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Lecture XVII: Philosophy, Religion, and Theology

It has often been imagined that mankind could get on very well without either Religion or Philosophy. In actual fact we do get on without any study of what is recognized as philosophy; but all civilizations have had their religions with associated theologies. We can trace forms of religious belief back to dim antiquity.

The attitude of philosophical and scientific investigation towards recognized religious beliefs has varied at different times. From its very nature, however, philosophy must come into conflict with religious beliefs unless these satisfy the test of consistency with experience. Between various of the sciences and religious beliefs there is much less of direct contact. The simple and sincere orthodoxy of such men as Newton or Faraday exemplify this, though historical investigation has now undermined what were regarded as very essential parts of Christian religious beliefs, while geology and biology have come into open conflict with other parts.

Religious beliefs have always had a practical outcome in conduct, and it is on the practical side that they make their appeal to mankind. They have not only furnished a working hypothesis for conscious action, but they have possessed the peculiar character of bringing with them courage to act and courage to endure. It is easy to treat religious beliefs in a wholly superficial manner, emphasizing points in them which are unessential, and leaving out of account what is essential. Those who have not been brought up in a religious environment, or those who have violently broken free from such an environment, are specially prone to this error. Avoiding this error as far as possible, let us endeavour to see what is characteristic of religious belief as we actually find it around us in this country, and without regard to its special theological form.

The essential elements in religious belief are, I think, that God is the Creator and Sustainer of us and our universe, and the Source of all that we recognize as good: that He is revealed to us; and that in accepting and acting on this revelation we become one with Him and are thus beyond all apparent ill.

Of course, current religious beliefs go either not so far or farther than this. Thus it is generally held in Christian countries that though God originally created the visible world, He then left it to itself, with only the laws which we discover by scientific investigation for its further guidance. He is thus not the direct Sustainer of the universe. It is also commonly held that the revelation of Him to men has only been through certain persons and at certain times, or through His Son, who appeared in human form on our earth for this purpose, or through a special hierarchy. God, though all-powerful, is therefore outside us. Another general belief, which will be discussed in the next lecture, is that of the individual immortality of human beings. In the present lecture I shall endeavour to compare what seems to me to be the substance of religious belief with the conclusions already reached by direct analysis of conscious experience.

It is evident at once that these conclusions are identical with what I have just indicated as being essentially embodied in religious belief, or religion, but diverge very considerably from further beliefs which are associated with religion in both Christian and other religious communities. The Spiritual Unity which we have found by philosophical analysis to be the Reality manifesting itself in all our experience corresponds to the Reality called, in the language of religion, God. This Reality both creates and sustains our universe of experience, leaving nothing outside in either space or time, since spatial and temporal relations themselves are nothing but its manifestations. The same Reality creates in us the abstract conceptions which make language and the sciences possible; sustains also all that we recognize as being of value, and is the source not only of the courage and energy to maintain and develop what is of the highest value, but also of all that we call charity in its widest sense. Hence in so far as we are realizing our true selves we are realizing, not a mere individual self, which is only an abstraction, but the Spiritual Unity which gives us being. In that Spiritual Unity we live, move, and have our being. If we call this Spiritual Reality God we can no longer distinguish the philosophical conclusion from the essential religious belief.

When, however, we come to what may be called the theological admixtures with religious beliefs, the agreement ceases. The idea of a physical world, created in time, and then left by God to work out its destiny on mechanical principles, except for what is due to individual human interference and perhaps occasional divine interference, is directly contrary to the philosophical conclusion. It is, in fact, nothing but a bowing down of theology to the idol of a materialism which neither philosophy nor true religion can ever bow down to. For physical or biological science this idea is also completely unsatisfactory. If the universe is regarded from the physical standpoint, no meaning can be attached to any beginning of it in time. The same is also true if we regard it from a biological standpoint. It is true that many biologists have expressed belief in an origin of life from purely physical conditions; but, as was pointed out in a previous lecture, such an idea is due to mere confusion in thought, and is on a par with the idea of a creation of life in time.

The further theological idea that the revelation of God comes to us, not directly, but indirectly, through inspired or divine messengers and messages, or writings, is also contrary to the philosophical conclusion. It is an outcome of the materialism of those who have lost their vision of the omnipresence of Spiritual Reality. The Spiritual Reality of philosophy is within us as well as all around us, so that nothing can come between us and it. Except in so far, therefore, as revelations to others are also direct revelations to us, they are meaningless for us. The most they, or any philosophy, can do is to make an already present revelation more clear to us. The words of philosophy, or the words of religion, are meaningless unless philosophy or religion is already implicit in our experience. Those who regard religious beliefs or ministrations as a means for averting trouble in a future life, or those who treat philosophy as only a means for sharpening their wits, are not in sight of either religion or philosophy. This is no hard saying, unless it is an equally hard saying that a living tree must grow and cannot be made.

There are innumerable persons who put to themselves the question whether various beliefs to which they have been brought up in connexion with religion are worthy of credence. They often stifle their doubts with the reflexion that their Church, and perhaps most of their neighbours or fellow-countrymen, assent to these beliefs. But this is no real reason. We should still be what are called heathens if our ancestors had similarly stifled their doubts. It was really the good and sincere lives associated with Christian belief that strengthened their doubts and converted them, and which still appeal to mankind. But when we ask further whether certain of those beliefs are essentially connected with a good and sincere life, the only honest answer is in the negative. We can value the goodness and sincerity, and show in our lives that we value it, though we have discarded beliefs hitherto associated with religion, and even profess to be either atheists or agnostics in matters of religious belief. And when we see selfish lives associated with theological orthodoxy, we rightly regard the theological orthodoxy with contempt.

The further question arises whether, by discarding what we believe to be either untrue or doubtful, we have not weakened our religion. The answer to this question depends on how much we have discarded and how much we have purified and strengthened what is left. If, in discarding religious beliefs, we have dimmed our vision of the highest values, and correspondingly lost practical hold of them, our religion is weakened. If, on the other hand, we have only, by getting rid of what had become a source of obscurity, clarified our perception of the highest values, then our religion is strengthened.

It seems to me that just in proportion as we clarify religious beliefs from materialism, without at the same time dimming our perceptions of ultimate spiritual reality, we are strengthening religion. As soon as we see that the universe as interpreted physically or biologically is only an ideal construction, we can rid religious belief from its materialism, so that the spiritual reality with which religion is concerned stands out far more clearly. If, however, we only clear away the bad science in religious beliefs, without at the same time realizing the reality of what is spiritual and its practical significance, there is apparently no religion left, and spiritual values become dim.

Without the aid of philosophy, we are more or less overborne by the apparent physical world. We seem compelled to make with it compromises which never in actual fact hold. If once we admit what at the present time is presented to us as mere common sense, namely, that the world as interpreted physically is real, there is no stopping until we have apparently stripped our world of everything to which we can attach objective value. It is only philosophy which looks the apparent material world fully in the face and points out its real nature, that can at the same time rid religious belief of these fatal compromises and point clearly to the spiritual reality which lies behind the apparent physical universe.

If we merely lop away the apparent inconsistencies between religious beliefs and the physical or biological interpretations of reality, leaving these interpretations as if they represented reality, no basis at all is left for real religious belief, and religion becomes a mere subjective make-believe. We could still perhaps regard religious belief as something which will help to uphold social stability so long as persons remain who are willing to pay attention to such beliefs and inculcate them in children. The mere hope of heaven and fear of hell, or even of social disapproval, might be powerful influences in support of an ordered society, failing external compulsion through the collective power of that society. But when the illusion of religious belief finally died out, we should apparently be faced by a state of society in which honesty, diligence, charity, and patriotism would have to be enforced by the feeble weapons of compulsion or individual self-interest. Such a society would be wholly unstable, and would go down at the first encounter with an intelligent society inspired by religious beliefs.

Some of my hearers may have read a recently published book on Religion by Dr. Sigmund Freud, the originator of what is known as psycho-analysis. The book is well written, short, and closely reasoned from his own standpoint; and the title is The Future of an Illusion. For Freud the physical interpretation of the world around us is the final interpretation, and human personality is the playground of various blind instincts, restrained only by external repressive influences arising partly from individual self-interest organized as compulsion, and partly from the illusions of religious belief. It goes without saying that from Freud's standpoint religious belief can be nothing but an illusion; and he discusses the probable effect of the inevitable disappearance of this illusion as scientific knowledge advances. Culture or civilization he defines as the increasing power of gratifying human instincts, with the minimum of accompanying necessity for repressing these instincts where partial repression is needed in order to secure the maximum of gratification. It is from the applications of science that the increasing power of gratification is derived, and he regards civilization as primarily based on the increasing applications of natural science.

Whether or not we dislike such a picture of human nature or of science, the picture is there, painted with unmistakable clearness. Freud looks forward hopefully to a civilization from which the illusion of religion will have disappeared, as he believes that it will do whether we wish or not, with the advance of scientific knowledge. He points, in particular, to the hopelessness of preventing the so-called working classes from discovering that religion is an illusion.

The discussion of conscious behaviour in the preceding lectures has shown that it is a very different thing from what Freud imagines, and that Science also is a very different thing. It is Freud's conception of human nature, of science, and of religion, that is the real illusion. We shrink instinctively from such a conception as his; but to many persons who are ignorant of both the history of philosophy and that of science it has a certain fascination. The morbid curiosity excited among ignorant and unstable persons by Freud's ideas as to matters of sex is also well known. Many other persons who see that psychological knowledge is of extreme practical importance are led to take seriously the psychological ideas of Freud and those with a somewhat similar view of human nature. The moral of this, to my mind, is that psychology as a branch of science is still on about the same level as chemistry was in the days of the alchemists. It has still no generally-acknowledged guiding principles, so that the chaotic literature which is at present poured forth in the name of psychology has come to be regarded by educated persons with the very utmost suspicion, though it appeals to an ill-educated multitude, especially among the well-to-do.

When, in the first series of these lectures, I referred to the psychological interpretation of experience I was unable to point to any scientific statement embodying this interpretation at all satisfactorily, and could only say that this interpretation is in actual fact embodied in all the “humanistic” branches of knowledge and activity, including literature and art. Freud's conception of psychology would imply that here, too, and not merely in religion, we are dealing with mere illusions which will pass. Even in this country there are some foolish people who imagine that instruction in so-called psychology on lines not very different from those of Freud can take the place of a humanistic upbringing and education, or be substituted for it in the training of teachers. Instruction on such lines could only be described comprehensively as instruction in nastiness.

As regards the supposed ignorant working classes to whom “culture” in the Freudian sense has not yet come, I think that experience will show that it will never come to them. Spiritual values are not merely real things, but are real things to them just as much as to other persons, though perhaps they will express their contempt for the “culture” in question by rougher means. My scientific work has brought me much into contact with the so-called working classes in this country; and this has produced in me a feeling of deep respect on account of their keen appreciation, shown not in mere words but in deeds, which count for much more, of the higher values referred to in the last lecture. Even if we regarded these values as mere illusions, produced by “father complexes” et hoc genus omne, we should be compelled to admit that there is no prospect of their disappearing.

It is possible to consider this matter in a wider manner. The kind of psychological interpretation represented in Freud's book is presumably based on science, and on the attempted physical interpretation of life. From this standpoint the nervous reactions of men and animals are the outcome of an endless concatenation of exciting and inhibiting stimuli, and the inhibiting stimuli are quite as real and significant as the exciting ones. Freud treats the inhibitions as if they were only an external outcome of civilization, whereas they are deep down in the very centre of nervous reaction. The sort of organism which he imagines is thus a mere product of his imagination, even if we neglect the fundamental biological fact that the nature of life lies in the maintenance of normal structure, environment, and activities. Of the characteristic features of conscious activity his conception gives no account at all, as follows from the discussion in Lecture VII of the previous course.

Thus the whole structure of any such psychology rests on bad physics and bad physiology, besides being hopelessly inadequate from the special standpoint of psychology. It misrepresents our actions, because it misrepresents both our perceptions and our passions. The love between man and woman, between parent and child, between man and his fellow-men and country, or between man and God, are matters which any such psychology is incapable of describing or expressing. If I speak strongly on this subject I mean every word of what I say; and perhaps these words, coming as they do from a physiologist, may be more heeded than if they came from a philosophical teacher by profession, or from one tied by the creed of a Church.

When we look below the surface we can see that it is only a misunderstanding on our part when we imagine that philosophy and science began with the Greeks. Religious belief had always been to articulate mankind its philosophy, and at the same time its science, before religion, philosophy, and science had begun to be distinguished from one another. Religion has, moreover, always been practical, in the sense that it influences conscious behaviour directly. It might seem that neither philosophy nor science is practical in the same sense. In fact we commonly picture to ourselves a philosopher or man of science as a very unpractical person, devoting himself to curious and doubtless excellent, but not very useful pursuits. Of the man of science we are beginning now to take a juster view: for we know that behind every advance in science there come a host of directly practical persons. The conclusion put forward in these lectures has been that science is simply the practical outcome of our needs, and that in reality no one is more essentially practical than a man of science.

Philosophy, too, which, like religion, takes into account, not merely a part, but the whole of our experience, including all our scientific working hypotheses, is just as practical as either science or religion. It aims, like religion, at furnishing a working hypothesis on which we may base our interpretations of what we perceive, and the corresponding conscious behaviour.

The separation of science, philosophy, and religion from one another is thus an artificial one. Let us consider how this situation has arisen. Turning to religion first, the truths, in so far as they are practically valuable truths, embodied in religious beliefs, have from time immemorial been treated as if they were mere external revelations carried to us either by traditions of very indefinite origin, or by what were believed to have originally been definite and fixed revelations made at certain times and places. The result has been that we seemed to be in the position of either having to accept these beliefs in their entirety or to be left in complete doubt as to the authority of religion. Instead of a living and developing religion, we were thus presented with a rigid system of beliefs. Science and philosophy, as they grew and developed, were thus bound to come into conflict with this rigid system. The trouble was added to by the vested interests of religious institutions, and the need for legal preservation of these interests.

If we turn next to science, we find that she has become equally shackled by traditional hard-and-fast belief. The scientific working hypothesis to which definite shape was first given by Galileo and Newton, and which has been applied to a further and further extent since their time, was originally applied by them to what we call inorganic phenomena, but came to be regarded, even by Newton himself, as if it were a definite and fixed revelation as to the nature of visible reality. Scientific men will perhaps not be ready to acknowledge this picture as applying to themselves, and not merely to theologians. But the picture certainly does apply, and the nemesis of this rigid tradition has come with the attempt to apply the physical hypothesis to life and conscious behaviour, as I have already pointed out. The naïve belief that in observing “phenomena” we are simply observing reality as represented on physical principles has precisely the same defects as the traditional externally revealed theology. The inability of so many men of science to see this is completely similar to the inability of theologians to see the difficulties of their position; though both the men of science and the theologians see clearly that their concern is with working hypotheses of immense practical value.

Philosophy has questioned the assumptions of scientific men as well as of theologians, and such questionings have been of the utmost value. But the questionings have usually stopped short, so that we have had, for instance, either a more or less materialistic system of philosophy or a system which seemed to attribute reality to what are only abstract ideas.

Nevertheless we can trace continuous, if somewhat erratic, progress in the conceptions of reality formed by philosophers, men of science, and theologians. It has, however, become increasingly clear that freedom from certain traditional conceptions is necessary if the three classes are to live at peace with one another, through recognition of the ultimate identity in their aims. It seems to me that they must all rid themselves of what may be described comprehensively as materialism.

The materialism of science, and of much of what has passed for philosophy, has arisen through the mistake of endeavouring to extend to life and conscious behaviour a working hypothesis which has, on the whole, been extremely useful when life and conscious behaviour are left out of account. When the limitations of this working hypothesis are recognized, the materialism of science disappears, and the mathematical, physical, biological, and psychological sciences can pursue their own special paths without interfering with one another, or with philosophy or religion.

The materialism of theology has arisen from what is essentially the same mistake. Theologians have assumed that the ordinary visible world is simply the physically interpreted world, even though this world is also assumed to have been originally created. As a consequence it can only be through what is supernatural that God, as the source of spiritual values, is revealed to us, since spiritual values are without meaning in a physically determined world. Thus a supernatural element seems to be essential for religion. Revelation becomes also a supernatural process, but for which we should be in presence of only a natural world of mere mechanism. When the true nature of the materialism in ordinary theology is recognized, there is no need for a supernatural element in religion. To insist on the need for it becomes equivalent to insistence on doubting the omnipotence and omnipresence of God. No supernatural revelation is needed, because conscious behaviour contains within itself the revelation of God's existence and nature.

In current theology our knowledge of the existence of God is treated as a revelation made only at certain times and places. We must accept it in this sense or leave it. An attempt is also made to support the supposed revelation by arguments based on supposed design in the apparent physical world, or supposed existence of supernatural events in this apparent world. These arguments are simply a buttressing of bad theology by bad science. The real evidence for God's existence and love is within and around us everywhere and at all times when we take from our eyes the scales of bad philosophy or theology which obscure our vision.