Churches Under the Microscope
The Speaker, July 27, 1901
Evolution and Its Bearing on Religions. By A.J. Dadson. London: Swan Sonnenschein
Mr. Dadson is a rationalist of the most thorough and irrational type. His book Evolution and its Bearing on Religions contains a great deal that is honest and valuable as an attempt to co-relate lucidly and thoughtfully the various branches of study to which evolution is now the key. But, however valuable may be Mr. Dadson's treatment of evolution, his treatment of religion is prevented from being very valuable by its peculiarly patronising tone towards things which decline to be patronised. Among the intellectual habits of Mr. Dadson which put me into some antagonism with him at the start, may be placed foremost that singular superstition of progress which supposes that the twentieth century has some kind of inevitable and talismanic superiority to the tenth. I cannot see that fatalism is rendered any the better for being optimistic fatalism. There is a snobbish superiority which is based on rank, another that is based on wealth, but I honestly think that the superiority that is based upon mere century, upon a handful of historical dates, is the most snobbish of all. "As we, with our greater knowledge," he says, "look back upon those religions, so will our descendants in a still more enlightened age regard the faiths of to-day." I can only say that I sincerely hope they will not regard them in so supercilious a manner. Mr. Dadson's rationalism does not prevent him from expressing a manly, if somewhat self-satisfied, respect for the belief of others; but I could never refrain myself from feeling a somewhat warmer reverence for any creeds or theories that had ever really directed the soul of man, however ancient or exploded. For example, I have the warmest reverence for rationalism.
Mr. Dadson is hampered again in the study of such a thing as religion by another of the fallacies of his school, the idea that a detached and frigid philosophical attitude is a guarantee of justice and breadth of mind. It is the idea common to so many philosophers of evolution, that the pure man of science is the most disinterested and, therefore, the most valid witness- the idea that lookers-on see most of the game. This is a mistake which has given rise to much mental confusion in other questions besides this. The fact is that it is only in matters affecting obvious and material fact that the outsider is the best judge; in matters which involve passions and states of the soul he is likely to be almost the worst judge. For example, an atheist would probably be the fairest arbiter of whether Catholics or Protestants were more numerous in Germany; he would not be the fairest arbiter of whether Catholicism or Protestantism was the more comforting religion. It is better that a witness should have felt the emotion under discussion in a cramped and one-sided form than that he should know no more about it than he knows about the fourth dimension. Mr. Dadson must forgive me, therefore, if I do not regard his almost appalling air of judicial coolness as constituting the smallest reason for supposing that he knows what he is talking about. That a man speaks frigidly and with cultured ease of such things as faith in Christ or the love of women is, so far as it goes, rather a ground for thinking that he does not know what they are. Each of these central things in life is like a church with stained-glass windows; from outside we can never see anything but dull masses of glass and lead, it is from inside that we see the light. The object of Mr. Dadson's book, he tells us, is "to show that every form of belief which is built upon material other than that which is supplied by natural law has no scientific validity." But who ever imagined that any form of belief had any scientific validity? We might as well speak of a poem having a geological validity, or a statue having a botanical validity, or a comic song having an astronomical validity. It was only in the eighteenth century, when all religion was dead, that anyone ever dreamed of starting the idea that it had any scientific validity. Mr. Dadson persists in arguing on the assumption that religion arose in order to explain the universe. I do not believe that it did anything of the sort. A child does not credit all the trees and beasts and toys with souls and Christian names in order to explain rationalistically how they came to be there. He does so because to him they feel living and divine. Similarly religious men did not invent a detached spirit to explain the material universe; they looked at the universe, and thought it spiritual. It is with the first glance at things that mysticism comes, not at the second. By the second glance men have begun to talk about the laws of nature; Mr. Dadson talks about the laws of nature for all the world as if there were such things. The earlier and more practical truth- the truth of religions- is that a tree is a miracle, an inexplicable explosion of divine life, and that no conceivable number of precisely similar trees go any way towards explaining it or turning the miracle into a law. If we saw a gentleman going to church every Sunday in a top hat and yellow dressing gown, our curiosity would not be allayed by his explaining that he had done the same thing regularly for the last twenty years. Nor can we excuse the eccentric conduct of the sun in rising in the east merely on the ground of habit and advanced years. What Mr. Dadson does not realise is that religion has nothing at all to do with the laws of nature, because it deals only with the primary wonder of the existence of anything which is entirely untouched by the monotonous manner in which anything when created chooses to behave. As I have said I think that the orderly and naturalistic deism of the eighteenth century which called upon men to adore the Creator because of the rationality and order of the universe was a miserable corruption and collapse. The God of religion must be a capricious god, because we have to do with nothing except that sublime caprice which created heaven and earth. Religion does not consist in looking upon the world as an order, but in looking upon it as an act. For the purposes of Mr. Dadson's natural philosophy, it is quite right and proper to say that evolution made the world. But it is precisely as if a schoolmaster who had just been hit on the foot with a cricket ball were to ask who rolled the missile and were to receive the answer that revolution rolled it. The degree of gaiety which would be aroused in him by that reply would be about equal to the amount that I experience from the former explanation considered in the light, not of physical, but of mental science. Mr. Dadson is content with a mechanical explanation of the world, and he supposes that all myths and religions were meant to explain how rational the universe was. It does not occur to him that they may have been meant to express how irrational it was, to reach past all the minor phenomena that obey law to that supreme and splendid law which is a lawless thing.
There are a large number of matters of detail in which we might find Mr. Dadson the victim of the same kind of facile and futile lucidity. It is always possible to be quite certain about a thing as long as we keep carefully on the surface of it; it is when we know a thing thoroughly that it becomes mysterious. It is perfectly possible and legitimate to transfix religions like so many beetles, but to the man who thinks seriously of the long mystery of human nature it will be by no means clear whether the biologist who pins a beetle, or the ancient Egyptian who worshipped it, was the sounder philosopher. Of course, Mr. Dadson attaches enormous importance to civilisation, an institution that is by no means without its merits. But anyone who sees, as Mr. Dadson does, all scientific ages as enlightened ages and all unscientific ages as dark ages, is bound to see history lopsided. There are a great many other things that are good for a people entirely apart from science and civilisation; among them are unity, enthusiasm, contentment, undebilitated manliness, health, beautiful traditions, popular sports, a widely distributed sense of what is dignified and decorative. These things were infinitely more characteristic of many countries in what Mr. Dadson laments as the dark ages than they are in Birmingham at this moment, though Birmingham is certainly more civilised. Mr. Dadson has a perfect right to exult in the steam engine, but let him remember that there are a great many people who have their doubts whether, in the true interests of a people, the steam engine is a perfect consolation for the loss of the maypole.
And yet, of course, Mr. Dadson cannot help being a mystic, because he believes in morality. In the ineffably patronising passage dealing with Christ he says: "We know that He taught the equality of men, which in itself in those days was no slight service to render to the world." If there is a mystical idea on this earth I suppose it is the idea of the equality of men. A younger school of rationalists than Mr. Dadson's has pointed out its inconsistency with material phenomena just as Mr. Dadson raises the same irrelevant objection to the doctrines of religion. The idea of the equality of men was like all ideas that have greatly influenced the world- a purely religious idea. It was based upon a sensation that we all have in our better moments, that we all alike come of some princely origin, and that all the differences between us fade into insignificance compared with the sacred and supernatural character of human nature. It is because the idea of equality was super-rational, like one of the ideas in the childhood of religions, that it was able to repeat hardly a hundred years ago the elemental portents that marked the childhood of nations, to break the cage of civilisation, to pour Europe into the melting pot, to mark out new boundaries in blood and fire, to renew the youth of the world. The French Revolution seems to us like an event almost pre-historic, because it sprang from that capacity of faith which lies far back by the fountains of history. Rationalism and lucidity have never been understood by men; it is always the hidden thing that is popular.