McCabe and the Land of Bunk
Joseph McCabe (1867-1955), a Roman Catholic monk who abandoned his religious beliefs around 1895, was a prolific author, writing over two hundred books on science, history, biography, and religion. Historians of science and religion have largely ignored McCabe, and it is unclear why. But if historians are looking for the intellectual forebears of the so-called “New Atheism,” McCabe serves a much better candidate than either John William Draper and Andrew Dickson White.
McCabe published mostly with Watts & Company in London, but he also found a home in Kansas, with Haldeman-Julius Publishing Company. Established by Emmanuel Haldeman-Julius, an atheist, socialist, and newspaper publisher, he began publishing a five-cent, papered-covered “Little Blue Books” series in 1919. Perhaps one of the most popular titles in the series was McCabe’s The Conflict Between Science and Religion (1927).
McCabe begins with an arresting vision of the future. “Somewhere about the year 2100 a work will be written,” he says, “on the entire history of religion.” This will necessarily be a history of its “dissolution.” This future historian will give an account of the priesthood and the fabrication of sacred books. He will recognize, moreover, that the “finer emotions of the new age were outraged by some of the most important doctrines of what were called the higher religions.” More importantly, this future historian will have to dedicate a large section to “The Conflict Between Religion and Science.” In this section, McCabe explains, this future historian will draw from sources mostly printed from 1850 to 1950. He will be amused, says McCabe, by distinguished men of science and theologians both protesting that there is no conflict:
“he will read the priests protesting that there is no conflict between true science and religion, and the professors plaintively chanting that there is no conflict between science and true religion. They suspend their fighting occasionally to recover their breath and affirm that they are not fighting” (6-7).
McCabe lays out his thesis thus: “Science has, ever since its birth, been in conflict with religion.” Science first emerged, he writes, in the Greek colonies on the coast of Asia Minor. They perceived at once that tradition was entirely wrong, and knowledge must be acquired by reason and senses. The liberty and spirit of inquiry in these colonies ushered in the decay of religion. But their religious neighbours were quick to “trim their sails.” The work of science was prohibited, until resumed in Alexandria a few centuries later. But the new religion of Christianity gained political power at the time, and “murdered the last brilliant representative of Greek thought, Hypatia, and completely extinguished scientific research.” Indeed, Christianity was the “most deadly opponent” of scientific progress.
During Christendom, science was extinct. Science reemerged in the Arab world, but “not on account of its Mohammedan religion, but very clearly in spite of it.” McCabe argued that a new skepticism was rising, and with it the revival of science. Wandering scholars encountered this renaissance, and brought back the “new” learning to England and France. But there was nothing new here, according to McCabe. “From [Roger] Bacon to Copernicus,” he writes, “they all merely repeated what Greeks or Moors had told them, and that, the moment they opened their mouths, the modern conflict between science and religion began.” Imprisoned, extinguished, hounded, and burned, these followers of Greek science paid a hefty price.
But when Christendom found itself weakened by the “great schism,” men of science finally gained more liberty. The deists attacked the crudities and inconsistencies of the Old Testament, allowing scientific men to reconstruct the “real history of the earth and of man.”
The conflict rages to this day, says McCabe. There is no disputing the fact that “a mighty conflict of science and religion” occurred in the nineteenth century. American fundamentalists, McCabe argues, still maintain it.
Before moving forward, McCabe wants to address a couple of “fallacious or untruthful statements about this historical conflict.” First is the common statement that “there never was a conflict between religion and science” (11). McCabe directly targets Andrew Dickson White’s claim that the conflict was between theology, and not religion. “To talk of a few combative theologians sparring with a few combative scientists about these matters is utter historical untruth.” To our ancestors, theology was religion, according to McCabe.
Another fallacy, says McCabe, is to dismiss past conflicts because our ancestors simply did not know true “religion.” “Progressive religion,” McCabe declares, “is the veriest piece of bunk that Modernism ever invented” (12). By “modernism” McCabe means those liberal theologians who reinterpreted traditional religious beliefs. But to reject central doctrines of Christianity, such as the fall of man, is to maintain that the very “foundation of Christianity is an error.” To reject such doctrines, according to McCabe, is to reject the whole of Christianity.
Even the most “extreme modernist” position, one that believes in a religion that changes and grows, is wrong. In the end, McCabe claims that the nineteenth-century conflict “left a corrosive acid in what remains of religion.”
But what about today? In 1927, when this little pamphelt was published, does the conflict persist? According to McCabe, absolutely. He thinks its a terrible mistake that some American scientists have made a futile and inglorious attempt at reconciling “the dervishes by protesting that science is not inconsistent with religion” (15). He attacks E. Ray Lankester, Henry F. Osborne, Mihajlo I. Pupin, Robert A. Millikan, William B. Riley, Gary N. Calkins, and others for taking up this conciliatory approach. These attempts, according to McCabe, demonstrates a lack of understanding the true nature of religion. Science, according to McCabe, is unified. But religion has never been unified. Thus, if one seeks the reconciliation of science and religion, “we shall have to take three hundred different collections of religious beliefs and apply science to them” (19). But if we take a few leading types of religion and a few common doctrines, it will suffice to demonstrate that science is blatantly in conflict with them.
In this Little Blue Book, McCabe wants to concentrate on fundamentalist and modernist religious beliefs. Indeed, even the “ultra-Modernist” position is in conflict with the teachings of science.
McCabe dispenses with fundamentalists rather quickly, showing that they have all rejected evolution, that Genesis is irreconcilable with science, and that the “science” of comparative religion has shown that Christianity is a pagan accumulation of beliefs. The fundamentalist, like the Roman Catholic, according to McCabe, is “in flat and flagrant conflict with science.”
But like the fundamentalists, McCabe says, he has nothing but contempt for Christians who offer “new interpretations on the old doctrines” (23). He then offers a mock reinterpretation of the Apostles’ Creed based on the modernist position:
I believe in God—a God who is one with Nature,
The Father Almighty—but not all-powerful,
Creator of Heaven and Earth—which were not created, but are eternal.
And in Jesus Christ, His only son, our Lord—who is, however, a son of God only in the same sense as we, but more so,
Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost—as an artist conceives his work, not miraculously,
Born of the Virgin Mary—who was not a virgin
Suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried—not to atone for the sins of the world.
He descended into hell—which does not exist;
The third day he rose again from the dead—or his soul made a new body out of ether.
He ascended into heaven—or made a final phantasmal appearance,
Sittteth on the right hand [which doesn’t exist] of God the Father Almighty [who is not Almighty]—though there is no heaven to sit in.
From thence he shall come to judge the living and the dead—that is to say, he will persuade them to judge themselves.
I believe in the Holy Ghost—which is a figure of speech,
The Holy Catholic Church—certainly not the Roman, and the Anglo-Catholic only as long as it imposes no belief on me,
The communion of saints—by telepathy,
The forgiveness of sins—each man forgiving himself,
The resurrection of the body—which certainly won’t rise again,
And life everlasting—which may not last forever: we don’t know.
The modernist, according to McCabe, “are Christians who believe that Paul and the Christian Church have been wrong in nearly everything until science began to enlighten the world” (24).
In the following chapters, McCabe discusses the “twilight of the gods,” “science and the soul,” “the conflict about morals,” and concludes with a history of “religion as a phenomenon.” Throughout these chapters McCabe’s target is not the fundamentalism, but the modernism, the liberal Christian reinterpretation of Christianity. “The land which lies between straight Fundamentalism and straight Modernism,” he writes, “is the Land of Bunk.”
History has proven, according to McCabe, “fatal to the essential message of the Bible and the Christian religion.” Civilization slowly emerged from savages. The conflict between Christianity and evolution has never been the real issue. “The fundamental and essential Christian doctrine is not based upon the creation, but up the fall of man, upon a certain version of man’s early history” (27). The whole Christian message, says McCabe, hinges on man in Eden. But historical and comparative religious studies have shown that the fall was based on Babylonian legends; moreover, such views of primeval man are also completely discredited by what science tells us. A divine redeemer is thus “superfluous.”
But the modernist protests, says McCabe, that these “skirmishes” between science and religion are “between men who know very little about science and men who know very little about religion.” McCabe of course thinks this is nonsense. McCabe takes this quote from Nobel prize winning physicist Millikan, who believed in some “Power unknown to us,” perhaps taken from the agnostic doctrine of the Unknown by Hebert Spencer. But according to McCabe, theologians have taken this route for decades: “saying that science cannot (today) explain something, so God must (until tomorrow)” (33). McCabe strongly condemns those “providential evolutionists,” those “light-headed chanticleers of the pulpit who crowed that evolution was ‘a more splendid revelation than ever of God’s power'” (36-37).
In discussing the immortality of the soul, McCabe claims that we “see at once the utter insincerity and frivolity of the claim that there is no conflict between science and religion” (39). Again, his attack is directed less at fundamentalists and more at modernists, who maintain a “tincture of religious belief.” While they have abandoned Genesis and Paul’s epistles, they mistakenly speak of “religion and science as independent truths, if not separate and equal revelations of the glory of God” (40). Central to religious belief, according McCabe, is the assumption that mind is not a function of the body, and that the human mind, being spiritual and immortal, is essentially distinct in its nature from the mind of animals. But cerebral physiology, psychology, and evolution are explicitly hostile to this fundamental religious belief (49). Those who claim there is no conflict here, according to McCabe, “must be totally ignorant.”
Turning to the conflict about morals, McCabe writes that “the semi-Fundamentalists or semi-Modernists,” are those educated Christians who, while accepting evolution, still “cling” to some reinterpretation of the fall of man and the atonement, and thus continue to oppose the teaching of science (50).
The Christian rationalist, the Unitarian or such, only make up a fraction of the whole of Christendom. But even these, according to McCabe, are still in conflict with science. Those Christian rationalists who have succumbed to scientific ways of thought have divested God of all personality, reducing traditional conceptions to abstractions of Power, Something, World-Energy, Cosmic Force, Soul of the Universe, Vital Principle, Urge, Creative Principle, Absolute, and so on.
But according to McCabe, once we understand the nature of the universe, what point is there going beyond it? Clearly, then, many continue to feel some “mystery of existence,” and thus are compelled to go beyond it. But this is wish fulfilment, says McCabe. The “highbrow religionists,” Emerson, Carlyle, Arnold, and others, defined religion as “morality touched with emotion” (52). This deracinated humanitarianism is bunk, according to McCabe. In its place he simply asks “Why?” Why must we be strictly honorable, temperate, modest, and chaste? “Half the civilized world,” McCabe writes, “is asking these questions, and it is waste of time to reply in the language of either metaphysics or esthetics” (54).
It is the business of science, according to McCabe, to “explain the meaning of the ethical ideals you want to recommend.” Evolution in particular has explained the origins and development of these ethical ideals.
In concluding his Little Blue Book, McCabe wants to be “quite reasonable with everybody about everything” (57). The modernist attempt to redefine religion so it could never come into conflict with science reminds McCabe of one final way religion most certainly comes into conflict with science. He relates the controversy that erupted after John Tydnall’s 1874 Belfast Address. But like the modernists, Tyndall saved a place for religion, to the “region of poetry and emotion.” But according to McCabe, religion has always been inextricably connected to cosmological theory. Once science entered that domain, religion had no choice but to shirk and relocate itself.
In discussing the phenomenon of religion, McCabe believes that science has demonstrated the evolution of religion, giving us “a scheme of natural development into which all the religions of the world are fitted” (58). Although this “science of religion” was originally founded by “liberal Christians,” McCabe explains, its tendency “seems on every side to provoke a disbelief in religion in any but the most liberal and creedless sense of the word!”
No comparative religious scholar can remain a Christian, McCabe argues. He simple “knows too much.” The evolutionary study of religion, he says, “is fatal to every claim to every claim made on behalf of Christianity: not merely to its claim of inspiration and revelation, but to every claim that there is something unique about its ethic or its doctrines” (59, 61). It is for this reason that McCabe closes his Little Blue Book with the claim that “science is only one of the dissolving agencies” of religion. Philosophy and history are just as fatal, if not more so. Our “higher standards of conduct and emotion” too reject doctrines of “eternal torment and vicarious atonement.” Indeed, every aspect of the “higher life of our our age is hostile to religion.