The Anti-Religious Front

I

CAN it not be laid to heart by the clever gentlemen who are making it their life’s vocation to cure us of God that religion, however much they dislike it, is at all events profound? Will they not remember that it has been professed and served by great minds, indeed by the very greatest; and that of all the deeper experiences of the race it is the oldest and the noblest? And will they not in consequence regard it as requiring, in one who treats of its foundations, a laboriously exercised mind and also something of a soul?

These are simple questions which there should be no need of asking, but as things are there is urgent need of asking them. Our advocates of the great negation force us to ask them. For a good many of them deal with religion as though any kind of thought would suffice for it, however loose; any kind of culture, however provincial; any kind of dismissal, however summary and crude. In fact, some of them employ in the treatment of it methods so hasty, and logical processes so leaky, that if they studied any other subject in like manner they would lose their intellectual reputation. And this is too bad, first because an ill-educated nation is being led to believe such nonsense as that a trained modern intelligence cannot accept God any longer, and so pitches forward into the spiritual anarchy which the men who are creating it are utterly powerless to cure, and secondly because religious principles need the constant purification of criticism. In this field, as in every other, criticism is the conscience of truth. But the criticism, to be useful, must be fit for the thing criticized. In America, to our misfortune, religious criticism sheds but little light on its subject and none at all on our fame.

It is strange indeed that the dilettante should select religion as the region of his casual holiday, and stranger still that a rapt audience should attend upon his tale. The very nature of religion should impose upon one who examines it the most careful thought and the most delicate perception, to say nothing of the responsibility that should weigh upon one’s words in a matter so grave with consequences. Religion is the first beautiful companion that man encountered in his wilderness. It is the pathway between life and death that is worn deepest by the feet of the perpetually seeking generations. It is never far away when man knows exaltation and rapture. It is always present when he transcends himself in unearthly consecrations. It opens the door of vision when his genius hungers and thirsts for the substance behind all symbols, and other hand that can open it there is none. It is by his side when he walks the high and lonely places where he makes the discovery of himself. In life it is with him, illuminating him at his noblest, scourging him at his basest — the latter presence even more wistfully loved than the former. Neither in death does it leave him; but when all other voices moan of irreparable defeat, it alone lifts the cry of defiance and stands on the ruins of mortality announcing mysterious and splendid victory for the fallen.

Man cannot escape religion if he would. Return to it he must after however long a denial, unless he changes his nature and becomes something else. For it is the form and figure, the throbbing pulse and the living flame, of the dream which is his one and only enduring reality, the perfection that drives him through yearning and tears and beyond the stars in search of a fulfillment not to be found in all the fabric of the world.

This is something of what religion has been — a religion, I mean, that includes the divine. A religion with its head cut off, which rises no higher than the resolutions of a philanthropic committee, we may for the present leave out of account. Destiny is dealing with that in its own thorough way. If, then, religion has been and is all this, if it is so deeply rooted in mind and soul, if it does for humanity what nothing else can do and yet must be done, then it is no subject for frivolous haughtiness and superficial learning. It is too deep, too close, too sacred. Hence if someone tells us that it is invalid throughout, and that man’s most tragic delusion is ever to have looked upward, we shall thoughtfully listen to him, but shall ask that he have spent long labor in understanding what great light he extinguishes in history and in souls. But if he ‘barges’ in on us with crippled argument that he has not toiled over, with catch phrases, with slogans, and with disdain, we have a right to send him back to his own place; he has nothing to say to mature men.

Now this is the kind of thing that we are getting on the anti-religious front in America, if we may borrow a phrase from Moscow. Whatever the cause is — whether it is due to the spiritual exhaustion which has brought on our famine in philosophic minds; whether it is the disparagement of intellect and the exalting of the infantile which are the current fashion in psychology; whether it is the lurch to immoralism which now is receiving a benediction from erudition; or whether it is the disposition to go where bedlam is loudest which is observable in obsequious academies and pulpits alike — we cannot but notice the incoherence and even the intolerance of the great warfare against the divine.

II

Consider, for example, the severest pedagogical injunction which the leaders of that warfare lay upon us — namely, that we are to submit our opinions to test and proof. We are, they tell us, to look things straight in the eye. We are to be tough-minded. We are to abhor hasty statement, easy assent, and gross credulity. We are to have the cold impartiality of science and the austere parsimony of truth. And when, so we are assured, we are cleansed by this catharsis we shall find our religious beliefs, even the most fundamental of them, vanishing away. Should we, however, shrink from the penitential discipline, should we catch at romantic ideas and facile solutions, we shall be outlawed from the great society, and cannot be so much as doorkeepers in the mansion of the civilized minority.

From this I suppose the inference is both justified by logic and required by courtesy that our guides are themselves exemplars of this ascetic habit. Are they? Consider in answer the case of Professor Millikan. This gentleman bears perhaps the most distinguished name in American science. He is known everywhere to be a believer in God. He is consequently a stumblingblock to those who want it believed that as scientific method comes in religious principles go out. He stands in the way of that belief, and although secure of his fame in all other respects must be discredited in this. So a writer in a learned periodical declares that Professor Millikan’s spiritual convictions are probably due to atavistic emotionalism. And the chivalrous charge is repeated with every indication of approval by one of our philosophers in a published book directed to the abolition of Deity.

We shall hold back our indignation, although it is impossible not to feel it. What pertains to our purpose is that the kind of intelligence which is capable of this descent sets itself before us as so stern a supervisor of its integrity, and so vigilant a guardian of its pure enclosure, that it cannot let in the proposition that God exists. A little rowdy intolerance, however, may walk in, and welcome! Our great physicist, we may be sure, has not exempted his most important conviction from the scrutiny to which he habitually submits all his other convictions. He sees the universe to be interpretable rationally. If it were not, neither his own science nor any other would be possible. And he makes rationality the foundation of interpretability. What other foundation can there possibly be? Hence follows his conclusion that it is reason that makes the discourse of existence reasonable. These steps to a sovereign reason from the existence of our own are plain enough. But it is easier to invite contempt to deal with them than for a hostile mind to try its teeth upon them. And so our chaste pioneers are not above publishing a charge that is irrational and coarse, and setting down a man superior in every element of power to themselves, not as a thinker who reflects, but as a child who only feels. Such minds, I fear, we shall have to call not spotless, but as unchaste as Ashtoreth. It is to be dreaded also that they are in danger of a spreading form of seizure which we may designate theophobia, an obsession quite beyond the healing power of reason and reluctant to any exorcism known.

We have made a bad start and it will not get better as we go on. It will be remembered that we are speaking of men who are jealous with a fierce jealousy of admitting into their heads opinions which are shaky, and who would rather, if we may say so, have their throats cut than admit anything positively absurd. They carry this monastic renunciation of the presumably unproved so far that some of them are now maintaining that to believe in God is immoral. This novelty in ethics defies comment. Let it stand unencumbered with words as a memorial to a terrible purity. Yet they puzzle me, these knights of the vanguard. For, although they reach for the whip if I say that I believe in God, I am favored with their approval if I say that when an infant sucks its thumb it is unconsciously pursuing a sexual adventure. Freud says this, so it is all right. Again it is all right if, observing the same infant falling asleep after feeding at its mother’s breast, I declare that the child sinks into the slumber of sexual satiety. No censure for that! No offense in it for the most antiseptic minds!

Once more, when a little boy declares his intention of becoming a locomotive engineer when he grows up, you may say, again with Freud’s support, that the lad is expressing a subtly disguised desire for sexual gratification. Furthermore you may interpret shell shock as meaning that a vast flood of libido or sex energy has flowed over into the inner self and produced an immensely augmented narcissism or selflove; that the narcissism, doubled or quadrupled by the turbulent libido, has to be suppressed in battle; and that the repression causes the disorganization known as shell shock. All this passes the test of acceptable opinion. For holding it you are not blamed; rather you are praised as sailing down the full current of the contemporary renaissance. And if we inquire what then in heaven’s name shall be kept out of the mind if these preposterous things are let in, we seem to be answered; Practically nothing except God!

III

The thing becomes diverting. We are making discoveries in the cathartic mind. Perhaps, then, we may go on. There are some students of color as a factor in evolution who hold that the flamingo got the pink tints of its plumage in this manner: The crocodiles which lived in the vicinity of flamingoes long ago, being shortsighted, fancied that the tinted birds standing in the shallow water were the rising or the setting sun and so let them alone. The hues which served so well became perpetuated; such flamingoes as were less fortunately colored were eaten; and we have the flamingo of to-day a living testimony to the value of resembling crepuscular dawn and afternoon. Is it all right to believe this? Certainly; it is eminently respectable. Still further let us take man’s beard and woman’s beardlessness — a curious phenomenon, since both man and woman came from apes, and the female ape is quite as hairy as the male. It came to pass, sages say, because some of the earliest women were born with less hairy or possibly quite hairless faces. Instead of being crushed with shame as unaccountable freaks, these ancient dames discovered something amazing happening to them. The males round about fell violently in love with them. But this was not all. There was more of marvel and surprise. The males, once smitten by the smooth-faced ladies, refused to fall in love with the other kind. The bearded damsels, old as their lineage was, were ousted by the parvenucs, could get no husbands, and died forlorn and childless. What began as a freak extirpated the original stock. On the other hand such males as may have been beardless were shunned by the females and could get no wives. The women coveted whiskered, as earnestly as the men set their hearts on unwhiskered, spouses. And as a result of it, here, with such physiognomies as we have, we are!

May a man believe this? With the utmost distinction of modernity, yes. But a man may not believe in God.? Ah, no! That is too insecure an hypothesis! And we turn away feeling that it would be too rude to ask whether the billy goat got his beard by the same discriminate selection of æsthetic love.

Perhaps we can tolerate one example more. Although we are informed that the argument on the existence of Deity is closed for intelligent people and closed with a loud negative, persons worthy of that description may still carry on the debate over the cursorial or arboreal origin of wings. It runs thus: Birds evolved from reptiles; and the ancestral reptile, one of the lizards probably, had to get wings or a bird it could not be. How did it get them? The cursorial school maintains that for ages this family of lizards ran rapidly over the ground on their hind legs, flapping their forelegs as they went. After ages of this apparently insane procedure the forelegs changed their outer form and inner skeletal and muscular structure and became wings. No, say the arborealists, it was not so. What happened was that this lizard was not a runner but a tree climber, and got into the habit of incessantly jumping from trees to the ground. As it jumped it spread out its forelegs, which acquired, after countless years, first possibly a parachute form and later the wing form.

We may indeed marvel at the perseverance of this tree jumper in letting go his hold for a thousand centuries before he had acquired any device for easing his fall. The breakages must have been enormous and the casualties appalling. We may also wonder how it is that monkeys which have been jumping from trees for ages on end have developed thus far not a sign or rudiment of wings. But these solicitations of curiosity are beside the point. The point is that vise and solemn heads may dignify the cursorial-arboreal debate while hushed academies look on; whereas if one should mention the divine as worth our study, we should hear from the anti-religious front that it is a subject to which the scrupulous mind can no longer descend.

Since, then, we see it permissible to cover creation with a fog of theory, fashionable to entertain conjectures which can never reach to even the lowest grade of knowledge, and praiseworthy to erect learned memorials to absurdity, but censurable to hold a conviction which the greatest minds have held and unnumbered generations have lived by, we cannot be blamed if we regard this whole business as confusing and incoherent. May we not even be pardoned for thinking that the claim to intellectual austerity is humbug? The men who make it seem to have a credulity and to show an intolerance as capacious as may be found in any of the less advanced souls who tremble before them. And so in the general method and intellectual climate of our monitors we end with disillusion and the sense of having been pompously fooled.

IV

Shall we be similarly afflicted when we pass from general method to particular argument? In order to answer this, suppose we look into the argument most frequently used at present for the destruction of spiritual foundations — the Copernican argument, as it is beginning to be called. Three men, we are reminded, have reduced us to our proper insignificance and put an end to our primitive dream that we are godlike or that there is any God for us to resemble. They are Copernicus, Darwin, and Freud. Copernicus began the revelation of the vastness of the universe and the consequent triviality of our poor molecule of a planet. Darwin showed man’s ancestry reaching not up to the stars and their glory, but down to the mud and its fermentation. And Freud has pushed our humiliation into the last pit by the knowledge that what we thought was the light of spirit is only the sickly gleam of funguses growing rank in the cellars of physiology. Our masters in the luminous life have the habit of saluting with a strange joy every sign of our degradation. They perceive, and correctly, that man if he has a God will be majestic, and if majestic will have a God. But the nearer we are lowered to the things that crawl, and the more pitiable our place is in an ultimately senseless universe, the more likely it will be that over us is no eternal splendor and awaiting us no transcendence of Truth and Beauty everlasting. Our nothingness is a price they gladly pay if only Deity is made nothingness also. And just now it is the Copernican plea that rules the favorite to this end.

It runs as follows: There are from three to thirty billion suns. Our sun is of third-rate size among them. Our earth is a pathetic cinder spinning round it. Ourselves are ephemera clinging to the cinder with our ridiculous little heads thrust out into empty and prodigious space. With our whole solar system making up, let us say, one fivebillionth part of the universe, how can we suppose that the mighty power behind it all is concerned with us.? How can we pretend that this power is our Father? The notion of a Father-God arose because men thought that they and their planet formed the centre of existence. How can it survive when we are reduced in the grand scheme to all but zero? And how can we homunculi presume to know anything of the Originator of the stupendous cosmos if an Originator there is?

The argument contains three propositions: first, that physical size is the determining factor in attracting God’s attention, if there is a God, since the smaller a thing is the less likely it is to interest Him; secondly, that men came to believe in God through a miscalculation in measurement — they imagined a Father-God because they fancied it was a kitchen universe; and thirdly, that physical magnitude is a barrier to thought — the vast universe now known forbids us to form any conception of its ultimate source if it has one. On all this let us briefly comment.

To the first proposition: if God’s lack of interest in us is because we are so little, then it must follow that He would take interest in us if we were enlarged. How large should we have to be before His interest began ? If we were a hundred miles tall should we attract His attention? The answer, I gather, is: No, that is not enough. Ten thousand miles tall? We may probably expect another negative. But if we towered up to a stature equivalent to the orbit of Neptune we might possibly enter upon significance for Deity. And if we stood so high that our hair was singed by Betelgeuse we might be admitted to the honor of audience with the Demiurge.

Roaring nonsense? It is indeed, but it is the roaring nonsense of very solemn and learned men who seem to shrink from thinking things out. They join together two incommensurable things — bulk, which has all the physical measurements, and meaning or value, which has n’t a single one. A divorce of the two, I fear, must be pronounced on the ground of incompatibility for union and the miscegenation of diverse species. But not only does the argument go thus far; it goes farther. It makes the higher of the two depend upon and be a function of the lower. It puts meaning or value as a secondary appendage to bulk. And this is such an inversion of the proprieties of taste and reason that, in addition to the sentence of nullity just given, we should impose a penalty of some kind upon the man who has committed it. And the worst penalty will consist in fetching him into the Arctic winter which reason inhabits, there to shiver till he is acclimated. Fortunately, however, nonsense has this quality — that it cannot be followed through to the end. And so our learned friends do not themselves adopt the valuation scheme which they attribute to God. If they did they would judge a small child to be worthless, a man of normal size barely acceptable, and a mountain of fatness a paragon of his day.

The second proposition was that men made a mistake in measurement, and thought that there was a God because they thought the universe was a cabin. First of all we may remind the logicians whom we are concerned with that they have forgotten one detail in making this statement. They have forgotten to prove it. I do not know a single one of them that even attempts to prove it. But it needs a great deal of proof, and we cannot let it slide in on the slippery surface of cool assumption. Not only, however, is it negatively inadequate because unproved; it is positively worthless, I venture to say, because it is false. Belief in God no more arose from measuring the universe than from smelling it. What it arose from is the essential structure of reason, whose first and irrepressible question in the presence of anything is: What accounts for it? That is how belief in God arose, and not from any computation in yards, miles, or lightyears. And this question — What accounts for it?— presses upon us with its full force, whether the universe is the size of a parish or has a diameter that staggers mathematics. Size has absolutely nothing to do with the search for the rationale of a thing; indeed it is itself included within the compass of that search.

And the source—that is, the intellectual source — from which the conviction of a God who is a Father arose is this: the reason in us that looks for the reason in things is seeking for its kindred. Knowledge means hunting for the rationality immanent in things and rethinking it. And when reason finds rationality it has discovered its kindred. And since this immanent rationality is the original and our own rationality its derivative, what is more inevitable and right than that by analogy we call it Father? The whole process comes from the indestructible fact that reason communes only with its like and cannot possibly commune with anything else. Physical bulk has no more to do with it than color or sound or the combustion of stellar gas. The notion, therefore, that the communion of kindred natures is made impossible by bigness, although bigness has absolutely nothing in common with the tie that constitutes the kinship, seems to be very weird indeed. And in its weirdness let us leave it.

The third proposition, that we can form no idea of the ultimate power because its works are stupendous, need not delay us long. There is only one condition that would prevent us from forming an idea of the principle of the whole, and that would be if the whole were a chaos. Then indeed any idea of it would be impossible, for it would contradict the power in us which forms an idea of anything. For an idea is a form of reason, and if there were chaos — that is, irrationality — there would be nothing to which a form of reason could apply. Science would be impossible, and we, like everything else, should be mad. But since the universe is not a chaos but a cosmos, then not only may we say, but we must say, that its organizing principle, its constituent ground, is of the nature of rationality; for when we say cosmos we say objectified rationality. The affirmation proceeds again from the nature of reason and the responsive nature of things. Once more size as mere bulk has nothing to do with it. What we are concerned with all through is no huge aggregate of sense qualities that turns our lower imagination tipsy, but the constituent life of a system that makes our higher reason coherent. Every page and paragraph of science postulates a rational universe. Therefore the principle of the universe is rational. Not only is it not presumptuous to say this, but we should wreck the whole order of the world if we did not. And that would be an achievement which really would be presumptuous.

Finally, there is another queer feature to the Copernican argument. It is so preoccupied with irrelevant physical hugeness that it ignores the only thing which it is vital not to ignore — namely, spiritual majesty. It fixes our attention on billions of suns. But we ask: Can any one of these globes of gas on fire, or can all of them put together, perform a single act of heroism, or live in self-sacrificing loyalty, or suffer for justice, or die for truth? No. Yet this atom called man whom these men wish to make paltry can do that, has magnificently done it, and will magnificently do it again provided they do not corrupt him with the sophistry of worthless bigness. Before this capacity to live and die for what is august, all the fires of incandescent stars fall away to ashes and leave the human soul confronting eternal Holiness as its ultimate explanation, its last end, its final authority, and its only kindred and companion within all the horizons of the world.

Instead of man’s being extinguished by the stars it is the stars that are extinguished by man. He alone, with whatever other spiritual beings substantially like him that the universe may contain, speaks the language of the Infinite; alone transcends the spatial; alone answers when heavenly voices speak to him; alone has a hunger and a thirst which neither the earth nor all those conflagrant spheres can assuage, but only the central Spirit can allay, only the eternal Truth and Right whose likeness he is, whose child through unimaginable ascents to fulfillment he shall ever be.

V

The conclusion, then, seems forced upon us that neither in method nor in detail have our captains in the assault on high Heaven given us any illustrious performance. Nor should we, I believe, find this conclusion greatly modified if, in addition to the Copernican argument, we had time to examine the negation based upon the work of Darwin and Freud. The whole anti-religious effort, especially as we observe it in America, is abrupt and slipshod. It does not go to the heart of things. Like most of the rest of our philosophy it does not descend to first principles; and like a good part of our philosophy it is declamatory, and more suggestive of the proceedings of a caucus than of the reticent sobriety of a search for truth. If the thing is to be done at all it could be better done. But it will not be better done until there is an abatement of the grosser symptoms of theophobia.

When, further, we consider how flat and common, how destitute of insight and emaciated in power, the proffered substitutes for God are, we are obliged to say that the whole design slithers away to very dreary stuff at the end. So impotent in imagination are these substitutes, and so much more marked by sentimentality than by coherence, that nothing is left us but to call the endeavor to discover something just as good as God the worst bankruptcy in history. If the destructive effort was not too brilliant, the constructive is hardly less than shabby. And if we look into the latest development of it the shabbiness is seen to be moral as well as intellectual. We are now having morality defined as conduct that best serves the human physiological organism. We hear from an eminent philosopher in England that infidelity in marriage is not a thing to take offense at, but to expect and condone. From another student of social mores we learn that the revered mother-image and wife-image are coming to be regarded as suffocating to man’s erotic life, and that they are on the way to being replaced by the mistress-image and the courtesan-image, which will be so little revered and so subject to casual change that they will relieve eroticism of danger from suffocation forevermore. Another scholar tells us that libidinousness, whoever commits it, need give us no concern if only it is attended with ’artistry.’ Still others admit frankly that in sex habits we are reverting to the level of savages and that it is right we should. And so civilization arrives at its final splendid term.

All this, with its complete lack of an historical sense, with its impressionism instead of thought, with its powerlessness to reason out what animality is or to give it its ordered place in an ascending scale of values, and with its essential levity in taking account of consequences, is but the last step in a crooked course. Mutilate the human spirit in the manner now so fiercely pursued; make man a trivial biped, his reason a comic incident accessory to his belly, his conscience an echo of the stupidities of the jungle, his aspiration a byproduct of sexuality, his life an animal episode in the midst of chaos and the lightless bosom of death, and his universe a brazen solicitation to delusion — and you will one day see unfolded the ruin that is implicit in these germs of desperation and collapse. We do not see them unfolded yet, for we are still living on the spiritual nourishment stored for us by those who aspired and adored. Mighty souls have led forth our migration from the sty, and the shining remembrance of them lingers with us still. It will remain with us, we hope, forever. And perhaps one of the reasons why we shall not cast the memory away is the plain sight of the results of deserting it.

These results are now laid before us in the outspoken words of the men who are counseling us to extinguish the light of spirit. They imply that there is a new firmament — the abdomen; a new end for philosophy — to prove that man is ridiculous; a new purpose for culture — to bestow on animalism the touch of the æsthete; a new conception of morals—to show that conscience is barbarous; and a new ideal for the home — to be an interval in the pursuit of promiscuity. High lords of thought are saying aloud what twenty years ago the brothel would not have said above a whisper. By such means felicity and dignity are promised to our children, kept happily ignorant that once a luminous spirit spoke in Galilee, and fortunately delivered from the peril of fidelity to a holy and glorious God!

Perhaps, however, the learned men who propose all this do not expect us to adopt it. It may be that in their inmost hearts they hope, and for all we know pray, that we shall continue to believe in God and in our stumbling way try to do His will. Possibly even they might confess to us in secret that, after all, God is the only refuge of sanity from the lunatic asylum which certain of the erudite are so busy in building.