Popular Science Monthly/Volume 22/March 1883/Natural Religion II

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THE preliminary discussion of last month enables us to speak now more directly of the work on "Natural Religion." Its writer is clearly himself a believer in supernaturalism, if not as very tangible, yet as an underlying possibility. He begins by stating the problem before us: "Two opposite theories of the universe are in conflict. On the one side is the greatest of all affirmations, on the other the most fatal of all negations. There never yet was a controversy which was not trivial in comparison with this. It is cruel trifling to speak of compromise, it is waste of time to draw verbal distinctions." And then, after two hundred pages of verbal distinctions, many of which are really no better, a compromise is effected upon the basis of natural religion, which is also natural Christianity without its supernaturalism. But the writer has no wish to deceive either himself or his readers, and concludes, "Who will not say that a supernatural religion, supplementing a natural one, may be precious, nay, perhaps indispensable?" And indispensable he shows it to be, from his own point of view: "When the supernatural does not come in to overwhelm the natural and turn life upside down, when it is admitted that religion deals in the first instance with the known and the natural, then we may well begin to doubt whether the known and the natural can suffice for human life. No sooner do we try to think so, than pessimism raises its head. … A moral paralysis creeps upon us. … Supernatural Religion met this want by connecting Love and Righteousness with eternity. If it is shaken, how shall its place be supplied? And what would Natural Religion avail then?" We have, then, to remember that this attempt to establish a harmony between orthodoxy and the votaries of art and science, upon the minimum basis of a faith without a personal God and without miracles, is a compromise honestly offered by one who himself apparently still cherishes these beliefs. It is a fair attempt to arrive at some understanding by sinking out of sight the points upon which people differ, and by bringing into prominence their points of agreement.

As I suppose that most of my readers have either read this book or intend to do so, anything like a full account of its contents here will be unnecessary. It will not, however, be out of place to attempt a slight sketch of its general argument and conclusions. Our author begins by pointing to the divinity of nature as the common ground between Christianity and science. The real issue is not between theism and atheism, for science is in a very real sense a theology, and believers in nature have many of the feelings of Christians for their deity. Thus, we have a natural theology; it will widen into a natural religion, when the science of the relation of the universe to human ideals has grown up; and this science, upon a purely natural basis, is fast constructing itself. Defining worship as "habitual and permanent admiration," he sees nothing to fear in the gospels of art and humanity. Just as the gospel of science is an allotropic form of mediæval theology, so is the gospel of art the revival of Greek paganism under altered conditions, and the gospel of humanity that of Christianity. Each is, to some individuals, a faith in itself, because it lifts them above mere materialism, above conventionalism, above the ordinary run of men; in short, above what our author calls, boldly, atheism. "An atheist, in the proper sense of the word," he writes, "is not a man who disbelieves in the goodness of God, or in His distinctness from Nature, or in His personality. These disbeliefs may be as serious in their way as atheism, but they are different. Atheism is a disbelief in the existence of God—that is, a disbelief in any regularity in the Universe to which a man must conform himself under penalties." The religion of the future must combine all three worships. In the individual the results will be practically equivalent to culture, in the aggregate to civilization. The ideal of antiquity was one of separate nationalities, with separate religions; the ideal of the middle ages was an imperial state and a catholic church. The two ideals will be combined in the church and state of the future. The writer points out very clearly the connection between the spirit of nationality and the spirit of religion. The church of the future will be missionary, carrying its faith into uncivilized Asia and Africa; it will be undogmatic, it may even be without a temple, but it will not be without worship, for we have objects for this in nature on its various sides. He thus takes occasion to correct a very common misconception with regard to nature:

"It is often said that, when you substitute Nature for God, you take a thing heartless and pitiless instead of love and goodness. Undoubtedly much less of love and goodness can be discovered in Nature than Christians see in God. But when it is said that there are no such qualities in Nature, that Nature consists of relentless and ruthless laws, that Nature knows nothing of forgiveness, and inexorably exacts the utmost penalty for every transgression, a confusion is made between two different meanings which may be given to the word Nature. We are concerned here with Nature as opposed to that which is above Nature, not with Nature as opposed to man. We use it as a name comprehending all the uniform laws of the Universe as known in our experience, and excluding such laws as are inferred from experiences so exceptional and isolated as to be difficult of verification. In this sense Nature is not heartless or unrelenting; to say so would be equivalent to saying that pity and forgiveness are in all cases supernatural. It may be true that the law of gravitation is quite pitiless, that it will destroy the most innocent and amiable person with as little hesitation as the wrong-doer. But there are other laws which are not pitiless. There are laws under which human beings form themselves into communities, and set up courts in which the claims of individuals are weighed with careful skill. There are laws under which churches and philanthropical societies are formed, under which misery is sought out and relieved, and every evil that can be discovered in the world is redressed. Nature, in the sense in which we are now using the word, includes humanity, and therefore, so far from being pitiless, includes all the pity that belongs to the whole human family, and all the pity that they have accumulated and, as it were, capitalized in institutions, political, social, and ecclesiastical, through countless generations" (pp. 65, 06).

The writer thus looks upon natural theology as the "true deduction of the laws that govern the universe," as the "science of the relation of the universe to human ideals," and the following are some of the questions that it has to answer: "Is there a reward for virtue? Is there a condensation for undeserved misery? Is there a sure retribution for crime?. . . In one word, is life worth having, and the Universe a habitable place for one in whom the sense of duty has been awakened?" (p. 61). On the other hand, natural religion is "worship of whatever in the known Universe appears worthy of worship," it "is no mere dull morality, for in the first place it is far wider than any morality, being as wide as modern culture, and in the second place, so far as it is moral and bears fruit in morality, even here it is no mere morality, but an historic religion of humanity" (p. 172). It is "the principle by which alone life is redeemed from secularity and animalism." "Thus, instead of saying that the substance of religion is morality, and the effect of it moral goodness, we lay it down that the substance of religion is culture, and the fruit of it the higher life" (p. 138).

The strong point of such a system as this lies in its fully recognizing the facts of spiritual development that the review of the past thirty years reveals, viz.: that the religion of the churches is but one among other religions of the present day; that the work, heretofore done by religion, in raising the general tone of life, is now really being accomplished by the separate influences that are summed up in what we call modern civilization. But along with religion in the old sense went something more. Part of its charm lay in the light it threw on the darkness which encompassed men's lives. "So seems the life of man," said one of the early English converts to Christianity, "as a sparrow's flight through the hall when you are sitting at meat in winter-tide, with the warm fire lighted on the hearth, but the icy rainstorm without. The sparrow flies in at one door, and tarries for a moment in the light and heat of the hearth-fire, and then flying forth from the other vanishes into the wintry dankness whence it came. So tarries for a moment the life of man in our sight, but what is before it, what after it, we know not. If this new teaching tells us aught certainly of these, let us follow it." Thus religion acquired part of its hold on the minds of men by ministering to their growing desire for knowledge. But the completion of knowledge only leads to the realization of our own ignorance, and the gospel of science with regard to the Unknowable is but the echo of the words of Hooker, that "our soundest knowledge is to know that we know him not as indeed he is, neither can know him, and our safest eloquence concerning him is our silence."

The chief objection that any naturalistic scheme of religion has to encounter comes from those who, applying the language of jurisprudence to every-day life, urge that the three terms, command, duty, and sanction, are inseparably connected; that command and duty are correlative terms; that, wherever a duty lies, a command has been signified. Such arguers refuse to recognize in a religion without some supreme will constraining a religion at all. Thus Canon Liddon[1] calls religion "essentially a relation to a person. . . . Religion consists fundamentally in the practical recognition of a constraining bond between the inward life of man and an unseen Person; . . . the maintenance of a real relation with the personal God, or with a Divine Person really incarnate in Jesus Christ." The same objection appears in a slightly altered form in pages of the London "Spectator," in the course of a discussion upon natural religion, suggested by the work before us:

"We do not differ from this able writer in thinking that there is such a thing as 'natural religion,' but we do differ from him when he asserts there is such a thing for one who declines, or is unable, to discover in the universe traces of a superphysical, we would rather say, than a supernatural, Power—that is, traces of a power to mold and modify that in nature which is physical, in the direction and for the purposes of that in nature which is not physical, but mental and moral. There is no end of 'natural religion' in the mere discovery of human free-will, for that is the discovery that the adamantine chain of physical necessity has been and is interrupted by the will of man itself—a discovery utterly inconsistent with the favorite scientific view. There is no end of 'natural religion' in the discovery of conscience, that there is a moral obligation on us to do this rather than that—an obligation from which it is simply impossible to escape, without bringing on ourselves an unappeasable remorse, and a sense of conscious unworthiness from which it is impossible to dissociate the conviction of invisible condemnation and displeasure. There is no end of natural Christianity in the discovery that Christ is an ideal infinitely and hopelessly above and beyond us, and yet full of power to draw us upward, if we will, toward himself. But there is, to our minds, nothing worthy of the name of natural religion or natural Christianity at all that does not promise us guidance and excite in us trust. . . . The author of 'Ecce Homo' seems to us content to find a natural religion in that which is neither natural nor religious—not natural, because, in spite of the paradox, it is in the highest sense natural to man to lean on something beyond Nature; not religious, because religion means something which is binding, something which we can not in our hearts defy, and we can in our hearts defy any power which only threatens us with extinction, and does not threaten us with inextinguishable remorse."

We may pass over the first objection to natural religion, viz., that it is not natural, because the argument appears a mere play upon words. Natural religion is called so because it differs from supernatural religion; because it is the religion that is deducible solely from the course of Nature, from the observance of the laws that govern the world in which we live. But it is also objected that the religion inculcated by civilization without supernaturalism is one that is not binding, one which ice can in our hearts defy.

But are virtue, truth, and love less realities in life because we have dissociated from them the mythology in which they were originally bodied forth to the primitive mind—the clothes which were originally wrapped around them? Listen to the eloquent words of a recent writer: "We must suffer with Christ whether we believe in Him or not. We must suffer for the sin of others as for our own, and in this suffering we find a healing and purifying power and element. This is what gives to Christianity, in its simplest and most unlettered form, its force and life. Sin and suffering for sin; a sacrifice, itself mysterious, offered mysteriously to the Divine Nemesis, or Law of Sin—dread, undefined, unknown, yet sure and irresistible, with the iron necessity of law. . . . Virtue, truth, love, are not mere names; they stand for actual qualities which are well known and recognized among men. These qualities are the elements of an ideal life, of that absolute and perfect life of which our highest culture can catch but a glimpse. As Mr. Hobbes has traced the individual man up to the perfect state, or Civitas, let us work still lower, and trace the individual man from small origins to the position he at present fills. We shall find that he has attained any position of vantage he may occupy by following the laws which our instinct and conscience tell us are Divine."[2]

Yes! these laws are divine—not because we can see the legislator, not because they were supported in the past by supernaturalism; but because they rest upon our subjective consciousness, supported by science, by poetry, and the history of the life of man upon the earth; because they are vouched for by voices, of the wise in all ages, and because they have become part of ourselves. And we have to obey these laws, not because we fear punishment in another would, but because the violation of them is followed by remorse and disaster in this; we have to do right, because it is right, because we can only attain the full perfection of our natures by doing so, because humanity will have it so. Mr. Mallock pointed out that, while science has reduced the earth to insignificance, has robbed it of its glory as the center of the universe, and man of his boasted eminence as the special pet of the Creator, still an intense self-consciousness has been developed in the modern world. "During the last few generations man has been curiously changing. Much of his old spontaneity of action has gone from him. He has become a creature looking before and after, and his native hue of resolution has been sicklied over by thought." True, and with this increase of self-consciousness have increased the binding force of the subjective feelings upon which right and wrong depend; we expect more of ourselves, and we expect more of our fellow-men. "Three hundred years before" (I am quoting again from Mr. Shorthouse), "in the child-like unconsciousness of spiritual conflict which the unquestioned rule of Rome for so long produced, it had been possible, in the days of Boccaccio, for cultivated and refined society to shut itself up in some earthly paradise, and, surrounded by horrors and by death, to spend its days in light wit and anecdote, undisturbed in mind, and kept in bodily health by cheerful enjoyment; but the time for such possibilities as these had long gone by." And if this was true of life in the seventeenth century, as compared with the fourteenth, with how much greater force does it apply to life in the nineteenth century!

I will approach the same subject from another point of view. It is possible to allow—in fact, it is impossible to deny—that conscience has not lost its force, notwithstanding the apparent weakening of the supernaturalism to which it has been usual to ascribe its origin and binding force. But the necessity of recognizing some supreme personal will is often urged as a mental necessity, at least as a convenient theory. If the Supreme Being did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him. We can often see our own fallacies in a clearer light by comparing them with modes of thought in the past, now recognized to be no longer sound. And this struck me very forcibly the other day when I was reading Dante's pleading for the maintenance of the supreme power of the emperor in the middle ages. These arguments, I thought, in the "Be Monarchia," are exactly the arguments we hear urged every day in favor of the existence of a personal will in the government of the universe. Yet it may be possible that, as society has managed to exist and to improve without the existence of the former, so our moral and religious life will continue practically unaltered without the conscious recognition of the latter. I will illustrate by extracts.

Dante points out what may be called the physical necessity for a single monarch: "Since the whole heaven is regulated with one motion, to wit, that of the primum mobile, and by one mover, who is God, in all its parts, movements, and movers (and this human reason readily seizes from science); therefore, if our argument be correct, the human race is at its best state when, both in its movements and in regard to those who move it, it is regulated by a single Prince, as by the single movement of heaven, and by one law, as by a single motion. Therefore, it is evidently necessary for the welfare of the world for there to be a Monarchy, a single Princedom, which men call the Empire."[3]

In the same manner he shows that justice and order depend upon the stability of the imperial power: "Justice is strongest in the world when it is in one who is most willing and most powerful; only the Monarch is this; therefore, only when Justice is in the Monarch is it strongest in the world. . . . All concord depends on unity which is in wills; the human race, when it is at its best, is a kind of concord; for as one man at his best is a kind of concord, and as the like is true of the family, the city, and the kingdom; so is it of the whole human race. Therefore, the human race at its best depends on the unity which is in will. But this can not be unless there be one will to be the single mistress and regulating influence of all the rest. And this can not be unless there is one prince over all, whose will shall be the mistress and regulating influence of all the others. But if all these conclusions be true, as they are, it is necessary for the highest welfare of the human race that there should be a Monarch in the world; and, therefore, Monarchy is necessary for the good of the world."[4]

It is curious to remark that for a moment Dante seems to have caught sight of the modern point of view in regard to supreme power in the political and religious world. He is arguing against the mediaeval symbolism which saw in the sun and moon the types of the two great powers on earth: "Seeing that these two kinds of power are, in a sense, accidents of men, God would tints appear to have used a perverted order, by producing the accidents before the essence to which they belong existed." In the same way we should argue, extending the terms, that before the essential point of government in the political and religious world, viz., order and morality, became distinctly conscious in the minds of men, their accidents, the divine state and the divine Church, came into being. This view, however, he summarily rejects: "It is ridiculous to say this of God. For the two great lights were created on the fourth day, while man was not created till the sixth day, as is evident in the text of Scripture."[5]

The real secret of the persistence of the supernatural in an age of science is the tacit allowance that "what can not be demonstrated by observation not to exist may be taken as existing for purposes of edification."[6] For many years to come we shall probably continue to meet in the same communities with what would at first appear to be strange inconsistencies. Thus, at the end of August, Montreal was welcoming with open arms the high-priests of the new faith, the leaders of the American scientific world. Little more than a fortnight afterward, they were expressing their devout gratitude to the Giver of all good for enabling British soldiers to crush the wretched Egyptian, and add to the luster and renown of British arms.[7] And to those who have faith in the future of humanity, in the eventual evolution of a verifiable and complete science of life, such a mixture of the strands of religious consciousness will cause no uneasiness. For just as the earliest scientific psychology cheerfully recognized the two sides of the human mind the—rational and the irrational—as equally necessary, equally human, so in an altered sense we may say that the religion of humanity, as it springs from the human heart, must not only take cognizance of its justifiable aspirations, but of those hopes and fears also which in a strict sense of the word we might be tempted to call irrational, as in no sense founded on reason, if not in direct antagonism with it. Yet, we are not, for all that, obliged to postulate an essence above and beyond human reason, as the cause of these emotions and sentiments. Rather, they are the gropings of the human spirit in its efforts—efforts ever to be renewed and ever baffled—to comprehend the Unknowable. "Poor men, most admirable, most pitiable," cries "A Voice from the Nile"

". . . man
Has fear and hope and fantasy and awe
And wistful yearnings and unsated loves
That strain beyond the limits of his life,
And therefore Gods and Demons, Heaven and Hell;
This Man, the admirable, the pitiable."'

And therefore, we may add, recognizing the fact as fully as the adherents of the old faith, therefore does man differ from the other animals. But none the less are we bound to recognize also that in this special sphere, in religion, whose function it was to raise men above themselves by raising their thoughts to something higher than themselves, the center of gravity, so to speak, has changed. To the ancient mind, the highest truth lay in the region of idea; to the modern mind, in the world of fact. The religion of men in the middle ages was their poetry, their science, their consolation for the ills of life; it made mankind better, but did not consciously aim at making the world a better place to dwell in; their eyes were turned to a resting-place above, for which life on earth was at best a school of discipline. The supposition upon which these beliefs rested, "that our living nature will continue after death,"[8] we can rest upon with confidence no longer—it is at best but an aspiration; and our religion is nothing if it does not aim at the improvement of the world in which we live, if it does not ground itself upon a basis of fact. Yet, even so, the best advice is probably that of the great master of human wisdom, who,

living long years ago before the hubbub of Christian and anti-Christian controversy, exhorted us not to follow the advice of those who bid us tame down our aspirations to our mortal condition, but as far as possible to think the thoughts of immortals, and to live in our every act up to the noblest part within us.[9]

  1. "Some Elements of Religion."
  2. "John Inglesant," chapters xxiii, xxxix.
  3. De Monarchia," Book I, chap. ix.
  4. "De Monarchia," Book I, chaps, xi-xv.
  5. Ibid., Book III, chap. iv.
  6. Leslie Stephen.
  7. On September 16th a resolution was passed by a public meeting of the citizens of Montreal, expressing "devoted loyalty to her Majesty's crown and Government," and resolving that "we express our devout gratitude to Almighty God, the Giver of all good, for the brilliant successes granted to the British arms in Egypt; that we rejoice that our forces have by their courage and devotion added to the luster and renown which British valor has achieved in all quarters of the globe." The resolutions "were all carried unanimously, amid enthusiastic cheering."
  8. Butler's "Analogy," conclusion to Part I.
  9. Aristotle's "Nic. Ethics," Book X, chap, vii, § 8.