Views of an Agnostic
by: Ross E. Browne
This is part 14 of Ross E. Browne's 1915 book, Views of an Agnostic.
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The foregoing statements lead to the claim that the unqualified recognition of fact is of the most lasting benefit to man in general. Our progress depends upon acquisition of knowledge, which means recognition of truth; and truth means unconditional conformity with fact. We should not be promoting the growth of knowledge by adhering to beliefs which require us to shut our eyes to facts. Theories, which will not bear the light of reason, will not, in the long run, fit our requirements so well as those which are in full accord with the laws of nature that mainly govern us. We may get more satisfaction out of life by studying these laws and framing and acting upon rules of conduct in conformity with them, than by endeavoring to follow unverifiable theories based upon visionary conceptions of the unknowable.
At some time in the future it is to be hoped that there will prevail a code of morals with the unqualified recognition of established fact as a fundamental precept. In matters of serious concern there is nothing more important than the acceptance of the unvarnished truth. First let us have the facts, and then we may find the means of benefiting ourselves and one another. It is believed that the persistent study of physiology, psychology, and practical ethics, by scientific methods, will gradually lead to the formulation of some true and comprehensive principles for safer and more effective guidance in the pursuit of happiness.
In considering a plea for the relinquishment of mysticism in favor of naturalism, we should avoid the mistake of assuming that our prevailing moral precepts were derived from, or are dependent upon the consideration of reward and punishment in a future life. Most of them, including the Golden Rule, are to be found in ancient records, ante-dating our Christian era, notably in the works of the disciples of Confucius without any reference to reward in another world. Confucius, who lived 500 B. C., was a believer in Divine guidance, but not in a future life. The more important of these precepts are the outgrowth of social requirements by natural processes.
Rationalism leads to agnosticism, but there is no justification in the claim that the latter leads to pessimism. The real pessimists are the believers in pernicious design and punishment in a future life. It is often claimed that ‘the agnostic is a cold-blooded materialist with little feeling. Such an accusation is unwarranted. It is very commonly the student of nature and ardent admirer of its .beauties who is led by his fervent desire for truth to doubt the artificial theories of orthodoxy. It is true the agnostic is commonly opposed to many of our sentimental theories. It is not his purpose, however, to curb true sentiment, but to divert it from mere mysticism to the realities of life. He thus serves the more real interests of his brothers in the flesh.
Philip Vivian, in his work on “The Churches and Modern Thought,” makes a strong plea for candor. He points out the tendency of the modern churches to neglect the consideration of the more mythical doctrines in favor of practical charity in the relief of suffering, and he ventures to predict that the religion of the future will be a “scientific humanitarianism.” It is to be hoped that his prognostication may some day be verified.
There can be no doubt that the Christian nations owe some of their finer moral perceptions to the beautiful features of Christ’s character. The Christian spirit of good will to our fellow-man has made an impression. The present European war makes us realize that this impression has not penetrated to the depth commonly assumed,-- still we may hope for some reaction in its favor after the barbarous ambitions of the aggressors have exhausted themselves. In other respects we have plainly suffered from the retarding influence of Christ’s supernatural doctrines, and the impracticability of many of his precepts which disregard the essential requirements of social organization.
Future generations will doubtless discard the mystic and impracticable elements of the Christian religion, while retaining its humane spirit and its purer elements of morality. The religion of the future, in order to be persistently effective, must have additionally a due regard for established facts, for the development of reason, and for the practical requirements of the people.