Evolution and Religion.
Free Religious Association, Boston: 3 Tremont Place.1883.
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[Reprinted by permission from Herbert Spencer an the Americans and the Americans on Herbert Spencer, being the proceedings of the farewell banquet of November 9 in New York, and containing the addresses of Messrs. Evarts, Spencer, Sumner, Schurz, Marsh, Fiske, Beecher, Youmans, Ward, and Leland, with letters from Dr. Holmes, President White, President Barnard, and others. 96 pp. Price 10 cents, or $5.00 a hundred. D. Appleton & Co.]
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Evolution and Religion.
Mr. President And Gentlemen,—The thought which you have uttered, sir, suggests so many and such fruitful themes of discussion that a whole evening would not suffice to enumerate them, while to illustrate them properly would seem to require an octavo volume rather than a talk of six or eight minutes, especially when such a talk comes just after dinner. The Amazulu saying which you have cited, that those who have "stuffed bodies" cannot see hidden things, seems peculiarly applicable to any attempt to discuss the mysteries of religion at the present moment; and, after the additional warning we have just had from our good friend Mr. Schurz, I hardly know whether I ought to venture to approach so vast a theme. There are one or two points of signal importance, however, to which I may at least call attention for a moment. It is a matter which has long since taken deep hold of my mind, and I am glad to have a chance to say something about it on so fitting an occasion. We have met here this evening to do homage to a dear and noble teacher and friend, and it is well that we should choose this time to recall the various aspects of the immortal work by which he has earned the gratitude of a page 4 world. The work which Herbert Spencer has done in organizing the different departments of human knowledge, so as to present the widest generalizations of all the sciences in a new and wonderful light, as flowing out of still deeper and wider truths concerning the universe as a whole; the great number of profound generalizations which he has established incidentally to the pursuit of this main object; the endlessly rich and suggestive thoughts which he has thrown out in such profusion by the wayside all along the course of this great philosophical enterprise,—all this work is so manifest that none can fail to recognize it. It is work of the calibre of that which Aristotle and Newton did. Though coming in this latter age, it as far surpasses their work in its vastness of performance as the railway surpasses the sedan-chair, or as the telegraph surpasses the carrier-pigeon.
But it is not of this side of our teacher's work that I wish to speak, but of a side of it that has hitherto met with less general recognition. There are some people who seem to think that it is not enough that Mr. Spencer should have made all these priceless contributions to human knowledge, but actually complain of him for not giving us a complete and exhaustive system of theology into the bargain. What I wish, therefore, to point out is that Mr. Spencer's work on the side of religion will be seen to be no less important than his work on the side of science, when once its religious implications shall have been fully and consistently unfolded.
If we look at all the systems or forms of religion of which we have any knowledge, we shall find that they differ in many superficial features. They differ in page 5 many of the transcendental doctrines which they respectively preach, and in many of the rules of conduct which they respectively lay down for men's guidance. They assert different things about the universe, and they enjoin or prohibit different kinds of behavior on the part of their followers. The doctrine of the Trinity, which to many Christians is the most sacred of mysteries, is to all Mohammedans the foulest of blasphemies. The Brahman's conscience would be more troubled if he were to kill a cow by accident than if he were to swear to a lie or steal a purse. The Turk, who sees no wrong in bigamy, would shrink from the sin of eating pork. But, amid all such surface differences, we find throughout all known religions two points of substantial agreement. And these two points of agreement will be admitted by modern civilized men to be of far greater importance than the innumerable differences of detail. All religions agree in the two following assertions, one of which is of speculative and one of which is of ethical import. One of them serves to sustain and harmonize our thoughts about the world we live in and our place in that world; the other serves to uphold us in our efforts to do each what we can to make human life more sweet, more full of goodness and beauty, than we find it. The first of these assertions is the proposition that the things and events of the world do not exist or occur blindly or irrelevantly, but that all, from the beginning to the end of time, and throughout the furthest sweep of illimitable space, are connected together as the orderly manifestations of a divine Power, and that this divine Power is something outside of ourselves, and upon it our own existence from moment to moment depends.page 6
The second of these assertions is the proposition that men ought to do certain things, and ought to refrain from doing certain other things; and that the reason why some things are wrong to do and other things are right to do is in some mysterious but very real way connected with the existence and nature of this divine Power, which reveals itself in every great and every tiny thing, without which not a star courses in its mighty orbit, and not a sparrow falls to the ground. Matthew Arnold once summed up these two propositions very well, when he defined God as "an eternal Power, not ourselves, that makes for righteousness." This twofold assertion, that there is an eternal Power that is not ourselves, and that this Power makes for righteousness, is to be found, either in a rudimentary or in a highly developed state, in all known religions. In such religions as those of the Eskimos or of your friends, the Amazulus, Mr. President, this assertion is found in a rudimentary shape on each of its two sides,—the speculative side and the ethical side; in such religions as Buddhism or Judaism, it is found in a highly developed shape on both its sides. But the main point is that in all religions you find it in some shape or other.
I said, a moment ago, that modern civilized men will all acknowledge that this two-sided assertion in which all religions agree is of far greater importance than any of the superficial points in which religions differ. It is really of much more concern to us that there is an eternal Power, not ourselves, that makes for righteousness, than that such a Power is onefold or threefold in its metaphysical nature, or that we ought not to play cards on Sunday or to eat meat on Friday. No one, I believe, will deny so simple and clear a statement as page 7 this. But it is not only we modern men, who call ourselves enlightened, that will agree to this. I doubt not even the narrow-minded bigots of days now happily gone by would have been made to agree to it, if they could have had some doggedly persistent Socrates to cross-question them. Calvin was willing to burn Servetus for doubting the doctrine of the Trinity, but I do not suppose that even Calvin would have argued that the belief in God's threefold nature was more fundamental than the belief in his existence and his goodness. The philosophical error with him was that he could not dissociate the less important doctrine from the more important doctrine, and the fate of the latter seemed to him wrapped up with the fate of the former. I cite this merely as a typical example. What men in past times have really valued in their religion has been the universal twofold assertion that there is a God who is pleased by the sight of the just man and is angry with the wicked every day; and when men have fought with one another, and murdered or calumniated one another for heresy about the Trinity or about eating meat on Friday, it has been because they have supposed belief in the non-essential doctrines to be inseparably connected with belief in the essential doctrine. In spite of all this, however, it is true that in the mind of the uncivilized man the great central truths of religion are so densely overlaid with hundreds of trivial notions respecting dogma and ritual that his perception of the great central truths is obscure. These great central truths, indeed, need to be clothed in a dress of little rites and superstitions, in order to take hold of his dull and untrained intelligence. But, in proportion as men become more civil page 8 ized, and learn to think more accurately, and to take wider views of life, just so do they come to value the essential truths of religion more highly, while they attach less and less importance to superficial details.
Having thus seen what is meant by the essential truths of religion, it is very easy to see what the attitude of the doctrine of evolution is toward these essential truths. It asserts and reiterates them both; and it asserts them not as dogmas handed down to us by priestly tradition, not as mysterious intuitive convictions of which we can render no intelligible account to ourselves, but as scientific truths concerning the innermost constitution of the universe,—truths that have been disclosed by observation and reflection, like other scientific truths, and that accordingly harmonize naturally and easily with the whole body of our knowledge. The doctrine of evolution asserts, as the widest and deepest truth which the study of nature can disclose to us, that there exists a Power to which no limit in time or space is conceivable, and that all the phenomena of the universe, whether they be what we call material or what we call spiritual phenomena, are manifestations of this infinite and eternal Power. Now, this assertion, which Mr. Spencer has so elaborately set forth as a scientific truth,—nay, as the ultimate truth of science, as the truth upon which the whole structure of human knowledge philosophically rests,—this assertion is identical with the assertion of an eternal Power, not ourselves, that forms the speculative basis of all religions. When Carlyle speaks of the universe as in very truth the star-domed city of God, and reminds us that through every crystal and through every grass-blade, but most through every page 9 living soul, the glory of a present God still beams, he means pretty much the same thing that Mr. Spencer means, save that he speaks with the language of poetry, with language colored by emotion, and not with the precise, formal, and colorless language of science. By many critics who forget that names are but the counters rather than the hard money of thought, objections have been raised to the use of such a phrase as the Unknowable whereby to describe the power that is manifested in every event of the universe. Yet, when the Hebrew prophet declared that "by him were laid the foundations of the deep," but reminded us, "Who by searching can find him out ?" he meant pretty much what Mr. Spencer means when he speaks of a Power that is inscrutable in itself, yet is revealed from moment to moment in every throb of the mighty rhythmic life of the universe.
And this brings me to the last and most important point of all. What says the doctrine of evolution with regard to the ethical side of this twofold assertion that lies at the bottom of all religion? Though we cannot fathom the nature of the inscrutable Power that animates the world, we know, nevertheless, a great many things that it does. Does this eternal Power, then, work for righteousness? Is there a divine sanction for holiness and a divine condemnation for sin? Are the principles of right living really connected with the intimate constitution of the universe? If the answer of science to these questions be affirmative, then the agreement with religion is complete, both on the speculative and on the practical sides; and that phantom which has been the abiding terror of timid and superficial minds—that phantom of the hostility page 10 between religion and science—is exorcised now and for ever.
Now, science began to return a decisively affirmative answer to such questions as these, when it began, with Mr. Spencer, to explain moral beliefs and moral sentiments as products of evolution. For clearly, when you say of a moral belief or a moral sentiment that it is a product of evolution, you imply that it is something which the universe through untold ages has been laboring to bring forth, and you ascribe to it a value proportionate to the enormous effort that it has cost to produce it. Still more, when with Mr. Spencer we study the principles of right living as part and parcel of the whole doctrine of the development of life upon the earth; when we see that, in an ultimate analysis, that is right which tends to enhance fulness of life, and that is wrong which tends to detract from fulness of life,—we then see that the distinction between right and wrong is rooted in the deepest foundations of the universe; we see that the very same forces, subtle and exquisite and profound, which brought upon the scene the primal germs of life and caused them to unfold, which through countless ages of struggle and death have cherished the life that could live more perfectly and destroyed the life that could only live less perfectly, until humanity, with all its hopes and fears and aspirations, has come into being as the crown of all this stupendous work,—we see that these very same subtle and exquisite forces have wrought into the very fibres of the universe those principles of right living which it is man's highest function to put into practice. The theoretical sanction thus given to right living is incomparably the most powerful that has ever been page 11 assigned in any philosophy of ethics. Human responsibility is made more strict and solemn than ever, when the eternal Power that lives in every event of the universe is thus seen to be in the deepest possible sense the author of the moral law that should guide our lives, and in obedience to which lies our only guarantee of the happiness which is incorruptible,—which neither inevitable misfortune nor unmerited obloquy can ever take away.
I have here but barely touched upon a rich and suggestive topic. When this subject shall once have been expounded and illustrated with due thoroughness,—as I earnestly hope it will be within the next few years,—then I am sure it will be generally acknowledged that our great teacher's services to religion have been no less signal than his services to science, unparalleled as these have been in all the history of the world.
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