Learn about Life in the 1920s

1920s Science created challenges to religious beliefs

ALTHOUGH Einstein seems to be superseding Newton, the old formula that "action is equal to reaction, and in a contrary direction" is still an accurate description of the course of events. This is being demonstrated right now in the field of religion and ethics. For years religious beliefs, religious practices, religious organizations and the ethics sanctioned by them have been under devastating attack. They have all been condemned as illogical, unscientific and outgrown, unsuited to modern civilization. Scientists and philosophers have joined with Sunday Supplement writers to show the absurdity of all that the religious man believed and did. Up until quite recently, these men have had it all their way but now the spokesmen for the defense are beginning to be heard. And that defense is of a high order

First of all there is A. S. Eddington, the physicist, who a few months ago in "The Nature of the Physical World" (Macmillan) pointed out the inadequacy of science to solve any of the ultimate problems. His book is simply one of several which are showing the bankruptcy of that mechanistic materialism which has been the creed of science and on the basis of which it has been bound to view religion as superstition. The basic science of physics, on which all the others are built, is now in process of withdrawing its moral opposition to God and human freedom, and the other great religious postulates. In a more popular manner, Harvey Wickham in "The Misbehaviorists" (Dial Press) last year hurled the shafts of ridicule upon those popular writers and lecturers who with a second-hand knowledge of science, scorn all cherished beliefs and conventional morality.

In the realm of morals three other books deserve notice. One of these is entitled, "Moral Adventure" (Macmillan), and is by that able thinker, Burnett Hillman Streeter, generally called "Canon Streeter." Canon Streeter courageously and sincerely meets the attacks now being made upon modern marriage and what we usually term "Christian morality." With full knowledge of the "new psychology," he champions the established code that sexual relations are morally objectionable except in a life-long monogamous marriage. This is one of the sanest and most convincing defenses of that code which has yet been made. A second book in this field is called "The Changing Family" (Harper). The author is George Walter Fiske of Oberlin and his book is the result of a scientific study made of suburban homes in a great American city. He believes that if the sociologists have nothing better to offer than companionate marriage, social science is close to bankruptcy. On the basis of his studies, the author concludes that vital religion can remake the home and readjust it to the needs of today. The families that are actually solving their problems are the religious families. This book abounds in workable suggestions of what men and women may do to make the family function wholesomely in modern machine society. The third book is in no sense polemic; it is not a defense of religion, but it assumes it and shows in detail just how it can aid us in our struggle for the most satisfying life. The title is "Methods of Private Religious Living" (Macmillan) and the author is Henry Nelson Wieman, of the University of Chicago. When any one asks "How shall I pray? How can religion help me right here in my matter of fact living?"—this book will answer. It does not deal in glittering and obscure generalities. It cites chapter and verse. But this book, too, is an effective reply to the adverse critics of religion.

IF THESE are not sufficient to show the trend, two more may be cited, both of them published in this new year. The first of these, "Frankness in Religion" (Macmillan), is by Robert J. Hutcheon, professor in Meadeville Theological School. The very title of the book shows its spirit. There is no attempt to gloss over the difficulties which beset the religious man in this modern day. It is written with a power and a sincerity which will merit respect even from the hostile critic of religion. There is a feast here for the honest doubter. The second, "A Wanderer's Way" (Henry Holt), by Charles E. Raven, Canon of Liverpool, is an account of a spiritual journey. With the greatest frankness, Canon Raven tells the story of his life, of how he gradually came to see the meaning of religion and the church. Alive to all the objections to the religious viewpoint which have been made with such power in recent years, the author shows step by step how lie came to the certainty that God is, and is the rewarder of them that diligently seek him.

As still further evidence of a more conservative appraisal of the church and its mission, I would point to a reaction in the field of religious education. In "The Psychology of Religious Awakening" (Macmillan) Elmer T. Clark, of George Peabody College for Teachers, after exhaustive case studies of the religious experience of hundreds of individuals selected so as to be really typical, concludes that religious education must have a fundamental philosophy of the Christian religion. He criticises kindly, but pointedly, the disproportionate emphasis upon method which religious education has made in recent years. There must be content as well as technique. In the author's words, "If religious education is to secure and maintain a rapport with the best of religious humanity, it must base itself in the Christian philosophy and reinterpret the doctrines there into its own terms."

We have been told that missionaries were merely emissaries of capitalism, that they were breaking down the social order and were in fact doing untold damage to the native people. Particularly have these things been said of the missionaries in China. There now comes an authoritative "History of Christian Missions in China" (Macmillan). The author is K. S. Latourate, of Yale University. After an eight-hundred-page survey of the whole field, the author concludes: "The historian does not cease to be impartial when he declares that the presence and the labors of the missionary were most fortunate for China. Defects the missionary enterprise undoubtedly had. Sometimes it did evil. On the whole, however, it was the one great agency whose primary function was to bring China into contact with the best in the Occident and to make the expansion of the West a means to the greater welfare of the Chinese people. If, when the Chinese have finally adjusted themselves and their culture to the new age, the revolution through which they shall have passed proves to have been more beneficial than harmful, it will be in no small degree because of the thousands of Christian apostles who counted not their own lives dear that to the Chinese might come more abundant life."

The above are only a few of the recent religious books which show this conservative trend. The pendulum is swinging - even looks as if its speed were accelerating as it swings toward a more spiritual interpretation of the universe and human life. It turns out that old truth is still truth. Once more religion comes back.

Source: Outlook and Independent - March 13, 1929