RELIGION V. LIBERTY by Joseph Symes Reproduced from the +quot;Masters of Atheism+quot; dep

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RELIGION V. LIBERTY by Joseph Symes Reproduced from the "Masters of Atheism" department of the November 1988 issue of the _American Atheist_ magazine. ************************ INTRODUCTION: Atheism has a long, proud history of publishing and speechmaking. Unfortunately, however, much of that history is inaccessible to modern readers, surviving only in rare booklets, books, and pamphlets housed in scattered libraries and private collections. The _American Atheist_ attempts to make some of that literature more available to modern Atheists by reprinting essays by yesterday's "Masters of Atheism." These reprints are produced courtesy of the Charles E. Stevens American Atheist Library and Archives. This month's essay is by Joseph Symes (1840-1893), a Wesleyan preacher turned rationalist lecturer, who worked energetically for the Secularist (Atheist) movement for over forty years in both England and Australia. The article appeared in May 1883 in _Progress,_ published by the Progressive Publishing Co. of London. _Progress_ was a monthly magazine edited by G. W. Foote, though this particular issue was put together by Interim Editor Edward B. Aveling as Mr. Foote was imprisoned (with labor) for blasphemy at the time of publication. --------------------------------------------------------- "What does every religion lay claim to? The governance of human passions and of human will. Every religion is a curb, a power, a government. It comes in the name of divine law to subdue human nature. Therefore human liberty is its especial antagonist, which it is its object to vanquish. To this purpose are its mission and hope directed." --Guizot (1) What is liberty as distinguished equally from slavery and from lawlessness? The man who lives entirely alone has a sort of liberty; but not that of a citizen; so has the robber or bandit, or pirate; but his is not the liberty of a member of civil society. It is this latter liberty into which we now inquire. In civil society no man can do just as he will unless his will has been so trained and exercised that his wishes fit in with those of the community. May we not express it thus? -- In civil society each citizen should have duties to perform and privileges to enjoy. And those duties and privileges should be as nearly balanced as possible. He who has more rights or privileges than are the equivalent of his duties is in so far a tyrant and thus unfairly lifted above his fellows. On the other hand, he who has more duties than privileges is in so far a slave. But when duties and privileges are equal each man is a citizen, and no one is higher than his neighbor before the law. Again, no one will deny that to live in civil society each individual must relinquish a portion of his natural right to do what he will with himself; and the great question has always been how to decide exactly how much the personal liberty of the subject shall be restrained. In a state governed by one man or by a very few, caprice generally decides this question, the result being that the subject is allowed just so much liberty as happens to suit the whims or the interests of the tyrant or of the oligarchy. And no two successive periods are generally alike in this respect. In most nations boasting of civilisation there is now some sort of constitution, a settled body of laws, at least, and the will of the ruler is more or less checked by institutions under which the subject can find some degree of shelter for life and property. But in no state existing has the problem been yet solved practically, as to how much and how little should a subject be interfered with by the government, how far restrained in his words and actions. In several states the truth has begun to dawn on men's minds that the less people are governed the better. But there is one subject upon which government ought never to have entered, and on which the world is not yet agreed as to what is best to be done, that is, the subject of religion. This subject has created more trouble than all others, both in ancient and modern times; and probably we are no more than within sight as yet of the date when governments will cease to meddle with it. It seems to me that true liberty consists in this -- Every person shall be free to act, speak, and think, to dispose of himself and his property, his time and abilities, in just what manner he pleases, provided that, 1st, He does not neglect duties which are binding on all citizens alike; and 2nd, does not trespass upon the rights of another. Where a man has less than this he is robbed by government; where he has more he possesses some monopoly that ought to be abolished. No man should be at liberty to neglect duties which society demands, or should demand, equally of all; no person should be allowed to trespass upon the rights of another. And these principles should be applied internationally as well as in single states. Now, just where enlightened legislation leaves a man to himself, to his own thoughts and actions, religion seizes upon him, and claims, by virtue of a higher power, to impose other duties and checks upon him. And in the action and rule of religion we find the most complete tyranny ever conceived. This tyranny, I say, is complete. Actions of which the State can never take cognisance, the thoughts, the wishes, purposes that are most secret are all involved in the rule of the spiritual power. Herein the East and the West agree. Here is part of a hymn from the Vedas: "The mighty Varnua, who rules above, looks down Upon these worlds, his kingdom, as if close at hand, When men imagine they do aught by stealth, he knows it. No one can stand, or walk, or softly glide along, Or hide in dark recess, or lurk in secret cell, But Varnua detects him, and his movements spies. Two persons may devise some plot, together sitting, And think themselves alone; but he, the king is there -- A third -- and sees it all. His messengers descend Countless from his abode, for ever traversing This world, and scanning with a thousand eyes its inmates. Whatever exists within this earth, and all within the sky, You, all that is beyond, King Varnua perceives. The winking of men's eyes are numbered all by him: He wields the universe as gamesters handle dice." This is matched to some extent by Dr. Watts' (2) hymn, "In all my vast concerns with thee, In vain my soul would try To shun thy presence, Lord, or flee The notice of thine eye. Thy all-surrounding sight surveys My rising and my rest, My public walks, my private ways, The secret of my breast. My thoughts lie open to thee, Lord, Before they're formed within; And, ere my lips pronounce the word, Thou know'st the sense I mean. O wondrous knowledge, deep and high! Where can a creature hide? Within thy circling arms I lie, Beset on every side." No matter whether it be Varnua, Jehovah, Jupiter or any other god, these extracts exhibit the very perfection of espionage, than which nothing can be more fatal to liberty. Outward tyranny is intolerable; but this secret despotism, this excessive, never-ending espionage is the consummation of all pains; and cannot be less painful and degrading to the watcher than to the watched -- tyrant and victim are equally enslaved. There is no confidence or trust anywhere; and the god and his worshipper exist only for mutual and exquisite torture. Fortunately, the illusion is not possible to most people, except at intervals; the mass of mankind never believe it except periodically, and not then unless under the strong pressure of a perverted conscience or the spell of a dominant priesthood. But mark the real point of this espionage. Gods do not watch for watching's sake; it is not their amusement, but their self-imposed duty. This they undertake from jealousy -- jealousy and tyranny are inseparable. They fear their subjects will rob them, or turn aside after other gods, that plots and schemes may be concocted against their government. In a despotism there is always excessive nervousness. Neither ruled nor ruler is ever at peace; everything is so uncertain; every man is the enemy of every other; all are the enemy of the tyrant; and he is the foe of all his subjects. Take, therefore, the worst despotism the earth has ever known; magnify it to infinity; intensify all its evil features; add the attributes of omnipresence, omniscience, and omnipotence to the ruler; invest him with every state office -- king, judge, policeman, gaoler, executioner -- let his sway extend equally over the whole universe, so that there is no one hiding-place in existence for any poor wretch that offends him; then add the doctrine of original sin to the conception, the total depravity of every human being, the ceaseless rebellion of the "heart of unbelief" against the majesty of heaven -- you have an imperfect miniature of religion, a tyranny infinite in all respects. And I need not add, that the most perfect and complete of all religious tyrannies is the Christian. I ask, where can liberty find a place in a system so absolutely tyrannical? When we find grapes ripening upon the open Alpine glacier or around the perennially-frozen pole, then may we expect liberty to flourish under the reign of Christianity. The leopard will change his spots, the Ethiopian his skin; grapes will grow upon thorns, and figs upon thistles, before Christianity will ever permit a liberty she has the power to deny. The reign of light implies the destruction of darkness; the reign of liberty involves the extirpation of tyranny; and as Christianity is tyranny and despotism in its most perfect form, the prevalence of liberty is the destruction of Christianity. Our charges against Christianity may easily be justified by appeals to her divine books and to the records of her reign. In the Bible you find no trace of human rights, while duties are heaped upon man, mountains high. The priest and king are supreme; against their decision there is no appeal. To make things still worse, behind the king and priest there is the god, ever on their side, taking their part, defending them in danger; and ready with plague, and fire, and famine, and earthquake to execute any decrees the priest and king may be powerless to put in action. Whether those conceptions represented facts or fictions, it was practically the same for the poor deluded dupes of the tyrants, for they believed all that the priests taught them. Faith in those divine teachers was inculcated in early life, as a most solemn duty, and examples of divine vengeance against unbelievers were as industriously circulated, when required, as they are now. Thus secure in the credulity of the multitude, the priests and kings of god's ancient favorites, the Jews, had it all their own way; and, as is usual in such cases, recklessly rode their blind horse on to the utter destruction of both steed and riders. In an absolute tyranny reform, of course, is unknown. And what reform can occur in a divine tyranny? Who can inaugurate it? Nay, who shall dare wish for a change in god's own laws and statutes? The very conception is blasphemy. What, will you be so bold as to meddle with an infinitely wise god, who out of mere good will to you has seen fit to enact such laws for your guidance? In theocracy a reform is a monstrosity, unless the latter originate with the god himself. Is it possible that those who talk of religious liberty and Christianity in the same breath can ever have studied the subject? Do they understand the nature and essence of their religion? If so, they must be exceedingly rash to propose any change without divine authority. The absolute tyranny of the Old Testament was transferred bodily to Christianity. For several generations the Church had no other divine book besides the Jewish Scriptures. This was their word of god, their inspired guide, the source of all their philosophy, religion, and politics. And Christianity, if the gospels rightly represent it, was intended to be a re-establishment of the theocracy, the setting up again of the kingdom of or from heaven, with Jesus as its visible head. This kingdom was to be the perfect despotism above described. Jesus and his father (both one and the same, as he _naively_ puts it; the one being the _alter ego_ of the other) were to be the absolute rulers, from whom descend all laws, all policy; who are perfectly irresponsible, who do as they please. The subjects have nought to do but to obey and thank the rulers for their spontaneous goodness. All men are called upon authoritatively to enter this kingdom, without inquiry, without delay. Those who enter will be saved and enriched for ever; those who doubt and disobey the heavenly call will be damned to all eternity! Such are the broad outlines of the policy of this heavenly kingdom or theocracy. In one or two respects the new version is far worse than the old, the Christian than the Mosaic. In the old the Israelites only were included; by the new all men are affected. And, let it be observed, it is not in the way of an offer to admit the gentiles that the gospel is proclaimed; the gospel is not an advertisement calling for immigrants to remove into the heavenly kingdom; it is not merely a beating-up of recruits; it is not merely a proselytising manifesto. It is a stern mandate, "Repent and be a believer!" And this insolence is addressed to all men of every nation, rank, and character. The insolence of the command is followed by promises of impossible gratuities and bounties to those who respond to the call; and horrible threats of worse dooms than befel Sodom and Gomorrah, and even of everlasting torture in hell-fire, against all whose manhood, or inclination, or common sense leads them to disregard the call! Insolence rarely went further; barbarism rarely was embodied in a more outrageous shape, than when it donned the garb of the gospel of the kingdom of heaven, and challenged the faith of the world, on pain of everlasting damnation! But for the malignant sentiments and principles involved in this outrage upon public decency it would appear in its true light, the most grotesque exhibition of fanatical egotism the world has ever witnessed! Such is the gospel of the kingdom; and the kingdom, as sketched in the New Testament, is worthy of the gospel in which it is proclaimed. The Church shows in its history the same elements that figure so prominently in the Bible. An absolute tyranny is what its leaders have always endeavored to establish; and they have scrupled at no crime to accomplish their wicked and inhuman ends. Every crime that a corporate institution, a secret society, a band of robbers can possibly commit has illustrated the history of Christianity. It has shed more blood, uttered more slander, exhibited more hypocrisy, and told and perpetrated more falsehoods than any other known institution. If there ever existed a community that realised, and immensely more than realised, the picture of the Scarlet Lady of the Revelations, it is the Christian Church. She descends to human thoughts, magnifies the most trivial and involuntary of them into sins and crimes; and tells her shivering dupes that they will be rewarded or eternally damned for the evanescent images which flit or troop through their minds -- over which they have no more control than they have over the circulation of the blood. When priests and parsons persecute for blasphemy, and block every kind of human progress, they act according to gospel instincts. To favor liberty is to renounce the gospel; to oppose all liberty is to execute their divine mission. It is for dear life -- the life of their religion -- that bigots contend when they act according to their wont. He who favors liberty has grown out of his creed, though he may still bear the label of Christianity. No man under the spell of the New Testament can permit any liberty to his fellow man, without solemnly relegating him to the judgment seat of Christ. And if a man is liable to answer and be rewarded and punished for the exercise of his own reason, whether the tribunal which tries him be erected in our world or another, there is an end to all liberty. That is the essence of Christianity; and in my esteem it must be destroyed for our welfare and the emancipation of human thought and action. Either this religion will destroy all liberty, and once more cover Europe with barbarism and crime, or itself must succumb to the attacks of reason and ridicule. Freedom of thought is our absolutely indispensable prerequisite for civil liberty. Christianity forbids all freedom of thought; and therefore, in the future, as during the past thousand years and more, whatever advances we make in civilisation, in truth, in justice, must be made in spite of and at the expense of our one great and powerful unscrupulous foe -- Christianity! __________________________________________________________ 1. Francois-Pierre-Guillaume Guizot (1787-1874), French historian and statesman. 2. Isaac Watts (1674-1748), English theologian and hymn-writer. *********************************************************************** * * * American Atheists website: * * PO Box 140195 FTP: * * Austin, TX 78714-0195 * * Voice: (512) 458-1244 Dial-THE-ATHEIST: * * FAX: (512) 467-9525 (512) 458-5731 * * * * Atheist Viewpoint TV: * * Info on American Atheists:, * * & American Atheist Press include your name and mailing address * * AANEWS -Free subscription: * * and put "info aanews" in message body * * * * This text may be freely downloaded, reprinted, and/other * * otherwise redistributed, provided appropriate point of * * origin credit is given to American Atheists. * * * ***********************************************************************


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