Newcomb and the Religion of Today

Simon Newcomb responded to his theological interlocutors in the 1 January, 1879 issue of the North American Review, in an article entitled “Evolution and Theology: A Rejoinder.” He again defends himself as an impartial observer, entering the “list not as a partisan of either school, but only as an independent thinker desirous of ascertaining the truth.” After carefully reading their replies, he says, all prove to be unsatisfactory. According to Newcomb, their responses “leave nothing to be desired.” For the “scientific philosopher can have nothing to say against them, because, whether he admits them or denies them, it is entirely outside his province to pass judgment upon them.”

The whole debate rests upon “a differentiation made by the human mind in all ages between the processes of Nature and the acts of mind.” According to Newcomb, in the early stages of human thought all natural operations were believed to be those “of a directing mind having an end to gain by them, and were not the result of any law of Nature.” But as knowledge increased, more “careful thinkers” realized that the operations of nature belonged to a class of natural processes. Many of these thinkers were deeply religious, Newcomb admits. These early modern thinkers proposed that nature operated naturally, and only in certain circumstances the Supreme Will acted. Others “less devout or wholly irreligious” believed that as knowledge increased all operations will come to be seen as “purely natural processes.”

In short, what Newcomb offered as a rejoinder to his theological debate partners is a history of science and religion. It was indeed religious thinkers, the “monastic schools,” who ultimately trumpeted the position that “all event were to be explained by natural law.” They applied this to all aspects of the known physical world. But there was one area they refused to entertain: “the adaptation of living beings to the circumstances by which they are surrounded.” In other words, human evolution. In its place arouse “natural theology,” which attempted to show “final causes in Nature.” This theory held supreme sway until recently, however. What Newcomb seems to say is that Darwin’s theory of evolution had destroyed natural theology.

Newcomb’s central question, which he believes his theological interlocutors failed to properly address, is that of evolution. If evolution is true (which he believes no doubt is), “how far must we give up or modify religious doctrine?” Newcomb explains that he sees “no antagonism between the scientific postulate and the abstract doctrine of design in Nature.” But each must not entrench in the other’s domain. “It is one thing to say that there is design in Nature,” Newcomb writes, “but an entirely different thing to say that we know these designs, and are able to explain and predict the course of Nature by means of them.”

But here is the crux of the matter: how do the theologians account for God’s actions in nature? That is, in the natural world and evolutionary scheme that scientists have discovered? “The creation of all living beings and their adaptation to the conditions which surround them are the results of a process which we see going on around us every day, and which depend upon laws as certain and invariable in their action as those of chemical affinity or of gravitation.” If we ask, Whence this power? We might as well ask, Whence gravitation? Nature is a grand whole, “the basis of which is involved in mystery in every direction.” So the question Newcomb asks the theologians: is scientific truth consistent with religious truth? According to Newcomb, theologians have yet to give an answer.

Several months later, Newcomb attempted to give an answer for the theologians in an unsigned article, “The Religion of To-day,” again published in the Review on 1 July, 1879. He begins by declaring that the “intellectual world of to-day is drifting away from the religious belief and dogmatic theology of the past.” In France and Germany, for example, Christianity has “almost entirely disappeared from the intellect.” There is a “wave of skepticism” engulfing England. Thus it is a mistake to assume that this current, or movement of skepticism, will not reach the United States. This is a movement where we are seeing the “slow elimination of all those tenets which have heretofore been considered the essentials of religious belief.”

In this essay Newcomb essentially repeats his message from his earlier “An Advertisement for a New Religion,” but with more graveness or seriousness. The aim of this latest essay is to find the “nature and extent of the movement, considered as modifying the religion of the past, and the character of the new ideas which are now taking form.” The “Church” he says is largely unaware of this move towards general skepticism. It is like a “drifting ship, the passengers of which, seeing no change in the ocean, are unconscious of their change of position.” But the Church is ultimately mistaken. Theologians may believe they have yielded nothing to modern science or modern thought, but this belief is misplaced. The demand for doctrinal preaching has died. “Men have ceased to demand doctrines,” Newcomb explains, “not necessarily because they have ceased to believe in them, but because they have taken the first step toward unbelief by losing their interest in them. Their faith is dragging its anchors without their knowing it.”

One strong indication of growing skepticism is the increasing number of people who reject the doctrine of Hell. Hardly anyone, he says, continues to believe in the literal truth of “the punishment of the wicked.” There is now a tendency to interpret such doctrines as “less literal, and more mystic and poetical.” Such doctrines are thus dying, or “silently modified under the influence of a current of thought peculiar to our time to an extent which it is difficult to define.”

But perhaps the strongest and most striking example of the “readiness of theology to temporize with the irreligious thought of the day, and to explain away doctrines it once held dear, is seen in its attitude toward the now fashionable theory of evolution.” In this sense the Church has conformed to the world. “No other theory,” Newcomb claims, “is so directly opposed to the doctrine which lies at the basis of our orthodox system of theology.” Orthodoxy, says Newcomb,

teaches that man was created in a state of moral perfection; in the especial image of his Maker; not subjected to death; endowed with a conscience showing him the difference between right and wrong. From this state of perfection he fell into what we know he has been in past times by a single act of transgression, and has been again elevated only by the supernatural interference of his Maker.

But according to evolutionary theory,

man was not created at all, in any sense in which the word has ever been understood. Indeed, there never was any personal Adam, the human race being simply the descendants of an improved race of apes. Originally man had no more conscience than his brute progenitors, and right, wrong, or morality applied no more to his acts than to those of the tiger. If he was free from sin, it was only for the same reason that the lower animals are free from it: because no conscience told him the distinction between right and wrong…In on word, the theory pronounces the whole theological doctrine of the origin and fall of man to be a fiction as complete as anything in pagan mythology.

Initially considered subversive, Darwin’s theory of evolution now has—surprisingly— many sympathizers among the orthodox.

However, Newcomb argues that the orthodox cannot remain orthodox and still support evolution. These Christian evolutionists—or “Providential Evolutionists,” as Gregory Elder has called them in his Chronic Vigour (1996)—are essentially misguided. One cannot accept evolutionary theory and yet remain religiously orthodox. The belief that science and religion shall be at one “leads them into the dalliance which is so dangerous.” The two, in short, cannot be reconciled. Orthodoxy must die. This death comes not at the hands of the infidel, however; rather, it will come by the hands of those sincere believers wishing to adapt orthodoxy to modern thought.

With orthodox Christianity and other traditional religions dying, Newcomb believes the way is now clear for a “new religion.” “The great difference between the new religion and that current at the present time in our churches,” he says, “is to be seen not so much in its practical outcome as in the theory on which it is founded.” On the one hand, the old religion says:

I am virtuous, because I was taught in my infancy that the good would be rewarded in heaven and the wicked punished in hell. I have often been sorely tempted, but the thought of the consequences to follow temptation has always deterred me from sin. The feeling that my eternal happiness and my communion with God were involved in my life here below has been my staff and comfort through temptation and adversity.

On the other hand, the new religion (and likely Newcomb’s own personal belief) says:

I have no belief in a personal Deity, in a moral government of the universe, in Christ as more than a philosopher, or in a future state of rewards and punishments. But I was born with a sense of duty to my fellow man. I was imbued in infancy with the view that, as a member of society, it was my duty to subordinate my own happiness to that of others. My sense of right and wrong was thus developed at a very early age, and by the constant endeavor to do what was right my conscience acquired a constantly increasing development, and asserted more and more its power over my actions. I am not virtuous from any hope of reward or fear of punishment, but only because I feel that virtue is my highest duty, both to myself and to humanity. This feeling has developed to such an extent that the good of my fellow men is now my ruling motive, and vice is the object of my most extreme detestation.

This new faith, as we have seen, is another step away from what Draper, White, and the other scientific naturalists preached. It is their views taken to its logical conclusions. But is it atheistic? According to Edward Livingston Youmans, America’s premier science popularizer during the nineteenth century, not necessarily. In his Popular Science Monthly, for example, Youmans defended Newcomb against the charge of atheism in the October 1878 issue. The test question is this: “Is the general doctrine of causes acting in apparently blind obedience to invariable law in itself atheistic?” According to Youmans, “If it is, then the whole progress of our knowledge of Nature has been in this direction.” However, “if the doctrine is not atheistic, then there is nothing atheistic in any phase of the theory of evolution, for this consists solely in accounting for certain processes by natural laws.”

But this is far from orthodox Christianity. According to Newcomb, traditional Christianity is dead. It will be replaced by a new religion, one which “fears no false teaching, sets no limit on the freedom of human thought, and views with perfect calm the subversion of any and every form of doctrinal belief, confident that the ultimate result will tend to the elevation of the human soul and the unceasing progress of spiritual development.” So long as humanity endures, so will this faith in the “Religion of Humanity.”


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