by Joseph Lewis, 1930
from Atheism and Other Addresses
also appeared in The Little Blue Book 1599 as
An Atheist Speaks Out
|This address on Atheism was delivered at a Symposium on "Present Religious Tendencies", held at the Community Church, 34th Street and Park Avenue, New York City, on the Evening of April 20th, 1930. The other speakers were Mr. Stanley High, Editor of the Christian Herald, and Reverend Charles Francis Potter, Minister, First Humanist Society of New York. Reverend John Haynes Holmes, minister of the Community Church, was Chairman.|
"Is it to the interest of a man to be
a boy all his life?"
-- Thomas Paine
Both of my colleagues on this platform have been especially trained to espouse the cause they have presented tonight.
Both were trained to be ministers of religion.
And although only one of them still occupies the pulpit, the other is the editor of a religious magazine.
Both have faithfully fulfilled their training. And it would be unusual if that were not the case.
We cannot expect a man trained to be a carpenter to be able to carve statues like a Rodin. We cannot expect a man trained to be a bricklayer to be able to paint pictures like a Rembrandt.
If by some chance we find one who possesses a natural talent, and is able to rise above the level of his training, that exception only proves the rule.
I was never trained to espouse the cause of Atheism.
I came to accept Atheism as the result of independent thought and self-study. And although as a child I was instructed in the religion of my parents, I never came under the spell of religious training long enough to so warp my mentality as not to be able to see any other viewpoint.
I came to my conclusions after a full analysis and an impartial consideration of the various religious creeds and the different systems of philosophy.
In my study of the different fields of thought, I found no philosophy that contained so many truths, and inspired one with so much courage, as Atheism.
Atheism equips us to face life, with its multitude of trials and tribulations, better than any other code of living that I have yet been able to find.
It is grounded in the very roots of life itself,
Its foundation is based upon Nature, without superfluities and false garments.
It stands unadorned, requiring nothing but its own nudity to give it strength, and charm and beauty.
No sham or shambles are attached to it.
Atheism Rises Above Creeds
Atheism rises above creeds and puts Humanity upon one plane.
There can be no "chosen people" in the Atheist philosophy.
There are no bended knees in Atheism;
No supplications, no prayers;
No sacrificial redemptions;
No "divine" revelations;
No washing in the blood of the lamb;
No crusades, no massacres, no holy wars;
No heaven, no hell, no purgatory;
No silly rewards and no vindictive punishments;
No christs, and no saviors;
No devils, no ghosts and no gods.
Atheism breaks down the barriers of nationalities and like "one touch of nature makes the whole world kin."
Systems of religion make people clannish and bigoted.
Their chief aim and interest in life is to gather together and pick out the faults of others and reveal their secret hatred of those who do not believe as they do.
Atheism is Mental Freedom
Atheism is a vigorous and a courageous philosophy.
It is not afraid to face the problems of life, and it is not afraid to confess that there are problems yet to be solved.
It does not claim that it has solved all the questions of the universe, but it does claim that it has discovered the approach and learned the method of solving them.
It has dedicated itself to a passionate quest for the truth.
It believes that truth for truth's sake is the highest ideal. And that virtue is its own reward.
It believes that love of humanity is a higher ideal than a love of God. We cannot help God, but we can help mankind. "Hands that help are better far than lips that pray." Praying to God is humiliating; worshipping God degrading.
It believes with Ingersoll, when he said: "Give me the storm and tempest of thought and action rather than the dead calm of ignorance and faith. Banish me from Eden when you will, but first let me eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge."
Atheism is a self-reliant philosophy.
It makes a man intellectually free. He is thrilled to enthusiasm by his mental emancipation and he faces the universe without fear of ghosts or gods.
It teaches man that unless he devotes his energies and applies himself whole-heartedly to the task he wishes to achieve, the accomplishment will not be made.
It warns him that any reliance upon prayers or "divine" help will prove a bitter disappointment.
To the philosophy of Atheism belongs the credit of robbing Death of its horror and its terror.
If Atheism writes upon the blackboard of the Universe a question mark, it writes it for the purpose of stating that there is a question yet to be answered
Is it not better to place a question mark upon a problem while seeking an answer than to put the label "God" there and consider the matter solved?
The Asylum of Ignorance
Does not the word "God" only confuse and make more difficult the solution by assuming a conclusion that is utterly groundless and palpably absurd?
"God," said Spinoza, "is the Asylum of Ignorance."
No better description has ever been uttered.
Shelley said God was a hypothesis, and, as such, required proof. Can any minister of any denomination of any religion supply that proof?
Facts and not merely opinions are what we want. Emotionalism is not a substitute for the truth.
If Atheism is sometimes called a "negative" philosophy, it is because the conditions of life make a negative philosophy best suited to meet the exigencies of existence, and only in that sense can it be called negative.
Some ministers of religion ignorantly call Atheism a negative philosophy because Atheism must first destroy the monumental ignorance and the degrading superstition with which religion, throughout the ages, has so shamelessly stultified the brain of man.
A negative attitude in life is sometimes essential to proper conduct.
Life itself very often depends upon negation.
It is a negative attitude when we are cautious about overeating. It is a negative attitude when we do not indulge our appetites, or give vent to our impulses.
And on many occasions I have seen illustrated editorials sermonizing upon the fact that the hardest word in our language to pronounce is the word "NO!"
It is only when we have the courage to say NO to certain temptations that we can avoid the consequences that are the results of following those temptations.
Progress also very often consists in negation.
Man finds himself in a universe utterly unprepared and poorly equipped to face the facts and conditions of life.
He must overcome the illusions and the deceptive forces that are forever present in Nature.
When the light of intelligence first came into the mentality of man, he found himself in a world that was a wilderness; a world reeking with pestilence and populated with shrieking beasts and brutal and savage people.
No wonder that Man's distorted intellect gave rise to a series of ideas concerning God that makes one shudder at their hideousness.
His primitive imagination conceived gods of a multitude of heads, of grotesque parts, of several bodies, of numberless eyes and legs and arms.
In order that man may think clearly and rationally upon the facts of life, all these concepts must be destroyed.
That is only one of the tasks of Atheism.
"To free a man from error is to give, not take away," said Schopenhauer.
New Gods -- What For?
Some of our present-day humanists, emancipated to the degree that they no longer accept deities like "Jehovah," cry for a new concept of God. They want something to put in the place of what has been taken away.
Do they want also a substitute for Hell?
And what would be their answer to this question, "If the Devil should die would God make another?"
They are like children crying for the moon.
Will anyone be so good as to tell me what we need a new concept of God for? Haven't we had gods enough? Hasn't it been task enough to get rid of the conglomeration that has already plagued the human race?
I plead that we no longer contaminate heaven with these hideous creatures and frightful monsters of religious hallucinations.
Destructive of Superstition
Ministers also take delight in saying that Atheism is dogmatic and destructive.
If Atheism is called dogmatic it is because dogmatism is the law of nature.
A fact is the most stubborn thing in the world. Matter insists upon occupying space all by itself and motion will continue in motion regardless of the opinions concerning it.
Time does not stop to listen to prayers.
"The Moving Finger writes; and having writ,
Moves on; nor all your Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a line,
Nor all your tears wash out a word of it."
And Atheism is destructive in the same sense that Columbus was a destroyer, when he corrected the erroneous conception, induced by false theological ideas, of the flatness of the earth, when he sailed across the ocean and proved the rotundity of the planet upon which we live.
Atheism is destructive in the same sense that Galileo was a destroyer, when he corrected the erroneous conception, induced by false theological ideas, concerning the existence of only one moon, when he discovered the satellites of Jupiter.
And so throughout the history of intellectual progress is this attitude true. Call it negative, call it dogmatic, call it destructive, call it what you will. It is the main spring of progress.
Is a physician destructive when he cures a patient of disease?
A Cure for Mental Disorder
The human race has suffered for centuries and is still suffering from the mental disorder known as religion, and Atheism is the only physician that will be able to effect a permanent cure.
No wonder the great Buckle was prompted to say:
"Every great reform which has been effected has consisted, not in doing something new, but in undoing something old."
But what hypocrisy it is on the part of ministers of religion to call Atheism a negative philosophy, when their own Ten Commandments are a series of "Thou shalt nots" --
But Atheism is also an aggressive and a militant and a constructive philosophy.
It is interested in the HERE and NOW.
It finds problems enough here that require immediate solution and does not fly to others that it knows not of.
Man Must Help Himself
Atheism cannot sit idly by and watch injustice perpetrated, nor permit the exploitation of the weak by the strong.
Its ideal is the establishment of justice -- man-made justice, even though it be.
If man waited for God to feed him he would starve to death.
Atheism believes in education. It believes in telling the facts of life and revealing the truths as they are discovered regardless of whose opinions it shocks. It is ever ready and willing to accept the new and discard the old. Atheism does not believe that man's mission on earth is to love and glorify God, but it does believe in living this life so that when you pass on, the world will be better for your having lived.
That is the ideal that now inspires more hearts to help humanity in its upward march than ever before in the history of the human race.
That is the ideal that inspired Shelley, that inspired Voltaire, and Humboldt, and Garibaldi; that inspired Mark Twain, and John Burroughs, and Luther Burbank. That is the ideal that inspires Sir Arthur Keith, Albert Einstein and Thomas A. Edison.
If man wants help he must abandon his appeals to God. They will prove only "echoes of his wailing cries."
The Evolution of Ideas
Atheism does not place any trust in God. The inscription on our coins is a lie.
It was not long since when a person who denied the existence of a personal god, who refused to accept the Bible as a divine revelation, who branded as absurd that Christ was miraculously conceived, who characterized as a delusion the resurrection, and who stigmatized as a myth immortality of the soul, was charged by ministers of religion with being an Atheist.
Thomas Paine was called a "filthy little atheist" upon evidence that he did not even approximate this.
To call oneself anything but a Freethinker or an Atheist after the denials of these religious premises is to belie one's own words.
We do not intend to let the clergy, to suit their fancy or their moods, give us our definition of Atheism.
It may be perfectly satisfactory for the editors of the Encyclopedia Britannica to commission a clergyman to write upon Atheism, but that is no reason why we should accept him as an authority.
If a clergyman knew enough about Atheism to write with authority upon the subject he would no longer remain a clergyman.
The rejection of religion and the denial of God has been the definition of Atheism from time immemorial. We have accepted it in the past, and we accept it today. We do not intend to compromise upon a single point.
If religionists have advanced to our position, it is they who must accept our banner.
Piety Condemns Thought
Have we so soon forgotten the Scopes Trial when Evolution was denied a place in the school curriculum because it was branded as godless; when all Evolutionists were charged with being blasphemous atheists?
Atheism has given to the human race the intellectual monarchs of the world.
When the great Darwin discovered the law of the origin of species, he was called an Atheist because he disproved the special creation of Man.
The Steps of Skepticism
When the Chemist went into his laboratory and discovered the indestructibility of matter, he was called an Atheist because he proved the impossibility of a Creator.
When the Astronomer pointed his telescope to the sky and explored the regions of unlimited space, he was called an Atheist because he found no god within the confines of space an no heaven within the region of his explorations.
When the Geologist determined the age of the earth through its rock and soil and formations, he was called an Atheist because he too destroyed a belief in the Special six-day creation and repudiated the biblical cosmogony.
When the Historian went back to ancient and prehistoric times and discovered civilizations of high ethical and moral culture, of intellectual achievements that are still an amazement to us, he was called an Atheist because he exposed the myth of Adam, uncovered the mistakes of Moses, and branded with the epithet of fraud the commands of Jehovah.
When the Physician sought to alleviate the pain and suffering of Man, he was called an Atheist because he refused to accept the existence of disease as a special visitation of a vengeful god.
Even the discovery of anesthesia, the most humane of all of man's accomplishments, was branded as an impious intrusion, and an effort to circumvent and defeat the so-called will of this monstrous creature. And Timothy Dwight, a gentleman, once president of Yale College, preached a sermon against vaccination on the ground that smallpox was a decree of God and it was a frightful sin to avoid it.
Every Scientist who refuses to be held back by narrow theological limitations, and searches Nature for her secrets, becomes an Atheist, the Millikans, the Osborns, and the Pupins to the contrary notwithstanding.
That electrical wizard, a Prometheus himself, the late Charles P. Steinmetz, said that Atheism was the ultimate philosophy of the scientists.
"Where there are three students of nature there are two Atheists," is an old saying.
Ingersoll's High Ideal
In this age and generation no one need cloak his Atheism with some garment of so-called "religious respectability."
Charles Bradlaugh's and Robert G. Ingersoll's fight to make Atheism respectable has fortunately come to pass.
When religion expresses a nobler sentiment than that contained in these words of Ingersoll's, then, and only then, might it assume a superior attitude. He said:
"Call me infidel, call me atheist, call me what you will, I intend to so treat my children that they can come to my grave and truthfully say, 'He who sleeps here never gave us one moment of pain. From his lips, now dust, never came to us an unkind word.'"
Compare that statement with the words of Jesus Christ when he said that if a man hate not his mother and his father, his brother and his sister, his wife and his children, he cannot become his disciple, and then decide whose mantle you prefer to wear!
The Decline of Theism
In our own day we see a revolution taking place in the ranks of religion. We see the liberating force of the great Freethinkers of the past having their effects upon our generation by the breaking of the chains of superstition that have enslaved mankind to a degrading religion.
Our fight today is no longer against Theism. The arguments that were used by Freethinkers more than a century ago are now being used by the liberal minister against his more orthodox brother.
Who can deny that progress has been made when ministers themselves repudiate Theism?
Who today would expose himself to public ridicule and defend Theism in the face of its history and its record?
It has perverted the mentality of man and has caused him outrageously to abuse his own life.
In the name of God and for the love of God, Hell, in all its fury, was let loose upon the earth.
No wonder Theism Is being repudiated and disowned.
The liberal minister will have none of it.
Like Caesar, "but yesterday it might have stood against the world, but now lies it here and none so poor as to do it reverence."
Even in our theological colleges, we see the impossibility of trying to harness a man of intelligence with the bridle of Theism, and as the result of this impossible combination, there is a widespread repudiation of religion and all that it stands for.
We are witnessing a period of intellectual honesty that does credit even to ministers of religion. There is a positive and an aggressive advance towards the ideals of Freethought.
The Death of Myths
And the time is not far distant when a minister who takes money for prayers for the repose of the so-called soul of man, will be charged with misrepresentation and fraud just as others are now being apprehended for similar schemes of deception.
When a minister today makes a public declaration that he can no longer believe in the Virgin Birth, the resurrection of Christ, in the inspiration of the Scriptures; acknowledges that Moses was very often mistaken, and can find no justification for the existence of a personal god, the brass band plays and the flags wave for his "great courage," while as a matter of fact these things have been so obvious to us that we look with pity upon people who still believe them.
Full Way with Truth
We have no applause for those who have stolen the thunder from the leaders of Freethought only to cloak it in a garment of so-called "liberal religion."
We are encouraged at the progress they have made, but unless they come the full way, they must be watched with the same vigilance and fought with the same force as the Calvins and Knoxes.
Halfway measures will never do. They invariably prove futile.
What a complete revolution has taken place when people must make apologies for their religious beliefs, and give symbolical interpretations to the incomprehensible ravings of insane men! When they must deny and reject the beliefs that were but a few decades ago so tyrannically imposed upon the people and for which unnumbered thousands suffered the penalty of torture and death!
The Bondage of Beliefs
Is the modern trend to perpetuate religion, or is it doomed to occupy the same place in history as the institution of slavery? And how apt is that comparison of religion with slavery!
Throughout the ages religion has imprisoned and chained and stultified the brain of man, just as the institution of slavery has bound arid manacled and torn the limbs of man!
And when efforts were made to abolish the hateful institution of slavery there were many who by their compromises only prolonged its existence.
And the efforts of those today who are compromising with religion and making apologies for its past crimes, are only prolonging its existence and making more difficult the task to eradicate this blot upon civilization.
They are interfering with the removal of the worst obstacle that has ever blocked the intellectual progress of Man.
A rose may smell as sweet by any other name, and religion will be just as obnoxious under any other title.
There are some who claim that religion can be humanized, but how can we humanize something that does not admit of humanization?
How can we humanize ignorance, superstition and brutality? Can we humanize the thumb-screw, the rack, and the auto da fé?
If we could humanize religion then the dream of the alchemist will have come true.
If we could humanize religion then truly base metal can be converted into gold.
Humanism and Unitarianism differ only in degree and not in kind from Catholicism and Presbyterianism. The great trouble with the liberal Unitarian, the Modernist, and the Humanist is that we do not know where they stand. Their attachment to religion as an element of respectability is still an enigma. Their so-called emancipation from the fetishes and superstitions of their more orthodox brethren is more apparent than real.
Before the Board of Education of this city some years ago, when the proposal was made to permit children to receive religious training on public school time, the most fanatical supporter and most vehement proponent of this scheme was a Unitarian Minister.
He loudly decried the fact that our children were being "deprived" of a religious education. He stood side by side and shoulder to shoulder with Monsignor Lavelle of St. Patrick's Cathedral and the late Bishop Burch of the Protestant Episcopal Church.
Defense of Pious Fake
This minister was terribly perturbed because he was afraid our children would grow up without some knowledge of the story of Adam and Eve; that they would not be acquainted with Jonah's sojourn in the belly of the whale, or of the miraculous conversation of Baalam and his Ass.
And while Freethinkers were making an effort for the newspapers publicly to state, on their behalf, that they had offered a thousand dollars reward for the evidence of one authentic cure that took place at the grave of the consumptive priest, Father Patrick Powers, buried in the cemetery at Malden, Massachusetts, Charles Francis Potter was making a declaration from the platform of his Humanist pulpit, concerning these so-called cures, that "there was something in it."
If it is Mr. Potter's contention that auto-suggestion has accomplished beneficial results in patients suffering from mental disorders, our answer is that we heartily approve of the application of mental therapy in such cases, but do not believe that it should be administered in a grave yard!
By his public statement he condoned this shameful exploitation of thousands of credulous people who were making a weary pilgrimage, at the sacrifice of their health, to this latest fraudulent undertaking of the church.
Immediately following Mr. Potter's statement, Gardner Jackson, writing in the Nation, exposed this pious fraud. Mr. Jackson very significantly showed the close blood relationship between the superintendent of the cemetery and Cardinal O'Connell of Boston. They were brothers! He also very vividly depicted the baskets of money that were being emptied as rapidly as the poor deluded creatures would fill them.
In our opinion, it was the duty of every American to use his efforts to prevent the establishment in this country of so barefaced a fraud as the establishment of a shrine similar to that of Lourdes which now disgraces France.
If to condone such a disgraceful exhibition as a gesture of compromise with religion is a sample of Humanism, then we want none of it!
And even John Haynes Holmes, for whom I have the highest personal regard, and who stands at the forefront of the liberal ministers of this country, cannot be pardoned for his advocacy of exempting church property from taxation. He claims that churches increase the property value of the surrounding buildings and permit the maximum of air and light.
I say that if you make a park out of the land upon which the church stands, you will accomplish all that Mr. Holmes claims for the church, and one thing more. It will do away with the evil of the church and free the country of these institutions of superstition and houses of stultification.
But with the advent of the skyscraper building on church property even this argument falls to the ground. The present tendency of the church is to get "under cover" of an income-producing apartment house or office building.
Let us replace the churches of this city with a system of parks and we will make New York the most beautiful, the most attractive and the most healthful city on the face of the earth.
Society has no right, through the instrumentality of its government, to exempt from taxation a single institution, while a member of the community is without food and shelter.
The church may be successful in convincing a person that the more he suffers here the less he will suffer hereafter, but we are concerned with putting food into his stomach, clothes on his back, and shelter over his head now.
One may believe what he will as long as he is well fed and protected from the elements, but the moment he falls below that condition he is actually deprived of food necessary to life by the church that does not pay taxes.
In reality it is actually stealing food from one who starving.
It is like a miser counting his gold while poverty is knocking at his bolted door.
To delude a man into believing that the more he gives of the possessions of this life for the imaginary benefits to be enjoyed in a mythical one is to perpetrate upon him a monstrous and unforgivable fraud.
Every steeple that rises above a church is a dagger thrust into the heart of Humanity. It has proved so in the past. And by the past, we judge the future.
Present Trend Atheistic
The situation today is not whether the present trend in religion, with its impossible premises and its still more impossible articles of belief, leads to a compromise with science, or whether it should be liberalized into a respectable harmony with the pace set by education and the progress made by man, but whether its complete eradication must be accomplished so that it may no longer hamper man in his search for the truth nor be an obstacle in his path toward his ultimate mastery of the forces of Nature.
Only when a man ceases to be a child, only when he emancipates himself completely from the fetishes of religion, and gives up his silly and childish ideas concerning the existence of God, will he be able to rise to that commanding position and station in life when he can be truly called a Man!