Written after a debate at the Hall of Science, London, between the writer and the Rev. C. Fleming Williams, on "Christian Ideas of Man and Methods of Progress." Mr. Branch, of the London County Council, presided, and there was a very large attendance.
My recent friendly discussion with the Rev. C. Fleming Williams was most enjoyable. It is so pleasant to debate points of difference with an opponent whom you fully respect, towards whom you have not an atom of ill feeling, and to whom you disclose your own views in exchange for the confidence of his. The chairman said that he had visited the Hall of Science many years ago, and frequently heard discussions, but they were generally acrimonious, and seldom profitable. No doubt he spoke what he felt to be the truth; at the same time, however, he probably left out of sight a very important factor, namely, the tone and temper which Christian critics are apt to display on a Secular platform; the assumed superiority, which is not justified by any apparent gifts of intelligence; the implication in most of their remarks that the Freethinker is on a lower moral level than they are, though it would never be suspected by an indifferent observer; the arrogance which is often the undercurrent of their speech, and sometimes bursts forth into sheer, undisguised insolence. Christian critics of this species have, perhaps, stung Freethought lecturers into hot resentment, when it would have been far preferable to keep cool, and continue using the rapier instead of seizing the bludgeon. It is always a mistake to lose one's temper, but it becomes excusable (although not justifiable) under intense provocation. On the whole, it is safe to say that Christians have received more courtesy than they have shown in their controversies with Freethinkers.
So much for the debate itself. What I want to deal with in this article is the plea of the chairman, and also of Mr. Williams, for a more charitable understanding. Christians have abused, ill-treated, and even butchered Freethinkers in the past, but the best Christians are ashamed of it now. Let us then, it is urged, bury the past; let us forgive and forget.
So far as it concerns men only I am not insensible to the appeal. Far be it from me to blame Mr. Williams for the follies and malignancies of his Christian predecessors. On a question of character, of merit or demerit, every man stands or falls alone. Imputed wickedness is just as irrational as imputed righteousness. I no more wish to make Mr. Williams responsible for the butcheries of a Torquemada or an Alva than I wish to be saved by the sufferings of Jesus Christ. So far as Mr. Williams is concerned, I have no past to bury. I am not aware that he has ever desired anything but absolute justice for all forms of opinion; and I know that he denounced my imprisonment for the artificial crime of "blasphemy." Evidently, then, Mr. Williams' plea is more than personal. It is really a request that I should judge Christianity, as a great, ancient, historic system, not by what it has in the main taught and done, but by what a select body of its professors say and do in the present generation.
Now this is a plea which I must reject. In the first place, while I admit it is unfair to judge Christianity by its worst specimens, I regard it as no less unfair to judge it by its best. This is not justice and impartiality. The Chief Constable of Hull* is probably as sincere a Christian as Mr. Williams. I have to meet them both, and I must take them as I find them. The one pays me a compliment, and the other threatens me with a prosecution; one shakes me cordially by the hand, the other tries to prevent me from lecturing. The difference between them is flagrant. But how am I to put Mr. Williams to the credit of Christianity, and Captain Gurney to the credit of something else? What is the something else? They both speak to me as Christians; is it for me to say that the one is a Christian and the other is not? Is not that a domestic question for the Christians to settle among themselves? And am I not just and reasonable in declining to take the decision out of their hands?
In the next place, since Christianity is, as I have said, not only a great, but an ancient and historic system, its past cannot be buried, and should not be if it could. History is philosophy teaching us by example. Without it the present is meaningless, and the future an obscurity. Now history shows us that Christianity has been steady and relentless in the persecution of heresy. We have therefore to inquire the reason. It will not do to say that persecution is natural to human pride in face of opposition; for Buddhism, which is older than Christianity, has not been guilty of a single act of persecution in the course of twenty-four centuries. Another explanation is necessary. And what is it? When we look into the matter we find that persecution has always been justified, nay inculcated, by appealing to Christian doctrines and the very language of Scripture. Unbelief was treason against God, and the rejection of Christ was rebellion. They were more than operations of the intellect; they were movements of the will—not mistaken, but satanic. And as faith was essential to salvation, and heresy led straight to hell, the elimination of the heretic was in the interest of the people he might divert from the road to paradise. It was simply an act of social sanitation.
I am aware that this conception is not paraded by "advanced" Christians, though they seldom renounce it in decisive language. But these "advanced" Christians are the children of a later age, full of intellectual and moral influences which are foreign to, or at least independent of, Christianity. Their attitude is the resultant of several forces. But suppose a time of reaction came, and the influences I have referred to should diminish for a season; is it not probable, nay certain, that the old forces of Christian exclusiveness and infallibility, based upon a divine revelation, would once more produce the effects-which cursed and degraded Europe for over a thousand years? Such, at any rate, is my belief; it is also, I think, the belief of most Freethinkers; and this is the reason why we cannot forgive and forget. The serpent is scotched, not slain; and we must beware of its fangs.
* This gentleman was trying to prevent me from delivering Sunday lectures at Hull under the usual condition of a charge for admission.