The New Theodicy of the Scientific Naturalists

I have come across several references to Frank Turner’s “The Secularization of the Social Vision of British Natural Theology” recently, so I decided to read it myself. The essay is part of the collection of essays under the heading “Shifting Boundaries” in his Contesting Cultural Authority (1993).

In this essay Turner traces the “demise” of classical British natural theology and how it was replaced by a “secular” theodicy. Classical British natural theology was always circumscribed and supported by a vision of commercial society. According to Turner, “British natural theology had addressed itself to both nature and society.” John Ray’s The Wisdom of God in the Creation (1691), for example, had a strongly supported economic expansion. The material world was indeed governed by God; but more importantly, it was “created intentionally for human uses.” “God placed humans beings on the earth,” Turner summarizes, “to realize or exploit the potentialities that inhered in the rest of the creation.” Thus Ray justified trade, commercial transactions, and the “dominion” of the earth for the benefit of mankind. This argument is also found in Lynn White Jr.’s “The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis” (1967), who maintained that orthodox Christian belief led western civilization to exploit the natural resources of the world.

In addition to Ray, William Paley’s Natural Theology (1802) and the Bridgewater Treatises (1833-40) similarly used natural theology to support the emerging industrial order. Paley’s “Divine Watchmaker” analogy “reflected the eighteenth-century fascination with machinery,” transforming God into “a skilled and ingenious English engineer.” Moreover, the authors of the Bridgewater treatises “presented natural theology as confirming the general superiority of humankind over the rest of the creation and as pointing toward modern European civilization as the end and natural state of humankind.”

But the “civilizing” effect of industrialization in early nineteenth-century Britain was becoming a problem for natural theologians. The writings of Dickens, Carlyle, Mayhew and others revealed how industrialization had brought on the conflagration of the earth. In Bleak House (1853), for example, Dickens depicted the hellish results of the industrial age—an earth engulfed with fog, mud, darkness, squalor, poverty, and disease. In short, a nightmare. England had become Blake’s “dark Satanic mills.” Mayhew’s contributions to the Morning Chronicle between 1849 and 1850 revealed the consequences of rampant industrialization, and Carlyle’s Latter-Day Pamphlets (1850) adds the spiritual dimension:

British individual existence [he writes] seems fast to become one huge poison-swamp of reeking pestilence physical and moral; a hideous living Golgotha of souls and bodies buried alive…These scenes, which the Morning Chronicle is bringing home to all minds of men…ought to excite unspeakable reflections.

To many of these writers, industrialization only reveled a “reign of death.” The world, as Hardy put it, was “God-forgotten.”

To deal with commercial society, British natural theologians had to develop a theodicy. According to Turner, Paley justified the evils and suffering caused by industry on utilitarian grounds. In the grand scheme of things, Paley seems to say “It is a happy world after all. The air, the earth, the water, teem with delighted existence.” The hierarchical character of English society encouraged competition, which was good, and poverty only further induced one to work. What ultimately gave Paley comfort in the face of such social ills was human immortality. Turner writes, “lives of individuals on earth must be regarded as probationary for a life to come in which rewards and punishments would be meted out.” Malthus’ Essay on the Principle of Population (1798) argued similarly. The disparity between food production and population was a terrible injustice, but “actual justice lay in the hereafter.” The authors of the Bridgewater treatises likewise concurred.

Turner then turns to the rising authority of the scientific naturalists. To gain a hearing, the scientific naturalists had to dissociate themselves from the more radical opinions of a group of London medical men, who wholly rejected religion of any kind. Thus scientific naturalists such as Darwin, for instance, had used natural theology—particularly the kind the authors of the Bridgewater treatises had provided—to underpin his understanding of the natural world. It was only much later, in his The Descent of Man (1871), according to Turner, that Darwin began attacking classic British natural theology, and specifically its philosophical anthropology. By stripping away all of the unique qualities of humankind, Darwin “portrayed a brutish human past and a materialistic interpretation of human historical development.” But in doing so Darwin merely provided a new social vision that, in the final analysis, “paralleled the social argument of the traditional natural theology.”

Thus, at the end of the day, the scientific naturalists continued the “whiggish” analysis of the natural theologians, supporting “the fundamental character of contemporary British and European society.” What was truly unique about the scientific naturalist approach, however, is how they interpreted Baconianism. As Turner writes, “Although Francis Bacon had pointed to the double revelation of divine knowledge through both nature and the scriptures, he had also urged natural philosophers to resist the temptation to pose unanswerable questions and questions that had no practical import on the human condition” (my emphasis). On the one hand, natural theologians embraced Bacon’s first precept, but ignored his second. The scientific naturalists, on the other hand, ignored his first but embraced his second. Huxley’s “new nature,” for example, “accomplished Bacon’s goal of abandoning the pursuit of literally useless questions.”

But in placing the “God question” completely outside the natural realm, “humankind emerged as the creator.” This was the new theodicy of the scientific naturalists. In his Romanes Lecture of 1893, Huxley rejected the suffering in nature:

Social progress means a checking of the cosmic process at every step and the substitution for it another, which may be called the ethical process; the end of which is not the survival of those who may happen to be the fittest, in respect of the whole of the conditions which obtain, but of those who are ethically the best.

The suffering caused by the “cosmic process” must be opposed. We must fight against nature. This fight was the “new” ethical order, a new societal cooperation that would replace competition and eventually end human suffering.


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