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

BELIEVE OR BE DAMNED.

Christian ministers are showing a disposition to fight shy of the second half of the last chapter of Mark, where Jesus is represented as saying to his apostles, "Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature. He that believeth and is baptised shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned." Some of them tell us to look at the Revised Version, where we shall see in the margin that this portion of the chapter does not exist in the earliest manuscripts; and they innocently expect that Freethinkers will therefore quietly drop the offensive passage. Oh dear no! Before they have any right to claim such indulgence they must put forth a new edition of the whole Bible, showing us what they desire excised, and what they wish to retain and are ready to defend as the infallible word of God. We should then discuss whether their selection is justifiable, and after that we should discuss whether the amended Bible is any diviner than the original one. But we cannot allow them to keep the Bible as it is, to call it God's Word, to revile people who doubt it, and to persecute people who oppose it; and yet, at the same time, to evade responsibility for every awkward text. This will never do. The clergy cannot have the authority of inspiration in their pulpits and the ease of eclecticism on the platform and in the press.

Besides, although the text in Mark is the most striking piece of impudent bigotry, there are many passages of Holy Writ that display the same spirit. The Jews were expressly ordered to kill heretics in this world, and the victims only escaped eternal damnation because the chosen people knew nothing at that time of future rewards and punishments. A glance at the first few pages of Crimes of Christianity will also show that the earliest apostles of Christianity were thoroughly imbued with the spirit of persecution. Paul smote Elymas with blindness for opposing him, and even "the beloved disciple" said "If there come any unto you, and bring not this doctrine, receive him not into your house, neither bid him God speed." Paul tells the Galatians, "If any man preach any other gospel unto you than that ye have received, let him be accursed." These passages plainly imply that the unbeliever is to be shunned like poison, and that the teacher of unbelief is a devil. What difference is there between this and the passage in Mark? As a matter of fact, all the Christian Churches, from the beginning till now, have taught that faith is necessary to salvation; and this historic consensus of opinion justifies the Freethinker in regarding bigotry as of the essence of the Bible.

Now what is belief? It is an automatic act of the mind, over which the will has absolutely no power. The will might, indeed, turn the eyes from regarding evidence in a particular direction, or the entire mind from attending to the subject at all. But given the evidence before you, and your own powers of thought, and your judgment is a logical necessity. You cannot help believing what your intellect certifies as true; you cannot help disbelieving what your intellect certifies as false. If you were threatened with everlasting torment for believing that twice two are four, you could not, by the most tremendous effort of volition, alter your conviction in the slightest degree. You might be induced to assert that twice two are five, but whatever your tongue might utter, your belief would remain unchanged.

The effect of threats, therefore, is not to change belief, but to produce hypocrisy. Yet this much must be allowed. The threats may succeed if they are carried out. Fear will make multitudes profess without investigating, and as liars often come to believe their own lies, habitual profession produces a state of mind that has a superficial resemblance to real belief; and, on the other hand, if the threats of future punishment are supplemented by penal laws against heresy, there is a process of artificial selection by which independent minds are eliminated, while the slavish survive. Even when penal laws are relaxed, social ostracism will have a similar, though perhaps a weaker effect. Prizes offered to one form of opinion, and losses inflicted on others, will necessarily make a difference in their relative success. How slowly Christianity advanced during the first three centuries, when it was under a cloud! How swiftly it progressed when Constantine gave it wealth and privileges, and used the temporal sword to repress or extinguish its enemies!

Nothing is truer than that the religious belief of more than ninety-nine hundredths of mankind is determined by the geographical accident of birth. Born in Spain they are Catholics; born in England they are Protestants; born in Turkey they are Mohammedans; born in India they are Brahmanists; born in Ceylon they are Buddhists; born in the shadow of a synagogue they are Jews. Their own minds have not the smallest share in deciding their faith. They take it at secondhand, as they do their language and their fashion of dressing. To call their "faith" belief is absurd. It is simply a prejudice. Belief, in the proper sense of the word, follows evidence and reflection. What evidence has the ordinary Christian, and has he ever reflected on his creed for five minutes in the whole course of his life?

Philosophically speaking, men think as they can, and believe as they must; and as belief is independent of the will, and cannot be affected by motives, it is not a subject for praise or blame, reward or punishment. Religions, therefore, which promise heaven for belief and hell for unbelief, are utterly unphilosophical. They are self-condemned. Truth invites free study. Falsehood shuns investigation, and denounces that liberty of thought which is fatal to its pretensions.

There is a not too refined, but a very true piece of verse, which was first published more than a generation ago in a pungent Freethought journal, and we venture to quote its conclusion. After relating the chief "flams" of the Bible, it says:

And when with this nonsense you're crammed,
To make you believe it all true,
They say if you don't you'll be damned;
But you ought to be damned if you do.

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