|(Photo credit: Wikipedia)|
Before entering upon an inquiry into religious unbelief, we need to form a correct estimate of its prevalence. If, as many would have us think, there is nothing unusual in the present situation—if the age of faith is returning,1 it is hardly worth while to enter upon this inquiry at all. If, on the other hand, the forces hostile to the Christian faith differ essentially from those that stirred up waves of scepticism in the past—if there is overwhelming evidence that belief among educated men is fast decaying, it is surely high time to investigate the grounds of unbelief, and to welcome the fullest discussion concerning the best means of dealing with an entirely new and extremely grave situation. It is only the shortest-sighted policy that would shelve a disagreeable question until mischief had occurred. It is better to face the facts. From every point of view, concealment regarding a question of such vital importance as the truth of Christianity is to be deplored; while an attitude of indifference on a subject that should be of surpassing interest to us all can only be characterised as amazing—unless, indeed, the real explanation be that men have ceased to believe.
We must, then, determine, in the first place, whether we are witnessing simply a wave of scepticism that will shortly subside again, or whether the present situation in the religious world is altogether unprecedented. The truth of the matter will best be learnt from the lips of those to whom pessimistic admissions must be peculiarly distressing, and who would therefore be the last either to raise a false alarm or to be guilty of an exaggeration. The Bishop of London has warned us2 that “the truth of the matter really is that all over Europe a great conflict is being fought between the old faith in a supernatural revelation and a growing disbelief in it.” The Bishop of Salisbury lately3 said: “There has been revealed to us the terrible and painful fact that a great many are giving up public worship, and that a large proportion of the people of England pay little attention to religion at all.” Not long ago Lord Hugh Cecil expressed4 the same opinion in the following words: “On all sides there are signs of the decay of the Faith. People do not go to church, or, if they go, it is for the sake of the music, or for some non-religious motive. The evidence is overwhelming that the doctrines of Christianity have passed into the region of doubt.” From Dr. Horton we learn that “vast numbers of people in England to-day have forsaken the best and highest ideal of life known to them before they have found a better and higher.... While Professor Haeckel and Professor Ray Lankester do in their way offer an alternative, and present to us the solution of the great enigma according to their light, the bulk of people in our day surrender the old and tried ideal, fling it aside, assume that it is discredited, live without it, and make no serious attempt to find a better ideal.”5
Are there not indications, moreover, everywhere in the literature of the day? The works of some of our greatest scholars are either covertly or openly agnostic. The more thoughtful of our magazines, such as the Nineteenth Century, Fortnightly Review, Hibbert Journal, Independent Review, etc., are continually publishing articles which teem with heterodoxy. The “Do We Believe?” correspondence in the Daily Telegraph (not to mention the more recent controversies in the Standard, Daily Mail, and Daily News) was without precedent, and highly significant of the present state of religious unrest. In a lecture reported in the Tablet, Father Gerard voiced the growing feeling of apprehension when he referred to the “Do We Believe?” controversy and the “amazing success” of the Rationalist Press Association as indicating a situation of “the utmost gravity, as gravely disquieting as any with which in her long career the Church has ever been confronted.” Also it may be noticed that organised efforts have commenced all over England to answer inquiries concerning the truth of Christianity by means of apologetic literature and lectures. What do these inquiries portend? The reply is given in the warning of the Rev. Mark Pattison in his essay on “Tendencies of Religious Thought in England.” “When an age,” he says, “is found occupied in proving its creed, this is but a token that the age has ceased to have a proper belief in it.”
Whichever way we turn the same spectacle confronts us. In France especially, and also in Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Holland, Belgium, Italy, Spain, the United States, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Brazil, and Argentina (where the men are practically all agnostics), free thought is making rapid progress. Only in Russia, where ninety per cent. of the population are uneducated, is the growth small and confined to the “intellectuals.” Never in the world’s history has there been so much disbelief in the “supernatural”; and, with the advance of science and education, this disbelief appears likely to be one day almost universal. Militant Rationalism is jubilant; while the pastor of the Theistic Church6 proclaims: “I see a battle coming. I do not, like Froude, predict that it will be fought once more, as of old, in blood and tears; but I am as certain as I am of to-morrow’s dawn that a mighty conflict is at hand which will revolutionise the religious thought and feeling of Christendom.”
It is sheer folly for the Church to comfort herself with the reflection that this is not the first time in the history of Christianity that disbelief has manifested itself. In the early days of the Church the heretic was not in possession of the knowledge that we have since acquired. He could not support his views, as he can now, with the facts of science. At every step he could be met by arguments which he had no adequate means of refuting, and if he dared to deny the “supernatural” there was an enormous preponderance of public opinion against him. Indeed, he himself generally believed in the “supernatural,” though he was sceptical of the particular evidence of it on which Christianity had been founded. Retarded by Christianity itself—or, shall we say, by its interpreters?—knowledge was unable to advance; it receded, and the clock was put back in scientific research. Darkness reigned supreme for over a thousand years. At last the dawn began to break. What was the result? The children of light suffered for their temerity; but their ideas were eventually absorbed, and beliefs were suitably reformed. Thus the Copernican system was gradually accepted, and so were the discoveries which followed, up to fifty years ago. Then, however, the established beliefs received shock after shock in rapid succession—shocks from which they do not yet show any promise of recovering. The myriads of worlds in the processes of birth and death; the vast antiquity of the earth; the long history of man and his animal origin; the reign of natural law, and the consequent discredit of the supernatural; the suspicions aroused by the study of comparative mythology; the difficulties of “literal inspiration”; the doubt thrown by the Higher Criticism on many cherished beliefs—these and the like have shaken the very foundations of our faith, and are the cause of agnosticism among the vast majority of our leaders of thought and science.
Ecclesiastics, however, with certain notable exceptions, appear to be labouring under the delusion that a reconciliation has taken place of late between Religion and Science, and that the voice of the Higher Criticism has been hushed—at least, they are continually assuring us to this effect. They remain under this delusion for two reasons. First, because they are more or less ignorant of science and of the preponderating opinion of the scientific world concerning the truth of Christianity. Secondly, because they are lulled into a feeling of security through misconceptions regarding the attitude of the laity. There appears to be the same, or nearly the same, average of religious conformity as heretofore, and the consensus of opinion seems to be all on the side of church and chapel. Any falling off in religious fervour is attributed to sheer carelessness rather than to unbelief. From the days of Huxley until quite lately there have been no attacks upon Christianity worth mentioning. The Churches fail to realise that this religious conformity and goodwill towards the Christian faith has generally no connection whatever with a conviction of the truth of Christianity, and that, where there is this conviction, it is usually among those who are ignorant of the chief causes for suspicion. I propose, therefore, in the first instance, to examine some of the more usual types among the laity. Obviously, in doing so I shall be omitting a great many shades of thought. I shall say very little about the opinions of the genuine believer or of the hopelessly thoughtless, and nothing of the opinions of evil-livers. My object is to set forth the types which are most likely to have been misunderstood by the clergy.