JR'S Free Thought Pages
Will Religious Faith Cure Our
From Chapter 7, Part Two: Human Society in Ethics and Politics
There is a theory, which is winning widespread acceptance in the Western World, to the effect. that what is afflicting the nations is due to the decay of religious faith. I think this theory completely contrary to the truth. In so far as faith has anything to do with the matter, there is a great deal more faith in the world than there was at a somewhat earlier time. But, in actual fact, the chain of causation which has led to the perilous position in which we find ourselves is, as I shall try to show, almost wholly independent of men’s beliefs, which are an effect rather than a cause of what is amiss.
What has happened in the world since 1914 has proceeded with a kind of inevitability that is like that of Greek tragedy. It is an inevitability derived, not from external circumstances, but from the characters of the actors. Let us briefly trace the steps in this development.
The Germans in 1914 thought themselves strong enough to secure by force an empire comparable to those of Britain, France, and Russia. Britain, France, and Russia combined to thwart this ambition. Russia was defeated and, in the Revolution of 1917, abandoned its traditional imperialistic policy. The West had promised Constantinople to the Russians, but, when the Russians made a separate peace, this promise fell through. Britain and France, with the help of America, defeated the Germans after the Germans bad defeated the Russians. The Germans were compelled to accept the humiliating Treaty of Versailles and to profess a belief in their sole war guilt. They were “wicked” because they had made war. The Russians were “wicked” because they had made a separate peace, and, still more, because they had repudiated their war debts. All the victorious nations combined to fight Russia, but were defeated, and were somewhat surprised to find that Russia no longer loved them. The Germans, meanwhile, suffered great distress, which was much aggravated when the folly of the American republican government brought about the Great Depression. Suffering produced hysteria, and hysteria produced Hitler. The Western nations, hoping that Hitler would attack Russia, did not oppose him. They had opposed the comparatively blameless Weimar Republic, but in befriending Hitler they proved to all mankind that they were totally destitute of moral standards. Hitler, fortunately, was mad, and, owing to madness, brought about his own downfall. The West had been delighted to accept Russia’s help in bringing about this result, and, whereas at the end of the First World War Russia and Germany had been alike weak, Russia at the end of the Second World War was strong. Britain was traditionally hostile to Russia, but from 1907 to 1917 had been forced into a semblance of friendship with that country by fear of Germany. At the end of the Second World War a quite new international pattern developed. Western Europe had ceased to count. Russia and the United States were alone powerful. As has always happened in the past in more or less similar situations, these two Great Powers were mutually hostile. Each saw a chance of world hegemony. Russia inherited the policy of Philip II, Napoleon, and the Kaiser. America inherited the policy which England had pursued throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
In all this there was nothing new except technique. The conflicts of Great Powers were just what they had always been, except that technique had made Great Powers greater and war more destructive. The situation would be exactly what it is if Russia still adhered to the Orthodox Church. We in the West should, in that case, be pointing out what we consider heretical in the Greek Church. What our propaganda would be can be seen by anybody who reads the records of the Crimean War. I am not in any way defending the present Russian regime any more than I should defend the Czarist regime. What I am saying is that the two are closely similar, although the one was Christian and the other is not. I am saying also that, if the present government of Russia were Christian; the situation would be exactly what it is. The cause of conflict is the ancient clash of power politics. It is not fundamentally a clash between faith and un-faith, or between one faith and another, but between two mighty empires, each of which sees a chance of world supremacy.
Nobody can pretend that the First World War was in any degree due to lack of Christian faith in the rulers who brought it about. The Czar, the Kaiser, and the Emperor of Austria were all earnest Christians. So was Sir Edward Grey, and so was President Wilson. There was only one prominent politician at that time who was not a Christian. That was Jean Jaures, a socialist who opposed the war and was assassinated with the approval of almost all French Christians. In England the only members of the Cabinet who resigned from disapproval of the war were John Burns and Lord Morley, a noted atheist. In Germany likewise the only opposition came from atheists under the leadership of Liebknecht. In Russia, when the atheists acquired power, their first act was to make peace. The Bolsheviks, it is true, did not remain peaceful, but that is hardly surprising in view of the fact that all the victorious Christian nations attacked them.
But let us leave the details of politics and consider our question more generally. Christians hold that their faith does good, but other faiths do harm. At any rate, they hold this about the communist faith. What I wish to maintain is that all faiths do harm. We may define “faith” as a firm belief in something for which there is no evidence. Where there is evidence, no one speaks of “faith.” We do not speak of faith that two and two are four or that the earth is round. We only speak of faith when we wish to substitute emotion for evidence. The substitution of emotion for evidence is apt to lead to strife, since different groups substitute different emotions. Christians have faith in the Resurrection; communists have faith in Marx’s Theory of Value. Neither faith can be defended rationally, and each therefore is defended by propaganda and, if necessary, by war. The two are equal in this respect. If you think it immensely important that people should believe something which cannot be rationally defended, it makes no difference what the some-thing is. Where you control the government, you teach the something to the immature minds of children and you burn or prohibit books which teach the contrary. Where you do not control the government, you will, if you are strong enough, build up armed forces with a view to conquest. All this is an inevitable consequence of any strongly held faith unless, like the Quakers, you are content to remain forever a tiny minority.
It is completely mysterious to me that
there are apparently sane people who think that a belief in Christianity might
prevent war. Such people seem totally unable to learn anything from history.
The Roman State became Christian at the time of Constantine, and was almost
continually at war until it ceased to exist. The Christian States which
succeeded to it continued to fight each other, though, it must be confessed,
they also from time to time fought States which were not Christian. From the
time of Constantine to the present day there has been no shred of evidence to
show that Christian States are less warlike than others. Indeed, some of the
most ferocious wars have been due to disputes between different kinds of
Christianity. Nobody can deny that Luther and Loyola were Christians; nobody can
deny that their differences were associated with a long period of ferocious
There are those who argue that
Christianity, though it may not be true, is very useful as promoting social
cohesion, and, though it may not be perfect, is better than any other faith that
has the same social effectiveness. I will admit that I would rather see the
whole world Christian than Marxist. I find the Marxist faith more repellent than
any other that has been adopted by civilized nations (except perhaps the
Aztec’s. But I am quite unwilling to accept the view that social cohesion is
impossible except by the help of useful lies. I know that this view has the
sanction of Plato and of a long line of practical politicians, but I think that
even from a practical point of view it is mistaken. It is not necessary for
purposes of self-defence where rational arguments suffice. It is necessary for a
crusade, but I cannot think of any case in which a crusade has done any good
whatever. When people regard Christianity as part of rearmament they are taking
out of it whatever spiritual merit it may have. And, in order that it may be
effective as rearmament, it is generally thought that it must be pugnacious,
dogmatic and narrow-minded. When people think of Christianity as help in
fighting the Russians, it is not the Quaker type of Christianity that they have
in view, but something more in the style of Senator McCarthy. What makes a creed
effective in war is its negative aspect, that is to say, its hatred of those who
do not adopt it. Without this hatred it serves no bellicose purpose. But as soon
as it is used as a weapon of war, it is the hatred of unbelievers that becomes
prominent. Consequently, when two faiths fight each other, each develops its
worst aspects, and even copies whatever it imagines to be effective in the faith
that it is combating.
The belief that fanaticism promotes success in war is one that is not borne out by history, although it is constantly assumed by those who cloak their ignorance under the name of “realism.” When the Romans conquered the Mediterranean world, fanaticism played no part in their success. The motives of Roman generals were either to acquire the gold reserves of temples with a view to keeping half for themselves and giving half to their soldiers, or, as in the case of Caesar, to gain the prestige which would enable them to win elections in Rome and defy their creditors. In the early contests of Christians and Mohammedans it was the Christians who were fanatical and the Mohammedans who were successful. Christian propaganda has invented stories of Mohammedan intolerance, but these are wholly false as applied to the early centuries of Islam. Every Christian has been taught the story of the Caliph destroying the Library of Alexandria. As a matter of fact, this library was frequently destroyed and frequently recreated. Its first destroyer was Julius Caesar, and its last antedated the Prophet. The early Mohammedans, unlike the Christians, tolerated those whom they called “people of the Book,” provided they paid tribute. In contrast to the Christians, who persecuted not only pagans but also each other, the Mohammedans were welcomed for their broad-mindedness, and it was largely this that facilitated their conquests. To come to later times, Spain was ruined by fanatical hatred of Jews and Moors; France was disastrously impoverished by the persecution of Huguenots; and one main cause of Hitler’s defeat was his failure to employ Jews in atomic research. Ever since the time of Archimedes war has been a science, and proficiency in science has been a main cause of victory. But proficiency in science is very difficult to combine with fanaticism. We all know how, under the orders of Stalin, Russian biologists were compelled to subscribe to Lysenko’s errors. It is obvious to every person capable of free scientific inquiry that the doctrines of Lysenko are less likely to increase the wheat supply of Russia than those of orthodox geneticists are to increase the wheat supply of the West. I think it is also very doubtful whether nuclear research can long continue to flourish in such an atmosphere as Stalin produced in Russia. Perhaps Russia is now going to become liberal, and perhaps it will be in the United States that bigotry will hamper atomic research. As to this, I express no opinion. But, however this may be, it is clear that, without intellectual freedom, scientific warfare is not likely to remain long successful.
But let us look at this matter of fanaticism - somewhat more broadly. The contention of those who advocate fanaticism without being fanatics is, to my mind, not only false, but also ignoble. It seems to be thought that unless everybody in a nation is compelled, either by persecution or by an education which destroys the power of thought, to believe things which no rational man can believe, that nation will be so torn by dissensions or so paralyzed by hesitant doubts that it will inevitably come to grief. Not only, as I have already argued, is there no historical evidence for this view, but it is also quite contrary to what ought to be expected. When a British military expedition marched to Lhasa in 1905, the Tibetan soldiers at first opposed it bravely, because the priests had pronounced charms which afforded protection against lead. When the soldiers nevertheless were killed, the priests excused themselves on the ground that the bullets contained nickel, against which their charms had been powerless. After this, the British troops encountered little opposition. Philip II of Spain was so persuaded that Heaven must bless his warfare against the heretics that he neglected entirely to consider the difference between fighting the English and fighting the Turks, and so he was defeated. There is a very widespread belief that people can be induced to believe what is contrary to fact in one domain while remaining scientific in another. This is not the case. It is by no means easy to keep one’s mind open to fresh evidence, and it is almost impossible to achieve this in one direction, if, in another, one has a carefully fostered blindness.
There is something feeble, and a little contemptible, about a man who cannot face the perils of life without the help of comfortable myths. Almost inevitably some part of him is aware that they are myths and that he believes them only be-cause they are comforting. But he dare not face this thought, and he therefore cannot carry his own reflections to any logical conclusion. Moreover, since he is aware, however dimly, that his opinions are not rational, he becomes furious when they are disputed. He therefore adopts persecution, censorship, and a narrowly cramping education as essentials of statecraft. In so far as he is successful, he produces a population which is timid and unadventurous and incapable of progress. Authoritarian rulers have always aimed at producing such a population. They have usually succeeded, and by their success have brought their countries to ruin.
Many of the objections to what is called “faith” do not depend in any way upon what the faith in question may be. You may believe in the verbal inspiration of the Bible or of the Koran or of Marx’s Capital. Whichever of these beliefs you entertain, you have to close your mind against evidence; and if you close your mind against evidence in one respect, you will also do so in another, if the temptation is strong. The Duke of Wellington never allowed himself to doubt the value of the playing fields of Eton, and was therefore never able to accept the superiority of the rifle to the old-fashioned musket. You may say that belief in God is not as harmful as belief in the playing fields of Eton. I will not argue on this point, except to say that it becomes harmful in proportion as you secretly doubt whether it is in accordance with the facts. The important thing is not what you believe, but how you believe it. There was a time when it was rational to believe that the earth is flat. At that time this belief did not have the bad consequences belonging to what is called “faith.” But the people who, in our day, persist in believing that the earth is flat, have to close their minds against reason and to open them to every kind of absurdity in addition to the one from which they start. If you think that your belief is based upon reason, you will support it by argument, rather than by persecution, and will abandon it if the argument goes against you. But if your belief is based on faith, you will realize that argument is useless, and will therefore resort to force either in the form of persecution or by stunting and distorting the minds of the young in what is called “education.” This last is peculiarly dastardly, since it takes advantage of the defenselessness of immature minds. Unfortunately it is practiced in a greater or less degree in the schools of every civilized country.
In addition to the general argument against faith, there is something peculiarly odious in the contention that the principles of the Sermon on the Mount are to be adopted with a view to making atom bombs more effective. If I were a Christian, I should consider this the absolute extreme of blasphemy.
I do not believe that a decay of dogmatic belief can do anything but good. I admit at once that new systems of dogma, such as those of the Nazis and the Communists, are even worse than the old systems, but they could never have acquired a hold over men’s minds if orthodox dogmatic habits had not been instilled in youth. Stalin’s language is full of reminiscences of the theological seminary in which he received his training. What the world needs is not dogma, but an attitude of scientific inquiry, combined with a belief that the torture of millions is not desirable, whether inflicted by Stalin or a Deity imagined in the likeness of the believer.