3. Let us suppose that an entire nation has acquired, in some way or other, the certainty that, at the end of a week, a month, or a year, it will be utterly destroyed, that not a single individual of its people will be left alive, that they will all be utterly annihilated, and that not a trace of their existence will remain; what, in such a case, would be the line of conduct adopted by the people thus doomed to a certain and foreseen destruction, during the short time which they would still have to exist? Would they work for their moral improvement, or for their instruction? Would they continue to work for their living? Would they scrupulously respect the rights, the property, and the life, of their neighbors? Would they submit to the laws of their country, or to any ascendancy, even to that of parental authority, the most legitimate of all? Would they recognize the existence of any duty? Assuredly not. Well, —the social ruin which we have imagined, by the way of illustration, as overtaking an entire nation, is being effected, individually, from day to day, by the doctrine of annihilation. If the practical consequences of this doctrine are not so disastrous to society as they might be, it is because, in the first place, there is, among the greater number of those whose vanity is flattered by the title of “free- thinker,” more of braggadocio than of absolute unbelief, more doubt than conviction, and more dread of annihilation than they care to show; and, in the second place, because those who really believe in annihilation are a very small minority, and are consequently influenced, in spite of themselves, by the contrary opinion, and held in check by the resistant forces of society and of the State: but, should absolute disbelief in a future existence ever be arrived at by the majority of humankind, the dissolution of society would necessarily follow. The propagation of the doctrine of annihilation would lead, inevitably, to this result.
But * whatever may be the consequences of the doctrine of annihilation, if that doctrine were true, it would have to be accepted; for, if annihilation were our destiny, neither opposing systems of philosophy, nor the moral and social ills that would result from our knowledge that such a destiny was awaiting us, could prevent our being annihilated. And it is useless to attempt to disguise from ourselves that skepticism, doubt, and indifference, are gaining ground every day, notwithstanding the efforts of the various religious bodies to the contrary. But if the religious systems of the day are powerless against skepticism, it is because they lack the weapons necessary for combating the enemy; so that, if their teaching were allowed to remain in a state of immobility, they would, soon, be inevitably defeated in the struggle. What is lacking to those systems—in this age of positivism, when men demand to understand before believing—is the confirmation of their doctrines by facts and by their concordance with the discoveries of Positive Science. If theoretic systems say white where facts say black, we must choose between an enlightened appreciation of evidence and a blind acceptance of arbitrary statements.
* We knew a young man of eighteen, who was attacked by a disease of the heart, pronounced by the faculty to be incurable. His physicians had declared that he might die in a week, or might live on for a couple of years, but that his life could not possibly be prolonged beyond that period. The young man, on becoming aware of the fate that awaited him, immediately broke off his studies and gave himself up to every sort of debauchery. To the arguments addressed to him upon the dangers of such a life of disorder to someone in his state of health, he invariably replied: “What does it matter, seeing that I have only two years to live? What would be the use of fatiguing myself with study? I am making the most of the remnant of life that is left to me, and am determined to enjoy myself while it lasts.” Such is the logical consequence of a belief in annihilation.
If this young man had been a Spiritist, he would have said to himself: “Death will only destroy my body, which I shall throw aside like a worn-out garment; but my spirit will live forever. I shall be, in my next phase of existence, just what I shall have made of myself by my present life. Nothing that I shall have acquired, in morality or in knowledge, will be lost to me, for every new acquisition I shall have made will be so much added to my advancement. The cure of every imperfection, of which I may have been able to rid myself during my present existence, will take me a step further on my road to felicity; my future happiness or unhappiness will be the result of the good or bad use I shall have made of the life which I am now living. It is, therefore, of the utmost importance for me to make the most of the short time still remaining to me, and to avoid whatever would tend to diminish my strength.”
Which of the two doctrines we are comparing is the preferable one?