Read SUBSTITUTES FOR ATHEISM: CHAPTER X of Theism / Atheism‚ The Great Alternative, free online book, by Chapman Cohen, on ReadCentral.com.

A QUESTION OF PREJUDICE.

It affords some ground for surprise that there should be so great a resentment shown against religious disbelief in general and against Atheism in particular. We have here more than the mere rejection of a theory or view of life. There is a certain emotional resentment, a shrinking from the one who is guilty of disbelief, such as is not explainable on ordinary grounds. The attitude is ridiculous, so ridiculous that many who adopt it are ashamed to openly acknowledge it, but it is there, and its existence calls for explanation.

We believe this is to be found in the peculiar history of the god-idea combined with primitive theories of social life. Like many frames of mind that persist in civilised society, this attitude towards disbelief has its roots in a conception of the world that has been generally discarded and in social conditions that have ceased to exist among civilised people. To begin with, we have the fact that religion dominates the life of primitive man to a degree that is almost inconceivable to the modern mind. The anger of the tribal gods has to be always reckoned with. What they desire must be done, what they do not desire must be avoided. In the next place there exists a very strong sense of collective responsibility. What one member of a tribe does the whole of the tribe is responsible for, both to the members of other tribes and to the gods. We see a survival of this in the reversion to a more primitive state of things that takes place during a war. In some circumstances hatred of the whole of a people with whom a nation is at war becomes a duty, and all are responsible for the offences of each. So in primitive times an offence against the gods became an act of treason against the tribe. It might expose the whole of the tribe to disaster.

It is not, it must be noted, that primitive man is fond of the gods, or jealous of their honour; he is not any more fond of them than is the modern citizen of the tax-collector. And no one will ever really understand the question of religion until he rids himself of the notion that primitive man spends his time looking for gods or that he is happy in their company. He is simply afraid that a single unruly member may get the whole tribe into a serious difficulty. The savage is severely practical; his conduct rests upon grounds of, to him, the most obvious utility, and his treatment of the heretic leaves little to be desired on the score of effectiveness. The unbeliever is a dangerous person, and he is promptly suppressed. The first heretic died a martyr to the tribe; the last heretic will die a martyr to the race.

Primitive conditions die out, but primitive feelings linger, and although in theory we have reached the stage of believing that each person must bear the consequences of his own religious opinions, the deeply rooted dislike to the man who rejects the rule of the gods remains.

Historically we have also to reckon with the operations of an interested priesthood, but leaving that on one side as a secondary development it would seem that one must trace to some such cause as the one above indicated the deep and widespread dislike to such a term as atheism, even by many who to all intents and purposes are atheist in their opinion. Certainly in this country, where compromise is more fashionable than in many other places, the dislike to the word is partly due to its uncompromising character. It is clear cut and definite. Its connotations cannot be misunderstood by any one who takes the word in its literal meaning. The Theist is one who believes in a personal God. The Atheist is one who is without belief in a personal God. The meaning is clear, and the implied mental attitude is plain. It is opposed to theism, and has no significance apart from Theism. And, as will be seen, when non-theists quarrel with it, it is only because it is mis-stated or misunderstood.

But most people dislike clear cut terms. They prefer to exist in an atmosphere of mental ambiguity and intellectual fog which blurs outlines and obscures differences. Unbeliever is preferable to some, sceptic presumably because of its age and philosophical associations, is a greater favourite, and Agnostic is more beloved than either the latter has indeed been pressed into the service of a more or less nebulous “religion.” As it is said, “We are all Socialists nowadays,” so it is said that we are unbelievers or Agnostics nowadays. But no one says we are all Atheists nowadays. Timidity can find no use for a word of that character. Of course, if a man believes that some word other than Atheism best describes his state of mind, he has a perfect right to select the one that seems fittest. But when one finds non-theists repudiating the name of Atheist with as much moral indignation as though they had been accused of shoplifting, one cannot help the suspicion that the heat displayed is not unconnected with some lurking fear of the “respectabilities.” It does seem that while many may have outgrown all fear of the God of orthodoxy, the fear of the god of social pressure remains.

So far as the Theist is concerned it is quite understandable that his objection to Atheism should involve a certain moral element. That would result from what has already been said concerning the cause of the fear of heresy. Still one would have thought that in these days it would require a person of almost abnormal stupidity to assume that disbelief in God has its roots in a defective moral character. The facts would warrant a quite opposite conclusion. In the first place, the rejection of any well-established belief argues a degree of independence of mind that is, unfortunately, not common. The ordinary mind follows the common route. It is the extraordinary mind that strikes out from the beaten path. The heretic, whether in politics or in religion, may be wrong, but there is always with him the guarantee of a certain measure of mental strength that is not, on the face of the matter, present with one who follows the orthodox path. And that in itself represents a type of mind of no little social value. Moreover, I for one, am quite ready to assert that, class for class, the Freethinker does represent a type of mind considerably above the average. That this is not more generally recognised is due to the policy of the religious advocate in contrasting the uneducated Freethinker with the educated believer.

Secondly, it strikes one as almost insane to assume that in a Christian country Atheism should be professed as a cloak or as an excuse for misconduct. They who talk in this strain greatly undervalue the accommodating power of religion. Is there a single form of rascality known to man for which religion has not been able to provide a sanction? If there is I have failed to come across it. The use of religion made by tyranny in all ages and in all countries is proof of how accommodating it is to man’s passions and interests. The picture of the dying murderer meeting his end, filled with the consolation of religion, and certain of his speedy salvation, contains a lesson that all may read if they will.

Error there may be in any case where opinion is concerned, but profession of an opinion that paves the way for suspicion and persecution provides a prima facie guarantee of honesty that cannot be furnished by the advocacy of one that stands high in the public favour. For aught I know to the contrary, every one of England’s Bishops may be quite honest men. But there can be no certainty about it so long as the profession carries with it all it does. The dice are loaded in favour of conviction. But the man who faces social ostracism, and even loss of liberty in defence of an opinion, is giving a hostage to truth such as none other can give.

This association of heresy with a defective moral character is a very old game. It has been played by all religions, and, it must be admitted, with considerable success. Writing in the second century Lucian shows us the same policy at work in his day. In one of his dialogues, when the Atheist has refuted one after another the theistic arguments of his opponent, the defender of the gods turns on his opponent with

You god robbing, shabby, villainous, infamous, halter-sick vagabond! Does not everybody know that your father was a tatterdemalion, and your mother no better than she should be? that you murdered your brother and are guilty of other execrable crimes? You lewd, lying, rascally, abominable varlet.

That type of disputant is still with us, and is still supporting his beliefs with the same tactics. And it is successful with some. There is a certain snobbishness in human nature that makes it seek the association of well-known names and shun all of those with an unfashionable reputation. To observe the way in which some people will introduce into their conversation, speeches, or writings, the names of well-known men, is a revelation of this mental snobbery. And the moral equivalent of this is the fear of being found in the company of an opinion that has been branded as immoral. Such people have all the fear of an unpopular opinion that a savage has of a tribal taboo it is, in fact, a survival of the same spirit that gave the tribal taboo its force. It is, thus, not a very difficult matter to warn people off an undesirable opinion. Samuel Taylor Coleridge relates how the clergy raised the cry of Atheism against him, although he had never advanced further than Deism. And it is to his credit that in referring to this charge he said:

Little do these men know what Atheism is. Not one man in a thousand has either strength of mind or goodness of heart to be an Atheist. I repeat it. Not one man in a thousand has either strength of mind or goodness of heart to be an Atheist.

And we have also the oft-quoted testimony of the late Professor Tyndall:

It is my comfort to know that there are amongst us many whom the gladiators of pulpit would call Atheists and Materialists, whose lives, nevertheless, as tested by any accessible standard of morality would contrast more than favourably with the lives of those who seek to stamp them with this offensive brand. When I say “offensive,” I refer merely to the intention of those who use such terms, and not because Atheism or Materialism, when compared with many of the notions ventilated in the columns of religious newspapers has any particular offensiveness to me. If I wish to find men who are scrupulous in their adherence to engagements, whose words are their bond, and to whom moral shiftiness of any kind is subjectively unknown, if I wanted a loving father, a faithful husband, an honourable neighbour, and a just citizen, I would seek him among the band of Atheists to which I refer. I have known some of the most pronounced amongst them, not only in life, but in death seeing them approaching with open eyes the inexorable goal, with no dread of a “hangman’s whip,” with no hope of a heavenly crown, and still as mindful of their duties, as if their eternal future depended upon their latest deeds.

Still the moral cry is too useful with the crowd to lead to the conviction that anything one could say would lead to its disuse. In the dialogue of Lucian’s to which we have referred, and after the theist has been refuted by the Atheist, Hermes consoles the chief deity, Zeus, by telling him that even though a few may have been won over by the arguments of the Atheist, the vast majority, “the whole mass of uneducated Greeks and the Barbarians everywhere,” still remain firm in their faith. And although Zeus replies that he would prefer one sensible man to a thousand fools, when a case depends upon the adherence of the relatively foolish, numbers will always bring some consolation to the champions of an intellectually distressed creed.