If... by J.B.S.Haldane (1934)

The following essay is from a collection of essays in a book called 'Science and Life' which can be obtained from the Rationalist Press Association.

In a scientific paper one can almost gauge the intellectual honesty of the author by the number of phenomena which he or she leaves unexplained. The historian, with rare exceptions , is expected to explain everything. This happened because King John was a bad man, that because God willed it, and the other because the feudal system had developed an internal contradiction. It is only a great historian who can dare to confess his complete ignorance.

That eminent Rationalist, the late Professor Bury, devoted a learned and fascinating book to the collapse of the Roman Empire about AD 400. He raised the question of why the Western Empire fell when the Eastern survived, and after a very close analysis he put it down to bad luck - in other words, to causes outside the sphere of the historian. If at the critical moment Rome had produced a military leader, it would not have been compelled to rely on Stilicho the Goth, and Alaric might have been repulsed from Rome as he was from Constantinople.

This sort of history is encouraging to the lover of speculation like myself. If individuals count, if Cleopatra's nose and Elizabeth's sexual abnormality really diverted the course of history, then we may legitimately rewrite it as it might have been.

And just because the details of religion depend so much on the ideas of individuals, even if its general lines are determined by economic and social conditions, religious history should be particularly easy to rewrite in this way. So it is not unprofitable to consider what would have happened if , instead of being murdered in his tent, Aurelian had reigned for as many years as Constantine, and founded a dynasty devoted to the worship of the Unconquered Sun.

We must allow for modifications of Mithraism similar to those which occurred in primitive Christianity, and try to put ourselves in the place of a liberal Churchman of today - worried, but not overwhelmed , by the advance of science, and eager to make the best of both worlds.

Here is what, but for the dagger of Mucapor, we might today be reading, or hearing on the radio:

Mithraism and its Critics

Twenty, nay even ten, years ago the intellectual basis of our faith seemed insecure to many honest thinkers. Old Testament critics had carried with them a large body of opinion, even among the clergy, in favour of the theory that the books usually attributed to Zoroaster contained many later interpolations. And the evidence that even the New Testament writings had not always come down to us in their completely written form had shaken the faith of many. But these things did not touch the core of our religion. The writings of Drews in Germany and Robertson in England, which actually cast doubt upon the historicity of Mithras, were a more serious matter. Fortunately this preposterous theory has been completely discredited by such works as the Bishop of Cambridge's Mithras the Man , just as the recent excavations in Persia have done so much to verify the miraculous element in Zoroaster's writings.

But it was the advance of science, rather than the criticism of Scripture, which had done most to shake the faith of those who did not realize that there can be no contradiction between science and religion.

For every advance of science has served to confirm the truths handed down to us by our Lord and his Apostles. To take a well-known example, every child asks its mother: 'Why does the Sun let the clouds hide His Face?', and one of the dualistic heresies of the primitive Church was, of course, based on the idea that the clouds represented an evil power hostile to the Sun. Thanks to science, we know today that the Sun Himself draws them up from the ocean by His own power.

The Church of England is based on science, as embodied in the Copernican Reformation. The discovery that the Sun is the centre of our system gives us a far truer idea of His greatness than the Ptolemaic system still taught by the Roman Church. And the Anglican Church has always welcomed the advance of science, provided that it was true science and not idle speculation

Rationalists (so-called) have regarded the execution of Bruno as as a blot on our Church, and have claimed him as a martyr of science because he regarded the fixed stars as suns. They forget that Bruno conceived these bodies as each surrounded by planets like the earth - a doctrine clearly destructive of true religion. His execution was not , of course, in keeping with modern views; however, he was a martyr not of science but of error.

Now, when the sizes of the fixed stars were ascertained and their spectra observed, it became clear that in certain respects they did resemble the Sun. For many this seemed the beginning of the end. The champions of religion were not always discreet. We must admit that in Norman Lockyer's famous encounter with the Professor of Dogmatic Heliology at the British Association's meeting at Oxford the Professor had the worst of it.

Yet main of faith went on in the quiet certainty that with the further progress of knowledge the wise old heliologians would be vindicated. And it was so. We already know that the vast majority of these so-called suns are utterly unfitted to be luminaries surrounded by planets with living, let alone rational, inhabitants. Some are too hot, others too cold. Many are double, many more are variable.

A hundred years of careful search has not produced a tittle of evidence that any planetary system save our own exists. The beautiful researches of Sir Jacob Janes, popularised in The Intelligible Universe , have shown that another such system could have come into being only by a miracle. And a Rationalism which can defend itself only by postulating miracles is not a very redoubtable foe.

It may very well be that many of the fixed stars resemble the Sun as a statue, or even a corpse, resembles a man . But they are not the fathers of living systems, and they are not themselves alive. It is one of the most elementary facts of religious experience that the Sun is full of an intense life, and no one who opens his eyes without bias on a bright summer's day can well escape awareness of it. No fact of religion has been more abundantly confirmed by science than that the Sun is 'the Lord and Giver of Life'. Not only has a study of photosynthesis shown that the energy for the lives of plants and animals is all derived form the Sun but opinion is becoming stronger and stronger that life on our earth originated in organic matter formed by solar radiation in the primitive atmosphere. Finally, every year makes it more probable that our whole earth is only a detached fragment of His body. Zoroaster has been fully vindicated.

The fantastic cosmogony of Laplace, according to which the Sun and His planets were evolved out of a spinning nebula, has gone the way of other such follies. A little elementary philosophy would have shown its deluded adherents that order cannot arise out of chaos. But during the late nineteenth century certain oriental religions became temporarily fashionable in 'advanced' circles. Hinduism, disguised as Theosophy, obtained a certain hold.

Still more fantastic was the attempt to bring Christianity into Europe. This religion had a certain vogue among the poorer classes of the Roman Empire in the first centuries of our era, but vanished, with other dark things, before the rising Sun of Mithraism. Its extraordinary doctrine that the material world had an immaterial creator, who yet begot a material son, could have appealed only to lovers of paradox, and its moral consequences are sufficiently demonstrated by the fact that it is the official religion of Abyssinia, the only State where not merely slavery but slave-raiding is still in vogue.

True religion can be built only on the impregnable rock of Mithraism, and we need not be surprised that one of the most daring of recent attacks on the divinity of the Sun is to be found, thinly veiled under a cloud of mathematical formulae in The Internal Constitution of the Stars , by the well-known idealist Professor Addington. Throughout the tacit assumption, based on a probably fortuitous numerical agreement, is made that the Sun is only a star. And a star, according to this author, is a mere ball of gas, a chaos of atoms and electrons flying at random.

Not for the first time the learning of Oxford has overthrown the speculation of Cambridge. There are many who feel that any attempt to probe the internal constitution of the Sun, even in a spirit of the deepest reverence, has a flavour of blasphemy. We cannot share this view. Religion, we repeat, has nothing to fear from science. So firmly is this principle established by history that we can afford to neglect pronouncements contrary to religion, made in the name of science, in the certainty that further research will disprove them. Professor Mill of Oxford re-examined Addington's assumption. The Sun, it now seems, has a gaseous envelope, but a core of incredible density, in which the matter is organised in a manner to which our earthly experience furnishes no analogy.

Here, and not in the solar atmosphere, we find the material conditions for a Divine Life; and here, by processes beyond the reach of human understanding, is generated the energy which we later see as Light.

If the Sun's atmosphere is gaseous, His core is eminently solid and material. And the same is true of Light. The hideous hypothesis of Young and Fresnel reduced the Holy Light Itself to vibrations in an hypothetical ether. No more than the particle theory of Newton could it be reconciled with the truths of religion. After being bandied about for a century by scientific dogmatists the wave theory is now being withdrawn with as little noise as possible.

Light has properties like those of waves, others like those of particles; and matter also has properties of both kinds. By faith, we have accepted the doctrine that the Sun, Mithras, and the Holy Light are one. In every century there have been scoffers who asked how this was possible. In the nineteenth century, with the progress of astronomy and physics, the number of the scoffers increased. 'The Sun,' they said, ' consists of atoms, His Light of vibrations - how can they be one?' Today, if still only incompletely, we see how.

Just as the Solar Life is not, and could not be, divorced from matter, human life in inseparably bound up with matter of a different kind. Heretical sects have continually toyed with the idea of an immaterial spirit, and during the nineteenth century several eminent scientists had adopted this theory. Their numbers are diminishing, and Sir Oliphant Lodge, who , till recently at any rate, was a champion of the undulatory theory of Light, is perhaps their last survivor. It cannot be too strongly emphasised that our creeds teach the resurrection of the body by the same Solar power which causes the germination of seeds in the spring. They contain no reference to an immaterial soul.

Such is the position today. There is not one of the central doctrines of our faith that has not been completely confirmed by science. It is a question whether we should not give this fact a practical application. A constant flood of anti-religious teaching is poured out upon our youth in the name of science. Has not the time come when this poisonous propaganda should be taken in hand? We do not wish to discourage honest investigation, even of the most basal doctrines of our religion. We must protest, however, when the half-baked theories of the lecture room are given to the world as firmly established truths.

The theory that the resemblance between the Sun and the stars is more than superficial is hinted at in many school text-books. The time is come when such books should be withdrawn. Thank the Sun, ours is still at bottom a Mithraistic country, and public opinion is ripe for recognition that , in its own interests, science should be protected against the dissemination of such errors in its name.


And so on. We may be quite sure that this sort of stuff would find a very wide audience, in spite of the fact that, according to all the evidence, the Sun is a rather ordinary star, with no more claim to be alive than has a kettle.

Once can always find certain details of a religious myth or doctrine which are supported by contemporary discovery. The flood seems to have been a historical event. It is true that it did not drown everyone in Mesopotamia, let alone all mankind, except one family. But any widespread flood was good enough for Christian apologists. The walls of Jericho had fallen down (at least in some places). So they must have been brought down by Joshua's ram's horn band.

Our present astronomical equations do not work for more than about 2,000 million years back. So the universe must have been created at about that date. We cannot yet predict rainstorms as accurately as eclipses. So it is legitimate to pray for rain, though superstitious to hang the crockery when the sun is eclipsed. But all these amusing details are negligible compared with the solid fact that centuries of science have produced no evidence for Divine intervention in the order of nature, or the existence of a soul detachable from the human body.

Religion is still parasitic in the interstices of our knowledge which have not yet been filled. Like bed-bugs in the cracks of walls and furniture, miracles lurk in the lacunae of science. The scientist plasters up these cracks in our knowledge; the more militant Rationalist swats the bugs in the open. Both have their proper sphere, and they should realize that they are allies.

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