Some Remarks on The Relations of Science and Religion


By Michael Foster

Some of the most obvious dangers of our times arise from man's relation to nature. Especially since the atomic bomb, we have become acutely aware of the danger which we are in through the fact that we have gained enormously in power to control nature, but not in the knowledge which would enable us to use that power rightly.

We should all be agreed upon the cause which has brought man into this dangerous relation with nature: it is the growth of modern natural science (i.e. of that natural science which began about the time of Descartes and has gone on growing ever since). It is important to insert this qualification "modern". Not all natural science gives power over nature. The ancients (Greeks and Romans) had a highly developed science (or philosophy) of nature. That is to say, they reasoned both acutely and profoundly about "nature" or "the nature of things". But this science did not lead to an increase of man's power over nature, and therefore provoked no crisis.

The increase of man's power over nature must therefore he due to something specific to modern natural science. What is this specific differentia of modern natural science? I suppose the simple answer is that modern science is true, whereas ancient science, though ingenious, happens to have been erroneous. That is why the modern does, and the ancient did not, increase man's power over nature.

I don't doubt that that simple answer is the right one on the whole, but I don't think it precludes the further enquiry into the differences distinguishing the (true) modern view from the (erroneous) ancient one.

One of these differences seems to me to have lain in the attitudes with which Ancients and Moderns respectively approached nature. The Moderns approach it as an object to be mastered, the Ancients as an object to be worshipped. This last phrase will perhaps sound, and perhaps is, hyperbolical. It may be objected that it is importing religious terms into a sphere in which they do not belong ; that the ancient philosophers were practising science, not religion ; that they were reasoning, not worshipping. This is true, but the reasoning attitude of the ancient philosophers of nature was not that of the modern scientist. It was an intellectualized form of nature-worship. (Feuerbach says that all science of nature is nature-worship. This seems to me to be untrue in general, but to be true of ancient natural science.) Hence it is characteristic of ancient natural philosophy that its whole effort is to conform our thought to the nature of things. This nature is thought of as being changeless and eternal. The idea that it might be subjected to mastery by the human will could hardly have been entertained by a Greek thinker. This was the idea which Bacon and Descartes introduced into philosophy (e.g. Descartes in the "Discourse" . . . "in room of the speculative philosophy usually taught in the schools, to discover a practical ... and thus render ourselves the lords and possessors of nature").

Craftsmen, or technologists, are the people whose business it is to master nature. It is a consequence of the difference noted between ancient and modern science, that while ancient science was divorced from technology, modern science grew up in close alliance with it. The Royal Society, for example, made it an object of policy from its earliest days to foster the co-operation of scientists with artisans.1


The Modern Relationship between Man and Nature

The new element, then, in modern natural science is that it is designed to be an instrument for the domination of nature. The success of this design is what has caused our present danger. It has caused it in two ways. The first is obvious: it has given man the power over nature which he can now abuse. The second is perhaps less obvious, but I think it is not less important. Modern natural science, in the same measure in which it has submitted nature to man's control, has emancipated man from guidance by nature.

Pre-scientific man (I mean man before the era of modern science) was guided by nature in many things which have become for scientific man subjects of deliberate choice. For example: (1) I suppose the primitive husbandman was guided almost instinctively by the rhythm of the seasons (and, of, course, by the customs of his tribe. This introduces another factor besides nature, namely, social tradition. But I would rather leave that out for the present.) When and what to sow, what method of cultivation to adopt, were not matters subject to his choice. (2) Scientific man can choose whether or not children shall come as a result of sexual intercourse; and even perhaps their sex. He has subjected to his choice a matter in which pre-scientific man was guided by instinct and nature.

The effect of modern natural science is thus twofold:

(1) it puts nature under man, and

(2) it takes man from under nature's tutelage.

It puts man in a more urgent need of guidance, because of the increased powers which he can wield, and at the same time deprives him of that guidance by nature which he used to enjoy. Man's consciousness of crisis at the present moment is due, I think, not only, perhaps not even primarily, to the immensity of the powers which he controls, but still more to the feeling that he has been eradicated from nature and bereft of her guidance.

Can Modern Man Return To Nature's Tutelage?

It is no wonder that voices are raised, saying that we must renounce the attitude to nature which has led to this crisis, that we must cease from exploiting nature and learn again to reverence her. Thus William Temple in his C.N-L. Supplement No. 198 of December, 1943, said that man's life has been "set in a natural order which is God's creation. A fundamental duty which man owes to God is reverence for the world as God has made it". I should wish to subscribe to this statement ; and it is hard indeed to dissent from it, when we survey the consequences, which are only just beginning to become apparent, of man's reckless exploitation of nature; consequences such as soil-erosion, extinction of animal species and exhaustion of natural resources.

But the reaction against the abuse of natural science may include two different attitudes, the one true, the other false, the one Christian, the other pagan, the one compatible with the truth of natural science, the other hostile to it and in the literal sense reactionary. Both attitudes may be described by the phrase "reverence for nature", since that may mean both reverence for nature as the work of God (which is the Christian attitude), and reverence for nature as divine (which is the pagan one). My thesis is that these attitudes ought to be distinguished, and that the confusion between them has been a weakness of much Christian apologetic. Against natural science in particular many Christians have thought themselves bound to defend a conception of nature which is not Christian at all, but pagan; and they have thereby found themselves committed to an unnecessary opposition towards natural science. Modern natural science is .essentially opposed to the pagan view of nature but not to the Christian one.

It is not the Christian doctrine that man was made to worship nature, but on the contrary that he was made to have dominion over nature (cf. Genesis i) until he forfeited it by the Fall. Those, therefore, who react against the excesses of the spirit of natural science in the direction of nature-worship are reacting into a position which is as opposed to Christianity as it is to natural science.

We may see an example of this erroneous reaction in the resistance which was offered in the name of the Church in the seventeenth century to the new view of nature, upon which the modern science of nature was based. I speak without first-hand knowledge of the controversies of that time, but I think it is clear that among the things which churchmen defended was that pagan view of nature which had been systematized by Aristotle and domiciled in a Christian setting by the Mediaeval Scholastics. They defended it in the name of Christianity, but the scientific view of nature was more truly Christian. Theirs was a Greek philosophy of nature, which had been adopted into a Christian framework; whereas the modern scientific view of nature represented the break-through of a Christian metaphysic into natural philosophy.

I think that Christian apologists in our time sometimes fall into a similar mistake. We (for I doubt if any of us- are free from this error) identify the Christian cause with a reversion to a pre-scientific way of thinking. We thereby antagonize the scientists and commit ourselves to what Toynbee calls "Archaism"2; when after all what we are trying to preserve is perhaps not Christian at all, but a relic of Paganism which has become familiar to us in a Christian setting, but which is really alien to Christianity as well as to natural science. This is not, of course, to say that all the development of the modern scientific spirit is justified, or that all criticisms of it from the side of Christianity are obscurantist.


Problems of Conduct

The question of man's true relation to nature is not only an academic one. The progress of natural science raises problems of conduct, and we are tempted to think that the Christian solution of them is to be found by stopping or reversing its progress.

For example, I took part recently in a discussion-group on the implications for Christianity of some new discoveries in biology. One of these discoveries (it was mentioned as possible, though not at present confirmed) was of a means by which the sex of babies might be determined at will by the application of a simple treatment to the mother. Some of us were shocked by this discovery. It seemed to remove one of the foundations of old-fashioned piety. The determination of the sex of children used to be one of the things in which men traced the finger of God, and it used to be a principal part of piety to accept with humble submission what God sent. But here, as a result of scientific discovery, we find man arrogating this choice to himself, and claiming for himself the right to determine of what sex his children should be. (Our discussion was confined to the narrow question of sex-determination; but, as one of our members' pointed out, the same issues are raised by the much more important discovery of birth-control. God used to send children; but now it is a matter for human choice.)

Those who were shocked were inclined at first to blame science and to see in it a force opposed to God. They thought that this was a point at which science and religion were at war, and they thought it was the duty of the religious man not to avail himself of this new knowledge ; perhaps even to keep himself in ignorance of it. This was in order to make it still possible to practise the ancient piety which left the decision of these matters in the hand of God.

But as the discussion proceeded, it became clear that what it was intended by these means to restore was something which it was impossible to restore. The intention was to put back the determination of sex out of the range of man's choice into the hand of God by a voluntary ignorance of scientific discoveries. But we came to realize that a voluntary ignorance (which was all that man could now attain to) would not put him back in the position in which he was before the discovery was made. Then he was ignorant without choice; but now he will have to choose to be ignorant, and that is quite a different state. The anti-scientific reaction showed itself therefore as a form of Archaism, and exhibited the characteristic weakness of Archaism. It was an attempt to restore artificially what had previously existed by nature.

We rejected this line, therefore. We accepted the fact that the progress of natural science was bound to subject more and more natural processes to control by human choice; and, by the same process, to rob human action of its previous instinctive control by nature. The moral which seemed to emerge was that the more man is deprived of the guidance of nature, the more desperately he needs the guidance of God. Men in past ages, it almost seems, could "get by" without God, because they were guided by nature. Science makes this natural guidance impossible, and so presents us with the blank alternative of being without guidance or of being guided by God. Perhaps natural science is the instrument by which God is relentlessly winkling man out of his refuges in nature and forcing him to realize his need of Him.

Nature as The Work and Will Of God

I have maintained hitherto that natural science is antagonistic essentially not to Christianity but to nature-worship; and to Christianity only accidentally, in so far as an element of nature-worship has been domiciled in it. But this is too crudely put and requires modifying, certainly if it is to be applied to the situation existing in the twentieth century.

The old-fashioned piety which natural science is expelling from all those spheres upon which it successively encroaches, is not correctly described as nature-worship. What is worshipped is not nature, but the Power above nature, by which nature is controlled. Piety requires submission to the course of nature, not as the working of a natural power, but as the manifestation of God's will. The course of nature is regarded as the finger of God.

It is this identification which the growth of modern natural science has made impossible. So far as the course of nature has come under man's control, he cannot regard it as the revelation of God's will, to which he must submit. A natural calamity for example is the hand of God upon man, if man cannot avert it. But if man can avert it, his submission (if he does submit to it) is an act of choice; and although his choice may still be submitted to God's will, it must be to God's will revealed elsewhere than in nature.

I do not think we need, or should, conclude that Christians of the pre-scientific age were wrong in finding the revelation of God's will in nature. Perhaps it is truer to think that God intended to reveal His will to them in that way, but intends to reveal it to us in a different way.

But if we accept this as true, if we think that the development since Descartes, by which man has so largely changed his relation towards nature from that of servitude to dominion, is not an aberration but is perhaps what God intended-then in what are we to say that the error of "Cartesian man" consists ? For we have certainly come to a crisis, and to the verge of a catastrophe. Something has certainly gone wrong. What is it?

An answer to this suggested itself to me when I was reading a recent book called Christus and die Zeit by a Swiss theologian, O. Cullman.

Cullman expounds the doctrine which was held in the early Christian Church concerning the present age. The early Church lived (as we still live) in a particular section of time-namely in that section which began with the Resurrection and will end with the Second Coming. The distinctive character of this interim period is that it is the period of Christ's kingdom, or sovereignty. (Cf. Colossians 1.13 : " Who hath delivered us From the power of darkness, and hath translated us into the kingdom of his dear Son.") Thus St. Paul says in Ephesians 1.20f., that God raised Christ "from the dead, and set him at his own right hand in the heavenly places, far above all principality and power, and might, and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this world, but also in that which is to come ; and bath put all things under his feet, and gave him to be the head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fulness of him that filleth all in all".

This kingdom of Christ is not everlasting. When the end comes, and "when all things shall be subdued unto him, then shall the Son also himself be subject unto him that put all things under him, that God may be all in all" (1 Cor. 15.28). But the interval, in which we are still living, is the period in which it is God's plan that all things shall be subdued under the sovereignty of Christ.

How is this sovereignty of Christ exercised? Through the Church, which is the body of Christ upon earth. Cullman calls it "the earthly centre, from which the whole dominion of Christ becomes visible", and he points out that the life-span of the Church coincides chronologically with the period of Christ's kingdom.

Does this give us the clue to enable us to interpret what has been going on in the world since Descartes?

Man has been gaining more and more control over nature. If he exercised this control as a member of the body of Christ, we might recognize the process as a fulfillment of what St. Paul in the Ephesians declares to be God's design. What has gone wrong is that natural man has seized those powers of control which are intended to be exercised by man as member of the body of Christ. The remedy is not that man should surrender these powers and attempt to integrate himself again into nature, but that retaining these powers he should integrate himself into the body of Christ.


Science and Social Environment

We have seen how natural science has both uprooted man from nature, and places nature under his control. A similar process seems to have been at work upon the relations of man to his social environment. Man has emancipated himself from his primitive naive dependence upon social tradition. He can, set himself over against all social traditions, regarding them all as candidates for adoption according to his choice. At the same time he seems to be acquiring an increased power of controlling his social environment. The " social sciences " purport to be the instruments of this control ; and although they have not up to the present made good their pretensions in the way in which the natural sciences have, their idea is certainly to apply to man's social environment the methods which modern, natural science applies to nature.

Modern man is eradicated from social environment and traditional culture. His rootlessness has become a by-word, and is becoming intolerable to him. The remedy is sometimes thought to be that he must be rooted again in a culture. But it seems to me that this again is a form of Archaism. It tries artificially to restore a naive dependence, which is an impossible attempt, and shows the "pathological exaggeration" which Toynbee says is characteristic of Archaism. This form of Archaism seems to be a chief motive underlying Fascist movements in the modern world.

Dr. K. Popper in his brilliant but erratic The Open Society and its Enemies attacks this form of Archaism. His favourite phrase to describe the proper relation of man towards his social environment is that of "social engineering". This phrase exactly describes the position of man who has been eradicated from his cultural soil. He is lifted above it, so that he can control it, and so that he is at the same time bereft of all guidance by it.3 Popper is acutely conscious how almost unendurable the position of man, on this lonely eminence is. He recognizes the force of the pull which induces man to relinquish the responsibility for making decisions, and to plunge himself back into the warm darkness of the tribal (or totalitarian) society. But he protests that man must fight against it. He must put up with the strain and must "carry the cross of being human".

Wrong though Popper is in his notion of the self-sufficiency of man, and in thinking that he either can or ought to "carry the cross of being human" in his own strength - I think that Popper is right in what he denies. He is right not only against a crude Fascist ideology, but also against much nineteenth century idealist philosophy of the state. We cannot accord our worship to historical institutions, we cannot regard the state as the "earthly God" nor accept the historical environment into which we have been born as being the revelation of God's will for us.

There is danger of misunderstanding here, and I think there is only a subtle distinction between a statement that would be true and one that would be false. In one sense everything that happens to us (including our historical environment in which we are born) is the expression of God's will for us. If God had not willed it, how could it have happened? No change that has occurred in man's consciousness can affect that truth. What is meant certainly cannot be that we have come to see that our historical environment has come into existence apart from God's will. Then what difference has the development of the social sciences made to our attitude towards our historical environment? It has made us, for the first time, regard our entire social environment as something subject to our choice. We can choose to change it; and if we do not do so, that is only because we have chosen to leave it unchanged. We must undoubtedly regard it as the will of God that we should be presented with the situation with which we are presented. What we can no longer do is to regard the continuance of that situation as something which God determines for us apart from our choice. We can alter it, and .therefore if it is allowed to continue, that also must be because we have chosen to leave it unaltered.

Man's Detachment from A Cultural Environment

I have spoken throughout as though natural science was the cause which uprooted man from nature, and social science the cause which uprooted him from his historical culture. It was simpler to talk like that, but I think the truth in each case must be that the operation of cause and effect was reciprocal. One might perhaps say with equal truth that men's minds had first to be detached from nature before they could produce natural science; and that they had first to shake themselves loose from their social environment before they could produce the social sciences.

Dr. Hans Asmussen gave an address this summer which is relevant to this question. He propounded the statement (paradoxical at first sight) that one of the forces which made the success of Hitler possible had been the spread of radical theology (e.g. Barthianism) upon the Continent. He explained it as follows. The nineteenth-century German attributed absolute values to the historical civilization into which he was born. He defended for example the institution of private property, not simply from selfish interests, but because he really thought that the cause of private property was the cause of morality and religion. For this reason the civilization commanded the devotion of its members and was strong. Radical theology criticized the identification on which this devotion was based. It showed that absolute values could be ascribed to nothing historical, but only to the transcendent. Hence it drained away the sources of devotion, and deprived the civilization of its inward source of strength. When Hitler's attack upon it came, it possessed no power to resist.

This diagnosis seems to me true, and to apply also to England, although the process here has been slower and not catastrophic. It seems to me to describe the same process of which I have been speaking - the process by which man's mind is detached from the attitude of worship or devotion to his historical environment.

The detachment of man from historical institutions, which gives rise to the social sciences, is closely parallel to his detachment from nature, which gives rise to the natural sciences. It both makes man master of his social environment, and at the same time deprives him of the unconscious guidance by social tradition, which he used to enjoy.

The state of man thus uprooted from culture is dangerous and terrifying. Deprived of all guidance and occupying a position of isolation and independence, for which he was not intended, he can hardly avoid fearful aberrations. It is no wonder that men deplore it, and that theorists and statesmen seek to reverse the process and to replant man in a culture. But such a replanting (however desirable it would be) is no more really possible than the re-rooting of man in nature. This does not prevent its being attempted, sometimes on a large scale and as the programme of political parties, but it does mean, I think, that the attempts bear upon them the unmistakable marks of Archaism. Even where they are harmless, they bear some artificiality and pretence about them.

We cannot restore the "worshipful" quality of historical institutions, even if we would. Are we really fighting the cause of Christianity when we try to do so? We found that the reaction against natural science was often a reaction not towards Christianity but towards nature-worship. Is not the reaction towards re-establishing the sanctity of historical institutions in danger of falling into another form of idolatry?

The situation is complicated by the fact that there may have been a time (namely, the period of Christian civilization out of which we are just passing) in which God used historical institutions (in somewhat the same way in which I suggested above that He used nature), as in a special way the vehicle for conveying His will to men; so that the naive piety of "my station and its duties" was a genuine service of God, and not an idolatry. But God is perhaps now bringing that period to an end.

He has detached us from nature and uprooted us from our civilization. He has made it impossible for us to worship either nature or culture. Why? Certainly not in order to leave us without worship and without guidance. But perhaps in order to show us that our need of worship and of guidance can find no satisfaction except in Him. Perhaps we are really resisting God's intentions when we try to arrest the process, and to root ourselves again in nature or in culture.



1. See quotations in A. Nash, The University in the Modern World. Pp. 26, 28. 56. 60. S.C.M. Press.

2. I refer to a penetrating passage in Chapter xix of Somervell's abridgement of A Study of History.

3. Cf. Popper, op. cit., Vol. i, p. 17. "The social engineer ... believes that man is master of his own destiny, and that in accordance with our aims, we can influence or change the history of man just as we have changed the face of the earth"