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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 24a


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A mos iii. 4. Shall there be evil in a city and the Lord hath not done it."

I Selected "Sin" for the subject of my paper, in the strong conviction that the word expresses an idea, which, while fraught with incalculable evils to humanity, is nevertheless absolutely devoid of real meaning; directly at variance with all those notions of right and wrong which constitute man's most precious achievement by patient study of nature and himself; and therefore more plainly contradictory and absurd, than some other theological fallacies, quite as worthy of being refuted and destroyed.

In enquiries of this nature, the common objection is, that the subject of them being beyond the sphere of the operation of his senses, man is not competent to enter upon them at all; but should humbly and reverently accept any modicum of information respecting them which may be afforded by those, who—while assuming the function of leaders of the blind, are unable to produce the slightest evidence that their vision is one whit superior to that of their neighbours. But I wish to impress upon you as forcibly as possible, that though certain facts may be designated "Sin," that designation is purely arbitrary; and together with the co-relative idea of God—is—as an idea, a human idea, as properly the object of human criticism, as any other idea which the human mind is capable of forming. For human ideas are of all things the fittest for man to analyse and dissect. Ideas are the materials of his reasoning and of his knowledge. It is solely by rigorously and carefully scrutinising his ideas of all kinds, and testing their greater or less exact correspondence with facts, that he can either reason profitably, or acquire valuable knowledge. Ideas are the products in the mind of man, of the operation of external objects—through his senses—upon his sensorium; and the fact that his knowledge is in exact proportion to the degree to which he exercises the natural function of digesting them, is sufficient proof that it is his right and his duty to exercise it to the fullest possible extent. Every natural phenomenon is admittedly a legitimate object of investi- page 2 gation; how much more the workings of his own imagination with impressions made upon him by those natural objects!

Sin is defined as a voluntary or conscious offence against God; the ideas of both God and Sin being alike—products in the imagination of man, of complex impressions by external objects upon his organs of sensation. It is beside my present purpose to enter upon the question of the reality of God, or of any object corresponding to the complex idea. I shall merely observe that it is generally admitted, that if there be any such object, it is not of such a nature as to produce impressions upon our organs of sensation; and that the idea is therefore necessarily of the nature of an inference from other ideas derived in the first instance from materials furnished by our senses. It seems also not irrelevant to remark—that as there is scarcely a people in the world, however rude and savage, to whom the idea of God is unknown, that idea obviously cannot be the result of high civilisation or cultivated intelligence; but rather of ignorance, and inexperience in reasoning. In corroboration of this we find, that if the very lowest savages of all, have like monkeys, so far as we can judge, no ideas of any kind respecting a god; the rejection of such ideas as puerile and illusory is no where so common as among those persons who most habitually and systematically subject their ideas to the most searching analysis, and conform them most rigidly to the most certain facts. An extended acquaintance with and exclusive study of those natural objects in their most intimate, or most expanded relations, have proverbially a tendency to lead men to discard such ideas; and though many able students of nature still entertain them, it is confessedly by way of inference, and not from observation of any object corresponding to the idea.

Sin—however—being defined;—a voluntary offence against God;—it follows—if the idea of God be,—as many now suppose, a figment of of the imagination,—that that of sin can have no more substantial basis Upon the premisses of the atheist therefore, this is the inevitable conclusion. But as in our discussions the idea of God is generally admitted without question, I shall proceed to other phases of the argument. If I find that the principles of the Theist or Christian, consistently applied, conduct to the same conclusion, so much the more confidence may safely be placed in it as practically certain.

All who hold the theory of a God or Creator,—assert—as his necessary characteristics, his omniscience, omnipotence, and goodness. page 3 Assuming these,—we come face to face with the surprising anomaly that though God enables man to learn with more or less certainty how to secure physical good, and avoid physical evil,—he has left him absolutely without means of discovering when or how he transgresses any law—other than those naturul ones—for attention to which, pleasure constitutes his reward; and neglect—or even ignorance of which, surely causes pain. These laws he cannot transgress. If he could reap the pleasure—or avoid the pain, without using the natural meansThen he could transgress them. For instance—drinking to excess is not violating the laws of nature. It can only be done by fulfilling them. If man could drink or otherwise abuse his person, without incurring the natural penalties for so doing—then he could violate the laws of nature; but not otherwise. The pain he suffers, and the pleasure he enjoys, are alike the fulfilment of, and proof of obedience to, the law. To say, that man violates the law of God, is to reverse their relative positions. If God be omnipotent, his law cannot be infringed. To suppose the contrary would be to deprive him of the characteristics of a God, and degrade him below the level of a man. And observe—man learns natural laws solely by observing their effects upon himself and other objects, and his conduct is determined as they affect him with pleasure or pain. And neither the laws,—nor the objects in which they operate, are to blame or the reverse, if he experience either. For in either case, he is furnished with sensation, memory, and reason, to guide his conduct in the future, to enable him to utilise such objects, and to convert even the evil into good.

Now this being so, with what reason can God be supposed to suffer any offence, injury, or wrong at the hand of man, when man's every act and its consequence is in fulfilment of his law? The pain which man suffers is the natural fruit of error—of ignorance,—and is his means—his only means—of knowledge. Its natural function and use being thus amply explained, the supposition of a further supernatural consequence is entirely gratuitous and impertinent; the doctrine of sin has no basis as regards man. But as we have assumed a God, we should regard sin as it affects him. If man Can sin,—and afflict God,—inflict injury, offence, and wrong upon him, does he not do so, (as we have seen he must) by obedience to laws which he cannot trangress? By ignorant erroneous obedience perhaps, but still obedience. By acting as his nature fits him to act. And the assumption of a God, involves, that he is the page 4 author and foreknowing constructor of that nature. Man has neither power—choice—nor option, as to his own nature. There is no man here present, however self-sufficient, who would not—if he could, alter and improve his nature. As I said, God is asserted, to have made, Fore-Knowingly, that nature—with its capacity for sin; nay—with a tendency and predisposition to sin; original sin. And being by the assumption, omnipotent—not tied like man by circumstance, or blinded by ignorance,—it follows that the sin is God's creation, and his alone! If sin then be possible at all—it must be God's and his only! From this there is absolutely no escape. If God be the creator and author of All, He must be the author and creator of sin—if sin can be. And the deliberate conscious author too.

Many of man's works would be perfect if he could obtain his materials, of the degree of perfection which he diligently seeks all over this globe; and if he also could adapt them as perfectly as he aspires to do. But the universal responsibility of God is culminated in the specific allegation that he creates his materials at will, and that his wisdom and power in using them are infinite. Then—to create beings—while possessing certain knowledge that they Will—not to say must—sin,—is obviously to assume the moral responsibility for that sin; in the strict accepted meaning of the terms. And I assert this to be Christian doctrine, and quote one unexceptionable authority. "Thou couldest have no power at all against me" said Jesus to Pilate, "except it were given thee from "above. Therefore he that delivered me unto thee hath the greater sin" (John xix, II.) I cannot state my argument more explicitly. He says—Judas's sin was Greater, than Pilate's. Why? Because he was the prior conscious cause. But who gave Judas the power From Above without which he could have had none at all against him? a further prior conscious cause—God. Therefore He had the Greatest sin! If you pass from Pilate to Judas at all, accumulating the moral responsibility and augmenting the sin,—you are Bound to pass from Judas—to the original fountain of his power, which according to Jesus—was derived—and derivable—solely from above! Paul furnishes many similar texts I shall quote but one. (1 Cor. III, 6—7.) "I have planted, Apollos "watered; but God gave the increase. So then neither is he that "planteth anything, neither he that watereth; but God that giveth the "increase." He clearly holds God to be the cause;—responsible;—and deserving the praise if any, and of course—the blame if any.

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Man errs from ignorance or folly; and invariably (as is even asserted by all) in opposition to his own real interest.* But it is involved in Christian principles and doctrines (not in mine remember) that God deliberately and consciously created man—sin—and Satan too, with full foreknowledge of all the awful evil consequences! How my mind revolts from such horrid blasphemy! How profoundly I pity the infatuated dupes of such degrading superstition! Is it possible that earnest, anxious, intelligent beings can actually hug to their hearts such pernicious nonsense, as a holy mystery? Yes. I once did so most trustingly. What a relief—what new life—what boundless happiness at last to discover—that the unlimited exercise of his intellectual faculties by man—so far from being criminal, is as much a duty as it is a privilege! to learn that sin is simply an invention of priestcraft to bind the human intellect in fetters of adamant;—and that the sole possible method of committing blasphemy,—is—to assert a God!

But I shall remark on other texts. The other three gospels (Mat. XII, 31-2; Mark III 29; Luke XII, 2) say that all sin shall be forgiven to men—except sin against the Holy Ghost; which being unpardonable, is the only one worth consideration. Now Peter (2 Peter I, 21) says, that "holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost;"—and in 1 Kings xxii. 23, and Ezekiel xiv. 9, it is unequivocally stated that God put a lying spirit into the mouth of prophets! Could anything be more blasphemous? Could anyone speak against the Holy Ghost more explicitly than these authors of the books of Kings and Ezekiel, whom the Holy Ghost moved to speak? Is any theory involving such glaring contradictions worthy of the slightest respect? Can anything be more destructive of faith? Yet want of faith is made the sin par excellence in several places. John (xvi. 10) makes Jesus say the Holy Ghost will convince the world of sin because they believed not on him, (Jesus); and Paul says (Rom. xiv. 28) "Whatsoever is not of faith is sin." Surely I need not produce arguments to prove that faith is an intellectual vice, and that belief is wholly involuntary. Whoever doubts or disputes it—should see, that it is demonstrated by his very inability to believe it. Can any one of you believe that I am now advocating Christianity? not if you were to get £20,000 a year for it.

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In Romans (iv. 15) Paul says "The law worketh wrath; for where "no law is, there is no transgression." And John says in his 1st Epistle "Sin is the transgression of the law." (I John iii. 4.) Of coarse it must be obvious from what has preceded, that the Lawgiver was the cause of the sin, and therefore responsible for it, morally. It is gratifying to note one Bible definition of sin, which indicates some insight into the principles of right and wrong, and which is diametrically opposed to the others which I have quoted. (James iv. 17.) "Therefore to him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him "it is sin." Here is not a word about the Holy Ghost, nor even of an offence against God. It makes the standard of right and wrong—the man's internal conviction; and sin,—an act in opposition to conviction. A noble saying, and worthy of all acceptation. But God and the Holy Ghost are wholly superfluous to this definition, which is all the better for their absence. In fact in this text the word "Sin" evidently means "crime," a totally different thing; relating to Society, not to God.

The story of the origin of sin in Eden, though absurd, is worth referring to. I wish to point out, that it was absolutely impossible that Adam or Eve could sin, Before they possessed any knowledge of good or evil, which knowledge they are specially said to have only acquired by or after eating the fruit. Without such knowledge—they obviously could not (according to the definition) voluntarily or consciously sin But the old legend is simply that of Prometheus, distorted and inverted. The Serpent, the emblem of wisdom, procured for man the incomparable boon of the knowledge of good and evil; and earned the usual theological curse for his pains. None but the spirit of evil would try to keep that knowledge from man. This moral fact alone should prove the accuracy of my view, that the characters are stupidly transposed in the story of Eden. According to that story the Serpent deserved to be worshipped, and the Lord to be execrated. But two other features in it leave no room for doubt. First—the benevolent Serpent entirely succeeded, while the Omnipotent God completely failed. Second—the Lord is made to assert falsely that the man would surely die on the day he ate the fruit; while the serpent foretells the accurate truth in saying that; he should not die, but be as a God knowing good and evil, (Gen. iii. 5) which is also admitted to be the truth by the Lord himself (iii. 22) when he says "Behold the man is become as one of us to know "good and evil." It is plain that the author of this version of the story page 7 grossly misunderstood or perverted the legend; or else—that he intended to write a biting satire upon the theological spirit represented by "the Lord," and to illustrate the difficult though certain ultimate success,—in spite of the impotent anathemas of priests,—of that irresistible human intelligence which is slowly but surely civilising the world, and silently undermining the monstrous fabric of superstition.

Yet that old fable forms the whole basis of the infernal doctrine of original sin, which therefore needs no further refutation at my hands.

Some people are yet to be found so insane as to argue, that as the doctrine of sin exists, there must be some basis for it in truth. But that argument is of course as good for astrology, the philosopher's stone, witchcraft, ghosts, and the cure by the powder of sympathy. There is in truth a basis for it, though not a basis in truth. I have watched how, among the savages of Australia, a cunning rogue can abuse the credulity of the simple; make them believe that he can work miracles while alive, and harm to his probable murderers after his death. The horrid riddle is thus easily solved. What I have observed in primitive man in our own age, was surely true of primitive man a few thousand years ago. But of all the engines ever employed by the cunning and unscrupulous to arouse the fears,—paralyse the intellect,—and cow the spirit of the ignorant masses.—none can compare with the diabolical doctrine of sin. The priest's prosperity and power depend upon his success in convincing man of sin. Get a man, innocent or guilty, to stand self-convicted before you, and you have him at your own price. Make him believe himself naturally vile and incapable of good, and you have prepared him for the commission of any imaginable crime. We all know how easily the really guilty are intimidated and so plunged further into crime. The fictitious guilt of the virtuous and weak is infinitely more useful to the priest, for their conscientiousness aids to rivet their fetters and to subjugate their reason. Hence the invention of original sin,—the capital of the priest,—the apology of the persecutor,—the antithesis of charity,—the paralysis of intellect—and the most demoralising of all outrages upon common sense. It is a refinement upon the simpler doctrine, and better fitted to appal and quell the minds of the innocent babies to whom it is barbarously taught before they are capable of judging of its falsehood. Were it a reasonable theory in itself, it would be best understood and accepted at a reasoning age; and were it true, experience would certainly suggest and confirm it. To teach it there- page 8 fore to infants, as is now done, is a tacit admission of its falsity. This is also the reason of the objection of churches to scientific knowledge and free discussion. It is instinctively felt that to tolerate either would be suicidal. It seems impossible to overrate the pernicious effects of the doctrine of sin. Human sacrifice (a consequence of it) was a trifle compared to it. For human sacrifice was rarely applied to the destruction of valuable intellects; but when it was, it produced a revulsion of feeling which more than compensated for the loss. But the sense of sin is destructive specially of intellect, rendering mischievous or unfruitful some of the noblest minds that ever existed. Its persistence to the present time proves its speciousness and its power. But activity of intellect and free discussion must eventually effect its extirpation, and an institution like this is one of its deadliest enemies.

Common sense teaches us that the idea of sin, original or otherwise, is absurd. For evil deeds infallibly cause their own retribution, as virtue brings its own reward. Consequently no one would sin, or rather do evil, but from a defect of knowledge; and obviously every man would, if he could, know everything. Errors therefore must in every case, be errors of judgment only, and not intentional. If our most definite and invincible notion of cause and effect be really true, as we cannot but deem it, it should be of universal application; and hence it should be clear that man cannot possibly act otherwise than as his original constitution impels,—and as circumstances, (including knowledge) admit. How many drunkards would give the world for the power to refrain from drink? Who would not be rich—healthy—learned—and virtuous, if he could? Knowledge of what is good, of what constitutes one's own real true interest, is the one thing needful—to create the desire for it; the essential preliminary; to the endeavor to secure it. Therefore that knowledge is what every man should above all things strive to get, to give, and to extend.


R. Bell, Printer, 97 Little Collins Street East, Melbourne.

* Thus were self-sacrifice or self-mortification really virtue, man would be most virtuous when most vicious.