Religion: A Function or a Phase of Human Life?

A poetic approach to religion

Fundamentally, the Papal and the Liberal theories as to the object of religion do not greatly differ: religion should be a direct agent in social progress and happiness, and it must act directly and effectively, or not at all. Both Rome and the modern semi-secularized Anglo-Saxon of to-day assume that religion is sterile if it does not directly and demonstrably make itself a force to be reckoned with in the world of all human activities. Both Rome and the modern man insist that it is a waste of time for traditional religion to preserve its self-consistency by constitutional methods. It must make the best it can of the past by some diplomatic and business-like measure that will combine forces in the best way, and deal wholly with the present. And it may be observed that many men of affairs express an admiration, however detached, for the effective methods of the Papal policy.

One advantage, however, which Rome has over the modern man, arises from Rome's long experience in dealing with Christian traditionalism. The modern man does not sufficiently reckon with religion as a permanent force; he is open to the suggestion that religion may die out. Rome stakes all her prospects upon the permanence of Christianity. She builds her power, however extraneously, upon the Christian faith, and it is only her social and political aims that have tempted her to tamper with the Christian traditions, and to attempt to deflect their development and suppress their normal constitutional methods of self-correction.

There are modern thinkers who have speculated on the possibility of combining various religious traditions. Rome has been too wise for this, in spite of all her statecraft. The Jesuits who attempted irenic methods with the Buddhists were promptly suppressed. Human experience is rather against all attempts to make peace between rival traditions. The status quo of the Temple of BaaI B'rith, where the worship of Baal and Jehovah was alike tolerated, did not last long.

There is a tendency to-day to erect the idea of universal religious toleration into the place of a supreme religious principle. Clearly the motive of this tendency has a certain generosity. It arises from the humane desire to unite all men closer together in social sympathy; it observes that religious differences are actual barriers to this common feeling of humanity. It therefore hopes for some way in which these strong convictions may be melted down, and the world united on certain beliefs common to all those who are socially productive. What modern-minded man has not had such a vision as this? But just here is a curious difficulty. The enthusiastic Tolerant soon finds himself in a position where he is logically bound to be intolerant. Making peace with one's neighbor in the present (religiously) involves either peace or war with past generations. It is just as difficult to tolerate all the religion of the present as it is to tolerate all the religion of the past. Sooner or later one is forced to take sides.


There are those who point to the principle of religious toleration by the State as the harbinger of final social toleration of all 'productive' religion. But the very existence of religious antagonisms makes it necessary, albeit difficult, for the State to maintain this principle. At times the principle often gives way to a policy, under pressure of religious influence. This is especially evident in the sphere of education, where solid religious combinations sometimes gain quasi-recognition by the State. So long as religion is in any sense a force in society, and allowing for all social sympathies and amenities and policies and common interests, social toleration of religious differences is simply a contradiction in terms. England, Germany, and America are slow to admit this fact, but France and other Latin countries have long discovered that a permanent balance of opposing religious forces in society is unthinkable. The matter even enters into government programmes, certainly into social movements in Latin states.

With us, the State is undoubtedly on solid ground in refusing to decide what type of religion is best for society. Society is left free to work out the problem. And here is a curious and pertinent matter for remark: that the Stale is the only department of civilization which, by common consent, is denied this privilege. Litterateurs, scientists and scholars, sociologists, business men, labor leaders, philanthropists, all are lending their good offices to help determine what the world needs in religion, and, incidentally, what the world does not need, and are eagerly being listened to by many religious leaders. Unquestionably much of the testimony is such as laymen have always given freely in religious matters, but somehow to-day it is the opinions or judgments that are more eagerly looked for than before. The judge on his bench, the senator, the president, are much more reserved - possibly because they feel more responsible. Beyond the pragmatic judgment that religion ought to make good citizens, these officials do not venture. For the sake of its own untrammeled authority, the civil power overtly leaves religion to its own laws and its own wars.

Thus we see how closely related are authority and freedom of function. The citizen votes and sits on juries. But the voter is not given a chance to decide whether law and government are a failure. The juryman is not asked to append to his verdict a keen critique of judges, lawyers, and legal processes. He enjoys his franchise and exercises his jury-power on condition that he hears and abides by the law in the case. The legislators he elects are bound to make laws consistent with the whole body of legal tradition. Unjust legal traditions, flagrant misgovernment, do not in the least invalidate the authority of law, although they do cause skeptical contempt of authority. Resolutions and reforms justify themselves, at length, by actually restoring consistency and continuity with legal tradition. The appeal to past statutes is something more than a 'fiction,' as some clever writer has called it. It is the only condition of social sanity. For, if the seeds of justice are not to be found in immemorial institutions, there is no guaranty that stable justice is possible.

And so with art, with science, with education. The redress of the common man, duped by the meretricious and unjust guides or rulers, is in compel1't them to rule or teach consistently with the law of the tradition. Rebellion, or revolution, where it arises from social needs, really restores broken junctures with fundamental social tradition. Evolution itself insists that the true originator is he in whom the past bears its fruit, not he who requires the wreckage and the failure of the past as the background of his glory. That Shakespeare may shine, the laurels of Dante do not fade. Those periods when the ecclesiastic was made the arbiter of scientific problems produced bizarre science. It was the utilitarian moralist, posing as literary critic, who pronounced the famous judgment on Keats's poetry: 'This will never do.' The moment the mob disperses, and there is no longer need to explain or to assert that law and order are necessary, the judge goes back eagerly to his precedents and statutes; for the mob was simply the result of a previous neglect or abuse of precedents or statutes.

And so we come to our question: Can we apply the same principle to religion? The mob is muttering; a very respectable mob, it is true, and it mutters after a peaceable sore. For the sake of the ladies, whose sensibilities are to be considered, it 'aggravates' its voice, and roars you as gently as any sucking dove. Something is wrong with religious officialdom: it is 'too complex,' it 'has outlived its usefulness,' it 'needs re-adaptation to the times.' The threats of this estimable mob are not violent; the only red-cap it brandishes is a nightcap which it threatens to draw over its own ears, to the everlasting contempt of religion. But it is a formidable weapon. For this threatened sleep of the just, this calm, judicial indifference of the modern man, leaves organized religion shivering outside the splendid gates of civilization, starved out of all the good things that are to come with 'the parliament of Man, the federation of the World!'


Let us therefore, in such moments of grace as we are allowed, examine the grave charge against organized religion,—that it does not demonstrate its usefulness. Its usefulness to what, and to whom?

The popular scientist reminds us how ecclesiasticism has vainly attempted to restrain the progress of knowledge.

The business man points to the unedifyingly unbusinesslike methods of many churches in administering their affairs. The working-man says religion has done precious little toward industrial justice. The philanthropist stays away from Church and triumphantly proves that 'human uplift' does not depend upon religion. The educator shows how religious prepossessions limit the free development of the mind. The moral philosopher clearly proves that it is possible to develop an esoteric morality that is independent of the reward-and-punishment motives supplied by religion, and adds that the religious attitude of dependence limits abstract moral development.

All these charges are strangely based upon the assumption that organized religion, to justify its existence at all, ought to maintain a leadership of all activities of life, without levying any appreciable tax upon them. And since religious circles are observed trying very hard to accomplish this modern mission, and meeting with a very small degree of success in proportion to the output of energy, the popular inference is, that religion must be urged to make still more heroic efforts, if it is to maintain its footing. 'Hep, hop, keep step, Christian!' The tables are turned, and the liberal Rabbi occupies the pulpit to give godly counsel on Holy Cross Day.

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