You are here

Chapter XXI | Morality and Religion

§ 1. Moral goodness

As men become less hopeful of proving the existence of God by metaphysical arguments, they are almost bound to base their theology on moral conviction rather than on theoretical knowledge. In so doing they come closer to religious experience; and it is commonly held that God reveals Himself in the heart and conscience of the believer. This is the contention that has now to be examined.

Such a doctrine must seem unconvincing if we take moral action to have little or no value in itself—if we regard it at the best as only a necessary means to the furtherance of art or science or social intercourse, which do have value in themselves. The argument from morality to religion, if it is an argument, must proceed on assumptions similar to those that have already been expounded in summary form, A good man, on this view, is one who follows for their own sake universal moral principles no less rational or reasonable than the principles of scientific thinking; who treats all men with respect as persons or ends in themselves; and who seeks to establish and promote a society whose members in following such principles will respect themselves and respect one another. Moral goodness is for him of supreme value, and all other goods have to be subordinated to it in action.

To live in this way is not to deny the value of art or science or personal affection: it is not to reject, but to accept, the vigour and spontaneity and creativeness of life. All these things are parts of the good life and elements in the ideal society. It is our duty to further and foster them so far as we may. But even the skill of the scientist and the genius of the artist and the devotion of person to person may be hateful, when they are directed, as they can be, to evil and cruel ends. And, as we know only too well, it may sometimes be the overriding duty of a good man to set aside even these most precious possessions for some painful task such as fighting in defence of liberty.

It is from this point of view—the point of view of a moral agent, not of a detached observer—that we must try to consider the bearing of morality on religious faith.

§ 2. Freedom

To adopt a point of view is to make certain assumptions, which may or may not be clear to ourselves. One of the main tasks of philosophy is to bring out the character of such assumptions. Here we are concerned with the assumptions of the moral agent or the good man, and the first thing he seems to assume is that he is free. Unless we are free to act on moral principles and so to realize a supreme good, it is absurd to speak of duty or moral obligation or moral responsibility. We can have no duty to do what we are not free to do. ‘I ought’ implies ‘I can’.

This is not commonly denied, but one modern theologian has maintained that ‘I ought’ always implies ‘I can't’. This paradox, whatever be the theological motive behind it, has no plausibility unless we hold that it is always our duty to be perfect. If we are not prepared to lose all contact with common sense, we must insist that a duty to be perfect must be understood as a duty to aim at, and if possible to progress towards, perfection. If even this duty is known to be beyond our powers, it is not properly described as a duty at all.

The man who assumes himself free to act in accordance with moral principles assumes also that his action is not determined (even although it may be influenced) by natural causes, such as impulses and desires. Freedom has both a positive and a negative side: to be free for something is also to be free from something else. A moral agent seems to take it for granted that he can stand above nature and be in certain respects exempt from its endless chain of causes and effects.

This assumption of freedom is not confined to man as a moral agent: in a lesser degree it is present wherever men act on rational principles—for example, on principles of skill or self-love. Here too they recognize an ‘ought’. They think that they ought to use the best means to their adopted ends and ought to combine their ends in such a way that these do not clash. Such an ‘I ought’ has by itself nothing to do with morality; but it too implies ‘I can’ and so assumes at least some degree of freedom—even if we believe that human ends are imposed from without.

Although men may, and often do, fail to follow their principles of skill and self-love—not to mention those of morality—there is a sense in which they always act on principles: that is, they are aware of the kind of action they are doing, and they will it as an action of a certain kind. There are thus, so to speak, concepts operative—generally without words—in human conduct as well as in human thought; and it is this conceptual factor that makes all human actions so far rational and distinguishes them from mere animal behaviour. Because of this we can say that human actions have a reason and not merely a cause; and we seem thereby to assume at least the beginnings of freedom.

The word ‘principle’ is here being applied loosely. If we wish to use it, as we should, only for a first or supreme principle, we may say that men always act on general ‘maxims’, of which they are at least potentially aware: they do not merely conform, like animals, to laws of which only other people can be aware. If this is ignored or denied, it will be impossible to admit freedom or to distinguish human conduct from animal behaviour.

So far as men act on principles, they are aiming, however imperfectly, at some sort of coherent teleological whole (which is analogous to the coherent logical whole aimed at by theoretical reason). This is obvious in the principles of skill, and still more in those of self-love, but most of all in the principles of morality since these are concerned with the whole of human society. Here too we may find different degrees of rationality and may assume different degrees of freedom.

The drug addict, for example, may be most rational, and so far presumably free, in providing means to satisfy his needs; and yet he may feel himself enslaved by some over-mastering passion. He is, so to speak, free only in a cage. The man who refuses to wreck his happiness in order to satisfy a sudden impulse or a persistent craving, and who seeks to fulfil his various needs in an organized life, assumes himself to be more rational and more free. The morally good man seems, at least ideally, able to rise above his own needs and passions altogether. His aim is to obey a law which any reasonable man would be obliged to follow in the same circumstances. So far as he can attain to this ideal, he assumes himself to be most rational and most free.

The assumption of freedom serves at least to bring out the negative side of rational action—its freedom from determination by purely external causes. On the positive side it is hard to be sure whether the thought of freedom adds anything to the thought of rational action.

§ 3. Saints and sinners

If we assume as moral agents that we are free to act rationally, there arises a further question. Is it really in our power to decide how rationally, or how freely, we can act? Or is the extent of our rationality, and so of our freedom, determined for us by something else?

According to some theological doctrines freedom is granted to the saint—and denied to the sinner—solely by the grace of God. Even apart from theology it might be considered theoretically possible for a man to become so good that he could not but act on moral principles—it would be impossible for him to sin. A holy and perfect will, such as is reserved by theologians for the saints in Heaven and is also attributed by analogy to God, might be described as free to act on moral principles, and yet it might not be free to do otherwise.

This problem is of no practical concern to us as sinful men; but it might be held that for unholy wills like our own the partial freedom of skill and self-love is illusory, and that a man is not free except in so far as he does act on moral principles. This question does concern us very closely. It is not unplausible to say that in immoral action—perhaps even in non-moral action—man's reason is merely a slave to his impulses and desires, which are themselves only events caused by external objects. If this were true, the defaulter could always claim that it was impossible for him not to sin. As a sinner he would not be a person at all, but merely a thing: all his movements would be determined in accordance with causal law.

This view has at least the merit of drawing attention to the limits of human freedom. Apart from the obvious fact that our bodily actions must conform to physical laws, we feel ourselves, as it were, pushed and pulled by impulses and desires, and even by circumstances; and at times these forces seem to get beyond our control. By yielding to some forms of temptation a moral agent may reduce himself almost to the state of a beast or even of a thing. Some men are mentally deficient and so can hardly be called human at all: they may have no power to rise above the level of the brutes. In this matter too there are all sorts of degrees, and the sharp antithesis which we make between the causes of our behaviour and the reasons for our conduct seems at times to be blurred.

Such considerations may serve to remind us that a man's degree of freedom may be reduced to zero by foolish actions or congenital defects or even by physical accidents; but they do not affect the supposition that distinctively human action has always some degree of rationality and is so far free. What is more, we must still hold that if any one is rational enough to recognize his duty and yet fails to do it, this is not to be attributed to external causes, but to his own free choice. Otherwise we make nonsense of duty and responsibility. If a man is in no way responsible for his bad actions, it is impossible to see how he could be responsible for his good ones. Our ordinary moral judgements can have meaning only on the supposition that so long as we are in possession of our faculties, we are responsible in some degree for all our actions, good and bad alike.

Hence it looks as if freedom to act well carries with it also—at least under human conditions—a freedom to act badly. Freedom to act badly may be a lower or lesser freedom; but even if it consists only (though this is far too simple) in an ability to let ourselves be dominated by passion or self-interest, it cannot be eliminated from the assumptions we make as moral agents.

We thus appear to be faced with the need to assume a double freedom. On the one hand, we take ourselves to be free so far as we act morally—this view we cannot abandon. On the other hand, we seem to assume also that the extent of this freedom (or the lack of it) must be determined by ourselves, not by anything outside ourselves. This means that we must regard ourselves as free (in a new sense) to choose between acting well and acting badly.

These two freedoms have at least something negative in common: by taking them for granted we assume that our actions are not determined by anything outside ourselves. But whereas the old freedom depended on the extent to which we acted reasonably, the new freedom to choose between acting reasonably and acting unreasonably (or—perhaps better—between acting more reasonably and acting less reasonably) looks like an ability to act for no reason, but from mere caprice. So far at least as we choose to act unreasonably (or less reasonably), we seem to be acting capriciously for no reason at all. Even if we still claim that our actions are not determined by any outside cause, we appear to be at the mercy of chance; and it is not easy to discover any sense in which an action done for no reason can be regarded as positively free.

It is only fair that the difficulties of these conceptions should at least be indicated. Nevertheless for our present purposes we must hold to the view that a moral agent must assume himself to be free so far as he recognizes a duty to act on moral principles; and he must, it would seem, adhere to this assumption, whether in fact he acts well or ill. Hence he must assume that he is not merely one object among other objects—that he is a subject who can somehow rise above the causal events of nature and mould them, if only within narrow limits, to his own rational will.

§ 4. Freedom and nature

If we abandon the agent's point of view for that of the detached observer, human behaviour must appear to be only a part of nature and so to be determined by causal law. In the world as known to science there can be no place for freedom.

This is sometimes questioned on various grounds. We are told, for example, that the principle of uncertainty is now admitted in microphysics and that old-fashioned materialism, with its particles pushing and pulling one another, has long been superseded. We are also told—with more relevance—that ‘cause’ is no longer a scientific concept, or at least that a cause is not to be regarded as the ground of its effect, and so any talk about determinism must be out of date. We should say only that the succession of events is regular and so can in principle be predicted. Nothing is made, or compelled, to be what it is.

It is impossible to examine these contentions here or their bearing upon human action—we should have to ask how far they are scientific and how far they rest on metaphysical assumptions which may or may not be justified. But it should be noted that they are not always confirmed by the language of practising psychologists. The rank and file of psychiatrists, for example, have been said by one of themselves to believe in absolute determinism; and when they tell us that all crime is a symptom of mental disease, they appear to hold that free will is an illusion and that no one can ever help doing what he does. Even our most rational judgements are believed by some, however inconsistently, to be nothing but the tools of the unconscious—nothing but the inevitable effect of causes which lie buried in the unconscious levels of the individual psyche. I take these illustrations from an article by Professor A. G. N. Flew.

The case for determinism—or fatalism—is stronger than it is made to appear in some modern accounts. Those thinkers, for example, who imagine they can dispose of it by saying that I could—or would—have acted otherwise if I had chosen to do so are evading the difficulties. The question about freedom is whether I can choose between different ways of acting here and now.

Even if we deny that human actions are determined, but maintain that they are in principle predictable, we do not escape from troubles about freedom. We are in the same position as those theologians who rejected divine predestination, but accepted divine foreknowledge. Was Adam free not to fall, even although God knew from all eternity the precise place and moment of his disobedience? Can complete foreknowledge, whether human or divine, be compatible with freedom?

A rough kind of prediction is manifestly compatible with our ordinary assumptions of freedom. We can say beforehand that a good chess player will play in accordance with the rules of the game—provided he is not inventing a new one—and he will not imagine that his freedom is threatened by such a prediction. But if we handed him a sealed envelope to be opened only after the game was over, and if he discovered that his every move had been written down before he started, he would begin to doubt his freedom and even his sanity. Anyone can predict that Beethoven will write good music, but what scientific genius will predict the Ninth Symphony? And who will foretell that St. Francis will kiss the sores of the leper?

The fact that a prediction is said to be only ‘in principle’ makes no difference to the problem: it would be foolish to comfort ourselves with the thought that it cannot in fact be made because no one has enough knowledge to do so. The important question is whether the prediction claimed—either in principle or in fact—is vague or precise. No sensible person would deny that a good man is unlikely to steal money from a child; for we know that this is incompatible with the very principles on which his life is built.

There is no problem at all unless it is claimed that at least all large-scale movements can be predicted—in principle—with absolute precision. This claim has in fact been made, and perhaps it must be made. It is still not uncommonly held that the only explanations worthy of the name must be scientific; that all events can be scientifically explained; and that to explain scientifically is to be able to predict precisely what will happen and to do so solely on the basis of observed regularities.

If we interpret this as meaning that the word ‘explanation’ is to be used in an arbitrarily restricted way, the contention becomes trivial. If it is not trivial, it appears to exclude the view that human actions can be understood as the expression of rational principles and so as free.

On the other hand, if we are allowed to treat the adoption of principles, and even human character, as if they were observed events, the claim to exact prediction begins to seem at once more plausible and less menacing, although perhaps also less scientific; and Kant, who did take such considerations into account, was prepared to believe that if we knew enough, we could predict all human action as surely as an eclipse. He also held, for reasons into which we cannot enter here, that this was compatible with human freedom; but it is not easy to believe that he was right.

The assumption of freedom has been discussed here, not so much for its own sake, but in order to prepare us for the religious assumptions said to be bound up with the moral point of view. With this in mind it may be enough to put the case hypothetically. If, as seems probable, the scientific point of view is incompatible with freedom—or even if, as is certain, it has no more use for the concept of freedom than for the concept of God—then as moral agents we have to maintain that the scientific point of view is not enough. There are two points of view—the moral and the scientific—and while each may be valid within its own sphere, it is from the moral point of view that we get the fullest insight into human action.

This is a large claim, but it is not without parallel. Only the artist can be in a position to understand artistic creation. What is more, only the scientist can understand scientific thinking; and even if, for purposes of his science, he is content to regard all men (including himself) as objects and so as causally determined, he may be forced, if he becomes a philosopher, to reflect on the fact that besides being a known object, he is also a knowing subject. As a knowing subject he, and every other thinker, must assume himself to be free—free to think in accordance with rational principles. Hence it is neither an outrage nor a paradox if a moral agent, as a moral agent, also assumes himself to be free—free to act in accordance with moral principles no less rational than those of science.

A good man may be unable to find a philosophy that will justify his assumptions, but—like the artist and the scientist himself—he has to act on the assumption of freedom. This assumption becomes easier to accept if we believe that the world of nature, which seems to exclude freedom, is itself, as known to us, in part a product of our own spontaneous thinking in accordance with rational principles. As such a product it cannot properly be used to disprove the very assumption of freedom without which it could not exist for us at all.

If there is any truth in these contentions, a finite subject may, and indeed must, regard himself as more than a part of nature and as able to rise, as it were, above nature. This implies that he cannot take the world of nature to be all the reality there is. Such a view is manifestly unlike any scientific theory of natural objects: it bears more resemblance to a religious faith.

§ 5. The existence of God

In acting morally a rational agent does not assume the existence of God in the same direct way as he assumes his own freedom; but it has been thought that the two assumptions are sufficiently akin for one of them to throw light on the other.

The so-called moral argument for the existence of God is sometimes put crudely as if God's existence were necessary in order that the appropriate amount of happiness might be granted to each individual as a reward for virtue—a curiously humble office to assign to the Almighty. It is put less crudely when it is said that unless the universe is divinely governed, the justice which it is our duty to pursue can never be realized. Perhaps it is best put by saying something like this—that it is our duty to seek the highest good, namely, the realization of an ideal society in which the good will of its citizens may be fully effective; that it is impossible to attain this end unless the universe is divinely governed; and that since a good man must suppose duty to be capable of fulfilment, he must thereby postulate the existence, not only of an all-powerful God, but of a God who is wholly wise, benevolent, and just—the existence in short of a holy God, who alone can be an object of worship.

It is possible to argue thus without abandoning the view that a good will is of supreme value in itself altogether apart from the results it may produce. If a man strives to do his duty, he is good even although his efforts have little or no effect. But this does not mean that he is striving only to strive. On the contrary, he is endeavouring to produce results and attain ends—in particular he is struggling to establish and maintain and serve an ideal community; and this end, which it is his duty to seek, cannot be realized without the co-operation of other men and ultimately of nature itself. If we are to conceive it as capable of realization—and how otherwise can we regard it as an end which it is our duty to seek?—we can do so only on the assumption that the world is created and governed by God.

There remains indeed the obvious difficulty that the ideal community can, at the best, be realized only imperfectly in this world, which seems indifferent to moral considerations and will in any case be at some time wholly destroyed. This is one reason why it has been maintained that a moral agent must postulate the immortality of the soul as well as the existence of God; but this claim must be considered later.

These moral arguments for the existence of God may seem no more convincing than the metaphysical arguments already examined—they may seem less convincing, for they do not even pretend to be scientific. The phenomenal world, it may be said, cannot provide complete satisfaction for our intellectual aspirations any more than for our moral ones. As we have seen, men may find the infinite series of temporal causes and effects unintelligible and may tend to postulate as its unconditioned condition a non-temporal reality which may be intelligible in itself. If the validity of this procedure was questioned, are we not obliged to treat the moral arguments with equal caution?

Those who uphold the moral argument in spite of distrusting metaphysics would reply in some such way as this.

To seek the realization of an ideal community is to do more than aim at satisfying moral aspirations—it is to perform an absolute and unconditioned duty laid on us as rational agents. Our intellectual aspirations do not impose on us a similar duty to find a world that is completely intelligible, which is indeed impossible. Furthermore, the metaphysical arguments are arguments from object to object, but they fail to satisfy the conditions without which there can be no human knowledge. The moral argument is not an argument from object to object, and it does not pretend to give us knowledge: it is concerned only with what a moral agent may reasonably hope or believe—perhaps with what he cannot but hope or believe as subject to the absolute claims of duty.

If we regard moral judgements and moral actions merely as phenomena to be explained by psychology—and from the narrowly scientific point of view this is all they can be—then manifestly any alleged religious assumptions bound up with morality are mere moonshine, or at least are only further phenomena in need of psychological investigation. So too if we base morality on casual likings and dislikings, or again on self-interest, the so-called moral argument for the existence of God may reasonably be dismissed as nonsense. Even if we hold an objective view, like that of Professor G. E. Moore, which takes the greatest goods to be personal affections and aesthetic enjoyments, we can attach no weight to theological thinking of this kind. Its cogency, if it has any, must depend on the view that the claims of duty are absolute and that moral goodness is of supreme value.

Even on this view we are still not free from difficulties. It might be said—I take this from a critical friend—that it is quite possible, and nowadays fairly common, to believe that it is one's duty to make the best of a fundamentally bad job, an enterprise in which nothing and nobody is going to co-operate except a few other men and women of good will. It might be said also that even if the religious assumption were forced on the man who seeks to do his duty, it would still be an illusion, although perhaps a comforting and helpful one. We should be like children who invent for themselves an imaginary friend, but have to abandon this fiction as they grow up.

Such a criticism is bound to be felt forcibly by those who are occupied with science and are oppressed—as most of us are—by human insignificance in a vast and apparently purposeless world. Perhaps they are letting the moral point of view be dimmed by the scientific one, but it would certainly be false to say that there can be no moral action without explicitly religious assumptions. There is no direct and valid inference from belief in morality and freedom to belief in the existence of God. Even if there is a natural tendency to pass from one to the other, and even if religious belief is interpreted as an assumption—or a hope—on which good men act, we have to regard it, not as a logical inference, but as a leap of faith. Whether this leap is to be considered reasonable or unreasonable must depend, not only on moral convictions, but also on our view of human reason and of the world as a whole.

§ 6. Immortality

Similar arguments—if this misleading word may still be used—are sometimes put forward in order to justify or defend a belief in personal immortality.

Since modern science has abandoned the category of substance, the old metaphysical demonstration that the soul is a substance, and therefore must be immortal, has lost what plausibility it may have had in a less sophisticated world. There remains the appeal to moral conviction, and this may take different forms. It is sometimes said, for example, that there can be no justice in the world unless there is another life in which the wrongs of our present state may be redressed.

A perhaps more plausible form of the argument may be put as follows. We have an absolute duty to strive towards a perfection which can never be attained in this life, and therefore in seeking to do our duty we must assume that our life here on earth is only a preparation for another life in which such perfection may be attained.

Contentions of this kind manifestly depend on a prior belief in the existence and goodness of God. Yet they rest also on a specifically moral assumption. We do not normally argue for immortality on the ground that in this world we are unable to attain the highest possible development of our capacities for art or science: we rather accept it as one of the limitations of our human state that we can realize only some few of the amazing potentialities we have when we are young. Here too the argument must rest on the supposition that moral goodness is of supreme value, and that our duty to attain it ultimately is absolute.

Considered strictly as an argument, this train of thought looks like an inference from what ought to be to what is; and this is as invalid as the counter argument from what is to what ought to be. From a scientific point of view nothing could be more naive. If we look on man as one object among others, his life is inseparable from his body, and considerations of duty and perfection, justice and injustice, do not arise. The question of survival after death is at the most a problem for psychical research.

On the other hand, we go too far if we say that survival can be disproved by science. Curiously enough, from the subject's point of view immortality (or at least survival) is something that might be empirically verified, but can never be empirically disproved. If we survive death, we shall presumably know that we have survived; but if we do not survive death, we shall not be in a position to know that we have not survived.

It is sometimes maintained that belief in immortality must be rejected on a priori grounds. No doubt if we define thinking and acting as functions of the body, we preclude ourselves from saying that we might be able to think and act after the body has perished. But unless we claim insight into a necessary connexion between nerve changes and mental activity—an insight which would seem to be miraculous—we are attempting to settle problems of fact by arbitrary definitions. To say that a man might survive death is not meaningless. From the point of view of man as a thinker and agent his body is only one object among many; and to survive would presumably be to continue thinking and acting with reference to a world of which his body is no longer a part. We have no empirical grounds for believing this to be possible, and if we consider man solely as an object, we are entitled to say that such a belief cannot be verified; but if this is all that is intended when we say that it is meaningless, our language is likely to mislead others if it does not mislead ourselves.

What has to be admitted is that we cannot have more than the vaguest conception of what it would be like to survive death. This must remain a mystery, and it becomes still more of a mystery if it is thought that life after death is not in time but in eternity.

If we talk this language, it may not be illegitimate to say that a good man may realize eternal values in the world of time and space—this is only another way of saying that moral values are unconditioned and so far are independent of time. We may be tempted to go on from this and declare that a good man ought to live as if he were immortal and that so to live must be to cherish the hope of immortality. This may be psychologically true, but it can hardly pass muster as a logical inference. As Aristotle sagely remarked, a thing is not any whiter if it is white for a long time, and the same principle seems to apply to goodness. Yet it is a deep human desire that the most precious things in life should be lasting; and it is at least natural, if not necessary, for a good man to hope that those in whom supreme value is, or may be, manifested will not be utterly blotted out. But this hope—even if science cannot prove it to be in vain—must at best be dim except to those who believe in the existence and goodness of God.

From a religious point of view some may think that men should be ready to accept either life or death in accordance with a divine will which they believe to be wholly good.

This may be an appropriate attitude for a religious man to take towards himself: he may recognize his own unworthiness, and he may be selfless enough to contribute what he can to the world, and so to a divine enterprise, without asking that either he or his work should survive. But even the most selfless of men must think also of other people; and there is a risk of a too smug complacency if those who have warmed both hands before the fire of life commend to their less fortunate brethren a willingness to depart without the hope of anything beyond. When we think of spastic and crippled children, of those to whom the enjoyment of life is denied, and of those who have suffered grievous wrongs, it may seem a mockery of divine justice and a frustration of moral endeavour that there should be no other life than this. Belief in personal immortality, though often held for self-centred reasons and less essential to religion than the belief in God, may yet have its own moral and religious grounds; and—unless in face of conclusive evidence against it—a good man who believes in divine justice may reasonably seek to live as if he were immortal, and in so doing may cherish a not unworthy hope.

It can hardly be denied that this hope or belief has become less widely held during the present century—perhaps sometimes in reaction against its cruder forms. Apart from the doubtful aid of psychical research there is no scientific evidence for human survival, and from the scientific point of view the only reasonable attitude is a suspension of judgement. I have suggested that we may be entitled to take into account other points of view as well—especially the point of view of moral agents. The present decay of the belief in immortality may spring partly from the weakness of our moral convictions, and this in turn may have its roots in a widespread feeling of exhaustion and in the heavy pressure of the times. But it is the business of philosophers to rise, if they can, above the passing moods of individuals and the fashions of a particular age. Our beliefs on this subject must ultimately depend on our attitude to religion as a whole. Men are not morally good if they do their duty only for the sake of future reward; but it is hard to see why they should abandon the hope of immortality if their assumption of human freedom has led them to a belief in the goodness of God.

§ 7. Religion and philosophy

From what has been said it should be already clear that the question to be discussed is not whether it is possible to infer from the existence of moral agents to the reality of freedom, the existence of God, and the immortality of the soul. Such inferences, if they profess to give us knowledge of empirical facts, must seem childish to any one impressed by the methods of modern science. The question before us is whether in adopting the moral standpoint we can reasonably act in accordance with the assumptions, or even hopes, which appear to be bound up with moral action.

The assumption of freedom is not specifically religious: some theologians have come very near to denying it altogether. But at least it suggests, if we accept it, that the world as known to science is not all the world there is, and that there may be other assumptions, perhaps not so intimately connected with moral action, which are not to be rejected on grounds equally fatal to freedom. The assumption of immortality is, as we have seen, subsidiary. The prior and central question of religion is concerned with the existence and nature of God.

All these questions are questions for philosophy, not for science, although they cannot be answered by ignoring scientific knowledge.

If we hold that the world of observed objects and events in time and space is the sole reality, religious belief seems to become impossible. Those who look at things only from the scientific point of view will see no freedom, no immortality, and no God; but then—if they are sufficiently consistent—they will see no goodness, no justice, no beauty, and perhaps no truth either; for these things have to be understood, not in relation to observed objects, but in relation to subjects who think and act and feel.

I have argued that when we reflect on our own experience, it may become impossible to believe that the world of science and common sense is all the world there is—the world as it is in itself. We are faced with the thought that the world of objects, as we know it, may be only a kind of between-world—a world lying, so to speak, between finite centres of intelligence and an unknown reality. Without some assumption of this kind it is hard to see any room for belief in the existence of God.

Such a thought is admittedly obscure and dangerous: it may provide scope for those who like religion to be quaint and so discredit it by peopling the unknown reality with the strange monsters of their own imagination. Yet in recognizing the limits of human knowledge and the mystery of the world as it is known to us, a doctrine of this kind can at least supply a defence against dogmatic attempts to rule out religious belief altogether on the ground that it can never be established by science. It may also find an echo in religious experience itself.

In spite of all this those who worship a merely unknown reality lay themselves open to Bradley's gibe at Herbert Spencer's attitude towards his Unknowable—that ‘it seems a proposal to take something for God simply and solely because we do not know what the devil it can be’. Men must have some concepts by which they try to think about what they cannot know, and some grounds for supposing so great a leap to be at least not unreasonable.

Some may believe that the leap can be made on the ground of moral conviction alone, but its justification will be stronger if it can have some support from a view of the world as a whole and so from metaphysics. We must venture for a moment on these slippery paths.

It is here that the cosmological proof—and perhaps even the ontological proof—may begin to appear in a new light. If our argument has been sound, it is clear that the unknown reality cannot be thought of by the categories we apply to—and impose on—objects of experience. We may think of it as the condition—though not the cause—of our phenomenal world, but we cannot take it to be itself temporal or caused or conditioned. It is indeed difficult to see how we can pass from this to the positive assertion that it is eternal and self-caused and unconditioned; for apart from the impossibility of finding in experience any objects for such concepts, we may suspect that the concepts themselves have no intelligible meaning. On the other hand, it may seem that they are the product of a demand of reason for completeness—a demand which is the basis of all our thinking. They also appear to be themselves a source of religious or numinous emotion.

If we venture further on the paths of speculation, it may seem to some that only a mind can be intelligibly conceived as self-sufficient and unconditioned—a mind which is creative and does not, like ours, have to construct its world, in imagination and thought, on the basis of what is obscurely given to sense and is for ever being replaced by something equally obscure. But perhaps it is from our moral judgements that these metaphysical concepts appear most likely to acquire a meaning, if only by analogy. So far as we act in accordance with the moral law, we can perform actions which, however inadequately, do fall under our conceptions of an unconditioned obligation which has no further ground and an absolute goodness which is not good merely as a means to something else. In this way we can give some sort of meaning, even in the world of time, to our vague notions of the absolute and unconditioned; and we may pass from this to the thought that only a holy God can be conceived as an absolute and unconditioned reality. All these concepts spring from the drive of reason towards wholeness or completeness in thought and action. As good men strive in action for wholeness or completeness in the practical end which it is their duty to seek, they entertain the notion of an ideal society under a divine head.

From the point of view of science all such speculations must be regarded as unverifiable assumption and wishful thinking. Even from a philosophic point of view it has to be recognized that they are not valid logical inferences from one finite reality to another. They are not even thoughts which can be made lucid and precise and consistent in themselves, and they cannot pretend to give us knowledge. Yet in a way they carry on the work of reason and offer a basis or a background, or at least a possible defence, for faith.

Theoretical speculation leads at most only to deism—to belief in a supreme and self-sufficient reality which is the ground of all appearances. This has to be supplemented by moral conviction and by reflexion on the nature of subjects (not merely of objects) if it is to lead to theism—to belief that the supreme reality has to be conceived, on the analogy of a free human agent, as a wise and beneficent creator. The first view may find its embodiment in Buddhism and other religions of the East; the second in the religions of the West and above all in Christianity, where the perfect man is taken to be also the Son of God.

From a Western point of view we may put the position in this way. A critical philosophy can only leave beyond experience a blank in which by metaphysical thinking we can obscurely conceive the existence of the unconditioned. On the basis of moral conviction we may believe that this blank may be filled by the existence of a holy God.

If men were purely intellectual beings, any such belief would be a matter only of idle speculation. But they are not purely intellectual beings—they have to lead their lives on certain assumptions. If they take this world to be all the world there is, they may allow themselves to float with the stream. They may make self-interest their guide or give themselves whole-heartedly to some personal ambition or public cause. More philosophically, they may decide in a harsh world to be cheerful Stoics or melancholy Epicureans, If, on the other hand, they have grounds—as I have maintained they do—for thinking this world to be only the appearance to finite men of some deeper reality and for holding the claims of duty to be absolute, they are at least no less reasonable when they take instead a decision to make the venture of belief in God and to live their lives in such a faith. Yet from a religious point of view this decision is not just one decision like the others. It is rather a self-surrender which is the beginning of a new life.

§ 8. Religion and morality

It may seem to the plain man, even to the plain religious man, that all these moral considerations are as remote and empty as the theoretical arguments of the scholastics. But he too must remember that he is not being offered theoretical proof to buttress his religious beliefs. As far as he is concerned, the doctrine may run rather like this. If a man believes that the supreme value in life, the one which claims priority above all others, is to do his duty; if he believes also that it is his supreme duty to live, so far as he may, as a free citizen of an ideal community and to seek its realization; if, further, he not only believes this, but strives to act on his belief; then he will find that he is not merely accepting the world as the environment in which he must act, but is obeying moral laws as if they were the principles on which the universe is governed—as if they were the expression, not merely of his own will, but of the will of a divine creator and governor. These assumptions—like the scientist's assumption of universal law in nature—are not the result of inference; but they may become convictions which are confirmed, and even made necessary—they may almost seem to be forced upon him—by the course of action in which he is engaged. They will give rise to new emotional experiences and will open up new theoretical possibilities. He may feel himself to be sustained by a divine grace, to be acting in a strength not his own, to be possessed, at least sometimes, of a peace which seems not of this world, to be moved by the beauty of nature as a revelation of the divine, even to be intoxicated like Spinoza with the mere thought of God. He may seem to himself to have a new and deeper vision of the world, of himself, and of his fellow men. Such experiences may strengthen and confirm his convictions till he passes beyond conviction altogether and feels himself—in the supreme case—to be overwhelmed by God's love for him, and his love for God, in a consciousness of union which seems more like knowledge than like faith.

There may be few who go more than a short distance along this path, but many go far enough to have some inkling of what is reported by those who have gone farther—and even to gain from these reports a better understanding of what they have found in their own lives. In this case too the dusty and abstract arguments of philosophers may reflect a more concrete and intimate process within religious experience itself. There is no need to suppose that morality is the only way to religion. Nevertheless moral action is an essential strand in the religious life; and in days when emotion is distrusted and metaphysics despised and religious histories subjected to question, this may prove to be the strongest strand of all.

All of this, as I have said, offers no proof of the existence and goodness of God. Most men hanker for knowledge in these matters, but if they grasp the problem aright, they will understand that such knowledge must be impossible for finite minds. They have to live by faith, and to be content if this faith can be shown not to be unreasonable, but rather to accord with the demands of reason for wholeness and completeness alike in action and in thought.

§ 9. Some objections

From the religious point of view some may think that too much is made of morality when it is treated as if it were independent of religion: they may hold that without religion there can be no morality at all. It is perhaps true that without religion a moral life may tend, through human weakness, to become a thankless and joyless struggle in the face of overwhelming odds. Nevertheless to deny the independence, or at least the interdependence, of morality and religion is to discredit both and to deprive each of the other's support.

What this denial amounts to in its naked horror is this. Unless men were instructed by some authority claiming a divine revelation, they would be totally unable to distinguish between right and wrong; and even after the instruction had been imparted, they could never be induced to do the right except by promises of future rewards and threats of eternal punishment.

History lends little support to so cynical a contention. There have been many good men who have had no use for religious dogmatism. In the ages of faith, when the authority of the Church was unquestioned, human beings seem to have behaved, if anything, with even more brutality than they do now—witness the hideous legal punishment of hanging, drawing, and quartering. But, in any case, to obey the law from hopes of bliss and fears of torment has nothing to do with morality or with religion either. And if any one says that unless he had a special communication from God on the subject, he would never have dreamt there could be anything wrong in savaging an old woman because he disliked her husband's opinions, he is either a monster or a lunatic or a liar—or at best a philosopher. But even the most sceptical of philosophers will perhaps agree that slavish obedience to the arbitrary decrees of an irrational but all-powerful God has no claim to be described as either moral or religious—unless these words are to be employed as terms of abuse.

Nor need we be moved by those who would tell us that religion comes rather to the sinner than to the righteous. They are presumably thinking of the experience known as conversion, when a man is first seized by a sense of guilt and by despair. This belongs to the psychology of religion; but a feeling of guilt and despair, if it is not merely a dread of punishment, may, as we now know too well, be pathological. So far as it is healthy, it means that a sinner has seen his own unworthiness in comparison with a binding moral law or with the majesty of God's holiness. It would be strange to regard such an experience as independent of morality.

As for the countless objections to our brief attempt at a philosophical defence of religious faith, only one can here be mentioned. Religious men who cling to the older metaphysics, and even to a rather crude materialism, are sometimes inclined to say that if the world of time and space is only a between-world—only the world as it must appear to finite human minds—then all our moral struggles and endeavours are illusory, and this whole argument must defeat itself.

It is hard to see why this should be so. On the traditional view itself the world of time and space has been created, but will one day cease to be, and time will be merged in eternity, which is the ultimate reality. Those who feel entitled to speculate on the methods of creation should refrain from laying down rules for the guidance of the Almighty. If God should choose to create the world in time and space partly through the activity of finite minds, who is to show that this economy is inconsistent with the divine wisdom? And why should we proclaim that moral action in a world so created must be an illusion? Is not this like saying that the masterpieces of a painter must be illusory because colours exist only in the mind of the beholder?

The difficulties are indeed insurmountable if we fail to distinguish between appearance and hallucination, and if we try to construct a pseudo-scientific theory of two independent worlds. The duty of a good man is to act in this world of time and space in accordance with moral principles; but if he is entitled to assume that in so doing he is a free agent and not merely a part of nature, he may reasonably entertain the hope or the belief that these principles may be also the principles on which the universe is governed. To believe this is to believe, however vaguely, in the existence and goodness of God.

From the book: