International Society for Science & Religion - Library Project

Religion and Science

by Bertrand Russell , Michael Ruse (intro)

Introductory Essay by Sangeetha Menon

Religion and Science, the classic book by Bertrand Russell, was first published in 1935. A subsequent edition with Michael Ruse’s introduction offers Russell’s perception of the all-time significant issue of conflicts between science and religion over the last four centuries.

Michael Ruse’s introduction presents four views as context for Russell’s perspectives . The first view endorses opposing claims between science and religion and hence a permanent conflict between the two. The second position is dualist; the two deal with two different worlds and hence there cannot be a conflict. The third position accepts the divide between the two but concedes that dialogues could aid possible interaction and exchange. The fourth view supports the integration of science and religion. According to Ruse, “Russell is an ardent proponent of the conflict thesis” [x].
Russell highlights his theses by engaging in thematic discussions. In the chapter Grounds of Conflict, Russell examines the church, creed and the code of personal morals as the three aspects of the great historical [Semitic] religions. He discusses the first fierce battle between science and religion surrounding the dispute about the centre of the solar system and how the Copernican theory was forbidden by the Church.

In Evolution he discusses Darwin’s theory and favours evolutionary theory over creationism. In Demonology and Medicine he talks about how psychological illnesses were, until recent times, looked at from the point of view of superstition by the church and how the Church opposed medical advances. According to Russell, as he argues in Soul and Body, there is no soul that survives the death of the body. There is no free will in the sense that “...the emotional importance supposed to belong to free will seems to ... rest upon certain confusions of thought” [163]. Russell discusses at length the implications of Determinism and the possible responses to it based on scientific research in areas such as in Quantum mechanics. He dismisses mystical experiences or perceptions that do not have correspondence with physical facts. To him “... the man who eats little and sees heaven and the man who drinks much and sees snakes [are each] in an abnormal physical condition, and therefore [each] has abnormal perceptions” [188]. According to Russell there is no ultimate purpose and meaning for the existence of the universe, as he says in Cosmic purpose. “Whatever knowledge is attainable, must be attained by scientific methods” [243], and moral behaviours and subjectivity cannot lead to human action, as noted by Russell in Science and Ethics.

Religion and Science on one side presents the medieval progress-hindering theological dogmas and, on the other, envisions the vibrant discussion that the contemporary world engages in in ‘science and ethics’. On a closer reading of this book one could see that what Russell attempts is not just to take certain positions concerning the divide between science and theology but also an endorsement of the “cultivation of large and generous desires through intelligence, happiness, and freedom from fear, that men can be brought to act more than they do at present...” [242].

A classic by itself, this book is a crucial essay for a scholar or student to engage in the ever-relevant relation between scientific enterprise and religious beliefs.