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Lecture I: Introduction

In my first series of Gifford Lectures, now published as The Living Stream, I was speaking as a biologist and was largely concerned with showing how, in my view, religious experience fits into the background of our knowledge of the evolution of life. Whatever its explanation I regarded such experience as an essential part of man’s natural history. I also answered “no” to the question: has modern biology destroyed the basis of a natural religion?

I want to make it quite clear that I am not saying that science at present is supporting the idea that religious experience is a transcendental reality; I am saying that science has produced no valid evidence against such a concept being true. The greater part of my former course was devoted to a re-examination of organic evolution which led me to maintain that the modern Darwinian position does not, as so often thought, point only to a materialistic interpretation of the process. The sub-title of the book was A restatement of evolution theory in relation to the spirit of man; I explained that by “the spirit of man” I meant that side of him which experiences spiritual and religious feelings and (or) loves adventure, natural beauty and the arts. This element in man I believe to be linked in evolution with the behavioural side of animal life.

When I denied that biology had destroyed the basis of a theistic religion, I was not speaking of any particular sectarian view of the nature of Divinity. I had explained that by theism I did not mean a belief in a deity with an anthropomorphic image, but did at least mean a belief in an “extra-sensory” contact with a Power which is greater than, and in part lies beyond, the individual self. Towards this, whatever it may be, we have a feeling, no doubt for good biological, or psychological, reasons (linked with the emotions of an early child-parent affection, but none the worse for that) of a personal relationship, and we can call it God. After saying that my second series of lectures would deal with our evidence as to the nature of this experience, I hinted that I was “not led to conclude that the Freudian super-ego gives us the complete explanation.” I fear I appeared to be prejudging the issue. I had merely wanted to let the reader of the first volume know that the possibility of Freud having entirely solved the problem had not escaped me, although I did not think it likely. This and other concepts are what we must here look at with minds as open as we can make them. I have previously stressed how difficult it is not to be prejudiced even in the field of science; we are in much greater danger of this when considering religion.

In the last lecture of that first series I said that during this second course, which I am now beginning, I should, in addition, as a naturalist, look at religious phenomena to see, from such a systematic study, if there was a reasonable hope of eventually constructing a natural theology based upon a more scientific foundation than hitherto. I do not for a moment imagine that I shall myself build such a framework; but in all humility I hope, as far as ten lectures will allow, to survey in very general terms the main ground upon which, I believe, such a science will eventually be erected. My attempt can be no more than a sketch.

Let me before going any further, remind you again of Lord Gifford’s intentions in founding these lectureships; he made his great benefaction specifically for “promoting, advancing, teaching and diffusing the study of Natural Theology in the widest sense of that term.” In his will he said:

I wish the lecturers to treat their subject as a strictly natural science, the greatest of all possible sciences, indeed, in one sense, the only science, that of Infinite Being, without reference to or reliance upon any supposed special, exceptional or so-called miraculous revelation. I wish it considered just as astronomy or chemistry is … The lecturers shall be under no restraint whatever in their treatment of their theme; for example, they may freely discuss (and it may be well to do so) all questions about man’s conceptions of God or the Infinite, their origin, nature, and truth, whether he can have any such conceptions, whether God is under any or what limitations, and so on, as I am persuaded that nothing but good can result from free discussion.

I will also repeat here a definition of the term Natural Theology as I understand it; it is that given by the late Dr. F. R. Tennant1. After saying that the term has usually been a synonym for “rational theology”, as for example the so-called “natural theology” of the English Deists, he makes an important distinction between the two. He would call the theology of the English Deists “rational” rather than “natural” for it “consisted of doctrines supposed to have been discerned by human reason, its first principles being self-evident and its secondary doctrine being deduced from them, in accordance with the a priori principle, that so and so is because it must be”. In contrast to this there is, as he says, “a theology derivable empirically from the study of Nature, man and human history, and consequently not ‘rational’ and a priori, for which the title ‘natural’ is the most appropriate.” It is in this sense that I use the term; and it was, I believe, in this way too that Lord Gifford understood it.

Theologians may well look askance at a scientist who attempts to lecture on theology, albeit natural theology. Let me say at once that it is not my aim to discourse upon the validity of the refinements of various theological doctrines or discuss the subtle distinctions between them; that indeed I am not competent to do. I am concerned with what to me are more fundamental issues: firstly the demonstration that the very idea of a natural theology is reasonable and can be brought into relation with science as we now understand it and secondly that such a theology itself can eventually become a branch of science as much as psychology is. It is because I have a profound conviction that Lord Gifford was right both in seeking to promote and spread the study of natural theology, and in demanding that it should be treated as a science—as much a science as is astronomy and chemistry—that I venture as a scientist to tread upon this hallowed ground.

The science of natural theology, that Lord Gifford called for nearly 80 years ago, has not yet arrived. No one to my knowledge has yet produced even an outline of such a comprehensive, scientific treatment of the subject as a whole in its many different aspects. If we are to have such a science, then I would plead that there may be some excuse for a tentative suggestion as to how it might develop being made by a scientist rather than by a philosopher. The philosophers may criticize it later. With all diffidence I am now attempting such an outline. I do not expect it to have any permanence; if, however, it serves as a starting point for discussion, or merely arouses some interest in the possibility of such a science, I shall feel the venture to have been well worth while. Diffidence may be the wrong word, for I feel impelled to make the attempt; I use it to express my awareness of my limited equipment for the task. That there are gaps in my reading will be obvious to those who are specialists in the different fields, but perhaps this is excusable, if not inevitable, in so wide a realm which includes the necessary biological background.

If there is one thing I am certain of, it is the need for a scientific approach to the subject. We are moving, the whole of civilization is moving with increasing speed, into the scientific age. We have a measure of this acceleration when we compare government expenditure on scientific research at different intervals of time. In one of my last lectures I drew attention to the figures given in the recent Trend Report of the amount spent by our own Government on civil research, i.e. apart from military and defence research: it rose from nine million pounds in 1945 to just over 151 million in 1963. In all countries the movement is the same. Not only is there an increase in research but a greater emphasis on scientific and technical education. In twenty years’ time or less the majority of the educated population of the world will be thinking with a scientific outlook. Science cannot make a religion, nor can it generate religious feeling, for religion is emotional or subjective; and theology is not religion, but it should embrace a systematic knowledge and theory of religion. If those with the scientific way of thought come to ponder upon the validity of theology and find it an unscientific structure, then they are likely to draw the conclusion, a wrong conclusion I believe, that religion itself is a myth. Our civilization has been built upon a spiritual interpretation of the world; if the majority of the population come to have a materialistic outlook the whole nature of our way of life may change and not I think for the better.

A little time ago I was looking at the English translation of one of the early volumes by the eminent German theologian Dr. Rudolf Otto entitled Naturalism and Religion; it was translated by J. Arthur Thomson (who for so long held the Regius Chair of Natural History at Aberdeen) and was published in 1907. I shall be saying more about this book later, but here I want to quote from the preface to this English edition by the Rev. W. D. Morrison. He writes:

It is a remarkable and in some respects a disquieting fact that whilst rival ecclesiastical parties are engaged in a furious and embittered debate as to the precise shade of religious instruction to be given in public elementary schools, the thinking classes in modern Europe are becoming more and more stirred by the really vital question whether there is room in the educated mind for a religious conception of the world at all. The slow silent uninterrupted advance of research of all kinds into nature, life, and history, has imperceptibly but irrevocably, revolutionised our traditional outlook upon the world, and one of the supreme questions before the contemporary mind is the probable issue of the great struggle now taking place between the religious and the non-religious conception of human life and destiny. When we look at the development of this great fundamental conflict we feel that disputes between rival ecclesiastical systems are of trifling moment; the real task at the present time before every form of religion is the task of vindicating itself before a hostile view of life and things.

It is the consciousness of this fact which has led to the translation and publication in English of Professor Otto’s volume.

That was written 60 years ago. The position today is one still more opposed to religion. Some people may still cling to religious feelings but find any theology or formal statement of religion uncongenial. Let me quote now the opening two paragraphs from the Presidential Address delivered by the late Lord Samuel to the Royal Institute of Philosophy in October, 1948:

We hear everywhere of the decline of religion. So high an authority as the Archbishop of York, Dr. Garbett, has recently written, “The dominating fact of the religious position in England today is that the majority of our fellow-countrymen have little contact either with the Church of England or any other Church. The people,” he says, “have deep religious instincts; but the evidence is overwhelming that the ordinary Englishman, drawn from any class of society, is ignorant of the nature of Christianity, and, except for rare occasions of ceremony regards the Church with indifference, or even with dislike as something which is irrelevant to his life.” In many countries a large proportion of the population, in some of them the great majority, stand aloof from religious institutions and observances.

All through the ages religion has been the principal source of the moral law and its mainstay, an incentive to noble minds, a guide to the peoples. The lives and teachings of the founders of Faiths, the prophets and sages, saints and martyrs, have bequeathed to mankind a precious heritage, exalted continually by poetry, music and all the arts. Imagine it gone: suppose the extreme case—the cathedrals deserted and fallen into ruin, like the mediaeval castles; the churches and synagogues, mosques and temples turned to other uses; their ministers dismissed, their zealous laity disbanded: suppose that heritage of centuries all dissipated and lost—how much the poorer would be the spirit of man.

Lord Elton was saying very much the same thing in a broadcast talk a few years ago. “We are,” he said2, “for the present living on our spiritual capital.”

Today, for a growing proportion of the population, the idea of a spiritual side of the universe distinct from the material is regarded as a pleasant illusion, as a myth remaining from a pre-scientific age which civilization must now grow out of. This may seem to be the view of the new humanism, so different from that of the Renaissance humanists. It has its expression in the voice of my old friend—he was my tutor, and what an exciting one, when I was an undergraduate at Oxford—Sir Julian Huxley:

The knowledge explosion [he writes] of the last hundred years since Darwin is giving us a new vision of our human destiny—of the world of man, and of man’s place and rôle in the world. It is an evolutionary and monistic vision, showing us all reality as a self-transforming process. It is a monistic vision, showing us all reality as a unitary and continuous process, with no dualistic split between soul and body, between matter and mind, between life and not-life, no cleavage between natural and supernatural; it reveals that all phenomena, from worms to women, from radiation to religion, are natural.3

I readily grant that all phenomena, including religion, may be called natural, but I do not believe that we can be certain, or indeed that it is even likely, that matter and mind are of the same order of nature. Now actually Sir Julian is not so dogmatically a monist as he appears to be from the above quotation; in another essay, “The Humanist Frame”4, he writes that “Science has removed the obscuring veil of mystery from many phenomena … but it confronts us with a basic and universal mystery—the mystery of existence in general, and of the existence of mind in particular.” Yet in this same essay, after writing most movingly of the importance for humanity of religion and religious experience, he says “Religion today is imprisoned in a theistic frame of ideas, compelled to operate in the unrealities of a dualistic world.”

Being puzzled, I have enquired as to the meaning he attaches to the terms monism and dualism and he has replied in a letter which he kindly allows me to quote. “As to my position” he writes, “I have always been very careful to point out that I am not a materialist, but a monist, in the sense that I believe that we and the rest of life are products of—and agents in—a single process. But the products have two aspects—material when observed from outside, subjective when viewed from inside. Of course this is a simplification—there is the Unconscious and the Subconscious; and there is the growth of neurological knowledge which makes it probable that self-reinforcing circuits are at work in the brain. I think I am right in saying that there is still a great deal of mystery about the relation between the two aspects: but we are getting to know more all the time.”

This indeed is the mystery I am concerned with. What is it that both perceives the material world and at the same time subjectively knows of its own existence? Clearly it is closely linked with the physical system and I agree, of course, that in the living evolutionary stream this element combines with the matter-energy complex to form a single process. Is it, however, one with the physical system, or is it, though linked, of such a different nature that we can more reasonably regard the world of our conscious perception as a dualistic one? To assert that either the one or the other is now an established fact, without considering all the evidence from the natural history of the spiritual side of man, would be, I believe, sheer dogma.

So many intellectuals now regard dualism with contempt, as a superstition. This, I maintain, instead of being based upon a truly rational argument, is largely a biased reaction against what is rightly seen to be a fantastic philosophy developed by the mediaeval mind. For so many minds of today the concept of energy has supplanted that of a Deity. This change in outlook is beautifully put into words by the late Sir Charles Sherrington in his Gifford Lectures Man on his Nature as follows:

The width of applicability of this concept “energy” bears witness to its analytic depth. It unites all sensible structure and brings it into a form of doing. By it the atom, the rose we cultivate, and the dog our companion, are alike describable. Within the descriptive competence of this unification comes our whole perceptible world, what it is and what it does. The sailing cloud, the bird below it, the setting sun, the coast and sea, the ship and harbour, the lighted window, the flock and the grass down, the voice of the shepherd, it unites these all into one consistent existence whose identical underlying nature becomes through it in so far intelligible to us. Their seemingly endless variety gains thus for man the interest of a concerted system, and, making the interest more poignant, himself is one with them…

The scheme arrived at now by Science is the fruit of patient toil, sifting out facts and in search of more facts, and exercising, it has been said, “remorseless logic”. It has no tilt against religion as such. It knows its own field to be vast, but also knows it limited.

The anthropocentric outlook of mediaeval Christendom never welded its world into a unity so coherent as is this… The mediaeval world did indeed succeed in unifying its manifold. But it went outside them to unify them. It unified them by appeal to theology; they were all the creation of the one Great Artificer. The energy-concept of today unifies its manifold in a way radically other than that. It unifies all the things of its manifold without going outside them.

Sherrington shows us this great unifying concept of energy—yet he is really a dualist; he, as we shall see (p. 224), believed that matter and energy on the one hand, and mind on the other, are distinct categories. “Chemistry and physics,” he wrote, “explaining so much, cannot undertake to explain mind itself”.

Orthodox theology of today still embraces much of the mediaeval dream against which the scientific outlook justly revolts; that is why I believe an attempt towards a more scientific natural theology is so urgent. Perhaps the most important issue for civilization today is that of dualism versus monism; are so many people in the world today right in regarding the doctrine of monism as the more reasonable of the two?

The idea of monism has grown with the development of science; it threatens to dominate the world. It is only in the last three hundred and fifty years that the outlook of western man has changed; from the collapse of the culture of ancient Greece up to the beginning of the seventeenth century he was comfortable in a sure faith in the spiritual nature of the universe. Religion and philosophy were then firmly united. It is well to look back to three hundred years ago; the change was just beginning. In 1665 Galileo had been dead for only 23 years and Descartes for only 14, and Newton was still a young man; the Royal Society had been founded just three years ago. The observations of Galileo and his followers began to contradict many of the current theological ideas. Man began to need a more adequate philosophy; this need was met, of course, by the teachings of Descartes, who believed in an almost independent physical universe and an almost independent spiritual one: the two making contact with one another only through a point in the brain of man. The living body was an elaborate piece of mechanism and animals differed from man only in that they were without consciousness.

Philosophy now became divided. One branch led towards materialism which came to regard human behaviour as well as animal behaviour as a purely physical action and to look upon consciousness in the brain of man as a mere “epiphenomenon”—a kind of by-product which reflects but does not influence behaviour. Another branch led in the opposite direction towards philosophical idealism.

Since the time of Descartes physical science has, until quite recently, fitted in with materialism; it has, however, been the trend of ideas in biology which has had the more powerful influence in encouraging the materialistic outlook. After the time of Descartes, biologists became divided into those who were mechanists, believing the organism to be simply a physico-chemical machine and those who were vitalists, believing that in the animal there was some non-material element—some vital principle at work. At first biology was mainly descriptive. Animals and plants were classified; their life, habits, and distribution were recorded in natural history; anatomy and development were revealed in greater and greater detail as the microscope became more powerful and efficient. Physiology, the study of the working of the animal body, was at first also mainly presented in descriptive terms. Then as biology became a more exact science by the application of the experimental method, such actions of the body which had been thought by the vitalists to be dependent upon some separate life principle, were shown more and more to be governed by physical and chemical causes. By the middle of last century vitalism in biology was as good as dead.

Then came the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1859 and before long the majority of the thinking world accepted the doctrine that the different kinds of plants and animals, including man, were not separately created, but evolved or modified in the course of time from earlier forms. There was now no line to be drawn between man and animals; and far back at the other end of the process it seemed likely that no line could be drawn between the simplest form of life and some very complex chemical system. The ruthless automatic mechanism of an entirely environmental natural selection which appeared to govern evolution, together with the fact that man was clearly evolved from the lower animals, seemed to show science deciding in favour of materialism.

For three hundred years the doctrine of monism has been gathering force. Could it be possible that modern humanistic man, excited by the success and neatness of the scientific method, and exalted by a sense of liberation from the intellectual absurdities of mediaeval thought, has been carried away into a new realm of intellectual folly quite different but only a little less absurd than that which preceded it? Could he be making a gigantic mistake? In historical perspective man has only comparatively recently escaped from an appalling mental nightmare—a phantasy held as gospel truth by nearly all the leading minds of Europe. Is it not just possible that many of the leading minds of today may now be swinging to an opposite extreme? Lord Samuel, in the lecture I have already quoted, gives us this vivid picture of the past:

Mediaeval Christian theology based itself on the myth of Adam and his Fall; adding a realistic after-world of human souls without bodies but with bodily sensations, a personal Devil and a localized Hell. Accepted not as symbolism but literally, this was pictured in the churches and preached from the pulpits. It was the cosmos of Dante, Milton and Michelangelo.

I shall horrify my colleagues if I revive the hoary Shavian jest that science has become the superstition of the twentieth century; yet, with an important difference, I take it seriously. It is not, of course, science itself that constitutes the superstition, but the dogmatism that many of its exponents have added to it. I passionately believe in the validity of science and the scientific method, but just as strongly do I deplore the false assertions that science finds the mystery of the mind-body relationship to be unreal and has classed consciousness as an irrelevant illusion. Such dogmatic materialism could lead in the future to a world even more horrific than that created by the mediaeval mind, a future such as Aldous Huxley warned us of; or it could lead to our complete destruction, a possibility that was not even on the horizon when he wrote the Brave New World.

If civilization as we know it does continue, I cannot help feeling that those in a more enlightened age in the future will look back at the belief in a monism of matter and energy which is held by so many academic minds today and see it as a piece of naïvety that will both amuse and amaze them. There may well be a higher philosophical monism which we do not yet understand, but that would be radically different from that of the materialists of today.

Why is consciousness, which is the seat of all our values, ignored in the equation of life? How can the concept of perception be held without a recognition of the essential dualism of perceiver and perceived? Why is the body-mind relationship consistently ignored? Why, until quite recently, has it been almost taboo in scientific circles to talk of extra-sensory perception? I do not think that science itself has been “leading us up the garden path”, if I may use such a colloquialism, but I do believe that we may have been misled by those who are so biased as to be blind to what eventually will be seen to be obvious. “Scientists,” as Sir Peter Medawar reminded us in his Reith Lectures on The Future of Man, “tend not to ask themselves questions until they can see the rudiments of an answer in their minds. Embarrassing questions tend to remain unasked or, if asked, to be answered rudely.” My brief review of the history of evolutionary thought in the last series of lectures was in part intended to show how again and again many of our leading scientists could be mistaken and how easily they could fail to see important truths.

Sir Julian Huxley, in the lecture which I quoted a few pages back, goes on, after extolling the “monistic vision”, to say in the next paragraph:

It will inevitably lead to a new general organization of thought and belief, and to the development, after centuries of ideological fragmentation, of a new and comprehensive idea-system. The Middle Ages had a comprehensive vision and a comprehensive idea-system, and so does Marxist Communism today; but neither was founded on comprehensive knowledge. Today is the first period in history when man has begun to have a comprehensive knowledge of stars and atoms, of chemical molecules and geological strata, of plants and animals, of physiology and psychology, of human origins and human history. The knowledge is highly incomplete; new and surprising discoveries are being made every year and will continue to be made for centuries to come. But it is comprehensive, in the sense of covering every field, every aspect of reality.

Its upshot is clear. Man is not merely the latest dominant type produced by evolution, but its sole active agent on earth. His destiny is to be responsible for the whole future of the evolutionary process on this planet. Whatever he does, he will affect that process. His duty is to try to understand it and the mechanisms of its working, and at the same time direct and steer it in the right direction and along the best possible course.

This is the gist and core of Evolutionary Humanism, the new organization of ideas and potential action now emerging from the Humanist Revolution of thought, and destined, I prophesy with confidence, to become the dominant idea-system of the next and critical phase of psycho-social evolution.

Against the word reality, at the end of the first paragraph quoted above, Huxley has an asterisk which refers to the following footnote:

I should except the field of so-called parapsychology. If the existence of telepathy, ESP, and the rest is firmly established, their scientific investigation could well lead to a revolution in our thinking about the nature of mind. But this is still quite hypothetical, and meanwhile it is our obvious duty to work out the implications of the very comprehensive knowledge we already possess.

I think he is wise to add that qualification, for this new field5 is likely, I believe, to break this monistic vision.

My sympathies are certainly with Sir Julian in looking forward to a future comprehensive system of knowledge; for me, however, such a system cannot be all embracing if it is based solely upon the interactions of matter and energy as we now know them. The new scientific natural theology, which I envisage growing out of a more extensive natural history of human experience, must come to form an important element in this future new organization of ideas, if it can do so before it is too late.

We require, I believe, a closer fusion of the fields of vision of the two Huxleys, Sir Julian and Aldous. It would indeed be difficult to place the works of Aldous Huxley in order of their importance, but certainly not least is his series of essays on religion which forms the brilliant matrix embedding his anthology: The Perennial Philosophy. He begins his introduction to the volume thus:

PHILOSOPHIA PERENNIS—the phrase was coined by Leibniz; but the thing—the metaphysic that recognizes a divine Reality substantial to the world of things and lives and minds; the psychology that finds in the soul something similar to, or even identical with, divine Reality; the ethic that places man’s final end in the knowledge of the immanent and transcendent Ground of all being—the thing is immemorial and universal. Rudiments of the Perennial Philosophy may be found among the traditionary lore of primitive peoples in every region of the world, and in its fully developed forms it has a place in every one of the higher religions. A version of this Highest Common Factor in all preceding and subsequent theologies was first committed to writing more than twenty-five centuries ago, and since that time the inexhaustible theme has been treated again and again, from the standpoint of every religious tradition and in all the principal languages of Asia and Europe.

This study, like William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience, is, of course, one of the important pioneer contributions to the natural history of religion that I speak of. What he and Leibniz name as the perennial philosophy is the acknowledgment of the validity of that which I am calling the divine flame; “it is a metaphysic,” as Aldous Huxley says “that recognises a divine Reality.”

Aldous Huxley did not have the same confidence in the future as does his brother Julian. We see this from several contributors to the recently published memorial volume edited by Sir Julian. I will quote two of them. Dr. Robert M. Hutchins writes:

He saw around us, as he wrote me once, “the immense organized insanity in which we must all live and move and have our being”. Brave New World was always on his mind. So he wrote me that a study published by the Centre for the Study of Democratic Institutions on automation and cybernetics had “a sickeningly Brave New Worldish flavour”. He found a certain melancholy satisfaction, such as Cassandra must have felt when her prophecies came true, in the work of Jacques Ellul, La Technique, which suggests that we are living in the Brave New World already.

And again Professor Harrison Brown recalls that in 1958 Aldous Huxley wrote:

In 1931, when Brave New World was being written, I was convinced that there was still plenty of time … these things were coming all right, but not in my time, not even in the time of my grandchildren.

Then he adds,

The prophecies … are coming true much sooner than I thought they would… The nightmare of total organization has emerged from the safe, remote future and is now awaiting us, just around the corner. Impersonal forces, over which we have almost no control, are pushing us towards that nightmare.

It is the danger that Aldous Huxley saw that makes the examination of the evidence for what he calls “a divine Reality” so urgent a task for today. Is this concept just a myth? Or is it indeed a reality that could be lost sight of—lost until it is seen again by the insight of a less “sophisticated” people, the survivors, perhaps a few Eskimoes or Polynesians, who will multiply and rebuild a new civilization on the ruins of our own? The evidence for the rapid changes in our culture is everywhere at hand. As I revise this chapter I receive a letter inviting me to address an international conference with the aim of trying “to find some means of giving young people a positive outlook in the future.” The letter goes on:

The solution of this problem appears to us to be urgent. The props of religion and social convention, which supported previous generations have crumbled. The shape of society is changing and will change with ever increasing speed all over the world. All those concerned with children and young people must face the challenge and try to find a solution.

Whilst Aldous Huxley was not confident in the future, he was not without hope. The last paragraph of the last article he ever wrote, that on Shakespeare and Religion, which he finished the day before he died, was this: “We are all on the way to an existential religion of mysticism. How many kinds of religion! How many kinds of Shakespeare!” And a few paragraphs before that we see a short sentence which vividly illuminates the nature of religion as he felt it: “Religion calls for opening up the self, the letting that which is more than the self flow through the organism and direct its activities.”

Let us compare this statement with one by his brother and we shall see how different are the religions of the two Huxleys. Sir Julian in the preface to his book Religion without Revelation writes:

… this question of God or no God, external Power or no external Power, non-human absolute values as against human evolving values—this question is fundamental …

Once we have rid ourselves of this doctrine of a Divine Power external to ourselves, we can get busy with the task of dealing with our inner forces.

Which of the two is right or nearer to the truth? Is it not as important for humanity to know the answer as it is to explore interstellar space? A more scientific natural theology should be able to provide us with the evidence to enable us to form a better judgement. It might even show the truth to lie somewhere between the two alternatives; that is if the Power “which is more than self” was like an evolving racial pool of spiritual wisdom open in some extra-sensory way to individual conscious minds or being shared in some common sub-conscious system on the Jungian pattern. I shall express my over-belief, as William James called it, or my faith if you like, in the last lecture when we have examined all the evidence; there will, however, be so much more evidence to be gathered in, as the new theological science develops in the future, that our over-beliefs are likely to be progressive ones.

Looking now at the other side of the picture; the decline in religion is, I believe, in no small measure due to theology ignoring the possible use of the scientific approach to its problems. If properly used the method could be invaluable in helping a scientifically minded public to realize that a faith in spirituality was not contrary to scientific fact. A natural theology, claiming itself to be as much a science as psychology, indeed linked with psychology, should be combating a materialistic view of the universe on both scientific and philosophical grounds, instead of taking just the passive apologetic rôle. This again will be part of the theme that I wish to put before you.

In one of my earlier lectures I recalled that my views regarding the importance of the part played by habit and behaviour in animal evolution were first put forward in the inaugural address I delivered in Aberdeen in the spring of 1942 on my taking up my appointment as Regius Professor of Natural History. I cannot resist also looking back to that same lecture to show that my present ideas as to how science may serve theology were also developing at that time; like those on evolution they have not been arrived at in any hurry, but have been much in my thoughts for more than twenty years. Let me quote again from that early lecture, but a different part of it, and use it as an introduction to the theme of my present series, for it illustrates how I believe a natural theology may come to use the methods of science. I had already explained that ecology is a true branch of science: a quantitative study of the relations of organisms to their environment, both physical and animate. I then went on as follows:

Wherever man is concerned with animals in the wild, the development of ecology becomes a pressing economic necessity. As civilization advances there is hardly a corner of the earth that is not being harnessed to his needs, and hardly a corner of the earth that has not its wild life of sorts. The cultivated lands, as do the forests, teem with insect pests, and rodents are enemies of crops and stored grain… Applied biology calls for more and more scientific natural history.

The line which separates applied from pure biology is fast being obliterated. It is frequently difficult to say to which category a piece of work belongs…

Many of us must have felt, as we accept this and that Government grant for some particular piece of ad hoc research, that we are perhaps being dishonest—that our main interest in the problem before us is not the economic results that may ensue but the additions we hope to make to the subject as a whole. We need not, however, I think, have these misgivings, for I am sure that the best economic work is that which is undertaken in the spirit of adding to pure science…

Perhaps I may make a confession. I have worked hard at marine ecology, but I have done so only partly because I have had a desire to benefit the fishing industry; I have this desire most sincerely, but also I have felt that I have been working towards a better understanding of animal relationships and making contributions to the development of general principles in ecology…

I will go further—I will confess that perhaps my main interest in ecology is the conviction that this science of inter-relationships of animals and their environment will eventually have a reaction for the benefit of mankind quite apart from any immediate economic one. I believe that one of the great contributions of biology in this century, to the welfare of the race, will be the working out of ecological principles that can be applied to human affairs: the establishment of an ecological outlook. I believe the only true science of politics is that of human ecology—a quantitative science which will take in not only the economic and nutritional needs of man, but one which will include his emotional side as well, including the recognition of his spiritual as well as his physical behaviour. The statistics of Mass Observation are a step in this direction…

Ecology stands on its own feet as a true science dealing with animals as living wholes. Just as molecules, atoms and electrons are the units of physical science, so living animals can be the units, the behaviour of which we can deal with just as legitimately, by observation, experiment and statistical treatment to build a true science of life. A biology based upon an acceptance of the mechanist hypothesis is a marvellous extension of chemistry and physics, but to call it an entire science of life is a pretence. There is, of course, no doubt that the laws of physics and chemistry hold good within the animal body as outside it—as we take it to pieces in our analysis we find more and more remarkable mechanisms—more fascinating chemical interactions than we find outside it. No wonder that those who spend more time on analysis in the laboratory than in the study of living animals in nature are apt to come to the conclusion that in their physical and chemical discoveries they are explaining life…

I cannot help feeling that much of man’s unrest today is due to the widespread intellectual acceptance of this mechanistic superstition when the common sense of his intuition cries out that it is false. I believe that the dogmatic assertions of the mechanistic biologists, put forward with such confidence as if they were the voice of true science, when they are in reality the blind acceptance of an unproven hypothesis, are as damaging to the peace of mind of humanity as was the belief in everyday miracles in the middle ages. I believe what Professor Joad said the other day [that was in 1942] to be profoundly true: that the unconsciously frustrated desire for spiritual experience is no less important than the unconsciously frustrated sex upon which the psycho-analysts have laid so much stress.6

Yes—that was 1942—you will see that I have not changed.

For a long time many, perhaps most, philosophers and theologians have felt that, since science and religion are poles apart, the very idea of a scientific approach to theology is quite absurd. I agree that science has no more to do with the essence of religion than it has to do with the emotional appeal of art. Nevertheless a scientific theology, a natural theology in Lord Gifford’s sense, could, I believe, by encouraging research and marshalling its facts in a systematic way, demonstrate to the scientifically thinking world that there is overwhelming evidence (1) to show that religious experience has played and can play an important part in human behaviour, (2) that there is a certain consistent pattern in the records of such experience and (3) that on so many occasions men and women have achieved, by what they call divine help or grace, that which they, and others who knew them, would have regarded as beyond their normal capabilities. Whilst perhaps not dealing with the ultimate nature of the extra-sensory feeling of the sacred, it could show that the existence and encouragement of such a feeling can be of paramount importance in the development of the finer human qualities.

Such a natural theology would not be unrelated to the science of sociology. Surely no one would argue that because science cannot deal with the poetry—the emotional qualities—of human love, sociology should not consider the impact of sex on society. Again a scientific theology, bringing in the assistance of psychology, would show how some of the hideous cruelties and superstitions of past religions, which have driven so many to abhor religion altogether, have really been the result of a mixing of abnormal deviations with religious practices. If a truly scientific theology comes—and it will not come at once, but only after perhaps another hundred years of research and the bringing together of a vast natural history of religious experience—then it would be a safeguard against such excesses in the future. I must not minimize the difficulties; seeing some of them I would urge that we should begin in earnest to work now towards such a natural theology of the future.

Let me say a further word about the analogy between religion and sex. I shall be returning to discuss the relationship between the two phenomena in a later lecture (p. 156). Here I just want to suggest that the linking of a natural theology to science need not seem such an outrageous one from a biological standpoint as it may appear to be at first sight to some of my academic colleagues. All will agree that a great new step in organic evolution was taken with the appearance of sex which provides such an important mechanism for the production of genetical variation. The opposites in sex may be brought together by all manner of physical sensory means; from our own experience, however, the process is accompanied by an emotional ecstatic state we call love. Other forms of attraction have appeared in the living stream such as the mutual bonds between parent and offspring in the higher forms—again accompanied in our experience by a different but related form of affection. Now we have seen with the coming of man a new phase in evolution almost as striking as that of the appearance of sex: the new psycho-social phase, as Sir Julian Huxley calls it, in which the very mechanism of the process is altered by the development of a new non-genetic inheritance—the handing on of acquired knowledge and experience. Should we not, as biologists, entertain the possibility that the rapture of spiritual experience—the so-called love of God—may, after all, be a valid part of natural history, coming into existence in the living stream no less mysteriously than did sex; and that perhaps it may have only developed as religion when man’s speech enabled him to compare and discuss his strange feeling of what Otto called the numinous. It might be, as already suggested, a psychological system linking individuals with some extra-sensory element—some shared reservoir of spiritual power, or it might be some much greater Reality. I am pleading that, recognising that we do not yet understand consciousness and the mind-body relationship, we should, as naturalists, examine both the phenomena of religious experience and of extrasensory perception unhampered by dogmatic preconceptions.

After this let me repeat what I said in the last lecture of my first series. In suggesting that the power we call God may well have some fundamental link with the process of evolution, I hope I shall not be thought to be belittling the idea of God. I would rather appear to be saying that the living stream of evolution is as much divine as physical in nature; and that what I am calling the divine flame is an integral part of the creative evolutionary process which man, with his greater perceptive faculties, is now becoming aware of. It is something which, if he responds to it, provides him with a power over his difficulties that he might not otherwise have; it gives him a feeling of confidence and it generates courage in the face of adversity. I would suggest to biologists that since man is a part of the living stream we should not ignore his own experiences and behaviour as possibly throwing light on something fundamental in the nature of living things that might not be apparent to us if we confined ourselves entirely to the objective examination of other species of animals. The study of man himself, in all his aspects, is indeed an important part of a comprehensive biology. We must, of course, beware of undue anthropomorphism in our interpretation of other animals; on the other hand we must not forget that we ourselves are the animals whose nature we should know best of all.

With this introduction I would like in what remains of this lecture to say a little more about the supposition, so often held, that there must be an opposition between science and theology. This contention is, I believe, erroneous, and is only argued by those who maintain it because either they have a false idea as to the content of science, or tend to make little distinction between religion and theology; some indeed appear to do both.

A consideration of the difference between religion and theology need not detain us as it is surely obvious. Religion, as I have already said, is essentially a matter of the spirit, belonging to the realm of emotion and feeling; and theology is not religion, but is the systematisation of the knowledge of religion and the theories put forward by the reasoning mind to explain it and the various kinds of belief. Let us then confine ourselves to the consideration of those who, I believe, have a false idea about the content of science. To illustrate this mistaken view I will quote from what I otherwise regard as a most illuminating book and one for which I have much admiration and sympathy; it is the book to which I have already briefly referred (on p. 12), an early work by Otto, translated into English with the title Naturalism and Religion (1907). By naturalism he means the scientific treatment of the world and rightly contrasts it with religion. But then, while he does not actually equate naturalism or science with materialism, he does imply that such naturalism or science can never give us any information other than about the material world. Many, I know, hold this view, but this is what I deny.

It is true, of course, that all the data of science must reach us by physical energy impinging upon our bodily sense organs, and this may sometimes do so only after passing through elaborate recording instruments or computing systems; nevertheless such data may indirectly provide us with evidence from which we may infer the existence of emotional states in other members of our community. By the prolonged study of human behaviour and the analysis of many personal records of such different emotional states we can begin to formulate some systematic knowledge of the different forms of religious experience. Indeed psychology itself is just such a science of behaviour. Now let me quote Otto (from the translation, p. 6):

… everything depends and must depend upon vindicating the validity and freedom of the religious view of the world as contrasted with world-science in general; but we must not attempt to derive it directly from the latter. If religion is to live, it must be able to demonstrate—and it can be demonstrated—that its convictions in regard to the world and human existence are not contradicted from any other quarter, that they are possible and may be believed to be true. It can, perhaps, also be shown that a calm and unprejudiced study of nature, both physical and metaphysical reflection on things, will supplement the interpretations of religion, and will lend confirmation and corroboration to many of the articles of faith already assured to it.

With this I certainly agree; he goes on, however, as part of the same paragraph, to say:

But it would be quite erroneous to maintain that we must be able to read the religious conception of the world out of nature, and that it must be, in the first instance, derivable from nature, or that we can, not to say must, regard natural knowledge as the source and basis of the religious interpretation of the world. An apologetic based on such an idea as this would greatly overestimate its own strength, and not only venture too high a stake, but would damage the cause of religion and alter the whole position of the question. This mistake has often been made. The old practice of finding evidences of the existence of God had exactly this tendency. It was seriously believed that one could thereby do more than vindicate for religious conviction a right of way in the system of knowledge. It was seriously believed that knowledge of God could be gained from and read out of nature, the world, and earthly existence, and thus that the propositions of the religious view of the world could not only gain freedom and security, but could be fundamentally proved, and even directly inferred from Nature in the first instance.

He was, as he goes on to explain, largely thinking of the efforts that were made, as Paley did, to demonstrate the existence of God from the apparent design in Nature; these attempts, of course, failed when it was shown that all the wonderful adaptations which had seemed to imply a conscious designer, could be explained by the action of natural selection. Whilst I agree that the existence of God and the reality of religion cannot be demonstrated by appeals to nature of this kind, I do most certainly hold that an empirical study of nature, man and human history can give us important evidence in support of a belief in a theistic universe. We must remember that Otto was writing at the beginning of the century before the development of those branches of biology which we call ecology and ethology (the study of animal behaviour). It was generally thought at that time that science could only deal with physical and chemical events, and some today still hold this view. As I have indicated, however, in the quotation I have given on p. 25 from my inaugural lecture of 1942, and as I discussed it a little more fully in the last lecture of my first series, the development of ecology and ethology as true branches of science has, I believe, forced us to alter this view.

The scientific method, that is quantitative study and experiment, can be applied to the behaviour of living animals, treating them as living wholes, just as it can be applied to the behaviour of electrons, atoms and molecules. I hope I have made it clear that I am not a vitalist in the old-fashioned sense: I do not deny that the whole of an animal’s bodily physical actions will be accounted for in terms of the physical sciences whose laws of energy exchange are no more broken within the body than outside it. In some way, however, which science cannot yet explain, the factor of mind does have an influence on the behaviour of the body and does play an important part in the evolution of animal life. Because science cannot yet explain the mind-body relation, it does not prohibit us from using the scientific method to study animal behaviour just as legitimately as we use it for the study of the reactions of atoms and electrons although we may be equally in the dark on the real relationship of the corpuscular or wave interpretations of electrical energy. There is no logical reason why in sociology we should not apply the scientific method to the study of the ecology and behaviour of man just as we do for other animals; before, however, we can have a scientific study of man’s religious experience which will help us to construct a more scientific natural theology, we must, as I stressed in the last lecture of the first series, first of all build up a most extensive natural history of religion. In the animal world the science of ecology only became possible after an immense collection of facts by the naturalists.

Am I not being over-optimistic in my forecasting such a science of natural theology, you may ask. In lecture IV I shall describe some of the pioneer work in the building of this natural history of religion which will make it possible: particularly the early work of Starbuck in his The Psychology of Religion (1899) and of William James in his Varieties of Religious Experience (1902). In fact here we shall actually see science beginning to emerge from this natural history in the graphical treatment of data by Starbuck. Such statistical analyses have been carried much further in Michael Argyle’s study Religious Behaviour (1958). I referred in my 1942 lecture, quoted on p. 25, to Mass Observation as the beginning of such an ecological study of religion; this system of survey inaugurated by Tom Harrisson gave us in 1947 the book Puzzled People: a study in popular attitudes to religion, ethics, progress and politics in a London borough. Recently, in 1961, we have had the remarkable book by Marghanita Laski, Ecstasy: a Study of some Secular and Religious Experiences which is an excellent example of the application of the ecological method to give a comparison of the records of the subjective feelings experienced by members of different groups of people; it is especially valuable in that the author approaches her subject from the secular and not the religious standpoint. I shall be discussing her methods and conclusions in lecture v (p. 128); and there I will also refer to Sir Cyril Burt’s experimental studies in the psychology of value in which by carrying the scientific method into the field of philosophy he indeed shows us how it might be used in theology.

Let me now return to Otto’s book; after referring to the failure of the attempt to infer the existence of God from the adaptations of Nature, he goes on:

And, above all, the main point was overlooked. For even if these “evidences” had succeeded better, if they had been as sufficient as they were insufficient, it is certain that religion and the religious conception of the world could never have arisen from them, but were in existence long before any such considerations had been taken into account.

Long before these were studied, religion had arisen from quite other sources. These sources lie deep in the human spirit, and have had a long history. To trace them back in detail is a special task belonging to the domain of religious psychology, history, and philosophy, and we cannot attempt it here, but must take it for granted.

The sources of religion certainly lie deep in the human spirit and have had a long history; did Otto, however, realize how long a history they must have had? While he appeared to accept the doctrine of evolution—and a large part of his book is an examination of its theory as seen at the beginning of the century7—did he, one wonders, grasp the immense period of time that animal evolution has been in progress before the coming of man? He talks later about the religious ideas of primitive man, but he does not consider how early in history, or prehistory, their formulation began. The empirical evidence of the reality of religion among primitive peoples provided by the scientific study of man—what I may call the new social anthropology—is indeed an important contribution to natural theology and I shall be devoting one of my lectures to it.

Otto goes on to discuss two kinds of Naturalism: one that he regards as the true naturalism which he equates with physical science and another which he says masquerades as naturalism but has a fringe of poetry and idealism: a conception “so indiarubber-like and Protean that it is as difficult as it is unsatisfactory to attempt to come to an understanding with it.” He rightly ignores the latter and concerns himself only with the former, the aims of which he defines as a striving after “consistent simplification and gradual reduction to lower and lower terms.” He now goes on to divide the world of knowledge into two great realms:

that of “Nature” and that of “Mind,” i.e. consciousness and the processes of consciousness. And two apparently fundamentally different branches of knowledge relate to these: the natural sciences, and the mental sciences. If a unified and “natural” explanation is really possible, the beginning and end of all this “reducing to simpler terms” must be to bridge over the gulf between these; but this, in the sense of naturalism, necessarily means that the mental sciences must in some way be reduced to terms of natural science, and that the phenomena, processes, sequences, and laws of consciousness must likewise be made “commensurable” with and be linked on to the apparently simpler and clearer knowledge of “Nature” and, if possible, be subordinated to its phenomena and laws, if not indeed derived from them. As it is impossible to regard consciousness itself as corporeal, or as a process of movement, naturalism must at least attempt to show that the phenomena of consciousness are attendant and consequent on corporeal phenomena, and that, though they themselves never become corporeal, they are strictly regulated by the laws of the corporeal and physical, and can be calculated upon and studied in the same way.

But even the domain of the natural itself, as we know it, is by no means simple and capable of a unified interpretation. Nature, especially in the realm of organic life, the animal and plant world, appears to be filled with marvels of purposefulness, with riddles of development and differentiation, in short with all the mysteries of life.

You will see, I think, from these quotations and from what I have said earlier, how much I am in sympathy with Otto’s point of view. In the last lecture of the other series I had declared how false it may be to push the principle of Occam’s razor to the point of ignoring half of what is the real essence of life in the attempt to reduce living things to an explanation entirely in terms of present day physics and chemistry—the body, yes, but not the mind. Of course I think Otto is perfectly right in contrasting religion with this form of naturalism, i.e. one that he equates with physics and chemistry; I am taking his statement as a good example of what so many theologians appear to feel about science. It is also what so many scientists feel about science too! To my way of thinking such theologians and scientists are both wrong in regarding science in this light. A true science of living things should not ignore the existence of the mind-body relationship—nor should it equate “Nature” simply with physics and chemistry as we now understand them. A science freed from the unwarranted dogma of materialism is a science that can indeed serve theology. It may never explain the emotional qualities of religious experience any more than it will explain the joy to be found in art; it could, however, help in building a more comprehensive knowledge of the occurrence of this experience and its overwhelming importance for human society.

The invention and development of the scientific method is an important landmark in the evolutionary process; it is the logical outcome of the moulding of the intellect’s means of dealing with the external world as revealed by the senses. We must now adapt the same method to serve the extra-sensory world of spiritual experience; although we know that in itself it cannot deal with the emotional side, we can certainly use it for a systematic study of the external evidence of the behaviour of men and women who appear to be moved by such experience.

  • 1.

    In his article on Theology in the fourteenth edition of The Encyclopaedia Britannica.

  • 2.

    The Listener, Jan. 4th, 1951.

  • 3.

    Education and the Humanist Revolution. The ninth Fawley Foundation Lecture delivered in the University of Southampton, 1962.

  • 4.

    In The Essays of a Humanist.

  • 5.

    I shall be referring again to psychical research in lecture VIII.

  • 6.

    I had forgotten that Aldous Huxley had said much the same thing in his Proper Studies (p. 213) in 1927: “Much of the restlessness and uncertainty so characteristic of our time is probably due to the chronic sense of unappeased desires from which men naturally religious, but condemned by circumstances to have no religion, are bound to surfer.”

  • 7.

    All this, of course, is very out of date; his review of evolutionary ideas did not even include the rediscovery of Mendel’s laws.

From the book: