The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 86
Rationalism v. Dogma. — I
Rationalism v. Dogma.
In undertaking to criticise, review, and, so far as in me lies, assail the position taken up by Archbishop Vaughan in the Lenten lectures, which, in printed form, have just been published, let no one suppose for a moment that I underrate the magnitude of the task; let no one imagine that I, who know myself to be but one of the rank and file of the Freethought army—a very humble soldier in the great conflict,—plume myself in the belief that I can measure swords on anything like equal terms with such an accomplished and cultured veteran in the ranks of theological controversy as the Most Reverend gentleman who stands at the head of the Roman Catholic organization of this colony. Trained in all the varied learning of the schools, a master of dialectics, a subtle logician, an eloquent lecturer, Dr. Vaughan is distinguished even among the many eminent men of his church at the present day; and as a mental athlete I cheerfully accord him the homage which is his due. Still, inasmuch as it appears to me, after a careful perusal of the lectures I hold in my hand, that they are sophistical rather than philosophical in their main arguments, and indubitably biassed in the conclusions at which they arrive, I purpose attempting to traverse the argu- page 6 ments and combat the conclusions, relying simply on the potency of truth, which is, like beauty, "when unadorned, adorned the most." Dr. Vaughan in his lectures purports to address all "men of good will;" and it is to such I also make appeal, for with others the power of truth is not likely to be effective.
The Lenten lectures of the Archbishop were five in number—an introductory lecture, and discourses on "Man," "God," "Unbelief," and "Belief." The first lecture furnishes a sketch of the proposed campaign: and here, at the outset, I would point out that the nature of the conflict now waging in Christendom is completely misstated. Hence, there is much—very much—in these lectures with which the majority of Freethinkers would cordially agree. The assertion of the dignity and superiority of man as compared with the brutes, and the loveliness of the belief in a divine government of the world is quite acceptable to Rationalism; but Dr. Vaughan achieves a mighty leap in the conclusion he deduces from these premises. Thus, on page 11 of this pamphlet he says,—" Once believe in God, in man's future destiny, in the sanction of Divine law, in the immortality of the soul, and, if you are logical, you must of necessity finally join the Catholic Church"—meaning thereby the organization under the control of the Roman Catholic priesthood. Now, for myself, I may say that, while I believe in these preliminary propositions as firmly as in my existence, I would as soon think of bowing in worship in a Roman Catholic temple while a number of priests were swinging dishes of burning incense page 7 about before the figure of a crucified deity, as I would of prostrating myself iu another temple while certain other priests were waving smoking joss-sticks before the squat image of the great Chinese god, Fo. It seems to me that both these performances must appear alike unworthy and degrading to all who hare learned to repose unwavering faith in the natural laws of the infinite and incomprehensible God who rules the universe. It is of this God—the true God—and His mode of operation in nature that Science is gradually teaching us to know a little, and showing us how, in certain directions, we may emerge from the domain of "Unbelief," or ignorance, and enter that of rational "Belief." So far as Christianity may not contravene this domain of "Belief" it is acceptable to Rationalism.
But Dr. Vaughan, in arranging his pieces for his mimic warfare, takes upon himself to play for both sides of the board, and hence is prepared to score an easy win. He describes Christianity as all that is true, good, lovable, and virtuous; he paints what he terms "Unbelief"—"Denial"—as evil, false, hateful, and vicious; and then he appeals to his hearers for their votes as to which is most desirable, informing them at the same time that if they declare for Christianity, they must, unless they would be illogical, embrace Roman Catholic Christianity, as that is admitted even by its Rationalistic opponents to be the only logically authoritative system in Christendom. This is a comparatively easy method of arguing, but it possesses the disadvantage of satisfying no one but those devout souls who carefully avoid hearing or reading the arguments of page 8 their opponents. For these, a man of straw is just as forcible a figure to overturn as a living man in armour. Any figure labelled "Infidelity" is sufficient for them; and the easier it tumbles the more completely convinced are they of its being the genuine article. The Archbishop quotes a fable made use of by Dr. John Henry Newman in his "Lectures on Catholicism in England," which will serve to illustrate his own position. A lion is conducted by his human entertainers over a stately palace, and shown the grand pictures and sculptures it contains. Many of these represent contests between lions and men, but always to the brutes' disadvantage. There are Samson rending the lion, and David choking the lion, and a gladiator dealing a fallen lion the coup de grace. At last the quadruped exclaims—" Lions would have fared better had lions been the artists." So is it with Dr. Vaughan's representations of the opponents of dogmatic theology—they are made likewise the opponents of all that is good and beautiful. Of course his paintings were suited to his audience, and hence their raison d'être. Rogers, the poet, used to tell a story of a duel between an Englishman and a Frenchman, by the terms of which the two, armed with pistols, were shut up together in a dark room. After some time the Englishman, declaring it was a barbarous way of fighting, discharged his weapon up the chimney—and brought down the Frenchman. The point of the story, however, to which I wish to direct your attention is this—that Rogers always said that when he told it in France he made the Englishman steal up the chimney. Now, Dr. Vaughan crams his opponents page 9 rhetorically "up the chimney," and of course they look strange objects after that.
The "Religion of Denial" he sets up for the purpose of overthrowing will be sought in vain in any recognized school of Rationalistic thought. In a desultory way I have read as widely of the literature of Rationalism as most men. The greater part of my life has been devoted to its study; but I should be puzzled to discover the whereabouts of the "hideous idol" which Dr. Vaughan proposes to "knock from its pedestal." Where are these people who are anxious to prove the non-existence of God, and the identity of man with the brute? Surely all this display of indignant rhetoric is but so much wasted ammunition so far as Dr. Vaughan's real opponents are concerned; and if their attack is no more damaging to him than his to them the warfare resembles in its character that which was reported a few days ago in the papers as now waging in one of the Fijian Islands, where the natives blaze away at each other from a safe distance, and shrewd Yankee and German storekeepers stationed between the dire combatants drive a thriving trade with both parties. "Where be these malefactors" whom Dr. Vaughan assails? The Evolutionists seem to be as terrible to him as the Copernicans were to his predecessors some three centuries ago, and their teachings comprehend the greater part of his "Religion of Denial." In his opinion, if man came from the "mud fish," there can be no religion. Unless he comes directly from the mud, there is an end of God. But the Evolutionists deny nothing. They simply put fact and fact together from the great storehouse of page 10 nature, as the Copernicans did before them, and hence deduce a marvellous generalization. If their generalization be placed under papal interdict, like the Copernican was, so much the worse for the interdict. They are merely anxious to discover God's mode of working in nature, and they marshal their facts and "bid them speak." If Theology put itself in the way of the facts, as it has done in the past, it will suffer. Religion will not suffer; for all that is vital and not idolatrous in it necessarily conforms itself to Science, which, as Herbert Spencer says, is only "opposed to superstitions which pass as religions." I take the following from Spencer's "Essay on Education," p. 51:—
"So far from Science being irreligious, as many think, it is the neglect of Science that is irreligious—it is the refusal to study the surrounding creation that is irreligious. Take a humble simile. Suppose a writer were daily saluted with praises couched in superlative language. Suppose the wisdom, the grandeur, the beauty of his works, were the constant topics of the eulogies addressed to him. Suppose those who unceasingly uttered these eulogies on his works were content with looking at the outsides of them; and had never opened them, much less tried to understand them. What value should we put upon their praises? What should we think of their sincerity? Yet, comparing small things to great, such is the conduct of mankind in general in reference to the Universe and its Cause. Nay, it is worse. Not only do they pass by without study these things which they daily proclaim to be so wonderful; but very frequently they condemn as mere triflers page 11 those who give time to the observation of Nature—they actually scorn those who show any active interest in these marvels. We repeat, then, that not Science, but the neglect of Science, is irreligious. Devotion to Science is a tacit worship—a tacit recognition of worth in the things studied; and, by implication, in their Cause. It is not a mere lip-homage, but a homage expressed in actions—not a mere professed respect, but a respect proved by the sacrifice of time, thought, and labour.
"Nor is it thus only that true Science is essentially religious. It is religious, too, inasmuch as it generates a profound respect for, and an implicit faith in those uniformities of action which all things disclose. By accumulated experiences the man of science acquires a thorough belief in the unchanging relations of phenomena—in the invariable connection of cause and consequence—in the necessity of good or evil results. Instead of the rewards and punishments of traditional belief, which people vaguely hope they may gain, or escape, spite of their disobedience; he finds that there are rewards and punishments in the ordained constitution of things; and that the evil results of disobedience are inevitable. He sees that the laws to which we must submit are both inexorable and beneficent. He sees that in conforming to them, the process of things is ever towards a greater perfection and a higher happiness. Hence, he is led constantly to insist on them, and is indignant when they are disregarded. And thus does he, by asserting the eternal principles of things and the necessity of obeying them, prove himself intrinsically religions."page 12
It is evident we must not turn to Spencer for out "Religion of Denial," and yet Spencer is one of the leading heresiarchs whom Archbishop Vaughan affects to fight.
Tyndall is another. But will Tyndall more appropriately than Spencer fill the vacant frame of Denial? This is what he says in an article entitled "Virchow and Evolution" in The Ninteenth Century.
"Feeling appeared in the world before knowledge; and thoughts, conceptions, and creeds founded on emotion had, before the dawn of Science, taken root
in man. . . . . It is against this objective rendering of the emotions, this thrusting into the region of fact and positive knowledge, of conceptions essentially ideal and poetic,—that Science, consciously or unconsciously, wages war. Religious feeling is as much a verity as any other part of human consciousness; and against it, on its subjective side, the waves of Science beat in vain. But when, manipulated by the constructive imagination, mixed with imperfect or inaccurate historical data, and moulded by misapplied logic, this feeling traverses our knowledge of Nature, Science, as in duty bound, stands as a hostile power in its path. It is against the mythologic scenery, if I may use the term, rather than against the life and substance of Religion, that Science enters her protest. Sooner or later, among thinking people, that scenery will be taken for what it is worth—as an effort on the part of man to bring the mystery of life and Nature within the range of his capacities; as a temporary and essentially fluxional rendering in terms of page 13 knowledge of that which transcends all knowledge, and admits only of ideal approach."
"I do not know that I care very much about popular odium, so that there is no great merit in saying that if I really saw fit to deny the existence of a. God, I should certainly do so for the sake of my own intellectual freedom, and be the honest Atheist you are pleased to say I am. As it happens, however, I cannot, take this position with honesty, inasmuch as it is, and always has been, a favourite tenet of mine that Atheism is as absurd, logically speaking, as Polytheism."
Thus we see that Huxley is as little likely to set up a No-God as he is to dogmatise about a Triple God, conceiving both equally illogical.
"We have an infinity of steps to mount above our grovelling human inclinations before we can reach that sublime love. Since, however, we have nothing to rest upon except the earth, let us draw our comparisons from that. We view some masterpiece of art in painting, sculpture, architecture, poetry, or eloquence; we hear a piece of music that absolutely enchants our ears and souls; we admire it, we love it, without any return of the slightest advantage to ourselves from this attachment; it is a pure and refined feeling; we proceed sometimes so far as to entertain veneration or friendship for the author, and were he present should cordially embrace him. This is almost the only way in which we can explain our profound admiration and the impulses of our hearts towards the Eternal Architect of the world. We survey the work with an astonishment made up of respect and a sense of our own nothingness, and our heart warms and rises as much as possible towards the Divine Artificer."
"The Creation is the Bible of a true believer in God. Everything in this vast volume inspires him with sublime ideas of the Creator. The little, and paltry, and often obscene tales of the Bible sink page 15 into wretchedness when put in comparison with this mighty work. The Deist needs none of those tricks and shows, called miracles, to confirm his faith, for what can he a greater miracle than creation itself and his own existence?"
"Our faculties fail us when we try to estimate the Deity, and we are betrayed into contradictions and absurdities; but does it therefore follow that He is not? It seems to me that to deny His existence is to overstep the boundaries of our thought power almost as much as to try and define it. We pretend to know the Unknown if we declare Him to be the Unknowable. Unknowable to us at page 16 present, yes! Unknowable for ever, in other possible stages of existence? We have reached a region into which we cannot penetrate; here, all human faculties fail us; we bow our heads on the threshold of the Unknown."
Thus she, too—the extreme of the Rationalistic school—an Archbishop of Atheism,—merely endorses the truth of the irresistible axiom of Spinoza, that "to define God is to deny Him."
I think, then, we are entitled to ask Dr. Vaughan against whom or what is his formidable rhetorical artillery levelled? Where are we to discover this "Religion of Denial," which he is never tired of denouncing? Where among representative Rationalists are those men and women to be found who "feel as little remorse in denying the existence of God as they do in denying the existence of the man in the moon"? Who are "the brazen, self-sufficient votaries of a Negative religion "? Where are we to discover the "narrow brains" and the "profane hands and tongues"? What is it that this Most Reverend critic stigmatises as "shallow philosophy"? Who are they that "wish to destroy the temple of Religion"? Surely not those who seek their religion and their God in the marvellous temple of Nature.
Shall we, then, fail altogether to discover a "Religion of Denial"? Asssuredly we shall seek it in vain among Rationalists, for Rationalism is a Religion of Affirmation, not denial. It affirms the sufficiency of Nature and the supremacy of Law, and bids us seek the Infinite Soul of the Universe there, where He is ever revealing Himself. "Na- page 17 ture," says Carlyle, "is the Time-vesture of God, that reveals him to the wise and hides him from the foolish;" and Nature includes human nature, where, if anywhere, the Divine Mind will especially he manifested, Rationalism is not a Religion of Denial, excepting so far as the assertion of truth leads inevitably to the denial of error. But there is a Religion of Denial, albeit not one which Archbishop Vaughan would be likely to call upon his followers to criticise and condemn. The true Religion of Denial is the religion which denies to man the possession of a divine nature; denies that Nature itself is divine; denies the supremacy of divine law in the Universe, and attempts to substitute the pitiful potency of priestly magic; denies human brotherhood in the interest of a sect, denies the Divine Fatherhood, and bows down before a three-headed idol seated on a throne, access to which is only to be secured by paying court to an army of priestly servitors, who, forsooth, keep possession of the "keys" of the palace. This is the "Religion of Denial," the religion of exclusive salvation to be obtained at the cost of cringing before your fellow-man, falling on your knees, kissing the dust, and saying to some poor puppet dressed in a little brief authority, "By your leave, sir;" this is the Religion of Denial, which denies to the natural, free, brave heart everything excepting damnation. The only God denied by Rationalism is the God of an eternal Hell—the Hell which, according to the Augustinian and the Calvinist, is "paved with infants not a span long," and he is denied, because to accept him is to blaspheme against the God of Nature, who speaks in page 18 the human reason and conscience. The God of Hell must be denied so soon as the God of Law, and that Law in itself the perfection of Love, comes to be dimly discerned.
"God sends his teachers unto every age,
To every clime, and every race of men,
With revelations fitted to their growth
And shape of mind, nor gives the realm of Truth
Into the selfish rule of one sole race."
Accordingly, he preached the gospel of Rationalism, the supremacy of Law, the impossibility of the sequence of Cause and Effect being shattered by lawless chance, or supernatural magic, and became one of the Prophets of Freethought. Prophet-like, he has reaped no reward in this world, save that benediction of conscience, that spirit-baptism, which sanctifies all those who work simply and loyally for Truth's sake. His brother, who was lacking in faith, and sought the prop of a human organization, is now a Cardinal—a Prince of one of the mightiest associations of this world. It has been the same throughout the ages. Paul would probably have been made a Rabbi at Jerusalem, had he stuck to the ceremonial observances of the Pharisees, and adhered to the cause of the Priests. He obeyed the voice of his innermost spirit, "proved all things," and earned the title of heretic and atheist. In certain sectarian eyes Newman the Cardinal is secure of salvation, while Newman the Freethinker is heir to hell. But the God of Rationalism is the Father page 21 of both, and will turn each to further use in the great hereafter.
"You tell me, doubt is Devil-born.
I know not: one indeed I knew
In many a subtle question versed,
Who touch'd a jarring lyre at first,
But ever strove to make it true;
Perplext in faith, but pure in deeds,
At last he beat his music out.
There lives more faith in honest doubt,
Believe me, than in half the creeds."
"More faith," because "honest doubt" springs out of an abhorrence of the God of the creeds and leads to a dream of a God, infinite and incomprehensible indeed, but still infinite and incomprehensible in love, not hate. Rationalism knows nothing of God beyond what Science and Philosophy teach; but that is enough to show that the sulphurscented God of the creeds cannot be He. But the Dogmatists know all about him, can swear that he is three and yet one, and that he has a wife and a son. They can teach the world how to win his favour with incantation and ceremony, not by working for the benefit of humanity, as Rationalists in- page 22 culcate. These dogmas are bora mainly of priestly pride, and are upheld in the interest of theological corporations. But the day of Dogma is passing. Better men are developed outside than within its folds. If it were true, as Dr. Vaughan affirms, that godlessness is on the freer side, and godliness on the side of the dogmatists, we should discern the fact in the results; but these point quite in an opposite direction. Take two fairly representative men of a great nation—Victor Hugo, bred in the cloister, but impelled out of it by the spirit of Freethought, and Mgr. Dupanloup, the late Bishop of Orleans, a respected dignitary of the Church of Exclusive Salvation. Last year, Victor Hugo delivered a glowing oration in honour of the centenary of the death of Voltaire, the champion who dealt a blow at priestcraft, from the effects of which it has reeled ever since. For this act Monseigneur Dupanloup denounced the poetorator, but Victor Hugo was equal to the occasion, and in the letter be published in reply, we have the career of the representatives of the two schools of thought epitomised. He addressed the "Right Reverend Bishop" as plain "Monsieur," and wrote thus :—
"Monsieur,—You are guilty of an imprudence. You remind those who might have forgotten it that I was brought up by a Churchman, and that, if my life began in prejudice and error, it was the priest's fault, not mine. That sort of education is so fatal, that at nearly 40 years of age, as you point out, I was still under its influence. All that has been said before. I don't dwell on it. I have a certain contempt for mere futilities.page 23
"You insult Voltaire, and you do me the honour to revile me. That is your affair.
"You and I are two men, better or worse : the future will decide between us.
"The moral sense, is so imperfectly developed in you that you reproach me with the very act which does me honour. You undertake to read me a lesson. By what right? Who are you? Let us come to the point. Let us see what sort of a thing your conscience is, and what mine is. A single comparison will suffice.
"France has lately passed through an ordeal. France was free. One night a man treacherously seized her, overthrew her, and gagged her. If a nation could be murdered, that man would have murdered France. He brought her near enough to death to reign over her. He began his reign—since reign it was—by perjury, ambush, and massacre. He prolonged it by oppression, by tyranny, by despotism, by an indescribable parody on religion and justice. He was at once a monster and a pigmy. For him were sung the "Te Deum," the "Magnificat," the "Salvum fac," the "Gloria tibi," and the rest. "Who sang them? Ask yourself. The law abandoned the people to him, the Church surrendered to him the Almighty. Justice, honour, country, gave way before that man. He trampled underfoot his oath, equity, good faith, the glory of the flag, the dignity of man, the liberty of the citizen: that man's prosperity perplexed the conscience of mankind. This lasted 19 years. During that time you were in a palace; I was in exile. Sir, I pity you.—Victor Hugo."page 24
Orthodoxy is a worshipper of success and will tolerate almost any atrocity, so that custom and the conventional God be not outraged. But Rationalism views every proceeding with a philosophical eye, and tries all glittering pretensions with the test-stone of natural, not priestly, morality, goodness, and virtue. It turns with disgust from the fulsome formulas of fashionable flattery—termed religious worship—to the intrinsically noble and spiritual qualities developed in the souls of men whose lives are one long sacrifice to their fellow-men—whose every breath is an aspiration for human advancement. To the best thoughts of the best minds it appeals for its ritual,—to good deeds, not clamorous words, for its evidences of conversion,—and, thus inspired, leaves with relief inexpressible, the sickening courts of a servile and sycophantic Church for the breezy bowers and sunillumined temple of the God of Nature.