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Title: Christianity in relation to Freethought, Scepticism, and Faith

Author: William Connor Magee

Charles Bradlaugh

Contributor: Robert A. Cooper

Edward Meyrick Goulburn

Release date: February 8, 2021 [eBook #64503]

Language: English


Transcribed from the [1873] Austin and Co. edition by David Price.








Austin & Co., 17, Johnson’s Court, Fleet Street, E.C.




It will be seen by the following Circular and Correspondence how the Discourses of the Bishop of Peterborough and Mr. Bradlaugh’s Replies thereto were brought about.  The Dean’s Circular speaks of four Discourses to be delivered by the Bishop, but in fact only the three here reported were given.  This volume, therefore, contains the whole of both sides of the question, so far as the discussion has hitherto proceeded in Norwich.  The speeches were all taken down by a competent shorthand reporter, specially engaged for the National Reformer.

The reader will clearly see by the Correspondence that the Christians refused the proposal of the Secularists that the two parties should co-operate in publishing together and circulating as widely as possible the Discourses and Replies.  Mr. Bradlaugh has therefore taken upon himself the responsibility of their joint publication.  The extraordinary reasons given by the Dean (in the last paragraph of his letter of Feb. 15th) for refusing the perfectly fair offer of Mr. Cooper, will not pass unnoted.  His claim to certainty may differ from the claim to infallibility made on behalf of the Pope and the Romish Church, and the principle on which he condemns the dissemination of Sceptical works as treason to human welfare, may differ from that which in Rome has led to the establishment of the Index Expurgatorius; but we confess that in neither case can we see the difference, and we challenge the Dean to show that there really is any.

We are confident that Freethinkers generally will appreciate the disinterested zeal of Mr. R. A. Cooper in making all arrangements necessary to ensure that the Bishop’s Discourses should be fitly answered on the spot and without delay.


April, 1871.


Sir,—I am about to ask your kind help in an enterprise undertaken for the religious welfare of our fellow-citizens, to the success of which your co-operation may very materially contribute.  It has been thought that in large cities, where sceptical views are often so much disseminated, and spread so widely among all classes, good might be done, under God’s blessing, by an annual series of discourses from some competent preacher, directed against modern forms of infidelity, and afterwards published and circulated at so low a price as should put them within the reach of all.  It is chiefly with the view of holding such discourses there, that the Dean and Chapter have recently caused the Nave of the Cathedral Church to be lighted and furnished with chairs, all of which (except, a very few reserved for persons engaged in the service, or connected with the Cathedral) will be perfectly free.  With the view of giving the preachers a larger discretion as to time, and of making the whole service shorter, it is proposed to use before the sermon the Litany only with one or two hymns.  I may add that the whole scheme has the thorough sanction and concurrence of the Lord Bishop of the Diocese, who has been consulted on every part of it.

The Lord Bishop of Peterborough has kindly undertaken to give the first series of discourses on Tuesday, the 21st, Tuesday, the 28th, Wednesday, the 29th, and Thursday, the 30th of March, the service each evening commencing at 8 p.m.

If you approve of our scheme (and pray observe that the discourses, having for their object the vindication and establishment of the Christian faith, will in all probability hardly notice the points on which Christians of various Communions differ), will you kindly help us, first, by making known among your workpeople or parishioners the days and hours of the services, with the name of the preacher, and encouraging them to attend; secondly, by circulating among them the discourses, when published, of which I shall be greatly pleased to send you as large a number as you think you can dispose of?  On this last point I shall be obliged by a communication from you.

The subject of the first series of discourses will be “Free Thought.”

I have the honour to be, Sir, your obedient servant,

E. Meyrick Goulburn, D.D.
Dean of Norwich.

The Deanery, Norwich, February 7th, 1871.


Norwich, Feb. 13th, 1871.

Rev. Sir,—I received with extreme pleasure your circular letter of 7th inst., relating to, and defining the objects of the Discourses intended to be delivered next month in the Cathedral, by the Bishop of Peterborough, and I am induced to reply to it by the conviction that great good may result from “the scheme,” if you can be induced to modify it in some particulars.

The circular states that the Discourses are to be “directed against modern forms of infidelity,” and have for their object the “vindication and establishment of the Christian faith,” but I assume your ultimate object is the vindication and establishment of truth—no matter what the truth may be.  If my assumption be correct, I heartily sympathise with your object, and as a Sceptic or Infidel, will co-operate with my Christian brethren if permitted.

May I call your attention to a practical difficulty in the way of the scheme, which I fear you have not sufficiently considered?  In the present state of opinion, or rather in the absence of real opinion, on these subjects, Sceptics or Infidels cannot always insure the attention of Christian hearers, or of persons indifferent to the subject of their discourses, but these and not the confirmed Infidels, are the persons the zealous Sceptic most desires to reach.  I imagine your difficulty is the same.  You want to get at the mighty mass who know and care nothing about these questions, and also at the Infidel whose opinions you deem so mischievous.  The fact is, the great mass and the Infidel are not likely to attend unless their attention be in some manner especially drawn to the Discourses, but you will probably have a large congregation of believing Christians, whose faith may be confirmed, but yet who do not hold opinions you wish to change.

I beg to suggest a mode by which I think the difficulty may be removed, and an interest created that will be useful to the cause of truth—to Christian truth, if Christianity be true—but to truth, whether Christianity be true or false.

I intend to invite to Norwich some person who shall be well known as a representative exponent “of modern forms of Infidelity,” and request him to deliver a course of lectures at about the same time, and on the same subject as that chosen by the Bishop of Peterborough, and if you think it would be useful to give the public the opportunity of reading as well as hearing the discourses, both expositions of the subject might be published together, and more extensively circulated and read, in consequence of the greater interest that would be thus created.

I have always scrupulously abstained from doing anything to influence the politics or religion of persons in my employment, but in p. viaccordance with your wish, I will take care to inform them all of the Discourses, and also acquaint them with the high reputation which the Bishop of Peterborough enjoys as a preacher.

I should be willing to subscribe for 200 copies of the joint publication, which will enable me to present one to every man and boy in my employment, who is willing to accept it, and the remainder I shall be happy to distribute according to the suggestion of the circular.

I am, Rev. Sir, your obedient servant,

Robert A. Cooper.

The Very Rev. E. M. Goulburn,
            Dean of Norwich.


The Deanery, Norwich, Feb. 15th, 1871.

Sir,—I beg to acknowledge your letter of the 13th inst., and to thank you for the readiness you express to circulate among persons in your employment, the announcement of the Bishop of Peterborough’s Sermons.

I regret that I cannot meet this kindness on your part by assisting in any way in the circulation of tracts by a representative exponent “of modern forms of infidelity,” and I will explain in few words the reason why I must decline the joint publication suggested by your letter.

Professing yourself (as you do) a “Sceptic,” by which I conceive is meant (according to the derivation of the word) one who has doubts as to religious truth, and, therefore, is engaged in an inquiry, having for its object the resolution of those doubts and the arrival at a conclusion; it is (under your view of the subject) perfectly consistent and reasonable that you should do all in your power to get both sides of the religious question ably and fairly expounded, in order to give yourself and others an opportunity of forming a right conclusion.

But my conclusion on the momentous question has long since been made up.  I am as firmly convinced that Christianity is God’s own message to the world, the truth and the only truth, the way, and the only way, of happiness and peace, as that the sun is now shining in the heavens.  I cannot, therefore, help regarding any attempt to throw doubt or discredit on Christianity as a treason against the highest well-being of my fellow-creatures.  And you will see, therefore, that (under my view) I could not properly join in disseminating publications, which, at the very least, will insinuate a doubt as to that revealed religion which I hold to be the only means of raising and saving our fallen race.

I remain, Sir, your obedient servant,

E. Meyrick Goulburn.

Mr. Robert A. Cooper.


Norwich, Feb. 25th, 1871.

Rev. Sir,—I have to acknowledge the receipt of yours of the 15th inst. (which came to hand on the 22nd), and to regret that you can engage in the circulation of only one side of the important question you propose to expound.  And I regret it for these reasons, because by so restricting your action, you, while attacking, prevent the fair expression of that form of thought which you seek to destroy, and p. viiallow those who hold such opinions to shelter themselves, if need be, under the assumption that your exposition of the case is not theirs.  And, also, because your expression of the unqualified certainty of your own conviction of the truth of Christianity (obtained, doubtless, from a consideration of all sides of the subject), is open to the objection that you fear to trust the impartial examination of the evidence of that truth to the minds of others, and implies a latent, though unconscious, doubt of the certainty of the proof of that truth of which you speak so positively.

I cannot accept your description of my position as a “Sceptic or Infidel,” but let that pass.

I am still disposed to subscribe for 200 copies of the Bishop’s sermons, and if you desire me to distribute more, I have no doubt I can dispose of a considerable number.

I am, Rev. Sir, your obedient servant,

Robert A. Cooper.

The Very Rev. E. M. Goulburn,
            Dean of Norwich.


The Deanery, Norwich, Feb. 25th, 1871.

Sir,—In reply to your letter of to-day, in which you say, “I cannot accept your description of my position as a ‘Sceptic or Infidel,’” I hasten to assure you that I should never have presumed to describe your position as such, had I not imagined I had your own authority for doing so.  The words of your letter of the 13th inst., from which I drew this inference, are:—

“If my assumption be correct, I heartily sympathise with your object, and as a Sceptic or Infidel, will co-operate with my Christian brethren if permitted.”

I am thankful and rejoiced to find that my inference was an incorrect one; but I trust you will acknowledge that there was some ground in the wording of the sentence for my making it.

I shall be happy to request your acceptance of 200 copies of the Bishop’s Discourses, and am much obliged to you for your offer of circulating them.

Yours very faithfully,

E. M. Goulburn.

Mr. Robert A. Cooper.


Norwich, March 1st, 1871.

Rev. Sir,—I am sorry that in the sentence you refer to, I did not express my meaning with sufficient clearness to be understood; though I am unable to see that it will bear the construction you put upon it.

In the circular letter, you speak of the prevalence, in large cities, of “sceptical views,” and also of “modern forms of infidelity,” evidently using the words “sceptical” and “infidelity” in their popular and ordinary, and not in their strict, grammatical sense.

I say evidently, because the phrases “sceptical views,” and “modern infidelity” appear to be intended as equivalent, and I therefore assume that you use them in their popular sense, because if I am to suppose you use the word “sceptical” in its strict etymological p. viiimeaning, I must also that you do the word “infidelity,” and I am reluctant to think that you would, in speaking of the opinions of people who you must know are as sincere and honest as yourself, deliberately and intentionally do that.

By “sceptical views” and “modern forms of infidelity,” I understood you to mean both doubt and disbelief of the truth of religion in general, and Christianity in particular, and I therefore accepted in substance your own phraseology in the popular sense in which you appeared to use it, and I speak of myself as a “Sceptic or Infidel,” meaning thereby that I am not merely a doubter, but a disbeliever—a disbeliever not of “religious truth,” but the truth of any religion.  It is so common for religious people to speak of disbelievers in general as “sceptics” or “infidels,” without regard to the derivation or strict meaning of the words, that I think it would have been pedantic to appear to have understood them in any other than their common, and I deem not very correct, meaning.

You were, therefore, perfectly entitled to say you had my authority for describing me as a “Sceptic:” what I demurred to was your description of my position as a “Sceptic” as I had adopted the term in the sense in which you seem to use it in your circular, but not in the sense of your letter.  I think the misconception would have been avoided had you used the whole instead of the half of my expression—viz., “Sceptic or Infidel,” instead of “Sceptic” only; as your description, if correct, of the position of a “Sceptic” will clearly not apply to a “Sceptic or Infidel.”

And here I will endeavour to state “my conclusion on the momentous question.”  I am quite convinced that the history of Jesus Christ, as recorded in the New Testament, is a fable entirely unworthy of credence, and that the Christian and all other systems of religion are but mischievous delusions, but the nature of the evidence by which I arrive at these conclusions, is so different from that which convinces me that the sun is shining in the heavens (space?) that I could not use that form of words as correctly expressing the strength of my convictions.

I regret it is necessary to occupy your time with so long an explanation.  Although I could not agree with what you said, I did not wish to trouble you further on that point, and thought it would be sufficient to indicate a dissent without going into detail.  Brevity was a failure, and I apologise.

I am, Rev. Sir, very respectfully, your obedient servant,

Robert A. Cooper.

The Very Rev. E. M. Goulburn,
            Dean of Norwich.


[First Discourse of the Bishop of Peterborough, delivered in Norwich Cathedral, March 28th, 1871.]

On Tuesday evening, March 28th, the Right Rev. Dr. Magee, Lord Bishop of Peterborough, preached the first of a series of Sermons on Christianity and Freethought, before a large congregation in the nave of the Cathedral.  According to the Dean’s previous arrangements, the nave was occupied by men, and the south aisle by ladies.  The nave was brilliantly lighted, and the Lord Bishop of Norwich and the full chapter took part in the service.

After prayers were intoned and a hymn sung, the Right Rev. Prelate selected his text from the Gospel according to St. John, viii. 33: “How sayest thou, Ye shall be made free?”  His Lordship said:

The scene that is described in this chapter makes, I think, a fitting introduction to the series of sermons of which I am here to-night to preach the first.  These sermons are meant to be pleadings for Christ.  Their object is to win back to him those who may have left him, to cause those who have not left him to cling to him more strongly; to win back disciples to Christ, and to confirm disciples in their discipleship.  That is what I and those who are to follow me here have in view.  For this reason I ask you to-night to study this story in the life of Christ, because it is one in which we see how Christ himself, long ago, first won and then lost disciples.

The scene commences with a large accession of disciples to Christ.  We read, that as he spoke these words many believed on him, and the scene ends with many of those very believers taking up stones to cast at him.  First they believed on him, shortly after they seek to take his life; and after this is over, we read how his own disciples came to him again, and p. 2said to him, “Master, tell us.”  Now, brethren, we Christians believe that in this scene was a prophecy of the whole history of Christ’s life upon earth in his Church; the story of those who come and those who go, of those who believe in him at first, and of those who cease to believe in him, and also the inner history of those that never forsake him.  We believe that when the noisy strife of things has passed away, and the execrations of those that hated him have ceased to ring upon the ear, there still will be heard the voice of the Church, saying “Master, tell us,” that which others will not, or cannot listen to; “Master, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life.”  But it is not on those who thus stay with Christ that I ask you to fix your attention.  I ask you to-night to contemplate with me, not those who remain with him, but those who leave him.  I ask you to understand a little of that mental history that is here shown us, telling us how they passed from belief to doubt, and from doubt to rejection of Christ.

It will be profitable to us, I think, both to those who believe and to those who unhappily disbelieve in Christ, that we should study a little this early instance of Freethought and disbelief.  It will be good for those who do not believe in Christ to look at this scene, because it will show this fact, that there were those who disbelieved in Christ.  It will show this fact, that this is not a religion whose origin is lost in the dim distance of time; it is not a legendary faith of which no one can say when it began or who first taught it, as it arose in historical times; a faith continuing from the very first, not without question or dispute, but in spite of the question and notwithstanding the dispute.  It will show that Freethought is as old as Christianity itself, and when we read how long it is since men had the same doubts and difficulties, it will occur to us that after all there must be a wonderful power in this faith that struggles into acceptance in spite of those doubts and difficulties, and that there must be some marvellous vitality in the faith that has survived 1800 years, something that is worth inquiring into.  This bush that is burning and never burned, is worth turning aside to look at.  It will be good for us to look at those early unbelievers, because it strengthens our faith to be reminded that unbelief is no new thing, and that Christianity has survived more than 1800 years.

It is good for another reason; it teaches us to try to understand the feelings of those who don’t believe; it teaches us to try to put ourselves in their place, to try to p. 3understand how it is they don’t agree with us; to make all allowances for the honesty of their disbelief, to try to enter fairly into their motives and feelings.  If we don’t do this, we are in danger of being hard, and bitter, and unjust in contending for him, but not in his spirit; forgetting that there is not one of those who disbelieve in him, for whom he has not died, forgetting that an unbeliever is not an enemy to be driven back from the fortress, but an exile to be won back by earnest reasoning to his Father in Heaven.  Let us learn, above all, that in all our arguments for Christianity we should be filled with the spirit of him for whom we plead, and that we should manifest the truth in love.

We ask you then to contemplate this scene, in which we find Christ winning and losing disciples, and learn something.  And the first thing we have to remark is this, how very little those that come and go seem to have been influenced by what we call the evidences of Christianity.  They were doubtless drawn to Christ by the fame of his miracles, it does not seem to have been his miracles that converted them.  It was as “he said those words many believed on him.”  Then he said something else, and they left him.  It was not that they doubted of his ability to work miracles, but because something he said offended them.  They came to him not altogether in consequence of his miracles, and they left him in spite of his miracles.  It teaches us that the religion of Christ was not received unquestioningly, even in the case of his miracles, for in spite of his miracles they ventured to question his doctrine; so that those who say Christianity was received in an ignorant age are contradicted by the story of Christianity itself, for many of those who saw his miracles rejected him.

There is another reason for noting this, in order to observe the power of prejudice and passion in influencing men’s belief or disbelief.  There are few men who believe strictly in accordance with their reflecting faculties.  The desires, prejudices, and passions of men largely share in the making of their beliefs; and if this be true of beliefs, it is equally true of men’s unbelief.  If there be those here who do not believe in Christ, I ask them: Are you quite sure that your unbelief is the result of calm, and thoughtful, and careful study of what Christianity has to say for itself?  Are you sure you have not hastily taken up some objections against Christianity without waiting for the answer?  Are you quite sure that you have not misunderstood some words of p. 4Christ—some words that, having offended you, you have passed away without waiting for the reason?  Are you sure that there is no unreason in your unbelief, you that say there is so little reason in our belief?  It is because I am deeply convinced of this that I am here.  It is because I believe that misconception, prejudice, and hasty adoption of other men’s opinions upon slender grounds, make a large part of ignorant belief, often a large part of ignorant unbelief.  It is because these misunderstandings may be removed, that I am here to speak of the subjects I have announced.  It is because I believe it is useless to argue against prejudices, that I shall endeavour to remove those prejudices, and mistaken feelings and opinions, that make men unwilling to listen to arguments for Christianity.  Those who follow me will bring many arguments for Christianity, and I am here to-night to prepare the way for them.

I ask you, then, to turn again to this story, and to see why it was that those new disciples left Christ.  It was for this reason, that they were offended because he appeared to deny them the possession of liberty.  When they became his disciples he said, “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”  Then they answered him, “We be Abraham’s seed, and were never in bondage to any man; how sayest thou, Ye shall be made free?”  He had offered them liberty, and this implied that they were not free, and this they regarded as the gravest of affronts.  We, the children of Abraham, the aristocracy of humanity, those whom the Lord delivered out of Egypt, whose slaves are we that you venture to offer us freedom?  The offer is an absurdity and an affront, and you are denying us freedom in the very words; and so left him, for they deemed it an insult to their birthright of freedom.  We, who understand the story, can see how much these men were mistaken.  Our Lord was offering them moral freedom, and they supposed that he was offering them political freedom.

There was a misunderstanding as to the nature of liberty; he offered them a liberty for which they were not desirous.  It was a dispute about liberty between Christ and those first Freethinkers.  Now, may there not be some misunderstanding still?  That is the subject of my sermon to-night.  It is Christianity and Freethought.  What do you understand by Freethought?  Something opposed to Christianity; and by a Freethinker, one who rejects all or a part of Christianity.  Why do such men give themselves that name?  Because it p. 5expresses their conviction that Christianity is opposed to freedom of thought, that it puts a restraint on the human intellect.  They say that Christianity shackles the human mind.  “I boast of my freedom,” says the Freethinker; “you require me to submit the freedom of my intellect to the authority of a book.  My mind resents such an attempt to fetter it, I submit to no authority.  You priests and bigots that come to me with your authority, and threaten me with penalties for daring to think thus and thus, you are convicting yourselves of falsehood before you utter another word, for you are opposed to freedom.  I cannot listen to your evidences of Christianity.  No proof of miracle will make me give up my freedom of thought.”  How often do we hear of the bigotry of the priest, and the enlightened Freethought of the age.  Mark then, we have the issue raised between Christianity and Freethought.  Let us understand it clearly, before we go further.  It is true that Christianity comes with a claim of authority.  It is true that Christianity says, Believe this and that, because Christ has said it.  He is seeking men now, as he did, with authority; and it is true that Christianity does warn men of certain penalties, heavy and grievous penalties, if they don’t believe what Christ says.  Christianity is authoritative teaching, accompanied with threats of penalties.  Now we are told, that is just the point at which Christianity comes into collision with Freethought.  Freedom of thought will not endure to hear of authority, and resents the very idea of penalty.

Now we have put before us the issue between Christianity and Freethought.  It is necessary that we should define for ourselves what is Freethought.  The word is on men’s lips, and I am not sure that they understand what they mean by it.  Let us try to understand what is Freethought.  It may mean one of three things.  It may mean freedom as opposed to necessity, it may mean freedom as opposed to authority, or it may mean freedom as opposed to responsibility.  As regards the first of these, by freedom as opposed to necessity, we mean that a man is free to think in one way or another, that it is not absolutely necessary for him always to think in one way or another; that is to say, his thought is not the necessary product of physical constitution, that his thoughts do not grow out of him, as the blade grows out of the seed or the flower out of the plant; that it is not mechanical or necessary, but that a man has the power to choose how he will think.  Then as to p. 6freedom as opposed to authority, we mean that a man is not bound to think like other men—that is, his thought is not subject to any other man’s, and he has a right to say, “That is your opinion and not mine.”  Freedom of thought as opposed to responsibility means that a man is not answerable for his belief, and that whatever he thinks on any subject, he is never to suffer for his belief in any way whatever.  These three are the only possible meanings.

Now let us take them in their order.

First, freedom of thought as opposed to necessity.  Does Christianity deny this freedom?  On the contrary, it asserts and vindicates it.  Christianity teaches that man is free, and terribly free, to will his own belief.  It teaches this by the fact that it tells us a man is answerable for his belief, for a man cannot be answerable for that in which he has no choice, any more than he has of the colour of his hair.  If he be answerable, it can only be because he has the power of choosing.  It is remarkable that many people who call themselves Freethinkers, insist on it that man is not answerable for his belief any more than for the colour of his hair.  They thus deny the freedom of thought.  Freedom and responsibility always go together; so you see in this view of Freethought, Christianity, so far from denying it, asserts it against many Freethinkers; and in this respect the Christian is the Freethinker, and maintains the doctrine of Freethought.

Second, freedom of thought as opposed to the idea of all authority.  We are told that thought cannot be free if it submits to any authority, and it is quite true in the abstract.  Attend to this.  It is true that the abstract idea of freedom is opposed to the abstract idea of authority, in thought or religion.  But it is equally true, that these are opposed in everything else.  It is just as true in politics, in which the idea of freedom is opposed to the idea of authority.  Where there is absolute freedom, there cannot be authority.  Where there is absolute authority, we cannot understand logically how there can be any freedom.  Starting from the maxim, “Man is free,” we arrive logically at the conclusion that there can be no authority for that man.  Starting from the axiom, “Authority is supreme,” is to arrive at the logical conclusion that there is no room for liberty.  The two ideas are logically opposed, the one to the other.  But are they so in practice?  Is it a fact that freedom is found inconsistent with authority?  Is it not true that men reconcile them every day?  Is it not true that thought is free, and yet thought submits itself to p. 7authority?  Many cherished opinions are received on authority, not because we have proved them ourselves.  We take the opinion of a lawyer on law, and of a doctor on medicine, as authority.  Morality itself is largely received upon authority.  We are always submitting ourselves to authority.  Logically, freedom and authority are separate, but there never was a society in which the two did not come together.  They are like the chemical elements, which have a strong affinity for each other, and are never apart, except when separated in the laboratory of the chemist, but the moment they are liberated they are together again.  It is just the same with Freethought and authority.  Men are always submitting themselves to authority, and if they did not they would never learn or know anything.  When we speak of the authority of a revelation from God, we mean that we bring to Freethought, to judge of, the reasons for believing that the teacher knows more about the things he teaches than others.  That is a very large part of what is called “the evidence from miracles.”  Men speak as if the miracles were the evidences of the morals of the Gospel.  That is not what we say.  What we say is this, Our Lord coming down from heaven (as we believe) to tell us of another and supernatural world of which he knew and we did not, gave evidence of that knowledge by bringing down the supernatural.

Let us suppose we were walking through one of the church-yards of this city with another person, and the discourse fell upon the resurrection.  If you said it was impossible for any authority to prove it, and the person said, I know there can be a resurrection of the dead, and I will give you a proof of it; and suppose he bade the dead rise, and they sprang alive out of the earth; do you mean to say that would be no authority from him on the question of the resurrection of the dead?  Would it be a tyranny over Freethought to be told that the dead can rise?  So you see Freethought is not inconsistent with the authority of a revelation, for this reason, that the revelation submits its proof to your Freethought.

I am not saying that I have proved the miracles, I am only saying that by miracles we are not violating Freethought; but on the contrary we are maintaining it.  I speak as unto wise men, judge ye what I say.

I now come to the third idea of freedom, that is, freedom as opposed to responsibility; and this is, I really believe, what men mean when they speak of Freethought as opposed to Christianity.  They say, “You threaten us with penalties for unbelief, and our whole soul p. 8revolts against that.  It would be tyrannical to punish a man for his opinions.  We cannot endure men to do this.  Do you mean to say that God will be less just than man and persecute us for our opinions?”  Let us see whether we clearly understand this question.  This objection goes to the principle that no man should be punished for his opinions.  I will ask you to consider this question.  Is it true that no man under any circumstances should be punished for his opinions?  And again is it true that men do not suffer for their opinions?  It is true that so long as he keeps his thoughts to himself, he will not be punished for them, for the simple reason that they are not known; but when he utters them, he may be punished.  Is it not true, that a man who utters a seditious, a libellous, or indecent thought is punished and should be punished?  And why? because the law of liberty of the individual comes into collision with the higher law of the general welfare, and must give way to it.  There are other penalties; society punishes a man more sharply than the law.  There are offences of thought and speech which the law does not and should not punish, and yet which society visits very heavily.  Let a man entertain evil and unkind thoughts of his neighbour, and show it by his looks, and we know how society visits him for his Freethought.  Every man knows that if all the thoughts of his heart were laid bare, before his fellow men, he might pass a miserable and outcast existence, because society defends itself against this injurious exercise of Freethought.

Then pass a step further, and think of the constitution of nature and of the laws of the world.  Does this world of nature allow of Freethought?  Do these natural laws allow a man to make mistakes with impunity?  Let any man think wrong of the powers of nature, that fire will not burn nor water drown, and he will soon find himself visited with a sharp and merciless punishment, for there are no laws so merciless as those of nature.  He that transgresses them ignorantly or wittingly, is beaten alike with many stripes.  The great revolving machinery of the world will not arrest its revolutions because of the cry of a human creature that by a very innocent error, even by his mistaken action of Freethought, is ground to pieces beneath them.  If the man of science warns us of the consequences of transgressing the laws that he has discovered, we should be at liberty to think differently from him, but it will be at our own proper peril, if we exercise our Freethought.  As sure as you do, so you p. 9will suffer from it.  It is not the prophet or his warning that brings down the penalty, it is not the book upon sanitary law that brings diptheria or scarlet fever, it is not the sinking of the mercury in the glass that brings the storm; the written proof in the one case, the mute proof in the other, foretell the evil, but do not create it.  Nature and science, then, have their warnings, and threatenings, and penalties; and nature and science avenge themselves on Freethought.

And mark this, the more and more you lose sight of personal will, the fainter and fainter seems to grow the chance of forgiveness, less and less room there seems to be for Freethought; there is something in the words, “I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth,” there is something in the loving will that has power to save the Freethought of his erring creatures from the soulless and merciless machinery of law.

Now we see how little room there is for Freethought in this world of law.  Let us introduce into the world a fact; let us introduce the idea of a God; let us suppose for the sake of argument that there is a God.  Can it be a matter of indifference how he feels toward us, and how we should feel and act toward him?  How can there be a possibility of thought without consequences as regards God, if there be no possibility of thought without consequences as regards the very least of God’s works?  Does it make no difference to us whether he is an Almighty tyrant or a father to us, whether or not he can suspend the terrible laws of nature which we dread?  Can we hear about this God, and not wish to learn all about him?  Can there be anything more absurd than the saying, Let us have religion and no theology?  Is that more sensible than to say, Let us have sun, moon, and stars, and no astronomy; let us have plants and no botany; let us have the earth and no geology?  If God be a fact, there must certainly come theology out of that fact.  As geology grows out of the fact with which it deals, so does theology grow out of a fact.  Of all the errors of the time there cannot be a greater absurdity than a religion without theology, for every religion teaches our obligations to a higher being.  If there be a God, there must be a theology.  I will ask you what is this creed of Christendom?  It is nearly all the assertion of facts:

“I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ his only son our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was p. 10crucified, dead and buried; he descended into hell, the third day he rose again from the dead; he ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty: from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.”

All these assertions of facts you may say are not facts; but if they be facts, you are bound to think rightly about them.  You are bound to think right about them under penalties, but no more so than as to other facts.  You are as much bound to think right as to the fact of a God as to any other fact.  But men say, These facts are not so certain as the facts of physical science.  We answer, They are more certain to us; they are to us facts as certain as the great lights of heaven.  We cannot conceive the possibility of ourselves doubting them.  We may say, Perhaps there is a God, and we have a right to say, The perhaps may become a certainty.  If we think right, and you think wrong, you must suffer the consequences.  If a man of science puts into your hand a book, and warns you of the danger of infection, and you say you don’t believe it, because you are sceptical about the teaching, he cannot compel you to believe it, but meantime you will suffer; the proof may come in sickness and in death, and you will not escape.  And we say, not in anger and bitterness, not in hard denunciation of the wrath of God—God forbid that we should do it; but we speak in the same tone of warning, and not threatening, and we say, If you doubt, remember time is passing, and if you think wrong, there is danger of the judgment.  We say, Take heed how you grope in the dark and stumble.  We cannot alter the facts if they are facts, and they will affect your happiness.  We say, There is in this nothing uncharitable, no violation of Freethought any more in religion than in science.  We say that the consequences of thinking erroneously in religion may be as perilous as the consequences of thinking erroneously as to physical facts.  It remains to be shown what are the facts of our religion.  All that we say now is, that an error about the facts may be fraught with serious consequences, and we no more violate Freethought than when a physician warns you.

Now, then, I trust we have disposed of those prejudices that lay upon the threshold of our inquiry, these prejudices against Christianity as being opposed to Freethought; for if Freethought means freedom as opposed to necessity, religion does not deny it; if Freethought means freedom as opposed to authority, religion does not create the distinction, it is p. 11just as easy to reconcile it with religion as with the state of society.  If you mean by Freethought, freedom without responsibility as to consequences, there is no such thing either in society or in nature, and you have no right to expect it in religion.  All that we say is, that we are not to expect freedom of thought without its responsibility.  Christianity gives us glimpses of the means of escape from the operation of material laws in the mercies of the loving Father of the human family.


[Delivered in the Free Library, Norwich, April 3, 1871.]

When on the 7th of February the Very Reverend the Dean of Norwich issued his circular announcing that a series of discourses would be delivered by “some competent preacher,” “having for their object the vindication and establishment of the Christian faith,” and “directed against modern forms of infidelity,” I felt deep interest, not I presume confined to the ranks of the party which has permitted me to be its advocate upon this occasion.  The circular was in point of fact an announcement that the Church of England felt it necessary to challenge and give battle to modern infidelity; and that having determined that the struggle should be a real one, it intended to select its best man, and by his mouth to vindicate and establish the faith, which modern infidelity is doing so much to undermine, not only in the busy North, but even in the quiet and church-shadowed capital of East Anglia.

When on my arrival in Norwich I learned that the influence of the Dean and Chapter of this cathedral city had in no sense been exerted to give me the sort of opportunity to be heard in reply to their advocate, which I had a reasonable right to expect, and when I knew that after our friends making a circuit of the city, in the vain endeavour to hire a building meet for such an occasion, it was difficult to ensure the use of the Free Library Hall, I felt that even in Norwich the approved mode of encountering modern infidelity seemed to be that of free speech for the church advocate and gagged mouth for the pleader on behalf of heresy.  When I sat in the fine nave of the old cathedral, and weighed the accessories of choir and organ, intoned litany, and prayer responses instrumentally accompanied; when I looked at the large p. 13number of clergy present, headed by two bishops, and supported by the wealth and fashion of the district, I could not but feel that so far as mere scenic effects went, our side was sadly lacking in such accessories to win adhesion.  When, too, I saw the selected “competent preacher,” the Right Rev. Dr. Magee, Lord Bishop of Peterborough, whose fame as an eloquent orator, an erudite and polished disputant, has long since been widely spread, I knew that our cause laboured under every possible disadvantage save one.  It had but its truth and justice.  Prestige, talent, skill, fashion, were allied to serve the Church.  When, moreover, I found that in the local press religious men, headed by Church of England clergy, sought to excite prejudices against me before even a word had been spoken on my side, I could not help thinking that even if defeated in a struggle so unequal it would leave the Church but little to boast of in its victory.  But I plead neither for mercy nor favour; fair encounter has been asked and denied, and I take the risk of battle.  Although we are to-day the challenged, the Church refuses tourney ground to our party, and we must contend as best we can.

In treating the subject of “Christianity and Freethought,” in reply to the address of the Bishop of Peterborough, I am entitled to narrow, and shall narrow, the question covered by this reply, to one merely between the Freethinker and the Church of England Christian only.  The litany, hymns, and prayers which formed the preface to the Bishop’s advocacy are here fair weapons to use against him.  I do not stand here to-night to plead against Roman Catholic Christianity, or against Wesleyan, Independent, or Baptist nonconforming Christianity, nor do I plead against Unitarian Christianity.  I am here to reply to the Church and State Christianity, the thirty-nine articles Christianity; to the system with which the Lord Bishop of Peterborough has identified his brilliant talents and great powers of speech, and with all the faults and corruptions of which he must rest burdened so far as this controversy is concerned.  Here he must not throw aside any one of the three Creeds, here every line of the Prayer Book affects his teaching.  The Christianity he must defend is that which the 9 and 10 William IV., cap. 32, maintains; the Christianity by law established.

I pass without comment the fact that the text selected by the Lord Bishop was not only from the Gospel whose authenticity is doubted by many Christians, but from a p. 14chapter specially regarded as an interpolated one.  On this head, I leave Dr. Magee to debate with Dr. Davidson.  But I am bound to draw attention to the very extraordinary exposition given of the contents of this chapter, which we are invited to study.  Dr. Magee says that the people who were with Jesus, “were doubtless drawn to Christ by the fame of his miracles,” and that when they left him “it was not that they doubted of his ability to perform miracles.”  Now, so far as this chapter is concerned, there is not the smallest particle of reference to miracles at all, and, therefore, Dr. Magee’s words on this head, and even admitting his alleged authority, were only so much foundationless verbiage.  And when Dr. Magee says that this chapter teaches that “the religion of Christ was not received unquestioningly, even in the case of his miracles, for in spite of his miracles they ventured to question his doctrine,” I can only express my deep regret that the many occupations of the Lord Bishop of Peterborough should have left him without the time to master the actual contents of the chapter on which his sermon was based.

Bishop Magee further urges that “those who say that Christianity was received in an ignorant age, are contradicted by the story of Christianity itself, for many of those who saw his miracles rejected them.”  I fail to see the contradiction; clearly the Jews were an ignorant people, they had no scientific literature, no philosophy, no recorded oratory, not even a language—for the Hebrew is but that which the captives borrowed from their captors—not a trace of their ancient tongue having been preserved.

The learned Bishop argues that “the desires, prejudices, and passions of men largely share in the making of their beliefs.”  But surely he might have carried this farther still, and have shown—and this even apart from the case made out by Darwin, Spencer, and Wallace—that race, climate, soil, food, and mode of life, modify and change beliefs, and that such beliefs are transmissible and transmitted from parent to child in similar—though perhaps not in the same—fashion as are features and frames.  And as in the case of the physique the inherited nature is modified, improving or deteriorating with the mode of life of the individual, so also, but in a more varied degree, with his thought-abilities and his thoughts.  But if it be true, as was so powerfully urged by the Right Reverend Christian Advocate, that men’s desires, passions, and prejudices contribute largely to p. 15the making up of their beliefs, what becomes of his Lordship’s subsequent startling declaration that a man is free to choose what he will believe, “to will his own belief?”  If there are hereditary predispositions to particular lines of thought, hereditary predispositions to regard particular topics from limited stand-points, hereditary predispositions to ignore or accept unquestioningly particular propositions, I ask, Does not the acquiescence in such a doctrine fatally impeach the Bishop’s arguments?

On the reference made to the “bigotry of the priest,” I desire in this lecture to say but little, for I would willingly follow the example of my Right Reverend antagonist, and entirely avoid those arguments which savour of mere personal denunciation; but it is hard to forget that during the 1800 years which, it was boasted, Christianity has endured it was the policy and practice of priestly bigotry, first in the Church of Rome, and afterwards, and not less, in the Church of England, to oppose, and without mercy to seek to crush out all efforts at Freethought.  If to-day the Lord Bishop of Peterborough lifts his powerful and eloquent voice in the Cathedral nave, if to-day we are charmed with his suasive pleading and well-turned periods, we can scarcely forget that it is only since the Church has been unable to strike with the arm of the law that she has condescended to plead with the tongue.

I must assume to-night that those of you who are present were also present at the Bishop’s discourse; but I speak with more freedom as it is my intention to print this reply together with a verbatim report of the Lord Bishop’s sermon, so that they may stand side by side.  I regret that the learned and eloquent advocate of Church Christianity did not think it right when talking of freedom, necessity, laws of nature, absolute freedom, and so forth, to favour us with some explanation or definition to guide us to the sense he intended to convey by their use; as I could not help fancying that he more than once used the same words with quite different meanings.  Jonathan Edwards, whom I shall quote to you with slight modification, thus in effect states the doctrine of necessity:—“The whole universe exhibits a fixed, certain, and constant succession of events, which bear to each other the relation of causes and effects.  This series of causes and effects, as they belong to unconscious and involuntary subjects, is the physical order of the material universe: of which order the phenomena are found by observation p. 16to take place according to certain principles, which are usually called the laws of nature.  This series, as it applies to intelligent and voluntary agents, consists of the fixed and invariable conjunction of volitions and voluntary actions with antecedent motives.  In every instance that we know by experience, or that we can conceive, there is an invariable and necessary conjunction of motives and volitions.  We cannot conceive a change in the volition without an antecedent change in the motive; and the motives remaining the same, the volitions and the voluntary acts will be correspondent.  We are conscious that we never do, and never can, perform any voluntary action without a motive.”  While not adopting entirely the words of Jonathan Edwards, I have given his view of the doctrine of necessity, a view not contained in the sermon by Bishop Magee; but each used the phrase laws of nature.  Now, clearly, in the mouth of the Bishop, law meant the expression of personal will.  The Duke of Argyll in his “Reign of Law,” says:—“In its primary signification a ‘law’ is the authoritative expression of human will enforced by power;” but he gives five different senses in which the word “law” is used.  First, “We have law as applied simply to an observed order of facts; secondly, to that order as involving the action of some force or forces of which nothing more may be known; thirdly, as applied to individual forces, the measure of whose operation has been more or less defined or ascertained; fourthly, as applied to those combinations of force which have reference to the fulfilment of purpose, or the discharge of function; fifthly, as applied to abstract conceptions of the mind, not corresponding with any actual phenomena, but deduced therefrom as axioms of thought necessary to our understanding of them.  Law, in this sense, is a reduction of the phenomena, not merely to an order of facts, but to an order of thought.”  I use law only as denoting observed concurrence or sequence of events.  When it is said to be a law that water poured from the glass shall fall to the ground, it is not, or should not, be meant that the water falls by command emanating from personal will, but only that this is the recorded experience of all competent observers without exception.  Jonathan Edwards, relying on Isaiah xlvi. 9 and 10, xiv. 27, Acts xv. 18, Psalms xxxiii. 10 and 11, and other texts, declared that the absolute and perfect foreknowledge of God, asserted in the Bible, was inconsistent with freedom of volition, as it implied the certainty of the happening of the p. 17events foreknown.  The Duke of Argyll says, “There is nothing to object to or deny in the doctrine that if we knew everything that determines the conduct of a man, we should be able to know what the conduct will be.  That is to say, if we knew all the motives which are brought by external agencies to bear upon his mind, and if we knew all the other motives which that mind evolves out of its own powers, and out of previously acquired materials, to bear upon itself; and if we knew the character and disposition of that mind so perfectly as to estimate exactly the weight it will allow to all the different motives operating upon it, then we should be able to predict with certainty the resulting course of conduct.”  Sir William Hamilton, for I prefer to quote from antagonists, says, “How the will can possibly be free, must remain to us, under the present limitation of our faculties, wholly incomprehensible.  We are unable to conceive an absolute commencement, we cannot, therefore, conceive a free volition.  A determination by motives cannot, to our understanding, escape from necessitation.  Nay, were we even to admit as true what we cannot think as possible, still the doctrine of a motiveless volition would be only casualism; and the free acts of an indifferent, are, morally and rationally, as worthless as the pre-ordered passions of a determined will.  How, therefore, I repeat, moral liberty is possible in man or God, we are utterly unable, speculatively, to understand.”

In dealing with “Freedom as opposed to Necessity,” Dr. Magee declared “that a man is free to think in one way or another, that it is not absolutely necessary for him always to think in one way or another.”  This declaration is so obscure, that I should have had to abandon all attempt to solve the Bishop’s meaning but for the added explanation—viz., “that is to say, his thought is not the necessary product of physical constitution, that his thoughts do not grow out of him, as the blade grows out of the seed or the flower out of the plant, that it is not mechanical or necessary, but that a man has the power to choose how he will think.”  I do not imagine that Dr. Magee used the word “thought” as limited by Sir William Hamilton; or that he intended in the loose words he uttered on this head to examine the doctrine as to evolution of thought put forward by German thinkers.  I assume that the Lord Bishop regarded brilliancy of speech as preferable to profundity of argument, and fancied that he would best clear the way for the other Christian advocates p. 18who are to follow him, by piling well-sounding but often perfectly unmeaning phrases in their pathway.  When the Bishop of Peterborough urges that thought is not the necessary product of physical constitution, we answer by opening before him an ethnical map; and pointing to the Australian as probably the lowest human type, the Bushman of the Cape, the Esquimaux, the Negro, the Teuton, we ask whether physical constitution has not something to do with thought-ability?  Nay, taking a mal-formed cranium or a diseased brain from a lunatic asylum, we demand further whether the unhealthy and inaccurate thought is not there alleged in precise terms to be the “necessary product of physical constitution?”  The assertion “that a man has the power to choose how he will think,” may be met by the query—When?  Has the old man, partly deaf, partly blind, with failing memory, the power to choose how he will think?  Has the drunken man, while intoxicated, the power to choose how he will think?  Has the untaught Norfolk farm labourer with Sir W. Hamilton’s “Philosophy of the Unconditioned” before him, the power to choose how he will think in opposition to or in support of Cousin or Kant?  Has the man to whom Church of England Christianity was taught as a child, whose intellect was bent and bound while yet pliable and scarce resisting, whose scope of inquiry has always been restrained by that line where reason applied becomes blasphemy, has he the power to choose what he will think?  Let the wretched subterfuges with which even thinkers above the average—as your Essayists and Reviewers, your Dunbar Heaths, your Drs. Giles and Irons, your Colensos and your Voyseys—try to reconcile orthodoxy and Freethought, be examined, and you will have fuller answer than any I can give.  Has man the power to choose how he will think?  It may be fairly presumed, that under the words “to think,” Dr. Magee included all phases of mental activity, perception, recollection of perception, comparison of perception, judgment, reason, volition.  Any word by which any condition of mental activity could be fairly described is, I take leave to submit, included by Dr. Magee under the head of “thought.”  But is it true that a man can choose his perceptions?  Are they not first limited by his perceptive ability, and, next, by the range within which that ability can be exercised, and its development in exercise?  And if perception be compulsory, if a man cannot refuse to perceive that which is within the p. 19range of his ability, if he cannot elect to perceive that which is not within its range, then how can the thought-processes—all related to, and more or less based upon, the primary perceptions, modified or enlarged as these may afterwards be—how can these be free?  And will Dr. Magee contend that a man has the power to choose what he will remember, or what he will forget?

“Christianity,” says Dr. Magee, “teaches that man is free, and terribly free, to will his own belief;” but the tenth article of Dr. Magee’s own Church, an article which binds him in this argument, declares that “The condition of man after the fall of Adam is such, that he cannot turn and prepare himself, by his own natural strength and good works, to faith and calling upon God;” nay, the very Litany in which the Lord Bishop took part proceeds on the assumption that all are miserable sinners, who may desire to escape, but cannot escape, from sin without God’s help.  And the ninth article of the Church of England positively declares that every man “is of his own nature inclined to evil, so that the flesh always lusteth contrary to the spirit.”  “Where there is absolute freedom,” says my Lord Bishop of Peterborough, “there cannot be authority.”  But man is absolutely, “terribly free” to choose his belief, therefore this is a subject upon which God can have no authority.  This is a point upon which the power of the Omnipotent is limited.  This being monstrously absurd, it was natural that the acute advocate for a falling Church should make some effort to retreat with the honours of war, and he, admitting the difficulty in religion, says that you find precisely the same difficulty in politics in fact, and in law, medicine, and morality, as to opinion.  Arguments from analogy are dangerous at best, but here there is no analogy.  Dr. Magee should at least read the “Contrat Social” of Jean Jacques Rousseau, and the exhaustive essay on Liberty by John Stuart Mill.  No one but a madman would contend in politics either for the absolute liberty of the individual, or for the absolute supremacy of authority.  Even Guizot’s views of government might have saved Bishop Magee from an illustration so faulty.  And as to the opinions on law and medicine which we receive submissively from lawyer and doctor, their authority is usually the measure of our ignorance.  We swallow the drugs of Dr. Pangloss, and bow to the dictum of Justice Shallow, it is true; but the more we know of physiology, the more we learn of jurisprudence, p. 20the less is our acquiescence a mere submission to authority.

As to so much of the Bishop’s sermon as deals with the authority of revelation and miracles, and which in effect declares that, on the authority of a revelation not made to me, I may be required to believe in Jesus Christ as the “only son” of God, while that very revelation tells me that God had more than one son—(Job i. 6, ii. 1)—and which on the authority of miracles disbelieved by the mass of the people who are supposed to have seen them, requires me to believe that Jesus, “very God of very God,” having descended into hell, afterwards ascended into heaven with “his body, flesh, and bones, and all things appertaining to man’s nature,” and there sits at the right hand of God—(Article four and Nicene Creed)—my answer is a very simple one.  The Bishop’s declaration that here no tyranny is attempted over Freethought is not a fair and honest declaration.  The revelation does not submit its proof to Freethought, but, on the contrary, my Lord Bishop of Peterborough, as the spokesman of his Church, is bound to tell us in the words of his own horrible creed, that the man who will not submit to acknowledge the dogmas of his Church, without doubt shall perish everlastingly.

When the Bishop says that men are continually submitting to authority, and that if they did not they would never learn anything, he is woefully inaccurate in his analogy.  It is perfectly true that Humboldt, Lyell, Huxley, Darwin, Lewes, Spencer, Mill, and such men’s names are names of authority, and that our experience is supplemented and aided by the recorded experiences of such men.  But our confidence is not an unlimited one, their authority is not supreme.  It is limited by the measure of our own experience in the first place, and by our acquaintance with the experience of other men than these in the next; both of these, too, modified and affected by our general intellectual ability.  But all that our scientific teachers say is, We have learned such and such things, we learned them in such a fashion, you may if you have leisure and means verify our experiments, we show you the road we have travelled, we have mapped and scaled it for you.  But in religion there is no such teaching, the authority of the Church dominates, denies, and annihilates experience with a graveyard resurrection for lack of living verification.  Nothing could more fittingly be denounced as a trick of pulpit advocacy had it come from the mouth of any other p. 21man, than the supposition of an impossible event in a graveyard as evidence on some equally impossible doctrine.  It would be far more natural in thought to suppose deception in the alleged graveyard conjuring, than to suppose anything else.  For decomposing bodies, fleshless skeletons, forms in which the vital organisation had been destroyed, and disappearing for days, weeks, months, or years, to suddenly break through coffins, which living they would have been unable to burst, to get through a superincumbent mass of earth, and to stand out in flesh, alive, the blood circulating through newly manufactured veins—a man who saw this instead of crying “A miracle,” had far better believe himself subject to delirium, and make his straightway to the nearest physician for medicine to cool his disordered brain.  But the Bishop’s case is weaker still; his graveyard opened 1800 years ago, the men who saw it have ever rejected it, and we who have not even seen it are required to believe it, and are told, that in this there is no tyranny over our thought.  When the Bishop talks of the “soulless and merciless machinery of law,” and declares that “there are no laws so merciless as those of nature,” we must not forget that by the very terms of his sermon, and by the creed of his Church, he asserts all law as the expression of the “personal will” of Deity; and the soulless and merciless law is, according to the Lord Bishop of Peterborough, the manifested will of the merciful God who is infinite soul and love.  Reading to us a portion of the Apostles’ Creed, Dr. Magee said, All these are assertions of facts, and “you are bound to think right about them under penalties,” but not more so than about other alleged matters of fact.  This is untrue.  What other alleged matters of fact are men required to believe under Act of Parliament?  What other alleged facts are there which if a man deny he may be sent to gaol, lose civil rights, be denied the guardianship of his children, and be made an outlaw in the State?  Where of an alleged fact in astronomy or geology is your investigation prefaced with the declaration that if you deny it you shall be sent to a bottomless pit filled with brimstone and fire, and prepared for the Devil and his angels?


On Wednesday evening, March 29th, the Bishop of Peterborough preached his second sermon, on “Christianity and Scepticism,” before a large congregation in the nave of the Cathedral, Norwich.  His text was from the Gospel according to St. John, xx. 25:—

“The other disciples therefore said unto him, We have seen the Lord.  But he said unto them, Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe.”

His Lordship said:

My subject to-night is “Christianity, and Scepticism,” and I have chosen for my text these words of a sceptic, for as such St. Thomas has been regarded.  His name has become proverbial in Church history for unbelief.  Among the different characters that surround our Lord in the Gospel story, he has been regarded as the type of the doubter, and he is known as the doubting or the unbelieving Thomas.  And yet at first sight we hardly see that he should be so called.  It is quite true that he did doubt, and yet his doubt does not at first sight seem to be unreasonable, or so very obstinate that he should be called by way of distinction, the doubter, the unbeliever.  It was not unreasonable.  On the contrary, it was reasonable and natural that he should feel some doubt about the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Others had doubts as well as he, and they were called fools and slow of heart to believe, and yet they did not inherit the name of the doubters.  Again, his disbelief was not of a very obstinate kind.  It seemed to have yielded almost instantaneously; and almost immediately after he was satisfied, he said more than others of the disciples, for he said “My Lord and my God.”  He not only acknowledged the resurrection of Jesus, but his divinity, and yet he is called Thomas the doubter, the sceptic, and he is rightly so called.

The Christian consciousness did not err when it gave the name, because when he uttered the words which I have just read to you, “Except I see I will not believe,” he uttered that which is the very essence of scepticism.  He suspended his belief upon an absolutely impossible condition.  He declared p. 23that he would not give his assent except on this condition, that it should be made absolutely impossible for him to doubt.  What he said to his brother disciples amounts to this:—“You tell me that you have seen the Lord, but I cannot believe you.  It does not matter to me how strong your testimony may be, or how truthful I believe you to be, I will not be satisfied till I see it for myself.  I will not accept of any testimony but that of my own senses.”  He said his assent was only to be had by absolute demonstration, and its being made impossible for him to have any doubt.  I say the condition makes all belief absolutely impossible.  Belief, in the proper sense of the word, is assent on an amount of trust.  If we have absolute demonstration of anything, the result is not belief at all, it is demonstration.  What we see with the eyes of our body or mind, we don’t properly believe in.  We know it.  We have the certainty, not of faith, but of science, and where doubt is impossible, belief or faith is impossible.  You may have certainty, but it will be the certainty of knowledge, it will not be the certainty of faith.  It is quite clear that if any man makes it a condition of his assent to truth of any kind, that it must first be demonstrated to him as clear as that two and two make four; it is clear that is if there be any class of truths which cannot be so proved as that two and two make four, the man who makes that proof or demonstration a condition of his assent, must always be in doubt about those truths, or that class of truths; he must always in respect of them be a sceptic or doubter.

Again, one step further, it is clear that religion or Christianity is a truth, or class of truths that cannot be demonstrated scientifically.  We cannot prove that there is a God, in the same way that we can prove that two and two make four.  We cannot do this, because the idea of God is that he is invisible to us.  The first utterance of religion is this: I believe in what I cannot see, I believe in an invisible God.  Clearly he that says, I don’t believe anything I do not see, must be a sceptic or doubter about the truth of religion; and therefore it comes to pass, that though religion is by no means the only subject, or the only collection of truths that cannot be demonstrated, it is the principal one, and it has come to pass that though there are sceptics on other subjects, yet for this reason a sceptic is understood to be a man who doubts about religious subjects; a man who will not believe all the truths of Christianity, because they cannot be demonstrated to him in the way he thinks they should be demonstrated.  You see p. 24now what a sceptic is, and what scepticism, is.  By the word sceptic we mean a disbeliever in the truths of religion.  A man may disbelieve some of the truths of religion and not be a sceptic.  A Jew does not believe in Christianity, but he is not a sceptic.  It is because he believes in Moses that he does not believe in Christ.  We don’t call the Pantheists or the Deists sceptics, because they have a fixed belief.  Some of their beliefs I think monstrous; they make a greater demand on faith than those do who believe in religion.  I think the man who says there is no God must believe more contradictions than the man who says there is a God.  He has a perfectly monstrous creed, but it is a creed.  He is not so much a disbeliever as a misbeliever, for he believes in something else than God.  Again, we don’t call a doubter a sceptic; a sceptic is a doubter, but the doubter is not necessarily a sceptic.  A man may doubt of the truths of religion, only because he has not had evidence of the proper kind.  A sceptic asks for evidence of an unreasonable kind.  A man may doubt the truth of any assertion in history; he may think that all the historians or witnesses of the facts are untruthful or ill informed, I should not call that man a sceptic; but if a man said, I don’t believe the facts you allege in history, because I deny all human testimony; you cannot deny that these men lived some time since, and that they may have been liars; you cannot give me proof to the contrary: that man I should call a sceptic, because in matters historical he was demanding an unreasonable amount of evidence.  It is not doubt nor unbelief that makes the difference as to the sceptic.  The sceptic is not such because he doubts, but on account of the reason of his doubt.  He seeks for evidence that it is not proper or reasonable that he should have.

Now I have shown you that there may be doubt without scepticism; and on the other hand, there may be belief, or at least assent, upon sceptical principles.  It is quite possible that a man may be firmly persuaded of some of the truths of religion, and yet be in heart a sceptic.  If a man were to say I cannot believe in the existence of a God till I have it demonstrated to me as clear as that the three angles of a triangle are equal to two right angles, then he is in principle a sceptic, because it is clear that if he could not have that sort of proof, he would begin to doubt of the existence of God.  All the time his assent to the existence of God would not have rested upon any faith or trust, but upon demonstration.  p. 25But when the idea of God ceased to be a scientific certainty, it is clear that he would be in heart a sceptic.  And there is no doubt that the first belief of the apostle Thomas was rendered upon sceptical principles.  He said, I will not believe till I put my finger in the print of the nails, &c., as if he had said, I will believe nothing but the evidence of my own senses.  He believed only because he got this evidence of his senses; and mark this, when our Lord gave him what he asked, he pronounced no praise on his belief; he did not say to him as he said to another, “Blessed art thou, Simon Barjonas, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to thee;” but flesh and blood had revealed the fact to Thomas, and our Lord said, “Blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.”  Thus it is possible to doubt without being sceptical, and it is possible to assent, and to be still sceptical.  I want you to dwell on this point of belief, doubt, and sceptical belief, because there are certain things that I am going to point out in this way.  I ask you to test for yourselves what I am now going to say, and try the effect upon your own feelings.  We cannot demonstrate Christianity.  It is utterly impossible that I can give you a demonstration of Christianity, such as will leave no possible room for doubt or question.  When those who have to follow me have said all they have to say; when they have put before you all the evidences of Christianity in all their fulness and variety; when they have shown how much more reasonable it is to believe than to disbelieve, how many more difficulties there are in the way of disbelief than of belief; when all this is done, there may still be a doubt on your minds; there will be questions that cannot be answered, there will be difficulties that cannot be explained, and which no living man can explain.  We can give the highest degree of evidence, short of demonstration, for belief in Christ, but we cannot demonstrate Christianity.  Now what effect has that announcement on your hearts?  Possibly you have heard it with some disappointment.  You may have come to hear these sermons, expecting to have all your doubts removed.  You may say, “I thought you were going to answer all the questions with mathematical certainty.”  Our answer is, If we could prove with as much certainty that there is a God as that two and two make four, or as that this is a book [holding it up], then our religion would do you as much good as the knowledge that two and two make four.  We would not in that case cultivate the p. 26quality of faith in your souls, in spite of difficulties and doubts.  We cannot demonstrate Christianity, but we can give sufficient reason for our belief in it, in spite of doubt.

What we have to say is this, that the evidences of Christianity are weapons to put in the hands of every one of you, with which every man and woman may fight out in his or her innermost soul the desolating and besieging doubt that from time to time will assault it.  This is the real object of evidences of faith, but they are not meant to be the outlying works of the citadel of the soul outside of which the enemy is compelled to keep.  The shield of faith in God you have to carry on your own arm, and with it quench all the fiery darts of the wicked one.  Though your own arm tremble, you must carry it to repel the darts that are aimed at your own heart.

There is another word of comfort we have to give you the really distressed doubter.  Christianity does not repel the doubter who says, I believe, Lord help my unbelief.  What Christianity is intolerant of is not doubt, but the spirit of doubt, not unbelief, but the demand for unreasonable, impossible conditions of belief.  We don’t tell you to stamp out every doubt before you can become a Christian.  We say if you believe but one point, you may come to believe all the rest, and our message to you is, weary as you may be of the load of doubt, the same as that of the Saviour who said “Come unto me all you that are weary and heavy laden,” and you will find rest to your souls.

And now I have clearly explained the difference between Christianity and Scepticism.  Let us briefly sum up again and show the points of collision between Scepticism and Christianity.  We saw last night that the question between Christianity and Freethought was a dispute as to the nature of liberty, so the question between Christianity and Scepticism is a dispute as to the nature of certainty.  Christianity offers and gives certainty in the end; Scepticism demands certainty.  But the certainty of Christianity is partly the certainty of reason and partly of faith and of experience.  The certainty demanded by Scepticism is the certainty of science only.  The most extreme of unbelievers will admit that there is something to be said for Christianity; and that it is not unworthy of a hearing as regards its evidences.  The men who have believed in Christianity for the last 1800 years, have not been the greatest fools in the world.  Liebnitz and Butler were not drivellers, and not those only, but hundreds and thousands of the p. 27greatest intellects that humanity has produced.  They were not such utter fools that any man is entitled to dismiss Christianity with a wave of his hand.  On the other hand, every reasonable Christian will admit that there is something fair and reasonable in some of the objections to Christianity.  But the Christian says to the sceptic, It is unreasonable in you to ask that every difficulty should be got rid of and every question answered before you believe in Christianity.  The sceptic replies, It is unreasonable in you to ask me to believe in Christianity till you have removed every doubt.  I will ask you which is the reasonable demand—the demand of the Christian for faith upon probable evidence, or the demand of the sceptic for assent only upon scientific demonstration?

Now in order to argue it fairly and without passion or prejudice, let us pass from the subject of religious doubt and let us consider the case of doubt in other matters than religion; we all know that men have doubted in other subjects.  Try then to recall to your minds the first doubt; it was only a little later than the first belief.  The first instinct of the child is to believe everything, that everything he sees and hears is true.  All appearances to the child are realities.  The sun is to him a ball of fire that climbs up the sky, the stars are little specks of light that shine at night.  The earth is a flat plain.  Very soon the child learns the first great lesson of doubt, learns that things are not what they appear to be, learns to distrust appearances, learns that under the appearances there is a reality.  He gets his first teaching from doubt, and all-important is the instinct of doubt.  Very soon is the awakening of the sceptical part of the mental nature of man, of his understanding.  The nature of the understanding is ever to ask, What and why?  The spirit of doubt leads the man from question to question, from step to step, till he gets answers to his questions; he goes on from doubt to belief, and from belief to doubt, and so on to greater knowledge.  Thus doubt is the means of knowledge, the instrument of discovery.  Without the instinct of doubt humanity would be stagnant; with it alone humanity progresses.  I do not disparage doubt, I highly value it; but doubt is useful on one condition, and one only, that it starts from a first belief.  What is the cause of all this doubt and pursuit of knowledge?  The supreme instinctive belief, that under all appearances there is a reality, that something underlies and causes all being; and it is the search for this essence of existence that p. 28leads the doubter on, the search of this I am.  If he had no faith in some underlying reality beneath these phenomena, there would be no progress, and so doubt is ever seeking for that which is below what appears, and yet never reaches it.

Never yet has science reached to the great reason of all reasons, to the great cause of all causes, that underlies all knowledge; and yet ever as we seek for it we are advancing in knowledge.  We do not reach it, but are ever reaching and passing on, through that which lies between us and it.  Doubt is like the mainspring of a watch, it is ever seeking to uncoil itself and yet never entirely doing so.  The result is that the hands of the watch move uniformly because there is an attachment of the mainspring.  Cut the attachment, and the hands will give one wild whirl and all will be still, and the watch useless.  It is just the same with doubt and faith.  Doubt is attached to the primary belief that there is a cause of all things, but it is ever seeking to detach itself from that belief and never succeeds.  The consequence is, that there is a constant and measured progress of the human mind.  But we have to consider how much further the intellect which has thus been the rule and test of our belief might go.  A child not only believes in appearances or facts, but he has an instinctive belief in the truthfulness of humanity.  The child has not learned that it is not wise to believe everything that is said to him.  Was that a happy discovery?  Should we tell a child not to believe the word of any human being until he had demonstration about it?  Is it wisdom always to distrust human nature?  We are always trusting.  Give a logical proof that we are right in any of our trusts.  A wife may be false, a child may hate its parents, and a man may be robbed by a friend or a confidential servant; yet are we to distrust everybody?  If a man were not to trust any one till it was proved by demonstration that he ought to do so, he would be put in a lunatic asylum; and rightly so, as a man one part of whose nature had got diseased and had mastered all the other parts of his nature.  I defy any one to say logically that the man may not be right, or to give a logical demonstration that it is absolutely impossible that his wife, children, and friend were not in a conspiracy to wrong him.  There is thus an absolute necessity for trust in the ordinary affairs of life, I hope you will see that life must be conducted on the principle of faith or trust.

Let us ask if morality can exist without faith or trust, whether we can get a demonstrative or scientific basis for morality itself?  p. 29I ask this, because those who ask for the destruction of our religion talk of the gain to morality.  They say, Sweep away the influences of religion and morality will be stronger.  Let us see how morality will bear the assaults of scepticism.  Morality is that code or rule of action which we follow in questions of right or wrong, or it is that code of right and wrong which every man adopts for himself.  To take the first definition.  Have we got the universal sense of humanity upon any moral question of right or wrong?  If the majority of mankind agree with us, can we prove logically that they must always be right and the minority wrong?  Again, which morality will we have—that of to-day or that of a past generation?  If we cannot settle the question by majority or minority, how are we to settle it?  By asking the opinion of the wise and good.  Before we know the wise and good we must know what wisdom and goodness are; and if we know what they are, what need have we to look to the wise and good to tell us?  Who are the wise and good?  Those who gave good opinions.  Is that logical?  Will it stand sceptical inquiry?  If it is not to be settled by the appeal to the universal voice of humanity—which is simply illogical and preposterous, for this reason, that we are part of universal humanity, and if we differ from that verdict it is not the verdict of universal humanity, and if we agree with it, we might as well have taken our own in the first instance—then man must decide for himself what is right and wrong.  What is it decides in a man what is right or wrong?  Conscience.  Why must a man submit to the decision of his own conscience?  We are told that it is part of our moral nature.  What demonstration is there that one part of our nature is to yield to another?  Have we any logical demonstration as to what we are?  I have a scientific demonstration that I am made of carbon, lime, phosphate, and certain other chemicals, but no man of science has ever demonstrated spirit or conscience.  Why is it that a man is to obey the bidding of one convolution of his brain more than another?  It cannot be made as clear as that two and two make four, that a man is to do to another man as he would be done unto.  Duty and right are words of the spirit, of the soul, but science and logic never yet revealed the soul.

Therefore the man who will believe nothing but what can be demonstrated to him, will deny at last the obligation of duty in obedience to his sceptical intellect, just as he p. 30began with denying the existence of God.  How does he get out of this great difficulty?  By calling up the instinct of faith.  He wills to believe that he is something more than a bundle of material elements, that the conscience in his soul is something supreme and divine, that the man in him is something above the animal; and by an exercise of faith in his own higher and better self, he silences the eternal why of the sceptical intellect, the serpent more subtile than any other beast of the field, which if it had its way would make man a beast.

There is only one more question to which I have to call your attention.  Having shown you that the sceptical intellect is not the only judge, having shown you that there are domains of human knowledge and human life into which, if it comes at all, it must come as the servant and not as the master; having shown you that scepticism is really nothing else than the intrusion of the mere understanding into the province of the soul and the spirit, it remains to ask, Is religion, is Christianity, one of those subjects on which the understanding is not to be the only judge, but on which the spirit and soul and heart of man have something to say about his belief?  Surely then if Christianity be what it professes to be, a life, like all human and temporal life, it must be conducted upon a principle of faith or trust.  If we cannot live our ordinary human life without trust, where we cannot have certainty, neither can we live the spiritual life without trust, where we can neither prove nor demonstrate; then if we think of this life in close relationship with the divine and the infinite life, can it possibly be otherwise than that out of the meeting place of those two mysteries there shall grow mystery and difficulty?  All that Christianity requires is, not that man shall not ask for reasonable proof, but that we should not deal with it in a different way from that in which we deal with human life and morality.  We don’t ask you in religion to believe without evidence, but to require large evidence.  Now my friends, still remember when we ask you to believe before you see all, it is that you may experience all.  Christianity has a certainty, but it comes not as the proof, but as the reward of faith.  There is a demonstration of the spirit, an evidence of divine life, in the soul of the Christian, that he cannot demonstrate to others, because it is as invisible as his own soul and spirit, and yet it fills the inner core of the spirit—it is the strengthener of the spirit.  Christianity is a great experiment, a probable experiment, a reasonable experiment, p. 31but still it is an experiment, and you may try it.  If you have a simple and earnest desire to ascertain its truth, try it, casting aside the trivial interests that the profligate man has in the disproof of it.  Try it and see if there does not come into your soul that conviction not created by science, but springing from the inner life of the soul, that shall be like a well of water springing up to everlasting life.  As in life so in religion, “blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.”


On Tuesday evening, April 4th, Mr. Bradlaugh delivered his second lecture on “Christianity and Scepticism,” before a very crowded audience, in the Free Library.  He commenced by observing:

In continuing this course of lectures, I naturally follow the same wording of the subjects as that taken by the Bishop of Peterborough; and I may say that those who charge me with misquoting the Bishop, will probably think differently when I say that I have taken fair pains to be accurate in my representation.  I took careful and almost verbatim notes, and I hold in my hand a transcript of the notes of an independent shorthand writer, and where these have disagreed, which has been very seldom, I have checked them by so much of the lecture as appeared summarised in the Daily Press.  It appeared to me to be accurate, and I think there was no ground for saying that I misrepresented the Bishop.  You who think so, had better leave that for him to say, if he thinks it necessary.  He took the instance of Thomas as that of a representative Sceptic.  He was good enough to tell us that the unbelief of Thomas was not unreasonable, that, on the contrary, it was reasonable and natural that he should feel some doubt about the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  I propose to examine that position.  Was it reasonable that Thomas should doubt?  Thomas was a disciple selected by Jesus.  He had been present at the whole of the miracles of Jesus.  If the Bishop’s case be true, he had seen Jesus raise Lazarus from the dead, he had heard Jesus say he came to die, and to rise again; and I ask you, if it was reasonable for Thomas to doubt after he had seen a hundred miracles performed, then how much more reasonable for me to doubt?  I have never seen any miracles.  But, said the Bishop, Thomas is a fair example of the Sceptic, for Thomas said, I will not believe unless I see, &c.  This, the Bishop said, is the very essence of scepticism.  Now I don’t know where my Lord Bishop got his notion of scepticism; I am sure that there is no writer on the side of the party which permits me to speak p. 33for it, who defines scepticism in that manner.  I have here the explanation of Buckle, which I take as that of a man occupying a position independent of the prejudices attaching to my extreme heresy.  “By Scepticism, I merely mean hardness of belief, so that an increased Scepticism is an increased perception of the difficulty of proving assertions, or, in other words, it is an increased application and an increased diffusion of the laws of evidence.  This feeling of hesitation and of suspended judgment, has in every department of thought been the invariable preliminary to all the intellectual revolutions through which the human mind has passed, and without it there could be no progress, no change, no civilisation.  In physics it is the necessary precursor of science, in politics of liberty, in theology of toleration.”  Now I take leave to say that there is no sceptical writer, neither Hobbes, nor Hume, nor Locke, nor Berkeley, no sceptical writer either upon my own side or upon the side of theology, unless you take the ravings of some wretched madman, who defines Scepticism as my Lord Bishop defined it.  I say it was either a false definition within the knowledge of the Bishop, or that Dr. Magee was imperfectly acquainted with the views he proposed to answer.  The definition conveys a false notion of Scepticism, which is really but a word for investigation.  The Bishop draws a distinction, and a correct distinction, between knowledge and belief, and in that very distinction he annihilated his own definition of Scepticism.  He said, and rightly, When once the senses have taken cognizance of any phenomenon, that is no longer a matter of belief but a matter of knowledge.  If I sensate any condition of existence, I have passed the stage of belief and arrived at the stage of knowledge.  I now come to a marvellous position—marvellous as advanced by a bishop—viz., that religion or Christianity must be taken as incapable of scientific demonstration; because, if that be true, what becomes of the arguments of the Paleys, of the Pye Smiths, and of the Gillespies?  Are the volumes of proofs of the existence of Deity all waste paper?  What becomes of the huge mass yearly issued from the press to prove the truth of Christianity?  I take it that in the opinion of the Bishop every one of these has hitherto failed, for he says we cannot demonstrate the existence of a Deity or the truth of the Christian religion so as to leave no doubt.  A demonstration so complete that it leaves no doubt, is admitted to be impossible; that is an admission for which I thank the Lord Bishop, because it is a p. 34justification to doubters.  We have two admissions, one that the doubt of Thomas is a reasonable doubt, and another, that Christianity under no circumstances can be rendered free from doubt.  I will thank you to bear those two positions in mind.  The Bishop says we cannot demonstrate the existence of God, and I am inclined to accept his position, but he gives reasons of the strangest description to justify his conclusions.  He says we cannot prove the existence of God because he is invisible.  Does the Bishop mean that only the things cognised by sight can be proved?  Is it true that he believes in an invisible God?  What say the Thirty-nine Articles of the Church?  They say that Jesus, with body, flesh, and bones, ascended to heaven.  Were these invisible?  The Bishop believes what is pictured in the Bible.  Does the Bible teach an invisible God?  We read in the twenty-fourth chapter of Exodus, 9, 10, 11: “Then went up Moses, and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel; and they saw the God of Israel; and there was under his feet as it were a paved work of a sapphire stone, and as it were the body of heaven in his clearness.  And upon the nobles of the children of Israel he laid not his hand; also they saw God, and did eat and drink.”  I want to know if this God is an invisible God?  I want to know whether the Bishop is on this point an infidel, and whether he here disbelieves the Bible?  The Bible says that God is not invisible.  Which are we to believe?—the Bishop, the Bible, or the Thirty-nine Articles?  We are forbidden to deny either the Bible or the Thirty-nine Articles under penalty of prosecution.  The Bishop said a Jew is not a sceptic, and the reason given is certainly equally a marvellous one, for he said the Jew believes in Moses, and therefore cannot believe in Jesus.  Is it logical that any body who believes in Moses cannot believe in Jesus?  Surely the Bishop contradicted himself, for it is to Moses and the prophets he appeals.  It is not true, even from the Church of England stand-point, that a man disbelieves in Jesus because he believes in Moses.  It is not true that if I believe in the authenticity of the Pentateuch, it necessarily excludes my belief in the Gospel, and yet this is the reasoning indulged in by the able and learned confuter of modern infidelity.  The Bishop said that the Deist and the Pantheist are not sceptics, for they have a belief, nor, he said, are even those sceptics who say there is no God.  I never read, except in tracts and sermons, and religious essays, of any who say there is no p. 35God.  Some persons talk about the fools who say there is no God, and bishops preach against them, but an Atheist does not say there is no God.  The Atheist says the term “God” conveys no idea to his mind.  I have never yet heard a definition of God from any living man, nor have I read a definition by dead or living man that was not self-contradictory.  I don’t deny the word “God,” because I don’t know anything about its meaning.  Denial like affirmation must refer to some proposition that is understood.  But the moment you tell me you mean the God of the Bible, or the God of the Koran, or the God of any particular church, I am prepared to tell you that I deny that God.  So long as the term means your absence of knowledge as to particular phenomena, and represents the undiscovered, I am not “fool” enough to say there is no God; and I say the Bishop should have known that no modern Atheist ever propounded such a proposition to any one.  It is when you tell me of God distinct from the universe, creating the universe different from himself, and adding to his own existence, that I am compelled to deny that God.  The Bishop said the sceptic is not only one who denies, but one who asks for evidence of an unreasonable kind.  Suppose myself; am I a sceptic as to the Bible, according to the Bishop’s notion?  When I examine the Bible, I find it is admitted that the common version is so bad that a better is now in hand.  I find when I refer to the sources of this version there are only three sources—the Hebrew, the Samaritan, and the Septuagint.  When I examine the Septuagint I find the Protestant writers such as Fulke and Whittaker, writing against Bellarmine and others, declaring that the Septuagint is corrupt from beginning to end.  Dr. Irons says no one knows where the so-called Septuagint version was written, when it was written, nor by whom it was written, and it is clearly the work of different generations.  When I examine the Greek of the Septuagint as against the Hebrew, I find words and verses in the one that are not in the other.  As a sceptic is it unreasonable for me to ask the Bishop how he knows that one is better than the other?  When I go to the Hebrew the difficulty is still greater.  I say that not even the Bishop knows enough of the Hebrew to guide us with reasonable explanation.  It is not enough to say that mere ignorant infidels do not know it.  I find Spinoza, writing 200 years ago, declaring that Hebrew was a language utterly dead, that its grammars and lexicons were lost, that time, p. 36the great consumer, had blotted out the meaning of many words from the memory of man.  Suppose that I have recourse to those professing some knowledge of Hebrew.  Gesenius, Bellamy, Parkhurst, Newman, Eichorn, Bresslau, Ginsburg, give me different meanings for many of the same words on important points of theology.  How am I to be satisfied?  What objections will be reasonable?  Suppose I try to be content with the ordinary Hebrew version, what then?  I find that it is a version written with points, which points have not existed more than 1250 or 1300 years; and the text itself is of two characters.  That which is written is not always read, and that which is read is not written.  I find a clergyman of the Church like Dr. Irons admitting that the traditional reading of the Hebrew text is often of more value than the text.  I find Christians saying this Hebrew is an ancient language, and when I try to trace it I find that before 2500 years back there is no trace of it at all.  Moses could not have written in the Hebrew we have, for what to-day we call the Hebrew did not then exist.  Who is to decide on this point as to the reasonableness of my scepticism?  Am I to decide or my Lord Bishop?  Let us consider this a little more.  We have a Samaritan, a Septuagint, and Hebrew Bible, but in the Samaritan we have only the Pentateuch, and I find words and verses in the Samaritan not in the Septuagint, and not in the Hebrew, and I find words and verses in the Hebrew and Septuagint, which are not in the Samaritan.  Is it unreasonable for me to ask how so many blunders have got into this book, if it contains a revelation from God?  Then I come to try to get a clue from the Gospels, and I find again that no man knows when they were written, where they were written, or by whom they were written.  Clergymen of the Church have invented arguments from the first century fathers for the existence of the Gospels.  I used to believe that such testimony existed; I could not suppose that writers like Dr. Paley had invented testimony of the fathers, but when I went to the great libraries to verify authorities, and I found that he manufactured evidence, I ask, was I, as a sceptic, a reasonable man in challenging the Church?  The Bishop says a Sceptic is not to be attacked because he doubts, but because of his reason for the doubt.  I doubt because I cannot help it.  Is that a good reason or not?  Is the Church entitled to say “It is not true, you might believe if you like?”  And mark, the Bishop had the audacity to declare p. 37that Christianity is not intolerant of the doubter, but of the spirit of doubt.  The Church used to burn the doubter, and then it burnt his books, and locked him up in prison.  It now gathers 3,000 people into the nave of the Cathedral to hear the attack on the doubter, and refuses to grant the use of any place for a reply.  It is not intolerant to the doubter, it is only intolerant of the spirit of doubt!  I learned from the Bishop that a man might be a religious believer, and at the same time a sceptic, and in explaining this he used language of an astounding character.  He said if a man were to say, I cannot believe in the existence of God till I have it demonstrated to me as clearly as that the three angles of a triangle are equal to two right angles, then he is in principle a sceptic, because if he had not that sort of proof, he would begin to doubt of the existence of God; all this time his assent to the existence of God would have rested on a sceptical foundation.  This was one of the most marvellous pieces of nonsense that any one could talk.  How can any one, while assenting to God’s existence, say, I cannot believe in God till it is proved to demonstration?  He makes the true believer commence by saying he cannot believe in God till it is proved.  If anyone here had used that language, I should have said that he did not understand what he was talking about; but when a Bishop, a learned Bishop, the paragon of eloquence and logic, brought here as more competent than your own Bishop, talks such nonsense, how am I to reply?  Let us take a startling contrast which the Bishop thought right to give us.  He contrasted Thomas the doubter with Simon Peter the believer.  I have read the Bible a little, and I think that of all the cowardly rascals of whom I ever read, the greatest rascal was Simon Peter.  He was called under great advantages; he had been out fishing, and he caught nothing, and the Lord helped him to a good catch of fish; Simon Peter’s wife’s mother was cured of a fever; Simon Peter was with Jesus when he fed the people with a few loaves and fishes, and he took part in the collection of the fragments.  He was present at the transmigration.  It was to him that Jesus said, “To thee I give the keys of the kingdom of heaven.”  Simon Peter was with the Lord all through his life; and when Jesus came to trouble, he was the first who abandoned him and denied him, even with oaths, “I know not the man;” and that Peter is the model of faith whom the Bishop presents to you.  Of the two I rather prefer Thomas to Peter.  Certainly Peter came back to the p. 38Church when he caught more fish.  When Jesus rose from the dead, Peter did not or would not know him, but when Jesus said “Throw in your net,” and he did so, and caught more fish, then he knew Jesus directly.  I will ask what lesson the Lord Bishop meant to convey by the contrast between those two?  In what sort of way is Peter put in contrast?  Simon Peter was true enough when any profit was to be got by it; he ran away when danger came.  This is the model which the Lord Bishop puts before you to copy.  But Dr. Magee said that Christianity could not be demonstrated.  Christian evidences were of some use as weapons when believers were exposed to assaults on their faith.  If I thought he had intended to preach a comic sermon instead of a serious one, I could have heartily laughed at this.  He says that the evidences of Christianity are weapons to put in the hands of every man and woman when his or her innermost soul is assailed by the enemy with desolating doubt.  Is it true that God permits an enemy to reduce man to the level of the beast, and to be continually besieging the soul of man?  Is it true that the subtle devil tempts man from the faith?  If it be true, then the devil exists either because God cannot help it, or will not prevent it; and if he exists because God is powerless to prevent, then God is not omnipotent; if God wills it, then God consents to—nay, strives to procure man’s damnation.  But, says the Bishop, Christianity does not repel the doubter, and he even admits the utility of doubt, subject only to one condition.  Before I deal with the Bishop’s condition, permit me to quote what Buckle has said on the effect of doubt, and I quote him because he stands in a position entitling him to the attention of the extreme heterodox, as well as of the extreme orthodox.  He says:

“Although the acquisition of fresh knowledge is the necessary precursor of every step in social progress, such acquisition must itself be preceded by a love of inquiry, and therefore by a spirit of doubt, because without doubt there will be no inquiry, and without inquiry there will be no knowledge, for knowledge is not an inert and passive principle which comes to us whether we will or no; but it must be sought before it can be won; it is the product of great labour, and, therefore, of great sacrifice.  And it is absurd to suppose that men will incur the labour and make the sacrifice for subjects respecting which they are already perfectly content.  They who do not feel the darkness, will never look for the light.  If on any point we have attained to certainty, we make no p. 39further inquiry on that point, because inquiry would be useless or perhaps dangerous.  The doubt must intervene before the investigation can begin.  Here, then, we have the act of doubting as the originator, or at all events the necessary antecedent of all progress.  Here we have that scepticism, the very name of which is an abomination to the ignorant, because it disturbs their lazy and complacent minds; because it troubles their cherished superstitions; because it imposes on them the fatigue of inquiry; and because it rouses even sluggish understandings to ask if things are as they are commonly supposed, and if all is really true which they from their childhood have been taught to believe.  The more we examine this great principle of scepticism, the more distinctly shall we see the immense part it has played in the progress of European civilisation.  To state in general terms, what in this introduction will be fully proved, it may be said that to scepticism we owe that spirit of inquiry which, during the last two centuries, has gradually encroached on every possible subject, has reformed every department of practical and speculative knowledge; has weakened the authority of the privileged classes, and thus placed liberty on a surer foundation; has chastised the despotism of princes; has restrained the arrogance of the nobles, and has even diminished the prejudices of the clergy.  In a word, it is this which has remedied the three fundamental errors of the olden time, errors which made the people in politics too confiding, in science too credulous, in religion too intolerant.  We have thus seen the rise of that scepticism which in physics must always be the beginning of science, and in religion must always be the beginning of toleration.  There is, indeed, no doubt that in both cases individual thinkers may by a great effort of original genius, emancipate themselves from the operation of this law.  But in the progress of nations no such emancipation is possible.  As long as men refer the movements of the comets to the immediate finger of God, and as long as they believe that an eclipse is one of the modes by which Deity expresses his anger, they will never be guilty of the blasphemous presumption of attempting to predict such supernatural appearances.  Before they could dare to investigate the causes of these mysterious phenomena, it was necessary that they should suspect that the phenomena themselves were capable of being explained by the human mind.  In the same way until men are content in some degree to bring their religion before the bar of their own reason, they never can understand p. 40how it is that there should be a diversity of creeds, or how any one can differ from themselves without being guilty of the most enormous and unpardonable crime.”

Chillingworth says, “Reason gives us knowledge, while faith only gives us belief, which is a part of knowledge, and is, therefore, inferior to it.  It is by reason, and not by faith, that we must discriminate in religious matters, and it is by reason alone that we can distinguish truth from falsehood.”  He solemnly reminds his readers that in religious matters no one ought to be expected to draw strong conclusions from imperfect premises, or to credit improbable statements upon scanty evidence; still less, he says, was it ever intended that men should so prostitute their reason as to believe with infallible faith that which they are unable to prove with infallible arguments.  The Bishop, agreeing in the utility of doubt, which he expressed in language nearly as strong as that of Buckle, says there is one condition without which doubt cannot be useful, and this condition, being in truth an entire hindrance to doubt, is utterly unreasonable and impossible.  He says the condition on which doubt can be accepted as useful is that it starts on a certain basis of religious belief.  Now a doubt so based is only a fictitious doubt, a sham doubt, a hypocritical pretence of doubt.  When the Bishop said it was possible to have a doubt based on belief in the proposition to be doubted, he said what he could not defend on any platform where reply was permitted.  I feel that in talking of a man in his absence I may be under the imputation of saying harsh things.  The manner in which this debate has gone on is not one of my fashioning.  The Church has taken the pains to give lectures in the Cathedral where no reply could be offered; but I promise you that I will endeavour to carry the war into Peterborough, and see whether the Bishop will attempt an answer under the shadow of his own cathedral.

I have now to complain of something still worse than that the Bishop should have forgotten his Bible, entirely ignored the Thirty-nine Articles, and occasionally in the hurry of rapid speech contradicted his previous sentences.  All these are matters at which in even an extraordinary man burdened with a bishop’s dignity, we need not wonder at all; but when we find him blundering in metaphysics, when we find him making mistakes which a man versed in the merest student’s rudiments of Mill or the Scotch and German metaphysicians, would not make, when we find the Bishop so blundering, either wilfully or ignorantly, it puts me in a p. 41position of extreme difficulty.  He distinguished between the Sceptic and the Christian, and said the Christian had a faith in something underlying all phenomena.  The Christian’s faith is nothing of the kind.  I will explain my position, and then that of the Christian.  The position of the Naturist is that there is only one existence.  I can only know that existence as conditioned, as phenomenal.  What we call “things” are modes or conditions of existence, known or distinguished from other conditions by various characteristics or qualities; we only know substance or existence as conditioned.  We only know the phenomenal or the conditioned.  We affirm one existence, and that all we know is condition of that one existence.  But that is not the Christian’s position.  The Christian says there are two existences, the one what he calls the material universe, and the other the Deity, distinct and differing in essence, who is the creator of that universe out of nothing, and who can be the destroyer of it.  When the Bishop tried to make these two opinions into one, he either did not know what he was talking about, or he supposed that the people to whom he was talking had not the time to study.  The Bishop defined faith as trust or assent, and he declared that not only in religion but in all other matters we have faith.  He said, for example, and his illustration appeared to me most unfortunately chosen, that we trusted in our wives, and children, and friends, that it was possible that our wives might all the time be unfaithful, our children unloving, and our friends treacherous.  These are not the words, but they give the exact sense of the words.  Now I will explain the difference between religious faith and the ordinary faith.  Our ordinary faith in one another in every-day life is a confidence founded upon our own experience and the experience of others; and it is because we find the unfaithful wives are the fewest in number, and the treacherous friends the fewest in number, that we trust in our wives and our friends.  But religious faith is something entirely different, it is not only not founded on experience, but it contradicts experience.  Religious belief is the prostration of the intellect; ordinary every-day trust is the result of the exercise of the intellect.  The Bishop spoke of morality.  He said morality was based upon faith, and he asked, supposing you did not go to faith, where were you to get your standard of morality?  What is morality, the Bishop did not tell you.  With me that is moral which tends to the greatest happiness of the greatest p. 42number, which inflicts the least injury on any.  What is moral the Bible does not tell you, the Thirty-nine Articles do not tell you, the Creeds do not tell you, the Nicene Creed does not tell you, the Apostles’ Creed does not tell you.  They say that it is moral not to steal, but you must not say this with the Bible in your hand, where you find a thief protected and rewarded.  And as to adultery, David got to heaven though he committed adultery, and planned the most treacherous murder of the dishonoured husband.  It is moral to speak the truth, but Jacob, who lied, got to heaven, and was loved by God, while his brother was hated, though he appears to have been the better man of the two.  What is the morality of the Athanasian Creed?  You are to believe in a Father, a Son, and a Holy Ghost, three persons in one God, and if you do not believe in this, without doubt you are to perish everlastingly.  Is that your morality?  He that believes and is baptised, shall be saved.  Is faith in Christ morality?  Here it is moral to eat beefsteaks, but on the banks of the Ganges it is immoral.  Where will you get your guide to morality?  No one man, no one book, no one church, can give it you.  Your guide to morality can only be got by gathering from the wisdom, and availing yourself of the experience of the greatest minds of past ages and the present times, and thus you may learn to be moral.  I don’t speak to annihilate the Bible.  No man can annihilate a book.  If Moses or Isaiah wrote, no man can sweep their work away from the page of history, but I say that no book should dominate the world.  I am a sceptic, for I deny the absolute authority of one book to dominate all people.  I find among the Brahmins, among the Buddhists, among the Chinese and Japanese, phases of human truth which in other lands are almost entirely forgotten, which your Jew books do not contain.

If you want to know how I would make a code of morality, I would make it as you would a bouquet of flowers: from one plot in a garden you cull the rose, from another other flowers of sweet perfume, from another the flowers of brilliant hue, until colour blending with colour and fragrance aiding, your bouquet presents beauty to the eye and sweet perfume to the scent; so I would take from Shakspere the fruit of his wide grasping brains, from Swift his brilliant wit, from Montesquieu his great power of generalisation, from Voltaire his grand irony, from Rabelais his biting thought, from Spinoza his grand logic, from John Locke his wise reason, I would take p. 43from Dr. Magee his eloquence, and bring them and the thoughts of the world’s poets and philosophers together.  I would make my bouquet of thought.  I say the Bible is not a book to cast away, but to place on our shelves beside the Koran, the Vedas, and other old-world books, to mark how the thought of the world has grown.  We know that religion has a hold upon the mass, but I claim for scepticism a higher morality.  The belief in religion is the wearing the old clothes of a former age, the swaddling clothes adopted in the childhood of humanity, but scepticism is the bursting out from these old swaddling clothes.  It is the effort of buried brain to burst its grave and stand out alive for human deliverance.


On Thursday evening, March 30th, 1871, the nave of the Cathedral, Norwich, was much crowded with the citizens of all classes, to hear the third sermon of the Bishop of Peterborough, on “Christianity and Faith.”  Before the sermon the Bishop prayed specially for the conversion of the infidels present.  He selected his text from the Gospel according to St. John, xx. 29,

“Blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.”

His Lordship said:

Last night, I endeavoured to show you what scepticism is, and what it leads to.  We saw that scepticism is not simply doubt, but that it is doubt of a particular kind.  It is that state of doubt which arises from insisting on referring every question for solution to one part, and one only, of our nature, to the sceptical understanding.  It is that state of doubt which arises from refusing to believe until it has been made scientifically and mathematically impossible to doubt.  And we saw what this leads to; we saw that it necessarily leads to the destruction of all belief properly so-called, to the destruction of every kind of assent, except assent to scientific and demonstrated facts; that it puts an end to all belief which rests upon moral certainty, as distinguished from scientific certainty, and therefore it puts an end to all belief that appeals to any part of our nature except the understanding; all belief with which the heart and spirit of man have anything to do; all belief of the higher and nobler kind; all belief that arises out of the higher and nobler part of our nature; all belief that is in character and essence moral, and all the higher and nobler life which arises out of such belief.  We saw that scepticism was essentially fatal to morality; that there is no scientific demonstration of morality, and that in order to be moral it is necessary to exercise an act of faith; that morality cannot justify itself to the sceptical understanding; as we saw that as religion is not capable of scientific demonstration, as it does appeal to something else than the logical faculty, as it does appeal to man’s heart and spirit, it cannot justify itself to the sceptical p. 45intellect; and that scepticism is necessarily as fatal to religion as it is to morality, and to all belief except scientific belief.

I hope you saw what a waste of time it is to endeavour to satisfy the consistent sceptic; we have absolutely nothing in common.  It is impossible that religion can silence scepticism, unless it ceases to be religion.  It is just as absurd to object to religion that it is not science, as to object to science that it is not religion.  It is the wisest course we can take in dealing with sceptics to begin, and for the most part to end the discussion, by asking this plain question: You tell us that you are sceptical, and you demand all your doubts to be satisfied before you believe; we ask you, Do you believe in anything, and if so, what do you believe in the proper sense of the word?  Do you assent to anything on trust?  Do you believe in anything you cannot demonstrate?  If so, you have no right to say to us that we should not believe a religion.  If you say, I believe in nothing but what can be demonstrated, then we have nothing to answer, we must leave you to be refuted by the common sense of mankind, and by every act of your daily life which is based on trust.  It would save a vast deal of wasted time were we to take this course.  Let me advise all Christians; before you allow a sceptic to put you to the proof, ask, What is it you believe?  Do you believe anything in the matter of religion? and if so, remember you should not bring any objection against our faith which applies equally to yours.  We cannot allow of faith for all the difficulties of your belief, while you ask demonstration for all the difficulties of our belief.  Faith for both, or faith for neither; but not faith for one and demonstration for the other.  We seek not to get a logical victory over our opponents; that is the poorest of all ambitions; but we recommend such a course for this reason, that you may see that the very same objections which are brought against our belief, lie against any belief, and all belief, and so be strengthened in your faith; for after all man must believe something.  There is a necessity of belief in the soul of man.  We ask for the sake of our opponents, if we throw them back upon considering the basis of their own belief, and ask them if they are not unconsciously to themselves in some degree believers while they call themselves sceptics?

And now, while I have endeavoured thus clearly to show you that religion, like morality, has no answer, properly speaking, to scepticism—but that it rests upon an act of faith in answer to what is ever saying, How, what, and why?—let us come back p. 46then to that point at which we left it last night.  That is the point at which we saw, that in order to be moral, and to believe in morality, we must exercise an act of faith, we must trust in ourselves, in our own higher and better nature.  It must be an act of faith which never can justify itself to the understanding.  Submit the understanding to the soul, elevate the conscience above the merely logical and questioning faculty; say by the exercise of a higher faculty, say by the power of that instinct of faith, which is given us for the very purpose that we may rise above the instinct of doubt—say, I know that this is right and this is true, while I have a soul.  There is in the heart of every human being an eternal opposition between the merely sceptical understanding and the spiritual faculty, between that which demonstrates and that which believes, between the mind which we share with the animal, and the soul which we Christians believe we specially derive from God; and these two are opposite the one to the other.  That in us which says, This must be so, this shall be so so, is a higher faculty than that which in us inquires, Why is it so, how can this be so?  And that act of faith in us on which our morality, our religion, and our higher forms of being rest, is that by which we assert the supremacy of the one above the other.  We are not always conscious, nor often conscious, of this contradiction in our innermost nature, of the opposition between the spiritual part of our nature and the mere fleshly man.  There are times, however, when we feel conscious of it.  There are times when to each one of us comes some dire and deadly temptation, when we find ourselves in the presence of some coveted object, when the animal craves for its gratification, and the spirit trembles at the thought of the unlawful thing; and then we find the serpent intellect pleading in an ingenious way that there is no law against it.  I say, there is not in this church a single man or woman who has not felt the eternal opposition between the spirit and the flesh; who has not felt that his deliverance from temptation, the mastery over the evil thing that was leading him on to evil, lies not in any logic or demonstration, but in the submission of the logical faculty to the spiritual, in saying to the animal part of our nature, Be silent, submit, I will be righteous, I will not sin.  I say, in that moment we do become conscious of the opposition that exists between the intellectual and spiritual part of our nature.  It is then that the great billows of our souls are ebbing and flowing in the agony of our p. 47temptation.  It is at that time we feel the innermost parts of our being, the fountains of the great deep broken up; and then the spirit says, I will be righteous.  And though we are not conscious of it, though the animal has been accustomed to obey the man, there is this secret opposition between the two.  It is in the nature of what oculists tell us.  They tell us, that the image of an object is inverted on the retina of the eye, and that it is only by constant habit of correction of the impression that we see things truly.  So there is the natural inversion of the nature of the man; the animal gets the upper hand in the man, and it is only by the unconscious training of the man in Christian society that the supremacy of the moral part of the man is strongly established; and we are not conscious of the act of faith, but still that act of faith underlies all morality, and it is true in morality as in religion, “The just shall live by faith.”  There is no righteous deed that any one of us has done that we did not do by virtue of this act of faith; “The just shall live by faith.”

Now let us pass on to another question, for if the whole moral and religious life is based upon the act of faith, there doubtless must be a good reason for it.  We Christians believe that God made us so for a good reason.  Can we see any reason why we should live our moral life by faith?  That faith is not a mere assent to propositions, it is trust in a person, in a nature, a belief that we are better, nobler, than our understanding would persuade us we are.  Every time this opposition which I have described arises within a man, he is given a choice; he has to pass through a probation, or a test as to whether he will or will not believe in his better self, whether he will rise up to the idea of his spiritual nature, or sink down to the depths of his animal nature.  There is a trial for him, and a discipline in the trial, and a culture and a growth of his moral nature if he stands firm in the trial.  We cannot believe, in such a moment of trial, in our nobler and better selves, without becoming in the very act of believing, nobler and better out of such strife; and the man comes out stronger every time he wrestles with his baser self; his purer and nobler self comes out of the trial nobler and purer.

There is a deep meaning in the temptation of our Saviour, when he is said to have been with the wild beasts, in that hour when the man is wrestling with the wild beasts, or the brute part of his nature, and his spiritual nature comes strong out of the struggle; just as the waving of the p. 48branches of the trees in the wind, makes the sap circulate to the tiniest leaflet, and brings the life-blood of the plant to every part.  This is the use and object of the act of faith; to train, discipline, and elevate the man.  Further, I have said, in every case in which a man believes in his better self, he becomes better; but we have to deal not only with our better selves, we have to come constantly in contact with other natures and other personalities than our own.  Now, what happens when we encounter a higher or more moral nature than our own?  Just the very same trial and discipline; because if a man comes to deal with a higher and better nature than his own, there is always a trial to the lower nature.  If a higher nature could be easily understood by a lower nature, then the two natures would be equal.  It is the very essence of a higher and purer nature to be something of a mystery to a lower nature.  Some of the sayings or the doings of that higher nature, will always appear strange and puzzling to the lower nature, just because it is a lower nature.  There is always the possibility of the lower nature saying of the higher nature, This nature is no better than mine, I do not believe in its higher or greater goodness.  But are these cynical, worldly-wise men who disparage others, generally speaking, the most improving and valuable of our acquaintances?  Do we not generally find these cynical, bitter, disparaging men to be men of low tone?  They have lowered their moral nature in the hour of probation and trial; they have sunk lower than themselves, because they have refused to believe in something higher and better than themselves.  If these men could have risen to the higher natures they had to deal with, then in that very hour, their own nature would have grown purer, nobler, and higher.  So we see again, the act of faith would be an act of probation, an act of discipline, an act of moral culture and growth.  Therefore we say it is true, “Blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.”

But now let us go one step further.  We have seen that in all morality there is an act of faith, and we believe in our own higher nature and the higher nature of others, and in so doing we ourselves grow better; but is there not something better still?  We that believe in higher natures than our own, is there not in our hearts an instinctive belief that there must be somewhere perfect righteousness, perfect truth, perfect holiness?  We seek for it, believe in it; do we ever find it?  The more we know of men, though we may p. 49know more of their excellencies, we are compelled to know something more too of their imperfections.  The result of this discovery is that one of two things happens, according as we listen to our understanding or our will.  The sceptical understanding says, There is no such thing as perfection anywhere.  That answer is unanswerable if we look only to experience.  Is that the answer of the soul and heart of man?  No, the soul and the heart rebel against this cheerless teaching.  The soul has ever been uttering its protest against this despairing creed, ever speaking its belief in the reality of a perfect righteousness, a perfect truth, a perfect holiness; but can never attain to it.  It may be a dream, but it is a dream that has haunted humanity from the first hour of its existence.  We thus have faith in humanity, and the value of this faith is that it elevates the soul which believes in it; a faith which cannot justify itself to the understanding, a faith as deep as the human heart, and as old as the hills.

There is in very deed, in a very true sense, although it may be a low sense comparatively, a religion of humanity; a creed and an act of faith; and that religion has for its creed these articles: man is pure; he is not a bundle of passions merely; man is responsible, he has to answer for his beliefs; man may yet be perfect.  There is no article in this creed that can be justified to the sceptical intellect, and yet there is not a single article in it that the loving heart of man, and that his soul in his highest and best moments, does not cling to as the very life of its life.  The heart of man believes in the perfectibility of humanity, in spite of sin and misery and oppression.  The long litany of man’s [imperfections?] comes down with a wail of despairing denial of the possibility of perfection.  Remedy after remedy has been tried, scheme after scheme has been invented, and have been borne away like the bubbles on the wave; but still the heart of man clings to the belief that there is a perfect goodness somewhere, even when civilisation fails to produce it, even in spite of what we have seen in the last three months when the most civilised nations of Europe have banded themselves together for mutual destruction; in spite of all this disproof of perfection, the heart of man clings to it still.  We do have faith in humanity, and the value of the faith is that it elevates the soul which believes in it.  This belief in the possibility of perfection, in the possibility of delivering men from sin and sorrow, this is not merely the dream of the poet, it is not merely the Utopia of the philosopher, but it p. 50is the instinctive might in the heart of the earnest worker, that gives strength to him who does his duty amid the haunts of sin and sorrow; it is this that sends the Christian worker into the back streets and lanes of our great cities; it is this that sends the Christian minister to the bedside of the dying; it is this that makes men toil and suffer for their fellow men, like him whom we worship, who saw in his dying hour of the travail of his soul and was satisfied.

And now we take one step further.  We have seen that there is a faith which underlies all morality as well as religion, and that this faith is the discipline of the soul, and without it the soul cannot grow in morality or religion.  Let us suppose, for argument’s sake, let us suppose that for this yearning of the soul after an infinite perfection, there is a corresponding reality—an absolutely perfect, a supremely righteous and true and holy Being.  And let us suppose that it pleased him to make a revelation of himself to man; what should we expect beforehand respecting that revelation?  Should we not expect that it would follow the analogy of all other revelations to the higher and better part of man’s nature, and that inasmuch as morality needs faith, so this manifestation of the Perfect One would come in some way or other so as to call out the act of faith?  Should we not expect that if this were the only absolutely perfect nature, it would appear to our lower and inferior nature in some respects unintelligible, in some respects mysterious, in some respects contradictory?  For all mysteries, everything we cannot understand, must come to our understanding in the shape of contradictory propositions.  We must expect that this higher nature, this perfect nature, should try our faith.  If it would be unreasonable to suppose that an inferior man to himself should understand a man, so also it would be unreasonable to suppose that our nature should not find some difficulty in perfectly appreciating and understanding the absolutely perfect nature of a supremely perfect Being.  Should we not expect from analogy that we should have some more difficulty in understanding God, than we have in understanding man?  We must expect the same trial of our faith, the same probation and discipline of our spiritual nature, when it is brought into contemplation of this perfect nature.  Surely we should beforehand expect that this would be the case; surely we might say that the God who was perfectly understood could not be the true God.  When a man says, I want a God that is not a mystery; I ask, Do you p. 51know a man who is without a mystery?  Are you not a mystery yourself?  Is there one fellow being whom you understand?  And yet you say, I have not faith in a God whom I cannot understand.  Who can comprehend him who dwells in ineffable light, in whom there is no variableness nor shadow of turning?  If there be revelation from God at all, it must try the faith of man.  In the next place, we should expect that it would be a revelation of a righteous person; because we know that the highest tendencies of our nature at their best moments are ever to find a righteous person, and our faith that has been cultivated in our brother man naturally looks for a person.  Faith has ever been trusting in a person, in a nature, and therefore we should expect beforehand that if there came a revelation of this God, it would not come in the shape of a revelation of doctrines or creeds, but that it would be a revelation of a person.  We Christians say there is made to us a revelation of the working of the Divine Will, and the purpose of the Divine Designer, in the works of his hands.  We say the invisible things of God are revealed by the things that are made.  There is that in the world which testifies to a creator and designer.  This we believe because there is that in us which instinctively, when it finds a work of art, supposes an artist; and finding a work requiring design, has belief in a designer.  We say, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament shows his handy work.”

But this revelation must follow the law of all other manifestations.  There must be a possibility of denying it; a discipline here, as in the other case, in which faith is called into play; and therefore, though the world reveals its maker, it does not demonstrate its maker.  “Day unto day is uttering speech, and night unto night showeth forth knowledge;” but the speech is like the speech for things spiritual, the utterance is for all who choose to believe it.  If men will, they may put it aside; and some deny it in the face of the world.  God has willed that there shall be nothing in this world to demonstrate his existence; but it is now as of old, inasmuch as men did not choose to retain God in their knowledge, he gave them over to a reprobate mind.  There is a possibility, there is a necessity, in the manifestation of God, that it should try the faith of man.  Once more, we Christians believe not only that God has revealed himself in his works, but also in his word, in his Incarnate Word; that, in answer to the craving desire of the soul of man to look upon human p. 52perfection, this earth has once been walked upon by a perfect man; that in the story of the Gospels we possess that which no imperfect souls could ever have imagined, the lineaments of a perfect being.  I am not saying that it is so, but it is our belief.  But before we opened the Gospels, we should expect according to the analogy of all other holy and righteous lives that we know of, that it should not demonstrate itself, should not make itself an impossibility to the sceptical mind to find fault with it, and should reveal itself to those whose lives were like it, so that wisdom should justify herself by her children.  We should not expect, judging from analogy of what we see in the world, that this life should in all respects silence all opposition, and be understood by every mind that it came in contact with.  We should expect to hear that he was despised and rejected of men, and some people besought him to depart from their coasts.  If the revelation of a divine and perfect nature is to follow the analogy of all revelations of a lower degree of perfection, and all manifestations of inferior natures, then we must expect the same law will govern this case as all others; there will be a possibility of doubt, and a trial of faith, and to those who conquer the doubt and exercise the faith, will the promise be realised, “Blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.”  Ah, it was not with faith in a series of propositions only, nor in a set of dogmas—though we believe the propositions and hold the dogmas, but in the light of faith in this person—that the disciples of the Perfect One went out to convert the world.  They did not preach Christ’s teaching, but Christ.

Did it ever occur to you to read the Acts of the Apostles? if so, you will have seen how little of the words of Christ, how little of the teachings of Christ, appears there.  When we read in the Acts, how the Apostles went out to preach Christ, do we read that they gathered the multitude in the forum?  Did they say, Listen to the morality of the Gospels?  You will not find a quotation from the Sermon on the Mount.  What did they do?  They gathered the multitude together, and preached not the words of Christ, but Christ.  They said, Come and believe in this man; it was the personality, it was the life and death, and resurrection and ascension of him, that they preached.  It was a person in whom they asked the people to believe; and the result is this extraordinary and singular fact, that Christ is the only teacher among men whose life is greater than his teaching.  All other teachers p. 53have faded into insignificance in comparison with their teaching.  Who cares about the life of Euclid? but everybody believes in his teaching.  Men are fond of comparing Christ with Socrates.  Let us take it so.  Did any man ever hear a person say, I am dead with Socrates; I am buried with Socrates; the life that I live is by faith in Socrates?  Were such words ever heard of any heathen teacher?  How comes it that men said this of Christ?  The faith of the soul went out to the nature and work of Christ.  The faith of man triumphed in the discovery of the perfect man.

Now we have reached the last point to which I have desired to bring you in this series of sermons.  We have reached the historical fact, as to which others will follow me who will take up the subject, and who will show the evidence arising from history and prophecy.  My task ends in removing the stumbling-blocks which would prevent your coming to hear them.  It has been my part to lead you to the steps, to the threshold of the temple.  We have found difficulties that have kept many away from the entrance to the temple.  The first is the belief that Christianity is opposed to Freethought.  And I have endeavoured to show you that Christianity does not deny it, but asserts it; that where Christianity does deny it, law and society deny it.  The second difficulty is that of scepticism.  We have seen that it is fatal to morality, and to all the higher forms of human life, and that the sceptical understanding should submit to the soul.  Christianity only requires what morality has done.  I have answered the objection that Christianity must appeal to faith, and must do so because it cannot find demonstration.  Our answer is that it has all the demonstration that is possible for the supernatural or for history.  Christianity does make demands on faith, but it acts in accordance with the analogy of human life; and Christianity in claiming faith justifies its claim to be a religion.

Now the time comes to close this discourse, in which from my inmost soul I have set the truth before you.  I will ask you in all sincerity, Why do you suppose I am here?  Some may say because we are priests and bigots.  To me, if I must put it so, it makes no difference whether I come here or not.  Why do I come here?  Do you really, honestly believe, that I have come here to deceive you?  Will you not give me credit, that to the best of my ability and in all earnestness and honesty, I have endeavoured to put before you the reasons that seem to me sufficient for my belief?  Hear us, then, p. 54for this reason if for no other, that we desire your souls for our Lord and Master, that it is in his name we come among you, and because we believe that Jesus is the Son of God and came down from heaven to save men.  It is for this reason, and this only, that we are here to speak to you, that we may with the help of God deepen your faith or shake your unbelief.  We come with his word, that calls on you to follow the higher and not the lower part of your nature.  “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and ye shall be saved.”  There are some who don’t believe in the first part of this message, there are few who do not believe that men need to be saved, saved in this world, and saved in the next, saved from some of the sin and misery in this world.  I ask, is there no need of faith, is there no desire for the objects of faith?  Among men have we not some need of faith?  The world is growing old and sick at heart.  All the remedies that have been tried for the evils of society, have been tried in vain.  Idol after idol has been set up, has been rocked on its basis, and shivered.  The gods of mankind have been taken away, and the cry of despondency has been raised, We have no humanity.  Is there any evidence that there shall be a perfection of humanity?  Is it from faith in men of science?  Did science ever comfort the afflicted, or allay human sorrows?  Faith in civilisation?  Can it remedy the evils that are conquering society?  Civilisation now means the gathering of men in great masses, to live the luxurious, the voluptuous life of great towns; it means the weary, toilful, haggard life of others in these same towns; it means the rich growing richer, and the poor growing poorer every day.  Civilisation throws its dark shadows in its track.  Civilisation and science, have they arrested war, or softened the heart of humanity, or prevented strife between nations?  Civilisation, science and art have invented mitrailleuses, and invented destructive methods of wholesale murder.  Where will you find in all these things a substitute for faith?  Some speak of the millennium, and of the natural state of man being remedied in this world.  We believe in the final perfection of man, but not in this world.  We believe in the reign of righteousness, but it is in the eternal world.  It is in that faith that we gain courage to look on the scenes and sorrows that afflict humanity.  It is in the strength of that faith that we look down on the graves of the departed, and believe all is not dust of the earth; but we take up the song of Christian triumph over death, and thank God for the message “Blessed are they that have not seen and yet have believed.”


On Wednesday evening, April 5th, Mr. Bradlaugh delivered his third lecture on “Christianity and Faith,” before an audience which crowded every corner of the Free Library, Norwich.  He said: In delivering the last of this course of lectures, permit me to commence by expressing my regret, that those who differ from me consider it necessary to show their disagreement in the manner in which it was expressed last night, on my leaving this room.  If it had been the conduct of some ignorant young persons only, I should not have deemed it right to waste one moment in bringing the matter before you, but there were full-grown and decently dressed persons, who were distributing religious tracts, who encouraged others in following me, and using foul language.  I could not help feeling how strong was the cause which I advocate, and how wretchedly weak the cause of my opponents, when such weapons were resorted to in lieu of fair reply.

I now address myself to the last sermon of the Bishop of Peterborough, entitled “Christianity and Faith.”  The first portion of this was a recapitulation of the principal arguments of the two previous sermons, and then he made a statement utterly opposed to the whole purpose of his sermons.  I will deal with the exact purport, if I do not read to you the precise words he uttered.  He said, It is a waste of time to endeavour to satisfy the consistent sceptic.  He said, We Christians, have absolutely nothing in common with the consistent sceptic.  If that be true, why did the Bishop come to preach the course of sermons to win back sceptics to the Church?  Why did the Dean and Chapter inaugurate the course of sermons, if it was, in their opinion, impossible to satisfy the sceptic?  Why did the Bishop say it was not only to strengthen the faith of those in the church, but to win back those who had left it?  If it be not possible to win them back, then the whole course of sermons was a mere pretence, and I put it that the Bishop was, either consciously or unconsciously, misleading his hearers as to his p. 56real views, or that he did not know what he was talking about.  The Bishop offered some advice to Christians for dealing with sceptics.  He said, Before you allow a sceptic to put your belief to the proof, ask him what is it that he believes.  That is what you have no right to do.  The sceptic does not come to you at all to force his opinions on you.  You come to him when he is in the cradle, and by aid of early habit and repetition of phrases in lieu of thoughts, you put your religion into him, you train him to accept your religion in school, you fashion his brain-power before it has stability for resistance.  He has a right to express his disbelief in your religion, and you have no right to pretend to answer him with a mere What do you believe?  There is no equality in the two positions; religion is law-protected, scepticism is law-condemned; and the Bishop has no right to take such ground: a sceptic’s ignorance would be no evidence of a believer’s knowledge.  But give the Bishop the full benefit of the ground, and what does it amount to except that, after the Dean and Chapter had made a parade of their desire to answer infidelity, declaring that they would have the most competent man, this most competent man is obliged to say, The only way I advise you to meet modern infidelity is by admitting in effect, that you can do no more for your faith than to ask the infidel, What do you believe?  I dismiss this; it is of so trifling a character that if it had not formed a prominent part of the Bishop’s sermon, it would not have been worth noticing.  The Bishop, in dealing with Christianity and Faith, said that morality is built on faith, and that in order to be moral and have a code of morality, we must exercise an act of faith, and believe in our higher and better nature.  What is our better nature, judging by the Churchman’s standard?  The Articles of the Church of England declare that our nature is always lusting to do evil.  The Litany says that each man is always trying to do wickedly, and entreats the Lord to deliver us from the lusts of the flesh.  How then can we be asked to trust in a higher or better nature, which the Church declares is a nature fallen, depraved, and constantly tending to evil?  The doctrine of the Bible is that there is none who does good, that man’s thoughts are evil continually.  It is sufficient for me to quote the Litany in which the Bishop took part before his sermon, which said that we are all miserable sinners, and prayed God to be merciful to us.  How can we rise to our higher and better nature, if the existence of that p. 57higher and better nature be authoritatively denied?  The Bishop says there is an eternal opposition in our nature, between what he calls the sceptical understanding and the spiritual faculty, between the mind which we share with the animal and “the soul, which we Christians believe we specially derive from God.”

Let us clear away a little difficulty here.  By mind I mean the totality of cerebral ability and its results in activity, and I deny that we share mind with any other animal at all.  Each animal has the mind special and peculiar to its own organisation; and diverse races of men have diverse characters and degrees of mind, limited by, and resulting from, their organisation and its development.  But it is the Bible, and not the sceptic, that says the mind of man and the minds of all other animals are on a level.  The Bishop says that the sceptic would degrade man to the level of the beast.  You have only to take the Bible and you will read:

“I said in my heart concerning the estate of the sons of men, that God might manifest them, and that they might see that they themselves are beasts.  For that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts; even one thing befalleth them . . . so that a man hath no pre-eminence above a beast.”

If the doctrine is degrading, it is the Bible that teaches the doctrine, and not the sceptic.  Freethinkers never contend for anything of the kind.  On the contrary, we say that the superiority of the intellect is distinctly marked in its development, that not only are men mentally superior to all other animals, but that some races of men are vastly superior to others.  What does the Bishop mean by opposition between mind and soul?  He did not trouble to give any evidence of the existence of what he calls soul as apart from mind.  I challenge any one who may follow me to give me any evidence of any sort of existence apart from mind, that we can call soul.  The Bishop said that there is a constant opposition between the intellectual faculty, the mind which we share in common with the beast, and the spiritual soul.  I deny that the Bishop advanced the slightest proof of—or gave any clue to—any such soul.  I deny that it is possible for any man to conceive the existence of two separate existences in man: one, mind; the other, soul.  As to the opposition between them, the Bishop says that God created man’s intellectual faculties, and that he also endowed man with a soul; and that the soul is hostile to the mind; and that the mind is low and grovelling, always in hostility to the soul.  He thus makes God put into man a degrading p. 58nature, always hostile to religion, and in a constant struggle with the soul.  No more degrading supposition can be made respecting God, who is thus pictured as a malicious fiend; and if the Bishop had intended to make infidels, he could not have contrived more effectual means than the preaching this doctrine.

The Bishop, after dealing with the manner in which the spiritual part of our nature overcomes what he calls the animal, the intellectual or mental part of our nature—for he used all these words to describe the natural man at war with the spiritual man—says that the manner in which the spiritual conquers the other, is only by the unconscious training of the man in Christian society.  The Bishop says that God has made many millions of men, and given them minds in opposition to their souls, that these minds are strong enough to lead men to evil, and they cannot be brought to God, unless in Christian society; so that the Buddhists, the Brahmins, the Mohammedans, and men of all other persuasions must necessarily be damned, because, having no Christian society, there is not amongst them the means of overcoming this natural mind.  This is a pretty specimen of Christian teaching.  But the Bishop is not even content with this.  Having told us that Christianity is founded on an act of faith, and that faith is trust, he tells us that he believes that we are better, nobler, than our understanding would persuade us we are.  Having told us that we have a wicked nature, a depraved mind in conflict with the spirit, he says that our morality is also to be founded on an act of faith, that we are really better and nobler that we suppose.  Where do we find the evidence to justify this act of faith?  We are, according to the Bishop and his Church, all miserable sinners, nor can we do good without the help of God.  There is that subtle serpent the devil constantly working in us, and our nature is in league against God.  The Bishop says the only way to overcome this horrid nature is by the training of man in Christian society, and yet two minutes after, he tries to persuade us that we are better, nobler than he and his church say we are.  He says, in fact, we are all very wicked.  Adam ate an apple 6,000 years ago, and we are, in consequence, all degraded and depraved; yet we are really nothing of the kind.  The Bishop stated that the effect of belief in our nobler, better nature is the improvement of our character, and it is by believing in what is better and nobler, and in the possibility of being better and nobler, that we grow better.  Ergo, so long as men believe they are p. 59born in a state of natural depravity, and that of themselves they cannot do good, so long as the mass of men believe that those are depraved to damnation who cannot get trained in Christian society, so long as they believe that millions of men will be lost because they live without even hearing of Christ at all, so long they must be degraded by that belief.  They must believe that God made the majority of mankind for damnation and the minority for salvation; their faith must make themselves into the incarnations of vileness and God into an almighty fiend.

The Bishop, not content with such subtle logic, goes on to illustrations drawn from the Bible, and speaks of the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness.  He said there is a moral to be drawn from this temptation story, because Jesus is said to have been with the wild beasts, and there was a deep meaning in this saying.  I do read the Gospels sometimes, and therefore puzzled myself about these wild beasts, not having read much of them.  I remembered the Jesus-God being taken up a high mountain and shown all the kingdoms of the earth, as a possible bribe if he would worship his own creature the devil.  I remembered his being taken up to a pinnacle of the temple and invited to cast himself down; but I did not remember, nor do I now remember, anything about wild beasts, save a few words in the Gospel of Mark, and it is not even there shown that these wild beasts had anything to do with the Lord’s temptation.  Whether the Bishop has a special version of his own I do not know.

Another point of the Bishop was, that when lower natures have to contemplate higher natures, there is some mystery or contradiction to the lower natures.  The man who tries to predetermine your decision on an alleged matter of fact, by declaring that it is too mysterious for you to understand, and that being mysterious, you must accept it as he explains it, is a juggler with his intellect, and takes a position to which he has no right.  The Bishop was good enough to talk of our degrading creed.  Let him talk of his own degrading creed.  Our creed has not invented a bottomless pit filled to its brink with brimstone for everlasting torture, nor has it manufactured a devil more mighty than God to destroy God’s work.  Our degrading creed, at any rate, does not despair of human kind, nor tell us that we should be poor here in order to be rich hereafter, and be miserable here that we may be happy bye and bye, when the life-ability for happiness is entirely gone.  We don’t despair of human kind, we assert the improvability of the human race p. 60and we say if we make this life as good as we can, we shall not be affrighted from our task by any declaration that we may be unhappy hereafter.

But the Bishop went further, and carrying the war into our camp, he declared that it was in consequence of faith in Christ that men did Christian work, and he spoke of men doing good work among the sick, and poor, and ignorant, and wretched, day by day because they were Christians.  Does he mean to say that Mohammedans, and Buddhists, and Brahmins have amongst them no kindly work for one another?  Does he mean to say that men cannot be human unless they have the special Christian’s creed?  But this Christian work has been going on for 1800 years, so at least the Bishop says.  Let us turn the pages of its history over and read what it has really done.  When Christianity was cradled in the world, Italy and Greece had their poets, painters, sculptors, men of literary fame, orators, comedians, and tragedians.  Wait for a century or two till your much-vaunted Christianity has, by the aid of forgery, fraud, and manufactured miracle, acquired some force.  Wait till the priests, crushing out all other learning, have become the sole literary power in Europe.  Did they teach the people?  No, they kept the people ignorant.  (A voice, “No.”)  If any one says no, I will show century after century what Christianity has been.  Your first century I will not trouble with until you show me its actual pages; your second and third centuries are crowded with the fabrication of forged evidences, the canonisation of pretended saints; your fourth century shows the same work, and marks also the quarrels commencing amongst yourselves for the spoils now large enough to excite good Christians against each other; in the fifth century Salvian one of your own presbyters, said the Christian Church had become such a sink of vice, that it was a species of sanctity for any one to be a little less vicious than the others.  He says of his fellow Christians that they lie and cheat, are adulterers and murderers; that it is easier to find a Christian guilty of all these crimes than one guilty of none.  Take the sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth, and tenth centuries of Christianity, when infidelity was almost powerless, before Voltaire lived, before Spinosa wrote, before Bruno trod Europe round, and you have in these centuries, when Christianity was the most powerful, the dark ages of this European world, when all literature was stopped, all philosophy was hindered, all science manacled by the Church.  What was the Christian work in the eleventh, twelfth, and p. 61thirteenth centuries, when Christians marched to the Holy Land?  Let the plundered and miserable countries tell; let burned villages and ravished women show the way in which the soldiers of the Cross manifested their religion even to their fellow Christians.  Let these pages of blood and rapine be read for Christian work.  Where then was liberty or popular rights?  When the king, the barons, and the priests were in power, did Christianity help the people to get liberty?  It is only within the last 300 years, since the rise of heresy in Europe, that the people have gained any freedom.  The Church of England may say, This is not our work; but it is a branch of the Church of Rome, and ought not to repudiate the trunk it grew from.  Nay, it has not even the same right to plead to us as the Church of Rome.  The Church of Rome is consistent, and says to its followers, You on religion are unable to think, we will and we do think for you.  The Church of England says, You have a right to think for yourselves, but damns you if you think differently from the Church.  You say that hospitals are the fruits of Christianity.  Where, save in the monasteries, were the hospitals for 1500 years?  You boast of schools.  Where were these at all for 1500 years?  There were even in this country none worthy of the name for little children till Robert Owen set his example at New Lanark.  You talk of going into the back streets, but is it not true that squalor, misery, and vice, crowd the back streets because the Bishops and the English Church have taken so much from the people, and have so hindered the populace from self-improvement, that they have only back streets themselves to live in, while they build palaces for the king, and magnificent structures for the Church?  I attack the Church of England because the Church has challenged me.  I attack it as a leech that for centuries has sucked the life-blood out of the people, and which, with the power to aid and help civilisation, has done nothing but retard it.

The Bishop said, Let us suppose the existence of a supremely righteous, true, and holy being; let us suppose a revelation from such a being; what do you suppose such a revelation should be like? and he urged that the Christian possessed such a revelation as groundwork for his faith.  I hold the supposed revelation in my hand.  What does it reveal?  That God made man and woman in the same day, but that he made them separately, the man long before the woman.  That God gave them the fruit of every tree for food, but prohibited them from eating the fruit of one tree, and never intended p. 62that of another to be eaten by them; that he placed the man and woman in a garden within reach of the tree whose fruit they were forbidden to eat on pain of death, but the fruit of which was made good for food and pleasant to the eyes; that God made a serpent more subtle than all the beasts of the field; that this serpent tempted Eve, and she ate the forbidden fruit, and gave to the man who ate also, and thus both fell; that God, who had foreseen and predestined all this terrible farce, cursed for Adam’s sake all human kind, millions being thus involved in Adam’s ruin.  That all this was the work of an all-wise and all-good God, with whom is no variableness nor shadow of turning.  This God, who is not a man that he can repent, afterwards repented that he had made man, and, although not subject to passions, it grieved him at his heart, and he resolved to destroy all mankind.  That, man’s thoughts being wicked, this God of love and forgiveness, of long suffering and loving kindness, destroyed not only the full-grown man and woman, but also the little child as yet without thought.  Man’s thoughts being wicked, God drowned the whole world, including bird, beast, and creeping thing.  Did you ever picture to yourselves this story of the flood?  Just paint in imagination a mother with her child in her arms, wearily toiling up some hill, slippery with the falling waters.  See her fleeing from the waves coming swift behind, like ravenous wolves, with gaping mouths greedy for her life.  Imagine her cry to heaven for mercy, not for herself alone, not so much for herself, but for her child, a child, which sucking at her breast, as yet knows no sin.  Then picture your all-loving and merciful God shutting his ears to her wild shrieks for mercy, and drowning her and her babe in the flood.

Did you ever picture to yourselves the scene when, the world being again peopled, its inhabitants intended to build a tower that would reach to heaven, and God, the all-wise, hearing of it in heaven, where he then resided, came down to earth to see whether the rumour was true, and finding that it was, confounded the language of men?  Do you recollect how God chose Abraham—and I don’t deny that he was worth choosing, a man who was just 75 years old when he had lived 135 years—how God, the infinite and omnipresent, came down from heaven and told Abraham that in his seed all the nations of the earth should be blessed; and that Abraham, though so old that his body was “as good as dead,” should have a son in his old age?  Have you read how God, who cannot lie, p. 63with a covenant and an oath promised a certain land to Abraham, and how he never gave him “so much as to set his foot on?”  Have you read how Sarah, it having ceased to be with her after the manner of women, laughed when God made the promise of a son; how God asked why she laughed; and how Sarah, whose faith is praised, denied to God’s very face that she had laughed at all?  Have you read that God said, I am the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob; that Jacob proved to be a knave and a liar; that Jacob made a conditional bargain with the Almighty God, that if the Lord would do certain things for him, then the Lord should be his God?  Have you read how God promised to protect Abraham’s children, and how they became slaves in Egypt, and how he left them to be oppressed?  Have you read how, hearing their cries, God took them out of Egypt, amongst a number of nations who had committed no crime against the Jews, but were created by God to be destroyed by his chosen people?  Have you traced the track of blood and murder from Egypt to Palestine?  Have you read how God gave the Israelites the right to make war on any city, and if the inhabitants made peace, then they were tributaries, but if not “I, the Lord God, will deliver them into thy hands; thou shalt smite them utterly, and leave alive nothing that breatheth?”

I say that this is not a revelation of love; it is the revelation, the outgrowth of the instincts, of a barbarous and brutal people.  My Lord Bishop, not content with relying on this revelation, after telling us that the existence of a Deity cannot be demonstrated, seeks to supply us with a demonstration by a vague reference to the argument from design.  He says that there are in the universe evidences of a designer.  This argument from design is a most dangerous one, for the existence of stings and fangs may be evidences of a designing malevolence; but permit me to dismiss the argument with a quotation from Sir William Hamilton.  He says:

“We are utterly unable to conceive that it is possible for the complement of existence to have been either increased or diminished.  We cannot, on the one hand, conceive of nothing becoming something, or on the other hand, of something becoming nothing.”

I challenge the Lord Bishop to show that it is possible to imagine any time when the whole of the universe did not exist.  Creation! who is it that really believes in creation?  Do any of you?  Let us fathom the depths of the past as far back as we will, there is still the great impenetrable beyond.  No man, even p. 64in thought, can annihilate existence, or bring to light a first evolution of nature, and say, Here the universe began.  There can be no origination of the universe conceivable by the human mind.  But suppose you could in thought annihilate the universe.  You say that God is unchangeable.  Was there a moment when he began to create?  Then is not that an assumption of an act of change?  I will not stop to argue on this point.  The bishop did not on this head condescend to argue at all.  His third sermon was only a torrent of ably delivered words, and however fitting it might be for those whose faith was firm, it was useless for drawing to the Church those without faith.  The Bishop says, Our faith in Christ is confirmed by the story of his life as recorded by his disciples.  He says that whether the Gospel of John is true or untrue, it contains the delineation of a perfect being.  He spoke of Christ as being better than any man the world has yet seen, as the only teacher whose life was better than his teaching.  What is the history of his life?  Jesus was born without a father.  His mother’s husband had two fathers.  Jesus was descended from David, through Joseph, who was not his father.  He was born in the reign of Herod, but was not born till after the death of Herod.  Jesus passed his early life in Egypt, but he was during the same time in Judæa.  He was baptised by John, who knew him before the baptism, but who did not know him till he had been baptised.  Jesus was taken into the wilderness, where he fasted forty days, but he was during part of the same time at a marriage feast in Cana of Galilee.  During the forty days’ fasting, the devil took Jesus to the top of a high mountain, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world, and said, All these will I give thee, it thou wilt fall down and worship me.  Yet this Jesus was, as the Bishop teaches, very God of very God; and if so, could not be tempted with an offer of his own creation by his own creature; and the temptation must have been a sham.  Jesus is said to have worked miracles, but the people who had the opportunity of seeing them never believed in them or him.  He fed 5,000 persons with five loaves and a few fishes, and yet his own disciples—who, he promised, should sit on twelve thrones, judging the tribes of Israel—when many persons had to be fed at another time, wondered how it was to be done.  Jesus was betrayed by Judas with a kiss; but he was not so betrayed, for when the armed men came to Jesus he asked them, Whom seek ye? and they answered, p. 65Jesus of Nazareth; he said, I am he.  Jesus was crucified early in the morning, and yet at noon he was still on his trial.  Jesus was three days and three nights in the grave; but he was crucified on Friday, his body was taken down from the cross on Friday evening, and it must have been late on Friday evening when he was put into the sepulchre; the first people who looked into it on Saturday night, as it began to dawn towards Sunday morning, found that the body was gone; so that from Friday night till Sunday morning, made three days and three nights!  Jesus appeared to two of his disciples, and they did not know him; he walked with them till the evening, and then they knew him.  When it was daylight they did not know him, but when it was dark then they knew him.  While they could see him, they did not know him; when they knew him, they could not see him.  Such is the story of Jesus.  It is not true that his life was better than that of any other man.

I will take a noble life, and put it against the life of Jesus, the life of the Infidel Bruno against the life of your God Jesus.  Bruno was born near Naples, and trained as a monk.  Leaving his ministry, to teach people in their vulgar tongue, he was driven out of Italy.  Going to Switzerland, bigotry was too strong, and he was driven thence.  At Paris he debated with the doctors of the Sorbonne, until arguments failing them, they drove him away with threats of the faggot.  From Paris he went to England, there debating at Oxford and Cambridge; thence to Germany; and thence back to Italy, where a prison awaited him, as a full refutation of his heresies, where he was confined in a dungeon for eleven years, where the rack was the answer to his arguments, and where he at last died, a gallant martyr at the stake.  He died fearlessly confronting his enemies, having truly told them that they had more fear in condemning him to be burned alive, than he had in being condemned.

Jesus was God, and could not die; but if your Bible be true, his last words were a despairing cry, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”

Compare these two men in their lives and their deaths, and see which was the nobler and the braver.  Jesus did not come to save the world.  He said, I am sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.  Jesus told his disciples not to go to the Gentiles, be forbade them even to visit the Samaritans, and it was not till after his resurrection that he said, Go ye into all the world, and preach the Gospel to every creature.  I have spoken in language which you may think unfitting p. 66for such a theme.  Do you believe the Bishop, that Jesus died to save all mankind?  Do you believe the doctrine, that only those who have faith in Jesus can be saved?  What is to become of those who have never heard his name?  Do you believe that all the Chinese will be damned?  If you believe this, what must you think of God?  If you believe that the Chinese will be pardoned, because they cannot be expected to believe in Jesus of whom they have not heard, how can you be so wicked as to send them Bibles and missionaries, which may bring them to damnation?  I plead here for what some call infidelity, for what some call heresy.  I plead for the rights of humanity.  I plead against a system which, to my mind, has greatly hindered the education of the world, and impeded its improvement; and if you tell me that my language is coarse and blasphemous, I will ask you in what language do your missionaries describe the Mohammedan and his Koran, the Brahmin and his Vedas?  You call me an Infidel; what are you?  You disbelieve all the religions of the world save one, I disbelieve that one also; my disbelief is but one degree greater than yours.

A Bishop comes now in the nave of the Cathedral, to answer modern Infidelity.  Why does modern Infidelity exist?  Why has Infidelity grown?  It has grown because the Church has grown fat and the people lean.  It has grown because Convocation quibbles over rites and formularies, instead of devising schemes for the redemption of mankind from ignorance; because the Church said nothing while back streets were built for the poor, and grand abbeys and cathedrals for the priest.  The rich grow richer and the poor grow poorer, while the Church pretends to regard as a blessing the poverty she carefully avoids.  The Church pretends to have the authority to speak in the name of God, and the Bishop, on that last evening, prayed for my conversion.  You see the effect of that prayer in these lectures.  Clergymen threw down the gauntlet, and it has been taken up.  We have been attacked, and we will compel the Church to afford us a hearing.  You have now no right to say that we are too insignificant, after you have yourselves challenged us to the fray.  You must not pretend that modern Infidelity is too blasphemous; you have undertaken to confute it by competent persons.  I appeal to Christians of every sect for one thing only; I don’t ask you to give me your faith, but to remember that amid the hundreds of religions with innumerable antagonistic Churches and Chapels, p. 67that amid the multiplicity of error, you may be wrong.  We do not pretend to be perfect thinkers, nor thinkers free from error; we claim only to be earnest thinkers, desiring to be set right where wrong.  I deny the right of any Church to pretend to be the only true Church.  I take the right to utter my thoughts.  The Church of England is a rotten Church, a falling Church, a Church divided against itself, a Church with Colensos and Voyseys, as against Puseys and Mackonochies, a Church which by the admission of her own divines is illogical, which cannot defend her Thirty-nine Articles, nor her Athanasian Creed.

I have finished these lectures, and I ask those who intend to follow me to remember that Freethought has done something since the days of Spinoza, Carapanella, and Bruno.  It is only since Freethinkers began to fight against the Church that there has been any real popular progress made by you Liberals.  The Church has not helped you at all.  It has by its bench of bishops hindered your reforms as long as it could, and maintained tithes and exactions and bad laws till humanity rebelled against the obstruction.  Whether right or wrong, we have at least done something to make the world better worth living in.  (Applause.)


Printed by Austin & Co., 17 Johnson’s Court, Fleet Street, London E.C.

17, Johnson’s Court, Fleet Street.

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