Let us forget that we are Baptists, Methodists, Catholics, Presbyterians, or Freethinkers, and remember only that we are men and women. After all, man and woman are the highest possible titles. All other names belittle us, and show that we have, to a certain extent, given up our individuality, and have consented to wear the collar of authority--that we are followers. Throwing away these names, let us examine these questions not as partisans, but as human beings with hopes and fears in common.
We know that our opinions depend, to a great degree, upon our surroundings--upon race, country, and education. We are all the result of numberless conditions, and inherit vices and virtues, truths and prejudices. If we had been born in England, surrounded by wealth and clothed with power, most of us would have been Episcopalians, and believed in church and state. We should have insisted that the people needed a religion, and that not having intellect enough to provide one for themselves, it was our duty to make one for them, and then compel them to support it. We should have believed it indecent to officiate in a pulpit without wearing a gown, and that prayers should be read from a book. Had we belonged to the lower classes, we might have been dissenters and protested against the mummeries of the High Church. Had we been born in Turkey, most of us would have been Mohammedans and believed in the inspiration of the Koran. We should have believed that Mohammed actually visited heaven and became acquainted with an angel by the name of Gabriel, who was so broad between the eyes that it required three hundred days for a very smart camel to travel the distance. If some man had denied this story we should probably have denounced him as a dangerous person, one who was endeavoring to undermine the foundations of society, and to destroy all distinction between virtue and vice. We should have said to him, "What do you propose to give us in place of that angel? We cannot afford to give up an angel of that size for nothing." We would have insisted that the best and wisest men believed the Koran. We would have quoted from the works and letters of philosophers, generals and sultans, to show that the Koran was the best of books, and that Turkey was indebted to that book and to that alone for its greatness and prosperity. We would have asked that man whether he knew more than all the great minds of his country, whether he was so much wiser than his fathers? We would have pointed out to him the fact that thousands had been consoled in the hour of death by passages from the Koran; that they had died with glazed eyes brightened by visions of the heavenly harem, and gladly left this world of grief and tears. We would have regarded Christians as the vilest of men, and on all occasions would have repeated "There is but one God, and Mohammed is his prophet!"
So, if we had been born in India, we should in all probability have believed in the religion of that country. We should have regarded the old records as true and sacred, and looked upon a wandering priest as better than the men from whom he begged, and by whose labor he lived. We should have believed in a god with three heads instead of three gods with one head, as we do now.
Now and then some one says that the religion of his father and mother is good enough for him, and wonders why anybody should desire a better. Surely we are not bound to follow our parents in religion any more than in politics, science or art. China has been petrified by the worship of ancestors. If our parents had been satisfied with the religion of theirs, we would be still less advanced than we are. If we are, in any way, bound by the belief of our fathers, the doctrine will hold good back to the first people who had a religion; and if this doctrine is true, we ought now to be believers in that first religion. In other words, we would all be barbarians. You cannot show real respect to your parents by perpetuating their errors. Good fathers and mothers wish their children to advance, to overcome obstacles which baffled them, and to correct the errors of their education. If you wish to reflect credit upon your parents, accomplish more than they did, solve problems that they could not understand, and build better than they knew. To sacrifice your manhood upon the grave of your father is an honor to neither. Why should a son who has examined a subject, throw away his reason and adopt the views of his mother? Is not such a course dishonorable to both?
We must remember that this "ancestor" argument is as old at least as the second generation of men, that it has served no purpose except to enslave mankind, and results mostly from the fact that acquiescence is easier than investigation. This argument pushed to its logical conclusion, would prevent the advance of all people whose parents were not Freethinkers.
It is hard for many people to give up the religion in which they were born; to admit that their fathers were utterly mistaken, and that the sacred records of their country are but collections of myths and fables.
But when we look for a moment at the world, we find that each nation has its "sacred records"--its religion, and its ideas of worship. Certainly all cannot be right; and as it would require a lifetime to investigate the claims of these various systems, it is hardly fair to damn a man forever, simply because he happens to believe the wrong one. All these religions were produced by barbarians. Civilized nations have contented themselves with changing the religions of their barbaric ancestors, but they have made none. Nearly all these religions are intensely selfish. Each one was made by some contemptible little nation that regarded itself as of almost infinite importance, and looked upon the other nations as beneath the notice of their god. In all these countries it was a crime to deny the sacred records, to laugh at the priests, to speak disrespectfully of the gods, to fail to divide your substance with the lazy hypocrites who managed your affairs in the next world upon condition that you would support them in this. In the olden time these theological people who quartered themselves upon the honest and industrious, were called soothsayers, seers, charmers, prophets, enchanters, sorcerers, wizards, astrologers, and impostors, but now, they are known as clergymen.
We are no exception to the general rule, and consequently have our sacred books as well as the rest. Of course, it is claimed by many of our people that our books are the only true ones, the only ones that the real God ever wrote, or had anything whatever to do with. They insist that all other sacred books were written by hypocrites and impostors; that the Jews were the only people that God ever had any personal intercourse with, and that all other prophets and seers were inspired only by impudence and mendacity. True, it seems somewhat strange that God should have chosen a barbarous and unknown people who had little or nothing to do with the other nations of the earth, as his messengers to the rest of mankind.
It is not easy to account for an infinite God making people so low in the scale of intellect as to require a revelation. Neither is it easy to perceive why, if a revelation was necessary for all, it was made only to a few. Of course, I know that it is extremely wicked to suggest these thoughts, and that ignorance is the only armor that can effectually protect you from the wrath of God. I am aware that investigators with all their genius, never find the road to heaven; that those who look where they are going are sure to miss it, and that only those who voluntarily put out their eyes and implicitly depend upon blindness can surely keep the narrow path.
Whoever reads our sacred book is compelled to believe it or suffer forever the torments of the lost. We are told that we have the privilege of examining it for ourselves; but this privilege is only extended to us on the condition that we believe it whether it appears reasonable or not. We may disagree with others as much as we please upon the meaning of all passages in the Bible, but we must not deny the truth of a single word. We must believe that the book is inspired. If we obey its every precept without believing in its inspiration we will be damned just as certainly as though we disobeyed its every word. We have no right to weigh it in the scales of reason--to test it by the laws of nature, or the facts of observation and experience. To do this, we are told, is to put ourselves above the word of God, and sit in judgment on the works of our creator.
For my part, I cannot admit that belief is a voluntary thing. It seems to me that evidence, even in spite of ourselves, will have its weight, and that whatever our wish may be, we are compelled to stand with fairness by the scales, and give the exact result. It will not do to say that we reject the Bible because we are wicked. Our wickedness must be ascertained not from our belief but from our acts.
I am told by the clergy that I ought not to attack the Bible; that I am leading thousands to perdition and rendering certain the damnation of my own soul. They have had the kindness to advise me that, if my object is to make converts, I am pursuing the wrong course. They tell me to use gentler expressions, and more cunning words. Do they really wish me to make more converts? If their advice is honest, they are traitors to their trust. If their advice is not honest, then they are unfair with me. Certainly they should wish me to pursue the course that will make the fewest converts, and yet they pretend to tell me how my influence could be increased. It may be, that upon this principle John Bright advises America to adopt free trade, so that our country can become a successful rival of Great Britain. Sometimes I think that even ministers are not entirely candid.
Notwithstanding the advice of the clergy, I have concluded to pursue my own course, to tell my honest thoughts, and to have my freedom in this world whatever my fate may be in the next.
The real oppressor, enslaver and corrupter of the people is the Bible. That book is the chain that binds, the dungeon that holds the clergy. That book spreads the pall of superstition over the colleges and schools. That book puts out the eyes of science, and makes honest investigation a crime. That book unmans the politician and degrades the people. That book fills the world with bigotry, hypocrisy and fear. It plays the same part in our country that has been played by "sacred records" in all the nations of the world.
A little while ago I saw one of the Bibles of the Middle Ages. It was about two feet in length, and one and a half in width. It had immense oaken covers, with hasps, and clasps, and hinges large enough almost for the doors of a penitentiary. It was covered with pictures of winged angels and aureoled saints. In my imagination I saw this book carried to the cathedral altar in solemn pomp--heard the chant of robed and kneeling priests, felt the strange tremor of the organ's peal; saw the colored light streaming through windows stained and touched by blood and flame--the swinging censer with its perfumed incense rising to the mighty roof, dim with height and rich with legend carved in stone, while on the walls was hung, written in light, and shade, and all the colors that can tell of joy and tears, the pictured history of the martyred Christ. The people fell upon their knees. The book was opened, and the priest read the messages from God to man. To the multitude, the book itself was evidence enough that it was not the work of human hands. How could those little marks and lines and dots contain, like tombs, the thoughts of men, and how could they, touched by a ray of light from human eyes, give up their dead? How could these characters span the vast chasm dividing the present from the past, and make it possible for the living still to hear the voices of the dead?