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


Looking at the world as it is one cannot forbear a mild wonder at the fears expressed at the probable consequences to morals of a general acceptance of Atheism. One would have thought that the world would not run a very great danger of becoming worse on that account, and that, seeing the way in which all forms of rascality have flourished, and still maintain themselves, without in the least disturbing people’s religious convictions, one might even feel inclined to risk a change in the hopes of improvement. Mainly, indeed, one might say that those who are affected by religious belief are such as can very well do without it, while those who stand in urgent need of moral improvement seldom show that their religious belief has any very beneficial effect on their conduct.

Yet nothing is more common than to find the theist, when driven off all other grounds of defence, protesting against a deliberate propaganda of Atheism on the ground of its probable harmful consequences to morals. This, not because those who have publicly professed Atheism are open to the charge of loose living, but on account of those who at present believe in religion, and whose loss of belief would possibly upset their moral equilibrium. It is a curious position for a theist to take up, since it implies that while the Atheist as we know him shows no deterioration of character in consequence of his loss of belief, we cannot be so certain of the present believers in deity. They are formed of poorer clay, and once convinced that there is no God with whom they have to reckon, there is no telling what will happen. So we are urged to let well alone, and leave believers with their illusions lest their loss should present us with a very unpleasant reality.

This fear is expressed in various ways, but in one way or another it is tolerably common. The following which reached me from a well known man of letters probably puts the argument as fairly and as temperately as it can be put, and therefore in dealing with that I cannot be accused of taking the theist at an unfair advantage. His conclusions are summarised in the following paragraphs. (The summary is the author’s, not mine.)

(1) The decentish code of morals which prevails in this twentieth century is the outcome of all the human ages. From the very first, everywhere and all the time, it has, and continues to be, inextricably intertwined and influenced by Theistic beliefs, even when and where such beliefs have been the crudest and most debased form of polytheism.

(2) The ethical atmosphere in which we now live, after having had such an origin and history, remains strongly and frankly pervaded by religion of a Theistic type. Atheist, Agnostic, and Theist alike have to live in this atmosphere, and consciously or unconsciously, are subject to its influence.

(3) Even if we could set up a wholly secular code of morals, derived entirely from the exigencies of, tribal, communal, and national life, I take it that such a code would be inadequate to form the type of individual character we most admire, and which acts under a sense of “ought” rather than of “must.” The latter is often the mere demand of gregarious or individual comfort and convenience; the former may be quite opposed to the inclinations of the individual, and yet bring into play irksome but ennobling springs of action which a purely secular code cannot touch.

Now these statements put the case for the theist as moderately and as well as it can be put, and I think that they are worthy of a little careful examination. It may be observed that there is no insinuation that Atheists are actually worse than other people, only the fear that in the absence of some form of theism the higher ethical motive cannot be roused, and that therefore character will suffer. Well, we are none of us free from the contagion of our environment, and the most powerful influences are often enough those that it would be difficult to specify in any given instance. It is not only that the influence of the higher members of society affect the lower. The lower is not without its influence on the higher. But the question here is not really whether we are all exposed to the general influence of the group to which we belong, that, I think, is undeniable, the real question at issue is whether the determining influence on conduct is theistic or not. And I think it will be found that while the one thing is asserted it is the other that is proven.

So far as the first proposition is concerned it may be taken for granted that our present state is the product of all past evolution, and that in the course of that evolution theistic beliefs have been closely not inextricably connected with morals. But this is not alone true of morality, it is true of every branch of human thought and of every aspect of human life. Art, science, literature, have all been closely connected with religious beliefs. Necessarily so. Early human history is spent under the shadow of superstition, and its dominating influence affects the form of every aspect of life. But as the course of development has been to separate the essential from the non-essential and to place most of each department of life on a self-supporting basis, it would not seem an unreasonable conclusion that ethics will follow the same lines. In fact, it is following the same lines. There are few educated people nowadays who would claim that morality cannot exist apart from religion, they are content to say, as my correspondent does, that in the absence of religion belief the higher aspects of morality will suffer.

Our morality, we are told, is the outcome of all the human ages. I go further than that and assert that it is the outcome of all the human and of all the animal ages. There is no break in nature, and to the evolutionist the development of the human from the animal is plain. And it should scarcely need pointing out nowadays that nearly every one of the fundamental qualities of man can be seen in germ in the animal world. I only emphasise the point here because it is so often forgotten that morality is fundamentally the expression of those conditions under which associated life is found possible and profitable, and that so far as any quality is declared to be moral its justification and meaning must be found in that direction. The question of incentive we will come to later; for the moment it is enough to insist upon the fact that morality is fashioned, in its fundamentals, with reference to facts, not with reference to speculative beliefs. Beliefs may influence morality for awhile, but the persistent operation of social selection secures a general conformity between conduct and the conditions upon which life depends. That is the fundamental fact to be remembered in all discussions of morality, although it is the fact that is most often ignored. Ultimately life determines moral teaching, it is not moral teaching that determines life.

Life not alone determines morality, but it determines religion as well. What else is the meaning of all those discarded forms of religious belief, those bodies of dead gods, that meet the student of history as the remains of extinct animals meet the geologist in his unravelment of the story of the earth’s vicissitudes? They are the result of a lack of adaptation to new conditions to which they could not accommodate themselves. Once the gods lorded it over man as the gigantic dinosaur lorded it in his day over lesser animals. And in the one case, as in the other, a change in the environment brought about their doom. Natural selection determines the survival of religions as of animal forms, and a religion to survive must become increasingly utilitarian in character, certainly there is a point beyond which the opposite tendency cannot be carried.

Assume, for example, that a religion existed of a grossly anti-social character, one that teaches doctrines that are subversive of the general social well-being. One of two things must result. If the religion is strong enough to enforce its teaching the society it dominates will disappear, and the religion will die out with it. If, on the other hand, it cannot enforce its teaching, or can get it accepted only in a modified form, then either the religion disappears in its original form, or it is modified to get itself established. To live, religion must establish some sort of harmony between its teachings and the conditions of life. It may retard the development of life, but it must not retard to the point of destruction. This is all that is really involved in what is called the purification of religious teaching. In reality there is no such thing. The purification is a modification, and it is modified in order that it may become acceptable to the society in which it is existing. The ascetic epidemic, the various disgusting sects that have sprung into existence from time to time during the course of Christian history, have all died out from this cause. As with the individual, so with society, the forces of which we are conscious generally move upon the surface. Of the underlying ones we are mostly unaware.

The truth is, then, that behind all our consciously elaborated theories of life there are operative the unconscious or sub-conscious forces of evolution. There is, of course, a certain area of conduct in which speculative opinions play their part, and where actions may be arbitrarily classed as good or bad. But this area is, of necessity, limited, and for the reasons that have been given above. Properly understood morality is not something very abstract, but something that is very concrete. The underlying reason for morality is always the same, and we are compelled to hark back to it for justification. And no rejection of religion can alter the basis upon which morality rests.

The proposition that Atheist, Agnostic, and Theist breathe the same atmosphere and are affected by the same influences is, therefore, one that is two-edged. If our intellectual atmosphere is saturated with religious influences, it is also saturated with social influences of a much more fundamental character, and which have been perpetually correcting religious extravagances. And it is at least open to the Atheist to retort that we have to thank this circumstance that religious beliefs have not been more injurious than has been actually the case. If, for example, the ascetic epidemic of the early Christian centuries had increased in force and had continued operative, European society would have disappeared. That this was not the case was due to the strength of the sexual and social instincts, against which religion was unable to maintain its hold. In the change of opinion over the better way to spend Sunday, or in the decay of the doctrine of eternal damnation, we have the same point illustrated. Right through history it has been the social instincts that have acted as a corrective to religious extravagance. And it is worth noting that with the exception of a little gain from the practice of casuistry, religions have contributed nothing towards the building up of a science of ethics. On the contrary it has been a very potent cause of confusion and obstruction. Fictitious vices and virtues have been created and the real moral problem lost sight of. It gave the world the morality of the prison cell, instead of the tonic of the rational life. And it was indeed fortunate for the race that conduct was not ultimately dependent upon a mass of teachings that had their origin in the brains of savages, and were brought to maturity during the darkest period of European civilisation.

In dealing with the two first propositions I have, by implication, answered the third namely, that a wholly secular authentic code of morals would be inadequate to form the highest type of character; it might supply a “must,” but it could not supply an “ought.”

The first and obvious reply to an objection of this kind is that our working code of morals is secular already. In life, if we observe without prejudice, it is not difficult to see that one’s neighbours, friends, social class, etc., have far more force in shaping conduct than speculative theories. In its widest sense natural selection determines what actions shall be declared to be moral. Of this we may take the universal feeling against homicide. This is but an expression of the truth that social life would be impossible were it otherwise. And when we pass from the general to the special we meet with much the same principle operating in society. The average burglar pursues his calling with no special sense of its wrongness, although he may have a keen sense of its dangers. But while burgling with a fairly easy conscience, he does flinch at breaking the code of honour set up by his fellow-burglars. And at the other extreme we have the “gentleman” with his code of honour which forbids him not to pay a gambling debt, but takes no count of keeping a poor tradesman out of his money. In each of these cases the determining factor is not theory but fact, and the fact here is association with our fellow countrymen or with a special social class. Morality, in short, is social or nothing. Moral laws are meaningless apart from social life. Every moral command implies the existence of a social medium, and it is no more than a study in history to see how this social medium has been continuously shaping and reshaping human nature. The determination here is not conscious, but it is real, however much disguised it may be by various forms or theories. And when we realise this, it is no more than a truism to say that a change in religious belief can no more destroy morality than a change in government can destroy society.

But in saying that the essence of morality is unreasoning I do not mean that it is unreasonable. All I mean is that it can receive a reasonable justification, and that no matter how lofty the development it has its basis in the fundamental conditions of associated animal and human life. We may surround the subject with a vague and attractive idealistic verbalism, but we come back to this as a starting point. The love of family, with all its attendant values, rests upon the fact of crude sexual desire, refined, of course, during the passing of many generations, but dependent upon it all the same. Remove the sexual desire and the family feelings are inexplicable. Thus, the reason for the existence of the sexual instinct is race preservation, but the end has been achieved in a quite unreasoning manner. In the animal world at large there is certainly no conscious desire for the production of offspring, nor is there with the mass of human beings. There is the desire to gratify an impulse, and very little more. And for the strengthening of an instinct there need not be, nor is there, any consciousness of its social value. All that is necessary is that it shall be useful. Natural selection attends to the rest.

This will, I think, supply an answer to the contention that secular ethics can supply a “must,” but not an “ought”; that is, it may show that an individual should act in accordance with his inclinations, but in cases where these clash with the social well being, it can supply no reason why the former should give way to the latter.

The argument rests upon a dual confusion. First, the moral “ought” is no more than an organised and conscious form of “must,” and not something distinct from it. One may test the matter by taking a case. A man says, I ought so to work as to promote the general welfare of society. If we seek to find the source of this feeling we come ultimately upon the feeling of tribal solidarity in virtue of which certain tribes survive in the struggle for existence. It is gregariousness struggling into consciousness. The moral “ought” is an idealised form of the primitive tribal “must.” And the “must” of primitive life is encouraged and developed because it is one of the conditions of survival.

The second point of confusion is based upon a supposed opposition between individual inclinations and an ideal conception of duty. That the two are often, as a matter of fact, in conflict, must be admitted. And the cause is that while our inclinations represent a heritage from the past, our ideals are a projection into the future. But the contention is based upon their supposed permanent hostility, and that need not be taken for granted. For the whole course of social evolution tends to bring about a substantial identification of personal and social well-being. More and more as the race develops it is being recognised that there is no real individual life apart from social life, of which it is the creation and the expression. Such antagonism as exists is the inevitable result of a conflict between an organism and its adaptation to a changing environment. And from this point of view the whole growth of man is in the nature of an expansion of his sympathies and sense of duty over an ever-widening area. The primitive egoism of the tribal individual is extended to the nation, that of the nation to the empire, and thence to the whole of humanity. There is no destruction or denial of self in such cases, it is a development of the sense of self over an enlarging area.

Finally, if a secular code of morals will not suffice, it is sheer rhetoric to say that religion is powerful enough to operate where naturalism fails. On the contrary, in a civilised community religious appeals tend to become secular appeals in disguise. On the admission of Christian advocates the two most powerful appeals that can be made are on the one hand, in the name of the fatherhood of god, and on the other, the conception of the Mother and the Child. And what are these but appeals to the secular and social feelings of man in the name of religion? It may be granted that Atheism in its appeals to mankind often fails, but in this respect is it any worse off than religion? Why, one of the standing complaints of religious preachers in all ages is that their message falls so frequently on deaf ears. There is no more certainty that the religious appeal will meet with success, than there is that any other appeal will be successful. And there is the unquestionable fact that morality has become stronger as the power of religion has weakened. The higher qualities have asserted themselves during a period of religious disintegration, and the student of morals sees in this a promise of a further development in the future.

And to all prophecies as to the effects of Atheism on the morality of the future there is the apt reply that they are prophecies and nothing else. And in this respect it is dangerous for the Christian theist to appeal to history. For while the consequences of Atheism can be no more than a forecast, which may or may not be justified, the record of Christianity is before the world. And we know that the period during which the influence of Christian theism was strongest, was the period when the intellectual life of civilised man was at its lowest, morality at its weakest, and the general outlook most hopeless. Religious control gave us heresy hunts, and Jew hunts, burnings for witchcraft, and magic in the place of medicine. It gave us the Inquisition and the auto da fe, the fires of Smithfield and the night of St. Bartholomew. It gave us the war of sects and it helped powerfully to establish the sect of war. It gave us life without happiness, and death cloaked with terror. The Christian record is before us, and it is such that every Church blames the others for its existence. Quite as certainly we cannot point to a society that has been dominated by Freethinking ideas, but we can point to their existence in all ages, and can show that all progress is due to their presence. We can show that progressive ideas have originated with the least, and have been opposed by the most religious sections of society. What religion has done for the world we know; what freethought will do we can only guess. But we are confident that as honesty is possible without the falsity of religion, as duty may be done with no other incentive than its visible consequences on the people around us, so life may be lived in honour and closed in peace with no other inspiration than comes from the contemplation of the human stream from which we emerge and into which we finally go.