Are We Becoming Less Religious? (31 august 1906)

From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia

Are We Becoming Less Religious? is a letter written by Arthur Conan Doyle published in the Daily Express on 31 august 1906.

Are We Becoming Less Religious?

Daily Express (31 august 1906, p. 1)

To the Editor of the "Express."

Sir, — I had not intended to intervene again in the interesting controversy which has occupied your columns, 'but so many of the controversialists have alluded to my original letter that it might seem discourteous if I look no notice of their objections.

These objections have come for the most part from clerical correspondents. In all ages any attempt at breadth of thought and at wide charity in the interpretation of the relations between man and his Maker have always met with the same clerical opposition; but history records that, though it has often retarded, it has never checked the gradual emancipation of the human reason from iron-bound ritual and dogma. We are fortunate in the present age in having, on the other hand, many clergy of all denominations who recognise that their creeds must grow more tolerant and more comprehensive lest they be left behind entirely by civilisation.

Those who know how large a proportion of the most earnest-minded and thoughtful men in this country are already outside all dogmatic creeds will admit that the contingency is not a fanciful one.

Throughout this controversy the term "religion" has been continually used, where, as it seems to me, "ritual" was a more appropriate expression. Religion is the relation between any human soul and its Creator, and is shown outwardly by the actions of the individual. All canonical observances, rituals, and dogmas are aids to the soul in its development. So far as they do aid it they are justified. So far as they do not, but become petrified forms which prevent life and growth, they stand condemned. But always "by their fruit shall you know them," and by that standard England has enormously improved, and is, therefore, more truly religious.


What are these pious days to which so many of your correspondents allude? Are they the days drawn by Hogarth and described by Fielding? When was England ever so sober, so intelligent, so well educated, so thrifty, and so industrious as at present. As to this decay of forms and ceremonies, while some deplore it others may regard it as the sunrise of saner, better, and more charitable days. I believe that our descendants, looking back at this age, will regard it as one of darkness and superstition, but will admit that it is an advance upon the even darker ages which preceded it.

Insistence upon dogma and ritual, or "religion," in the sense in which your correspondents have misused it, must infallibly result in the human race being eternally divided into rival factions since it is impossible to conceive that any sect will absorb all the others. It is all very well for one of your correspondents to talk about our little earthly raft having a compass given it. We know by experience that no two people can see alike how the compass is pointing. The Divine Creator has indeed given us one compass, and that is reason, the noblest of all faculties. It is reason which tells us that if each sect would abate something of its rigid doctrine, and insist upon the points which unite it with its neighbours instead of accentuating these which divide it, there would be some hope for the gradual extinction of those theological differences, which have, as I hold, nothing to do with true religion, and have been the source of more bloodshed and misery than any other single cause in the world's history.


Several of your clerical correspondents term mean Agnostic. What my individual faith may be is a matter of microscopic interest to others, but since the term has been used I may say that I am not an Agnostic though I extend to that body the respect which I feel for all earnest-minded man. I am a believer in the Christian system in its simplest and least dogmatic form as being on the whole the noblest which the world has evolved, though it has been so overlaid by the bigots and the formalists that it is difficult sometimes to see the original outlines at all. It is not a shaven head, but it is wide charity in the heart which is the essence of that creed. I am a convinced Theist also, and a profound believer in the direct action of a guiding force in the affairs of this world.

Finally, I may say that I do not believe that the Divine message to the human race was delivered once for all two thousand years ago, but I hold that every piece of prose and verse which has in it anything which is helpful to the individual soul is in some sense a message from Beyond - a message which grows and expands as all vital things must do.

Let me end this letter by a quotation from verse of this character: -

"Our little systems have their day;
They have their day and cease to be;
They are but broken lights of Thee;
For Thou, oh, Lord, art more than they,"


See also