The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 37
The Provincial Use
The Provincial Use.
The vulgar provincial use of the word religion is that which confounds religion in general with the special form of it which is dominant in any particular place and time. For instance, the Catholic believes that there is no religion at all, properly so called, but Roman Catholicism. His own faith is all the faith there is; every other pretended faith is unfaith, more or less pernicious, and as absolutely hateful to God as all falsehood must necessarily be. This enormous complacency of the Catholic Church is shared to a degree by every Christian, whether Evangel- page 13 ical or so-called Liberal, who cannot or will not concede that Christianity stands precisely on the level of all other religions, as a natural outgrowth of humanity rather than as a supernatural revelation of God. The idea of religion it presupposes is not only provincial, but vulgarly provincial, savoring of nothing but ignorance or conceit. There is nothing about it that a large heart or well-furnished head can view otherwise than with pity for its narrowness, or contempt for its assumption. It will pass away inevitably together with the general dialect of superstition.
The scholarly-provincial use of the word religion is that which, while recognizing all the diverse forms of religion as standing precisely on the same level, all natural and none supernatural, yet confines the application of the word strictly to theistic systems of belief. It is willing to reckon Judaism, Mohammedanism, Parseeism, and so forth, as religions, because they are all monotheistic; and it is willing to include also Buddhism, Confucianism, Positivism even, provided these can be shown to have some sort of belief in a God or gods. At present it stoutly contends that these latter faiths do have such a belief, and it therefore does not deny that they are religions. But if ever it becomes settled by scholarly investigation beyond reasonable doubt that any one of them is nakedly and baldly and incontrovertibly atheistic, then the provincial scholar will be forced either to deny that it is a religion at all, or else without reserve to abandon his own provincialism. There is no escape from this dilemma. If there is no religion without a belief in God, and if Buddhism, for example, should be proved to have no belief in God in any intelligible sense, then one of two things must be true: either Buddhism is not a religion, or else there can be an atheistic religion. The provincial scholar, therefore, is bound to deny that Buddhism is atheistic, that Confucianism is atheistic, that Positivism is atheistic (if this is conceded to be a religion at all, although in this case the other horn of the dilemma is usually seized). The essence of scholarly provincialism consists in the assumed principle that nothing page 14 can be a religion that does not believe in a God or gods; and it exacts this belief as the one great postulate which religion, at least, must never question. Whether it can ever be reconciled with absolute freedom of thought, is a question whose answer seems to me very plain.