“Can Science and Religion Get Together?”

By Rev. A. Powell Davies D.D.
March 16, 1947

To those who are accustomed to the liberal viewpoint in religion, it may seem surprising that anyone should wish to discuss the rather elementary question as to whether science and religion can get together. In liberal churches, it has been taken for granted for almost a generation that nothing substantial has ever kept them apart. Even in more traditional churches, thousands of sermons have been preached, all of them undertaking to demonstrate that scientific knowledge and religious faith can be harmonious: that there is no necessary opposition between them. Why, therefore, should people be asked to listen to a further discourse on a subject upon which everything pertinent must already have been said?

Moreover, is it not the case that the harmony of science and religion is being proclaimed on all sides these days–that even the popular magazines have taken up the question and, by quoting religious leaders side by side with scientific celebrities, have shown that the controversy is practically over: that all that remains is to emphasize that scientists can be religious and that preachers can reconcile their creeds with science?

Yes, it is indeed true that popular magazines have been misleading the public in this way. It is also true that most of the thousands of sermons have been thoroughly disingenuous; they have achieved their purpose by neatly avoiding the really penetrating issues and have deceived the listening congregations by not distinguishing between religion as a system of traditional beliefs and religion as a basic faith. Statements made by individual scientists, very cautious general statements, have been made to look like full endorsements of the doctrines of particular churches, and in such a way that the whole of science appeared to be committed to what an individual scientist was made to seem to say. Sometimes scientists have deserved this treatment, as the penalty of preferring a cautious ambiguity in the phrasing of their statements to the strenuous but honest controversy which more detailed and more forthright words would bring. They have not wanted to say what kind of religion they accepted, or to tell anyone the content of their personal beliefs. They have been inclined to think of religion as not quite important enough for really careful definition. Or they have found it convenient to speak of it as not demanding the sort of intellectual honesty required by science. I do not mean that any of them have said this in plain words, but it is a fair inference from their attitude.

It is also probable that many of the more prominent scientists, after being quarreled with by churchmen until they were tired, found themselves grateful for almost any ground of reconciliation that gave them a chance of being let alone. From this, it was only a step to letting themselves seem to endorse–vaguely, of course–the prevailing religions that were so eager to applaud them. At any rate, they have taken very little trouble lately to point out the incredibility of most that passes for religion–and its demoralizing effect upon people who must meet the problems that confront us at the present time.

Let me be clear: I am not accusing either churchmen or scientists of calculated dishonesty. What I am saying is that both are treating a highly important matter in the way they find easiest instead of with a scrupulous regard for truth and its consequences. That is why I want to speak on the subject. My fear is not that religion and science are failing to get together, but that they are getting together–on a very dubious, shaky, and unsound basis.

It has become popular today to claim to be scientific. Even the traditional churches are unwilling, for the most part, to be altogether excluded from this claim. They see that science has brought improvements to the world they live in: the telephone, the radio, electricity, swift transportation, methods of increasing crops and conserving soil–these and scores of other innovations are conspicuous, at any rate in North America, as widely distributed benefits made possible by modern science. If we add the more spectacular achievements, many of which became universally known during the war, it is easy to see why very few people can continue to resist the blandishments of science.
If they do attempt it, then the minute they become seriously ill, they must capitulate completely. For scientific medicine gives them their best chance, and often their only chance, of getting well. Nothing is more natural than the extension of popular allegiance from the practical effects of science to science itself. Knowing nothing of it as a method or an intellectual discipline, it is nonetheless easy to accept it, to believe in it, since obviously only a good tree could bring forth so much good fruit. So that, as I say, it has become popular now to claim to be scientific–or at least to esteem the scientific. Traditional churches want to be on the same side as science, but –and here is the fatal restriction–they want to do it while remaining traditional churches. They want the pretense to endure that their creeds are true and their ecclesiastical authority genuine. As the old proverb puts it, they want to have their cake and eat it.

If we wish to know what happens, in one degree or another, when unscientific institutions try to adopt science, the world has recently afforded us some instructive examples. Hitler’s Germany was an unscientific institution, based upon tribal prejudice, and the myth of blood and soil. It adopted science, as we know, very energetically, but being itself unscientific, was forced to dominate and deflect it–to decree a hybrid thing called “German science.” And whenever a scientist discovered something that conflicted with the Germanism of Hitler’s policies, he was told to renounce it and discover the opposite. If, for instance, he discovered that the racial elements in Nazi doctrine were unscientific–which, of course, they most emphatically were–he had to make room for a scientist (or should we say a pseudo-scientist?) who found reasons to confirm prevailing prejudices. We know how many scientists were forced to leave Germany–during the period when it was possible to leave. It was partly because some of the outstanding ones among them were refugees in this country that we and not the Nazis were first with the atomic bomb. All that I want to show by this example, for the moment, however, is what happens when an unscientific institution “gets together” with science.

To a lesser degree–I suppose it is lesser–we see the same thing in Soviet Russia. From time to time, scientists disappear from public view. This happens, apparently, whenever their research leads them towards conclusions to which the political rulers are opposed.

If science in the United States ever became dominated by a reactionary government, or by a reactionary church, or by both together, the result could be just as unfortunate. Indeed, it could be disastrous. That is one of my reasons for advocating–as I have several times lately–that a scientific and civilian-minded regulation of science be set up while there is still time. Recent scientific discoveries have become so dangerous, and further discoveries are so certain to be more so, that it is inconceivable that public regulation can be long delayed. If it is not accomplished by scientists themselves, on a civilian basis of unconcealed and open regulation, it will surely be imposed tyrannically as soon as an emergency provides the opportunity.

But it will be imposed in any case if science and the wrong kind of religion “get together.” Any scientist who believes that science is secure enough in modern civilization to protect itself against traditional institutions if they get the chance to dominate it, is blind to the situation in which he is living. He should consider carefully the examples I have just cited. Then, he should appraise present factors in the light of past history. He will find that science has no chance at all except when it is protected by liberalism. In religion, this means that science imperils its future the minute it begins to lend aid and comfort to traditional beliefs. The institutions founded upon those beliefs will insist, wherever they have the power, upon suppressing whatever challenges their authority. In such a world as we now face, this is not a possibility to be passed over lightly. Science betrays itself whenever it makes concessions–unscientific concessions–to the wrong kind of religion. It contributes in that moment to its own subordination, its own subjection.

And it does so, not only for the reasons I have already indicated, but for another reason and a very positive one. It is true, just as many scientists are now saying, that mankind needs spiritual and moral reinforcement as never before. Or, in shorter words, it is true that we need religion. But unless the religion we find can really meet our need; unless it is free from false beliefs, from escapism, from trust in the miraculous and supernatural; unless it is a religion that fosters the utmost moral effort of which we are capable; unless it is an honest, clear-sighted, open-eyed religion, then we should be a good deal better off without it. So that scientists are only right in turning to religion, if they remain scientific in the process.

No fallacy has done more harm than the widespread opinion that science and religion can divide the world between them: that certain provinces belong to the scientific method, such as physics, chemistry, biology, and so forth; and other provinces to religious insight, like conscience, personal integrity, social aims, and faith in God and human nature. This is all wrong. There is no province whatever in the entire life of man from which science should be excluded; or religion. I do not mean by this that the scientific method can be used at present for all possible purposes with equal success. Manifestly, it cannot. But every effort should be made to extend it until it can–or until it comes as close as possible to that standard. It is vital, as it seems to me, that the scientific method should be used as fully and promptly as determined effort can make it, in sociology and in psychology and in all that helps us to understand ourselves and human society. If knowledge is power, we surely need this knowledge. We need to know how to bring up our children to emotional wholesomeness, so that they will not be spiritually distorted. We need to be able to do the same thing with society as a whole. We have seen entire nations become psychopathic. Do we not require–and urgently–the best that scientific methods can bring us in understanding and controlling such things? It is the great deficiency of modern science that it has done almost too much in mastering the outer world, and altogether too little in affecting the inner world.

I contend with extreme emphasis that it is treason both to science and to religion to exclude the scientific method from the inner life of man. I also insist that such an exclusion is perilous. We need, above all, people who are equal to the problems they must solve: people who think well and think straight, and whose emotional life, whose spiritual life, is disciplined towards its hardiest and healthiest. We need the scientific examination of superstition and prejudice. We need the scientific separation of truth from error. We need all that science can possibly do for religion–and we need it badly. As it seems to me, only the religion that admits this–indeed, proclaims it–can be such a religion as science may endorse.

Let us have done with the mistaken view that life is divisible into two provinces only one of which is available to science. Let us understand that science is really a method, not in the least exclusive to the physical world, but a method of arriving at truth in any question whatsoever. it is only when we have understood this that we are entitled to recognize–as, of course, we must–that the scientific method cannot as yet carry us as far as we wish into the ultimate questions of religious faith. What I mean, to be specific, is this: we can know scientifically that the creeds are mostly false; that there is no evidence for the kind of God the creed-makers had in mind; that Jesus of Nazareth is not God’s only son, begotten before the foundation of the world; and that if Jesus was conceived of the Holy Ghost, then so are all men; that he was born naturally; that he did not rise physically from the dead, or ascend into a visible heaven; that there is no place where he would be able to sit at the right hand of God, this being an entirely anthropomorphic piece of imagery; that he will not come from “thence” to judge the quick and the dead–the quick and the dead being judged already, the quick continuously during the entire period they are alive, the dead by those who knew them and by their works that outlive them.

I need not complete this examination of the “Apostles’ Creed.” And I need no more than barely mention the impossibility of believing that we are saved by blood atonement, or that we can eat bread and wine which has been turned by the words of a priest into the body and blood of Christ. All this is superstition. We can know by the scientific approach to history how much of the Bible is valuable, and how religious beliefs really grew up. This is the sort of thing I mean by saying that science must enter the field of religion, or, putting it another way, that religion must become scientific. It is when we pass beyond this, and beyond what can be known–sufficiently known–psychologically, that we yield ourselves to a valid faith: to a faith that we have examined, that we have found reasonable, that we have tried to live with, and to base our lives upon. That and nothing short of it is the point at which, while remaining rational, we can open our hearts to realities that lie beyond the detailed examination of our minds.

This kind of religion–liberal religion–also maintains the open mind to future discovery. It is not restricted by a creed. When new knowledge comes, it entertains it sincerely and takes the consequences of it. It follows advancing truth, and sifts out all wisdom, both new and old, trying always to know what experience vindicates. it is only with this kind of religion that science can get together and remain scientific. It is only this kind of religion that keeps the door open for the scientific future.

So that I say it is a requirement–a scientific requirement –that scientists sift out the claims of religion and accept only what honestly persuades them. And unless they are less brave than they should be, they will tell plainly what it is. I also say that this is not a matter to be treated casually. It is essential that this kind of religion shall mould the character of individuals and shape the policies of nations. It is indispensable that this kind of religion raise the level of our common life. Otherwise, nothing that anything else can do will avail to save us. If scientists support people in believing–or appear to support them: it comes to the same thing–that they can retain their old attitudes, and leave everything to a sort of nursemaid providence for which there is no evidence, instead of allowing the God-power in their own minds to guide their thought and the holy spirit of their own souls to cleanse their consciences, then it is a grave disservice. It is even worse if it seems to endorse traditional churches that care more for their own dominion than for human betterment.

That is why I am preaching this sermon. The immediate occasion was a reprint from a magazine–an article entitled, “Science Joins the Church.” I asked at once, What Science? And What Church? Manifestly, science as such cannot join either a church or anything else, any more than art could, or history, or oceanography. Not even scientists can join the Church; they can only join a church. There is so much difference between churches that it is vital to know which church it its that scientists are joining. Science and religion are comparable; science and the church are not. The fact is, of course, that the title of the article is seriously misleading. So is the article itself, even though it contains some true things.

I challenge the people who produce this kind of article to tell us what scientists really think of the traditional dogmas and the creeds. A considerable number of scientists, for instance, are known to be Unitarian in belief–a surprising number Unitarian in actual affiliation.1

The point is, however–and we can afford to stick to just this point–that when scientists turn to religion, unless they forsake their scientific disciplines, they cannot possibly accept a traditional creed as binding. They must always be open to whatever persuades their intellects. They need a free church, and a free religion. If traditional denominations will provide this freedom, I, for one shall rejoice. They should provide it. In the present critical state of the world, they should want to provide it immediately; so that all the people who can possibly be united may be united–not to waste their moral energy in trying to believe incredible things and practice useless petty pieties, but so that all of which they are morally and spiritually capable may be mobilized to meet the need of this desperate hour.

I think that scientists do indeed have need of religion; of its basic faith, its moral responsibility; of its deeper insights, its wisdom, its inspiration. But let it be a genuine religion! When science and religion get together, let it be to mingle their resources on an honest, forthright basis. Let churchmen truly embrace the scientific method, and let scientists be loyal to scientific truth when they join a church.

When Sir James Jeans says that from the viewpoint of science, “the universe begins to look more like a great thought than like a great machine,” let it be known that this is religion–but by no means an endorsement of the Apostle’s Creed. When Steinmetz is reported as saying that the scientists must turn over their laboratories “to the study of God, and prayer, and the spiritual forces,” let it be said that Steinmetz was a Unitarian and a long way from approving the dogma of Papal Infallibility. When Sir Arthur Eddington tells us that “the idea of a Universal Mind…is a fairly plausible inference from the present state of scientific theory,” let it be clear that this is not in the least the same thing as corroborating the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. When Professor Arthur Compton tells us that “there is something of a non-physical nature which controls the action of the atom,” let it be plain that he has not declared his adherence to the Westminster Confession. And when Albert Einstein says he believes in God, “the God of Spinoza,” let somebody look up what kind of God Spinoza believed in, and not suppose that it is the God of Monsignor Fulton Sheen.

It is only when we have abandoned concealment and pretence that religion begins to be powerful–not powerful in exalting a hierarchy or in making falsities seem to be true, but powerful in the hearts of men.

It is high time that religion began to be powerful in the hearts of men. It is high time that we broke the bondage of the past and became liberated to the real possibilities of religion. It is high time that we know that for religion just as much as for science, truth is supreme. Not truth dwarfed and cramped to be fitted into a formula that disfigures it; but truth set free–truth in the open light of earth and sky: truth as experience proves it. Let the churchmen and the scientists both repent–the churchmen because of their pride, trying to shut up God in a box that only they can open; the scientists because of their aloofness, trying to exclude the truth of the heart from the search for knowledge. Let science and religion meet and mingle. Let there be only one truth, and let it be in the fullness of the soul’s need that we seek it: but truthfully! Then indeed shall it be as Tennyson pleaded: that

“…knowledge grow from more to more,
But more of reverence in us dwell;
That mind and soul, according well,
May make one music as before,
But vaster.”

1. *See The Converted Catholic Magazine, February, 1947, article by Daniel M. Welch, estimating that scientists are 81.4 percent Unitarian in proportion to percentage in population. That most of them, whether Unitarian or not, reject conventional beliefs would be difficult to gainsay.

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