Men, Women and Gods, by Robert Green Ingersoll

Vicarious Atonement.

IN an art collection in Boston there is a god — a redeemer — the best illustration I have ever seen of the vicarious atonement theory. It is a perfect representation of the agony endured by a helpless and innocent being in order to relieve the guilty of their guilt. This god was captured in Central Africa before his mission was complete, and there is still suffering-space upon his body unused.

It is a wooden image of some frightful beast, and it is represented as suffering the most intense physical agony. Nails are driven into its head, body, legs, and feet. Each wrongdoer who wanted to relieve himself of his own guilt drove a nail, a tack, a brad, or a spike into the flesh of his god. The god suffered the pain; the man escaped the punishment. He cast his burdens on his god, and went on his way rejoicing. Here is vicarious atonement in all its pristine glory. The god is writhing and distorted with pain; the criminal has relieved himself of further responsibility, and his faith has made him whole. His sins are forgiven, and his god will assume his load.

It is curious to examine the various illustrations of human nature as represented by the size and shape of the nails. A sensitive man had committed a trifling offence, and he drove a great spike into the head of the god. A thick-skinned criminal inserted a small tack where it would do the least harm — in the hoof. An honest, or an egotistic penitent drove his nail in where it stands out prominently; while the secretive devotee placed his among a mass of others of long standing and inconspicuous location.

One day I stood with a friend looking at this god. My friend, who was a devout believer in the vicarious theory of justification and punishment as explained away by the ethical divines of Boston, was unable to see anything but the most horrible brutality and willingness to inflict pain on the part of these African devotees, and was equally unable to recognize the same principle when applied to orthodoxy. She said, “Is it not horrible, the ignorance and superstition of these poor people? What a vast field of labor our missionaries have.”

To her the idea of justification by faith in a suffering god meant only superstition and brutality when plainly illustrated in somebody else’s religion; but the same idea, the same morality, the same justice, she thought beautiful when applied to Christianity.

I said, “There is the whole vicarious theory in wood and iron. That is exactly the same as the Christian idea; and the same human characteristics are plainly traceable in the size and location of these nails.

“A Presbyterian or a Methodist drives his nail in the most conspicuous spot, where the flesh is tender and the suffering plainly visible. The Episcopalian or Catholic uses a small tack, and drives it as much out of sight as possible, covering it over with stained glass, and distracting the attention with music; but the bald, cruel, unjust, immoral, degrading, and dishonest principle is there just the same.

“Faith in blind acts of devotion; the suffering of innocence for guilt; transferring of crime; comfort and safety purchased for self by the infliction of pain and unmerited torture upon another; premiums offered for ignorance and credulity; punishments guaranteed for honest doubt and earnest protest — all these beautiful provisions of the vicarious theory are as essential to our missionary’s belief as to that of his African converts; and it seems to me simply a choice between thumbs up and thumbs down.”

While we were talking my friend’s pastor joined us, and she told him what I had said, and asked him what was the difference between the Christian and the heathen idea of a suffering god. He said he could explain it in five minutes some morning when he had time. He said that the one was the true and living faith, and the other was blind superstition. He also said that he could easily make us see which was which. Then he gracefully withdrew with the air of one who says: “In six days God made the heavens and the earth, and on the seventh day he and I rested.” He has not called since to explain. While he stayed, however, his manner was deeply, solemnly, awfully impressive; and of course I resigned on the spot.

The theory of vicarious atonement is the child of cowardice and fear. It arranges for a man to be a criminal and to escape the consequences of his crime. It destroys personal responsibility, the most essential element of moral character. It is contrary to every moral principle.

The Church never has been and never will be able to explain why a god should be forced to resort to such injustice to rectify a mistake of his own. To earnest questions and honest thoughts it has always replied with threats. It has always silenced inquiry and persecuted thought. Past authority is its god, present investigation its devil. With it brains are below par, and ignorance is at a premium. It has never learned that the most valuable capital in this world is the brain of a scholar.


Every earnest thought, like every earnest thinker, adds something to the wealth of the world. Blind belief in the thought of another produces only hopeless mediocrity. Individual effort, not mere acceptance, marks the growth of the mind. The most fatal blow to progress is slavery of the intellect. The most sacred right of humanity is the right to think, and next to the right to think is the right to express that thought without fear.

Fear is the nearest approach to the ball and chain that this age will permit, and it should be the glorious aim of the thinkers of today that so refined and cruel a form of tyranny shall not be left for those who come after us. We owe physical freedom to the intellectual giants of the past; let us leave mental freedom to the intellectual children of the future.

Fear scatters the blossoms of genius to the winds, and superstition buries truth beneath the incrustation of inherited mediocrity. Fear puts the fetters of religious stagnation on every child of the brain. It covers the form of purity and truth with the contagion of contumely and distrust. It warps and dwarfs every character that it touches. It is the father, mother, and nurse of hypocrisy. It is the one great disgrace of our day, the one incalculable curse of our time; and its nurse and hot-bed is the Church.

Because I, a woman, have dared to speak publicly against the dictatorship of the Church, the Church, with its usual force and honor, answers argument with personal abuse. One reply it gives. It is this. If a woman did not find comfort and happiness in the Church, she would not cling to it. If it were not good for her, she in her purity and truth would not uphold it in the face of the undeniable fact that the present generation of thinking men have left it utterly.

You will find, however, that in every land, under every form of faith, in each phase of credulity, it is the woman who clings closest and longest to the religion she has been taught; yet no Christian will maintain that this fact establishes the truth of any other belief.*

* “Exactly the same thing may be said of the women in the harem of an Oriental They do not complain. . . . They think our women insufferably unfeminine.” — Mill.

They will not argue from this that women know more of and have a clearer insight into the divine will! If she knows more about it, if she understands it all better than men, why does she not occupy the pulpit? Why does she not hold the official positions in the Churches? Why has she not received even recognition in our system of religion? Who ever heard of a minister being surprised that God did not reveal any of the forms of belief through a woman? If she knows and does the will of God so much better than man, why did he not reveal himself to her and place his earthly kingdom in her hands?

That argument won’t do! As long as creed and Church held absolute power there was no question but that woman was a curse, that she was an inferior being, an after-thought. No Church but the Roman Catholic has the decency to recognize even the so-called mother of God! The Church has never offered women equality or justice. Its test of excellence is force. The closer a Church or creed clings to its spirit, the more surely does it assume to dictate to and control woman and to degrade her. The more liberal the creed the nearer does it come to offering individual justice and liberty.

The testimony of our own missionaries, as well as that of many others, assures us that it is not the Turk but his wives who hold fastest to their faith. The women of the harem, whom we pity because of the injustice of their religious training, are the last to relinquish their god, the most bitter opponents of the infidel or sceptic in their Church, the most devout and constant believers of the faith, and the most content with its requirements. They are the ones who cling to the form even when the substance has departed — and it is so with us!

Among the “heathen” it is the women who are most shocked and offended by the attacks made upon their superstitions by the missionaries whom we pay to go to them and blaspheme their gods and destroy their idols.

Go where you will, read history as you may, and you will find that it is the men who invented religion, and the women who believed in it. They are the last to give it up. The physically weak dread change. Inexperience fears the unknown. Ignorance shuns thought or development. The dependent cannot be brave.

We are all prepared to admit, I think, that, with but few marked exceptions here and there, the women of most countries are physically and mentally undeveloped. They have had fear and dependence, the dread enemies of progress and growth, constantly to retard them. Fear of physical harm, fear of social ostracism, fear of eternal damnation. With rare exceptions a child with a weak body, or any other dependent, will do as he is told; and women have believed to order. They have done so not only in Christianity but in Buddhism, Mohammedanism, Mormonism, and Fetichism — in each and all of them. Each and all of these religions being matter of faith, religion was the one subject in which every Church alike claimed ignorance as a virtue; and the women understood that the men understood it as little as they did. It was a field where credulity and a solemn countenance placed all on an intellectual level — and the altitude of the level was immaterial.

Women have never been expected to understand anything; hence jargon about the “testimony of the spirit,” the “three in one” absurdity, the “horns of the altar,” or the widow’s oil miracle was not more empty or unmeaning to her than a conversation about Bonds and Stocks, Political Economy, or Medical Science. She swallowed her religion just as she did her pills, because the doctor told her to, and said there was something wrong with her head — and usually there was.

Beginning to Think.

The past education of woman gave her an outlook which simply embraced a husband or nothing at all, which was often only a choice between two of a kind.

There are a great many women today who think that orthodoxy is as great nonsense as I do, but who are afraid to say so.

They whisper it to each other. They are afraid of the slander of the Church.

I want to help make it so that they will dare to speak. I want to do what I can to make it so that a mother won’t have to evade the questions of her children about the Bible.


I am sometimes asked, “What do you propose to give in place of this comforting faith? It makes people so happy. You take away all this blessing and you give no other in its place. What is your creed?”

It has never seemed to me that a creed was the staff of life. Man cannot live by creeds alone. I should not object, however, to one that should read something like this:

I believe in honesty.

I believe that a Church has no right to teach what it does not know.

I believe that a clean life and a tender heart are worth more to this world than all the faith and all the gods of Time.

I believe that this world needs all our best efforts and earnest endeavors twenty-four hours every day.

I believe that if our labors were needed in another world we should be in another world; so long as we are in this one I believe in making the best and the most of the materials we have on hand.

I believe that fear of a god cripples men’s intellects more than any other influence. I believe that Humanity needs and should have all our time, efforts, love, worship, and tenderness.

I believe that one world is all we can deal with at a time.

I believe that, if there is a future life, the best possible preparation for it is to do the very best we can here and now.

I believe that love for our fellow-men is infinitely nobler, better, and more necessary than love for God.

I believe that men, women, and children need our best thoughts, our tenderest consideration, and our earnest sympathy.

I believe that God can get on just as well without any of these as with them. If he wants anything he can get it without our assistance. It is people with limitations, not gods without limitations, who need and should have our aid.

I believe that it is better to build one happy home here than to invest in a thousand churches which deal with a hereafter.

If a life that embraces this line of action does not fit a man for heaven, and if faith in vicarious atonement will, then such a heaven is not worth going to, and its god would be unworthy to make a good man’s acquaintance.

But suppose that faith in a myth is destroyed and another mysticism be not set up in its place, what then? If a mother takes her child away from the fire, which it finds beautiful, and believes to be a nice toy, is it necessary for her to give it a kerosene lamp in its place? She destroys a pleasant delusion — a faith and a delightful hope and confidence — because she knows its danger and recognizes its false foundation. It is surely not necessary that she should give to the child another delusion equally dangerous and false. She gives it something she knows to be safe; something she understands will not burn; something which, though not so bright and attractive to the child at first, gives pleasure without pain, occupation without disaster. Is she cruel or only sensible? If I were to pretend to a knowledge of a divine creed, a superhuman system, I should be guilty of the same dishonesty, the same deception of which I complain in the Church.

I do not know of any divine commands. I do know of most important human ones. I do not know the needs of a god or of another world. I do not know anything about “a land that is fairer than day.” I do know that women make shirts for seventy cents a dozen in this one. I do know that the needs of humanity and this world are infinite, unending, constant, and immediate. They will take all our time, our strength, our love, and our thoughts; and our work here will be only then begun.

Why not, if you believe in a God at all, give him credit for placing you where he wanted you? Why not give him credit for giving you brains and sympathies, as well as the courage to use them. Even if Eve did eat that apple, why should we insist upon having the colic?

Self-Control what We Need.

I want to see the time come when mothers won’t have to explain to their children that God has changed his mind about goodness and right since he used to incite murder; that eighteen hundred years ago he was a criminal with bloody hands and vile, polluted breath; that less than three hundred years ago his greatest pleasure was derived from witnessing the agony of pure young girls burning alive, whose only crime was beauty of face or honesty of thought.*

* See Gage, “History of Woman Suffrage,” p. 766.

I want it so that she won’t allow her children to hear and believe such a statement as Bishop Fallows made not long ago. He said, in effect, that sins of omission are as heinous as those of commission: that Saul committed two sins in his life, and that one of them was a refusal to commit a coldblooded murder! He spared the life of a conquered enemy! Out of a whole nation he saved one life — and that was a crime, a sin! Bishop Fallows said that God expressly commanded Saul to utterly exterminate that whole nation, and not only the nation but its flocks; and that God took Saul’s kingdom from him because he saved the life of one fallen enemy.

That story, I think, is a libel; and I believe that if there is a God he was never such a fiend! And I want it so that no mother will allow her child to hear such an infamous travesty of the character of a Deity who is called good, I want it so that all the lessons of the week, all the careful training of a wise father or a good mother, will not be antagonized on Sunday by such a statement as the Rev. Mr. Williamson made at a large church convention recently. Speaking of prayer, he said: “We should offer to God, by prayer, our virtue, our purity, and our pious aspirations” (so far I do not object, for if it means anything I fail to grasp it), “for by not doing so we claim self-control, which is displeasing to God!”

I object! The lesson of self-control is precisely what we need. And when we control ourselves and regulate our lives on principles of right and truth, instead of allowing a Church to regulate them through a fear of hell, we shall be a better people, and character will have a chance to grow.

Then this same gentleman added: “We should also give him our vices, our worry, our temper, and our passions, so that he may dispose of them.”

Dispose of them yourselves! Don’t try to shift your responsibilities on to somebody else. Don’t drive your tack into the brain of justice, expecting to save your own soft skull. Don’t enervate your strength to do light by accepting the fatal doctrine of vicarious atonement. It weakens every character that it touches.

Vicarious Atonement Not a Christian Invention.

The doctrine of vicarious atonement is found in some form in most religions, and it is the body and soul of ours. The idea is not a Christian invention. It caused the Carthaginians to put to death their handsomest prisoners if a battle were won, the most promising children of their own nobility if it were lost. They were offerings to appease the gods.

In old times there were peoples who believed that if a chief was guilty of a misdemeanor it was just to punish or enslave any one of his tribe. That was their idea of liberty and justice. If a father committed a crime it could be expiated by the murder of his son. That was the doctrine of vicarious atonement in all its pristine glory. So they adopted that style of justice in our religion, and condemned the whole lot of us to the eternal wrath of God on account of that little indiscretion attributed to Eve. It seems a very little thing for anybody to get so angry at us all about and stay angry so long! It doesn’t seem to me that if one of you were to eat every apple I had in my orchard, I should want to murder and eternally damn all the folks that live in Asia Minor. Do you think you would?

In the 11th verse of the 12th chapter of the second book of Samuel it is claimed that God said he was going to be revenged for the crimes of some men by a vile punishment of their wives.

Only a short time ago a man tried that same style of justice in one of our Western towns. He claimed that Smith had alienated the affections of his wife, so he went over to Smith’s house and whipped Mrs. Smith! And do you know that the judge who tried that case (not being a good Bible student) actually sent that good, pious man to the house of correction — that man who not only believed in his Bible, but lived by it! And just as likely as not that judge will be elected again. Truly we have fallen on degenerate times!

Legal minds outgrew the idea of vicarious punishment long ago. Physical liberty came to have a new meaning, and punishment was awarded more nearly where it was due. But the religious mind never outgrows anything. It is born as big as it ever gets. Development is its terror. It abhors a change. It forces you to sin by proxy, to be redeemed by proxy; and the only thing it does permit you to receive at first hand is Hell. That is the only one thing you can’t delegate to somebody else.

If you commit no sin, you are responsible for the sins of other people — dead people, too, that you can’t look after. If you are good and true and noble — even if you are a Christian — you don’t get any credit for it. If there is any one thing above another that God detests it is to have a man try to be grand and noble and true, and then get the credit of it. “To Christ belongs all the honor, the praise, and the glory — world without end, Amen.”

But when it comes to the punishment, the vicarious notion doesn’t seem to work. There is the one point where you are welcome to your own, and no discount allowed to heavy takers. Hell is always at par and no bail permitted. Even ignorance of the requirements is no excuse. If you did not know any better, somebody else did, and you’ve got to pay for it.

Now if the vicarious principle is not big enough to go clear round, I’ll leave my share off at the other end. If the Church wants to take my hell (vicariously) it is welcome to it. I will let it go cheap.

Awhile ago a man stayed some time at a hotel in New York, and when the time came for him to pay his bill he hadn’t the money. Well, the proprietor felt sorry for him and said, “I tell you what I’ll do about that bill, I’ll throw off half.” His guest was overwhelmed by this liberality, and with tears of gratitude said, “I cannot permit you to outdo me in generosity; I’ll throw off the other half and we’ll call it square.”

So if the Church desires all the credit, it is also welcome to all the blame. I cannot permit it to outdo me in generosity. But I’d rather be responsible for just my own sins, and then I can regulate them better, and I can take care of my own reward when I get it. I shall not want to deposit it with the clergy. A profit and loss system that is chiefly loss will not pay me.

The doctrines of vicarious atonement and original or inherited sin are the most infamously unjust dogmas that ever clouded the brain of man.

Twin Monsters Inherited from Intellectual Pigmies.

They are twin monsters inherited from intellectual pigmies.

Let me read you a little prayer based upon this idea of right. I heard it offered as a thanksgiving tribute. “Oh, God, we do thank thee that thou didst give thy only son to die for us! We thank thee that the innocent has suffered for the guilty, and that through the suffering and death of thy most holy son our sins are blotted out!”

Monstrous! How would that work in a court of justice? What would you think of a person who coolly thanked a judge who had knowingly allowed the wrong man to be hung? What do you think of a code of morals that offers as one of its beautiful provisions the murder of the innocent instead of the punishment of the guilty?

People ask what good I expect to come of an attack on Christianity. They ask me if I think Christianity does any direct harm. Yes! It makes a man unjust to believe in unjust doctrines. Any man who honestly believes in the righteousness of a system of vicarious rewards and punishments is ripe for any form of tyranny. And the more honestly he believes in it the less will he be a good man from principle.

I want men and women to be good and true because it is right towards each other, and not because they are afraid of Hell. Honor towards people in this world, not fear of a fiend in the next — that is my doctrine. That is the way to make men and women strong and brave and noble. Stop telling them they can’t be good themselves; teach them that they must do right themselves. Make them self-dependent. Teach them to stand alone. Honor towards others, kindness, and love — these are what make a man a good husband, a noble father — king in his household.

Fear never made any man a gentleman. Fear never made any woman a true wife or a good mother. Fear never covered the pitfalls of vice with anything stronger than the gloss of hypocrisy.

When Reason’s torch burned low, Faith led her victims by chains of ignorance into the land of hopeless superstition, and built her temple there.

Geographical Religion.

A religion of faith is simply a question in geography. Keep your locality in mind and you are all right. On the banks of the Red Sea murder and slavery were a religious duty. On the Ganges infanticide is a virtue. In Rome you may steal or lie; you may deceive an innocent young girl and blast her life forever; you may stab your friend in the dark, and you are all right: but if you eat a piece of fried pork on Friday you are a lost man! China arranges her prayers in a machine, and turns her obligations to Deity off with a crank. There is usually more or less intimate relationship between prayer and a crank. Our God loved human sacrifice in Galilee, and rewarded Abraham for it. He abhors it in Pocasset, America, and his followers threaten to hang the only consistent follower of Jehovah who has come amongst them.

If you live in Utah, or had lived in Jerusalem, your most certain hope of salvation would have been the possession of numerous wives. In England or New York more than one is sure damnation.

Lose your bearings and you are a lost man! Make a mistake in your county and your soul is not worth a copper. A traveler is not safe five minutes, and I doubt if an accident policy would cover his case.

God and the Devil have been held accountable for about every crime that ever has been committed, and it has been very largely a geographical question which of the two was responsible. If it was longitude 35° 14’ east it was the Lord! If you shifted to longitude 70° 58’ west it was the devil.

When locality becomes the all-important question, we do not wonder at the old lady who felt relieved when the new survey threw her house just across the state line into Ohio, after she had been under the impression that she lived in Indiana. “Well,” said she, “I am glad we don’t live in Indiana; I always did say it was a very unhealthy state. Now, our doctor’s bills won’t be so high.”

Pocasset, Mass., is in the devil’s country, and murder is not safe; it is a crime. Abraham and Saul lived in a healthier climate — in God’s congressional district, where murder was above par and decency was out of fashion. Take it all in all, and the devil seems to make the best governor.

Now it seems to me that Sunday-schools should teach nothing so much as geography, so that a man may not be in doubt as to who is his Secretary of State, and when an order comes from head-quarters he may fairly be expected to know whether it is safe to obey — whether obedience means glorification on earth and a home in heaven, or a sprained neck and a bright fire. It seems now that Pocasset is over the line and out of the Lord’s clearing.


Now this God either did or he did not believe in and command murder and rapine in the days when he used to sit around evenings and chat with Abraham and Moses and the rest of them. His especial plans and desires were “revealed” or they were not. The ideas of justice and right were higher in those days than they are now, or else we are wiser and better than God, or else the Bible is not his revealed will. You can take your choice. My choice is to keep my respect for divine justice and honor, and let the Bible bear the burden of its own mistakes.

If religion is a revelation, then it is not a growth, and it would have been most perfect in design and plan when it was nearest its birth. Now accepting the Bible theory of Jehovah, we find that when the communications of God were immediate and personal there could have been no mistake as to his will. To deal with it as a growth or evolution toward better things is to abandon the whole tenet of a revealed law of God. But to deal with it as a revelation is to make God a being too repulsive and brutal to contemplate for one moment with respect.

He either did or did not tell those men those things. Which will you accept?

He divided men into two classes. Of one he made tyrants and butchers; of the other, victims. He made woman weak in order that she might be the more easily overcome by vice; helpless, in order that she might the more easily be made the victim of brutal lust! He made children to be the beasts of burden, the human sacrifices, the defenceless property of criminals and fiends. He did these things, or the prophets romanced about it, or some one else romanced about them. Which?

If I accept the former alternative. I can have nothing but loathing and contempt for the Diety and his followers. If the latter, it clouds the character of no one. It simply places the ignorance of the past on the same plane with the ignorance of the present. It rescues the reputation of the Infinite at the trifling expense of a few musty fables.

I choose the latter! I prefer to believe either that a few men were themselves deceived, or that they tried to deceive others — it does not much matter which. I prefer to adopt this belief, and so keep the character of even a supposititious God above reproach.

If we accept a God at all let us accept an honest one.

Evidence of Faith.

We are asked to be as fair toward the evidence of Bible witnesses as we are toward other evidence. We are told that we believe a great deal that we have never seen, and that we accept it on the word of others; that we have never seen a man hung, but that we believe that men have been hung; we never saw Napoleon’s great feats of generalship, but we believe in them because history records them. Why not believe in the Bible as well as in other history? Why not, on the testimony of witnesses, believe that Christ turned water into wine, as readily as that a man was hung? Why not accept the miracle of the loaves and fishes on evidence, as readily as the victories of Napoleon?

Now that line of argument, although it is the one used by and for theological students, is entirely illogical. It will not work with people who think. The cases are not parallel.

We believe the facts of history and the occurrences of today not solely on the testimony of others, but because they are in accord with common-sense and experience and judgment; because they fall within the range of possibility, and do not antagonize the laws of nature. We know a man can be hung. We know one general may defeat another. We are asked to believe nothing outside of reasonable bounds. Here then the only thing to examine is the credibility of the witnesses.

If, however, our witnesses told us that whenever Napoleon wanted to know the strength of an enemy he flew up over their camp and counted their men; or that when he found too many he prayed down fire from heaven and burned them up, we should dismiss their testimony at once as unworthy of farther notice. We should know that they were deceived, or that they were trying to deceive us. We should know that Napoleon’s real means of estimating the strength of his enemy were of a different nature, and that he did not resort to the upper air and flit about at will. We should know that no fire was prayed down, and that although soldiers might be told to put their trust in God, the little addition —“and keep your powder dry”— would be the really important part of the command.

So when we are told that wine was made out of water, and bread and fish out of nothing in large quantities, we know that we are listening to statements that simply go out of the field of credible testimony into the realm of supreme credulity. Such assertions require you to believe not only what you have not seen, but what all experience and reason tell you you never can see. They ask you not only to believe in a past event, but in a past event outside of all reason, beyond all experience, incapable of demonstration, unsupported by nature, opposed to all natural laws — beneath the realm of reason, out of the light of experience, under the shadow of superstition!

The great electric light of the intellect is turned off at the church door. On one day out of every seven the human lamps enter in utter darkness a field of superstition. During six days the light is turned full on the world of commerce, science, art, and literature, and these glow and grow and are examined by its rays. When, however, the signal tolls from the steeple on the seventh day, the light is turned off for that day, and for that topic alone; and then there is brought out once more the old tallow candle of ignorance that hides in shadow the cobwebs of undeveloped thought!

Use your noblest powers of thought freely in the bank; strain and develop your ability to improve and control in the engine-room; train and exert your judgment in literature and art; push and brighten and sharpen your reason in science or political economy.

In the practical affairs of life faith will not help you. It is childish and insecure. It will not honor your cheque; it will not prevent the broken engine from hurling its human companion into eternity. It will not prove the rotundity of the earth, nor establish a sound financial basis for a nation. In all such matters it leads to nothing but ignorance and disaster. In theology it is the one element of light.

As a test and an aid in this world, it is puerile and trifling; but the depths of the Great Beyond it fathoms to a nicety. It gives no grasp upon the truths of Time; but it is the all-sufficient hold on Eternity. It leads to the discovery of no important principle here; but it holds the keys to the secret chambers of divinity! It is an attribute of childish development now. It is to indicate infinite mental superiority hereafter!

It is a strange philosophy which asserts that a faculty which is a hindrance to superiority in this world is the one thing needful for the soul of man!

Give me the brain that dares to think! Give me the mind that grasps with herculean power the rocks that crush the treasures of intellectual growth, and tears them from their foundation! Give me the mind that dares to step from the fallen stones, that leaps from rock to rock past the dark rift torn in the superstitions of ages past, and that, standing on the farthest crag, waits and watches for the breaking light! He can trust his future whose present scorns stagnation!

Did he Talk?

In olden times — in the times of the Bible — men believed that animals sometimes used human language, and that beasts were wiser than their masters. I’m not now going to question that belief, but still I don’t think that nowadays one-half of us would take the word of a horse on any important subject. You must remember, however, that it took an ass to know an angel at first sight in Balaam’s time. Balaam never suspected that there was an angel in his path until that ass told him! In those days, on a little matter like that, the word of any beast seemed to be taken as good evidence.

But let a mule jam his rider’s foot against a wall, nowadays, and then lie down under him, and there is not one man in ten who would associate that fact in his mind with the presence of an angel. I suppose, however, there wasn’t as much known about mules then as there is now; and most asses were of a more pious turn of mind.

I don’t suppose there is one intelligent man in this city who believes that story, and yet he is not a good Christian if he questions it.

Show me a locality where actual belief — where old time orthodoxy — is looked upon as a requisite of good citizenship and standing in society, and you will show me a place where intellectual development and rapid progress have died or gone to sleep!

The most ignorant and backward parts of this great country, the localities where Congress is asking for better and more secular schools to be established as a means of safety to the state, are situated in the very States where orthodoxy holds absolute sway. In those states a man is looked upon as a very dangerous character if he questions the accuracy of that story about those three hot-house plants, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. Yes, the people of that pious region would be afraid of a man who was wicked enough to laugh at that yarn; and yet do you believe there is a man in this city who could make you believe it? And you don’t look dangerous either; and I don’t think that I do.

It seems that when they used to run ashore for big scare-stories, they just poked up the fire and went into the blastfurnace business — here and hereafter. But — seeing that a furnace — a real one — heated seven times hotter than it takes to melt iron, did not injure those three tropical innocents — did not even singe their eye-brows — it does look a little as if we should stand a pretty fair show with the spiritual fuel they now promise us hereafter. Still I must say I don’t believe I should like the climate.

Speaking of Bible arguments, I must tell you of a new one I heard recently. A gentleman acquaintance of mine asked a colored woman, who had applied to him for money to help build a colored people’s church, whether she thought God was black or white. She replied that the Bible implied that he was black — that it said, “And His wool shall be whiter than snow;” and that white men don’t have wool!

What You May Think.

Show me a grade of society that buckles its little belt of belief and faith around its members, and you will show me a collection of hopeless mediocres. The thinkers move out or die out. They object to being fossilized. They decline to go down to history as physical members of the nineteenth century, and mental members of the third.

I would rather have the right to put on my monument, “She was abreast of her time,” than have all the sounding texts and all the feathered tribes chiseled upon it. I would prefer that it be said of me, “She was a good woman because she had a pure heart,” than to have this record: “She was a Christian. She was afraid of hell. She cast her burdens on the Lord, and went to heaven.”

You have been told, “Blessed are they who die in the Lord.” Rather let us say, “Blessed are they who live clean lives.”

But the Church does not allow you to regulate your lives by what you believe to be right. It always did and it always will hate a thinker. It proposes to do the mental labor for great minds by means of brains large enough to hold nothing but Faith. It says, “I cannot, and you shall not outgrow the past. The measure of my capacity shall be the limit of your attainment.”

The laws of a nation presume to regulate only what you may do. The Church is kind enough to say what you may think. It proposes to control the mental condition of every man and woman for time and eternity, and its first command is that we shall not grow.

It seems to me rather a queer admission to make, but the Church says that a child or a fool knows quite enough for its purpose — and it does not seem to be my place to question that fact. Now that may be all very well for the child and the fool, but it is rather binding on the rest of us.

Once in a while a minister outgrows the doctrines that were big enough for him in his youth; but that minister, though his life be as pure and his character as sweet as a flower, would be safer to be cast into the sea than that this instrument of torture, this court of injustice, should discover that he had laid aside the outfit of his undeveloped years. His mind may have grown to be a giant in strength, but it must be compressed into the nut-shell of superstition — dwarfed to the capacity of intellectual pigmies.

Christ was a thinker, a man of progress, an infidel, a man who outgrew the Church of his time; and the Church of his time crucified him. Those who oppose the spirit of religious stagnation today meet the same spirit in the Church that Christ met, and receive the same treatment so far as the law will permit.

It is a sentiment as true as it is beautiful that asks us to reverence the great men, the thinkers of the past; but it is no mark of respect to them to rest forever over their graves. We show our respect and our appreciation better by a spirit of research that reaches beyond them, than by a simple admiration which takes their gifts and dies. The lessons they left were not alone lessons of memory and acceptance, but examples of effort and progress.

A pupil who stops content with his teacher’s last words is no great credit either to himself or to his master. If he has learned only to accept, his lesson is only begun; and until he knows that he must investigate, his education is that of a child, his development that of a clown.

It is no compliment to Christ, the man of progress 1800 years ago, that his followers clip the wings of thought. He struck for freedom from ecclesiastical bondage. He added a new link to the chain of intellectual growth, and his followers have riveted it back to the immovable rock of superstition. He offered a key to open the door of individual liberty. They have wrapped it in the folds of ignorance and laid it in the closet of fear. He said in effect, “When you have outgrown the Church, leave it and bless the world.” They say, “Leave it and be damned.” For what is a Christian today without his hell? The chief objection I hear offered to the last arrangements made for us by the revisers is that they left out some of the hell, and gave the part they kept a poetical name.

Intellectual Gag-Law.

When the day comes when offences against the intellect are deemed as great crimes as offences against the person, intellectual gag-law will meet with no more respect than lynch-law does today, and will be recognized as the expression of an undeveloped moral and social condition. Choking an opinion into or out of a man’s mind is no more respectable than the same argument applied to his body.

Any form of faith, any religion, that has the vicarious element in it, is an insult to the intellect. It is based upon the idea of a God of revenge, a ruler infamously unjust. It is a system utterly ineffectual without the wanton sacrifice of helpless innocence under fangs of beastly cruelty — a revenge that has no thought of the redress of wrong by its punishment — a revenge that simply requires a victim — and blood!

Even with those two elements of the plan it is still impotent until it has appealed to the basest element in every human breast — the willingness to accept happiness that is bought by the agony of another! It is too abjectly selfish and groveling to command the least respect from a noble character or a great, tender soul. It severs the ties of affection without compunction. It destroys all loyalty. It says, “No matter what becomes of my loved ones — those who would die to help me — I must save my soul.” Without the use of the microscope, however, such a soul would never know whether it was saved or not.

What sort of a soul would it be that could have a heaven apart from those it loved? It would not be big enough to save, and its heaven would not be good enough to have.

I prefer the philosophy, the dignified loyalty and love for the dead of the old Goth, the captive warrior whom the Christians persuaded to be baptized. As he stood by the font he asked the bishop, “Where are the souls of my heathen ancestors?” The bishop, with great alacrity, replied, “In hell.”

The brave old warrior, the loyal Goth, drew his skins about him and said, “I would prefer, if you do not object, to go to my people;” and he left unbaptized.

That was heathen philosophy; but I think I prefer it to the Christianity of a devout man, a Sunday-school superintendent, whom I know. He is a great light in a Christian church today. He worships the beautiful provisions of vicarious atonement. He refused his mother her dying wish, and on the following Sunday atoned for the inhuman act by singing with unusual unction, “How gentle God’s commands,” and reading with devout fervor, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” His mother, who had the same shepherd, had wanted for much. She even wanted for a stone to mark her grave, because the money she had left for that purpose her holy son thought best to use, vicariously, upon himself. That man believes in the Bible absolutely. He is a good Christian, and he abhors an infidel! He knows he is going to heaven because he has faith in Christ, and Christ had an extra stab on his account. He is willing to take his heavenly home through the blood of Christ, and his earthly one out of the pockets of a dead mother. The blood of the murdered Nazarene obliterates the infamy of his acts over her dishonored grave.

And this is perfectly consistent! A religion of faith, a religion that gets its good vicariously and shifts its sins and responsibilities on to the past, is a religion that can never elevate character; it simply makes a man more intensely what he was before. It is all self, self, self. Think of the infinitesimal smallness, the irredeemable worthlessness, the unutterable meanness of a soul that could forsake those it had loved, and be happy believing that they were suffering and eternally lost!

Yet who does not know men who go tramping about the country, living on the charity of their dupes, and declaring that “the Lord is their Shepherd, they shall not want,” whose families want for almost every comfort of life? And this is true orthodox doctrine. “Ye shall forsake father, mother, wife, and children,” for what? — to “follow me!” Think of the infamy of it!

If that is the kind of souls that go to heaven, I shall do all I can to keep mine amongst more respectable spirits. I will go with the Goth. I could suffer in hell (if there were such a place) with those I love, and keep my self-respect.

If I believed I could be happy in heaven with my loved ones in agony below — if I believed it of myself — there is no vile, slime-covered reptile on earth that I would so loathe! Forsake father, mother, husband, children to save my soul! Never! I will go with my people!

The Vicarious Theory the Cause of Crime.

This idea of vicarious atonement has encouraged injustice and crime of every kind. Out of eighty-four men who have been hanged recently, seventy-one have gone directly to heaven. They asked the assembled spectators to be as good as they conveniently could, and meet them on the other shore. Their spiritual advisers administered the holy sacrament, and assured them that they were “lambs of the fold,” and that a robe and a harp awaited them at the right hand of God.

Just imagine a lamb in a robe, playing on a harp! A lamb with wings, a harp, a long white robe, and golden slippers seems to me an object to arouse the sympathy of a demon. Poor lamb! He would wish himself a goat every hour of the day.

There is an implied crime in the very word vicarious. If it means anything it means the suffering of innocence to atone for guilt. It means that one crime is condoned by the commission of another — a deliberate one. It means that truth must die in order that dishonor may live. It substitutes vengeance for justice. It does not seek to protect society by checking villany; it seeks the safety of the criminal by a shifting of responsibility. If the framers of human laws were no wiser that the revealers of divine law, no nation could live, no family would be secure, no justice possible.

[See Appendix S.]

Not long ago the New York Independent contained an article against Sarah Bernhart, calling her “a lewd woman,” and against her play because it did not contain good morals. The same paper contained an article against George Eliot’s works, and said that the Mormon Congressman is a disgrace to all America because he is a polygamist. All these things by a man who swallows David and Lot whole, and has Solomon pose as the summit of all wisdom! All this by a man who builds his life on the word of Moses, and denies to others the right to object to his code of morals or his version of heavenly wisdom and divine direction!

I should like a little consistency. The Christian who rails against polygamy, and at the same time poses in morals with a bible in his hand, is a man who saws his own legs from under him, and still expects us to believe that he has legs, which we might possibly do if only our sight were aided by faith. As long as my eyes hold out, I’ll stick to unaided vision; after that, spectacles or faith according to circumstances.

When goodness and virtue are measured, not by a book, but by our own acts toward each other; when a man’s character is judged by the amount of joy he gives to his household; when a happy laugh from his children and a bright smile from his wife greet him as often as he comes home; when these are taken as the evidence of a good man, deacons will go out of fashion. Meek, tired, persecuted-looking wives will not listen to a canting husband and believe that he is a holy man, when they know that he is a bad husband and a tyrannical father.

There is not any way that I know of to make a home happy vicariously. No confession of faith can take pain out of a mother’s heart. No “testimony of the spirit” can make love and beauty in a home where “the heathen” hold the first place, and foreign missions get tangled up in the children’s hair. No man accustomed to a high intellectual temperature can keep warm by theological fires. No man whose brain is king can ever again recognize the authority of this mere undisciplined sentiment.


As a system Christianity has had its day. Long ago it may have served a good purpose, but after eighteen hundred years it is worn threadbare and useless. If some of its milder tenets still cling to and fit our vast mediocrity, it is equally certain that the intellectual giants have moulted it as the birds moult their plumage in a dying year, and have taken on the bright new garments of higher thought, the spring plumage of intellectual liberty.

When I heard that the Bible was going to be revised I felt very glad, because I thought there was a wide field of usefulness open to somebody right there; and I concluded to do all I could to help it along. I understood that they wanted the substance retained as it was, with the language made more as we use language now.

So I began my revision in this way: “Good morning, Moses, I hear that you have some gods in this country. Do you know anything about it?”

“Oh, yes, I’m the head god’s head man.” “You are?”

“Yes, I had a talk with the head god — the top one of the three (we are down to three here now), and he told me to tell people what a good god he is, and that they must all praise him up for it.”

“He did! Well is that all he said?”

“Oh, no, he told me to tell them that he is the only God, and is the kind father of all, and loves all alike, and that they must all just trust in him and he will take good care of them.”

“I thought you said a while ago that there were three of these gods; now this one says he is the only one. Is there trouble in the cabinet?”

“No, there are three, but there is one. See?”

“Well, no, I can’t say that I do. But no matter, the rest of that about the father business was pretty good. That was the best I ever heard. But do you know that the very last man I talked with said that this god was partial to some folks and treated some others pretty shabbily.”

“Oh, that is not so; my god is no respecter of persons; that’s his very strongest hold. He treats rich and poor just alike, only if anything he leans a little toward the poor.”

“That is pretty clever. But what else did he tell you in that talk?”

“Well, he told me to tell the people, ‘Thou shalt not kill;’ and afterwards, at another time, he told me to take a lot of my men, and go over there to that town just across, and kill all the men and boys I could find, and if they fought hard for their homes, and I seemed to be getting the worst of it for a little while, not to be afraid, he’d be with me, and he’d see that I came out all right. Oh, he’s the gayest old god you ever saw to help in a fight.”

“Well, yes, that was pretty clever to you; but isn’t he the god of that village too!”

“Oh, yes; but you see one of the men that lives over there went and worshipped another god one day, and this one didn’t like it.”

“I see; but if he treats them all that way, don’t you think it is rather natural that they should go and hunt up another god to admire?”

Well, while I was waiting for Moses to answer this question, I heard another man say that only a day or two previously this very fellow had burned up their homes, and murdered a good many people who had never injured him; and that he had dashed out the brains of the innocent children, and had actually sold the sweet, pure young girls to his brutal soldiers. Since I heard that, my mind has been so occupied with some other little matters that my revision has not gone any farther, and somebody else has got one out; so I don’t know that I shall ever finish mine. It does not seem to be very encouraging work any way; and I am afraid that people would find fault with its scholarship if it should be finished. Theological scholarship and common-sense always did disagree. A man who is well vaccinated with either will never catch the other.

The Church’s Money-Box.

The Church used to keep a box about four feet long and two feet wide which it called the sacred ark of God. It was certain death for any man not a priest to touch that box. It is supposed that they kept in it gold and jewels which they extorted from their dupes, and that for fear of robbery they made superstition their banker. Well, they had to move that jewelry-box once for some reason, and it is not said that anything happened to the men who put it on the cart; but as the man who drove the oxen — in one place it says that they were oxen, in another that they were cows with young calves, and you will be damned if you don’t believe both — anyhow, as the driver walked along in horrid fear lest something should happen to that ark of God, the oxen shied, and the ark toppled, and instinctively the driver put out his hand to steady the sacred thing. Well, you would think that any sane man, any reasonable being, would have commended him for it; but no! Jehovah struck him dead for his pains. Why? Because that box was so supremely sacred. Supreme nonsense! Suppose he had not touched it and it had fallen? What then? Most likely Jehovah would then have struck him dead for not touching it. It strikes me that the only reasonable, sensible being connected with that whole story was the driver, the man they abuse, the man the priests murdered, I suspect because he discovered what was in that ark, and threatened to expose the humbug.

Whenever any man uses judgment and common-sense the Church calls him wicked and dangerous. They say he “touches with unholy hands holy things;” and when he dies, whether his death was expedited or otherwise, they say God killed him.

Now, if God did kill that man for touching the ark to save it from falling, what do you think of him — as a God? I can tell you what you would think of him as a man. You would think he was a ruffian and a murderer — that is what you would think of him as a man.

Truly gods are made of poor stuff. If I can’t have a god that is nobler and better and truer and kinder than the very best man I ever saw, then I don’t want any god at all. And candor forbids me to state that I ever saw, heard, or read of any such a god. All the gods I ever read or heard of have fallen infinitely below a few men I know.

Jehovah, it seems to me, is hardly an average god, even as gods go. He believed in polygamy. He believed in slavery. He was a murderer — killed 52,000 people once because somebody looked into that four-by-two box that he thought so much of. Human life was not worth a copper in his neighborhood. He was always in a rage about something, and you never knew when he would “get the drop on you” because somebody else had ruffled his temper. “Any man was liable,” as the Irishman said, “to wake up any morning and find himself burned to ashes in his bed,” because one of his neighbors had been wicked enough to lend a five-dollar greenback to one of the Philistines, or had eaten a gum-drop in the dark of the moon, or committed some other awful crime like-that.

Shall Progress Stop?

In its day the Bible was all very well, no doubt. It was the expression of the best that the Jewish people then knew in morals. In his time Christ was a great reformer and a brave man. His philosophy was then an onward spring, and he detested the shams of the Church.

But with the knowledge we have today we should call that man a lunatic who tried to bind medical science by the teachings of that age, and maintained that when a man was sick he had a devil, and that if he got worse he had a whole flock of them. Yet Christ thought that. We should call the man utterly insane who insisted that Joshua gave us the last light that is ever to be thrown on astronomy. We should simply look with pity on one who should try to convince us that the legal profession ought to be bound by the laws of Moses; and we know that any nation that attempted to act under his guidance would be soon convinced by the unerring voice of foreign cannon that somebody had made a mistake.

Science has grown. Philosophy has developed. International law has sprung up. In religion alone we are asked to accept the standard of morality and honor of ages that are dead — to take as the last word of wisdom the reformer’s code of eighteen hundred years ago. We may grow in all else; in this we must stand still. We may use a text-book on Nature, Medicine, Law, or Mechanics, until by its aid we pass beyond its knowledge to a higher; but in morals and religion the book that was a light to the ages of ignorance and superstition, and the production of its brain, must still be the sole illuminator of a world made wise and critical and thoughtful by science and deep experience. The fisherman’s lantern, although useful in its day, cannot guide us while we stand in the glare of electricity. Why stand persistently with our faces westward, and gaze at the declining light, crying out impotently and hopelessly as we see it grow dim and vanish?

Our wise men have kept steadily onward, guided by the light of the breaking dawn; and with their faces to the East their star has never set. The fishermen’s light has sunk below the horizon, leaving behind it the glow of honest labor and earnest effort to keep their memory bright. The scientist’s star has risen, and with no claim that it is even yet the highest light — the final promise, it throws its rays of knowledge, its beams of hope, far into the future, and bids us follow, leaving the cold embers of the dead past for the warmth and light of the living future.

The hope of the past is the despair of the future. Stagnation is death. In movement and thought alone is progress. The wealth of the world is the brain of the scholar.

The past is dead; peace to its ashes. The future is ours to form on new models; models deformed by past superstitions, or models though faulty, instinct with true freedom. You are the jury, what is the verdict?

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54