Age of the Sage site banner

God, Science, Evolution,
Faith, Reason, Religion

Can Science and Religion be reconciled?

The position adopted by Ralph Waldo Emerson may provide a model for a coherent approach towards beliefs about God, Science, Evolution, Faith, Reason & Religion being better reconciled!

page content divider


As a young man Emerson trained for church ministry, and was active for a short period as pastor to a church in Boston, Massachusetts, but soon came to prefer interior spirituality to a more formal and outward practice of religion leading him to a crisis where he could no longer, in all conscience, offer his congregation the full range of ceremonial observances which they tended to expect of him.

The following excerpts from Emerson's writings may give some insights into this personal crisis which actually culminated in his resignation from his societally much respected, and indeed well-paid, role as minister to the Second Church in Boston:-
  Here among the mountains the pinions of thought should be strong and one should see the errors of men from a calmer height of love & wisdom. What is the message that is given me to communicate next Sunday? Religion in the mind is not credulity & in the practice is not form. It is a life. It is the order & soundness of a man. It is not something else to be got, to be added, but is new life of those faculties you have. It is to do right. It is to love, it is to serve, it is to think, it is to be humble.
July 6, 1832

  I would think - I would feel. I would be the vehicle of that divine principle that lurks within & of which life has afforded only glimpses enough to assure me of its being. ...
July 14, 1832

And in concluding a sermon delivered to the congregation at the time of his resignation Emerson said:-

I am about to resign into your hands that office which you have confided in me. It has many duties for which I am feebly qualified. It has some which it will always be my delight to discharge according to my ability, wherever I exist. And whilst the recollection of its claims oppresses me with a sense of my unworthiness, I am consoled by the hope that no time and no change can deprive me of the satisfaction of pursuing and exercising its highest functions.
At that time Emerson had no sufficient reason to believe that he could establish himself as the most notable Essayist, Lecturer and Man-of-Letters that he would eventually become ~ some years later.

page content divider


Emerson saw scientific discoveries as tending to bring with them associated transformative, and often significantly disruptive, effects on human lives and beliefs across the centuries. He accepted that society had tended to undergo very significant change due to the wider implications of initially, Copernicus' astronomical theory and also of other, subsequent, scientific theorisings.
He nevertheless persisted as a person-of-faith holding sincere spiritual beliefs!
... I think the paramount source of the religious revolution was Modern Science; beginning with Copernicus, who destroyed the pagan fictions of the Church, by showing mankind that the earth on which we live was not the centre of the Universe, around which the sun and stars revolved every day, and thus fitted to be the platform on which the Drama of the Divine Judgment was played before the assembled Angels of Heaven, ... This correction of our superstitions was confirmed by the new science of Geology, and the whole train of discoveries in every department. But we presently saw also that the religious nature in man was not affected by these errors in his understanding. The religious sentiment made nothing of bulk or size, or far or near; triumphed over time as well as space; and every lesson of humility, or justice, or charity, which the old ignorant saints had taught him, was still forever true.

From Emerson's "Historic Notes of Life and Letters in New England"
(penned circa 1867 ~ some six years after his reading of Darwin's "Origin of Species").

Emerson interested himself deeply in scientific matters. He had given consideration to other, less persuasive, evolutionary theorisings prior to the publication of Darwin's 'Origin of Species' and made strenuous efforts to obtain Darwin's book at the time of its first publication!

According to the reminiscences of Charles C. Caverno:-
Some time in the winter of 1859-60 Ralph Waldo Emerson, in the Newhall House in Milwaukee, asked me if I could procure him a copy of a book on Species which an Englishman had published lately - and he added, " From what I have heard it is likely to make the dry bones rattle." I told Mr. Emerson I had not seen the book, but that I was after it myself and had an order for it already in New York.

How this conversation happened to come about in a hotel in Milwaukee was because Mr. Emerson was stopping there to fulfill engagements for lectures in that city and in other cities round about. Why he asked of me the question he did was because I was President of the Young Men's Association before which he lectured. I was also chairman of the Library Committee of the Association - a somewhat exacting post, as that library was the only public library in the city.

I have given Mr. Emerson's description of the book he was after for he gave no name of author nor definite title to the book.

And then in a letter home to his wife from Lafayette, Indiana, dated 5 February 1860 and written whilst Emerson was on one of his lecture tours:-
I have not yet been able to obtain Darwin's book which I had depended on as a road book. You must read it, - "Darwin on Species." It has not arrived in these dark lands.

Emerson had actually himself given voice to "somewhat evolutionistic?" opinions in his journals after viewing some Comparative Anatomy exhibits during a visit to a scientific institution in Paris in July, 1833 ~ (and hence more than twenty-five years prior to the public availability of Darwin and Wallace's theorisings about Species broke open new and often perplexing vistas before an hitherto unsuspecting world.)

Key sections from said Journals read:-
Here we are impressed with the inexhaustible riches of nature. The universe is a more amazing puzzle than ever, as you glance along this bewildering series of animated forms... Not a form so grotesque, so savage, nor so beautiful but is an expression of some property inherent in man the observer, -an occult relation between the very scorpions and man. I feel the centipede in me, - cayman, carp, eagle, and fox. I am moved by strange sympathies. I say continually " I will be a naturalist."

This journal entry being made only some eight months after his resignation from his post as a christian minister ~ "consoled by the hope that no time and no change can deprive me of the satisfaction of pursuing and exercising the highest functions" of that calling!

In these times "Nature" may well have been viewed by Emerson as resulting from "Creation" in ways which might be inferred from these selections from his lecture "On the Relation of Man to the Globe" (1834):-
... "man is no upstart in the creation, but has been prophesied in nature for a thousand thousand ages before he appeared; that, from times incalculably remote, there has been a progressive preparation for him, an effort to produce him; the meaner creatures containing the elements of his structure and pointing at it from every side. ...
His limbs are only a more exquisite organization say rather the finish of the rudimental forms that have been already sweeping the sea and creeping in the mud: the brother of his hand is even now cleaving the Arctic Sea in the fin of the whale, and innumerable ages since was pawing the marsh in the flipper of the saurian."

Emerson seems to have been capable of envisioning such theistic "almost evolutionism?" whilst also continuing to see potentially redemptive and illuminatory powers, highly beneficial to the individual and to society, to being accessible through spirituality!
... the doors of the temple stand open, night and day, before every man, and the oracles of this truth cease never, it is guarded by one stern condition; this, namely; it is an intuition. It cannot be received at second hand. ...

... it is still true, that tradition characterizes the preaching of this country; that it comes out of the memory, and not out of the soul; that it aims at what is usual, and not at what is necessary and eternal; that thus, historical Christianity destroys the power of preaching, by withdrawing it from the exploration of the moral nature of man, where the sublime is, where are the resources of astonishment and power. ...

... And what greater calamity can fall upon a nation, than the loss of worship? Then all things go to decay. Genius leaves the temple, to haunt the senate, or the market. Literature becomes frivolous. Science is cold. ...

... We have contrasted the Church with the Soul. In the soul, then, let the redemption be sought. ... It is the office of a true teacher to show us that God is, not was; that He speaketh, not spake. ...None believeth in the soul of man, but only in some man or person old and departed. Ah me! no man goeth alone. All men go in flocks to this saint or that poet, avoiding the God who seeth in secret. They cannot see in secret; they love to be blind in public. They think society wiser than their soul, and know not that one soul, and their soul, is wiser than the whole world. ...
These selections are from Emerson's Divinity School Address of 1838.

The selection from Emerson's "Historic Notes of Life and Letters in New England", (penned circa 1867 ~ some six years after his reading of Darwin's "Origin of Species"), quoted above can thus be seen as being cohernetly made by someone who was open both to Religion and to Science!
…we presently saw also that the religious nature in man was not affected by these errors in his understanding. The religious sentiment made nothing of bulk or size, or far or near; triumphed over time as well as space; and every lesson of humility, or justice, or charity, which the old ignorant saints had taught him, was still forever true.

Emerson had been invited to prepare and deliver the aforementioned address by the graduating students from Harvard Divinity School of 1838 themselves, rather than by the "traditionalist?" faculty of that school.
The Harvard University administrators, and the then existing religious authorities in north America, tended to be more than a little disconcerted by the content of Emerson's Address.
More than thirty years ran their respective courses before Emerson was again invited to speak publicly at Harvard despite his increasing celebrity as a lecturer and writer and despite the fact that he was himself a graduate of the theological college there.

page content divider


The content presented above, which we hope does a little toward demonstrating that beliefs about God, Science, Evolution, Faith, Reason & Religion may be reconciled, is actually taken from our Home Page which is about The Faith vs. Reason Debate