The Story Of Religious Controversy
THE scholarship, immense and convincing, of the present volume will enlighten any reader (although I trust few are actually in need of such enlightenment) concerning the absurdity of a charge often made: namely, the charge that there is something foolish, presumptuous, shallow, smart-alecky and the like in the criticism of religious ideas and institutions. One almost apologizes for mentioning this belittlement of anti-religious thinkers: yet it is a stock in trade of preachers, of lay defenders of the faith, and is not unheard among men who have some pretensions to culture. One still hears it said that there is something juvenile — an intellectual immaturity — in attacking the Church, the idea of God, the supposed sacred truth of the Bible, the history of ecclesiastical power, and the rest. Confronted by such an attitude, one may ask a few leading questions: Is the subject of religion important? Granting the importance of the subject, should one accept religion carelessly or conventionally? Or should one seriously study the subject, with a view only to ascertaining the facts and clarifying one’s attitude by the light of reason? Or should one merely be indifferent?
Of course indifference means presumably a criticism and rejection of religion: or perhaps it means that one has a serene faith which needs no expression: or that one has, when brought to the question, a formal belief without real interest. However, to have no opinion about religion is to be idle-minded. A very little thinking — the simplest kind of thinking about life — brings us to questions of a religious bearing: where, that is to say, we have to choose between science — or common sense — and religion; between facts and rhetoric; between history and mythology; and, in fine, between free thought and enslaving traditional forms. It is not that we must have some religion, or that life needs a religious explanation. But as such explanations have been notoriously insisted upon, as religion has said thus and so about life, the thoughtful man is forced to a decision. Whoever is interested in ideas cannot be indifferent to religion. Intellectually he may have no respect for it: but a disrespectful opinion is, even so, an opinion of decided importance.
What, then, are the true materials of opinion? Not one-sided reading: not a few platitudes: not a loose complaisance toward allegedly sacred traditions: not, above all, a preconceived notion that belief in religion is sacred and high-minded while disbelief is somehow indecent, low-minded and unruly. One should approach religion, as any other subject, in a strictly realistic manner. Is the power of thought, of reason, man’s highest power? Then use it on religion. Are facts worth while? Then let their worth be recognized, quite in the scientific spirit, in the controversy about religion. Of what value is an opinion which is not supported by so much as an hour’s genuine reflection and study?
Religion cannot claim exemption from being critically weighed in the scales of knowledge. It must stand or fall by the facts. History, science, philosophy, common sense — all that man knows and the best that man has thought — enter seriously into this controversy. In human progress, there has been a plain and growing intellectual tendency, as well as a broadly social and emotional tendency, to make religion justify itself, to force it relentlessly on the defensive. Oracles lose their impressiveness. Doubtless — certainly in civilized or historic time — there have always been skeptics. Their number has increased, with the impetus of irresistible logic, as knowledge has grown. And it is but natural that this age, so enlightened by science and swept by such broad vigorous currents of liberalism, should be progressively skeptical in its attitude toward religion. It is too difficult — or why not say bluntly that it is impossible? — to reconcile the ideas of religion with modern knowledge.
It is not rationalism that is flippant and poorly based. It is not a sign of foolishness but of good sense, yes and considerably more than the average amount of information, to call in question the old theology and mysticism, even when it disguises itself not very artfully as “Modernism.” It is religion that has always made preposterous, even frivolous, and indefensible claims. Shallow and sentimentally weak thinkers are more apt to cling to the ancient faith. Clear, relentless thinking brings one inevitably to a rejection of the whole religious viewpoint, of all the appeals to faith, of all the arguments — and how poor they generally are! — for the holy myths and dogmas.
Exposing the silliness of the charge that atheism or agnosticism is the mental mode of fools, there is the long roll of brilliant rationalists who at one vital point or another — and some of them at all points — challenged the religious ideology. Were Voltaire and the French encyclopedists fools? Was Goethe a fool? Or Heine? Or Gibbon? Or Darwin? Huxley? Haeckel? Or Georg Brandes? Is Clarence DarrowJoseph McCabe a world scholar, whose intellect is full-ripe with nearly half a century of prodigiously harvested learning — to be identified as a fool or a mere frivolous disputer because forsooth his very learning and power of reasoning have made religion intellectually impossible for him? That would indeed be the last word of utterly foolish paradox! The case against religion is formidable, It is compellingly reasonable. It is historical and scientific.
And on this subject of religion Joseph McCabe is the greatest authority in the world. He brings to its consideration an encyclopedic range of knowledge. He pursues it inexorably into every obscure corner. No aspect, no argument, escapes him. He is brilliant indeed — but it is not the brilliance of a hasty, clever, simply argumentative attack. He is the greatest of all rationalists, the most powerful and devastating critic of religion, because be wields such a perfect scholarly equipment. He has every needed weapon readily at his command, drawing at will and accurately from the armory of modern knowledge.
In discussing the abstract ideas of religion, he is invincible, chiefly because he takes the course of common sense straight to the heart of the question. It is wonderful how effective it is to be reasonable — only this and nothing more, yet what a great deal it is in a world where all discussions are so amazingly confused with bunk. Take the idea of immortality. We know that the way of all life is toward death. We have not so much as a pin-point of evidence in proof of any life after death. Death, the irrefragable ultimate fact, obviously ends all for the individual. There is no reason in nature for immortality but it is rather the extreme of unreason, which becomes more inconceivable, so to speak, the more one reflects upon it. The wish for immortality signifies no more than the many other vain wishes which men have. If for the sake of argument one should grant the idea of immortality, who can figure out any definition or shape of immortality that would be even plausible? The “soul” which is supposed to be immortal is itself a mere supposition, having no better standing than that of a myth. In short, the facts completely bear against the notion of another life and there is not the least indication of a fact to support the notion. It is, when all is said, a quite simple matter of reasoning. One need not be profound about it nor quote Greek and Latin nor play a puzzle game with Biblical texts (and indeed these texts, without authority or consistency, never serve any purpose save that of obscurantism).
It is thus that McCabe directs the light of reason upon the central arguments of religion, He has, one should add, this superior advantage: his reasoning, so delightfully and persuasively simple, is completely in line with the teaching of modern science: it is the reasoning, not alone of a good thinker, but of a thorough scholar. Concerning the idea of God, McCabe follows the same reasonable style of discussion. Here the scientific background is more important. By his unaided reason, a man might find plausible arguments for the existence of a God. Or, following reason to an atheistic conclusion, he could say that be had no knowledge of and therefore no belief in a God: and that the idea of God does not explain life but suggests a greater mystery. But McCabe goes much further and, on the scientific grounds of evolution, shows the folly and futility of belief in a God. He shows that the classic arguments for this belief — design in nature, the necessity of a creator, a legislator to decree the “laws of nature,” and the like do not agree with the facts: that they are based, first and last, upon misconceptions and loose analogies: that, as science has given a natural explanation of life, any pretense of a supernatural explanation is worthless: and that, with regard to all unsolved questions, it is only common sense to follow the method of natural investigation — in short, to follow still the paths of wisdom that have already proved so richly profitable. What McCabe shows is that there is not a single argument for the belief in God which is reasonably and scientifically tenable. One’s reason, even though one is but scantily familiar with science, may make one skeptical of a God: and McCabe adds cogent, authoritative force to that skepticism.
It is far more than destructive work. From it emerges a clearer, more coherent, more convincing picture of the universe and the evolution of life. One has in place of a childish view (and at bottom theology is childish, however rarefied and involved may be its logical efforts) a really mature, intelligible view of things. The man who has given little thought to religion in its wider implications — let us say, to the meaning of life — will find in Joseph McCabe a teacher who is capable of guiding him or her from the lower grades of confused faith or uncertainty into the higher school of thoughtful, scientific knowledge.
In the way of argument on religion, if in no other way, “The Story of Religious Controversy” would stand as an invaluable masterpiece. It covers the subject so completely. Nothing is taken for granted — old and new, simple and refined, the points in dispute are brought carefully under scrutiny. The common defense mechanism of belief and the more elaborate philosophic mechanism (which last, by the way, could never serve as a popular or powerful religion) are examined with equal care. Whatever has been importantly or widely alleged in behalf of religion is answered by McCabe: not answered negligently but in the precise, perfect way of the scholar. There have been many books and articles about religion, dealing ably with various special phases; this book is a fundamental synthesis of all that can intelligently, modernly be written on the subject. It is the most important work ever written on religion by the man who is best qualified in every way for such an immense task.
It does not, of course, finally dispose of this monumental folly — and, yes, this terrible curse — of the human race. One might make such an optimistic claim if it were certain that everyone would read and fairly grasp the message of McCabe’s scholarship, rationalism, and humanity. But that is too much to hope. The attack upon religion, both as an intellectual viewpoint and as a social-political force, will necessarily be repeated: certainly the periodical controversy will not soon die. But the reassurance of skeptics and humanists lies in the fact that the tendencies of our advancing civilization are weightily on their side. If religion is not yet dead, it is dying. It remains but to persist in and complete the work of ridding humanity of this hoary and horrible incubus.
Horrible! Whoever may regard this as an extreme word will, I dare say, think better of my English when be has finished this book. In some aspects religion is amusing, or grotesque, or contemptible, or pathetic: but, taking its story largely and without exaggerating the facts, it has been a horrible burden and snare to mankind.
Let me say here that this kind of plain speaking is one of McCabe’s qualities that I most admire. He does not seek pretty words for ghastly things. He does not compromise truth for the sake of politeness. He does not step timidly on tiptoe for fear of disturbing someone’s faith or offending someone’s sensibilities. He assumes that grown people want a serious, candid discussion of serious things and that the ideas of men are not to be treated as tenderly privileged “sore spots.” It has indeed been this very passionate emotionalism, this stressed overawing reverence, this meticulously polite and evasive reticence which has conspired to prolong the superstitious enslavement of the race. We cannot find the truth in slippery, dodging words. We cannot nurse petulantly our prejudices and expect to rise above them. Facts will not help us unless we face them squarely as facts, without subterfuge or disguise.
This is another reason, besides that of his scholarly equipment, why McCabe is just the man to survey the large and difficult field of religious controversy. He is honest and fearless. He is free from any influence, obvious or subtle, which might lead another man to soften or gently falsify the picture where he should be as severe and direct and uncompromising as the facts themselves. Together with the vast amount of deliberately dishonest writing about religion there has been much that, if not dishonest in intent, has been false in effect because of a desire to make a friendly case. It is remarkable, as McCabe has frequent cause to mention, how even good scholars will let a religious bias creep into their work — will, perhaps, even go contrary to their own facts in an effort to interpret these same facts favorably to the Church. For instance, H.G. Wells misrepresents the Pagan civilization and incorrectly credits the Church with such social reforms as the encouragement of education and the elevation of woman to a higher, fairer place: and McCabe, by chapter and verse, exposes the falsity of this version, which is after all a sorry commonplace of Christian apologists.
So it is clear how important is McCabe’s own entire freedom and integrity as well as scholarly care in this discussion of religion. He is fair. He does not descend to unworthy trifles or quibbles in his attack or, I should say, his severely truthful record and exposition. It is not, indeed, necessary for a man who has such a mighty weapon as knowledge to call inferior and less effective weapons into play. Having his background of broad research, McCabe holds a perfect case against religion and he does no more than present that case fairly, adequately, expertly. And relentlessly, as I have said: he yields no weak, false favors. One can almost, for a moment, feel a little sorry for the earnest, determined defender of religion, who imagines that life would be intolerable without his Christian faith and mythology, as he sees his card-house of illusion scattered by the inexorable gale of facts. One’s pity is tempered by the realization of two things: the truth is much better for any man than a baseless and hollow faith: and, where the will to believe is strong enough, unwelcomed truth is turned away from the mind’s closed door.
I am not so foolish as to believe that a full and convincing argument — an argument that, as I see it, is irresistible to reason — is bound to impress everyone in the same logical way. To paraphrase the familiar saying, there are prejudices of the heart or of self-interest or of early training which no amount of reason can overcome. (Even so, McCabe shows that the heart too revolts against religion and what is supposed to be a comfort is really felt as a gigantic mockery.) There are devout persons who will be frightened away by a glance at this book, not giving it a chance to destroy, as they fervidly express it, their faith; some will be able to read it through and, remarkable as it may seem, emerge with faith unshaken; many others will be disillusioned — wholesomely, for there is in McCabe a sane, robust optimism and no one can help being strengthened who comes in full, understanding contact with his mind; and, again, there are many skeptics who will discover in this book a vastly interesting and important groundwork of knowledge for their general attitude, more than a groundwork, an impressive edifice, of enlightened culture.
For McCabe, going far beyond mere disputation on ideas, guides the reader through a wide field or many fields of learning. Here is knowledge, tremendously important, of which many well-educated persons are not aware: knowledge, it hardly need be said, which is not given in the schools. One reason, as McCabe emphasizes, is that school-communicated knowledge is rather carefully arranged to avoid conflict with powerful institutions and to keep clear of “controversial subjects.” Yet these “controversial subjects” are, of course, the ones upon which we most crave enlightenment.
They are the most significant and we do not want the fact shut off just when they begin to enlighten us most curiously and significantly. We do not want simply a string of superficial details and dates in history. Rather do we seek a comprehensible, realistic picture of the past, a knowledge of the genuine character and influence of institutions, an understanding of the way men lived and what their ideas meant to them. We want complete living history (as nearly complete as scholarship can make it) and not an imperfect skeleton.
If this history exposes religion in a bad light, shows it to have been an influence hostile to civilized aims, contradicts the false history with which religion has sought to justify itself, certainly it is vital that we should know the truth. Truth, justice, liberty — these may be abstractions, ideal terms, but they have a human meaning and value. Has the Church been friendly or inimical to truth, justice and liberty, as these terms are understood by civilized man? It does not matter how anti-religious the answer is: we want that answer truly and unsparingly. There is nothing worth while that can be said in behalf of religion if it can be shown that it has been at war with the civilized tendencies of the human race. And this is exactly and overwhelmingly what McCabe shows in “The Story of Religious Controversy.”
It is on this ground of history that McCabe proceeds in most deadly fashion to undermine all the pompous falsehood of religious claims. Mere argument offers the possibility of endless slippery evasions and distortions; but the facts of history are unanswerable and commanding in their import, Not all the theological solemnity and dexterity in the world, not the best (and poor enough) arguments for God and faith and “the religious sense” of mankind, can stand defensibly against the actual record of the Church and the working of religious policy. On its record, the Church is condemned. On its record, religion is the enemy of civilization. And especially the fine claims made in behalf of Christianity are false.
There is no essential uncertainty about this record. Indeed, in a general way it is known among men who have not studied it extensively and who, knowing the truth only in outline, are less affected by it than otherwise they would be. It is general if vague knowledge, for example, that the history of the Church in past ages is superstitious, cruel and intolerant. It is known, vaguely, by the average man that monstrous follies and crimes have flourished in the name of religion, Christianity included. It is not an unfamiliar story that the struggle for freedom has been a struggle against Church and State. Yet lying details, polite excuses, evasions, and apologies have obscured the force of the truth as a whole. Various claims are made that are in flat contradiction of the broad truth — supported completely and precisely by the facts — that religion has been the enemy of progress. Nothing, it would seem, could well be more grotesque than the effort in this day to make the Church appear as a liberal, humanizing, uplifting force. It was the sharp and terrible contrary. Think of the astonishing effrontery of this claim when we commonly and correctly identify by the name “Dark Ages” a stretch of dismal, bloody, ignorant centuries of Christian supremacy!
If it could be shown that the Church had even tried to help progress, then we should perforce say that, considering its enormous power, it was strangely incompetent and ineffective. But we know — and none shows more thoroughly than McCabe — that the Church did not even, taken on the whole as an institution and policy of social life, have a progressive disposition. Priests supported kings in keeping men bound to tyranny and superstition — only kings, on occasion, were most liberal. Both the divine- sleight-of-priests and the divine-might-of-kings were founded necessarily on the ignorance of the masses. Freedom of thought and life was incompatible with every dogma of the Church and, above all, with the harsh greedy power that the Church maintained as its supernaturally sanctioned right.
But modern Christians say that is only the past of the Church. And Protestants place the burden of guilt wholly upon Catholicism, as if religion itself were not an intolerant force. As for the latter apology, not only is it true that Protestantism was fully as illiberal and dogmatic and punitive, insofar as the division of sects left it the power; but it is further true that Protestantism — the successful challenge to the one supreme religious power of Catholicism — coincided with a wider movement of liberty, of which it was, in a limited way, one of the effects. Such men as Calvin and Luther and Knox were not interested in liberty as a genuine, general principle. They wanted power for their own dogmas. It was, one might say, a family quarrel among bigots. None of these bigots believed in free thought, in free institutions, in free progress. Taken merely as a religious change, Protestantism could not have advanced — it had neither the spirit nor the knowledge to advance — the liberty of mankind. There was, however, an upheaval of social forces that was immensely more significant than a mere schism of bogey-ridden theologians. There were intellectual factors, critical and humanistic, and material factors of growing trade, exploration, invention, the expansion and solidification of secular life. Europe strained against the tight bonds of religion. The challenge to ancient wrongs and superstitions could not ignore but must specially direct itself against the Church.
To be sure, the greatest crimes of religion belong to the past. It could be more monstrously harmful four centuries ago than it can be today. Then it had more power. The Church today is reformed, so to speak, because it is weaker and less capable of mischief. It cannot compel belief — or silence and the appearance of belief. It cannot control the lives of men. At least religious fanaticism, although it does have a political power in certain things, such as for example in moralistic legislation and even in baldly Christian-doctrinal legislation (Sunday laws), is not overt, extensive, and menacing as it was until quite recently in the story of mankind. In a liberal world, the Church itself must be different in self-defense. It would be ridiculous for it to attempt seriously the enforcement of threats, penalties and claims that were once all too common and deadly real.
It is not, then, the essential truth to say that religion in the modern world has reformed; but that it has been reformed, restrained, driven back from its formerly proud and powerful position. We live in an infinitely brighter, freer, richer age — but with no thanks due the Church for our advancement. The struggle for human rights was waged by skeptics and liberals, without the approval, let alone the support, of the Church; indeed, against the bitter opposition of the Church, which allied itself stubbornly with the forces of reaction. Religion is less evil actually today because it does not play such an important role in society. Even church members as a rule do not try to make religion the binding rule of life.
The indictment of history is — certainly as to the Christian religion — clear and forcible: When religion has flourished in real power, there has been a low degree of civilization. The growth of civilization and the decline of religion have proceeded almost equally. I say this is particularly true as respects Christianity. It has in its heyday exceeded all other religions in intolerance and tyrannical pretensions over social-political life. It has been the most hostile to culture. The Greek-Roman civilization was not dominated by an absolute religion as was medieval Europe by Christianity. There was tolerance, avowed skepticism, humanistic culture, and a power of free speculation under Paganism which was only matched in the beginning of the modern age. One may say that the Pagans were fortunate in having a number of gods instead of one terrible, dogmatic, jealous God. When the gods multiply, mere man, it seems, has a better chance.
I would not play down the fact that superstition was rife in the Greek-Roman world. And I would add that our world today, with its greater scientific enlightenment and freedom from religion, is a far better world. It would certainly appear that we have outgrown any possible excuse for superstition. We know far more scientifically about life than educated Greeks and Romans knew. This does not mean, in one sense, that we are smarter than they: but we are better informed: we have the advantage of progress.
Even so, let it be said plainly that we are indebted in an infinitely greater degree to Pagan culture than we are to the “Christian culture” of ten centuries. The fact is that during the long medieval night there was no “Christian culture” worthy of the name. There was even a wretched, brutish ignorance of Pagan culture. In fact, a splendidly cultured civilization — the Moorish civilization — existed with strangely little appreciation (in Spain, Sicily, and north-western Africa) contemporaneously with a Europe that was only a step above barbarism.
This is history, someone may say, and what has it to do with religion? All this and much besides which McCabe historically presents in “The Story of Religious Controversy” simply places religion in relation to the development, the culture, and the struggling ideals of mankind. It is precisely the most effective way to deal with the subject of religion. As a controversialist alone, many might not care to read McCabe. As an historian of religion, seen accurately and vastly in connection with the broad picture of social and intellectual life in the past, he must command the interest and the very serious thought of every reader. He is important, not just because he has something to argue, but because be has something to tell. He carries conviction by the weight of educational material rather than by devices of logic or rhetoric.
For a long time men argued about religion without getting anywhere. When they began to investigate the facts about religion in history — the evolution of religious ideas — the actual operations of religious policies — the true relations of religion and morality, religion and government, religion and culture: then truly rapid progress was made in liberating the human mind from the misty, confused dogmas of the past. This evolutionary, comparative, critical attack upon religion has been carried to the highest point of scholarship and art by Joseph McCabe.
He fires incessantly a mighty machine-gun of facts at the ideas, the sentiments, the policies of religion — at the history of religion in all its aspects. Nor does he ask the reader to trust his, McCabe’s, own word — although be has the standing of an authority in this field which he has made eminently his own. But all along he cites his authorities. He refers to chapter and verse. He builds, as it were, the story of religious controversy carefully and expertly out of the truthful materials of world knowledge. And it is, by the way, a fascinating story. It has, with all else, the charm of the deeply absorbing narrative. Despite the fact that religion is supposed to be such an interesting subject, how it has crowded the libraries with dull books! But McCabe is never dull. He illumines with life, as with learning, the whole sweep of this so generally perplexed controversy.
The whole sweep — it is all here. The story of religion in the life of mankind, from the dawn of superstition to the modern age of skepticism, is told in vivid completeness and careful significance. Being strictly scientific, McCabe follows the evolutionary method. You can only discuss a subject intelligently by tracing the manner in which it has evolved: thus thinking at its best is the history of an idea. How did man come to be religious? Was be always religious? What forms of religion have appealed to him and why? Such questions, to name a few, are answered by McCabe in a natural way.
There is nothing mystical about it. One sees that religion, like morals and government and war and industry, like all things good and bad, has been produced by natural conditions. It has evolved, and we should certainly expect that as man grows in knowledge his ideas would, become less crude, more refined, and finally more enlightened: so that now we have less religion as the years progressively increase. But there was a time when man had no religion. Religion is, after all, an abstract conception in greater or less degree: and very primitive man was innocent of abstract thinking. He was very literal and not imaginative.
One myth that McCabe unmasks at the very outset is that of a “religious instinct” in man. It is a familiar argument: that man naturally, inherently possesses an “instinct” for belief in and worship of religion (just as we have been told, with equal inaccuracy, that he has an innate conscience). Man, however, came very crudely by way of animism and nature worship and ancestor worship to religions of more priestly craft and creed. He wondered and guessed about life, impelled very strongly by fear and more and more misled by conscious organizations of priesthood, and this blundering process is sometimes praised as a divinely implanted and inspired “instinct” for religion: an instinct, so called, which has betrayed men into the most amazingly foolish and contradictory notions: an instinct which has been one of misleading rather than leading: it is evident that there has been as little instinct, of any dependably guiding sort, in religion as there has been reason.
Simply to scan the variety of religious beliefs, as they are presented in “The Story of Religious Controversy,” is enough to reveal the essential truth, that in their faiths and dogmas men have been but struggling blindly. They have not been inspired. Nothing has been revealed to them. They are dazzled by miracles. They read bad spirits and appeal piously to good spirits. And they proceed naturally from the idea of many gods to the idea of one God. It is still repeated, for example, as an eminent virtue of the Christian religion that it gave to the world the sublime conception of monotheism. By that token, we are told, Christianity was inspired from heaven. Yet the Egyptians, long before, held that idea and so, though less clearly, did the Babylonians.
In fact, McCabe shows that the Christian Bible is largely a collection of legends and moral codes and conceptions, sometimes crude and again poetic, assimilated from older religions. Concerning this, scholars are agreed. We perceive anew and more forcefully how little touched are the ideas of the average Christian — even of many educated Christians — by knowledge which is, among scholars, commonplace: commonplace, but never brought together so connectedly, conclusively, and sharply as by McCabe in this masterpiece, this history of the most astonishing order of ideas known to man.
It is the originality, the singularity, the precious and peculiar virtue of Christianity which its defenders have most cherished as? “proof” of its divine origin and sanction. Yet this originality is shown to be non-existent. It is a myth, along with the other myths, fibbed and cribbed to make the weird melange known as Christianity. The Old Testament is shown to be what McCabe calls plainly a work, in large, of “priestly forgery.” These may seem impolite words: but when the reader has learned how these “holy” books were fabricated, how spurious they are, and how deliberately they were meant to deceive, he will be so interested in the truth that be will forget the charge of impoliteness. He will be equally interested to learn the antiquity and the various expression in other times and places of moral ideas which Christians suppose to have been original with Jesus. Its analysis of the Bible, of the triumph of Christianity, and of the evolution of Christian doctrines under the hands of the Church fathers entitles this book to a place in the front rank of religious criticism: and taken in its still wider sweep it is, as I say, the masterpiece both critical and historical of religious controversy.
The very simple idea of the average Christian is that Jesus gave the gospel truth to the world; that with speedy and singular unanimity the world accepted this truth — that indeed it burst suddenly as a brilliant, beautiful light upon a world all in darkness; and that Christianity, as a system of doctrine, stems directly in an unbroken and uncorrupted line from these divinely inspired and self-evident and undisputed teachings of Jesus. It was a good deal more patchwork and confusion than that implies, and McCabe traces the story clearly enough. Christianity was the work of men, and it was worked into something quite different from the comparatively simple (though not therefore sensible) evangelism ascribed to Jesus: which departure from purity one would not be so rash as to call either a gain or a loss.
In representing Christianity as the great, pure, miraculously brought salvation of the world, the defenders of this faith have had to rely upon glaring falsifications of Pagan society. To this day in familiar Christian rhetoric the term “Pagan” is employed to connote immorality, impiety and in general a low, unblessed state of civilization. There is no doubt that this false picture is innocently (i.e., ignorantly) stressed by many preachers: these preachers, for that matter, do not understand their own age and how can we expect them to know about life, about thought and morals, in ancient Greece and Rome? There is, however, a great deal of consciously dishonest misrepresentation. And one wonders how even a moderately intelligent person though his reading has given him only a brief glimpse of the art: philosophy, culture and well- organized social life of Greece and Rome, could be deceived by these libels on Paganism. The truth is that two of the most lofty ethical systems in history: — the Stoic and the Epicurean philosophy — were Pagan. Morals were far higher in the Greek-Roman world than they were in Christian Europe for centuries after the fall of ancient civilization: as high as morals are today. As for culture, and all the fine and interesting and orderly things that make a civilization, the Pagan world was brilliantly superior to Christian times throughout the weary, wretched rule of faith supreme. By the middle of the nineteenth century (says McCabe) the world had only reached once more the level of civilization at which the Pagan world stood when Christianity came bringing not light but darkness.
Now, with our immense scientific and material development, we have the greatest age of all. And in reaching this height, humanity has found Christianity a dragging rather than a lifting and liberating force. In no part of this story do McCabe’s facts bear with such intimate, deadly effect upon religion. For it is the last and most stubborn claim of religion — to be specific, in our world and time, of Christianity — that, whatever its errors of doctrine and its mistakes in this or that sphere of policy, it has been a great purifying, instructing, emancipating agency. It is particularly claimed that Christianity brought relief for the workers, respect for women, and regard for education. Which is — McCabe drives the point home — precisely what the Church did not. The fact that the Church was indifferent when not actively opposed to such reforms is brought out by McCabe with his usual thoroughness and accuracy of detail. He settles the case, in this important phase, completely. And surely the broad picture ought to be familiar to even a casual student of history. Medievalism is synonymous with ignorance, poverty and degradation. Sodden serfdom was the rule. Women had a lower status than in Greece and Rome — indeed, Christianity was reluctant to grant them the useless jewel which it peculiarly valued, a “soul.” To speak of Christianity and education in the same breath is ridiculous — or, rather, it is in itself an indictment — when one reflects that illiteracy prevailed almost entirely during centuries of Christian power. What we see is that today we have greatly enlarged freedom, education, and equality of sex in social life: but far from owing this to Christianity we owe it to anti-Christian agencies of liberation. To fight for freedom was (and to how great an extent it still is!) to fight against the Church. Striking the fetters of body and mind from the race, how could the Church, itself a chief enslaver, have been ignored by those libertarians!
The modern world is a world of secular advancement and religious defeat. Many preachers realize this and we see what are probably the last efforts to save religion in the thinner and thinner “Modernism” of today. It may be said, then, that we are in the last phase of religion — its weakening, retreating, dying phase, giving way before a full-armed, world-sweeping, skeptical materialism. We are not coming to a “religion of humanity.” We are turning away from religion and toward humanity. You see what this signifies. It is now possible to tell the complete story of religion — it is possible and this is just what has been done in the present volume by Joseph McCabe. Here is the complete survey of religion — of all religious controversy — and, defining all, the last word of rationalism. To quote McCabe, it is not that the half- gods have gone and the gods are arriving. But the gods have disappeared (in the clouds of superstition whence they came), the half-gods have shrunk to quarter-gods, the quarter-gods have diminished to mere specks of scarce-remembered fantasy, and now all that is left of God or the gods is the subtle, all too subtle, and fast-escaping gas of “Modernism.” And the less God, how much more world and life!