Monday, 16 November 2015


 The new alliance between Science and Religion has latterly excited a keen, and not entirely improbable, controversy between theologians and natural philosophers. There is, says his Grace the Duke of Northumberland, in examining the claims of both, an essential harmony between them, and he contends that "there need be no shadow of a misunderstanding between those two august powers, who can advance side by side from one conquest to another, till both shall join hands in the full enlightenment, of the perfect day." It is as spokesman for Religion that his Grace thus concludes his "assurance that the great intellectual strife of our time is at an end. But it should be noted that quite unknown to himself he practically concedes to Science a complete victory in the struggle which he would have us believe has now terminated, for he admits that Religion, like Science, can advance from one conquest to another. The sole cause of strife in the past was the declaration of dogmatic theologians that Religion could not advance. Each sect claimed it alone had found the perfect religion, and that the only possible religious process was the adoption of its creed by the whole world. If a sect declares that the universe was created in six days, and that God made the night and day on the first day, and the sun and moon on the fourth, it brings its religion into conflict with geological and astronomical science, and much strife must continue until the absurd proposition is withdrawn, notwithstanding what the Duke of Northumberland may say. But if religions fearlessly expunge from their creeds each mistake as Science demonstrates its error, then there never can arise such a thing as a conflict between Science and Religion. For, in the past, this has always originated in the scientific formulation of some proved doctrine standing in flat contradiction to a religious dogma, as, for instance, that of the roundness and rotation of the earth, that of its age amounting to millions of years, and that of the evolution of every form of life through long aeons, as against the dogma of the six days' Creation. If Religion advances by the the steady elimination of error from its tenets in accordance with the widening sweep of human knowledge, then the conflict between Science and Religion must necessarily become a meaningless phrase.
 Every man is bound to be as reasonable as he can. The main condition of all progress, all advancement in knowledge, is that the intellectual activity should be stimulated by all legitimate means; not because it destroys, but because it creates a rational authority. The old theological argument that free thought leads to scepticism is suicidal; for a doctrine which can be destroyed by exposure to argument and scientific investigation must be a doctrine which it is irrational to believe. The great thinker is one whose mind swarms with hypotheses, and who gradually puzzles out his way through the labrynth by trying every turn, and rejecting those which end in a head-lock. A society in which speculative activity is great must abound in erroneous sects ; but the doctrine of natural selection applies, if it applies anywhere, to the world of ideas, whether religious, scientific or other wise. The fittest ideas will survive, and the keener the competition the stronger and more abiding will be the survivors. Obviously this is not possible without the widest spirit of toleration ; and just in proportion as the spirit of toleration is strengthened between the theologians and the natural philosophers, so will controversy and research become more acute, and results he more enduring and satisfactory. In this sense we can understand that Science and Religion may "advance side by side from one conquest to another," until both arrive at harmonious results. Now-a-days nothing, perhaps, seems stranger to most intellectual people than that the theologians should so often have jeopardised the religion they had at heart by taking the field against Science in defence of the Jewish myths of Genesis. But once the evolutionary principle is applied fully and freely to all religious, and it is recognised that religions have advanced in the past, and must advance in the future, the whole position becomes transformed, and the mistakes of Religion take their natural place in man's spiral path up the hill of error in search of a wider horizon of truth. The chief immediate benefit which Religion has derived from its defeat in the conflict with Science is the revelation that the strengthening of morality is its supreme function. To justify Joshua's command to the sun to stand still, when he should by rights have been asking the earth to stop spinning, is a melancholy business in which to gulf the energies of all the parsons of Christendom ; and yet that was but what a lot of the conflict of Science and Religion amounted to in the past. When all the activity that goes to bolstering up decayed creeds, to repeating empty formulas, to belittling rival faiths, and to acting an affected humility, is concentrated on moral improvement ; when we hear, in short, less of the conflict of Religion with Science and more of its fight with vice, Religion will get nearer the ideal that has inspired its memorable workers.
 But Science has exercised on Religion a deeper and more far-reaching effect than the expansion of a six days' creation into a six hundred million years of evolution and the like ; for by its investigation of heredity it has set the human conscience at work over the old enigma of free will and necessity of tremendous purpose. With the fierce light that Science is throwing on the genesis of each individual, the idea of a responsibility to a Ruling Power becomes almost unthinkable; and if there is such responsibility, then, as Sir Oliver Lodge puts it, the methods of judging it, and the standards of justice, must be something entirely different than those which appeal to finite beings as just. With the little that we know, we do not hold the lunatic humanly responsible, and we begin to see that Society, in holding even the criminal responsible for his acts, only does so in order to create an additional inducement for him to abstain from evil conduct, and not because it believes that the offspring of a murderer and a courtesan really responsible for his villainous instincts. The human conscience has definitely revolted against the awful old religious dogma that would damn this unfortunate wretch to all eternity of hell fire for his inevitable misdeeds. And Society scoffs unreservedly at the glaring paradox of sending a man to hell for the good of his soul. Through human pity the very Devil himself has become as purely a mythological figure as Hercules or Pluto. Milton made a hero of him. Sterne shed the first tear of sympathy for him. "He is the father of lies," said Dr. Slop, "and is cursed and damned already." "I am sorry for it," quoth my Uncle Toby. Burns, too, earned the abiding hate of the fanatical priesthood of Scotland by the charitable terms with which he closed his Address to the Deil:—

 "But, fare you weel, auld Nickie-ben!
  O, wad ye tak' a thought an' men'
    Ye aiblins might—I dinna ken—
  Still hae a stake—
  I'm wae to think upon your den,
  Ev'n for your sake !"

  Here we see not the conflict of Science and Religion, but the strong, brave throes of the human heart ridding itself of the serpent coils of a theological dogma, the dogma of eternal vengeance, which will probably, in a generation or two, be held to be the wickedest thought that ever debased the human mind. It is quite right, then, to declare Religion and religious speculation is capable of advancing ; and unquestionably it has already made great advances. Religion, by unreservedly abandoning myths which have been proved to be unscientific and felt to be immoral, has come perceptibly nearer to Matthew Arnold's definition of it, "Morality touched by emotion."

Fitzroy City Press 28 April 1905

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