Popular Science Monthly/Volume 26/January 1885/Editor's Table



WE print the concluding portion of a controversy between Frederic Harrison and Herbert Spencer on the nature of religion. In an article which appeared in the "Monthly" of last January, Mr. Spencer took a retrospective view of the past tendencies of religious ideas, and on the basis of this pointed out the further changes that may be expected in the future. His conclusion was a reaffirmation of views laid down many years ago, that there is a verity at the foundation of all religious systems, which will permanently remain when the erroneous beliefs accompanying this verity are utterly swept away by the progress of science. Mr. Spencer thus arrays himself, not with those who deny but with those who affirm the validity of religion, or that there is a reality at the root of all the diverse, discordant, and changing faiths professed by mankind. Religion is held to pertain to the sphere of the emotions, and to consist essentially in the feelings which arise in human nature toward the unsolved and forever insoluble mystery of the universe. Mr. Spencer says that, "unlike the ordinary consciousness, the religious consciousness is concerned with that which lies beyond the sphere of sense."It therefore relates to that which can not be grasped by the intellect, but which lies beyond the range of knowledge. That which is the object of religious feeling can not be known in any sense of our usual knowledge. Mr. Spencer reasons that it is not a negation, but a positive reality; and, preferring to use a term connotive of true humility and the limitations of the human mind, he calls this mysterious object of religious feeling "The Unknowable."

Mr. Harrison attacked this view of Spencer in an article which appeared in the August "Monthly" under the title of "The Ghost of Religion." He maintained that Mr. Spencer had perpetrated an utterly destructive criticism of everything hitherto known as religion; and argued that the attempt to find anything like a common element in religious systems is futile, while the doctrine of the Unknowable is but a vain attempt to deify an all-nothingness. His position, therefore, was, that there is no element of truth whatever in any of the systems that have passed under the name of religion. Yet Mr. Harrison will not give up the term religion. He proposes to retain it, redefine it, and make a new application of it. He says it is duty, virtue, morality, and finds its highest expression in a worship of humanity.

Mr. Spencer rejoined to this criticism in an article printed in the same number of the "Monthly," under the title of "Retrogressive Religion." lie replied to Mr. Harrison's criticisms of the doctrine of the Unknowable, and then subjected to a close examination Mr. Harrison's view of the Religion of Humanity. Mr. Harrison replies in an article entitled "Agnostic Metaphysics." It is very long, and divided into three parts. The first contains all that is essential to the main controversy; and, as we can not afford room for his less important expansions of the discussion, we print herewith the first portion, which is all that is properly covered by his title, and the part to which Mr. Spencer's answer is chiefly confined—which answer also appears in the present "Monthly."

We have felt bound to lay this discussion before our readers, because it is undoubtedly of profound importance. It goes to the root of the issue between science and religion, and is really a contest over the vital question whether there is, or is to be in future, any recognition of any such thing as truth in the religious sphere of human experience. In the issue as thus made up, Herbert Spencer is on the religious side. He affirms that man is a religious being, that the religious sentiments have their proper object, that science can carry away only errors of theological belief, and that the basis of religious feeling must be as permanent in the future as it has been in the past. This Mr. Harrison denies, and maintains the absolute groundlessness of all religious conceptions or sentiments which have been embodied, however obscurely, in the past beliefs and aspirations of mankind.

Mr. Harrison says that he warned Mr. Spencer ten years ago that "his religious doctrine of the Unknowable was certain to lead him into strange company." The apprehended danger was, that the ground taken by Spencer on religion might at length find acceptance with religious people, and now he intimates that this disaster, against which he raised his voice of warning, has actually occurred; that is, religious people are coming into agreement with Mr. Spencer. We indulged in a similar prophecy more than twenty years ago, though in no spirit of dread or warning. We said that as science went on with its inexorable work of criticism, undermining and overthrowing theological errors, the stern question would certainly arise whether anything whatever was to be left; and that there would then be a far higher appreciation of the position taken by Spencer, that the essentials of religion are indestructible in human nature. For maintaining this doctrine in the form which he gave it, Mr. Spencer was denounced as a materialist, an atheist, and the destroyer of religion. But, now that his views are better understood, it begins to be acknowledged on the one hand that he has rendered a great service to the religious side, while the undisguised enemies of all religion are making war upon him because there is a tendency among the most enlightened religious people to favor his ideas. Yet the whole burden of Harrison's argument is to show that the doctrine of the Unknowable is inadequate as a religious basis, because the people will never be able to appreciate it. But time may rapidly change the possibilities of appreciation as implied by his own warning of ten years ago, which he now declares is being fulfilled. It is to be remembered that Mr. Harrison does not deny, but virtually concedes, the validity of the doctrine of the Unknowable as a logical formula or philosophical proposition, which, of course, is to admit that there is truth in it. But he says it belongs to philosophy, and denies that it has or can have any religious significance. Yet Mr. Spencer has proved that it is the fundamental and neutral truth of all the religions that have existed and had power over mankind. Mr. Harrison can not deny the essential religious character of this view without vacating the fundamental conception of religion and uprooting it from human nature. This he aims to do in his discussion, and then coolly proceeds to put something else in its place.

There therefore can be no hesitation about classing Mr. Harrison as an inveterate antagonist of religion. Taking the meaning that the world has hitherto given to the word, he scouts it as pure illusion. Yet he will not admit that he is the enemy of religion. As we have said, he believes in and is laboring to found and extend a new religion. We only complain that in doing this he wrests the word from its old and established meaning and gives it a novel and perverted application. In place of the religions which have made the Divine Power an object of worship, he would substitute the worship of man and the religion of humanity as invented and expounded by Comte. Of course, the new view can only be accepted by the abandonment of the old, and we very much doubt if the world will approve or accept the change. It is incongruous and fantastic, and would be incredible, but for the ridiculous fact that a little sect is actually trying to adopt and carry it out. A writer in an English newspaper, who had visited the Little Bethel of the Comteists to witness the services on the eve of the fête of the founder of the new religion, thus describes what he saw: "When I entered Dr. Congreve was reading the service for the day. He had an audience of some thirty persons, several of them young ladies who had evidently come to be startled. The sermon was preached by Mr. Crompton. If he is a 'priest' of the new dispensation, he wears no clerical attire. Perhaps the.! year 96 of the Comteist era (for they have, like the French Republic, their own era) is too early for the invention of sacerdotal robes. The preacher came to a desk draped in red baize, and for a half-hour poured forth a rhapsody upon Auguste Comte, Clothilde de Vaux, progress, order, unity, and love, which was chiefly remarkable for the free use of Christian language to set forth a faith (if it can be called a faith) antagonistic to Christianity. The poor wife of Comte, who left him, was dismissed with a word of scorn for one who was incapable of sharing the honors of greatness; and Clothilde, the mistress, was extolled to the skies for her devotion to her distinguished lover. Comte and Clothilde were declared to be the two greatest people who had visited this earth; and the peroration was a sort of ascription to them. It was startling to hear the organ, as the preacher sat down, peal forth that beautiful phrase from Mendelssohn's 'Elijah' so often heard as a Kyrie, and associated in the oratorio with the words 'Bend down from heaven and grant us thy peace. Help, Lord, thy servants; help, God!' Dr. Congreve then rose and said, 'Let us pray.' Everybody stood. 'We praise thee, Humanity,' said Dr. Congreve, 'as for all thy servants, so especially for Auguste Comte; and we pray that, in proof of our gratitude, we may become thy more willing and complete servants.' The prayer went on to talk of 'the queen of our devotion, the lady of our loving service, the one center of all our being, the one bond of all ages, the one shelter for all the families of mankind, the one foundation of a truly catholic church. To thee be all honor and glory. Amen!' Then came a parody of the benediction given in the name of Humanity: 'The peace of her slowly dawning kingdom be upon you, the blessing of Humanity abide with you, now and forever.' The organ played again, and the little audience departed."

The devotees of this new religious cult may be sincere, but they are none the less absurd; and to call this result of insane egotism—the substitution of man for God as an object of worship—by the name of religion is to take liberties with the meanings of words which, if carried out, would reduce all language to a state of chaos.


In spite of the intellectual advancement of our age, men are still to far too great an extent under the dominion of mere words. If there is any habit which science is destined to break up and dispel it is this. Science must do it, because it is pre-eminently the knowledge of things, and to know things should make the mere names of things sit lightly upon one. Words have seized the throne of man's reason; they command, and he obeys. It is time to dethrone them, to break their spell over the human mind, to teach every human being to ask without dismay: "What is the reality of this thing to which so terrible—or mayhap so imposing or so attractive—a name is given? Let us not stop at the name; let us get at the facts."

Now, one of the most appalling terms—to some—of modern philosophical discussion is "materialism." To others—a much smaller number—it stands for the only true scientific gospel. We think, therefore, that we shall be rendering a useful service if we try to show, and succeed in showing, as we think we can, that there are two kinds of materialism—one a healthy kind which has an unshakable foundation in Nature, and which no one need dread to accept; the other an unhealthy kind that fortunately has no foundation anywhere, but exists as a wholly illegitimate construction in the minds of those who cherish it,

What matter is we know not, and do not need to know. We know how our minds are impressed when we speak of matter; we know, in other words, what kind of consciousness we have when matter is an object of thought or feeling. In the same way, without knowing what mind is, we know what we are conscious of when we think of mind. Now, if there is anything in this world we are sure of, it is that mental manifestations are governed by physical conditions. It is needless to go over the familiar arguments, when any one who disputes the general position is found talking to a drunken man just as he would to a sober one, or to a delirious patient just as he would to a person in sound health—in other words, taking no account of the physical conditions which have confused the mental operations of either unfortunate—then we shall believe that ho means what he says; only, we may then have to conclude that he is either drunk or delirious himself. Further, we know that mental constitutions, like bodily ones, are inherited. We expect children to resemble their parents in character as well as in person. We expect to find, and do in general find, certain broad national characteristics in people of a certain race. We look for enterprise and tenacity in the Anglo-Saxon stock; we look for a predominant emotionalism in the Celtic; we look for ready submission to power in Eastern races; we look for alternate restlessness and indolence in our Indian tribes. All this simply means that mind manifests itself under quite as definite forms as any of the phenomena of the physical universe, and that we know where to look for each variety. Again, mental powers and aptitudes depend to a considerable extent on education and upon the opportunities that life brings with it. We do not expect, in matters intellectual any more than in matters agricultural, to reap where we have not sown, or to gather where we have not strewed. The experience of that ancient saint who woke one fine morning, and found himself in full possession of half a dozen languages of which the day before he knew not a word, is not repeated in modern times. Nowadays, we have to learn before we know.

The dependence, therefore, of mind, or at least of its manifestations—and of nothing else do we know anything—on physical or material conditions may be taken as an incontrovertible fact. If, therefore, the term "materialism" had been confined, as it might have been, to the expression of this fact, would there have been anything terrible in it? To use Comte's illustration, would any one think it a dangerous concession to make to admit that he could not work out intellectual problems to advantage standing on his head? Surely the materialism which teaches a man that, if he would exercise his mind to advantage he must eat moderately, and in general economize his physical powers, is not a very deadly doctrine. Yet that doctrine might very aptly and properly be called materialism; just as we call spiritualism the converse doctrine that, if a man wants a piano or other heavy body lifted without taxing any one's muscles, the best way to do it is to hire a medium who will engage a disembodied spirit to do the job. Materialism in the sense above limited, far from threatening any injury to or derogating from the dignity of mind, is the very thing that will most help to bring mind to the highest perfection, while it promotes its dignity by making all material things subservient to it.

But there is another point of view. This doctrine, far from being of a radical and disturbing kind, is eminently conservative and favorable to intellectual order. Why? Because it establishes the truth that mind is not an unconditioned entity, as some are inclined to regard it, but a thing strictly conditioned and limited. The world ought by this time to have got over the old metaphysical notion of the absolute independence of mind, but it has not, in point of fact, got over it; and, strange to say, some of those who hold most strongly to the old error are professed freethinkers. In fact, we are not sure but that the ranks of technical "free thought" are to day the very citadel of that error. It seems to be continually assumed that the vindication of the right of free-thought carries with it an assertion of the competency of every man's thought for all possible intellectual enterprises. Here we see the old idea of the mind as a kind of impalpable essence of absolutely unlimited powers, tethered neither to time, to place, nor to circumstances. But supposing the opposite truth were universally and frankly recognized, that each man's mind was simply what circumstances past and present had made it, a man would not in claiming free thought feel, as so many do now, that he was asserting his right and his competency to deal with all problems in heaven and on earth, but simply that he was asserting his right to exercise that limited activity for which his mind was adapted. A man whose body was in durance would not, in claiming physical liberty, fall under the illusion that if he could once gain his liberty he would be competent with his body to perform all manner of gymnastic feats. No; because he knows what his body is fit for, what it has been trained to, and what lies altogether beyond its powers, natural and acquired. If, when he had obtained his liberty, somebody wanted him to attempt at once, by way of marking and emphasizing his perfect freedom from physical control, some very difficult and dangerous athletic feat to which he had never been accustomed, he would be wise if he turned a deaf ear to the suggestion; or, rather, he would be an extraordinary fool if he listened to it. Yet it will scarcely be maintained that exactly similar folly is not often practiced by way of emphasizing freedom from mental control—that is to say, that men rush at the most difficult intellectual problems without any preliminary consideration of the question of their competency for dealing with them successfully or hopefully. As long as they arrive at some conclusion which they can fling in the faces of their supposed opponents as a trophy of free thought, they are satisfied. The remedy for this kind of folly is plain. It lies in the "materialistic" doctrine, as we claim the right to call it, that the mind is as limited a thing as the body, and that therefore we can not properly assign any more extensive meaning to freedom of the mind than we do to freedom of the body. Both kinds of freedom are good, but neither confers new powers, except in so far as the exercise which freedom makes possible tends to develop power. Power, however, is only developed by rational exercise; bodily growth can be arrested, and the bodily frame twisted out of shape, by excessive or ill-directed exercise; and precisely so with the mind. While, therefore, we have all possible sympathy with the claim for freedom of thought, we wish we could always be certain that those who make the claim were "materialistic" enough to recognize that they were claiming the right to exercise faculties of a strictly limited kind, the particular limitations varying from man to man, and that they must not expect the world to look on with admiration at attempts to make mere "freedom" supply the place and do the work of knowledge and competency. To all of every school who adhere to the old metaphysical views of mind, and who hold themselves possessors of an organ of unlimited powers, we would say: "You are under an error; your mind is tethered to your body, it IS tethered to its own past history, it is tethered to a long line of ancestry. Some things it can do, because they fall within its tether; others it can not do, because they fall beyond. Be wise, try to find out what your limitations are, and proportion your intellectual tasks to the width of your intellectual shoulders." Such are the teachings of a healthy materialism, at once the most conservative and the most progressive of doctrines.


The collocation of ideas expressed in this title is not generally regarded as valid or established; but they are unquestionably coming every day into closer relation. The recent campaign, at any rate, is full of suggestion in regard to important principles with which it is the office of Science to deal in the working of practical politics.

The scientific habit of mind is that, above all, which links cause with effect and effect with cause, and which, in special phenomena, seeks always to discover the illustration of some general law. In the recent contest the excitement was almost unparalleled. For a time the whole nation was in a condition which, in the physical life of the individual, would be represented by a state of high fever. We have heard a good deal about "the splendid conduct of the people," and certainly it spoke well for the sense of responsibility of the citizens generally that they refrained from acts of disorder. It is, however, a question whether there was anything very admirable in the excitement itself, or in the causes of it. It is a further question of much gravity whether such periods of excitement can be repeated with safety. Can we count upon the same admirable self-control on future occasions, particularly when we consider how little confidence each party seems to possess in the honesty and fair-dealing of the other? These are serious questions and call for an answer from every thoughtful citizen.

The excitement of the late contest was largely due to the fact that it was a conflict not so much of principles as of interests. We are not prepared to deny that a large number of citizens in the aggregate had their own serious views of public policy in connection with the election; but these were not among the most excited members of the community. A man who has faith in a principle will work for it, and be enthusiastic for it, but he can afford to bide his time. It is the man whose whole course is determined by party allegiance, and who has learned to recognize his political opponents as enemies, not 80 much of his views as of his interests, who is carried away by a kind of frenzy in times of political crisis. Such men unfortunately constitute the great majority, and hence the danger which waits upon presidential elections. The practical question which confronts us, then, is how this blind devotion to party is to be counteracted. How are men to be made ashamed of resigning their whole individuality to political leaders, who themselves are often no better than political adventurers? It is evident that what we need is an increase of intelligence in the community. We flatter ourselves, of course, that we are the most intelligent community in the world; but, however the comparison may hold between ourselves and other nations in this respect, it is evident that we want more intelligence, more of true culture, and that such intelligence, such culture, is the only influence on which we can depend to moderate the passions which our civic contests are so prone to generate. It is to science we must look for help—to science in its widest and noblest sense. A man may possess much technical knowledge, and his practical judgment may remain narrow, and his moral nature commonplace, if not absolutely inferior. The science that elevates is not the science which is taught or learned merely as a means of gaining a living; it is not the science that sharpens greed and gives a more cunning acquisitiveness; it is the science that enables a man to live in an atmosphere of general ideas, and that makes the whole world interesting to him apart from all purely personal concerns. It is science in this sense that should be brought to bear upon the minds of the young in our schools and colleges. It is science in this sense that we contend for as an integral part of all education. It is for the lack of general scientific conceptions, supported by a basis of solid knowledge in some particular branch or branches of science, that men are to-day so largely the prey of political demagogues, and come so near losing control of their actions in times of excitement. The lesson of the election is, that our national culture is but a shallow culture, considering the vast and even dangerous responsibilities devolving upon the individual citizen. Granting even that other nations can manage to do with no higher a development of intelligence, with a distribution of knowledge no more liberal than that which exists in this republic, it does not follow that we can safely be content with our present attainments in these respects. It is well for us that the next presidential election is four years ahead. Let the intervening four years be years of earnest struggle for the advancement of science, for the spread of a true culture, that in our next crisis the influence of ideas may be a little, if ever so little, greater, and that that of personal passions a little, if ever so little, less.