Monday, September 04, 2006

Mill for the Grist

I've been re-reading one of my favorite books, John Stuart Mill's autobiography, which I now see is available online. Free online reading is great, but as a bibliophile, I also lament that online readers miss the full sensual experience of reading a book, such as the quirky little ad on the reverse of the title page of my 1924 edition:

One of the most enduring passages for me in this remarkable book is the one where he describes his father's essential rejection of Christianity:

[M]y father's rejection of all that is called religious belief, was not, as many might suppose, primarily a matter of logic and evidence: the grounds of it were moral, still more than intellectual. He found it impossible to believe that a world so full of evil was the work of an Author combining infinite power with perfect goodness and righteousness.

His intellect spurned the subtleties by which men attempt to blind themselves to this open contradiction. The Sabaean, or Manichaean theory of a Good and Evil Principle, struggling against each other for the government of the universe, he would not have equally condemned; and I have heard him express surprise, that no one revived it in our time. He would have regarded it as a mere hypothesis; but he would have ascribed to it no depraving influence.

As it was, his aversion to religion, in the sense usually attached to the term, was of the same kind with that of Lucretius: he regarded it with the feelings due not to a mere mental delusion, but to a great moral evil. He looked upon it as the greatest enemy of morality: first, by setting up factitious excellencies, -- belief in creeds, devotional feelings, and ceremonies, not connected with the good of human kind, -- and causing these to be accepted as substitutes for genuine virtues: but above all, by radically vitiating the standard of morals; making it consist in doing the will of a being, on whom it lavishes indeed all the phrases of adulation, but whom in sober truth it depicts as eminently hateful.

I have a hundred times heard him say, that all ages and nations have represented their gods as wicked, in a constantly increasing progression, that mankind have gone on adding trait after trait till they reached the most perfect conception of wickedness which the human mind can devise, and have called this God, and prostrated themselves before it. This ne plus ultra of wickedness he considered to be embodied in what is commonly presented to mankind as the creed of Christianity. Think (he used to say) of a being who would make a Hell -- who would create the human race with the infallible foreknowledge, and therefore with the intention, that the great majority of them were to be consigned to horrible and everlasting torment. ...

My father was as well aware as anyone that Christians do not, in general, undergo the demoralizing consequences which seem inherent in such a creed, in the manner or to the extent which might have been expected from it. The same slovenliness of thought, and subjection of the reason to fears, wishes, and affections, which enable them to accept a theory involving a contradiction in terms, prevents them from perceiving the logical consequences of the theory. Such is the facility with which mankind believe at one and the same time things inconsistent with one another, and so few are those who draw from what they receive as truths, any consequences but those recommended to them by their feelings, that multitudes have held the undoubting belief in an Omnipotent Author of Hell, and have nevertheless identified that being with the best conception they were able to form of perfect goodness. Their worship was not paid to the demon which such a being as they imagined would really be, but to their own idea of excellence.

The evil is, that such a belief keeps the ideal wretchedly low; and opposes the most obstinate resistance to all thought which has a tendency to raise it higher. Believers shrink from every train of ideas which would lead the mind to a clear conception and an elevated standard of excellence, because they feel (even when they do not distinctly see) that such a standard would conflict with many of the dispensations of nature, and with much of what they are accustomed to consider as the Christian creed. And thus morality continues a matter of blind tradition, with no consistent principle, nor even any consistent feeling, to guide it.


Of unbelievers (so called) as well as of believers, there are many species, including almost every variety of moral type. But the best among them, as no one who has had opportunities of really knowing them will hesitate to affirm (believers rarely have that opportunity), are more genuinely religious, in the best sense of the word religion, than those who exclusively arrogate to themselves the title. The liberality of the age, or in other words the weakening of the obstinate prejudice which makes men unable to see what is before their eyes because it is contrary to their expectations, has caused it to be very commonly admitted that a Deist may be truly religious: but if religion stands for any graces of character and not for mere dogma, the assertion may equally be made of many whose belief is far short of Deism.

Though they may think the proof incomplete that the universe is a work of design, and though they assuredly disbelieve that it can have an Author and Governor who is absolute in power as well as perfect in goodness, they have that which constitutes the principal worth of all religions whatever, an ideal conception of a Perfect Being, to which they habitually refer as the guide of their conscience; and this ideal of Good is usually far nearer to perfection than the objective Deity of those, who think themselves obliged to find absolute goodness in the author of a world so crowded with suffering and so deformed by injustice as ours.

All of which really rang true to me in my essential a-Christianity. Which is not the pure agnosticism of Mill's father, or of Robert G. Ingersoll, who felt much like him. Nor is it a rejection of Christians as such, for it allows, as Ingersoll often noted, too, that the vast majority of them are much better than their creed. And even C.S. Lewis could agree with Mills, there is a sort of manly intellectual honesty in the Manichaeans.

And to bring the Bible to the sort of universalism that would win the approval of Mill's father, you'd have to torture the text beyond recognition. And of course you'd still be left with the world created so that bears have to eat Bambi to survive and certain kinds of wasps lay their eggs in the living but paralyzed bodies of other insects so the host may be eaten alive from within.

To oppose reason to belief is nonsense and an insult to both. It's like applying algebra to love. I have no patience with people who try to use logic to convert me to their faith, any more than I have with those who use logic to try to convert another out of his.

But re-reading this now reinforces another thought, which is that the most zealous partisans of Christianity, and the fiercest scoffers at it, have much in common: Both are fundamentalists, in that they start out with the view that the religion is essentially and wholly what it says it is in its scriptures.

If you limit yourself to that and believe it, you will end up defending positions (on science, say, but also on a great many matters in which the literal sense of the books contradicts itself) that are wholly contrary to reason. And as Mill's father's friend Hume used to note, when reason is against a man's position, the man turns against reason.

But the most ferocious anti-Christians attack it from the same grounds, by picking at the contradictions and absurdities in the texts, and trumpeting them as proof that the whole is worthless, or manufactured without inspiration. I hope I've moved past that.

Mill's father split off from Christianity over the essential contradiction in the notion of an omnipotent and benevolent creator of a universe which is demonstrably wasteful and cruel. It is the same question posed in the Book of Job: why is life so nasty so often? Why is life the sow that eats her farrow? The children of Egypt die of plagues even now, whether it is the work of the Allah, the Baptist God, or Artemis Hekebolos. Like Mill, I can comprehend it better in Artemis, since she at least does not claim to control and rule all, only her portion.

Any religion that offers no answer to this question, or no alternative, is inadequate to human needs. Yet no final answer is possible. If I pretended to be a Christian (which I never have) this would be the sun I could not stare into without going mad and which I cannot see past.

And so I turn the other direction, and see the other aspect of faith: the shadow one casts on the earth. How do you live? What does your love and skill and belief accomplish? Is the world a better place for your having lived in it? And here a Christian and I can find a lot of common ground, moreso than I usually can with a calumnator of the faith.

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