Unification Theology In Comparative Perspectives - Edited by Anthony J. Guerra - 1988

Science, Religion and Orientalism in the Thought of Paul Carus -- by James R. Fleming

The historical interest of the thought of Paul Carus (1852-1919) lies in the valuable insights it provides into the fin de siecle attempts to harmonize religion and science with Oriental thought, and the powerful ecumenical impact of the 1893 Parliament of Religions in which he took an active role. Because of the Oriental sources of Unification Theology, its efforts to reconcile religion and science, and the Movement's plans to commemorate the centennial of the Parliament of Religions1, a study of Paul Carus has immediate interest and importance. In a Festschrift dedicated to a theologian known for her constructive thought and sympathetic appreciation of the variety yet underlying unity of the world's religions -- a theologian instrumental in expounding Unification Theology in the West, it is thus appropriate to examine the thought of Paul Carus as he constructively attempted to unify science, religion and Oriental thought.

Paul Carets, philosopher, scholar and theologian, advocated the unity of thought and the unity of religions. His philosophy of science (more broadly Wissenschaft) was based on a system of non-reductionistic monism which proclaimed a unitary conception of the world: the phenomena of nature are one; the laws of nature reside in things and are discovered not created by the investigator; these laws depend on God, the creator and source of natural law. Carus' monism was a creative response to the personal crisis of his loss of faith in traditional theology. His was an earnest attempt to solve the conflict between knowledge and belief -- and the resulting agnosticism -- implicit in the Kantian split between noumena and phenomena.

Carus' philosophy of religion was based on the methodology of science. He claimed that all the historical religions of the world could be investigated through the "science of religion" -- they could be purified and their truth claims could be extracted from their symbolism. Ethics could be placed on an objective scientific basis. Then all the world's religions -- which all contain basic truths -- could be interrelated in what Carus called the "religion of science" and a new religious age for humanity could be inaugurated.

Paul Carus was born in 1852 at Ilsenburg am Hartz, Prussia, the son of a prominent reformed minister. His father intended that his son prepare for a career in the clergy. Unable to subscribe to his father's stern religious tenets, Paul Carus suffered a religious crisis early in life in which he rejected reformed theology and began a life-long search for a philosophy of religion compatible with a scientific world view.2

He studied mathematics, natural sciences, classical philology and philosophy at the Universities of Griefswald and Strassburg and received the Ph.D. in philosophy at Tubingen in 1876. After serving in the military, he taught at an academy in Dresden for one year. Censured for his religious views and stifled by the intellectual climate of Germany, he left for England where he stayed briefly before coming to the United States in the early 1880's.

In 1885 Carus published his first book, Monism and Meliorism, a preliminary statement of his views, which caught the attention of Edward Carl Hegeler, a German-American industrialist and publisher Hegeler invited Carus to join him in LaSalle, Illinois, neat Chicago, as the new editor of a magazine, The Open Court, which, in Hegeler's words, was to represent:

... an earnest effort to give the world a (monistic) philosophy in harmony with all the facts which will gradually become a new religion to it as it has to me.3

The Open Court Publishing Company also issued a series of popular and inexpensive philosophical classics edited by Carus such as translations of Aristotle, Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, and Kant under the name of the Religion of Science Library.4 In 1890 a new philosophical journal, The Monist, was begun by the Open Court as a scholarly review of science, the philosophy of science, and the history and philosophy of religion, with important articles on Oriental thought as well. Year after year The Open Court and The Monist reviewed the pick of European works on science, philosophy and religion. Seminal articles from important writers around the world appeared regularly: from England, Bertrand Russell and Max Mullet; from France, Alfred Binet and Henri Poincare; from Germany, Ernst Mach and Einst Haeckel; from the Otient, D.T. Suzuki and Rabindranath Tagore; and from the United States, John Dewey and Chailes Sandets Pence. Each issue typically included lengthy commentaries on these articles from the pen of Paul Catus.

Ultimately, the Open Court Publishing Company espoused the philosophy of monism as a world view extending to all realms of thought and experience. The Open Court and The Monist were intended to be the organs of a movement to establish this world view. Since the activities of the Open Court Publishing Company were the embodiment of this idea, and since funds were forthcoming from Hegeler's industrial investments, financial success or failure were not of primary concern -- advocacy and propaganda came first.

Carus' Monism

Monism for Carus was not a claim that there is but one substance, either spiritual or material, in the world. Caius, rather, proclaimed a unitary conception of the world:

Monism or positivism conceives the world as a unitary reality which is knowable in its parts by the method of abstraction.5

Carus employed the analogy of the circle to explain the nature of the universe: the objective aspects of the universe (matter in motion) were to the subjective aspects (feeling and spontaneity) as the outside of a circle was to the inside:6

Soul and body... ate the two inseparable sides of our existence; they are the two abstracts made from one and the same reality.7

This most characteristic feature of reality, its oneness meant for Carus that "all elements of objective reality are inseparably united with the corresponding elements of subjective reality."8 Because our minds and the external world have the same formal structure, we can employ what Carus called "purely formal"9 reasoning to investigate reality. Beginning with positive facts and proceeding deductively according to the rules of logic, human reason can self-confidently move beyond the boundaries of sense experience and still be assured of correct results. In this sense Carus' theory of knowledge is realistic, rather than idealistic or pragmatic: knowledge is the apprehension of forms that are in the world; truth consists of the correspondence of our ideas with the world. This was the basis for his philosophy of science.

In a review article for Scientific American, Carus argued that the meaning of the term monism had changed from a "one substance theory," as coined by Christian von Wolf in the Eighteenth Century, to the materialistic and mechanistic naturalism of the post-Darwinian scientific reductionists. Carus attempted to go beyond these definitions by adding his own: monism was "any philosophy that in one way or another sought to establish an ultimate unity of some kind."10

Illustrative of Carus' differences from other monists is his dispute with the Darwinian biologist Ernst Haeckel the premier spokesman for mechanistic monism. Haeckel's monism was a naturalism allowing for no other reality but matter and energy. Psychic phenomena were reducible to chemical affinities and differences among levels of organisms were merely quantitative. The only religious doctrine compatible with Haeckel's monism was pantheism in which God is the sum total of the forces and matter in the universe and immortality is merely the conservation of substance.

The basis for Carus' critique of Haeckel was that a mechanical explanation of reality could not be complete since it omitted non-mechanical phenomena such as feelings, conceptions, purposes and moral behavior.11 Furthermore, a purely mechanical description of natural phenomena was not possible for inorganic objects, much less organic beings (particularly humans). Monism is not necessarily pantheistic since God is not merely the sum total of matter and energy in the universe, but constitutes the relational and formal structures of reality which are only partly described by natural laws. For Carus the doctrine of immortality contained a deeper truth than that taught by Haeckel: "There is a conservation of matter and energy, but there is also a preservation of form."12

Carus' monism then was a philosophy of science rather than a philosophy from science. Haeckel (and others like Mach) were mistaken monists, but monists still. On the other hand, if any philosophical position was "dualistic" it was by virtue of that fact alone wrong. For Carus, to establish the inadequacy of any philosophy it was sufficient to show that it was dualistic:

All truths must agree; there may be contrasts, but there cannot be contradictions in truth. Any dualistic conception indicates that there is a problem to be solved.13

It was Kant, Carus thought, who had stated the major problem of modern philosophy, but had failed to solve it; and by that failure he had encouraged the worst error in the contemporary period -- agnosticism. The Kantian split between the noumenal and the phenomenal was at least as bad as the earlier Cartesian split between subject and object. Kant's use of the doctrine of the a priori in formal thought required the notion of the ding an sich -- the thing in itself -- which was unknowable. And the unknowable had become the bane of modern philosophy.14 The resulting

"dualism" in which God, freedom, and immortality were merely postulates of faith and no longer knowable objects of cognition at all, was unacceptable to Carus. How, after all, could one unify religion and science if the objects of religions awe and veneration are cut off from scientific scrutiny?15

Carus conceived of monism as apian for a philosophical system, not a fully developed and articulated system. As William Hay notes: "Carus' philosophy is painted on a big canvas, but it is drawn in a sketchy way. There are no clues about how to fill in the details."16 Indeed, the distinguishing feature of Carus' philosophy is its sketchiness. Perhaps this was intentional. The bulk of Carus' work is not a defense of his monism, but, through what he called pragmatology, an exposition, application and implementation of his views to other areas of concern as living convictions, e.g., through his work as the editor of the Open Court Publishing Company.

Religion and Science

No other area of concern loomed larger in importance to Carus than the field of religion:

We advocate in the Open Court what we term "The Religion of Science," which means that scientific truth itself will be the last guide of a religious conception for mankind.17

As mentioned earlier, Carus' basic problem was to retain religion but make it compatible with science. He proposed to do that by treating science as a religious phenomenon while subjecting religion to the test of scientific inquiry. Science and religion were not contradictory; they were complementary:

All scientific questions, if practically applied, are religious questions. All religious questions are, when intellectually grasped, scientific questions.18

In his book Philosophy as a Science, a summary of his mature philosophical views, he noted the influence that science exercises on religion as evidenced by the "scientific spirit pervad(ing) the present age":19

There it appeals as Biblical Research (sometimes called Higher Criticism), in the study of the history of Christianity and of other faiths, and in the philosophical purification and deepening of the God-idea... A sympathetic reader of my books will find that in spite of the great variety of subjects which I have treated, all ate subordinate to a general plan which attempts to awaken the unconscious instincts or scientific inquiry and to organize them into a consciously apprehended and cleat conception of their unity, which is nothing more or less than THE PHILOSOPHY OF SCIENCE (original emphasis).20

In light of Higher Catechism, Christianity was seen by Carus as a religion which became the fulfillment of ideas and aspirations which were dominant in its time. He thought that the people of the first century had gradually developed the notion (drawn from many sources) of a God who walked on the earth, unknown to the people, and intervened in their lives. Through idealization and spiritualization. Christians, especially St. John and St. Paul, grafted these pervasive ideas onto the figure of Jesus.21 It is important to realize, however, that Carus was not calling for a renunciation of Christianity, but a purification of it in light of the developments in modem Biblical criticism.

The Parliament of Religions

Carus' active interest in ecumenical movements and Oriental religions began with the Parliament of Religions held in 1893 in conjunction with the Chicago Columbian Exposition. There representatives of Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, Confucianism and Islam peacefully confronted western delegates from most of the Christian denominations, including the Roman Catholics. One participant called the parliament "the greatest event so far in the history of the world."22 In an article penned immediately after the parliament entitled "The Dawn of the New Religious Era," Carus called the parliament "the most noteworthy event of this decade"23 and saw it as analogous to pentecost in many respects:

A holy intoxication overcame the speakers as well as the whole audience; and no one can conceive how impressive the whole proceeding was, unless he himself saw the eager faces of the people and imbibed the enthusiasm that enraptured the multitudes.24

At one of the parliament sessions Carus presented a paper entitled "Science: A Religious Revelation." There he returned to the theme of his own religious quest, arguing that a person must be willing to pass through all the despair of infidelity and religious emptiness before he can learn to appreciate "the glory and grandeur of a higher stage of religious evolution."25 He ended with his now familial plea that "science is the method of searching for the truth, and religion is the enthusiasm and good will to live a life of truth."26

The parliament also sharpened Carus' critique of Christianity:

There are two kinds of Christianity. One is love and charity; it wants the truth brought out and desires to see it practically applied in daily life. It is animated by the spirit of Jesus and tends to broaden the minds of men. The other is pervaded with exclusiveness and bigotry; it does not aspire through Christ to the truth; but takes Christ, as tradition has shaped his life and doctrines, to be the truth itself. It naturally lacks charity and hinders the spiritual growth of men.27

After the parliament, Carus worked to keep its ecumenical ideal alive. He was the director of the World Religious Parliament Extension, founded in 1894, whose stated purposes were 1) to promote harmonious personal relations, and a mutual understanding between adherents of the various faiths; 2) to awaken a living interest in religious problems; and above all -- 3) to facilitate the attainment and actualization of religious truth.28 For Carus, the extension and fulfillment of the parliament ideal would be a confirmation of his monistic assertion of the unity of truth and the beginning of a new religious era for humanity:

How small are we mortal men who took an active part in the Parliament in comparison with the movement which it inaugurated! And this movement indicates the extinction of the old narrowness and the beginning of a new era of broader and higher religious life.29

Carus was active in other organizations attempting to extend the parliament idea. He was the chairman of the Religious Parliament Extension section of the Pan American Congress of Religion and Education held in Toronto in 1895. He was also the director of the American Congress of Liberal Religious Societies from 1896 to 1898. Carus advanced proposals for a second parliament to be held in 1900 in Bombay, Jerusalem, Tokyo or Paris. When funding and the institutional support of major Christian denominations was not forthcoming, Carus reluctantly abandoned his plans. He did however attend a conference of individual scholars held in Paris in 1900 under the title "The Congress of the History of Religions."30

Oriental Thought and Oriental Religions

At the Parliament of Religions Carus met the noted Japanese Buddhist master Shaku Syen. Syen had a young disciple named D.T. Suzuki who had translated his master's paper into English for the parliament and who wanted to come to the United States. Carus offered Suzuki employment at the Open Court where he worked as a translator. Notable among his translations are Shaku Syen's Sermon of a Buddhist Abbot, Carus' The Gospel of Buddha, and Lao-tzu's Tao Te Ching (in conjunction with Carus). Writing later in life, Suzuki, by then a Zen master and leading spokesman of Buddhism in the West, recalled how impartial and just was Carus' presentation of Buddhism and how sympathetically it was received in Japan:

I am not qualified to judge (Di. Carus') works on Western philosophy, but he was a pioneer in introducing Oriental ways of thought and feeling to the English-reading public. In that respect all Oriental scholars, Eastern as well as Western, ate deeply indebted to Di. Paul Carus.31

Houston Smith evaluated Carus' Oriental scholarship in the following favorable way:

Paul Carus' The Gospel of Buddha furnishes the best study of Buddha the man.32 (His) The Canon of Reason and Virtue continues as probably the best general translation of the Tao Te Ching in English.33

Carus' efforts towards the religions of the world were intended to show that each of them really embodied the tenets of monism under a mask of symbolism which, when properly interpreted, would reveal their true meaning and bring them into alignment with the world view advanced by science. According to Carus the religions of the world could be ranked along an evolutionary continuum according to the degree to which they expressed the truths of science. Religion, like society and nature, evolved from lower to higher states and Buddhism, though hoary with age, ranked high as a faith that could "touch the heart and yet satisfy the mind."34

Buddhism, as Caius saw it, was the supreme example of a scientific religion which unified the science of religion with the religion of science. In its empirical approach, its psychological monism, and its positivism, Carus discovered a harmony of scientific methodology and religious experience.35

Carus was also a charter member and president of the American Maha-Bodhi Society, through which he was able to befriend several other influential young Buddhists, among them Ananda Maitieya and H. Dharmapala (whom he helped on his American tout). With both Maitieya and Dhatmapala, Carus felt he was dealing with enthusiastic young men who needed some restraint if their efforts on behalf of Buddhism were to yield maximum results. He encouraged, however, their efforts to extend Buddhist doctrine to the western world and was an advocate of Oriental missionaries coming to the West:

We are glad to see Christians send out Christian missionaries, and we believe that a religion without missionaries is dead. But, we think that at the same time Christianity would be greatly benefited if missions from other religions were sent out to Christian countries; for an exchange of thought on the most important subject of life can only be salutary.36


Paul Carus, philosopher, theologian, scholar, propagandist, was an influential advocate of a new ecumenical rapprochement of science, religion and Oriental thought. Yet he has been somewhat neglected by scholars and his influence waned quickly after his death. To date only one unpublished dissertation and three brief articles chronicle his life and thought.37 Why is this so? An attempt will be made to address this problem by way of conclusion.

Carus' philosophy and the activity of the Open Court Publishing Company were both products of a particular historical situation; and the historical situation changed dramatically in the years following World War One: optimistic philosophies of progress were dealt a death blow by the world war, religion and science hardened then respective positions and came to an uneasy truce, most importantly, science itself changed with the radical new theories of quantum physics and relativity theory. As the twentieth century progressed, Carus' faith in science and technology -- a vital factor in his religion of science -- became suspect as the horrors of total war, the dangers of environmental pollution, and the stresses of modem urban society etched themselves on the twentieth century psyche.

Carus had no position within the American university system. He left no school of thought and he taught no students. The Open Court was isolated as well from the mainstream. Its financial independence, a virtue in many respects, also permitted it to ignore the demands and many of the standards of commercial publishing, contributing to its isolation. As Sheridan concludes:

the company was devoted to the reconciliation of science and religion and yet took a position which was not acceptable to many of the advocates of either Even among religious people, the orthodox objected to Carus' redefinition of God for the sake of science, while the liberal religious movement found Carus wedded to traditional terms and unwilling to abandon concepts which the liberals deemed outmoded.38

It seemed that Carus' philosophy had something to offend everyone. As Meyer put it:

His ideas were too abstruse for the average man and too simple for the intellectual... he offered the world a new orthodoxy which it could not accept.39

Although Carus' monism was a plan for action and a plea for knowledge, not for its own sake, but for the sake of action, Carus and the Open Court were not part of a larger movement which could implement their world view.

Carus rates rather higher as a popularizer of Oriental thought and culture. Through his many books and translations, his role in the Parliament of Religions and its extensions, and his encouragement of Oriental scholars and missionaries in the West, we are indeed deeply indebted to Paul Carus, one of the chief engineers of early bridges of understanding between the Orient and the West.

The perennial attractiveness of a quest for a unified view of science and the world's religions still draws many thoughtful people, especially those confronting a loss of faith in traditional theology, to make the attempt to give form to their religious feelings. Perhaps Carus' personal motto will be inspirational for them:

Not agnosticism but positive Science,
Not mysticism but clear thought,
Neither supernaturalism nor materialism
But a unitary conception of the world;
Not dogma but Religion, Not creed but faith.40

Few have been as energetic in attempting this synthesis as Dt. Paul Carus.


1. Assembly of the World's Religions: Spiritual Unity and the Future of the Earth, International Religious Foundation, 10 Dock Road, Barrytown, NY, 1985).

2. Carl T Jackson, "The Meeting of East and West: The Case of Paul Carus," Journal of the History of Ideas, 29 (1968) 74.

3. Edward Carl Hegeler, The Open Court. I (1887) 624 as quoted in Donald Harvey Meyer, "Paul Carus and the Religion of Science," American Quarterly, 14 (1962) 606.

4. William H. Hay, "Paul Carus: A Case Study of Philosophy on the Frontier," Journal of the History of Ideas, 17(1956)500-01.

5. Paul Carus, The Religion of Science (Chicago: Open Court, 1893) 125.

6. Paul Carus, "Some Questions of Psycho-Physics," The Monist. I (1890) 403.

7. Paul Carus, Primer of Philosophy (Chicago: Open Court, 1896) 23

8. Paul Carus, The Soul of Man: An Investigation of the Facts of Physiological and Experimental Psychology, (Chicago: Open Court, 1891, 1905) 7.

9. Paul Carus, "The Formal," The Open Court, VII (1893) 3679-82.

10. Quoted in James Francis Sheridan, "Paul Carus: A Study of the Thought and Work of the Editor of the Open Court Publishing Company," Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Illinois (Ann Arbor, MI: University Microfilms, 1957) 34.

11. Paul Carus, "Monism Not Mechanicalism," The Monist. II (1892) 438-42.

12. Paul Carus, "Professor Haeckel's Monism," The Monist, II (1892) 600.

13. Quoted in Sheridan, 34.

14. Following Sheridan's analysis.

15. Following Meyer.

16. Hay, 510.

17. Paul Carus Papers, quoted in Sheridan, 77.

18. Paul Carus Papers, quoted in Sheridan, 79.

19. Paul Carus, Philosophy as a Science (Chicago: Open Court, 1909) 27.

20. Ibid.. 27-28.

21. Sheridan, 99-100.

22. Alfred Momerie representing Anglicanism; quoted in John Henry Barrows (ed). The World's Parliament of Religions. Vol. I (Chicago: Parliament Publishing Co., 1893) 160.

23. Paul Carus, "The Dawn of a New Religious Era," Appendix to The Monist. IV (1894) 16.

24. Ibid., 17.

25. Paul Carus, "Science: A Religious Revelation," in John Henry Barrows (ed.) The World's Parliament of Religions. Vol. II (Chicago: Parliament Publishing Co., 1893) 978-81.

26. Ibid.

27. Carus, "The Dawn of a New Religious Era," 5.

28. Charles C. Bonney, "The World's Parliament of Religions," The Monist. V (1895) 340.

29. Paul Carus, "The Dawn of a New Religious Era" 17.

30. Paul Carus, The Open Court, 14 (1900) 448.

31. Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki, "A Glimpse of Paul Carus," in Joseph M. Kitagawa (ed.) Modern Trends in World Religions -- Paul Carus Memorial Symposium (Chicago: Open Court, 1959) xiv.

32. Houston Smith, The Religions of Man (New York: Mentor, 1958) 150.

33. Ibid., 199.

34. Jackson, 92.

35. For more details see Jackson, 80-81.

36. Paul Carus, The Open Court. 13 (1899) 760.

37. Sheridan, Hay, Jackson and Meyer.

38. Sheridan, 156-57.

39. Meyer, 606.

40. Paul Carus, Philosophy as a Science (Chicago: Open Court, 1909) 30. 

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