The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 8
The Irrationality of Creeds
The Irrationality of Creeds.
To attend service for ten consecutive Sundays in any orthodox Protestant church is almost certainly to hear—so formidable a foe to ecclesiastical Christianity has the spirit of free inquiry at length waxed—at least three or four hearty denunciations of an attribute of man, which, if it does not, as some think, distinguish him from the brutes, is at any rate among the highest and noblest of his endowments. And the method of this strange proceeding is as stereotyped as the occurrence of it is regular. At the least scent of what is termed unbelief, the Preacher, vociferating and attitudinising in his most impressive style, solemnly informs his hearers that their reasoning faculty, except when under the guidance of the priest and acquiescent with the revealed Word, is not to be trusted. You must not, says he, direct an earnest and independent thought at the great religious verities which have long since been accurately and authoritatively defined; or, to the peril of your salvation, you will find yourselves plunging deeper and deeper into doubt, and at last into the abyss of a soul-destroying rationalism. Stand you fast by the faith once delivered to the saints, and of which we, the priesthood, are the appointed guardians. Be warned, my beloved brethren and sisters, for the enemy, bold, skilful and insidious, is abroad, and is waiting to snatch you from the fold of true believers.
Now this antipathy of the orthodox ecclesiastical mind towards the intellectual side of human nature is assuredly not a matter of accident; and, perhaps, on looking into the matter, we shall find that the doctrines usually promulgated from pulpits are in page 166 themselves so essentially unreasonable, as to readily explain the antagonism to which we allude. Nor is it necessary in an investigation of this kind to select the more abstruse or metaphysical of the Christian doctrines; doctrines which by the open confession of the defenders of them are so mysterious and incomprehensible, as to involve a complete prostration of the reasoning faculty as an indispensable preliminary to their acceptance. Our purpose will be best served by the selection of a dogma, the character and bearing of which are apparent to even humble intellects, and which, moreover, may be considered to exert an important influence on human life and conduct. The doctrine we refer to is that of the destiny of mankind in a future state of existence. Most Protestant Christians believe that every human being is, at the moment of death, irrevocably doomed either to an eternity of unbroken bliss or to an eternity of unmitigated misery. What an absurdity! What a libel upon the wisdom, upon the justice of the Eternal! What an impossible division of mankind, if one would but give the matter a thought! Fancy some dispassionate philosopher emerging from his cell and hearing of this monstrous figment of the theological imagination for the first time! Drawing his conclusions of men from a calm survey of them as they really are, what would the doctrine in question lead him to expect? Why, he would expect to find some very high and attractive characters, paragons of virtue, sullied by no vice, disfigured by no meanness or folly, and, on the other hand, some very low and repulsive natures, graced by no virtues, redeemed by no trace of chivalry or love; but of the half-and-half characters, mere creatures of circumstance who are led into good or evil as the impulse of the moment urges, or the influence of society inclines, them,—such characters, in truth, being, on the popular theory, neither good enough for the one H nor bad enough for the other,—our philosopher would not expect to find a single specimen. The conception, therefore, of mankind as being divided or even divisible into sheep and goats, heaven-deserving saints and hell-deserving sinners, is as false as it is crude, it would be much nearer the truth to say that of the best men there are none who are not tainted with some vice or folly, that of the worst men there are none who are wholly and irredeemably corrupt, while a large proportion of the human race is precisely of that mediocre stamp which is not good enough for the heaven of the saints nor bad enough for the hell of the sinners. Illustrative instances present themselves in any number and from all quarters. Perhaps there are few men who stand higher in the ranks of British literati, or who have exerted a greater fascination over the human mind, than Robert Burns, Lord Byron and Thomas Moore. Were these men saints of the orthodox pattern? Assuredly not. Were they saints at all? Not without a very liberal allowance for the infirmities of human nature. Were they hell-doomed sinners, then? They were, page 167 says the theologian; but his dismal and lying squeak is instantly silenced by a loud thundering No direct from the heart of humanity. Then, if we cross from Britain to France, what shall be said of such men as Voltaire and Rousseau? Between the philosophers who hail them as chiefs in the republic of letters, and the clergy who would consign them to the hottest corner of their seething caldron, we find ourselves beset by a similar difficulty as to their true place in the scale of moral ranks, and the same difficulty, insuperable as it is, will beleaguer and confound us, until we drop the foolish notion that humanity is a pair of well defined halves, instead of an indeterminately graduated moral unity.
Hard, however, as it is to discover suitable candidates for the orthodox heaven,—unless, indeed, we sanction, as we certainly do not sanction, the claims of those vapid, tame and uninteresting personages who are the subjects of religious biographies,—it is even more difficult to find suitable victims from among men as they actually are, for the orthodox hell. For the governors of our prisons and penitentiaries will testify that even in the most degraded natures redeeming points of character are always to be found, as manifested, for example, in their oft-expressed desire that a child or some youthful relative may be so reared as to avoid reaping their own guilt and misery. Nor again, when some fearful crime has been committed, is the perpetrator of it allowed to go without hope or consolation to his appointed place. In the interval between sentence and execution he is handed over to his spiritual advisers, who, like physicians in a desperate case, work with such energy and assiduity, that the culprit, on reaching the scaffold is usually no longer a hell-bound sinner steeped in crime, but a saint exulting in the prospect of impending heavenly bliss. So forcibly does the cant that is uttered on these occasions show how the instincts of human nature will recoil from the creeds which are uttered by human lips.
Proceeding now to a more comprehensive view of mankind we are brought face to face with the important fact that Christianity in the largest sense is known only to a minority of the human race at present existing; and that in the past it was absolutely unknown to men whose writings have had a quite incalculable influence on the intellectual development of every nation of Europe. In those early times there were multitudes of men and women, who strove to the best of their knowledge and moral development to do their duty in their respective spheres of action, and to train their children after them to do the same. What will be their destiny in a future life? What will be the fate of Cicero, Cato, Seneca? of Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, and of countless others occupying niches in the Temple of Fame? Of the illustrious Socrates it may be fairly said that he enunciated doctrines generally supposed to be peculiar to Christianity. While the Jews were upholding the lex talionis, or right of page 168 retaliation, in all its barbarous severity, Socrates was labouring to impress the minds of his countrymen with the principle that they ought not to return injury for injury, and when urged by his friends to escape, in the interval between his conviction and execution, his argument was that as the laws had always given him protection and security, so it would be base ingratitude on his part to break the laws because they had been prostituted to his unjust condemnation. What would the philosopher before alluded to, guided by common sense, say of these ancient worthies? Surely that men who, without having heard of Christianity, acted as men should act, by the light of their own consciences, were worthy of heaven; and, further, that those who, like Socrates, could attain to Christian morality, untaught and unassisted, were morally higher than those whose Christianity grounds itself on the life and teachings of Jesus. But then our philosopher learns to his astonishment, from the Articles of the Church of England, that men (Art. xviii.) cannot be saved by the light of Nature, and that works (Art. xiii.) if not done through faith in Jesus Christ have the nature of sin. Alas, then, poor Cicero! poor Socrates!
* * * "if this be true indeed,
Some Christians have a comfortable creed."
We were wrong, however, in asserting, as we did just now, that it was hard to find victims for the ecclesiastical hell. In fact, we were quite wrong. There will be victims enough; and they will be men whose names are "familiar in our ears as household words." Did we write from a Catholic point of view, we might quote the names of Martin Luther, John Knox, John Calvin and others; as it is we may just name a few men whom Protestants, with ludicrous inconsistency, condemn for having diverged from Protestantism, just as they themselves diverged from Catholicity. Gibbon, Hume, Bolingbroke, Volney, Rousseau, Voltaire—these are the men who, because they dared to use their minds, and, in doing so, to arrive at conclusions not sanctioned by ecclesiastical authority, are occasionally referred to by good churchmen as expiating their crimes in hell. These same good churchmen, indeed, will sometimes argue—"If we are wrong, and you sceptics are right, we have only been living under a harmless delusion; but if we are right and you are wrong how disastrous will be your fate." An argument, in truth, which tells quite as strongly in favour of Catholics against Protestants, as in favour of Protestants against sceptics. But valid as it may be in matters of practice, it assuredly is not so in matters of belief. If a man is going on a journey and is not sure whether he will require £5 or £6, he will do wisely to take £7. Again, if a man is in doubt of the seaworthiness of a ship by which he purposes to send certain goods, he had better pay more for freight and send them by a better ship. So if a man rejects the ordinary creeds for no better reason than to enjoy the pleasures page 169 of sin unchecked and uncontrolled, the above argument undoubtedly tells against him. But who will venture to say that sceptics are as a class less virtuous than the orthodox? Who will venture to impeach the high character of such men as Channing and Parker? The fact is that the points on which sceptics differ from believers are mere intellectual problems. One man is deeply read in science and, having strong convictions of the universality of law, finds no trace of a miracle in nature. Another is ignorant of science but deeply read in ancient legends, and full of poetical fancies. If the first, upon examination, rejects the credibility of miracles, while the other admits it, what moral guilt will attach to one more than to the other? As the world goes we find that men of cultivated intellect and of high honour differ about politics, and no one imputes blame to them. They may differ on matters of law or of commerce, about questions of art and of literature, and no fault is found. But on questions concerning the credibility of miracles, the authenticity of certain remnants of Hebrew literature, or the origin of the human race—on these points, if creeds are to be trusted, it is dangerous to differ, unless the differences are kept within certain lines of demarcation laid down some centuries ago, and beyond which we cannot go without risking the salvation of our souls. Surely this is the crowning absurdity of all.