The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 20
"Atheism." VI. A Sermon
"Atheism." VI. A Sermon,
On Sunday (Fob. 23rd) at St. George's Hall, the Rev. C. Voysey took his text from Psalm xvi., 11.—"In thy presence is fullness of joy; at thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore."
He said—In our recent meditations upon the subject of Atheism, we have been considering the nature of man as the chief field of our enquiry in seeking indications of a Divine Being.
"We have studied man in reference to his reason, his conscience, and his affections. One more point remains to be considered,—viz., man in his religious aspect.
Man is undoubtedly a religious being; he has in all races, and under almost all conditions within the limits of history, manifested a belief in a Divine invisible Being, and in his own dependence on that Being. And in most cases that belief has not been a merely intellectual conviction, nor purely an emotional sentiment, but also an influence which has ruled his life, regulated his conduct, and inspired his hope. No one will deny this fact of man's nature. Not even the Atheist ignores it, while the Apostle of Positivism endeavoured to turn it to account in the establishment of his own form of Atheism.
The argument which the believer in God would draw from it is this:—As nearly all mankind have believed in some God, there page 2 surely must be a God. The universal idea in the human heart must have a corresponding reality in fact. To this the Atheist gives answer that men have been deluded in this matter, just as they have been deluded into so much error besides. Moreover, that the belief in God is inherited prejudice, the result only of erroneous education; and that men would never have believed in God unless they had been taught to believe in him from their early youth.
Now, in reply to this last assertion, we first of all admit the immense importance of teaching and training, especially in religious matters, which have been generally taught authoritatively as dogmas, some of which could not have survived the progress of intelligence but for such dogmatic method of transmission. But this will not account for the origin of religious ideas in the first instance, or explain the fact that whole races of men, widely separated from each other in their earliest origin, possess in common religious feelings and beliefs, though their creeds and cultus be ever so different. If religion be due to training and nothing more, how could religion have ever originated I The first founder of each of the various Fetich, Polytheistic, and Mono-theistic religions must himself have spontaneously guaranteed the religious idea, even if all his diseiples and successors owe their religion to him. Religion, too, must be very welcome to man, or the teachers of it would not have succeeded so well in making it universal among mankind. Even supposing it to be not intuitive universally, it must have been intuitive in the first men who set religion afloat in the world; and it is for the Atheists to account for such spontaneous generation of the religious element, not in one place or in one age only, but in many places, and in many different periods of our history.
The probability here is on the side of the opinion that Religious feeling is as much one of our natural possessions as the Reason, the Conscience and the Affections; that man is as naturally page 3 qualified to believe in and to feel his dependence on a Divine Being as he is to reason, to respect the voice of Conscience, and to feel genuine Love. This is much more probable than that it is an artificial excrescence which will one clay slough off, or a mere prejudice which like other errors will be outgrown.
And be it observed that I speak, not of the various forms in which the religious sentiment in man has been clothed, and whose name is Legion, but of that one common element in them all—the recognition of a Divine Being on whose will or providence man depends, and from whom his very existence is derived.
I now pass to the consideration of the former and more important objection made by the Atheist, viz., that religion is a delusion similiar to many delusions which have been universal, or nearly so, but which have faded before the dawn of brighter knowledge and higher culture.
It is most certainly true that the earlier forms in which religious belief has been clothed have all had to be laid aside as obsolete; they have all in turn decayed, waxed old, and at length vanished away. Those now remaining are tending with various degrees of rapidity to the same end. They must "all perish and wax old as doth a garment," and as a vesture the hand of time will fold them up and they shall be changed; but the religion which they embodied shall be ever the same; its years shall not fail. Our own embodiment of religious belief, which is at once the most ancient and the most modern, because it is the most natural and the most reasonable, must pass through the same refitting crucible, in which its dross must be burned away, and from which it can be poured in all its radiant purity into a new mould. But the metal itself is imperishable, and will last while the human race endures, while common sense looks out with steady gaze upon the wonders of creation, while moral sense bids us obey the still small voice of conscience, and while true love throbs in the human breast, and tells us what is bliss. Religion is co-eternal with man, and though page 4 it may, and surely will suffer its eclipse, and be darkened over by our own clouds, or hidden periodically by our social and other revolutions, yet it will ever and anon return, rising over our reviving love of truth and goodness, melting and scattering our clouds of earth-born error, and shining ever more brightly for its temporary eclipse.
The Atheist may cry out "Ah! it is all a delusion." But whether or not it be a delusion, it has been the most powerful influence for good, which has ever swayed mankind; and it is on this ground, that we cannot reasonably regard it as a delusion. It is in the highest degree improbable, that the most powerful of all the influences for good which has swayed mankind should be based on a lie. It is in the highest degree improbable, that any goodness can be the direct and immediate offspring of so profound an error. We invariably find that moral evil treads on the footsteps of falsehood; that moral good follows as surely on the discovery of truth. In so far as what is true in religion has been acting upon mankind, it has acted only for the common good; in so far as falsehood was mixed up with it, it wrought only for evil.
We shake hands with the Atheist over the gigantic evils which have been perpetrated in the name of religion. We admit to the full that religion, as commonly received and understood, has been the world's bitterest curse; that it has crushed the noblest virtues, and enthroned the most degrading vices; that it has set at nought the laws of the Living God, and trampled on the just claims of man; that it has been the prolific mother of the worst forms of tyranny and cruelty; that the most horrible tortures ever endured by man are to be laid at its door; that it has frightfully augmented the terrors of death. The history of the Church of Christ would be enough to prove this, without travelling further in search of evidence. But in spite of all this, I still say, religion itself is the highest boon God has granted to men. For it was not the truth, but the falsehood which gathered round the holy element of page 5 religion, which turned it from being a blessing into a curse. What was true in religion all through those fearful scenes of its perversion, still burned brightly, and lit up the horrible darkness. The sense of God's friendliness nerved the martyr's courage, made him face, undaunted, the ferocious mob of priests, and helped him to die with the words of love and truth upon his lips.
It is because religion is so powerful in its influence that the derangement of it by falsehood was so pernicious. Had it not been so interwoven with all man's hopes and fears, with every sentiment, with every pulse of his life, the injury done by error in his belief would not have been so deadly. But because it is all in all to him, both for his well-being and well-doing here, and for his hope hereafter, the slightest aberration from truth and rectitude in his religious belief, if not immensely counter-balanced by other influences, naturally plunged him into a fanaticism bordering on ferocity or despair.
As no one would consider it fair to blame Christ for the centuries of foul crime perpetrated in his name, so no one ought to blame religion for the outrages on mankind which have been done in the name of religion.
Religion is the sweet assurance of the Divine love and care, and the enjoyment of all the privileges, and all the duties which that assurance brings. What has it not done for man? It has stimulated his intellect, and cultivated his reasoning powers, and thereby enlarged his knowledge, which in turn has acted for the well-being of the race. He loves to study the wonderful works of God, to watch their ever-changing beauty, to understand their subtle nature, and their unerring obedience to the forces which guide them. Religion has been the cradle of science; the drop of honey in the student's cup; the pledge and promise that God would ever let him know more and more, world without end. As his last hour comes, he lays aside his telescope, his microscope, his chemical tests, his unfinished mathematical problems, and like a child lying down to rest in its mother's arms, he thinks of the bright and happy morrow, when he will wake up again to pursue his glorious work in clearer light, with better instruments, and with mind more vigorous for its delightful toil. It is the Great Mind behind it all that gave a zest to his pursuit; it is the Great Heart of love before page 6 him that makes him contented for awhile with the sleep of death. Religion has been the life of his science; religion assures him of its resurrection.
And what has not religion done for the conscience of man? Surely here, if anywhere, religion is a boon. The man whose feet are stedfast in the path of duty, whom terrors cannot daunt, whom bribes cannot allure, to whom conscience is the voice of God—surely he, of all men, is blessed by religion. What would be the conscience at all without an abiding conviction that it was the inward witness of God's will? A man might naturally refuse to listen to its claims if he thought it originated entirely with himself and had no Divine sanction. He would be a fool to thwart his natural inclinations in submission to a mere passing fancy of his own imagination, or to pay any deference to a monitor which was nothing more than a ghost, conjured up by a disordered brain.
But religion shuts out this possible absurdity, and makes us feel as it were, face to face with a loving friend whose will is echoed in our Conscience. No longer then are its mandates obeyed with a cold and mechanical regularity, but obeyed with a warm and grateful delight, which makes the hardest service easy, and the most painful sacrifice a pleasure. Religion makes duty to be our delight; obedience to Conscience a perpetual joy. To have actually pleased God, to have a sense that we, with our real freedom, have consented freely to do what our Maker desired us to do freely, is to receive a joy into our hearts surpassing all earthly joys below, and all possible rewards in the world above. Most true it is "In thy presence is fulness of joy, at thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore."
As Conscience is not regard for public opinion, is not tolerant of any unworthy motive, will not put up with any half-compliance, or evasion of its laws; so, when fortified by religion, it becomes too powerful for the whole world to withstand, and the crowds of living men have to give way and fall submissive at its feet. One such conscientious religious man has more than once moved the world, and changed its moral aspect from bad to better. And it will be done again. But only when religion is at the back of Conscience, nerving it for the fight.page 7
Lastly, let us ask ourselves, how has religion influenced man in regard to his Love? Surely here, one might say, is a department where religion is not wanted, in which man rises superior to religion. Not so. The man who regards God as the universal friend, knows the higher joy of loving God. His own dear ones cannot always be near to him; they are not always faithful; they may and must die; but God is ever near. He is always faithful. Death can never touch Him. To love God is to be assured of loving Him for ever; to know that He would not cast us away like a withered leaf or flower when we began to fade; the love of our hearts for God has no drawbacks, there is no dread hour approaching when we must part from Him, no dark day in which the light of His presence is to be withdrawn. Religion thus exalts the affections of men, and gives them an immortal object, therein promising him life for evermore.
Is this no boon to man? To have all the clouds of fear rolled away, to have the sting of death plucked out, to have all doubts and speculations swept out of his path of duty on earth by perfect rest in the love of God? It is enough that he loves God to prove that God first loved him. And if God loves him, what possible fear of harm can cloud his mind or make his heart to quake? He can now attend to his earthly duties without distraction, and go on his way rejoicing, waiting patiently for the summons, but not morbidly longing for pleasures in store, delighted and contented with his present lot in the world, working for God while he is working for man, and lighted all along by the presence of One who never leaves him nor forsakes him.
In this way, and by the same means, is our love to each other strengthened, purified, and consoled. Religion throws a halo over the head of every fellow-man. In its light we see in everyone a child who is dear to God, and who is therefore, in very deed our brother. Religion elevates our whole idea of the sacredness and holiness of man, will not suffer us to despise our brother, or look upon him as a clod of clay. It reveals all souls to us as citizens of an immortal home of purity and peace, and fills our hearts with reverence where irreligion would only inspire contempt. Let them be as bad as they may, religion bids us hope for their amendment, and to be assured of it as a certainty of God's good page 8 purpose. Have we not ourselves seen the benign influence of such a religion over hearts brutalised by selfishness and crime? It is religion which has ennobled our humanity, by enlarging our hearts, and widening our sympathy and love.
But it has also consoled us. The bitter hour of laying our beloved in the dark tomb has come, or will come to most of us; and in that hour we feel all the agony of love. Then, if there be no God, no future, the ashes of a poisonous and treacherous fruit crunch between our teeth, and we may well curse the day on which we were born, and curse still more the day on which we began to love. Love grows and deepens, and binds its roots faster and stronger round our hearts the longer we live, the nearer we approach the dreadful hour of the last farewell; and then the crash comes, the utter misery and hopeless despair, the drowning of all hope in the relentless ocean of destiny. But religion is at hand, whispering 'God is Love,' 'God is immortal,' 'God is true,' 'God is faithful,' 'God is nigh,' and our drooping spirits rise, like the lilies in the sunshine after the storm, to greet the heavenly message. "We are taught by our love, and by the agony of bereavement, to be quite sure that we shall not be sundered for ever; that in God's good time our purest, highest, and most loving desires shall be granted to us, and we shall all meet again to love each other better than before and to bless the hand of the faithful Creator who hath done all things well.
Surely religion is man's greatest blessing, for it enriches all the rest. It elevates, strengthens, purifies, and consoles him, and it is contrary to all reason that a power so entirely beneficial to mankind should originate in a delusion, and owe all its benign influence to a lie.
For the present, I leave this subject of Atheism, which I only claim to have touched very superficially, and which I may resume at some distant day. If I have succeeded in stirring one unbelieving soul to reconsider the reasonableness of his position, or one thoughtful believer to take up the work which I now lay down, for the benefit of this age, I shall be more than satisfied. But on whichever side lies the truth, Atheist and Theist can alike look forward with perfect confidence to that time when we shall "know the truth, and the truth shall make us free."