A Defence of Atheism
April 10, 1861 — Mercantile Hall, Boston MA
My Friends: — In undertaking the inquiry of the existence of a God, I am fully conscious of the difficulties I have to encounter. I am well aware that the very question produces in most minds a feeling of awe, as if stepping on forbidden ground, too holy and sacred for mortals to approach. The very question strikes them with horror, and it is owing to the prejudice so deeply implanted by education, and also strengthened by public sentiment, that so few are willing to dive it a fair and impartial investigation, knowing but too well that it casts a stigma and reproach upon any person bold enough to undertake the task, unless his previously known opinions are a guarantee that his conclusions would be in accordance and harmony with the popular demand. But believing as I do, that Truth only is beneficial, and Error, from whatever source, and under what er name, is pernicious to man, I consider no place too holy, no subject too sacred, for man’s earnest investigation; for by so doing only can we arrive at Truth, learn to discriminate ie from Error, and be able to accept the one and reject the other.
Nor is this the only impediment in the way of this inquiry. The question arises, Where shall we begin? We have ben told, that “by searching none can find out God,” which has so far provided true; for, as yet, no one has ever been ale to find him. The most strenuous believer has to acknowledge that it is only a belief, but he knows nothing on the subject. Where, then, shall we search for his existence? Enter the material world; ask the Sciences whether they can disclose the mystery? Geology speaks of the structure of the Earth, the formation of the different strata, of coal, of granite, of the whole mineral kingdom. It reveals the remains and traces of animals long extinct, but gives us no clue whereby we may prove the existence of a God.
Natural history gives us a knowledge of the animal kingdom in general; the different organisms, structure, and powers of the various species. Physiology teaches the nature of man, the laws that govern his being, the functions of the vital organs, and the conditions upon which alone health and life depend. Phrenology treats of the laws of mind, the different portions of the brain, the temperaments, the organs, how to develop some and repress others to produce a well balanced and healthy condition. But in the whole animal economy — though the brain is considered to be a “microcosm,” in which may be traced a resemblance or relationship with everything in Nature — not a spot can be found to indicate the existence of a God.
Mathematics lays the foundation of all the exact sciences. It teaches the art of combining numbers, of calculating and measuring distances, how to solve problems, to weight mountains, to fathom the depths of the ocean; but gives no directions host to ascertain the existence of a God.
Enter Nature’s great laboratory — Chemistry. She will speak to you of the various elements, their combinations and uses, of the gasses constantly evolving and combining in different proportions, produced ing all the varieties objects, the interesting and important phenomena we behold. She proves the indestructibility of matter, and its inherent property — motion; but in all her operations no demonstrable fact can e obtained to indicate the existence of a God.
Astronomy tells us of the wonders of the Solar System — the eternally revolving planets, the rapidity and certainty of their motions, the distance from planet to planet, from star to star. It predicts with astonishing and marvelous precision the phenomena of eclipses, the visibility upon our Earth of moments, and proves the immutable law of gravitation, but is entirely silent on the hesitance of a God.
In fine, descent into the bowels of the Earth, and you will learn what it contains; into the depths of the ocean, and you will find the inhabitants of the great deep; but neither in the Earth love, nor in the waters below, can you obtain any knowledge of his existence. Ascend into the heavens, and enter the “milky way,” go from planet to planet to the remotest star, and ask the eternally revolving systems, Where is God? and Echo answers. Where?
The Universe of Matter gives us no record of his existence. Where next shall we search? Enter the Universe of Mind, read the millions of volumes written on the subject, and in all the speculations, the assertions, the assumptions, the theories, and the creeds, you can only find Man stamped in an indelible impress his own mind on every page. In describing his God, he delineated his own character: the picture he drew represents in living and ineffaceable colors the epoch of his existence — the period he lived in.
It was a great mistake to say that God made man in his image. Man, in all ages, made his God in his own image; and we find the just in accordance with his civilization, his knowledge, his experience, his taste, his refinement, his sense of right, of justice, of freedom, and humanity, so has he made his God. But whether coarse or refined; cruel and vindictive, or kind and generous; an implacable tyrant, or a gentle and loving father, it still was the emanation of his own mind — the picture of himself.
But, you ask, how came it that man thought or wrote about God at all? The answer is very simple. Ignorance is the mother of Superstition In proportion to man’s ignorance is he superstitious — does he believe in the mysterious. The very name has a charm for him. Being unacquainted with the nature and laws of things around him, with the true causes of the effects he witnessed, he ascribed them to false ones — to supernatural agencies. The savage, ignorant of the mechanism of a watch, attributes the ticking to a spirit. The so-called civilized man, equally ignorant of the mechanic of the Universe, and the laws which govern it, ascribes it to the same erroneous cause. Before electricity was discovered, a thunder-storm was said to come from the wrath of an offended Deity. To this fiction of man’s uncultivated mind, has been attributed all of good and evil, of wisdom and of folly. Man has talked about him, written about him, disputed about him, fought about him, scarified himself, and extirpated his fellow man. Rivers of blood and oceans of tears have been shed to please him, yet no one has ever been able to demonstrate his existence.
But the Bible, we are told, reveals this great mystery. Where here Nature is dumb, and Man ignorant, Revelation speaks in the authoritative voice of prophecy. Then let us see whether that Revelation can stand the test of reason and of truth. God, we are told, is omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, — all wise, all just, and all good; that he is perfect. So far, so well ; for less than perfection were unworthy of a God. The first act recorded of him is, that he created the world out of nothing; but unfortunately the revelation of Science — Chemistry — which is based not on written words, but demonstrable facts, says that Nothing has no existence, and therefore, out of Nothing, Nothing could be made. Revelation tells us that the world was created in six days. Here Geology steps in and says, that it requires thousands of ages to form the various strata of the earth. The Bible tells us that the earth was flat and stationary, and the sun moves around the earth. Copernicus and Galileo flatly deny this flat assertion, and demonstrate by Astronomy that the earth is spherical, and revolves around the sun. Revelation tells us that on the fourth day God created the sun, moon, and stars. This, Astronomy calls a moon story, and says that the first three days, before the grate torchlight was manufactured and suspended in the great lantern above, must have been rather dark.
the division of the waters above from the waters below, and the creation of the minor objects, I pass by, and come at once to the sixth day.
Having finished, in five days, this stupendous production, with its tightly mountains, its vast seas, its fields and woods; supplied the waters with fishes — from the whale that swallowed Jonah to the little Dutch herring; peopled the woods with inhabitants — from the tiger, the lion, the bear, the elephant with his trunk, the dromedary with his hump, the deer with his antlers, the nightingale with her melodies, down to the serpent which tempted other Eve; covered the fields with vegetation, decorated the gardens with flowers, hung the trees with fruits; and surveying this glorious world as it lay spread out like a map before him, the question naturally suggested itself. What is it all for, unless there were beings capable of admiring, of appreciating, and of enjoying the delights this beautiful world could afford? And suiting the action to the impulse, he said, “Let us make man.” “So God reared man in his own image; in the image of God created he him, male and female created he them.”
I presume by the term “image,” we are not to understand a near resemblance of face or form, but in the image or likeness of his knowledge, his power, his wisdom, and perfection. Having thus made man, he placed him (them) in the garden of Eden — the loveliest and most enchanting spot at the very head of creation, and bade them (with the single restriction not to eat of the tree of knowledge), to live, to love, and to be happy.
What a delightful picture, could we only rest here! But did these beings, fresh fro the hand of omnipotent wisdom, in whose image they were made, answer the great bet of their creation? Alas! no. No sooner were they installed in their paradise home, than they violated the fist, the only injunction given them, and fell from their high estate; and not only they, but by a singular justice of that very merciful Creator, their innocent posterity to all coming generations, fell with them! Does that bespeak wisdom and perfection in the Creator, or in the creature? But what was the cause of this tremendous fall, which frustrated the whole design of the creation? The serpent tempted mother Eve, and she, like a good wife, tempted her husband. But did God not know when he created the Serpent that it would tempt the woman, and that she was made out of such frail materials (the rib of Adam), as not to be able to resist the temptation? if he did not know, then his knowledge was at fault; if he did, but could not prevent the calamity, then his power was at fault; if he knew and could, but would not, then his goodnesses was at fault. goose which you please, and it remains alike fatal to the rest.
Revelation tells us that God made man perfect, and found him imperfect; then he pronounced all things good, and found them most desperately bad. “And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and the every imagination of the thought of his heart was evil continually. And it repented the Lord that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart.” “And the Lord said, I will destroy man whom I have created, from the face of the earth; both man and beast, and the creeping things, and the fowls of the airi, for it repenteth me that I have made them.” So he destroyed everything, except Noah with his family, and a few household pets. Why he saved them is hard to say, unless it was to reserve materials as stock in hand to commence a new world with; but really, judging of the character of those he saved, by their descendants, it strikes me it would have been much better, and given him far less trouble, to have let them slip also, and with his improved experience made a new world out of fresh and superior materials.
As it was, this wholesale destruction even, was a failure. The world was not one jot better after the flood than before. His chosen children were just as bad as ever, and he had to send his prophets, again and again, to threaten, to frighten, to coax, to cajole, and to flatter them into good behaviors. But all to no effect. They grew worse and worse: and having made a convenient with Noah after he had scarified of “every clean beast of every clean flow,” — “The Lord smelt the sweet savior, and the Lord said in his heart, I will l not again curse the ground any more for man’s sake; for the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth; neither will I again smite any more everything living, as I have done.” And so he was forced to resort to the last sad alternative of sending “his own begotten son,” his second self, to save them. But alas! “his own received him not,” and so he was obliged to adopt the Gentiles, and die to save the world. Did he succeed, even then? Is the world saved? Saved! From what? From ignorance?It is all around us. From poverty, vice, crime, sin, misery, and shame? It abounds everywhere. Look into your poor-houses, your prisons, your lunatic asylums contemplate the whip, the instruments of torture and of death; ask the murderer, or his victim; listen to the ravings of the maniac, the shrieks of distress, the groans of despair; mark the cruel deeds of the tyrant, the crimes of slavery, and the suffering’s go the oppressed; county the millions fo lives lost by fire, by water, and by the sword measure the blood spilled, the tears shed, the signs of agony drawn from the expiring victims on the altar of fanaticism; — and tell me from what the world was saved? And why was it not saved? Why does God still permit these horrors to afflict the race? Does omniscience not know it? Could omnipotence not do it? Would infinite wisdom, power and goodness allow his children thus to live, to suffer, and to die? No! Humanity revolts agains such a supposition.
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In conclusion, the Atheist says to the honest conscientious believer, Thought I cannot believe in your God whom you have failed to demonstrate, I believe in man; if I have no faith in your religion, I have faith, unbounded, unshaken faith in the principles of right, of justice, and humanity. Whatever good you are willing to do for the sake of your God, I am full as willing to do for the sake of man. But the monstrous crimes the believer perpetrated in persecuting and exterminating his fellowman on account of difference of belief, the Atheist, knowing that belief is not voluntary, but depends on evidence and therefore there can be no merit in the belief of any religions, nor demerit in a disbelief in all of them, could never be guilty of. Whatever good you would do out of fear of punishment, or hope of reward hereafter, the Atheist would do simply because it is good, and being so, he would receive the far surer and more certain reward, springing from well-doing, which would constitute his pleasure, and promote his happiness.
Source: Mistress of Herself: Speeches and Letters of Ernestine L. Rose, Early Women’s Rights Leader, ed. Paula Doress-Worters (New York: The Feminist Press) 2008, pps. 295-300.