Agnosticism

The Political Effect of the Decline of Faith in Continental Europe

In one of the last published pieces of his career, John William Draper returned to a topic he had briefly touched upon in both his Intellectual Development of Europe and his History of the Conflict. Published in the Princeton Review in 1879, Draper addresses the “political effect of the decline of faith in continental Europe.” He asks, “When comes that black thunder-cloud, NIHILISMnow lowering over Eastern Europe?” According to Draper, nihilism, communism, and socialism have exploded all over the European continent. These movements greatly troubled Draper. “Society itself is in peril,” he said.

Who is to blame? Politicians blame the government, he notes. The statesman, however, has a more historical perspective. He perceives “that the affairs of men pass forward, not in a capricious or erratic way, but under the guidance of deterministic law.” During the medieval period, Draper argues, society was enveloped by an “irresistible authority—the Church.” But rather than criticising the Church, Draper believed that “it gave advice, consolation, support, in inevitable troubles, forgiveness for voluntary sins.” The Church, in other words, relieved a heavy burden from society. Its theology also instilled a sense of justice, and provided a hope “that so often kept him from attempting to rectify the wrongs under which he was suffering.” These were important and influential “advantages vouchsafed to the medieval man.”

Draper, in short, recognised the advantages of the Church to society. But in time, he argues, “the plain and simple demands of primitive Christianity had been burdened with many pagan fictions, or with legends that outraged common-sense.” These legends and fictions were enforced by ecclesiastical authority. This “fraudulent” religion was attacked by that “great political event, the Reformation.” With the reformers, progress was made. It demonstrated that the course of “events were taking in the less superstitious, the better informed, populations of Europe.” Thousands of “vulgar impostures” disappeared.

By the nineteenth century, however, many men and women had taken a extreme view, rejecting all aspects of religion as deception. He writes, “in the nineteenth century we have come to the conclusion that the whole, from the beginning to the end, was a deception.” This is quoted directly from his Intellectual Development of Europe. The result, he says, is the “wide-spread religious unbelief of so many thousands of men.”

Thus, according to Draper, the birth of nihilism, communism, and socialism came with the extinction of religious belief. “With no spiritual prop to support them, no expectation of an hereafter in which the inequalities of this life may be adjusted, angry at the cunningly-devised net from which they have escaped, they have abandoned all hope of spiritual intervention in their behalf, and have undertaken to right their wrongs themselves.”

These movements mark an epoch in history. Such epochs occur at the “close of a worn-out form of thought.” Such was the case, he argues, with the advent of Christianity. With Christianity came the “transition from polytheistic to monotheistic ideas in the interpretation of the divine government of the world.” The death of Greco-Roman mythology and personified phantoms was the inevitable result of religious progress.

The progress in religion thus signals the inevitable collapse of the ecclesiastical system. The ecclesiastic, however, blames the rise of nihilism, communism, and socialism on science. But the scientist, Draper argues, merely relies on facts of observation. So who is at fault for the great changes that have taken place in the thoughts of so many thousands? According to Draper, it is the Church. “Should we not rather blame those who invented these delusions, persuaded humanity to accept them, and reaped vast benefits from them.” Draper, in short, is arguing that the lack of faith in his time was entirely due to “ecclesiastical impostures,” those who had mixed Christianity with paganism. “Accordingly, Christendom became a theatre of stupendous miracles, ecclesiastical impostures, spiritual appearances.” The Church had organised a system of repression, and all attempts in any part of Europe at “intellectual development was remorselessly put down.” The Reformation attempted to sweep away the vast mass of dogmas enforced by the Church. It failed. “Hence it may be said that the existence of these dreaded societies is a consequence of the failure of the Reformation to establish itself in the countries in which they found.”

In the end Draper offered no remedies for the “godlessness of the present age.” His main contention is that simply attacking nihilism, communism, and socialism was not enough. We must first understand why they emerged in the first place, and that that will lead us to the cure.

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.”

Phrenology, the Origins of Scientific Naturalism, and Herbert Spencer’s “Religion of the Heart”

Wyhe - PhrenologyOver the weekend I came across several interconnecting books and themes. The first was John van Wyhe’s excellent Phrenology and the Origins of Victorian Scientific Naturalism (2004), which traces the origins of scientific naturalism back to British phrenology. In this book Wyhe takes the “social interests” approach, resting on the “common-sense assumption,” he writes in his introduction, “that people are disposed to like or dislike, to adopt or reject ideas according to their coherence or usefulness to social interests.” Wyhe wants to argue that phrenology, “the science of the mind,” was hugely diffused before and after Darwin’s Origin of Species. It was this “phrenological naturalism” that fed the stream of the scientific naturalism of Huxley, Tyndall, Spencer, and others. What is more, the professional and religious controversies that followed the surge of phrenological works “were often personal competition for status and authority between individuals, rather than manifestations of group conflicts.” In saying this he follows the work of Adrian Desmond, James Moore, John Brooke, Peter Bowler, Frank Turner, and others. The “‘science and religion’ conflict,” he writes, was  about “personal competition between individuals for status and authority.”

According to Wyhe, phrenology had its roots in the German work of physicians Franz Joseph Gall (1758-1828) and Johann Spurzheim (1776-1832), before greatly expanding in Britain in the 1820s with the work of George Combe (1788-1858). Gall was a rather eccentric individual. He not only amassed a large collection of human skulls, he also saw himself as somehow superior to the rest of mankind. Gall used his phrenological studies, his system schädellehre (“doctrine of the skull”) or “the physiology of the brain,” to proffer the notion that Nature should be seen as the ultimate arbiter. Spurzheim became Gall’s patron, student, and eventually dissecting assistant. Early in the century, Spurzheim composed his Philosophical catechism of the natural laws of man, which attempted to apply “immutable law” to mankind. Most of this work was borrowed from the work of French revolutionary writer Constantin Francois de Volney (1757-1820), his The law of nature (1793). Volney rejected revelation and called for the worship of Nature. According to Wyhe, Volney taught that “Man’s happiness increased the more he acted in accordance with the law of nature and that science was necessary to know the ‘facts’ of nature.” Spurzheim himself was anti-clerical and, like Volney, was strongly deistic.

According to Wyhe, Combe “revered Spurzheim.” His The Constitution of Man (1828), he says, “should be recognized as the major British work on progress in the years before [Robert Chambers’] Vestiges of the natural history of creation appeared in 1844.” Wyhe modifies and reproduces a chart found in James Secord’s Victorian Sensation (2000), demonstrating the remarkable popularity of Combe’s work:

Wyhe Chart (2)

Used with permission

Its sales were tremendous. But even more remarkable is Wyhe’s claim that the “crux of the book’s provocativeness was its effectiveness as an alternative to Christianity.” It was an attempt to provide an “alternative for the traditional Christian system as a guide of conduct, and especially beliefs of the fallen state of Nature and Man, the sufficient and necessity of the Bible as a guide to daily living and as a moral, philosophical, and epistemological authority.” According to Combe, if man devoted himself to obeying the “‘doctrine of the natural laws,’ all would live in a happier, healthier world and experience the greatest possible joys and satisfactions as civilization, and individuals, progressed ever further towards perfection.” To secularists like George Jacob Holyoake (1817-1906), Combe’s Constitution was “a new Gospel of Practical Ethics.” For Combe, god became Natural Law.

It should be clear that Combe’s Constitution was not simply a textbook on phrenology. It was the formation of a new “sect”; a new creed or worldview of the naturalists.

Another interesting fact about Combe is that he was one of the earliest narrators of the much maligned—at least, among contemporary historians of science—”conflict thesis” between religion and science. In his On the Relation between Science and Religion, first published as a pamphlet in 1847, Combe foresaw a “new faith” arising, one that would recognize natural laws as the providential instructor of humanity. “Science,” he says, has banished the “belief in the exercise, by the Deity…of special acts of supernatural power, as a means of influencing human affairs,” and in its place has “presented a systematic order of nature, which man may study, comprehend, and follow, as a guide to his practical conduct. In point of fact, the new faith [he says] has already partially taken the place of the old.” This has been no easy task. Since the “days of Galileo to the present time, religious professors have too often made war on science, on scientific teachers, and on the order of nature.” What we need, says Combe, is a “new Reformation” and a “new creed,” one which will “harmonize with a sound Natural Religion.” As Wyhe observes, this narrative of conflict would be taken up later in the century by scientific writers such as Huxley—but also Tyndall, Spencer, Draper, and White, among others.

One of the more salient features of Combe’s Constitution was his optimistic view of progress. Progress was mankind’s salvation. According to Wyhe, “Combe’s engine of progress, like that of Condorcet, Lord Kames and later of the historian H.T. Buckle, Henri de Saint-Simon and Auguste Comte, was natural law, and especially the increased knowledge of natural law.” Nature was naturally progressive. Man was naturally progressive. But ignorance of science stymied progress; it was mankind’s “chief cause of suffering.” And like the other authors Wyhe lists, Combe saw mankind as “arranged in a hierarchical scale of superiority and inferiority.” In Combe’s view, the bottom rung of the hierarchy began with non-Europeans (i.e., those with “dark skins”), and led to western Europeans (i.e., particularly himself).

Despite its extraordinary popularity (e.g., British sales in 1893 reached approximately 125,000 copies), Combe’s work was not without its critics. Indeed, according to Wyhe, “the controversies over Vestiges and The origin of species really pale in comparison with those over Constitution.” Evangelicals and members of the Edinburgh Phrenological Society were particularly critical. Most were concerned that Combe’s new philosophy would somehow replace Christianity or, even worse, God. Another was where to find the source of morality in a completely naturalized cosmos. Yet another was Combe’s claims of natural progress and the “infinite perfectibility of Man.”

Nevertheless, many—secular and religious—found ways to lessen the more radical implications of Combe’s philosophy. Most importantly, Combe’s Constitution appealed to a recent surge of popular scientific texts that trumpeted the “overarching cosmology of progress through natural law.” This idea of progress, as many scholars have pointed out, had religious foundations. Indeed, Combe himself claimed that his work “fulfilled the Bridgewater goal” of demonstrating the “power, wisdom, and goodness of God, as manifested in the Creation.” But just who or what god was, Combe never says.

Taylor - The Philosophy of Herbet SpencerIn many ways, Combe and his Constitution cleared the way for Huxley, Tyndall, Spencer, and others. In fact, my other reading over the weekend, Michael W. Taylor’s The Philosophy of Herbert Spencer (2007) and Mark Francis’ Herbert Spencer and the Invention of Modern Life (2007), both mention the important influence of Combe’s work on Spencer. Taylor comments on how Spencer used several  doctrines found in Combe, particularly that “happiness requires man to obey the natural laws,” and that “disobedience as surely brings its punishment in the one case, as in the other.” In short, “Spencer’s mature moral philosophy was founded on the same conception of the beneficence of the laws of nature that was to be discovered in the writings of predecessors like Combe, Hodgskin, and Chambers.”

Francis - Herbert Spencer and the Invention of Modern LifeIn his book, Francis thinks Spencer has been misinterpreted, and thus offers a reappraisal. He portrays Spencer as an oversensitive man filled with feeling. In this sense Spencer was not unlike Luther, a prophet of the new century calling for a New Reformation not only in science, but also morality and religion. Members of the New Reformation, including Spencer, held strongly to a metaphysical belief in the Unknown, were often called “spiritualists,” and were behind the weekly journal, The Leader.

Francis rejects the notion that Spencer was the progenitor of Social Darwinism. Spencer’s evolutionary theory, he says, “(i) did not focus on species change; (ii) did not draw on natural selection or competition; and (iii) did not accept the modern individuals or societies would continue to make progress through struggle for survival.”

Most interestingly, however, Francis highlights Spencer’s religious background, and how religion continued to play a prominent role in his writings, where one can find a “reservoir of religious meaning.” Spencer wanted to create a “new morality and metaphysics with which to replace both orthodox Christianity and materialistic positivism.” He rejected Comte’s alleged scientific rationalism for a “religion of the heart.” Science must have some religious aim.

These three remarkable works continue to complicate and even problematize conventional views of the scientific naturalists. The lives and ideas of this coterie were often messy, incomplete, inconsistent, and contradictory.  In other words, they were human.

 

Between Scientific Naturalism and “an Antiquated Religion”

The other day I began reading Gowan Dawson and Bernie Lightman’s Victorian Scientific Naturalism: Community, Identity, Continuity (2014) only to be side-tracked by references to Frank M. Turner’s Between Science and Religion (1974). Indeed, the volume is dedicated to Turner. I had picked up Turner’s book some months back, made copies of the introduction and conclusion, and quickly paged through it. Over the weekend I decided to give Turner a closer look.

Turner focuses on six, nineteenth-century thinkers: Henry Sidgwick, Alfred Russel Wallace, Frederic Myers, George Romanes, Samuel Butler, and James Ward. These were men of alternatives. They lived between scientific naturalism and religious orthodoxy. Abandoning the Christian faith, they could not replace it with the new naturalism. Indeed, they recognized that the scientific naturalism of Huxley, Tyndall, Spencer, Clifford, and others smacked of religious sentimentalism, that it purported to be a new guide to life. Science, according to these men, were merely “mechanical aptitude.” Sidgwick et al. were not alone. These six figures, Turner contends, were part of a larger contingent protesting the “pretensions of science to dominate thought and culture.” But they could not simply return to orthodoxy either. Thus they rejected both naturalism and Christianity. As a result, they existed in some sort of intellectual limbo. Myers summarized the middle position: “There are still those who, while accepting to the full the methods and the results of Science, will not yet surrender the ancient hopes of our race,” the “ancient hope” being “a final reconcilement of spiritual needs with intellectual principles,” the “capacity to lead rational lives, a potential for transcendental knowledge, immortality, and a destiny that partook of a divine or transcendental purpose.”

Sidgwick et al. questioned the “integrity of the naturalistic interpretation of man and nature,” “challenged the philosophical foundations of scientific naturalism,” and “contended that the theories and methods of scientific naturalism failed to deal logically, rationally, or adequately with certain inevitable human questions.” In short, scientific naturalism failed to “fulfill the much-vaunted promise of its adherents to provide a complete guide to life.”

Scientific naturalism was the “cult of science that swept across Europe” during the second half of the nineteenth century. Huxley and company were rarely in complete agreement with one another. However, what bound them together was a conviction that “in the struggle of life with the facts of existence, Science is a bringer of aid; in the struggle of the soul with the mystery of existence, Science is a bringer of light.” Holding strongly to a triad of doctrines—atomic theory, the law of conservation of energy, and evolution—they maintained that science had revealed the “uniformity of nature.” This, of course, was a metaphysical doctrine, and many contemporaries criticized the scientific naturalists for presupposing it without the verification of the scientific method.

According to Turner, naturalistic writers established their position on an epistemology founded on the positivism of Auguste Comte and the empirical philosophy of John Stuart Mill. Yet both were problematic, forcing the scientific naturalist to oscillate between an idealism and naive realism. This resulted in the appeal to agnosticism. But Turner calls this agnosticism “self-serving.” That is, it wasn’t an “honest doubt,” but rather the deliberate negligence of ontological issues.

It is interesting how the scientific naturalists portrayed themselves to the public. Their public persona was often arrogant, overly-confident, metaphysically reductionistic. At the same time, in private letters and diaries, they revealed much doubt in their own ideas. Thus we may suggest that Huxley and company were the most Janus-faced thinkers of the century.

Criticism came, of course, from Christians; but the non-Christian voice, such as Sidgwick et al., was even more pointed and pervasive. And as Turner points out in his conclusion, “what each man had hated most about the Christian faith reappeared in secular guise within the context of scientific naturalism.” Scientific naturalism ultimately proved “incompatible with the life of the mind.” In summarizing their view, Turner says

“that they have outgrown the church as exemplified in Christianity, but who have not therefore been brought to deny the fact that a religious attitude to life is as essential to them as a belief in the authenticity of science. These people have experienced the soul as vividly as the body, the body as vividly as the soul. And the soul has manifested itself to them in ways not to be explained in terms either of traditional theology or of materialism.”

In short, Sidgwick et al. sought a synthesis between science and religion.

 

The Late-Victorian Agnostic Popularizers

Charles Albert WattsBernard Lightman’s “Ideology, Evolution and Late-Victorian Agnostic Popularizers” in Moore’s  History, Humanity and Evolution (1989) deserves special mention. He argues that agnosticism was presented as a religious creed that had evolved out of Christianity by agnostic propagandists such as Charles Albert Watts (1858-1946), William Stewart Ross (1844-1906), Richard Bithell (1821-1902), Frederick James Gould (1855-1938), Samuel Laing (1811-97), and others.

In the 1880s and 1890s, Victorian agnostics were facing mounting tensions. On the one hand, some agnostics wanted to appeal to the masses, and therefore had to attune their message to Victorian sensibilities. On the other hand, other agnostics were committed to the full force of their message, and therefore would not “debase” it, contenting themselves to the few who could grasp their complex scientific and philosophic concepts.

Yet during this time a new form of agnosticism emerged that would appeal to a wider English audience. It chief popularizer was Charles Albert Watts, son of English secularist Charles Watts (1836-1906). Both father and son were “immersed in the world of radical publishing,” particularly the writings militant atheist Charles Bradlaugh (1833-91). The elder Watts however had dissociated himself from Bradlaugh over the publication of atheist Charles Knowlton’s (1800-1850) pamphlet on birth control, The Fruits of Philosophy (1832). Watts was prosecuted under the Obscene Publications Act when his printing company, Watts & Co., published the pamphlet. In court Watts claimed he had never read the document. After breaking ties with Bradlaugh over his increasing militancy, Watts later he joined George Jacob Holyoake (1817-1906) in forming the British Secular Union (BSU) in 1877, a dissident group from Bradlaugh’s National Secular Society (NSS).

The son Watts respected his father’s non-militant approach. He also had a high regard for T.H. Huxley (1825-1895), Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), John Tyndall (1820-1893), and other scientific naturalists, who were “at the peak of their power during the 1880s.” According to Lightman, “Watts thought he could use elements of the successful strategy adopted by the scientific naturalists in combination with non-militant methods previously adopted by his father” in order to appeal to a wider audience, and to subvert the growing influence of the NSS. Unlike the “atheist,” “infidel,” and “freethinker,” Watts saw agnosticism as representing the “most up-to-date phase of scientific unbelief.” Watts thought that the best way to increase the influence of the BSU and other dissident secular groups was through the press, by “inundating the reading public with material on agnosticism and [particularly] evolution.” Watts thus focused “on reaching likely converts through the publication of quality pamphlets, books and periodicals.”

Watts took over his father’s publishing business in 1884. That same year he began publishing The Agnostic Journal, its aim was to establish “a monthly periodical of cultured liberal thought, which, by its moderation and ability shall commend itself to the attention and support of advanced thinkers of every grade.” The following year Watts published Albert Simmon’s Agnostic First Principles (1885), a summary of Spencer’s First Principles (1862). Also in the same year Watts published Watt’s Literary Guide, a publisher’s circular, “advertising publications of Watts & Co., reviewed current books, and, beginning in 1893, added a monthly supplement condensing important works on progressive thought and science.” Right before the turn of the century, Watts, in his continued collaboration with Holyoake, founded the Rationalist Press Association (RPA), an organization that acted as a “propaganda machine for freethought and agnosticism that would outdo any of Bradlaugh’s publication efforts and would rival the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge and the Religious Tract Society.” Its central aim, as Lightman puts it, was the transform “dissident Secularism into a respectable, middle-class organization.”

Watts also had other collaborators. William Stewart Ross, who “belonged to the Holyoake tradition of non-militant dissident Secularism,” joined Watts in transforming The Secular Review of the 1880s, which he assumed full editorship in 1877 from Holyoake. Ross agreed with Watts that an “advanced thinker” is “like a scholar and a gentlemen, [and] that the best arguments for Secularism were drawn from philosophy and modern science, and that the less said about party politics the better.” Another collaborator was Richard Bithell, who through Watts & Co. published a number of agnostic tracts, including The Creed of Agnosticism (1883), Agnostic Problems (1887), The Worship of the Unknowable (c. 1889) and A Handbook of Scientific Agnosticism (1892). Another important collaborator and popularizer of dissident secularism was Frederick James Gould, who, along with Bithell, helped Watts found the Propaganda Press Committee, which later came to be known as the RPA. Samuel Laing was yet another collaborator and popular author, his repertoire included Modern Science and Modern Thought (1885), A Modern Zoroastraian (1887), Problems of the Future (1889), and Human Origins (1892), and was also a consistent contributor to Watts’ The Agnostic Review.

This “stable of agnostic propagandists” aimed their writings to younger readers and the working classes. They had a “missionary zeal” and “desired to demonstrate that modern science could present an integrated and rational world view, encompassing every realm of thought.” This world view was governed by the belief in “fixed and uniform laws” of nature. Evolution was “applied to the development of both the organic and the inorganic worlds; it applied to man as a physical being and to the products of man’s so-called spiritual being, including religion and ethics.” Indeed, as Lightman aptly observes, “the new agnostics were…primarily attracted to the cosmic evolutionism of Herbert Spencer, and they often ranked him as Darwin’s superior.” Evolution manifested the “power of the Unknowable.” Engaging the emotions and religious sensibilities of the Victorian reader, the new agnostics often exaggerated theistic themes found in Spencer, Huxley and other elite scientific naturalists. They even “tried to establish,” Lightman tells us,  “an Agnostic Temple in southwest London.”

They were also rather politically conservative. With their increasing popularity, the new agnostics “entered the bourgeoisie.” They wanted to eliminate both radicalism and socialism from the social order. Most interestingly, they “used evolutionary theory to legitimate a conservative vision of social order.” Socialism, as they saw it, was maladaptive, contrary to nature and science. The political creed of Darwinism could only be Individualism. They developed an evolutionary theodicy to answer the problem of evil, seeing its existence as “part and parcel of the evolution process, an inevitably by-product of the laws of nature.” But evil would ultimately disappear, they maintained, with the progressive course of evolution. This theodicy appealed to those with either religious or from religious backgrounds, as it created a sense of “contentment in the current stage of a dynamic, self-adjusting, divinely sanctioned process.” It was indeed a “theodicy designed to engage the religious sensibilities of a lower middle-class audience.”

This undoubtedly religious agnosticism was often referred by Laing as a “reverent and devout agnosticism.” According to Lightman, this new agnosticism was thus not a “negation of Christianity, but as the next step in its orderly progressive development.” Interestingly, there was also a penchant for “Eastern thought, mysticism, spiritualism and theosophy” among these agnostic propagandists. Ross described evolution as “the upward passing through Karma to Nirvana.” Laing attempted to “rehabilitate the old Persian religion of Zoroastrianism.” But elite agnostics, such as Huxley, could not stomach the increasingly religious and liberal element in the new agnosticism. Huxley saw Laing’s agnostic creed as unscientific. In turn, the new agnostics saw Huxley as insensitive to the “religious and mystical dimension of the doctrine of evolution.” This eventually lead to the acute controversy between Laing and Huxley in 1890 over the politics of democracy and aristocracy. Laing read Huxley’s “On the Natural Inequality of Men” (1890) as an example of an elite naturalist using “scientific arguments against democracy.” Laing went so far as to accuse Huxley of propounding Tory principles. “The Laing/Huxley controversy,” Lightman concludes, “shows graphically how readily evolution could be adapted to suite the new agnostics’ social aspirations.” In the end, “the flexibility of evolutionary theory as a social dynamic made it a potent weapon for attacking elite scientific naturalists who temporized about democratic reforms, as well as for criticizing unscientific socialists and radical Secularists who were too impatient to wait for the inevitable.”

What was Victorian Doubt?

Butler - Victorian Doubt“There lives more faith in honest doubt,
Believe me, than in half the creeds.”

So writes Tennyson in his In Memoriam. According to Lance St John Butler, in his Victorian Doubt: Literary and Cultural Discourses (1990), Victorian doubt was not some “mere shadow of faith, a ghost prowling at the feast of the believers, but as the very condition of there being faith at all.” “Above all,” he continues, “doubt came to be seen, especially later in the century, as a corrective that religion offered to mere theology.” While Enlightenment skepticism seemed to put religion in jeopardy, doubt, after Romanticism, “became something positive as is apparent not only in an honest doubter such as Tennyson but also in many of the ‘deconversion narratives’ of Harriet Martineau and F.W. Newman, William Hale White, Samuel Butler and others,” including Lesile Stephen’s Agnostic Apology (1876) and A.J. Balfour’s Defense of Philosophic Doubt (1879). Numerous metaphors were used to express these “deconversions”:

“Mankind have outgrown old institutions and old doctrines, and have not yet acquired new ones” (Mill);

“The old has passed away, but, alas, the new appears not in its stead” (Carlyle);

“Wandering between two worlds, one dead The other powerless to be born” (Arnold).

There was much religious ambiguity during the Victorian period. It was “a puzzle to many Victorians how unbelief seemed to gain ground in spite of the greatly increased evangelistic effort.” The advances of science began to cause distress only later in the century, “after Buckle, Darwin and Colenso.” Evolution was not the problem. According to Butler, “religion quickly took on board the whole of evolution, at least in intellectual circles…[it had] no effect in halting the imminent decline in religious practice.”

“We need an account of the Victorians,” Butler argues, “that does not rely too heavily on our belief that we know the end of the story.” Butler’s purpose in the following chapters is to demonstrate that the “avowedly religious discourse of the Victorians is shot through with the lexicon, the syntax and the imagery of doubt while the avowedly unreligious or antireligious discourse of the period is shot through with metaphysical assumptions, and with vocabulary and imagery that betray the cultural pervasion of religion.” “The point at issue,” he goes on, “seems more to have been which religion (taking this word in its broadest sense) to pursue, or how to deal with the religious cultural baggage loaded onto the Victorian mind, rather than whether to both with religion at all.”

“Doubt is ubiquitous in the discourse of the Victorians.” An endemic doubt, a prevalence of metaphysical anxiety, is present in the vast majority of Victorian writers. But Victorian doubt should not be confused with unbelief or despair, “the prelude to atheism.” It is, as in the case of the honest doubter Tennyson, the faintly trusting of a “larger hope.” Many Victorian writers saw themselves as “living without God in the world.” This was not a personal choice; rather, it was a sense of “God’s absence from the world.”  The writings of Antony Trollope (1815-1882), George Eliot (1819-1880), Thomas Hardy (1840-1928), Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881), Charlotte Brontë (1816-1855) and Emily Brontë (1818-1848) seem, at first glance, to be a radical secularization of the English novel. But according to Butler, they actually display a religious ambiguity, or, more generally, a deep desire for religion to work. Charles Dickens’ (1812-1870) Bleak House (1852-53), for example, treats the clergy as secular and strained: “Churches tend to be either decaying or out of place in some other way wrong.”

Even John Henry Newman (1801-1890), in his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (1845), and then in his Apologia (1864), displays a move from relative optimism to a “black pessimism.” Man needs God. But he also needs a “guide to lead him to a knowledge of God and that that guide must be the Catholic Church.” As Butler surmises, “for Newman the fallen world is, per se, utterly bereft of the divine and man is encircled by gloom…Newman is working perilously closely alongside the classics of Victorian doubt.”

Many other Catholic poets shared Newman’s “metaphorical system of Victorian doubt.” G.M. Hopkins (1844-1889) “felt that God hid Himself from the world.” Francis Thompson’s (1859-1907) Hound of Heaven (1893) depicts the believer as wanting “escape not from the consequences of sin but from the consequences of unbelief. He tries to escape God in his own mind and by hiding under laughter (scoffing?) and by finding other ‘hopes’ and by plunging into despair, evidently a despair based on the fear that God does not exist.”

The loss of faith pervades Victorian poetry. The mourning, this nostalgia for lost love, is “a metaphor for another, deeper loss,” Butler tells us: “the loss of a more general certainty.” “Any anthology of Victorian poetry quickly reveals the obsession with loss, with death, with endings and with yearnings for greener grass elsewhere.”

Images of light in darkness are found in several places in the novels of Dickens. The darkness in, for example, Great Expectations (1860-61), Bleak House (1852-53) is a symbol that something has “gone terribly wrong with the world.” “[H]ell has risen and engulfed the earth.” As Butler astutely writes, “The fog, the mud, the nightmares, the darkness, the squalor, the disease, the poverty—these are not only social problems (they they are that), they are also emblems of spiritual wreck and images of a devilish possession of man’s abode.” This is the “infernalisation of the earth,” the “dark Satanic mills” of William Blake’s (1757-1827) Milton (c. 1804-10). Was this “hell-on-earth” the result of industrialization? Or was it punishment? Or the  spiritual condition of Victorian humanity? Whatever it was, the central question on the minds of Victorian writers: Where is God? The answer: “God is absetn from the world as currently organised, he has disappeared; we are, are Hardy will put it, ‘God-forgotten’; the light is available only beyond the tomb or behind a veil.”

According to Butler, such imagery and language is first hinted at in Romanticism; but “in Carlyle and Dickens hell takes on its full industrial panoply of horrors and dominates the world.” Both authors had been inspired by Henry Mayhew’s (1812-1887) Labour and the London Poor, published as a series of articles in the Morning Chronicle in the 1840s. After reading these articles, one reader commented: “We live in a mockery of Christianity that, with the thought of its hypocrisy, makes me sick.”

Carlyle’s Latter-Day Pamphlets of 1850 added a “spiritual dimension to Mayhew’s sociological and economic picture.” The degradation of slums is a symbol for the moral degradation of England; the mud of the poison-swamp is London’s dirt and cosmic filth, “a symbol for the dire state of English society. Dragon and devils emerge from the mud; hypocrisy has come to dominate the nineteenth century; the gates of hell are prevailing. According to Butler, although the images of hell-on-earth are undoubtedly social commentary on the “poverty and injustice of the social system and its concrete effects,” Carlyle emphasizes the “inner man”: “Something must be wrong in the inner man of the world, since its outer man is so terribly out of square!”

Dickens had borrowed many aspects of the Carlylean mythology. In Dickens, too, hell is rampant among us and dominant on the earth, while “heaven has become a distant and highly speculative possibility.” Like other Victorians, Dickens is a radical doubter. Organized religion is “unable to combat either the physical or moral nightmares that surround it.” This world is damned. Images of decay, mud, fog, brutes, labyrinths, prisons, and hell-flames were, for Dickens and other Victorians, symbols “that could simultaneously asserts man’s abandonment by God (loss of faith, doubt) and remind him of his need to try to ward off the devil and become something like fully human (faith that there was somewhere a metaphysical guarantee, ‘behind the veil’, that the universe might still be ‘read’ as a morally significant structure even if the readings were almost universally negative).”

This “metaphysical guarantee,” this “surer basis for harmony,” was initially sought in the salvation of science. But the application of science only brought more questions and the relativising of European culture. Victorian geologists not only “demonstrated the uncomfortable longevity of the earth, they also prognosticated a catastrophic future for the planet, now in its ‘decrepitude.'” Astronomy had revealed a vast universe, but at the same time “you feel human insignificance too plainly.” One Victorian reader of the astronomy comments: “It makes me feel that it is not worthwhile to live; it quite annihilates me.”

Many negative images were, however, balanced with positive ones. What is important to note, and quite paradoxical, says Butler, is that “among the novelists at least, the more believing writers reach for the Satanic while the ‘unbelievers’ will reach for the figure of Jesus Christ.”

Victorian belief, writes Butler, was “shot through with elements of doubt or cosmic depression,” a “world cut off from God.” And in the work of Victorian writers, there is an “unmistakable fear that God has abandoned the earth and that it has been handed over to the forces of darkness.” But in writing about God’s abandonment, Victorians continued using the language of Christian tradition. In this sense, Christian vocabulary and symbolism were “hijacked” for other purposes. Indeed, Robert Owen (1771-1858), Carlyle, Arnold, and many other Victorian writers employed religious discourse in their writings.

Butler in chapter four, “the discourses of religion among Victorian doubters,” focuses on a few such writers. The influence of Auguste Comte (1798-1857) here is central. “Comte’s work was utterly (and deliberately) imbued with religious elements,” Butler tells us. Claimed to be the first female sociologist, Harriet Martineau (1802-1876), translated Comte’s The Positive Philosophy in 1853. British secularist George Jacob Holyoake (1817-1906) “welcomed her English version of Comte as his ‘Bible’ and said that it gave him his ‘creed.'”

Reaction to Comte and his Positivism was not as severe as one might expect. Many recognized that it “showed that orthodoxy had failed the people and that the earnest efforts of Comtists were going in the right spiritual direction.” With the alleged decline of Christianity, many sized upon a metaphysical replacement. This was readily admitted. When British liberal politician, William Ewart Gladstone (1809-1898), wrote to Holyoake in 1897, he said this much. He also “pointed out that the latter’s secularism (and secularism in general) could never have existed without a precedent Christianity and the ‘atheist’ Holyoake hinted at the possibility of immortality not only in this late correspondence with Gladstone (who was dying at the time) but also in his pamphlet of earlier and more fiery years, The Logic of Death of 1849.” Other so-called atheists or agnostics, including John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), in his posthumous essay on “Theism” (1874), “had not quite discounted personal survival.”

The employment of religious language among the religiously skeptical is so self-conscious that one must conclude that Victorian secularists were often Janus-faced. T.H. Huxley (1825-1895), for instance, in a letter to Kingsley in 1870, refers to his “sins,” the “sanctity of human nature,” the “sacredness” of human duty. Huxley also refers to Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus (1836) as leading him “to know that a deep sense of religion was compatible with the entire absence of theology.” “Above all,” writes Butler, “the faith in science and in the new post-Darwinian ‘truth’ was strongly asserted, with a fervour not unlike that of the evangelicals.”

Returning to Comte, Butler reminds us that many contemporaries saw his “Religion of Humanity” as Catholicism minus Christianity. Unitarian minister John Trevor (1855-1930) formed the Labour Church in the 1890s, for instance, and modeled it after Comte’s principles. Although a short-lived failure—apparently disappearing shortly after World War I—its first principle declared “That the Labour Movement is a Religious Movement.”

Interestingly enough, when the Labour Church disappeared, so did Comte’s “Churches of Humanity.” According to Butler, with the “departure of Victorian religion went the departure of Victorian unbelief too. The two were intimately bound together by their possession of a common discourse.”

Butler argues his case by focusing on two main examples, Victorian doubters Leslie Stephen (1832-1904) and Mary Anne Evans (1819-1880), otherwise known by her pen name as George Eliot.  Stephen’s Agnostic’s Apology (1874) seems to model itself after Puritan autobiographies and conversion narratives. His doubt is a doubt expressed religiously. In her various writers, from the 1840s to the 1850s, Eliot imagined herself as either  rationalist, theist, pantheist, or positivist. Her husband, English philosopher and critic of literature and theater George Henry Lewes (1817-1878) was, however, “Comte’s most ardent British disciple.” They first meet in the early 1850s, and by 1863, Eliot describes herself as “swimming in Comte.” According to Butler, Eliot had “turned not so much from religion to infidelity as from the religion of her father to the religion of her husband.” Butler follows Eliot’s religious development throughout a number of works, including the novella “The Lifted Veil” (1859), a poem “The Choir Invisible” (1867), supplied to Positivists for use as a hymn in their new liturgy, and her more well-known novels Middlemarch (1874) and Daniel Deronda (1876). According to Butler, Eliot’s writings is “dominated by religious discourse to the point that it cannot be read separately from the vocabularly, the symbolic systems, the codes and the narrative syntax of the Judaeo-Christian tradition.” This should come as no surprise, for the “Comtean religion is, after all, a lonely and elevated affair with little to cheer a soul still trying to wrap about itself the Hebrew old clothes.”

The period between 1869-74 is known for a number of important events, from the Franco-Prussian war, the rise of Prussian statesman Otto von Bismarck (1815-1898), the revolutionary and socialist Paris Commune (18 March-28 May, 1871), the unification of Italy, and the Pastor aeternus, or the proclamation of Papal infallibility (1870). Indeed, Butler sees the 1870s as a “fulcrum or watershed” moment for Victorian doubt.

Besides these important political events, there was a “surge of science publications in the 1870s.” Tyndall published his Lectures on Sound (1867) and his Lectures on Light (1873). Darwin not only published his Descent of Man (1871), but also his essays on “Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication” (1868) and “Expression of Emotion in Man and Animals” (1872). Wallace published his Natural Selection (1870), The Geographical Distribution of Animals (1876), and his Tropical Nature (1878). Spencer published his Principles of Psychology (1870). Huxley published his Lay Sermons (1870) and spent the whole period from circa 1871-1880 as Secretary to the Royal Society.

The “scientific” study of religion was also gaining greater currency. Friedrich Max Müller (1823-1900), for instance, published in 1873 his Introduction to the Science of Religion and subsequently his 1878 Origin and Growth of Religion. Although Müller distrusted Darwin, Huxley, and Spencer, he was convinced that religion had “progressed” from the days of the Rig Veda. Higher Criticism was ever so popular in the 1870s. Besides Strauss and Renan, J.R. Seeley published his Ecce Homo in 1865, followed by George Macdonald’s Miracles of Our Lord (1870), Henry Ward Beecher’s Life of Jesus (1871), Eliza Lynn Linton’s “historical” novel The True History of Joshua Davidson (1872), F.W. Farrar’s Life of Christ (1874), and many others.

According to Butler, “religious novels were popular throughout the Victorian period…but whereas before 1870 these are mostly novels of inter-sectarian controversy, after 1870 the preponderant question is the question of doubt.”

Butler then goes on to show that the decade of 1870 is marked by “non-religious” novels. For example, he mentions the work of George Eliot, Anthony Trollope, Thomas Hardy, and Matthew Arnold. Butler also wants to point out that during this decade “religion had reached a high water mark.” It is indeed the decade of Dwight L. Moody (1837-1899) and his revivalism. It was also the decade of the Metaphysical Society (1869-1880), founded by James Knowles (1831-1908). Its membership included Tennyson, W.K. Clifford, Huxley, Stephen, but also many prominent clergymen. These men were to meet in London “nine times a year to discuss the problems of the coexistence of religion and science.” Knowles’ journal, The Nineteenth Century, published many of the writings of the members.

According to Butler, all this points to a growing “new consensus, a compromise.” This new “spirit of compromise” is apparent in Victorian literary works. John Morley’s On Compromise (1874) and Arnold’s St Paul and Protestantism (1870) and Literature and Dogma (1873) are case examples Butler provides the reader. Although religion is still dead for Morley, Butler’s point in including him is that more optimistic view is beginning to “creep into the sense of loss.” Morley calls “all forms of frivolity, all weak convictions, all vapidity and nihilism,” for example, “forces of darkness.”  One should hold strongly to either belief, atheism, or agnosticism, and refuse to wallow in despair. What is more, each point of view “should learn to tolerate the other’s point of view.” Arnold’s God and the Bible (1875) sums up Morley position: “Two things about the Christian religion must surely be clear to anybody with eyes in his head. One is, that men cannot do without it; the other, that they cannot do with it as it is.” This, says Butler, the “compromise of disbelieving religiously.”

*  *  *

History, Humanity, and Evolution

0521524784cvr.qxd (Page 1)In a festschrift honoring John C. Greene, most well-known for his seminal volumes, The Death of Adam: Evolution and its Impact on Western Thought (1959) and Science, Ideology and World View: Essays in the History of evolutionary Ideas (1981), James R. Moore (ed.) has collected thirteen essays in History, Humanity and Evolution: Essays for John C. Greene (1989) that share Greene’s interest in the intellectual, cultural, and social history of evolution; and, in particular, the recurring interdependence of science and religion in the history of science. Beginning with a wonderful introductory interview with Moore, Greene describes his general approach to relating these two most powerful forces in history:

“Religion apart from science tends to become obscurantist, dogmatic and bigoted; science apart from some general view of human nature in its total context becomes meaningless and destructive. Unless science is practiced on the basis of a conception of human nature that does justice to our highest aspirations, the prospect for the future is bleak indeed.”

Although the essays range in quality, they collectively represent the growing trend of social constructivism among historians of science in the last decade of the twentieth century. Roy Porter begins with an intellectual portrait of Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802) and his concern “to rescue ‘man’ from the aspersions of being just a machine.” Erasmus’ biomedical background was “informed by the evidence of change, both in degree and in kind, running ubiquitously through Nature.” But as an interpreter of nature, Erasmus’ attention was drawn to “features indicative of unity, integration and interdependence.” He would eventually develop a “hylozoic vision of natural continuity,” where living bodies were “capable of entering into dialectical interplay with their external environment.” In explaining this adaptive behavior, Erasmus had in mind “something close to the classic conception of the association of ideas as spelt out in empiricist epistemology from Locke through Hartley and Hume.” But Erasmus’ vision of human nature was not the l’homme machine of the Enlightenment. According to Porter, “his physician’s vision was dominated by the living organisms he saw fighting disease, changing over time, involved in subtle interplay with the personalities they housed…it is a vision of man for the machine age, but it is not a vision of man the machine.”

Ludmilla Jordanova examines Jean-Baptiste Lamarck’s (1744-1829) separation of God from nature, “creation from production.” Lamarck repudiated disorder in nature, but rather than adhering to a God who is in sovereign control over nature, he appealed to universal natural laws. Also interesting is Jordanova’s observation that “Lamarck’s ‘psychology’ was central to his philosophy of nature.” Lamarck shared many interests with the Parisian idéologues, a loosely affiliated group of self-styled social scientists such as Antoine-Louis-Claude Destutte de Tracy (1754-1836), Pierre-Jean-Georges Cabanis (1757-1808), Jean-Baptiste Say (1767-1832), among others. “Lamarck’s commitment to this position is clearly vital,” writes Jordanova, “as it spurred him to think through a naturalistic account of the nervous system, and to reject any mental faculties, such as will and imagination, not strictly compatible with such an account.” By  redefining terms such as creation, production, life and nature, “Lamarck tried to generate a language purged of unwelcome theological associations, to set himself apart from natural philosophical traditions that could not sustain a science of life rooted in change over time, that is, production.”

Adrian Desmond argues that “the doctrines of scientific naturalism, in comparative anatomy at least, originated in republican Paris, and were actively imported into London and incorporated into Benthemite and radical dissenting strategies at the time of the Reform and Municipal Corporations Acts” of 1835, long before the “scientific naturalism” of the Huxleys and Tyndalls of the 1860s. When these radical dissenters stripped nature of its supernatural content, it “served a powerful religious and political purpose.” That is, “it vitiated the clergy’s claim to moral authority based on their mediating role in natural theology, and was in line with the dissenters’ belief in the priesthood of all believers and the right to private interpretation of the Bible.” The “new naturalism,” as Desmond phrases it, “appealed most strongly to younger reformers, many socially handicapped nonconformists and secularists, who were attempting to break the traditional power of the old corporation and Oxbridge oligarchs.”

Simon Schaffer focuses the “nebular hypothesis” of Pierre-Simon Laplace (1749-1827) and how it gained greater currency in the 1830s through the work of John Pringle Nichol (1804-1859), becoming an “important site at which the Victorians worked out their differing views of the progress of their world.” The nebular hypothesis pretends to give an astronomical account of the origins of the solar system through natural laws. Both Robert Chambers and Herbert Spencer “gave the nebular cosmogony pride of place in their respective accounts of development in the world.” Indeed, Spencer said it exemplified “the law of all progress.”But as Schaffer argues, the nebular hypothesis was not imported from astronomy. It came to Britain through the writings of Auguste Comte (1798-1857) and William Herschel (1738-1822), as reported by David Brewster (1781-1868) and J.S. Mill (1806-1873). It was William Whewell (1794-1866), however, who first coined the term “nebular hypothesis” in his 1833 Bridgewater Treatise. Indeed, “Whewell baptized the nebular hypothesis by claiming that it still demanded ‘an intelligent Author, an origin proceeding from free volition not from material necessity.'” But Nichol and his allies, according to Schaffer, “made their nebular hypothesis an object of a moral and a natural science. Stellar progress was pressed into the service of political reform.” Astronomical data was malleable; its “message was always interpreted to fit the local interests of protagonists in the contests about progress in the Universe and in Society.” In this sense, astronomy was the “science of progress.” According to Charles Lyell (1797-1875), astronomy “gave the most violent shock to the prejudices and long-received opinions of men.” This “science of progress appeared in government offices, lecture theatres, journals and popular texts of the reform movement in politics and education that developed during the 1820s and 1830s.” These reformers stressed the inevitability and certainty of natural laws, and therefore progress. Nichol’s impact on Darwin, Chambers, Mill, and others is well attested. According to Schaffer, Nichol’s “version of the nebular hypothesis was not an isolated statement of an astronomical truth. It appeared alongside reflections on the origin of life, the progress of humanity and the future of society. His cosmogony was part of a sectarian view of history and it had stiff competition.”

James A. Secord provides an early essay on Robert Chambers (1802-1871) and his Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (1844), which would be developed in full in his Victorian Sensation (2000). Secord wants to present a “new view of the Vestiges and how it came to be written.” Chambers publicly delineated his ideas on the development of the cosmos and life on earth in the Chambers’s Edinburgh Journal, a weekly periodical founded by William and Robert Chambers in 1832. “The tone of the Journal,” writes Secord, “is unmistakeable: self-improvement, the progress of society, and rational, non-sectarian entertainment.” The Vestiges can be seen as a consequence of the “progressive development” of the author himself. Initially, Chambers was a staunch Tory, but eventually shifting to liberal Whig in the 1830s. Religiously, Chambers was a moderate deist who disliked “evangelical enthusiasm and doctrinal controversy.” According Secord, the “explicitly religious aspects of the Vestiges were tacked on to placate those evangelicals he contemptuously referred to as ‘the saints.'” Further, his interest in natural science emerged from “a phrenologically inspired educational programme in publishing,” accepting the “essential tenets of phrenology and their significance for his growing interest in natural law.” It was Scottish phrenologist George Combe (1788-1858) and his Constitution of Man (1828) that came to influence Chambers the most in this regard. He was also influenced by Nichol’s Views of the Architecture of the Heavens (1837), which described the evolution of the universe and the formation of galaxies and stars. Nichol’s version of the nebular hypothesis compelled Chambers to apply the “law of progress to the whole realm of nature.” Much of these developing ideas, according to Secord, are present in Chambers’ Journal.

But how, exactly, did Chambers come to replace divine intervention with law-like regularities? “In the late 1830s,” Secord observes, “naturalistic physiological and anatomical doctrines were common currency among nonconformist medical men.” During this time, Chambers came under the influence of Perceval Lord’s Popular Physiology (1834) and John Fletcher’s Rudiments of Physiology (1835-7), and it appears that the “transmutation theory of Vestiges was initially constructed around the traditional concept of recapitulation available in the works of Lord and Fletcher.” At the time, of course, transmutation was a radical doctrine. But when Chambers composed Vestiges in the early 1840s, he utilized analogies of domesticity and human growth to disarm criticism. “Images of pregnancy, birth, childhood and the family were deeply embedded in the structure and language of the book.” Chambers used “generative images to bring the frightening notion of transmutation within the realm of the familiar.” The Vestiges was successful because Chambers employed such generative models of domestic virtues, which minimized or completely neutralized the fears of his audience.

In his own extraordinary and moving study, Moore traces Darwin’s gradual loss of faith to moral reasons rather than intellectual ones. He claims that the “prevailing view of Darwin’s loss of faith to be wrong.” This view holds that Darwin’s misgivings and eventual eschewal of the Christian faith are for the most part intellectual. Evidential considerations surely played some role, but the fact that this process was for so long protracted suggests that Darwin “was frankly reluctant to give up on Christianity.” In a 1879 letter to John Fordyce, author of Aspects of Scepticism: With Special Reference to the Present Time (1883), for example, Darwin writes

It seems to me absurd to doubt that a man may be an ardent Theist & an evolutionist.— You are right about Kingsley. Asa Gray, the eminent botanist, is another case in point— What my own views may be is a question of no consequence to any one except myself.— But as you ask, I may state that my judgment often fluctuates. Moreover whether a man deserves to be called a theist depends on the definition of the term: which is much too large a subject for a note. In my most extreme fluctuations I have never been an atheist in the sense of denying the existence of a God.— I think that generally (& more and more so as I grow older) but not always, that an agnostic would be the most correct description of my state of mind.

According to Moore, the most well-known account of Darwin’s loss of Christian faith comes from his Autobiography, written between 1876 and 1881. And it is here where we find a “different interpretation of Darwin’s loss of faith.” The Autobiography was written for no one but his family. There Darwin reveals that he had “gradually” come to distrust the Old Testament on empirical and moral grounds. Likewise, he “gradually came to disbelieve in Christianity as a divine revelation.” Here the reasons given “pertain chiefly to defects in historical evidence.” But Darwin also found the “damnable doctrine” of everlasting punishment to be morally repugnant as well. At any rate, he hastens to add, “I was very unwilling to give up my belief…disbelief crept over me at a very slow rate.”

Moore focuses on a section in the Autobiography entitled “Religious Belief,” which includes discussions on Christianity, natural religion, the existence of God and personal immortality, and the moral life of an agnostic. Theses sections were likely written sometime between 1876 and 1879. In 1879 Darwin also gave his full attention to “a biographical sketch of his grandfather, Erasmus Darwin.” As Moore writes, “the ‘constant inculcation’ of disbelief in the Darwin family, from his grandfather down to grandson, had produced neither moral obliquity nor guilt.”

Moore also makes the interesting observation that the life of Darwin’s wife, Emma, was marked full of death (her sister, Fanny, died in 1832; her infant and both parents died in the 1840s; two additional children and two aunts died in the 1850s; another sister, aunt, and nephew died in the 1860s; and yet another sister, brother, and a remaining aunt died in the 1880s), whereas Darwin “lost no one near and dear to him until his father’s death in 1848.” When his father died, Darwin entered a deep depression: “All the autumn & winter I have been much dispirited and inclined to do nothing but what I was forced to.”

It was also during this time that Darwin began reading some works on apologetics. According to his reading notebook, for example, Darwin read Andrews Norton’s The Evidences of the Genuineness of the Gospels (1837), Julius Hare’s Essays and Tales by John Sterling (1848), three books by Francis Newman, the younger brother of John Henry, including The Soul, Her Sorrows and Her Aspirations: An Essay towards the Natural History of the Soul, as the True Basis of Theology (1849), A History of the Hebrew Monarchy from the Adminstration of Samuel to the Babylonish Captivity (1847), and Phases of Faith; or, Passages from the History of My Creed (1850). Darwin recorded his highest accolade, “excellent,” for this last publication. The Phases of Faith “was a model of spiritual autobiography conceived as the outgrowth of one ‘phase’ of faith from another, forming a natural progression in which the abandonment of Christianity appears at the end of a plausible, grandualistic narrative.” Darwin followed a similar technique in his own Autobiography.

Moore then tells the emotional story of the death of Annie in 1851, “Darwin’s favourite child.” At only ten years old, Annie’s death shook him to his core. According to Darwin, “Annie did not deserve to die; she did not even deserve to be punished—in this world, let alone the next.” But “nature’s check fell upon her, crushing her remorsefully.” As Moore aptly puts it, “If contemplation of Dr. Darwin eternal destiny had spiked Christianity—Emma’s Christianity, the only living faith he really knew—Annie’s death clinched the matter a fortiori.” In conclusion, “the circumstances under which Darwin came at last to reject Christianity were full of pain…and his decisive objection was [ultimately] moral.”

Martin Rudwick discusses “nineteenth-century visual representations of the deep past.” He begins with some brief remarks on dioramas of natural history, found in our modern museums. The dinosaurs of the Cretaceous period; the ichthyosaurs of the Jurassic seas; the swamps of the Carboniferous; the trilobites and the nautiloids among the coral reefs. “Evolution,” he writes, has “replaced ‘elohim.” Our dioramas of natural history are “reconstructed scenes.” They are anschaulichkeit, that is, “clear,” “graphic,” “vivid” representations of “the prehuman and barely-human past,” reconstructed as “ideal views,” familiar, conceivable, and, most importantly, imaginable. They help make evolutionary interpretation plausible and persuasive, better than any scientific theory can.

Modern dioramas have a history, most conspicuously in illustrations in nineteenth-century books. These artists “visualized the long aeons of ‘deep time’ that lie beyond human history or even the origins of our humanity.” Rudwick works backgrounds, starting with Guillaume Louis Figuier (1819-94) and Edouard Riou’s (1833-1900) “profusely illustrated works, particularly their The World before the Deluge (1863). Figuier had borrowed many of the images from the work of a predecessor, Alcide d’Orbigny (1802-57), professor of palaeontology at the National History Museum in Paris. But according to Rudwick, “Figuier’s human beings, although primitive in time, and simple in tools, clothing and shelter, were no primitives in any other sense: they were unmistakably white and European, and wholly modern in physical appearance.”

Before Figuier there was Austrian palaeobotanist Franz Unger (1800-70) and his illustrator Josef Kuwasseg (1799-1859) in The Primitive World in Its Different Periods of Formation (1847). Their images of the Ice Age in Europe and the origins of humankind were obviously “imaginative achievements.” Other contributors to this genre include August Wilhelm von Klipstein (1801-94), Johann Jakob Kaup (1803-73), Oxford geologist William Buckland (1784-1856), and Henry De la Beche (1796-1855). What is important here is that among these early contributors, “the idea of constructing a whole sequence of scenes from the deep past” was readily available.

Why? Where did this fascination originate? According to Rudwick, when Buckland had asked De la Beche to draw scenes from the deep past, he asked for caricatures of scientific research. De la Beche’s Duria Antiquior (c. 1830) is a prime example. In this “half-humorous” lithograph of ichthyosaurs, pleisiosaurs, and other creatures found as fossils in the Liassic strata of Dorset, “almost every animal was shown eating, of being eaten by, another.” Such caricatures were initially privately and widely circulated among gentlemen geologists of London. Another example is William Conybeare’s (1787-1857) “The Hyaena’s Den at Kirkdale,” which celebrated Buckland’s analysis of the bone relics in a cave in Kirkdale in Yorkshire. In this lithograph Buckland emerges from the cave passage, candle in hand, with a “surprise” expression on his face. “The geologist became in caricature a participant in the scene he had soberly reconstructed in words.” The visual form had obviously been exaggerated for poetic effect.

Thus by the time we reach Darwin, says Rudwick, a “principle had been established.” By making “deep time” anschaulichkeit, “clear,” “graphic,” “vivid,” and, in the end, “entertaining” by visual representation, evolutionary theory seemed more plausible.

I have reserved an special post for Bernard Lightman’s essay on “Ideology, Evolution and Late-Victorian Agnostic Popularizers,” and therefore will pass over it here.

Paul Weindling discusses Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919) and the “secularization of nature,” connecting Haeckel’s acceptance of Darwinism to his views on German politics and social development.

According to Weindling, “Darwinism in Germany was a movement promoting liberal, rational and secular values in perceptions of nature and society.” These German Darwinists were less materialistic and more idealistic and pantheistic. It was, as Weindling puts it, a “secular religion.” In this sense, German Darwinism, or “Darwinismus,” was not “categorically hostile to religion.” By focusing on the career of Haeckel, Weindling wants to track how “Darwinisums moved from its early alliance with political liberalism to perform [a] corporatist and integrative social function.” The life of Haeckel thus “provides valuable insight into German culture and public opinion at the end of the nineteenth century.”

“It is a commonplace that Darwin’s theory of natural selection replaced a harmonious view of nature with one based on chance and struggle,” writes Weindling. But in Germany, Darwin’s theory was, he claims, viewed differently. In Darwinismus, “the theory did not entail a pessimistic philosophy of purposeless conflict.” In Haeckel’s thought, for instance, the view “emerged in which even the most minute beings reveal beauty, harmonious order and the germs of intellectual and social life.” Haeckel is often remembered for “having inspired a love of nature in a generation of biologists,” and indeed he “possessed a deep sensitivity for natural beauties.” As such during his career he “surrounded himself with patriotic and nature-loving cohorts.”

During Haeckel’s lifetime, Germany transformed from a “predominately agrarian and politically fragmented society to an industrial and imperial power.” Such technological and political advancements whetted an appetite “for more optimistic and relevant explanation of the world than that of traditional theology, which was promulgated by churches tied closely to archaic and repressive social forms.”

Though a leader with a following, Haeckel had a need for paternal guidance, thus gathering a series of father-figures. The first was physiologist and comparative anatomist Johannes Müller (1801-1858). Interestingly enough, Müller had nothing but contempt for materialism and its supporters, such as Carl Vogt (1817-1895) and Ludwig Büchner (1824-1899). Initially, Haeckel shared this contempt. Once Müller died Haeckel found another mentor and father-figure, Max Schultze (1825-1874). The influence of Schultze lead Haeckel to Darwin’s Origin of Species.

A major transformation occurred after the death of his wife in 1864. According to Weindling, “it was a traumatic shock, and Haeckel began to feel his character hardening.” Soon after Haeckel began work on Generelle Morphologie (1866), which presented a revolutionary synthesis of Darwin’s ideas with the German tradition of Naturphilosophie. After its publication Haeckel traveled to Darwin’s residence at Down House. After this visit Darwin became Haeckel new mentor and father-figure. Although Darwin warned him that “you have in part taken what I said much stronger than what I intended,” Haeckel thereafter regarded himself a committed Darwinist.

But for Haeckel Darwinism “functioned as an ideology of human progress” rather than a theory of organic evolution. His enthusiasm and obvious emotional character made him “vulnerable to scientific criticisms, and when these came,” Weindling tells us, “old friendships were broken, to be replaced with enmity and bitterness.” He broke ties with cellular pathologist Rudolf Virchow (1821-1902) over the politics of Prussian statesman Otto von Bismarck (1815-1898); Karl Gegenbaur (1826-1903), a colleague from the University of Jena, doubted Haeckel’s evolutionary synthesis, as did evolutionary biologist August Weismann (1834-1914). His own students began questioning and criticizing his “biogenetic law and monophyletic theory.” According to Weindling, Haeckel is clearly a “tragic [King] Lear-figure.”

Fortunate for Haeckel, some students remained attached to him, and his “chief compensation for his personal losses was increasing popular success.” During the late 1870s, Haeckel embarked on a campaign of determined propaganda, publicizing “Darwinismus as never before, first by issuing a popular edition of his lectures, then by advertising ‘Monism’ as a link between science and religion.” According to Weindling, the “rational and empirical features in evolutionary theory now gradually gave way to mystic idealism,” as particularly expressed in his Die Welträtsel (1895-1899), “the riddle of the universe.” These ideas were immensely popular, appealing not only to a general audience, but also to disciplines of psychology, sociology, and psychoanalysis. Haeckel’s ideas were also “avidly read across the political spectrum, among socialists and extreme nationalists alike, and they inspired new evolutionary ethics.”

Darwinismus gradually became the basis of Social Darwinism, promoting national unity and creating a “more sympathetic attitude to welfare reforms both within the state and among landowners, industrialists and the middle classes.” Weindling rejects the idea that Nazi racism stems from Haeckel. Although he used concepts of human hierarchy, of “lower” and “higher” races, and occasionally made anti-Semitic remarks, his ideas were too complex and ambiguous to be seen as the standard-bearer for national socialism. Haeckel was “deeply ambivalent.” As Weindling argues, “Haeckel used biology to shore up a form of corporatist social thought that differed fundamentally from the hereditarian social pathologies current under the Nazis.”

Evolutionary theory was undoubtedly threatening, for it seemed to make mankind the “byproduct of a meaningless natural process.” It was less threatening, however, if it was “portrayed as a process leading inexorably towards moral and intellectual improvement, with the human race at the forefront of the advance.” Thus in the nineteenth century ideas of progress came attached to theories of evolution. But by the following century, the notion of progress came under heavy scrutiny. At the same time, in the late nineteenth century, many became obsessed with the “threat of cultural degeneration.” In his essay, Peter J. Bowler argues that both “progressionists” and “degenerationists” exploited all available theories of evolution, including Darwinism, Lamarckism, and orthogenesis.

The idea of degeneration has its roots in the Christian tradition. Christianity portrays humanity as fallen, as “degenerated from an original state of moral perfection.” This was certainly not the only view within the Christian tradition, but the fall of mankind and its subsequent corruption and degeneration is clearly a predominant theme in western culture. But among mid-nineteenth-century evolutionists, human history was viewed quite differently. Banker, politician, and scientist John Lubbock (1834-1913), for instance, argued that “the progress of civilization” was a “continuation of the progress inherent in biological evolution” (my emphasis). Yet as Bowler points out, by the end of the century, some writers were beginning to doubt that the “triumphal development of Western culture could be maintained.”

What “facts” were causing these doubts? As early as 1857, French psychiatrist Bénédict Augustin Morel (1809-1873) had argued that certain environmental factors could lead to degeneration. In 1875, Italian criminologist and founder of the Italian School of Positivist Criminology Cesare Lombroso (1835-1909) posited that the criminal was a “degenerate throwback to an earlier stage of evolution.” And in 1895, German sociologist Max Simon Nordau (1849-1923) stressed that the artist and the criminal were “equivalent cases of arrested development.” These men, and Lombroso in particular, believed that the “environment caused the arrest of development that produced the subhuman criminal type.” Moreover, these men also “identified certain races as more inclined to degeneracy than others.” According to Bowler, “the growing strength of the eugenics movement in the early twentieth century indicates that many social thinkers had begun to doubt the inevitability of progress.”

Darwin had also stressed the role of environment in determining evolution. But Bowler claims that the notion of progress was not a “universal phenomenon in Darwin’s view.” That is debatable. Regardless of his actual views, Darwin “had never been the undisputed leader of the evolutionists, and his theory of natural selection was being challenged by a number of alternatives.” And these alternative theories were generally linked to theories of social degeneration. Lamarck’s theory of inheritance offered a ready explanation for degeneration: the cumulative effects of disuse. American “neo-Lamarckians” Edward Drinker Cope (1840-1897) and Alpheus Hyatt (1838-1902) claimed that progressive evolution consisted of “successive addition of stages to the growth process, produced by the inheritance of acquired characters as each generation became more specialized for the species’ chosen way of life.” According to Bowler, the analogy of “growth” allowed Lamarckian evolutionists to “treat evolution as a highly directed process, moving inexorably toward a predetermined goal.” Hyatt even advocated the notion of “racial senility,” in which the individual “degenerated toward simpler characters and ultimate extinction.” Hyatt also argued against female emancipation, claiming that “to give women equal political rights would diminish the psychological difference between the sexes and would thus encourage a degenerate trend in the species.” More broadly, some evolutionists, such as E. Ray Lankester (1847-1929), used analogies of human affairs to buttress their biological arguments. Whereas “Lubbock tended to assume that ‘primitive societies were relics of earlier stages in human progress…Lankester argued that ‘savages’ such as the bushmen and the Australian aborigines might be descendants of once-civilized peoples.” Lankester, in order words, viewed the contemporary “savage” as culturally degenerate. And according to Lankester, white man faces a similar fate. How does he prevent such a threatening state? By the cultivation of science.

In any event, both Darwinism and Lamarckianism were used to “stress the possibility of degeneration brought on by the adoption of a passive life-style.”An alternative theory was that of orthogenesis, “or evolution directed by internally programmed trends that would force variation inexorably in a certain direction, even when the results were non-adaptive.” What pieces of evidence convinced scientists of orthogenesis? For starters, the fossil record “seemed to reveal consistent trends in the development of certain structures,” such as the horn size on the “Irish elk.” But orthogenesis was also applied to human evolution, in the case of the trend towards increasing brain size. The human brain was seen as the “inevitable product of a longstanding evolutionary trend.” This was, of course, not Darwin’s view. Nevertheless, according to Bowler, orthogentic views became increasingly popular in the early twentieth century, advocated by such men as physical anthropologist Earnest A. Hooton (1887-1954), palaeoanthropologist Wilfrid Le Gros Clark (1895-1971), and palaeontologist Arthur Smith Woodward (1864-1944). Woodward even supported the view that “evolution was driven by forces somehow built into the germ plasm of the species.” Orthogenesis was essentially a degenerative theory, but most supporters turned it into “a progressive explanation of human origins.”

It is in this sense, as Bowler puts, “degeneration and progress went hand in hand,” or, as he puts it another way, “degeneration was indeed no more than an attempt to reassess the conceptual foundations of progressionism.” Thus the degeneration of the late-nineteenth century was only “skin deep.” Those scientists who studied the origins of the human race “automatically made progressionist assumptions.” Not until the mid-twentieth century was Darwin’s theory of natural selection fully embraced. No one wanted a totally undirected “evolution governed by ‘chance.'” According to Bowler, the “simplest ways of guaranteeing that evolution worked in an orderly, predictable manner, were to compare it with the growth of the embryo…or to postulate rigid variation trends.” In the end, “each theory was capable of being exploited by either side of the debate.”

As each essay in this festschrift honoring the scholarship of John C. Greene demonstrates, scientists are “constrained by professional as well as political interests, and if they make their decision first on professional grounds, they will always be able to find a way of adapting the theory of their choice to their wider beliefs.” As Bowler concludes, “any complex [scientific] theory can be turned into a panacea or a nightmare.”

The Agnostic Theology of Huxley and Tyndall

Earlier today I read Bernard Lightman’s short essay “Does the History of Science and Religion Change Depending on the Narrator? Some Atheist and Agnostic Perspectives” (2012) as a break from reading his edited volume Victorian Science in Context (1997). It was, as expected, excellent.

Lightman’s answer is a resounding yes. In his estimation, “during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the strategy of unbelievers revolved around attempting, without too much success, to draw out of Newtonianism some kind of justification for their materialism and their atheism.” But later, in the nineteenth century and after the publication of The Origins of Species, “evolutionary theory offered new opportunities to unbelievers for dealing with the Newton problem”—the problem being that Newtonian physics was inextricably intertwined with Newton’s theology. The strategy of nineteenth-century scientific naturalists like T.H. Huxley and John Tyndall, for example, was “separating science and religion into two separate spheres,” which allowed them to “construct a religiously neutral scientific system and to offer a re-interpreation of the history of science and region that relegated Newtonianism to the sidelines.”

Focusing on Baron d’Holbach (1723-1789), Lightman underscores how radical Enlightenment philosophes saw science, particularly Newtonianism, as providing intellectual support for atheism—that is, as long as it was “purged of religious concepts that Newton had enshrined in the heart of his physics.” Indeed, d’Holbach and other radical philosophes such as Denis Diderot, Jean d’Alembert, Claude Adrien Helvétius, and Pierre-Simon Laplace, “pressed Newton into service as an ally.” But in order to deify Newton, of course, he had to be defied. In order to explain away Newton’s religious commitments, for instance, he was reinterpreted as schizophrenic (d’Holbach) or mentally deranged (Laplace). For d’Holbach and his coterie, “the history of science and religion confirmed the validity of materialism.”

Transitioning to Herbert Spencer’s (1820-1903) System of Synthetic Philosophy, Lightman shows that Spencer actually sought the “basis of a complete reconciliation” between science and religion. This was, Lightman notes, the central aim of Spencer’s First Principles, published in 1862. For Spencer, “the basis for a total reconciliation between science and religion, is the idea of a mysterious power underlying phenomena.”

Likewise, Tyndall was actually “curiously conciliatory towards religion.” In a 1847 journey entry Tyndall rejected the “main doctrines of Victorian Christianity”:

I cannot for an instant imagine that a good and merciful God would ever make our eternal salvation depend upon such slender links, as conformity with what some are pleased to call the essentials of religion. I was long fettered by these things, but now thank God they are placed upon the same shelf with the swaddling clothes which bound up my infancy.

But as Lightman points out, “this rejection of Christian doctrines did not lead him to atheism.” Indeed, Tyndall actually “believed that science and religion, as he defined them, could exist in peaceful harmony.” He saw subjective religious feeling “as true as any other part of human consciousness,” and thus was safe from any kind of scientific attack. According to Lightman, Tyndall thought “religion, in its subjective dimension and its articulation through symbol, could be reconciled with the objective facts of science if the boundaries between the two ‘magisteria’, as Stephen Jay Gould referred to them, were maintained.” In this sense, Tyndall rejected the label “materialist,” arguing that “materialism was fruitful as a scientific methodology, but it could not be a complete philosophy of life.” (Incidentally, this seems to be contemporary philosopher Thomas Nagel‘s own position.) Rather, he ascribed to a “higher materialism” that “found in matter ‘the promise and potency of all terrestrial life.'” Religion was the “inward completeness and dignity of man.” And as pointed out by Ruth Barton elsewhere, “Tyndall voiced his debt to [Thomas] Carlyle” for much of his understanding of science-religion relations.

Although a physicist, Tyndall made little mention of Newton in his history of science and religion. As Lightman puts it, Tyndall displaced Newton “from the centre of the story of the making of modern science.” This is unsurprising as Newtonianism was central to nineteenth-century natural theology, which, like Carlyle, Tyndall completely rejected. Tyndall’s rejection of natural theology deserves closer inspection because it seems he did so on the basis that it led to deism. In 1849, for example, after reading William Paley’s (1743-1805) Natural Theology, Tyndall wrote in his journal that “the Great Spirit is not to be come at in this way; if so, his cognition would only be accessible to the scientific and to very little purpose even here,” and later wrote that he rejects “a detached God—a God outside his Universe who superintends the clockwork thereof.”

Huxley, the “self-styled ‘gladiator-general’ of evolutionary science,” took a surprisingly similar position on the science-religion relationship. Like Tyndall, “Huxley held to the idea that science and religion belonged to two distinct realms,” and once rightly conceived “science and religion could never come into conflict because each realm was distinct and without authority outside its proper sphere of interest.” What is more, Huxley argued that “atheism is as absurd, logically speaking, as polytheism.” For Huxley, agnosticism was the only legitimate course regarding religious questions. In Science and Hebrew Tradition (1893), Huxley declared that

the antagonism between science and religion about which we hear so much, appears to me to be purely fictitious—fabricated, on the one hand, by short-sighted religious people who confound a certain branch of science, theology, with religion; and, on the other, by equally short-sighted scientific people who forget that science takes for its province only that which is susceptible of clear intellectual comprehension.

However, when it came to understanding Newton, Huxley falls victim to his own short-sighted position, ignoring Newton’s “profound relationship between universal natural laws and a divine being” and simplistically arguing that “Newton stands as the exemplary empirical scientist.”

In conclusion Lightman highlights how contemporary atheists, particularly Steven Weinberg and Richard Dawkins, have “far more in common with Enlightenment philosophes like d’Holbach than they do with Victorian agnostics such as Huxley and Tyndall.” But unlike the philosophes, who tried to “finesse Newton, as did early modern unbelievers, their atheism, and their perpetuation of the conflict thesis in history…seems, to the uninformed, to have the complete backing of history.” In other words, the so-called “New Atheists” not only misread the history of science, they ultimately distort it for their readers. As Borden Painter points out in his reprimanding “New Atheism’s Old—and Flawed—History” article in Historically Speaking (2012), “the deficiencies of New Atheist history should be obvious to professional historians: choosing evidence to suit a predetermined and state ideology while ignoring the rest; lack of nuance and context; simplistic and monocausal explanations; anachronism and moralism; [and] poor choice or misrepresentation of secondary sources.”

Preaching at the British Association for the Advancement of Science and the Secularism of George Jacob Holyoake

Wrapping up a series of essays I have been reading from The British Journal for the History of Science, I now come to two interrelated and complimentary essays by Ciaran Toal, “Preaching at the British Association for the Advancement of Science: Sermons, Secularization and the Rhetoric of Conflict in the 1870s” (2012), and Michael Rectenwald, “Secularism and the Cultures of Nineteenth-century Scientific Naturalism” (2013).

Toal argues that there was a “vast homiletic literature preached during the British Association meetings throughout the nineteenth century, ” despite Reverend Vernon Harcourt’s—one of the founders of the BAAS—dedication to neutrality and admonition against any discussion of religion and politics. As Toal writes in another context (see his “Science, Religion, and the Geography of Speech at the British Association: William Henry Dallinger (1839-1909) Under the Microscope” [2013]), “concerned that the BAAS would become embroiled in theological disputes, and distracted from its mission of bringing science to the provinces, [Harcourt], along with the rest of the leadership, founded the Association as a ‘neutral’ body.”

However, the Sunday of the BAAS meeting, and the sermons preached on that day, constitutes an indelible part of its history. Toal’s essay “focuses on the range of sermons preached in connection with the British Association meetings in the 1870s,” and particular “attention is given to the differing views on the relationship between science and religion in the homiletic record, and the rhetoric of ‘science-religion conflict’ following John Tyndall’s 1874 ‘Belfast Address.'”

In an age often described as the “golden age of preaching,” sermons played an important role in the social and religious life of the Victorian. “Thomas Henry Huxley,” for example, “recognized the cultural power of the sermon, naming his own collection of essays, addresses and reviews ‘Lay Sermons.'”

The religious geography of nineteenth-century Britain often dictated what was preached during the British Association meeting. Although multifarious in style, content, proclamation, and instruction, the most important function of any sermon was the imparting of religious truth. In other words, sermons were didactic, especially those preached at the BAAS.

Sermons preached at the BAAS were responsive to the expectations and sensibilities of its audience. They were not your normal Sunday service, as Toal points out, for the preachers who preached on a Sunday of the BAAS “were aware that their discourses would be widely published and digested.”

Thus lines were often blurred between official BAAS business and associated religious activity. Broadly, sermons were either preached in the week preceding, the week during, or the week immediately following the visit of the BAAS to a host town or city, and directly addressing the prominent scientific issues under discussion.

Turning to the content of sermons and the varying views on the relationship between science and religion in them, Toal reiterates John Hedley Brooke’s warning that discussing science and religion in essentialist terms often obfuscate understanding by importing anachronistic boundaries. But he also argues that “many of the preachers did discuss science and religion in discrete terms, before commenting on how they were or were not related.” For example, a 1870 sermon by Rev. Abraham Hume preached the Connexion between Science and Religion: A Sermon Preached at Christ Church Kensington, Liverpool, 18th Septemberduring the Meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. Hume quoted from Psalm 100.24, 25 “O Lord, how manifold are thy works! In wisdom hast thou made them all; the earth is full of thy riches. So is the great and wide sea, wherein are things creeping innumerable.” He used the passage to argue that God’s works in nature and God’s word in Scripture both reveal him and our allies. Even more explicit, Anglican Charles Coombe, in 1879, preached a sermon entitled ‘Sirs, Ye are Brethren;’ or Science and Religion at One: Sermon Preached in St. Paul’s Church, Sheffield, on the Occasion of the Meeting of the British Association, August 24th, where he argued against antagonism between science religion, and that both should stop “maligning, fighting and devouring” each other.

In general, according to Toal, three positions in the relationship between science and religion dominate the sermons preached throughout the 1870s. First, the relationship between science religion was underpinned by the idea that they were essentially separate entities. This is usually the position taken by liberal Anglicans and the Unitarians, who were more open to “speculative science.” Other Unitarians, such as itinerant preacher Charles Wicksteed, wanted to separate science and religion into spheres of physical and spiritual knowledge, “as they were different modes of God’s voices, and [thus] should not be judged against each other.” But a number of preachers also maintained that science and religion were integrated as inextricably linked forms of knowledge. Those who took this position often preached that science and its conclusions had to be limited by religion: “relation is crucial, as it could provide a fuller interpretation of nature and, more importantly, offer salvation for nature could not.” Those who took up this position often expressed the views that physical and experimental science, and especially the theories of Darwin, sought to destroy religion. They were also the fiercest critics of Tyndall.

With these “positional readings” in mind, Toal turns specifically to the conflict rhetoric before and after Tyndall’s Belfast Address in 1874. According to Toal, before Tyndall’s attack, preachers explained any science-religion antagonism as a result of either human error, inept theology, over eagerness, a lack of full knowledge of both science and religion, or inattention to the “varieties of God’s voices.” After the Belfast Address, the tone of sermons changes, and, importantly, preachers began leveling “accusation for promoting science-religion conflict at a distinct group, or groups, particularly the scientific naturalists.”

But these accusations had little effect on the reputation of the BAAS. According to Toal, throughout the sermon record in the 1870s, in the context of hostility to religion, the BAAS was without exception received favorably; that is, little criticism is ever directed at the BAAS as a body. This demonstrates, according to Toal, that preachers deliberately differentiated between the BAAS and the antagonistic statements of some of its members. This shows that the responsibility for propagating antagonistic science-religion is rhetoric was identified with a particular group, often labeled as “dogmatic scientists,” “materialists,” “atheists,” or “unbelievers,”and not with the BAAS as a whole. In short, the BAAS was seen, broadly, as an institution favorable to religion and religious groups.

Toal concludes his essay with a note on how “the explanatory power of a ‘secularization thesis’ is diminished in the context of the vast number of Sunday sermons preached at the [BAAS].” “Victorian culture,” he adds, “was arguably no less religious in 1870s than it had been before…[and], similarly, many Victorian scientists were no less religious.”

George Jacob HolyoakeRectenwald’s essay nicely compliments Toal’s, in which he argues that in the mid-1840s, a philosophical, social and political movement named Secularism evolved from the radical tradition of Thomas Paine, Richard Carlile, Robert Owen and the radical periodical press. George Jacob Holyoake (1817–1906) founded and named Secularism at mid-century, and it was this Secularism that acted as a “significant source for the emerging new creed of scientific naturalism in the mid-nineteenth century.”

Rectenwald writes, “Secularism drew from the social base of artisan intellectuals who came of age in the era of self-improvement; the diffusion of knowledge; and agitation for social, political and economic reform—but it also enrolled the support of middle-class radicals.” Holyoake developed secularism as a creed with a naturalistic epistemology, morality, and politics; its principle as an ontological demarcation stratagem, “dividing the metaphysical, spiritual or eternal from ‘this life’—the material, the worldly or the temporal.” But Holyoake’s secularism did not require atheism as a prerequisite; “secularism represented ‘unknowingness without denial.” As Rectenwald puts it, “one’s beliefs in the supernatural were a matter of speculation or opinion to which one was entitled, unless such beliefs precluded positive knowledge or action.” And unlike Charles Bradlaugh’s (1833-1891) politically active atheism, Holyoake’s secularism was not aimed at “abolishing religious ideology from law, education and government.” In short, “secularism represented the necessary conciliation with respectable middle-class unbelief and liberal theology that would allow for an association with the scientific naturalism of Huxley, Tyndall and Spencer,” and as such it was “constitutive of the cultural and intellectual environment necessary for the promotion and relative success of scientific naturalism beginning in the 1850s.”

There was indeed a “circuit of exchanges” between Holyoake and the scientific naturalists, suggesting that secularism was important to scientific naturalism from the outset. Rectenwald gives us fascinating overview of secularism in the periodicals, pamphlets, and other publications with which Holyoake was associated with in the mid-century. Freethought periodicals such as Oracle of Reason—with its epigraph on the front of every issue, “Faith’s empire is the World, its monarch God, its minister the priests, its slaves the people”—Movement and Anti-persecution Gazette, The Investigator, and the Free Thinkers’ Information for the People were founded in the 1840s and “began as working-class productions aimed at working-class readers.” The Oracle of Reason proudly boasted that it was “the only exclusively atheistical print that has appeared in any age or country.”

When Holyoake took over many of these radical publications, he opened the pages to “respectable” radicals, such as Herbert Spencer and Auguste Comte, forming an alliance between radical artisans and middle-class unbelievers. As many historians have shown, Lamarck’s theory of evolution was taken up by various radical political thinkers, which seemed to provide scientific underpinning for their reformist political views. Rectenwald recounts how “evolutionary ideas were marshaled to counter a static, hierarchical, theocratic social order with a vision of a transformative, ‘uprising’ nature” in the pages of the radical press, particularly under Holyoake’s editorship.

In late 1849 Holyoake joined the radical journalist Thornton Hunt’s (1810-1873) group, Confidential Combination, with the vision of enlisting “wary middle-class freethinkers into an anonymous groups where they might voice advanced opinion on ‘politics, sociology, or religion’ without fear of reprisal.” According to Rectenwald, this group “no doubt included…Herbert Spencer, W. Savage Landor, W.J. Linton, W.E. Forster, T. Ballatine and George Hooper,” all of whom contributed to the radical press. In their meetings, Holyoake regularly met with Spencer, becoming “lifelong friends, with regular correspondence continuing to 1894.”

This same circle of London writers often met at the publishing of John Chapman, the publisher of the Westminster Review, “the organ of philosophical radicalism.” The gatherings consisted of contributors George Eliot (the pen name of Mary Ann Evans), Spencer, Harriet Martineau, Charles Bray, George Combe and Thomas Henry Huxley. It was through Martineau and Eliot that Holyoake “came to know Comte’s ideas” in the Positive Philosophy. It was also here where Holyoake began a friendship with Huxley.

In the early 1860s, Holyoake “regularly corresponded with Spencer, Huxley and Tyndall.” According to Rectenwald, “the letters covered numerous issues, including polemics against religious interlocutors, the mutual promotion of literature, the naturalists’ financial and written support for Secularism and Secularists and health, amongst other topics.” And when Huxley sought to dissociate himself from materialism and coarse atheism, his association with Holyoake’s secularism offered  a “respectable” alternative. Tyndall also once extolled Holyoake as an exemplar of secular morality. This correspondence was not merely professional, but, as Rectenwald points out, quite personal, as when each man supported, morally and financially, the other during certain illnesses.

Rectenwald demonstrates, by careful readings of a vast array of radical publications and personal correspondence, “the importance of freethought radicalism to the emergence of the powerful discourse of scientific naturalism” in the second half of the nineteenth century. Holyoake in particular “modified freethought by pruning its atheistic rhetoric, allowing freethinkers to discount the supernatural and to disavow the clergy in matter relating to knowledge and morals, without the expected bombast and negation.” Popular among an audience of sophisticated working-class and lower-middle-class readers, Holyoake’s secularism “did much to advance the world view developed and promulgated by Huxley and Tyndall.”

Huxley, Agnosticism, and the X-Club

In assessing the “climate of opinion” in Victorian Britain, and more specifically the context of the evolution debates and narratives of conflict between science and religion that bolstered them, I have been engaging with a number of articles and books about prominent nineteenth-century dramatis personae, including Charles Darwin, Richard Owen, Thomas Henry Huxley, John Tyndall, Alfred Russel Wallace, William Whewell, John William Draper, Andrew Dickson White, and others.

Several articles on Huxley and his X-Club are worth mentioning. Bernard Lightman’s “Huxley and Scientific Agnosticism: the Strange History of a Failed Rhetorical Strategy” (2002) challenges the traditional interpretation that Huxley invented the term “agnostic” in 1869. In 1889 Huxley published a trilogy of essays on the history of agnosticism in the periodical The Nineteenth Century, arguing that he first coined the term in 1869. His friends at the X-Club, however, were surprised at the fact. Lightman finds it strange that Huxley’s inner circle of friends were unaware of the origins of its coinage. “If the members were so open about their religious heterdoxy,” writes Lightman, “and if agnosticism was an important weapon in the attempt to challenge the power of the Anglican establishment, then why did [some of its members] first learn that Huxley had coined the term ‘agnostic’ twenty years after the fact?”

According to Lightman, Huxley’s relationship with the term is far more complicated than traditional accounts. “Not only was he reluctant to identify himself unambiguously as an agnostic in public until 1883, his restricted rhetorical use of agnostic concepts during the 1870s and 1880s was also compromised when other unbelievers, with different agendas, sought to capitalize on the polemical advantages of referring to themselves as agnostics.” Indeed, “Huxley found that he could not control the public meaning of ‘agnosticism’ and that consequently its value as a rhetorical weapon was limited.” By 1889, Huxley realized he need to take control of his neologism by revealing that he was solely responsible for its creation. As such, “historian have been fooled by Huxley’s self-serving reconstruction in 1889 of the history of agnosticism.”

In 1889 Huxley claimed he initially paraded the term at the Metaphysical Society. But this is not reflected, Lightman points out, in the papers he delivered to its members. In papers presented in 1869, 1870, and in 1876, “none of them use the terms ‘agnostic’ or ‘agnosticism.'” Even more glaring, few journals used the new term in discussion of Huxley’s work. Indeed, in the pages of periodical reviews, such as Blackwood Magazine, Contemporary Review, and Scribner’s Monthly, “Huxley was seldom seen as the chief threat to religious orthodoxy.” It was not until 1873, in an article published by St George Mivart in the Fortnightly Review, when Huxley was identified, not as the inventor of the term, but as a prominent leader of the “agnostic philosophy.”

But it was Richard Holt Hutton, theologian, journalist, and editor of the The Spectator, who gave the term its widest circulation. In an article on “Pope Huxley” in the 1870 issue of The Spectator, Hutton referred to as “a great and severe Agnostic.” Interestingly enough, he did not assert that Huxely was responsible for coining the term.

Circulation of the term increased from 1879 to 1883. Yet none of Huxley’s published work during this time contain references to his coinage. It was James Knowles, editor of the Nineteenth Century, who was “partly responsible for the increased currency of the terms ‘agnostic’ and ‘agnosticism’ in this period, as well as throughout the rest of the decade and into the next.” Other authors who discussed agnosticism directly at this time were Bertha Lathbury (1880), J.H. Clapperton (1880), Louis Greg (1882), Rev. Prebendary W. Anderson (1881), B. Thomas (1881), J. Henry Shorthouse (1882), G. Matheson (1883), and others. But in none of these articles is Huxley credited with the term. Indeed, in a Catholic journal, The Month (1882), it is Spencer, not Huxley, who is treated as the “typical representative of atheistical agnosticism.”

Finally in 1882 an article in the pages of Notes and Queries James A.H. Murray credits Huxley with coining the term in 1869. Late in 1883, Huxley was forced “out of the closet” by Charles Albert Watts when the latter published a private letter from Huxley in his periodical Agnostic Annual. On 17 November 1883 the Academy carried a story on Huxley’s contribution to Agnostic Annual. Huxley quickly wrote to the Academy that he made no such contribution and that in fact Watts had played a trick on him. This was apparently newsworthy, as The New York Times entered the show with its own story on the Watts-Huxley debacle in 10 December 1883.

From 1884 to 1888 agnosticism became a hot topic of debate. While in 1884 J. Murray’s A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles noted Huxley’s role as its inventor, “Huxley’s relationship to agnosticism was overshadowed…by the spectacle of two unbelievers [namely, Frederic Harrison and Herbert Spencer] engaged in bitter controversy in the pages of Nineteenth Century.” Other journal gladly became involved in the debate. The debate raged on in 1887 and 1888, when Francis Darwin’s Life and Letter of Charles Darwin (1887) brought to the fight Darwin’s own religious beliefs—or lack there of. During this time “renegade secularists were equally taken by the lure of agnosticism,” including C.A. Watts, William Steward Ross, Richard Bithell, Frederick James Gould, and Samiel Laing. In the work of these men, “Spencer, not Huxley, was the master…as they were inspired by Spencer’s vision of an Unknowable deity.”

From 1884 to 1888, Huxley was still reticent to take full credit of the term. What finally caused his intervention in the controversy, writes Lightman, was accusations of materialism. “Huxley defended himself by saying that earlier in life he could not find a label which suited him, so he ‘invented’ one, calling himself ‘Agnostic.'” But by the time he published his trilogy in 1889, it was a “belated attempt to regain control.” Others were to “endow it with the meanings which he could not accept.”

Ruth Barton’s “‘An Influential Set of Chaps’: The X-Club and Royal Society Politics 1864-85” (1990) and “‘Huxley, Lubbock, and Half a Dozen Others’: Professionals and Gentlemen in the Formation of the X-Club, 1851-1864” (1998) demonstrates how the X-Club was more than “just friends” fraternizing. Founded in 1864, the X-Club was a private, informal society where members could engage in frank discussion about literature, politics, and science over dinner. Moreover, they could plot together on how to achieve common goals, such as the advancement of research, the infiltration and control of important scientific institutions and societies, and the bid to undermine the cultural authority of the Anglican clergy. “The club was for serious research, against aristocratic patronage of science, for a naturalistic world view, and against the commercialization of science.”

In the first paper, Barton analyzes the “politicking which brought X-Club members to position of power and status in the Royal Society.” The Royal Society was full of “disciplinary rivalries, class interests, institutional interconnections and research priorities.” The X-Club represented the most dominant interest group of the Royal Society in the mid-Victorian period. Members were “energetic and ambitious reformers of science,” which included Joseph Dalton Hooker (1817-1911), Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-1895), William Spottiswoode (1825-1883), John Tyndall (1820-1893), Edward Frankland (1825-1899), Thomas Archer Hirst (1830-1892), George Busk (1807-1886), John Lubbock (1834-1913), and Herbert Spencer (1820-1903). Everyone of these figures, except for Spencer, was active in the Royal Society. Darwinian in orientation, “its members were engaged in developing and propagating naturalistic account of physical and human phenomena. They opposed all suggestion that there were supernatural interventions in the natural order and any attempts to constrain scientific investigation within theologically determined boundaries.” They were, as Frank Turner put it, “scientific naturalists.”

The influence of this “small coterie in the affairs of the Royal Society” is revealed in the minutes of X-Club meetings and letters between members. For instance, “personal friendship and disciplinary alliance both played significant parts in the procedures of suggesting, nominating and voting which preceded the award” for the Royal Medal. They also played a substantive role in the election of Royal Society Council members, including changing it Presidents. Indeed, according to Barton, “the X-Club devoted enormous energy to gaining power.” Because the Royal Society represented science, members of the X-Club did all they could to espouse a redefinition of science within a naturalistic worldview.

When members of the X-Club succeeded in gaining Spottiswoode the Presidency, his most memorable act was the push to have Darwin buried in Westminster Abbey. “They were successful, and on Tuesday 25 April 1882, Spottiswoode, Lubbock, Hooker, Huxley, the Duke of Argyll, the Duke of Devonshire, Lord Derby, and the American Ambassador, accompanied by Alfred Russel Wallace and Dean Farrar of Westminster, were pall-bearers in the Abbey funeral.” This was immensely symbolic, and Darwin was “presented as a middle-class saint.” “It was an irony of which they seemed unaware,” write Barton, “that the greatest symbolic achievement of the X-Club was not the separation of theology from science, but the conflation of science, church and state in Darwin’s burial in Westminster Abbey.”

In the second paper, Barton rehearses some of the material found in the previews paper. What is new, and deeply intriguing, is her emphasis that X-Club members formed “alliances…beyond professional science.” They formed alliances with “germanizing theologians, Christian socialists, humanitarian ethnologists, and liberals associated with John Stuart Mill aligned “Science” with liberal forms in theology and in social policy.” Indeed, “commitments to naturalistic explanation and to melioristic social reform linked them to these groups.”

Several books in this area I have been recently paging through include Paul White’s Thomas Huxley: Making the ‘Man of Science’ (2003). This is more than another biography of Huxley. It is an account of the way that a particular cultural identity—the Victorian ‘man of science’—was constructed through processes of negotiation and collaboration between naturalists such as Huxley and their families, colleagues, friends, and adversaries. Through a close reading of private correspondences, White builds up a portrait of Huxley and his relationships, with his wife, fellow men of science, educational reformers, clergymen, and so on. White provocatively depicts Huxley as a defender of high culture, even as an elitist.

Another is Martin Fichman’s An Elusive Victorian: The Evolution of Alfred Russel Wallace (2004). Fichman’s An Elusive Victorian is among several recently published books on Wallace, and this book acts as an important synthesis, a thematic study bringing together aspects of Wallace’s career. Why Wallace, co-discoverer of evolution by natural selection, became “elusive” is difficult to say. Perhaps it is because Wallace is “difficult to pigeonhole…into any neat category. Many labels have been applied to him: field naturalist, biological theorist, socialist, spiritualist, theist, land nationalizationist, philosopher and ethicist.” In finding a more satisfactory answer, Fichman examines Wallace’s range of social contacts (including North American psychologist William James), his marginal annotations in his books, as well as his copious publications (he continued to publish in his old age, including three books written in his eighties). According to Fichman, Wallace was actively marginalized by a circle of practitioners who wielded great influence in scientific affairs from the 1860s and who promoted a naturalistic model of science. That circle were members of the X-Club.

More recently, Nicolaas A. Rupke’s Richard Owen: Biology without Darwin (2009) tells an engaging tale of how Richard Owen, a brilliant anatomist and early chum of Charles Darwin, became the talented, twisted, vindictive, and ultimate loser of the Darwinian Revolution. Owen is somewhat of a tragic figure in narratives of science. All good stories need an evil person to balance the virtues and fortunes of a hero, and unfortunately Owen took up (or portrayed as taking up) the role. Rupke’s Richard Owen, however, problematizes this simplistic narrative.

Rupke situates Owen’s work within the social, institutional, and political context, and how it affected and constrained both his work and its reception. Perhaps the most interesting theme to emerge from Rupke’s study is how Owen’s reputation had been systematically distorted and degraded by Darwin, his scientific followers, and several generations of historians. This theme becomes prominent in Owen’s bitter conflict with Huxley, who “in spite of Owen’s generosity…began chipping away at his patron’s work and reputation,” using as much duplicity, malice, and dishonesty as possible.

In these works, and others, we get a better sense of the “climate of opinion” of these nineteenth-century debates. If there was ever conflict between science and religion, it was neither created by science nor religion. Rather, it was clearly orchestrated by “men of science” the likes of Joseph Dalton Hooker, Thomas Henry Huxley, William Spottiswoode, John Tyndall, Edward Frankland, Thomas Archer Hirst, George Busk, John Lubbock, and Herbert Spencer. Such imagined conflict is still fabricated today, from something of a reincarnated X-Club, in the Brights Movement, which membership includes biologists Richard Dawkins and Richard J. Roberts, cognitive scientist Steven Pinker, philosopher Daniel Dennett, stage magicians and James Randi and Penn & Teller, among others.