It ought to be laid down as a first principle that grave questions which have divided us in the past, and divide us still with much bitterness, should not be thrust aside and kept out of view in the hope of harmony. Where the attitude is such, the hope is vain. They should be approached with courage in the hope of creating mutual respect and an honourable solution for all. Religion is such a question. To the majority of men this touches their most intimate life. Because of their jealous regard for that intimate part of themselves they are prepared for bitter hostilities with anyone who will assail it; and because of the unmeasured bitterness of assaults on all sides we have come to count it a virtue to bring together in societies labelled non-sectarian, men who have been violently opposed on this issue. It will be readily allowed that to bring men together anyhow, even suspiciously, is somewhat of an advance, when we keep in mind how angrily they have quarrelled. But ’tis not to our credit that in any assembly a particular name hardly dare be mentioned; and it must be realised that, whatever purpose it may serve in lesser undertakings, in the great fight for freedom no such attitude will suffice. No grave question can be settled by ignoring it. Since it is our duty to make the War of Independence a reality and a success, we must invoke a contest that will as surely rouse every latent passion and give every latent suspicion an occasion and a field. That is the danger ahead. We must anticipate that danger, meet and destroy it. Perhaps at this suggestion most of us will at once get restive. Some may say with irritation: Why raise this matter? Others on the other side may prepare forthwith to dig up the hatchet. Is not the attitude on both sides evidence of the danger? Does anyone suppose we can start a fight for freedom without making that danger a grimmer reality? Who can claim it a wise policy merely for the moment to dodge it? For that is what we do. Let us have courage and face it. At what I have to say let no man take offence or fright—it commits no one to anything. It is written to try and make opponents understand and respect one another, not to set them at one another, least of all to make them “liberal,” that is, lax and contemptible, ready to explain everything away. We want primarily the man who is prepared to fight his ground, but who is big enough in heart and mind to respect opponents who will also fight theirs. In the integrity and courage of both sides is the guarantee of the independence of both. That should be our guiding thought. But as on this question most people abandon all tolerance, it is quite possible what may be written will satisfy none; still, it may serve the purpose of making a need apparent. To repeat, we must face the question. But whoever elects to start it, should approach the issue with sympathy and forbearance. These are as necessary as courage and resolution; yet, since many often sacrifice firmness to sympathy, others will take the opposite line of riding roughshod over everyone, a harshness that confirms the weakling in his weakness. To note all this is but to note the difficulty; and if what is now written fails in its appeal, it need only be said to walk unerringly here would require the insight of a prophet and the balance of an angel.
What everyone should take as a fair demand is that all men should be sincere in their professions, and that we should justify ourselves by the consistency of our own lives rather than by the wickedness of our neighbours: which is nothing new. It is our trouble that we must emphasise obvious duties. To approach the question frankly with no matter what good faith will lead to much heart-burning, perhaps, to no little bitterness; but if we realise that all sides are about equally to blame, we may induce an earnestness that may lead to better things. It is in that hope I write. Catholics and Protestants, instead of saying to one another the things with which we are familiar, should look to their own houses; and if in this age of fashionable agnosticism, they should conclude that the general enemy is the atheist, socialist, and the syndicalist, they should still be reminded to look to their own houses; and if the agnostic take this to justify himself, he should be reminded he has never done anything to justify himself. It may seem a curious way for inducing harmony to set out to prove everyone in the wrong; but the point is clear, not to attack what men believe but to ask them to justify their words by their deeds. The request is not unreasonable and it may be asked in a tone that will show the sincerity of him who makes it and waken a kindred feeling in all earnest men. The world will be a better place to live in, and we shall be all better friends when every man makes a genuine resolve to give us all the example of a better life.
A development that would require a treatise in itself I will but touch on, to suggest to all interested a matter of general and grave concern—the growing materialism of religious bodies. On all sides self-constituted defenders of the faith are troubling themselves, not with the faith but with the numbers of their adherents who have jobs, equal sharers in emoluments, and so forth. A Protestant of standing writes a book and proves his religion is one of efficiency; a Catholic of equal standing quickly rejoins with another book to prove his religion is also efficient; each blind to the fact that the resulting campaign is disgraceful to both. When religion ceases to represent to us something spiritual, and purely spiritual, we begin to drift away from it. “Where thy treasure is, there thy heart is also.” “No man can serve God and Mammon.” The modern rejoinder is familiar: “We must live.” This, our generation is not likely to forget. The grave concern is that well-meaning men are accustoming themselves to this cry to sacrifice all higher considerations for the “equal division of emoluments.” Let us as citizens and a community see that every man has the right and the means to live; but when self-interested bodies start a rivalry in the name of their particular creeds, we know it ends in a squalid greed and fight for place, in a pursuit of luxury, the logical outcome of which must be to make the world ugly, sordid and brutal. It would be a mistake to overlook that high-minded men are allowing themselves to be committed by plausible reasons to this growing evil. It is misguided enthusiasm. There is a divine authority that warns us all: “Be zealous for the better gifts.”
I wish to examine the attitude of the average Christian to the Agnostic. “The world is falling away from religion,” he will cry when depressed, without thinking how much he himself may be a contributing cause. Let him study it in this light. What is his attitude? When he comes to speak of the tendency of the age he will indulge in vague generalities about atheism, socialism, irreligion, and the rest; always the cause is outside of him, and against him; he is not part of it. I ask him to pass by the atheist awhile and take what may be of more concern. There is a type of Catholic and Protestant who has as little genuine religion in him as any infidel, who does not deny the letter of the law, but who does not observe its spirit, whose only use for the letter is to criticise and harass adversaries. Observe the high use he has for liberty—drinking, card-playing, gambling, luxury; he has no place in his life for any worthy deeds, nay, only scorn for such. Still he passes for orthodox. If he is a Catholic, he secures that by putting in an appearance at Mass on Sundays. His mind is not there; he arrives late and goes early. His Protestant fellow in his private judgment finds more scope: “Let the women go listen to the parson.” This is the sort of saying gives him such a conceit of himself. We have the type on both sides, so all can see it. Now it is not in the way of the Pharisee we come to note them, but to note that, strange as it may appear, either or both together will come to applaud the denouncing of the atheist. We gather such into our religious societies, and flatter them that they are adherents of religion and the bulwark of the faith, and they forthwith anathematise the atheist with great gusto. The one so anathematised is often as worthless as themselves with a conceit to despise priest and parson alike. But it sometimes happens he is a fine character who has no religion as most of us understand it, but who has yet a fine spiritual fervour, ready to fight and make sacrifices for a national or social principle that he believes will make for better things, a man of integrity and worth whom the best of men may be glad to hold as a friend. Yet we find in the condition to which we have drifted such a one may be pilloried by wasters, gamblers, rioters, a crew that are the curse of every community. We lash the atheist and the age but give little heed to the insincerity and cant of those we do not refuse to call our own. What an example for the man anathematised. He sees the vice and meanness of those we allow to pass for orthodox, and when he sees also the complacency of the better part, he is unconvinced. We praise the sweetness of the healing waters of Christ-like charity, but despite our gospel he never gets it, never. We give him execration, injustice; if we let him go with a word, it is never a gentle word, but a bitter epithet; and we wonder he is estranged, when he sees our amazing composure in an amazing welter of hypocrisy and deceit. There is, of course, the better side, the many thousands of Catholics and Protestants who sincerely aim at better things. But what has to be admitted is that most sincerely religious people adopt to the man of no established religion the same attitude as does the hypocrite: they join in the general cry. They should look to their own houses; they should purge the temple of the money-lender and the knave; they should see that their field gives good harvest; they should remember that not to the atheist only but to the orthodox was it written: “Every tree therefore that doth not yield good fruit shall be cut down and cast into the fire.”
There is a word to be said to the man for whom was invented the curious name agnostic. I’m concerned only with him who is sincere and high-minded. Let us pass the flippant critics of things they do not understand. But all sincere men are comrades in a deep and fine sense. What the honest unbeliever has to keep in mind is that the darker side is but one side. If he stands studying a crowd of the orthodox and finds therein the drunkard, the gambler, the sensualist; and if he says bitter things of the value of religion and gets in return the clerical fiat of one who is more a politician than a priest; and if he rejoins contemptuously, “This is fit for women and children,” let him be reminded that he can also study the other side if he care. If he has the instinct of a fighter he must know every army has in its trail the camp-follower and the vulture, but when the battle is set and the danger is imminent, only the true soldier stands his ground. Because some who are of poor spirit are in high place, let him not forget the old spirit still exists. Not only the women but the best intellects of men still keep the old traditions. Newman and Pascal, Dante and Milton, Erigena and Aquinas, are all dead, but in our time even they have had followers not too far off. In the same spirit Gilbert Chesterton found wonder at a wooden post, and Francis Thompson, in his divine wandering, troubled the gold gateways of the stars. Let our friend before he frames his final judgment pause here. He may well be baffled by many anomalies of the time, his eye may rest on the meaner horde, his ear be filled with the arrogance of some unworthy successor of Paul; and if he says: “Why permit these things?” he may be told there are some alive in this generation who will question all such things, and who, however hard it go with them, have no fear for the final victory.
Perhaps the conventional Christian and conventional non-Christian may rest a moment to consider the reality. Between the bitter believer and the exasperated unbeliever, Christianity is being turned from a practice to a polemic, and if we are to recall the old spirit we must recall the old earnestness and simplicity of the early Martyrs. We do not hear that they called Nero an atheist, but we do hear that they went singing to the arena. By their example we may recover the spirit of song, and have done with invective. If we find music and joyousness in the old conception, it is not in the fashion of the time to explain it away in some “new theology,” for he to whom it is not a fashion, but a vital thing, keeps his anchor by tradition. To him it is the shining light away in the mists of antiquity; it is the strong sun over the living world; it is the pillar of fire over the widening seas and worlds of the unknown; it is the expanse of infinity. When he is lost in its mystery he adverts to the wonder about him, for all that is wonderful is touched with it, and all that is lovely is its expression. It is in the breath of the wind, pure and bracing from the mountain top. It is in the song of the lark holding his musical revel in the sunlight. It is in the ecstasy of a Spring morning. It is in the glory of all beautiful things. When it has entered and purified his spirit, his heart goes out to the persecuted in all ages and countries. None will he reject. “I am not come to call the just but sinners.” He remembers those words, and his great charity encompasses not only the persecuted orthodox, but the persecuted heretics and infidels.
I will not say if such an endeavour as I suggest can have an immediate success. But I think it will be a step forward if we get sincere men on one side to understand the sincerity of the other side; and if in matters of religion and speculation, where there is so much difficulty and there is likely to be so much conflict of opinion, there should be no constraint, but rather the finest charity and forbearance; then the orthodox would be concerned with practising their faith rather than in harassing the infidel, and the infidel would receive a more useful lesson than the ill-considered tirades he despises. He may remain still unconvinced, but he will give over his contempt. This question of religion is one on which men will differ, and differing, ultimately they will fight if we find no better way. We must remember while freedom is to win we are facing a national struggle, and if we are threatened within by a civil war of creeds it may undo us. That is why we must face the question. That is why I think utter frankness in these grave matters is of grave urgency. If we approach them in the right spirit we need have no fear—for at heart the most of men are susceptible to high appeals. What we need is courage and intensity; it is gabbling about surface things makes the bitterness. If in truth we safeguard the right of every man as we are bound to do we shall win the confidence of all, and we may hope for a braver and better future, wherein some light of the primal Beauty may wander again over earth as in the beginning it dawned on chaos when the Spirit of God first moved over the waters.