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An essay by Ambrose Bierce


Title:     Religion
Author: Ambrose Bierce [More Titles by Bierce]


This is my ultimate and determining test of right--"What, in the circumstances, would Christ have done?"--the Christ of the New Testament, not the Christ of the commentators, theologians, priests and parsons. The test is perhaps not infallible, but it is exceedingly simple and gives as good practical results as any. I am not a Christian, but so far as I know, the best and truest and sweetest character in literature, is next to Buddha, Jesus Christ. He taught nothing new in goodness, for all goodness was ages old before he came; but with an almost infallible intuition he applied to life and conduct the entire law of righteousness. He was a lightning moral calculator: to his luminous intelligence the statement of the problem carried the solution--he could not hesitate, he seldom erred. That upon his deeds and words was founded a religion which in a debased form persists and even spreads to this day is mere attestation of his marvelous gift: adoration is a primitive mode of recognition.

It seems a pity that this wonderful man had not a longer life under more complex conditions--conditions more nearly identical with those of the modern world and the future. One would like to be able to see, through the eyes of his biographers, his genius applied to more and more difficult questions. Yet one can hardly go wrong in inference of his thought and act. In many of the complexities and entanglements of modern affairs it is no easy matter to find an answer off-hand to the question,"What is it right to do?" But put it in another way: "What would Christ have done?" and lo! there is light. I Doubt spreads her bat-like wings and is away; the sun of truth springs into the sky, splendoring the path of right and marking that of error with a deeper shade.



Gentlemen of the secular press dealt with the Rev. Mr. Sheldon not altogether fairly. To some very relevant considerations they gave no weight. It was not fair, for example, to say, as the distinguished editor of the "North American Review" did, that in professing to conduct a daily newspaper for a week as he conceived that Christ would have conducted it, Mr. Sheldon acted the part of "a notoriety seeking mountebank." It seldom is fair to go into the question of motive, for that is something upon which one has the least light, even when the motive is one's own. The motives that we think dominale us seem simple and obvious; they are in most instances exceedingly complex and obscure. Complacently surveying the wreck and ruin that he has wrought, even that great anarch, the "well meaning person," can not have entire assurance that he meant as well as the disastrous results appear to him to show.

The trouble with Mr. Harvey of the "Review" was inability to put himself in another's place if that happened to be at any considerable distance from his own place. He made no allowance for the difference in the point of view--for the difference, that is, between his mind and the mind of Mr. Sheldon. If Mr. Harvey had undertaken to conduct that Kansas newspaper as Christ would have done he would indeed have been "a notoriety seeking mountebank," or some similarly unenviable thing, for only a selfish purpose could persuade him to an obviously resultless work. But Mr. Sheldon was different--his was the religious mind--a mind having faith in an "overruling" Providence who can, and frequently does, interfere with the orderly relation of cause and effect, accomplishing an end by means otherwise inadequate to its production. Believing himself a faithful servant of that Power, and asking daily for its interposition for promotion of a highly moral purpose, why should he not have expected his favor to the enterprise? To expect that was, in Mr. Sheldon, natural, reasonable, wise; his folly lay in believing in conditions making it expectable. A person convinced that the law of gravitation is suspended is no fool for walking into a bog. Mr. Harvey may understand, but Mr. Sheldon can not understand, that Jesus Christ would not edit a newspaper at all.

The religious mind, it should be understood, is not logical. It may acquire, as Whateley's did, a certain familiarity with the syllogism as an abstraction, but of the syllogism's practical application, its real relation to the phenomena of thought, the religious mind can know nothing. That is merely to say that the mind congenitally gifted with the power of logic and accessible to its light and leading does not take to religion, which is a matter, not of reason, but of feeling--not of the head, but of the heart. Religions are conclusions for which the facts of nature supply no major premises. They are accepted or rejected according to the original mental make-up of the person to whom they appeal for recognition. Believers and unbelievers are like two boys quarreling across a wall. Each got to his place by means of a ladder. They may fight if they will, but neither can kick away the other's support.

Believing the things that he did believe, Mr. Sheldon was entirely right in thinking that the main purpose of a newspaper should be the salvation of souls. If his religious belief is true that should be the main purpose, not only of a newspaper, but of everything that has a purpose, or can be given one. If we have immortal souls and the consequences of our deeds in the body reach over into another life in another world, determining there our eternal state of happiness or pain, that is the most momentous fact conceivable. It is the only momentous fact; all others are chaff and rags. A man who, believing it to be a fact, does not make it the one purpose of his life to save his soul and the souls of others that are willing to be saved is a fool and a rogue. If he think that any part of this only needful work can be done by turning a newspaper into a gruelpot he ought to do so or (preferably) perish in the attempt.

The talk of degrading the sacred name, and all that, is mostly nonsense. If one may not test his conduct in this life by reference to the highest standard that his religion affords it is not easy to see how religion is to be made anything but a mere body of doctrine. I do not think the Christian religion will ever be seriously discredited by an attempt to determine, even with too dim a light, what under given circumstances, the man miscalled its "founder" would do. What else is his great example good for? But it is not always enough to ask oneself, "How would Christ do this?" One should first consider whether Christ would do it. It is conceivable that certain of his thrifty contemporaries may have asked him how he would change money in the Temple.

If Mr. Sheldon's critics were unfair his defenders were, as a rule, not much better. They meant to be fair, but they had to be foolish. For example, there is the Rev. Dr. Parkhurst, whose defence was published with Mr. Harvey's attack. I shall give a single illustration of how this more celebrated than cerebrated "divine" is pleased to think that he thinks. He is replying to some one's application to this matter of Christ's injunction, "Lay not up for yourselves treasures on earth." This command, he gravely says, "is not against money, nor against the making of money, but against the loving it for its own sake and the dedicating of it to self-aggrandizing uses." I call this a foolish utterance, because it violates the good old rule of not telling an obvious falsehood. In no word nor syllable does Christ's injunction give the least color of truth to the reverend gentleman's "interpretation;" that is the reverend gentleman's very own, and doubtless he feels an honest pride in it. It is the product of a controversial need--a characteristic attempt to crawl out of a hole in an enclosure which he was not invited to enter. The words need no "interpretation;" are capable of none; are as clear and unambiguous a proposition as language can frame. Moreover, they are consistent with all that we think we know of their author's life and character, for he not only lived in poverty and taught poverty as a blessing, but commanded it as a duty and a means of salvation. The probable effect of universal obedience among those who adore him as a god is not at present an urgent question. I think even so faithful a disciple as the Rev. Dr. Parkhurst has still a place to lay his head, a little of the wherewithal to be clothed, and a good deal of the power of interpretation to excuse it.



There are other hypocrites than those of the pulpit Dr. Gatling, the ingenious scoundrel who invented the gun that bears his name with commendable fortitude, says he has given much thought to the task of bringing the forces of war to such perfection that war will be no more. Commonly the man who talks of war becoming so destructive as to be impossible is only a harmless lunatic, but this fellow utters his cant to conceal his cupidity. If he thought there was any danger of the nations beating their swords into plowshares we should see him "take the stump" against agriculture forthwith. The same is true of all military inventors. They are lions' parasites; themselves, of cold blood they fatten upon hot. The sheep-tick's paler fare is not at all to their taste.

I sometimes wish I were a preacher: preachers do so blindly ignore their shining opportunities. I am indifferently versed in theology--whereof, so help me Heaven, I do not believe one word--but know something of religion. I know, for example, that Jesus Christ was no soldier; that war has two essential features which did not command His approval: aggression and defence. No man can either attack or defend and remain Christian; and if no man, no nation. I could quote texts by the hour proving that Christ taught not only absolute abstention from violence but absolute non-resistance. Now what do we see? Nearly all the so-called Christian nations of the world sweating and groaning under their burdens of debt contracted in violation of these injunctions which they believe divine--contracted in perfecting their means of offense and defense. "We must have the best," they cry; and if armor plates for ships were better when alloyed with silver, and guns if banded with gold, such armor plates would be put upon the ships, such guns would be freely made. No sooner does one nation adopt some rascal's costly device for taking life or protecting it from the taker (and these soulless inventors will as readily sell the product of their malign ingenuity to one nation as to another) than all the rest either possess themselves of it or adopt something superior and more expensive; and so all pay the penalty for the sins of each. A hundred million dollars is a moderate estimate of what it has cost the world to abstain from strangling the infant Gatling in his cradle.

You may say, if you will, that primitive Christianity--the Christianity of Christ--is not adapted to these rough-and-tumble times; that it is not a practical scheme of conduct. As you please; I have not undertaken to say what it is not, but what it partly is. I am no Christian, though I think that Christ probably knew what was good for man about as well as Dr. Gatling or the United States Ordnance Office. It is not for me to defend Christianity; Christ did not. Nevertheless, I can not forbear the wish that I were a preacher, in order sincerely to affirm that the awful burdens borne by modern nations are obvious judgments of Heaven for disobedience to the Prince of Peace. What a striking theme to kindle fires upon the heights of imagination--to fill the secret sources of eloquence--to stir the very stones in the temple of truth! What a noble subject for the pious gentlemen who serve (with rank, pay and allowances) as chaplains in the Army and the Navy, or the civilian divines who offer prayer at the launching of an ironclad!



A matter of missionaries commonly is to the fore as a cause of quarrel among nations which have the hardihood to prefer their own religions to ours. Missionaries constitute, in truth, a perpetual menace to the national peace. I dare say the most of them are conscientious men and women of a certain order of intellect. They believe, and from the way that they interpret their sacred book have some reason to believe, that in meddling uninvited with the spiritual affairs of others they perform a work acceptable to God--their God. They think they discern a moral difference between "approaching" a man of another religion about the state of his soul and approaching him on the condition of his linen or the character of his wife. I think there is no difference. I have observed that the person who volunteers an interest in my spiritual welfare is the same person from whom I must expect an impudent concern about my temporal affairs. The missionary is one who goes about throwing open the shutters of other men's bosoms in order to project upon the blank walls a shadow of himself.

No ruler nor government of sense would willingly permit foreigners to sap the foundation of the national religion. No ruler nor government ever does permit it except under the stress of compulsion. It is through the people's religion that a wise government governs wisely--even in our own country we make only a transparent pretense of officially ignoring Christianity, and a pretense only because we have so many kinds of Christians, all jealous and inharmonious. Each sect would make this a Theocracy if it could, and would that make short work of any missionary from abroad. Happily all religions but ours have the sloth and timidity of error; Christianity alone, drawing vigor from eternal truth, is courageous enough and energetic enough to make itself a nuisance to people of every other faith. The Jew not only does not bid for converts, but discourages them by imposition of hard conditions, and the Moslem True Believer's simple, forthright method of reducing error is to cut off the head holding it. I don't say that this is right; I say only that, being practical and comprehensible, it commands a certain respect from the impartial observer not conversant with scriptural justification of the other practice.

It is only where the missionaries have made themselves hated that there is any molestation of Europeans engaged in the affairs of this world. Chinese antipathy to Caucasians in China is neither a racial animosity nor a religious; it is an instinctive dislike of persons who will not mind their own business. China has been infested with missionaries from the earliest centuries of our era, and they have rarely been molested when they have taken the trouble to behave themselves. In the time of the Emperor Justinian the fact that the Christian religion was openly preached throughout China enabled that sovereign to wrest from the Chinese the jealously-guarded secret of silk-making. He sent two monks to Pekin, who alternately preached seriousness and studied sericulture, and who brought away silkworms' eggs concealed in sticks.

In religious matters the Chinese are more tolerant than we. They let the religions of others alone, but naturally and rightly demand that others shall let theirs alone. In China, as in other Oriental countries where the color line is not drawn and where slavery itself is a light affliction, the mental attitude of the zealot who finds gratification in "spreading the light" of which he deems himself custodian, is not understood. Like most things not understood, it is felt to be bad, and is indubitably offensive.



At a church club meeting a paper was read by a minister entitled, "Why the Masses Do not Attend the Churches." This good and pious man was not ashamed to account for it by the fact that there is no Sunday law, and "the masses" can find recreation elsewhere, even in the drinking saloons. It is frank of him to admit that he and his professional brethren have not brains enough to make religious services more attractive than shaking dice for cigars or playing cards for drink; but if it is a fact he must not expect the local government to assist in spreading the gospel by rounding-up the people and corralling them in the churches. The truth is, and this gentleman suspects it, that "the masses" stay out of hearing of his pulpit because he talks nonsense of the most fatiguing kind; they would rather do any one of a thousand other things than go to hear it. These parsons are like a scolding wife who grieves because her husband will not pass his evenings with her. The more she grieves, the more she scolds and the more diligently he keeps away from her. I don't think Jack Satan is conspicuously wise, but he is in the main a good entertainer, with a right pretty knack at making people come again; but the really reprehensible part of his performance is not the part that attracts them. The parsons might study his methods with great advantage to religion and morality.

It may be urged that religious services have not entertainment for their object. But the people, when not engaged in business or labor, have it for _their_ object. If the clergy do not choose to adapt their ministrations to the characters of those to whom they wish to minister, that is their own affair; but let them accept the consequences. "The masses" move along the line of least reluctance. They do not really enjoy Sunday at all; they try to get through the day in the manner that is least wearisome to the spirit. Possibly their taste is not what it ought to be. If this minister were a physician of bodies instead of souls, and patients who had not called him in should refuse to take the medicine which he thought his best and they his nastiest, he should either offer them another, a little less disagreeable if a little less efficacious, or let them alone. In no case is he justified in asking the civil authority to hold their noses while he plies the spoon.

"The masses" have not asked for churches and services; they really do not care for anything of the kind--whether they ought is another matter. If the clergy choose to supply them, that is well and worthy. But they should understand their relation to the impenitent worldling, which is precisely that of a physician without a mandate from the patient, who may not be convinced that there is very much the matter with him. The physician may have a diploma and a State certificate authorizing him to practise, but if the patient do not deem himself bound to be practised upon has the physician a right to make him miserable until he will submit? Clearly, he has not. If he can not persuade him to come to the dispensary and take medicine there is an end to the matter, and he may justly conclude that he is misfitted to his vocation.

I am sure that the ministers and that singularly small contingent of earnest and, on the whole, pretty good persons who cluster about them do not perceive how alien they are in their convictions, tastes, sympathies and general mental habitudes to the great majority of their fellow men and women. Their voices, like "the gushing wave" which, to the ears of the lotus-eaters,

"Far, far away did seem to mourn and rave,"

come to us as from beyond a great gulf--mere ghosts of sound, almost destitute of signification. We know that they would have us do something, but what it is we do not clearly apprehend. We feel that they are concerned for us, but why we are imperfectly able to conceive. In an intelligible tongue they tell us of unthinkable things. Here and there in the discourse we catch a word, a phrase, a sentence--something which, from ancestors whose mother-speech it was, we have inherited the capacity to understand; but the homily as a whole is devoid of meaning. Solemn and sonorous enough it all is, and not unmusical, but it lacks its natural accompaniment of shawm and sackbut and the wind-swept harp in the willows by the waters of Babylon. It is, in fact, something of a survival--the memory of a dream.



The first week of January is set apart as a week of prayer. It is a custom of more than a half century's age, and it seems that "gracious answers have been received in proportion to the earnestness and unanimity of the petitions." That is to say, in this world's speech, the more Christians that have prayed and the more they have meant it, the better the result is known to have been. I don't believe all that. I don't believe that when God is asked to do something that he had not intended to do he counts noses before making up his mind whether to do it or not God probably knows the character of his work, and knowing that he has made this a world of knaves and dunces he must know that the more of them that ask for something, and the more loudly they ask, the stronger is the presumption that they ought not to have it. And I think God is perhaps less concerned about his popularity than some good folk seem to suppose.

Doubtless there are errors in the record of results--some things set down as "answers" to prayer which came about through the orderly operation of natural laws and would have occurred anyhow. I am told that similar errors have been made, or are believed to have been made, in the past. In 1730, for example, a good Bishop at Auvergne prayed for an eclipse of the sun as a warning to unbelievers. The eclipse ensued and the pious prelate made the most of it; but when it was shown that the astronomers of the period had foretold it he was a sufferer from irreverent gibes. A monk of Treves prayed that an enemy of the church, then in Paris, might lose his head, and it fell off; but it transpired that, unknown (or known) to the monk, the man was under sentence of decapitation when the prayer was made. This is related by Ausolus, who piously explains, however, that but for the prayer the sentence might perhaps have been commuted to service in the galleys. I have myself known a minister to pray for rain, and the rain came. Perhaps you can conceive his discomfiture when I showed him that the weather bureau had previously predicted a fair day.

I do not object to a week of prayer. But why only a week? If prayer is "answered" Christians ought to pray all the time. That prayer is "answered" the Scripture affirms as positively and unequivocally as anything can be affirmed in words: "All things whatsoever ye shall ask in prayer, believing, that ye shall receive." Why, then, when all the clergy of this country prayed, publicly for the recovery of President McKinley, did the man die? Why is it that although two pious Chaplains ask almost daily that goodness and wisdom may descend upon Congress, Congress remains wicked and unwise? Why is it that although in all the churches and half the dwellings of the land God is continually asked for good government, good government remains what it always and everywhere has been, a dream? From Earth to Heaven in unceasing ascension flows a stream of prayer for every blessing that man desires, yet man remains unblest, the victim of his own folly and passions, the sport of fire, flood, tempest and earthquake, afflicted with famine and disease, war, poverty and crime, his world an incredible welter of evil, his life' a labor and his hope a lie. Is it possible that all this praying is futilized and invalidated by the lack of faith?--that the "asking" is not credentialed by the "believing?" When the anointed minister of Heaven spreads his palms and uprolls his eyes to beseech a general blessing or some special advantage is he the celebrant of a hollow, meaningless rite, or the dupe of a false promise? One does not know, but if one is not a fool one does know that his every resultless petition proves him by the inexorable laws of logic to be the one or the other.



Modern Christianity is beautiful exceedingly, and he who admires not is eyed batly and minded as the mole. "Sell all thou hast," said Christ and "give to the poor." All--no less--in order "to be saved." The poor were Christ's peculiar care. Ever for them and their privations, and not greatly for their spiritual darkness, fell from his lips the compassionate word, the mandate divine for their relief and cherishing. Of foreign missions, of home missions, of mission schools, of church buildings, of work among pagans _in partibus infidelium_, of work among sailors, of communion table, of delegates to councils--of any of these things he knew no more than the moon man. They were inventions of others, as is the entire florid and flamboyant fabric of ecclesiasticism that has been reared, stone by stone and century after century, upon his simple life and works and words. "Founder," indeed! He founded nothing, instituted nothing; Paul did all that Christ simply went about doing, and being, good--admonishing the rich, whom he regarded as criminals, comforting the luckless and uttering wisdom with that Oriental indirection wherein our stupid ingenuity finds imaginary warrant for all desiderated pranks and fads.

[The end]
Ambrose Bierce's essay: Religion