"A FAITHLESS WORLD."
MISS COBBE has republished* her very striking essay in the Contemporary Review on "A Faithless World," the
essay in which she commented on James Stephen's no less remarkable attempt, published in the Nineteentls Century, to show that "we can get on very well without a religion," if it should turn out that the new science is giving a correct account of the origin and drift of human life.. We drew attention to Miss Cobbe's brilliant criticism when it first appeared in December last, and return to it new, not so much for the sake of commenting on its general drift,—though we earnestly hope that all who read Sir James Stephen's essay will read Miss Cobbe's,—as for the sake of drawing attention to one single issue which seems to us too often lost sight of in the discussions between the theists and the non-theists. Miss Cobbe states Sir James Stephen's position as being in effect this,—" that things would go on amongst mankind almost as well without a God as with one." Now, of course, what Sir James Stephen intended to convey is (under certain qualifications which she afterwards supplies) very well expressed in a popular fashion by that account of the matter. But for the purpose we have now in view, it is necessary to note that no one really imagines for a moment that it would be possible for the universe to get on either well or ill,—indeed, to get on at all,—without that which the theist means to include in the word "God." What Sir James Stephen meant was this, that supposing the new scientific view to be correct, a good deal of what the theist includes under the word " God " exists in the form of blind and necessary forces uncontrollable either by man or by any other conscious intellect and will, and that what we could very well dispense with, is not, of course, this essential source of nature and life, but the conviction which man has so long cherished and tried to impress on all his species, that this source of nature and life is controlled by a being of affections higher than the best human affections, and accessible to human love and prayer. On the other hand, what the theist means when he says that it will be a very hopeless business for the agnostic to get on "without God in the world," is not, of course, that any one, agnostic or otherwise, can by ignoring God dispense with him, but that by attempting to ignore him whom he cannot dispense with, he will learn to misread the whole significance of life, will lose confidence in all that makes life noblest, and while he boasts that he is only opening his eyes courageously to the blank truth, he will, in fact, be obstinately refusing to avail himself of the richest of all the resources for purifying the world in which he lives. What we insist on, is that, on the one hand, the most scientific agnostic must not only admit, but maintain, that the religious creeds of men, false as he holds them to be, have grown-up from some real root in the
experience of human nature for which he is bound to account; and, on the other hand, that the most earnest theist belies his own creed if he even thinks of atheists as deprived of the God whom they deny.
What thinkers who contrast the two positions have to compare is this,—the possibility of accounting for man's nature as it is without God, and the possibility of accounting for the growth of the modern unbelief with God. On the one hand, if the human mind marks the highest point ever reached by conscious intelligence, how happens it that almost every noble phase of human life confesses itself to be a mere aspiration after some vision indefinitely nobler which it can only catch a glimpse of here and there P On the other hand, if the religions answer to this question is the true one, how happens it that the deeper we pierce the secrets of the physical universe the more unfaltering and audacious grows the assertion that there is no creative intelligence behind them, but only inscrutable forces of which at length human intelligence becomes the supreme blossom P The agnostic has to account for man's nature as he finds it, without God. The theist, and still more the Chriatian, has to account for man's unbelief as it is, with God. Mr. Justice Stephen ignores the very essence of the difficulty when he remarks that "a man who cannot occupy every waking moment of a long life" with some worthy subject of interest, even in the absence of religion," must be either very unfortunate in regard to his health or circumstances, or else must be a poor creature," because, as Miss Cobbe replies, "It is, I think, on the contrary, to be a poor creature,' to be able to satisfy the hunger of the soul after justice, the yearning of the heart for mercy, with such pursuits as money-getting, and scientific research, and the writing of clever books, and the painting of pretty pictures. Not that which is 'poorest' in us, but that which is richest and noblest, refuses to occupy every moment of a long life' with our own ambitions and amusements, or to shut out deliberately from our minds the riddle of the painful earth.'" The agnostic, who thinks life very well as it is without a faith, must have previously extinguished in himself that very part of human nature which imperiously imposes on us either a faith, or constant suffering in the absence of a faith. On the other hand, we always wonder afresh how we ought to explain so remarkable a phenomenon as Mr. Justice Stephen himself presents to us, when he calmly contemplates life as an excellent thing, even without religion, and finds it so easy to ignore far the greatest of all the facts with which both history and education have familiarised him on the strength of a few scientific suggestions of no great weight or significance. To our minds, it is not the arguments of the men of science, it is the ease with which they and their converts accommodate their inner natures to the new agnosticism, which is impressive. That it should be barely possible to ignore the existence of an infinite being and character, once fully revealed,—to see nothing where generations of men had seen the significance of everything,—to find life a very good thing without him who, to the reverence of centuries, had alone made life good,—this is, indeed, to us indefinitely more startling than any argument that was ever urged by atheist or sceptic. If it were really possible to "live without God in the world," as the phrase goes, then it would not be so wonderful. But to live with him without knowing it, to regard all that he has done to reveal himself as a superstitions misreading of natural events, and to find the world a very good world," though there be no vision of God in it, does seem to us a most bewildering evidence of the obtuseness of Secularists to the greatest of all facts that can be imagined by the intellect or conceived by the heart of man. Doubtless, all that Miss Cobbe anticipates, and a great deal more too, would happen if ever our world were to become really faithless. Not only would public and private worship cease, bat the doctrine of "the survival of the fittest" would become the standard of our moral life; the tenderness for weakness and suffering would gradually change into a well-trained disapproval of the disposition to tolerate germs of future weakness and future suffering; the "Syrian thread" in our habits and in our imaginative literature would be ravelled out ; the idealism of art, instead of being the expression of reverence for what is above us, would become mere tentative audacity in the hands of men bent on moulding human nature into something totally new ; and the cowardice of sanitary dread of disease would take the place of a spiritual contempt for death ; repentance, in the shape of that anguish of heart which sorrows over sin as alienation from God, would be extinguished; and resignation would be merged in George Eliot's " unembittered compliance of soul with the inevitable ;" suicide would not only become frequent, but even be regarded as often praiseworthy, so soon as the belief in God's providence for us had disappeared; and most of all, the desire to fit one's heart for communion with God would cease to be a conceivable end at all, much less to be the controlling aim of life. We may admit at once that men who, like Mr. Justice Stephen, regard the world as "a very good world," even without religiou, do not realise what the world would be like, if all the manifold influence of religion had vanished out of it, and had taken with it all the higher savour even of secular studies and pursuits. But admitting this to the fullest extent, may it not be said that if there are many strong men like Mr. Justice Stephen, who contemplate with equanimity the immediate results of the extinction of all conscious faith now, there might in another hundred years be a much greater number of strong men who would contemplate the ultimate results of the extinction of that faith with equal equanimity, even though the ultimate results were much worse, as they certainly would be, than the immediate tesults ? The result most fruitful of evil in the future, as well as the most terrible in the present, would be to our mind the extinction of the desire to fit ourselves for communion with God, and this disappears at once in any mind whioh is quite content without a religion. If Secularism,—even though tempered by the residuary bequest of a dying Christianity,—is endurable to those who know what Christianity means, why should not Secularism, without any such tempering, be endurable to those of future generations who had never known what Christianity meant P Is not a great step taken towards reducing the paradox of tolerance for a faithless world, so soon as we find undoubtedly strong and high-minded men professing themselves quite content to lose their religion if science insists upon it that their religion must go ? It is, indeed, quite incredible that the agnostic could ever explain how man has come to be what he is, if there be no being higher than man by whose constant pressure on his nature man has been moulded. But then, it would equally have seemed to us quite incredible that the religions man would ever be able to explain how, life with religion being what it is, good and strong men, brought up under Christian influences, should be able to concede even for a moment that the whole story of faith may be false, and that human life may have been invested by our religious belief with quite imaginary and unreal attributes. Is religion, then,—after so many centuries of revealed teaching—still so foreign and separable an accident that it can be stripped-off with this perfect ease, leaving nothing but manly regret behind ? Would not the extinction of a single great mental occupation—say Art—leave more of a vacuum behind it than Mr. Justice Stephen feels in resigning faith P We can only answer our own question with the suggestion that even men as Ole as Mr. Justice Stephen do not know how much of their faith they unconsciously ;retain, even when they believe that they are facing boldly the contingency of losing it all. Plato, we know, could bear to contemplate and even advocate a kind of life which would have extinguished the domestic affections, and yet there is no reason to suppose that those affections were not quite as strong in him as in most other high-minded men of his time. May we not suppose that he never realised what he proposed to give up? and also that Mr. Justice Stephen has never realised the prospect which he thinks it so easy to contemplate with equanimity ? Thus, and thus alone, can we interpret the extraordinary paradox that men of Mr. Justice Stephen's calibre should regard religion as a dignified but separable accident of life, while those who hold with Miss Cobbe and with us, consider that life, as we know it, would be as impossible without faith in God, as faith in man would soon become, after faith in God had once expired.