Idealism against Religion

A Summary by Michael Edwards

Working Copy: First published May 1944, The Lindsey Press, 14 Gordon Square, London, 22 pp.

This short work was delivered as the Essex Hall lecture for 1944. It formed part of the intellectual effort made towards the rebuilding of society and the world, which was started before military victory had been achieved in the Second World War (1939-45). Other examples of Macmurray’s efforts in this direction are:

Challenge to the Churches 1941

Constructive Democracy 1943

Conditions of Freedom 1950

(Summaries of all three are on the website)

‘The decay of religious belief,’ Macmurray opens, ‘and the decline of religious influence in the heart of Christian civilization is the major tragedy of our time. For those who have eyes that look beyond the moment of immediate action it overshadows the tragedy of the war, which is indeed one of its most terrifying expressions.’

He goes on to say that we do not realize that the task, which history will force upon us, of making a new world is a religious task. And thus we erroneously turn to other sources for its accomplishment. This error comes about because we are losing or have lost the capacity to think, feel and behave religiously. And the cause of this loss is Idealism.

Macmurray defined Idealism, both in its popular and philosophical forms, as an emotional attachment to ideas rather than to things. An Idealist thinker will be more interested in the relation of idea to idea than the relation of idea to material object. This tends to break the link between idea and object. Ideas are, after all, our own creations. We make them with our imagination. The material world, by contrast, is not our own creation. It has its own objectivity. We aim our ideas at it (or refer them to it) in order to know it. We constantly attempt to improve the adequacy of our ideas of the world in order to arrive at Truth. Under Idealism, by contrast, ideas become like stained-glass windows which we look at but not through. The idealist emotional preference means that those human activities which are concerned with ideas are undertaken, encouraged and valued for their own sake. This leads to a splitting of the world into two: the world of ideas and the world of material objects. Or, in religion: the world of spirit and the world of matter.

Macmurray thought Idealism was the radical error of our civilization; and that our Christianity was very sick and wouldn’t recover until the Idealism was removed from it.

The Idealist feels obliged to try to realise his ideals in the actual world. But this is impossible for there is no effective connection which can be operated upon between the ideal world and the actual world. The ideal world is an imaginary world, a work of art constructed to satisfy human desires. The actual world has its own objective reality and can only be changed by action in terms of that reality. Macmurray states, ‘If we attach our emotional life to the world of ideas, we do not merely separate the ideas from the material world. We separate the material world from the ideas, and leave it to run its own course by its own automatism; and action conforms to the fashion of this present world. It proceeds by habit and tradition.’ Idealism always involves a degree of self-deception. (Dr. Roger Scruton’s ‘necessary mystification’?) The Idealist mistakenly believes he is interested in building a better world because his mind is full of it. But his hands are not!

A religion which has succumbed to Idealism is other-worldly. To escape from Idealism religion must recover its reference to the actuality of this world, and to the immediacy of the present as the point of action in this life. Its beliefs would not be fixed, dogmatic or authoritarian. They would arise in our contact with fact, grow with the growth of experience, and be tested and retested and remade as experience demanded. Instead of thinking about religious things we should think about ordinary things in a religious way. ‘Instead of believing in the idea of God,’ says Macmurray, ‘we should seek and find God in this world – a God who does not depend on us and our believings or disbelievings, but on whom we depend. Our religion would . . . become power and knowledge for the salvation of the world through us, and even at our expense.’ We have to discover the empirical meaning of our religious beliefs. Religion is about God as Science is about Matter; and God is as natural as light. If we are to find God at all, it must be in this world and in this life. The world of religion is the personal world; the world of persons, and of the unity of persons. We shall find the empirical data of religion in the common life of men and women. Love of God is love of your neighbour become universal. The personal includes the impersonal. The impersonal excludes the personal.

The task of religion is to co-operate with God in the creation of the true community of the kingdom of heaven on earth, which is His creative act in history. Idealism can only blind and paralyse us in the face of this task. To use a contemporary locution, Idealism is ideas-abuse.