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Produced by The Freethought Archives,


An Apology for Atheism by Charles Southwell (1814-1860)
First published anonymously in 1846

Transcribed by the Freethought Archives,



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




It would be absurd to doubt that religion has an important bearing on
all the relations and conditions of life. The connexion between
religions faith and political practice is, in truth, far closer than is
generally thought. Public opinion has not 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
and hold some away among us, many honest and energetic assertors of 'the
rights of man,' who have to learn that a people in the fetters of
superstition, can never achieve political freedom. Many of these
reformers admit the vast, the incalculable influence of Mahommedanism 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 fathom.

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 'Third Estate' are constantly declaring
their disinclination for religious controversy, 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 fact can be, of that connection between religion and
politics the author thinks has been far too little regarded.

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 day's
_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.

The author of this Apology has 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, because
convinced of its truth._ 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 like the dog 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,' [5:1] and _then_ make an effort against it.
Notwithstanding the purely Christian education of which they are taught
to boast, nothing can exceed the superstitious recklessness displayed in
their daily conduct.

The _Globe_ of Thursday, October 30th, 1845, contains an article on the
damage sustained by the potato crops 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 we 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 most
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 epidemy, 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 purposes 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 potato-plague, and we
must bear it as well as we can!" is the remark of many; while, in
other places, the copious sprinklings of holy water on the potato
gardens, and on the produce, as it lies upon the surface, are more
depended on for disinfecting the potatoes than the suggestions of
science, which require the application of patient industry.'

Daniel O'Connell may continue to boast about Irish morale and Irish
intellect - the handsome women, and stalwart men of his 'beloved
country;' but no sensible persons will pay 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,
as characterize the peasantry of Ireland, are results of their religious
education. Does any one suppose the religion of that peasantry 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 clamour 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 O'Connell and other unprincipled political
mountebanks - themselves the tool of priests.

Great has been 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 are terribly alarmed lest those
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 religion formed no
part. Their fury, like 'empty space,' is boundless. They cannot endure
the thought that our ministers should so far play the game of
'infidelity' as to take from them the delightful task of teaching
Ireland's young ideas '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.' The best guarantee for national
morality is to be found in national intelligence; nor need any one feel
alarmed at the progress of principles and measures inimical to faith in
either Romanism or Protestantism. Let the people of Ireland be properly
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

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 facts, 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.'

The sage who writes 'leaders' for the _Morning Herald_, is of opinion
that Ireland would indeed be 'great, glorious, and free,' if its Roman
Catholic people were to cease all efforts for Repeal, and turn good
Protestants. But the _Herald_ does greatly err not knowing human nature
and the source of Irish evils. It is not by substituting Protestantism
for Romanism that those evils are to be cured. Were every Romanist in
Ireland at once to turn 'good Protestant,' their political emancipation
would be far off as ever. Protestantism everywhere, like Romanism
everywhere, is 'a political system, and a wicked political system, for
it regards only the exercise of power, and neglects utterly the duty of

Religion is the curse of Ireland. To the rival churches of that country
may be traced nearly 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; for, as truly said by one
of our most admired poets -

Tis man's base grovelling nature makes the priest,
Who always rides a superstitious beast.

And he is a poor politician who expects to see political liberty
achieved or enjoyed by nations made up of 'base, grovelling' specimens
of human nature.

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 own 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 make a market of delusion, and 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
religion would never consent to remain in bondage.

Hence the pains taken by piety-mongers 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 mark 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 hand writing 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
devil. So far as antagonism to progression goes, there is no sensible
difference between the hierarchies of Rome or of England, or of
Constantinople. 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.'

Nor is it found that non-established priesthoods are much 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. No doubt the 'voluntary principle' is
just - only brazen faced impostors will say it is right to tax a man for
the support of those who promulgate doctrines abhorrent to his feelings
and an insult to his judgment. Still, the fact is incontestable, that
Dissenting Priests are, for the most part, opposed to the extension of
political rights, or, what is equal, that' knowledge which would
infallibly secure them. The Methodist preacher, who has the foolish
effrontery to tell his congregation 'the flesh 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
the author is extremely suspicious of such persons, and would not on any
account place his liberty in their keeping. He has little faith in
political fanaticism, especially when in alliance with the frightful
doctrines enunciated from conventicle pulpits, and has no hesitation in
saying that Anti-State Church Associations do not touch the root of all
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 politics.

Priests of all religion are the same, said Dryden - the religions they
teach are false, and in their tendency anti-progressive, say Atheists,
who put no trust in doctrine which involves or assumes supernatural
existence. Believing that supernaturalism reduced to 'system' cannot be
other than 'wickedly political,' the Atheist, truly so called, sees no
hope for 'slave classes,' apart from a general diffusion of
anti-religious ideas. According to his theory, religion is in part a
cunningly and in part a stupidly devised fable. He cannot reconcile the
wisdom of theologians with undoubted facts, and though willing to admit
that some 'modes of faith' are less absurd than others, is convinced
they are all essentially alike, because all fundamentally erroneous.
Rousseau said 'philosophy can do nothing that religion cannot do better,
and religion can do many things which philosophy cannot do at all.' But
Atheists believe religion the most formidable evil with which
progressors have to cope, and see in philosophy that mighty agent in the
work of improvement so beautifully described by Curran as _the
irresistible genius of universal emancipation_.

Speculative thinkers of so decidedly irreligious 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
Atheism - 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 Atheism and Atheists, may fairly claim to be considered
most mysterious; for, while lavishing on deniers of their Gods 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.' [10:1]

The same Hume who thus pleasantly rebuked 'most religious philosophers,'
was himself a true Atheist. 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 religionists, and
little calculated to advance their cause. Many Deists have been called
Atheists: among others Robert Owen and Richard Carlile, both of whom
professed belief in something superior to nature, something acting upon
and regulating matter, though not itself material. [11:1] This something
they named _power_. But Hume has shown we may search 'in vain for an
idea of power or necessary connection in all the sources from which we
would suppose it to be derived. [11:2] Owen, Carlile, and other
Atheists, falsely so called, supposed power the only entity worthy of
deification. They dignified it with such appellations as 'internal or
external cause of all existence,' and ascribed to it intelligence, with
such other honourable attributes as are usually ascribed to 'deified,
error.' But Hume astonished religious philosophers 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. [11:3]

Nor did Hume affect to consider 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 religion, 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.' [12:1]

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 all religion is incompatible with talents and virtues of
the highest order; for, in the person of David Hume, the world saw
absolute Atheism co-existent with genius, learning, and moral
excellence, rarely, if ever, surpassed.

The unpopularity of that creed it would be vain to deny. A vast majority
of mankind associate with the idea of disbelief in their Gods every
thing stupid, monstrous, absurd, and atrocious. Absolute Atheism is
thought by them the inseparable ally of most shocking wickedness,
involving as it manifestly does that '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

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Online LibraryCharles SouthwellAn Apology for Atheism Addressed to Religious Investigators of Every Denomination by One of Its Apostles → online text (page 1 of 10)