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Molasses or Vinegar?

FREETHINKERS are familiar with the pattern of reasoning employed by Mr. X. Here is a man, cultured and refined, who after discarding Christianity, has reasoned himself to the point where he can say, God is "not a fact". Yet he fears, or should we say, avoids the logical label. "I still say I am not an atheist and that I believe in God."


And why? Because B, a pious friend of his, thinks that atheists are scoundrels, and Mr. X believes he must cater to this numbskull to be a "regular fellow". And Mr. X says that I "overrate honesty". Maybe I do; but I have never underrated it.


But why should Mr. X kotow to B because B thinks that atheists are cutthroats and will steal his silverware? Why doesn't Mr. X enlighten B, if he can, or, better still, tell him to "go jump in the lake"? Are there no better men among whom he can be "a regular fellow"?


Mr. X says "atheist" is an offensive label and he will not bear it. If men had not taken on offensive labels in the past, where would we be today? Men have gone to the stake for even advocating "poetic" atheism like Mr. X's. But they made it "respectable" for those who came later.


I do not ask Mr. X to be "a martyr" or even a "militant rationalist" -- it is a matter of temperament -- but he might at least avoid the supercilious mannerism he displays to those who have made his liberties possible. "Truth needs no martyr", says he. Truth needs "martyrs" today as it never did before.


And who is the "mental undertaker" but he who buries the truth because he is unwilling "to take a stigma" on behalf of truth? Who is the "mental undertaker" but he who, having discovered that God is "not a fact", refuses to tell B about it and buries his convictions in order to be "a regular fellow"?


"God is a poem", says Mr. X. God is no more a poem than it is prose, or the arc of a circle, or a barn door. God is a word that stands for an invisible being in the sky, who, according to the Bible, will punish those who say he is "not a fact".


If our neighbors, says Mr. X, "seek knowledge in nature, in time they will see as deeply as we do." But will they? can he be sure about this? "Our neighbors" read delightful books on biology and astronomy, visit the Planetarium, join nature study clubs, hike to the country, study bugs, listen to "Information Please" -- and still swallow the Christian creed: still believe that Jesus rose from the dead and will greet them in heaven! Left to themselves, how many will reason themselves out of superstition? How many neighbors does Mr. X know who will agree with him that God is "not a fact"?


"As a courtesy to believers -- as good manners", says Mr. X, rationalists should so interpret God as not to offend "believers". "Courtesy"! "Good manners"! When did Christian bigots ever know the meaning of these words?


Does Mr. X know nothing of Christian literature: its scurrilities and lies about freethinkers; its deathbed "recantations"; its Billy Sundy gutterisms? Did he never hear of its maliciousness against Paine, Ingersoll and Voltaire? Has he never seen the splenetic and dyspeptic tracts issued by Christian "Truth" societies? "Good manners"! "Courtesy"! I smile. And I smile again when I am asked to be tender to the religious feelings of others. Not being a Christian, I do not turn the other cheeks. I am out -- and out openly -- to smack Christianity.


Mr. X finds "the atheistic ideal unreasonable because it is intolerant and doctrinaire; because it seeks to compel everybody to think in the same way". What does he mean by "compel"? Did any atheist ever "compel" him to say that God is "not a fact"? Where is the intolerance of atheism? Is the advocacy of atheism any different than the advocacy of any other doctrine? No one is compelled to be an atheist except by conviction.


But people are frequently "compelled" -- outwardly, at least - to be Christians. Isn't Mr. X afraid of Mr. B? Who is the "intolerant" one here but the bigoted Mr. B? He has sealed Mr. X's lips and made him hide his conviction that God is "not a fact". "Tolerance and good will are virtues", says Mr. X. Why doesn't he tell it to Mr. B?


Mr. X dislikes the title of my book, because it contains the word "Atheism". Yet that title has not debarred the book from prominent libraries. It is in the Congressional Library and the British Museum, in the libraries of Harvard and Yale. I have heard from men who have read it in as far away places as India, New Zealand, and Australia. A member of Parliament wrote to tell me he had read it in the Tasman Sea. And it had brought me intimate and flattering letters from men of the highest rank in the scientific world. I would not exchange these letters for a bag of gold. And I would not exchange them for the approbation and friendship of Mr. X's acquaintance, the bigoted Mr. B.


Let us forget my "poetic touches". I am not a poet. I merely gather and interpret facts and would not -- unless I were a Lucretius -- think of resorting to poetic imagery as a medium of expression. Those who read me will have to be content with the bluntness of my prose.


It is not often that I toss my personal correspondence into the spot-light of an open discussion, but Mr. X's second letter of criticism, like his first communication, published in the August, 1942, issue offers material that is, I believe, of general interest to rationalists. Because of this, and because the Truth Seeker is tolerant enough to grant a hearing to those who oppose its views, his letter appears.


Here is a man of amiable disposition who sees no justification for a militant attack on religious doctrines, especially when these doctrines are held by "nice" people, whose feelings may be hurt by sharp criticism.


I must remind Mr. X that it was he, not I, who introduced the character Mr. B, the religious blackguard who thinks that all atheists are cutthroats and will steal his silverware. Now he introduces another character, the well-mannered, gentle-minded believer, to whom we must assume "a mental attitude of kindness and tolerance".


The kindest service one man can render another is to help him dispel his illusions. Whenever I think of the great rationalists who have made our own age possible, I invariably recall the words of Professor Bury concerning Voltaire: "When a man has the talent to attack with effect falsehood, prejudice, and imposture, it is his duty, if there are any social duties, to use it." Voltaire accomplished his work, and accomplished it well, yet "no writer has ever roused more hatred in Christendom than Voltaire." But what does Christian "hatred" matter so long as men's minds are freed from superstition? And what is more gratifying to a man than to feel that he has been a little helpful to others in their struggle for enlightenment? One of the most gratifying letters I ever received was from a stranger who had studied for the ministry, and wrote: "I surely intend to look you up if only to grasp you hand and thank you for writing a book that really freed my mind of the absurd God-idea." Such a letter compensates for all the rancorous and embittered letters I receive from God's elect.


I have, throughout my life, been the recipient of many kindnesses from some who call themselves "Christians". But I have found that these kindnesses increase as their religious faith decreases. I am today, for example, a member of a society in England through the sponsorship of a clergyman of the established Church. He is more interested in science than in the crumbling creed of Christianity.


Mr. X is sorry that I have never met any "nice" believers, those who are different from the bigoted Mr. B. But I have. I have met them in their own homes -- and in mine -- and, on several occasions, have addressed them at their own church forums. On one occasion they were so nice that they wanted to oust their pastor for inviting me to speak. He had told me beforehand, in the privacy of his study, what he was up against. I was merely a "chestnut puller" for one who was sickened by their smug complacency and utter ignorance in matters of religion. He had tried the "soft" way, the delicate approach; now he wanted to "shake them up". He did -- but it almost cost him his pulpit job. They were all refined people, the kind that treat you with marked "tolerance" and courtesy when you address them from a platform, then take it out on their pastor's hide the moment you are gone.


Religion, by its very nature, cannot remain long tolerant of disbelief. The Truth Seeker through the years has often opened its pages to religionists, but where is the Christian journal today that will publish an article on atheism or a criticism of Christianity written by an atheist? "Tolerance", Mr. X, is not grounded in religious soil.


Militant rationalism is founded on solid experience. It does not expect to "make over" the world, but denies expediency of round-about, half-way measures. A proposition is either true or false. If God is "not a fact", He doesn't exist. Saying that God "is a poem", as Mr. X does, gets nowhere. Fuzzy language never helped to clear anyone's mind.


"I credit my liberties largely to Copernicus, Galileo, Bruno, Newton, Halley, Darwin, Huxley, and Haeckel", says Mr. X, but "not one of these called himself an atheist."


A man may eat beef all his life, without writing: "I am a beef eater." So with many of those who, by their life work, have rejected or undermined theism without calling themselves "atheists". These men, one and all, upset the apple-cart of faith. Because they did so, theism became, more and more, a discredited idea.


Copernicus and Galileo were "believing Catholics", says Mr. X. If they were, the Church didn't think so. It made a hell on earth for the first, and made the second recant, under threat of torture. Galileo was condemned by the Inquisition as "vehemently suspected of heresy". Does Mr. X think that either of these men could have long gone around with a placard on his neck, reading: "I am an atheist"?


As for Bruno . . . why dwell on the gruesome details? He was an atheist, fiery to the point of what Mr. X calls "hornet-minded". He paid for it with his life, and the whole world is indebted to him. "Mingled with his allegorical philosophy," says the Encyclopaedia Britannica, "are the most vehement attacks upon the established religion."


Newton did write "a religious book" (full of trash), but to which is Mr. X indebted: what Newton wrote on Bible prophecies or what he wrote on calculus? Mr. X, I understand, is a mathematician interested in astronomy. What did he ever get from Newton on the subject of religion? M. Biot has shown that Newton's theological writings were "the productions of his dotage." Newton's scientific discoveries helped to cripple theology.


Newton's friend, Edmund Halley, never wrote anything on religion, but he was refused the Savalian professorship at Oxford, says McCabe, "on the express ground of his rationalist opinions". He talked too much, it seems, and incurred the wrath of the gentle Mr. B. "That he was an infidel in religious matters," says Chalmers' Biographical Dictionary, "seems as generally allowed as it appears unaccountable."


Darwin (who never gave much attention to the subject of religion) fluctuated, in late life, between a tenuous theism and a solid atheism. In his lucid moments, he wrote atheistically : "The old argument from design in nature, as given by Paley, which formerly seemed so conclusive, fails, now that the law of natural selection has been discovered. We can no longer argue that, for instance, the beautiful hinge of a bivalve shell must have been made by an intelligent being, like the hinge of a door. There seems to be no more design in the variability of organic beings, and in the action of natural selection, than in the course which the wind blows."


Huxley (notwithstanding his shuffling "agnosticism") no more believed in God than I do myself. He wrote: "I know that I am, in spite of myself, exactly what the Christian would call, and, so far as I can see, is justified in calling, Atheist and infidel."


Haeckel was an atheist in spite of his pantheistic phraseology and poetic imagery. Says the Encyclopaedia Britannica (article "Haeckel"): "Haeckel was led to deny the immortality of the soul, the freedom of the will, and the existence of a personal God." This is the inevitable conclusion for anyone who has read Haeckel's writings. "The notion of a personal God," wrote he, "has entirely disappeared from anogics [the inorganic world], while it still persists, in defiance of all pure reason, in the vitalistic and teleological school of biology." Haeckel, like Darwin and Huxley, rejected the idea of "design" in nature. He was, moreover, a militant rationalist and was friendly to The Truth Seeker.


Ingersoll not only smacked the church, and smacked it hard, but, in a letter to Dr. Field, called himself "an atheist". (The full text of his letter is before me.) In his last public address, he said: "If matter and force are from and to eternity, it follows as a necessity that no God exists." He also said: "Religion can never reform mankind because religion is slavery."


To claim, as Mr. X does, that "Paine and Ingersoll were not of the Truth Seeker party" is mere shambling. It is even more: it is inexcusable in an educated man. Both these men were anti-Christian, both rejected the Bible, both scorned the shams and lies that this paper scorns. Ingersoll was not only a reader of The Truth Seeker but a contributor to its columns.


Paine professed a belief in God, but his "deism" never got him anywhere with the religious crowd. Those who love their neighbors as they do themselves did nothing but blacken his memory. It is the freethinkers who have kept his memory green and his books in print. What Christian outfit ever published "The Age of Reason"? For publishing this book, Eaton, a freethinker, "was condemned to eighteen months' imprisonment and to stand in the pillory once a month." Richard Carlile, another freethinker, spent three years in prison for publishing the work. They had offended Mr. B, the bigoted blockhead to whom Mr. X thinks we should show "a mental attitude of kindness and toleration".


"The relatively few men who meanly attacked Paine and Ingersoll are dead now, and I don't worry about their successors", says Mr. X. That's just the trouble: he should. Their "successors" have just succeeded in blocking a statue to Paine in Fairmount Park, Philadelphia. Mr. X should trouble himself about this, as he does about the "martyrs" who made his liberties possible. The man who sponsored American Independence is dead, also. Erecting a statue to him would merely offend Mr. B and Christians like him. We must be nice to them, not give them offense. "The crime of ingratitude", wrote James Monroe, in a letter to Paine, "has not yet stained, and I trust never will stain, our national character." But it has. And Christian bigots are responsible for the stain.


Mr. X pleads for "kindness and tolerance" in presenting our views. "Kindness and tolerance" to whom? To the raw, insufferable gang that makes up our church racketeers, living on the plight of frightened men and women, starved in understanding and bedraggled in the rags of superstition? Come out of your complacency, Mr. X, and be "a regular fellow" among atheists. There is work to be done.


And my forte "is sedition", says Mr. X. Well, some of us are glad to be "seditionists", mindful, at least, that there are things worth fighting for in this whirligig world, among them the overthrow of superstition, with all its degrading and demoralizing doctrines. It is the "sedition" of rationalism that is helping men to think sanely in an insane world and lighten the load of popular ignorance. Whoever contributes to this effort, is conferring a benefit on others that far transcends the simple niceties and conventional kindness of the Ella Wheeler Wilcox creed.

Friends and Colleagues