Thursday, 1 December 2016

RATIONALISM. ITS AIMS AND HISTORY.

SOCIALIST PARTY LECTURE.

 Mr. G. Pearce (secretary of the R.P.A.), delivered an address on the subject of "Rationalism."

"Rationalist," he said, is the latest name assumes by those who question the supernatural authority of the Bible. The Rationalist is the lineal descendant of the infidel, heretic, atheist, free-thinker, and materialist; these changes of name seem to have been prompted largely by the success with which the theologian has grafted on to those names the imputation of vice and immorality. Rationalism, as a word ex pressing a definite mental attitude, is now becoming widely known through the agency of the Rationalist Press Association, commonly referred to as the R.P.A. This association was formed in London about 17 years ago, with the following objects (a) to stimulate freedom of thought and inquiry into ethics, theology, philosophy, and kindred subjects; (b) to promote a secular system of education, which shall cultivate in the young a moral and intellectual fitness for life; (c) 'to maintain and assert the same right of propaganda methods as that granted to traditional beliefs and creeds; (d) to publish and distribute books and periodicals designed to promote the above objects.

It had long been evident to workers in this cause that for wider propaganda the spoken word must be supplemented by a systematic issue of the written word, and a glance at the authors and their works, of which over, three million sixpenny reprints have been sold, makes one feel that the R.P.A. was not formed in vain. The list of sixpenny reprints contains the best writings of scientists like Darwin, Huxley, Haeckel, Tyndall, and Ray Lankester, of philosophers, such as Spencer, Hume, and Mill, of essayists, such as Matthew Arnold, Emerson, and Lewes, of historians, as Lecky, Bury, and Robertson, of critics as Voltaire, Renan, Andrew Lang, Ingersoll, Leslie Stephen, and Joseph M'Cabe. Many of these names stand high on the honor roll of benefactors of humanity, and if some suggest an aggressive attitude, their provocation has been great, and their books have revolutionised the whole attitude of man in his relation to nature and the Universe, and stand for a broad tolerant propaganda, which appeals to the thinking man.

The founders of the R.P.A., when formulating its objective, defined Rationalism as follows:—"The mental attitude which unreservedly accepts the supremacy of reason and aims at establishing a system of philosophy and ethics, verifiable by experience and independent of all arbitrary assumptions of authority." Reason shall be the sole judge; all evidence shall he capable of proof; and the authority due to tradition and ancient usage, or the feeling that it must be true, shall be ignored. This definition is practically an amplification of the motto of the Royal Society of London, formed some 250 years ago "for the improvement of natural knowledge by experiment." To-day fellowship of the Royal Society is an honor bestowed only upon the most eminent contributors to scientific knowledge, and the R.P.A. has addressed itself especially to the work of spreading the results of these researches at the lowest possible cost. Rationalism, being an attitude and not a religion, has no definite dogmas, no Thirty-nine Articles, does not set up any arbitrary system of scientific orthodoxy, but, in so far as "revealed" theological systems seeks to stifle freedom of thought, speech, and writing with the authority of tradition, it connects with them. Every religion sets aside every other religion, the Rationalist only sets aside one more: every believer in a God has denied the thousands of other Gods; the Rationalist only asks for evidence of the existence of that one.
Occasionally a common underlying motive caused the hatchet to be buried for a while, such as a general supplication to God to abrogate the laws of Nature and send rain; or to implore peace through the defeat of an enemy, from whom similar appeals are also issuing in all good faith—a position which must be a trifle disconcerting to the Almighty. Imagine at the present day any theologian willing to publicly pray for three or four hours' delay in the rising of the sun to enable an enemy trench to be occupied! Yet thousands prepared to join in a prayer for rain—the late Government went so far as to set aside a day for the purpose on one occasion—in spite of the fact that the science of meteorology is familiar with all the details that cause, rain, and the fundamental laws which control it are as unbreakable as those which keep the earth revolving. The explanation of this curious inconsistency appears to be that the man, in the street is not as yet as convinced of the operation of unbreakable law in the latter case as he is in the former. It is something more than a coincidence that simultaneously with the rise of the scientific attitude, nearly all the humane and ethical practices of modern civilisation have come into being and replaced such devilish methods of conversion as the tortures of the Inquisition and the burning of heretics and witches.

FREEDOM OF THOUGHT.

From the time of the adoption of Christianity by the Emperor Constantine, and its consequent rise to power, it crushed with an iron hand all speculation not conducive to its own advancement, and all freedom of thought in speech or writing, The following 33 centuries are truly called the Dark Ages, when the power and influence of Christianity, as interpreted by the Church, lay like a pall over Western civilisation, and it is only, as it were, through a rent here and there that we learn of the frightfulness it covered, and of the ignorance and debauchery of spiritual pastors.
And let it not he forgotten that it is due to the working of the spirit of rationalism that the Pankhursts and Thorps of to-day, and all who disturb the popular mind and say unpleasant things about those in authority, are more fortunate than their sisters of 300 years ago.

But if these were the sufferings inflicted on the poor and unfortunate, what of the fate of the intellectuals if the results of their thoughts and experiments tended in the slightest degree to discredit the teachings and dogmas of the Church? The more one ponders over this awful record of burnings and tortures, and the suppression of all speculative research in natural science features that especially mark out those Dark Ages from the time when Constantine made Christianity a State religion, until the seventeenth century, when a revulsion of feeling arose against the inhuman atrocities perpetrated in the name of a loving God and the scientific attitude and freedom of thought began to live again, the more one is convinced that there can be no God as portrayed by the Christian theologians. Only a Devil, and an inconceivably cruel one, could have permitted that long procession of human agony.

Common justice compels us to acknowledge that some of the great teachers within the fold, realising the hypocrisies they labored under, struggled for a more humune interpretation, and that ideal is still being nobly worked for in such movements as, for instance, the Modernist Association in Brisbane and Ethical Churches elsewhere; and if to-day freedom of opinion and the search for knowledge are among our most precious possessions, and indispensable to all progress, it behoves all of us to give our support to movements with that objective

It may be asked, when one contemplates the succession of men of science who have aggressively impeached or merely ignored the claim of theology to authority, why it is that the churches are still so influential and bulk so largely in our social and national life, rivalled only by the continuous picture palaces. Indeed, their power and in tolerance is still manifested in their successful opposition to other forms of entertainment on Sundays; the reading-room of the School Arts is closed on Sundays; the summer band concerts in the Gardens are delayed till church is over, and all efforts for any form of rational Sunday entertainment have been successfully opposed. The secret of this power—disregarding the obvious claim that the position of the Church is maintained by the providence of the Almighty—I believe rests firstly on the early training of the child, and secondly, and in a much less degree, to the appeal the ritual and service of the Church makes to women.

The earliest experience of most of us relates to the comforting prayers of childhood, followed later on by similar religious stories of the "Golden Thread," and the "Throne of Grace," and so on. Our first experience of the mystery and pleasure of music is in most cases the hymns learned at Sun day School, "Here we Suffer Grief and Pain" and "There's a Land of Pure Delight." Kindergarten teachers are well acquainted with the controlling power of music over the infant mind.
These impressions are made on clean, new intelligences straight from nature's laboratory, and thus, with the almost entire absence of any definite instruction in elementary science in our primary schools, color the child's whole attitude to nature and maintain their influence and reality until the battle of life invites a revaluation, from which too many of us shrink and which is rarely completed.

It is false assumption that if our school readers included such subjects, as the origin of man, the evolution of animal and plant life, the age of the earth as told by the rocks, stories of dead and gone civilisations, whose historical remains antedate the biblical creation by thousands of years, and also with the life story of Jesus, the life stories of those earlier pagan Christs, such as Buddha, such knowledge would involuntarily became part of our mental furniture and form the basis of our judgments of all things natural or supernatural. I am of the opinion that, if the spiritual attitude of the two metropolitan papers, the "Standard" and the "Worker," is typical of the spiritual attitude of the Government they have called into power, representation on these lines would not be unsympathetically received. Richard Cobden said he regarded his years of labor in securing the repeal of the corn laws as a light amusement compared with the task of getting priests of all denominations to agree to suffer the people to be educated.

WOMAN.

The second reason I advanced for theological influence to-day is the emotional nature of woman. The Church always adopts the attitude, as the Bishop of London once put it in a sermon, that " Christianity is woman's best friend." Other dignitaries have declared that the Gospels have given woman the position she holds to-day. The majority of women appear content to accept these statements, and to-day quite 75 per cent of the ordinary congregation is composed of women. And if the women follow their emotions in attending church, I feel sure that the younger portion of the other 25 per cent also attend for emotional reasons, though not always of the spiritual type. I can only say that the claim that "Christianity is woman's best friend" is a deliberate perversion of the truth, and in direct opposition to the findings of history.

Nothing impressed the Romans more, in their wars with the northern barbarians than their recognition of the equality of the sexes, the man's reverence for woman, and the woman's sympathy for man, and the high code of morality that was the natural outcome of this well-balanced state of society. In old Japan, before the arrival of Buddhism, men and women were practically equal in their social position; woman's political power was great, nine women had ascended the throne; their women were not inferior to men mentally, morally, or physically; and they distinguished themselves by their bravery on the field of battle. In ancient Egypt the legal status and property rights enjoyed by women gave them a position more free and more honored than in any country to-day. The security of those rights made her the legal head of the household. She inherited equally with her brothers, and had full control of her own property; before the law she enjoyed the same rights and freedom as man, and was honored in the same way.

Now let us compare these positions with that of the English woman of 60 years ago, after 18 centuries of shepherding by "her best friend." In Boston, in 1850, woman could not hold property, or any public office of trust or power. The status of a married woman was little better than that of a domestic servant, her husband was her lord and master. She even had no legal redress against punishment. Let all women bear in mind that the change between then and now is almost entirely due to the advocacy of "abandoned atheists," such as Owen, Holyoake, Mill, Harriet Martineau, George Eliot, and other freethinkers. The clergy, when not actively opposing this change, kept silence; they never detected any injustice to woman, and only a few could see it when it was pointed out. There were a few honorable exceptions, such as Kingsley and Farrar, who protested against the social injustice to woman.

Further, this attitude of women and children to revealed religion is largely promoted by the peculiar position of many men who have themselves become convinced that "there's nothing in it," but are still obsessed by the idea that it would be very unsafe for women and children to hold this conviction; in other words, that our mothers, wives, and daughters, are only kept honest, chaste, sober, and industrious by the restraint of religion.

We must all realise that a useful and decent life is quite possible without a slavish adoration of the God of the Bible, and quite apart from a hope of His heaven or a fear of His hell. Considerations of space prevent the inclusion of two long paragraphs, one dealing with the destructive nature of modern Biblical criticism, and the other with the attitude of the Church to industrialism.

In conclusion, I wish to emphasise the difference between a knowledge of the findings of science and the spirit of scientific inquiry, the mental attitude that is of so much more importance than a mass of information. Facts may be, and often are, harmonised with our preconceived ideas, and the importance of the more unpleasant ones belittled, but the true scientific spirit is a disinterested search for facts verifiable by experience, without regard to their bearing upon our wishes, hopes, or fears.

Daily Standard (Brisbane, Qld. : 1912 - 1936), Saturday 26 August 1916, page 8

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