The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 84
Morality Without the Bible
Morality Without the Bible.
What is morality ? If, as orthodox Christians assert, morality is impossible without the Bible, and if it be a fact that if the Bible were "taken away from the people," or, in plainer and more ingenuous language, deprived of its infallible and God-created character, then morality would lapse altogether and have its place taken by its opposite, immorality; it follows that this "morality" is a something foreign to nature, and not inherent to it, and was imported into the world specifically by the Bible, and thus dates its origin definitely from the day on which certain writings were first bound together in one book and called by that name. This, no doubt, seems a very hard and forced provision to be constrained to accept, but it cannot possibly be denied that it is the natural and legitimate corollary to the assertion that morality is impossible without the Bible; and by no amount of specious word-twisting, or point-disguising sermonising and book-writing, can the predicament be evaded. Thus, if these orthodox Christians desire to ground their position on a basis of certitude, it is incumbent upon them to show that, previous to the time when the Bible was first given forth to the world, morality was the x of the social problem—the unknown quantity; or, at all events, did not exist as a general element, more or less developed in different subjects. Now, to me, to be called upon to deny this seems an insult both to the understanding and the acquired knowledge; and the impossibility of proving it, or, I should rather say, the manifest falsity of it, ought, to any rational mind, to be sufficient conviction that morality without the Bible is not impossible in these latter days. This consideration should be brought to the minds of that large section of the people of liberal tendencies who, while admitting that there is much in the Bible which could, and should, be dispensed with, yet, on the score page 60 of what they call "expediency"—like Protagoras of old—deem that, for the sake of society, certain doctrines should be upheld, and thus deprecate "depriving the people of their Bible." If any connected scheme of morality could be gathered from the Bible as a whole—which is not easy, for, to quote the words of Theodore Parker, it teaches "two forms of religion which widely differ, set forth and enforced by miracles; the one ritual and formal, the other actual and spiritual; the one the religion of fear, the other of love; one final, and resting entirely on the special revelation made to Moses, the other progressive, based on the universal revelation of God, who enlightens all that come into the world; one offers only earthly recompense, the other makes immortality a motive to divine life; one compels men, the other invites them; one half of the Bible repeals the other"—it would be found that it differs little from what had passed current for morality throughout the world, among those who made the subject a study, from the earliest times of which history takes cognizance. Buckle, in his "History of Civilization," says—I am not quite sure that I quote the exact words—" If any one says that Christianity gave to the world any new element of morality to which it was before a stranger, he either makes the assertion in entire ignorance of the whole matter, or else he knowingly mistakes the facts to further his own ends;" and although I do not entirely agree with this, it is undoubtedly true of those great essentials, or first principles, as Truth, Justice, Temperance, &c., from which all that is included in the term "morality" springs, and of which Miss Cobbe, in her essay, "Darwinianism in Morals," wrote—" The axioms of ethics, like those of geometry, are necessary truths known to us as facts of consciousness. The morality of Socrates, Plato, Zeno the Stoic, and many other of the Grecian philosophers, is far superior to that of Moses or David, equal to that of Isaiah, and falls little, if any, short of that of Christ.
The same may be said of the sacred writings of the Eastern nations, the Rig-Veda of the Brahmans, the Zend-Avesta of the Zoroastrians, and the Tripitaka of the Buddhists—all of them infinitely older than the Bible, and the first and oldest preserved writing that humanity has produced. Listen to a quotation from the last-named, which was written six hundred years before Christ:—" Conquer anger by mildness; evil by good; falsehood by truth. ... Be not desirous of discovering the faults of others, but zealously guard against your own. . . . Abstain from foolish conversation, and from betraying the secrets of others. Abstain from coveting, from all evil wishes to others, from all unjust suspicion. To be free from sin, be contented, be grateful, subject to reproof, having a mind unshaken by prosperity and adversity. He is a more page 61 noble warrior who subdues himself than he who in battle conquers thousands. ... All the religion of Buddha is contained in these three precepts : purify thy mind, abstain from vice, practice virtue." I fancy there is more true morality in these few sentences than is to be found in the ten commandments of Moses; or, for the matter of that, as much as in the whole of the Old Testament; and if such sentiments could exist, and be given expression to, antecedent to the existence of the Bible, it is surely absurd to deny that they are independent of that work.
But to return to the fundamental question : What is morality ? To this question innumerable answers have been given at different epochs of the world's history, according to the development and bent of the individual intellect. Plato asserted that the faculty of distinguishing right from wrong came direct from the soul, and was simply the recollection of what it—the soul—had seen when it abode with the gods, before it was incarnated in the body. The Sophists, led by Protagoras, said that there were no such things as right and wrong by nature, but only by convention. Zeno the Stoic derived his impressions directly from Nature, saying that the only true formula for morals was to live harmoniously with her. Of the two great rival schools of philosophy which have agitated the modern world, the Intuitionists—as Descartes, Spinoza, Kant, and Schelling—assign a knowledge of right and wrong to certain innate ideas imprinted on the mind, they do not pretend to say how; while their opponents, the Sensationalists—as Locke, Hume, Bentham, and Condillac—declare it to be derived only from experience. Among the explanations given by those of to-day, the Utilitarians—as Darwin, Mill, and Spencer—say, in the words of the latter, that the moral sense is nothing but the "experience of utility organized and consolidated through all past generations; " that is to say, the earlier types of man had no incentive to action other than self-interest, and that this self-interest gradually led them to see that good and moral actions always paid best in the end; in fact, that "honesty is the best policy;" and thus a moral sense, or a knowledge of right and wrong, became eventually permanently established, and the social instincts which were the original springs of action, have been slowly converted into elements of our nature. Another section, the orthodox Protestants, assert that such a knowledge can come only from God through the Bible; a third that an infallible Pope is the only true interpreter; a fourth, the Theists—as the late Theodore Parker and Miss Cobbe—that, in the words of the former, if "we set aside the body with its senses as the man's house, having doors and windows—if we examine the understanding, which is his handmaid—if we separate the affections which unite man with man—we page 62 discover the moral sense by which we can discern between right and wrong, as by the body's eye between black and white, or night and day; and behind all these, and deeper down, beneath all the shifting phenomena of life, we discover the Religious Element of man;" and this Religious Element it is which decides everything; while a fifth, the Spiritualists, mostly ascribe all such knowledge directly to the promptings of the spiritual individualization—a doctrine that differs but little in effect, though much in fact, from the Innate Ideas of the Intuitionists.
Now, to me, it appears that if we leave out the theories of the Protestants and the Catholics as altogether too absurd and too illogical to admit of any ratiocination, there is an element of truth in all these conceptions. That there is truth in that of the Utilitarians cannot possibly, to my mind, be doubted; the evidence in its favour is altogether too overwhelming to allow of its being scouted on the score, as Miss Cobbe puts it, "that these doctrines (those enunciated by Darwin in his ' Descent of Man') appear to me simply the most dangerous which have ever been set forth since the days of Mandeville." The question I apprehend is, not whether they are dangerous, but whether they are true. That they were true of the earlier types of man cannot, I think, be called into question, but that at some period of development in that vast "class of intelligences which lies between baboons and philosophers," they have been superseded by something higher, is, to say the least of it, highly probable—or, perhaps, to put it more correctly, that the moral sense originated from utilitarianism has coalesced with that proceeding from a higher and more refined source, and the two, acting together, seem as one. The proof of the truth that is in them may be found at this present day among different races of men with whom customs originally of a utilitarian character—though they have now long lost even this quality—have become engrafted in and interwoven with the very nature of the race, and are deemed to be highly moral, although in effect the very opposite. In a paper of this sort it is impossible to give lengthy instances, but it must be generally admitted that among different races the moral sense admits of different interpretations being placed upon the same action; and it is therefore obvious that if they all had the same origin, that origin could not have been derived from anything external to the experience; that it could not have been intuition, or any higher faculty, that would only inculcate an immutable standard of right and wrong; and that therefore it must have been utilitarianism by which, in different countries, and under different circumstances and conditions, the promptings of self-interest gave different complexions to the same action, and thus it became to be estimated as both moral and immoral by different peoples.page 63
To ascribe what passes for morality among the Dahomeans, with whom murder is a virtue; among the Andamanese, the Fuegians, and others, with whom promiscuous intercourse is perfectly moral; among the Maoris, with whom to steal is, under some circumstances, a virtuous action—to any higher source than to utilitarianism grown into a custom, appears to me the height of absurdity. On the other hand, savage and uncivilized races may be found whose domestic life is in the highest degree moral, as the Zulus, among whom, with the exception" of polygamy and the right of the king over life; crimes, such as we regard them, do not exist, and a more honest, truthful, and chaste race is not to be found, as I can affirm from years residence among them. But that this morality does not arise from intuition is proved by the fact that when they are educated and taught "Bible truths," they immediately become immoral; and, like the English mistress, who puts into her advertisement, "No Irish need apply," the "Natal mistress says, "No Christian Kaffir need apply," for when Christianised the men are thieves and the women unchaste.
Good and evil, therefore, as the conceptions of them are formed at various stages of man's evolution, must evidently have been derived from utilitarianism. "Good," said a barbarian to a French missionary, "is when I take my enemies' wives. Evil is when he takes mine." As Miss Cobbe says, "The man who has no higher sense of goodness than this is as incapable of feeling Divine goodness as a table or a door is incapable of feeling the benevolence of its owner."
To venture upon a surmise as to the exact period of human development at which the utilitarian conceptions of right and wrong became commingled with, or subsidiary to, those derived from a higher or spiritual source, is, of course, not my purpose here, were it even practicable. The fact of the matter probably is, that the process was a gradational one, and that as the intellectual activity demanded by the increasing spread of what we call civilization enlarged and strengthened the cerebral organs, in an exactly equal degree were the spiritual essences individualised, or, at all events, were enabled to influence the workings of the mind—a supposition which would at the same time account for the growth of the "Religious Element in man "of the Theists. Indeed, so far do I believe this to have been the case, that I do not hesitate to avouch my settled conviction, however much it may startle most, that even at this present day, and among civilized nations, the spiritual essences in many people are not yet individualised—or, in other words, that many members of both savage and civilized communities are nothing more than animals in human shape.page 64
I have left out of these considerations the theories of the Protestants and the Catholics as too absurd and illogical to admit of ratiocination; because I believe that every rational man who gives his mind fully to the subject, with an earnest desire to arrive at the truth, must come to similar conclusions, although he may not deem it expedient to acknowledge it, believing perhaps that that "depravity "which he has been taught to look upon as inherent in human nature would lead people, if "deprived of the Bible," into all sorts of excesses and immoralities. To such an one I can only say, "Try it; " try to believe in the sublimity of humanity, and that man, even in the lowest phase, and even in that class mentioned in the last paragraph, is, in the words of Andrew Jackson Davis, "a creature of infinite possibilities." Even an animal is easier taught by kindness than severity; even a child is more readily put upon good behaviour through love than through fear. Is it, then, only full-grown men and women, in full possession of their faculties—and aided by the promptings of the etherealised part of their nature—that require to be kept in check by threats of punishment and hopes of reward lest they should break out into the wildest orgies of immorality and wickedness ? Away with such a soul-debasing belief !—away, I say, with such a degrading, humiliating conception of the handiwork of the Great Author of the Universe! Go forth into the summer air, and, with the sweet-smelling breeze playing softly on your cheeks, look around at the graceful waving trees, the beautiful multi-coloured flowers, the rippling spray-tossing streams, and the eye-soothing slopes of velvety grass, and then dare to say that they have no purpose, or that that purpose is not good. Look down at the busy ants rushing hither and thither in orderly system, working each for the good of his fellow, without tumult or riotous behaviour, and then remember that they, at all events, require no Bible to keep them from wrong-doing. Place your hand upon your heart and note its beatings, and then try and convince yourself that the Power that set that going and keeps it going did so, and does so, for a purpose, and that that purpose is good. And, finally, look forth upon a throng of your fellow-creatures assembled on a public holiday to enjoy the wonders of the Exhibition, and then dare to say that they are all totally depraved, and without threats would take to smashing everything they saw, and rioting in the profundity of immorality—dare to say that in thus sending them forth into the world God has not a purpose, and that purpose is not good.
After thus endeavouring to show that morality is not of the Bible, and is therefore possible without it, let me ask if the morality of the day page 65 ever was the morality of the Bible? It is frequently asserted that the Bible has "stood the shock of ages," and without endorsing this, I would only point out that, if it be true, it is proof positive that the morality of the time being is not the morality of the Bible; for I opine that no one would venture to assert that what passed for morality five hundred years ago would do so to-day, or that what did duty for it even one hundred years ago would do so now; nay, I even question if any one would aver that the morality of twenty-five years ago would pass muster to-day. If this be so—it will, of course, be understood that I refer to the morality of the masses, and not to the conceptions of genius, which are never accepted by the masses until long after their emanation—it is manifest that the morality of the day is not derived from the Bible, but is altogether independent of it, being in fact the outgrowth of the general volume of knowledge and intellectual development which has been acquired at the period referred to. I will go further than this, and say that if any one in this our day, in Sydney or London, were to practice the morality of some parts of the Old Testament, he would find himself at issue with the laws of the country; and the conflict between the laws of the country and the laws of God, as illustrated in the Bible, would result in the offender against the former, and the believer in the latter, being relegated to the lock-up to reflect at his leisure on the startling anomaly.