Views of an Agnostic
by: Ross E. Browne
This is part 13 of Ross E. Browne's 1915 book, Views of an Agnostic.
To open a discussion on this article, please use the contact page to provide your comments
The views expressed in the foregoing pages present what at first sight appears to be an unattractive picture of our status in this world. Notwithstanding our conscious superiority, we are but relatives of the beasts of the field. We are mainly governed by arbitrary laws of which we have but a meager understanding, and which are not in accord with our ideas of justice. We are subject to many dangerous appetites, with but weak powers of resistance. We are swept along by the tide of events with only a limited ability to shape our course within a narrow scope. After a life which seems too short to satisfy us, we are presumably extinguished. Our notions of a sympathetic “Heavenly Father” to share our pleasures and listen to our appeals, and of a future life in which we may shed the ills of the flesh and realize the ideals vainly sought here on earth, are mere pictures of the imagination with no reasonable foundation in fact so far as we know.
These, or similar opinions, are now held not only by a great number of scientists and philosophers, but by many practical laymen as well, and are surely spreading among the people. We are all tending more and more toward empiric and rational views.
Sudden relinquishment of the old belief results in sad disappointment. The new view appears as a blow to higher aspiration, and as a discouragement to self-denial in the effort to conform to established rules of right-living. There is a depressing reaction from the indulgence of vain hopes. But fortunately the change of view is generally of slow growth. Our first doubts are vague. They are accompanied by some uneasiness and are checked by various considerations of policy. Gradually we come to realize that there are compensations and advantages in the changes of opinion, and after all we think it is best to recognize and face the truth. Our derivation from a lower type of animal opens up to us a better understanding of our attributes and natural tendencies. It means progress in the past, and promise of improvement ahead. It is more hopeful for the race than the belief that we were created ‘in a superior state and have degenerated. As some author has said, there is more promise in the “rising ape” than in the “fallen angel.”
Regarding our status in the matter of free-will, the first consideration of the subject leads us to realize our limitations, and has perhaps a discouraging tendency. Recognition of the powerful influences of inheritance and environment, and the comparative weakness of our power of resistance, suggests excuse for indulgence of evil tastes, or for relaxation in whatever costs an unpleasant effort. But, discarding the idea of fatalism, there is a different outcome. Our deliberately formed opinions bring us to a more definite realization of consequences. They lead us to understand more clearly: that submission to external influence produces effects which enter into our composition and form incipient parts of us; that we are in great measure built of such effects; that they ultimately form some of the most important blocks of material in our mental and moral structure; that they are not of an ephemeral character, as we are apt to assume, but are more or less tenacious and once acquired are difficult and often impossible to dislodge; that surrender to an evil influence means a permanent injury; and to a good influence a permanent benefit; that the one is like a virulent disease and the other like a health-giving food. The result of this understanding is a more intelligent motive for self-control. It suggests the opportunity to further build ourselves of choicer material, to fit ourselves more and more for the rational enjoyment of life. It augments our belief in the value of will-power and in the strengthening influence of earnest effort, and stimulates the desire to cultivate power in ourselves and to encourage its development in others.
Regarding the, fact that nature’s laws do not operate in conformity with our ideas of justice, we must bear in mind that it is futile to complain of what we cannot help, and is incomparably better for our welfare here on earth to accept the fact and consider its essential bearing upon the outcome of our actions.
Our feeling that life is too short, is in great part due to disregard of the laws off nature. With growing knowledge, it is claimed by physiologists, the average period of life may in future be doubled. It is furthermore claimed that the individual who inherits a healthy constitution, leads a proper life, and reaches the old age he is capable of attaining if free from disease, will be content to rest, and will die without pain or regret. Toward the close of a well-spent life, a healthy old age, with suitable provision, has doubtless many compensations for the loss of youthful vigor, as indicated by Cicero in his delightful essay on the subject. It now seems probable that with the improved conditions which science is seeking to promote, there will ultimately develop a growing tendency toward restful contentment in old age. Metchnikoff in his remarkable work on “The Nature of Man” indicates that while there now occur very few cases of “natural death” death without preventable disease, with due encouragement to scientific investigation and government by its valuable results, there may be established, step by step, in future generations, a great increase in the length of life and a natural desire for rest in death. He shows that certain deeply rooted superstitions and sentimental prejudices are still opposed to progress in this direction.
Belief in the personal love, sympathy and protection of a Heavenly Father is the natural sequence of the dependency of childhood. In the future development of man it seems probable that he will outgrow his dependency upon this belief and become more self-reliant intellectually. At present we are asking ourselves the question: Shall we hold to the comforts of an imaginary parental protection, or shall we give more sway to reason and accept the consequences? The proper answer doubtless depends upon the stage reached in intellectual and moral development. There is great advantage in self-reliance when coupled with mature intelligence and power of self-control, not otherwise. For various reasons the great majority of us are far from being prepared for so radical a move as a declaration of complete independence. We are mainly the products not alone of our own experiences, but of those of many generations of forefathers, and, if suddenly subjected to radical change of control, the effect is not likely to be beneficial. The change, to be efficacious for good, must be of slow growth with ample time for adjustment. It is especially evident that it is not fitting to the interests of the young and ignorant, or the vicious, or those who have grown up under the influences of oppression or fanaticism, to be liberated from the bonds they are accustomed to, excepting by very slow processes, and often not at all. Herbert Spencer, in his “First Principles” indicates that “those who relinquish the faith in which they have been brought up” for a more “abstract faith” often “fail to act up to their convictions.”
He says: “The substituted creed can become adequately operative only when it becomes, like the present one, an element in early education, and has the support of a strong social sanction.” This is doubtless true in a general way, and indicates the importance of time for adjustment.
Relinquishment of the dogma of “just responsibility” leads us to recognize more clearly the unworthiness of the spirit of revenge. The Christian spirit of forgiveness, while truly earnest, is curiously mixed up with the threat of punishment if the terms of regeneration are not complied with. It conveys the idea that while Christ was charitable God is revengeful.
The errors of man being due to inheritance and environment, the criminal is either born with abnormal tendencies, or his mind has become diseased through contact with external influences. Logically, we should regard him with pity. He should no more be hated than the unfortunate victim of leprosy. Christ admonishes us, both by word and deed, to regard the culprit in this charitable light, but there seems to be a lingering doubt among us regarding the propriety of sympathy. This is doubtless due to the irrational belief in just responsibility.
The criminal must be restrained and if necessary entirely disposed of, but only as a matter of expediency or protection to society, and not as a matter of just punishment. There are already various indications that all idea of “punishment” will gradually be relinquished in favor of “prevention,” “protection,” and “reform.”
In responsibility to God there is, however, an element of control over secret action, which cannot well be replaced in the ignorant or vicious. Responsibility to man leads to deception, while that to God does not. We are all more or less prone to practice deception, upon one another, but the believer does not try to deceive his God, for he necessarily regards the attempt as useless. Those who believe that God metes out heavy punishment for lying are influenced by that belief in favor of truthfulness generally; yet the prevailing belief does not seem to have established a very great respect for truth. Prevarication, in various forms, is widely prevalent among believers and unbelievers alike. In God’s estimation prevarication can be no better than outright lying, while in social intercourse man makes a distinction. The inference is that the average believer either fails to feel that God very seriously condemns lying, or else he is more strongly influenced by his worldly than by his spiritual responsibility in the matter.
It is recognized that our social conditions prohibit complete freedom of action ; and consideration for our fellow-man as now constituted, and ourselves as well, makes perfect candor absolutely unfeasible. Social intercourse would be utterly impracticable if we should, on all occasions, tell our acquaintances exactly what we think of them. A certain amount of secrecy is imperative, but while we may not always blurt out the truth, we may a rule at least avoid the wilful utterance or acting of untruth.
There are a number of earnest people whose belief in God has greatly strengthened their determination to be veracious, but on the whole it is plain that such belief has had very little effect upon the average citizen in this regard. How can we expect to inculcate respect for veracity by persuading the young to blindly assert be lief in mysticisms which they secretly doubt. It is believed the habit acquired by the advocate of naturalism in regarding simple fact with greater respect is more likely in the long run to lead to truthfulness. Without doubt the earnest pursuit of knowledge involving the recognition of unadulterated fact has a tendency to develop love of truth.
There remains, uneliminated, the effect of “belief” upon secret action against one’s neighbor. Responsibility to man is avoided if secrecy is maintained. Nature does not directly concern itself. We therefore look for control in the matter to the motive arising from responsibility to God. In the contemplation of secret crimes of grave import, such as murder, robbery and the like, the strength of this motive in the believer whose faith is really serious, cannot be doubted. People who earnestly believe in responsibility to God, and are at the same time possessed with the inclination to commit such crimes, ought not to be disturbed in their belief, for the nonbeliever cannot offer them a safe substitute.
There are great differences of opinion regarding the effects of prevailing forms of religion. Historic evidences are subject to different interpretations. It may be true, as claimed by churchmen, that the feeling of responsibility to God has had a controlling influence on the morals of Christian communities ; but of late years the gross injustice of eternal punishment in a future life has become so apparent to intelligent people generally that the belief in such punishment has been greatly weakened, and the controlling effect of the responsibility has been greatly reduced. At the present time it is not deemed to be so potent with the average citizen as that of social responsibility which is so much nearer to hand.
The belief in a future life without suffering and with the promise of persistent contentment, is of course attractive to those who entertain such an expectation. Otherwise a perpetual hereafter is hardly to be contemplated. with satisfaction. The belief when seriously relied upon, affords much inner satisfaction, but it is apt to be detrimental to the interests of the present life in some respects. It frequently leads to neglect of opportunities which offer a fuller enjoyment of this life.
The purpose of this life may be viewed from various standpoints. The rational mind will, as a rule, conclude that the most sensible purpose of the individual is to obtain the greatest amount of happiness possible in this world, we may say the greatest algebraic sum of happiness, including unhappiness in the calculation as a negative quantity. The proper purpose of the community is to promote every opportunity for the greatest average happiness of its members,-happiness in the sense of rational pleasure in connection with which there is an earnest endeavor to avoid the entailment of misery.
It seems a pity to waste one’s valuable time in preparation for an imaginary future. If there is a future life in store for us, we can know nothing about its conditions, and it is a waste of effort to make an artificially self-sacrificing preparation which may be wholly at fault. The prevailing idea seems to be that the future life is a continuation of this mental life, and that we shall carry forward the mental qualities acquired here on earth. If this be true, it suggests the best preparation to be the cultivation of that habitually happy frame of mind which results from the rational enjoyment of this life. We have full employment for all our inherent strength of character in resisting the temptations of those momentary pleasures which lead to misery, and in carrying out arduous tasks for the sake of future happiness in this world, without encumbering ourselves with the imaginary requirements of another world.
When we meet with disappointment the sensible thing is to try and overcome the effects in some practical way; not to nurse our grievance and cherish the hope of recompense in another world. In case of hopeless misery, due to irreparable loss, accident, incurable disease, or commission of unpardonable crime, there is much consolation in the hope of compensation or forgiveness in a life to come, but so far as positive relief is concerned, relief not alone from physical suffering but from torturing memory, extinction is the more certain source. If we should carry our suffering minds over into another world, upon what should we base an expectation of relief from misery ?
In youth and middle age we are generally better off without false hope. We are more apt to take advantage of recognizable opportunities, and to seek practical relief when needed. In old age, cherished beliefs, whether sound or erroneous, have become essential to comfort by habitual entertainment, and it is unwise and unkind to disturb them.