Hall's Modern Infidelity (1800)

Letter to the Editor, Monthly Magazine 10 (September 1800), 135-36.1


"Subjects of Moral Inquiry Suggested"


Sir,

         A correspondent who has read with great pleasure the sensible and spirited animadversions of Mr. Robinson as the Philippic of Mr. Hall against modern infidelity, would propose, through the medium of your Magazine, as a curious subject of investigation, a question, stated by Mr. R. in page 18. of his Examination. “How often will a man, during fifty years of maturity and reason, act upon a fair mathematical calculation of his interests, weighing exactly, and at once, their importance and duration?” This inquiry, which involves important consequences respecting the future improvement and happiness of mankind, may afford a fruitful subject of meditation to the politician, the philosopher, and the divine. On the solution of this problem depends the truth and practicability of a favourite and popular modern position – “That to make virtue the interest of the people, is the true principle of legislation.”

         The perusal of Mr. R.’s pamphlet may also suggest other inquiries. Admitting the principle there laid down, which seems to be fairly deduced, “That morality is the effect of self-love and sympathy, operating constantly upon the mind, and forming the character under the influence of presentobjects: That it consist simply in this discharge of the duties which flow from the relations that subsists between man and man: That its sanctions are deeply rooted, and of universal operation: That an enlarged self-love and social are the same:”  It may be asked, what are the uses of religious opinion, as it respects this world, independent of its consolations: or whether its factitious observances have been more beneficial or detrimental to human happiness? I would likewise propose it to the ingenious author of the Examination, whether he be quite accurate in his position, “That the morality of a country would not be at all affected by a change in its faith.” Does historical fact warrant him in this assertion? are strong passions never generated by distant prospects, of good or evil, or rather may not such prospects by habit and association be brought home to the imagination, and rendered present to the mind? Whence arose martyrdom, whence persecution for the love of God, whence the laceration of the body for the good of the soul? If religion has not, among the actual circumstances by which man is surrounded, operated upon his passions as a great moral and political engine, the nature of the human mind has been hitherto misunderstood. Mr. R’s observations, page 13. of the Examination, seem in proof of this idea. “The doctrine taught at present in our churches affirms the [136] propriety of making war – of indulging pious frauds and unsocial passions against those who differ from us, &c. What were the principles that sharpened the dagger on the eve of St. Bartholemew, that lighted up the fires in Smithfield, that have produced in times ancient and modern, innumerable crusades?” “If,” says the examiner, “we would find examples of ferocity exceeding that of wild beasts, we must turn, not to the speculations of sceptics in their closets (I quote the sense rather than the words), but to the bloody annals of the church:” And yet it is affirmed, that in the change of faith the morals of a nation will remain unaltered. May not the duties of religion and morality become so closely combined, or rather incorporated in the mind, as to be rendered of difficult separation? In what does the strength of fanaticism differ from that of heroism? Surely not always either in intensity or duration. If it be true, as it seems to be, that the sanctions of morality, in this life, press equally upon the atheist, the theist, and the christian, and that scepticism (all I presume meant by atheism: no thinking man will affirm a negation) tends little to alter the sentiments formed by our necessary and infant connection with our species; is this equally true of religion, that teaches, and not always without effect, the sacrifice of a right arm or a right eye? May not the charge of a species of superstition be retorted upon Mr. R. when he talks of self-reproach accompanying, invariably and intuitively, inhumanity of conduct, – flowing unavoidably, unless silenced by sophistry, from the constitution of man. Does fact warrant this assertion, in our observations upon children, upon youth, upon the uncultivated, and the barbarous? Does this principle appear to exist naturally between beings of a common animal nature and a different species? If the result of sympathy, are not sympathies often taught and acquired, or rather, can they be truly learned without similar suffering? Does the despot, impatient and irritable under every check to his own desires, revolt from the pangs, or enter into the misery, he inflicts on the being moving in a sphere below him, from whose sorrows and oppressions he seems by his own situation to be exempted? Common and universal sympathies are few; man, in all states, is the creature of society; it is difficult to conceive of him in an insulated and unsocial condition.

         These questions are by the writer proposed to the public in a spirit of inquiry, and to the sagacious, acute, and manly author of the Examination, with respect and candour, and not entirely without the hope that he may consider them as deserving his attention. “Improvement is the effect of reasoning, thought, freedom. Try, prove, all things, is the language of our oracles.”

 

July 1, 1800.                                                                               M. H.    


1 This letter would be Hays's final contribution to the pages of the Monthly Magazine. Here she is responding to Anthony Robinson's recent publication, An Examination of a Sermon, Preached at Cambridge, by Robert Hall, M.A. (1800).  Halls' famous sermon was titled Modern Infidelity Considered with Respect to its Influence on Society (1800). Anthony Robinson (1762-1827) became a friend of Crabb Robinson as well as Hays and Godwin in the late 1790s, and was a frequent contributor to magazines at that time (see his entry in Biographical Index). Robinson accused Hall of being an imitator of Burke by teaching that it was excusable, if not meritorious, “to punish men for errors in religious opinions” (33). Robinson was adamant in holding atheism morally neutral and organized religion of any form as an instrument that had damaged the foundations of morality and benevolence by introducing malice, hostility, and murder, all under the pretense of a love for God. At this time, he was idolized by the younger Crabb Robinson as one of the most brilliant minds he knew at that time.