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Dr. Barnes Rebuked for Anti-religious Address at Scientists’ Convention

January 3, 1929
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Prof. Harry Elmer Barnes, sociologist of Smith College, who in an address before the American Association for the Advancement of Science declared that the biblical conception of God is obsolete and that a new definition is to be sought in the light of modern research, was rebuked by Dr. Henry Fairfield Osborn, president of the Association, in a subsequent address. Dr. Osborn, referring to Dr. Barnes as “a sensational speaker who spoke on a non-scientific subject,” declared:

“This is a scientific meeting and covers the whole realm of what can be estimated by its scientific membership. It has to do with weighing, measuring and analyzing the universe and covers the whole realm of what can be estimated and understood, and it stops there.”

Continuing, he said: “As president of the association, I desire to protest and I desire to have the public understand that Mr. Barnes’s views do not reflect the program of our own proceedings. They were calculated to give a wrong impression. If there had been a group on philosophy, religion or metaphysics to take up these subjects it would have been appropriate for him to present his views before that group.

“We are very desirous of requesting the clergy to relieve the public mind concerning the possibility of any antagonism between science and religion. There is none and there can be none. Some of the greatest men of science have been very religious men. If I had been present when Mr. Barnes gave his talk, I would have protested against his continuing his paper.”

The assertion that the biblical conception of God is, in the light of present-day research, inadequate and obsolete, having been “painfully evolved by the semi-barbarous Hebrew peoples” in the days when science was not known, was made by Dr. Barnes.

The Ten Commandments must be subjected to a strict, scientific scrutiny if they are to be obeyed today, a scrutiny with which scientists examine the cosmology portrayed in Genesis, he said. The conception of “sin” is likewise obsolete, he said. Christian solemnity should be replaced by the frank joy of life, of the ancient Greeks. “This earth can no longer be regarded as a training camp preparatory for life in the New Jerusalem,” he said. Rather should it be regarded as a place where man should make himself as happy as possible. He agreed that the definition of happiness is subject to many interpretations, but, he suggested that the Greek ideal of virtue as “the happy man” should be redefined into terms of specific guidance through the methods of present knowledge of science.

“What we need,” he said, “if a notion of God is needed, is such a conception of God as Dr. Fosdick might work out in the light of the astro-

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physical discoveries and conceptions of Shapley and Michelsen and the study of atoms and electrons by Bohr, Planch and Millikan. It is of little value to attempt to inculcate a view of God so hopelessly inadequate and out of date as that which was slowly and painfully evolved by the semi-barbarous Hebrew peoples in the days when a rudimentary type of geocentric and anthropomorphic outlook reigned supreme and unchallenged.

“If the Ten Commandments are to be obeyed today, it should be only when their precepts and advice can be proved to square with the best natural and social science of the present time,” he declared. “They must be subjected to the same objective, scientific scrutiny as that to which we would submit the cosmology of Genesis or the medical views in Leviticus.

“The new cosmic perspective and biblical criticism, indeed rule out of civilized nomenclature one of the basic categories of all religious and metaphysical morality, namely, sin, which is by technical definition a willful and direct affront to God-a violation of the explicitly revealed will of God. Modern science has shown it to be difficult to prove the very existence of God, and even more of a problem to show any direct solicitude of God for our petty and ephemeral planet. Biblical criticism, the history of religions and cultural history have revealed the fact that we can in no direct and literal sense look upon the Bible or any other existing holy book as embodying the revealed will of God. Consequently, if we do not and cannot know the nature of the will of God in regard to human behavior, we cannot very well know when we are violating it. In other words, sin is scientifically indefinable and unknowable. Hence sin goes into the limbo of ancient superstitions such as witchcraft and sacrifice,” he declared.

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