Friday, June 15, 2012

The fortunate effect of religion

I'm reading Gertrude Himmelfarb's The Moral Imagination: From Edmund Burke to Lionel Trilling, a collection of essays about various 19th and 20th century personages. I've come to her essay about John Stuart Mill, "The Other Mill," that is, the Mill before and after On Liberty — a somewhat different Mill than the one in that book. Mill described himself as a ""rational sceptic" with respect to Christianity. This passage is about the late Mill's opinion of religion [the words between quotation marks and those indented are Mill's]:
...[I]t is precisely when reason is strong that "the imagination may safely follow its own end," doing its best to "make life pleasant and lovely inside the castle," secure in the fortifications erected by reason outside. This combination of reason and imagination gives rise to an "indulgence of hope" with regard both to the existence of God and the immortality of man — a hope that is "legitimate and philosophically defensible" as well as of considerable human benefit.
It makes life and human nature a far greater thing to the feelings, and gives greater strength as well as greater solemnity to all the sentiments which are awakened within us by our fellow-creatures and by mankind at large. It allays the sense of that irony of Nature which is so painfully felt when we see the exertions and sacrifices of a life culminating in the formation of a wise and noble mind, only to disappear from the world when the time has just arrived at which the world seems about to begin reaping the benefit of it.
It is not only the idea of immortality that has this humanizing and elevating effect; it is the idea of God as well, the imaginative conception of a "morally perfect Being" who has "his eyes on us and cares for our good," and who provides human beings with the standard of excellence by which they regulate their characters and lives, Moreover, it is not only God that serves this purpose but the "Divine Person" of Christ.
For it is Christ, rather than God, whom Christianity has held up to believers as the pattern of perfection for humanity. It is the God incarnate, more than the God of the Jews or of Nature, who being idealized has taken so great and salutary a hold on the modern mind.... About the life and sayings of Jesus there is a stamp of personal originality combined with profundity of insight, which if we abandon the idle expectation of finding scientific precision where something very different was aimed at, must place the Prophet of Nazareth, even in the estimation of those who have no belief in his inspiration, in the very first rank of the men of sublime genius of whom our species can boast.
These reflections, Mill makes it clear, are those of a "rational sceptic," who realizes that after all that rational criticism can do by way of disputing the "evidences" of religion (revelation, miracles, the supernatural), what remains is the undoubted evidence of the fortunate effect of religion on character and morality. Conventional religion can thus supplement that "purely human religion" called the Religion of Humanity, fortifying it with those "supernatural hopes" that are allowed even to a rational skeptic like himself.

By orthodox religious standards, this "indulgence of hope" is an attenuated religion, perhaps no more than a will to believe. But it is so movingly and eloquently expressed as to have almost the force and status of genuine belief, Certainly in tone and substance, "Theism" stands in dramatic contrast to the view of religion presented in On Liberty, which was not so much skeptical as hostile. ....
For all its inadequacy it is a rather more approving attitude toward religion than that expressed by today's "new" atheists.

Gertrude Himmelfarb, "The Other Mill," The Moral Imagination: From Edmund Burke to Lionel Trilling