The Unseen World and Other Essays
By John Fiske

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[27] History of the Conflict between Religion and Science. by John William Draper, M. D., LL. D. Fourth edition. New York: D. Appleton & Co. 1875. 12mo, pp. xxii., 373. (International Scientific Series, XII.)

Some twelve years ago, Dr. Draper published a bulky volume entitled “A History of the Intellectual Development of Europe," in which his professed purpose was to show that nations or races pass through certain definable epochs of development, analogous to the periods of infancy, childhood, youth, manhood, and old age in individuals. But while announced with due formality, the carrying out of the argument was left for the most part to the headings and running-titles of the several chapters, while in the text the author peacefully meandered along down the stream of time, giving us a succession of pleasant though somewhat threadbare anecdotes, as well as a superabundance of detached and fragmentary opinions on divers historical events, having apparently quite forgotten that he had started with a thesis to prove. In the arrangement of his “running heads,” some points were sufficiently curious to require a word of explanation, as, for example, when the early ages of Christianity were at one time labelled as an epoch of progress and at another time as an epoch of decrepitude. But the argument and the contents never got so far en rapport with each other as to clear up such points as this. On the contrary, each kept on the even tenour of its way without much regard to the other. From the titles of the chapters one was led to expect some comprehensive theory of European civilization continuously expounded. But the text merely showed a great quantity of superficial and second-hand information, serving to illustrate the mental idiosyncrasies of the author. Among these idiosyncrasies might be noted a very inadequate understanding of the part played by Rome in the work of civilization, a singular lack of appreciation of the political and philosophical achievements of Greece under Athenian leadership, a strong hostility to the Catholic Church, a curious disposition to overrate semi-barbarous. or abortive civilizations, such as those of the old Asiatic and native American communities, at the expense of Europe, and, above all, an undiscriminating admiration for everything, great or small, that has ever worn the garb of Islam or been associated with the career of the Saracens. The discovery that in some respects the Mussulmans of the Middle Ages were more highly cultivated than their Christian contemporaries, has made such an impression on Dr. Draper’s mind that it seems to be as hard for him to get rid of it as it was for Mr. Dick to keep the execution of Charles I. out of his “Memorial.” Even in an essay on the “Civil Policy of America,” the turbaned sage figures quite prominently; and it is needless to add that he reappears, as large as life, when the subject of discussion is the attitude of science toward religion.

Speaking briefly with regard to this matter, we may freely admit that the work done by the Arabs, in scientific inquiry as well as in the making of events, was very considerable. It was a work, too, the value of which is not commonly appreciated in the accounts of European history written for the general reader, and we have no disposition to find fault with Dr. Draper for describing it with enthusiasm. The philosophers of Bagdad and Cordova did excellent service in keeping alive the traditions of Greek physical inquiry at a time when Christian thinkers were too exclusively occupied with transcendental speculations in theology and logic. In some departments, as in chemistry and astronomy, they made original discoveries of considerable value; and if we turn from abstract knowledge to the arts of life, it cannot be denied that the mediaeval Mussulmans had reached a higher plane of material comfort than their Christian contemporaries. In short, the work of all kinds done by these people would furnish the judicious advocate of the claims of the Semitic race with materials for a pleasing and instructive picture. Dr. Draper, however, errs, though no doubt unintentionally, by so presenting the case as to leave upon the reader’s mind the impression that all this scientific and practical achievement was the work of Islamism, and that the Mohammedan civilization was of a higher type than the Christian. It is with an apparent feeling of regret that he looks upon the ousting of the Moors from dominion in Spain; but this is a mistaken view. As regards the first point, it is a patent fact that scientific inquiry was conducted at the cost of as much theological obloquy in the Mohammedan as in the Christian world. It is true there was more actual tolerance of heresy on the part of Moslem governments than was customary in Europe in those days; but this is a superficial fact, which does not indicate any superiority in Moslem popular sentiment. The caliphate or emirate was a truly absolute despotism, such as the Papacy has never been, and the conduct of a sceptical emir in encouraging scientific inquiry goes but little way toward proving anything like a general prevalence of tolerance or of free-thinking. And this brings us to the second point,—that Mohammedan civilization was, on the whole, rather a skin-deep affair. It was superficial because of that extreme severance between government and people which has never existed in European nations within historic times, but which has always existed among the principal races that have professed Moslemism. Nowhere in the Mohammedan world has there ever been what we call a national life, and nowhere do we find in its records any trace of such an intellectual impulse, thrilling through every fibre of the people and begetting prodigious achievements in art, poetry, and philosophy, as was awakened in Europe in the thirteenth century and again in the fifteenth. Under the peculiar form of unlimited material and spiritual despotism exemplified in the caliphate, a few men may discover gases or comment on Aristotle, but no general movement toward political progress or philosophical inquiry is possible. Such a society is rigid and inorganic at bottom, whatever scanty signs of flexibility and life it may show at the surface. There is no better illustration of this, when well considered, than the fact that Moorish civilization remained, politically and intellectually, a mere excrescence in Spain, after having been fastened down over half the country for nearly eight centuries.

But we are in danger of forgetting our main theme, as Dr. Draper seems to do, while we linger with him over these interesting wayside topics. We may perhaps be excused, however, if we have not yet made any very explicit allusion to the “Conflict between Religion and Science,” because this work seems to be in the main a repetition en petit of the “Intellectual Development of Europe,” and what we have said will apply as well to one as to the other. In the little book, as in the big one, we hear a great deal about the Arabs, and something about Columbus and Galileo, who made men accept sundry truths in the teeth of clerical opposition; and, as before, we float gently down the current of history without being over well-informed as to the precise didactic purpose of our voyage. Here, indeed, even our headings and running-titles do not materially help us, for though we are supposed to be witnessing, or mayhap assisting in, a perennial conflict between “science” and “religion,” we are nowhere enlightened as to what the cause or character of this conflict is, nor are we enabled to get a good look at either of the parties to the strife. With regard to it “religion” especially are we left in the dark. What this dreadful thing is towards which “science” is always playing the part of Herakles towards the Lernaean Hydra, we are left to gather from the course of the narrative. Yet, in a book with any valid claim to clearsightedness, one would think such a point as this ought to receive very explicit preliminary treatment.

The course of the narrative, however, leaves us in little doubt as to what Dr. Draper means by a conflict between science and religion. When he enlarges on the trite story of Galileo, and alludes to the more modern quarrel between the Church and the geologists, and does this in the belief that he is thereby illustrating an antagonism between religion and science, it is obvious that he identifies the cause of the anti-geologists and the persecutors of Galileo with the cause of religion. The word “religion” is to him a symbol which stands for unenlightened bigotry or narrow-minded unwillingness to look facts in the face. Such a conception of religion is common enough, and unhappily a great deal has been done to strengthen it by the very persons to whom the interests of religion are presumed to be a professional care. It is nevertheless a very superficial conception, and no book which is vitiated by it can have much philosophic value. It is simply the crude impression which, in minds unaccustomed to analysis, is left by the fact that theologians and other persons interested in religion are usually alarmed at new scientific truths, and resist them with emotions so highly wrought that they are not only incapable of estimating evidence, but often also have their moral sense impaired, and fight with foul means when fair ones fail. If we reflect carefully on this class of phenomena, we shall see that something besides mere pride of opinion is involved in the struggle. At the bottom of changing theological beliefs there lies something which men perennially value, and for the sake of which they cling to the beliefs as long as possible. That which they value is not itself a matter of belief, but it is a matter of conduct; it is the searching after goodness,—after a higher life than the mere satisfaction of individual desires. All animals seek for fulness of life; but in civilized man this craving has acquired a moral significance, and has become a spiritual aspiration; and this emotional tendency, more or less strong in the human race, we call religious feeling or religion. Viewed in this light, religion is not only something that mankind is never likely to get rid of, but it is incomparably the most noble as well as the most useful attribute of humanity.

Now, this emotional prompting toward completeness of life requires, of course, that conduct should be guided, as far as possible, in accordance with a true theory of the relations of man to the world in which he lives. Hence, at any given era the religious feeling will always be found enlisted in behalf of some theory of the universe. At any time, whatever may be their shortcomings in practice, religious men will aim at doing right according to their conceptions of the order of the world. If men’s conceptions of the order of nature remained constant, no apparent conflict between their religious feelings and their knowledge need ever arise. But with the first advance in our knowledge of nature the case is altered. New and strange theories are naturally regarded with fear and dislike by persons who have always been accustomed to find the sanction and justification of their emotional prompting toward righteousness in old familiar theories which the new ones are seeking to supplant. Such persons oppose the new doctrine because their engrained mental habits compel them to believe that its establishment will in some way lower men’s standard of life, and make them less careful of their spiritual welfare. This is the case, at all events, when theologians oppose scientific conclusions on religious grounds, and not simply from mental dulness or rigidity. And, in so far as it is religious feeling which thus prompts resistance to scientific innovation, it may be said, with some appearance of truth, that there is a conflict between religion and science.

But there must always be two parties to a quarrel, and our statement has to be modified as soon as we consider what the scientific innovator impugns. It is not the emotional prompting toward righteousness, it is not the yearning to live im Guten, Ganzen, Wahren, that he seeks to weaken; quite likely he has all this as much at heart as the theologian who vituperates him. Nor is it true that his discoveries, in spite of him, tend to destroy this all-important mental attitude. It would be ridiculous to say that the fate of religious feeling is really involved in the fate of grotesque cosmogonies and theosophies framed in the infancy of men’s knowledge of nature; for history shows us quite the contrary. Religious feeling has survived the heliocentric theory and the discoveries of geologists; and it will be none the worse for the establishment of Darwinism. It is the merest truism to say that religion strikes its roots deeper down into human nature than speculative opinion, and is accordingly independent of any particular set of beliefs. Since, then, the scientific innovator does not, either voluntarily or involuntarily, attack religion, it follows that there can be no such “conflict” as that of which Dr. Draper has undertaken to write the history. The real contest is between one phase of science and another; between the more-crude knowledge of yesterday and the less-crude knowledge of to-day. The contest, indeed, as presented in history, is simply the measure of the difficulty which men find in exchanging old views for new ones. All along, the practical question has been, whether we should passively acquiesce in the crude generalizations of our ancestors or venture actively to revise them. But as for the religious sentiment, the perennial struggle in which it has been engaged has not been with scientific inquiry, but with the selfish propensities whose tendency is to make men lead the lives of brutes.

The time is at hand when the interests of religion can no longer be supposed to be subserved by obstinate adherence to crude speculations bequeathed to us from pre-scientific antiquity. One good result of the doctrine of evolution, which is now gaining sway in all departments of thought, is the lesson that all our opinions must be held subject to continual revision, and that with none of them can our religious interests be regarded as irretrievably implicated. To any one who has once learned this lesson, a book like Dr. Draper’s can be neither interesting nor useful. He who has not learned it can derive little benefit from a work which in its very title keeps open an old and baneful source of error and confusion.

  November. 1875.



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