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Lecture X: A Science of Theology and an Experimental Faith

In this, the final instalment of my two series of lectures, I must try to draw the threads together, sum up the position reached and look to the future. From the beginning I have expressed my conviction that Lord Gifford was right in insisting that theology must be treated as a science “just as chemistry and astronomy are so treated”, if it is to win the respect of modern thinking men. But I also said that we must not attempt to set up such a science until we have built up a more extensive and comprehensive natural history of religion.

I refused to accept the idea that the methods of science could only be applied to physical material entities. It is true that a science can only be built by making and recording observations through our sense organs or their extensions in all manner of instruments and external recording devices; that, however, need not force us to adopt the quite unproven hypothesis that the universe is nothing but the material one known to present-day physics and chemistry. By our sense organs we can record many different kinds of human behaviour without assuming that they are entirely mediated by material events. I will not admit that the whole of biology can be reduced completely to physics and chemistry. Physiology, yes, for it is a special branch of biology concerned with analysing the actions of living systems in physico-chemical terms and I am sure that everything material in the body can be so analysed; we have no right, however, to assume that there is nothing more in animal life than that, and there is indeed, a great deal to tell against it.

I have insisted (p. 30) that two great branches of biology, ecology and ethology (the study of animal behaviour), can stand on their own feet strictly as parts of science in their own right without being reduced to physical terms. Just as the more physical sides of science are built up from the statistical study of the movements and interactions of molecules, atoms and smaller particles, so ecology and ethology are using the scientific method by recording in quantitative terms the behaviour of animals as living wholes without necessarily adopting the dogma of materialism. Psychology is a science in the same way: a science of human behaviour, but not, I believe, in the sense of the so-called “behaviourists”.1 The natural theology that I envisage is a science of the same kind: a science of man’s religious behaviour. More than a hundred years ago Archbishop Frederick Temple, before natural theology had fallen into disrepute among leaders of the church, saw that this change must come.

Our theology [he wrote] has been cast in a scholastic mould, i.e. all based on logic. We are in need of, and we are being gradually forced into a theology based on psychology. The transition, I fear, will not be without much pain; but nothing can prevent it.2

Just as ecology and ethology have become branches of true science because the earlier naturalists prepared the way by collecting a vast array of facts and observations, so, I believe, our future science of theology must be built upon an enormous collection of observations regarding man’s religious experience and behaviour. The course of lectures I am now completing has aimed at surveying some of the different fields which should be covered in such a natural history.

There have, I think, been two main obstacles in the way of modern man accepting the reality of the religion he may feel within his heart. Firstly the idea which I believe to be false, that science points to the process of evolution being an entirely materialistic one, which must rule out the possibility of a spiritual side of life; and secondly the belief that Freudian psychology has completely explained away the feeling of Divinity by its concept of the super-ego.

Let me briefly refer again to the first of these two difficulties. So important have I regarded it that, speaking strictly as a biologist, I devoted the greater part of my first series of lectures to a restatement of evolution theory. Unless we can show that the widely accepted mechanistic explanation is unfounded then it is no use trying to proceed further towards a scientific natural theology, because man is certainly a part of this evolutionary process. As I hope I made clear, there can now be no reasonable doubt that the physical side of the process is brought about, as Darwin supposed, by the action of natural selection upon the almost infinite range of variation which, as we have come to see, is caused by the random mutations of the genes and their recombinations; and further that these are shown to be the result of chance chemical changes in their nucleic acid (DNA) molecules. We saw that it was not these chance variations themselves which are governing the course of evolution, for they are tending to vary in almost any direction; it is now generally admitted by biologists that it is entirely the selective forces and not the mutations that are the creative elements in the process. It has however been generally accepted that these selective forces are simply those either of the inorganic environment or of predators and competitors in the struggle for life; so it was thought that the process must be simply a matter of the mechanical interaction of these factors. The main thesis in my first series of lectures was that there was another selective force equal in importance to the others or of even greater significance: that of the behaviour and habits of the animals themselves. Now it is generally argued by the mechanists that any such changes in behaviour are brought about first of all by natural selection picking out suitable mutational changes in the nervous mechanism of the animal; that indeed appears to be how changes in habits become built in as instinctive behaviour, but I do not believe they generally arose in that fashion, especially among the vertebrate animals which have a much more flexible range of reactions included in their inquisitive exploratory behaviour.

Terrestrial animals did not first get webbed feet and then take to the water to use them; they took to the water because competition for food on the land became too great and then those members of the population whose mutations produced webbing and gave an advantage in swimming tended to do better than those not so well equipped. I do not think it likely that mutations governing the nervous system made animals not addicted to water take to swimming—I believe that when food was short on the land the more adventurous ones took to diving into the water after fish and frogs. It was the same with adaptations for running, climbing trees, digging, flying and so on; new habits developed in the different populations according to opportunity and, as time went on, those members who by chance had slight bodily variations better suited to the new way of life tended to be more successful. But it was not chance, mark you, which dictated the change but the new behaviour developed by the ever curious, exploring and initiating animals themselves. As evolution has advanced we see this behavioural element, this psychic factor, increasing in importance; as brain capacity enlarged, this behavioural kind of selection became a dominating factor and eventually led to tool-making, speech and so to modern man.

I have emphasized that I do not believe that consciousness is confined to man. With the coming of speech, explicit knowledge, conceptual ideas and tradition—together with man’s prolonged youth which extends his period of learning—there has developed his personality which is markedly different from anything found among other animals. Apart from these additions, however, which are all so very recent in geological time, man, on his tacit, emotional side is very close to the animals as Professor Polanyi has shown (p. 40). Consciousness cannot be a product of just these later additions—it must be something far more fundamental in the biological system.

In my earlier lectures I hope I made it clear that I cannot accept the views of the mechanists who consider consciousness simply as an epiphenomenon of the material system. In the first lecture of the present series I stressed that I could only regard the present-day monistic views of so many scientists and humanists as exceedingly dangerous for the future of civilization in that it makes man’s spiritual side simply the superficial by-product of the material process. This conception I believe to be an entirely unwarranted dogma based upon a false, but widely accepted, mechanistic view of the evolution process. I suggested in that first lecture that this idea was as unreasonable and as dogmatic as any dogma of the mediaeval church; and that it was similarly based upon an entirely prejudiced view, in this case the view that physico-chemical science—biology being reduced to the molecular level—can alone supply us with the truth.

I believe that the kind of evidence from many different sources within the natural history of religion which we have briefly reviewed in this course of lectures gives strong evidence for the existence in man of an element which, while linked to the material system, would not, at any rate at present, appear to be explained by it. Quite apart from such evidence, however, a number of scientists with greater vision are now realizing that the problem of the nature of consciousness, embracing that of the mind-body relationship is one of the most important facing mankind today. I promised to say more about this.

In the last lecture of my first series I gave a quotation from one of Sir Cyril Hinshelwood’s Presidential Addresses to the Royal Society in which he gave much prominence to this problem of consciousness; earlier in the present course (p. 120) I have referred to his fine Edding-ton Memorial Lecture entitled The Vision of Nature in which he stressed the reality of the spiritual and artistic side of man. So important are his views regarding consciousness that I shall here quote him again, but this time from his more recent Presidential Address to the British Association at Cambridge entitled “Science and Scientists”3. In part of it he has been referring to the conception of molecular codes and the chemical storage of information, arising from work on reproduction, and how these have given rise to speculations about the mechanism of memory or even the mystery of dreams. He then goes on as follows:

But what remains utterly incomprehensible is how and why the brain becomes the vehicle of consciousness. Great heat has sometimes been generated by debates about whether scientists will ever, as has been crudely expressed, be able to make life in a test-tube. The heat at least is wasted. It need change little in our conception of things if they did. Suppose that in the course of centuries the transcendent technical difficulties are overcome, and the appropriate enzymes, synthetic nucleic acids and so on are assembled together cunningly enough and that a cell is constituted. Suppose even that two suitable cells are made and unite and, in an appropriately controlled environment, develop into a man. The inscrutable mystery of the relation between this piece of chemistry and physics and the conscious mind remains precisely the same as if the cells were formed by the biochemical processes of human bodies. Some philosophers have wanted to talk away the mind-matter problem as a verbal confusion. I suspect that at bottom they simply attach no importance to the scientific description of things and are therefore indifferent to any divorce between it and the language which describes the world of conscious experience. If so they are of course entitled to remain indifferent, but men of science presumably do not.

At all the boundaries of science we come against what are probably the inherent limitations of human understanding. At the edge of biology we meet the chasm between what science describes and what the mind experiences. In the physical sciences too we encounter insoluble contradictions if we try to contemplate the limits of space or the beginning of time … If reality is describable by a four-dimensional space-time continuum why does the time dimension present itself differently to our consciousness?4

A little earlier in his address he has been discussing the work and views of the late Sir Charles Sherrington. He says:

Family influences interested Sherrington in medicine and he passed by more or less conventional channels into research. He grew up among pictures of the Norwich School, wrote poetry, and it has been said of him that the poet was never deep down. Though he more than any other man elucidated the nature of nervous reflexes, he was strongly opposed to any mechanistic view of the world. “Mind” he wrote “knows itself and knows the world: chemistry and physics, explaining so much, cannot undertake to explain Mind itself.”

In the last lecture of my former series, and in the first of this, I quoted from Sherrington’s Gifford Lectures Man on his Nature; I now take the following from the same work:

… mental phenomena on examination do not seem amenable to understanding under physics and chemistry. I have therefore to think of the brain as an organ of liaison between energy and mind, but not as a converter of energy into mind or vice versa.

We have, it seems to me, to admit that energy and mind are phenomena of two categories.

When the International Congress of Physiology met in Oxford in 1947 they republished, as a compliment to Sherrington, his great book The Integrative Action of the Nervous System which was first published in 1906. Sherrington, nearing the end of his life, wrote a remarkable foreword to this 1947 edition, again emphasizing the apparent duality of mind and matter. He ends with these words.

That our being should consist of two fundamental elements offers I suppose no greater inherent improbability than that it should rest on only one.

Let me now turn to the views of Lord Brain—or Sir Russell Brain as he was when he wrote his book Mind, Perception and Science from which I take the following:

Our knowledge … is symbolic. Our knowledge of the external world is based on perceptions which depend upon the physical structure of the sense-organs and nervous system. This in itself constitutes a limit to our perceptions; and it is likely enough that it sets bounds to our thought also. Need we believe that a nervous system evolved to facilitate action upon the physical world is capable of providing conceptual symbols adequate for the whole of reality? He is a bold man who would claim that today.

Then a little later, after explaining that this symbolic representation is only one of the functions of the mind, he says:

I’ve been almost exclusively concerned with this aspect of mind because it’s of fundamental importance in relation to our knowledge of the world, but we must not lose sight of other and equally important mental functions. There are modes of thinking other than the scientific; and memory, emotion, will and self-consciousness could all receive as much attention as we have given to perception and scientific thought.

Neurologists such as Lord Brain are, I believe, demolishing the fashionable and pessimistic views of the modern philosophers such as Ryle, and giving more support to those of the opposite view such as Broad and Price. At the end of his book Lord Brain summarises his views as to the status of mind in the form of a discussion between an imaginary reader and himself as author:

What have you to say [the reader asks] about Ryle’s views? Hasn’t he finally demolished “the ghost in the machine” and with it many of the functions you evidently attribute to the mind?

It would take too long [he answers] to discuss all the views which Ryle expresses in The Concept of the Mind, but I must comment on his ideas about sensation, observation and imagination, since if he’s right about these I must be wrong and, incidentally, his approach to these topics will illustrate what I believe to be the fundamental defect of his book.

He (Lord Brain) goes on to demolish, on neurophysiological grounds, Ryle’s arguments in regard to these—but I must not follow him further here—I merely want to show that it is the neurophysio-logists today who appear, if I may use the expression, to be “on the side of the angels”.

Sir John Eccles, one of our leading physiologists of brain action, in his Waynfleete Lectures at Oxford in 1952, to the astonishment of many, supported the concept of the “ghost in the machine”. He in fact believes that the experiments in psychical research—especially those which claim to demonstrate what is called “psycho-kinesis”5—may well explain the mind-brain problem. He is by no means followed in this by most of his colleagues but he is one of the first to suggest how mind and brain may inter-act. In the same year, in an article in Nature6, he puts forward his ideas more concisely; while expounding his view that the mind produces changes in the nervous activity of the brain, he says:

It will be objected that the essence of the hypothesis is that mind produces changes in the matter-energy system of the brain and hence must be itself in that system. But such a deduction is merely based on the present hypothesis of physics. If these mind influences were of a nature that precluded their detection by any existing physical instrument, then physicists would be ignorant of them, and the hypothesis of physics would necessarily neglect them. It is at least claimed that the active cerebral cortex could be a detector of such “influences” if they existed.

He goes on to discuss the psycho-kinetic experiments pointing out that if they are indeed revealing facts then there must be an interaction between mental and physical events; he then recalls an earlier hypothesis suggested by Eddington concerning a possible correlated behaviour of individual particles of matter in liaison with mind.

It is clear that much more research must be done before the problem of the mind-body relationship is solved, but there is now a marked change of view developing among both neuro-physiologists and psychologists. I have already referred to Professor Sir Cyril Burt’s demonstration by statistical psychological methods that values can be studied scientifically as objective realities (p. 125); he has recently in two important papers, “The Structure of the Mind7” and “The Concept of Consciousness8”, shown the absurdity of both the epipheno-menal view of mind and the old behaviourist9 type of psychology. I will quote just one short extract from each. From the former I take the following:

In the past most psychologists took it for granted that one conscious process determined another. But, as Professor Mace has pointed out, few have turned this ostensible fact into an explanatory principle; “Freud seems to have been almost the first to take mental determinism seriously as a basic explanation in psychology.”

It is perhaps here more than anywhere else that we come up against the most conspicuous inconsistency in the epipheno-menalist’s position. He relies on conscious reasoning to prove his doctrine; and yet the very doctrine that he seeks to prove denies that conscious reasoning has any intrinsic validity. By his own showing the sole grounds for his utterances must be certain purely mechanical processes that have occurred within his brain: all else is illusion. And thus, as Stout observes, “materialism, in undermining common sense, undermines itself”.

And from the latter:

I conclude then that behaviourism, both in its original or “naïve” form and in its later or “sophisticated” forms (to use Boring’s convenient labels), has proved untenable. As a principle of methodology—particularly in certain specialized fields, such as animal psychology—the behaviourist approach has suggested useful experimental techniques and produced valuable results; but as a basis for a general theory of human experience it is hopelessly inadequate. The need to reintroduce the concept of consciousness seems inescapable. It is quite untrue to declare, as Watson does, that the introspectionist “never tells us what consciousness is, but merely puts things into it by assumption”. The phenomena of consciousness are not doctrinal assumptions; they are undeniable facts which everyone can verify. In its most conspicuous form—that of direct awareness—consciousness is a unique relation; it constitutes the basis of all observation, including the observations of the behaviourist himself. And the immediate objects of this awareness—the so-called “contents” of consciousness—are the things we know with the highest degree of certitude.

The shallow materialism of those biologists and psychologists who imagine that, in reducing all life to physics and chemistry, they are taking the only truly scientific course, is now giving way to a wider vision. There are still those, however, who seem to imagine that the principle of Occam’s razor demands that they should take the mechanistic view. This excellent principle, that of economy of thought, is certainly a valuable guide in general procedure, but not if it makes us miss the truth in straining after an entirely false over-simplification. Civilization may yet cut its throat with Occam’s razor if it does not realize in time that materialism is ignoring a large part of the data of experience.

This is just one reason why I believe it is so important to push on with psychical research to gain much stronger evidence for extrasensory perception. Similarly with research into the process of hypnosis—here surely is a field in which the nature of the mind-body relationship can be examined by the experimental method. As Lord Brain has emphasized most of our knowledge of this relationship has hitherto been based upon perceptions which depend upon the physical structure of the sense organs and the nervous system.

It is however in relation to religion and a natural theology that I believe a greater knowledge of extra-sensory perception will be so important. If it can be generally accepted that individual minds may be in touch with one another through channels other than those of the normal bodily senses, this should give back a reasonable faith in the possibility of communication with something beyond the self to those who have lost it on false materialistic grounds.

We must expect the discoveries of science to bring about many more drastic changes in our views as to the nature of the universe. Astronomy has altered our whole conception of the heavens and our position in it, physics has revolutionised our knowledge of matter and biology given us a new view of our relation to the animal kingdom; each step brings us a better understanding of our being. We must not be surprised if psychology is changing our thoughts about God. Theology, still based upon the thoughts of men of more than a thousand years ago, is unlikely to remain what it was; part of it, a large part of it, may well be as much in error as was the optical illusion of the sun going round the earth.

Talking of this illusion of the sun going round the earth: how different the universe might appear to us if we lived in another part of it, perhaps upon an earth that was neither rotating nor going round a sun, so that we would have no night or day, and no seasons. It might be much later in our history before we had clocks or any means of measuring time. In the old days the natives on the island of Annobon in the Gulf of Guinea, almost on the equator, had no seasons and no means of measuring the passing years; yet they elected their chiefs to reign for certain periods. Ships only very rarely called at this remote island and such visits were great events; they measured the periods of the chief’s reign to be that marked by every tenth ship that called, so that he reigned for a ten-ship period—sometimes shorter—sometimes longer. Without periods of night and day—without seasons—we might only have a vague feeling of duration—of continuing. We have no sense organs for the direct appreciation of time. Is it not a little strange that our sense organs give us excellent perception of three dimensions, those of space, but not of the fourth, of time? It should indeed remind us that our physical system is not showing us all the universe. We make clocks which are instruments based of course, like calendars, upon the movements of the heavenly bodies to so give us continual visual impressions of the passing of time; similarly we have to make other instruments which show us electrical changes that our bodily sense organs themselves will not record for us. If it had not been for the chance existence of loadstones we might never have known about magnetic fields. It is true that we now realize that we ourselves, and many other animals, have internal physiological clocks built into our systems, but these are metabolic (physico-chemical) rhythms evolved, like our clocks, in relation to external diurnal changes in the environment.

Without night and day, and seasons, we might, if clocks had not been invented, not really believe in time as a regular process of duration; sometimes it would pass for us far more quickly than it would seem to pass for others, and we should be for ever disputing that there could be such a regular process and we might express the view that those who believed in its existence as a universal character were cranks and charlatans. And for that matter do we now really understand the nature of time? Could the religious sense—the sense of the Holy—the feeling of the sacred—the something we call God—be something as fundamental as time but, like love, be unperceived directly by our senses; and like love—indeed linked with it—felt by our conscious ego in an extra-sensory way. As our natural history of religion brings together the records of religious experience and slowly, through classification and a relation to psychology, merges into our future science of theology, it will begin to show us more of the nature of the divine flame in man which responds to what we call divinity in the universe.

It would be folly to speculate and pretend at this stage that we have any idea as to the true nature of this power. All I would say at the end of my former course of lectures was this:

Our Natural Theology must be fearless. We must have the scientific approach and not shrink from what it may point to. At the very least I expect this power of which we speak may be some subconscious shared reservoir of spiritual “know-how” which we call Divine (perhaps the speculative species “mind” that I have suggested); I think, however, that above this there is something much more wonderful to which we give the name God.

Professor W. H. Thorpe, in his Freemantle Lectures10 which I heard him deliver in Balliol College—and which have much in them relating to my theme—quoted a remarkable passage from an essay by the late Professor J. B. S. Haldane in his The Inequality of Man (1932); I requote it here to show that he had a similar idea and that it need not be considered too heretical from a biological standpoint:

Now if the co-operation of some thousands of millions of cells in our brain can produce our consciousness, the idea becomes vastly more plausible that the co-operation of humanity, or some sections of it, may determine what Comte called the Great Being. Just as, according to the teachings of physiology, the unity of the body is not due to a soul superadded to the life of the cells, so the superhuman, if it existed, would be nothing external to man, or even existing apart from human co-operation. But to my mind the teaching of science is very emphatic that such a Great Being may be a fact as real as the individual human consciousness, although, of course, there is no positive scientific evidence for the existence of such a being. And it seems to me that everywhere ethical experience testifies to a super-individual reality of some kind. The good life, if not necessarily self-denial, is always self-transcendence. This idea is, of course, immanent in the highest religions, but the objects of religious worship retain the characteristics of nature-gods or deified human individuals. It was more satisfactorily expressed by Comte; but there is much in Positivism as originally conceived by him which seems unnecessarily arbitrary.

But to return to my own statement made at the end of my former course, it would indeed be presumptuous to try to say more than this now; it is for our natural theology of the future to tell us more. Nevertheless I believe that the various fields from which I have drawn evidence in the present set of lectures have all shown us different sides of this reality; we also have been encouraged, I hope, to suppose that much more knowledge will be forthcoming and welded together as our subject develops with increased research into the various aspects of religious experience. We may, of course, never be able to understand the true nature of Divinity; but we can continually augment our evidence as to the working of its power by experimenting in our way of life. It was only after I had written this and given it in my lecture that I looked up Haldane’s essay, quoted by Thorpe, and found to my surprise that in his very next paragraph (his p. 114) he talks of a scientific theology. I cannot resist quoting this as well:

Just because any formulation of the nature of such a being (i.e., the Great Being he refers to) has ultimately fallen below the best in our own moral consciousness, religions though at first a help later became a hindrance to ethical progress, and we shall do no good by premature theorizing. But just as, starting from the basis of chemistry, biochemists are gradually explaining the phenomena of life, so from a basis of psychology our descendants may build up a scientific ethics which may perhaps be at the same time a scientific theology.

In the syllabus of this course of lectures which I had to prepare for printing some months before giving this last lecture, and before I had worked it out in detail, I had suggested that I would give a fuller consideration of the experience of those with a religious temperament who feel that they definitely receive guidance in response to prayer. I was contemplating examining a number of examples of such experiences including some more of those discussed by William James and Professor Starbuck (other than those referred to in lecture iv); I have since thought it would not be very profitable to go into the details of such cases in just part of one lecture. They would require a much fuller analysis to make a worthwhile study. It is quite clear, however, as I hope I showed in lecture IV, that there are a great many people who do feel that they get help in the solving of their problems, especially personal problems, in answer to prayer. I am not referring to petitionary prayer for the alteration of physical events, or for personal safety or freedom from illness, but prayer for guidance for a better way of life or perhaps, more specifically, how best to deal with some difficulty or to achieve some worthwhile purpose. It seems as if such appeals can draw help from some power which appears to be beyond the self. I have already quoted the views of such psychological authorities as William James, Sir Frederic Bartlett and others (pp. 104–6) to show that there is much evidence that this is really so. Our future science of theology will, I believe, give us much more evidence regarding this, and religion will become animated by a more vital and dynamic faith than one which rests mainly upon the acceptance of some dogma from the past. It will become in fact a truly experimental faith. This was the conviction I expressed in my Essex Hall Lecture11 of 1951; let me give a brief extract from it:

It is within the non-material realm indicated by extra-sensory perception that I believe what we call prayer may be found to lie… Can there possibly be a greater quest than the securing of evidence which will demonstrate beyond all reasonable doubt the existence of an extra-sensory world about us in which our consciousness is somehow in touch with something greater than our individual selves—some power from which we can receive strength and support? Could not the results of research perhaps reveal to others what to some is a profound conviction? If such studies showed that contact with some power beyond the self seemed a likely possibility, would not many, who had not hitherto had the faith to make the experiment, be induced now to try to reach that power in prayer? Might not many find that it worked? Might it not generate a new experimental faith?

The conception of an experimental faith is, I believe, of overwhelming importance for the future of mankind; it has been forcibly expressed by Miss Barbara Ward in her book Faith and Freedom (pp. 254–6) from which I now quote—she has just been discussing the success of the experimental method in science:

What is perhaps not very generally realized is that if this is the full extent of science’s claim to lay bare reality, religion can proceed with much the same degree of certitude. The saint can say: “This universe I tell you of, in which God’s being and energy and love fill all reality and in which the base of your own soul is anchored in the Source of Being, may seem to you very far removed from the colourful material reality which you meet every day. But is it stranger than the colourless, soundless energies of science? Stranger than the notion that you are sitting this moment upon an intersection of physical impulses? Than that reality is a dance of electrons? The energy of God and the energy of nuclear power are equally remote from daily experience.”

But, some will say, we can prove the existence of nuclear power by setting up immensely complicated experiments, processing matter through them and at the other end receiving a predictable explosion. “Then,” the saint continues, “I say that the experiments of the religious life work in exactly the same way. We, the scientists of goodness, tell you that if you will take the raw materials of your all too human mind and body and process them through the laboratory of detachment, humility, prayer and neighbourly love, the result will be the explosion into your life of the overwhelming love and knowledge of God. Do not think you can know God except by hearsay unless you submit yourself to this experimental process, any more than you can produce nuclear fission without an Oak Ridge or a Harwell. But we promise that if the experiment is carried out under clinically pure conditions—as it has been in the life of the best and purest of mankind—then the result is scientifically certain. The pure of heart shall see God. That statement of fact is as experimentally certain as that H2O is the constitution of water, and it is proved by the same experimental means.”

If science is known by results—and this is in fact where its certitude rests—so, too, are the truths of religion. The experimental tests of religion are more delicate and unstable than those of science, for the raw material—the heart of man—has not that implicit obedience to the law of its own nature which is observable in metals or minerals or even living tissues. Inconveniently but gloriously, it has a free and unconditioned element. Again and again, in the laboratory itself, the experiment is botched. Yet where it is triumphantly concluded—in a Buddha, in a Lao-tse, in a St. Francis of Assisi, in a St. Peter Claver or a John Woolman—the experimental proof of religion shines forth with a light no less clear than that of science.

There can, I think, be no doubt that again and again people are convinced that they do receive answers to the prayers they make for help in their problems, provided they are not selfish prayers; I am myself convinced of it—the experiment works—but I am not so sure that the answers received are quite so simple in their nature as perhaps most believers imagine. I think it possible, and I say this with all humility and diffidence, that the response that comes from such prayer may be of a dual nature. There is first the uplifting feeling of being in contact with a transcendental element beyond the self: the feeling so well described in the words of William James:

The appearance is that in this phenomenon something ideal, which in one sense is part of ourselves and in another sense is not ourselves, actually exerts an influence, raises our centre of personal energy, and produces regenerative effects unattainable in other ways.12

It is a power that enables the individual to have more courage, to overcome obstacles and achieve the seemingly impossible. This is the greatest part of the response and one which, as James says, appears to come in part from beyond the self; but do the solutions to our particular individual problems also come to us in the same way? The answers do not usually come at once and the solution that eventually dawns upon one, is as often as not, not at all the kind of solution one expected. Is it reasonable to suppose that all the different individual answers of all who pray are really coming from one transcendental source beyond the self? Would it not seem more in keeping with what we know of nature for each of us to have our own built-in solution-provider? But one perhaps that is “unlocked” as it were by this transcendental or extra-sensory power.

This we must consider carefully for there are indeed psychological explanations for some very similar occurrences. There is what is sometimes called “intelligent dreaming” where a person may see in a dream the solution to a problem which has been occupying his mind for some time. There are well-known examples of the solving of scientific puzzles in this way. The chemist Friedrich von Kekulé tells how in a dozing dream he saw snake-like rows of atoms twisting about and then one seized its own tail; this, on waking, suggesting to him the structure of the benzene ring. Or again there was the dream of Elias Howe, the designer of an early sewing machine, who for a long time had failed to make it work because he placed the eye of his needle at its conventional blunt end; he dreamt that he was caught by some savage tribe which had spears with holes near their points and so awoke with the solution of his problem, perfecting his invention by placing the eye of his needle near its pointed end. We must all know how, without such dreaming, we may go to sleep thinking of some difficult problem and awaken in the morning with a solution to it. Our subconscious mind goes on working whilst we are asleep. Perhaps also the answers to our own particular difficulties which we seek in prayer are coming from a similar source? In part I think they may be, but there is more, I believe, to it than that; let us, however, first consider some allied psychological phenomena.

Freud has suggested that we may repress what seem to us to be irrational motives only to find that they may return unawares to affect our behaviour, making us perhaps miss a train or have a slight accident which prevents us keeping some appointments which we have previously thought may be disadvantageous to us. Claire and W. M. S. Russell in “Raw Materials for a Definition of Mind,” their contribution to the book Theories of the Mind13, say such incidents are by no means uncommon and present us with the following striking illustration:

Shakespeare, as usual, provides a splendid example. When Hamlet is about to leave for England with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, he is in no doubt about their reliability and his own prospects. “There’s letters seal’d; and my two school fellows, Whom I will trust as I will adders fang’d,” etc. (act iii, scene iv). In the same soliloquy he even outlines a strategy—that of hoisting the engineer with his own petar. By the time he is on ship-board, he has repressed all this, and goes to his cabin to sleep. But the repressed intelligent observation is still at work. In his heart (as he tells Horatio in act v) “there was a kind of fighting that would not let me sleep … our indiscretion sometimes serves us well, when our deep plots do pall; and that should learn us there’s a divinity that shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we will”. Restless with insomnia, he has a vague impulse to look at the letter. He opens it, finds the order for his assassination, and proceeds to carry out the strategy he had formed in Denmark—without remembering this at all. To him it seems like a new and strange inspiration: “ere I could make a prologue to my brains, they had begun the play,—I sat me down, devised a new commission, wrote it fair” and so on. Anyone who has noticed him—or herself having this sort of experience will recognize the perfect accuracy of the poet’s description. The “divinity” is, of course our own intelligence. This sort of behaviour is specially common in a particular class of the personality type we have called “idealistic”, to which Hamlet conforms in all other ways. The chief feature is a readiness to repress (either instantaneously or after first voicing them) accurate observations about the hostile intentions of others.

It may well be that the various separate solutions to our individual problems are always within us if only we could reach them, and that the act of prayer brings them to the surface. Instead of supposing that one great personal-like Deity is thinking out simultaneously the detailed answers to the millions of different problems of all the individuals of the world, is it not more reasonable to suppose that some action is set in motion by prayer which draws the particular solution for each one of us from our own subconscious minds? In saying this I must again make clear that I am not implying that I believe this destroys our conception of the Divine. All the evidence of religious experience, I believe, shows us that man makes contact with this Power which appears partly transcendent, and felt as the numinous beyond the self, and partly immanent within him. I also think it likely, however, that it may well be this uplifting power which does in fact activate the subconscious solution-providing mechanism in a way which would not otherwise be possible. In a similar way it may be the same power which assists in the healing of a sick person. As a further expression both of the reality of this sense of the Divine Power and of the experimental nature of faith let me give another quotation from L. P. Jacks; he has been discussing the perplexing mixture of lines of thought in Christianity and saying that while it does not exclude the concept of God as a moral governor of the universe it does not begin with that idea. In view of what I said at the end of the last lecture I would just remind you that Dr. Jacks was far from being an orthodox Christian; his Christianity was of a most liberal kind.

It does not require us [he says] to dismiss from our minds as blasphemous every thought of God which makes him other than the omnipotent legislator of the universe. In the religion of Jesus I am struck by the absence, by the total absence, of all these pompous conceptions of the Divine Nature, which show such speaking signs of having originated under lawyers’ wigs.

The idea that I do find seems to have originated in a very intimate and loving comradeship with man and with nature. Indeed, the religion of Jesus is precisely this spirit of comradeship raised to its highest power, the spirit which perceives itself to be “not alone”, but lovingly befriended and supported, extending its intuitions to the heart of the world, to the core of reality, and finding there the fellowship, the loyalty, the powerful response, the love, of which the finest fellowships and loyalties of earth are the shadows and the foretaste. In its essence the Gospel is a call to make the same experiment, the experiment of comradeship, the experiment of fellowship, the experiment of trusting the heart of things, throwing self-care to the winds, in the sure and certain faith that you will not be deserted, forsaken nor betrayed, and that your ultimate interests are perfectly secure in the hands of the Great Companion. This insight, this sure and firm apprehension of a spirit at hand, swiftly responsive to any trust we have in its answering fidelity, coming our way the moment we beckon it, motionless and irresponsive till we hoist the flag of our faith and claim its fellowship, but then mighty to save—this is the centre, the kernel, the growing point of the Christian religion, which, when we have it all else is secure, and when we have it not all else is precarious. God, said Jesus, is spirit: man is spirit no less; and when the two meet in fellowship there is religion.14

At this early stage in feeling our way from a natural history of religion towards a science of theology we must go slowly, and certainly not be dogmatic about any of these things, such as the nature of prayer and so on; we must continue to collect more evidence from personal experiences. There is something else that should be mentioned because it appears to point to quite a different mechanism in giving help in personal problems from the one suggested. There are certainly people who feel that they are not just being guided in their mental behaviour; various events in their lives appear to them to occur as if they were being manipulated towards some particular end. A consideration of such cases must form an important section in our natural history. Then there are those who feel they have some destiny. There are many examples in biography; I will take just one as an illustration, a quotation from C. G. Jung’s Memories, Dreams, Reflections (p. 57):

From the beginning I had a sense of destiny, as though my life was assigned to me by fate and had to be fulfilled. This gave me an inner security, and, though I could never prove it to myself, it proved itself to me. I did not have this certainty, it had me. Nobody could rob me of the conviction that it was enjoined upon me to do what God wanted and not what I wanted. That gave me the strength to go my own way. Often I had the feeling that in all decisive matters I was no longer among men, but was alone with God. And when I was “there”, where I was no longer alone, I was outside time; I belonged to the centuries; and He who then gave answer was He who had always been, who had been before my birth. He who always is was there. These talks with the “Other” were my profoundest experiences: on the one hand a bloody struggle, on the other supreme ecstasy.

Naturally, I could not talk with anyone about these things. I knew of no one to whom I might have communicated them except, possibly, my mother.

There may be a number of people who feel convinced that their lives have been so “arranged”, yet would never dream of admitting it: not only because they could not bear to appear so privileged, but also that they cannot believe that they could really deserve such special treatment.

Then what are we to make of intuitions? Especially those of men of evil genius, such as Hitler? It almost looked as if, in his ascendant phase, there was some super-human power behind him, and he certainly seemed to feel it. Could it be possible that, as a part of nature, there might be, as a result of a sufficient degree of shared emotion, a kind of tribal (or racial) “spirit”, either for good or evil, that can be generated by some extra-sensory means and have such a force as almost to succeed in conquest? Such speculations may be folly, but I believe our natural theology must carefully consider all kinds of hypotheses before rejecting them and not be afraid to look at some rather unpleasant things or pretend they are not there. We have seen in lecture VII how cruelty, lust and their opposite may have entered religion; there is much more in relation to evil that our science must investigate. Marett ended one of his Gifford Lectures with the following striking passage:

Thanks to the grosser forms of the sacrificial rite, the middle religions—not those of savages so much as those of the half-civilized peoples—reek of blood like a shambles. It was the sacrifice of Iphigeneia that called forth the protest of Lucretius in immortal verse: tantum relligio potuit suadere malorum. Yet if the facts are so, let us face them fairly. If religion is liable to unloose the beast in us even while seeking to free the man, we must learn how this deviation occurs, so that religion may be kept to the true direction. As psychologists, then, we must not be content to speak together in whispers about the lust or the cruelty that found their way into the religious complex together with the noblest of the human tendencies. Let us honestly proclaim that religious emotion is ambivalent, exciting the mind at once for better and for worse. At times, then, man is apt to think that he has reached the heights when he has merely touched the lowest depths of his spiritual nature.15

We may note that Marett wrote this before Hitler’s ‘religion’ of Nazism had got fully under way.

A true science of theology, a branch of science that may be accepted internationally like psychology, chemistry or any other branch, cannot fail to have a great influence for peace in the world. The bitterest wars have always been those of rival religious faiths. Like the jealous Jehovah of the Hebrews, perhaps there really have been “tribal” gods which have each held their particular races together and made them mighty strong in battle; perhaps human history emerging from prehistoric evolution shows us the conflict and survival of the “fittest” races—those animated by the more powerful emotional forces that give them higher degrees of courage, dash and endurance. Perhaps just as evolution may have made man into an animal prone to believe, in the manner suggested by Waddington which we discussed in lecture II (p. 46), it may also have fostered the development of this extra-sensory group feeling of a tribal divinity. The racial gods would seem then to have largely given way before the development of wider faiths as great prophets saw new truths; the resulting new religions spread across national boundaries from different centres in the world. Then again, within these new faiths, differing doctrines have led to rival sects which may even split apart brothers and sisters; and these sects, such as Catholic and Protestant, have at times fought with as much passion and bitterness as any tribal clashes of the earlier days. No wars are more bloody than those of religion; yet the same spiritual features can be seen in all the great religions of mankind. A natural theology built as strictly as a science would have elements reflecting the truer parts of all the great faiths; it should lead to an experimental faith acceptable to all the people of the world.

There is so much more, I am sure, that ought be said, about our future theological science, but I must draw to a close; before doing so, however, there is one promise that I should briefly fulfil. I was asked in one of the informal seminars, “Can anything be said about a possible purpose in the universe?” Rather than reply at once to so great a question I preferred to wait and try to say something about it in my last lecture. I think most agnostics and humanists, if asked, would say “No”. Now I admit that I don’t think anything useful can be said, because it can be nothing more than the wildest possible speculation; nevertheless perhaps it might just be worth saying that, on purely logical grounds, it is not impossible to imagine a reasonable goal for the cosmic evolutionary process. Certainly any such guess made in the twentieth century is most unlikely to be the correct one; however—and I think perhaps this is worth saying—the very fact that one can conceive an even remotely possible solution may save one from being in the pessimistic position of imagining that there can be no possible purpose in the process at all. Such a defeatist loss of all sense of meaning in the world is one of the tragic outcomes of the materialism of today.

My tentative and no doubt entirely improbable answer cannot be other than a quite fantastic flight of fancy into the realm of science fiction. Perhaps I am making a great mistake and am simply making myself ridiculous. I take the risk of this because without outlining the idea, which I agree is no doubt almost absurd, one cannot vindicate one’s belief that logically it is not impossible to conceive of a purpose in the evolutionary process. So with this warning of what nonsense to expect, I will apologetically proceed.

We see the continually increasing rate of man’s scientific and technological skill and achievements. The progress in the present century is staggering. All this great development has come about in an extraordinary short space of time and indeed the whole of man’s civilization is but a few thousand years compared to the two thousand million years’ span of organic evolution. Provided we have no cosmic or man-made disaster, we should, on this earth alone, still have more than a thousand million years of evolution in front of us. Consider this acceleration of our material progress. Sixty years ago man had only just learnt to fly; he had not yet flown the English Channel. Today millions of people fly every year across the oceans of the world and the pioneers are now out in space with every prospect of reaching the moon before the present decade ends. Who can doubt that within a hundred years man will be in every part of the solar system in which he can get a footing by building elaborate, air-filled, cooled or heated capsules? There is the same progress in almost every field. Animal life can now be suspended by freezing only to start again into full vigour by appropriate thawing techniques. Man, by being drugged and put under improved techniques of suspended animation will no doubt be sent unconscious in capsules to be brought to life again in perhaps thousands of years’ time when he has reached far away parts of the galaxy. With potentially some thousand million years of time in front of him, the mind boggles at the thought of what or where he might be. There is no need to enlarge on it, except in one direction, and that is in the development of computers—great exosomatic brains; see how they have increased in size and operational possibilities in just ten years’ time. What will they be like in a million years’ time? Machines perhaps so large that they cover whole continents, nay perhaps whole planets, with vast armies of technicians swarming like ants along their endless galleries and corridors.

So much for the physical side for which, I believe, no such picture need be an exaggeration; it is on the other side where speculation must be folly. I am optimistic enough to expect that Man’s spiritual and intellectual life (if we can still call him Man!),—with a greatly extended natural theology and much progress in psychical research—will also have developed enormously. Given sufficient time and a sufficient increase in information—stored mechanically for reference far beyond the memories of individual men—it seems possible that there must logically come a point when Man has indeed asked every possible question that can be asked and has in time gained and recorded every possible answer. He will know all the secrets of the Universe. He may in addition have developed a new collective consciousness as Haldane suggested (p. 230) and a greatly increased spirituality. I am, perhaps, in my imaginary answer getting near the Omega point of Teilhard de Chardin, but by a different road. Perhaps indeed we really are the children of God and that evolution must, with its psychic, spiritual element operating within the material matrix, eventually lead to a collective omniscient consciousness knowing just how and where in the universe life may and will be started again! We are perhaps part of a great system for generating love, joy and beauty in the universe: the highlights of existence that can only be perceived and appreciated when seen against the darker background of their opposites. You may remember that I heretically think it likely that love, joy and beauty are not only generated but felt (who knows?) far down in the animal world, and that man alone has come to discuss and express them in words. Yes, to imagine a purpose is not impossible; but to suppose that what we imagine is actually the real purpose would be the height of impertinence. Let us leave it at that and return to earth; we may return full of a confidence that, from what the mystics, poets and artists tell us, the real meaning of the cosmic process is something far more wonderful than anything we can possibly imagine in our present state of being.

In this lecture I have largely been discussing a future science of theology, and while referring to religious experience I have said little about real religion itself except to emphasize the importance of an experimental faith. Let me end by stressing it still further. I am convinced that with the experimental method we could have a new flowering of faith that could reshape our civilization. As I said at the end of my last course of lectures, it would, I believe, be a faith in a spiritual reality to match that of the Middle Ages, but one based not upon a belief in a miraculous interference with the course of nature but upon a greatly widened scientific outlook. By experimenting I mean putting to the test the act of prayer. Experiment to see if it works. However unlikely it may seem to one from one’s rationalistic upbringing, try the experiment of really imagining that there is some element that one can make contact with beyond the conscious self. Have that amount of faith—and see. How to do it? [This was not a part of my original lecture.] At the risk of appearing a prig I will outline the method which I am quite sure will work if made in the right way; it is a very old one and you will recognize its origin.

Make the approach as if you were a child speaking to a loved Father, knowing all the time that the form of this relationship is almost certainly a psychological one based upon one’s own former filial affection. The personal form of it enables one to have the emotional sense of devotion that is a necessary part of the process although again you know the reality must be something very different. The analogy, if you like, sets up the relationship with this element beyond the conscious self. Ask in all humility to receive help in trying to bring about a better state of the world (“Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done”) and think in what ways one might oneself do something to this end. Ask to be shown how one can keep oneself in better health to play a better and more active part in the world: to ask oneself if one is abusing one’s body by taking more than one’s proper share of daily bread. Ask that we may realize our own faults and how to mend them, and how to forgive those who have trespassed against us. Ask that we may recognize, with thought, what are the real temptations and evils that are making our lives less worthy than they could be. If all this is done with real feeling, with devotion, I fully believe that those who do it will come to feel a new power in themselves; they will feel in touch with a power and a glory beyond themselves which can make the world a different place—a new kingdom.

These are surely the essential headings under which to pray; and they were given to the world long ago with the injunction “not to use vain repetitions as the heathen do”. It is not a prayer to be rattled through in a matter of seconds, as it so often is in our cathedral services, as if it were a magic incantation. It is a spiritual exercise, a prayer to be used when one is alone: “when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou has shut the door, pray to thy Father who is in secret.” It must be used slowly and with thought. The exact words of the headings are surely not important; are they not only guides to the different lines of prayer?

Prayer of this kind I believe to be essential to one’s mental health, as necessary as a bath is to the body; it clears and uplifts the mind and gives one zest. If peaceful privacy cannot be obtained within one’s house, there are small chapels for private prayer in most churches; there one will find a conducive atmosphere although one may theologically be far from the orthodoxy of the establishment. My heart is in the Church of England, with all its beauty and deep sense of holiness, but not my mind which is repelled by its unreal dogmatic doctrines. Just as William James has a postscript to his volume of Gifford Lectures The Varieties of Religious Experience to make clear his own philosophical position, so am I adding a similar one to state my theological standpoint. I am a Unitarian, but not everyone understands what it means; I was myself one (in principle) for more than twenty years before I realized it.

That great modern churchman and one time Principal of Ripon Hall, Oxford, the late Canon H. D. A. Major, D.D., preached the need for a world religion and called it Basic Christianity; the only “creed” he laid down for membership was the use of the Lord’s Prayer. He wrote as follows:

What a magnificent Prayer-Creed is the Lord’s Prayer in its simplicity, profundity and universality. It could be said by Jews, Mohammedans and Theistic Buddhists. It is the most unifying religious formula in the world, and I doubt whether the Christian Church has any spiritual and moral authority to refuse membership to those who can and will say this Creed-Prayer from the heart.16

Yes, a world religion is what is needed, one founded upon a flame of faith within the heart and reason in the mind, a reasoning based upon the findings of scientific studies in both natural theology and psychical research. As I said at the end of my last course of lectures, if only 1 per cent of the money spent upon the physical and biological sciences could be spent upon investigations of religious experience and upon psychical research, it might not be long before a new age of faith dawned upon the world. I also said, “Those who are concerned lest our civilization will change its nature under the influence of a materialistic philosophy might, I believe, do well to consider how they might encourage further research into the nature of personality in the hope of finding out more about man’s spiritual side and the nature of God.” Any royalties on the sale of this book will go towards a research unit of this kind which I am starting at Manchester College, Oxford, of which I am honorary President. It is the College in which, in its early days in the eighteenth century, such men as Joseph Priestley and John Dalton combined with brilliance both scientific achievement and a deep spiritual faith. If any reader is able and feels inclined to support such a venture I shall be deeply grateful for any help. At the beginning of this course I expressed my sense of urgency lest the civilization as we know it is lost; I am not suggesting that the work I am proposing will save it, but each little effort towards the discounting of materialism will help.

As the making of physical fire was one of the great milestones in the rise of man, so also I believe was his discovery of prayer as a means of kindling and fanning a flame he found within him: a flame which, like a spiritual engine, has brought him to higher and higher things. Let him not throw it away.

  • 1.

    See p. 160.

  • 2.

    Quoted by H. D. A. Major in his Basic Christianity (p. 54), 1945.

  • 3.

    This address was given later in the year than my Gifford Lectures; I have substituted this quotation for a repetition of one from his former Royal Society address which I actually used in the lecture.

  • 4.

    Science and the Scientists. The Advancement of Science, vol. 22, pp. 347–56, 1965

  • 5.

    Psycho-kinesis is the name given to an effect which it is claimed has been demonstrated by experiments first made by Professor Rhine and his colleagues at Duke University, but repeated in a number of other universities (e.g. by Dr. Thouless at Cambridge). It appears from their experiments that some minds can produce slight effects upon moving objects such as dice, effects which are only revealed by the statistical analysis of long series of tests. I have not referred to their experiments in my lecture on psychical research because I regard them as, so far, less well established than others; I do not deny their importance, but for reasons indicated in one of my former lectures (The Living Stream, pp. 241–2) I think it just possible that they may be demonstrating some phenomenon of nature other than the supposed psycho-kinetic one. As I have already indicated I fully expect that in its various fields psychical research will indeed throw much more light on the nature of the mind-body relationship.

  • 6.

    Vol. 168, p. 53, 1951.

  • 7.

    The British Journal of Statistical Psychology, vol. 14, pp. 145–70, 1961.

  • 8.

    British Journal of Psychology, vol. 53, pp. 239–42, 1962.

  • 9.

    Not to be confused with the modern animal behaviour studies, see p. 160.

  • 10.

    Now published as Science, Man and Morals, Methuen, 1965.

  • 11.

    Science and the Quest for God, The Lindsey Press, London.

  • 12.

    The Varieties of Religious Experience, p. 523.

  • 13.

    Edited by J. Scher, Free Press of Glencoe, New York and Macmillan, New York and London, 1962.

  • 14.

    Religious Perplexities, p. 92.

  • 15.

    Faith, Hope and Charity in Primitive Religion (p. 90) 1932.

  • 16.

    Basic Christianity, Blackwell, Oxford, 1944.

From the book: