Analysis of Religious Belief (Notice)

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Dyer D. Lum

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4.—An Analysis of Religious Belief. By Viscount Amberley. New York: D. M. Bennett. 1877. pp. 745.

The growth of commercial relations between widely separated sections of the earth, bringing into closer intercourse the followers of the great world religions, and above all the wonderful results attained through the comparative method in the study of language, rendered the comparative method inevitable in the study of religion. Among the treasures thus opened to us by Oriental scholars are countless legends, ceremonies, and peculiarities of dogma common to the devotee on the banks of the Connecticut, the Ganges, and the Pei-Ho. These common characteristics of all religions, so striking in their resemblances, often so profound in feeling, and withal so corrective of provincialism in thought, are ably marshaled and effectively displayed in Viscount Amberley's ambitious work before us. The social standing of the author (the eldest son of Lord Russell), his death while the work was in course of publication, together with the urgent efforts made by the Duke of Bedford, seconded by Lord John Russell himself, to buy up and suppress the entire edition, invest the book with more than usual interest.

The author devotes the larger portion of his pages to the examination of the external manifestations of religious sentiment, which is divided into two parts ; the first, those means by which men have sought to place themselves in correspondence with the higher powers, or communication upwards, classified as consecrated actions,—including all the acts comprehended under the term Worship,—consecrated places set apart for worship, consecrated objects, and consecrated persons. In the second part we have the reverse process, communication downwards, in which men are the passive instruments in the hands of the unseen powers, embracing holy events, as omens, miracles, and dreams, holy places and objects, supposed to possess mysterious powers, holy orders and persons, and lastly holy books.

Under the head of holy persons we have sections devoted to Confucius, Lao-Tse, Buddha, Zarathustra, Mahomet, and Jesus Christ; while under the title of holy books we have an analysis of the "Bibles " answering to these names, presenting the reader with an encyclopaedia of the doctrines and ceremonies of the various world-religions. While the citations given show that the preparatory labor must have been immense to ensure so valuable a compendium of creeds and rites within such brief compass, we cannot but regret the appearance of what we must regard as evidences of haste. Nowhere is this more striking than in the author's treatment of Buddha and Buddhism. Passing over the singular statement that the monastic life was, in brief, the aim of Buddha's teaching, we find but the briefest mention made of Nirvana and Karma; yet there can be no intelligent idea formed of Buddhism where these great underlying dogmas receive but little more than mere mention. In the consideration of Nirvana lie involved the same great problems which continue to occupy the mind of the philosopher, recognized by the Eastern sage with as much clearness as by any living metaphysician; in the dogma of Karma, or inherited good and evil, we have a line of thought presenting singular resemblances to the modern theory of Heredity.

In the quotations from the Vedic scriptures we miss several, of exceptional beauty, serving to illustrate the statement of Max Muller that " the consciousness of sin is a prominent feature in the religion of the Veda."

We presume the chief interest of the general reader will centre on the pages given to the consideration of Christianity and its Founder; and here we have a lengthy and quite able risumi of the results acquired by modern biblical criticism, furnishing a complete armory of weapons to whoever is inclined to devote his talent and skill to further the modern revolt against organized belief: but even here, where information is so easily accessible, we are surprised to find the Acts of the Apostles regarded as " the most trustworthy of the five historical books of the New Testament."

The chief interest of the book to thoughtful minds, however, does not lie in the six hundred and more pages given to this division of the subject, but to the brief concluding portion where the religious sentiment itself is considered, and the author's own ideas freely expressed. In undertaking the analysis of the religious idea, the author defines his position at the start, assuming that there are " three fundamental postulates involved in the religious idea; first, that of a hyperphysical power in the universe ; secondly, that of a hyperphysical entity in man ; thirdly, that of a relation between the two."

It is explicitly asserted that all the phenomena of religion imply " some kind of power or powers behind, beyond, or external to the material world," and that all religions agree in putting forward as a cardinal truth " the conception of a power which is neither perceptible by the senses nor definable by the intellect;" that religion and philosophy alike are under a logical necessity " to make the fundamental assumption of a Being alike unknown and unknowable." The second proposition, " that there is in human nature something equally hyperphysical with the object which it worships," is defended by the usual metaphysical arguments, and, though adroitly handled, are mainly directed against the crude materialism that seeks the origin of mind in matter. The third postulate, that of a relation, not known but felt, between the objective Unknowable and the subjective entity (soul), is argued from its universal acceptance.

The exception in the case of Buddhism is noticed by Lord Amberley as merely affording "a refutation of the statement that belief in a personal God is a necessary element of all religion." Here again our author profoundly misinterprets Buddha's thought, and, as it has so direct a bearing upon his argument, we may do well to state it in terms of modern thought. Buddha taught that every one's merit and demerit, called Karma, is the shaper of his destiny. " Karma," he is traditionally reported to have said, " is the most essential property of all beings; it is inherited from previous births; it is the cause of all good and evil." Modern Science affirms the same truth. Pre-merit, heredity, is the mighty power that antecedently moulds our characters, "and which "—to use the language of a living scientist—" not only assigns to individuals their position in the surrounding world, but also helps them to attain it."

Dismissing final causes as beyond recognition, and refusing to assert that the logical artifices of the understanding must necessarily find warrant in Nature, Buddha did more than ignore the Divine Personality; for the key-note of his whole philosophy lies in the conclusion that the world of matter and the world of mind are but phenomenal aspects of a phenomenal Ego. Hence an all-pervading underlying power is an illusion of the logical understanding, the possibilities of which are not identical with the possibilities of things, and the wonderful invariability we discover in Nature is but a reflection from our own minds. And here Buddhism and the New Psychology are in accord, recognizing " Mind " as an abstraction, rather than an entity, expressing the sum of mental phenomena, and consequently not the source of the phenomena which constitute it.

We are thus led to the conclusion that the religious idea does not include recognition of the hyperphysical either in Nature or man, and that its foundation principles must be sought elsewhere. When Religion is restricted to the explanation of the soul's relation to the Unknowable, or even to a Divine Personality, it is confined to the individual life, and hands over the social life to the rule of instinct. Such has been the career of Religion in the past, and the chaotic condition of our social life under the current individualism is its legitimate fruit. We cannot with Buddha ignore the over-ruling power, nor with Lord Amberley seek to find it in the shifting sands of metempificism without fatal results in either case. Religion is concerned with the guidance of our emotional desires toward an ideal ever held paramount to the desires of self and shining across the pathway of life, the rays of which are gathered into a focus by Religion for the better government of conduct. In its intellectual aspect it must offer some explanation of that external order that governs our lives; next, idealize the instinct for the Beautiful; and finally realize this instinct in character —individual and social. Religion, therefore, consists of three essential elements,—Doctrine, Worship, Government,—and no one can be sacrificed or ignored save at the expense of the whole; for together, as Thought, Feeling, Action, it constitutes a synthesis whose province it is to reduce human life to harmony and unity. Lord Amberley, however, so far from recognizing the possibility of a complete harmony of human nature, wherein " religion is simply the maturity of philosophy, and itself passes out into activity," strongly opposes any synthesis at all, and extols the anarchical character of a dispersive faith as a blessing.

Consequently we are not surprised at the tinge of sadness pervading his concluding pages; yet with pleasure note that everywhere there is apparent a sincere desire for Truth and a profound reverence for the ideal, together with an unfaltering trust in the future of Humanity, as the following passage illustrates :—

0 Men have dwelt upon the love of God, because they could not satisfy the craving of nature for the love of their fellow men. They have looked forward to eternal happiness in a future life, because they could not find temporary happiness in this. It is these reflections which point out the way in which the void left by the removal of the religious affections should hereafter be supplied. The effort of those who cannot turn for consolation to a friend in heaven should be to strengthen the bonds of friendship on earth, to widen the range of human sympathy and to increase its depth. We should seek that love in one another which we have hitherto been required to seek in God. Were we thus permitted to find in our fellow creatures that sympathy which so many mourners, so many sufferers, so many lonely hearts, have been compelled to find only in the idea of their Heavenly Father, I hesitate not to say that the consolations of the new religion would far surpass in their strength and their perfection all those that were offered by the old. Towards such increasing and such deepening of the sympathies of humanity I believe that we are continually tending even now."

We regret the loose and slipshod manner in which the American edition has been apparently hurried through the press. The frequency with which typographical errors occur, offending the eyes by their constant recurrence, and causing a suspicion that the scrutiny of a proofreader was dispensed with, is not very creditable to the publisher.

D. D. L.

  • Dyer D. Lum, “Current Literature—Analysis of Religious Belief,” The Radical Review 1, no. 2 (August 1877): 357-361.