Other formats

    Adobe Portable Document Format file (facsimile images)   TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 53

"What is Freethought?"

page break

"What is Freethought?"


To-Night I propose to answer a question that is often put, and to which the replies are various. What, it is asked, is Freethought? This is, I think, a fitting time to attempt to answer the question. We are opening a new Hall built for the express purpose of maintaining a free platform in this city, and having our children trained to approach the problems of life without being encumbered by the creeds of the past. Let us, then, see if we can define our position. We claim to be a Freethought Association—that is, a body of men and women united to assist each other in the investigation of life problems, and yet without a creed, and without a "sanction" for our opinion. I use sanction in the philosophical legal sense; that is, a man may denounce us, may abuse the position we take up, and yet we threaten his with no punishment. To use the elegant language of a modern defender of the faith, and a champion of the Young Men's Christian Association of Dunedin, "He may spit on our creed, and he will pass scathless." Of course, a man who does this, or speaks like this, has only attained a certain intellectual position, and we may consider that his position is a sufficient punishment. But we are unlike what are termed other religious associations in this respect. If a man denies their creed, he is threatened with all kinds of penalties. I do not require to allude to social penalties, nor to the abuse or misrepresentation that he is almost bound to receive, nor to the loss of political rights and citizenship privileges, which in some countries he must sustain: but I refer to the treat of future punishment. Every creed almost threatens future penalties. If a man does not believe as the Catholic Church or the Protestant Chruches believe, woe to him. Why is it, then, we run a risk? Some people have said, "Well, if you are correct, we are safe; but if we are right, you'll suffer." People, who are cowardly enough to approach the consideration of any questions in this way, are not thinkers. With Martineau we must believe that if we search for truth, we must not be casting sidelong glances after our soul's salvation. But do not let us assume that a Freethinker is necessarily one who is outside a church. There are, no doubt, Freethinkers in many churches. Every now and again one more pronounced than another is excommunicated. If he is a professor, for example, and if he applies to the study of the Bible the same canons of criticism as he would to the study of the Greek Bible, the Iliad of Homer, page 4 or to the reading of Shakespeare then he will be thrown out of his professorship. Or if he tries to explain Exodus or Leviticus according to arithmetic, he will meet with the fate of Bishop Colenso. Freethought is really a mode of thought. And wherever there is the mode there is the Freethinker, whether he is in or out of the church. And if, as I say, Freethought is a mode of thought, this being remembered will correct an error that is often made. It is assumed that all those outside the churches are Freethinkers. This is incorrect. Before a man can he a Freethinker, he must have thought. There are some who care nothing for theological or philosophical questions. They eat, drink, work, sleep, and enjoy themselves. To them life has no problem, save how to live. Whence is man, or whither? Is the race progressing, or is its Eden in the past? These and other questions never trouble them. They have no creed, and they care for none of these things. It would, therefore, be as reasonable to assume that all who register themselves as belonging to a religious denomination are orthodox, as to assume that those who belong to no church are Freethinkers. Before one can be a Freethinker, there must be an admission that there is something to think about. No doubt, the interest may vary. Temperaments vary. Early training counts for a good deal, and so do social surroundings. There must, however, be some enquiry, some doubt, some thought.

Freethought, then, implies some thought; and if any one asks what is a Freethinker, we must reply, one to whom there has come the need of considering some questions concerning man and his relation to the universe; and, secondly, that he has the right to consider them unfettered by any Church, by any state, by any Society; and, thirdly, there is his mode of search. He has to be guided by only one thing, those canons of evidence that will enable him to sift his subject to the bottom. He cares nothing for anathema, nor excommunication, nor threats of personal suffering here, or hereafter. He is the analyst; nay, more, he must ever be searching for truth. To him there is no rest. He may accept—nay, must accept—certain things as true; but even these—until he thinks the induction complete—he only accepts provisionally. And his attitude must ever be a waiting for further enlightenment. The emblems outside our Hall are never forgotten:—Liberty: He must be free as the air; Justice: He most, without bias and with unerring fidelity, weigh every fact as if his very existence depended on the scales being fairly, justly, truly held.

Now, this method of investigation is not confined to one subject. Indeed, I may here at once say that it is the only method that has been fruitful in the past. If ever there has been an advance made in Religion, in Science, or in Philosophy, it has always been made by adopting this method. We, however, as an Association do not pretend to be a Scientific Institute, nor are we a page 5 Literary Club nor a Philosophical Society, As an Association, we claim to bring to the test I have mentioned the popular religions of to-day, and we unite for mutual help in our investigation and for mutual assistance, knowing that organisation is required to maintain intact our right to make such enquiries.

We have only to glance at history to see that there has been ever a conflict between the old and the new, between authority and freedom, between religion and science. Nay, the conflict is not yet ended. He who dares to doubt the popular explanation of the cosmos, and of man's relation to the universe, is denounced now as he was six hundred—nay, two thousand years ago. It is true there is not the same power in the hands of those in authority now; but there is still left a remnant of the old spirit, and there is still the same impatience manifested with the sceptic. Now, if a man has got peace in believing he can never be a Freethinker—he has no doubts to solve—he is intellectually anchored, and though this intellectual rest may mean intellectual death, still he is not troubled. He is at rest. A Freethinker, however, is never at rest. He is ever searching for something new, and he is ever analysing what is presented to him for belief or as a fact. There seem to me to be three attitudes a man may assume to the religious and quasi-religious questions of to-day.

There is, first, the attitude of the man who believes, and acts on the belief, that in some church organisation there is deposited the truth, and that its officers can tell him authoritatively what to believe, and what not to believe. This man does no thinking. The Church does it for him.

There is, second, the position of the man who believes that in some book, or collection of books, he can find all his problems solved—what he has to believe, and what he has to do.

There is, third, the man who accepts the authority of no Church and of no hook, but believes that man has not yet discovered the truth, and who joins with others in the search.

In the past we have often seen those who take up the first two positions, joining their forces to put down—to punish—nay, to drive out of existence, those who took up the third position. And our newspapers of to-day show, that, even yet, they may unite to punish one whose attitude is different from theirs.*

And, if we look back, we will find that the history of civilisation is, after all, but a record of the struggle that has taken place between those who took up the third—the Freethought position—and those who took up the Catholic or Protestant positions, I do not say that all those who claimed to think for themselves were necessarily heretical. Often they did not seem to see the force of their own arguments, nor whither their position led them. Often,

* The treatment of Mr. Bradlaugh, M.P., for example.

page 6 also, they took up positions in science that they thought did not conflict with the popular theology. But what I do say is this, that the only progress that has been attained, has been by taking the third attitude. The history of all the sciences shows us this.
Let us take astronomy. I take it first because now a days no one thinks of astronomical theories being heretical. The astronomer may start the wildest hypothesis imaginable—may announce a theory that has, perhaps, few facts, and little analogy, if any, to back it: but no one thinks of sitting down to fight it by pointing out that it is contrary to the popular theology. I do not say astronomy is looked on as religious. Telling people of the grandeur of the heavens, of their immensity, of their beauty, their sublimity, and their wonderful mechanism, is still in some places not a fit subject for a Sunday evening lecture.* But still no one denounces an astronomer as necessarily irreligious. An astronomer may now say there are 221 planets, or more, and he is not heretical. It was not always so. To say there were more than seven was thought contrary to true religion. And what did the Churches teach? The earth, and not the sun, was the centre of our universe. The sun, moon, and stars were created to give light to the earth. And one whose philosophy, one Church asserts, can alone save the race—St. Thomas Aquinas—proved to the satisfaction of himself and his Church that the earth was the centre round which the sun moved. And who can read the record of Copercicus's life, of Bruno's life, of Kepler's life, of Galileo's life, without feeling sad? Copernicus had to quit Rome, and Dr. White says he could send his book neither to Rome—the seat of the Catholicism—nor to Wittenberg—the seat of Protestantism—because Copernicus's theory and Scripture did not harmonise. His book, when published, was placed where many good books have been placed, on the index, and to "read it was to risk damnation." The attitude of the Protestant Church was not much different. Dr. White says:—
"Doubtless many will at once exclaim against the Roman Catholic Church for this, justice compels me to say, that the founders of Protestantism were no less zealous against the new scientific doctrine. Said Martin Luther: 'People gave ear to an upstart astrologer, who strove to snow that the earth revolves, not the heavens or the firmament, the sun, and the moon. Whoever wishes to appear clever must devise some new system, which of all systems is, of course, the very best. This fool wishes to reverse the entire science of astronomy. But Sacred Scripture tells us that Joshua commanded the sun to stand still, and not the earth.'" Melancthon agreed with Luther. And Bruno—Giordano Bruno—because he asserted what is now taught in every Church school in the world, was burned. And need I allude to Galileo's treatment.

* I refer to the Proctor episode in Sydney, New South Wales.

page 7 He, like Copernicus and Bruno, was called an Atheist, was imprisoned, was dragged before that terrible institution, the Inquisition, and forced, in order to save his life, to confess that the sun moved round the earth, and not the earth round the sun. And even after his abjuration he was kept imprisoned till he was blind, and even after that treated harshly, and his death did not even end the virulence of his enemies, He was denied Catholic burial—the last weapon of the Church. And now, in less than 300 years, the very Church that condemned him, teaches his doctrine.
If we refer to geography we have the same story. Lactantius denied the possibility of the Antipodes, so did Augustine, I quote what the latter said from "The City of God":—

"But as to the fable that there are Antipodes, that is to say, men on the opposite side of the earth, where the sun rises when it sets to us, men who walk with their feet opposite ours—that is, on no ground credible. And, indeed, it is not affirmed that this has been learned by historical knowledge, but by scientific conjectures on the ground that the earth is suspended within the concavity of the sky and that it has as much room on the one side of it as on the other: hence they say that the part which is beneath must also be inhabited. . . . For Scripture, which proves the truth of its historical statements by the accomplishment of its prophecies, gives no false information, and it is too absurd to say, that some men might have taken ship and traversed the whole wide ocean, and crossed from this side of the earth to the other, and that thus even the inhabitants of that distant region are descended from that one first man."—("The City of God," translated by Rev. Marcus Dods.) "How could the earth be round, for were not all people to see the Lord descending at the last day out of the clouds,"*

I have mentioned astronomy and geography, as nowadays an astronomer may propound what theories he likes, and a geographer may make what discoveries he pleases, and yet not be accounted heretical. But if we take geology, we see the warfare, between authority and Freethought, still raging. Step by step, those who have rolled on the Church and the Bible have had to retreat. The fight is, however, still prolonged. Lyell, in his "Principles of Geology," sketches the growth of the science of geology. People who accepted the account in Genesis needed no search for a theory of how the earth attained its present position. The record was in Genesis; why search for the history in the rooks? If we do not go back further than the seventeenth century, we see all geological research retarded, because the churches said that all the fossils were the remains of the Noahican deluge, that any one that said otherwise was a heretic, meriting punishment. Still, it was some advance to admit that the fossils were the remains of animals and plants that

* Sec Draper's "Conflict of Science and Religion," page 64.

page 8 had once lived. A hundred years before that, it had been said they were not the remains of living things, but were mere sports of Nature, or as a child would to-day name a thing he did not understand—they were "funny things." If it was shown that it was impossible that the fossils could all have been deposited by a deluge, then the geologist who said go was denounced as impious and a contemner of Scripture. The theologians had, however, to give up the deluge theory of fossils, and then came the giving up of the six natural days of creation, then the extension of the age of the earth. The last battle is yet being fought. It is about the age of man. Some people about two centuries ago believed that the fossil remains of a big lizard were the remains of antediluvian man. And this year we have had repeated in Dunedin that the Cromagnon race was also antediluvian. Who can forget the bitter cry raised when Lyell's "Antiquity of Man" appeared? And let any lecturer state any geological facts opposed to the present popular theology, and he is at once condemned. No sadder record can be read, than that of the difficulties that have been thrown in the way of all scientific investigation by the churches. So far as geology was concerned, the Protestant churches were even more vehement in condemning geologists than the Catholic Church. Nor can we wonder at their opposition. Two root doctrines of the popular theology have been destroyed by astronomy and geology. I do not require to point out that the reliability of the record in Genesis must be given up. Able and learned theologians, in both Catholic and Protestant Churches, have seen that, and hence the statement that Genesis is not meant to teach geology, that it is a poem, a liturgy, anything, in fact, but a scientific record. But I refer to the doctrine, first, that the whole universe, so to speak, centred round our earth. The Bible story is that everything was created, everything designed, with reference to the earth and to man. And when astronomy shows us that this earth is but a speck amongst 75,000,000 worlds at the least, how can we reconcile the Bible with science. And the other doctrine that geology has proved false was, that death came into the world as the punishment for eating the apple. Millions of years before man lived there had been death. The whole of the globe bore its traces, and was man created or evolved different to other animals? Death was part of the very constitution of the world. And if these two doctrines are exploded, what comes of the superstructure based on them? How can Christianity be true if the story of the apple is false? How can the Christian system be true if its basis is cut away?

But there has grown up by Freethought, the recognition of a law, whose effects as changing the popular creeds we have not yet realised. In the starry heavens and in the bowels of earth alike we find law. No doubt there have been cataclysms, but even these display a uniformity. Everything seems brought under the domain page 9 of law. There are few leaps; slow changes are tee rule. We see this in the heavens, and geology shows how slowly species followed species, genera genera. From the study of these sciences and from observing plants and animals, we have had formulated the law of Evolution. As when the motion of the earth was first mentioned, so when Darwin and Wallace published their books, there was hardly an orthodox pulpit, but denounced the doctrine as heretical, and damnable. And, in Dunedin only three years ago, one clergyman was not deemed fit to become a member of the Young Men's Christian Association, because he said he believed in Evolution. Could I give you a better example of what Freethought, as opposed to the popular theology, means?

I do not need to point out to you how vital Evolution has been. It has altered almost all our natural sciences, and I do not know any that is not based on it. The theory opposed to it of a special creation of all things just as we see them now, how few of the intelligent believe? That millions of years ago there was first created light; then the firmament; then herbs, plants, and fruit trees; then sun, moon, and stars; then fishes and birds; then creeping things beasts, and man, few geologists or scientific men assert. It is now proposed to get rid of the Evolution doctrine, by supposing some direct specific interventions—creative waves, so to speak. Why is this supposition started? It is a last effort to prove that Genesis's record is true. The use of the Evolution hypothesis has not, however, been confined to biology or geology. It has created anthropology. It has shown us how language has grown. Who now believes the story of the Tower of Babel? Fancy a Professor of the Science of Language, beginning by stating he believed that myth. The learned, from Lapland to Stewart Island, from the East to the West, would laugh at him. And it has proved to us that religions, just like species of animals, have been slowly evolved out of prior religions. Let us take even the growth of Christianity. The way some people talk you would imagine that the Christian system sprang all at once into life, and that it was not indebted to the preceding system. But the slightest enquiry will show us that no new religion springs at once into life. Its main elements exist before it exists. Buddhism was indebted to Brahminism; Mahometanism, to Judaism and Christianity; and the religion of Israel had much of the Egyptian mythology. So with Christianity. It took centuries before it reached the development we now see. It had not a pope at first; it had no bishops once, nor synods; its Church government was a growth, and it borrowed for its development not only from its Jewish forerunner, but also from the Pagan religions around it.* In its Church rites we see traces of old customs extending far back into antiquity, and so true is this that one Roman Catholic writer urges this as a recommendation of his

* See Hatch's "Bampton Lectures, 1880."

page 10 Church. The fact that one, who is acquainted with the history of the race, can see in a Catholic Church, rites and ceremonies extending back to thousands of years before Christ, is a proof to him that the Catholic Church is more adapted to humanity than the Protestant.
But this doctrine has not only been a vital one, in showing us how religious systems have come into being. It has brought home to us this fact, that no religious system has been necessary for the growth of humanity. In systems other than Christianity the highest moral precepts are found, and I do not think the practice has been much worse. In Christianity we admire the following precepts:—
  • Honour our parents.
  • Do unto others as we would that they should do to us.
  • Have charity.
  • Blessed are the pure in heart.
  • Blessed are the merciful.
  • Love one another.

What do these I have mentioned, and the most of what are called the Mosaic Commandments, do hut inculcate right action. Their vitality consists not in their inculcation of religious duties, but they live because they teach right conduct. There is not much of what is called religion in them, but they tend to elevate humanity. Let me read to you some from other religious systems, and I think you will find, that the good, in the Christian system, does not differ much from the good in other systems, older far than Christianity.

In the fifth Egyptian Dynasty, about 4000 years before Christ, and at least 1500 years before the Exodus, and before the Ten Commandments, there was written in Egypt a moral treatise inculcating justice, kindness, and truth. And amongst the ancient Accadians—the earliest population of Babylonia—kindness to parents, and the need of parents treating their children well, were taught. One decision given by them was as follows; it is found on a tablet.—A father says to his son, "Thou art not my son; in house and brick building they imprison him." Perhaps this is what we should do to those who desert their families. Let me quote to you a few Egyptian precepts:—"Make not a companion of a wicked man. Do not save thy life at the cost of another. Do not pervert the heart of thy acquaintances." And if you read the Hymn to Amen and to Pharaoh, written in the xix. Dynasty when the Exodus occurred, you will find similar phrases to those in the Bible. 640, B.C., Thales said, "That which then blamest in another do it not thyself." Zoroaster said, "Do as you would be done by." Confucius, "True politeness consists in never treating others as you would not like to be treated by them;" and

Mivart—See his "Contemporary Evolution."

page 11 Mencius uttered similar maxims. All religious systems have some good moral precepts. Before society can exist there must be some order, some law, some morality. As Emerson finely says, "Corn won't grow without protection," Out of humanity the religions have come, arid when a man has begun to get a religion, he has raised himself some height in the intellectual scale. He has had doubts, And he has begun to try and satisfy them. But what I submit is this, that the tendency of religion is to cramp humanity—to make it look back, and not forward, and but for the Freethinkers there would be no progress, and no hope of the future. The world is yet young—

"For while a youth is lost in soaring thought,

And while a maid grows sweet and beautiful,

And while a spring-tide coming lights the earth,

And while a child, and while a flower is born,

And while one wrong cries for redress and finds

A soul to answer, still the world is young."

And the future will have a better morality, and a better religion, just as our mode of travelling transcends that of the ancient Maori, and our steamship that of the Phœnician craft.

I have shown you how religion has ever waged a war against science. But, that it cramps humanity in another way, I might point out. Whoever read the history of Christianity without a shudder? Go to some museam, and see the instruments of torture that one sect used against the other. Read the account of the crusaders, and study the history of their wars, of their massacres, directly the result of their religion, and will you not agree with me that its tendency has been to degrade humanity by restricting all intellectual freedom? Let me go back to the beginning of the eighteenth century, or rather the end of the seventeenth. I select this date because what I am going to relate took place after some statutes, we think in force in New Zealand—for example, the Sabbath statute—were passed. What is the scene? Between Edinburgh and Leith and not yet 200 years ago, in 1695, there is a gallows erected. Around it there are several Presbyterian clergymen. At the foot of the gallows, ready to be hurled from this earth, there is a youth—18 years of age. He has been a student at the university, has approached philosophical questions, dabbled in metaphysics, and as a result has doubted. He cannot understand the doctrine of the Trinity, He says men might as well speak of a square circle. This youth had committed no other crime save that of thinking—of doubting. He believed in God, believed in a future state, bat he thought Ezra wrote the Pentateuch, and that Moses had learned the ancient Egyptian mythology and magic, and this youth was condemned to death. He said in prison he recanted his errors, but that did not obtain his pardon. He then asked for time to prepare to die, but this request even was not granted him. Ministers preached from their pulpits demanding his death. And this is not yet 200 years ago! And now, in the Southern Edinburgh, we can page 12 meet and speak of things for uttering which poor Thomas Aikenhead was murdered. Has not intelligence grown? Could I give a better illustration of how religion approaches the problems of existence, and how Freethought deals with them?

In his next lecture, on the benefits of Christianity, I hope the lecturer, whoever he is, will read the record of what took place in Edinburgh from the year 1690 to 1700. Do not think Aikenhead's case was an isolated one. No doubt it was isolated so far as the end of the seventeenth century was concerned, but it was a necessary consequence of the assumption that the Record of Truth had closed. The Church has ever said, "Let all heretics for ever hold their peace; if any one entertains an opinion which the Church has condemned, let him keep it to himself, and not communicate it to another." The Freethinker says the very opposite: If you have a thought, out with it. It is better that you should speak your mind than net the hypocrite. The world is not hurt much by a bad opinion. Crushing out thought that was not in accordance with the popular views has done more harm than allowing the free expression of opinion. As Mill says in "Liberty," the opinion may be true. "Those who desire to suppress it, of course deny its truth, but they are not infallible." No doctrine is so certain that it cannot be questioned. If the person who denies is correct, humanity loses by not having the error exposed. And if the denier is wrong, what harm is done by his ventilating his opinions. At one time it was a crime to assert the earth was round, and revolved round the sun. Almost everyone now believes the earth is round. There are, however, a very few people who, believing the Bible cannot be wrong, say the earth is flat. What harm is done by their ventilating their opinion? I mention this as a case where most people would say it is certain the earth is round. But what of the vast number of question son which there is no certainty, nor any approach to certainty? Is there to be no more thinking about them? Have men in the past—well meaning, no doubt, but perhaps not acquainted with nature, as we are, going to determine for us the problems of existence? Are we to be bound by what men in Asia and Southern Europe wrote centuries ago? Yes, wrote at a time when their views of astronomy, of geology, of biology were false, erroneous—might I add—to us, even ridiculous. Is it any recommendation to the writers of ancient books that they knew nothing of science? I ask, Is their ignorance of science, which means ignorance of the world in which they were living, any evidence they knew of another world, or how the present world attained to its present development? One would think that the more ignorant of science, of nature, you proved a man who wrote on the problems of life, of the universe, the less you would value his writings. But there are some who gravely tell us that we are to take as our guides to religion, to philosophy—men who were ignorant of things taught in our district schools. As Free- page 13 thinkers, we cannot be bound by any such authority; we must bring things, ancient and modern, to the test of scientific proof. Faith has no place with us. We may have this faith, it is true:—That the world is so constituted that truth is good, error bad, and that a belief in something that is not fact can help no one. But before we believe, and base our action on belief, we must have some evidence. And here I might point out what may be termed some ways in which we are to approach historical facts, and how we are to decide on the credibility of things told us. For fuller treatment of this question, I must refer you to "Bain's Logic."* first, there are some things that require more evidence than others. This, some people, who argue in favour of popular theology, often forget. For example, if one tells us that he saw a man drop down dead in Princes-street, we ask who he was, was the informant present, and if we learn our informant was there, it does not seem to us incredible. We know that men have dropped down dead, and hence the fact is not contrary to our experience. It is credible. But if the informant build us that he was in the Southern Cemetery, and saw a grave upen of itself, and a body get out and live and walk about and talk—a body that had been dead for years may be—what would we say? Would the evidence that satisfied us as to the thirst event satisfy us as to the second? I think not. We would say it was incredibly and we would at once say we do not believe, and we would think our informant was mad. Why? Because from past experience we know this does not occur. It is more credible that our informant was mistaken than that something opposed to all the experience of humanity should have occurred. It is inconsistent with what has hitherto been observed. And so with the relation of events, If they are opposed to some law—which means observed phenomena always occurring in like circumstances—we at once pronounce them untrue. If it is said, and this is Bain's illustration, Mahomet's coffin hung suspended in mid air, we are bound to disbelieve it, unless we can show it was kept up by magnets or other contrivances. It is contrary to the law of gravity, and if we believed in the coffin hanging, we would have to say that there is no law of gravity. So if we believe in what is called the resurrection of men from death to life again, one of our commonest inductions—one that is used as an illustration in our text books of logic—all men are mortal, would not be true. Then, if there are things told us as new—such as, it is said, clairvoyance or prophecy, etc, These cannot be believed, unless under the most rigorous tests. Why? Because they are not in accordance with the experience of the race.

Then, it may be that there are things for which there is some evidence and some against. What are we to do then? We are to consider the probabilities. But if there is no evidence for or

* Vol. ii., p. 149 and p. 423.

page 14 against an assertion, we must hold it to be untrue. The illustration given in "Bain's Logic" is this: Suppose some one says the centre of the earth is occupied by gold. We can have no evidence for or against it. What are we to do? We must treat it as if it were a falsehood. It is not to be believed, nor acted on. I do not require to ask you how many things are presented for our belief for which there is no evidence, neither for nor against. Let each present just think for a moment of the number.

And how are we to treat historical records? If a man presents us with a statement of what occurred, we ask, Was he present? If he was not present, Who told him? If he did not live in the age when the event is said to have occurred, then how did he hear of it? For example: Suppose it were granted Moses wrote Genesis. He is detailing events that happened before he was born. How does he know they were true? We do not know how he obtained his information of what, for example, took place a million of years before man lived on the earth. If he says—which, by the bye, he does not—that it was told him by Deity, we enquire, When? Is there any reply? None. But if he said he was compelled to write as he wrote, and he felt it was God that told him to do so, how is this verifiable? Is there any evidence for it? Would Moses's statement be enough? We must say no, because we are cognisant of states of mankind when men imagine things just the same. Go to a Lunatic Asylum, and you will hear patients say spirits speak to them, and they say they feel things that other and sane people cannot feel. They are honest in what they say, but they are not in a normal state. Are we to believe all a person says because he feels it, and honestly tells us what he feels? No; we must verify it. Is it true? Mahomet said he was inspired; he may have believed it! Are we, then, to accept his statement? It is against experience, and we are bound to reject it. But if the writer relates events, they may be true; he may have heard of them from his contemporaries, and we know the story of things that have happened are handed down by oral tradition. Songs hundreds of years old, stories centuries old, and never written, may have been heard in out-of-the-way places, where writing and printing were rare. And if it is found, that on Assyrian and other monuments, there are histories or records telling a similar story to what the author or authors of Genesis wrote, then we would feel at liberty to conclude that these stories were the current rumours and tales of the day when the writers lived. Every Assyrian tablet that corroborates Genesis destroys any pretence of it being a divine book. But this by the way.

In viewing past events, we have two sources of evidence.* We have old monuments, old books, old coins, old ruins, everything

* See "Bain's Logic," p.423.

page 15 that time has not destroyed. And we may have in the old books the statements of witnesses. On this question we will have to make two enquiries: (1) Where is the witnesses' statement recorded; and (2), is it true? Is it hearsay? Is it, "Somebody told me as (somebody said that somebody else had somewhere read?" as the old ballad says, or is it the written statement of the witness himself? I need not tell you, that we are asked to believe the occurrence of many events, on the testimony of witnesses whose statements, we do not have. Then, is it true? Does it contradict observed phenomena? If it does, we need that the evidence should be rigorously examined, and we require the events to have happened, to use a spiritualistic phrase, under test conditions. Is this forthcoming? I leave you to reply. Then, moreover, we must know the character of the witnesses and their beliefs, for they may have been unconsciously biassed. For example: If we knew a man who believed, that by magic, a devil could be cast out of a man, and that epilepsy was not a disease; but that a man who had epilepsy was possessed with a devil, would his evidence on lunacy be of any avail? Then, again, if we knew a man who believed that dead bodies were often raised to life, would his evidence to prove that on was raised to life be of much value? "The eye sees that which the eye is prepared to see," says a philosopher. Let us apply this even to every-day life. Suppose a witness, being examined in one of our Courts, stating the earth was flat, and that there were witches, and that devils possessed men, for he knew it; and that there had been seven in him once, but they had been driven out, and that he saw spirits in the sky, what would the presiding Judge say? I venture to assert he would call the police to send for two doctors to examine his mental state. If, then, we find persons with these beliefs being called by historians as witnesses to wonderful events, we must discredit their testimony. Their bias—unconscious, it may be—prevents them from being treated as credible and reliable witnesses. If, then, it be asked, how we, as Freethinkers, treat the relation of extraordinary occurrences, we must reply that we must examine them according to the canons of scientific induction. Faith has no place with us; we must have proof. And, again, I repeat, we are analysts—sifting everything, testing everything. It may be said that there are Freethinkers who have not had the requisite training nor education to take up this position. It seems to me, that a man who doubts has some education. Give me a man who never doubts, and never has doubted, and another who doubts. Take them from the same trade, the same social surroundings, and the chances are 500 to 1 that the one who doubts has more education than his fellow who never doubted. But it seems to me that a man, whatever his education, should, to the beliefs of the age, take up this position: I want proof, I want evidence. And does it require great education to weigh evidence, to test probabilities? For our jurymen, there is no educational test. And if a man can- page 16 not judge of the truth or falsity of, say, the popular creeds, what should be his position? I take it he cannot be called upon to believe what he cannot understand. But I may further reply that one who becomes a Freethinker, becomes a person who strives to understand the pros and cons of the popular creeds. This of itself is an education, and surely a higher intellectual position than that of the man who says: I have not the education nor the time to examine whether the popular creed, or my father's creed, is true or false; many men—learned and good men—have believed, and still believe it, and hence I believe. There cannot be much hope of intellectual advancement for such a one.

And, now, I come to the last point which I can deal with tonight. There are some who, unable to meet us on a logical standing-ground, ask the question as to the result of Freethought on morality. There are many things that might be said in answer to such; let me set before you a few. First, I reply, Look at the past. Look what fettered thought has done. Think of the millions slaughtered for heresy. Think how the growth of the race has been prevented. Think how science was kept back, and how truth was crushed. In the past those persons who acted thus were not Freethinkers; they were Christians; they were believers in Deity. Even the Sea Green Incorruptible got the Revolutionary Convention in Paris to decree a State religion, and the feast of the Supreme Being. He would have exiled all Atheists—at Agnostics. He thought there were two dogmas necessary for a State—Theism and the Future Life. When people talk of Freethinkers persecuting in the French Revolution, let them think of Thomas Paine in prison, and the Sea Green Incorruptible—Robespierre—demanding the exile of Atheists.

Then consider how much of the means of mankind, their mental labour, their material wealth, have been expended to propagate the dogmas of the Churches. Do you think if the same energy had been expended on science—all kinds of science—that the race would not have been further advanced? Then I pass on to another consideration—and it is this: We say the race could not exist without morality, and we say that the race will keep those laws that are self-preserving laws. I ask, What is the basis of morality? The Jews were, I suppose, moral before the meeting at Sinai, at which Moses read them the Ten Commandments. Was there no morality in Egypt? Was there none in India, none in China? Nay, before a European visited New Zealand, was there no morality amongst the Maoris? What does morality mean? I suppose it implies some recognition of rights. No people could live if all were liars, all dishonest, all thieves, Long before Sinai men lived, and loved, and did kind deeds. Do you think there was no friendship before the days of Moses? Do you think no man helped a mate when, as we say, he was down on his luck—hard up—with, perhaps, no coin and no food? Is anyone so credulous as to believe, that morality started page 17 when Moses road the words from the slate? We can go back to ancient Egyptian writings, and we can find sentiments pure and philantrophic, and not unlike the maxims we now inculcate. No, morality is not a creation of a religion; it is growth of humanity, and as mankind has advanced in knowledge it has become elevated. Let us place our basis of morality here, and nothing can disturb it.

"If," says a writer,* "there are no other origins for right and wrong than an enunciated or intuited divine will, then, as alleged, were there no knowledge of the divine will, the acts now known as wrong would not be known as wrong. But if men did not know such acts to be wrong because contrary to the divine will, and so in committing them, did not offend by disobedience; and if they could not otherwise know them to be wrong; then they might commit them indifferently with the acts now classed as right; the results practically considered would be the same. In so far as secular matters are concerned, there would be no difference between the two, for to say that in the affairs of life any evils would arise from continuing to do the acts called wrong, and ceasing to do the acts called right, is to say that these produce m themselves certaim mischevious consequences, and certain beneficial consequences; which is to say there is another source for moral rules than the revealed or inferred divine will; they may he established by induction from these inferred consequences. From this implication I see no escape. It must be either admitted or denied that the acts called good and the acts called bad naturally conduce, the one to human well-being, and the other to human ill-being. Is it admitted? Then the admission amounts to an assertion that the conduciveness is shown by experience; and this involves abandonment of the doctrine that there is no origin for morals apart from divine injunctions. Is it denied, that acts classed as good and bad differ in their effects? Then it is tacitly affirmed that human affairs would go on just as well in ignorance of the distinction; and the alleged need for commandments from God disappear."

But not only would morality be placed on a surer and firmer basis, were it recognised that the goodness or badness of an action, does not depend on any commandment, but on its effect on the race, but true morality would be promoted. If the individual is injured, the race is injured. In the growth of the race the individual must not, nay, cannot be overlooked. And then, consider some things Freethinkers are ever exalting. Truth above all things. Authority, dogma, Church organisation, respectability, all must yield to truth. Can we insist too much on this? Suppose there were no lies in the world, would it not be a happier and a better world? Is it immoral teaching to place truth in the fore front? This is what we do. And yet because we prefer truth to authority, truth to faith, truth to Church dogmas, our teaching is immoral!!

* "Data of Ethics," by Herbert Spencer, page 50.

page 18

And, then, there is another thing we teach. It is that bad actions have had consequences. If something is done to cripple a tree, to present its liberty, its growth, we get a stunted tree. So with a man. Give him bad surroundings, give him no education, do you think you will get a good man? If a man does wrong, he has suffered. Even the physical appearance of a man is changed if he neglects right doing. And, I ask you, Which teaching is more likely to tend to good actions, to right doing, that which tells a man if he does wrong he suffers punishment, or that which is ever telling him of a mode of escape through the death of a God? Tell a man that, a few minutes before his death, all his bad deeds can be blotted out, by a profession of belief, and will he feel so uncomfortable as if he were told: "There is no atonement for you, and none for your children. They also may suffer for your actions," I believe were the law of heredity firmly grasped, no more potent preacher could ever be found to make men moral. A bad habit may extend its influence to many generations. Given drunken, criminal parents, the chances ate that the children will inherit some of the vices of their ancestors. Physically the child inherits its parent: peculiarities, so mentally, so morally. Let this truth be firmly grasped, and I think it will tend more to morality than the popular views about the Atonement. There seems to me no doctrine or hypothesis so moral, so tending to induce men to aim at physical, mental, and moral perfection, as Evolution. From your physical neglect, no escape; from your mental torpor, no escape; from your wrong doing, no escape. And yet, because we proclaim this, and deny the popular belief about imputed righteousness, and sin, and atonement, our teaching lends to immorality!

We live in hopes of material advances. We are ever hoping for an improvement of the race. New discoveries, new inventions, new laws of nature, we ever welcome. They cannot disturb us. We have no old dogmas that they can shatter. We also look for the further development of the race. The race did not cease to be inspired 2000 years ago, did not cease to progress in morality, for,

Still the heavens lie open as of old
To the entranced gaze, ay nearer far,
And brighter than of yore; and Might is there,
And Infinite Purity is there, and high
Eternal Wisdom, and the calm, clear face
Of duty."

If the race has done high, noble, heroic things in the past, it will transcend them in the future. We will have a better religion, a nobler government, a truer morality, a mightier science than the world has yet seen.

What is our attitude, then, to the existing religions? To those who profess them we have no antipathy, no desire to persecute them. Liberty is ever our watchword. We examine the religions page 19 of the past just as we examine the habits of an existing animal, or read the records of the fossil life of the planet. Since the science of comparative religion has been established, we have seen that granted a certain development we may expect a certain religious and a certain political system. And we have learned what many Freethinkers of the last century did not appreciate, that religion is not a creation of priests, but a growth of humanity. It has its growth, its decay. And we may, using the words of John Morley, say to the Churches;

"We shall pass you by on your flank; your fiercest darts will only spend themselves on air. We will not attack you as Voltaire did; we will not exterminate you; we shall explain you. History will place your dogma in its class, above or below a hundred competing dogmas, exactly as the naturalist classifies his species. From being a conviction, it will sink to a curiosity; from being the guide to millions of human lives, it will dwindle down to a chapter in a book. As history explains your dogma, so science will dry it up; the conception of law will silently make the conception of the daily miracle of your altars seem impossible; the mental climate will gradually deprive your symbols of their nourishment, and men will turn their backs on your system, not because they have confuted it, but because, like witchcraft or astrology, it has ceased to interest them."

In the time at my command, I have, I think, helped you to understand our position.

The relation of Freethonght to science and to other things, I have not time to dwell on. To those who say our organisation is unnecessary, let me address a few words. We know there is in all Churches a spirit of inquiry abroad. There are numerous adherents, and Church members, who do not believe the creeds, numerous members who hesitate to repeat what one Church orders its clergy and members to repeat—that those who do not believe certain doctrines shall suffer eternal damnation. We admit this, But, we say, that it is better a man should freely express his views, than lend his countenance and support to a system he thinks wrong. A harsh term might be used to characterise such conduct, but I shall not use it, as I feel sure many remain in Churches after they have ceased to be to them living institutions, unconscious of their doing aught wrong. There are others who do so out of respect to the belief of their relations, and so as not to hurt their feelings. Do not judge them. Let us each act up to what we believe, and whilst we do so, we expect that we shall have the fullest liberty in the State. And here comes in, why we organise. Without some kind of organisation we are liable to be politically ignored. Even since we met to lay the foundation stone of our hall, what have we seen? A deputation of leading citizens asking the aid of the law to put down our lectures. Have we not, then, need of organisation, of united action? Alas! the enemies of freedom, of page 20 liberty, of thought, have not yet ceased to be They are ever active, ever watchful. Time and againt in past history, have they been successful. Truth has been often crushed, often conquered. But, happily for the good of humanity, in some souls there sprang up the desire to know, stronger than the desire to believe, and again the battle between truth and falsehood was fought, and error was vanquished. But we must watch. We are in a minority, and we are trained by our political system to assume that majorities must rule. So it must be. But there is something that transcends even the rights of majorities; it is the right of man to think, and to speak what he thinks.—Let us ever guard that sacredly, so that when we are gone our children, and may be our children's children, will have privileges that even humanity does not now possess. Let us, at all events, see that if we can help it, what we enjoy in Dunedin in 1882 shall never be lessened, never curtailed, and that no one will ever be able to point to our time with a shudder, as we point to the age when Thomas Aikenhead was murdered.

"O Freedom! Thou art not a poet's dream,
A fair young girl, with light and delicate limbs,
And wavy tresses gushing from the cap
With which the Roman master crowned his slave,
When he took off the gyves. A bearded man,
Armed to the teeth, art thou; one mailed hand
Grasps the broad shield, and one the sword; thy brow,
Glorious is beauty tho' it be, is scarred
With tokens of old wars; thy massive limbs
Are strong with struggling. . . . .
. . . Tyranny himself,
Thy enemy, although of reverend look,
Hoary with many years, and far obeyed,
Is later born than thou; and as he meets
The grave defiance of thine elder eye,
Thou shalt wax stronger with the lapse of years,
But he shall fade into a feebler age—
Feebler, yet subtler. He shall weave his snares,
And spring them on thy careless steps, and clap
His withered hands, and from their ambush call
His hordes to fall upon their. He shall send
Quaint maskers, wearing fair and gallant forms
To catch thy gaze, and uttering graceful words
To charm thy ear; while his sly imps by stealth
Twine round thee threads of steel, light thread on thread
That grows to fetters—or bind down thy arms
With chains contained in chaplets. Oh, not yet
May'st thou embrace thy corslet, nor lay by
Thy sword. Not yet, O Freedom I close thy lides
On slumber; for thine enemy never sleeps,
And thou must watch and combat till the day
Of the new earth and heaven!"