Why I Am Agnostic (Part III)
By: Robert Green Ingersoll
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In my youth I read religious books -- books about God, about the atonement -- about salvation by faith, and about the other worlds. I became familiar with the commentators -- with Adam Clark, who thought that the serpent seduced our mother Eve, and was in fact the father of Cain. He also believed that the animals, while in the ark, had their natures' changed to that degree that they devoured straw together and enjoyed each other's society -- thus prefiguring the blessed millennium. I read Scott, who was such a natural theologian that he really thought the story of Phaeton -- of the wild steeds dashing across the sky -- corroborated the story of Joshua having stopped the sun and moon. So, I read Henry and MacKnight and found that God so loved the world that he made up his mind to damn a large majority of the human race. I read Cruden, who made the great Concordance, and made the miracles as small and probable as he could.
I remember that he explained the miracle of feeding the wandering Jews with quails, by saying that even at this day immense numbers of quails crossed the Red Sea, and that sometimes when tired, they settled on ships that sank beneath their weight. The fact that the explanation was as hard to believe as the miracle made no difference to the devout Cruden.
To while away the time I read Calvin's Institutes, a book calculated to produce, in any natural mind, considerable respect for the Devil.
I read Paley's Evidences and found that the evidence of ingenuity in producing the evil, in contriving the hurtful, was at least equal to the evidence tending to show the use of intelligence in the creation of what we call good.
You know the watch argument was Paley's greatest effort. A man finds a watch and it is so wonderful that he concludes that it must have had a maker. He finds the maker and he is so much more wonderful than the watch that he says he must have had a maker. Then he finds God, the maker of the man, and he is so much more wonderful than the man that he could not have had a maker. This is what the lawyers call a departure in pleading.
According to Paley there can be no design without a designer -- but there can be a designer without a design. The wonder of the watch suggested the watchmaker, and the wonder of the watchmaker, suggested the creator, and the wonder of the creator demonstrated that he was not created -- but was uncaused and eternal.
We had Edwards on The Will, in which the reverend author shows that necessity has no effect on accountability -- and that when God creates a human being, and at the same time determines and decrees exactly what that being shall do and be, the human being is responsible, and God in his justice and mercy has the right to torture the soul of that human being forever. Yet Edwards said that he loved God.
The fact is that if you believe in an infinite God, and also in eternal punishment, then you must admit that Edwards and Calvin were absolutely right. There is no escape from their conclusions if you admit their premises. They were infinitely cruel, their premises infinitely absurd, their God infinitely fiendish, and their logic perfect.
And yet I have kindness and candor enough to say that Calvin and Edwards were both insane.
We had plenty of theological literature. There was Jenkyn on the Atonement, who demonstrated the wisdom of God in devising a way in which the sufferings of innocence could justify the guilty. He tried to show that children could justly be punished for the sins of their ancestors, and that men could, if they had faith, be justly credited with the virtues of others. Nothing could be more
devout, orthodox, and idiotic. But all of our theology was not in prose. We had Milton with his celestial militia with his great and blundering God, his proud and cunning Devil -- his wars between immortals, and all the sublime absurdities that religion wrought within the blind man's brain.
The theology taught by Milton was dear to the Puritan heart. It was accepted by New England and it poisoned the souls and ruined the lives of thousands. The genius of Shakespeare could not make the theology of Milton poetic. In the literature of the world there is nothing, outside of the "sacred books," more perfectly absurd.
We had Young's Night Thoughts, and I supposed that the author was an exceedingly devout and loving follower of the Lord. Yet Young had a great desire to be a bishop, and to accomplish that end he electioneered with the king's mistress. In other words, he was a fine old hypocrite. In the "Night Thoughts" there is scarcely a genuinely honest, natural line. It is pretence from beginning to end. He did not write what he felt, but what he thought he ought to feel.
We had Pollok's Course of Time, with its worm that never dies, its quenchless flames, its endless pangs, its leering devils, and its gloating God. This frightful poem should have been written in a madhouse. In it you find all the cries and groans and shrieks of maniacs, when they tear and rend each other's flesh. It is as heartless, as hideous, as hellish as the thirty-second chapter of Deuteronomy.
We all know the beautiful hymn commencing with the cheerful line: "Hark from the tombs, a doleful sound." Nothing could have been more appropriate for children. It is well to put a coffin where it can be seen from the cradle. When a mother nurses her child, an open grave should be at her feet. This would tend to make the babe serious, reflective, religious and miserable.
God hates laughter and despises mirth. To feel free, untrammeled, irresponsible, joyous, -- to forget care and death -- to be flooded with sunshine without a fear of night -- to forget the past, to have no thought of the future, no dream of God, or heaven, or hell -- to be intoxicated with the present -- to be conscious only of the clasp and kiss of the one you love -- this is the sin against the Holy Ghost.
But we had Cowper's poems. Cowper was sincere. He was the opposite of Young. He had an observing eye, a gentle heart and a sense of the artistic. He sympathized with all who suffered -- with the imprisoned, the enslaved, the outcasts. He loved the beautiful. No wonder that the belief in eternal punishment made this loving soul insane. No wonder that the "tidings of great Joy" quenched Hope's great star and left his broken heart in the darkness of despair.
We had many volumes of orthodox sermons, filled with wrath and the terrors of the judgment to come -- sermons that had been delivered by savage saints.
We had the Book of Martyrs, showing that Christians had for many centuries imitated the God they worshiped.
We had the history of the Waldenses -- of the reformation of the Church. We had Pilgrim's Progress, Baxter's Call and Butler's Analogy.
To use a Western phrase or saying, I found that Bishop Butler dug up more snakes than he killed -- suggested more difficulties than he explained -- more doubts than he dispelled.