A Free Religion.

From: The Creed of Kinship (1935)
Author: Henry S. Salt
Published: Constable & Co Ltd 1935 London


With disbelief belief increased.” (RICHARD JEFFRIES.)

  I have said throughout that freedom of thought is not only not opposed to the creed of kinship, but is essential to it. It is significant that the word humanitarian has two chief meanings in the dictionary—the one a lover of humaneness, the other a disbeliever in the supernatural.

  It is my hope that what may be called a free or rational religion, founded on kinship, and expressing itself in unselfish deeds, will eventually take the place of the many superstitious beliefs that have in the past been regarded as religions, and in many cases continue to be so honoured. From the Rev. Francis Wood’s book on Suffering and Wrong, I would quote this excellent remark about a new religion:

  “We need,” he says, “a religion which shall declare men brothers not merely in a religious sense, but by reason of their essential and universal nature and needs . . . . which shall declare our present divisions and distinctions of rich and poor, master and servant, employer and employee, to be all wrong—wrong because is suing from, and tending to perpetuate the spirit of selfishness and exclusiveness.”

  This is itself a religion, and one which the established forms do not supply. The faith of which I write will, in my belief, be a faith not of mysteries but of verities; indeed the attempts to see everywhere the working of a divine power seem to me to do little good, while indirectly they are a hindrance to the advance of thought, by fostering a belief that, with religion inviting us, humanitarian teaching is unneeded. Why trouble, we think, concerning the welfare of mere prisoners, or animals, when matters of much higher moment are calling? The result is inevitable.

  I have stated in this book my conviction that the various schools of humane thinkers, religionist or rationalist as may be, will have to find a common ground of belief before any final success can be attained. But it is evident that this is a matter for a distant age, and that at present, and for many years to come, in such protests as are made against any surviving forms of barbarity, humanitarians must dwell as little as possible on the points wherein they differ among themselves. There must be at least what might be called a truce, upon matters of religious opinion, between reformers who cling to the old faiths and those who have a newer creed of their own.

  As one who has long worked for the cause of the lower animals, I have felt anxious that the zoophilist movement should be consolidated, not divided; and therefore, in such books as my Animals’ Rights and The Logic of Vegetarianism, I have always refrained from criticism of the orthodox creeds, feeling that persons of all persuasions should on ethical subjects be able to work in unison.

  It is the habit of religionists and of scientists alike, when referring to morality, to speak of it as something apart, something which will have to be brought into harmony and conjunction with science or religion. “One of the greatest tasks before the human race,” according to General Smuts, “will be to link up science with ethical values, and thus remove the grave dangers threatening our future.” That is most true; but might not the case be still more strongly stated? For how can any conduct which is not ethically just be either religious or scientific; and how can a science or a religion be worthy of the name, unless it assumes the fulfilment of all ethical duties?

  The same holds true of Rationalism itself: it is void and without value unless it carries with it that sense of kinship and brotherhood which the world so grievously lacks to-day. Full freedom of thought is essential for humane progress, because otherwise the old superstitions stand in the way; but it is not of itself all that is needed, and as long as cruelty and injustice are rampant it is small consolation to be told that our religious beliefs may be made rational. They must give practical proof of their rationality. Yet to-day one may receive lists of “libertarian” publications, in which not one word is said on the subject of humaneness.

  As far as religion is concerned—and my contention is that the future faith will be a religion—the central fact is summed up in one of Mahatma Gandhi’s sayings: “True religion is identical with morality.” What the churches have believed in the past, or what the scientists may discover in the future, is of infinitely less moment than what the human heart shall ultimately approve as beautiful and gracious. A creed so simple may at present appear but slight and negligible, in comparison with the complicated doctrines which theology has piled up: in reality, as the one sure and abiding hope for mankind, it will include and outlast them all.

  The superman is doubtless coming in the fulness of time; and his advent will best be forwarded by the patient and gradual process of fostering love and comradeship in place of hatred and self-seeking—a much larger love, and a much wider comradeship, than that of which either the religionists or the rationalists have talked.

  And here I feel impelled to quote that wonderful poem of Leigh Hunt’s to which he gave the title of Abou Ben Adhem. I do not doubt that he was thinking of Shelley when he wrote it; but it may be widely applied.

“Abou Ben Adhem (may his tribe increase!)
Awoke one night from a deep dream of peace,
And saw, within the moonlight in his room,
Making it rich and like a lily in bloom,
An angel writing in a book of gold:—
Exceeding peace had made Ben Adhem bold,
And to the presence in the room he said,
‘What writest thou?’ The vision raised its head,
And with a look made of all sweet accord,
Answer’d, ‘The names of those who love the Lord,’
‘And is mine one?’ said Abou. ‘Nay, not so,’
Replied the angel. Abou spoke more low,
But cheerly still, and said, ‘I pray thee then,
Write me as one that loves his fellow-men.’
The Angel wrote, and vanish’d. The next night
It came again with a great awakening light,
And show’d the names whom love of God had bless’d,
And lo! Ben Adhem’s name led all the rest.”

The lines are almost beautiful enough to have been written by Shelley himself.

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