E. Belfort Bax

The Word “Religion”

(April 1879)

E. Belfort Bax, The Word Religion, Modern Thought, April 1879, Vol.I, No.4, p.67-69.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
Proofread by Chris Clayton (July 2006).

It is a hopeful sign of the times that the word Religion seems to be slackening its hold on its time-honoured theological associations. The idea of religion apart from theology, when not avowedly admitted, is at least familiar to most educated persons. There is, however, a great confusion prevailing on the distinction between religion, in its non-theological sense, and Morality, Art, or Philosophy. It is felt that each of these departments of higher human interest possess in themselves the elements of religion, but yet fail to express the fullest sense of the word. And this, as we might naturally expect, has been taken advantage of by theistic advocates. Essential as it is to possess clear ideas on the import of all terms used in discussion or exposition, there is surely none on which it is so essential to possess them as on the term religion. Yet I should be sorry to say how many of those who write on the subject could, if pressed, give a comprehensive yet accurate definition, marking it off from Art or Morality, pure and simple. The etymological definition, founded on religare, “to bind together,” though useful, like many other etymological definitions, fails to express the differentiae of the word. Other influences besides religion, of a military, political, or social character, may be said to bind men together. What then is the special mark of religious conceptions as distinguished from moral, msthetic, or philosophic conceptions? The answer is that although in a measure the subject-matter of both is the same, the latter are bounded and limited by the conditions of actual existence, whereas the former are not so limited – in other words, are unconditioned. The one implies actuality, the other possibility.

Kant has shown the idea of infinity to be an integral part of our subjective consciousness. Infinity strictly means time and space unconditioned. Although we cannot conceive explicitly of either as unlimited, yet we can just as little conceive of them as limited, and the idea of their possible infinity implicitly forms part of their essential nature. Of course this only applies directly to the present subject as regards the fennel elements of our conceptions. But having once established the legitimacy of the idea, or, perhaps, more correctly, the feeling of the Infinite in our minds, it is not difficult to recognise the legitimacy of its application also to the material element in our higher conceptions. It is this positing of the unconditioned harmony and correspondence between the possible to the conditioned actual which Kant internal order and the external order – in other insists upon as the function of the Vernunft, or words, the unification of their relations in a reason. Our three highest ideas are the moral system; but philosophy proper cannot overstep the moral idea – goodness, the aesthetic idea – beauty, and the philosophical idea – knowledge or truth. Together they make up the ideal of happiness in its highest sense. It is this ideal that religion regards as unconditioned and capable of infinite expansion. We need not limit the development of moral happiness, or of love or sympathy, to any definite or conceivable quantity. Not only would such a proceeding be utterly unsupported by any sort of proof, but directly opposed to the weight of analogy. We can never limit the possible continuance of consciousness, and we can justly represent to ourselves the continued development ad infinitum of that which is highest in consciousness. Morality proper concerns itself with actual or probable relations of social life – with human beings at present existing. Religion would suppose Humanity as an eternal object of worship, only taking the highest ideal conceivable at the time as its then type. Similarly with regard to the aesthetic and philosophic ideas.

Art is an endeavour to realise the highest aesthetic perfection conceivable at the time, just as Ethics is an endeavour to realise the highest moral perfection conceivable at the time. But Art or Ethics (under which I understand the whole sphere of social or altruistic relations) are occupied with the whole detail of their respective departments. Morality includes the simplest and most commonplace relations between man and man, as well as heroic lives and deeds implying a devotion to Humanity; Art properly takes in all that can possibly be brought under the idea of beauty, the lower sensual as well as the higher spiritual. But the special province of religion really begins at the point at which these respective departments leave off. Religion starts with a conception of our highest present ideal, whether of beauty or goodness, and extends this indefinitely both as regards its form and matter, i.e., both in time and in intensity. The fundamental characteristic of religion is the formulation of an ideal, whereas in the special departments of Ethics or Art the ideal is subordinated to the question of possible realisation. In morals the immediate purpose of every act is the question of first consideration, just as in art every creation is governed by a definite and concrete end. In other words, Ethics and Art are conditioned by the actual, but religion is not so conditioned, and therefore regards the ideal as supreme, and its conceptions as unconditioned except by the range of their subject matter. The philosophical idea of truth means the definite harmony and correspondence between the internal order and the external order – other words the unification of their relations in a system; but philosophy proper cannot over step the limits of the knowable; it ends with the bare logical conception of the Unknowable or the up Absolute. In religion this sense of the unfathomable mystery of existence is and must be ever present, colouring all its other conceptions. It is this feeling (to the correlate of which philosophy points as its ens realissimum) that permeates all other feelings the moment we rise to the ideal. It is the background of all our higher conceptions. We see it exhibited in the greater crises of life; at the death of friends, it often rises to an absorbing height, and is visible in all that gives to human life its pathos. It is perhaps even more striking in the aesthetic than in the moral sphere. All the greatest masterpieces of art embody it to a greater or less extent, though in poetry and music (especially the latter) it finds its fullest expression, owing to their medium being less concrete than that of the other arts. But it is not alone in works of art that it is noticeable. In the whole career of every individual possessed of aesthetic capacities it is present, whether in the contemplation of external nature, history, or his own life. He feels that the wild autumn landscape, the still moonlit ocean, the great city hushing to rest, the ruin of a past civilisation – in short, the whole of nature and life body forth an Absolute – a something beyond. Now all these ideas are united, or if I may be excused a technical word, subsumed under the one form of human feeling. In the last resort they all resolve themselves into feeling. Action, whether intellectual or physical, is only a means to the end – feeling, to the equilibrium of the physical and psychical conditions of existence. The whole problem is a hedonistic one. The ethical idea in its religious aspect points to an infinitely extended development of social feeling; the aesthetic idea in its religious aspect points to an infinitely extended development of that vast range, the feeling of the beautiful; and the philosophical idea to an indefinite extension of our feeling of harmony and unity – an extension commensurate to that of our knowledge, to which we can likewise assign no limit. It will be observed that all these ideas relate, the first directly, and the two last indirectly, to the human. We can only know or conceive of them as products of consciousness; to speak of love, beauty, or truth as existing apart from the conscious, is a contradiction in terms. Such a love, beauty, or truth could have no possible meaning or significance for us; the sphere of the conscious alone concerns us; the idea of an extra-conscious existence exists for us only as an idea, a feeling or a belief, and affects us for the most part negatively. It can never be the fulcrum of religion, since we cannot, without the crassest anthropomorphism, ascribe to this extra-conscious Substratum or Absolute those ideas which are developments of consciousness, and which form the subject matter of religion. Supposing we take refuge in anthropomorphism, we are not helped, inasmuch as we are then pledged to untie the knot of theism, the existence of evil, if, that is to say, we ascribe moral perfection to the Absolute. Being then thrown back upon the conscious, the question confronts us – What is the highest form of the conscious, of which we have any positive knowledge? The answer cannot fail to be Humanity, and the religion of the future must therefore be the religion of Humanity. But in using the term in a religious sense, it should be remarked, that it must be taken to denote the highest term in the conscious series for all time. Supposing the latter to be as much higher than man as at present existing, as he is higher than the Zoophyte, this highest term of consciousness would still be Humanity. Supposing it raised beyond any parallel we could imagine to ourselves at the present time, it would be none the less human.

But though all three ideas, moral, aesthetic, and philosophic, have their destination in human or conscious feeling, there is an important distinction to be observed between the first and the two last. The first is directly and in all its aspects human, its entire sweep human; it comprises the relations of the individual to humanity in their entirety. The two last are more indirectly human, embracing in addition the entire sphere of the non-human. As the consequence of this the moral idea can alone have a practical or regulative value, as being the idea immediately connected with the active side of our nature; while the other ideas are, per se, purely passive, the moral idea supplies an end directly incentive to action. We can speak of the contemplation, the passive enjoyment of the beautiful, or of the mystery of existence, but to speak of the bare contemplation of the good is ludicrous, inasmuch as it falls short of what the idea requires, and what it will require as a necessary complement for long ages to come – namely, action. So that the moral idea, although ultimately resting on passive feeling as the others, immediately rests on action. The fundamental vice of theism has been confounding the moral with the aesthetic and philosophical. This is the case with all theological systems. The ideas of the Absolute (or its equivalent in those systems) and of the Infinite have been assumed as the basis of moral conduct, whereas they have really a purely passive significance. How can the Absolute bear any possible relation to human action, which can but be purely human in its destination? It is this misuse of these words that has led to a natural reaction against their admission, even in their legitimate sphere.

“How,” it may be asked, “can we consider Humanity as infinite, when its conditions are finite?” Edward Von Hartmann assigns three forms of religious delusion to mankind. That of the post-Socratic philosophers of ancient times, of happiness being attainable in the life of the individual. That of the Christian theology, of happiness being attainable in an after-death life of the individual. That of modern culture, that happiness is possible in the after-life of Humanity. His ideal is of course annihilation, his only alternative. To those who do not accept pessimism with its Nirvana, the question of how, when, and where, can only be answered by one of the three hypotheses named; the realisation of the ideal most either be in the present life of the individual, in the future life of the individual, or in the future life of humanity. The idea of perfection as possible within the short span of present personal existence has been long since abandoned. That of personal immortality (abandoned in all its coarser forms by the educated of the present day) is fast waning among thinking people – the light of modern thought proves too strong for it. Though as little capable of being disproved as of being proved, it is beginning to be felt an element of weakness rather than of strength even in theological systems. The religion of the future must point to the immortality of the social man rather than of the individual man for the realisation of its ideal, since the former involves no actual break in the process of passing from the known to the unknown, like the latter. We are already conversant with the results of evolution, from the first germ of life, the simple organic cell or group of cells to a Shakespeare, the evolved composite of such germs, from the Ascidian to the modern European; in other words, from a minute being, to which we can scarcely attribute sentiency, to the highest form of consciousness. What is there, then, of violence in assuming the possibility, nay, the probability of an extension of the process, to the evolution of an extra individual or social form of consciousness, bearing similar relations to the present individual form that that does to simple organic sentiency, and so on, ad infinitum? I merely instance this as showing that speculation on this subject need not transcend the lines of experience, as all speculation on a purely individual immortality necessarily must. Our individual consciousness we only know as the synthesis of subject – object, inner and outer world, the two as intimately interwoven and blended as oxygen and hydrogen in water: – decompose the combination into its elements and the water disappears. Similarly, dissolve the mental and material synthesis and, as far as we can judge, consciousness disappears. The conception of individual immortality we must admit therefore to involve a distinct violation of our experience of the relations of things which the counter conception does not.

The notion of Infinity is present in both theories. And for this reason they are alike inconceivable explicitly, but not therefore implicitly; in other words, we can represent to ourselves an infinite series as possible, though not as actual. And herein lies the solution of the question how we can conceive of Humanity as infinite, though its actual conditions are finite. It will be observed that our views as to how, where and when, do not necessarily affect the ideal itself, but only the mode in which we conceive it. The person who grasped the ideas of goodness, beauty, and truth in their religious aspect and in their integrity might place their realisation in an individual immortality without materially altering their import. It is merely a question as to which view possesses the highest degree of probability, and the tendency is, as the present writer conceives justly, to the non-individual view above expressed. It should be observed that the life of humanity need not be bounded by the existence of this planet; it is perfectly conceivable that man should gain a degree of power over the conditions of his environment – over the external world – sufficient to overcome forces now insuperable, and to modify conditions now inflexible.

The above brief remarks are put forward in the hope of stimulating thought on this all-important topic. There are many points necessarily left untouched, and many more barely noticed, but it is trusted what has been written is not more obscure than belongs to the nature of the subject.

E. Belfort Bax


Last updated on 4.7.2006