The Lie of Religion
Religion is the most powerful and widely extended of all the institutions bequeathed to us by the past. The entire human race comes under its ban. It binds with the same fetters the highest and the lowest races alike, and its connecting links render the negro of Australia the brother in sentiment and neighbor in civilization of the English lord. Religion penetrates all forms of political and social life, and faith in its abstract dogmas, is the avowed or unexpressed foundation for the rightfulness, or even the possibility of a whole series of actions which form the degrees of critical development, or the turning points, in any individual existence. There are still great many civilized countries, where everyone is obliged to belong to some religion. No one is asked about his faith, his convictions, but every one is obliged to conform to some established form of worship. The world has progressed somewhat since the days of the Anti-reformation under Bloody Mary, of Spain during the Sixteenth Century, and of the Puritan rule in New England, when every citizen was obliged, under the most fearful penalties, to take part in the established worship; but the progress has been slight, taken as a whole. The State no longer drives every individual to mass and confession, it has abolished the penalty of being burnt at the stake for negligence in church attendance; but it requires, at least in some European and American countries, every one to be enrolled on the list of members of some religious community, and by means of its organization exacts contributions from all sides.
Religion receives into her arms at its birth the infant of civilized life, she becomes its unyielding, implacable companion throughout its entire existence, and will not relinquish her claims even upon its death-bed. A citizen is born—the parents are obliged to present him for baptism, as a refusal, in some countries, would render them liable to a fine and prosecution by the State. He wishes to get married—this he can only do in the church, with the co-operation of the minister. Many countries recognize a civil marriage as legal, it is true, but, in the first place it is only introduced into a comparatively small number, in the second, where it is already introduced powerful influences are at work undermining it, and, in the third place, social customs have not kept pace with the law, consequently in those countries where the civil marriage is a recognized, permanent institution it is not considered as a complete marriage. He dies—a minister follows his corpse to the grave, and he is laid to rest in consecrated ground, surrounded by the tokens and symbols of Religion. In many cases he can only advance his most authorized interests by taking an oath, based upon religious ideas. He is willing to serve his country, by shedding his life’s blood at her command—he can not do so unless he takes the oath of allegiance before God; he applies to the legal authorities to maintain his rights—he is straightway called upon for an oath. He can not give his testimony before his fellow-citizens without an oath; neither can he without first having taken the oath of office, uphold the rights of the people, nor enter into possession of any public office. A passionate resistance met and overwhelmed the recent attempt in England and France to substitute a formal assurance of honor and conscience for the customary religious oath. Through out the whole length and breadth of the civilized world there is not a single nook or corner to be found, in which the autocratic yoke of Religion has been shaken off.
We learn from history that the family, property, State and Religion are the forms in which civilization has developed. Well, none of these four forms includes such a large number of individuals as the last. There are many persons standing outside the pale of family life—such as foundlings, and the street arabs of large cities, although in later years they may found a family by marriage or concubinage. Habitual criminals and the very poor, do not recognize the principles of property. In the midst of our highly regulated civilization, with its multiplicity of laws, its governmental machinery and its army of public officials, there are isolated groups,—the gypsies for example, in almost every country in Europe—who do not join the organization of the State; their births, marriages and deaths are never recorded, they never pay taxes, nor serve out terms of military service; they are without a fixed place of residence, or political nationality, and, even if they desired it, would experience no little difficulty in entering upon a normal civil life, because they could produce none of the be-sealed and besignatured documents, without which the son of modern civilization, numbered and ticketed, can not receive an official recognition of his life, nor of his death. But the case is different with Religion; the number of those without the fold, is exceedingly small. A society of freethinkers was founded in Germany which offered to those who had thrown off the inherited fetters of Religion, the opportunity of declaring their emancipation. It numbers hardly a thousand members after several years, and even of these, many are officially claimed on the records of religious communities. A law was passed in Austria to legalize the act of withdrawing from the church, but less than five hundred persons have availed themselves of its privileges and of this number, the majority were not persons constrained by their sense of honor to bring their outward lives into harmony with their inward convictions, but were either persons of different religions who wished to be united in matrimony and met on neutral ground by mutually renouncing the religion in which they had been brought up, or else Jews, who fancied they could escape from the popular prejudice against their race, by proclaiming officially the fact that they had renounced the faith of their fathers. This latter motive came into play so frequently that the terms Jew and “creedless” became almost synonymous in Austria, so that the secretary of the Vienna University used to remark good-naturedly. “Why don’t you say right out that you are a Jew?” when some candidate for admission to the University, replied. “Creedless,” when asked to what religion he belonged―one of the usual questions put to candidates. France is the country where liberty of thought has obtained from the laws, but not from society, the most extensive concessions from the yoke of Religion. But even in France, a large majority of the freethinkers remain in the bosom of the church to which their parents belonged, they go to mass and confession, they are wedded before the altar, they bring their children to be baptized and confirmed, and they summon the priest to the bedside of their dying friends. The number of those who bring up their children without baptism or confirmation, is very small, and still fewer express a wish for a so-called civil funeral. In liberty-loving England the laws and public opinion allow us to belong to any sect or religion we choose, we can be Buddhists, or worship the sun with the Parsees, but we are not allowed to announce ourselves as atheists. Bradlaugh had the audacity to proclaim his atheism. He was in consequence spurned by society, turned out of Parliament and involved in an incredibly expensive law-suit. So powerful is the influence of Religion upon every mind, so difficult is it to break loose from the habit of belonging to some church directly or indirectly, that even the atheists who are trying to substitute for the ancient faith, a new ideal more in accordance with our view of the universe, are so wanting in courage that they retain for their new conceptions founded upon reason, the title of Religion, which is so connected with the follies of the human race. There are some associations of freethinkers in Berlin and in other places in northern Germany, who have found no better name for their communities, than “the Free Religion Societies” and David Friedrich Strauss calls an ideal belief, whose essence is the non-existence of any religion not perceptible by the senses, the “Religion of the Future.” Does not that recall to mind the anecdote of the freethinker who exclaimed: “By the Almighty, I am an atheist.”
This is the place to anticipate misconstructions of my meaning. When I call Religion a conventional lie of civilized society, I do not mean by the word Religion, a belief in super-natural, abstract powers. This belief is sincere with most people. It still exists unconsciously even in men of the highest culture, and there are but few children of the Nineteenth Century, who have become so convinced of the inevitable necessity of viewing the world from the standpoint of natural science, that this conviction has penetrated into the farthest recesses of their minds, where moods, sentiments, and emotions are evolved, beyond the control of the will. In these mysterious depths ancient prejudices and superstitions still maintain their supremacy and it is incomparably more difficult to drive them out, than it is to frighten away the owls and bats from the nooks and crannies of a steeple belfry.
In this sense, that is, as a partially or entirely unconscious clinging to transcendental ideas, Religion is in fact a physical relic of the childhood of the human race; I go still further and say that it is a functional weakness, caused by the imperfectness of our organ of thought, one of the manifestations of our finiteness. I shall take pains to explain this assertion so that it may be perfectly comprehended.
Philology and comparative mythology and ethnography have already made numerous contributions to the history of the evolution and development of religious thought, and psychology has been successful in its attempt to distinguish those qualities in the soul which compelled primeval man to the conception of the supernatural, which is still retained by the man of culture of today.
It was not until centuries of civilization and untold generations had passed away after the days of those comprehensive thinkers, Pythagoras, Socrates and Plato, that a reflecting man awoke to the consciousness that certain conceptions are not essential, but only forms or divisions of human thought. At the first dawning of a brighter day for the intellect, the new ideas would overthrow the entire structure of thought built up by primitive man, with a violence which the child of modern civilization accustomed to abstractions and unable to appreciate the enormous effort of mind required to abolish the old and receive the new, is unable to comprehend. To the savage, time space and causality are as real and material as the things themselves, which surround him, and of which he can take cognizance by his coarsest sense, that of touch. He imagines time to be a monster that devours his own children; space seems to him to be a wall built around the horizon, or else the union of the visible earth with the heavens, which he looks upon as a vast roof or dome, and causality appears to him so necessary and inseparable from appearances, that he gives it the simplest and to him most reasonable form: tracing effects to their causes by ascribing them to the direct action of some being like himself. If a tree falls in the forest, some organic being must have thrown it down; if the earth trembles, somebody below must be shaking it, and as this vague generality of “somebody” is not easily grasped by his undeveloped mind, he gives it the convenient form of a human being. This identical process of thought is called forth by all the phenomena which take place around him. Unresisting slave to his conceptions of causality, he tries to discover the cause of every effect he notices, and, as he recognizes his own will as the source of his own actions, he applies this experience, the result of his individual observation, to nature in general and sees in every one of its phenomena the operations of the arbitrary will of some being like unto him-self. But now arises for the first time a cause for perplexity and astonishment. When his wife starts the fire by rubbing two dry sticks together, when his companion kills an animal with his stone hatchet, his senses apprehend the causes of the blaze and of the animal’s death. But when the storm blows over his hut, or he is bruised by the hail, he can not see the Being that is maltreating him in this fashion. He can not doubt that this Being exists and is somewhere close at hand, for there lies his hut in ruins, and the cuts made by the hail-stones are bleeding, and somebody must have done it and done it intentionally. But as he can not find this malevolent Being, his mind is filled with that horrible dread which is always aroused by unknown danger, against which we are not able to defend ourselves—this sentiment is the beginning of Religion.
It is a well-known fact that all travelers who have had opportunities for observing savages, are unanimous in saying that the sentiment of Religion among them is expressed exclusively as superstitious fear. And naturally so. Unpleasant occurrences are not only more frequent, but more forcible than pleasant ones, and they produce a deeper and more violent internal and external effect than the latter. An agreeable sensation is borne stolidly and passively; the intellect is not called upon to define it; muscles and brain can remain at rest. But a disagreeable sensation forces itself at once upon the consciousness and makes necessary a series of actions of the intellect and will, to discover and remove its cause. Hence it comes that primitive man was aroused to a perception of the malevolent powers of nature before he became aware of those which are his benefactors. He devoted no thoughts to the facts that the sun warmed him and the fruit supplied him with food, because he could eat the fruit and lie down in the sunshine, without any effort of mind, and he only exerted himself to think, when compelled to do so. Dangers and calamities on the contrary, roused him to intellectual and psychical activity and peopled the world of his imagination with enduring figures. It was only at a far more advanced stage of intellectual development that man became distinctly sensible of the pleasures that life offered him, and instead of enjoying them instinctively, appreciated them with his consciousness. The next step was to trace them to the beneficent will of some Being possessing the attributes of humanity, and love, and gratitude and admiration were the necessary results. Until this comparatively late period of civilization, his only sentiments in regard to the invisible and unknown power, which stormed, thundered and lightened, and overwhelmed him with all kinds of misfortunes and pains, were of unmixed dread and horror.
Upon this sentiment of fear are based all the primitive forms of religious worship. Care was taken not to provoke the invisible, powerful enemy and the lively, childlike imagination of prehistoric man, his trains of incoherent reasoning, made it easy for him to see in any circumstance a possible source of annoyance to his great enemy. If he was provoked, no pains were spared to appease him. His avarice was gratified by spreading presents before him, offering him sacrifices. His vanity was flattered by singing his praises, and glorifying his virtues. Man humbled himself before him, tried to touch him by prayers and supplication, and even occasionally to frighten him by threats. Prayers, sacrifices and vows are thus expressions of the same sentiment, which Darwin in his work “Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals,” claims to be the cause of the wagging and crouching of the dog, the purring of the cat, and the bowing and removal of the hat by civilized man—acts of submission to a more powerful being. To condense these details—causality, which is one form of human thought, was conceived of by primitive man as something necessarily material and concrete. He sought for every circumstance which disturbed him, some cause near at hand. His incapability of carrying on abstract thought confined him to concrete conceptions which appeared to his imagination in the form of accustomed figures. He thus became an anthropomorphite, that is, he imagined all forces, everything capable of producing a phenomenon, in the form of a human being, with consciousness, will and organs to perform the bidding of the latter, his mind being unable to comprehend a force independent of an organic body. Causality thus led him to the acceptation of a necessary cause for all phenomena, his incapability of abstract reasoning, to anthropomorphism—to his peopling nature with a personal God, or with personal gods and goddesses, and his fear of these, who appeared to him as enemies, to propitiatory sacrifices and prayers, that is to an external worship. This is one of the roots of Religion in primitive man and it is still imbedded in the heart of the man of our civilization. Even intellects of high culture, sufficiently advanced in reasoning, to be beyond considering time and space as material existences, are yet in the habit of looking upon causality as something essential; they have not yet climbed to the height of abstract reasoning, from whence causality appears no longer as a concomitant to the phenomenon, but as a certain form of thought. And as to anthropomorphism, it is still carried on today; not only by the child who enjoys fairy-tales, in which the wind and the trees converse together and the stars fall in love with each other, but also by the grown up man, in the secret intimacy of his inner life, which is never entirely freed from the results of his childhood’s habits. Is it not remarkable that the fashionable philosopher of our own day, with a curious return to primitive ideas, has built up his system upon the same hypothesis from which were evolved the rudimentary conceptions of the cave-dwellers of prehistoric ages, as well as those of the natives of Australia of today, viz. upon the acceptation of a will as not only the necessary condition preceding every phase of activity, but also of the very existence, of every object. This ascribing certain faculties, which we know by experience to belong to us, to surrounding inanimate objects, this effort to attribute their material form to the pre-existence of some will-power in them, because it is impossible to separate the actuality of a human being from the necessarily accompanying will, with its arbitrary and constantly exercised power—is certainly a return to the very first stage of the intellectual activity of the human race. Schopenhauer has succeeded in sublimating and super-refining his system and clothing it in technical, scientific terms, which give it a fine and dignified appearance, so that he can present it with a good grace to people of culture, but its kernel is, notwithstanding, the most astonishing case of atavism which is to be found in the whole history of philosophy—a history which is. pre-eminently a record of remarkable returns of the human intellect to ancient follies and dreams long since out-grown and supposed to have been consigned to oblivion. When we find that a profound thinker like Schopenhauer, standing upon the height of modern culture, can attribute to inorganic things a will-power like that of man, in order to comprehend them, although even in man, many things are constantly taking place, beyond the influence of the will, such as change of matter, growth, etc., when we see that this system receives a cordial welcome from large numbers of the most cultured and intelligent members of modern society, we are enabled to comprehend in all their details, the ideas of the mammoth-hunter of the quaternary period, who in generalizing the petty experiences of his own limited personality, could only conceive of nature by imagining behind every phenomenon some compelling power like himself, made after his image, only more powerful and awe-inspiring, with a larger stone hatchet and a more violent appetite, and this was the germ from which Religion was developed later.
The conception of a will-power as the cause of the phenomena of the universe, that is, the faith in a personal God or gods, is however, but a small part of Religion. Religion did not confine its transcendental investigations to nature alone, but carried them on to man, and to his position in the universe. To the number of religious conceptions must be added the faith in a soul and its immortality after death. This belief in the immortality of the soul, first rounded the preconceived ideas in regard to God, into a comprehensive system, capable of forming the foundation for a structure of society and morality as it supplied an exact definition of good and bad, and a distinction between vice and virtue. In its promises of future reward or punishment, which presuppose the immortality of the individual, with his most essential attributes, sensibility and conception, it found means to bring man into agreement with its views and acceptation of its theories. This belief in the soul and its immortality, was not evolved from causality and anthropomorphism, but from other psychological sources, for which we will proceed to search.
Specialist enquirers have discussed extensively the question whether the belief in an immortal soul preceded or followed the belief in a God, and whether all ideas of Religion were not evolved from the doctrine of the immortality of the soul, after passing through the intermediate stages of demon-worship. That many ancient races and modern savage tribes consider the belief in the immortality of the soul a more important factor of their religion than the belief in the existence of a God, is shown forcibly by the worship paid to the dead by the ancient Egyptians, the honors offered to the Lares among the Romans, the drinking the blood of slaughtered enemies among the ancient Celtic and Germanic tribes, and the cannibalism of certain tribes in Central Africa and the South Sea Islands. The savage does not drink blood nor eat human flesh, merely to appease his hunger, as a superficial observer might imagine, but from a superstitious hope that the virtues of the slaughtered enemy may descend upon him who eats or drinks a part of his body. It is however, a question of secondary importance whether the belief in God or the soul is the most ancient. One thing is certain and acknowledged, that the two beliefs were conceived and accepted by the mind of man at a very early period. He became convinced of the fact that there was something within him, distinct from the body, which caused life, and which would survive the destruction of the visible frame. An incorrect observation and a mistaken comprehension of the laws of nature by prehistoric man, led to the belief in a personal God, and the belief in the soul was caused by observation of the difference between a living and a dead being. In the former he could feel the heart beat, and the pulse throb, mysterious actions of which the will was not the controlling force. In the dead man all was silent and still. The important role attributed to the heart as the seat of the affections and sentiments in the usage of language to this day, is a silent testimony of the intense interest aroused in the mind of primitive man by the astonishing movements of the heart. Nothing is easier to an untrained mind than to accept any two succeeding phenomena as cause and effect.
In the dead human being nothing is stirring; therefore that which was beating and hopping in the living man, must have been the cause of life. When the man was alive, it was there; when he died, it vanished, it forsook the body. But what can it be? To this question the fanciful imagination of primitive man produced several answers, giving to this principle of life, this soul, the form of some creature. Some called the soul a dove, others, a butterfly, and those capable of more abstract conceptions, imagining it to be a shadow, or a breath of wind. The disquieting and inexplicable phenomena of sleep and dreams, were capable of an explanation by the acceptation of such ideas, which was perfectly satisfactory to a primitive mind. The soul, that material and organic inhabitant of the body, that kind of parasite on the living organism, experienced at times a desire to forsake its cage. When this happened, the body was left in a condition very similar to that which followed its final abandonment by the soul: it knew and felt nothing, it did not move: it slept. The soul went somewhere; it did and experienced many things, of which an indistinct recollection was retained after its return, and these were the dreams. Grimm tells a story, taken from Paulus Diaconus, that describes how a certain King Gun tram lay down to sleep when out hunting one day, and the servant who accompanied him saw a little animal resembling a snake, crawl out from his mouth and hasten to the brook near by, which it was unable to cross. The servant noticing this, drew his sword from its scabbard and laid it across the brook. The little animal crossed over upon the sword, and after an absence of several hours, returned in the same way, and crawled back into the king’s mouth. The king then awoke and told his companion how he had dreamed of coming to an immense river, which he had crossed upon an iron bridge, etc. Grimm relates another legend of the same kind, about a maid out of whose mouth crept a little red mouse after she had fallen asleep; some one then turned her over upon her face, so that when the little mouse returned, it was unable to enter her mouth, and as a consequence she awoke no more. But where was this mysterious inhabitant of the human body, the cause and explanation of the great phenomena of life and death, of sleep and dreams, where did it live before the birth of its landlord and where did it go at the death of the latter? It had occupied other bodies before this, and would go into still others afterwards; this was the doctrine of transmigration of souls. Another theory was that it was born with the body, but lived after it, remaining always in its vicinity; this was the theory believed by the ancient Egyptians, which led to their careful preservation of the dead body. In no case did primitive man conceive of it as ceasing to exist with the living body. And this is quite natural; absolute non-existence is an idea beyond the reach of the human intellect; it is even entirely opposed to human thought. We can not expect a machine to exert an amount of power beyond the strength and capacity of its constituent parts. The conception of absolute non-existence is an effort beyond the power of human intellect. We say that Nature abhors a vacuum; human processes of thought have the same horror vacui. That which thinks in man, is his I, his Ego; it is the foundation, the necessary presupposition of the act of thinking; without the Ego, no thought, no conception, not even sensibility—the idea of non-existence is conceived by the Ego, but while it is trying to represent the idea of absolute non-existence to itself, it has at the same time the full consciousness of its own existence, and this coincident impression prevents completely any real, distinct conception of the actuality of non-existence. In order to grasp this idea clearly and convincingly, the Ego would be obliged to suspend its consciousness of existence for a few moments, cease to be conscious, cease to think. In this state of course, it would not be capable of conceiving of non-existence. This is the circulus vitiosus which man, owing to the nature of his thinking apparatus, is not able to pass. As long as he thinks, his Ego is fully conscious of its existence and not able to grasp the idea of non-existence; but on the contrary, if his Ego loses consciousness of its existence, it has ceased to think and can thus grasp no ideas at all.
By a miracle of abstract reasoning, the philosopher of India conceived the idea of Nirvanah, the absolute Nothing, the absolute non-existence of matter and motion The human mind is capable of comprehending this conception of an absolute Nothing, when universe and Ego alike can cease to exist. But it is incapable of grasping the idea of an annihilation of the Ego, while the world lives on. How can these things around us, which are only there, because we are cognizant of them, whose existence outside of our perceptions would be absolutely inconceivable, how can they continue to exist if that which first gave them their existence, our Ego, which perceives them, has ceased to exist. It is inconceivable. We can grasp the idea of a Nirvanah, when the entire phenomena of the universe and the Ego, would cease simultaneously to exist; it is not only possible, but in a certain sense would prove a source of egotistical consolation to some minds. But that the Ego can cease to exist, while the world lives on, is an idea which can not enter upon our field of thought, bounded as it is, on all sides by the limitations of the Ego. We can be swept off our feet by a torrent of technical words and phrases, we can compose all sorts of philosophical formulas and definitions, and argue ourselves into a state of apparent conviction that we are conveying the ideas clearly and forcibly to our brains by constantly repeating certain definitions and axioms. But in reality, we can no more conceive of absolute non-existence, than we can of eternity, and neither of these terms conveys any exact idea to our minds. The fact that a few master-minds have succeeded in gaining a kind of dim suspicion of their meaning, too illusory to be described in words, is one of the greatest triumphs of the human intellect. If it were possible to carry on a train of thought independent of the consciousness of the Ego, it would be in the nature of a raising ourselves out of and beyond our actual selves. Of course primitive man was incapable of such super-human mental effort. Centuries of intellectual discipline have only prepared us to formulate the problem. The immortality, the continual existence of the Ego, was recognized as an inherent necessity, in the earlier stages of mental development. And this conception was refined from its first crude form, the corporal resurrection and continued existence of the dead, into the belief in the immortality of the spiritual or intellectual attributes of each individual.
This is what I meant when I said above, that Religion was a functional weakness, caused by the imperfectness of our organ of thought, and one of the manifestations of our finiteness. Man arrived at his belief in God by the operations of causality and the incapability of imagining any forces or causes, except in organic forms, such as he was accustomed to see around him. He arrived at his belief in the soul, by a false and illogical observation of the phenomena of life and death, of sleep and dreams, and at his faith in the continued existence of the soul, by the impossibility experienced by his Ego, of imagining itself as non-existing. The theory of a continued existence after death is nothing more than a certain manifestation of the impulse for self-preservation, as the impulse for self-preservation itself, is nothing more than the form under which our vital energies, that have their seat in every single cell of our organism, manifest themselves to our consciousness. Energy to live is identical with the wish to live. Any one who has had the opportunity of seeing many people die, will acknowledge the fact that people become easily resigned to death when weakened by disease or old age, but that there is a terrible struggle before the end is accepted as inevitable, by a strong and promising nature, stricken down by some accident at the opening of life’s career. Suicide appears to be a contradiction to my assertion; it certainly pre-supposes an extremely powerful will, which is as certainly, only the outgrowth of an equally powerful vitality; hence it seems as if in suicides, the energy to live is in direct opposition to the wish to live. But in reality, suicide, except in those cases where it is due to some temporary aberration of the intellect, is merely an inconsiderate act to protect one’s life against certain dangers that threaten it. The suicide throws himself into the arms of death because he dreads some impending physical or emotional disturbances; he would not have resorted to this extreme measure unless he had still prized life, for otherwise he would have had no reasons for fearing any disasters, that even at their worst, could only have deprived him of life. Every suicide is an example of the same frame of mind which impels the soldier to commit suicide before the battle, for fear that he may be shot during the day—consequently a proof, not of weariness of life nor of indifference to death, but of exactly the opposite sentiments. The axiom that the wish and the energy to live are identical, is thus proved to have no exception, and this wish to live continues in the very presence of death.
Every organic being, conscious of its life and vitality in every cell, finds it impossible to realize the idea of a complete cessation of its rich and delightful material activity. We can conceive of the death of some one else as probable and possible, but we consider our own existence as eternal and our own death as some remote and improbable contingency. Only by the aid of the most advanced intellectual culture, by accumulating a vast number of abstractions and analogies, and using them like the rounds of a ladder, do we climb to a height in which our intellectual and our emotional natures are able to realize the fact that the succeeding generations are merely a continuation and development of those that have gone before, and to find a consolation in the permanence and evolution of the human race as a whole, for the perishableness of the individual.
The causes which led to the growth of transcendental ideas in prehistoric man have the same effect upon the civilized man of today, although sometimes they exert their influence in the sphere of the Unconscious. Anthropomorphism has still an influence upon every mind which does not watch over the conception and growth of its ideas with the strictest severity; it is so convenient to clothe abstract thoughts in familiar expressions, and all of us can recall many occasions when we represented to ourselves or to others some spiritual, immaterial idea under the form of some circumstance or appearance that had come under our observation in the animal or vegetable world. And the incapability of realizing any possible non-existence of the Ego, is as marked now as it ever was. The superstition of primitive man, which we have inherited direct, exerts a powerful influence upon us as we enter the realms of the Unconscious. The French philosopher T. Ribot, observes that heredity is to the race what memory is to the individual—that is, heredity is the memory of the species. Every man carries in his mind the ideas of his ancestors, usually unconsciously and but dimly recognized; some external disturbance however occurs, and they blaze up, casting a light as bright as day upon the entire inner world of intelligence and emotions. Heredity is a curse from which we can not escape. It is impossible for us to change the shape of our features or of our bodies, and in the same way it is impossible for us to alter the mental physiognomy of our thought, bequeathed to us with the former by our ancestors. This explains the trait of superstition which is often absolutely beyond the control of the reason or will, and which we notice with such surprise in ourselves, and in others of the most extensive culture; it also explains that exaltation of religious sentiment to which persons of poetic temperament are so liable, because they are particularly susceptible to the influence of heredity. This source of superstitious ideas, heredity, can be only controlled and done away with by the accumulated efforts of many generations. Centuries will be required to produce a human being, who from his birth up, is prepared to comprehend life and the universe from the point of view of reason and natural science, without prejudice or superstition, because a hundred generations before him had been convincing themselves of the correctness of this point of view.
We on the contrary, are predisposed to look upon the phenomena of this life and the world, from an irrational and superstitious standpoint, owing to the fact that not hundreds, but hundreds of thousands of generations before us, have been in the habit of carrying on a false and mistaken habit of thought and theorizing. Among the causes which led to the conception of Religion and its continued existence in the human mind, are some which, although not capable of producing by themselves the ideas of God, the soul and immortality, were yet powerful in impressing and perpetuating them upon the heart of man. One of these accessory causes of the continuation of religious sentiments, is the natural cowardice of man; he dislikes to cut himself loose from any powerful organization, to stand alone, only supported by his own will, with no invisible helper or protector to come to his assistance. The human race rarely produces an individual who, realizing his power, and upheld by an exalted self-appreciation, is prepared to enter alone upon life’s battlefield, on which he must wield his sword and shield with might and skill to come out as victor or even alive. These exceptional men, who offer the finest and most perfect types of our race, become party leaders, conquerors, rulers of the people. They look with contempt upon the beaten paths, and open new highways for themselves. They do not accept with patient resignation what destiny offers them, but hew out for themselves a new destiny, even if they know they will perish in the attempt. But the great multitude of mankind has not this independence. The average individual prefers to enter upon the struggle for existence, supported by hundreds of others, and turn a close, serried front to the enemy. They want to feel an armed comrade behind and at each elbow, and in front too, if possible. They like to listen to the words of command, and have their movements determined by a higher authority. Such men cling to Religion as to a weapon and a consolation. What a comfort to imagine that in the midst of the tumult and smoke of the battle, a protecting shield is held up in front of them by a watchful God or guardian angel! The humblest tailor or day-laborer can have the satisfaction of sharing the privilege of Achilles who was protected by the invisible shield of Pallas Athene during the battle on the plains of Troy. And what a sense of strength fills the mind of him who feels that at all times and in all places, he is armed with a powerful weapon—prayer! It is difficult to despair when one believes that a word, a supplication, will remove any disturbing element from his path. To take an extreme case,—an aeronaut falls from the car of his balloon, a thousand feet high. If he is a freethinker, he knows that he is lost and that there is no power on earth that can prevent his body from being smashed to pieces on the ground beneath, in less than ten seconds. But if he is a believer in God, he retains during the entire extent of his fall, or at least until he loses consciousness, a hope that some superhuman power, to which he offers up supplications of intense fervor as he falls, will, to save him, suspend the laws of nature for a few minutes and deposit him gently and softly upon the ground. As long as he retains consciousness the impulse of self-preservation maintains its sway, and he clings obstinately to a visionary, superstitious possibility, even against such an irrevocable sentence of death as has been passed upon him. The human heart has no more precious possession than illusion. And what more beneficent and consoling illusion could there be than the self-deception of faith in God and prayer? In consequence of this fact the majority of mankind will continue to seek refuge from life’s pains and griefs in conceptions founded on a childish superstition, until they become so impressed by and convinced of the necessity of viewing the world from the standpoint of natural science, that they learn to consider the death of an individual, even although it be their own, as a circumstance of the most trifling importance for their race and the — universe not until the solidarity of mankind has become so generally and firmly organized that each individual will turn instinctively for help to his fellow-men in any disasters that befall him, and not to an incomprehensible, supernatural power.
Another one of these causes of the continuation of Religion, which I have designated as accessory, consists in the necessity for an ideal that is experienced by all human hearts, even the rudest and most uncultivated. What is this ideal? It is the remote type towards which mankind is developing and perfecting itself; not only the type of physical perfection, but the type of the inner life, of the mode of thinking, and of the constitution of society. The impulse towards this ideal, the longing to attain to it, are implanted in the breast of every intellectually and physically normal man; it is something organically inherent in him, of which he is not necessarily conscious, and in which even in the deepest and closest thinker, there is always much that is unconscious. In building a railroad embankment, a row of wooden stakes is first driven into the ground, of the same height and extending as far, as the embankment is to be; then the workmen shovel dirt upon the stakes until they are entirely covered up and lost to sight. Every living being contains within itself a law for its growth and development, which fulfills the same purpose as the stakes in the embankment; it grows and developes in accordance with this law, trying to fill out the invisible but none the less real framework which it has built up for itself, as the embankment grows and finally covers up the stakes. If an organism developes so that it coincides at all points with the figure which represents the extreme limit of its capacity for development, it has reached perfection and fully attained to its ideal. Usually each individual being remains far behind the ideal of its type, but its effort to reach it is the mysterious compelling force of its instinct for self-preservation and development, that is, of all organic activity. The race as a whole, has also its standard of development, and everything within it to raise it to this standard, as well as the individual. Like the individual every species has its law of growth. It arises, has that within it which impels it to attain to a certain standard of size and strength, and last a certain length of time, it grows to a certain point, and then retrogrades and vanishes from the face of the earth, making way for a more elevated form of life, to which it served as a stepping stone, or, I might say as a sketch or design. Paleontology makes us acquainted with a long list of animal species, who lived during one or more geological periods, and then became extinct. The same is also true of the human race. It forms one zoological entity taken as a whole, and is governed by one law of life. It had its origin in a certain geological age (whether this was in the beginning of the Quaternary epoch, or in the middle or latter part of the Tertiary period is a matter of little moment), according to analogy, it will become extinct in some other geological period in the future. We can only guess at the forms of life that preceded it, and those that are to follow it are even beyond our imagination. But as long as the human race lives upon earth, as long as it has not attained to the summit of its development, it will continue to struggle earnestly to fill in the invisible framework of its preordained culture and progress and this struggle for the realization of its ideal, the growth to the height of its unseen standard, is felt and experienced by every single member of the human family, with the exception of idiots, although of course most men perceive it only dimly and without comprehending its true import. This dim perception becomes consciousness in cultivated minds. In others, less cultivated, it remains in the stage of an indistinct, impelling longing, which we can call an impulse towards higher things, or a yearning for the ideal, as we may prefer, and which under either name, is nothing else than an intense longing to emerge from our individual isolation and feel more distinctly our unity with our fellow-men. The chain that unites all men of one race into a race, and binds the species itself into one zoological entity, making of it one individual of a higher order, presses upon every human heart, and is felt by all distinctly as a solidarity. This solidarity is constantly seeking expression. Once in a while every man feels the need of knowing that he is a fragment of a mighty whole, of convincing himself that the great current of race development is flowing through his veins side by side with the current of individual self-development and that his individual existence is but a trivial episode in the grand total of human existence. In this consciousness of his identification with a majestic, supreme organism that is living, flourishing and developing more gloriously from day to day with no saddening end in view, he finds an unspeakably deep and tender consolation for the narrowness, limitations and brevity of his individual span of existence. The man of culture finds a thousand opportunities for satisfying this need without leaving his library or his drawing-room. Study of the development of the human race during the centuries described by history, self oblivion in the works of the great thinkers and poets of all ages, or enjoyment of the harmonies of the universe made audible by science, or if these solitary means are not sufficient, social intercourse with minds of wide and liberal mental horizons,—these opportunities are offered to him, and grant him an outlook and an escape from his own individual and isolated existence into the magnificent realm of humanity. But how is it with the man on a lower social scale? Where does he find an opportunity to merge his separate existence into that of collective mankind? When is it proved to him that he is justified in and capable of elevating the conditions of his life above those of the cattle that feed, beget their kind, and pass away? When does he ever find the time in his struggle for his daily bread, in his constant and weary efforts to keep himself supplied with the bare necessaries of life, when does he find an opportunity for communion with his inner self, for raising his thoughts to higher things, for taking observations of his true position in regard to the human race and nature? Until the present day the working man has only attained to a higher existence by means of Religion. The ideal only appeared to him in the disguise of religious belief. The Sunday was not only a day of physical rest to him, but an opportunity for the development of all the blossoms of his mind. The church was his drawing-room, the minister his more elevated intercourse, God and the Saints, his distinguished friends. When in the cathedral he realized that he was in a grand, magnificent structure, that yet belonged to him as much as the wretched hovel that sheltered his poverty from day to day. In the worship of God he found himself taking part in a service that had no direct influence upon the questions of food and clothing, but was entirely separate from his every-day life with its purely physical interests. Surrounded by other true believers he felt himself an authorized member of a great community, and the connection between himself and his neighbors, was expressed openly to his senses by the external symbols of worship, kneeling, rising and making the sign of the cross, which all performed in concert. The sermon was the only elevated discourse which he ever had the opportunity of hearing, and it aroused him somewhat, even if very slightly, from his customary train of dull, rudimentary thought. This is the reason why he continues to cling to Religion with such fervor, and it will remain a powerful and influential obstacle against his acceptation of modern ideas, unless the new culture offers him some substitute for the emotions and satisfactions of his human self-consciousness which he has hitherto found in Religion.
This substitute will be provided; it is even now partly suggested. Intercourse with the poets and thinkers of all ages, through their works, will supersede the sermon; the theatre, concert hall and assembly room will render the meeting-house unnecessary. The germs of future formations are already perceptible on all sides. In those countries which enjoy political freedom, the uncultivated masses meet at certain times and discuss or listen to discussions, concerning the common interests of the place or of the country, finding in such meetings their Sunday rest and recreation On election days, in places where universal suffrage prevails, the working man is filled with a proud self-esteem as a complete man, even more than that he experiences in the common observance of religious worship. Many societies have been formed for ethical and literary culture; in some of them essays or extracts from works of poetry are read aloud, and in these meetings a more human and liberal intercourse prevails than was possible with the minister. It is only to be regretted that these societies have not yet penetrated to the lowest scales of our social system, where they are needed the most. But these germs are developing. A time is coming and is perhaps near at hand, when we will see a civilization in which men will satisfy not transcendentally, but according to reason, their need for rest and recreation, for elevation of their ideas, and their longing for emotions; when a solidarity of the human race will be the worship of a progressive and enlightened age. By a return to primitive customs, such as history has often had to record, the theatre will again be the place of meeting and worship, as it was two and a half thousand years ago among the Greeks. But not the theatre of today with its indecent plots, its street-song melodies, its idiotic laughter and its semi-nudity, but a theatre where we will see in beautiful, corporate forms the passions struggling with the will, and personal greed conquered by the capability for self-denial, and where with every word and action, like a grand accompaniment, we will hear a continual reference to the collective existence and development of the human race. The unity of benevolence will succeed to the unity of worship. And what different emotions will be aroused in man by these future festivals of all humanity! The mysticism of the priest can not rival the clear, rational beauty of poetry. An intellect expands as it follows the scenes of human passion in some noble drama, while it remains passive during the mysterious symbols of a church service, with no reason nor meaning in it. The discourse of a scientist as he explains the phenomena of nature, the speech of some distinguished politician discussing the questions of the day in regard to the State and the commonwealth, have a much more vivid and direct interest for the listeners than the monotonous repetitions of the preacher, as he relates worn-out myths, and dilutes orthodox doctrines for his flock. The adoption of orphans by the community, the distribution of clothing and other presents among destitute children, testimonials of honor to deserving fellow-citizens on suitable occasions in the presence of the public, accompanied by songs and music and carried on with order and dignity—such observances as these would surely give each participant a very different idea of the mutual duties and responsibilities of citizens and men and of their unity, due to the ties of mutual interests and privileges, in short, of their solidarity, than dipping their dirty fingers simultaneously into a basin of holy water, or praying and singing in concert. Such is my idea of the civilization of the future. I am convinced that the day will come when even the humblest man will find his individual life merged into the fuller life of the community, and his isolated, circumscribed horizon broadened by means of festivals of poetry, music, art, thought and humanity, until it coincides with the horizon of the entire human race, thus leading him on to nobler standards of development and setting before him the grand ideal of a perfected humanity. Until this picture of the future becomes reality, however, the masses will continue to seek the ideal exaltation which they find no-where else, in Religion, or rather in its external forms, the lofty cathedral buildings, the vestments of the priests, the organ’s tones, the anthems, and all the other mystic accessories of worship.
The foregoing explanations make my meaning clear that the longing experienced by man for a higher intellectual growth and an ideal, for a consolation always ready at hand and even for the self-deception of a powerful and mysterious protector in all emergencies, is no false pretension, but a genuine and ineradicable sentiment. We have also seen that this sentiment necessarily found its gratification in the belief in God, the soul and immortality, impelled thereto by historical, physiological and psychological reasons. The continuation and perpetuation of these transcendental ideas is no conscious intentional fraud in most men, no voluntary self-deception; it is an honest weakness, a habit which they can not break, a poetical sentimentality which they piously defend from the ruthless attacks of rational analysis. This is not what I mean by the conventional lie of Religion. By this term I wish to express the reverence paid by men, even of the most advanced culture, to the positive, external forms of Religion, its dogmas, doctrines, observances, festivals, ceremonies, symbols and ministers.
This reverence is a lie and a fraud, even in those who are most deeply sunk in transcendentalism, unless they have remained completely uninfected by the views and culture of the present day. It is a lie and a fraud, and it would certainly bring the blush of shame to our cheek, if we had not fallen into the habit of doing so many things without reflection, without enquiring into their significance at all. Owing to the force of habit we go regularly to church, bow reverently to the minister, and take up our Bible with solemnity; we assume mechanically an expression of awe and inward reflection when we are taking part in a church service, and we avoid any exact comparison of its outward observances with our convictions, taking especial pains to close our eyes and minds to the disgraceful treason which we are committing by these acts against all our knowledge, our convictions, and everything that we recognize and cling to as truth. Historical investigations have revealed to us the origin and growth of the Bible; we know that by this name we designate a collection of writings, as radically unlike in origin, character and contents, as if the Nibelungen Lied, Mirabeau’s speeches, Heine’s love poems and a manual of zoology, had been printed and mixed up promiscuously, and then bound into one volume. We find collected in this book the superstitious beliefs of the ancient inhabitants of Palestine, with indistinct echoes of Indian and Persian fables, mistaken imitations of Egyptian theories and customs, historical chronicles as dry as they are unreliable, and miscellaneous poems, amatory, human and Jewish— national, which are rarely distinguished by beauties of the highest order, but frequently by superfluity of expression, coarseness, bad taste and genuine Oriental sensuality. As a literary monument the Bible is of much later origin than the Vedas; as a work of literary value it is surpassed by everything written in the last two thousand years by authors even of the second rank, and to compare it seriously with the productions of Homer, Sophocles, Dante, Shakespeare or Goethe, would require a fanaticized mind that had entirely lost its power of judgment; its conception of the universe is childish, and its morality revolting, as revealed in the malicious vengeance attributed to God in the Old Testament and in the New, the parable of the laborers of the eleventh hour and the episodes of Mary Magdalen and the woman taken in adultery. And yet men, cultivated and capable of forming a just estimate, pretend to reverence this ancient work, they refuse to allow it to be discussed and criticised like any other production of the human intellect, they found societies and place enormous sums at their disposal to print millions of copies of it, which they distribute all over the world, and they pretend to be edified and inspired when they read in it.
The formulas used in public worship by all established religions are founded upon ideas and customs which originated in the most ancient barbaric periods, in Asia and northern Africa. We can see the traces of the worship of the sun by the Aryans, of the mysticism of the Buddhists and of the worship of Isis and Osiris by the Egyptians, in the observances and prayers of public worship and in the festivals and offerings of Jews and Christians of the present day. And the people of the Nineteenth Century assume a reverent and solemn expression as they repeat the kneelings, gestures, ceremonies and prayers invented thousands of years ago, on the hanks of the Nile or the Ganges, by the miserable, undeveloped human beings of the stone or bronze ages, to manifest in some material was their conceptions of the universe, its origin and its laws—all, conceptions of the rankest heathenism.
As we study this disgraceful comedy, the more we expose to view the grotesque contrast between the modern tone of mind and the established religions, the more difficult does it become to speak calmly and dispassionately on this subject. The inconsistency is so superhumanly nonsensical, so gigantic, that the arguments set forth in detail against it, appear as inadequate and inefficient as a broom to sweep out the sands of Sahara; only the satire of a Rabelais or the inkstand of a Luther thrown against it, could do it justice.
It is impossible to describe all the details of this sham structure of Religion. We must be content to accept a few of the most significant. Diplomatists make use of all possible means and threats to induce the Cardinals to elect a Pope to suit them; but after the tedious and obstinate intrigues have been led to the wished-for conclusion, these same diplomatists, who have been pulling the strings of the puppet show, manifest a sudden and fervent reverence for the Pope’s authority and person, which is founded upon the fiction that the Holy Ghost had selected him as the successor of St. Peter. This election of a Pope is regarded by thousands upon thousands of people as a solemn and important occurrence who would laugh at a description of the ceremonies attending the installation of a new Grand Lama in Thibet, upon the death of his predecessor, and yet these ceremonies bear a striking resemblance to each other. The Governments of various countries maintain diplomatic relations with a man whose importance is due to the fact that he supplies God with new saints, and can guarantee to men celestial privileges and blessings, and liberate sinners from the torments of being burned after death; they conclude diplomatic treaties with him and set forth in laws and decrees that the Pope has great influence with God, and consequently that a person standing in such intimate intercourse with the Supreme Being, and sharing his infallibility to such an extent, should receive reverence and homage beyond that which any other man on earth is entitled to. And yet, these same Governments send out expeditions to the Soudan, and laugh at the pretensions of the black Prophet there, who forbids their emissaries to enter into his domain, and declares that he will strike them, if they disobey him, with the anger of the Supreme Fetish, whose prophet and favorite he is. Who can point out to me the difference between that poor negro and the Pope at Rome? Each claims to be the high priest of God, whose thunder and lightning he can control, with the privilege of recommending certain people to God’s favor or vengeance, who acts upon their suggestions. Where is the logic of the cultivated European who looks upon one as an absurd pretender, and the other as an imposing figure worthy of all reverence?
Every separate act of a religious ceremony becomes a fraud and a criminal satire when performed by a cultivated man of this Nineteenth Century.
He sprinkles himself with holy water, and expresses by the act his conviction that the priest who said certain words over it, accompanied by certain gestures, had conferred some mysterious virtues upon it, changing its nature in some way, although a chemical analysis of it would show that it differs in no respect from any other water, except in being a little more dirty. He repeats prayers, kneels, goes to church services with all their ceremonies, and thus asserts his conviction that there is a God, who enjoys prayers, gestures, incense and anthems, if the prayers are in certain stereotyped words, the gestures in certain prescribed forms, and the ceremonies presided over by persons in odd clothing, with robes and capes of such peculiar colors and shapes as no sensible man would ever dream of wearing. The fact that a liturgy or form of public worship once established, is observed with painful minuteness, can only be explained to a rational mind somewhat in this way: the priests learned from some good source, and acted upon this knowledge, that God not only had the vanity to insist upon praises, compliments and flattery being offered to Him as well as glorifications of His goodness, His wisdom and His greatness, but combined with this vanity was the whim that He would only accept these praises and glorifications when they were offered according to a certain formula, never to be deviated from. And the men of our age of natural science pretend to reverence these liturgies, and will not allow any one to speak of them with the contempt they deserve.
More revolting and insufferable even than the lie of Religion as acted by the individual, is the same lie of Religion as acted by the community. The individual citizen although he belongs ostensibly to some established religion, and takes part in its ceremonies, often makes no secret of his disbelief in its superstitions, and refuses to be convinced that a certain form of words, repeated in concert by the congregation will suspend or alter the laws of nature, that the devil is driven out from an infant when sprinkled with holy water, or that the chanting and speech of a man in a black or white robe beside a corpse, will open the gates of Paradise to the soul of the dead man. But, as a member of the community and of the body politic, this same citizen does not hesitate to declare necessary all the points claimed by the established religions, and he offers up to them all the substantial and spiritual sacrifices which the salaried minister of this superstition, recognized and supported by the State, may demand. The same Government that builds universities, schools and libraries, builds churches too; the same Government that pays salaries to professors, supports the ministers also; the same code of laws that compels children to go to school, forbids blasphemy and any expression of scorn or defiance of established religions. What do these incongruities mean? This is their meaning: we say that the earth stands still and the sun revolves around it, although science has proved the contrary beyond a doubt; that the earth is only about five thousand years old, and no monuments from Egypt or anywhere else, known to be thousands of years older, will be accepted as contradicting this fact. We are not imprisoned in lunatic asylums for asserting these incongruities to be reconcilable truths; we are not declared incapable of filling office and carrying on our business, although we have certainly given the most striking proofs of mental imbecility, and that we do not possess the intellectual qualifications for looking after our own affairs, much less the destinies of the country entrusted to us. As private citizens we assert that we do not believe in the existence of God, that the God of the established religions is the outgrowth of childish and undeveloped minds; but as members of the body politic, we declare any one holding such views to be guilty of blasphemy before the law and incapable of holding office. And this, notwithstanding the fact that no scientific or rational proof has ever been offered in evidence of the reality of God, that even the most enthusiastic theologian can produce no testimony to prove the existence of God, that approaches in clearness and convincing force, that offered by the archæologian and geologist to prove the antiquity of the earth and its inhabitants, or by the astronomer to convince us of the revolution of the earth around the sun; notwithstanding the fact that a man is excused, even from a theological standpoint, much more readily when he doubts the existence of God, than when he questions the results of scientific investigations, which are capable of such over whelming demonstration. Besides this, the State appoints professors and pays their salaries out of the government revenue, bestows upon them authority and is always ready to help them enforce it, and these professors are commissioned to teach and to prove that the occurrences of this world are regulated by natural laws, that physiology recognizes no organic difference in the formation of all living beings, and that twice two are four. But in addition to these professors of the exact sciences, the State appoints professors of theology, who are commissioned likewise to teach, but necessarily not to prove, to assert however, that the newborn babe is cursed with original, inborn sin, that God dictated to certain men a book to be reverenced as holy, that on numerous occasions the laws of nature were suspended as a favor to certain human beings, that by murmuring certain words over some dough it is changed into flesh, and this flesh is part of the body of a human being who died almost two thousand years ago, and that three persons are one, and one, three. When a law-abiding citizen listens in succession to a lecture on science delivered by some professor appointed by the Government, and then to a sermon preached by some professor of theology, also appointed by the Government and armed with the same authority—his mind must be in a curious predicament between the two. One tells him that after death the organism is resolved to its constituent elements; the other describes how certain persons not only remained uncorrupted by death, but awoke again to life. And both doctrines are presented to him under the authority of the State, the taxes he pays are applied on their salaries, and the teachings of both are declared by the Government to be equally true and necessary. Which professor is the unlucky citizen to believe? The theologian? Then the State is taxed to support a willful liar as professor of physiology, his theories and assertions must be arbitrary deceptions, and yet he is commissioned to educate the young men of the country. Or is he to believe the scientist? Then the theological professor is the liar, and the Government pays for deliberate lies as in the other case. Would it be a matter to cause surprise if the loyal citizen between the horns of this dilemma, should lose more or less of the respect he had hitherto felt for the Government?
And even this is not all. Those old women who get the hard-earned money away from servant girls, under the pretense of giving them a love-philter to win back the hearts of their inconstant sweethearts, are arrested and fined by the authorities; but at the same time those men are paid fine salaries and upheld by the authorities, who obtain the money of the servant girls by the no less false pretense of getting their defunct relatives out of the fires of purgatory, by some hocus-pocus arrangement. Custom has it that we treat the clergy and the high dignitaries of the church, the bishops and cardinals, with excessive reverence, and men accept this custom and bow before it, who in their hearts, consider these men as cheats or simpletons, not superior in any way to the medicine-men of the red skins, who have their established forms of worship too, their ceremonies and their prayers, and are held in veneration by their tribes as possessing supernatural powers. If we find it proper to ridicule these medicine-men, why should we not be permitted to laugh at the ceremony of kissing the slipper of the Pope or the hand of a priest?
The newspapers have occasionally recorded the fact with humorous comment, that the Chinese Government had been threatening a certain god with deposition, if he should fail to fulfill the prayers of the people; if, for example, he did not send the rain they had been soliciting, or had not secured the victory to the imperial army, etc. But these same newspapers publish in the most prominent place, governmental decrees—as for example, in England, after the battle of Tel-el-Kebir—appointing a day for the people to assemble and give thanks to God, in a regularly appointed formula, for that He had been graciously pleased to grant them the victory. What is the essential difference between a decree of the Chinese Government depriving the national god of some portion of his offerings, because he had permitted an epidemic to scourge the land, and the decree of the English Government, acknowledging the indebtedness of the people to God because He had taken good care of the political interests of England in Egypt, and shown Himself the true friend of the British and the enemy of the Arabs. Both decrees are founded upon the same ideas, only the Chinese are more courageous and consistent than the English, who in case of a defeat, would not venture to express their disapprobation of His indifference to the duties He owes to the nation that worships Him so zealously, as in case of a victory, they award Him the honor and praise.
As I remarked before, it is impossible to describe this gigantic imposition of Religion in all its details; I must confine myself to some of its leading points in order to avoid incessant repetitious. This fraud penetrates and demoralizes our whole public and private existence. The State is guilty of imposition when it sets apart special days for prayer or thanksgiving, when it appoints ministers and calls the higher clergy into the House of Lords; the community is guilty of the same lie when it builds churches; the judge is acting a lie when he is passing sentence upon some person who has been blaspheming or insulting God or the church; the minister, imbued with the modern tone of thought, knows that he is guilty of deception when he takes pay for repeating dogmas and conducting ceremonies, which he is fully aware are nothing but nonsensical frauds,—the enlightened citizen knows that he is a hypocrite when he affects an outward reverence for the man of God, when he goes to communion or presents his child for baptism. The continued existence and growth of these ancient, partly prehistoric forms of worship in the midst of our modern civilization is a monstrous fact, and the position accorded to the minister, the European equivalent of the Indian medicine-man and the African almamy, is such an insolent triumph of cowardice, hypocrisy and mental indolence over truth and courage of opinion, as would be sufficient, taken alone, to characterize our civilization as a complete imposition, and our political and social conditions of life as necessarily temporary.
Categories: Anti-Christian Library