The following essay was first published in Spencer’s essay collection Facts and Comments (New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1902), pp. 280–87. It appeared in the November/December 2011 edition of The American Rationalist.
To one who has relinquished the creed of his fathers there comes from time to time the question—What shall I say to those who believe as of old? To answer is difficult, since the reasons for and against this or that line of conduct are many and variable. Of course sincerity must be the dominant guide; but sincerity has sundry forms. There is an aggressive sincerity which seizes every occasion for trying to change others’ views. There is a sincerity, less aggressive, which is ready to discuss, and to utter adverse beliefs candidly. There is a sincerity which enters with reluctance into arguments that disclose changed convictions. And there is a sincerity which is silent and even shuns the utterance of opinions at variance with those that are current. What attitude to take under these or those conditions is often a query not to be answered in a satisfactory way.
In many cases the Agnostic is misled by the assumption that a secular creed may with advantage forthwith replace the creed distinguished as sacred. That right guidance may be furnished by a system of natural ethics, is a belief usually followed by the corollary that it needs only to develop such a system and the required self-control will result. But calm contemplation of men’s natures and doings dissipates this corollary. It assumes a general intelligence capable of seeing the beneficial outcome of certain modes of conduct currently recognized as right, and the evil outcome of opposite modes of conduct; and it assumes that, having perceived the good results of this kind and the bad results of that kind, men will adopt the one and reject the other. But neither assumption is true. The average intellect can not grasp a demonstration, even when the matter is concrete, and still less when the matter is abstract. It cannot bear in mind the successive propositions but collapses under the weight of them before reaching the conclusion. Dogmatic teaching is alone effective with such, and even this often fails. The dogma “Honesty is the best policy,” is commonly inoperative on the thief, since he always expects to escape detection. Further, the hope that average men may be swayed by the contemplation of advantage to society is utterly utopian. In the minds of those who form the slum-population and most of those immediately above them, will arise the thought—“I don’t care a damn for society.” And at the other end of the social scale, among those whose lives alternate between club-rooms and game-preserves, there will arise, if not so coarsely expressed a thought, yet the thought—“Society as it is, serves my purpose very well, and that’s enough for me.” Ethical teaching, however conclusive, has no effect on natures which have made little approach towards harmony with it. Only the few who are in a measure organically moral, will benefit by its injunctions; reinforcing those beliefs which their conduct ordinarily betrays. Thus the Agnostic who thinks he can provide forthwith adequate guidance by setting forth a natural code of right conduct, duly illustrated, is under an illusion. By all means let us have a tracing down of morals to the laws of life, individual and social, and a continual emphasizing of the truths reached; but it must go along with the understanding that only as the discipline of a peaceful social life slowly remoulds men’s natures, will appreciable effects be produced.
“Surely this amounts to saying that the old creed should be left in possession? Surely if the truths of natural ethics will, for the present at least, be uninfluential, those equivalent truths which have a religious sanction should be perpetually preached? Surely it is wrong to shake confidence in a theology which now exercises control over men?” The reply is that unfortunately the religious creed appears to be scarcely more operative than the ethical creed would be. It needs but to glance over the world and contemplate the doings of Christians everywhere, to be amazed at the ineffectiveness of the current theology. Or it needs only to look back over past centuries at the iniquities alike of populace, nobles, kings, and popes, to perceive an almost incomprehensible futility of the beliefs everywhere held and perpetually insisted upon: horrors like those which Dante described notwithstanding. If this lack of results be ascribed to the sale of indulgences and the assumed priestly power of absolution, then a glance at the condition of England after Protestantism had been established, proves that where such perverting influences were inoperative, the fear of hell and the hope of heaven influenced men’s actions in an incredibly small degree. These threats and promises of punishments and rewards, appear in most cases to have done little more to guide men’s conduct than would be done by a series of propositions showing that moral conduct is, in the end, beneficial alike individually and socially. Something rudely analogous to the law in the physical world that attraction varies inversely as the square of the distance, seems to hold in the moral world; so that proximate pleasures and pains, even trifling, influence actions more than immeasurably greater pleasures and pains that are remote. In a small way we see this in the conduct of the toper, who yields to the promise of instant gratification from more drink, notwithstanding the prospect of to-morrow’s headache and sickness joined with domestic dissension and public discredit. Distant evils must be vividly represented before they can counter-balance enjoyments that are immediate; and in most people the representative faculty is feeble. Here and there are some of superior natures on whom the religious sanctions and reprobations so far reinforce natural promptings as to have beneficial effects. But if we recall the transgressions of adulterating tradesmen, bribed agents, dishonest lawyers, corrupt financiers, &c., we see that the alternative prospects of eternal torture and eternal bliss sway them but little. So that ill-grounded as may be the Agnostic’s hope that a system of natural ethics will at once yield good guidance, it must not be inferred that endeavours to substitute such a system for the supernatural system with its penalties and rewards, will injure the average of men—may indeed benefit them, by showing the agreement between the naturally derived sanctions and most of those supposed to be supernaturally derived.
Moreover there are cases presenting to the Agnostic positive reasons for expressing his changed beliefs. For while on the great mass of people the current creed appears to be beneficially operative to a very small degree if at all, there are not a few on whom it is disastrously operative, causing by its threats great misery. To some who are sensitive and have active imaginations the prospect of eternal torture comes home with terrible effect. Numbers of them continue throughout life to be troubled about their future fates; and in old age, when flagging vitality brings more or less mental depression, this depression takes the shape of fears concerning endless punishment to be presently borne. In past times, when “the wrath to come” was more strongly emphasized than now, horrible conceptions must have brought wretchedness to not a few; and even at present the credulous to whom there is given some work like one I have in hand, Hell opened to Christians, giving, along with its denunciations, vivid representations of various tortures, are sure to have days and nights filled with ideas of sufferings without end. To all such the man who has rejected this dreadful creed may fitly give reasons for doing the like: pointing out the blasphemy of supposing that the Power manifested in fifty million suns with their attendant worlds, has a nature which in a human being we should shrink from with horror.
On the other hand we meet with those who, more fortunately dispositioned, dwell rather upon the promised future happiness; and, by the hope of it, are consoled under the evils they have to bear. The prospect of heaven makes life tolerable to many who would else find it intolerable. In some whose shattered constitutions and perpetual pains, caused perhaps by undue efforts for the benefit of dependents, the daily thought of a compensating future is the sole assuaging consciousness. Others there are who, borne down in spirit by some grave misunderstanding, look forward to a time when everything will be made clear and their grief changed into joy. Constant ill-treatment from a domestic tyrant brings to not a few unceasing miseries, which are mitigated only by the belief that they will hereafter give place to a state of bliss. And there are many who stagger on under the exhausting burden of daily duties, fulfilled without thanks and without sympathy, who are enabled to bear their ills by the conviction that after this life will come a life free from pains and weariness. Nothing but evil can follow a change in the creed of such; and unless cruelly thoughtless the Agnostic will carefully shun discussion of religious subjects with them.
What course to take is thus, as said at first, a question to be answered only after consideration of the special circumstances. The many who are reckless even of themselves and brutally regardless of human welfare, may be passed by; unless, indeed, soine [sic] good may be done by proving that there are natural penalties which in large measure coincide with alleged supernatural penalties. On the other hand those on whom fears of eternal punishment weigh heavily, may fitly be shown that merciless as is the Cosmic process worked out by an Unknown Power, yet vengeance is nowhere to be found in it. Meanwhile, sympathy commands silence towards all who, suffering under the ills of life, derive comfort from their creed. While it forbids the dropping of hints that may shake their faiths, it suggests the evasion of questions which cannot be discussed without unsettling their hopes.