There is a very great deal to be said, I think, for the atheistic position with regard to the universe. It is reported that in the very crisis of the first battle of Ypres, when the scales of the fight were trembling, nay, more than trembling; when they appeared to be descending on the side of the enemy, one of our generals said to himself: "God will never let those devils win." Well, those devils did not win on that particular occasion; but was the general justified in his suggested proposition: that the wrong never triumphs? Surely not; surely, it is constantly triumphing in every part and portion of life. Let us not press too far; we need not say with Mr. Hardy that the world is ruled by a malignant "President of the Immortals," who delights in the anguish of his subjects. That is untrue, for the world knows many keen joys and happy hours; still, it knows also much evil, much of undeserved misery, and many a cause in which the worse side gets a verdict. I hope with the General that the devils will not win; still, I cannot forget that the Turks won at Constantinople five and a half centuries ago, and have been a pest and a scourge to Europe ever since.
So, as I say, there is a good deal to be said, not, perhaps, for a theoretical atheism, a reasoned disbelief in God, but for a practical atheism, an elimination of God from all our considerations. It would be easy enough to regard the chances and changes, joys and misfortunes of the world as a game of cards, a mixture of skill and luck, without eternal significance. "Trumps!" the German soldier may be supposed to say as he breaks the baby's body into pieces; and "Our trick, I think," we hope to retort some day, when the German army lies shattered before us.
But no eternal significance in any of it, in either event; only a game; in which mercy and justice have no more title to win, because they are mercy and justice, than the king of hearts is entitled to win, clubs being trumps.
It is a possible way of looking at things. The chief argument to be urged against it is a practical one: that it would make the world so much more horrible than it is already. It would destroy all art, for art is but a search for that hidden beauty which is God. It would render all the things which we confess to be fine meaningless, for, ultimately, the fine things are the things of God; the reflections and shadows of divinity.
Dawn and sunset would cease to be spectacles of enchantment for us, though they might speak to us as they speak to moths and owls. A court of justice would become a meaningless circumstance to us: the murdered would not claim our pity, nor the murderer our indignation. And lest this should seem a mere flourish, let it be noted that this is the actual state of mind of those persons who are called "Pacifists"; they reiterate that there is no distinction to be made between the German butcher and the Belgian butchered.
Indeed, there is a well-known, I would say, notorious writer, who maintained not so many months ago in an English paper that it is most false to say that the Germans have violated Belgian neutrality. It is we, he said, who have violated Belgian neutrality; Germany is merely at war with Belgium; which is quite a different matter. Now many people have thought that this person talks outrageous nonsense in order to attract attention to himself. I do not think this is so. I believe that he—and those who follow him—cannot help talking nonsense, simply because they have accepted the supremely nonsensical proposition that there is no God. They have accepted the proposition that two and two make five, and, therefore, the keener their wits, the more cunning their cogitations, the more monstrous are the results that they obtain. Euclid's "which is absurd" has no restraining force for them, and so they plunge deeper and deeper into chasms and gulfs of obscurity.The ordinary man, confronted by the daily problems of ordinary life, perceives that there are daily difficulties, daily obscurities, daily contradictions. Being a moderately sensible fellow, he makes the best of all these difficulties and contradictions, and, practically, gets on pretty well. He is bewildered, but he survives. But there are men who find life so intolerable that they take refuge in delirium tremens. They fly from—creditors, let us say—who are there, to snakes and rats which are not there. And that, I think, is a pretty good analogy of the atheistic solution of the universe. And, in relation to this question of "God and the War," let it be remarked that we have not to choose between the easy atheistic hypothesis and the hard orthodox hypothesis. Both are hard; only one is hopeless. It is hard, indeed, as a soldier said to me, to see the obscene horrors and torments of the war, and then to utter the "Almighty and most merciful Father." Yet, individually, we are, most of us, ready to confess that good things are born of torments. "These are they that have come out of great tribulation": that is a text. But what artist does not acknowledge that his book, or his picture, or his statue has come out of great tribulation. Nay, I knew an editor who used to say that every journalist worth his salt had to rack his brains before he could write half a dozen lines fit to print in the paper. Now, racking, whether of brains or of limbs, is a painful process. It is possible, then, nay, probable, that horrible and painful processes may be necessary processes. There are terrible operations in surgery, burnings and cuttings, which give life to the individual; it may well be that there is a surgery of nations as well as of individuals. There is Cobdenism, for example, in our system; the belief that men's lives are a commodity to be bought in the cheapest market, and their work to be sold in the dearest. Heaven forbid that that any man should presume to pry into the counsels of God; but is it altogether unreasonable or against the analogy of things to believe that the white fires and knives that pierce almost to the heart of life should be required to cut out such a cancer as this?