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plain. The expression of opinion directly affects other people, while
its mere formation directly affects no one but ourselves. Therefore the
limits of compromise in expression are less widely and freely placed,
because the rights and interests of all who may be made listeners to our
spoken or written words are immediately concerned. In forming opinions,
a man or woman owes no consideration to any person or persons whatever.
Truth is the single object. It is truth that in the forum of conscience
claims an undivided allegiance. The publication of opinion stands on
another footing. That is an external act, with possible consequences,
like all other external acts, both to the doer and to every one within
the sphere of his influence. And, besides these, it has possible
consequences to the prosperity of the opinion itself.[19]

A hundred questions of fitness, of seasonableness, of conflicting
expediencies, present themselves in this connection, and nothing gives
more anxiety to a sensible man who holds notions opposed to the current
prejudices, than to hit the right mark where intellectual integrity and
prudence, firmness and wise reserve, are in exact accord. When we come
to declaring opinions that are, however foolishly and unreasonably,
associated with pain and even a kind of turpitude in the minds of those
who strongly object to them, then some of our most powerful sympathies
are naturally engaged. We wonder whether duty to truth can possibly
require us to inflict keen distress on those to whom we are bound by the
tenderest and most consecrated ties. This is so wholly honourable a
sentiment, that no one who has not made himself drunk with the thin sour
wine of a crude and absolute logic will refuse to consider it. Before,
however, attempting to illustrate cases of conscience in this order, we
venture to make a short digression into the region of the matter, as
distinct from the manner of free speech. One or two changes of great
importance in the way in which men think about religion, bear directly
upon the conditions on which they may permit themselves and others to
speak about it.


The peculiar character of all the best kinds of dissent from the nominal
creed of the time, makes it rather less difficult for us to try to
reconcile unflinching honesty with a just and becoming regard for the
feelings of those who have claims upon our forbearance, than would have
been the case a hundred years ago. 'It is not now with a polite sneer,'
as a high ecclesiastical authority lately admitted, 'still less with a
rude buffet or coarse words, that Christianity is assailed.' Before
churchmen congratulate themselves too warmly on this improvement in the
nature of the attack, perhaps they ought to ask themselves how far it is
due to the change in the position of the defending party. The truth is
that the coarse and realistic criticism of which Voltaire was the
consummate master, has done its work. It has driven the defenders of the
old faith into the milder and more genial climate of non-natural
interpretations, and the historic sense, and a certain elastic
relativity of dogma. The old criticism was victorious, but after victory
it vanished. One reason of this was that the coarse and realistic forms
of belief had either vanished before it, or else they forsook their
ancient pretensions and clothed themselves in more modest robes. The
consequence of this, and of other causes which might be named, is that
the modern attack, while fully as serious and much more radical, has a
certain gravity, decorum, and worthiness of form. No one of any sense or
knowledge now thinks the Christian religion had its origin in
deliberate imposture. The modern freethinker does not attack it; he
explains it. And what is more, he explains it by referring its growth to
the better, and not to the worse part of human nature. He traces it to
men's cravings for a higher morality. He finds its source in their
aspirations after nobler expression of that feeling for the
incommensurable things, which is in truth under so many varieties of
inwoven pattern the common universal web of religious faith.

The result of this way of looking at a creed which a man no longer
accepts, is that he is able to speak of it with patience and historic
respect. He can openly mark his dissent from it, without exacerbating
the orthodox sentiment by galling pleasantries or bitter animadversion
upon details. We are now awake to the all-important truth that belief in
this or that detail of superstition is the result of an irrational state
of mind, and flows logically from superstitious premisses. We see that
it is to begin at the wrong end, to assail the deductions as impossible,
instead of sedulously building up a state of mind in which their
impossibility would become spontaneously visible.

Besides the great change which such a point of view makes in men's way
of speaking of a religion, whose dogmas and documents they reject, there
is this further consideration leaning in the same direction. The
tendency of modern free thought is more and more visibly towards the
extraction of the first and more permanent elements of the old faith, to
make the purified material of the new. When Dr. Congreve met the famous
epigram about Comte's system being Catholicism minus Christianity, by
the reply that it is Catholicism plus Science, he gave an ingenious
expression to the direction which is almost necessarily taken by all who
attempt, in however informal a manner, to construct for themselves some
working system of faith, in place of the faith which science and
criticism have sapped. In what ultimate form, acceptable to great
multitudes of men, these attempts will at last issue, no one can now
tell. For we, like the Hebrews of old, shall all have to live and die in
faith, 'not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off,
and being persuaded of them, and embracing them, and confessing that we
are strangers and pilgrims on the earth.' Meanwhile, after the first
great glow and passion of the just and necessary revolt of reason
against superstition have slowly lost the exciting splendour of the
dawn, and become diffused in the colourless space of a rather bleak
noonday, the mind gradually collects again some of the ideas of the old
religion of the West, and willingly, or even joyfully, suffers itself to
be once more breathed upon by something of its spirit. Christianity was
the last great religious synthesis. It is the one nearest to us. Nothing
is more natural than that those who cannot rest content with
intellectual analysis, while awaiting the advent of the Saint Paul of
the humanitarian faith of the future, should gather up provisionally
such fragmentary illustrations of this new faith as are to be found in
the records of the old. Whatever form may be ultimately imposed on our
vague religious aspirations by some prophet to come, who shall unite
sublime depth of feeling and lofty purity of life with strong
intellectual grasp and the gift of a noble eloquence, we may at least be
sure of this, that it will stand as closely related to Christianity as
Christianity stood closely related to the old Judaic dispensation. It is
commonly assumed that the rejecters of the popular religion stand in
face of it, as the Christians stood in face of the pagan belief and
pagan rites in the Empire. The analogy is inexact. The modern denier, if
he is anything better than that, or entertains hopes of a creed to come,
is nearer to the position of the Christianising Jew.[20] Science, when
she has accomplished all her triumphs in her own order, will still have
to go back, when the time comes, to assist in the building up of a new
creed by which men can live. The builders will have to seek material in
the purified and sublimated ideas, of which the confessions and rites of
the Christian churches have been the grosser expression. Just as what
was once the new dispensation was preached _a Judaeos ad Judaeos apud
Judaeos_, so must the new, that is to be, find a Christian teacher and
Christian hearers. It can hardly be other than an expansion, a
development, a readaptation, of all the moral and spiritual truth that
lay hidden under the worn-out forms. It must be such a harmonising of
the truth with our intellectual conceptions as shall fit it to be an
active guide to conduct. In a world '_where men sit and hear each other
groan, where but to think is to be full of sorrow_,' it is hard to
imagine a time when we shall be indifferent to that sovereign legend of
Pity. We have to incorporate it in some wider gospel of Justice and
Progress.

I shall not, I hope, be suspected of any desire to prophesy too smooth
things. It is no object of ours to bridge over the gulf between belief
in the vulgar theology and disbelief. Nor for a single moment do we
pretend that, when all the points of contact between virtuous belief and
virtuous disbelief are made the most of that good faith will allow,
there will not still and after all remain a terrible controversy between
those who cling passionately to all the consolations, mysteries,
personalities, of the orthodox faith, and us who have made up our minds
to face the worst, and to shape, as best we can, a life in which the
cardinal verities of the common creed shall have no place. The future
faith, like the faith of the past, brings not peace but a sword. It is a
tale not of concord, but of households divided against themselves. Those
who are incessantly striving to make the old bottles hold the new wine,
to reconcile the irreconcilable, to bring the Bible and the dogmas of
the churches to be good friends with history and criticism, are prompted
by the humanest intention.[21] One sympathises with this amiable anxiety
to soften shocks, and break the rudeness of a vital transition. In this
essay, at any rate, there is no such attempt. We know that it is the son
against the father, and the mother-in-law against the daughter-in-law.
No softness of speech will disguise the portentous differences between
those who admit a supernatural revelation and those who deny it. No
charity nor goodwill can narrow the intellectual breach between those
who declare that a world without an ever-present Creator with
intelligible attributes would be to them empty and void, and those who
insist that none of the attributes of a Creator can ever be grasped by
the finite intelligence of men.[22] Our object in urging the historic,
semi-conservative, and almost sympathetic quality, which distinguishes
the unbelief of to-day from the unbelief of a hundred years ago, is only
to show that the most strenuous and upright of plain-speakers is less
likely to shock and wound the lawful sensibilities of devout persons
than he would have been so long as unbelief went no further than bitter
attack on small details. In short, all save the purely negative and
purely destructive school of freethinkers, are now able to deal with
the beliefs from which they dissent, in a way which makes patient and
disinterested controversy not wholly impossible.

One more point of much importance ought to be mentioned. The belief that
heresy is the result of wilful depravity is fast dying out. People no
longer seriously think that speculative error is bound up with moral
iniquity, or that mistaken thinking is either the result or the cause of
wicked living. Even the official mouthpieces of established beliefs now
usually represent a bad heart as only one among other possible causes of
unbelief. It divides the curse with ignorance, intellectual shallowness,
the unfortunate influence of plausible heresiarchs, and other
alternative roots of evil. They thus leave a way of escape, by which the
person who does not share their own convictions may still be credited
with a good moral character. Some persons, it is true, 'cannot see how a
man who deliberately rejects the Roman Catholic religion can, in the
eyes of those who earnestly believe it, be other than a rebel against
God.' They assure us that, 'as opinions become better marked and more
distinctly connected with action, the truth that decided dissent from
them implies more or less of a reproach upon those who hold them
decidedly, becomes so obvious that every one perceives it.' No doubt a
protestant or a sceptic regards the beliefs of a catholic as a reproach
upon the believer's understanding. So the man whose whole faith rests on
the miraculous and on acts of special intervention, regards the strictly
positive and scientific thinker as the dupe of a crude and narrow logic.
But this now carries with it no implication of moral obliquity. De
Maistre's rather grotesque conviction that infidels always die of
horrible diseases with special names, could now only be held among the
very dregs of the ecclesiastical world.

Nor is it correct to say that 'when religious differences come to be,
and are regarded as, mere differences of opinion, it is because the
controversy is really decided in the sceptical sense.' Those who agree
with the present writer, for example, are not sceptics. They positively,
absolutely, and without reserve, reject as false the whole system of
objective propositions which make up the popular belief of the day, in
one and all of its theological expressions. They look upon that system
as mischievous in its consequences to society, for many reasons, - among
others because it tends to divert and misdirect the most energetic
faculties of human nature. This, however, does not make them suspect the
motives or the habitual morality of those who remain in the creed in
which they were nurtured. The difference is a difference of opinion, as
purely as if we refused to accept the undulatory theory of light; and we
treat it as such. Then reverse this. Why is it any more impossible for
those who remain in the theological stage, who are not in the smallest
degree sceptical, who in their heart of hearts embrace without a shadow
of misgiving all the mysteries of the faith, why is it any more
impossible for them than for us, whose convictions are as strong as
theirs, to treat the most radical dissidence as that and nothing other
or worse? Logically, it perhaps might not be hard to convict them of
inconsistency, but then, as has been so often said, inconsistency is a
totally different thing from insincerity, or doubting adherence, or
silent scepticism. The beliefs of an ordinary man are a complex
structure of very subtle materials, all compacted into a whole, not by
logic, but by lack of logic; not by syllogism or sorites, but by the
vague.

As a plain matter of fact and observation, we may all perceive that
dissent from religious opinion less and less implies reproach in any
serious sense. We all of us know in the flesh liberal catholics and
latitudinarian protestants, who hold the very considerable number of
beliefs that remain to them, quite as firmly and undoubtingly as
believers who are neither liberal nor latitudinarian. The compatibility
of error in faith with virtue in conduct is to them only a mystery the
more, a branch of the insoluble problem of Evil, permitted by a Being at
once all-powerful and all-benevolent. Stringent logic may make short
work of either fact, - a benevolent author of evil, or a virtuous
despiser of divine truth. But in an atmosphere of mystery, logical
contradictions melt away. Faith gives a sanction to that tolerant and
charitable judgment of the character of heretics, which has its real
springs partly in common human sympathy whereby we are all bound to one
another, and partly in experience, which teaches us that practical
righteousness and speculative orthodoxy do not always have their roots
in the same soil. The world is every day growing larger. The range of
the facts of the human race is being enormously extended by naturalists,
by historians, by philologists, by travellers, by critics. The manifold
past experiences of humanity are daily opening out to us in vaster and
at the same time more ordered proportions. And so even those who hold
fast to Christianity as the noblest, strongest, and only final
conclusion of these experiences, are yet constrained to admit that it is
no more than a single term in a very long and intricate series.


The object of the foregoing digression is to show some cause for
thinking that dissent from the current beliefs is less and less likely
to inflict upon those who retain them any very intolerable kind or
degree of mental pain. Therefore it is in so far all the plainer, as
well as easier, a duty not to conceal such dissent. What we have been
saying comes to this. If a believer finds that his son, for instance,
has ceased to believe, he no longer has this disbelief thrust upon him
in gross and irreverent forms. Nor does he any longer suppose that the
unbelieving son must necessarily be a profligate. And moreover, in
ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, he no longer supposes that infidels,
of his own family or acquaintance at any rate, will consume for eternal
ages in lakes of burning marl.

Let us add another consideration. One reason why so many persons are
really shocked and pained by the avowal of heretical opinions is the
very fact that such avowal is uncommon. If unbelievers and doubters were
more courageous, believers would be less timorous. It is because they
live in an enervating fool's paradise of seeming assent and conformity,
that the breath of an honest and outspoken word strikes so eager and
nipping on their sensibilities. If they were not encouraged to suppose
that all the world is of their own mind, if they were forced out of that
atmosphere of self-indulgent silences and hypocritical reserves, which
is systematically poured round them, they would acquire a robuster
mental habit. They would learn to take dissents for what they are worth.
They would be led either to strengthen or to discard their own
opinions, if the dissents happened to be weighty or instructive; either
to refute or neglect such dissents as should be ill-founded or
insignificant. They will remain valetudinarians, so long as a curtain of
compromise shelters them from the real belief of those of their
neighbours who have ventured to use their minds with some measure of
independence. A very brief contact with people who, when the occasion
comes, do not shrink from saying what they think, is enough to modify
that excessive liability to be shocked at truth-speaking, which is only
so common because truth-speaking itself is so unfamiliar.

Now, however great the pain inflicted by the avowal of unbelief, it
seems to the present writer that one relationship in life, and one only,
justifies us in being silent where otherwise it would be right to speak.
This relationship is that between child and parents. Those parents are
wisest who train their sons and daughters in the utmost liberty both of
thought and speech; who do not instill dogmas into them, but inculcate
upon them the sovereign importance of correct ways of forming opinions;
who, while never dissembling the great fact that if one opinion is
true, its contradictory cannot be true also, but must be a lie and must
partake of all the evil qualities of a lie, yet always set them the
example of listening to unwelcome opinions with patience and candour.
Still all parents are not wise. They cannot all endure to hear of any
religious opinions except their own. Where it would give them sincere
and deep pain to hear a son or daughter avow disbelief in the
inspiration of the Bible and so forth, then it seems that the younger
person is warranted in refraining from saying that he or she does not
accept such and such doctrines. This, of course, only where the son or
daughter feels a tender and genuine attachment to the parent. Where the
parent has not earned this attachment, has been selfish, indifferent, or
cruel, the title to the special kind of forbearance of which we are
speaking can hardly exist. In an ordinary way, however, a parent has a
claim on us which no other person in the world can have, and a man's
self-respect ought scarcely to be injured if he finds himself shrinking
from playing the apostle to his own father and mother.

One can indeed imagine circumstances where this would not be true. If
you are persuaded that you have had revealed to you a glorious gospel of
light and blessedness, it is impossible not to thirst to impart such
tidings most eagerly to those who are closest about your heart. We are
not in that position. We have as yet no magnificent vision, so definite,
so touching, so 'clothed with the beauty of a thousand stars,' as to
make us eager, for the sake of it, to murder all the sweetnesses of
filial piety in an aggressive eristic. This much one concedes. Yet let
us ever remember that those elders are of nobler type who have kept
their minds in a generous freedom, and have made themselves strong with
that magnanimous confidence in truth, which the Hebrew expressed in old
phrase, that if counsel or work be of men it will come to nought, but if
it be of God ye cannot overthrow it.

Even in the case of parents, and even though our new creed is but
rudimentary, there can be no good reason why we should go further in the
way of economy than mere silence. Neither they nor any other human being
can possibly have a right to expect us, not merely to abstain from the
open expression of dissents, but positively to profess unreal and
feigned assents. No fear of giving pain, no wish to soothe the alarms of
those to whom we owe much, no respect for the natural clinging of the
old to the faith which has accompanied them through honourable lives,
can warrant us in saying that we believe to be true what we are
convinced is false. The most lax moralist counts a lie wrong, even when
the motive is unselfish, and springs from the desire to give pleasure to
those whom it is our duty to please. A deliberate lie avowedly does not
cease to be one because it concerns spiritual things. Nor is it the less
wrong because it is uttered by one to whom all spiritual things have
become indifferent. Filial affection is a motive which would, if any
motive could, remove some of the taint of meanness with which pious
lying, like every other kind of lying, tends to infect character. The
motive may no doubt ennoble the act, though the act remains in the
category of forbidden things. But the motive of these complaisant
assents and false affirmations, taken at their very best, is still
comparatively a poor motive. No real elevation of spirit is possible for
a man who is willing to subordinate his convictions to his domestic
affections, and to bring himself to a habit of viewing falsehood
lightly, lest the truth should shock the illegitimate and over-exacting
sensibilities either of his parents or any one else. We may understand
what is meant by the logic of the feelings, and accept it as the proper
corrective for a too intense egoism. But when the logic of the feelings
is invoked to substitute the egoism of the family for the slightly
narrower egoism of the individual, it can hardly be more than a fine
name for self-indulgence and a callous indifference to all the largest
human interests.


This brings us to consider the case of another no less momentous
relationship, and the kind of compromise in the matter of religious
conformity which it justifies or imposes. It constantly happens that the
husband has wholly ceased to believe the religion to which his wife
clings with unshaken faith. We need not enter into the causes why women
remain in bondage to opinions which so many cultivated men either reject
or else hold in a transcendental and non-natural sense. The only
question with which we are concerned is the amount of free assertion of
his own convictions which a man should claim and practise, when he knows
that such convictions are distasteful to his wife. Is it lawful, as it
seems to be in dealing with parents, to hold his conviction silently? Is
it lawful either positively or by implication to lead his wife to
suppose that he shares her opinions, when in truth he rejects them?

If it were not for the maxims and practice in daily use among men
otherwise honourable, one would not suppose it possible that two answers
could be given to these questions by any one with the smallest pretence
of principle or self-respect. As it is, we all of us know men who
deliberately reject the entire Christian system, and still think it
compatible with uprightness to summon their whole establishments round
them at morning and evening, and on their knees to offer up elaborately
formulated prayers, which have just as much meaning to them as the
entrails of the sacrificial victim had to an infidel haruspex. We see


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Online LibraryJohn MorleyOn Compromise → online text (page 8 of 14)