“Modernism” v Materialism

In our pamphlet “Socialism and Religion” (p. 23) we make the claim that, “In contrast with science, . . . religion decreases in volume, cohesion and definiteness.” Evidence in support of this view was amply provided at the recent Church Congress at Cheltenham, and it is significant that whereas the Capitalist Press treated the confabulations of the British Association with deferential respect, the outpourings of the Episcopalian “soul” met with somewhat critical, if not impatient, patronage.

The differences between the Anglo-Catholics and the Evangelicals, serious enough in themselves, paled into insignificance beside the virulent attack upon the “Modernists” by the English Church Union; which prompts the reflection that it is only a few hundred years ago since respectable pillars of society such as Dean Inge and the Bishop of Birmingham would have been burned at the stake by their Christian brethren.

Canon B. H. Streeter, one of its champions, states that “Modernists are a group of persons who look round on a civilisation that is likely to perish for lack of a religion, and wish to offer it a religion that is intellectually a possible one.”

“Compulsory education has created a position in regard to religion which is really new. In all ages among the educated few a certain amount of sceptical rationalism has flourished ; but heretofore the mass of the uneducated has always taken for granted the existence of a God or gods, and therefore the necessity for some kind of religious observance. The new thing in the modern situation is the spread of the spirit of criticism and enquiry … to the masses of the people. … In their minds Christianity is associated with a political and economic status quo, which many view with hostility, and few with more than tolerance. It is the religion professed by classes with whom they are in constant economic conflict.”

Thus the Modernist appears to be sufficient of a materialist to recognise the existence of the class struggle and that the fate of religion is bound up therewith. Canon Streeter, however, concludes as follows :—

“What I wish to insist is that under modern conditions, if the Church desires to speak to the world with the voice of authority, it must first compel outsiders to recognise that there is within the Church a body of investigators who are in no way bound to defend established positions, but are free to follow truth” (“The Church of England Newspaper.” p. 18, 5/10/28).

Just how far the Modernists are prepared to follow truth may be gathered from the speeches of the prelates above referred to. Bishop Barnes is convinced, not only that “Darwin conclusively demonstrated man’s similarity with the rest of creation,” but that “all the higher faculties of man had their beginnings in lower forms of life.”

“We cannot, he says, separate mind and body ; they are two aspects of a single unity. How then, it may be asked, can we continue to believe in the existence of human personality after bodily death ? I would answer that our belief …. is bound up with our conception of the nature of God. . . . We cannot believe that he will allow anything of value to be destroyed. . . . How man’s personality will be preserved we cannot say.”

If the right reverend gentleman had stopped here we could forgive many Christians for losing their tempers with him. Few materialists have put matters more bluntly. Even Marx and Engels, summarising Hobbes in “The Holy Family,” could only say, “It is impossible to separate thought from matter that thinks. . . . We cannot know anything about the existence of God.” (Quoted by Engels in his Introduction to “Socialism : Utopian and Scientific.”) But the Bishop is merciless.

He proceeds :—

“A generation ago it was customary to say that Heaven was a state and not a place, the implication being that the life after death was temporal but not spatial. Einstein has, however, demonstrated that space and time form a single complex which we break up, arbitrarily, in our thought. We have no right to postulate that in the world to come part of this complex will be destroyed while the other part remains intact. In fact, with regard to time and space in the Kingdom of Heaven very much the same difficulties arise as with regard to body and personality. In neither case can natural science give effective guidance” (“Church of England Newspaper,” p. 12, 5/10/28).

Comically enough, the Bishop’s partner in crime, Dean Inge, tries to use this same demonstration of Einstein’s as a proof of the “uncertainty” of science. He refers to “old pre-suppositions of scientific thought, which have been almost unchalenged since Newton and Descartes, are being assailed from all sides.” Yet, nearly forty years ago, Engels pointed out in the above quoted preface that Kant and Laplace had superseded Newton’s “eternal system” by an evolutionary conception, which Darwin supplemented in biology, thus exploding Descartes as Bishop Barnes shows.

The Dean also comes to grief over his generalisations upon Evolution, which he assures us “cannot have created our awareness of itself.” Yet, as his colleague, already quoted, points out, the highest faculties of man have evolved, and it is by these faculties that the idea of evolution is framed.

Again, he tells us that “God can in no sense be a product of Evolution,” yet further on admits that “Religion itself no doubt is evolving with those who possess it.” Neither Dean nor Bishop endeavour to offer any objective evidence of the existence of God. They are too consistent to their scientific education for that.

The individual mind, like the individual body, dissolves at death. For it, so far as we know, “absolute” and “relative” alike lose interest, but the world goes on. That which does not change is the process of change.

The Dean concludes “that Evolution is only the method by which the Eternal God carries out most of His purposes in the world. … I do not think that the exist¬ence or attributes of God are involved in it at all.”

Such a profound philosopher should have recognised long ago that every particular attribute is finite and implies its opposite, as whiteness is opposed to and excludes blackness, goodness badness, and so forth. All our knowledge is based upon the evidence of our senses; in other words, our minds are inseparable from organic bodies in a material world. An unchecked or disordered imagination can evolve all manner of fantasies which do not correspond with external reality. They may be real enough to those who indulge in them or are their victims. They may lead to actions, but the devotional observances of the Christian are no more proof of the object of his faith than the similar observances of the pagan and the savage before him.

The dipsomaniac who sees variegated livestock on the walls has just as much evidence of the soundness of his convictions as the religious fanatic. The important difference lies in the social character of religion. In its primitive form it expressed man’s desire to control his environment by efforts of his imagination, and its evolution is explicable only by the evolution of the environment.

This evolution has harnessed man’s mind to the task of production. Instead of trying to rule Nature by magic, mankind has learnt to utilise Nature’s own forces. Scope for the imagination has been found in the realm of invention, and as fast as man follows this line of action he forsakes the dead ritual of the past.

By changing his surroundings man has changed himself. The superstitious savage has gone. In his place stands the scientific worker.

The process, however, is far from complete. As yet, science has grasped only the technical side of social life.

The organisation of society itself on rational lines awaits the social revolution, i.e., the disarmament and dispossession of the Capitalist ruling class. It is in the interests of this class that the Church exists. Belief in God and respect for ruling-class “authority” go hand in hand.

The revolutionary workers have no use for a creed which is the mere ghost of past social life. They require a clear outlook, free from superstition of every kind, from the crude and gross to the elaborate and refined. Hence the subtleties of modernist parsons fail to lure us back to the fold. “God’s in His Heaven?” All right ! Let Him stop there ! We want the world for the workers.

E. B.

(Socialist Standard, November 1928)

Leave a Reply