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The Chapman Cohen Quote

It’s been a while since we’ve tracked down another quote from the Apologetics lists. With the NCFCA’s nationals and Stoa’s NITOC just around the corner, it seems like a good time. Today’s focus: Category 1, Statement Analysis 3

Analyze and respond to the statement, “Gods are fragile things. They may be killed by a whiff of science or a dose of common sense.” Chapman Cohen

This topic holds a particularly fond place in my heart. It was the first quote I attempted to trace and the first quote to demonstrate that nobody else had ever made a successful attempt (with not one but two college students doing the heavy lifting and still hitting walls, that’s not really a surprise). Nevertheless, it launched me into these little research projects and for that I’m grateful.

The quote comes from a pamphlet titled, The Devil written by Chapman Cohen. The original of which I haven’t been able to track down, but a full reprint is available in Gordon Stein’s An Anthology of Atheism and Rationalism.

Interestingly, unlike some of the other quotes we’ve seen (cf. Tozer, Shaw and Marx), this quote is word-for-word accurate. From page 258 of Stein’s Anthology:

Gods are fragile things, they may he killed by a whiff of science or a dose of common sense.

That makes the analysis side a bit easier (it’s always awkward to have to correct a quote in a speech). However, it’s the context of this quote that makes this quote somewhat tricky.

The point of Cohen’s article is stated in his opening paragraph:

The Devil is one of the foundation-stones of historic Christianity. Jesus Christ is another. God the Father lingers in the rear, and in modern Christianity hardly appears: while the Holy Ghost forms, naturally, a shadowy background. But the foundations of Christianity are Jesus Christ and the Devil. Together they form the Two halves of what is significantly known as Christian truth. The necessity for Jesus Christ lies in the activity of the Devil. Without him there
would have been no Fall, no Scheme of Redemption, no Plan of Salvation, and every human being would have had to bear the consequences of his or her actions, instead of first blaming the Devil for his ill-deeds and then “passing the buck” on to Jesus. (p 253)

After this opening salvo, Cohen digs into a sort of tongue-in-cheek exposition of how, without the Devil, there would be no Christianity. A brief sampling of his argument,

There is the highest Christian authority for saying that both Jesus Christ and the Devil came From the same “home town.” Jesus came from heaven, and after a short and exciting stay on earth returned thereto. The Devil also began his career in heaven, but was “cast out,” which after he appeared to have enjoyed a free and wide run on earth. He is respectfully referred to in the Bible as one of the “sons of God,” and appears in heaven discussing various matters with his father. It was at one of these gatherings that God entered into a controversy with Satan, and a kind of wager was agreed upon as to whether “my servant Job” could be weaned from his allegiance. Job was not consulted on the subject, and from God’s point of view came well out of the test; but while Job vindicated his character for steadfastness and God won the wager, it is quite evident that in the discussion Satan came out on top. God was good on boils, but weak in argument. (p 253)

Continuing on, we find the paragraphs leading up to our line of interest, where Cohen is explaining what objections are brought against this invaluable Devil,

Two charges are, either directly or indirectly, brought by the Christian Church against the Devil. The first is that he was ambitious and wished men to worship him. But ambition, while it may lead a man into dubious paths, is not a very serious crime; any person of moderate intelligence might get weary of a place where the only form of dissipation appears to be eternally singing songs of the Lamb. But the Christian God does not like competition, and Satan’s “better to reign in hell than serve in heaven,” was bound to create friction.

For Satan to seek worship was a more serious offence. It hit at both God and the Church. For while the Church flourishes on belief, the gods live on worship. All the gods of the past have lived upon worship. While they were worshipped the gods of Egypt, of Rome, of Greece, were fine, lusty fellows, who gave their followers all that the Christian God gives his worshippers. These gods of the ancient world sent rain and gave their followers good health; they answered prayers; they sent their faithful worshippers to a prepared heaven and their enemies to a prepared hell. But as man’s worship declined so the objects of the worship declined also. Gods are fragile things, they may be killed by a whiff of science or a dose of common sense. They thrive on servility and shrink before independence. They feed upon worship as kings do upon flattery. That is why the cry of gods at all times is “Worship us or we perish.” A dethroned monarch may retain some of his human dignity while driving a taxi for a living. But a god without his thunderbolt is a poor object. (p. 258)

This is the first hint we have at Cohen’s ultimate conclusion. Cohen, being an atheists, is obviously poking fun at this silly notion of both Devil and God and simply illustrates their Achilles’ heal by first point to their absolute, ying-and-yang reliance on each other, and then showing their ultimate, collateral demise. Cohen concludes,

At the hands of the Christian Churches the Devil has had what the Americans call a “raw deal.” For centuries this historic figure, the subject of sculpture, song and story, has not a single monument in any of the Churches, which without him would never have been. Man’s ingratitude to man is said to be great enough to make angels weep. But what is this compared with the ingratitude of the Church to the greatest of its benefactors?

But ingratitude brings its nemesis. The devil and God are the components of a Siamese twin. Neither has any existence apart from the other. In denying the existence of the one, Christians have helped to kill the other. If there need to be no fear of hell, people may well ask what is the attraction of heaven? Gods and devils were born together. Gods and devils will die together.

Keep in mind, Cohen is deploying a reductio ad absurdum argument against Christian teaching. The entire purpose of his argument is to illustrate how ridiculous Christian teaching is. By that, he hopes to persuade the reader that both God and his co-equal, the Devil, deserve to be put out to the curb of humanity’s consciousness.

A couple of notes for your competitors.

-“Science” here seems parenthetical. It is not the main thrust of Cohen’s argument. According to the context, the emphasis is on common sense (the word “science” only occures 3 times in the article. To read Cohen’s argument on how science has been regarded as anti-God and pro-Devil, see p. 259).

-The main argument used to introduce this quote actually comes from the idea surrounding Cat. 3, GQ 5, “What is the purpose of man?” If you’re going to answer that question by following the Westminster Shorter Catechism (“Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.”), then you should know that the Cohen quotes provides a perfect counter-point to that claim. Cohen argues that all gods need us to worship them otherwise they would go off into a dust bin.

-The main thrust of the paragraph is found in the word “fragile”. In Cohen’s argument, gods need us, not the other way around. How they may be killed off is not nearly as important as the fact that they can be. And Cohen is arguing that they should be.

-You really should read this whole article. It’s good writing, a good sampling of atheistic polemics and a generally fun read (if you can get past how badly he mangles Christian teaches to fit his point). $30 is steep, but you can find used copies for around $5.

So there you go. I hope that helps!