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Superstition Unveiled online

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Produced by Freethought Archives,




Abridged by the Author from his

"Not one of you reflects that you ought to
know your Gods before you worship them."




Religion has an important bearing on all the relations and conditions of
life. The connexion between religious faith and political practice is,
in truth, far closer than is generally thought. Public opinion has not
yet ripened into a knowledge that religious error is the intangible but
real substratum of all political injustice. Though the 'Schoolmaster'
has done much, there still remain among us, many honest and energetic
assertors of 'the rights of man,' who have to learn that a people in the
fetters of superstition cannot, secure political freedom. These
reformers admit the vast influence of Mohammedanism on the politics of
Constantinople, and yet persist in acting as if Christianity had little
or nothing to do with the politics of England.

At a recent meeting of the Anti-State Church Association it was remarked
that _throw what we would into the political cauldron, out it came in an
ecclesiastical shape_. If the newspaper report may be relied on, there
was much laughing among the hearers of those words, the deep meaning of
which, it may safely be affirmed, only a select few of them could

Hostility to state churches by no means implies a knowledge of the close
and important connection between ecclesiastical and political questions.
Men may appreciate the justice of voluntaryism in religion, and yet have
rather cloudy conceptions with respect to the influence of opinions and
things ecclesiastical on the condition of nations. They may clearly see
that he who needs the priest, should disdain to saddle others with the
cost of him, while blind to the fact that no people having faith in the
supernatural ever failed to mix up such faith with political affairs.
Even leading members of the 'Fourth Estate' are constantly declaring
their disinclination for religious criticism, and express particular
anxiety to keep their journals free of everything 'strictly
theological.' Their notion is, that newspaper writers should endeavour
to keep clear of so 'awful' a topic. And yet seldom does a day pass in
which this self-imposed editorial rule is not violated - a fact
significant, as any fact can be of _connection_ between religion and

It is quite possible the editors of newspapers have weighty reasons for
their repugnance to agitate the much vexed question of religion; but it
seems they cannot help doing so. In a leading article of this days'
_Post_, [Endnote 4:1] we are told - _The stain and reproach of Romanism
in Ireland is, that it is a political system, and a wicked political
system, for it regards only the exercise of power_, and neglects utterly
the duty of improvement. In journals supported by Romanists, and of
course devoted to the interests of their church, the very same charge is
made against English Protestantism. To denounce each other's 'holy
apostolic religion' may be incompatible with the taste of 'gentlemen of
the press,' but certainly they do it with a brisk and hearty vehemence
that inclines one to think it a 'labour of love.' What men do _con
amore_ they usually do well, and no one can deny the wonderful talent
for denunciation exhibited by journalists when writing down each other's
'true Christianity.' The unsparing invective quoted above from the
_Post_ is a good specimen. If just, Irish Romanism _ought_ to be
destroyed, and newspaper writers cannot be better employed than in
helping on the work of its destruction, or the destruction of any other
religion to which the same 'stain and reproach' may be fairly attached.

I have no spite or ill-will towards Roman Catholics though opposed to
their religion, and a willing subscriber to the opinion of Romanism in
Ireland expressed by the _Post_. The past and present condition of that
country is a deep disgrace to its priests, the bulk of whom, Protestant
as well as Romanist, can justly be charged with 'regarding only the
exercise of power, while neglecting utterly the duty of improvement.'

The intriguing and essentially political character of Romanism it would
be idle to deny. No one at all acquainted with its cunningly contrived
'system' will hesitate to characterise it as 'wickedly political,'
productive of nothing but mischief - a system through whose accursed
instrumentality millions are cheated of their sanity as well as
substance, and trained dog-like to lick the hand that smites them. So
perfect is their degradation that literally they 'take no thought for
to-morrow,' it being their practice to wait 'till starvation stares them
in the face,' [4:2] and _then_ make an effort against it.

The _Globe_ of Thursday, October 30th, 1845, contains an article on the
damage sustained by the potatoe crop here and in Ireland, full of matter
calculated to enlighten our first-rate reformers who seem profoundly
ignorant that superstition is the bane of intellect, and most formidable
of all the obstacles which stand between the people and their rights.
One paragraph is so peculiarly significant of the miserable condition to
which Romanism _and_ Protestantism have reduced a peasantry said to be
'the finest in the world,' that I here subjoin it.

_The best means to arrest the progress of the pestilence in the people's
food have occupied the attention of scientific men. The commission
appointed by government, consisting of three of the must celebrated
practical chemists, has published a preliminary report, in which several
suggestions, rather than ascertained results, are communicated, by which
the sound portions of the root may, it is hoped, be preserved from the
epidemic, and possibly, the tainted be rendered innoxious, and even
partially nutritious. Followed implicitly, their directions might
mitigate the calamity. But the care, the diligence, the persevering
industry which the various forms of process require, in order to
effecting the purpose which might result if they were promptly adopted
and properly carried out, are the very qualities in which the Irish
peasantry are most deficient. In the present crisis, the people are more
disposed to regard the extensive destruction of their crops in the light
of an extraordinary visitation of Heaven, with which it is vain for
human efforts to contend, than to employ counteracting, or remedial
applications. "Sure the Almighty sent the potatoe-plague and we must
bear it as wall us we can," is the remark of many; while, in other
places, the copious sprinklings of holy water on the potatoe gardens,
and on the produce, as it lies upon the surface, are more depended on
for disinfecting the potatoes than those suggestions of science which
require the application of patient industry._

Daniel O'Connell boasted about Irish morale and Irish intellect - the
handsome women, and stalwart men of his 'beloved country,' but no
sensible persons paid the least attention to him. It is, at all events,
too late in the day for we 'Saxons' to be either cajoled or amused by
such nonsense. An overwhelming majority of the Irish people have been
proved indolent beyond all parallel, and not much more provident than
those unhappy savages who sell their beds in the morning, not being able
to foresee they shall again require them at night. A want of forethought
so remarkable and indolence so abominable, are results of superstitious
education. Does any one suppose the religion of the Irish has little, if
anything, to do with their political condition? Or can it be believed
they will be fit for, much less achieve, political emancipation, while
priests and priests alone, are their instructors? We may rely upon it
that intellectual freedom is the natural and necessary precursor of
political freedom. _Education_, said Lord Brougham, _makes men easy to
lead but difficult to drive; easy to govern but impossible to enslave_.
The Irish peasantry clamoured for 'Repeal,' never considering that did
they get it, no essential change would be made in their social, moral,
or, to say all in one word, _political_ condition. They would still be
the tool of unprincipled political mountebanks - themselves the tool of

Great was the outcry raised against the 'godless colleges' that Sir
Robert Peel had the courageous good sense to _inflict_ on Ireland.
Protestant, as well as Romanist priests, were terribly alarmed lest
these colleges should spoil the craft by which they live. Sagacious
enough to perceive that whatever influence they possess must vanish with
the ignorance on which it rests, they moved heaven and earth to disgust
the Irish people with an educational measure of which superstition
formed no part. Their fury, like 'empty space,' is boundless. They
cannot endure the thought that our minister should so far play the game
of 'infidelity' as to take from them the delightful task of teaching
Ireland's young idea 'how to shoot.' Sir Robert Inglis _christened_ this
odious measure, a 'gigantic scheme of godless education,' and a large
majority of Irish Roman Catholic Prelates have solemnly pronounced it
'dangerous to faith and morals.' Neither ministerial allurements, nor
ministerial threats can subdue the cantankerous spirit of these bigots.
They are all but frantic and certainly not without reason, for the Irish
Colleges' Bill is the fine point of that wedge which, driven home, will
shiver to pieces their 'wicked political system.' Whatever improves
Irish intellect will play the mischief with its 'faith,' though not at
all likely to deteriorate its 'morals.' Let the people of Ireland be
well employed as a preliminary to being well educated, and speedily they
may _deserve_ to be singled out as 'the most moral people on the face of
the earth.'

An educated nation will never tamely submit to be priest-ridden, and
well do Ireland's enslavers know it. The most stupid of her priests,
equally with the shrewdest of her 'patriots,' are quite alive to the
expediency of teaching as fact the fraudulent fables of the 'dark ages.'
To keep the people ignorant, or what is worse, to teach them only what
is false, is the great end of _their_ training; and if a British
ministry propose anything better than the merest mockery of education,
they call it 'dangerous to faith and morals.'

Superstition is the curse of Ireland. To the rival churches of that
country may be traced ALL the oppressions suffered by its people who
never can be materially improved till purged of their faith in priests.
When that salutary work shall be accomplished, Ireland will indeed be 'a
nation' in the secure enjoyment of political liberty. The priest-ridden
may talk of freedom, but can never secure it.

What then can be thought of the first-rate reformers, before alluded to,
who are going to emancipate every body without the least offence to any
body's superstition? It should be borne in memory that other people are
superstitious as well as the Irish, and that the churches of all
countries are as much parts of 'a wicked political system' as are the
churches of Ireland.

The judges of _our_ country frequently remind us that its laws have a
religious sanction; nay, they assure us Christianity is part and parcel
of those laws. Do we not know that orthodox Christianity means
Christianity as by law established? And can any one fail to perceive
that such a religion must needs be political? The cunning few, who
esteem nothing apart from their own aggrandisement, are quite aware that
the civil and criminal law of England is intimately associated with
Christianity - they publicly proclaim their separation impossible, except
at the cost of destruction to both. They are sagacious enough to
perceive that a people totally untrammelled by the fears, the
prejudices, and the wickedness of superstition would never consent to
remain in bondage.

Hence the pains taken by priests to perpetuate the dominion of that
ignorance which proverbially is 'the mother of devotion.' What care they
for universal emancipation? Free themselves, their grand object is to
rivet the chains of others. So that those they defraud of their hard
earned substance be kept down, they are not over scrupulous with respect
to means. Among the most potent of their helps in the 'good work' are
churches, various in name and character but in principle the very same.
All are pronounced true by priests who profit by them, and false by
priests who do not. Every thing connected with them bears the stamp of
despotism. Whether we look at churches foreign or domestic, Popish or
Protestant, 'that mark of the beast' appears in characters as legible
as, it is fabled, the handwriting on the wall did to a tyrant of old. In
connection with each is a hierarchy of intellect stultifiers, who
explain doctrines without understanding them, or intending they should
be understood by others; and true to their 'sacred trust,' throw every
available impediment in the way of improvement. Knowledge is their
accuser. To diffuse the 'truth' that 'will set men free' is no part of
their 'wicked political system.' On the contrary, they labour to excite
a general disgust of truth, and in defence of bad governments preach
fine sermons from some one of the many congenial texts to be gathered in
their 'Holy Scripture.' Non-established priesthoods are but little more
disposed to emancipate 'mind' and oil the wheels of political
progression than those kept in state pay. The air of conventicles is not
of the freest or most bracing description. The Methodist preacher, who
has the foolish effrontery to tell his congregation 'the flush lusteth
always contrary to the spirit, and, _therefore_, every person born into
the world deserveth God's wrath and damnation,' may be a liberal
politician, one well fitted to pilot his flock into the haven of true
republicanism; but I am extremely suspicious of such, and would not on
any account place my liberty in their keeping.

I possess little faith in political fanaticism, especially when in
alliance with the frightful doctrines enunciated from conventicle
pulpits, and have no hesitation in saying that Anti-State Church
Associations do not touch the root of political evils. Their usefulness
is great, because they give currency to a sound principle, but that
principle though important, is not all-important - though powerful, is
not all-powerful. If universally adopted, it is questionable that any
useful change of a lasting character would be worked in the economy of

Wise men put no trust in doctrine which involves or assumes supernatural
existence. Believing that supernaturalism reduced to 'system' cannot be
other than 'wickedly political,' they see no hope for 'slave classes,'
apart from a general diffusion of anti-superstitious ideas. They cannot
reconcile the wisdom of theologians with undoubted facts, and though
willing to admit that some 'modes of faith' are less absurd than others,
are convinced they are all essentially alike, because all fundamentally

Speculative thinkers of so radical a temper are not numerous. If
esteemed, as happens to certain commodities, in proportion to their
scarcity they would enjoy a large share of public respect. Indeed, they
are so few and far between, or at least so seldom make their presence
visible, that William Gillespie is convinced they are an anomalous
species of animal produced by our common parent 'in a moment of
madness.' Other grave Christian writers, though horrified at
Universal - nicknamed Athe-ism - though persuaded its professors, 'of all
earth's madmen, most deserve a chain;' and, though constantly abusing
them, are still unable to believe in the reality of such persons. These,
among all the opponents of Sense and Wisdom may fairly claim to be
considered most mysterious; for, while lavishing on deniers of their
idols every kind of sharp invective and opprobrious epithet, they cannot
assure themselves the 'monsters' did, or do, actually exist. With
characteristic humour David Hume observed, 'There are not a greater
number of philosophical reasonings displayed upon any subject than those
which prove the existence of Deity, and refute the fallacies of
Atheists, and yet the most religious philosophers still dispute whether
any man can be so blinded as to be a speculative Atheist;' 'how
(continues he) shall we reconcile these contradictions? The
Knight-errants who wandered about to clear the world of dragons and of
giants, never entertained the least doubt with regard to the existence
of these monsters.' [8:1]

The same Hume who thus pleasantly rebuked 'most religious philosophers,'
was himself a true Universalist. That he lacked faith in the
supernatural must be apparent to every student of his writings, which
abound with reflections far from flattering to the self-love of
superstitionists, and little calculated to advance their cause. Hume
astonished religious fanatics by declaring that _while we argue from the
course of nature and infer a particular intelligent cause, which first
bestowed, and still preserves order in the universe, we embrace a
principle which is both uncertain and useless. It is uncertain, because
the subject lies entirely beyond the reach of human experience. It is
useless, because our knowledge of this cause being derived entirely from
the course of nature, we can never, according to the rules of just
reasoning, return back from the cause with any new inference, or making
additions to the common and experienced course of nature, establish any
principles of conduct and behaviour_. [9:1]

Nor did Hume affect to consider popular Christianity less repugnant to
reason than any other theory or system of supernaturalism. Though
confessedly fast in friendship, generous in disposition, and blameless
in all the relations of life, few sincere Divines can forgive his
hostility to their faith. And, without doubt, it was hostility eminently
calculated to exhaust their stock of patience, because eminently
calculated to damage their superstition, which has nothing to fear from
the assaults of ignorant and immoral opponents; but when assailed by men
of unblemished reputation, who know well how to wield the weapons of
wit, sarcasm, and solid argumentation, its priests are not without
reason alarmed lest their house should be set _out_ of order.

It would be difficult to name a philosopher at once so subtle, so
profound, so bold, and so _good_ as Hume. Notwithstanding his heterodox
reputation, many learned and excellent Christians openly enjoyed his
friendship. A contemporary critic recently presented the public with 'a
curious instance of contrast and of parallel,' between Robertson and
Hume. 'Flourishing (says he) in the same walk of literature, living in
the same society at the same time; similar in their habits and generous
dispositions; equally pure in their morals, and blameless in all the
relations of private life: the one was a devout believer, the other a
most absolute Atheist, and both from deep conviction, founded upon
inquiries, carefully and anxiously conducted. The close and warm
friendship which subsisted between these two men, may, after what we
have said, be a matter of surprise to some; but Robertson's Christianity
was enlarged and tolerant, and David Hume's principles were liberal and
philosophical in a remarkable degree.' [9:2]

This testimony needs no comment. It clearly tells its own tale, and
ought to have the effect of throwing discredit upon the vulgar notion
that disgust of superstition is incompatible with talents and virtues of
the highest order; for, in the person of David Hume, the world saw
absolute Universalism co-existent with genius, learning, and moral
excellence, rarely, if ever, surpassed.

The unpopularity of that grand conception it would be vain to deny. A
vast majority of mankind associate with the idea of disbelief in their
Gods, everything stupid, monstrous, absurd and atrocious. Absolute
Universalism is thought by them the inseparable ally of most shocking
wickedness, involving 'blasphemy against the Holy Ghost,' which we are
assured shall not be forgiven unto men 'neither in this world nor in
that which is to come.' Educated to consider it 'an inhuman, bloody,
ferocious system, equally hostile to every restraint and to every
virtuous affection,' the majority of all countries detest and shun its
apostles. Their horror of them may be likened to that it is presumed the
horse feels towards the camel, upon whom (so travellers tell us) he
cannot look without _shuddering_.

To keep alive and make the most of this superstitious feeling has ever
been the object of Christian priests, who rarely hesitate to make
charges of Atheism, not only against opponents, but each other; not only
against disbelievers but believers. The Jesuit Lafiteau, in a Preface to
his 'Histoire des Sauvages Americanes,' [10:1] endeavours to prove that
only Atheists will dare assert that God created the Americans. Not a
metaphysical writer of eminence has escaped the 'imputation' of Atheism.
The great Clarke and his antagonist the greater Leibnitz were called
Atheists. Even Newton was put in the same category. No sooner did
sharp-sighted Divines catch a glimpse of an 'Essay on the Human
Understanding' than they loudly proclaimed the Atheism of its author.
Julian Hibbert, in his learned account 'Of Persons Falsely Entitled
Atheists,' says, 'the existence of some sort of a Deity has usually been
considered undeniable, so the imputation of Atheism and the title of
Atheist have usually been considered as insulting.' This author, after
giving no fewer than thirty and two names of 'individuals among the
Pagans who (with more or less injustice) have been accused of Atheism,'
says, 'the list shews, I think, that almost all the most celebrated
Grecian metaphysicians have been, either in their own or in following
ages, considered, with more or less reason, to be Atheistically
inclined. For though the word Atheist was probably not often used till
about a hundred years before Christ, yet the imputation of _impiety_ was
no doubt as easily and commonly bestowed, before that period, as it has
been since.' [11:1]

Voltaire relates, in the eighteenth chapter of his 'Philosophie de
L'Histoire,' [11:2] that a Frenchman named Maigrot, Bishop of Conon, who
knew not a word of Chinese, was deputed by the then Pope to go and pass
judgment on the opinions of certain Chinese philosophers; _he treated
Confucius as Atheist, because that sage had said, 'the sky has given me
virtue, and man can do me no hurt.'_

On grounds no more solid than this, charges of Atheism are often erected
by 'surpliced sophists.' Rather ridiculous have been the mistakes
committed by some of them in their hurry to affix on objects of their
hate the brand of Impiety. Those persons, no doubt, supposed themselves
privileged to write or talk any amount of nonsense and contradiction.
Men who fancy themselves commissioned by Deity to interpret his
'mysteries,' or announce his 'will,' are apt to make blunders without
being sensible of it; as did those worthy Jesuits who declared, in
opposition to Bayle, that a society of Atheists was impossible, and at
the same time assured the world that the government of China was a
society of Atheists. So difficult it is for men inflamed by prejudices,
interests, and animosities, to keep clear of sophisms, which can impose
on none but themselves.

Many Universalists conceal their sentiments on account of the odium
which would certainly be their reward did they avow them. But the
unpopularity of those sentiments cannot, by persons of sense and
candour, be allowed, in itself, a sufficient reason for their rejection.
The fact of an opinion being unpopular is no proof it is false. The
argument from general consent is at best a suspicious one for the truth
of any opinion or the validity of any practice. History proves that the
generality of men are the slaves of prejudice, the sport of custom, and
foes most bigoted to such opinions concerning religion as have not been
drawn in from their sucking-bottles, or 'hatched within the narrow
fences of their own conceit.'

Every day experience demonstrates the fallibility of majorities. It
palpably exhibits, too, the danger as well as folly of presuming the
unpopularity of certain speculative opinions an evidence of their

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Online LibraryCharles SouthwellSuperstition Unveiled → online text (page 1 of 6)