You are here

Chapter XXIII: Religion and Philosophy of Religion

There are many religions, and there are religions of high and low degree; but there is also religion in general, which springs from the situation in which all men and societies alike find themselves. If all historic or “positive” religions were to be eradicated and man were to begin over again, facing life freshly without any religious cult, tradition, or institution, there are motives which would prompt him to acquire religion. Defined in this generic and universal sense, religion is man's deepest solicitude, his concern for the fate of that which he accounts most valuable. However primitive or advanced their outlook, men will always prize something above all other things; will recognize environing forces on which their fortunes ultimately depend; and will put this prizing and this recognition together in a more or less hopeful belief.

In the early phases of his development man felt himself beset on every side by overpowering and inscrutable powers. Modern man boasts of his enlarged and ever enlarging area of control. But the widening circle of what man can do for himself is at the same time a widening of his circle of helplessness. Having pushed out in so many directions there are so many more advanced stations from which he gazes beyond into regions yet untrod. The more man conquers the more there is to conquer. However full his life a man still faces approaching death as the edge of an abyss; however elaborate the structure of his civilization, man remains sensible of its precariousness.

This sense of limited power is not, like the scientists’ predictions, attended with indifference. Man has interests at stake, and he is concerned in their behalf. He may be concerned with bare survival, or with some cause to which he has given his allegiance, but he is concerned. He sees the environing powers in their relation to that on which he has set his heart. This is his religion.

It might seem simpler to say that religion is man's reckoning with “God.” But the word ‘God’ is not the name of an individual, such as Napoleon, Washington, or Jesus whose identity is accepted by general consent. The use of the initial capital begs several questions. It implies that the object of worship is personal and unique, and therefore entitled to a proper name. It implies a worshipful attitude on the part of the user of the word, and therefore the acceptance of his religious belief. That being to which the adherents of one cult will refer to simply as “God,” will to the adherents of another cult be no “God” at all. When orthodox Christians refer to God they mean their God — a personal and benevolent creator, the history of whose dealings with men are set down in the Bible, and whose attributes and purpose are formulated in dogmas defined and taught by Christian churches. It is evident that religion in general cannot be defined as worship of “God” so conceived, for then primitive tribal religions, Egyptian, Greek, Indian, Chinese, and Arabic religions, would not be religions at all. The only small letter god common to all objects of worship or possible worship is the ultimate cosmic power or powers on which man conceives himself to depend for the promotion of that to which he attaches supreme value.

Religion in this universal sense will then include cults which, judged by Christian standards, are atheistic. Thus communism is said to be “godless” and anti-religious, because it rejects Christianity. But in the same breath the critics of communism declare that communism itself is a religion, in that it exalts the proletarian revolution above all other ends, and holds that its success is guaranteed by the laws of nature and history. Whether one says that communism is atheistic, or that it has made a god of Economic Force, depends on whether one is thinking in terms of a particular religious belief or in terms of religion in general. The god which communism denies is a particular variety of god, such as the Christian god; the god which it affirms is another variety of the universal god; both gods answer the description of god as cosmic power viewed from the standpoint of what men take to be their paramount good.

It is clear that esoteric Buddhism as well as Marxian communism recognizes no god in the Christian sense. But Buddhism teaches that Nirvana is the supreme good, and that the constitution of things — the law of Karma and the ultimate illusoriness of existence — permits Nirvana to be attained. Buddhism is thus a religion in its conjoining of a hierarchy of value with a cosmology; and it can even be said to have its god, if by ‘god’ is meant the saving grace of man's total environment.

The human attitudes, such as worship, hope of salvation, piety, adoration, supplication, propitiation, and faith, which are characteristic of religion, are those which are appropriate to whatever is deemed to possess ultimate power over whatever is deemed to possess preëminent value.

Religion is sometimes defined in terms of the “sacred” or the “holy.”

But these are derivative and not original ideas. These terms denote the peculiar veneration or awe evoked by objects, acts, or persons associated with deity, and borrowing the deity's dignity and power. When the salvation of all is believed to be dependent on the salvation of each, these attitudes are reinforced by public opinion and sentiment and the social sanction is superimposed on the religious sanction.

“Magic” is of the accident and not of the essence of religion. It reflects a relatively unenlightened phase of human knowledge, so judged from the standpoint of relative enlightenment. What was once magic (the magnet, for example) becomes science when it is better understood, or becomes (like slaying the enemy by transfixing his image) scientific error when it is disproved. Science itself seems “magical” to the uninitiated. This has nothing to do with religion unless the magical powers invoked are assumed to spring from some deeper source of control than the familiar agencies of everyday life. It is this which distinguishes the priest from the sorcerer, and prayer from incantation.

The “supernatural” is more clearly identified with religion. The supernatural is not, like the non-natural or unnatural, merely a departure from the natural, marked by its irregular, extraordinary, and inexplicable, character — but is the manifestation of a superior power which embraces and exceeds the natural, and is the ultimate determiner of human destiny.

Animism is intimately related to religion. When the ultimate forces of the environment are conceived in terms of their agreement or disagreement with human values, they are described as “friendly,” “hostile,” or “indifferent.” When this relation is imputed to the source as a conscious intent, the religious belief is literally animistic; and may be convicted of the “sympathetic fallacy.” Religion is peculiarly disposed to this fallacy. There is, however, no error when nature is “personified” by poetic license; that is one of the things that poetry is for. There is no error in referring to nature as “bountiful” or as “harsh” — as when Emerson says, “Nature is no sentimentalist, — does not cosset or pamper us. We must see that the world is rough and surly, and will not mind drowning a man or a woman, but swallows your ship like a grain of dust.”1 This means only that nature behaves as if it were friendly, hostile, or indifferent, and that by the same license one may respond with the appropriate retributive emotions.

To identify religion with the magical or supernatural, or with the sympathetic fallacy, is to identify religion with lack of enlightenment, as something that man outgrows the more he knows. Thus to confine religion in general with its superstitious or primitive forms is as mistaken as to identify it with “the true religion.” Religions may be high or low, primitive or advanced, superstitious or enlightened, ennobling or debasing, and still be religions. Their gods may be one or many, real or unreal, good, bad, or indifferent, and still be in the broad sense gods. The description of universal religion must embrace them all, and then look for standards by which they can be critically judged.

Religion is organized in the social institution known as the church, but it is not institutional by definition. In this it resembles science, art, and education. Worship is the essence; the church, or organized worship, is the accident. Were there only a single human being he would still select and create objects of aesthetic enjoyment, seek truth, and learn; similarly, he would still be religious, insofar as he felt and manifested a concern for his destiny. But it so happens that a man lives in such close and inescapable intercourse with his fellows that his life, including his religion, is permeated with sociality; and religion will therefore reflect its kind and degree. Social groups which are closely bound by ties of blood will tend to worship a tribal god. Social groups in which there is a high degree of solidarity will tend to believe that if they are to be saved at all they must be saved collectively. Highly nationalistic societies will tend to worship a national god; and highly authoritarian societies will favor an authoritarian church. On the other hand, insofar as societies are individualistic, the emphasis will be shifted to personal or private religion; and insofar as the solitary genius follows his own insight, religion will express itself in religious sages, saints, and mystics.

The definition of ‘religion’ as man's answer to the perennial question of the cosmic fate of good makes it possible to understand its one-sided definitions. That good which a man sets above all other goods, is sometimes said to be his religion. Or his religion is sometimes identified with his belief in first causes, or the ultimate substance of things — in short, his metaphysics. Neither of these is religion unless it is united with the other, but in different religious cults or moods either may dominate. God may be adored for his goodness rather than respected for his power, or the emphasis may be reversed.

Religions also differ in the degree of their hopefulness. The cosmic situation may be deemed so auspicious that the believer invests liberally, or so inauspicious that he narrowly restricts his stake. He may hope for no more than escape from the wrath of God or achievement of a state of resigned acceptance. Most historic religions, however, promise a highly profitable way of salvation, in another world if not in this — bringing “glad tidings of great joy.”


The study of religion may employ one or all of the methods which are characteristic of the cultural sciences. Its origins may be traced by the explanatory method. There is no single cause, no religious force or instinct, which can be taken as its taproot. To say that all men are impelled by a “love of God” is to impute to man a motive which satisfies the requirements of dogma rather than the facts of observation. Religion is an acquired attitude which emerges from innumerable experiences which lead men to summarize and order their interests and stake them against that trend of things at large which appears to speak the last word.

As a manifestation of human mentality, religion is generated and shaped by causes which it is the business of psychology to set forth. It is a product of man's thinking, imagining, and believing faculties. It draws upon his emotional resources, such as fear and love. No doubt his capacity to dream, and remember his dreams, has provided him with a seeming clue to the ulterior forces which govern his destiny; but to attribute religion solely to dreams, or to hallucinations, or to the subconscious, is to commit the gratuitous error of assuming that there must be one cause when there are evidently many. There are many things to be afraid of besides ghosts; and however great its influence on the childhood of the individual and the race, there is no need of belief in a spirit-world to impress men with their dependence or to elicit their worshipful response.

The religious attitude, comprising ideas and emotional dispositions, will be caused by whatever causes transmit and diffuse ideas and emotional attitudes — such as tradition and imitation. Men's conceptions of god reflect the character of their institutions: god is patterned on the father, ruler, judge, commander, or landowner; and the worshiper is assigned the correlative roles of child, subject, defendant or plaintiff, soldier, or laborer in the vineyard. And each particular religion will reflect the peculiar form of these social institutions which prevails in a given place or epoch.

Since it embraces a claim to know, religion will be affected by advancing science and philosophy; and since it involves the imagination it will be affected by monuments of art and changes of aesthetic preference. And finally, any given religion will be the product of its own past history, the record and memory of its failures and its triumphs. The causes of religion are thus plural and innumerable; distinguishable from other causes only by the religious attitude in which they ultimately find expression.

There is a religious technology which consists of the application of the knowledge of causes. The revivalists of all ages have been aware of the methods by which religious emotions can be excited, and religious beliefs implanted: eloquence, music, light, pageantry, symbols, confession, ecclesiastical architecture, and above all, by mass contagion. These techniques do not differ essentially from those employed by any propaganda. There is also a practical wisdom by which a church is organized, administered, and perpetuated.

The application of the explanatory and technological methods to religion may be distributed among the natural and cultural sciences — psychology, anthropology, sociology, history — or it may be gathered together in a special “science of religion.” This science, like the other cultural sciences, is often supposed to be purely “descriptive,” in the sense in which that adjective excludes the normative. But religion is compounded of interests, and occurs in a context of interests, and since it makes claims, religion cannot be described without being appraised. The values of religion, arising from the interests which it embodies and touches, are, like its causes, innumerable. There is no simple independent interest from which objects can be said to derive religious value. The religious interest is, like the moral interest, an interest in interests, a resultant interest, a complex of interests. Hence the values which it generates are widely dispersed.

Religion affects all of the sister-institutions by which it is itself affected. It molds conscience, polity, law, economy, science, art, and education, lending them its sanction and its symbols, and its patterns of thought; it may, as in a theocracy, dominate the total structure of society. Religion may, therefore, be criticized by any of these institutions, taken as standards; and when so judged, it is criticized externally.

The internal critique of religion, on the other hand, consists of judgments to the effect that it does or does not, or does more or less successfully, that which is its own proper business. Its immediate business, that by which it makes its own peculiar contribution to human motivation, is the creation in the minds of its votaries of a belief concerning the auspiciousness of the world at large — a confident belief that combines the goal of the life-struggle with an estimate of the total situation. Insofar as a man has no such belief, he is an “unbeliever” — a man of no religion. Religion which fails to generate such a living belief is like conscience whose approvals are unheeded, or government that does not control, or law that does not regulate, or economy which does not produce and distribute goods, or education from which nobody learns. It “goes through the motions,” as we say, but it does not do, or does only weakly and ineffectively, the minimum of that which it pretends to do. A judgment of religion by this internal standard is its functional or instrumental critique.

But religion, like other functions, has its ulterior purpose. It justifies itself by a double claim. It claims to direct the affections and wills of its adherents to the supreme good: “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” And it claims to know and reveal the state of affairs which prevails in the world at large, and of which men must take account: “The fool hath said in his heart, ‘There is no god.’” It claims in these two senses to be “the true religion.” The critique of religion on these ulterior grounds, which are grounds which it itself takes, is its purposive or final critique.


The functional or instrumental value consists in “being religious” — in religiosity, piety, or devoutness, which is to be distinguished from the extent to which the final purpose of religion is fulfilled. Getting or having religion has its own immediate values, of which ‘irreligion’ denotes the absence. It is a good thing, in a limited sense, to have some religious belief whether the belief is or is not true, and whether the interests in whose behalf it speaks are high or low. The believer is spared the pangs of indecision. The unbeliever envies the believer's comparative tranquillity, and says “I wish I could believe,” because he, the unbeliever, is “troubled with doubt,” and desires to escape that particular trouble. The believer escapes not only from the trouble of doubt, but from its Hamlet-like paralysis. His belief imparts to his life a certain consistency and momentum.

Piety implies not only a settled conviction but some degree of hopefulness. Irreligion is a fundamental sense of hopelessness, frustration, or despair — a declaration of bankruptcy. It is essential to piety that there should be a way of salvation for which the believer considers himself eligible. It is impiety, not piety, which “curses God and dies”; piety will extract some last consolation even on the eve of execution. It will kiss the hand that smites, or believe that heaven chastises him when it most loves. Or, having abandoned every other hope, piety will retreat into the fastnesses of the intellect and imagination, and enjoy the triumphs of detachment and contemplation.

In proportion as religious belief is not only certain but also hopeful, the believer's life is permeated with a tone of cheerfulness. Confident of the ultimate triumph of the highest good, he can discount the momentary triumph of lesser goods and bear with temporary defeats. When the object of his belief is a personal god his confidence may assume the character of trust: he can enjoy the imaginary experience of reciprocal love, and feel himself honored by the personal attentions which he receives from the most august of beings. Religious symbols, together with prayer, preaching, and collective worship, will provide a tonic for the believer's will, break his habits, reverse his order of values, and otherwise bring about those profound changes of personality known as ‘conversion’ and ‘regeneration.’

These values of religiosity can be embraced within the general formula of hygiene, embracing not only moral and spiritual health, but, owing to the subtle interactions of mind and body, physical health as well. So considered, religion is a remedy, which can be “taken” as stimulant, sedative, or soporific; and religious states may be compared on the ground of these benefits regardless of the level of aspiration or of insight.

Religion, like all human functions, may suffer from its own excesses and preoccupations. Religiosity is not only a therapy, but is, or may be, also, a cause of sickness. It can be wholesome, or, in excessive doses, unwholesome. Ideas and ideals may be dissolved in an orgy of passion; and the dividing line between one passion and another, as between carnal and spiritual loves, may disappear under the heat of sheer emotional excitement. Or a way of salvation adopted as a relief from worldly anxieties may beget another and a more intense anxiety, namely, anxiety concerning the salvation of one's soul. Solicitude may reach a pitch of intensity in which the fear of hell becomes a morbid fixation.

A second form of danger to which religion like other functions is exposed, is the danger that it shall be clogged and deflected by its own organization. Religion suffers notoriously not only from over-intensity, but from ritualism and ecclesiasticism. The ceremony of loving God may beget a loving of the ceremony and a forgetfulness of God. Insofar as religion is organized and becomes a church, the business of the church may supersede the business of religion. The recognition of this danger was a major, if not the central, motive of the Protestant Reformation, and it is a recurrent motive of all religious reformations; as though people were periodically compelled to say, “Let us get back to the saving of souls — to the inwardness of religion, and away from its accessories, its agencies, its forms, its offices, its trappings, its vestments, its investments, and its vested interests.”

The religious life may through its own by-products and specializations defeat not only its own peculiar function but those ulterior purposes of truth and goodness by which it is justified. This is its deeper and no less notorious infidelity. The authority of god, which is justified by definition as all-wise and all-good, is transferred to the church, and has the effect of inducing followers to accept the guidance of clerical powers who often leave much to be desired in the way of wisdom and goodness. Through its sense of certainty religion may promote that unreceptiveness to evidence, that closing of the mind which is known as ‘dogmatism.’ Through its collective worship and its efforts to awaken and “revive” men's concern for their salvation, religion may beget a mass emotion and opinion which clouds the mind and debases the will.

In short, religious belief, practice, and organization may deflect the will from the good and the intellect from the truth. In so doing religion defeats its own deeper purpose, and the fundamental critique of religion is that which recalls it to that deeper purpose to which it appeals for its final justification.


The examination of the religious values which reflect the ulterior purpose of religion, and which distinguish “true religion,” or “advanced religion,” will follow its two-dimensional character. Its purpose being to combine a will directed to the highest good with a knowledge of the cosmic forces which determine its fate, any given religious piety, despite the immediate values of piety itself, may yet be open to criticism on two grounds: first, the ground that it does not orient the believer toward the best; second, the ground that its cosmological teachings are ignorant or erroneous. These two standards of criticism will be herewith examined in that order.

Plato, in a famous passage of the Republic, condemns the Olympian gods not because they do not exist but because they are unworthy. The Olympian religion invites men to worship that which is not worshipful. The foibles, deceits, and lecheries of the Homeric gods merit condemnation, instead of which they are exalted and consecrated. The shocking brutalities narrated in the Old Testament are condoned by Hebraic and Christian piety. God has been invoked by both sides of every struggle, and has confirmed political partisanship and national aggression. Religion lends its sanction not to the best only, but to the base and ignoble.

Because it is more than moral, religion is sometimes held to be immune from moral criticism. This claim to by-pass morality, instead of passing through it and beyond, is known in the history of religion as ‘antinomianism.’

Religion cannot escape the requirements of morality for the very simple reason that it is a state or activity of men living among men. The man of piety, however exalted his piety, walks the earth like other men; the earth is the scene of his salvation, even of his regeneration. Such being the case, he is confronted with the problem that confronts every man, the problem, namely, of escaping conflict, personal and social, and of achieving that innocence and coöperation which is morality. Whatever the flights of the religious imagination, whatever sense the worshiper may have of his immediate communion with god, however much he may set his heart on a life after the grave, he is none the less a member of some family, somebody's neighbor, member of some organized society, and helps others through kindness, or hurts others through unkindness or neglect. However a man may be obsessed by religion, a man must, morally speaking, achieve a balanced personality if he is not to suffer from inner tensions and frustrations.

Religion, then, though it be more than morality, cannot be less. It must contain morality, however much it may add thereto. This is, in principle, recognized by all religious cults, however much in their occasional extravagances they may appear to deny it. Primitive religions endorse the mores of the social groups in which they arise. Buddhism and Hinduism teach charity as a way of salvation. In Hebraism and Mohammedanism the commands of god and the rules of right conduct are identified In Christianity the love of neighbor is annexed to the love of god; and god himself, though in his “glory” he may surpass morality, is benevolently devoted to the harmonious happiness of human creatures.

Assuming that religion embraces morality, there arises the further and quite distinct question, whether morality depends on religion or has its own independent, secular ground. That religion provides morality with an auxiliary motivation, and that this auxiliary motivation is often a necessary condition of moral practice, is unquestionable. Men may be induced to follow the dictates of morality by the promise of reward or the threat of punishment; adults, as well as children, may need this inducement. The appeal of morality is strengthened by a sentiment of gratitude felt towards a benevolent being, by its vivid and exemplary embodiment in objects of worship, by its association with religious tradition and symbols, and by the esprit de corps of a body of worshippers.

All this is important in the history of religion. But it does not imply, as has been contended, that the force of morality rests on religious premises. Thus, for example, the fact that men are more readily disposed to be just when they believe that god commands them to be just, does not mean that their duty to be just consists in their deference to god's commands. There would still be a duty to be just if justice were not commanded. The same holds of charity. A statement on “Man and the Peace” made in 1946 by a group of American Catholic bishops contains the sentence: “Human solidarity as well as Christian brotherhood dictates the sharing of our substance with our brothers in distress.”2 The human solidarity would be there, and its dictates would be the same, even had Christianity not proclaimed the brotherhood of men under god.

The duty to be just and charitable rests on the ground of moral goodness. The commands of a god who induced men to do what was not on other grounds their duty, would be as arbitrary as those of a capricious father or king. Only an unprincipled god can be freed from the requirements of principle; and only an abject and unreasoning worshiper can subject himself to an unprincipled god.

Morality's independence of religion extends to moral institutions.3 Had men had no religion they would nevertheless have been driven by their conflict of interests, and impelled by the promised benefits of coöperation, to organize themselves morally, and so to acqure a social conscience, a polity, a system of law, and an economy. Thus there arises the persistent and inescapable problem of the relation of religion to the secular social institutions; and in particular to those civil institutions of polity and law which exercise the function of over-all social control.


The idea of religious toleration, which is now unreservedly affirmed, and more or less consistently practiced, in most of the civilized world, arose historically from religious wars. Sectarian bigotry moved each religious sect to attempt by force to dominate, convert, or destroy its rivals. The effect was to reduce society to chaos and to destroy or debase all of its cultural goods, including religious piety itself. The moral lesson, painfully learned, was the reduction of sectarian pretensions to the point at which it is possible for two or more sects to live at peace. At the same time it was discovered that there are certain things which cannot be imposed by force. Religious persecution creates more heresies than it destroys; and proves that force at most induces only an external compliance, and never that inward assent in which true piety consists. The result of religious toleration is to establish the religious neutrality of the secular state. The several religious sects accept its authority as the keeper of the peace among them, and the defender of their several rights.4

The question of religious liberty can be more directly approached. It is the purpose of moral institutions to create and protect, and not to destroy, freedom. If any person or group of persons chooses to conceive a god and worship him in a certain manner, morality prescribes that they shall be allowed to do so without interference from, or interference with, the choices of other persons and groups.

Religious liberty, like other liberties, not only profits him who enjoys it, but pays a social dividend. As the freedom of science and art are not only rightly enjoyed by the scientist and the artist, but enrich the common human inheritance, so religion through the exercise of its freedom contributes monuments of piety and insight which would be impossible were religion not permitted to obey its own genius.

The same principles which argue for freedom of religious belief and worship argue also for freedom to reject religion. This freedom is explicitly recognized in the Constitution of Soviet Russia where it reflects a widespread anti-religious cult. The First Amendment of the Federal Constitution of the United States provides that “Congress shall make no law respecting any establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” This provision reflects a diversity of Christian sects to some one of which, in a more or less orthodox form, the majority of the population adhere. But American public opinion, supported by a series of decisions by American courts, has followed the logic of the principle of toleration: if religious belief is to be adopted freely, its total rejection must be an open alternative. Atheism, as well as any one of a number of theisms, non-Christian or Christian, must be allowed the same right of profession and propagation; provided that all beliefs, religious and irreligious alike, show a proper respect for one another, and involve no “public nuisance or breach of peace or decorum.”5

If religion were an altogther private matter, the problem of the relation of the church to the secular authorities would be comparatively simple. The fact that it embraces a moral creed, and that it is even today after the notable decline of its influence, a major instrument of moral education, gives it an important role in public affairs. Since moral institutions will serve their moral purpose only when that purpose is adopted by the members, religion has a civic duty to implant it. To perform this task of reinforcing the principles which underlie moral institutions, religion must give attention to the social virtues, and proportionally less attention to the specifically religious virtues. It must emphasize that area of morality which it shares with secular life — peace and coöperation, the Golden Rule — and without claiming exclusive jurisdiction.

The moral conception of “the dignity of man,” which is unquestionably an article of the democratic creed, is rightly emphasized in Christian teaching, but there is a “natural dignity” of man as a person, which is independent of that “supernatural dignity” which is imputed to man because of his relation to God. The secular state is concerned only with the first of these dignities as a basic principle of the civil order and the common good.6

Thus the separation of church and state as institutions, and the obligation of the state to show no special favor to any sectarian dogma or form of religious worship, must not be allowed to obscure the fact that there is an area of morality in which they intersect. Those who in the name of religion insist that the state, as well as other moral institutions, owes allegiance to certain “higher principles,” are proclaiming the same truth as that proclaimed by any cultural science which looks beyond the instrumentalities of conscience, polity, law, and economy to the good which they are pledged to serve.


Since religion embraces a judgment of comparative value, it invites criticism on that score. Religion contains a record of human aspiration. It expresses that which man, by straining his faculties to the utmost, conceives to be of supreme value. In proclaiming a way of salvation it teaches men not only how to be saved but what is worth saving. Religious founders, sages, prophets, and sacred books are credited with a vision of perfection transcending the earth-bound values of the layman. In prayer the believer not only prays to, but prays for — prays for that object which ranks highest in his order of preference. The religious imagination creates pictures of Paradise which represent a condition of ideal fulfillment— a consummation most devoutly to be wished. Worship praises and reverences a deity endowed with all the perfections; the saints and the redeemed are embodiments in lesser degree of the same perfections.

In criticizing the ideals thus commended to man's adoption, the first standard is, as we have seen, the moral standard. True religion must confirm the virtues, the rights and wrongs, and the duties, which are implied in the moral end of harmonious happiness. It must ally itself with the secular conscience, polity, law, and economy in respect of their purpose of removing conflict and replacing it with innocence and coöperation. By the same standard a religion may be condemned insofar as it excuses men from moral and civic responsibilities. True piety is “above the law,” only when it obeys the law; it adds to, and does not subtract from, morality; it does not grant moral immunity, but demands a greater scrupulousness.

Religion may be criticized not only for its neglect or relaxation of moral requirements, but for its moral distortions and limitations. It is largely responsible for those misconceptions of morality — asceticism, authoritarianism, preceptualism, and utopianism — which have obsured its vital importance. It has given its sanction to the half-moralities of prudence and nationalism. Religion has been guilty not only of neglecting, distorting, and debasing morality, but of giving it excessive emphasis. Religion may be the projection of a morbid conscience which tortures man with a sense of guilt and impending doom. From antino-mianism it may move to the opposite extreme of legalism, conceiving god as a mere disciplinarian who utters prohibitions and is primarily concerned to detect and punish offenders. Piety may be converted into observance of rules and regulations, pervading the whole of the personal and social life, and to be observed in the letter rather than in the spirit.

Religion rightly transcends morality. For while morality organizes interests, it does not prescribe what the interests shall be, nor the level of preference to which they shall rise, nor the intensity of their pursuit and enjoyment. The religious ideal, like the ideal of a total civilization of the goal of human progress, attempts to represent an optimum of value. In so doing it has rightly emphasized those interests, such as the cognitive and aesthetic interests, which are inherently most fit for harmony, and has endorsed those values of love and happiness which pervade and crown the good life.

The only good for which it is possible to claim preëminence is that harmony of all interests, which is the object of an all-benevolent will: a will which wills the fulfillment of all wills. Such a will would not only embrace all interests by inclusion, but would will the higher levels to which the several interests could rise, in terms of their own incommensurable standards.7 Both the object of such a will, and the will itself, are ideal, and represent the attempt to conceive an upper limit of value, or summum bonum, leaving open the question of its realization.

At this point an otherworldly and supernaturalistic religion, such as Christianity, is faced with a dilemma. The only definable summum bonum derives its higher value from its component interests, in all their particularity and diversity. But religion in its straining after an image of perfection attempts to transplant it to another realm in which the actual human interests are purged away. In excluding the natural and worldly, the good life is divested of content. At best it becomes a spectral, thin, and pallid reproduction; which is less, and not more, than the fullness of life on earth. For natural happiness is substituted a supernatural “felicity,” which is a diluted or merely metaphorical happiness. For profane love is substituted a sacred love, which is profane love divested of passion and intensity — divested, indeed, of that ecstasy, tenderness, and sense of union, which if man had not known it in the flesh he would never have imagined.

The best hours of the lives of the gods of Olympus were those which they spent on earth, intervening in the affairs of men. Plato's objections to this religion of Olympus would have been met had these hours been devoted to good works rather than to frivolous pastimes or abetting the ambitions of their favorites. In the fable of Aucassin and Nicolette hell is represented as more desirable than heaven, both for the company there to be enjoyed and for its promise of prolonging or reproducing the familiar delights of the present world. This was a not uncommon theme in the medieval age, when in his more relaxed moments the Christian compared the austerities of the supernatural with the concrete and proved values of the natural, the multiple vocations and enterprises of this world with the emptiness of the next.

The Christian imagination has been more successful in depicting the punishment of the damned than the rewards of the blessed, because the former is more realistic. Dante's Hell and Purgatory are more convincing than his Paradise. The pains of hell are allowed to reproduce the pains of earth, but the pleasures of heaven are so exalted above the pleasures of earth as to be meaningless. The imagination fails when asked to describe what the angels and saints do with the leisure which they enjoy throughout eternity. The treasures of heaven may be assumed to be rustless and incorruptible; but what are these treasures? There are mansions in heaven, but what does one do there? On what errands is one bent when one walks the “pavements of trodden gold”? The reunion with the loved ones who have gone before derives its value from the memories of earth. Love is an interest in the interests of the loved one; but what if the loved one has no interests? Happiness consists in the general auspiciousness of interests, and becomes empty in the absence of interests at stake and a hopefulness of outlook felt in their behalf.

Angels, saints, and the redeemed may join in the heavenly choir and otherwise participate in worship. They may contemplate beauty, and enjoy knowledge of the truth. These interests have a certain propriety in an unworldly and supernatural sphere. But waiving the question of their meaning when so transplanted, a life exclusively devoted to such activities would be incomparably less rich in values than the life of incarnate man in which they are supplemented by the adventures of terrestrial existence.

In short, a heaven in heaven has less to offer than a heaven on earth. There appears to be no loftier and more impelling vision of the good than the prolongation and progressive betterment of that life which is experienced and enjoyed here and now; that life of which human history may be taken to record the early chapters; and whether those who have died survive to participate in the later and culminating chapters or are succeeded by other generations of mankind.

Not only is the otherworldly and supernatural good an emasculated and diluted good, but its exaltation in esteem has the effect of depreciating the greater goods which lie near at hand. The supernatural, which offers less than the natural, deflects man's attention from the rich possibilities of nature; the otherworldly, which offers less than the worldly, deflects attention from the possibilities of this world. What, then, does it profit a man if he shall gain his soul, and lose the whole of nature and the world?

The ideal good of religion appears not only in conceptions of the state of the blessed, but in the attributes of the deity. Worship is a lavish praise of god — the imputing to its object of every perfection. Here again there appears the same dependence of the superhuman on the human, the celestial on the terrestrial. Not only are the attributes of god modeled on human attributes (“man has created god in his own image,” or by raising the human to a higher degree), but they appear to derive their meaning largely, if not wholly, from his dealings with men. The object of god's pleased contemplation at the beginning of Christian history was the creation which culminated in the creature. His love is his love of mankind.

Or, to avoid this preoccupation of god with the human scene — with man's creation and salvation — god is represented as preoccupied with himself. To exalt god above human affairs and to establish his self-sufficience he is said to will only his own “glory,” or to love only himself, or to know only his own being. But then it is proper to ask what it is that makes god “glorious,” if not his creation; and what it is that makes god lovable, if not his loving-kindness towards his own creatures; and in what consists god's being if it is divorced from the realm of natural and historical existence.

It is characteristic of lavish praise to bestow superlatives on its object regardless of their mutual consistency. God is both infinitely just, and infinitely loving; he both punishes and forgives; and the Christian theologian has never clearly reconciled the one with the other. God is a person, and yet he is denied those relations to a social and natural environment without which personality is meaningless. God is without flaw or blemish, and at the same time he is the all-powerful and all-creative author of a world in which evil abounds.


The second part of the final critique of religion concerns its claim to metaphysical or cosmological truth. The object of religious belief is an object of hope or fear; and hope and fear imply not only something hoped and feared for, but also something hoped and feared from. These attitudes contain, at least implicitly, a judgment of causal existence; this judgment claims to be true; and religion is thus on this score either true or erroneous, supported or unsupported by evidence. When religion is condemned as “superstitious,” “anthropomorphic,” “dogmatic,” or as the product of “wishful thinking,” the reference is not to its ideal of the good, but to its beliefs concerning the actual powers conceived as friendly or hostile to this good. Insofar as science tends to be suspicious of religion in general it is on the ground that its judgments of natural causes are likely to be erroneous, or at least unwarranted.

The present question is not the question of god's being, for god undoubtedly is, in some sense of that term, even if it be only as a fictitious character; nor is it the question of god's logical existence, for the class of gods is not a null class; it is the question of god's causal existence — his entering into that same spatio-temporal-causal nexus which embraces the events and actions of human history. An eternal, non-spatial, and ineffective god will not suffice.

The religion of Baal was doubly condemned by the Hebrew prophets: because Baal was a wicked god — a god of stealing, lying, and adultery; but also because he did not answer when he was called upon. “Cry aloud,” said Elijah, “for he is a god; either he is talking, or he is pursuing, or he is in a journey, or peradventure he sleepeth, and must be awaked.” The true Lord God, on the other hand, was both a god of righteousness and a god who when called upon, could cause a fire to burn upon the altar.8

In order to determine the values which are involved in this cosmological critique, we may suppose that the requirements of the first critique are met, so that god is equated with optimum good. There are then three questions which may be raised concerning the causal existence of such a god: Is it good that it should exist? Is it good that it should be truly known to exist? Is it good that it should be believed to exist, whether or not the belief is true?

The answer to the first of these questions is self-evident. The ideal good would acquire confirmation and continuity through being the object of god's unfaltering will as well as of the wavering and intermittent will of man; and god's power would so ally itself with man's aspirations as to assure their success or at least render it more probable.

Such de facto alliance of cosmic powers with the ideal good would not in itself constitute religion: for religion, man must know about it. The second question, then, is whether such knowledge is good. The answer to this question is debatable. Such knowledge, like all knowledge, would yield cognitive value: it would satisfy man's curiosity and love of truth. Furthermore, if god is a potent ally it is practically useful to man to know the fact, in order that he may coöperate with god consciously and methodically; as the soldier in the ranks conforms himself to the strategy of the general in command, both seeking the same victory. But assuming that god's power guarantees the successful pursuit of man's ideals, it may be argued that it is better for man not to know it, for he may then be disposed to relax his efforts. Even assuming that the victory depends on human effort, it may be argued that the maximum of such effort is induced by some proportion of knowledge and ignorance which will generate confidence and at the same time avoid overconfidence and irresponsibility.

These values of god's existence, and of man's true knowledge of god's existence are to be distinguished from the value of believing in god's existence, whether the belief be true or erroneous. Erroneous belief does not satisfy the cognitive interest, nor is it practically useful, since it does not enable the believer to link his own action with his causal environment. It grinds no corn. But there is a subjective value even of erroneous belief. It creates a certain inner stability and peace of mind. And even when the belief is known to be erroneous or is merely “entertained,” it may possess aesthetic and symbolic values. The image of god may be enjoyed in contemplation, or it may give concreteness and vividness to the ideal of the good, and thus intensify the believer's aspiration. Between belief and contemplation there is commonly a borderland, or an oscillation between letter and symbol — a half-believing and half-disbelieving, or a believing by the naïve rank and file, combined with a sophisticated disbelieving among the augurs.


The so-called “proofs of god” concern the second and not the first of the internal and final critiques of religion. That which they attempt to prove is not the goodness of god, but the existence of a being dedicated to the good and working effectually for its triumph.

Until a comparatively recent period European Christendom has been so generally convinced of the existence of its God as to ask no proof, or to accept with little critical resistance certain ready-made proofs offered by the philosophers. “Theism” was a science or subject, rather than a doctrine: a subject embracing and formulating with variations a set of supposedly demonstrable theorems, known as “the cosmological proof,” “the teleological proof” or “argument from design,” and “the ontological proof.” Beginning with the generalization of Newtonian mechanics, followed at the close of the eighteenth century by devastating refutations by Hume and Kant, this theistic corpus has been steadily undermined until at the present time theism assumes the form of a disputed theory leaning heavily on dogma, mysticism, and faith.9

A proof of god is not a proof of the Christian God, unless the being whose existence is proved, is both supreme and good. To prove that there is a “first cause,” or an “infinite substance,” even if such proofs were possible, would not prove that such a ground of existence was favorably disposed to the good, and was therefore a proper object of worship. Hence the crucial point in the traditional arguments for god is the supposed necessary connection between existence and value. This connection is the core of the ontological argument, which deduces God's existence from his perfection, and which loses its force when ‘existence’ is defined independently of ‘value.’ Similarly, the cosmological argument, or argument for a First Cause, argues for a god of religion only provided the first cause is tied to goodness. If the ontological argument fails to establish this connection, the only remaining possibility is the teleological argument, or argument from design; in which the first cause is judged by its works to be intelligent and benevolent. This argument is doubleedged; for if there are evidences of benevolent design, there are also evidences of purposelessness or of sinister design. This objection has been steadily reinforced by man's growing doubts of the beneficence of nature, and his growing suspicion of his own tendency to see nature as good or bad as suits his bias or his mood.

The argument from design has the merit of being an empirical argument. There are other empirical arguments. A personal god who answers prayer may be considered as a hypothesis, verified by the answer to prayer. This was the proof to which Elijah appealed when he engaged in an experimental test with the prophets of Baal. In more refined forms this is still the most convincing proof, to pious Christians of all persuasions, and to non-Christian theists who call upon god for guidance or peace of mind. It is the sort of proof which in evangelical Christianity is offered by experiences of conversion.

Such an empirical hypothesis is not to be rejected in advance. It violates no law of logic or of science. If a man feels better and does better for praying, and imputes this effect to a superhuman agency having the usual attributes of deity, there is room enough in the domain of doubt and ignorance to permit of his judgments being true. The objection is that the hypothesis is not clearly defined, and the evidence is therefore inconclusive; the experiment is not a “controlled experiment.” The verdict of the critic is: “Not proved, not disproved”; “improbable, but possible.”

It is urged against the experimental proof of god that “the varieties of religious experience” require no theistic hypothesis, but can be explained in terms of abnormal and social psychology. There remains, however, a further possibility, which is to substitute the idea of an immanent, for the idea of a transcendent, god; and for the idea of a supernatural and otherworldly god, the idea of a natural and worldly god. God can then be identified with man's moral and spiritual history. There is an ideal of harmonious happiness which is pursued, and sometimes realized, by human wills. This ideal is an actual force; implemented by the technologies of the sciences, it organizes persons, societies, and civilizations.

It is true that the work of this will is attended with failures and is bounded on all sides by narrow limits; but it has its successes, and it has its dream of a perfected life of humanity. The most modest of theistic claims would build on this slender, but indisputable, fact. It would employ the name ‘god’ for the good will and aspiration to perfection which here and there, now and then, fugitively and precariously, have emerged from the flux of existence.

It is true that the bare recognition of these facts would not merit the name of religion. Human aspiration could not provide an object of worship unless accompanied by a belief in its long-run prepotency among the forces of the cosmos. It would be necessary to suppose that the known vicissitudes of human fortune were but chapters in a longer story, scenes in a larger drama. The gap between the accredited facts and such a religious claim would have to be filled by other sources of belief. But its borrowings from dogma, mysticism, and faith would be less extensive than those required for supernatural and otherworldly religions.

The belief in “life after death” is a proper sequel, both logical and psychological, to the belief in god. Death affords the most vivid and palpable evidence of man's dependence, and the dependence of all he holds dear, upon forces beyond his control. The extinction of persons implies the extinction of the goods with which the interests and aspirations of persons invest their objects; it is a defeat, or at least a momentary defeat, of value at its source. It contradicts not only the interest of self-preservation, but every interest. Interested living of every kind, and on every level, projects itself into the future; death, in cutting off the person's future, stifles even his present activity. To die in full stride is to step off into an abyss. Aversion to death argues the liveliness of present interests, indifference to death implies present apathy. It is consistent then, with the motive of religion that it should look for some more hopeful prospect.10

While it is natural that the individual should identify the realization of the object of his interest with his own consummatory act — an occasion for his own dealings — this is not necessary. He may conceive the realization of the good as occurring in his merely imaginary presence, the interest being carried forward through later time by a succession of persons. His own immortality would then consist in the continuing effects of his present life. What he has himself achieved would remain as a contribution to the progressive achievement of posterity. As for his own future, he would hope, at best, to be an object of grateful memory, not a participant. He would be obliged to resign himself to being numbered among those fallen in early battles, leaving to others the later victories.

The traditional arguments for immortality have been divided on the question of the relation of soul and body. The arguments inherited from antiquity (including those set forth in Plato's Phaedo) have conceived of the soul as literally “immortal” because of belonging to a non-spatial, non-temporal realm beyond the reach of natural causes. Only that which arises from natural causes can perish from natural causes. The body can die, but its death is only a release to the soul, of which the body is the temporary and alien abode. The price paid for this proud claim is evident. The soul which cannot die can never have lived — never, that is, have interacted with a natural environment. Its invulnerability implies its impotence.

The Christian teaching, on the other hand, despite its frequent lapses into Platonism,11 has recognized soul and body as inseparable parts of the integral man; and in so doing, it has conformed to naïve belief and the religious imagination, while at the same time it has anticipated the most advanced views of modern psychology. For immortality Christianity substitutes “resurrection,” and even the bold affirmation of “resurrection of the body.” Man is mortal: death is a tragic fact. The hope is that having died the individual may be revived: if not in his present body then in some other body, which will assure his continued membership in the space-time-causal nexus of existence. Christ is the incarnate god, and the resurrection of Christ symbolizes the belief that what dies can live again — live in the very sense of that term which makes the loss of life so profoundly regrettable. This is a hard doctrine, which, in the Christian teaching, relies on faith, dogma, and authority.

Immortality in this sense has been defended empirically by a form of inquiry known as “psychical research.” This scientific spiritism, with its ghosts, its mediums, its automatic writing, its apparitions, its telepathy, clairvoyance, and communications from the dead, remains inconclusive. It is not disproved, and the door to its truth is not closed, but as yet it has not even achieved scientific respectability. Orthodox psychology does not accept its explanations, but explains them away.

Some empirical support for the idea of resurrection is to be derived from the abandonment of the older materialistic conception of the body. The physical organism serves the mind not as an identical aggregate of matter, but as an instrument of memory, disposition, space-time orientation, action, and choice. Personal identity is not an identity of substance, but an identity of content selected and organized by interest. So conceived a particular body is expendable; it is conceivable that another body could do its work. But so slim is the empirical evidence in support of life after death that even Christian belief hesitates to rely on it. Even the testimony of eyewitnesses to the resurrection of Christ is less trusted than dogma, authority, and faith.


The famous “problem of evil” is the lion in the path of religious thought. It is the old problem of Job, which has perpetually tortured the minds of those who have reflected upon the implications of piety. The problem is a by-product of the effort of religious belief to establish an equation between the ideal and the existent; or to reconcile the deity's cosmic control with his imperfection. There is a prima facie irreconcilability. God conceived as perfection reflects man's experience of imperfection. Practicing and suffering injustice, man dreams of perfect justice; being both hateful and the victim of hate, he dreams of utter and universal love; being ignorant, he conceives of omniscience; amidst the ugliness and drabness of life, he fancies a perfection of beauty; from his unhappiness there springs a vision of perfect and uninterrupted bliss. God being so conceived in contrast to the facts of life, the pious believer then endows him with a limitless power to achieve what he wills. But if there is no obstacle which god cannot overcome, why, then, does he not only allow imperfection, but bring it to pass?

The contradiction is inescapable unless one of the terms of the equation is altered. Something has to give way. Either the idea of the good has to be amended to suit the requirements of existence, or the idea of existence has to be amended to suit the requirements of the good. Both of these alternatives violate the evidence, or reinstate the problem in new terms.

A Spanish poet has described two false or one-sided paradises, the paradise of light and the paradise of darkness. The “total flavor” of life is to be found only in their mixture:

When, cast on the rocks

of sin which is living, loving each other,

we must fight the fight which it behooves them

to fight who lose a paradise of light,

or a paradise of darkness,

to find another Eden, where lights

and shadows cross, and where lips

which meet to kiss shall in the end discover

that terrible roundness of the world.12

In other words, he who knows life will recognize that evil is as much of its essence as good. There is no silver lining without the cloud. Evil is the invariable companion of good: no evil, no good. It is a part of religion as well as of poetry to achieve this insight and to communicate it to mankind. But this statement, true as it is, does not solve the problem of evil. Evil is no less evil for being a fact — even a necessary fact. The good-cum-evil character of the existent world simply disproves the thesis which gives rise to the problem, the thesis, namely, that to exist is to be good.

It may be argued, however, that evil is necessary to good, or is a part of its very meaning; so that an all-powerful will devoted to goodness would, by implication, will the evil as its constituent. The argument takes various forms. Thus it is argued, and it is true, that for every good there is a definable evil: for positive interest, negative interest; for success, failure; for pleasure, pain; for truth, error; for righteousness, sin. In other words, there can be no good without the abstract possibility of evil. But it does not follow that the evil possibility need be realized. An all-powerful will to goodness would be able to take the good, and escape the evil.

Less sweeping, and more plausible, is the contention that there are certain specific kinds of goods which require evil. Thus it was held by the Stoics that “pain is no evil,” since fortitude is good, and fortitude requires that there shall be pain to be endured. Or, it may be held that obstacles are no evil, since the good lies not in the success but in the struggle. Similarly, it may be held that sin is no evil, since it is required for the goods of repentance and justice; and the villain is not evil since his villainy is required for the good of tragedy or melodrama.

But all such solutions imply that suffering, frustration, and wickedness are evil on some level of value. The higher definition of value on which they cease to be evil assumes that they are evil on the lower level. The alleged solution defines what it is good to do with evil, granted that it occurs, and that it is evil. Granted that suffering is evil, it is practically good that it should be relieved or endured. Granted that frustration is evil, it is practically good to overcome it. Granted that sin is evil, it is practically good that it should be repented or punished. Granted that the villain is evil, it is aesthetically good to see his dramatic relation to the hero or to circumstance. Granted that evil of any kind exists, it is cognitively good to understand it. In short, evil being given, there are various ways by which to make the best of it, and these ways constitute an important part of the art of the good life — the art of doing as well as possible, the evils of life being recognized for what they are.

Even were lower evils explained away in terms of higher goods, there would still be no solution of the problem of evil in general, because to each new good there would be a corresponding evil. While its terms are changed the problem remains precisely where it was before. When it is held that pain is no evil provided it is uncomplainingly endured, complaint becomes evil, and testifies to the fact that the forces of good are not in complete command. Indeed, the new evil is more common than the old, and the corresponding good more rare. Fortitude is rarer than pleasure, overcoming obstacles is rarer than their absence, repentance and just punishment are rarer than innocence, heroism than the detached aesthetic appreciation of villainy, and the facts of good than the understanding of evil. In short, when judged by standards of higher good in order to find an excuse for lower evil, the total picture grows blacker, and less, not more, consistent with the hypothesis that perfection is omnipotent.13

An even more desperate attempt to solve the problem of evil is that which would deny not the evil of evil, but the facts of evil. Thus one may admit that suffering would be evil, but simply deny that it occurs. It seems to occur, but its seeming is an illusion; or, as the Christian Scientists would have it, an “error of mortal mind.” The difficulties which this view encounters are so evident and insurmountable that it is impossible to explain how men have come to hold it at all, except as the last resort of wishful thinking. It not only refuses to accept the empirical evidence for evil, but lightly disregards a new problem which it has substituted for the old: the problem, namely, of accounting for illusory appearances.

The attempt to solve the problem of evil has led men either to a denial of the facts of existence, or to a perpetual shifting of their conceptions of value. The abandonment of the attempt leaves the situation where empirical knowledge finds it. There is evil as well as good in the world, and the outcome of the issue between them is left to the will implemented by intelligence. How far this undertaking may properly be attended with hope is the question of optimism and pessimism.


‘Optimism’ and ‘pessimism’ are the names given to attitudes of hopefulness or hopelessness regarding the future — hoping the best, fearing the worst. Insofar as the first of these attitudes takes account of human interests on the whole in the light of the total or major forces of the environment, it coincides with religion. There is empirical evidence supporting both attitudes — there are grounds for hopefulness and grounds for hopelessness.

Pessimism focuses attention on negative interests, and on the failure of positive interests. It finds abundant evidence of the brutal indifference of nature, of human depravity, of cruelty, greed, war, and disease; and harps on the immense gap between man's professions and his actions, his ideals and his achievements. There is a wholesale pessimism which consists in being so obsessed with evil as to recognize no good save its avoidance. It is against this pessimism that André Gide has protested:

Doctrine of sin: being capable of all evil and committing none; that is the definition of good. I do not like this merely negative exercise of the will. I prefer that blindness to evil should result from being dazzled by the good; otherwise virtue is ignorance — poverty.14

Pessimism of this negative type is sometimes taken as the premise of supernaturalism; the utter illusoriness and vanity of the values of this existent world being taken as the point of departure for some other world, which, however, possesses no predictable good except the absence of the evil of this.

Optimism, like pessimism, is based upon selection, a seeing of the silver linings rather than the clouds. Here, too, the evidence abounds. There is an auspiciousness as well as an inauspiciousness of things. There is good to dazzle the eye, and which may blind it to the perception of evil. The facts of existence lend themselves not only to a morbid preoccupation with evil, but to a sentimental or incorrigibly cheerful preoccupation with good. Which of these attitudes a man will take may reflect his temperament, his personal fortunes, and even the momentary state of his digestion. These extremes and oscillations of attitude testify to the ambivalence of life. Each, in its turn, is a one-sided distortion: there is a fallacy of “eulogism,” which is to see only the good; and there is a fallacy of “dyslogism,” which is to see only the evil.

An enlightened and candid reading of nature and history warrants neither a complete optimism nor a complete pessimism. There is a third possibility which is neither the one nor the other, nor a mere mixture or alternation of the two. This third possibility, which is closest to the attitude of common sense, combines acknowledgment of past and present evil with a hopeful resolve to achieve a better future. The name of this third religious attitude is ‘meliorism.’

There is no conclusive empirical evidence that “all is for the best.” The most that can reasonably be expected of the individual, and all that he needs to ask of himself in order to enjoy self-respect and the respect of others, is that he shall contribute his portion of intelligence and effort to the cause of the good; that, through taking account of circumstances and profiting by their plasticity, and allying himself with the like-minded, he shall make himself “count” for something on the side of “righteousness.” Theory of value does not assure him of victory, but it guides him in his choice of the banner under which he will serve. To pessimists this is optimism — it claims too much; to optimists it is pessimism — it claims too little.

Pessimism is sometimes described as a sense of the “meaninglessness” of life. This was the pessimism of Tolstoy:

“Without knowing what I am and why I am here, life's impossible; and that I can't know, and so I can't live,” Levin said to himself. “In infinite time, in infinite matter, in infinite space, is formed a bubble-organism, and that bubble lasts a while and bursts, and that bubble is Me.”15

But Tolstoy himself had a better answer. To give meaning to life, it is not necessary to deny that man is a part of the natural world from which he emerges. The human individual ceases to be a mere “transitory bubble” when he participates in a total life of mankind conceived as dedicated to the on-going cause of good.

Meliorism is not an “easy” optimism, as the pessimist charges. It does not change its allegiance in order to be on the winning side. It does not fortify itself in an ivory tower; choosing only aesthetic or cognitive goods because they are safe, and abandoning the moral and social goods because they are exposed to mortal vicissitudes. It gives hostages to fortune, and determines to retrieve them.

A religion of meliorism is not guilty of ignoring or underrating evil; or of failing to see how ineradicable it is. Quite the contrary. All triumphs of the will are attended by the risk of failure, as all cognitive judgments are attended by the risk of error. There is no infallibility in either sphere. Man's fallibility does not demean him, but raises him to the level of a seeker for truth and a pursuer of good. Indeed, a divine being who could not fail or err would cease to be a voluntary or cognitive being.

Meliorism, then, does not choose the easy way: indeed, it denies that there is any easy way — any short cut, or detour, or patent remedy; and it chooses the hard way. It cherishes no illusions of a hollow or predetermined victory. It is aware of the possibility of failure. It accepts every evidence of the indifference of nature, of the baseness of human nature, and of the corruption of society. It chooses the hard way with its eyes open. It takes the bad news with the good; but it does not on that account surrender or leave the field of action. It summons courage to overcome discouragement.


Even meliorism, modest as it is as compared with the more exuberant religious optimisms, creates a gap between what is hoped for and what is proved. There are three ways by which religion endeavors to close this gap: by dogma, by mysticism, and by faith. All of these resorts of the mind are ways of reconciling religious intoxication with cognitive sobriety — ways of transcending the bounds of ordinary knowledge by taking extraordinary measures.

Religious dogma is religious belief accepted on authority. The weakness of dogmatism lies in the fact that the authority by which the dogma is justified has itself to be justified. One authority can be justified by another through a hierarchy of authorities, but in the end some highest authority, be it the church or the “revealed word of God,” has to be justified on other than authoritarian grounds. There are two ways in which an authority can be justified: either by trust, which is equivalent to accepting it without justification; or by proving it trustworthy. An authority is deemed trustworthy, when there is reason to believe that its utterances are true; but then the authority is tested by the dogma, and not the dogma by the authority, and the dogma, having been proved true, is no longer a dogma.

The mystic claims to find god in a vision which transcends concepts and percepts, and which is therefore indescribable and incommunicable. But then he has no intellectual right to give the object of his vision the name of ‘god,’ if that name is taken to mean perfection and existence, as these are conceived or perceived. If, on the other hand, he claims to use words only ostensively, that is, to direct the vision of others to the object of his own, he cannot be said to have succeeded. There is no reason to suppose that even mystics, who should be peculiarly responsive to such directions, have the same vision; while non-mystics, with the best will in the world, do not succeed in having any vision at all.

The only accredited fact in the area of mysticism is the existence of a class of states vaguely described as “exaltation” and “rapture” accompanied by a “sense of union.” No belittling of these states is here intended. They give flesh and blood to the otherwise desiccated mummy of theological doctrine. But the existence of such states does not imply the existence of beings having the characteristics which the mystic imputes to his visionary object. His claims are unverified and unconfirmed; the mystic, like the dogmatist and authoritarian, must in the last analysis resort to faith. This is the last refuge of religious belief, but it is not on that account a vain or illegitimate refuge.

Faith is not a mere wantonness or caprice of believing — believing with no control save the impulse of the moment. It is doubly controlled: by the requirement that it shall reinforce aspiration and sustained effort; and by the requirement that it shall incorporate, and be consistent with, the knowledge which it exceeds. Faith is not to be identified with a primitive mentality below reason, or with a superhuman mentality above reason. It has its peculiar content, and it has its own peculiar justification. In this specific and justifiable sense, faith is belief, beyond the limits of theoretical proof, in the realization of interests which are still on trial; it is justified by the psychological fact that belief in success is favorable to success.

If cognition is to serve interests it must assume the form of decision. The time of the decision is dictated by the exigencies of action: interest has a deadline to be met, and cannot wait for the leisurely and protracted processes of inquiry and proof. It is necessary to believe prematurely in order to act expeditiously. Faith is theoretical doubt overruled by practical urgency.

Religious faith is a special case of such precipitate belief. Belief in the long range survival and ascendancy of values in the world of existence does not permit of conclusive proof within the life span of the individual. But if his thought concerning the cosmic destiny of value is to serve as a guide and incentive to his action — if he is to “live by it” — he must resolve his doubts and come to a conclusion. If he is to profit by what his mind has to offer on this crucial question he must make up his mind, and there is little time. Since death may come tomorrow, the time for decision is today. The prolongation of doubt is itself a sort of decision — even if it be no more than a rejection of recognized alternatives. The man who cannot make up his mind whom to marry, has, in effect, decided to remain a bachelor.16

The religious faith here justified is not an indeterminate belief. The several terms employed — ‘value,’ ‘accredited knowledge,’ and ‘existence’ — are given meanings consistent with the definition of value in terms of interest, and with the general philosophical position of neutralism, realism, empiricism, naturalism, libertarianism, temporalism, and pluralism.

Faith is not a mere absence of knowledge. The faith which is not proved is the appropriate sequel to the knowledge which is proved: it is, loosely speaking, “more of the same.” Faith is an extension beyond knowledge. From knowledge faith learns where and how to look, the unknown — the not impossible — takes its cue from the actually known.

Faith, therefore, is not blind. It does not ignore theoretical evidence; it does not fly in the face of the facts or turn its back on them. There can be no justification of belief which is contrary to the evidence. Faith is a belief which agrees with the evidence so far as the evidence goes, but goes further. It lacks proof, but it may nevertheless be true and certain; for, as has been seen, neither truth nor certainty depends on proof.

Faith is not justified by the failure of knowledge, but by its only partial success. There is no hopefulness to be extracted from a general discrediting of science, but only by extending its credit. Faith does, nevertheless, profit by the limits of science. The most remarkable feature of modern science is not this or that specific discovery, but the rapidity and surprisingness of its advance. It would be a strategic mistake to build human hopes irretrievably on the latest findings of physics, biology, and astronomy, for these may soon prove obsolete. There is a broader and more permanent ground of hope in this very fact of obsolescence; for it is this which removes barriers, and extends the horizons of possibility. Science perpetually withdraws its own negations; is, indeed, increasingly chary of committing itself to negations. Its sentences of doom are so rapidly reversed that it has abandoned its role of chief executioner of human hopes.

Science no longer sounds a note of finality, but rather a note of emancipation and of imaginative inventiveness. All of its findings are open to revision; its latest word is never its last word. It grows by outgrowing; and this change occurs so rapidly that before men can unpack their belongings and begin to occupy the premises a new cosmos has been unfolded to view. The layman, plodding behind the scientist, and falling more and more behind, can gather little but a bewildered and exciting impression that nothing is any longer impossible.

Limited horizons are enclosed within successively broader horizons until it has become reasonable to expect that all boundaries are movable and that what seems to be a whole will prove to be only a part. The wave may be discovered to be only a ripple on the back of some bigger wave. Magnitudes of space and time have so increased as to make familiar systems of measurement meaningless. Macrocosms become microcosms and microcosms become macrocosms. The human scale is completely eclipsed. The old immensities have become diminutive. Similarly, the old diminutives have become immensities: the atom takes on the aspect of a galaxy. The humanly visible and audible proves to be merely a segment of qualitative differences. A matter that excluded mind, an inorganic that excluded life, a mechanism that excluded purpose, a dissipation of energy that excluded the building of new energies, an exhaustion of resources that excluded discovery of new resources, irreversible trends, an ultimate chemical alphabet of elements and an ultimate biological alphabet of species — all these old rigidities have passed away.

It is true that nature is a much less cozy abode than it was once taken to be. Even the Copernican-Newtonian world which once seemed of terrifying proportions, now wears the aspect of a Dutch interior. Nature is no longer a room or even a house, but it is all outdoors. But by the same token it is no longer a prison; there is occasion, perhaps, for agoraphobia, but not for claustrophobia. The cumulative effect of all these changes is that nature, not the idealized “Nature” of an obsolete metaphysics, but nature as it comes from physics and its sister sciences, presents an aspect of openness. It no longer wears that uncompromisingly forbidding aspect which has driven man to seek his fortunes elsewhere.

The human mind abhors a vacuum of ignorance, and fills it with the works of the imagination. There is no principle of logic or of practice which forbids man to extract what good he can from his ignorance; or which requires him to think of what he does not know as less auspicious than what he knows; or compels him, when he dreams to dream only nightmares. Nor is there any duty which forbids man to accept his good dreams as true, provided they do not conflict with his waking knowledge.


Religion as here defined and justified is that religion which springs from the situation which confronts all mankind — that religion in general, which gives a common meaning to all particular religions. It is that “natural religion,” which is rooted in natural existence; which exists in a natural environment; which requires no human faculties save man's natural faculties; and no revelation, save empirical knowledge and a recognition of its limits. This is the religion which men would acquire if they were to start again, deprived of every inherited religious establishment.

There is religion, and there are religions. The relation of universal religion to particular religions has its parallels in every domain of human life. Every human institution has its generality and its particularity. There is a richness of value in personal friendship and love, in companionship, collaboration, shared experience and memories, historic nationality, community of culture and language, neighborhood, of which the wider and more abstract relationships provide no equivalent. Similarly, there is a fullness of religious life which is realized only among those who are united by particular creeds and forms of worship, and by membership in an historic church; no religion of all mankind, or cross section of religions, could compensate for its loss.

But there is an even greater loss in a sectarian exclusiveness in which particular religions learn nothing from one another, and are infused with no sense of their common mission. There is such a common mission, which is to make men aware of their common stake in the presence of their common environment. It is appropriate to an age in which all mankind, for better or for worse, has acquired a new interdependence, that this new state of human affairs should find expression, not merely in a recognized and tolerated coexistence of many religions but in a common religion. This common religion would not supersede particular religions, but make them members of one religious family.

There is a ship on which all men are embarked, and which is launched upon the high seas of existence laden with all their painfully acquired treasure. Religion in general speaks for this perilous but hopeful voyage. It declares that this community of interest in interests makes all men, otherwise differently interested, partners in the great enterprise of replacing evil with good and good with better, so as to achieve the best possible. It is the office of religion in general, and of every religion in particular, to proclaim this proud purpose and to hearten men in its pursuit.

  • 1.

    “Fate,” Complete Works, 1904, Vol. VI, p. 6.

  • 2.

    New York Times, Nov. 17, 1946.

  • 3.

    For a fuller discussion of the relation of morality and moral institutions to the religious sanction, cf. the Author's “Catholicism and Modern Liberalism,” Proceedings of the American Catholic Philosophical Association, 19 (1943).

  • 4.

    For a convenient summary of American judicial decisions on this question, cf. G. H. Haight and C. H. Lerch, “Freedom and Religion,” Bill of Rights Review, 2 (1942), pp. 111–18.

  • 5.

    Cf. A. Scott, “The Legality of Atheism,” Harvard Law Review, 31 (1917–18). There is still a Massachusetts law against blasphemy, but it has become a dead letter; cf. Z. Chafee, The Inquiring Mind, 1928, pp. 108 ff. It is to be noted that a recent decision of the Supreme Court has expressed an unwillingness to allow a moving picture to be banned on the score of “sacrilege.”

  • 6.

    Cf. the reply of Rev. J. J. Ryan, M. M., to G. Salvemini, New Republic, Sept. 20, 1943. It is to be noted, however, that this writer makes the following somewhat astonishing statement: “If the human person be not infused and endowed with a spiritual and immortal soul he has no more moral dignity nor intrinsic worth than a horse, a cow or an elephant,” p. 396.

  • 7.

    Cf. the Author's General Theory of Value, 1926, 1950, ch. xxi, xxii.

  • 8.

    Jeremiah, 7:9; I Kings, 18:27.

  • 9.

    The general philosophical position outlined in the previous chapter — neutralism, realism, empiricism, naturalism, temporalism, and pluralism — excludes by implication the traditional a priori proofs of God.

  • 10.

    Cf. the Author's The Hope of Immortality, 1945, originally published under the title of “The Meaning of Death,” Hibhert Journal, 33 (1935).

  • 11.

    For a clear and fully documented presentation of the Christian view, cf. G. Florovsky, “The Resurrection of Life,” Ingersoll Lecture for 1950–51, Harvard University Official Register, 49 (1952).

  • 12.

    P. Salinas, “Truth of Two,” in Contemporary Spanish Poetry, trans, by E. L. Turnbull and P. Salinas, 1945, pp. 109–113.

  • 13.

    It is to be noted that the Calvinists who have denied all evils save sin have painted the blackest picture of all.

  • 14.

    Journals, Vol. I, 1948, p. 71.

  • 15.

    Anna Karenina, trans, by C. Garnett, Modern Library edition, p. 917.

  • 16.

    The classic discussion of this theme is William James's famous essay, “The Will to Believe,” published in the volume bearing that title, 1898; and in his Essays on Faith and Morals, 1943. Cf. also the Author's In the Spirit of William James, 1938, ch. v.

From the book: