Freethought Archives > G.W. Foote > Flowers of Freethought Vol. II (1894)


Dogmatism, said Douglas Jerrold, is only puppyism grown to maturity. This sarcastic wit never said a truer thing. We call a young fellow a puppy when he is conceited and impudent, and we call a man dogmatic when he betrays the same qualities in controversy. Yet every Church prides itself on being dogmatic. Rome is dogmatic and Canterbury is dogmatic. Without dogma there is no theology. And what is dogma? An opinion, or a set of opinions, promulgated by somebody for the blind acceptance of somebody else. Arrogance, therefore, is of its very essence. What right has one man to say to another, "This is the truth; I have taken the trouble to decide that point, and all you have to do is to accept what I present you "? And if one man has no such right to impose his belief on another, how can twenty thousand men have such a right to impose their belief on twenty millions? This, however, is precisely what they do without the least shame or compunction. Before we are able to judge for ourselves, the priests thrust certain dogmas upon us, and compel us to embrace them. Authority takes the place of judgment, dogmatism supplants thought. The young mind is rendered slavish, and as it grows up it goes through life cringeing to the instruments of its own abasement.

When a superior mind rises from this subjection and demands reasons for believing, he is knocked down with the Bible. A text is quoted to silence him. But who wrote the text? Moses, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Matthew, John, Peter, or Paul. Well, and who made them lords over us? Have we not as much right to our own thoughts as they had to theirs? When they state an opinion in the pompous language of revelation, are they less fallible than the rest of us? Obviously not. Yet prophets and evangelists have a trick of writing, which still clings to their modern representatives, as though they could not be mistaken. "I am Sir Oracle," they seem to say, "and when I ope my lips let no dog bark." No doubt this self-conceit is very natural, but self-conceited people are not usually taken at their own estimate. Nowadays we laugh at them and try to take the conceit out of them. But what is absurd to-day is treated as venerable because it happened thousands of years ago, and prophets are regarded as inspired who, if they existed now, would be treated with ridicule and contempt.

The style of downright God-Almighty-men is very simple. They need not argue, they have only to assert, and they preface every statement with "Thus saith the Lord." Now suppose such a declaration were made today. A man with no greater reputation for sense than his neighbors stands up and shouts "Thus saith the Lord." Should we not look at him with curiosity and amusement? Would he not strike us as a silly fanatic? Might we not even reflect that he was graduating for a strait-waistcoat? The fellow is simply an ignorant dogmatist. What he believes you must believe. Reasons for his belief he has none, and he cannot conceive that you want any either. Yet it would never do to exclaim, "I am your lord and master," so the grown-up puppy shouts "Thus saith the Lord," in order to assure you that in rejecting him you reject God.

Suppose we heckle this loud-mouthed preacher for a minute. "You tell us, Thus saith the Lord. Did he say so to you, and where and when? And are you quite sure you did not dream the whole business?" Probably he answers, "No, the Lord did not say it to me, but he said it to the blessed prophets and apostles, and I am only repeating their words." "Very well then," a sensible man would reply, "you are in the second-hand business, and I want new goods. You had better send on the original traders—Moses, Isaiah, Paul and Co.—and I'll see what I can do with them." If, however, the preacher says, "Yes, the Lord did say it to me," a sensible man replies, "Well, now, I should have thought the Lord would have told somebody with more reputation and influence. Still, what you assert may be true. I don't deny it, but at the same time your word is no proof. On the whole, I think I'll go my way and let you go yours. The Lord has told you something, and you believe it; when he tells me, I'll believe it too. I suppose the Lord told you because he wanted you to know, and when he wants me to know I suppose he'll give me a call. What you got from him is first-hand, what I get from you is second-hand; and, with all due respect, I fancy your authority is hardly equal to the Almighty's." "Thus saith the Lord" is no argument. It is simply

The dark lanthorn of the spirit
Which none can see by but those who bear it.

Nay more, it dispenses with reason, and makes every man's faith depend on somebody else's authority. Discussion becomes impertinence, criticism is high treason. Hence it is but a step from "Thus saith the Lord." Very impolite language, truly, yet it is the logical sequence of dogmatism, Fortunately the time is nearly past for such impudent nonsense. This is an age of debate. And although there are many windy platitudes abroad, and much indulgence in empty mouthing, the very fact of debate being considered necessary to the settlement of all questions makes the public mind less hasty and more cautious. "Thus saith the Lord" men can only succeed at present among the intellectual riff-raff of the populace.

Looking over the past, we see what an immense part dogmatism has played in history. "Thus saith the Lord" cried the Jewish prophets, and they not only terrified their contemporaries, but overawed a hundred generations. "Thus saith the Lord" cried the Christian apostles, and they converted thousands of open-mouthed slaves to a "maleficent superstition." "Thus saith the Lord" cried Mohammed, and the scimitars of Islam flashed from India to Spain. "Thus saith the Lord" cried Joe Smith, and Mormonism springs up in the practical West, with its buried gold tablets of revelation and its retrogressive polygamy. "Thus saith Reason" has been a still small voice, sometimes nearly inaudible, though never quite drowned; but now it is swelling into a mighty volume of sound, overwhelming the din of sects and the anathemas of priests.

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