Joseph McCabe (1867-1955) was one of the most prolific authors of all time. He was brought up as a Roman Catholic, worked on Latin documents, and made himself very well-informed about Christianity, but turned against it. But he was extremely naive about Jews; bear this in mind.

Click for Detailed notes on McCabe - scroll down for selections from A Rationalist Encyclopaedia (1948).

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The Family and the Church

J. McCabe, Rationalists Encyclopaedia

Family, the Church and the. In view of the failure of the old types of evidence on behalf of Christianity, apologists have had increasing recourse to social arguments, and prominent among these is the contention that the family is the foundation of the State, and the Church alone can protect it from disintegration. One must not admit the premises of this argument without clearer definition. These writers, in speaking of a foundation of the State, fallaciously induce their readers to picture a vertical material structure, which naturally requires foundations, and the figure of speech is most ineptly transferred to the State. We might recall, too, that monarchy or democracy or militarism has at different periods been described as equally fundamental. When the apologist goes beyond pulpit rhetoric and explains that the decay of the family would entail a fatal reduction of births, we have to remember that by the modern conquest of disease the death-rate has been so lowered that before the end of this century (if not already) a full birth-rate of the old type would raise formidable problems and difficulties. [See Birth Control.] However that may be, the second part of the argument, which properly concerns us here, is based upon a number of discredited legends about the condition of the older civilizations and the social effect of the introduction of Christianity. Most of these are elsewhere exposed [Children; Divorce; Marriage; Romans; Woman; etc.], and it is necessary here only to draw the conclusion.
      It is a commonplace of Christian literature that in the ancient Roman civilization the family was in danger of perishing and Christianity restored it to honour. For this it is usual to quote certain statements of Roman writers of the early Empire. It is not necessary to examine these strictures on the Roman "smart set" (which has a parallel in every civilization), for two reasons. The first is that the period to which reference is usually made, the Augustan age or earlier, instead of leading to decay, culminated in the finest and richest period of ancient history - the Antonine Age. When writers quote in particular the diatribes of Juvenal, which experts decline to take as items of social history, and the moral exaggerations of Tacitus, the genuine student of Roman history reflects that these critics actually lived in the healthiest period of the Empire. But, secondly, whatever truth there may be in the charges is irrelevant, because Christianity had no social influence whatever until two centuries later. In modern history the experts who have paid special attention to this point deny that there was any abnormal amount of vice or selfishness in Imperial Rome. Friedlaender, perhaps the highest authority, says that "there is nothing to show that in Imperial Rome shamelessness ever went so far as it did in Paris about the middle of the last (eighteenth) century" (Sittengeschichte Roms, I, 431). Sir S. Dill, the highest British authority and a Christian, answers the gossipy charges of Juvenal against a class which he did not know by assuring us that "in his own modest class female morality was as high as the average morality of any age" (Roman Society from Nero to Marcus Aurelius, 1916, p. 76); and in his later work he gives an even better account of the last predominantly pagan generation, in the fourth century. But this question of Roman morals will be considered later [Rome, Morals in Ancient].
      The plea of the apologist begins to seem quite audacious when we examine what did happen after the triumph of the Christian Church. Historians tell us that the population of Rome sank from about a million, in the fourth century, to about 40,000 in the sixth. From this we must infer that the population of the lands which had formed the old Western Empire must have sunk from about 50,000,000 to much less than 20,000,000, and it remained phenomenally low until the eleventh century. Barbaric invasions - which, indeed, brought several million robust men, women, and children into southern Europe - are only part of the explanation. For the rest see Children; Cruelty; Epidemics; Law; etc. Here it is enough to note that the assertion that Christianity saved Roman society by protecting the family and thus ensuring a supply of citizens is fantastic, since the establishment of the Church was, whatever the cause, followed by one of the gravest decreases of population that is known in history. For the next period, the Dark Age, we admit an increase - portentously slow increase - of population, but the general morality of all classes was such that the fertility of the women was not connected with any idea of the sanctity of marriage; over which, in fact, the Church had as yet no control [see Divorce and Marriage]. "Conjugal morals returned to brutality," says Legouve in his Histoire morale des femmes (1849, p. 183). Serfs, who formed the great majority of the population, and were almost exactly in the position of the slaves of the later Roman Empire, were coupled rather than married by the owners, who had little respect for their families. The sexual licence continued, indeed in the higher class was worse, during the second part of the Middle Ages, the abolition of divorce [see] being a mockery. Even on the theoretical side there was no pretence of promoting social interests. Men's affairs were nominally regulated in accordance with an ancient superstition and two contradictory utterances attributed to Jesus; really, in the interest of the power and wealth of the Church. One of the most unfortunate illustrations of Positivist ill-informed leniency to the Roman Church is that Comte recommended "the Holy Family" as symbolical of its beneficent influence during its thousand years of despotic power.
      But Protestantism did little to restore the sanity and health of the social order in this respect. J. C. Jeafferson gives, in his Brides and Bridals (1872), some picturesque details about the sale of wives (even in the knightly class) and the general levity about marriage. He quotes a satirical popular song, of the days of Edward V, which told how, if a man wanted to get rid of his wife, he need only take to the church a little silver and "twei fals witnesses" (II, 310). Howard quotes, in his weighty Matrimonial Institutions (1904, II, 59), a statute in which Henry VIII (noble apostle of matrimonial integrity) complains that "marriages have been brought into such an uncertainty that no marriage could be so surely knit and bounden" that the clergy could not find a flaw in it. Cranmer prepared a scheme of reform, but the premature death of Edward and the return of reaction with Mary killed it, and the Anglo-Catholic element then obtained a declaration (1602) that the Canon Law was still in force. The state of affairs was in some respects worse than ever. Child-marriages [see] continued, and divorce could be had only by Act of Parliament, and cost from £2,000 to £10,000, so that there were only seven cases in the seventeenth century and 130 in the entire period from 1602 to 1857. The Anglo-Catholic who fancies that this protected the sacredness of marriage should read the extraordinary story of the Free Parsons of the eighteenth century. Since these were not under the bishop, they tied the matrimonial knot, with no possibility of divorce, cheaply and without questions. Abducted heiresses, drunken sailors dragged in by whores, and infatuated girls were married by them for life. One (in the Fleet Prison) performed 36,000 marriages. Another performed 40,000 in twenty-seven years. See the works of Jeafferson and Howard (above) and Burn's Fleet Street Registers (1833). The cruelty to women, the relaxation of morals, and the sufferings of children can be imagined. It was not until the control of marriage was taken from the Churches, in the nineteenth century, and treated as a social interest that reform was effected. To what extent social welfare is bound up with the family is an issue beyond the range of this work, but the claim of the Churches is a flagrant defiance of the undisputed facts of history.

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