AN ATHEIST'S VALUES
Love the virtue is the right habitual conduct of love the emotion.
I think we know well enough what we mean by 'the emotion of love'. It is an emotion arousable only towards persons or living things, though there is no definite limit to what somebody may regard as a living thing. The love that one may feel for wine is a different sense of the word.
Love the emotion is not sexual desire or excitement; but it is often produced by sexual desire. There is in the erotic impulse a tendency towards the furthering of all life that is characteristic of love; and Eros is the most philanthropic of the gods, as Plato made his 'Aristophanes' say. The tenderness that can ennoble desire is a form of love.
The elevation of the right conduct of this emotion into a great virtue is the work of the New Testament, and the greatest novelty in the history of morals. But in what does the right conduct of it consist?
The right conduct of love is, in the first place, the withering of hate. 'Love your enemies.' Hate is an undesirable emotion and is to be discouraged.
The right conduct of love is, in the second place, the creation of pleasant converse. To converse with other living things in amiable and pleasant association -- that is the end and essence of right love. The converse may be conversation, or silent being together, or stroking the dog, or working or playing together, or writing letters, or other. Love is primarily conversation. The loving man teaches himself to converse. That is not necessarily to talk and display himself, though some do this too little, and some wrongly despise it; but it is to be with others in understood and amiable communion.
The determined selfsacrificer will say with contempt that I have mistaken petty amiability for love. He is wrong, and he is a hindrance to the good life. The gospels emphasize selfsacrifice too much. 'Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends' (John xv. 13). If so, to show the greatest love one must have a friend. And that is my point. You do not get a friend by merely sacrificing yourself. People do not usually become friends with those they rescue from drowning at the risk of their own lives. You get a friend by creating loving converse. Selfsacrifice comes into our ideal of love, but its place is restricted. A person who is always sacrificing himself is destructive of everyone's happiness, except perhaps his own; and he creates no love.
Nor is love almsgiving, or 'charity' as that is sometimes wrongly called. 'The real love knows her neighbour face to face, and laughs with him and weeps with him, and eats and drinks with him, so that at last, when his black day dawns, she may share with him, not what she can spare, but all that she has.' Those fine words were written by Stella Benson (Living Alone, p. 92).
Nor is love even service. No doubt service, too, must come into our ideal of love. No doubt the loving person serves and helps. But the mere servant is colourless at best, and often a tyrant. He is the missionary, aiming at reforming you, a smug tyrant whom you cannot repulse in the ordinary way because he is shielded by his armour of religion. He is equally offensive whether he pities or reproves you. The duty of aiding persons in distress is not the same as the ideal of love.
If love is regarded merely as service, the problem how far to extend this service becomes pressing and unanswerable. Nearly all the world is worse off than you are; and everybody has his miseries and could do with some more help. Must you therefore devote all your energy to the service of other men? Yes, if love were primarily service. But no, because love is primarily conversation; and the point of service is to make happy conversation more frequent. The first task, therefore, which love lays on us is to be at least inoffensive, and if possible pleasing, to the other living things with whom we come in contact. Reasonable love demands pleasing converse with our neighbours rather than unpleasing service in Africa. No one should go to serve in slums unless he has good reason to think that he will be personally pleasing rather than repellent to those he is trying to serve. Daughters should not stay at home to look after parents unless they like it. We should seek to please rather than to serve.
The Christian story of Mary and Martha teaches the right ideal. Love lies in the conversation of Mary rather than in the service of Martha. It lies in the enjoyment of the being of other living things, and in friendly communication with them. It lies in amiability and in conversation, in personal relations. Service and selfsacrifice are secondary to this. They are that this may occur. It is for this that love does all those things Paul says it does (1 Cor. xiii), and also some others which he does not mention, including sympathizing, pitying, and imagining. It is for this that love is humble as Paul says it is, and not for the snobbish ends suggested by Luke (ix. 48 and xiv. 7-11). Love receives little children for the sake of converse with them, not in the hope of meeting a god. Love does not take a low seat at table in order to be put into a high one. It takes whatever seat seems most likely to contribute to loving converse at the meal.
A proper appreciation of the personal and conversational character of love sometimes leads people to repudiate the idea of loving the whole human race. They think that 'the human race is so big, so various, so little known, that no one can really love it' (James Fitzjames Stephen, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, 1st ed., p. 289). But this may be going too far. Love is not to be confined to those whom we know and whose responses we can apprehend. It is good to say 'I wish you well' not merely to the unknown redcoat who turns his head as he marches by, but to the never seen, to the dead, to the unborn, and to the plant that never responds. What is true is that this love of the unknown and unknowable should always be an imagined extension of our communications with our intimates, rather than a service.
What mostly makes it hard to love living things is not their absence but the hatefulness of their presence. The ways of men and animals often strike us as too hateful to let us love them. As we grow older, men and women come to seem to us nastier and pettier, and full of pervasive and destructive defects. Hence the frequency of the complaint that 'I don't know what has come over people nowadays'. We must keep on fighting against the bitterness and disappointment that experience brings. It is necessary to bear in mind the maxim attributed to Helvetius, that if we are to love men we must expect little of them. Another helpful thought is that we seem as hateful to others as they do to us. Misanthropy, how inevitable soever, is still a great evil.
The only completely improper extension of love is its extension to the love of a god; and the New Testament's putting this first is a great defect in its formulation of the ideal. If there is a god, we should be on man's side against him; and in any case one cannot converse with a god. The doctrine that 'God is love' conflicts violently with other things that are said about him.
Though love is not service, it often commands service; and it is an unfortunate consequence of the New Testament's demand for love of a god that appeals for service are largely made in the name of a god, and that atheists are largely excluded from enterprises of service, or invited to join them under false auspices. Thus the great good of service under love is smeared with the dishonesty that widely infects theism; and the many people who reject theism are not properly mobilized for service. We need to remove the tendency to think that if you disbelieve in theism you reject service, and if you want to serve you must believe that there is a god. We need to put all service on a purely mortal ground, as do the societies against cruelty to children and animals.
So much for the great virtue of love.
Besides reason and love, there are many more habits of choice which we include in our ideal of man. There is, for example, the great sphere of selfdiscipline, which includes selfformation and selfcontrol. The habit of selfformation tends to be repudiated today in contrast to our Victorian ancestors who insisted on it rather pedantically. Their lists of moral exercises to be done daily, their diaries for recording and discussing moral progress, strike us as only comic now. But a middle way is required; for certainly it is desirable to take oneself consciously in hand, and make of oneself, by training and maxims and routine, the best character one can. There is a good brief suggestion of how to do this in the beginning of the fifth book of Spinoza's Ethics.
The other part of selfdiscipline is selfcontrol, and this we are still very conscious of. Selfcontrol divides into controlling ourselves against desire and pleasure, on the one hand, and against fear and pain, on the other. That is, it divides into temperance and courage. Both of them are always necessary, and both of them are goods.
Then there are indefinitely many other virtues, including generosity, industry, and taste or the pursuit of beauty. But there is only one of these further virtues that I wish to discuss, and that merely so far as to disagree with a certain estimate of its value. I mean the virtue of conscientiousness or morality. A conscientious man is 'one who when he deliberates always has (the idea of rightness) in his mind, and does not act until he believes that his action is right' (G. E. Moore, Principia Ethica, p. 179).
Conscientiousness is often considered the greatest of the virtues. Kant so represents it when, in the beginning of his Foundations of the Metaphysics of Ethics, he writes that 'there is nothing that can be held to be good without qualification except only a good will'; for by a good will he means one that always acts out of respect for the moral law. All other candidates for unconditional goodness can, he says, sometimes be 'evil and harmful' (böse und schädlich). The same estimate has been expressed by Sir David Ross, who writes: 'The infinite superiority of moral goodness to anything else is clearest in the case of the highest form of moral goodness, the desire to do one's duty' (The Right and the Good, p. 153).
Such an estimate of the value of conscientiousness often causes a man to take great interest in assigning moral praise and blame, and to busy himself in 'fixing the moral worth' of people and actions, as he is likely to put it, and in detecting as many outrages to conscience as possible. Thus Thomas Arnold prayed: 'May the sense of moral evil be as strong in me as my delight in external beauty, for in a deep sense of moral evil, more perhaps than in anything else, abides a saving knowledge of God' (according to Lytton Strachey, Eminent Victorians, p. 199).
Along with this estimate of the value of conscientiousness there usually goes an unbounded respect for conscience, which is regarded as sacredly uncriticizable. There also goes a terror of any future change in men's moral judgements, although it is recognized that they have changed in the past.
I dissent from this estimate of conscientiousness, and place it decidedly below reason and love in value. Kant's argument for it is a mistake. All other things, he says, can be evil and harmful, but the good will cannot. This is false. All the good wills that have ever existed or ever will exist have been harmful to some extent; for harmfulness, that is having some bad effects, belongs to everything whatever. The English nonconformists' tyrannous and harmful interference with the way other Englishmen spend their Sundays is done from conscientious motives. The massacre on Saint Bartholomew's Day was probably executed, on the part of many of those responsible, from conscientious motives. 'It is as certain as anything can be that very harmful actions may be done from conscientious motives' (G. E. Moore, op. cit., p. 180).
It is natural that conscience should be harmful sometimes, because conscience recks nothing of harm. It is an autonomous commander reckless of the consequences of its orders. It is by nature unreasoning and tyrannous. It gives orders without reasons, and rejects all requests for reasons.
The original conscience of any given individual in any given society is an historical accident, the result of the influences to which he has been subject. It is a set of taboos and compulsions, acquired from his associates in the same unreflecting way as all his other taboos and compulsions. It has only this much of reason in it, that rules of conscience which are very harmful tend by natural selection to be eliminated from a society in course of time, or else the whole society itself tends to be eliminated from the world because it has such bad rules of conscience. Hence there is some natural tendency for more beneficial and less harmful rules of conscience to reign in the world as history goes on; but it is a tendency that may easily be overcome at any time by other influences.
Autonomous morality can be a very low thing indeed. 'Most moralists are fools', said a frivolous writer with much excuse; I mean James Laver in Nymph Errant. A very serious writer, Alfred North Whitehead, has said that 'mankind has been afflicted with low-toned moralists' (Adventures of Ideas, p. 346). Sometimes a person writes to The Times to let us know with fatuous selfsatisfaction that her mother taught her, and she has always obeyed, some perfectly pointless moral rule. The moralizer far too easily becomes intolerant and even a bully. He may acquire the nasty habit of wanting to make people feel guilty. He does not realize that he is a tyrant, and has a perfectly good conscience about his behaviour.
We in England had and have far too much moralizing. As it has been put by one of the wisest members of my College, Matthew Arnold, the English middle class 'in the beginning of the seventeenth century entered ... the prison of Puritanism, and had the key turned upon its spirit there for two hundred years They created a type of life and manners ... which is fatally condemned by its hideousness, its immense ennui, and against which the instinct of selfpreservation in humanity rebels.' He goes on to refer to the Puritan Parliament disposing of the National Gallery, and to Milton's abusiveness (Mixed Essays, p. 78).
Some persons would be inclined to accept this estimate of conscientiousness if they believed that Jesus also estimated it low. I suggest that he did. Morality to him was embodied in the rules of the Pharisees, which he often spoke against. 'The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath', he said as he broke one of their sabbatarian rules. The righteousness praised in Matthew's Beatitudes is probably not conscientiousness but piety. And his 'judge not, that ye be not judged' is a command not to take the moralizing point of view. The modern Christian's coupling of Christianity with the moralistic point of view is therefore a perversion of the founder's teaching. However, what Jesus subordinated conscientiousness to, namely the love of god and man, is not identical with what I subordinate it to, namely reason and the love of man.
Augustine subordinated conscientiousness to love in his famous Dilige et quod vis fac.
Conscience deserves no pious acceptance, and ought not to be worshipped as sacredly uncriticizable. 'It is as certain as anything can be ... that conscience does not always tell us the truth about what actions are right'. (G. E. Moore, op. cit., p. 180). Conscience ought to be reflectively criticized and critically adopted or rejected. One of the great merits of utilitarianism was its emphatic suggestion that perhaps ordinary moral consciousness is wrong in some respects (cf. J. S. Mill, On Liberty, introduction, para. 6). This merit comes out by contrast if you read F. H. Bradley's essay on 'Pleasure for Pleasure's Sake' (in his Ethical Studies), and see how hopelessly imbued he is with the sacred uncriticizability of actual conscience.
The terror of future change in men's moral judgements, as found in Plato (Laws 798) and in many twentieth-century writers, would be justified only if most changes in men's moral judgements were for the worse. Plato thought they were, and the task was to restore the past golden age of decency. But our contemporary conservatives have not this justification; for they share the present belief in progress to the extent of holding that in the past men's moral judgements have on the whole improved, and that in particular they took a big step forward with the teaching of Jesus.
Some persons, when invited to criticize conscience, reply that there is nothing to criticize it with. There is no rule by which to overrule the rules of conscience. But there is. The criterion of moral rules is their tendency to decrease misery. As Aristotle put it, 'the right (in one sense) is that which produces and maintains happiness and the parts of happiness for society' (N.E, 1129b18). All moral rules should be submitted to the criticism of reason to determine whether their reign in a given society tends to lessen misery there or not. If it does not lessen misery, it is bad and to be abolished. A moral rule is an interference with freedom, and all interferences with freedom are to be abolished unless they produce a more than compensating advantage. The man who puts morality above everything else is to be faced with the following question: If you became convinced that your moral rules, when they reign in a society, definitely make that society more miserable upon the whole, would you still demand obedience to them? If he says yes, then this moralist is immoral; for the highest morality is that the diminution of misery is the supreme law. Obey those moral rules, and only those, whose reign in society would, reasonable examination concludes, lessen misery. Rise from the plane of morality to that of reason. Contrary to Thomas Arnold, I hope that the sense of moral evil will decrease, and pity for life's unhappiness increase.
Conscientiousness must be subordinated to reason and love. When so subordinated, it is a great virtue, though inferior to them. The lessening of misery urgently demands rules, rules of good faith and sincerity and respect for others' lives and persons and troubles and so on; and the man of good will therefore seeks and obeys the rules whose reign lessens misery. Respect and awe towards the moral law, when the moral law is regarded as the rules whose general observance would most contribute to the happiness of society, is one of the sentiments that reason encourages.
Morality, then, is not to be autonomous but prescribed by reason. But, if we accept this doctrine, we need to remind ourselves that reason has to work, not with an ideal society, but with the actual society we have here now, including its actual set of moral laws, acknowledged to a certain degree, and obeyed to a certain other degree. It can happen that a rule, which would not exist in an ideal society, nevertheless ought to be obeyed by us in this society. Conversely, it can be irrational to follow here a rule that would be universally followed in an ideal society. For that which most lessens misery in view of the taboos we actually have, may be different from that which would most lessen misery if we had no taboos or better taboos. We usually can do little to change even our own taboos, and still less to change those of other people. Hence we must work with the taboos there are, and make the best rules in view of them. In this way many difficulties and doubts and complications arise, and it becomes important to know to what extent such and such a taboo could if we tried be removed from our society; and the question what is the right action comes to depend sometimes in a very awkward way on the question to what extent some existing moral rule is dying out, or whether deliberate defiance of it by you would or would not do anything towards making it die out. This is where the conservative moralist argues that your rebellion will never change a rule, but only make people disobey all moral rules more often, while the reformer calls for deliberate and shocking disobedience in the name of a better society. To take an actual and therefore dangerous example, the present horror of male homosexuality is possibly an irrational taboo, but in spite of that every young male ought to be protected and discouraged from homosexuality, simply because the existence of this powerful taboo means that the male homosexual is exposed to terrible and crippling disapproval, and driven to furtiveness.
So much for the doctrine that conscientiousness is not the greatest virtue, and that conscience should be criticized by reason and love. And so much for virtue in general.
2.81. Religion and reason
I come now to something commonly accepted as a great good which I reject, namely religion.
Religion has held a big place in the thoughts and feelings of most of the human beings who have yet lived; and, though some have found it an inescapable evil, most have found it a great good. The founder of the Gifford lectures said that 'religion is of all things the most excellent and precious' (according to Sherrington, Man on his Nature, p. 360).
The religious man feels that his god is the supreme good, and the worship of him is the supreme good for man; and he obtains an immense satisfaction in worship and obedience. His creed gives him the feeling that the universe is important and that he has his own humble but important part in it. 'God is working his purpose out, as year succeeds to year'; and in this august enterprise the believer has an assured place. When he says that 'man cannot be at ease in the world unless he has a faith to sustain him', the faith he is thinking of is in part that there is something extremely important to do. Thus his religion lays that spectre of futility and meaninglessness, which man's selfconsciousness and thoughtfulness are always liable to raise. The convert says to himself, in the words at the end of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina: 'My whole life, every moment of my life, will be, not meaningless as before, but full of deep meaning, which I shall have power to impress on every action.' The great comfort of such a belief is obvious.
But this is still less than half of the comfort religion can give. For it is not yet an answer to man's greatest horror, the death of his loved ones and himself. If his religion also makes him believe that death is not the end of life, that on the contrary he and his loved ones will live for ever in perfect justice and happiness, this more than doubles his feeling of comfort and security. This doctrine of the happy survival of death is the chief attraction of the Christian religion to most of its adherents; and their first profound religious belief comes to them as a reassurance after their first realization that they are going to die. It is an easy defensive reaction against this terrible discovery. (This point is well put by Bergson in Les Deux Sources, &c., e.g. p, 137.)
Such is the enormous comfort that religion can give. Because of it a man who deprives the people of the comfort of believing 'in the final proportions of eternal justice' is often regarded as a 'cruel oppressor, the merciless enemy of the poor and wretched' (Edmund Burke, 'Reflections on the French Revolution', Works, v. 432).
But is it a cruel oppression to preach atheism? There is a sinister suggestion in this idea, namely the suggestion that we ought to preach religion whether or not it is true, and that we ought not to estimate rationally whether it is true, which implies that truth is below comfort in value.
It seems to me that religion buys its benefits at too high a price, namely at the price of abandoning the ideal of truth and shackling and perverting man's reason. The religious man refuses to be guided by reason and evidence in a certain field, the theory of the gods, theology. He does not say: 'I believe that there is a god, but I am willing to listen to argument that I am mistaken, and I shall be glad to learn better.' He does not seek to find and adopt the more probable of the two contradictories, 'there is a god' and 'there is no god'. On the contrary, he makes his choice between those two propositions once for all. He is determined never to revise his choice, but to believe that there is a god no matter what the evidence. The secretary of the Christian Evidence Society wrote to The Times (19 March 1953) and said: 'When demand is made upon devout Christians to produce evidence in justification of their intense faith in God they are apt to feel surprised, pained, and even disgusted that any such evidence should be considered necessary.' That is true. Christians do not take the attitude of reasonable inquiry towards the proposition that there is a god. If they engage in discussion on the matter at all, they seek more often to intimidate their opponent by expressing shock or disgust at his opinion, or disapproval of his character. They take the view that to hold the negative one of these two contradictories is a moral crime. They make certain beliefs wicked as such, without reference to the question whether the man has reached them sincerely and responsibly. This view, that certain beliefs are as such wicked, is implied in these two sentences in John's gospel (xvi. 8-9 and xx. 29): 'He will reprove the world of sin ... because they believe not on me', and 'Blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed'. There is an extensive example of this attitude in Newman's fifteenth sermon.
Along with the view that certain beliefs are as such wicked there often goes, naturally, the view that it is wicked to try to persuade a person to hold certain beliefs. The believer's complaint, you are undermining my faith', implies that it is wrong as such to try to convince a man that there is no god. It implies that whether one believes the proposition or not, and whether one has a good reason to believe it or not, are irrelevant, because it is just wrong in itself to recommend this proposition. This view is contrary to the search for truth and the reasonable attitude of listening to argument and guiding oneself thereby.
If theology were a part of reasonable inquiry, there would be no objection to an atheist's being a professor of theology. That a man's being an atheist is an absolute bar to his occupying a chair of theology proves that theology is not an openminded and reasonable inquiry. Someone may object that a professor should be interested in his subject and an atheist cannot be interested in theology. But a man who maintains that there is no god must think it a sensible and interesting question to ask whether there is a god; and in fact we find that many atheists are interested in theology. Professor H. D. Lewis tells (Philosophy, 1952, p. 347) that an old lady asked him what philosophy is, and, when he had given an answer, she said: 'O I see, theology.' She was nearly right, for theology and philosophy have the same subject-matter. The difference is that in philosophy you are allowed to come out with whichever answer seems to you the more likely.
In most universities the title of theology includes a lot of perfectly good science which is not theory of god, and which I do not reject, I mean the scientific study of the history of the Jews and their languages and their religious books. All that can be reasonable study, and usually is so. But it is a hindrance to the progress of knowledge that we are largely organized for research in such a way that a man cannot be officially paid to engage in these branches of research unless he officially maintains that there is a god. It is as if a man could not be a professor of Greek unless he believed in Zeus and Apollo.
Religious persons often consider gambling to be a bad thing. It certainly causes a great deal of misery. But much of the badness of gambling consists in its refusal to face the probabilities and be guided by them; and in the matter of refusing to face the probabilities religion is a worse offender than gambling, and does more harm to the habits of reason. Religious belief is, in fact, a form of gambling, as Pascal saw. It does more harm to reason than ordinary gambling does, however, because it is more in earnest.
It has been said that the physicist has just as closed a mind about cause as the Christian has about god. The physicist assumes through thick and thin that everything happens according to causal laws. He presupposes cause, just as the Christian presupposes god.
But the physicist does not assume that there is a reign of law; he hopes that there is. He looks for laws; but, whenever a possible law occurs to him, he conscientiously tries to disprove it by all reasonable tests. He asserts at any time only such laws as seem at that time to have passed all reasonable tests, and he remains always prepared to hear of new evidence throwing doubt on those laws. This is far from the Christian attitude about god. The Christian does not merely hope that there is a god and maintain only such gods as the best tests have shown to be more probable than improbable.
The main irrationality of religion is preferring comfort to truth; and it is this that makes religion a very harmful thing on balance, a sort of endemic disease that has so far prevented human life from reaching its full stature. For the sake of comfort and security religion is prepared to sophisticate thought and language to any degree. For the sake of comfort and security there pours out daily, from pulpit and press, a sort of propaganda which, if it were put out for a non-religious purpose, would be seen by everyone to be cynical and immoral. We are perpetually being urged to adopt the Christian creed not because it is true but because it is beneficial, or to hold that it must be true just because belief in it is beneficial. 'The Christian faith', we are assured, 'is a necessity for a fully adjusted personality' (a psychiatrist in the Radio Times for 20 March 1953, p. 33). Hardly a week passes without someone recommending theism on the ground that if it were believed there would be much less crime; and this is a grossly immoral argument. Hardly a week passes without someone recommending theism on the ground that unless it is believed the free nations will succumb to the Communists; and that is the same grossly immoral argument. It is always wicked to recommend anybody to believe anything on the ground that he or anybody else will feel better or be more moral or successful for doing so, or on any ground whatever except that the available considerations indicate that it is probably true. The pragmatic suggestion, that we had better teach the Christian religion whether it is true or not, because people will be much less criminal if they believe it, is disgusting and degrading; but it is being made to us all the time, and it is a natural consequence of the fundamental religious attitude that comfort and security must always prevail over rational inquiry.
This pragmatic fallacy is not the only fallacy into which religion is frequently led by preferring comfortingness to truth, though it is the main one. The religious impulse encourages all the fallacies. It encourages the argument ad hominem, that is the argument that my adversary's view must be false because he is a wicked man: the atheist is impious, therefore he is wicked, therefore his view is false. Religion encourages also the argument from ignorance: instead of rejecting a proposition if it is probably false, the religious man thinks himself entitled to accept it because it is not certainly false. Biased selection of the instances is also very common in religious language. Any case of a man getting his wish after praying for it, or being struck by lightning after doing something mean, is taken as good evidence that there is a god who gives and punishes. Contrary cases are not looked for; and if they obtrude themselves they are dealt with by the further hypothesis that 'God's ways are inscrutable'. Religious arguments even exhibit, very often, what seems the most fallacious possible fallacy, namely inferring a theory from something that contradicts the theory. Thus we often find: 'since no explanation is final, God is the final explanation'; and 'since everybody believes in God, you are wrong not to believe in God'.
I have been saying that religion is gravely infected with intellectual dishonesty. You may find this very unlikely for a general reason. You may think it very unlikely that such widespread dishonesty would go unnoticed. I do not think so. I think, on the contrary, that it is quite common for a moral defect to pervade a certain sphere and yet escape notice in that sphere, although the people concerned are wide awake to its presence in other places. I think there are plenty of other cases of this. One of them is that the English, who are greater haters of the bully and the might-is-right man, nevertheless bully and intimidate each other when driving a motor-car. They know that power does not confer any right, but they assume that horse-power does. Life is full of such inconsistencies, because we can never see all the implications and applications of our principles. In religion it is particularly easy for intellectual dishonesty to escape notice, because of the common assumption that all honesty flows from religion and religion is necessarily honest whatever it does.
According to Christianity one of the great virtues is faith. Paul gave faith a commanding position in the Christian scheme of values, along with hope and love, in the famous thirteenth chapter of his first letter to the Corinthians. Thomas Aquinas held that infidelity is a very great sin, that infidels should be compelled to believe, that heretics should not be tolerated, and that heretics who revert to the true doctrine and then relapse again should be received into penitence, but killed (Summa Theologica, 2-2. 1-16).
According to me this is a terrible mistake, and faith is not a virtue but a positive vice. More precisely, there is, indeed, a virtue often called faith but that is not the faith which the Christians make much of. The true virtue of faith is faith as opposed to faithlessness, that is, keeping faith and promises and being loyal. Christian faith, however, is not opposed to faithlessness but to unbelief. It is faith as some opposite of unbelief that I declare to be a vice.
When we investigate what Christians mean by their peculiar use of the word 'faith'. I think we come to the remarkable conclusion that all their accounts of it are either unintelligible or false. Their most famous account is that in Heb. xi. 1: 'Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.' This is obviously unintelligible. In any case, it does not make faith a virtue, since neither a substance nor an evidence can be a virtue. A virtue is a praiseworthy habit of choice, and neither a substance nor an evidence can be a habit of choice. When a Christian gives an intelligible account of faith, I think you will find that it is false. I mean that it is not a true dictionary report of how he and other Christians actually use the word. For example, Augustine asked: 'What is faith but believing what you do not see?' (Joannis Evang. Tract., c. 40, § 8). But Christians do not use the word 'faith' in the sense of believing what you do not see. You do not see thunder; but you cannot say in the Christian sense 'have faith that it is thundering', or 'I have faith that it has thundered in the past and will again in the future'. You do not see mathematical truths; but you cannot say in the Christian sense 'have faith that there is no greatest number'. If we take Augustine's 'see' to stand here for 'know', still it is false that Christians use the word 'faith' to mean believing what you do not know, for they would never call it faith if anyone believed that the sun converts hydrogen into helium, although he did not know it.
A good hint of what Christians really mean by their word 'faith' can be got by considering the proposition: 'Tom Paine had faith that there is no god.' Is this a possible remark, in the Christian sense of the word 'faith'? No, it is an impossible remark, because it is selfcontradictory, because part of what Christians mean by 'faith' is belief that there is a god.
There is more to it than this. Christian faith is not merely believing that there is a god. It is believing that there is a god no matter what the evidence on the question may be. Have faith, in the Christian sense, means 'make yourself believe that there is a god without regard to evidence.' Christian faith is a habit of flouting reason in forming and maintaining one's answer to the question whether there is a god. Its essence is the determination to believe that there is a god no matter what the evidence may be.
No wonder that there is no true and intelligible account of faith in Christian literature. What they mean is too shocking to survive exposure. Faith is a great vice, an example of obstinately refusing to listen to reason, something irrational and undesirable, a form of selfhypnotism. Newman wrote that 'if we but obey God strictly, in time (through His blessing) faith will become like sight' (Sermon XV). This is no better than if he had said: 'Keep on telling yourself that there is a god until you believe it. Hypnotize yourself into this belief.'
It follows that, far from its being wicked to undermine faith, it is a duty to do so. We ought to do what we can towards eradicating the evil habit of believing without regard to evidence.
The usual way of recommending faith is to point out that belief and trust are often rational or necessary attitudes. Here is an example of this from Newman: 'To hear some men speak, (I mean men who scoff at religion), it might be thought we never acted on Faith or Trust, except in religious matters; whereas we are acting on trust every hour of our lives.... We trust our memory ... the general soundness of our reasoning powers.... Faith in
The value of this sort of argument is as follows. It is certainly true that belief and trust are often rational. But it is also certainly true that belief and trust are often irrational. We have to decide in each case by rational considerations whether to believe and trust or not. Sometimes we correctly decide not to trust our memory on some point, but to look the matter up in a book. Sometimes even we correctly decide not to trust our own reason, like poor Canning deciding he was mad because the Duke of Wellington told him he was. But Christian faith is essentially a case of irrational belief and trust and decision, because it consists in deciding to believe and trust the proposition that there is a god no matter what the evidence may be.
Another common way to defend Christian faith is to point out that we are often obliged to act on something less than knowledge and proof. For example, Newman writes: 'Life is not long enough for a religion of inferences; we shall never have done beginning if we determine to begin with proof. Life is for action. If we insist on proof for everything, we shall never come to action; to act you must assume, and that assumption is faith (Assent, p 92).
The value of this argument is as follows. It is true that we are often unable to obtain knowledge and proof. But it does not follow that we must act on faith, for faith is belief reckless of evidence and probability. It follows only that we must act on some belief that does not amount to knowledge. This being so, we ought to assume, as our basis for action, those beliefs which are more probable than their contradictories in the light of the available evidence. We ought not to act on faith, for faith is assuming a certain belief without reference to its probability.
There is an ambiguity in the phrase 'have faith in' that helps to make faith look respectable. When a man says that he has faith in the president he is assuming that it is obvious and known to everybody that there is a president, that the president exists, and he is asserting his confidence that the president will do good work on the whole. But, if a man says he has faith in telepathy, he does not mean that he is confident that telepathy will do good work on the whole, but that he believes that telepathy really occurs sometimes, that telepathy exists. Thus the phrase 'to have faith x' sometimes means to be confident that good work will be done by x, who is assumed or known to exist, but at other times means to believe that x exists. Which does it mean in the phrase 'have faith in God'? It means ambiguously both; and the selfevidence of what it means in the one sense recommends what it means in the other sense. If there is a perfectly powerful and good god it is selfevidently reasonable to believe that he will do good. In this sense 'have faith in God' is a reasonable exhortation. But it insinuates the other sense, namely 'believe that there is a perfectly powerful and good god, no matter what the evidence'. Thus the reasonableness of trusting God if he exists is used to make it seem also reasonable to believe that he exists. It is well to remark here that a god who wished us to decide certain questions without regard to the evidence would definitely not be a perfectly good god.
Even when a person is aware that faith is belief without regard to evidence, he may be led to hold faith respectable by the consideration that we sometimes think it good for a man to believe in his friend's honesty in spite of strong evidence to the contrary, or for a woman to believe in her son's innocence in spite of strong evidence to the contrary. But, while we admire and love the love that leads the friend or parent to this view, we do not adopt or admire his conclusion unless we believe that he has private evidence of his own, gained by his long and intimate association, to outweigh the public evidence on the other side. Usually we suppose that his love has led him into an error of judgement, which both love and hate are prone to do.
This does not imply that we should never act on a man's word if we think he is deceiving us. Sometimes we ought to act on a man's word although we privately think he is probably lying. For the act required may be unimportant, whereas accusing a man of lying is always important. But there is no argument from this to faith. We cannot say that sometimes we ought to believe a proposition although we think it is false!
So I conclude that faith is a vice and to be condemned. As Plato said, 'It is unholy to abandon the probably true' (Rp. 607 c). Out of Paul's 'faith, hope, and love' I emphatically accept love and reject faith. As to hope, it is more respectable than faith. While we ought not to believe against the probabilities, we are permitted to hope against them. But still the Christian overtones of hope are otherworldly and unrealistic. It is better to take a virtue that avoids that. Instead of faith, hope, and love, let us hymn reason, love, and joy.
What is the application of this to the common phrase 'a faith to live by'? A faith to live by is not necessarily a set of beliefs or valuations maintained without regard to evidence in an irrational way. The phrase can well cover also a criticized and rational choice of values. To decide, for example, that the pursuit of love is better than the pursuit of power, in view of the probable effects of each on human happiness and misery, and to guide one's actions accordingly, is a rational procedure, and is sometimes called and may well be called 'a faith to live by'. In this case a faith to live by is a choice of values, a decision as to great goods and evils, and is what I am doing in these lectures. On the other hand, many 'faiths to live by' are irrational and bad. Some people will not count anything as a faith to live by unless it deliberately ignores rational considerations; so that what they will consent to call a faith to live by must always be something that is bad according to me. Other people refuse to count anything as a faith to live by unless it includes a belief that the big battalions are on their side, so that according to them a man who rationally concludes that he is not the darling of any god by definition has no faith to live by.