The Forum: “The Return of God”

[To the Editor.]

Dear Sir,—After reading the interesting article under the above striking heading in the October “S.S.,” I venture to question whether it is quite fair to speak of the “return of God,” and to say that “the materialism of a former generation of scientists is in the melting pot.” I admit that the fact of Sir Oliver Lodge.delivering the presi­dential address gives some colour to the state­ment, but one swallow does not make a summer. Sir Oliver Lodge can hardly be taken as a representative scientist in any sense of the term. He is more akin to the sloppy journalists who are busy writing soothing twaddle for the sophi­stication of the popular mind. Moreover, one has only to remember Professor Schaefar’s address of last year in contrast with that of Lodge, and to note the hostile criticism aroused among scientists by the address of this year’s president, to realise that Sir Oliver’s superstitious suppo­sitions are not necessarily shared by represen­tative scientists. At all events, one can get no correct idea of what scientists are doing and thinking from the newspapers.

Regarding the “former generation of scien­tists,” even the few great fighters were not keen on boasting of their materialism, to say nothing of the ruck. Then, as now, they gave it fancy names. Herbert Spencer had his cult of the unknowable, and wrote wordily about the recon­ciliation of Religion and Science—probably for economic reasons, it is true.

The “Agnosticism” of the old school was, as aptly hit off by Engels, only a shame-faced materialism ; but the point is that it helped the enemy by emphasising the ignorance of scien­tists, when it was necessary to insist on their knowledge. All along, indeed, the generality of scientists have avoided pushing their tenets to their logical conclusion. They have refrained, as far as practicable, from applying them to human social activity, and their text books to this day for the most part carefully leave the superstition of man’s free will untouched. The fact is, of course, that scientists as a rule are but the hacks of the monied class. They helped capitalists to break down the last few barriers to their triumph, and are now prepared to for­tify the ruling class by dosing the now threat­ening subject class with soothing syrup.

Nevertheless, science as science and scientists as such cannot be other than materialistic in method and result. They deal only with ascertainable phenomena. There is nothing ascertainable about the “beyond” except error.

This is, at bottom, the position taken up by the eminent biologist, Sir Ray Lankester in the “Daily Telegraph” for Sept. 30. He said :

“Our forefathers, the founders of the “Royal Society for the Promotion of Natural Knowledge, would have asked Sir Oliver Lodge to “bring in” an experiment or a specimen in proof of his beliefs, his phrases, and suppositions about “discarnate intelligences,” and in their absence would have de­clined to let him occupy their time. And they would have done this, and did so act, in regard to similar talkers of their day, such as Sir Kenelm Digby, not because they denied the possibility of the existence of ghosts and “such wild fowl?” (many of them firmly believed in such existences), but because they had discovered that the great principle of investiga­tion and the building up of knowledge is the require­ment of demonstrative evidence of things asserted, and the rejection of mere statements of belief or fancy, whosoever may proffer them.

“Sir Oliver makes an urgent appeal in favour of the plausibility of ghosts. He omits to state or consider the real objection which all reasonable men entertain to a belief in the existence of ghosts—namely, that the President of the British Association has not, any more than have other such believers, brought forward a particle of experimental evidence in favour of it. The best evidence forthcoming is not sufficient to induce a normal man to bet five pounds on the successful demonstration of a ghost’s existence against five thousand offered on the other side.”

With the complete domination of capitalist industry the need for the British Association, or its equivalent, as a fighting unit against religious or feudal antagonism has passed, and reconcili­ation is in the air. But the chief point I wish to make is that this supposed conciliation is with a different religion to the old. Religious advocates now plume themselves on their science, and endeavour to nourish their superstitions on the barren nothingness of the regions where scientific knowledge ends, and this is well brought out by D.K. Moreover, among healthy humans with scientific education, such religion as they profess is in the main sheer hypocrisy. The university-educated clergyman will—to his equals, and in expensive reviews—embrace science, discard miracles, deny the six day legend, and even the divinity of Christ, and will praise the Bible solely as a store of moral lessons from early human history ; but to the ignorant and unscientific majority the same man will preach, pray, chant, bless and thunder as though all the old superstitions were strong and hot within him, and will try to maintain these su­perstitions undiminished in his flock. Despite however, this widespread hypocrisy, it is really religion that has weakened, not science.

Capitalist industrial processes breed know­ledge. Competition and profit-hunger ncake education inevitable ; and this education, parti­cularly when coupled with class interest, drives religion further into the clouds, and determines capitalist philosophy. The ruling class is verily between the devil and the deep, blue sea. It wishes (and tries) to maintain religion as an aid to its domination, but is compelled to take a hand in its destruction by the spread of an education that is essential to industrial progress and profit. With most of this D.K., as indicated in his article, agrees. But I do not fully agree with his suggestion that it is the scientists who have gone back. The religious crowd have come forward ; as to the scientist—well, he “never was !” On many points the economic position of the scientists compels them to be stagnant, but I think it is, to say the least, a debatable point whether they are less material­istic than formerly. Certainly all biologists of eminence have completely abandoned the vitalistic or ghost theory of life so pathetically dressed up in modern phraseology by Rip Van Winkle Lodge. Like Laplace, when asked by Napoleon where God came in according to his theory, the biologists also say they have no need for that hypothesis.

It is scarcely necessary to say that on most points I am in complete agreement with the writer of the article. If the economists are taken as representative of scientists in general, I must grant D.K. his whole case. Indeed, on reading again what I have written, I perceive that on my own showing respecting the protagonists of physical science he has not at all a bad case ; but I send this contribution to the discussion nevertheless in the hope of evoking further evidence from D.K.’s point of view on what is an interesting and useful point of Socialist know­ledge.

Yours fraternally,

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