E. Belfort Bax January 1910

The Bankruptcy of Traditional Religions.

Source: New Age, 13 January 1910, p. 251-252;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

The tremendous effect produced by the martyrdom of Francesco Ferrer in October last, and the issues raised by this latest crime of the Catholic Church – i.e., of the most important form of organised Christianity existing – has meant for the masses of the Continent a striking accentuation of anti-religious feeling and anti-religious agitation. There have been, nevertheless, some English Socialists who, while fully joining in the cry against clericalism, have shrunk from identifying their attitude with a definite attack on religion as such. When pressed they will but lukewarmly defend the established or institutional religions; yet, nevertheless, they take refuge in vague phrases, betraying an unwillingness to recognise the complete bankruptcy for every useful purpose, at the dawn of the twentieth century, of all the world’s traditional religious systems. Still less will they admit in so many words that the religion which still commands the nominal adhesion of the possessing and governing classes of Europe, and not least of British respectability, is at the present day, not merely purposeless, but positively pernicious. It behoves us, therefore, before aught else, to examine what is meant by the talk (in so far as it is sincere and does not merely mean a truckling subserviency) about the necessity of religion in the vague sense, and then to proceed to examine the claims of the one traditionally instituted religion with which the civilised world of modern capitalism is primarily concerned – to wit, Christianity.

Now, what have the people who consider themselves “advanced,” who talk large of the permanence of the religious instinct, at the back of their minds? They may either mean by “religion” a social ideal and devotion thereto, or they may mean an attenuated theological conception of a “God” and personal immortality, or, lastly, they may mean some new-theologised Christianity. In, the first case, of course, no Socialist would raise any objection, save, perhaps, as to the propriety of using the word “religion” in this connection, owing to its theological associations. But in any case it is sheer dishonest claptrap to use the word without fully explaining what you mean by it, as is often done by those who wish to stand well with the mammon of bourgeois Philistinism.

For example, Ferrer’s school was frankly anti-religious, in the sense (the only one popularly recognised on the Continent) of anti-theological. But certain Radicals and Socialists in this country, certainly not themselves theological, thought it necessary, in championing Ferrer, to repudiate anti-religiosity, explaining their attitude, when questioned, by their conviction of the desirability of a sentiment of ideal devotion in socio-political life. This, of course, the continental anti-religionist may feel also, only he doesn’t call it “religion.” Certainly Ferrer seems to have had it very strongly. Now, far be it from me to deny the defensibility of using the word religion in this sense. I have done so myself in “The Religion of Socialism.” But let us not forget the implications of such use. The speculative question of theism or atheism may be indifferent to the religion of Socialism, but the notion of adoration of a hypothetical personal or quasi-personal creator or orderer of a world, wherein is manifest power indeed galore, but wisdom and goodness strictly limited in proportion, if raised at all, may well be morally repellant to one who sincerely and earnestly holds to a religion of social service, and this notwithstanding his strictly agnostic attitude on the speculative question. It is this ethical and religious as opposed to speculative, atheism that forms the background for him whose ideal is human, rather than cosmic. He inclines to become, in so far as he troubles himself at all about such matters, anti-theistic. His tendency will be, in any case, to treat the cosmic process as outside the scope of his religious sentiment, but in so far as it touches it, rather as antagonistic than otherwise. A personal or even quasi-personal being, who is responsible for the existence and ordering of this world, will hardly commend himself as worthy of adoration to a “servant of humanity” (as the Positivists would put it). For him Man, not God, is the world’s purpose and reason of being. This is the higher Atheism.

The latest product of the Oxford Pragmatic movement, Mr. Henry Sturt’s new work, “The Idea of a Free Church,” is remarkable in many ways, as illustrating the mental attitude of the English intellectual classes par excellence of the present day towards religion. Mr. Sturt openly and without reserve throws Christianity overboard, not merely Christian theology, but what is infinitely more significant, Christian morality. He also denounces the principle of Monarchy. Now, a man having an important standing in the University of Oxford, who possesses the honesty and the courage publicly to take up these positions, not only from that fact alone demands a respectful hearing, but also constitutes in himself a sign of the times. Mr. Sturt, however, shows the intellectual milieu in which he lives and moves in his ignoring of Socialism, the one world-movement of the present time, while, notwithstanding, professing to give his religion in the main a human and social content. In this he reminds one of the highly cultured philosophic Pagan of the Roman Empire, hailing perhaps from Athens or Alexandria, the Oxford or Cambridge of those days – who studiously ignored Christianity, the living world-movement of his time, while discussing religious and ethical questions.

With this ignoring of the Socialist ideal is bound up Mr. Sturt’s whole notion of a church, the framework of which is essentially that of the existing bourgeois religious bodies, though with modifications of his own, and, of course, purged of Christian dogma or ethics. The notion of such a change in the conditions of human life as to render any distinct and definite religious organisation or institution an anachronism never seems to cross the writer’s mind. And, more than this, he would even retain the ghost of a theology in the shape of our old friends God and Immortality, disinfected of dogma and sterilised of the old germs of objectionable associations. The reasons he gives for this are eminently “pragmatic.” Human utility is the touchstone; “any theological doctrine may be considered as adequately established if it is either salutary in itself or follows from some other salutary doctrine” (p. 108). It only remains for Mr. Sturt to endeavour to show that God and immortality, duly clarified, fulfil this condition – i.e., are salutary – and there you have it Q.E.D. Now, I do not want to steal the thunder of Mr. G.K. Chesterton and certain other superfine critics who are wont to polish off (in their own estimation) every idea they dislike by dubbing it “early Victorian” or by some other opprobrious epithet of the past, but certainly the foregoing, I may remark, does recall to me the scene in the Tuileries Theatre on the 18th Floréal an III when Maximilien Robespierre rose to demand that the Convention decree the existence of God and the immortality of the soul, with the exordium: “Aux yeux du legislateur, tout ce qui est utile au monde et bon dans la pratique est la vérité. L'idée de l'etre supréme et de l'immortalité de l'âme est un rappel continuel à la justice; elle est donc sociable et republicaine,” etc. Our eighteenth-century protagonist of “ Pragmatism” really seems to have approached very near the genuine up-to-date Oxford article.

Be this as it may, it is difficult to say from his book precisely what is to be the ideal content of Mr. Sturt’s new religion, for which the notions of God and Immortality, furbished up anew for the purpose, are to serve as supports and stimulating aids to conduct. From certain hints, however, thrown out in the course of the discussion we gather that “patriotism” (otherwise called Jingoism and Imperialism) is to play a large part in it. If so, it is scarcely necessary to say that this latest suggestion of a renovated Church reveals its origin and its thoroughgoing antagonism to the religion of Socialism, with its substitution as ideal, of community of aspiration and principle, for community of nationality as based on the modern State system. But for this reason it is the more interesting. I have just said that the “patriotic” suggestions may well reveal the origin of the church of Sturt. In so far as he adopts this line, namely, Mr. Sturt shows himself in the character of the prophet of latter-day capitalism, which, feeling that the old theological ideals are played out, seeks to set nationality in their place. The British Empire is to occupy the void left by the collapse of the Kingdom of God. For us, who believe in neither the one nor the other, the prospect is not alluring. For this our “dear, dear country,” our “eyes do not their vigils keep” (Mr. Blatchford’s excepted), but for something infinitely wider and better. Modern capitalism, on the contrary, needs political expansion – in other words, empire. Hence, for the modern capitalist, who dominates the ethical and religious situation in consequence of his economic position, a religion of patriotism (in the modern sense) is as eminently desirable as for the modern Socialist it is detestable.

I have dealt at some length with Mr. Sturt’s book, because, as already said, I consider it as a typical sign of the times. But the real enemy in the sphere of religion, of a human or social ideal (or religion, if we choose to call it so) does not come from those who, as a matter of traditional sentiment, choose to enswathe some such ideal in the pale simulcra of abstract theological conceptions – vague notions of the “sort of a something” order – but from churches organised on the basis of dogmatic Christianity, first and foremost, the Catholic Church. And to this enemy all those new theologians give indirect support who emphasise the claims of the Christian religion as such (even apart from its ecclesiastical and theological sanctions) to the allegiance of progressive mankind. A consideration of these claims must be deferred to another article.