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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 20

"Atheism." III A Sermon

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"Atheism." III A Sermon,

On Sunday (Jan. 26th) at St. George's Hall, the Rev. C. Voysey took his text from Psalm xl., 10., "Thy law is within my heart."

He said:—Last Sunday we were considering the argument for the existence of a Supreme intelligence, which may be drawn from the intellectual part of man's nature. Our next step is to examine the moral part, and to endeavour to show that the Conscience of man furnishes strong ground for our belief in a Perfectly Good Cod.

Let us first inquire what is the proper function of the Conscience. In the first place it seems to be a faculty distinct from the ordinary reflective powers of the mind, which we sum up under the term Reason. I do not now enquire how Conscience is, in the first instance, generated, or whether or not it be some phrenological organ, more or less conspicuous as a bump on the human head. It is neither my province, nor within my grasp, to settle such questions as to its origin or physical construction, I have only to deal with it as it seems to most men to act a part in our complex nature, and to influence our conduct. In affirming, then, the distinctness of Conscience from the Reasoning faculties, I only speak of it as it appears to my thought. It does not, and cannot, teach me what is right or what is wrong. Only my page 2 "Reason can tell me that, but as soon as I perceive what is right my Conscience commands me to do it; as soon as I perceive what is wrong, my Conscience forthwith commands me not to do it. Many have been the strifes in the world owing to the confusion between Conscience and Reason. Our knowledge being defective, our reasoning must be sometimes fallible, our conclusions as to right and wrong, must be sometimes false, and yet the Conscience only sanctions what seems to be right, and forbids only what seems to be wrong. It follows, as a matter of course, that people will sometimes do wrong conscientiously, i.e., not as wrong, but believing it to be right. "The time will come when he that killeth you will think that he doeth God service," is a good illustration of this perversion of mind. Many persons will thereupon jump at the conclusion that Conscience is not to be trusted, and that it must be overruled by superior authority external to itself—whereas the fault lies not with the Conscience but with the Reason which is imperfectly enlightened. The Conscience has nothing whatever to do with drawing the conclusions of the Reason; its only function is to endorse with all the weight of its sanction whatever the Reason has pronounced to be right. Conscience, even in its apparently worst perversions, is not perverted at all, is still loyal to the best that is put before it. It cannot help us to make up our minds in the least degree; it waits quietly till this process is completed by the Reason, and then steps in with its powerful mandate, to demand that the best alternative should be adopted and pursued. It has always seemed to me a great mistake to blame the Conscience for those moral errors which have been perpetrated in its name. Conscience is ever loyal to duty as duty, never sanctions any wrong as wrong, is a perpetual witness in the soul of man for all righteousness, and it differs in different men only in strength and intensity, in its power to control the life; it does not differ in being morally inferior and superior.

If my Conscience sanctions what another man's Conscience page 3 would condemn, that only shows that there is a moral difference of opinion in our respective minds, not that his Conscience is more loyal to what is right than my Conscience, nor mine than his.

Looseness of language is largely responsible for many popular errors. We often speak of one man as conscientious, and another as unconscientious, when the real difference we wish to describe is the difference of their moral opinions. We ought never to use these terms "conscientious and unconscientious," except to distinguish between the man who obeys his Conscience and the other who disobeys it. We take too much for granted that our estimate of what is right and wrong is shared by every one else alike; and then come to the false conclusion that those who do not do what we believe to be right are acting against their Consciences.

Whole races of men we have heard stigmatised as wanting in conscientiousness because they are remarkably untruthful; others because they are habitual thieves; others because they love to shed innocent blood and their land groans with murder; others because they are frivolous, fickle and vain; others because polygamy is their law; others because they practice polyandry. In all these cases you find conscience quite as much at work as in ourselves, commanding what is believed to be right, forbidding what is believed to be wrong. They lie, and steal, and murder, &c., through their want of clear and vigorous perception that lying, stealing, and murder are wrong. Their education has been deficient, and the inherited tendency to these habits has not been resisted; they are ever ready with reasons to justify their conduct, or to make very light of it. Otherwise, it would have been impossible for whole populations to connive at these outrages, and to shield the guilty heads from the penalties of the law. But these same people taught from their youth up to regard some act of religious observance as the highest of all duties, and the neglect of it the most wicked of crimes, are very very conscientious in the discharge of that duty, and manifest the functions of Conscience in that particular, in a striking degree,

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If ever the question is raised "Why does the Conscience bid you do this," the solo answer always is, "Because it is right." Never in any case is it "Because it is wrong."

The Conscience is, I grant, not equally strong in all men. In some natures it has more, in others less, power to influence the conduct. But this is only like all other faculties in man. The Reason, the imagination, the affections, the hopes, and the fears vary considerably in strength and degree in different men, and so also the Conscience varies; in some it is the lord of the whole life, in others it is hustled into a corner and seldom suffered to raise its voice. But it is sufficiently universal to be argued from as the common property of human nature, and in reasoning about the source and fountain of all things, the Conscience is as much entitled to be considered as the intellect.

Moreover, if we would argue fairly, we must take the average quality of the Conscience rather than the more rare instances of those who hardly exhibit any Conscience at all. In a treatise on the Reason of man, it would be manifestly unfair to take only the undeveloped state of it, as it appears in a child, or the diseased condition of it as it appears in an idiot; so in speaking of the Conscience of man we ought to take it in its more complete and perfectly healthy development, in the noblestmoral examples, rather than its earlier and undeveloped state.

We are searching for indications of a Divine Being among the works of the universe, we have found, so far, that man is the noblest of them, by Reason of his Intellect alone, but we find that he has something else, which, in his own estimation, he reckons nobler still than Intellect—viz., Conscience, or the faculty which urges him to do what is right and avoid what is wrong, and this faculty is, in its normal exercise, one of the greatest blessings which man could possess.

In the first place, it marks afresh our superiority to the physical world. While everything around us is by the laws and constitution of its nature designed for selfishness, to win its way, if it can, in the struggle for existence; while even the body of man, with all its functions, has precisely the same nature, and might lawfully (were it not for the Reason and Conscience) study its own comfort page 5 and wellbeing alone, and without the smallest scruple, enrich and adorn itself at the ruin of others; while the unbridled indulgence of our physical instincts would lead us to the most profound animalism and beastiality, the Conscience is the chief faculty of our being, which rescues us from this degradation, and actually alters the whole natural course and tendency of our lives. That we should, to some extent, lead animal lives is not merely inevitable, but necessary and good, and, therefore, we find the Conscience, duly enlightened by Reason, sanctioning a certain degree of animalism for the very purpose of carrying out a benevolent design; but the checks and limits, which the Conscience puts upon our indulgence, are of a nature to cause us, at times, positive pain and annoyance. We cannot obey the Conscience in everything without trampling on our physical nature, and sometimes not without permanent injury to our health and brain. Self-denial and mortification of the flesh, (and I use this term in the very widest sense, and not merely in the sense of asceticism) are absolutely necessary to the perfect supremacy of the Conscience when enlightened by Reason. If my Reason tells me that such and such a thing is wrong, i.e., will inflict injury on others, that does not necessarily prevent my wishing to do it. I cannot help wishing to do it, if the gratification be very great, and do it I should to a certainty, but for that wonderful monitor within, who says "How can I do this great wickedness and sin against God."

The collision is so complete between the higher voice and the impelling instinct, that one can only feel that the two are radically different in nature, and must have had a different source. This struggle between a strong desire and a higher law within the same breast if it gives any witness, bears testimony to the exalted nature of man, and almost drives him in thought to the threshold of that Heavenly Home, where he was born and cradled. To have the power of doing intentionally what one shrinks from doing, and to deny oneself the pleasure which is so fascinating, and which one longs to do, is to prove the immense superiority of our inner selves over the visible universe.

Here I must pause to notice an objection which may be urged, that whenever we obey the Conscience we only do so to gain a greater pleasure than we relinquish. It is said that we are still page 6 selfish after all, and dread remorse more than the present pain of self-denial. Now I cannot, of course, speak for others, but for myself I deny this with my whole soul. I am perfectly certain that it is neither fear of greater pain, nor hope for greater joy, that makes me endeavour to obey my conscience. Many a time in my life I have had nothing at all but pain for doing what I thought to be right, and I did it too, grudgingly, half regretting my own self-denial, at the time wishing that I had not been so Conscientious. It is unfair to mankind to put such a construction upon their submission to that imperious call of conscience. To us, perhaps, the hope of being perfectly conformed to God's will, in some far-off future, may be an attraction entering into more than half our moral struggles; but nothing can be more false than to say it is always so, or to deny the possibility of a man doing what his Conscience demands from the most disinterested motives. For does not Conscience itself sit in judgment with Reason upon motives as well as conduct? Does it not condemn, as unworthy, all motives of action, the core and kernel of which is selfishness? No doubt in our imperfect state our motives are not always pure and perfectly disinterested, but the soul of man has at all events risen up to that height in which it deliberately distinguishes pure from impure motives; and while she gives her solemn approval to the nobler, she condemns and denounces the baser. There is all the difference between seeking to be true to one's higher nature and seeking greater happiness. It is true we cannot avoid the happiness, but we disqualify ourselves for its attainment the moment we fix upon it a longing eye. What often determines our choice is the strength of our conviction that a thing is right, not the possibility of our being the happier for it afterwards. The efforts made by some to depreciate the force and value of Conscience are unworthy of men who profess to be students of facts and phenomena; for if there had been no cases of genuine disinterested doing of duty for duty's sake, we should never have been able to discover the difference between that and seeking our own happiness. Man has detected the superiority of the one motive over the other, only after having witnessed or experienced the higher motive in himself. Had it never been done, man would never have imagined that it could be done. page 7 And this brings me to notice that the Conscience, enlightened by Reason, always urges us to do good to our fellowmen, rather than to make them happy. An unenlightened benevolence, such as the animal instinct of an indulgent parent, which leads to the spoiling of a child, is a mere impulse to give happiness, and is on that ground actually condemned by the enlightened Conscience, because that happiness not only does not tend to the child's real and lasting good, but tends to his present and future degradation. In its higher state the Conscience bids us aim exclusively at the cultivation of all virtue in ourselves and in others. It teaches us always to subordinate happiness to holiness, and often deliberately to forego and withhold happiness, that goodness may ensue. Truth and righteousness would be preferred, not only before wealth and comfort here below, but even before an eternity of mere enjoyment without personal holiness. Thus, on every side, it seems that the superiority of our inner nature becomes an antagonism to the outward and visible. "The flesh warreth against the spirit, and the spirit against the flesh, and these are contrary the one to the other." The contrast and hostility between them we all feel, but which of the two do we reckon the higher, the nobler, the truer part of man? Surely the Conscience—the Conscience which makes us mortify our flesh with its affections and lusts, which often and often mars our happiness and embitters our pleasure, upbraids us with reproaches, and stings us with remorse—that voice which hushes our cry for happiness, which will not endure a single selfish plea, but demands unquestioning obedience, and bids us fall down in the very dust before the majesty of duty. We all in our secret hearts revere this power, whether or not we obey it as we should. At least we pay it the homage of our inmost souls and feel how great and grand it is to be its slave.

We have here, then, something in man which we cannot find in the physical universe, where happiness is the aim of every living thing. Every single being in every class of animal life, including the body of man, is constituted to seek its own happiness first, but in man we find a principle entirely at war with this universal instinct, a power that forces us to break the natural law of mortal life, and to seek for that which is supremely higher than mere animal safety and enjoyment. For the sake of goodness, men have page 8 learnt, not merely to suffer pain and loss themselves, but to undergo the still worse pain of inflicting suffering upon others. We would deliberately hurt their bodies and mortify their desires, if by so doing we could raise them into the exalted condition of goodness.

Now to me, I confess, this fact is a greater revelation of a Divine Being than even the intellect of man. For ignoring altogether the fact that men have almost universally regarded the Conscience as the vicegerent of God:—the mere possession of a power which claims the mastery over our whole natures, which disturbs our animal repose, and which demands the deliberate surrender of happiness for the sake of truth, righteousness, and every form of duty, brings us face to face with a power—call it human or Divine—which, whatever it be, is absolutely transcendent over nature, and suggests to our minds the existence of another world altogether, in and around us, in which the laws and forces of the visible universe have no place. Were we to grant that our intellect is only an animal organism, we should still be at our wits' end to account for the Conscience on purely physical grounds; and we would never get over the anomaly and absurdity of the Universe evolving and evolving itself cycle after cycle till it produced an element at variance with its own laws, a power and a force which deliberately set them at defiance, and a conscious being who calmly rejected, for the sake of virtue, the most enticing happiness placed in its path. If we could get over the intellectual difficulty of Atheism, we could never get over the difficulty which is presented by the Conscience. I do not deny that there is antagonism in the physical universe; it abounds everywhere; it is in accordance with its own principle of "Everyone for himself;" but that antagonism is wholly different from that which exists between two distinct portions of one and the same being; greater still is the difference when we observe that the higher law often condemns as morally wrong what nature herself tempts us to do.

I cannot pursue the enquiry further at present, it is enough that the human Conscience is not merely superior, but antagonistic, to the selfish principle in nature, to prove that if we would search for indications of the Deity, we must make man the field of our enquiry.