Sin, Evil, Inhumanity or Living Together
A Natural History of Religion (1757), Part XV.
Hear the verbal protestations of all men: Nothing so certain as their religious tenets. Examine their lives: You will scarcely think that they repose the smallest confidence in them. The greatest and truest zeal gives us no security against hypocrisy: The most open impiety is attended with a secret dread and compunction. No theological absurdities so glaring that they have not, sometimes, been embraced by men of the greatest and most cultivated understanding. No religious precepts so rigorous that they have not been adopted by the most voluptuous and most abandoned of men. ... Look out for a people, entirely destitute of religion: If you find, them at all, be assured, that they are but few degrees removed from brutes. What so pure as some of the morals, included in some theological system? What so corrupt as some of the practices, to which these systems give rise?
A Treatise on Human Nature (1739), Part 1, Sect. 11.
No quality of human nature is more remarkable, both in itself and in its consequences, than that propensity we have to sympathize with others, and to receive by communication their inclinations and sentiments, however different from, or even contrary to our own. This is not only conspicuous in children, who implicitly embrace every opinion propos’d to them; but also in men of the greatest judgment and understanding, who find it very difficult to follow their own reason or inclination, in opposition to that of their friends and daily companions. To this principle we ought to ascribe the great uniformity we may observe in the humours and turn of thinking of those of the same nation; and ’tis much more probable, that this resemblance arises from sympathy, than from any influence of the soil and climate, which, tho’ they continue invariably the same, are not able to preserve the character of a nation the same for a century together. A good-natur’d man finds himself in an instant of the same humour with his company; and even the proudest and most surly take a tincture from their countrymen and acquaintance. A chearful countenance infuses a sensible complacency and serenity into my mind; as an angry or sorrowful one throws a sudden dump upon me. Hatred, resentment, esteem, love, courage, mirth and melancholy; all these passions I feel more from communication than from my own natural temper and disposition. So remarkable a phaenomenon merits our attention, and must be trac’d up to its first principles.
On Liberty (Longmans, Green, Reader, & Dyer: 1863), pp. 65-6.
But it is not the minds of heretics that are deteriorated most, by the ban placed on all inquiry which does not end in the orthodox conclusions. The greatest harm done is to those who are not heretics, and whose whole mental development is cramped, and their reason cowed, by the fear of heresy. Who can compute what the world loses in the multitude of promising intellects combined with timid characters, who dare not follow out any bold, vigorous, independent train of thought, lest it should land them in something which would admit of being considered irreligious or immoral? Among them we may occasionally see some man of deep conscientiousness, and subtile and refined understanding, who spends a life in sophisticating with an intellect which he cannot silence, and exhausts the resources of ingenuity in attempting to reconcile the promptings of his conscience and reason with orthodoxy, which yet he does not, perhaps, to the end succeed in doing. No one can be a great thinker who does not recognize, that as a thinker it is his first duty to follow his intellect to whatever conclusions it may lead. Truth gains more even by the errors of one who, with due study and preparation, thinks for himself, than by the true opinions of those who only hold them because they do not suffer themselves to think.
Remarks on "The Age of Reason" (S. King: 1831), pp. 48-9.
Burlesque, assuming the form of reason, may, with the profligate and the ignorant, prove successful, in deception, for a season; but, the instant in which it is detected, it will be dismissed, and the spell will be dissolved. That the intellectual powers of man, are confined within certain boundaries, is, I conceive, a truth, which we must allow; and, if this be granted, we cannot doubt, that there may be many rational facts, which we must be naturally incapable of comprehending; and this, not merely from a want of actual information, but through the limitation of our faculties. Under these circumstances, it is but reasonable, that we should satisfy ourselves, before we dismiss this memorial as fabulous, whether a more rational account of the introduction of moral evil, than that given by Moses, is within the reach of possibility.
The Present (W.H. Channing: 1843), p. 247.
To view the crucifixion of Christ aright, as an objective fact of the world's history, we should regard it as an act of the race, considered as an individual. Alas, for poor humanity! It had gone so far astray from its Creator, that it could not recognise Him even when He came to its every affection and faculty, in the human form of tenderest sympathy, of kindest, most patient instruction, of long suffering even unto death. The very light that was in it was darkness; for in the name of God it was, that it blasphemed and laid murderous hands on the perfect manifestation of the Divine in human life. Such was the crucifixion in the world's history. And in the history of every individual, is there not precisely the same crucifixion of Christ? Is it not universal experience, that, by reason of the darkness that is in us while we are realising our own individuality, we reject, and misconceive, blaspheme, and attempt to destroy some principle which would lead us into life? He who is not conscious of some degree of this, has not lived to know himself.
An extract from the diary of Lieutenant Colonel Mervin Willett Gonin DSO who was among the first British soldiers to liberate Bergen-Belsen in 1945. Source: Imperial War museum. Cited at Banksy.
I can give no adequate description of the Horror Camp in which my men and myself were to spend the next month of our lives. It was just a barren wilderness, as bare as a chicken run. Corpses lay everywhere, some in huge piles, sometimes they lay singly or in pairs where they had fallen. It took a little time to get used to seeing men women and children collapse as you walked by them and to restrain oneself from going to their assistance. One had to get used early to the idea that the individual just did not count. One knew that five hundred a day were dying and that five hundred a day were going on dying for weeks before anything we could do would have the slightest effect. It was, however, not easy to watch a child choking to death from diptheria when you knew a tracheotomy and nursing would save it, one saw women drowning in their own vomit because they were too weak to turn over, and men eating worms as they clutched a half loaf of bread purely because they had to eat worms to live and now could scarcely tell the difference. Piles of corpses, naked and obscene, with a woman too weak to stand propping herself against them as she cooked the food we had given her over an open fire; men and women crouching down just anywhere in the open relieving themselves of the dysentary which was scouring their bowels, a woman standing stark naked washing herself with some issue soap in water from a tank in which the remains of a child floated. It was shortly after the British Red Cross arrived, though it may have no connection, that a very large quantity of lipstick arrived. This was not at all what we men wanted, we were screaming for hundreds and thousands of other things and I don't know who asked for lipstick. I wish so much that I could discover who did it, it was the action of genius, sheer unadulterated brilliance. I believe nothing did more for these internees than the lipstick. Women lay in bed with no sheets and no nightie but with scarlet red lips, you saw them wandering about with nothing but a blanket over their shoulders, but with scarlet red lips. I saw a woman dead on the post mortem table and clutched in her hand was a piece of lipstick. At last someone had done something to make them individuals again, they were someone, no longer merely the number tatooed on the arm. At last they could take an interest in their appearance. That lipstick started to give them back their humanity.
Reflections on the Psalms (Harvest Books, 1964), p.146-7.
It seems that there is a general rule in the moral universe which may be formulated "The higher, the more in danger". The "average sensual man" who is sometimes unfaithful to his wife, sometimes tipsy, always a little selfish, now and then (within the law) a trip sharp in his deals, is certainly, by ordinary standards, a "lower" type than the man whose soul is filled with some great Cause, to which he will subordinate his appetites, his fortune, and even his safety. But it is out of the second man that something really fiendish can be made; an Inquisitor. "It is great men, potential saints, not little men, who become those who are readiest to kill for it". For the supernatural, entering a human soul, opens to it new possibilities both of good and evil. From that point the road branches: one way to sanctity, love, humility, the other to spiritual pride, self-righteousness, persecuting zeal. And no way back to the mere humdrum virtues and vices of the unawakened soul. If the Divine call does not make us better, it will make us very much worse. Of all bad men religious bad men are the worst.