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belief goes beyond experience, and assumes that the
unknown fire of to-day is like the known fire of yester-
day. Even the belief that the child was burnt yester-
day goes beyond present experience, which contains only
the memory of a burning, and not the burning itself ; it
assumes, therefore, that this memory is trustworthy,
although we know that a memory may often be mis-
taken. But if it is to be used as a guide to action, as a
hint of what the future is to be, it must assume some-
thing about that future, namely, that it will be consis-
tent with the supposition that the burning really took
place yesterday; which is going beyond experience.
Even the fundamental ' I am,' which cannot be doubted,
is no guide to action until it takes to itself ; I shall be,'
which goes beyond experience. The question is not,
therefore, ' May we believe what goes beyond experi-
ence ? ' for this is involved in the very nature of belief ;
but ' How far and in what manner may we add to our
experience in forming our beliefs ? '

And an answer, of utter simplicity and universality,
is suggested by the example we have taken : a burnt
child dreads the fire. We may go beyond experience
by assuming that what we do not know is like what
we do know ; or, in other words,/ we may add to our

* "^ '~~>

experience on the assumption of a uniformity in nature./
What this uniformity precisely is, how we grow in the
knowledge of it from generation to generation, these are



THE ETHICS OF BELIEF. 207

questions which for the present we lay aside, being
content to examine two instances which may serve to
make plainer the nature of the rule.

From certain observations made with the spectro-
scope, we infer the existence of hydrogen in the sun.
By looking into the spectroscope when the sun is shining
on its slit, we see certain definite bright lines : and
experiments made upon bodies on the earth have taught
us that when these bright lines are seen hydrogen is the
source of them. We assume, then, that the unknown
bright lines in the sun are like the known bright lines
of the laboratory, and that hydrogen in the sun behaves
as hydrogen under similar circumstances would behave
on the earth.

But are we not trusting our spectroscope too much ?
Surely, having found it to be trustworthy for terrestrial
substances, where its statements can be verified by man,
we are justified in accepting its testimony in other like
cases ; but not when it gives us information about
things in the sun, where its testimony cannot be directly
verified by man ?

Certainly, we want to know a little more before this
inference can be justified ; and fortunately we do know
this. The spectroscope testifies to exactly the same
thing in the two cases ; namely, that light-vibrations of
a certain rate are being sent through it. Its construc-
tion is such that if it were wrong about this in one case,
it would be wrong in the other. When we come to
look into the matter, we find that we have really as-
sumed the matter of the sun to be like the matter of
the earth, made up of a certain number of distinct sub-
stances ; and that each of these, when very hot, has a



208 THE ETHICS OF BELIEF.

distinct rate of vibration, by which it may be recognized
and singled out from the rest. But this is the kind of
assumption which we are justified in using when we
add to our experience. It is an assumption of unifor-
mity in nature, and can only be checked by comparison
with many similar assumptions which we have to make
in other such cases.

But is this a true belief, of the existence of hydrogen
in the sun ? Can it help in the right guidance of human
action ?

Certainly not, if it is accepted on unworthy grounds,
and without some understanding of the process by
which it is got at. But when this process is taken in
as the ground of the belief, it becomes a very serious
and practical matter. For if there is no hydrogen in
the sun, the spectroscope that is to say, the measure^-
ment of rates of vibration must be an uncertain guide
in recognizing different substances ; and consequently it
ought not to be used in chemical analysis in assaying,
for example to the great saving of time, trouble, and
money. Whereas the acceptance of the spectroscopic
method as trustworthy has enriched us not only with
new metals, which is a great thing, but with new
processes of investigation, which is vastly greater.

For another example, let us consider the way in
which we infer the truth of an historical event say
the siege of Syracuse in the Peloponnesian war. Our
experience is that manuscripts exist which are said to
be and which call themselves manuscripts of the history
of Thucydides ; that in other manuscripts, stated to be
by later historians, he is described as living during the
time of the war ; and that books, supposed to date



THE ETHICS OF BELIEF. 209

from the revival of learning, tell us how these manu-
scripts had been preserved and were then acquired.
We find also that men do not, as a rule, forge books
and histories without a special motive ; we assume that
in this respect men in the past were like men in the
present ; and we observe that in this case no special
motive was present. That is, we add to our experience
on the assumption of a uniformity in the characters of
men. Because our knowledge of this uniformity is far
less complete and exact than our knowledge of that
which obtains in physics, inferences of the historical
kind are more precarious and less exact than inferences
in many other sciences.

But if there is any special reason to suspect the
character of the persons who wrote or transmitted cer-
tain books, the case becomes altered. If a group of
documents give internal evidence that they were pro-
duced among people who forged books in the names of
others, and who, in describing events, suppressed those
things which did not suit them, while they amplified
such as did suit them ; who not only committed these
crimes, but gloried in them as proofs of humility and
zeal ; then we must say that upon such documents no
true historical inference can be founded, but only un-
satisfactory conjecture.

We may, then, add to our experience on the assump-
tion of a uniformity in nature ; we may fill in our
picture of what is and has been, as experience gives it
us, in such a way as to make the whole consistent with
this uniformity. And practically demonstrative infer-
ence that which gives us a right to believe in the
result of it is a clear showing that in no other way

VOL. n. P



210 THE ETHICS OF BELIEF.

than by the truth of this result can the uniformity of
nature be saved.

No evidence, therefore, can justify us in believing
the truth of a statement which is contrary to, or outside
of, the uniformity of nature. If our experience is such
that it cannot be filled up consistently with uniformity,
all we have a right to conclude is that there is some-
thing wrong somewhere ; but the possibility of inference
is taken away ; we must rest in our experience, and not
go beyond it at all. If an event really happened which
was not a part of the uniformity of nature, it would
have two properties : no evidence could give the right
to believe it to any except those whose actual experi-
ence it was ; and no inference worthy of belief could be
founded upon it at all.

Are we then bound to believe that nature is abso-
lutely and universally uniform ? Certainly not ; we
have no right to believe anything of this kind. The
rule only tells us that in forming beliefs which go
beyond our experience, we may make the assumption
that nature is practically uniform so far as we are con-
cerned. Within the range of human action and veri-
fication, we may form, by help of this assumption,
actual beliefs ; beyond it, only those hypotheses which
serve for the more accurate asking of questions.

To sum up :

We may believe what goes beyond our experience,
only when it is inferred from that experience by the
assumption that what we do not know is like what we
know.

We may believe the statement of another person,
when there is reasonable ground for supposing that he



THE ETHICS OF BELIEF. 2H

knows the matter of which he speaks, and that he is
speaking the truth so, far as he knows it.

It is wrong in all cases to believe on insufficient
evidence ; and where it is presumption to doubt and
to investigate, there it is worse than presumption to
believe.



p 2



212



THE ETHICS OF RELIGION. 1

THE word religion is used in many different meanings,
and there have been not a few controversies in which
the main difference between the contending parties was
only this, that they understood by religion two different
things. I will therefore begin by setting forth as clearly
as I can one or two of the meanings which the word
appears to have in popular speech.

First, then, it may mean a body of doctrines, as in
the common phrase, ' The truth of the Christian reli-
gion ; * or in this sentence, 4 The religion of the Buddha
teaches that the soul is not a distinct substance/
Opinions differ upon the question what doctrines may
properly be called religious ; some people holding that
there can be no religion without belief in a God and in
a future life, so that in their judgment the body of doc-
trines must necessarily include these two ; while others
would insist upon other special dogmas being included,
before they could consent to call the system by this
name. But the number of such people is daily diminish-
ing, by reason of the spread and the increase of our
knowledge about distant countries and races. To me,
indeed, it would seem rash to assert of any doctrine or
its contrary that it might not form part of a religion.
But, fortunately, it is not necessary to any part of the

1 Fortnightly Revieiv, July, 1877.



THE ETHICS OF RELIGION. 213

discussion on which I propose to enter that this ques-
tion should be settled.

Secondly, religion may mean a ceremonial or cult,
involving an organized priesthood and a machinery of
sacred things and places. In this sense we speak of the
clergy as ministers of religion, or of a state as tolerating
the practice of certain religions. There is a somewhat
wider meaning which it will be convenient to consider
together with this one, and as a mere extension of it,
namely, that in which religion stands for the influence
of a certain priesthood. A religion is sometimes said to
have been successful when it has got its priests into
power ; thus some writers speak of the wonderfully
rapid success of Christianity. A nation is said to have
embraced a religion when the authorities of that nation
have granted privileges to the clergy, have made them
as far as possible the leaders of society, and have given
them a considerable share in the management of public
affairs. So the northern nations of Europe are said to
have embraced the Catholic religion at an early date.
The reason why it seems to me convenient to take these
two meanings together is, that they are both related to
the priesthood. Although the priesthood itself is not
called religion, so far as I know, yet the word is used
for the general influence and professional acts of the
priesthood.

Thirdly, religion may mean a bqdy_oL-pr.eeepts or
code of rules, intended to guide human conduct, as in
this sentence of the authorized version of the New Tes-
tament : ' Pure religion and undefiled before God and
the Father is this, to visit the fatherless and widows in
their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the



214 THE ETHICS OF RELIGION.

world ' (James, i. 27). It is sometimes difficult to draw
the line between this meaning and the last, for it is a
mark of the great majority of religions that they con-
found ceremonial observances with duties having real
moral obligation. Thus in the Jewish decalogue the
command to do no work on Saturdays is found side by
side with the prohibition of murder and theft. It might
seem to be the more correct as well as the more philo-
sophical course to follow in this matter the distinction
made by Butler between moral and positive commands,
and to class all those precepts which are not of universal
moral obligation under the head of ceremonial. And,
in fact, when we come to examine the matter from the
point of view of morality, the distinction is of the
utmost importance. But from the point of view of
religion there are difficulties in making it. In the first
place, the distinction is not made, or is not understood,
by religious folk in general. Innumerable tracts and
pretty stories impress upon us that Sabbath-breaking is
rather worse than stealing, and leads naturally on to
materialism and murder. Less than a hundred years
ago sacrilege was punishable by burning in JYance, and
murder by simple decapitation. In the next place, if
we pick out a religion at haphazard, we shall find that
it is not at all easy to divide its precepts into those
which are really of moral obligation and those which
are indifferent and of a ceremonial character. We may
find precepts unconnected with any ceremonial, and
yet positively immoral ; and ceremonials may be im-
moral in themselves, or constructively immoral on ac-
count of their known symbolism. On the whole, it seems
to me most convenient to draw the plain and obvious






THE ETHICS OF RELIGION. 215



distinction between those actions which a religion pre-
scribes to all its followers, whether the actions are
ceremonial or not, and those which are prescribed only
as professional actions of a sacerdotal class. The latter
will come under what I have called the second meaning
of religion, the professional acts and the influence of a
priesthood. In the third meaning will be included all
that practically guides the life of a layman, in so far as
this guidance is supplied to him by his religion.

Fourthly, and lastly, there is a meaning of the word
religion which has been coming more and more promi-
nently forward of late years, till it has even threatened
to supersede all the others. Religion has been defined
as morality touched with emotion. I will not here adopt
this definition, because I wish to deal with the concrete
in the first place, and only to pass on to the abstract in
so far as that previous study appears to lead to it. I
wish to consider the facts of religion as we find them,
and not ideal possibilities. ' Yes, but,' everyone will
say, ' if you mean my own religion, it is already, as a
matter of fact, morality touched with emotion. It is
the highest morality touched with the purest emotion,
an emotion directed towards the most worthy of objects.'
Unfortunately we do not mean your religion alone, but
all manner of heresies and heathenisms along with it :
the religions of the Thug, of the Jesuit, of the South Sea
cannibal, of Confucius, of the poor Indian with his un-
tutored mind, of the Peculiar People, of the Mormons,
and of the old cat-worshipping Egyptian. It must be
clear that we shall restrict ourselves to a very narrow
circle of what are commonly called religious facts, unless
we include in our considerations not only morality



216 THE ETHICS OF RELIGION.

touched with emotion, but also immorality touched with
emotion. In fact, what is really touched with emotion
in any case is that body of precepts for the guidance of
a layman's life which we have taken to be the third
meaning of religion. In that collection of precepts there
may be some agreeable to morality, and some repugnant
to it, and some indifferent, but being all enjoined by the
religion they will all be touched by the same religious
emotion. Shall we then say that religion means a feel-
ing, an emotion, an habitual attitude of mind towards
some object or objects, or towards life in general, which
has a bearing upon the way in which men regard the
rules of conduct ? I think the last phrase should be left
out. An habitual attitude of mind, of a religious char-
acter, does always have some bearing upon the way in
which men regard the rules of conduct ; but it seems
sometimes as if this were an accident, and not the
essence of the religious feeling. Some devout people
prefer to have their devotion pure and simple, without
admixture of any such application they do not want
to listen to ' cauld morality.' And it seems as if the
religious feeling of the Greeks, and partly also of our
own ancestors, was so far divorced from morality that
it affected it only, as it were, by a side-wind, through
the influence of the character and example of the Gods.
So that it seems only likely to create confusion if we
mix up morality with this fourth meaning of religion.
Sometimes religion means a code of precepts, and some-
times it means a devotional habit of mind ; the two things
are sometimes connected, but also they are sometimes
quite distinct. But that the connexion of these two
things is more and more insisted on, that it is the key-



THE ETHICS OF RELIGION. 217

note of the apparent revival of religion which has taken
place in this century, is a very significant fact, about
which there is more to be said.

As to the nature of this devotional habit of mind,
there are no doubt many who would like a closer
definition. But I am not at all prepared to say what
attitude of mind may properly be called religious, and
what may not. Some will hold that religion must have
a person for its object ; but the Buddha was filled with
religious feeling, and yet he had no personal object.
Spinoza, the God -intoxicated man, had no personal
object for his devotion. It might be possible to frame
a definition which would fairly include all cases, but it
would require the expenditure of vast ingenuity and
research, and would not, I am inclined to think, be of
much use when it was obtained.

Nor is the difficulty to be got over by taking any
definite and well-organized sect, whose principles are
settled in black and white ; for example, the Eoman
Catholic Church, whose seamless unity has just been
exhibited and protected by an (Ecumenical Council.
Shall we listen to Mr. Mivart, who ' execrates without
reserve Marian persecutions, the Massacre of St.
Bartholomew, and all similar acts ' ? or to the editor of
the Dublin Review, who thinks that a teacher of false
doctrines ' should be visited by the law with just that
amount of severity which the public sentiment will
bear ' ? For assuredly common-sense morality will
pass very different judgments on these two distinct
religions, although it appears that experts have found
room for both of them within the limits of the Vatican
definitions.



218 THE ETHICS OF RELIGION.

Moreover, there is very great good to be got by
widening our view of what may be contained in religion.
If we go to a man and propose to test his own religion
by the canons of common-sense morality, he will be,
most likely, offended, for he will say that his religion is
far too sublime and exalted to be affected by considera-
tions of that sort. But he will have no such objection
in the case of other people's religion. And when he has
found that in the name of religion other people, in other
circumstances, have believed in doctrines that were
false, have supported priesthoods that were social evils,
have taken wrong for right, and have even poisoned
the very sources of morality, he may be tempted to ask
himself, ' Is there no trace of any of these evils in my
own religion, or at least in my own conception and
practice of it?' And that is just what we want him
to do. Bring your doctrines, your priesthoods, your
precepts, yea, even the inner devotion of your soul,
before the tribunal of conscience ; she is no man's and
no God's vicar, but the supreme judge of men and
Gods.

Let us enquire, then, what morality has to say in
regard to religious doctrines. It deals with the manner
of religious belief directly, and with the matter in-
directly. Eeligious beliefs must be founded on
evidence ; if they are not so founded, it is wrong to
hold them. The rule of right conduct in this matter is
exactly the opposite of that implied in the two famous
texts : ' He that believeth not shall be damned,' and
4 Blessed are they that have not seen and yet have
believed.' For a man who clearly felt and recognized
the duty of intellectual honesty, of carefully testing



THE ETHICS OF RELIGION. 219

every belief before he received it, and especially before
he recommended it to others, it would be impossible
to ascribe the profoundly immoral teaching of these
texts to a true prophet or worthy leader of humanity.
It will comfort those who wish to preserve their re-
verence for the character of a great teacher to
remember that one of these sayings is in the well-known
forged passage at the end of the second gospel, and that
the other occurs only in the late and legendary fourth ,
gospel ; both being described as spoken under utterly
impossible circumstances. These precepts belong to 7
the Church and not to the Gospel. But whoever
wrote either of them down as a deliverance of one
whom he supposed to' be a divine teacher, has thereby
written down himself as a man void of intellectual
honesty, as a man whose word cannot be trusted, as a
man who would accept and spread about any kind of \
baseless fiction for fear of believing too little.

So far as to the manner of religious belief. Let us
now inquire what bearing morality has upon its matter.
We may see at once that this can only be indirect ;
for the rightness or wrongness of belief in a doctrine de-
pends only upon the nature of the evidence for it, and
not upon what the doctrine is. But there is a very
important way in which religious doctrine may lead
to morality or immorality, and in which, therefore,
morality has a bearing upon doctrine. It is when that
doctrine declares the character and actions of the Gods
who are regarded as objects of reverence and worship.
If a God is represented as doing that which is clearly
wrong, and is still held up to the reverence of men,
they will be tempted to think that in doing this wrong



220 THE ETHICS OF BELIGION.

thing they are not so very wrong after all, but are only
following an example which all men respect. So says
Plato i 1

< We must not tell a youthful listener that he will be
doing nothing extraordinary if he commit the foulest
crimes, nor yet if he chastise the crimes of a father in
the most unscrupulous manner, but will simply be doing
what the first and greatest of the Gods have done before
him. . . .

' Nor yet is it proper to say in any case what is
indeed untrue that Gods wage war against Gods, and
intrigue and fight among themselves ; that is, if the
future guardians of our state are to deem it a most dis-
graceful thing to quarrel lightly with one another : far
less ought we to select as subjects for fiction and
embroidery the battles of the giants, and numerous
other feuds of all sorts, in which Gods and heroes fight
against their own kith and kin. But if there is any
possibility of persuading them that to quarrel with
one's fellow is a sin of which no member of a state was
ever guilty, such ought rather to be the language held
to our children from the first, by old men and old
women, and all elderly persons ; and such is the strain
in which our poets must be compelled to write. But
stories like the chaining of Hera by her son, and the
flinging of Hephaistos out of heaven for trying to take
his mother's part when his father was beating her, and
all those battles of the Gods which are to be found in
Homer, must be refused admittance into our state,
whether they be allegorical or not. For a child
cannot discriminate between what is allegory and what

1 Rep. ii. 378. Tr. Davies and Vaughan.



THE ETHICS OF RELIGION. 221

is not ; and whatever at that age is adopted as a matter
of belief has a tendency to become fixed and indelible,
and therefore, perhaps, we ought to esteem it of the
greatest importance that the fictions which children
first hear should be adapted in the most perfect manner
to the promotion of virtue.'

And Seneca says the same thing, with still more
reason in his day and country : ' What else is this
appeal to the precedent of the Gods for, but to
inflame our lusts, and to furnish licence and excuse for
the corrupt act under the divine protection?' And
again, of the character of Jupiter as described in the
popular legends : ' This has led to no other result than
to deprive sin of its shame in man's eyes, by showing
him the God no better than himself.' In Imperial Rome,
the sink of all nations, it was not uncommon to find
' the intending sinner addressing to the deified vice


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Online LibraryWilliam Kingdon CliffordLectures and essays by William Kingdon Clifford (Volume 2) → online text (page 15 of 22)