Freethought Archives > Walter R. Cassels > Supernatural Religion


THEORETICALLY, the duty of adequate inquiry into the truth of any statement of serious importance before believing it is universally admitted. Practically, no duty is more universally neglected. This is more especially the case in regard to Religion, in which our concern is so great, yet whose credentials so few personally examine. The difficulty of such an investigation and the inability of most men to pursue it, whether from want of opportunity or want of knowledge, are, no doubt, the chief reasons for this neglect; but another, and scarcely less potent, obstacle has probably been the odium which has been attached to any doubt regarding the dominant religion, as well as the serious, though covert, discouragement of the Church to all critical examination of the title-deeds of Christianity. The spirit of doubt, if not of intelligent inquiry, however, has, of late years, become too strong for expression and, at the present day, the pertinency of the question of a German writer, "Are we still Christians?" receives unconscious illustration from many a popular pulpit and many a social discussion.

The prevalent characteristic of popular theology in England at this time may be said to be a tendency to eliminate from Christianity with thoughtless dexterity, every supernatural element which does not quite accord with current opinion, and yet to ignore the fact that in so doing it has practically been altogether abandoned.  This tendency is fostered with illogical zeal by many distinguished within the Church itself, who endeavour to arrest the pursuing wolves of doubt and unbelief which press upon it by practically throwing to them, scrap by scrap, the very doctrines which constitute the claims of Christianity to be regarded as a Divine Revelation at all. They try to spiritualise or dilute that which into a form which does not shock their reason, and yet they cling to the delusion that they still retain the consolation and the hope of truths which, if not divinely revealed, are mere human speculation regarding matters beyond reason.

Christianity itself distinctly claims to be a direct Divine Revelation of truths beyond the natural attainment if the human intellect. To submit the doctrines thus revealed, therefore, to criticism, and to clip and prune them down to the standard of human reason, whilst, at the same time, their supernatural character is maintained, is an obvious absurdity. Christianity must either be recognised to be a Divine Revelation beyond man's criticism, and, in that case, its doctrines must be received even though Reason cannot be satisfied, or the claims of Christianity to be such a Divine Revelation must be disallowed, in which case it becomes the legitimate subject of criticism like every other human system. One or other of these alternatives must be adopted; but to assert that Christianity is Divine, and yet to deal with it as human, is illogical and wrong.

When we consider the vast importance of the interests involved, therefore, it must be apparent that there can be no more urgent problem for humanity to solve than the question: Is Christianity a supernatural Divine Revelation or not? To this we may demand a clear and decisive answer. The evidence must be of no uncertain character which can warrant our abandoning the guidance of Reason, and blindly accepting doctrines which, if not supernatural truths, must be rejected by the human intellect as monstrous delusions. We propose in this work to seek a conclusive answer to this momentous question.

We must, by careful and impartial investigation, acquire the right to our belief, whatever it may be, and not float like a mere waif into the nearest haven. Even true conclusions which are arrived at either accidentally or by wrong methods are dangerous. The current which by good fortune led today to truth may tomorrow waft us to falsehood.

If we look at the singular diversity of views entertained, not only with regard to the doctrines, but also to the evidences, of Christianity, we cannot but be struck by the deplorable position in which Divine Revelation is now placed.

Orthodox Christians may be divided into two broad classes, one of which professes to base the Church upon the Bible, and the other the Bible upon the Church. The one party assert that the Bible is fully and absolutely inspired, that it contains God's revelation to man, and that it is the only and sufficient ground for all religious belief; and they maintain that its authenticity is proved by the most ample and irrefragable external as well as internal evidence. On the other hand, men of undoubted piety and learning, as well as unquestioned orthodoxy, admit that the Bible is totally without literary or historical evidence, and cannot for a moment be upheld upon any such grounds as the revealed word of God; that none of the great doctrines of ecclesiastical Christianity can be deduced from the Bible, but that, notwithstanding this absence of external and internal evidence, this Revelation stands upon the sure basis of the inspiration of the Church. Can the unsupported testimony of a Church which in every age has vehemently maintained errors and denounced truths which are now universally recognised, be considered sufficient guarantee of Divine Revelation? Obviously, there is no ground for accepting from a fallible Church and fallacious tradition doctrines which, avowedly, are beyond the criterion of reason, and therefore require miraculous evidence.

With belief based upon such uncertain grounds, and with such vital difference of views regarding evidence, it is not surprising that ecclesiastical Christianity has felt its own weakness, and entrenched itself against the assaults of investigation. Such inquiry, however, cannot be suppressed. Mere scientific questions may be regarded with apathy by those who do not feel their personal bearing. It may possibly seem to some a matter of little practical importance to them to determine whether the earth revolves round the sun, or the sun round the earth; but no earnest mind can fail to perceive the immense personal importance of Truth in regard to Religion -- the necessity of investigating, before accepting, dogmas, the right interpretation of which is represented as necessary to salvation -- and the clear duty, before abandoning reason for faith, to exercise reason, in order that faith may not be mere credulity.

It was in this conviction that the following inquiry into the reality of Divine Revelation was originally undertaken, and in this spirit others should enter upon it. An able writer, who will not be suspected of exaggeration on this subject, has said: "The majority of mankind, perhaps, owe their belief, rather to the outward of custom and education, than to any strong principle of within; and it is to be feared that many, if they came to perceive how wonderful what they believed was, would not find their belief so easy, and so matter-of-course a thing as they appear to find it."  [xvi:1] If it is to be more than a mere question of priority of presentation whether we are to accept Buddhism, Mohammedanism, or Christianity, we must strictly and fearlessly examine the evidence upon which they profess to stand. The neglect of examination can never advance truth, as the severest scrutiny can never retard it; but belief without discrimination can only foster ignorance and superstition.

To no earnest mind can such inquiry be otherwise than a serious and often a painful task; but, dismissing preconceived ideas and preferences derived from habit and education, and seeking only the Truth, holding it, whatever it may be, to be the only object worthy of desire or capable of satisfying a rational mind, the quest cannot but end in peace and satisfaction. In such an investigation however, to quote words of Archbishop Whateley, "It makes all the difference in the world whether we place Truth in the first place or in the second place" -- for if Truth acquired do not compensate for every pet illusion dispelled, the path is thorny indeed, although it must still be faithfully trodden.

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