The Supposed Irreligious Elements in Science

The Supposed Irreligious Elements in Science

Since religion, on its intellectual side, is a theory of the world as a whole, it is the same thing as philosophy ; the ultimate questions of philosophy are those of religion too.

But can we say the same of science ? Is not science, at least as interpreted by many of its exponents, anti-religious in its materialism and its frequent atheism ; and even if these characteristics were not present, does it not differ necessarily from both religion and philosophy in being a view of the universe not as a whole but in minute particular details only ?

To the first question it must be replied that, paradoxical though it may seem, materialism and atheism are not necessarily irreligious. Philosophy, as well as science, may be both materialist and atheist ; indeed there may be, as we have said, religions which show the same features. We may even be so bold as to assert that atheism and materialism are necessarily religions of a kind ; for not only do they spring from the impulse to solve the intellectual problem of the universe, but they owe their form to an essentially religious dissatisfaction with existing solutions.

Thus an atheist may well be an atheist because he has a conception of God which he cannot reconcile with the creeds of other people ; because he feels that the ground of the universe is too mysterious, too august to be described in terms of human personality and encumbered with mythological impertinences.

The materialist, again, may find in matter a real object of worship, a thing more worthy of admiration than the God of popular religion. The materialist Lucretius adores not the careless gods of the interstellar space, but the “ alma Venus, ” the immanent principle of nature itself. And can we deny that such materialism or atheism is more truly religious, does more honour to the true God, than many theistic superstitions ?

The materialism and atheism of modern science—if indeed these qualities are rightly ascribed to it, which is very doubtful—may or may not be preferable, considered as a view of the universe, to that offered by traditional Christianity. But whichever is right, each alike is a religion, and it is only because of this fact that they can ever come into conflict.

In reply to the second question, the suggestion that science, as the knowledge of detail, is irrelevant to philosophy the knowledge of the whole, and therefore not itself religious in character, it must be remembered that we cannot have a whole which is not a whole of parts, nor parts which are not parts of a whole.

Philosophy, as well as science, is concerned with detail ; it does not exist in the rarefied atmosphere of a world aloof from facts. Nor does science take its facts in absolute isolation one from another and from a general scheme of the world ; it is essential to science that the facts should be related to one another and should find each its place in the scientist’s view of the whole. And any religion must take account of detail ; for it is only in the details that the nature of the whole is manifested.

It is no doubt possible to forget the whole in laying stress on isolated parts, as it is possible to forget details in the general view of a whole. But each of these is a false abstraction ; we cannot identify the former with science and the latter with religion or philosophy. The ideal, alike for philosophy and science, is to see the part in its place in the whole, and the whole perfectly exemplified in the part.