The Failed Project of the New Religion

In 1884 Hebert Spencer published his “Religious Retrospect and Prospect” in the Popular Science Monthly, which appeared simultaneously in the Nineteenth Century. In this article Spencer offered an evolutionary account of the “religious consciousness.” By looking at its evolutionary history, Spencer believed he could infer the religious ideas and sentiments of the future. Importantly, he contested the notion that science had replaced religion. Science does not destroy religion, but “transfigures it.” According to Spencer, science had enlarged the sphere of wonder and “religious sentiment.” Primitive man had only a limited understanding of that wonder. The cosmogony of the “savage” is incomparable to the wonder established by the modern astronomer. This deeper insight, wonder, or feeling “is not likely to be decreased but increased by that analysis of knowledge which, while forcing him to agnosticism, yet continually prompts him to imagine some solution of the Great Enigma which he knows can not be solved.” But amid all this mystery, Spencer argued, there remains “the one absolute certainty, that he is ever in the presence of an Infinite and Eternal Energy, from which all things proceed.”

Spencer’s article elicited strong reactions. Canon George H. Curteis defended Spencer for his “courageous” position. No religious man, he said, should shrink from calling himself a “Christian agnostic.” Indeed, by proclaiming his agnosticism, the Christian follows an esteemed pedigree, one which Curteis traced to the Old Testament prophets. Although Spencer was not a “Christian” philosopher, his “guidance is none the less valuable to those who are approaching the same subject from a different side.” According to Curteis, Spencer had “purified” the idea of God for the believer, “pruned away all kinds of anthropomorphic accretions,” “reminded the country parson of a good many scientific facts,” and “schooled them into the reflection that a power present in innumerable worlds hardly needs our flattery, or indeed any kind of service from us at all.”

Others were not so congenial. Frederic Harrison, for instance, launched a blisteringly attack against Spencer’s ideas. He argued that Spencer’s conception of the Unknowable was really only a “ghost of religion.” “In spite of the capital letters, and the use of theological terms as old as Isaiah or Athanasius,” he wrote, “Mr. Spencer’s Energy has no analogy with God. It is Eternal, Infinite, and Incomprehensible; but still it is not He, but It.” Harrison emphatically declared that “neither goodness, nor wisdom, nor justice, nor consciousness, nor will, nor life, can be ascribed, even by analogy, to this Force.” Spencer’s own attempt to “put a little unction into the Unknowable” by describing it in theological terms, Harrison protested, is, in the final analysis, a “philosophical inaccuracy.”

Spencer responded with his “Retrogressive Religion,” where he charged Harrison with attacking an imaginary doctrine, “demolishing a simulacrum and walking off in triumph as though the reality had been demolished.” He then attacked Harrison’s “alternative doctrine,” his “Religion of Humanity,” as an “incongruity.” Indeed, papal assumptions, he argued, were more modest in comparison to the assumptions of “the founder of the religion of Humanity.” A pope may canonize a saint or two, but Comte, Spencer quipped, “undertook the canonization of all those men recorded in history whom he thought specially worthy of worship.” The new religion should not be a “rehabilitation of the religion with which mankind commenced, and from which they have been insensibly diverging.” Harrison’s Religion of Humanity was, therefore, according to Spencer, “retrogressive.”

The controversy rolled on into the following year with Harrison’s “Agnostic Metaphysics.” In this article Harrison wrote that he had warned Spencer a decade ago that his “Religion of the Unknowable” would find adherents among dubious theologians. He argued that the “Infinite and Eternal Energy,” the “Ultimate Cause,” the “All-Being,” and the “Creative Power,” have all been co-opted by the “Christian World,” renewing all the mystification of the old theology. Moreover, Harrison inveighed that Spencer knew too much about the Unknowable—“If his Unknowable be unknowable, then it is idle to talk of Infinite and Eternal Energy, sole Reality, All-Being, and Creative Power.” This is, at best, “slip-slop” theology and nothing more.

These two agnostics, arguing so passionately about the future of religion, were condemned by believers and unbelievers alike. For instance, James Fitzjames Stephen (1829-94), older brother of Leslie Stephen, thought the liberal attempt at reconciling science and religion was impossible. He found the creeds of both men palpably fantastic pretensions. He argued that Spencer’s theory of religious development was weak, and that his game with words reminded him of “Isaiah’s description of the manufacture of idols.” “Effort and force and energy,” he wrote, “are to Mr. Spencer what the cypress and the oak and the ash were to the artifices described by the prophet. He works his words about this way and that, he accounts with part for ghosts and dreams, and the residue thereof he maketh a god, and saith Aha, I am wise, I have seen the truth.” Spencer’s Unknown was “a castle in the air, uninhabitable and destitute of foundations.” More pointedly, he declared that the Unknowable appeared “to have absolutely no meaning at all. It is so abstract that it asserts nothing. It is like a gigantic soap-bubble not burst but blown thinner and thinner till it has become absolutely imperceptible.” Harrison, according to Stephen, fared no better. “Humanity with a capital H […] is neither better nor worse fitted to be a god than the Unknowable with a capital U.” We cannot worship an “indefinite number of dead people,” and we certainly do not feel “awe and gratitude” to the multitude, “most of whom are utterly unknown to us even by name or reputation.” The men of history are, in the final analysis, “dead and done with.” Harrison’s language of awe and gratitude toward humanity “represents nothing at all, except a yearning after some object of affection, like a childless woman’s love for a lapdog.”

Stephen concluded that “if this is the prospect before religion, it would surely be simply to say that the prospect before it is that of extinction, that men will soon come to see that nothing can be ascertained, or even regarded as moderately probable, about the various questions which are generally described collectively as religious.” Interestingly enough, Stephen argued that the only religion capable of doing what both Spencer and Harrison want their respective new religions to do, “must be founded on a supernatural basis.” But though the “great leading doctrines of theology are noble and glorious,” it now must be acknowledged that their foundations were untrue. Theology, Stephen contended, is essential to religion, “and that to destroy the one is to destroy the other.”

From the other side of the spectrum, essayist and historian Wilfrid Philip Ward (1856-1916) also offered a witty condemnation of both Spencer and Harrison. Ward accused both men of suffering from “monomania.” He agreed with Harrison’s critique of Spencer, calling it “quite unanswerable common sense.” Spencer has no right, logical or otherwise, “to have his cake after he has eaten it.” An otherwise serious and cautious thinker, Spencer could not see that “if the death-knell of the old Theology be indeed sounded, all reasonable religious worship must die with it.” When looking at Harrison’s substitute religion, Ward was “startled beyond description.” Thus, like the starving man who eats a pair of boots, Spencer and Harrison, desperate to satisfy their religious cravings, have each taken a boot. Their religious language is mere dressing. “The truth seems to be,” Ward declared, “that these philosophers having conspired together to kill all real religion—the very essence of which is a really existing personal God, known to exist, and accessible to the prayers of His creatures—and having, as they suppose, accomplished their work of destruction and put religion to death, have proceeded to divide its clothes between them.”