There is but a difference in degree between the chemist who to-day arranges forces in his laboratory so that they produce a gas, and the creator who arranges forces so that they produce a world; between the gardener who plants a seed, and the creator who plants a nebula. It is a question for us now to consider whether we have any personal relations towards the Supreme Power; whether there exists another world in which we shall be requited according to our actions. Not only is this a grand problem of philosophy; it is of all questions the most practical for us, the one in which our interests are most vitally concerned. This life is short; and its pleasures are poor; when we have obtained what we desire, it is nearly time to die. If it can be shown that, by living in a certain manner, eternal happiness may be obtained, then clearly no one except a fool or a madman would refuse to live in such a manner. We shall therefore examine the current theory respecting the nature of the Creator, the design of Creation; and the future destiny of Man. But before we proceed to this inquiry, we must first state that we intend to separate theology from morality. Whatever may be the nature of the Deity, and whether there is a future life or not, the great moral laws can be in no way changed. God is a purely scientific question. Whether he is personal or impersonal, definable or undefinable, our duties and responsibilities remain the same. The existence of a heaven and a hell can affect our calculations, but, cannot affect our moral liabilities.
The popular theory is this: -- the world was made by a Great Being; he created man in his own image; and therefore his mind is analogous to that of man. But while our minds are imperfect, troubled by passions, stained with sin, and limited in power, his mind is perfect in beauty, perfect in power, perfect in love. He is omnipotent and omnipresent. He loves men whom he has made, but he sorrows over their transgressions. He has placed them on earth as a means of probation; those who have sinned and repent, those who are contrite and humble, he will forgive, and on them he will bestow everlasting happiness. Those who are wicked, and stubborn, and hard of heart, those who deny and resist his authority, he will punish according to his justice. This reward is bestowed, this punishment is inflicted on the soul, a spirit which dwells within the body during life. It is something entirely distinct from the intellect or mind. The soul of the poorest creature in the streets and the souls of the greatest philosopher or poet are equal before the Creator; he is no respecter of person; souls are measured only by their sins. But the sins of the ignorant will be forgiven; the sins of the more enlightened will be more severely judged.
Now this appears a very reasonable theory as long as we do not examine it closely, and as long as we do not carry out its propositions to their full extent. But when we do so, we find that it conducts us to absurdity, as we shall very quickly prove.
The souls of idiots not being responsible for their sins will go to heaven; the souls of such men as Goethe and Rousseau are in danger of hell-fire. Therefore it is better to be born an idiot than to be born a Goethe or a Rousseau; and that is altogether absurd.
It is asserted that the doctrine of the immortality of the soul, and of happiness in a future state, gives us a solution of that distressing problem, the misery of the innocent on earth. But in reality it does nothing of the kind, It does not explain the origin of evil, and it does not justify the existence of evil. A poor helpless infant is thrust into the world by a higher force; it has done no one any harm, yet it is tortured in the most dreadful manner; it is nourished in vice, and crime, and disease; it is allowed to suffer a certain time and then it is murdered. It is all very well to say that afterwards it was taken to everlasting bliss; but why was it not taken there direct? If a man has a child and beats that child for no reason whatever, is it any palliation of the crime to say that he afterwards gave it cake and wine?
This brings us to the character of the Creator. We must beg to observe again that we describe, not the actual Creator, but the popular idea of the Creator. It is said that the Supreme Power has a mind; this we deny, and to show that our reasons for denying it are good, we shall proceed to criticise this imaginary mind.
In the first place, we shall state as an incontrovertible maxim in morality that a god has no right to create men except for their own good. This may appear to the reader an extraordinary statement; but had he lived in France at the time of Louis XIV, he would also have thought it an extraordinary statement that kings existed for the good of the people and not people for the good of kings. When the Duke of Burgundy first propounded that axiom, St. Simon, by no means a servile courtier, and an enlightened man for his age, was "delighted with the benevolence of the saying, but startled by its novelty and terrified by its boldness." Our proposition may appear very strange, but it certainly cannot be refuted; for if it is said that the Creator is so great that he is placed above our laws of morality, then what is that but placing Might above Right? And if the maxim be admitted as correct, then how can the phenomena of life be justified?
It is said that the Creator is omnipotent, and also that he is benevolent. But one proposition contradicts the other. It is said that he is perfect in power, and that he is also perfect in purity. We shall show that he cannot possibly be both.
The conduct of a father towards his child appears to be cruel, but it is not cruel in reality. He beats the child, but he does it for the child's own good; he is not omnipotent; he is therefore obliged to choose between two evils. But the Creator is omnipotent; he therefore chooses cruelty as a means of education or development; he therefore has a preference for cruelty or he would not choose it; he is therefore fond of cruelty or he would not prefer it; he is therefore cruel, which is absurd.
Again, either sin entered the world against the will of the Creator, in which case he is not omnipotent, or it entered with his permission, in which case it is his agent, in which case he selects sin, in which case he has a preference for sin, in which case he is fond of sin, in which case he is sinful, which is an absurdity again.
The good in this world predominates over the bad; the good is ever increasing, the bad is ever diminishing. But if God is Love why is there any bad at all? Is the world like a novel in which the villains are put in to make it more dramatic, and in which virtue only triumphs in the third volume? It is certain that the feelings of the created have in no way been considered. If indeed there were a judgment-day it would be for man to appear at the bar not as criminal but as an accuser. What has he done that he should be subjected to a life of torture and temptation? God might have made us all happy, and he has made us all miserable. Is that benevolence? God might have made us all pure, and he has made us all sinful. Is that the perfection of morality? If I believed in the existence of this man-created God, of this divine Nebuchadnezzar, I would say, "You can make me live in your world, O Creator, but you cannot make me admire it; you can load me with chains, but you cannot make me flatter you; you can send me to hell-fire, but you can not obtain my esteem. And if you condemn me, you condemn yourself. If I have committed sins, you invented them, which is worse. If the watch you have made does not go well, whose fault is that? Is it rational to damn the wheels and the springs?"
But it is when we open the Book of Nature, that book inscribed in blood and tears; it is when we study the laws regulating life, the laws productive of development, that we see plainly how illusive is this theory that God is Love. In all things there is cruel, profligate, and abandoned waste. Of all the animals that are born a few only can survive; and it is owing to this law that development takes place. The law of Murder is the law of Growth. Life is one long tragedy; creation is one great crime. And not only is there waste in animal and human life, there is also waste in moral life. The instinct of love is planted in the human breast, and that which to some is a solace is to others a torture. How many hearts yearning for affection are blighted in solitude and coldness! How many women seated by their lonely firesides are musing of the days that might have been! How many eyes when they meet these words which remind them of their sorrows will be filled with tears! O cold, cruel, miserable life, how long are your pains, how brief are your delights! What are joys but pretty children that grow into regrets? What is happiness but a passing dream in which we seem to be asleep, and which we know only to have been when it is past? Pain, grief, disease, and death--are these the inventions of a loving God? That no animal shall rise to excellence except by being fatal to the life of others--is this the law of a kind Creator? It is useless to say that pain has its benevolence, that massacre has its mercy. Why is it so ordained that bad should be the raw material of good? Pain is not less pain because it is useful; murder is not less murder because it is conducive to development. Here is blood upon the hand still, and all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten it.
To this then we are brought with the much-belauded theory of a semi-human Providence, an anthropoid Deity, a Constructive Mind, a Deus Paleyensis, a God created in the image of a watchmaker. What then are we to infer? Why, simply this, that the current theory is false; that all attempts to define the Creator bring us only to ridiculous conclusions; that the Supreme Power is not a Mind, but something higher than a Mind; not a Force, but something higher than a Force; not a Being, but something higher than a Being; something for which we have no words, something for which we have no ideas. We are to infer that Man is not made in the image of his Maker, and that Man can no more understand his Maker than the beetles and the worms can understand him. As men in the days of ignorance endeavoured to discover perpetual motion and the philosopher's stone, so now they endeavour to define God. But in time also they will learn that the nature of the Deity is beyond the powers of the human intellect to solve. The universe is anonymous; it is published under secondary laws; these at least we are able to investigate, and in these perhaps we may find a partial solution of the great problem. The origin of evil cannot be explained, for we cannot explain the origin of matter. But a careful and unprejudiced study of Nature reveals an interesting fact and one that will be of value to mankind.
The earth resembles a picture, of which we, like insects which crawl upon its surface, can form but a faint and incoherent idea. We see here and there a glorious flash of colour; we have a dim conception that there is union in all its parts; yet to us, because we are so near, the tints appear to be blurred and confused. But let us expand our wings and flutter off into the air; let us fly some distance backwards into Space until we have reached the right point of view. And now the colours blend and harmonise together, and we see that the picture represents One Man.
The body of a human individual is composed of cell-like bodies which are called "physiological units." Each cell or atom has its own individuality; it grows, it is nurtured, it brings forth young, and it dies. It is in fact an animalcule. It has its own body and its own mind. As the atoms are to the human unit, so the human units are to the human whole. There is only One Man upon the earth; what we call men are not individuals but components; what we call, death is merely the bursting of a cell; wars and epidemics are merely inflammatory phenomena incident on certain stages of growth. There is no such thing as a ghost or soul; the intellects of men resemble those instincts which inhabit the corpuscules, and which are dispersed when the corpuscule dies. Yet they are not lost, they are preserved within the body and enter other forms. Men therefore have no connection with Nature, except through the organism to which they belong. Nature does not recognise their individual existence. But each atom is conscious of its life; each atom can improve itself in beauty and in strength; each atom can therefore, in an infinitesimal degree, assist the development of the Human Mind. If we take the life of a single atom, that is to say of a single man, or if we look only at a single group, all appears to be cruelty and confusion; but when we survey mankind as One, we find it becoming more and more noble, more and more divine, slowly ripening towards perfection. We belong to the minutiae of Nature, we are in her sight, as the rain-drop in the sky; whether a man lives, or whether he dies, is as much a matter of indifference to Nature as whether a rain-drop falls upon the field and feeds a blade of grass, or falls upon a stone and is dried to death. She does not supervise these small details. This discovery is by no means flattering, but it enlarges our idea of the scheme of creation. That universe must indeed be great in which human beings are so small!
The following facts result from our investigations: Supernatural Christianity is false. God-worship is idolatry. Prayer is useless. The soul is not immortal. There are no rewards and there are no punishments in a future state.
It now remains to be considered whether it is right to say so. It will doubtless be supposed that I shall make use of the plea that a writer is always justified in publishing the truth, or what he conscientiously believes to be the truth, and that if it does harm he is not to blame. But I shall at once acknowledge that truth is only a means towards an end -- the welfare of the human race. If it can be shown that by speaking the truth an injury is inflicted on mankind, then a stubborn adherence to truth becomes merely a Pharisee virtue, a spiritual pride. But in moral life Truth, though not infallible, is our safest guide, and those who maintain that it should be repressed must be prepared to bring forward irrefutable arguments in favour of their cause. If so much as the shadow of a doubt remains, their client, Falsehood, is non- suited, and Truth remains in possession of the conscience. Let us now hear what the special pleaders have to say. The advocates for Christianity versus Truth will speak first, and I shall reply; and then the advocates for Deism will state their case. What they will endeavour to prove is this, that even admitting the truth of my propositions, it is an immoral action to give them to the world. On the other hand, I undertake to show that the destruction of Christianity is essential to the interests of civilisation; and also that man will never attain his full powers as a moral being until he has ceased to believe in a personal God and in the immortality of the soul.
"Christianity, we allow, is human in its origin, erroneous in its theories, delusive in its threats and its rewards," say the advocates for Christianity. "Jesus Christ was a man with all the faults and imperfections of the prophetic character. The Bible is simply a collection of Jewish writings. The miracles in the Old Testament deserve no more attention from historians than the miracles in Homer. The miracles in the gospels are like the miracles in Plutarch's Lives; they do not lessen the value of the biography, and the value of the biography does not lessen the absurdity of the miracles. So far we go with you. But we assert that this religion with all its errors has rendered inestimable services to civilisation, and that it is so inseparably associated in the minds of men with purity of life, and the precepts of morality, that it is impossible to attack Christianity without also attacking all that is good, all that is pure, all that is lovely in human nature. When you travelled in Africa did you not join in the sacrifices of the pagans? Did you not always speak with respect of their wood spirits and their water spirits, and their gods of the water and the sky? And did you not take off your shoes when you entered the mosque, and did you not, when they gave you the religious blessing, return the religious reply? And since you could be so tolerant to savages, surely you are bound to be more tolerant still to those who belong to your own race, to those who possess a nobler religion, and whose minds can be made by a careless word to suffer the most exquisite pain. Yet you attack Christianity, and you attack it in the wrong way. You ought, in the interests of your own cause, to write in such a manner that minds might be gradually trained to reflection and decoyed to doubt. It is not only heartless and inhuman, it is also unwise, it is also unscientific, to say things which will shock and disgust those who are beginning to inquire, and it is bad taste to jest on subjects which if not sacred in themselves are held sacred in the, eyes of many thoughtful and cultivated men. You ought to adopt a tone of reluctance and to demonstrate, as it were against your will, the errors of the popular religion. Believers at least have a right to demand that if you discuss these questions upon which their hopes of eternal happiness are based, you will do so with gravity and decorum."
To this I reply that the religion of the Africans, whether pagan or Moslem, is suited to their intellects, and is therefore a true religion; and the same may be said of Christianity among uneducated people. But Christianity is not in accordance with the cultivated mind; it can only be accepted or rather retained by suppressing doubts, and by denouncing inquiry as sinful. It is therefore a superstition, and ought to be destroyed. With respect to the services which it once rendered to civilisation, I cheerfully acknowledge them, but the same argument might once have been advanced in favour of the oracle at Delphi, without which there would have been no Greek culture, and therefore no Christianity. The question is not whether Christianity assisted the civilisation of our ancestors, but whether it is now assisting our own. I am firmly persuaded that whatever is injurious to the intellect is also injurious to moral life; and on this conviction I base my conduct with respect to Christianity. That religion is pernicious to the intellect; it demands that the reason shall be sacrificed upon the altar; it orders civilised men to believe in the legends of a savage race. It places a hideous image, covered with dirt and blood, in the Holy of Holies; it rends the sacred Veil of Truth in twain, It teaches that the Creator of the Universe, that sublime, that inscrutable power, exhibited his back to Moses, and ordered Hosea to commit adultery, and Ezekiel to eat dung. There is no need to say anything more. Such a religion is blasphemous and foul. Let those admire it who are able. I, for my part, feel it my duty to set free from its chains as many as I can. Upon this point my conscience speaks clearly, and it shall be obeyed. With respect to manner and means, I shall use the arguments and the style best suited for my purpose. There has been enough of writing by implication and by innuendo; I do not believe in its utility, and I do not approve of its disguise. There should be no deceit in matters of religion. In my future assaults on Christianity I shall use the clearest language that I am able to command.
Ridicule is a destructive instrument, and it is my intention to destroy. If a man is cutting down a tree, it is useless asking him not to strike so hard. But because I make use of ridicule, it does not follow that I am writing merely for amusement; and because I tear up a belief by the roots, it does not follow that I am indifferent to the pain which I inflict. Great revolutions cannot be accomplished without much anguish and some evil being caused. Did not the Roman women suffer when the Christians came and robbed them of their gods, and raised their minds, through pain and sorrow, to a higher faith? The religion which I teach is as high above Christianity as that religion was superior to the idolatry of Rome. And when, the relative civilisations of the two ages are compared, this fetish of ink and paper, this Syrian book is, in truth, not less an idol than those statues which obtained the adoration of the Italians and the Greeks. The statues were beautiful as statues; the book is admirable as a book; but the statues did not come down from heaven; the book was not a magical composition; it bears the marks not only of human genius, but also of human depravity and superstition.
As for the advocates of Deism they acknowledge that Christianity is unsuited to the mental condition of the age; they acknowledge that the Bible ought to be attacked as Xenophanes attacked Homer; they acknowledge that the fables of a god impregnating a woman, of a god living on the earth, are relics of pagan superstition; they acknowledge that the doctrine of eternal punishment is incompatible with justice, and is therefore incompatible with God. But they declare that Christianity should not be destroyed but reformed; that its barbarous elements should be expelled, and that then, as a pure God-worship, it should be offered to the world. "It is true", they say, "that God is an idol, an image made of human ideas which, to superior beings, would appear as coarse and vile for such a purpose as the wood and the stone of the savage appear to us. But this idolatry is conducive to the morality of man. That exquisite form which he raises in his mind, and before which he prostrates him self in prayer, that God of purity and love, becomes his ideal and example. As the Greek women placed statues of Apollo and Narcissus in their chambers that the beauty of the marble form might enter their wombs through the windows of their eyes, so by ever contemplating perfection the mind is ennobled, and the actions born of it are divine. And surely it is a sweet and consoling faith that there is above us a great and benignant Being who, when the sorrows of this life are past, will take us to himself. How can it injure men to believe that the righteous will he rewarded and that the wicked will be punished in a future state? What good can be done by destroying a belief so full of solace for the sorrowful, so full of promise for the virtuous, so full of terror for the workers of iniquity? You do not deny that much anguish and some evil will be caused? by the destruction of this belief; and what have you to show on the other side? What will you place in the balance? Consider what a dreadful thing it is to take even from a single human being the hopes of a future life.
"All men cannot be philosophers; all cannot resign themselves with fortitude and calm to the death-warrant of the soul. Annihilation has perhaps more terrors for the mind than eternal punishment itself. O, make not the heart an orphan, cast it not naked and weeping on the world! Take it not away from its father, kill not its hopes of an eternal home! There are mothers whose children have gone before them to the grave, poor miserable women whose beauty is faded, who have none to care for them on earth, whose only happiness is in the hope that when their life is ended they will be joined again to those whom they have lost. And will you take that hope away? There are men who have passed their whole lives in discipline and self-restraint that they may be rewarded in a future state; will you tell them that they have lived under an illusion, that they would have done better to laugh, and to feast, and to say "Let us make merry, for to-morrow we shall die"? There are men whom the fear of punishment in a future life deters from vice and perhaps from crime. Will you dare to spread a doctrine which unlooses all restraints, and leaves men to the fury of their passions? It is true that we are not demoralised by this belief in the impersonality of God and the extinction of the soul; but it would be a dangerous belief for those who are exposed to strong temptations, and whose minds have not been raised by culture to the religion of dignity and self-control."
In the first place, I admit that the worship and contemplation of a man-like but ideal Being must have, through the law of imitation, an ennobling effect on the mind of the idolater, but only so long as the belief in such a Being harmonises with the intellect. It has been shown that this theory of a benignant God is contradicted by the laws of Nature. We must judge of the tree by its fruits; we must judge of the maker by that which he has made. The Author of the world invented not only the good but also the evil in the world; he invented cruelty; he invented sin. If he invented sin how can he be otherwise than sinful? And if he invented cruelty how can he be otherwise than cruel? From this inexorable logic we can only escape by giving up the hypothesis of a personal Creator. Those who believe in a God of Love must close their eyes to the phenomena of life, or garble the universe to suit their theory. This, it is needless to say, is injurious to the intellect; whatever is injurious to the intellect is injurious to morality; and, therefore, the belief in a God of Love is injurious to morality. God-worship must be classed with those provisional expedients, Famine, War, Slavery, the Inequality of Conditions, the Desire of Gain, which Nature employs for the development of man, and which she throws aside when they have served her turn, as a carpenter changes his tools at the various stages of his work.
The abolition of this ancient and elevated faith; the dethronement of God; the extinction of piety as a personal feeling; the destruction of an Image made of golden thoughts in the exquisite form of an Ideal Man, and tenderly enshrined in the human heart -- these appear to be evils, and such undoubtedly they are. But the conduct of life is a choice of evils. We can do nothing that is exclusively and absolutely good. Le genre humain n'est pas place entre le bien et le mal, mais entre le mal et le pire. No useful inventions can be introduced without some branch of industry being killed and hundreds of worthy men being cast, without an occupation, on the world. All mental revolutions are attended by catastrophe. The mummeries and massacres of the German Reformation, though known only to scholars, were scarcely less horrible than those of Paris in 1793, and both periods illustrate the same law. I have facts in my possession which would enable me to show that the abolition of the slave-trade, that immortal and glorious event, caused the death of many thousand slaves, who were therefore actually killed by Sharp, Clarkson, Wilberforce, and their adherents. But by means of abolition millions of lives have since been saved. The first generation suffered; prisoners were captured to be sold, and the market having been suppressed, were killed. This was undoubtedly an evil. But then the slave-making wars came to an end, and there was peace. In the same manner I maintain that even should the present generation be injured by the abolition of existing faiths, yet abolition would be justified. Succeeding generations would breathe an atmosphere of truth instead of being reared in an atmosphere of falsehood, and we who are so deeply indebted to our ancestors have incurred obligations towards our posterity. Let us therefore purify the air, and if the light kills a few sickly plants which have become acclimatised to impurity and darkness, we must console ourselves with the reflection that in Nature it is always so, and that of two evils we have chosen that which is the least.
But the dangers of the Truth are not so great as is commonly supposed. It is often said that if the fears of hell-fire were suddenly removed men would abandon themselves with out restraint to their propensities and appetites; that recklessness and despair would take possession of the human race, and society would be dissolved. But I believe that the fears of hell-fire have scarcely any power upon earth at all, and that when they do act upon the human mind it is to make it pious, not to make it good. A metaphysical theory cannot restrain the fury of the passions: as well attempt to bind a lion with a cobweb. Prevention of crime it is well known depends not on the severity but on the certainty of retribution. Just as a criminal is often acquitted by the jury because the penalties of the law are disproportione to the magnitude of the offence, so the diabolic laws which inflict an eternal punishment for transitory sins have been tempered by a system of free pardons which deprive them of any efficiency they might have once possessed. What would be the use of laws against murder if the condemned criminal could obtain his liberty by apologising to the Queen? Yet such is the Christian system, which, though in one sense beautiful on account of its mercy, is also immoral on account of its indulgence. The supposition that the terrors of hell-fire are essential or even conducive to good morals is contradicted by the facts of history. In the Dark Ages there was not a man or a woman, from Scotland to Naples, who doubted that sinners were sent to hell. The religion which they had was the same as ours, with this exception, that everyone believed in it. The state of Europe in that pious epoch need not be described.
Society is not maintained by the conjectures of theology, but by those moral sentiments, those gregarious virtues, which elevated men above the animals, which are now instinctive in our natures, and to which intellectual culture is propitious. For, as we become more and more enlightened, we perceive more and more clearly that it is with the whole human population as it was with the primeval clan; the welfare of every individual is dependent on the welfare of the community, and the welfare of the community depends on the welfare of every individual. Our conscience teaches us it is right, our reason teaches us it is useful, that men should live according to the Golden Rule. This conduct of life is therefore enjoined upon every man by his own instincts, and also by the voice of popular opinion. Those cannot be happy who are detested and despised by their fellow- men; and as for those, the outlaws of society, who, like domestic animals run wild, herd together in secret places, and, faithful only to their own gang, make war upon mankind, the Law, which is seldom evaded, the Law, which never forgives, chases them from den to den, and makes their lives as full of misery as they are full of crime.
The current religion is indirectly adverse to morals, because it is adverse to the freedom of the intellect. But it is also directly adverse to morals by inventing spurious and bastard virtues. One fact must be familiar to all those who have any experience of human nature--a sincerely religious man is often an exceedingly bad man. Piety and vice frequently live together in the same dwelling, occupying different chambers, but remaining always on the most amicable terms. Nor is there anything remarkable in this. Religion is merely loyalty: it is just as irrational to expect a man to be virtuous because he goes to church, as it would be to expect him to be virtuous because he went to court. His king, it is true, forbids immorality and fraud. But the chief virtues required are of the lickspittle denomination -- what is called "a humble and a contrite heart." When a Christian sins as a man, he makes compensation as a courtier. When he has injured a fellow- creature, he goes to church with more regularity, he offers up more prayers, he reads a great number of chapters in the Bible, and so he believes that he has cleared off the sins that are laid to his account. This, then, is the immorality of religion as it now exists. It creates artificial virtues and sets them off against actual vices. Children are taught to do this and that, not because it is good, but to please the king. When Christians are informed that not only our physical but our moral actions are governed by unchangeable law, and that the evil treatment of the mind, like the evil treatment of the body, is punished by a loss of happiness and health, they cry out against a doctrine which is so just and so severe. They are like the young Roman nobles who complained when the Tarquins were expelled, saying, that a king was a human being, that he could be angry and forgive, that there was room for favour and kindness, but that the law was a deaf and inexorable thing -- leges rem surdam inexorabilem esse; that it allowed of no relaxation and indulgence -- nihil laxa-menti nec veniae habere, and that it was a dangerous thing for weak and erring men to live by their integrity alone -- periculosum esse in tot humanis erroribus sola innocentia vivere. Christians believe themselves to be the aristocracy of heaven upon earth; they are admitted to the spiritual court, while millions of men in foreign lands have never been presented. They bow their knees and say that they are miserable sinners, and their hearts rankle with abominable pride. Poor infatuated fools! Their servility is real, and their insolence is real, but their king is a phantom and their palace is a dream.
Even with Christians of comparatively blameless lives their religion is injurious. It causes a waste of moral force. There are passionate desires of virtue, yearnings for the good, which descend from time to time like a holy spirit upon all cultivated minds, and from which, strange as it may seem, not even free-thinkers are excluded. When such an impulse animates the godless man he expends it in the service of mankind; the Christian wastes it on the air; he fasts, he watches, and he prays. And what is the object of all his petitions and salaams? He will tell you that he is trying to save his soul. But the strangest feature in the case is this. He not only thinks that it is prudent and wise on his part to improve his prospects of happiness in a future state; he considers it the noblest of all virtues. But there is no great merit in taking care of one's own interests whether it be in this world or the next. The man who leads a truly religious life in order to go to heaven is not more to be admired than the man who leads a regular and industrious life in order to make a fortune in the city; and the man who endeavours to secure a celestial inheritance by going to church, and by reading chapters in the Bible, and by having family prayers, and by saying grace in falsetto with eyes hypocritically closed, is not above the level of those who fawn and flatter at Oriental courts in order to obtain a monopoly or an appointment.
The old proverb holds good in religious as in ordinary life, that self-preservation is the first law of Nature. As long as men believe that there is a god or king who will listen to their prayers and who will change his mind at their request; as long as they believe that they can obtain a mansion in the heavenly Belgravia, so long they will place the duties of the courtier above the duties of the man, so long they will believe that flattery is pleasing to the Most High, so long they will believe that they can offend against the law and escape the penalties of the law, so long they will believe that acts of devotion may be balanced against acts of immorality, so long they will make selfishness a virtue, and salvation of the soul a higher principle of conduct than social love. But when the faith in a personal god is extinguished; when prayer and praise are no longer to be heard; when the belief is universal that with the body dies the soul, then the false morals of theology will no longer lead the human mind astray. Piety and virtue will become identical. The desire to do good which arose in necessity, which was developed by the hopes of a heavenly reward, is now an instinct of the human race. Those hopes and illusions served as the scaffolding, and may now safely be removed.
There will always be enthusiasts for virtue as there are now, men who adorn and purify their souls before the mirror of their conscience, and who strive to attain an ideal excellence in their actions and their thoughts. If from such men as these the hope of immortality is taken, will their natures be transformed? Will they who are almost angels turn straightway into beasts? Will the sober become drunkards? Will the chaste become sensual? Will the honest become fraudulent? Will the industrious become idle? Will the righteous love that which they have learnt to loathe? Will they who have won by hard struggles the sober happiness of virtue return to the miseries of vice by which few men have not at one time or another been enthralled? No; they will pass through some hours of affliction; they will bear another illusion to the grave; not the first that they have buried, not the first they have bewailed. And then, no longer able to hope for themselves, they will hope for the future of the human race: unable to believe in an eared God who listens to human supplications they will coin the gold of their hearts into useful actions instead of burning it as incense before an imaginary throne.
We do not wish to extirpate religion from the life of man; we wish him to have a religion which will harmonise with his intellect, and which inquiry will strengthen, not destroy. We wish, in fact, to give him a religion, for now there are many who have none. We teach that there is a God, but not a God of the anthropoid variety, not a God who is gratified by compliments in prose and verse, and whose attributes can be catalogued by theologians. God is so great that he cannot be defined by us. God is so great that he does not deign to have personal relations with us human atoms that are called men. Those who desire to worship their Creator must worship him through mankind. Such it is plain is the scheme of Nature. We are placed under secondary laws, and these we must obey. To develop to the utmost our genius and our love, that is the only true religion. To do that which deserves to be written, to write that which deserves to be read, to tend the sick, to comfort the sorrowful, to animate the weary, to keep the temple of the body pure, to cherish the divinity within us, to be faithful to the intellect, to educate those powers which have been entrusted to our charge and to employ them in the service of humanity, that is all that we can do. Then our elements shall be dispersed and all is at an end. All is at an end for the unit, all is at an end for the atom, all is at an end for the speck of flesh and blood with the little spark of instinct which it calls its mind, but all is not at an end for the actual Man, the true Being, the glorious One. We teach that the soul is immortal; we teach that there is a future life; we teach that there is a Heaven in the ages far away; but not for us single corpuscules, not for us dots of animated jelly, but for the One of whom we are the elements, and who, though we perish, never dies, but grows from period to period and by the united efforts of single molecules called men, or of those cell-groups called nations, is raised towards the Divine power which he will finally attain. Our religion therefore is Virtue, our Hope is placed in the happiness of our posterity; our Faith is the Perfectibility of Man.
A day will come when the European God of the nineteenth century will be classed with the gods of Olympus and the Nile; when surplices and sacramental plate will be exhibited in museums; when nurses will relate to children the legends of the Christian mythology as they now tell them fairy tales. A day will come when the current belief in property after death (for is not existence property, and the dearest property of all? ) will be accounted a strange and selfish idea, just as we smile at the savage chief who believes that his gentility will be continued in the world beneath the ground, and that he will there be attended by his concubines and slaves. A day will come when mankind will be as the Family of the Forest, which lived faithfully within itself according to the Golden Rule in order that it might not die. But Love not Fear will unite the human race. The world will become a heavenly Commune to which men will bring the inmost treasures of their hearts, in which they will reserve for themselves not even a hope, not even the shadow of a joy, but will give up all for all mankind. With one faith, with one desire, they will labour together in the Sacred Cause--the extinction of disease, the extinction of sin, the perfection of genius, the perfection of love, the invention of immortality, the exploration of the infinite, and the conquest of creation.
You blessed ones who shall inherit that future age of which we can only dream; you pure and radiant beings who shall succeed us on the earth; when you turn back your eyes on us poor savages, grubbing in the ground for our daily bread, eating flesh and blood, dwelling in vile bodies which degrade us every day to a level with the beasts, tortured by pains, and by animal propensities, buried in gloomy superstitions, ignorant of Nature which yet holds us in her bonds; when you read of us in books, when you think of what we are, and compare us with yourselves, remember that it is to us you owe the foundation of your happiness and grandeur, to us who now in our libraries and laboratories and star-towers and dissecting-rooms and work- shops are preparing the materials of the human growth. And as for ourselves, if we are sometimes inclined to regret that our lot is cast in these unhappy days, let us remember how much more fortunate we are than those who lived before us a few centuries ago. The working man enjoys more luxuries to-day than did the King of England in the Anglo-Saxon times; and at his command are intellectual delights, which but a little while ago the most learned in the land could not obtain. All this we owe to the labours of other men. Let us therefore remember them with gratitude; let us follow their glorious example by adding something new to the knowledge of mankind; let us pay to the future the debt which we owe to the past.
All men indeed cannot be poets, inventors, or philanthropists; but all men can join in that gigantic and god-like work, the progress of creation. Whoever improves his own nature improves the universe of which he is a part. He who strives to subdue his evil passions--vile remnants of the old four-footed life--and who cultivates the social affections: he who endeavours to better his condition, and to make his children wiser and happier than himself; whatever may be his motives, he will not have lived in vain. But if he act thus not from mere prudence, not in the vain hope of being rewarded in another world, but from a pure sense of duty, as a citizen of Nature, as a patriot of the planet on which he dwells, then our philosophy which once appeared to him so cold and cheerless will become a religion of the heart, and will elevate him to the skies; the virtues which were once for him mere abstract terms will become endowed with life, and will hover round him like guardian angels, conversing with him in his solitude, consoling him in his afflictions, teaching him how to live, and how to die. But this condition is not to be easily attained; as the saints and prophets were often forced to practise long vigils and fastings and prayers before their ecstasies would fall upon them and their visions would appear, so Virtue in its purest and most exalted form can only be acquired by means of severe and long-continued culture of the mind. Persons with feeble and untrained intellects may live according to their conscience; but the conscience itself will be defective. To cultivate the intellect is therefore a religious duty; and when this truth is fairly recognised by men, the religion which teaches that the intellect should be distrusted, and that it should be subservient to faith, will inevitably fall.
We have written much about inventions and discoveries and transformations of human nature which cannot possibly take place for ages yet to come, because we think it good that the bright though distant future should be ever present in the eyes of man. But we shall now consider the existing generation, and we shall point out the work which must be accomplished, and in which all enlightened men should take a part. Christianity must be destroyed. The civilised world has outgrown that religion, and is now in the condition of the Roman Empire in the pagan days. A cold-hearted infidelity above, a sordid superstition below, a school of Plutarchs who endeavour to reconcile the fables of a barbarous people with the facts of science and the lofty conceptions of philosophy; a multitude of augurs who sometimes smile when they meet, but who more often feel inclined to sigh, for they are mostly serious and worthy men. Entering the Church in their youth, before their minds were formed, they discover too late what it is that they adore, and since they cannot tell the truth, and let their wives and children starve, they are forced to lead a life which is a lie. What a state of society is this in which "free-thinker" is a term of abuse, and in which doubt is regarded as a sin! Men have a Bluebeard's chamber in their minds which they dare not open; they have a faith which they dare not examine lest they should be forced to cast it from them in contempt. Worship is a convention, churches are bonnet shows, places of assignation, shabby-genteel salons where the parochial "at home" is given, and respectable tradesmen exhibit their daughters in the wooden stalls. O wondrous, awful, and divine religion! You elevate our hearts from the cares of common life, you transport us into the unseen world, you bear us upwards to that sublime temple of the skies where dwells the Veiled God, whom mortal eye can never view, whom mortal mind can never comprehend. How art thou fallen! How art thou degraded! But it will be only for a time. We are now in the dreary desert which separates two ages of Belief. A new era is at hand.
It is incorrect to say "theology is not a progressive science." The worship of ancestral ghosts, the worship of pagan deities, the worship of a single god, are successive periods of progress in the science of Divinity. And in the history of that science, as in the history of all others, a curious fact may be observed. Those who overthrow an established system are compelled to attack its founders, and to show that their method was unsound, that their reasoning was fallacious, that their experiments were incomplete. And yet the men who create the revolution are made in the likeness of the men whose doctrines they subvert. The system of Ptolemy was supplanted by the system of Copernicus, yet Copernicus was the Ptolemy of the sixteenth century. In the same manner, we who assail the Christian faith are the true successors of the early Christians, above whom we are raised by the progress, of eighteen hundred years. As they preached against gods that were made of stone, so we preach against gods that are made of ideas. As they were called atheists and blasphemers so are we. And is our task more difficult than theirs? We have not, it is true, the same stimulants to offer. We cannot threaten that the world is about to be destroyed; we cannot bribe our converts with a heaven, we cannot make them tremble with a hell. But though our religion appears too pure, too unselfish for mankind, it is not really so, for we live in a noble and enlightened age. At the time of the Romans and the Greeks the Christian faith was the highest to which the common people could attain. A faith such as that of the Stoics and the Sadducees could only be embraced by cultivated minds, and culture was then confined to a chosen few. But now knowledge, freedom, and prosperity are covering the earth; for three centuries past, human virtue has been steadily increasing, and mankind is prepared to receive a higher faith. But in order to build we must first destroy. Not only the Syrian superstition must be attacked, but also the belief in a personal God, which engenders a slavish and oriental condition of the mind; and the belief in a posthumous reward which engenders a selfish and solitary condition of the heart. These beliefs are, therefore, injurious to human nature. They lower its dignity; they arrest its development; they isolate its affections.
We shall not deny that many beautiful sentiments are often mingled with the faith in a personal Deity, and with the hopes of happiness in a future state; yet we maintain that, however refined they may appear, they are selfish at the core, and that if removed they will be replaced by sentiments of a nobler and a purer kind. They cannot be removed without some disturbance and distress; yet the sorrows thus caused are salutary and sublime. The supreme and mysterious Power by whom the universe has been created, and by whom it has been appointed to run its course under fixed and invariable law; that awful One to whom it is profanity to pray, of whom it is idle and irreverent to argue and debate, of whom we should never presume to think save with humility and awe; that Unknown God has ordained that mankind should be elevated by misfortune, and that happiness should grow out of misery and pain.
I give to universal history a strange but true title--The Martyrdom of Man. In each generation the human race has been tortured that their children might profit by their woes. Our own prosperity is founded on the agonies of the past. Is it therefore unjust that we also should suffer for the benefit of those who are to come? Famine, pestilence, and war are no longer essential for the advancement of the human race. But a season of mental anguish is at hand, and through this we must pass in order that our posterity may rise. The soul must be sacrificed; the hope in immortality must die. A sweet and charming illusion must be taken from the human race, as youth and beauty vanish never to return.