Science and Religion

Belloc, H. (1934). Science and Religion. The American Review, 405-410.

There is an issue set between science and religion; that is, a conflict. On this, modern men have no doubt. Now what is that issue? We must try to define it or we cannot deal with it.

There is no conflict between the two abstract conceptions, which may be labelled, the one “Science”, the other “Religion”. If we mean by “Science”, the other “Religion”. If we mean by “Science” the body of ascertained and measurable physical things and by “Religion” a sentiment of awe towards something adored and the acceptation of moral commands recognized by all men through the conscience, the two sets of ideas could hardly conflict, because they are not in touch with one another. It is true that the body of ascertained physical things may include facts such as madness, which preclude freewill and therefore deny morals where these facts apply; but as between the vague sentiment to which men attach the word “Religion” in general, and a body of ascertained physical facts, there is no issue.

However, a conflict arises at once when we attach to religion a particular meaning including certain affirmations in contradiction to ascertained physical facts, or when we mean by “Science,” not the body of ascertained physical facts but a whole method of regarding cause and effect and the nature of the world. Of the first form of conflict, the most obvious is the conflict between an historical affirmation imposed by some religion and an ascertained fact contradictory of that affirmation. For instance, if a man’s religion includes the affirmation that man first appeared on earth six thousand years ago; there is a mass of ascertained fact, which makes this statement so improbable that it may be called impossible. Of the second form of conflict, the most obvious example is the denial by the scientists (in practice) of miracle, that is, of interruption in the sequence of observed physical cause and effect.

But the real issue lies not in some logical differences of this kind, but between two opposing moods, from which proceed (and which are partly caused by them) two opposing methods of attaining Reality; of discovering Truth; of Believing. For when modern men say, “Science says this,” they mean by “Science,” not the body of ascertained fact but a whole method of arriving at truth, and what is more, a whole state of mind inimical to another state of mind, also existing in the modern world. They mean “the scientific spirit” as opposed to that other spirit, or mood, which may best be called “the religious spirit.” Between these two, there is indeed a conflict, and it will act with increasing violence until the one or the other conquers, or until the two separate so thoroughly as to dominate separate sections of mankind.

The scientific spirit, then, relies on the authority of certain dogmas. These dogmas scientists rarely explain or even attempt to base upon reason. The scientist takes them for granted and is angry to hear any contradiction of them. The first and most important of these dogmas is the unity or self-sufficiency of the material universe and therefore the immutability of sequence in cause and effect. The second dogma is that the only form of proof certainly acceptable to the reason of man is proof through things measurable, proof capable of repetition and therefore of test by experience. Truth thus ascertained (says the scientific spirit) is certain; all other affirmations are negligible. Such is the Authority from which Scientific Sprit derives its creed.

The Religious Spirit, on the other hand, relies on a personal judgement whereby it accepts the authority of an institution, a book, or a spiritual intuition. Its conclusions are not subject to any universal test, as are those of the scientific spirit. It says, “This institution is holy and clearly speaks with a Divine voice” or “This book contains all important truth” or “I once experienced this or that within. Such an experience stands fast and nothing can overthrow it.”

Now as between these two, since there is conflicting authority, there is conflicting method; the scientific spirit deals with a number of isolated phenomenon, and as it proceeds in its investigation, sets out on a number of divergent lines. It produces the specialist who is not to be contradicted but who cannot coordinate his results with other specialists, save at the very beginning of his journey. The religious spirit on the other hand relies on a general judgement. The first deals in what may be called differentials, an indefinitely large and increasing number of separately acquired truths. The second deals with integration. The first tends to the error of confusing hypothesis with fact. The second tends to strict deduction from what it is sure of, and therefore the error of deducing an apparently certain conclusion from insufficient premises.

An example of the first error was the affirmation of Natural Selection as the agent of growth. It was but a hypothesis; common sense could see that it was not at work in the real world (an acorn does not become and oak by natural selection) and that it was in contradiction with the first laws of arithmetic: for with every succeeding generation selective advantage diminishes in geometrical proportion. An example of the second form of error is the statement that because men are born equal, therefore each is equally fitted to decide upon affairs of state.

The quarrel between these two moods, (1) religious appreciation of apprehension, doctrines appealing to the revelation of conscience or the authority which conscience has discovered to be supreme, and (2) doctrines derived from the unproved postulates of the Scientific Spirit, spreads, as time proceeds, throughout all the activities of human life. For example, the good of the body is a thing appreciable to all and measurable by all, the physical facts in connection with it can be affirmed without hesitation and receive universal acceptance. Thus, physical pain is an evil; whatever relieves it must therefore be a good. The scientific spirit tends in this particular department to the limitation of childbearing, to the painless murder of those suffering from a painful and incurable disease.

There is no doubt whatever on the facts. They, who maintain that pain must be borne, though avoidable, and that life is sacred, rely upon some authority not subject to immediate physical and universally accepted experiment. Each sort of man is equally certain of his position; each must become the mortal enemy of the other, for each is inevitably compelled to combat the activity of the other as being somewhat abominable. He who defends the thesis that we must, for spiritual reasons, submit to pain and permit others to suffer it, is abominable to the scientific spirit. He who would put to death the incurable, sterilize the unfit, sacrifice traditional morals in the effort to relieve pain, or raise the average of health, is, to his religious opponent, diabolical.

As with this example, so with all others. To the scientific spirit marriage is a contract, necessarily tending to be more and more easily terminable at will. To the religious spirit, marriage is a sacrament; desecrated if it were reduced to a mere contract like other terminable human contracts. To the scientific spirit in history, the document is conclusive; tradition and our commons sense are negligible. To the religious spirit, the whole know nature of man is called as witness to fact, and the document is always suspect and weak compared with that integration. To the scientific spirit, positive affirmation upon beauty and the plastic arts or upon morals is absurd. To the religious spirit, such affirmation is the upholding of essential and central truth.

I have said that the conflict is certain to increase. It will increase in area and in violence. Those who, from a weakness of soul, like to believe that there can be a reconciliation between such opposites have not considered the nature of the case. Those who believe that the battle is already won do not understand their opponents. They are under-estimating their enemies. In this country, with much the greater part of men today, or at least with much the greater part of men who think clearly and closely upon these affairs, the battle does seem at least three-quarters won by the scientific spirit, and the remainder of the action will be no more than the “cleaning up” which follows successful assault.

I make no doubt that the future, when we consider Western civilization as a whole, will gravely disappoint this view. The religious spirit has begun its counter-offensive. On the ultimate effect of this, I will prophesy nothing. But that such a reaction is now in progress and increasingly formidable should be apparent to anyone who can look beyond the boundaries of his own nation.

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