My Religious Evolution

From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia

My Religious Evolution is an article written by Arthur Conan Doyle first published in the Daily Express on 17 september 1925.

My Religious Evolution

Daily Express (17 september 1925, p. 8)

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the brilliant author with a world-wide public, following Mr. Arnold Bennett, Mr. Hugh Walpole, and Miss Rebecca West, contributes to-day the fourth of the series of ten powerful articles on "My Religion."

Other famous authors who are to contribute to the series are Compton MacKenzie, H. de Vere Stacpoole, Henry Arthur Jones, Israel Zangwill, I. D. Deresford, and E. Phillips Oppenheim.

At the request of a number of correspondents, the last article in the series will be a plain statement of his religion by "An Unknown Man."

It must be an easy matter to write of one's religion when that religion has been inherited from one's ancestors, endorsed by one's own mental acquiescence, and remained unchanged as the explanation and guide of life. But it is different when in attempted pursuit of truth one has sought and tested and proved and discarded with a firm determination never, never to assent to that which one's reason condemns. Then it is a difficult and even a painful task, for it involves probing deeply into the springs of action in one's own soul.

I was born into a Human Catholic family and was educated as such. Even now I must admit that if I were forced to become an orthodox Christian and to justify my position by scriptural texts, or by an appeal to the traditions of the early Church, I should again be a Catholic. As an abstract creed its position is strong. As a practical system it has produced both, the most Christian and the most unchristian types of any religion. I could, on the one hand, imagine nothing more opposed to all that Christ stood for than a Dominican familiar — the most dreadful figure in all history — or a Borgia Pope.

Indeed, any Pope who lives in a palace and wears a triple tiara is a strange representative of Him who knew not where to lay His head. But, on the other hand, where shall we find anything more beautiful than a Francis d'Assises, a Damien among the lepers, a Curé d'Ars, or indeed any of that host of gentle, humble souls who, as parish priests, missionaries, or workers among the poor, subordinate their own lives to that of the Church? It is only fair, however, to add, that all creeds have been associated with some beautiful souls, but that none has ever evolved a system so infernal as the Inquisition.

My quarrel, as I attained my fuller power of mind, was not merely with the Catholic Church — though its intolerance was always abhorrent to me. It had so much to attract in its tradition and its beauty that I could not conceive myself turning from it to any other form of Christian orthodoxy.

My real quarrel was with that scheme which was common to all Churches, involving as it does the assumption that man was born with a hereditary stain upon him, that this stain for which he was not personally responsible had to be atoned for, and that the Creator of all things was compelled to make a blood sacrifice of His own innocent Son in order to neutralise this mysterious curse.

I remember reading the phrase "an intellectual nightmare" as applied to such a system, and it echoed my own thought. It seemed to me that no heathen tribe had ever conceived so grotesque an idea, and I turned away, from such a creed and wandered into a darkness which was only dimly lit by my own God-given reason.

There followed my years of agnosticism. I remained a firm believer in God, or I clearly saw order in the universe, and the existence of order postulates a central Intelligence. That supreme Intelligence was my God. But all else I rejected. As to the survival of the individual soul, it seemed to me, that, all the argument was against it. Did this soul not obviously spring from the brain? An accident to the brain would affect it and possibly turn a saint into a sinner. My medical knowledge assured me of the fact.

Alcohol and many drugs seemed to influence the soul, making the individual quarrelsome, kindly, or exalted. Was it not clear, then, that mind sprang from matter? How could it survive when, matter had dissolved into its chemical atoms? The argument seemed final, and I was left with no hope and no particular desire. It was a valley of gloom, with death and extinction waiting at the end. There was nothing but plain obvious duty and self-respect as an acting religion.

Then came the strange experiences which slowly made me realise that rational, agnosticism is not a terminus of our journey, but rather a junction where one changes from an old line on to a new one. My mind had hitherto been filled with an ignorant and unreasoning contempt for psychic subjects. They ran clean counter, to all my views, and seemed to me to be half fancy and half fraud.

But telepathy gave me pause. My whole, previous case rested upon the supposition that brain produced, soul or mind. But if, the brain could indeed affect another brain at a distance, then clearly there was something there which was psychic rather than material. I made sure of telepathy by personal experiment. It shook the whole fabric of my philosophy and enlarged my ideas of the possible.

Gradually I was drawn into psychic investigation and reading. The latter affected me much. I read Judge Edmonds, Crookes, Wallace, and Myers. I began to see that the facts were against me, and that there was an alternative to my former views. I saw that the brain might be something which is acted upon rather than something which acts, and that its disorganisation by accident or by drugs might prevent such action, as the broken fiddle prevents the efforts of the musician.

I read and read. The opponents of psychic things were great men, Huxleys and Kelvins, but they were ready to admit that they had not found time to study the matter. On the other hand, the advocates of spirit had studied it deeply, and spoke of what they had seen. But then the phenomena were so childish, the messages so futile — how could I accept them as being from another world?

Slowly — too slowly — my knowledge expanded. I was hampered always by preconceived, prejudice. Gradually one or two facts emerged. One was that those phenomena appeared trivial, because I did not appreciate their object. A knock at the door is in itself trivial. But it draws attention to the person knocking, and that may not be trivial. What were these rappings save knockings at the door of our intelligence? They were signals to engage our attention.

Then as to the character of some of the messages, if death truly made no change at all in the individual as was asserted by the Spiritualists, then as the average man or woman is of no very advanced intelligence, was it not reasonable that the average message should be superficial? One by one my difficulties disappeared, while the personal evidence grew ever stronger.

But it was only in the war time — early in 1916 to be exact — that my case was complete, and that I was sure. Then the enormous importance of it overwhelmed my mind. The whole world was crying out, "Where are our dead?" "Where are those grand young fellows who only yesterday were so full of life and energy ?" I knew where they were. I was sure that I knew. l My wife, who had shared the evidence and in consequence the conviction, felt as I did. Together we determined that we should devote the rest of our lives to handing on this knowledge and comfort to others. Nearly ten years have passed since that resolution, and it is stronger with us now than then. There is no space here to go into the evidence, and it is fully recorded elsewhere, but it is, to my mind, conclusive that those we call dead have long been able to reach us, but have found us insensible to their approach.

It is not merely the reunion with our lost ones which has been effected. Something much higher has been obtained. We have got into contact with virtuous souls long passed over who now correspond to what were called angels. From them we get direct religious teaching founded upon, actual experience. It is in many ways a new conception, and yet it has come through to us in many lands and through many instruments. It is simple. It is reasonable. Above all, it is extraordinarily comforting.

When once you are convinced of its truth this world holds no terror for you, and you look into the future unafraid, with no fear of death. It tells us of a really merciful God, whose reward are immense, and whose judgments are mild ; of a new world which contains that work and those pleasures which are most congenial to us, of a gradual evolution, from a lowly paradise to the higher ones, of the development of one own natural faculties, of homes and family circles and the reunion of all who love, even of the lowly animal world, with the exclusion of all who jar. Such is the life beyond as pictured by those, who, live it.

But the wonderful thing is that by devious paths we have got back to Christianity once more, and that the Christ figure appears — to me at least — more beautiful and understandable than ever. The worst that any sect can do for Christ is to make Him incredible. Now He appeared as a great heaven-sent teacher living's a life which was to be our example. That was surely enough without any question of a mystical atonement.

It is not for our mosquito brains to say what degree of divinity was in Him, but we can surely say that He was nearer the divine than we, and that His teaching is the most beautiful of which we have cognisance. So in a circle we have come back to Him — the great, kindly, brooding spirit who yearns over the world which is His special care. He has ceased to be a miracle. He has become our dear friend and brother.

Such in brief space has been the outcome of my religious evolution. Is it final? I do not know, but I do know that what I have is solid, even if more should hereafter be added thereto.