What is Rationalism


THE earliest stage of religions is presumed to be that of fetishism, the worship of portions of matter animate or inanimate. At the next stage the idea of divinity is separated from matter, but man conceives the divine spirits anthropomorphically, assigns to them human qualities, and pictures them to himself and others in human likeness. When the virtue of the deity is attributed, in the spirit of fetishism, to the image, we have idolatry. Art develops in relation to religious ideas; the earliest Christian art, in the catacombs, has no suggestion of idolatry; the Deity is presented only, and very rarely, in the person of Christ. In the early medieval stage, the demand for a feminine as well as a masculine conception of the deity introduces the presentation of the Virgin--but not yet of God the Father; and the fetishist treatment of particular images comes into being--in spite of the Iconoclasts in the Eastern Church and of the denunciations of St. Agobard of Lyons in the ninth century. Mahomedanism stands alone in its refusal to countenance idolatry in practice as well as in theory. In the medieval Church, the worship of relics and of particular images was in effect encouraged.

The art which is the pursuit of beauty developed in Ancient Greece and in Renaissance Italy when it ceased in fact if not in form to have religion for its motive. The Gothic architecture which had been the most perfect expression of the sense of beauty permeated by the most profound religious sentiment was displaced by that of which St. Peter's is the supreme type, devoid altogether of religious sentiment; as were Michaelangelo's 'religious' frescoes and statues. The secularisation of art marked the new rationalising spirit which severed it altogether from fetishism and from anthropomorphism. For in the earliest stages, religion had treated beauty, sensuous beauty, as a dangerous snare of the Devil; and the more definitely beauty became the object pursued, the more definitely were the ways of art and of religion parted.

The general movement of rationalism has been most profoundly influenced by the progress of physical science. The doctrine of the inspiration of the Bible might be applied to its allegorical interpretation, a process which was indeed carried to amazing lengths; but it was also applied to the complete repression of all scientific enquiry which could be contravened by any phrase in the Bible as the ultimate indisputable authority; so that to believe, for instance, in the existence of the antipodes, was tantamount to heresy. No scientific facts outside the range of the ancient Hebrew writers could be true; whatever they took for granted must be true; a postulate that was in itself a prohibition upon the progress of science, which in medieval times was possible only under Islam.

Superior knowledge excited only terror and suspicion. If it was shown in speculation it was heresy, if in the study of nature it was sorcery. The magnificent work of Roger Bacon brought upon him only imprisonment and persecution. The astronomical discoveries of Copernicus and Galileo, followed at the close of the seventeeth century by Newton and Descartes, destroyed the old conception of Man as the centre of the universe; the Church could no longer prohibit the progress of the scientific spirit, and the work was completed by the advance of chemistry and, in the nineteenth century, of geology; the first emphasising the natural as against the supernatural explanation of phenomena and the second the infinite age of the universe to which Bibical chronology assigned an existence of six thousand years.

The new attitude reacted upon Biblical criticism, forcing it to bring the interpretation of scripture into conformity with the affirmations of science, as a subject regarding which the knowledge of the Hebrews was not inspired but merely represented the assumptions current in their time, the actual record of events being naturally coloured by those assumptions.

A corresponding change arises in the field of moral development. Right and wrong are absolute and unchanging, but the realization of right and wrong in particular departments is a matter of growth. The attitude towards veracity takes on new aspects with the advance of civilization; the sentiment of humanity in one age tolerates with no sort of reprobation what a later age has learnt to condemn without qualification. The religious doctrines or dogmas which clash with the developed moral perceptions are driven from the field, even as those which clash with developed scientific knowledge. The strength of Christianity lies in the fact that every moral advance only reveals more completely the moral perfection of its ideal, prosecuted in the teaching and in the person of its Founder.


THE moral sentiment upon which the religion of ancient Greece and Rome centred was the sense, the pride, of virtue, claiming merit for itself. That of Christianity was the sense of sin, the absence of merit in the creature; 'we are all unprofitable servants'; resting in medieval Christianity, upon the doctrine of the Fall of Adam and the birth into sin of all his descendants, the consequent necessity for the Atonement, and the exclusion from salvation of all who had not been released from the transmitted guilt of Adam by membership of the Church. The doctrine of exclusive salvation is directly responsible for the theory of persecution for religious opinions, because the right opinion was held to be necessary to salvation; insomuch that the unbaptized infant was doomed to an eternity of agony on account of Adam's sin five or six thousand years before its birth. Luther and Calvin were as emphatic on the subject as Rome. The great pagans were damned beside the unbaptized infants. Zwingli and Socinus in the Reformation era were alone in asserting conscience, not dogmatic belief, as the arbiter; the pioneers of the rationalism which transferred to reason the functions which had been assumed by authority. It was between the time of Bacon and Locke that Chillingworth, for the first time in England, taught the absolute innocence of honest error, and that the writ De Herelico Comburendo was expunged from the Statute Book.

It is a common error to suppose that opinion cannot be greatly repressed or even entirely suppressed by penal measures. Where opinion has survived and proved victorious over severe persecution, the fact has generally been due to other issues which were involved; and religious persecution has often been in effect successful. Most often, persecution has been defeated by a change in the atmosphere of thought which has weakened and finally ended the persecution itself. Nor, in many cases, have the persecuted refrained from persecution when the power has passed into their hands. The doctrine of exclusive salvation inevitably brings about persecution in order that souls may be saved though bodies perish through the repression of false doctrine. The earliest Christian persecutors found their warrant in the Levitical code which treated idolatry not as an error but as a crime. Arians and Catholics persecuted pagans and each other with equal zeal; and the doctrine of persecution received its most emphatic impulse from St. Augustine. In his eyes, heresy was the greatest of crimes. The ascetic doctrine of contempt and more than contempt for the body hardened men's hearts to physical suffering. The authority claimed for the Church was in many respects applied as a humanising and civilizing influence; but uncompromisingly it crushed all freedom of thought and of enquiry and was ultimately responsible for inflicting an enormous amount of bloodshed and suffering in the name of religion.

Though Protestantism was based on the assertion of the right and duty of exercising private judgement, it was nevertheless for long permeated with the same conception of the guilt of error and the same doctrine of exclusive salvation which were in fact inconsistent with its underlying principle, of which toleration was the necessary corollary; but it was only in the course of two centuries that the underlying principle prevailed over the established habit of thought. In France, the scepticism of Montaigne as a man of the world, of Descartes as a philosopher, and of Bayle as a scholar, had the greatest influence, in the three several fields which they touched, in developing this rationalist attitude; and most of all it was the scepticism of Voltaire, when the way had been thus prepared, that exposed the fundamental irrationalism of persecution. In England the idea of toleration was not derived from the sceptics; the most powerful indictment of intolerance was the Areopagitica of the Puritan Milton, and the spirit of toleration breathes in the Liberty of Prophesying by Jeremy Taylor; while it was bound up with the teaching of Chillingworth and the latitudinarian school in the Anglican Church, severely as they were condemned by other schools--a tribute to the greater flexibility of Protestantism.


IN this branch of our subject, we shall observe first how theological interests, at one time dominant, ceased to be a main object of political combinations, and, secondly, how the basis of authority became secularised. Two moral influences have chiefly controlled the history of mankind, patriotism and religion. In the ancient world patriotism was supreme, religion but secondary, except in the case of the Hebrews, among whom the two were identified. With the establishment of Christianity, religious fervour displaced patriotic fervour, and the Church dominated politics; most conspicuously in the crusading era, which was also the era of the great Popes. Christendom battled whole-heartedly against Islam, and the Church could enforce the Truce of God. But with the improving organization of the civil governments and the weakening of ecclesiastical prestige, the business of administration passed out of the hands of the Churchmen, the governments ceased to fear the Church; and the new wars of religion which arose with the Reformation, unlike the Crusades, were diverted, complicated and dominated by political and national aspirations. After the Thirty Years War, religious differences could never again be the primary factor in political combinations.

The development of political feeling and the political habit of thought compels the severance of politics from theology. In the Middle Ages, politics were dominated by theology. When this was the case, religion taught emphatically that while it might be right to disobey, it was mortal sin to resist and rebel against constituted authority. Rebellion was justified only when it was in obedience to the Church, as a higher authority than the temporal monarch, acting in the protection of morals and the repression of heresy. But the Church in its own contest with the temporal power, as well as in certain aspects of Christian teaching, was antagonistic to brute tyranny, and sympathetic towards the oppressed. While the Reformation by the appeal to private judgement encouraged the challenging of authority in politics as well as in theology, the most emphatic apologists of tyrannicide were among the Jesuits. But in countries where the Churchmen found their own interests bound up with the monarchy--as in Catholic France and Protestant England--the Church ranged itself on the side of Divine Right; while, where a protestantism that had its rise among the people gained sway it was inevitably also a political protestantism, democratic in character, tending to claim the ultimate authority not for the crown but for the people, and finding the sanction of a limited monarchy in the fiction of a social contract.

In England, the creators of political liberty as well as of religious toleration were not the religious free-thinkers-Hobbes, Boling-broke, Hume, were all very positively on the side of the crown--but mainly the Puritans, English or Scotch, or men of a definitely religious cast of mind, concluding with Locke; both came out of or were fostered by Protestantism. In Catholic France we have seen that the champions of religious toleration against persecution were the sceptics; because the rigid insistence upon dogma sanctioned persecution in the Catholic country, whereas the diversities of protestantism, resting on the tenets of private judgement, could not be ultimately reconciled with persecution. French protestantism did, in fact, produce such works as Vindiciae contra Tyrannos, which asserted the elective basis of monarchy. But on the Continent generally, it was from the classics that the apostles of liberty drew their inspiration, a source scarcely reconcilable either with Puritanism or with Catholicism, being wholly dissociated from religion. And the development of the doctrines of liberty may be directly traced to the formation of a middle class by the increase of wealth, to the spreading of knowledge through the printing-press as well as its advance, to the weapons which deprived the privileged classes of their military superiority, and, finally, to the development of the science of political economy.

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