Freethought Archives > G W Foote > Flowers of Freethought


THOSE who have read the foregoing articles on the Holy Coat exhibitions at Trèves and Argenteuil may think that enough space has been devoted to such a ridiculous subject. It is possible, however, that the present article will induce them to alter that opinion. Hitherto we have treated this outburst of Christian superstition with jocosity, but there is a serious aspect of it which must not be neglected. Christianity has often made Freethinkers laugh, but not unfrequently it has made them weep tears of blood. Absurdity is not always a laughing matter. There was a comic side to the orthodox persecution of Charles Bradlaugh -- but it killed him. Bigotry and superstition are fit subjects for jest and ridicule; when they gain power, however, they are apt to substitute agony for laughter. Celsus ridiculed Christianity in the second century; in the fourth his writings were absolutely destroyed, and those who shared his opinions, and dared to express them, were on the high road to the prison and the stake.

More recent events teach the same lesson. Thomas Paine treated Christianity not only with trenchant argument, but also with brilliant derision. For this he suffered ostracism and calumny, and for publishing the Age of Reason Richard Carlile, his wife, his sister, and his shopmen rotted in English gaols. The Freethinker derided Christian absurdities, and its conductors were sent to herd with criminals in a Christian prison. Nearly everyone thought, as Sir James Stephen declared in a legal text-book, that the Blasphemy Laws were obsolete; but it was proved by the inexorable logic of fact that laws are never obsolete until they are repealed. While the Blasphemy Laws exist they are always liable to enforcement. They are the standing menace of an absurd creed to those who smile at it too ostentatiously.

Let us extend the same line of reflection to this Holy Coat business. Contemptible as it is to the eye of reason, it excites the piety of millions of persons who never reasoned on religion in the whole course of their lives. Hundreds of thousands of men and women will visit these sham relics of a Savior whose own existence is open to dispute. Superstition will be stirred to its depths. The bestial instinct of spiritual slavery inherited from ancient semi-human progenitors will be intensely stimulated. The sacred function of priests will be heightened and intensified. Nor must it be forgotten that the pecuniary offerings of the pilgrims will fill the coffers of Holy Mother Church, who promises heaven to her dupes and seizes wealth and power for herself on earth.

Superstition is scotched, but not slain. It has life enough to be a peril to civilisation. The faith which wrecked "the grandeur that was Greece and the glory that was Rome" -- the faith which buried the science, art, philosophy and literature of antiquity under a monstrous heap of brutal rubbish, out of which they were slowly and painfully excavated after the lapse of a thousand years -- this same faith is still a danger to the highest welfare of mankind; to its reason, its conscience, its sense of dignity, and its spirit of brotherhood; above all, to freedom of thought, which is the sole guarantee of real and durable progress.

If we turn to Russia, we see at a single glance the fruits of superstition and its twin-sister tyranny. The Czar is the head of the Church and the head of the State; not like Queen Victoria, whose sacred function is only indicated in Latin on our coinage, but in literal, prosaic fact. By means of a swarm of ignorant, and often drunken and immoral priests, the masses of the people are kept in wretched subjection -- hewers of wood and drawers of water, toilers for the huge army of officials, aristocrats, and princes -- and conscripts for the army; while the best and noblest, in whom them still throbs the pulse of freedom, blacken the highways to the mines of Siberia, where hell is more than realised on earth, and the dreams of sour-blooded theologians are outdone in misery and horror.

Over the rest of Europe, even in France, the secular State is often as insecure as the footsteps of travellers over thin crusts of volcanic soil. Bismarck, the Titan, whose great work, with all its defects and failings, may appeal from the clamorous passing hour to the quiet, verdict of history, only kept the Catholic Church and its Jesuits in check for a generation. He could not impair its vitality nor diminish its latent power. It is in Germany that the Coat of Christ is being exhibited, with priests and professors joining hands at the brazen ceremony of imposture: in Germany that myriads of pilgrims are wending their way to the shrine of an idolatry as ignominious as anything that Christianity ever supplanted.

Even in France the one great danger to the Republic is Christian superstition. It is the Church, her priests and her devotees, that furnish the real strength of every reactionary movement. That consummate charlatan, General Boulanger, took to going to church and cultivating orthodoxy when at the height of his aspiration for power. Happily he was defeated by the men of light and leading. Happily, too, the ablest and most trusted leaders of public life in France are on the side of Freethought. It is this, more than anything else, that makes the country of Voltaire the beacon of civilisation as well as the "martyr of democracy."

Charles Bradlaugh, on a very solemn occasion, warned the Freethought party that even in England their great fight would ultimately be with the Catholic Church. He knew that superstition was scotched, but he also knew it was far from slain. While Freethinkers are laughing at this exhibition of old rags, called the Coat of Christ, they should pause for a moment to consider the serious meaning of such a grotesque display of superstition in the land of Goethe and Heine, and in the age of Darwin. Let us jest round our camp-fires, but let us grip our sword-hilts as we hear the cries, the jingle of weapons, and the tramp of men in the camp of our enemy.

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