(‘Broadcasting Address’ by the Secretary of the Rationalist Press Association, delivered at the London Station)
This little address is called “The Gospel of Reason”, because I believe that if we all followed faithfully the light of Reason we should soon have the millennium here.
What is Reason? One might say it is simply the activity of the mind. If it is not the whole mind, it is by far the most important and the most reliable part of the mind; it is the function of drawing conclusions and forming judgments. It is the only instrument in our possession by which the statements may be analysed, compared, and supported or refuted. It is the means by which we see that thoughts and words are in harmony or out of harmony with fact – plain, undeniable fact.
For various causes some persons distrust reason. They jeer at the mistakes and failures of Reason – as if anyone claimed infallibility for it. They pounce upon every erroneous opinion of science as a proof that science is generally wrong. Parrot-like they trot out the phrase ‘science falsely so-called’, as if no true scientific method existed.
As long as all truth is not known there are certain to be errors and failures. But the effort to use our only means of gaining knowledge is more likely to result in worthy achievement than the deliberate refusal to employ them. Prove that reason cannot be trusted, and you would commit intellectual suicide. For how could that be proved except by reasoning?
Reason and faith are sometimes spoken of as if they were a great gulf fixed between them. That by no means follows. They are both mental processes. The only difference is that faith is tentative and incomplete knowledge – a groping in the twilight. Reason seeks by patient research to know the whole truth and rejoice in the sun light.
Reason tends for more than faith to promote unity of opinion. Faith is prone to run to all sorts of absurdities. But, if they reason, men are bound to agree when they see that a particular assertion precisely fits the fact. The difficulty with speculative opinions is that we have so few facts to go upon – sometimes none at all –and where assumptions are made to do duty for certainties it is Reason that determines which are most likely to be right.
Reason is not opposed to emotion, but regulates it. The emotions furnish valuable spurs to action, but all history shows how dangerous they become if Reason is deprived of its legitimate control.
Sincerity is one of the most beautiful moral qualities, but Reason enhances its value. You may with genuine sincerity act up to your convictions, but if they happen to be wrong convictions you may get into trouble. Ignorant sincerity has been the curse of the world, and religious persecution has been one of its fruits. The persecutors acted in accord with the spirit of their age. But it was an age which had not elevated Reason into the guide of conscience.
Reason is universal. Everyone uses it according to his capacity and knowledge. As the knowledge increases the capacity grows and Reason becomes better equipped for the work which every day has to be done. Its exercise brings out the best that is in man, just as physical training increases the power and efficiency of his frame.
The wise men of ancient Greece knew that Reason was the guiding principle of life. And in the book of “Proverbs’ the praise of the wisdom that is ‘above rubies” is the praise of the Reason. The old guesses at the secrets of the universe led to the revival of learning. The unknown inventors of the alphabet, of fire, of tools, of ships, of the mariner’s compass, of paved roads, and wheeled vehicles were the forerunners of the men to whom we owe printing, steam locomotion, the postal system, and the doctrine of evolution, telegraphy, and the wireless. All honour to the pioneer!
These things have not come by faith or vague spiritual aspirations that cannot be translated into deeds. They are the result of hard work, of resolute and incessant investigation of the ‘laws of nature’. We cannot explain the universe, but we can keep on trying. Reason is opposed to authority as mere authority, because it has an objection to narcotics. If you accept authority without question, you deny Reason; you give up your intellectual birthright for a mess of pottage. If you wish to know whether authority is right, you must use your reasoning powers. Every man has a right to his private judgment, but he is morally bound to see that his judgment is as correct as he can make it.
Reason negates supernaturalism, because it sees no valid evidence for claims that assume interferences with natural law. Such claims are against the weight of evidence.
Reason dictates right conduct because it is found that right conduct is the best for everybody in the long run. The highest ideals are those which best serve the permanent interests of the race. There are no nobler ideals than those of truth and justice, and these have been evolved in the course of long experience.
Nature commands us to rise to the summit of our powers, to realize our highest capacities. The formula “Live according to nature” needs a little qualification. It means, follow the best that Nature has so far evolved and to do that, you must have faith in Nature’s power to overbalance evil by good.
Knowing that our strength is but feebleness that our temptations are many, and that in our ignorance we cannot reach ultimate truth, Reason enjoins universal tolerance, universal sympathy, and universal charity to all shades of speculative opinion. Men do not willfully embrace error.
Reason is essentially constructive. To remove error is to clear the way for advancing truth. Reason does not disintegrate; it binds. It aims at the fullest liberty of others. Its duty is to discriminate between opinions and, where a decision cannot be arrived at, to hold the judgment in suspense.
This test has to be applied to all debatable questions, with special relevance, one may say to questions of religion, and we should face the result without fear or favour. If the endless difficulties of religion are ever to be cleared up, it will be by fresh light shed on them by Reason and research.
Finally, Reason bids us to be hopeful of man’s future, because so much has been achieved in the past. Through all the struggle, all the folly, all the suffering, Reason has held aloft the torch that guides humanity along its devious way; nor need any fear that process of improvement is about to end. To point men to the great heritage of the past, to awaken them to glorious powers and possibilities, to urge the cultivation of Reason, is to preach the only gospel that will endure, because it stands on the ‘impregnable rock’ of Truth.
– Revolt, 27 March 1929