The Story Of Religious Controversy
Do We Need Religion?
THE criticism of religion seems to be an unpopular job. I am, as more zealous and self-sacrificing purveyors of skepticism will assure you, really a timid and innocuous person, yet I have had my life threatened in Sydney and have been protected by friendly guns in Denver. I have heard ladies of Minneapolis regret that none had the courage to shoot me, and British Spiritualist clergymen have deplored in their journal ‘Light,’ that I have never yet had the horsewhipping which I have merited. Friends have rushed before me in the streets of London to protect me, they imagined, from a vitriol-thrower, and sailors have been bribed by clergymen of the southern seas to put my luggage ashore a thousand miles away from my destination. I have been forced by the pressure of the Catholic Church on a London publisher to tear up a literary contract worth at least twenty thousand dollars, and have had my books shamelessly misrepresented in the press and expelled, under menaces, from booksellers’ shops. Insults, injuries, intrigues, lies, libels, vituperations, depreciations ….
But it was all done in the name of religion, so I expect little sympathy. Ages ago there was a small semi-barbaric people called the Hebrews who believed that their fate was indissolubly linked with certain objects mysteriously secreted in a pretty box which they called the Ark of the Covenant. It now seems probable that the sacred objects in the Ark were rough stone models of interesting parts of the masculine anatomy; but mystery was always more entitled to respect than knowledge, and the Hebrew shuddered at the prospect of a conqueror robbing him of his precious Ark. Far away to the north of Judea was the great old city of Troy, and its fate also was inviolably linked with a mysterious stone on which none ever gazed: a stone which, we now see, was either a meteorite or a phallic model. And centuries later even the Romans said that they hid this sacred “Palladium” of Troy in one of their temples, and the fate of Rome in turn depended upon its being preserved secret and inviolate.
Religion is the Ark of the Covenant, the Palladium, the magic stone of civilization, and I have dared to lay light hands upon it. Without it, without an awe-stricken veneration for it in the mass of the people, we perish. Every oracle of modern times assures you of that.
The statesman, who naturally knows best on what tangible and intangible threads our destinies hang, tells you, in accents which are vibrant with sincerity, that our people rely upon our devoted clergy for that which is incomparably higher than bread, and therefore places of worship shall forever be immune from the sordid trammels of taxation. Our editors, even if they do at times politely suggest to the clergy that St. Athanasius has not a very clear title to rule our intellects, are fervent and irresistible in their final conclusions that religion must inspire our lives. Our wise judges command their gravest gravity when they refer to it. Our educators and financiers cannot conceive a world without it. Our professors and literary men are, of course, superior to the creeds to which statesmen subscribe, but their intellectual serenity and Olympic survey of life restrain them from ever disturbing the allegiance of the millions to religion. Only a superficial writer here and there, a half-educated person like myself, a mechanical pen-pusher who has not given to the subject of the truth and value of religion so much profound thought as have our politicians, policemen, colored preachers, editors, mothers-of- seven, zoologists, and literary critics, would ever dream of challenging the vital importance to us of our Palladium.
Since the days when I began to study for the priesthood, forty-odd years ago, I must have read many thousands of religious books — Hindu, Persian, Chinese, etc., as well as of every Christian sect and every Christian century — and tens of thousands of scientific, historical, philosophical, and sociological works which illumine religion from one angle or another. How is it that I have never been able to see the truth which professors grasp in a few hours spared from bugs, and politicians in a few moments spared from billiards? It irks me. Let me try again.
What is religion? Many years ago I had a colleague in the Ethical Culture movement in England who was a very learned and profound philosopher, Professor Bosanquet, and presently he quitted the movement and declared that he had come to the conviction that men could not be good without religion. One was puzzled because the Ethical Culture people say that ethical culture is a religion: indeed, the only religion that really does good. However, I looked into Bosanquet’s religion, and found that it consisted in a veneration for the Absolute, as set up — not described, since, being absolute, it is incomprehensible — by Professor Hegel (and promptly knocked down again by every other school of philosophers). Then there came into the movement a Professor Hoffding, who was just as learned, and he said that the Absolute was as mythical as Moses, and that religion consisted in “the conservation of values.” At one meeting of ours George Bernard Shaw was induced to give the sermon, and after withering the religion of everybody else under the sun, he explained authoritatively that the only religion on which we really did depend was the cult of our Vital Principle and vegetarianism, Then Mr. H.G. Wells spoke up and said ….
You see the difficulty. A hundred and twenty million people in the United States are convinced that religion is vitally necessary — Seventy millions of these pay much less attention to it than they do to the color of their socks or stockings, but they seem to agree with the editors and politicians that it is of overwhelming importance. Of the remaining fifty millions one-third say that religion is morally futile except in a sacerdotal and sacramental form. Its great service is that it gives “grace,” without which you are sure to fail, and only priests can communicate this medicine or magic. The next third of the fifty millions spit their contempt on what the first third call the essential service of religion, and say that the really saving part of religion, the only part that does real good, is to believe that Christ died for your sins and to regard the Old Testament as the Word of God. The third third — Modernists, liberal Episcopalians and Methodists, Congregationalists, and Unitarians — genially rule out both the other thirds and say that the only necessary kind of religion is to believe in the love of a personal God and worship him. And then, at least four fifths of our most learned men step in and assure us that there is no personal God.
This is the actual situation. I do not in the least caricature it. We might, with the large-heartedness of a politician, whose votes are rained upon him by both the just and the unjust, say that it does not matter which religion we cherish as long as we have some religion. In fact, that is the common attitude on this question. Your neighbor tells you with an air of robust and unanswerable common sense: “They all do good.”
That kind of robust common sense is sheer nonsense. How does your friend know that they “do good”? Half his neighbors go to church and half do not. Is there any difference between them? He has a Catholic chapel near him and sees quite a decent lot of folk clustering round it. But the religious ideas are just the same in some poor Irish quarter, some Mexican or European or South American town, which excite his disgust. In Chicago, it is claimed, one Million people out of three million are Roman Catholics: in London only a quarter of a million out of eight or nine millions are Roman Catholics. Yet crime is, in proportion to population, thirty times as common in Chicago as in London. The only two countries in the world today in which the settled principles of political morality are outraged — Spain and Italy — are Roman Catholic, and the other countries which approach the same condition — Austria, Bavaria, Poland, etc. — are Catholic: and in each case the Pope warmly supports the usurpers and persecutors. How can you say that the religion does good?
Let us try to be reasonable with our neighbors. We do not want to score points, but to secure agreement. The first condition of that, however, is that our neighbors must reflect, and not lightly repeat the shibboleths of the political orator or the editorial. For we may rule out at once four classes of influential men who promote the circulation of this fiction that all religions do good and some religion is necessary.
The first class is the politicians. We are, surely, under no illusion here. It is a question of votes, not spirituality. The clergy can secure for a man or take away from him the margin of votes which means victory or defeat.
The second class are the clergy themselves. When they divided the whole community between them they reviled each other’s creed. Between them they proved that both the Catholic and the Protestant creeds are at once the only inspiration of life and the most terrible sources of demoralization. When the bulk of the community sensibly concluded that neither seemed to be necessary they united to say that some religion is a vital need, and that at all costs we must preserve the old attitude of prejudice against rank unbelief. We quite understand that. Religion is their bread-and-butter. We rule out their opinion.
— I will presently consider another class of them who are sincere — are simply afraid of the clergy. Their chairs are threatened, or their freedom to teach science is threatened, or their comfort is threatened. Silence about religion is prudent, but a word in its favor is profitable.
As to the editors, I am sufficiently intimate with the journalistic world to understand them. I have heard a famous journalist, a skeptic, whose graceful professions of Christian faith were read, whenever they appeared, by nearly two million people, say airily, when he was challenged (at a dinner party): “Oh, the people like that sort of thing.” Not for a moment do I suggest that any large proportion of editors are as unscrupulous as this. Their general attitude is simply one of trade rivalry. If the Bugle attacks religion or fails to favor it, the clergy will see to it that the Cornet gets twenty or fifty thousand of its readers. Skeptical readers never trouble editors, but religious readers have an organization behind them. The editors themselves are healthily cynical. When a London journal with seven hundred thousand readers, the Dally News, made several years ago a very serious and sustained effort to take a plebiscite of the religious views of its readers, only fifteen thousand responded, after weeks of intensified advertisement, and four thousand of those were Agnostics.
Of the literary gentlemen, who spend their lives studying each other’s style and telling us what to think about it, I would rather say nothing. Is there anything more cynical than the newspaper practice of getting these gentlemen occasionally to give them a symposium on religion? Even H.G. Wells, who has given some
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Let us try, in our usual way, to conceive exactly the meaning of our words. Most religious controversies would be admirably simplified if the disputants first spent an hour brooding upon the meaning of the fundamental terms of the controversy.
Religion, we are told, is necessary for personal morality. Yes, well, what precisely is necessary? We at once split these confident people into three violently antagonistic groups: the Catholic group, which refuses to recognize any other religion as adequate, the blood-of-Christ group, and the Modernist-Unitarian group. All that they agree upon is a useful phrase, “Religion is necessary.” That is about as profitable as telling a sick man that medicine is necessary. He wants to know which medicine. These religious people no more agree in their hearts that any religion will do than a doctor would say that any medicine will do for a patient. The medicine of the Catholic is in the Baptist’s opinion moral poison.
So we not only rule out the great majority of the writers and orators who urge the necessity of religion, since they are either insincere or are economically interested, but we encounter a difficulty at once with the others. They are certainly insincere when they say that any religion will do. The only formula upon which they can honestly agree is, “Any religion is better than none.” But if you know these religious folk as well as I do, you know that they do not put much heart into that formula. Mere belief in God, without ministers or a divine Christ, will not do, they are convinced. Thus they rule out for us the second group, the anemic professors. They have a sneaking contempt for Unitarianism — a diet, they would say, of cereals and apricots for dock-laborers — and as to Christian Science, Theosophy, Spiritualism, Steinerism, Keyserlingism ….
So the best thing to do is to use a little robust language and tell them all, in the name of humanity, that we want neither gods nor Christs nor priests nor hells, but we can manage our own business without any of them. That is the proper and only way to settle this question.
We are not even going to say that “we have conducted God to our frontiers, thanking him for his provisional services.” His disservice has been greater than his service. It is time that scholars, or any writers, grew ashamed of the crude and hypocritical practice of picking out a few saints who were inspired by the love of God (and the promise of a mighty reward in heaven) or a minority of refined folk who took their guidance from religion. It is either stupid or hypocritical to urge upon us this minority and never glance at the vast majority. The thesis that these people put before us is that religion is necessary precisely for the great majority, not for the refined or educated or naturally amiable minority. I have shown that a moral culture, the Stoic, the Epicurean, the Confucian, or the pure Buddhist, which entirely ignored gods, always proved at least as effective as any religion that ever existed. I have minutely, on contemporary, evidence, examined the morals of Europe in every age since it became Christian, and I have shown that the idea that any Christian generation was morally superior to ours, or nearly equal to ours, is a grotesque historical absurdity. I have just read Jeffery Farnol’s “Beltane the Smith.” Farnol is the best historical novelist of modern times in the sense at least that he is the most conscientiously historical; and in this novel he depicts life in the most developed and most esteemed century of the Middle Ages. It is a bloody mush of coarseness, misery, violence, and un-bridled license. It is a true picture. And from that day to this the world has slowly and gradually improved, almost in exact proportion to the decay of religion. While Christianity made this stinking mess of Europe, the essentially godless empire of the Moors in Spain was proving that culture was a real inspiration of honor, justice, and refinement.
That is the second mortal weakness of this cry that we need religion. The first is the insincerity of nine-tenths of the writers and speakers who keep it in the public mind. The second is that it is mockingly belied by the whole of history. I have given this mass of evidence, logically arranged, that the morals of Europe sank into anarchy when it became Christian, improved a little under Moorish and Greek influence, but were still foul when the great decay of religion began in the nineteenth century. Did you ever know any clerical writer or any religious historian to attempt, in the same scientific and orderly manner, to survey the general state of morals from the fifth to the nineteenth century? There is no such book. They dare not write it. And then they unctuously repeat the parrot cry that our morality needs the support of religion.
I have many friends in the new movement which claims that we need religion, but a religion without any doctrines, even a belief in God. Some of its oracles, like Professor Felix Adler, the leader of the Ethical Culture movement, are as bigoted and narrow-minded as orthodox ministers — significantly, these are Theists — and will never have the least influence on the mass of people. Most of them are men and women of fine character, more or less broadminded (according to their degree of Puritanism), who sincerely think ethical culture as a religion is vitally necessary. Many Unitarian and some Congregationalist bodies hold the same position — the good life for its own sake, without any emphasis on God — and large numbers of unattached Agnostics and Theists favor the movement. It is the new white hope of civilization.
Now religion in this sense is small, but it is going to become a serious question. The inexorable pressure of culture will in the course of the twentieth century oust dogmatic Christianity and dogmatic Theism, and the churches will gradually become Ethical Culture societies, still claiming that they stand for religion. Priesthoods do not die. They shrink and evolve. These existing societies will never make much impression on the world that has already ceased to attend church, but the societies themselves will increase in number as churches shed their dogmas and become societies.
The psychology of this kind of religion is in part the same as that which we found for religion in the ordinary sense. The momentum of the tradition of churchgoing takes some, social considerations take others, and the activity of organizers or leaders brings many others. There is also in this world a kind of vanity of virtue which is, psychologically, just the same as the vanity which others find in vice or dress or sport. Further there are numbers who are convinced that it helps them to remain virtuous if they listen to a man talking to them about virtue for an hour every Sunday and then stand in rows and sing a hymn about it.
And the answer to this last group, the serious people of the new religion, is that most of us get no help whatever from that kind of performance. It rather tends to make us bilious. A second and more drastic answer is that this new religion has — pardon the expression in so august a connection — no kick in it. It offers less motive than a Christian Church does … It has never made up its own mind what is the nature of moral law, yet it says that moral law is the most important thing in life. It has not come to any agreement as to the nature of moral law because, while men like Felix Adler have the fantastic philosophic idea of it, most of their followers know that moral law detached from a divine will is simply social law, and therefore the virtue of chastity as such loses its foundation. The only formula on which these people can agree is, “The good life for its own sake”: which either means that honor and honesty pay in the world, or that we think them very pretty in themselves — and that is the very feeblest of all motives that you could offer to people under temptation.”
So that is where we stand. The majority of religionists urge that we must at least believe in God; and that is one of the most disputed and vulnerable beliefs of modern times. The minority say that moral idealism is so fine that it of itself commands allegiance; and that is a kind of language which the mass of people in any modern civilization will greet with smiles.
There is not the least need for either one or the other. Suppose you appointed a committee of scientific men to work out this problem on the methods of a practical scientific inquiry. What would they do? They would at once establish two facts: first, that somehow through the ages moral conduct has not varied with changes of religion, and secondly that there has been a very considerable moral advance in the last hundred years. They would then ascertain the causes of the modern advance, and would at once rule out religion. It is plain as an arc lamp that religion has not had more influence on this and the last generation than it formerly had. It has lost enormously in influence. The millions who do not go to church or read the Bible may or may not have some sort of belief in God, but you know them, and you know what a feeble and unpractical thing it is. General education is the principal cause of the advance. Better and wiser education will mean further advance. The next chief influence is the evolution of higher standards of character by a minority of lay writers and thinkers, and most of these either bad no religion or thought out human problems independently of it.
The other great problem of this practical and scientific committee would be to ascertain why “immoral” people are immoral. The clergy have the most stupid ideas on this point. They do not realize the revolutionary change in the nature of what they call immorality. People do not now so much transgress a recognized law as question whether there is a law. The fiction that the law is universally recognized is as hollow as the fiction that it needs the support of religion. Anybody who now asserts this is lamentably ignorant of the facts of life, and he takes an utterly superficial view of the facts of life. The august and eternal moral law of Emerson or Eucken or Adler has no more existence than the Olympic family. What exists is a moral tradition, handed from generation to generation; and this generation of ours is asking if it really has a more solid foundation than the tradition of royalty or bishophood.
The confusion is made worse by the common habit, especially of religious and ethical people, of insisting that the traditional code of conduct is an indivisible thing of equal authority in every line. Some parts of it are clearly disputable, and the effect of this insistence upon taking it as a whole is that many people reject it as a whole and get confused.
It is, in fact, an open question whether the time has not come to drop the word “morality” as well as the word “religion.” its associations are hopelessly sentimental, antiquated, and antagonizing. It is like the syrupy drinks of our childhood. I doubt if we shall be more successful in giving the word a new and palatable meaning than the ultra-Modernists have been in giving a new meaning to “religion.” I should not be surprised if the scientific committee I have imagined would not recommend this course. People will be more moral when they do not know it.
Let us talk plain English. There are a few paradoxical people who say that it will be just as bad to talk about honesty, truthfulness, kindliness, generosity, justice, and self-control. Apart from the love of speaking or writing paradoxes, which is supposed to be an imitation of Nietzsche — it generally reminds one of children trying to talk to each other in Shakespearean language — these people must mean one of two things. Either they want to find other people honest, truthful, just, etc., in their relations with them, or they don’t. If they choose the former, they lay down the law: they recognize that it is desirable that we should all cultivate those qualities. But if they are determined to be “unprejudiced,” as they would say — there is much vanity and pose in it — and reply airily that they ask no virtues of others, they obviously mean that they rely on their cunning or strength or the law to hold their own. That ends the argument. We may leave a few young folk the luxury of feeling superior to prejudices in this way. The disease will not spread. Most of us do not contemplate a social order in which our relations with each other will be a series of lies and counter-lies, frauds and counter-frauds, without an atom of mutual respect or attachment. It is not the odor of virtue that attracts us: it is the stink of disorder that repels us.
The quarrel is one of those verbal and hollow quarrels which arise in every age that writes and disputes much. It is not worth discussing further. I am arguing against the religious man, not the Nietzschean (or pseudo-Nietzschean). The religious man entirely agrees with me … What? Yes, of course you do, my friend. You picture to yourself this world in which there would be no recognized standard of conduct but only a battle of cunning and spite and cupidity, and you shudder with horror. You agree that it is a social matter. But you needn’t shudder. Men have too much common sense to drift into such a state of things. We don’t want the good life (in these respects) for its own sake. We want it, we will have it, and we are getting it in more abundance every decade, for its value. That is precisely why you hope to slip in a word for your antiquated religion. You are offering us crutches. Thank you, we know the need to get along, but we discover that we have legs. If a well-ordered society or a manly and reliable character is so very desirable — you agree, don’t you? — why such a roundabout way of getting it? It is medieval nonsense. This is a business age.
Moralists have been in the habit of distinguishing between social virtues and self-regarding virtues: habits (justice, honesty, veracity, etc.) which are useful because it would be to the profit of all of us if they were generally cultivated, and habits which affect no one but oneself. Any quarrel about the future of the social virtues is negligible. The police will look after grosser breaches — if we look well after the police, which religion never does. And education, public opinion, and the experience of life will secure what does not concern the police.
Once upon a time — and it is not many centuries ago — no one had a pocket handkerchief, even amongst the gentry and nobles, and men made rude noises whenever and wherever they would. Without the slightest assistance from God and his ministers we have altered all that so drastically that a breach of the new laws is almost unthinkable amongst educated people. It is nonsense to say that we cannot socially enforce laws or standards of conduct.
And we shall have the help of other changes which are occurring. A vast amount of sourness of character, hypocrisy, secret cheating, even crime, has been caused by indissoluble marriage or inadequate arrangements for the relief of the unhappily married. When we shift the hand of the clergy finally from these matters and regulate them solely on social principles, we shall make more progress. The increase and better distribution of wealth also help to reduce crime. In most civilizations the workers and the small middle-class are four times as well off as they were a century ago, and this economic improvement will continue, to say nothing of other possible changes.
All these influences make for a better type of character, by which I mean an habitually just, honest, honorable, generous, firm, truthful, self-controlled character. I do not mean the stained- glass-angel business. How much a man smokes, drinks, or dances, what sort of shows or books he enjoys, and so on, is not the business of the moralist. It has never been considered a “sin” for a man to make a fool of himself, and excess in these things is rather a matter of folly. If we can get more honesty in business and politics. more truthfulness and geniality in social life, more justice in industrial and all other relations, the rest is far less important. The principle, at all events, is clear. When a man’s conduct becomes socially Mischievous, society will sit on him. It will be done more promptly when we no longer leave it to God.
One of the funniest things about these people who fear, they say, that society will never be able to enforce its laws of conduct is that they are actually making a most tyrannical use of the power of society. They are dreaming of a whole series of prohibitions, and in the name, not of religion, but of morals. These interferences with personal liberty are more provocative of moral rebellion than anything else in the world. Our young folk are beginning to loathe the word “morals,” and I do not blame them. It is moralists who are making it necessary to abandon the word morality.
When we get behind words and know exactly what we mean, there is little dispute. Qualities or modes of conduct and character which are highly desirable in order to maintain and increase the amenities of life can obviously be cultivated without any talk about eternal laws and gods and devils. Let children be taught in school the real reason why conduct necessarily has limitations in a social group, and it will be found far more profitable than telling them about the flora of Tierra del Fuego or the dates of battles in the Civil War.
There is only one real controversy: sex. Drunkenness is not a moral problem. In countries which are dealing with it on sensible lines it is decreasing every decade. A hundred years ago, when certainly the majority of men who could afford it got drunk habitually, the clergy had very little to say about it. In Catholic moral theology drunkenness is a “venial” (light) offense unless a man quite loses the use of reason “in a bestial manner”; and even this principle has never been taken strictly. All the fuss about drink, which would have astounded even priests when all the world was Christian, has originated, like so many other asceticisms, in our skeptical age.
But, as I said, the actual experience of countries which discourage drunkenness without interfering with the liberty of sensible men is that drunkards decrease in number every decade, and are now relatively few. We are concerned with general laws. The man who merely exceeds occasionally, with no damage to anybody except his own head and stomach, may very well tell the moralist to mind his own business. I know Roman Catholics of distinction who have these occasional “binges” and stoutly maintain that neither church nor state has anything to do with the matter. The people who are shocked had better learn a little common sense.
The thing that warps the entire moral controversy of our time is sex. Clergymen are the worst, the crudest, moralists in the world. They do not even know what morality is. Bat they set the standard, and nearly the whole of our press and periodical literature whoops after them. During a stay in Christchurch (New Zealand) I once found an editorial in a leading paper bluntly telling the local clergy, who were goading the women to a purity campaign, to mind their own business. Such frankness is rare. The whole precious aroma of morals is usually concentrated in the words purity and chastity. The novelist gets his thrill by making the hero reserve his last cartridge to protect the heroine from “the thing that is worse than death.” The films win the permission of the police and clergy to exhibit the vamp in all her skin-tight loveliness, or the wicked man just sinking over the languorous heroine on the couch as the picture fades out, by crowding blushes into the titles and subtitles. The papers revel in sex, and groan over it. The British clergy, to the dismay of Fleet Street, have lately got a law passed prohibiting the publication of reports of the evidence in divorce cases (which in England always include adultery), and no politician dared to make a stand against the puerility.
The gods, if there are gods, must rock with laughter at the stupendous spectacle of hypocrisy, stupidity, lying, sneaking into dark places, mutual deceit and mutual fooling. And this is the moral situation in which the clergy take the greatest pride. Your sound education, they would say to me, may reduce crime, and secure more honor and honesty, but it will never either maintain or protect — here the voice sinks to a low vibrant note — the purity of our women.
I have many Agnostic friends who in this respect use the same language as the clergy, yet I repeat that the situation is grotesque. This for two reasons. First, the Christian Era, before our un-Christian days, reeks with sex-license from the fifth century to the nineteenth. I could fill a volume of a hundred thousand words with explicit testimony to this by Christian writers in every age. A large number of the Popes themselves were notoriously immoral (some for unnatural vice), and the license of prelates, priests monks, and nuns has been colossal. The notion that Christianity has been a special guardian of purity of women is not a theme for discussion. It is a joke.
The second reason is that just as notoriously the cult of chastity is the greatest swindle, the most widespread hypocrisy of modern times. In England and the United States, the two shrines of modern Puritanism, there are — I reflect and calculate before I put this down — more professional ministers of love than professional ministers of religion. Half the married men seek variety abroad and are acrid with jealousy at home. Three-fourths of our films and novels turn on immorality, and this is merely because the overwhelming mass of the public will have them so. The producer who purveyed only pictures of chastity would face ruin. Catholic films even have to be allusive at times. The best story is always the sexual story. The most popular novelist is almost always the one who refuses to recognize the law of chastity.
The world reeks with rebellion against sex-restrictions and then, with the exception of a few outspoken writers, agrees that our ideal of purity is our noblest possession and religion its essential guardian. I have made no specific research into this, but I think I can appeal to my reader. How often do not the clergy figure in your daily paper in connection with sex-offenses? Do you find professors, doctors, or lawyers in the same position as frequently as you find clergymen? Surely not. I should say that if some person with plenty of leisure cared to compile the lists of cases, he would find that these clerical guardians of our chastity figure in the daily press for sex-irregularities three times as frequently as any other correspondingly large body of professional men. I have three further sources of information. I was once a priest: I have a large acquaintance with medical men: and I have considerable knowledge of the experiences of domestic servants. The clergy are far more immoral than teachers, doctors, or lawyers, and Catholic priests are, naturally, more immoral than Protestant clergymen.
If it were not for this tyrannical obsession of chastity, this cowardly lip-homage, this almost universal cozening of each other, we should settle the matter on sensible and decent lines in a generation. The confusion itself points plainly to one fact: half of us at least are no longer Christians, yet we are pretending that we are under the obligation of Christian law and, knowing that we are not, we secretly ignore it.
Here very many people who are not Christians will demur. I have in mind a distinguished American, one of many men of high character and culture whom I know, and he is as stern on the law of chastity as any saint. He once almost turned me out of his house for defending a certain brilliant writer of amorous habits. My friend is an Agnostic. This chapter, if he ever reads it, will disgust him; as it will disgust great numbers of Agnostic Unitarians and Ethical Culture people. The law of chastity, they say warmly, is not a distinctively Christian law. It is — cosmic — it is —
Well, what the devil is it? I defy them to say in plain English. What Kant or Emerson or Eucken says about it is not plain English. We have got beyond verbiage of that sort. There is a law of justice, of veracity, and so on. We quite understand it. The foundation of it is solid social requirement. But where is the foundation of your law of chastity? It is either in God, in Christ, or in the clouds. John Stuart Mill, the first Ethical Culture philosopher, “the saint of Rationalism,” saw that clearly. He gave it up. But he never said so. It is from private letters of his, first published by me in my “Life and Letters of G.J. Holyoake,” that I learned it. In 1848 Mill wrote to Holyoake, who was strictly Puritanical:
The root of my difference with you is that you appear to accept the present constitution of the family and the whole of the priestly morality founded on and connected with it — which morality, in my opinion, thoroughly deserves the epithets “intolerant, slavish and selfish.”
In the same year Holyoake took the unusual course of returning several of Mill’s letters to him, fearing “they might fall into the hands of the authorities.” As Mill had not the least sympathy with Socialism — he was the leader of the Individualists — the sentiments of the letters which scared Holyoake are such as I have just quoted. Amongst his papers, in fact, besides the letter I have quoted, I found half a letter which also escaped his notice. Mill says in it:
The use of the word “morality” is likely to give an idea of much greater agreement with the ordinary moral notions, emanating from and grounded on religion, than I should suppose you intend.
Well, I am content to agree with the man of whom Lord Morley, comparing him with Gladstone, once wrote (in a letter which he forbade me to publish): “He was as much Gladstone’s superior in character as he was in intellect.” Mill was in practice and taste a Puritan, but he was inexorable in logic. The law of chastity is “priestly morality” and “emanates from religion.” European-American civilization bows to it (in theory) only because Christ endorsed it. He did not, of course, invent it. Every moralist of those centuries, from Pythagoras to Marcus Aurelius, urged it. Three thousand years earlier Egyptians had protested in their prayers to Osiris, “I am pure, I am pure, I am pure.”
The real evolution of the idea has never been traced — it is one of those literary tasks I have had in mind for years, but have now no hope of realizing — but it will, when accomplished, make a volume of rare attraction. The first root of it is probably the monogamous tradition of the earliest men which, the practice of the apes suggests, goes back to animal days. Moralists make the silly mistake of saying that modern tendencies portend a reversion to “primitive promiscuity.” On the contrary, all the evidence suggests that quite primitive man was for millions of years monogamous, and it is the moralist’s ideal which is primitive. Originally it meant that the sexes were equal in numbers (there was no war), that a man with sheer animal impulses and nerves did not feel the monotony, and that he kept his wife “virtuous” by means of his club and he himself was kept virtuous by his neighbor’s club. Then, in time, the mysteries of woman’s processes began to intrigue the savage mind, and tabus began to grow. Then the cult of a goddess of love suggested sacrifices ….
But it is useless to attempt to trace the evolution here. Civilization took over the law of chastity from barbarism six thousand years ago, and religion adopted it. In its earlier form it was simply — for Egyptians, Babylonians, Hebrews, etc. — “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife”; it did not forbid concubines and harlots. In the first millennium before Christ, however, priestly and philosophical ascetics arose everywhere, and “chastity” was evolved. The more philosophers glorified the spirit, the more the flesh was depreciated. The Essenes of Palestine got these ideas from the Persians, and Jesus got them from the Essenes; and two thousand years later this marvelous scientific civilization of ours, this generation which cuts off the heads of kings and boasts of its independence, bows down to the commands of a dreamy and hallucinated young carpenter who spoke at street-corners in ancient Galilee.
One of the next and most piquant stages in the evolution of chastity, will be when Modernists have the courage of their convictions. If Jesus was not divine, be may have blundered on this point as he did in regard to the end of the world and a hundred other things. There is therefore no law. The Old Testament authoritatively forbids only adultery; and we agree that married folk should keep their contract as long as they hold each other to it. The belief in a God has in itself nothing to do with the matter. It is rather funny, in fact, to imagine the Almighty, if there is one, taking any interest in the copulations of mortals. The religious person does not see the humor of this because he curtly says that God is “holy” and must disapprove of such things. He forgets that he has to prove that sexual intercourse has anything to do with holiness. It is precisely the question at issue.
The future, at all events, is clear. The law of chastity, in so far as it is a law for modern civilization, is based entirely on the Old and New Testaments: and nearly the whole of modern scholarship regards them as pious fiction. Even if they do give the words of Jesus, which is hardly credible, his authority has gone. We are working out the clear formulation of social law without the entanglement of laws “emanating from and grounded on religion.” Christians ought, I suppose, to observe their own law — though most of them never did, and half of them do not now and never will — but non-Christians may justly request them to mind their own business. When they try to make it their business by invoking “the voice of conscience” and “the universal moral sense,” they talk psychological rubbish. There is no such thing. A man’s feeling of obligation is the plain product of education and environment and faithfully reflects them.
And when religious people go further and speak about social consequences, they do but prepare a rod for their own backs. To talk, as some of them do, of an approaching time when women may find the streets unsafe is too silly to be discussed seriously. As to other consequences to women, any injury to them at once falls under social law. The kind of brute who brings grave trouble on a girl and runs away will be hunted down; but women are developing the sense of self-possession, and conception is now easy to avoid.
On the other hand, within ten years writers will turn truculently on the moralists and preachers and ask them to count up, if they can, all the misery and suffering their law of chastity has caused and causes all over the world today, all the joy that mortals might have had in their brief lives and the clergy have persuaded them to sacrifice for an illusory heaven, all the dreary waiting and anemia and nervous disease, all the sourness of disappointment and the feverish anxiety to secure a mate. I never see a trainload of maids returning from their work but I reflect on the ghastly havoc that lies behind all this hollow rhetoric about “the Christian purity of our women.” Yes, I admit that religion alone can sustain the law of chastity. The only thing that superstition can sustain is superstition.
I do not propose to deal here with the vaguest, and therefore most valuable, of the claims of the religious apologist; namely, that religion, the Christian religion in particular, is the progressive principle or ferment of modern civilization, that the Bible is the source of England’s (or America’s or Germany’s) greatness, and so on.
Does any neighbor urge you to see that it is the Christian nations of the earth that have been progressive, while the Chinese and Japanese were stagnant, and other races not even civilized? You have the answer. Until the latter part of the nineteenth century the Chinese civilization was superior in every respect to the Christian, and the Christian — to be accurate, a few out of the score of Christian civilizations — only began to make rapid progress and surpass China at the time when they began to discard their Christianity. Does he insist that at all events there was a progressive principle in Europe and America, and China lacked this entirely until Christian nations communicated it? You have the reply. China’s geographical isolation was the cause of its stagnation — the old Greek Christian Empire was just as stagnant when it was isolated — while the close contact of the varying cultures of the score of Christian nations was bound to make for progress; and what has happened in China is not the communication of any Christian element but the extension of this secular principle of clash of cultures to it.
Whatever form this argument takes, I have given you the answer to it. Historically it is an absurdity to couple together the words Christianity and progress; and if you seek patiently what elements there are in pure primitive Christianity which ought to make for social progress, or might conceivably make for progress, you perceive at once how incongruous such a claim must be. The general argument is based crudely on two facts: the material or economic progress of Christian nations since the fifteenth century which quite obviously has nothing to do with any religion, and the social, moral, and intellectual progress of the last sixty or seventy years, which coincides with, not a revival, but a decay, of religion.
In connection with all such questions, all historical claims of the beneficent action of the Christian religion or any religion, let me urge the reader who wishes to be in a position to answer these fallacies to keep steadily in mind four periods of history. These are: Athens in the fifth and fourth centuries B.C., Rome in the first and second (and even fourth) centuries of the present era, Arabian and Moorish civilization from the tenth to the fifteenth century, and the modern period from about 1850 onward. These non-Christian periods were brilliant and progressive. In comparison with these essentially irreligious periods (as regards their inspiration) the record of Christendom is ugly and barren. It was these other idealisms, of Greeks, Romans, Persians, and Moors, that counteracted the benumbing influence of Christ’s teaching in Europe and led the world back to the paths of progress.
We have seen all that. I am concerned here only to show how I was, even in the study of long dead periods and cultures, preparing the reader to understand the reply to claims that are made from every pulpit in America today. The question might be approached along a different line. We might ignore the past and, in a purely scientific and sociological manner, analyze the amazing progress of the last fifty years, dissect out its impulses and inspirations, and study these in themselves. This also, however, we have already done. The advance of science is the chief factor, both in its immense multiplication of our resources and in its stimulation of the imagination of the race; and with that advance religion has had nothing whatever to do. Education is the second great factor; and we saw that it was initiated chiefly by non-Christians, largely opposed by the Churches, and only successful when the secular States undertook it. Not even in our moral and social progress, our new idealisms and philanthropies, is it possible to trace religious influence. Humanitarianism was the impulse; and the roots of this go back through the French Revolution and the Deists to the Renaissance and the Moors, while the sap of it is the blood in the heart of man.
But let us have done with popular apologetics. It is based upon a mass of grotesque historical untruths, fragments of generally antiquated and always ill-understood science, and psychological and philosophical arguments which were abandoned decades ago by psychology and philosophy. At the Fundamentalist level it is — pardon the expression: I can’t help it — tripe. At the Roman Catholic level, even in the works of Zahm, etc., it is little better and even less honest. But at what one may call the comparatively respectable and well-meaning apologetic of the higher level — congregationalists, Episcopalians, Methodists (who are better in America than in England), etc. — it is very bad; grossly inaccurate and reckless in its statements of fact, and scandalously willing to be content with verbiage. At the highest level of all in the Christian world, the Modernist, the weakness for mere verbiage is at its worst. The more these religious apologists know, the less disposed they are to use plain English.
Many of my readers will think that I ought to ignore all these extravagances and consider patiently the claims of a more thoughtful and conscientious minority. This thoughtful minority, which is very apt to be supercilious when one notices the lower apologetic, has little influence and never will have much influence. Its writers are merely silly when they tell me that I am “flogging a dead horse.” I am perfectly willing — always striving to be as courteous and obliging as I can — to flog them also, but they ought to know quite well that in examining the claims of popular religious writers and preachers I am not flogging a dead horse, but a very live and sturdy ass. I have too much esteem for this refined religious minority to care a cent about their religion. It won’t do much harm. It is the millions who concern me.
However, let us hear what the intellectual aristocracy of the religious world have to say on this subject. It is at once apparent that on the question of the need of religion they say much the same as what they would call their less enlightened Christian brethren. Most of them know that character has really greatly improved, not deteriorated, in the last fifty years of skepticism. They are aware that everywhere outside America crime has been steadily and very materially reduced, and that political corruption, paralyzing the action of the police, is mainly responsible for the unfortunate position in America. They therefore fasten with particular fervor on the question of chastity and the family and I have shown that any social anxiety they profess in this regard is baseless. To their fear that the words of Christ may not receive due attention I am quite indifferent. For me, and the modern world generally, he died a very long time ago.
Let us try again. These people say that our “utilitarian” theory of morals may, when it is properly embodied in education, make people generally just, honest, truthful, and so on, but that there are finer shades or graces of character which religion alone will sustain. Let me point out first that these good people look out of the wrong window because they insist on calling the social theory of conduct the “utilitarian” theory. Yes, I know. Some of the early Rationalists themselves accepted the name. But if you want to repeat it after them, you must ascertain what they meant by utility. It was something very much broader than you mean. Social morality is the better word. The real utilitarian theory of morals is the Christian. It says that virtue pays in another world a dividend of ten thousand percent, with good security.
The social or utilitarian theory of morals simply means that any qualities of character or modes of behavior or reaction which are desirable which promote the general comfort amenity, pleasantness or welfare generally — are obviously worth cultivating on that account. Hence our “graces” and refinements of character are either not desirable or “useful,” or we will retain them because we like them. I am almost inclined to say that these are the easiest things for public opinion to enforce.
There is here another readjustment of ideas which is made necessary by the change in fundamental beliefs. The sensual man was never a good Christian. I know as well as any how fond of good cheer, and even good liquor, Christians can be. Bryan was a notorious glutton. But it is very far away from the ideal of Jesus and Paul, the oracles of Fundamentalism. The reason is that a man who indulged his senses was more apt to be tempted and to “sin.” The new ideas mean a readjustment. A man can be frankly sensual, yet perfectly refined and of high character. Sensuality — I naturally do not mean gluttony or any excess — is neither coarse nor vulgar. It is consistent, as every artist knows, with perfect refinement. Temperately cultivated, it adds materially to the happiness and geniality of life, and has no injurious effect whatever on intellect or character. This a great many of our generation have still to learn. A woman can be quite frank in regard to sensual enjoyment, yet delicate in taste and sentiment and sweet in character. Against the average Fundamentalist, layman or preacher, who eats all he can and uses to the limit of her health (and often beyond) his religious license to exploit his wife’s body, it is unnecessary to say these things. Not sensuality, but refinement is what we need to recommend to them. I make my point rather against more liberal-minded believers and Agnostics who think some shade of asceticism highly respectable and, in some strange way, conducive to wisdom.
On this side the irreligious future is going to make progress precisely in some ways which these people call reactionary. The art of living is to be one of the great lessons of the humanist creed: how to obtain as much happiness as one can during the few decades of sunshine, consistently with the happiness of others — how to find, as the Greeks and Moors found, the just balance of intellectual, emotional, and sensual life.
The plea that this will promote selfishness and thus relax the face of general progress is belied by our whole experience. There never was in the world before such a volume of unselfish service of the less fortunate; and I, a Britisher, have pleasure in acknowledging that in this even when we take account of its superior resources, the United States leads the world. Such lists as I have seen of American educational, philanthropic, helpful organizations are a new thing under the sun. Not out of the decaying creeds has this zeal emerged, but out of that feeling of brotherhood, of sympathy, of humanitarianism which conquers new realms every decade. Drop rhetoric. Forget theories. Study coldly the actual trend of our skeptical civilization since the twentieth century opened, and you will be compelled to acknowledge that it looks as if a far kinder and more wonderful age were now dawning upon the dead creeds and half-empty temples.