1920s >> 1925 >> no-253-september-1925

The men of science and their “religion”

The subject of the history of the conflict between science and religion, is one which provides its students with an interest from more than one point of view. Not only does it reveal how, with the advance of scentific knowledge, religion has been compelled to either abandon or modify its teachings, it also shows how accommodating some scientists can be when dealing with religion.

That the positive outcome of science spells death to religion is a fact which some scientists either attempt to conceal or avoid in their own peculiar way. Like certain of the leading lights of the Church, who pretend that the findings of modern science can be harmonised with religion, some “scientists” are not averse to trying to reconcile the irreconcilable.

Readers of Herbert Spencer will recall his celebrated attempt in this direction, as given in the first part of his work, “First Principles.” In that work, Spencer speaks of all things, including the universe, as having proceeded from “an infinite and Eternal Energy.” But, said Spencer, about this “Infinite and Eternal Energy” we neither know nor can know anything; it being “an inscrutable mystery.”

This “Unknowable,” Spencer declared, belongs to the sphere of religion, whilst all that is known or is knowable belongs to the domain of science. Therefore, to follow Spencer, since religion and science are totally independent of each other, the one concerned with “The Unknowable,” the other with the knowable, both should keep within their own province and be “reconciled.” In reality, this was Spencer’s way of performing a feat of mental gymnastics. For surely there could be no stranger reconciliation. Religion is made to give up to science all that is knowable, and to rest contented with absolutely nothing to live upon. The humour of the position is delightful, although, apparently, the humour was not intended by Spencer. His so-called reconciliation reminds one of the man who agreed to being with his mother-in-law on condition that she committed suicide.

However, there was little need for surprise when it was learned that Spencer himself found it necessary to state in his “Autobiography” that he regarded his work on “The Unknowable” as being “relatively unimportant.” In fact, he agreed that it had no direct bearing on his general scientific works. Nevertheless, “The Unknowable” has comforted many poor souls who must have an abstraction of some kind to worship.

The fatal mistake made by Spencer rested on his treating religion and science as though they are absolutely exclusive subjects. And the same thing is done by certain of the present day scientists. But while this position may be a very convenient one to those who desire to avoid an “awkward” situation, it is none the less unscientific and absurd. For, fundamentally, religion and science are not as the poles apart in the sense laid down by Spencer. Both are concerned with explaining the world around us. Religion claims to explain the universe in terms oi the supernatural, everything, to the religionist, even when he claims to accept the doctrine of evolution, is the outcome of “God Almighty.” Science, on the other hand, explains everything, as far as actual knowledge goes, along lines of natural causation, and finds no need for the “hypothesis of God” to explain anything. Thus, since religion and science are seen to be fundamentally opposed in their explanations of natural phenomena, the conflict between them is inevitable and irreparable. Nevertheless, not all scientists are prepared to indicate the logical outcome of their own work in the field of science; some prefer to pander to the prejudices of the religionists. To give a case in point : In connection with the recent trial in America, where a teacher was charged with “breaking the law” by teaching evolution, Professor J. Arthur Thomson contributed an article to the Daily News on “Evolution and the Bible.”

In that article Professor Thomson quite easily disposed of those people who rely upon Bible teachings to refute the principle of evolution. He reminded his readers that the evolution doctrine is the only scientific account yet advanced to show how living things came to be as they are. He also pointed out that, while there is unanimity among scientists regarding the fact of evolution, there is a considerable difference of opinion among them regarding the “factors of evolution.” Further, the Professor well describes the doctrine of evolution as “a piece of naturalistic historical description.” But, as the old saying goes, after the Lord Mayor’s Show comes the dust cart—instead of showing how all this conflicted with religion, the Professor attempted to “square the circle” in the following manner :—

“It should be noted, however, that the fundamentalist reaction and obscurantism may be partly due to a lack of carefulness in the scientific presentation of evolutionism. Thus the evolution theory has often been presented as if it necessarily implied an acceptance of a mechanistic or materialistic philosophy; and man’s affiliation with mammals has often been stated in a manner so crude that it has obscured his apartness. There is no reason in the world, as far as we know, why a sound evolutionist should not have a religious philosophy. Rather there is, we think, every reason in the world for being both evolutionist and religious.”—Daily News, July 14th, 1925.

Now, it would have proved interesting had the Professor explained what he meant by “a materialistic philosophy,” and how an evolutionist could embrace religion. As they stand, these statements may mean anything and everything but the right thing. Anyhow, there is good ground for believing that Professor Thomson has a special reason for slighting materialism. Materialists have long been the butt of misrepresentation and abuse. As Engels once said of certain of the opponents of materialism, they represent it to mean “gluttony, drunkenness, carnal lust, and fraudulent speculation.” In fact, materialism has been charged with every conceivable vice. Hence the desire of certain “scientists” to repudiate materialism. Nevertheless, the fact is that the doctrine of evolution and science in general, does logically imply a materialistic philosophy, Professor Thomson and other scientists notwithstanding. For that philosophy is simply a view of nature founded upon the facts established by modern science. As Professor Sir Ray Lankester says :—

“The history of scientific discoveries is a history of materialistic successes : for no scientific discovery has ever been made that is not based upon materialism and mechanism.”

Some scientists may disown materialism, but, as another writer has observed, “it lies at the basis of all their efforts.” No matter in which department of science a scientist may be engaged, whether as Astronomer, Geologist, Biologist or Sociologist, his business consists of ascertaining positive knowledge of nature’s workings. And one of the outstanding facts of modern science is, that there is no break or gap in the continuity of natural phenomena. Where gaps exist, the scientist explains that they are only in our knowledge, and not in the “framework of things.” An isolated happening in nature is a myth, for cause and effect is seen to be the rule operating throughout. From this it follows then that the idea of supernatural interference is a figment of the imagination. Science has rendered “God” not only unemployed, but unemployable, without even the power to draw the “dole.” When Professor Thomson tells us that an evolutionist may have a religion, we are prompted to suspect that he associates a meaning with religion which it will not logically bear. Nowadays religion has come to mean all sorts of things, and thus we hear of “the religion of ethics,” “the religion of humanity,” and even “the religion of Socialism.” But this is all so much a matter of confusing the issue. Historically, religion has meant the belief in and worship of supernatural beings, and this is its essential meaning to-day; it cannot be separated from the god idea. As Engels has said : “If religion can exist without God, then alchemy can exist without its philosopher’s stone.”

Scientific investigation has revealed that religion first took form in primitive times through the ignorance of primitive men concerning the world around them. Fear and ignorance gave primitive man his gods, and Jehovah, the God of the Bible, is really no more than the gods of the savage transformed under the pressure of a continuous social development. Thus, “religious philosophy,” to use Professor Thomson’s phrase, necessarily implies a belief in this “God” and implies the acceptance of the story of creation.

The evolutionist who can harmonise the myth of “Divine creation” with the principle of evolution may be regarded as sincere, but only at the expense of his sanity. If the Professor, in his capacity of biologist, attempted to explain the differences between man and the anthropoids by saying, “God created them,” he knows he would be ridiculed by his brother biologists. And well deserved such ridicule would be.


(Socialist Standard, September 1925)

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