That a religion which under every form in which it is taught holds forth the final reward of virtue and punishment of vice, and proposes those distinctions of virtue and vice which the wisest and most cultivated part of mankind confess to be just, should not be believed, is very possible; but that, so far as it is believed, it should not produce any good, but rather a bad effect upon public happiness, is a proposition which it requires very strong evidence to render credible. Yet many have been found to contend for this paradox, and very confident appeals have been made to history and to observation for the truth of it.
In the conclusions, however, which these writers draw from what they call experience, two sources, I think, of mistake may be perceived.
One is, that they look for the influence of religion in the wrong place.
The other, that they charge Christianity with many consequences for which it is not responsible.
I. The influence of religion is not to be sought for in the councils of princes, in the debates or resolutions of popular assemblies, in the conduct of governments towards their subjects, of states and sovereigns towards one another; of conquerors at the head of their armies, or of parties intriguing for power at home (topics which alone almost occupy the attention, and fill the pages of history); but must be perceived, if perceived at all, in the silent course of private and domestic life. Nay, even there its influence may not be very obvious to observation. If it check, in some degree, personal dissoluteness, if it beget general probity in the transaction of business, if it produce soft and humane manners in the mass of the community, and occasional exertions of laborious or expensive benevolence in a individuals, it is all the effect which can offer itself to external notice. The kingdom of heaven is within us. That which the substance of the religion, its hopes and consolation, its intermixture with the thoughts by day and by night, the devotion of the heart, the control of appetite, the steady direction of will to the commands of God, is necessarily invisible. Yet these depend the virtue and the happiness of millions. This cause renders the representations of history, with respect to religion, defect and fallacious in a greater degree than they are upon any other subject. Religion operates most upon those of whom history knows the least; upon fathers and mothers their families, upon men-servants and maid-servants, upon orderly tradesman, the quiet villager, the manufacturer at his loom, the husbandman in his fields. Amongst such, its collectively may be of inestimable value, yet its effects, in mean time, little upon those who figure upon the stage of world. They may know nothing of it; they may believe nothing of it; they may be actuated by motives more impetuous than those which religion is able to excite. It cannot, be thought strange that this influence should elude the grasp and touch of public history; for what is public history but register of the successes and disappointments, the vices, the follies, and the quarrels, of those who engage in contentions power?
I will add, that much of this influence may be felt in times of public distress, and little of it in times of public wealth and security. This also increases the uncertainty of any opinions that we draw from historical representations. The influence of Christianity is commensurate with no effects which history states. We do not pretend that it has any such necessary and irresistible power over the affairs of nations as to surmount the force of other causes.
The Christian religion also acts upon public usages and institutions, by an operation which is only secondary and indirect. Christianity is not a code of civil law. It can only reach public institutions through private character. Now its influence upon private character may be considerable, yet many public usages and institutions repugnant to its principles may remain. To get rid of these, the reigning part of the community must act, and act together. But it may be long before the persons who compose this body be sufficiently touched with the Christian character to join in the suppression of practices to which they and the public have been reconciled by causes which will reconcile the human mind to anything, by habit and interest. Nevertheless, the effects of Christianity, even in this view, have been important. It has mitigated the conduct of war, and the treatment of captives. It has softened the administration of despotic, or of nominally despotic governments. It has abolished polygamy. It has restrained the licentiousness of divorces. It has put an end to the exposure of children and the immolation of slaves. It has suppressed the combats of gladiators, and the impurities of religions rites. It has banished, if not unnatural vices, at least the toleration of them. It has greatly meliorated the condition of the laborious part, that is to say, of the mass of every community, by procuring for them a day of weekly rest. In all countries in which it is professed it has produced numerous establishments for the relief of sickness and poverty; and in some, a regular and general provision by law. It has triumphed over the slavery established in the Roman empire: it is contending, and I trust will one day prevail, against the worse slavery of the West Indies.
A Christian writer, (Bardesanes, ap. Euseb. Praep. Evang. vi.10.) so early as in the second century, has testified the resistance which Christianity made to wicked and licentious practices though established by law and by public usage: -- |Neither in Parthia do the Christians, though Parthians, use polygamy; nor in Persia, though Persians, do they marry their own daughters; nor among the Bactri, or Galli, do they violate the sanctity of marriage; nor wherever they are, do they suffer themselves to be overcome by ill-constituted laws and manners.|
Socrates did not destroy the idolatry of Athens, or produce the slighter revolution in the manners of his country.
But the argument to which I recur is, that the benefit of religion, being felt chiefly in the obscurity of private stations, necessarily escapes the observation of history. From the first general notification of Christianity to the present day, there have been in every age many millions, whose names were never heard of, made better by it, not only in their conduct, but in their disposition; and happier, not so much in their external circumstances, as in that which is inter praecordia, in that which alone deserves the name of happiness, the tranquillity and consolation of their thoughts. It has been since its commencement the author of happiness and virtue to millions and millions of the human race. Who is there that would not wish his son to be a Christian?
Christianity also, in every country in which it is professed, hath obtained a sensible, although not a complete influence upon the public judgment of morals. And this is very important. For without the occasional correction which public opinion receives, by referring to some fixed standard of morality, no man can foretel into what extravagances it might wander. Assassination might become as honourable as duelling: unnatural crimes be accounted as venal as fornication is wont to be accounted. In this way it is possible that many may be kept in order by Christianity who are not themselves Christians. They may be guided by the rectitude which it communicates to public opinion. Their consciences may suggest their duty truly, and they may ascribe these suggestions to a moral sense, or to the native capacity of the human intellect, when in fact they are nothing more than the public opinion, reflected from their own minds; and opinion, in a considerable degree, modified by the lessons of Christianity. |Certain it is, and this is a great deal to say, that the generality, even of the meanest and most vulgar and ignorant people, have truer and worthier notions of God more just and right apprehensions concerning his attributes and perfections, a deeper sense of the difference of good and evil, a greater regard to moral obligations, and to the plain and most necessary duties of life, and a more firm and universal expectation of a future state of rewards and punishments, than in any heathen country any considerable number of men were found to have had.| (Clarke, Ev. Nat. Rel. p.208. ed. v.)
After all, the value of Christianity is not to be appreciated by its temporal effects. The object of revelation is to influence human conduct in this life; but what is gained to happiness by that influence can only be estimated by taking in the whole of human existence. Then, as hath already been observed, there may be also great consequences of Christianity which do not belong to it as a revelation. The effects upon human salvation of the mission, of the death, of the present, of the future agency of Christ, may be universal, though the religion be not universally known.
Secondly, I assert that Christianity is charged with many consequences for which it is not responsible. I believe that religious motives have had no more to do in the formation of nine tenths of the intolerant and persecuting laws which in different countries have been established upon the subject of religion, than they have had to do in England with the making of the game-laws. These measures, although they have the Christian religion for their subject, are resolvable into a principle which Christianity certainly did not plant (and which Christianity could not universally condemn, because it is not universally wrong), which principle is no other than this, that they who are in possession of power do what they can to keep it. Christianity is answerable for no part of the mischief which has been brought upon the world by persecution, except that which has arisen from conscientious persecutors. Now these perhaps have never been either numerous or powerful. Nor is it to Christianity that even their mistake can fairly be imputed. They have been misled by an error not properly Christian or religious, but by an error in their moral philosophy. They pursued the particular, without adverting to the general consequence. Believing certain articles of faith, or a certain mode of worship, to be highly conducive, or perhaps essential, to salvation, they thought themselves bound to bring all they could, by every means, into them, and this they thought, without considering what would be the effect of such a conclusion when adopted amongst mankind as a general rule of conduct. Had there been in the New Testament, what there are in the Koran, precepts authorising coercion in the propagation of the religion, and the use of violence towards unbelievers, the case would have been different. This distinction could not have been taken, nor this defence made.
I apologise for no species nor degree of persecution, but I think that even the fact has been exaggerated. The slave-trade destroys more in a year than the Inquisition does in a hundred or perhaps hath done since its foundation.
If it be objected, as I apprehend it will be, that Christianity is chargeable with every mischief of which it has been the occasion, though not the motive; I answer that, if the malevolent passions be there, the world will never want occasions. The noxious element will always find a conductor. Any point will produce an explosion. Did the applauded intercommunity of the pagan theology preserve the peace of the Roman world? did it prevent oppressions, proscriptions, massacres, devastation? Was it bigotry that carried Alexander into the East, or brought Caesar into Gaul? Are the nations of the world into which Christianity hath not found its way, or from which it hath been banished, free from contentions? Are their contentions less ruinous and sanguinary? Is it owing to Christianity, or to the want of it, that the regions of the East, the countries inter quatuor maria, peninsula of Greece, together with a great part of the Mediterranean coast, are at this day a desert? or that the banks of the Nile, whose constantly renewed fertility is not to be impaired by neglect, or destroyed by the ravages of war, serve only for the scene of a ferocious anarchy, or the supply of unceasing hostilities? Europe itself has known no religious wars for some centuries, yet has hardly ever been without war. Are the calamities which at this day afflict it to be imputed to Christianity? Hath Poland fallen by a Christian crusade? Hath the overthrow in France of civil order and security been effected by the votaries of our religion, or by the foes? Amongst the awful lessons which the crimes and the miseries of that country afford to mankind this is one; that in order to be a persecutor it is not necessary to be a bigot: that in rage and cruelty, in mischief and destruction, fanaticism itself can be outdone by infidelity.
Finally, if war, as it is now carried on between nations produce less misery and ruin than formerly, we are indebted perhaps to Christianity for the change more than to any other cause. Viewed therefore even in its relation to this subject, it appears to have been of advantage to the world. It hath humanised the conduct of wars; it hath ceased to excite them.
The differences of opinion that have in all ages prevailed amongst Christians fall very much within the alternative which has been stated. If we possessed the disposition which Christianity labours, above all other qualities, to inculcate, these differences would do little harm. If that disposition be wanting, other causes, even were these absent, would continually rise up to call forth the malevolent passions into action. Differences of opinion, when accompanied with mutual charity, which Christianity forbids them to violate, are for the most part innocent, and for some purposes useful. They promote inquiry, discussion, and knowledge. They help to keep up an attention to religious subjects, and a concern about them, which might be apt to die away in the calm and silence of universal agreement. I do not know that it is in any degree true that the influence of religion is the greatest where there are the fewest dissenters.