You are here

Chapter V | Religious Aberration

§ 1. Aberrations and obsessions

Religion would have aroused less hostility if it had displayed only the characteristics so far ascribed to it. What has been depicted is an ideal towards which religious men aspire, an ideal which may be realized in some of them to a greater or less extent. But, as Aristotle remarked of morality, there are many ways of going wrong, and only one way of going right. Whatever may be thought about the second part of the statement, it is impossible to doubt the truth of the first. The ways of going wrong in religion may be called mistakes or aberrations: to speak of them as errors would be to make them too intellectual. It is now our ungracious task to review some of these possible aberrations. If they can be seen as deviations from the ideal, this may help to make the ideal itself more intelligible. It may also show how some of the hostility to religion springs from its aberrations rather than from religion itself.

If the religious life is a balanced one in which different factors—intellectual, moral, emotional, and even primitive—have their part to play, each of these factors by going wrong may warp the religion in which it plays a part; but an attempt to trace all these possible deviations would be concerned with the sum total of human folly. The enquiry may be narrowed by supposing that perhaps the most serious deviations from the ideal may occur when one of these factors is over-stressed at the expense, or even to the exclusion, of others. This may be used as a clue for the discovery of religious aberrations, which, it need hardly be said, vary greatly in degree. In extreme cases they may be called religious obsessions; for in some ways they resemble fixed ideas which disturb the harmony, and destroy the completeness, of the religious life.

There are thus four possible aberrations to begin with, each having its own distorted vision of God: (1) the obsession with the primitive, (2) the obsession with emotion, (3) the obsession with thinking, (4) the obsession with morality. Unfortunately there may be many more.

§ 2. The obsession with the primitive

A genuinely primitive religion is not the perversion of something higher, but the first clumsy effort of the human spirit to rise above the level of the brute. As such it has a claim to sympathy and understanding; and it may at times show a simple insight which the modern townsman, with his artificial environment and his sophisticated thinking, may have almost entirely lost. The religion of primitive peoples has to be judged in relation to their own society and environment, not in relation to ours. When it is so judged, much that to us seems arbitrary or meaningless, or even revolting, may become intelligible. Nevertheless complacent talk about the noble savage is less justified to-day than in the time of Rousseau, for we can speak with fuller knowledge. When we consider the ignorance and superstition, the cruelty and bloodshed, and above all the dread and horror, which make up so much of primitive religion, we cannot lightly indulge in the language of unmixed eulogy.

The aberration which concerns us here is a failing back to the primitive from a higher level. In religion, as has been already suggested, there may be some satisfaction of unconscious needs, especially in the ritual which is the bodily expression of an inward attitude and is also the means of its evocation. There is a return to the primitive wherever ritual is practised as having value in itself apart from any inward attitude. If ritual is employed as a direct means for winning divine favour or—still worse—as a method of manipulating the divine will, religion is degenerating into a form of magic. This may be seen in far Tibet in the use of the prayer-wheel—a mechanical device for economizing spiritual energy. It may be seen nearer home wherever religious ceremonies are performed with no thought behind them or only the thought of personal advantage. There are countless examples, and they are the mark of a dead or dying religion. In all ages reformers have had to insist that religious ceremonial is of no value in itself and that the only way to please God is by justice and mercy and humility.

There is a wilder side to all this. As we are constantly reminded to-day, there are dark forces in our mental underworld, and the modern tendency to worship these would be comic if it were not so tragic. The two great primitive drives are pugnacity and sex. Some men seem inclined, as it were, to take out their religion in fighting and others in sexual indulgence—the latter leading at times to a morbid fear of sex which may itself also be something primitive at a further remove. Among the religions marked by a primitive wildness the best known is the religion of Dionysus, in which the ecstasy seems often to have been independent of wine—although on this point different authorities take curiously different views. In some kinds of modern revivalism, both in this country and more especially in America, there are other forms of religious excitement which appear to be in no need of alcoholic stimulus. Primitiveness may be manifested, not only in a dying religion, but in one that is struggling to be reborn.

Some reversions to the primitive are little more than a homesickness for the mire. On a slightly higher level there may be an eruption of the primitive in the glorification of fighting and in the worship of the will to power; but this may be merely a substitute for religion rather than a religion itself. A more genuinely religious perversion is the obsession with fear and trembling, anxiety and despair, which is for ever recurring and has found literary expression in the works of Kierkegaard and his disciples. Whatever value such literature may have as a corrective of complacency, and however deserving of pity may be the painful experiences at its root, this obsession is not merely primitive, but neurotic—a mark of disease and not of health. It resembles that terrible obsession with demons and devils which, in an even cruder way, tormented the lives of so many mediaeval saints.

§ 3. The obsession with emotion

The obsession with religious emotion is sometimes indistinguishable from obsession with the primitive, but it requires to be looked at for its own sake. Every human activity tends to be accompanied by some sort of feeling which, as it were, takes its colour from the activity and is closely connected with our judgements of value. To this rule religion is no exception: it is always emotional, and sometimes strongly emotional. Nevertheless religious feeling should be regarded as no more than an accompaniment, however precious, of the religious life. Those who make it their primary aim are likely to lose interest in the religious life itself and so to lose or to distort the emotion that accompanies it.

There is a special danger of this when religious emotions fail to issue in action. Religion then becomes a form of selfishness or self-absorption; and like selfishness in general it leads only to a sterile narcissism and an emptying of the individual's life. When divorced from action, emotion has to find its outlet in vague day-dreaming, in a world of phantasy out of relation to the real world. In any case religious emotion, like every other, is by its nature transient. This is recognized by writers like Thomas à Kempis, who insists—possibly too much—that the religious man must set himself to endure toil and hardship, and not to enjoy supernatural delights.

Sometimes the obsession with emotion takes the form of a sickly sentimentality, which is glorified too often by the sacred name of ‘love’. The love we are bidden to show to our neighbours, and even to our enemies, is interpreted, not as genuine consideration and active kindness, but as an emotional fervour which would be excessive if directed towards our nearest and dearest and is impossible as a permanent state of mind. Insistence on this so-called love can lead only to a natural and very proper revolt. A sane religious view may enable a man to think more warmly and kindly of his neighbours and to regard every individual soul as having—at least potentially—an absolute worth in the sight of God. But this is worlds away from directing towards others a spurious emotion and subjecting them to a treatment repugnant alike to common sense and self-respect. The family of those known to the Americans as ‘sob-sisters’ are a menace to religion as to any healthy form of moral and practical life.

The same principles must hold even of the emotional side of mysticism. From the accounts given of it, the mystic ecstasy seems to be something which seizes upon the individual, not something to be sought and cultivated, although the way for it may be prepared by leading a specially exacting moral and contemplative life. Even mystic emotion is not to be divorced from the other factors in religion. ‘It sufficeth for me’, says one of the English mystics, ‘to live in truth principally, and not in feeling’. And St. Teresa herself, speaking of the genuine union ‘which consists in making our will one with the will of God’, says ‘This is the union which I desire and should like to see in you all: I do not covet for you those delectable kinds of absorption which it is possible to experience and which are given the name of union’. There may well be emotional aberrations connected with the mystic experience; but if there are, few of us are likely to suffer from them.

There is no need to speak too harshly of the obsession with emotion, and it should be added that in some people concern with religion is mainly aesthetic: it has little bearing on action and less on truth. Such an attitude may be unsatisfying to those whose religion is more whole-hearted; but it may have its own value and may flower into works of art, even in a sceptic like Dante Gabriel Rossetti. It is an error to draw too hard and fast a line in these matters, and there may be all sorts of shades between an experience which is mainly aesthetic and one which is decisively religious.

§ 4. The obsession with thinking

Another religious aberration may be described, perhaps rather misleadingly, as an obsession with thinking, or at least with the theoretical element in religion. There can hardly be too much thinking in religion, except in the sense that it is possible to substitute theory for the religious life, to become a critic rather than a practitioner. This is not very common except among philosophers (professional or amateur) and possibly theologians. What I have in mind is a fixed or closed thinking which may cease to be thinking altogether—the kind which works out, or takes over, an elaborate theology and claims that every clause must be adopted as an article of faith. Here an exaggerated importance is assigned to the acceptance of theoretical propositions, and there arises an intellectual intolerance which is not only fatal to thinking but dangerous to religion itself.

Intolerance of a kind is a danger to all religions, but intellectual or doctrinal intolerance seems a special temptation to followers of the Christian faith. The traditional method of asserting that a brother theologian has fallen into error is to call down a curse upon him—‘anathema sit’; and this practice has its roots even in St. Paul. It sometimes looks to the pessimist as if the subtlety of the Greeks and the zealotry of the Jews and the legalism of the Romans had all combined for the purpose of destroying the religious spirit. On the creed which goes by the name of Athanasius it may be permissible to quote the good English common-sense of Richard Rolle, a mystic of the fourteenth century. ‘This psalm’, he says charmingly, ‘tells us much of the Trinity, but it is not necessary for every man here to know it, since a man may be saved if he believes in God and hopes that God will teach him afterwards what is necessary.… But God forbid that men believe that every man must believe expressly every word that is said here, for few or none are in that state, either Greeks or Latins’. If this gentler spirit had prevailed, we should have avoided, not merely the bloodshed and persecution which have stained the annals of Christendom, but also the embittered controversies between sects, and the agonizing spiritual conflicts within the souls of individual men, which have turned religion into a kind of nightmare. Modern criticism has done a great service in helping to diminish the force of such intellectual obsessions, but there is always a danger of their recurrence.

It would be foolish to depreciate the value of thinking on religious questions. Apart from cool reflexion religion may become vague and sentimental and even extravagant. But such theological thinking must be free and spontaneous and, above all, modest—claiming at the most to offer us the best light available at the time and willing to modify itself with further insight. In some ways religions are like rose-bushes: they cannot flourish unless from time to time the dead wood is cut away.

There is always a temptation for the theologian to believe that he alone is right. He sees so clearly what he does see, and he can be so blind to what others see. It is as possible for the innovator to be intolerant as it is for the traditionalist. The traditionalist may even claim to be the more modest of the two inasmuch as he has behind him the wisdom of the ages; but the corporate intolerance of the priest may be more deadly than the personal intolerance of the prophet. All I maintain here is that the theologian, however much he may cling to his own views, ought never to claim that their acceptance is the condition of salvation. Still less ought he to impose his views by force. To do this is to be guilty of what I have called obsession with the theoretical element in religion.

§ 5. The obsession with morality

It is equally possible to be obsessed with the moral element in religion. This is a mistake in practice as well as in theory, and is consequently commoner, since most men are but little concerned with theory. In some ways it may be a more dangerous mistake; for experience suggests that religious life may flourish side-by-side with an exaggerated emphasis on theories, and even on monstrous theories, whereas an absorption in what is sometimes called ‘cold’ morality may mean the emptying, or possibly the death, of religion itself.

It may seem absurd—and indeed it is absurd—to suggest that the religious man can be too moral: we might as well say that a circle can be too round. But there is a parallel here to what was said about thinking. Morality may become a substitute for religion; but, broadly speaking, the danger to religion comes, not from a living and warm morality, but from a cold morality that is fixed or closed. This might be better described as a kind of legalism or pharisaism, an unintelligent and even fanatical adherence to a code of rules from which the spirit of morality has departed.

This kind of mistake (along with others) is to be found in the harsher forms of Puritanism, but Puritanism is not confined to a particular movement in sixteenth or seventeenth century England: it is a tendency manifested in all ages, and in nearly all religions—not to say in movements which need not be religious at all. What is more, even some of its harsher forms may be an exaggeration of something good; for a measure of austerity towards oneself, and possibly—though with more circumspection—towards others, may be a healthy element both in morality and in religion. Even moral rules are not entirely otiose, and it is foolish to imagine that a total lack of discipline is likely to make for the well-being either of the individual or of the race.

A cold morality may have two main forms. The first takes moral ideals seriously, but shows to the sinner a harshness which sometimes springs from an uneasy feeling that his temptation is particularly attractive to ourselves. The second is shallow and displays a complacent satisfaction with mere convention: it worships at the shrine of the great god Respectability and so is different from Puritanism, which can be too wild to be respectable. Respectability is not altogether to be despised: it may be an appropriate butt in an age of decorum, but in a period of coarseness and violence it may even become precious. Yet in the eyes of the religious man it trifles with the great issues of good and evil. Here we have a too common form of religious decay, and also of moral decay, although it is less harmful than an abandonment to magic and superstition.

Where morality is living and creative, the position is different. Here all persons are already regarded as possessing, at least potentially, an absolute value, and men seek to establish a society whose members will act freely on the principle that every one should be treated in this spirit. Such a morality may come very close to religion, and the distinction between those who accept or reject this principle is more fundamental than the distinction between those who accept or reject religion. The religious man may find this morality incomplete, but he will be short-sighted if he fails to see in it an attitude akin to his own. A living morality without religion is better than a religion without morality; nor should it be difficult to understand how good men have felt obliged, or even eager, to be content with it, and have feared to clutter it up with beliefs for which they can find no intellectual justification. Such men follow good as they see it and are willing to leave the ultimate issue to whatever forces may control the world. But it may be hard to maintain this attitude unless they can at least hope that these forces may be somehow on the side of goodness; and to have that hope, however faintly, is already to have something of the religious spirit.

§ 6. The spirit of intolerance

The aberrations so far considered arise because one element in religious experience is exaggerated at the expense of the whole. Curiously enough, there is another and very grave aberration which springs from an obsession with the wholeness of religion. A wholehearted religion may become a totalitarian religion—so closely do defects, like a kind of shadow, follow on the heels of even our best qualities.

Here again it would be absurd to suggest that a man can be too whole-hearted in religion. His religion claims the whole of him, his emotions, his art, his thinking, and the entire practical conduct of his life. It claims, moreover, to be valid for all men and even to reveal the will and purpose of God. Concern with all this may produce an inner tenseness and rigidity, which is fatal, not merely to humour and practical sense, but to that relaxation without which no great thing can be achieved. It is fatal also to the spirit of tolerance in dealing with others. Religion to its devotees seems at times to spread so slowly, and to meet with such blind and sinful opposition, that young men in a hurry, and middle-aged men who have lost the high hopes of youth, and old men whose time is short are all alike prepared to impose their beliefs and practices on others by every means in their power. The greatest danger of religion, because of its very whole-heartedness, is intolerance. Think as I think, feel as I feel, do as I do, worship as I worship, or else it will be my sacred duty (and perhaps my secret pleasure) to destroy the miscreants who so impiously rebel against the righteous demands of my God—and of myself as his chosen and dedicated instrument. In face of the savagery which has been the darkest shadow of religion—and not least of religions of love—it is not surprising that men have felt with passion, and still feel with passion, that this truly devilish thing must be swept away.

If intolerance were a monopoly of religion, it would be hard not to agree with them. Unfortunately we have seen in our day, and are still seeing, that the fires of persecution may flare up whenever men are whole-hearted in any cause, even the most irreligious. It is impossible to get rid of intolerance and cruelty by abolishing religion, for these things have their roots in the lowest depths of human nature. But the bullying saints ought continually to remind themselves that a persecuting religion is the worst form of blasphemy.

§ 7. Wildness and rigidity

If intolerance is not peculiar to religion, but is rather, as it were, the shadow cast by zeal and whole-heartedness in any human endeavour, it may be asked whether other religious aberrations may not spring from the common defects of human nature, although they take their special colouring from the setting in which they arise.

In all human achievement—if so bold a simplification may be permitted—there is a tension or equilibrium between spontaneity and discipline. Where this tension or equilibrium is destroyed, so that spontaneity becomes undisciplined or discipline unspontaneous, there is inevitably failure and aberration. Spiritual activity must be free, but it must also be controlled; and as freedom may degenerate into anarchy, so control may degenerate into rigidity. All the aberrations in religion may be understood as a failure to maintain the proper balance of two opposing tendencies. In the obsession with the primitive and the obsession with emotion, and indeed in all the wildness and enthusiasm of religion, men seem to abandon control in favour of an unregulated and disordered spontaneity. A similar abandonment may be suspected in those who seek to substitute what they call ‘guidance’ for moral judgement and common sense. The danger of rigidity has already been seen in the obsession with thinking and the obsession with morality; but it may also be found in the obsession with the primitive so far as this is manifested in a mechanical use of ritual. It may even be present in the sentimentality which substitutes spurious for genuine emotion—as in those who adopt a fixed religious smile. But the different strands of aberration are so closely intertwined that it may also be possible to combine a kind of wildness with a kind of rigidity. Intolerance, for example, may be wild and rigid at the same time.

Whatever be the truth in these complicated matters, the history of religion offers us the spectacle of a continuous oscillation between reform and decay. In periods of reform religion may be a revolutionary force and may suffer from wildness and extravagance. But these reforming movements are apt quickly to lose their impetus, and men fall back into a kind of spiritual fossilization in which the letter triumphs over the spirit. Religion becomes a matter of habit and external observance with little breath of life. When this is so, external observances, naturally enough, will cease to inspire, and even those professionally concerned with religion may lead a worldly, if not a sensual, life under the cloak of their official position. Although there may be no complete collapse, there may be a tendency to substitute some other interest for religion—at best an interest in morality, but sometimes an interest in the welfare and power of the institution in which religion finds its outer embodiment.

It would be fair to add that between the movement of reform, which may be living without necessarily being wild, and the period of decay, which may never be complete, there may be a time of balance when religion is at its best. There are, so to speak, relatively level stretches of religious history as well as ascents, which may be quick, and descents, which may be gradual. There are also minor ups and downs in the religious life both of individuals and of communities. But at present our concern is with religious aberrations, and a picture of these in isolation is bound to be over-simple.

§ 8. The deviation into politics

On the whole, wildness is a lesser danger to religion than rigidity; for wildness, although it may be most offensive, tends to work itself out in a short time, and it is at least a sign of life, while rigidity is a mark of mechanism and even of death. The victory of mechanism over life is most conspicuous where an ecclesiastical institution becomes more important than the religion it was intended to serve. This might be described as the obsession with politics.

The fundamental aberration here is not the attitude of religious men or institutions to secular politics. This raises complicated questions, and too often the fixed conservatism so often found in religion itself has resulted in an equally fixed antagonism to necessary political change. But the main problem is one rather of ecclesiastical politics—the politics inseparable from the religious institution known in the West as a Church.

A Church is indeed more than a religious institution. The Idea of the Church—for ultimately there can be only one—as a community of all the faithful in heaven and earth is in itself one of the great religious ideals. But the Church on earth can hardly exist except as organized in some sort of institution or institutions; and through this ecclesiastical or political organization it spreads out, as it were, visibly in space and time. Without such an external organization no Church can either expand or endure. This is obvious where religion is bound up with a priesthood claiming authority from a long line of predecessors. But it is true also in a religion, like that of Islam, whose ministers make no claim to priestly powers. There must always be some sort of organized religious institution, and for the present purpose any such institution may be described as a kind of Church.

Every human institution may fail to adjust itself to changing circumstances and growing knowledge, and so may become stiff and mechanical. To this rule Churches, even if they claim to be also superhuman, form no exception. Indeed they are peculiarly liable to become victims of that blind conservatism which is one of the most common religious aberrations: like a naval convoy they tend to move at the pace of the slowest ship. This may spring from the sheer difficulties of government—difficulties so often ignored by the doctrinaire. Partly, however, it may arise from preoccupation with the mechanism of an institution at the expense of the religion whose instrument it is supposed to be. The mechanism may become ossified and petrified, and in the end it may become a positive impediment to religion. At the worst it may become primarily a political organization seeking to glorify its own agents and increase its own power.

This deviation into politics is not so much a religious aberration as a tendency to replace religion by something else. It is nevertheless a weakness to which religion is exposed so far as it is embodied in institutions, and this form of aberration is one main reason for the distrust and hatred with which religion is so often regarded. Some religious men have wished to abolish ecclesiastical institutions altogether. In so doing they have failed to take into account the necessities of human nature, but there are times when it is hard not to feel sympathy with their ideal.

§ 9. Hypocrisy

Besides the aberration into politics there are others made possible by religion even if they do not belong to religion itself. Religion constitutes a kind of magnet which, by its mere existence, attracts unbalanced emotions and unbalanced personalities. Even more than philosophy, it has an irresistible fascination for cranks, and the enthusiasm of the unbalanced leads sometimes to religious mania. For such abnormal phenomena religion itself cannot be held responsible; but there is a way of leading the religious life which, while not abnormal, is slightly morbid and perhaps a trifle self-conscious and even affected. This may be called religiosity; and, naturally enough, it is a source of prejudice against religion. It may shade gradually into sanctimoniousness and ultimately into hypocrisy.

The most serious of the vices made possible by religion, and to a lesser degree by morality, is hypocrisy. It is usually based on self-interest rather than on a lack of mental balance, and consequently is to be distinguished from religiosity. But at times it may be pursued almost as an art for art's sake. It may become for some people a kind of dramatic exercise in which they begin by deceiving others and end by deceiving themselves.

Hypocrisy is essentially parasitic: it can flourish only where there is a genuine regard for virtue. Hence decay in religious belief brings with it the compensation of a corresponding decline in religious hypocrisy. The present age is on the whole not a hypocritical one, and the most blatant hypocrisy is to be found among totalitarian politicians rather than in religion. Yet it is hard to deny that a successful religious institution may give scope, if not for hypocrisy, at least for failure in the finer points of intellectual honesty.

§ 10. The significance of aberration

Such are some of the main mistakes or aberrations connected with religion. I have described them as if the religious life were more or less self-contained; but all of them, so far as they belong to religion itself, are reflected in the character ascribed to God by the worshipper. In them God may be regarded as a being who can be manipulated by magic rites or pleased by fulsome adulation, as a stickler for intellectual subtleties or moral rules, and even as a tyrant and a tormentor. This is why they have to be regarded, let it be said in all charity, as forms of idolatry; and this is why I described a persecuting religion as the worst form of blasphemy.

There may be other aberrations arising from the fact that the religious life is not self-contained but is centred in God—the aberrations of other-worldliness and contempt for all human excellence. But these may be regarded by some as not aberrations at all, and their character will have to be examined later. They belong to what is known as the way of negation, which demands consideration by itself. And anyhow we seem already to have aberrations enough.

When we contemplate this distressing catalogue, we may feel drawn to the mediaeval belief that religious men are specially exposed to the assaults of the devil. We may even feel inclined to draw the conclusion that religion is just one big aberration from which we should seek to free ourselves as quickly as possible.

Those who hold the latter view would maintain that our first account of religion as an ideal was merely a fancy picture which must give way before reality, and that even the darker side has been all too lightly sketched. The ignorance and superstition, cruelty and bloodshed, dread and horror, which I have ascribed to primitive religions, they would attach, with some show of plausibility, to religion as such. They would remind us that the inflexibility in thinking, and the legalism in morality, by which religion has placed obstacles in the way of progress, have often led to a fierce and frightened condemnation of human thought, human virtue, and human beauty. On this view religion should be classified, not with science and morality and art, but rather with an institution such as war—something closely intertwined with human nature, perhaps inevitable in desperate situations and at certain levels of culture, capable at times of indirectly furthering progress and even of furnishing the occasion for displays of human excellence, but in the last resort, in spite of the glamour with which it has been surrounded, a curse from which we must hope that men will some day be entirely freed.

It is important to grasp this view if the present predicament of religion is to be understood. Religion must seem to be a menace unless we are allowed to attach to it that saving grace of sweet reasonableness which Barth and others so ardently condemn. The manifold aberrations of religion, more than anything else, bring out the need for intelligent human criticism—except to those who prefer the authority of an infallible Church. Yet all these aberrations are at least not incompatible with the view that religion may be aiming at a wholeness which is more than a merely personal equilibrium. We could not recognize or describe aberrations unless we were conscious, however dimly, of some sort of norm from which they are a departure; and it is this norm that I have attempted to adumbrate, whether the attempt has been successful or not. Even if we take a low view of human nature, it is difficult, though perhaps not impossible, to believe that religion attracts men only because of its aberrations, and not in spite of them. It is not as if religion made its appeal only to the vulgar and insensitive: in all ages there have been among its devotees some of the best and ablest men who have ever lived. Aristotle was right in asserting that wherever there is a standard, there are countless ways of departing from it; but these departures are not to be blamed on the standard itself. The very richness of religion may multiply its possible aberrations, and the corruption of the best may be the worst; but this is no reason why we should reject the best.

This problem—except in so far as religion may seem to be in conflict with known truth—is not to be settled by philosophical argument: it is rather one for personal decision in the light of our experience and our knowledge of the world. All that philosophical discussion can do is to clear the issues and get rid of confusions. The one thing quite certain is that the general answer to these questions will determine, for good or ill, the whole character of our civilization. To dismiss them as of no importance is the greatest aberration of all.

From the book: