Popular Science Monthly/Volume 20/January 1882/Editor's Table

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THE publishers of this magazine, having declined any longer to issue the "North American Review," because of its recent articles from the pen of Colonel Ingersoll, have been charged with inconsistency on the ground that, in respect to the matter objected to, the periodical they retain is as bad as the one they have dismissed. A writer in the "Evening Post" says: "I would like to know how and where Messrs. Appleton & Co. draw the line which makes the same opinions detestable in the 'North American Review,' which are endured in 'The Popular Science Monthly.' The editorial views of the latter publication are certainly as pronounced in their atheistical tendencies as anything Colonel Ingersoll ever uttered, and for a long period of years this journal has published everything of interest written by pronounced atheists, and excluded everything which has appeared of merit on the other side. The papers of Herbert Spencer, and others of his class, have been presented, but such writers as the Duke of Argyll have never been permitted to offer their views."

This accusation against "The Popular Science Monthly," that it is a teacher of atheism, has been made before, and met before; but, as the present circumstances give it point and revive its interest, we propose now to reconsider it, and again see what it amounts to.

We shall thereby be enabled to judge whether the two magazines really teach the "same opinions" upon this subject, as the writer in the "Post" affirms.

The paragraph just quoted would have been more satisfactory if it had been more explicit; for here, if anywhere, clear distinctions are demanded. What does the writer mean by "pronounced atheistical tendencies" and "pronounced atheists"? Does he mean that their atheism is avowed or imputed; that they pronounce themselves atheists or are so pronounced by others? These are not only different things, but the distinction is here very material; so that it becomes necessary, before we can find out who are truly atheists, to have the test by which they are known. Because a man is called an atheist, are we to hold that he is therefore, in fact, an atheist? We were once accosted by an inquisitive Irishman thus: "D'ye b'lieve in the mother o' God?" "No." "Be gorry, y'er an atheist; I wouldn't be in y'er boots for twenty pound." Was that a satisfactory basis of classification? Professor Huxley had a cook who got on a drunken spree, and made such a row in the house that the police were called. As she was hustled through the yard, she sent back a blast, of which all that could be understood was an emphatic "damn athish I" Is Professor Huxley, therefore, to be ranked as a "pronounced atheist"? But, if a drunken cook is not an authority on this point, is a sober bigot any better? It is the common and very foolish trick of religious partisans to stigmatize those who differ from them in their views of Deity as atheists. Each one identifies God with bis own scheme of belief, and, if that scheme is objected to, the objector is denounced as a denier of God. Particularly where the conception of God is low, gross, and materialistic, is every higher view charged with atheism. There is, however, no honest difficulty here. We have exactly the same means of knowing atheists that we have of knowing Baptists or Buddhists, that is, by what they profess and teach. We should call Bradlaugh a "pronounced atheist," because we have heard him say that he is the only man who ever ran for Parliament distinctly as an atheist. He has, besides, a large following in open agreement with him, and who may, therefore, be properly called atheists. A "pronounced atheist," in short, must simply be one who pronounces himself an atheist.

And now, having found that atheists are those who avow a certain belief, it is desirable to note distinctly what that belief is. Atheism, says Webster, "is the denial of the existence of a God." But the term God has many significations, and is variously defined. We take the highest definition given by Webster, "the Supreme Being; the Eternal and Infinite Spirit." A pronounced atheist, therefore, is one who professes to deny the existence of "the Supreme Being; the Eternal and Infinite Spirit."

The writer in the "Post" declares that "The Popular Science Monthly" "has published everything of interest written by 'pronounced atheists,' and excluded everything that appeared of merit on the other side." The other side of what? Why, the advocacy of atheism, of course! That is, "for a long period of years" this magazine has been given over to the work of teaching the doctrine of the non-existence of "the Eternal and Infinite Spirit." This statement is not true; it has not a vestige of truth in it; it is wholly and absolutely false. This is one of the charges that calls for proof, and happily the writer has given his proof. It is this and nothing else, that "the papers of Herbert Spencer and others of his class" have appeared in "The Popular Science Monthly." That any such papers really have the character charged, there is not the slightest attempt at proof.

But Herbert Spencer is not an atheist, and never has been. He has never declared his belief in atheism, and he is a man who expresses his opinions very freely and with but little regard for their popularity. He has been called an atheist, but that, as we have seen, will not do. If we had space we could fill pages with admissions on the part of all his ablest theological critics that he is not an atheist. We challenge the "Post" writer to produce a single passage in all his writings, in the "Monthly" or out, either avowing or defending atheism. On the contrary, he has labored with all the power of his genius to prove that atheism as a theory of the universe (which it professes to be) is baseless and indefensible. And more than this, no man of the present age has reasoned out the foundations of man's belief in the existence of the "Infinite and Eternal Spirit" with such a depth of analysis and logical force as Herbert Spencer. He has sought to show that the "Infinite and Eternal Spirit," of which all the phenomena of the universe are but the manifestations, is the most absolute of all realities.

And still more than this is true. Mr. Spencer has gone beyond the theologians in their own line, and has rescued them from the consequences of their own logic. Every intelligent person knows that there has been a great progress in the religious ideas of mankind; and in nothing has that progress been so clearly evinced as in the gradual elevation of man's conceptions of the character of the deity he worships. During all the primitive ages, religion was idolatry, and still is so, almost all over the world. But with growing intelligence there slowly arises a higher idea of the Divine Nature. Polytheism passes into monotheism, and the gross, limited, anthropomorphic idea of God gives place to the loftier ideal of an "Infinite and Eternal Spirit." In this clearing away of limitations how far was the work to go, and what to he finally left? The theologians had been driving destructive criticism to its last extreme, with but little apparent care for the consequences. There grew up a vigorous ecclesiastical agnosticism, asserted even by the fathers of the Church. Clemens Alexandrinus (a. d. 200) says of God, "We know not what he is, but only what he is not." Cyril of Jerusalem (a. d. 350) affirms, "To know God is beyond man's power." St. Augustine (a. d. 400) observes, "Bare is the mind that in speaking of God knows what it means." John of Damascus (a. d. 800) declares, "What is the substance of God or how he exists in all things, we are agnostics, and can not say a word." Duns Scotus (a. d. 1300) remarks: "Is God accessible to our reason? I hold that he is not." This tendency to remove the Divine Nature beyond the grasp of reason, and to hold that "a God understood is no God at all," has grown in strength in modern times, and reached its full expression in the theological philosophy of Hamilton and Mansell, which landed inquiry upon this subject in blank negation. Finding that the "Infinite and Eternal Spirit" transcended and baffled all reason, they assumed that reason brings us to an infinite nothing, so that we have no alternative but to give up the idea of an Infinite Power, or fall back upon faith. Mr. Spencer strenuously resisted this conclusion. Ho maintained that the most inexorable logic brings us not to an Infinite Nothing, but to an Infinite Something; and, although this "Eternal Spirit" transcends the reach of reason, and is "past finding out," yet that its existence is the profoundest of all verities. Where the case broke down in the hands of the theological analysts, he insists that it is demonstrably the strongest. Whether he proves his case is not here the question; we only declare that such is his position, which is in dead antagonism to atheism. But it is proper to say that many of his able opponents acknowledge that Mr. Spencer has contributed new and powerful arguments for the existence of an "Infinite and Eternal Spirit." In the presence of these facts, well known to all who care to know, what shall we say of the veracity, the honor, or even the decency, of those who flippantly reiterate this groundless charge?

And it is important here still further to observe that Mr. Spencer is not a denier or antagonist of religion. He holds it to be a reality, a great truth; in short, nothing less than an essential and indestructible element of human nature. The religious institutions of the world, he maintains, represent a genuine and universal feeling in the race just as really as any other institutions. With the accessory superstitions which in all ages of ignorance have overgrown and perverted the religious sentiment, he is, of course, not in agreement; and he maintains that the confounding of these with the religious sentiment itself, is a mischievous mistake of religionists and anti-religionists alike. And he furthermore holds that science, in clearing away these superstitions, is bringing us ever nearer to the underlying truth, and is, therefore, doing the highest religious work. And, besides, in all his discussions of religious subjects, though bold, he is reverent, respectful to sincerity, tolerant of honest prejudice, and never wantonly irritating in the treatment of what ho regards as religious errors.

A line is to be hero drawn, clear and sharp, separating this mode of regarding religion from that which proclaims it to be a sham, an imposture, and a mere invention of priestcraft to cheat credulous people. Between him who believes that religion is a great and sacred reality, and him who denounces it root and branch, as a delusion originating in fraud and knavery, there can be no common ground. These are not the "same opinions," but diametrically opposite opinions. A criticism of religious errors, however trenchant it may be, if it gives the subject sincere and respectful consideration, is as different as any two things can be, from a spiteful, ruthless, and exasperating assault upon the religious sentiment of the community. And when these opinions are published for no other reason than to startle and shock the public by their audacity, and for no other than a sordid purpose, the case is still further aggravated. "The Popular Science Monthly" has left others to make what they might out of this policy.

The writer in the "Post" complains that we have not published the views of such men as the Duke of Argyll, to which we reply: 1. That we should have been glad to publish the Duke of Argyll's articles, but had no room for them. 2. That we started a supplement to make more room, and did publish the views of the Duke of Argyll. 3. That the papers of his Grace have been very widely reprinted in other channels, so that the public has experienced no inconvenience from the want of them. The "Monthly," we must remember, was established, not for the display of polemical pugilism, but for the serious purpose of placing before American readers the most important results of scientific thought as presented by its ablest expositors. So far, indeed, has it been from seeking sensational papers, that its main purpose was to publish a class of valuable scientific articles, which, because they are too heavy or will not pay, or conflict with public prejudices, were systematically excluded from our current magazines. While striving to make our pages as varied and attractive as possible, we have not sacrificed the character of the magazine to promote its pecuniary success We have maintained a steady course, our last issue is strictly in the lino of the first, and all the wide approbation that has been accorded us from the beginning is as applicable now as it ever was.

The "New York Observer," in commenting upon this subject, agrees with the writer in the "Post" that the "Monthly" is as bad as the "Review," if not worse, and it very plainly says: "We with thousands hope sincerely that the commendable course taken by the eminent publishers, in kicking the 'Review' out of their premises, will be followed in regard to the 'Monthly.' Or, what would be better still, let us hope the 'Monthly' will omit its atheistic teachings, and become such an organ of science as the great body of intelligent people will admit with confidence into their homes."

We have exploded the charge of the "Post" writer, here repeated, because he gave us his evidence, and we had something tangible to deal with. But the "Observer" scents atheism in everything scientific, and, if we began to expurgate in accordance with its notions, we should have to expunge the whole "Monthly." For does not the "Observer" hold evolution to be atheistic? And what would "The Popular Science Monthly" be, minus evolution? It is the new dispensation of scientific thought, cropping out everywhere, antiquating old views, affording new explanations, reorganizing knowledge, and guiding the researches of scientific men in every field of investigation. Those who do business on old opinions are in a great state of perturbation and distress about it. Some are for "giving in," some are for patching up compromises, and some for "fighting it out." Meanwhile the tide is carrying everything before it, and the confusion of the unready waxes grotesque. The foreign periodicals arrive monthly loaded with evolutionary discussions; and in the last "Contemporary Review" Calderwood, of Edinburgh, announces that even Hegelianism is but "dialectical evolution."

The "Observer" suggests that we make such a periodical "as the great body of intelligent people will admit with confidence to their homes." This sounds well, but what is it in a little plainer English? "Divest your 'Monthly' of every feature that can be objectionable to those who care a good deal more for theological than for scientific teachings, and who have a horror of all science as tending to infidelity. We should not be permitted to say a word of the progress of scientific thought, because hardly a step is taken anywhere that somebody with a dogma in that direction does not cry, "Halt, you destroyer of religion!" We indulge in no exaggeration. The "Observer" is authority here, and right above the article in which it recommends that the "Monthly" be kicked off the premises, we read, "Science forges weapons constantly to destroy faith." What kind of a scientific magazine would that he which should be suited to the state of mind of the dismal creatures who take such a view of science as this? We should rather take the "Observer's" alternative, and be kicked into the street, than to edit such a periodical.

The "Observer" accuses science of "forging weapons to destroy the faith"; but need we remind it that science destroys nothing but ignorance and error? Only where faith is the enemy of truth can science be the enemy of faith. Science is the best friend of faith, for only when it has destroyed all it may, can faith have any "abiding foundation." We are afraid that, when the "Observer" invokes the publishers' boot as a censor of science, it betrays some want of confidence in its own foundation. What shall we say of the security of a religious edifice built upon the basis of literal Old Testament history? But in the very next column to the article we are noticing, it is laid down: "A denial of the literal verity of the Old Testament history is the first step in modern infidelity."

No more complete or more mischievous mistake can be committed than to impute to the scientists of this age any hostility to religion as the motive of their labors. That the course of inquiry often conflicts with cherished tenets is undoubtedly true, and it is a painful fact; but to charge scientific men with any intention of inflicting this pain, or to make them responsible for it, is wholly unjust. The world has never seen in all its history a class of men more noble in purpose, more fair-minded, more candid, tolerant, or considerate, than the class of men who, in all countries, though with a common spirit, have devoted themselves to the truth—as it is in science. They have done their work with a single-mindedness, a freedom from partisan and sectarian passion, and an openness and uprightness of purpose, that find no parallel in any other great group of men engaged in the advancement of a common interest. These men are entitled to stand first in the respect and confidence of the community; and to accuse them of being animated in their study of nature by a desire to destroy religion, or to wound the feelings of religious people, is thoroughly unjustifiable.

"The Popular Science Monthly" is a record of the scientific activity of the age for the last ten years, and it reflects the breadth, the independence, and the catholicity of thought that distinguish the scientific men of our time. There may have been many things said in it which people with a formulated faith find objectionable; hut they are the results of honest and earnest thought, and the incidents of legitimate discussion, and must, therefore, he tolerated. Science can not work under the dictation of those interested to restrain it. Are men who make the supreme purpose of their lives the understanding of nature, to stop research into the laws of life, the genesis of species, the antiquity of man, the functions of the brain, the laws of social growth, or the natural history of superstitions, because there are many who, without ever studying these subjects, have views in relation to them which they do not wish disturbed? It is impossible. The great modern movement of the human mind which we call science is a part of evolving nature, and we have no liberty to do anything but represent it as faithfully as we are able.


The next volume of the "International Scientific Series," to be issued early in January, will be a work of such exceptional importance to various classes of thinkers, that we deem it proper to call especial attention to it in this place. It will be entitled "The Concepts and Theories of Modern Physics," and is written by Judge J. B. Stallo, of Cincinnati, author of a work, published many years ago, on "The Philosophy of Nature."

The book is a critical inquiry into the validity and sufficiency of what may be called our present scientific foundations. The author holds that the generally accepted hypothesis of the atomo-mechanical constitution of nature, and the various modern theories that grow out of it, are deeply tainted with metaphysical error; and his purpose has been to draw the line between legitimate science and illegitimate speculation. There is now no subject that more urgently needs to be cleared up than this.

The author says of his work: "Its tendency is throughout to eliminate from science its latent metaphysical elements, to foster and not to repress the spirit of experimental investigation, and to accredit instead of discrediting the great endeavor of scientific research to gain a sure foothold on solid empirical ground, where the real data of experience may be reduced without ontological prepossessions. An attentive perusal of these pages will make it clear, I think, that this endeavor is continually thwarted by the insidious intrusion into the meditations of the man of science of the old metaphysical spirit. This fact having been established, it was incumbent on me to ascertain, if possible, its causes and, within the narrow limits at my command, to develop its consequences. . . . What is here presented is not, of course, a new theory of the universe, or a novel system of philosophy. I have undertaken, not to solve all or any of the problems of cognition, but simply to show that some of them are in need of being stated anew so as to be rationalized, if not deepened."

Judge Stallo is a master of the field of modern physics, and the original views of his book are presented with great clearness and force. This volume will be one of the very ablest of the "International Scientific Series."