Religious Sentiment (Notice)

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6.—The Religious Sentiment: Its Source and Aim. A Contribution to the Science and Philosophy of Religion. By D. G. Brinton. New York: Henry Holt & Company. 1876. Large 12mo.

This is a work of research, written with care. The source and aim of the religious sentiment has never been better given than in this volume. The utilitarian origin of religion is stated so clearly that a child may read and understand. On this point the chapter on the " Emotional Elements of the Religious Sentiment" is especially to be commended. There are other parts* of the volume, however, which are not so clear and satisfactory. There is suggestiveness in almost every point that is made, and in many of them just enough of obscurity to tantalize the reader, and compel him to struggle for the sense. There is an interest imparted in this way to what has in itself, perhaps, no great value. With all the apparent care and precision of statement, there are yet gaps and incongruities which are really embarrassing.

Thus, the author maintains that all thought is double,—affirmative and negative, positive and privative. That is, it involves that which it is not as well as that which it is. " So the 'unconditioned' is really a part of the thought of the 'conditioned,' the 'unknowable' a part of the 'knowable,' the 'infinite' a part of the thought of the 'finite.'" He condemns "the assumption that the privative is an independent thought, that a thought and its limitation are two thoughts; whereas they are but the two aspects of the one thought, like two sides of the one disc," &c. Upon this basis he characterizes Spencer's treatment of the unknowable as "one of the worst pieces of work that metaphysics has been guilty of." Yet, singularly enough, while the author regards the unknowable as a privative of the knowable, and the infinite as a privative of the finite, he takes care not to speak of the irrelative or absolute as the privative of the relative. On the contrary, he erects the absolute into a positive thing standing in contrast with the relative, both absolute and relative being as real as subject and object. This absolute he assumes to be an intelligence, and declares that upon it alone can sanity find a basis for religion. Furthermore, after defining the infinite as the privative of the finite,—as only part of the thought of the finite,—he assumes that the very foundation and essence of religion is to be found in what is infinitely true. How much better is all this than Spencer's religion of the unknowable? If Spencer's scheme is substantially atheistic, as our author affirms, then is Brinton's infinite and absolute scarcely less so. He reaches the same result by a different route, and we think one route precisely as treacherous as the other. The author's mind appears to manifest two distinct and contradictory trains of thinking, the one clear and truly philosophic, the other metaphysical, obscure, and inconsistent. The one appears to have had its source in the methods of modern science, the other in the infection of German speculation. Allied to the latter appears to be the indulgence of certain fancies.

Thus, he believes that prayer for physical good,—such as recovery from sickness, rain in time of drought, delivery from grasshoppers, safety at sea, &c,—may be effective by virtue of laws in consequence of which the prayer brings about its own fulfilment. He teaches that the immortality of intelligence is the only form of survival to be desired, and that such immortality can only be the reward, or rather the consequence, of right thinking. Yet all these metaphysical absurdities, all these transcendental fancies, all this theory-building, are largely redeemed by the clear and truthful rendering of the essential nature of religion in its practical aspects. We conclude with a passage of the kind, adding the emphasis:—

"The eternal laws of mind guarantee perpetuity to the extent they are obeyed, and no farther. They differ from the laws of force in that they convey a message which cannot be doubted concerning the purport of the order in Nature, which is itself ' the will of God.' That message, in its application, is the same which, with more or less articulate utterance, every religion speaks. Seek truth: do good. Faith in that message, confidence in, and willing submission to, that order,—this is all the religious sentiment needs to bring forth its sweetest flowers, its richest fruits.

J. S. P.


  • J. Stahl Patterson, “Current Literature—The Religious Sentiment: Its Source and Aim. A Contribution to the Science and Philosophy of Religion. By D. G. Brinton,” The Radical Review 1, no. 3 (August 1877): 364-366.