Apostle vs. Pagan by William Cowper Brann

Story type: Essay


My Dear Colonel:–I have not picked up my pen for the express purpose of annihilating you at one fell swoop. Even were such the case, I do not flatter myself that your impending doom would cause you to miss meals or lose sleep, for you have become somewhat used to being knocked off the Christmas tree by theological disputants from the back districts. At least once each lunar month for long years past your quivering diaphragm has been slammed up against the shrinking face of nature by mental microbes, or walked on by ambitious doodle-bugs, who wondered next day to learn that you were absorbing your rations with clock-work regularity and doing business at the same old stand. I once saw an egotistical brindle-pup joyfully bestride the collar of an adult wild-cat, and the woeful result convinced me that Ambition and Judgment should blithely foot it hand in hand. That is why, my dear Colonel, I approach you by siege and parallel, instead of capering gayly down your right-o’-way like a youthful William goat seeking a head-end collision with a runaway freight train.

Without any view of paving the way for a future loan, I tell you frankly that I admire you very much. Your public record and private life prove you to be one of God’s noblest–and rarest–works, an honest man. That you are the equal morally and the superior mentally of any man who has presumed to criticize you must be conceded. The prejudices of honesty are entitled to consideration and the judgment of genius to respect bordering on reverence; but in this age of almost universal inquiry we cannot accept any man, however wise, as infallible pope in the realm of intellect and declare that from his ipse dixit there shall be no appeal. That were intellectual slavery, the most degrading species of bondage, and it is your greatest glory that you have ever been the apostle of liberty–liberty of the hand and liberty of the brain. More than all other men of your generation you have fostered independence of thought and the search for new truth; hence you cannot complain if the fierce light which you have taught the world to turn full and fair upon cults and creeds, should be employed to discern the false logic of the great critic himself.

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In your warfare upon hypocrisy and humbuggery I am with you heart and soul. I will set my foot as far as who goes farthest in the exposure of frauds and fakes of every class and kind, though hedged about with the superstitions of a thousand centuries and licensed by prescriptive right to perpetrate a brutal wrong; but it does not follow because some church communicants are hypocrites that all religion is a humbug; that because the Bible winks at incest and robbery , murder and slavery, the book is but a tissue of foolish falsehoods; that because Almighty God has not seen proper to reveal Himself in all His supernal splendor to Messrs. Hume and Voltaire, Paine and Ingersoll the world has no good reason for belief in His existence–that because the dead do not come back to us with a diagram of the New Jerusalem it were folly to believe the soul of man immortal.

My dear Colonel, your mighty intellect has not yet comprehended the philosophy of religion. Oratorically you soar like the condor when its shadow falls upon the highest peaks of the Andes, but logically you grope among the pestilential shadows of an intellectual Dismal Swamp, ever mistaking shadow for substance. You are frittering away your mighty intellectual strength with the idiosyncrasies of creeds and the clumsy detail of cults, instead of considering the psychological phenomena of religion in its entirety. You descend from the realm of philosophy to assume the role of scholastic–to dispute with little men anent points of doctrine, to wrangle with dogmatists regarding their conception of the Deity.

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An ignoramus believes the Bible because of the miracles, and because of the miracles an Ingersoll disbelieves it–and both are equally blind . A cult is simply an expression, more or less crude, of the religious sentiment of a people, the poor garment with which finite man clothes Infinity. Would you quarrel with Science because it is not yet made perfect? Would you condemn music because of an occasional discord? Would you reject history altogether because amid a world of truth there are preserved some fables such as tempted the satire of Cervantes? Would you banish the sun from Heaven because of its spots or declare Love a monster because born of Passion?

The real question at issue is not whether the miracles be fact or fable; Mahomet, the duly ordained prophet of Allah, or an ignorant adventurer; Jonah, a delegate of the Deity or the father of Populism–whether Christ was born of an earthly father or drew his vigor direct from the loins of omnipotent God. Let us leave these details to the dogmatists, these non-essentials to the sectarians. Let us consider the religion of the world in its entirety, with the full understanding that all sects are essentially the same.

The core of all religion is the worship of a Supreme Power, and the belief in man’s immortality. That is the central idea, around which the imagination of man has woven many a complicated web, some beautiful as Arachne’s robe, some barbaric and repulsive, but all of little worth. The wise man, the true philosopher, will not mistake the machinery of a religion for the religious idea, the garment which ignorance weaves for Omniscience, for God himself.

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Even if we grant that the Creator never yet communicated directly with the creature; that man has not seen with mortal eyes beyond the veil that shrouds the two eternities, it does not follow that religious faith is but arrant folly, that God is non-extant and man but the pitiful creature of blind force. The dumb brute knows many things it was never taught, and might not man, the greatest of the animal creation, be gifted with a knowledge not based upon experience? So far as observation goes, there is provision for the satisfaction of every passion, and the most powerful of all passions is the dread of annihilation–the longing for continual life. If death ends all then here is a violation of “natural law”–a miracle! And you, my dear Colonel, do not believe in miracles. If we discard Revelation and take Reason for our supreme guide, we must infallibly conclude that the devotional instinct implanted in the heart of the entire human race has its correlative that the longing for immortal life which burns in the breast of man was not a brutal mistake, else concede Nature a poor blunderer and all this prattle anent her “immutable laws” mere nonsense.

Before ridiculing Revelation and mocking at Inspiration were it not well to determine their true definition? What is genius but inspiration? and a new truth bodied forth to the world but a revelation? Were it not possible for a genius–an inspired man–to trace the finger of God in the sunset’s splendor as easily as upon tables of stone? to hear the voice of Omnipotence in the murmur of the majestic sea as well as in the thunders of Sinai? to read a divine message of undying love in a mother’s lullaby as readily as in the death and resurrection of a Deity? If God can teach the very insects wisdom and gift even the oyster with instinct, can He communicate with man only by word of mouth or the engraver’s burin? Examine the most beautiful woman imaginable with a powerful microscope and you will turn from her with a disgust similar to that of Gulliver when the Brobdingnagian maid placed him astride the nipple of her bosom. Her skin, so fair to the natural eye and velvety to the touch, becomes beneath the microscope suggestive of the hide of a hairless Mexican dog. Religion is a beautiful, an enchanting thing if you do but look at it with the natural eye; but when you employ the adventitious aid of the skeptic’s microscope you find flaws enough. It were doubtful if even our boasted American Government, of which you are so proud, could stand such an examination and retain your confidence.

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No, my dear Colonel; you will never banish worship from the world by warring upon non-essentials. You may demonstrate that every recorded miracle is a myth– that the founders of the various cults were but mortal men and the writers of every sacred book but scheming priests. You may make it gross to sense that the Creator has never held direct communication with the creature, and you have but stripped religion of its tattered vestments–have not laid the weight of your hand upon the impregnable citadel, the universal Fatherhood of God and Brotherhood of Man. You have never yet talked to the real question. You reject religion because Moses and Mahomet, Luther and Calvin entertained crude ideas of the plans and attributes of the Creator. You pose as an agnostic–a religious Know- nothing–because the Almighty has not taken you completely into his confidence. Because the blind have sometimes led the blind and both have fallen into the foul ditch of fanaticism and cruelty, you infer that not one gleam of supernal glory has pierced the dark vale of human life. While posing as the apostle of light, you will obscure the scintillations of the stars because the sun is hid; while apotheosizing Happiness you would banish Hope, that mother of which it is born.

But your labors have borne good as well as evil fruit. While your siren eloquence has led some doubting Thomases into the barren desert of Atheism, you have driven others to seek a better reason for their religious faith than barbarous tradition and the vote of ecumenical councils. Bigotry has quailed beneath the ringing blows of your iconoclastic hammer, dogmatism become more humble and the priesthood well-nigh forgotten to prate of a hell of fire in which the souls of unbaptized babes forever burn. Without intending it, perhaps, you have done more to promote the cause of true religion, more to intellectualize and humanize man’s conception of Almighty God, than any other reformer since the days of Christ.

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