The Pilgrimage from Deism to Agnosticism

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The Pilgrimage from Deism to Agnosticism
by Moncure Daniel Conway
An example of the philosophic writing of Moncure Daniel Conway, “The Pilgrimage from Deism to Agnosticism” was published in The Free Review, Vol. I. October 1, 1893, pages 11 to 19. Edited by Robertson, John Mackinnon and Singer, G. Astor. It was well reviewed in the 1894 The Critic: An Illustrated Monthly Review of Literature, Art, and Life, and in the 1911 Periodical Articles on Religion, 1890-1899.

(p. 11)

Although Christians deplore Polytheism in other lands, there are many deities in Christendom also. The Anglican, Catholic, Calvinist, Quaker, Unitarian, Theistic deities, so far as they are really religious conceptions, and inspire religious emotions, are as different as Zeus, Apollo, Mars, and the other ancient Gods. They are also chiefs of large varieties : probably no two really devout souls ever had the same God. The true lover has his own bride. The tendency to consolidate deities — the sovereign, the ruling, the forgiving, the unforgiving, the maternal, the paternal, the incarnate, the glorified, the suffering — is a spiritually atheistic tendency. The majority of educated people who maintain belief in deity really have in their minds a hypothesis about nature, a conception of force, or of causal and evolutionary agency, with little more religious or moral connotation than a theory about electricity. Professor Fiske of Massachusetts has written a book defending the hypothesis of deity; and the Harvard University Library has in its catalogue this entry : “GOD. See Fiske, John.” That is the kind of interest in deity now mainly felt in the University founded to train ministers to terrorise America with thunders of Jehovah — who, by the way, is a very different deity from Jahve of the Jews. To excite religious enthusiasm a deity must have personality, a personal name and history. No vague cosmical essence, or first cause, or universal mind, can have any religious or moral value except what it may have appropriated from the personal deities. This was proved by the history of English Deism, which passed away because it was a scientific hypothesis, and, when it ceased to be adequate as such, was without any religious value or emotional life to continue. Moral and religious service was indeed done by Deism, but incidentally, by its negations. Its moral (p. 12) judgment on the biblical deities was the chief agency in giving religious sentiment a human conscience. Against that judgment Bishop Butler successfully appealed by pointing out more horrors occurring under the God of nature than under Jehovah’s command. In that combat, however, both antagonists fell. The cultured moral and religious sentiments, gradually combining, were unable to follow either biblical or naturalistic Deism to its logical conclusions, and took refuge in an eclectic Unitarianism. In this the Newtonian unity, the ancient faith in providential government, the teaching of Jesus concerning divine Fatherhood, and the Inner Light of the Quakers, were combined in a religion all the more potent, perhaps, because illogical.

As an organised sect Unitarianism never amounted to much, because the conglomeration of ideals, sentiments, and moral forces related to it was too vast for any such enclosure. The revolutions of the last century were Unitarian movements. The Fatherhood of God meant the equality of men, the rights of man; and these combustible corollaries only needed the enthusiasm of George Fox to kindle them into flame. From their Quaker homes Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine brought from the ashes of Quakerism the last embers of its Inner Light to start a conflagration of Common Sense. Unitarianism (though of a kind rather naturalistic or deistic than Christian) was the religion of Washington, Jefferson, the Adamses, Peyton Randolph, Franklin, Paine, and other leaders of the American Revolution, who devoutly believed in the equality of men as children of one divine Father. They all recognised the hand of God controlling events in their Revolution against privilege and prerogative. Theologically Unitarianism has always been weak and timid, but on the moral and human side its strength has been repeatedly proved. In America the Unitarian organisation, though comparatively small, did more to emancipate the slaves than all other churches put together.

Thomas Carlyle told me that in his early years he was with some literary friends on a railway journey in England, and in their compartment was a stranger (p. 13) whom he afterwards found to be a prominent Unitarian preacher. “We had,” he said, “long and rather searching discussions on religious problems; among other things Unitarianism was mentioned, and all agreed that if a mind went that far it ought to go farther, and must go farther. But during the long talk the preacher said no word; he sat all the time with closed eyes, as if sleeping, though I was satisfied that he heard everything that was said.” There is something typical of Unitarianism in that silence of the minister, and the closed eyes, while great problems were grappled with. Though a few thinkers like Martineau have given Unitarianism here and there a reputation for philosophic depth, it is not deserved; it has answered, can answer, no vital question whatever, ethical or intellectual. Its eyes were closed while speculative religious thought went on, which, after leaving Deism, found its next station in Pantheism. It is there that Carlyle and his company rested, and most of them were prone in their turn to close their eyes, and sit silent, when further questioning arose. English Pantheism was never the exact and reasoned-out philosophy of Spinoza; it was Deism with a poetical aureole around it, brilliant, indefinite, answering somewhat the same purpose as Agnosticism now. “Pandeism” would have been an unscholarly combination, and “Pantheism”, in addition to its more euphonious sound, had the advantage of evading the arrows of Butler’s “Analogy”, — for a time.

Pantheism wrote most English poetry from Shelley to Tennyson. Wordsworth was its great psalmodist, and his pious enthusiasm flowered in Emersonian transcendentalism. In his early career Emerson made his pilgrimage from New England to Rydal Mount, where he walked hill and lakeside with Wordsworth, who recited his poems amid the nature that had inspired them, till the morning air became breath of the Holy Ghost, and the vault above as the blue eye of God. It was an old pundit transmitting an English Veda orally to a disciple. The disciple went home to his solitude at Concord, and there wrote his first book — “Nature”. The American mind, just released from the dungeon of (p. 14) Puritanism, rejoiced in this pantheistic gospel, — worshipped the sun again, sang anew the splendours of dawn, of the starry heavens, and Vedas of the violet. And in that same year of Emerson’s “Nature”, 1836, a young clergyman at Cambridge, one Charles Darwin, postponed holy orders of the church for holy orders of nature, and started on a voyage round the world, to return with a new book of Revelations. This at first renewed the pantheistic hymns, but ultimately silenced them.

The most significant thing about Deism was that its representatives gave no serious consideration to the existence of evil. While they denounced Jehovah’s cruelties, none of them attempted to vindicate the originator of natural laws for the evils caused by those laws. This omission alone sufficiently proves that Deism was fundamentally a scientific hypothesis. It could approach no nearer to religion than the emotions excited by the marvels and sublimities and beauties of nature. The deity of Deism was defined in a note by Newton to his last edition of “Principia”, in which he says that the Creator created the substance of nature, or matter, and assigned it certain general laws, leaving it forever thereafter to work out results without his interference. This neglected note, a remarkable anticipation of Evolution, suggests what was really in the deistic mind if not made clear in its literature. The deity was reduced from a governing to (at most) a reigning monarch, a historical figure-head to the constitution of nature. Belief in special providences, in personal intimacy between the individual heart and God, and in the efficiency of prayer, essential to piety, were quite excluded.

Pantheism, though a sequel of Deism, was, in its recovery of these excluded mystical and devotional elements, a reaction against it. If. as Science said, God created matter, or, if co-existing with him, endowed it with motion and other laws, then all the laws were his laws, all events his events; the Whole is God; and emotion in the Soul, like motion in matter, is an efficient secondary cause in carrying out the eternal purpose hid in the depths of the Universe. But unemotional (p. 15) emotional Science said a farther word; it presently revealed a universe organically cruel and predatory, from zoophytes devouring each other in the drop of water to men doing the like in the larger globe. Pantheism in its raptures was confronted by unmasked Nature, red in tooth and claw, saying, “Behold your God! since all is God, I am God, with my bestialities, poisons, plagues, my rack and thumbscrew for all the living!”

So the “Pan “dropped away, leaving “Theism”. It was a refinement of expression not consciously determined but representing the moral sentiment. Though “Deism “and “Theism “are etymologically synonymous, they have acquired by their history different values. Deism, a scientific philosophical hypothesis of nature, had been caught up by the religious spirit, the resultant being Pantheism. The deistic hypothesis failing, the “Pan” in which it verbally survived fell away, leaving “Theism” to represent the moral and mystical elements which could find repose in no Nature-God.

Although Theism, in defining itself against Atheism, undertook to maintain itself doctrinally and philosophically, I do not think that the word or the thing originated in antagonism to Atheism. The earliest Theistic Society in England, probably, was that at South Place; and the earliest consciously Theistic hymn, “Nearer, my God, to Thee,” was there composed and sung for many years before it was heard of in the Christian world. That hymn, written by a lady just after she had lost her faith in the Bible, and whose deity had become dim like the Wanderer’s phantom, really expressed the soul of early Theism. Jahvism had failed, Deism had failed, Pantheism had failed; sun after sun had gone down; it had to press on in the night, and have faith in a ladder of aspiration instead of any definite object to be climbed to. Professor Francis William Newman, the patriarch of English Theism, once expressed the opinion that the world would have escaped much trouble had Theology been compelled to express itself only in poetic form; and in that form his own work on Theism is written. In a general way it may be said that the distinctively Theistic parts of the earlier works (p. 16) of Theodore Parker and Miss Cobbe are poetic rather than didactic or dogmatic.

The Theism which inspired these pilgrims in the earlier half of our century, and their hymn, “Nearer, my God, to Thee,” is now represented by very few and small societies; yet is there a strong tendency in English. and American Christianity to rest on Theistic foundations. What kind of Theism it is may be fairly judged. by the “religion “taught in the Board Schools — a crass conglomerate Hebraic-Christian average of emasculated creeds. The same kind of compromise is at work in all of the larger sects, which are compelled by the decline of interest in the theological disputes which originated them to subordinate their once distinctive dogmas. The result is a vague and vulgarised Theism which is mainly a rehabilitated Jehovism.

But Theism in its early and better days, when Emerson described it as “the purification of the human mind”, was, like its parent Pantheism, and its grandparent Deism, transitional. It had no new message for mankind; it offered no solution of any problem relating to man’s life or hopes. There is something pathetic in the valor with which the Rev. Mr. Voysey battles for his fortress. I have before me a recent sermon of his, “The Gracious God,” in which he complains eloquently of the way in which Christians represent Christ as the friend of sufferers, instead of God. “Not long ago,” he says,

I was conversing with one who had a very grievous loss — the death of a beloved son.... She was naturally mourning over this and longing to account for such trouble befalling her, and asking almost in words, why God had caused her to be thus bereaved? I replied somewhat in these words; ‘You have been telling me for an hour how precious Jesus Christ is to you — so much so that you cannot imagine any other God to love like him. Now if Jesus Christ be God, as you say he is, have you never thought that Jesus took away your son? ‘Oh, no,’ replied the mother, ‘I never looked upon it in that light.’”

Whereupon the disowned clergyman deplores the fact that people thus exalt Christ at the expense of God — tracing their calamities to God, their help to Jesus. But logical as was his answer to the mother, had not her agonised heart touched the weak place in Theism? (p. 17) He admits that God had killed her son, and she was simply saving Jesus from being involved in that cruelty. Had she given up Jesus too, what were left her in the universe? Theism offers her only the gracious God that slew her son.”

“In God our Father,” says Mr. Voysey, “who rules and orders all we see, one who blesses no less in taking away than in giving; who makes tears to flow and hearts to ache, out of love to those whom he chastens; who, knowing infinitely more and better than we, lets his hand fall heavy upon us lest we forget him and wander away from his loving protection — in him we have a God to whom nothing is evil, nothing permanently malignant, whose tender love administers the medicine no less than the food, the Father who makes our tears to flow, and yet will wipe all tears from off all faces. ‘O taste and see how gracious the Lord is.’”

These passages are not cited here for refutation, but in illustration of Theism. It will be seen that in presence of pain and grief it has no word to say of its own, but relapses at once into orthodoxy and biblical authority. For there is no rational ground for supposing that suffering is a medicine, or that all tears are to be wiped away. If a gracious God keeps himself in our remembrance by murdering our children, what would an ungracious God do? A human father beating a child to keep it from wandering from his “protection “is the parental type to which Theism is compelled to resort, in apologizing for human calamities. Deism escaped this dilemma by limiting the direct action of its deity to original creation and general laws; but Theism, being a religion, must maintain an immanent and moral deity. The deification of Jesus was originally just such an appeal against a heartless Omnipotence as that of the mother with whom Mr. Voysey pleaded. Jesus bereaved no mothers; he kept himself in remembrance by benefits not chastenings (euphemism for chastisings); and he will still hold his own against any deity responsible for the sufferings of mankind.

From Dr. James Martineau’s latest work, “The Source of Authority in Religion,” we may learn the ultimate word which Theism can utter in this direction. It is not necessary to Theism to believe that God created the universe. The deity is a supreme Will, (p. 18) which, though intrinsically omnipotent, has seen fit, by an exertion of will, to limit itself. It has withdrawn far enough to give human will freedom for its exercise, and, within certain universal laws, assigned an “objective datum “on which the divine Will chooses to act as an influence rather than by coercion. Dr. Martineau’s work is probably the ablest ever issued by a scholar of advanced age, and there is a certain injustice in giving an interpretation of the conclusions of a writer so subtle and exact instead of a full quotation. He deals, however, slightly and cautiously with the existence of physical evil, which is the real question that Theism has to meet. Had Dr. Martineau adopted the opinion that God did not create the universe, instead of merely saying that Theism is consistent with that opinion, and admitted the Zoroastrian principle of limitations on the divine Will not self-imposed, the moral conditions of the problem would have been better satisfied. If the existence of deity is proved at all, it must be by the existence of a moral and rational nature in man; and a contradiction between divine morality and human morality is inadmissible. As it is criminal in a man to delegate to another a power he knows will be abused, or start into action a force he knows will work disaster, it does not (to my mind) appear morally conceivable that Omnipotent Benevolence should withdraw from any part of its realm, or suffer any mortal will, or any natural force, to work wrong and agonies which supreme Will could render impossible. There have been many attempts to make out the existence under the divine government of a sort of Home Rule for the earth, but they have all failed through the admission of imperial Omnipotence and Omniscience. It “passes the wit of man “to relieve Omnipotence from responsibility for delegated powers whose outcome it foresees in every detail. Nor is the divine morality saved by assuming that the evil results will be redressed in another life or world. For, in the first place, it is an assumption : the evils are real, the compensations speculative. But, granting the future “redress”, it cannot be a real redress; a year of torture now is not less a torture by reason of a happy year a hundred years hence. Theology (p. 19) has long been holding the deity for damages; its “judgment-day” is rather for God than for man to give account for the evils wrought in time, all preventible by Omnipotence.

Dr. James Martineau asserts that Theism does not depend on the belief that God created the universe. I venture to add that it will hereafter depend on his not having created it. It is Atheism that depends on the ascription of creation to God. In Theism, fifty years ago, Emerson recognised “the purification of the human mind “; Atheism will hereafter be memorable as the purification of the human heart. The defensive affirmations of Atheism, and along with them the title itself, have been supplanted by Agnosticism — a religio-philosophical Cave of Adullam wherein are gathered the discontented from various regions of thought. Agnosticism is especially the euphemistic retreat of scientific thinkers unwilling to be thought Nature-worshippers, and of cultured freethinkers escaping the vulgar connotations of “Atheism”, while maintaining their criticisms on all Theistic theories.

Here this paper may fitly end, since I propose to follow it with another. Though not myself an Agnostic, I recognise Agnosticism as the logical and necessary end of all theological inquiries. In this vault are contained the monumental tombs of all theological and philosophical Theisms, but amid them is preserved the Athenian altar, “To an unknown God,” on which the fires are still burning.

MONCURE D. CONWAY.
This work published before January 1, 1923 is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.