The Challenge To Religious Orthodoxy
We publish below the first of our new series of articles, in which men and women of the younger generation have been invited to express their criticisms of organized religion. Each article will he. answered the following week from -the Christian standpoint, Mr. J. D. Bernal, Lecturer in Structural Crystallography at Cambridge, will be answered next week by Dr.. N. P. Williams, Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity at Oxford.]
BY J. D. BERNAL.
"The soul is born first in those moments I told you of. It has a slow and dark birth mom mysterious than the birth of the body. When the soul of a man is born in this country there are nets flung at it to hold it back from flight. You talk to me of nationality, language, religion. I shall try to fly by those nets." --J.azi_Es JOYCE, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
THE rejection of faith is as definite, as ineluctable a fact as its acceptance ; but it is one even more difficult to explain. The outer, rational reasons are as irrelevant as those of the apologists of religion ; the real reasons are locked in our experience, incommunicable. To each one of us our way of life is simple and inevitable. Other ways of thinking, feeling and action are impossible for us. They can be understood, at most felt sympathetically, but they cannot be accepted and lived. But while belief is formulable and familiar, unbelief, which is only beginning to free itself from its obsession— opposition to religion—has still no form. Its spirit is elusive, and can hardly be known without an experience, of which the first condition is the abandonment of faith.
Why does religion seem to those outside it incredible, fantastic and barbarous ? It is strange to watch the tenacity with which men cling to beliefs completely out of harmony with the knowledge on which their practical lives are based. Fearful of losing something which supported their parents' and their own childhood, they clutch at every sophistical argument which will enable them to preserve the forms of ancient thought, while profiting from the results of a totally incompatible system. The present supposed reconciliation of science and religion is nothing but an attempt to persuade those who wish to be persuaded that the process of intellectualization of the fundamental concepts of science —forgetful of Occam's razor—will incorporate any or all the varieties of imaginative thinking that go under the name of religion. Science does not destroy religious faith by simple logical contradiction ; it undermines it by the continuous advance of its method. The scientific method is incompatible with the religious attitude. It brings to those who use it an intellectual satisfaction deeper than that of faith. It can criticize religion, but religion can find no place for it in its scheme.
The scientific apologists of religion, mostly mathematicians and physicists, usually forget the increasingly damaging historical and psychological criticism to which it is being subjected. For even if on some metaphysical ground the faiths could be made acceptable, by their works in these days they would stand condemned. Consider, for example, what Christianity has offered in the past and what it offers now. There was a time when the Church contained in itself all the strength and beauty and knowledge that survived the inner decay of the Roman empire. The Church could count on the loyalty and full service of the best men of the time. Then it was humane; enlightened, and a leader of civilization. Where is it now ? It lives with its old faith and fervour only in those countrysides that in their ways of life and thought still remain in the Dark Ages. Everywhere else it has lost its lead. Its disunited fragments still wield political power, but negatively, in self-preservation. We must except the Catholic Church, which is rapidly becoming the only effective moral safeguard of capitalist reaction. But the churches originate no new ideas, create no art, repel all the best minds and hold men only by their tradition, a dead thing storing centuries of past beauty.
The commercial and industrial revolutions have transformed religion from a corporate inspiration into a personal means of escape. The religious of to-day, are those who cannot accept the intolerable conditions of modern life, and are not bold or disinterested enough to strive to change them. Personal religion for the poor is an acceptance of injustice with a vague hope of divine patronage; for the rich, a salving of conscience with futile or harmful good works.
In the past both those who found belief in Christian dogma impossible, and those who were critical of the governance of the Church in worldly matters, still sup- ported religion as the only source and safeguard of morals—other people's morals. But now morals—as miracles before them—afford a far better reason for rejecting Christianity than for retaining it. The building of Christian morals was a great achievement. The destruction of local and tribal religions in the period of the empires had left the Western world demoralized as never before. From this chaos the Church managed by a difficult fusion of Hellenism and Semitism with a few of the less subversive teachings of Jesus, to evolve a morality coherent and complete enough to control and direct the development of mediaeval civilization. But the economic and intellectual changes heralded by the Renaissance have made this static morality both useless and dangerous. To the complex social and economic problems of to-day it offers no solutions and is a mere
excuse for inaction or palliative methods. In personal morality, especially in sexual matters, Christianity appears in the light of modern knowledge to be definitely perverted, verted and to be responsible for multitudes of miser- able and distorted lives. -- The whole basis of Christian ethics : sin, repentance, forgiveness ; redemption, sacri- fice and sacrament ; judgment, reward and punishment, is now seen to be a brilliantly intuitive solution of the psychological problem of guilt ; and thus from being part of the real world it becomes a phantasy that has outlived its usefulness.
But the chief field of conflict between religion and modern ideas lies in education. In an ideal education as we see it now, the child must grow freely in an environ- ment so conditioned that it learns to face all problems, material or psychological, eagerly, without fear or pre- conceptions. To deprive it of this ability, to instil hampering dogmas and submissions, is a personal cruelty and must be socially disastrous for generations that will have to solve problems to which ours are as child's play. Here it is not a question as to whether we can adhcrz to religion or not but whether we can tolerate its existence. If the churches insist, as they seem to be insisting, on the control of sexual life and of education and on an acceptance of the present economic system, then those whose loyalties lie with the scientific advance of mankind must step out of their way to destroy religion or be crushed by it.
It is not sufficient merely to reject religion. After all that may be said against it, it exists, and in its own way fills and supports life. If to reject it as intellectually untenable and morally worthless left us helpless, empty and alone in the face of a hostile world, then its accept- ance might not be the worse alternative. In the last resort the religious say : you may not like us but you cannot do without us. The challenge is being met. Steadily, imperceptibly, there is growing up a mode of thinking and feeling too sceptical to be called a faith but for which men can live and work and fight. What do we live by who scorn tradition and refuse the con- solations of religion ? We know, but we cannot say ; but only point to the way we have travelled and the sources of our strength.
Science is a subtle mistress who pretends to be, our servant. On the surface science gives us only a means, the most effective available means, of satisfying our desires. It cannot create values, but it can, and always does, suggest them. In satisfying or in failing to satisfy our desires, it shows them to us in a new light, enhancing or diminishing them. The values change, and others come by abstraction from the scientific method itself. Men cannot deal dispassionately, patiently, impersonally with the problems of the laboratory, they cannot be prepared not only to find but to seek for the destruction of their hopes, without carrying some of that spirit into their own lives. And the world of personal experi- ence, the world of society and politics so envisaged, becomes something very different from the world of primitive feeling or conventional judgment. Perhaps it is a harder and more complex world, but one which understanding has robbed of fear.
The scientific outlook is set against illusion, the holding it thing true because we wish it so. It is the essentially illusory character of religion that makes it finally inad- missible. Science has its own illusions; every hypothesis is somewhat illusory, but against it is always set the critical test of verification. There is no resting-place of belief. We know that what we • know is probably not true, and that it is our task to find its error if we Can. But if science robs us of illusion it gives us power, a power only accidentally limited by the shortness of man's life and of the tradition of knowledge. The primitive need for religion has come from the ineluctable accidents of human existence : rain and drought ; pain and disease and death. Before these, men have resigned themselves in suppliant submission to higher powers. But to science these are but so many problems to be attacked and some day solved. There is nothing sacred in our sufferings. We avert wlmt we can and make the best of the inevitable, only hoping that from it may come some knowledge to help others to avoid what we have undergone.
The power and understanding of science cannot but extend into the human world and so take morals into its sphere. Morals must always remain largely conven- tional ; but we can no longer accept the sanction of a tradition unsupported by experiment. Gradually an experimental, social and personal morality is being built up on the basis of the accepted code, but differing from it entirely in spirit. It admits nothing as inherently wrong ; it is dispassionate and open, there is no need for secrecy or hypocrisy since here is no praise or blame. Passions such as resentment or jealousy arc not denied, but they cannot be justified, and lose much of their lasting efficacy. In living experimentally there must be mistakes and tragedies ; but even these are not useless : and however difficult and dangerous life becomes it is at least an art more interesting and more inspiring than the submissive following of the path of virtue.
As the tradition of science increases, each individual contribution becomes more closely merged in it, and the feeling of disinterested loyalty grows and spreads beyond the borders of science. Personal, family, national loyalties become more and more meaningless. The scientists do not wish to rule the world, but they will not always tolerate being ruled by greedy and stupid people and by their ancient and infantile institutions Ultimately they must turn to a State like Russia, to which progress is a deliberate, experimental adventure instead of a belated and reluctant acceptance of inevitable changes.
The history of the universe is spread out before us from the first chaos of material waves through stars and 'planets to life and mind. In it we find our place as surely as Dante in the world of Aquinas. Of the future we know only that we cannot know, and yet our ignorance will build future knowledge as surely as past ignorance built ours. All who sought, all who seek, all who will seek knowledge, arc our companions. The beauty of the works of man, science, art and religion belongs to those who can know it. We are the heirs of Lao Tze and Gautama, Socrates and Jesus and Mahomet, as truly as any of their followers of this day. We, too, are moved by the beauty and the courage of their teaching, but we cannot with the believer lay down our right to criticize and reject. We must choose what we can build into our lives, and pay to the future the debt we owe to the past.
Such is our city, our communion and our tradition, but to us, as to the truly religious, these are not enough. Ultimately each has his own incommunicable experience which is his final sanction. It is not, as it is to the mystic, in itself an explanation of the world or a substitute for it, but the completion in feeling of the work of our intelligence.
We are born ; we grow to understanding ; we strive to know what we can know, though all imperfectly ; we take the full joy and pleasure of life, not seeking happiness and not refusing it ; we give what is in us to give, and we die, having lived.