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

DOWN AMONG THE DEAD MEN.

(July 2, 1893.)

The ramming and sinking of the "Victoria" is the great event of the day. It is said to show the uselessness of big ironclads in naval warfare. But as the "Camperdown," which sent the "Victoria" to the bottom in a few minutes, has herself sustained very little damage, it looks as though "rams" were anything but inefficient. There has never yet been an engagement between two fleets of ironclads, and no one knows how they would behave in an actual battle. Our own impression is that both fleets would go to the bottom, and this opinion is shared by a good many practical persons at Portsmouth and Devonport. However that may be, it is a great pity that "civilised" nations are still so uncivilised as to spend their time and money on these costly engines of destruction. We are well aware that the newspapers go into hysterics over our soldiers and sailors, and no doubt many of them are very gallant fellows. But in this, we venture to think, they do not represent the masses of the people. Never have we witnessed such deep and sincere enthusiasm as was displayed by the crowd of spectators at the Agricultural Hall, while the American, Portuguese, and English firemen were going through their evolutions. The business of these fine fellows was to save life. They incurred the deadliest danger for human preservation, and not for human destruction. And how the people cheered them as they rode upon their engines, drawn by galloping horses! With what breathless interest they watched them climbing up ladders, sliding down ropes, and bearing men on their backs out of third-floor windows! It did one good to watch the proceedings, which showed that a new spirit was taking possession of the people, that they were beginning to be more interested in the savers than in the slayers of men.

But all this is a digression. Let us return to the "Victoria." She is now in eighty fathoms of water with her hundreds of dead. Poor fellows! theirs was a sad fate; though not more so than the fate of miners blasted or suffocated in explosive pits. We pity their dear ones—mothers, sisters, wives, and children. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of hearts are aching on their account; mourning for the dead who will never be buried under the sweet churchyard grass, though they have the whole ocean for their tomb and the stars for its nightlamps.

On Sunday, of course, the sky-pilots, all over England, were busy at "improving the occasion." They always make profit out of death and disaster. "Prepare to meet thy God!" was the lesson which most of them derived from this catastrophe. Of course the preachers are ready themselves. Who can doubt it? But they are in no hurry to have it tested. They do not want to meet their God until they are obliged to. It is so much better to be a commercial traveller in God's service than to take a situation in the house.

Some of the preachers dared to talk about "Providence"—the sweet little cherub that sits up aloft, to keep watch o'er the life of poor Jack, and lets him go to the bottom or furnish a dinner for sharks. Surely that Providence is a rare old fraud. A cripple, a paralytic, a sleeper, a dead man, could have done as much for the "Victoria" as Providence managed to do. "Oh!" it is said, "but the drowned sailors are gone to Heaven; Providence looked after them in that way." Indeed! Then why do you lament over them? Still more, why do you congratulate the survivors? According to your theory, they have missed a slice of good luck.

We have frequently remarked, and we now repeat, that religion is based upon the bed-rock of selfishness; and nothing proves the truth of this so clearly, and so convincingly, as the talk that people indulge in about Providence. For instance, take this telegram, which is printed in the newspapers as having been sent home to a gentleman in England:—"Jack saved. Awful affair. Thank God!" This telegram was written hastily, but it was sincere; the writer had no time to drop into hypocrisy. "Jack saved" was his first thought; that is, Jack is still on earth and out of heaven. "Awful affair" was his second thought; that is, a lot of other poor devils are gone to heaven—anyhow, they are no longer on earth. "Thank God" was his third thought; that is, Jack's all right. Thus it was two for our Jack, and one for all the hundreds who perished! It may be pointed out, too, that "Thank God!" comes in the wrong place; where it stands it seems to thank God for the calamity. Yes, so it does, if we look at the mere composition; but the order of the ejaculations is all right, if we look at the sentiment, the pious sentiment, of the person who wrote the telegram. He followed the logic of his personal feelings, like everyone else who "thanks God" and talks of Providence.

Season and personal feeling often do not coincide. In this case, for instance, it requires a very slight exercise of the intellect to see that, if Providence saved "Jack," Providence drowned the rest. "No," some will reply, "Providence did not drown them, but only let them drown." Well, that is exactly the same thing. Superficially, it is the same thing; for Providence, like men, is responsible for omissions as well as commissions. If you let a blind man walk over a precipice without warning him, you are his murderer, you are guilty of his blood. Resolving not to do a thing is as much an act of will as resolving to do it. "Thou shalt" is a law as imperative as "Thou shalt not," though it does not figure in the decalogue. Profoundly also, as well as superficially, Providence, if it saved Jack, killed those who perished; for, as Jack was not visibly fished out of the water by Providence, it can only be held that Providence saved him on the ground that Providence does everything, which covers the whole of our contention. "I the Lord do all these things." So says the Bible, and so you must believe, if you have a God at all.


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