On Religious Responsibility
May 17, 1832 — London, England
It is not without a considerable feeling of timidity, that I arise to address the present assembly, and the cause of that timidity is the importance of the subject, to which our attention is not devoted, the subject of religious responsibility, a question on which the happiness of mankind may be said, in a great measure to depend.
We are not arrived at an important period of time, a period when, without reference to sex, or station, all who can think, or write, or speak, are called upon for exertion, to promote the great cause of moral improvement.
The present demoralized and disorganized state of society must be obvious to every thinking mind — painful to every benevolent mind, and should act as an incentive to every enterprising mind. According to the bold hypothesis of Mr. Owen, the future happiness or misery — the perfectability or degradation of the human race is now at issue.
As an observer, and lover of the human race from my childhood up to this hour — as one for many years engaged in plans of moral improvement, it may be supposed that I have not been a careless observer of Mr. Owen’s proceedings, though I may perchance have been a cautious one, and it is only very lately that I have fully understood his doctrine of circumstance as pertaining to the science of society. The question of responsibility as forming a groundwork to this science is one of the deepest interest. It is on this point I am now about to offer some remarks, not I fear in the way of illustration; I do not feel competent to throw illuminations on a subject already advocated so powerfully, and, as I think, so successfully refuted. It is as a matter of duty, to offer my testimony in favour of that duty, to offer my testimony in favor of that which I consider just and reasonable, rather than to propound any new opinions.
Hitherto we have been trained in a certain routine of ideas, to which we have submitted from custom, rather than convictions. We have quietly moved onwards to the path of our ancestors, without turning either to the right or to the left — without being at the trouble of looking back upon what has bene, or forward to what might be — without reflecting whether we were right or wrong — or whether a better, safer, and more pleasing path might, or might not be found; but this period of intellectual imbecility is now passing away — we are beginning to think — we have boldly embarked on the ocean of reflection, and we shall not return until our voyage is completed!!
The doctrine of responsibility is one of such magnitude, so dependent upon individual opinion, so identified with individual prejudice, that we may be engaged in endless discussion, without ever coming to any satisfactory conclusion, it is not therefore my wish to canvass the subject in its various ramifications, but to examine it simply in the effects which it produces.
We are told by the advocates of the doctrine that responsibility, and the idea of future rewards and punishment, are the sole, if not indeed the only preventives to the commission of crime! To this assertion, I answer by a simple question — Can we be must farther advance in crime than we are now? When I speak of crime, I do not allude to those atrocious crimes, which lead culprits to the scaffold; those are extreme cases, limited in number: I desire to take a more general and extended view. In the common relations of life, in our most usual actions, are we not selfish, weak, vicious, and criminal? If indeed we are to be responsible for the neglect of our duties towards each other, of which neglects are criminal — if with the mete we have measured it shall be measured to use again, we shall, I fear, fare sadly. If we are to be weighed I the balance we shall be found wanting for which amongst us shall be enabled to render a good account of our stewardship.
For upwards of 1800 years, we have recognised this doctrine as a part and portion of our national creed — ad yet, far from being advanced in perfectability,, our notions have been rather retrograde — the doctrine must therefore be inefficient, wince the effect it has produced during so long a period are not more decisive; but I am disposed to think it more than inefficient — I consider it as productive of absolute evil, since it leads to actions from false motives. They who act right from the hope of reward are selfish — they who act right from the fear of punishment, are cowardly. Thus then, responsibility does not teach virtue, but only its semblance. The advocate of Mr. Owen’s system do not recognise shadows, they look for realities — bright, pure, celestial — indisputable realities. There can be no reality in those constrained acts of virtue or restraints from acts of vice which are excited by the influence either of hope or of fear. That influence of hope which points out the inducements of reward, leads us to dissimulation; the operations of fear, which chills us with the dread of punishment, bends us to imbecility, nor can this imperfect, this negative kind of virtue, answer the purpose intended — responsibility surely implies judgment of motives, not actions — how ineffectual then, will be that security obtained on a false foundation, and as far removed from the reality of virtue, as the sun is removed from the earth on which it shines.
The doctrine of responsibility, like many other doctrines, has been admitted by the multitude, without investigation, I think if it had been investigation, it would have been found opposed to every feeling of true and genuine religion, for, associated as it is, and must be, with another point of Christian doctrine — I mean the dogma of human depravity, it places the creator of man in a most degrading point of view. No doctrine could be found more injurious to the interest, welfare, and happiness of mankind than this; the idea of native depravity is paralyzing to every feeling of virtue, for it debases man to the condition of a slave — he who really believes himself naturally unworthy, will never be capable of any great, or good, or noble actions; he who does not feel himself thus depraved, yet professes that he does feel so, fights under the banners of hypocrisy, and acts the part of a traitor to his fellow man!!
How doctrines so incongruous, so inimical to goodness, should ever have gained ground with thinking beings, is most extraordinary, since these principles are not reconcileable upon any ground of justice and reason. According to the dogma of human depravity, we come into the world with a load of sin pressing upon us — with the germs of vice grafted in our very hearts. In our progress through life we are liable to the influence, and subject to the dominion of an adverse spirit, whose business it is to lead us to every extremity of guilt, and yet, with all these disadvantages — all this accumulation of evil both in us, and around us, against which almost overwhelming influence our poor fallen and degraded nature can scarcely have the power to contend, with all these awful odds against us, we are yet to be responsible — personally responsible for those evils, which we did not create — be punished for those offences, which, from the very imperfections of our nature, we were impelled to commit! yet such is the mercy! such the justice, such the judgment! which we, under the name of religion, presumptuously attribute to our Creator! Gracious heaven, what should w think of the justice, the judgment, the mercy of our earthly parent who should act thus? In what light should we estimate the man, who having from infancy retarded the growth of his child by pressing a continual load upon his shoulders, should punish him in manhood because he did not stand erect in full power and manly beauty — who had from his birth administered food baneful to strength and vigour, yet in maturity should punish him for not being robust and healthy — and last and worst of all, who, having placed as preceptor to his child a being in all respects depraved and wicked, should at a distant period sentence that unfortunate, that misguided child to everlasting punishments, because he had followed in the path of error pointed out by his preceptor — how utterly should we detest, despise, and abominate a human character of this description, yet even with such attributes as these do we clothe the deity whom we profess to worship.
It is indeed time we began to reflect upon these delusive doctrines to which we have so long submitted — not merely to listen to arguments for or against, but to exercise our own judgment. We turn our thoughts inward, and draw from their incalculable stores of intellectual wealthy, of which every human being is possessed, but which very few of us know to what extent. In this investigation we should, I think, examine the subject tin three distinct points of view.
First. That as the idea of responsibility has not suppressed the commission of crime, or established the dominion of virtue, it is inefficient.
Second. That as it operates upon the hopes and fears of many, leading them to the semblance, and not to the substance of virtue, it is delusive.
Third. That as the really good and virtuous, they who do unto others even as they would that others shold do unto them, will have no need of judgment; to them, therefore, responsibility will be useless!!!
Yet this I presume to recommend, private investigation rather than public discussion, not only on this, but on all abstruse and metaphysical subjects, for which opinion I could advance many and powerful reasons — let it not be supposed, that I have done so, with a view to shield myself from those animadversions which the advocates of responsibility may find themselves called upon to make. This I have been given to understand by a gentleman, of whose good sense in all respects I entertain the highest opinion, that I might venture to say what I pleased, for that “no man could contradict a lady!” now this species of gallantry has been very prevalent in the old world, but, as it is a species of falsehood, I trust it will not be permitted to find an entrance into the new world. Women have been too long considered as playthings, or as slaves, but I hope the time is at hand, when we shall hold a more honourable rank in the scale of creation, and become reasonable, thinking beings. If a woman, stepping out of the pale which slavish custom prescribes in the present disjointed state of society, presumes to enter the list of controversy, she has no right to require undue submission, though her sex may, and should protect her against insult, it should not defend her against opposition. In discussion it is not the speaker, but the sentiments which demand animadversion — and, I confess for my own poor part, I should not feel flattered by that species of respect which was paid to my sex, while it offered an insult to my understanding.
Source: The Crisis, June 16, 1832, Vol. I, No. 13, p. 49; July 7, 1832, Vol. I. No. 17, p. 66.