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The Story Of Religious Controversy
by Joseph McCabe
The Futility of Belief in God
- The Silence of God
- Who Made the World?
- Does Evolution Exclude God
- The Voice of Conscience
- The Religious Instinct
The Silence Of God
A WEEK or two ago I stood on the brink of a dark, strange pool in central Yucatan. It lay deep in a large round pit in the midst of the forest, some two hundred yards from the temples and sacred buildings which explorers had stripped of their mantle of bush and their mounds of earth.
This was once a great Maya city. Now fat lizards sunned themselves in the rocky ledges of the sheer sides of the pool. Tender foliage overhung the edge and was mirrored in the quiet water. A paved road led to the pool from the temples, and, where it reached the edge of the pool, it ended in a raised parapet of stone.
And I half close my eyes and people the deserted woods with the men and women who trod that road a thousand years ago. A sacred procession comes along it, and with the austere priests are flower- decked maidens in festive dress. But in spite of flowers and fine robes, in spite of throbbing music and thousands of spectators, a look of terror quivers piteously in the maidens’ eyes. They are going to die. The god wants victims. The priests say so. In a few moments these fairest things that life produces, young girls in the fresh bloom of womanhood, will be hurled from the parapet into the pool, fifty feet below, and they and their mothers must stifle their agony in a pretense of blessedness.
Well, You say, that was in the heart of Yucatan, and a thousand years ago.
A thousand miles away is the ghost of the city of another ancient American people, and guides will show you the stone on which priests stretched their victims to pluck out the heart and offer it to the sun-god. Still ancient America, you say. But away over the earth, in the islands of the Pacific, in central Africa, the gods still clamored for the blood of men only a few decades ago. In ancient Rome, in Cartage, in Britain, in Syria — remember the story of Abraham and Isaac — these ghastly sacrifices had been demanded. During countless ages of human history men and maidens had been slain in the name of gods.
Where was God? I do not ask you why He tolerated these crimes in His name for thousands of years, because the answer will be that you do not know. But you cannot blot all these horrors out of the memory of man by light assurances that the finite mind cannot hope to comprehend the infinite. It is a truism; but the facts remain. From near the dawn of religion, which was many tens of thousands of years ago, horrible things have been done, and grotesque things believed, in the name of God. I am merely asking you for the moment to admit to yourself that you hold that God, your God, looked down complacently from his state of blessedness during long ages upon all the grisly blunders and tortures of the children of men, yet might have ended the whole ghastly folly in one generation.
We know not why he takes time, you say, but the hour comes. When? At Cholula I see a Christian church perched on the top of a pyramid which once bore one of these bloody Mexican temples. To the Catholics of the district it is a symbol of the at-last triumph of revelation and mercy over human error and brutality. They do not reflect that they believe that God made those blundering and brutal humans of long ago; that he could have made them wiser in a year as easily as in a hundred thousand years.
Moreover, to the Protestant this pyramid-church merely means that one ghastly error in the name of God has been substituted for another. An improvement certainly: men ought to grow wiser in the course of two thousand generations. Hearts are not physically plucked out of living bodies in the Roman Church. No, they are sacrificed in a different way. Near by is a nunnery, and priests lead prettily dressed maidens to the altar to make the vow of celibacy which they understand little more than does the babe in arms, and which means living death to the heart.
The Mayas and Aztecs went, but cruel things were still done for centuries, and are done today all over the world, in the name of God. And God was still silent. He was silent when women were drowned as witches, and honest men were burned as heretics. He was silent when the savage and demoralizing doctrine of eternal torment was, in his name, imposed upon the whole earth, four thousand years after the founding of civilization. He is still silent when — as happened in Tennessee recently — the ill-educated preacher tells the agonized mother that the soul of her dead and un-baptized babe burns, and will burn forever, in the most appalling fires the human imagination ever pictured,
I am not at present arguing about the existence of God. I am merely asking you to face manfully two facts: the long silence of God, the long martyrdom of man. We will argue about them later. First let us add two other facts. The belief in God today is strongest where man has least to thank God for, and it is weakest where men have most knowledge and most mental training. It is universal only where life is poorest and where men have the least intelligence to perceive whether or not they are indebted to God.
Here and there in the world, both in Europe and in Latin America, you see what life was like a hundred or three hundred years ago. The very day before I sit down to write this I wander out in a little Cuban town not thirty miles from Havana. The drains run in open filthy streams in the center of the streets. Disease hovers about every child that plays innocently in the sunshine. Today little Rosita is a flower of the earth, the light and joy of one of these poor hut-homes. In a few days, perhaps, the claw of diphtheria will be on her tender throat, or the fiery poison of small-pox or typhus will run in her veins.
But they are all such staunch believers in God here in Guanajay that they would cross themselves if they knew my opinions. I have been amongst such people in Spain and Italy, in Greece and Serbia and Bulgaria. This was the common life of men two centuries ago, and as the conditions are improved by man, belief in God decays. It was skeptics from New York who purified Havana, thirty miles away, and Havana has now very many skeptics. El Anti- Clerical, a native skeptical paper, sells in its streets.
No, men now believe most deeply and most widely in God just where life is most treacherous, where poverty stings worst, where hearts are still torn out and sacrificed. And these men and women know less, and are less capable of thinking, than men in the skeptical cities where disease has been checked, where the burden is lighter. Somehow, the richer life grows, the less we thank God. The larger its problems grow, the less we consult God. The more knowledge grows, the smaller becomes the figure of God in the sky. The more learning a man has, the more likely you are to find him a skeptic.
Which of these statements would you dispute? It is, surely, a platitude that belief in God is least disturbed amongst the more backward nations of the earth: that it is most disturbed in the cities of the more advanced nations, and most of all in the learned world.
So it is with the practice of taking one’s troubles and problems to God. He is not seriously invoked at Geneva, where the world’s gravest problems are discussed. He is unknown in the Foreign Offices of the great Powers. There is some form of invoking divine guidance at Washington, and Westminster; but is it serious? Do our highest judges now pray before they give their gravest decisions? Do our leading physicians consult God — or medical works? No, God has been expelled from council and congress, school and law court, almost from the home. He is confined to the church.
It is strange to see how lightly the modern world abandoned God. In the great cities of Europe only a small minority ever go to a place of worship. It is unquestionably the same in America. The bishops of the Episcopal Church in America found, in war-time, just the same proportion of men who never attended church as was found in England: nine out of ten.
Now, we can take a census of church-goers, as we have done in London and Paris, but there is no census of sincere opinions, and we do not know how many of these non-church-goers still believe in God. I have quoted one of the gravest of the English bishops saying: “Belief in God is dead in England.” That is certainly a large exaggeration; but we do find by daily contact with the crowd that millions in our cities now no longer believe in God, or are so indifferent about the matter that they can hardly say whether or not they believe.
For the other fundamental religious belief, the faith in immortality, men, even after giving up the Christian creed, make some sort of struggle. But few plead for God, outside the Christian Churches. The belief is slowly dying. And God is still silent. He might write in letters of fire across the firmament at night, and we should all return to our knees. He is silent.
But he has written on the firmament once for all, you may say. On every stone of the fabric of the universe, you claim, there are the initials of the architect and builder. That is what we are going to study in this chapter.
One of the silliest calumnies that was ever invented is the statement that only coarse-minded men reject belief in God. There are, it is true, people who thrust the belief out of their minds wilfully and live rebelliously. These are exceptions. They were formerly far more common than now. Only a fool would defy a God: would purchase thirty years of pleasure at the price of an eternity of agony. In any case, the modern skeptic is a very real skeptic. His revolt is intellectual and emotional, and it is his finer emotions that cause his rejection of the idea of God.
Does that puzzle you? Recall the long silence of God of which I have spoken. Those bloody human blunders are only a small part of the story. Man did not create the germs of diphtheria and smallpox, even if, in his ignorance, he made nurseries for them. For countless millions of years deadly parasites of thousands of species have sucked or poisoned the blood of all other living things. For all these millions of years the carnivore has rent the flesh of his victim. Your intellect may say that this is a mystery. Your heart is disposed to say that there is no mystery: that blind nature, not conscious purpose, must have begotten these things. The heart is not on the side of God.
But the mind may have reasons which the heart knoweth not, to change the famous phrase of Pascal. You may think that you are able to silence the rebellion of the heart by heaping up formidable proofs that there is a God. On a question of fact the heart must yield to the head.
But here is another difficulty. Amongst those who are most capable of thinking, there is no agreement whatever as to these proofs” of the existence of God. It is another aspect of this terrible problem of the silence of God. From the days of Plato, from the time of Job, thoughtful men have racked their brains to find and formulate proof of the existence of God.
To the mass of mankind, of course, it is, and always was, simple. A famous preacher quotes with warm approval the saying of an Arab of the desert when some skeptic asked him how be knew that Allah existed. “How do I know that a camel has passed this way?” he asked in reply, pointing to the footprints in the sand.
Strange, isn’t it, that it should be so plain to the Arab and the farmer and the preacher, and so profound and difficult a problem to the thinker! Strange that in proportion as the mental eye is trained by education, the footprints on the sand seem to become fainter. Plato, the great Greek thinker, gave the world two thousand three hundred years ago what men regarded as the most brilliant proofs of the existence of God. Hardly any man sees any force in them today. Aristotle, an even greater thinker of the same age, gave other and quite different proofs. Hardly any man follows him today. St. Augustine tried next, and his arguments are just as antiquated. From those days to ours men have been inventing new arguments — we will consider them — and there is no agreement about any of them. The majority of our best thinkers, our philosophers, do not believe in the existence of a personal God. Not one of them admits any force in any of the popular arguments for God.
I ask you only to admit that the matter is not so simple as you thought: that the unbeliever is not exactly the “fool” described by the Hebrew Psalmist. It is a mighty problem. You cannot even understand the reasons why most of the deeper religious thinkers of our time believe in God unless you first learn the most difficult of all sciences — philosophy. It would take you years to understand what is called “the position of God in modern thought.” And God is silent.
Well, these chapters are not written for philosophers. A simple account will be given later of what the philosophers are saying, but in the main I want to examine the reasons why the reader, or his religious neighbor, believes in God. A thousand million people still believe in God, and for much the same reasons, and scarcely a trained thinker in the world will admit that those reasons have any logical force. And God is silent.
Who Made The World?
In my many travels I never obtrude my opinions about religion. I write them, and I lecture about them, and those who will may read or hear. I do not trouble others. But, knowing my opinions, people talk to me about God and would understand why I cannot admit his existence. So they tell me why they believe in him, and the argument most commonly takes the form of the question which I have made the title of this section: Who made the world, if there is no God?
The reader may have had a different experience, though it could hardly be a broader and more varied experience. Men and women, youths and maidens, preachers and lawyers and men of business, have put their belief to me in that form. And quite triumphantly. It was as plain as the lesson of the camel’s footprint. And, knowing (or believing) that I am a person of average intelligence, they really wondered what I would reply.
And the reply, which is not really a reply at all, because the question is foolish, is deadly. You ask, Who made the world? Why not, What made the world? In fact — we will consider later the argument that the world-maker must be personal or intelligent — let us settle the question at once. We do it by asking another question: Prithee, how do you know that the world ever was made?
Do not tell me that it “stands to reason.” The highest representatives of reason today are our philosophers and scientists, and I do not think that there is a single one of them now living who believes that the world was “made.” They may be wrong, of course, but is it not more likely that there is something wrong with the basis of your simple proof?
Let us analyze it. In asking your questions you assume that the world was made. There is no need to define exactly what we mean by the “world” and “Made.” We mean the universe or (if there are many universes, as some astronomers think) all the universes. By “made” you mean created. You take it for granted that there was a time when the universe did not exist, and that at the word of God it sprang into existence. And that is just where you go astray. There is no proof whatever that the world had a beginning.
You will probably acknowledge at once that you had no definite reason for assuming that the world had a beginning. Everybody assumes it, simply because he has been taught for ages that Genesis, in its first line, says so. We shall see later what that means, and what it is worth. But you cannot quote “the word of God” until you have proved that there is a God. And apart from Genesis there is no ground for saying that the world ever had a beginning, so there is no meaning in asking who made it.
Do you mean, you will say, that the world is eternal? No. I mean that it may be, for all I know or anybody knows. It is for the person who says that it was made — that it had a beginning — to prove his assertion.
Until some sort of proof is given me that the world was made, it is useless, surely, to ask me to speculate as to who made it. Here it is. It may always have been here. I think it was.
In point of fact, practically all thinkers — scientists and philosophers — now regard the world as eternal. Philosophers (and many others) do so because the idea of creation out of nothing is incomprehensible to them, and, after all, there is only the word of some unknown Hebrew writer of twenty-five hundred years ago in favor of this idea of creation.
Scientists regard the world as eternal, partly for the same reason, partly on account of what modern astronomy tells us. I am writing this at sunset on the deck of a great liner in the Gulf of Mexico. Soon the stars will shine out of the tropical dark purple sky as they never shine on land. A sharp eye can detect their difference in color: red, yellow, white and blue. They are of different temperatures, from dull red to steely blue, from about 3,000′ to about 30,000′ C. The most wonderful instrument we have, the spectroscope, confirms this.
And different temperatures mean different ages. The life of a star is its temperature. It begins (as all metal does) at a dull red, passes through yellow and white to a brilliant whitish-blue, then sinks through white and yellow to red. We can tell which of the red stars are increasing in temperature, are beginning their career, and which are in their last phase. Another wonderful instrument, invented in America a few years ago, tells us this. It measures them. At first the stars are of an immense size. I shall presently be gazing at one of the southern stars, Antares, the blood-red heart of the Scorpion, which we know to be four hundred million miles in diameter. Our sun is less than one million. Antares is beginning to contract. Our sun is far advanced in contraction. It is slowly dying.
In short, the stars differ in age as much as do the human beings in a busy city street. The only difference is that the baby- stars are giants, and the dying stars are dwarfs, and that the life of a star runs to billions of years. So myriads of stars will shine ages after our sun is dead. Myriads shone before our sun was born. And we see, all over the universe, the cloudy filmy material for making new stars when all our two billion stars have sunk into darkness. The universe is just like a nation, apparently. Generation succeeds generation. We have no reason to suspect a beginning or an end. Rather the reverse.
Naturally, we do not say dogmatically that the universe had no beginning. For my part, at least, I should never say positively that the world is eternal. I do not know enough, after fifty years of study, to be as dogmatic as young preachers are. But we do know one thing. The stars differ from each other in age by billions of years. The old idea that for an eternity there was a void, and then, for some unknown reason, God spoke and the universe leaped into being, is certainly wrong. The stars would be of the same age if that were true.
Those who “reconcile” science and religion now often say that God merely created the material of the universe and allowed it, and gave it the power, to evolve. This does not help in the least. We have no reason whatever to suppose that the matter of the universe ever had a beginning. So we have no reason to entertain the idea of its being created. You may choose to believe it, but you are believing and asserting something for which there is not a shred of proof.
Here and there in old-fashioned religious literature you find a curious attempt to prove that the world really had a beginning. The proof runs something like this: If the world is eternal, then the number of days, or units of time, which have already elapsed must be infinite. But the number is being added to every day, so it cannot be infinite. Therefore time is finite. They say much the same about space. If the universe is infinite, the number of miles out in any direction from our earth must be infinite. But there are just as many miles in the Opposite direction, so …
I do not know whether the reader expects a patient analysis of this sort of verbiage. Writers who say these things are merely playing with ideas. There are no “days” or “miles” in nature. There is no such thing as an infinite series which is bounded at one end. The whole argument is preposterous.
And much the same must be said about a set of arguments for a maker of the universe which, like the preceding, are chiefly used in Roman Catholic literature. There are causes and effects in the universe, one argument runs, and therefore there must be a First Cause. There are movements in the universe, so there must be a Prime Mover, something ultimate which moves all and is not itself moved. There are things in the universe which exist by chance or contingency, but at the base of all there must be something that exists necessarily.
Roman Catholics are most amusingly proud of these curious arguments. They imagine that they are part of the great treasure of learning of the Catholic Middle Ages, and that Protestants have forfeited these wonderful demonstrations by severing themselves from Rome. The truth is that all such arguments were completely discredited more than a hundred years ago. They are mere words and phrases strung together. They “do but gather dust in our libraries,” as the great American thinker, Professor William James, said of them.
Take the supposed argument for a First Cause. The idea of cause and effect is not taken very seriously in modern science and philosophy, but we will accept it as roughly expressing what we see in nature. Heat causes evaporation, electricity in the clouds causes lightening and thunder, and so on. And of course you must come ultimately to a fundamental cause or causes. There is no clear reason for saying that ultimately there is just one First Cause. There is no reason for giving it (or them) capital letters. In point of fact, ether (which Professor Dayton Miller has recently proved to be a reality) is probably the ultimate or fundamental reality of the universe, the Prime Mover and all the rest of it. Until you prove that ether had a beginning — that there was a time when it did not exist — the mind cannot pass beyond it.
But how, we are asked, could a material reality like ether be the first cause of spiritual things like mind, emotion, idealism? A stream cannot rise above its source, we are told. Well, we cannot here discuss materialism and spiritualism. That is done elsewhere. We have seen that there is no proof that mind is spiritual, so there is no need to assume a spiritual reality and no need to use capital letters for the “First Cause” and “Prime Mover.”
These dry-as-dust arguments are quite discredited in modern thought, and we will not waste further time on them. I notice them rather as illustrations of my point that most people believe in God on grounds which are disdainfully regarded by other believers in God as mere fallacies. They agree together only in saying that the existence of God is certain and the Atheist is a fool. After that each flatly denies that the “proofs” of the other are of any value whatever!
But there is another type of very zealous believer who thinks that his proof is in the strictest accord with science — is, in fact, based on science. Men put this to me with the greatest assurance, and profess a pathetic surprise at the skepticism amongst men of science. There are “laws of nature,” they say. Every page of a scientific work talks about them. Very good, then there must be a law-giver. A great mind stamped these laws upon the material universe and so set it evolving.
It is a good example of the extreme weakness of all the popular arguments for the existence of God — of the way in which religious literature always lags a generation or two behind science and philosophy, and so believers are honestly unable to understand the Agnosticism of modern thinkers. The Catholic, with his First Cause and Prime Mover and Necessary Being, lingers in the atmosphere of the Middle Ages. The Protestant, with his “laws of nature,” is merely clinging to fallacies of the early part of the nineteenth century.
Laws of nature, as we use the phrase in science, have not the least resemblance to human laws, and have no relation whatever to a “legislator” or a mind. We say, for instance, that there is a law of gravitation. But we do not mean that there is a code of behavior drawn up in advance which things must obey. We mean simply that things do behave consistently in certain ways. The “law,” as we call it, is simply a description of their behavior.
How very shallow, some eloquent preacher or apologetic writer says! Let me ask you again to reflect that it is strange that these men should be so profound while our great men of science, who are all their lives studying the “laws of nature,” very rarely believe in this supreme legislator. You must, surely, sometimes suspect that there is something wrong with this cocksureness of the preacher and the religious writer.
There is, and it is very simple. He never — quite naturally — knows enough about science to understand fully these matters about which he speaks. A stone, let us say, always falls to the ground unless it is prevented. Why should it, unless there is a law imposed upon it? Nature acts uniformly, or consistently. But if nature is blind and unconscious, ought we not to expect things to act erratically, not uniformly?
Not in the least. It is a very poor fallacy. Consistent behavior is just what we ought to expect from blind mechanical things. A ball will roll in a straight line unless something interferes with it. It is will, or mind, that we might expect to act otherwise. It would be a proof of mind in nature if things at times did not act uniformly; it is precisely the contrary when we find them acting uniformly.
No, along these lines the human mind will never reach God. Many learned theologians, in fact, now give up the idea of creation, or first causes and prime movers and legislators. They look to the order, the beauty, the design in nature for proof of the existence of a great intelligence. Let us see what there is in this.
Does Evolution Exclude God?
Here we come at once to the great question which agitates the religious world in America: Does evolution undermine or destroy the belief in God?
Let us consider it very patiently and very frankly. Certain men of science in the United States go about loudly proclaiming that evolution is quite consistent with religion. It is quite useless to try to settle the question that way. Professor Osborn and Professor Millikan have every right to tell any person whom it may interest — it does not interest me, because I know that they have never studied philosophy or religion — that they believe both in evolution and religion. But they have no right whatever to say this in the name of science; for the great majority of men of science and evolutionists do not believe in God.
Just a word about this “conflict of religion and science.” Science as such is never concerned with religion. No branch of science deals with God or the soul or Christ. Yet there is a deadly conflict, because science tells us a large number of truths which, in the opinion of the majority of highly educated people, are inconsistent with the belief in God and the soul. Let me add again that it is mere folly to propose on that account to exclude evolution and science from the schools. The facts of history — in short, all the facts about nature and man which we now know — are just as inconsistent with religion.
In order to understand the clash, let us glance at the history of it. Atheism began long ago, in ancient Greece, and religious thinkers like Socrates worked out the argument that the order and beauty and purposiveness of nature proved the existence of a God. That controversy was suspended by Europe passing into the Dark Ages, but after the Renaissance men began to think again and the old issue returned.
Modern skepticism began with a group of men whom we call Deists. They rejected the Christian religion, but they believed in God, and they turned again to the old proofs of God’s existence and developed them. Atheism was arising once more. To cut a long story short, by the middle of the nineteenth century there was a whole library of books proving that the order of the heavenly bodies, the beauty of nature, and the remarkable contrivances by means of which animals and plants maintained their lives, pointed triumphantly to the existence of a supreme intelligence and designer. Science seemed to be full of evidence for God.
Then came Charles Darwin. What a tremendous splash that quiet little man made in the religious world! Yet Darwin never attacked religion. Indeed, if he were not such a great and good man, I should say that he was rather cowardly about it. He believed sincerely in God at the time when he wrote “The Origin of Species,” and, although he came some years later to reject the belief, it was difficult to get him to speak on the subject. He was a delicate and retiring man, and he looked on with some bewilderment when the brilliant Professor Huxley and my equally high-minded, if not equally gifted, friend, Professor Haeckel, proceeded to show that evolution made an end of God and the soul.
There had been evolutionists before Darwin, and Darwin’s particular theory of how evolution was brought about is by no means generally accepted today; though it is not honest to represent this as a doubt about the fact of evolution itself. But Darwin’s name is forever, and deservedly, associated with evolution because he put it on a very solid basis of facts and drew the attention of the world to it.
And it was at once apparent that it had a most serious bearing on religion. As I said, the religious literature of the first half of the nineteenth century was full of proofs of God’s existence drawn from the remarkable structures and instincts of animals, and the wonderful adaptations of plants to their surroundings. Look how wonderfully the deep-sea fishes are adapted to life at the bottom of the sea, the desert shrubs to the scarcity of water in the desert, the Alpine flowers to the cold of the mountains, the mammals to the low temperature of the north, the reptiles to the warmth of the tropics! And so on. Every organ of every organism was as eloquent a proof of a divine artificer as the parts of a watch are of the watchmaker.
It opened up an entirely new world, it made theologians shudder, when evolutionists began to show that all these things were gradually evolved during tens of millions of years. If these structures had come into existence all of a piece, certainly we should have to admit a creator. But if they were evolved gradually, one crude form leading to another, the whole situation is changed. Unconscious nature may do, by many trials and errors, in a million years what it certainly cannot do in a year. Moreover, several theories of the way in which this evolution could be brought about naturally, without any design in advance, of any supernatural guidance, have been put forward by scientific men, and, whether you follow Darwin, Weismann, or Mendel (or De Vries, the real Mendelist leader), the effect in abolishing design is the same. All three — Darwin, Weismann and De Vries — were Agnostics.
That is how evolution undermines religion. The basis of the religious argument from design in nature is that there is no other possible explanation of the organs and instincts of animals except a divine plan drawn up in advance. No plea for the supernatural origin of anything is valid as long as there is a possibility of a natural explanation of its origin. Even if we do not see the explanation today, we may see it tomorrow.
It began to be frightfully difficult to find any sort of proof of the existence of God. Moreover, the argument from the supposed order and beauty of the universe was equally undermined. This “order” had been found mainly in the movements of the heavenly bodies. Today we know not only that there is a terrible amount of disorder in the heavens — great catastrophes or conflagrations occur frequently — but evolution gives us a perfectly natural explanation of such order as there is. No distinguished astronomer now traces “the finger of God” in the heavens; and astronomers ought to know best.
As to beauty — the beauty of flowers and birds, of shells and scenery — evolution explains it just as it explains instincts and organs. It was evolved. The argument was always very one-sided, for there is as much ugliness as beauty in nature, as much brutality and bestiality as mutual aid. We will see this later. Both are now understood, however. Nature knows nothing of order and beauty, or disorder and ugliness. It evolves without a plan. Then man develops a sense of beauty, probably as part of his sex-life, and the rose or the orchid appeals to it. We can trace their evolution, and it would now be absurd to say that the flowers were evolved in order to please man a few million years later.
Thus the entire argument of design, the greatest triumph of the theologians, fell to pieces. There have, of course, been attempts to reconstruct it, but they all contain the same fallacy. They select something that science “cannot explain” (the writers themselves never knew enough about science to know whether it can be explained or not) and they then bring in God to explain it in the usual way.
Lord Balfour, who is a clever statesman and a mere novice in science, repeats the old argument with little variation. Lord Kelvin, who was a very distinguished physicist, but knew nothing about biology, was promptly snubbed by the biologists of England when be tried to find an argument for God in their science. Sir Oliver Lodge, who also is a physicist and knows nothing about biology, is disdainfully ignored by them when he tries to do the same thing. The argument for a Designer is as dead as the argument for a First Cause, a Prime Mover, a Creator, or a Legislator of the laws of nature.
It is sometimes said, especially by Sir Oliver Lodge, that the argument can be entirely changed, and restored to its full strength, by admitting that natural causes produced everything, but that God guided these natural agencies. You might, for instance, trace in science the whole series of movements, from the primitive nebula onward, which eventually produced the bee, with all its wonderful “instincts.” But, says Sir Oliver Lodge, you would not see the guidance of these natural agencies by a supernatural power.
Yes, quite naturally. What Sir Oliver Lodge forgets is that he has to prove that there was such a guidance. He can only do this by proving that the guidance was necessary: that the natural agencies of evolution would not have produced the bee, as we know it, unless they were guided. I have repeatedly challenged him to prove this, and he has never done it. It cannot be done.
Moreover, this idea of “guidance” of the forces of nature, which is very popular with some, raises a score of difficulties the moment you examine it closely. How would you guide a billiard ball, without pushing it? Can a mind communicate its designs to matter, and could matter carry out such designs if they were communicated? Do the atoms in the rose know that they are working out a design? In what earthly sense can anyone conceive these atoms to be “guided”?
It is mere verbiage. These people are fond of representing the Agnostic and the scientific men as “superficial” and themselves as “profound.” But just reflect for ten minutes on this idea of guidance of the forces or elements of nature! Try to work it out. You will soon find which side it is that is superficial.
And this applies in full force to what is called “creative evolution — the theory of Professor Bergson, George Bernard Shaw and a few others. One ought almost to apologize for bringing Mr. Shaw into a serious work, and Professor Bergson has not, and never had, any support in the world of philosophy. Their theory is that, though a personal God does not exist, a sort of Vital Force works through matter and finds expression in the myriads of animals and plants and man.
This is worse than ever. A conscious personal God might vaguely be conceived as realizing a plan through matter in a way we cannot comprehend. But when you take the Vital Principle itself to be impersonal — a sort of muddle-headed God at the best — and regard this vague thing as working in conjunction with unconscious atoms to produce a peacock’s tail or a palm, you feel like Alice in Wonderland.
Sometimes Theists fancy that they get rid of difficulties by sacrificing the “personality” of God. “I don’t believe in a personal God, but there must be a cosmic mind,” says a lawyer to me. Another calls it a Cosmic Power, another the Energy of the Universe, and so on.
Well, I should not regard an impersonal God as worth a grain of incense or a spot of ink. We could have no more emotion about it, or practical relation to it, than in the case of ether. It is not worth quarreling about. But in point of fact, many of these people do not know what personality means. It means mind or self- consciousness. And as to those who prefer to talk about a great energy, or force, or power, they are equally ignorant of the meaning of the words they use. In science, from which the words are taken, power, force, and energy are merely mental abstractions, not realities.
There is, in fine, no aspect of nature today which even suggests the existence of God. There is a very great deal in nature, as we shall see, which suggests that there is no God, no sort of God. But before we turn to consider this, let us regard man himself and see whether this highest form of existence (as positively known to us) has any characteristics which send the mind to God.
The Voice Of Conscience
The sum of what we have so far seen is that in the universe at large there is no sort of evidence of the existence of any sort of God — any sort of power or being or mind beyond or behind it.
One by one the old arguments have been discredited. There were the early philosophical arguments, the proofs of a First Cause and Prime Mover, and so on. Modern philosophy entirely rejects them, and it is the philosophers who best know their value. Then there was the order of the heavens, and modern astronomy has made an end of this argument. The idea that such beauty as there is in nature testified to a God has been equally discredited by evolution. The argument from design has been shattered in the same way.
Science gives us a natural interpretation of nature. It is very far indeed in its present stage from explaining everything, but to take some part of nature which is at present obscure and say that the hand of God must be there is a very poor fallacy. It is quite obvious that our ignorance of the natural causes may be, and in view of the history of science probably is, only temporary.
A few moments’ reflection will show you the fallacy of all these arguments and explain why men in their search for God have been driven by science from one department of nature to another. For such an inference to be valid, you must prove, not merely that science cannot today explain this or that phenomenon in nature, but that it will never furnish a natural explanation of the phenomenon, because such an explanation is impossible. Who will venture to attempt that?
No, the ordinary believer in God must in his own interest realize that popular preachers and writers deceive him: not deliberately, but owing to the limitations of their education. They use long-discredited arguments. They talk philosophy which no philosopher will admit, and science that no scientist will recognize. If you take any million believers in God, at least nine- tenths of them believe for reasons which trained thinkers regard as quite illogical, and it is merely foolish to imagine that the business man or the popular preacher or the politician can judge the value of such arguments better than the trained thinker.
Amongst the higher type of religious writers, the better educated clergy, this is sadly recognized. They do not now use the old arguments, which seem on the lips of the popular preacher to be so convincing that you feel that the Atheist must be a fool or a knave. They do not boast that they can demonstrate the existence of God. They admit that it is a delicate and difficult problem. The glory of God, which was once thought to fill the universe, is now regarded as a purely spiritual thing that is not reflected from a material universe.
Did you ever, with a friend, argue as to whether the pale delicate line low down on the far horizon was really a range of hills or a cloud? Did you ever see the northern lights quivering so faintly in the night sky that you were not quite sure in your own mind whether the light was there or not? For the most honest and learned believers in God this is now the true position of the light which was once thought to flood the universe and convince every man.
So new ways, new avenues, are tried. Some, as I said, talk only of an impersonal power; but that does not help. Some say that (God is limited in power, and we shall see later that this does not help. Some say that God is “immanent” in the universe, not “transcendent” to it or outside of it; but no Church ever really said otherwise, and it is merely a new word that these Modernists have coined.
It is no use appealing to the universe in any way. It is godless. It is a great reality evolving slowly through the ages, with long portentous periods of blind clash and ferocity crowned by relatively few years of civilization. Nobody, from Job onward, ever really reconciled its features with God.
New schools of theologians abandon nature and turn to man: or abandon nature generally and concentrate on its highest product and representative, man. If we cannot find the finger of God here, where shall we look for it? There may be — on general grounds I should say that there probably are — higher beings than man on other planets in other parts of the universe. Our life-story on this globe has probably some two hundred million years still to run. Other stars are older than ours, and they may have planets on which the life-story has run millions of years ahead of ours. Mars even may have I think probably has — a more advanced race than ours.
But the highest thing in the universe which we actually know is man, and in his nature we ought to find something more suggestive of divine action than in stars or flowers. Moreover, he is so frail a being, and his nerves quiver so with pain, that a benevolent or merciful power may be expected to take especial interest in him. The star feels no shock when it enters a nebula, or approaches another star, and its entrails are torn out and flung leagues over space. The rose has no tears when it withers. Even the animal has only a very dull glow of conscious pain. But man ….
I am reserving for special consideration the reasons in nature and man for not believing in God — you will not grumble if I give a single section to disproofs and five to an account of what are regarded as proofs. But right here it is necessary to anticipate a little.
It is precisely in the case of man, where we ought to find divine action, that we have least trace of it. The history of man is now written without the smallest need to introduce supernatural action. Whatever has been accomplished was accomplished by man. The prehistory of man — the millions of years of primitive savagery — is even more brutally godless. The human world today, which we know so well, nowhere suggests a finger of God.
Let this wait a little. Let us take first the best that there is in man. It is in man’s moral emotions, in his conscience, that theologians generally claim to find evidence of the existence of God. Whatever may be said about the moral emotions of animals — and some writers have detected the crude beginnings of a moral code amongst the higher animals — man broadly stands out from the rest of the world of life as the being with a conscience. He perceives moral law, and moral law implies a legislator. Natural laws may be mere descriptions. Moral law is a code drawn up in advance for humans to obey.
Moral law exists, and it implies a legislator. We admit it. There are modern writers — novelists, dramatists, Nietzscheans, etc. — who seem to question it, but one finds that they generally mean that some part of the accepted moral code is questionable. Let us say that the race recognizes a law of justice, honor, truthfulness, honesty, temperance and kindness.
You say that God imposed this law, and that in the voice of conscience we have the faint echo of his thunder. I say that the legislator was humanity, and that the conscience of the individual is an outcome of causation. If the facts of moral life are consistent with my theory, there is no room for yours. A supernatural explanation is superfluous when a natural explanation is possible. Why? For this simple reason: if a thing which actually exists is enough to explain a phenomenon, you have not the least guarantee of the existence of something else, otherwise unknown, which you call in to explain it. It may be more poetic to regard thunder as the voice of God, but, since electricity fully explains it, you give up the idea of a God in the sky or on the mountain top.
Now every feature of the moral life is consistent with the theory that moral law is a code of behavior imposed on the individual by the community. The nature of the law, the clauses and precepts of it, points to this. Justice, honesty, and truthfulness are social laws, obviously. Social life improves in so far as they are observed, and it is disturbed in so far as they are ignored. Nothing could be clearer than that nine-tenths of the moral code represents rules of social conduct.
The evolution of morals quite confirms this. The lowest peoples of the human family have no moral ideas, as we may see, and reviewing the various tribes of savages and barbarians in succession, from the lowest level upward, we see the moral law taking shape in harmony with the needs of the expanding social life of the tribe and the nation. Religious creeds pervert the code. Local circumstances and needs shape it differently in different places. But the general development is clear. Man gradually formulates his moral or social law. Then the priests take it over and ascribe the law to a divine legislator.
It would be strange if nine-tenths of the moral code were purely human, the other tenth supernatural, yet this is, I suppose, what the argument implies. Men certainly do not need a God to teach them that justice and honesty are laws or ideals. And the different emphasis put on different clauses of the law is equally human. Lying, for instance, is (where no great harm is done) regarded as a light offense. To get drunk once in a while is not a serious matter. To get drunk habitually and ruin your family is a crime. Murder is the greatest of crimes. It is all perfectly human. It is social law.
The only difficulty is about sex-morals, and precisely on this point there is no such thing as a universal and consistent human conscience. This is, plainly, very significant.
A few weeks ago a cultivated Mexican gentleman told me that there are parts of his country where your host offers you the companionship of his wife for the night and is offended if you decline. It was a virtue of hospitality in ancient Scotland and other places. Polygamy is quite moral in Turkey and quite immoral in America, yet even a Christian moralist like St. Augustine would allow a man to beget children by another woman if his wife was barren. There is no limit to the vagaries of conscience in the field of sex. In our own highly civilized age the most serious writers dispute the (theoretically) accepted code of virtue.
This is in perfect harmony with the view that moral law is human law, and it is quite inconsistent with the belief that an autocratic legislator framed the law. We are in an age of transition. The Christian code of conduct contained things which were purely ecclesiastical in origin. We are now trying to separate what is really moral and social law from these sectarian ideas. And the standard of most people is a social standard: Does the act do harm to others? The Golden Rule is the ultimate moral principle. Behave toward others as you wish them to behave toward you. Nothing could be more clearly social.
The Religions Instinct
What we have seen in the last section applies to every attempt to create a belief in God for practical purposes. This was admirably illustrated in the effort of H.G. Wells to establish a new conception of God a few years ago. It failed completely.
Wells had come to the conclusion that, while the world will certainly remain democratic in the political sense, progress is bound to come from a sort of aristocracy, a union of the best men and women in each country. He then imagined that these select companies would do well to have an ideal leader, and he conceived this as “God the Invisible King.” He made very little attempt to prove that this Invisible King really existed. It was rather an ideal, a personification of law and duty. But I never heard of a single convert to the new religion, though its author is one of the cleverest and most influential writers in England. God is not wanted by our generation.
It is just as futile for our philosophers to imagine that, when they have shattered the bases of the popular argument for God, they can provide the mass of the people with new arguments or new conceptions of God. As I have said, hardly any thinker of our time believes any longer in the personal Deity of the Churches. None accepts the common arguments for God. But a large number of our philosophers believe in a God, and some of them seem to think that they may communicate their belief to people who are not philosophers.
They certainly will not, and therefore I do not propose to examine their ideas here. They are divided into two antagonistic schools. One school follows the German philosopher Hegel, and believes in a very abstract and impersonal God, without recognizable characteristics, which they call the Absolute. It takes a large volume even to explain what they mean. On the general public the philosophy, as a critic said long ago, makes much the same impression as an elephant which is introduced to a nation which never saw one before. People are not sure which is the head and which is the tail.
The other school of philosophers, mainly an estimable group of professors at Oxford University, who are as far out of touch with the world as professors generally are, call themselves Personal Idealists. They believe in a Personal God, and they find evidence for Him in the mind of man and its ideals. The argument is very strained and almost as difficult to follow as the preceding. Evolution explains man’s ideals without any metaphysics of this kind.
Then there is the very small school which is known in America as Pragmatists and in England as Humanists, and has no influence in either country. It is not the aim of this school to prove the existence of God, but some religious writers regard it as favorable to them because it does not admit the supremacy of human reason. Our beliefs, it says, are not due to reason alone. Our whole nature, even our needs and interests, enter into them.
That is largely true; but, clearly, beliefs formed in this way are more likely to be false than true. The theory does not help any man who wants to be sure that God really exists. At the most it may approve of belief in God as useful. I am concerned with those who regard it as true: it is of no use unless it is true.
No one would expect me in so short a chapter as this to give a satisfactory account of these new religious philosophies, but I give the reader just this word about them for two reasons. First, very few of these philosophers accept the personal God of the creeds, and it is quite wrong to represent them as doing so. Secondly, none of these philosophers — that is, remember, our most profound thinkers — admits any value in the only arguments for the existence of God which circulate amongst the general public. The believer ought to understand that clearly. Philosophy is as much against him as is science or history.
But I am mainly concerned in this section with an argument which is supposed to be philosophical in form, yet is used in popular literature. It is said that, no matter how little trace of God there is in the external world, man has a religious sense or instinct which bears witness to him.
This argument used to be put, and is still sometimes put, in the form of a unanimous testimony of the human race to the existence of God. All peoples that exist or have ever existed, it is said, believe in God.
What that would prove, if it were true, is not very clear. The whole human race has until modern times been wrong on hundreds of things: one would almost say, wrong on all things except those which are quite obvious. Moreover, nearly the whole of the race believes in God (as I have now shown) for false reasons.
Finally, it is not true that all peoples believe in God. The lower peoples do not believe in God. The belief evolves before our eyes, and now, in the highest peoples, it is disappearing before our eyes. This supposed “consent of the whole human race” is a myth, and the inference from it is ridiculous.
Well, the new apologists say, let us take the belief in God as it actually exists. It is so widespread, so nearly universal, that there must be some instinct or special religious sense in man for perceiving the existence of God. Just as one part of a man perceives color, another hears sounds, and another feels heat or cold, so there may be a spiritual faculty for perceiving God. We may feel his presence, not infer it from nature; and many believers say that this is their experience.
In view of the collapse of all the arguments for God from the external world there is naturally a tendency to concentrate on and develop this argument. It seems safe against any advance of science. You know more about your own consciousness, you think, than the man of science does. If you feel the existence of God, how can a man of science tell you that you do not?
It sounds very simple and promising, but it leads to nothing.
The first difficulty is that the strength of this “instinct” has a remarkable relation to the degree of a man’s education. Belief is strongest where education is poorest. In the better educated middle class the majority of the men have no such inner sense or belief in God. The women, who are less educated, have more religion; but the modern woman, who is getting equal education, is becoming as irreligious as man. And in the circles of highest culture, of science and philosophy, the belief is feeblest of all.
Strange, isn’t it, that if God has implanted a religious instinct, a sense of his presence, in the breast of man, it should grow feebler in proportion as the head is enlightened, and should generally disappear where the knowledge is greatest? Most of us, when we were young, had this “religious sense.” In proportion as we grow in wisdom, it fades out of existence. I have not an atom of this religious instinct today. Why have you?
Two-thirds of the leading men of science and historians do not believe in God. Two-thirds of the younger pupils in their colleges do. Why is the religious sense distributed in this curious way? No one, surely, will suggest that the elderly professors are so dissipated that the internal mirror of their religious sense is tarnished, and the young undergraduates are so refined and virtuous that in them the mirror is spotless and bright.
I really cannot help being a little sarcastic at times when I write on some of these arguments for the existence of God. Perhaps you think that I misunderstand or misrepresent the argument. Certainly not. Learned clergymen, amongst whom I have many friends, assure me that they rely no longer on arguments from design and First Causes, and so on. They appeal to the inner religious sense or instinct. You can read this in any quite modern religious work. And this religious sense — that is to say, the belief in God which expresses it — is certainly distributed in the curious way I have described. The more educated we are, the higher the proportion of unbelievers. The more the world grows in wisdom, the less belief in God there is.
It is surely plain that this so-called religious sense is, like conscience, an outcome of education and environment. There are four “faculties” or powers or senses or instincts in man from which one or other theologian has tried to deduce the existence of God. They are the intellectual, the moral, the religious, and the aesthetic faculty. Let me note in passing that in modern psychology the idea of special faculties or powers or instincts is not recognized. These are only abstract ways of regarding the mind.
In regard to the intellect, some say that as the universe is rational” and can be understood by the mind, there must be a rationality, an arrangement by mind, in the universe itself.
Bishop Gore repeats this in his recent book, “Belief in God.” The book, by the way, is only one more illustration of the desperate condition in our time of the belief in God. Gore is so overwhelmed by the growth of skepticism that be declares that the belief is “dead,” and he sees no immediate prospect of its revival. In the face of this dark situation — as it must seem to him — his book is really frivolous. Of its four hundred pages only about twenty are devoted to an effort to prove the existence of God! I say that this is frivolous, but the real reason is clear enough; there is no new argument for God, and Gore seems to feel that the old arguments have now little force.
He might at least have chosen some argument more plausible than this from the “rationality of the universe.” Its “laws” are, as I explained, merely man’s way of summing up its behavior. Its regulatory of conduct is just what we expect of a being without mind or will. Its order is an outcome of an evolution. If the human mind (and whatever minds there are on other planets) were blotted out tomorrow, there is no sense whatever in which the universe could be described as rational.
As to man’s aesthetic sense, or sense of beauty, on which Lord Balfour builds an ingenious and amusing argument for the existence of God, it is one of the most clearly evolved of man’s faculties. It is a higher degree of the dim sense of ornamentation in the blurred mind of the bower-bird. It emerged from the nebulous material of life or mind, and it will pass away with the last dwellers on the earth. It points to nothing beyond itself.
So it is with the moral sense, as I have shown, and the religious sense. It is only the general collapse of the familiar arguments, which have sustained faith in God for two thousand years, that explains these strained efforts to find supernatural meanings in natural things.
Indeed the argument from a religious sense is even feebler than that from a moral sense. We all have a moral sense, a perception of moral distinctions and obligation, and it generally grows with one’s progress in knowledge and refinement. It is just the reverse with this supposed religious sense. It decreases with knowledge and generally with refinement.
The truth is that there is no religious “sense” or “instinct” The idea that man is “eternally religious,” that the child naturally develops a sentiment of religion, is against the entire experience of our age. In spite of the efforts of hundreds of thousands of ministers of religion and wealthy clerical organizations religion is disappearing. If knowledge is light, as we commonly say, one is inclined to regard religion as darkness, when one notices how consistently the advance of the one means the disappearance of the other.
The believer in God ought easily to understand why so many are now disposed to regard preachers and religious writers as not honest. They constantly use arguments which have been long discredited and are not true to the facts of life. They talk of man as “eternally religious” while they see the educated modern world surrendering religion on a phenomenal scale, and refusing to accept the new religions or versions of religion that arise. “Modernism” does not appeal to the world in spite of all the ability and energy of its apostles. The cities of the world have done with religion. The villages will have done with it tomorrow. The claim of a religious sense is a flagrant defiance of plain facts.
As to children, in whom this religious sense is supposed to dawn, the statement is easily tested. I say — modern psychologists say — that what is called religious sense is a set of ideas and emotions implanted by education. Well, take children in different environments: without religion, with little religion, and with fervent zeligion. The children develop religion precisely in proportion to their environment and teaching. My four children, who were taught neither religion nor anti-religion, never showed the least inclination to believe. It is the consistent experience of Agnostic families.
Must we then be Atheists? It depends on what you mean by the word. Most people who do not believe in God — and there are millions of such in any modern civilization, if they are not the majority — do not call themselves Atheists. The word is taken to mean a denial of the existence of God, and most of us do not care to deny the existence of anything simply because it is not proved.
The few who call themselves Atheists, however, say that they merely mean that they have no belief in God. Agnostics, they say, are cowards who are afraid of the popular prejudice against Atheism. They quote a German philosopher who said that an Agnostic is an Atheist in a silk hat.” Atheist is from the Greek words “a” and “theos” (God), and the letter “a” is sometimes said to be “privative,” not “negative.” They do not deny, but they do not accept, the existence of God.
Unfortunately, the Greek particle “a” may be either negative or privative,” and from the days when the word Atheist was first coined it has meant, in the minds of the great mass of mankind, one who denies the existence of God. So I do not use it. I cannot prove a negative. The word Agnostic (“one who does not know”) seems better. Some have used it in the sense that the human mind is so constituted that it cannot know. That is a theory, and I do not share it. I mean, in calling myself Agnostic, simply that the existence of God — any God — is not proved. And, to finish with these definitions of terms, a Theist is anyone who believes in God, a Deist is one who believes in God and rejects revelation, and a Pantheist is one who believes that God is not a separate reality from the universe.
But it must be clearly understood, when we use the word Agnostic, that we do not mean that it is quite an open question whether there is a God or not. There is no respectable evidence whatever for God, and there is a mass of evidence which disposes us to believe that there is no God. The case for Theism is very feeble: the case for Atheism is very strong.
Let us, so to say, put all the evidence on this great question in two scales. Let us imagine God, if you like, using a divine balance to weigh the evidence for and against his existence, as it is found in the minds of men after two thousand years of controversy.
In one scale be puts all the affirmative arguments. He drops in, with a smile, the ancient arguments of Plato and Socrates and Aristotle. He adds the antiquated arguments of the Christian Fathers and Schoolmen, of St. Augustine and St. Anselm, St. Thomas and St. Bonaventure. Still smiling, be throws in the arguments of the Deists, of Paley, of Kant, of Fiske, of all the poets and philosophers of the nineteenth century. And I imagine that he still smiles when he finally puts in the arguments of Professor Bergson and Professor Eucken, and of the Absolute Idealists and the Personal Idealists, of Kelvin and Lodge, of Osborn and Millikan. There is not much in the crowded scale except mutual contradiction.
What is there for the other scale? All the tears and blood that these poor children of men have ever shed; all the pain and disease and suffering that have darkened this planet; all the brutality and injustice ever perpetrated; all the blunders and crimes that wisdom might have prevented.
The Modernist preacher and the religious scientist say sometimes that evolution is a more impressive revelation of God’s power and glory than creation. How soothing nice phrases can be! You will admit that the earth today looks rather godless. I have lately seen the poor shivering in the zero weather of Chicago and Minneapolis and Winnipeg. I have seen the seamy side of life in San Francisco and Los Angeles. I have seen the poor of Mexico wresting a pittance from the soil and shuddering under a threat of a new revolution. I read of impending war between Chile and Peru. I hear of Europe still laboring in the heavy seas of post-war time and meditating new wars. I glance with pity and wonder at the daily news-sheet of crime, brutality, death, suffering, stupidity, hatred, exploitation, privation and indifference. If I were God …
It is bad enough. But I know history, and I know that it is better today than it ever was before. Six thousand years of tears and blood! That was bad enough. It has left us a legacy of violence and stupidity that we shall take time to erase. And now, it seems, it was not six thousand years, but at least six million years of human life at the lowest and most brutal level; and, before that, six hundred million years — to count only from the dawn of consciousness — of animal savagery. This is supposed to be a grander revelation of God than if the carnage had lasted only six thousand years!
And the machinery designed to effect this evolution, from this new Theistic point of view, is not less revolting. There is no “law of evolution.” Living things do not go on evolving if you leave them alone. They change little as long as they remain happily adapted to their environment.
In my debates with the leaders of the Fundamentalists I was amused when they quoted as evidence against evolution the fact that large classes of animals make no progress whatever. Of course not. Why should they? They are adapted to their environment. They change only when there is some stimulating change in their surroundings; new enemies, new parasites, new dangers, new catastrophes — fresh pain and blood and death. Great changes of climate, Ice Ages, have been a most important part of the machinery of evolution. They led to very great advances, and, incidentally, they caused prodigious suffering and slaughter.
One of the “religious” scientists of America — there are fifteen, I believe — has written a learned book on the microscopic animals on which he is an authority. Because the organs of some of them are very ingeniously constructed, he puts on the title-page of his book an old German motto which I may translate:
God’s greatness in all things that be.
And amongst the “things” which he then describes are the germs of all sorts of loathsome and frightful diseases (syphilis, typhus, tuberculosis, etc.), and other parasites. How God must have smiled.
I do not know how many thousand types of parasites and carnivores there are in nature. I am at the moment a thousand miles out at sea. But does the number matter? From Pole to Equator every living thing has innumerable parasitic and carnivorous enemies. The earth is, and has been for hundreds of millions of years, a battlefield. Such is the carnage, even in modern times, that I have lately heard a surgeon claim that during those four terrible years in Europe, 1914-1918, more lives were saved, compared with previous years, than were wasted on the battlefields.
And we are now humane. We humans have improved the scheme of creation, or creative evolution. A hundred years ago more than one- half of the babes which mothers brought into the world, in pain and travail, never reached the age of twenty. Before that it was even worse. It took the human population of a country four centuries to double: now it would, if there were no birth-control, double in a quarter of a century.
Yes, you know it, you say. It has troubled religious thinkers ever since the doctrine of an infinitely powerful God was formulated. Hardly a single great Christian writer has failed to confront this “problem of the existence of evil.”
Very good. What have they said about it? Can you recall any serious solution of it that you ever heard? Suffering chastens the soul and improves character, say some. Is that your experience? In very few cases indeed of the millions of human beings does pain or affliction ever improve character. The excuse is frivolous.
But if we bear our cross properly, there is heaven for us, you say. Again, to what proportion of the human race does that apply? If the idea of heaven is an illusion, the entire argument is vicious. But even if there were a heaven, the excuse would cover only a small part of the pain of the world. It does not touch the entire animal world. Why were they created at all if it be a necessity of their lives that hunger shall drive them to seek food and that one-half shall hunt and rend and devour the other half?
Moreover, the argument does not even apply to the human family. If the accepted version of the conditions of admission into heaven be true, the part of the race which suffers most — the majority — will never enter heaven. Of all the men who lived before Christ, during many millions of years, you will expect to meet very few in Paradise; and their brothers, the lower races of today, will not be more fortunate. Of the civilized nations of today the least religious are the poorer workers of our cities, and it is they who suffer most. The elect, who will wear crowns, are oil-magnates and stock-dealers who gave millions for clerical charities, the comfortable dames of Fifth Avenue, the sheltered and not ill-fed clergy, and so on. Suffering does not generally purchase heaven. It is usually a foretaste of hell.
What other justification of the ways of God will you attempt? Nothing new has been discovered since the days of Job. It is a mystery.
Yes, it is a mystery if you believe in God. It is no mystery in our modern philosophy of life. Nature is unconscious. Out of its dark womb a dull glow of consciousness at last emerges, and living things begin to suffer. But mother-nature knows nothing of their sufferings. At last man appears. Still for millions of years be does not differ essentially from other animals. He has no large plans. He knows little of the world about him. He foresees no future. At last self-conscious, civilized man appears, and science is evolved. Then, with a fire of idealism in his heart, with the great powers of the material world at his service, be begins to right the wrongs and blunders which are a legacy from the less wise past. Is that philosophy not true to the facts of life as you know them?
“The only excuse for God is that he does not exist,” said a witty and wicked Frenchman of the last century. In a sense Henri Beyle’s stinging phrase is a platitude. If God did exist, could you find an excuse for him? No one has yet done it.
But they are trying again, and we must consider what they say. How one grows weary of following these changes of religious thought and argument! The supposed “constant changes of science” (which are really, for the most part, developments of what we already knew) are slight in comparison with the changes in theology, and science claims no divine inspirer who might be assumed to have an interest in guarding the race from error.
The latest plea is that, after all, perhaps God is not infinite in power. Perhaps there are limits to what he can do. Perhaps he could not prevent the pain and evil in the world. We save his benevolence, at the cost of his omnipotence.
Do we? The truth is that this theory, which was adopted by John Stuart Mill long ago, and is now favored by Sir Oliver Lodge and others, leaves us in a state of mind of the utmost confusion. What proof do you offer of the existence of this finite God? (English wits called it, when Mill introduced it, a “limited liability God.”) The order and purposivness of the universe, as usual. The finite God is, if not the creator, at least the designer of the universe, the mind guiding the forces of nature.
Very well. Then he directed the forces of life to produce the germs of typhus and cholera, the teeth of the saber-tooth tiger and of the twenty-foot sharks of long ago, the lust for blood of the lion and the wolf, the spider and the serpent. If he did not, why do you claim that he paints the sunset and the orchid, shapes the beautiful shell, or fashions the human eye? You want to leave the simplest microbes (when they are pernicious) entirely out of the list of things which be guided the forces of nature to produce and to include in that list the fashioning of such complex things as the human brain and heart. Nay, you want to ascribe to your finite God all the good impulses of the mind and heart and leave all the bad impulses as things which his limited power could not control.
Certainly a naive proposal to make to us! It is like saying that all the good things in nature clearly require an intelligent principle to explain them, and all evil things, which are just as intricate, do not require one.
But perhaps you would like to help out the argument with the hackneyed phrase that evil is only negative. So when your nerves tingle with the pain of toothache or headache or appendicitis, the sensation is merely “the absence of good.” The teeth and claws of the lion are as negative as the pain of the deer, perhaps. The toxins which poisonous microbes put in the blood are negative, and, of course, death is only the cessation of life. Poverty is only the absence of wealth. And so on.
Try again, my friend. I feel sure that you have a heart. Face the facts candidly. This world contains a mass of evidence that it was probably not designed by a God, and there is no serious evidence that it was.
But there is another new apology for God, and it is very proud of itself, because it is actually based upon evolution. We admit, it says, that there have been hundreds of millions of years of pain and brutality. We admit that the finger of God is not very obvious in the world today. But a brighter age is coming. A far higher race and better earth will yet appear. The dark tragedy of the past will be crowned by a glorious final scene.
Yes, I believe it. On evolutionary principles it is certain. We are only just learning the elements of civilization. We shall rise as high above the life of today as it is above the life of the ape.
But the idea that a few million years of happiness at the close justify a process of evolution (if it was consciously guided) which entailed hundreds of millions of years of misery for beings that die before the happiness begins is one of the most flagrant applications I ever read of the pernicious principle that the end justifies the means.
An English writer, H. Mallock, damned this argument twenty years ago. “Whatever be God’s future, we shall never forget his past,” he said.
Let us take it soberly. There seems to be nothing in the whole of nature which now seriously persuades us to believe that a God must have made it. Our telescopes sweep out over a million billion miles of space, and we find no more evidence than we do about us. On the other hand, there is a vast amount in nature that favors Atheism. It is the same with man. Nothing in his nature compels us to assume that the evolutionary agencies which developed him were guided. His imperfections, his age-long brutality, suggests that they were not guided. It is the same with his history. There is no finger of God in it from the first page to the last. His blundering, evolving intelligence and ideals account for everything, the good and the evil. In the long, torturous, bloodstained process of the evolution of his religions there is no more trace of divine wisdom than elsewhere.