Popular Science Monthly/Volume 39/May 1891/Correspondence



Editor Popular Science Monthly:

SIR: There is evidently a wide-spread dissatisfaction with the lack of moral influences in our public schools. Religious people declare that the schools are godless, and are producing a generation of atheists. An earnest and growing class think that some modification of the school work should be made that would aim at developing every pupil into the noblest type of a human being. At present, from the lowest primary class to the university diploma, there is not a single study introduced that is designed primarily for the development of any side of character. Moral philosophy, to be sure, is taught in some higher-grade schools and in all the colleges, not for the purpose of making moral men and women, but that the student may know the theories about the existence of God, his relation to men, the basis of morals, freedom of will, etc.

Among those who are not actually opposed to moral teaching, we may recognize four groups, each occupying a different attitude toward this matter—the indifferent, the Roman Catholic Church, the Protestant Church, and scientists. The first class base their estimate of the value of a school upon its success in teaching those subjects that will help the pupil to satisfy his material wants. The question whether the school might not be made to accomplish a nobler end does not seem to concern them. Many of this class would not be disturbed by the introduction of instruction in ethics or even religion into the schools.

From the standpoint of the Catholic Church, the most important thing for a child to learn in this world is how to obtain salvation in the next. Nothing whatever should prevent him from gaining this knowledge. Hence they demand that religion should be taught in the schools, and, because the state schools do not provide for such instruction, the hierarchy has forbidden the children of the Church to attend them, and provides parochial schools instead. They are more strenuous for instruction in religion than in ethics, for the teaching of doctrine than of practical morals. Whether, if it were proposed to introduce instruction in ethics apart from religion, they would favor or oppose such a movement, is a question on which they have not expressed an opinion. To oppose it would seem to be a very inconsistent ground for a Christian body.

The Protestant Church has not yet defined itself so explicitly, but it evidently desires that the schools shall accomplish something better than what they are now doing. The fact that a conference of representatives from the Protestant denominations of New York State was recently held for the purpose of considering religious and moral instruction in the schools is very significant. This conference may be taken as fairly representing the leading sentiment of the Protestant Church in general. Some prominent clergymen present, like their Catholic brethren, would ask the state to give religious instruction; others equally prominent, either because they think that religion is not the province of the school or that it is hopeless to ask for religious instruction, were strongly opposed to this, but would perhaps rather favor carefully restricted instruction in Christian morals.

I have called scientists a fourth class. The term is used in this connection to designate those whose habits of study and thought are scientific rather than religious. They are not necessarily opposed to religion, but seem to have no use for it for themselves. The great advantage to the world which they see in religion is its ethics, but they derive their own code of ethics from another source. Whatever rules of conduct have been proved by experience to be for the good of man in our nineteenth-century civilization constitute the scientist's code of ethics. The question for him, then, in reference to the schools, is not whether any religious creed shall be taught, but, Shall instruction be given in pure, human ethics? Shall the children be instructed in the principles of conduct which have been tested and proved worthy of trust by centuries of experience? This very greatly simplifies the matter, which is hopelessly involved when connected with religion, and at the same time suggests a possible ground for compromise.

A grave difficulty in the way of a compromise is a general lack of definition between religion and ethics. The Church is the one institution which has demanded moral conduct of men. It has taught that eternal damnation is the penalty of wrong-doing and eternal bliss the reward of right-doing, conjoined with the acceptance of a certain belief. It has gone so far as to say that there is absolutely no saving virtue in kindness, in justice, in benevolence, in philanthropy of themselves—that there is no salvation in the next world except by means of a so-called "plan" drawn by the Church from Scripture. When an institution of such unmeasured power as the Christian Church has wielded for the past fifteen hundred years utters her dictum on eternal life and death, the world listens, because it believes in immortality. For this reason morality and religion throughout Christendom have been confused and considered inseparable.

A clear distinction can be drawn, however, between Christian religion and Christian ethics. The Christian religion is the system of beliefs and worship drawn from the life and teachings of Christ. Christian ethics is the system of principles of human conduct drawn from the same source. By far the larger portion of Christ's teachings is devoted to telling men how to live and act, comparatively little devoted to telling them how to worship or what to believe. Whatever else he was, he was certainly a great teacher of morals.

The motive which Christ sets before men is, however, religious—viz., the hope of reward in the hereafter. But those principles of conduct which he enunciated, inculcating the spirit of forgiveness, humility, unselfishness, brotherly kindness, purity, charity, and chastity, together with his affirmative golden rule, if practiced, would make a paradise of earth, whether or not any regard was given to a hereafter. What we need in our schools is the direct instruction in such principles and their application to human conduct, and it matters not a whit whether we call them Christian, scientific, or pagan ethics.

If a scientist were to formulate a code of scientific ethics, and a Christian were to formulate a Christian code, the two codes would be strikingly alike. If the Christian were faithful to Scripture, however, he would have at least one point, which is embodied in one of the most fundamental of Christ's precepts concerning duty, that the scientist would not have, viz., "Resist not evil, but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek turn to hi in the other also." If this had ever been tested in actual practice, it might belong to the scientist's code; but because of its severity as a rule of action theologists have spent much mental energy in explaining it away, and have so far succeeded that in its literal sense it is not generally considered as a part of Christian ethics at any rate, no Christians practice it, unless perhaps Mr. Tolstoi. With this rule of action eliminated there is no important ethical principle which can form a ground of controversy between scientists and Christians. We assume that on ethical questions there is no material difference between Protestants and Catholics.

Since, then, the ethical codes of earnest scientific thinkers, of the Protestant, and of the Catholic Churches are substantially one, and since there is no hope that the state will ever teach religion in its schools, may we not hope that upon this ground as a basis of compromise something may be accomplished through the schools of vastly greater value to humanity than any degree of manual training or purely intellectual development? The large thoughtlessly indifferent class would certainly not object to such an innovation. Those who are opposed to religious instruction would not be losing their case, because ethics is not religion. All who desire religious instruction to be given would be gaining their object in part, inasmuch as they include ethics in religion. Why not, then, show a spirit of compromise, and, instead of fighting on hopeless lines with divided forces, unite on a platform on which all can stand and fight on lines where there is hope?

The Church is doing a magnificent work toward the correction of the monstrous evils that walk rampant, but it will do vastly more when it comes to place a higher estimate upon human character than it does upon creeds. A portion of the press is doing a grand work, but it will do tenfold more when the entire press comes to care more for cultivating public taste than it does for catering to it. But the schools, which cultivate the fields where richest and most abundant harvests might be reaped, are reaping exceedingly light and scanty harvests, simply because it is not their legal or professed business to do anything toward correcting existing evils or the formation of right character.

B. C. Mathews.
86 Kearney Street, Newark, N. J.
February 20, 1891.