Page images

them upon others unless they are quite sure of being right. But, when they are sure (such reasoners may say), it is not conscientiousness but cowardice to shrink from acting on their opinions, and allow doctrines which they honestly think dangerous to the welfare of mankind, either in this life or in another, to be scattered abroad without restraint. Because other people, in less enlightened times, have persecuted opinions now believed to be true, let us take care, it may be said, not to make the same mistake ; but governments and nations have made mistakes in other things, which are not denied to be fit subjects for the exercise of authority: they have laid on bad taxés ; made unjust wars. Ought we, therefore, to lay on no taxes, and, under whatever provocation, make no wars ? Men and governments must act to the best of their ability. There is no such thing as absolute certainty, but there is assurance sufficient for the purposes of human life. We may, and must, assume our opinion to be true for the guidance of our own conduct; and it is assuming no more when we forbid bad men to pervert society by the propagation of opinions which we regard as false and pernicious.”

One would have hoped that the difficulty, being thus candidly noticed, would have received a full and satisfactory solution. For myself, however, I must declare that, having carefully examined the book several times, with the anxious desire to learn what is the explanation of the difficulty which Mr. Mill would give, I have been quite unable to find any answer whatever to the objection, either in form or substance, in

any part of the book.

Let me, then, shortly state the general grounds on which the law, as I conceive, may claim to punish those who revile religion, apart from any consideration of the special character of our religion, and even though those grounds form but matters of opinion :

1. The whole existing fabric of the constitution and government in this country is identified with religion ; and to hold up religion to scorn is to attempt underniining the foundations of the constitution and the government. The monarch, on bis accession, swears to maintain the Christian religion; and,

as it has been well said, "the whole judicial fabric, from the king's sovereign authority to the lowest office of magistracy, has no other foundation than the oath that has been taken. The whole is built, both in form and substance, upon the same oath of every one of its ministers to do justice, as God shall help them hereafter. What God? and what hereafter ?”

2. The standard of morality in this country is the Christian standard. The Bible is the highest sanction of our morals, and Christ the Teacher of them. True, this is not so in the estimation of unbelievers; but the question nevertheless still presents itself. What has hitherto been the basis of those rules of right and wrong which, as a civilised people, we have heretofore recognised in our social and political intercourse ? It may be that, as matter of fact, with the national Christian example before them, infidels, in ordinary life, conduct themselves morally as Christians are accustomed to do. But does this necessarily show that the standard morality would be preserved to us if there were merely an atheistical basis? This point has been so forcibly put by one of the controversialists whom Mr. Buckle's attack has brought forward, that I shall only run the risk of enfeebling the argument by giving it in any other words than his own :

“But it by no means follows that, because they or any other individuals are not often directly affected by the standing sanctions of morality and religion, those sanctions can be safely dispensed with ; or that, because in them atheism is, in the existing state of society, generally consistent with morality, and even with a sort of philanthropy, it is not essentially immoral and destructive of all that is valuable in life. The truth is, the good qualities which, in a certain state of society, are consistent with atheism, owe not only their force, but their very existence, to religion. After a nation has lived for many centuries under the influence of Christian modes of feeling, the standard of morality in ordinary men, who are almost entirely the creatures of habit, is so high, that they fancy that it exists in virtue of eternal self-evident principles, which would be acknowledged by all mankind as soon as they were understood, and not in virtue of a long course of external

[ocr errors]

influences, which, in the lapse of centuries, have moulded not only the modes of thought and feeling, but the very language and principles of thought of the nations which have been exposed to them. It is idle for any man in the present day to try to separate himself from Christianity, and to say,Though I am not a Christian, I think so and so.” In fact, he is a Christian in many respects, and he cannot cease to be one, however much he may wish it. He might just as well try to cease to be an Englishman.” And again :—“If atheistic habits of mind were ever to become so general as to model thought and language, and to cease to be remarkable from their peculiarity, what sort of society should we have? Would people in general continue to be amiable, self-denying, and philanthropic, or would they not act on the principle of eating and drinking, for to-morrow we die ?”

3. Viewing the position of religion historically, whether as regards our own country or others, is not the State warranted in protecting religion from insult? Has not civilisation here grown and prospered hand in hand with the Christian religion ? nay, rather under the shelter of it? Not relying, however, on affirmative experience alone, let us advert to the fatal example which negatively history likewise furnishes. If we wish to learn the fate of a country of scientific morals, but without religion, let us turn to China! It has been well said, that in all the world there is no more terrible or instructive example of the practical results of looking upon men as mere passing shadows, who have no superior and no hereafter.

4. Is it not clear, that as matter of public decency, blasphemy is rightly declared criminal? Do not the feelings of the mass of the people constitute a definite class of interests, which may give the State jurisdiction when open blasphemy offends those feelings? The bulk of the nation consists of professed Christians. Their feelings as such, when no persecution of unbelievers is involved, constitute rights, which the infidel may be held bound to respect, without at all infringing upon his reasonable liberty. The conduct of the man who asperses religion affects a definite interest of all those to whom the religion is dear; and it cannot be shown to be

justifiable as a fair exercise of his own religious liberty. Conceive the disgrace, the confusion, and the chaos, if every street furnished its caricature of the persons and events that make up the Christian history and creed !

Lastly. There is no injustice in punishing the blasphemer in respect of his offence being one of words merely, and involving no physical violence, and no external interference with. the property or actions of others. Is there not a whole class of offences which, time out of mind, so to say, have been punishable by our English law, that, nevertheless, comprise no breach of the peace, and no physical or overt interference with others? In what sense is blasphemy a mere matter of opinion,-mere conduct affecting a man's self only,—which is not equally true of such offences as the following ?—Publishing obscene prints; using obscene language; speaking in contempt of the sovereign ; gaming, perjury, and Sabbath-breaking, or some instances of it?

I am, indeed, aware that our laws against some even of these offences have incurred the censure of recent writers on liberty. But I am well content if the law against blasphemy stands no more in need of defence than these other laws that I have mentioned.

Many people, I fear, entertain the idea that when a person stands forward to maintain the law which defends religion against blasphemous attacks, he is but a persecutor in disguise. For myself, however, I would disclaim prohibiting any man from maintaining his opinions in a suitable manner, nor would I subject him to any penalties or disabilities in so urging them. But it becomes an essentially different thing when we find men going out of their way to assert a right of using language offensive to others, and to the religion of the people at large, and that, too, a right which no liberty of opinion renders necessary. In such cases, the State has surely a function to step in and tell such an one that the interests of the public, in the faith which he attacks, are of too great a magnitude to allow him to use against it this unfair and ungenerous weapon, and one, moreover, by which, from the nature of his own tenets, it may be, he is himself in vulnerable,


We have now been occupied in considering the mode in which, in a free country, indecent or unfair attacks on Christianity may be dealt with by the law. Let us hope that, painful and repulsive as the investigation, in some respects, must have been, it may have served to remind some of us of the eloquent declaration of Lord Erskine, in his speech on the prosecution of Williams for blasphemy. Speaking of Christianity, he says :—“It is at this moment the great consolation of a life, which, as a shadow, passes away; and, without it, I should consider my long course of health and prosperity (too long perhaps, and too uninterrupted to be good for any man), only as the dust which the wind scatters, and rather as a snare than a blessing!”

[ocr errors]
« EelmineJätka »