Popular Science Monthly/Volume 9/June 1876/Correspondence
"WHAT CONSTITUTES RELIGION?"
To the Editor of the Popular Science Monthly.
DEAR SIR: The use of my name twice in your notice of Mr. Fiske's new work on "The Unseen World," in your May number, perhaps justifies me in soliciting a small space for comment on some expressions in that notice.
You are defending Dr. Draper from Mr. Fiske's trenchant attacks. To that there can be no objection. Confederates are justified in standing by one another; but I do not think that you are justified in saying that "the point of contention is as to what constitutes religion." So far from there being contention on that point, there is really no important difference. All "sects," no matter how much they "eat each other up in their denial of dogmas," as you affirm, agree as to what religion is. It does not seem edifying to behold in you the temper which dictates the first of the following sentences, although the exceeding generosity of the careful proposal in the second has a redeeming flavor. "We hope that the agreement of Messrs. Brownson, Hill, Washburn, Deems, Fiske & Co., in denouncing the groundlessness of the 'conflict,' will not be construed as implying any agreement among the parties as to what religion is. If these gentlemen will get together and settle the point, an important step will be gained, and The Popular Science Monthly will gladly pay the expenses of a convention of reasonable length for such a purpose; but we stipulate not to foot the bills until they reach an agreement."
For the other gentlemen I cannot answer, but I simply say that I never did "denounce the groundlessness of the conflict," but have announced it and endeavored to demonstrate it, and you are witness that I am "vehement in asserting the groundlessness and absurdity of Dr. Draper's assumption" of the conflict (page 113).
Why are you so anxious to keep your readers from believing-that the gentlemen whose names you have recited in fact do not and really cannot agree as to what is "religion?" Have you ever seen anything in our writings or heard anything in our oral teachings to justify the supposition that, we do not agree? As you challenge us, I accept the challenge for my part. I will not expose you to the cost of a convention, but here, in my study, without consultation with any of the other gentlemen you name, I venture to give two definitions of religion, in both of which I venture to predict that all those gentlemen, if they see this letter, will heartily agree, and that these definitions will win the assent also of Archbishop McCloskey, Bishop Potter, Bishop Foster, Bishop Wightman, Chancellor Crosby, Rev. Dr. Armitage, and Rev. Dr. Storrs. representatives of the leading "sects."
To give the least first, here is my own definition: Religion is loving obedience to God's will. No matter how or where that will is discovered, nor what it is, he is a religious man who does what he believes will please God, because he loves God.
The second is authoritative. It is that of St. James (i. 27): "True religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this: To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world." A life of inward purity and outward beneficence is a religious life.
I venture to think you may pass these around the whole circle of religionists and find unanimity. But do not we religionists disagree? Certainly. The five gentlemen you have mentioned, and the seven whom I have named, differ more or less, oftener more than less, and on some points apparently irreconcilably. But mark: we never differ in our religion; it is in our science. The moment two men become scientific, whether they are religious or not, they begin to "eat each other up in their denial of dogmas." So long as we keep to religion, we are one. Our hearts are together. It is only with our heads that we butt one another. I have worshiped God in company with each of the seven distinguished clergymen whom I have ventured to name, and yet there is not one of them who does not hold some dogma of doctrine or ecclesiasticism to which I cannot subscribe. As religionists, we agree. As scientists, we differ. It is on the ground of our theology that we differ, and that is purely a scientific ground. Be pleased always to remember that theology is only a science like geology or biology.
But, my dear sir, we theologians would be out of fashion if we did not "eat each other up in our denial of dogmas." All other scientists do. The dogma of heterogenesis tries to "eat up" the dogma of homogenesis, while the dogma of pangenesis is fairly bursting itself to swallow both the others bodily; and there is no small conflict between spontaneity and heredity, and meanwhile biosis is striving vigorously to hold its ground against archebiosis.
Behold! are not Religion and Life the two greatest subjects? You are quite anxious that your readers shall fancy that religionists cannot agree in their definitions of religion. But you do not show them that even on the subject of Life the scientists are greatly at difference. Prof. Owen says that "Life is a sound;" Schelling says it is a "tendency." Herbert Spencer calls it "a continuous adjustment." Dr. Meissner says it is "but motion." Dr. Bastian holds that he has produced plants and animals from inorganic matter. Schultz positively believes it never was done and cannot be done: and Prof. Huxley holds that "constructive chemistry could do nothing without the influence of preëxisting living protoplasm."
I do not wish to crowd your pages, and so content myself with these few instances out of the multitudes of conflicting and perplexing differences among "advanced thinkers."
Even you, my dear sir, have not utterly escaped. You once wrote, "If the forces are correlated in organic growth and nutrition, they must be in organic action." Manifestly, after that sentence was written, you meditated, and, meditating, you discovered that the sequitur was not quite as apparent as it ought to be. You did not strike out the sentence, but you apologized for it handsomely by saying, "From the great complexity of the conditions, the same exactness will not be expected here as in the inorganic field." But you see, my dear sir, that theology is a science which has for its field those subjects in which there is the greatest complexity of conditions, and you must not demand of your brother scientists as much exactness in the statements of a metaphysical proposition as you may in the statement of the length of a fish's tooth.
But as to your statement that the forces must be correlated in organic action, are you not in danger of being "eaten up" by the statements of your friends, Bastian, Barker, and, what is still harder on you, Herbert Spencer? Prof. Barker teaches that the correlation of the natural forces with thought "has never yet been measured." Then, it is a mere "guess." Dr. Bastian says that it "cannot be proved" that sensation and thought are truly the direct results of molecular activity. Then it is a mere "guess." Mr. Herbert Spencer, whose name is conclusive authority with you, and who, I am most frank to admit, knows as much about the "unknowable" as any writer whose works I have read, says that the outer force and the inward feeling it excites "do not even maintain an unvarying proportion." Then it is a mere "guess." And, my dear sir, I do most heartily agree with your statement, "not he who guesses is to be esteemed the true discoverer, but he who demonstrates a new truth."
Now, if Messrs. Spencer, Barker, Tyndall, Huxley, Büchner, Draper, Youmans, "& Co.," will "get together and settle" what Life is, or Thought, "an important step will be gained;" and, not to be outdone by your generosity, I will engage to "pay the expenses of a convention of reasonable length for such a purpose," but I "stipulate not to foot the bills until you reach an agreement."
Trusting that both you and I, as we grow older, may have more science and more religion, and room enough in our heads and hearts for both without "conflict,"
I am, very faithfully, your co-laborer,
Charles F. Deems.
Of course Dr. Deems meant to announce, assert, and declare, the groundlessness of the conflict between Religion and Science; and we think the readers of our article which he criticises were not in the slightest danger of misapprehending his position, notwithstanding the slip of writing in which he is said to have denounced it.
Dr. Deems asks: "Why are you so anxious to keep your readers from believing that the gentlemen whose names you have recited in fact do not, and really cannot, agree as to what is religion?" Has not the doctor here slipped also, in inadvertent haste, and does he not really mean, Why are you so anxious to make your readers believe, etc.? and to this we reply, that the anxiety in regard to a definition of religion has not originated with us. It is the reviewers of Dr. Draper who have called for a definition of religion from him, and condemn his book as dealing with a "conflict" existing only in his own imagination, because he has not defined what religion is. Had he undertaken this, they tell us, it would have at once appeared that there is and can be really no such conflict. We said that "the point of contention is as to what constitutes religion," because the theological reviewers of Draper charge that what he treats as religion, and as conflicting with science, is not religion. We have not denied that religion can be so defined as to avoid all antagonism with science; and there is hope that the time may come when such a definition will be accepted and the antagonism will disappear. We only maintain that in the historic past, wish which Dr. Draper deals, such an interpretation of religion had not been reached, and that it is very far from being arrived at at the present time. Dr. Draper has been reproached for not defining religion; had he done so, and had his definition described that which has passed under the name of religion, and been held as religion, generation after generation, his definition would have been at once repudiated by the theological party. We said that those who agree in demanding a definition of religion from Dr. Draper, and condemn his book as treating of an illusive conflict because he does not furnish it, cannot themselves agree upon the definition they profess to so much desire. Does Dr. Deems accept Mr. Fiske's definition? And if there is one definition, clear and complete, which all men can adopt, why does he bring us two, and which are we to accept? They are certainly not identical, for one makes it consist in a special relation of man to God, and the other in charity and moral purity. Dr. Deems defines religion as "loving obedience to God's will;" but if the obedience is inspired by Calvinistic fear, is it religion or not? Loving obedience to God's will—but how ascertained? Dr. Deems may say, with broad liberality, either by the study of God's printed word, or by the study of his living works; but can he insure us an agreement among all parties upon this basis? From the doctor's position, that religious people disagree among each other on account of their science, we respectfully dissent. Science is not an agency of discord, but of concord. There are undoubtedly disagreements in science, for its nature is progressive, and diversities of view are inevitably incident to its imperfect stages. Yet the great law of scientific thought is that, with the progress of investigation, there is ever a tendency to wider agreement, until its truths at length become established and universally accepted. Throughout civilization it is in science, and, we might almost say, in science alone, that men are brought into essential agreement. Through the power it has conferred over the elements of Nature have come the marvels of modern international communication and intercourse; and through the truths it has established in the domain of experience has come a body of common belief, which men of all languages, religions, and nationalities, can accept, so that we must regard science as in fact the predominant unifying agency of the world. The reason is, that it deals with the order of Nature, which is constant and ever open to observation and research. New questions are, of course, constantly arising in science, upon which there are at first wide contrasts of opinion, but the history of science abundantly shows, either that such questions are gradually cleared up, or, if this is found to be impossible—if the truth cannot be determined about them—then there comes agreement in this, and they are finally put aside as insoluble, and therefore questions with which science has no legitimate concern. Conflicting views now prevail on the problems of the origin of life and the nature of life, and time alone can determine what will be the issue of these inquiries; but we submit that these diversities of opinion are of a quite different kind from those between the Unitarian and the Trinitarian—the Universalist and the Perditionist.