Chesterton on Religion and Science


In today’s ongoing culture war between the advocates of various forms of creationism and various forms of scientism, we could well ask if each side represents the best in both religion and science?

The great British writer, polymath and wit G. K. Chesterton wondered just that during the infamous Scopes Trial over the teaching of evolution in 1925 in Dayton, Tennessee.


He wrote:

“But there is another aspect of the case, which illustrates the real truth in the rather rustic Puritanism of the people who made a fuss about Darwinism in Dayton. To some of us it seems strange that such very antiquated Protestantism should be supposed to represent religion. It seems stranger that such very antiquated Darwinism should be supposed to represent science. But as a matter of fact the protest and prosecution on that occasion did represent something. It stood for a strong popular instinct, not without justification, that science is being made to mean more than science ever really says. An evolutionary education is something very different from an education about evolution. Just as a religious school openly and avowedly gives a religious atmosphere, as a scientific class does sometimes covertly or unconsciously give a materialistic atmosphere. A secularist teacher has just as much difficulty as a priest would have, in not giving his own answer to the questions that are most worth answering. He also is a little annoyed at not being allowed to put the first things first. He tends more and more to turn his science into a philosophy.” (The Religious Aim of Education)

I wish he had used “priggishness” instead of Puritanism (as Marilynne Robinson has suggested) lest he perpetuate the commonly received fallacies about our noble forebears. Nonetheless, he was spot on that it is often neither religion’s nor science’s best representatives who enter these fractious debates.

It seems to me that both fundamentalist religion and the more extreme forms of scientism share a certain lack of humility in the face of mysteries that lie beyond human knowing. The need for certainty and control makes strange bedfellows of these seeming antagonists. And how ironic that they deny to the other the same kind of certainties that they hold for their own views.

I am reminded of Hamlet’s words to his friend on the ramparts: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

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