Copyright
William Kingdon Clifford.

Lectures and essays by William Kingdon Clifford (Volume 2) online

. (page 16 of 22)
Online LibraryWilliam Kingdon CliffordLectures and essays by William Kingdon Clifford (Volume 2) → online text (page 16 of 22)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


which he contemplated a prayer for the success of his
design ; the adulteress imploring of Venus the favours of
her paramour ; . . . the thief praying to Hermes Dolios
for aid in his enterprise, or offering up to him the first
fruits of his plunder ; . . . youths entreating Hercules
to expedite the death of a rich uncle.' :

When we reflect that criminal deities were wor-
shipped all over the empire, we cannot but wonder that
any good people were left ; that man could still be holy,
although every God was vile. Yet this was undoubtedly
the case ; the social forces worked steadily on wherever
there was peace and a settled government and municipal
freedom ; and the wicked stories of theologians were
somehow explained away and disregarded. If men

1 North British JReciew, 1867, p, 284.



222 THE ETHICS OF RELIGION.

were no better than their religions, the world would be
a hell indeed.

It is very important, however, to consider what
really ought to be done in the case of stories like these.
When the poet sings that Zeus kicked Hephaistos out of
heaven for trying to help his mother, Plato says that
this fiction must be suppressed by law. We cannot
follow him there, for since his time we have had too
much of trying to suppress false doctrines by law.
Plato thinks it quite obviously clear that God cannot
produce evil, and he would stop everybody's mouth
who ventured to say that he can. But in regard to the
doctrine itself, we can only ask, ' Is it true ? ' And that
is a question to be settled by evidence. Did Zeus commit
this crime, or did he not ? We must ask the apologists,
the reconcilers of religion and science, what evidence
they can produce to prove that Zeus kicked Hephaistos
out of heaven. That a doctrine may lead to immoral
consequences is no reason for disbelieving it. But
whether the doctrine were true or false, one thing does
clearly follow from its moral character : namely this,
that if Zeus behaved as he is said to have behaved,
he ought not to be worshipped. To those who com-
plain of his violence and injustice, it is no answer to
say that the divine attributes are far above human
comprehension ; that the ways of Zeus are not our ways,
neither are his thoughts our thoughts. If he is to be
worshipped, he must do something vaster and nobler
and greater than good men do, but it must be like what
they do in its goodness. His actions must not be
merely a magnified copy of what bad men do. So soon
as they are thus represented, morality has something to



THE ETHICS OF RELIGION. 223

say. Not indeed about the fact ; for it is not conscience,
but reason, that has to judge matters of fact ; but about
the worship of a character so represented. If there
really is good evidence that Zeus kicked Hephaistos
out of heaven, and seduced Alkmene by a mean trick,
say so by all means ; but say also that it is wrong to
salute his priests or to make offerings in his temple.

When men do their duty in this respect, morality
has a very curious indirect effect on the religious
doctrine itself. As soon as the offerings become less
frequent, the evidence for the doctrine begins to fade
away ; the process of theological interpretation gradu-
ally brings out the true inner meaning of it, that Zeus
did not kick Hephaistos out of heaven, and did not
seduce Alkmene.

Is this a merely theoretical discussion about far-
away things ? Let us come back for a moment to our
own time and country, and think whether there can
be any lesson for us in this refusal of common-sense
morality to worship a deity whose actions are a magni-
fied copy of what bad men do. There are three
doctrines which find very wide acceptance among our
countrymen at the present day : the doctrines of
original sin, of a vicarious sacrifice, and of eternal
punishments. We are not concerned with any refined
evaporations of these doctrines which are exhaled by
courtly theologians, but with the naked statements
which are put into the minds of children and of ignorant
people, which are taught broadcast and without shame
in denominational schools. Father Faber, good soul,
persuaded himself that after all only a very few people
would be really damned, and Father Oxenham gives



224 THE ETHICS OF RELIGION.

one the impression that it will not hurt even them very
much. But one learns the practical teaching of the
Church from such books as ' A Glimpse of Hell,' where
a child is described as thrown between the bars upon
the burning coals, there to writhe for ever. The
masses do not get the elegant emasculations of Father
Faber and Father Oxenham ; they get ' a Glimpse of
Hell.'

Now to condemn all mankind for the sin of Adam
and Eve ; to let the innocent suffer for the guilty ; to
keep anyone alive in torture for ever and ever ; these
actions are simply magnified copies of what bad men
do. No juggling with ' divine justice and mercy ' can
make them anything else. This must be said to all
kinds and conditions of men : that if God holds all
mankind guilty for the sin of Adam, if he has visited
upon the innocent the punishment of the guilty, if he
is to torture any single soul for ever, then it is wrong to
worship him.

But there is something to be said also to those who
think that religious beliefs are not indeed true, but are
useful for the masses ; who deprecate any open and
public argument against them, and think that all scepti-
cal books should be published at a high price ; who go
to church, not because they approve of it themselves,
but to set an example to the servants. Let us ask them
to ponder the words of Plato, who, like them, thought
that all these tales of the Gods were fables, but still
fables which might be useful to amuse children with :
' 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.' If we



THE ETHICS OF RELIGION. 225

grant to you that it is good for poor people and children
to believe some of these fictions, is it not better, at least,
that they should believe those which are adapted to the
promotion of virtue ? Now the stories which you send
your servants and children to hear are adapted to the
promotion of vice. So far as the remedy is in your own
hands, you are bound to apply it ; stop your voluntary
subscriptions and the moral support of your presence
from any place where the criminal doctrines are taught.
You will find more men and better men to preach
that which is agreeable to their conscience, than to
thunder out doctrines under which their minds are
always uneasy, and which only a continual self-decep-
tion can keep them from feeling to be wicked.

Let us now go on to enquire what morality has to
say in the matter of religious ministrations, the official
acts and the general influence of a priesthood. This
question seems to me a more difficult one than the
former ; at any rate it is not so easy to find general
principles which are at once simple in their nature and
clear to the conscience of any man who honestly
considers them. One such principle, indeed, there is,
which can hardly be stated in a Protestant country
without meeting with a cordial response ; being indeed
that characteristic of our race which made the Eeform-
ation a necessity, and became the soul of the Protes-
tant movement. I mean the principle which forbids the
priest to come between a man and his conscience. If it be
true, as our daily experience teaches us, that the moral
sense gains in clearness and power by exercise, by the
constant endeavour to find out and to see for ourselves
what is right and what is wrong, it must be nothing

VOL. II. Q



226 THE ETHICS OF RELIGION.

short of a moral suicide to delegate our conscience to
another man. It is true that when we are in difficulties
and do not altogether see our way, we quite rightly
seek counsel and advice of some friend who has more
experience, more wisdom begot by it, more devotion to
the right than ourselves, and who, not being involved
in the difficulties which encompass us, may more easily
see the way out of them. But such counsel does not
and ought not to take the place of our private judg-
ment ; on the contrary, among wise men it is asked and
given for the purpose of helping and supporting private
judgment. I should go to my friend, not that he may
tell me what to do, but that he may help me to see what
is right.

Now, as we all know, there is a priesthood whose in-
fluence is not to be made light of, even in our own land,
which claims to do two things : to declare with infallible
authority what is right and what is wrong, and to take
away the guilt of the sinner after confession has been
made to it. The second of these claims we shall come
back upon in connexion with another part of the sub-
ject. But that claim is one which, as it seems to me,
ought to condemn the priesthood making it in the eyes
of every conscientious man. We must take care to keep
this question to itself, and not to let it be confused with
quite different ones. The priesthood in question, as we
all know, has taught that as right which is not right,
and has condemned as wrong some of the holiest duties
of mankind. But this is not what we are here concerned
with. Let us put an ideal case of a priesthood which,
as a matter of fact, taught a morality agreeing with the
healthy conscience of all men at a given time ; but which,



THE ETHICS OF RELIGION. 227

nevertheless, taught this as an infallible revelation. The
tendency of such teaching, if really accepted, would be
to destroy morality altogether, for, it is of the very essence
of^the moral sense that it is a common perceptionjjyjaien
of what is ffood for man. It arises, not in one man's
mind by a flash of genius or a transport of ecstasy, but
in all men's minds, as the fruit of their necessary inter-
united labour for a common object. When



an infallible authority is set up, the voice of this natural
human conscience must be hushed and schooled, and
made to speak the words of a formula. Obedience be-
comes the whole duty of man ; and the notion of right
is attached to a lifeless code of rules, instead of being
the informing character of a nation. The natural con-
sequence is that it fades gradually out and ends by dis-
appearing altogether. I am not describing a purely
conjectural state of things, but an effect which has
actually been produced at various times and in con-
siderable populations by the influence of the Catholic
Church. It is true that we cannot find an actually
crucial instance of a pure morality taught as an infallible
revelation, and so in time ceasing to be morality for that
reason alone. There are two circumstances which pre-
vent this. One is that the Catholic priesthood has
always practically taught an imperfect morality, and
that it is difficult to distinguish between the effects of
precepts which are wrong in themselves, and precepts
which are only wrong because of the manner in which
they are enforced. The other circumstance is that the
priesthood has very rarely found a population willing
to place itself completely and absolutely under priestly
control. Men must live together and work for common

Q 2



223 THE ETHICS OF RELIGION.

objects even in priest-ridden countries ; and those condi-
tions which in the course of ages have been able to create
the moral sense cannot fail in some degree to recall it
to men's minds and gradually to reinforce it. Thus it
comes about that a great and increasing portion of life
breaks free from priestly influences, and is governed
upon right and rational grounds. The goodness of men
shows itself in time more powerful than the wickedness
of some of their religions.

The practical inference is, then, that we ought to do
all in our power to restrain and diminish the influence
of any priesthood which claims to rule consciences. But
when we attempt to go beyond this plain Protestant
principle, we find that the question is one of history and
politics. The question which we want to ask ourselves
' Is it right to support this or that priesthood ? ' can
only be answered by this other question, ' What has it
done or got done ? '

In asking this question, we must bear in mind that
the word priesthood, as we have used it hitherto, has a
very wide meaning namely, it means any body of men
who perform special ceremonies in the name of religion ;
a ceremony being an act which is prescribed by religion
to that body of men, but not on account of its intrinsic
rightness or wrongness. It includes, therefore, not only
the priests of Catholicism, or of the Obi rites, who lay
claim to a magical character and powers, but the more
familiar clergymen or ministers of Protestant denomina-
tions, and the members of monastic orders. But there
is a considerable difference, pointed out by Hume, be-
tween a priest, who lays claim to a magical character
and powers, and a clergyman, in the English sense, as it



THE ETHICS OF RELIGION. 229

was understood in Hume's day, whose office was to re-
mind people of their duties every Sunday, and to repre-
sent a certain standard of culture in remote country
districts. It will, perhaps, conduce to clearness if we
use the word priest exclusively in the first sense.

There is another confusion which we must en-
deavour to avoid, if we would really get at the truth of
this matter. When one ventures to doubt whether the
Catholic clergy has really been an unmixed blessing to
Europe, one is generally met by the reply, ' You cannot
find any fault with the Sermon on the Mount.' Now it
would be too much to say that this has nothing to dc
with the question we were proposing to ask, for there
is a sense in which the Sermon on the Mount and the
Catholic clergy have something to do with each other.
The Sermon on the Mount is admitted on all hands to
be the best and most precious thing that Christianity
has offered to the world ; and it cannot be doubted that
the Catholic clergy of East and West were the only
spokesmen of Christianity until the Reformation, and are
the spokesmen of the vast majority of Christians at this
moment. But it must surely be unnecessary to say in
a Protestant country that the Catholic Church and the
Gospel are two very different things. The moral teach-
ing of Christ, as partly preserved in the three first
gospels, or which is the same thing the moral teach-
ing of the great Eabbi Hillel, as partly preserved in the
Pirke Aboth, is the expression of the conscience of a
people who had fought long and heroically for their
national existence. In that terrible conflict they had
learned the supreme and overwhelming importance of
conduct, the necessity for those who would survive of



230 THE ETHICS OF RELIGION.

fighting manfully for their lives and making a stand
against the hostile powers around ; the weakness and
uselessness of solitary and selfish efforts, the necessity
for a man who would be a man to lose his poor single
personality in the being of a greater and nobler com-
batant the nation. And they said all this, after their
fashion of short and potent sayings, perhaps better than
any other men have said it before or since. ' If I am
not for myself,' said the great Hillel, ' who is for me ?
And if I am only for myself, where is the use of me ?
And if not now, when ? ' It would be hard to find a
more striking contrast than exists between the sturdy
unselfish independence of this saying, and the abject
and selfish servility of the priest-ridden claimant of the
skies. It was this heroic people that produced the
morality of the Sermon on the Mount. But it was not
they who produced the priests and the dogmas of
Catholicism. Shaven crowns, linen vestments, and the
claim to priestly rule over consciences, these were
dwellers on the banks of the Nile. The gospel indeed
came out of Judsea, but the Church and her dogmas
came out of Egypt. Not, as it is written, ' Out of Egypt
have I called my son,' but, ' Out of Egypt have I called
my daughter.' St. Gregory of Nazianzum remarked with
wonder that Egypt, having so lately worshipped bulls,
goats, and crocodiles, was now teaching the world the
worship of the Trinity in its truest form. 1 Poor,
simple St. Gregory ! it was not that Egypt had risen
higher, but that the world had sunk lower. The
empire, which in the time of Augustus had dreaded,
and with reason, the corrupting influence of Egyptian

1 See Sharpe, ' Egyptian Mythology and Egyptian Christianity/ p. 114.



THE ETHICS OF RELIGION. 231

superstitions, was now eaten up by them, and rapidly
rotting away.

Then, when we ask what has been the influence of
the Catholic clergy upon European nations, we are not
inquiring about the results of accepting the morality of
the Sermon on the Mount ; we are inquiring into the
effect of attaching an Egyptian priesthood, which teaches
Egyptian dogmas, to the life and sayings of a Jewish
prophet.

In this inquiry, which requires the knowledge of
facts beyond our own immediate experience, we must
make use of the great principle of authority, which
enables us to profit by the experience of other men.
The great civilized countries on the continent of Europe
at the present day France, Germany, Austria, and
Italy have had an extensive experience of the
Catholic clergy for a great number of centuries, and
they are forced by strong practical reasons to form a
judgment upon the character and tendencies of an
institution which is sufficiently powerful to command
the attention of all who are interested in public affairs.
We might add the experience of our forefathers three
centuries ago, and of Ireland at this moment ; but home
politics are apt to be looked upon with other eyes than
those of reason. Let us hear, then, the judgment of the
civilized people of Europe on this question.

It is a matter of notoriety that an aider and abettor
of clerical pretensions is regarded in France as an enemy
of France and of Frenchmen ; in Germany as an enemy
of Germany and of Germans ; in Austria as an enemy of
Austria and Hungary, of both Austrians and Magyars ;
and in Italy as an enemy of Italy and the Italians. He



232 THE ETHICS OF RELIGION.

is so regarded, not by a few wild and revolutionary en-
thusiasts who have cast away all the beliefs of their
childhood and all bonds connecting them with the past,
but by a great and increasing majority of sober and con-
scientious men of all creeds and persuasions, who are
filled with a love for their country, and whose hopes and
aims for the future are animated and guided by the
examples of those who have gone before them, and by a
sense of the continuity of national life. The profound
conviction and determination of the people in all these
countries, that the clergy must be restricted to a purely
ceremonial province, and must not be allowed to inter-
fere, as clergy, in public affairs this conviction and de-
termination, I say, are not the effect of a rejection of the
Catholic dogmas. Such rejection has not in fact been
made in Catholic countries by the great majority. It
involves many difficult speculative questions, the pro-
found disturbance of old habits of thought, and the toil-
some consideration of abstract ideas. But such is the
happy inconsistency of human nature, that men who
would be shocked and pained by a doubt about the cen-
tral doctrines of their religions are far more really and
practically shocked and pained by the moral conse-
quences of clerical ascendency. About the dogmas they
do not know ; they were taught them in childhood, and
have not inquired into them since, and therefore they
are not competent witnesses to the truth of them. But
about the priesthood they do know, by daily and hourly
experience ; and to its character they are competent
witnesses. No man can express his convictions more
forcibly than by acting upon them in a great and solemn
matter of national importance. In all these countries



THE ETHICS OF RELIGION. 233

the conviction of the serious and sober majority of the
people is embodied, and is being daily embodied, in
special legislation, openly and avowedly intended to
guard against clerical aggression. The more closely the
legislature of these countries reflects the popular will,
the more clear and pronounced does this tendency be-
come. It may be thwarted or evaded for the moment
by constitutional devices and parliamentary tricks, but
sooner or later the nation will be thoroughly represented
in all of them : and as to what is then to be expected,
let the panic of the clerical parties make answer.

This is a state of opinion and of feeling which we in
our own country find it hard to understand, although it
is one of the most persistent characters of bur nation in
past times. We have spoken so plainly and struck so
hard in the past, that we seem to have won the right to
let this matter alone. We think our enemies are dead,
and we forget that our neighbour's enemies are plainly
alive : and then we wonder that he does not sit down
and be quiet as we are. We are not much accustomed
to be afraid, and we never know when we are beaten.
But those who are nearer to the danger feel a very real
and, it seems to me, well-grounded fear. The whole
structure of modern society, the fruit of long and painful
efforts, the hopes of further improvement, the triumphs
of justice, of freedom, and of light, the bonds of patriot-
ism which make each nation one, the bonds of humanity
which bring different nations together all these they
see to be menaced with a great and real and even press-
ing danger. For myself I confess that I cannot help
feeling as they feel. It seems to me quite possible that
the moral and intellectual culture of Europe, the light



234 THE ETHICS OF RELIGION.

and the right, what makes life worth having and men
worthy to have it, may be clean swept away by a revival
of superstition. We are, perhaps, ourselves not free
from such a domestic danger ; but no one can doubt that
the danger would speedily arise if all Europe at our side
should become again barbaric, not with the weakness
and docility of a barbarism which has never known
better, but with the strength of a past civilization per-
verted to the service of evil.

Those who know best, then, about the Catholic priest-
hood at present, regard it as a standing menace to the
state and to the moral fabric of society.

Some would have us believe that this condition of
things is quite new, and has in fact been created by the
Vatican Council. In the Middle Ages, they say, the
Church did incalculable service ; or even if you do not
allow that, yet the ancient Egyptian priesthood invented
many useful arts ; or if you have read anything which
is not to their credit, there were the Babylonians and
Assyrians who had priests, thousands of years ago ; and
in fact, the more you go back into prehistoric ages, and
the further you go away into distant countries, the less
you can find to say against the priesthoods of those
times and places. This statement, for which there is
certainly much foundation, may be put into another
form : the more you come forward into modern times
and neighbouring countries, where the facts can actually
be got at, the more complete is the evidence against the
priesthoods of these times and places. But the whole
argument is founded upon what is at least a doubtful
view of human nature and of society. Just as an early
school of geologists were accustomed to explain the pre-



THE ETHICS OF RELIGION. 235

sent state of the earth's surface by supposing that in
primitive ages the processes of geologic change were far
more violent and rapid than they are now so cata-
strophic, indeed, as to constitute a thoroughly different
state of things so there is a school of historians who
think that the intimate structure of human nature, its
capabilities of learning and of adapting itself to society,
have so far altered within the historic period as to make
the present processes of social change totally different in
character from those even of the moderately distant past.
They think that institutions and conditions which are
plainly harmful to us now have at other times and places
done good and serviceable work. War, pestilence, priest-
craft, and slavery have been represented as positive
boons to an early state of society. They are not
blessings to us, it is true ; but then times have altered
very much.

On the other hand, a later school of geologists have
seen reason to think that the processes of change have
never, since the earth finally solidified, been very differ-
ent from what they are now. More rapid, indeed, they


1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 16 18 19 20 21 22

Online LibraryWilliam Kingdon CliffordLectures and essays by William Kingdon Clifford (Volume 2) → online text (page 16 of 22)