Can we have Morality Without Religion? Article in Current Opinion 1906
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The question, Is it possible to establish an effective system of morality without a belief in God? has been presented to a number of the leading French "intellectuals" by the editor of the well-known Parisian magazine, La Revue. The question is an exceedingly "live" one in France just now, in view of the separation at last decreed between church and state. The greatest thinkers, authors and men of affairs have been invited to participate in the discussion, and they have generously responded, as is attested by the contributions of Max Nordau, Anatole France, F Brunetiere, Anatole Leroy-Beaulieu, Jules Claretie, Abbe Gayraud and many others.
The editor of La Revue is convinced that a mutual exchange of opinions on this subject, if it cannot lead to a reconciliation of opposing views, will at least facilitate a comprehension of them, and thereby bring about a condition of mutual toleration favorable to social harmony and the triumph of truth. He writes:
"Up to the present the morality of the bulk of humanity has been founded upon religious dogma, and the echoes to which they have listened were those of Sinai and the sea of Tiberias. Now, whether it is to be deplored or not, it is an accepted fact that religious faith is declining in our days. Will the shipwreck of our ancient faiths, when it takes place, drag down morality also?
"This is a very grave question, to which the separation of church and state now going on in France gives the significance of a burning actuality."
The contributions to the symposium are divided into four main classes, and the spokesmen of the various shades of thought are presented in the following order of succession: 1. Those who think that morality grows up unconsciously, and is derived from collective habits and social instincts. 2. Those who waver in uncertainty. 3. Those who affirm the rigorous union of morality and faith. 4. Those who assert reason to be the sole basis of morality. This order we here preserve.
Anatole France, the eminent French novelist, offers the following reflections:
"What is morality? Morality is the rule of custom. And custom is habit. Morality, then, is the rule of habit. Habitual customs are called good customs. Bad customs are those to which we are not habituated. The old habits are dear and sacred to men. In them is found the origin of the religious law. Hence we see that the morality of religions corresponds to ancient custom. This is true of all cults. And it is in this sense that Lucretius said that religion engenders crime.
"Among Christian peoples, notably among Catholics, theological morality represents a state anterior to that of civilization. It is respected but little understood, and in point of fact one takes no account of it.
"Law, which is a systematization of practical morality, is in Europe independent of any confessional idea. The Italian minister, Minghetti, has very justly observed that the Code of Napoleon reproduced in very large part the Roman law anterior to Christianity, and that what is new in it was inspired by the eighteenth century spirit.
"We have already not only a morality, but moral sanction independent of religious dogmas. But they cannot remain fixed. Morality changes continually with custom, of which it is only the general idea. Law should follow custom."
According to Max Nordau, sociability is the foundation of morals. It is an instinct rather than a dogma or a process of reasoning, he contends; and if reasoning can have no effect upon an anti-social being, it is not likely that religion will have any greater effect upon him. Further:
"The sane, normal man has social tendencies; only the morbid degenerate is an anti-social being. The former accepts and practices morality by instinct because it is a social institution. The latter, on the other hand, escapes morality, also by instinct, and only submits to its prescriptions in so far as he is constrained to do so. No argument will make the naturally good and social man bad; no argument will make the naturally bad and anti-social man good. Every man may have bad impulses, but he restrains them by an energetic inhibition. The inhibitory force of reason may be augmented by education, instruction and the suggestion of environment; but if it is absent no exterior influence can replace it.
"Reason suffices to keep the social being on the road of goodness. Neither reason, nor theology, nor any argument whatsoever, can have the least effect upon the natural non-morality or immorality of an anti-social being."
Jules Lemaitre frankly declares that he cannot answer the question propounded; and Emile Faguet says: "This question is one that I study deeply and almost constantly, but I must admit that I have not yet arrived at any definite conclusion or any firm conviction."
F. Brunetiere, on the other hand, is as positive that morality without religion cannot subsist as Anatole France is that the opposite is true. He says:
"If you mean by reason simple common sense, or individual sense, it is evident that morality could not rest on a more fragile or more ruinous basis. Individual sense is relative, and morality is nothing if it has not an absolute basis. Since human reason cannot attain the absolute, what remains to us but to recognize that reason is incapable of supplying a basis for morality? And in fact, this will be proved in the future as it has been in the past. There is a Jewish morality, a Christian morality, a Buddhist morality, a Mohammedan morality. There has practically never existed in history a Stoic morality or a Platonic morality, nor even a Socratic morality. There have been rare Stoics or disciples of Socrates who have tried to secularize the lessons of a religious origin, but the only result was the 'Manual' of Epictetus and the 'Thoughts' of Marcus Aurelius."
Anatole Leroy-Beaulieu, French author and President of the Anti-Atheist League, takes issue with these conclusions, though he also maintains that to suppress God means to suppress morality. He declares:
"That morality can be founded on reason does not admit of any doubt. All history proves it, from Socrates to the Stoics in classical antiquity; from Confucius in Chinese antiquity to Kant and Guyau. A morality founded on reason, a purely rational morality, does not signify, however, a 'morality without God.' Far from it. From Socrates to Kant the greatest philosophers have supported their morality upon faith in God, so that one might say that if the religious idea and the moral idea have been interwoven and bound together through the course of the centuries, philosophy has contributed to that end almost as much as religion. Morality has been so intimately connected with religion, and especially with a faith in God, that it is difficult to-day to separate them without distorting and enfeebling morality by depriving it of the force it drew from religious creeds. This is a truth confirmed by the observation of individuals, as well as by the history of nations. Except in the cases of rare and noble individuals, the disappearance or weakening of faith has been followed by a lowering of morality and by a looseness of customs. This fact is so constant that it might be erected into a law of history.
"Is not that which is true of the past also true of the present? Is it really possible at the present time, without danger to our customs, to base a popular morality solely upon reason? I confess that I do not believe it. There is nothing to permit us to suppose that in this respect we are so superior to our ancestors. Faith in the moral progress of society, independent of the bases on which repose our ethics and morality, is a superstition. Among all peoples and at all periods of time a purely rational morality has been an aristocratic morality, which sufficed for an intellectual elite, but was found devoid of force and virtue as far as the masses were concerned. It has been so with the Stoicism of antiquity; it is still so with Confucianism in China.
"It is not enough, either with individuals or with nations, to have a high moral ideal; it is necessary to have the power to realize this ideal. Religious creeds, faith in a God and in a future life, the habit of prayer, even the worship of a cult, offer to human infirmity the resources which are lacking entirely to a morality without a God."
M. l'Abbe Gayraud, member of the Chamber of Deputies, naturally believes that morality is impossible without religion. He argues:
"It is only by authority that man acquires and possesses literary, historic and scientific knowledge, and often even the professional knowledge which constitutes the fund of his little intellectual life. Why, then, should the knowledge of morality escape this law of popular education? Reasoning, that is to say, the process of investigation or of the demonstration of truth by research and personal reflection, is no more within the reach of the men of the people than of beginners. This does not mean that the method of authority is not rational or reasonable. But opposed to it is the method of discussion, of criticism, and of individual reasoning. I conclude, therefore, that morality should not be taught to grown-up people, any more than to children, by the method of critical, individual discussion."
Jules Claretie, the famous novelist and critic, says: "My answer is positive: Yes, it is possible to found a popular morality such as you have posited. Reason will end by being right; that has been said long ago. And reason, which is the truth, is good, it seems to me. But I would rather read what the others have to say than develop an opinion so simple. I have always believed that two and two make four."
Octave Mirbeau meets the question in his usual sledge-hammer style:
"Religions have never founded a morality. Nay, more, they have founded the very contrary of a morality, since they are all based on lies and on extortion, and it is enough for the most infamous scoundrel to repent a second before his death to be paternally received by God, and to gain the eternal joys of Heaven. As long as there are gods on earth, so long will there be no morality; there will be only the hypocrisy of morality."
And, finally, the great scientist, M. Berthelot, speaks this word in behalf of science:
"Science is the true moral school, let us openly admit; it teaches man to love and to respect the truth, without which all hope is chimerical. Science teaches man the idea of duty and the necessity of labor, not as a chastisement, but, on the contrary, as the most exalted employment of our activity. It is to science, above all, that we owe the idea of the solidarity of the human race."