Religion As Conduct

Religion As Conduct

The second anti-intellectual view of religion asserts that it is exclusively a matter of conduct, and that doctrine, so far as it does not immediately bear upon conduct, is no true part of religion at all.

Now we may grant at once that religion has much to do with conduct ; we may even say that no part of it is irrelevant to conduct ; and yet we may be right in refusing to expel the intellectual element from it. For truth and conduct are not absolutely unrelated. Every piece of conduct depends on the realisation of some truth, since we could not act efficiently, or indeed at all, without some knowledge of the situation with which we are dealing. The problem “ How am I to act ? ” is only soluble in the light of knowledge. And conversely there is no piece of knowledge which has not some practical corollary ; either it supplies us with the solution of a practical problem, or it suggests a new problem for future solution.

There is no such thing as conduct divorced from knowledge or knowledge divorced from conduct. The view we are considering seems to depend upon a form of scepticism. It admits (and we should agree) that one action is better than another and that there is a duty to promote good actions ; and it asserts that the best religion is that which promotes the best life. But it goes on to maintain that the doctrines of religion have no other value except their moral value ; that to describe one religion as true and another as false is meaningless.

This implies that the intellectual problems of religion are insoluble and that no one answer to them is truer than any other ; whereas the practical difficulties of the moral life are real and can be overcome or alleviated by religious means. Or if it is not maintained that the problems are insoluble, it is denied that religions solve them ; it is perhaps supposed that they are soluble by means of another kind of thinking ; by science or philosophy.

Empirical difficulties against this purely moral view of religion arise from the fact that atheists and persons who differ from their neighbours in religion do not necessarily differ in morality. If a man living in a Christian society rejects Christianity, on this theory the only possible meaning of his action is that he rejects the Christian morality, for Christianity is defined as being precisely the Christian morality. But in practice this does not necessarily follow ; his morality may remain what it was before. The theory can only deal with such a case in two ways.

Either it must say that he rejects Christianity in name only, while unwilling to uproot it out of his heart ; or else it must maintain that he rejects not the real Christianity (the morality) but Christianity falsely so called, the intellectual system which is arbitrarily annexed to it. Both these are unsatisfactory ; the first, because it makes a virtuous atheist into a mere hypocrite, and the second because the “ arbitrary ” connexion of an intellectual system with a moral one is precisely the fact that requires explanation.

If the intellectual system (though false) is really necessary as a psychological basis for morals, ∗ how can the former be rejected and the latter kept ? If not, why should the two ever be united at all ? The moralistic theory of religion comes to grief over the fact that there is such a thing as creed. On the theory, there ought not to be ; but, nevertheless, it is there. Why is it there ? Because—we cannot evade the answer—it is believed to be true. Creed may be, among other things, a means to morality ; but it cannot be a means to anything unless it is first held as true.

For a belief that no one believes can have no influence on any one’s conduct. A morality assisted by creed is a morality founded upon the intellect ; for to judge something as true is the characteristic function of the intellect.

Further, if the action induced by a belief is to be really good as well as really due to the belief, then the belief must be true.  We may stimulate our moral consciousness by fictions, as that this day is our last on earth ; but the resulting action, so far as it is good, is due not to the belief but to the reawakened moral consciousness. Any action really due to the belief, such as taking farewell of our families and making arrange- [] ments for the funeral next day, would be merely silly. So, if our creeds are not truths but only means to good action, those actions which are good are not really due to them, and those which are due to them are a waste of labour. That is to say, they are a hindrance, rather than a help, to right conduct.

This form of scepticism, like most other forms of the same thing, is in fact less a philosophy than a propaganda. It is not a theory of what religion is ; it is a proposal to reconstitute it on the principle of leaving out the creed and only keeping the commandments. There might, perhaps, be such a thing as non-religious moral teaching. We will not at present deny that. But it would not be religion. And we are not asking what improvements might be made in religion, or what better thing might be substituted for it ; we only want to discover what it is. This humbler inquiry may possibly be of value even to those who, without asking what it is, have decided to abolish or reform it. 