Many persons regard everything which tends to discredit theology with disapprobation, because they think that all such speculations must endanger morality as well. Others assert that morality has a basis of its own in human nature, and that, even if all theological belief were exploded, morality would remain unaffected.
My own view is that each party is to a considerable extent right, but that the true practical inference is often neglected.
Understanding by the theology of an age or country the theory of the universe generally accepted then and there, and by its morality the rules of life then and there commonly regarded as binding, it seems to me extravagant to say that the one does not influence the other. The difference between living in a country where the established theory is that existence is an evil, and annihilation the highest good, and living in a country where the established theory is that the earth is the Lord's and the fulness thereof, the round world and they that dwell therein, has surely a good deal to do with the other differences which distinguish Englishmen from Buddhists.
Even if it be said that such differences are merely a way of expressing the result of a difference of temperament and constitution otherwise caused, this does not diminish the effect of a belief in the truth of the theory. Kali, Bhowanee, and other malevolent deities worshipped in India are probably phantoms engendered by fear working on a rank fancy; but this does not make the belief in their real existence less influential in those who hold it. A man who cuts off the end of his tongue to propitiate Kali would let it alone if he ceased to believe in her existence, though the temper of mind which created her might still remain, and show itself in other ways.
The belief that the course of the world is ordered by a good God, that right and wrong are in the nature of a divine law, that this world is a place of trial, and part only of a wider existence—in a word, the belief in God and a future state—may be accounted for in various ways. Now that in this country (to go no further) the vast majority of people believe these doctrines to be true in fact just as they believe it to be true in fact that ships and carriages can be driven by steam, and that their conduct is in innumerable instances as distinctly influenced by the one belief as by the other, appear to me to be propositions too plain to be proved.
On the other hand, it seems at least equally evident that morality has a basis of its own quite independent of all theology whatever. It is difficult to imagine any doctrine about theology which has not prevailed at some time or place; but no one ever heard of men living together without some rules of life—that is, without some sort of morality. Given human action and human passion, and a vast number of people all acting and feeling, moral rules of conduct of some sort are a necessary consequence. The destruction of religion would, I think, involve a moral revolution; but it would no more destroy morality than a political revolution destroys law. It would substitute one set of moral rules and sentiments for another, just as the establishment of Christianity and Mohammedanism did when they superseded various forms of paganism.
It would be scarcely worth while to write down these commonplaces, if it were not for the sake of the practical inference. It is that theology and morality ought to stand to each other in precisely the same relation as facts and legislation.
No one would propose to support by artificial means a law passed under a mistake, for fear it should have to be altered. To say that the truth of a theological doctrine must not be questioned, lest the discovery of its falsehood should produce a bad moral effect, is in principle precisely the same thing. It is at least as unlikely that false theology should produce good morals as that legislation based on a mistaken view of facts should work well in practice.
I will give two illustrations of this—any number might be given. Suicide is commonly regarded as wrong; and this moral doctrine is defended on theological grounds, which are summed up in the old saying that the soldier must not leave his post till he is relieved. I will not inquire whether any other argument can be produced forbidding suicide to a person labouring under a disease which converts his whole life into one long scene of excruciating agony, and which must kill him in the course of a few useless months, during which he is a source of misery, and perhaps danger, to his nearest and dearest friends. I confine myself to saying that, if it could be shown that there is no reason to suppose that God has in fact forbidden such an act, its morality might be discussed and decided upon on different grounds from those on which it must be considered and decided upon on the opposite hypothesis.
Take again the law of marriage. Suppose a man's wife is hopelessly insane—ought he to be allowed to marry again? Ought divorce to be permitted in any case? These questions will be discussed in a very different spirit, though it is possible that they might be answered in the same way, by persons who do and by persons who do not believe in sacraments, and that marriage is a sacrament.
Now let us suppose for the sake of argument that it could be shown that if all theological considerations were set aside, it would be desirable that a person dying of cancer should be permitted to commit suicide, and that a man whose wife was incurably mad should be allowed to marry again; and that on the other hand, if theological considerations were taken into account, the opposite was desirable. Upon these suppositions the question whether the theological beliefs which make the difference are beneficial or not will depend on the question whether they are true or not. Applied generally, this shows that the support which an existing creed gives to an existing system of morals is irrelevant to its truth, and that the question whether a given system of morals is good or bad cannot be fully determined until after the determination of the question whether the theology on which it rests is true or false. The morality is good if it is founded on a true estimate of the consequences of human actions. But if it is founded on a false theology, it is founded on a false estimate of the consequences of human actions; and, so far as that is the case, it cannot be good; and the circumstance that it is supported by the theology to which it refers is an argument against, and not in favour of, that theology.
Part 2: May 1877
The paper which began this discussion was entitled 'The Influence upon Morality of a Decline in Religious Belief.' The Dean of St. Paul's remarks: 'It seems to me difficult to discuss this question till it is settled, at least generally, what morality is influenced, and what religious belief is declining.' The Duke of Argyll observes that these papers 'deal with a question very abstract and ill-defined.' Dr. Ward says that' the wording of our question is unfortunately ambiguous, and I think that this fact has made the discussion in several respects less pointed and less otherwise interesting than it might have been.'
To these criticisms I reply that the title of my paper contains no question at all, and was not intended to do so. It is simply an indication, in the most general terms, of the subject to which the paper of which it is the title relates. Anyone who will take the trouble to read the paper will see that its principal object was to assert the proposition with which it concludes, which is in these words:—
‘This [i.e. the whole of the preceding argument] shows that the support which an existing creed gives to an existing system of morals is irrelevant to its truth, and that the question whether a given system of morals is good or bad cannot be fully determined until after the determination of the question whether the theology on which it rests is true or false. The morality is [I should have said 'may be'] good if it is founded on a true estimate of the consequences of human actions. But if it is founded on a false theology it is founded on a false estimate of the consequences of human actions; and so far as that is the case it cannot be good; and the circumstance that it is supported by the theology to which it refers is an argument against, and not in favour of, that theology.’
The only 'question' which my paper was intended to raise is the question whether that proposition is true or not? I do not see how its truth can depend (as the Dean of St. Paul's suggests) upon further particulars as to 'what morality is influenced,' or 'what theology is declining.' I said nothing about the decline of any particular theological belief, or its influence on any particular system of morals. My proposition would apply to all creeds and all forms of morality.
As to the Duke of Argyll's statement that ‘the question is very abstract and ill-defined,' I should admit its justice if the title of the paper were taken as the statement of a question. But this is not the case. The proposition which I put forward, in the hope that it would be discussed, is no doubt general in its terms, but it seemed, and still seems to me, definite enough to be discussed. As to the 'ambiguity' of which Dr. Ward complains, I cannot see how my proposition can have more meanings than one.
The papers which have been written subsequently to my paper raise a great variety of points which I feel much tempted to discuss, but I hardly feel at liberty to do so, as they do not in any way qualify anything said by me. Each paper, indeed, is an illustration of the truth of some part of my proposition or of the assertions by which it is introduced; for each shows in various ways how very close is the connection in the writer's mind between the theological system which he believes to be true and the moral system which he considers to be good; and this again shows that the question of truth must precede the question of goodness, and cannot be determined by any answer which may be given to the latter question. I cannot help thinking that if this were generally understood it would affect very deeply the character of a great proportion of current theological speculation.
The Nineteenth Century, April-May 1877