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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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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 objects even in priest-ridden countries; and those
conditions 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 re-enforce 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 denominations, and the
members of monastic orders. But there is a considerable difference,
pointed out by Hume, between a priest who lays claim to a magical
character and powers, and a clergymen, in the English sense, as it
was understood in Hume's day, whose office was to remind people of
their duties every Sunday, and to represent 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 endeavor 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 do 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 teaching of
Christ, as partly preserved in the three first gospels, or - which
is the same thing - the moral teaching of the great Rabbi 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 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 combatant - 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 Judæa, 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 worshiped bulls, goats, and
crocodiles, was now teaching the world the worship of the Trinity in
its truest form. 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 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 is so regarded, not
by a few wild and revolutionary enthusiasts 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 conscientious 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 interfere, as clergy, in public affairs - this conviction
and determination, 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 profound disturbance of old habits of thought, and
the toilsome 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 central doctrines of their religions are far more
really and practically shocked and pained by the moral consequences
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 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 become. 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 our 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 neighbor'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 patriotism 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 pressing 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 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 perverted to the service of evil.

Those who know best, then, about the Catholic priesthood 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
neighboring 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 present 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
catastrophic, 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, priestcraft, 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 different from what they are now. More rapid,
indeed, they must have been in early times, for many reasons; but
not so very much more rapid as to constitute an entirely different
state of things. And it does seem to me in like manner that a wider
and more rational view of history will recognize more and more of
the permanent, and less and less of the changeable, element in human
nature. No doubt our ancestors of a thousand generations back were very
different beings from ourselves; perhaps fifty thousand generations
back they were not men at all. But the historic period is hardly to
be stretched beyond two hundred generations; and it seems unreasonable
to expect that in such a tiny page of our biography we can trace with
clearness the growth and progress of a long life. Compare Egypt in
the time of King Menes, say six thousand years ago, with Spain in this
present century, before Englishmen made any railways there: I suppose
the main difference is that the Egyptians washed themselves. It seems
more analogous to what we find in other fields of inquiry to suppose
that there are certain great broad principles of human life which have
been true all along; that certain conditions have always been favorable
to the health of society, and certain other conditions always hurtful.

Now, although I have many times asked for it from those who said
that somewhere and at some time mankind had derived benefits from a
priesthood laying claim to a magical character and powers, I have
never been able to get any evidence for their statement. Nobody
will give me a date, and a latitude and longitude, that I may
examine into the matter. 'In the Middle Ages the priests and monks
were the sole depositaries of learning.' Quite so; a man burns your
house to the ground, builds a wretched hovel on the ruins, and then
takes credit for whatever shelter there is about the place. In the
Middle Ages nearly all learned men were obliged to become priests and
monks. 'Then again, the bishops have sometimes acted as tribunes of
the people, to protect them against the tyranny of kings.' No doubt,
when Pope and Cæsar fall out, honest men may come by their own. If
two men rob you in a dark lane, and then quarrel over the plunder,
so that you get a chance to escape with your life, you will of course
be very grateful to each of them for having prevented the other from
killing you; but you would be much more grateful to a policeman who
locked them both up. Two powers have sought to enslave the people,
and have quarreled with each other; certainly we are very much obliged
to them for quarreling, but a condition of still greater happiness
and security would be the non-existence of both.

I can find no evidence that seriously militates against the rule
that the priest is at all times and in all places the enemy of all
men - Sacerdos semper, ubique, et omnibus inimicus. I do not deny
that the priest is very often a most earnest and conscientious man,
doing the very best that he knows of as well as he can do it. Lord
Amberley is quite right in saying that the blame rests more with the
laity than with the priesthood; that it has insisted on magic and
mysteries, and has forced the priesthood to produce them. But then,
how dreadful is the system that puts good men to such uses!

And although it is true that in its origin a priesthood is the effect
of an evil already existing, a symptom of social disease rather than
a cause of it, yet, once being created and made powerful, it tends in
many ways to prolong and increase the disease which gave it birth. One
of these ways is so marked and of such practical importance that we
are bound to consider it here: I mean the education of children. If
there is one lesson which history forces upon us in every page, it is
this: Keep your children away from the priest, or he will make them the
enemies of mankind. It is not the Catholic clergy and those like them
who are alone to be dreaded in this matter; even the representatives
of apparently harmless religions may do incalculable mischief if they
get education into their hands. To the early Mohammedans the mosque was
the one public building in every place where public business could be
transacted; and so it was naturally the place of primary education,
which they held to be a matter of supreme importance. By and by,
as the clergy grew up, the mosque was gradually usurped by them,
and primary education fell into their hands. Then ensued a 'revival
of religion;' religion became a fanaticism: books were burnt and
universities were closed; the empire rotted away in East and West,
until it was conquered by Turkish savages in Asia and by Christian
savages in Spain.

The labors of students of the early history of institutions - notably
Sir Henry Maine and M. de Laveleye - have disclosed to us an element
of society which appears to have existed in all times and places, and
which is the basis of our own social structure. The village community,
or commune, or township, found in tribes of the most varied race and
time, has so modified itself as to get adapted in one place or another
to all the different conditions of human existence. This union of men
to work for a common object has transformed them from wild animals into
tame ones. Century by century the educating process of the social life
has been working at human nature; it has built itself into our inmost
soul. Such as we are - moral and rational beings - thinking and talking
in general conceptions about the facts that make up our life, feeling
a necessity to act, not for ourselves, but for Ourself, for the larger
life of Man in which we are elements; such moral and rational beings,
I say, Man has made us. By Man I mean men organized into a society,
which fights for its life, not only as a mere collection of men who
must separately be kept alive, but as a society. It must fight not
only against external enemies, but against treason and disruption
within it. Hence comes the unity of interest of all its members;
each of them has to feel that he is not himself only but a part of
all the rest. Conscience - the sense of right and wrong - springs out
of the habit of judging things from the point of view of all and not
of one. It is Ourself, not ourselves, that makes for righteousness.

The codes of morality, then, which are adopted into various religions,
and afterward taught as parts of religious systems, are derived from
secular sources. The most ancient version of the Ten Commandments,
whatever the investigations of scholars may make it out to be,
originates, not in the thunders of Sinai, but in the peaceful life of
men on the plains of Chaldæa. Conscience is the voice of Man ingrained
into our hearts, commanding us to work for Man.

Religions differ in the treatment which they give to this most
sacred heirloom of our past history. Sometimes they invert its
precepts - telling men to be submissive under oppression because the
powers that be are ordained of God; telling them to believe where they
have not seen, and to play with falsehood in order that a particular
doctrine may prevail, instead of seeking for truth whatever it may be;
telling them to betray their country for the sake of their church. But
there is one great distinction to which I wish, in conclusion, to
call special attention - a distinction between two kinds of religious
emotion which bear upon the conduct of men.

We said that conscience is the voice of Man within us, commanding
us to work for Man. We do not know this immediately by our own
experience; we only know that something within us commands us to work
for Man. This fact men have tried to explain; and they have thought,
for the most part, that this voice was the voice of a God. But the
explanation takes two different forms: the God may speak in us for
Man's sake, or for his own sake. If he speaks for his own sake - and
this is what generally happens when he has priests who lay claim to
a magical character and powers - our allegiance is apt to be taken
away from Man, and transferred to the God. When we love our brother
for the sake of our brother, we help all men to grow in the right;
but when we love our brother for the sake of somebody else, who is
very likely to damn our brother, it very soon comes to burning him
alive for his soul's health. When men respect human life for the sake
of Man, tranquillity, order and progress go hand in hand; but those
who only respected human life because God had forbidden murder have
set their mark upon Europe in fifteen centuries of blood and fire.

These are only two examples of a general rule. Wherever the allegiance
of men has been diverted from Man to some divinity who speaks to men
for his own sake and seeks his own glory, one thing has happened. The
right precepts might be enforced, but they were enforced upon wrong
grounds, and they were not obeyed. But right precepts are not always
enforced; the fact that the fountains of morality have been poisoned
makes it easy to substitute wrong precepts for right ones.

To this same treason against humanity belongs the claim of the
priesthood to take away the guilt of a sinner after confession has
been made to it. The Catholic priest professes to act as an embassador
for his God, and to absolve the guilty man by conveying to him the
forgiveness of heaven. If his credentials were ever so sure, if he
were indeed the embassador of a superhuman power, the claim would be
treasonable. Can the favor of the Czar make guiltless the murderer of
old men and women and children in Circassian valleys? Can the pardon
of the Sultan make clean the bloody hands of a Pasha? As little can
any God forgive sins committed against man. When men think he can,
they compound for old sins which the God did not like by committing
new ones which he does like. Many a remorseful despot has atoned for
the levities of his youth by the persecution of heretics in his old
age. That frightful crime, the adulteration of food, could not possibly
be so common among us if men were not taught to regard it as merely
objectionable because it is remotely connected with stealing, of which
God has expressed his disapproval in the Decalogue; and therefore
as quite, naturally set right by a punctual attendance at church
on Sundays. When a Ritualist breaks his fast before celebrating the
Holy Communion, his deity can forgive him if he likes, for the matter
concerns nobody else; but no deity can forgive him for preventing his
parishioners from setting up a public library and reading-room for
fear they should read Mr. Darwin's works in it. That sin is committed
against the people, and a God cannot take it away.

I call those religions which undermine the supreme allegiance of the
conscience to Man ultramontane religions, because they seek their
springs of action ultra montes, outside of the common experience and
daily life of man. And I remark about them that they are especially
apt to teach wrong precepts, and that even when they command men to
do the right things they put the command upon wrong motives, and do
not get the things done.

But there are forms of religious emotion which do not thus undermine
the conscience. Far be it from me to under-value the help and strength
which many of the bravest of our brethren have drawn from the thought


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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 9 of 10)