William Kingdon Clifford.

The scientific basis of morals : and other essays, viz. : right and wrong, the ethics of belief, the ethics of religion online

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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 body of precepts or code of rules,
intended to guide human conduct, as in this sentence of the authorized
version of the New Testament: '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 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 confound 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 philosophical 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 France, 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 immoral in themselves,
or constructively immoral on account of their known symbolism. On the
whole, it seems to me most convenient to draw the plain and obvious
distinction between those actions which a religion prescribes 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 prominently 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,' every one
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 toward 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 untutored mind, of the Peculiar People,
of the Mormons, and of the old cat-worshiping 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 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 feeling, an
emotion, an habitual attitude of mind toward some object or objects,
or toward 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 character,
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 sometimes
it means a devotional habit of mind; the two things are sometimes
connected, but also they are sometimes quite distinct. But that the
connection of these two things is more and more insisted on, that it
is the keynote 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 Roman Catholic Church, whose seamless unity has just
been exhibited and protected by an OEcumenical 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.

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 considerations 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 inquire, then, what morality has to say in regard to religious
doctrines. It deals with the manner of religious belief directly,
and with the matter indirectly. Religious 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 '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 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 reverence 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 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 depends 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 thing they are not so very wrong after all, but are
only following an example which all men respect. So says Plato: -

'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
disgraceful 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 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.' - (Rep. ii. 378. Tr. Davies and Vaughan.)

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 license 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 which he contemplated a prayer for the
success of his design; the adulteress imploring of Venus the favors 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 worshiped 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 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 worshiped. To those who complain 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 worshiped, 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 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 gradually 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 magnified 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 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 forever. 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 any one alive in torture
forever 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 forever, 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 skeptical 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 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-deception
can keep them from feeling to be wicked.

Let us now go on to inquire 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 Reformation a necessity, and became the
soul of the Protestant 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 endeavor to find out
and to see for ourselves what is right and what is wrong, it must
be nothing 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 judgment; 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 influence 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
connection with another part of the subject. 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, 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 perception by
men of what is good 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 intercourse and united labor 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 becomes 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
consequence is that it fades gradually out and ends by disappearing
altogether. I am not describing a purely conjectural state of things,
but an effect which has actually been produced at various times and in
considerable 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 prevent this. One is that the Catholic priesthood has always

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Online LibraryWilliam Kingdon CliffordThe scientific basis of morals : and other essays, viz. : right and wrong, the ethics of belief, the ethics of religion → online text (page 8 of 10)