Popular Science Monthly/Volume 36/April 1890/Ethics and Religion
|ETHICS AND RELIGION.|
PROFESSOR OF HEBREW IN HARVARD UNIVERSITY.
NO subjects occupy men's attention more than morality and religion. They are patent, ever-present facts, always intruding themselves on our thoughts, and always demanding consideration. They have formed subjects of human reflection since the race of man began; nations have wrought out practical schemes, philosophers have invented systems; thousands of generations have talked over individual facts and ideas. Yet men are far from being at one on the nature of the two and the relation between them.
One opinion, held widely in our own times, is that religion is the creator of ethics—an opinion not unnaturally suggested by the fusion of ethical and religious ideas and practices which exists among us. The masses of our communities are reared in a religious atmosphere. Their first impressions of duty and right are colored by religious ideas and supported by religious sanctions. The most generally accepted and revered ethical codes are contained in the sacred books, and the most prominent preachers of morals are ministers of religion. Our courts of law dispense justice in the name of the Divine Being. Kings rule by the grace of God, and the Congress of the United States has stamped a declaration of the national trust in God on a silver coin. In many countries religion appears at the birth of a child, to initiate it by a symbolic ceremony into the Church; almost everywhere when life is departing religion comes to care for man's future; and it is religion which announces the close of life by the solemn deposition of the body in the grave. There are many who hold that both the content and the impulse of ethical life are given by religion; that man can neither know nor do right without divine aid; and that human virtue, apart from the supernatural element, is a delusion and a snare, since it allures men to a fatal self-dependence by holding out the false hope that they can be really good without divine aid. This is the annihilation of morality in the ordinary sense of the term.
On the other hand, the opinion is held that religion and morals are wholly distinct, neither in any wise affecting the fundamental conceptions or the practical development of the other. According to this view, the two start from different points, have regard to different objects, look to different aims, and follow different methods. Sometimes this distinctness is represented as belonging only to the ideal conception of religion and ethics, sometimes it is claimed as a characteristic of the historical development of the two. Religion, it is said, deals with God, ethics with man; and this difference, it is held, severs the two by a world-wide interval. Such a position may be maintained both by those who accept and by those who reject a supernatural divine revelation of truth. A believer in revelation might hold the atonement of Christ to be a distinctively religious fact, while he might regard the ethical teaching of Jesus or Paul as the product of human experience.
Still another view considers the two as different indeed in origin and modes of development, but, since both are essential elements of life existing from the beginning, as acted on and interpenetrated each by the other. It may be held, for example, that the posture of mind necessary to produce ethical convictions is, if not created, at least modified by the religious theory, the consciousness of the presence of the Deity deepening the instinct or conviction of duty toward one's fellow-men; or that, in the inverse direction, the sentiment of duty toward the Deity is quickened by the feeling of human obligation; or, again, that the hope of reward or the fear of punishment from the supernatural powers may furnish a strong motive for right-doing; or that the ideals of duty, constantly transcending practice, and embodied in the Deity, may be an ethically elevating influence. According to this view, the present ethical religious thought of the world is the product of a long series of interactions between ethical and religious ideas which have grown up more or less independently.
In order to test the correctness of these various opinions, we must consider briefly the history of the development of men's religious and moral ideas and practice. Our knowledge of this history can be only a general one: we have not the data necessary to describe the beginning of any line in human life; we do not know with certainty how man formed his first notion of the supernatural, or under what conditions his moral life began. There are hypotheses or surmises which we may think natural or probable; but these must, of course, be distinguished from what is known to be fact. Let us begin by defining the principal terms of our inquiry. Religion is the body of beliefs and practices pertaining to the nature and worship of the Deity, and determining man's effort to propitiate him and secure his aid; ethics is the body of beliefs and practices regulating the conduct of man to man. True, this distinction seems to be sometimes abandoned: the Deity is said to be pleased by ethically right conduct, or a religious ceremonial comes to be regarded as having an ethical character. But even in these cases the distinction really exists. For, the conduct held to be acceptable to God not only relates to intercourse between human beings, but exists as a social custom before it is approved by religion; and the religious ceremonial, primarily designed to secure the divine favor, is ethical only in so far as it involves relations among men. This distinction is not affected by the question respecting a divine revelation of truth, for such a revelation might naturally treat duties to God and duties to man as separate sorts of obligation.
Before, however, entering on the discussion of the subject, it may be proper to ask whether our opinion as to the genesis of ethical practice must be modified by belief in a supernatural, divine revelation of truth. I do not inquire whether such revelations have really been given. It is sufficient for our present purpose to ask whether the objective content of the alleged revelation is of such character as to take it out of the line of natural human development. How stands the case, for example, with the ethical teaching of the Hindu, Persian, and Arabian sacred books? The morality of the Koran is in part high and pure, doubtless an advance on the current usage of Mohammed's time. Yet, leaving out of consideration what was borrowed from Jewish and Christian sources, it contains nothing that may not have been the product of human reflection. The social life of the Arabs of that period was comparatively well organized, and Mohammed undertook for the most part only to modify existing customs to restrain, for example, the rights of divorce and retaliation; and the duties of honesty, justice, kindness, and mercy which he enjoined were such as would naturally suggest themselves to a large-hearted and keen-sighted man anxious to secure the permanence of a new faith and the well-being of his countrymen. The same thing may be said of the moral codes of Zoroaster, the Veda, and Buddha. Of these the last named is the most remarkable so far as regards purity and depth of ethical perception. It has permanent value quite apart from the Buddhist idea of happiness and perfection as consisting in absolute freedom from thought and feeling; its fundamental principles of self-culture and self-denial involve a noble and spiritual conception of life, and are capable of leading to the most admirable results. But, even with the obscurity that rests on the beginnings of Buddhism and the moral-religious development that preceded it, none of us will be inclined to deny that it is the outcome of the experience and thoughts of the time. Such, also, appears to be the case with the ethical codes of the Bible. The ordinary social duties which are enjoined in the Old Testament and New Testament, such as honesty, truthfulness, sobriety, kindness to the poor, are common to many times and peoples. All the moral requirements of the Decalogue are found among the Egyptians at a period earlier than that usually assigned to Moses, Even the nobler qualities of love to man, forgiveness of injuries, denial of self, are not without parallel in other communities. In some cases a process of natural development may be observed in the biblical ethics. The prophets enjoin on the Israelites justice and kindness to their own countrymen, but their view does not extend beyond their own land; one of the later law-books (Lev. xix, 18) contains the precept, "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself," but it defines neighbors as "the children of thy people"; the great Jewish lawyer Hillel, toward the end of the first century before the beginning of our era, announced as the central principle of conduct that a man should not do to others what he would not have them do to him; Jesus put this principle into positive shape (the same thing substantially existed among the Chinese and Greeks). The ethical treatise of the Egyptian Ptah-hotep, said by Maspero, Renouf, and other eminent scholars to be the oldest book in the world (its date is put before 2000 b. c., contains a moral code remarkable for loftiness and spirituality; it enjoins gentleness, forgetting wrong, contentment, kindness, avoidance of pride, of hardness of heart, and of bad temper. It would appear, from the codes of peoples for whom no divine revelation is claimed by us, that man by his unaided efforts has come to the knowledge of the best principles and practices of morality, has not only made admirable rules of conduct, but has perceived that the essence of goodness lies in the character of the soul. If this be so, it is unnecessary to suppose a supernatural divine revelation to account for the ethical phenomena of society. It might be said, indeed, that all this ethical development proceeds from a primitive divine revelation. But this statement rests on no historical proof, nor would it explain the fact that the ethical progress of a nation goes hand in hand with its growth in civilization. If the ancient Hebrews received their ethical code directly from God, whence comes it that manners were milder in Ezra's time than in the pre-exilian prophetic period, less mild in the days of David, and comparatively rude in the period of the Judges? It would be singular if the generations which stood nearest the revelation were least affected by it.
Religion consists of creed and ritual. What is the origin and nature of these facts? The religious creed is the embodiment of man's view of the supernatural constitution of the universe. It defines the origin and nature of the powers which stand outside of human life, and the manner in which they brought into being the whole system of things; it describes the character of the relations between them and men, resulting from the attributes of the deities. From these premises the ritual law prescribes the processes by which the favor of the supernatural powers is to be secured.
The main article of the creed, the theology or doctrine of the deity, is the result of reflection. Man demands a ground for the external world, which he naturally at first thinks of as animated by spirits like his own. To these spirits he ascribes passions such as he is conscious of in his own nature. Every object becomes for him a living creature; he refers every phenomenon to an invisible spiritual nature. In process of time he separates the agent from the object or phenomenon, and regards it as an independent power, endowed with such qualities as are suggested by the particular conditions of the case. A deity thus arises, who is gradually invested with a history. Myths which embody natural phenomena or ritual processes, legends which spring from vague recollections of historical occurrences, symbolical stories expressing ethical and other thought gather around his person, and gradually build up for him a distinct individuality. The qualities ascribed to him are modified generation after generation and age after age in accordance with the social development of the community. Starting from his undefined, primitive character, the deity becomes a warrior or a sage, malevolent or beneficent according to the conditions which determine his growth. His ethical nature at any given time will reflect the moral ideas of the community at that time. Man's consciousness of the two opposing elements of good and evil in nature will lead him to apportion beneficial and hurtful attributes and acts among the gods. Those of them who are good will be credited with the best qualities that men can think of, and the bad will tend to become as bad as can be. The latter may then retain their independence and autonomy (as in the Persian religion), or they may be degraded to a subordinate position and retain their power and existence only through the sufferance of the supreme Deity (as among the Hebrews).
This process of constructing the deity supposes a parallel process of self-analysis by man. He finds himself forced by all the conditions of life to inquire into his own nature and needs, and thus gradually builds up an anthropology. This belongs in itself to the domain, not of religion, but of science. But it is the necessary basis of religion. Without the knowledge of man the knowledge of God would be useless for religious purposes; the two go hand in hand. The former springs from and is applied to all the relations of human life. The part of it which comes to be distinctively religious is the consciousness of dependence on God, with all the convictions and feelings which therewith connect themselves. This consciousness has a history similar to that of man's theological creed. It is at first simple and fleshly, relating to man's animal passions and needs; it is purified by time, growing till it attains a well-developed ethical-spiritual shape. From being a creature who needs only food and raiment, man comes to be a highly endowed soul with aspirations after moral perfectness, and at each step the deity must be able to satisfy his needs.
The history of the genesis of things is in itself no more religious than anthropology. How the world, and man, and the gods came into existence are essentially scientific questions; they assume a religious aspect from the fact that they are interwoven with man's really religious conceptions. The first attitude of the human mind on these points is one of indifference; men accept known facts without question. A period of reflection follows; interest is felt in the problem of origins. The construction of the world is assigned, of course, to the supernatural powers; the process of creation is thought of as similar to human methods of work: the world is said to have issued from an egg, or to have been formed from the limbs of a giant, or to have been fashioned in some way familiar to man. The genesis of man is explained in a similar manner. He is born of divine or half-divine parents, or fashioned out of stone or clay. The gods themselves are supposed to have issued from earlier gods, who are held to have come into existence in some far-off time out of primitive material, commonly water. The whole process is one of reflection—it is man's effort to embody in living form the forces which he conceives to have been at work in the creation of the universe. It is his first attempt at scientific analysis and construction.
This theological exposition of the world is a necessity of human thought; man can no more ignore it than he can cease to breathe. It is equally necessary that he should define his own relation to the unseen powers around him. They are believed to determine, in large measure, his weal or woe: they send rain and storm, pestilence and famine, sunshine and food; they smite with disease, or maintain in health; they give victory over enemies, and decide the success or failure of all undertakings. In order to secure their favor and aid, he must know what it is in his conduct that pleases or displeases them, and by what processes their anger may be averted and their good-will obtained. At first, the supposed requirements of human conduct are altogether ceremonial; but they gradually assume an ethical character. Man ascribes his own conscience to the deity; he can not think of the divine as morally inferior to himself; the divine demands are those which man recognizes in his own conscience.
The forms of the ritual are developed out of social customs. The first idea of the primitive man probably is that the deity is to be propitiated by friendly attentions or by a gift, as a human chieftain or other person would be, and the more precious the gift the better. A man would therefore offer that which he held to be dearest to him—even his own flesh and blood; a human life would be considered the costliest of offerings. All the ceremonies of social life were naturally transferred to the sacrifice of the gods. As eating was so prominent a fact for man, he prepared feasts for his deities; tables were spread, and food and drink were offered. It was assumed that the gods shared men's love of praise; hymns were sung celebrating the divine power and glory. Sometimes a malevolent nature was ascribed to the deity: it was supposed that he was jealous of man's prosperity, and that his displeasure was to be removed by the sacrifice of something which the man esteemed valuable—a costly ring, for example, would be thrown into the sea; but woe to the offerer if it should be found in a fish and returned to him! Out of this primitive material of sacrifices, feasts, praise, and thanksgiving, have arisen all the complicated liturgies and rituals of the world. The outward form of them has followed the customs of society. That which in social intercourse came to be considered seemly and reverent was adopted as the proper attitude toward the gods. The dress of the ministers of religion, words of supplication or praise which they employed, the posture of the worshipers, have always been determined by the forms of human society. The basis of religious service is man's desire to secure the friendship of the deity, its form is determined by the social proprieties. These last must therefore be looked on as an accessory of religion, important as means, but not belonging to its essence.
Parallel with the religious development is the growth of moral ideas and the elaboration of systems of practical ethics. These also are founded in the nature of things, inasmuch as they have never failed to appear in human society. It is not our purpose here to attempt an explanation of the origin of those instincts on which society is founded, and which furnish the basis of moral character. So far as we know, the complementary instincts of self-maintenance and sympathy are inseparable from the nature of man. They are found, indeed, in the lower forms of being, and were doubtless inherited by man from his ancestors of a lower type; but, in any case, they are now to be considered essential parts of the human constitution, and out of them spring all the details of ethical life. Nor are we called on to discuss the origin of the sentiment of obligation, since we are warranted in holding that it also belongs to the essence of human nature. No man, so far as our information goes, has ever been found to be destitute of it, and, as far as concerns our world, it may be regarded as founded in the nature of things. It is the basis of all moral development. The only question that need be asked is whether it is at all dependent on religion for its essential character—that is to say, at the moment when this sentiment was shaping itself in the mind of man, was its genesis at all conditioned on the recognition of the supernatural? In the decision of such a question we can be guided, of course, only by data of our own consciousness. But the reference to the supernatural does not seem to help the matter much, since we meet here at the outset this same sentiment of obligation. What is the origin of the convictions of duty which man feels toward the unseen powers around him? Does it spring from the recognition of their superiority of position? But this is nothing more than the recognition of a relation which involves the power of harming or helping in the superior being, and, so far as the same power is supposed to reside in men, the same sentiment toward them will arise. Or does the feeling of duty toward the gods come from the recognition of rights belonging to them? Then it does not appear why there should not be a similar recognition of rights belonging to men, since in the earliest conceptions there is no difference between man and the deity, except in the point of power. It does not seem, therefore, that religion has been effective in producing the feeling of obligation, except so far as it has added to the objects toward which this feeling was directed. There would be just as much ground for holding that the sentiment of religious obligation sprang from the feeling of duty which arose between man and man. In point of fact, no doubt, both were products of the same primitive elements of man's constitution. The recognition of an object implies the recognition both of its nature and of those powers in it by which it affects us for good or for bad, and from the interplay of these ideas comes finally the conviction that the object has certain rights; we first perceive and estimate the personality, and then, through experience and reflection, come to the conclusion that it is obligatory on us to allow it such freedom as is consistent with the freedom of other personalities. The degree of liberty we allow will be, in general, in proportion to the power of the personality: men can be controlled by equal powers; the gods, wielding irresistible power, will enjoy perfect liberty. The two sorts of feeling of duty, toward man and toward the deity, grow by mutual action and reaction; each, as it becomes more refined and powerful, communicates something of its qualities to the other. In man's progress in culture of soul there is no part of his nature that does not affect and is not affected by all other parts.
Let us pass on to the details of man's ethical codes. It is generally agreed that the great mass of these spring from the experiences of human intercourse. The ordinary moral rules of life have arisen from men's observation that without them society is not possible. Such is the origin of the feeling against theft, murder, and falsehood. The family life is dependent on the subordination of children to parents, and the tribal or national life on the obedience of subjects to rulers. The early particular perceptions of the law of kindness arise from a compromise between the instincts of self-development and sympathy. A man helps his fellow-man, but not more than is consistent with the maintenance of his own interest. There are special instincts, like that of maternal love, which carry with them absolute self-abnegation. In process of time moral principles acquire a certain universality, and are embodied in ideal forms of men or gods, and these ideals and principles assume an independent shape and enter as independent forces into moral life. Even the broadest and most unselfish ethical conceptions and usages of our best developed societies are thus to be traced back to the habits of thought which arise from social intercourse.
The results of the ethical thought of society are adopted by religion. Observation, as is remarked above, teaches that so soon as the constitution of the community becomes distinctly moral, its religion assumes the same tone—the content of the divine character becomes moral, and the deity is conceived to be pleased by conduct which is in accord with his character. It need not be thought derogatory to religion that it should depend on the experiences of human society for its moral teachings. The essence of religion is not the content of the divine personality, but man's desire to put himself in sympathy with the divine. The ethical character with which man enters into relation is, of course, of extreme importance; but the human mind can not truly appropriate thoughts which it has not learned by experience, and no divine ideal would be effective which had not previously been wrought out by the mind itself.
Such an ideal may exert a powerful influence on life, but only on condition that it correspond with ethical conceptions held by the community in which it exists. If there is a conflict between these two standards, there is in most cases no doubt as to which of them will determine conduct: men will follow their own convictions, preserving a respectful attitude toward the divine, but ignoring its guidance in this point. Illustrations of this fact are probably to be found in all advanced societies. Plato wished to banish the poets from his Republic because he feared the influence of the immoral stories they told of the gods. But his very protest shows that he and the members of his circle had risen above the moral plane of these stories; and, in fact, it is clear from the writings of the period, especially those of Æschylus, Sophocles, Plato, Xenophon, Demosthenes, not to speak of the Stoics, that the moral conduct of men was determined at that time, not by the example of the gods, but by such social considerations as influence us at the present day; it would no doubt have been thought ridiculous if, for example, a man had adduced precedents in the lives of Zeus or Hermes or Aphrodite in defense of conduct condemned by the laws and usages of Athens. A similar ineffectiveness of divine precedent may be observed in Christian societies of our own time, who listen Sunday after Sunday, devoutly but with complete ethical indifference, to procedures represented in the Old Testament as based on divine command, but foreign to our modes of thought. I once heard from a learned clergyman an argument of an hour to show that Abraham's purpose to offer his son could not reasonably be regarded as an example for us, since Abraham was certain that he had the divine command, while we are not warranted in believing that we enjoy personal direction from God of that sort. The occasion of the discourse was the shocking history of a citizen of Massachusetts, who, aided and abetted by his wife, sacrificed his child in obedience to a supposed command from God. But people generally disposed of the matter more simply by saying that the man was crazy, and so he was adjudged to be in a court of law; the general feeling was that no sane man could thus go counter to the ethical principles of our time. The command to exterminate the Canaanites, though it may be vaguely regarded by many as having been right at that time, would not now be pleaded by the general of an army or by a minister of war as authority for wholesale slaughter of enemies. Theoretically these things are widely looked on as divine; but the popular instinct, with easy illogicalness, decides that for some reason or other they do not belong to our times. The explanation, of course, is simple: these procedures were the product of half-barbarous communities, or at any rate of a period when men saw nothing wrong in them; they were repudiated by the moral sense of the later Jews. Slavery, recognized as lawful in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, is now condemned by the civilized world; and the New Testament teaching on this subject is explained, by those who hold the biblical ethics to be absolutely correct, as a wise reticence: the apostle Paul, it is said, refrained from interfering with the social institutions of his time, and trusted to the regenerating power of the principles of the gospel. It is true that there is a spirit in the New Testament which is antagonistic to the enslaving of human beings. But it is also true that Paul saw no incompatibility between slavery and Christianity, and it is only recently that the Christian world has come to a definite conclusion on this point. It is not long since devout men in England, Russia, Brazil, and the United States defended slavery on biblical and moral grounds; and the present condemnation of it is to be regarded as a product of the modern social movement toward the recognition of all human rights.
The relation of divine standards to human experience is illustrated in our own times by the discussions on various points of social morals. The Catholic Church, following what it supposed to be the New Testament teaching, affirmed the perpetuity of the marriage relation and the impossibility of divorce. There is a difference of opinion among biblical expositors as to the meaning of the passage in which the Founder of Christianity has expressed his opinion on this point (Matt, v, 32); some hold that there is one scriptural ground of divorce, others that there is none. Modern legislators and social philosophers, however, proceed without reference to the biblical rule. The old church law has been abandoned in most countries, and in the discussions which take place in private circles the arguments on the subject are based not on scriptural grounds but on considerations supposed to connect themselves with the well-being of society. There are many questions for the decision of which there is no specific religious authority; they have arisen from distinctly modern conditions of life, of which the older religious books, of course, take no note. Such questions may often, perhaps always, be brought under general ethical principles announced in the Bible. But the particular application of these principles, the practical decision of present questions of duty, is determined by existing social conditions. Whether capital punishment should be abolished, how far the use of alcoholic drinks should be allowed or prohibited by the state, whether parks and museums should be thrown open to the public on Sundays, whether the theatre should be favored or opposed—these questions are all discussed on modern social grounds.
Has religion contributed any idea to ethics? It might seem at first view that this question must be answered in the affirmative. The Church has at various times imposed laws on the world. The ethical life of Europe has been deeply affected by the church law of divorce. The celibacy of the clergy, a purely ecclesiastical enactment, has had far-reaching moral consequences. In all times and countries the ministers of religion have had more or less to do with the establishment of customs and laws relating to morals. And yet it must be considered doubtful whether, by the authority of ministers of religion or by the experience of the individual conscience, religion has ever originated an ethical principle. We have seen above that the hypothesis of a supernatural divine revelation is not necessary in order to explain the existence of our ethical principles and practices. We have also seen further that these principles and practices have their origin in general not in man's feeling toward the divine, but in his intercourse with his fellow-creatures. There seems to be no rule of ethical usage among us that does not finally go back to our view of its bearing on the well-being of society. This last is the final standard by which we test all our arguments on moral questions. If we wish to decide on the desirableness of flogging on board ships, we ask whether it maintains discipline better than any other punishment, and how it affects the character of the sailor, it being assumed that the proper development of the individual is an essential element of social progress. In the same way we treat all disciplinary problems—capital punishment, solitary confinement, corporal chastisement by parents and teachers: we inquire into the effect on the individual, but the individual as a member of society. We recognize individual rights, but we do not hesitate to sacrifice them to the welfare of the whole. No sympathy with a culprit affects us if we believe that the good of the community requires his punishment. An argument which demonstrates the best social good is considered final. In the prohibition controversies the only point really considered by the disputants is, Does prohibition prohibit? Is war lawful? The answer is given by appeal to the necessities of national life.
But how is it with cases of priestly legislation? Are they not contributions of religion to ethics? In all such cases I believe it will be found that the ethical principle involved is one which has already been established by society and is only applied by religion. As an example let us take the institution of taboo, whose usages are so widely spread in civilized as well as uncivilized countries. Taboo sets certain things apart as sacred or as the special property of gods or men, not to be owned or used by others. Obviously an ethical principle enters here, since the use of tabooed objects by the community becomes wrong; and, as taboo is an essentially religious idea, it may be said that religion has here established a moral rule. But let us see whether this is really the case. The customs of taboo are of two sorts, those which relate to the gods and to persons and places consecrated to their worship, and those which relate to ordinary social intercourse.
The reverence required for images of deities, for sacred buildings and their furniture and ministers, is of course a purely religious sentiment. Of this nature was the sacredness which attached among the Hebrews to the temple and especially to the holy of holies, which none but a minister of religion might enter; and to the sin-offering, which only the priests were permitted to eat. Persons devoted in any way to the Deity were debarred from certain things which were supposed to render them impure; here there was no question of an infringement of a moral law, but only the feeling that contact with or use of certain objects impaired the religious efficiency of the devoted person, probably because such acts and objects were held for some reason to be displeasing to the Deity, or to vitiate the body, or to interfere with the functions of a ministrant. In some cases we can see the grounds for these provisions, in other cases they go back to customs of unknown origin. The Jewish Nazarite was forbidden to eat or drink of the products of the vine or to cut his hair; the first of these injunctions was probably a survival from the old nomadic life, in which the vine was not cultivated (so also in the case of the Rechabites), the second regarded the hair as a seat of life, and therefore as a symbol of the divine presence and authority. The Roman flamen dialis enjoyed many privileges as a high representative of a god, but on the other hand was enveloped in an extraordinary mass of restrictions: he could not be out of the city a single night, or sleep out of his own bed three consecutive nights; and no one else might sleep in his bed. He was forbidden to swear an oath; to wear any but a plain ring; to walk along a path covered by vines; to touch flour, leaven, or a dead body; to touch or to name a dog, a she-goat, ivy, beans, or raw flesh. When his hair and nails were cut, the clippings and parings were buried beneath a tree whose fruit could be offered to the superior deities. His wife was surrounded by similar restrictions. Evidently some of these were intended to keep the priest faithful to his duties, to secure his presence at the temple. The objects he was forbidden to touch were doubtless held, from some forgotten customs, to be distasteful to the deity (taboo). That there was no real ethical element in the prohibition appears from the fact that other men might do the forbidden things with impunity. We may compare the modern notions in some communities which require clergymen to wear certain sorts of dress, or insist on their refraining from certain things which are regarded as lawful for other men. A minister of religion offending in these points we regard not as immoral, but rather as improper; a Roman priest so offending would have been looked on as guilty of impiety toward the deity and toward the state.
In undeveloped communities the honors paid to the gods are naturally transferred to chiefs and royal persons supposed to be descended from the gods. We may thus explain the prohibition of the use of their names by other men, and the custom would be so far religious; but it would probably be encouraged by the chiefs on governmental grounds, and would in so far be ethical. Even the religious usage probably goes back to the sentiment of respect felt for the chiefs as rulers.
A number of taboo customs seem to be probably or possibly social. The prohibition of the use of the flesh of a particular animal or of a whole class of animals as food is of uncertain origin. It is supposed by some to result from the idea of totems, each tribe refraining from the flesh of its own totem, but other considerations may have entered in part at least into the usage, and the origin of totemism itself is unknown. The rule among some tribes that women shall not eat human flesh is possibly social; it was perhaps intended to guard the character of women. When it is forbidden to touch a dead body or a burial ground, or a man who has slain an enemy, the idea of pollution thus incurred may be physical, though it may also come from the belief that the dead person is a spirit or inhabited by a spirit. It is possible also that this last may be the ground of the rule that persons dangerously ill should not be touched; here, however, a physical reason may have been effective. The appropriation or protection of property by taboo depends on ordinary principles of social organization. When a chief declares that a certain object is his head or his hand, and thereby secures it for himself, this is merely using the religious sanction to give authority to what we may suppose to be a natural disposition in chiefs, namely, to appropriate as much of the property of their tribesmen as possible. A private man who declares his field taboo, and thus prohibits other men from entering it, is only asserting the right of private property and calling in the aid of religion.
It may fairly be said that those taboo usages which are really ethical arise from ideas which have been established by social intercourse. In the case of the sick person, for example, that certain persons are forbidden to touch him is a religious usage, and if the prohibition were universal, it would be fatal to the sick man; but the helpfulness of those persons who actually tend him comes from the kindly relations engendered by ordinary social intercourse, which overbear the religious prohibition. It does not appear that taboo has ever pronounced any class of actions to be good or bad; it has only brought particular acts under existing moral categories. Neither it nor any other religious institution has ever in the first instance taught men that it was wrong to steal or right to be kind.
So far we have regarded only the content of ethical usage. We now have to ask whether, if religion has received its code from ethics, it has not communicated something in return. It is a noteworthy fact that many great ethical teachers have been at the same time religious reformers; such were Zoroaster, Buddha, Jesus, and Mohammed. In other cases, as in the codes of the Egyptian Ptah-hotep and of Socrates, though there is no religious revolution, a religious atmosphere is present. Where religion seems to be lacking, as in the case of Confucius, still it may be said that the ethical system has arisen in a community permeated with religious ideas. From these facts it might be supposed that religion has been the most powerful influence in the world in the elaboration of moral codes. But it must be borne in mind that at a period when religion was bound up with common life much more closely than now, a practical thinker (and such the great religious reformers were) could not separate the two. In Semitic nations not only morals but government also was bound up with religion. Ethics and religion were so intertwined in human development that, though their origins and laws of growth may have been different, they had come together into a substantial unity.
In thus associating itself with ethics, religion supports it by supernatural sanctions. It is a question of serious import, which doubtless now occupies many minds, whether the moral status of society could be maintained without this external aid. It is a question to which no decided answer can be given, because the experiment has never been tried. The probability is that, if the religious element of thought were now abruptly eliminated from our society, the moral life would suffer enormously if it did not perish outright. Such a sudden withdrawal is, however, impossible, and need not enter into our calculations. The elimination of religion, if it can be conceived of as possible, could be effected only by a very gradual process, during which men would be little by little trained under other influences. The vanishing of religion, indeed, out of human life is hardly conceivable; but we may suppose that the conception of its sanctions may change—the physical-supernatural form of them may give way to the moral. This change has actually begun: a not inconsiderable section of the Christian world now believes that the rewards and punishments which attach to well-doing and ill-doing are determined by natural law, whether in the physical or in the moral life. Nor can we see that the effect of this change on the ethical status of society is bad. If the bodily rewards and punishments have vanished, new and strong ethical motives have been introduced; there is a deeper sense of personal responsibility, and there are higher ideals.
A still more fundamental inquiry is how far the practical ethical life of the world is affected by the belief in future rewards and punishments. But to discuss this point properly would require a collection of data which has not yet been made. It has been said that men are deterred from wrong-doing much more by the fear of immediate punishment than by the prospect of a retribution which seems indefinitely remote. . Such, certainly, appears to a superficial view to be the state of the case; a keen observer of human life long ago remarked that because sentence against an evil work is not executed speedily, therefore the heart of the sons of men is fully set in them to do evil. But who can read the deeper-lying motives of men? Who knows what profounder ethical direction is given to life by the constant contemplation of recompense beyond the grave? The history of human virtue and vice has unfolded itself, almost without exception, in the atmosphere of this belief. One noted exception there is—the early Semites, the Assyrians, and the Jews prior to b. c. 300, appear to have lived practically without recognition of the future, and it does not seem that their morality was inferior to that of other nations; we ourselves indeed must acknowledge that, so far as our practical life is concerned, we have something to learn from the codes of the prophets and the law. But it must be said, on the other hand, that the Jews of that time had a powerful ethical stimulus which is wanting in our time—namely, a vivid belief in the immediateness of divine interventions in human life, An experiment of a morality supported only by human sanctions has never been tried in modern times on a large scale. Nor can it be doubted that the belief in future retribution exerts a powerful influence on men's lives. Strictly speaking, however, this belief does not belong to the domain of religion. Its precise origin is doubtful, but it has arisen from man's reflection on his own life, and not on his relation to the Deity. Its relations with both religion and ethics are close, but it can 'not properly be said to represent an influence of the former on the latter.
It appears, then, that the real substance of man's ethical code has not been affected by religion. The belief in supernatural rewards and punishments, though it influences men's conduct, is not a moral force; it has no power to change the heart. The true salutary influence of religion on human life is found in the creation of divine ideals to be loved and imitated. Such an ideal is the embodiment of man's own highest ethical conceptions. Vitalized into a person, ethical perfectness acquires an independent power, attracting and stimulating us, lifting us up above the ordinary low level of our lives, inspiring us by presenting a goal to be reached, and encouraging us with the hope of divine aid. The standard of human achievement is expressed in the exhortation of Jesus to men to be perfect as God is perfect, and the proper emotional attitude in the Old Testament declaration that men are to love God with all the heart. Such a love toward God as a perfect being implies the love of right in man's soul; but this love may exist in incomplete or feeble form, and may be heightened and developed by constant contemplation of ideal goodness; it is still further aided by the sentiment of gratitude in response to benefits believed to have been received from the hand of God.
The effect of such ideals is both to ennoble individual character and to elevate the moral standard of the community. A conception of perfectness formed by the best minds always goes beyond the general practice, and calls into being principles of action which gradually make their way from the few to the many. A gradual reorganization of society is thus effected; social intercourse is based on these enlarged ethical views, habits spring up in accordance with them, they create new grooves for men's sympathies and interests, so that it becomes, as a rule, easier to act with than against them, easier in general to do right than to do wrong. It is impossible, however, to define the influence of the ideal precisely, to separate it from the general effects of social life. Take, for example, the principles of forgiveness and revenge as they exist among us. The recognized religious ideals in all parts of this country inculcate the duty of forgiveness of injuries, and yet the practice varies greatly in different regions. The difference of custom appears to depend chiefly on difference of social organization. In those communities which are semi-feudal in character, where there is comparatively little social organization, and individuality of action has been cultivated, the habit of revenge for personal injuries is more common; while in those communities in which commercial interests are stronger, and social combinations firmer and more numerous, personal vengeance is rarer, and the appeal to society and law more frequent. Whether there is a corresponding difference in the temper of the soul may be a question; yet it is probable that the constant habit of refraining from private retaliation induces a more peaceful and self-restraining attitude of heart. The effect of the religious ideal is, however, seen in individuals in all Christian communities, who practice forgiveness out of loyalty and love to the divine lawgiver. And it is impossible to say how far this ideal has everywhere affected the feeling of men through the example of those who have manifested obedience to the religious law of forgiveness.
There are, of course, ethical as well as religious ideals, and these have had their due effect. The moral progress of men has been effected by the combination of the two great factors, the organization of society and ethical-religious ideals. Every step taken toward binding men closer together in social life, and every announcement and practical exhibition of a supereminent ethical principle is an element of advance toward social perfection. The progress may be largely external, and change of heart does not always accompany conformity to rule; nevertheless, long-continued habit is almost sure to produce change in men's conception of life.
- It is not here intended to deny that ritual may be a symbolic representation of ideas.