IS RELIGION OF USE? Reprinted from +quot;Essays on Freethinking,+quot; Vol. 1, published b

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********************************************************** IS RELIGION OF USE? 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 are no questions of so vital importance to man as those that cluster around religion. So said a daily paper the other day. And we meet the assertion with a flat denial. Really, there is no subject of so little intrinsic importance as that of religion. Everyone finds they can quite safely treat other people's religion as of no importance. The Christian treats his own religion with the utmost gravity, and laughs at those of others. The only reason he has for thinking a particular religion is of importance is that it happens to be his own. And the other man never fails to return the compliment. Each one laughs at the other's absurdity -- and cherishes with the utmost affection his own. The awe-inspiring narrative of one religion becomes the laughter-making material of another. What is revered and what is laughed at is largely a matter of geography. If Old Mother Hubbard had been in the Bible, it would have been treated with the same gravity as Jonah and the Whale. It is a mere accident that we have not as many solemn commentaries dealing with the esoteric significance of Jack and the Beanstalk as we have dealing with the Song of Solomon. So long as we only know one religion, we may talk of its transcendent importance. It is when we contemplate religions as a whole, and note how one cancels the other, that we begin to realize how easily the whole might be dispensed with. What justification is there for the often expressed opinion that it is of profound importance to have sound views concerning god and a future life? Does it really matter? How can a belief in god -- for the presence of which no one is the better, and for absence of which no one is the worse -- how can a belief of this kind be said to be of importance? Other things being equal, the student, the scientist, the "man of the world," gets no help from this belief. The belief in god never made a fool a wise man. It has never made an honest man of a rogue; but it has often made the road from honesty to roguery easier than it would otherwise have been. No one, where there is anything at stake -- say, a house to let, business credit to be given, or an assistant to be employed -- ever takes religious belief as an adequate guarantee of character. Long experience has removed all delusions on this head. In all the practical affairs of everyday life we look to a man's recorded character, not to his professions of faith. And it is manifestly absurd to call important beliefs that may be, and are, so easily and safely set on one side. Today there is not even the theoretical importance that once attached to religious beliefs. While natural forces were believed to be either supernatural in character or under the direct control of supernatural beings, there was at least a theoretical importance in forming right beliefs concerning these assumed powers. The gods then punished or rewarded men as their beliefs concerning them were sound or unsound. But this view is no longer held by the great mass of educated believers. God, they say, no longer interferes with the action of natural forces. He works through them, and their effects on believer and unbeliever alike are identical. And what is this but saying in a roundabout manner that the belief in god does not matter? If natural forces operate on all alike, if prayer is powerless to alter them, if god does not modify their incidence to meet the needs of believers, if these things are true, in what essential does the position of the believer in his dealings with Nature differ from that of the unbeliever? I do not believe in god, says the Atheist. I believe in god, but he does nothing, says the Theist. What substantial difference is there between the two positions? Practically none. Our whole welfare depends upon our knowledge of Nature and its processes. The theory of god *minus* this knowledge is of no value. The knowledge *minus* the theory of god is none the worse. And all history enforces this lesson. Individuals and nations flourish or decay in proportion to their understanding and use of natural forces. Nothing else matters. The god who sent harvests and plagues, health and disease, victory and defeat, was someone to reckon with. But a god who does nothing may safely be set on one side in a world where the need for intelligent action is great. The sober truth is that religious doctrines never trouble those whose minds have not been specially prepared for their reception. Left alone no one born in a modern society would experience any difficulty concerning them. If such questions occurred at all, it would only be as men discuss the habitability of Mars, or the question of an atmosphere in the moon. The professed interest in religion is an artificial, a manufactured one. It is the result of thousands of preachers impressing it upon the public; of parents, acting as the unconscious tools of the pulpit, impressing it on their children. The prominence given to religion in State functions helps to perpetuate the illusion, and the result is, not the creation of a living conviction of the value of religion, but a divorce between theory and practice that makes our public and political life a mass of insincerity and mental crookedness. Long ago Emerson said: "Our young people are diseased with the theological problems of original sin, origin of evil, and the like. These never presented a practical difficulty to any man -- never darkened any man's road who did not go out of his way to seek them. These are the soul's mumps, and measles, and whooping cough -- a simple mind will not know these enemies. But a simple -- that is a free mind -- is precisely what we are not allowed to have. Our education, our social environment, is so arranged that the dice are loaded against us from the start. Our enemies wear the garb of friends, and our friends are unconsciously made our enemies. The "Black Army" is in occupation, and our chances of a free life in a free city are small while we give the leaders of the Army an honoured place in our homes and in the schools." It is an old complaint with the clergy that people "forget god." The wonder is that it is never asked *why* god is forgotten! A god who did something would not be ignored in this way. People could not, even if they were inclined to do so. But the suggestive thing is, not that god is ignored, but that no one is the worse for ignoring him. In every other direction the pressure of insistent facts is such that they command attention. Society cannot retain bad drains and keep free from disease. We cannot eat bad food and drink impure water without paying the price. Natural facts, real facts, cannot be ignored with impunity. Sooner or later we are brought up against the facts of existence. Why is it, then, that people can go on year after year, not merely blind to god's existence, but convinced that their disbelief in his existence is justified by the facts, and feeling no need for the assumption of his being? That is the real question the believer has to face, and never does. The truth is that god is not forgotten, he is found out. People have become aware of the fact that "god" is no more than one of those primitive ideas that were framed in the childhood of the race, and which have become utterly discredited by more mature thought. It is the hypothesis of god that is ignored, and the reason for that is precisely the one that justified the rejection of witchcraft or demoniacal possession. It is not true then, that the question of religion is of vital importance. It is only needful that people should understand it, and that chiefly because to understand it is the surest way of leading to its rejection. For the rest there are a hundred and one things in life that are of greater importance than religion. The land question, the housing question, sanitation, education, are all of infinitely greater importance than any of the questions about which theology concerns itself. Yet we put on one side matters of "great pith and moment" while we discuss questions of vestments, and lights, and baptism, and the other grotesques that go to make up the phantasmagoria of theology. We starve our scientific workers while we squander millions on a priesthood that has left its evil impress on every page of European history. We allow that priesthood to retain a footing in our schools, and thus deliver up the new generation mentally shackled and ready for exploitation. We cry out for reform, and refuse to recognize that the most pressing reform of all is to learn to take things in the order of their importance; to deal with this life while we have it, and with any other on its emergence. ********************************************************** Provided by: AMERICAN ATHEIST ONLINE SERVICES (512) 302-0223 P O Box 140195, Austin, TX 78714-0195 Voice: (512) 458-1244 FAX: (512) 467-9525 Text reprinted courtesy of the American Atheist Press.


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