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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 8

The Legal Disabilities of Freethinkers

The Legal Disabilities of Freethinkers.

Sir,—In No. 7 of your periodical, you quote a case shewing the legal disabilities which attend a freethinker when called upon to swear in a Court of Justice, and I, and doubtless many others, know similar instances. If, therefore, you consider this communication suited to your pages, I beg leave to draw further attention to the subject.

I am one of those "infidels and heretics" for whose behoof the Anglican Church, now and then, when in the humour, so pathetically prays. I believe there is One God, the Architect of the Universe, Self-existent, Supreme; page 310 that the whole Creation is the result of his Almighty fiat, issued at a time so distant from ours that the finite mind is stupified by its contemplation; that I am an immortal spirit or soul, whose intellect is reason, connected for a time with a material part whose intellect is sense; that when my body becomes unfit any longer to contribute to the development of my spirit, then will it shake off my body as useless and set forward on its higher and eternal course of life.

I do not believe in the inspiration of the Scriptures in the meaning attached to this doctrine by Christians generally, but that they shew they are written by fallible men by the mistakes in which they abound. I do not believe in Three Gods in one, nor in eternal punishment, a devil, or a local hell; but that any punishment I endure is the just and necessary consequence of my own misdeeds, in the same way that I must necessarily suffer pain if I put my finger into the flame of a candle, the pain being in exact proportion to the time I have persisted in my folly. But worse than all this in the eyes of the hierarchies, I repudiate utterly the right my fellow man, be he bishop, priest, or deacon, may claim to influence my religious opinions.

With such heterodox views as these I enter the witness box, and, being sworn, am asked, "Do you believe the Bible?" If I answer "Yes," my testimony is received, and it carries weight with the jury according to its importance. Nor, in a certain sense, have I spoken falsely, because I believe Jesus to have been incomparably the best man the world has yet seen, and that his sublime doctrines, eliminated from the dross that surrounds them, are necessary and all-sufficient for man's moral elevation. But how do I stand in the presence of my Conscience and of my God? I know perfectly well that by saying "Yes" I am not answering to the meaning of the question; that the real question put to me is, "Do you believe the Bible as it is believed, taught and nominally acted upon in the Established and other churches?" If I answer this question in the affirmative I am perjured; if I speak the truth and say "No," or even if I explain my views I am looked on as an "infidel," and my testimony is regarded as worthless : in fact, I am virtually put out of court as something unclean.

I enter the witness-box with but one desire—to use the plainest words to convey to others the facts as they appear to me—to speak the truth, that is, and thus, as nearly as my erring nature will allow, to be like the Source of Truth, and worthy of my connection with Him. The oath can have no influence with me to make me speak more truly, for I know no degree in truth. I have no more thought of speaking falsely than I have of throwing my hat at the judge's head. The thing does not occur to me, and if it did, the consequences to my peace of mind would appal me. I should carry with me a sense of utter degradation, not only to the grave, but probably, and justly too, beyond it, for I should have rendered myself unfit for communion with all that is pure and exalting, and the stain would be so foul that no repentance, however sincere and protracted, would appear to me sufficient to expunge it. But my evidence is virtually rejected, while that of the believer, who kisses his thumb instead of the book, in order that he may lie with impunity, is accepted. Surely, Sir, "these things ought not so to be."

The remedy is simple enough: treat all witnesses alike in the matter of cross-examination. The quaker's scruples are respected and his testimony is relied on. Our oath has no weight with the yellow infidel from China, and he is allowed to blow out a match or chop off a cock's head without question as to his religious faith, and why should the white infidel from England be denied his right to have his evidence received?

If justice were done all examination as to the faith of a witness, who takes the prescribed oath, would be prohibited, but as matters now stand, I must leave the court either as a perjured man, or with the feeling that I am regarded by my fellows as something revolting, and have, in consequence, been deprived of my right as a citizen in a Court of Justice.