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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 37

The New Conception of Religion

The New Conception of Religion.

Perhaps you will now say: "This, then, is the essence of religion—perfection, or symmetrical development of thought, feeling, and will; of head, heart, and conscience."

Not exactly that. The perfection of humanity page 23 is indeed the object of religion, but it is not religion itself. Deeper than thought or will or feeling in its origin, religion appears in its universal aspect as the decree of Nature that her own ends shall be achieved, and hence as that inward impulsion of the soul towards the right and true which makes itself objective to thought in the Ideal of humanity; while in its personal aspect it appears as the total and voluntary self-devotion of humanity to the realization of this ideal. Nothing is religion which does not include this profound impulsion of man's whole being to the conversion of ideal excellence into actual character,—this profound endeavor, partly within and partly beneath consciousness, to push forward the development of humanity in the direction of its natural and ideal goal. All religion implies these two things, an ideal and an effort to realize it. Herein it differs from simple morality. Morality proclaims a law, and commands obedience to it; religion is the inward impulsion of Nature, seconded by the conscious effort of the individual, to conform to it. It is owing to no man's choice that he has an ideal of what he ought to be ever before his eyes; Nature has provided this. Nor is it owing to any man's private thought that he feels bound by it as a sacred law; Nature, whether he thin Its it or not, creates a sense of obligation which he cannot shake off even if he would. Am I wrong, then, in conceiving religion as something more than thought or feeling or will, and deeper than all these? As something ever active and creative in the very depths of man's being, impelling but not compelling him to a higher stage of development? Am I wrong in conceiving that this interior force, dwelling and operating in the very core of our humanity, holding up the everlasting ideal before our eyes, and laying upon us a sense of obligation to realize it which is a joy to the virtuous man and a knotted scourge to the vicious, is but an utterance within us of the one great law of the universe—evolution? If I am right in these surmises and in this conception of the essence of religion, many obscure questions seem to be illuminated by a sudden light.

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For instance, the development theory, whether as presented by Mr. Darwin or by Mr. Spencer, has caught no glimpse of any internal cause operating to impel organisms in the path of continuous evolution; they have discovered real external causes at work in this direction, but that is all. Supposing that religion is an actual internal force, impelling man upward in the career of moral evolution—a force not purely voluntary on his part, but also at work within him beneath his consciousness, creating an ideal for his guidance and by a natural sense of obligation stimulating him to pursue it,—then here we detect Nature in the very act of evolutional causation, at least in a single case; and it becomes by fair analogy at least an occasion for suspecting that in all evolution some similar cause is operative. The apparent absence of any such interior cause, distinct from the action of the outward environment, has been and is the greatest deficiency in the evolutional philosophy. But if I am right in my conjectures, an interior force has been discovered in the moral evolution of man which directly operates to improve the species, and which involves the co-operative action of the universal whole. Reasoning backwards from this case to other cases, it becomes at least a legitimate scientific hypothesis to imagine that Nature is not a blind or random worker in that process of universal and continuous evolution which is the great miracle of modern science.

Again, if my view of religion is sound, the phenomena of conscience become more clearly intelligible. Why is it that right-doing produces happiness and wrong-doing misery? No cause has been hitherto discoverable. If Nature, however, ordains the faithful but free pursuit of the moral ideal by each individual, as her chosen means of ultimately improving the human species as a whole, then we discover a reason for the connection of spiritual peace with faithfulness and spiritual pain with unfaithfulness. These consequences of our moral action would become her admonition to us, her encouragement to co-operate with her by virtue, and her page 25 rebuke for our refusal to co-operate. To render strict obedience to our ideal and to pursue it with unquenchable devotion, would be to harmonize our private wills with the great dominant and evident purpose of the universe, and would necessarily create in our consciousness a sense of harmony with it which could be only a pure delight,—nay, the purest of all delights; while our wilful disobedience of the ideal would be to place ourselves in direct opposition to the general current, to thwart to the extent of our puny power the universal purpose, and inevitably to create within us a consciousness of discord and disharmony with Nature which could be nothing but pain. In this manner a reason becomes visible for the constant association of pain with vice and of happiness with virtue which otherwise seems not discoverable.

This, then, to recapitulate, is the conception of religion that I would urge, as something far deeper and sublimer than any special belief that could be mentioned: namely, a permanent creative force in human nature, partly voluntary and partly involuntary, which prompts an active effort to perfect human nature itself by constant and increasing conformity to ideal excellence in all directions. Is not this conception so vast and grand as to mark a palpable advance in religious philosophy? Does it not carry forward, and, as it were, consummate, the magnificent movement made by New England Transcendentalism in the history of thought? Does it not leave absolute freedom for the intellect to investigate all problems, even including the questions of a personal God and personal immortality, without pledging it beforehand to arrive at any particular conclusion; and thereby to lay solid and deep the foundations of a true science of religion? And does it not plainly subserve the highest interests of religion itself, by creating a complete reconciliation between it and science, and thereby obviating the most threatening danger of religion at the present day; namely, the revolt of modern scientific thought against her claims? For myself, I can answer these questions in only one way; and I have availed my- page 26 self of this opportunity to make a more thorough explanation than I have been hitherto able to make of the definition of religion offered in the Fifty Affirmations: "Religion is the effort of Man to perfect himself." I trust it is not too much to ask that those who are really interested in the great questions of religious reform will give at least a thoughtful and candid consideration to the views here presented.