The Story Of Religious Controversy
The Conflict Between Science and Religion
SCIENCE has, ever since its birth, been in conflict with religion. Apart from the astronomical observations of the Babylonian and Chaldean priests, which had the ecclesiastical aim of helping them to keep a calendar, science began in the Greek colonies on the coast of Asia Minor. On that beautiful and healthful fringe of coast the first Europeans to be civilized, the early Greeks, learned the rudiments of knowledge from Persians and Cretans and Egyptians, and their fresh and energetic minds at once perceived that tradition was entirely wrong and man must begin to acquire knowledge by using his own reason and senses. Since these early Greeks formed colonies in Asia, away from the main tribes in Greece, they had a certain amount of liberty; and it is a universal truth of history that where there are liberty and the spirit of inquiry, religion begins to decay. But, as we see in what remains of the speculations of these early pioneers of science, the liberty was restricted. They were clearly in bad odor with their religious neighbors. The way they talk about the gods and spirits shows fairly clearly that they had to trim their sails. The more outspoken of them were chased from city to city, in the name of the gods.
When some of them at last reached the great city of Athens, they found religious prejudice against science much worse. Athens has a brilliant record in everything except science, in which it has no record at all. Anaxagoras, who tried to found a scientific school there, had to fly for his life. The Athenian philosophers found it advisable to despise science and to devote themselves to “Spiritual realities”; though even this did not save Socrates from death on the charge of impiety.
A few centuries later the work of science was resumed, under more favorable auspices, in the Greek-Egyptian city of Alexandria. Here there were so many religions and gods that it would escape notice whether a man worshiped or not. Science made very material progress. The mind of the race seemed at last to have entered upon its proper development. But, alas a new religion, Christianity, got political power, murdered the last brilliant representative of Greek thought, Hypatia, and completely extinguished scientific research. The first thousand years of science, from Thales to Hypatia, were conspicuously marked by conflict with religion, and of all the religions Christianity was the most deadly opponent.
Science began again in Europe. For several centuries it was quite extinct: rather, it was in the condition of those animalcules which live in the rain-gutter of your house, flourish on rainy days, feed and breed, and then, as the moisture disappears, shrink into their skins, so to say, and become mere dry specks of dust until the next rain comes. The ideas of the Greeks thus lingered in Greek literature, but in the Christian Greek Empire no one dreamed of reanimating them. The beneficent shower of rain came with the new Arab civilization; not on account of its Mohammedan religion, but very clearly in spite of it. Skepticism appeared with remarkable rapidity in Bagdad and Damascus, and science revived with just the same rapidity. The ideas of the Greeks were taken out of their tomb in Greek literature, and commerce with China brought new scientific ideas to Persia and Syria.
Then this culture was carried across northern Africa to Spain, and the Moors developed it with a brilliance that reminds us of the ancient Athenians. Next, the Jews and a few Christian wandering scholars took translations of Arab works to Italy, France, and England; and, as the Mohammedans had settled also in Sicily and the south of Italy, a similar stream poured northward from there. Christian Europe began to cultivate science, in spite of the Fathers; and naive modern Christians, who know nothing about the history of these matters, clap their hands and say: Look at our Roger Bacon, our Albert the Great, our Gerbert, and so on.
We looked at them. We found that from Bacon to Copernicus they all merely repeated what Greeks or Moors had told them, and that the moment they opened their mouths, the modern conflict between science and religion began. Bacon spent nearly half his adult life in his monastic prison; Albert was extinguished with a mitre; Gerbert with a tiara; Copernicus dreaded to publish his conviction that Pythagoras was right until he was beyond the reach of the Inquisition; Arnold of Villeneuve was hounded from land to land; friar Jean de Roquetaillade died in prison; Cecco d’Ascoli and Giordano Bruno were burned; Galileo was smitten on the mouth by the Inquisition; Vesalius narrowly escaped its holy wrath, and so on, and so on.
At last authority in Christendom was weakened by the great schism, and the world became sufficiently enlightened to see that one need not be burned at the stake for studying chemistry, physics, astronomy, or anatomy; though such work was generally held to be a damnable waste of time. With the nineteenth century a new phase opened. The Deists had attacked the crudities and inconsistencies of the Old Testament, and scientific men now began to reconstruct the real history of the earth and of man on lines which were very different from those of Genesis.
And whenever they opened up a new path of research, they, as Huxley said, found a notice-board: “No road. By order of Moses.” Had the rocks been gradually formed by deposits in water? How old was the earth? How old was man? What was the origin of the stars, the plants, the animals, man, language, religion, the moral sense, civilization? No road. It was all settled by the Old Testament.
A common statement is that there never was a conflict between religion and science, but there were skirmishes, in the “no man’s land” between the two, of adventurous representatives of each side. This would have to be characterized as downright dishonesty if those who say it knew what they were talking about. The science of the middle of the nineteenth century formally, as science taught that the earth had been formed gradually during tens of millions of years; that man was certainly tens of thousands of years old; that languages had been evolved; that living things had been on this earth for millions of years; and that there never had been an interruption of life by a great deluge. Religion, just as formally and officially, taught the opposite. To talk of a few combative theologians sparring with a few combative scientists about these matters is utter historical untruth. What every Church and all its representatives then said about these matters was expressly opposed to what science taught. The Modernist who holds that the legends of creation, Adam, Eden, Babel, etc., are not religion should either hold his tongue about the earlier conflict or explain that to his clerical grandfathers these things were religion — and not “theology,” as White says.
Next, the religious people who dismiss this earlier conflict with the light-hearted assurance that their grandparents were unfortunately mistaken as to what religion really implied, are equally fallacious and untruthful. No one has any right whatever to put a new interpretation of the plain words of the Bible. The early chapters of Genesis, which I have read in the Hebrew, are accurately translated on the whole. It is only when the crude old Jewish writers begin to talk about “loins” and “thighs,” and so on, that the translator has concealed the real meaning. To put any other than the obvious interpretation on the early chapters of Genesis is — well it is too absurd to be improper. “Progressive revelation” is the veriest piece of bunk that Modernism ever invented. The Bible writers, whoever they were, meant what they said, and the Jews have so understood them for twenty-five hundred years. Putting a new interpretation on their words “in the light of science” is not “interpreting” at all. It is a dreary sort of jig- saw-puzzle game, in which you find a lot of words in the modern scientific dictionary which cover the same ground as the Hebrew text and mean precisely the opposite.
The third and quite modern stage is to quit the “interpretation” game and say either that the Bible contains no revelation or that there is no religious obligation to consider it in regard to facts of science or history. But the person who thinks that by adopting this attitude he entirely escapes the unpleasantness of the conflict of science and religion must be extremely superficial. Is the fall of man a truth of religion or a statement about prehistoric life which interests science? If the former, there is a deadly conflict. The unanimous teaching of science is opposed to it. If the latter — if it is one of those statements of fact which the Christian is not compelled to believe the foundation of Christianity is an error. A few Modernists may say that they do not admit original sin and an atonement for it, but they are not Christianity.
Finally, even the extreme Modernist cannot escape the consequence of the historical conflict. He concedes that every branch of the Christian Church and the Jewish Church taught a great number of errors as religion during the whole of their career. He maintains very strongly, however, that God knows everything and takes a special interest in religion, truth, and Churches. To reconcile these two beliefs is rather harder than reconciling science and Genesis, at which be smiles. The great conflict, instead of being a matter which he can airily dismiss as “a mistake,” turns out to be one more very formidable reminder that humanity gets no help from Gods even in religious matters.
Religion changes and grows, he says: just like science, he adds, in a brain-wave. But science grows larger and more confident, while religion grows smaller and less confident. Science reaches unanimity on thousands of points; religion has lost unanimity about everything, even about God. No, you can’t dismiss the nineteenth- century conflict with a graceful gesture. It has left a corrosive acid in what remains of religion. However, we are more interested in the question whether, and to what extent, there is a conflict today.
We naturally resent the attitude toward religion of a few American men of science in the present crisis. They were confronted with an organized force representing at the most ten or fifteen million people out of a hundred and twenty million: a body, mainly, of men and women who were honestly ignorant of the facts, led by fanatical or professional organizers. Instead of, with dignity and courage, organizing the vast body of teachers in the United States to protect their freedom, and appealing to the general public for support, some of the leaders of American science made an attempt, as futile as it was inglorious, to conciliate the dervishes by protesting that science is not inconsistent with religion. It is as clear as noonday that it is inconsistent with the religion of the Fundamentalists, which was the real issue.
But for many years, and in more than one country, scientific men of some distinction have been giving the world this assurance that there is no conflict between science and religion. In England and Germany quite a number of scientific men have stated this. Sir E. Ray Lankester, one of the most eminent of British men of science, has actually contributed that assurance to a work in defense of Christianity compiled by the Christian Evidence Society, and has in a Rationalist paper acridly resented my own statement that there is a conflict.
If any reader is really puzzled by this attitude of scientific men like Lankester, Osborne, Pupin, and Millikan, it will help him if I explain the position of Lankester. That distinguished and venerable zoologist resolutely refuses to say what he believes in regard to religion, and he sourly resents any person saying it for him. Nevertheless I will, from my own knowledge, explain that he is an Agnostic and has not a particle of religious sentiment. When he says that science is consistent with religion he means with the ethical teaching of Christianity. Even of this he knows so little that on the one occasion on which he discussed it (in the “R.P.A. Annual,” 1916) his eulogies of it were so uncritical that the editor returned his manuscript with a timid request that he would take some account of my research into the ethics of Jesus!
The case is typical. When these scientific men, who may know all that the world knows about some branch of physics, mathematics, or biology, come to deal with religion, they are as feeble and inaccurate as is a bishop or a Baptist professor who ventures to deal with their sciences. But in the absence of any explicit confession of Christian belief — not a vague assurance that they are “Christians,” but a plain statement that they believe literally in the incarnation, atonement, and resurrection — we may safely assume that (as most of them intimate) they mean by religion an ethical idealism or, at the most, a belief in some kind of God. And there you get the first condition for understanding the much discussed theme which is indicated in the title of this chapter. When any man asks you whether there is any conflict between science and religion, ask at once: Which religion do you mean?
One word will suffice as to what we mean by “science.” Any statement of fact or any theory in any branch of science which has the support of all the living authorities on the subject and is contained in the received textbooks is quite certainly “science.” That is “the teaching of science” in the strictest sense. The fact, for instance, that a teacher in a Seventh Day Adventist College, or a medical man, or a college-teacher of a different branch of science, disputes that statement or theory, makes no difference whatever, if all the authorities and all the textbooks used in education are agreed on it. That is science. Where the living authorities are divided, the statement of one side, especially of one man, is not “science.” Where only two or three stand out against the conviction of the majority of the authorities, we must attach a very high probability to the majority-opinion, but it is not “science” in the sense in which we use the word here. There is a vast body, a whole library, of truth which is “science” in this sense, and a very great deal of it is in deadly conflict with what most people call their religion.
Let us understand this again quite plainly. There is a certain possible ambiguity here, and both theologians and some men of science avail themselves of it. They deceive their readers and are to that extent as crooked as the politician who takes a bribe.
The ambiguity will be best seen by an example. Science unanimously teaches that man was evolved from an ape-like ancestor, and that he has made continuous slow progress, with long periods of stagnation, since early Miocene days (something like twenty million years ago, on the new estimate). This is totally inconsistent with the beliefs that man was created, that he was originally a very superior being and “fell,” and that the course of human affairs was afterwards interrupted by a deluge and a miraculous confusion of tongues. But it is not the business of science to affirm this inconsistency or to say a word about creation, fall, deluge, or Babel. This is a simple instance, and the inconsistency is so plain to the eye that hardly anyone will venture to say there is “no conflict.” There are, however, more serious inconsistencies, and we must keep the principle clear. The question is not whether science officially denies religious statements but whether what science teaches conflicts with what religion teaches.
But how in the name of all that is wonderful are you going to settle what religion teaches? I forget how many religions there are in America, and in any case a few are certain to have arisen since the last enumeration. And that is not the whole difficulty. In any one sect there are fifty or a hundred shades of belief. I will guarantee to quote a hundred different “religious beliefs,” from Pantheism to a Pope-less Catholicism, in the American Episcopal Church alone. No major Church now insists on a literal acceptance of all its formulae; and amongst the minor sects one finds Unitarian churches, for instance, in America which openly state that no belief at all is imposed as a condition of membership, yet they exist for the cultivation of “religion.”
If, therefore, you want a thorough answer to the question whether the teaching of science conflicts with religion, it looks as if we shall have to take three hundred different collections of religious beliefs and apply science to them. Thanks for the good intention, you will say. We would rather collect stamps, oyster- shells, or silk stockings.
There is, however, a way out of the difficulty. We can take a few leading types of religious belief or a few common doctrines. It will, in fact, suffice if we take the two leading types, the Fundamentalist and the Modernist. In this section I will show that the characteristic Fundamentalist doctrines are blatantly in conflict with received and established science. I will then show that the doctrines of God and the soul, which are common to all religions that demand any specific belief at all, are less openly, but very seriously, discredited, by the teaching of science. Finally we shall see that even the most advanced and ultra- Modernist religions which dispense with a personal God (or even impersonal) and leave open the question of immortality, still lie in the path of advancing science. Any belief or statement, as distinct from sentiment, which calls itself religious, is in conflict with the teaching of science.
The Fundamentalist beliefs I have dealt with in various other chapters, and I must simply summarize here what I have said, and add a few further considerations. There is absolute unanimity amongst the scientific experts on the fact of evolution, and the conflict here is deadly and notorious. Not one single living writer, not one who has lived within the last twenty years, quoted in Fundamentalist literature as opposed to evolution, is an authority on the subject. MacCready Price is merely a teacher of geology — and he has only been a few years at that — in a Seventh Day Adventist College in a backward State. The other writers quoted, if they are not men who died decades ago, are teachers of physics (which has nothing to do with the subject) or medical men. Evolution is “science” in the very strictest sense of the word.
Genesis is completely irreconcilable with science on a score of points apart from evolution, and Genesis, as we have it, was certainly not written until a thousand years after the alleged time of Moses and is a fraudulent compilation. The legends which are found in the first few chapters of Genesis were borrowed from the Babylonians.
The Fundamentalist may be invited to use his fundamental common sense. On the one hand are a few professors of divinity of poor intellectual standing and a large number of preachers of no intellectual standing whatever: on the other hand are not only the majority of the more learned theologians of the world but the united and unanimous experts in astronomy, biology, physiology, zoology, geology, psychology, anthropology, and archeology. The experts and professors of the eight sciences concerned are quite unanimous. My experience amongst the Fundamentalists is that they, as a rule, merely need to be undeceived on this point. Their literature grossly deceived them into thinking that scientists are themselves not agreed about evolution.
If it were a question of a single point, evolution, as Fundamentalists generally imagine, it is just conceivable that a man might for a time suspend his judgment, but the situation is very different from this. While eight sets of experts prove evolution, another set prove by its internal evidence that the Pentateuch was not written until about 500 B.C.: another set derive from the ruins of Babylonia and Assyria legends of creation, Eden, fall, and deluge so closely corresponding to the Hebrew legends that no one can doubt their identity: another set show that the history of the race has been quite different from the story of the Old Testament. And so on. Against this mass of evidence accumulated by independent bodies of the most highly trained students in the world, the Fundamentalist can only put … what? In ninety-nine cases out of a hundred he could not even tell you why he believes the Old Testament to be “the Word of God.”
Nor must we forget that the story which is thus assailed by science in its beginning in Genesis is equally assailed in its culmination in the New Testament. The science of comparative religion shows us the origin in the older pagan religions of the stories of Christ’s miraculous birth, atoning death, and resurrection. These stories were not part of the first Christian tradition, but were added to it.
Therefore the position, not merely of the Fundamentalist and the Roman Catholic, but of any Christian who holds the Church doctrines of the creation and fall of man, and the miraculous birth, atoning death, and resurrection of Christ, is quite plain. He is in flat and flagrant conflict with science. Amateur theologians like Osborne and Pupin easily forget that comparative religion is a science as truly as biology is. They talk nonsense when they say that “science” has no bearing on the virgin-birth and the resurrection. The science of comparative religion gives us just such stories centuries older than Christianity; and the issue is, as we saw, not whether any science declares itself inconsistent with Christianity, but whether what it teaches is so consistent or not.
I am not concerned here with believers who put new interpretations on the old doctrines of creation, original sin, atonement, resurrection, etc. I share the scorn of the Fundamentalist for such things. They mean, in plain American, that the Christian doctrines have been abandoned. In one of my works (“The Religion of Sir Oliver Lodge,” 1914) I analyzed the various professions of faith of a British scientist who, while holding Spiritualistic views, declares himself a member of the Church of England and is, I understand, often flatteringly invited to read the lessons in Birmingham Cathedral. And this is how, from the study of his works, I find him accepting the simplest of the creeds:
I believe in God — a God who is one with Nature,
The Father Almighty — but not all-powerful,
Creator of Heaven and Earth — which were not created, but are
eternal, And in Jesus Christ, His only son, our Lord — who
is, however, a son of God only in the same sense as we, but
Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost — as an artist conceives
his work, not miraculously,
Born of the Virgin Mary — who was not a virgin,
Suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried
— not to atone for the sins of the world.
He descended into hell — which does not exist;
The third day he rose again from the dead — of his soul made
a new body out of ether.
He ascended into heaven — or made a final phantasmal
Sitteth on the right hand [which doesn’t exist) of God the
Father Almighty [who is not Almighty] — though there is no
heaven to sit in.
From thence he shall come to judge the living and the dead —
that is to say, he will persuade them to judge themselves.
I believe in the Holy Ghost — which is a figure of speech,
The Holy Catholic Church — certainly not the Roman, and the
Anglo-Catholic only as long as it imposes no belief on me,
The communion of saints — by telepathy,
The forgiveness of sins — each man forgiving himself,
The resurrection of the body — which certainly won’t rise
And life everlasting — which may not last forever; we don’t
I understand that Sir Oliver Lodge was a little peeved when my very careful reconstruction of his creed appeared. But it is strictly based upon his works, and it is probably the creed of the few other men of any intellectual distinction who call themselves Christians. It is the creed of the extreme Modernists, and on some such lines runs the creed of all who no longer literally accept such doctrines as hell, heaven, atonement, etc. All that we need say here is that they are Christians who believe that Paul and the Christian Church have been wrong in nearly everything until science began to enlighten the world.
With the Fundamentalists the conflict is to the death; and one needs no gift of prophecy to say which combatant will die. The plea of Fundamentalist leaders, that they are not opposed to true science, is too transparent an imposture to deceive their followers long. “True science” obviously means the science which does not conflict with their medieval views. They remind one of the early days of the nineteenth century when the Chinese met their aggressors with wooden guns. When Fundamentalists and Catholics realize how they are deceived by the literature put in their hands, how little competent their leaders are to deal with the questions they treat with such levity, how really humorous it is for a handful of preachers, with an eccentric medicine-man here and there, to attempt to tell the united experts of the world what is true and what is false science, the religious world in its entirety will retreat, with great dignity, to “positions prepared in advance.”
We cannot examine every Christian sect, every possible temporary position on the line of retreat from Fundamentalism to extreme Modernism, but there is no serious need to make the attempt. There is no logical and respectable position between the two. And the decisive factor in this is science. We have reconstructed the early history of our race, and the truth we have discovered is fatal to the essential message of the Bible and the Christian religion.
Seven thousand years ago there was no civilization on this globe: I mean that there was no branch of the human race sufficiently advanced in intelligence to have discovered that primary and essential requirement of civilized life — written language. In the valley of the Nile, in Mesopotamia, and in Crete men were advancing in the direction of civilization, but it is now usual to put their actual arrival at the civilized stage at about 3000 B.C.; and the Chinese civilization began later, the Mayan still later (about 500 B.C.). There is no doubt that ten thousand years ago no section of the race rose above the level of Neolithic culture; stone weapons, skin clothing, elementary agriculture and pottery.
There is, further, no doubt that fifty thousand years ago no section of the human race rose above the level of the Australian aboriginal of today: a very low type of savage. The earth has been raked from Patagonia to Siberia, from Scandinavia to South Africa, and we have a very good knowledge of the men of fifty to a hundred thousand years ago. And there is just as little room for doubt that with every fifty thousand years that we penetrate into earlier time the race sinks still lower in culture. What we may almost call a geological accident, the formation of flint, led to the recording in every age of man’s mental advance. His flint implements, of which we have millions for the last half million years, reflect his degree of intelligence as faithfully as the printed page reflects ours. They are immortal and unalterable.
Thus we may leave the question of the evolution of man entirely out of consideration. It is merely foolish to make that question the main issue in the conflict between science and Genesis. The fundamental and essential Christian doctrine is not based upon the creation, but upon the fall of man, upon a certain version of man’s early history. And whether or no man was evolved from an ape-like creature, the scientific record of his slow development as man is fatal to the legend of Eden and the fall. The essential part of the Christian structure of doctrine breaks down when the legend is abandoned. Paul, on whom, rather than on the gospels, theology is based, was entirely wrong. The primeval curse is a Babylonian legend now completely discredited by what science teaches about early man, quite apart from evolution, and therefore a divine redeemer of the race becomes superfluous. When, as I said, we also take the science of comparative religion into account, belief in the fundamental Christian doctrines becomes impossible.
One word, in passing, to the Modernist. He would talk less foolishly sometimes if he kept clearly in mind the fact that he is in a very small minority. Of the fifty million Christians of America probably forty-nine millions are not Modernists. Let him therefore not say airily that science does not conflict with religion because it does not conflict with his religion. He is one in fifty. I am more concerned about the forty-nine. Moreover, the semi-Modernist might justly be warned to see that new verbiage is not necessarily new thought, and that a book is not necessarily profound because it costs two or three dollars. The land which lies between straight Fundamentalism and straight Modernism is the Land of Bunk.
By straight Modernism I mean the candid admission that the Bible story is wrong — that there was no revelation, no fall of man, and no atoning death — coupled with the claim that there is a God, that he has put in the breast of men a hope of immortality which he may be expected to fulfill, and that Christ and Christianity are the supreme guardians and exponents of the moral law. Science certainly pursues any Christian believer until he reaches that position.
Does the conflict then cease? Of course, say the Modernists and the religious professors. Let us be humble and consider very patiently what these great men condescend to tell us about the matter.
The mischief is that they tell us so very little and say it so very loud. As to Professor Osborne, the high priest of the little tribe of Aaron in the American scientific world, I have shown elsewhere that his “Earth Speaks to Bryan” contains so many errors on vital points that a scientific examiner, if one were, for the fun of the thing, appointed to examine it by the usual academic standards, would not give the author fifty points out of a possible hundred. He is not even correct about science — Cro-Magnon man, for instance and his proofs that there is a revolt against Materialism in the scientific world are so slovenly and inaccurate that the examiner’s blue pencil would wrathfully erase this whole section of his book. And in the end we are left wondering — I mean, some people are left wondering — what particular religious doctrines Professor Osborne really does believe.
Scarcely less arrogant and pompous is the assistant high priest of the group, Professor Millikan, and fortunately he has told us a little more clearly what we are to believe — I mean, what he believes. I have before me an article in “Collier’s Weekly” (October 24, 1925) in which the writer gives a (presumably corrected) report of a very serious and solemn talk he had with Professor Millikan.
Compose yourselves, my brethren, and listen to the oracle. For Professor Millikan knows so much about the electron that he thinks he discovered it; and this gives him a very high authority to talk about God. You see the connection, don’t you? Not many years ago the preacher used to say that scientific men knew least about spiritual things because they were engaged all day and night groping in the bowels of matter. Now, it seems, the men who grope deepest in the bowels of matter — physicists like Millikan and Lodge — are the most fitted of all scientists to deal with spiritual realities.
Professor Millikan, anyhow, is very positive. “I have never known a thinking man who did not believe in God,” he says. Somehow the apologists for the angels have not made much use of that impressive testimony. They like audacity, but … Millikan forges ahead. “Men who have the stuff in them which makes heroes all believe in God,” he says. Every American soldier in the war, of course, believed in God; though the chaplains reported that nine- tenths of them would have nothing to do with him. It “pains” Professor Millikan when he hears men express “crudely atheistic views.” Without religion our age is going to be destroyed by the very powers which science has given it, and, as to a conflict between science and religion, it is “impossible.”
Let us see. Conflict is impossible, he says, because the business of science is to accumulate knowledge and the business of religion is “to develop the consciences, the ideals and the aspirations of mankind.” Some would say that this development of consciences and ideals is religion, and its sufficient motive is in this present life. After all. if there is a danger of “destruction” unless our ideals are developed, we really have some incentive to developing them. For Professor Millikan religion is based upon belief in a personal God, and this is what we want to test. These skirmishes are, he says, between “men who know very little about science and men who know very little about religion,” and the professor who knows a great deal about both is offering the world a profound faith in God which science can never disturb. Let me give it in his own words, for if even Millikan’s theism is open to conflict with science, we need hardly go further:
The more we investigate, the more we see how far we are from any real comprehension of it all, and the clearer we see that in the very admission of our ignorance and finiteness we recognize the existence of a Something, a Power, a Being in whom and because of whom we live and move and have our being — a Creator by whatever name we call Him.
Someone once said that it did not follow that water was deep because you could not see the bottom at a glance; it might be muddy. it seems applicable here, I am, according to Millikan, one of those “men who have never known the deeper side of existence.” We can forgive a mere physicist for not being able to write ordinarily decent English (“deeper side of existence,” etc.), but we really have a right to expect cleaner thinking from a mathematician. All that I can distil out of the above verbiage is that we are still very ignorant, which I quite admit, and that because we are so very ignorant there exists a Creator.
Now, supposing that Professor Millikan had some definite idea in his head, it must have been this: that a Power or Being is responsible for our existence, and since we have searched so long and remain so ignorant, that Power must be beyond or behind the universe, and we call it God. And the answer, or answers — for you could shoot all day at this kind of stuff if it were worth it, are short and sharp. First, science is only about a century old, and it is premature to talk about things being “behind the mystery of existence.” Secondly, there is no mystery of existence, for existence is an ultimate fact. Thirdly, our “ignorance” expressly forbids us to use such words as “Whom” and “Him” and “Creator” and “God.” Fourthly, we have not the slightest reason for talking about anything that “gives meaning to existence.” Fifthly, this despiser of atheistic crudities and praiser of his own profundity is just a shade cruder than the most threadbare of God-provers who argues about First Causes. …
What Millikan really means, in his muddle-headed way, is that some Power unknown to us explains the universe and its contents. That is bad philosophy and bad science — let me boldly say, bad physics. Powers do not make anything. Power is an abstract idea. Some agencies or agents made the universe what it is. We have an imperfect knowledge of matter and ether as such agents and Professor Millikan gives us no reason why he should talk of another agency or agencies “beyond and behind” these. His “beyond” and “behind” are simply words he has picked up in sermons. He talks loosely from beginning to end. He drags in Copernicus, who, he says, was “a priest,” and was “persecuted”; and he was (though a canon) not a priest and was never persecuted. in any case, Millikan is very obviously basing his whole case on our present ignorance, and he is therefore doing what theologians have done for decades: saying that science cannot (today) explain something, so God must (until tomorrow). The only logical deduction from ignorance is Agnosticism.
And he only makes matters worse when he — in the usual arrogant manner — says that materialism is “altogether absurd and utterly irrational,” because “love, duty, and beauty” are spiritual things, and tracing these back to his “Power behind Nature,” he concludes that this Power is spiritual and personal. It is a platitude of the lower forms in the theological seminary. When did any man ever prove that they are spiritual? Love is an emotion: duty is an abstract word: beauty is an aspect of material things. At the most, Professor Millikan means that the mind is a non- quantitative reality, which no one has ever proved, while science suggests precisely the contrary. This “profound” thinker, who is assuring the world that conflict between science and religion is an impossibility, at once gives as the second basis of his religion a statement which is actually being used as a target for a hot fire of scientific criticism; and the first basis is an ignorance which his own science is daily striving to overcome!
The arrogance of men who use this empty and ancient verbiage, these moth-eaten pulpit arguments, is amusing; but my chief concern for the moment is, not to refute the arguments, for the thousandth time, but to show the nonsense of all talk about the conflict of science and religion being over. The fine work which Professor Millikan has himself done in physics crowns only a century of research. What will science know about the “powers” of the universe in ten centuries? What will it know a million years from now? Conflict is impossible, he says, because the business of science is to develop knowledge, and the business of religion is to develop ideals; and forthwith he makes his religion a business of getting knowledge in parts of the universe which science has not yet illumined!
Nor is this all; but to illustrate the next aspect of this “new scientific religion,” which was a platitude in the days of Socrates, I turn to another member of the group of religious scientists, Professor Calkins. I am not aware that Professor Calkins has ever used the arrogant and offensive language we get from Osborne and Millikan — the men who so much fear that our character will deteriorate without religion — but I really cannot take his religion more seriously. I remember years ago, when I was engaged in microscopic work, using a very fine manual on the Protozoa by Professor Calkins. On the title-page was an old German motto, and, as the book is no longer in my library, I must quote it as well as I can from memory:
Wie gross Gort auch in kleinem sci.
Which means: “Read this book and learn from it how great God is even in small things.”
I am not going to examine the argument for God which must have been in the mind of Professor Calkins, or to enlarge on the fallacy of it. I do all this in the chapter, “The Futility of Belief in God.” As I there state, Professor Calkins’ book gives a most admirable description of microscopic animalcules and germs, with excellent illustrations of the apparatus by which they prey on each other and on man. The most deadly enemies of the human race and of all animals precisely because of their invisibility, the most awful disseminators of poison and pain since man became the nervous creature he is, the causes of most of the worst diseases and suffering in the world … and we are asked particularly and pointedly to see the finger of God in these things! I could understand an Atheist, in irony, putting such a motto on his book, but in a religious scientist it is incomprehensible. And we are superficial!
According to these professors Ingersoll was a “superficial” man. When a young lady, carefully nurtured in the deep Millikan- Calkins wisdom, one day said to him: “Colonel, who made these beautiful flowers?” be replied: “The same, my dear young lady, that made the poison of the ivy and the asp.” That is as deep as any man need go or can go. It is not at all clear that a “spiritual power” is needed to make flowers and birds of paradise; in fact, it is totally incomprehensible how a spiritual power could, and the more deeply you think the more improbable it becomes. But it is clear that loving beings do not put scorpions, poisoned thorns. or hypodermic needles charged with typhus-germs in the path of the children they love.
The shrewder theologians of the last century saw that the most deadly effect of the new science was that it prolonged the tragedy of nature over millions of years. It was the light-headed chanticleers of the pulpit who crowed that evolution was “a more splendid revelation than ever of God’s power.” The suffering in nature had always saddened really devout minds. When science established that this suffering had gone on for fifty million years, instead of six thousand, the thoughtful believer shuddered. Now, in the last few years, science has established that the tragedy of life has proceeded for something like a billion years. The fact that evolution contradicts Genesis is a feather in comparison with this.
I once, in debate before a Fundamentalist audience, forced Dr. Riley to admit that this story of life on earth during a billion years might be true. He smiled as he admitted it, thinking that he could save his face by pleading that the “days” of Genesis were periods of unknown lengths. It did not even occur to him that this meant hundreds of millions of years of ghastly suffering and brutality.
As long as men retain a belief in a personal God, this teaching of science rudely conflicts with it. Evil was always felt to be a hostile element to the belief in God. Evil as formulated by modern science — evil in the shape of myriads of deadly structures playing a vital part in the progress of life during hundreds of millions of years — is far more hostile. No conflict, indeed!
And even if only the first part of Professor Millikan’s argument or rhapsody be followed, if the claim is made that, since science cannot at present explain the fundamental features of the universe, a power beyond the sphere of scientific investigation must be admitted, there is an essential conflict. It is precisely the business of the man of science to find out if the agencies known to him — ether, matter, force, electrons, or what you like — will explain any and every phenomenon known to us. Every advance he makes dislodges the theologian from a patch of “ignorance.” Every lamp that is lit in another dark chamber shows that the ghost is not there. The conflict is continuous, essential, and to the death.