Thursday, 16 May 2013

CONFERENCE OF SECULARISTS

 One of the leading items of interest during the past fortnight has been the conference of the Secularists. They have mustered their forces from this colony, and have summoned their leading representatives from other colonies ; and if this gathering is to be taken as an index of the mental calibre of their leaders, of the chief items of their creed, of the attitude they may be expected to take on matters of education and of politics, of the views on general sociological questions, as divorce, the diffusion of literature, and other subjects that are closely related to our development as a people for good or for ill, then the growth of the principles of Secularism as expounded by this Freethought party is a peril to our domestic social and political life. Any common basis of agreement on religious questions is not to be looked for, Joseph Symes preaches the nakedest and ghastliest infidelity, and Mrs. Bright is an ardent Spiritualist. The unity of this sect, so far as it has any, seems to lie in a common hatred of orthodox religion and of Churches. In face of the discussions that have gone forward it were easy to show that Freethought is a creed without form and without coherence. It has no vital band of union. According to this authority Churches are but the expression of superstitions that should be swept away, and ministers but impostors or tyrants, who should be treated as nuisances and swept away likewise. So long as Secularism indulges in the discussion of speculative thought on great religious questions, however much we may regret the absurdity and folly of its utterances, we may not say it nay. The orthodox faith and its defenders must be prepared for the attack, and must meet its statements or arguments by others that are of greater weight and value. But Secularism as disclosed by this Conference aims at an active propagandism, and affirms its intention of seeking to become an active force in practical life. It is going to bring its influence to bear upon politics, upon schools, upon the action of the Press, upon marriage, and upon many other things which are closely related to the best interests of society, and it is going to do this because it claims to be the great regenerating force which is to enfranchise and elevate humanity.
 It would be a somewhat profitless business to note the dogmas laid down by some of the high priests of this system. I would only say this: that the President of the gathering, Mr. Joseph Symes, tilted at various subjects in a most extraordinary manner— subjects, too, which concern the hopes of the race. He is weak in logic but strong in dogma, although he pretends that dogma is the object of his special aversion. He seems not to have an atom of reverence in his composition, and to listen to some of his wild talk reminds you of the well-known line, "And fools rush in where angels fear to tread." He snuffs God out of existence with an easy nonchalance that might warrant the thought that this was a matter of no moment. He degrades man into a mere lump of clay, and from the manner of his talk you might imagine that he was conferring a favour upon him by so doing. He ridicules the doctrine of a future state, as if the forfeiture of such a hope was a matter of supreme indifference and counsels his hearers in a strain of light satire to live for this world, for there is no other world for man. He is a shallow-pated, superficial, arrogant pretender to knowledge, who talks in a style that may satisfy men who do not want intelligent convictions, but rather opinions and theories that are consonant with their character and living. If, however, there is in him an absence of any thing like high intelligence, of calm and well reasoned statements, this want is abundantly compensated for by a bold self-assertion, a repulsive dogmatism which nauseates and disgusts all who look for some measure of decency in the treatment of religious beliefs, and who naturally expect that men who deride religious dogma, and whose mission it seems to be to kill it out of existence if they can, should not repeat in themselves, and in an infinitely more objectionable form, the error which they anathematize in others. One of the Secularist party, the well-known Charles Bright, seems to have had a consciousness that the Conference discussions, and not least the dicta of its President, would not help the cause of Secularism much in the judgment of the public, for on the Sabbath following the Conference he laid himself out to expound the merits and defects of the system and tried to show that the extreme scientific and materialistic position of Mr. — could not be logically defended.
 Passing from their speculations on abstract questions to the attitude they claim to take in matters social and political, we find ourselves face to face with an evil which is sufficient to awaken the anxiety and bestir the activity of all good men. Two matters were ventilated at the Conference which very clearly reveal the essential spirit of this system. One was the abolition of flogging, and came up in connection with the revolting case of Anderson. A Secularist who had not parted with his common sense and regard for the befitting punishment that should follow certain offences ventured to say that when a man so far forgot his manhood as to behave like a brute he should be punished as a brute. In opposition to this there was a vehement outcry for the abolition of flogging, and the man who had ventured on what was evidently regarded as an extreme and reprehensible position found him self, as the phrase goes, nowhere. Mr. Bright pleaded in a style which would condemn all punishment as inconsistent with the dignity of society. The drift of his remarks went to show that the evils that frequently obtain were the outcome of wrongs that were generated by the conditions of society itself, for. which punishment was both unwise and immoral. All I can say is that if sentiments like those uttered gene rally obtained as laws of living I should be inclined to clear out from society and seek a lodge in some vast wilderness, some boundless contiguity of shade, where rumours of oppression and deceit and vile wrong should not vex me. Another question that came up which served to disclose the spirit of the party was that of the liberty of the Press. During the Conference the police had come down upon a bookseller in the city whose shop was charged with vile literature, and whose windows, around which many nightly gathered, were made attractive by the exhibition therein of some of this vile trash. The result of the trial was most damaging to this bookseller. This was enough to commend him to the Secularists. The talk that went forward in connection with this case was to the effect that the liberty of the Press was in danger. Now this seems at the first to have an honest ring about it, but resolved into its true meaning it amounts to this: that books which are lewd and indecent, which Magistrates condemn, which Judges reprobate, which pure-minded men and women regard as obscene, should be freely sold. It means that the poison of uncleanness should be suffered to go out upon society and that the law should not interfere. But it is when we come to the sacred relations of marriage that the views of the secularists startle us by their boldness and audacity. According to these gentlemen divorce should be granted on account of confirmed drunkenness, of insanity, of incompatibility of temper, and of desertion extending over a period of two years. I need only state this deliverance to show how it strikes at the root of home and family life, and thus at the very stability and purity of society itself. The extremely democratic spirit of the party was revealed by the fact that the health of the Queen was not drunk at their banquet, and for the reason that they believed in a republican form of Government. But the conduct of the Conference in connection with religious education in the public schools of the colony indicates a spirit that is not only anti-religious but tyrannical, and is enough to provoke the disgust of all sensible people. As belonging to a party that repudiates the accepted beliefs of the community in relation to religion, one can understand their wish to protect their own children from being taught these beliefs. But then the Act finds them such protection. They are not compelled to send their children to such teaching, and can have them exempted if they so desire. They are, however, not content with this. They are angry that other children should be taught religion. The ministers who venture to visit the schools, are called by the most bitter and opprobrious names. They are snakes and wolves, and I know not what. They sow discord in families, and diffuse their poison at firesides.
 Of course, if these secularist gentlemen cherish such a spirit of bitter hate against the parsons, and utter it in a style so pungent and venomous the parsons will have to bear it. But the monstrousness of the position taken up, and of the policy insisted upon by these rabid Church-haters, these raving enemies of religion, lies in this : They would tyrannise over the judgment of others, they would coerce their consciences, they would treat their religious convictions as impertinences which cannot be tolerated— in one word, they would insist that parents who have a faith should not be suffered to have a voice in the teaching of religion in any form through the lesson-books of the public schools of the colony— not even so far as the reading of extracts from the Bible are concerned. And so far as the entrance of ministers of any denomination into such schools are concerned for special religious teaching, that makes them rampant. The deliverance of Mr. Joseph Symes on the reading of Bible extracts in the ordinary curriculum of school work was simply outrageous.
 The climax of absurdity in the proposals of he Secularists is reached when we remember that the party itself is but a very small portion of the general population, that the overwhelming majority in the community are solicitous that religion in some form or other should enter into education as an inspiring element and moulding force, and yet despite the smallness of the fraction in the one case, and the largeness of the mass in the other, it is the fraction wearing the badge of Freethought that wishes to dictate the policy of the ether. The deputation that waited on the Minister for Education, with a sublime disregard for consistency, intimated that if they could not succeed in keeping religion out of the schools, and the greatly hated parsons with it, then they claimed to be allowed to go into the schools themselves to disseminate their own peculiar views as an antidote to the deadly errors taught by the Churches. To dismiss the subject, the Conference has been a gain, but not to Secularism. It has weakened and not strengthened its position in the community. The poverty and wretchedness of its postulates ; the inconsequential statements of its advocates ; its want of authority and inspiration as a moral force ; the dangers latent in its teachings to purity and to social wellbeing ; and the blatancy,the immodesty, the tyranny of those who fight under its flag, have all combined to exhibit it as a presence and a power which is no friend to the healthy development of these young nationalities, or that respects their internal wellbeing and their influence upon the outside world.

 South Australian Register 18 October 1884,

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