The Bible, the Freethinker and World War I
Today marks the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War 1. The following is a lightly edited extract from former Freethinker editor Jim Herrick’s book Vision and Realism (pp.48-54), a history of the first 100 years of the publication.
As war approached, the Freethinker was critical of militarism and mocked the idea that Christianity could bring peace on earth. The Boy Scouts were criticised:
Physical training everybody believes in, but there is no need whatever for this to be accompanied by a military parade that ends in providing material for an Army rather than developing useful citizens … Peace, permanent peace, will only be secured when the glamour and false greatness of militarism is killed in the minds of the people. – (29 January, 1911.)
When the first Dreadnought was launched it was christened by the wife of the Archbishop of Canterbury:
Nothing we ever said in the Freethinker against Christianity could beat this. (22 July, 1911.)
Foote feared the arms race was necessary, but regretted it:
The very fact that ‘Dreadnoughts’ are necessary at this time of the day is a condemnation of Christianity. (28 March, 1909.)
The attack of Christian Italy on Mohammedan Turkey provoked Foote to lecture and write on “The Crescent and the Cross”. The Koran and the Bible were compared by Foote, with a challenge to the belief of the average Christian that:
Everything connected with Christianity is divine, while everything connected with Mohammedanism is devilish; and that Jesus Christ was an absolutely perfect character, while Mohammed was a low, cruel, and cunning impostor. (12 November, 1911.)
Foote continued his comparison the following week:
Christian churches were freely allowed in Mohammedan states, at a time when no Christian state would have tolerated a Mohammedan mosque. Nor is it true that the Koran orders the massacre of women and children. Mohammed is represented as expressly saying in the Table-Talk: ‘Kill not the old men who cannot fight, nor young children, nor women’.
Sale (translator of the Koran) points out what small right the Christians have to object to the Koran in this respect. The Jews were ordered by Jehovah to kill every male in some places, and every married woman, and to keep the virgins for themselves; in other places they were to kill all, men, women, and children and leave alive nothing that breathed. Jehovah was far more cruel and bloody than Allah. And as to holy wars, why, the Christians waged such against the Mohammedans for centuries, and only ceased when they were thoroughly exhausted.
There is a church of the Holy Sepulchre at Jerusalem, which is in the Sultan’s dominions. Greek and Latin Christians both worship in it, and a guard of Turkish soldiers stands between them to keep them from cutting each other’s throats. What a picture! And what a sarcasm on the pretensions of Christianity! (19 November, 1911.)
(Now Israeli soldiers perform the same task.)
News of the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand provided the occasion for further musing about the value of Christianity and the Bible:
It has not yet been suggested, as far as we know, that the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand and his wife was due to ‘infidelity’. No doubt the assassins were as good Christians as the victims were. There is no need to go beyond the Bible for encouragement to assassination … (12 July, 1914.)
The outbreak of the Great War brought horror at the tragedy of war – but most freethinkers were not pacifists. Foote wrote of the “ogre of war”:
Generation after generation this frightful monster gorges himself on human flesh and blood, solacing his intervals of satiety with the wine of human tears.
Nevertheless, he declared:
We admit that peace at any price is as mad a policy as war at every opportunity. (16 August, 1914.)
Throughout the war the Freethinker opposed militarism and jingoism, and challenged the idea that war necessitated propaganda and a reduction of free speech; there was reasoned comment on conscientious objectors and support for the rights of atheists in the army.
The first Zeppelin raid brought a firm condemnation of “systematic reprisals” against the Germans. Freethinker editor Chapman Cohen (1868-1954) reported a meeting at which systematic reprisals were advocated and at which a vicar supported the proposal “from a Christian standpoint”. Cohen reacted to the phrase with irony:
The expression is superb! It is monumental!
Perhaps with more humanity than strategy, he wrote:
The method of raining down explosive bombs on sleeping towns and cities which have not the slightest sign of fortifications is villainous enough in all conscience. And its stupidity is equal to its villainy. For if the Zeppelins managed to do ten times the damage they inflict, and murder ten times as many civilians, it could have no appreciable effect on the course of the War, save to stiffen our backs and make everybody more resolved than ever to see the thing through. Nor am I quite convinced that if our airmen kill German women and children, it will make their airmen less assiduous in attempting to kill ours. It is a common observation that brutality brutalises he that gives as much, or even more, than he who receives … (24 October, 1915.)
The Freethinker never succumbed to the prejudice that all Germans and German culture were barbaric. Cohen often observed, with amusement, the contradiction by which the national press saw the Germans as both a Christian and an uncivilised nation. John Smith, who wrote numerous articles for the Freethinker under the pseudonym of “Mimnermus”, in an article entitled “Bayonets and Beatitudes” lamented that:
The countrymen of Moliere are cutting the throats of the countrymen of Goethe, and the compatriots of Kossuth are disembowelling the brothers of Tolstoy … Think of it! Whole nations, professedly Christian, engaged in wholesale murder. (23 August, 1914.)
And Cohen roundly challenged jingoistic philistinism:
The value of Goethe’s philosophy and poetry, of Wagner’s, or Beethoven’s, or Schubert’s music, the work of German scientists, is not in the smallest degree affected by the barbarities of Germans in Belgium and France, or by the inflated military ambitions of the Kaiser and his supporters. (20 September, 1914.)
As the war progressed the Churches spoke of a Christian revival and organised days of intercession for peace; there were also evangelical campaigns. Horatio Bottomley, editor of John Bull, was taken to task for changing his views to suit the national mood. An article “John Bull and God” wondered why Mr Bottomley, whom the Freethinker had always considered an agnostic, offered “a dose of pietistic jingoism”.
The words of Mr Bottomley quoted in the Freethinker indicate, by contrast, how restrained and reasonable was the tone of the Freethinker during the war:
‘God moves in a mysterious way his wonders to perform’ and the wonder he is now performing is the riddance of Europe, and mankind, of the Teutonic menace to His Scheme of Things. (20 September, 1914.)
The Freethinker suggested that the alleged increase in religion due to the war was exaggerated, and quoted the Christian, Dr Campbell Morgan, who:
Fears there is a certain amount of unbelief arising as a result of the War. Many, he says, give way to a ‘fierce resentful agnosticism’. (25 April, 1915.)
A letter from “A Soldier Atheist” recorded that there was little use for Christianity in the Trenches:
… Parsons and others have claimed that the War and its hardships have brought out the religion of the soldier. I give it the direct lie. I know that in actual fact the soldier, when at his task in this bloodiest of wars, has no time for God and religion. A clean rifle, well-fitting bayonet, keen eye, and steady nerve – these are necessary assets. The German gives us no time for psalm-singing, and we in our turn ask for none and give none.
… But there live in peace, away behind the firing-line, the Army Chaplains. They are all sleek, comfortable, well paid, and well clothed. Sunday comes, and with it a compulsory Church Service. The men hate it – loathe it.” (14 November, 1915.)
The Freethinker reported exchanges from the tribunal examining conscientious objectors; there was especial interest in the way Christian and atheist arguments were considered. An “Acid Drop” column reported an exemption tribunal where:
One Christian objects to service as the Bible says ‘Thou shalt not kill’, and straightway some member of the tribunal quotes ‘I come not to bring peace but a sword’.
Others have based their objections to the teaching that Jesus suffered aggression uncomplainingly, and have been promptly assured that one mustn’t imitate him in that nowadays. (12 March, 1916.)
Later a correspondent reported a tribunal that asked a freethinker if he believed in God, and when he said “”No, not with this awful slaughter’ was told ‘Then you have not got a conscience. We do not admit your claim.'” (16 April, 1916.)
A long letter from Bertrand Russell to the Freethinker discussed the position of conscientious objectors. Russell complained that objectors were sometimes not given absolute exemption, but forced into work which they felt supported the war effort. He also stressed that unbelievers can be men of conscience:
Almost all the Tribunals have taken the view that a man cannot have a conscientious objection to war unless he belongs to a religious body which has this for one of its explicit principles. But conscience is an individual thing, and forbids to one man what it allows to another. Many who are conscientious objectors are filled with an intense desire to serve the community, but they believe (strange as this belief must appear to those who do not share it) that they can best serve the community by trying to turn men against the war …”
Russell wrote that it was natural that those whose sons or brothers are in the trenches should think they are “escaping more lightly than the young men who are fighting for their country” but commented:
I am not sure that this is true. The moral suffering in standing out against public opinion, often against parents and friends, and in incurring obloquy and the taunt of cowardice, is not an easy thing to bear. The instinct of sacrifice is strong in many of those who refuse to fight, and it has been almost unbearable to them that their belief forbade them to share the hardships and dangers of the battlefield. They are glad that the time has come when they, too, must suffer for their cause.
But how will the nation gain by making them suffer?…
These men believe, rightly or wrongly, that the evils of militarism and the atrocities that the war has brought forth will never be extirpated by fighting. They believe that militarism can only be destroyed by pacifism, and that hate can only be killed by love. There were such men in Germany. It has been reported that many have been shot in that country. But no punishment can prove them mistaken; punishment can only prove their sincerity in the eyes of the doubting public. They believe that, with faith and courage, passive resistance is more unconquerable than bayonets; and if the authorities choose to put them to the test, they are prepared to demonstrate the truth of their own belief by their own endurance. (14 May, 1916.)
Cohen did not agree and had earlier written of a manifesto of the Society of Friends on war resistance:
Unqualified non-resistance is a sheer absurdity. Qualified resistance only means in effect not resisting more than is necessary. In practice it means the substitution of one form of resistance for another. It was possible for the Society of Friends, individually or collectively, to disclaim the use of force, because they were living in a society which applied the measure of force necessary for their protection. (23 August, 1914.)
Later Cohen wrote that it was illogical of the Government to propose compulsory conscription and then allow exemptions; without actually opposing it, he regretted that the introduction of the Military Service Bill “marks one more step along the road of social demoralization which, as was pointed out last week, invariably accompanies war.” “Militarism” or “Prussianism” was condemned because:
It establishes the soldier, not as a hateful, a deplorable necessity, but as an indispensable part of our normal life. (16 January, 1916.)
An aspect of the demoralisation of the War which the Freethinker especially opposed was the propaganda and attempts at reducing free speech. At first it was feared that reference to the War on public platforms was to be completely forbidden (30 August, 1914), but Foote lectured on “Religion, War and Humanity”.
Cohen disapproved of any suppression of public debate:
… is it a good thing that political and social disputes should cease and the community satisfy itself with the uniform monotony of a hive of bees?” (25 October, 1914.) When clerics reported a reduction in internal strife as a benefit of the war, Cohen wrote: “Party politics and social conflicts and feminist agitation were at least disputes about the better ordering of social life. It is along that road — the path of discussion, agitation, and experiment — that progress lies. (2 January, 1916.)
Cohen wrote about the “intensive war-propaganda” (“Thanks to the Northcliffe influence”) in his recollections of the Freethinker’s past in the “Jubilee Supplement”:
Just at the beginning of 1916 I received a visit from two men who professed to be Freethinkers and business men in the City. I did not know them, nor could I find out, from their conversation, any Freethinker who did. But they professed a great interest in the paper, and thought that the time had arrived when it might be turned into a company, and they were willing to purchase.
I listened to what they had to say, and was doubtful whether I had to compliment them upon their business philanthropy or sympathise with their financial folly. I found afterwards that one at least of the two was a government agent. He came into notice through inciting a Derbyshire school teacher to concoct a fantastic plan to poison Lloyd George, and then acted as an informer. (10 May, 1931.)
Others approached him to induce him to preach war.
My reply to these was that there were plenty to preach war, without my adding my voice to the number. Besides, I would take no hand in disseminating the fantastic tales that were abroad, or to make more difficult the solution of peace problems once the war came to an end. It was not the business of the Freethinker to oppose war, and it was certainly not its business to join in the foolish talk of seventy millions of people being made up of none but scoundrels and degenerates.
We were at war, and more than ever was it necessary to do what one could to keep men’s heads level, and to see that feelings of common decency and justice were not completely forgotten. Moreover, Freethinker readers had not been accustomed to finding in the paper only that with which they were in agreement. The Freethinker might die, but if it died it would go down with its flag flying, true to both its name and its policy. (Ibid.)
Conflict with the authorities came when Cohen wrote about the Russian steam-rollers and pointed out that “the tales about the wild enthusiasm for the war could not be depended upon.” He received a suggestion that he submit such paragraphs for censorship.
I replied curtly that there never had been a censor in the Freethinker office, and so far as I was concerned I had no intention of setting one up.
On another occasion when two men in military uniform requested to see the Freethinker’s subscribers list, Cohen refused and when he was asked if he took any care to see that the paper did not get into enemy hands retorted “Not the slightest.”
I said if the Emperor of Germany sent along twopence half-penny for the Freethinker, it would be posted to the address given.
Other issues of censorship during the war years included vigorous opposition to the London County Council’s attempt to ban the sale of literature in public parks, and the continuing matter of blasphemy, though all attempts to abolish Blasphemy Law were now shelved.
An attempt by Lord Alfred Douglas, living out a religiose later life, to bring about a blasphemy prosecution against George Moore’s fictional account of the life of Jesus, The Brook Kerith, failed, and the Freethinker noted with optimism that despite the book’s “frank disregard for the supernatural” it had been received without outrage. (The full text of Moore work can be accessed here.)
Determination “to keep the flag flying” in opposition to censorship and to sustain a voice of reason at a time of war, when many journals vanished, upheld the Freethinker during the war years. A severe problem was the increase in cost and shortage of paper – a difficulty to which Cohen made continual reference:
The Government had placed fortunes within the reach of paper merchants, and they were not slow to avail themselves of the opportunity.
But the deepest impact of the Great War upon freethinkers was the jolt it gave to what had sometimes been an over-easy belief in progress. This was faced with honesty by Cohen writing in a New Year column on “The Outlook”:
That there should be a war at all, of the kind that exists, is enough to make one incline to pessimism over the future of European nations. For years many of us have gone on preaching the superiority of reason over brute force; extolling the advances of science and the progress of civilisation, until we had got into the habit of feeling rather than thinking, that war between the leading civilised nations of Europe was an impossibility… We are forcibly reminded that after all we may have overestimated the solidity of our civilisation.” (3 January, 1915.)