Contesting Cultural Authority

Cover TemplateFrank M. Turner’s Between Science and Religion (1974) presented a new perspective on the relationship between science and religion. By carefully examining Victorian figures, such as Henry Sidgwick, Alfred Russel Wallace, Frederic W.H. Myers, George John Romanes, Samuel Butler, and James Ward, Turner demonstrated that the pervading “conflict thesis” was overly simplistic. In that same book Turner examined the influence of the “scientific naturalists,” a phrase employed by T.H. Huxley in his Essays upon Some Controverted Questions (1892), but which had an earlier history as a pejorative epithet among American evangelicals. For Huxley and others, the phrase came to encapsulate a particular set of assumptions, values, and cosmology (i.e. the three seminal theories found in the atomic theory, the law of the conservation of energy, and evolution).

Turner continued to develop his understanding of the scientific naturalists in a series of articles, most of which are collected in the volume Contesting Cultural Authority: Essays in Victorian Intellectual Life (1993).

In 1973, Turner published his article on “Lucretius among the Victorians,” which traced the rising interest on the Roman poet Lucretius in late-Victorian scholarship. In the ninth edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica (1875-1889), for example, W.Y. Sellar’s entry on “Lucretius” notes that “physical philosophy in the present day is occupied with the same problems as those which are discussed in the first two books of the De Rerum Natura” (“On the Nature of Things”), and that “the old war between science and theology, which has been revived in the present generation, is fought, though with different weapons, yet in the same ardent and uncompromising spirit throughout the whole poem, as it is in the writings of living thinkers.”

But according to Turner, associating Lucretius with science and the conflict with religion was an Victorian invention. “During this period,” he writes, “classical scholars, men of letters, and philosophers discovered commentaries on Lucretius to be convenient vehicles for attacking scientific naturalism.” In associating naturalistic and scientific thought with philosophical materialism, many authors saw a symbolic target in Lucretius. Liberal Christians in particular sought this connection. As religious philosopher and historian of Unitarianism James Martineau put it: “To get rid of a troublesome discoverer or vigorous thinker, there is no readier way…than to dismiss his new ideas as stale fallacies dug up again out of the discarded rubbish of the past.” The polemical advantage was clear. Huxley et al. modern scientific thought could be discredited as stale fallacies based on Lucretian philosophy.

But first Lucretius had to be transformed from a poet to a natural philosopher. Early Victorian commentators judged Lucretius on his artistic merit. Yet by mid-century, writers were beginning to see him in the spirit of modernity, as a precursor of the modern scientist. What happened? Turner cites Scottish scientist Henry Charles Fleeming Jenkin (1833-85) as the earliest to associate Lucretius with atomic theory, thus setting the “precedent for considering the thought of Lucretius in relation to modern ideas and scientific theory and for drawing parallels between the work of the ancient poet and the endeavors of contemporary scientists.”

But according to Turner, it was John Tyndall’s infamous Belfast Address of 1874 that solidified the association. In advocating his own naturalistic view of the development of science, Tyndall used Lucretius as giving “posterity the best and most eloquent explication of [atomic] theory.” In short, Lucretius became the “upholder of true science in the ancient world, a noble enemy of superstition, and a pioneer in the struggle to liberate science from the ideals, opinions, cosmology, and institutions of religion and theology.” This view continues to be popular, as Neil deGrasse Tyson’s first episode of the rebooted Cosmos so clearly demonstrated.

Victorian writers were quick to pounce on the association, however. From James Martineau, John Veitch, Robert Flint, John Tulloch, W.H. Mallock, and John Masson,  “Lucretius,” Turner writes, “became the pawn in the struggle for cultural domination between the men of science and the men of religion.” According to these writers, Lucretius had anticipated the doctrines of modern scientists. But then they argued that Lucretius’ philosophy was inadequate or incorrect. The implication being that so were the ideas of Huxley, Tyndall, Spencer, and other scientific naturalists. Perhaps most interestingly, these writers then “suggested that Lucretius’ critique of religion had been appropriate and necessary for the development of pure religion. However, his particular argument as resurrected by Huxley [et al.] had in the course of two millenia became inapplicable and invalid. Therefore the anti-religious arguments of the scientific publicists were both irrelevant and anachronistic” (my emphasis). In short, by re-constructing Lucretius as a precursor of modern science, these writers undermined Huxley and company. And whereas Lucretius presented a “high, reverential, moral, and spiritual purpose,” by contrast the scientific naturalists were simply “anti-religious.”

The scientific naturalists were not, of course, without a response. Huxley, Tyndall, Clifford and others were keen to disassociate classical atomic theories with those of the nineteenth century. But they also wanted to emphasize that they, too, “deduce social, philosophical, and religious conclusions from theories of matter and organic evolution,” thus indicating that they too sought to reform religion in ways similar to Lucretius.

The following year Turner came out with an article entitled “Rainfall, Plagues, and the Prince of Wales: A Chapter in the Conflict of Religion and Science,” published in the Journal of British Studies. Here he presented an early formulation of what would become his signature argument:  “Victorian conflict between religion and science,” he writes in his conclusion, “was something more than a dispute over ideas. It manifested the tension arising as the intellectual nation become more highly differentiated in functions, professions, and institutions. It was a clash between established and emerging intellectual and social elites for popular cultural preeminence in a modern industrial society.”

In this article Turner examines three episodes in the Victorian debate over the nature of prayer. First, the excessive rainfall in the summer of 1860, which Bishop of Oxford Samuel Wilberforce attributed to “the national sins of the Divorce Act of 1857, recent riots at St. George’s church in London’s East End, and the war with China,” spurred many in the Anglican church to call for appointed prayers for better weather. But this call was contested among many scientific practitioners, particularly physicist John Tyndall. The scientists were not alone, however. There were also others in the church who called for a new interpretation of nature without recourse to the supernatural. Charles Kingsley, for example, “told his parishioners that praying for fair weather was an act of unwarranted presumption,” and was thus unwilling to abide the call. For his resistance, Kingsley received several congratulatory letters, including one from geologist Charles Lyell. According to Turner, scientists were beginning to claim authority over matters that pertained to natural knowledge, and liberal churchmen were willing to oblige and support their position.

Another clash over prayer came in 1865, when a cattle plague hit English farmers. The Archbishop of Canterbury issued a special prayer for those affected. At the same time, a Royal Commission under Lyon Playfair instituted preventive measures and stricter regulations for cattle trade. Many saw the Archbishop’s call to prayer as a retrogression. Tyndall once again entered the scene with an article published by the Pall Mall Gazette, arguing that such prayers were no different than ancient and heathen prayers which called for some divine, spontaneous interference. The debate continued on into the monthly journals, such as the North British Review and Macmillan’s Magazine. Although presented with both scientific and theological arguments against such a conception of prayer, many bishops refused to back down. This led to a number of leading broad churchmen to declare that the “national church must encompass leading intellects of the nation and must not employ its dignity and power to block or discourage intellectual discourse and discovery.”

The final example Turner provides is when the Prince of Wales contracted typhoid in 1871. The Bishop of London and the Archbishop of Canterbury, along with a committee drawn from members of the Cabinet and the Privy Council, issued a telegraph calling for prayers for the recovery of Prince Edward. The Prince eventually recovered and clergymen attested this to the power of prayer. This “vindication” was given further publicity in the Guardian, which saw the event as “a solemn recognition of the direct and personal working of the Hand of God in things of this life.” Without directly criticizing the special prayers offered, the professional and medical periodicals used the event as an opportunity “publicize the necessity for further sanitary reform and legislation.” Things became heated, however, when the “clergy explicitly and the government implicitly credited prayer rather than medical treatment for the recovery of the heir to the throne.” The medical journal Lancet, for example, declared that “while we recognize the hand of Providence, we still claim for modern medical science that she has signally won fresh laurels in the recovery of the Prince of Wales.”

Several months later, surgeon Henry Thompson challenged Christians, in an essay entitled “The Prayer for the Sick,” published in the Contemporary Review in 1872, and what would later be dubbed the “Prayer Gauge Debate,”  to “conduct an experiment to determine the physical efficacy of prayer.” The debate would appear very publicly in the British magazine, Spectator. What is more, eugenicist Francis Galton, in an article published in the Fortnightly Review, used statistical analysis to condemn the efficacy of religious practices and, more importantly, the general “ability of religious men to solve practical problems of society.” This same theme appeared in one of the Spectator articles, signed by a mysterious “Protagoras.” According to Turner, the article argued that “scientists had no intention of abolishing belief in the supernatural or reverence for God. Rather they sought to lead men to an understanding of the results of science and of their application to daily life.”

The removal of such base superstition from public knowledge required, Turner claims, “the recognition of a new intellectual elite who would displace the clergy on all levels of society as the interpreters of natural phenomena.” Once again, liberal religious thinkers were only too willing to oblige the emerging scientific elite. According to Huxley, Tyndall, and other leading scientific naturalists, “the scientist now stood as the mediator between modern man and a nature that could almost be commanded to serve his material needs.” In 1879, historian James Anthony Froude went so far as to argue that those who “observe the rules of health as ascertained and laid down by science…better deserve the name of religious men than those who neglect the means of protecting themselves which God has provided, and try to induce Him by prayers to suspend His ordinances in their favor.” Clearly, this was the “transfer of cultural and intellectual leadership and prestige from the exponents of one faith to those of another.”

Turner continued working on the scientific naturalists in his article, “The Victorian Conflict between Science and Religion: A Professional Dimension,” first published by Isis in 1978. The conflict between science and religion was not only a narrative; it was also a by-product of professional elites vying for cultural authority. Writers like G.H. Lewes and Huxley used polemical language to construct a progressionist ideology that juxtaposed a “good progressive science against [an] evil retrogressive metaphysics and theology.” This was not simply a reified “science” against “religion” but a battle between particular spokesmen for science and religion.

Working from statements made by James Clerk Maxwell, A.W. Benn and others, to the effect that there was “a transfer of authority from religious to naturalistic beliefs,” Turner states his thesis clearly: “the primary motivating force behind this shift in social and intellectual authority…was activity within the scientific community that displayed most of the major features associated with nascent professionalism.” This “young guard of science,” to use a phrase employed by Leonard Huxley, consisting of Thomas Huxley, John Tyndall, Joseph Dalton Hooker, George Busk, Edward Frankland, Thomas Archer Hirst, John Lubbock, William Spottiswoode, Herbert Spencer, Henry Cole, Norman Lockyer, Francis Galton, Lyon Playfair, and others, “had established themselves as a major segment of the elite of the Victorian scientific world.” They advocated a positivist epistemology as the exclusive epistemological foundation of legitimate science, which came to “discredit the wider cultural influences of organized religion.”

By the late-nineteenth century, these men held editorships, professorships, and offices in major scientific societies. Indeed, they had “established themselves as a major segment of the elite of the Victorian scientific world.”

Now, this “young guard” agreed among themselves that science should be pursued without recourse to religious dogma, theology, or religious authority. This exclusivity eventually came to serve as a weapon against the cultural influence of religion in general. This was all, of course, a recent phenomena. According to Turner, during the seventeenth century and up to the 1840s, scientists—or more precisely, natural philosophers—saw natural science and natural theology not alone compatible, but complementary. By the 1840s, a “naturalistic bent of theories in geology, biology, and physiological psychology drove deep wedges into existing reconciliation of scientific theory with revelation or theology.” In addition, the “young guard” pushed for the recognition of greater expertise in scientific practice, thus not only excluding the clergy but also women. Then came the rhetorical ploy of accusing clerical scientists of “dual loyalties”; according to Huxley and his acolytes, one could not both serve God and science. Francis Galton, for example, in his well-known English Men of Science: Their Nature and Nurture (1872), declared that the “pursuit of science in uncongenial to the priestly character.” Using the veneer of statistical analysis, Galton claimed that clerical scientists had significantly dropped by the mid-nineteenth century. But what Galton left out in his “analysis” was the membership reforms that took place in many scientific societies after 1850. “Had he not so skewed his numbers by choosing the date of 1850,” writes Turner, “more clergymen would have been included.” This would become a commonplace tactic of the “young guard.”

There were also major changes within the religious community of the mid-nineteenth century. Many clergymen—naturally enough—came to have nothing but contempt for the new scientific elite. They wanted to reassert their authority, in matters of religion but also in matters of natural knowledge. Others took the opposite approach, leaving the pursuit of natural knowledge to the scientists and religious matters to the clergy, thus creating two separate spheres of knowledge. As Turner puts it, “within the Church of England a clergymen-scientist confronted the choice of perpetuating traditional natural theology and risking ridicule by scientists or attempting further rationalization of theology in accord with science and encountering persecution by fellow clergymen.” All this gave further credibility to stereotypes on both sides of the debate.

One of the most admirable aspects of Turner’s scholarship—and character—was his willingness to admit his failings. A rare trait among scholars indeed. In his opening essay in Contesting Cultural Authority (1993) , “The Religious and the Secular in Victorian Britain,” Turner reflects on some of the assumptions scholars of Victorian Britain have made—including himself—about the “secular,” “religious,” and “professionalization” of Victorian scientists.

To begin, “the secular interpretation of Victorian and general nineteenth-century intellectual life,” he writes, “very much reflected the concerns of mid-twentieth-century American university intellectuals” (my emphasis). In other words, the secularization of the nineteenth-century Victorian mind is a clear example of modern ideas imposed on the past. It was an assumption accepted without question, and thus became an obstacle to real understanding. As Turner observes, it “prevented scholars from confronting in a direct manner the full spectrum of the secular and religious as the latter concretely manifested themselves in nineteenth-century life and crossed over the twentieth-century conceptual boundaries.” The change in Turner’s outlook came when gave his figures of study a closer and more sympathetic reading: “I had begun to reject the conceptual categories then widely accepted in the historical literature because those categories simply could not encompass nineteenth-century intellectual life as I found it.” What had changed, he says, was a new sensibility among social and intellectual historians, ultimately leading to a “rethinking of the character of the secular and the religious in the nineteenth century.”

As Turner’s thought developed, he came to see religion playing an immense role in nineteenth-century Britain, culturally, politically, and scientifically. Here Turner credits the work of Bernie Lightman, Ruth Barton, Jack Morrell and Arnold Thackray and others for changing his mind. In his “The Victorian Conflict between Science and Religion” Turner argued against the view that the scientific naturalists were attempting to reform and free religion from dogmatic theology. Scientists sought to “reform religion for the sake not of purifying religious life but of improving the lot of science in Victorian society.” But as Lightman’s study of Victorian agnosticism reveals, “many agnostics [and scientific naturalists] sought to set forth a serious new, non-clerical religious synthesis.” In short, they pursued “genuine religious goals and not merely the substitution of something secular for something religious.”

The changes in scholarship in the last fifty years has revealed “religion” as a “far more many splendoured thing than most of us who pursue intellectual history have tended to recognize.” Turner’s challenge to us is to “recapture that world of concrete social reference that informed both religious and non-religious intellectual life and exchange.” When we do this, he says, our present categories of “secular” and “religious” will dissolve. “Although the words secular and religious, as well as the concept of secularization, remain and intellectual historians, including myself, will continue to employ them, those terms and the often unexamined assumptions that may lie behind them no longer in and of themselves provide an adequate analytic framework for probing the Victorian age.”


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