Religion and An Historical ArgumentOctober 6, 2018
Parallel to the anti-intellectual theories examined in the preceding chapter are certain anti-moral theories of religion.
These are directed to proving that religion does not dictate definite actions at all, or that if it does, this is not because these actions are moral but for some other reason.
An historical argument
As a matter of common experience, it is often said, religion sometimes inculcates actions which are flagrantly at variance with the principles of a sound morality. Can we look back on all the crimes done in the name of religion, the human sacrifices, the persecutions, the horrors of religious warfare, the corrupt connivance at wickedness, the torture inflicted on simple minds by the fear of hell—tantum relligio potuit suadere malorum and still maintain that religion stands for morality ?
Undoubtedly we can. The argument is a rhetorical jump from half-understood instances to an unfounded generalisation. We might equally well quote the absurdities of ancient and the errors of modern scientists as proof that science does not aim at truth. If a great scientist makes a mistake, the importance of that mistake, its widespread effect, is due to the very fact that the man who makes it is a high intellectual authority ; it is the exception which proves the rule that you can generally believe what he says. Religious persecution may be a crime, but it happens only because the persecutor believes it to be a duty.
The crimes of the Church are a testimony to the fact that religion does dictate duties, and is believed to do so, for the most part, in a worthy manner.
Nor can we draw a distinction between the two cases on the ground that religious crimes are sometimes already condemned by their contemporaries and are therefore doubly unjustifiable, whereas the mistakes of a great scientist represent a point in the progress of thought as yet unattained by any one, and are therefore pardonable. This would be to reduce the argument to a mutual recrimination between Church and State, each trying to fasten upon the other the odium of being the worse sinner. Into such a discussion we can hardly be expected to enter. Our distinction is between right and wrong, truth and falsehood; and if science teaches error or religion inculcates crime, extenuating circumstances are beside the mark.
If the argument were successful, it would prove not that religion was irrelevant to conduct (for the cases quoted prove the reverse ; they are cases of religion definitely dictating conduct), but that it devoted its energies to the positive pursuit of immoral ends. And this would be to admit our main contention, that religion has a practical side ; while maintaining that this practical side was the apotheosis not of good but of evil. But this fantastic notion would be advanced by no serious student of the facts, and we need not trouble to refute it.
We are not concerned to prove that every particular mouthpiece of every particular religion is morally infallible ; just as we do not assume it to be intellectually infallible. We tried to show in the last chapter that it was an essential note of religion to lay down certain statements, and to say, “ Believe these ” ; and that could only mean, “ Believe these, for they are true. ” Truth is the governing conception, even if the dogmas propounded fail of reaching it. Similarly, religion always lays down certain courses of action and says, “ Do these, ” that is to say, “ Do these, because they are right. ” Not merely “ because they are God’s will, ” for God is a righteous God ; nor merely “ for fear he should punish you, ” for his punishments are just.
Historically, religions may have been guilty of infinite crimes ; but this condemnation is a proof, not a disproof, that their fundamental aim is moral. They represent a continual attempt to conform to the good will of God, and the fact that they err in determining or in obeying that will does not alter the fact that the standard by which they test actions is a moral standard. But is the will of God always conceived as good ? May it not be conceived as simply arbitrary ? One phase of this question is considered in the next section.