Faith CoLab: Tapestry of Faith: What Moves Us: A Unitarian Universalist Theology Program for Adults

Leader Resource 2: Why Teach Religion in an Age of Science

This was Sophia Lyon Fahs' 1960 Rufus Jones lecture, published by the Committee on Religious Education, Friends General Conference, Philadelphia, PA, 1960. Used by permission. 

We are gathered this evening to honor Rufus Jones—writer, philosopher, mystic, and, to those privileged to know him, a "radiant personality." His life was in itself a memorable symbol of the importance of teaching religion in an age of science. For forty years, to ten generations of students at Haverford College, he taught religion. Perhaps some here this evening were among his students and you may feel like saying as one student did, "Rufus Jones lighted my candle." To his colleagues in the philosophy of religion, he was the most noted scholarly interpreter of religious mysticism in his time. Through his courage and creative initiative, he was largely responsible for the organization and promotion of the early work of the Friends Service Committee in Europe. The effectiveness of his spiritual leadership is shown by the 12,000,000 [dollars] given by Quakers, in response to his call for food for the starving children of Germany. Rufus Jones' religion was of the mind and heart and hand; it was "an open religion"—open to what, in his poetic way, he called "the life-giving environment of the soul."

A goodly number of years ago, after I had given one of my first talks to an audience of Friends in Philadelphia, one of George Fox's very forthright and honest disciples shook my hand vigorously, and said: "I don't believe a word thee said this evening, but I believe in thee." This was one of the most memorable and appreciated compliments I ever received. In that short moment I discovered in an unforgettable way what it means to be a true Quaker. Since that evening I have never been afraid to speak my mind to an audience of Friends. I mention this memory because some of you this evening may find yourselves in a position not wholly unlike that of this unforgotten Friend. You may find yourselves much dissatisfied with the ideas I shall express. I am far from being satisfied with them myself. All I desire of you is that you turn them over in your minds with sympathy, trusting my primary intent, and that you will, if you feel the need, discard them with full candor.


The question "Why teach religion in an age of science?" we may regard merely as an opening to lead us into other questions. You will note that we have not asked "Why teach the Christian religion in an age of science?" This might have been a very worthwhile subject. Other groups, with equal pertinence, might ask: Why teach the Buddhist religion? Or why teach Judaism? Or the Moslem religion? We have, however, used the general term "religion" because from our point of view the educational process in an age of science should no longer be regarded as the transmission of one faith in order to seek commitment to it. We are assuming an open-ended education in religious thinking and living which makes room for intelligent change, in response to new knowledge and new insights. We are really asking: Do we need to educate in the general field of religion in the same spirit that we use in other areas of knowledge? Shall we nurture religious living through free, open and direct observation, experimentation, and imagination?

You realize, no doubt, that this is not the usual way of teaching religion. Even in our own country, where we have established what we call "freedom of religion," each separate religious sect or church, for the most part, regards its educational responsibility to be to teach its particular form of religion. The Jews teach Judaism. Christians teach Christianity. To educate children, or even adults, in religion, without pointing the process definitely toward the acceptance of one religion, would seem to most people to be unthinkable. It is my purpose, however, this evening to show why a non-sectarian intent is needed in an age of science if man is to preserve the values "religion" has for his evolving life.


If then we do not limit our goal to the achieving of adherence to a specific religion, to discipleship to one teacher, to the acceptance of one Savior, to loyalty to one recorded heritage, or to obedience to one God, how shall we define religion?

If a general concept of even some simple, tangible thing, such as a chair, for instance, is to be gained, it is needful to see at least several objects like it and yet a little different from it. But the significance of the differences between the objects can not be adequately assessed unless one finds out what the thing is for and why it was made.

So in considering what we mean by the general term "religion," we should examine different religions to find out their likenesses and their differences. Yet we can not discover the significance of these until we find some answer to the more basic question. What emotional and practical desires and needs did these different religions try to meet? What were these religions for?

When a given object or movement has a long history, it is usually most profitable to examine first of all the reason for its origin. What functions did it perform during the earliest stages of its development? Such a question is especially important when we are dealing with so subtle and complicated a human activity as "religion." So we must ask: Why did human beings ever start being religious? Was early man impelled to try out certain religious beliefs and practices because of his very nature, and the actual problems he faced in his efforts to exist in this natural world? Or did the first man and woman become religious because they were told to do so, because they were able to see God walking in the garden of Eden beside them and he explained to them what was right and what was wrong? Putting the question in another way: did the first humans create their own religious beliefs and practices naturally because they needed them, or have mankind's religions been given him by divine and supernatural revelations, since God knew man needed religion?

With this audience I shall assume that we share the point of view, taken by all (or almost all) present-day anthropologists, archaeologists and historians, namely that the religions of the world grew out of man's "existential predicament," as Dr. Paul Tillich would say. Man was impelled to be religious because he felt he needed something he had not yet found. He needed to try out ways of doing things he had not yet tried. I am, therefore, making bold to name five of these most basic needs or impulses. Others might well be added had we more time to discuss them. These five, however, I believe are crucial and so may give us some clue to an answer to the question "Why teach religion in an age of science?"


The first, and possibly the most urgent need that impelled early man to become religious was his instinctive urge to keep alive and avoid death. His earliest painted prayers, so far discovered, preserved for us from fifteen to twenty thousand years on the rocky walls of caves and cliffs, were the serious experimental efforts of our early ancestors to increase their food supply, and to protect themselves from the hostile assaults of the animals about them, and from the destructive powers in the large elemental forces of nature.

This basic human impulse to save one's life in the presence of danger has been shared by all other living species; yet insects, birds, fish and other mammals do not pray so far as we know. Why not? Because, as it is now quite generally believed, Homo Sapiens had inherited a much more capable mind than any other species; and in the process of his evolution he had kept his powers of adaptation more flexible. Man was more able to change, than were the other species, to meet his needs and he used his better and larger brain imaginatively. He did not merely run from fire. He learned how to make his own fires. Death must have frightened him, but he did not frantically surrender to his fears. He began wondering what it was like to be dead. Where had his woman gone, now that her body was stiff and cold? In his dreams he heard her talk to him. He could not see her. She may have scolded him, or blamed him for her dying. So perhaps, half out of love for her, and half out of fear, some man in that long ago time was the first to put some kind of gifts beside her body before he covered it over.

Even thus in those most primitive days, man began sensing a Mystery in Life—in himself, in his comrades and even in the animals he slew for food. He began wondering. Did the animals also keep alive after death? Were they angry at him for killing them? But what could man do? He had to hunt to survive, and yet even in those earliest times, he began feeling guilty about it. The interpretation given by modern scholars is that the wonderful animal paintings and sculptured forms found in these ancient caves in France and Spain are man's painted prayers to the animals for their forgiveness. If this be so, it is then evident that man's earliest forms of religion grew out of his deepest and most instinctive impulse to survive, in spite of the threats to his life that he had to face.

In the second place, early man seems to have had an impulse to know more than he was born knowing. Like Kipling's Elephant's Child, he had a "satiable curiosity." His first why's and how's and what for's probably began even before he could put his questions into words. Wise Old Nature seems to have hidden her secrets everywhere, as if to lure living minds to wonder and explore. Like a mystery story billions of years long it has held the minds of men in dramatic suspense. Always, from the beginning until now, it has been the unsolved problem, the unknown factors, the invisible, intangible elements that have kept man's wondering and questioning alive. His basic impulse to know more and yet more has been at the root of the development of religion.

A third basic human need that has impelled man to form religions for himself (put negatively) has been the dread of being isolated and alone and the frantic fear and sense of helplessness associated with it. Put positively, is the deep and unending need to be loved by someone else and to be able to give love in return. Again this seems to be an instinctive craving that dates its simple beginnings in lower animals, in an urge for some kind of togetherness. Even one-celled animalcules have been found to thrive better and to live longer when nurtured in groups than when each is kept in isolation. The human baby's need for sincere and loving contacts has often been confirmed by modern scientific research. It has become an axiom among pediatricians that "tender loving care" (t.l.c.) is even more important to a young child's healthy growth than is the proper milk. The tragedy of feeling isolated because of neglect, rejection, or hate, is clearly evidenced in our mental hospitals and in our prisons. Sometimes one human friend alone who can be depended upon is able to change the whole course of life for a delinquent youth. In rare instances, belief in a divine lover has partially satisfied the longing when human lovers were not to be found. But when no human friend can be found, it seems to be very difficult for anyone to believe in a loving God.

The most ancient images of human deities as yet found, are images of pregnant mother goddesses. Images and orgiastic temple ceremonies and dances have been created primarily to arouse and to satisfy physical love. On a higher level of character development, the great moments that many of the saints have described as mystical have been rapturous with love. George Fox described one of his unforgettable mystical experiences in this way:

I saw that there was an ocean of darkness and. death, but I saw that there was an infinite Ocean of light and life and love that flows' over the ocean of darkness.

To George Fox this was a vision. Described in the psychological terminology of today, we might say that George Fox had delved so deeply into the darkness of his unconscious that he felt that not only he himself but all things were embraced by a Love that was of cosmic proportions. There is much evidence to show that the religions of mankind, from the most primitive to the noblest and most spiritual, have arisen out of a universal yearning or desperate need for something that is covered in the general word Love.

A fourth basic need that led mankind to become religious was the need to organize and integrate his life. On the one hand there was the personal need to build some kind of hierarchy of values so that conflicting emotional impulses might be harmonized and actions controlled. This need led man to formulate his ethics into codes of law, and to find, if possible, some higher authority than the individual conscience, or even higher than the conscience of humanity itself, in order to maintain this controlled order.

This need for organization also led mankind to formulate some kind of cosmology, or theology, that would give him a unified picture of himself within his world. For Christians, the Old Story of Salvation did this. Believers could see themselves as real actors in a cosmic drama. To strengthen themselves, they could rehearse the scenes in ritual and dance. They could relive the great crises in the long centuries of struggle, and they could learn to expect a final frightening destiny or the glory of everlasting salvation. Many even in our generation still find this old cosmic drama emotionally compelling.

This need for organization is another primary need, so ageless and universal that it has been found even in the lowest forms of life. The biologist has found organization in the simplest single cell; the psychological scientists have found organization essential to the health of the psyche or spirit. The sick mental patient is the one whose impulses are disorganized, or whose impulses are organized around a hostile or mischosen center. Life necessitates some organization, and in mankind's religions he has endeavored to help himself, or to find help beyond himself, to gain this end. It is therefore not strange that students of history have found that the gods that men have imagined were from early days ethical guides, law givers and rulers.

A fifth basic emotional need which has deeply influenced man's religious development is the personal need of every man for some kind of super-ego, or internalized ideal. Most of humanity, if not all, need to have this ideal or super-ego incarnated in some actual person who can be admired or loved. A historical person may serve as the symbol, if no relative or friend or contemporary hero is available, and provided the historical character can be resurrected in the imagination to live again in the present. The influence of this basic emotional need is dearly apparent in the great and long-lasting religions of the world. For this reason men have instinctively clung to the memories of their great innovators and heroes, and many times, have transformed these ideal personalities into gods.

These then are at least five of the basic human impulses or needs that have constrained humans to form their religions. First, the fundamental impulse simply to keep alive and to avoid death; second, an impulse to know the unknown, to peer through the seen into the unseen—to delve into the mysteries of existence; third (stated positively), the need for friendly companionship, or the yearning to love and to be loved, and (stated negatively) the need to escape isolation and the frantic despair it brings; fourth, the basic need for some degree of organization of life in order to establish some central control over conflicting impulses, both for the sake of the individual's own mental health and for the sake of community harmony. This need for organization also led man to seek some kind of over-all theological picture of his longer destiny within the ongoing drama of life. Finally, the fifth need is for an internalized super-ego, imaginatively created through contact with some one other than the self, who incarnates, at least in a measure, the desired better self.


If then we accept these findings of historical study and assume that the urge to be religious is the fruit of man's basic impulses and needs in the natural world, then we have a dynamic set of criteria by which to examine and gather up into one large concept the different religions.

Even though religions have been monotheist, and polytheist and humanist, some with supernatural implications and some without, when we look at them from a long time perspective we can see them as a series of bold and creative experiments—all initiated from the same basic natural needs and fulfilling the same purposes. Man has been experimenting with his religions just as truly as he has been experimenting with his scientific assumptions. It should be expected that these experiments will be changed as man's understanding of his own needs and his understanding of the nature of the universe change. The important issue is not whether or not our present religion will change. The significant questions to ask are: by what processes may they be most advantageously changed? And how shall they be changed? And how fast?


These five fundamental human needs are still impelling man to want to be religious, but the old religions of the world, worked out in pre-scientific days, no longer fully satisfy those who are today imbued with the spirit of science or who realize how drastically the findings of science have changed man's picture of the universe. There is a great deal of outmoded science mingled with the religious teachings of our Judeo-Christian Bible. Up until about one hundred years ago, probably most Christian people really believed that God had completed His creation in six days, possibly extending each of these days to a thousand years. They really believed that floods, droughts, plagues and infertility were signs of God's anger and forms of His punishment. Our generation, however, relies more on building dam and reservoirs and irrigation canals than on prayers for protection against floods, and we have more faith in the doctor's prescriptions and in serum shots against infectious diseases than in prayers for healing. A generation ago the best book on love, called The Greatest Thing in the World, was written by Henry Drummond, a minister. The greatest book on love to be written in our decade is The Art of Loving, by Erich Fromm, a psychiatrist. The ancient Psalmist cried out in prayer:

Search me, 0 God, and know my heart!

Try me, and know my thoughts:

And see if there be any wicked way in me,

And lead me in the way everlasting.

(Psalm 139:23, 24)

Modern psychotherapists, in contrast, are trying to help persons who want to know themselves, to learn how to do more of the searching into the depths of their being for themselves. They are teaching us how to listen to our own inner voices that speak to us in our dreams, in our fantasies and in our unexpected compulsive kinds of behavior. More and more people of our time who feel themselves lost in mental turmoil and want help, are going to these scientists of the psyche, and they are often finding more release and healing than their ministers know how to give.

Will then the physical, psychological and social sciences soon be taking the place of religion?

"Is Science Enough?" Rufus Jones made this question the title of a chapter in his book Pathways to God. His answer was a firm "NO." He regarded as tragic what he called the "shrinkage of religion on the part of both professors and students in institutions of higher learning."

"This shrinkage," he added, "is due in about equal measure to the immense expansion of science, and to the feebleness and failure of the interpreters of Christianity to square their message of faith with the known and proven facts of the universe as they have been discovered:"

Albert Einstein stated his position on this matter in an especially arresting sentence. "Science. without religion," he said, "is lame, and religion without science is blind."

This vivid statement reminds me of an old story from Uganda, about a blind man and a lame man. Everyone else in the village was occupied in fighting off an attack from an enemy tribe. As a result these two handicapped men were forgotten; yet if they did not get out of the village quickly, they would both probably be killed. Finally the blind man offered to carry the lame man on his shoulders, provided the lame man would guide him to the next village. So the lame man became eyes for the blind man, and the blind man became legs for the lame man, and the two together found their way to safety.

So it may be with science and religion. Each is incomplete in itself, representing but a part of our human potential. Science and religion need one another as partners. They need to learn how to talk frankly together, to exchange their values, and to give their criticisms without causing offense. When two estranged partners wish to renew their intimacy, changes of attitude on the part of each one are usually needed.


I agree with Rufus Jones that the "shrinkage of religion" among the intelligentsia of our time is tragic. The emotional impulses that urge mankind to be religious are a part of human nature everywhere and apparently always. We truly need to be religious. Yet if religion is to survive in a day of advancing scientific discoveries, it must find a way to be on the one hand intellectually sound, and on the other hand emotionally satisfying.

As a supposedly educated generation, we are appallingly naive and primitive in many of our religious beliefs and practices. Yet our youth are being educated in the sciences to a degree and with an efficiency never before known in history. This is a dangerous situation. If we need creative and well-qualified teachers and professors of the philosophy of science to help us develop our science, we also need equally well-qualified teachers and theologians to help us develop a religion that can be a worthy partner of science.

The reformation is now only in its beginning. It cannot be accomplished hurriedly. In fact, if man ceases to reform his religions in the light of his advancing knowledge, they will become sterile. Not only do we as adults need to enlist in this reformation, but we need to prepare our children to carry on after us.

So we have now reached the complex and most difficult problem toward which our original question has been leading us. How educate for a changing religion in a changing universe? Although our time this evening is now almost exhausted, I shall gather up a few of my concerns into four small bundles so that you may perhaps want to carry them away with you for further thinking. Some, as stated, may sound to you like affirmations; I ask you, however, to take them as questions.


1. Let us keep continually in the foreground of our study of religion the basic emotional needs that any acceptable religion must satisfy in some degree. If in our reformation we merely change the outward forms, the words, ceremonies and methods of persuasion, we will but camouflage the significant issues. The changes needed involve attitudes and depths of understanding. Taking the five basic impulsive needs already mentioned one by one, we can begin to forecast some of the questions we must be asking. (1) When is life worth preserving? How may a scientifically minded, religious person face this universal dread of death? What does death really mean to us today? (2) How may we keep alive in ourselves and in our children the urge to be curious, to want to know the unknown, to keep on asking questions? Can we find a kind of openness of mind that will add to our zest and our efficiency in living? At how early an age and how often shall we share our uncertainties with growing children? (3) How can we better fulfill for more people the basic need for love? What evidences have we; if any, of a cosmic love, and what might this mean? (4) How are traditional theologies and cosmologies and thoughts of God hindering or helping the processes of organization and integration of personal impulses? (5) Have we made the symbols of our ideals too perfect? Have we built our super-egos too exclusively from one image? When we delve deeply and consider richly these basic emotional needs, we find ourselves asking the kinds of questions that really matter.

2. The second thought I venture to propose is this. Let us no longer be timid about turning to the physical scientists for help in the process of changing our cosmology, and let us exchange even our theological thinking frankly with them. Let us encourage our children to look for evidences of divinity within this natural universe. Let us bring science study into our schools of religion. Although these scientists may not care for the title, I am beginning to think that some among them are today our greatest mystics and our greatest cosmic philosophers.

Dr. Henry Morganau, Professor at Harvard University both of physics and of natural philosophy, has said that an electron is as elusive as one of Thomas Aquinas' angels, and as intangible as love. Yet electrons are everywhere in every animate and inanimate thing.

Dr. Donald Andrews, Professor of Chemistry at Johns Hopkins University, writes that electrons are more like musical vibration than like pieces of matter or small mechanisms, but the music being played is in octaves outside the limited range of our human hearing. Dr. Andrews is not intentionally being poetical when he writes of the music of the electrons. He is describing physical reality as clearly as he knows how to do.

Dr. Andrews asks: "Where do you think you are?" Sitting relatively still, right here now? But where is here? And when is now? You are really moving through space at unthinkable speeds in at least five different directions at once. Your common sense is deceptive. Your body in itself is an organized universe of revolving, vibrating atoms, some whirling in and out of you all the time. He even suggests that "your force of gravitation also reaches to the moon, to the sun, and every other atom in the universe." Where are you?

Dr. Richard Feynman, Professor of Biology in the California Institute of Technology, writes that the radio-active atoms of phosphorus in our brains are continually being replaced by new atoms, so that these atoms are completely renewed every few weeks. "So what is this mind?" he asks. "What are these atoms with consciousness? Last week's potatoes! That is what I now can remember was going on in my mind a year ago—a mind which has long since been replaced."

"The same thrill, the same sense of awe and mystery," he continues, "comes again and again when we look at any problem deeply enough. It is true that few unscientific people have this particular experience... Is nobody inspired by our present picture of the universe? The value of science remains unsung by singers."

What are we? The sum of the trillions of atoms that our bodies are made of? Or are we something that transcends all of the atoms of our bodies-something that can not be measured with the instruments of space and time? Scientists today are looking for more adequate answers than have as yet been given. I believe that the rest of us have much to learn from them if we would but listen and talk with them. I believe the scientists might broaden the scope of our mystic experiences or deepen our moments of insight. It is not merely with other human beings that some of these scientists are finding communion. They are feeling a sense of kinship with many forms of living things, and some can even feel a kinship with dust and rocks and stars. They are reaching for a cosmic perspective in their mysticism. Dr. Harlow Shapley, dean of American astronomers, has asked theologians to "take seriously our insistence that the God of humanity is the God of gravitation and the God of hydrogen atoms as well as the God of the higher sentient beings that have evolved elsewhere among the myriads of galaxies."

3. Third, let us give the psychological and social scientists as well new opportunities to contribute to our religious and ethical insights. If we felt more flexible in our habits, and were more ready to change our old paternal patterns of "character education" and preaching, and if the psychiatrists and sociologists in turn were less fearful of giving offense by entering the sacred precincts of theology and would talk with us frankly and humanly about religion, I foresee great things happening. These psychological scientists have been dealing with the "inner life" of the spirit and with the perplexing problems of ethical relationships, fields which until a century ago were regarded as the exclusive responsibility of religionists. Their new insights suggest deep changes. They are challenging much in our old moralities; and even more they are challenging our ways of motivating ethical behavior. For them hostilities, hates and unrealistic fears are symptoms of sickness calling for the healing medicines of understanding and loving respect, rather than being occasions for condemnation and punishment. I see profound reforms being called for, far more drastic than those made in the days of Martin Luther. Unless our religious societies learn how to inject therapeutic understanding for the old judgmental and moralistic ways of religious training, I foresee young people rejecting religion in increasing numbers. And unless we secure more help from the psychotherapists and the specialists in the study of child life, I foresee the moral foundations of our society crumbling.

4. Fourth, let us no longer be satisfied with a religiously divided world. No longer can one religion appropriately proclaim its supremacy over all others. Loyalty to inherited religions of the past, no matter how wonderful they have been, must become secondary to loyalty to new and growing truths from whatever sources they may come. It would be deadly if the whole world conformed to one religious pattern. It will be almost equally destructive, I believe, if we insist that the old religious groupings must be maintained, based either upon the continuance of ceremonial patterns or upon conformity in beliefs. It is tragic that so many persons today feel isolated from their fellows, and regard themselves as irreligious, simply because they can no longer give assent to the religion they inherited.

The world we now know is one. The universe is one. Mankind is one brotherhood. We even belong in the family of atoms and stars. Reality can no longer be divided into clear-cut contraries, the material and spiritual, the animate and the inanimate, the temporal and eternal, the body and mind, good and evil, today and tomorrow, Jew and Gentile, Christian and Pagan, the secular and religious, even the Creator and the created. The dividing walls are down. All things are blended and interdependent. Truth, goodness, love, freedom—all are relative and mixed up with falsehood, evil, hate and slavery. The ethical questions we must face almost never present merely two clear cut possibilities: the right and the wrong. These varied choices call for weighing the partly good over against another partial good. The development of moral and spiritual values today involves not so much the courage to fight for the right against the wrong, as the patience to understand the wrong, its causes and its meanings. It involves also learning the arts of negotiation and empathy.

Let us then walk forward rather than backward. The unique historical memories in our special religious cultures call today for less loyalty and more understanding, less praise and more honest self-criticism. Our direction needs to be forward. It is not our ancestors who will be changed by what we do. It is our contemporaries, and our descendants for generations to come, for whom we should be feeling responsibilities. "For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday."