Religion and science is a difficult subject, not one which is easy to discuss fully and frankly without arousing angry emotions. Yet the task is one which ought to be attempted. Providing, of course that one treats of this issue honestly with no desire to sneer at or provoke others on either side of the issue, and in the hope that no one will be angry or feel hurt.
I have spent nearly a lifetime as a practicing Catholic, and until recently have always had a deep interest in religion. Or better yet, I should say a deep feeling for the spirituality in religion. So, here I do not think of myself in terms of one side of the science vs. religion but wish to speak as a human being who believes that both the scientific spirit and the religious spirit are of the utmost value.
Few people would take issue with the effect science has had on the religious outlook? If I were to try to sum up this effect as briefly as possible, I would say that it is twofold. In the first place scientific discoveries have entirely altered our general image of the universe and of man’s place in it. Secondly, the application of scientific methodology in the study of religion has produced a new science, the science of comparative religion, which has profoundly changed our general views on religion itself. In my judgment, this second development is in many ways the most important and I shall begin in the next chapter to explain why.
There was a time when religions were simply divided into two categories, the true and the false; one true religion revealed by God, and a mass of false ones, inspired by the Devil. Milton has given expression to this idea in his beautiful hymn, “On the morning of Christ’s Nativity.” Unfortunately, this view was held by the adherents of a number of different religions…not only by Christians, but also by Jews, Mohammedans, and others; and with the growth of intelligent tolerance many people began to feel doubtful about the truth of such mutually contradictory statements. But in any case the rise of science of comparative religion made any such belief virtually impossible. After a couple of readings in that subject, you might still believe that your own religion was the best of all religions; but you would have a very strange intellectual construction if you still believed that it was alone good and true, while all others were merely false and bad.
It is my belief that the most important contribution which the comparative study of religions has made to general thought is this. We can no longer look on religions as fixed; there is a development in religion as there is in the law, or science, or physical institutions. Nor can we look on religions as separate systems; different religions interconnect and contribute elements to one another. Christianity, for an example, owes much not only to Judaism, but also to the so called mystery religions of the Near East, and to Neo-Platonism.
From this point of view, all the religions of the world appear as different embodiment's of the religious spirit of man and woman, some primitive and crude, some advanced and elaborate, some degenerate and some progressive, some cruel and unenlightened, some noble and beautiful, but all forming part of the one general process of man’s religious development.
But does there really exist a single religious spirit? Are there really any common elements to be found in Quakerism, say, and the fear-ridden fetishism of the Congo, or in the mysticism and renunciation of pure Buddhism and the ghastly cruelties of the religion of ancient Mexicans? Here too, comparative study helps us to find an answer. The religious spirit is by no means always the same at different times and different levels of culture. But it always contains certain common elements. Somewhere at the root of every religions there resides a sense of sacredness; certain things, events, ideas, beings, are felt as mysterious and sacred. Somewhere, too, in every religion there is a sense of dependence; man feels himself surrounded by forces and powers which he does not understand and cannot control, and he desires to place himself in harmony with them. And, finally, into every religion there enters a desire for explanation and comprehension; man knows himself surrounded by mysteries, yet he is always demanding that they shall make sense.
The existence of the sense of sacredness is the most basic of these common elements; it is the core of any feeling which can properly be called religious, and without it man would not have any religion at all. The desire to be in harmony with mysterious forces and powers on which man feels himself dependent is responsible for the expression of religious feeling in action, whether in the sphere of ritual or in that of morals. And the desire for comprehension is responsible for the explanations of the nature and government of the universe, and of the relations between it and human destiny, which in their developed forms we call theology.
This is very well, some of my readers will have been saying to themselves, but there has been no mention of God and no mention of immortality; surely the worship of some God or gods, and the belief in some kind of future life, are essentials of religion? Here again comparative religion correct us. Those are undoubtedly very general elements of religion; but they are not universal, and, therefore, not essential to the nature of religion. In pure Buddhism there is no mention of God; and the Buddhist’s chief preoccupation is to escape continued existence, not to achieve it. Many primitive religions think in terms of impersonal sacred forces permeating nature; personal gods controlling the world either do not exist for them, or, if they do, are thought of vaguely as creators or as remote final causes, and are not worshiped. And a certain number of primitive peoples either have no belief at all in life after death, or believe that it is enjoyed only by chiefs and a few other important persons.
The three elements of which I have spoken seem to be the basis of all religions. But the manner in which they are worked out in actual practice are amazingly diverse. To bring order into the study of hundreds of different religions known, we must have recourse to the principle of development. But before embarking on this, please permit me to clear up one point.
I said that an emotion of sacredness was at the bottom of the religious spirit. So it is; but we must extend the ordinary meaning of the word, “sacred,” if we are to cover the facts. The emotion I am trying to ices late in words is a complex one which contains elements of wonder, a sense of the mysterious, a feeling of dependence or helplessness, and either fear or respect.
Not only can these ingredients be blended with each other and with further elements in very different proportions, so as to give in one case awe, in another case superstitious terror and quiet reverence, while in another ecstatic self-abandonment, but the resulting emotion can be felt about what is horrifying or even evil, as well as about what is noble or inspiring. Indeed, the majority of the gods and fetishes of various primitive tribes are regarded as evil, or at least malevolent; and yet this quality which I have called the sacredness most definitely adheres to them, as either good or bad sacred.
In order to help clarify what I mean, let me remind you that the character, Coleridge in Kubla Khan, uses the word “holy” in the same equivocal way, of the “deep romantic chasm” in Xanadu:
(A savage place, as holy and enchanted
As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon-lover.)
In most primitive religions, the two feelings are intimately blended and equally balanced; it is only later that the idea of the “good-sacred” get the upper hand and the “bad-sacred” dwindles into a subordinate position, as applied to witchcraft, for instance, or to a devil who is inferior to God in power as well as goodness.
Do not be impatient at my spending some time over these barbaric roots of religion. They may not at first sight have anything to do with all our modern perplexities, but they are as a matter of fact of real importance, partly because they are fundamental to our idea of what religion is, partly because they represent, the base line from which we must measure religious development. Here are some of the major stages:
In the least developed religions it is universally agreed that the use of magic is a dominant theme. And by magic is meant the idea that mysterious properties and powers can be in some measures controlled by appropriate formulas or ritual acts. It is also universally agreed that the ideas behind the magic are not true. Primitive man has projected his own ideas and feelings into the world about him. He believes that what we should call lifeless and mindless objects are animated by some sort of spirit; and because they have aroused an emotion of fear or mystery in him, he believes they are themselves the seat of a mysterious and terrifying power of a spiritual nature. He has also employed false methodology in his attempt at achieving control; an obvious example is the use of “sympathetic magic,” as when hunting savages and killing game in effigy, believing this will help them to kill game in actuality.