Science and Religion

Museum of Geology
The Builder vol. 17 (January 1859)

[35] At the close of the first course of Lectures to Working Men this session, delivered by Professor Huxley, F.R.S. ("On Objects of Interest in the Collection of Fossils"), the lecturer made some observations on the subject at the head of this article, and it has been urged by several of his hearers that the publication of these remarks in our columns would be useful. In complying with the request, we take the opportunity to mention that Professor Ramsay will deliver a course of lectures here on Geology, and Professor Willis one on Applied Mathematics. It ought to be known that the professors of this Institution derive no profit or advantage, direct or indirect, from them. Even the nominal registration fee goes to the Government.

The lectures have now been given for seven years (in fact, ever since the School of Mines was established); and, as an invariable rule, the tickets have been applied for at once, and the attendance has been extremely good. So far as we know, the tickets are always disposed of to bonâ fide workmen, and it is impossible to speak too highly of the attention and intelligence of the audience.

The professors may reasonably report, therefore, that they are doing some good, and they are entitled to the thanks of the public.

And now, gentlemen, the proper subjects of this course are ended. My duties towards you, as an officer of this institution, cease; but I am glad to have the opportunity, on my own responsibility, of saying a few words on a subject which, judging from the letters I have received, interests you as much as it does me. At the same time, I am most desirous not to be misunderstood; and, therefore, instead of taking up this subject in the lecture which immediately followed the letters to which I refer, I have allowed myself a longer interval for reflection; and, contrary to my wont, I have written down in full, and will read, what I have to say.

The whole history of the gradual discovery of the significance of such apparently unimportant indications of formerly existing life, as those which I have been describing to you to-night, is fraught with instruction. It is one of the most striking of the many justifications which might be found, of the methods, not only of geological, but of all other sciences; and it helps as much as any of these, to teach us what implicit and absolute faith we may place in the conclusions of the human intellect, when that intellect is rightly guided.

In fact, this is the moral of all science; and the great and peculiar benefit which a fair course of scientific study confers, even on those who do not follow it as a profession, is that it compels such a firm and entire faith in our mental processes, so far as their range extends, that it teaches us what this range is, and enables us to distinguish between the natural and the artificial limitations of man's powers.

And let me bid you remember hat this faith does not rest upon mere testimony, however respectable, however solemnly supported. The works of science are her witness. Her age of inspiration and of miracles is not over, but beginning, and its duration will be coeval with that of the intellect of man. Nor is access to her deepest secrets restricted to a race or to a priesthood. Every man can, if he pleases, apply to the sources of all scientific knowledge directly, and verify for himself the conclusions of others. In science, faith is based solely on the assent of the intellect; and the most complete submission to ascertained truth is wholly voluntary, because it is accompanied by perfect freedom, nay, by every encouragement, to test and try that truth to the uttermost.

I have said that our faith in the results of the right working of the human mind rests on no mere testimony. But there is One that bears witness to it, and He the Highest. For, the winning of every new law by reasoning from ascertained facts; the verification by the event, of every scientific prediction is, if this world be governed by providential order, the direct testimony of that Providence to the sufficiency of the faculties with which man is endowed, to unravel, so far as is necessary for his welfare, the mysteries by which he is surrounded. Donati's comet lately blazing in the heavens above us at its appointed time; the first quiver which betrayed to the anxious watcher of the telegraphic needle on the other side of the Atlantic, that an electric current would follow, even under such strange conditions, the laws which man's wit and industry had discovered; the bone which, laid bare by Cuvier's chisel, justified his trust in the law of organic correlation which he had discovered; all these, and hundreds of other like cases which I might cite, are to my mind so many signs and wonders, whereby the Divine Governor signifies his approbation of the trust of poor and weak humanity, in the guide which he has given it.

The present state of civilized nations and their past history bear witness on the same side. So far as any nation recognises, or has recognised, the great truth, that every dictum, every belief, must be tested and tried to the uttermost, and swept ruthlessly away if it be not in accordance with right reason, so far is that nation prosperous and healthy; and so far as a nation has allowed itself to be hood-winked and fettered, and the free application of its intellect, as the criterion of all truth, restricted, so far is it sinking and rotten within.

There is one restriction, and only one, so far as I know, placed upon our supreme arbiter. It is, that it shall be actuated by an uncompromising and unswerving love of truth. With that, the human intellect is the nearest impersonification of the Divine; without that, it is, in my apprehension, the worst of conceivable devils.

Such being my inmost and deepest belief on these matters, the friend, if I may so call him, who was good enough to write me the letter an extract from which I am about to read, will readily anticipate what answer I am about to give him. I can but regret that it should be so directly opposed in appearance to his own views, but he has asked me to speak out, and I will do so. After all, there is perhaps less difference between us in reality than in seeming.

Referring to a previous letter, he says,–"One or two imagined that you, in your own theory, advocated the idea that a lower animal might, by development or progression, pass, in time, into one of a higher organization; and they would apply this through the whole animal kingdom up to the human race, in opposition to the first pair being brought into existence by the direct power of our Creator."

The one or two are nearly, but not quite, right. What I said was this: that the bringing into existence of an animal, at once, is a thing which is, in the nature of the case, capable of neither proof nor disproof, and is, therefore, no subject for science, which concerns herself only with matters capable of proof or disproof. And I went on to say, that if the appearance of the successive populations of the globe had followed laws at all similar to those by which the rest of the universe is governed, I could not conceive but that these successive races must have proceeded from one another in the way of progressive modification.

And that is my hypothesis, and I do include man in the same category as the rest of the animal world. But you will recollect, that I begged you particularly to understand that I regarded this notion of mine simply as a hypothesis, reasoned out from general principles, and wholly devoid of evidence amounting to proof.

Well, if you see good to reject this hypothesis, if you think that my reasonings from the principles I started with are fallacious, or that those principles themselves are erroneous, reject it by all means; and if you can show me, on these grounds , that you are right, I will reject it also as speedily as possible, and thank you for the refutation. Why should I cumber myself with the burden of an untruth?

But you all know right well that such are not the grounds on which hypotheses of this kind are objected to. The real reason is, that such doctrines are supposed to be antagonistic to religion, or rather, to be opposed to certain traditions handed down to us with our religious beliefs, from a venerable and remote antiquity.

Now let me tell you quite frankly, that I almost think it beneath the dignity of my calling, as a man of science, to listen to such objections as these. If it be really true that science is opposed to religion, all I can say is, so much the worse for religion. If science is really opposed to traditions, the sooner the traditions vanish and are no more seen or heard of, the better. For science, and the methods of science, are the masters of the world.

But it is not true. If you have seen occasion to put any faith in what I tell you, believe me now when I say, that of all the miserable superstitions which have ever tended to vex and enslave mankind, this notion of the antagonism of science and religion is the most mischievous.

True science and true religion are twin-sisters, and the separation of either from the other is sure to prove the death of both. Science prospers exactly in proportion as it is religious; and religion flourishes in exact proportion to the scientific depth and firmness of its basis.

The great deeds of philosophers have been less the fruit of their intellect, than of the direction of that intellect by an eminently religious tone of mind. Truth has yielded herself rather to their patience, their love, their single-heartedness, and their self-denial, than to their logical acumen.

And all the reformations in religion–all the steps by which the creeds you hold have been brought to that comparative purity and truth in which you justly glory–have been due essentially to the growth of the scientific spirit, to the ever-increasing confidence of the intellect in itself–and its incessantly repeated refusals to bow down blindly to what it had discovered to be mere idols, any more.

It is above all things needful for you, working men, to note these truths. For with the limited time, and the limited means for study at your disposal, you run the risk of flying to one of two extremes–bigoted orthodoxy, or conceited scepticism.

[36] The more earnest and deep-thinking of you are not always able to distinguish the eternal truths of religion from the temporary and often disfiguring investiture which has grown round them, as, at this Christmas time, we see the ivy and the mistletoe overgrowing the oak; and when science comes, and would tear away these mummy-wrappings, and show you the form within in all its beauty, you–too often urged by those who call themselves your teachers–raise a cry of sacrilege, as if the holy of holies itself were defiled.

And, on the other hand, the quicker-witted and less serious spirits are apt to rush from a like misconception into the opposite error. They imagine that because no honest man can, for one moment, reconcile the plain teachings of geology with the statements contained in the book of Genesis; because no astronomer believes that the sun and moon have stood still at the bidding of a Jewish commander-in-chief; because, in short, whenever and on whatever pretext science and authority have come into conflict, authority has always been signally worsted, and will be till the end of time; because of these things, they imagine they may disown all the Ten Commandments, and treat with foolish ridicule the book which the true man of science will ever hold in the highest respect, as containing the noblest and the clearest exposition of human rights and human duties extant.

I warn you solemnly against both of these evils. Despise both bigotry and scoffing doubt, and regard those who encourage you in either, whether they wear the tonsure of a priest, or the peruke of a Voltaire, as your worst enemies. And if you seek a preservative against these snares, I say, strive earnestly to learn something, not only of the results, but of the methods of science, and then apply those methods to all statements which offer themselves for your belief. If they will not stand that test, they are nought, let them come with what authority they may.


C. Blinderman & D. Joyce
Clark University