The Necessity of Atheism (Brooks)/Chapter XIII

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The Necessity of Atheism (Brooks) by David Marshall Brooks
Chapter XIII - RELIGION AND MORALITY

The current religion is indirectly adverse to morals, because it is adverse to the freedom of the intellect. But it is also directly adverse to morals by inventing spurious and bastard virtues. Winwood Reade, "Martyrdom of Man."

It had been formerly asserted by theologians that our moral laws were given to man by a supernatural intuitive process. However, Professor E. A. Westermarck's "Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas," and similar researches, give a comprehensive survey of the moral ideas and practices of all the backward fragments of the human race and conclusively prove the social nature of moral law. The moral laws have evolved much the same as physical man has evolved. There is no indication whatsoever that the moral laws came from any revelation since the sense of moral law was just as strong amongst civilized peoples beyond the range of Christianity, or before the Christian era. Joseph McCabe, commenting on Professor Westermarck's work states, "All the fine theories of the philosophers break down before this vast collection of facts. There is no intuition whatever of an august and eternal law, and the less God is brought into connection with these pitiful blunders and often monstrous perversions of the moral sense, the better. What we see is just man's mind in possession of the idea that his conduct must be regulated by law, and clumsily working out the correct application of that idea as his intelligence grows and his social life becomes more complex. It is not a question of the mind of the savage imperfectly seeing the law. It is a plain case of the ideas of the savage reflecting and changing with his environment and the interest of his priests."

Justice is a fundamental and essential moral law because it is a vital regulation of social life and murder is the greatest crime because it is the greatest social delinquency; and these are inherent in the social nature of moral law. "Moral law slowly dawns in the mind of the human race as a regulation of a man's relation with his fellows in the interest of social life. It is quite independent of religion, since it has entirely different roots in human psychology." (Joseph McCabe: "Human Origin of Morals."]

In the mind of primitive man there is no connection between morality and the belief in a God. "Society is the school in which men learn to distinguish between right and wrong. The headmaster is custom and the lessons are the same for all. The first moral judgments were pronounced by public opinion; public indignation and public approval are the prototypes of the moral emotions." (Edward Westermarck: "Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas")

Moral ideas and moral energy have their source in social life. It is only in a more advanced society that moral qualities are assumed for the gods. And indeed, it is known that in some primitive tribes, the gods are not necessarily conceived as good,they may have evil qualities also. "If they are, to his mind, good, that is so much the better. But whether they are good or bad they have to be faced as facts. The Gods, in short belong to the region of belief, while morality belongs to that of practice. It is in the nature of morality that it should be implicit in practice long before it is explicit in theory. Morality belongs to the group and is rooted in certain impulses that are a product of the essential conditions of group life. It is as reflection awakens that men are led to speculate upon the nature and origin of the moral feelings. Morality, whether in practice or theory, is thus based upon what is. On the other hand, religion, whether it be true or false, is in the nature of a discovery one cannot conceive man actually ascribing ethical qualities to his Gods before he becomes sufficiently enveloped to formulate moral rules for his own guidance, and to create moral laws for his fellowmen. The moralization of the Gods will follow as a matter of course. Man really modifies his Gods in terms of the ideal human being. It is not the Gods who moralize man, it is man who moralizes the Gods." (Chapman Cohen: "Theism or Atheism.")

In the formation of -the Old Testament, the moralization of Yahveh led to the creation of a god who coincided more with the morality of the later writers, the God Elohim.

"Rather must we say that morality begins in human social relations and passes from them to the relations maintained with the other life and with the Gods. Or, if one prefers to consider ghosts and gods as inseparable elements of the primary organism, then we should say that morality is born in that all-embracing psychical atmosphere. But it does not follow from that fact that the rise and development of morality are conditioned by belief in Gods and in immortality. Merely human relations are sufficient to the production of ethical appreciations. The invisible ghosts and Gods would never have been thought interested in the morality of the tribe, had not the leaders realized the importance of courage, of loyalty, of respect for neighbors' possessions, and the other elementary virtues. It is when the disastrous consequences of their absence became evident that the Gods were made to sanction these "virtues. God or no God, immortality or no immortality, the essential morality of man would have been what it is." (J. H. Leuba: "Belief in God and Immortality")

The best that is in man is generated in the experiences of his daily life. The attributing of moral qualities to the gods was a much later development in the evolution of the moral ideas. At this stage of our development man is fortified by a sense of human fellowship, and in practice, as well as in theory, has long since given up the assumption that he needed superhuman beliefs. He has fully recognized the independence of morality from superhuman beliefs.

James Mill and J. S. Mill taught the greatest happiness of the greatest number as the supreme object of action and the basis of .morality. And it was this conception that introduced the new ethical principles of duty to posterity. This conception is a much nobler one than the religious interpretation of morality to consist in mainly defining what man's duty to God is; a morality whose chief selfish inspiration is not the helping of one's fellowmen but the saving of one's own soul. A secular morality teaches that what man thinks, says, and does lives after him and influences for good or ill future generations. This is a higher, nobler, and greater, incentive to righteousness than any life of personal reward or fear of punishment in a future life. There are today a rapidly growing number of eminent moral teachers who condemn the clinging to the belief of personal existence after death as a hindrance to the best life on earth. Professor J. H. Leuba, in his work, "The Belief in God and Immortality" concludes that, "These facts and considerations indicate. that the reality of the belief in immortality to civilized nations is much more limited than is commonly supposed; and that, if we bring into calculation all the consequences of the belief, and not merely its gratifying effects, we may even be brought to conclude that its disappearance from among the most civilized nations would be, on the whole, a gain."

There are few educated men nowadays who would claim that morality cannot exist apart from religion. Theists are desperately attempting to harmonize a primitive theory of things, with a larger knowledge and a more developed moral sense. Morality is fundamentally the expression of those conditions under which associated life is found possible and profitable, and that so far as any quality is declared to be moral its justification and meaning must be found in that direction. "Our alleged essential dependence upon transcendental beliefs is belied by the most common experiences of daily life. Who does not feel the absurdity of the opinion that the lavish care for a sick child by a mother is given because of a belief in God and immortality? Are love of father and mother on the part of children, affection and serviceableness between brothers and sisters, straightforwardness and truthfulness between business men, essentially dependent upon these beliefs? What sort of person would be the father who would announce divine punishment or reward in order to obtain the love and respect of his children? And if there are business men preserved from unrighteousness by the fear of future punishment, they are far more numerous who are deterred by the threat of human law. Most of them would take their chances with heaven a hundred times before they would once with society, or perchance with the imperative voice of humanity heard in the conscience." (Leuba.)

The primary motive of moral standards and practices is man's desire to seek happiness and avoid pain. And so it is not strange that morality has become stronger as the power of religion has weakened. "Right through history it has been the social instincts that have acted as a corrective to religious extravagances. And it is worth noting that with the exception of a little gain from the practice of casuistry, religions have contributed nothing towards .the building up of a science of ethics. On the contrary, it has been a very potent cause of confusion and obstruction. Fictitious vices and virtues have been created and the real moral problems lost sight of. It gave the world the morality of the prison cell, instead of the tonic of the rational life. And it was indeed fortunate for the race that conduct was not ultimately dependent upon a mass of teachings that had their origin in the brains of savages, and were brought to maturity during the darkest period of European civilization.... And we know that the period during which the influence of Christian theism was strongest, was the period when the intellectual life of civilized man was at its lowest, morality at its weakest, and the general outlook hopeless. Religious control gave us heresy hunts, Jew hunts, burning for witchcraft, and magic in place of medicine. It gave us the Inquisition and the auto da fe, the fires of Smithfield, and the night of St. Bartholomew. It gave us the war of sects, and it helped powerfully to establish the sect of war. It gave us life without happiness, and death cloaked with terror. The Christian record is before us, and it is such that every Church blames the others for its existence. Quite as certainly we cannot point to a society that has been dominated by Freethinking ideals, but we can point to their existence in all ages, and can show that all progress is due to their presence. We can show that progressive ideals have originated with the least, and have been opposed by the most religious sections of society." (Cohen.)

The puerile conception of heaven and the savage conception of hell are still, in modified form, deemed necessary for a religious morality. Why it should be necessary for a supreme intelligence to make all things straight in another world, that he could more convincingly rectify in this one, is a conception which has escaped the reason of a freethinker, but has been very profitable to those on earth that lead their adherents to believe that they hold the keys to our future abodes. Winwood Reade in his "Martyrdom of Man," discussing the moral value of the, fears of hell-fire, states, "a metaphysical theory cannot restrain the fury of the passions; as well attempt to bind a lion with a cobweb. Prevention of crime, it is well known, depends not on the severity, but on the certainty of retribution. The supposition that the terrors of hell-fire are essential or even conducive to good morals is contradicted by the facts of history., In the Dark Ages there was not a man or woman from Scotland to Naples, who doubted that sinners were sent to hell. The religion which they had was the same as ours, with this exception, that everyone believed in it. The state of Europe in that pious epoch need not be described. Society is not maintained by the conjectures of theology, but by those moral sentiments, those gregarious virtues which elevated men above the animals, which are now instinctive in our natures and to which intellectual culture is propitious. For, as we become more and more clearly enlightened, we perceive more and more clearly that it was with the whole human population as it was with the primeval clan; the welfare of every individual is dependent on the welfare of the community, and the welfare of the community depends on the welfare of every individual."

The teachings of Christianity towards marriage furnishes a well known example of a reactionary philosophy of morals. The views of St. Paul on marriage are set forth in I Corinthians VII 1-9:

1. Now concerning the things whereof ye wrote unto me: It is good for a man not to touch a woman.
2. Nevertheless, to avoid fornication, let every man have his own wife, and let every woman have her own husband.
3. Let the husband render unto the wife due benevolence; and likewise also the wife unto the husband.
4. The wife hath not power of her own body, but the husband; and likewise also the husband hath not power of his own body, but the wife.
5. Defraud ye not one the other, except it be with consent for a time, that ye may give yourselves to fasting and prayer; and come together again, that Satan tempt you not for your incontinency.
6. But I speak this by permission, and not of commandment.
7. For I would that all men were even as I myself. But every man has his proper gift of God, one after this manner, and another after that.
8. I say therefore to the unmarried and widows, it is good for them to abide even as I.
9. But if they cannot contain, let them marry: for it is better to marry than to burn.

These precepts furnish an example of the harm that can be done when man follows the absurd and unsocial decrees of an ascetic individual written in a barbaric age and maintained as law in a more advanced period. The enlightened physician holds that it is not good for a man not to touch a woman; and one wonders what would have become of, our race if all women had carried St. Paul's teaching, "It is good for them if they abide even as I," into practice. Bertrand Russell, in his "Marriage and Morals," has gone to the root of the matter when he states, "He does not suggest for a moment that, there may be any positive good in marriage, or that affection between husband and wife may be a beautiful and desirable thing, nor does he take the slightest interest in the family; fornication holds the center of the stage in his thoughts, and the whole of his sexual ethics is arranged with reference to it. It is just as if one were to maintain that the sole reason for baking bread is to prevent people from stealing cake." But then it is too much to expect of a man living nearly two thousand years ago to have known the psychology of the emotions, but we do know the great harm that his ascetic principles have done. St. Paul took the standpoint that sexual intercourse, even in marriage, is regrettable. This view is utterly contrary to biological facts, and has caused in its adherents a great deal of mental disorder. St. Paul's views were emphasized and exaggerated by the early Church and celibacy was considered holy. Men retired into the desert to wrestle with Satan, and when their abnormal manner of living fired their imagination with erotic visions, mutilated their bodies to cleanse their souls. "There is no place in the moral history of mankind of a deeper or more painful interest than this ascetic epidemic. A hideous, sordid, and emaciated maniac, without knowledge, without patriotism, without natural affections, . passing his life in a long routine of useless and atrocious self-torture, and quailing before the ghastly phantoms of his delirious brain, had become the ideal of the nations which had known the writings of Plato and Cicero, and the lives of Socrates and Cato." (Lecky: "History of European Morals.")

This concept that the closest of association between man and wife is an obnoxious deed, has strewn its evil influence down through the ages to the present day. The stealth and obscurity placed upon sexual matters has had its roots so firmly fixed in our manner of dealing with this purely normal function, that at this late date medical science is just beginning to eradicate the evils. It is now well recognized by educators and physicians and all clear-thinking individuals that it is extremely harmful for men, women, and children to be kept in artificial ingnorance of the facts relating to sexual affairs. The obscurantism placed upon sexual matters has caused more physical and mental distress than most of our organic diseases. The physician is constantly correcting the abnormal conceptions that exist. The sex act had become something in the nature of a crime which could not be avoided, instead of assuming the manifestation of the consummation of the greatest love and tenderness that can exist between two individuals keenly attuned to the natural desires of a natural act. "The love of man and woman at its best is free and fearless, compounded of body and mind in equal proportions, not dreading to idealize because there is a physical basis, not dreading the physical basis lest it should interfere with the idealization. To fear love is to fear life and those who fear life are already three parts 'dead." (Bertrand Russell: "Marriage and Morals")

Religion has brutalized the marital relations, and Lecky, dealing with this subject, states, "The tender love which it elicits, the holy and beautiful domestic qualities that follow in its train, were almost absolutely omitted from consideration. The object of the ascetic was to attract men to a life of virginity, and as a necessary consequence marriage was treated as an inferior state. It was regarded as being necessary, indeed, and therefore justifiable, for the propagation of the species, and to free men from great evils; but still as a condition of degrada from which all who aspired to real sanctity could fly. To 'cut down by the axe of Virginity the wood of Marriage' was, in the energetic language of St. Jerome, the end of the saint; and if he consented to praise marriage it was merely because it produced virgins."

Indeed, the entire ascetic attitude was well summed up by St. Jerome when exhorting Heliodorus to desert his family and become a hermit; he expatiated with foul minuteness on every form of natural affection he desired him to violate: "Though your little nephew twine his arms around your neck, though your mother, with dishevelled hair and tearing her robe, asunder, point to the breast with which she suckled you, though your father fall down on the threshold before you, pass over your father's body ... You say that Scripture orders you to obey parents, but he who loves them more than Christ loses his soul."

It has only been with the advance of secular literature that the degrading, assumption of St. Paul that marriage is to be regarded solely as a more or less legitimate outlet for lust has been discarded, and the act of love as applied to marriage has come to have any meaning. And in this modern day the conception of the relationship of the sex act to marriage is far from being on the high plane where it rightly belongs. Bertrand Russell comments, "Marriage in the orthodox Christian doctrine has two purposes: one, that recognized by St. Paul, the other, the procreation of children. The consequence has been to make sexual morality even more difficult than it was made by St. Paul. Not only is sexual intercourse only legitimate within marriage, but even between husband and wife it becomes a sin unless it is hoped that it will lead to pregnancy. The desire for legitimate offspring is, in fact, according to the Catholic Church, the only motive which can justify sexual intercourse. But this motive always justifies it, no matter what cruelty may accompany it. If the wife hates sexual intercourse, if she is likely to die of another pregnancy, if the child is likely to be diseased or insane, if there is not enough money to prevent the utmost extreme of misery, that does not prevent the man from being justified in insistirig on his conjugal rights, provided only that he hopes to beget a child."

What effect has Christianity had upon oiir moral life, upon crime, drug-addiction, sexual immorality, prostitution, and perversion? These blights upon our moral character existed long before Christianity, and after Christianity. But what effectual check has Christianity contributed?

The agitation concerning increased crime after the recent world conflict has brought this subject to the fore, and aroused a great deal of discussion and consideration of this problem. In its relation to religion, we have but one undeniable fact to bring before the thinking public. An examination of the statistics of penal institutions reveals that practically all criminals are religious. Absolutely and proportionately smaller numbers of criminals are freethinkers. Although church members nowhere constitute even half the population outside the prisons, they constitute from eighty to ninety-five per cent of the population inside the prison. This can be verified by reference to any census of any penal institution. As strangely as this may strike a great many readers, just so strange did it appear at one time to the multitude that the earth was round. (It is 500 years since the earth was proven to be round, yet there is a large colony of Christians near Chicago officially maintaining that the earth is as flat and four-cornered as the Bible states.) Neither Christianity nor any religious creed has proved an effectual check on civil crime.

The prostitute has been hounded and abused by ecclesiastics since Biblical times, yet, it is only true to say that the religionist is not vitally interested in prostitution. Outwardly, he may pour forth a verbal barrage of condemnation, but if he believes he can save her immortal soul, ahunting he goes. He does not attempt to ameliorate the social welfare of this poor, degraded individual, as he thinks; her pitiful condition in the "everlasting present" on this earth interests him not at all, although it is this existence about which he raves, his only interest is in redeeming her soul not her body. If when the religionist tells the prostitute that only those who believe in Christ as God, in His Virgin Birth, and in His Resurrection in the Body, will go to heaven, and she agrees and repents—all is well; the religionist has saved a soul, and the prostitute goes about her business of spreading hideous venereal disease to others whose souls are saved by believing in Christ as a God. Her soul is saved and safe, but the scholar, the poet, the scientist, the benefactor to mankind, all those who make this life bearable and livable, their souls must roast in hell forever if they do not believe in the creed. Divine Justice?

The greatest number of prostitutes are religious, yet prostitution continues to flourish. The ecclesiastic condemns the prostitute as the cause, never stopping to think that the cause must have an effect, and that prostitution is but the effect. The cause is our economic conditions. Prostitution is purely a medico-social problem, and the more the ecclesiastic keeps his hands off the problem the sooner will the condition be remedied to its best. Attempts to repress prostitution without changing the economic organization will always result in failure. Prostitution has always existed and will continue to exist until our economic system has undergone a radical change. So long as girls have to fight with starvation or with beggarly wages, so long as men are deterred from early marriage by inability to support a family, and so long as many married men remain polygamous in their tastes, just so long will prostitution exist. But we have seen that the clergy is never anxious to interfere with the "rights of the few to tyrannize the many," and since prostitution is an economic problem, religion never has, and never will be, of any help in this case. (Aside from the fact that there are many instances of a few centuries ago where the Church in a period of temporary financial distress has owned well paying brothels.)

When we think of morality we are apt to concentrate more on sexual morality than on the more obtuse moral duties. Religion has from time immemorial been held up to our minds as a great force in the production of this morality. That is another myth. In our own country it is a trite phrase that a man has a "Puritan code of ethics," or as "straight laced as a Puritan."

When the Puritan Fathers landed in this country, they began an existence that has revealed to the world for all time the value of a "burning religious zeal." In a sense they showed this zeal in regard to the Witchcraft Delusion.

Coming as they did, to avoid religious persecution in their own native country, they should have established a colony which for meekness and beneficence would have shown the value of a true religious, fervor. Instead, the persecuted immediately became the persecutors—again proving. the worth of a mind that is imbued with a dominating religious zeal.

Secondly, the principal vocation and recreation of these Fathers was their religion. It is only reasonable to suppose that in such a truly religious atmosphere morality should have reached its zenith of perfection. What actually happened is well illustrated in a very informative and case reporting work by Rupert Hughes, the novelist, "Facts About Puritan Morals":

"Everybody seems to take it for granted that the behavior of the early settlers of New England was far above normal. Nobody seems to take the trouble to verify this assumption. The facts are amazingly opposite. The Puritans admitted incessantly that they were exceedingly bad. The records sustain them.... The Puritans wallowed, in every known form of wickedness to a disgusting degree. Considering the extremely meagre population of the early colonies, they were appallingly busy in evil. I do not refer to the doctrinal crimes that they artificially construed and dreaded and persecuted with such severity that England had to intervene: the crimes of being a Quaker, a Presbyterian, which they punished with lash, with the gallows, and with exile. I do not refer to their inclusion of lawyers among keepers of disorderly houses, and people of illfame. I refer to what every people, savage or civilized, has forbidden by law: murder, arson, adultery, infanticide, drunkenness, theft, rape, sodomy, and bestiality. The standard of sexual morality among the unmarried youth was lower in Puritan England than it is today for both sexes.

"It is important that the truth be known. Is religion, is church membership, a help to virtue? The careless will answer without hesitation, Yes! of course. The statistics, when they are not smothered, cry No!

"If church-going keeps down sin, then the Puritans should have been sinless because they compelled everybody to go to church. They actually regarded absence from church as worse than adultery or theft. They dragged prisoners from jail under guard to church. They whipped old men and women bloodily for staying away. They fined the stay-at-homes and confiscated their goods and their cattle to bankruptcy. When all else failed they used exile. Disobedience of parents was voted a capital offense and so was Sabbath-breaking even to the extent of picking up sticks.

"Yet, as a result of all this religion, the sex life of the Puritan was abnormal.... Their sex sins were enormous. Their form of spooning was 'bundling,' an astonishing custom that permitted lovers to lie down in bed together in the dark, under covers. They were supposed to keep all their clothes on, but there must have been some mistake somewhere for the number of illegitimate children and premature children was stupefying. Dunton tells us that there hardly passed a court day in Massachusetts without some convictions for fornication, and although the penalty was fine and whipping, the crime was very frequent.

"Nothing, I repeat, would have surprised the Puritans more than to learn that their descendants' accepted them as saints. They wept, wailed, and refused to be comforted. They were terrified and horrified by their own wickedness. The harsh, granite Puritan of our sermons, on statues and frescoes, was unknown in real life. The real Puritan Zealot spent an incredible amount of his time in weeping like a silly old woman. Famous Puritan preachers boast of lying on a floor all night and drenching the carpet with their tears. Their church services according to their own accounts, must have been cyclones of hysteria, with "the preacher sobbing and streaming, and the congregation in a state of ululant frenzy, with men and women fainting on all sides.

"The authorities are the best possible, not the reports of travelers or the satires of enemies, but the statements of the Puritans themselves, governors, eminent clergymen, and the official records of the colonies. Hereafter, anybody who refers to the Puritans as people of exemplary life, or morality above the ordinary, is either ignorant or a liar. In our own day, there is an enormous amount of crime and vice among the clergy. Most horrible murders abound, by ministers, of ministers, and for ministers. Published and unpublished adulteries, seductions; rapes, elopements, embezzlements, homosexual entanglements, bigamies, financial turpitudes, are far more numerous than they should be in proportion to the clerical population.

"Governor Bradford breaks out in his heart-broken bewilderment and unwittingly condemns the whole spirit and pretense of Puritanism. The Puritans fled from the wicked old world for purity's sake, they were relentless in prayer, they were absolutely under the control of the church and clergy, and yet, their Governor says that sin flourished more in Plymouth Colony than in vile London!

"If our people are wicked nowadays because they lack religion, what shall be said of the Puritans who were far more wicked, though they lived, moved, and had their being in an atmosphere so surcharged with religion that children and grown persons lay awake all night, sobbing and rolling on the floor in search of secret sins that they could not remember well enough to repent? It is well to remember that there has perhaps never been in history a community in which Christianity had so perfect a laboratory in which to experiment.

"The very purpose of the Colony was announced as the propagation of the Gospel. The Bible was the law book. The Colony lacked all the things on which preachers lay the blame for ungodliness; yet, every infamy known to history, from fiendish torture to luxurious degeneracy flourished amazingly. This ancient and impregnable fact has been ignored. The. records have been studiously veiled in a cloud of misty reverence, and concealed under every form of rhetoric known to apologists."

We can only conclude that religion does not seem to act as an effectual check against sexual immorality. Furthermore, high moral principles can be inculcated without any religious background, and have been in spite of religion. A man who is moral because of his reason and his sensibilities, and his comprehension of the necessary social structure of the world is a far better citizen than the man who feebly attempts a moral life because he expects a mythical existence in a delusional heaven or wishes to avoid hell-fire. A secular code of morals based upon the best experiences of communal and national life would place its highest obligation not to a deity but to the welfare of all fellowmen.