Superstition at bay
The word “God” as a general term has lost all definite meaning. To each individual it means something different. To a fanatic it may stand for a terrible personal power who chastises us for our neglect of his vanity. To a philosopher it may symbolise the universe as a whole moving inexorably according to natural law. To the charlatan, however, it is first and last a word to juggle with.
God is the favourite subject of a writer by the name of Harold Begbie. To the plain man his work appears unadulterated claptrap. High-sounding words are strung together in a meaningless but impressive way that is strongly reminiscent of some lady novelists when dealing with the sorrows of his Satanic majesty. There exists in his writing such an obvious striving after tinsel effect that his work conveys the strongest impression of insincerity. Here is a sample from his effort, in the “Daily Chronicle” of Sept. 23rd:
“Theism is the inescapable faith of rationalism. Use your reason, your reason only, and you must believe in Mind. Contemplate the universe as a rational being, and unless you say you cannot believe in anything at all, you must conclude that penetrating and interpenetrating all materal phenomena is the Spirit of Eternal Life. Empiricism is as dead as Deism. Atheism is only possible to the fool. No living mind can rest in agnosticism. There is reason in the universe. Life is spiritual. The march of the human race is towards God.”
It is worth reading twice. As an example of turgid twaddle it would be hard to beat.
He says elsewhere in the same article:
“ . . . consider what would be the state of Europe if Christ had debated the possibility of the existence God, instead of asserting with a simplicity which makes a most instant appeal to every sort and condition of mind that God is our Father. Intuition is a part of psychology.”
Such a statement gives one furiously to think. What, indeed, one wonders, would really be the state of Europe if Christ had not simply asserted that God is Our Father ? Perhaps instead of the happy and harmonious communities that now unite in the worship of Christ, that do not grind the faces of the poor, and that give constant cause to the reverently minded to praise the abounding and wonderful goodness of Cod, we might have in its place–––. But enough ! The state of Europe is too horrible for levity. Even Begbie’s absurdity is revolting rather than amusing. The awful thing that exists, and which Begbie implies we should be thankful for as the result of Christ’s assertion, utterly defies description. An ounce of civet, good apothecary ! In our disgust we turn to old Omar the tent-maker, and repeat with him:
Ah, Love ! could you and I with Fate conspire
To grasp this sorry scheme of things entire.
Would not we shatter it to bits and then
Remould it nearer to the heart’s desire !
In the London “Daily News” of a few days before Harold Begbie had given us a two column interview with General Booth on the “Call for a Great National Religious Crusade.” Begbie says
“I asked him how the international character of the Salvation Army had been affected by the war. He replied, ‘War has strengthened the spirit of internationalism. Throughout the neutral nations there is a fresh enthusiasm for the Army ; and Germany itself the Salvation Army is expressing a renewed loyalty to the international idea.’ ”
The only comment that it is necessary to make on such a statement is supplied all unconsciously by the interviewer, who says :
“The son of William Booth finds just now his international religion buffeted hy the winds of war. He of all religious leaders in this country is most concerned by the international character of the war. German Salvationists are shooting English Salvationists, and Russian Salvationists are shooting Austrian Salvationists.”
And what is the Salvation Army doing in this war to interpret the spirit of Jesus ? Its message in this crisis will surely show how pure and transcendental is the teaching of Christ, and how clear and unmistakeable is the call of Christian duty ? Here again the interview gives us some valuable information, for it says :
“There are something like 40,000 Salvationists in the British Armv, 20,000 of them out-and-outers, and 20,000 adherents. Some of these, as yon may imagine, are troubled in their souls by having to kill. One of them mentioned this difficulty, and to him another Salvationist made answer: ‘Look here; what you’ve got to do is this : you’ve got to do your duty to God, and King, and country. If in the course of doing that you happen to kill your fellow-man, that’s no affair of yours.’ ”
Purely nothing could be more fearless, nothing could be more truly Christian than this ! Such advice given to British, to German, to Austrian, Russian and French Salvationists must be admirably calculated to bring the Kingdom of God nearer realisation on earth !
There are not lacking signs, however, that indicate that Ceneral Booth is sensible of the difficulty of his position. And to those who have been awakened only by the present crisis to question the dogma of the goodness of God, he makes effective answer :
“People who accepted without murmur the atrocious suffering caused by those enemies of the human race [drink, prostitution, and sweating] suddenly wake up now and ask, How can you believe in a God with Christians killing Christians and Europe deluged with blood’ ? Has Christian never killed Christian till now ? What nonsense they talk ! This war is nothing–nothing compared with the murderous destruction of sin, God does not work like an autocrat in the moral sphere. God is omnipotent ; but omnipotence cannot make five of two and two, or make a lie a truth. Why does God permit this war ? Why does he permit sin ? God is not responsible for sin, and he is not responsible for war. Man is.”
While the above silences all those who accept the hellish conditions of capitalism as consistent with the goodness of God, it is quite futile against those who do not.
What evidence is there of the goodness of God ? What evidence is there of God at all ? Where, indeed, is God anything but an expression of man’s ignorance in face of the awful and ruthless immensity of nature ?
God, says General Booth in effect, is omnipotent, and is at the same time not omnipotent ! He is the essence of all goodness, but has created war and sweating and infinite misery.
He is omniscient, and knowing all things, including man, man’s sin and tendency to sin, war, anguish, destitution, wretchedness and sorrow incalculable. Yet He is not responsible. Man, his puppet, is responsible. To God is attributed all good : to man, whom God created, is attributed all evil. Such is really the meaning of General Booth’s assertions. Their nonsense is evident. It is also suggested in the interview that God’s plaything, man, is being punished because he has neglected the All Wise, All Powerful, and All Good God. Truly the absurdity of this cantankerous All-Goodness recalls the little girl’s natural history essay. “The elephant,” said the young lady, “is a noble animal, but when infuriated he will not do so.”
To all the Salvation Army chiefs’s points, however, the old tent-maker has made answer from the standpoint of a true believer :
Thou who man of baser earth didst make,
And who with Eden didst devise the snake ;
For all the sin wherewith the face of man
Is blackened, man’s forgiveness give and take !
The spectacle of the warring nations of Europe supplicating the same good and almighty God for armed victory over each other is ludicrous enough. Small wonder that it is subject for derision. Moreover, practically every religious sect has hastened to put its private brand of Allmighty Power at the service of the capitalist interests which are responsible for the modern machine-made murder. Chaplains and priests of many denominations are helping to stiffen the men at the front. And at home the various churches continue as best they may to swell the patriotic chorus in aid of their paymasters the ruling class.
Nevertheless the power of religion to keep the workers servile is fast waning. Technical progress, the advance of knowledge, the march of events, drive it continually farther from real life. True it is that religion cannot entirely disappear until man’s relations with his fellows and with nature become clear, ordered, rational and unambiguous. True it is that man’s emancipation from wage slavery, from irrational poverty and ignorance will alone finally lay the ghost of superstition. Yet the present fading of religion is an unmixed good. The power of religion has ever been potent for evil. It has been throughout political history the abettor of oppression, the enemy of freedom, of science, and of hunanity. It is still used as far as practicable as the hand-maiden of class domination.
As Socialists, indeed, our main, attack must be against the entrenched political power of capitalism, and to this all else must be subordinated; but the war on religion, which is the vis inertia ? of human development, is part of the work that must be done in that great struggle.
The war on religion will break down the barrier that our enemies maintain against us. It will take the workers a step nearer their goal. It will open up fresh vistas to working-class intelligence and put men face to face with the bitter reality of modern social life and its trend ; and this can have but one result.
In so far, therefore, as the toilers escape from the paralysing embrace of religion their advance will be freer, their vision clearer, their knowledge more profound, and their determination to make the proletarian cause triumph more unshakeable. A word by the way, therefore, that helps disperse the fog of superstition, that unveils the absurdity of the claims of the priests, and that lets light in upon the indubitable fact that the workers of the world can rely on no Messiah, on no metaphysical cloud-pusher, but only on their own strong right arm, such a word by the way is not only a helpful thing, but it has an inevitable place in the greater struggle for human emancipation, in the greater battle for Socialism.
F. C. W.