Home > Comments and Articles > The Skepticism of Believers
by Sir Leslie Stephen
Good people sometimes ask why materialist and infidel doctrines spread in spite of the incessant and crushing refutations to which they are so frequently exposed. It is scarcely necessary to insist upon one very obvious answer. Many diseases are fatal to men ; one should be fatal to religions the disease of being found out. Hume died over a century ago, and grave theological professors are still trying hard to believe in the miracle of the swine. Is it strange that the authority of professors has become shadowy ? The old belief in truth has become weak, partly because it is so often a sham belief, and partly because it is chiefly a negative belief. No man makes converts who does not believe what he says, nor will he make them easily when his creed consists chiefly in denying the strongest and most fruitful convictions of his neighbours. A creed which is always on the defensive must be decrepit. I will not dwell upon the first of these explanations. It is not pleasant to insist upon the hypocrisy, generally unconscious, of the respectable world. But I propose to consider the other explanation, which is, perhaps, a little more in need of defence.
It sounds paradoxical to declare that the orthodox belief is essentially sceptical. The unbeliever is still identified with the Mephistopheles whose essence it is to deny. He denies, it is said, a hereafter and a Divine element in the present. The denial implies the abandonment of the most cheering hopes and the highest aspirations of mankind. Therefore, to charge with scepticism those who are fighting against Materialism and Atheism is at best to indulge in a frivolous tu quoque. A similar retort, however, is common enough in the mouths of the orthodox. Nor is the taunt without foundation. Quasi-scientific persons are given to dabbling in gross superstition. Of the two, the Catholic confessor has obvious advantages over a medium, and one would, perhaps, prefer the service of the ancient Church to sitting at the feet of a Harris or a Blavatsky. The remark has a real significance. To speak brutally, faith often means belief in my nonsense ; and credulity, the belief in the nonsense of somebody else. It is, unfortunately, true that the rejection of one kind of nonsense does not imply the rejection of all nonsense, and it follows that scepticism and credulity may mean the very same thing the acceptance, namely, of a doctrine which is sceptical in so far as it contradicts my opinion, and credulous in so far as it agrees with yours. It is worth while to consider the point a little more closely. Scepticism in the fullest sense of the word, a rejection of belief as beliefs, if not a strictly unthinkable, at least a practically impossible, state of mind. Metaphysicians may play with such a doctrine, or may impute it to their antagonists. If they succeed in fastening that imputation upon any system, they have virtually established a reductio ad absurdum. To make doubting, as doubting, a principle is impossible. In regard to the great bulk of ordinary beliefs, the so-called sceptics are just as much believers as their opponents. Hume, for example, was as certain as Newton that an unsupported apple would fall, though he endeavoured to deduce his certainty from experience. The thinkers generally, charged with scepticism are equally charged with an excessive belief in the constancy and certainty of so-called ' laws of nature.' They assign a natural cause to certain phenomena as confidently as their opponents assign a supernatural cause. No man of any school denies the possibility of attaining certainty in regard to such laws as are verifiable by experience. The real problem is not, Ought we to believe but, Why ought we to believe that two and two make four, that there is a place called Rome, or that the planets obey the laws of gravitation ? The believer in necessary truths assumes by the form of his argument that his opponents do in fact believe, and cannot help believing, the truths which he asserts to be necessary, though they may deny the propriety of the epithet. The most thoroughgoing empiricist may suggest that truths, such as those of geometry, would cease to be valid under some other conditions, but he does not deny their validity within the whole sphere of actual experience. By attacking the supposed distinction between the two classes of truth, he elevates the claims of empirical as much as he depresses those of a priori knowledge. We can no more alter the intensity of belief in general than we can change our centre of gravity without some external point of support. One set of thinkers holds that we must pierce to the absolute or transcendental in order to provide foundations for the whole edifice of belief. Another set holds that such a foundation is not discoverable, but adds that it is unnecessary.
The point is obscured by the habit of speaking of ' belief ' in genera^ without reference to its contents, and of proceeding to imply that it is in some way a creditable, whereas unbelief is a discreditable, state of mind. The obvious reply is, that belief and unbelief are the very same thing. It is a mere question of convenience whether I shall express myself in negative or positive terms ; whether I shall say ' man is mortal,' or * man is not immortal.' The believer at Eome is the infidel at Mecca, and conversely. The believer in the geocentric system has not more or less belief than the believer in the heliocentric system he has simply an opposite belief. To say, therefore, that belief qua belief is better or worse than unbelief is a contradiction in terms. Assertion is denial ; and it is a transparent though a common fallacy to give an absolute character to a proposition which by its very nature can only be true in a particular relation. Belief and unbelief being identical in nature, either is good just so far as it is reasonable or logical ; so far, that is, as it embodies the rules which secure a conformity between the world of thought and the world of fact. A great deal of slipshod rhetoric about faith and reason is dissipated by this simple consideration. We are told of the blessedness of a childlike and trusting frame of mind. These question -begging epithets are out of place in logic. A childish and credulous state of mind is a bad thing ; and we can only decide whether the complimentary or uncomplimentary adjectives are appropriate by knowing whether the state of mind is reasonable in the given case. Has our confidence reasonable grounds or not ? No other test than the purely logical test can even be put into articulate shape. If we insist upon using ' scepticism ' to designate a mental vice, we must interpret it to mean, not doubt in general, but unreasonable doubt ; and in this sense the most sceptical man is he who prefers the least weight of evidence to the greatest or, in other words, he is identical with the most credulous.
Faith, indeed, may in one sense be called a virtue, even in regard to questions of pure reason. It is our duty to believe what appears to us to be proved. The proposition seems to be superfluous, because from a purely logical point of view the two things seem to be identical. ' To know,' it may be said, includes ' to believe.' Yet, as a matter of fact, it is as common to know without believing as to believe without knowing. The reason has to reckon with instincts not less powerful than irrational. I may know that I am absolutely safe when I am at the brink of a precipice, but my body declines to be convinced, and shudders and turns giddy in spite of conclusive evidence. A demonstration may be as clear to me as a proposition of Euclid ; but fear of authority, or dread of consequences, or mere blind sympathy with others, may prevent its real assimilation. To believe what we know to be certain may at times even require a kind of intellectual heroism. And, therefore, when Locke laid down the principle that we should in all cases proportion our beliefs to the evidence, he was indeed uttering what seems to be a truism, but what was, nevertheless, a highly important truth. The supremacy of reason within its own sphere is rightful, but is seldom actual, and a downright defiance of logic is not an impossibility, though it is an absurdity. In a relevant sense again, faith is indeed the name of one of the highest of virtues ; of the enthusiasm which keeps the world from corruption, and now and then lifts it out of its ancient ruts. The phrase in this acceptation includes not merely the intellectual conviction, but the moral purpose. Psychologists have to distinguish between the intellect and the emotions ; but they do not exist as two separate entities. They are, rather, seen to be separate aspects of an indissoluble unity. Thought without feeling is an empty form, and feeling without thought a mere formless chaos. Faith is often used to designate that state in which a man's affections or passions are definitely organised and brought to bear upon some definite purpose, and which therefore implies a framework of distinct convictions directing and combining the impulses of his moral nature. We honour the old heroes who ' through faith put to flight the armies of the aliens,' and gave up life for a worthy end. We honour the man who has faith in his friends, in his country, in his cause, or in human nature ; for such faith implies, not merely an intellectual state, but the capacity for love and self-sacrifice and generous devotion. Such devotion calls for no sacrifice of the most absolute truthfulness. The enthusiast has, it is true, a special temptation to certain illusions. The mother who loves her children sometimes exaggerates their merits, and the philanthropist thinks men a good deal fitter for the millennium than the cool observer would admit. Poetic genius, we are told, lies perilously near to madness, and the hero is own brother to the fanatic. We regard such errors leniently, for danger to mankind does not lie in the direction of their excessive frequency. Yet, so far as there is error there is weakness. Nelson's patriotism led him to entertain the erroneous belief that one Englishman was equal to three Frenchmen. Fortunately, he had too much genius to act upon it unreservedly. He took very good care in his battles that two Englishmen should be opposed to one Frenchman. We can therefore smile at a theory which represents merely the exuberance of an enthusiasm which knew how in practice to obey the rules of common -sense. But the belief, taken seriously by a stupid leader, would have meant a certainty of disaster. The hero is not the man who miscalculates or overlooks the risk, but the man who measures it fairly, and dares it when it must be dared. Blindness to danger is only a sham version of true heroism. The more accurate our estimate of facts the greater our capacity, though at times, also, the greater the strain upon our powers. If enthusiasm often generates delusion, that explains why so much honest enthusiasm runs to waste ; why a fond parent spoils the child to whose faults he is blind ; why the patriot ruins his country by impracticable enterprise, and the philanthropist stimulates and encourages the evils which he intends to cure.
Once more, faith in this sense has its negative aspect. It is as emphatic in its rejection of one ideal as it is in its acceptance of another. The early Christians were Atheists from the Pagan point of view. Some of the sternest and most vigorous faiths that the world has known have shown themselves chiefly in the iconoclastic direction. English Puritans and Hebrew Prophets denounced their opponents as idolaters, and expressed the most unequivocal disbelief in the virtues of sacerdotal magic. The keenest fanatics in recent years have, perhaps, been the Eussian * Nihilists,' who show their faith by believing in nothing. The simple-minded assumption, therefore, that faith is to be measured by quantity of belief : that a believer and an unbeliever differ in this, that one has thirty-nine articles of belief, and his opponent only thirty-eight, or, perhaps, simply a negation of all, clearly gives an inaccurate measure of the facts. The man has most faith, in the sense in which faith represents a real force, whose convictions are such as are most favourable to energetic action, and is freest from the doubts which paralyse the will in the great moments of life. He must have a clear vision of an end to be achieved, devotion to which may be the ruling passion of his life and the focus to which all his energies may converge. If we are to follow the Holy Grail, a belief in its existence and in its surpassing value must be inwoven in the very tissue of those intimate belief s which form each man's universe. But it is not to be assumed that because we place our object in the heaven of simple believers, or in the philosopher's transcendental world of pure ideas, that it supplies a stronger or a loftier faith. We know too well, by long experience, how shifting and phantasmagoric are the visions which haunt the region of transcendentalism. If, indeed, beliefs drawn from some supernal region can enable us to solve the dark riddles of existence, if they can suggest loftier
otives and clearer rules, they may be essential to a worthy conduct of daily life. If, on the other hand, the attempt to soar above our atmosphere be destined to inevitable failure, if the Holy Grail is a mere chimera, a shadowy reflection of realities cast upon the surrounding darkness, our devotion may only land us in hopeless perplexity. Explain it as we may, or regard it as inexplicable, we have thoughts and sensations, pains and pleasures, a solid earth to live upon, and fellow-men to love and hate, to rule, to obey, or to help. How to regulate our lives and what end to pursue is a problem for which we all have to find some tolerable solution. What creed will give us the clearest rules, and reduce the inevitable uncertainty to a minimum ? To answer that question is to say which creed leaves least room for the scepticism which clouds our vision and favours the faith which is the other side of energetic conduct. In considering it we must take into account, not only the positive but the negative implications of any given creed. We must ask for more than positive and arbitrary directions. No creed is at a loss for directions of that kind. Eat and drink, for to-morrow we die ; mortify the flesh, for death comes to-morrow, are equally precise rules, and may commend themselves to different minds. We have further to ask, Whether the philosophy upon which the creed reposes is not merely such as to give definite rules, but such as to base them upon the most satisfactory and verifiable grounds. A rule which we feel to be arbitrary is as good as no rule at all.
I propose, therefore, to dwell for a little upon the negations of the orthodox, creed ; to show how it implicitly denies some of the most important truths upon which our rule of conduct must repose, and, though it issues the most absolute commands, really leaves room for doubts by offering a sham solution. The convinced Christian, or Buddhist, or Mahomedan has, of course, a faith, and a set of positive prescriptions. Such faiths have, in their time, worked miracles, and no doubt still possess a vast vitality. But if to the most thoughtful minds these solutions have become untenable, it is because they deny positive principles which have been slowly growing and strengthening for centuries, and because they, so far, have a stronger affinity to scepticism than to genuine faith.
Let us look, first, at the historical creed, which for centuries could only be assailed at the risk of the unbeliever's life. A man believes in the supernatural birth of the founder of his religion. He denies, then, that a certain event took place in accordance with the laws exemplified in all ordinary cases. Unless he can give some adequate reason for taking the case out of the ordinary category, he impugns the validity of the inductive process upon which he counts at every step in daily life. He is so far a sceptic as he is throwing doubt upon the validity of one of the primary ratiocinative processes. The same is true whenever an event admitted to have happened is ascribed by one party to supernatural interference. Somebody expressed surprise the other day that men of science should take into account the existence of flint implements, and refuse to take into account the existence of the Bible and Christianity. I never happened to hear of the man of science who denied the existence of either. Does the man really decline to take a fact into account when he declares it to be altogether exceptional and supernatural, or when he explains it as resulting from the normal operation of known forces ? Is it more sceptical to say that somebody compiled the book of Genesis from old legends by the same faculties which enabled another man to compile the ' Iliad,' or to say that nobody could have told the story of Adam and Eve without the direct assistance of God Almighty ? In the ordinary case, the fact, as well as the explanation, is doubted. We refuse to believe in the story of the Magi because it involves impossibilities and rests upon no evidence. Somebody we know not who wrote we know not when on some authority we know not what a story which implies a belief in exploded doctrines, and showed, by ignoring all difficulties, his utter innocence of anything like historical criticism. To disbelieve his evidence implies the assumption that such evidence is fallible, and that unfounded stories may obtain currency in a sect when they honour the founder of the sect. No human being denies these assumptions. Everyone who asserts the truth of this particular legend is ready to assert them in the case of every sect but his own. The phenomenon which we all admit is the existence of a certain narrative. One person classes it with authentic history, another with a well-known variety of popular legend. Neither denies the existence of much authentic history and of much popular legend. How are we to decide which is right ? Surely by Hume's very simple principle. There is nothing inconsistent with the admitted rules derived from experience in admitting the story to be a legend ; but there is an admitted contradiction to such rules in supposing the truth of astrology and of stars standing over the birthplace of prophets.
On what principle, then, does it show more faith to admit than to reject such legends, unless faith be denned, with the schoolgirl, as a belief in what we know to be false ? Excellent people still think themselves entitled to take an air of moral superiority because they accept marvellous stories without a fragment of evidence. To argue against such a position would be too degrading. When I read that one eminent person believes in devils possessing pigs, and another in the existence of Noah's ark, I am simply surprised. I fully believe that they are sincere ; but I wonder how I should convey a belief, even in their sincerity, to anyone born out of the magic circle.
Such people, at any rate, are safe from any arguments of mine. I can only suggest that they should study the works of Voltaire. He was a ' scoffer,' it is true, though a scoffer with a more masculine faith in reason than can be found among the ninety-and-nine just persons who never saw a joke in their lives. The beliefs he combated are, in point of fact, ridiculous ; they have passed beyond the sphere of reason. If you would in any sense answer him, it must not be by holding on to Jonah's whale, but by cutting yourself loose from that unfortunate monster. How degrading this desperate clinging to every rag of old superstition must appear to those who have the use of their intellects may be sufficiently evident from a too famous utterance of Newman. Admitting that the Old Testament was in contradiction with modern astronomy, he held that both might still be true. Science says that the earth goes round the sun ; theology, that the sun goes round the earth. That sounds, no doubt, like a contradiction ; but then, theology, or the Bible, spoke in a metaphysical sense, and metaphysicians (some at least) tell us that space is subjective, or don't know what to make of it. The argument would be admirably suited to the famous case of Mahomet : the mountain came to him just as truly as he went to the mountain ; but if any Mahomedan made the statement, and defended it in such a way, we should probably accuse him of gross equivocation. At least, one might have expected Jehovah, if he was the author of the statement, to have hit upon some phrase which would have conveyed the truth without apparently sanctioning a delusion. By accepting it as somehow true sense we are, indeed, enabled to believe as an historic fact that the God of heaven and earth stopped a revolution of this planet in order that one barbarous tribe might massacre a few more thousands of another. If Jehovah was capable of such a stroke to get the better of Chemosh, I can only say that he was not the kind of character whom I should choose for a Deity. According to M. Eenan, the whole blunder probably arose from the prosaic construction of a poetic figure. If Milton came to be regarded as an inspired poet, we should make a similar history from his words in the ' Christmas Hymn ' :
The stars in deep amaze
Stood fixed with steadfast gaze.
Strange that the hyperbole of an ancient writer of war-songs should have led a man of genius two or three thousand years later to grovel in such humiliating sophistries, and think that he was so doing worthy homage to the Almighty !
I can only marvel that any man should seriously suppose that all that is most precious and elevating in his beliefs should be held on the tenure of the acceptance as historical facts of legends only to be paralleled by the stories of folk-lore. I can no more understand that any serious injury can come to my moral nature from disbelief in Samson than from disbelief in Jack the Giant-killer. I care as little for Goliath as for the giant Blunderbore. I am glad that children should amuse themselves with nursery stories, but it is shocking that they should be ordered to believe in them as solid facts, and then be told that such superstition is essential to morality. It is the more shocking because the idolatry of the Bible deprives it of its strongest interest. It is just by reading what is called destructive criticism that we discover the unique interest of the Bible. Accept the Jewish legends as historical truth, and you have to believe in a state of things grotesque in itself and absolutely divorced from all living realities. Warburton argued how far he argued sincerely is a curious puzzle that God Almighty was really once Jehovah, and governed the Chosen People by a system totally different from that upon which He governed the rest of the human race. The whole history was an exception to all other history. That is only to bring out in its most brutal form the assumption which underlies the orthodox doctrine. Will anyone now dare to say that the God of the universe was once the God of a small tribe; that he reflected all its national characteristics, was savage, vindictive, and arbitrary ; that he then used temporal instead of eternal punishments, and with very partial success tried to help his favourites in their struggle for existence ? Yet, so far as we are to take the Jewish legends as history of outward fact, instead of historical documents illustrating the Jewish stage of mental development, we fall into Warburton's amazing misconstruction. The whole story is torn from all historical context, and becomes a barren collection of marvels. Once apply the true historical method assume that the Jew belongs to human nature, that he has the same passions, senses, and thoughts as other men, and the story suddenly becomes alive, and gains all the interest of a genuine human narrative. The critic may blunder in his interpretation of fragmentary documents of uncertain origin and composition ; he may be fanciful, and apt to see too far into millstones ; but the astonishing difference is that he now deals at least with the possible and the credible. To read such a book, for example, as Kenan's ' History of the Jews ' is to receive a new, though a human, revelation. We have a conceivable account of an imaginable history ; we lose stories of wonder as foolish and fanciful as those which surround the cradles of other races, but in return we see the people themselves ; we watch the slow struggle out of primitive superstitions, the development under unique conditions of institutions of singular interest ; we come to understand that the Prophets were not propounders of queer conundrums, to be answered in a later number, but the vigorous advocates of great principles, half-understood, and mingled with many gross superstitions and narrow prejudices, yet able to elevate the race and to leave the deepest and most permanent of impressions upon the history of mankind. The study becomes correlated with all that we have learnt from analogous studies elsewhere, and the whole story pregnant with a new interest. It is unique, but no longer exceptional. It does not imply that the general laws of Nature are broken, but only that they are exemplified under special conditions. We have before us men and women, not the strange imagery of a world of gods and devils ; we give up floods to the top of Ararat, and stars stopped to win a border skirmish, and we see for the first time a vivid and living picture of a great race struggling under the conditions which govern all human endeavour. All generous and far-seeing theologians are beginning to acknowledge this. The historical method has been admitted into the Churches. Even apologists acknowledge the working of a Divine Power, not only within the precincts of Palestine, but throughout the vast regions and ancient civilisations where the very name has never been heard. They have given up the theory that other people's gods were simply devils, and recognise them as partial manifestations of the power which created our own. They hesitate, indeed, about the New Testament. Jehovah has become a rather questionable personage ; but they still maintain that God once became man with characteristics very unlike those of Jehovah. Yet the New Testament history is as much in need of a reconstruction as the Old. To take one extreme case, there are few things more curious than the fate of the Apocalypse. We now know, beyond all reasonable doubt, the date of its composition. We can read its ' prophecies ' with the clearest understanding of their meaning. To do so, we have only to assume that by Jerusalem the writer meant Jerusalem, and to accept what he tells us himself of the meaning of the horns of the beast. We can interpret the wonderful 666 without any risk of driving ourselves mad by the process. What is the gain and the loss ? We have to admit that the prophecy, like most others, went wrong when it began to deal with the future. We have to admit that the Almighty did not propose a strange series of puzzles, of which nobody ever has or ever will be able to make head or tail. The necessity of that assumption only arises when we assume, in contradiction to all experience, that a prediction must have been fulfilled allegorically because it was certainly not fulfilled according to its plain meaning. We gain a most striking illustration of the state of mind of the race among which Christianity was being founded : of the fierce fanaticism which animated the Jews in the horrors of the siege of Jerusalem ; and of the nature of the belief in the advent of a Messiah, which formed so important an element in the new religion. So read, the book ceases to be a preposterous enigma, and becomes a startling revelation of thoughts and aspirations, most strange in themselves, and yet most important to an understanding of the greatest of religious revolutions.
Or we may observe how a simple adoption of the historical attitude of mind brings out the figure of the Apostle of the Gentiles. It has been the interest of orthodox interpreters of all sects to slur over the great struggle which made Christianity a world religion. Peter and Paul, as the author of the Acts already tried to make out, were completely at one, as how should they be otherwise if both were channels of the same Holy Ghost ? Beading Paul's epistles without first carefully blinding our eyes, we can see how desperate was the struggle between the Jewish and the Gentile Christians ; what efforts it cost to disengage the Christian theology of later days from the swaddling-clothes which first hampered it in Palestine ; and how singular a mixture of theories struggles in the argumentation of the Apostle, illogical, perplexed, and occasionally shocking, but yet showing the firmest of world -shaping beliefs. Accept every utterance as that of a Divine authority, and we are forced to shut our eyes to all that gives them a true human interest, and to see the enunciation of pure, absolute truth in the most confused and desperate struggle of conflicting theories that ever agitated a great but still an eminently human mind. Or consider what a blindness is necessary to read the Gospel of St. John after the old fashion, as a genuine story of an eyewitness, instead of a series of mystical declamations representing the influx of a theosophical theory. To the orthodox, Christianity is something dropped out of the infinite, with no affinity to existing thoughts or real explanation from the conditions of the time. To the reader who will place himself at the historical point of view, it is the product of all the social and moral and intellectual forces of the time ; its origin must be studied in the vast political and social changes implied in the foundation of the Eoman Empire and in the developments of Greek philosophy, mixed with Jewish tradition, as well as in the development of the Jewish nation itself. Briefly, the orthodox hypothesis, so far as it is accepted, effectually cuts off every real human interest from the contemplation of the greatest drama ever played upon the stage of the world.
The sum or kernel of all these difficulties appears in our view of the central character of the history. You still cling to the conception of a Godman. It is needless to do more than allude to all the hopeless struggles of the human intellect trying to reconcile itself to such a conception. Take Christ for a man, exemplifying all the laws of human nature, which are as much verified by the most exceptional as by the most ordinary example, and what do you lose ? Is the moral beauty of the Sermon on the Mount diminished or affected in the smallest degree by the fact that it came from human lips ? Truth is truth, and beauty, beauty, whatever its source. But at every stage of the life, the attempt to identify a human being with the Author of all Nature only leads to hopeless incoherence. The logical result is surely that of the early heretics, condemned, like other heretical results, because it was so obviously logical that the human Christ was a phantasm. Think only of the last words on the Cross, as reported in the Gospel according to St. Matthew : ' My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me ? ' Nothing can be more terribly pathetic if we read it as the despairing utterance of a martyr yielding at the last moment to a hideous doubt. But if it be taken as the utterance of a Divine being, what can we make of it ? I will not give the obvious answer.
I can only hint at a truth which is gradually coming to be appreciated. The Bible has been made an idol, and therefore made grotesque. The faith which accepts its absurdities as divine is destructive of the human interest. A strong faith of that stamp really means a dull imagination. The livelier the imaginative faculty, the firmer the grasp of the vital laws of the world. Monsters in art, centaurs and angels, are proofs that their creators did not really see the human being, but only his outside. The grotesque in art and religion is merely a proof that the infantile imagination has no grasp of realities. Floods drowning the world, rivers turned to blood, and the sun standing still to light a massacre, are toys of an arbitrary fancy, which can join incongruities without a sense of absurdity. The imagination of the trained and powerful intellect which makes the past present rejects the absurdity, because it perceives the true forces which worked three thousand years ago as they work now ; and in that perception is the true source of all genuine interest in the past. To make history historical is the problem of the time, and we need not fear that history will be the loser. But this is only one illustration of confusions which still perplex popular thought. Historically speaking, Jehovah was developed into the God of the Jewish Prophets, and has since been developed into the God of Spinoza. The continuity of the process has concealed the monstrous absurdity of identifying the two. On such strange assumptions the world becomes chaos, and therefore scepticism the only rational frame of mind. Hume long ago pointed out that the heathens saw their god in the interruptions to order, while philosophers see God in the preservation of order. The ordinary mind placidly combines the two views, and smooths over obvious difficulties by logical sleight of hand too familiar to be worth examination. It has been argued by orthodox writers that the heathen were really Atheists because their gods were merely particular individuals, not the Supreme Being. Is not the argument equally applicable against anyone who, believing in the God of philosophy, persists in identifying him with the old Hebrew deity ? Is it theism or atheism to hold that the ruler of the universe is the strange being who met Moses and his wife at an inn, and tried to kill their son ? Metaphysicians have asked us to accept Jehovah's vagaries on the ground that the motives of the Absolute and Infinite Being are necessarily inconceivable. Jehovah, unluckily, is only too easily conceivable. Whether his existence be credible is another question. But so long as such tricks of logical fence are put forward as serious, one thing, at least, is evident. History is a chaos. A belief in God is asserted to be the one source of true happiness and morality. But, on the older hypothesis, this belief is only accessible through inspiration. It is dropped into the world at a particular place : to ask why that place and time should be selected is simply irrational, for it depends upon the arbitrary pleasure (arbitrary, so far as we can know) of the incomprehensible Being. Through countless ages that light was confined to a single tribe, while an incalculable majority of the human race was left in utter darkness, and, according to some logical persons, damned for not seeing. Even since the light has come, it has not yet reached a third part of the human race. It is so far from being clear, that it has formed one main obstacle to the spread of scientific truth ; and so far from regenerating mankind, that they have seen it only to relapse into infidelity, materialism, and atheism. To give any sort of theory of this force is to transgress the limits of the human intellect ; and yet it is the one force upon which our temporary and eternal welfare depends. The human mind, indeed, has revolted against such doctrines. They are denied, I am glad to say, by modern divines as emphatically as I could deny them myself. The Deity whom good men revere to-day is not the savage, jealous tyrant of ancient times, nor the cruel persecutor of error and protector of favourites who is now accepted by the most ignorant and belated minds. The gods of the heathen were not devils, but faint reflections of the true Deity. The world outside the sacred circle of Judaism or Christianity was still under a providential guidance ; the heathens and heretics whom Dante still kept out of heaven may now obtain admission, though not, perhaps, as of legal right. All this and much more may be said for intelligent theologians who cannot bear to abandon, but do their best to elevate, the old phrases. I only suggest that they might show a little more gratitude to the deists and sceptics who have forced them to learn the lesson. The higher point of view no one worth notice will deny it to be the higher is gained precisely by approximation to the Agnostic. So long as the miraculous is admitted, we admit the arbitrary. Belief in the supernatural is the belief in a dualistic theory, in an established order liable to spasmodic and inexplicable interferences from without. Since, then, supernatural is divine, it is just the force which works for the good which is intrinsically incomprehensible. The wind bloweth where it listeth. The huge, blind, God -forsaken world blunders on in its own way, but here and there a flash from a world beyond enlightens a man or a race, and forms a divine province in an empire of chaos. To get rid of this doctrine is to get rid of the supernatural ; to admit that the religions of the world are all more or less faulty and more or less successful attempts of the race to form a theory of the world suitable for its guidance; and that all progress, moral, social, or religious, is due to the working of natural instincts, the epithet being not superfluous only because it is necessary to exclude the supernatural. Allowing this, all history becomes continuous and intelligible. Here is no mysterious intrusion of internal forces impinging upon the world from no one knows where ; no truth revealed in one longitude and latitude, and hidden from others in proportion to their distance ; and no order which is not the work of the men who are at once the product and producers of society. After admitting this, you may, as you please, call the whole * divine ' or ' natural.' But the essential point is the unification of principle which excludes all supernatural intrusions, and which, by affording solid ground for scientific reasoning, gives the only basis unassailable by a mischievous scepticism.
If history is a chaos, so long as one main factor in history is taken to be the arbitrary or supernatural, what are we to say of the science of which history is the embodiment ? What kind of a psychology must be constructed upon the lines thus laid down ? You believe that Christ was God incarnate ; I hold that He was a human being. Your most respectable argument is from the moral qualities manifested in His works and words. You regard them as so exceptional that the difference between Christ and other men is only explicable by the intrusion of the supernatural power nay, of an infinite power. He is not merely exceptional as a Shakespeare or a Newton may be exceptional, but so exceptional that the existence of such a man is inconceivable. His character implies, not an extreme case of the laws of human nature, but something for which those laws would be utterly unable to account. The difference between the highest and the lowest of human beings nay, the difference between man and beast, must surely be an inadequate measure of the difference between the divine and the human. I, on the contrary, hold that Christ was a man, and so far have surely a higher opinion of human nature than you. I regard the character of Christ as within the range of human possibilities. The power of love and self-sacrifice, the simplicity and charm of the character are such, I hold, as may be, and have been exemplified in other men in varying degrees. Why should I be forced to postulate an incarnation of deity to account for goodness, even in a superlative degree ? Your answer has been often given by theologians. It is, simply, that human nature is corrupt and virtue supernatural. Christ is the type of the perfect man, indeed, and a type, one would think, should embody qualities possible at least to the race. But the answer is that man can only approximate to this type by supernatural aid. Human nature is the residuum left when all good impulses are supposed to come from without. The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked. From ourselves come nothing but lust, hatred, and the love of darkness. Certainly, therefore, humanity cannot produce a Christ nor even a decent member of society. Where we find purity, love, or heroism, we may be sure that they cannot have sprung upon mortal soil. They must have been transplanted from a supernatural paradise ; sporadic plants, which have strayed beyond the guarded walls of Eden, and can only struggle against the foul indigenous products by the constant care of the Divine gardener. Our need for supernatural aid is measured by our sense of human impotence. The doctrine of the corruption of human nature is, therefore, a central fact in the most vigorous theology. The belief in God is, so far, simply the opposite pole of disbelief in man. They are reciprocal dogmas, allied as the light and the shadow. The various doctrines of redemption and atonement are realised in proportion as this belief is held, and die away as it grows faint. And, so far, the belief in a supernatural religion is the other side of a disbelief in all human virtue, which does not repose on a supernatural basis, and is not enlightened by supernatural revelation and stimulated by hopes and fears to be realised in a supernatural world.
Undoubtedly this interpretation melts into other theological doctrines which sometimes express the very reverse. For the higher conceptions of the Divine Being suppose His co-operation to be constant in such a sense that we can hardly distinguish the statement that virtue is supernatural from the statement that it is natural. It may then seem to become little more than a question of words. If man is not good by nature, and yet God, who is Nature, is always ready to make him good, it is rather hard to distinguish the provinces of grace and Nature. The mention of this, indeed, is enough to indicate how much scepticism really lurks in the theological point of view. The endless and radically insoluble controversies as to the relations between nature and grace are a sufficient proof that upon this cardinal point of the system anything like rational agreement is impossible. The knot cannot be untied, though it may be cut. It has perplexed all the greatest theologians since it brought St. Paul into hopeless confusion in the Epistle to the Eomans, and has not been solved, though it has passed pretty much out of the sphere of living interest. It is one more proof of the hopeless perplexity caused by the introduction of an arbitrary term into controversy, and the utter impossibility of drawing any clear distinction between the Divine and the natural.
From the anthropomorphic point of view or the pantheistic you may come to some definite conclusion, but when the point of view shifts from one to the other, and God is sometimes synonymous with Nature and sometimes with an intrusive agent, the result must be intellectual chaos, and chaos is the correlative of scepticism.
Is the coherence of our moral convictions bound up, as theologians assert, with the preservation of theological dogma, or is it true, here as elsewhere, that the attempt to get to the transcendental must land us in a vacuum, where there is no foundation for any settled belief? Let me briefly recapitulate the Agnostic's position. He wishes, if he deserves to be taken at his word, to place morality on a scientific basis. He must, therefore, begin by rejecting one main contention of the theologian. He must get rid of the whole scheme of thought which asserts the necessity of a belief outside the scope of scientific inquiry. Morality, like the political sciences, must be placed upon an inductive basis, or be on the same plane with those truths which, if fully ascertainable, would form the science of ' sociology.' We may determine, within limits, what are the laws of growth of the social organism and the conditions imposed by its environment. We can see what are the instincts which contribute to its development and stability, and what, consequently, are the laws which, if recognised and accepted, will contribute to its health. To lay them down is to construct the moral code. This, indeed, is practicable, because the race has in fact been engaged from its origin in feeling out the rules essential to its welfare. They have neither been imported from without nor deduced from abstract speculation. Men have discovered that murder is injurious to society, as they have discovered that intoxication is prejudicial to health by trying the experiment on a large scale. The so-called intuitions have no supernatural character, but are assumptions verifiable by experience, as they are the embodiment of past experience. In their main outlines they are as much beyond the reach of confutation as any of our primary beliefs. They are as certain, when regarded as statements of the conditions of social welfare, as are the assertions about the conditions of individual welfare ; as the opinions that men are mortal, that fire burns, that water drowns, that certain foods are poisonous, and that jumping over a cliff is likely to shorten life. We can see how the development of society is conditioned by, and tends in turn to stimulate the growth of, the higher instincts, which are inexplicable within the limits of individual experience. We can see how their growth is interwoven with the growth of the intellectual and emotional nature, and determine the conditions favourable to their strength. We are thus enabled to consider by what means the rules deduced from social welfare may be incorporated with the rules for individual welfare. The Agnostic has, of course, to admit that anti-social instincts exist, and will exist for some time to come. He does not believe in the dogma of * corruption,' in the incapacity of the race to improve itself for all history, upon his view, testifies to its power of gradual self-elevation. But he must, like everyone else, recognise the slowness and the difficulty of the operation. Evil can only be kept down by strenuous activity, though an activity more sure of success as it becomes more enlightened and farseeing. The guarantee for success is just the fact that a vigorous morality is by its nature one aspect of a strong vitality. Since the social instincts are in the strictest sense natural, since they strengthen and adapt themselves to the growing needs of society, and survive the decay of the multitudinous creeds in which they have been partially incorporated, he may reasonably hope that the upward progress of mankind will continue, and may even be accelerated. As the race becomes more intelligent and more distinctly conscious of its aims, the victory will become more certain, and be won at a smaller cost.
The moral progress in which we believe has of course shown itself in the religious convictions of mankind. The gods have been reformed as well as their worshippers. It is true that they normally lag rather behind the age in virtue of their conservative tendencies. They represent the morality of yesterday rather than the morality of to-morrow. But only a bigot will deny the utility of conservatism, and the attempts to widen and improve a moral law may sometimes appear as revolutionary attacks upon the law itself. There is a value, therefore, in the retarding force, though it is apt to condemn its natural opponents as the agents of diabolical degeneration. We should not retort the injustice, nor refuse to acknowledge that the religions of to-day preach a morality generally sound in substance, however they may misconceive its origin. In this, as in other questions, the opponents of progress have been really saturated by the ideas of which they failed to recognise the truth, and can put the substance of the evolutionist doctrine into theological terminology. The essential difference depends upon the admission or the exclusion of the supernatural ; that is, upon the question whether the Divine element is to be identified with the natural order, or represents an intrusive and arbitrary interference ; whether we are or are not to accept a dualism in which the world is the scene of conflict of two radically opposed powers, one of them nominally or * potentially ' Almighty, but in point of fact encountered and often checkmated by its base opponent. So long as we are in the old position, the very basis of ethical theory is insecure. It is laid in the clouds, not on the solid earth. Morality is supposed to be binding because based on the will of God ; but of what God ? The gods of the heathen were unpleasantly like devils. They sanctioned ' hate, revenge, and lust.' The Devil, indeed, is simply a deposed deity, or the product of a process of differentiation dating back from a period at which there was no perceptible distinction. If we listen to the mutual recriminations of theologians, we must admit that this rather important contrast has not even yet been made so clear as might be wished. We are told, for example, by one set of very enthusiastic believers, that the God of Calvinism, in his most pronounced attributes, has a strong resemblance to the Evil One, although we are also told that he represents merely the explicit and logical recognition of a doctrine really held by the loftiest theologians. In any case, it is clear that the sound theory of morality can only be deduced from the sound theology. The moral law, then, must be based on the will of the true God. But the phrase at once suggests the infinite jumble of chaotic controversy which has no issue because it belongs essentially to the region of the arbitrary. There is no ethical doctrine which may not assert itself in theological language. Are actions right because God wills them, or does God will them because they are right ? If because God wills them, how are we to know His will ? If for antecedent reasons, then must not reason, instead of the Divine will, be the true ground of morals? There are theological utilitarians and theological intuitionists. One theologian holds that a direct revelation was necessary for the discovery of the moral law ; another, that morality is a science of observation, and that God merely assigns as its end the greatest happiness of the greatest number. A third holds that morality is deducible from pure reason, and that revelation and experience are alike superfluous. On one system, the essence of morality is the proclamation of future rewards and punishments. On another, the unselfish love of God is the only foundation of true virtue, which is a sham so far as it is adulterated by any admixture of personal interests. To one theologian the virtues of the heathen are but splendid vices, while another sees in them proofs of the universality of Divine influence. One argues that all natural impulses are good because Nature is the work of God, and his opponent replies that all Nature is under a curse, and man's heart corrupt to the core. The foundation of one system is that God desires the happiness of man in this world ; and another declares all human happiness to be an illusion. One holds asceticism to be simple folly ; another thinks it the shortest road to heaven. The antinomian thinks that as God has once for all elected or rejected him, his actions are of no importance ; and the sacerdotalist holds that by accumulating active observances he can establish an indefeasible claim upon his Creator. One thinks it blasphemous against God's omnipotence to claim any share in the work of salvation ; another considers it an insult to God to suppose that salvation will not be conceded to good works. One sees in the goodness of God an assurance that all men will be ultimately happy, and another infers from His justice that the vast majority will be doomed to endless torture.
It is true that such contradictions matter less than would appear at first sight. Somehow or other, metaphysicians have a wonderful facility for deducing the same conclusions from the most opposite premises. That is, perhaps, because metaphysics is not really what it professes to be, the exposition of first principles, from which the inferior truths are deducible, but an attempt to give explicitly the logic of the processes already employed by the common sense of mankind. Professing to make no assumption, it really assumes all previous knowledge. At any rate, we have the comfort of believing that ethical rules have little dependence upon theories of moral philosophy. I only mean to urge that the assumptions of theology in general, even if they be granted, land us in inextricable labyrinths of dialectics. No doctrine seems to me to be less tenable than that which asserts that morality requires a theological foundation. To connect ethics with theology of the lower type is, in fact, to define it as obedience to the will of an arbitrary being, who may be the reflection of some barbarous ideal, or who may be a metaphysical entity indistinguishable from the abstract Nature. It is a long way from crude anthropomorphism to that bloodless spectre of a theological morality which appears, for example, in the ' categorical imperative ' of Kant. Kant's moral law is a command which survives mysteriously when the giver of the command has evaporated. In their anxiety to get rid of the ' expedient ' and * empirical,' philosophers remove the law to a region where it has no relation to facts. It becomes mere ' law ' in the abstract, of which it is the only condition that it shall not be selfcontradictory, and which is, therefore, equally applicable to any set of rules whatever. The essence of morality becomes merely a logical formula, and is fit only for a state of things in which fact can be woven out of syllogism, and the loom at which the universe is wrought can be worked in a professor's lectureroom. Such philosophy, though it still calls itself theistic, is the very antithesis of the old doctrine which goes by the same name. In the primitive stage, morality is the law given by a particular being known under definite historical conditions. To get rid of the arbitrary and empirical element we substitute a being who inhabits the region of the inconceivable, and of whom we cannot think directly without falling into hopeless antinomies. Instead of the arbitrary and particular, we have the hopelessly vague and unintelligible. The true method of escape is surely different. Morality must be represented as dependent, not upon the authority of a particular person, invisible or otherwise, nor relegated to the region where we are hopelessly suspended in the inane, but based upon a knowledge of the concrete constitution of human nature and society.
To make a moral law otherwise than from a study of human life will be possible when it is possible on the same terms to construct a physiology and a system of therapeutics ; and meanwhile it remains in ethics what the attempt to square the circle is in the history of mathematics. The charge against the Agnostic, that he weakens his belief in morality because he brings it within the sphere of experience, is just as true as would be the same charge against the man of science, who appeals to facts instead of evolving the facts from the depths of his consciousness.
The theologian occasionally shows a leaning to such transcendental theories, though he ought to know that their inevitable catastrophe is in a reduction of theology to pantheism. But the theology which can appeal to the imagination remains at some intermediate stage between the purely anthropomorphic and the purely metaphysical. The doctrine of another world of which, as of all matters of fact, the absolute system of morality must be independent, is still for him the pivot of morals. It is in rejecting this part of the doctrine that the ' scepticism ' or positive unbelief of the Agnostic is most keenly denounced. Once more, which is the sceptic ? The early Christians, like the modern Socialists, dreamed of a speedy advent of the millennium ; a faith flushed with excessive confidence, and capable of transforming, if not of regenerating, society, naturally generates such visions. Modern Socialists generally assign the next century as the period at which we shall all have achieved Utopia. The Christian held that his generation would not pass away before the Messiah was revealed in supernatural glory. The belief was in harmony with his whole theory of the world. His hopes naturally pointed to dreamland to a world of catastrophes and surprises. Everything was to be changed in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the sound of a supernatural trumpet. The true believers were to be caught up into heaven, and set upon the thrones provided for them, and the unbelievers to be cast into the sea of fire and brimstone. The world had been, and might be again, the scene of tremendous and spasmodic convulsions, to be anticipated only in virtue of supernatural revelation. God had sent His Son upon earth to reveal the one true light, and suddenly to establish a Divine kingdom. Ages have passed, and faith has grown dim, and the prophecies and revelations have had to be twisted and spiritualised, and have slowly sunk into enigmas to exercise the fertile ingenuity of learned folly. The belief in the Second Advent has faded into inanity, although, like certain men of Galilee, some may still stand gazing into heaven, forgetting the solid earth at their feet. If by the faith which is to save the world you still mean faith in the supernatural, you still hold that faith comes by revelation, or by an inexplicable means upon incalculable occasions. And if the only light which can lighten the world shines at the arbitrary bidding of an inscrutable Being, its occultations are equally mysterious. They are workings of the Devil, whose very existence in a God governed world is a mystery. Friday asked Robinson Crusoe, why does not God kill the Devil ? and neither Robinson Crusoe nor anybody else has hitherto been able to answer the question. The spread of infidel opinions is, more or less, supposed to be the work of the Devil. But why the Devil should suddenly get into the pulpit, and why his preaching should be so successful, are still inscrutable mysteries. The showing forth of the light and its obscuration equally belong to the region where the human intellect has no footing. To the Agnostic, even the spread of an error is part of the wide-world process by which we stumble into mere approximations to truth. It is explicable from the necessities of the case that partial illusions should arise at each successive stage of our onward movement. But if the old Faith be absolutely true, and also dependent on the catastrophe of a revelation, the whole process of the evolution of truth becomes hopelessly unintelligible. The new ideas which stir the intellectual movement of the world are regarded with suspicion, for God may be again leaving the field to the Devil as it was left of old. The corruption of our nature may be once more showing itself and getting the upper hand. Increase of knowledge shakes the old creeds, and increase of wealth shakes the old structure. The sacred authority decays, and the orthodox believer has to choose between equivocating and straining and twisting the old phrases to a new meaning, or in closer conformity with the logic of his belief, announcing that the old world is once more going to the devil, and that the evil principle, disguised as an angel of intellectual light, is seducing us to close our eyes to all that is elevating and purifying.
This, as I take it, is the scepticism which really underlies the theological belief. The belief in progress has been transferred to his opponent, for the belief in progress is the popular version of the doctrine of evolution. The doctrine of evolution is the uncompromising application to all phenomena of history and thought of a genuine belief in causation, or of an expulsion of the arbitrary. The theologian, unless he elects to become a pantheist, must struggle against a mode of thought which runs counter to his fundamental assumptions. The scientific reasoner holds by the continuity and uniformity of Nature ; theology accepts a dualism which implies catastrophe and the interference of a radically unknowable factor. Therefore, the belief in progress which substitutes a development of natural forces for a Second Advent, and foresight based upon knowledge of facts for a miraculous prediction of the mysterious, is essentially incongruous to theology. The theologian abandons the only clue which can lead us to some foresight here in the attempt to find a certainty in the clouds. Faith in the beyond really implies scepticism as to the present, and those who most fervently assert their belief in an omnipotent and perfect Governor of the world are, therefore, those who can speak most bitterly and with the least hopefulness of the world which He governs. They can wrap themselves in dreams of heaven, and see the blind masses plunging, possessed of devils, into the depths of destruction.
The belief in progress has its own delusions. The Socialist may be doomed to a disappointment like that which awaited the early Christian. The Son of Man did not appear in the clouds, and I fear that it will be some time before the world will be freed from all cruelty and injustice. Yet the Socialist dream has the advantage that it points to an end not by its nature unobtainable, and is therefore capable of being pursued with some hopes of slow approximation. We must, perhaps, admit that even progress cannot be infinite. After some millions of years the earth, like its satellite, must become a wandering graveyard, and men and their dreams will in that case vanish together. Our hopes, like most things, must be finite. We must be content if they are enough to stimulate to action. We must believe in a future harvest enough to encourage us to sow, and hold that honest and unselfish work will leave the world rather better off than we found it. Perhaps this is not a very sublime prospect. Life, says the most candid of theologians and he certainly tried to prove it is, perhaps, but a poor thing. Yet it is tolerable so long as one can believe that our fellow-men have enough of healthy and noble instinct to secure a steady, if a chequered, social growth ; that their instincts do not depend upon knowledge of the unknowable, and will survive our petty systems founded upon irrational guesswork. It is something to feel a confidence, based upon experience, that we have nothing to fear from unlimited inquiry and thoroughgoing destruction of fictions, and that we may hope, not merely for an increased power of man over Nature, but for a higher, more rational, social order, and more widely extended sympathies. Extension of knowledge implies also a more accurate appreciation of the conditions of human welfare and a more intelligent cultivation of the emotions and sympathies on which it depends. We can build without fearing that any infidel Samson will suddenly crush the pillars of our temple. We cannot flatter ourselves that our personal stake in the universe is more unlimited in regard to the future than in regard to the past and the distant ; but that reflection may be rather consoling than otherwise to some who fancy that they and the universe will have had about enough of each other in threescore years and ten. That may be a matter of taste ; but in any case, when we see daily with more clearness that all intellectual progress involves a systematic interpretation of experience and a resolute exclusion of all imaginary a priori data, it is desirable that we should look in the direction in which a lone experience can enlighten us, and accept realities in exchange for dreams. Scepticism about the shifting phantasmagoria of theology is less paralysing than the scepticism which, when it speaks frankly, rejects realities, and when it does not, attempts to mystify us by a jargon which hopelessly confounds the two.