Some recent articles I’ve read have made me reflect on the interrelationship between religion, science, and history. How do they intersect, and how has one influenced the other?
The historian can be seen, in many ways, as a biologist. He examines the activities of one organism: man. So the historian, almost unwittingly, becomes a biologist from his survey of the historical processes. Just by observing the behaviors of tribes, men, and nations, one learns about biology.
(Geography and climate are also major influences on history, but that is a subject for another day).
And what has the study of history taught me of biology?
1. Competition is essential. There is no peace in Nature. All organisms compete with each other for food, water, mates, and living spaces. Nations behave like individuals, in that they ceaselessly compete. The clash of nations and tribes reflects our primeval origins, where all life was a struggle for survival.
2. Nature selects the fittest. Some organisms are better adapted to survive than others, and these pass on their genetic inheritances. Out of a mass of organisms, some will adapt, and others will not. Concepts like “freedom” and “equality” are unknown in Nature. Nature is an aristocracy.
3. Nature prefers fertility. Organisms expand their number to fill their boundaries. When they burst their boundaries, they put ever farther outwards. Wealthy, civilized nations have low birthrates; they attract the hungry mouths of the more savage nations, and so are subject to infiltration and invasion.
The Chinese fought a losing battle to keep out the Mongol barbarians on its northern frontiers; the Romans in vain sought to contain the Germans on their side of the Rhine; the Arabs were crushed under the heels of the Tartars in the late Middle Ages; and the Americans presently labor to control their southern border (with equal lack of success).
And what of religion? I’ve written on this subject before, and wanted to emphasize a few related points here.
It is perfectly acceptable for the man of reason to pledge his allegiance to both science and religion. Each has a place in the life of man, and in the trajectory of history.
Religion has proven to be one of the most vital and resilient forces in history. Cut it down, and it grows again. All attempts to snuff it out have been in vain. So the Communists labored fruitlessly to uproot the Orthodox Church in Russia from 1917 to 1989. So the Egyptian pharaoh Ikhnaton tried in suppress the religion of Amon; but as soon as the pharaoh died, it came back as strong as ever, with an entrenched priesthood. The persecutions of Diocletian and his successors only succeeded in making Christianity stronger, until it took over the empire. The French Revolution tried to eradicate the Catholic Church, but it came back stronger than ever once Napoleon signed a concordat with the Papal See in the early 1800s.
Religion is the repository of morals and the imaginative life of the people. No society in history has ever been able to function for long without the aid of some agreed-on faith. Without the supernatural backing of an organized faith, it is not possible for the moral lessons to “sink in”, and keep in check man’s baser impulses. Religions, with their myths, moral stories, admonitions, rituals, pageants, codes of conduct, and works of art, have been the sources of inspiration and discipline for man for many thousands of years.
And this is what the thoughtful man finds so objectionable in the atheist. The atheist lacks a deep understanding of the psychology of man and of history. He believes that his books of science, that his charts, tables, and computers, can explain all. And we should give him his due. The achievements of science are just as impressive, and just as powerful, as the beauties of art, literature, and organized faiths.
But when all is said and done, the common man prefers to listen to the call of religion. He grows tired of the exertions of thought. He wants to be assured that his struggles on earth are dignified by some grander cosmic meaning. He is daily harassed and oppressed by the struggle for existence; he needs a faith that can provide a source of consolation and inspiration. He grows tired with the relativism of everything, the exertions of speculative thought, and the confusing incredibilities of science. The deeper we go into science, the more uncertain we become of everything.
Science, for all its grandeur, has little to offer in the way of spiritual consolation. It tells us that this existence is nothing but a meaningless struggle of man against man, signifying nothing, and which ends in a cold death. Is this the ethic that will inspire man? No. Science provides little nourishment for the soul.
A cynic may even go farther: science has brought us only an enervating relativism, the poisoning of the air, soil, and seas, the fake “equality” between the sexes that has destroyed the family and ruined the position of men in Western culture.
The victory of science over the soul of Western man began with Copernicus, gained speed during the Industrial Revolution, and now appears complete.
But the battle is not won yet. History, as it moves with glacial slowness, has surprises in store for us yet.
As Western man grows more disillusioned with the false promises of science, and as the fertility of the simple overwhelms the sterility of the privileged few, and as the influx of immigrants of religious backgrounds continues, we may see the advent of a new Age of Faith. If Western society does indeed disgrace itself with social ruin and economic collapse, we may indeed see some sort of religious revival.
Parents will call on the help of religion to discipline their young; governments will seek the aid of organized faiths to stem the tides of discontent, of sexual depravity, and of barbarism.
This has happened before in history, and it can happen again. We await developments, and do the best we can in the meantime.