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The Utility Of Religion
An Essay By John Stuart Mill

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                     The Utility of Religion
                      by John Stuart Mill
                 Written between 1850 and 1858
                         Public Domain                                  

It has sometimes been remarked how much has been written, both by friends 
and enemies, concerning the truth of religion, and how little, at least in 
the way of discussion or controversy, concerning its usefulness. This, 
however, might have been expected; for the truth, in matters which so 
deeply affect us, is our first concernment. If religion, or any particular 
form of it, is true, its usefulness follows without other proof. If to 
know authentically in what order of things, under what government of the 
universe it is our destiny to live, were not useful, it is difficult to 
imagine what could be considered so. Whether a person is in a pleasant or 
in an unpleasant place, a palace or a prison, it cannot be otherwise than 
useful to him to know where he is. So long, therefore, as men accepted the 
teachings Of their religion as positive facts, no more a matter of doubt 
than their own existence or the existence of the objects around them, to 
ask the use of believing it could not possibly occur to them. The utility 
of religion did not need to be asserted until the arguments for its truth 
bad in a great measure ceased to convince. People must either have ceased 
to believe, or have ceased to rely on the belief of others, before they 
could take that inferior ground of defence without a consciousness of 
lowering what they were endeavouring to raise. An argument for the utility 
of religion is an appeal to unbelievers, to induce them to practise a well 
meant hypocrisy, or to semi-believers to make them avert their eyes from 
what might possibly shake their unstable belief, or finally to persons in 
general to abstain from expressing any doubts they may feel, since a 
fabric of immense importance to mankind is so insecure at its foundations, 
that men must hold their breath in its neighbourhood for fear of blowing 
it down. 
In the present period of history, however, we seem to have arrived at a 
time when, among the arguments for and against religion, those which 
relate to its usefulness assume an important place. We are in an age of 
weak beliefs, and in which such belief as men have is much more determined 
by their wish to believe than by any mental appreciation of evidence. The 
wish to believe does not arise only from selfish but often from the most 
disinterested feelings; and though it cannot produce the unwavering and 
perfect reliance which once existed, it fences round all that to ask the 
use of believing it could not possibly occur to them. The utility of 
religion did not need to be asserted until the arguments for its truth bad 
in a great measure ceased to convince. People must either have ceased to 
believe, or have ceased to rely on the belief of others, before they could 
take that inferior ground of defence without a consciousness of lowering 
what they were endeavouring to raise. An argument for the utility of 
religion is an appeal to unbelievers, to induce them to practise a well 
meant hypocrisy, or to semi-believers to make them avert their eyes from 
what might possibly shake their unstable belief, or finally to persons in 
general to abstain from expressing any doubts they may feel, since a 
fabric of immense importance to mankind is so insecure at its foundations, 
that men must hold their breath in its neighbourhood for fear of blowing 
it down. 
If religious belief be indeed so necessary to mankind, as we are 
continually assured that it is, there is great reason to lament, that the 
intellectual grounds of it should require to be backed by moral bribery or 
subornation of the understanding. Such a state of things is most 
uncomfortable even for those who may, without actual insincerity, describe 
themselves as believers; and still worse as regards those who, having 
consciously ceased to find the evidences of religion convincing, are 
withheld from saying so lest they should aid in doing an irreparable 
injury to mankind. It is a most painful position to a conscientious and 
cultivated mind, to be drawn in contrary directions by the two noblest of 
all objects of pursuit, truth, and the general good. Such a conflict must 
inevitably produce a growing indifference to one or other of these 
objects, most probably to both. Many who could render giant's service both 
to truth and to mankind if they believed that they could serve the one 
without loss to the other, are either totally paralysed, or led to confine 
their exertions to matters of minor detail, by the apprehension that any 
real freedom of speculation, or any considerable strengthening or 
enlargement of the thinking faculties of mankind at large, might, by 
making them unbelievers, be the surest way to render them vicious and 
miserable. Many, again, having observed in others or experienced in 
themselves elevated feelings which they imagine incapable of emanating 
from any other source than religion, have an honest, aversion to anything 
tending, as they think, to dry up the fountain of such feelings. They, 
therefore, either dislike and disparage all philosophy, or addict 
themselves with intolerant zeal to those forms of it in which intuition 
usurps the place of evidence, and internal feeling is made the test of 
objective truth. The whole of the prevalent metaphysics of the present 
century is one tissue of suborned evidence in favour of religion; often of 
Deism only, but in any case involving a misapplication of noble impulses 
and speculative capacities, among the most deplorable of those wretched 
wastes of human faculties which make us wonder that enough is left to keep 
mankind progressive, at however slow a pace. It is time to consider, more 
impartially and therefore more deliberately than is usually done, whether 
all this straining to prop up beliefs which require so great an expense of 
intellectual toil and ingenuity to keep them standing, yields any 
sufficient return in human well being; and whether that end would not be 
better served by a frank recognition that certain subjects are 
inaccessible to our faculties, and by the application of the same mental 
powers to the strengthening and enlargement of those other sources of 
virtue and happiness which stand in no need of the support or sanction of 
supernatural beliefs and inducements. 
Neither, on the other hand, can the difficulties of the question be so 
promptly disposed of, as sceptical philosophers are sometimes inclined to 
believe. It is not enough to aver, in general terms, that there never can 
be any conflict between truth and utility; that if religion be false, 
nothing but good can be the consequence of rejecting it. For, though the 
knowledge of every positive truth is an useful acquisition, this doctrine 
cannot without reservation be applied to negative truth. When the only 
truth ascertainable is that nothing can be known, we do not, by this 
knowledge, gain any new fact by which to guide ourselves; we are, at best, 
only disabused of our trust in some former guide-mark, which, though 
itself fallacious, may have pointed in the same direction with the best 
indications we have, and if it happens to be more conspicuous and legible, 
may have kept us right when they might have been overlooked. It is, in 
short, perfectly conceivable that religion may be morally useful without 
being intellectually sustainable: and it would be a proof of great 
prejudice in any unbeliever to deny, that there have been ages, and that 
there are still both nations and individuals, with regard to whom this is 
actually the case. Whether it is the case generally, and with reference to 
the future, it is the object of this paper to examine. We propose to 
inquire whether the belief in religion, considered as a mere persuasion, 
apart from the question of its truth, is really indispensable to the 
temporal welfare of mankind; whether the usefulness of the belief is 
intrinsic and universal, or local, temporary, and, in some sense, 
accidental; and whether the benefits which it yields might not be obtained 
otherwise, without the very large alloy of evil, by which, even in the 
best form of the belief, those benefits are qualified. 
With the arguments on one side of the question we all are familiar: 
religious writers have not neglected to celebrate to the utmost the 
advantages both of religion in general and 'of their own religious faith 
in particular. But those who have held the contrary opinion have generally 
contented themselves with insisting on the more obvious and flagrant of 
the positive evils which have been engendered by past and present forms of 
religious belief. And, in truth, mankind have been so unremittingly 
occupied in doing evil to one another in the name of religion, from the 
sacrifice of Iphigenia to the Dragonnades of Louis XIV. (not to descend 
lower), that for any immediate purpose there was little need to seek 
arguments further off. These odious consequences, however, do not belong 
to religion in itself, but to particular forms of it, and afford no 
argument against the usefulness of any religions except those by which 
such enormities are encouraged Moreover, the worst of these evils are 
already in a great measure extirpated from the more improved forms of 
religion; and as mankind advance in ideas and in feelings, this process of 
extirpation continually goes on: the immoral, or otherwise mischievous 
consequences which have been drawn. from religion, are, one by one, 
abandoned, and, after having been long fought for as of its very essence, 
are discovered to be easily separable from it. These mischiefs, indeed, 
after they are past, though no longer arguments against religion, remain 
valid as large abatements from its beneficial influence, by showing that 
some of the greatest improvements ever made in the moral sentiments of 
mankind have taken place without it and in spite of it, and that what we 
are taught to regard as the chief of all improving influences, has in 
practice fallen so far short of such a character, that one of the hardest 
burdens laid upon the other good influences of human nature has been that 
of improving religion itself. The improvement, however, has taken place; 
it is still proceeding, and for the sake of fairness it should be assumed 
to be complete. We ought to suppose religion to have accepted the best 
human morality which reason and goodness can work out, from philosophical, 
christian, or any other elements. When it has thus freed itself from the 
pernicious consequences which result from its identification with any bad 
moral doctrine, the ground is clear for considering whether its useful 
properties are exclusively inherent in it, or their benefits can be 
obtained without it. 
This essential portion of the inquiry into the temporal usefulness of 
religion, is the subject of the present Essay. It is a part which has been 
little treated of by sceptical writers. The only direct discussion of it 
with which I am acquainted, is in a short treatise, understood to have 
been partly compiled from manuscripts of Mr. Bentham, and abounding in 
just and profound views; but which, as it appears to me, presses many 
parts of the argument too hard. This treatise, and the incidental remarks 
scattered through the writings of M. Comte, are the only sources known to 
me from which anything very pertinent to the subject can be made available 
for the sceptical side of the argument. I shall use both of them freely in 
the sequel of the present discourse. 
The inquiry divides itself into two parts, corresponding to the double 
aspect of the subject; its social, and its individual aspect. What does 
religion do for society, and what for the individual? What amount of 
benefit to social interests, in the ordinary sense of the phrase, arises 
from. religious belief? And what influence has it in improving and 
ennobling individual human nature? 
The first question is interesting to everybody; the latter only to the 
best; but to them it is, if there be any difference, the more important of 
the two. We shall begin with the former, as being that which best admits 
of being easily brought to a precise issue. 
To speak first, then, of religious belief as an instrument of social good. 
We must commence by drawing a distinction most commonly overlooked. It is 
usual to credit religion as such with the whole of the power inherent in 
any system of moral duties inculcated by education and enforced by 
opinion. Undoubtedly mankind would be in a deplorable state if no 
principles or precepts of justice, veracity, beneficence, were taught 
publicly or privately, and if these virtues were not encouraged, and the 
opposite vices repressed, by the praise and blame, the favourable and 
unfavourable sentiments, of mankind. And since nearly everything of this 
sort which does take place, takes place in the name of religion; since 
almost all who are taught any morality whatever, have it taught to them as 
religion, and inculcated on them through life principally in that 
character; the effect which the teaching produces as teaching, it is 
supposed to produce as religious teaching, and religion receives the 
credit of all the influence in human affairs which belongs to any 
generally accepted system of rules for the guidance and government of 
human life. 
Few persons have sufficiently considered how great an influence this is; 
what vast efficacy belongs naturally to any doctrine received with 
tolerable unanimity as true, and impressed on the mind from the earliest 
childhood as duty. A little reflection will, I think, lead us to the 
conclusion that it is this which is the great moral power in human 
affairs, and that religion only seems so powerful because this mighty 
power has been under its command. 
Consider first, the enormous influence of authority on the human mind. I 
am now speaking of involuntary influence; effect on men's conviction, on 
their persuasion, on their involuntary sentiments. Authority is the 
evidence on which the mass of mankind believe everything which they are 
said to know, except facts of which their own senses have taken 
cognizance. It is the evidence on which even the wisest receive all those 
truths of science, or facts in history or in life, of which they have not 
personally examined the proofs. Over the immense majority of human beings, 
the concurrence of mankind, in any matter of opinion, is all powerful. 
Whatever is thus certified to them, they believe with a fullness of 
assurance which they do not accord even to the evidence of their senses 
when the general opinion of mankind stands ,in opposition to it. When, 
therefore, any rule of life and duty, whether grounded or not on religion, 
has conspicuously received the general assent, it obtains a hold on the 
belief of every individual, stronger than it would have even if he had 
arrived at it by the inherent force of his own understanding. If Novalis 
could say, not without a real meaning, ``My belief has gained infinitely 
to me from the moment when one other human being has began to believe the 
same'', how much more when it is not one other person, but all the human 
beings whom one knows of. Some may urge it as an objection, that no scheme 
of morality has this universal assent, and that none, therefore can be 
indebted to this source for whatever power it possesses over the mind. So 
far as relates to the present age, the assertion is true, and strengthens 
the argument which it might at first seem to controvert; for exactly in 
proportion as the received systems of belief have been contested, and it 
has become known that they have many dissentients, their hold on the 
general belief has been loosened, and their practical influence on conduct 
has declined: and since this has happened to them notwithstanding the 
religious sanction which attached to them, there can be no stronger 
evidence that they were powerful not as religion, but as beliefs generally 
accepted by mankind. To find people who believe their religion as a person 
believes that fire will burn his hand when thrust into it, we must seek 
them in those Oriental countries where Europeans do not yet predominate, 
or in the European world when it was still universally Catholic. Men often 
disobeyed their religion in those times, because their human passions and 
appetites were too strong for it, or because the religion itself afforded 
means of indulgence to breaches of its obligations; but though they 
disobeyed, they, for the most part, did not doubt. There was in those days 
an absolute and unquestioning completeness of belief, never since general 
in Europe. 
Such being the empire exercised over mankind by simple authority, the mere 
belief and testimony of their fellow creatures; consider next how 
tremendous is the power of education; how unspeakable is the effect of 
bringing people up from infancy in a belief, and in habits founded on it. 
Consider also that in all countries, and from the earliest ages down to 
the present, not merely those who are called, in a restricted sense of the 
term, the educated, but all or nearly all who have been brought up by 
parents, or by any one interested in them, have been taught from their 
earliest years some kind of religious belief, and some precepts as the 
commands of the heavenly powers to them and to mankind. And as it cannot 
be imagined that the commands of God are to young children anything more 
than the commands of their parents, it is reasonable to think that any 
system of social duty which mankind might adopt, even though divorced from 
religion, would have the same advantage of being inculcated from 
childhood, and would have it hereafter much more perfectly than any 
doctrine has it at present, society being far more disposed than formerly 
to take pains for the moral tuition of those numerous classes whose 
education it has hitherto left very much to chance. Now it is especially 
characteristic of the impressions of early education, that they possess 
what it is so much more difficult for later convictions to obtain-command 
over the feelings. We see daily how powerful a hold these first 
impressions retain over the feelings even of those, who have given up the 
opinions which they were early taught. While on the other hand, it is only 
persons of a much higher degree of natural sensibility and intellect 
combined than it is at all common to meet with, whose feelings entwine 
themselves with anything like the same force round opinions which they 
have adopted from their own investigations later in life; and even when 
they do, we may say with truth that it is because the strong sense of 
moral duty, the sincerity, courage and self-devotion which enabled them to 
do so, were themselves the fruits of early impressions. 
The power of education is almost boundless: there is not one natural 
inclination which it is not strong enough to coerce, and, if needful, to 
destroy by disuse. In the greatest recorded victory which education has 
ever achieved over a whole host of natural inclinations in an entire 
people---the maintenance through centuries of the institutions of 
Lycurgus,---it was very little, if even at all, indebted to religion: for 
the Gods of the Spartans were the same as those of other Greek states; and 
though, no doubt, every state of Greece believed that its particular 
polity bad at its first establishment, some sort of divine sanction 
(mostly that of the Delphian oracle), there was seldom any difficulty in 
obtaining the same or an equally powerful sanction for a change. It was 
not religion which formed the strength of the Spartan institutions: the 
root of the system was devotion to Sparta, to the ideal of the country or 
State: which transformed into ideal devotion to a greater country, the 
world, would be equal to that and far nobler achievements. Among the 
Greeks generally, social morality was extremely independent of religion. 
The inverse relation was rather that which existed between them; the 
worship of the Gods was inculcated chiefly as a social duty, inasmuch as 
if they were neglected or insulted, it was believed that their displeasure 
would fall not more upon the offending individual than upon the state or 
community which bred and tolerated him. Such moral teaching as existed in 
Greece had very little to do with religion. The Gods were not supposed to 
concern themselves much with men's conduct to one another, except when men 
had contrived to make the Gods themselves an interested party, by placing 
an assertion or an engagement under the sanction of a solemn appeal to 
them, by oath or vow. I grant that the sophists and philosophers, and even 
popular orators, did their best to press religion into the service of 
their special objects, and to make it be thought that the sentiments of 
whatever kind, which they were engaged in inculcating, were particularly 
acceptable to the Gods, but this never seems the primary consideration in 
any case save those of direct offence to the dignity of the Gods 
themselves. For the enforcement of human moralities secular inducements 
were almost exclusively relied on. The case of Greece is, I believe, the 
only one in which any teaching, other than religious, has had the 
unspeakable advantage of forming the basis of education: and though much 
may be said against the quality of some part of the teaching very little 
can be said against its effectiveness. The most memorable example of the 
power of education over conduct, is afforded (as I have just remarked) by 
this exceptional case; constituting a, strong presumption that in other 
cases, early religious teaching has owed its power over mankind rather to 
its being early than to its being religious. 
We have now considered two powers, that of authority, and that of early 
education, which operate through men's involuntary beliefs, feelings and 
desires, and which religion has hitherto held as its almost exclusive 
appanage. Let us now consider a third power which operates directly on 
their actions, whether their involuntary sentiments are carried with it or 
not. This is the power of public opinion; of the praise and blame, the 
favour and disfavour, of their fellow creatures; and is a source of 
strength inherent in any system of moral belief which is generally 
adopted, whether connected with religion or not. 
Men are so much accustomed to give to the motives that decide their 
actions, more flattering names than justly belong to them, that they are 
generally quite unconscious how much those parts of their conduct which 
they most pride themselves on (as well as some which they are ashamed of), 
are determined by the motive of public opinion. Of course public opinion 
for the most part enjoins the same things which are enjoined by the 
received social morality; that morality being, in truth, the summary of 
the conduct which each one of the multitude, whether he himself observes 
it with any conduct which each one of the multitude, whether he himself 
observes it with any strictness or not, desires that others should observe 
towards him. People are therefore easily able to flatter themselves that 
they are acting from the motive of conscience when they are doing in 
obedience to the inferior motive, things which their conscience approves. 
We continually see how great is the power of opinion in opposition to 
conscience; how men ``follow a multitude to do evil''; how often opinion 
induces them to do what their conscience disapproves, and still oftener 
prevents them from doing what it commands. But when the motive of public 
opinion acts in the same direction with conscience, which, since it has 
usually itself made the conscience in the first instance, it for the most 
part naturally does; it is then, of all motives which operate on the bulk 
of mankind, the most overpowering 
The names of all the strongest passions (except the merely animal ones) 
manifested by human nature, are each of them a name for some one part only 
of the motive derived from what I here call public opinion. The love of 
glory; the love of praise; the love of admiration; the love of respect and 
deference; even the love of sympathy, are portions of its attractive 
power. Vanity is a vituperative name for its attractive influence 
generally, when considered excessive in degree. The fear of shame, the 
dread of ill repute or of being disliked or hated, are the direct and 
simple forms of its deterring power. But the deterring force of the 
unfavourable sentiments of mankind does not consist solely in the 
painfulness of knowing oneself to be the object of those sentiments; it 
includes all the penalties which they can inflict: exclusion from social 
intercourse and from the innumerable good offices which human beings 
require from one another; the forfeiture of all that is called success in 
life; often the great diminution or total loss of means of subsistence; 
positive ill offices of various kinds, sufficient to render life 
miserable, and reaching in some states of society as far as actual 
persecution to death. And again the attractive, or impelling influence of 
public opinion, includes the whole range of what is commonly meant by 
ambition: for, except in times of lawless military violence, the objects 
of social ambition can only be attained by means of the good opinion and 
favourable disposition of our fellow creatures; nor, in nine cases out of 
ten, would those objects be even desired, were it not for the power they 
confer over the sentiments of mankind. Even the pleasure of 
self-approbation, in the great majority, is mainly dependent on the 
opinion of others. Such is the involuntary influence of authority on 
ordinary minds, that persons must be of a better than ordinary mould to be 
capable of a full assurance that they are in the right, when the world, 
that is, when their world, thinks them wrong: nor is there, to most men, 
any proof so demonstrative of their own virtue or talent as that people in 
general seem to believe in it. Through all departments of human affairs, 
regard for the sentiments of our fellow creatures is in one shape or 
other, in nearly all characters, the pervading motive. And we ought to 
note that this motive is naturally strongest in the most sensitive 
natures, which are the most promising material for the formation of great 
virtues. How far its power reaches is known by too familiar experience to 
require either proof or illustration here. When once the means of living 
have been obtained, the far greater part of the remaining labour and 
effort which takes place on the earth, has for its object to acquire the 
respect or the favourable regard of mankind; to be looked up to, or at all 
events, not to be looked down upon by them. The industrial and commercial 
activity which advance civilization, the frivolity, prodigality, and 
selfish thirst of aggrandizement which retard it, flow equally from that 
source. While as an instance of the power exercised by the terrors derived 
from public opinion, we know how many murders have been committed merely 
to remove a witness who know and was likely to disclose some secret that 
would bring disgrace upon his murderer. 
Any one who fairly and impartially considers the subject, will see reason 
to believe that those great effects on human conduct, which are commonly 
ascribed to motives derived directly from religion, have mostly for their 
proximate cause the influence of human opinion. Religion has been powerful 
not by its intrinsic force, but because it has wielded that additional and 
more mighty power. The effect of religion has been immense in giving a 
direction to public opinion: which has, in many most important respects, 
been wholly determined by it. But without the sanctions superadded by 
public opinion, its own proper sanctions have never, save in exceptional 
characters or in peculiar moods of mind, exercised a very potent 
influence, after the times had gone by, in which divine agency was 
supposed habitually to employ temporal rewards and punishments. When a man 
firmly believed that if lie violated the sacredness of a particular 
sanctuary he would be struck dead on the spot, or smitten suddenly with a 
mortal disease, he doubtless took care not to incur the penalty: but when 
any one. had had the courage to defy the danger, and escaped with 
impunity, the spell was broken. If ever any people were taught that they 
were under a divine government, and that unfaithfulness to their religion 
and law would be visited from above with temporal chastisements, the Jews 
were so. Yet their history was a mere succession of lapses into Paganism. 
Their prophets and historians, who held fast to the ancient beliefs 
(though they gave them so liberal an interpretation as to think it a 
sufficient manifestation of God's displeasure towards a king if any evil 
happened to his great grandson), never ceased to complain that their 
countrymen turned a deaf ear to their vaticinations; and hence, with the 
faith they held in a divine government operating by temporal penalties, 
they could not fail to anticipate (as Mirabeau's father without such 
prompting, was able to do on the eve of the French Revolution) la culbute 
générale; an expectation which, luckily for the credit of their prophetic 
powers, was fulfilled; unlike that of the Apostle John, who in the only 
intelligible prophecy in the Revelations, foretold to the city of the 
seven hills a fate like that of Nineveh and Babylon; which prediction 
remains to this hour unaccomplished. Unquestionably the conviction which 
experience in time forced on all but the very ignorant, that divine 
punishments were not to be confidently expected in a temporal form, 
contributed much to the downfall of the old religions, and the general 
adoption of one which without absolutely excluding providential 
interferences in this life for the punishment of guilt or the reward of 
merit, removed the principal scene of divine retribution to a world after 
death. But rewards and punishments postponed to that distance of time, and 
never seen by the eye, are not calculated, even when infinite and eternal, 
to have, on ordinary minds, a very powerful effect in opposition to strong 
temptation. Their remoteness alone is a prodigious deduction from their 
efficacy, on such minds as those which most require the restraint of 
punishment. A still greater abatement is their uncertainty, which belongs 
to them from the very nature of the case: for rewards and punishments 
administered after death, must be awarded not definitely to particular 
actions, but on a general survey of the person's whole life, and he easily 
persuades himself that whatever may have been his peccadilloes, there will 
be a balance in his favour at the last. All positive religions aid this 
self-delusion. Bad religions teach that divine vengeance may be bought 
off, by offerings, or personal abasement; the better religious, not to 
drive sinners to despair, dwell so much on the divine mercy, that hardly 
any one is compelled to think himself irrevocably condemned. The sole 
quality in these punishments which might seem calculated to make them 
efficacious, their overpowering magnitude, is itself a reason why nobody 
(except a hypochondriac here and there) ever really believes that he is in 
any very serious danger of incurring them. Even the worst malefactor is 
hardly able to think that any crime he has bad it in his power to commit, 
any evil he can have inflicted in this short space of existence, can have 
deserved torture extending through an eternity. Accordingly religious 
writers and preachers are never tired of complaining how little effect 
religious motives have on men's lives and conduct, notwithstanding the 
tremendous penalties denounced. 
Mr. Bentham, whom I have already mentioned as one of the few authors who 
have written anything to the purpose on the efficacy of the religious 
sanction, adduces several cases to prove that religious obligation, when 
not enforced by public opinion, produces scarcely any effect on conduct. 
His first example is that of oaths. The oaths taken in courts of justice, 
and any others which from the manifest importance to society of their 
being kept, public opinion rigidly enforces, are felt as real and binding 
obligations. But university oaths and custom-house oaths, though in a 
religious point of view equally obligatory, are in practice utterly 
disregarded even by men in other respects honourable. The university oath 
to obey the statutes has been for centuries, with universal acquiescence, 
set at nought: and utterly false statements are (or used to be) daily and 
unblushingly sworn to at the Custom-house, by persons as attentive as 
other people to all the ordinary obligations of life. The explanation 
being, that veracity in these cases was not enforced by public opinion. 
The second case which Bentham cites is duelling; a practice now, in this 
country, obsolete, but in full vigour in several other christian 
countries; deemed and admitted to be a sin by almost all who, 
nevertheless, in obedience to opinion, and to escape from personal 
humiliation, are guilty of it. The third case is that of illicit sexual 
intercourse; which in both sexes, stands in the very highest rank of 
religious sins, yet not being severely censured by opinion in the male 
sex, they have in general very little scruple in committing it; while in 
the case of women, though the religious obligation is not stronger, yet 
being backed in real earnest by public opinion, it is commonly effectual. 
Some objection may doubtless be taken to Bentham's instances, considered 
as crucial experiments on the power of the religious sanction; for (it may 
be said) people do not really believe that in these cases they shall be 
punished by God, any more than by man. And this is certainly true in the 
case of those university and other oaths, which are habitually taken 
without any intention of keeping them. The oath, in these cases, is 
regarded as a mere formality, destitute of any serious meaning in the 
sight of the Deity; and the most scrupulous person, even if he does 
reproach himself for having taken an on, even if he does reproach himself 
for having taken an oath which nobody deems fit to be kept, does not in 
his conscience tax himself with the guilt of perjury, but only with the 
profanation of a ceremony. This, therefore, is not a good example of the 
weakness of the religious motive when divorced from that of human opinion. 
The point which it illustrates is rather the tendency of the one motive to 
come and go with the other, so that where the penalties of public opinion 
cease, the religious motive ceases also. The same criticism, however, is 
not equally applicable to Bentham's other examples, duelling, and sexual 
irregularities. Those who do these acts, the first by the command of 
public opinion, the latter with its indulgence, really do, in most cases, 
believe that they are offending God. Doubtless, they do not think that 
they are offending him in such a degree as very seriously to endanger 
their salvation. Their reliance on his mercy prevails over their dread of 
his resentment; affording an exemplification of the remark already made, 
that the unavoidable uncertainty of religious penalties makes them feeble 
as a deterring motive. They are so, even in the case of acts which human 
opinion condemns: much more, with those to which it is indulgent. What 
mankind think venial, it is hardly ever supposed that God looks upon in a 
serious light: at least by those who feel in themselves any inclination to 
practise it. 
I do not for a moment think of denying that there are states of mind in 
which the idea of religious punishment acts with the most overwhelming 
force. In hypochondriacal disease, and in those with whom, from great 
disappointments or other moral causes, the thoughts and imagination have 
assumed an habitually melancholy complexion, that topic, falling in with 
the pre-existing tendency of the mind, supplies images well fitted to 
drive the unfortunate sufferer even to madness. Often, during a temporary 
state of depression, these ideas take such a hold of the mind as to give a 
permanent turn to the character; being the most common case of what, in 
sectarian phraseology, is called conversion. But if the depressed state 
ceases after the conversion, as it commonly does, and the convert does not 
relapse, but perseveres in his new course of life, the principal 
difference between it and the old is usually found to be, that the man now 
guides his life by the public opinion of his religious associates, as he 
before guided it by that of the profane world. At all events, there is one 
clear proof how little the generality of mankind, either religious or 
worldly, really dread eternal punishments, when we see how, even at the 
approach of death, when the remoteness which took so much from their 
effect has been exchanged for the closest proximity, almost all persons 
who have not been guilty of some enormous crime (and many who have) are 
quite free from uneasiness as to their prospects in another world, and 
never for a moment seem to think themselves in any real danger of eternal 
punishment. 
With regard to the cruel deaths and bodily tortures, which confessors and 
martyrs have so often undergone for the sake of religion, I would not 
depreciate them by attributing any part of this admirable courage and 
constancy to the influence of human opinion. Human opinion indeed has 
shown itself quite equal to the production of similar firmness in persons 
not otherwise distinguished by moral excellence; such as the North 
American Indian at the stake. But if it was not the thought of glory in 
the eyes of their fellow-religionists, which upheld these heroic sufferers 
in their agony, as little do I believe that it was, generally speaking, 
that of the pleasures of heaven or the pains of hell. Their impulse was a 
divine enthusiasm---a self-forgetting devotion to an idea: a state of 
exalted feeling, by no means peculiar to religion, but which it is the 
privilege of every great cause to inspire; a phenomenon belonging to the 
critical moments of existence, not to the ordinary play of human motives, 
and from which nothing can be inferred as to the efficacy of the ideas 
which it sprung from, whether religious or any other, in overcoming 
ordinary temptations, and regulating the course of daily life. 
We may now have done with this branch of the subject, which is, after all, 
the vulgarest part of it. The value of religion as a supplement to human 
laws, a more cunning sort of police, an auxiliary to the thief-catcher and 
the hangman, is not that part of its claims which the more highminded of 
its votaries are fondest of insisting on: and they would probably be as 
ready as any one to admit, that if the nobler offices of religion in the 
soul could be dispensed with, a substitute might be found for so coarse 
and selfish a social instrument as the fear of hell. In their view of the 
matter, the best of mankind absolutely require religion for the perfection 
of their own character, even though the coercion of the worst might 
possibly be accomplished without its aid. 
Even in the social point of view, however, under its most elevated aspect, 
these nobler spirits generally assert the necessity of religion, as a 
teacher, if not as an enforcer, of social morality. They say, that 
religion alone can teach us what morality is; that all the high morality 
ever recognized by mankind, was learnt from religion; that the greatest 
uninspired philosophers in their sublimest flights, stopt far short of the 
christian morality, and whatever inferior morality they may have attained 
to (by the assistance, as many think, of dim traditions derived from the 
Hebrew books, or from a primaeval revelation) they never could induce the 
common mass of their fellow citizens to accept it from them. That, only 
when a morality is understood to come from the Gods, do men in general 
adopt it, rally round it, and lend their human sanctions for its 
enforcement. That granting the sufficiency of human motives to make the 
rule obeyed, were it not for the religious idea we should not have had the 
rule itself. 
There is truth in much of this, considered as matter of history. Ancient 
peoples have generally, if not always, received their morals, their laws, 
their intellectual beliefs, and even their practical arts of life, all in 
short which tended either to guide or to discipline them, as revelations 
from the superior powers, and in any other way could not easily have been 
induced to accept them. This was partly the effect of their hopes and 
fears from those powers, which were of much greater and more universal 
potency in early times, when the agency of the Gods was seen in the daily 
events of life, experience not having yet disclosed the fixed laws 
according to which physical phenomena succeed one another. Independently, 
too, of personal hopes and fears, the involuntary deference felt by these 
rude minds for power superior to their own, and the tendency to suppose 
that beings of superhuman power must also be of superhuman knowledge and 
wisdom, made them disinterestedly desire to conform their conduct to the 
presumed preferences of these powerful beings, and to adopt no new 
practice without their authorization either spontaneously given, or 
solicited and obtained. 
But because, when men were still savages, they, would not have received 
either moral or scientific truths unless they bad supposed them to be 
supernaturally imparted, does it follow that they would now give up moral 
truths any more than scientific, because they believed them to have no 
higher origin than wise and noble human hearts? Are not moral truths 
strong enough in their own evidence, at all events to retain the belief of 
mankind when once they have acquired it? I grant that some of the precepts 
of Christ as exhibited in the Gospels---rising far above the Paulism which 
is the foundation of ordinary Christianity---carry some kinds of moral 
goodness to a greater height than had ever been attained before, though 
much even of what is supposed to be peculiar to them is equalled in the 
Meditations of Marcus Antoninus, which we have no ground for believing to 
have been in any way indebted to Christianity. But this benefit, whatever 
it amounts to, has been gained. Mankind have entered into the possession 
of it. It has become the Property of humanity, and cannot now be lost by 
anything short of a return to primaeval barbarism. The ``new commandment 
to love one another''; the recognition that the greatest are those who 
serve, not who are served by, others; the reverence for the weak and 
humble, which is the foundation of chivalry, they and not the strong being 
pointed out as having the first place in God's regard, and the first claim 
on their fellow men; the lesson of the parable of the Good Samaritan; that 
of ``he that is without sin let him throw the first stone''; the precept 
of doing as we would be done by; and such other noble moralities as are to 
be found, mixed with some poetical exaggerations, and some maxims of which 
it is difficult to ascertain the precise object; in the authentic sayings, 
of Jesus of -Nazareth; these are surely in sufficient harmony with the 
intellect and feelings of every good man or woman, to be in no danger of 
being let go, after having been once acknowledged as the creed of the best 
and foremost portion of our species. There will be, as there have been, 
shortcomings enough for a long time to come in acting, on them; but that 
they should be forgotten, or cease to be operative on the human 
conscience, while human beings remain cultivated or civilized, may be 
pronounced, once for all, impossible. 
On the other hand, there is a very real evil consequent on ascribing a 
supernatural origin to the received maxims of morality. That origin 
consecrates the whole of them, and protects them from being discussed or 
criticized. So that if among the moral doctrines received as a part of 
religion, there be any which are imperfect---which were either erroneous 
from the first, or not properly limited and guarded in the expression, or 
which, unexceptionable once, are no longer suited to the changes that have 
taken place in human relations (and it is my firm belief that in so-called 
christian morality, instances of all these kinds are to be found) these 
doctrines are considered equally binding on the conscience with the 
noblest, most permanent and most universal precepts of Christ. Wherever 
morality is supposed to be of supernatural origin, morality is 
stereotyped; as law is, for the same reason, among believers in the Koran. 
Belief, then, in the supernatural, great as are the services which it 
rendered in the early stages of human development; cannot be considered to 
be any longer required, either for enabling us to know what is right and 
wrong in social morality, or for supplying us with motives to do right and 
to abstain from wrong. Such belief, therefore, is not necessary for social 
purposes, at least in the coarse way in which these can be considered 
apart from the character of the individual human being. That more elevated 
branch of the subject now remains to be considered. If supernatural 
beliefs are indeed necessary to the perfection of the individual 
character, they are necessary also to the highest excellence in social 
conduct: necessary in a far higher sense than that vulgar one, which 
constitutes it the great support of morality in common eyes. 
Let us then consider, what it is in human nature which causes it to 
require a religion; what wants of the human mind religion supplies, and 
what qualities it developes. When we have understood this, we shall be 
better able to judge, how far these wants can be otherwise supplied and 
those qualities, or qualities equivalent to them, unfolded and brought to 
perfection by other means. 
The old saying, Primus in orbe Deos fecit timor, I hold to be untrue, or 
to contain, at most, only a small amount of truth. Belief in Gods had, I 
conceive, even in the rudest minds, a more honourable origin. Its 
universality has been very rationally explained from the spontaneous 
tendency of the mind to attribute life and volition, similar to what it 
feels in itself, to all natural objects and phenomena which appear to be 
self-moving. This was a plausible fancy, and no better theory could be 
formed at first. It was naturally persisted in so long as the motions and 
operations of these objects seemed to be arbitrary, and incapable of being 
accounted for but by the free choice of the Power itself. At first, no 
doubt, the objects themselves were supposed to be alive; and this belief 
still subsists among African fetish-worshippers. But as it must soon have 
appeared absurd that things which could do so much more than man, could 
not or would not do what man does, as for example to speak, the transition 
was made to supposing that the object present to the senses was inanimate, 
but was the creature and instrument of an invisible being with a form and 
organs similar to the human. 
These beings having first been believed in, fear of them necessarily 
followed; since they were thought able to inflict at pleasure on human 
beings great evils, which the sufferers neither knew how to avert nor to 
foresee, but were left dependent, for their chances of doing either, upon 
solicitations addressed to the deities themselves. It is true, therefore, 
that fear had much to do with religion: but belief in the Gods evidently 
preceded, and did not arise from fear: though the fear, when established, 
was a strong support to the belief, nothing being conceived to be so great 
an offence to the divinities as any doubt of their existence. 
It is unnecessary to prosecute further the natural history of religion, as 
we have not here to account for, its origin in rude minds, but for its 
persistency in the cultivated, A sufficient explanation of this will, I 
conceive, be found in the small limits of man's certain, knowledge, and 
the boundlessness of his desire to know. Human existence is girt round 
with mystery: the narrow region of our experience is a small island in the 
midst of a boundless sea, which at once awes our feelings and stimulates 
our imagination by its vastness and its obscurity. To add to the mystery, 
the domain of our earthly existence is not only an island in infinite 
space, but also in infinite time. The past and the future are alike 
shrouded from us: we neither know the origin of anything which is, nor, 
its final destination. If we feel deeply interested in knowing that there 
are myriads of worlds at an immeasurable, and to our faculties 
inconceivable, distance from us in space; if we are eager to discover what 
little we can about these worlds, and when we cannot know what they are, 
can never satiate ourselves with speculating on what they may be; is it 
not a matter of far deeper interest to us to learn, or even to conjecture, 
from whence came this nearer world which we inhabit; what cause or agency 
made it what it is, and on what powers depend its future fate? Who would 
not desire this more ardently than any other conceivable knowledge, so 
long as there appeared the slightest hope of attaining it? What would not 
one give for any credible tidings from that mysterious region, any glimpse 
into it which might enable us to see the smallest light through its 
darkness, especially any theory of it which we could believe, and which 
represented it as tenanted by a benignant and not a hostile influence? But 
since we are able to penetrate into that region with the imagination only, 
assisted by specious but inconclusive analogies derived from human agency 
and design, imagination is free to fill up the vacancy with the imagery 
most congenial to itself; sublime and elevating if it be a lofty 
imagination low and mean if it be a grovelling one. 
Religion and poetry address themselves, at least in one of their aspects, 
to the same part of the human constitution: they both supply the same 
want, that of ideal conceptions grander and more beautiful than we see 
realized in the prose of human life. Religion, as distinguished from 
poetry, is the product of the craving to know whether these imaginative 
conceptions have realities answering to them in some other world than 
ours. The mind, in this state, eagerly catches at any rumours respecting 
other worlds, especially when delivered by persons whom it deems, wiser 
than itself. To the poetry of the supernatural, comes to be thus added a 
positive belief and expectation, which unpoetical minds can share with the 
poetical. Belief in a God or Gods, and in a life after death becomes the 
canvas which every mind, according to its capacity, covers with such ideal 
pictures as it can either invent or copy. In that other life each hopes to 
find the good which he has failed to find on earth, or the better which is 
suggested to him by the good which on earth he has partially seen and 
known, More especially, this belief supplies the finer minds with material 
for conceptions of beings more awful than they can have known on earth, 
and more excellent than they probably have known. So long as human life is 
insufficient to satisfy human aspirations, so long there will be a craving 
for higher things, which finds its most obvious satisfaction in religion. 
So long as earthly life is full of sufferings, so long there will be need 
of consolations, which the hope of heaven affords to the selfish, the love 
of God to the tender and grateful. 
The value, therefore, of religion to the individual, both in the past and 
present, as a source of personal satisfaction and of elevated feelings, is 
not to be disputed. But it has still to be considered, whether in order to 
obtain this good, it is necessary to travel beyond the boundaries of the 
world which we inhabit; or whether the idealization of our earthly life, 
the cultivation of a high conception of what it may be made, is not 
capable of supplying a poetry, and, in the best sense of the word, a 
religion, equally fitted to exalt the feelings, and (with the same aid 
from education) still better calculated to ennoble the conduct, than any 
belief respecting the unseen powers. 
At the bare suggestion of such a possibility, many will exclaim, that the 
short duration, the smallness and insignificance of life, if there is no 
prolongation of it beyond what we see, makes it impossible that great and 
elevated feelings can connect themselves with anything laid out on so 
small a scale: that such a conception of life can match with nothing 
higher than Epicurean feelings, and the Epicurean doctrine ``Let us eat 
and drink, for to-morrow we die.'' 
Unquestionably, within certain limits, the maxim of the Epicureans is 
sound, and applicable to much higher things than eating and drinking. To 
make the most of the present for all good purposes, those of enjoyment 
among the rest; to keep under control those mental dispositions which lead 
to undue sacrifice of present good for a future which may never arrive; to 
cultivate the habit of deriving pleasure from things within our reach, 
rather than from the too eager pursuit of objects at a distance; to think 
all time wasted which is not spent either in personal pleasure or in doing 
things useful to oneself or others; these are wise maxims, and the ``carpe 
diem'' doctrine, carried thus far, is a rational and legitimate corollary 
from the shortness of life. But that because life is short we should care 
for nothing beyond it, is not a legitimate conclusion; and the 
supposition, that human beings in general are not capable of feeling deep 
and even the deepest interest in things which they will never live to see, 
is a view of human nature as false as it is abject. Let it be remembered 
that if individual life is short, the life of the human species is not 
short---its indefinite duration is practically equivalent to endlessness; 
and being combined with indefinite capability of improvement, it offers to 
the imagination and sympathies a large enough object to satisfy any 
reasonable demand for grandeur of aspiration, If such an object appears 
small to a mind accustomed to dream of infinite and eternal beatitudes, it 
will expand into far other dimensions when those baseless fancies shall 
have receded into the past. 
Nor let it be thought that only the more eminent of our species, in mind 
and heart, are capable of identifying their feelings with the entire life 
of the human race. This noble capability implies indeed a certain 
cultivation, but not superior to that which might be, and certainly will 
be if human improvement continues, the lot of all. Objects far smaller 
than this, and equally confined within the limits of the earth though not 
within those of a single human life, have been found sufficient to inspire 
large masses and long successions of mankind with an enthusiasm capable of 
ruling the conduct, and colouring the whole life. Rome was to the entire 
Roman people, for many generations as much a religion as Jehovah was to 
the Jews; nay, much more, for they never fell off from their worship as 
the Jews did from theirs. And the Romans, otherwise a selfish people, with 
no very remarkable faculties of any kind except the purely practical, 
derived nevertheless from this one idea a certain greatness of soul, which 
manifests itself in all ,their history where that idea is concerned and 
nowhere else, and has earned for them the large share of admiration, in 
other respects not at all deserved, which has been felt for them by most 
noble-minded persons from that time to this. 
When we consider how ardent a sentiment, in favourable circumstances of 
education, the love of country has become, we cannot judge it impossible 
that the love of that larger country, the world, may be nursed into 
similar strength, both as a source of elevated emotion and as a principle 
of duty. He who needs any other lesson on this subject than the whole 
course of ancient history affords, let him read Cicero de Officiis. It 
cannot be said that the standard of morals laid down in that celebrated 
treatise is a high standard. To our notions it is on many points unduly 
lax, and admits capitulations of conscience. But on the subject of duty to 
our country there is no compromise. That any man, with the smallest 
pretensions to virtue, could hesitate to sacrifice life, reputation, 
family, everything valuable to him, to the love of country is a 
supposition which this eminent interpreter of Greek and Roman morality 
cannot entertain for a moment. If, then, persons could be trained, as we 
see they were, not only to believe in theory that, the good of their 
country was an object to which all others ought to yield, but to feel this 
practically as the grand duty of life, so also may they be made to, feel 
the same absolute obligation towards the universal good. A morality 
grounded on large and wise views of the good of the whole, neither 
sacrificing the individual to the aggregate nor the aggregate to the 
individual, but giving to duty on the one hand and to, freedom and 
spontaneity on the other their proper province, would derive its power in 
the superior natures. from sympathy and benevolence and the passion for 
ideal excellence: in the inferior, from the same feelings cultivated up to 
the measure of their capacity, with the superadded force of shame. This 
exalted morality would not depend for its ascendancy on any hope of 
reward; but the reward which might be looked for, and the thought of which 
would be a consolation in suffering, and a support in moments of weakness, 
would not be a problematical future existence, but the approbation, in 
this, of those whom we respect, and ideally of all those, dead or living, 
whom we admire or venerate. For, the thought that our dead parents or 
friends would have approved our conduct duct is a scarcely less powerful 
motive than the knowledge that our living ones do approve it: and the idea 
that Socrates, or Howard or Washington, or Antoninus, or Christ, would 
have sympathized with us, or that we are attempting to do our part in the 
spirit in which they did theirs, has operated on the very best minds, as a 
strong incentive to act up to their highest feelings and convictions. 
To call these sentiments by the name morality, exclusively of any other 
title, is claiming too little for them. They are a real religion; of 
which, as of other religions, outward good works (the utmost meaning 
usually suggested by the word morality) are only a part, and are indeed 
rather the fruits of the religion than the religion itself The essence of 
religion is the strong and earnest direction of the emotions and desires 
towards an ideal object, recognized as of the highest excellence, and as 
rightfully paramount over all selfish objects of desire. This condition is 
fulfilled by the Religion of Humanity in as eminent a degree, and in as 
high a sense, as by the supernatural religions even in their best 
manifestations, and far more so than in any of their others. 
Much more might be added on this topic; but enough has been said to 
convince any one, who can distinguish between the intrinsic capacities of 
human nature and the forms in which those capacities happen to have been 
historically developed, that the sense of unity with mankind, and a deep 
feeling for the general good, may be cultivated into a sentiment and a 
principle capable of fulfilling every important function of religion and 
itself justly entitled to the name. I will now further maintain, that it 
is not only capable of fulfilling these functions, but would fulfil them 
better than any form whatever of supernaturalism. It is not only entitled 
to be called a religion: it is a better religion than any of those which 
are ordinarily called by that title. 
For, in the first place, it is disinterested. It carries the thoughts and 
feelings out of self, and fixes them on an unselfish object, loved and 
pursued as an end for its own sake. The religions which deal in promises 
and threats regarding a future life, do exactly the contrary: they fasten 
clown the thoughts to the person's own posthumous interests; they tempt 
him to regard the performance of his duties to others mainly as a means to 
his own personal salvation; and are one of the most serious obstacles to 
the great purpose of moral culture, the strengthening of the unselfish and 
weakening of the selfish element in our nature; since they hold out to the 
imagination selfish good and evil of such tremendous magnitude, that it is 
difficult for any one who fully believes in their reality, to have feeling 
or interest to spare for any other distant and ideal object. It is true, 
many of the most unselfish of mankind have been believers in 
supernaturalism, because their minds have not dwelt on the threats and 
promises of their religion, but chiefly on the idea of a Being to whom 
they looked up with a confiding love, and in whose bands they willingly 
left all that related especially to themselves. But in its effect on 
common minds, what now goes by the name of religion operates mainly 
through the feelings of self-interest. Even the Christ of the Gospels 
holds out the direct promise of reward from heaven as a primary inducement 
to the noble and beautiful beneficence towards our fellow-creatures which 
he so impressively inculcates. This is a radical inferiority of the best 
supernatural religions, compared with the Religion of Humanity; Since the 
greatest thing which moral influences can do for the amelioration of human 
nature, is to cultivate the unselfish feelings in the only mode in which 
any active principle in human nature can be effectually cultivated, namely 
by habitual exercise: but the habit of expecting to be rewarded in another 
life for our conduct in this, makes even virtue itself no longer an 
exercise of the unselfish feelings. 
Secondly, it is an immense abatement from the worth of the old religions 
as means of elevating and improving human character, that it is nearly, if 
not quite impossible for them to produce their best moral effects, unless 
we suppose a certain torpidity, if not positive twist in the intellectual 
faculties. For it is impossible that any one who habitually thinks, and 
who is unable to blunt his inquiring intellect by sophistry, should be 
able without misgiving to go on ascribing absolute perfection to the 
author and ruler of so clumsily made and capriciously governed a creation 
as this planet and the life of its inhabitants. The adoration of such a 
being cannot be with the whole heart, unless the heart is first 
considerably sophisticated. The worship must either be greatly overclouded 
by doubt, and occasionally quite darkened by it, or the moral sentiments 
must sink to the low level of the ordinances of Nature: the worshipper 
must learn to think blind partiality, atrocious cruelty, and reckless 
injustice, not blemishes in an object of worship, since all these abound 
to excess in the commonest phenomena of Nature. It is true, the God who is 
worshipped is not, generally speaking, the God of Nature only, but also 
the God of some revelation; and the character of the revelation will 
greatly modify and, it may be, improve the moral influences of the 
religion. This is emphatically true of Christianity; since the Author of 
the Sermon on the Mount is assuredly a far more benignant Being than the 
Author of Nature. But unfortunately, the believer in the christian 
revelation is obliged to believe that the same being is the author of 
both. This, unless he resolutely averts his mind from the subject, or 
practises the act of quieting his conscience by sophistry, involves him in 
moral perplexities without end; since the ways of his Deity in Nature are 
on many occasions totally at variance with the precepts, as lie believes, 
of the same Deity in the Gospel. He who comes out with least moral damage 
from this embarrassment, is probably the one who never attempts to 
reconcile the two standards with one another, but confesses to himself 
that the purposes of Providence are mysterious, that its ways are not our 
ways, that its justice and goodness are not the justice and goodness which 
we can conceive and which it befits us to practise. When, however, this is 
the feeling of the believer, the worship of the Deity ceases to be the 
adoration of abstract moral perfection. It becomes the bowing down to a 
gigantic image of something not fit for us to imitate. It is the worship 
of power only. 
I say nothing of the moral difficulties and perversions involved in 
revelation itself; though even in the Christianity of the Gospels, at 
least in its ordinary interpretation, there are some of so flagrant a 
character as almost to outweigh all the beauty and benignity and moral 
greatness which so eminently distinguish the sayings and character of 
Christ. The recognition, for example, of the object of highest worship, in 
a being who could make a Hell; and who could create countless generations 
of human beings with the certain foreknowledge that he was creating them 
for this fate. Is there any moral enormity which might not be justified by 
imitation of such a Deity? And is it possible to adore such a one without 
a frightful distortion of the standard of right and wrong? Any other of 
the outrages to the most ordinary justice and humanity involved in the 
common christian conception of the moral character of God, sinks into 
insignificance beside this dreadful idealization of wickedness. Most of 
them too, are happily not so, unequivocally deducible from the very words 
of Christ as to be indisputably a part of christian doctrine. It may be 
doubted, for instance, whether Christianity is really responsible for 
atonement and redemption, original sin and vicarious punishment: and the 
same may be said respecting the doctrine which makes belief in the divine 
mission of Christ a necessary condition of salvation. It is nowhere 
represented that Christ himself made this statement, except in the 
huddled-up account of the Resurrection contained in the concluding verses 
of St. Mark, which some critics (I believe the best), consider to be an 
interpolation. Again, the proposition that ``the powers that be are 
ordained of God'' and the whole series of corollaries deduced from it in 
the Epistles, belong to St. Paul, and must stand or fall with Paulism, not 
with Christianity. But there is one moral contradiction inseparable from 
every form of Christianity, which no ingenuity can resolve, and no 
sophistry explain away. It is, that so precious a gift, bestowed on a few, 
should have been withheld from the many: that countless millions of human 
beings should have been allowed to Eve and die, to sin and suffer, without 
the one thing needful, the divine remedy for sin and suffering, which it 
would have cost the Divine Giver as little to have vouchsafed to all, as 
to have bestowed by special grace upon a favoured minority. Add to this, 
that the divine message, assuming it to be such, has been authenticated by 
credentials so insufficient, that they fail to convince a large proportion 
of the strongest and most cultivated minds, and the tendency to disbelieve 
them appears to grow with the growth of scientific knowledge and critical 
discrimination. He who can believe these to be the intentional 
shortcomings of a perfectly good Being, must impose silence on every 
prompting of the sense of goodness and justice as received among men. 
It is, no doubt, possible (and there are many instances of it) to worship 
with the devotion either Deity, that of Nature or of the Gospel, without 
any perversion of the moral sentiments: but this must be by fixing the 
attention exclusively on what is beautiful and. beneficent in the precepts 
and spirit of the Gospel and in the dispensations of Nature, and putting 
all that is the reverse as entirely aside as if it did not exist. 
Accordingly, this simple and innocent faith can only, as I have said, 
co-exist with a torpid and inactive state of the speculative faculties. 
For a person of exercised intellect, there is no way of attaining anything 
equivalent to it, save by sophistication and perversion, either of the 
understanding or of the conscience. It may almost always be said both of 
sects and of individuals, who derive their morality from religion, that 
the better logicians they are, the worse moralists. 
One only form of belief in the supernatural---one only theory respecting 
the origin and government of the universe---stands wholly clear both of 
intellectual contradiction and of moral obliquity. It is that which, 
resigning irrevocably the idea of an omnipotent creator, regards Nature 
and Life not as the expression throughout of the moral character and 
purpose of the Deity, but as the product of a struggle between contriving 
goodness and an intractable material, as was believed by Plato, or a 
Principle of Evil, as was the doctrine of the Manicheans. A creed like 
this, which I have known to be devoutly held by at least one cultivated 
and conscientious person of our own day, allows it to be believed that all 
the mass of evil which exists was undesigned by, and exists not by the 
appointment of, but in spite of the Being whom we are called upon to 
worship. A virtuous human being assumes in this theory the exalted 
character of a fellow-labourer with the Highest, a fellow combatant in the 
great strife; contributing his little, which by the aggregation of many 
like himself becomes much, towards that progressive ascendancy, and 
ultimately complete triumph of good over evil, which history points to, 
and which this doctrine teaches us to regard as planned by the Being to 
whom we owe all the benevolent contrivance we behold in Nature. Against 
the moral tendency of this creed no possible objection can lie: it can 
produce on whoever can succeed in believing it, no other than an ennobling 
effect. The evidence for it, indeed, if evidence it can be called, is too 
shadowy and unsubstantial, and the promises it holds out too distant and 
uncertain, to admit of its being a permanent substitute for the religion 
of humanity; but the two may be held in conjunction: and he to whom ideal 
good, and the progress of the world towards it, are already a religion, 
even though that other creed may seem to him a belief not grounded on 
evidence, is at liberty to indulge the pleasing and encouraging thought, 
that its truth is possible. Apart from all dogmatic belief, there is for 
those who need it, an ample domain in the region of the imagination which 
may be planted with possibilities, with hypotheses which cannot be known 
to be false; and when there is anything in the appearances of nature to 
favour them, as in this case there is (for whatever force we attach to the 
analogies of Nature with the effects of human contrivance, there is no 
disputing the remark of Paley, that what is good in nature exhibits those 
analogies much oftener than what is evil), the contemplation of these 
possibilities is a legitimate indulgence, capable of bearing its part, 
with other influences, in feeding and animating the tendency of the 
feelings and impulses towards good. 
One advantage, such as it is, the supernatural religions must always 
possess over the Religion of Humanity; the prospect they hold out to the 
individual of a life after death. For, though the skepticism of the 
understanding does not necessarily exclude the Theism of the imagination 
and feelings, and this, again, gives opportunity for a hope that the power 
which has done so much for us may be able and willing to do this also, 
such vague possibility must ever stop far short of a conviction. It 
remains then to estimate the value of this element---the prospect of a 
world to come--as a constituent of earthly bappiness. I cannot but think 
that as the condition of mankind becomes improved, as they grow happier in 
their lives, and more capable of deriving happiness from unselfish 
sources, they will care less and less for this flattering expectation. It 
is not, naturally or generally, the happy who are the most anxious either 
for a prolongation of the present life, or for a life hereafter: it is 
those who never have been happy. They who have had their happiness can 
bear to part with existence: but it is hard to die without ever having 
lived. When mankind cease to need a future existence as a consolation for 
the sufferings of the present, it will have lost its chief value to them, 
for themselves. I am now speaking of the unselfish. Those who are so 
wrapped up in self that they are unable to identify their feelings with 
anything which will survive them, or to feel their life prolonged in their 
younger cotemporaries and in all who help to carry on the progressive 
movement of human affairs, require the notion of another selfish life 
beyond the grave, to enable them to keep up any interest in existence, 
since the present life, as its termination approaches, dwindles into 
something too insignificant to be worth caring about. But if the Religion 
of Humanity were as sedulously cultivated as the supernatural religions 
are (and there is no difficulty in conceiving that it might be much more 
so), all who had received the customary amount of moral cultivation would 
up to the hour of death live ideally in the life of those who are to 
follow them: and though doubtless they would often willingly survive as 
individuals for a much longer period than the present duration of life, it 
appears to me probable that after a length of time different in different 
persons, they would have had enough of existence, and would gladly lie 
down and take their eternal rest. Meanwhile and without looking so far 
forward, we may remark, that those who believe tile immortality of the 
soul, generally quit life with fully as much, if not more, reluctance, as 
those who have no such expectation. The mere cessation of existence is no 
evil to any one: the idea is only formidable through the illusion of 
imagination which makes one conceive oneself as if one were alive and 
feeling oneself dead. What is odious in death is not death itself, but the 
act of dying, and its lugubrious accompaniments: all of which must be 
equally undergone by the believer in immortality. Nor can I perceive that 
the septic loses by his skepticism any real and valuable consolation 
except one; the hope of reunion with those dear to him who have ended 
their earthly life before him. That loss, indeed, is neither to be denied 
nor extenuated In many cases it is beyond the reach of comparison or 
estimate; and will always suffice to keep alive, in the more sensitive 
natures, the imaginative hope of a futurity which, if there is nothing to 
prove, there is as little in our knowledge and experience to contradict. 
History, so far as we know it, bears out the opinion, that mankind can 
perfectly well do without the belief in a heaven. The Greeks had anything 
but a tempting idea of a future state. Their Elysian fields held out very 
little attraction to their feelings and imagination. Achilles in the 
Odyssey expressed a very natural, and no doubt a very common sentiment, 
when he said that he would rather be on earth the serf of a needy master, 
than reign over the whole kingdom of the dead. And the pensive character 
so striking in the address of the dying emperor Hadrian to his soul, gives 
evidence that the popular conception had not undergone much variation 
during that long interval. Yet we neither find that the Greeks enjoyed 
life less, nor feared death more, than other people. The Buddhist religion 
counts probably at this day a greater number of votaries than either the 
Christian or the Mahomedan. The Buddhist creed recognises many modes of 
punishment in a future life, or rather lives, by the transmigration of the 
soul into new bodies of men or animals. But the blessing from Heaven which 
it proposes as a reward, to be earned by perseverance in the highest order 
of virtuous life, is annihilation; the cessation, at least, of all 
conscious or separate existence. It is impossible to mistake in this 
religion, the work of legislators and moralists endeavouring to supply 
supernatural motives for the conduct which they were anxious to encourage; 
and they could find nothing more transcendant to hold out as the capital 
prize to be won by the mightiest efforts of labour and self-denial, than 
what we are so often told is the terrible idea of annihilation. Surely 
this is a proof that the idea is not really or naturally terrible; that 
not philosophers only, but the common order of mankind, can easily 
reconcile themselves to it, and even consider it as a good; and that it is 
no unnatural part of the idea of a happy life, that life itself be laid 
down, after the best that it can give has been fully enjoyed through a 
long lapse of time; when all its pleasures, even those of benevolence, are 
familiar, and nothing untasted and unknown is left to stimulate curiosity 
and keep up the desire of prolonged existence. It seems to me not only 
possible but probable, that in a higher, and, above all, a happier 
condition of human life, not annihilation but immortality may be the 
burdensome idea; and that human nature, though pleased with the present, 
and by no means impatient to quit it, would find comfort and not sadness 
in the thought that it is not chained through eternity to a conscious 
existence which it cannot be assured that it will always wish to preserve. 

                        # # #

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     Rev. Bill McGinnis  <><
     bmcgin@patriot.net
     

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