Athiesm As I Knew and Taught It

Hindu marriage

This is the Vedic view of Human Body. Mr.Besant added more sheaths and changed the terminology.

by Annie Besant

The first step which leaves behind the idea of a limited and personal God, an extra-cosmic Creator, and leads the student to the point whence Atheism and Pantheism diverge, is the recognition that a profound unity of substance underlies the infinite diversities of natural phenomena, the discernment of the One beneath the Many. This was the step I had taken ere my first meeting with Charles Bradlaugh, and I had written:—

"It is manifest to all who will take the trouble to think steadily, that there can be only one eternal and underived substance, and that matter and spirit must, therefore, only be varying manifestations of this one substance. The distinction made between matter and spirit is, then, simply made for the sake of convenience and clearness, just as we may distinguish perception from judgment, both of which, however, are alike processes of thought. Matter is, in its constituent elements, the same as spirit; existence is one, however manifold in its phenomena; life is one, however multiform in its evolution. As the heat of the coal differs from the coal itself, so do memory, perception, judgment, emotion, and will differ from the brain which is the instrument of thought. But nevertheless they are all equally products of the one sole substance, varying only in their conditions....

I find myself, then, compelled to believe that one only substance exists in all around me; that the universe is eternal, or at least eternal so far as our faculties are concerned, since we cannot, as some one has quaintly put it, 'get to the outside of everywhere'; that a Deity cannot be conceived of as apart from the universe; that the Worker and the Work are inextricably interwoven, and in some sense eternally and indissolubly combined. Having got so far, we will proceed to examine into the possibility of proving the existence of that one essence popularly called by the name of God, under the conditions strictly defined by the orthodox. Having demonstrated, as I hope to do, that the orthodox idea of God is unreasonable and absurd, we will endeavour to ascertain whether any idea of God, worthy to be called an idea, is attainable in the present state of our faculties."

"The Deity must of necessity be that one and only substance out of which all things are evolved, under the uncreated conditions and eternal laws of the universe; He must be, as Theodore Parker somewhat oddly puts it, 'the materiality of matter as well as the spirituality of spirit'—i.e., these must both be products of this one substance; a truth which is readily accepted as soon as spirit and matter are seen to be but different modes of one essence. Thus we identify substance with the all-comprehending and vivifying force of nature, and in so doing we simply reduce to a physical impossibility the existence of the Being described by the orthodox as a God possessing the attributes of personality. The Deity becomes identified with nature, co-extensive with the universe, but the God of the orthodox no longer exists; we may change the signification of God, and use the word to express a different idea, but we can no longer mean by it a Personal Being in the orthodox sense, possessing an individuality which divides Him from the rest of the universe."[3]

Proceeding to search whether any idea of God was attainable, I came to the conclusion that evidence of the existence of a conscious Power was lacking, and that the ordinary proofs offered were inconclusive; that we could grasp phenomena and no more. "There appears, also, to be a possibility of a mind in nature, though we have seen that intelligence is, strictly speaking, impossible. There cannot be perception, memory, comparison, or judgment, but may there not be a perfect mind, unchanging, calm, and still? Our faculties fail us when we try to estimate the Deity, and we are betrayed into contradictions and absurdities; but does it therefore follow that He is not? It seems to me that to deny His existence is to overstep the boundaries of our thought-power almost as much as to try and define it. We pretend to know the Unknown if we declare Him to be the Unknowable. Unknowable to us at present, yes! Unknowable for ever, in other possible stages of existence? We have reached a region into which we cannot penetrate; here all human faculties fail us; we bow our heads on 'the threshold of the unknown.'

"'And the ear of man cannot hear, and the eye of man cannot see, But if we could see and hear, this vision—were it not He?'

Thus sings Alfred Tennyson, the poet of metaphysics: 'if we could see and hear.' Alas! it is always an 'if!'[4]

This refusal to believe without evidence, and the declaration that anything "behind phenomena" is unknowable to man as at present constituted—these are the two chief planks of the Atheistic platform, as Atheism was held by Charles Bradlaugh and myself. In 1876 this position was clearly reaffirmed. "It is necessary to put briefly the Atheistic position, for no position is more continuously and more persistently misrepresented. Atheism is without God. It does not assert no God. 'The Atheist does not say "There is no God," but he says, "I know not what you mean by God; I am without idea of God; the word God is to me a sound conveying no clear or distinct affirmation. I do not deny God, because I cannot deny that of which I have no conception, and the conception of which, by its affirmer, is so imperfect that he is unable to define it to me."' (Charles Bradlaugh, "Freethinker's Text-book," p. 118.) The Atheist neither affirms nor denies the possibility of phenomena differing from those recognised by human experience.... As his knowledge of the universe is extremely limited and very imperfect, the Atheist declines either to deny or to affirm anything with regard to modes of existence of which he knows nothing. Further, he refuses to believe anything concerning that of which he knows nothing, and affirms that that which can never be the subject of knowledge ought never to be the object of belief. While the Atheist, then, neither affirms nor denies the unknown, he does deny all which conflicts with the knowledge to which he has already attained. For example, he knows that one is one, and that three times one are three; he denies that three times one are, or can be, one. The position of the Atheist is a clear and a reasonable one: I know nothing about 'God,' and therefore I do not believe in Him or in it; what you tell me about your God is self-contradictory, and is therefore incredible. I do not deny 'God,' which is an unknown tongue to me; I do deny your God, who is an impossibility. I am without God."[5] Up to 1887 I find myself writing on the same lines: "No man can rationally affirm 'There is no God,' until the word 'God' has for him a definite meaning, and until everything that exists is known to him, and known with what Leibnitz calls 'perfect knowledge.' The Atheist's denial of the Gods begins only when these Gods are defined or described. Never yet has a God been defined in terms which were not palpably self-contradictory and absurd; never yet has a God been described so that a concept of Him was made possible to human thought—Nor is anything gained by the assertors of Deity when they allege that He is incomprehensible. If 'God' exists and is incomprehensible, His incomprehensibility is an admirable reason for being silent about Him, but can never justify the affirmation of self-contradictory propositions, and the threatening of people with damnation if they do not accept them."[6] "The belief of the Atheist stops where his evidence stops. He believes in the existence of the universe, judging the accessible proof thereof to be adequate, and he finds in this universe sufficient cause for the happening of all phenomena. He finds no intellectual satisfaction in placing a gigantic conundrum behind the universe, which only adds its own unintelligibility to the already sufficiently difficult problem of existence. Our lungs are not fitted to breathe beyond the atmosphere which surrounds our globe, and our faculties cannot breathe outside the atmosphere of the phenomenal."[7] And I summed up this essay with the words: "I do not believe in God. My mind finds no grounds on which to build up a reasonable faith. My heart revolts against the spectre of an Almighty Indifference to the pain of sentient beings. My conscience rebels against the injustice, the cruelty, the inequality, which surround me on every side. But I believe in Man. In man's redeeming power; in man's remoulding energy; in man's approaching triumph, through knowledge, love, and work."[8]

These views of existence naturally colour all views of life and of the existence of the Soul. And here steps in the profound difference between Atheism and Pantheism; both posit an Existence at present inscrutable by human faculties, of which all phenomena are modes; but to the Atheist that Existence manifests as Force-Matter, unconscious, unintelligent, while to the Pantheist it manifests as Life-Matter, conscious, intelligent. To the one, life and consciousness are attributes, properties, dependent upon arrangements of matter; to the other they are fundamental, essential, and only limited in their manifestation by arrangements of matter. Despite the attraction held for me in Spinoza's luminous arguments, the over-mastering sway which Science was beginning to exercise over me drove me to seek for the explanation of all problems of life and mind at the hands of the biologist and the chemist. They had done so much, explained so much, could they not explain all? Surely, I thought, the one safe ground is that of experiment, and the remembered agony of doubt made me very slow to believe where I could not prove. So I was fain to regard life as an attribute, and this again strengthened the Atheistic position. "Scientifically regarded, life is not an entity but a property; it is not a mode of existence, but a characteristic of certain modes. Life is the result of an arrangement of matter, and when rearrangement occurs the former result can no longer be present; we call the result of the changed arrangement death. Life and death are two convenient words for expressing the general outcome of two arrangements of matter, one of which is always found to precede the other."[9] And then, having resorted to chemistry for one illustration, I took another from one of those striking and easily grasped analogies, facility for seeing and presenting which has ever been one of the secrets of my success as a propagandist. Like pictures, they impress the mind of the hearer with a vivid sense of reality. "Every one knows the exquisite iridiscence of mother-of-pearl, the tender, delicate hues which melt into each other, glowing with soft radiance. How different is the dull, dead surface of a piece of wax. Yet take that dull, black wax and mould it so closely to the surface of the mother-of-pearl that it shall take every delicate marking of the shell, and when you raise it the seven-hued glory shall smile at you from the erstwhile colourless surface. For, though it be to the naked eye imperceptible, all the surface of the mother-of-pearl is in delicate ridges and furrows, like the surface of a newly-ploughed field; and when the waves of light come dashing up against the ridged surface, they are broken like the waves on a shingly shore, and are flung backwards, so that they cross each other and the oncoming waves; and, as every ray of white light is made up of waves of seven colours, and these waves differ in length each from the others, the fairy ridges fling them backward separately, and each ray reaches the eye by itself; so that the colour of the mother-of-pearl is really the spray of the light waves, and comes from arrangement of matter once again. Give the dull, black wax the same ridges and furrows, and its glory shall differ in nothing from that of the shell. To apply our illustration: as the colour belongs to one arrangement of matter and the dead surface to another, so life belongs to some arrangements of matter and is their resultant, while the resultant of other arrangements is death."[10]

< The same line of reasoning naturally was applied to the existence of "spirit" in man, and it was argued that mental activity, the domain of the "spirit," was dependent on bodily organisation. "When the babe is born it shows no sign of mind. For a brief space hunger and repletion, cold and warmth are its only sensations. Slowly the specialised senses begin to function; still more slowly muscular movements, at first aimless and reflex, become co-ordinated and consciously directed. There is no sign here of an intelligent spirit controlling a mechanism; there is every sign of a learning and developing intelligence, developing pari passu with the organism of which it is a function. As the body grows, the mind grows with it, and the childish mind of the child develops into the hasty, quickly-judging, half-informed, unbalanced youthful mind of the youth; with maturity of years comes maturity of mind, and body and mind are vigorous and in their prime. As old age comes on and the bodily functions decay, the mind decays also, until age passes into senility, and body and mind sink into second childhood. Has the immortal spirit decayed with the organisation, or is it dwelling in sorrow, bound in its 'house of clay'? If this be so, the 'spirit' must be unconscious, or else separate from the very individual whose essence it is supposed to be, for the old man does not suffer when his mind is senile, but is contented as a little child. And not only is this constant, simultaneous growth and decay of body and mind to be observed, but we know that mental functions are disordered and suspended by various physical conditions. Alcohol, many drugs, fever, disorder the mind; a blow on the cranium suspends its functions, and the 'spirit' returns with the surgeon's trepanning. Does the 'spirit' take part in dreams? Is it absent from the idiot, from the lunatic? Is it guilty of manslaughter when the madman murders, or does it helplessly watch its own instrument performing actions at which it shudders? If it can only work here through an organism, is its nature changed in its independent life, severed from all with which it was identified? Can it, in its 'disembodied state,' have anything in common with its past?"[11]

It will be seen that my unbelief in the existence of the Soul or Spirit was a matter of cold, calm reasoning. As I wrote in 1885: "For many of us evidence must precede belief. I would gladly believe in a happy immortality for all, as I would gladly believe that all misery and crime and poverty will disappear in 1885—if I could. But I am unable to believe an improbable proposition unless convincing evidence is brought in support of it. Immortality is most improbable; no evidence is brought forward in its favour. I cannot believe only because I wish."[12] Such was the philosophy by which I lived from 1874 to 1886, when first some researches that will be dealt with in their proper place, and which led me ultimately to the evidence I had before vainly demanded, began to shake my confidence in its adequacy. Amid outer storm and turmoil and conflict, I found it satisfy my intellect, while lofty ideals of morality fed my emotions. I called myself Atheist, and rightly so, for I was without God, and my horizon was bounded by life on earth; I gloried in the name then, as it is dear to my heart now, for all the associations with which it is connected. "Atheist is one of the grandest titles a man can wear; it is the Order of Merit of the world's heroes. Most great discoverers, most deep-thinking philosophers, most earnest reformers, most toiling pioneers of progress, have in their turn had flung at them the name of Atheist. It was howled over the grave of Copernicus; it was clamoured round the death-pile of Bruno; it was yelled at Vanini, at Spinoza, at Priestley, at Voltaire, at Paine; it has become the laurel-bay of the hero, the halo of the martyr; in the world's history it has meant the pioneer of progress, and where the cry of 'Atheist' is raised there may we be sure that another step is being taken towards the redemption of humanity. The saviours of the world are too often howled at as Atheists, and then worshipped as Deities. The Atheists are the vanguard of the army of Freethought, on whom falls the brunt of the battle, and are shivered the hardest of the blows; their feet trample down the thorns that others may tread unwounded; their bodies fill up the ditch that, by the bridge thus made, others may pass to victory. Honour to the pioneers of progress, honour to the vanguard of Liberty's army, honour to those who to improve earth have forgotten heaven, and who in their zeal for man have forgotten God."[13]

This poor sketch of the conception of the universe, to which I had conquered my way at the cost of so much pain, and which was the inner centre round which my life revolved for twelve years, may perhaps show that the Atheistic Philosophy is misjudged sorely when it is scouted as vile or condemned as intellectually degraded. It has outgrown anthropomorphic deities, and it leaves us face to face with Nature, open to all her purifying, strengthening inspirations. "There is only one kind of prayer," it says, "which is reasonable, and that is the deep, silent adoration of the greatness and beauty and order around us, as revealed in the realms of non-rational life and in Humanity; as we bow our heads before the laws of the universe, and mould our lives into obedience to their voice, we find a strong, calm peace steal over our hearts, a perfect trust in the ultimate triumph of the right, a quiet determination to 'make our lives sublime.' Before our own high ideals, before those lives which show us 'how high the tides of Divine life have risen in the human world,' we stand with hushed voice and veiled face; from them we draw strength to emulate, and even dare struggle to excel. The contemplation of the ideal is true prayer; it inspires, it strengthens, it ennobles. The other part of prayer is work; from contemplation to labour, from the forest to the street. Study nature's laws, conform to them, work in harmony with them, and work becomes a prayer and a thanksgiving, an adoration of the universal wisdom, and a true obedience to the universal law."[14]

To a woman of my temperament, filled with passionate desire for the bettering of the world, the elevation of humanity, a lofty system of ethics was of even more importance than a logical, intellectual conception of the universe; and the total loss of all faith in a righteous God only made me more strenuously assertive of the binding nature of duty and the overwhelming importance of conduct. In 1874 this conviction found voice in a pamphlet on the "True Basis of Morality," and in all the years of my propaganda on the platform of the National Secular Society no subject was more frequently dealt with in my lectures than that of human ethical growth and the duty of man to man. No thought was more constantly in my mind than that of the importance of morals, and it was voiced at the very outset of my public career. Speaking of the danger lest "in these stirring times of inquiry," old sanctions of right conduct should be cast aside ere new ones were firmly established, I wrote: "It therefore becomes the duty of every one who fights in the ranks of Freethought, and who ventures to attack the dogmas of the Churches, and to strike down the superstitions which enslave men's intellect, to beware how he uproots sanctions of morality which he is too weak to replace, or how, before he is prepared with better ones, he removes the barriers which do yet, however poorly, to some extent check vice and repress crime.... That which touches morality touches the heart of society; a high and pure morality is the life-blood of humanity; mistakes in belief are inevitable, and are of little moment; mistakes in life destroy happiness, and their destructive consequences spread far and wide. It is, then, a very important question whether we, who are endeavouring to take away from the world the authority on which has hitherto been based all its morality, can offer a new and firm ground whereupon may safely be built up the fair edifice of a noble life."

I then proceeded to analyse revelation and intuition as a basis for morals, and, discarding both, I asserted: "The true basis of morality is utility; that is, the adaptation of our actions to the promotion of the general welfare and happiness; the endeavour so to rule our lives that we may serve and bless mankind." And I argued for this basis, showing that the effort after virtue was implied in the search for happiness: "Virtue is an indispensable part of all true and solid happiness.... But it is, after all, only reasonable that happiness should be the ultimate test of right and wrong, if we live, as we do, in a realm of law. Obedience to law must necessarily result in harmony, and disobedience in discord. But if obedience to law result in harmony it must also result in happiness—all through nature obedience to law results in happiness, and through obedience each living thing fulfils the perfection of its being, and in that perfection finds its true happiness." It seemed to me most important to remove morality from the controversies about religion, and to give it a basis of its own: "As, then, the grave subject of the existence of Deity is a matter of dispute, it is evidently of deep importance to society that morality should not be dragged into this battlefield, to stand or totter with the various theories of the Divine nature which human thought creates and destroys. If we can found morality on a basis apart from theology, we shall do humanity a service which can scarcely be overestimated." A study of the facts of nature, of the consequences of man in society, seemed sufficient for such a basis. "Our faculties do not suffice to tell us about God; they do suffice to study phenomena, and to deduce laws from correlated facts. Surely, then, we should do wisely to concentrate our strength and our energies on the discovery of the attainable, instead of on the search after the unknowable. If we are told that morality consists in obedience to the supposed will of a supposed perfectly moral being, because in so doing we please God, then we are at once placed in a region where our faculties are useless to us, and where our judgment is at fault. But if we are told that we are to lead noble lives, because nobility of life is desirable for itself alone, because in so doing we are acting in harmony with the laws of Nature, because in so doing we spread happiness around our pathway and gladden our fellow-men—then, indeed, motives are appealed to which spring forward to meet the call, and chords are struck in our hearts which respond in music to the touch." It was to the establishment of this secure basis that I bent my energies, this that was to me of supreme moment. "Amid the fervid movement of society, with its wild theories and crude social reforms, with its righteous fury against oppression and its unconsidered notions of wider freedom and gladder life, it is of vital importance that morality should stand on a foundation unshakable; that so through all political and religious revolutions human life may grow purer and nobler, may rise upwards into settled freedom, and not sink downwards into anarchy. Only utility can afford us a sure basis, the reasonableness of which will be accepted alike by thoughtful student and hard-headed artisan. Utility appeals to all alike, and sets in action motives which are found equally in every human heart. Well shall it be for humanity that creeds and dogmas pass away, that superstition vanishes, and the clear light of freedom and science dawns on a regenerated earth—but well only if men draw tighter and closer the links of trustworthiness, of honour, and of truth. Equality before the law is necessary and just; liberty is the birthright of every man and woman; free individual development will elevate and glorify the race. But little worth these priceless jewels, little worth liberty and equality with all their promise for mankind, little worth even wider happiness, if that happiness be selfish, if true fraternity, true brotherhood, do not knit man to man, and heart to heart, in loyal service to the common need, and generous self-sacrifice to the common good."[15]

To the forwarding of this moral growth of man, two things seemed to me necessary—an Ideal which should stir the emotions and impel to action, and a clear understanding of the sources of evil and of the methods by which they might be drained. Into the drawing of the first I threw all the passion of my nature, striving to paint the Ideal in colours which should enthral and fascinate, so that love and desire to realise might stir man to effort. If "morality touched by emotion" be religion, then truly was I the most religious of Atheists, finding in this dwelling on and glorifying of the Ideal full satisfaction for the loftiest emotions. To meet the fascination exercised over men's hearts by the Man of Sorrows, I raised the image of man triumphant, man perfected. "Rightly is the ideal Christian type of humanity a Man of Sorrows. Jesus, with worn and wasted body; with sad, thin lips, curved into a mournful droop of penitence for human sin; with weary eyes gazing up to heaven because despairing of earth; bowed down and aged with grief and pain, broken-hearted with long anguish, broken-spirited with unresisted ill-usage—such is the ideal man of the Christian creed. Beautiful with a certain pathetic beauty, telling of the long travail of earth, eloquent of the sufferings of humanity, but not the model type to which men should conform their lives, if they would make humanity glorious. And, therefore, in radiant contrast with this, stands out in the sunshine and under the blue summer sky, far from graveyards and torture of death agony, the fair ideal Humanity of the Atheist. In form strong and fair, perfect in physical development as the Hercules of Grecian art, radiant with love, glorious in self-reliant power; with lips bent firm to resist oppression, and melting into soft curves of passion and of pity; with deep, far-seeing eyes, gazing piercingly into the secrets of the unknown, and resting lovingly on the beauties around him; with hands strong to work in the present; with heart full of hope which the future shall realise; making earth glad with his labour and beautiful with his skill—this, this is the Ideal Man, enshrined in the Atheist's heart. The ideal humanity of the Christian is the humanity of the slave, poor, meek, broken-spirited, humble, submissive to authority, however oppressive and unjust; the ideal humanity of the Atheist is the humanity of the free man who knows no lord, who brooks no tyranny, who relies on his own strength, who makes his brother's quarrel his, proud, true-hearted, loyal, brave."[16]

A one-sided view? Yes. But a very natural outcome of a sunny nature, for years held down by unhappiness and the harshness of an outgrown creed. It was the rebound of such a nature suddenly set free, rejoicing in its liberty and self-conscious strength, and it carried with it a great power of rousing the sympathetic enthusiasm of men and women, deeply conscious of their own restrictions and their own longings. It was the cry of the freed soul that had found articulate expression, and the many inarticulate and prisoned souls answered to it tumultously, with fluttering of caged wings. With hot insistence I battled for the inspiration to be drawn from the beauty and grandeur of which human life was capable. "Will any one exclaim, 'You are taking all beauty out of human life, all hope, all warmth, all inspiration; you give us cold duty for filial obedience, and inexorable law in the place of God'? All beauty from life? Is there, then, no beauty in the idea of forming part of the great life of the universe, no beauty in conscious harmony with Nature, no beauty in faithful service, no beauty in ideals of every virtue? 'All hope'? Why, I give you more than hope, I give you certainty; if I bid you labour for this world, it is with the knowledge that this world will repay you a, thousand-fold, because society will grow purer, freedom more settled, law more honoured, life more full and glad. What is your heaven? A heaven in the clouds! I point to a heaven attainable on earth. 'All warmth'? What! you serve warmly a God unknown and invisible, in a sense the projected shadow of your own imaginings, and can only serve coldly your brother whom you see at your side? There is no warmth in brightening the lot of the sad, in reforming abuses, in establishing equal justice for rich and poor? You find warmth in the church, but none in the home? Warmth in imagining the cloud glories of heaven, but none in creating substantial glories on earth?' All inspiration'? If you want inspiration to feeling, to sentiment, perhaps you had better keep to your Bible and your creeds; if you want inspiration to work, go and walk through the East of London, or the back streets of Manchester. You are inspired to tenderness as you gaze at the wounds of Jesus, dead in Judaea long ago, and find no inspiration in the wounds of men and women, dying in the England of to-day? You 'have tears to shed for Him,' but none for the sufferer at your doors? His passion arouses your sympathies, but you see no pathos in the passion of the poor? Duty is colder than 'filial obedience'? What do you mean by filial obedience? Obedience to your ideal of goodness and love—is it not so? Then how is duty cold? I offer you ideals for your homage: here is Truth for your Mistress, to whose exaltation you shall devote your intellect; here is Freedom for your General, for whose triumph you shall fight; here is Love for your Inspirer, who shall influence your every thought; here is Man for your Master—not in heaven, but on earth—to whose service you shall consecrate every faculty of your being. 'Inexorable law in the place of God'? Yes; a stern certainty that you shall not waste your life, yet gather a rich reward at the close; that you shall not sow misery, yet reap gladness; that you shall not be selfish, yet be crowned with love; nor shall you sin, yet find safety in repentance. True, our creed is a stern one, stern with the beautiful sternness of Nature. But if we be in the right, look to yourselves; laws do not check their action for your ignorance; fire will not cease to scorch, because you 'did not know.'"[17]

With equal vigour did I maintain that "virtue was its own reward," and that payment on the other side of the grave was unnecessary as an incentive to right living. "What shall we say to Miss Cobbe's contention that duty will 'grow grey and cold' without God and immortality? Yes, for those with whom duty is a matter of selfish calculation, and who are virtuous only because they look for a 'golden crown' in payment on the other side the grave. Those of us who find joy in right-doing, who work because work is useful to our fellows, who live well because in such living we pay our contribution to the world's wealth, leaving earth richer than we found it—we need no paltry payment after death for our life's labour, for in that labour is its own 'exceeding great reward.'"[18] But did any one yearn for immortality, that "not all of me shall die"? "Is it true that Atheism has no immortality? What is true immortality? Is Beethoven's true immortality in his continued personal consciousness, or in his glorious music deathless while the world endures? Is Shelley's true life in his existence in some far-off heaven, or in the pulsing liberty his lyrics send through men's hearts, when they respond to the strains of his lyre? Music does not die, though one instrument be broken; thought does not die, though one brain be shivered; love does not die, though one heart's strings be rent; and no great thinker dies so long as his thought re-echoes through the ages, its melody the fuller-toned the more human brains send its music on. Not only to the hero and the sage is this immortality given; it belongs to each according to the measure of his deeds; world-wide life for world-wide service; straitened life for straitened work; each reaps as he sows, and the harvest is gathered by each in his rightful order."[19]

This longing to leave behind a name that will live among men by right of service done them, this yearning for human love and approval that springs naturally from the practical and intense realisation of human brotherhood—these will be found as strong motives in the breasts of the most earnest men and women who have in our generation identified themselves with the Freethought cause. They shine through the written and spoken words of Charles Bradlaugh all through his life, and every friend of his knows how often he has expressed the longing that "when the grass grows green over my grave, men may love me a little for the work I tried to do."

Needless to say that, in the many controversies in which I took part, it was often urged against me that such motives were insufficient, that they appealed only to natures already ethically developed, and left the average man, and, above all, the man below the average, with no sufficiently constraining motive for right conduct. I resolutely held to my faith in human nature, and the inherent response of the human heart when appealed to from the highest grounds; strange—I often think now—this instinctive certainty I had of man's innate grandeur, that governed all my thought, inconsistent as that certainty was with my belief in his purely animal ancestry. Pressed too hard, I would take refuge in a passionate disdain for all who did not hear the thrilling voice of Virtue and love her for her own sweet sake. "I have myself heard the question asked: 'Why should I seek for truth, and why should I lead a good life, if there be no immortality in which to reap a reward?' To this question the Freethinker has one clear and short answer: 'There is no reason why you should seek Truth, if to you the search has no attracting power. There is no reason why you should lead a noble life, if you find your happiness in leading a poor and a base one.' Friends, no one can enjoy a happiness which is too high for his capabilities; a book may be of intensest interest, but a dog will very much prefer being given a bone. To him whose highest interest is centred in his own miserable self, to him who cares only to gain his own ends, to him who seeks only his own individual comfort, to that man Freethought can have no attraction. Such a man may indeed be made religious by a bribe of heaven; he may be led to seek for truth, because he hopes to gain his reward hereafter by the search; but Truth disdains the service of the self-seeker; she cannot be grasped by a hand that itches for reward. If Truth is not loved for her own pure sake, if to lead a noble life, if to make men happier, if to spread brightness around us, if to leave the world better than we found it—if these aims have no attraction for us, if these thoughts do not inspire us, then we are not worthy to be Secularists, we have no right to the proud title of Freethinkers. If you want to be paid for your good lives by living for ever in a lazy and useless fashion in an idle heaven; if you want to be bribed into nobility of life; if, like silly children, you learn your lesson not to gain knowledge but to win sugar-plums, then you had better go back to your creeds and your churches; they are all you are fit for; you are not worthy to be free. But we—who, having caught a glimpse of the beauty of Truth, deem the possession of her worth more than all the world beside; who have made up our minds to do our work ungrudgingly, asking for no reward beyond the results which spring up from our labour—we will spread the Gospel of Freethought among men, until the sad minor melodies of Christianity have sobbed out their last mournful notes on the dying evening breeze, and on the fresh morning winds shall ring out the chorus of hope and joyfulness, from the glad lips of men whom the Truth has at last set free."[20]

The intellectual comprehension of the sources of evil and the method of its extinction was the second great plank in my ethical platform. The study of Darwin and Herbert Spencer, of Huxley, Büchner and Haeckel, had not only convinced me of the truth of evolution, but, with help from W.H. Clifford, Lubbock, Buckle, Lecky, and many another, had led me to see in the evolution of the social instinct the explanation of the growth of conscience and of the strengthening of man's mental and moral nature. If man by study of the conditions surrounding him and by the application of intelligence to the subdual of external nature, had already accomplished so much, why should not further persistence along the same road lead to his complete emancipation? All the evil, anti-social side of his nature was an inheritance from his brute ancestry, and could be gradually eradicated; he could not only "let the ape and tiger die," but he could kill them out." It may be frankly acknowledged that man inherits from his brute progenitors various bestial tendencies which are in course of elimination. The wild-beast desire to fight is one of these, and this has been encouraged, not checked, by religion.... Another bestial tendency is the lust of the male for the female apart from love, duty, and loyalty; this again has been encouraged by religion, as witness the polygamy and concubinage of the Hebrews—as in Abraham, David, and Solomon, not to mention the precepts of the Mosaic laws—the bands of male and female prostitutes in connection with Pagan temples, and the curious outbursts of sexual passion in connection with religious revivals and missions. Another bestial tendency is greed, the strongest grabbing all he can and trampling down the weak, in the mad struggle for wealth; how and when has religion modified this tendency, sanctified as it is in our present civilisation? All these bestial tendencies will be eradicated only by the recognition of human duty, of the social bond. Religion has not eradicated them, but science, by tracing them to their source in our brute ancestry, has explained them and has shown them in their true light. As each recognises that the anti-social tendencies are the bestial tendencies in man, and that man in evolving further must evolve out of these, each also feels it part of his personal duty to curb these in himself, and so to rise further from the brute. This rational 'co-operation with Nature' distinguishes the scientific from the religious person, and this constraining sense of obligation is becoming stronger and stronger in all those who, in losing faith in God, have gained hope for man."[21]

For this rational setting of oneself on the side of the forces working for evolution implied active co-operation by personal purity and nobility." To the Atheist it seems that the knowledge that the perfecting of the race is only possible by the improvement of the individual, supplies the most constraining motive which can be imagined for efforts after personal perfection. The Theist may desire personal perfection, but his desire is self-centred; each righteous individual is righteous, as it were, alone, and his righteousness does not benefit his fellows save as it may make him helpful and loving in his dealings with them. The Atheist desires personal perfection not only for his joy in it as beautiful in itself, but because science has taught him the unity of the race, and he knows that each fresh conquest of his over the baser parts of his nature, and each strengthening of the higher, is a gain for all, and not for himself alone."[22]

Besides all this, the struggle against evil, regarded as transitory and as a necessary concomitant of evolution, loses its bitterness. "In dealing with evil, Atheism is full of hope instead of despair. To the Christian, evil is as everlasting as good; it exists by the permission of God, and, therefore, by the will of God. Our nature is corrupt, inclined to evil; the devil is ever near us, working all sin and all misery. What hope has the Christian face to face with a world's wickedness? what answer to the question, Whence comes sin? To the Atheist the terrible problem has in it no figure of despair. Evil comes from ignorance, we say; ignorance of physical and of moral facts. Primarily, from ignorance of physical order; parents who dwell in filthy, unventilated, unweathertight houses, who live on insufficient, innutritious, unwholesome food, will necessarily be unhealthy, will lack vitality, will probably have disease lurking in their veins; such parents will bring into the world ill-nurtured children, in whom the brain will generally be the least developed part of the body; such children, by their very formation, will incline to the animal rather than to the human, and by leading an animal, or natural, life will be deficient in those qualities which are necessary in social life. Their surroundings as they grow up, the home, the food, the associates, all are bad. They are trained into vice, educated into criminality; so surely as from the sown corn rises the wheat-ear, so from the sowing of misery, filth, and starvation shall arise crime. And the root of all is poverty and ignorance. Educate the children, and give them fair wage for fair work in their maturity, and crime will gradually diminish and ultimately disappear. Man is God-made, says Theism; man is circumstance-made, says Atheism. Man is the resultant of what his parents were, of what his surroundings have been and are, and of what they have made him; himself the result of the past he modifies the actual, and so the action and reaction go on, he himself the effect of what is past, and one of the causes of what is to come. Make the circumstances good and the results will be good, for healthy bodies and healthy brains may be built up, and from a State composed of such the disease of crime will have disappeared. Thus is our work full of hope; no terrible will of God have we to struggle against; no despairful future to look forward to, of a world growing more and more evil, until it is, at last, to burned up; but a glad, fair future of an ever-rising race, where more equal laws, more general education, more just division, shall eradicate pauperism, destroy ignorance, nourish independence, a future to be made the grander by our struggles, a future to be made the nearer by our toil."[23]

This joyous, self-reliant facing of the world with the resolute determination to improve it is characteristic of the noblest Atheism of our day. And it is thus a distintly elevating factor in the midst of the selfishness, luxury, and greed of modern civilisation. It is a virile virtue in the midst of the calculating and slothful spirit which too ofter veils itself under the pretence or religion. It will have no putting off of justice to a far-off day of reckoning, and it is ever spurred on by the feeling, "The night cometh, when no man can work." Bereft of all hope of a personal future, it binds up its hopes with that of the race; unbelieving in any aid from Deity, it struggles the more strenuously to work out man's salvation by his own strength. "To us there is but small comfort in Miss Cobbe's assurance that 'earth's wrongs and agonies' 'will be righted hereafter.' Granting for a moment that man survives death what certainty have we that 'the next world' will be any improvement on this? Miss Cobbe assures us that this is 'God's world'; whose world will the next be, if not also His? Will He be stronger there or better, that He should set right in that world the wrongs He has permitted here? Will He have changed His mind, or have become weary of the contemplation of suffering? To me the thought that the world was in the hands of a God who permitted all the present wrongs and pains to exist would be intolerable, maddening in its hopelessness. There is every hope of righting earth's wrongs and of curing earth's pains if the reason and skill of man which have already done so much are free to do the rest; but if they are to strive against omnipotence, hopeless indeed is the future of the world. It is in this sense that the Atheist looks on good as 'the final goal of ill,' and believing that that goal will be reached the sooner the more strenuous the efforts of each individual, he works in the glad certainty that he is aiding the world's progress thitherward. Not dreaming of a personal reward hereafter, not craving a personal payment from heavenly treasury, he works and loves, content that he is building a future fairer than his present, joyous that he is creating a new earth for a happier race."[24]

Such was the creed and such the morality which governed my life and thoughts from 1874 to 1886, and with some misgivings to 1889, and from which I drew strength and happiness amid all outer struggles and distress. And I shall ever remain grateful for the intellectual and moral training it gave me, for the self-reliance it nurtured, for the altruism it inculcated, for the deep feeling of the unity of man that it fostered, for the inspiration to work that it lent. And perhaps the chief debt of gratitude I owe to Freethought is that it left the mind ever open to new truth, encouraged the most unshrinking questioning of Nature, and shrank from no new conclusions, however adverse to the old, that were based on solid evidence. I admit sorrowfully that all Freethinkers do not learn this lesson, but I worked side by side with Charles Bradlaugh, and the Freethought we strove to spread was strong-headed and broad-hearted.

The antagonism which, as we shall see in a few moments, blazed out against me from the commencement of my platform work, was based partly on ignorance, was partly aroused by my direct attacks on Christianity, and by the combative spirit I myself showed in those attacks, and very largely by my extreme Radicalism in politics. I had against me all the conventional beliefs and traditions of society in general, and I attacked them, not with bated breath and abundant apologies, but joyously and defiantly, with sheer delight in the intellectual strife. I was fired, too, with passionate sympathy for the sufferings of the poor, for the overburdened, overdriven masses of the people, not only here but in every land, and wherever a blow was struck at Liberty or Justice my pen or tongue brake silence. It was a perpetual carrying of the fiery cross, and the comfortable did not thank me for shaking them out of their soft repose.

The antagonism that grew out of ignorance regarded Atheism as implying degraded morality and bestial life, and they assailed my conduct not on evidence that it was evil, but on the presumption that an Atheist must be immoral. Thus a Christian opponent at Leicester assailed me as a teacher of free love, fathering on me views which were maintained in a book that I had not read, but which, before I had ever seen the National Reformer, had been reviewed in its columns—as it was reviewed in other London papers—and had been commended for its clear statement of the Malthusian position, but not for its contention as to free love, a theory to which Mr. Bradlaugh was very strongly opposed. Nor were the attacks confined to the ascription to me of theories which I did not hold, but agents of the Christian Evidence Society, in their street preaching, made the foulest accusations against me of personal immorality. Remonstrances addressed to the Rev. Mr. Engström, the secretary of the society, brought voluble protestations of disavowal and disapproval; but as the peccant agents were continued in their employment, the apologies were of small value. No accusation was too coarse, no slander too baseless, for circulation by these men; and for a long time these indignities caused me bitter suffering, outraging my pride, and soiling my good name. The time was to come when I should throw that good name to the winds for the sake of the miserable, but in those early days I had done nothing to merit, even ostensibly, such attacks. Even by educated writers, who should have known better, the most wanton accusations of violence and would-be destructiveness were brought against Atheists; thus Miss Frances Power Cobbe wrote in the Contemporary Review that loss of faith in God would bring about the secularisation or destruction of all cathedrals, churches, and chapels. "Why," I wrote in answer, "should cathedrals, churches, and chapels be destroyed? Atheism will utilise, not destroy, the beautiful edifices which, once wasted on God, shall hereafter be consecrated for man. Destroy Westminster Abbey, with its exquisite arches, its glorious tones of soft, rich colour, its stonework light as if of cloud, its dreamy, subdued twilight, soothing as the 'shadow of a great rock in a weary land'? Nay, but reconsecrate it to humanity. The fat cherubs who tumble over guns and banners on soldiers' graves will fitly be removed to some spot where their clumsy forms will no longer mar the upward-springing grace of lines of pillar and of arch; but the glorious building wherein now barbaric psalms are chanted and droning canons preach of Eastern follies, shall hereafter echo the majestic music of Wagner and Beethoven, and the teachers of the future shall there unveil to thronging multitudes the beauties and the wonders of the world. The 'towers and spires' will not be effaced, but they will no longer be symbols of a religion which sacrifices earth to heaven and Man to God."[25] Between the cultured and the uncultured burlesques of Atheism we came off pretty badly, being for the most part regarded, as the late Cardinal Manning termed us, as mere "cattle."

The moral purity and elevation of Atheistic teaching were overlooked by many who heard only of my bitter attacks on Christian theology. Against the teachings of eternal torture, of the vicarious atonement, of the infallibility of the Bible, I levelled all the strength of my brain and tongue, and I exposed the history of the Christian Church with unsparing hand, its persecutions, its religious wars, its cruelties, its oppressions. Smarting under the suffering inflicted on myself, and wroth with the cruel pressure continually put on Freethinkers by Christian employers, speaking under constant threats of prosecution, identifying Christianity with the political and social tyrannies of Christendom, I used every weapon that history, science, criticism, scholarship could give me against the Churches; eloquence, sarcasm, mockery, all were called on to make breaches in the wall of traditional belief and crass superstition.

To argument and reason I was ever ready to listen, but I turned a front of stubborn defiance to all attempts to compel assent to Christianity by appeals to force. "The threat and the enforcement of legal and social penalties against unbelief can never compel belief. Belief must be gained by demonstration; it can never be forced by punishment. Persecution makes the stronger among us bitter; the weaker among us hypocrites; it never has made and never can make an honest convert."[26]

That men and women are now able to speak and think as openly as they do, that a broader spirit is visible in the Churches, that heresy is no longer regarded as morally disgraceful—these things are very largely due to the active and militant propaganda carried on under the leadership of Charles Bradlaugh, whose nearest and most trusted friend I was. That my tongue was in the early days bitterer than it should have been, I frankly acknowledge; that I ignored the services done by Christianity and threw light only on its crimes, thus committing injustice, I am ready to admit. But these faults were conquered long ere I left the Atheistic camp, and they were the faults of my personality, not of the Atheistic philosophy. And my main contentions were true, and needed to be made; from many a Christian pulpit to-day may be heard the echo of the Freethought teachings; men's minds have been awakened, their knowledge enlarged; and while I condemn the unnecessary harshness of some of my language, I rejoice that I played my part in that educating of England which has made impossible for evermore the crude superstitions of the past, and the repetition of the cruelties and injustices under which preceding heretics suffered.

But my extreme political views had also much to do with the general feeling of hatred with which I was regarded. Politics, as such, I cared not for at all, for the necessary compromises of political life were intolerable to me; but wherever they touched on the life of the people they became to me of burning interest. The land question, the incidence of taxation, the cost of Royalty, the obstructive power of the House of Lords—these were the matters to which I put my hand; I was a Home Ruler, too, of course, and a passionate opponent of all injustice to nations weaker than ourselves, so that I found myself always in opposition to the Government of the day. Against our aggressive and oppressive policy in Ireland, in the Transvaal, in India, in Afghanistan, in Burmah, in Egypt, I lifted up my voice in all our great towns, trying to touch the consciences of the people, and to make them feel the immorality of a land-stealing, piratical policy. Against war, against capital punishment, against flogging, demanding national education instead of big guns, public libraries instead of warships—no wonder I was denounced as an agitator, a firebrand, and that all orthodox society turned up at me its most respectable nose.

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1 This odious law has now been altered, and a married woman is a person, not a chattel.

2 "The Disciples," p. 14.

3 "On the Nature and Existence of God." 1874.

4 "On the Nature and Existence of God." 1874.

5 "The Gospel of Atheism." 1876.

6 "Why I do not Believe in God." 1887.

7 Ibid.

8 Ibid.

9 "Life, Death, and Immortality." 1886.

10 "Life, Death, and Immortality." 1886.

11 "Life, Death, and Immortality." 1886.

12 Ibid.

13 "The Gospel of Atheism." 1876.

14 "On the Nature and Existence of God." 1874.

15 "The True Basis of Morality." 1874.

16 "Gospel of Atheism." 1876.

17 "On the Nature and Existence of God." 1874.

18 "A World without God." 1885.

19 "The Gospel of Atheism." 1876.

20 "The Gospels of Christianity and Freethought." 1874.

21 "A World without God." 1885.

22 "A World without God." 1885.

23 "The Gospel of Atheism." 1876.

24 "A World without God." 1885.

25 "A World without God." 1885.

26 "The Christian Creed." 1884.

27 National Reformer, June 18, 1882

28 Theosophist, June, 1882.

29 I leave these words as they were written in 1889. I resigned my office in the N.S.S. in 1890, feeling that the N.S.S. was so identified with Materialism that it had no longer place for me.

Source: by Annie Besant. Revised and corrected edition of 1909 The Theosophical Publishing Society, 161 New Bond Street, W., London, England. WE believe this edition is in public domain and printed as per the internal conventions on copyright laws. The text has been reformatted at by Jayaram V for user convenience. If you believe this is not in public domain please do not read this text. While we have taken every care to reproduce the text we cannot guarantee their accuracy. Please check the original printed version if you are engated in a serious reserach or academic work.