These bases are not the same in all instances. Probably no two classes, perhaps no two individuals, either would or ought to take precisely the same view of the subject. A man immersed in business must be contented with very different reasons for his belief, be it what it may, from those which would be required by one who devoted his whole life to the study of such subjects. An ignorant labourer's reasons for saying his prayers and going to church differ from those of a gentleman equally ignorant of the special subject, but better educated.
Infinite modifications both in the religious belief held, and in the believer's reasons for holding it, correspond to the infinite varieties of moral and intellectual character. Probably no two human beings have precisely the same conception of the nature and attributes of God. Still some general considerations apply to the religious opinions of large sections of the community, and it is very important that these should be understood. The object of the present paper is to give a few hints as to the sort of position which a pious and reasonable woman, educated as English ladies generally are, would do well to take in relation to such matters in the present day.
It must be admitted that the position of such a person, especially if she is unmarried, is often trying. She will probably have been taught, not in so many words, but indirectly, that it is of the utmost importance to hold true opinions on theological subjects; that a certain set of opinions are true, because they may be proved out of the Bible; and that the Bible itself is absolutely true all through, because it is the word of God. As she goes on in life she hears every part of this theory first questioned and then denied, and that not by people whom she can honestly regard as mere immoral scoffers, but by sincere and well-instructed men. It is gradually made clear to her, by a number of small indications, that those whom she respects most, and to whom she would naturally look for instruction and support, do not believe that the whole of the Bible is true, or that it contains any definite set of doctrines, or that it is a positive duty to hold true theological opinions. These men do not lead irreligious, still less do they lead immoral lives. Their conduct often shows that they are deeply impressed by a belief in a God and a future state, and they will join, with every mark of sincerity, in the form of worship to which she has been accustomed; but their opinions seem strangely at variance with their practice to one who has been accustomed to suppose that the practice of religious worship is based upon a belief in the absolute truth and Divine authority of every theory implied by the form of worship adopted.
Some years since, when those who are now in the prime of life were just growing up, it was common enough to hear religious laymen speak of their scruples about this or that particular part of the Church service. They would say, for instance, that they never would join in repeating the damnatory clauses of the Athanasian Creed or the curses of the 109th Psalm; or they would state the sense which in their own minds they were obliged to attach to particular phrases in this or that prayer. Those who would have held such language twenty years ago would in the present day require something much wider. It is obvious enough that their ‘difficulties’—to use an inadequate but expressive word—apply not to this or that expression or doctrine, but to the view of the Bible and Prayer-book, which is tacitly assumed by their use for devotional purposes. Instead of being scandalized by certain verses of the 109th Psalm, they would question the claim of the Psalms in general to any other character than that of human compositions of various degrees of merit. Instead of objecting to particular expressions in particular prayers, they would raise the question, whether they substantially assented to the leading doctrines implied in the Prayer-book, and whether a substantial assent to those doctrines is necessary to justify the use of the Prayer-book? Even to men such questions are both difficult and sometimes distressing, though the business of life supplies the means of either forgetting or practically solving them. To a woman trained as English ladies usually are, the vague knowledge that they are entertained in good faith by good men is often inexpressibly painful and perplexing. It appears to take from her the very foundations on which all her schemes of life and principles of conduct were based.
In order to see whether this feeling is reasonable, it is necessary to concede, for the sake of argument, the truth of the sceptical view of the subject, and to consider what consequences it involves. Supposing, then, that the scepticism which is at present common amongst educated and respectable men is well founded, how far does it go? what does it destroy? what does it leave standing? and what is the practical result of it to women, or to men who have not the means of personally examining the details of the controversy, and are yet anxious that their practice should harmonize with their principles, and that their principles should be such as rational people can avow to their own minds?
Doubts on religion may extend to natural, or may be confined to revealed religion. If they extend to natural religion, they tend to render it doubtful whether or not there is a God, and whether or not the soul exists after death. There is, of course, one step beyond this, that of affirming positively that there is no God and no future life; but this is obviously so rash an assertion, that hardly any one makes it. For practical purposes, the extreme limit of scepticism may be described as being such a doubt whether there is a God who cares for human affairs, and whether there is a life after death, as makes it desirable in the judgment of those who entertain that doubt to regulate their conduct, without reference to any other considerations than those which this world supplies.
It must be admitted that there are some persons to whom even such doubts as these would make little practical difference. A man who stands alone in the world, who has derived fixed habits of conduct from temper, education, and other circumstances; who has become disgusted with speculation, and has tacitly agreed with himself to walk through this life on certain principles which experience has shown to produce tolerable results, and, as the children say, to ‘think about after when after comes,’ may possibly dispense with any religion at all. No one who has mixed much with the busy part of the world can be ignorant of the fact that many men of this way of thinking are to be found in it, and it would be unjust to deny that they often play useful and honourable parts. It would, however, be absurd to say that this view of life has been generally adopted by reflective men, so that those who care for truth ought to hold it. No doubt those who do so occupy a position which, as far as it goes, is unassailable; but it goes a very little way. As a matter of fact it is tolerable to very few; and though this does not prove it to be false, it is more to the purpose to remark, that in its very nature it must be exceptional. Those who hold it can place morality on no general ground, and morality is indispensable to human society.
It has been objected to Quakers, with perfect justice, that the existence of a society of Quakers implies the existence of a non-Quaker world outside of the sect to take care of it, and the same may be said of the class in question. Such men are moved by an impetus which they could neither originate nor transmit. They could not have been educated on their own principles, nor could they in turn educate children upon them. They may indeed justify the moral habits by which their conduct is regulated by the fact of their existence. They are accustomed to care for the interests of others, to be temperate, to speak the truth, to have a high sense of honour, and this may be a good reason for their continuing to do so; but these habits were formed under the influence of religious principles. It has never yet been shown that they can be perpetuated without that assistance. An ingenious attempt to do so was well compared by an eloquent critic to a locomotive with a wisp of straw for fuel.
Whatever may be the case with men of peculiar character placed in peculiar circumstances, there can be no doubt at all that to the mass of men, and still more to the mass of women, such a state of mind as this, consciously and deliberately accepted, would make life a burden, depriving it of all its highest objects and all its deepest springs of action. This is not a reason for refusing to accept it, if it should appear to be true; for all experience shows that in the long run truth, however stern and dreary it may appear, is the proper thing to believe. It is, however, a very strong reason for not accepting it without strong proof of its truth; and the only evidence on which the bulk of mankind would be bound to accept it would be the general consent of competent judges who appeared to have examined the matter fully, that such is the condition of human life.
It cannot be seriously contended that at present such a consent exists. No one can pretend to give a perfectly passionless and impartial opinion as to the general result of the controversy between theists and atheists – between those who believe in a God caring for men, and a future life, and those who think that we have no grounds for any opinion on the subject, and had better not think about it. Putting, however, at the very lowest the merits of the case for Theism; passing by those à priori arguments on the subject which, as a matter of fact, did appear valid to some of the greatest men who ever turned their minds to the subject, and do still in one shape or another appear convincing to many considerable persons; allowing the utmost for that bias which one would suppose every human creature must feel in favour of such a belief; it is hardly possible to say less than that these opinions have never been disproved, that there are many facts which strongly suggest their truth, though it may be too much to say that they exclude the possibility of their falsehood; and that they furnish the only proximately satisfactory hypothesis which has ever been suggested as to the nature of that physical and moral world in which we live. The argument for the existence of a God and a future state can hardly be put lower than this. Most persons would put it much higher. But this, at all events, cannot be refuted; and even if this is all, it is enough for the mass of mankind; for this is just the sort of basis on which we are obliged to act in all human affairs. In politics, in legislation, in the administration of justice, in the management of private business, we always proceed on grounds of this kind. We are obliged to form an opinion on the best evidence we can get, and having formed it, we act upon it, reserving the power to modify it on further information.
A woman, therefore, who wished to justify her religious belief to her own mind, would no doubt be able to say with truth that she has as good reasons for believing in a God and a future life as she has for believing in any of the established moral or social doctrines of her time and country—the doctrine, for instance, that polygamy or personal slavery are evils. The reason in each case is, that such is the established belief of her age and country, on which the whole framework of society is based, which framework of society is on the whole beneficial to the individuals of whom society is composed; and that grounds are alleged in support of it which appear reasonable as far as they go, and which, if she had time, ability, and inclination, she might examine for herself. The more the parallel between a woman's belief in a future life and her belief in monogamy is considered, the more the truth of this will appear. In each case the believer has a general notion of the nature of the arguments on which her belief is founded; in neither has she really weighed, nor has she any intention of weighing, all that can be said on the other side. Probably there is hardly a single Englishwoman of any sort of education who does not believe in monogamy; and it is highly probable that there are few such women who know what the Mormons or Mahometans have to say against it. The same—though the minority would in that case be appreciable—might be said of a belief in a future state. Those who feel inclined to be sceptical on the one point might often measure the importance of their doubts by considering whether, for any practical purpose, they feel the slightest doubt on the other. They have at least as much evidence for the one opinion as for the other opinion, though those by whose authority they are guided may be in a different position.
In point of fact, serious doubts as to the fundamental doctrines of natural religion are not very common even amongst men, and are so uncommon amongst women, that they can perhaps hardly be said to exist. Since, however, natural religion must, and does, in the order of thought precede revealed religion,” it is necessary to say something of the grounds on which it is received, in order to explain the view which an intelligent woman ought to take of what are set before her as the particular doctrines of Christian theology. [The phrases 'natural’ and ‘revealed' are not free from objection. Coleridge has shown that all religions, if true, may, in a sense which is very probably true, be said to be revealed. It is, however, difficult to find a substitute for these words. ‘General' and ‘particular’ would perhaps be better; but whatever words be chosen, the sense is that a belief that God exists, however acquired, must precede the belief that God deals with men in this way or that, or has sent them this or that message.]
Assuming, then, that a woman entertains no serious doubt of the fundamental truths of natural religion, but regards them as being established by evidence of the same kind as she would require and act upon in other important matters, how is she to regard the particular religious doctrines which prevail in her time and country, and how must she regulate her mind with respect to them? As a matter of fact, she does, and as a matter of discretion (if such discretion were possible) she ought to begin by believing them. People learn their religion from their parents and their nurses just as they learn to speak; and their belief is at first as involuntary and passive in the one case as in the other. All subsequent changes are changes made from that starting-point. They are either additions to, or subtractions from, an existing state of opinion and feeling. It is idle to suppose that any one ever makes a clean sweep of all their existing beliefs, and builds up his or her creed for himself from first principles. It would be as reasonable to try to do so with all the habits of life, and to build up a new character. The memorable attempt of Descartes to do so was really no more than an elaborate failure. Our opinions upon all subjects are, and always must be, the opinions of our time, country, and circumstances, modified to some extent by our own reflections.
Hence it must be assumed that a woman—being by birth, education, and habitual practice, a Christian, and let us further assume, as in this country the commonest case, a Christian of the Church of England—on reflecting on the subject of her creed, finds herself convinced, independently of her education, that she ought to believe in, and pray to God, and believe in a future state. What view ought she to take of the other doctrines which she has been taught, and which she begins with believing? When she comes to reflect upon them, she will probably be led to make the remark that, viewed as a whole, they have two strong arguments in their favour: they form an established system, which, on the whole, is beneficial, and they give a definite form to the general doctrines of natural religion. That they have their weak side is true enough; but this is their strong side, and may be considered first.
First, then, they form an established system, which, on the whole, is beneficial. The same may, no doubt, be said of a variety of religions. It is certainly true of every form of Christianity; probably it is true of Mahometanism; possibly it may be true, under some circumstances, of Buddhism, though this is more doubtful. On the other hand, it is not true of Fetichism, or of Thuggee, or of some other of the religions of India. It is impossible, or at least it would require knowledge which no one possesses, to draw the precise line at which established religions become so bad as to be worse than no religion at all. The fact, however, that a religion is established, and is beneficial, is no doubt a sufficient reason for believing it, for fault of a better. That an ignorant Irishwoman does right in being a Roman Catholic, and a rather less ignorant Scotchwoman in being a grim Calvinist, is perfectly true; but it is quite a different proposition that they ought never to modify their respective beliefs. In order to answer the question How far, and on what grounds, they ought to be ready to do so, we must first assume, and in the absence of proof to the contrary it is the natural assumption, that beliefs about religion are formed in the same way, and ought to be liable to modification on the same principles, as beliefs on other important subjects. We must, then, inquire whether there is anything special in respect to religious belief which distinguishes it from beliefs on other matters.
In regard to all other subjects, the first step towards forming an opinion is to ask what you want the opinion for. If the object is to gratify a real thirst for knowledge, and to acquire the highest kind of conviction which the human mind can attain, that, namely, which is derived from an examination of all that is to be known on the subject, a life must be devoted to the inquiry. The inquirer must make it his business to study politics, law, history, physical science, or whatever else the subject may be. This is not often the case with respect to any study; it very rarely happens with respect to religion; and not once in a century with respect to the religion of a woman. As a general rule, the object for which opinions are desired is practical. I am ill, and want to get well—what medicine shall I take? I have to vote for a county member—to whom shall I give my vote? I have got into a dispute about some property—how shall I act about it? It is for these limited purposes that I want to form a medical, political, or legal opinion. It is for similar purposes that almost every one wishes for religious opinions. I am a human being, bound to pray to God, and looking forward to a life after death—how ought I to regulate my feelings, my thoughts, my character, and my conduct, with reference to these facts? Hence the reason for which most of us wish for religious opinions is identical with the reasons for which most of us wish for legal, medical, or political opinions; that is, we want them in order to act upon them. How, then, do we act in other cases? The answer is, we choose a guide, and act on his authority, reserving to ourselves the right to withdraw our confidence from him at any moment; and considering in every instance that his opinion is only evidence of the truth of what he asserts, of the value of which evidence we are the judges, at our own proper peril. The reason for this is plain. We cannot in any event get beyond our own opinion. We might as well try to leap off our own shadow. Neither can we evade personal responsibility. We might as well try to separate cause and effect. If we place the most absolute confidence in the College of Physicians, and believe them to be utterly infallible, we still do not get beyond our opinion of their infallibility; and if we refuse to receive evidence that they are fallible, we are only refusing to question one particular opinion which we ourselves happen to hold.
Nor can our belief alter the real truth. If they all unite to prescribe poison instead of medicine, and if we and all our friends and neighbours feel the most absolute certainty that it is medicine, and not poison, we shall die, if we take it. Hence, in all common subjects, every person of ordinary common sense retains, as it were, a right of appeal, to himself or to any other authority whom he may see fit to choose, against the particular guide in whom he reposes a limited confidence. But for this we should be the abject slaves of every one who possessed special knowledge superior to our own in every department of life to which that special knowledge related.
This limitation of our confidence in our guides can be justified not only by these practical considerations, but also by reference to the general grounds on which our confidence in professional advisers rests. We trust them, not because we attribute to them any inherent superiority over ourselves, but because we suppose that they have studied particular subjects, which, if we had been so minded, we also might have studied. We suppose that they have good reasons for the advice they give; and if the risk of following their advice—supposing it to be wrong—is great, we invariably ask for their reasons. We say, ‘Let us see whether or not you really have good grounds to go upon in this particular instance.’ Suppose a doctor were to advise some very inconvenient or dangerous operation, and were to refuse to explain himself, or give any reason whatever for his advice, claiming blind and absolute confidence from his patient, and rebuking all criticism as a sin of presumption, surely the patient would go to some one else. He could say, ‘If this man has no reasons for his advice, why should I trust him? If he has, why does he not tell me what they are? I might not be able to appreciate all his arguments, but I could at least form a judgment on the question whether he was acting on principle, or merely at hazard, and from notions of his own.' Suppose, on being so questioned, the most eminent physician began to talk in a wild, enthusiastic way about the odyle force and animal magnetism, any moderately sensible man, or woman either, would think that he was either mad or dishonest, and wish him good-morning.
Such are the general grounds, and such the limits of the confidence which we repose in professional guides. But this does not answer the question, Who are to guide us? Are we in case of doubt to go to the homoeopath, or the allopath, or the hydropath? The answer to this in all common matters is, Go to any doctor, no matter what his denomination may be, whom you happen to know, and to have been in the habit of employing, and who gives to mankind at large that guarantee of his skill which consists in the fact that he is established, that a considerable number of people do employ him, and do, as a rule, find his advice advantageous. If you do not find that he suits you, you can go to some one else. As a general rule, subject to exceptions of inexpressible importance, the presumption is in favour of a man whose opinions are generally received, acknowledged, and taught by those who are interested in the subject.
But let us consider what those exceptions are. The only ground for putting confidence in professional, or indeed in any other opinions, is that those who give them are supposed to know more than those who ask them, and to be willing to tell the truth. Suppose the person asking has, as he or she readily may have, good grounds for believing that the answer given will embody what may be called the orthodox—that is, the established and generally-received opinion on the subject—the question will still occur, What is the value of that opinion? What is orthodoxy worth? The answer is, It may be worth nothing at all, or it may be the best evidence you can possibly have upon any subject. The fact that all astronomers all over the world unite in asserting that the earth moves round the sun, is to the great mass of men and women conclusive proof that the fact is so. The fact that three hundred millions of men unite in a belief of Buddhism does not raise the faintest presumption in any European mind that Buddhism is true. What is the reason of this difference? Simple as it is, it is constantly forgotten. The astronomers have studied the subject on which they speak, and they submit the evidence on which their conclusion rests to the whole world. They have a strong interest to tell the truth, and none to serve by falsehood. All mankind are at liberty to examine, to impeach, and if possible to overthrow their conclusions; the highest reputation being the prize held out to any one who could do so. With respect to Buddhism, no one of these assertions is true. There is not the smallest reason to believe that any one Buddhist priest has any rational grounds for his belief. The bulk of the population simply believe what the priests tell them. There is no free inquiry; and there is the strongest possible interest on the part of the priests to maintain the existing state of things.
Hence the circumstances which give weight to general consent are competent knowledge, impartiality, and the habit of free inquiry on the part of the persons consenting. Without these guarantees, general consent is simply worthless as evidence. It may prove an agreement of perfectly ignorant people, or it may prove no agreement but submission. If a large number of free men willingly support a government, their consent is strong evidence that the government suits them. If millions or hundreds of millions of slaves obey it, it may be a horrible tyranny. The consent of the Dutch to defend the Seven Provinces against Spain proved a great deal. The submission of the Mexicans to Cortes proved nothing, except that Cortes was stronger than the Mexicans. So of knowledge. If a million savages all believed that an eclipse was caused by a dragon come to eat up the sun, would their agreement be of any importance at all? The stream cannot rise above the spring. Mahomet's assertion that Gabriel revealed things to him is evidence, as far as it goes, that he really did so. The fact that hundreds of millions of Mahometans have thought so too, carries it no further. They were not there, and can only repeat what they were told. Millions of people believed for many centuries that there were seven kings of Rome, but all their belief added nothing to the authority of Livy, on which it was founded.
The general result is that if people see institutions working moderately well, and based upon general doctrines, reasonable and intelligible as far as they go, the bulk of men are in the habit of accepting the general doctrine, and being guided, when their circumstances require it, by the professional authority of any one who appears to them reasonable and sensible. With regard to morals, people believe in general that some actions are to be avoided and others to be performed, and that, speaking generally, those actions ought to be performed or avoided which the moral theories prevalent in their own time and country praise or blame. When a difficulty arises they consult any one whom they suppose to have paid special attention to the subject. With respect to medicine, they believe in general that diseases are to some extent affected by treatment, and that particular habits are healthy or unhealthy. When they are ill they go to the doctor. With respect to law, they know in general that people can be compelled to keep their engagements, and to make compensation for injuries, and that they can be punished for crimes, and they act accordingly; but when any important and difficult matter arises they go to a lawyer. In all these cases confidence in professional advice is narrowly limited by the general views of the subject entertained by the client, the patient, or the disciple. No person of ordinary education would allow the most eminent physician to persuade him to take half an ounce of strychnine at a dose. No one, on the advice of the most eminent lawyer, would think of cutting his debtor's throat and carrying off his purse, by way of repaying himself.
Such is what may be called the strong side of religion in general, and in particular of the Church of England. It is an established system. It is beneficial. It is supported in a country where at freedom of opinion prevails; and was established, or rather reformed and remodelled, after great consideration and much discussion. It also undoubtedly embodies in a noble form the cardinal doctrines of natural religion. It does enable people to pray to God in an impressive and not unworthy manner. It does teach them to look beyond this life, and to regulate their conduct accordingly, and affords grounds for doing so.
This is the first condition which every institution worth supporting must fulfil. The general belief which lies at the root of theology, and is analogous to those general beliefs which lie at the bottom of other departments of knowledge, and make possible the practice of professions, and the existence of institutions representing them, is a belief in a God to be worshipped and obeyed, and in a future life related to the present. All such beliefs must, before they can be applied to any practical purpose, be put into some specific form. It is impossible, or at least useless, to have an abstract belief in the powers of medicine to cure, or in the adaptation of law to the business of life, unless it takes the form of a belief in the fitness to those ends of medicine or law as practised or instituted in this or that particular country; and the same is true of religion. The first step in practice is a step from the abstract to the concrete. You must pray, but you cannot pray to an abstract idea; your prayer must be expressed in specific words, and addressed to a specific God. Whatever else the Church of England does or fails to do, it cannot be denied that it accomplishes all this, or that it does so in what may be described as a manner primá facie reasonable and probable. This is enough to raise in its favour such a presumption as exists in favour of other established institutions—a presumption which not only justifies, but calls upon those who are born under its influence to stay where they are till they have very strong positive grounds for going elsewhere.
It would be uselessly uncandid to deny or conceal the fact that there is a weak side to the Church of England, and indeed to religion in general. In our own time and country there can hardly be said to be any general consent as to theological doctrines, except in small and bigoted sects, whose fanatical intolerance and narrowmindedness would render their opinions worthless, even if they did not contradict each other. From the more intelligent and liberal clergy and the more thoughtful laity of the Church of England it is difficult to get definite, explicit doctrines. With the qualifications already stated, it may be truly said that there is as strong a general consent in the cardinal doctrines of natural religion, the existence of a God who ought to be worshipped, and of a future state, affected by and connected with our conduct here, as is to be had on other important subjects; but beyond these points there is no limit to the doubts entertained, in perfectly good faith, by good and well-instructed men.
There is, of course, one apparent exception to the assertion that there is no general consent on theology. There is a general consent of a sort amongst Roman Catholics; and that fact supplies the bait by which Protestants more sensitive than wise have been allured into their Church. Let us consider for a moment what that general consent is worth, and whether it supplies any better evidence of the truth of that which it asserts than the consent of all the Buddhists in China to the tenets of their creed. This subject resolves itself into four questions: What is the point to be proved? who are the persons who consent? to what do they consent? how is their consent obtained?
The point to be proved is the truth of an elaborate system of theology, which can hardly be understood without a special education, as it is expressed in the technical language of a philosophy which is now universally discarded in regard to all other subjects. The truth of this elaborate system is to be proved by universal consent. Who, then, are the consenting parties? A hundred and fifty millions of human beings. Of these hundred and fifty millions, many millions are the most ignorant and childish populations of Europe. The account is made up by reckoning in the number wild Irish peasants, who can speak no written language; crowds of Sicilians and Neapolitans, who, for nearly all practical purposes, are as much idolaters as their pagan forefathers; many millions of French, of whom the educated men are mostly unbelievers, and the women as ignorant as they are fluent; millions of Spaniards, utterly incapable of framing an impartial judgment, to say nothing of its being an instructed one. In short, of the whole number, it can hardly be supposed that there are a hundred thousand who have anything like a reasonable knowledge of their own creed, or whose opinion carries any greater weight than the opinion of a Buddhist or a Brahmin. They may be right; but if they are it is due to their good luck in being born where they were. They are Roman Catholics, not because they know anything about the matter, but because Philip II., and Charles V., and Henry IV. of France, were Catholics; or, to our shame it must be said, because the conquerors of Ireland were at once Protestants and oppressors. Set aside these, and what remains? No body of people whose authority ought to be of weight. In France there are many educated Catholics; but how many of them really believe in the truth of every article of the creed of the Council of Trent? A few English converts may perhaps work themselves up to think that a little wafer is God Almighty; but reasonable laymen, educated in a Catholic country, do not believe it. They say, reasonably enough, ‘We were bred and born in this communion, and we think it does very well for practical purposes. We will go to mass, and now and then to confession; but as to the dogmas, that is the priests’ affair, and not ours.’ Let any one who wants to know how deep Catholic theology goes with an educated French layman, read the works of De Tocqueville. In a sort of way he was a sincere Catholic—that is, he seems to have thought that it was an established, and, on the whole, a beneficial system, which he used for fault of a better; but to quote such a man as consenting to the specific doctrines of Popery is childish. It would be as reasonable to quote every Englishman who goes to church every Sunday as a witness to the truth of the Athanasian Creed. And to judge from their conduct and their writings, this is the case with almost every educated Catholic layman. They have no more certainty about religious belief than any one else; and they practically pass over and disbelieve the irrational parts of their creed.
The people who really do consent are the priests; but their consent is worthless. To make a man a priest you have to separate him from the rest of the world, to cut him off from all domestic ties, to educate him if possible from boyhood in a way calculated to warp every power of his mind, to absorb him in a corporation which is at once his profession, his home, and his country, to put him under a discipline which regulates the very thoughts of his heart; and when he has been thus squeezed, cramped, and moulded, of course he believes what he is taught with passionate ardour. He has the most powerful motives known to human nature for believing. If his creed is true, he is one of the kings of this world and the next; if it is not, he is of all men the most miserable. Cardinal Wiseman's account of his education, and Blanco White's account of his short career as a priest, are wonderfully significant illustrations of these points. What is such a person's opinion worth, especially when his first lesson is that doubt is the sin of sins, and obedience the merit of merits?
Next, to what do these hundred and fifty millions consent? All but a very few consent not to the articles of the Roman Catholic faith, but to the proposition that the Roman Catholic faith, whatever that may be, is true: in other words, they all agree to believe what the priest tells them; and what is the value of this considered as evidence? Even with the priests this is so. They undertake to believe whatever the Church —that is at present practically whatever the Pope—may decide. Thousands of the clergy denied the Immaculate Conception some years ago; now they all believe it. Then, what is their authority worth? Their unity is the unity of submission, not the unity of agreement of opinion. Bearing in mind the controversies between Gallicans and Ultramontanes, Jesuits and Jansenists, Franciscans and Dominicans, can any one believe that this consent, such as it is, could be maintained except by external pressure— temporal pressure in former times, moral and spiritual pressure in our own?
Lastly, how was this consent, or rather this unity, obtained? It was originally obtained by the genius of such men as Leo and Gregory. They took advantage of the dissolution of the Roman Empire to erect a spiritual government in its stead, and when this government, which was an infinite blessing to those rude and ignorant times, became superannuated, it was not reformed, but propped up by persecution. Charles V. and Philip II. were the greatest authors of the Catholic consent; but for their fierce and ignorant cruelty Spain and Germany would be very different now from what they are. The steps in the creation of the spiritual empire of Rome can be as distinctly traced as those which marked the power of the old temporal empire. There is no more mystery in the one than there was in the other; and the consent of the hundred and fifty millions of Papists in the present day proves the truth of their creed as little as the submission of one nation after another proved the humanity of the old Roman empire.
If by consent is meant the consent of learned and studious men, it is idle to say that anything of the sort exists upon matters of religion in modern Europe. If there is any consent at all, it is in a negative direction. If an account were taken of the results at which free and impartial inquirers have arrived, they would be found to differ in many things, but to agree with something very like unanimity in one—namely, that the claims of the Roman Catholic priesthood to anything more than a fair share of that Christian virtue which is common to all forms of Christianity, or to a knowledge of religious truth other than that which is open to all the world who choose to use their minds, is as groundless as any imposture that was ever practised on the credulity of mankind. Whatever real unity the Roman Catholics have they share with the Greek Church, the Buddhists, the Brahminists, the Mahometans, with every religion which has spread in ignorant times over submissive populations.
The conclusion is, that amongst all those whose opinions are entitled to respect there are profound differences in perfect good faith on most important questions relating to the Christian religion. It is impossible to say which opinion could in the resent day count the greatest number of instructed adherents. The Roman Catholic opinion most certainly could not. It would indeed be hard to mention one really great man who has held it from a simple bona fide conviction, not from weariness of suppressed scepticism, for nearly two hundred years. Probably few really independent persons hold it; but at best it is but an opinion like another; and the passion and intolerance with which those who hold it assert its truth is no argument in its favour.
In order to estimate the practical importance of this result, and to prevent it from appearing more alarming than it really is, we ought to look at other important subjects, and see what is the practical importance of analogous doubts in respect to them.
Morality is almost, if not quite, as important a subject as religion itself. Indeed, one great reason why religion is important is, that it affords, or is supposed to afford, a secure foundation for morality. Morality, like religion, is an established system in all parts of the world. The differences between the moral views of different countries are as real as the difference between their religions. These differences exist even in Europe. To regulate the relation between the sexes is one of the first and most difficult problems of morality; but how different are the ways in which it is solved! Polygamy prevails in many countries. Divorce from the bond of matrimony is permitted in some, but not in others. In England, a marriage between first cousins is considered perfectly legitimate, whereas a marriage between an uncle and a niece would be regarded with horror. In many continental countries a marriage between first cousins would be prima facie wrong; but the same authority which could permit it could also permit a marriage between a niece and an uncle. In England, the most cruel insult would not in the present day produce a duel; in France, a man who refused to fight under certain circumstances would be disgraced. In England, no man is censured by public opinion for leaving the bulk of his property to his eldest son; in France, not only does the law forbid such an arrangement, but if it were legal it would, as in America, be considered wrong and unjust. Almsgiving is considered by some religious people as a positive duty: it is condemned by political economists as a vice. In Christian Europe human life is held in high estimation; and not only infanticide but even suicide are considered as great crimes: it is made a question whether war and the infliction of capital punishment are not in all cases sinful. In ancient Rome suicide was believed to be the right, and in some cases the duty, of every person of high feeling; and such is still the case in Japan. In China, the sentiment that human life is sacred and inviolable appears hardly to exist. Perhaps the strongest case of all is that of slavery. Is negro slavery right or wrong? The governing part of the Northern States says ‘wrong;' the whole white population of the South says ‘right’; and the world at large sees the practical result of the difference.
The controversies as to moral apply not only to particular cases, but go to the very root of the matter. The theories that moral rules are founded on a human calculation of consequences; that they are founded on an express Divine revelation; that they are founded on the admonitions of a special internal faculty; have each their advocates; and the controversy between them is as far as ever from being settled, and it produces vast practical consequences. The ascetic and monastic theory of morals rests on a principle of its own (the inherent pollution of matter), and what may be called the social or civil theory on another (the principle that God made all things well). To a monk or nun the relation between the sexes is a permitted evil; to an English Protestant it is a Divine ordinance, the source of every blessing and virtue. Here, therefore, is a province, and a most important one, of human thought in which there is not much more unanimity or much less controversy than in the theological department; yet it would be difficult to find any human being especially any woman, whose mind was seriously troubled by the knowledge that such controversies exist.
Medicine supplies an illustration which is even more pointed, though its range is narrower. That the human body is liable to diseases, which may be alleviated or cured by proper treatment, is an undoubted truth; but upon the question what treatment is proper there are inexhaustible controversies. At the outbreak of the cholera a score of modes of treatment were recommended by various doctors. ‘Take castor oil,’ said one; ‘you will die if you do,’ said another. ‘Take mercury,’ ‘take ice,’ ‘take pounded charcoal,’ ‘infuse a saline mixture into your veins,’ ‘wrap yourselves up in wet sheets,’ ‘take aperients,’ ‘take chalk mixture,” said different authorities, all respectable enough. To be troubled by this conflict of authority, as no doubt some people were, was the mark of a weak mind. Every rational person saw that whatever else he or she took, he must take his chance, that if he fell ill, his best course would be to send for any doctor in whom he had confidence, and follow his directions so long as they did not appear extravagant, get well if possible, and die like a man if he could not help it. With controversies which he could not understand he did not trouble his head, though he might respect those engaged in them, and believe that their inquiries would do service to truth in the end.
These illustrations might be multiplied to any extent; indeed, it may be affirmed generally, that in almost every study interesting to human beings as such, doubts like these prevail; and that, except in so far as they concern theology, their prevalence distresses no one. We do not hear of people mourning under the uncertainties of medical knowledge, and at last laying down the weary burden of doubt in a servile confidence in Holloway's universal pills—a confidence based on their inventor's assertion that they will cure all diseases, and on the undoubted fact that he has a great number of submissive disciples—more perhaps, and more submissive, than most other physicians.
The reason why these doubts sit so lightly on us is that we have all a pretty clear and correct conception of our relation to their subject matter. What we want of medicine is to be cured; and we are well content to have no other opinion on the medical merits of any particular question than such an opinion as is necessary for our own immediate practical purposes. We want to know what we are to take, where we are to go for our health, what operation we are to submit to; and beyond this we are contented to be ignorant.
What, then, is the use of religious knowledge? We want to worship God, to regulate our thoughts and feelings, and to frame our conduct according to his commands. If we can see our way so far, what is the harm of ignorance, or even of error, on other matters? Now, as to the course of conduct which men ought to pursue, and as to the cast of thought and character which they ought to try to attain, there is no dispute which causes much practical difficulty. No one doubts that both in thought, in character, and in action, God enjoins whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are holy, whatsoever things are of good report; and every, one knows what things are pure, holy, and of good report. With regard to forms of worship, why should we suppose that one only is acceptable to God, and that there is but one mould in which every prayer must be cast? Such a notion is at variance with every conception which we can form of the Divine character, and requires, if true, to be proved by strong evidence. That some forms of worship are purer, more becoming of men, more respectful to God, more instructive and more pathetic than others, is an important truth. That God imputes as a crime to any person whatever the use of any form of worship which is adopted in a reverent spirit and in good faith, is, in the absence of the strongest evidence, to the last degree improbable. A human father no doubt wishes his children to address him like well-bred men and women, and it is better for them to do so; but he is not angry with a baby for talking and thinking imperfectly.
If this is so, what difference does theological error make? The use of theology is to enable people to form a proper conception of God and of God's relation to man, and to draw up appropriate forms of worship and rules of conduct. Beyond that, it is after all, as far as we can judge, slightly related to any practical results. Theology is not like law, or medicine, or engineering—a subject in which a definite theoretical mistake is of necessity followed by a definite practical misfortune. If your architect makes a mistake your house falls; if your lawyer makes a mistake you lose your cause; but the influence of your church or your clergyman is far less definite, far more general. He is resorted to, not for specific advice in a specific emergency, but in order that his exhortations, and the system of which he is the officer, may exercise over the mind a healthy general influence.
The use of the doctrine of the Trinity is not to satisfy curiosity, nor to form the ground on which definite practical questions should be decided, but to indicate to those who want to pray to God that form of prayer which, upon full consideration, appears to be most worthy and least inadequate. The harm of believing it, if it be false, or of disbelieving it, if it be true, is that such belief or disbelief, as the case may be, would slowly and imperceptibly tend to produce in the minds of worshippers erroneous motions of the Divine character. The effect of this in the long run, might no doubt be considerable; but to a given individual, at a given moment, it makes little practical difference. The difference in the character of the Christian and Mahometan part of the world is no doubt due in part to the fact that they hold different theories as to the nature of God; but there is very little difference in the present day between an average Unitarian and an average member of the Church of England. It may well be that the prevalence of the true doctrine on the subject is highly important in its remote and general effects, and yet that at a given moment the holding or rejecting of the true doctrine may make little practical difference to A or B.
If the principle on which these remarks proceed be true—if, that is, people ought to form their opinions on religion as they form any others —the practical result will be that such persons ought to accept the religion of their time and country as the form into which the general belief in a God and a future state has fallen for them; as the coloured glass, so to speak, through which their position compels them to look beyond this life, if they are to look beyond it at all. They will, however, in doing so retain that amount of personal discretion, both as to their belief and as to their conduct, which they would exercise in all other important matters, and remember that they have to pick their way as well as they can through infirmities of their own, and of other people whose authority may guide them, but will not protect them from the consequences of error. If the best physician in the world prescribes wrongly for a patient the patient suffers for it; and whatever may be the consequences of holding false religious opinions, they will be incurred by those who hold them on the best possible authority.
If this is a true account of the grounds on which, and of the extent to which unlearned persons ought to believe the religion of their country, it may not unreasonably be asked why the knowledge of the fact that the controversies referred to above exist respecting some of its most important doctrines need be so distressing, as to many persons it appears to be? In all other subjects we know that doubt, inquiry, the scrutiny and rearrangement of opinions, are in constant progress. No one imagines that because it is wise for him, situated as he is, to act upon such and such principles in relation to politics, or to take particular views of what is healthy for his body, or what is lawful in his conduct, it will be wise for his remote descendants to do the same; and why should it be different with regard to religion? Why should this one department of thought be stationary when all others are progressive? and why should we all be delighted to hear of the discovery of any principle or fact which brings us nearer to the truth on any other subject, whilst we shudder at the least ray of new light in religious affairs as if it were a flash of hellfire? It is obvious that the presumption is against the reasonableness of this feeling; and the causes from which it proceeds should be strictly examined.
The great cause which makes religious doubts more distressing than doubts on other important subjects is to be found in the views which the clergy of all denominations have sedulously and pertinaciously advocated on the subject of religious belief and religious error. To whatever denomination they may belong, they all, with few exceptions, assert that some set of doctrines or other was revealed by God to man as a whole, and that no one can doubt that the particular doctrines which they teach form the right set, without a presumptuous contempt of the authority of God himself. These doctrines may always be reduced ultimately to one which is simple in the extreme—'Put absolute confidence in us—believe whatever we tell you.’ Hence what they insist upon is not belief in any particular doctrines divinely revealed, but a belief in the fact that particular persons are the depositories of a divinely revealed doctrine. It is difficult to imagine that of a hundred and fifty million Roman Catholics a hundred and fifty thousand understand any considerable part of their own creed; yet they are all said to believe ‘implicitly’— that is by implication, or as lawyers say, by construction—a phrase of which the plain English is, that though they have no opinion at all on the doctrines said to be necessary to salvation, they have another opinion which does equally well, the opinion, namely, that their priest is right.
Now is there any reason why an educated person not technically familiar with theology should believe either that any such set of propositions ever was revealed, or that, if so, they were revealed to any particular set of men?
If such a set of doctrines had been revealed, it would have been natural to expect to find them in the New Testament, which, whatever else it is, is undoubtedly a collection of the oldest and most authentic Christian writings: but any one who has eyes to see may satisfy him or herself that no system of doctrine is laid down there. The writers do not seem to have had in their minds the notion of such a thing as a definite collection of propositions such as we understand by the word theology. They write without the least reference to anything of the sort; and it would be difficult to show a single instance in which the holding of any theological tenet whatever is described as either a duty or a fault. The denial of a future state by the Sadducees drew from Christ himself no other condemnation than ‘Ye therefore do greatly err.’ He does not say, ‘Ye therefore are very wicked — ye therefore are to be shunned by all good men—ye therefore have no communion with me and my disciples, but simply, ‘You are much mistaken;’ and this mistake referred to a point second only in importance—if indeed relatively to us it be second in importance— to a belief in God himself. Let any one look at the great theological doctrines, the Trinity, the Incarnation, Original Sin, the doctrine of the Sacraments, and try to prove that any one of them is clearly enunciated in the New Testament: he will find it utterly impossible, without piecing together texts which are altogether unrelated; assuming that passing allusions and incidental remarks were meant to constitute the enunciation of laws and the revelation of mysteries to the whole human race; and resorting on every occasion, to use the happy expression of Coleridge, to ‘the ever-widening spiral ergo from a single text.’ The two halves of the Athanasian Creed stand in the same sort of relation to the few texts of scripture by which they are supposed, as the phrase is, to be ‘proved,’ as an elaborate Act of Parliament to a general expression used in conversation on the subject to which it refers.
If the Bible does not contain a system of theology, is such a system to be got out of tradition? In the first place, its absence from the Bible, and the absence of all reference in the Bible to any such system, goes a long way to prove that no such tradition was even suspected to exist by the writers of the Bible. The Gospel of St. John is certainly the latest of the Gospels, and probably the latest book of the New Testament. One must not lay too much stress on a single text; but if the author had known of any such tradition, could he possibly have related without the least remark the speech of Christ before Caiaphas: ‘I spake openly to the world. I ever taught in the synagogue and in the temple, whither the Jews always resort; and in secret have I taught nothing,’—would this have been true if in secret he had taught the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception to some disciple, who told somebody else, who told somebody else, whose representative told Pope Pius IX., who thought fit to tell the whole world eighteen hundred and sixty years afterwards?
Tradition, in this sense of the word, is so clearly absurd, that it is hard to imagine how any reasonable person can in the present day be so weak as to believe in its existence, when there is no evidence of it whatever except the bare assertion of men, whose assertion, if it were believed, would make them the absolute kings of the world. Yet this sense of the word is the only rational sense—all others are fictions; and in this sense it always was understood in those ages of ignorance in which the Romish system was developed. When all Europe believed the forged decretals to be genuine, they could not see, as we see it, the absurdity of the only consistent theory of tradition. It was reserved for our own time to hear of the notable doctrine which Dr. Newman propounded in his book on developments. With that mixture of ingenuity and weakness which distinguishes all his writings, he compared the doctrines of Roman Catholic theology to the Common Law of England. ‘The one,’ he said, ‘rests on tradition, so does the other. The judges decide that this or that is lawful by the Common Law, though the case never may have arisen before, just as the Church decides that this or that is according to the Catholic faith, though the question has never before arisen, or has not been ripe for decision. The example of the judges proves that an unwritten tradition may exist for centuries, and be applied to the most practical of all purposes, with a range indefinitely, though gradually extended. Why may not the same be true of the Catholic faith?’
A happier illustration could not be conceived—its misfortune is that it is only too good. The theology of all churches, and especially that of the Roman Catholic Church, does stand precisely on the same footing as the Common Law of England, but what is that footing? What is the Common Law? Every competent person knows that the Common Law is a system of judicial legislation, and not a tradition in the proper sense of the word. The judges say from time to time, ‘this is the law;' but what they really mean is, ‘in our opinion this would have been the law, if those who legislated on other topics had legislated in an analogous spirit on this topic.” The great bulk of the law of England has been formed by the extension of particular analogies to new cases. ‘There is no wrong without a remedy,’ said a very ancient maxim. ‘We think that the refusal of a returning officer to allow the vote of a person entitled to vote for a Member of Parliament ought to be called a wrong, and ought to be compensated in damages,’ said the House of Lords in the beginning of the eighteenth century—contradicting the Court of King's Bench, which had said the reverse. The House of Lords obviously had the power of agreeing with the majority of the Court of King's Bench that the act complained of was not a wrong; and the result of their decision, that it was, was to invest a new legal proposition of the highest importance with the character of law. But the power to do or abstain from doing this is a power to legislate, and this is just the same sort of power as the Pope lately exercised, when he held (as a lawyer would say) that the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception was true; and as the Council of Nice exercised, when they held that the Nicene Creed was true; as the Church of England exercised, when the Thirty-nine Articles were laid down; the Church of Scotland, in the case of the Westminster Confession ; and other churches, on other similar occasions. In short, all theological systems have been made by way of legislation.
If the claim of the Church of Rome is to be an infallible legislator, that is perfectly intelligible; but can any human being believe it to be true? Such a belief would justify not only its doctrine but its policy. If Rome is in this sense infallible, Philip II. was right; the Inquisition was right; Alva was right; the crusade against the Albigenses was right; and all modern civilization, from the Reformation down to the establishment of the kingdom of Italy, and the suppression of the monasteries and the Inquisition in Spain, was a hideous error and a damnable sin. The most ardent Catholic shrinks from this conclusion. What they want, notwithstanding their brag about consistency, is to play fast and loose. They want to be considered infallible whenever they are plausible, and to be merely human when they are obviously wrong. Apart from this, the view just explained of the nature of theology—a view which history proves to demonstration to be the true one, for the growth of every theological doctrine can be historically traced—is fatal to the claims of any scheme of theology, and to the claim of any theological doctrine to be considered as one which mankind are bound to believe by the command of God himself. No Church ever even claimed the power of legislation. They have always described themselves as the guardians of a tradition, as the authorized expositors of a book; and, apart from these characters, their only claim to credit is one which cannot be denied to them, namely, that they are institutions for the purpose of worshipping God, and enforcing on men's consciences their duty towards God and each other, and that their officers may be supposed to know their own business simply because they have been so much in the habit of transacting it. Let us return to the consideration of them in that light.
It is often, though somewhat vaguely and loosely, supposed, that if it be once admitted that there is no such thing as a divinely revealed system of theology, there can be no such thing as religious truth, and no harm in religious error, and that therefore there is no use in belonging to any religious body. A moment's attention will show how false this is. It is one thing to say that God told some one in so many words that the doctrine of the Trinity, as expressed in the Athanasian Creed, is true, and that it is a damnable sin to doubt it: it is quite another thing to say, that as a fact the doctrine of the Trinity as expressed in the Athanasian Creed is true. The second proposition may be maintained independently of the first, and on other grounds.
Nor does the importance of religious error depend upon the degree of evidence which exists as to religious truth. If religious error is injurious, it must be so because, in the absence of religious knowledge, men will fail to regulate rightly either their conduct, their thoughts, or the formation of their characters. The use of religious knowledge is, that it gives those who have it the opportunity of avoiding these consequences. Whatever may be the source of the ignorance, the consequence of it will be the same; and whatever may be the evidence of the truth, the advantage of acting upon the supposition of its existence will be the same. Three men come to a place where two roads meet: one takes the wrong road, the other two take the right road. Of those who take the right road, one does so because he has been over the ground a thousand times, and knows it perfectly well; the other because he asked the way of a casual passenger, who said something in a foreign language, which he hardly understood, but supposed to be a direction to turn that way. The two equally reach their destination, notwithstanding the difference between their means of knowledge ; the other does not reach it, however good his reasons may have been for taking the wrong road. Thus the opinion that there is no such thing as a body divinely instituted for the custody and exposition of truth, or as a system of theological doctrines divinely announced as true, does not prove either that churches are useless or that theological truth is a matter of no importance. There is no divinely revealed system of mathematics, astronomy, or politics; but does it follow that we are reduced to absolute ignorance and scepticism on these subjects? The Royal Society claims no divine authority; but has it done no service to science?
Another common inference is equally hasty, equally unfounded, and even more important. Many people seem to think that if there is no divinely announced system of theological doctrines in the world, no supernatural events can have occurred in human history; that Jesus Christ cannot in fact have been God incarnate, unless the fact that he was God incarnate was supernaturally announced on Divine authority. When plainly stated, it is clear that this is a purely gratuitous assumption. It is also open to the fatal objection of overlooking the great truth, that if such facts did occur, the facts themselves and not our human descriptions of them, would form the revelation. Whether or not Christ was God is a question of fact and evidence. The evidence is, that his disciples, or some of them, thought so, and that according to their account he, being such a person as they describe, claimed the character himself. Whether this, taken in connexion with the subsequent history of the world, is enough to prove the conclusion is a question which depends principally on the view which those who entertain it take of the character and attributes of God. To those who believe in such a God as the Bible assumes to exist it will probably appear credible, to others not. Its probability is altogether unaffected by somebody saying that God told him, or somebody else from whom he heard it, that the fact was so. However the matter is turned, it becomes a question of human evidence at last: the evidence of those who testify to the facts which really constituted the revelation, and which the doctrine is an attempt, probably a most imperfect attempt, to describe, or the evidence of those who say that they were supernaturally informed that the doctrine was true. The object being to prove a miracle, it is surely not less reasonable to credit those who say they saw the miraculous fact, than to credit those who say they were miraculously assured that the miraculous fact occurred; and it is absurd to say that the fact itself is not to be believed, unless the evidence of its occurrence is accompanied by evidence of its supernatural attestation. It cannot be easier to prove two miracles than to prove one.
Bearing these considerations in mind, let us consider whether after all the fact that controversies of deep importance exist upon the cardinal doctrines of Christianity ought to be distressing to pious members of the Church of England, whether male or female, not specially acquainted with theological subjects. If they doubt the foundation of the whole, namely, the existence, or, which for practical purposes is the same, the providence of God, or the future existence of the soul; and if this doubt is so powerful as to render it unreasonable in their opinion to act upon the contrary supposition, a tremendous shadow would undoubtedly be cast over all human life. This, however, is not a common case; and if the doubt stops short of this, and extends only to questions relating to Christian theology, it is not easy to see what practical difference it makes. The risk which a lay member of the Church of England runs in joining in the ordinary worship of the Church, and accepting as rules of conduct the established rules of Christian morality, is nothing more than the risk of believing too much, in so far as the use of a prayer implies belief in the doctrines to which its phraseology refers; and what harm does this do? If churches, prayer-books, and articles are viewed as institutions for the worship of God, the promotion of religious feelings and sympathies, and the practice of moral virtue, the fact that the doctrines which they recognize as true, and on which their formularies are moulded, are mixed with error is only what might be expected, and ought to pain no one, though as a fact it appears to excite in many persons a painful feeling of insecurity and disturbance of mind.
Certainly, to any one who reflects on the sort of systems which have usually been put forward by systematic theologians as divinely revealed, it is a wonderful proof of the sloth and cowardice of mankind that they should so much love or fear anything which claims to relieve them from personal responsibility, as to start with horror at the news that doctrines which consign the mass of mankind to eternal torture for a state of things which they could not possibly help, may possibly be untrue. Almost every system of theology which has ever been put forward involves this tremendous consequence. The Roman Catholics denounce damnation against all heathens, all heretics, and most Catholics, and horrible torments in purgatory against all the remainder, except a few saints, though it is true that they have of late years invented an evasion about ignorance, which makes their whole creed unmeaning. Most Protestant bodies lean to the same doctrine, except as to an infinitesimal proportion of their own community. Almost any quantity of doubt, one would think, would be better than such a frightful certainty; but, in fact, people play fast and loose. They always doubt so much of their creed as would put themselves or their friends elsewhere than in heaven. They reserve their certainty for topics on which they wish their own minds to be at rest.
It is hardly possible to exaggerate the importance of the topic thus imperfectly handled. There are perhaps few matters of which the real and the apparent importance differ more widely than the religious opinions of the common run of educated women. It has often been said, and with some justice, that our own generation is in some ways more persecuting and fanatical than others in which the law, was persecuting. There can be no doubt that the establishment to so great an extent of the voluntary system, and the substitution of a number of small sects for one large Church, has widely diffused a number of narrow, ignorant, pretentious little religious systems, which those who hold them view in the light of shibboleths. They may not wish to punish or injure those who differ from them, but they look upon them as, in a religious point of view, aliens, with whom they have nothing in common, and from whom they can have nothing to learn. Such views as these are kept up by women more than by men. Women are generally ignorant, acute, and single-minded. They are far less afraid than men of sacrifices for conscience or affection's sake, and they naturally are more conscious of the want of external support, whether divine or human. Hence if a woman's mind is once possessed with the notion that it is a generally admitted truth that it has pleased God to communicate to men a set of dogmas about this world and the next, which it is their first duty to believe in the most submissive manner, she will naturally gravitate either towards Rome on the one hand, or towards the stricter sects of Protestant theology on the other. In either case she does an injury which she can hardly appreciate to the interests and prospects of all that is really high and noble—of all that, with adequate knowledge, she would wish to help in her own country. Perhaps no class ever had the opportunity of doing so much and such permanent good in the world as the highly educated part of English society has at present, if it knew how to use it. The best thing that could possibly befall the various nations of the world is, that the gentry in the true and noble sense of the word, those in whom knowledge and liberal sentiments have By any means been developed, should lead, and the commonalty follow, not slavishly, but freely and in a generous spirit, in the various undertakings of life. A nation in which the rich were gentlemen, and felt their obligation as such to employ their advantages for the general good, and in which the poor had the opportunity of becoming gentlemen, and willingly recognized the importance of choosing those who already were so for their rulers, would be the most powerful and prosperous nation—in every sense of the word prosperity, its spiritual as well as its temporal sense—in the whole world.
It is not inconceivable that this country might be brought into a condition not unlike this, and every one may help materially to bring such a result about. It is obvious that the religious belief of educated men has a most important bearing upon it. Religion does contribute powerfully to human welfare; and if the government of the country is to be in the hands of educated men, the religion of educated men will to a great extent determine the temper in which they will govern the country. Now the religion of educated men depends to a great extent on that of educated women, not only for the obvious reason that their earliest religious impressions are received from them, but also because the sympathy and affection of women is the greatest charm of their mature life. If women hold religious views which their husbands and brothers cannot share, if they are superstitious or fanatical, there is an end to their sympathy on almost all important subjects. Superstition and fanaticism in women are the correlatives of scepticism in men. Whatever women may do, it is perfectly certain that the bulk of educated Englishmen will as soon become Mormons or cannibals as Papists or Puritans. People may threaten hell fire, and brag about authority and antiquity, till they are hoarse; but these creeds are not true, and no bluster will make them true, or persuade an honest man to think so in his heart of hearts, whatever cunning devices he may contrive to get himself to think, that he thinks so. If educated women choose to buy of mind at the expense of truth and liberty, the widest line of demarcation is drawn between them and their male relations. The man no longer thinks of his wife or sister as of a person weaker in some ways and less informed than himself, but substantially on the same side in the great affairs of life. He views her as one for whom he may retain natural affection, but for whom he cannot feel those higher forms of confidence and respect, which are the most precious presents that any woman can receive from the objects of her affections. The root of all superstition is the passionate desire to believe, irrespectively of the truth of the matter believed, and the cure for it is to keep the eye steadily fixed on truth alone, and on authority only as a guide to truth, not as a lord and master.
The present state of theological knowledge does in fact lay heavy burdens on women, because they as well as men have been much misled as to the degree of certainty attainable on theological subjects; but when they have once admitted that theological, like other knowledge, is to be obtained only by patient and free inquiry, and not by resorting to some infallible man or book, what have they lost? Might not a sensible woman reasonably say, ‘I cannot see that it has pleased God to reveal out of heaven any set of doctrines which we must all receive, or to institute any scheme of discipline which we must all obey; but he has placed me under circumstances in which I have reason to believe that eighteen hundred years ago transactions took place and doctrines were taught which gradually changed the face of the world. I can worship contentedly according to the forms constructed upon this theory. Perhaps later generations may have more knowledge and more light, and may modify those forms and the views on which they were framed; perhaps they may confirm them and discover new arguments of their truth; but in the mean time I will use them without condemning others: and I hope that that worship will be acceptable to the Being whom it is designed to honour, notwithstanding any mixture of error which it may contain.’ Whether or not such a creed honestly accepted and used, will be rewarded by inward experience of what in theological language (and it is the only language which has ever attempted to describe some of the deepest of human feelings) is called the grace of God, and the operations of the Holy Spirit, is a question of fact, vitally important in the whole subject, but altogether beyond the region of public discussion.
Fraser’s Magazine, December 1863.