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The most extraordinary phenomenon in the history of Man is the influence which the study of theology or the consideration of the Divine nature has exercised and continues to exercise in his relations with his fellow-men.
The word “congregation,” applied chiefly to a body of worshippers holding views in common regarding the Deity, sufficiently denotes the intimate bond of association arising from such a community of thought and sentiment, whilst on the other hand the term “sect” is equally expressive of the isolation and the distance which exist between bodies of men whose views on the most important of all topics are at variance. As betwixt societies of men, so it is between individuals. It may be that two persons whose theological views are unknown to each other have conceived a mutual regard, and entertain a sincere friendship for one another, until at some unhappy moment one of them discovers that the other is an "infidel,” that he does not believe in a physical Heaven or Hell, doubts the infallibility of either the New or old Testament, or in some other way differs from his
friend on what that one considers a material article of theological faith. It would be strange indeed if after such a discovery confidence between the two friends remained undiminished, their friendship undisturbed ; it would not be at all strange if suspicion obtruded itself where before no doubt had existed ; if the most disinterested acts assumed the aspect of selfishness, and if in every kindly word there seemed to lurk a hidden meaning which must be gravely scanned, and carefully conned over before it could be accepted as sincere, for “ is he not an infidel, does he not doubt or deny what I have been taught is essential to Salvation ?”
Again, an author accustomed to write on scientific subjects, who may have gained the approval of his orthodox readers, ventures to hint in one of his writings that he prefers the Darwinian theory of the descent of Man to the account of his creation as recorded in Genesis, or that he entertains grave doubts on the subject of Jonah's protracted stay in the body of the whale, or on any of those matters which form the basis of belief with the majority of his readers, when lo! the charm of his productions has vanished in an instant. He, too, is an infidel, an atheist, an envoy of the Subtle One, whose every word must now be regarded with suspicion as intended to undermine the eternal happiness and welfare of the faithful. And still more fatal would it be to the peace of mind of such an author if he should venture to publish the theological lessons that have been taught him by the experience of a lifetime
spent in the study of nature and the earnest investigation of her laws, if those teachings failed to support the prejudices and preconceptions of the orthodox. Such a venture would inevitably secure for him more enemies in twenty-four hours than he had made friends during the whole of his previous literary
And how is it possible to account for these strange phenomena; to explain why, in their love of God and their holy zeal for the true faith, men have perpetrated more direful horrors, have instigated more terrible persecutions, fostered greater bitterness of heart, and been guilty of worse cruelty than from any other cause, physical or moral ? One explanation is to be found in that greed for material possessions and for temporal aggrandisement and authority which has often accompanied the belief of certain men that they were the ministers of the Most High; for it is this desire for temporal as well as spiritual supremacy that has led to the iniquities which have been practised under the sacred guise of religion, rather than any zeal in the cause of divine truth. But there is another source of religious oppression and intolerance, and that is to be found in the very quarter from which we might expect it to be entirely absent. The priests and clergy of all creeds and denominations, to whom the world owes so much, who have ever held up the Deity (by whatever name they may have designated Him) to human reverence and esteem; who have always been ready to espouse
the cause of mercy and charity; have comforted and consoled their fellow-men in times of sickness and distress; and who in the final hour, when all human hopes and joys are about to depart, and mortals expect to be called upon to give an account of their stewardship here below, have been amongst the last to cheer men on their road to heaven; those, strangely enough, have ever been the bitterest and most cruel enemies of religious liberty. They have watched with keen jealousy the researches and investigations of philosophers whose novel theories threatened those cherished traditions in the belief of which they had been educated as being indispensable to Salvation; and have denounced as “ rationalists" and "infidels," men who sought to explain or remove, by means which the Almighty has placed at their disposal, gigantic evils which the priesthood have considered to be remediable only by their prayers and exorcisms.
A further reason is that whilst men are bound to adduce positive evidence in proof of a scientific position or doctrine, the field of theology is to a large extent one of speculation and surmise. At least, so it has been hitherto. If a man knew that it would be as incumbent upon him in argument to prove the triune nature of the Deity, as it is for a mathematician to prove that two sides of any triangle are greater than the third, he would not only be less positive in the terms of his statement, but instead of denouncing and despising another who happens to have been educated