The Religious Interpretation Of The World

The title of this book, contrasting as it does the naturalistic and the

religious interpretation of the world, indicates that the intention of the

following pages is, in the first place, to define the relation, or rather

the antithesis, between the two; and, secondly, to endeavour to reconcile

the contradictions, and to vindicate against the counter-claims of

naturalism, the validity and freedom of the religious outlook. In doing
this it is assumed that there is some sort of relation between the two

conceptions, and that there is a possibility of harmonising them.

Will this be admitted? Is it not possible that the two views are

incommensurable, and would it not be most desirable for both sides if this

were so, for if there is no logical antithesis then there can be no real

antagonism? And is not this actually the case? Surely we have now left far

behind us the primitive expressions of the religious outlook which were

concerned with the creation of the world in six days, the making of Eve

out of Adam's rib, the story of Paradise and the angelic and demoniacal

forces, and the accessory miracles and accompanying signs by means of

which the Divine control of the world was supposed to manifest itself. We

have surely learnt by this time to distinguish between the simple mythical

or legendary forms of expression in the religious archives, and their

spiritual value and ethical content. We can give to natural science and to

religious feeling what is due to each, and thus have done for ever with

tedious apologetic discussion.

It were well indeed if we had really attained to this! But the relations,

and therefore the possibilities of conflict between religion and

world-science, are by no means so easily disposed of. No actually existing

form of religion is so entirely made up of "feeling," "subjectivity," or

"mood," that it can dispense with all assumptions or convictions regarding

the nature and import of the world. In fact, every form, on closer

examination, reveals a more or less fixed framework of convictions,

theoretical assumptions, and presuppositions in regard to man, the world,

and existence: that is to say, a theory, however simple, of the universe.

And this theory must be harmonised with the conceptions of things as they

are presented to us in general world-lore, in natural and historical

science, in particular sciences, in theories of knowledge, and perhaps in

metaphysics; it must measure itself by and with these, and draw from them

support and corroboration, and possibly also submit to contradiction and


There is no form of religion, not even the most rarefied (which makes

least claim because it has least content), that does not include in itself

some minute Credo, some faith, implying attachment to a set of doctrines

and conclusions however few. And it is always necessary to show that these

conclusions are worthy of adherence, and that they are not at variance

with conclusions and truths in regard to nature and the world drawn from

other sources. And if we consider, not the efflorescences and artificial

products of religion, but religion itself, it is certain that there is,

and always must be, around it a borderland and fringe of religious

world-theory, with which it is not indeed identical, but without which it

is inconceivable; that is, a series of definite and characteristic

convictions relating to the world and its existence, its meaning, its

"whence" and "whither"; to man and his intelligence, his place and

function in the world, his peculiar dignity, and his destiny; to time and

space, to infinity and eternity, and to the depth and mystery of Being in


These convictions and their fundamental implications can be defined quite

clearly, both singly and as a whole, and later we shall attempt so to

define them. And it is of the greatest importance to religion that these

presuppositions and postulates should have their legitimacy and validity

vindicated. For they are at once the fundamental and the minimal

postulates which religion must make in its outlook on the world, which it

must make if it is to exist at all. And they are so constituted that, even

when they are released from their primitive and naive form and

association, and permitted speculative development and freedom, they must,

nevertheless, just because they contain a theory of the world, be brought

into comparison, contact, or relation of some kind, whether hostile or

friendly, with other world-conceptions of different origin. This relation

will be hostile or friendly according to the form these other conceptions

have taken. It is impossible to imagine any religious view of the world

whose network of conceptions can have meshes so wide, or constituents so

elastic and easily adjustable, that it will allow every theoretical

conception of nature and the world to pass through it without violence or

friction, offering to none either let or hindrance.

It has indeed often been affirmed that religion may, without anxiety about

itself, leave scientific knowledge of the world to go its own way. The

secret reservation in this position is always the belief that scientific

knowledge will never in any case reach the real depth and meaning of

things. Perhaps this is true. But the assumption itself would remain, and

would have to be justified. And if religion had no other interest in

general world-theory, it would still have this pre-eminent one, that, by

defining the limitations of scientific theory, and showing that they can

never be transcended, it thus indicates for itself a position beyond them

in which it can dwell securely. In reality religion has never ceased to

turn its never-resting, often anxious gaze towards the progress, the

changes, the secure results and tentative theories in the domain of

general world-science, and again and again it has been forced to come to a

new adjustment with them.

One great centre of interest, though by no means the only or even the

chief one, lies in the special field of world-lore and theoretical

interpretation comprised in the natural sciences. And in the following

pages we shall make this our special interest, and shall endeavour to

inquire whether our modern natural science consists with the "minimal

requirements" of the religious point of view, with which we shall make

closer acquaintance later; or whether it is at all capable of being

brought into friendly relations with that point of view.

Such a study need not necessarily be "apologetic," that is to say,

defensive, but may be simply an examination. For in truth the real results

of investigation are not now and never were "aggressive," but are in

themselves neutral towards not only religious but all idealistic

conceptions, and leave it, so to speak, to the higher methods of study to

decide how the material supplied is to be taken up into their different

departments, and brought under their particular points of view. Our

undertaking only becomes defensive and critical because, not from caprice

or godlessness, but, as we shall see, from an inherent necessity, the

natural sciences, in association with other convictions and aims, tend

readily to unite into a distinctive and independent system of

world-interpretation, which, if it were valid and sufficient, would drive

the religious view into difficulties, or make it impossible. This

independent system is Naturalism, and against its attacks the religious

conception of the world has to stand on the defensive.