Why I Do Not Believe
Chapter 1: "Come now and let us reason together"
by: Augustus Jacobson
A Freethought Classic originally published in 1881
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Come now and let us reason together Isaiah 1:18
MANY of my most intimate friends are orthodox Christians who believe that the Bible is the inspired word of God. They believe that Jesus was the Son of God--a part of the God-head, and that being God he took upon himself the form of a man in order to ransom us from sin and its consequences. They believe that we must rely upon him to save us from perdition; that we ourselves can do nothing about it, except, perhaps, to accept his proffered help, for in the language of Scripture “there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved.” They believe that the divinely inspired Bible was written for our guidance, to direct our feet in the way of salvation, and that unless we believe it, and conform to it, we cannot be saved.
My orthodox friends are people of at least as great general intelligence as has fallen to my lot. They are honest, fair-minded, kind, courteous and benevolent. They are anxious for the salvation of the world. I should not dare to claim so many good qualities for myself as I do for some of them. Differences in constitution, training and surroundings have made them believers, and me an unbeliever. Recognizing this, I need hardly say that there’ is not a word of intentional unkindness, in this book towards any one whose views differ from-mine.
My orthodox friends are naturally anxious about my salvation. If I could, I should be glad to believe as they do, and put an end to their anxiety in my behalf. But I do not and cannot so believe.
I am going to state very plainly, and very freely, some of the reasons which prevent me from believing the prevailing theology. I have no theological theory of my own to maintain, I shall be just as glad to have it shown that I am mistaken in any particular as to have it shown that I am right.. In whatever particular I am found to be mistaken, I want to change sides immediately.
In the language of the Bible “Come now and let us reason together.” Let us “Search the Scriptures” in the light of the facts we know.
Generally the accidents of birth and early training settle all theological questions for us. Born in the United States, we are generally born Protestants, and live and die Protestants. In Spain people are born and generally live and die Roman Catholics. In Turkey people are born and generally live and die Mahamedans. Take a Spanish child or a Turkish child at two years of age, and bring it up in England, and the chances are greatly in favor of the development of sound Church of England opinions. The Turks, the Roman Catholics and the Protestants, all think themselves right, and sure to go to heaven by reason of the correctness of their opinions. But some one or more of them must be wrong. The manner in which millions of people follow the opinions which the mere accidents of birth and rearing have given them, should make us anxious to investigate the foundations of our beliefs.
I am going to discuss questions which by many are thought to be settled beyond discussion. No one need fear such a discussion. The truth is what we are all seeking for. No one wishes to believe things that aye not true. It is a great mistake to think that the truth can be hurt by discussion. The “ living truth” of facts is never hurt by discussion. It has been well said that the truth may be run over by a locomotive, and will then rise and dance ‘a hornpipe, while error, if she only scratches her finger, dies of lockjaw.
It is quite a common thing in this country to tell children, at Christmas, that Santa Claus comes down the chimney and brings them presents. This is only done and can only be done for a few years, for after awhile they get too old to believe the story. Some adhere to the chimney Santa Claus much longer than others. With some the belief ends at six, with others at fourteen. It seems to me that it is with the beliefs of men very much as it is with those of children. Intelligent people have ceased to believe in witches, for instance, but many ignorant people still believe in them. In the month of June, 1880, the Seminole and Creek Indians were very much excited by the belief that their cattle and swine had been bewitched. The Seminoles tried and condemned a negress for practicing the black art upon their animals, and but for the intervenvention of the United States Marshal they would have hanged her.
In the year 1579, in Russia, Agrafena Ignatief was’ shut up, in her own house, and burned alive, by the peasants of Zrochcheff, because they thought she was a witch. On the trial of the peasants for burning the supposed witch, Katharina Ivanora testified that she had frequently been bewitched by Agrafena, and while Katharina was yet speaking on the witness stand, the church bells myste- .riously began to ring, and Katharina fell down in a fit. This evident and unquestionable manifestation of supernatural power is said to have had a great effect upon the judges who tried the case. These Seminoles, Creeks and Russian peasants seem to me to be like the fourteen year old civilized believers in Santa Claus. Two hundred years ago, our forefathers nearly all believed in witches, just as the Seminoles, Creeks and .Russian peasants do now. The belief was not then oonfined to the class of people who now hold it, but the most intelligent men of all nations were firm believers in witchcraft.
It was in 1664 that Amy Dunny and Rose Callender were tried for witchcraft before “the venerable and devout Sir Matthew Hale, ” and convicted and hanged at St. Edmondsbury, and it was under the law as laid down by him that Susan Edwards, Mary Trembles, and Temperance Lloyd were hanged at Exeter in 1682, and that hundreds of others were hanged all over England; and that nineteen were hanged at Salem, inNew England, about eight years after the executions at Exeter.
The famous Sir William Blackstone, in an edition of his Commentaries on the Law of England, published in 1768, only 112 years ago, says that a man who does not believe in witchcraft is “not to be reasoned with.”
In fact, witchcraft was for centuries recognized as one of the things about which there could be no doubt. There were about 30,000 executions for witchcraft in England, 75,000 in France, and 100,000 in Germany. The so called evidence upon which all these people were executed will not stand examination for a moment now. There has never really been any evidence of witchcraft anywhere. People believed, nevertheless, what they were pleased to call the witchcraft evidence. We no longer believe in witchcraft. We know that it was a delusion, and therefore we should smile if anybody were now to submit to us evidence in favor of its existence.
The fact that the Seminoles, Creeks, and Russian peasants believe in witches, when none exist, shows that it is the existence of believers in witchcraft that make witchcraft possible. Where there are no believers in it, there is no witchcraft. In a Russian village such a delusion is possible, at any moment; because there are believers in it. In Chicago it is never possible, because there are no ’ believers.
It is the believers who make the witchcraft, and not the witchcraft that makes the believers.
We shall find upon examination that this principle applies to other supernatural appearances as well as to witchcraft.