32496 Aut Nihil
I cannot remember when I began to think like an Atheist. It was certainly at a very early age, even long before I knew what being Atheist meant. There was nothing in my home life to beget or suggest it. My father was a self-educated Christian drowning us in his bible quotes without that we really knew what their meaning was and as such it slides of us like water. My mother was a devoted Christian of deep and humble piety. There were no books in our home library suggesting Atheism, or in any other accessible to me. My teachers were Christians-generally preachers. There were no infidels in my friend’s or in my acquaintances, and no public sentiment in favour of them. My Atheism was never from without, but always from within. I had no precept and no example. When, later in life, I read infidel books, they did not make me an infidel, but because I was an Atheist I sought, bought and read them.
Even when I read them I was not impressed by new suggestions, but only when occasionally they gave clearer expression of what I had already vaguely felt. No one of them or all of them sounded the depths of my own infidelity or gave an adequate expression of it. They all fell short of the distance in doubt over which my own troubled soul had passed. From unremembered time this scepticism progressed, though the progress was not steady and regular. Sometimes in one hour, as by far-shining flashes of inspiration, there would be more progress in extent and definiteness than in previous months. Moreover, these short periods of huge advances were without preceding intentions or perceptible preparations. They were always sudden and startling. Place and circumstances had but little to do with them. The doubt was seldom germane to the topic under consideration.
It always leaped far away to a distant and seemingly disconnected theme, in a way unexplained by the law of the association of ideas. At times I was in the Sunday school or hearing a sermon or bowed with others in family prayer, more frequently when I knew what Atheism was, I was an infidel. My child-mind was fascinated by strange and sometimes horrible questionings concerning many religious subjects. Long before I had read the experiences of others I knew. I had been borne far beyond sight of any shore, beyond my depth after solutions to such questions as the “philosopher’s stone,” the “elixir of life,” and “the fountain of youth.
I understand now much better than then the character and direction of the questionings of that early period. By a careful retrospect and analysis of such of them as memory preserves, I now know that I never doubted the being, personality and government of God. I was never an atheist or pantheist. I never doubted the existence and ministry of angels: I could never have been a Sadducee. I never doubted the essential distinction between spirit and matter: I could never have been a materialist.
And as to the origin of things, the philosophy of Democritus, developed by Epicurus, more developed by Lucretius, and gone to seed in the unverified hypothesis of modern evolutionists such a godless, materialistic anti-climax of philosophy never had the slightest attraction or temptation for me. The intuitions of humanity preserved me from any ambition to be descended from either beast or protoplasm. The serious reception of such a speculative philosophy was not merely a mental, but mainly a moral impossibility. I never doubted the immortality of the soul and conscious future existence. This conviction antedated any reading of “Plato, thou reason well.” I never doubted the final just judgment of the Creator of the world.
But my Atheism related to the Bible and its manifest doctrines. I doubted that it was God’s book; that it was an inspired revelation of His will to man. I doubted miracles. I doubted the Divinity of Jesus of Nazareth. But more than all, I doubted His vicarious expiation for the sins of men. I doubted any real power and vitality in the Christian religion. I never doubted that the Scriptures claimed inspiration, nor that they taught unequivocally the divinity and vicarious expiation of Jesus. If the Bible does not teach these, it teaches nothing.
The trifling expedient of accepting the Bible as “inspired in spots” never occurred to me. To accept, with Renan, its natural parts and arbitrarily deny its supernatural, or to accept with some the book as from God, and then strike at its heart by a false interpretation that denied the divinity and vicarious expiation of Jesus -these were follies of which I was never guilty- follies for which even now I have never seen or heard a respectable excuse. To me it was always “Aut Caesar, aut nihil.” What anybody wanted, in a religious way, with the shell after the kernel was gone I never could understand.
While the beginnings of my Atheism cannot be recalled, by memory I can give the date when it took tangible shape. I do know just when it emerged from chaos and outlined itself in my consciousness with startling distinctness. An event called it out of the mists and shadows into conscious reality. It happened on this wise: there was a protracted meeting in our vicinity. A great and mysterious influence swept over the community. There was much excitement. Many people, old and young, joined the church and were baptized. Doubtless in the beginning of the meeting the conversions were what I would now call genuine. Afterward many merely went with the tide. They went because others were going.
Two things surprised me. First, that I did not share the interest or excitement. To me it was only a curious spectacle. The second was that so many people wanted me to join the church. I had manifested no special interest except once or twice mechanically and experimentally. I had no conviction for sin. I had not felt lost and did not feel saved. First one and then another catechized me, and that categorically. Thus “Don’t you believe the Bible?” “Yes.” “Don’t you believe in Jesus Christ?” “Yes.” “Well, doesn’t the Bible say that whoever believes in Jesus Christ is saved?” “Yes.”
Now, mark three things: First, this catechizing was by zealous church-members before I presented myself for membership. Second, the answers were historical, Sunday school answers, as from a textbook. Third, I was only thirteen years old. These answers were reported to the preachers somewhat after this fashion: “Here is a lad who believes the Bible, believes in Jesus Christ and believes that he is saved. Ought not such a one to join the church?”