Science and Religion: Some New Historical Perspectives: The Book-history Approach

As a doctoral student, Jonathan R. Topham worked under the inspiring tutelage of John Hedley Brooke, coming under the influence of his “diversity of interaction” regarding science-religion relations, which became a central part of his own study of the Bridgewater treatises of the 1830s.

In his essay, “Science, Religion, and the History of the Book,” Topham returns to his initial insights discovered during that study; but, more importantly, he wants to explore the interdisciplinary, book-historical approach to understanding the scientific and religious life of nineteenth-century Britain.

Topham has discussed the field of book history in detail elsewhere, especially in his massively informative “Scientific Publishing and the Reading of Science in Nineteenth-Century Britain: A Historiographical Survey and Guide to Sources” (2000). I shall return to this essay later.

In his essay in Science and Religion, Topham relates how he viewed his work on the Bridgewater treatises as a “means of understanding more widely the interplay of scientific and religious concern in British culture of the period.” Rather than merely focusing on the authors and their ideas, Topham wanted to understand the “entire circuit or network of communication in which the treatises were enmeshed, including publishers, reviewers, libraries, and readers.” Accordingly, he discovered that the treatises were valuable for a range of reasons, from a religiously and politically safe account of the latest findings in several sciences, to a means of protecting religious sensibilities by directly relating scientific findings to divine agency. The latter was necessary, says Topham, for by the mid-nineteenth century there were increasingly new forms of secular “popular science” publishing, such as the sixpenny pamphlets of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge (SDUK), which published inexpensive texts intended to adapt scientific and similarly high-minded material for the rapidly expanding reading public. The Bridgewater treatises for Topham “provided important and novel evidence of the manner in which religious (and irreligious) readers from a wide range of social and cultural backgrounds engaged with the sciences in the 1830s.”

Topham is not alone in emphasizing the importance of the history of reading in science-religion relations. James Secord’s Victorian Sensation (2000) shows how Robert Chambers’ (1802-1871) Vestiges of the natural history of creation (1844) developed the self-identity of freethinkers and evangelicals alike, and how, much more than Darwin’s On the origin of species (1859), it provided the “sweeping narratives of evolutionary progress” so central to British culture at the time. William Astore’s Observing God (2001) looks at the career of Thomas Dick (1774-1857), whose widely popular work on science and religion aimed to correct the secularizing trend among evangelicals and contemporary natural philosophers. “Through his many books,” Topham writes, “Dick developed [a] vision of the proper relation of scientific and religious concerns in direct opposition to more secular notions of popular science prevalent in the second quarter of the nineteenth century.” Aileen Fyfe’s Science and Salvation (2004) considers a wide range of publications under the auspices of the Religious Tract Society (RTS), which aimed to counter blasphemy and irreligion in the pauper presses. As Topham writes, “by the 1820s…cheap works of secular ‘popular science’ had begun to proliferate, and by the 1840s the society felt obliged to respond to what it felt to be a threat to Christianity by issuing its own works on science.” Fyfe perceptively concludes that “leading evangelicals in the mid-nineteenth century were concerned about the ‘distorting manner’ in which scientific discoveries were presented, rather than with ‘specific discoveries themselves.'” The RTS was by no means the only publishing house issuing works of popular science to counter secular trends. According to Bernard Lightman’s Victorian Popularizers of Science (2007), “a significant proportion of the most widely read science books in the post-Darwinian era presented the science within a Christian framework markedly at odds with the perspective of the secularizing ‘young guard’ of science typified by Thomas Henry Huxley and John Tyndall.”

Topham also notes, following Secord’s notion of “literary replication,” that important works in the history of science of the nineteenth century were also made known to the reading public through a range of printed and oral formats—including advertisements, excerpts, abstracts, reviews, conversations, lectures, and even sermons. Topham concludes that the book history approach helps to “refocus the history of science and religion from religious and scientific specialists,” to readers, who must be seen to be at least as significant as authors and publishers.

From “who read what, and where?” Topham turns to questions of “who read how, and why?” Like much recent contributions to the history of science, Topham suggests that a shift in historical focus from beliefs to practices is another important element of book history. “For many religious believers,” he writes, “science has been encountered primarily through the practice of reading rather than through experimental or observational practices.” Indeed, the practice of reading among nineteenth-century evangelicals came to reflect a spiritual exercise, “a crucial part of the process by which the individual soul came to know God.” This “religious self-fashioning” is reflected in scientific reading and devotional practices “found throughout evangelical and other Christian writings of the nineteenth century.” The authors Topham reviews all attest to this fact. David Livingstone and James Secord in particular emphasize what has been called the “geographies of reading,” arguing that where scientific texts are read has important bearing on how they are read. Both the practice and place of reading has historical antecedents. Hans-Georg Gadamer’s “fusion of horizons,” Edward Said’s “traveling theory,” Gillian Beer’s “miscegenation of texts,” Stanley Fish’s “interpretive communities,” and Nicolaas Rupke’s “geographies of reception” are a few examples of the latter. The former actually has quite a long history in the Christian tradition. From St Augustine tolle lege, the lectio divina of the Medieval period, to the sola scriptura of the Reformation, thinking by reading and reading by thinking were prominent spiritual exercises of Christian writers.

By focusing on readers, Topham does not want to abandon producers of books, publishers as well as authors. “By taking seriously the financial, vocational, and ideological circumstances in which works on science and religion were produced,” Topham argues, “the historian is better able to understand the motivations underlying the claims made, and therefore the claims themselves.” Thomas Henry Huxley, for example, wanted to establish a new identity of the man of science, in direct opposition to the clerical gentlemen of science. “Most of those involved in producing works on science and religion,” whether author or publisher,  “stood to gain professionally or financially, and the focus of book history on the practices of authorship and publishing helps to highlight such concerns.”

Topham concludes that “by refocusing…attention on the everyday practices of a far wider range of people than have previously been considered, historians can recover the nuts and bolts of the cultural history of science and religion.” All communities, author, publisher, reader, were “enmeshed in an industrialized network of print, situated within particular communities, engaged in personal but community-oriented spiritual journeys, and exploring different possible futures for science that the dynamic of historical change took place.”


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