The Story Of Religious Controversy
The Human Origin of Morals
- Theories of Moral Law
- Evolution and Morals
- Religion and Morals
- Moral Eccentricities
- The Christian Ethic
THERE are few subjects on which so much solemn nonsense has been written as on the nature of conscience and moral law; and there is no other phenomenon of the human mind of which it is possible to give so simple and natural an explanation.
There are few facts of human life which have been so deeply woven into the web of religious thought as what are called a man’s moral and immoral actions; and there are none which have so little real connection with religion.
There is no other element of our decaying religions which has been so reverently clothed by modern philosophers with a mantle of mysticism; and there is none which evolutionary science explains more clearly.
There is nothing which so readily brings together our modern oracles, inside and outside of the Churches, our preachers and essayists and editorial writers, as zeal for the august and eternal authority of moral sentiment; and there is nothing that has been more persistently assailed and more caustically ridiculed by a large number of the most brilliant literary men of our time.
There is no institution of the past that so universally commands the lip-homage of our skeptical and rebellious generation as well as of believers; and there is nothing in human history which has caused, and causes today, as much hypocrisy.
Clearly, we need a discussion of the nature of morality. We have seen what religion is, and how it evolved. We have examined the fundamental doctrines of God and immortality. Let us now, in the same plain and candid way, examine what seems to be the common ground of all idealism, the moral sentiment.
I begin, as usual, with facts. No one will question the universal, never-ending concern about morals in our press and literature as well as our churches; and few are likely to question the enormously widespread hypocrisy in practice. No one will question that a number of brilliant writers are anti-moralists, while most writers represent moral law as the supreme reality, the foundation of social life; the starry heavens above our head, as Kant said, the granite substratum under the soil of our cities, as Emerson said. And if any do not know the mysticism with which philosophers veil the moral law, or the ease with which science explains it, he will soon be informed.
This extraordinary confusion of thought is not so surprising as the reader may be inclined to imagine. It will, in fact, be most useful to understand the confusion itself before we go further.
Think of the evolution of man’s ideas in regard to thunder and lightning. To the blurred mind of primitive man, as in the blurred mind of a dog, these are simple facts. They occur. When man began to see that events have causes, and to believe that the causes in nature were spirits, he very promptly made a god of thunder and lightning. And it was a very great god: the sky-god, mountain-god, thunder-god of nature-religions.
When the higher religions made God spiritual, they still maintained that thunder was his voice, in a special way, and lightning his weapon. Even the simple explanation given by Franklin did not destroy the belief. In the law of civilized nations today it is an “act of God” when lightning shatters a building; even if it kills innocent children.
Moral law was another kind of thunder, and, being “spiritual,” it remained a sort of supernatural phenomenon even when man became fully civilized. Until modern times it was quite unintelligible. There was the law, no one knew why, no one knew whence. It was written in every man’s conscience, A strange thing, this, and philosophers set to work on it.
Philosophers never believe in revelation, and they do not love science. They were quite pleased when science began to explain the order of the heavens, the beauty of the rose or of the sunset, and the adaptations of organs. But science must not touch ” spiritual” things, they said. That was their business. So the confusion goes on; and the way in which theology is still allowed to dominate our education, our law-courts, our press, and a large part of our lives, maintains the confusion in the general mind.
You will see this clearly if I very briefly sketch the history of speculation on the nature of morality.
We have so little literature of the older civilizations that we cannot say much about the ideas of their thinkers, as far as they have had any thinkers, but we have found a little Egyptian moral treatise (“The Maxims of Ptah-Hotep”), of more than four thousand years ago, which seems to show that even then educated men who were not priests understood that moral law was simply a human and social law of conduct. That was the conviction of the two great moralists, Buddha and Confucius.
However, real speculation began with the Greeks. Most of the people who talk about “brilliant Greece” and “meteoric Athens” know very little about the subject. Earnest thinking about nature and man began amongst the Greeks, not of Athens or the homeland, but of Asia Minor.
We understand this today. The refugees of the splendid old civilization of Crete, which was destroyed by the early barbaric Greeks about 1450 B.C., went in part to Palestine, where they helped to civilize the Hebrews (who came later), and in large part to Asia Minor, where they civilized the Greek immigrants. As these Greeks of Asia Minor were independent of the religious bigotry of the homeland, they speculated with great freedom and wonderful success. They were really scientists, not philosophers. They guessed the vastness of the universe, believed in atoms and evolution, and made very little pretense of believing in gods.
As the history of thought is usually written, it is said that, fortunately, these “mere Materialists” were soon thrust aside, and the great thinkers of Athens turned away from nature and studied man.
In point of fact, it was a great misfortune; for it meant the strangling of science in its cradle. Moreover, these Greek thinkers of the homeland, while they rejected current religion, as all philosophers do, were much influenced by fear of the pious democracy; and the philosophical ideas which they gave the world instead of theology are now quite discredited.
First of them was the mystic Pythagoras. He is said to have been influenced by Buddhism. We can only say that it is a great pity that he did not introduce into Europe the Agnostic and purely humanitarian ethic of Buddha. Instead of that he discovered — I am quoting a high authority on him — that “the essence of justice is a square number.” Nice motto to put up in church or a law-court! Or is that why we speak of a “square deal”?
Socrates next searched the matter, and we are told that be did not form any “theory of morals.” He merely cleared up men’s ideas as to what is just, and insisted that the moral sentiment depended upon knowledge.
Plato, who was the first sociologist as well as a great philosopher, lost his balance between his two interests. It is clear that, as a student of social life, he saw that moral law is “utilitarian,” as we now say. It is social law, enforced for the good of society. But Plato also had a theory that a merely material world can produce nothing, and all truth, goodness, and beauty must come from a spiritual world or, as he said, a world of “ideas”: not ideas in the mind of man, but self-existing realities. The “good” was one of these ideas, and conscience was its voice and interpreter.
Aristotle, the most learned and logical of the Greek thinkers, did not believe in Plato’s ideas. No one does today. But, although Aristotle wrote the first treatise on Ethics (the science of morality) he did not succeed in understanding the nature of moral law, and he has left us no theory of it.
By this time all Greece was speculating — and there has never been any country like it for speculation — on moral law, and there were three main opinions. There was the Platonic theory; and Christian writers followed it later, saying that the “ideas” were in the mind of God. Then there was the theory of the Stoics and some others. Although the Stoics talked politely about the gods, it is fairly clear that they did not believe in them. For them moral law was just “the Law of Nature.” It existed. It was part of the scheme of things. A man was at discord with nature if he did not observe it.
The third theory was really our modern theory, or the correct theory. Probably the great early scientist and evolutionist Democritus first discovered the truth. At all events, there were soon several schools in Greece maintaining that the object and origin of moral law was simply concern for human welfare. Some, whom we call Hedonists, said that the test of a moral act was whether it promoted happiness (the Greek of which is hedone). Some made happiness consist mainly in pleasure. Others, like Epicurus, the last and sanest of the Greeks, though his views are nearly always misrepresented and slandered, said that moral acts were those which promoted a passionless tranquillity of life. Epicurus built on science, not philosophy, and tried to bring the world back to science.
But Greece fell, and the whole tradition of independent thinking perished. The Romans were poor thinkers, and most of them, being Agnostics, followed the Stoics or the Epicureans. Their humanitarian ideas did magnificent work for the world.
During the next thirteen or fourteen centuries moral law was simply held to be a divine command. When at last independent thinking began again, when the great Deistic movement attacked revelation, all the old ideas were revived. Some followed the Stoic theory, that moral law is the Law of Nature. Some connected it with the divine will, as revealed, not in a Bible but in man’s conscience. But some (Hobbes and Locke) more or less brought out its human significance: and already some (like Mandevilley satirized it as a superstition.
At the end of the eighteenth century German philosophers began, and from that day to this some weird theories of morality have been formulated. A vast library of the subject exists, and there is neither space nor reason even to mention all the theories here.
There are two main views. One is the old idea that moral law is a sort of eternal and august reality, either in “nature” or in God or in a mystic world which nobody can understand. It is “intued” (seen directly) by the mind, and so these theories are known as Intuitionalism. Against this a number of British thinkers (Hume, Bentham, Spencer, Mill, etc.) held that moral law is a human law regulating the welfare or “utility” of social life. These are called Utilitarians; and we shall now see how science stepped in amongst the philosophers, scattering them right and left, and proving that the Utilitarians were right.
The reader who is inclined to smile at the philosophers, or to wonder how the deepest thinkers of the race could wander so far astray, must face the problem as it confronted them.
Unquestionably there was in the mind of practically all men an imperious sense of moral law. Men might defy it, but they did not deny it. And it did not come from revelation, since it was just as strong among civilized people beyond the range of Christianity, or before the Christian Era. It was a great reality, and it had to be explained.
But until the idea of evolution arose again, there was no possibility of explaining it, at least fully. Some of the Greeks and the Deists could see how closely this law was related to the social interests of man. Justice, truthfulness, and self-control are obviously desirable social qualities. But there were parts of the law, like sexual purity, that seemed to have no social significance; and it was not at all clear how even the law of justice, however useful it was, came into existence. So the law was taken as a great fact, existing in the scheme of things apart from man, and “intued” by him through a special faculty which he called his “conscience.”
The entire situation was changed when the truth of evolution was proved. Some writers are fond of saying that evolution describes processes, but does not explain anything. You have here a good illustration of the foolishness of that gibe at science.
Evolution said that the human race had been evolving, from the savage to the civilized level, during at least some hundreds of thousands of years. This meant two things, as far as the great problem of the origin of moral law was concerned. It meant, first, that the law may have arisen amongst, or had been formulated by, human beings themselves long before the historic civilizations arose. This would explain how the ancient civilizations simply found themselves in possession of the moral code, and could therefore not suppose that it was drawn up by men. If they themselves had not formulated it, who had?
We quite understand their difficulty. But the difficulty would have disappeared ages ago if the theory of evolution sketched by the first Greek scientists, had been retained and developed. Then the Greeks might have learned how all their religious and moral and political ideas had been gradually forged in the workshop of experience, by a long line of developing ancestors. Evolution lit up the whole problem, and nearly every other problem.
Secondly, evolution said that the lower races of men in the world today represent the various phases of evolution through which the race has passed. Take a simple illustration from the roses on a bush. The rose in full bloom or decay certainly passed through the stages of bud and half-opened flower which you see on the bush. So the race passed at one time through the successive stages represented by the Veddah, the Australian, the Bantu, the Polynesian, and so on. Circumstances drove one branch of the race onward and kept other branches behind, at various stages of development.
If this is true, we ought to find every stage in the evolution of moral ideas and conscience in the innumerable “savage” tribes scattered over the earth.
Here again, you see, the philosophers were at a great disadvantage. They had not the slightest reason to suppose that savages could throw any light on the difficult problem they were examining. Not even the wisest of them could be expected to look in that direction. In fact, very little was known about savage tribes, still less about their ideas. Books were in circulation among the learned Greeks describing how the entrance to the lower regions was about the Rhine valley of today, and how dog-headed men and all sorts of monstrosities lived where we now find tribes whose ideas are of the greatest value to us.
So we do not smile at the older philosophers and their “theories of morality.” We may be pardoned, however, for smiling at some of their modern successors, who repeat the old mysticism as if science had not altered the whole situation.
Take Professor Eucken, of Jena University, whose works on morality and religion have a large circulation in England and America. Professor Osborn in one of his works mentions Eucken as one of the German scientists who have returned to a religious view of life! Eucken knows nothing whatever about science. He is a professor of philosophy. He is one of the most popular writers of the advanced or Modernist religious school.
Now, Eucken’s teachings about morality — I translated two of his books, and so I am familiar with his views — show very clearly why many philosophers and their religious readers cling to the old mystic theory, and reject the evolutionary theory, of morality.
Let us first glance at two earlier thinkers, both so famous as moralists that we can hardly omit them from a chapter on morality. One was the eighteenth-century German philosopher Kant. He was tremendously impressed with the imperiousness of conscience. It does not, he says, tell you to do this or avoid that if certain, consequences follow your act. It dictates absolutely or “categorically.” He therefore invented the famous phrase, “the categorical imperative.” God must be behind it, Kant said. And the answer is that there are no “ifs” about the moral impulse simply because men had, largely under the influence of religion, actually forgotten that it was their own race which laid down the law, and why it laid down the law! It had become a peremptory command, enforced by education.
The second moralist is Emerson who, though he does not see a personal God behind the moral law — these “inner senses” never tell two men the same thing — thinks it quite as categorical as Kant did. It is an eternal and commanding law, and so on. That is the chief weakness of Emerson’s fine writings. Carlyle has the same weakness. There is no such categorical and eternal law. There are simply rules of conduct, obviously of a social significance, which society impresses upon every child, man, and woman; and there is a good deal of uncertainty about them.
Rudolph Eucken makes the same mistake. He starts, he says, from “the facts of the moral life.” You soon see that he means only the facts of his own very strict moral life and delicate conscience. Of the phenomena of moral consciousness in the race at large he knows nothing. Of the revolt of sincere modern thinkers against moral codes he can give no sensible explanation. He lives in a hot-house, and then thinks he can tell us the normal temperature in which the rest of us live. And this applies to the Felix Adlers and other ethical philosophers who tell America what to think about moral law. I ought to add that the English philosopher, Professor Carveth Read, has written a much more sensible book (“Natural and Social Morals”) on the lines of Evolution.
Evolution has made all this mysticism superfluous; and it is the only explanation of moral law in which you can put any confidence, because it is the only theory which takes into account all the facts of moral life.
Since the days of John Stuart Mill and Herbert Spencer our knowledge of savage ideas has grown enormously. In such a work as Professor E.A. Westermarck’s “Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas” (2 vols.), which is the greatest recent scientific study of ethics, you have the moral ideas and practices of all the backward fragments of the human race.
All the fine theories of philosophers break down before this vast collection of facts. There is no intuition whatever of an august and eternal law; and the less God is brought into connection with these pitiful blunders and often monstrous perversions of the moral sense the better. What we see is just man’s mind in possession of the idea that his conduct must be regulated by law, and clumsily working out the correct application of that idea as his intelligence grows and his social life becomes more complex. It is not a question of the mind of the savage imperfectly seeing the law. It is a plain case of the ideas of the savage reflecting and changing with his environment and the interests of his priests.
The philosophers do not even explain, or candidly confront, all the facts of the moral life of civilized people. One of the most striking features of normal moral ideas is that the approval or censure of an act is overwhelmingly proportionate to the social value or social injury of the act. Wherever religion or superstition has perverted the conscience, you may get very extraordinary notions of sin: amongst the different castes of Hindus, for instance, and amongst savages. You get mortally serious rules about washing, sneezing, coughing, excreting, wearing hats, and so on. But in proportion as men rise toward a rational order — an order prescribed by rational consideration only, not by blind subservience to tradition — the ideas of the moral and immoral come to coincide more and more with human and social interests.
Why is justice the fundamental and essential moral law? It is a vital regulation of social life. Why is murder the greatest crime? It is the gravest social delinquency. And so on. It would be a remarkable coincidence if this mystic law of the philosophers and the theologians, existing before man existed, and surviving when he disappears, just happened to agree so well with the social interests of the observers of the law themselves!
For a hundred years, ever since men of science began to take an interest in the curious tales of travelers, it has been disputed whether such and such tribes have any moral or religious ideas. The uncertainty was due in part to unskillfulness in the observer. Very often he made no allowance for possible influences of missionaries, who are apt to put their creed in the black man’s childish language and he reproduces bits of it in his legends. Often, again, the observer of the tribes, especially if he is a missionary, asks the natives if they are conscious of “sin” and “duty” and “remorse” and “God”; and, since they have not even words for such things, he bluntly says that they have no religion and no morals.
The whole literature upon which we draw for our knowledge of the religious and moral ideas of lower races is full of these contradictions. Lord Avebury (“Origin of Civilization” — one of the first works on these lines) concluded generally that savages have “no moral feeling”; and his “savages” were, as usual, a medley of tribes at all levels of culture. One writer says: “The Reashin has no moral sense whatever; whereas it is well known that the Indian’s code was high.” The Hottentots in particular, and blacks in general, are said to have “no moral sense”; but a high authority tells us that “the strictness and celerity of Hottentot justice are things in which they outshine all Christians,” and another says that “one of the most marked characteristics of black people is their keen perception of justice.”
One authority says that the Tonga Islanders (a high race) have “no words essentially expressive of … vice, injustice, and cruelty”; and another says that they “firmly believe that the gods approve of virtue and are displeased with vice.” I could extend the list indefinitely.
But the man who studies morality in the light of evolution is not troubled by these verbal contradictions. They are just what he expects to find. Ask three travelers to a certain region whether the natives have government, shops, churches or art. One will say “no,” one “yes,” and the third “a sort of government,” etc. We more advanced peoples attach meanings to our words which do not apply to the corresponding culture of the natives. It is entirely in harmony with evolution. In Australia the highest authorities on the natives have assured me that they have “no religion and no morals”; and they have then assured me that the natives have an elaborate belief in spirits, especially the spirits of certain remote and very powerful ancestors, and a relatively high code of character.
It is religion and morals in the making. It is, from first to last, a massive testimony to evolution. Everything in the world testifies to it. Everything in the world is illumined by it.
Hence we cannot expect to put our finger on a point in the history of the race and say: Here religion begins, there morality begins. They rise gradually, with a long dawn. Peoples who do not even believe in spirits — and there are some — clearly have no religion; but at what precise point the belief in the shadow becomes religion no sensible man will try to say.
It is the same with morality. The lowest peoples have nothing corresponding to conscience or a conscious code of conduct, but they more or less automatically follow a code. At a higher level of intelligence they are conscious of a code, but it is merely “custom.” At a still higher level the spirits of the dead are said to be just as interested as the living community in the observance of this code. Religion and morality enter into combination.
They arose independently, from quite different roots. No modern authority questions it. And they remained independent for some time. Of the Bambala of the Congo an authority says: “There is no belief that the gods of spirits punish wrong-doing.” Sir E.F. Im Thurn, the great authority on the Indians of Guiana, says that they have an “admirable” code of conduct and an elaborate Animistic religion, but there is “absolutely no connection” between the two. An authority says of the Comanche Indians: “No individual action is considered a crime, but every man acts for himself according to his own judgment, unless some superior power should exercise authority over him.” Another says of the American Indian generally: “In his conception of a God the idea of moral good has no part.”
Such quotations will be found by the score in Westermarck’s book, from which (unless a reference is given) I borrow them. But if we are equipped with the evolutionary theory, we shall look carefully for the germ of the higher growth even at the lower level; and we shall always find it. Morality and religion gradually, and in large part naturally, blend.
The second element of the evolution of religion, the deification of the more striking parts of nature, which gave religion its great gods, was much slower in blending with morality. These big spirits did wonderful things, and were admired at a distance. But there was always a tendency in some of them to become moral deities, because they could do so much harm or withhold so much good. The moon, a very popular early god or goddess, did no particular good or harm. But the sun was a terrible tyrant in the tropics. The sky might cause a drought by refusing rain or might send thunder and lightning. The water-god might cause floods. The fire-god burned houses. The wind-god sent destructive hurricanes. And so on.
Chiefly, however, it was the deified ancestors, not the nature-gods, who were concerned with the observance of custom. They had made the customs. They took an interest in them. And, although Herbert Spencer and Grant Allen were wrong in thinking that ancestor-worship was almost the only source of the making of gods, very many were made that way. Even great gods of the historic religion, like the Osiris of the Egyptians, are believed to have been ancestors. The Romans deified their Emperors. The Christians deified Christ, and the later Buddhists made a god of Buddha.
Now in the blending of tribes into kingdoms, when it was necessary for the rival priesthoods to adjust their deities, ancestor-gods were often fused with old nature-gods. Osiris was blended with an old sun-god. These wise deified old ancestors were particularly interested in proper conduct, and Osiris became in time the judge of the dead. The wicked were seen to flourish in this life. Very well, said the priests, they will get it in the next: which happens to be a good deal longer. So we find nature- gods turning ethical. Even Jupiter and Zeus were guardians of justice. They were the sky-gods, the dispensers of rain and sunshine, the fathers of all men.
Yet Zeus-Jupiter-Dyans-Thor (the old sky-god of the Aryans) was believed to have had not the slightest regard for sex-rules; and there we come to a new and interesting chapter in the evolution of morals. Many of the nature-gods had, as I said, a natural tendency to become ethical. They sent rain or sunshine or fertility; they caused drought, fires, storms, and floods. One had to gratify them by observing the rules. And one of the most important of all, when men learned agriculture, was the goddess (in a few places god) of fertility. The spirit of mother-earth was even more important than that of father-sky.
But, quite naturally, the fertility of the earth became closely connected with a woman’s fertility. At first human beings copulated like cattle, not even knowing — the Australians did not know it — that the man begot the child. In time love and fertility became one of the mightiest facts of life in the mind of men. The most tremendous force, the most beneficent thing, in the world was the spirit of sex-pleasure. This gave a twist to the primitive moral rules; and, as the spirit of war just as naturally became deified at the same time, another grave perversion of the humanitarian code of conduct, as we understand it, occurred in moral evolution. These and other eccentricities we will now show to be a normal part of the evolution of conscience.
Preachers still shudderingly refer to one of the “abominations” of ancient Babylon. They tell how the women had to go to the temple and have commerce with a man before they could marry; how little crowds of the less pretty women might be seen at the door soliciting the interest of casual sailors and other men of little taste and much feeling. As Frazer strangely repeats this in his “Golden Bough,” there is some excuse for the preacher. But we now know that it is an entire falsification of life in the city of Babylon. There were, however, temples (and probably an old one in Babylonia) where this was done, and where there were sacred prostitutes.
From the last part of the last section the reader will now begin to have an idea of the meaning of this strange perversion of religion and ethics. These were relics of the middle stage of man’s religious evolution. The spirit of generation, in man and in nature, was just as likely to be deified as the sun and moon. The act of generation then became in a sense a religious act. The god or goddess was interested in its happening, not in its prohibition.
Moreover, it was socially a very desirable thing. The army wanted men: the men wanted wives and slaves. Disease and war wrought terrible havoc, and population was urgently needed. The development of polygamy, which is not a primitive institution, was scarcely enough. Concubines were allowed. It suited the masculine nature.
On the other hand, it came to be believed that human copulation could influence the fertility of the earth, by a sort of sympathetic magic. When scientific men find drawings of deer in a prehistoric cavern, they tell the whole world: it was magic. The artist believed he could bring the animals nearer and have a profitable hunt. When the same scientific men find a drawing of a male organ, or a woman with an exaggerated pubic part carved out of a bit of mammoth’s tusk, they say: “How naughty,” and shut it away. Why not the same magic?
At all events it is certain — the belief and practices based upon it lingered in Europe in the Middle Ages — that men came to believe that by human generation they prompted the fertility of mother earth. This easily led to what we call license or promiscuity. The great nature-festivals were marked by orgies of sex-pleasure; especially as there was prodigious eating and drinking. Priests of the goddess discovered, to their advantage, that it was particularly fortunate for women to have commerce with them. Priestesses were not likely to avoid the act of which their goddess was the presiding genius. Large carvings of the sex-organs stood unblushingly in the temples: until Englishmen and Americans came along in the nineteenth century.
Just as natural and intelligible that is to say, from the evolutionary point of view, and no other — is another very large category of perversions of conscience which, perhaps, are the greatest causes of people’s contempt of their lowly relatives. In science “savage” means a being at a low stage of intellect and culture. To the general public it means a blood-thirsty, cruel scalp-seeking or head-hunting monster.
Savagery in this sense is not a primitive quality of man. Those lowest fragments of the human race to which I have often referred are not at all “savage.” The Tasmanians, it is true, were so wicked as to fight for their land when Europeans wanted it. The Maoris, Red Indians, and others were equally wicked. But at the most primitive level man is peaceful and honest.
At that level man is neither a hunter (except in a very small way) nor an agriculturist. He has no “tribes.” The development of hunting gave man a taste for blood, and the crystallizing of human groups into distinct tribes, with rival hunting grounds, gave men a great taste for each other’s blood. The peaceful Yahgan type was succeeded by the less peaceful (but not bad) Australian type, and this by the fierce South American Indian, the Dyak head-hunter, the Fiji cannibal, the terrible Zulu, and so on.
Under this heading I must not quote. The list would be endless. But you see the principle. Tribal organization and hunting involve conflicts about encroachments on each other’s grounds or areas. Conflicts lead to wars. “Savagery” becomes a social quality. The tribe, in self-defense, wants fierce and ruthless warriors. Spies and prisoners must be tortured and killed. The world begins to run with blood. And since conscience is the interpreter of custom, of the interests of the tribe, it sanctions everything.
The growth of society while man is still so imperfect helps this. Men accumulate “property,” and other men steal it. A prettily carved stick or a deadly spear tempts a neighbor. With the growth of Animism, these things are believed to have “medicine” or “manu” or some supernatural force. A man can’t make that. He steals it. And, as justice is still slow and imperfect, the victim retaliates. Murder is more common, and murder leads to blood-feuds, all over the earth. Revenge becomes a terrible and legitimate passion (as there is no electric chair).
Here religion or superstition enters, and makes things worse. One great root of these moral eccentricities is that the spirit of the murdered man has to be appeased. It may, otherwise, make itself very unpleasant. The murderer must die, if he can be found; if not, somebody belonging to him must die. In fact, the Loucheux Indians used to lacerate themselves after a funeral, to appease the spirit of the dead man. Some of the California Indians would kill the murderer’s best friend, not the murderer, on the idea that it inflicted more pain. The Maoris, Aetas, and others would, after a murder, go out and kill the first man they met. Others would kill the first animal they met. Thousands of such aberrations of conscience are easily understood.
But graver evil is done, and worse eccentricities arise, by the transfer of the care of law from living society to the spirits. I do not envy the man who some day will try to answer the question: Has religion done more good or harm to the race? Believe me, it will require a ledger as large as the “Encyclopedia Britannica.” Let me give here one illustration out of hundreds.
The spirits or gods, who are gradually credited with concern for conduct, are the counterparts of living men. Heaven is always a feeble reflection of earth: of the hunting grounds of the Indian, the harem of the Asiatic, or the dull intellectual world of the Christian philosopher. In the early stages the active spirits or demigods are even worse than men. They are generally devils. At the best, they follow the character of living humanity. Man smites the offender or, if he cannot find him, smites his wife, children, and relatives. Then be smites the family and relatives as well as the man. He visits the sins of the father on the children and on all his kin.
He comes to believe that this is just; and the priests approve it everywhere. In early Chinese law all male relatives of an offender were responsible. The Catholic Inquisition wrought terrible harm to the families of heretics: and for sordid reasons. Mexican law enslaved the children of a traitor to the fourth generation. Athenian law — law generally, in fact — banished the family with the father. Plato and Confucius were the first to condemn this principle.
It was a ghastly stage in the evolution of thought when this was transferred to the gods. Very early it led to human sacrifices. “Off with his head” was the refrain constantly on the lips of kings; and the spiritual kings were believed to be just as bloodthirsty. Somebody had to die to appease them. The larger the number of victims, the more the gods would smile. Thousands of victims in a day were sometimes ripped open in Mexico. In ancient Europe and nearly all over the earth the gods’ altars stank with human blood.
The advance of humanity — the reform never came from the priests — led to some curious modifications of this. In Peru, where the priests wanted the blood of children for the sacrament, they were in the end only permitted to punch the children’s noses. In ancient Rome dolls were strung on little trees at mid-winter instead of the old human sacrifices. In China paper images of men were burned. Generally, animals were substituted for men; but there was a peculiar development in the “scapegoat.”
Sin began to be treated as a sort of unpleasant commodity that you could unload on some other person; just as an Arab will bend down when you are cursing him and let the curse fly over his head. That was in part the meaning of the human sacrifice. And as the gods wanted something good, not any shabby old thing, kings and kings’ sons and daughters had to die. This, in conjunction with another idea which we see elsewhere, led to “sons of God” taking the sins of the world upon themselves.
But every variety of scapegoat is known. The Hebrews (“Leviticus, XVI”) had the childish idea that they could unload the sins of the people upon a goat, which was driven into the wilderness. The “inspiration” was quite common. The Maoris transferred their annual accumulation of sins to a fern, which floated on the river out to sea. The Badagas of India prefer a calf, which is driven into the jungle (and is probably happy ever afterwards). The Egyptians chose a bull. The Iroquois Indians transferred all the sins of the tribe once a year to a white dog, which they (more prudently) burned. The Peruvians washed their sins off in the river, as the Hindus do in the Ganges today, and the spiritual animalcule were supposed to float out to sea.
Much less amusing was the development in the direction with which we are more familiar. Where there was only a very dim idea about the future life, the prosperity of the wicked was always a terrible problem. Why Shamash, or Jupiter, or Zeus, or Jahveh, permitted so much injustice, no one could say; for the Babylonians, Romans, Greeks, and Hebrews had no definite ideas of the life beyond the grave. Other peoples had no problem. They invented hell. Their gods would pass the record of the most ferocious torturing kings that had ever been. They would keep their victims alive for all eternity and torture them all the time.
I am not concerned here with the agony that this awful belief has caused, or with the religious persecutions, witch-burnings, and Inquisitions it inspired. I am noting it as one of the most awful aberrations of man’s moral instinct under the influence of religion. It so got into the blood of men that people who considered themselves highly intellectual and refined in modern times could see no harm in it. Gladstone and Roosevelt believed in hell! (I tried hard to think of two other eminent men not politicians or theologians, but could not.)
And another aberration of the moral sense under the influence of superstition was cannibalism. No doubt it was sometimes due to primitive lack of humanity. sometimes to economic pressure (as the killing of the aged often is), but it was very largely “sacramental.” You got the strength or virtue of the eaten man. This led, in mystic ways, to the rather common religious practice of eating the god, or communion; though there is another root to this, as we shall see. Head-hunting was another perversion inspired by religious beliefs.
Probably the largest and most eccentric moral aberrations were due to religion in precisely the field where it claims its highest service.
One great human tendency which we have seen made for sex license. There were others, however, which made for the restriction of sex. The menstrual trouble of women was one. They were periodically “unclean.” In childbirth, the superior male thought, they were again unclean. All sorts of tabus grew up, and the sex act began, over large areas, to be regarded with suspicion. Priests and priestesses were forbidden it. Sacred seasons were not to be contaminated with it. Men and women began to believe that one became wonderfully wise and enlightened if one avoided copulation; and others became wonderfully holy. Out of it all arose, also, the contempt of woman, of which Egypt and Babylon knew nothing.
It is difficult to see how any man or woman, knowing even the few facts which it is possible to give here, can doubt the modern theory of moral evolution. We are not taking a few bones of prehistoric man and guessing how he lived. It is there, all over the earth, today. Religion and morals, and the combination of the two or ethical religion, are actually in the human workshop, being made. We more advanced workers have finished the job and are watching the apprentices.
Yes, you may say (with a sigh), it was a natural evolution: unguided, wasteful, replete with the folly of childhood, dark with the awful impulses of the real savage. But the time came. Revelation of a holier law broke gradually upon this world. God made himself known to one or two peoples — why to one or two, or so late, we don’t know — and bade them purify the conscience of the world. Stumbling man was taken by the hand and led — at last.
This is as false as the idea that God created man and watched over him. Nothing new or original appeared in Judea. Monotheism was already known. An ethic higher than that of the Hebrew prophets already existed.
Even while I am writing this, in the heart of London, the papers tell that an English clergyman is in terrible difficulties with his flock, because he declines to read certain Psalms in church. You can guess which Psalms — those about dashing the heads of little children on the stones, and so on; and these Psalms were written quite late in the history of Judea! And the English congregation rises in wrath, and says that these things shall be regarded as the Word of God! Nothing miraculous or new or puzzling happened when Christ appeared. The stream of natural moral evolution just flowed on.
I do not say “stood still,” remember. It was flowing all the time. In the year 1 A.D. it ought to be much further than in the year 1000 B.C. There would be no great miracle if the world were more enlightened in 500 A.D. than in 500 B.C. It was a thousand years older, and three great civilizations had meantime added to man’s heritage. (As a matter of fact, the world was not more enlightened in 500 A.D. than in 500 B.C.)
The only point here is to complete my story by inquiring if the new religion fits naturally into it. And instead of making a number of general statements for which the evidence cannot appear here, let us take two or three of what are commonly said to be the greatest moral innovations of Christ and Christianity.
The first is, of course, the Golden Rule. Let us take it humanly. Nobody is ever going to love his neighbor as be loves himself. It can’t be done. The human emotions are not made that way. An ideal ought to be something that can be realized. But we need not worry about this. You are, of course, aware that the Golden Rule of life in this sense — “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” — is a quotation from the Old Testament. It is not a Christian contribution to the pretty sentiments of moralists. It was centuries old when Christ quoted it.
And as the Old Testament, as we have it, was written only late in the fifth century B.C., its doctrine of brotherly love is more than a century later than that of Buddha. Moreover, Buddha meant universal love. Every man was not the Jew’s brother, or his neighbor. I presume you know enough about the ancient Jews to know that. The Jews never even professed to love anybody but Jews; and they hated quite a lot of those. A quarrel between Jews is something to see. But Buddha, as any work on him will tell you, demanded that every man should love his fellows as a mother — these were his words — loves her children.
Let us take the Golden Rule in its proper and more or less practical form: Act toward others as you would have them act toward you. It is a most admirable principle. It puts the Utilitarian theory of morality in a nutshell. It is so obvious a rule of social life that one is not surprised that few ever said it. It is not profound. It is common sense. If you do not want lies told you, don’t tell them. If you want just, honorable, kindly, brotherly treatment from Cyrus P. Shorthouse or James F. Longshanks, try to get it by reciprocity.
Rather a good word, is it not, reciprocity? Well, the famous and Agnostic Chinese moralist Confucius gave that as the Golden Rule six hundred years before Christ was born, and nearly two hundred years before the Old Testament, as we have it, was written!
You may shake your head, and say that you have heard that Rationalist story before. Confucius, you may say, only taught the Golden Rule in a negative form: Do not unto others what you do not want them to do to you. That statement is found in the whole of Christian literature. Christ went much farther than Confucius.
Well, presuming that you do not read Chinese, and that the translation of the Chinese classics is not available, open that most accessible of books, the “Encyclopedia Britannica” at the article “Confucius.” It is written by a Christian missionary and fine Chinese scholar, Dr. Legge, and it has been available to every Christian writer for years. Dr. Legge says, quoting the expression Golden Rule: “Several times he [Confucius] gave that rule in express words: What you do not like when done to yourself, do not do to others.”
At last a disciple asked him if he could put it in a word. He gave the composite Chinese word “reciprocity.” Dr. Legge tells us that it consists of the two characters “as heart”: let the impulses of your heart be the same as those you want in your neighbor’s. And lest you should still insist that perhaps it was only negative, Dr. Legge goes on: “It has been said [it is said by nearly every other Christian writer] that he only gave the rule in a negative form, but be understood it in its positive and most comprehensive form.” No Chinese scholar differs from that; and Professor Westermarck gives other sayings of Confucius to prove it.
Yet, but, you say, there is the counsel to love even one’s enemies. Did any moralist in the world ever urge such a refinement of virtue before Christ?
Alas, yes, (Pardon the sigh, but I never love my enemies. I think it would be bad social policy to do so. It rather encourages the mean and unjust.) The Old Testament says: “Thou shalt not hate thy brother.” Perhaps that is not conclusive, but it does not matter, as the counsel had been given quite explicitly long before.
The great Chinese sage, Lao-tse, a contemporary of Confucius and nearly as Rationalistic as Confucius, said: “Recompense injury with kindness.” That is near enough; and the doctrine seems to have been common in the humanitarian ethic of China. Later, in the fourth century B.C., we find the chief disciple of Confucius, The great moralist Mencius, who seems to have been the first in the world to condemn war, saying: “A benevolent man does not lay up anger, nor cherish resentment against his brother, but only regards him with affection and love.”
There in the heart of Agnostic China, three hundred years before the Sermon on the Mount was delivered, you have the complete doctrine of loving your enemies as a commonplace of humanitarian morality.
Buddha in India taught the same doctrine. Love was to be universal, he insisted; and in the Dhammapada we read: “Hatred ceases by love: this is an old rule.” It seems, in fact, to have been as common in India centuries before Christ as it was in China. In the “laws of Manu,” compiled early in the Christian Era, but consisting of ancient Hindu writings, it is said: “Against an angry man let him not in return show anger: let him bless when he is cursed.”
Non-Christian European moralists — Socrates and Plato, Seneca, Pliny, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius — all had the same sentiment. “We ought not to retaliate, or render evil for evil to anyone,” said Socrates, quoted approvingly by Plato. Seneca wrote a whole treatise on “Anger,” condemning it in every form. It is therefore not in the least surprising that, when Greek influence began to be felt in Judea, as we see in Ecclesiastics and Proverbs, the same sentiment is reproduced. “Thou shalt not hate thy brother,” was already written in Leviticus; but, as I said before, the Jew’s “brother” always meant a Jew. The sentiment, however, was now so common in every school of moralists that the finer Hebrews naturally adopted it, and, through the school of the Rabbi Hillel, it passed on to the Christians.
Here, then, is a sentiment, which thousands of Christian writers have claimed to be entirely original in Christ, actually found to be a commonplace of moralists for hundreds of years before Christ and in the “pagan” world. I trust the Christian reader will see in this a striking illustration of the way in which he is misled; but I will carry the argument just one step further.
It occurred to no Christian, not even to Christ, that, if this moral sentiment is lofty, it ought pre-eminently to apply to man’s conception of God. On what principle must Christ as man love his enemies, and Christ as God devise for them an eternity of fiendish torment? And, since God, the ideal, was held to punish transgressors of his law, human and ecclesiastical society everywhere continued without scruple to do so.
We realize today that this is immoral. We inflict penalties to deter would-be transgressors, not as punishment. Who introduced this idea into the world? Plato and Aristotle. They taught the Greeks that the “punishment” of a criminal was “a moral medicine” and a deterrent. Then came Christianity, and the sentiment was lost. Punishment, as such, was more abominable than ever. At last a group of humanitarians won the reform. Who were they? Grotius (a liberal Christian or semi-Rationalist, and the least effective), and then Hobbes, Montesquieu, Beccaria, Filangiere, Feuerbach, Schopenhauer, and (above all) Bentham — all Rationalists, most of them Agnostics.