Robert Green Ingersoll.

The Christian religion; a series of articles from the North American review online

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In the presence of eternity the mountains are as transient as the clouds.

A PROFOUND cliange has taken place in the world of thought.
The pews ai'e trying to set themselves somewhat above the
pulpit. The layman discusses theology with the minister, and
smiles. Christians excuse themselves for belonging to the
church, by denying a part of the creed. The idea is abroad that
they who know the most of nature believe the least about the-
ology. The sciences are regarded as infidels, and facts as
scoffers. Thousands of most excellent people avoid churches,
and, with few exceptions, only those attend prayer-meetings who
wish to be alon-s. -The pulpit- is losing because the people ai'c
growing. >' i- •.■ • '*■''"'

Of course it is- still claimGd that we are a Christian people,
indebted to somvethiiig '!alled'. Christianity for all the progress we
have made. Thec-^isatill a v&>stf difference of opinion as to what
Christianity reaJl^^; m: ^Ifhoxigh many warring sects have been
discussing that question, with fire and sword, through centuries
of creed and crime. Every new sect has been denounced at its
birth as illegitimate, as a something born out of orthodox wed-
lock, and that should have been allowed to perish on the steps


where it was found. Of the relative merits of the various
denominations, it is sufficient to say that each claims to be right.
Among the evangelical chiu'ches there is a substantial agreement
upon what they consider the fundamental truths of the gospel.
These fundamental truths, as I understand them, are :

That there is a personal Grod, the creator of the material
universe ; that he made man of the dust, and woman from part
of the man; that the man and woman were tempted by the
devil ; that they were turned out of the garden of Eden ; that,
about fifteen hundred years afterward, God's patience having
been exhausted by the wickedness of mankind, he drowned his
children with the exception of eight persons; that afterward
he selected from theii* descendants Abraham, and through him
the Jewish people ; that he gave laws to these people, and tried
to govern them in aU things ; that he made known his will in
many ways ; that he wrought a vast number of miracles ; that
he inspired men to write the Bible ; that, in the fullness of time,
it having been found impossible to reform mankind, this G-od
came upon earth as a child born of the Virgin Mary ; that he
lived in Palestine ; that he preached for about three years, going
from place to place, occasionally raising the dead, curiug the
blind and the halt ; that he was crucified — for the crime of blas-
phemy, as the Jews supposed, but that, as a matter of fact, he
was offered as a sacrifice for the sins of all who might have
faith in him; that he was raised from the dead and ascended
into heaven, where he now is, making intercession for his fol-
lowers ; that he will forgive the sins of all who believe on him,
and that those who do not believe will be consigned to the dun-
geons of eternal pain. These — it may be with the addition of
the sacraments of Baptism and the Last Supper — constitute
what is generally known as the Christian religion.

It is most cheerfully admitted that a vast number of people
not only believe these things,'. b^it'hoxd.thSm; ia' e:^CGeding rever-
ence, and imagine them to 'be 'of. the utHiost importance to
mankind. They regard the Bible itfi Jth^ olily light that God has
given for the guidance of his childreti>;- *h^t it is the one star in
nature's sky — the foundation of atl^rnor^lity',! of all law, of all
order, and of all individual and liatl^h^l progress. They regard
it as the only means we have for ascertaining the will of God,
the origiu of man, and the destiny of the soul.

It is needless to inquire into the causes that have led so many
people to believe in the inspiration of the Scriptures. In my


opiuioji, they were and are mistaken, and the mistake has hin-
dered, in countless ways, the civilization of man. The Bible has
been the fortress and defense of nearly every crime. No civilized
country could reenact its laws, and in many respects its moral
code is abhorrent to every good and tender man. It is admitted
that many of its precepts are pure, that many of its laws are wise
and just, and that many of its statements are absolutely true.

Without desiring to hurt the feelings of anybody, I propose
to give a few reasons for thinking that a few passages, at least,
in the Old Testament are the product of a barbarous people.

In all civUized countries it is not only admitted, but it is
passionately asserted, that slavery is and always was a hideous
crime ; that a war of conquest is simply murder ; that polygamy
is the enslavement of woman, the degradation of man, and the
destruction of home; that nothing is more infamous than the
slaughter of decrepit men, of helpless women, and of prattling
babes ; that captured maidens should not be given to soldiers ;
that wives should not be stoned to death on account of their
religious opinions, and that the death penalty ought not to be
inflicted for a violation of the Sabbath. We know that there
was a time, in the history of almost every nation, when slavery,
polygamy, and wars of extermination were regarded as divine
institutions; when women were looked upon as beasts of
burden, and when, among some people, it was considered the
duty of the husband to murder the wife for differing with him
on the subject of religion. Nations that entertain these views
to-day are regarded as savage, and, probably, with the exception
of the South Sea islanders, the Feejees, some citizens of Delawa,re,
and a few tribes in Central Africa, no human beings can be
found degraded enough to agree upon these subjects with the
Jehovah of the ancient Jews. The only evidence we have, or can
have, that a nation has ceased to be savage is the fact that it
has abandoned these doctrines. To every one, except the theo-
logian, it is perfectly easy to account for the mistakes, atrocities,
and crimes of the past, by saying that civilization is a slow
and painful growth; that the moral perceptions are cultivated
through ages of tyranny, of want, of crime, and of heroism;
that it requires centuries for man to put out the eyes of self and
hold in lofty and in equal poise the scales of justice ; that con-
science is born of suffering; that mercy is the child of the
imagination — of the power to put oneself in the sufferer's place,
and that man advances only as he becomes acquainted with


his surroundings, with the mutual obligations of life, and learns
to take advantage of the forces of nature.

But the believer in the inspiration of the Bible is compelled
to declare that there was a time when slavery was right — when
men could buy, and women could seU, their babes. He is com-
pelled to insist that there was a time when polygamy was the
highest form of vii'tue ; when wars of extermination were waged
with the sword of mercy ; when religious toleration was a crime,
and when death was the just penalty for having expressed an
honest thought. He must maintain that Jehovah is just as bad
now as he was four thousand years ago, or that he was just as
good then as he is now, but that human conditions have so
changed that slavery, polygamy, religious persecutions, and
wars of conquest are now perfectly devilish. Once they were
right — once they were commanded by God himself; now, they
are prohibited. There has been such a change in the conditions
of man that, at the present time, the devil is in favor of slavery,
polygamy, religious persecution, and wars of conquest. That is
to say, the devil entertains the same opinion to-day that Jehovah
held four thousand years ago, but in the meantime Jehovah has
remained exactly the same — changeless and incapable of change.

"We find that other nations beside the Jews had similar laws
and ideas; that they believed in and practiced slavery and
polygamy, murdered women and children, and exterminated
their neighbors to the extent of their power. It is not claimed
that they received a revelation. It is admitted that they had no
knowledge of the true God. And yet, by a strange coincidence,
they practiced the same crimes, of their own motion, that the
Jews did by the command of Jehovah. From this it would seem
that man can do wrong without a special revelation.

It will hardly be claimed, at this day, that the passages in
the Bible upholding slavery, polygamy, war, and religious per-
secution are evidences of the inspiration of that book. Suppose
that there had been nothing in the Old Testament upholding
these crimes, would any modern Christian suspect that it was
not inspired, on account of the omission ? Suppose that there
had been nothing in the Old Testament but laws in favor of
these crimes, would any intelligent Chi-istian now contend that
it was the work of the true God ? If the devil had inspired a
book, win some behever in the doctrine of inspiration teU us in
what respect, on the subjects of slavery, polygamy, war, and


liberty, it would have differed from some parts of the Old Testa-
ments Suppose that we should now discover a Hindu book of
equal antiquity with the Old Testament, containing a, defense of
slavery, polygamy, wars of extermination, and religious per-
secution, would we regard it as evidence that the writers were
inspired by an infinitely wise and merciful God ? As most other
nations at that time practiced these crimes, and as the Jews
would have practiced them all, even if left to themselves, one
can hardly see the necessity of any inspired commands upon
these subjects. Is there a believer in the Bible who does not
wish that God, amid the thunders and lightnings of Sinai, had
distinctly said to Moses that man should not own his feUow-
man ; that women should not sell their babes ; that men should,
be allowed to think and investigate for themselves, and that the
sword should never be unsheathed to shed the blood of honest
men? Is there a believer, in the world, who would not be
delighted to find that every one of these infamous passages are
interpolations, and that the skirts of God were never reddened
by the blood of maiden, wife, or babe? Is there a believer who
does not regret that God commanded a husband to stone his
wife to death for suggesting the worship of the sun or moon ?
Surely, the light of experience is enough to tell us that slavery is
wrong, that polygamy is infamous, and that murder is not a
virtue. No one will now contend that it was worth God's while
to impart the information to Moses, or to Joshua, or to anybody
else, that the Jewish people might purchase slaves of the heathen,
or that it was their duty to exterminate the natives of the Holy
Land. The deists have contended that the Old Testament is too
cruel and barbarous to be the work of a wise and loving God.
To this, the theologians have replied, that nature is just as cruel;
that the earthquake, the volcano, the pestilence and storm, are
just as savage as the Jewish God ; and to my mind this is a
perfect answer.

Suppose that we knew that after '^ inspired " men had finished
the Bible, the devU got possession of it, and wrote a few passages ;
what part of the sacred Scriptures would Christians now pick
out as being probably his work? Which of the following
passages would naturally be selected as having been written by
the devil — "Love thy neighbor as thyself," or, "KOI all the
males among the little ones, and kill every woman ; but all the
women children keep alive for yourselves " ?


It may be that the best way to illustrate what I have said of
the Old Testament is to compare some of the supposed teachings of
Jehovah with those of persons who never read an "inspired " line,
and who lived and died without having received the light of revela-
tion. Nothing can be more suggestive than a comparison of the
ideas of Jehovah — the inspired words of the one claimed to be the
infinite God, as recorded in the Bible — with those that have been
expressed by men who, all admit, received no help from heaven.

In all ages of which any record has been preserved, there have
been those who gave their ideas of justice, charity, liberty, love,
and law. Now, if the Bible is really the work of God, it should
contain the grandest and sublimest truths. It should, in aU
respects, excel the works of man. Within that book should be
found the best and loftiest definitions of justice; the truest con-
ceptions of human liberty; the clearest outlines of duty; the
tenderest, the highest, and the noblest thoughts, — not that the
human mind has produced, but that the human mind is capable
of receiving. Upon every page should be found the luminous
evidence of its divine origin. Unless it contains grander and
more wonderful things than man has written, we are not only
justified in saying, but we are compelled to say, that it was
written by no being superior to man. It may be said that it is
unfair to call attention to certain bad things in the Bible, while
the good are not so much as mentioned. To this it may be
replied that a divine being would not put bad things in a book.
Certainly a being of infinite intelligence, power, and goodness
could never f aU below the ideal of " depraved and barbarous "
man. It will not do, after we find that the Bible upholds what
we now caU crimes, to say that it is not verbaUy inspired. If the
words are not inspired, what is? It may be said that the thoughts
are inspired. But this would include only the thoughts expressed
without words. If ideas are inspired, they must be contained in
and expressed only by inspired words ; that is to say, the arrange-
ment of the words, with relation to each other, must have been
inspired. For the purpose of this perfect arrangement, the
writers, according to the Christian world, were inspired. Were
some sculptor inspired of God to make a statue perfect in its
every part, we would not say that the marble was inspired, but
the statue — the relation of part to part, the married harmony of
form and function. The language, the words, take the place of
the marble, and it is the arrangement of these words that Chris-


tians claim to be inspired. If there is one uninspired word, —
that is, one word in the wrong place, or a word that ought not
to be there, — to that extent the Bible is an uninspired book.
The moment it is admitted that some words are not, in their
arrangement as to other words, inspired, then, unless with abso-
lute certainty these words can be pointed out, a doubt is cast on
all the words the book contains. If it was worth Grod's while to
make a revelation to man at all, it was certainly worth his while
to see to it that it was coiTectly made. He would not have
allowed the ideas and mistakes of pretended prophets and
designing priests to become so mingled with the original text
that it is. impossible to tell where he ceased and where the priests
and prophets began. Neither will it do to say that God adapted
his revelation to the prejudices of mankind. Of course it was
necessary for an infinite being to adapt his revelation to the
intellectual capacity of man; but why should God confirm a
barbarian in his prejudices ! Why should he fortify a heathen
in his crimes ? If a revelation is of any importance whatever, it
is to eradicate prejudices from the human mind. It should be a
lever with which to raise the human race. Theologians have
exhausted their ingenuity in finding excuses for God. It seems
to me that they would be better employed in fijiding excuses for
men. They tell us that the Jews were so cruel and ignorant that
God was compelled to justify, or nearly to justify, many of their
crimes, in order to have any infl.uence with them whatever. They
teU us that if he had declared slavery and polygamy to be crimi-
nal, the Jews would have refused to receive the ten command-
ments. They insist that, under the circumstances, God did the
best he could; that his real intention was to lead them along
slowly, step by step, so that, in a few hundred years, they would
be induced to admit that it was hardly fan* to steal a babe from
its mother's breast. It has always seemed reasonable that an
infinite God ought to have been able to make man grand enough
to know, even without a special revelation, that it is not alto-
gether right to steal the labor, or the wife, or the child, of another.
When the whole question is thoroughly examined, the world will
find that Jehovah had the prejudices, the hatreds, and super-
stitions of his day.

If there is anything of value, it is liVjerty. Liberty is the
ail- of the soul, the sunshine of life. Without it the world is
a prison and the universe an infinite dungeon.


If the Bible is really inspired, Jehovah commanded the Jewish
people to buy the children of the strangers that sojourned among
them, and ordered that the children thus bought should be an
inheritance for the children of the Jews, and that they should
be bondmen and bondwomen forever. Yet Epictetus, a man
to whom no revelation was ever made, a man whose soul
followed only the light of nature, and who had never heard of
the Jewish G-od, was great enough to say : " Will you not re-
member that your servants are by nature your brothers, the
children of God ? In saying that you have bought them, you
look down on the earth, and into the pit, on the wretched law of
men long since dead, but you see not the laws of the gods."

We find that Jehovah, speaking to his chosen people, assured
them that their bondmen and their bondmaids must be " of the
heathen that were round about them." '' Of them," said Jehovah,
"shall ye buy bondmen and bondmaids." And yet Cicero, a
pagan, Cicero, who had never been enlightened by reading the Old
Testament, had the moral grandeui* to declare : " They who say
that we should love our feUow-citizens, but not foreigners, destroy
the miiversal brotherhood of mankind, with which benevolence
and justice would perish forever."

If the Bible is inspired, Jehovah, God of all worlds, actually
said : " And if a man smite his servant or his maid with a rod,
and he die under his hand, he shall be surely punished ; not-
withstanding, if be continue a day or two, he shall not be pun-
ished, for he is his money." And yet Zeno, founder of the
Stoics, centuries before Christ was born, insisted that no man
could be the owner of another, and that the title was bad,
whether tlie slave had become so by conquest, or by purchase.
Jehovah ordered a Jewish general to make war, and gave, among
others, this command: "When the Lord thy God shall diive
them before thee, thou shalt smite them and utterly destroy
them ; thou shalt make no covenant with them, nor show mercy
unto them." And yet Epictetus, whom we have ah'eady quoted,
gave this marvelous rrde for the guidance of human conduct:
" Live with thy inferiors as thou wouldst have thy superiors live
with thee."

Is it possible, after aU, that a being of infinite goodness and
wisdom said : " I wiU heap mischief upon them ; I will send mine
arrows upon them ; they shaU be burned with hunger, and
devoured with burning heat, and with bitter destruction. I will


send the tooth of beasts upou them, with the poison of serpents
of the dust. The sword without, and terror within, shaU destroy
both the young man and the virgin, the suckling, also, with the
man of gray hau*s"; while Seneca, an uninspired Roman, said:
"The wise man will not pardon any crime that ought to be
punished, but he will accomplish, in a nobler way, all that is
sought in pardoning. He wiH spare some and watch over some,
because of then- youth, and others on account of their ignorance.
His clemency will not fall short of justice, but will fulfill it per-

Can we beUeve that God ever said of any one: "Let his
children be fatherless and his wife a widow; let his children
be continually vagabonds, and beg ; let them seek their bread
also out of their desolate places ; let the extortioner catch all
that he hath and let the stranger spoil his labor ; let there be
none to extend mercy unto him, neither let there be any to favor
his fatherless children." If he ever said these words, surely he
had never heard this line, this strain of music, from the Hindu :
" Sweet is the lute to those who have not heard the prattle of
then- own children."

Jehovah, " from the clouds and darkness of Sinai," said to
the Jews : " Thou shalt have no other gods before me. . . .
Thou shalt not bow down thyseK to them nor serve them ; for
I, the Lord thy God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquities
of the fathers upon the children, unto the third and fourth gen-
eration of them that hate me." Contrast this with the words
put by the Hindu in the mouth of Brahma : "I am the same to
all mankind. They who honestly serve other gods, involuntarily
worship me. I am he who partaketh of all worship, and I am
the reward of aU worshipers."

Compare these passages. The first, a dungeon where crawl
the things begot of jealous slime ; the other, great as the domed
firmament inlaid with suns.

Waiving the contradictory statements in the various books
of the New Testament ; leaving out of the question the history
of the manuscripts ; saying nothing about the en-ors in trans-
lation and the iuterpolations made by the fathers ; and admit-
ting, for the time beiug, that the books were all written at the


times claimed, aud by the persons whose names they bear, the
questions of inspiration, probability, and absurdity still remain.

As a rule, where several persons testify to the same transaction,
while agreeing in the main points, they will disagree upon many
minor things, and such disagreement upon minor matters is gener-
ally considered as evidence that the witnesses have not agreed
among themselves upon the story they should tell. These differ-
ences in statement we account for from the facts that all did not see
alike, that all did not have the same opportunity for seeing, and
that all had not equally good memories. But when we claim that
the witnesses were inspired, we must admit that he who inspired
them did know exactly what occurred, and consequently there
should be no contradiction, even in the minutest detail. The
accounts should be not only substantially, but they should be
actually, the same. It is impossible to account for any differ-
ences, or any contradictions, except from the weaknesses of human
nature, and these weaknesses cannot be predicated of divine wis-
dom. Why should there be more than one correct account of
anything? Why were four gospels necessary? One inspired
record of all that happened ought to be enough.

One great objection to the Old Testament is the cruelty said
to have been commanded by God, but all the cruelties recounted in
the Old Testament ceased with death. The vengeance of Jehovah
stopped at the portal of the tomb. He never threatened to
avenge himself upon the dead ; and not one word, from the first
mistake in Oenesis to the last curse of Malachi, contains the
slightest intimation that God will punish in another world. It
was reserved for the New Testament to make known the frightful
doctrine of eternal pain. It was the teacher of universal benevo-
lence who rent the veil between time and eternity, and fixed the
horrified gaze of man on the lurid gulfs of heU. Within the
breast of non-resistance was coiled the worm that never dies.

One great objection to the New Testament is that it bases
salvation upon belief. This, at least, is true of the Gospel accord-
ing to John, and of many of the epistles. I admit that Matthew
never heard of the atonement, and died utterly ignorant of the
scheme of salvation. I also admit that Mark never dreamed
that it was necessary for a man to be born again ; that he knew
nothing of the mysterious doctrine of regeneration, and that he
never even suspected that it was necessary to believe anything.

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Online LibraryRobert Green IngersollThe Christian religion; a series of articles from the North American review → online text (page 1 of 15)