Concerning God, Modern Man, and Religion

by Mortimer J. Adler, Ph.D.

If theology and religion are living things, there is nothing intrinsically wrong about efforts to modernize them. They must be open to change and growth like everything else. Further, there is no reason to be surprised when discussions such as those about the “death of God” — a concept drawn from Nietzsche — stir popular excitement as they did in the recent past, and could do so again today. Of all the great ideas, the idea of God has always been and continues to be the one that evokes the greatest concern among the widest group of men and women.

Yet if it is to be expected that efforts to modernize theology and religion will always cause a stir, several special aspects of the case in the 1950s and 1960s — which are still at work among us — are worth noting.

To start with a question, have any great intellectual events been ushered in by the new and “radical” theologians such as Clarence Hamilton, Paul Van Buren, Thomas Altizer and Gabriel Vahanian? Any new truths in theology? None. Any new insights into the nature of religion? None. Any new insights into the nature of religion? None. Any new advances for the reform of religion? None. One could apply to this sterile spectacle the sense of Emerson’s remark when he looked from afar at the 1848 Revolution in France and wondered aloud if the results were worth the trees that went into the barricades.

The authors who gave currency to the notions of the new “radical theology” supported their assertions with nothing more substantial than the kind of proof that would satisfy the bellman in Lewis Carroll’s Hunting of the Snark who cried: “What I tell you three times is true!” There was, however, a close accord between the ambiguous language they used and their purpose. Their purpose was to transform atheism into a new theology — “the religionless Christianity,” “atheistic religion,” “secularized Christianity” — to preserve some of Christianity’s religious teaching while secularizing and combining it with atheism.

So the question emerges again. What is new about the new theology? Again the answer is nothing. Atheism is not new, nor is irreligion, nor is secularism. These are very old even when they sounded in the work of the eminent modern predecessors of the new theologians — in the work, for example, of men such as Paul Tillich, Rudolf Bultmann and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. All, at bottom, denied the existence of the supernatural. Yet all persisted in talking about God.

For my part, I respect the honest clear-minded atheist who denies that God exists and tries to offer thought out reasons for the denial. I respect the honest, critically minded agnostic who denies we can ever know whether God exists or not, and treats religious belief as a pure act of faith, incapable of being supported or challenged by rational analysis or empirical knowledge of the world. I respect the person who, in his horror of the superstitions and persecutions that have attended the practices of religious institutions, rejects the whole of religion as something from which man should emancipate himself. But I cannot respect those who corrupt the integrity of words in the very act of addressing matters of central importance in theology and religion. I cannot respect those who instead of calling atheism by its right name, contrive a peculiar set of excuses for atheism (as in the “death of God movement”) and then — in spite of laws against false labeling — call the result a new theology.

On Calling Things by Their Right Name

A namesake, but not a relative of mine, Dr. Felix Adler, was the founder and head of the Ethical Culture Society. I knew him slightly. In the early twenties he was a senior professor of philosophy at Columbia when I was a junior instructor there. On Sundays, the day usually devoted to religious observances and the worship of God, the members of the Ethical Culture Society forgathered, but there were no ceremonies or rituals, no prayers, no services. Instead there were some very weighty lectures on moral philosophy and strenuous exhortations to do good. I knew many members of the Ethical Culture Society. All were morally exemplary persons who took these exhortations seriously and indulged in a kind of ethical athleticism and a frenzy of moral “do gooding.”

A young friend of mine went to the Ethical Culture High School. After he had been there a while, I ventured to find out if he understood what the principles of Ethical Culture stand for? Without even a slight pause for reflection, he straight-away answered: “No God, no religion, and plenty of exercise.”

The Nature of this Essay

In much the same way as a path through a forest becomes clear when the sun starts to set, the loss of light that has marked the radical new theology points up the need for the tasks I have set in the pages lying ahead.

I must try to explain what is entailed in the pivotal conception of God — pivotal because it is that conception which is denied by the atheist, affirmed by the theist, believed by the religious, and thought by the agnostic to be beyond the grasp of our knowledge. Further, I must note the old source in Protestantism for some of the errors that underlie the contemporary movement of radical theology. I must then come to grips with what I believe to be the most difficult subject of all — the meaning of religion itself.

Directional Signs

In what I have to say about these matters, I will speak not as a man of religious faith or as a dogmatic theologian, but as a philosopher or a natural theologian. Natural theology is a branch of philosophy which stands on a plane apart from faith and dogma. I will not speak as an apologist for Judaism, Christianity, or Islam, though what I will have to say philosophically, which bears on an understanding of God, will accord with the traditional conception of God in the three great monotheistic religions of the West. As a philosophical theologian, I will confine myself to only three notions that are essential to the conception of God.

They are that God is transcendent, that God is a necessary being in contrast to the contingent being of all other things, and that God is the cause of the being of everything else that exists. I will not go beyond theses three notions, nor will I try to prove that God, so conceived, exists. My intention is simply to make clear what is affirmed by those who affirm the existence of God, and what is denied by those who like the new theologians deny it.

At one point, I will raise the question (without trying for an answer) whether the conception of God shared by the three great traditional religions of the West is present also in the religions of the East — or indeed, whether the very term “religion” stands for the same thing in the Far East as it does in the West.

The First of the Three Basic Notions

As noted, the view that God is transcendent is the first of the notions in the concept of God. The meaning of “transcendent” can perhaps be more dearly seen when it is viewed through the focusing lens of a conjectural question. If God exists, what is God like?

The three possible answers are exclusive and exhausting. They are that:

  • God is totally unlike everything else in nature that we know or are able to know.
  • God is totally like everything else in nature that we know or are able to know.
  • God is both like and unlike everything else in nature that we know or are able to know.

There is no fourth possible answer. Rather, what comes into play is the rule in logic which holds that if answers to a question are confined to three alternatives, and if two of them are untenable, the one that remains must be the right one. So we must now determine which two among the three answers given a moment ago must be rejected, and which is the one left that we must accept.

What are the consequences of saying that God is totally unlike everything else in nature that we know or are able to know? “God” then becomes a word devoid of meaning. Why? To convey a meaning, a concept must have something in common with other concepts we have in mind when we use other understandable words in our vocabulary. The concept of “animal,” for example, has something in common with other understandable words such as “lion,” “bear,” “dog,” “horse,” “cow.” But if the concept of God has nothing in common with anything else we can intelligibly describe, it is as senseless to deny the existence of God as to affirm it. Atheism becomes as meaningless as theism. In fact, the only question that would then be worth asking about God is how men ever came to use so meaningless a word and why they still everywhere continue to use it, as they do in the new theology and all current forms of atheism.

What are the consequences of saying that God is totally like everything else in nature that we know or are able to know? God would then have to be conceived as corporeal, finite, sensible, mutable, contingent, along with all the other attributes that we ascribe to the natural things we know. But if those attributes are ascribed to God, are they knowable in the same way as other things we know? Can God, for example, be investigated in the manner of the natural sciences where a hypothesis in physics, chemistry, and biology can derive its validity from the outcome of controlled tests and experiments? It is enough merely to ask the question to see that God cannot be known in the same way we know the attributes of other things. So we must rule out as false the proposition that God is totally like everything else in nature.

If the first two answers are not tenable, then we are left with the third one — that God is both like and unlike everything else in nature that we know or are able to know. It is like everything else in that it must be thought of as a being. I am not here asserting God exists. I am only saying that God must be conceived as a being about which we can meaningfully ask whether or not it exists, just as we must conceive of a mermaid or Hamlet as a being about which we can ask that existential question.

While God, conceived as a being, is thus like all the other things about which we ask whether or not they exist, God is unlike everything else with respect to this mode of being. We conceive of everything else in nature as material or corporeal beings, as mutable beings, as sensible beings, as finite beings. All the italicized words refer to their mode of being. But if God were like everything else in mode of being, God would be totally like everything else, a proposition we have already rejected.

What is meant by the “analogy of being” is central to an understanding of the concept of God as a being who is at one and the same time like and unlike everything else in nature. Two things are analogous if, in any given respect, they are at once the same and diverse.

Take, for example, the analogous meaning of the word “sharp.” When we say a “sharp” sound, a “sharp” point, a “sharp” taste, all three things are “sharp,” but they are diversely so. Furthermore, you cannot say what it means to be sharp apart from your understanding of what it is to be a sharp sound, a sharp point, a sharp taste. You cannot abstract the meaning of “sharp” from the diverse sensory qualities of taste, sound, and touch. In the same way, you cannot understand what being is, apart from your understanding of mutable and immutable being, material and immaterial being, finite and infinite being. These are analogous in being, just as a sharp taste, a sharp sound, and a sharp point are all analogously sharp.

The failure to understand the analogy of being has been the pivotal inadequacy of Protestant theology from Luther’s time to the present. The Protestant Reformation itself, I must quickly add, was very good on the side of the reforms of ecclesiastical abuses and the removal of the superstitions that are always parasitic encrustations on religion. Much that is good in the modern ecumenical movement also draws some of its spirit from the Protestant Reformation. The bad side of the Protestant Reformation, beginning with Luther, was its violent anti-intellectualism. This lost to the modern world the great achievements in theology that accumulated from the fourth to the fourteenth century.

A striking example of the failure of modern Protestant theology is the book of Ludwig Feuerbach written in the 1840s, and titled The Essence of Christianity. He noted that the attributes of God and of man appear to be the same. We say that God lives and that man lives, that God knows and that man knows, that God wills and that man wills, that God loves and that man loves. Feuerbach then pointed out quite rightly that when two objects have the same attributes, they must be identical. God and man have the same attributes, hence they are identical. This calls for the reduction of theology to anthropology and gives rise to an anthropocentric humanism that is a deathblow to Christianity or any other religion.

The remarkable fact is that six generations of German Protestant theologians from Schleiemacher to Karl Barth and down to the present day, all knew that this was a deathblow to Christianity. Yet none was able to answer Feuerbach by correcting the basic error he made. His basic error was his failure to see that while God and man have the same attributes, “living,” “knowing,” “willing,” and “loving” when said of God and man are said analogously, not univocally — as “animal” is said univocally of human beings and of pigs and cows. They are all “animals” in the same sense of the word.

The strange inability of German Protestant theologians after Feuerbach to perceive this error, led some of them to Christian humanism, which is the complete abandonment of Christian religion; it led others such as Karl Barth to put God beyond the reach of the human mind in order to avoid Feuerbach’s attack.

The Second of Three Basic Notions

The second notion of the conception of God is that God must be thought of as a necessary being. There is no space here to trace the evolution of this concept from the time it was first formulated by St. Anselm in the eleventh century, through its amendments by St. Thomas Aquinas, Immanuel Kant and other critical writers. Without putting too fine a point on the matter, something maybe gained on the side of understanding by means of the following statement. St. Anselm pointed out that when we think about God, we must have in mind a Supreme Being than which no greater can be thought of. We must also think of God as existing necessarily, because if we did not, we could think of a greater being. God, therefore, must be conceived as the only being that cannot not exist, though the question would remain whether the necessary being we have thus conceived does in fact actually exist. In other words, we must still discover whether there is in reality — outside our minds — anything that corresponds to the concept of God we have formed in our minds.

The Third Basic Notion

The third basic notion in the conception of God is that God is the cause of the existence of whatever else that does in fact exist. No natural causes ever cause the existence of anything; rather, they are causes of change or becoming. The simplest way to grasp the point quickly is to consider animal progenitors or human parents. These do not cause the existence of their offspring, but only their coming to be — their generation.

Now the existence of whatever exists in the world must have a cause — must have a reason for its existence, either in itself or in another. The point being made here is reinforced by the principle of parsimony which governs all our scientific and philosophical thinking, including our thinking in natural theology. The principle says that we cannot affirm the existence of anything we conceive unless we can show how its existence is needed to explain what we already know exists. More immediately, the same principle says that unless God is conceived as the only cause of the existence of whatever exists contingently, and so needs a cause of its existence, we cannot prove that God exists. The proof depends on the truth of the factual proposition that this cosmos as a whole exists contingently — which is another way of saying that it is capable of not existing at all. If the latter proposition is false, there is no valid argument for the existence of God.

The Question of Atheism

The question about atheism, or disbelief in God, as it was raised by Bishop Robinson in The New Reformation is, in my judgment, the only clear and sensible question raised by any of the new theologians. Bishop Robinson phrased the question as follows. Can a truly contemporary person not be an atheist? A fuller articulation of the question would go like this. Must a truly contemporary person, one who is fully acquainted with all the genuine advances in science and philosophy, who has lived under the conditions of contemporary life with its holocaust, its nuclear weapons, its moral corruption — must not such a person be an atheist in order to be honest and clear-headed?

In this fuller form, the question subdivides into two parts. One refers to the incompatibility of the belief in God with the present state of our scientific and philosophical knowledge. The other refers to the incompatibility of the belief in God with the present state of our lives in the world as it is today. I will comment on the two parts in reverse order.

The State of Contemporary Life

It is true that immense changes have taken place in this century, especially in all the external features and arrangements of our human environment. It is true that this is the century in which such changes have taken place at an accelerated pace and in ever increasing volume. It is also true that the multiplication and swift pace of change in the external aspects of life are discomforting, upsetting, certainly challenging and perplexing. But it is not true that the essential features of human life have been greatly altered, or that life is any more difficult to live or to live well than it ever was in the past. In some respects, it is much easier than ever before, and in other respects, it may be harder. On balance, however, we cannot say that the problem of how to make a good life for ourselves is more difficult now than it ever was in the past. Nor can we say that it has now become an impossible problem to solve, or that we are doomed to defeat before we even try.

A person would have to suffer from otosclerosis — the most common cause for deafness — not to hear a familiar cry that life has become meaningless, purposeless, absurd, vile, intolerable. All around us we are assailed by voices full of self-pity, almost despair over the torment of having to be alive and to carry on in the world as it is today. Yet for all this, there is nothing about the conditions of contemporary life that calls for atheism as the proper response. I claim that life is no more difficult to live well now than it ever was in the past; and if belief in God ever played a role in living a good life on earth, that role is unchanged at present. Even if life were now more difficult, that would not require a contemporary person to become an atheist. On the contrary, it might more reasonably lead him in the opposite direction, for if God does exist, belief in Him might help man to overcome the difficulties he now confronts.

The crux of the matter must rest, therefore, with the present state of our scientific and philosophic knowledge. Perhaps Bishop Robinson had the state of that knowledge in mind when he suggested that a truly contemporaneous person cannot avoid being an atheist. Let us look at this part of the picture.

The State of Contemporary Scientific Knowledge

I have reviewed everything I know about the most recent discoveries in cosmology (the vast expanses of the galactic universe, the competing hypotheses about its condition or its origin in the bigbang theory or the steady-state theory); in atomic physics (our new knowledge of elementary particles and our new principles of quantum mechanics); in biology, genetics, and the theory of evolution (especially our discovery of the fossil species of man and the molecular biology of DNA); in psychology and psychiatry (including Freud’s psychoanalytical theories of the genesis of man’s belief in God). As I go through the whole range of my acquaintance with scientific knowledge I find nothing, neither facts nor established hypotheses, that requires the denial of God’s existence.

I would go further to say that, in the whole range of our currently accepted scientific understanding of the world, I find nothing that introduces a single new difficulty into our thinking about God, or presents an intellectual obstacle to our affirming God’s existence. In short, so far as science goes, nothing so far discovered about the world would require me to alter in the least the philosophical conception of God that I presented earlier in this essay and nothing that I can learn from science has any bearing on the thinking that I must do when I address myself to the question whether God, as thus conceived, exists or not.

Note I did not say that future discoveries may not be decisive with regard to the question of God’s existence. We must always be open to the possibility that within the next hundred years a scientific discovery or demonstration will change our view of one central fact, which may provide the coping stone for atheism. But it is as yet only a possibility. Possibilities are not realities; conjectures are not knowledge. All I am saying, then, is that the present state of our scientific knowledge of the world does not warrant Bishop Robinson’s thesis that a truly contemporary person must be an atheist.

The State of Contemporary Philosophical Knowledge

Turning from science to philosophy, are there any advances in philosophy that call for atheism? Materialism in metaphysics does require atheism. But is there something new about this? Not at all. Materialism always did require atheism, from Democratus, Epicurus, and Lucretius right down to the present day. The present arguments for materialism as a metaphysical position still fall short of demonstration and proof; hence it cannot be said that a truly contemporary person cannot avoid being a materialist, if he is philosophically reasonable. And if he can avoid being a materialist, he need not be an atheist on these grounds.

Existentialism? Existentialism is a philosophical novelty, as materialism is not. Is this what Bishop Robinson had in mind when he said that a truly contemporary person must be an atheist? If so, he forgot that there are two varieties of existentialism. There is the religious or Christian existentialism of men like Kierkegaard and Marcel, and there is the atheistic existentialism of men like Nietzsche, Heidegger and Sartre. In the latter, atheism is itself the root of the whole philosophical position, not its conclusion or consequence. The despair or angst of this brand of existentialism stems from its denial of God’s existence, not the other way around.

Analytic and linguistic philosophy, of the sort that dominates the English and American university scene? None of the semantic or logical principles of analytic or linguistic philosophy would require me to alter the philosophical conception of God that I presented in these pages, or would change in any way the kind of thinking I would do in trying to answer the question whether God exists.

Hence I must conclude that the answer to Bishop Robinson’s question is a simple and flat no. No, it is not necessary for a truly contemporary person to be an atheist or to disbelieve in the existence of God. And I find no arguments, no reasons, no evidence or facts, not in Bishop Robinson’s writings, nor in Bishop Pike’s, nor in the writings of Tillich, Bultmann, and Bonhoeffer, or in the lesser breed of new theologians, which support the opposite answer.

The new theologians are impressed by the secularism of our society, by the spread of irreligion and of atheism or disbelief in God. It is this which leads them to propose a religionless Christianity, or an atheistic Christianity, a secularized religion to meet the needs or fit the condition of present life. All this is justified on the ground that the church is absolutely out of touch with contemporary life, and that this is no connection between what goes on in the church and contemporary life, and soon. I am sure that a religionless or secularized Christianity is as much a self-contradiction as an atheistic theology.

I would like to make two points about secularism and religion. One is to question the claim that secularism and irreligion are on the increase. The other is to raise the question about the meaning of religion itself — a question that will affect the view we take of religion in the West and in the East.

With regard to the apparent increase of secularism or irreligion in our Western society, I suggest that the men and women who have given up religion because of the impact on their minds of modern science and philosophy were never truly religious in the first place, but only superstitious. The prevalence and predominance of science in our culture has cured a great many of the superstitious beliefs that constituted their false religiosity. Bishop Robinson is right if what he means is that a truly contemporary person cannot be superstitious in the way that countless human beings were in the past. The increase of secularism and irreligion in our society does not reflect a decrease in the number of persons who are truly religious, but a decrease in the number of those who are falsely religious; that is, merely superstitious.

There is no question but that science is the cure for superstition, and, if given half the chance with education, it will reduce the amount that exists.

The truths of religion must be compatible with the truths of science and the truths of philosophy. As scientific knowledge advances, and as philosophical analysis improves, religion is progressively purified of the superstitions that accidentally attach themselves to it as parasites. That being so, it is easier in fact to be more truly religious today than ever before, precisely because of the advances that have been made in science and philosophy. That is to say, it is easier for those who will make the effort to think clearly in and about religion, not for those whose addiction to religion is nothing more than a slavish adherence to inherited superstition. Throughout the whole of the past, only a small number of men were ever truly religious. The vast majority who gave their epochs and their societies the appearance of being religious were primarily and essentially superstitious.

What I have just said goes a long way, I think, toward explaining the increase of atheism. The growing number of new atheists consists of those who never did understand the conception of God, and whose mistaken conceptions of God have been shaken, as well they should, by modern science and philosophy.

The Question of Religion

I come finally to the question of religion itself. The question may be easy for a person of religious faith, but is most difficult to approach from a purely philosophical point of view. The difficulty lies in drawing the line between the natural and the supernatural in the sphere of human thought and human action. Words are difficult to manage here, but let me at least try to draw the line. By the natural in human thought and human action, I mean that which man can achieve entirely by the exercise of his own power, without any aid whatsoever from any agency or power that is not included in the natural order itself. By the supernatural in human thought and action, I mean that which man can think or do only through the aid of an agency or power that transcends the natural order.

The difficulty we face arises as a consequence of this distinction. Suppose, for example, that such disciplines as mathematics, history, the natural, social, and behavioral sciences, and all the branches of philosophy exhaust the departments or branches of natural knowledge. What then? Then either religion is supernatural knowledge — knowledge that a man possesses through God’s revelation of himself — or it is nothing but a set of superstitions.

Again, many persons think of religion as an ethical code, a set of prescriptions for living in a certain way, a set of beliefs about the world and about man. Now if these rules or prescriptions are arrived at by the natural process of the human mind, they are nothing but moral or ethical philosophy. There is absolutely no reason for calling them religion. If a set of beliefs about the world and about man is similarly arrived at, they are nothing but metaphysics or speculative philosophy. There is absolutely no reason for calling them religion. They deserve and demand the name “religion” — as something distinct from science and philosophy — only if they are supernatural in origin, only if they are a gift of God’s grace, only if they are something man receives from God, not something that he achieves entirely by his own powers in an entirely natural way.

What I have just said about religious thought and religious knowledge applies equally to the religious life. No one can lead a way of life that is religious except through the supernatural agency of God’s grace. If a way of life can be lived entirely through the exertion of man’s natural powers, entirely through the exercise of his own free will and the habits he can freely form through his own acts, entirely through the discipline he can acquire through his own efforts, then that way of life is not religious. In short, I am saying that a religious way of life can be lived only through God’s grace, just as religious faith or belief can be had only as a gift of God. Hence if God does not exist, religion does not exist, but only counterfeits of what it would be if it did exist. Fully to appreciate the difficulty of either accepting or rejecting this definition of religion, you need only to examine the consequence of the two alternatives.

On the one hand, let us suppose for a moment that the definition of religion as involving the supernatural in man’s life is false. On that alternative, there is no way of drawing the line between such things as science and philosophy, on the one hand, and religion on the other. In fact, in view of the ways in which religious beliefs are formed and the ways in which they are held, it would then become necessary to say that most religious beliefs are simply bad philosophy; or worse than that, unfounded conjectures about things beyond our knowledge. On this alternative, all religions are secular institutions and are fraudulent when they pretend to be sacred. This applies to the religions of the East as well as to the religions of the West. It is generally admitted that most of the religions of the East cannot be distinguished from philosophy. That being the case, the only important question about them is how good they are as philosophies.

What I have just said applies to the teachings of Jesus just as much as it applies to the teachings of Confucius or of Buddha or of the Zen Masters. If Jesus is not the Incarnate Word of God, if he is not God revealing Himself to man, if he is just a man like you and me, then his teachings are no different from those of Socrates — no different in character, in their origin, or in the standards to which they must submit. Being a follower of Jesus, as one might be a follower of Socrates or of Ghandi, is not being religious. Moreover, I would seriously question the possibility of following Jesus’ teachings, of living according to his precepts, of imitating his way of life, if his teachings are taken on the purely natural plane, the same plane on which we take Socrates’ teachings or Ghandi’s. And in the same way that I question whether anyone can imitate Christ, as the Christian saints did, without God’s grace, so I also question whether anyone can become a Zen Master or achieve Satori without God’s grace.

Let me summarize what I have just said in another way. On the alternative that religion is entirely a natural product of man, and not something that man has through a supernatural gift, I say, first, that it cannot be distinguished from philosophy; and that, in addition, most of it, by the strictest standards, is very bad philosophy. And I say, second, that the way of life or of thought that is recommended by the great religious leaders, if treated as purely natural, makes demands upon man that human nature by itself — without supernatural aid — can never fulfill. No one can live the life that Jesus recommends — no one can follow Jesus’ teachings — on the natural plane. Merely as ethical philosophy they are of little use or truth. And the same thing is true of the teachings of Buddha or of the Zen Masters.

On the other hand, let us suppose that the true definition of religion involves a supernatural gift that lifts human thought above natural philosophy. On this alternative so far as thought is concerned, there is a clear line of distinction between philosophy, on the one hand, and religion, on the other hand. Also, so far as conduct and action are concerned, there is a clear line of distinction between ordinary ways of life, on the one hand, and the religious way of life, on the other hand. On this alternative, a secular religion, a secularized Christianity, is as impossible as a round square. Further, on this alternative, only the religions of the West, and among these especially orthodox Christianity, make claims that entitle them to the name of religion.

My knowledge of the Eastern religions is not sufficient to make the judgment that is here implied, and so I leave with you the question whether the so-called religions of the East claim a supernatural foundation for the beliefs that they inculcate, and a supernatural support for the way of life that they recommend. If they do not, or if, further, they deny any supernatural foundation or source, they are not religions in the sense defined. And if they are not that, then they are at best philosophies — moral or speculative — and we must judge them by the same standards that we judge any other philosophical effort on man’s part.

To which I would like to add one other observation. The teachings of Confucius, so far as these doctrines propose a code of conduct and a way of life, seem to me quite practicable for ordinary man. They make no demands on man that human nature cannot meet, no demands that would require supernatural help to meet.

On the contrary, the teachings of Buddha and of the Zen Masters, so far as I can understand them, seem to be the very opposite of philosophical thought. If you were to take them as philosophical thought, you would have to dismiss them — as one must dismiss the Christian mystics — as having little or no philosophical merit. I must add quickly that, if mystical visions are rubbish to the philosopher, the reverse is also true. Four years before he died, Thomas Aquinas retired from the world, gave up philosophy and theology, and gave himself entirely to mystical contemplation. He left his greatest work — in my judgment, one of the greatest works of all time — the Summa Theologica, unfinished. When asked by one of his brethren why he threw aside that great unfinished work, Aquinas said, “It is all as so much straw.” That judgment is quite proper when made from the height of mystical vision, just as it is quite proper for the philosopher, on the lower plane of reason, to dismiss the mystical vision.

I am impelled to ask but not to answer the question whether the achievements of Buddha and his saintly followers, and the achievements of the Zen Masters — both in thought and action — may not be manifestations of God’s grace, the products of a supernatural intervention in human life and thought, even though the Buddhists and the Zen Masters themselves may never claim a supernatural foundation for their doctrines or supernatural help for their way of life.


I have not in this essay asserted, much less tried to prove, the existence of God. I have done nothing but present the minimum philosophical analysis that is required to expose the inanity and double-talk of the new theology and the death of God movement, and to raise some serious questions about secularism and religion, applicable to both East and West. It is this very last point — applicable to East as well as West, and applicable in the same way to both — to which objection may be made. To meet that objection, or at least to challenge it, let me state for you the two controlling principles underlying everything that I have said.

The first controlling principle is that science, though mainly a Western invention and development, is now neither Eastern nor Western, but universal. Anyone who in any way or degree lives by means of technology (which is nothing but an application of science) tacitly acknowledges this. If there is no truth in the science of aerodynamics, we would be fools to trust our lives to airplanes. To acknowledge the usefulness and trustworthiness of technological applications is also to acknowledge the truth of the science that is applied to them. In short, both Eastern and Western cultures must agree that science gives us a measure of truth, not the whole truth, but considerable truth about the world in which we live — about nature, about society, and about man himself. In short, science is at least a part of the truth about the world — nature, society, and man.

My second principle is that there is one whole of truth. There are not three separate kinds of truth, three separate modes of truth — scientific truth, philosophical truth, religious truth — unrelated to one another and incapable of being inconsistent or incompatible. One of the greatest disputes that ever took place in the thirteenth century occurred when Aquinas stood up and defended the doctrine of one truth against the double-truth theory of the Latin Averroists who wished to keep the truths of science and philosophy and the truths of religion in logic-tight compartments. St. Thomas, the inheritor of the science of Aristotle which had become available at the end of the twelfth century, had his books condemned and was almost excommunicated for heresy because he insisted that the truth of science, the truth of philosophy, and the truth of religion belonged to a single, integral realm of truth.

This principle applies to philosophy as well as to religion — and to both in the same way. Though philosophy may add truth to the truth learned by science, nothing can be true in philosophy which in any way violates or contradicts what we know by science. To make this point clear, let me use the phrase “scientific philosophy,” not for a philosophy that is developed by scientific methods, but for a philosophy that in every respect tries to be consistent with, although it goes beyond, the truths known by science. Similarly, though religion — through revelation — may add truth to the truths learned by both science and philosophy, nothing can be true in religion or as a matter of religious faith that in any way violates or contradicts what we know by science.

Let me call such religion “scientific religion.” I do not mean scientific in method, but compatible with science. At the beginning of Western theology, one of the great moments occurred when the greatest of all our Western theologians, St. Augustine, before he was converted to Christianity, and still in search of the truth, came upon the doctrine of the Manicheans. He studied with the Manicheans and read their books. But, as he tells us in his Confessions, when he discovered that the astrological views propounded by the Manichean religion were incompatible with the science of his day — the astronomy that he had learned from the Greeks — he dismissed Manicheanism as superstition. When he accepted Christianity, he found nothing in Christianity that at that time was incompatible with the scientific knowledge of his day. If he had, he would not have accepted it. His principle was absolutely right. There cannot be any truth in Christianity that is inconsistent with science, if science is true.

If these two controlling principles are sound, they apply equally to Eastern and Western thought — philosophical or religious — and they apply in the same way. Like Western philosophy, Eastern philosophy can have truth beyond what we know by science, which is the same East and West. Like Western religion, Eastern religion is separated from superstition and fraud by a line that divides what is and what is not compatible with the truths of philosophy and of science. In other words, what I am saying is that, to be sound, Eastern philosophy and Eastern religion must be wholly compatible with science in exactly the same sense that Western philosophy and Western religion must be wholly compatible with science.

You can try to avoid these conclusions in only two ways. One way is to deny that science and technology are common to West and East; but this is almost impossible to do, for the truth of the one, science, and the usefulness of the other, technology, are clearly the same in both East and West. Failing this, you would have to take refuge in the abhorrent doctrine of two truths or three truths, the doctrine that the truths of science, the truths of philosophy, and the truths of religion, can have no relation to one another and can be quite incompatible and yet all be true in some sense of the word.

It is impossible to deny that science and technology are common to West and East. To take refuge in the doctrine of two or more modes of truth, separated into logic-tight compartments, is to embrace an intellectual schizophrenia that is the utter ruin of the human mind.

[Great Books of the Western World GBotWW=”1″]