Freethought Archives > G.W. Foote > Arrows of Freethought (1882)


(January, 1877.)

Professor Flint delivered last week the first of the present year's course of Baird lectures to a numerous audience in Blythswood Church, Glasgow, taking for his subject "The Theories opposed to Theism." Anti-Theism, he said, is more general now than Atheism, and includes all systems opposed to Theism. Atheism he defined as "the system which teaches that there is no God, and that it is impossible for man to know that there is a God." At least this is how Professor Flint is reported in the newspapers, although we hope he was not guilty of so idiotic a jumble.

Where are the Atheists who say there is no God? What are their names? Having mingled much with thoroughgoing sceptics, and read many volumes of heretical literature, we can confidently defy Professor Flint to produce the names of half a dozen dogmatic Atheists, and we will give him the whole world's literature to select from. Does he think that the brains of an Atheist are addled? If not, why does he make the Atheist first affirm that there is no God, and then affirm the impossibility of man's ever knowing whether there is a God or not? How could a man who holds his judgment in suspense, or who thinks the universal mystery insoluble to us, dogmatise upon the question of God's existence? If Professor Flint will carefully and candidly study sceptical literature, he will find that the dogmatic Atheist is as rare a the phoenix, and that those who consider the extant evidences of Theism inadequate, do not go on to affirm an universal negative, but content themselves with expressing their ignorance of Nature's why. For the most part they endorse Thomas Cooper's words, "I do not say there is no God, but this I say, I know not" Of course this modesty of affirmation may seem impiously immodest to one who has been trained and steeped in Theism so long that the infinite universe has become quite explicable to him; but to the sceptic it seems more wise and modest to confess one's ignorance, than to make false pretensions of knowledge.

Professor Flint "characterised the objections which Atheism urges against the existence of God as extremely feeble." Against the existence of what God? There be Gods many and Lords many; which of the long theological list is to be selected as the God? A God, like everything else from the heights to the depths, can be known only by his attributes; and what the Atheist does is not to argue against the existence of any God, which would be sheer lunacy, but to take the attributes affirmed by Theism as composing its Deity and inquire whether they are compatible with each other and with the facts of life. Finding that they are not, the Atheist simply sets Theism aside as not proven, and goes on his way without further afflicting himself with such abstruse questions.

The Atheist must be a very dreary creature, thinks Professor Flint. But why? Does he know any Atheists, and has he found them one half as dreary as Scotch Calvinists? It may seem hard to the immoderately selfish that some Infinite Spirit is not looking after their little interests, but it is assuredly a thousandfold harder to think that this Infinite Spirit has a yawning hell ready to engulph the vast majority of the world's miserable sinners. If the Atheist has no heaven, he has also no hell, which is a most merciful relief. Far better were universal annihilation than that even the meanest life should writhe for ever in hell, gnawed by the worm which never dieth, and burnt in the fire which is never quenched.

Even Nature, thinks Professor Flint, cannot be contemplated by the Atheist as the Theist contemplates it; for while the latter views it as God's vesture wherewith he hides from us his intolerable glory, the latter views it as the mere embodiment of force, senseless, aimless, pitiless, an enormous mechanism grinding on of itself from age to age, but towards no God and for no good. Here we must observe that the lecturer trespasses beyond the truth. The Atheist does not affirm that Nature drives on to no God and no good; he simply says he knows not whither she is driving. And how many Theists are there who think of God in the presence of Nature, who see God's smile in the sunshine, or hear his wrath in the storm? Very few, we opine, in this practical sceptical age. To the Atheist as to the Theist, indeed to all blessed with vision, Nature is an ever new wonder of majesty and beauty! Sun, moon, and stars, earth, air, and sky, endure while the generations of men pass and perish; but every new generation is warmed, lighted, nurtured and gladdened by them with most sovereign and perfect impartiality. The loveliness and infinite majesty of Nature speak to all men, of all ages, climes and creeds. Not in her inanimate beauty do we find fatal objections to the doctrine of a wise and bountiful power which overrules her, but rather in the multiplied horrors, woes, and pangs of sentient life. When all actual and recorded misery is effaced, when no intolerable grief corrodes and no immedicable despair poisons life, when the tears of anguish are assuaged, when crime and vice are unknown and unremembered, and evil lusts are consumed in the fire of holiness; then, and then only, could we admit that a wise and righteous omnipotence rules the universal destinies. Until then we cannot recognise the fatherhood of God, but must find shelter and comfort in the more efficacious doctrine of the brotherhood of Man.

Professor Flint concluded his lecture, according to the newspaper report, thus:—"History bears witness that the declension of religion has ever been the decline of nations, because it has ever brought the decay of their moral life; and people have achieved noble things only when strongly animated by religious faith." All this is very poor stuff indeed to come from a learned professor. What nation has declined because of a relapse from religious belief? Surely not Assyria, Egypt, Greece, or Carthage? In the case of Rome, the decline of the empire was coincident with the rise of Christianity and the decline of Paganism; but the Roman Empire fell abroad mainly from political, and not from religious causes, as every student of history well knows. Christianity, that is the religion of the Bible, has been dying for nearly three centuries; and during that period, instead of witnessing a general degradation of mankind we have witnessed a marvellous elevation. The civilisation of to-day, compared with that which existed before Secular Science began her great battle with a tyrannous and obscurantist Church, is as a summer morn to a star-lit winter night.

Again, it is not true that men have achieved noble things only when strongly animated by religious faith; unless by "religious faith" be meant some vital idea or fervent enthusiasm. The three hundred Spartans who met certain death at Thermopylae died for a religious idea, but not for a theological idea, which is a very different thing. They perished to preserve the integrity of the state to which they belonged. The greatest Athenians were certainly not religious in Professor Flint's sense of the word, and the grand old Roman patriots had scarcely a scintillation of such a religious faith as he speaks of. Their religion was simply patriotism, but it was quite as operant and effective as Christian piety has ever been. Was it religious faith or patriotism which banded Frenchmen together in defiance of all Europe, and made them march to death as a bridegroom hastens to his bride? And in our own history have not our greatest achievers of noble things been very indifferent to theological dogmas? Nay, in all ages, have not the noblest laborers for human welfare been impelled by an urgent enthusiasm of humanity rather than by any supernatural faith? Professor Flint may rest assured that even though all "the old faiths ruin and rend," the human heart will still burn, and virtue and beauty still gladden the earth, although divorced from the creeds which held them in the thraldom of an enforced marriage.

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