Wednesday, August 31, 2016


Whenever the history of this age comes to be written, many subjects will require separate and special description which it will be impossible to connect with that continuous narrative of political and military events which must always form the backbone of history. Of these subjects, the great change in the general feeling of mankind as to religious belief which has marked the whole course of the nineteenth century will be one of the most remarkable. For many years past, and especially during the last generation, theology has been regarded with a degree of attention and respect which it had not previously commanded. The subject has been almost universally approached and handled with much reverence, and with the most earnest attention and interest, and the controversies connected with it have steadily increased in weight and depth till they have attained to greater importance than has marked any controversies since the Reformation. Considering the importance which must always attach to this, the greatest of all subjects of human contemplation, hardly anything can be more interesting, even to those who stand outside the pale of theological controversy, in the proper sense of the words, than to attempt to understand the growth of the different phases of the popular feeling respecting it. To such persons the rapid growth of religious feeling manifested by such facts as the Irish revivals and the systematic prayer-meetings which are at present common in this country must be most interesting. Some of these things are no doubt subjects of congratulation and satisfaction. Even if such results are looked at exclusively with reference to their effects on the general level of human happiness and virtue in this present life, it must always be a great gain that people should take an interest (however awkwardly they may show it) in each other's welfare here and hereafter—that they should rise, by means however strange, out of the common occupations of life into a region of feeling and of thought conversant with objects more ennobling and enduring than that of satisfying the various propensities of mind and body. It is, however, right to bear in mind the truth that effects like these are not the only ones which are produced by the religious movements of the day. Now, as in former times, the wheat and tares grow up together. Apparent dirae facies. It would seem as if it were a necessary part of human nature that every constitution should have its characteristic diseases, and that we should renew our acquaintance, not only with the zeal and fervour, but with the superstition and fanaticism of eras memorable in the history of the world.

No one can look thoughtfully at the different manifestations of religious zeal which abound at present without feeling compelled to ask himself singular questions. To anyone who respects either order, decency, or good manners, they are, in many points of view, most repulsive. To attribute the growth of religious feeling to a divine afflatus, and in the same breath to get up an organized agitation for producing the symptoms which are supposed to denote its operation, is a proceeding open to the imputation of extreme irreverence. The sight of large crowds suddenly collected, for no apparent reason, to hear special services in unaccustomed places, when not more value than usual appears to be set upon the ordinary ministrations of religion, suggests such words as extravagance and fanaticism. But words and feelings, though they may be guides to arguments, are no arguments in themselves; and the chief value of such observations to thoughtful observers is that they force upon them the question whether, after all, religion is a good thing, and if so, whether it is good under all circumstances and in all times and places. For it is quite certain that, whilst an indiscriminate advocacy of the proceedings referred to places those who conduct it in opposition to the plainest dictates of common sense, an indiscriminate and absolute condemnation of them, not merely in their practical development but in their very principle, involves consequences which few persons who retain the name of Christians would like to acknowledge.

This being so, what is the principle on which opinions ought to be formed on such subjects? What do we really mean to acknowledge as substantially good, notwithstanding the grotesque or even hurtful forms which it may assume, and what are we prepared to condemn as being bad in itself, however closely it may be connected with names and habits usually recognized as sacred?

All such inquiries consist almost exclusively of attempts to describe classes of phenomena which have, as it were, been labelled with certain eulogistic or dyslogistic epithets. Most people would say that "religion" is a good thing, and "fanaticism" a bad one; and no doubt these words are applied respectively to laudatory and condemnatory purposes, but they throw no light upon the question whether there is any principle by which it may be determined whether a given description of conduct ought to be described by the one name or the other. Probably the question could not be answered with anything like an approach to completeness without reference to many such principles. One or two which tend to clear it up may be indicated here.

The most general notion which we can form of religion, as the word is used in the present day (for its older meaning of ceremonial observance is merged in a far wider one) is that it describes the frame of mind of a man who habitually views this life in reference to the unseen and eternal world, and who regulates his conduct accordingly. This is, perhaps, a somewhat wider signification than popular usage would affix to the word, because it takes in all forms of belief respecting the unseen world, and not merely those which the person using it recognizes as true. It would, for example, unquestionably include the belief of a sincere Mahometan, for there can be no doubt that to such a person the world which lies beyond the reach of sense, as he conceives it, is at least no less near and real—often nearer and more real—than to ordinary Christians. It would also include a man who, like the devils, believes and trembles.

It is important to affix some reasonably definite sense to the word "religion," because it is generally used so vaguely that it is almost impossible to investigate the real meaning of propositions into which it is introduced. It is frequently employed as if it embraced all that is good, and was opposed to all that is bad; and when this is done, it looks like impiety to suggest that religion has any limits at all, or that any of its genuine manifestations can be accompanied by any inconveniences, or can, under any circumstances, be regarded with suspicion or regret. This view of the subject, however, is at once inaccurate and fatal to all calm and honest consideration of it. Religion, like other words, has its appropriate meaning, and is capable of being contemplated apart from, and independently of, other things, both good and bad. It is but one of a great number of influences which affect the mind. It is, for example, distinct from affection for individuals, from prudence, from benevolence, from fortitude, from truthfulness, and even from the theological virtues, such as faith, hope, and charity. A man may be keenly alive to the existence of an unseen world surrounding him on all sides of his existence, past, present, and future, and acting upon him in every possible way, and yet he may or may not have all, or any, of the several qualities enumerated. It is, moreover, almost impossible to say what will be the effects of superinducing such a consciousness upon the pre-existing elements of the character of any given person. It may be affirmed with confidence that the effect will not he indifferent, and that in all ordinary cases it will be good; but there are also cases in which it will be either positively bad, or at least extremely dangerous, and though such instances form a minority, they are numerous enough to require special and attentive consideration.

There is room for endless discussion as to the objects for which people live; but one observation may be made on the subject which few persons would deny in theory, and hardly any one in practice. This is, that in order to obtain any object at all, a certain degree of community of sentiment and sympathy with the rest of the world is absolutely indispensable. Indeed, their entire absence almost constitutes madness, whilst their presence implies that, up to a certain point, the person who possesses them shares in the unexpressed convictions which almost entirely regulate the conduct of the great mass of mankind. Every one likes comfort, prosperity, the good opinion of his neighbours, health, success in life, and a variety of other things, of the same sort, and every one dislikes the opposites of these; and this state of things is indispensable to the existence of human society. It exists in sincerely religious people—using the word in the limited sense ascribed to it above—as well as in others, though there is no doubt that religion not only may, but often does modify it deeply, and though it is equally certain that it may be set in such a light as entirely to destroy it. The religion which destroys this balance may properly be called fanaticism, though it is admitted to be sincere and is not proved to be false. Indeed the very same creed may deserve the title of religion in one man, and that of fanaticism in another; for in the tougher mind it may not produce the consequences which would turn those who hold it into fanatics. No honest observer will deny that there is a great deal to be said in favour of what are called gloomy religious opinions. There is, no doubt, evidence on which any one who is disposed to do so may believe that his existence is an intolerable evil to himself and to the world at large; and many of those who lament his conclusion would find it impossible to overturn it upon the premisses common to them both. It may appear strange and paradoxical, but unquestionably, in many minds, this conviction coexists with the balance just mentioned. It is certainly not impossible, it is probably not uncommon, for a man to say—"I think life is on the whole a misfortune, but as I find myself here I will make the best of it;" and it may be that the cases in which such persons actually succeed in leading useful, honourable, and, on the whole, happy lives, are less rare than would be supposed. Indeed it might be plausibly contended that some such sentiment colours far more deeply than would at first sight be imagined, the whole of English life, and the life of all the most energetic nations in the world. This, however (which may be described as a compromise with despair), is not a condition to which every one can attain. Sensitive and irritable minds are sometimes entirely absorbed and destroyed by such feelings—Cowper affords a melancholy instance. No one can deny that his religion was genuine and sincere, and it is equally indisputable that his sincere and genuine religion drove him mad; nor is it possible to escape the conclusion that if he had had less of it, if the eternal world had beset him less constantly and less closely, he would have been a happier and, as far as human judgment can go, a better man.

Of course it is said, that this despairing or half despairing condition of mind is only a step in a process, and that it is frequently the passage to a settled and happy condition, resting on assurances which must not be discussed here. This may be true, but it is not a universal truth. The stage ill question is one beyond which many travellers never proceed at all, but in which they continue more or less consciously during the whole of their lives. To such persons the mere consciousness of another world and the pressure which it exercises, which is what is here meant by the word religion, is by no means an unmixed good. It operates on them in a thousand ways, according to the diversities of their natural character, but it almost always disturbs, to some extent, that moral balance and composure without which life can hardly be carried on at all. Under the influence of such feelings, a harsh and severe man becomes more harsh; a person of easy temper becomes dissatisfied and unsteady; a turbulent and daring man becomes dangerous, and a timid one superstitious.

This, of course, is not the common effect of such movements as we see around us. Human nature, as a rule, and especially English nature, adopts convenient compromises with almost miraculous facility; and people whose religious feelings are for a time stirred up by revivals or special services are for the most part affected much like the sleepers in the Enchanted Ground whom Christian and Hopeful tried to wake. They talk a little in their sleep, and then turn round again. In other words, they are benefited to some very small extent indeed by what is, to other persons, either a savour of life unto life or a savour of death unto death. It would be out of place here to insist upon the first half of this alternative: but it seems important, for many reasons, to direct attention to the second. It is true that fanatics will always form an inconsiderable minority in every nation, and especially in our own; but minorities, numerically inconsiderable, do a vast proportion of the mischief which is done in the world, and when a given temper is not only mischievous, but picturesque, its danger to society is at a maximum. This is precisely the characteristic of fanaticism. The magnitude of the influences on which it depends and from which it arises redeems it from vulgarity. A man really anxious about heaven and hell, death and judgment, may be grotesque, absurd, mad, and irreverent to any conceivable extent; but till cunning and hypocrisy come in—which they soon do—he is not a proper subject for contempt or ridicule. He is, however, one of the most dangerous of all members of society; for the whole temper of his mind tends to destroy and to abjure that balance and compromise on which every existing institution is of necessity based. In this age and country, which possesses
unequalled dexterity in the art of devising clever little applications of great forces, fanaticism would tend not to produce tumults or civil wars, but to dwarf to its own low and partial level every institution framed upon wider and calmer principles than it can understand. For this reason it would be especially dangerous to the Established Church, which, with a composure and completeness constituting its great titles to the affection and respect of all reasonable minds, represents the impossibility of giving full play to any one of those multifarious elements which collectively make up the creed and the practice of every considerable body of men. If people, stimulated by one overwhelming feeling, should ever succeed in narrowing its pale or in diminishing the independence of its ministers, they would strike a heavier blow than has ever yet been struck at the freedom and depth of character which always have been, and always ought to be, characteristic of this country. ,'

These remarks on the characteristics of fanaticism are not intended to throw any light whatever on the duties of preachers. A man may well believe that it is his duty to stir up his hearers to a consciousness of that which lies around and before them, whatever consequences he may produce, because, upon the whole, the good which he does greatly preponderates over the harm. Their object is rather to explain the reason why those who are not under this obligation cannot regard even the most sincere and judicious efforts to produce—not a general improvement of the whole complex nature of man—but a violent specific action of one of its functions, with altogether unmixed satisfaction; whilst they look with disapprobation and alarm on efforts, not directed either by sincerity or discretion, to inflame passions which are equally capable of being the greatest of blessings or the greatest of curses to the human race.

Saturday Review, February 18, 1861.

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