Freethought Archives > G.W. Foote > Arrows of Freethought (1882)


(November, 1882.)

The Archbishop of York is peculiarly qualified to speak on religion and progress. His form of thanksgiving to the God of Battles for our "victory" in Egypt marks him as a man of extraordinary intellect and character, such as common people may admire without hoping to emulate; while his position, in Archbishop Tait's necessitated absence from the scene, makes him the active head of the English Church. Let us listen to the great man.

Archbishop Thomson recently addressed "a working-men's meeting" in the Drill Hall, Sheffield. It was densely crowded by six or seven thousand people, and this fact was cited by the Archbishop as a proof that the working classes of England have not yet lost interest in the Christian faith. But we should very much like to know how it was ascertained that all, or even the major portion, of the vast audience were working-men. It is easy enough to give any meeting a name. We often hear of a Conservative Working-men's banquet, with tickets at something like a guinea each, a duke at the top of the table and a row' of lords down each side. And our experience leads us to believe that nearly all religious meetings of "working-men" are attended chiefly by the lower middle classes who go regularly to church or chapel every Sunday of their lives.

Even, however, if the whole six or seven thousand were working-men, the fact would prove little; for Sheffield contains a population of three hundred thousand, and it was not difficult for the clergy who thronged the platform to get up a big "ticket" meeting, at which a popular Archbishop was the principal speaker, and the eloquence was all to be had for nothing.

The Archbishop's lecture, or sermon, or whatever it was, contained nothing new, nor was any old idea presented in a new light. It was simply a summary of the vulgar declamations against the "carnal mind" with which we are all so familiar. Progress, said his Grace, was of two kinds, intellectual and moral. Of the former sort we had plenty, but of the latter not so much. He repudiated the notion that moral progress would naturally keep pace with intellectual progress, and he denied that righteousness could ever prevail without "some sanction from above." This was the sum and substance of his discourse, and we have no doubt that our readers have heard the same thing, in various forms of language, some hundreds of times.

Like the rest of his tribe, Archbishop Thomson went abroad for all his frightful warnings, and especially to France. He severely condemned the French "pride in progress," which led to the Revolution. His Grace has certainly a most original conception of history. Ordinary historians tell us that the Revolution was caused by hunger, bad government, and the rigidity of old institutions that could not accommodate themselves to new ideas. But whatever were the causes, look at the results. Compare the state of France before the Revolution with its condition now. The despotic monarchy is gone; the luxurious and privileged aristocracy has disappeared; and the incredibly wealthy and tyrannous Church is reduced to humbleness and poverty. But the starving masses have become the most prosperous on the face of the earth; the ignorant multitudes are well educated; the platform and the press are free; a career is open to every citizen; science, art, and literature have made immense strides; and although Paris, like every great capital, may still, as Mr. Arnold says, lack morality, there is no such flagrant vileness within her walls as the corruptions of the ancien régime; no such impudent affronting of the decencies of life as made the parc aux cerfs for ever infamous, and his Christian Majesty, Louis the Fifteenth, a worthy compeer of Tiberius; no such shameless wickedness as made the orgies of the Duke of Orleans and the Abbé Dubois match the worst saturnalia of Nero.

His Grace felt obliged to advert also to the Paris Commune, about which his information seems to be equal to his knowledge of the Revolution. He has the ignorance or audacity to declare that the Commune "destroyed a city and ravaged the land;" when, as a matter of fact, the struggle was absolutely confined to Paris, and the few buildings injured were in the line of fire. This worthy prelate thinks destruction of buildings a crime on the part of Communalists, but a virtue on the part of a Christian power; and while denouncing the partial wreck of Paris, he blesses the wholesale ruin of Alexandria.

His Grace ventures also to call the leading men of the Commune "drunken dissolute villains." The beaten party is always wicked, and perhaps Dr. Thomson will remember that Jesus Christ himself was accused of consorting with publicans and sinners. Drunken dissolute villains do not risk their lives for an idea. The men of the Commune may have been mistaken, but their motives were lofty; and Millière, falling dead on the Church steps before the Versailles bullets, with the cry of Vive l'Humanité on his lips, was as noble a hero as any crucified Galilean who questioned why his God had forsaken him.

That intellectual and moral progress naturally go together, the Archbishop calls "an absurd and insane doctrine," and he couples with these epithets the honored names of Buckle and Spencer. Now it will be well to have a clear understanding on this point. Are intellectual causes dominant or subordinate? Even so intensely religious a man as Lamennais unhesitatingly answers that they are dominant. He affirms, in his Du Passé et de l'Avenir du, Peuple, that "intellectual development has produced all other developments," and he adds:—

"It is represented that evil, as it appears in history, springs entirely from the passions. This is quite false. The passions disturb the existing order, whatever it may be, but they do not constitute it. They have not that power. It is the necessary result of the received ideas and beliefs. Thus the passions show themselves the same in all epochs, and yet, in different epochs, the established order changes, and sometimes fundamentally."

The truth is that the great moral conceptions are securely established, and the only possible improvement in them must come from the increased fineness and subtlety of our mental powers.

Civilisation and progress are, according to Archbishop Thomson, nothing but "cobwebs and terms." He besought the working men of Sheffield not to go for information to a big book written in some garret in London. His Grace, who lives in a palace at other people's expense, has a very natural dislike of any man of genius who may live in a garret at his own. What has the place in which a book is written to do with its value? "Don Quixote" and the "Pilgrim's Progress" were written in gaol; and for all Archbishop Thomson knows to the contrary every gospel and epistle of the New Testament may have been written in an attic or a cellar.

The Archbishop seems to hate the very idea of Progress. What has it done, he asks, to abolish drunkenness and gambling? To which we reply by asking what Christianity has done. Those vices are unmistakably here, and on the face of it any objection they may furnish against Progress must equally apply to Christianity. Nay more; for Christianity has had an unlimited opportunity to reform the world, while Progress has been hindered at every turn by the insolent usurpation of its rival.

Dr. Thomson admits that he cannot find a text in the Bible against gambling, and assuredly he cannot find one in favor of teetotalism. On the contrary he will find plenty of texts which recommend the "wine that cheereth the heart of God and man;" and he knows that his master, Jesus Christ, once played the part of an amateur publican at a marriage feast, and turned a large quantity of water into wine in order to keep the spree going when it had once begun.

We repeat that all the Archbishop's objections to Progress, based on the moral defects of men, apply with tenfold force against Religion, which has practically had the whole field to itself. And we assert that he is grievously mistaken if he imagines that supernatural beliefs can ennoble knaves or give wisdom to fools. When he talks about "Christ's blood shed to purchase our souls," and specifies the first message of his creed as "Come and be forgiven," he is appealing to our basest motives, and turning the temple into a huckster's shop. Let him and all his tribe listen to these words of Ruskin's:—

"Your honesty is not to be based either on religion or policy. Both your religion and policy must be based on it. Your honesty must be based, as the sun is, in vacant heaven; poised, as the lights in the firmament, which have rule over the day and over the night If you ask why you are to be honest—you are, in the question itself, dishonored 'Because you are a man,' is the only answer; and therefore I said in a former letter that to make your children capable of honesty is the beginning of education. Make them men first and religious men afterwards, and all will be sound; but a knave's religion is always the rottenest thing about him.—Time and Tide, p. 37."

These are the words of a real spiritual teacher. Archbishop Thomson will never get within a million miles of their meaning; nor will anybody be deceived, by the unctuous "Oh that" with which he concludes his discourse, like a mental rolling of the whites of his eyes.

As we approach the end of his address, we begin to understand his Grace's hatred of Progress. He complains that "intellectual progress never makes a man conceive eternal hopes, never makes a man conceive that he has an eternal friend in heaven, even the Son of God." Quite true. Intellectual progress tends to bound our desires within the scope of their realisation, and to dissipate the fictions of theology. It is therefore inimical to all professional soul-savers, who chatter about another world with no understanding of this; and especially to the lofty teachers of religion who luxuriate in palaces, and fling jibes and sneers at the toiling soldiers of progress who face hunger, thirst and death. These rich disciples of the poor Nazarene are horrified when the scorn is retorted on them and their creed; and Archbishop Thomson expresses his "disgust" at our ridiculing his Bible and endeavoring to bring his "convictions" into "contempt." It is, he says, "an offence against the first principles of mutual sympathy and consideration." Yet this angry complainant describes other people's convictions as "absurd and insane." All the sympathy and consideration is to be on one side! The less said about either the better. There can be no treaty or truce in a war of principles, and the soldiers of Progress will neither take quarter nor give it. Christianity must defend itself. It may try to kill us with the poisoned arrows of persecution; but what defence can it make against the rifleshot of common-sense, or how stand against the shattering artillery of science? Every such battle is decided in its commencement, for every religion begins to succumb the very moment it is attacked.

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