Atheists and Agnostics Compendium

Failure of Nerve

In his book Five Stages of Greek Religion Gilbert Murray describes the descent from the height of third century B.C. Greek intellectualism to other-worldy mysticism and loss of hope in the ability of man to make a good life in this world.

This change from Greek humanism and rationality to the irrationality of religious belief in the Christian dogma he called a "failure of nerve."

Below is the concluding section from an essay on Greek stoic philosophy in Murray's book Humanist Essays. It states Murray's idea of why religion has such a hold on the human mind.

We do seem to find, not only in all religions, but in practically all philosophies, some belief that man is not quite alone in the universe, but is met in his endeavours towards the good by some external help or sympathy... It is very important in this matter to realize that religious belief is not really an intellectual judgment so much as a craving of the whole nature of man.

It is only of very late years that psychologists have begun to realize the enormous dominion of those forces in man of which he is normally unconscious. We cannot escape from the grip of the blind powers beneath the threshold. Indeed, as I see philosophy after philosophy falling into this unproven belief in the Friend behind phenomena it seems to me that perhaps we are under the spell of a very old ineradicable instinct.

We are gregarious animals; our ancestors have been such for countless ages. We cannot help looking out on the world as gregarious animals do; we see it in terms of humanity and of fellowship. Students of animals under domestication have shown us how the habits of a gregarious creature, taken away from his kind, are shaped in a thousand details by reference to the lost pack which is no longer there — the pack which a dog tries to smell his way back to all the time he is out walking, the pack he barks to for help when danger I threatens.

It is a strange and touching thing, this eternal hunger of the gregarious animal for the herd of friends who are not there. And it may be, it may very possibly be, that, in the matter of this Friend behind phenomena, our own yearning and our own almost ineradicable instinctive conviction, since they are certainly not founded on either reason or observation, are in origin the groping of a lonely-souled gregarious animal to find its herd or its herd-leader in the great spaces between the stars.

At any rate, it is a belief very difficult to get rid of.

Professor Gilbert Murray 1866 – 1957

British classical scholar and public intellectual, He was an outstanding scholar of the language and culture of Ancient Greece.

His famous book Five Stages of Greek Religion contains a chapter "The Failure of Nerve." He is the basis for the character of Adolphus Cusins in his friend G. B. Shaw's play "Major Barbara."