Paul Carus: the Religion of Science, the Science of Religion

Paul Carus: the Religion of Science, the Science of Religion

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The subject we are discussing this morning is a fundamental issue in the new millennium. Are religion and science compatible, and if so, how does that affect religion and how does it affect science? This subject became the central focus for my grandfather, Paul Carus, who was born in 1852 in a family in which his father, Gustav Carus, was the Superintendent General of the Eastern half of East Prussia. In his youth Paul was expected to follow in his father’s footsteps in some way.

But that was not to happen, and for all practical purposes, father and son could not resolve these issues, and they remained estranged until the bitter end 1.

Although Paul Carus grew up in a traditional Lutheran family, the German Universities he attended during the 1870s had already passed through multiple reform movements from the previous century and they had a profound influence upon him. Already in the late eighteenth century the modern universities of Göttingen and Halle were leading the way to strengthen Wissenschaft , which means “ science”. As McClelland describes the new ideas and ideals about German university teaching at the end of the eighteenth century, “…regarded Wissenschaft as the highest calling of the scholar and as a useful, even integral part of the life of a good university teacher. This view has come down to us today in the form of clichés about ‘teacher-scholars,’ those multifunctional humans who ought to excel in both discovery and the transmission of knowledge. This canon was firmly established in the German universities during the nineteenth century, but its origins stretch back into the late eighteenth century”2.

As a result of these maturing educational reforms and the growing economy, German universities were leading the world in the development of modern scientific thought (or Wissenschaft) by the time Paul Carus attended Greifswald, Strassburg, and Tübingen3. In addition, Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species in 1859, which was incompatible with the Bible and traditional religion in fundamental ways. Thus it is very understandable how Paul Carus could see that scientific methods and scientific truth, including the study and interpretation of the Bible, had to become the new standard for all truth, including religious truth. Accordingly, Paul Carus called his view of the world Monistic, a unitary view of the world, as apposed to Dualism.

Therefore, during his studies he went through great intellectual and emotional conflict because of his strict upbringing in the Lutheran tradition, because of his parent’s expectations, and because of the scientific revolutions going on at that time. As he describes in his paper “Science: A Religious Revelation” before the Parliament of World’s Religions in 1893:

“I have myself suffered from the misapplication of religious conservatism, and I know whereof I speak. I have experienced in my heart, as a faithful believer, all the curses of infidelity and felt the burning flames of damnation.

Our religious mythology is so thoroughly identified with religion itself, that when the former is recognized as erroneous, the latter also will unavoidably collapse. A man is commanded to accept and believe the very letter of our codified dogmas or be lost forever.”

As Editor and Publisher of Open Court from 1887 until 1919 when Paul Carus died, one of his major interests and his focus of time, energy, resources, and publishing were directly related to his belief that religion and science must be compatible or both domains of our lives could be undermined and eviscerated.

There is no way I can adequately cover his ideas and development—after all, he wrote about 25 books, hundreds of articles, and published about 150 books of others on religion and science and related topics on world religions, such as:

  • The Religion of Science
  • God, An Inquiry into the Nature of Man’s Highest Ideal and a Solution of the problem from the Standpoint of Science
  • The Pleroma, an Essay on the Origin of Christianity
  • The History of the Devil and the Ideal of Evil
  • The Gospel of Buddha
  • The Soul of Man

Together with D.T. Suzuki, they translated one of the early editions of The Canon of Reason and Virtue by Lao Tze, and, The Philosophy of Form.

Today, various aspects of this topic are at the center of controversies we see every day in the media, such as the controversies about: evolution, abortion, euthanasia, religious violence, terrorism and holy wars, stem cell research, the lack of moral education in our schools, critiques of the Bible as a guide for behavior, medical science creating all kinds of bio-ethical issues that never existed before, and dozens of others. As Professor Pazameta, an astronomy and physics teacher writes in a recent issue of the Skeptical Inquirer on Science and Religion, “It is my hope that this material (namely, teaching the scientific method more rigorously) will strike a chord with other educators …As I see it, nothing less than the future of our civilization is at stake.”

Striking close to home, a few years ago we had several humorous stories about the devil reprinted from The Devil’s Storybook by Natalie Babbitt in CRICKET magazine, and shortly afterwards we received hundreds of copies of that issue with the devil stories ripped out by subscribers who accused us of being devil worshipers, canceling their subscriptions.

Although Ralph Burhoe, founder of Zygon, the Center for Religion and Science, and founder/editor of the quarterly, Zygon, had a very different education and experience from that of Paul Carus, he was also extremely passionate about the necessity to develop a rapprochement between religion and science. When I had dinner with Ralph about 20 years ago at the Quadrangle Club, he expressed his misfortune that he did not have access to Paul Carus’s work until recently, and he felt this omission caused a lot of unnecessary duplication.

After thinking about the best way to discuss Paul Carus’s life work, I decided to start near the beginning of his career at Open Court when he spoke to the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago, the first time in history when the major religions of the world met face to face. As I mentioned already, the title of his paper was “Science, A Religious Revelation,” and I will quote directly from that paper, which summarizes many of his fundamental beliefs, assumptions, and assertions, and in most cases led to further explanations in articles and books throughout the rest of his life.

My own speculation is that Paul Carus was about 200 years ahead of his time when he gave this speech. After discussing the dangers of abandoning religion, he provides a general introduction to his views, and I quote,

“Religion is indestructible, because it is that innermost conviction of man which regulates his conduct. Religion gives us the bread of life. As long as men cannot live without morality, so long religion will be needful to mankind.

Some people regard this view of religion as too broad; they say religion is the belief in God; and I have no objection to their definition provided we agree concerning the words belief and God. God is to me not what he is according to the old dogmatic view, a supernatural person. God is to me, as he always has been to the mass of mankind, an idea of moral import. God is the authority of the moral ought. Science may come and prove that God can be no person, but it cannot deny that there is a power in this world which under penalty of perdition enforces a certain conduct. To conceive God as a person is a simile, and to think of him as a father is an allegory. The simile is appropriate, and the allegory is beautiful; but we must not forget that parables, although they embody the truth, are not the truth. The fact is, God is not a person like ourselves; he is not a father nor a mother like our progenitors; he is only comparable to a father; but in truth he is much more than that; he is not personal, but superpersonal. He is not a great man, he is God. He is the life of our life, he is the power that sustains the universe, he is the law that permeates all; he is the curse of sin and the blessing of righteousness; he is the unity of being; he is love; he is the possibility of science, and the truth of knowledge: he is light; he is the reality of existence in which we live and move and have our being; he is life and the condition of life, morality. To comprehend all in a word, he is the authority of conduct.

Such is the God of science, and belief in God must not mean that we regard as true whatever the Scriptures or later traditions tell us concerning him.”

Obviously the subject requires further development, which Paul Carus did in his books entitled God, The Soul of Man, and The Philosophy of Form, among others.

Continuing, from his speech to the World’s Parliament of Religions, Paul Carus opens the discussion on the nature of science from the religious point of view,

“Science, i.e., genuine science, is not an undertaking of human frailty. Science is divine; science is a revelation of God. Through science God communicates with us. In science he speaks to us. Science gives us information concerning the truth; and the truth reveals his will.”

“Reason is the divine spark in man’s nature, and science, which is a methodical application of man’s reason, affords us the ultimate criterion of truth. Surrender science and you rob man of his divinity, his self-reliance, his child-relation to God; you make of him the son of the bondswoman and the slave of tradition, to inquire into the truth of which he who allows his judgment to be taken captive has forfeited the right. By surrendering science you degrade man; you cut him off from the only reliable communication with God, and thus change religion into superstition.”

Then as Paul Carus compares the nature of religious truth and scientific truth,

“What is religious truth?

By religious truth we understand all such reliable statements of fact or doctrines, be they perfect or imperfect, as have a direct bearing upon our moral conduct. Statements of fact, the application of which can be formulated in such rules as ‘Thou shalt not lie,’ ‘Thou shalt not steal,’ ‘Thou shalt not envy nor hate,’ are religious.

Scientific truths and moral truths, accordingly, are not separate and distinct spheres. A truth becomes scientific by its form and method of statement, but it is religious by its substance or content. There may be truths which are religious yet lack the characteristics that would render them scientific, and others that are religious and scientific at the same time. But certainly, there is no discrepancy between religious and scientific truth. There are not two kinds of truth, one religious and other scientific. There is no conflict possible between them. The scholastic maxim, that a statement may be perfectly true in religion and false in philosophy and vice versa, is wrong.

The nature of religious truth is the same as that of scientific truth. There is but one truth. There cannot be two truths in conflict with one another. Contradiction is always, in religion not less than in science, a sign that there is somewhere an error. There cannot be in religion any other method of ascertaining the truth than the method found in science. And if we renounce reason and science, we can have no ultimate criterion of truth.

The dignity of man, his sonship, consists in his ability to ascertain, and know, the truth. Reason is that which makes man the image of God, and science is the exercise of the noblest human faculty.”

Paul Carus further develops his ideas about the nature of religious truth, and I quote,

“A religious truth symbolically expressed is called mythology, and he who accepts the mythology of his religion not as a parable filled with meaning but as the truth itself is a pagan. Now we make bold to say that no conflict is possible between genuine science and true religion. What appears as such is a conflict between science and paganism.

Religious parables, if taken in their literal meaning, will somehow always be found irrational. Says an old Roman proverb, Omne simile claudicat, every comparison limps; it is somewhere faulty. Why should religious similes be exceptions?

Let us not forget that our religious preachings and teachings are a mere stammering of the truth. They show us the truth as through a glass, darkly. The traditional expressions of religious aspirations are based more upon the intuitional instinct of the prophets of former ages than upon a rational and scientific insight. The former is good, but it should not exclude the latter. The assuredness of our religious sentiments must not tyrannize over or suppress our scientific abilities.”

Continuing along these lines, Paul Carus talks about the tendencies toward sectarianism, and I quote,

“The dislike of religious men to accept lessons from science is natural and excusable. Whenever a great religious teacher has risen, leaving a deep impression upon the minds of those around him, we find his disciples anxious to preserve inviolate not only his spirit, but even the very words of his doctrines. Such reverence is good, but it must not be carried to the extreme of placing tradition above the authority of truth. Religious zeal must never become sectarian, so as to see no other salvation than in one particular form of religion. The great prophets of mankind, such men as Zarathustra, Confucius, Buddha, Socrates, Moses, and, foremost among them, He who wore the thorny crown and died on the cross, are distinguished by breadth and catholicity.

And to conclude his paper, he says,

“That conception of religion which rejects science is inevitably doomed. It cannot survive and is destined to disappear with the progress of civilization. Nevertheless, religion will not go. Religion will abide. Humanity will never be without religion; for religion is the basis of morals, and man could not exist without morals. Man has become man only through his obedience to the moral law. Every neglect of the moral law lowers him; every moral progress raises him. And who in the face of facts will say that the authority of moral conduct is not a reality in the world, that God in the sense that science understands his nature and being does not exist, and that religion of scientific truth, is error?

Religion will undergo changes, but it can not disappear; while it will free itself of its paganism, it will evolve and grow. Religion may even lose its name, for the old reactionary dogmatists may continue to identify religion with their erroneous conceptions of religions; and they may succeed in impressing this view upon mankind. Yet the substance of religion will nevertheless remain, for it is the soul of all the aspirations of mankind; it is our holiest convictions applied to practical life.

Religion is as indestructible as science; for science is the method of searching for the truth, and religion is the enthusiasm and goodwill to live a life of truth.”

There are a few other important concepts that Paul Carus describes in some of his articles and books hich I would like to comment on, namely: on prayer, on immortality, and on the other world religions.

In his book entitled GOD , he discusses the Lord’s Prayer at length, and I quote,

“The craving for prayer which appears to be ingrained in the human heart seems to demand the existence of a God; but what did the Son of Man, who, in the New Testament record, is said to have been conscious of his Sonship of God, what did he say when his disciples requested him, ‘Lord teach us to pray!’ He taught them a prayer which may be characterized as prayer to wean us from the habit of praying. The Lord’s Prayer is a prayer only in its form; in its substance it is a vow to abandon prayer in the literal sense of the word.”

And skipping some of the details, he concludes,

“Here we have a remarkable coincidence between theism and atheism. Buddhism, commonly regarded as an atheistic religion, rejects prayer as an irreligious practice and replaces prayers by vows. Analyze the Lord’s Prayer, and it consists of self-exhortations, of vows, which serve the educational purpose of a high-minded self-discipline.”

In his book The Soul of Man and The Philosophy of Form , Paul Carus describes the nature of the soul and immortality and life after death, and I quote

“The most important service of memory is the part it plays in building up the soul. Memory creates the conditions which begets the soul and then continues to foster its growth by adding and superadding new mental riches to its capacity. Every sensation leaves a trace of its own, and a new sense-impression of the same kind travels on the same path as its forerunner and revives its memory, which results in a feeling of sameness. Here we have the principle from which we derive the explanation of the soul, for the soul consists of feelings which have become representative of things, conditions, experiences, etc. The soul is a system of sentient symbols. Thus the soul is like a mirror which reflects the universe, and the worth of a soul consists in not only the exactness and faithfulness of this picture but also in the more or less true and proper way of responding in actions.”

As Dr. John Piano pointed out, the interesting thing about these concepts is that they are further developed by some of today’s world leading biologists and neuro scientists such as Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene to explain cultural evolution in which he spawns the concept of the meme . Robert Aunger expands these concepts, yet like Paul Carus, he proposes that memes are the building blocks of ideas, the most basic unit of understanding and perception, and often survive after death in the brains of future generations.

As Paul Carus continues,

“Here we have that which comprehends, that which chooses and determines, that which guides and gives direction. It is what we call spirit, and this very nothing has built up the history of the world and guides the evolution of mankind. Thus it is that a mere nothing, or rather that which appears as a mere nothing in comparison to concrete material objectivity, ultimately constitutes the main factor in human life. Our individual existence ends in death but what we have done in life will live in its effects. Our thoughts, deeds and aspirations are not lost when we die. They continue to live according to the way in which we have impressed them on others. They become building stones in the temple of humanity.”

And to summarize his ideas about the soul, ethics, and life after death,

“Whosoever you may be, my dear reader, do not be oblivious of the fact that your soul consists of the quintessence of many other souls who continue to live in you although their lives may have reached that consummation which we call death. What you call yourself is the temporarily individualized presence of innumerable noble yearnings and immortal aspirations. Give up the conceit of a separate selfhood which flatters your vanity and sets you in a false position. Learn to comprehend the duties, which the recognition of the nature of your being in its relation to your ancestors and to posterity imposes upon you. This wider conception of self is not only truer, it is also nobler, more aspiring, comforting. It liberates the individual from the narrowness of selfhood. You are the product of the past and you owe all you are to the past – nay, you are the past itself as it is changed into the present. And the future will be your work; you are responsible for it; more than that; you will reap what you sow, for as you now are the past in its present incarnation, so you will also be the future that, according to your deeds, grow from the present. We build up our own souls and have to create our own immortality.”

What Paul Carus is referring to, of course, is not only the geniuses like Mozart, Beethoven, Shakespeare, Einstein, but also the millions of unrecognized heroes whose works will live on into the indefinite future and make life for us more diverse, safer, fuller, more interesting, more challenging, and more worthwhile. They are the ones who have given their lives to provide us with an inspiring cultural heritage.

In his overall conclusion about the relationship between religion and science he stated in 1908 in GOD, and I quote,

“Thus death is not a curse, nor is it an annihilation, but merely a going to rest. It is the consummation of life’s labor, but not an end of its usefulness and its significance. The dead are blessed, for ‘they rest from their labors,’ but their works do not cease; they continue to be a living influence in the world.

To sum up: Traditional religion is based upon belief, and I do not deny that a belief in what children are told to believe, a trust in their spiritual fathers, is, within certain limits, beneficial, but let me add, belief is not as essential to religion as is commonly thought. Belief characterizes a stage of religious immaturity. The highest religion is a trust in truth. The facts of life, of our experience in addition to that of the human race, are, if they are carefully weighed and rightly interpreted, the safest basis to build upon. They are a divine revelation which teaches us the solidarity of all existence, demanding of us to suppress passions and to seek comfort for affliction in charity and good will. Such a religion (a religion based on facts) is possible, and as it is purified in the furnace of scientific criticism it may be called ‘the religion of science.’

Science and religion will both gain by their alliance. Science is not profane (as many think); science and its sternness in searching for the truth is holy. And religion is neither irrational nor anti-scientific; religion is nothing but obedience to the truth; it is man’s enthusiasm to be one with the truth and to lead a life of truth.”

“If the new path of the religion of science is the narrow path of life, as I trust that it is, this conception of religion will become in time the religion of mankind.”

This view of life after death, which should give each one of us an enormous incentive to use our time here on earth more carefully and more wisely is nothing new nor an idea which is passé. David McCullough, the author and historian of John Adams and many other remarkable books recently said in a speech this past February,

“…every one who’s ever lived has been affected, changed, shaped, helped, hindered by other people. We all know, in our own lives, who those people are who’ve opened a window, given us an idea, given us encouragement, given us a sense of direction, self-approval, self-worth, or who have straightened us out when we were on the worn path. Most often they have been parents. Almost as often they have been teachers. Stop and think about those teachers who changed your life, maybe with one sentence, maybe with one lecture, maybe by just taking an interest in your struggle. Family, teachers, friends, rivals, competitors – they’ve all shaped us. And so too have people we have never met, never known, because they lived long before us. They have shaped us too – the people who composed the symphonies that move us, the painters, the poets, those who have written the great literature in our language. We walk around very day, everyone of us, quoting Shakespeare, Cervantes, Pope. We don’t know it, but we are, all the time. We think this is our way of speaking. It isn’t our way of speaking – it’s what we have been given. The laws we live by, the freedoms we enjoy, the institutions that we take for granted – as we should never take for granted – are all the work of other people who went before us. And to be indifferent to that isn’t just to be ignorant, it’s to be rude. And ingratitude is a shabby failing. How can we not want to know about the people who have made it possible for us to live as we live, to have the freedoms we have, to be citizens of this greatest of countries in all time? It’s not just a birthright, it is something that others struggled for, strived for, often suffered for, often were defeated for and died for, for us, for the next generation” 4.

Because of his set of beliefs and proposals, Paul Carus took an intense interest in the World’s Parliament of Religions and the continuation thereof. Although he was not involved in the original organization of the first Parliament, once he participated in this incredible gathering, he committed himself to its continuation and became the Secretary of the Religious Parliament Extension.

Unfortunately all attempts to organize another Parliament failed during his lifetime, and it took 100 years for the leaders of the world’s religions to meet again under the auspices of: The Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions. But that is another story.

I agree with Paul Carus’s own assertion that he was a radical conservative and a conservative radical in the sense that he believed in the traditional values of the great religions of the world, and he recognized that the development of modern science required that these traditional values could only be perpetuated and fulfilled if religions were transformed to become compatible with science. All of the concepts I mentioned here and all he developed in his works were attempts to start our thinking in this direction: his conception of God as the determining factor in our behavior, immortality is what perpetuates our accomplishments in this life after our physical existence is no more, prayer is only appropriate as a call to self- discipline.

Whereas many scientists and theologians suffered from the “burning fires of damnation” or in a more recent time looked upon traditional religion as irrelevant, Paul Carus did all he could to transform Christianity and Buddhism to become compatible with science. In this way he made progress in making religion and science compatible.

As an epilogue, Paul Carus recognized the possibility or even likelihood for the temporary resurgence of dogmatism and fundamentalism in some of the world’s religions. For example, today most Americans still believe that Darwin was wrong and that man did not descend from the apes by natural processes. On the other hand, he would have been gratified to know that the World’s Parliament of Religions is alive and well, now meeting every five years in various cities around the world and celebrating the Paul Carus Award for interreligious understanding.


  1. Carus, Gustav. “Christianity and Monism,” The Open Court, Vol II-44, 27 December 1888; and reply by Paul Carus in the same issue, “The Religious Character of Monism.”
  2. McClelland, Charles, State, Society and University in Germany 1700-1914, Cambridge University Press, 1980, PP 123-124.
  3. It was only shortly after this that John Hopkins, in 1876, adopted the German model into the United States, combining research, scholarship, and teaching with the PhD and the PhD Thesis, which was then copied widely in all major universities in American and abroad.
  4. McCullough, David, “Knowing History and Knowing Who We Are,” delivered on 15 February 2005 in Phoenix, Arizona, at a Hillsdale College National Leadership Seminar.



By, or About, Dr. Paul Carus

Carus, Paul, The Dawn of a New Religious Era, Open Court Publishing Company, 1916.

Carus, Paul, Gospel of Buddha, Open Court Publishing Company, 2004.

Carus, Paul, God, Open Court Publishing Company, 1943.

Carus, Paul, The History of the Devil, Open Court Publishing, 1900.

Carus, Paul, Karma: a Story of Early Buddhism, Open Court Publishing Company, 1894.

Carus, Paul and D.T. Suzukie, Translators of, Lao-Tze’s Tao- The- King, Open Court Publishing Company, 1898.

Carus, Paul, Philosophy as a Science, Open Court Publishing Company, 1909.

Carus, Paul, The Philosophy of Form, Open Court Publishing Company, 1911.

Carus, Paul, The Pleroma: an Essay on the Origin of Christianity, Open Court Publishing Company, 1909

Carus, Paul, The Religion of Science, Open Court Publishing Company, 1913.

Carus, Paul, “The Religious Character of Monism,” The Open Court, VolII-44, 27 December 1888.

Henderson, Harold, Catalyst for Controversy: Paul Carus of Open Court, Southern Illinois University Press, 1993.

McCoy, Ralph, Open Court: A Centennial Bibliography 1887-1987, Open Court Publishing Company, 1987.


Open Court Books

Albright, Carol & Haugen, Joel, Beginning with the End: God, Science, and Wolfhart Pannenberg, Open Court Publishing, 1997.

Budge, E.A.W., The Egyptian Heaven and Hell, Open Court Publishing, 1925.

Carus, Gustav. “Christianity and Monism,” The Open Court, Vol II-44, 27 December 1888.

Drees, Willem, Beyong the Big Bang: Quantum Cosmologies and God, Open Court Publishing, 1990.

MacIntyre, Alasdair, Dependent Rational Animals: Why Human Beings Need the Virtues, Open Court Publishing, 1999.

Matthews, Tucker, & Hefner, When Worlds Converge, Open Court Publishing, 2002.

Matthews & Varghese Editors, Cosmic Beginnings and Human Ends, Open Court Publishing, 1995.

Margenau & Varghese, Editors, COSMOS, BIOS, THEOS: Scientists Reflect on Science, God, and the Origins of the Universe, Life, and Homo sapiens, Open Court Publishing, 1993.

Moeller, Hans-Georg, Daoism Explained: From the Dream of the Butterfly to the Fishnet Allegory, Open Court Publishing, 2004.

Morris, Tom, The Stoic Art of Living, Open Court Publishing, 2004.

Nagler, Michael N., Our Spiritual Crisis, Open Court Publishing, 2005.

Seager, Richard Hughes, Editor, The Dawn of Religious Pluralism: Voices from the World’s Parliament of Religions, 1893, Open Court Publishing, 1994.

Sharp, Eric J., The Universal Gita, Open Court Publishing, 1985.

Tucker, Mary Evelyn, Worldly Wonder: Religions Enter Their Ecological Phase, Open Court Publishing, 2002.

Woodruff & Wilmer, Editors, Facing Evil, Op n Court Publishing Co