A look back in time: We were trolled long before the Internet

A look back in time: We were trolled long before the Internet September 9, 2021

LAST week I was I was compelled to ban a troll calling itself “Fear God.”

I did so because “F G” did what so many have done hundreds of time before. It used our comments section to declare “Psalm 53:1 The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’ They are corrupt, and their ways are vile; there is not one who does good.”

A troll scouring his Big Book of Bullshit for quotes to throw at atheists. Photo by Nathan Bingle on Unsplash

The founder of The Freethinker, G W Foote – who served a year in prison with hard labour for blasphemy – had  similar problems with Christian trolls, whom he labeled “anonymous bores”. In a collection of essays entitled Arrows of Freethought, he wrote the following in 1882 under the heading “Going to Hell”.

Editing a Freethought paper is a dreadful business. It brings one into contact with many half-baked people who have little patent recipes for hastening the millennium; with ambitious versifiers who think it a disgrace to journalism that their productions are not instantly inserted; with discontented ladies and gentlemen who fancy that a heterodox paper is the proper vehicle for every species of complaint; and with a multitude of other bores too numerous to mention and too various to classify.

But the worst of all are the anonymous bores, who send their insults, advice, or warnings, through the post for the benefit of the Queen’s revenue. We generally pitch their puerile missives into the waste-paper basket; but occasionally we find one diverting enough to be introduced to our readers. A few days ago we received the following lugubrious epistle, ostensibly from a parson in Worcestershire, as the envelope bore the postmark of Tything.

The fool hath said in his heart ‘there is no God’ – I have seen one of your blasphemous papers; and I say solemnly, as a clergyman of the Church of England, that I believe you are doing the work of the Devil, and are on the road to hell, and will spend eternity with the Devil, unless God, in his mercy, lead you, by the Holy Spirit, to repentance.

Nothing is impossible, with him. A Dean in the Church of England says, ‘Be wise, and laugh not through a speck of time, and then wail through an immeasurable eternity.’ Except you change your views you will most certainly hear Christ say, at the Judgment Day, ‘Depart ye cursed into everlasting fire prepared for the Devil and his angels.’ (Matt, xxv.)

This is a tolerably warm, though not very elegant effusion, and it is really a pity that so grave a counsellor should conceal his name; for if it should lead to our conversion, we should not know whom to thank for having turned us out of the primrose path to the everlasting bonfire.

Our mentor assures us that with God nothing is impossible. We are sorry to learn this; for we must conclude that he does not take sufficient trouble with parsons to endow them with the courage of their convictions, or to make them observe the common decencies of epistolary intercourse.

This anonymous parson, who acts like an Irish “Moonlighter,” and masks his identity while venting his spleen, presumes to anticipate the Day of Judgment, and tells exactly what Jesus Christ will say to us on that occasion. We are obliged to him for the information, but we wonder how he obtained it.

The twenty-fifth of Matthew, to which he refers us, contains not a word about unbelievers. It simply states that certain persons, who have treated the Son of Man very shabbily in his distress, shall be sent to keep company with Old Nick and his imps.

Now, we have never shown the Son of Man any incivility, much less any inhumanity, and we therefore repudiate this odious insinuation. Whenever Jesus Christ sends us a message that he is sick, we will pay him a visit; if he is hungry, we will find him a dinner; if he is thirsty, we will stand whatever he likes to drink; if he is naked, we will hunt him up a clean shirt and an old suit; and if he is in prison, we will, according as he is innocent or guilty, try to procure his release, or leave him to serve out his term.

We should be much surprised if any parson in the three kingdoms would do any more. Some of them, we believe, would see him condemned before they would lift a finger or spend sixpence to help him.

We are charged with doing the work of the Devil. This is indeed news. We never knew the Devil required any assistance. He was always very active and enterprising, and quite able to manage his own business. And although his rival, Jehovah, is so dotingly senile as to yield up everything to his mistress and her son, no one has ever whispered the least hint of the Devil’s decline into the same abject position.

But if his Satanic Majesty needed our aid we should not be loth to give it, for after carefully reading the Bible many times from beginning to end, we have come to the conclusion that he is about the only gentleman in it.

We are “on the road to hell.” Well, if we must go somewhere, that is just the place we should choose. The temperature is high, and it would no doubt at first be incommodious. But, as old Sir Thomas Browne says, afflictions induce callosities, and in time we should get used to anything.

When once we grew accustomed to the heat, how thankful we should be at having escaped the dreary insipidity of heaven, with its perpetual psalms, its dolorous trumpets, its gruesome elders, and its elderly beasts! How thankful at having missed an eternity with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David, and all the many blackguards and scoundrels of the Bible!

How thankful at having joined for ever the society of Rabelais, Bruno, Spinoza, Voltaire, Thomas Paine, John Stuart Mill, and all the great poets, sages and wits, who possess so much of that carnal wisdom which is at enmity with the pious folly of babes and sucklings!

On the whole, we think it best to keep on our present course. Let the bigots rave and the parsons wail. They are deeply interested in the doctrine of heaven and hell beyond the grave. We believe in heaven and hell on this side of it; a hell of ignorance, crime, and misery; a heaven of wisdom, virtue, and happiness. Our duty is to promote the one and combat the other. If there be a just God, the fulfilment of that duty will suffice; if God be unjust, all honest men will be in the same boat, and have the courage to despise and defy him.

I was captivated with Foote’s writing at the tender age of 15, and when a teacher in South Africa asked me what I planned to do when when I grew up. I replied:

I want to become editor of The Freethinker.

I then had to explain that The Freethinker was a British atheist journal, one that was banned in the apartheid state. As a consequence I was sent off to the headmaster, and caned six times for revealing to my class that – in his words – I was “a non-believing communist.”

Fate decreed that I should follow in Foote’s footsteps, but, alas, never endowed me with his superb mastery of the English language.

He died at the age of 65, after editing The Freethinker for 34 years.

My 75th birthday next February will mark 25 years of my editorship, during which time I saw it transition from a monthly print publication to one of the most successful atheist sites on the Internet.

And before the end of the year I will see it migrate from Patheos to a brand-new platform, currently under construction, designed to be world’s largest collective of freethought writers. More details will follow in due course.

Only time will tell whether I will live long enough to match Foote’s tenure as editor.

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