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Lecture XIX: The Sciences and Religion

It is often supposed that the sciences, and particularly the so-called natural sciences, are essentially incompatible with religion. At present this is a widespread popular belief for which there seems at first sight to be a substantial basis; and certainly this belief is common among scientific men themselves, although they may say little about it, out of respect for those who do hold sincere religious beliefs and whose lives they admire.

There are, of course, many examples of men who have been eminent in natural science, and who have nevertheless remained quite orthodox members of various religious bodies; but I think that their number is rapidly becoming smaller. One cannot help feeling that they are abnormal persons who keep their science in one part of their minds and their orthodoxy in another. There are, however, a great many others who, while refusing to accept what are at present called orthodox religious beliefs, yet think that religion embodies, or probably bodies, truth of the utmost importance. The number of scientific men who think in this way seems to be growing and their attitude towards religious belief is far from unfriendly.

In this lecture I wish to discuss, not only the real and apparent clashes between the sciences and religious beliefs, but how far religion enters into science itself. This last part of the discussion is to my mind the more important part, though it is hardly ever referred to.

The clashes between primitive science and primitive religious beliefs are probably as old as human history, and would formerly have been regarded as heretical or reform movements in religion; but in comparatively modern times the first great clash between recognized science and recognized religious beliefs arose through the discovery of Copernicus, and its promulgation by Galileo, that the earth revolves round the sun, instead of the sun revolving round the earth, as the theologians and the Bible taught. This discovery disturbed profoundly the orthodox theology of the time, though it is perhaps difficult for us now to realize why it should have done so. In any case, the theologians got the worst of the encounter, in spite of the fact that they endeavoured, with the futile weapon of personal restraint, to suppress Galileo's teaching.

With the revival of knowledge the sciences, both natural and humanistic, began to outgrow more and more the tutelage of the Church or Churches, and also to affect their teaching very materially, particularly in the Protestant Churches. In the nineteenth century geology came into open conflict with the biblical accounts of creation, and historical criticism cast the gravest doubt on the authenticity of the biblical records and on the belief that religious teaching originated in a supernatural revelation. The evidence was then brought forward by Darwin that species arise, not by any supernatural act of creation, but by a natural process of selection. Belief in supernatural interference of any kind declined very rapidly as scientific investigation proved more and more clearly that such intervention is not found to occur. To those who believed that religion is dependent on a belief in supernatural intervention it seemed to be dying the death of other superstitions. Yet as a matter of fact religion continued to appeal to men as strongly as before, or perhaps more strongly, as shown in particular by the widespread evangelical movements in the Churches.

The discussions in previous lectures will, I think, have made clear the underlying explanation of this. If my reasoning has been correct, there is no real connexion between religion and belief in supernatural events of any sort or kind. It is only a narrow view of what is “natural” that prevents our recognizing the presence of God everywhere within and around us. The spiritual world of values which we ordinarily recognize is something far less abstract and unreal than what we call the physical world. But the spiritual world is also the world of Nature unless we confine the connotation of the word “Nature” to a mere idealized conception of reality. When, moreover, we look at this spiritual world as a whole, it appears as one Spiritual Reality in which individual interests and individual values disappear as such. It is this which we recognize when we speak, in the language of religion, of God. Nothing else is real except God, and relations of time and space are only the order of His manifestation. Nature is just the manifestation of God, and evolution is no mere biological or physical phenomenon, but the order in time-relations of His manifestation.

In the official creeds and other formularies of existing Churches supernatural events are still a prominent feature. There are even influential sections within, at any rate, the English Church who wish to see, not less, but more of supernatural belief definitely countenanced. On the other hand, a very large and increasing body of persons who have studied or been influenced by one branch or another of science find themselves unable to belong to any recognized Church, because they cannot accept any form of belief in what is supernatural. It is to this body that I myself belong, and, as you must have already seen, I am not here to support what seems to me unsatisfactory theology, but to carry out to the best of my ability the intention of the founder of the Gifford Lectureships. I can put my heart into this attempt because no one can feel more strongly than I do that religion is the greatest thing in life, and that behind the recognized Churches there is an unrecognized Church to which all may belong, though supernatural events play no part in its creed.

Belief in supernatural events is just the complement of the materialism associated with theology, though not with religion itself. If once we admit, as theologians have done, that the visible world is actually a material world, then supernatural events of various sorts have to be called in to justify religious belief. Supernatural creation, supernatural revelation, supernatural raising from the dead, and even supernatural action of the soul on the body, all become necessary. My own wish to see belief in the supernatural dissociated entirely from religion is only part of a wish to see materialism dissociated from it. The materialism with which orthodox theology is at present shot through and through is the whole source of the weakness of religious belief in presence of the sciences, and of the alienation between religious belief and the sciences. It ought to be added, however, that men of science themselves are equally to blame in this respect. They have, on the whole, disregarded philosophy completely. It is probable, for instance, that hardly any scientific writers during the nineteenth century had a real appreciation of the work of Hume and Kant; and even now we find scientific writers taking an actual pride in their ignorance of philosophy. They are in a similar position to that of the Schoolmen who despised experimental science.

In a previous lecture I traced the sciences to their origin in the device of abstract ideas and language to express them in. For the purpose of communicating needs from person to person, language embodying abstract ideas is indispensable. The words themselves represent only abstract aspects of what they refer to; but for practical purposes these abstract aspects are often sufficient. Words referring to extension and number are, to take one example, of a different class from words referring to beauty; and out of the different internally consistent systems of words applying to different abstract aspects of experience the different sciences or branches of knowledge have gradually arisen.

It was a natural enough further step to imagine that the different systems of abstract ideas correspond to separate realities. But the assumed separate realities are inconsistent with one another, and hence arose the clash between different sciences, and between science and religion. Hence also arose the need for a philosophy to mediate between the different sciences.

Each of the sciences or consistent systems of abstract ideas is of the greatest practical use in its proper place; but that place is defined and limited by the practical needs which the science was originally devised to meet. If we extend it further it comes into conflict with other branches of knowledge. It goes also without saying that no science ever represents reality itself, since it deals only with abstractions from reality.

There is a common belief that at any rate in physical science we simply draw conclusions from observation in which we play only a passive part, so that Nature, as it were, simply forces herself upon us, and we are thus in presence of absolute truth, of which physical science is the generalized representation. To those who have read and absorbed the philosophical writings of Hume, Kant, and their successors this is simply a childish belief. In actual fact, where one man observes the “bodies” of the Newtonian world in Newtonian space and time, another man may observe what pertains to life, for which space-relations are not relations of externality. Still another man may observe artistic or ethical values for which neither space- nor time-relations are relations of externality. Yet another may simply realize that he is in the presence of God.

In physical observation we deliberately disregard or abstract from other aspects of what we are observing; and to this extent physical observation is only dealing with abstractions. But we are also doing a great deal more. From the biological or artistic standpoint it is only on what may be called a low-power or general view that we observe life or beauty. The details of this view are dim and undefined, just as the details of a picture—the daubs of paint in it—are undefined in the artistic view. Yet the artist must know, sufficiently for his practical purpose, how to obtain and manage the paint which he employs; and this knowledge is physical knowledge, obtained from observation, not by any mere process of abstraction, but as something new, which he learns from Nature. From the physical standpoint the picture is, moreover, nothing but a collection on the canvas of daubs of paint, arranged relatively to one another in a certain way. But in this apparent mere collection the daubs of paint have, in the logical judgment which embodies artistic perception, lost their individuality as “bodies.” The picture is no mere collection of bodies: it is something which is meaningless to the physicist as such, because his perception of it abstracts from its artistic reality; but he may see far more deeply into the abstraction called “paint” than even the artist did.

However true it may be that the world of our actual experience is a spiritual world, it is also true that this spiritual world only appears to us in the process of interpretation of a world of what by themselves are mere abstractions. In actual experience these abstractions are constantly welling up before us, and it is only in the constant overcoming or logical transformation of them that spiritual reality manifests itself. Their appearance is thus essential to spiritual reality, which is the reality of their transformation in perception and conscious response. The artist must always be overcoming the abstractions of his paint, and the good man must always be overcoming the abstractions of the evil surrounding him. On a lower plane, life only manifests itself in the fuller interpretation of an abstract physical world. Mind does not merely arrange formed perceptions, but creatively transforms them and their corresponding responses. The old traditional account of logic is very inadequate.

The definite shaping of an abstract world is thus necessary for the manifestation of a more concrete world. In this sense the world of mathematical abstractions is necessary to the less abstract physical world, the world of physical abstractions to the less abstract biological world, and the world of biological abstractions—the world of “the flesh”—to the less abstract spiritual world. It is not the mere contrast between the more abstract and less abstract worlds that is necessary: the connexion is far more intimate. The logical building-stones for the more concrete knowledge are, as it were, supplied by the less concrete knowledge, but become completely transformed in the process of building. The daubs of paint make a picture, but only if the paint is suitable. A series of physical and chemical measurements become a manifestation of the life of an organism, but only when the measurements are definite and correct. With sloppy measurements the manifestation is obscured or obliterated. It was the absence of definite and relevant physical and chemical measurements that, as already pointed out, led, during the latter half of last century, to the idea that life could be interpreted as a physico-chemical process.

It thus appears that the more abstract branches of knowledge, mathematical, physical, and biological, are essential for the spiritual interpretation of our experience and corresponding conscious behaviour. The practical applications of the more abstract sciences are evident in connexion with all branches of conscious activity; as regards, for instance, the phenomena connected with our own bodies and environment, we are constantly making use of biological conceptions. Thus when we attempt to apply merely physico-chemical conceptions to life, a scientific practice of medicine is impossible, as Hippocrates clearly saw. It might seem, however, that we can apply ourselves to pure science without any thought of its practical application. Many scientific men have refused to turn aside from their work in order to apply it to practical ends, and so far as their scientific work is concerned they are often regarded as somewhat inhuman persons. In reality they are at the very opposite extreme from being inhuman. They have devoted themselves to their specialized work under the conviction that they saw how it could be of the utmost use to others. They therefore take great pains to put their results into shape for publication in a form which will be intelligible and useful to others; and if they refuse to be turned aside by immediately practical applications of their knowledge, this is only because they consider that the work they have set out to do is more important. Again and again scientific men have turned out to be right as to this; but sometimes they have faltered in their judgment, as in the case of Pasteur, who at an early stage in his career imagined that he could do more important work as a Senator, and was only stopped through the electors fortunately rejecting him. Other instances occur to me where born scientific leaders have actually turned away to politics or business work, with results which were certainly not in the public interest.

In actual fact the work done by men of science is determined, not by the mere nature of the scientific abstraction which they are following up in its direct applications to experience, but by the human needs which the employment of the abstraction meets. Work in pure science is just as essentially unselfish as any other kind of work can be, and ought to be. Even if it is regarded as work for the purpose of ascertaining truth, this means such truth as will be of service to fellow-men in saving them from the consequences of ignorance and superstition.

It often happens that scientific men are hostile to religious belief and disclaim any connexion with it. In actual scientific work, however, they behave just as if they were actuated by faith in the reality and unity of the highest spiritual values. Belief in the reality and self-consistency of truth, combined with the conviction that truth will help in the realization of everything that is called good, differs only in name from religious faith. At any rate I am unable to distinguish them after religious faith has been purified from the dross of the theological materialism to which reference has already been made.

It is true that scientific men commonly mistake scientific abstractions for representations of reality. But so do those who hold ordinary orthodox religious beliefs, and particularly those who in the name of religion attack others who cannot hold orthodox religious beliefs, and act conscientiously and unselfishly according to what they believe to be true. If it is in the name of supposed religion that the attack is made, it will be repelled with the power and conviction of real religion.

I think there can be no doubt that scientific men as a body will continue to oppose religious beliefs in so far as these beliefs are associated with any element of what is known as the supernatural; and it may be long before the supernatural element is eliminated from religion as represented by the Churches. I can, however, see no final obstacle to this elimination. The Churches, purged from materialistic theology, will then stand united for belief in God, communion with God, and all the strength, steadfastness, and Christian charity which true religion carries with it. Scientific materialism has been due to a misunderstanding as to the scope and limitations of physical interpretation. As soon as it is realized that such interpretation is limited in scope, since it cannot be applied to life, and still less to conscious behaviour, scientific materialism will disappear, though physical science and biology will continue in their necessary and extremely useful careers. Religion and philosophy will also be one.

Religion has always been, in practice, a general philosophy of conscious behaviour, and it has stood for the reality of the spiritual interpretation of reality, without neglecting the sin and suffering which appear to be around us on every side. Religious belief freed from the confusions which have arisen out of mere one-sided use of scientific abstractions becomes indistinguishable from a philosophy which is similarly freed. The mathematical and physical sciences stand already for what appeals to all men in every country; but the same cannot be said for religious belief in its present form. Christian theology hardly appeals to those holding sincere religious beliefs of different historical origins from ours, or even to more than a section, though still a large one, of our own countrymen, or of other persons of European stock. Nevertheless the Founder of Christianity intended it to appeal to all men, and it seems to me that it would be only in the spirit of that Founder to purge Christian theology of everything that prevents it from making a universal appeal, to which men of science and those belonging to other civilizations can respond just as well as those to whom the present form of Christian theology or some other theology appeals. Christianity represents, not the mere letter transmitted to us, but a message capable of growing in clearness and in the universality of its appeal.

The abstractions with which the sciences deal are no less useful and necessary when we recognize that they are abstractions. In the case of the mathematical sciences this is generally understood; but the physical sciences are commonly supposed to deal with reality itself. In the allegorical figure representing Justice she holds in her hands a balance, which is a physical apparatus for measuring the abstraction called mass by means of mathematical observations as to the position of the pointer. Justice cannot be expressed in either physical or mathematical terms; but physical and chemical measurements and mathematical calculations are essential to fair dealing. When they are associated in a certain way they embody justice. It is justice which determines the nature and association of the measurements and calculations, but without them there would be no justice, so that they are essential.

They enter similarly into the perception of interest and values of every sort, and the conscious behaviour which corresponds to interest and values. A scientific worker immersed in the problems of what is called pure science, or teaching pure science, may seem to the world, though not to himself, to be somewhere far away from human interests; but the engineers, technical chemists, doctors, agriculturists, and others who are engaged in utilizing scientific knowledge in ordinary life are in constant direct touch with these interests, which grow in concrete richness or definiteness with their work. Their knowledge is directly to them the power of helping their fellow-men, and in the right use of that power they reach, just as in the cases of other men who are following out the duties which are constantly being presented to them, oneness with the Spiritual Reality which is within and around them. The difference between them and those engaged in pure science is simply that the work of the latter is commonly of wider application.

Thus it is the case that although the mathematical, physical and biological sciences do not, at first sight, seem to deal with spiritual values, they are in reality inspired by them, and just in proportion to the sincerity with which they are pursued they bring science into contact with Supreme Spiritual Reality, or God. He who attacks scientific work as such is thus attacking religion itself. Science, it is true, is constantly attacking theological accompaniments of religion; but these attacks, when rightly understood, are not on religion itself, but on what only obscures religion and prevents its appeal to mankind from being effective. We must not confuse religion with all that is taught in churches or embodied in creeds and religious ceremonies. What the sciences can rightfully ask for from the Church is that its creed should be so amended as not to exclude those who, while accepting the great truths of religion, are unable to accept supernatural beliefs.

Humanistic knowledge and occupations, including Art, seem at first sight to be more directly in contact with spiritual values than the “natural” sciences and their applications, or than so-called mechanical occupations. A little reflection shows, however, that this is not, or need not be, the case. The person who is doing in all sincerity the duties which present themselves to him in whatever station he occupies is in direct contact with Spiritual Reality. Religion raises us all to the same level through the presence of God within us; and however powerful its influence is for social stability, it is an equally powerful influence for social freedom and underlying equality.

The conclusion which has been reached as to the relation between the Sciences and Religion may be summed up by saying that there is no contest between them at all. This appears as true, however, only in the light of the inferences, firstly that beliefs in supernatural events form no part of religion itself, and secondly that Science deals, not with ultimate reality, but only with abstractions of limited practical application.

With those who imagine that Science can or will present anything but the firmest opposition to beliefs in supernatural events I cannot for a moment agree. To ask Science to desist from this opposition would be equivalent to asking her to abjure her religion; and anything stronger it is impossible for me to say as a representative of Science. On the other hand, when Science pays no heed to the wider analysis of Experience, or of Nature, by Philosophy, and sets up her own working hypotheses as representing Reality itself, she will meet with just as firm opposition from Religion as she presents to belief in supernatural events.

The present widespread belief that Religion will die out as Science advances is nothing but evidence of intellectual blindness. Existing Churches will decay if they do not amend their creeds; but Religion will no more die out than Science will, or Philosophy will. Religion and Philosophy are in reality one thing, which is just as indispensable as Science is.