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

SECULARISM AND CHRISTIANITY.

A Letter to the "Suffolk Chronicle," January 8, 1893.

Sir,—A friend has favored me with a copy of your last issue, containing a long report of the Rev. W. E. Blomfield's sermon at Turret Green Chapel, apparently in reply to my lecture on "Secularism superior to Christianity." Mr. Blomfield declines to meet me in set debate, on the ground that I am not "a reverent Freethinker," which is indeed true; but I observe that he does not really mind arguing with me, only he prefers to do it where I cannot answer him.

Mr. Blomfield finds the pulpit a safe place for what can hardly be called the courtesies of discussion. He refers to certain remarks of mine (I presume) as "petty jokes and witticisms fit only for the tap-room of a fourth-rate tavern." I will not dispute the description. I defer to Mr. Blomfield's superior knowledge of taverns and tap-rooms.

I notice Mr. Blomfield's great parade of "reverence." I notice also that he speaks of Freethought arguments or objections as "short-sighted folly" and "sheer nonsense." I judge, therefore, that "reverence" is not intended by Mr. Blomfield to be reciprocal. He claims a monopoly of it for his own opinions.

If he would only take the trouble to think about the matter, it might occur to him that "reverence" is not, properly speaking, a preliminary but a result. Let us have inquiry and discussion first and "reverence" afterwards. If I find anything to revere I shall not need Mr. Blomfield's admonitions. I revere truth, goodness, and heroism, though I cannot revere what I regard as false or absurd. "Reverence" is often the demand that imposture makes on honesty and superstition on intelligence. Long faces are highly valued by the professors of mystery.

Mr. Blomfield did not hear my lecture. Had he done so he would have found an answer to many of his questions. It is all very well to bid the Ipswich people to "Beware of false prophets," but it is better to hear before condemning.

How much attention, Mr. Blomfield asks, am I to give to this world and how much to another? Just as much as they deserve. We know a great deal about this world, and may learn more. There are plenty of guesses about another world, but no knowledge. It is easy to ask "Is there a future life?" but we must die to find out. Meanwhile this life confronts us, with its hard duties and legitimate pleasures. It is our wisdom to make the best of it, on the rational belief that, if there should be a future life—which no one is in a position to affirm or deny—this must be the best preparation for it, whether our future be decided by evolution or divine justice.

Mr. Blomfield's arguments against Utility as the test of conduct were answered in my lecture. He says the principle is of difficult application. So are all principles in intricate cases; why else have Christian divines written so many tons of casuistry? In any case the Utilitarian principle is the only one which is honored in practice. Other principles do very well on Sunday, but they are cast aside on Monday. The only question asked by statesmen, county councillors, School Board members, or other public representatives, is "Will the proposal tend to benefit the people?" This can be debated and settled. "Is it according to the will of God?" is a question to set people by the ears and raise an endless quarrel.

Mr. Blomfield says the fear of God saved poor Joseph, yet I dare say Potiphar's wife was a religious woman. The will of God sanctions many crimes. It tells the Thug to kill travellers; it told the Inquisition to torture and burn heretics; it told the Catholics and Protestants to rack and slaughter witches; it told Christians and Mohammedans to fight each other on hundreds of bloody battle-fields; it tells Christians now to keep up laws against liberty of thought. There never was a time when these things would not have been denounced by Secularism as crimes against humanity.

Motives to morality do not come from religion. They come from our social sympathies. Preach to a tiger and he will eat you. Differ from a Torquemada and he will burn you. When one man wants another to help him, he does not judge by the name of his sect, but by the glance of his eye and the lines of his mouth. Some men are born philanthropists, others are born criminals; between these are multitudes in whom good and bad tendencies are variously mixed, and who may be made better or worse by education and environment. The late Professor Clifford was an Atheist, and one of the gentlest, kindest, and tenderest men that ever lived. Jay Gould was a member of a Christian church and sometimes went round with the plate. He left twenty millions of money, and not a penny to any charity or good cause. Lick, the Freethinker, built and endowed the great observatory which is one of the glories of America.

I do not propose to follow Mr. Blomfield in his excursion into ancient history. I will only remark that if he thinks there was any lack of "religion" in the worst days of the Pagan world he is very much mistaken. Coming to more modern times, I decline to accept his present of priests and popes who were "atheistic." Whatever they were is a domestic question for the Christian Church. Nor need I discuss Luther's "fresh vision of God." He was a great man, but a savage controversialist, who called his opponents asses, swine, foxes, geese, and fools; which, I suppose, is worthy of the tap-room of a first-rate tavern. As to the "awful collapse" of "unbelieving France" I do not know when it occurred. It was certainly not France that collapsed in the Revolution. The monarchy, the aristocracy, and the Church collapsed; but France inaugurated a new epoch of modern history.

With respect to prayer, on which Mr. Blomfield is very hazy, I would like to discriminate between its "objective value" and its "subjective benefits." Prayer as a means of inducing patience when you do not get what you ask for, is outside my province. I leave it to the clergy. Prayer as a means of obtaining what you require is my concern, and I defy Mr. Blomfield to prove a single case. Yet if prayer is not answered objectively, the Secular principle holds the field that science is man's only providence. I am aware that Christians employ doctors, insure their houses, and put lightning-conductors over their church steeples. They leave as little to God as possible. Mr. Blomfield says this is quite right, and I agree with him; but I will give him, if he cannot find them, twenty texts in support of the honest old doctrine of prayer from the New Testament.

Mr. Blomfield tells me I do not understand the Bible. Well, as I am not exactly a fool, the fault may be in the book. Why was it not made plainer? Why did God write it so that thousands of gentlemen get a fine living by explaining it—in all sorts of different ways? I am reminded that the Bible is not a handbook of physical science. But did the Church think so when it imprisoned Galileo and made him swear that the earth did not go round the sun? Mr. Blomfield says that "Genesis gives an account of the origin of matter, and of life, and, finally, of man, which science has not disproved, on the admission of her most eminent sons." The Bible is a handbook of science after all then! But what has science to do with the origin of matter? The origin of life is still an open question. The origin of man is not an open question. Genesis gives us a piece of mythology; Darwin gave us the truth. Among the eminent sons of science who is greater than he? Yet he has utterly exploded the Adam and Eve story. Darwin has left it on record that he rejected all revelation, and that for nearly forty years of his life he was a disbeliever in Christianity. He did subscribe to a Missionary Society that was attempting to reform South American savages, but he never subscribed a penny for the propagation of Christianity in England. I myself might think Christianity good for savages.

If I understand Mr. Blomfield rightly, God was unable to teach the Jews any faster than he did, although he is both omnipotent and omniscient. Were I to imitate Mr. Blomfield I should call this "sheer nonsense."

In my lecture I stated that the Old Testament sanctioned slavery, and that there was not a word against it in the New Testament. Mr. Blomfield replies that "the principles of the New Testament sapped the foundations of that system." But let us deal with one question at a time. Let the reverend gentleman indicate the text which I say does not exist. As for the "generous spirit" of the Old Testament laws about slavery, am I to find it in the texts allowing the Jews to buy and sell the heathen, to enslave their own countrymen, to appropriate their children born in slavery, and to beat them to death providing they did not expire within forty-eight hours?

My point is not that the Jews held slaves. That was common in ancient times. I merely take objection to the doctrine that God laid down the slavery laws of the Old Testament.

With regard to Jesus Christ, I am not aware that I have spoken of him as a "trickster." Kenan, however, whom Mr. Blomfield appears to admire, suggests that the raising of Lazarus was a performance arranged between him and Jesus. This is a line of criticism I have never attempted. I do not regard the New Testament miracles as actual occurrences, but as the products of Christian imagination.

Mr. Blomfield is angry with me for saying that the books of the Bible are mostly anonymous, yet he declares that "their anonymity is little against them." I leave Mr. Blomfield to settle the point of fact with Christian writers like Canon Driver and Professor Bruce. With respect to the New Testament, I am told that my statement is "palpably incorrect." But what are the facts? With the exception of four of Paul's epistles, and perhaps the first of Peter, the whole of the New Testament books are anonymous, in the sense that they were not written—as we have them—by the men whose names they bear, and that no one knows who did write them. This is practically admitted by Christian scholars, and I am ready to maintain it in discussion with Mr. Blomfield.

Mr. Blomfield talks very freely, in conclusion, about the "fruits" of Christianity and Secularism. He even condescends to personal comparisons, which I warn him are dangerous. He compares Spurgeon with Bradlaugh. Well, the one swam with the stream, and the other against it; the one lived in the world's smile, the other in the world's frown; the one enjoyed every comfort and many luxuries, the other was poor, worried, and harassed into his grave. Spurgeon was no doubt a good man, but Bradlaugh was the more heroic figure.

Jesus Christ said some good things. Among them was the injunction not to let one hand know the other's charity. Mr. Blomfield disregards this. He challenges Secularists to a comparison. He asks where are our Secularist hospitals. We do not believe in such things. Sectarianism in charity is a Christian vice. On the other hand, our party is comparatively small and poor, and Christian laws prevent our holding any trusts for Secularism. Still, we do attend to our own poor as well as we can. Our Benevolent Fund is sufficient for the relief of those who apply in distress. We cannot build "almshouses," but "Atheist widows" are not neglected. On the whole, however, we are not so loud as the Christians in praise of "charity," Much of it is very degrading. If we had justice in society there would be less for "charity" to do.

It is obvious that Mr. Blomfield picks his fruits of Christianity with great discrimination. Is it logical to select all you admire in Christian countries and attribute it to Christianity? The same process would prove the excellence of Buddhism, Brahminism, and Mohammedanism. There are almshouses and hospitals in Chrisendom, but there are also workhouses, gin-palaces, brothels, and prisons. Drunkenness, prostitution, and gambling, are the special vices of Christian nations. It is Christian countries that build ironclads and make cannon, gatling guns, deadly rifles, and terrible explosives. It is Christians who do most of the fighting on this planet.

Mr. Blomfield may or may not consider these things. I scarcely expect him to reply. He prefers the "humble, obedient heart" to the "curious intellect." At any rate he preaches the preference to the young men of Ipswich. For my part, I hope they will reject the counsel. I trust they will read, inquire, and think for themselves. Their "intellect" should have enough "curiosity" to be satisfied as to the truth of what they are asked to believe.


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