John Venn.

On some of the characteristics of belief, scientific and religious [microform] : being the Hulsean lectures for 1869 online

. (page 1 of 13)
Online LibraryJohn VennOn some of the characteristics of belief, scientific and religious [microform] : being the Hulsean lectures for 1869 → online text (page 1 of 13)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook













r/v<v >

Uonfcon anb OTambrilrge:


[All Rights reserved.}


THE following discourses are intended to illus-
trate, explain, and work out into some of their
consequences, certain characteristics by which the
attainment of religious belief is prominently distin-
guished from the attainment of belief upon most
other subjects. These characteristics consist in the
multiplicity of the sources from which the evidence
for religious belief is derived, and the fact that our
emotions contribute their share towards producing

These are facts which, it need hardly be re-
marked, have been perpetually noticed before, but I
have never met with any attempt to show their full
significance, or to work out the inferences which
follow from the admission of their existence.

As there are several questions which will very
likely be suggested, and which the necessary brevity
of spoken discourses prevented me from discussing at
the time, they may conveniently be anticipated here.

I have avoided, as far as was possible, commit-


ting myself to the doctrines of any particular phi-
losophical school. The method of treatment here
adopted is logical and not metaphysical, and on the
field of logic, as a great authority has told us, people
of the most opposite schools may meet and shake
hands. Of course, however, there must be some ex-
treme views with which one cannot but be in hopeless
antagonism. For example, on the theological side,
those who range towards the Mystic pole, and hold
that we must have an immediate inspiration or reve-
lation of religious truth, will naturally resent any
attempt to connect our belief so closely as is here
done with evidence. Again, on the philosophical
side, those who assert that anything in the nature
of a miracle is intrinsically impossible, or that from
the nature of the human faculties we cannot con-
ceive, or therefore to any effective purpose believe
in, a God, will certainly reject the attempt to support
a doctrine by many converging threads, when in
their opinion not one of these threads is really at-
tached to any such object as that which they are
intended to support. But except in the compara-
tively rare cases in which any one's first principles
thus put an insuperable bar even to the discussion
of such questions as those which follow, it will be
admitted that religious conviction is at any rate in
great part a matter of evidence : if therefore the
effective force of this evidence is found to be vari-


able, it seems a point of some importance to make
out the explanation of such a fact.

It has just been remarked that belief is treated
in the following pages as being founded solely upon
evidence, with the implication that in the thoughtful
and sound-minded it is rightfully so founded. This
will probably prompt the enquiry, What then do you
make of faith f surely it is hardly in accordance
with the usage or the teaching of Scripture to make
faith little more than an intellectual state, as it must
be if it is founded solely upon evidence ? The con-
troversy whether faith belongs to the head or the
heart is far too ancient and extensive to be lightly
revived ; I wish therefore to do no more than ex-
press my own view, and this simply for the sake of
preventing misapprehension. Faith then, as I un-
derstand it, is belief and something more ; the some-
thing more being a moral element, namely, confidence
or love towards God and our Saviour. In so far as
it consists of belief (and it is with this element only,
let it be remembered, that we are here concerned) I
cannot perceive that it differs in any material way
from belief on any other topic whatever. Does the
difference lie in the state of mind itself, or in the
way in which belief is produced ? Surely in itself the
state of mind is one and the same however it may
have been brought about. Without attempting to


offer .a full definition, we may give a valid description
by saying that belief is that state of mind in which
we are prepared to act upon the truth of any propo-
sition in question. If this account be admitted, the
description will apply as well to belief in any scien-
tific statement as to that in the articles of a Creed.
Again, does the difference lie in the grounds of the
belief? Not if we lay down the sufficiently general
statement that the belief is caused, or should be
caused, by evidence. I am quite aware that Bishop
Pearson and others try to establish a difference in
4he nature of the evidence, saying that Christian
belief is distinguished from other kinds of belief by
the fact that it rests upon the testimony of God.
But what is gained by such a distinction, beyond the
occasional opportunity of charging our opponent
with disbelieving what God has asserted ? Surely
no one denies that the testimony of our Creator is
to be accepted without hesitation ; the only matter
for discussion is whether a doctrine does rest on that
testimony or not. This would equally apply to those
who deny the paramount authority of Scripture as to
any others ; with them the words of the Bible are
not the immediate declaration of God, and they
therefore do not undertake to deny what He has

I apprehend, therefore, that the belief element
of faith does not essentially differ from any other


act of belief. If this be not the case, one can only
remark that we stand sorely in need of a Christian
appendix to our familiar works on Psychology and
Logic ; and that none of our most devout and ortho-
dox Philosophers, such as Butler, Berkeley, and
Chalmers, have made any real attempt to supply
the deficiency or shown that they believed that it

The two objections with the statement of which
the first Lecture commences are, I apprehend, a sub-
ject of perplexity to many. This is more particu-
larly the case with the former one, namely, that
which lays the stress upon the vagueness and vari-
ability of religious convictions. When we have to
deal with distinct differences which could be pre-
cisely expressed in words, we appear to be at least
fighting in the daylight ; but what is to be done
when the whole framework of belief, so to say,
seems disposed to shift ? To read answers to objec-
tions does not seem to bring much profit, the mind
appears out of tune for that kind of thing. In
olden times the explanation might have been ac-
cepted that one was the sport of demons who were
practising their temptations unseen. We have aban-
doned this supposition now, but too many substitute
what, so far as religious truth is concerned, is a far


more potent and malignant enemy. A Psychological
answer is readily offered at the present day, which
soon turns into a Physiological one, and then where
are truth and falsehood ? Instead of fancying grinning
apes between our eyes and the pages of Holy Scrip-
ture, we say that the nervous system is depressed, or
the digestion out of order. It seemed to me there-
fore very important to cast about for what may
be called a logical explanation, that is to make out
that these fluctuations are really connected with evi-
dence that has been somehow differently appre-

With regard to the second of the objections with
the statement of which these lectures start. It must
be frankly admitted that the explanation does not
profess to be conclusive ; I have frequently said during
the course of them that it is only meant to palliate
and extenuate the difficulty; to claim anything be-
yond this would be the grossest presumption. The
real mischief of the differences of opinion with w.hich
religion is so notoriously infested does not lie so
much in these differences themselves, since a very
large number of them cannot be considered funda-
mental, as in an inference which is very commonly
drawn from their existence, viz. that the subject of
them is one which proves so intractable by the human
mind that it had better be let alone. The complete


reply to such an inference would of course be found
in removing the differences which gave rise to it, but
since such a reply implies not merely the being in
possession of the truth, but the holding it in such an
unmistakeable form that every one will accept it, it
would, to say the very least, be the extremity of
folly to try in that direction. When a difficulty cannot
be removed, the next best thing is to diminish its sig-
nificance. This I have attempted to do by suggesting
that the cause of these prolonged differences may be
assignable to a circumstance already taken account of,
namely, that our emotions enter in as part of the
premises in the case of religious doctrines. If this be
admitted it is a gain in two ways. For one thing
it transfers the defect from the object of belief to the
evidence in support of it, and so far removes any real
hopelessness of ever attaining to a solid conviction.
And again, as shown in the second lecture, it opens
to us a plausible way of very greatly diminishing the
differences. If we were not so thoroughly familiarized
with such a state of things there would surely be
something little less than shocking in the considera-
tion that multitudes of thoughtful and honest people
after carefully inspecting the same facts should persist
from one generation to another in assigning to them
different explanations, and drawing from them con-
flicting inferences. In suggesting as a cause of this
the intrusion of emotions into the grounds of our


argument, it should be remarked (as I have been at
some pains to show, in the second lecture) that we
do not cut ourselves off from the logical treatment
of the question.

It will be seen that I have, throughout these
discourses, treated simultaneously the two objections
just mentioned. It might have made the argument
clearer to have separated them, but this would have
demanded more than the allotted space of time, and
it was not at all essential, inasmuch as it has been
shown that they had a common origin. I merely
mention this here, in order to avoid the charge of
confusion or inconsistency.

It may be said that these discourses attempt to
give a partial answer to the very wide question, Why
do people continue to differ in opinion? It is partial,
for in the case of a very large number we can only
reply that the natural sluggishness of mind and un-
willingness to change are so great that when a differ-
ence has once become established, it would be much
more reasonable to ask instead the question, What
should ever bring them into agreement ? In the case
of uncivilized people, and a very great number in
every country must still, for intellectual purposes, be
placed in this category, a belief when once propagated
is persisted in until some very serious cause occurs to


change it. In seeking therefore to account for differ-
ences of opinion amongst such people, we should often
have to track them back to that time of haze and
darkness in which the formation of a belief has very
little indeed to do with evidence. At this point
Psychology or even Physiology rightly have it all
their own way. Such an enquiry as this would lead
us to is a very interesting and important one, but it
is far too wide for me to venture to touch upon it

The question to which I have limited myself is
much narrower. How are we to account for the fact
that differences still exist amongst people who have
advanced to the stage in which they recognize to
some extent that their belief ought to admit of justi-
fication? I have the same evidence before me now
that I hadj say, a year ago ; why do I not draw the
same conclusion and with equal confidence? I have
the same evidence before me as others have, how can
our conclusions be at variance? These are questions
which it surely concerns the thoughtful and candid to
answer if they can.

One answer, which was onoe very common, per-
haps almost universal, but is now rejected as a mark
of fanaticism, assigns the cause to prejudice and wilful
blindness towards the evidence. That these may be
occasional and partial causes no one would think of
denying, but I cannot believe that they would ever


have been accepted as a general explanation, but for
the assumption that something of this kind was
required in order to account for the punishment
of error. When it is held that error not only as a
general rule entails misfortunes, in what may be called
a natural way (this is undeniable, being a part of
what Bp. Butler calls "the Constitution and Course
of Nature"), but also brings on in addition distinctly
penal consequences, men would naturally look about
for some conduct on the part of the misbeliever that
should make him deserving of punishment. And
this they could scarcely expect to find except in
wilful blindness. But who will consistently hold to
this view now? Who will say that the unbeliever is
always the one who wilfully rejects evidence and
obstinately adheres to preconceived opinions ?

Moreover, even in the cases in which such moral
causes as these are fairly assignable, they seem to
require being supplemented by something else. Pre-
judice and wilfulness can effect much even when
people have begun to enquire, but they cannot effect
everything. There must be some external conditions
upon which they can work, something which they
can make use of as a pretext.

The first of these lectures is an attempt to ex-
plain what the nature of this logical foothold for
differences is; in other words, to show what there is


in the constitution of the evidence which makes it
possible for these differences to commence and

The second meets the question, What then is the
criterion of truth ? If you admit that people do not
only entertain in good faith the varying judgments
they express and act upon, but are almost justified in
entertaining them, how are we to decide which of
them is right and which wrong ? As I have repeatedly
said, no pretence is made altogether to remove the
difficulty thus indicated, but considerable help may
be afforded in the way of palliating it.

The third and fourth lectures are devoted to
working out into several of their consequences the
characteristics of evidence on religious subjects which
were explained and illustrated in the first. A certain
amount of repetition in the subject matter was ren-
dered necessary by the fact that, owing to the time
at which the Hulsean Lecturer usually commences
his course, hardly any of the undergraduate portion
of the congregation was present at the first two




" Truly the light is sweet, and a pleasant thing it is for
the eyes to behold the sun; But if a man live many
years and rejoice in them all; yet let him remember
the days of darkness; for they shall be many"

No one can be familiar with the current tone of
thought and feeling upon religious matters without
having had his attention drawn to two characteristics,
in both of which, I apprehend, the present age is dis-
tinguished from most previous ages.

(I) The first of these is the indefiniteness of
most of the objections to Dogmatic Christianity.
Time was when those who rejected its claims did so
for the most part upon grounds which they could
very clearly state. It was some doctrine which of-
fended them, some historic or scientific assertion by
which they were staggered. In other words their

v. L. 1


want of confidence in it as a whole was a consequence
rather than a cause of their convictions as to some
of the details having been shaken. We should not
be far amiss in saying that at the present day this
state of things is nearly reversed. It is not a
doctrine here and there which is exposed to at-
tack; it is not that a collision between religion and
science is apprehended just at one or another point.
Confer with any one who is in doubt and he may,
when questioned, allege some difficulties which per-
plex him. But are these merely difficulties in the
sense in which they may be found in some ordinary
and otherwise credible historic narrative, which is
accepted at once on the removal of a few doubts?
Surely no one will assert that this is the case. On
the removal of the first objection the crop that fol-
lows seems only the thicker. The resolution of a
difficulty produces little more effect in the way of a
Restoration of Belief than is produced towards re-
storing a house, when we put a piece of sound
timber into a floor that is penetrated with dry rot.
The most you can extract from such a man is
the admission of a feeling of dissatisfaction, per-
haps almost an instinct of aversion, which he might
find it very 'hard to draw out into articulate ob-

This feature is comparatively new ; at least in
its present prominence and importance. And yet
it is, I think, only the outward expression, in a
more open form, of a very old and familiar state
of feeling. Everyone must be acquainted with


the way in which his practical hold of his faith is
subject to variation without any apparently suffi-
cient cause. It is influenced by his outward cir-
cumstances, his health, his age;

" Produced mysteriously as cape
Of cloud grown out of the invisible air."

Sometimes his faith appears extinct, often it
burns in a way that only just gives evidence of its
existence, occasionally it shews a lurid flare at the
approach of danger or death. (I am merely noticing
a fact here, which will very shortly be fully dis-
cussed.) Now so long as the open disavowal of
religion is subject to the disapproval of law or
public opinion these fluctuations of belief will not
attract much notice. Those whose faith is nearly
extinct will either conceal the fact, or, if they avow
it, will feel themselves bound to do so under the
support of some definite objections. That is, we
should then look for some distinct ground of quarrel
with religion.

When, however, restraints are broken through,
and men are in the habit of saying what they feel
and of criticising as they please, doubts which were
formerly suppressed will begin to make their ap-
pearance in public. And they will shew them-
selves in the shape in which they are experienced.
In other words, there will be a wide diffusion of
vague and indefinite objection.

(II) So much for the shape in which doubts
hew themselves ; turn now to one of the principal


causes of them. Amongst these a prominent place
must be assigned to the prolonged, in fact incurable,
differences of opinion which exist in the province
of religion as compared with that of science. Logi-
cally this may seem to be assigning as a cause of
doubt the doubt which already exists ; and to some
extent this is so. The mere knowledge that any
set of doctrines is suspected is itself a cause of
additional suspicion. It is a serious cause to those
who are obliged, as we all are now to so great an
extent, to take their knowledge at second-hand 1 .
Every one who feels a rational interest in any
subject must find a real cause of perplexity in the
knowledge that there are many and important dif-
ferences amongst those who have given thought
to it. He will at least demand to have some
account of the fact, and if possible to know the
grounds of it. Now at the present day the con-
trast is being more and more significantly pointed
out between the compact unanimity which exists
in Science, at least upon many topics, and the end-
less discords which prevail in religion. Even where

1 This, I think, is an important consideration, and one which is tell-
ing more and more as science grows more extensive. We are all of us
in a position in which we can know but little even of the facts in most
sciences, and next to nothing about the evidences of these facts. This
being the case, what is our security against being misled or deceived
when we accept a result on the authority of those who are enquiring at
first hand ? Except when we possess the evidence afforded by familiar
applications or striking predictions, our main reliance must surely be
found in the fact that the genuine students are in substantial agree-
ment. If they coincide in their conclusions, we do not doubt that they
have arrived at least at some substratum of truth ; if they are still in
dispute, we mostly withhold our full assent from any one of them.


scientific points are still in dispute it is asserted
that such points are but few in number, and of
small importance, compared with the bulk of those
which are universally accepted by the competently
informed ; and, what is more, each successive age
sees this proportion still further diminished. On
the other hand hardly a generation passes without
some Church being shattered into sects, or some
sect undergoing still further subdivisions, whilst
centuries elapse without shewing any sign of reunion.
Whenever objections are to be discussed it is
well to begin by putting them into as precise a
form as possible. I think, then, that those which
have been just alluded to might, with their implied
inferences, be thus summarily stated ;

(I) The fact that most persons do not retain
their religious convictions with unaltered tenacity,
but find them vary exceedingly in practical efficacy
according to circumstances, in other words find
them somewhat vague and vacillating, suggests
the conclusion that these convictions are less the
product of objective facts than of our own morbid
fancies ;

(II) The fact of there being such an endless
conflict of opinions in religion, (even if we sup-
posed each person to retain his own opinion with
unwavering stedfastness) is pretty clear proof that
the subject-matter in question is one upon which
truth cannot be reached.

Such objections are far too prevalent, and in
many cases too sincerely urged for it to be any


use to ignore or denounce them. They are urged
as complaints by many without the pale, and are
felt as stumblingblocks by many within.

The general design of this course of Lectures
is to discuss these objections, or rather to examine
the principle upon which they depend (for I think
they have a common principle) and to work that
out into several of its consequences. In other words,
we shall be occupied with some of the characteristics
of religious and scientific belief, and the nature of
the distinction between them.

Let us first examine some of the facts.

Every one must be familiar with the strange
way in which without any conscious alteration of the
evidence before us, our beliefs upon many subjects
do nevertheless vary in their nature and intensity.
In other words, though there may have been no
appeal to fresh evidence, no re-valuation of the old,
and no resort to new principles or methods of proof,
our judgments about the facts in question have
undergone a change.

The result might be compared to those alterna-
tions of light and dark in a murky foggy day ; the
intrinsic brightness of the sun has remained the
same throughout, your eyes have not varied in their
power, you cannot point out any particular cloud as
having caused the change, and yet there is a change.
You feel sure that there must be some cause for
these effects, but you cannot detect that cause in
itself, you can only trace it obscurely from its


In saying this you will understand that I am
not referring to mere states of feeling, to those fits
of elation and despondency to which every one is
liable ; but to actual beliefs, to beliefs which profess
to be founded on evidence and to shew forth their
working in our conduct. Closely connected as such
mere states of feeling are with our rational convic-
tions, they are of course clearly distinct from them.
The sound of a trumpet has an inspiriting effect
upon those who march to battle, but we ought not
to confound this with belief in the successful issue of
the struggle.

1 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13

Online LibraryJohn VennOn some of the characteristics of belief, scientific and religious [microform] : being the Hulsean lectures for 1869 → online text (page 1 of 13)