It will probably cause surprise if I say there is, possibly, more intellectual freedom in Ireland than elsewhere in Europe. But I do not mean by intellectual freedom conventional Free-thought, which is, perhaps, as far as any superstition from true freedom of the mind. The point may not be admitted but its consideration will clear the air, and help to dispose of some objections hindering that spiritual freedom, fundamental to all liberty.
I have no intention here of in any way criticising the doctrine of Free-thought, but one so named cannot be ignored when we consider Intellectual Freedom. This, then, has to be borne in mind when speaking of Free-thought, that while it allows you latitude of opinion in many things, it will not allow you freedom in all things, in, for example, Revealed Religion. I only mention this to show that on both sides of such burning questions you have disputants dogmatic. A dogmatic “yes” meets an equally dogmatic “no.” The dogmas differ and it is not part of our business here to discuss them: but to come to a clear conception of the matter in hand, it must be kept in mind, that if you, notwithstanding, freely of your own accord, accept belief in certain doctrines, the freethinkers will for that deny you freedom. And the freethinkers are right in that they are dogmatic. (But this they themselves appear to overlook.) Freedom is absolutely dogmatic. It is fundamentally false that freedom implies no attachment to any belief, no being bound by any law, “As free as the wind,” as the saying goes, for the wind is not free. Simple indeterminism is not liberty.
We must, then, find the true conception of Intellectual Freedom. It is the freedom of the individual to follow his star and reach his goal. That star binds him down to certain lines and his freedom is in exact proportion to his fidelity to the lines. The seeming paradox may be puzzling: a concrete example will make it clear. Suppose a man, shipwrecked, finds himself at sea in an open boat, without his bearings or a rudder. He is at the mercy of the wind and wave, without freedom, helpless. But give him his bearings and a helm, and at once he recovers his course; he finds his position and can strike the path to freedom. He is at perfect liberty to scuttle his boat, drive it on the rocks or do any other irrational thing; but if he would have freedom, he must follow his star.
This leads us to track a certain error that has confused modern debate. A man in assumed impartiality tells you he will stand away from his own viewpoint and consider a case from yours. Now, if he does honestly hold by his own view and thinks he can put it by and judge from his opponent’s, he is deceiving both himself and his opponent. He can do so apparently, but, whatever assumption is made, he is governed subconsciously by his own firm conviction. His belief is around him like an atmosphere; it goes with him wherever he goes; he can only stand free of it by altogether abandoning it. If his case is such that he can come absolutely to the other side to view it uninfluenced by his own, then he has abandoned his own. He is like a man in a boat who has thrown over rudder and bearings: he may be moved by any current: he is adrift. If he is to recover the old ground, he must win it as something he never had. But if instead of this he does at heart hold by his own view, he should give over the deception that he is uninfluenced by it in framing judgment. It is psychologically impossible. Let the man understand it as a duty to himself to be just to others, and to substitute this principle for his spurious impartiality. This is the frank and straightforward course. While he is under his own star, he is moving in its light: he has, if unconsciously, his hand on the helm: he judges all currents scrupulously and exactly, but always from his own place at the wheel and with his own eyes. To abandon one or the other is to betray his trust, or in good faith and ignorance to cast it off till it is gone, perhaps, too far to recover.
If we so understand intellectual freedom, in what does its denial consist? In this: around every set of principles guiding men, there grows up a corresponding set of prejudices that with the majority in practice often supersede the principles; and these prejudices with the march of time assume such proportions, gather such power, both by the numbers of their adherents and the authority of many supporting them, that for a man of spirit, knowing them to be evil and urgent of resistance, there is needed a vigour and freedom of mind that but few understand and even fewer appreciate or encourage. The prejudices that grow around a man’s principles are like weeds and poison in his garden: they blight his flowers, trees and fruit; and he must go forth with fire and sword and strong unsparing hand to root out the evil things. He will find with his courage and strength are needed passion and patience and dogged persistence. For men defend a prejudice with bitter venom altogether unlike the fire that quickens the fighter for freedom; and the destroyer of the evil may find himself assailed by an astonishing combination—charged with bad faith or treachery or vanity or sheer perversity, in proportion as those who dislike his principles deny his good faith; or those who profess them, because of his vigour and candour denounce him for an enemy within the fold. But for all that he should stand fast. If he has the courage so to do, he gives a fine example of intellectual freedom.
It will serve us to consider some prejudices, free-thinking and religious. First the free-thinker. He has a prejudice very hard to kill. If I believe in the beginning what Bernard Shaw has found out thus late in the day, that priests are not as bad as they are painted, the free-thinker would deny me intellectual freedom. The fact of my right to think the matter out and come to that conclusion would count for nothing. On the other hand, if I were known to have professed a certain faith and to have abandoned it, he would acclaim that as casting off mental slavery. This is hopelessly confusing. If a man has ceased to hold a certain belief he deserves no credit for courage in saying so openly. If he thinks what he once believed, or is supposed to have believed, has no vitality, surely he can have no reason for being afraid of it, and to speak of dangerous consequences from it to him, can be for him at least only a bogey. His simple denial is, then, no mark of courage. Courage is a positive thing. Yet he may well have that courage. Suppose him in taking his stand to have taken up some social faith that for him has promise of better things. He will find his new creed surrounded by its own swarm of prejudices, and if he refuse to worship every fetish of the free-thinker, declaring that this stands to him for a certain definite, beautiful thing, and fighting for it, he will find himself denied and scouted by his new friends. He may find himself often in company with some supposed enemies. He will surely need in his sincere attitude to life a freedom of mind that is not a name merely but a positive virtue that demands of him more than denunciation of obscurantism, the recognition of a personal duty and the justification of personal works.
The religious prejudice will be no less hard to kill. Indiscriminate denunciation of unbelievers as wicked men serves no good purpose and leads nowhere. There are wicked men on all sides. Our standard must be one that will distinguish the sincere men on all sides; and our loyalty to our particular creeds must be shown in our lives and labours, not in the reviling of the infidel. We are justified in casting out the hypocrite from every camp, and when we come to this task we can be sure only of the hypocrites in our own; and we should lay it as an injunction on all bodies to purge themselves. The burden will be laid on all—not one surely of which men can complain—that they shall prove their principles in action and lay their prejudices by. Christians might well find exemplars in the early martyrs, those who for their principles went so readily to the lions. One may anticipate the complacent rejoinder: “This is not so exacting an age; men are not asked to die for religion now”—and one may in turn reply, that, perhaps our age may not be without occasion for such high service, but that we may be unwilling to go to the lions. Our time has its own trial—by no means unexacting let me tell you—but we quietly slip it by: it is much easier to revile the infidel. This as a test of loyalty should be pinned: we shall shut up thereby the hypocrite. And the earnest man, more conscious of his own burden, will be more sympathetic, generous and just, and will come to be more logical and to see what Newman well remarked, that one who asks questions shows he has no belief and in asking may be but on the road to one. If to ask a question is to express a doubt, it is no less, perhaps, to seek a way out of it. “What better can he do than inquire, if he is in doubt?” asks Newman. “Not to inquire is in his case to be satisfied with disbelief.” We should, acting in this light, instead of denouncing the questioner, answer his question freely and frankly, encourage him to ask others and put him one or two by the way. Men meeting in this manner may still remain on opposite sides, but there will be formed between them a bond of sympathy that mutual sincerity can never fail to establish. This is freedom, and a fine beautiful thing, surely worth a fine effort. What we have grown accustomed to, the bitterness, the recriminations, the persecutions and retaliations, are all the evil weeds of prejudice, growing around our principles and choking them. They are so far a denial of principle, a proof of mental slavery. Our freedom will attest to faith: “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is Liberty.”
This, in conclusion, is the root of the matter: to claim freedom and to allow it in like measure; rather than to deny, to urge men to follow their beliefs: only thus can they find salvation. To constrain a man to profess what we profess is worse than delusion: should he give lip service to what he does not hold at heart, ’twere for him deceitful and for us dangerous. Where his star calls, let him walk sincerely. If his creed is insufficient or inconsistent, in his struggle he shall test it, and in his sincerity he must make up the insufficiency or remove the inconsistency. This is the only course for honourable men and no man should object. To repeat, it puts an equal burden on all—the onus of justifying the faith that is in them. Life is a divine adventure and he whose faith is finest, firmest and clearest will go farthest. God does not hold his honours for the timid: the man who buried his talent, fearing to lose it, was cast into exterior darkness. He who will step forward fearlessly will be justified. “All things are possible to him who believeth.” Many on both sides may be surprised to find suddenly proposed as a test to both sides the readiness to adventure bravely on the Sea of Life. The free-thinker may be astonished to hear, not that he goes too far, but does not go far enough. He may gasp at the test, but it is in effect the test and the only true one. The man who does not believe he is to be blotted out when his body ceases to breathe, who holds all history for his heritage and the wide present for his battle-ground, believes also the future is no repellent void but a widening and alluring world. If in his travel he is scrupulous in detail, it is in the spirit of the mariner who will neither court a ship-wreck nor be denied his adventure. He cannot deny to others the right to hesitate and halt by the way, but his spirit asks no less than the eternal and the infinite. Yes, but many good religious people are not used to seeing the issue in this light, and those who make a trade of fanning old bitterness will still ply their bitter trade, crying that anarchists, atheists, heretics, infidels, all outcasts and wicked men, are all rampant for our destruction. It may be disputed, but, admitting it, one may ask: Is there no place among Christian people for those distinctive virtues on which we base the superiority of our religion? When the need is greatest, should the practice be less urgent? It is not evident that the free-thinker is obliged by any of his principles to give better example. It is evident the Christian is so obliged. Why is he found wanting? If human weakness were pleaded, one could understand. It is against the making a virtue of it lies the protest. How many noble things there are in our philosophies, and how little practised. No violent convulsions should be needed to make us free, if men were but consistent: we should find ourselves wakening from a wicked dream in a bloodless and beautiful revolution. We are in the desert truly and a long way from the Promised Land. But we must get to the higher ground and consider our position; and if one by one we are stripped of the prejudices that too long have usurped the place of faith, and we find ourselves, to our dismay, perhaps lacking that faith that we have so long shouted but so little testified, and tremble on the verge of panic, there is one last line that gives in four words with divine simplicity and completeness a final answer to all timidity and objections: “Fear not; only believe.”