Science, Religion and Human Nature

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Sir Julian Huxley
Sir Julian Huxley (1887 – 1975)
Arthur Keith
Sir Arthur Keith (1866 – 1955)
Conway Memorial Lecture
Conway Memorial Lecture
Moncure Conway photo by Edward Steichen, 1907. Courtesy of Dickinson College.
Moncure Conway photo by Edward Steichen, 1907. Courtesy of Dickinson College.
Delivered at Conway Hall 1 October 1930. Chaired by Sir Arthur Keith and presented by Sir Julian Huxley.

Religion is not a divine revelation but a function of human nature, and one capable of modification and improvement. Science too is a function of human nature: it is a way of descriptively ordering our experience of the external world and of increasing our practical control over it. Religion, emanating as it does from human beings, remains significant even if theology is rejected, because it deals with human destiny and has a feeling for the sacred. However, in performing these roles, it can take many different forms. There are lots of psychological observations to be made about the various types of religious thought and practice.

In all religions, four aspects are blended: 1) immediate emotional experience 2) ritual expression 3) moral ideas 4) intellectual ideas and beliefs. Further, there have been three main chronological stages of religious thought: a) belief in magic b) belief in personal gods which exist external to the universe and control its affairs c) belief in the uniformity of nature and the impersonal working of natural laws. This leads to the conception of deity as a super-personal power existing within the universe, not externally to it: as, for example, an immanent creative principle or divine purpose.

God-ideas are reflections of human experience. Hence, given the advance of science, they must be abandoned. This means that new outlets need to be found for the religious emotions, which are, in fact, foundational in human nature. These emotions should now link with science because they are bound up with the quest for knowledge. At the same time, man must recognise the possibility that there may be ultimate limits to his capacity for gaining knowledge.

Religious emotions can find an outlet in contemplating the nature of reality, as revealed by science, in a spirit of reverence. Also, this contemplation frees people, at least for a time, from the pressures of everyday life. The religious perspective can also produce a feeling of inner harmony and peace, and of the value of existence and the meaningfulness of one’s relation to the rest of the world. The perspective does involve a sense of sin, but the latter should not be exaggerated. Religious emotion infuses everything that sanctifies and deepens existence.

Given the evolutionary outlook, the religious picture of mankind must be a developmental and relativistic one, without notions of absolutes. The key thing is constantly enlarging range of experience and responsiveness.

The religious viewpoint is fundamentally about man’s relation to the rest of the universe, and to his fellow men. It is imbued with a sense of nature’s creative dynamic, and aims at enriching the life of the entire human species. Hence it is supra-nationalistic and anti-war. As a constructive religion of life, it is, like life, something evolving and progressive.

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