Theism or Atheism - The Great Alternative
by Chapman Cohen
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61, Farringdon Street, ——E.C.4——



Part I.


Chapter I. What is God? 9

Chapter II. The Origin of the Idea of God 20

Chapter III. Have we a Religious Sense? 37

Chapter IV. The Argument from Existence 49

Chapter V. The Argument from Causation 59

Chapter VI. The Argument from Design 69

Chapter VII. The Disharmonies of Nature 85

Chapter VIII. God and Evolution 94

Chapter IX. The Problem of Pain 110

Part II.


Chapter X. A Question of Prejudice 131

Chapter XI. What is Atheism? 138

Chapter XII. Spencer and the Unknowable 151

Chapter XIII. Agnosticism 169

Chapter XIV. Atheism and Morals 181

Chapter XV. Atheism Inevitable 194


Shrouded in the cloak of philosophy, the question of the existence of God continues to attract attention, and, I may add, to command more respect than it deserves. For it is only by a subterfuge that it assumes the rank of philosophy. "God" enters into philosophy only when it is beginning to lose caste in its proper home, and then in its new environment it undergoes such a transformation as to contain very little likeness to its former, and proper, self. It disowns its parentage and claims another origin, and, like so many genealogists devising pedigrees for the parvenu, certain philosophers attempt to map out for the newcomer an ancestry to which he can establish no valid claim. Nothing would, indeed, surprise the ancestor more than to be brought face to face with his descendant. He would not be more astonished than would the ancient Eohippus on meeting with a modern dray-horse. In anthropology or history the idea of God may fairly claim a place, but it has no place in philosophy on any sensible meaning of the word.

The consequence of this transference of the idea of God to the sphere of philosophy is the curious position that the God in which people believe is not the God whose existence is made the product of an argument, and the God of the argument is not the God of belief. The theory and the fact have no more likeness to each other than a chestnut horse has to a horse-chestnut. A fallacy is perpetuated by appealing to a fact, but the fact immediately discredits the fallacy by disowning it in practice. The grounds upon which the belief in God is supposed to rest, the reasoning from which it springs, are seen to follow the belief instead of preceding it. The roots are in the air, and on closer inspection are seen to be artificial adornments, so many imitations that have been hung there for the purpose of imposing on near-sighted or careless observers.

The purpose of the following pages is to make clear the nature of this alliance and to expose the real character of what we are asked to worship. There are, of course, many on whose ears any amount of reasoning will fall without effect. To that class this book will not appeal; it may be questioned whether many will even read it. They will go on professing the belief they have always professed, and taking pride in the fact that they have an intellect which is superior to proof, and which disdains evidence when it runs contrary to "my belief." Others will, I expect, complain that the treatment of so solemn a subject is not "reverent" enough. But why any subject should be treated reverently, as a condition of examination, is more than I have ever been able to discover. It is asking the inquirer to commence his investigation with a half-promise to find something good in what he is about to examine. Whether a thing is worthy of reverence or not is a conclusion that must follow investigation, not precede it. And one does not observe any particular reverence shown by the religious person towards those beliefs in which he does not happen to believe.

But there are some who will read thoughtfully an examination of so old a subject as Theism, and it is to those that these pages are addressed. One cannot hope to say anything that is strikingly new on so well worn a subject as the existence of God, but there are many who will read an old subject when presented in a new work, and even then there is also the possibility of presenting an old topic in a slightly new form. And I think these will find the main lines of the defence set up by the Goddite dealt with in a manner that should at least make the point at issue clear.

Finally, it is one aim of this book to press home the point that the logical issue is between Theism and Atheism. That there is no logical halting place between the two, and that any attempt to call a halt is little more than a concession to a desire for mental or social convenience, seems to me as clear as anything can well be. And there is really nothing gained, ultimately, by the halt. Disinclination on the part of the non-Theist to push the issue to its logical conclusion is treated by the Theist as inability to do so, and is used as an argument in support of his own belief. In matters of the intellect, compromise is almost always a dangerous policy. It heartens one's enemies and disheartens one's friends. And there is really no adequate reason why those who have given up belief in deity should continue to treat this master superstition of the ages as though it were one of our most valuable inheritances, to be surrendered with lowered heads and sinking hearts. We who know both sides know that in giving up the belief in deity we have lost nothing of value, nothing that need cause us a single regret. And on that point we certainly can speak with authority; for we have been where the Theist is, he has not been where we are. Many of us know quite well all that is meant by the fear and trembling with which the believer looks upon a world without God. And we know how idle the fear is—as idle as a child's fear of the dark. What the world is like with God, there is all the experience of history to inform us; and it would indeed be strange if love and brotherhood, armed with the weapons that science has given us, could not produce a better human society than has ever existed under the dominion of the Gods.

Part I.




Soon after that famous Atheist, Charles Bradlaugh, entered the House of Commons, it is said that a fellow member approached him with the remark, "Good God, Bradlaugh, what does it matter whether there is a God or not?" Bradlaugh's answer is not recorded, but one is impelled to open the present examination of the belief in God, by putting the same question in another form. Is the belief in God, as we are so often assured, one of the most important questions that can engage the attention of man? Under certain conditions one can conceive a rational answer in the affirmative. Where the mental and social conditions are such that men seriously believe the incidence of natural forces on mankind to be determined by the direct action of "God," one can appreciate right belief concerning him being treated as of first rate importance. In such circumstances wrong ideas are the equivalent of disaster. But we are not in that condition to-day. It is, indeed, common ground with all educated men and women that natural happenings are independent of divine control to at least the extent that natural forces affect all alike, and without the least reference to religious beliefs. Fire burns and water drowns, foods sustain and poisons kill, no matter what our opinions on theology may be. In an earthquake or a war there is no observable relation between casualties and religious opinions. We are, in fact, told by theologians that it is folly to expect that there should be. A particular providence is no longer in fashion; God, we are told, works only through general laws, and that is only another way of saying that our opinions about God have no direct or observable influence on our well-being. It is a tacit admission that human welfare depends upon our knowledge and manipulation of the forces by which we are surrounded. There may be a God behind these forces, but that neither determines the extent of our knowledge of them or our power to manipulate them. The belief in God becomes a matter of, at best, secondary importance, and quite probably of no importance whatever.

But if that be so why bother about the belief? Is that not a reason for leaving it alone and turning our attention to other matters? The answer to that is that the belief in God is not of so detached a character as this advice assumes. In the course of ages the belief in God has acquired associations that give it the character of a highly obstructive force. It has become so entangled with inculcated notions of right and wrong that it is everywhere used as a buttress for institutions which have either outgrown their utility, or are in need of serious modification in the interests of the race. The opposition encountered in any attempt to deal with marriage, divorce, or education, are examples of the way in which religious ideas are permitted to interfere with subjects that should be treated solely from the standpoint of social utility. The course of human development has been such that religion has hitherto occupied a commanding position in relation to social laws and customs, with the result that it is often found difficult to improve either until the obstructive influence of religious beliefs has been dealt with.

It is not, then, because I believe the question of the existence of God to be of intrinsic importance that an examination of its validity is here undertaken. Its importance to-day is of a purely contingent character. The valid ground for now discussing its truth is that it is at present allowed to obstruct the practical conduct of life. And under similar circumstances it would be important to investigate the historical accuracy of Old Mother Hubbard or Jack and the Beanstalk. Any belief, no matter what its nature, must be dealt with as a fact of some social importance, so long as it is believed by large numbers to be essential to the right ordering of life. Whether true or false, beliefs are facts—mental and social facts, and the scheme of things which leaves them out of account is making a blunder of the most serious kind.

Certainly, conditions were never before so favourable for the delivery of a considered judgment on the question of the belief in God. On the one side we have from natural science an account of the universe which rules the operations of deity out of court. And on the other side we have a knowledge of the mode of origin of the belief which should leave us in no doubt as to its real value. We hope to show later that the question of origin is really decisive; that in reaching conclusions concerning the origin of the god-idea we are passing judgment as to its value. That the masters of this form of investigation have not usually, and in so many words, pushed their researches to their logical conclusions is no reason why we should refrain from doing so. Facts are in themselves of no great value. It is the conclusions to which they point that are the important things.

If the conclusions to which we refer are sound, then the whole basis of theism crumbles away. If we are to regard the god-idea as an evolution which began in misunderstandings of nature that were rooted in the ignorance of primitive man, it would seem clear that no matter how refined or developed the idea may become, it can rest on no other or sounder basis than that which is presented to us in the psychology of primitive man. Each stage of theistic belief grows out of the preceding stage, and if it can be shown that the beginning of this evolution arose in a huge blunder I quite fail to see how any subsequent development can convert this unmistakable blunder into a demonstrable truth. To take a case in point. When it was shown that so far as witchcraft rested on observed facts these could be explained on grounds other than those of the malevolent activities of certain old women, the belief in witchcraft was not "purified," neither did it advance to any so-called higher stage; it was simply abandoned as a useless and mischievous explanation of facts that could be otherwise accounted for. Are we logically justified in dealing with the belief in God on any other principle? We cannot logically discard the world of the savage and still retain his interpretation of it. If the grounds upon which the savage constructed his theory of the world, and from which grew all the ghosts and gods with which he believed himself to be surrounded, if these grounds are false, how can we still keep in substance to conclusions that are admittedly based on false premises? We can say with tolerable certainty that had primitive man known what we know about nature the gods would never have been born. Civilised man does not discover gods, he discards them. It was a profound remark of Feurbach's, that religion is ultimately anthropology, and it is anthropology that gives to all forms of theism the death blow.

In our own time, at least, it is not difficult to see that the word God retains its influence with many because of the indefinite manner in which it is used. It is never easy to say what a person has in his mind when he uses the word. In most cases one would be safe in saying that nothing at all is meant. It is just one of those "blessed" words where the comfort felt in their use is proportionate to the lack of definite meaning that accompanies them. A frank confession of ignorance is something that most people heartily dislike, and where problems are persistent and difficult of solution what most people are in search of is a narcotic. That "God" is one of the most popular of narcotics will be denied by none who study the psychology of the average man or woman.

When not used as a narcotic, "God" is brought into an argument as though it stood for a term which carried a well defined and well understood meaning. In work after work dealing with theism one looks in vain for some definition of "God." All that one can do is to gather the author's meaning from the course of his argument, and that is not always an easy task. The truth is, of course, that instead of the word carrying with it a generally understood meaning there is no word that is more loosely used or which carries a greater variety of meanings. Its connotations are endless, and range from the aggressively man-like deity of the primitive savage up—or down—to the abstract force of the mathematical physicist and the shadowy "Absolute" of the theologising metaphysician. The consequence of this is to find commonly that while it is one kind of a god that is being set up in argument, it is really another god that is being defended and even believed in. When we find people talking of entering into communion with God, or praying to God, it is quite certain they do not conceive him as a mere mathematical abstraction, or as a mere symbol of an unknown force. It is impossible to conceive any sane man or woman extracting comfort from praying or talking to a god who could not think, or feel, or hear. And if he possesses qualities that the religious attitude implies, we endow him with all the attributes of personality, and, be it noted, of human personality. Either one God is believed in in fact while another is established in theory, or an elaborate argument is presented which serves no other purpose than a disguise for the fact that there is no genuine belief left.

An example of the misleading way in which words are used is supplied by Sir Oliver Lodge, who for a man of science shows an amazing capacity for making use of unscientific language. In his "Man and the Universe," discussing the attributes of deity, he says, "Let no worthy attribute be denied to the deity. In anthropomorphism there are many errors, but there is one truth. Whatever worthy attributes belong to man, be it personality or any other, its existence in the universe is thereby admitted; it belongs to the all." Putting on one side the fallacy involved in speaking of attributes as though they were good or bad in themselves, one wonders why Sir Oliver limits this inference to the "worthy" attributes? Unworthy attributes are as real as worthy ones. If honesty exists so does dishonesty. Kindness is as real as cruelty. And if we must credit the deity with possessing all the good attributes, to whom must we credit the bad ones? A little later Sir Oliver does admit that we must credit the deity with the bad attributes also, but adds that they are dying out. But as they are part of the deity, their decay must mean that the deity is also undergoing a process of change, of education, and is as much subject to the law of growth as we are. Surely that is not what people mean when they speak about God. A god who is only a part of the cosmic process ceases to be a god in any reasonable sense of the term.

Professor Mellone, in his "God and the World," says that the word God "becomes a name for the infinite system of law regarded as a whole" (p. 122). If that were really all that was meant by the word the matter would not be worth discussing. "God" as a symbol of a generalisation is a mere name, and as such is as good as any other name. But, again, it is plain that people mean more than that when they speak about God. If God is a name for universal law, let any really religious man try the plan of substituting in his prayers and in his thoughts the phrase "Universal Law" for "God," and then see how long he will retain his religion. As Mr. Balfour points out ("Theism and Humanism," p. 20), the god of religion and the god of philosophy represent two distinct beings, and it is hard to see how the two can be fused into one. The plain truth is that it is impossible to now make the existence of the god of religion reasonable, and the plan adopted is that of arguing for the existence of something about which there is often no dispute, and then introducing as the product of the argument something that has never been argued for at all. It is the philosophic analogue of the hat and omelette trick.

In this connection some well considered words of Sir James Frazer are well worth noting. He says:—

By a god I understand a superhuman and supernatural being, of a spiritual and personal nature, who controls the world or some part of it on the whole for good, and who is endowed with intellectual faculties, moral feelings, and active powers, which we can only conceive on the analogy of human faculties, feelings, and activities, though we are bound to suppose that in the divine nature they exist in an infinitely higher degree, than the corresponding faculties, feelings, and activities of man. In short, by a God I mean a beneficent supernatural spirit, the ruler of the world or of some part of it, who resembles man in nature though he excels him in knowledge, goodness, and power. This is, I think, the sense in which the ordinary man speaks of a God, and I believe that he is right in so doing. I am aware that it has been not unusual, especially of late years, to apply the name of God to very different conceptions, to empty it of all implications of personality, and to reduce it to signifying something very large and very vague, such as the Infinite or the Absolute (whatever these hard words may signify) the great First Cause, the Universal Substance, the stream of tendency by which all things seek to fulfil the law of their being, and so forth. Now, without expressing opinion as to the truth or falsehood of the views implied by such applications of the name of God, I cannot but regard them as illegitimate extensions of the term, in short, an abuse of language, and I venture to protest against it in the interest, not only of verbal accuracy, but of clear thinking, because it is apt to conceal from ourselves and others a real and very important change of thought; in particular it may lead many to imagine that the persons who use the name of God in one or other of these extended senses retain theological opinions which they may in fact have long abandoned. Thus the misuse of the name of God may resemble the stratagem in war of putting up dummies to make an enemy imagine that a fort is still held long after it has been abandoned by the garrison. (The Belief in Immortality; pp. 9-10. Vol. I.).

This expression of opinion from an authoritative quarter is very much needed. The fear of public opinion displayed by many "advanced" thinkers is in this country one of the greatest obstacles to rapid advance. It is simply deplorable to observe the trouble taken by some to coin new names, or the illegitimate use made of old ones, for no other discoverable reason than that of disguising from the world the fact that the orthodox beliefs are no longer held. The need of to-day is not so much liberal thought as strong and courageous thought; and one would cheerfully hand back to orthodoxy a fairly large parcel of a certain type of heretical thinker in exchange for a single one who used plain language to express clear convictions.

What is it that the mass of believers have in their minds when they speak of God? There can be no doubt but that what the plain man has always understood by "God" is a person. Every book of religious devotion implies this; every prayer that is offered takes it for granted that someone will listen, and probably grant the petition. God is personal, God is just, God is beneficent, God is intelligent, these are conceptions that are bound up with all the religions of the world, and without which they would lack both significance and value. A very acute theistic writer, Mr. W. H. Mallock, puts this quite plainly when he says that the God of theism "is represented as revealing himself in the universe, firstly, as the mind which animates and moves everything, secondly, as a purposing mind which is infinitely wise and powerful, and has created a perfect universe with a view to some perfect end; and lastly, as an ethical mind which out of all the things created by it, has selected men as the object of a preferential love. A personality which thinks and wills and loves and hates. That is what mankind in the mass have always meant by 'God.'"

Indeed, any other kind of God is inconceivable. Whatever may be the metaphysical subtleties employed, we come ultimately to that. It is this, the older and the vital conception that is being fought for. The arguments for any other kind of existence are mere subterfuges. The pleas for an "Absolute" or an "Unconditioned" are only used to buttress the older conception, and never till the older one has lost its force. The unconditioned God is argued for only that it may serve as the basis for the belief in a personal one. What is proved is not what is asked for; what is asked for is not what is proved. No wonder that so eminent a writer as Mr. F. H. Bradley feels constrained to give these verbalistic thimble riggers a smart rap over the knuckles, as in the following passage:—

Most of those who insist on the "personality of God" are intellectually dishonest. They desire one conclusion, and, to reach it, they argue for another. But the second, if proved, is quite different, and answers their purpose only because they obscure it and confound it with the first.... The deity they want, is, of course, finite, a person much like themselves, with thoughts and feelings limited and mutable in the process of time.... And for their purpose, what is not this is really nothing. (Appearance and Reality; p. 532).

And it is really what people mean by God that is decisive. It is not at all a question of what they might be made to mean, or what they ought to mean. It is wholly a matter of what they do mean. And to say that what people intend to affirm in an expression of belief is not true, is to say that the belief itself is false. If the God I believe in is a delusion, then my God ceases to exist. True, I may if I think it worth while acquire another one, but that will not revive the first. It is what people believe that is the important question, not what some ingenious speculator may succeed in making the belief stand for.

Honestly to be of service to theism the God established must be a person. To be intelligible, having regard to the historical developments of religion, the God proved must be a person. The relation demanded by religion between man and God must be of a personal character. No man can love a pure abstraction; he might as reasonably fall in love with a triangle or profess devotion to the equator. The God of religion must be a person, and it is precisely that, as a controlling force of the universe, in which modern thought finds it more and more difficult to believe, and which modern science decisively rejects. And in rejecting this the death blow is given to those religious ideas, which however disguised find their origin in the fear-stricken ignorance of the primitive savage.



The alleged universality of the belief in God is only inferentially an argument for its truth. The inference is that if men have everywhere developed a particular belief, this general agreement could only have been reached as a consequence of a general experience. A universal effect implies a universal cause. So put the argument seems impressive. As a matter of fact the statement is one long tissue of fallacies and unwarranted assumptions.

In the first place, even admitting the universal pressure of certain facts, it by no means follows that the theistic interpretation of those facts is the only one admissible. There is no exception to the fact that men have everywhere come to the conclusion that the earth was flat, and yet a wider and truer knowledge proved that universal belief to be quite false. The fact of a certain belief being universal only warrants the assumption that the belief itself has a cause, but it tells us nothing whatever concerning its truthfulness. The truth here is that the argument from universality dates its origin from a stage of human culture suitable to the god idea itself, a stage when very little was known concerning the workings of the mind or the laws of mental development. Otherwise it would have been seen that all the universality of a belief really proves is the universality of the human mind—and that means that, given an organism of a certain kind, it will react in substantially an identical manner to the same stimuli. Thus it is not surprising to find that as the human organism is everywhere fundamentally alike, it has everywhere come to the same conclusions in face of the same set of conditions. A man reacts to the universe in one way, and a jelly fish in another way. And universality is as true of the reactions of the latter as it is of those of the former.

And this means that a delusion may be as widespread as truth, a false inference may gain as general an acceptance as a true one. What belief has been more general than the belief in witches, fairies, and the like? But we see in the prevalence of these and similar beliefs, not a presumption of their truth, but only the grounds for a search after the conditions, social and psychological, which gave them birth.

The truth is that the conditions which give rise to the belief in gods are found in all ages, and no one would be more surprised than the Atheist to find it otherwise. But here, precisely as in the case of good and bad spirits, the vital question is not that people have everywhere believed in the existence of supernatural beings,[1] but an understanding of the conditions from which the beliefs themselves have grown. That alone can determine whether in studying the god idea we are studying the acquisition of a truth or the growth of a fallacy.

Next, while it may be granted, at least provisionally, that the belief in supernatural beings is universal, against that has to be set the fact that the whole tendency of social development is to narrow the range of the belief, to restrict the scope of its authority, and to so attenuate it that it becomes of no value precisely where it is supposed to be of most use. The belief in God is least questioned where civilisation is lowest; it is called into the most serious question where civilisation is most advanced. To-day the belief in God is only universal in the sense that some representatives of it are to be found in all societies. The majority may still profess to have it, but it has ceased to be universal in the strict sense of the term. Nor will it be disputed that the number of convinced disbelievers is everywhere on the increase. The fact is everywhere lamented by the official exponents of religion. All that we can say is that the belief in God is universal—with those who believe in him. And even here universality of belief is only secured by their refraining from discussing precisely what it is they mean by "God," and what it is they believe in. There is agreement in obscurity, each one dreading to see clearly the features of his assumed friend for fear he should recognise the face of an enemy.

Finally, the suspicious feature must be pointed out that the belief in God owes its existence, not to the trained and educated observation of civilised times, but to the uncritical reflection of the primitive mind. It has its origin there, and it would indeed be remarkable if, while in almost every other direction the primitive mind showed itself to be hopelessly wrong, in its interpretation of the world in this particular respect it has proved itself to be altogether right. As a matter of fact, this primitive assumption is going the way of the others, the only difference being that it is passing through more phases than some. But the decay is plain to all save those who refuse to see. The process of refinement cannot go on for ever. In other matters knowledge passes from a nebulous and indefinite stage to a precise and definite one. In the case of theism it pursues an opposite course. From the very definite god, or gods, of primitive mankind we advance to the vague and indefinite god of the modern theist—a God who, apparently, means nothing and does nothing, and at most stands as a symbol for our irremovable ignorance. Clearly this process cannot go on for ever. The work of attenuation must stop at some point. And one may safely predict that just as the advance of scientific knowledge has taken over one department after another that was formerly regarded as within the province of religion, so one day it will be borne in upon all that an hypothesis such as that of theism, which does nothing and explains nothing, may be profitably dispensed with.

What really remains for discussion is a problem of socio-psychology. That is, we have to determine the conditions of origin of so widespread a belief, but which we believe to be false. The materials for answering this question are now at our command, and whatever differences of opinion there may be concerning the stages of development, there is very little concerning their essential character. And it is not without significance that this question of origin is one that the present-day apologists of theism seem pretty unanimous in leaving severely alone.

Let us commence with the fact that religion is something that is acquired. Every work on the origin of religion assumes it, and all investigation warrants the assumption. The question at issue is the mode of acquisition. And here one word of caution is advisable. The wide range of religious ideas and their existence at a very low culture stage, precludes the assumption that religious ideas are generated in the same conscious way as are scientific theories. Even with the modern mind our conclusions concerning many of the affairs of life are formed in a semi-conscious manner. Most frequently they are generated subconsciously, and are only consciously formulated under pressure of circumstances. And if we are to understand religion aright we must be on our guard against attributing to primitive mankind a degree of scientific curiosity and reflective power to which it can lay no claim. We have to allow for what one writer well calls "physiological thought," thought, that is, which rises subconsciously and has its origin in the pressure of insistent experience.

A comprehensive survey of religious beliefs show that there are only two things that can be said to be common to them all. They differ in teachings, in their conceptions of deity, and in modes of worship. But all religions agree in believing in some kind of ghostly existence and in a continued life beyond the grave. I use the expression, "ghostly existence," because we can really trace the idea of God backward until we lose the definite figure in a very general conception, much as astronomers have taught us to lose a definite world in the primitive fire-mist. So when we get beyond the culture stage at which we meet with the definite man-like God, we encounter an indefinite thought stage at which we can dimly mark the existence of a frame of mind that was to give birth to the more concrete conception.

The most general term for the belief in the various orders of gods thus becomes the belief in invisible, super-material beings, like, and yet superior to man. It is for this reason that Professor Tylor's definition of religion as "the belief in spiritual beings—so long as we do not use the term "spiritual" in its modern sense"—seems to me the moat satisfactory definition yet offered. It is the one point on which all religions agree, and for this reason may be regarded as their essential feature.

This taken for granted, our next point of enquiry is, What was there in the conditions of primitive life that would give rise to a belief in this super-material, or in modern language, spiritual existence? Now there are at least two sets of experiences that seem adequate to the required explanation. The one is normal, the other abnormal. The first is connected directly with the universal experience of dreams. The savage is, as Tylor says, a severely practical person. He believes what he sees and, one may add, he sees what he believes. Knowing nothing of the distinction we draw between a fact and an illusion, ignorant of the functions, or even the existence of a nervous system, the dreams of a savage are to him as real as his waking experiences. He does not say "I dreamed I saw So-So," but like the Biblical characters he says, "I saw So-So in a dream." The two forms of expression carry all the difference between fact and fancy. One thing is therefore obvious to the savage mind—something escapes from the body, travels about, and returns. Such a conviction does not represent the conclusions of a genius speculating upon the meaning of unexplained facts. It is a conviction steadily built up by the pressure of unvarying experience, as steadily as is the conviction that fire burns or that water is wet. The very universality of the belief is proof that it had some such sub-conscious origin.

A second class of experiences lead to the same conclusion. In temporary loss of consciousness the savage again sees proof of the existence of a double. With epilepsy or insanity there is offered decisive proof that some spirit has taken possession of the individual's body. Even in civilised countries this belief was widely held hardly more than a century ago. And both these classes of experience are enforced by the belief that the shadow of a man, an echo, a reflection seen in water, etc., are all real things. The proofs that the belief in a "soul" does originate in this way are now so plentiful that exact references are needless. Examination of primitive religious beliefs all over the world yield the one result, without there being any evidence to the contrary.

Primitive philosophy does not stop here. Man dreams of things as well as of persons, and a general extension of the belief in a ghost or double is made until it covers almost everything. As Tylor says, "the doctrine of souls is worked out with remarkable breadth and consistency. The souls of animals are recognised by a natural extension from the theory of human souls; the souls of trees and plants follow in some vague partial way; and the souls of inanimate objects expand the category to the extremest boundary." The reasoning of the primitive mind is thus, given its limitations and unsound premises, uncompromisingly logical. One can trace the processes of reasoning more easily than is the case with modern man because it is less disturbed by cross-currents of acquired knowledge and conflicting interests.

I am giving but the barest outline of a vast subject because I am desirous of keeping the attention of the reader on what I believe to be the main issue. For that reason I am not discussing whether animism—the vitalising of inanimate objects—has an independent origin, or whether it is a mere extension of the ghost theory. Either theory does not affect my main position, which is that the idea of God is derived from the ignorance of primitive humanity, and has no other authority than a misunderstanding of natural facts. On that point the agreement among all schools of anthropologists is now very general. Personally, however, I do not believe that men would ever have given a soul to trees or other natural objects unless they had first given them to living beings, and had thus familiarised themselves with the conception of a double.

At present, though, we are on the track of the gods. The belief that every human being, and nearly every object, possesses a soul, ends in surrounding man with a cloud of spirits against which he has to be always on his guard. The general situation is well put by Miss Kingsley, who gives a picture of the West African that may well stand for the savage world in general.

Everything happens by the action of spirits. The thing he does himself is done by the spirit within acting on his body, the matter with which that spirit is associated. Everything that is done by other things is done by their spirit associated with their particular mass of matter.... The native will point out to you a lightning stricken tree and tell you its spirit has been killed. He will tell you, when the earthen cooking pot is broken, it has lost its spirit. If his weapon failed him, it is because he has stolen or made its spirit sick by means of his influence on other spirits of the same class.... In every action of his life he shows you how he lives with a great, powerful spirit world around him. You see him before running out to hunt or fight rubbing stuff in his weapon to strengthen the spirit that is in it; telling it the while what care he has taken of it; running through a list of what he had given it before, though these things had been hard to give; and begging it, in the hour of his dire necessity, not to fail him.... You see him bending over the face of the river, talking to its spirit with proper incantations, asking it when it meets an enemy to upset his canoe and destroy him ... or, as I have myself seen in Congo Francaise, to take down with it, away from his village, the pestilence of the spotted death. (West African Studies; pp. 394-5).

When Feurbach said that the "realm of memory was the world of souls," he expressed a profound truth in a striking manner. It is dreams, swoons, catalepsy, with their allied states which suggest the existence of a double or ghost. Even in the absence of the mass of evidence from all quarters in support of this, the fact of the ghost always being pictured as identical in clothing and figure with the dead man would be almost enough to demonstrate its dream origin. Into that aspect of the matter, however, we do not now intend to enter. We are now only concerned with the bearing of the ghost theory on the origin of God. Another step or two and we shall have reached that point. Believing himself surrounded on all sides by a world of ghosts the great concern of the savage is to escape their ill-will or to secure their favour. Affection and fear—fear that the ghost, if his wants are neglected, will wreak vengeance through the agency of disease, famine, or accident—leads insensibly to the ghosts of one's relations becoming objects of veneration, propitiation, and petition. All ghosts receive some attention for a certain time after death, but naturally special and sustained honours are reserved for the heads of families,[2] and for such as have been distinguished for various qualities during life. In this way ancestor worship becomes one of the most general forms of religious observances, and the gradual development of the great man or the deceased ancestor into a deity follows by easy stages. The principles of ancestor worship, to again cite the indispensible Tylor, are not difficult to understand:—

They plainly keep up the social relations of the living world. The dead ancestor, now passed into a deity, simply goes on protecting: his own family and receiving suit and service from them as of old; the dead chief still watches over his own tribe, still holds his authority by helping friends and harming enemies, still rewards the right and sharply punishes the wrong.

That this deification of ancestors and of dead men actually takes place is indisputable. The Mythologies of Greece and Rome offer numerous examples, and the deification of the Roman Emperors became the regular rule. Numerous examples to the same end are supplied from India by Mr. W. Crookes and Sir A. C. Lyall. That this way of honouring the dead is not limited to natives is shown by the famous case of General Nicholson, who actually received the honour of deification during his lifetime. Anyone who cares to consult those storehouses of information, Spencer's "Principles of Sociology" (Vol. I.), Tylor's "Primitive Culture," and Frazer's "Golden Bough" will find the whole god-making process set forth with a wealth of illustration that can hardly fail to carry conviction. Finally, in the case of Japan and China we have living examples of an organised system of religion based upon the deification of ancestors.[3]

It will make it easier to understand the evolution of the god from the ghost if we bear in mind that with primitive man the gods are conceived neither as independent existences nor as creators. Even immortality is not asserted of them. The modern notions of deity, largely due to the attempt to accommodate the idea of god to certain metaphysical and philosophical conceptions, are so intermingled with the primitive idea, that there is always the danger of reading into the primitive intelligence more than was ever there. The consequence is that by confusing the two senses of the word many find it difficult to realise how one has grown out of the other. Such ideas as those of creation and independence are quite foreign to the primitive mind. Savages are like children in this respect; their interest in things is primarily of a practical character. A child does not begin by asking how a thing came to be; it asks what it is for or what it does. So the prime concern of the savage is, what are certain things for? what will they do? are they injurious or beneficial? It is because of this practical turn of mind that so much attention is paid to the ghost, having once accepted its existence as a fact. The superiority of the gods do not consist in their substantial difference from himself, but in the greater power for good or evil conferred upon them by their invisible existence. Creation is a conception that does not arise until the capacity for philosophical speculation has developed. Then reflection sets to work; the nature of the god undergoes modification, and the long process of accommodating primitive religious beliefs to later knowledge commences, the end of which we have not yet seen.

The process of reading modern speculations into the religion of the savage leads to some curious results, one of which we cannot forbear mentioning. In his little work on "Animism" Mr. Edward Clodd, after tracing the fundamental ideas of religion to primitive delusion, says:—

Herein (i.e., in dream and visions) are to be found the sufficing materials for a belief in an entity in the body, but not of it, which can depart and return at will, and which man everywhere has more or less vaguely envisaged as his "double" or "other self."... The distinction between soul and body, which explained to man his own actions, was the key to the actions of animate and inanimate things. A personal life and will controlled them. This was obviously brought home to him more forcibly in the actions of living things, since these so closely resembled his own that he saw no difference between themselves and him. Not in this matter alone have the intuitions of the savage found their confirmation in the discoveries of modern science.... Ignorant of the reflection of sound, how else could he account for the echoes flung back from the hillside? Ignorant of the law of the interruption of light, how else could he explain the advancing and retreating shadows? In some sense they must be alive; an inference supported by modern science.

The italics in the above passages are mine, and they serve to illustrate how certain writers manage to introduce quite misleading conceptions to their readers. It almost causes one to cease wondering at the persistence of religion when one finds a writer accepting the results of anthropological research, and at the same time claiming that savage "intuitions" are confirmed by modern science. If that be true, then all that Mr. Clodd has previously written must be dismissed as untrue. The statement is, however, quite inaccurate. The inference drawn by the savage is not supported by modern science. Neither on the existence of a soul nor on the existence of a god, nor on the nature of disease, nor on the causes of physical or psychical states has science confirmed the "intuitions" (whatever that conveniently cloudy word may mean) of the primitive savage. The acquisition of correct views would indeed be an easy thing if they could be gained by the "intuitions" of an untaught savage.

The assertion that "in some sense" natural forces must be alive (as though there can be any real sense in a term except the right sense), and that this inference is "supported by modern physics," is an illustration of that playing with words which is fatal to exact thought. The only sense in which the expression is used in physics is that of "active," and both "active" and "alive" owe their vogue to the necessity for controverting the older view that natural forces are "inert" or "dead" and need some external force to produce anything. It is a mere figure of speech; the evil is when it is taken and used as an exact expression of scientific fact. Let a reader of Mr. Clodd ask himself whether the life he thinks of when he speaks of forces being alive is animal life, and he will at once see the absurdity of the statement. And if he does not mean animal life, what life does he mean?

Putting on one side all such attempts at accommodation, we may safely say that given the origin of religion in the manner indicated, one may trace—at least in outline—the development of religion from the primitive ghost worship up to the rituals and beliefs of current creeds. I do not mean by this that all religious beliefs and practices spring directly from ghost worship. Once religion is established, and the myth-making capacity let loose, additions are made that are due to all sorts of causes. The Romans and Greeks, for example, seem to have created a number of deities out of pure abstractions—gods of peace, of war, of fortune, and so forth. Why particular deities were invented, and how they became attached to particular groups of phenomena, are questions that it is often impossible to answer with any great degree of certainty, but why there should be any gods at all is a question that can be answered, I think, on the lines above indicated.

The way in which the primitive ghost worship probably paved the way for some of the doctrines of the "higher" religions may be seen on taking a story such as the death and resurrection of the Gospel Jesus. In his treatise on "The Attis" Mr. Grant Allen made the ingenious suggestion that the greater fertility of the ground on and near the grave, owing to the food placed there to feed the ghost, would produce in the savage mind the conviction that this increased fertility was due to the beneficent activity of the double of the dead man. Reasoning from this basis, it would be a simple conclusion that the production, or lack, of crops was everywhere due to the action of good or evil spirits. In the next place, it must be remembered that it is the act of dying which raises the human being to the level of a guardian spirit or god; and from this to the production of a god by ceremonial killing would be a natural and an easy step. In this last respect, at least, we are upon the firm ground of fact, and not on that of mere theory. If a reader will take the trouble to peruse the numerous examples collected by Tylor in the first chapter of his "Primitive Culture," and those provided by Frazer in the "Golden Bough," he will find the evidence for this overwhelming. Examples of the practice of killing a human being and burying his body under the foundations of a castle or a bridge are very common, and the modern custom of burying coins under a foundation-stone is a harmless and interesting survival of this custom. In some parts of Africa a boy and girl are buried where a village is to be established. In Polynesia the central pillar of a temple was placed on the body of a human victim. In Scotland there is the legend that St. Columba buried the body of St. Oran under his monastery to make the building secure. Any country will supply stories of a similar kind. Finally, we have the amusing story of the manner in which Sir Richard Burton narrowly escaped deification. Exploring in Afghanistan in the disguise of a Mohammedan fakir, he received a friendly hint that he would do well to get off without delay. He expressed surprise, as the people seemed very fond of him. That, it was explained, was the cause of the trouble. They thought so much of him they intended to kill him, and thus retain so excellent a man with them for ever.

When Tylor wrote, the prevalent impression was that this killing of human beings was due to a desire to appease the spirits of the place. Later investigation showed that instead of a sacrifice it was a creation. The purpose was to create a local god who would watch over the building or settlement. God-making was thus shown to be a universal practice.

Our next step must be taken in the company of Sir James Frazer. On all-fours with the practice of creating a guardian deity for a building is that of making a similar guardian for crops and vegetation. The details of this practice are interesting, but they need not now detain us. It is enough that the practice existed, and, as Frazer shows, was an annual practice. Year by year the god was killed in order that the seed might ripen and the harvest be secured. In some cases the body was cut up and pieces buried in the fields; in other cases it was burned and the ashes scattered over the ground. Gradually the ritual becomes more elaborate, but the central idea remains intact that of a human being converted into a god by being killed, a man sacrificed for the benefit of the tribe. In the light of these researches the New Testament story becomes only a more recent version of a widespread savage superstition. The time of the sacrifice, the symbolism, the practices all prove this. The crucified Saviour, in honour of whom all the Christian cathedrals and churches of the world are built, is only another late survival of the god-making practice of primitive savagery.

The gods are, then, ultimately deified ghosts. They are born of misinterpreted subjective and objective experiences. This is among the surest and most firmly established results of modern investigation. It matters not what modifications later knowledge may demand; it will only mean a change of form, not of substance. On any scientific theory we are bound to explain the origin of the gods in terms of human error. And no subsequent development can alter its character. We may trace the various stages of a universal delusion, but nothing can convert a delusion into a reality. It is now universally recognised that the primitive notions of gods represent false conclusions from misunderstood facts. No one now believes that the visions seen during sleep are proofs of a wandering double. No one believes that it is necessary to supply the ghost of the dead with food, or with weapons, or with wives. We do not believe that the wind, the stars, the waters are alive or are capable of being influenced by our petitions. All the phenomena upon which the god idea was originally built are now known to be susceptible to a radically different explanation. And if this is so, what other foundations have we on which to build a belief in God? There is none. There is only one plausible reason for the belief in God, and that is the reason advanced by the savage. When we get beyond that we are not dealing with reasons for holding the belief, but only with excuses for retaining it. Unfortunately, thousands are familiar with the excuses, and only a few with the reasons. Were it otherwise a great deal of what follows need never have been written.


[1] Both the words "supernatural" and "God" are here used somewhat loosely. In fact the conception of the supernatural arises gradually, and as a consequence of developing knowledge which, so to speak, splits the universe into two. So also with the belief in God. There is clearly an earlier form in which there exists a kind of mental plasma from which the more definite conception of God is subsequently formed. On this topic the reader may consult "The Threshold of Religion," by R. R. Marett, 1914.

[2] For the importance of this in the history of religion see Fustel de Coulanges' "The Ancient City."

[3] The perpetuation of this earlier stage of religion in China and Japan appears to make the transition to Free-thought easier than in countries where religion has under-gone a more advanced evolution. In both the countries named, the better minds find it quite easy to treat their religion as merely the respect paid to ancestors, and thus divest it of the supernatural element. In Christian countries there is also the attempt to restate beliefs in terms of current morality and sociology, but the transition is more difficult.



In all discussions of theism there is one point that is usually overlooked. This is that theism is in the nature of a hypothesis. And, like every hypothesis, its value is proportionate to the extent to which it offers a satisfactory explanation of the facts with which it professes to deal. If it can offer no explanation its value is nil. If its explanation is only partial, its value will be determined by the degree to which it can claim superiority over any other hypothesis that is before us. But every hypothesis implies two things. There is a group of things to be explained, and there is the hypothesis itself that is offered in explanation. In the harmony of the two, and in the possibility of verification, lies the only proof of truth that can be offered.

If this be granted it at once disposes of the plea that a conviction of the existence of God springs from some special quality of the mind which enables man to arrive at a conclusion in a manner different from the way in which conclusions concerning other subjects are reached. Intuition as a method of discovering truth is pure delusion. All that can be rationally meant by such a word as intuition is summarised experience. When we speak of knowing a thing "intuitively," all that we can mean is that, experience having furnished us with a sufficient guidance, we are able to reach a conclusion so rapidly that we cannot follow the steps of the mental process involved. That this is so is seen in the fact that our intuitions always follow the line of our experience. A stockbroker may "intuitively" foresee a rise or fall of the market, but his intuition will fail him when considering the possibilities of a chemical composition. To say that a man knows a thing by intuition is only one way of saying that he does not know how he knows it—that is, he is unable to trace the stages of his own mental operations. And in this sense intuition is universal. It belongs as much to the cooking of a dumpling as it does to the belief in deity.

But it is evident that when the theist talks of intuition, what he has in mind is something very different from this. He is thinking of some special quality of mind that operates independently of experience, either racial or individual. And this simply does not exist. In religion man is never putting into operation qualities of mind different from those he employs in other directions. Whether we call a state of mind religious or not is determined, not by the mental processes involved, but by the object to which it is directed. Hatred and love, anger, pleasure, awe, curiosity, reverence, even worship, are exactly the same whether directed towards "God" or towards anything else. Human qualities are fundamentally identical, and may be expressed in relation to all sorts of objects.

The attempt to mark religion off from the rest of life, to be approached by special methods and in a special frame of mind, takes many forms, and it may be illustrated by the manner in which it is dealt with by Professor Arthur Thomson. In a little work entitled "An Introduction to Science," and specially intended for general consumption, he remarks, as a piece of advice to his readers:—

We would remind ourselves and our readers that the whole subject should be treated with reverence and sympathy, for it is hardly possible to exaggerate the august role of religion in human life. Whatever be our views, we must recognise that just as the great mathematicians and metaphysicians represent the aristocracy of the human intellect, so the great religious geniuses represent the aristocracy of human emotion. And in this connection it is probably useful to bear in mind that in all discussions about religious ideas or feelings we should ourselves be in an exalted mood, and yet "with a compelling sense of our own limitations," and of the vastness and mysteriousness of the world.

If Professor Thomson had been writing on "Frames of Mind Fatal to Scientific Investigation" he could hardly have chosen a better illustration of his thesis. One may safely say that anyone who started an examination of religion in this spirit, and maintained it throughout his examination, would perform something little short of a miracle did he reach a sound conclusion. A feeling of sympathy may pass, but why "reverence"? Reverence is a very complex state, but it certainly includes respect and a certain measure of affection. And how is one to rationally have respect or affection for anything before one has ascertained that they are deserving of either? Is anyone who happens to believe that religion is not worthy of reverence to be ruled out as being unfit to express an opinion? Clearly, on this rule, either we compel a man to sacrifice his sense of self-respect before we will allow him to be heard, or we pack the jury with persons who confess to have reached a decision before they have heard the evidence. It would almost seem from the expression that while examining religion we should be in an "exalted mood" that Professor Thomson has in view the last contingency. For by an exalted mood we can only understand a religious mood—that is, we must believe in religion before we examine it, otherwise our examination is profanity. Well, that is just the cry of the priest in all ages. And while it is sound religion, there is no question of its being shocking science. Even the mere feeling of exaltation is not to be encouraged during a scientific investigation. One can understand Kepler when he had discovered the true laws of planetary motion, or Newton when he embraced in one magnificent generalisation the fall of a stone and the revolution of a planet, experiencing a feeling of exaltation; but exaltation must follow, not precede, the conclusion. At any rate, there are few scientific teachers who would encourage such a feeling during investigation.

Leaving for a moment the question of religious geniuses being the aristocrats of human emotion, we may take the same writer's view of the limitations of science, thus providing an opening for the intrusion of religion. This is given in the form of a criticism of the following well-known passage from Huxley:—

If the fundamental proposition of evolution is true, namely, that the entire world, animate and inanimate, is the result of the mutual interaction, according to definite laws, of forces possessed by the molecules which made up the primitive nebulosity of the universe; then it is no less certain that the present actual world reposed potentially in the cosmic vapour, and that an intelligence, if great enough, could from his knowledge of the properties of the molecules of that vapour have predicted the state of the fauna in Great Britain in 1888 with as much certitude as we say what will happen to the vapour of our breath on a cold day in winter.

Now, if the principle of evolution be accepted, the truth of Huxley's statement appears to be self-evident. It may be that no intelligence capable of making such a calculation will ever exist, but the abstract possibility remains. Professor Thomson calls it "a very strong and confident statement," which illustrates the need for philosophical criticism. His criticism of Huxley's statement is based on two grounds. These are: (1) "No complete physico-chemical description has ever been given of any distinctively vital activity; and (2) the physical description of things cannot cover biological phenomena, nor can the biological description cover mental and moral phenomena." There is, he says,

The physical order of nature—the inorganic world—where mechanism reigns supreme. (2) There is the vital order of nature—the world of organisms—where mechanism proves insufficient. (3) There is the physical order of nature—the world of mind—where mechanism is irrelevant. Thus there are three fundamental sciences—Physics, Biology, and Psychology—each with characteristic questions, categories and formulae.

Now, however earnestly Huxley's statement calls for criticism, it is clear to us that nothing useful in that direction is offered by Prof. Thomson. It is quite plain that the abstract possibility of such a calculation as that named by Huxley can never be ruled out by science, since such a conception lies at the root of all scientific thinking. After all, want of knowledge only proves—want of knowledge; and Sir Oliver Lodge would warn Prof. Thomson of the extreme danger of resting an argument on the ignorance of science at any particular time.[4]

I note this statement of Professor Thomson's chiefly because it illustrates a very common method of dealing with the mechanistic or non-theistic view of the universe. In this matter Professor Thomson may claim the companionship of Sir Oliver Lodge, who says, "Materialism is appropriate to the material world, not as a philosophy, but as a working creed, as a proximate, an immediate formula for guiding research. Everything beyond that belongs to another region, and must be reached by other methods. To explain the psychical in terms of physics and chemistry is simply impossible.... The extreme school of biologists ... ought to say, if they were consistent, there is nothing but physics and chemistry at work anywhere." With both these writers there is the common assumption that the mechanist assumes there is a physical and chemical explanation of all phenomena. And the assumption is false. There is a story of a well-known lecturer on physiology who commenced an address on the stomach by remarking that that organ had been called this, that, and the other, but the one thing he wished his students to bear in mind was that it was a stomach. So the mechanist, while firmly believing that there is an ascending unity in all natural phenomena, is never silly enough to deny that living things are alive, or that thinking beings think.

But unless Professor Thomson does impute this to the mechanist, we quite fail to see the relevance his assertion that there are three departments, physics, biology, and psychology, each with its characteristic questions, categories, and formulae. Of course, there are, and equally, of course, physical laws will not cover biological facts; nor will biological laws cover psychological ones. This is not due to any occult cause, but to the simple fact that as each group of phenomena has its characteristic features, each set of laws are framed to cover the phenomena presented by that group. Otherwise there would be no need of these special laws. It is astonishing how paralysing is the effect of the theistic obsession on the minds of even scientific men, since it leads them to ignore what is really a basic consideration in scientific method.

Perhaps a word or two more on this topic is advisable. If it is permissible to arrange natural phenomena in a serial order, we may place them in succession as physical, chemical, biological, and psychological. But these names represent no more than descriptions of certain features that are to the group common, otherwise the grouping would be useless and impossible. And it is part of the business of science to frame "laws"—descriptions—of phenomena such as will enable us to express their characteristic features in a brief formula. It is, therefore, quite true to say that you cannot express vital phenomena in terms of physics or chemistry. And no materialist who took the trouble to understand materialism, instead of taking a statement of what it is from an anti-materialist, ever thought otherwise. Each specific group of phenomena can only be covered by laws that belong to that group, and which were framed for that express purpose. A psychological fact can no more be expressed in terms of chemistry than a physical fact can be expressed in terms of biology. These truths are as plain to the mechanist as they are to the vitalist. Mental life, the scientific categories, are real to all; the only question at issue is that of their origin.

To explain is to make intelligible, and in that sense all scientific explanation consists in the establishing of equivalents. When we say that A, B, C are the factors of D, we have asserted D is the equivalent of A, B, C—plus, of course, all that results from the combination of the factors. When we say that we have explained the formation of water by showing it to be the product of H.2.O. we have shown that whether we say "water" or use the chemical formula we are making identical statements. If we are working out a problem in dynamics we meet with exactly the same principle. We must prove that the resultant accounts for all the forces in operation at the time. Now, all that the mechanist claims is that it is extremely probable that one day the scientist will be able to work out the exact physico-chemical conditions that are the equivalents of biological phenomena, and, in turn, the physico-chemical-biological conditions that are the equivalents of psychological phenomena. Very considerable progress has already been made in this direction, and, as Sir Oliver Lodge says, there are probably very few scientific men who would deny the likelihood of this being done.

But this does not deny the existence of differences between these groups of phenomena; neither does it assert that we can describe the characteristic features of one group in terms that belong to another group. Once a group of phenomena, biological, or chemical is there, we must have special formulae to describe them, otherwise there would be no need for these divisions. It is admitted that the earth was at one time destitute of life; it is also admitted that there are forms of life destitute of those features which we call mind. And, whatever be their mode of origin, once introduced they must be dealt with in special terms. Psychological facts must be expressed in terms of psychology, biological facts in terms of biology, and chemical facts in terms of chemistry. You may give the chemical and physical equivalent of a sunset. That is one aspect. You may also give the psychological explanation of the emotion of man on beholding it. That is another aspect. But you cannot express the psychological fact in terms of chemistry because it belongs to quite another category. A psychological fact, as such, is ultimate. So is a chemical or a biological fact. If by analysis you reduce the psychological fact to its chemical and biological equivalents, its character as a psychological fact is destroyed. That is the product of the synthesis, and to seek in analysis for what only exists in synthesis, is surely to altogether misunderstand the spirit of scientific method. The curious thing is that a mere layman should have to correct men of science on this matter.

We can now return to Prof. Thomson's attempt to claim for religion a special place in the sphere of emotion. He claims, in the passage already cited, that "as the great mathematicians and metaphysicians represent the aristocracy of human intellect so the great religious geniuses represent the aristocracy of human emotion." There is nothing new in this claim, neither is there any evidence of its truth. Coleridge's dictum that the proper antithesis to religion is poetry is open to serious objection, but there is more to be said for it than may be said for the antithesis set up by Prof. Thomson. As a matter of fact, religious geniuses have often pursued their work with as much attention to scientific precision as was possible, and have prided themselves that they made no appeal to mere emotion. Justification by emotion has only been attempted when other means of securing conviction has failed. And the appeal to emotion has become popular for very obvious reasons. It enables the ordinary theologian to feel a comfortable superiority over a Spencer or a Darwin. It enables mediocrities to enjoy the feeling of being wise without the trouble of acquiring wisdom. It enables inherited prejudices to rank as reasoned convictions. And, in addition, there is nothing that cannot be conveniently proved or disproved by such a method.

In whatever form the distinction is met with it harbours a fallacy. Intellectual activity is not and cannot be divorced from emotion. There are states of mind in which feeling predominates, and there are others in which reason predominates. But all intellectual states involve a feeling element. The often-made remark that feeling and intellect are in conflict is true only in the sense that ultimately certain intellectual states, plus their associated feelings, are in conflict with other intellectual states plus their associated feelings. To realise this one need only consider the sheer pleasure that results from the rapid sweep of the mind through a lengthy chain of reasoning, and the positive pain that ensues when the terms of a proposition baffles comprehension. The force of this is admitted by Prof. Thomson in the remark that man at the limit of his endeavour has fallen back on religion. Quite so; that is the painful feelings evoked by an intellectual failure have thrown a certain type of mind back on religion. In this they have acted like one who flies to a drug for relief from a pain he lacks the courage to bear. They take a narcotic when, often enough, the real need is for a stimulant.

In sober truth religion is no more necessarily connected with the emotions than are other subjects of investigation. Those who have made the pursuit of "cold scientific truth" their life's work have shown every whit as much ardour and passion as those who have given their life to religion. The picture of man sacrificing himself in the cause of religion is easily matched by a Vesalius haunting the charnel houses of Europe, and risking the most loathsome diseases in the interests of scientific research. The abiding passion for truth in a character such as that of Roger Bacon or Bruno easily matches the enthusiasm of the missionary monk. The passion and the enthusiasm for science is less advertised than the passion and the enthusiasm for religion, but it is quite as real, and certainly not less valuable. The state of mind of Kepler on discovering the laws of planetary motion was hardly less ecstatic than that of a religious visionary describing his sense of "spiritual" communion. Only in the case of the scientist, it is emotion guided by reason, not reason checked and partly throttled by emotion.

When, therefore, Matthew Arnold defined religion as morality touched with emotion, he substituted a fallacy for a definition. Primarily religion is as much a conviction as is the Copernican system of astronomy. It exists first as an idea; it only exists as an emotion at a later stage. There is really no such thing as a religious emotion, there are only emotions connected with religion. Originally all religion is in the nature of an inference from observed or experienced facts. This inference may not be of the elaborate kind that we associate with modern scientific work, but it is there. The inference is an illogical one, but under the conditions inevitable. And being an inference religion is not primarily an emotion but a conviction, and it must stand or fall by its intellectual trustworthiness. It seems, indeed, little less than a truism to say that unless men first of all believed something about religion they could never have emotions concerning it. Hope and fear may colour our convictions, they may prevent the formation of correct opinions, but they originate in connection with a belief in every case. And an emotion, if it be a healthful one, must be ultimately capable of intellectual justification. When this cannot be done, when we have mere emotion pleaded as a ground for rejecting rational examination, we have irrationalism driven to its last ditch.


[4] "The present powerlessness of science to explain or originate life is a convenient weapon wherewith to fell a pseudo-scientific antagonist who is dogmatising too loudly out of bounds; but it is not perfectly secure as a permanent support.... Life in its ultimate elements and on its material side is such a simple thing, it is but a slight extension of known chemical and physical forces.... I apprehend that there is not a biologist but believes (perhaps quite erroneously) that sooner or later the discovery will be made, and that a cell discharging all the essential functions of life will be constructed out of inorganic material." ("Man and the Universe," Chap. I.).



What, now, are the facts upon which the modern believer in deity professes to base his belief and what are the arguments used to defend the position taken up?

Premising that the reasons advanced for the belief in deity are more in the nature of excuses than aught else, we may take first of all the argument derived from the mere existence of the universe, with the alleged impossibility of conceiving it as self-existent. Along with that there may also be taken as a variant of the argument from existence, the alleged impossibility of a natural "order" that should result from the inherent properties of natural forces. Now it is at least plain that whatever difficulty there is in thinking of the universe as either self-existing or self-adjusting is in no degree lessened by assuming a God as the originator and sustainer of the whole. The most that it does is to move the difficulty back a step, and while with many "out of sight out of mind" is as true of their attitude towards mental problems as it is towards the more ordinary things of life, the policy can hardly be commended in serious intellectual discussions. It is not a bit easier to think of self-existence or self-direction in connection with a god than it is in connection with the universe. And if we must rest ultimately with an insoluble difficulty, it is surely better to stop with the existence we know rather than to introduce a second existence which for all we know may be quite mythical.

It is no reply to say that the idea of God involves self-existence. It does nothing of the kind, or at least it can do so only by our making yet another assumption that is as unjustifiable as the previous one. If God is a personality, we have no conception of a personality that is self-existent. The only personality that we know is the human personality, and that is certainly derived. Our whole knowledge of human personality is that of something which is derived from pre-existing personalities, each of which is a centre of derived influences. Of personality as either the cause or the commencement of a series we have not the slightest conception. And the man who says he has can never have carefully examined the contents of his own mind.

The truth is that the fact of the existence of the universe provides no ground for argument in favour of either Atheism or Theism. Existence is a common datum for all. Some existence must be assumed in all argument since all argument implies something that is to be discussed and explained. And for that very reason we can offer no explanation of existence itself, since all explanation means the merging of one class of facts in a larger class. The largest class of facts we have is that which is included in the term "universe," and we cannot explain that by assuming another existence—God—about which we know nothing. To explain the unknown by the known is an intelligible procedure. To explain the known by the unknown is to forsake all intellectual sanity. Thus every difficulty that surrounds the conception of the universe as an ultimate fact, surrounds the existence of God as an ultimate fact. You cannot get rid of a difficulty by giving it another name. And whether we call ultimate existence "God," or "matter," or "substance," is of no vital importance to anyone who keeps his mind on the real issue that has to be decided. If the question, What is the cause of existence? be a legitimate one, it applies no less to the existence of God than it does to the existence of matter, or force, or substance. All that we gain is another problem which we add to the problems we already possess. We increase our burden without enlarging our comprehension. If, on the other hand, it is said that we need an all embracing formula that will make our conception of the universe coherent, it may be replied that we have that in such a conception as the persistence of force. And it is surely better to keep to a formula that does at least work, than to devise one that is altogether useless.

The inherent weakness of the theistic conception will be best seen by taking an orthodox presentation of the argument under consideration. In his well-known work on "Theism," Professor Flint says "that granting all the atoms of matter to be eternal, grant that all the properties and forces, which with the smallest degree of plausibility can be claimed for them to be eternal and indestructible, and it is still beyond expression improbable that these atoms, with these forces, if unarranged, uncombined, unutilised by a presiding mind, would give rise to anything entitled to be called a universe. It is millions to one that they would never produce the simplest of the regular arrangements which we comprehend under the designation of course of nature." (Theism; pp. 107-8.)

Now this is an admirably clear and terse statement of an argument which is often presented in so verbose a manner that its real nature is, to a considerable extent, disguised. But in this case, clearness of statement makes for ease of refutation, as will be seen.

For, instead of the statement being, as the writer seems to think, almost self-evidently true, it is almost obtrusively false. Instead of its being millions to one, given matter and force with all their present properties, against the present arrangement of things occurring, it is inconceivable, assuming that nothing but the atoms and their properties exist, that any other arrangement than the present one should have resulted. For the present natural order is not something that is, so to speak, separable from our conception of natural forces, it is something that has grown out of and is the expression of the idea of nature. Thus, given a proper understanding of the principle of gravitation, and it is impossible to conceive an unsupported stone not falling to the ground. Given a proper conception of the properties of the constituents of a chemical compound, and we can only conceive one result as possible. In all cases our conception of what must occur follows from the nature of the forces themselves. This is necessarily the case since the conception of the ultimate properties of matter has been built up by the observation of the actual results. And one simply cannot conceive an alteration in these results without thinking of some alteration or modification of the causes of which they are the expression. What is true of the part is true of the whole. The present structure of the world stands as the inevitable outcome of the play of natural forces. This is both the expression of an actual fact and a condition of coherent thought. Uniformity of results from uniformity of conditions is a pre-requisite to sane thinking.

In reality, the expression "millions to one" is no more than an appeal to man's awe in facing a stupendous mechanism, and his feeling of impotence when dealing with so complex a subject as the evolution of a world. It can only mean that to a certain state of knowledge it seems millions to one against the present order resulting. But to a certain state of knowledge it would seem millions to one against so fluid a thing as water ever becoming solid. To others it is a commonplace thing and a necessary consequence of the properties of water itself. To a savage it would be millions to one against a cloud of "fire mist" ever becoming a world with a highly diversified fauna and flora. To a scientist there is nothing more in it than antecedent and consequent. Such expressions as its being "millions to one" against certain things happening is never really more than an appeal to ignorance; it means only that our knowledge is not great enough to permit our tracing the successive stages of the evolution before us. Once the scientific conception of the universe is grasped, the marvel is not that the present order exists, the marvel would be that any other "order" should be, or that any radical alteration in it should occur.

And there really is no need to throw the whole universe at the head of the sceptic. That is an attempt to overcome him with sheer weight. Intrinsically there is nothing more marvellous in the evolution of a habitable globe from the primitive nebula, than there is in the fact that an unsupported stone always falls to the ground. It is only our familiarity with the one experience and our lack of knowledge concerning the other that gives us the condition of wonder in the one case and lack of it in the other. In the light of modern knowledge "order" is, as W. H. Mallock says, "a physical platitude, not a divine paradox."

Moreover, if the odds are a million to one against the existence of the present arrangement existing, the odds would be equally great against the existence of any other arrangement. And as the odds are equally great against all—seeing that some arrangement must exist—there can be no logical value in using the argument against one arrangement in particular. The same question, "Why this arrangement and none other?" might arise in any case.

Finally, the absurdity of arguing that the "order" of nature compels a belief in deity may be seen by realising the fact that our conception of order is itself the product of the experienced sequence which constitutes the order in question. Our ideas of order are not independent of the world, they are its product—an expression of the relation between organism and environment. Given a different organism, with different sense organs, and the world would appear different. On the other hand the whole structure of man is the result of the existing conditions. Assume the order to be changed, and the human organism—presuming it still to exist, will undergo corresponding modifications. It would not find less order or less beauty, the order and the beauty would simply be found in another direction. And, presumably, the theist would still point to the existence of that order as clear proof of a designing intelligence.

Something needs to be said here on a more recent form of the argument from the "order" of nature than the one we have been discussing. There is no vital distinction between the old and the new form, but a variation in terms seems to produce on some minds a conviction of newness—itself a proof that the nature of the old form had never been fully realised.

This new form is that based upon what is called "Directivity." Recognising that it is no longer possible to successfully dispute the scientific proposition that the state of the universe at any one moment must be taken as the result of all the conditions then prevailing, and, therefore, it is to the operation of the ultimate properties of matter, force, ether,—or whatever name we choose to give to the substance of the universe—it is argued that we nevertheless require some directing force which will set, and keep the universe on its present track.

But there is really nothing in this beyond the now familiar appeal to human impotence. "We do not know," "We cannot see," are quite excellent reasons for saying nothing at all, but the very worst ground on which to make positive statements, or on which to base positive beliefs. The only condition that would justify our making human ignorance a ground on which to make statements of the kind named would be that we had demonstrably exhausted the possibilities of natural forces, and no further developments were possible in this direction. Far from this being the case there is not a single man of science who would dissent from the statement that we are only upon the threshold of a knowledge of their possibilities.

And this assumption of "direction" is unconvincing, if not suicidal in character. Assuming that direction may have occurred, the fact of direction adds nothing to the qualities or possibilities of existence, any more than the "directivity" of a chemist adds to the possibilities of certain elements when he brings them into combination. Unless the possibilities of the compound were already in the elements guidance would be useless. And, in the same way, unless the capacity for producing the universe we see already existed in the atoms themselves, no amount of "direction" could have produced it. God simply takes the place of the chemist bringing certain chemical elements in, of the engineer guiding certain forces along a particular channel. But no new capacity is created, and all that is done by either the chemist or the engineer might occur without their interference. Otherwise it could not occur at all.

Now there is no denying that natural forces do produce the phenomena around us. That is undeniable. And whether there be a god or not this fact remains quite unaffected. All that God can do is to set up certain combinations. But this does not exclude the possibility of this combination taking place without the operation of deity. In fact, it implies it. Either, then, natural forces possess the capacity to produce the universe as we see it, or they do not. If they do not, then it is impossible for us to conceive in what way even deity could produce it. If, on the other hand, they have this capacity, the argument for the existence of deity loses its force, and the theist is bound to admit that all that he claims as due to the action of deity might have happened without him. The theists own argument, if logically pursued ends in divesting it of all coercive value.

It is curious that the theist should fail to see that a much stronger argument for the operation of deity would have been of a negative character, to have proved that in some way God manifested an inhibitive influence and thus prevented certain things occurring which would have transpired but for his interference. Regularity, or "order" is, as we have seen, the necessary consequence of the persistence of force. And so long as natural forces continue to express themselves in the way in which experience has led us to expect there is no need for us to think of anything beyond. The principle of inertia is with us here, for if it be true that force will persist in a given direction unless deflected from its course by some other force, it must be equally true that all forces will work out a given consequence unless they are deflected from their course by the operation of some superior force.

Now if it were possible for the theist to show that in certain cases the normal consequences of known forces did not transpire, and that the aberration could not be accounted for by the operation of any other conceivable force, it might be argued with some degree of plausibility that there exists a controlling power beyond which answers to God. That might afford a plausible case for "directivity." But to insist upon the prevalence of "natural order" will not help the case for theism. It will rather embarrass it. It may, of course, impress all those whose conception of scientific method is poor—and sometimes one thinks that this is all that is deliberately aimed at—but it will not affect anyone else. To the informed mind it will appear that the Goddite is weakening his case with every step he takes in the direction of what he apparently believes to be a demonstration of its logical invulnerability.



The argument from causation may logically follow that from existence, of which it may be regarded as a part. It is presented under various forms, and when stated in a persuasive manner, is next to the argument from design, probably as popular as any. The principal reason for this is, I think, that very few people are concerned with thinking out exactly what is meant by causation, and the proposition that every event must have a cause, wins a ready assent, and when followed by the assertion that therefore the universe must have had a cause, which is God, the reasoning, or rather the parody of reasoning, appeals to many. There is a show of reason and logic, but little more.

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