Popular Science Monthly/Volume 10/November 1876/The So-Called Conflict of Science and Religion

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By Principal J. W. DAWSON,

IT may be objected that, by the introduction of a cosmogony, the Bible exposes itself to a conflict with science, and that thereby injury results both to science and to religion. This is a grave charge, and one that evidently has had much weight with many minds, since it has been the subject of entire treatises designed to illustrate the history of this conflict or to explain its nature. The revelation of God's will to man for his moral guidance, if necessary at all, was necessary before the rise of natural science. Men could not, more especially, do without some knowledge of the unity of God and the unity of Nature until these great truths should be worked out by scientific induction. Perhaps they might never have been so worked out; therefore, a revealed "book of origins" has a right to precedence in this matter. Nor need it in any way come into conflict with the science subsequently to grow up. Science does not deal so much with the origin of Nature as with its method and laws; and all that is necessary on the part of a revelation to avoid conflict with it is to confine itself to the statement of phenomena and to avoid hypotheses. This is eminently the course of the Bible. In its cosmogony it shuns all embellishments and details, and contents itself with the fact of creation and a slight sketch of its order; and the sacred writers in their subsequent references to Nature are strictly phenomenal in their statements, and refer everything directly to the will of God, without any theory as to secondary causes or relations. They are thus decided and positive on the points with reference to which it behooves revelation to testify, and non-committal on the points which belong to the exclusive domain of science.

What, then, are we to say of the imaginary "conflict of science and religion" of which so much has been made? Simply, that it results largely from misapprehension and misuse of terms. True religion, which consists in practical love to God and to our fellow-men, can have no conflict with true science. They are fast allies. The Bible, considered as a revelation of spiritual truth to man for his salvation and enlightenment, can have no conflict with science. It promotes the study of Nature, rendering it honorable by giving it the dignity of an inquiry into the ways of God, and rendering it safe by separating it from all ideas of magic and necromancy. It gives a theological sanction to the ideas of the unity of Nature and of natural law. The actual conflict of science, when historically analyzed, is fourfold: 1. With the Church; 2. With theology; 3. With superstition; 4. With false or imperfect science and philosophy. Religious men have, no doubt, from time to time identified themselves with these opponents, but that is all; and much more frequently the opposition has been by unwise or bad men, more or less, it may be, professing religious objects.

Organizations styling themselves "the Church," and whose warrant from the Bible is often of the slenderest, have denounced and opposed new scientific truths, and persecuted their upholders; but they have just as often denounced the Bible itself, and religious doctrines founded on it.

Theology claims to be itself one of the sciences, and as such it is necessarily imperfect and progressive, and may at any time be more or less in conflict with other sciences. But theology is not religion, and may often have very little in common either with true religion or with the Bible. When discussions arise between theology and other sciences, it is only a pity that either side should indulge in what has been termed the odium theologicum, but which is unfortunately not confined to divines.

Superstition, considered as the unreasonable fear of natural agencies, is a passive rather than an active opponent of science, except when it becomes affected with some cruel panic. But revelation which affirms unity, law, and a Father's hand in Nature, is the deadly foe of superstition; and, as a matter of fact, no body of people who have been readers of the Bible, and imbued with its spirit, have been found ready to molest or persecute science. Work of this sort has been done chiefly by the ignorant and superstitious votaries of systems which detest the Bible as much as they dislike science.

Perhaps the most troublesome opposition to science, or rather to the progress of science, has sprung from the tenacity with which men hold to old ideas. These, which may at one time have been the best science attainable, root themselves in the general mind, in popular literature, in learned bodies, and in educational books and institutions. They become identified with men's conceptions both of Nature and religion, and modify their interpretations of the Bible itself. It thus becomes a most difficult matter to wrench them from their hold, and their advocates are too apt to invoke in their defense political, social, and ecclesiastical powers, and to seek to support them by the authority of revelation, even when this, rightly understood, might be quite as favorable to the newer views.

All these conflicts are, however, necessary incidents in human progress, which comes only by conflict; and there is reason to believe that they would be as severe in the absence of revealed religion as in its presence, were it not that the absence of revelation seems often to produce a fixity and stagnation of thought, unfavorable to any new views, and consequently to some extent to any intellectual conflict. It has been, indeed, to the disinterment of the Bible, the Reformation of the fifteenth century, that the world owes, more than to any other cause, the rapid growth of modern science, and the freedom of discussion which now prevails. The Bible is surely to be regarded as a religious book, and a very old one. Yet, its constant appeal to the individual judgment in matters of religion exposes it quite as often as science to the attacks of ecclesiastical power, and gives to those who rely on it as a rule of faith a mental stimulus which is to this day the strongest guarantee that we possess for intellectual liberty in other matters.

  1. Extract from a work preparing for publication.