The New Theology (Shaw)

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The New Theology  (1907) 
by George Bernard Shaw
The New Theology is a lay sermon Shaw delivered on 16 May 1907 at Kensington Town Hall in London. It was printed in the Christian Commonwealth on the 23rd and 27th of that month.

When I last stood on this platform, I said there was not a single established religion in the world in which an intelligent or educated man could believe. Some feeling has been shown by those who have quoted that statement that somehow or other it is my fault, and I am not altogether disposed to deny it. A person who points out a thing of which the mass of people are unconscious really does to some extent create the thing which he points out. I remember not very long ago rolling up my sleeves to the elbow in order to wash my hands, and, as I have a great deal to think about, including the New Theology, I am sometimes rather absent minded. The consequence was that I forgot to roll down my sleeves, and walked about two miles in the west of London until I met a friend, who said, "What on earth are you going about in that fashion for?" Now, as I did not know that my sleeves were rolled up, they were not rolled up so far as I was concerned until that intrusive friend came and quite unnecessarily called my attention to the fact, covering me with blushes and confusion. And so my remark here last year may have destroyed the authenticity of established religions for many persons who up to that moment had believed that those religions, being established, were all right.

I want to see whether there is any possibility of our arriving at a religion on which we can agree, because it is very important we should have a religion of some kind. I know that that is quite a fashionable opinion, but we have got out of the habit of thinking that we ought to believe in the religion we have. Hardly any person in London believes in the religion he professes. Now let us come to the New Theology; It is not my habit, nor the habit of any really judicious lecturer, to begin by definitions, and when I do, I decline to be held by them. I do not address myself to your logical faculties, but as one human mind trying to put himself in contact with other human minds. By theology I ready do mean the science of godhead, and I want to examine whether we have made any advance in the science, whether there is a science of it in which we can believe and on which we can get a pretty general agreement. I shall have to go back a considerable distance, because I want to make you aware of the state of your mind on the question. I am quite certain that you do not know it, unless you are familiar with the religious history of the nineteenth century, perhaps the wickedest in all human history. When I came to London, at about the beginning of the last quarter of the nineteenth century, I found people in a very curious state as regards their religious belief. This was illustrated by something that happened at a bachelor party I attended in Kensington not far from this hall a short time after I arrived. I found myself in the company of a number of young men who either belonged to, or were qualifying for, one of the liberal professions, and they got into a dispute about religion. At that time the late Charles Bradlaugh was very notorious for the militant campaign he was carrying on as an atheist. One of the persons present, representing what was supposed to be the pious and religious side in the controversy, accused Bradlaugh of having publicly taken out his watch and challenged the Almighty, if he had the power and will to do so, to strike him dead in five minutes. An admirer and adherent of Bradlaugh vehemently denied that story, saying it was a gross calumny. The gentleman who made the accusation took the old-fashioned view; it had prevailed in this country for about three hundred years, that very dark period in which Christians, instead of being Christians in any reasonable sense, worshiped the Bible as a talisman. For instance, in tract shops you saw copies of the Bible exhibited with the dent of a bullet in them, and you were given to understand that the soldier who had in his pocket a testament given him by his mother had been saved from death because the book had stopped the enemy's bullet. The gentleman who told the story about Mr. Bradlaugh was a Bible worshiper, and believed, among other things, the story in the Bible that when Elisha the prophet was mocked because of his bald head by some young children, God sent a couple of bears out of a wood to eat those children. And the extraordinary thing is that the gentleman worshiped the God who did that! If you or I confessed doing such a thing as that probably we should be torn to pieces. But it was a common article of belief at that time that the universe was ruled by a God who was that particular sort of person, an exceedingly spiteful person, capable of taking the most ferocious revenge. I was very much puzzled by the impassioned way in which the gentleman who was a secularist defended Charles Bradlaugh against the imputation of having taken out his watch and made this challenge, and when my turn came to speak, or rather when I spoke—I am not always in the habit of waiting for my turn exactly—I said that if the question which Charles Bradlaugh was dealing with was whether a God of that kind existed, the reported experiment seemed to me perfectly legitimate and natural and to deny the existence of such a God appeared to me to be a far more genuine religious position than that of the people who affirmed belief in him. I say it seemed to me perfectly natural and proper, if the ruler of the universe were really the petty, spiteful criminal he was represented to be, for a man who denied his existence to take his watch out of his pocket and, instead of troubling about what happened many centuries ago, to ask him to strike him dead at the end of five minutes. I said, "Since it appears that Mr. Bradlaugh never made this experiment, I, regarding it as a perfectly legitimate one, will try it myself," and with that I took my watch out of my pocket I have never done anything in public or private which produced such an instantaneous and extraordinary effect. Up to that moment the company had been divided into a pious and a sceptical party, but it now appeared that there were no sceptics present at all. Everyone of them felt it to be extremely probable that before the five minutes were up I should be taken at my word. One of the party appealed to us to turn the conversation to a more lively channel, and a gentleman present who had a talent for singing comic songs sat down at the piano and sang the most melancholic comic song I ever heard in my life. That incident has its amusing side, but it also has its tragic side. It is a frightful thing that it should have been possible so recently as twenty-five years ago for a party of educated men to be in that state of superstition. I am not at all certain that I have not made some of those I address very uncomfortable by what I have just said. Well, I intend to go on making people who hold such views uncomfortable. I want to make them understand in a very vivid way that it is quite impossible at this time of day to unite the world or appeal to our highest intelligence or better natures by preaching that particular sort of God. It was the preaching of that kind of tribal idol that accounted for Charles Bradlaugh calling himself an atheist, and, disbelieving with my whole soul in such a being, I always did what Charles Bradlaugh did: made myself intelligible to those people who worship such a monster by saying that I was an atheist. And in that sense I still am an atheist, as it must seem to me every humane person must be. That kind of God is morally inconceivable. The God who would send bears to eat up little children would be a wicked God—what Shelley called an Almighty Fiend. Why did not Shelley's protest produce very much impression on the people of this country? Because, believing he was an Almighty Fiend, they feared and obeyed him very largely as such and supposed that if they told him the truth to his face he would probably strike them dead for blasphemy. They saw that there was a great deal of terrible cruelty in the world, which rather confirmed the idea that the force at the back of things was wicked and cruel, and therefore the denunciations of Shelley and others of the current conception of God as immoral did not remove the presumption that he existed. There was another reason why these people had to believe in God: Everywhere in nature they saw evidence of design. It was no use telling them the universe was the result of blind chance. They said, "If you look around, if you note all that we are told even by scientific men about the marvelous adaptation of means to end, if you consider such a miraculous thing as the human eye, it is impossible for us to believe that these things came into existence without a designer, and we cannot blind ourselves to the fact that the designer is apparently cruel. We see plague, pestilence, and famine, battle, murder, and sudden death; we see our parents dying of cancer, our children dying of diphtheria. We may not dare to say that the power that wills that is cruel; it might bring worse consequences on us. But the cruelty is no reason for our ceasing to believe in its existence." And so, neither science on the one hand, nor the moral remonstrances of Shelley and his school on the other, were able to shake the current belief in that old theology that came back to the old tribal idol, Jehovah. I hope that I have produced a sufficiently gloomy impression upon you! The reason I have been putting the matter as I have is that I want to bring into your minds very strongly the fact that in the middle of the last century all the mind, conscience, and intelligence of the best part of mankind was in revolt against the old-fashioned conception of God, and yet at the same time finding itself intellectually unable to get away from the conception of God the Designer. They were in a dilemma, There must be what they called God, and yet they could not make him responsible for the good in the world without making him also responsible for the evil, because they never questioned one thing about him: that, being the designer of the universe, he must be necessarily omnipotent. This being the situation, is it not clear that if at the time any man had risen up and said, "AH this wonderful adaptation of means to end, all this design which seems to imply a designer, is an illusion; ft may have an come about by the operation of what we call blind chance," the most intelligent and best part of the human race, without stopping to criticize his argument very closely, would spring at that man and take him to their arms as their moral savior, saying, "You have lifted from our minds this horrible conception that the force that is governing us all. and is managing the whole world is hideous, criminal, cruel"? That is exactly what happened when Charles Darwin appeared and the reason why he had such an enormous success that the religion of the last half of the nineteenth century became Darwinian. Many people are under the impression that Darwinism meant that the world had been converted to a belief in evolution. That is a mistake; exactly the contrary has happened. Darwin was really the man who completely turned the attention of mankind from the doctrine of evolution. Evolution is a vital part of the New Theology, but it sprang into something like completeness as a conception at the end of the eighteenth century, when all the great evolutionists, including Erasmus Darwin, grandfather of Charles Darwin, brought out their books and developed the whole system. The main thing by which they astonished the world was by attacking the old conception of creation in the Garden of Eden. The amazing conception that thought of all life on this planet as having evolved from a little speck of slime in a ditch struck the world dumb. Erasmus Darwin justified the theology of it by saying, "Is not the conception that men have been developed from a speck of protoplasm much more wonderful than that the world and everything in it was made in six days?" The conception took hold of people, and its chief exponent was the great philosopher Lamarck, a Frenchman who began life as a soldier and ended it as a naturalist. In one of his books Lamarck gave an illustration of the process of evolution.. He said the reason that the giraffe had a long neck is that this creature wanted to feed on the soft herbage on the top of tall trees, and by dint of generations of giraffes stretching their necks, they gradually made their necks longer, until they could reach the requisite height.

Now, that means that the giraffe got a long neck because it wanted a long neck—just in the same way that you learn to ride a bicycle or to speak French because you want to do so. Well, in the year 1830, the scientific world got tired of generalizing and, instead of forming great cosmic theories, devoted itself to the study of isolated phenomena, assisted by the microscope, and shortly after this time Charles Darwin came on the scene. I am convinced that the accusations made against Darwin of having deliberately suppressed the debt that civilization owed to his grandfather for the discovery of evolution were entirely unjust, because I don't believe that Charles Darwin knew anything about evolution, or that to the end of his life he ever understood the whole theory or what it meant. From boyhood he delighted in frogs and pigeons and was the greatest pigeon fancier that ever lived. The real thing that enabled Charles Darwin to come to different conclusions from other naturalists was that between the time of the evolutionists of 1790-1830 and Charles Darwin's discovery in his book, The Origin of Species, the researches of the great biologist Lyell led him to teach the world that the stratification and formation of rocks and mountains in order to be scientifically accounted for forced us to assign a much greater age to the earth than had hitherto been assigned. Our grandfathers had always been taught, on the authority of Archbishop Ussher, that the world was 6,006 years old, and some people had actually discovered the actual day of the month when creation began. This present of millions of years gave time for Darwin's theory of natural selection. Now let us apply this theory to the case of the giraffe. Lamarck's theory implied purpose and will, and, remember, if there is purpose and will in a microbe there must be purpose and will through the whole universe. But Darwin said, in effect, "I can explain the giraffe's long neck without implying the slightest purpose or will. What really happened was this: The number of giraffes multiplied until they began to prey on the means of subsistence until they bit off all the leaves on the trees within their reach, and then they found themselves starving. But suppose, by one of those little accidents and variations that will always occur—we do not know how—a few giraffes happened to have necks a little longer than the others, they would be able to reach vegetation, while their less fortunate fellows starved. Consequently the longer-necked giraffes would survive while the others perished and produce, a race of giraffes with necks a little longer, and this without any purpose or design." My difficulty in putting this apparently commonplace story of the giraffe before a modern audience is to make them understand the unspeakable and frightful prospect opened to the world by Darwin. He abolished adaptation and design, and, as Samuel Butler said, banished mind from the universe, which was a great relief to many Englishmen who greatly dislike anything in the shape of reflection. Considering that there are and necessarily must be a large number of consciously religious men always living, and that everyone of us has a considerable religious element in him and could not exist without it, why was it that the naked horror of Darwin's conception did not strike them? I have already given you the explanation; it is Elisha and the bears again. The world had got so horrified by the old theology, with its conception of a spiteful, narrow, wicked, personal God, who was always interfering and doing stupid things— often cruel things—that for a moment it could feel nothing but relief at having got rid of such a God altogether. It did not feel the void at first. A man with a bad toothache only thinks of getting rid of the tooth; it is not till afterwards he discovers that he must have a new tooth if he is to go on eating and keep his digestion in order. So people said, "Now that we have got rid of the old conception of religion we will believe in science and evolution." Of course, they knew nothing about evolution; they thought that natural selection, Darwin's discovery, was evolution. Darwin merely turned the attention of mankind to the effects of natural selection; he did not deal with the real problem of evolution. Samuel Butler and others were very soon able to show that it was no use denying the existence of purpose and will in the universe; they were conscious themselves of having purpose, will, design. Then came the discovery of the weak point of the natural selection theory: that it not only did away with the necessity for design and purpose, but with the necessity for consciousness. Men were able to demonstrate that, according to the theory of natural selection, it was perfectly possible that all the books in the British Museum might have been written, all the. pictures in the National Gallery 'might have been painted, all the cathedrals of Europe might have been built, automatically, without one person concerned in the process having been conscious of what he was doing. Some of the natural selectionists used to make the demonstration themselves with a certain pride in doing so. But the common sense of mankind said, "If all the operations of the species can be accounted for without consciousness, intelligence, or design, you have still got to account for the consciousness, intelligence, and design that undoubtedly exist in man." The religious people naturally turn this argument to account, saying, "It is all very well to say that life is a mere pursuit of pleasure and gain, but many men do not live in order to get a balance of pleasure over pain; you see everywhere men doing work that does not benefit them—they call it God's work; natural selection cannot account for that. There is behind the universe an intelligent and driving force of which we ourselves are a part—a divine spark." After the Darwins and Lyell and Samuel Butler had had their say, the difficulty presented was this: How are we to retain the notion of design without going back to the idea that the design is the work of a cruel designer? The trouble, as usual, was that we had been making the entirely gratuitous assumption that the force behind the universe is omnipotent. Now, you cannot prove that that force is at once omnipotent and benevolent If omnipotent, why did it create us? If there are three orders of existence—man as we know him, the angels higher than man, and God higher than the angels—why did God first create something lower than himself, the angels, and then actually create something lower than the angels, man? I cannot believe in a God who would do that. If I were God, I should try to create something higher than myself, and then something higher than that, so that, beginning with a God the higher thing in creation, I should end with a God the lowest thing in creation. This is the conception you must get into your head if you are to be free from the horrible old idea that all the cruelty in the world is the work of an omnipotent God, who if he liked could have left the cruelty out of creation, who instead of creating us ... Just think about yourselves, ladies and gentlemen. I do not want to be uncomplimentary, but can you conceive God deliberately creating you if he could have created anything better? What you have got to understand is that somehow or other there is at the back of the universe a will, a life-force. You cannot think of him as a person, you have to think of him as a great purpose, a great will, and, furthermore, you have to think of him as engaged in a continual struggle to produce something higher and higher, to create organs to carry out his purpose; as wanting hands, and saying, "I must create something with hands"; arriving at that very slowly, after innumerable experiments and innumerable mistakes, because this power must be proceeding as we proceed, because if there were any other way it would put us in that way: we know that in all the progress we make we proceed by way of trial and error and experiment. Now conceive of the force behind the universe as a bodiless, impotent force, having no executive power of its own, wanting instruments, something to carry out its will in the world, making all manner of experiments, creating reptiles, birds, animals, trying one thing after another, rising higher and higher in the scale of organism, and finally producing man, and then inspiring that man, putting his will into him, getting him to carry out his purpose, .saying to him, "Remember, you are not here merely to look after yourself. I have made your hand to do my work; I have made your brain, and I want you to work with that and try to find out the purpose of the universe; and when one instrument is worn out, I will make another, and another, always more and more intelligent and effective." One difficulty is that so many of the earlier efforts of this world-force—for example, the tiger— remain, and the incompatibility between them and man exists in the human being himself as the result of early experiments, so that there are certain organs in your body which are perishing away and are of no use and actually interfere with your later organs. And here you have, as it seems to me, the explanation of that great riddle which used to puzzle people—evil and pain. Numbers of things which are at present killing and maiming us in our own organism have got to be evolved out of that organism, and the process is painful. The object , of the whole evolutionary process is to realize God; that is to say, instead of the old notion that creation began with a God, a personal being, who, being perfect, created something lower than himself, the aim of the New Theology is to turn that process the other way and to conceive of the force behind the universe as working up through imperfection and mistake to a perfect, organized being, having the power of fulfilling its highest purposes. In a sense there is no God as yet achieved, but there is that force at work making God, struggling through us to become an actual organized existence, enjoying what to many of us is the greatest conceivable ecstasy, the ecstasy of a brain, an intelligence, actually conscious of the whole, and with executive force capable of guiding it to a perfectly benevolent and harmonious end. That is what we are working to. When you are asked, "Where is God? Who is God?" stand up and say, "I am God and here is God, not as yet completed, but still advancing towards completion, just in so much as I am working for the purpose of the universe, working for the good of the whole of society and the whole world, instead of merely looking after my personal ends." In that way we get rid of the old contradiction, we begin to perceive that the evil of the world is a thing that will finally be evolved out of the world, that it was not brought into the world by malice and cruelty, but by an entirely benevolent designer that had not as yet discovered how to carry out its benevolent intention. In that way I think we may turn towards the future with greater hope. It had been my intention when I began to make the few introductory remarks which I have just delivered the first part of my lecture and then to go on applying that to existing religion, to deal with the actual articles of the Church of England, and to show how much of this truth that I have been teaching tonight is to be found in them. You will find a great deal of this truth in them and in your Bible and in all the religious books of the world. You will find it in the modern poets. When you once seize this you will find that this idea is no idle heresy or paradox of mine, but that it has been germinating in people's minds for a century past and for much more than that in the great poets and leaders of mankind.


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1923. It may be copyrighted outside the U.S. (see Help:Public domain).