Of course, you have to read them first! The great writers of our very near past. Have we learnt anything? And to refresh your mind after reading, believing in, and hearing: so much for our modern/popularist socio-garbage.
THE UNCHANGING FOUNDATIONS
THE horses and bisons on the walls of the palaeolithic cave-man’s dwelling might have been painted by an artist of the twentieth century-that is, if there were any contemporary artists with sufficient talent to paint them. The earliest surviving literatures are still entirely comprehensible. And though the earliest philosophies and religions may seem intellectually very remote from ourselves, we feel, none the less, that the emotions and intuitions to which they give rational, or pseudo-rational, expression are recognizably akin to our own. Rationalizations change, and with them the rules of conduct based upon rationalizations. But what is rationalized does not change. At most a latent power is developed; the potential is made actual; a technique is discovered for realizing and exploiting faculties hitherto useless and unrealized. In their likenesses and unlikenesses the men of to-day resemble the men of the past.
There were introverts and extroverts in the time of Homer, intellectuals and intuitives, visualizers and non-visualizers, just as there are now. And in all probability the relative numbers of individuals belonging to the various types have remained more or less constant throughout history. Neither the hereditary differences between men, nor the similarities, have greatly varied. What has varied has been the vehicles of thought and action by means of which the hereditarily constant differences and similarities have been expressed. The form of institutions and philosophies may change; but the substance that underlies them remains indestructible, because the nature of humanity remains unaltered.
THE DECAY OF RELIGION
The case of religion might seem, at a first glance, to disprove this statement. During the last two or three hundred years the religions of the West have manifestly decayed. There have been ups, it is true, as well as downs; but the downward movement has predominated, with the result that we are living to-day in what is probably the most irreligious epoch of all history. And yet religion is the rationalization of feelings and intuitions which we have just assumed to be substantially unchangeable. Is the assumption wrong, and has our nature radically altered, during the past few generations? Alternatively, must we believe that religion is not the rationalization of deep-seated feelings and intuitions, but a mere fantastical whimsy, invented and re-invented by every generation for its own amusement?
The dilemma is apparent, not real. The fact that religions have decayed during the past few generations does not mean that they are definitively dead. And the fact that many people are now without a religion does not mean that they are without some substitute for a religion; their religious feelings and intuitions may be rationalized in forms not immediately recognizable as religious.
That whole classes of mental functions and faculties may fall into temporary disrepute is abundantly evidenced by history, which makes it no less clear that the attempt to suppress a part of the being, to live without it, as though it did not exist, is never permanently successful. Sooner or later the outlawed elements take their revenge, the order of their banishment is rescinded, and a new philosophy of life becomes popular-a philosophy which gives to previously despised and outlawed elements their due place in the scheme of things, and often, in the heat of reaction, more than their due place. There is no reason to believe that the present condition of irreligion is a permanent one.
The partially educated masses, it is true, have just discovered, some forty years behind the time, the materialism of nineteenth-century science. But the scientific men, it is significant to note, are rapidly abandoning the materialistic position. What they think now, the masses will doubtless be thinking a generation hence.
The decay of religion is not only in all probability temporary; it is also incomplete. The religious instincts of those who have no recognized religion (I leave out of account the still considerable and growing numbers of those who have) find expression in a surprising variety of non-religious ways. Lacking religion, they have provided themselves with substitutes for it. It is of these surrogates that I now propose to write.
NATURE OF THE GENUINE ARTICLE
The surrogates of a thing cannot be intelligently discussed unless something is known about the nature of the genuine article. Only someone who has tasted butter can criticize the different brands of margarine. It is the same with the substitutes for religion. Unless we start with some preliminary idea of the nature of religion, we shall be unable to recognize, much less evaluate, its substitutes.
I shall not attempt to give a formal definition of religion. Such definitions are mostly so vague and abstract as to be almost meaningless. What is required for our purposes is not a definition of religion so much as a catalogue of the principal states of mind and actions recognized as religious, together with a brief account of the most characteristic features of the religious doctrines which are the rationalizations of these states and acts.
A sense of awe in face of the mysteries and immensities of the world – this, I suppose, is the most fundamental religious state of mind. This feeling is rationalized in the form of belief in supernatural beings, both kindly and malevolent, as is the world in which men live. In the higher religions the rationalization is very elaborate and constitutes an account, complete and coherent, of the whole universe.
The religious feeling finds its active as opposed to its intellectual expression in the form of propitiatory ritual. Ritual, as soon as it is invented, occupies a place of prime importance in all religions. For the rite evokes by association those emotions of awe which are, for the individual who feels them, the god himself. And these emotions are accompanied by others no less exhilarating, and therefore no less divine. Chief among these is what may be called the social emotion, the feeling of excitement caused by being in a crowd.
Asceticism is common to all religions. It is unnecessary to try to explain why men should have believed that they could win the favours of the gods by abstaining from pleasure and comfort. The fact that they have done so is enough for us.
Human misery is so great and so widespread that one of the principal functions of religion has been that of consolation, and one of the most typical religious doctrines is that of future compensatory states.
Absoluteness is a quality typical of religious beliefs. Religious doctrines are held with a passionate tenacity. If what is believed is absolutely true, then it is of vital importance that the believer should cling to his belief and refuse to admit the contrary beliefs of others. Conversely, absoluteness of belief, resulting from whatever cause, tends to create a certainty of the absolute reality of the thing believed in. The quality of the faith is transferred to its object, which thereby becomes absolute and consequently worthy of worship.
All religions have priests, who fulfil a double function. They are, in the first place, to use M. Paul Valery’s expressive phrase, les preposes aux choses vagues-mediators between man and the surrounding mystery, which they understand and can propitiate more effectually than ordinary folk. Their second function is earthly; they are confessors, advisers, casuists, spiritual doctors; at certain periods they have also been rulers.
Such are a few of the most obviously significant facts about religion. With these in mind, we may proceed to consider its substitutes. The first thing that strikes us is, that none of the substitutes is more than very partially adequate. A religion covers all the intellectual and emotional ground. It offers an explanation of the universe, it consoles, it provides its devotees with uplifting, god-creating rites. No substitute can do as much; one offers rites, but not philosophy; another compensatory doctrines, but no rites. And so on. No religious surrogate can completely satisfy all the religious needs of men. Much of the restlessness and uncertainty so characteristic of our time is probably due to the chronic sense of unappeased desires from which men naturally religious, but condemned by circumstances to have no religion, are bound to suffer.
THE POLITICAL SURROGATE
Perhaps the most important substitute for religion is politics. Extreme nationalism presents its devotees with a god to be worshipped-the Country – together with much inspiring ritual of a mainly military kind. In most countries and for most of their inhabitants nationalism is a spasmodic faith, of which the believers are only occasionally conscious. But where the state is weak and in danger, where men are oppressed by a foreign ruler, it becomes an unflagging enthusiasm. Even in countries where there is no sense of inferiority to be compensated, where there are no immediate dangers and no oppressors, the nationalist substitute for religion is often continuously inspiring. I have met some few admirable men and women for whom unlike Nurse Cavell, patriotism was quite enough. The country was to be served and worshipped. They asked, as far as I could discover, for no other god. The only universe of which they demanded an explanation was the universe of politics. And with what a simple, unpretentious explanation even of that they were contented!
Extreme democracy has as many devotees as extreme nationalism; and among those devotees there are probably more chronic enthusiasts than are to be found among the patriots. As a substitute for religion, extreme democracy is more adequate than nationalism; for it covers more ground, at any rate as a doctrine. For revolutionary democracy is a forward-looking faith. It preaches a future state-in this world, not another-when all the injustices of the present will be remedied, all the unhappinesses compensated, when the first shall be last and the last first, and there shall be crowns for all and no more weeping, and practically no more work. Moreover, it is susceptible of a much more thorough philosophical treatment than nationalism. `My country right or wrong’ is a sentiment which cannot be completely rationalized. The only reason that any man has for loving and serving his country is the mere accident that it happens to be his.
He knows that if he had been born somewhere else the object of his worship would have been different. Not the bulldog, but the cock or the eagle would have been his totem. Not Dr. Arne, but Haydn or Rouget de Lisle, would have hymned him into ecstasy. There can be no metaphysic of patriotism; it is just a raw, unalterable fact, which must be accepted as it is. Democracy, on the other hand, does not vary from country to country; it is a universal and imperishable doctrine-for the poor are everywhere and at all times with us. The raw facts of misery, envy, and discontent can be rationalized in the most thorough-going fashion. To explain and justify the very natural desire of the poor and oppressed for freedom, wealth, and power a far-reaching system of metaphysics has been evolved. The Christian doctrines of original sin and divine grace have been denied, and all the virtues and perfections of God have been lodged in humanity-not indeed as it is now (that would be too hard to swallow), but as it will be when freed from oppression and enlightened by education. This doctrine, although manifestly false, is a genuine religious explanation of the world, in terms of which it is possible, with a little judicious manipulation, to explain all the facts of human life.
Doctrinally, then, revolutionary democracy is an excellent substitute for religion. When it comes to practice, however, it is less satisfying than nationalism. For nationalism has a traditional and highly elaborate ritual of its own. Revolutionary democracy can offer nothing to compare with the royal processions, the military parades, the music pregnant with associations, the flags, the innumerable emblems, by means of which patriotic sentiment can be worked up and the real presence of the motherland made manifest to every beholder.
The craving for ritual and ceremony is strong and widespread. How strong and how widely spread is shown by the eagerness with which men and women who have no religion, or a puritanical religion without ritual, will seize at any opportunity to participate in ceremonies of whatever kind. The Ku – Klux – Klan would never have achieved its post-War success if it had stuck to plain clothes and committee meetings. Messrs. Simmons and Clark, the resuscitators of that remarkable body, understood their public. They insisted on strange nocturnal ceremonies at which fancy-dress should not be optional but compulsory. Membership went up by leaps and bounds. The Klan had an object: its ritual was symbolical of something. But to a rite starved multitude, significance is apparently superfluous. The popularity of community singing has shown that the rite, as such, is what the public wants. So long as it is impressive and arouses an emotion, the rite is good in itself. It does not much matter what it signifies. The ceremony of community singing lacks all philosophical significance, it has no connection with any system of ideas. It is simply itself and nothing more.
The traditional rituals of religion and daily life have largely vanished out of the world. But their disappearance has caused regret. Whenever people have a chance they try to satisfy their hunger for ceremonial, even though the rite with which they appease it be entirely meaningless.
THE ARTISTIC SUBSTITUTE
Art occupies a position of great importance in the modern world. By this I do not mean to imply that modern art is better than the art of other generations. It is obviously not. The quantity, not the quality, of modern art is important. More people take a conscious interest in art as art. And more devote themselves to its practice than at any other period. Our age, though it has produced few masterpieces, is a thoroughly aesthetic age. This increase in the numbers of the practitioners and dilettanti in all the arts is not unconnected with the decrease in the numbers of religious believers. To minds whose religious needs have been denied their normal fulfilment, art brings a certain spiritual satisfaction. In its lowest forms art is like that emotionally charged ritual for ritual’s sake so popular, as we have seen, at the present time. In its higher and more significant forms it is philosophy as well as ritual.
The arts, including music and certain important kinds of literature, have been, at most periods, the handmaids of religion. Their principal function was to provide religion with the visible or audible symbols which create in the mind of the beholder those feelings which for him personally are the god. Divorced from religion, the arts are now independently cultivated for their own sake. That aesthetic beauty which was once devoted to the service of God has now set up as a god on its own. The cultivation of art for its own sake has become a substitute for religion. That it is an extremely inadequate substitute must be apparent to any one who has observed the habits of those who lead the pure, aesthetic life. Where beauty is worshipped for beauty’s sake as a goddess, independent of and superior to morality and philosophy, the most horrible putrefaction is apt to set in. The lives of the aesthetes are the far from edifying commentary on the religion of beauty.
THE RELIGION OF SEX
Other instances might be given of activities which were once part of religion being isolated and endowed with the significance rightly belonging to the whole. Substitutes for religion which were originally no more than a part of the genuine article are peculiarly unsatisfactory and lead their devotees into impossible situations. A good example of such a partial substitute is the puritanical religion of sexual taboos. Asceticism, as we have seen, is a feature common to most religions, and one which in Christianity has been particularly marked. But it has never been the whole of any religion. Among contemporary ‘smuthounds’ (to borrow one of Mr. Mencken’s expressive coinages) one finds people for whom the cult of sexual purity is in itself a complete substitute for religion. The Christian ascetic restrained all his appetites, greed and covetousness as well as lasciviousness, and he restrained them because he believed that by doing so he was pleasing his God.
The modern purity-leaguer has no qualms about money-grubbing and gormandizing: his sole preoccupation is sexual licence, particularly in other people. He is often a free-thinker, so that his campaigns against indecency propitiate no God, but are conducted because they are good in themselves. But are they? ‘Apud gentiles,’ says St. Thomas, `fornicatio simplex non reputabatur illicita propter corruptionem naturalis rationis: Judaei, autem ex lege divina instructi, earn illicitam reputabant.’ It is only on this one point that the free-thinking smuthound accepts divine law. In all other matters he trusts to the corruption of his natural reason. He should be more logical and consistent.
It is a remarkable fact that, while one may say, to all intents and purposes, whatever one likes about religion and politics, while one may publicly preach atheism and communism, one may not make public mention, except in a scientific work, of the most rudimentary physiological facts. In most modern countries the only state – supported orthodoxy is a sexual orthodoxy. There is a powerful religion, or rather pseudo-religion, of sexual purity. It cannot, it is true, boast of many sincerely ardent devotees. But most of the few who genuinely believe in it are fanatics. Defined in psychological terms, a fanatic is a man who consciously overcompensates a secret doubt. The fanatics of puritanism are generally found to be overcompensating a secret prurience.
Their influence in the modern world is great out of all proportion to their numbers; for few people dare, by opposing them, to run the risk of being called immoral, corrupters of youth, dissolvers of the family, and all the rest (the truly virtuous have an inexhaustible armoury of abuse on which to draw). If the smuthounds had a genuine religion to satisfy them, they would probably be less of a nuisance than they are at present. Ages of faith, if one may judge from medieval literature, were not ages of puritanism.
The modern apostles of commerce are trying to persuade people to accept business as a substitute for religion. Moneymaking, they assert, is a spiritual act; efficiency and common honesty are a service to humanity. Business in general is the supreme God, and the individual Firm is the subsidiary deity to whom devotions are directly paid. For the ambitious, the boomingly prosperous, and those too much involved in strenuous living to be able to do any strenuous thinking, the worship of business may perhaps supply the lack of genuine religion. But its inadequacy is profound and radical.
It offers no coherent explanation of any universe outside of that whose centre is the stock exchange; in times of trouble it cannot console; it compensates no miseries; its ideals are too quickly realizable-they open the door to cynicism and indifference. Its virtues are so easily practised that literally any human being who believes in the religion of Business can imagine himself a truly good man. Hence the appalling self-satisfaction and conscious pharisaism so characteristic of the devotees of business.
It is a justificatory religion for the rich and those who would become rich. And even with them it works only when times are good and they are without personal unhappiness. At the first note of a tragedy it loses all its efficacy; the briefest slump is sufficient to make it evaporate. The preachers of this commercial substitute for religion are numerous, noisy, and pretentious. But they can never, in the nature of things, be more than momentarily and superficially successful. Men require a more substantial spiritual nourishment than these are able to provide.
CRANKS (or Madness or Insanity)
Some human beings are so constituted that almost any idea can take on the qualities of a religious dogma. A condition of absolute belief is reached; the object of belief is itself endowed with absoluteness and so becomes divine; to act on the belief, to serve its deified object, to propagate the truth and combat false doctrine become religious duties. We are all familiar with cranks and the riders of hobbies. Their eccentricities, their absurd and barbarous one-sidedness, are due to the fact that they treat as though it were a religion an idea which has nothing in common with a religious dogma except its quality (for them) of absoluteness. The process by which an idea takes on this religious quality of absoluteness is not the same in all cases. In some cases the absoluteness of a belief is proportionate to the length of time it has been believed. Beliefs received in extreme youth tend to become an integral part of the mind. To deny a very familiar belief-one that has become, so to speak, encrusted with personal associations and tangled in the feelings-is in a real sense to deny the man who holds it. But it is not exclusively by the prescriptive right of mere length of tenure that ideas become absolute.
The crank may acquire his hobby comparatively late in life. Moreover, it often happens that cranks will ride several hobbies in succession, treating each in turn as an absolute and religious dogma. There is a recognizable crank-mind with a specific tendency to receive beliefs and endow them with qualities of absoluteness. How and why cranks should transform opinions into religions is somewhat obscure. Cranks, if we may believe Jung, are extreme extraverts-people whose whole spiritual tendency is outwards, towards the object. The object on which their attention fixes itself is an already existing idea, which they embrace with a love and a faith so exclusive that they are driven to a conscious denial of everything else, including even their own self.
The self, however, is a living organism, and refuses to be denied without a struggle. Conscious devotion to the external idea is balanced by an unconscious development of the selfregarding tendencies (for the mind, like the body, preserves its equilibrium only because its parts live in a perpetual state of `hostile symbiosis’). The crank begins to sacrifice himself to his idea for personal motives. The outlawed elements of the personality have revenged themselves upon the idea; but in revenging themselves they have caused the idea to be more tenaciously and violently, because more egotistically, held than ever. If someone doubts the truth of the idea it is a personal insult. A conversion to the idea is a personal triumph. At a later stage the unconscious may carry its counter-attack even further; the crank begins to develop a secret doubt of his absolute. The doubt is consciously overcompensated, and the belief becomes fanatical.
Whatever the scientific value of this account of crank mentality, the fact remains that, by whatever process, cranks do transmute opinions into absolute dogmas, which are for them substitutes for religion. I have known men whose religion was homoeopathy, others whose whole life was constellated round the faith that is anti-vivisection. The inadequacy of such ideas as surrogates of the comprehensive dogmas of religion is manifest. The crank lives narrowly and in a real sense insanely.
If our original assumption is true and human nature has in fact remained fundamentally changeless throughout the historical period, then we should expect to find the contemporary world as full of superstitions as the world of the past. For superstitious beliefs and practices are the expressions of certain states of mind, and if the states of mind exist, so ought the practices and beliefs. Our age has a habit of calling itself enlightened.
On what grounds it is difficult to understand, unless it regards as a progress towards enlightenment the fact that its fetishistic and magical superstitions are no longer coordinated with a religion, but have, so to speak, broken loose and exist in a state of independence.
The Church exploited these habits of superstition and made them serve its own higher ends. Recognizing the fact that many men and women have a tendency to attribute vitality and power to inanimate objects, it supplied their needs, but with inanimate objects of a certain kind-relics, images, and the like-which served to remind the fetishworshipper of a doctrine more intelligent and far-reaching than his own.
The days of Catholic superstition are passed, and we now worship, under the name of mascots, lucky pigs, billikens, swastikas, and the like, a whole pantheon of fetishes which stand for nothing beyond themselves. No one is likely to forget how seriously these fetishes were taken during the War, what powers were then attributed to them, what genuine distress and terror were occasioned by their loss. Now that the danger is over the worship is not so ardent. But that it still persists any one may discover who will but take the trouble to use his eyes and ears. Of spiritualism, fortune-telling, and the practice of magic I shall say nothing. They have always existed and they still exist, unchanged except for the fact that there is no established religion in relation to which these practices are bad or good.
The belief in evil spirits, though still common, is probably less widespread than it was, but the human tendency to hypostasize its sense of values is still as strong as ever. Evil spirits being out of fashion, it must therefore find expression in other beliefs. With many people, especially women, bacilli have taken the place of spirits. Microbes for them are the personification of evil. They live in terror of germs and practise elaborate antiseptic rites in order to counteract their influence. There are mothers who find it necessary to sterilize the handkerchiefs that come back from the laundry; who, when their children scratch their finger on a bramble, interrupt their walk and hurry home in search of iodine; who boil and distil the native virtue out of every particle of food or drink. I have known one who would not allow her child to relieve nature anywhere but in the open fields; artificial retiring places were for her infested with the evil spirits called microbes. One is reminded irresistibly of the ritual washings and fumigations, the incessant preoccupation with unclean foods, unlucky days, and inauspicious places, so common among all the primitive peoples. The forms change, but the substance remains.
The double functions of the priest, who is simultaneously `overseer of vague things’ and doctor of souls, have been distributed in the modern priestless world, and are exercised not by one class of men but by several. In his capacity as administrator of sacraments and interpreter of the surrounding mystery the priest is now represented, inadequately enough, by the artist.
The extraordinary and quite disproportionate importance attributed by the contemporary world to artists as such, regardless of their merit, is due to the fact that the artist is the evoker of those emotional states which are the god. True, the god he evokes is often a god of the poorest quality. Consider, for example, the deity implicit in the best-selling novel or the popular ballad. Still, for those who are so constituted that they can like that sort of god, that is the sort of god they will like. There is a hierarchy both among gods and men. Those whose place in the human hierarchy is low worship gods whose place in the divine hierarchy corresponds with their own.
The artist-priests who evoke low gods for low worshippers are themselves low. Still, whatever the quality of the god evoked, the artist’s act is always sacramental. He does genuinely produce a god of some sort. Hence his importance in the modern world. His name is written large over the pages of Who ‘s Who; hostesses ask him out to dinner; gossip writers report his doings in the Press; unknown correspondents write to him about their souls, and ask him for copies of his photograph; young ladies are disposed in advance to fall in love with him. For the artist who enjoys this sort of celebrity the modern world must be a real paradise.
The priest is a confessor as well as an interpreter of mysteries.
The artist can make shift to perform his sacramental functions, but he lacks the kind of training and knowledge that fits a man to be a director of conscience. It is to the lawyer and the doctor that the priest has bequeathed this part of his duties. The doctor, and especially the nerve specialist, occupies an extraordinary position in our world. His prestige was always high, even during those periods when the maladies of the spirit were regarded as being beyond his jurisdiction.
Now that the exorcist is extinct and the confessor a rarity, now that psychotherapy professes itself a science and a regular art, the doctor’s prestige has been doubled. His position in the modern world is almost that of the medicine man among the primitives.
With the decline of priestly power the importance of the lawyer has also increased. The family solicitor takes vicarious responsibility for the acts of his clients. He is the recipient of their most intimate secrets; he gives them not merely legal but even moral advice. Priests may disappear; but the number of people who do not like to answer for their own actions, who shrink from making decisions and desire to be led, does not decrease. The director of conscience came into existence in response to a genuine human need. Between them, doctor and lawyer supply his vacant place.
From PROPER STUDIES (1927). Aldous Huxley ‘Stories Essays And Poems’.1937.