The Tyranny of Shams/Chapter X
THE CLERICAL SHAM
Throughout the preceding chapters there have been resentful or disdainful references to the Churches, and it may be suspected that, in assailing other people’s prejudices, I have cherished and proceeded upon the anti-clerical prejudice. A very cursory examination will, however, suffice to show that these criticisms were sound and pertinent, and are not due to some mysterious antipathy to the profession to which I once belonged. Few of those ugly or mischievous traditions which form what I have called the smothering ash in the intellectual activity of the nation have not the general support of the clergy. Few of the reforms here suggested do not meet their hostility. They constitute one of the most injurious conservative forces in modern life. Their bodies are strewn over the whole battlefield of the nineteenth century, and not one in a thousand of them fought on the side of progress. The esteem in which they are still widely held and the pretexts by which they guard this esteem are the last, and by no means the least, of those shams which hamper our advance and distract our energy.
A full and detailed indictment of the clergy would fill several columns, and I must confine myself here to two or three considerations which are at once sufficiently drastic and easily demonstrable. I will therefore be content to show:
1. That the clergy claim and receive a large measure of public confidence on the ground that they are the guardians of the most sacred and beneficent truths, yet impose on the less educated masses a preposterous collection of untruths, or statements which many of their own scholars, and most lay scholars, regard as untrue.
2. That the clergy pose as the most sensitive and effective custodians of our morals, yet their procedure is unjust, spiteful, and deceptive to an extent which would not be tolerated in any lay profession.
3. That the clergy represent that their creed civilised Europe and is necessary for the maintenance of its civilisation, yet their influence and their ideas retarded the evolution of European civilisation for centuries, and retard it to-day wherever they have sufficient power or are immune from weighty criticism.
In enumerating the untruths which are still imposed by the clergy, I will not linger over the Old Testament. When you censure them to-day for attaching a sacred value to this collection of ancient Jewish literature, they are apt to reply that your criticism is forty years out of date. Every educated clergyman, they exclaim, now acknowledges that the Old Testament is a mixture of Babylonian legends, primitive tribal traditions, and moral literature of a naive and very interesting description. Whether this statement is true or no I must leave to the judgment of those who have a closer acquaintance with the modern clergy. Only two years ago I was persuaded, in an idle hour on a liner, to listen to a sermon delivered by a young clergyman who had just issued, with honours, from a highly modern Wesleyan college. It was on the miracles of Moses in the wilderness—ingeniously relieved by references to such other miracles as the appearance of a cross to Constantine—and accepted them as literally as did Peter the Hermit. Religious periodicals and books and parish-magazines suggest that there is a good deal still of this medieval credulity; or that, at least, the number of “educated clergymen” must be somewhat restricted. But let us accept the assurance that the educated clergy do accept the Old Testament at its true historical value. In which case we must be content to express our surprise that no clergyman seems to have the least scruple about imposing these things on young children, and rustic congregations, and less cultivated races—than which there is no more cowardly form of untruth: and that some of the most notoriously unreliable and barbaric pages of the Old Testament are read, Sunday by Sunday, as “the word of God” in all the Christian Churches of the world, under the official orders of every ecclesiastical authority in the world.
However, since these cultivated ecclesiastics smile at our criticism of the Old Testament, and see nothing improper in a deception of the ignorant, of which any body of professional laymen would be incapable, let us turn to the New Testament. It is always useful to consider the attitude of the clergy in its historical perspective. A hundred years ago they were defending against the Deists the absolute truthfulness of the Old Testament. Christ had promised the Holy Spirit to the Church: the Holy Spirit could not possibly tolerate untruth: therefore the teaching of the Church for sixteen centuries must be right. Within two generations they have, in a great number, abandoned the inerrancy of the Old Testament, without abandoning the Holy Spirit. It seems only the other day when Cardinal Newman pleaded wistfully that we were not compelled, under pain of eternal damnation, to believe that Tobit’s dog did really wag its tail. However, outside Scotland clergymen do seem to be free to form their own opinions on such allegations as that a whale swallowed a man and housed him for three days. But in thus admitting that “inspiration” was consistent with error, they have put the New Testament also in the hand of the critic.
It is well to remember, too, that this modern criticism of the Bible is conducted almost entirely by divines. The average churchgoer has an impression that these terrible people who are known as “the Higher Critics” are anti-clerical laymen: possibly lascivious gentlemen whose real ambition is to undermine the salutary discipline imposed by the Churches. They are, of course, on the contrary, nearly all ordained clergymen, and very conscientious clergymen, of some branch of the Church. Rationalists never criticise the Bible. It has become a branch of theological scholarship. I once—having been challenged by the local clergyman, who promptly disappeared when I arrived—gave a lecture on the divinity of Christ to an audience of Presbyterian artisans, and assured them that the views and arguments I put before them were taken solely from the works of distinguished and highly honoured theologians. Their amazement and horror were most amusing. They had not the dimmest idea that controversy on these points lay merely between advanced and not-advanced members of the Christian clergy; and that their local oracle had, in effect, merely been imposing on them the opinions of the less learned divines in opposition to the more learned.
And this fact dispenses me from the need to drag the reader into the somewhat tiring labyrinth of proof and disproof which these warring theologians have constructed. Nothing could be further from my mind than the presumptuous and immodest wish to brand the clergy as dishonest, and their beliefs as superstitious, because I happen to regard those beliefs as false. Let the position be clearly understood. A study of the Hibbert Journal or any scholarly theological periodical, or of any batch of learned theological works, will apprise any person that what are ordinarily conceived to be the fundamental positions of the Christian religion are challenged by a large proportion of distinguished divines. Pleas of “reconstruction” are constantly put before us; and at the Church of England Congress in 1912 it was plainly decided by the presiding Archbishop of York that the “advanced” theologians had a legitimate place in the Church. It is not a question of a few controverted points in the scheme of Christian doctrine. No point that is specifically Christian is left unchallenged. The divinity and miracles—especially the miraculous birth and resurrection—of Christ, the prophecies, the doctrine of heaven and hell, the divine guidance of the Church, the fall and redemption of man—all these characteristic doctrines are gravely disputed within the frontiers of the Churches themselves, wherever freedom of expression is permitted.
One would prefer to rely on theologians only in such a matter, but for my purpose it is not immaterial to add that outside the ranks of the clergy scholarship is overwhelmingly against these doctrines. There has been a good deal of unsubstantial talk about the beliefs of living men of intellectual eminence, but resolute efforts have been made of late years to wring from them a profession of Christian belief, and the result has been so meagre that my statement is fully justified. A large number declare that they are on the side of “religion.” But one has only to reflect that even Sir Oliver Lodge warmly professes to be a Christian—and is, in fact, welcomed to read the lessons in church—to see how little is conveyed by such expressions. The supreme effort of the Churches to secure adhesions of this kind is probably found in Mr. Tabrum’s Religious Beliefs of Scientists (1910), and a study of that extraordinary jumble of the living and the dead, the distinguished and the obscure, the really believing Christians and the men who are notoriously not, will convince any person of the failure of the Churches to obtain the literal adhesion of even a respectable proportion of our distinguished men: not men of science merely—it is a stupid error to suppose that the decay of faith is more or less confined to them—but men of eminence in any department of research or intellectual life. Not one in ten of them, in any educated country of the Christian world to-day, has ever professed a belief in the doctrines or statements I have enumerated; and vague professions of a regard for religion do not concern me here.
Now I am, as I said, not passing any personal opinion on these Christian teachings: I am merely drawing attention to their position in modern life. The uncultivated masses and the body of the clergy who preach to these masses accept the miraculous birth, death, resurrection, and all the rest, quite implicitly. Here and there one finds a preacher who dissents; I am speaking of the mass. At the middle level of mental culture, among both clergy and laity, dissent becomes much more frequent. At the highest level of theological scholarship it would be fair to say that the dissenters are almost, if not quite, as numerous as the believers; and at the higher level of lay culture, where opinions may be more freely formed and expressed, the dissenters are the overwhelming majority. These men may be theists or agnostics or Christians in the broader sense of the word, but the great majority of them do not believe in these distinctively Christian doctrines. Yet the Churches, wherever they are not kept in check by this critical element, invest these doctrines with the most sacred and confident character: stamp them as unquestioned truths on the minds of children and uneducated people, and put them forward as their official and authoritative doctrines. Nay, there is hardly a theologian in any church who does not, when Christmas and Easter annually occur, lend his official and most solemn countenance to these discarded or disputed traditions.
This would not, could not, be done in any branch of lay culture. One may justly insist on one’s opinion in any disputed theme, but what would be the attitude of our leaders of culture if any authoritative historian, philosopher, or scientist attempted to impose on the inexpert, as an unquestioned truth, some older opinion which a large proportion of the expert regarded as false or questionable? What would they say to a responsible teacher in one of these branches of lay culture who read certain statements to those who trusted him, and said within his own mind: “This is what people thought a thousand years ago”? A clergyman told me that it was with this mental reservation that he read the creeds and gospels on Sundays. What would a philosopher, or historian, or scientist say, if his department of culture were an organic association with a public and authoritative teaching, and this public teaching contained statements which a large proportion of the leading representatives regarded as false? And what would he say to any colleagues who urged him to allow these things to stand because a change might lessen the respect of the general public for their authority?
This situation reflects gravely on the character of Christian ministers. One need not attempt the futile task of estimating what proportion of the clergy believe the things they teach, but we are constantly receiving proof, especially posthumous proof, that large numbers of them do not. I have been severely rebuked for suggesting such a thing, but when I find a group of young Oxford divines saying plumply, in an important recent work (Foundations), that Christian theology is “out of harmony with science, philosophy, and scholarship,” I can only say that I trust a sufficient number of the clergy are educated enough to know it. The majority of the clergy are, however, sufficiently ignorant of “science, philosophy, and scholarship” to be in good faith, and one ought not to press the indictment in this sense. At sea I listen occasionally, from some safe distance, to sermons, and am amazed that even a fair proportion of the passengers can sit with grave faces during the delivery of such empty and ignorant vapourings. One reflects that all over the Christian world priests are similarly dogmatising on the most profound problems of life, and not one in a thousand of them has an elementary knowledge of those branches of modern research which a public guide ought to command. It is not the decay, but the survival, of churchgoing that perplexes one.
There is, however, another aspect of the matter which requires serious attention. There have been, from the earliest ages of the Christian Church, men of superior intelligence and independent character who refused to submit to the dictation of the clergy. There is no need to recall how the clergy dealt with them. Christian ministers have in this regard the most abominable record in the whole history of civilised religion. Some day it will be put side by side with that of the priests of Saturn or of Quetzalcotl, who offered human sacrifices. All that need be noted here is the effrontery with which modern clerical writers defend their predecessors. If the principles on which they base their defence are valid, they would again be compelled to burn heretics if they obtained power. The Church of Rome is bold enough to acknowledge this. Huxley tells how his distinguished Catholic friend, Dr. J. Ward, warmly assented to this, but we have had since then a more authoritative indication. A work of Canon Law which was published at Rome under the “enlightened” rule of Leo XIII., and with his emphatic personal approval—the Institutiones Juris Canonici of Father de Luca—proves at length the duty of the Church to put to death heretics.
However, we will not waste rhetoric over the past or over an impossible future. What policy have the modern clergy, who are unable to induce the State to burn dissenters, substituted for that of their predecessors? A policy that is, to a very great extent, unjust, spiteful, and dishonourable: a policy that, in the very name of truth, is marked by a more flagrant indifference to truth than you will find in any other reputable department of modern life.
The first feature of this policy will be seen by any generally informed person who will take the trouble to read a batch of religious works or periodicals. He will find numbers of statements of the most amazing inaccuracy. It is, no doubt, an exceptional thing for a clerical writer to make a statement which is, to his conscious knowledge, untrue. The very suggestion seems prejudiced, but is there a vast difference between imposing official untruths on ignorant congregations and supporting these untruths by others? The constant repetition of these ancient and discredited formulæ does not induce a very punctilious temper in regard to truth. If it is quite lawful to repeat from the Old or the New Testament historical statements which are not true or are gravely disputed, why not other historical statements which have got into ecclesiastical currency?
Usually, however, the attitude of the writer seems to be one of culpable indifference to the truth or untruth of the statements he makes. He finds in some previous writer a statement which supports his case, and he reproduces it without inquiry. If he were a mere layman, engaged in some branch of profane culture, he would not dare to repeat, without further inquiry, statements which he found made in his own sectarian interest by men of no high authority or original scholarship. The clergy, however, do this habitually, and one is compelled to conclude that they are more or less indifferent about the truth of their assertions, if those assertions are favourable to religion. Just as I write the press reports Dr. R. F. Horton telling a congregation that a British regiment was saved at Mons by the appearance of a legion of angels, and assuring his audience that this silly myth is “repeated by so many witnesses that if anything can be established by contemporary evidence it is established.” The story has gone the round of our pulpits and religious press.
I am speaking, however, from a particularly wide experience of religious literature. For thirty years—ten years as a clerical student or professor, and twenty years as an interested observer of religious controversy—I have devoted much time to books and journals of this kind, and I repeat that there is no other branch of literature so flagrantly inaccurate and unscrupulous. A religious periodical (The Christian World, 20th August 1903), in the course of an editorial on “Candour in the Pulpit” (meaning lack of candour in the pulpit), said: “A foremost modern theologian, by no means of the radical school, has recorded his significant judgment that one of the main characteristics of apologetic literature is its lack of honesty; and no one who has studied theology can doubt that it has suffered more than any other science from equivocal phraseology.” When a journal which has to consult the feelings of a large backward clientele uses this language, we may conclude that the situation is really bad. In fact, not even political journalism betrays such gross carelessness as to the truth of the statements with which it assails its opponents. “The more sacred our ideas are, the more savagely we fight for them,” said Mr. Chesterton, defending the Inquisition. Mr. Chesterton’s own genial method (except that one recognises the taint in his Victorian Age in Literature) disproves his aphorism. There is not the slightest excuse for the gross procedure of religious writers.
I have in various works and articles given hundreds of examples of this procedure, and will be content to deal summarily with two of the chief types of misrepresentation—those relating to history and those relating to science. The classical examples in history are the clerical legends about the morality of the pagans. Here the clerical lie goes on its way from age to age without the slightest regard of the progress of historical research. Discoveries in the ruins (such as the Hammurabi Code, temple-literature, etc.) and a closer scrutiny of the sources used by the Greek historian Herodotus have made it quite clear that the old Mesopotamian civilisations were comparable to ours in moral sentiment and practice. Instead of women having to sacrifice their virginity in the temples at Babylon, we have abundant evidence that chastity was demanded and valued in brides, and that the priests insisted on purity. Every other moral sentiment was equally developed. We find the same high moral development in Egypt. All this is disregarded, and the superiority of the Hebrew and Christian sacred books is maintained by a resolute propagation of ancient fables.
In regard to Greece and Rome the practice is even worse. The exceptional features of their life are described as normal and general features, and the very abundant literature which has put in its true light the character of Athens and Rome is completely ignored. Special periods of vice under bad emperors (who, in the aggregate, ruled only seventy years out of three hundred and twenty) are spread over the whole of Roman history. The gossip and democratic rhetoric of Juvenal are pressed literally, in spite of the judgment of all serious historians. The works which exhibit the better side of Rome, and the inscriptions which show a very high degree of character and humanitarianism under the Stoics, are wholly suppressed. The balanced verdict of modern historians is scandalously flouted. At all costs it must be shown that Europe needed regeneration, and that Christian morality was far superior to pagan; and so the clergy continue, in spite of protests from some of their own lay scholars (Emil Reich, for instance), to draw a flagrantly untruthful picture of the morals of Greece and Rome.
But this misrepresentation is venial in comparison with the misrepresentation of later European history. The clerical story of the moral change that came over Europe when it embraced Christianity is one of the grossest impostures ever laid on the human mind. Even clerics like Dean Milman sufficiently refuted it decades ago, but it flourishes as profitably as ever. From the pulpit of St. Paul’s to the tin chapels of Mudville it is one of the most treasured traditions, and perhaps no picture is more familiar to Christian audiences than that of Rome, drunk with its vices, reeling to the foot of the cross and embracing sobriety. It is a calculated clerical myth in every line. The Stoics reformed Rome at a time when the Christians were a mere handful of obscure people, and the magnificent work done and institutions set up by the Stoics were not sustained by the Church. Even in regard to the persecutions the clergy still repeat the legend which modern historians recognise as based on a mass of medieval forgeries. Civilisation sank rapidly until it touched the depth of the early Middle Ages, and, as Milman candidly recognised, the claim that at least virtue increased is the reverse of the truth. The Church did not denounce or abolish slavery: it discouraged education: it abased woman: it set back a thousand years the development of culture. Yet our clerical writers repeat the medieval falsehoods as fluently as if modern history did not exist.
The later period is just as grossly falsified by Catholic writers, but here the Protestant—who has somehow convinced himself that the Holy Spirit abandoned Europe to the devil for a thousand years—begins to cry for candour. Much of the Protestant literature is uncritical and unscrupulous in its use of authorities; it is, however, instructive in comparison with the kind of history purveyed by the “Catholic Truth Society.” There is hardly a candid historian in the Church, even in Germany and the United States. The latest historian of the Papacy, Dr. L. Pastor, is certainly entitled to respect for his effort, though even he does not present all the facts; while men like Cardinal Gasquet are appallingly one-sided. I am, however, thinking mainly of the “popular” literature, on which no stricture could be too severe. Indeed, when it comes to the modern period, both Protestant and Catholic literature is scandalous. One often finds Voltaire, Rousseau, and Paine described as “atheists,” and the most slovenly observations on the Revolution. Roosevelt’s description of Paine as a “dirty little atheist” is a good indication of the kind of literature that even an educated religious man may read.
On the scientific side the inaccuracy and carelessness are just as great, but the field is too vast for consideration here. The conflict in regard to evolution has produced an extraordinary literature on the clerical side, and, to the amusement of students of science, it still flows from the religious press and refreshes suburban faith. Men who have never devoted a month to the study of science engage in conflict with the most authoritative masters of biology, and thrill their ignorant followers with the vigour and dexterity of their fencing. These Jesuit and other writers have, of course, set up a lay-figure for their valiant attacks. They misrepresent the views and motives of the man they oppose, give garbled quotations from his works, and support their own antiquated positions by quotations from scientific men who lived in the earlier phases of the controversy. No trick is more common in this class of literature than to justify obsolete statements by quoting “authorities” who died long ago, and leaving the inexpert reader to suppose that they are modern men of science; while clerics who could not distinguish a palaeolithic from a civilised skull write pompous essays on such subjects as the evolution of man. Works of this kind circulate by the hundred in the churches even to-day, literally deluding millions of people, while the works of more expert writers are denounced as “against religion” and unfit to read.
Still more flagrant is the clerical behaviour in rebutting the general belief that men of science have for the most part abandoned Christianity. They—with the support of a man like Sir O. Lodge—talk glibly of the death of “Victorian materialism” and the rebirth of spiritualism; whereas Huxley, Tyndall, Spencer, Darwin, Clifford, Lewes, and every other Victorian man of science repudiated materialism. When you ask who the modern men are who have abandoned the views of the Huxleian generation and come to favour religion, they produce an extraordinarily confused list of names. I have referred to their magnum opus in this department, Tabrum’s Religious Beliefs of Scientists. It actually includes two prominent members of the Rationalist Press Association; while men like Lodge and Wallace and Crookes are included among the more orthodox. Of late years it is the fashion to impress ignorant congregations with the names of W. James, Eucken, and Bergson; whereas James and Bergson are not even theists, and Eucken professes a form of theism which any Church would heatedly repudiate. The members of the various sects are literally and most scandalously duped on this point.
I have claimed that the clergy are spiteful and unjust, as well as careless about truth. There are very few popular religious writers who seem capable of giving a correct account of the views they are criticising, and there are very many who manipulate quotations with the effect of grossly deceiving their readers. Worse still, the clergy habitually slander their critics, and these slanders live for years in spite of refutation. Seven years ago they began to circulate a silly and obviously incredible charge that Professor Haeckel “forged” illustrations in support of his case, and, though the libel was at once thoroughly refuted by Professor Schmidt, it is still current. Only a few months ago I received from India documents which showed that the Jesuits there were still insisting on it. A friend of mine informed me that he heard one Scottish preacher, in the course of a public lecture on Haeckel, assure his audience, on the authority of a “friend of Haeckel’s,” that that venerable scientist was a man of most licentious life! No charge is too gross to repeat, if it discredits an “enemy of the faith.” Dozens of times I have heard of the wildest calumnies about myself which circulate throughout the English-speaking world, because I have occasionally written a critical work (always grossly misrepresented in the Catholic press) about the Catholic Church. I never belonged to the Catholic priesthood: I was discharged from it for fraud: I left it in order to marry a nun I had seduced: and so on. Only the lighter of these things are put in print, and then always with the name omitted. Only a few months ago a priest (and Education-Councillor) in a Scottish town gravely assured a schoolmistress, in the presence of an acquaintance of mine, that his Church held unshakable proofs of my vicious ways. As usual, my request that they would say so in print was ignored. Most ex-priests have the same experience. One of the most refined and religious of these seceders, a man who became a most respected professor at Oxford, was pursued by the calumny (never printed) that he had shown indecent photographs to servant-girls!
This tactic of the Church militant is happily so notorious that little harm is done among the general public, but Catholics are gravely deluded, in the hope that they will be induced to refrain from reading any except their own mendacious literature.
Yet one of the most familiar themes of the men who pursue this tactic is that they alone can inspire high character! Notoriously insincere in their professions, teachers of doctrines which the higher culture of our time and many of their own leading scholars condemn, living in an atmosphere of untruth and unreality, relying on a literature which is generally as indifferent to truth as it is to grace, unscrupulously repeating idle slanders of their opponents, they ask us to believe that they are genuinely concerned about the future of society if we continue to reject their authority. It is not strange that the great cities of the modern world are unmoved by their dirges.
The third point of my indictment is that the clergy have forged the historical credentials by which they lay claim to our respect. I have already observed that their version of the history of Europe is peculiar to their own literature, and I have elsewhere (The Bible in Europe) shown in detail how worthless it is. The “conversion” of Europe to Christianity in the fourth century was, as every historian of the period shows, an enforcement of the new religion on Europe by imperial authority, accompanied by the most violent and bloody repression of all other religions. We then have the witness of contemporary Christian writers that this “conversion” was followed by a general moral and intellectual decline. The great reforms which Rome had inaugurated were destroyed, and Europe sank into the ignorance, superstition, and grossness of the Middle Ages. It is quite true that the triumph of Christianity coincided with the overthrow of civilisation by the northern tribes, but the Teutonic tribes were not inferior to the Arabs or Turks (whom Mohammedanism civilised in the course of a century or two), and the Church soon obtained despotic power over them. The Eastern Empire, I may add, was not dominated by the barbarians, yet it also suffered a grave moral and intellectual decline. The fact is, that the clergy made no effort to induce the barbarians to restore the old school-system, to reconstruct the Roman law, to free the slaves (and, later, the serfs), to adjust their high native ideal of womanhood to the new social order, or to rebuild the fine civic and philanthropic system of the Romans. Culture fell so low that the very promising germs of later Greek science were allowed to die, and nearly the whole of the surviving Greek literature was unknown in Europe for many centuries. The trade in spurious relics, the rapacity and unscrupulousness of the Papacy, the coarseness of the nobles and people, and the general sexual licence of priests and monks were almost incredible.
This dark age began to receive the first rays of new light in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, and historians are agreed that the new light came from the civilisation of the Spanish Moors. This it was that, by introducing Greek literature and its Arab commentators, led to the early revival of science. But the cult of the grossest relics and superstitions continued, and the clergy repressed, or inspired rulers to repress, all dissent with more ferocity than ever. During the one general persecution of the early Christians by the Romans about two thousand had suffered for the faith; and only a few hundreds can be added from the earlier sporadic persecutions. But within fifty years of the establishment of Christianity in the Empire, tens of thousands of Donatists, Manichaeans, Arians, Pagans, etc., were done to death, and hundreds of thousands ruined or maltreated, by the triumphant Christians. In later centuries it was the turn of Monophysites, Monothelites, etc., and in the first quarter of the thirteenth century alone more than a million heretics were done to death in Languedoc. If the Jews and witches and others who suffered on religious grounds be added, the “butcher’s bill” of the new religion passes ten millions; and beyond these are the countless millions of those who suffered something less than death.
We look back to-day with feelings of horror on this ghastly carnage, especially when we remember the absurd character of the doctrines which the heretics assailed and the immorality of the clergy and monks who were primarily responsible for the executions and massacres. But this savage repression of independent thought had consequences of an even more disastrous nature on European civilisation. It not only removed from the community many of the more courageous and more intelligent stocks, but it intimidated others from using their powers, except in the futile argumentation of the Schoolmen. The result was a prolonged suspension of the development of the higher culture which was destined to give Europe its supremacy. It will hardly be doubted to-day that this culture was contained in the scientific works of the Greeks, especially the Alexandrian Greeks. The Arabs brought this culture to Spain, and, chiefly through the mediation of the Jews, it was slowly introduced into Europe and inspired such scholars as Gilbert, Roger Bacon, Albert the Great, and Copernicus. Physics, chemistry, and medicine began their development. But the fate of Roger Bacon and Albert and Vesalius sufficiently reminds us of the Church’s attitude toward the new culture, and the story of the hampering of intellectual progress in the exact study of nature has been repeatedly told. The scholastic fever, which had absorbed the energies of most of the acutest minds in Europe, had to disappear, and the power of the Church to be enfeebled, before the civilisation of Europe could advance.
The further introduction of Greek literature, when the Turks drove the Greeks from Constantinople, the invention of printing, the expansion of commerce and navigation, and the weakening of Church-authority by the Reformation, opened the modern phase of the development of European civilisation. It is only for the last of these changes that a section of the clergy may plausibly claim our gratitude, and even here we must make reserves. The share of the laity in the Reformation was greater than the share of the clergy, and the aim of the Reformed clergy was by no means to free and stimulate the intelligence of Europe. They frowned on lay culture, and burned their opponents, as inhumanly as the Roman priests did. It was not until the growth of sects had further enfeebled ecclesiastical authority, and a large body of lay scholars had arisen, that Europe became civilised, even in a generous sense of the word. Then science and philosophy and history grew to the proportions which distinguish “modern times,” and a resolute social and humanitarian movement began to remove those appalling injustices of the industrial and political order which the clergy had witnessed in silence for more than a thousand years.
I repeat that this is not an eccentric view of the development of European civilisation, but the view taken by historians ever since their science was emancipated from clerical control. The view which the clergy still sedulously propagate, that the Christian religion inspired the civilisation of Europe, is the most preposterous historical sham which we still entertain. It is unintelligible how a scholar like Mr. Bryce can give even a qualified support to it. In the minds of most people it is a pitiful confusion of ideas associated with one of the most elementary fallacies known to the logician. The fallacy is the syllogism which suffices for the majority of the faithful: Europe is the great centre of civilisation, Europe was Christian during the development of this civilisation, therefore Christianity was the inspirer of the civilisation. The inference is foolish enough in itself, but it becomes ludicrous when we reflect on the facts. Europe was civilised before it became Christian; it inherited all the best culture and experience of Egypt, Mesopotamia, Persia, Greece, and Rome. But Europe lost its civilisation when it became Christian, very largely because the new religion found culture dangerous to its superstitions and repressed it. And Europe owes its return to civilisation to the revival of pagan ideas, and it advances in civilisation in proportion as it discards Christianity.
The confusion of ideas is just as foolish as the fallacy. Europe is “great” in two very different senses. Most of the white nations are “great” in the vastness of their territory and the wealth they have derived from subject peoples. To connect this form of greatness with the Sermon on the Mount is audacious: it is a practice which really belongs to the age when English merchants who waxed fat on the negro-slave trade could complacently give the name “Jesus” to their vessels. This form of greatness frankly rested on buccaneering. Europe is great also in intellectual development, with the scientific and technical achievements to which this has led. We need not ask what particular Christian sentiment has inspired this; we know too well the share the clergy have had in repressing it.
Lastly, Europe is great in the cultivation of humane sentiment and the endeavour to practise social justice. It is here that the clergy usually claim their usefulness; and there is hardly a bolder mis-statement in their literature than this. The New Testament contains not a single moral sentiment that was unknown to the Greeks and Romans, and to the later Jews: the moral sentiments of the New Testament are so vague and elementary that not a single priest denounced slavery for nine hundred years, and not a Church has denounced war for more than eighteen hundred years: the Christian ethic was so uninspiring that Europe reeked with vice and crime and war and social injustice until the end of the eighteenth or beginning of the nineteenth century: when the reform began, in the nineteenth century, hardly a single priest aided it (until it had won millions of adherents), and the bishops almost unanimously opposed it: and the humanitarianism of modern times is an almost exclusively lay movement, gaining power and fervour in proportion as we sweep the clergy aside. Europe was civilised under the Roman and Greek pagans, and it is civilised, in the same broad sense, under the modern pagans; it was not civilised in the intervening period, and the worst features of its life to-day are, not recent outgrowths, but inheritances from the Christian past.
The pleas which some of the clergy, who know a little history, urge against this plain generalisation of the historical facts are curious. The majority, of course, knowing nothing of history, repeat the conventional untruths, but a few would tell us that this modern humanitarianism is due to a belated appreciation of the Christian ethic. Are justice, sympathy, truthfulness, kindness, and honour confined to the Christian ethic? Was there ever a great moralist, or a mature civilisation, which failed to appreciate them? Is not the modern humanitarian movement plainly characterised by a determination to do good to men, not for a reward in heaven or because Christ (like so many others) enjoined it, but because you cannot have a fine mind and character without experiencing this determination? Were there, in the fifteen hundred years of Christian domination, not enough men with intelligence enough to perceive the practical bearing of Christ’s ethic? Have these clerical writers frankly abandoned the claim that the “Spirit of God” guided their predecessors during those fifteen centuries? And have they read a line of the modern literature which shows that there is not one humane sentiment in the Gospels that was not well known to the Jews before the time of Christ?
The case of the clergy is a tissue of sophistry and untruth from beginning to end. They have done nothing as a body for European civilisation, in proportion to their power and leisure and resources. They did not even teach it chastity. They hindered the development of the culture which it vitally needed, and dissipated its finest intelligence in the tilling of barren soil. They fought fiercely for their own wealth and power, and were for fifteen hundred years a mighty parasitic growth on the working community. They kept the bandage of illiteracy on the eyes of ninety per cent, of their people for fifteen hundred years, and dined merrily with the nobles who exploited the people. They exacted respect in virtue of their supposed close communion with an all-holy God; and they were themselves, especially in their highest representatives, immoral and hypocritical in an appalling proportion, were brutal in coercing their critics, were traffickers in spurious and sordid relics, and were, when noble men and women at last won liberty from them, ignorant, slanderous, and careless of truth as no reputable body of laymen would stoop to become. Their record is as poor as their opportunity was great, and the modern world is, in strict proportion to the growth of education, passing disdainfully by the open doors of their churches. Of the twelve million inhabitants of the three greatest cities of Europe hardly two millions attend church; and if it were not for the incessant, feverish, and highly organised efforts of the clergy themselves, churchgoing would show a further rapid and enormous shrinkage. Yet even in this last phase we find them mumbling to ill-instructed congregations about their glorious record in Europe (crowned by a war of four hundred million people), about the wickedness of an age which prefers the indulgence of its passions to their serene guidance, and about the terrible doom which they foresee for Europe if it does not return to its medieval guardians.
As I observed in dealing with the political organisation, Christianity is not a set of ideas but a wealthy and powerful corporation. Once it was a body of men holding certain beliefs: now it is, in essence, an organisation for the enforcement of those beliefs. It is, in the main, this professional or corporate interest which sustains Christianity in Europe: but it is losing heavily. I have shown (Decay of the Church of Rome) that the oldest branch of the Church has lost about a hundred million followers in a hundred years. I do not think that the Protestant Churches, being more progressive and less offensive in their tactics, have lost so heavily, but the extraordinary decay of church- going in cities like Berlin, London, and New York is suggestive. In spite of all the tricks and devices of the clergy—the vestments and concerts, the matrimonial agencies and philanthropic coercion, the Y.M.C.A.’s and P.S.A.’s and all the rest—the people still fall away. No proof could be formulated to-day that even the majority of the people of Europe are Christians.
The thoughtful minority in the religious world are retreating upon the liberal theism which so many of our cultural leaders profess, or upon some even more vague mysticism. Into this further province it is not my intention to go. The world will, no doubt, long remain divided in opinion, or in sentiment, on fundamental religious issues, and for my practical purpose this difference is of no account. There is, however, one last consideration put forward by the clergy which it may be useful to consider.
It is represented that we are in danger of a triumph of “materialism,” and it is therefore wise to cling, in spite of their errors, to the Churches which so solidly represent “spiritualism.” Since many people have regarded me as peculiarly exposed to this danger of falling under the evil spell of “materialism,” I have made eager inquiries among spiritualist writers as to the nature of “spirit.” I am still hopefully inquiring. Most of the anæmic mystics who gush over the word cannot tell you what it means. They have a vague conviction that the spiritual is immensely more important and productive of good than the material, and that therefore materialism is the most appalling blight that can fall on a nation. These prophets of evil are, as I have previously observed, not strong in history. They do not explain how Confucianism (which Sir Edwin Arnold, accurately enough, calls materialism) proved so great an inspiration in China and Japan: how the Stoics (who refused utterly to believe in spirit) wrought so much good and inspired so fine a character at Rome: or how this materialistic age of ours is so idealistic. They know only that we must at all costs cultivate the spiritual—read spiritual writers, respect spiritual persons, encourage spiritual clergymen and artists and actors—and loathe materialism from the bottom of our hearts. And it is therefore quite natural to suppose that all that is precious in life and progress depends on the belief in the existence of “spirits.”
In point of fact, we have here entangled ourselves in an extraordinary confusion. The cultivation of intelligence, fine sentiment, and straight character has nothing whatever to do with the question whether the mind of man is or is not divisible into parts, or has or has not “inertia”: which are the only philosophic distinctions between matter and spirit that I have discovered. The tradition of the spirituality of the mind is responsible for this confusion. If the mind is a spirit, then spirit is assuredly the source of the finest things in life, and is far superior to matter. But that is just the question at issue; and it really does not matter two pins for practical purposes whether the mind is extended and inert (in the scientific sense), or unextended and devoid of inertia. One has only to substitute clear conceptions for vague terms, and the whole controversy is reduced to absurdity. Whichever side wins in the academic battle about the nature of mind, it remains as true as ever that the cultivation of mind is one of the most important aims that men can set up. Why on earth should we be less disposed to cultivate the mind of the race if some sudden turn of scientific advance were to prove it “a function of the brain” ? It remains true that our race owes the position it occupies entirely to mind: that our civilisation owes its ascendancy over barbarism to mind: and that we rely entirely on the further cultivation of mind—of intelligence, will, and emotion—to destroy those shams which impede our progress and curtail our prosperity and happiness. It is ludicrous to say that we cannot thus cultivate mind unless we believe it to be an indivisible and incomprehensible and indefinable something. It would, in fact, be less absurd to say that we should have more confidence in our power to cultivate mind if we regarded it as an organic function, subject to definite treatment.
As to the lapse of a belief in personal immortality, it is not less absurd to say that this would paralyse our efforts. As Ruskin says on the point: “The shortness of life is not, to any rational person, a conclusive reason for wasting the space of it which may be granted him.” That magnificent preface to The Crown of Wild Olive ought long ago to have silenced these dismal sophists. The fact is, that this age of ours, in proportion as it grows indifferent to the old legends and the appeals of the clergy, rises toward heights which man never climbed before. The clergy are most amusingly puzzled. Popes tell us that we are children of perdition, reeling into an earthly abyss, to say nothing of a deeper beyond: archbishops say that we are just beginning to realise the true import of Christ’s teaching. The candid man or woman will look searchingly for himself or herself into the heart of our age, and, if he or she have an accurate knowledge of earlier ages, will recognise that it throbs with a human idealism, tenderness, and sympathy which have been unknown in Europe since the old pagans departed.
Let me end on that note. The religious person will close this work, if he perseveres to the end, with a series of horrified exclamations. Socialism! Immoralism! Republicanism! Materialism! Malthusianism! I shudder under the shower of horrid epithets, yet would ask this outraged reader to forget “’isms” for a moment and consider a simple statement of the human faith I here present.
The ideals which I hold in supreme regard are truth in our beliefs and statements, justice and generosity in our actions, the co-operation of all men to make the earth happier. I am in temperament no hedonist. Thirty years of assiduous study, of much severe trial, of stoical endurance have left me more or less insensible to what men and women usually call happiness. My personal desires are sated in that I may, in circumstances of peace and modest comfort, devote myself to intellectual labour and the employment in the cause of progress of such influence as I have. I see no purpose imposed on life, and I therefore conclude that men and women are free to put such purpose on their collective life as they deem advisable. No purpose seems to be wiser, grander, or more inspiring than that they should seek to assuage the last pang of remediable pain and bring sunshine into the dark places of the earth. For me there is no heaven; and therefore the spectacle of those thousands passing daily and nightly into the silence, after lives of pain, misery, or brutality, while we cling to the barbaric traditions or ill-devised institutions that have come down to us, is an intolerable goad. Let us have criticism and scrutiny of all that we do and all that we believe; and let us have courage to reject all that we think false and purify all that we find corrupted. Let us assert that mighty power of which we are conscious; and, if it take ages to undo all the errors of the past and agree upon a plan of a regenerated earth, let us at least strive to awaken men to a consciousness of their power and of the evils they have to remove. These are my suggestions of what is wrong in life and how it may be righted. It may be materialism, this plain human gospel of mine; but it seems to me that, if it could be carried into effect, there would spread gradually over this earth such joy and freedom and prosperity as men’s prophets have babbled of in their dying dreams.