The Will to Disbelieve
From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia
The Will to Disbelieve is an article published in The New-York Times on 19 october 1919.
It was published in the editorial section as a critic of spiritualism and against Conan Doyle's involvement in this religion.
The Will to Disbelieve
England seems to be facing a down-right conflict between the old religion and the new — not only the earthly religion of Bolshevism, but the otherworldly religion of spiritualism which has spread so rapidly under the apostleship of Sir OLIVER LODGE and Sir ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE. The recent Congress of the Church of England brought out a sharp debate over the validity of spirit communications, and still more of the theories based on them, in which prominent clergymen rose up to defend the new revelation. A cult still comparatively feeble here is already powerful in England because it is based above all things on the overwhelming eagerness of the relatives of men killed in the war to hear from their dead; England with a million dead has naturally gone further than America with a hundred thousand, but here, too, the bereaved have already provided a large and enthusiastic body of recruits for a movement which in its picture of life and death and their relations differs so much from current orthodoxy that it may really be termed a new faith.
As to the scientific validity of the communications which purport to come through various media from the dead, there is still and long will be much difference of opinion. But scientific proofs are playing as small a part in the spread of this evangel as they do in any religious movement. Among its most notable advocates are men of distinguished scientific attainments, but its two great leaders have each lost a son in the war; converts to the new faith are of those who also have lost loved ones without whom life seems impossible, men and women who can gain no comfort from the consolations of the old religion, and who must have something that will persuade them that those who are gone are not lost to them forever.
And what does spiritualism give them? "If," said the Dean of St. Paul's, London, "this kind of after life were true — that portrayed in the pitiable revival of necromancy in which many desolate hearts have sought spurious satisfaction — it would, indeed, be a melancholy postponement or negation of all we hope and believe about our dead." Here is an attack on the new faith which leaves on one side the debate as to the scientific basis of the revelations; it strikes at the strategic centre of spiritualism. The new view of the life after death has gained followers because it appeared to give them direct communication with those they had lost. What is the status of these lost ones, and what sort of life do they live? To the Dean of St. Paul's it seems a very poor sort of life indeed.
Now, it may be argued that the vagueness of such description of life after death as is given by the spirits is due to the impossibility of explaining to the earthly intelligence — it has been likened by one of them to the conveying of a tremendously important message to a person who is asleep. But they seem to find it easy to report matters of daily routine. Sir OLIVER LODGE'S position toward the movement makes the book in which he records the messages received from his son RAYMOND, killed in battle, of unusual authority; they may be regarded as part of the spiritualistic canon if anything as yet produced can be so regarded. And here are some of the things which RAYMOND LODGE tells of the life after death:
There is a body very similar to that on earth, but apparently bloodless. (This tenet of the faith is vehemently defended by CONAN DOYLE also, who goes so far as to assert that it is the literal "spiritual body" of which ST. PAUL spoke.) But a man who had a bad tooth when he was killed gets a new and sound tooth in place of it; a man who had lost an arm has a new arm in "Heaven"; even the dog with which RAYMOND had played in childhood — for household pets go over into the next life no less-than their masters — now has a long and hairy tail instead of the stubby one which he wore on earth, presumably as the result of a docking operation. Newcomers from earth prefer to wear earthly clothes till they are acclimated, when they gladly put on the white robes which are the costume of the country. One worldling felt that Heaven would be incomplete without his cigar; so celestial workmen succeeded in manufacturing one for him "out of essences, ethers, and gases" — the reporting spirit admits that it was "not the same as on the earth plane."
What do they do in Heaven? A well-known American author says that her deceased husband appears to have the duties of an introducer and guide, who takes new arrivals around and familiarises them with the topography. Private communications furnish similar details startlingly similar to the earth plane; two brothers, dead at different times, tell their anxious mother that in the other world they sit at table in places which at home they were allowed to occupy only on special occasions. And so on. It would be easy to make sport of all this, particularly of such matters as the dog and the cigar; but it would be ungracious, unkind to the thousands who believe in it.
But is it the best that those who have gone before can tell us? What does it offer to those who look forward to a future and better world? Next to nothing, as yet. To those who must have some word — any word, however trivial — which they can convince themselves comes from those they have lost it undoubtedly brings consolation; such details as the dog and the cigar would solace many grieving parents, so much so that the psychologist is apt to be stirred to certain grave doubts by such an explicit account. But aside from this answer to an immediate and insistent demand, it would seem that the picture of life after death presented to us so far is indeed, as Dean INGE says, "a melancholy postponement or negation of all we hope and believe." The shade of Achilles, called up from the underworld. told Odysseus that it would rather be a serf to a poor small farmer — the worst lot imaginable to a landholding aristocrat — than to be king over all the dead. And it does not appear that the next world of Sir OLIVER LODGE has made much progress over that of HOMER.
For it Is too painfully terrestrial. It seems like a sort of caricature of the life we now lead; and the hope of immortality is a hope for something better. To be with those we have lost, yes; to enjoy a daily life full of pleasant trivialities, that may allure some; but the spirit messages have given us very little, as yet, to satisfy the highest aspirations of the human soul. Is it that the spirits cannot tell us of these things? that we cannot understand? or that what we have regarded as most surely immortal in the spirit is in reality the only part that dies with the body?
That is why there will be many skeptics, no matter how much science may come to the support of spiritualism. For we have our aspirations for better things after death, aspirations that have not been satisfied as yet; and there are many who will think that even destruction of personal identity would be preferable to this poor mimicry of earthly life. The will to believe has done much for religions of this type, but there will be in many stubborn person, a will to disbelieve in a faith which promises so little. Something of an aspiration for a future life less turbulent than this one was ex-pressed even by the dogma that "death is an eternal sleep."