Dying Like A Christian by Chapman Cohen (February 1927) Reprinted from +quot;Essays on Fre

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*********************************************************** Dying Like A Christian by Chapman Cohen (February 1927) Reprinted from "Essays on Freethinking," Vol. 1, published by American Atheist Press, Austin, Texas. ********************************************************** Chapman Cohen (1868-1954) was the third president of the National Secular Society, Britain's largest Atheist organization. He was a noted orator and writer on behalf of the Atheist cause. * * * * * There was published in the newspapers the other day, a story by Bishop Welldon, which most Christian readers will take as renewed evidence of the excellence of Christianity. A man was lying in Durham gaol condemned to death. One day, Bishop Welldon received a note from the governor of the prison, saying that there was a man there who wished to be confirmed before his death. Naturally, the Bishop went. The man, he says, "spoke as a Christian man should speak on the threshold of death. He knew he was guilty. He did not asked to be spared; but said that he felt happy after being confirmed. We had a little talk together, and then he put his face to mine. I kissed him. I believe he turned, as the dying thief turned, to his saviour; and I hope I shall meet him in heaven." Judging from the published accounts of such deaths, we should say that the chances of Bishop Welldon "meeting him in heaven" are much greater than if the man had met the death of a simple citizen, dying in his own home, with his family around him, and nothing but the undistinguished life of the ordinary person to look back upon. There is at least one blessing Christianity has brought the human race. It has provided a pedestal for the man who has distinguished himself by committing a murder; or who has a lengthy list of scoundrelisms to his credit, which is not forthcoming for him who has, monotonously, discharged each duty as it arose. The latter *may* get to heaven. If there is any logic in Christian reasoning, and any value in clerical assurances, the former is *certain* as to his destination. "He spoke as a Christian man should"! This is the thing that struck the Bishop. "He did not ask to be spared"; which is, really, not much; because so many people who are condemned to death, recognizing the hopelessness of any such request, do not make it. The point is that his speech and bearing were those of a Christian man. And, as I do not imagine the Bishop would argue that the man became a Christian, and so made certain of meeting Bishop Welldon in heaven, because he committed a murder, it is only fair to assume that he was a Christian when he committed the crime. His Christianity did not prevent him committing the murder; but it provided him with comfort after he had done it. Christ is powerful to save -- the criminal. He is obviously powerless to prevent the commission of the wrong. Thieves, wife-beaters, burglars, all the riffraff of the human world, may come with confidence to Christ. It is his business to save them from the consequences of their offences. It is not his business to prevent them committing these offence; if it were, each criminal would stand as testimony to his failure. Teachers, such as Socrates, did not come to save sinners at the cheap price of a mere act of belief. They came to teach people to lead a straight life from the outset; to teach parents and governors so to organize the State that right conduct would inevitably follow. And all Socrates would have said to the convicted murderer would have been: "You have committed the crime; you must pay the price; in paying it, do so with all the fortitude possible; and, if regret will be of any avail to those who have suffered by your crime, that way is open to you." In any case, he would have said that salvation must come from personal development, not from a mere profession of belief in someone else. To teachers and governors, he would have used the fact of the crime, and the nature of the criminal, as material for a wiser ordering of life. It was left for Christianity to provide for the criminal, as a consequence of his crimes, a sense of security, and of heavenly felicity, of which no good man could feel quite certain. "He spoke as a Christian man." Certainly. He had gone the way, which so many have gone, to become one. The Bishop also spoke as a Christian bishop should speak. As such, he was bound to ignore the difference between a good life and a bad life, once a profession of faith in Jesus Christ was made. That penitence and belief are everything, and conduct nothing, is of the very essence of Christian teaching. The whole story of the thieves on the Cross is based on this. Like Bishop Welldon's prisoner, all that the one thief did was profess belief in Jesus; and the reward was "This day shalt thou be with me in paradise." The thousands of stories of wrongdoers converted on their deathbeds teach the same lesson. There is no time for redress; no time for improvement in character; nothing, but the simple act of faith, and a ticket for heaven is secured. "There never was a doubt in the Church," said the great Dr. Pusey, "that all who die in a state of grace, although, one minute before, they were not in a state of grace, are saved." And, similarly, the great Charles Haddon Spurgeon declared: "If thou wilt trust Christ, thou shalt be saved from all thy sin in a moment . . . You great sinners shall have as much love as the best . . . You shall be near to Christ . . . Thirty years of sin shall be forgiven; and it shall not take thirty minutes to do it." That is of the very essence of Christian teaching; it remains the stock-in-trade of evangelistic preaching today. It does not matter how bad you are -- the worse the better -- the greater the value of the capture. Nothing like this appears in any of the Greek or Latin moralists. In their blindness, they were impressed by the belief that morality was a social product; that its value and its application had to do with human society, here. "The heathen in his blindness" also assumed that character is not to be transformed in a moment; but that it is a consequence of education, of training, of the slow formation of better habits. They would not have dreamed of placing the murderer, just because he had professed belief in this or that god, on a level with the really good man. It was left for Christianity to wipe out practically the distinction between good and bad; to place the thief on the cross on the same level as Marcus Aurelius. I do not wonder -- I never have wondered -- that sinners flock to Jesus. I have only wondered that good men and women should go there. Then I have wondered what the devil they were doing in that galley! But, given the fact of belief in Christ, the foot of the cross seems quite a natural place for the long train of wrongdoers who, through the whole of Christian history, have been found there. Observe, as with the case of the prisoner of Durham gaol, there has not resulted from this a decrease of crime. Per population, there were not fewer thieves and murderers in Rome Christian than there were in Rome pagan. The comparison would, in fact, have been rather in favour of pagan Rome. Take any century one pleases, there is not the slightest evidence that the prevalence of Christian belief had any material effect on the volume of crime. Certain offence waned; and others took their place; but there was no waning of the belief in the saving blood of Jesus. It is only within the past three or four generations that disbelief in the saving blood of Jesus has existed over a wide area, and with all classes of society. It is during this period that there has been a very marked decrease in crime in general. And that is because, in our degeneracy, we have, as the clergy lament, become more pagan. We have sunk so low as again to treat conduct as a special part of sociology; and to realize that the formation of character is the great thing to aim at; that we should not worry about securing immortal salvation for the hopelessly antisocial unit. I do not wonder the clergy regard this development with disfavour. If character building becomes the aim of good men and women, and if morality is recognized as a department of sociology, what, on earth, is going to become of the medicine man with his eleventh-hour salvation by the hocus-pocus of the Christian cross? In a society of decent and intelligent men and women, Christianity would have no place at all. When people live *on* the square, there will be no need to live *by* the cross. In Fielding Hall's "Soul of a People," there is told a story which I venture to commend to Bishop Welldon. The author tells how puzzled he was, fresh from the customs of Christian priests, to observe that Buddhism had none of the "consolations" for the dying which Christianity held out. So he went to a Burmese magistrate, a Buddhist, and said to him: "When a man is dying what do you say to comfort him? . . . Do you speak to him of what may happen to him after death?" The Buddhist replied: "No one can tell what will happen after death; it depends on a man's life, whether he has done good or evil, what his next existence will be, whether he will go a step nearer to the Peace. When the man is dying, no monk will come, truly; but an old man, an old friend, father, perhaps, or an elder of the village; he will talk to the dying man. He will say: `Think of your good deeds; think of all that you have done well in this life; think of your good deeds.' " Fielding Hall sums up the Buddhist attitude thus: "A man cannot escape from his life, even in death. In our acts of today, we are determining what our death will be; if we have lived well, we shall die well; and if not, then not. As a man lives so shall he die, is the teaching of Buddhism." Of course, there is not much, here, for Bishop Welldon's convicted murderer, brought up under the nerve destroying influence of Christian teaching. For the aim of Buddhism -- whether it succeeds in its aim or not -- is not to place the believing murderer on a level with the genuinely good man. Its aim is not to cheer up the criminal at his last gasp, with the promise of immortal salvation; nor is it to provide openings for priests to live upon the fears that their own teaching has gathered round the bed of death. Its aim is to teach men to *live* aright; not to falsify human experience; not to insult human intelligence by the monstrous doctrine of the penitent thief, or the murderer crawling to Jesus under the shadow of the scaffold. ******************************************************** Provided by: AMERICAN ATHEIST ONLINE SERVICES, a BBS by and for Atheists at (512) 302-0223. Sponsored by American Atheist GHQ, P O Box 140195, Austin, TX 78714-0195. Voice: (512) 458-1244. FAX: (512) 467-9525 Text reproduced courtesy of the American Atheist Press. Copyright 1980. All rights reserved


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