Popular Science Monthly/Volume 47/July 1895/Editor's Table



A RECENT writer, whose work has been very much discussed, tells us that social evolution depends more on the kind of religion a community possesses than on any other circumstance. A given community, provided with a suitable religion, will far outstrip in civilization another more richly endowed intellectually but with an inferior religion. Like all new formulas, this one has been having considerable vogue; and many persons whose strong point is not intellectuality are gratified to think that a snub has been administered to that aggressive quality. What we should like the able author to do would be to supplement his generalization by telling us how the suitability of a religion for purposes of social evolution is to be determined, and also how a community that is not in possession of the right kind of religion is to get into possession of it. Another question which the work undoubtedly suggests is how the right kind of religion is to be maintained in authority against the intellectual influences which the writer seems to say tend to undermine all religions. As Greece and Rome both reached a very high level in civilization, we must presume their religions were relatively superior at least in the sense of being favorable to social evolution to those of less distinguished races; but their religions decayed. Was any one to blame in the matter? Or was the decay in each case inevitable? Was it a needful preparation for the advent of a still higher form of religion? If so, what is to be done when other forms of religion seem about to undergo transformation? Should we try to arrest the process, or let things take their course?

These are entirely practical questions, on none of which does the author to whom we are referring[1] throw, or attempt to throw, any light. They are not only practical questions, but they are questions which any thoughtful man finds it impossible not to ask when confronted with Mr. Kidd's formula; and which he feels must be answered in a very definite manner before it can prove of any utility either for the interpretation of history or for guidance in the present. What we would suggest would be an amendment to the formula which we think would greatly increase its applicability both to the past and to the present course of events. If we are allowed to understand by religion the ideal of social duty, then it seems to us very true that social evolution will, in the long run, be mainly dependent thereon. What made Rome great was the social cohesion between her citizens. How this superior degree of social cohesion was in the first place produced would be one of the most obscure of historical problems; but that it existed and was largely the cause of the growth of the Roman power can not be doubted. Devotion to the state and faith in its fortunes were in reality the most important elements in the religion of an ancient Roman. His gods were in the fullest sense civic gods, and as civic—that is to say, local—gods merely he regarded those of other races. The virtues which he esteemed and reverenced were those which made for the strength and well-being of the state; and only in later years, when the ancient forms of faith were undergoing a process of disintegration, did any conception of virtue for virtue's sake, or of the connection of virtue with the wider interests of humanity, dawn on the Roman mind.

In dealing with this subject, however, our object was neither to criticise Social Evolution nor to discourse on the civilization of the ancient Romans: on the contrary, we had an entirely "modern instance" in view. If social evolution depends in large measure on the ideal of social duty existing in each community, it behooves us to consider carefully what ideals are growing up and taking root among ourselves. We believe that, making all abatements for conspicuous evils in the social state, there is a steady evolution taking place—that is to say, that the conditions of social life are improving on the whole from year to year. The principal drawbacks to such evolution are undoubtedly connected with our political life. One of the ablest of our contemporaries makes a duty of holding up the mirror to the evils and scandals which mark the course of politics in this State; and the picture presented is not encouraging. "In the belief," it says, "of nearly all the intelligent portion of our population the meeting of the Legislature in January is simply the opening of a school of vice. As soon as the Speaker is elected the members organize for the sale of legislation in quantities to suit purchasers or for the levy of blackmail." We do not fully indorse these words; but that they should be uttered at all by a responsible journal is significant and lamentable. The question is urgent: What can be done to create a deeper sense of responsibility in the public mind in regard to the conduct of political affairs? No community can permanently afford to have a disreputable legislature. While other agencies are at work to improve and purify the social state, here is one of the greatest magnitude which is operating in an opposite direction—filling the minds of young and old alike with the idea that social duty is an illusion, and that fraud has no meaning when practiced at the expense of the State. We talk of teaching "civics" in our schools, but something more than a school teaching of civics is required. We have vast organizations of a Christian character throughout the land—societies of Christian Endeavor and the like. What are they doing to purify politics? We believe in evolution, but not as a power that will save people from the consequences of neglecting their most important duties; and we think the time has come when communities should help forward their own evolution by conscious efforts to abate what is evil and encourage what is good. We commend the question we have raised to the consideration of all well-intentioned persons. The problem is how to prevent politics from corrupting the character of our citizens and antagonizing the efforts that are made in other spheres for social reform and improvement. It is a question for every one—for the wise and for the ignorant, for the man of science and the man of letters, for the theologian and for the journalist, for the man of business and the teacher of youth. What is needed is a concentration upon it of the attention and will of right-minded persons—of that large majority who have no sinister interests to serve by the abuse of political influence, and who ought to have enough regard for the national wellbeing to be willing to make some sacrifices on its behalf. If these will but do their duty, a solution of the problem will be found; but if, unfortunately, their other engagements, whether of business, pleasure, or religion, are too pressing to permit them to do so, there is much reason to fear that the poison generated by corrupt politics will seriously affect the whole life and growth of the community.

  1. Kidd. Social Evolution.