Read SUBSTITUTES FOR ATHEISM: CHAPTER XII of Theism / Atheism‚ The Great Alternative, free online book, by Chapman Cohen, on


We have already referred to the use made by religionists of Spencer’s “Unknowable.” This theory was not without its forerunners, and in England was already in the field in the teachings of Hamilton and Mansel. Spencer gave it a still greater vogue. As he presented it, it came before the world with all the prestige attaching to its association with one of the most comprehensive of modern thinkers, and one of the most influential in the schools of evolutionary philosophy. It was also connected with a world theory that claimed to be strictly scientific in its character. It became not only a fashion in certain circles, it founded a school, and gained numerous followers in the religious world. Its author propounded it as a basis on which to reconcile religion and science, and many were ready to accept it as such. Printed in all the glory of capital letters, appearing sometimes as “The Ultimate Reality,” sometimes as the “Unconditioned,” sometimes as an “Infinite and Eternal Energy,” it was equally impressive under all its forms. It provided just that solemn kind of formula that the religious mind is accustomed to hear, and if it was as meaningless as the Athanasian Creed, is was, for that reason, quite as satisfying. It gave all the comfort of a religious confession of faith, and it has been the parent of a whole host of more recent apologies for God.

In itself the “Unknowable” was harmless enough. Its philosophic value is not great, its scientific utility is nil. To say that everything proceeds from an “Ultimate Reality” is not very helpful, and to follow on with the declaration that we know nothing about it, and that it would be of no use to us if we did, does not sound very encouraging. It reminds one of the description of the horse that had only two faults one that it was hard to catch, and the other that it was no good when it was caught. We repeat with all solemnity the formula that all things proceed from an infinite and eternal energy, and that this is the Ultimate Reality, and then find that in relation to any and every question we are precisely where we were. Its acceptance in certain religious circles, and its use later, may be taken as evidence of the fact that what the pious mind longs for is not sense but satisfaction.

Still there remains cause for wonder that this “Unknowable” should ever have been taken as affording foundation for the belief in deity. The most extreme materialist or Atheist need not be in the slightest degree disconcerted on being told things proceed from an “Infinite and Eternal Energy.” It is only what the Atheist has said, minus the capital letters. He has affirmed his conviction, that all phenomena result from the permutations of matter and force, which are eternal because no time limit can be placed to their operations. And you do not add anything material to the statement by printing it in capital letters. That the Spencerian abstraction should have been taken as a substitute for deity proves how desperate the situation is. Drowning men clutch at straws, and a disintegrating deity hopes to renew his strength by the lavish use of capital letters.

For, after all, what the theist needs is, not an eternal energy, but a personality. An inscrutable existence will not do. There is no dispute that something exists. There is no quarrel over mere existence. It is with the nature of what exists and the mode of its operation that the issue arises. The theist needs a special kind of energy, a special form of existence, a special kind of “reality” if his case is to be established. It will not do for Mr. Spencer to assure him that this “Ultimate Reality” is higher than personal. How Mr. Spencer knows that something, the nature of which is unknown, is higher than something else, is more than one can tell. But that does not matter. Higher or lower, it is all the same. Either way it is different from personal, and if it is different it is not the same, it is not personal. Whatever other qualities this “Ultimate Reality” has or lacks, it must have that one if it is to be of use to the theist. And to say that it is higher than personal is to say that it is not personal at all, and to repeat in a roundabout manner what the Atheist has been saying all the time.

What now is Spencer’s theory of an ultimate reality that must for ever remain unknowable? Following a line of thought that had been steadily gaining ground since Hume although much older than Hume Spencer holds that in final analysis all our knowledge is a knowledge of mental states and their relations. Beyond this we know nothing, and can never know anything. Nevertheless, while we cannot know anything beyond consciousness, the conditions of thinking oblige us to assume that something exists as the cause of our states of mind. Just as black implies something that is not black, hard something that is not hard, so we must conceive, as against the conditioned, relative existence of our conscious states, an unconditioned, absolute existence as their cause. It is this assumed, but completely unknown cause of our conscious states, and of all else, that Spencer distinguishes as the Unknowable, the Unconditioned, the Absolute, etc., and which appears to have brought so much consolation to hard-pressed theists.

I have no intention of discussing here the philosophic value of the “Unknowable.” But one may say, in passing, that even from that point of view Spencer is untrue to his own Agnosticism in speaking of the Unconditioned as the cause of phenomena. For causation is a category of the conditioned, it belongs to the world we know. It is not something that exists beyond consciousness, it is something that is supplied by consciousness and which possesses validity only within the world of phenomena. On Spencer’s own theory of relativity a cause only exists in relation to an effect. Destroy the one and you destroy the other. Thus, if the Unknowable is a cause of phenomena it ceases to be the unconditioned and becomes part of the phenomenal order. If, on the other hand, it is not part of the phenomenal sequence, it cannot stand to phenomena in a genuine casual relation. It is, however, only fair to point out that between the Unknowable and the evolutionary philosophy of Spencer the only connection between them is that they are both in the same work. In all probability it is an unconscious survival of Spencer’s earlier theism, which was active at the time the Synthetic Philosophy was originally planned, but which became more and more attenuated as Spencer grew older, and disappears entirely from the more important volumes of the series. And but for the help it has been supposed to give the belief in god, the “Unknowable” would only have ranked as a harmless speculation of no value to anyone or to anything. This is substantially admitted in a postscript to the 1899 edition of “First Principles.” At the conclusion of the section entitled “The Unknowable,” he says:

The reader is not called on to judge respecting any of the arguments or conclusions contained in the foregoing five chapters and in the above paragraphs. The subjects on which we are about to enter are independent of the subjects thus far discussed; and he may reject any or all of that which has gone before while leaving himself free to accept any or all of that which is now to come.

In other words, the Unknowable is a pure abstraction, having no organic connection with the Synthetic Philosophy, or indeed with any philosophy of value. Mr. Spencers warning to his readers seems to quite justify Mr. Bradleys rather caustic comment, I do not wish to be irreverent, but Mr. Spencers attitude towards his Unknowable strikes me as a pleasantry, the point of which lies in its unconsciousness. It seems a proposal to take something for God simply and solely because we do not know what the devil it can be.

The curious thing is that Mr. Spencer really offers his readers two theories of the nature of religion. One is contained in his “Principles of Sociology,” and so far as it traces all religious ideas to the delusions and illusions of the primitive savage is substantially that held by all modern anthropologists. The other is contained in his “First Principles,” and the two theories, like parallel lines, never meet. Though born in the same brain they are quite distinct, and even contradictory.

The substance of this second theory may be summarised as follows:

1. The conditions of human thought compel the recognition of an unknowable reality of which all phenomena are the expression.

2. The function of religion, from the earliest time, has been the assertion of the existence of an unknowable reality, and to keep alive a consciousness of the insoluble mystery surrounding it.

3. The function of science is to deal with the known and the knowable, with all that is presented in experience, with the world of phenomena exclusively.

4. Religion having for its subject matter the unknown and unknowable, while science has for its subject matter the known and the knowable, religion and science are not antagonistic, but complementary. Conflicts only arise when one trespasses on the other’s department, and a recognition of the true line of demarcation effectually reconciles these hitherto hostile forces.

A very obvious criticism of number one is in affirming a consciousness of an “Unknowable,” its quality of unknowableness is annihilated. Existence can only be predicated of that which affects consciousness in some manner; and so far as I have the slightest apprehension or consciousness of anything existing, to that extent it ceases to be the unknowable. Our knowledge of it may be imperfect or altogether erroneous; we may feel it impossible that we should ever rightly understand it; but so far as we think about it we are bound to assimilate it to the best of our knowledge, even though it be only under the category of force. In brief, “unknowableness” is not a property or quality by which a thing may be apprehended; it is a name for complete mental vacuity. It does not refer to the thing itself, it refers only to us. It is a pure negation which Spencer, by sheer verbal play converts into a quasi-positive conception. A consciousness of things unknown can never be more than a consciousness of ignorance. There is only one way to prove the existence of an unknowable, and that is to know nothing about it not even to know that there is something about which we know nothing.

But, says Spencer, “to say that we cannot know the absolute is, by implication, to affirm that there is an absolute.” Certainly, if we take an infirmity of language to be the equivalent of a necessity of existence, not otherwise. When I say that we cannot know a four-sided triangle I do not affirm by implication that a four-sided triangle exists. I am asserting that the phrase, a four-sided triangle, involves conceptions that cannot be brought together in consciousness, and so dismiss it as being without meaning.

The truth is that every one of Spencer’s attempts to prove the existence of an unknowable turns out on examination to be no more than a proof of the existence of an unknown, and this is not disputed at any time or by anyone. Thus, after being told that a known cannot be thought of apart from an unknown, we are informed:

Positive knowledge does not, and never can, fill the whole region of possible thought. At the utmost reach of discovery there arises, and must ever arise, the question, What lies beyond? As it is impossible to think of a limit to space so as to exclude the idea of space lying outside that limit, so we cannot conceive of any explanation profound enough to exclude the question, What is the explanation of the explanation?

With this we can all agree, but it does not bring us any nearer an “unknowable.” It is perfectly true that thought can never be comprehensive enough to exhaust the possibilities of existence, since it is of the essence of thinking to limit and define. But it is a sheer impossibility to think of what lies beyond the boundary of our knowledge as unknowable, so far as we think of it at all, we must conceive it as the unknown but possibly knowable. The unknown can only be thought of thus because it is only as it is, by assumption, brought into line with what is already known that it can be thought about at all. We are compelled to think of what lies beyond the limits of our actual knowledge in the same way as a traveller thinks of the fauna and flora of an untravelled country. The new region may present many new features, but until actual observation has taken place, these new features will only be thought of as more or less unusual combinations of known animal and vegetable life. They are substantially identical with what is already known.

No stranger notion ever occurred to a great thinker than that religion and science represent parallel and distinct lines of development, each having its own sphere of operation. It is all the more remarkable when we remember that with Spencer “religion” means all religion, past and present, civilised and savage. And no one is more precise in pointing out how all religious ideas find their beginnings in the conditions of primitive life. And that being the case, one wonders whether we are to picture primitive man as a profound metaphysical philosopher, speculating on that which lies behind phenomena, contemplating an “insoluble Mystery,” and paying homage to an “Ultimate Reality”? Nothing could be more absurd. Thinking begins in concrete images, not in abstractions. We have only to note the development of intelligence in children to realise this. And primitive man, not being a mystic nor a metaphysician, bases his religion, not upon a reality that transcends experience, but upon a presumed fact, and what is to him the best known of all facts. And even with modern men it may safely be said that they worship God for what they believe they know about him, not because they believe him to be unknown and unknowable.

Spencer himself may be cited in support of this. In his “Principles of Sociology,” where the Unknowable plays no part whatever, he concludes after an elaborate survey of the facts, that the imagination of primitive man is reminiscent, not constructive; his power of thought is feeble, he is without the quick curiosity of civilised man, there is an absence of the conception of causation, he accepts things as they appear, without any vivid desire to inquire into their real nature or their connection with other events, and is without abstract ideas. Clearly, here is not a very promising subject from which to derive even the germ of the idea of a “Reality transcending experience.” Spencer also, and quite properly, insists that religious ideas are, under the condition of their origin, national ideas; that we must accept the truth that the laws of thought are everywhere the same, and that, given the data as known to primitive man, the inference drawn by him is a reasonable inference.

With this we agree, but it gives the death blow to the previous statement as to the essential nature of religion, and its essential differentiation from science. For given the constitution of the primitive mind, its ignorance of causation and general lack of knowledge, religion commences not in some search after an eternal reality, but in a natural misunderstanding of observed facts. Primitive religion is just a reasoned misunderstanding of phenomena that in later, and better informed ages, are given an altogether different explanation.

That this is so, Spencer himself makes plain. For he shows, step by step, how the experience of dreams, echoes, shadows, etc., combine to produce the belief in unseen agencies differing in no essential from man save that of possessing greater power and in being invisible. From dreams and other subjective experiences he derives the idea of a double, from death that of a ghost. Hence the ceremonies round the grave, and the attention paid to the double of the dead man, which subsequently developes into ancestor worship. The same train of thought gives a double to objects other than human beings. Hence Animism, Totemism, and their numerous subsidiary developments. Spencer insists, not only that “all religions have a natural genesis,” but also that “behind supernatural beings of all orders” there has been in every case a human personality in other words, every god is developed from a ghost, “ancestor worship is the root of every religion.” To this he will admit no exception, and referring to the Jewish religion, he asks contemptuously:

Must we recognise a single exception to the general truth thus far verified everywhere? While among all races in all regions, from the earliest times down to the present, the conceptions of deities have been naturally evolved in the way shown, must we conclude that a small clan of the Semitic race had given to it supernaturally a conception which, though superficially like the rest, was in substance absolutely unlike them.

And in about half a dozen pages he shows conclusively that the Biblical God had exactly a similar origin to other gods.

Now if this account of religious origins means anything at all (and in spite of differences between anthropologists it is in substance the account of the origin of religion given by all) it means that instead of religion and science moving along parallel lines, religion is simply primitive science. Religion and science, as a very able theistic writer says, “touch and oppose each other as rival methods of explaining, not solely or mainly the life and nature of man, but the universe taken as a whole, man forming a part of it.” (W. H. Mallock, Religion as a Credible Doctrine, p. ii.) Both are concerned with the same facts, and their respective claims to consideration depend entirely on their ability to explain the facts. For the reasons given by Spencer, man’s earliest interpretation of things is inevitably vitalistic. Ghosts the primitive protoplasm from which the gods are made are assumed, and once assumed dominate the savage intelligence. Fear combines with ignorance to resist any conception that will wrest power from the hands of these extra-natural agents, “Nature’s haughty lords,” rule all, and their dynasty is the hardest of all to overthrow.

In spite, however, of all opposition the mechanical theory of things develops, and in developing establishes a clear division between the two conceptions of nature. But the line of demarcation is not that stated by Spencer. Religion no more asserts the existence of an “Unknown Verity,” than it asserts a fourth dimension of space. Nor is science concerned with denying the existence of something of which we know nothing, and can never know anything. The essential feature of religion is that it offers a vitalistic explanation of the world as against the mechanical explanation offered by science. And in this religion stands for the earlier as against the later expression of human knowledge. It is the eternal champion of savage thought against civilised intelligence. Its whole significance lies in the persistence of animistic modes of thinking under civilised conditions.

This conclusion, be it observed, is one that is quite borne out by Spencer’s own explanation of the nature of religion. Nor do we know of a more remarkable instance of a front rank thinker propounding in one part of his work a theory bearing no relation whatever to the remaining portion, and in addition disproving his own theory at every point.

Spencer’s reconciliation of science and religion, which in one form or another is continually in evidence, is only one degree less remarkable than the fact of its being accepted by so many religionists as satisfactory. Following the line of his untenable theory that religion and science pursue parallel lines, he points out that “the agent which has effected the purification (of religion) has been science.” That is, the growth of the mechanical theory has driven back the vitalistic one. This is purification only in the sense that a defaulting cashier purifies the firm he robs. “As fact or experience proves that certain familiar changes always happen in the same sequence, there begins to fade from the mind the conception of a special personality to whose variable will they were before ascribed.” This process of annexation is, says Spencer, science teaching religion its true function. As a matter of fact, science has given religion no instruction, it has merely issued prohibitions. It has warned religion that there are certain things it must not meddle with, certain departments on which it must not encroach. In this way religion has been forced farther and farther back, until it is left with what? Not with anything that can be known, or is known; it is left supreme in the kingdom of nowhere, ruling over an empire of nothing at all. And so long as religion strives for a more tangible possession so long must there be a conflict between science and religion. But “as the limits of possible cognition are established, the causes of possible conflict will diminish. And a permanent peace will be reached when science becomes fully convinced that its explanations are proximate and relative; while religion becomes fully convinced that the mystery it contemplates is ultimate and absolute.” So, when science has monopolised the entire field of human knowledge, actual and possible, and when religion is satisfied that it knows nothing, and never can know anything of the object of its worship, that it can offer nothing in the shape of counsel or advice, but that its function is to sit in owl-like solemnity, contemplating nothing, meanwhile offering man an eternal conundrum that he must everlastingly give up, then, and not till then, there will be peace between science and religion. And this is called a reconciliation. Mr. Spencer finds two combatants engaged in deadly conflict, he murders one and offers the other the corpse, with the hope that now they will live peacefully together. The scientist is asked to be content with all there is. The religious man is asked to find comfort in the reflection that science must eventually monopolise the entire field of knowledge, but that, in return, religion will be left free to work in an unknowable region, to occupy itself with an unknowable object, and to eternally cry “all is mystery” in an amended philosophic version of the Athanasian Creed.

As a piece of humour this is superb. So also is the following: “Science has been obliged to abandon the attempt to include within the boundaries of knowledge that which cannot be known, and so has yielded up to religion that which of right belonged to it.” Capital! Science gives up to religion that which cannot be known, and as it does not know what it is, that cannot be known, it surrenders to religion absolute vacuity as the proper sphere for its operations. And even this is accompanied with the proviso that if it happens to have made a mistake, the ceded territory will be at once reclaimed. Science would certainly be vindictive if after having murdered religion it declined to live peaceably with its corpse.

The distinction between science and religion is, in truth, neither fundamental nor original. It is one that arises gradually in the history of mental development. And, therefore, when a man such as Professor Arthur Thomson describes religion as being concerned with the recognition of the existence of an independent “spiritual reality,” the reply is that religion commences as just an explanation of nature in terms of the then existing knowledge and culture. Religion is just a crude form of science. The separation of the world into a religious and a scientific sphere arises when the religious interpretation of natural happenings gets discredited by advancing knowledge. If one takes such an illustration as that of witchcraft the nature of the process is clear. First we have the interpretation of certain forms of dementia and delusion in terms of religion. Later we have the same facts interpreted in terms of positive knowledge and the religious explanation is rejected. And that, in a sentence is the whole history of religion, once we have cleared away the verbiage with which the subject is surrounded.

The truth of what has just been said is often obscured by unintelligible talk of growth in religion. It is claimed that we acquire truer views of deity, and a process of growth is asserted analogous to that which meets us in knowledge in general. Let us see what truth there is in this.

In ordinary instances when we speak of growth we imply one of three things. Either there is increase in size, or there is an enlargement of function, or there is an increase in knowledge. So long as we keep to these plain meanings of “growth” there can be no confusion. But none of these meanings fit the case of religion. Certainly there has been no increase in the size of religion it does not, that is, cover a larger area. On the contrary it is continually being warned off more and more territory. It becomes more and more a negligible quantity. One need not go back to primitive times to prove this, any country will supply instances. The displacement of religious by other considerations is observable on all sides.

There has certainly been no growth in the functions exercised by religion. Its function as law-giver in the physical world is now definitely abandoned, and all it asks is that science will let it alone. In ethics and sociology it still maintains a precarious kind of an existence, but it no longer claims supreme power. It is content to urge its utility as a source of inspiration, to rank as one among a number of other forces that are frankly secular in nature. Finally there has been no growth in the shape of an extension of knowledge of the object of religious belief. Of the nature of deity we know no more than did our earliest ancestors. In earlier generations the nature of God, his aims and intentions, were discussed with the same degree of confidence that one now sees displayed in discussing schemes of sanitation. The modern believer is now more anxious to impress upon the world how little he knows about God, or how little it is possible for him to know. This is not surprising except in the fact that it is called religious growth. And if this be a sign of growth one wonders what would be considered indications of decay. Historically religious life presents us, not with a process of growth, but one of shrinkage. To reduce the gods from many to few, and from a few to one is not growth. To limit the functions of deity from those of a direct, particular, and universal character, to an indirect, general form is not growth. To refine the idea of a personal deity until it becomes that of a mere abstract force, is not growth. All these are so many modifications of the religious idea under pressure of advancing knowledge so many attempts to state religion in such a way that it can conflict with nothing we know to be true because it answers to nothing of which we are certain.

The idea of God, the idea of religion, does not begin in a mystery or in some abstract conception, but in an assumed knowledge of certain concrete facts of experience. Man believes in the gods because of what he thinks he knows about them, not because of what he does not know. The talk of a mystery is the jargon of a priesthood which finds it profitable to keep the lay mind at a distance. Increased emphasis is placed on mystery because religious teachers are alive to the danger of basing their beliefs upon matters that can be brought to the test of experience. Mystery mongering is not the beginning of religion, but a sign of its approaching demise. Mysticism, too, is no more than a cover for a sanctuary that has been emptied of all worthy of respect. But if religion is to really live, it must have some knowledge, no matter how little or how imperfect, of the subject with which it professes to deal. A religion that does not possess this, but is compelled to hand over the whole of life to secular science, signs its own death warrant. It commits suicide to save itself from execution. And as people realise this they turn to clear-eyed science for guidance, leaving religion to such representatives of primitive animism as still survive in a civilised community.