Thursday, January 5, 2017

Superstition and Education

At the annual meeting of the British School Society, Mr. Spurgeon, having to make one of the speeches, dwelt upon the importance of education as a check to superstition. He referred not merely to the case of Sible Hedingham which lately attracted public attention, but also to his own experience of the Essex peasantry, whom he described as labouring under all sorts of delusions about witches and charms. Give them good schools, said Mr. Spurgeon, and they will at once cease to believe in any such nonsense. Lord Granville, who also appeared on the occasion, was rather more charitable to the labourers. He said that it was hard to charge them with superstition, as if it were their exclusive peculiarity, when superstitions infinitely more absurd are firmly held by those members of the higher classes who flock to Mr. Home and other spirit-rappers and table-turners. These remarks raise a very curious question. The relation between education and superstition is by no means a simple matter, and it cannot be affirmed, without explanations and qualifications, that the prevalence of either excludes the other. Lord Granville's illustration might be indefinitely multiplied. Dr. Newman has received as high an education as any man in England; yet he, as his apology for his life informs us, takes to belief in marvels as naturally as a duck to water. He wished in his infancy to believe the stories in the Arabian Nights, and when he came to be a man, he revelled, amongst other things, in a notion that the whole world is a sort of machine, of which angels pull the strings. It seems to him consonant with the whole nature and constitution of thin under which we live, not only that St. Januarius’s blood should liquefy, but that, in order to account for the liquefaction of his blood, we should, with hardly any other evidence to that effect, believe that St. Januarius existed. This is a common phenomenon in Roman Catholics who are well satisfied with their creed, especially in those who have gone over to it from Protestantism. They like to believe marvels, and their education only develops the taste. The Americans have a tendency, to some extent, similar to this. Spirit-rapping in all its forms flourishes among them more vigorously than in any other part of the world; and not only spirit-rapping, but Mormonism, which makes almost as large a demand upon the understanding. Nay, Mr. Spurgeon himself is probably not so absolutely free, at least in the eyes of others, from superstition as he may suppose. The belief which is entertained by large numbers of religious people in what they call Special Providences constantly degenerates into superstition. Man of the early Methodists were well and even elaborately educate men, yet the records of their labours abound with instances of the belief that adjustments of the order of events to their personal convenience so marked as to deserve the name of miracles were continually occurring. Baxter's life is full of matter of the same kind, and both Baxter and Wesley believed in ghosts with all their hearts. Baxter’s ghost stories are well known, and all the Wesley family seem to have thought that the belief in a God and a spiritual world had been in the highest degree confirmed by the rumblings, scratchings, and other mysterious noises which were heard in their father’s house at Epworth — by way of a providential punishment, as Mrs. Wesley supposed, to her husband’s presumption in meaning to live apart from her till she repented of what a modern American would call her Jacobite proclivities. Dr. Johnson, again, was as superstitious as a man need be. In short, if there be given a certain kind of belief in a spiritual world, education in itself is no protection against superstition. It operates only to change its form.  Education will substitute Mr. Home for poor old Dummy of Sible Hedingham. It will substitute the refined mixture of scepticism, fairy tale, and asceticism prepared by Dr. Newman for the revelations of Joe Smith. It—and a very little of it too— will make the difference between reading Dr. Cumming and reading Zadkiel; but that is about all. Superstition will never be rooted up so long as people believe in the sort of spiritual world which it creates and peoples.

Are we, then, to say that superstition is a good thing, or that a belief in the spiritual world is a bad thing? Are we reduced to an alternative between witchcraft and atheism? Where is the line to be drawn? The question is one of tremendous importance, and if those who suppose that National or British schoolmasters will exercise all the witches in Essex and other agricultural counties would ask themselves the question with a real wish to find a real answer, they would find that it is by no means an easy task. The first observation to be made upon it is, that the only kind of spiritual world worth believing in is one which does not interfere with the common course of events here. This life is, we may trust, the threshold and introduction to another. We may also hope that it is the theatre of a Divine Government, but it is complete in itself, and is governed by general rules, not by exceptional interferences. However this may be, one thing is plain; whatever is true, superstition is false. Mr. Spurgeon is quite right in believing that the spread of education will expose and destroy it. His error lies in supposing that it will do so with perfect facility, and without modifying beliefs which he considers the most sacred and important of all truths. You cannot refute witchcraft as you refute the notion that the sun moves round the world. It is not a specific error which can be shown to be such by specific proofs. It is part of a habit of mind to which the teaching—direct and indirect—given through the schools, the books, the newspapers, and all the other organs of instruction of the present da is fundamentally opposed, but which has much in common with t e views of religion that have generally prevailed in the world. The education which roots it up will produce wide and deep changes in the religious belief of millions.

The slow growth of knowledge, the slow retreat and destruction of superstition, may be described as M. de Tocqueville described the growth of democracy. It is “the most continuous, the most ancient, the most permanent fact known in history." One supernatural power after another has been first undermined, and then thrown down and forgotten. Milton’s magnificent words have a wider meaning than he attaches to them:—
‘The oracles are dumb,
No voice or hideous hum
Runs through the arched roof in words deceiving
Apollo from his shrine Can no more divine,
With hollow shriek the steep of Delphos leaving.
No nightly trance or breathed spell,
Inspires the pale-eyed priest from the prophetic cell.’
Nor are the lines which follow less true. The process is a painful one, and breaks up old associations:—
‘The lonely mountains o'er,
And the resounding shore,
A voice of weeping heard and loud lament;
From haunted spring and dale,
Edged with poplar pale,
The parting genius is with sighing sent;
With flower-inwoven tresses torn,
The nymphs in twilight shade of tangled thickets mourn. 
If it be true, as some people appear to think, that religion is inextricably connected with superstition—that the ignorant clown who believes in witchcraft is only performing in a clumsy way the same operation as every educated man who sincerely prays to God— atheism has virtually gained the day; for if there is any negative proposition upon which we can rely—and surely there are many—it is the proposition that neither ghosts, nor witches, nor other limited rational agents than men and women, play any part in the affairs of the world.

There are those, no doubt, who think differently. A few men who rebel against what they consider the harsh and cold nature of modern science are resolved to avert their eyes from the broad facts of the case and to concentrate their attention on a certain small class of exceptions. They cling to ghosts, to legends, to marvels of all sorts, as the only refuge open to them from the coarsest forms of materialism; and if any of their darling fables are taxed with falsehood, absurdity, or even positive conscious imposture, they reply with great precaution, and with rhetorical artifices dexterously contrived to veil their meaning. “After all (they ask), what does it matter? These stories are as true as anything else, and a great deal prettier and more moral than the real, hard, vulgar truth which enables men to make railways, steamships, and electric telegraphs. We can get through our lives very happily by fondling the clouds which our own imagination invests with quasi-human shape. Why should this smoky, noisy, unmannerly science be allowed to interfere with our graceful amusements? Rather than fairly discuss on any intelligible grounds the truth of what we believe, rather than be exposed to the pain of admitting the possibility of our being wrong, we will affirm (though in a we which will make it very difficult to fix us with such a belief) that faith has nothing to do with truth; that human nature is so arranged that the imagination is its rightful master; and that if the imagination can get an organized system to work through, that system ought to be treated with unlimited respect and absolute submission by the whole human race in respect of all their most important concerns.” This sentiment is the net result of a great deal of language which is popular in these days and passes for being orthodox. Let us believe in what we know in our hearts to be false, rather than run the risk of disbelieving what we wish in our hearts to be true.

This sentiment is the greatest, the most subtle, and the most dangerous temptation of the day. It is the essence of all lying, priestcraft, imposture, cowardice, dishonesty, and tyranny. It is the formal opposite of every quality which deserves respect, and by which great nations in general, and the English nation in particular, have hitherto commanded it. Unless the broad facts of the world in which we live justify the religious sentiment, let us give it up, instead of hunting for evidence in the lurking holes of wizards and cheats. We had better be atheists at once, if it must be so, than pretend to believe in a God and a future state on the sort of evidence which would be called to support a fraudulent alibi. If the general course of human affairs does not make it credible that our hopes and fears, our virtues and vices, our victories and defeats form a cosmos and not a chaos — that they are the subject of a Providential government, and not the mere product of physical agencies; if the limitation of our faculties, and the impossibility of explaining human conduct and the phenomena of conscience and Virtue without reference to something beyond ourselves, do not suggest the wisdom and practical necessity of acting upon the on position that that something exists; if the history of the world for 1800 years does not make the substantial truth of the Christian history appear probable and reasonable; in a word, if the moral and physical constitution of the world in which we live does not lead us to believe in a God and a future life, we shall not get that belief from gipsies, and Zadkiels, and winking virgins, and dancing tables. If, on the broad merits of the case, the proper inference is, that the fundamental doctrines of religion are mere scarecrows, it is our duty and our wisdom to say so boldly, and to act upon what we say. ' ‘he acknowledgment of that obligation—its real practical acknowledgment with respect to every doctrine which claims our belief—is an indispensable condition precedent to our having any belief at all worthy of the name. If our creed is to die at last, let it die in the light, and fall by the hands of a worthy antagonist.

This, in case of need, would be the answer which a wise and brave man would give to the seductions which act so powerfully on many imaginations. But if we look honestly at the various religions in which men have believed and do believe, at the part which they have played in human history , and at the influence which they have exerted over human conduct, we shall see much to into to the conclusion that religion can by no means be described as a refined superstition, though superstition may be a debased or infant form of religion. Indeed, a calm and rational conception of religion is one great cure for superstition. If our fundamental beliefs are considered as inferences derived from a broad view of the world and human nature, then our notions of God and man will be formed from a consideration of the great leading principles by which the world and human nature may be understood, not from strange stories and isolated events. We shall fix our attention more and more on the great features of that vast system, partially and dimly understood, in the midst of which we stand, and less and less on the special circumstances which may first have directed our minds towards such reflections. By the habit of looking up, looking forward, and looking round, we shall come to careless for details; and perhaps, in course of time, men, on being told that a virgin winked, or that a saint had swam with his head under his arm, might come to say, What if they did? It is in the rule, and not in the exception, that we recognise wisdom and design, and, on the whole, beneficence. Your virgin may have winked; your saint may have swum; but for devotional purposes we prefer to think of the use which men get from solid wood and continuous back-bones. Reverence and religion, in our minds, are the fruit of knowledge, and not of fear. The world and its Maker need neither apology nor concealment; the broad sunlight and the free air of heaven are more divine than the twilight of a forest or the odour of lamps and incense.

Saturday Review, May 14, 1864.

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