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A History of Freedom of Thought by John Bagnell Bury

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adversaries commonly stigmatize his theory as materialism, but this is a
mistake. Like Spinoza he recognizes matter and mind, body and thought,

[188] two inseparable sides of ultimate reality, which he calls God; in
fact, he identifies his philosophy with that of Spinoza. And he
logically proceeds to conceive material atoms as thinking. His idea of
the physical world is based on the old mechanical conception of matter,
which in recent years has been discredited. But Haeckel's Monism, [1] as
he called his doctrine, has lately been reshaped and in its new form
promises to exercise wide influence on thoughtful people in Germany. I
will return later to this Monistic movement.

It had been a fundamental principle of Comte that human actions and
human history are as strictly subject as nature is, to the law of
causation. Two psychological works appeared in England in 1855 (Bain's
Senses and Intellect and Spencer's Principles of Psychology), which
taught that our volitions are completely determined, being the
inevitable consequences of chains of causes and effects. But a far
deeper impression was produced two years later by the first volume of
Buckle's History of Civilization in England (a work of much less
permanent value), which attempted to apply this principle to history.
Men act in consequence of motives; their motives are the results of
preceding facts; so that "if we were acquainted with the whole of the

[189] and with all the laws of their movements, we could with unerring
certainty predict the whole of their immediate results." Thus history is
an unbroken chain of causes and effects. Chance is excluded; it is a
mere name for the defects of our knowledge. Mysterious and providential
interference is excluded. Buckle maintained God's existence, but
eliminated him from history; and his book dealt a resounding blow at the
theory that human actions are not submitted to the law of universal

The science of anthropology has in recent years aroused wide interest.
Inquiries into the condition of early man have shown (independently of
Darwinism) that there is nothing to be said for the view that he fell
from a higher to a lower state; the evidence points to a slow rise from
mere animality. The origin of religious beliefs has been investigated,
with results disquieting for orthodoxy. The researches of students of
anthropology and comparative religion--such as Tylor, Robertson Smith,
and Frazer--have gone to show that mysterious ideas and dogma and rites
which were held to be peculiar to the Christian revelation are derived
from the crude ideas of primitive religions. That the mystery of the
Eucharist comes from the common savage rite of eating a dead god,

[190] that the death and resurrection of a god in human form, which form
the central fact of Christianity, and the miraculous birth of a Saviour
are features which it has in common with pagan religions--such
conclusions are supremely unedifying. It may be said that in themselves
they are not fatal to the claims of the current theology. It may be
held, for instance, that, as part of Christian revelation, such ideas
acquired a new significance and that God wisely availed himself of
familiar beliefs--which, though false and leading to cruel practices, he
himself had inspired and permitted--in order to construct a scheme of
redemption which should appeal to the prejudices of man. Some minds may
find satisfaction in this sort of explanation, but it may be suspected
that most of the few who study modern researches into the origin of
religious beliefs will feel the lines which were supposed to mark off
the Christian from all other faiths dissolving before their eyes.

The general result of the advance of science, including anthropology,
has been to create a coherent view of the world, in which the Christian
scheme, based on the notions of an unscientific age and on the arrogant
assumption that the universe was made for man, has no suitable or
reasonable place. If Paine felt this a hundred years ago, it is far

[191] more apparent now. All minds however are not equally impressed
with this incongruity. There are many who will admit the proofs
furnished by science that the Biblical record as to the antiquity of man
is false, but are not affected by the incongruity between the scientific
and theological conceptions of the world.

For such minds science has only succeeded in carrying some
entrenchments, which may be abandoned without much harm. It has made the
old orthodox view of the infallibility of the Bible untenable, and upset
the doctrine of the Creation and Fall. But it would still be possible
for Christianity to maintain the supernatural claim, by modifying its
theory of the authority of the Bible and revising its theory of
redemption, if the evidence of natural science were the only group of
facts with which it collided. It might be argued that the law of
universal causation is a hypothesis inferred from experience, but that
experience includes the testimonies of history and must therefore take
account of the clear evidence of miraculous occurrences in the New
Testament (evidence which is valid, even if that book was not inspired).
Thus, a stand could be taken against the generalization of science on
the firm ground of historical fact. That solid ground, however, has

[192] way, undermined by historical criticism, which has been more
deadly than the common-sense criticism of the eighteenth century.

The methodical examination of the records contained in the Bible,
dealing with them as if they were purely human documents, is the work of
the nineteenth century. Something, indeed, had already been done.
Spinoza, for instance (above, p. 138), and Simon, a Frenchman whose
books were burnt, were pioneers; and the modern criticism of the Old
Testament was begun by Astruc (professor of medicine at Paris), who
discovered an important clue for distinguishing different documents used
by the compiler of the Book of Genesis (1753). His German contemporary,
Reimarus, a student of the New Testament, anticipated the modern
conclusion that Jesus had no intention of founding a new religion, and
saw that the Gospel of St. John presents a different figure from the
Jesus of the other evangelists.

But in the nineteenth century the methods of criticism, applied by
German scholars to Homer and to the records of early Roman history, were
extended to the investigation of the Bible. The work has been done
principally in Germany. The old tradition that the Pentateuch was
written by Moses has been completely discredited. It is now

[193] agreed unanimously by all who have studied the facts that the
Pentateuch was put together from a number of different documents of
different ages, the earliest dating from the ninth, the last from the
fifth, century B.C.; and there are later minor additions. An important,
though undesigned, contribution was made to this exposure by an
Englishman, Colenso, Bishop of Natal. It had been held that the oldest
of the documents which had been distinguished was a narrative which
begins in Genesis, Chapter I, but there was the difficulty that this
narrative seemed to be closely associated with the legislation of
Leviticus which could be proved to belong to the fifth century. In 1862
Colenso published the first part of his Pentateuch and the Book of
Joshua Critically Examined. His doubts of the truth of Old Testament
history had been awakened by a converted Zulu who asked the intelligent
question whether he could really believe in the story of the Flood,
"that all the beasts and birds and creeping things upon the earth, large
and small, from hot countries and cold, came thus by pairs and entered
into the ark with Noah? And did Noah gather food for them all, for the
beasts and birds of prey as well as the rest?" The Bishop then proceeded
to test the accuracy of the inspired books by examining

[194] the numerical statements which they contain. The results were
fatal to them as historical records. Quite apart from miracles (the
possibility of which he did not question), he showed that the whole
story of the sojourn of the Israelites in Egypt and the wilderness was
full of absurdities and impossibilities. Colenso's book raised a storm
of indignation in England--he was known as "the wicked bishop"; but on
the Continent its reception was very different. The portions of the
Pentateuch and Joshua, which he proved to be unhistorical, belonged
precisely to the narrative which had caused perplexity; and critics were
led by his results to conclude that, like the Levitical laws with which
it was connected, it was as late as the fifth century.

One of the most striking results of the researches on the Old Testament
has been that the Jews themselves handled their traditions freely. Each
of the successive documents, which were afterwards woven together, was
written by men who adopted a perfectly free attitude towards the older
traditions, and having no suspicion that they were of divine origin did
not bow down before their authority. It was reserved for the Christians
to invest with infallible authority the whole indiscriminate lump of
these Jewish documents, inconsistent not

[195] only in their tendencies (since they reflect the spirit of
different ages), but also in some respects in substance. The examination
of most of the other Old Testament books has led to conclusions likewise
adverse to the orthodox view of their origin and character. New
knowledge on many points has been derived from the Babylonian literature
which has been recovered during the last half century. One of the
earliest (1872) and most sensational discoveries was that the Jews got
their story of the Flood from Babylonian mythology.

Modern criticism of the New Testament began with the stimulating works
of Baur and of Strauss, whose Life of Jesus (1835), in which the
supernatural was entirely rejected, had an immense success and caused
furious controversy. Both these rationalists were influenced by Hegel.
At the same time a classical scholar, Lachmann, laid the foundations of
the criticism of the Greek text of the New Testament, by issuing the
first scientific edition. Since then seventy years of work have led to
some certain results which are generally accepted.

In the first place, no intelligent person who has studied modern
criticism holds the old view that each of the four biographies of Jesus
is an independent work and an independent

[196] testimony to the facts which are related. It is acknowledged that
those portions which are common to more than one and are written in
identical language have the same origin and represent only one
testimony. In the second place, it is allowed that the first Gospel is
not the oldest and that the apostle Matthew was not its author. There is
also a pretty general agreement that Mark's book is the oldest. The
authorship of the fourth Gospel, which like the first was supposed to
have been written by an eye-witness, is still contested, but even those
who adhere to the tradition admit that it represents a theory about
Jesus which is widely different from the view of the three other

The result is that it can no longer be said that for the life of Jesus
there is the evidence of eye-witnesses. The oldest account (Mark) was
composed at the earliest some thirty years after the Crucifixion. If
such evidence is considered good enough to establish the supernatural
events described in that document, there are few alleged supernatural
occurrences which we shall not be equally entitled to believe. As a
matter of fact, an interval of thirty years makes little difference, for
we know that legends require little time to grow. In the East, you will
hear of miracles which happened the day before

[197] yesterday. The birth of religions is always enveloped in legend,
and the miraculous thing would be, as M. Salomon Reinach has observed,
if the story of the birth of Christianity were pure history.

Another disturbing result of unprejudiced examination of the first three
Gospels is that, if you take the recorded words of Jesus to be genuine
tradition, he had no idea of founding a new religion. And he was fully
persuaded that the end of the world was at hand. At present, the chief
problem of advanced criticism seems to be whether his entire teaching
was not determined by this delusive conviction.

It may be said that the advance of knowledge has thrown no light on one
of the most important beliefs that we are asked to accept on authority,
the doctrine of immortality. Physiology and psychology have indeed
emphasized the difficulties of conceiving a thinking mind without a
nervous system. Some are sanguine enough to think that, by scientific
examination of psychical phenomena, we may possibly come to know whether
the "spirits" of dead people exist. If the existence of such a world of
spirits were ever established, it would possibly be the greatest blow
ever sustained by Christianity. For the great appeal of this and of some
other religions

[198] lies in the promise of a future life of which otherwise we should
have no knowledge. If existence after death were proved and became a
scientific fact like the law of gravitation, a revealed religion might
lose its power. For the whole point of a revealed religion is that it is
not based on scientific facts. So far as I know, those who are
convinced, by spiritualistic experiments, that they have actual converse
with spirits of the dead, and for whom this converse, however delusive
the evidence may be, is a fact proved by experience, cease to feel any
interest in religion. They possess knowledge and can dispense with

The havoc which science and historical criticism have wrought among
orthodox beliefs during the last hundred years was not tamely submitted
to, and controversy was not the only weapon employed. Strauss was
deprived of his professorship at Tuebingen, and his career was ruined.
Renan, whose sensational Life of Jesus also rejected the supernatural,
lost his chair in the College de France. Buechner was driven from
Tuebingen (1855) for his book on Force and Matter, which, appealing to
the general public, set forth the futility of supernatural explanations
of the universe. An attempt was made to chase Haeckel from Jena. In
recent years,

[199] a French Catholic, the Abbe Loisy, has made notable contributions
to the study of the New Testament and he was rewarded by major
excommunication in 1907.

Loisy is the most prominent figure in a growing movement within the
Catholic Church known as Modernism--a movement which some think is the
gravest crisis in the history of the Church since the thirteenth
century. The Modernists do not form an organized party; they have no
programme. They are devoted to the Church, to its traditions and
associations, but they look on Christianity as a religion which has
developed, and whose vitality depends upon its continuing to develop.
They are bent on reinterpreting the dogmas in the light of modern
science and criticism. The idea of development had already been applied
by Cardinal Newman to Catholic theology. He taught that it was a
natural, and therefore legitimate, development of the primitive creed.
But he did not draw the conclusion which the Modernists draw that if
Catholicism is not to lose its power of growth and die, it must
assimilate some of the results of modern thought. This is what they are
attempting to do for it.

Pope Pius X has made every effort to suppress the Modernists. In 1907
(July) he

[200] issued a decree denouncing various results of modern Biblical
criticism which are defended in Loisy's works. The two fundamental
propositions that "the organic constitution of the Church is not
immutable, but that Christian society is subject, like every human
society, to a perpetual evolution," and that "the dogmas which the
Church regards as revealed are not fallen from heaven but are an
interpretation of religious facts at which the human mind laboriously
arrived"--both of which might be deduced from Newman's writings--are
condemned. Three months later the Pope issued a long Encyclical letter,
containing an elaborate study of Modernist opinions, and ordaining
various measures for stamping out the evil. No Modernist would admit
that this document represents his views fairly. Yet some of the remarks
seem very much to the point. Take one of their books: "one page might be
signed by a Catholic; turn over and you think you are reading the work
of a rationalist. In writing history, they make no mention of Christ's
divinity; in the pulpit, they proclaim it loudly."

A plain man may be puzzled by these attempts to retain the letter of old
dogmas emptied of their old meaning, and may think it natural enough
that the head of the Catholic

[201] Church should take a clear and definite stand against the new
learning which, seems fatal to its fundamental doctrines. For many years
past, liberal divines in the Protestant Churches have been doing what
the Modernists are doing. The phrase "Divinity of Christ" is used, but
is interpreted so as not to imply a miraculous birth. The Resurrection
is preached, but is interpreted so as not to imply a miraculous bodily
resurrection. The Bible is said to be an inspired book, but inspiration
is used in a vague sense, much as when one says that Plato was inspired;
and the vagueness of this new idea of inspiration is even put forward as
a merit. Between the extreme views which discard the miraculous
altogether, and the old orthodoxy, there are many gradations of belief.
In the Church of England to-day it would be difficult to say what is the
minimum belief required either from its members or from its clergy.
Probably every leading ecclesiastic would give a different answer.

The rise of rationalism within the English Church is interesting and
illustrates the relations between Church and State.

The pietistic movement known as Evangelicalism, which Wilberforce's
Practical View of Christianity (1797) did much to make popular,
introduced the spirit of Methodism

[202] within the Anglican Church, and soon put an end to the delightful
type of eighteenth-century divine, who, as Gibbon says, "subscribed with
a sigh or a smile" the articles of faith. The rigorous taboo of the
Sabbath was revived, the theatre was denounced, the corruption of human
nature became the dominant theme, and the Bible more a fetish than ever.
The success of this religious "reaction," as it is called, was aided,
though not caused, by the common belief that the French Revolution had
been mainly due to infidelity; the Revolution was taken for an object
lesson showing the value of religion for keeping the people in order.
There was also a religious "reaction" in France itself. But in both
cases this means not that free thought was less prevalent, but that the
beliefs of the majority were more aggressive and had powerful spokesmen,
while the eighteenth-century form of rationalism fell out of fashion. A
new form of rationalism, which sought to interpret orthodoxy in such a
liberal way as to reconcile it with philosophy, was represented by
Coleridge, who was influenced by German philosophers. Coleridge was a
supporter of the Church, and he contributed to the foundation of a
school of liberal theology which was to make itself felt after the
middle of the century.

[203] Newman, the most eminent of the new High Church party, said that
he indulged in a liberty of speculation which no Christian could
tolerate. The High Church movement which marked the second quarter of
the century was as hostile as Evangelicalism to the freedom of religious

The change came after the middle of the century, when the effects of the
philosophies of Hegel and Comte, and of foreign Biblical criticism,
began to make themselves felt within the English Church. Two remarkable
freethinking books appeared at this period which were widely read, F. W.
Newman's Phases of Faith and W. R. Greg's Creed of Christendom (both in
1850). Newman (brother of Cardinal Newman) entirely broke with
Christianity, and in his book he describes the mental process by which
he came to abandon the beliefs he had once held. Perhaps the most
interesting point he makes is the deficiency of the New Testament
teaching as a system of morals. Greg was a Unitarian. He rejected dogma
and inspiration, but he regarded himself as a Christian. Sir J. F.
Stephen wittily described his position as that of a disciple "who had
heard the Sermon on the Mount, whose attention had not been called to
the Miracles, and who died before the Resurrection."


There were a few English clergymen (chiefly Oxford men) who were
interested in German criticism and leaned to broad views, which to the
Evangelicals and High Churchmen seemed indistinguishable from
infidelity. We may call them the Broad Church--though the name did not
come in till later. In 1855 Jowett (afterwards Master of Balliol)
published an edition of some of St. Paul's Epistles, in which he showed
the cloven hoof. It contained an annihilating criticism of the doctrine
of the Atonement, an explicit rejection of original sin, and a
rationalistic discussion of the question of God's existence. But this
and some other unorthodox works of liberal theologians attracted little
public attention, though their authors had to endure petty persecution.
Five years later, Jowett and some other members of the small liberal
group decided to defy the "abominable system of terrorism which prevents
the statement of the plainest fact," and issued a volume of Essays and
Reviews (1860) by seven writers of whom six were clergymen. The views
advocated in these essays seem mild enough to-day, and many of them
would be accepted by most well-educated clergymen, but at the time they
produced a very painful impression. The authors were called the "Seven
against Christ." It was

[205] laid down that the Bible is to be interpreted like any other book.
"It is not a useful lesson for the young student to apply to Scripture
principles which he would hesitate to apply to other books; to make
formal reconcilements of discrepancies which he would not think of
reconciling in ordinary history; to divide simple words into double
meanings; to adopt the fancies or conjectures of Fathers and
Commentators as real knowledge." It is suggested that the Hebrew
prophecies do not contain the element of prediction. Contradictory
accounts, or accounts which can only be reconciled by conjecture, cannot
possibly have been dictated by God. The discrepancies between the
genealogies of Jesus in Matthew and Luke, or between the accounts of the
Resurrection, can be attributed "neither to any defect in our capacities
nor to any reasonable presumption of a hidden wise design, nor to any
partial spiritual endowments in the narrators." The orthodox arguments
which lay stress on the assertion of witnesses as the supreme evidence
of fact, in support of miraculous occurrences, are set aside on the
ground that testimony is a blind guide and can avail nothing against
reason and the strong grounds we have for believing in permanent order.
It is argued that, under the Thirty-nine

[206] Articles, it is permissible to accept as "parable or poetry or
legend" such stories as that of an ass speaking with a man's voice, of
waters standing in a solid heap, of witches and a variety of
apparitions, and to judge for ourselves of such questions as the
personality of Satan or the primeval institution of the Sabbath. The
whole spirit of this volume is perhaps expressed in the observation that
if any one perceives "to how great an extent the origin itself of
Christianity rests upon probable evidence, his principle will relieve
him from many difficulties which might otherwise be very disturbing. For
relations which may repose on doubtful grounds as matters of history,
and, as history, be incapable of being ascertained or verified, may yet
be equally suggestive of true ideas with facts absolutely certain"--that
is, they may have a spiritual significance although they are
historically false.

The most daring Essay was the Rev. Baden Powell's Study of the Evidences
of Christianity. He was a believer in evolution, who accepted Darwinism,
and considered miracles impossible. The volume was denounced by the
Bishops, and in 1862 two of the contributors, who were beneficed
clergymen and thus open to a legal attack, were prosecuted and tried in
the Ecclesiastical Court. Condemned on

[207] certain points, acquitted on others, they were sentenced to be
suspended for a year, and they appealed to the Privy Council. Lord
Westbury (Lord Chancellor) pronounced the judgment of the Judicial
Committee of the Council, which reversed the decision of the
Ecclesiastical Court. The Committee held, among other things, that it is
not essential for a clergyman to believe in eternal punishment. This
prompted the following epitaph on Lord Westbury: "Towards the close of
his earthly career he dismissed Hell with costs and took away from
Orthodox members of the Church of England their last hope of everlasting

This was a great triumph for the Broad Church party, and it is an
interesting event in the history of the English State-Church. Laymen
decided (overruling the opinion of the Archbishops of Canterbury and
York) what theological doctrines are and are not binding on a clergyman,
and granted within the Church a liberty of opinion which the majority of
the Church's representatives regarded as pernicious. This liberty was
formally established in 1865 by an Act of Parliament, which altered the
form in which clergymen were required to subscribe the Thirty-nine
Articles. The episode of Essays and Reviews is a landmark in the history
of religious thought in England.


The liberal views of the Broad Churchmen and their attitude to the Bible
gradually produced some effect upon those who differed most from them;
and nowadays there is probably no one who would not admit, at least,
that such a passage as Genesis, Chapter XIX, might have been composed
without the direct inspiration of the Deity.

During the next few years orthodox public opinion was shocked or
disturbed by the appearance of several remarkable books which
criticized, ignored, or defied authority--Lyell's Antiquity of Man,
Seeley's Ecce Homo (which the pious Lord Shaftesbury said was "vomited
from the jaws of hell"), Lecky's History of Rationalism. And a new poet
of liberty arose who did not fear to sound the loudest notes of defiance
against all that authority held sacred. All the great poets of the
nineteenth century were more or less unorthodox; Wordsworth in the years
of his highest inspiration was a pantheist; and the greatest of all,
Shelley, was a declared atheist. In fearless utterance, in unfaltering
zeal against the tyranny of Gods and Governments, Swinburne was like
Shelley. His drama Atalanta in Calydon (1865), even though a poet is
strictly not answerable for what the persons in his drama say, yet with
its denunciation of "the supreme evil, God," heralded the coming

[209] of a new champion who would defy the fortresses of authority. And
in the following year his Poems and Ballads expressed the spirit of a
pagan who flouted all the prejudices and sanctities of the Christian

But the most intense and exciting period of literary warfare against
orthodoxy in England began about 1869, and lasted for about a dozen
years, during which enemies of dogma, of all complexions, were less
reticent and more aggressive than at any other time in the century. Lord
Morley has observed that "the force of speculative literature always
hangs on practical opportuneness," and this remark is illustrated by the
rationalistic literature of the seventies. It was a time of hope and
fear, of progress and danger. Secularists and rationalists were
encouraged by the Disestablishment of the Church in Ireland (1869), by
the Act which allowed atheists to give evidence in a court of justice
(1869), by the abolition of religious tests at all the universities (a
measure frequently attempted in vain) in 1871. On the other hand, the
Education Act of 1870, progressive though it was, disappointed the
advocates of secular education, and was an unwelcome sign of the
strength of ecclesiastical influence. Then there was the general alarm
felt in Europe by all outside the Roman Church,

[210] and by some within it, at the decree of the infallibility of the
Pope (by the Vatican Council 1869-70), and an Englishman (Cardinal
Manning) was one of the most active spirits in bringing about this
decree. It would perhaps have caused less alarm if the Pope's
denunciation of modern errors had not been fresh in men's memories. At
the end of 1864 he startled the world by issuing a Syllabus "embracing
the principal errors of our age." Among these were the propositions,
that every man is free to adopt and profess the religion he considers
true, according to the light of reason; that the Church has no right to
employ force; that metaphysics can and ought to be pursued without
reference to divine and ecclesiastical authority; that Catholic states
are right to allow foreign immigrants to exercise their own religion in
public; that the Pope ought to make terms with progress, liberalism, and
modern civilization. The document was taken as a declaration of war
against enlightenment, and the Vatican Council as the first strategic
move of the hosts of darkness. It seemed that the powers of obscurantism
were lifting up their heads with a new menace, and there was an
instinctive feeling that all the forces of reason should be brought into
the field. The history of the last forty years shows that the theory of

[211] Infallibility, since it has become a dogma, is not more harmful
than it was before. But the efforts of the Catholic Church in the years
following the Council to overthrow the French Republic and to rupture
the new German Empire were sufficiently disquieting. Against this was to
be set the destruction of the temporal power of the Popes and the
complete freedom of Italy. This event was the sunrise of Swinburne's
Songs before Sunrise (which appeared in 1871), a seedplot of atheism and
revolution, sown with implacable hatred of creeds and tyrants. The most
wonderful poem in the volume, the Hymn of Man, was written while the
Vatican Council was sitting. It is a song of triumph over the God of the
priests, stricken by the doom of the Pope's temporal power. The
concluding verses will show the spirit.

"By thy name that in hellfire was written, and burned at the point of
thy sword, Thou art smitten, thou God, thou art smitten; thy death is
upon thee, O Lord. And the lovesong of earth as thou diest resounds
through the wind of her wings-- Glory to Man in the highest! for Man is
the master of things."


The fact that such a volume could appear with impunity vividly
illustrates the English policy of enforcing the laws for blasphemy only
in the case of publications addressed to the masses.

Political circumstances thus invited and stimulated rationalists to come
forward boldly, but we must not leave out of account the influence of
the Broad Church movement and of Darwinism. The Descent of Man appeared
precisely in 1871. A new, undogmatic Christianity was being preached in
pulpits. Mr. Leslie Stephen remarked (1873) that "it may be said, with
little exaggeration, that there is not only no article in the creeds
which may not be contradicted with impunity, but that there is none
which may not be contradicted in a sermon calculated to win the
reputation of orthodoxy and be regarded as a judicious bid for a
bishopric. The popular state of mind seems to be typified in the well-
known anecdote of the cautious churchwarden, who, whilst commending the
general tendency of his incumbent's sermon, felt bound to hazard a
protest upon one point. 'You see, sir,' as he apologetically explained,
'I think there be a God.' He thought it an error of taste or perhaps of
judgment, to hint a doubt as to the first article of the creed."

The influence exerted among the cultivated

[213] classes by the aesthetic movement (Ruskin, Morris, the Pre-
Raphaelite painters; then Pater's Lectures on the Renaissance, 1873) was
also a sign of the times. For the attitude of these critics, artists,
and poets was essentially pagan. The saving truths of theology were for
them as if they did not exist. The ideal of happiness was found in a
region in which heaven was ignored.

The time then seemed opportune for speaking out. Of the unorthodox books
and essays, [2] which influenced the young and alarmed believers, in
these exciting years, most were the works of men who may be most fairly
described by the comprehensive term agnostics--a name which had been
recently invented by Professor Huxley.

The agnostic holds that there are limits to human reason, and that
theology lies outside those limits. Within those limits lies the world
with which science (including psychology) deals. Science deals entirely
with phenomena, and has nothing to say to the nature of the ultimate
reality which may lie behind phenomena. There are four possible

[214] attitudes to this ultimate reality. There is the attitude of the
metaphysician and theologian, who are convinced not only that it exists
but that it can be at least partly known. There is the attitude of the
man who denies that it exists; but he must be also a metaphysician, for
its existence can only be disproved by metaphysical arguments. Then
there are those who assert that it exists but deny that we can know
anything about it. And finally there are those who say that we cannot
know whether it exists or not. These last are "agnostics" in the strict
sense of the term, men who profess not to know. The third class go
beyond phenomena in so far as they assert that there is an ultimate
though unknowable reality beneath phenomena. But agnostic is commonly
used in a wide sense so as to include the third as well as the fourth
class--those who assume an unknowable, as well as those who do not know
whether there is an unknowable or not. Comte and Spencer, for instance,
who believed in an unknowable, are counted as agnostics. The difference
between an agnostic and an atheist is that the atheist positively denies
the existence of a personal God, the agnostic does not believe in it.

The writer of this period who held agnosticism

[215] in its purest form, and who turned the dry light of reason on to
theological opinions with the most merciless logic, was Mr. Leslie
Stephen. His best-known essay, "An Agnostic's Apology" (Fortnightly
Review, 1876), raises the question, have the dogmas of orthodox
theologians any meaning? Do they offer, for this is what we want, an
intelligible reconciliation of the discords in the universe? It is shown
in detail that the various theological explanations of the dealings of
God with man, when logically pressed, issue in a confession of
ignorance. And what is this but agnosticism? You may call your doubt a
mystery, but mystery is only the theological phrase for agnosticism.
"Why, when no honest man will deny in private that every ultimate
problem is wrapped in the profoundest mystery, do honest men proclaim in
pulpits that unhesitating certainty is the duty of the most foolish and
ignorant? We are a company of ignorant beings, dimly discerning light
enough for our daily needs, but hopelessly differing whenever we attempt
to describe the ultimate origin or end of our paths; and yet, when one
of us ventures to declare that we don't know the map of the Universe as
well as the map of our infinitesimal parish, he is hooted, reviled,

[216] and perhaps told that he will be damned to all eternity for his
faithlessness." The characteristic of Leslie Stephen's essays is that
they are less directed to showing that orthodox theology is untrue as
that there is no reality about it, and that its solutions of
difficulties are sham solutions. If it solved any part of the mystery,
it would be welcome, but it does not, it only adds new difficulties. It
is "a mere edifice of moonshine." The writer makes no attempt to prove
by logic that ultimate reality lies outside the limits of human reason.
He bases this conclusion on the fact that all philosophers hopelessly
contradict one another; if the subject-matter of philosophy were, like
physical science, within the reach of the intelligence, some agreement
must have been reached.

The Broad Church movement, the attempts to liberalize Christianity, to
pour its old wine into new bottles, to make it unsectarian and
undogmatic, to find compromises between theology and science, found no
favour in Leslie Stephen's eyes, and he criticized all this with a
certain contempt. There was a controversy about the efficacy of prayer.
Is it reasonable, for instance, to pray for rain? Here science and
theology were at issue on a practical

[217] point which comes within the domain of science. Some theologians
adopted the compromise that to pray against an eclipse would be foolish,
but to pray for rain might be sensible. "One phenomenon," Stephen wrote,
"is just as much the result of fixed causes as the other; but it is
easier for the imagination to suppose the interference of a divine agent
to be hidden away somewhere amidst the infinitely complex play of
forces, which elude our calculations in meteorological phenomena, than
to believe in it where the forces are simple enough to admit of
prediction. The distinction is of course invalid in a scientific sense.
Almighty power can interfere as easily with the events which are, as
with those which are not, in the Nautical Almanac. One cannot suppose
that God retreats as science advances, and that he spoke in thunder and
lightning till Franklin unravelled the laws of their phenomena."

Again, when a controversy about hell engaged public attention, and some
otherwise orthodox theologians bethought themselves that eternal
punishment was a horrible doctrine and then found that the evidence for
it was not quite conclusive and were bold enough to say so, Leslie
Stephen stepped in to point out that, if so, historical

[218] Christianity deserves all that its most virulent enemies have said
about it in this respect. When the Christian creed really ruled men's
consciences, nobody could utter a word against the truth of the dogma of
hell. If that dogma had not an intimate organic connection with the
creed, if it had been a mere unimportant accident, it could not have
been so vigorous and persistent wherever Christianity was strongest. The
attempt to eliminate it or soften it down is a sign of decline. "Now, at
last, your creed is decaying. People have discovered that you know
nothing about it; that heaven and hell belong to dreamland; that the
impertinent young curate who tells me that I shall be burnt
everlastingly for not sharing his superstition is just as ignorant as I
am myself, and that I know as much as my dog. And then you calmly say
again, 'It is all a mistake. Only believe in a something --and we will
make it as easy for you as possible. Hell shall have no more than a fine
equable temperature, really good for the constitution; there shall be
nobody in it except Judas Iscariot and one or two others; and even the
poor Devil shall have a chance if he will resolve to mend his ways.' "

Mr. Matthew Arnold may, I suppose, be numbered among the agnostics, but
he was

[219] of a very different type. He introduced a new kind of criticism of
the Bible--literary criticism. Deeply concerned for morality and
religion, a supporter of the Established Church, he took the Bible under
his special protection, and in three works, St. Paul and Protestantism,
1870, Literature and Dogma, 1873, and God and the Bible, 1875, he
endeavoured to rescue that book from its orthodox exponents, whom he
regarded as the corrupters of Christianity. It would be just, he says,
"but hardly perhaps Christian," to fling back the word infidel at the
orthodox theologians for their bad literary and scientific criticisms of
the Bible and to speak of "the torrent of infidelity which pours every
Sunday from our pulpits!" The corruption of Christianity has been due to
theology "with its insane licence of affirmation about God, its insane
licence of affirmation about immortality"; to the hypothesis of "a
magnified and non-natural man at the head of mankind's and the world's
affairs"; and the fancy account of God "made up by putting scattered
expressions of the Bible together and taking them literally." He
chastises with urbane persiflage the knowledge which the orthodox think
they possess about the proceedings and plans of God. "To think they know
what passed in the Council of the

[220] Trinity is not hard to them; they could easily think they even
knew what were the hangings of the Trinity's council-chamber." Yet "the
very expression, the Trinity, jars with the whole idea and character of
Bible-religion; but, lest the Socinian should be unduly elated at
hearing this, let us hasten to add that so too, and just as much, does
the expression, a great Personal First Cause." He uses God as the least
inadequate name for that universal order which the intellect feels after
as a law, and the heart feels after as a benefit; and defines it as "the
stream of tendency by which all things strive to fulfil the law of their
being." He defined it further as a Power that makes for righteousness,
and thus went considerably beyond the agnostic position. He was
impatient of the minute criticism which analyzes the Biblical documents
and discovers inconsistencies and absurdities, and he did not appreciate
the importance of the comparative study of religions. But when we read
of a dignitary in a recent Church congress laying down that the
narratives in the books of Jonah and Daniel must be accepted because
Jesus quoted them, we may wish that Arnold were here to reproach the
orthodox for "want of intellectual seriousness."

These years also saw the appearance of

[221] Mr. John Morley's sympathetic studies of the French freethinkers
of the eighteenth century, Voltaire (1872), Rousseau (1873), and Diderot
(1878). He edited the Fortnightly Review, and for some years this
journal was distinguished by brilliant criticisms on the popular
religion, contributed by able men writing from many points of view. A
part of the book which he afterwards published under the title
Compromise appeared in the Fortnightly in 1874. In Compromise, "the
whole system of objective propositions which make up the popular belief
of the day" is condemned as mischievous, and it is urged that those who
disbelieve should speak out plainly. Speaking out is an intellectual
duty. Englishmen have a strong sense of political responsibility, and a
correspondingly weak sense of intellectual responsibility. Even minds
that are not commonplace are affected for the worse by the political
spirit which "is the great force in throwing love of truth and accurate
reasoning into a secondary place." And the principles which have
prevailed in politics have been adopted by theology for her own use. In
the one case, convenience first, truth second; in the other, emotional
comfort first, truth second. If the immorality is less gross in the case
of religion,

[222] there is "the stain of intellectual improbity." And this is a
crime against society, for "they who tamper with veracity from whatever
motive are tampering with the vital force of human progress." The
intellectual insincerity which is here blamed is just as prevalent to-
day. The English have not changed their nature, the "political" spirit
is still rampant, and we are ruled by the view that because compromise
is necessary in politics it is also a good thing in the intellectual

The Fortnightly under Mr. Morley's guidance was an effective organ of
enlightenment. I have no space to touch on the works of other men of
letters and of men of science in these combative years, but it is to be
noted that, while denunciations of modern thought poured from the
pulpits, a popular diffusion of freethought was carried on, especially
by Mr. Bradlaugh in public lectures and in his paper, the National
Reformer, not without collisions with the civil authorities.

If we take the cases in which the civil authorities in England have
intervened to repress the publication of unorthodox opinions during the
last two centuries, we find that the object has always been to prevent
the spread of freethought among the masses.

[223] The victims have been either poor, uneducated people, or men who
propagated freethought in a popular form. I touched upon this before in
speaking of Paine, and it is borne out by the prosecutions of the
nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The unconfessed motive has been fear
of the people. Theology has been regarded as a good instrument for
keeping the poor in order, and unbelief as a cause or accompaniment of
dangerous political opinions. The idea has not altogether disappeared
that free thought is peculiarly indecent in the poor, that it is highly
desirable to keep them superstitious in order to keep them contented,
that they should be duly thankful for all the theological as well as
social arrangements which have been made for them by their betters. I
may quote from an essay of Mr. Frederic Harrison an anecdote which
admirably expresses the becoming attitude of the poor towards
ecclesiastical institutions. "The master of a workhouse in Essex was
once called in to act as chaplain to a dying pauper. The poor soul
faintly murmured some hopes of heaven. But this the master abruptly cut
short and warned him to turn his last thoughts towards hell. 'And
thankful you ought to be,' said he, 'that you have a hell to go to.' "


The most important English freethinkers who appealed to the masses were
Holyoake, [3] the apostle of "secularism," and Bradlaugh. The great
achievement for which Bradlaugh will be best remembered was the securing
of the right of unbelievers to sit in Parliament without taking an oath
(1888). The chief work to which Holyoake (who in his early years was
imprisoned for blasphemy) contributed was the abolition of taxes on the
Press, which seriously hampered the popular diffusion of knowledge. [4]
In England, censorship of the Press had long ago disappeared (above, p.
139); in most other European countries it was abolished in the course of
the nineteenth century. [5]

In the progressive countries of Europe there has been a marked growth of
tolerance (I do not mean legal toleration, but the tolerance

[225] of public opinion) during the last thirty years. A generation ago
Lord Morley wrote: "The preliminary stage has scarcely been reached--the
stage in which public opinion grants to every one the unrestricted right
of shaping his own beliefs, independently of those of the people who
surround him." I think this preliminary stage has now been passed. Take
England. We are now far from the days when Dr. Arnold would have sent
the elder Mill to Botany Bay for irreligious opinions. But we are also
far from the days when Darwin's Descent created an uproar. Darwin has
been buried in Westminster Abbey. To-day books can appear denying the
historical existence of Jesus without causing any commotion. It may be
doubted whether what Lord Acton wrote in 1877 would be true now: "There
are in our day many educated men who think it right to persecute." In
1895, Lecky was a candidate for the representation of Dublin University.
His rationalistic opinions were indeed brought up against him, but he
was successful, though the majority of the constituents were orthodox.
In the seventies his candidature would have been hopeless. The old
commonplace that a freethinker is sure to be immoral is no longer heard.
We may say that we have now

[226] reached a stage at which it is admitted by every one who counts
(except at the Vatican), that there is nothing in earth or heaven which
may not legitimately be treated without any of the assumptions which in
old days authority used to impose.

In this brief review of the triumphs of reason in the nineteenth
century, we have been considering the discoveries of science and
criticism which made the old orthodoxy logically untenable. But the
advance in freedom of thought, the marked difference in the general
attitude of men in all lands towards theological authority to-day from
the attitude of a hundred years ago, cannot altogether be explained by
the power of logic. It is not so much criticism of old ideas as the
appearance of new ideas and interests that changes the views of men at
large. It is not logical demonstrations but new social conceptions that
bring about a general transformation of attitude towards ultimate
problems. Now the idea of the progress of the human race must, I think,
be held largely answerable for this change of attitude. It must, I
think, be held to have operated powerfully as a solvent of theological
beliefs. I have spoken of the teaching of Diderot and his friends that
man's energies should be devoted to making the earth pleasant. A

[227] new ideal was substituted for the old ideal based on theological
propositions. It inspired the English Utilitarian philosophers (Bentham,
James Mill, J. S. Mill, Grote) who preached the greatest happiness of
the greatest number as the supreme object of action and the basis of
morality. This ideal was powerfully reinforced by the doctrine of
historical progress, which was started in France (1750) by Turgot, who
made progress the organic principle of history. It was developed by
Condorcet (1793), and put forward by Priestley in England. The idea was
seized upon by the French socialistic philosophers, Saint-Simon and
Fourier. The optimism of Fourier went so far as to anticipate the time
when the sea would be turned by man's ingenuity into lemonade, when
there would be 37 million poets as great as Homer, 37 million writers as
great as Moliere, 37 million men of science equal to Newton. But it was
Comte who gave the doctrine weight and power. His social philosophy and
his religion of Humanity are based upon it. The triumphs of science
endorsed it; it has been associated with, though it is not necessarily
implied in, the scientific theory of evolution; and it is perhaps fair
to say that it has been the guiding spiritual force of the nineteenth
century. It has introduced

[228] the new ethical principle of duty to posterity. We shall hardly be
far wrong if we say that the new interest in the future and the progress
of the race has done a great deal to undermine unconsciously the old
interest in a life beyond the grave; and it has dissolved the blighting
doctrine of the radical corruption of man.

Nowhere has the theory of progress been more emphatically recognized
than in the Monistic movement which has been exciting great interest in
Germany (1910-12). This movement is based on the ideas of Haeckel, who
is looked up to as the master; but those ideas have been considerably
changed under the influence of Ostwald, the new leader. While Haeckel is
a biologist, Ostwald's brilliant work was done in chemistry and physics.
The new Monism differs from the old, in the first place, in being much
less dogmatic. It declares that all that is in our experience can be the
object of a corresponding science. It is much more a method than a
system, for its sole ultimate object is to comprehend all human
experience in unified knowledge. Secondly, while it maintains, with
Haeckel, evolution as the guiding principle in the history of living
things, it rejects his pantheism and his theory of thinking atoms. The
old mechanical theory of the

[229] physical world has been gradually supplanted by the theory of
energy, and Ostwald, who was one of the foremost exponents of energy,
has made it a leading idea of Monism. What has been called matter is, so
far as we know now, simply a complex of energies, and he has sought to
extend the "energetic" principle from physical or chemical to
biological, psychical, and social phenomena. But it is to be observed
that no finality is claimed for the conception of energy; it is simply
an hypothesis which corresponds to our present stage of knowledge, and
may, as knowledge advances, be superseded.

Monism resembles the positive philosophy and religion of Comte in so far
as it means an outlook on life based entirely on science and excluding
theology, mysticism, and metaphysics. It may be called a religion, if we
adopt Mr. MacTaggart's definition of religion as "an emotion resting on
a conviction of the harmony between ourselves and the universe at
large." But it is much better not to use the word religion in connexion
with it, and the Monists have no thought of finding a Monistic, as Comte
founded a Positivist, church. They insist upon the sharp opposition
between the outlook of science and the outlook of religion, and find the
mark of spiritual progress in the fact that religion is

[230] gradually becoming less indispensable. The further we go back in
the past, the more valuable is religion as an element in civilization;
as we advance, it retreats more and more into the background, to be
replaced by science. Religions have been, in principle, pessimistic, so
far as the present world is concerned; Monism is, in principle,
optimistic, for it recognizes that the process of his evolution has
overcome, in increasing measure, the bad element in man, and will go on
overcoming it still more. Monism proclaims that development and progress
are the practical principles of human conduct, while the Churches,
especially the Catholic Church, have been steadily conservative, and
though they have been unable to put a stop to progress have endeavoured
to suppress its symptoms--to bottle up the steam. [6] The Monistic
congress at Hamburg in 1911 had a success which surprised its promoters.
The movement bids fair to be a powerful influence in diffusing
rationalistic thought. [7]

If we take the three large States of

[231] Western Europe, in which the majority of Christians are Catholics,
we see how the ideal of progress, freedom of thought, and the decline of
ecclesiastical power go together. In Spain, where the Church has
enormous power and wealth and can still dictate to the Court and the
politicians, the idea of progress, which is vital in France and Italy,
has not yet made its influence seriously felt. Liberal thought indeed is
widely spread in the small educated class, but the great majority of the
whole population are illiterate, and it is the interest of the Church to
keep them so. The education of the people, as all enlightened Spaniards
confess, is the pressing need of the country. How formidable are the
obstacles which will have to be overcome before modern education is
allowed to spread was shown four years ago by the tragedy of Francisco
Ferrer, which reminded everybody that in one corner of Western Europe
the mediaeval spirit is still vigorous. Ferrer had devoted himself to
the founding of modern schools in the province of Catalonia (since
1901). He was a rationalist, and his schools, which had a marked
success, were entirely secular. The ecclesiastical authorities execrated
him, and in the summer of 1909 chance gave them the means of destroying
him. A strike of workmen at

[232] Barcelona developed into a violent revolution, Ferrer happened to
be in Barcelona for some days at the beginning of the movement, with
which he had no connection whatever, and his enemies seized the
opportunity to make him responsible for it. False evidence (including
forged documents) was manufactured. Evidence which would have helped his
case was suppressed. The Catholic papers agitated against him, and the
leading ecclesiastics of Barcelona urged the Government not to spare the
man who founded the modern schools, the root of all the trouble. Ferrer
was condemned by a military tribunal and shot (Oct. 13). He suffered in
the cause of reason and freedom of thought, though, as there is no
longer an Inquisition, his enemies had to kill him under the false
charge of anarchy and treason. It is possible that the indignation which
was felt in Europe and was most loudly expressed in France may prevent
the repetition of such extreme measures, but almost anything may happen
in a country where the Church is so powerful and so bigoted, and the
politicians so corrupt.

[1] From Greek monos, alone.

[2] Besides the works referred to in the text, may be mentioned: Winwood
Reade, Martyrdom of Man, 1871; Mill, Three Essays on Religion; W. R.
Cassels, Supernatural Religion; Tyndall, Address to British Association
at Belfast; Huxley, Animal Automatism; W. K. Clifford, Body and Mind;
all in 1874.

[3] It may be noted that Holyoake towards the end of his life helped to
found the Rationalist Press Association, of which Mr. Edward Clodd has
been for many years Chairman. This is the chief society in England for
propagating rationalism, and its main object is to diffuse in a cheap
form the works of freethinkers of mark (cp. Bibliography). I understand
that more than two million copies of its cheap reprints have been sold.

[4] The advertisement tax was abolished in 1853, the stamp tax in 1855,
the paper duty in 1861, and the optional duty in 1870.

[5] In Austria-Hungary the police have the power to suppress printed
matter provisionally. In Russia the Press was declared free in 1905 by
an Imperial decree, which, however, has become a dead letter. The
newspapers are completely under the control of the police.

[6] I have taken these points, illustrating the Monistic attitude to the
Churches, from Ostwald's Monistic Sunday Sermons (German), 1911, 1912.

[7] I may note here that, as this is not a history of thought, I make no
reference to recent philosophical speculations (in America, England, and
France) which are sometimes claimed as tending to bolster up theology.
But they are all profoundly unorthodox.




MOST men who have been brought up in the free atmosphere of a modern
State sympathize with liberty in its long struggle with authority and
may find it difficult to see that anything can be said for the
tyrannical, and as they think extraordinarily perverse, policy by which
communities and governments persistently sought to stifle new ideas and
suppress free speculation. The conflict sketched in these pages appears
as a war between light and darkness. We exclaim that altar and throne
formed a sinister conspiracy against the progress of humanity. We look
back with horror at the things which so many champions of reason endured
at the hands of blind, if not malignant, bearers of authority.

But a more or less plausible case can be made out for coercion. Let us
take the most limited view of the lawful powers of society over its
individual members. Let us lay down, with Mill, that "the sole end for
which mankind are warranted, individually and collectively, in
interfering with the liberty of action of any of their members is self-
protection," and that coercion is only justified

[234] for the prevention of harm to others. This is the minimum claim
the State can make, and it will be admitted that it is not only the
right but the duty of the State to prevent harm to its members. That is
what it is for. Now no abstract or independent principle is
discoverable, why liberty of speech should be a privileged form of
liberty of action, or why society should lay down its arms of defence
and fold its hands, when it is persuaded that harm is threatened to it
through the speech of any of its members. The Government has to judge of
the danger, and its judgment may be wrong; but if it is convinced that
harm is being done, is it not its plain duty to interfere?

This argument supplies an apology for the suppression of free opinion by
Governments in ancient and modern times. It can be urged for the
Inquisition, for Censorship of the Press, for Blasphemy laws, for all
coercive measures of the kind, that, if excessive or ill-judged, they
were intended to protect society against what their authors sincerely
believed to be grave injury, and were simple acts of duty. (This
apology, of course, does not extend to acts done for the sake of the
alleged good of the victims themselves, namely, to secure their future

Nowadays we condemn all such measures

[235] and disallow the right of the State to interfere with the free
expression of opinion. So deeply is the doctrine of liberty seated in
our minds that we find it difficult to make allowances for the coercive
practices of our misguided ancestors. How is this doctrine justified? It
rests on no abstract basis, on no principle independent of society
itself, but entirely on considerations of utility.

We saw how Socrates indicated the social value of freedom of discussion.
We saw how Milton observed that such freedom was necessary for the
advance of knowledge. But in the period during which the cause of
toleration was fought for and practically won, the argument more
generally used was the injustice of punishing a man for opinions which
he honestly held and could not help holding, since conviction is not a
matter of will; in other words, the argument that error is not a crime
and that it is therefore unjust to punish it. This argument, however,
does not prove the case for freedom of discussion. The advocate of
coercion may reply: We admit that it is unjust to punish a man for
private erroneous beliefs; but it is not unjust to forbid the
propagation of such beliefs if we are convinced that they are harmful;
it is not unjust to punish him, not for holding them, but for publishing
them. The truth

[236] is that, in examining principles, the word just is misleading. All
the virtues are based on experience, physiological or social, and
justice is no exception. Just designates a class of rules or principles
of which the social utility has been found by experience to be paramount
and which are recognized to be so important as to override all
considerations of immediate expediency. And social utility is the only
test. It is futile, therefore, to say to a Government that it acts
unjustly in coercing opinion, unless it is shown that freedom of opinion
is a principle of such overmastering social utility as to render other
considerations negligible. Socrates had a true instinct in taking the
line that freedom is valuable to society.

The reasoned justification of liberty of thought is due to J. S. Mill,
who set it forth in his work On Liberty, published in 1859. This book
treats of liberty in general, and attempts to fix the frontier of the
region in which individual freedom should be considered absolute and
unassailable. The second chapter considers liberty of thought and
discussion, and if many may think that Mill unduly minimized the
functions of society, underrating its claims as against the individual,
few will deny the justice of the chief arguments or question the general
soundness of his conclusions.


Pointing out that no fixed standard was recognized for testing the
propriety of the interference on the part of the community with its
individual members, he finds the test in self-protection, that is, the
prevention of harm to others. He bases the proposition not on abstract
rights, but on "utility, in the largest sense, grounded on the permanent
interests of man as a progressive being." He then uses the following
argument to show that to silence opinion and discussion is always
contrary to those permanent interests. Those who would suppress an
opinion (it is assumed that they are honest) deny its truth, but they
are not infallible. They may be wrong, or right, or partly wrong and
partly right. (1) If they are wrong and the opinion they would crush is
true, they have robbed, or done their utmost to rob, mankind of a truth.
They will say: But we were justified, for we exercised our judgment to
the best of our ability, and are we to be told that because our judgment
is fallible we are not to use it? We forbade the propagation of an
opinion which we were sure was false and pernicious; this implies no
greater claim to infallibility than any act done by public authority. If
we are to act at all, we must assume our own opinion to be true. To this
Mill acutely replies: "There is the greatest difference

[238] between assuming an opinion to be true, because with every
opportunity for contesting it it has not been refuted, and assuming its
truth for the purpose of not permitting its refutation. Complete liberty
of contradicting and disproving our opinion is the very condition which
justifies us in assuming its truth for purposes of action, and on no
other terms can a being with human faculties have any rational assurance
of being right."

(2) If the received opinion which it is sought to protect against the
intrusion of error is true, the suppression of discussion is still
contrary to general utility. A received opinion may happen to be true
(it is very seldom entirely true); but a rational certainty that it is
so can only be secured by the fact that it has been fully canvassed but
has not been shaken.

Commoner and more important is (3) the case where the conflicting
doctrines share the truth between them. Here Mill has little difficulty
in proving the utility of supplementing one-sided popular truths by
other truths which popular opinion omits to consider. And he observes
that if either of the opinions which share the truth has a claim not
merely to be tolerated but to be encouraged, it is the one which happens
to be held by the minority, since this is the one "which

[239] for the time being represents the neglected interests." He takes
the doctrines of Rousseau, which might conceivably have been suppressed
as pernicious. To the self-complacent eighteenth century those doctrines
came as "a salutary shock, dislocating the compact mass of one-sided
opinion." The current opinions were indeed nearer to the truth than
Rousseau's, they contained much less of error; "nevertheless there lay
in Rousseau's doctrine, and has floated down the stream of opinion along
with it, a considerable amount of exactly those truths which the popular
opinion wanted; and these are the deposit which we left behind when the
flood subsided."

Such is the drift of Mill's main argument. The present writer would
prefer to state the justification of freedom of opinion in a somewhat
different form, though in accordance with Mill's reasoning. The progress
of civilization, if it is partly conditioned by circumstances beyond
man's control, depends more, and in an increasing measure, on things
which are within his own power. Prominent among these are the
advancement of knowledge and the deliberate adaptation of his habits and
institutions to new conditions. To advance knowledge and to correct
errors, unrestricted freedom of discussion is required.

[240] History shows that knowledge grew when speculation was perfectly
free in Greece, and that in modern times, since restrictions on inquiry
have been entirely removed, it has advanced with a velocity which would
seem diabolical to the slaves of the mediaeval Church. Then, it is
obvious that in order to readjust social customs, institutions, and
methods to new needs and circumstances, there must be unlimited freedom
of canvassing and criticizing them, of expressing the most unpopular
opinions, no matter how offensive to prevailing sentiment they may be.
If the history of civilization has any lesson to teach it is this: there
is one supreme condition of mental and moral progress which it is
completely within the power of man himself to secure, and that is
perfect liberty of thought and discussion. The establishment of this
liberty may be considered the most valuable achievement of modern
civilization, and as a condition of social progress it should be deemed
fundamental. The considerations of permanent utility on which it rests
must outweigh any calculations of present advantage which from time to
time might be thought to demand its violation.

It is evident that this whole argument depends on the assumption that
the progress of the race, its intellectual and moral development,

[241] is a reality and is valuable. The argument will not appeal to any
one who holds with Cardinal Newman that "our race's progress and
perfectibility is a dream, because revelation contradicts it"; and he
may consistently subscribe to the same writer's conviction that "it
would be a gain to this country were it vastly more superstitious, more
bigoted, more gloomy, more fierce in its religion, than at present it
shows itself to be."

While Mill was writing his brilliant Essay, which every one should read,
the English Government of the day (1858) instituted prosecutions for the
circulation of the doctrine that it is lawful to put tyrants to death,
on the ground that the doctrine is immoral. Fortunately the prosecutions
were not persisted in. Mill refers to the matter, and maintains that
such a doctrine as tyrannicide (and, let us add, anarchy) does not form
any exception to the rule that "there ought to exist the fullest liberty
of professing and discussing, as a matter of ethical conviction, any
doctrine, however immoral it may be considered."

Exceptions, cases where the interference of the authorities is proper,
are only apparent, for they really come under another rule. For
instance, if there is a direct instigation

[242] to particular acts of violence, there may be a legitimate case for
interference. But the incitement must be deliberate and direct. If I
write a book condemning existing societies and defending a theory of
anarchy, and a man who reads it presently commits an outrage, it may
clearly be established that my book made the man an anarchist and
induced him to commit the crime, but it would be illegitimate to punish
me or suppress the book unless it contained a direct incitement to the
specific crime which he committed.

It is conceivable that difficult cases might arise where a government
might be strongly tempted, and might be urged by public clamour, to
violate the principle of liberty. Let us suppose a case, very
improbable, but which will make the issue clear and definite. Imagine
that a man of highly magnetic personality, endowed with a wonderful
power of infecting others with his own ideas however irrational, in
short a typical religious leader, is convinced that the world will come
to an end in the course of a few months. He goes about the country
preaching and distributing pamphlets; his words have an electrical
effect; and the masses of the uneducated and half-educated are persuaded
that they have indeed only a few weeks to prepare for the day of
Judgment. Multitudes leave their

[243] occupations, abandon their work, in order to spend the short time
that remains in prayer and listening to the exhortations of the prophet.
The country is paralyzed by the gigantic strike; traffic and industries
come to a standstill. The people have a perfect legal right to give up
their work, and the prophet has a perfect legal right to propagate his
opinion that the end of the world is at hand --an opinion which Jesus
Christ and his followers in their day held quite as erroneously. It
would be said that desperate ills have desperate remedies, and there
would be a strong temptation to suppress the fanatic. But to arrest a
man who is not breaking the law or exhorting any one to break it, or
causing a breach of the peace, would be an act of glaring tyranny. Many
will hold that the evil of setting back the clock of liberty would out-
balance all the temporary evils, great as they might be, caused by the
propagation of a delusion. It would be absurd to deny that liberty of
speech may sometimes cause particular harm. Every good thing sometimes
does harm. Government, for instance, which makes fatal mistakes; law,
which so often bears hardly and inequitably in individual cases. And can
the Christians urge any other plea for their religion when they are
unpleasantly reminded that it has caused untold

[244] suffering by its principle of exclusive salvation?

Once the principle of liberty of thought is accepted as a supreme
condition of social progress, it passes from the sphere of ordinary
expediency into the sphere of higher expediency which we call justice.
In other words it becomes a right on which every man should be able to
count. The fact that this right is ultimately based on utility does not
justify a government in curtailing it, on the ground of utility, in
particular cases.

The recent rather alarming inflictions of penalties for blasphemy in
England illustrate this point. It was commonly supposed that the
Blasphemy laws (see above, p. 139), though unrepealed, were a dead
letter. But since December, 1911, half a dozen persons have been
imprisoned for this offence. In these cases Christian doctrines were
attacked by poor and more or less uneducated persons in language which
may be described as coarse and offensive. Some of the judges seem to
have taken the line that it is not blasphemy to attack the fundamental
doctrines provided "the decencies of controversy" are preserved, but
that "indecent" attacks constitute blasphemy. This implies a new
definition of legal blasphemy, and is entirely contrary to the intention
of the laws. Sir

[245] J. F. Stephen pointed out that the decisions of judges from the
time of Lord Hale (XVIIth century) to the trial of Foote (1883) laid
down the same doctrine and based it on the same principle: the doctrine
being that it is a crime either to deny the truth of the fundamental
doctrines of the Christian religion or to hold them up to contempt or
ridicule; and the principle being that Christianity is a part of the law
of the land.

The apology offered for such prosecutions is that their object is to
protect religious sentiment from insult and ridicule. Sir J. F. Stephen
observed: "If the law were really impartial and punished blasphemy only,
because it offends the feelings of believers, it ought also to punish
such preaching as offends the feelings of unbelievers. All the more
earnest and enthusiastic forms of religion are extremely offensive to
those who do not believe them." If the law does not in any sense
recognize the truth of Christian doctrine, it would have to apply the
same rule to the Salvation Army. In fact the law "can be explained and
justified only on what I regard as its true principle--the principle of
persecution." The opponents of Christianity may justly say: If
Christianity is false, why is it to be attacked only in polite language?
Its goodness depends on its truth. If you

[246] grant its falsehood, you cannot maintain that it deserves special
protection. But the law imposes no restraint on the Christian, however
offensive his teaching may be to those who do not agree with him;
therefore it is not based on an impartial desire to prevent the use of
language which causes offence; therefore it is based on the hypothesis
that Christianity is true; and therefore its principle is persecution.

Of course, the present administration of the common law in regard to
blasphemy does not endanger the liberty of those unbelievers who have
the capacity for contributing to progress. But it violates the supreme
principle of liberty of opinion and discussion. It hinders uneducated
people from saying in the only ways in which they know how to say it,
what those who have been brought up differently say, with impunity, far
more effectively and far more insidiously. Some of the men who have been
imprisoned during the last two years, only uttered in language of
deplorable taste views that are expressed more or less politely in books
which are in the library of a bishop unless he is a very ignorant
person, and against which the law, if it has any validity, ought to have
been enforced. Thus the law, as now administered, simply penalizes bad
taste and places disabilities

[247] upon uneducated freethinkers. If their words offend their audience
so far as to cause a disturbance, they should be prosecuted for a breach
of public order, [1] not because their words are blasphemous. A man who
robs or injures a church, or even an episcopal palace, is not prosecuted
for sacrilege, but for larceny or malicious damage or something of the

The abolition of penalties for blasphemy was proposed in the House of
Commons (by Bradlaugh) in 1889 and rejected. The reform is urgently
needed. It would "prevent the recurrence at irregular intervals of
scandalous prosecutions which have never in any one instance benefited
any one, least of all the cause which they were intended to serve, and
which sometimes afford a channel for the gratification of private malice
under the cloak of religion." [2]

The struggle of reason against authority has ended in what appears now
to be a decisive and permanent victory for liberty. In the most
civilized and progressive countries, freedom of discussion is recognized
as a

[248] fundamental principle. In fact, we may say it is accepted as a
test of enlightenment, and the man in the street is forward in
acknowledging that countries like Russia and Spain, where opinion is
more or less fettered, must on that account be considered less civilized
than their neighbours. All intellectual people who count take it for
granted that there is no subject in heaven or earth which ought not to
be investigated without any deference or reference to theological
assumptions. No man of science has any fear of publishing his
researches, whatever consequences they may involve for current beliefs.
Criticism of religious doctrines and of political and social
institutions is free. Hopeful people may feel confident that the victory
is permanent; that intellectual freedom is now assured to mankind as a
possession for ever; that the future will see the collapse of those
forces which still work against it and its gradual diffusion in the more
backward parts of the earth. Yet history may suggest that this prospect
is not assured. Can we be certain that there may not come a great set-
back? For freedom of discussion and speculation was, as we saw, fully
realized in the Greek and Roman world, and then an unforeseen force, in
the shape of Christianity, came in and laid chains upon the human mind

[249] suppressed freedom and imposed upon man a weary struggle to
recover the freedom which he had lost. Is it not conceivable that
something of the same kind may occur again? that some new force,
emerging from the unknown, may surprise the world and cause a similar

The possibility cannot be denied, but there are some considerations
which render it improbable (apart from a catastrophe sweeping away
European culture). There are certain radical differences between the
intellectual situation now and in antiquity. The facts known to the
Greeks about the nature of the physical universe were few. Much that was
taught was not proved. Compare what they knew and what we know about
astronomy and geography--to take the two branches in which (besides
mathematics) they made most progress. When there were so few
demonstrated facts to work upon, there was the widest room for
speculation. Now to suppress a number of rival theories in favour of one
is a very different thing from suppressing whole systems of established
facts. If one school of astronomers holds that the earth goes round the
sun, another that the sun goes round the earth, but neither is able to
demonstrate its proposition, it is easy for an authority, which has
coercive power,

[250] to suppress one of them successfully. But once it is agreed by all
astronomers that the earth goes round the sun, it is a hopeless task for
any authority to compel men to accept a false view. In short, because
she is in possession of a vast mass of ascertained facts about the
nature of the universe, reason holds a much stronger position now than
at the time when Christian theology led her captive. All these facts are
her fortifications. Again, it is difficult to see what can arrest the
continuous progress of knowledge in the future. In ancient times this
progress depended on a few; nowadays, many nations take part in the
work. A general conviction of the importance of science prevails to-day,
which did not prevail in Greece. And the circumstance that the advance
of material civilization depends on science is perhaps a practical
guarantee that scientific research will not come to an abrupt halt. In
fact science is now a social institution, as much as religion.

But if science seems pretty safe, it is always possible that in
countries where the scientific spirit is held in honour, nevertheless,
serious restrictions may be laid on speculations touching social,
political, and religious questions. Russia has men of science inferior
to none, and Russia has its notorious censorship. It

[251] is by no means inconceivable that in lands where opinion is now
free coercion might be introduced. If a revolutionary social movement
prevailed, led by men inspired by faith in formulas (like the men of the
French Revolution) and resolved to impose their creed, experience shows
that coercion would almost inevitably be resorted to. Nevertheless,
while it would be silly to suppose that attempts may not be made in the
future to put back the clock, liberty is in a far more favourable
position now than under the Roman Empire. For at that time the social
importance of freedom of opinion was not appreciated, whereas now, in
consequence of the long conflict which was necessary in order to re-
establish it, men consciously realize its value. Perhaps this conviction
will be strong enough to resist all conspiracies against liberty.
Meanwhile, nothing should be left undone to impress upon the young that
freedom of thought is an axiom of human progress. It may be feared,
however, that this is not likely to be done for a long time to come. For
our methods of early education are founded on authority. It is true that
children are sometimes exhorted to think for themselves. But the parent
or instructor who gives this excellent advice is confident that the
results of the child's thinking for

[252] himself will agree with the opinions which his elders consider
desirable. It is assumed that he will reason from principles which have
already been instilled into him by authority. But if his thinking for
himself takes the form of questioning these principles, whether moral or
religious, his parents and teachers, unless they are very exceptional
persons, will be extremely displeased, and will certainly discourage
him. It is, of course, only singularly promising children whose freedom
of thought will go so far. In this sense it might be said that "distrust
thy father and mother" is the first commandment with promise. It should
be a part of education to explain to children, as soon as they are old
enough to understand, when it is reasonable, and when it is not, to
accept what they are told, on authority.

[1] Blasphemy is an offence in Germany; but it must be proved that
offence has actually been given, and the penalty does not exceed
imprisonment for three days.

[2] The quotations are from Sir J. F. Stephen's article, "Blasphemy and
Blasphemous Libel," in the Fortnightly Review, March, 1884, pp. 289-318.



Lecky, W. E. H., History of the Rise and Influence of the
Spirit of Rationalism in Europe, 2 vols. (originally published
in 1865). White, A. D., A History of the Warfare
of Science with Theology in Christendom, 2 vols., 1896.
Robertson, J. M., A Short History of Free-thought, Ancient
and Modern, 2 vols., 1906. [Comprehensive, but the
notices of the leading freethinkers are necessarily brief, as
the field covered is so large. The judgments are always
independent.] Benn, A. W., The History of English
Rationalism in the Nineteenth Century, 2 vols., 1906.
[Very full and valuable]

Greek Thought
Gomperz, Th., Greek Thinkers (English translation), 4 vols.

English Deists
Stephen, Leslie, History of English Thought in the Eighteenth
Century, vol. i, 1881.

French Freethinkers of Eighteenth Century
Morley, J., Voltaire; Diderot and the Encyclopaedists;
Rousseau (see above, Chapter VI).

Rationalistic Criticism of the Bible
(Nineteenth Century)
Articles in Encyclopoedia Biblica, 4 vols. Duff, A., History of
Old Testament Criticism, 1910. Conybeare, F. C., History
of New Testament Criticism, 1910.

Persecution and Inquisition
Lea, H., A History of the Inquisition of the Middle Ages, 3
vols., 1888; A History of the Inquisition of Spain, 4 vols.,
1906. Haynes, E. S. P., Religious Persecution, 1904.
For the case of Ferrer see Archer, W., The Life, Trial
and Death of Francisco Ferrer, 1911, and McCabe, J.,
The Martyrdom of Ferrer, 1909.

Ruffini, F., Religious Liberty (English translation), 1912.
The essays of L. Luzzatti. Liberty of Conscience and
Science (Italian), are suggestive.



Aesthetic movement, 213
Agnosticism, meaning of, 213 sq.
Albigeois, persecution of, 58
Anabaptists, 78, 95, 125
Anatomy, 65
Anaxagoras, 27
Annet, Peter, 172
Anthropology, 189
Anthropomorphism. 23
Aristotle, 35, 68, 69
Arnold, Matthew, 218 sqq.
Asoka, 92
Astronomy, 87--90
Atheism, 103, 113, 123, 132, 158
Athens, 27 sqq.
Augustine, St., 55
Austria-Hungary, 122, 224
Authority, meaning of, 14 sqq.
Averroism, 88

Bacon, Roger, 85
Bahrdt, 175
Rain, A., 188
Bayle, 107 sq., 135 sqq.
Benn, A. W, 152
Bible, O. T., 192 sqq.; N. T., 195 sqq
Bible-worship, 82, 201
Blasphemy laws, 23, 88, 139 sq., 244 sqq.
Bolingbroke, 153
Bradlaugh, 228, 247
Bruno, Giordano, 84
Buechner, 188
Buckle, 188
Butler, Bishop, Analogy, 151 sq.

Calvin, 78
Cassels, W
Castellion, 94
Causation, Law of, 183 sq.
Charron. 75
Cicero, 39
Clifford, W. K., 213
Clodd, Edward, 224
Colenso, Bishop, 193
Collins, Anthony, 141
Comte, Auguste. 188 sq., 229
Concordat of 1801, French, 115

Condorcet, 227
Congregationalists (Independents), 95, 99, 100
Constantine I, Emperor, 47, 51
Copernicus, 87

Darwin; Darwinism, 180, 182, 225
Defoe, Daniel, 104 sq.
Deism, 137 sqq.
Democritus, 25
Descartes, 129, 131
Design, argument from, 181, 178
D'Holbach, 158
Diderot, 158 sq.
Diocletian, Emperor, 45
Disestablishment, 104, 108
Dodwell, Henry, 147
Domitian, Emperor, 42
Double Truth, 68 sq., 134

Edelmann, 175
Epicureanism, 36 sqq., 84
Essays and Review, 204 sqq.
Euripides, 29
Exclusive salvation, 52 sq., 63, 78

Ferrer, Francisco, 231 sq.
Fortnightly Review, 221
Fourier, 227
France, 74, 100 sqq., 152 sqq.
Frederick the Great, 120 sq.
Frederick II, Emperor, 58, 70
Free thought, meaning of, 18

Galileo de' Galilei, 87 sqq.
Gassendi, 130
Geology, 178 sq.
Germany, 78 sqq., 117 sqq., 174 sqq.
Gibbon, 82, 162 sqq.
Goethe, 175
Greg, W. R., 203
Gregory IX, Pope, 57
Gregory XVI, Encyclical of, 123 sq.

Haeckel, 187, 228
Hale, Lord Chief Justice, 139
Harrison, Frederic, 188, 223
Hegel, 184 sqq.
Hell, controversy on, 217

Helmholtz, 182
Heraclitus, 25
Herbert of Cherbury, Lord, 149
Hippocrates, 64
Hobbes, 130 sq.
Holland, 95, 107, 130, 131
Holyoake, 224
Homer, 24
Hume, 160 sqq.
Huxley, 213

Independents, 95, 98 sq.
Infallibility, Papal, 210 sq.
Innocent III, Pope, 56
Innocent IV, Pope, 57
Innocent VIII, Pope, 67
Inquisition, 57 sqq.; Spanish, 59 sqq.; Roman, 83, 84, 87 sqq.
Italy, 122 sqq., 210

James I (England). 85 sq.
Jews, 41 sqq., 68, 99, 105, 111, 194
Joseph II, Emperor, 122
Jowett, Benjamin, 204 sq.
Julian, Emperor, 54
Justice, arguments from, 235

Kant, 175 sq.
Kett, Francis, 85
Kyd, 85

Laplace, 178
Lecky. W. H., 208, 225
Legate, Bartholomew, 86
Lessing, 71, 120
Linnaeus, 177
Locke, 101 sqq., 120, 132 sq.
Loisy, Abbe, 200 sq.
Lucian, 40
Lucretius, 37 sq.
Luther, 77 sq., 81
Lyell, 178, 208

Manning, Cardinal, 210
Marlowe, Christopher, 85
Marsilius, 119
Maryland, 97 sq.
Mazarin, Cardinal, 85, 107
Middleton, Conyers, 150, 164
Mill, James, 151, 227
Mill, J. S., 182, 213, 227, 233, 235 sqq.
Milton, 99 sq.
Mirabeau, 112
Miracles, 141 sqq., 151, 180, 164 sq., 206
Modernism, 199 sqq.
Mohammedan free thought, 68
Monism, 188, 228 sqq.

Montaigne, 74
Morley, Lord (Mr. John), 159, 209, 221 sq., 225

Nantes, Edict of, 107
Napoleon I, 115
Newman, Cardinal, 199, 241
Newman, F. W., 203

Ostwald, Professor, 228 sqq.

Paine, Thomas, 112, 168 sqq.
Paley, 167 sqq.
Pascal, 123, 152 sq.
Pater, 213
Pentateuch, 192 sq.
Pericles, 27
Persecution, theory of, 47 sqq., 232 sqq.
Pitt, William, 151
Pius IX, Syllabus, 210 sq.
Pius X, Pope, 199 sq.
Plato, 36 sq.
Plutarch, 150
Prayer, controversy on, 216
Press, censorship, 91 sq., 224 sq.
Priestley, 227
Priscillian, 55
Progress, idea of, 226 sqq.
Protagoras, 25

Raleigh, Sir W., 85
Rationalism, meaning of, 18
Reade, Winwood, 213
Reinach, S., 197
Renan, 198
Revolution, French, 111 sqq.
Rhode Island, 98
Richelieu, Cardinal, 85, 107
Rousseau. 111, 156 sqq., 239
Ruffini, Professor, 125
Russia, 224

Sacred books, 24, 53 sq., 191
Science, physical, 64 sq., 176 sqq.
Secularism, 224
Seeley, J. R., 208
Servetus, 79
Shaftesbury. 148 sqq., 151
Shelley, 173, 208
Socinianism, 83, 93 sqq.
Socrates, 30 sqq., 39, 235, 236
Sophists, Greek, 26
Spain, 59 sqq., 231 sq.
Spencer, Herbert. 187
Spinoza, 131 sq., 138, 191
Stephen. Leslie, 167, 215 sqq.
Stephen, J. F.. 203, 245 sq., 247
Stoicism, 36, 38 sq.

Strauss, David, 195, 198
Swinburne. 208, 211 sq.

Tamburini. 122
Tatian, 44
Themistius, 55
Theodosius I, Emperor, 54
Theophilanthropy, 114 sq.
Thomas Aquinas, 69
Thomasius, Chr., 119
Three Rings, story of, 70
Tiherius, Emperor, 40
Tindal, Matthew, 144 sqq.
Toland, 133 sq.
Toleration, 46 sqq., 92 sqq.
Trajan, Emperor, 42
Turgot, 227
Tyndall, 213

Unitarians, 93, 105
United States, 96 sqq., 128
Universities, tests at, 108
Utilitarianism, 227

Vanini, Lucilio, 85
Vatican Council (1869--70), 210
Voltaire, 108 sqq., 114, 121, 153 sqq.

Wesley, 130
Westbury, Lord, 207
Wilberforce, 201
Williams, Roger, 96 sq.
Witchcraft, 66 sq., 80, 129 sq.
Woolston, 141 sqq.

Xenophanes, 23 sq.

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