John Tyndall and the “War” between Science and Religion

While scanning Linda Woodhead’s (ed.) Reinventing Christianity: Nineteenth-Century Contexts (2001) yesterday, I found Gowan Dawson’s “Contextualizing the ‘War’ between Science and Religion” particularly enlightening.

John Tyndall 1885Dawson explores Victorian materialism as it was exemplified by polemicists like John Tyndall. While the confrontation between T.H. Huxley and Bishop Samuel Wilberforce at the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS) in Oxford in 1860 serves as a paradigmatic example of the “war” between science and religion in the nineteenth century, Tyndall’s Presidential Address to BAAS at Belfast in 1874 in fact aroused far more controversy.

In his Address, Tyndall gives an account of the development of science from the glorious days of ancient Greece, from “free-thinking and courageous” pagan philosophers like Democritus and Epicurus and even Roman poet Lucretius, which was then momentarily submerged by Christian and other regressive forces in the Middle Ages, to its triumphal revival in the Renaissance. By his reading, Tyndall saw the beginnings of a rigorously materialistic explanation of the natural world, without recourse to any form of supernaturalism, in the ancient doctrines of pagan philosophers, connecting it with the most advanced scientific conclusions of his own day. He claims that the “‘grand generalizations’ of ‘our day’ are really experimentally verified developments of the old atomic philosophy.” The advances of modern science “have their origin in a philosophy of matter which is over two thousand years old.” Modern science is the heir to these developments, and stands in direct continuity with them.

Tyndall’s account provoked outrage amongst many Christians. The periodical press afforded a “textual site” for much of the pillory hurled against Tyndall’s advocacy of pagan materialism. But as Dawson points out, this was not simply a clash between two metaphysical systems: theism on the one hand and a godless scientific materialism on the other. What Tyndall’s critics saw in his Address was the social and ethical implications of materialism. Indeed, Tyndall’s belligerent anti-clerical Address was censured for advocating the disreputable atheistic hedonism of Greek and Roman philosophers. As Dawson puts it, “Victorian exponents of this ancient understanding of the natural world could be portrayed as implicitly advocating the immoral sensualism which had precipitated the downfall of pagan antiquity.” For instance, Henry Reeve, editor of the Edinburgh Review, not only dismisses contemporary thought as merely the return to the conjectures of the pre-Socratic age, but that the “Lucretian doctrines of Professor Tyndall” could very well lead “to a bestial emphasis on earthly pleasure.” “Scientific materialism,” Dawson writes, “will uproot the true morality which Christianity has bestowed upon the world, and cast humanity once more into the sordid pit of pagan depravity.”

Sermons preached in Belfast also implicated Tyndall’s materialistic conclusions. Calvinist theologians in particular, with their emphasis on the Fallen condition of man, contended that it would leave him bereft of any sense of morality. For instance, Robert Wallace, professor of systematic theology at Belfast Presbyterian College, makes explicit connection between Tyndall and Epicurean doctrine. James McCosh, President of Princeton College, responded to Tyndall’s materialism by identifying it with the disreputable ethics of the pagan world. “The moral corruption of first-century Rome…provides a cautionary warning of the inevitable consequences of the unbelief predicated by present-day materialism.” These denunciations of Tyndall’s scientific creed can be located, Dawson explains, in a long tradition of Christian hostility towards Epicureanism, which dates back as far as the last centuries of the Roman Empire. For religious commentators, the resemblance between classical and modern philosophy actually undermined the intellectual pretensions of contemporary thought.

Responding to such imputations of pagan hedonism, Tyndall argued that hedonism “is by no means the ethical consequence of a rejection of dogma.” Thus Tyndall contests “the pessimistic theological assumption that without a metaphysical criterion for morality civic society will ultimately give way under the unrestrained selfishness which is man’s original condition.”

Dawson, following the work of Adrian Desmond, concludes that not only is the warfare image hackneyed, so is the reaction to it. “The point is not to deny the struggle, any more than to refight ‘the good fight.'” Historians should instead endeavor to understand the social currents which underwrite such moments of conflict.


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