George Walford: What Religion Does for Freethinking

A talk delivered to The Ethical Society at Conway Hall by George Walford.

For our text this afternoon we have What Religion Does for Freethinking. Following the example set by other preachers, I should like to start by drawing your attention to the wording. Not ‘What Religion has Done’ for freethinking, but what it does. Present tense. Even today, in this advanced part of the world, in what often looks like a secular age with the churches on their last legs, religion is helping with the work of the Ethical Society.

In coming before you with an argument like that, I get some idea what Daniel must have felt, entering the lions’ den. Actually Daniel has a good deal to do with my theme, and we’ll come back to him later.

I’m not going to deny that religion has done an enormous amount of harm. Many freethinkers have suffered from it, many other people too. Supporters of one religion have suffered from supporters of another. No need to go into details; you know about these things and I am not disputing them. But after recognising the Inquisition, the religious wars, the oppression, the burning of people and of books, we still have to add, to get a complete picture, that religion is doing a job that has to be done if freethinking is to survive. And although it sometimes does it very badly indeed, we’ve nothing that has shown itself more effective.

Religion came in with agriculture and the state, it has been with us for some ten thousand years. It is one of our biggest institutions, it has provided a field of action for some of the sharpest and strongest intellects. It’s immensely rich in ideas, endlessly complex, and I’m not going to sort it out in forty-five minutes. I shall be trying to do just one thing: to show that religion helps with the first step towards freethought.

I was sitting once with my younger daughter, chatting about family things. She must have been nine or ten at the time, and already had a sharp sense of humour. She said:

You know, Dad, when Mum wants us to do something she just yells at us. You don’t do that; you explain, calmly and reasonably, what you want us to do and why you want us to do it.’

As you can imagine, I was delighted. “Ah, my child understands me.” I may even have blushed with pleasure. Then the little devil added: “And that’s where you go wrong!”

That sums up my theme this afternoon. Religion uses promises of heaven and threats of hell. It tries to influence people, you can almost say, by just yelling at them. Most freethinkers oppose these methods. They think we ought to explain, calmly and reasonably, the right way to think, and there of course I agree; we must do that. But they also believe that nothing more is needed, and that’s where they go wrong.

But let’s start at the beginning. And let’s begin, in good rationalist style, by trying to define our terms, or at least clarifying our main terms, ‘religion’ and ‘freethought.’

This afternoon I shall be using this word ‘religion’ to reach from the crude fundamentalisms to the milder versions that get adopted by states as their official creeds. It will mean that old-time religion, the religion that brings forward a God who tells you what to do – and blows his top if you don’t do it.

It will not include the mystics, nonconformists, heretics, Gnostics or sectarians. Not the freedom-fighting priests, not Tutu of South Africa or Aristide of Haiti. Not the Anglican eccentrics, the Deans and Canons and Bishops who deny the existence of the God they are paid to defend. Some of these help freethought, but they do it in different ways and it just isn’t possible to deal with all of them in one short afternoon. So I leave them aside. In this talk the word ‘ religion’ will mean the solid body of traditional religion, the central core, the mainstream.

I shall be talking mainly about Protestant Christianity since that’s the religion I’m most familiar with, but the argument holds good for the orthodox versions of Roman Catholicism, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and perhaps a few others like them. These are the great religions, this is where we find the big numbers of religious people. These organisations provide the main weight of religious activity, and this afternoon I shall be using the word ‘religion’ to mean them and their doctrines.

When speaking of religious people I shall mean only those who have made a deliberate act of accepting one of these religions. In most parts of the world one or another of them dominates, and most people grow up with a vague picture of themselves as Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists or whatever. This, of itself, does not make them religious, any more than growing up under a Conservative government makes you a conservative. To count as religious you must have thought about religion and decided to accept it.

Our other main word, ‘freethinker.’ I shall use in a broad sense. It will include the humanists, agnostics and atheists; all the people who have thought about religion and decided either to oppose it or at least not to support it. But here, also, there has to be a deliberate decision. Growing up in a freethinking household is not enough to make you a freethinker; if it did, if most children of freethinking parents joined the movement, freethought would be more influential than it is.

Freethinkers don’t worship reason and evidence, but they put them before their personal convenience. They have bound themselves to do and say the rational thing whether convenient or not.

In talking about religion and God I’m bound by history. Most Gods are said to be male, and have been so through historical times, so it’s male gods I shall be talking about. Jehovah, Allah, Bramah and the others.

Although these divinities vary a good deal they all get presented in much the same way. They are the great Gods, and each of them is put forward as a tremendous, dominating figure. All-powerful, all-knowing. Creator, Lord, master of earth and heaven, disposing not merely of life and death but of eternal life and death.

Each one of them, Buddhism like the others, sets up a figure greater than ourselves and urges us to join him. It sets this supreme hero on one side, the world, the flesh and the devil on the other, and challenges us to choose between them.

All the religions on our list present their Gods in this way, but that list has one big gap. You can’t sensibly talk about the great religions without taking Buddhism into account, and it lacks this feature. It’s a religion without a god. This doesn’t make as much difference as one might think. Although Buddhism doesn’t have a God, it still presents a dominating hero-figure. It calls him Lord, it offers him prayer and sacrifice, it studies his words and worships his holy relics. About the only thing it doesn’t do is to credit Buddha – or debit him – with having created the world. And a few Buddhists have done even that. Back around 1,000 A.D. a few sects in Nepal and Tibet believed in a Creator-Buddha. [1] Buddha may not be presented as technically divine, but he’s a lot more than human.

Unlike Christianity, Buddhism doesn’t send you to hell if you disobey, but it does something quite as nasty. It says you are already in Hell. Buddhism tells us that in ordinary daily life, in getting and spending, in loving people or fighting with them, in working to satisfy our desires, we are bound on the wheel, and here we shall find only desire and suffering. If we are to reach the blessed peace of Nirvana, we need to turn our interest away from the world to higher things, following Buddha along the Noble Eightfold Path. Like the other religions, although more gently, Buddhism offers a mighty leader and invites us to leave the world and follow him.

Religion sets up the distinction between sacred and secular, it tries to establish a firm distinction between good and evil. You can say that it introduces the first universal, systematic, classification, but that rather misses the point, because religion is a great deal more than pure logic. It does classify, but not in any cold, dispassionate way. It offers warmth, life and colour, love and hate, thrills and adventure. Theatre, music, literature, painting and sculpture, religion uses them all. And, even more than that, it offers a personal leader.

This stands out as a main feature of all the great religions. Each one of them, Buddhism like the others, sets up a figure greater than ourselves and urges us to join him. It sets this supreme hero on one side, the world, the flesh and the devil on the other, and challenges us to choose between them: ‘Who is on the Lord’s side, who will serve the King?’ It’s a Christian hymn, but the other great religions show the same spirit.

Now, it’s time to pause for a moment and think where we’re going. This talk is supposed to be about the way religion helps freethought, and all I’ve done so far is draw attention to the way all religions put forward a leader and demand that we follow him. This isn’t at all the way freethought works. People like Tom Paine, Moncure Conway, Bradlaugh, and others like them, can perhaps be called leaders of the freethought movement, but if freethinkers follow them, it’s because they have tested their ideas and found them acceptable. They don’t just accept what the leader, or the priest, or anybody else, tells them to believe. When religion sets up divine leaders and says that if you don’t believe what they say you’ll go to hell, it doesn’t seem to be helping freethought at all. Rather the opposite.

Freethought and religion seem to be opposed, but this appearance is deceptive, a sort of optical illusion. The picture is incomplete, and it changes its meaning when you replace the missing bit. Then you find religion and freethought together on one side and this third thing apart from them on the other.

You will remember that I’m using ‘religious’ for people who have thought about religion and decided to accept it, and ‘freethinker’ for those who have thought about religion and decided not to accept it. There’s also a third group, not yet mentioned: the ones who have not thought seriously about religion. These I shall call the non-religious people, and these are the bit missing from our picture. Put that bit into place and then you find religion and freethought together on one side and the nonreligious people over against them on the other.

Here we reach the point on which this talk turns. The non-religious people are even farther away from freethinking than the religious ones. By making them religious, religion brings them closer to freethought.

Unlike religious people, the nonreligious seldom argue against freethought, and freethinkers often take this to mean they are really on their side, different only in not talking about it. But freethinking isn’t something that comes naturally or easily; it takes a mental effort. When people don’t respond to it, that doesn’t mean they are smoothly accepting it; just the contrary. It shows them to be so far away that it doesn’t affect them. If many of the people who don’t declare themselves were tacitly in favour of freethought, supporting it when the question did come up, the freethought movement would be a lot stronger than it is.

In spite of the difference, the opposition, sometimes the enmity, between freethinkers and religious people, they have this in common: Both have undertaken to put commitment before advantage or convenience. The nonreligious people are not bound in this way, they remain free to do whatever they find convenient.

Look at this word ‘freethinker.’ It doesn’t mean that freethinkers have liberty to accept any ideas they happen to fancy. Although they don’t have to believe in God, or do what the Bible tells them, or accept what the priest says, yet in order to be freethinkers they do have to accept some beliefs and reject others. They have to go where reason and evidence lead.

Freethinkers don’t worship reason and evidence, but they put them before their personal convenience. They have bound themselves to do and say the rational thing whether convenient or not.

The religious people also have accepted a commitment. They are not committed to the same things as freethinkers; they obey God, or the priest, or the Bible. But although bound to different things, they are bound in the same way. They too have knowingly accepted a commitment, undertaken to put it before their personal convenience. Daniel, holding to his faith in the presence of the lions, and Bradlaugh, standing up for his beliefs in the House of Commons, were both acting in the same way. As the hymn puts it: ‘Dare to be a Daniel, dare to stand alone, dare to have a purpose true, dare to make it known.’ They were both doing that, but we have to add that Daniel came first. Religion introduced this pattern of behaviour; the freethought movement took it up later.

Siddhartha Gautama, the man we usually mean when we talk about Buddha, grew up to become a prince; following his beliefs he gave up the princely life to become a wandering beggar. The central Christian myth tells of a man who held to his beliefs to the point of being crucified. Whether this actually happened or not, the prominence of the story shows the importance Christianity puts on standing by your commitments.

The anarchist paper, Freedom, recently carried a cartoon by Donald Rooum. It showed a preacher smugly announcing that the Northern Irish bombers – on both sides – are godless, selfish, anarchic and cowardly. The cartoon protests that this is just the opposite of the truth. The bombers are religious, highly disciplined, prepared to sacrifice themselves.

And that’s right. Both the IRA and the Protestant terrorists are religious as I am using that word tonight. They are potential martyrs, the stuff of which the Church is made. They are not freethinkers, but neither are they they simply accepting what they find around them. They are standing up and fighting it, showing the beginnings of independent thinking. And that is characteristic of religion.

Freedom of thought – more accurately, freedom for the public expression of one’s thoughts – began as freedom to express different shades of religious thinking. At first this freedom was narrow. Milton’s Areopagitica ranks as a basic text, but it does not advocate freethought as freethinkers understand it.

He speaks of divisions within the Church and says that Christians must be tolerant. But he then goes on to show just how narrow his tolerance is:

“I mean not tolerated Popery and open superstition” and again: “that also which is impious or evil absolutely either against faith or manners, no law can possibly permit.” [2]

I suggest there can be little doubt that what goes on in the Ethical Society Milton would condemn as impious and against faith. And he says no law can possibly permit it.

Milton was no freethinker, he was a religious man who held to his beliefs at great risk to himself, and by doing so he helped to clear the path that the freethought movement was eventually to use. He didn’t intend this. He did it almost in spite of himself, but by advocating tolerance, even if only among different sects of Protestants, he opened the way for freethought. And he did it in the course of working out his religious beliefs and trying to realise them in social practice.

In spite of the difference, the opposition, sometimes the enmity, between freethinkers and religious people, they have this in common: Both have undertaken to put commitment before advantage or convenience.

The non-religious people are not bound in this way, they remain free to do whatever they find convenient. For the most part they comply with the conventions and the authorities, but not from conviction. They do this because it is convenient in the sense of being the safest way to behave; anything else means taking a risk. They have not looked critically at accepted ideas of right and wrong, thought about them and decided to accept or reject them. Both freethinkers and religious people have made such a decision. They stand up to be counted, and this sometimes gets them into bad trouble. Martyrs do not appear among the nonreligious, but both religion and freethought have them.

The difference between religious and nonreligious shows up whenever a country changes its official religion. Take England in the 16th Century. Catholic, Protestant, Catholic, Protestant – I forget how many times it changed. Each time there were people who held firmly to the former religion, some of them getting burnt for it, but most showed themselves willing to change as they were told, accepting this religion today, that one tomorrow, adapting their beliefs to the convenience of the moment. As I am using the word this evening, those who held firm were religious, those who did the convenient, easy thing were not.

Of course it wasn’t such a clear, sharp division as that makes it sound; there will have been many degrees of reluctance, and doubtless some held firm while pretending to change. The divisions that appear in social affairs seldom are hard and fast, but this does not mean they don’t matter. The difference between men and women is not hard and sharp, but it is real, and it matters.

Lord Northcliffe pioneered the popular press with the Daily Mail in 1896… In his own words: ‘A newspaper is to be made to pay. Let it deal with what interests the mass of people.’ He described his own activities: ‘giving the public what it wants.’

Between religion and freethought comes religion. Unlike freethought religion does deal in pictures and personalities. But, unlike nonreligion, it does not confine itself to these. It uses them as symbols for something beyond.

This absence of commitment on the part of the non-religious people does not have to make them selfish or cruel; they often show generosity, even self-sacrifice, but from impulse rather than on principle. This explains why charity appeals use pictures of pathetic children. The organisers know that a great many people are guided mainly by a wish to be comfortable. Tell them that because capitalism seeks profit a lot of people are going to die young, and they turn away, bored. They don’t think in global terms, they have no commitment to the welfare of human beings generally. Out of sight, out of mind. But show a starving child that reminds them disturbingly of their own children, and they will pay to be at peace again.

The charities have largely stopped using those highly emotional illustrations, but this was not because they failed to bring in the money; just the contrary. It was because they were too effective. They made the refugees appear as helpless victims, which most of them are not. But since the really horrific illustrations have stopped, the response has diminished, and some agencies are thinking about going back to them. [3]

The interest of the great numbers of nonreligious people lies in what is direct, visible and personal, and I’ve got some evidence of this here. Two popular newspapers. Before we turn to them, though, there’s one point we need to clear up. I shall be using these papers as evidence of the way their readers think, and this sometimes meets the argument that they don’t show what the readers think at all, only what the publishers think, or what the advertisers want them to say. This argument does not stand up.

The publishers do not force people to read their papers; just the opposite. They say you can’t have one unless you pay for it, and few people will pay for papers they don’t want to read. It is true that on any one day the editors or proprietors can print what they would like the paper to say, but if they keep on doing that they lose their circulation, their advertisers and their profit. Newspapers aiming at a mass circulation have to print what large numbers of people will want to read.

There’s a classic statement on this, by a man who showed himself to know very well indeed what he was talking about. A man who ran newspapers so successfully that he won himself a fortune and a peerage. Alfred Harmsworth, later Lord Northcliffe, pioneered the popular press with the Daily Mail in 1896, following up with the first tabloid, the Daily Mirror, in 1903. In his own words: ‘A newspaper is to be made to pay. Let it deal with what interests the mass of people.’ He described his own activities: ‘giving the public what it wants.’ [4]

By looking at these papers we can tell what interests their readers. Here they are. The Sun and Today, both for January 27 this year. I had planned to tell you that these are not selected issues, that I just went out and bought them on the day I got to this point in preparing the talk. It didn’t work out like that. I went out to the nearest newsagent and bought the first three popular-looking papers I saw. But one of them was the Daily Sport, and when I got that home and innocently opened it, it shook me rigid. I simply could not bring a thing like that onto these chaste premises. So I have to admit that these two papers are selected. They are the most intellectual and refined of the three originally bought.

On thinking this over, I came to see that my 30 pence or whatever for the Daily Sport had not been wasted; it helps to make my point. That paper is on sale in every newsagent’s. People read it in the tube, the buses and the pubs, they carry it in the streets. In ordinary, everyday, non-religious life it’s quite common. But I didn’t dare bring it into a meeting of freethinkers, and I wouldn’t want to take it into church, either. That suggests that these two have something in common.

Now, let’s look at the two papers I did bring. Here they are. We’ve only got one short afternoon, so we can’t study them thoroughly, and for our purposes today, there are two things that matter: First, the number of pictures. Without counting adverts or cartoons, the Sun has 60 pictures in 44 pages, and Today does rather better – or worse, as you prefer – with 88 pictures in 40 pages. Put the two together and we get 148 pictures in 84 pages. Allow for several pages in each of them being taken up with adverts and cartoons and they average out around two pictures on every page. Quite a few of the pictures are large – quarter-page or more, sometimes full-page.

Of those 148 pictures, 141 show people, and of those, 136 have names attached. Of the five without names, three show people whose names are wanted. You can see how much space the pictures take up. And these two are nothing special; you can buy other papers like them in any newsagent’s.

From these papers we can tell that their readers like to look at pictures rather than to read or to think, and that they prefer pictures of people. Not people in the mass, but identifiable people with names. Individual people. What little text there is talks almost entirely about particular people. Personalities and their personal affairs. Very personal indeed, much of it. Sex, more or less direct, takes up a great deal of space and sex, obviously, means people. So does the sport which takes up a good deal of each of these papers.

The newspapers are not alone in providing this sort of material television takes much the same approach. It covers a wider range, including much material for the religious people and even some that meets the particular interests of freethinkers, but the programmes that attract the really big numbers – Coronation Street, Neighbours, East Enders – every one of them is about individual people, people that the audience can get to know as persons, almost the way they know their own friends.

When religion does succeed, it acts like a rocket drive, blasting you out of your accustomed groove. It calls upon you to make a choice, to perform a positive act by adopting a definite set of standards, aims and principles.

Remember the cinema when it was the mass medium, back before TV? Pictures again, and the whole thing turned on the stars. Clark Gable, Bette Davis, James Stewart, Charlie Chaplin and the rest. And as if pictures of them weren’t enough, a sizeable industry grew up, devoted to spreading accounts of their personal lives – mostly fictitious.

The mass media are made up mainly of pictures and personalities. These are what interest the great numbers of nonreligious people.

Here are our two papers, and beside them we set the last two issues of Ethical Record. These contain just one picture, and not a single personal story of the sort that fills the papers.

In this room we do have some portraits – Bernard Shaw, William Morris and others. They remind us of our history, they add warmth, we wouldn’t want to be without them, but they don’t play any important part in what goes on; the speakers hardly ever mention them. Among freethinkers it’s not pictures or personalities that matter. It’s ideas, things that can only be grasped with the mind.

On the one hand we have the nonreligious people, taken up with pictures and personalities. On the other the freethinkers, their attention fixed on ideas. Personalities do occur among freethinkers, but they don’t take up a very big place. And the things that interest freethinkers simply cannot be pictured. You can’t photograph rationality or atheism, you can’t draw them, and you can’t even symbolise them. They have to be grasped with the mind.

Unlike freethought religion does deal in pictures and personalities. But, unlike nonreligion, it does not confine itself to these. It uses them as symbols for something beyond, it comes between nonreligion and freethought.

Religion has its attention fixed, first, on the superhuman leaders – God, Christ, Buddha and so on. Second, on heaven, hell, sin and salvation. Like the ideas of freethought these can’t be seen but, unlike those ideas, they can be pictured. Religion deals in ideas that can be imagined, personalised, symbolised, and as far as it can it treats them in this way.

Every religion – remember we are talking only about the main, orthodox ones – every religion makes great use of visual symbols. Churches with spires pointing heavenward, mosques with minarets; statues, robes and rituals; until quite recently nearly all the important painting and music were religious. And each religion also has one or two big central symbols around which the whole thing turns. For Christianity the crucifixion, for Buddhism the figure of Buddha, for Islam, Mecca.

Religion uses the same method as the popular papers, only it doesn’t stop there. It uses pictures that are not only pictures; ones embodying the ideas that the Church wants to spread. If we want to get philosophical we can say that the mass media use a sensuous approach, freethinkers concentrate on intellect, and religion stands between them, using a sensuous approach to convey an intellectual content.

Also – again like the popular papers, television and cinema – religion focuses on individual people. While a political movement will set out to promote the interests of this class or that nation, religion offers salvation to each one of us separately. And each religion centres around some divine or superhuman person – Christ, Mohammed, Siddhartha Gautama – whom we are urged to emulate. Like nonreligion, it fixes its attention on personal, concrete, individual people.

On the one hand, the non-religious people, seeking pictures and personalities without ideas. On the other hand freethought, offering ideas virtually without pictures or personalities. Between them religion, offering ideas in the shape of pictures and personalities.

So we’ve got religion providing a bridge from non-religion to freethought. After all these centuries, do we still need it?

Once you’ve got familiar with rationality then religion starts to look crude and unsatisfactory, even dishonest. As a way of bringing people to freethought, it is roundabout, longwinded, expensive and troublesome. Why not do away with it? Why not cut straight across, just explaining to people in the first place why it’s better to think rationally? Why bother with symbols, myths and legends? Why not go straight to the ideas?

To see why we need religion, just compare the Ethical Record, or any other journal or book about freethought, with the Old Testament or the Mahabharata, or Revelations. There have been numbers of films made on Old Testament stories, and at least one, that was shown in England, on the Mahabarata. (Or that may have been a play; I forget). Can you imagine anybody making a film or a play from the Ethical Record?

On the one side, logical exposition, clear, calm and careful. On the other, drive and drama. Marching armies, warhorses, trumpets and banners, crucifixion, massacre and genocide, blood and sacrifice and treachery and torture. Hell attacking heaven; giants, gods, angels and devils, a supercolossal cosmic drama. And it’s all for you. Take the good side and you live for ever in glory at the right hand of the Lord. Choose the bad, and you scream in flames for all eternity.

Anybody who hasn’t undergone religious conversion has missed one of life’s great experiences. Set beside the upheaval that religion can produce, rational thinking has about as much pulling power as the multiplication table.

I don’t say a word against logical reasoning and rational argument in their place. We need them among ourselves, we need them for criticising religion, and for dealing with people who are anywhere near becoming freethinkers. But they are no use at all for getting anybody started, for getting people to look beyond pictures and personalities and recognise that there are bigger things that matter. They are no good for arousing the first awareness that things are wrong in the world and we ought to be doing something about it. To do that you need the power, the emotion and the drive that religion brings to bear.

Religion… does its damnedest to force you to make a conscious decision one way or the other. And when you make a decision of this importance for yourself you take the first big step towards independent rationality, towards becoming a freethinker.

Religion does not see nonreligion as just different from itself, it sees it as wrong. Damnably wrong. Freethinkers don’t talk about damnation, but they condemn religion quite as strongly as religion condemns nonreligion.

I am talking about religion as it has been and as it is. Not some ideal religion that might be set up if only we could get people to agree with us, but religion as we see it around us and as we find it in the history books. This religion tells you what to do. It says you can disobey if you choose, but it adds that if you do, you will burn in hell. And if you happen to live in a rough patch then you will burn on earth to begin with. Religion is rough, shocking, frightening, and even so it doesn’t work with everybody. Many remain with their interest limited to pictures and people throughout their lives.

When religion does succeed, it acts like a rocket drive, blasting you out of your accustomed groove. It calls upon you to make a choice, to perform a positive act by adopting a definite set of standards, aims and principles. You don’t have to have think these out for yourself, but you do have to choose them. It is not enough just to take for granted the ones you happen to have been born into.

Religion, this orthodox religion that we’re talking about, is strongly authoritarian. God doesn’t explain and he doesn’t argue. He issues commandments, and if you break them you get punished. We are told to love God and also told that he loves us, but there’s never any doubt who’s boss. And just to make quite sure that he remains on top, God has appointed himself judge. You haven’t a hope against him.

Looking at all this, one can easily overlook something very important. Finally, God does not force you. Just the contrary. He insists that you make your own decision. He tells you what he wants you to do, and the awful things that will happen to you if you don’t do it. He sends his son down to earth to persuade you and to set an example, knowing that he will die horribly. God brings pressure to bear in all sorts of ways but he does not, finally, force you. Religion or the worldly life? Heaven or Hell? You have to decide.

In ordinary everyday life we seldom have to make big decisions. Little ones, yes, all the time, but the big ones are mostly made for us. As children it’s our parents and teachers who do this; in later life mostly the boss or the government. If you are yourself an employer, then your decisions are largely made for you by the trade unions, the customers and the government. If you are a doctor, lawyer or surveyor, then there are rules and ethical standards; if you follow these you are safe, no matter what happens to the client.

At almost every point you can stand up and say No!, you can strike out on a path of your own. But you don’t have to. There’s a tide running, and you can just let yourself be carried along by it. You can live your whole life without making a big moral decision for yourself, and a great many people do.

Religion tries to jerk you out of this, to make you accept responsibility. It doesn’t force you to go where it wants, but it does its damnedest to force you to make a conscious decision one way or the other. And when you make a decision of this importance for yourself you take the first big step towards independent rationality, towards becoming a freethinker.

Powerful emotions are usually ambivalent, fear and love two sides of the same coin, and religion is like this. Jehovah is the Lord of Hosts and the Ancient of Days, but he is also the still, small voice within the heart. Christ is King and Lord of all; he is also a babe in a manger. It isn’t rational, but that’s just the point. To start people moving you need a big emotional bang. The reasoning comes later.

Once religion has persuaded or frightened you into action, once it has kick-started you into feeling responsible, instead of just taking yourself and the world around you for granted, then serious thinking has a chance, thinking that is more rational than anything religion offers, more analytical, more critical. But it is religion, more than anything else, that gets us started.

And religion had been around, doing its best to get serious thinking started, for a long time before the freethought movement appeared. Freethought reaches higher levels of rationality than religion, but it does so by building on the foundation religion provides.

I have been talking about the non-religious people as we know them, religion as we know it, freethought as we know it, and the way these three fit together. If you ask me, does it have to be like this? Will we always have these three groups, with the nonreligious the biggest of them, religion next, and freethought the smallest of the three, I can only refer you to the evidence. The non-religious people have been with us since humanity first appeared. Religion has not succeeded in eliminating them. And religion, the sort of religion I’ve been talking about, has been with us for some ten thousand years. It changes its form but shows no sign of disappearing.

The pattern of development has not been one in which the new replaces the old. The new develops out of the old and comes to rest upon it. A structure of layers develops, with each new layer smaller, less powerful than the old.

We can, of course, say that it will all be quite different in future. We can declare our burning faith that freethought is going to eliminate religion. But reverting from reason to faith is hardly the way to get rid of the religious attitude.

It seems that we have to accept the continuing presence of our three groups, the nonreligious, the religious and the freethinkers. It would be nice if we could count on them working peacefully together, but they haven’t done this up till now, and we have no good reason to expect a change here either. Religion does not see nonreligion as just different from itself, it sees it as wrong. Damnably wrong. Freethinkers do not see religion as just disagreeing with them. They see it as harmful; deceitful and oppressive. Freethinkers don’t talk about damnation, but they condemn religion quite as strongly as religion condemns nonreligion.

Religion directs most of its attention against the nonreligious, and freethought criticises religion. Each of them attacks its own immediate source, feeling that this is evil and should be done away with.

At first sight this is puzzling. If they are as closely linked as is being suggested, if religion grew out of nonreligion, and freethought out of religion, why should there be all this hostility? For an answer to that, look at what happens when we walk upstairs. We go up by pushing down, by driving away from us the step we formerly stood on. It’s almost as if we were attacking it.

Analogies never prove anything, but these comparisons do suggest an answer to the question whether freethought can expect eventually to do away with religion. To drop into cliché, it would be cutting through the branch it stands on.

That is not altogether a good image; it’s a bit mechanical. Consider a tree. One can readily imagine the leaves resenting the way the twigs and branches restrict them, feeling that without these they’d free to fly away. And the branches thinking of the adventures they could have, if only they weren’t tied to that horrible trunk. And in one sense they would be right. The branches do stop the leaves from moving freely and the trunk does hinder the movement of the branches. But without trunk no branches, and without branches no leaves.

This does not mean that freethinkers ought to abandon their present hostility towards religion, or even soften it. Opposition and hostility do much to motivate progress and development; we go up by pushing down, and the harder we push the higher and faster we ascend. But we still need something to stand on.

Analogies never prove anything, but these comparisons do suggest an answer to the question whether freethought can expect eventually to do away with religion. To drop into cliché, it would be cutting through the branch it stands on.

Let me wind up by reading a few lines from a book by a well-known freethinker: The History of Mr. Polly, by H.G.Wells. It is summertime and Mr. Polly, very much a non-religious man, is wandering happily round the countryside. Quite unexpectedly, he finds himself facing a challenge. The landlady of a riverside inn, living alone, is being terrorised; will Mr. Polly take the risk of defending her? He can turn his back, carry on doing the convenient, pleasant, easy thing, or he can make a stand. This is how Wells describes his condition: ‘Life had never been so clear to him before. It had always been a confused, entertaining spectacle. He had responded to this impulse and that, seeking agreeable and entertaining things, evading difficult and painful things. Such is the way of those who grow up to a life that has neither danger nor honour in its texture. He had been muddled and wrapped about and entangled, like a creature born in the jungle who has never seen sea or sky. Now he had come out of it suddenly into a great exposed place. It was as if God and Heaven waited over him, and all the earth was expectation.’ [5]

That is exactly what I’ve been struggling to express. That is how religion works on people who have been content to get by the best they can. It takes hold of them and forces them to face the big issues. It is religion, with its powerful emotional appeal, that first introduces principles and serious thinking.

Mr. Polly met his challenge, and Wells ends the story there. Let us hope that Mr.Polly went on to become a freethinker.

1. Conze E.1957 Buddhism, its Essence and Development Oxford: Bruno Cassirer, 43
2. Milton J. 1948 (1644) Areopagitica; a speech for the liberty of unlicenc’d printing. In Complete Poetry and Selected Prose. Nonesuch. 723
3. Benthall J. 1993 Disasters, Relief and the Media London: Tauris 215
4. Quoted in Carey J.1992, The Intellectuals and the Masses, London: Faber & Faber,6.
5. Wells H.G. 1971 (1910) The History of Mr. Polly London: Pan Books Ltd. 187.



In the bad old colonial days Africans got thoroughly put down, and anthropologists found themselves acting as advocates for the defence, showing that ‘African’ was not a synonym for stupid, ignorant or inferior. Now they find themselves working to correct the contrary fallacy, showing that Africans living their traditional life or something near to it are not repositories of all the virtues, that they do not set an example the advanced states would do well to follow: ‘Primitive man is used by Westerners nowadays as surely as he was by Rousseau or Montaigne to prove a point about their own society and castigate those aspects of it they find unattractive. Contemporary “thinkers” pay as little heed to fact or balanced judgement as their forebears.’ (Barley N. 1983, The Innocent Anthropologist, Harmondsworth: Penguin 94-5)

IKE BENJAMIN once remarked that in the USSR there were conservative communists, liberal communists, socialist communists, communist communists and anarchist communists. Since the demise of Stalinism the continuing presence of conservative communists has been specially noticeable. Having grown into the shape of that society they retain the mould, and while some may still act like apparatchiks or camp guards, others carry on much like the majority of elderly conservatives everywhere, people who worked and suffered in the belief that it was for their country and fought – sometimes heroically – in wars, all the time looking up to their leader. Many of them survive in Russia today, perhaps enough to form a silent majority of their generation, ‘neither apologists nor rationalists of tyranny and violence, but simply the people who made Russia what it was in the war and, incidentally, saved Europe from Hitler and German domination.’ (John Bayly, NYR August 12,3).

THE UNCLE Charlie argument (formerly the non sequitur): Every day my Uncle Charlie used to drink a bottle of brandy and then run about, kissing every woman he saw. It killed him in the end, all that kissing.  [See also Creative Argument from Ideological Commentary 60, May 1993.]

from Ideological Commentary 63, February 1994.