Read AN EXAMINATION OF THEISM: CHAPTER VIII of Theism / Atheism‚ The Great Alternative, free online book, by Chapman Cohen, on


There is no logical connection between what is called the “Moral government of the universe” and the belief in God, but it must be confessed that the criticism of the belief from the point of view of moral feeling is of considerable importance. This is in itself a striking illustration of the reaction of social developments on religious beliefs. For there is originally no connection between morality and the belief in God. Man does not believe in the gods because they are moral, but because they are there. If they are, to his mind, good, that is so much the better. But whether they are good or bad they have to be faced as facts. The gods, in short belong to the region of belief, while morality belongs to that of practice. It is in the nature of morality that it should be implicit in practice long before it is explicit in theory. Morality belongs to the group and is rooted in certain impulses that are a product of the essential conditions of group life. It is as reflection awakens that men are led to speculate upon the nature and origin of the moral feelings. Morality, whether in practice or in theory, is thus based upon what is. On the other hand, religion, whether it be true or false, is in the nature of a discovery. However crude or uninformed the thinking, the belief in God must be regarded as the product of reflection. The situation is not unfairly described by Dr. Jastrow:

The various rites practiced by primitive society in order to ward off evils, or to secure the protection of dreaded powers or spirits, are based primarily on logical considerations. If a certain stone is regarded as sacred, it is probably because it is associated with some misfortune, or some unusual piece of good luck. Someone sitting on the stone may have died; or on sleeping on it may have seen a remarkable vision, which was followed by a signal victory over a dangerous foe.... In all this, however, ethical considerations are remarkable for their absence.... Taking again so common a belief among all peoples as the influence for good or evil exerted by the dead upon the living and the numerous practices to which it gives rise ... it will be difficult to discover in these beliefs the faintest suggestion of any ethical influence. It is not the good but the powerful spirits that are invoked; an appeal to them is not made by showing them examples of kindness, justice, or noble deeds, but by bribes, flatteries, and threats. (The Study of Religion; Ch. VI.).

So we have Tylor also endorsing this opinion by remarking that, “The popular idea that the moral government of the universe is an essential tenet of natural religion simply falls to the ground. Savage animism is almost devoid of that ethical element which, to the educated, modern mind, is the very mainspring of religion.” And Hoffding says that, “In the lowest forms of it with which we are acquainted religion cannot be said to have any ethical significance. The gods appear as powers on which man is dependent, but not as patterns of conduct or administrators of an ethical world order.... Not till men have discovered ethical problems in practical life and have developed an ethical feeling ... can the figures of the gods assume an ethical character.” ("Philosophy of Religion”; p. 323-4).

It is quite unnecessary to multiply evidence, the truth of the matter would seem obvious. One cannot conceive man actually ascribing ethical qualities to his gods before he becomes sufficiently developed to formulate moral rules for his own guidance, and to create moral laws for his fellow man. The moralisation of the gods will then follow as a matter of course. And thereafter we can plainly observe the operation of the moral sense on the belief in god, and upon the recognition of crude power. Man really modifies his gods in terms of the ideal human being. Paul’s picture of a god who uses man as the potter uses his clay could never flourish in a society which believed in the “rights of man.” And so soon as that conception developes so soon does man begin to revise his conception of god. So with almost every great change in the form of government or in the notions of right and wrong. In a slave state, God favours slavery. When slavery gives place to another form of labour the gods are equally vigorous in its condemnation. The history of the belief in witch burning, heresy hunting, eternal damnation, etc., all illustrate the same point religious teachings are all modified and moralised in accordance with the changing moral conceptions of mankind. It is not the gods who moralise man, it is man who moralises the gods.

The gods have their beginnings as mere powers. They are feared because they are, not for the moral value of what they are. Social development does all the rest. But with that development the feeling of helplessness, of weakness, decays and there arises the demand that if god is to be worshipped he must prove worthy of it. The conviction arises very gradually, but it is there, and it becomes a powerful solvent of religious ideas. Merely to govern is not enough, God must govern well, and in terms of what we have come to understand by the word “Justice.” And to the minds of millions of moderns, when tried by that test the idea of god breaks down. That there is a god who rules the universe is one question; that he rules it well and in accord with what is understood when we talk of morality, is quite another. The two questions are quite distinct since the first might be true and the second false. We have already seen how slender are the grounds for believing in the first; we have now to show that the reasons for believing in the second are quite as unsatisfactory.

Theism has been defined as consisting in the belief in a God who is wise, powerful, and loving, and who has selected man as the object of his preferential care, and to this may be added the statement that most modern theists would extend that care to the whole of sentient life. “God’s care” must be “over all his creatures,” and although this care may be subservient to some wide and far-seeing plan, there must be nothing that looks like obvious carelessness or criminal neglect.

To what conclusion do the facts point when they are examined in the light of modern knowledge? Does the world supply us with the kind of picture that one would expect to see if it were really presided over by divine love under the guidance of divine wisdom, and backed by divine power? The proof that it does not is shown in the almost endless attempts made to harmonise the world as it is with the world as theory would have it be. And a theory that needs so much defending, explaining, and qualifying must have something radically weak about it. That there is evil in the world all admit, that it offers prima facie objection to the theistic hypothesis is confessed by the many attempts made to fit in this evil with the existence of God, to prove that it works in some mysterious way for some larger good, or that its presence cannot be dispensed with profitably. The question of why the world is as it is with a god such as we are told exists, is, as Canon Green says, “the really vital question, for it touches the very heart of religion.” ("The Problem of Evil”; .) How, then, does the Theist deal with it?

Broadly, two methods are adopted. In the one case we are presented with the order of the world, or the course of evolution, as indicative of a beneficent scheme. This claims to freely adopt all that science has to say concerning the development of life and to prove that this is in harmony with the legitimate demands of the moral sense. The second is the more orthodox way, and taking the world as it is, claims that pain and suffering play a disciplinary and educational part in the life of the individual. We will take these in the order named.

When dealing with the argument from design little was said concerning the evolutionary explanation of the special adaptations that meet us in the animal world. It was thought better to fix attention on the purely logical value of the argument presented. It is now necessary to look a little closer at the ethical implications of the evolutionary process.

It has been pointed out that all life involves a special degree of adaptation between an organism and its environment. Destroy that adjustment and life ceases to exist. How is that adjustment secured? The answer of the pre-Darwinian was that it represented a deliberate design on the part of God. Against this Darwinism propounds a theory of automatic or mechanical adjustment which makes the calling in of deity altogether gratuitous. And it remains gratuitous, no matter how far the scope of the theory of natural selection may be modified. But given the continuous variations which we know to exist with all kinds of life, given any sort of competition between animals as to which shall live, given even a degree of adaptation below which an animal cannot fall and live, and it is at once plain that the better adaptations will live and the poorer adapted will be eliminated. This process is analogous to that by which man has managed to breed so many varieties of domesticated animals and plants, some of the varieties presenting so marked a difference from the original type that if found in a state of nature they would often be classed as a distinct species. Man selects the variation that pleases him, eliminates or segregates the type that does not, and by following up the process eventually produces a distinct and fixed variation. It was because of the likeness of what goes on in the case of the breeder to what we see actually going on in nature that Darwin used the phrase “Natural Selection” as descriptive of the process. It was not an exact phrase, and it was not meant to be exact. For one thing a very important thing, while a breeder selects, nature eliminates. Man’s action, in relation to the type preserved, is positive. Nature’s attitude in relation to the type preserved is negative. This is a very important distinction; and it is one that is fatal to the claims of theism. For if it points to a plan in nature it points to one that aims at killing off all that can be killed, and only sparing those who are able to protect themselves against its attack. And one is left wondering at the type of mind which can see goodness and wisdom in a plan that goes, on generation, after generation manufacturing an inferior or defective type in enormous numbers in order that a few superior specimens may be found, these in their turn to become inferior by the arrival of some other specimens a little more fortunate in their endowment. One hardly knows at which to marvel the most at the clumsiness of the plan, or at the brutality of the design.

It was soon realised that the old argument from design was no longer possible. But if one can only get far enough away from the possibility of proof or disproof there is always a chance for the Goddite. So it was argued that inasmuch as natural selection meant the emergence of a “higher” type, and as there was no room for design within the process, might not the process itself be an expression of design? There might still be room for what Huxley, with one of those foolish concessions to established opinion which is the bane of English thought, called the “wider teleology.” This was a teleology which placed a designing mind at the back of the evolutionary process, and arranging it with a view to a preconceived end. The process then becomes, to use Spencer’s phrase, a “beneficent” one, since it eliminates the poorer specimens and leaves the better ones to perpetuate the species. We are thus asked to imagine a divine wisdom selecting the better and destroying the inferior much as an omniscient Eugenist might destroy at birth all human beings of an undesirable type.

The weakness of the thesis lies primarily in the fact that in the case of the breeder he has to take the animal as he finds it, subject to the play of forces, the characteristics of which are determined for him. He has to make the best of the situation. In the case of the deity he creates the animals with which he is assumed to be experimenting, he creates the forces with all their qualities, and thus determines the nature of the situation. Quite certainly no breeder would waste his time in breeding over a number of generations if he could secure the desired type at once. The whole of the argument of the advocate of the wider teleology is that God wanted the higher type. But if that is so why did he not produce it at once? What useful purpose could be served by producing at the end of a lengthy and murderous process what might just as well have been secured at the beginning? It is not wisdom but unadulterated stupidity to take thousands of years securing what might have been as well done in the twinkling of an eye.

There is, in short, no justification in the creation of a process so long as the end at which the process is aiming can be reached by a less tortuous method. As Mr. F. C. S. Schiller says:

So long as we are dealing with finite factors, the function of pain and the nature of evil can be more or less understood, but as soon as it is supposed to display the working of an infinite power everything becomes wholly unintelligible. We can no longer console ourselves with the hope that “good becomes the final goal of ill,” we can no longer fancy that imperfection serves any secondary purpose in the economy of the universe. A process by which evil becomes good is unintelligible as the action of a truly infinite power which can attain its end without a process; it is absurd to ascribe imperfection as a secondary result to a power which can attain all its aims without evil. Hence the world process, and the intelligent purpose we fancy we detect in it must be illusory.... God can have no purpose, and the world cannot be in process.... If the world is the product of an infinite power it is utterly unknowable, because its process and its nature would be alike unnecessary and unaccountable. (Riddles of the Sphinx; p. 318-19).

Besides, as I have already pointed out, in the process as it meets us in nature there is not a selection for preservation, but a selection for killing. With the breeder preservation is primary. It is of no value to him to kill, it is the preservation of a desired type that is all important. In nature, so far as we can see, the whole aim is to destroy. It is not the fittest that are preserved so much as it is the unfittest that are killed. The fittest are left alive for no other apparent reason than that nature is unable to kill them. The truth of this is seen in the fact that where there is no death there is no evolution of a “higher” type. In the case of diseases that kill there is a gradual development of an immune type which introduces the paradox that the healthiest diseases from which a race may suffer are those that are most deadly. Where a disease does not kill there is no development against it. It is the winnowing fan of death that makes for the development of animal life. And the correct picture of nature if we must picture an intelligence behind it would be that of an intelligence aiming at killing all, and only failing in its purpose because the natural endowment of some placed them beyond its power.

And, without examining the question begging word “higher,” it may be said that natural selection does not make for the uniform covering of the earth with representatives of higher types. If in some parts of the world the higher have replaced the lower types, elsewhere the lower have replaced the higher. Natural selection, in fact, works without reference to whether the form which survives is “higher” or “lower.” All that matters is adaptation. The germ of malaria renders whole tracts of the earth uninhabitable to those whom we consider representative of the higher culture. In other parts an alteration of the rainfall may crush out a civilisation, and leave a handful of nomadic tribes as the sole denizens of lands where once a lofty civilisation flourished. Throughout the whole of nature there is never the slightest indication that forces operate with the slightest reference to what we are accustomed to consider the higher interests of the race.

Moreover, from the standpoint of an apologetic theism, we are entitled to ask precisely what is meant by this justification of the evolutionary process in terms of the production of a higher type. The justification of a painful or a costly experience by an individual is two-fold. First, it is the only way, perhaps, in which certain things may be learned or accomplished, and, second, it is the individual who passes through the experience who benefits thereby. But suppose a person entered on a course of training with the absolute certainty that he would never survive it. Should we be justified in forcing the course on him? Clearly not. The whole would be regarded as a wasted effort and as an exhibition of gratuitous cruelty.

Now when we look closely at this evolutionary process, who is it that benefits thereby? In a vague way we speak of the race benefiting. But the race is made up of individuals, and while it may be said the individual benefits from the experience through which the race has passed, it cannot be truthfully said that he is the better because he has gained from experience. He does not pass through the discipline, he simply registers, so to speak, the result. And, therefore, so far as he is concerned, he is exactly in the position that the first man would have been had he possessed the endowment, social, and individual, which the present man has. There is no greater fallacy than that contained in the common saying that man learns through experience. Individually, so far as civilisation is concerned, that is not true. Were it true, civilisation would be impossible. If each man had to start where our primitive ancestors started, and learn from experience, we should end where the first generation of socialised human beings ended, and the generations of men would represent an endless series of first steps to which there would be no second ones. What the individual learns from experience is very little and would never serve to lift him from out the ranks of savagery. What he learns from the experience of the race is much, and gives the whole distinction between the civilised man and the savage. It is the discipline of the race, that experience which meets each of us in the form of traditions, counsels, institutions, etc., from which we get the really vital lessons of life. But if that is so the attempted justification of natural processes on the ground that God designed them as they are so that man might learn from experience breaks down. The individual does not so learn, but is presented with the products of the experience of others, and which he accepts in the vast majority of cases without even putting it to the test. And, therefore, the method by which man learns was open from the start. Had there been some man who could have told us generations ago all that has been slowly discovered since, we should all have been the better for it, and we should have learned then exactly as we have learned since. And if God was really anxious to teach us, what possible objection could there be to his teaching us in some such way? In other words, how can we justify the process if the result is possible by any other method?

The standpoint of the theist is that God develops the species in order to benefit the individual. But the order is that the individual is sacrificed to benefit the species so far as any benefit can be traced. For it must be noted that it is not the individual who has passed through all the suffering, who has lived through the years of semi-animal life, or through the years of tyranny, that finally emerges strengthened and triumphant. It is a different individual altogether. The greatest benefit is secured by those who come latest, and who have done the least to secure it. The reward bears no relation to the personal desert. And at the end what happens? If we are to be guided by the lessons of science, we must believe that one day the human race will cease to exist, just as certainly as one day it began to exist. And what are we to think of the almighty wisdom and goodness which is responsible for all? An almighty intelligence designs a process to produce a perfect animal through the sufferings of myriads of other animals. It takes thousands and thousands of generations to complete the process, and meantime every year is bringing the whole plan nearer to extinction. Divine wisdom! Anything nearer complete stupidity and futility it would be difficult to conceive.

I know that at this point it will be said that I am leaving out of account the future life, and that the story of human growth is to be continued elsewhere. But that will certainly not meet all that has been said above. And it is a curious manner of meeting an objection based upon the only phase of existence that we know with assurance to tell us that our indictment will receive a complete refutation in another state of existence of which we know nothing at all. The reply is in itself an admission of the truth of the charges. If life admitted of a moral justification here there would be no need to appeal to some other life in which these blemishes are made good. If some other life is needed to correct the moral abnormalities of this one, then the indictment of the Atheist is justified. And one is left again wondering why, if almighty intelligence could make all things straight in the next world, why the same intelligence could not have made the necessary corrections in this one.

The truth is that the God of the evolutionary process is as much a myth as is the god of special creation. He has all the blemishes of the other one one step removed. The Paleyan God had at least the merit of coming to close grips with his work. The evolutionary one shields himself behind the fact that the work is done by his agents, and then it is found that he created the agents for this special work and all that they do is the product of the qualities with which he endowed them. If anything the evolutionary deity is more objectionable than the older one. And if theists will examine nature candidly and with an open mind, they will see that it is so. I do not know that anyone has drawn a more truthful picture of natural processes as they appear from the point of view of being the product of a divine intelligence than has Mr. W. H. Mallock, and his picture is the more deadly as coming from a champion of theism. If, he says, theists will look the facts of the universe steadily in the face:

What they will see will astonish them. They will see that if there is anything at the back of this vast process, with a consciousness and a purpose in any way resembling our own a being who knows what he wants and is doing his best to get it he is instead of a holy and all-wise God, a scatter-brained, semi-powerful, semi-impotent monster. They will recognise as clearly as they ever did the old familiar facts which seemed to them evidences of God’s wisdom, love, and goodness; but they will find that these facts, when taken in connection with the others, only supply us with a standard in the nature of this Being himself by which most of his acts are exhibited to us as those of a criminal madman. If he had been blind, he had not sin; but if we maintain that he can see, then his sin remains. Habitually a bungler as he is, and callous when not actively cruel, we are forced to regard him, when he seems to exhibit benevolence, as not divinely benevolent, but merely weak and capricious, like a boy who fondles a kitten and the next moment sets a dog at it, and not only does his moral character fall from him bit by bit but his dignity disappears also. The orderly processes of the stars and the larger phenomena of nature are suggestive of nothing so much as a wearisome Court ceremonial surrounding a king who is unable to understand or to break away from it; whilst the thunder and whirlwind, which have from time immemorial been accepted as special revelations of his awful power and majesty, suggest, if they suggest anything of a personal character at all, merely some blackguardly larrikin kicking his heels in the clouds, not perhaps bent on mischief, but indifferent to the fact that he is causing it....

The truth is, if we consider the universe as a whole, it fails to suggest a conscious and purposive God at all; and it fails to do so not because the processes of evolution as such preclude the idea that a God might have made use of them for a definite purpose, but because when we come to consider these processes in detail, and view them in the light of the only purposes they suggest, we find them to be such that a God who could deliberately have been guilty of them would be a God too absurd, too monstrous, too mad to be credible. (Religion as a Credible Doctrine; p. 176-8).

As we have already seen, the attempt to find a plan in the processes of evolution breaks down hopelessly. On analysis, the supposed plan turns out to be nothing more than a perception of some sort of regularity, and as regularity is an inescapable condition of existence, all that it proves is existence. On that point there is no dispute. And the moral justification of the cosmic process while intellectually indefensible, adds an element of moral repulsion. That the process as we know it is morally repugnant is shown by the appeal to the future, the request to suspend judgment till such time as the plan is completed, when it is hoped that the end will justify the means. God, it is trusted, will justify himself in the future. But in his anxiety to impress upon us the fact that God has a moral future the theist forgets that he has had a past, and that past is a black one. The uncounted generations of suffering in the past is not to be compensated by a probable happiness in the future. The myriads of organisms that have lived incomplete lives, and ended them in deaths of suffering are not cancelled by the probability that at some time, still in the future, a comparatively small number will lead lives of happiness. The record is there, “there is blood upon the hand,” and not all the apologies of a self-convicted animism can ever wipe it clean.