Tuesday, 21 May 2013


Mr. Joseph Symes delivered a lecture, entitled " Secularism, the Light and Life of the World," to a large audience at the Albert Hall on Tuesday evening. April 29. Captain J. W. Smith occupied the chair, and in the course of a few opening remarks defined freethought as the search after truth, and stated that freethinkers would not accept as truth anything in the shape of faith. Mr. Symes, after referring to the views held by different classes of people as to secularism, and the ideas entertained as to what it meant, said those who said that secularists had nothing positive to advance were either ignorant or dishonest. All good, true, and honest people would follow secularism, and love it more and mere as they knew more and more of it. He defined the word "secular," and said that secularism meant all that was or would be true, useful, and beautiful in human civilization, and its highest— and he might almost say its sole— object was the improvement and happiness of mankind. Secularism embraced all known truth, and it was a mistake to say that we had learnt truth from revelation. Truth had been discovered by the use of the senses, by human experience, by reasoning and education and similar means alone ; and for information relating to the movements of the heavenly bodies, or anything else connected with the various sciences, we did not depend upon Providence or the inspiration or the Holy Ghost. (Applause.) Secularism embraced all art and industry, and the renunciation of the world found no place in it : the world was too good to be renounced. (Applause.) He illustrated his point by referring to the progress of the industrial arts, and said that all the Divine truth in the world would not tell us how to get a loaf of bread or anything that a civilized man required, and that without secularism we should be very savage. (Applause.) Secularism was morality, not the morality founded on revelation, which he repudiated as a sham. We did not want morality founded on the will of a superior but a morality of utility, a morality the ruling principle of which was that that which was useful, as he used the word, was right and that which was not useful was wrong. He did not mean by "useful" that which was useful to any individual or class, but that which ministered to the welfare of society, actions that could be performed by all with perfect safety. That which would do the most good if performed by everybody was useful and moral. If that which ministered to the welfare of men were right or proper no god could make it more so, and if that which ministered to human depravity and misery were wrong, a thousand deities could not make it worse. When the question of a God was brought up a disturbing element was introduced, and shook morality at once. (Applause.) Men who avoided doing wrong for fear of whipping were merely slaves, and this was not morality ; but the proper thing was for a man to do his duty to society, because he chose to do it independently of any prospect of reward or punishment, fearing only self-accusation. (Applause.) Children should be taught not to be afraid of the devil or of anything, but to be ashamed of wrong actions. (Applause.) Secularism was the noblest morality because it was manly, and secularism was liberty, while Christianity was its worst foe. Secularism was education in its highest form, and those who promoted it only wanted to set the people thinking, and not to soothe them into a condition of mental inactivity as the priests tried to do. He claimed that to secularism alone was due the progress that had been made in the world ; that without secularism England would be depopulated, while without Christianity it would be improved ; and that the good samples of humanity who were professing Christians were the result of secularism to a large extent. The clergy were with him in practice if not in teaching, and thoroughly believed in the good things of this world. The lecturer here dropped into a humorous strain, and made several points which told greatly with the audience. Amongst other things he said the clergy now believed in insurance, whereas they formerly believed in Providence. (Laughter.) They were as careful as unbelievers about the character of the ship in which they went to sea. They got as much of the world as they could, and if they renounced any it was not this but the other, and they never refused a higher stipend when it was offered. (Laughter, and Hear, hear.) He did not find fault with this, which was purely secular, but he objected to the profession of one thing and the practice of another. He also referred sarcastically to the glowing description of the Christian's heaven, to the strange reluctance of Christians to leaving this sphere, and to the want of trust in the prayer of faith for healing the sick.
  The Rev. D. O'Donnell, who ascended the platform amidst loud applause, said he could agree with much Mr. Symes had said, but also totally dissented from a great deal. In the first place, he expected to have heard an intelligent and satisfactory definition of the term secularism ; but he confessed that the definition given was so extensively widespread that he was hardly able to remember it, and belonged to the class whom the lecturer did not expect to understand it. He regretted that the lecturer had indulged in ridicule to such a large extent, and thought it would have been wiser to have substituted logical reasoning, which he claimed to have the brains to comprehend. In alluding to the habits, views, and principles of clergymen, the lecturer either spoke in ignorance or wilfully misrepresented them. There were scores of thousands of men in the Churches of the colony who were engaged in business and professional callings, and were proving themselves to be possessed of a fair share of brains, and it was an insult to these people to say in effect that they would listen Sunday after Sunday to things they did not believe or could not understand. His experience was that the men who sat under the preachers in this colony would take very little for granted, but would use their own judgment as to the truth or otherwise of what was represented to them, and no attempt was made to prevent them from thinking. Speaking to what had been claimed for secularism, he said he admired the beautiful, sought to pursue the noble, and develop the manly, honest, and true, but he demurred when he was claimed as a secularist. One definition of secularism was Atheism, and the lecturer had refused to acknowledge any superior power beyond society, which meant themselves, and he hoped they would be perfectly faithful and worshipful to their God— or in other words themselves. He maintained that the clergy were straightforward, honest, honourable, and straight-dealing men, and the lecturer had referred to them most unfairly. Mr. Syme had no right to assume that Christians were any more afraid to die than secularists, and he thought Christians would be found to be as ready to go out of the world as secularists were to remain in it. He asked who made the martyrs in the days when Christian liberty was taught? He wished that the term "revelation" used by Mr. Symes had been defined, but he presumed that he referred to the Bible. He affirmed that Christians recognised other revelations than what they believed to be the inspired word of God— they believed that they lived in a world which was a revelation, the full meaning of which they had not fully fathomed. They saw truths revealed by nature, which they looked upon as God's larger book. He would like to discuss with the lecturer the relative claims and advantages of Christianity and secularism, judged simply by practical social results, and if their creeds were torn to pieces he would be content to stand by what Christianity had done. He defined a Christian as one who had the spirit of Christ, and not the man who professed to be a Christian or was a member of a Church. A man who had the spirit of Christ must be a good father, a good husband, a good citizen, honest, and well-living; therefore make the world Christian, and we should have a world of good men. He would ask, on the other hand, if a man might not be an Atheist, and be a bad father and a law-breaker. After using one or two further arguments he concluded by saying that when Atheism had produced what Christianity had done, then Atheism would have a right to take from Christianity what had been claimed for it by the lecturer. 
  Mr. Symes congratulated his opponent upon the fact that nearly the whole of his speech was secular. He thought the complaint as to his definition of secularism should have been more specific, and he contended that he had correctly stated the position occupied by ministers of religion. He freely admitted that secularism did lead up to Atheism, and that he was an Atheist, but he did not go about labelled. (Laughter.) Atheism was, however, only one phase of secularism, and they did believe in the world. He had not said that Christians were afraid of death, but contended that their practice was not in accordance with their professions of faith in the Divine promises. If they were to understand that the revelations of science were accepted by Christians, then the Bible must be thrown overboard, and he would be perfectly willing to meet and discuss with the Rev. Mr. O'Donnell the subject he had indicated or any other which was fair subject for argument. He denied that any one with the spirit of Christ would make a good husband. Christ was not a husband himself, and a man with the spirit of a bachelor would not make a good husband— in fact Christ had told his disciples to leave wives and everything else to follow him.

South Australian Register 30 April 1884,

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