The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 37
Three Popular Conceptions of IT.
There are three chief popular conceptions of the essence of religion. All three consist in laying a special emphasis and stress on some one department of human nature, to the virtual neglect of other departments equally important. It is man alone that is religious in the common sense of the word; and therefore no one denies that religion is a manifestation of humanity. But whether it is fundamentally a manifestation of thought, feeling, or will, is a question on which there is a divergence of opinion. I believe that, although nobody perhaps would make religion consist either in thought, feeling, or will exclusively, yet most persons unduly emphasize the part in it played by some one of these three factors of human nature. Hence arise three theories of religion which err by disproportion; and this initial error becomes the root of vast subsequent mischief.
Religion as Thought.
It is the characteristic of all dogmatic systems to make opinion or belief the essence of religion. While also insisting on certain sentiments and actions, they nevertheless make Orthodoxy the principal matter. Mr. Lecky has pointed out that "salvation by belief" has from the beginning been the fundamental principle of Christianity, as exhibited by its history; that this supreme emphasis laid on mental belief has been the root of persecution and countless gigantic evils. From Christianity a considerable number of free thinkers have accepted the idea that belief essentially constitutes religion, even while they reject religion itself as mere superstition; and they thus fail to comprehend the true nature of religion as completely as the narrowest and most bigoted churchman. But the day of a larger criticism and more thorough philosophy is dawning; and the notion that religion rests page 17 mainly on belief will sooner or later pass away.
Religion as Feeling.
It is the characteristic of all forms of mysticism to make religion consist primarily in feeling. Certain phases of Christianity, such as Moravianism and Methodism, will at once occur to your minds as illustrations of this, requiring as they do above everything else a peculiar "state of the affections," even to the comparative disparagement of orthodoxy of opinion. While less interesting to the thinker than the elaborately constructed systems of dogmatic theology, this mystical species of religion is more cheerful, more genial, and more free from the persecuting or intolerant spirit, than its harder-featured sister, dogmatism; and it is easy to see why Methodism, appealing chiefly to emotion and not rigorously exacting clear-cut opinions on doctrinal matters, should spread with great rapidity in an age when belief in Christian doctrines is either dying or dead.
Closely allied to mysticism, or the religion combining a maximum of feeling with a minimum of thought and action, is a species of modern radicalism for the historical influence of which I have profound respect and a large measure of sympathy, but which I regard as quite inadequate to take the lead to-day in the march of progress. I refer to New England Transcendentalism. It plants itself fundamentally on what it calls the "religious sentiment," as a distinct and special faculty of the human soul,—combining the quite unlike functions of intellectual intuition and emotional sensibility, and fitted, not only to apprehend supersensuous truths by direct vision or special illumination, but also to respond to them by an exalted range of feelings quite unlike all other sentiments in kind. For the great names which are most illustriously associated with this splendid movement of New England thought, and for the great good they have accomplished, I can yield to no one in point of admiration or gratitude; they are fixed stars in the galaxy of our age, and their light has come with divine cheer to great multitudes of page 18 darkened minds. But, however reluctantly, I am constrained to think and to say that their theory of religion is inadequate to meet the demands of the future, or even of the present. With all its mystical beauty and sweetness, it lacks a solid basis in thorough psychological analysis; it is a radiant dream, glorious and lovely, but not competent to till the wants of humanity in this opening era of scientific thought. That there is indeed such a thing as "religious sentiment," I most certainly believe. But that it is a special faculty, a special power of reception of the highest truths which is not possessed by the pure intellect as such, I must as certainly deny. The primary and well established division of faculties is into thought, feeling, and will; or, in more technical phrase, the cognitive, sensitive, and conative faculties. What is called by Transcendentalism the "religious sentiment" is really a complex manifestation of the former two, thought and feeling; it does not constitute a fourth division, and can only be regarded as doing so in the absence of a scientific psychology. Thought is thought; feeling is feeling; and their union in consciousness cannot at all destroy their elemental nature. In a right use of language, the "religious sentiment" signifies the feelings or sentiments which accompany, or result from, the purely intellectual contemplation of the idea of God, regarded as an objective truth. It is not an intuitive faculty; it is not a distinct faculty at all; it is simply the play of feeling excited by religious thought. As well might we consider love towards parents as a faculty distinct from love towards children; whereas love is essentially love, whatever its objects, and however various may be the coloring given to it by the varying nature of its objects. Awe, veneration, love,—all the sentiments which enter into the so-called "religious sentiment" are of universal application; and when Transcendentalism builds upon the conglomerate as if it were a simple and original basis in human nature, it does but found its house, fair as are its proportions, upon the sand. A new phase of thought is succeeding to Transcendentalism now, which, while page 19 gratefully honoring its predecessor, must carry forward "independently the same great work in the name of science.
Religion as Action.
It is the characteristic of all formalism, legalism, ritualism, and so forth, to make religion consist in certain external observances, rites, or acts, which are supposed to be of saving efficacy. Dogma is of importance; emotion is of importance; but ceremonies loom up practically as supremely important, eclipsing even feeling and thought. This is not only the religion of fashion, which is naturally glad to escape the duty of living faith, but also of a very sincere and earnest set of people in whom the practical overbalances both the intellectual and the affectional nature. It is so much easier to go through a routine than it is to think hard or cherish exalted sentiments, that they come to rely on the performance of external actions as the substance of religion. Of course they soon come to be mere machines, losing heart and mind in a merely mechanical externalism.
There is also another and much more respectable class of persons who, being equally feeble in intellect and emotion, yet possess a vigorous moral nature. To them religion consists in the compliance with moral rules, the unreflective and uninspired doing of active duty. They are most excellent people, going through life with credit to themselves and usefulness to others, yet notwithstanding devoid of much that beautifies and ennobles existence. Correct in deportment, assiduous in duty, and exemplary in all relations, they deserve and receive unfeigned respect by giving themselves up to practical work as the main business of their lives, and by concentrating all their religion in action. Far be it from me to utter a word of disparagement where I so truly admire; but this idea of religion, omitting all that concerns the highest culture, the expansion and refinement and beautification of character in its more delicate aspects, leaves out much that is of incalculable value, and mistakes the part for the whole. page 20 Religion is more than moral ism, though including it; and the emphasis on ethics which is practically neglect of intellectual, æsthetic, social, and spiritual culture distorts religion and belittles it.
The Evil of Disproportion.
There is a great deal of truth in each of the three conceptions of religion which I have briefly sketched, and to which almost all others may be Ultimately reduced. The dogmatist, for instance, asserts the superlative importance of a true belief; and this it is almost impossible to overestimate. Yet the danger lies in assuming too hastily that a belief is true, and thereby putting all the energies of humanity under the guidance of falsehood, perhaps very cruel and noxious falsehood. If reason, and not revelation, is taken as the judge of truth, no harm ensues; for reason never assumes the prerogative of infallibility. But all history shows the terrible mischief of letting revelation pronounce that to be certainly true which reason pronounces to be doubtful or false. When this has happened, zeal for the safety of a creed has caused men to stifle mercy, and strangle freedom, and ride roughshod over every large interest of humanity. This is the evil of emphasizing belief unduly, and elevating dogma to the throne. Other and lesser evils result whenever mere feeling or mere outward activity receives the supreme and excessive emphasis.
Dogmatism values particular thoughts rather than thought; mysticism values particular feelings rather than feeling; formalism and moral-ism value particular actions rather than action. That is to say, they all value the definite and completed products of human faculties rather than the free play of the faculties themselves; and this over-valuation of the products, which is under-valuation of the faculties, is a natural consequence of the one-sided views of human nature implied by the defective views of religion just described. The finest and fullest thought ever conceived by the human mind will in due time be surpassed by its successors; and so will page 21 the noblest sentiments and the purest acts. It Is a fatal error to prize the water you have drawn above the fountain from which you have drawn it. First in value is that in man from which all high thoughts and feelings and deeds proceed. While we love the truths we have won let us love truth itself better, and be not unwilling to confess that what we once held or even now hold to be truths may yet turn out to be half-truths,—possibly even untruths Whoever conceives religion in the one-sided manner I have depicted is unable to discern its true nature, or to protect himself from the costless brood of evils engendered by disproportion.
The Unity of Though, Feeling and Action.
From what i have said you may perhaps infer that I should Urge the symmetrical development of thought, feeling and action, as equally essential to religion. .This is true. The highest perfection of our humanity in its aspects no solely by individual but also by social effort is, If I mistaken religion's true end and aim. Conceding to each faculty the fullest and freest, play consistent with the natural hegemony of reason and conscience, "religion lays an equal emphasis on them all. Thought must lead; but it is no more important than feeling and will. It must decide all questions of duty or truth in the last appeal; but if it pours Contempt on any one of its followers, it violates its high trust. Feeling must follow thought, adapting itself (as it always does in the end) to what thought declares to be the truth; although it stimulates thought to activity, it is itself the proof of that activity, and is indispensable to the whole and rounded character. But its place is not to govern. In every healthy mind, feeling takes care of itself, and in time will always twine itself about mature convictions as closely and as naturally as the vine clings about the supporting trellis. Hence it is unwise to borrow trouble or cherish anxiety, if new truths or beliefs produce disturbance of the feelings, or even distress. Be patient. Give the sentiments ample time to adapt themselves to what your deliberate reason ac- page 22 cepts as true, and be sure that in the long run the truth will vindicate itself even to them. Whoever has a whole-souled devotion to truth, and cherishes the certainty that nothing else can permanently bless or benefit, will be willing, even while seeking to feed the sources of all noble feeling, to endure the temporary discord of heart and head in order to realize the higher concord that is made possible thereby. "Be simply true to truth," is the dictate of religion, "and the happiness that flows from consenting heart and head will only tarry; it is sure to come." This is the freedom that is needed: let the mind freely search for the priceless prize of truth, and let the affections freely follow in its wake to crown the victor with delight.
But this is not all that religion demands. The will is the centre of the personality. What thought decrees to be right, will must accomplish. It is the executor of a wisdom not its own; and the wisdom it executes is shadowy and unsubstantial till will has put upon it the royal seal of action. The stress laid on overt deeds by the mere moralist is none too great, if equal stress is also laid on feeling and thought. The tree is known by its fruits; the faith is known by the life. Pitiable indeed is the being whose religion does not create conduct in harmony with the highest conviction and the noblest sentiment. Only in the full-orbed symmetry of a character in which thought, feeling, and will are balanced and harmonized, can religion behold her work complete. To evolve out of crudity and malformation the perfect man and the perfect woman, is her task and glory. Three in one and one in three,—this is the real trinity of thought, feeling, and will, which constitutes the essence of every individuality; and religion has no other function than to fill the world with great and noble individuals.
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.page 24
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.
Gradations of Religion.
What I have said thus far, however, may not be wholly clear, unless something further should be added. A profound interior impulsion to seek the complete realization in character and in society of the highest idea of human excellence constitutes, as I have endeavored to show, the true essence of religion. But the direction taken by this interior force must depend, so far as it is affected by the human will, on the degree of intelligence at any particular time developed in the human mind. If man is ignorant and uncultured, his religion will reflect the fact; his ideal will be low and imperfect, and scarcely appear to deserve the name of an ideal at all. When the savage construes religion to include the slaying of his prisoner of war at the altar of his gods, and perhaps even the eating of his flesh in a solemn sacrificial feast, the civilized mind revolts with horror from the spectacle, and exclaims that this is not religion, but pure superstition. Yet cannot we discern, even in these horrid rites, the stirrings of a feeble sense of duty, which needs but to be enlightened to echo instantaneously the protest of civilized man? Superstition itself is a conglomerate of utterly irrational notions with this germinal principle of true religion. Education and culture, long continued through many generations, will suffice to rectify the evils of superstition by fostering the development of the divine seed it contains. Through numberless stages "must ignorant and superstitious man patiently pass, before his savage religion can become civilized, emancipated, and purified. But it concerns us all to do justice even to superstition itself, and to perceive that it page 27 is only the crude, perhaps vile and disgusting, commencement of what all the world shall at last unite to reverence. The thread that shall guide us through the tangled labyrinth of historical religion, notwithstanding the frightful sights and sounds that assail us on every hand, is the clearly conceived and firmly held principle that religion is essentially Man's effort to perfect himself according to the light that is in him; and that, in proportion as his light increases, his religion becomes purer and nobler. With this principle to guide us, we shall be ourselves amazed to see how plain grows the path we are to tread.
Religion and the Belief in God.
But it may be a source of disquietude to some gentle and reverential natures that it should be even proposed, explicitly and directly, to divorce the idea of religion from the idea of God,—to the extent, at least, of leaving the existence of God an open question to be answered by scientific thought. Let me say a few words on this point.
The inevitable consequence of adopting the conception of religion here sketched is certainly to make the spiritual evolution of humanity towards truth and right the direct object at which religion must aim; and to leave the mind at perfect liberty to determine, according to the fixed laws of thought, what truth and right are, and what the spiritual evolution of humanity requires. It is true that religion, thus conceived, cannot assume beforehand even that God exists; and the devout spirits that find the very breath of life in their faith in God, and have never felt the enormous pressure of modern science against the ancient bulwarks of this faith, may not unnaturally shrink back from thus putting in peril the dearest conviction of their souls. For all such I can but feel a sympathy as tender as it is sincere. It is to these very ones that I would say, Be brave and strong enough to rest your faith in God on faith in truth and right! If religion shall be consecrated solely to truth and right, as its just, natural, and necessary object, and shall waive frankly and avowedly the one dogma of God's page 28 existence to which it has hitherto convulsively clung, have you any cause to fear? Do you dread lest truth and right may possibly, after all, not lead to belief in God? Do you cherish a faith in him so feeble and unsound that you dare not trust it to the sentence of truth and right? Or would you wish to retain any faith against which the decision of truth and right should prove to be ad verse? If these things are so, then your faith in God is only scepticism in disguise: you do not really believe in him at all; you cherish a belief whose basis you suspect to be' rotten and false, and therefore will not suffer to be examined even by yourself. In such a belief as that, there is nothing noble, nothing that will not break and suddenly give way beneath the weight of unexpected disaster. No! It is because I do believe in God that I am willing to submit my belief in him to the sharpest and most searching scrutiny of science. I am willing to do with this my dearest belief what the Christian clergy dare not do with their own professed faith in prayer,—submit it without reserve to scientific tests, promising to abide by the result. If science can kill my faith, let it die! I want none that is not immortal. Trust me, it is no secret desire to get rid of belief in God that moves me to espouse this larger conception of religion; I desire only truth and right. If they confirm my belief, well and good; it shall then be infinitely more dear and precious than ever before. But if they destroy it, then, also, well and good! I shall but have been freed from an unsuspected superstition. Surely this is a manlier, a nobler, a freer, a more inspiring conviction, than the secret thought that belief in God cannot be trusted before the bar of truth and right! If indeed it cannot be trusted there, what is it worth? Or who would want it? Or why should any one weep when it is cast out in dishonor? But if before this august tribunal the belief in God shall receive the seal of truth itself, and rest no longer on childish guesses or traditions or scriptures, what believer in God could do otherwise than rejoice? It is time the world well understood that, in all questions of truth and right, the ultimate page 29 appeal must he to the educated intelligence of the human race,—in one word, to science; and whoever has at heart a real belief in God will not hesitate to submit it to this or any other test. What could be clearer than that they who dare submit it have a mightier faith than they who dare not?
The Future of Religion.
In fact, the destinies of religion are bound up, as I believe, with the possibility of broadening the popular conception of it in some such way as I have tried to show. The common people are little aware of the nature of the intellectual influences that are now acting upon them, and do not suspect the slow changes thus wrought in their own ideas. Hut it is true that the cultivated mind of to-day has broken with Christianity, and, for lack of the very conception of religion I urge to-day, is breaking with religion too. Deny it or disguise it as they please, the watchful and intelligent observers of the times know this to be the fact. Science has been compelled to assume an attitude of hostility towards religion which is indeed justifiable, considering the claims made by religion itself, but which is none the less injurious both to one and to the other. If forced to choose deliberately between the two, mankind mast decide for science; they cannot help themselves. The knowledge of facts never gives way to anybody or anything; and that is what science is. Unless, therefore, religion can prove itself to be other than it has allowed itself to appear, its doom is sealed, and its very name will survive only as a part of history.
It is with utter earnestness, therefore, that I declare my own conviction to be that, unless religion has been described with substantial accuracy in what I have said to-day, it will wholly vanish from the world's life. If it is not substantially the effort of Man to perfect himself, unrestricted by the obligation of arriving at any foregone theological conclusions, the world will have no use for it hereafter. Whatever perishes, freedom of thought must survive. Yet I cannot page 30 frame any other conception of religion which shall utterly and unreservedly concede freedom of thought. In urging it, therefore, I believe that I not only defend science, but religion too, patching up no wretched compromise between them, but pointing out the common ground on which both may stand erect, as natural allies instead of foes. Now, as ever, radicalism is the true conservatism; and if I had no other design but simply to conserve religion among men, without the least interest in the truth as such, I should most certainly urge these views of it as the only ones that could save it from destruction. Let that pass for what it is worth; I speak now as one who believes in religion, thus conceived, from the sole of the foot to the crown of the head,—without apology either for the name or the thing, and without the smallest concession to the prejudice that assails either the one or the other. To-day I speak only to the large in heart and broad in mind,—to those who must accept science and would fain accept religion too. To these I say that science itself would lose her fearless love of truth, were it not that religion fed its secret springs; that social reform would lose its motive and inspiration, literature and art their beauty, and all human life its sweetest and tenderest grace, did not religion evermore create the insatiable hunger after perfection in the soul of man. Bright, cheerful, ennobling, stimulating, emancipating, religion is the greatest friend of humanity, ever guiding it upward and onward to the right and the true; aye, and to all we yearn for, if, as we believe, the right and the true are indeed the pathway to God.