My path to atheism by Annie Besant
Annie Besant was a British socialist, theosophist, women's rights activist, writer, orator, educationist, and philanthropist. Regarded as a champion of human freedom, she was an ardent supporter of both Irish and Indian self-rule. She was a prolific author with over three hundred books and pamphlets to her credit.
Excerpt from the introduction:
The Essays which, form the present book have been written at intervals during the last five years, and are now issued in a single volume without alterations of any kind. I have thought it more useful as marking the gradual growth of thought to reprint them as they were originally published, so as not to allow the later development to mould the earlier forms.
The essay on "Inspiration " is, in part, the oldest of all ; it was partially composed some seven years ago, and re-written later as it now stands. The first essay on the " Deity of Jesus of Nazareth " was written just before I left the Church of England, and marks the point where I broke finally with Chris- tianity. I thought then, and think still, that to cling to the name of Christian after one has ceased to be the thing is neither bold nor straightforward, and surely the name ought, in all fairness, to belong to those historical bodies who have made it their own during many hundred years.
A Christianity without a Divine Christ appears to me to resemble a republican army marching under a royal banner it misleads both friends and foes. Believing that in giving up the deity of Christ I renounced Christianity, I place this essay as the starting-point of my travels outside the Christian pale. The essays that follow it deal with some of the leading Christian dogmas, and are printed in the order in which they were written. But in the gradual thought- development they really precede the essay on the " Deity of Christ".
Most inquirers who begin to study by themselves, before they have read any heretical works, or heard any heretical controversies, will have been. awakened to thought by the discrepancies and inconsis- tencies of the Bible itself. A thorough knowledge of the Bible is the groundwork of heresy. Many who think they read their Bibles never read them at all.
They go through a chapter every day as a matter of duty, and forget what is said in Matthew before they read what is said in John ; hence they never mark the contradictions and never see the discrepancies. But those who study the Bible are in a fair way to become heretics.
It was the careful compilation of a harmony of the last chapters of the four Gospels a harmony intended for devotional use that gave the first blow to my own faith ; although I put the doubt away and refused even to look at the ques- tion again, yet the effect remained the tiny seed, which was slowly to germinate and to grow up, later, into the full-blown flower of Atheism.
The trial of Mr. Charles Yoysey for heresy made me 1 remember my own puzzle, and I gradually grew very un- easy, though trying not to think, until the almost fatal illness of my little daughter brought a sharper questioning as to the reason of suffering and the reality of the love of God. From that time I began to study the doctrines of Christianity from a critical point of view ; hitherto I had confined my theological reading to devotional and historical treatises, and the only controversies with which I was familiar were the controversies which had divided Christians ; the writings of the Fathers of the Church and of the modern school which is founded on them had been carefully studied, and I had weighed the points of difference between the Greek, Roman, Anglican, and Lutheran communions, as well as the views of orthodox dissenting schools of thought ; only from Pusey's " Daniel ", and Liddon's " Bampton Lectures", had I gathered anything of wider controversies and issues of more vital interest.
But now all was changed, and it was to the leaders of the Broad Church school that I first turned in the new path. The shock of pain had been so rude when real doubts assailed and shook me, that I had steadily made up my mind to investigate, one by one, every Christian dogma, and never again to say " I believe " until I had tested the object of faith ; the dogmas which revolted me most were those of the Atonement and of Eternal Punishment, while the doctrine of Inspiration of Scripture underlay everything, and was the very foundation of Christianity ; these, then, were the first that I dropped into the crucible of investigation.
Maurice, Robertson, Stopford Brooke, McLeod, Campbell, and others, were studied ; and while I recognised the charm of their writings, I failed to find any firm ground whereon they could rest : it was a many-colored beautiful mist a cloud landscape, very fair, but very unsubstantial. Still they served as stepping- stones away from the old hard dogmas, and month by month I grew more sceptical as to the possibility of finding certainty in religion.
Hansel's Bampton lectures on "The Limits of Religious Thought " did much to increase the feeling ; the works of F. Newman, Arnold, and Greg carried on the same work; some efforts to understand the creeds of other nations, to investigate Mahommedanism, Buddhism, and Hinduism, all led in the same direction, until I concluded that inspiration belonged to all people alike, and there could be no necessity of atonement, and no eternal hell prepared for the unbeliever in Christianity.
Thus, step by step, I renounced the dogmas of Christianity until there remained only, as distinctively Christian, the Deity of Jesus which had not yet been analysed.
The whole tendency of the Broad Church stream of thought was to increase the manhood at the expense of the deity of Christ ; and with hell and atonement gone, and inspiration everywhere, there appeared no raison (Tetre for the Incar- nation. Besides, there were so many incarnations, and the Buddhist absorption seemed a grander idea. I now first met with Charles Yoysey's works, and those of Theodore Parker and Channing, and the belief in the Deity of Jesus followed the other dead creeds. Eenan I had read much earlier, but did not care for him ; Strauss I did not meet with until afterwards; Scott's "English Life of Jesus ", which I read at this period, is as useful a book on this subject as could be put into the hands of an inquirer.
From Christianity into simple Theism I had found my way ; step by step the Theism melted into Atheism ; prayer was gradually discontinued, as utterly at variance with any dignified idea of God, and as in contradiction to all the results of scientific investigation. I had taken a keen interest in the later scientific discoveries, and Darwin had done much towards freeing me from my old bonds. Of John Stuart Mill I had read much, and I now took him up again ;
I studied Spinoza, and reread Mansel, together with many other writers on the Deity, until the result came which is found in the essay entitled " The Nature and Existence of God ". It was just before this was written that I read Charles Bradlaugh's " Plea for Atheism " and his "Is there a God?". The essay on "Constructive Eationalism" shows how we replace the old faith and build our house anew with stronger materials.
The path from Christianity to Atheism is a long one, and its first steps are very rough and very painful ; the feet tread on the ruins of the broken faith, and the sharp edges cut into the bleeding flesh ; but further on the path grows smoother, and presently at its side begins to peep forth the humble daisy of hope that heralds the spring- tide, and further on the roadside is fragrant with all the flowers of summer, sweet and brilliant and gorgeous, and in the distance we see the promise of the autumn, the har- vest that shall be reaped for the feeding of man.
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