A Reply To The New York Clergy On Superstition.

Robert Green Ingersoll

New York Journal, 1898. An Interview.

Question. Have you followed the controversy, or rather, the interest manifested in the letters to the Journal which have followed your lecture of Sunday, and what do you think of them?

Answer. I have read the letters and reports that have been published in the Journal. Some of them seem to be very sincere, some not quite honest, and some a little of both.

The Rev. Robert S. MacArthur takes the ground that very many Christians do not believe in a personal devil, but are still Christians. He states that they hold that the references in the New Testament to the devil are simply to personifications of evil. and do not apply to any personal existence. He says that he could give the names of a number of pastors who hold such views. He does not state what his view is. Consequently, I do not know whether he is a believer in a personal devil or not. The statement that the references in the New Testament to a devil are simply to personifications of evil, not applying to any personal existence, seems to me utterly absurd.

The references to devils in the New Testament are certainly as good and satisfactory as the references to angels. Now, are the angels referred to in the New Testament simply personifications of good, and are there no such personal existences? If devils are only personifications of evil, how is it that these personifications of evil could hold arguments with Jesus Christ? How could they talk back? How could they publicly acknowledge the divinity of Christ? As a matter of fact, the best evidences of Christ’s divinity in the New Testament are the declarations of devils. These devils were supposed to be acquainted with supernatural things, and consequently knew a God when they saw one, whereas the average Jew, not having been a citizen of the celestial world, was unable to recognize a deity when he met him.

Now, these personifications of evil, as Dr. MacArthur calls them, were of various kinds. Some of them were dumb, while others could talk, and Christ said, speaking of the dumb devils, that they were very difficult to expel from the bodies of men; that it required fasting and prayer to get them out. Now, did Christ mean that these dumb devils did not exist? That they were only “personifications of evil”?

Now, we are also told in the New Testament that Christ was tempted by the devil; that is, by a “personification of evil,” and that this personification took him to the pinnacle of the temple and tried to induce him to jump off. Now, where did his personification of evil come from? Was it an actual existence? Dr. MacArthur says that it may not have been. Then it did not come from the outside of Christ. If it existed it came from the inside of Christ, so that, according to MacArthur, Christ was the creator of his own devil.

I do not know that I have a right to say that this is Dr. MacArthur’s opinion, as he has wisely refrained from giving his opinion. I hope some time he will tell us whether he really believes in a devil or not, or whether he thinks all allusions and references to devils in the New Testament can be explained away by calling the devils “personifications of evil.” Then, of course, he will tell us whether it was a “personification of evil” that offered Christ all the kingdoms of the world, and whether Christ expelled seven “personifications of evil” from Mary Magdalene, and how did they come to count these “personifications of evil”? If the devils, after all, are only “personifications of evil,” then, of course, they cannot be numbered. They are all one. There may be different manifestations, but, in fact, there can be but one, and yet Mary Magdalene had seven.

Dr. MacArthur states that I put up a man of straw, and then vigorously beat him down. Now, the question is, do I attack a man of straw? I take it for granted that Christians to some extent, at least, believe in their creeds. I suppose they regard the Bible as the inspired word of God; that they believe in the fall of man, in the atonement, in salvation by faith, in the resurrection and ascension of Christ. I take it for granted that they believe these things. Of course, the only evidence I have is what they say. Possibly that cannot be depended upon. They may be dealing only in the “personification of truth.”

When I charge the orthodox Christians with believing these things, I am told that I am far behind the religious thinking of the hour, but after all, this “man of straw” is quite powerful. Prof. Briggs attacked this “man of straw,” and the straw man turned on him and put him out. A preacher by the name of Smith, a teacher in some seminary out inOhio, challenged this “man of straw,” and the straw man put him out.

Both these reverend gentlemen were defeated by the straw man, and if the Rev. Dr. MacArthur will explain to his congregation, I mean only explain what he calls the “religious thinking of the hour,” the “straw man” will put him out too.

Dr. MacArthur finds fault with me because I put into the minds of representative thinkers of to-day the opinions of medieval monks, which leading religious teachers long ago discarded. Will Dr. MacArthur have the goodness to point out one opinion that I have put into the minds of representative thinkers — that is, of orthodox thinkers — that any orthodox religious teacher of to-day has discarded? Will he have the kindness to give just one?

In my lecture on “Superstition” I did say that to deny the existence of evil spirits, or to deny the existence of the devil, is to deny the truth of the New Testament; and that to deny the existence of these imps of darkness is to contradict the words of Jesus Christ. I did say that if we give up the belief in devils we must give up the inspiration of the Old and New Testaments, and we must give up the divinity of Christ. Upon that declaration I stand, because if devils do not exist, then Jesus Christ was mistaken, or we have not in the New Testament a true account of what he said and of what he pretended to do. If the New Testament gives a true account of his words and pretended actions, then he did claim to cast out devils. That was his principal business. That was his certificate of divinity, casting out devils. That authenticated his mission and proved that he was superior to the hosts of darkness. Now, take the devil out of the New Testament, and you also take the veracity of Christ; with that veracity you take the divinity; with that divinity you take the atonement, and when you take the atonement, the great fabric known as Christianity becomes a shapeless ruin.

Now, let Dr. MacArthur answer this, and answer it not like a minister, but like a man. Ministers are unconsciously a little unfair. They have a little tendency to what might be called a natural crook. They become spiritual when they ought to be candid. They become a little ingenious and pious when they ought to be frank; and when really driven into a corner, they clasp their hands. they look upward, and they cry “Blasphemy” I do not mean by this that they are dishonest. I simply mean that they are illogical.

Dr. MacArthur tells us also thatSpainis not a representative of progressive religious teachers. I admit that. There are no progressive religious teachers inSpain, and right here let me make a remark. If religion rests on an inspired revelation, it is incapable of progress. It may be said that year after year we get to understand it better, but if it is not understood when given, why is it called a “revelation”? There is no progress in the multiplication table. Some men are better mathematicians than others, but the old multiplication table remains the same. So there can be no progress in a revelation from God.

Now,Spain– and that is the great mistake, the great misfortune — has remained orthodox. That is to say, the Spaniards have been true to their superstition. Of course the Rev. Dr. MacArthur will not admit that Catholicism is Christianity, and I suppose that the pope would hardly admit that a Baptist is a very successful Christian. The trouble withSpainis, and the trouble with theBaptistChurchis, that neither of them has progressed to any great extent.

Now, in my judgment, what is called religion must grow better as man grows better, simply because it was produced by man and the better man is, the nearer civilized he is, the better, the nearer civilized, will be what he calls his religion; and if the Baptist religion has progressed, it is a demonstration that it was not originally founded on a revelation from God.

In my lecture I stated that we had no right to make any distinction between the actions of infinite wisdom and goodness, and that if God created and governs this world we ought to thank him, if we thanked him at all, for all that happens; that we should thank him just as heartily for famine and cyclone as for sunshine and harvest, and that if President McKinley thanked God for the victory at Santiago, he also should have thanked him for sending the yellow fever.

I stand by these words. A finite being has no right to make any distinction between the actions of the infinitely good and wise. If God governs this world, then everything that happens is the very best that could happen. When A murders B, the best thing that could happen to A is to be a murderer and the best thing that could have happened to B was to be murdered. There is no escape from this if the world is governed by infinite wisdom and goodness.

It will not do to try and dodge by saying that man is free. This God who made man and made him free knew exactly how he would use his freedom, and consequently this God cannot escape the responsibility for the actions of men. He made them. He knew exactly what they would do. He is responsible.

If I could turn a piece of wood into a human being, and I knew that he would murder a man, who is the real murderer? But if Dr. MacArthur would think as much as he preaches, he would come much nearer agreeing with me.

The Rev. Dr. J. Lewis Parks is very sorry that he cannot discuss Ingersoll’s address, because to do so would be dignifying Ingersoll. Of course I deeply regret the refusal of Dr. J. Lewis Parks to discuss the address. I dislike to be compelled to go to the end of my life without being dignified. At the same time I will forgive the Rev. Dr. J. Lewis Parks for not answering me, because I know that he cannot.

The Rev. Dr. Moldehnke, whose name seems chiefly made of consonants, denounces me as a scoffer and as illogical, and says that Christianity is not founded upon the devil, but upon Christ. He further says that we do not believe in such a thing as a devil in human form, but we know that there is evil, and that evil we call the devil. He hides his head under the same leaf with Dr. MacArthur by calling the devil evil.

Now, is this gentleman willing to say that all the allusions to the devil in the Old and New Testaments can be harmonized with the idea that the devil is simply a personification of evil? Can he say this and say it honestly?

But the Rev. Dr. Moldehnke, I think, seems to be consistent; seems to go along with the logic of his creed. He says that the yellow fever, if it visited our soldiers, came from God, and that we should thank God for it. He does not say the soldiers should thank God for it, or that those who had it should thank God for it. but that we should thank God for it, and there is this wonderful thing about Christianity. It enables us to bear with great fortitude, with a kind of sublime patience, the misfortunes of others.

He says that this yellow fever works out God’s purposes. Of course I am not as well acquainted with the Deity as the Rev. Moldehnke appears to be. I have not the faintest idea of what God’s purposes are. He works, even according to his messengers, in such a mysterious way, that with the little reason I have I find it impossible to follow him. Why God should have any purpose that could be worked out with yellow fever, or cholera, or why he should ever ask the assistance of tapeworms, or go in partnership with cancers, or take in the plague as an assistant, I have never been able to understand. I do not pretend to know. I admit my ignorance, and after all, the Rev. Dr. Moldehnke may be right. It may be that everything that happens is for the best. At the same time, I do not believe it.

There is a little old story on this subject that throws some light on the workings of the average orthodox mind.

One morning the son of an old farmer came in and said to his father, “One of the ewe lambs is dead.”

“Well,” said the father; “that is all for the best. Twins never do very well, any how.”

The next morning the son reported the death of the other lamb, and the old man said, “Well, that is all for the best; the old ewe will have more wool.”

The next morning the son said, “The old ewe is dead.”

“Well,” replied the old man; “that may be for the best, but I don’t see it this morning.”

The Rev. Mr. Hamlin has the goodness to say that my influence is on the wane. This is an admission that I have some, for which I am greatly obliged to him. He further states that all my arguments are easily refuted, but fails to refute them on the ground that such refutation might be an advertisement for me.

Now, if Mr. Hamlin would think a little, he would see that there are some things in the lecture on “Superstition” worth the while even of a Methodist minister to answer.

Does Mr. Hamlin believe in the existence of the devil? If he does, will he have the goodness to say who created the devil? He may say that God created him, as he is the creator of all. Then I ask Mr. Hamlin this question: Why did God create a successful rival? When God created the devil, did he not know at that time that he was to make this world? That he was to create Adam and Eve and put them in the Garden of Eden, and did he not know that this devil would tempt this Adam and Eve? That in consequence of that they would fall? That in consequence of that he would have to drown all their descendants except eight? That in consequence of that he himself would have to be born into this world as a Judean peasant? That he would have to be crucified and suffer for the sins of these people who had been misled by this devil that he deliberately created, and that after all he would be able only to save a few Methodists?

Will the Rev. Mr. Hamlin have the goodness to answer this? He can answer it as mildly as he pleases, so that in any event it will be no advertisement for him.

The Rev. Mr. F.J. Belcher pays me a great compliment, for which I now return my thanks. He has the goodness to say, “Ingersoll in many respects is like Voltaire.” I think no finer compliment has been paid me by any gentleman occupying a pulpit, for many years, and again I thank the Rev. Mr. Belcher.

The Rev. W.D. Buchanan, does not seem to be quite fair. He says that every utterance of mine impresses men with my insincerity, and that every argument I bring forward is specious, and that I spend my time in ringing the changes on arguments that have been answered over and over again for hundreds of years.

Now, Dr. Buchanan should remember that he ought not to attack motives; that you cannot answer an argument by vilifying the man who makes it. You must answer not the man, but the argument.

Another thing this reverend gentleman should remember, and that is that no argument is old until it has been answered. An argument that has not been answered, although it has been put forward for many centuries, is still as fresh as a flower with the dew on its breast. It never is old until it has been answered.

It is well enough for this gentleman to say that these arguments have been answered, and if they have and he knows that they have, of course it will be but a little trouble to him to repeat these answers.

Now, my dear Dr. Buchanan, I wish to ask you some questions. Do you believe in a personal devil? Do you believe that the bodies of men and women become tenements for little imps and goblins and demons? Do you believe that the devil used to lead men and women astray? Do you believe the stories about devils that you find in the Old and New Testaments?

Now, do not tell me that these questions have been answered long ago. Answer them now. And if you say the devil does exist, that he is a person, that he is an enemy of God, then let me ask you another question: Why should this devil punish souls in hell for rebelling against God? Why should the devil, who is an enemy of God, help punish God’s enemies? This may have been answered many times, but one more repetition will do but little harm.

Another thing: Do you believe in the eternity of punishment? Do you believe that God is the keeper of an eternal prison. the doors of which open only to receive sinners, and do you believe that eternal punishment is the highest expression of justice and mercy?

If you had the power to change a stone into a human being, and you knew that that human being would be a sinner and finally go to hell and suffer eternal torture, would you not leave it stone? And if, knowing this, you changed the stone into a man, would you not be a fiend? Now, answer this fairly. I want nothing spiritual; nothing with the Presbyterian flavor; just good, honest talk, and tell us how that is.

I say to you that if there is a place of eternal torment or misery for any of the children of men — I say to you that your God is a wild beast, an insane fiend, whom I abhor and despise with every drop of my blood.

At the same time you may say whether you are up, according to Dr. MacArthur, with the religious thinking of the hour.

The Rev. J.W. Campbell I rather like. He appears to be absolutely sincere. He is orthodox — true blue. He believes in a devil; in an acting, thinking devil, and a clever devil. Of course he does not think this devil is as stout as God, but he is quicker; not quite as wise, but a little more cunning.

According to Mr. Campbell, the devil is the bunco steerer of the universe — king of the green goods men; but, after all, Mr. Campbell will not admit that if this devil does not exist the Christian creeds all crumble, but I think he will admit that if the devil does not exist, then Christ was mistaken, or that the writers of the New Testament did not truthfully give us his utterances.

Now, if Christ was mistaken about the existence of the devil, maybe he was mistaken about the existence of God. In other words, if Christ made a mistake, then he was ignorant. Then we cannot say he was divine, although ignorance has generally believed in divinity. So I do not see exactly how Mr. Campbell can say that if the devil does not exist the Christian creeds do not crumble, and when I say Christian creeds I mean orthodox creeds. Is there any orthodox Christian creed without the devil in it?

Now, if we throw away the devil we throw away original sin, the fall of man, and we throw away the atonement. Of this arch the devil is the keystone. Remove him, the arch falls.

Now, how can you say that an orthodox Christian creed remains intact without crumbling when original sin, the fall of man, the atonement and the existence of the devil are all thrown aside?

Of course if you mean by Christianity, acting like Christ, being good, forgiving, that is another matter, but that is not Christianity. Orthodox Christians say that a man must believe on Christ, must have faith, and that to act as Christ did, is not enough; that a man who acts exactly as Christ did, dying without faith, would go to hell. So when Mr. Campbell speaks of a Christian, I suppose he means an orthodox Christian.

Now, Dr. Campbell not only knows that the devil exists, but he knows a good deal about him. He knows that he can assume every conceivable disguise or shape; that he can go about like a roaring lion; that at another time he is a god of this world; on another occasion a dragon, and in the afternoon of the same day may be Lucifer, an angel of light, and all the time, I guess, a prince of lies. So he often assumes the disguise of the serpent.

So the Doctor thinks that when the devil invited Christ into the wilderness to tempt him, that he adopted some disguise that made him more than usually attractive. Does the Doctor think that Christ could not see through the disguise? Was it possible for the devil with a mask to fool God, his creator? Was it possible for the devil to tempt Christ by offering him the kingdoms of the earth when they already belonged to Christ, and when Christ knew that the devil had no title, and when the devil knew that Christ knew that he had no title, and when the devil knew that Christ knew that he was the devil, and when the devil knew that he was Christ? Does the reverend gentleman still think that it was the disguise of the devil that tempted Christ?

I would like some of these questions answered, because I have a very inquiring mind.

So Mr. Campbell tells us — and it is very good and comforting of him — that there is a time coming when the devil shall deceive the nations no more. He also tells us that God is more powerful than the devil, and that he is going to put an end to him.

Will Mr. Campbell have the goodness to tell me why God made the devil? If he is going to put an end to him why did he start him? Was it not a waste of raw material to make him? Was it not unfair to let this devil, so powerful, so cunning, so attractive, into the Garden of Eden, and put Adam and Eve, who were then scarcely half dry, within his power, and not only Adam and Eve within his power, but their descendants, so that the slime of the serpent has been on every babe, and so that, in consequence of what happened in the Garden of Eden, flames will surround countless millions in the presence of the most merciful God?

Now, it may be that theRev. Dr.Campbellcan explain all these things. He may not care to do it for my benefit, but let him think of his own congregation; of the lambs he is protecting from the wolves of doubt and thought.

The Rev. Henry Frank appears to be a man of exceedingly good sense; one who thinks for himself, and who has the courage of his convictions. Of course I am sorry that he does not agree with me, but I have become used to that, and so I thank him for the truths he utters.

He does not believe in the existence of a personal devil, and I guess by following him up we would find that he did not believe in the existence of a personal God, or in the inspiration of the Scriptures. In fact. he tells us that he has given up the infallibility of the Bible. At the same time he says it is the most perfect compendium of religious and moral thought. In that I think he is a little mistaken. There is a vast deal of irreligion in the Bible, and there is a good deal of immoral thought in the Bible; but I agree with him that it is neither inspired nor infallible.

The Rev. E.C.J. Kraeling, pastor of theZionLutheranChurch, declares that those who do not believe in a personal God do not believe in a personal Satan, and vice versa. The one, he says, necessitates the other. In this I do not think he is quite correct. I think many people believe in a personal God who do not believe in a personal devil, but I know of none who do believe in a personal devil who do not also believe in a personal God. The orthodox generally believe in both of them, and for many centuries Christians spoke with great respect of the devil. They were afraid of him.

But I agree with the Rev. Mr. Kraeling when he says that to deny a personal Satan is to deny the infallibility of God’s word. I agree with this because I suppose by “God’s word” he means the Bible.

He further says, and I agree with him, that a “Christian” needs no scientific argument on which to base his belief in the personality of Satan. That certainly is true, and if a Christian does need a scientific argument it is equally true that he never will have one.

You see this word “Science” means something that somebody knows; not something that somebody guesses, or wishes, or hopes, or believes, but something that somebody knows.

Of course there cannot be any scientific argument proving the existence of the devil. At the same time I admit, as the Rev. Mr. Kraeling says. and I thank him for his candor, that the Bible does prove the existence of the devil from Genesis to the Apocalypse, and I do agree with him that the “revealed word” teaches the existence of a personal devil, and that all truly orthodox Christians believe that there is a personal devil, and the Rev. Mr. Kraeling proves this by the fall of man, and he proves that without this devil there could be no redemption for the evil spirits; so he brings forward the temptation of Christ in the wilderness. At the same time that Mr. Kraeling agrees with me as to what the Bible says, he insists that I bring no arguments, that I blaspheme, and then he drops into humor and says that if any further arguments are needed to prove the existence of the devil, that I furnish them.

How a man believing the creed of the orthodox Mr. Kraeling can have anything like a sense of humor is beyond even my imagination.

Now, I want to ask Mr. Kraeling a few questions, and I will ask him the same questions that I ask all orthodox people in my lecture on “Superstition.”

Now, Mr. Kraeling believes that this world was created by a being of infinite wisdom, power and goodness, and that the world he created has been governed by him.

Now, let me ask the reverend gentleman a few plain questions, with the request that he answer them without mist or mystery. If you, Mr. Kraeling, had the power to make a world, would you make an exact copy of this? Would you make a man and woman, put them in a garden, knowing that they would be deceived, knowing that they would fall? Knowing that all the consequences believed in by orthodox Christians would follow from, that fall? Would you do it? And would you make your world so as to provide for earthquakes and cyclones? Would you create the seeds of disease and scatter them in the air and water? Would you so arrange matters as to produce cancers? Would you provide for plague and pestilence? Would you so make your world that life should feed on life, that the quivering flesh should be torn by tooth and beak and claw? Would you?

Now, answer fairly. Do not quote Scripture; just answer, and be honest.

Would you make different races of men? Would you make them of different colors, and would you so make them that they would persecute and enslave each other? Would you so arrange matters that millions and millions should toil through many generations, paid only by the lash on the back? Would you have it so that millions and millions of babes would be sold from the breasts of mothers? Be honest.

Would you provide for religious persecution? For the invention and use of instruments of torture? Would you see to it that the rack was not forgotten, and that the fagot was not overlooked or unlighted? Would you make a world in which the wrong would triumph? Would you make a world in which innocence would not be a shield? Would you make a world where the best would be loaded with chains? Where the best would die in the darkness of dungeons? Where the best would make scaffolds sacred with their blood?

Would you make a world where hypocrisy and cunning and fraud should represent God, and where meanness would suck the blood of honest credulity?

Would you provide for the settlement of all difficulties by war? Would you so make your world that the weak would bear the burdens, so that woman would be a slave, so that children would be trampled upon as though they were poisonous reptiles? Would you fill the woods with wild beasts? Would you make a few volcanoes to overwhelm your children? Would you provide for earthquakes that would swallow them? Would you make them ignorant, savage, and fill their minds with all the phantoms of horror? Would you?

Now, it will only take you a few moments to answer these questions, and if you say you would, then I shall be satisfied that you believe in the orthodox God, and that you are as bad as he. If you say you would not, I will admit that there is a little dawn of intelligence in your brain.

At the same time I want it understood with regard to all these ministers that I am a friend of theirs. I am trying to civilize their congregations, so that the congregations may allow the ministers to develop, to grow, to become really and truly intelligent. The process is slow, but it is sure.

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