Religion And Health Part 1

Religion And Health.

by James J. Walsh.


Physicians are agreed that there is no entirely satisfactory definition for health. We all know quite well what we mean when we use the word, but it does not admit of such exact limitations as would make a scientific formulation of its meaning. Religion is another of the words which, in spite of its common use, is extremely difficult to define exactly, and it has often been said that we have no definition that will satisfy all those who profess religion and certainly not all those who have made a study of it from the standpoint of the science of theology. As is true of health, each of us knows pretty thoroughly what we mean when we use the word, though our definitely formulated signification for it might not meet with the approval of others, especially of those who are exacting in their requirements. With the two principal words in the title incapable of exact definition, it might seem that the subject matter of this book would be rather vague at best and unpromising in practical significance. But all this indefiniteness is in theory. There are no two words in the language that are more used than health and religion, none that are less vague in practice and no two subjects have a wider appeal or a more paramount interest. The linking them together for discussion in common because of their mutual influence will serve to {2} throw light on both of them and undoubtedly help toward a better understanding of each.

Ordinarily the most satisfactory definition of a word can be obtained from its etymology. Unfortunately in the matter of religion there is a very old-time division of opinion as to the derivation of the word which makes etymology of less definite significance than usual. Cicero suggested that _religio_ came from _relegere_, to go through or over again in reading, speech or thought, as prayers and religious observances generally are repeated. On the other hand St. Augustine and Lactantius insisted on deriving _religio_ from the Latin verb _religare_, which means to bind again, to bind back, to bind fast. The word obligation has an analogous origin and illustrates the meaning of religion as if its form from etymology should have been religation.

It is this latter derivation that has been most commonly accepted in the modern time. A man may recognize the existence of God and yet not feel any particular obligations toward Him, but if he binds himself anew to the deity whom he recognizes, by trying to make his life accord with the divine will as he views it, then he practices religion. James Martineau said, "By religion I understand the belief and worship of Supreme Mind and Will, directing the universe and holding moral relations with human life."

What will occupy us in this book is the effect of this profound feeling and sense of obligation toward a higher power on health, that is, on that wholeness of body and mind which constitutes a normal condition for human beings.

There are many more relations between the two words than would at first be suspected or that most people {3} might think possible. The old high German word _haelu_ or _haelo_, from which our word health is derived, meant also salvation. The original root _hal_ means haleness or wholeness and also refers to healing, and curiously enough the word holiness is derived from the same root. Holiness has now come to refer to perfection, or at least normality of soul, while health refers to normality of body. Our word health is related more directly to whole than it is to heal, in spite of the feeling there might be because of the spelling that the latter word must represent its immediate origin.

Holiness of soul exactly corresponds in etymology with wholeness of body.

Cardinal Newman would, I suppose, be an authority on the subject of religion as satisfying for most people as could be found. In his "Grammar of Assent", which he wrote in order to define as exactly as might be possible just how men came to admit certain propositions with special reference to the acceptance of religion, he gave a definition of what he meant by the word in as simple words as it is possible to use, perhaps, to express so large a subject. He said: "By religion I mean the knowledge of God, of His Will, and of our duties toward Him."

Matthew Arnold, who represents among English-speaking peoples almost the opposite pole of thought to Cardinal Newman, in what concerns religion, suggested in "Literature and Dogma" that "Religion, if we follow the intention of human thought and human language in the use of the word, is ethics heightened, enkindled, lit up by feeling; the passage from morality to religion is made when to morality is applied emotion." Both of these men, in spite of their distance apart, insist on duty as the essence of religion. Matthew Arnold calls it ethics and says nothing as to the foundation of it; the great English {4} Cardinal speaks very simply of our duties toward God. Newman says nothing of the emotions but appeals only to the reason, while, curiously enough, the rationalizer in religion emphasizes the emotions.

Between these two definitions there is a world of difference that we shall not attempt to bridge, for we want to treat of the relations and above all the interaction of religion and health in the widest sense of these terms. The "Century Dictionary" definition more nearly resembles that of Cardinal Newman than Matthew Arnold's formula, but it generalizes in a way that would describe the practice of religion for a greater number of people and especially for those who still believe that there are more gods than one. It runs: "Recognition of and allegiance in manner of life to a superhuman power or superhuman powers, to whom allegiance and service are regarded as justly due."

Even this definition is not too broad for the subject matter of this book, for I am one of those who believe that there is a blessing on every sincere effort of worship of the Higher Power, no matter how groping it may be. Above all, every regulation of life with reference to a power above us felt to have a Providence over the world in which we live has an almost inevitable reaction on health and will lead to better things. The sincere pursuit of good conduct as an end in life under a Providence that is recognized will almost necessarily lead to better knowledge of our relations to the higher powers, and also of our relations to ourselves and the world around us.

With these preliminaries we are ready to consider religion and health and their mutual influence, but the inevitable question that suggests itself is, "Is religion a living force in our time? Has not science given it its {5} death blow? While it walks the earth as yet, is it not only as the ghost of an outworn phase of human interest? Is it any more than merely a superstition in the sense once suggested as the etymology of this word by James Russell Lowell as if derived from _superstes_, a survivor, representing, as all superstitions do, a survival from a previous state of thinking, the reasons for which have disappeared, though the mental inertia of human beings still keeps them in vogue?" A good many people in our time, including not a few of those who are rather prone to consider themselves above the rest of the world, have not hesitated to express the view that it is only old fogies and especially those ignorant of modern science who continue to think that religion can still be taken seriously. Some few of them have the best of good will in the world and appreciate how much of benefit was derived from religious belief, benefit which they confess did good both for the mind and the body of man; and they are even ready to express sorrow that it has outlived its usefulness, but they feel that they must insist that religion is now only the wraith of its former self, a misty congeries of old-fashioned beliefs which the ignorant alone reverence, accepting it very much as they do ghost stories in general.

President Schurman of Cornell in an address before the Liberal Club of Buffalo thirty years ago, [Footnote 1] reminded us that there are a number of people who are always ready to proclaim the end of religion and to weep for it. Religion continues to be as living a force and as lively as ever in spite of their proclamations, and this has been true generation after generation practically since the beginning of Christianity. President Schurman said:

{6} "Every now and then we hear the requiem of religion chanted alike by the spirits who mock and by the pious souls who have 'no language but a cry.' I suppose we shall always have professional mourners.

But it is greatly to be desired that their services should not be prematurely given. If there is anything in the world that is alive and active, it is just this religious spirit, for whose demise certain mourners go about the streets. The body of religion changes, the spirit and the life abide forever. To the assertion that religion is defunct, I reply by pointing to the intense interest which men to-day everywhere feel in religion. It was recently stated by a Massachusetts Judge--Burke observed truly that we Americans like to appeal to the law--that there is nothing in the world perennially interesting but religion. The ground of this dictum is to be found in the constitution of humanity; for the human soul which the things of sense fail to satisfy can attain its true home and its complete self-realization only in conscious communion with the Spirit behind the veil."

[Footnote 1: "Agnosticism," Scribners, New York, 1895. ]

The recent death of Mrs. Humphry Ward recalled the experience with regard to her book "Robert Elsmere." In a certain narrow circle of intellectuals it was supposed that this novel represented a veritable death blow to a series of compromises which had permitted people familiar with modern progress and science, and especially with the higher criticism, to continue to practice their religion in peace in spite of the fact that belief had long since departed. How amusing it is now and indeed how almost incomprehensible to learn that Mrs.

Humphry Ward's husband, a well-known English critic, suggested shortly after its publication that her novel had {7} "shaken the very pillars of Christianity." It is surprising indeed how often the foundations of religion are supposed to have been completely undermined, and yet the edifice itself continues to stand and to be the shelter for the vast majority of mankind from the buffetings of a world that without it would be almost shelterless for them and a place of trial too hard to bear.

Men are incurably religious, and just as no tribe has been found, however low in the scale of savagery, which has not formulated for itself some system of worship of a higher power and definite feelings of dependence on it, so even those whose minds under the influence of certain phases of intellectual development lead them away from formal religion find deep in their hearts the belief and appreciation of their relations to a power that makes for good, even though it may be difficult to understand the mystery of it. Long ago the Scriptural expression was formulated that only the fool who thinketh not in his heart says there is no God. Due acknowledgment of the thought in practice, however imperfect it may be, is religion.

Religion has been with us for all the period that we know anything about man, for the very cave man buried his dead with manifest confidence in a hereafter, and there seems no doubt that it will be with us until this stage of mundane affairs has passed. It affects the body as well as the mind, as indeed do all the great modes of thought, and it deserves to be cultivated, not only for its effect on the soul but also on the mind and heart and the bodily powers. There is no doubt at all that it means very much, and there is only the question of facing its significance for the whole man candidly and straightforwardly.




There is no doubt that man's quite instinctive attitude toward the mystery which surrounds him, out of which he came and into which he goes, has always so influenced his attitude of mind toward his body and its processes as to affect them deeply. The medicine man with his appeal to the religious as well as the superstitious feelings of man always had a potent influence over the most primitive of mankind, but culture has not obliterated this source of special reaction in men.

Even now, for the great majority of men it still remains true that no matter how vague their religious instinct may be, it continues to affect, to a notable extent, their physiological and psychological functions. An eclipse of the religious instinct is at the basis of the increase in suicide and also undoubtedly of insanity in our day. The lack of an abiding faith in Providence is the source of many dreads and worries that affect health. Every physician is sure to know of highly educated patients whose ills reflect their mental relation to the mystery of life and whose symptoms take on or lose significance, according to their religious feelings.

The question that in our time, however, is coming insistently into a great many minds is, Can we, as intelligent human beings, reasonably in touch with man's recent progress in science, be fair with ourselves and still continue {9} to believe in the great religious truths that affected our ancestors so deeply? While we may realize all the depth of the mystery in the midst of which we are, can we, with our little minds, hope to fathom any of it? This is the questioning feeling that will not down for a certain number of those who have had educational advantages. Must we not just confess our inability to, know anything definite in reality with regard to it, and feel that those who have thought that they held the key of the mystery were deluding themselves or allowing themselves to be caught by pseudo-knowledge, an inheritance from unthinking generations, instead of realities?

Has not the modern advance in science made it very clear to us that all we can hope to say of man's origin and man's destiny is that we do not know just what all this mystery that surrounds us is about? Will not this very rational attitude of mind preclude at least the educated intelligent people of our generation from having their health affected in any way by their religion? Above all, if religion is to influence health, must there not be some regular practice of it, and have not the scientists of the last generation made it quite clear that this is out of the question in any sincere and serious way for any one who knows enough of science and appreciates the present position of our knowledge of the facts of the relationship of man to the universe?

For a large and growing number of people, as the result of the prevalence of this impression, the practice of religion seems to be an interesting but entirely worn-out relic of an older generation when folk were more easily satisfied with regard to such things than we are in our enlightened scientific era. Religion is surely not something that our contemporaries, with their broader {10} outlook on the meaning of life, can be brought to conform to very readily. The question "Can We Still Believe?" would seem then to have for answer in our time at best, "Speculatively, perhaps yes! but practically, no!"

We may still feel the religious instinct, but we can scarcely be expected to acknowledge religious obligations in any such strictness as would demand in our already overstrenuous daily life with its many duties the devotion of time to religious exercises. We surely cannot be expected to assume any additional obligations or rebind ourselves to a divinity who seems to be getting farther away from us.

Almost needless to say, if all this be true, then religion can have, in our time, only a very slight and quite negligible influence on health. Men may be incurably religious in the mass, as yet, but this instinct is manifestly passing, for the educated at least, and for sensible people is now without any significance for physical processes, though it may at times even yet affect psychological states.

There is only one fair and practical way to reply to this question "Can We Still Believe?" especially for those who think that modern science has obscured the answer, and that is to turn to the lives of the men who made our modern science and see how they answered it in their definite relations to religion. The surprise is to find that while so many people, and not a few of them professors in colleges and even universities, are of the very often expressed opinion that science makes men irreligious or at least unreligious, that is not true at all of our greatest scientists. Most of the men who have done the great work of modern science have been deeply religious, and a great many of them have practiced their {11} religion very faithfully.

It is true that not a few of the lesser lights in science have been carried away by the impression that science was just about to explain everything, and there was no longer any need of a creator or creation or of Providence, but that is only because of their own limitations.

Francis Bacon, himself a distinguished thinker in science, declared some three hundred years ago that his own feeling was that a little philosophy takes men away from God, but a sufficiency of philosophy brings them back. His opinion has often been reached by our deepest thinkers in the modern time, and it is just as true for natural philosophy as it was for the metaphysical philosophy of the older time, for Bacon's aphorism had been more than once anticipated in the early days of Christianity, notably by St. Augustine, and it would not be hard to find quotations from Greek thinkers along the same line.

The Scriptures said very emphatically, "Only the fool who thinketh not in his heart says there is no God."

While young scientists then are so prone to feel that science and religion are in opposition, and a certain number of scientific workers never seem to outgrow their youthfulness in this regard, it must not be forgotten that the greatest scientists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have practically all been firm believers in religion. Lord Kelvin, at the beginning of the twentieth century, at the moment when he was looked up to by all the world as the greatest of living physical scientists, did not hesitate to say that "science demonstrates the existence of a Creator." As president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science he declared: "But strong, overpowering proofs of intelligent and benevolent design lie all around us; and if ever {12} perplexities, whether metaphysical or scientific occur, they turn us away with irresistible force, showing to us, through nature, the influence of free will, and teaching us that all living beings depend on one ever-acting Creator and Ruler."

Once when particularly disgusted with the materialistic views of those who, while denying the existence of the Creator, attributed the wonders of nature, animate and inanimate, to the potency of a fortuitous concourse of atoms, Lord Kelvin wrote to Liebig, the great chemist, asking him if a leaf or a flower could be formed or even made to grow by chemical forces, and received the emphatic reply, "I would more readily believe that a book on chemistry or on botany could grow out of dead matter by chemical processes."

Expressions similar to those of Lord Kelvin and Liebig are commonplaces in the history of science. Sir Humphry Davy declared, "The true chemist sees God in all the manifold forms of the external world." Linnaeus, to whom the modern world confesses that it owes so much in the organization of botanical science, once exclaimed in what has well been called a spirit of rapture:

"I have traced God's footprints in the works of His creation; and in all of them, even in the least, and in those that border on nothingness, what power, what wisdom, what ineffable perfection!"

It would be very easy to make a long list of extremely great scientists who were firm believers. Clerk Maxwell once said to a friend, "I have read up many queer religions; there is nothing like the old one after all; and I have looked into most philosophical systems, and I have seen that none will work without a God." Pasteur declared in his address before the French Academy, when {13} admitted as a member, "Blessed is the man who has an ideal of the virtues of the Gospel and obeys it." He had once said, impatient at the pretensions of pseudo-scientists: "Posterity will one day laugh at the sublime foolishness of the modern materialistic philosophy. The more I study nature, the more I stand amazed at the work of the Creator. I pray while I am engaged at my work in the laboratory."

Kepler, the great astronomer to whom we owe so many significant basic discoveries, once said:

"The day is near at hand when one shall know the truth in the book of nature as in the Holy Scriptures, and when one shall rejoice in the harmony of both revelations."

Sir Isaac Newton, whose modesty was equaled only by the magnitude of his discoveries, was so impressed with his own littleness in the contemplation of the wonderful works of God that he declared, a short time before his death, "I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, while the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me."

Dumas, the great French chemist, for many years the secretary of the French Academy of Sciences, once suggested the great difference there is in the matter of religious belief between the original worker in science and those who know their science only at second-hand. Those who have acquired their knowledge of science easily have no idea of the difficulties which the original investigator had to encounter and how deep are the mysteries which he knows lie all around him. The second-hand scientist becomes conceited over his {14} knowledge, but the original investigator becomes humble. Dumas said:

"People who only exploit the discoveries of others, and who never make any themselves, greatly exaggerate their importance, because they have never run against the mysteries of science which have checked real savants. Hence their irreligion and their infatuation.

It is quite different with people who have made discoveries themselves. They know by experience how limited their field is, and they find themselves at every step arrested by the incomprehensible.

Hence their religion and their modesty. Faith and respect for mysteries is easy for them. The more progress they make in science, the more they are confounded by the infinite."

Professor P. G. Tait, professor of natural philosophy at Edinburgh University for the last forty years of the nineteenth century, and who was the co-author with Lord Kelvin of Thomson's and Tait's "Natural Philosophy" (the well-known T+T) summed up the question of the supposed conflict of religion and science rather strikingly and in a way that makes it easy to comprehend many modern misunderstandings. He said:

"The assumed incompatibility of Religion and Science has been so often confidently asserted in recent times that it has come to be taken for granted by writers of leading articles, etc., and it is, of course, perpetually thrust by them broadcast before their too trusting readers.

"But the whole thing is a mistake, and a mistake so grave that no true scientific man (unless indeed he be literally a specialist--such as a pure mathematician, or a mycologist or entomologist) runs, in Britain at least, the smallest risk of making it.

"When we ask of any competent authority who are the {15} 'advanced', the best, and the ablest scientific thinkers of the immediate past (in Britain), we cannot but receive for answer such names as Brewster, Faraday, Forbes, Graham, Rowan Hamilton, Herschel, and Talbot. This must be the case unless we use the word 'science' in a perverted sense. Which of these great men gave up the idea that Nature evidences a Designing Mind?"

Lord Rayleigh, the physicist and mathematician, professor of experimental physics at Cambridge and then Tyndall's successor as professor of natural philosophy at the Royal Institution, who, after having been secretary of the Royal Society for some ten years, was elected to what has been called the highest official position in the scientific world--the presidency of the Royal Society--wrote in answer to a question: [Footnote 2] "I am not able to write you at length, but I may say that in my opinion true Science and true Religion neither are nor could be opposed.

"A large number of 'leading scientists' are not irreligious or anti-Christian. Witness: Faraday, Maxwell, Stokes, Kelvin, and a large number of others less distinguished."

Chapter end

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