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Chapter VII | Intellectual Impediments

§ 1. Different types of impediment

There are many impediments to religion. Among these human wickedness—or human sinfulness, if we use the language of theology—is the most formidable, but it is by no means the only one; and under this head we ought not to include the sin of thinking about religion, as is sometimes done by those who are guilty of the sin of thinking too little. Another obstacle is to be found in the aberrations of religion itself and in the unworthiness of its professed followers. These impediments are patent enough from the religious point of view. We must now take a more detached standpoint and consider some of the alleged incompatibilities between religious belief and the rest of our knowledge. This ungrateful task may be described as a study of the intellectual impediments to religion. The views with which we have to deal are commonplace among thinkers, and are dimly apprehended even by the unthinking masses, so that it would be foolish, and indeed wrong, to pass them over in silence or to pretend that they are not serious.

§ 2. Religion and science

Intellectual impediments to religion are made possible by the intellectual element in religion itself. Every religion, and certainly every developed religion, offers us a doctrine of man, a doctrine of history, a doctrine of the universe, and a doctrine of God. The exact status of such doctrines may be difficult to determine, and obsession with theory may be one of the major religious aberrations. Nevertheless religion cannot get on without some sort of doctrine, even if this be reduced to the barest minimum.

Doctrine necessarily claims to be true, and this means that it enters into competition with other doctrines also claiming to be true. We may hold that one doctrine is true from one point of view and another from another; but ultimately there can be only one truth, or one comprehensive system of truths, in which divergent points of view are reconciled. We may not be able to effect this reconciliation, but to abandon the belief that such a reconciliation is possible is to abandon reason altogether and to have no defence against lunacy.

What are the doctrines with which religion, so far as it is doctrinal, may, and does, come into conflict? They can all be summed up in one word—science. But this bald statement is in need of some further elucidation.

In the first place, science has to be interpreted widely. It includes, not only the natural sciences, but also the mental and social sciences, such as psychology and anthropology. It covers also the modern methods of historical and literary criticism. The development of all these disciplines in the last four hundred years has brought religion face to face with a situation very different from any that existed before.

In the second place, it may be objected that there is no such thing as science—there are only sciences in the plural—and that all this talk about a conflict between religion and science is too vague to be profitable.

In such an objection there is some truth, and we ought always to be chary of those who are in the habit of telling us that Science (with a capital S) teaches us this or that and admits of no further argument. Assertions of this kind often spring, not directly from science, but from semi-popular philosophy, and some of the impediments to religion may fall under this description. Nevertheless we are blind if we fail to see that in method, in outlook, and in what can be described as atmosphere, science—all science—may be opposed to religion. Even if scientific knowledge is ultimately compatible with religion, it does not appear to be so at first sight; and indeed it seems to contradict a great deal formerly considered by theologians to be necessary for a saving faith. Furthermore, whatever may be true as regards logical compatibility, there is at least a psychological opposition between the scientific and the religious attitude. The gradual spread of the scientific outlook—and we are all affected by it even if the scientists say we are not nearly as much affected as we ought to be—has tended, not so much to refute religious belief, but rather to make it fade and wither. To quote Professor Price: ‘it has led to that inner emptiness and lack of faith… which is our fundamental and, as it seems, incurable disease’.

It may be replied that all this is very much out of date—a mere survival of Victorian rationalism long ago abandoned. Those who comfort themselves thus are, I am afraid, deceived. It is true that science to-day—apart from the followers of Karl Marx, who was more of a prophet than a scientist—is not so cocksure as it once was about the finality of its teaching and is more prepared for revolutionary discoveries. It is also true that the note of hostility to religion is often, though by no means always, less strident than it was in the past. All this is to the good, but the main reason for the lesser stridency is that the modern rationalist no longer considers himself to be battling for victory: he supposes that the victory is already won. The greater amiability of present-day discussions is no doubt a straw that can help to show which way the wind is blowing; but those who clutch at that straw may only give the impression that they are drowning men.

§ 3. Religion and physics

The tide of science which threatens to submerge religion began to flow when Copernicus discovered that the earth was not the centre of the physical universe, but only one of the planets revolving round the sun. This tidal movement became more perceptible when Galileo confirmed his discovery and began to develop the modern methods of observation and measurement which have led to such astonishing triumphs. As if aware of the impending danger, the Church reacted violently, and condemned these doctrines as incompatible with Holy Scripture. Yet in spite of its utmost endeavours the tide has flowed relentlessly for more than four hundred years. Its rise has continuously accelerated and is certain—unless there is a world catastrophe—to accelerate more and more. During the whole of this period—if we may change the metaphor—religion has been fighting a rearguard action, abandoning one position after another till it is uncertain how much is left.

Why is it that the amazing achievements of modern physics and astronomy have seemed so inimical to religion? It is not merely that they overthrow primitive Biblical speculations about the physical universe—although, when a book has been regarded as divinely inspired throughout, to contradict the least part of it may seem to destroy the authority of the whole. Nor is it merely that man is seen as the creature of a day, clinging precariously to a whirling planet in a solar system which is itself utterly insignificant amid the vast reaches of interstellar space and astronomical time. These and many other considerations all play their part; but perhaps the main impediments to religion arise from two things—from the character of scientific method and from the conception of the world as governed throughout by unvarying law.

On scientific method little need here be said, although psychologically it may be the strongest influence of all. A scientific training makes it difficult or impossible to accept statements on authority, to be satisfied with second-or third-hand evidence, to believe in marvels which cannot be experimentally repeated, or to adopt theories which cannot be verified by empirical observation. There may be exceptions to this rule; for some scientists seem to lose their critical power once they stray beyond the narrow limits of their own subject. But there can be no doubt that in this respect the influence of science is both powerful and pervasive, and that it is unfavourable to much that passes for religion. How far that influence may in its turn lead to error or extravagance it is not here necessary to enquire. For our present purpose it is enough to recognize that the whole attitude, not merely of scientists, but of thoughtful men brought up in a scientific age, towards all the problems of life, whether secular or sacred, has been affected to an extent which it is almost impossible to exaggerate. Here may be found perhaps the greatest impediment to the unquestioning acceptance of any simple and traditional religious faith.

It is more difficult to gauge the effects which follow from conceiving the physical universe as subject to laws which admit of no exceptions. As late as the eighteenth century many thinkers regarded the discovery of physical laws as a revelation of the divine plan by which the universe is governed; and the very simplicity and comprehensiveness of the plan was taken to be a proof of divine benevolence and wisdom. Yet at least as early as Descartes it was already realized that physical laws were independent of, if not opposed to, the idea of purpose in the universe. It is this second interpretation which has prevailed. When Laplace, speaking of the existence of God, said ‘I have no need of that hypothesis’, he meant that the conception of God's activity or purpose played no part in his formulation of scientific law, as it had done in the work of other thinkers, including the great Isaac Newton himself. In that specific sense the dictum of Laplace is the universal assumption of science to-day.

If modern physics is unfavourable to belief in a divine purpose or plan, it is still more unfavourable to belief in miracles. So far as these are considered to be breaches of physical laws, they cannot be accepted without rejecting the most fundamental presuppositions of science. Hence it is not surprising that they have become somewhat of an embarrassment to religion. At one time they were invoked to guarantee the truth of revelation. Now, if they are defended at all, it is revelation that is invoked to guarantee the truth of miracles, and their occurrence is explained as the manifestation of some higher law.

So far as physics is incompatible with miracles and has no use for a divine purpose in the universe, it is hard to see how we can retain the idea of providence in general and of special providences in particular. But this is not the worst. The character of scientific law appears to require a universal determinism which applies to the movements of human bodies as much as to the movement of the smallest electron or the remotest star. This cuts at the roots of all morality and so of religion as well.

There are some who seek to escape from this gloomy situation by reminding us that the old-fashioned mechanical views of physics are now abandoned. The concepts of mechanical cause and effect have been given up, and in place of causal laws we are left only with statistical averages. Physics itself even recognizes a principle of indeterminacy and so leaves at least a chink for human freedom. Hence perhaps the future before religion is not quite so black as it has been painted.

Without any wish to be dogmatic on these difficult subjects we must still ask ourselves whether those who find comfort in such considerations may not also be clutching at straws. To abandon the old-fashioned view of causation is by no means to give up the universality of law: all it amounts to is that the laws have a different character. The microscopic space left open by the principle of indeterminacy is far too small for the exercise of human freedom—if indeed we can conceive human freedom at all as manifested only in the apparent chinks and interstices of the physical universe. The late Professor Susan Stebbing was right when she said ‘It cannot be maintained that all that is required for human freedom is some amount of uncertainty in the domain of microphysics’. And if we wish to argue that the new physics is less unfavourable to religion than the old, we must take into our reckoning what is called the second law of thermodynamics, according to which the universe is steadily running down. It is hard to see how this can offer any ground either for moral optimism or for religious faith.

The general effect of the modern scientific outlook is summed up in the eloquent, and by now familiar, words of Mr. Bertrand Russell. ‘That man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the inspiration, all the noon-day brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of man's achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins—all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundations of unyielding despair, can the soul's habitation henceforth be safely built’.

If Mr. Russell's views be regarded as suspect, let us listen to the less eloquent, but hardly less despairing, words of a deeply religious thinker—Dr. Albert Schweizer. ‘My solution of the problem’, he says, ‘is that we must make up our minds to renounce completely the optimistic-ethical interpretation of the world. If we take the world as it is, it is impossible to attribute to it a meaning in which the aims and objects of mankind and of individual men have a meaning also.’

§ 4. Religion and biology

If the first great wave that threatened to engulf religion came from physics, the second came from biology. The Darwinian theory of evolution overthrew the belief that each species was the object of a special creation and possessed a fixed and unchanging character. This served to upset the authority alike of Aristotle and of the book of Genesis. But still worse than this, the process of evolution appeared to be mechanical rather than purposive, blind rather than intelligent, and so to render nugatory the argument from design, which was commonly regarded as the most cogent proof for the existence of God. Furthermore, from a human point of view evolution in its working seemed wasteful and even cruel, and the main qualities making for survival appeared to be lust and violence and deceit. It gave less than no support to belief in the wisdom and benevolence of the Creator or to the view that the end of creation was the furtherance of virtue. But perhaps the greatest shock of all came from the discovery that man, far from having been specially created in the image of God, was himself the product of this unintelligent process of evolution and must look back to a long line of ape-like ancestors. Nowadays we take all this calmly in our stride, partly perhaps through lack of imagination. We may even feel in a curious way that it unites us more intimately with the world of nature of which we form a part. But it should not cause us surprise if to our Victorian grandfathers it seemed that

‘The pillar'd firmament is rott'nness,

And earths base built on stubble.’

In comparison with this the other shocks from biology may seem unimportant, but we have to remember that the effect of scientific discoveries is cumulative. Of these further shocks we need mention only one.

It has always been recognized that the soul is in some ways dependent on the body; and we all know from ordinary experience how a minor indisposition, or even fatigue, may dull our mind and blunt our emotions and weaken our will. But the development of physiology began to show in ever minuter detail how close is the connexion between mind and body, and how utterly we depend on the structure of our brain and nervous system. The very existence of the soul began to be questioned. Why should we postulate a soul instead of recognizing that mental functions are completely dependent on bodily functions? Above all, why should we suppose, against all the empirical evidence, that the soul could exist as a separate entity after the death of the body? The belief in immortality, one of the strongholds of religion, or at least of many religions, was being steadily undermined. Conclusions based on these detailed discoveries were supported further by the general theory of evolution, which abolished the sharp separation of man from the other animals, as also by the general theory that physical laws govern the movements of all bodies, not excluding the organic bodies of plants and animals and men. Some philosophers and scientists hold it out as a possibility, and indeed as an ideal, that the laws of biology, and even of psychology, may one day be reduced to laws of physics.

One general result emerges from all this. Man displays his intelligence in discovering laws of nature and then awakes, perhaps with horror, to the fact that these laws apply to himself: for science he is only one object among many others and has to be understood in the same way as the rest. Thus man is finally entangled in the meshes of the net that he himself has woven; and when we say this, we must add that it is true, not merely of his body, but of his soul. Science is, as it were, a machine constructed by man in order to master the universe; but the machine has turned against its maker and seeks to master him as well.

§ 5. Religion and psychology

The third great wave threatening religion comes from psychology, which is, at least etymologically, the science of the soul. This is a more recent wave; and as we disappear gasping under its onrush, we are hardly yet in a position to study its shape. Indeed its shape is perhaps not yet definitely formed. Its exponents at times contradict one another with a freedom ordinarily reserved for philosophers; and some of them indulge in a boldness of speculation from which a respectable philosopher would shrink. We are offered a choice between different schools of thought.

Thus there is a Behaviouristic school, which, as a further expansion of physiology, makes still more formidable the impediments already considered. The Behaviourists ignore in practice, if they do not also deny in theory, the mental phenomena formerly considered open to introspection—our thoughts, our emotions, our volitions, and so on: they are content to study only the bodily behaviour of human and other animals, and so to blur still further the dividing line between man and the brutes. A very different method is adopted by the schools of psycho-analysis which originate from Freud, both by those which seek to carry further the work of the master and by those which attempt to modify and improve it. All of them start from an examination of human consciousness, especially of human dreams; and they claim on this basis to bring under scientific investigation the vast and obscure domain of the unconscious, whose existence had been merely suspected and whose character had not been seriously explored. According to them the human mind is like an iceberg, by far the greater part of which is under water and not amenable to direct observation. By means of inference they attempt to describe in detail these murky nether regions; and they have been able, as it were, to draw up from the ocean's depths many strange, and on the whole unpleasing, objects for our contemplation and instruction.

The schools which consider human consciousness to be worthy of scientific attention take up different attitudes to religion. As we have seen, they may regard it as a harmful illusion or as a healing and even ‘real’ illusion, whatever that may be. But, broadly speaking, even at the best they offer cold comfort to religion, and the attitude of Freud himself is conspicuously hostile. Besides, they exhibit the general tendency to assume determinism in mental processes; they encourage the view that reason has little or no part to play in human behaviour; and even if they regard mind as a possible object of study, it is for them only one object among others and requires no special principles for its understanding. All psychology is an example of what I meant when I said that the soul is entangled in the meshes of the scientific net which man has devised for the better understanding of the physical world. And many psychologists believe that religious experience can be explained—or explained away—in accordance with the ordinary laws that have been found to account for other mental phenomena.

This third wave is perhaps logically less intimidating to religion than the other two, if only because psychology is not yet fully developed as a science. Psycho-analysis has called attention to mental phenomena hitherto neglected; it has thrown light on dark places; and it has done mental healing a service for which the world must be grateful. Whatever be its defects, it has opened up the way for fresh advances, but has it already advanced so far that even its fundamental concepts are firmly established? Sometimes it may seem not to have got much beyond a stage like that in chemistry when the phenomena of combustion were explained by postulating a hypothetical substance, now forgotten, which was known as ‘phlogiston’; or at least—if this is too depreciatory—not beyond the comparatively recent stage in physics when ‘ether’ had to be postulated as an elastic substance permeating all space and forming a medium through which rays of light were propagated. It may be heretical to say so, but it seems to me rather improbable that our old friends, the Ego, the Super-Ego, and the Id, will occupy permanent niches in the scientific pantheon.

Nevertheless, even if this third wave may not yet be so very imposing logically, psychologically—partly perhaps by its very vagueness—it is to-day almost the most formidable of the three, at least as far as popular or semi-popular thinking is concerned. In spite of attempts to make use of it in the interests of religion, it produces an emotional and intellectual background so different from that of religious tradition that the combination of the two becomes very difficult. What is sometimes said of philosophies is even more true of religious beliefs—they are usually not refuted, but merely abandoned. When the spiritual climate has altered, they may simply fade away; and we seem to be witnessing something rather like this at the present crisis of our civilization.

§ 6. Religion and history

There are other human sciences besides psychology, and their influence has also tended to be psychologically, if not logically, unfavourable to religion. Anthropology, for example, tends on the whole to blur sharp distinctions between the primitive and the developed, and among heathen superstitions it finds parallels even for the most sacred mysteries of the higher religions. It suggests that religion is a survival of something primitive in the experience of the race, just as psychology suggests it is a survival of something primitive in the experience of the child. Even economics takes a hand in the unholy assault. The classical economists may have been tempted at times to suppose that the ‘economic man’ was, not a mere useful abstraction, but the only kind of man there is; and this tendency has been hardened into a dogma by the Marxists. They tell us that our bourgeois religion, like our bourgeois morality, is only an ideology—that is, an illusory ‘rationalization’ of purely economic factors—and one of the main impediments to human progress. All these human sciences, among which sociology also may be included, have the common characteristic of treating man as one object among other objects: they tend to explain his thoughts, his actions, and his emotions as the effect of forces outside himself—forces whose influence can be determined, and even controlled, in accordance with ascertainable scientific laws.

Here then we have a whole series of little wavelets, not perhaps very impressive in isolation and colliding at times with one another, yet all driving inexorably in the same general direction. But belonging to the same series there is one special wave so menacing that we may be inclined to call it the fourth great wave—the wave of historical method and historical criticism.

The modern development of the historical method is particularly menacing to Christianity, since of all the great religions Christianity has laid most stress on history—the history of the Jews, the history of the Founder, and the history of the Church. Modern criticism has undermined first the authority of the Old Testament and then the authority of the New in such a way that the traditional belief in an infallible Book, written down by God's penmen at His dictation, can no longer be accepted by any intelligent man of independent judgement who has given serious consideration to the subject. We have instead a most fallible human record compiled by mortal men, who, even if they were gifted with a special religious insight, were unacquainted with the canons of historical evidence and unfamiliar with the ideals of historical accuracy. Christian thinkers have made great and creditable efforts to adjust themselves to this new situation—the other world-religions are probably not even yet fully awake to their danger. The methods of modern scholarship may be able to sort out what is reasonably certain from what is at least doubtful as well as from what is in all probability fictitious. On these points there are, and are bound to be, differences among scholars, and it is only experts who can profitably form an opinion. Hence it is always possible, and it may often be justifiable, to dismiss the arguments of laymen in these subjects as ignorant or exaggerated. Nevertheless the plain man used to be faced with a plain situation which he could understand. He was told that every historical statement in the Bible, or at least in the New Testament, was true. He has now to be told that while the religious teaching in the Bible retains its unique value, some of its historical statements are true, while some are untrue, and others have been traditionally misunderstood. Even if he is sensible enough not to hold that if anything goes, the whole thing goes, he yet feels that he does not know where he stands, and that he is ill-equipped to come to a decision in matters about which the doctors differ. This is a new impediment to the simplicity of religious faith.

To the thoughtful man all this opens up questions which are philosophical rather than historical. He has been told, in traditional language, that religious faith is necessary for salvation, and the question he asks himself is this. Granted that religious faith is very much more than an intellectual belief in historical facts, can a belief in historical facts be necessary for salvation, and so for religious faith, when only the most expert scholarship is competent to decide whether these alleged facts are historical or not? If he answers in the negative, if indeed he comes to the conclusion that no belief in historical facts and no skill in historical scholarship can be necessary for what he calls salvation, his view of what is essential to religion has undergone a revolution, and he has entered a new path, not knowing where it may lead.

§ 7. Religion and philosophy

I have not mentioned philosophy as one of the waves with which religion has to struggle. Philosophers do not speak with one voice, and the best of them are more anxious that men should think for themselves than that they should accept any doctrine dogmatically. But if we may speak of general trends, the movement of philosophy in this country has been, on the whole, away from religion. The Oxford Idealism which prevailed at the end of the Victorian age did at least have religious sympathies. The Realism which tended to replace it later, if it was not always sympathetic, was seldom other than neutral. The more modern school of Logical Positivism, which owes its rise to the great influence of Mr. Bertrand Russell, is often openly hostile or indifferent. We have moved far from the days when philosophy was the handmaid of theology. Like other handmaids at the present time, she now considers herself to be not only as good as her mistress but—if the colloquialism may be pardoned—a damn’ sight better; and if she were inclined to enter again into domestic service, it would be as the handmaid, not of theology, but of science.

So far as Logical Positivism places a linguistic ban on theology and even on ethics, it has already been examined briefly in Chapter II; but it would be a mistake to regard the doctrine that all statements about God are nonsense as the central feature of the modern linguistic movement as a whole. There is already a marked tendency to get beyond the earlier dogmatism, and even to display an interest in religion as well as in other problems more akin to those which have occupied philosophy in the past. As originally expounded Logical Positivism sweeps so much away into one comprehensive rubbish heap that it is difficult not to feel there must be something wrong with it; but its boundaries are becoming so blurred that it is almost time the name was dropped. All I wish to point out here is that a modern philosophy which had—and may still have—a very great following, especially among the younger intellectuals, is, perhaps I should not say hostile, but politely contemptuous, towards everything in the nature of religious belief. In this respect, as in others, it would seem to be a faithful mirror of an attitude widely prevalent at the present time.

§ 8. The predicament of religion

I have no wish to pretend that the contentions I have put forward are conclusive or that they are all equally sound. Like Logical Positivism itself, they sweep so much away along with religion that we may begin to doubt their validity. What I have stated is the case which is widely accepted and has got to be answered. Nevertheless it is folly not to see that the case is very strong and that, although in certain respects it may be specially menacing to Christianity, it is a threat, not to a particular religion, but to all religion as such.

There are doubtless many other reasons, some of them less creditable, for the growing indifference to religion; but reasons of the type I have described are worthy of special consideration since they spring, not from human wickedness and folly, but from the highest achievements of human thought. They affect, not only the intellectuals, but also, through them, the immense mass of men who take their opinions at second and third and fourth hand. The whole spiritual atmosphere is altered, and even the ordinary religious man speaks to-day in a different tone about special providences and the hope of immortality, if he speaks of them at all.

In such circumstances it is unconvincing to tell us that the conflict of religion and science is now happily out-moded, that so and so has put forward new theories about scientific methodology and somebody else has confirmed some statement in the Biblical record from a newly-discovered papyrus or from some archaeological remains. This is mere tinkering with the subject; and we should not be surprised if those who have been brought up in the new atmosphere and have little or no experience of religion are apt to dismiss the easy optimism of some religious teachers as springing from blindness or ignorance, if not from hypocrisy. Nor can it be denied that they sometimes have ample excuse. The situation to be faced is one unknown to St. Paul and St. Augustine, to Aquinas and Duns Scotus, to Luther and Calvin; and it can be met, if it is to be met at all, only by a new effort of thinking at least as great as any of theirs. So long as this is lacking, the modern world is bound to suffer from a divided mind and from a conflict between the heart and the head. If religion has to satisfy the whole man, its demand is that the men who follow it must be whole-minded as well as whole-hearted. The very wholeness at which religion aims is impossible unless the spiritual disease caused by the fatal rift between science and religion can receive its own specific intellectual cure.

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