Thursday, May 24, 2018

The Religion of Science by Paul Carus

Freethinker or not?
German-American writer Paul Carus was a prolific author, editor, and publisher of books and journals on religion and philosophy. He was the editor of the philosophical journal The Monist and managing editor of Open Court Publishing, which were both founded by his father-in-law, zinc magnate Edward C. Heleger. Carus, who referred to himself as “an atheist who loved God,” devoted his life to encouraging interfaith dialogue, introducing concepts of Eastern religions to the West, and seeking common ground between Christians and freethinkers. Towards achieving the latter goal, Carus formulated and promoted his concept of The Religion of Science, of which his 1893 book of the same title provides a concise overview.

Monism is an ancient philosophical world view that was clarified for the modern era by 17th-century Dutch philosopher Baruch de Spinoza. Monism asserts that the universe is composed of one substance, matter, as opposed to dualism, which professes that the universe is comprised of both matter and spirit. In The Religion of Science, Carus proposes a monism based on science that modern people can apply to their daily lives. He calls for a rational religion that worships the truth, as revealed by scientific inquiry, rather than one in which reality is obfuscated by ancient myth and superstition. This religion will have an ethics based objectively on duty to mankind rather than on dogma or hedonism. Carus explains his concepts in very straightforward, eloquent, and quotable prose that even philosophically illiterate general readers can easily understand. I loved the first few chapters of this book, which promise an excellent, clearly stated, freethinking “bible” along the lines of Ernst Haeckel’s exemplary monist text The Riddle of the Universe.

As he advances his argument, however, Carus ventures further and further from Spinoza, pushing the envelope of monism, and the book becomes progressively less attractive to materialist freethinkers. While Spinoza’s religious view is generally described as pantheism, Carus calls his religion entheism, which is likely a shortened name for panentheism. Essentially, Spinoza says that God is nature (i.e. matter), while Carus is saying that God is the laws of nature. The difference seems like unnecessary theoretical hair-splitting intended to make Carus’s god more palatable to traditional theists. The most controversial aspect of Carus’s philosophy is his belief in the soul and immortality, though his conceptions of both are nontraditional. To Carus, a man’s soul is the sum total of his ideas, impulses, and will. While acknowledging the materialistic causes of human behavior, Carus then mystifies human consciousness by describing it in spiritual terms. Man achieves immortality, in Carus’s view, by leaving a legacy of ideas and memories, and thus contributing to human evolution and culture. This may be a worthy concept, but Carus deliberately couches it in terms that suggest an afterlife, which seems an attempt to pacify religious readers. In fact, the latter chapters of The Religion and Science are a series of concessions to traditional religion, consciously designed to cast as wide a net as possible to possible converts. In the end, Christians might be more likely to appreciate this book than freethinkers, who may see it as one big cop-out.

Though I certainly don’t agree with everything Carus has to say in The Religion of Science, I still think it’s a valuable text in the history of freethought. It may only be a baby step toward a rational humanity, but it’s certainly an improvement over the prevailing religious dogmas. Neither the faithful nor the freethinking reader is likely to buy wholeheartedly into Carus’s philosophy, but each can draw something useful from it to augment their own personal philosophies.
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