The pursuit of truth is a common goal of both science and religion. The possession of truth is the supreme good of the human intellect and one of the major elements of human well-being. Science and religion, therefore, might be expected in principle to work, perhaps in separate spheres, but with harmonious cooperation, to achieve that well-being.
Notoriously, the history of relations between science and religion has not always been one of harmony. In his writings Professor Jaki has documented the debt which scientific progress has owned to religious presuppositions, and chronicled the many benefits conferred by religion on science. But religious people and institutions have often blocked the free inquiry of the experimenter and have checked the dissemination of scientific findings. Scientists, for their part, have often been hostile to churches and creeds, and have sometimes presented scientific theories as if they were the mature substitutes which superseded the infantile superstitions of religious believers.
We may wonder whether the conflicts between science and religion arise inevitably from the nature of the two activities or whether they are a temporary and contingent phenomenon characteristic of a particular stage in their development. Certainly the progress of science in recent centuries has not always been in the direction of a confident materialism which leaves no room for faith in the supernatural. And on the other hand many religious groups have withdrawn from dogmatic claims about the structure of the material universe which brought them into conflict with scientific discoveries.
The very notion of religious progress, however, is fraught with difficulty. Certainly it is much easier to measure progress in science than in religion, and there would be widespread agreement among scientists about the identity of epoch-making events which carried forward the tide of scientific progress. There would be no similar unanimity among religious people whether classic events of religious history were movements forward or backward: consider the destruction of the golden calf, the abandonment of Mosaic practice by the early Christians, the Protestant Reformation, the Methodist movement in the 18th century and the Oxford movement in the nineteenth. In our own time consider on the one hand the Second Vatican Council in the Roman Catholic church and the increased participation of women in the ministry of many of the Protestant churches; consider on the other hand the revival of fundamentalism in recent years, not only in Christianity but in Judaism and in Islam. Each of these events, from the perspective of the participants, looks like a surge forward in religion, or at least a recovery of lost ground; from other religious perspectives each of them looks like a retrograde movement. There is no vantage points where one can take one’s stand and take an impartial survey to see whether the tide of religion is coming in or going out.
In the Victorian era the poet Matthew Arnold has no doubt. Looking at the full tide beneath the cliffs of Dover he wrote:
‘The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl’d.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar, Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear And naked shingles of the world.’
The world, he concluded sombrely, had really neither joy, nor love, nor light, nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain.
The Victorian era was the high point of the armed clash between science and religion. But not all Victorian poets looked on the battle with such a pessimistic eye. Arthur Hugh Clough, who was Arnold’s contemporary at the College of which Sir John Templeton and I have the honour to be members, saw the darkness of Victorian scepticism as a stage in the fuller revelation of God. In his poem The New Sinai he described how mankind, in its infancy had chased idols and false Gods; Moses, disappearing into the dark cloud on Sinai had brought the revelation of the one God who spoke out of thunder.
“God spake it out, ‘I, God, am One;’ The unheeding ages ran,
And baby-thoughts again, again Have dogged the growing man:
And as of old from Sinai’s top God said that God is One,
By Science strict so speaks He now To tell us, There is None!
Earth goes by chemic forces; Heaven’s A Mecanique Celeste
And heart and mind of human kind A watch-work as the rest!
Is this a Voice, as was the Voice Whose speaking told abroad,
When thunder pealed and mountain reeled The ancient Truth of God?
Ah, not the Voice; tis but the cloud The outer darkness dense,
Where image none, nor e’er was seen Similitude of sense.
‘Tis but the cloudy darkness dense, That wrapt the Mount around;
While in amaze the people stays To hear the Coming Sound.
Some chosen prophet-soul the while Shall dare, sublimely meek,
Within the shroud of blackest cloud The Deity to seek:
‘Mid atheistic systems dark And darker hearts’ despair,
That soul has heard perchance His word, And on the dusky air
His skirts, as passed He by, to see Hath strained on their behalf,
Who on the plain, with dance amain, Adore the Golden Calf.
‘Tis but the cloudy darkness dense; Though blank the tale it tells
No God, no Truth! Yest He, in sooth, Is there — within it dwells;
Within the sceptic darkness deep He dwells that none may see,
Till idol forms and idol thoughts Have passed and cease to be.”
The moral, for Clough, was that one should neither worship the Golden Calf (that was his description of the medievalising trends in the Church of England of his time) nor accept the current atheism of science as the last word to come from the mountain: mankind should not reject science, nor embrace superstition, but wain in faith for God to complete his plan of revelation.
Despite all that has happened since the time of Arnold and Clough — all that has happened both to science and to religion — the options they present remain to challenge us. Professor Jaki is one of those who as Clough prophesied has dared to seek the Deity within the black cloud of the dark systems of science. Sir John Templeton, in offering a prize for progress in religion, has endorsed Clough’s view that the last word of divine revelation has not yet been said.
For though, as I have said, there would be no unanimity among religious people about what counts as progress in religion, there can be an objective measure of such progress, difficult though it may be to apply. The religious impulse is one of the most powerful and the most valuable of all human instincts. It finds expression in human history in deeds of love, in unveiling of truths, and in works of beauty. But it has given rise to great hatreds no less than great loves, to falsehood and contradiction no less than to the discovery of truth, to hideous vulgarity no less than to sublime beauty. The measure of whether an event, a life, or a movement, contributes to progress in religion is whether it encourages the human religious impulse to make its way through love rather than hatred, to seek consistency rather than contradiction, to flower in beauty rather than grow rank.
Science, no less than religion, is concerned with truth, in particular the truth about the origin and development of the universe. Science, like religion, has a relationship to beauty: it enables us to discover hitherto hidden patterns of loveliness and splendour. But the truth which science seeks is theoretical truth; scientific truth does not have the intimate relation of practice which is a mark of moral and religious truth. And concerning the other human values, such as justice and love, science directly has nothing to say. In the present age scientific technology has unprecedented powers to offer: on the one hand the power to procreate in novel ways and to create new forms of life; on the other hand the power to destroy human life from the earth. But the science which offers these powers cannot by itself offer the wisdom to ensure they are not used in wicked ways. If the feats of our technology are not to be the instruments of our doom we need whatever help we can obtain to make sound moral judgments. For this reason, the right relationship between science and religion is a matter of urgent concern to mankind.