James H. Leuba

from the spring 1941 issue

Those who cannot accept the traditional belief in a God in social relation with man lose the experience regarded by the believer as the presence of God and communion with him. Those experiences bring peace, strength, and the assurance that we are not alone, isolated in an altogether inimical Universe, but that a divine Father watches over us and directs his creation toward his own wise and benevolent end.

If the loss of belief in the traditional God involved necessarily the loss of the assurance that humanity is not merely a meaningless product of chance, its seriousness could hardly be denied. It need not be so, however. Most philosophers have maintained the spiritual meaning and value of life by conceiving the ultimate power as spiritual, even though they have rejected the conception of a God accessible to praise, thanksgiving, and supplication.

Unfortunately, the layman cannot follow the metaphysician in his disquisitions. His faith must rest on a simple, concrete basis, open to the observation of all. The purpose of this paper is to point out traits of human nature fulfilling those demands.

There is in all of us an impulse, an urge to improve things, to make them perfect insofar as we know the perfect. The urge is of the very essence of life as it appears in human nature.

The biologists are wont to say that life requires adaptation to the surroundings in which we find ourselves. Yes, but that is only a partial truth. The most significant feature of the history of humanity is not acquiescent adaptation to things as they are but persistent creative endeavor; its most distinctive trait is expressed not by the word adaptation but by creation. There is in all of us a tendency to transform not only our physical and social surroundings but also ourselves in such a way as to realize and enjoy what we regard as a better life. We conceive and seek to realize ideals characterized by the consecrated terms good, beautiful, and true. We labor with endless ingenuity to build houses and to get food and clothing far beyond our minimal requirements. We lift ourselves out of original ignorance and discover ways of transmitting to our descendants the knowledge and wisdom we have gained. We rear our children according to improved patterns and seek forms of social organization favorable to their survival and continued progress. In short, we are untiring in seeking to improve our surroundings and ourselves.

If at any time there should be born a race of men endowed with the opposite impulse–men to whom cruelty, injustice, and other anti-social behavior appeared good–nothing could be done to save it from destruction. The hand of every man would be raised against his brother, and self-annihilation would be the speedy end of that race. It is true that anti-social behavior is far from unknown today, but it is true also that it is approved or countenanced only toward other groups, other races, other nations; while within one’s own group or race or nation an ethics of friendship and cooperation for mutual improvement is held in honor.

There is not in man, not even in animals, an urge to make things worse or to destroy for the sake of destroying. The parasite injures his host not because of an evil prompting but for his own good; the wolf kills to keep himself and his young alive; the father uses the birch upon his children not primarily to make them suffer, he wants their improvement. The religions which threaten the unbelievers with eternal torments seek, nevertheless, their salvation. Violence and the infliction of suffering are not ends in themselves; they are means of action instigated by the urge to the better.

Strange as it may seem, the behavior of those who hold that might makes right does not have another motive than the urge to improve. They also are moved by the desire to improve, but only themselves and those with whom they are closely connected. They do not feel the universal appeal of the Brotherhood of Man, and so they limit the practice of the ethics of amity to their own group.

It is obvious that the value to humanity of the urge to improve depends upon its extension. If it should stop at one s own group, it would bring nothing better than competition and strife since each group would seek its own good in disregard of the good of the others. It is only if it embraced all men that it could lead to the peace and happiness of a universal brotherhood.

It appears, thus, that the really fundamental question is not whether an urge to improve is present in us but whether there is any guarantee that it will include ever larger groups and, ultimately, the whole of humanity. As to that we are not in the dark, the gradual extension of friendly, cooperative behavior for a fuller and better life is readily observable in the course of animal development. The lower down the animal scale one goes, the more complete is the isolation and self-sufficiency of the individual. At the beginning of organic life, each individual lives altogether for himself; there is not even an interdependence of male and female for the maintenance of the species; each individual can reproduce himself by himself and so lives totally for himself. It seeks its own good only. Higher up, family life appears; a social organization uniting a male, a female, and their offspring for mutual help and protection is in evidence. In the animals commonly regarded as highest in the scale of development, especially the great apes, the enlargement of the social units within which the urge operates has proceeded so far as to include several families. Within these groups an ethics of friendship prevails. Under certain circumstances monkeys extend the ethics of amity even to the whole of their kind. They will band together to defend one of their own. It is the distinction of humanity to have completed–in theory, if not in practice–the extension of the ethics of friendship to the whole sentient creation. We are sons of the same Father, say the ethical religions; and in other words the scientists say the same thing. The half-hearted and abortive attempt of the League of Nations to actualize the theory has shown the strength both of that conviction and of the impediments still to be overcome.

We know that progress has been made in the past in the extension of the field of action of the urge; can we tell what will take place in the future? There is in the normal constitution of human nature a trait which guarantees the continuation of the progress already realized. That trait is sympathy. We are so made that we rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep. In the presence of suffering we are unhappy; either we relieve it or turn away from it. An individual who finds delight in the agony of a fellow man is regarded as abnormal, unless he himself is in an abnormal situation. If he is thwarted in important matters, or if his life is in danger, he may naturally enough look with satisfaction upon the suffering of those he regards as the cause of his own distress, but not otherwise. The presence of sympathy is the fundamental cause of the extension in the past of the ethics of friendly cooperation for the betterment of life; it will have the same effect in the future.

The urge to improve, and its tendency under the spur of sympathy to spread its action to larger and larger groups, together with an ability to acquire knowledge, constitute a minimal basis for a religious philosophy free from unacceptable dogmas. The urge is a trans-human power since it appears in the animal world. It is a manifestation of a creative force of the Universe with which humanity is vitally and hopefully connected. And so, we are not isolated products in a chaotic world; we are part of a trend which may be called “divine.”

Armed with this knowledge, no one needs lose heart when life’s pendulum swings backward. We may take comfort in the long way already traveled from the complete brutish isolation of individuals to the friendly cooperation of populations organized in nations and groups of nations numbering hundreds of millions of people. We may look forward with confidence toward the unknown, for we are endowed with what is required to realize, more and more fully, beautiful ideals.

James H. Leuba was professor of the psychology of religion at Bryn Mawr in Pennsylvania. This article is reprinted in its entirety from the very first issue of the Humanist.

COPYRIGHT 2001 American Humanist Association

COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group