. It was he, and not the personal disciples of Jesus, who broke down the barriers between Jew and Gentile. It was he who scorned the idea that Jesus, to use his own language, was only sent to the lost sheep of the house ot Israel. It was he, and not Peter, or James, or John, who said that God had made all nations of one blood; he who declared "ye are all one in Christ." Yet it is easy to make too much of this; for St. Paul did not include the heathen and unbelievers within the fold of brotherhood; and when he asserted the fatherhood of God, he appealed to the previous utterance of a Greek poet, thus conceding his own want of originality.
One might imagine, too, that the old Jewish story of Creation—which in turn was not original—involved the common descent of the human race; and as this idea was almost, if not quite, universal, being based on the obvious generic resemblance of the various races of mankind, it seems a stretch of fancy to put it forward as "a Christian statement" in some way connected with "Jesus of Nazareth."
The Archbishop's second instance of the concurrence of modern progress with the teaching of Jesus, is, to say the least of it, peculiar. "From the liberty to inquire," he says, "comes the liberty to express the results of inquiry. And this is the preamble of the Charter of Jesus Christ."
We defy Dr. Benson to find a single plain passage about freedom of thought in the teachings of Jesus. The Nazarene was fond of saying, "He that hath ears to hear let him hear." But it was reserved for Ingersoll to say, "He that hath a brain to think let him think."
The Archbishop goes on to claim Darwin as "our aged Master"—Darwin, who rejected Christianity for forty years of his life! He quotes from Beale the sentence, "Intellectual work of every kind must be free." "And the New Testament," he adds, "is still the one volume of books on religion which accepts thia whole statement."
This is a bold—some would say a brazen—assertion. If the New Testament teaches anything clearly, it teaches that belief is necessary to salvation. That doctrine stifles free speech and extinguishes inquiry. Why investigate if you may be damned for your conclusions? And why allow investigation if another man's errors may involve your perdition? These questions have been answered logically enough by the Christian Church, and the "Charter of Jesus Christ" has been the worst of spiritual oppressions. No religion has been so intolerant as the Christian. Mohammedanism has been far less bigoted. Buddhism has the proud distinction of never having persecuted one human being in twenty-four centuries. The Archbishop's third instance is fantastic to the point of grotesqueness. Both Christianity and the spirit of Inquiry, he says, are at one in "the demand for fruit." Does he mean to imply that other religions set their faces against "fruit"? Buddhism is quite imperative about moral duties. Mohammedanism gets itself obeyed in matters of conduct, while Christianity is quite ineffectual. Drink, gambling, and prostitution abound in Christian countries; in the Mohammedan world they have been sternly repressed. This is admitted by Dr. Benson in his volume on Christ and his Times; admitted, and even emphasised; so that he may, as it were, be confuted out of his own mouth.
If we take a leap to the penultimate sermon in the present volume, we find Archbishop Benson indulging in the same kind of loose statement and inconsequential reasoning. Its title is "Christ's Crucifixion, an All in All." The preacher scorns the Greek notion of the Crucifixion as "the shocking martyrdom of a grand young moralist." Such a notion, he says, is "quite inconsistent with the facts." Either we know not what Christ taught, or else he was more than man. And the Archbishop sets about proving this by means of a series of leaps over logical chasms.
After dilating on the innocence of Christ, who was certainly guilty according to the Mosaic law, and deserving of death according to the express command of Jehovah, the Archbishop writes as follows:
"Then we look back through our eighteen centuries, and we see that before the age of three-and-thirty he had fashioned sayings, had compacted thoughts, had expressed principles about duty, about the relative worth of things, about life, about love, about intercourse with God, about the formation of character, the relation of classes, the spirit of law, the essence of government, the unity of man, which had not existed, or which were not formulated when he opened his lips, but which have been and are the basis of society from the time they were known till now."
This is a tissue of false assumptions. The sayings, thoughts, and principles of Jesus did exist before, and they were formulated when he opened his lips. Not one original utterance is ascribed to him in the whole of the Gospels. It is idle to bandy generalisations; let the Archbishop select specimens of Christ's teaching, and we will find parallels to them, sometimes better and more wisely expressed, in the utterances of his predecessors. Nor is it true that Christ's teachings have been, or are, the basis of society. Society exists in defiance of them. It is never based, and it never will be based, on any abstract teaching. Its basis is self-interest, ever increasing in complexity, and ever more and more illuminated by the growth of knowledge.
Take the case of oaths. Jesus said plainly, "Swear not at all." But when earthly potentates wanted their subjects to swear fidelity, the Christian priests discovered that Jesus meant, "Swear only on special occasions." And it was reserved for an Atheist, in the nineteenth century, to pass an Act allowing Christians to obey Jesus Christ.
Take the injunction, "Lay not up for yourselves treasures on earth." Society could never exist upon such a basis, so the clergy find that Jesus, like Polonius, spoke tropically. Every Christian is busy laying up treasures on earth, and Archbishop Benson is well to the front in the competition.
Having made ridiculous claims for Jesus Christ, the Archbishop proceeds in this wise: "Next ask yourself whether a stainless, loving, sincere, penetrating person like that makes or enlarges on unfounded declarations as to matters of fact. Is it consistent with such a character?" Now Jesus speaks of "the immense importance of his own person," he speaks of "My flesh, My blood" as of vital power, he says "I and my Father are one." Could he have been deceived? Well, why not? Honesty does not guarantee us against error. The best of men have been mistaken, And sincere natures are most liable to be deceived by taking subjective impressions for external realities.
There is another explanation which the Archbishop is too shrewd to pass over in silence. Perhaps others said those things for Jesus, perhaps they "attributed to him sayings which he did not utter." But this, the Archbishop says, only multiplies the difficulty and the astonishment; for, to put it briefly, his biographers in that case were as good at predicting and inventing as himself. And why not? Do we not know that the story of the woman taken in adultery, which is finely told, and has all along been thought to contain some of Christ's most characteristic teaching, does not exist in the earlier manuscripts? It was invented by an unknown writer. And if one unknown writer could (and did) invent this story, other unknown writers may have invented every part of the Gospel narratives.
The attempt to make Jesus sponsor for himself is the last refuge of hard-driven Christians. The frame of mind it evinces is seen in Dr. Benson's interpretation of the exclamation "I thirst," ascribed to Jesus on the cross. Crucifixion produced an intolerable thirst, and the exclamation is very natural; but Dr. Benson says that Jesus meant "I thirst for souls," and and adds that "no man can doubt" it. Such are the shifts to which Christians are reduced when they cling to faith in defiance of reason.
Dr. Benson's "living theology" is dead theology. It is sentimentalism and make-believe. Perfectly scriptural doctrines are cast aside while others are arbitrary retained. Vague talk about "Christ and him crucified" takes the place of time-honored dogmas, logically deduced from the "Word of God," and stamped with the deliberate approval of councils and synods. Christianity, in short, is becoming a matter of personal taste and preference. The time is approaching when every Christian will have a Christianity of his own.
This is the moral of the Archbishop's volume. Had space permitted we should have liked to notice other features of his sermons. In one place he says that "the so-called Secularist is the man who deprives things secular of all power and meaning and beauty." We think that he deprives Christianity of all meaning, and that being gone its "power" and "beauty" are idle themes of wasted eloquence.
MR. GLADSTONE ON DEVILS.
When the Grand Old Man crossed swords with Professor Huxley on the miracle of Gadara, he spent all his time in discussing whether the pigs belonged to Jews or Gentiles. The more serious point, whether a legion of devils were actually cast out of one or two men and sent into a herd of swine, he sedulously avoided. Professor Huxley, however, is too wide-awake to be drawn off the scent; and while he disputed the points of geography and ethnology, he insisted upon the fact that their only importance was their relation to a miraculous story, which marked the parting of the ways between Science and Christianity.
The demonic theory of disease, including insanity, is universal among savages. For proof and illustration the reader has only to consult Dr. Tylor's splendid work on Primitive Culture. There are special demons for every malady, and the way to cure the disease is to cast out the evil spirit. Of course insanity is a striking disorder, and in default of the pathological explanation the savage regards the wild, wandering words and inexplicable actions of the sufferer as the words and actions of a demon, who has taken possession of the man's body, and driven his soul abroad or put it in abeyance. This theory of madness survived through all the centuries of Christian history until the advent of modern science. Mad people were chained up, exhibited as objects of derision, and often beaten unmercifully. It was the devil in them, as in the poor witches, that was treated in this fashion. And it was a recognised part of a clergyman's business to cast out devils. The Church of England canon is still unrepealed which provides that the clergy, before engaging in this useful if not agreeable occupation, must obtain the written authority of their bishops.
Laugh or smile as we will at this superstition, it is an integral part of the New Testament. The demonic theory of disease is confessed in the story of Jesus rebuking the fever of Peter's mother-in-law, so that it left her instantaneously, flying out of the door or window, or up the chimney. Jesus repeatedly cast out devils. He expelled seven, in succession or at one fell swoop, from Mary Magdalene. He turned a legion—that is, several thousands—out of the possessed Gadarenes; there being at least one apiece for the bedevilled swine who were driven to destruction. Paul likewise cast out devils. Indeed, if demonic possession in the New Testament is explained away, there is no reason why every other miraculous element should not be dealt with in the same manner.
Mr. Gladstone perceives this, although he does not commit himself in his Impregnable Rock of Holy Scripture. "I am afraid," he says, in a letter to the Rev. J. W. Belcher, "that the objections to demoniacal possession involve in germ the rejection of all belief in the supernatural." This is wonderfully clear and straightforward for the Grand Old Man. Give up the belief that mad people may be tenanted by devils, and you should immediately join the National Secular Society. You have taken the first decisive step on the broad road of "infidelity," and nothing but a want of logic or courage prevents you from hastening to the inevitable conclusion.
Archbishop Trench, in his Notes on the Miracles of Our Lord, rejects the theory that the "demoniacs" were simply insane. No doubt, he says, there was "a substratum of disease, which in many cases helped to lay open the sufferer to the deeper evil." But "our Lord Himself uses language which is not reconcileable" with the naturalist theory. "It may well be a question moreover," says Trench, "if an Apostle, or one with apostolic discernment of spirits, were to enter now into one of our madhouses, how many of the sufferers there he might not recognise as thus having more immediately fallen under the tyranny of the powers of darkness."
Dean Milman, the discreet, plausible, and polished historian of the Christian superstition, did not shrink from regarding the New Testament demoniacs as merely insane; and "nothing was more probable," he remarked, "than that lunacy should take the turn and speak the language of the prevailing superstition of the times." Precisely so. But why did Jesus imitate the lunatics? He addresses the evil spirit and not the madman. "Hold thy peace," he says, "and come out of him." No doubt the demoniacs were simply insane; but in that case Jesus himself was mistaken, or the evangelists put into his mouth words that he never used. The first alternative destroys the divinity of Jesus; the second destroys the authority of the evangelists.
Mr. Gladstone's position is the only honest and logical one for a professed Christian. Demonic possession cannot be cut out of the New Testament without leaving a gap through which all the "infidelity" in the world might pass freely. Devils are not confined to hell. They are commercial travellers in brimstone and mischief. They go home occasionally; the rest of the time they are abroad on business. When they see a promising madman they get inside him, and find warmer quarters than the universal air. Very likely they have started Theosophy, in order to provide themselves with fresh residences.
Little devils of course involve the big Devil—Apollyon, Beelzebub, Abaddon, Satan, Lucifer, Old Nick. He commands the infernal armies, and is one of the deities in Mr. Gladstone's pantheon. He is even embedded in the revised version of the Lord's Prayer—like a fly in amber. "Deliver us from evil" now reads "Deliver us from the Evil One." Thus the Devil triumphs, and the first of living English statesmen is reduced by Christian superstition to the level of modern savages and ancient barbarians. Mr. Gladstone is perhaps the highest type of the Christian statesman. But how small and effeminate he appears, after all, in comparison with a great Pagan statesman like Julius Caesar, whose brain was free from all superstition! Were the "mighty Julius" to re-appear on earth, and see a great statesman believing the story of devils being turned out of men into pigs, he would wonder what blight had fallen upon the human intellect in two thousand years.
No one will suspect us of any prejudice against Professor Huxley. We have often praised his vigorous writings, and his admirable service to Freethought. We recognise him as a powerful fighter in the great battle between Reason and Faith. He is a born controversialist, he revels in the vivisection of a theological opponent, and it is easy to understand how the more placid Darwin could cry to him admiringly, "What a man you are!"
But for some reason or other it seems the fate of Professor Huxley, as it is the fate of Herbert Spencer, to be made use of by the enemies of Freethought; and it must be admitted that, to a certain extent, he gratuitously plays into their hands.