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

FREDERIC HARRISON ON ATHEISM.

January 13, 1889.

Mr. Frank Harris, the editor of the Fortnightly Review, must be a sly humorist. In the current number of his magazine he has published two articles as opposite to each other as Balaam's blessing on Israel was opposite to the curse besought by the King of Moab. Mr. Frederic Harrison pitches into Agnosticism with his usual vigor, and holds out Positivism as the only system which can satisfy the sceptic and the religionist. Mr. W. H. Mallock, on the other hand, makes a trenchant attack on Positivism; and the readers of both articles will learn how much may be said against anything, or at least anything in the shape of a system. Mr. Herbert Spencer, in the name of the Unknowable, proffers his Agnosticism, and Mr. Harrison says "Bosh." Mr. Harrison, in the name of Positivism, proffers his Religion of Humanity, and Mr. Mallock says "Moonshine." Mr. Spencer is a man of genius, and Mr. Harrison and Mr. Mallock are men of remarkable talent. Yet, shuffle them how you will, any two of them are ready to damn what the third blesses. What does this show? Why, that systems are all arbitrary, and suited to a certain order of minds in a certain stage of development; and that system-mongers are like spiders, who spin their webs out of their own bowels.

Mr. Harrison's definition of Agnosticism shows it to be merely Atheism in disguise. Milton said that new presbyter was but old priest writ large, and we may say that the new Agnosticism is but old Atheism written larger—and more respectably. Agnosticism is the cuckoo of philosophy. It appropriates the nest of another bird, turns it out in the cold, and even adopts its progeny. All the time-honored positions of Atheism—man's finity and nature's infinity, the relativity of human knowledge, the reign of law, and so forth—are quietly monopolised by this intruder, who looks upon the object he has despoiled as the Christian looked upon the Jew after borrowing his God. Yet in England, the classic land of mental timidity and compromise, Agnosticism is almost fashionable, while poor Atheism is treated with persecution or obloquy. Elsewhere, especially in France, we find a different condition of things. A French sceptic no more hesitates to call himself an Atheist than to call himself a Republican. May it not be, therefore, that the difference between Agnosticism and Atheism is one of temperament? We might illustrate this theory by appealing to examples. Darwin was an Agnostic, Professor Clifford an Atheist. Or, if we turn to pure literature, we may instance Matthew Arnold and Algernon Swinburne. Arnold, the Agnostic, says that "most of what now passes with us for religion and philosophy will be replaced by poetry." Swinburne, the Atheist, exclaims "Thou art smitten, thou God, thou art smitten, thy death is upon thee O Lord."

This brings out the cardinal—we might say the only distinction between Atheism and Agnosticism. The Agnostic is a timid Atheist, and the Atheist a courageous Agnostic. John Bull is infuriated by the red cloak of Atheism, so the Agnostic dons a brown cloak with a red lining. Now and then a sudden breeze exposes a bit of the fatal red, but the garment is promptly adjusted, and Bull forgets the irritating phenomenon.

Mr. Harrison says "the Agnostic is one who protests against any dogma respecting Creation at all, and who deliberately takes his stand on ignorance." We cannot help saying that this differences him from the Atheist. Seeing that we cannot solve infinite problems, that we know nothing, and apparently can know nothing, of God or the supernatural, the Atheist has always regarded religious dogmas as blind guesses, which, according to the laws of chance, are in all probability wrong; and as these blind guesses have almost invariably been associated with mental tyranny and moral perversion, he has regarded theology as the foe of liberty and humanity. The Agnostic, however, usually adopts a more pleasant attitude. He does not believe in attacking theology; and "after all, you know," he sometimes says, "we can't tell what there may be behind the veil."

With his master, Comte, Mr. Harrison "entirely accepts the Agnostic position as a matter of logic," but it is only a stepping-stone, and he objects to sitting down upon it. Every religion the world has ever seen has been false, but religion itself is imperishable, and Positivism has found the true solution of the eternal problem. Parsons and Agnostics will eventually kiss each other, like righteousness and peace in the text, and the then existing High Priest of Positivism will say, "Humanity bless you, my children." But all this is for the sweet by-and-bye. Meanwhile the Churches thrust out their tongues at Positivism, the great Agnostic philosopher calls it the Ghost of Religion, Sir James Stephen declares that nobody can worship Comte's made-up Deity, and Mr. Mallock says that the love of Humanity, taking it in the concrete, is as foolish as Titania's affection for Bottom the Weaver.

Professed Atheists may watch this hubbub with serenity, if not with enjoyment. When all is said and done, Atheism remains in possession of the sceptical field. Mr. Harrison's flouts, at any rate, will do it no damage. His hatred of Atheism is born of jealousy, and like all jealous people he is somewhat inconsistent. Here he defines Atheism as a "protest against the theological doctrine of a Creator and a moral providence," there he defines it as "based on the denial of God," and again he defines it as a belief that the universe is "self-existent and purely material." Even these do not suffice, for he also adopts Comte's "profound aphorism" that "Atheism is the most irrational form of metaphysics," and proves this by a fresh definition involved in the charge that "it propounds as the solution of an insoluble enigma the hypothesis which of all others is the least capable of proof, the least simple, the least plausible, and the least useful." Of all others is what Cobbett would have called a beastly phrase. It shows Mr. Harrison was in a hurry or a fog. He does not specify this unprovable, complex, unplausible, and useless hypothesis. We forbear to guess his meaning, but we remind him that Atheism "propounds no solution of an insoluble enigma." The Atheist does not say "there is no God"; he simply says, "I know not," and ventures to think others are equally ignorant. Now, this was Comte's own position. He wished to "reorganise Society, without God or King, by the systematic cultus of Humanity," and if warning God off from human affairs is not Atheism, we should like to know what is. Mr. Harrison lustily sings the praises of religion, but he is remarkably silent about Comte's opposition to Theism, and in this he is throwing dust in the eyes of English readers.

In "militant Atheism" Mr. Harrison says that "all who have substantive beliefs of their own find nothing but mischief." But this is only Mr. Harrison's sweeping style of writing. He is always vivid, and nearly always superlative. We venture to think that his "all" merely includes his own circle. At the same time, however, we admit that militant Atheism is still, as of old, an offence to the superfine sceptics who desire to stand well with the great firm of Bumble and Grundy, as well as to the vast army of priests and preachers who have a professional interest in keeping heresy "dark," and to the ruling and privileged classes, who feel that militant Atheism is a great disturber of the peace which is founded on popular superstition and injustice.

Mr. Harrison seems to imagine that Atheists have no ideal beyond that of attacking theology, but a moment's calm reflection would show him the absurdity of this fancy. He might as well suppose that the pioneers of civilisation who hew down virgin forests have no conception of the happy homesteads they are making room for. We go farther and assert that all this talk about negative and positive work is cant. To call the destroyer of superstition a negationist is as senseless as to call a doctor a negationist. Both strive to expel disease, the one bodily and the other mental. Both, therefore, are working for health, and no more positive work is conceivable.


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