RELIGION AND ETHICS.
(Notes of a Lecture by Mrs. Besant)
There was a time in Europe a few centuries ago, when the prevailing idea was that faith was everything and conduct mattered little; a man was judged by what he believed and not by what he was. This idea was carried so far that Melanchthon is reported to have said that "heresy is worse when eaten off a golden dish" that is to say, the heresy of a good man is more harmful than that of an evil one, because his conduct recommends the heresy. Belief was then of so much importance that men were burned alive for believing wrongly and everything turned on questions of dogma and doctrine. Now we find exactly the opposite view; people are apt to think it does not matter what a man believes if he acts rightly, he is to be judged by action, not belief; conduct is all-important, and belief matters very little. This is the result of the reaction from the former position. It does not matter profoundly what a man believes; not because his salvation depends upon it, he is just as safe whether he believes one thing or another but because his character is the result of his thought; no one who recognizes the enormous importance and effect of thought can ever say it does not matter what a man believes. Religious beliefs, both past and present, very much influence ethical ideas, the rules on which conduct is based, and you cannot leave out the influence of thought with regard to conduct any more than with regard to other things. Man is created by thought, as a man thinks, so he is. If this is true it cannot be a matter of indifference what are our beliefs – whether we think rightly or wrongly of the Supreme Life, and of our own lives, whether we think we are living one great life, with many births and deaths, or believe that a man is born and dies once only, and that all his future depends on it. These things all bear on ethics.
Let us see how far historically religious and ethical systems have been conjoined. It is sometimes said that the ethical system grows out of the religious and its sanction is a religious one. But this is not universally true. The morality taught by Confucius, for example, had not a religious basis, so far we can see. His morality was based on the idea of utility to society and appealed to the moral instinct rather than to the religious sanction; not to the will of God, but to its own inherent rightness, depending on reason. So we find he lays down various great principles of conduct appealing to the reason. One of these is characteristic of his habit of thought, and is somewhat in conflict with the teaching of most of the great teachers of the world. On this point the Western mind would be more inclined to agree with Confucius. It is a fundamental principle in all religions that we should return good for evil. But Confucius dealt with this in a very common-sense way; he said, recompense good with good, but evil with justice. Now that is a very fine thought, and is true with regard to the judge, the statesman and the magistrate. In the Sermon on the Mount there are some beautiful moral precepts as for instance, "if a man take away thy coat, give to him, thy cloak also;" a high, noble morality, but not the morality for the State. If a judge were to take his cloak and give it to the thief, everyone would cry out against him, and he would be removed from his position. It is true that evil can only be cured by the opposite good. So Lao-Tze said: - "the miser I will treat with liberality, the liar with truth, the cruel with kindness, and thus all will become good." But in dealing with social matters, it is necessary to have the rule of Confucius, and to recompense evil with justice. Confucius stood alone on this point, perhaps because he, unlike most of the great spiritual teachers, was concerned with social order rather than with individual ethics.
One of the modern schools of morality takes utility as its basis, and builds upon that its maxim of "the greatest happiness for the greatest number." It is a noble system of ethics, and does not lack purity and nobility, but it lacks inspiration and motive power. The rule that the right is that which brings the greatest happiness to the greatest number is imperfect, because it does not include all. What about the minority? Is that to be tramped down to secure the good of the majority? There is something lacking in the theory that takes this principle as its basis. Right is that which bring about perfect happiness for every sentient being. But even supposing the principle of the utilitarian to be satisfactory, there would still be something needed to make it binding. It is binding on the unselfish man; when you say to him that he should sacrifice himself for his country, the man who is highly evolved, intellectually and morally, will answer to it and will say at once that it is quite true. But it will not appeal to the selfish or undeveloped man who could not answer to the thought the good of the whole is more than the good of the part. He would say "what has posterity done for me, that I should trouble about posterity?" – a manifestly unanswerable question.
William Kingdom Clifford has put this matter on a strong foundation, though not quite complete. He says that the human race is a unity, and one generation grows out of another; whatever the present has a literature, philosophy, and so on, has come from the past, and since all we have is a legacy from the past, we are bound to increase it and make it richer for those who will come after. But when you are dealing with people in general, you want something more than that, for a nation is made up of selfish and brutal people as well as the noble and highly evolved; and something imperative is needed that will appeal to everyone, both the educated and uneducated. This cannot be found outside religion, and on the nature of the belief will depend the nature of the ethics. In France an attempt was made to carry out the teaching of morality without religion; religion was put entirely on one side, except in religious orders, and duty to the country was put forward as the basis of morality, but this was not found to lead to high patriotism or purity of life, nor did it produce a binding sense of unity, and the nation went to pieces under attach. Human nature was too strong and something more was needed than an appeal to ethics.
The foundation of religion is the One Life, the only sure foundation we can have. There is but one life the same in every one; we are leaves of one tree. By the fact of this common life an injury done to one is an injury to all; injury to your neighbor is injury to yourself, and there is no hope of escape from the effect, any more than a man could expect to escape the punishment for a crime by changing his coat. The unity of the Self is the fundamental truth on which both ethics and religion are based. From the standpoint of religion the strength of this belief lies in the fact that you do not want any external proof of the existence of the Self. Proof comes as you realize yourself. Realizing the One Self, the identity of the Self in God and in man, religion becomes self-poised. The true basis of ethics is that we have a moral duty towards all creatures not only towards man, and it is here that the fullness comes in which is lacking in the utilitarian system. You can then no longer talk about the majority for the minority is also part of the one life, and you cannot leave out from the circle of that life even the meanest creature. Universal happiness is the object of the universe, and not the most trivial life can be excluded. The utilitarian is right in his object, but he does not recognize the fact that happiness and divine life are identical, and that every happiness short of divine bliss is impermanent, and does not satisfy the demand for true happiness which is found in unity with itself and with others. Happiness is the one thing we are all seeking; it is the inevitable goal, because the Self is bliss, and it must find in every being the realization of itself. This idea is found in Hinduism; the aim of the philosophy is to put an end to pain and to find peace. And as the Upanishads puts it, a man might as soon try to roll up the ether as leather, as to escape misery without the knowledge of God.
The next question is, how will religious beliefs affect fundamental laws? What is right and what is wrong? To a man who believes in an extra cosmic God, who created the world at a particular moment of time, the world is outside God, not part of Himself, it does not share His inherent nature. Laws are imposed upon it by the will of God, from outside, and must be obeyed like the laws of a king or parliament, which are imperative because the ruler is recognized as supreme, they are artificial and carry with them the idea of reward and punishment. According to this view of God and nature, there is no common factor between them, nothing which makes happiness the inherent result of good, and misery the inherent result of evil. The religions based on the idea of reward and punishment are always marked with this atmosphere of artificiality. Take the articles of the Church of England, to which every clergy man is supposed to subscribe. According to these every man is born sinful, because of Adam's sin, and is therefore an object of God's wrath and condemnation, by reason of his birth, which he does not choose; and the penalty is everlasting punishment. But this was felt to be too horrible, and so a scheme was made by which it might be avoided. By baptism the child was made a child of God instead of a child of wrath, and the imputed sin of Adam was balanced by the imputed virtue of Christ – beliefs which are utterly untrue, but necessary if the primary statement is admitted. The result was a false idea of rightness and confusion of mind; right came to mean that which God commands, there was no criterion outside His will. It was impossible to argue from what was seen in the world around to the mind of God, for the evil man became rich, the good man was poor and unfortunate. Christians then fell back upon an authoritative book; but here there are the difficulties of translations, MSS., etc.; a standpoint of right and wrong based upon a book must always be unreliable. But if the world is the expression of the Divine Life, that in which God Himself is immanent, then the laws of nature are the expression of the Divine Nature; there is no question of reward and punishment, but of inevitable sequence. Fire burns, and if a hand is put into the fire, the burning of the hand is not a punishment, but a natural result. Ignorance may put its hand into the fire, and may learn by it, and it is the same with all the laws of nature; the results are all beneficial, bringing increase of knowledge; by every experience we learn the nature of life.
Seeing the world as the expression of the Divine Life, and its laws as the expression of Divine Law we see evolution as the object of life, the right is then that which is in harmony with evolution and wrong is whatever goes against it. Right is the nature of the part expressing itself harmoniously in all activities; it is an ever growing harmony, an unfolding thing, not something laid down once for all. Right and wrong are therefore relative terms not absolute, and the right of the savage is not that of the civilized man. That which the undeveloped man may not be done by one who is more developed, because for him it would mean a going backward. So we gradually come to see in the world the purpose of God unfolding and the perfection of the divine harmony shaping for itself forms of ever richer and more splendid beauty, always going onwards, never backwards. Then we have a standard which we can apply to conduct everywhere and always, making it an inspiration to a man, no matter at how low a stage he may be, to go forward a little, and to realize that he is working with humanity and with divinity.
This implies another doctrine, the continuity of life; here religions come in with their doctrines. Science has reached the continuity of matter, but not of life, and so it finds itself face to face with difficulties; the recognition of the continuity of life is necessary for right understanding. When Christianity gave up the teaching of the preexistence of the soul, and put in its place the most unphilosophical doctrine that every new body had a new soul created for it, and that that soul, upon leaving the body, would go straight to heaven or to hell; it adopted a test of a very peculiar kind, making a man's whole future depend on the way in which he lived this one life. Hence arose the importance of works. For you cannot turn an entirely undeveloped man into a genius, and when he comes to die he will still be a very poor creature, and will have to live life after life before there is any very marked difference. If you take a child born of an evil type and with an evil character, you can do very little with that child in one short life. You can plant a little seed of good, but you cannot change the nature, the criminal will remain a criminal, and what is to become of him after death? To meet these difficulties were devised the doctrines of justification by faith, the vicarious atonement, and the imputation of the righteousness of Christ to the sinner. Today we have the reaction from all this. Canon Farrar was once speaking to a navy who was not leading a good life, and told him he would go to hell if he would go to hell if he did not mend his ways. The man answered, "Mister, do you mean to tell me that after sticking me here in the mud, God is going to stick me in hell fire?" Rough words, but true; and they make such an impression, that Canon Farrar began to reconsider his beliefs.
All these false doctrines and the consequent confusion of thought had their influence on the character of those who believed them, right and wrong became confused, and the whole idea of evolution by means of effort fell into the background. Once convince men that by believing in Jesus they can escape the consequences of evil, and you have struck at the very foundation of morality, as may be seen in the low morality of Christendom at the present day, as compared with that of the Eastern religions. This is very marked here in India, where we have all religions and can compare them; it is very striking to observe how much lower is the morality of those religions which do not teach Karma and Reincarnation than of those which hold these beliefs.
Religious doctrines have thus a very great influence on ethics, for wrong beliefs bring wrong conduct in their train, and by taking away the principles of the unity of life and the inviolability of law you take away the very foundation of right, and therefore of an ethical systems. So, while never blaming a man for wrong belief, we should always try to enlighten him, knowing that the wrong belief will come out eventually in wrong conduct. In this way we may keep the balance between the idea of the all-importance of belief, and the reaction against that, which says that if a man is good, everything is all right if a man is good, but we must also remember that the truer the thought, the greater the goodness, and that by training our thought and our belief, we may lay the foundations of a good and noble life.
- From Theosophy in India.