Spiritualism and Religion

From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia

Spiritualism and Religion is an article written by Arthur Conan Doyle first published in the magazine Light on 2 december 1916.

Spiritualism and Religion

Light (2 december 1916, p.389)

I would desire to thank Mr. Marriott Watson (whose evolution seems to have been very similar to my own) for his letter in Light of November 18th last. I am also much strengthened in my position by the general agreement of Sir William Crookes, Sir Oliver Lodge, and Sir William Barrett, who have gone so much more deeply into the subject than I can pretend to have done.

I should like to re-state my views upon the subject of the relation between psychical science and religion, not by way of argument, but to define more clearly my personal outlook. It is obvious that the mere fact of being a psychical student will no more make a man a good man than the study of any other form of science. Therefore to say that psychic science and religion are different things is beyond all contradiction. It is for that reason that in my former article I pleaded for a practical application of the results of psychic science. That is quite another matter, and does most directly impinge upon religious dogma, and, as it seems to me, upon formal religious practice.

If we are taking the communications from beyond seriously, and that is pre-supposed in our argument, then we are checking our religious beliefs from the standpoint of two worlds instead of one. Surely that must greatly strengthen those points which remain firm and modify those upon which a new light is cast from a fresh angle, I am not speaking of the real inner spirit of Christianity, which is the highest moral development of which we know, or of which we can conceive, making for gentleness, mercy, unselfishness, and all that is beautiful. No fresh revelation can injure this. Such new lights as come from beyond not only confirm it, but, as it seems to me, greatly strengthen it by simplifying and modifying some other beliefs which have tended to obscure it and to mix it up with doctrines which offend reason and our sense of justice.

The doctrine of nearly all Christian Churches has been that after death the soul lies dormant until the advent at some far future date of a day of doom. After this it is judged upon its deeds in this earth- life, which by that time must be, in retrospect, like a few seconds of time blurred by the passage of countless centuries. It is then either ruined for ever in the most terrible manner, or (with or without a term of probation) it is made happy for ever. That, I think, is a fair statement of the usual Christian dogma, but this is traversed at every point by the foots of Spiritualism. We find ourselves in apparent communication with the dead very shortly after they leave us; they seem to be exactly as they were before we parted, and they assort that judgment is a self-acting thing by which like is brought to like, and that none are so lost that they will not work their way upwards, however much sin may have retarded their journey. Every intelligent and unprejudiced man, when he has contemplated the doctrine of eternal punishment, has said to himself, "Surely God could not be so cruel. Even I, a poor mortal, would not punish so vindictively one who had wronged me." This new revelation shows that this reproach was an injustice to the Divinity, whose ways are as merciful as they are wonderful.

Even if there were nothing but this, then Spiritualism must modify not Christianity, but the wrong old-fashioned ideas of what Christianity meant. But there is much more. We cannot accept the opinions of those beyond upon some points and disregard them upon others. If they are agreed upon any proposition it must at least strongly commend itself to us. One message, which I have found to be constant, is that all religions are absolutely equal there, that formal dogma or practice counts for nothing one way or the other, and that the welfare and advancement of the spirit depend entirely upon the degree of refinement and goodness produced by the discipline of earth. This message is too broad to confine itself to Christianity, but extends itself to all creeds or no creeds, so long as an individual result is attained. Many pet texts with which men have belaboured their fellow men are thereby expunged, but surely the general conception is a higher, and, in its essence, a more Christian one than any narrow exclusive view of orthodoxy. Man has made his own difficulties, and all the religious wars, the persecutions, the feuds and the misery have had no relation whatever to true religion or to spiritual progress. The fierce and narrow sectarian who wished to drive his neighbours into what he held to be the path of virtue was in fact simply preparing his own spirit for those lower spheres out of which he will with time and suffering win his way as a kinder and broader soul.

There are many other points, but these two — the sequence of events after death, and the value of special dogma — are enough, as it seems to me, to justify the claim that although Spiritualism is in no way antagonistic to, but, on the contrary, strongly corroborative of, the central Christian idea, it does, as a matter of fact, modify Christian doctrine upon certain very important but not vital points.