Transforming the Dominant Idea of Religion

In the Preface to his Culture and Anarchy (1869), Matthew Arnold (1822-1888), son of famous headmaster of Rugby School Rev. Thomas Arnold (1795-1842), asserts that “the world is fast going away from old-fashioned people.” Culture and Anarchy, it has been said, is an attack on English narrowness, on Victorian parochialism and philistinism. Arnold saw his fellow Englishmen consumed with themselves, a markedly individualistic and liberal attitude. The creed of the Victorian, he quipped, was “do as one likes.” Arnold considered himself a “liberal of the future,” thus justifying himself in his critique of contemporary liberalism.

In his chapter on “Hebraism and Hellenism,” Arnold writes

Everywhere we see the beginnings of confusion, and we want a clue to some sound order and authority. This we can only get by going back upon the actual instincts and forces which rule our life, seeing them as they really are, connecting them with other instincts and forces, and enlarging our whole view and rule of life.

In the first chapter, “Sweetness and Light,” Arnold claims that “religion” is the most “important manifestation of human nature,” more central to culture than art and poetry. But because Victorian society was at the “beginnings of confusion,” Arnold thinks it is time to transform this “dominant idea of religion.” This central element in human nature can never be abandoned. It is, he writes

the greatest and most important of the efforts by which the human race has manifested its impulse to perfect itself,—religion, that voice of the deepest human experience,—does not only enjoin and sanction the aim which is the great aim of culture, the aim of setting ourselves to ascertain what perfection is and to make it prevail; but also, in determining generally in what human perfection consists, religion comes to a conclusion identical with that which culture,—culture seeking the determination of this question through all the voices of human experience which have been heard upon it, of art, science, poetry, philosophy, history, as well as of religion, in order to give a greater fulness and certainty to its solution.

We see here the beginnings of Arnold’s equating of “religion with morality.” These ideas foreshadowed his later definition of “religion” in Literature and Dogma (1873). There he writes,

Religion, if we follow the intention of human thoughts and human language in the use of the word, is ethics heightened, enkindled, lit up by feeling; the passage from morality to religion is made when to morality is applied emotion. And the true meaning of religion is thus not simply morality, but morality touched by emotion. And this new elevation and inspiration of morality is well marked by the word ‘righteousness.’ Conduct is the word of common life, morality is the word of philosophical disquisition, righteousness is the word of religion.

Here Arnold united the themes in his earlier “Hebraism and Hellenism.”

In the nineteenth century, Matthew Arnold was merely one of many attempting to redefine Christianity by moralizing religion.  Theologians, writers, and even men of science employed a vague, moralizing notion of “religion” in order to re-describe the essential features of Christianity. We see this particularly in the scientific naturalists, including the so-called co-founders of the “Conflict Thesis,” John William Draper and Andrew Dickson White. Draper, for instance, saw the politicization of Christianity as the end of “religion.” “True religion,” he maintained, is found in the teachings of Jesus Christ. Its doom came with Constantine. According to White, a pure and undefiled religion in found in the “recognition of ‘a Power in the universe, not of ourselves, which makes for righteousness,’ and in the love of God and of our neighbor.”

A Brief Note on Cambridge’s History of Science Volume VI : Modern Life and Earth Sciences

Cambridge History of Science 6Perhaps the most engaging—and perhaps most relevant for my current research interests—installment of this series is Peter J. Bowler and John V. Pickstone’s (eds.) The Cambridge History of Science Volume VI: Modern Life and Earth Sciences (2009). This volume seeks to present an “overview of the development of a diverse range of sciences through a period of major conceptual, methodological, and institutional changes.” Carefully arranged and edited, the work is, nevertheless, “representative,” and “by no means encyclopedic.”

Bowler and Pickstone begin with an introduction on the history of science. Traditional approaches routinely linked history of science with philosophy of science (i.e., the study of the scientific method and the epistemological problems generated by the search for objective knowledge of nature), which was “invariably done by hindsight, using modern interests to determine the value of past science, often thereby doing violence to what the [contemporary] historian sees as crucial within the very different cultural and social contexts of past eras.” This “internalist” approach thought of the history of science as part of the history of ideas, seeing new theories as “integral to the emergence of new worldviews that had transformed Western culture.”

But scientific knowledge was always part and parcel of “external” forces, be it philosophical, religious, political, or practical. Thomas S. Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) challenged internalist historians to take an interest in the workings of scientific communities, “arguing that the scientific community had to be understood in sociological terms.” As Bowler and Pickstone put it in their introduction, “social pressure helped maintain scientific conformity, and most research was done within paradigms that predetermined the projects that were relevant and the innovations that were acceptable.”

From the beginning, scientists have always held particular religious beliefs, philosophical opinions, and political views, “reflecting the less tangible influence of broader ideologies embedded within the societies within which they live.” Thus the “best modern historiography,” Bowler and Pickstone tells us, “seeks to integrate the ideological contexts with the detailed, technical work” of scientific practice. One of the most important consequences of the contextual approach has been the “recognition among historians that our own perception of the past is shaped by our viewpoint in the present.” For example, “the amount of attention focused on Charles Darwin by historians of evolutionism…reflects English-speaking scientists’ greater commitment to the genetical theory of natural selection as the defining feature of their field.” Such was and is not the case among French and German historians of science. The chapters that follow seek give a rich picture of “multiple dynamic interactions between changing conceptual structures, technical possibilities, and social formations” of life and earth sciences.

The volume is divided into four parts. Part 1, “workers and places,” focuses on “amateurs and professionals” (David E. Allen), “discovery and exploration” (Roy Macleod), “museums” (Mary P. Winsor), “field stations and surveys” (Keith R. Benson), “universities” (Jonathan Harwood), “geological”(Paul Lucier) and “pharmaceutical industries” (John P. Swann), and “public and environmental health” (Michael Worboys). Noteworthy are Allen, Macleod and Winsor’s essays.

Allen recounts the process of professionalization of science. In the early nineteenth century, the “professional” was despised. This aristocratic and upper middle class prejudice was based on the view that “a professional was someone who received money to do something that others did for pleasure, and to put one’s labor up for hire placed one in the position of a servant.” Respectable occupations were limited to “the armed forces, the church, and…branches of the law and medicine.” “So small was the community of science professionals in the pre-1880 era,” Allen writes, “and so slight the difference in outlook between that community and everyone else involved in scholarly pursuits, that the category of ‘professional’ can hardly be of much use for historical analysis.” Rather, there were amateur “researchers,” “practitioners,” and “cultivators.”

That the principles of exploratory settlement were part of an imperial strategy is now obvious, says Macleod. The “process of seeing, mapping, and impressing a European identity on places otherwise ‘unknown to science’ held a compelling fascination” for early explorers and discoverers. Exploration reflected great power rivalries and imperial conquest. “The scientific expedition drew on the language of the military expedition and the heroism of the expeditionary force.” As such, “an active commitment to scientific exploration was, to some, the highest measure of a nation’s claim to civilization.” Thus scientific exploration often came with an imperial presence. Yet “if many scientific expeditions had been imperial in motive and state financed in practice, they would have enjoyed far less public impact had they not been accompanied by expanding networks of collectors and patron and a new thirst for private exploration and discovery.” Exploration and discovery were in fact a “convergence of science, strategy, and commerce.”

Winsor shares Macleod’s emphasis on imperial motives. “During the second half of the eighteenth century, collections of natural specimens rapidly increased in number and size.” This was largely due to imperial exploration and expansion—and exploitation—but “the motives was sometimes scientific curiosity, sometimes competitive vainglory.” Natural history during this period was dominated by the work of Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) and George-Louis Leclerc, comte de Buffon (1707-1788). Both men “shared the goal of making an inventory of every kind of living thing.” The “Paris model” found in the Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle followed the publications and teaching of Georges Cuvier (1769-1832), and would be imitated elsewhere, “where an avid naturalist teamed up with a generous monarch.”

During the mid- and late-nineteenth century, “all across the globe, wherever Europeans carried their culture and settled in sufficient numbers, natural history museums multiplied.” But at the same time, and perhaps naturally, “contested ideas of proper arrangement had plagued the process of designing the new natural history museum,” particularly in London. At this stage the art of taxidermy became central. Taxidermists William Bullock, Hermann Ploucquet, and Jules Verreaux were known for their theatrical designs: “a tiger wrestling with a boa constrictor, hounds pulling down a stag, and an Arab on his camel beset by lions.” By the late nineteenth century, there were artistic taxidermists commissioned by the British Museum of Natural History, the American Museum of Natural History, the United States National Museum, the World’s Columbian Exposition, and many others. In this sense, Winsor notes, “the museum movement was progressive; that is, that making exhibits more attractive was a good thing.” Whether or not such exhibitions were “scientific” was no longer the concern.

Altogether, the theme that consistently crops up in the essays of Part 1 is the profound effect government, politics, and industry has had on the modern development of life and earth sciences.

Part 2 looks more closely at particular disciplines, in “analysis and experimentation” within the fields of geology (Mott T. Greene), paleontology (Ronald Rainger), zoology (Mario A. Di Gregorio), botany (Eugene Cittadino), evolution (Jonathan Hodge), anatomy, histology, and ctyology (Susan C. Lawrence), embryology (Nick Hopwood), microbiology (Olga Amsterdamska), physiology (Richard L. Kremer), and pathology (Russell C. Maulitz). These essays provide a general reference to the origin, development, and expansion of these fields, intertwined as a “complex activity of scientists and sciences operating in larger philosophical, social, political, and economic” nineteenth-century contexts. Again, a few noteworthy essays deserve expansion and comment.

Rainger’s essay seeks to place paleontology within its social, cultural, and political context, covering such topics as extinction, stratigraphy, progress, and evolution, noting that “although many paleontologists studied evolution, few embraced Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection.” Rainger also includes an informative section on “paleontology and modern Darwinism,” which includes discussions on biogeography and fossil displays in modern museums. Here we see how Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould’s “powerful criticism of the evolutionary synthesis” of a previous generation sent paleontologists into the field to find evidence for “punctuated equilibrium.” Disappointing, however, is the omission of paleoart, where art and paleontology intersect in curious and sometimes problematic ways. Missing also is any discussion of the incredibly contentious field of paleoanthropology.

Hodge observes that today’s biologists view their field as a “historical continuity of succession.” This view, however, assumes “a sameness of enterprise, with everyone contributing to evolutionary biology as found in a current textbook.” Another assumption biologists make is that “only evolution gives fully scientific answers to their questions, and all other answers are ancient religious dogmas or persistent metaphysical preconceptions.” But these assumptions bare little to no historical reality. This view of science is traced back to nineteenth-century proponents for Darwin. “Science was then often demarcated, in accord with new positivist notions of science, by this very contrast with religion and metaphysics, so that the rise of evolution and fall of Hebrew creation or Hellenic stasis was subsumed within the rise of modern, scientific ways of thinking and feeling about ourselves and nature” (my emphasis).

What follows is a historical narrative of oft-cited dramatis personae. The influence—and contrast—of Buffon and Linnaeus is listed. Because of their major divergences, later followers like George Cuvier, Lorenz Oken (1779-1851), and Jean Lamarck (1744-1829) had to pick and mix between the two. As Hodge notes, “although once a protégé of Buffon, [Lamarck] never adopted his mentor’s…cosmogonies.” The years following the work of these three men found “no single resolution” amongst successors . Lamarck’s theories looked “threateningly materialistic”; Oken’s “seemed pantheistically unorthodox”; and Cuvier’s “hostility to materialism,” coupled with his respect for biblical scholarship, endeared him to many of his fellow Christians. Further complexities emerge with Karl Ernst von Baer (1792-1876) and Charles Lyell (1797-1875), and later Louis Agassiz (1807-1873) and Robert Chambers (1802-1871).

With the advent of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1859, European and American discussion of life’s history and diversity was anything but unified. The Origin was not however influenced by evolutionary debates of the 1850s. Penned between 1837-1839, the context of Origin requires relating the work of Lyell, Robert Edmund Grant (1793-1874), Darwin’s own grandfather Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802), and Lamarck. Prior to his HMS Beagle voyage (1831-1836), Darwin completed a student of Grant’s at Edinburgh University in 1826-1827. While aboard the Beagle Darwin devoured Lyell’s first two volumes of Principles of Geology. It was Lyell who had “insisted that anyone favoring any transmutation of species should engage Lamarck’s whole system: spontaneous generation, the progression of classes, organ ancestry for man, and all.” By 1837, Darwin had done just that. At the same time, Darwin was rereading his grandfather’s Zoonomia, which had anticipated some of the views of Lamarck. According to Hodge, this “grandparental precedent inspired and sanctioned this emulation of Lamarckian precedent.” Darwin would also add Robert Malthus’s essay on populations to his own developing theory of evolution.

“The altered state of opinion created by Charles Darwin was less consensual than is often thought,” Hodge argues. He goes on, “for biologists did not merely disagree about the causes of evolution while agreeing about evolution itself; they disagreed deeply about evolution as such.”

Part 3 of this volume also looks at “new objects and ideas” found in “plate tectonics” (Henry Frankel), “geophysics and geochemistry (David Oldroyd), “mathematical models” (Jeffrey C. Schank and Charles Twardry), “genes” (Richard M. Burian and Doris T. Zallen), “ecosystems” (Pascal Acot), “immunology” (Thomas Söderqvist, Craig Stillwell and Mark Jackson), “cancer” (Jean-Paul Gaudillière), “brain and the behavioral sciences” (Anne Harrington), and “history of biotechnology” (Robert Bud).

The final section in Part 5 consists of essays of wider scope, in “science and culture,” and are much more relevant to my own research. Here I only make mention of one. James Moore’s (“Religion and Science”) excellent essay argues that the “religion and science” trope “is first and foremost an intellectual rubric, proper to the history of ideas, particularly ideas in the English-speaking world.” Indeed, the trope existed as “an organizing category—an agonizing category—for many Victorians.” Here Moore mentions John William Draper’s History of the Conflict between Religion and Science (1847) and Andrew Dickson White’s A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896). Only a year later in 1897, the Library of Congress incorporating “Religion and Science” into its authoritative subject headings, “a pair of hypostatized abstractions made memorable by a pair of embattled propagandists became canonical for interpreting modern intellectual history.” This “secular teleology” would later be taken for granted by pundits and popularizers and even academic historians.

Revisions to this thesis emerged in the mid-twentieth century. During this time “Religion and Science” went from being explanans to explanandum. Moore provides long footnotes of contributors who demolished the Victorian propaganda, from Frank M. Turner, Martin Rudwick, A.R. Peacocke, Robert M. Young, Ronald L. Numbers, David C. Lindberg, David Livingstone, Pietro Corsi, John Hedley Brooke, Edward J. Larson, Geoffrey Cantor, Peter J. Bowler, Adrian Desmond, to James Moore himself.

What follows is a review of “five fields of contention clustered around the transformed domain of Darwin studies”: freethought, natural theology, earth history, Darwin, and actual conflict.    “Freethought” or “unbelief” stood for all such deviant “isms” as “materialism,” “atheism,” “rationalism,” “secularism,” “agnosticism,” and “positivism.” But unbelief is “gritty, irrepressible”; “it constantly reinvented itself, or was reinvented, as the nineteenth century’s ideological ‘other.'” Here we find heresies of William Frend and John Leslie, the materialism of Paul d’Holbach, the determinism of Pierre Laplace, the transmutation theories of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck and Etienne Geoffrey Saint-Hilaire, and the rebellion of Richard Carlile. Interestingly enough, it is here, also, “in a twilight world of backstreet cliques, soapbox rants, and unstamped rages, the Victorian roots of ‘Religion and Science’ are to be found.” “Science,” Moore qualifies, “was manifold, not the monolith of propagandists.”

Natural theology was what freethinkers fought and Darwin finally refuted. Such was the old view, and is no longer tenable today. “Natural theology was not single and static but a shifting congeries of moral pursuits.” It was indeed apologetic; but it was edifying, mediating, motivating, ratifying. It was also a stumbling block for many Christians. “High Anglicans, Scot evangelicals, and pietists everywhere saw it as tainted with rationalism.” Despite criticism from both unbelievers and believers, natural theology remained vital.

The belief that providentialism cast up embarrassing obstacles to the progress of the earth and life sciences is another piece of Victoriana, and can longer be maintained. According to Moore, “the cultured men who first made the earth sciences a profession, none did more than genuflect toward Genesis in his research.” Nineteenth-century earth sciences were full of men of eminence—”squires, clergymen, lawyers, military officers, and only later full-time academic specialists.” As Moore put it, “piety united these patricians.”

Darwin stood at the “crossroads of freethought, natural theology, and Lyellian earth history.” At this Victorian crossroad, “he struck out in a direction all his own, an evolutionist incognito, hell-bent on explaining the whole living creation…by natural law. The church was left behind.” Although his faith eventually faltered, Darwin did not have an “atheist agenda.” “While writing the Origin of Species, Darwin’s faith in a ‘personal God’ remained firm, and he never considered himself an atheist.” What he could not fathom was Christian theism, a perpetual, designing Providence, present in all events; a God who punished men eternally for their unbelief. Darwin though such a god immoral.

Despite Darwin’s own beliefs, “freethinkers everywhere welcomed the Origin of Species…as a potent addition to their liberal armory.” Indeed, “most read it through philosophical spectacles.” As Moore writes, “the Origin of Species did not cause a ‘Darwinian revolution,’ destroying natural theology and propelling religion and science into unholy conflict.” What it did do was “merely pointed up and sharpened preexisting tensions.” “What set people at odds,” Moore continues, “were a range of issues, practical as well as theoretical, empirical as well as metaphysical, social and political as well as ideological.” Draper’s Conflict and White’s Warfare followed suit “of an age when New World hubris took on Old World hauteur in the cause of [a] Science” instigated by Thomas Henry Huxley, John Tyndall, Herbert Spencer, members of the X-Club, and others vying for cultural hegemony in the nineteenth century.

“Science made up for lost religious hopes by promising endless secular abundance.” But in the twentieth century such promises were short lived. After World War I, self-styled “fundamentalism” inspired “ordinary Americans angry that their most cherished beliefs were being undermined with their own tax dollars.” “Liberal believers in science…[also] got their comeuppance in the depressed 1930s.” The horrors of the German scientific experiment, with their support of Darwinian policies of ethnic extermination, and the Soviet Union’s industrialized, militarized, and committed Marxist materialism, caused great consternation among western liberals. “During World War II, and particularly with the mobilization of research to meet the postwar Soviet challenge, science in the West was harnessed to state objectives, tied to state funding, and subjected to state regulation as never before.”

Moore nevertheless ends on an optimistic note. Today, he says, “historians aim to situate religion and science on cultural common ground and so recover the religiosity of science, the scientificity of religion, and the integrity of metaphysics occupying that large terra incognita ‘between science and religion’ as traditionally conceived.” Indeed, “perhaps the most telling recent development noted by historians is the vaunted convergence of religion and science in some new vision of reality whose scientific authority will command full religious and moral assent.”

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.

Building Bridges and Burning Down Myths

Richardson and Wildman - Religion and Science History Method DialogueIn their highly stimulating and engrossing book, W. Mark Richardson and Wesley J. Wildman’s (eds.) Religion and Science: History, Method, Dialogue (1996), offer an interdisciplinary approach to “building bridges” between religion and science. The various sections of the book correspond to three major kinds of inquiry: historical studies, methodological analyses, and substantive dialogue. Each section provides essays written by many notable scholars, including John Hedley Brooke, Claude Welch, Nicholas Wolterstorff, John Polkinghorne, Arthur Peacocke, among others.

Beginning in Part 1 with essays on the history of the relationship between religion and science, John Hedley Brooke’s “Science and Theology in the Enlightenment” challenges the assumptions that theology was rebuffed by the emerging epistemology and method of science in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Indeed, in many ways theology remained resilient, particularly in the form of William Paley’s Natural Theology (1802). Brooke writes, “whether one referred to the exquisite, microscopic structures in living organisms that had so captivated Robert Boyle, the marvellous migratory instincts of birds that so impressed John Ray, or the elegant laws of nature that governed the Newtonian universe, there was a profound sense in which the sciences could reinforce arguments for design, thereby proving their utility against skeptical and atheistic philosophies that were commonly seen as subversive of a stable society.”

But in “meeting their rationalist critics on their own ground,” Brooke observes, “Christian apologists were almost unwittingly sacrificing what was distinctive in their understanding of God.” As Blaise Pascal warned, “those who sought God apart from Christ, who went no further than nature, would fall into atheism or deism.” Brooke cites Michael J. Buckley’s At the Origins of Modern Atheism (1987) in support of his claim that “a Christian apologia reduced to the argument from design was easy prey to the alternative metaphysics of Lucretius: was not the appearance of design surely illusory, reflecting the simple fact that defective combinations of matter had not survived?” “Atheism takes its meaning from the particular form of theism it rejects. So to understand the origins of modern atheism it is no good looking at the history of atheism.” Rather, “it is essential to examine the history of theism.” Arguments for a personal God based on impersonal forces of nature became one of the chief reasons for the rise of modern atheism. The take away from Brooke’s essay is that “if the bridged built by physico-theologians eventually collapsed, it was not simply that they were undermined by science. It was rather that a greater burden had been placed on the sciences than they could support.”

In the following essay, “Dispelling Some Myths about the Split Between Theology and Science in the Nineteenth Century,” Claude Welch begins by recalling the popular “warfare” model between science and religion, exemplified by John William Draper and Andrew Dickson White. Both authors, Welch claims, were partly responding to Pope Pius IX’s Syllabus of Errors of 1864, which included the “error” of “supposing that the Pope ought to reconcile himself ‘with progress, with liberalism, and with modern civilization.'” And in both authors, “biblical criticism gets more attention than does evolutionary theory.” For instance, in his concluding chapter of Volume II of his A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom, White extols higher criticism as opening “treasures of thought which have been inaccessible to theologians for two thousand years,” and has led to “the conceptions of a vast community in which the fatherhood of God overarches all, and the brotherhood of man permeates all.” According to Welch, White’s comments are “remarkably similar to what many liberal theologians were saying in response to evolutionary theory and to biblical criticism.”

But recent work has demolished the metaphor of warfare as an historical interpretation. If we want real instances of warfare, Welch argues, we need only to observe “Comte’s positivism, or of the emergence of a radical materialistic monism particularly in Germany in the 1850s” found in such writers as Ludwig Büchner (1824-1899), Jacob Moleschott (1822-1893), and Karl Vogt (1817-1895). “These latter three,” writes Welch, “seized upon Darwin to further an anti-Christian agenda they had already developed.” This antagonism is expressed even more fully in the writings of Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919), “who undertook in the 1860s to convert Germany to Darwinism”; in his hands “Darwinism could become a symbol of antireligion for reasons that had little to do with evolution.”

What was happening in the nineteenth century was the theological accommodation (read: capitulation) to new “scientific” conceptions, particularly in geology and biology. This accommodation took the form of “mediating” theologies, which entailed a spirit of liberal open-mindedness, of tolerance and humility, of devotion to “truth” wherever it might be found. It was also the abandonment of cherished religious notions. Schleiermacher’s Glaubenslehre (1821) argued that the “doctrine of creation has no particular interest in a point of origination,” that “the idea of the Fall has no reference to an event in early history.” What is more, the popular “preoccupation with an afterlife was countered by the emergence of ‘secular societies,'” greatly weakening the idea of Hell and Damnation and Providence.

Thus the foundations had already been set for the reception of Draper and White. “The work of Draper and White…caught the popular mind of the late nineteenth century, not because of the intrinsic soundness of their arguments, but because of the real growing secularization of the European (and American) mind in the nineteenth century…never mind whether religion and science were really in conflict; they were increasingly thought to be in conflict.”

Wesley J. Wildman’s essay, “The Quest for Harmony: An Interpretation of Contemporary Theology and Science,” sees the interaction between science and religion within modernity as exhibiting an awkward tension that is indicative of a deeper cultural crisis, one evolving out of a failure of human beings to converge and unify the spiritual, ethical, intellectual, and social aspects of their being. “A promising starting point,” he says, “is the awareness that the root cause of the problematic character of modern Western culture is a profound confusion, a schizophrenic uncertainty, about how to be in the world.”

The interaction between science and religion is an informative example. The popular narrative, a tale told and retold both in schools and the media, recounts how

Christian theologians have duped the West to protect their own sacred narratives: first, theology insisted that certain things were true of the world; next, science discovered that these beliefs were false; and then, theology resisted this new [or “true”] knowledge, until finally it was forced to give up its false claims about the world, one by one.

This is a popular story. But it also happens to be completely “dissociated from reality.” And yet like most stories and legends, “the symbolic value of the story is the reason it was and is so infamous, rather than its fidelity to facts.”

The last essay in Part 1 comes from Holmes Rolston III, “Science, Religion, and the Future,” who argues that both science and theology are indispensable human institutions: that is, they need each other. While “science seeks to understand the world,”  it needs religion to keep it humane, it “pushes science toward questions of ultimacy, as well as value, and it can keep science from being blinkered, or…religion can keep science deep.”

According to Rolston, recent developments in the sciences offers hope of a more congenial relation with religion. Astrophysics and nuclear physics, for example, are describing a universe “fine-tuned” for stars, planets, life, and mind; evolutionary and molecular biology shows increasing signs of tremendous order in the organization of life: “that order represents something more than physics and chemistry; it is superimposed information.”

For all the advances in our scientific age, problems remain as acute as ever. To solve problems of justice—of overpopulation, overconsumption, and underdistribution—science is necessary; “but science is not sufficient without conscience that shapes and uses to which science is put.” “Science and religion,” Rolston argues, “must face together the impending disaster of today’s trends projected cumulatively into tomorrow: population explosion, dwindling food supply, climate change, soil erosion and drought, deforestation, desertification, declining reserves of fossil fuels and other natural resources, toxic wastes, the growing gap between concentrated wealth and increasing poverty, and the militarism, nationalism, and industrialism that seek to keep the systems of exploitation in place.”

This dialogue between religion and science is exemplified in Part 3 of this book, where six case studies seek to demonstrate constructive interactions between science and theology. Noteworthy features of these studies are their wide range of diverse approaches to theological, philosophical, and methodological issues, incorporating what was discussed in earlier chapters. The studies include such topics as “cosmology and creation,” “Chaos theory and divine action,” “quantum complementarity and Christology,” “information theory and revelation,” “molecular biology and human freedom,” and “social genetics and religious ethics.” Written by astrophysicist at the Vatican Observatory William R. Stoeger, professor of theology and science Robert John Russell, scientist at the Standford Linear Accelerator Karl Young, professor of mathematical physics John Polkinghorne, professor of philosophy Edward MacKinnon, professor of philosophy of education James E. Loder and associate professor of physics W. Jim Neidhardt, professor of historical and systematic theology Christopher B. Kaiser, Head of Mathmatics John C. Puddefoot, theologian and biochemist Arthuer Peacocke, professor emeritus of molecular and cell biology R. David Cole, assistant professor of philosophical theology W. Mark Richardson, professor of anthropology William Irons, and professor of systematic theology Philip Hefner, Part 3 explores the complex interface between science and religion in today’s world.

Part 2 of the book brings us into questions of shared methodologies between theology and science. Constructed as two round discussions involving four perspectives, this set of chapters include arguments from Nicholas Wolterstorff, Nancey Murphy, Mary Gerhart and Allan Melvin Russell, and Philip Clayton and Steven Knapp. Our main concern here is the essay by reformed epistemologist Nicholas Wolterstorff, “Theology and Science: Listening to Each other.”

Wolterstorff introduces his essay by noting that the most powerful and profound interpretation of modernity is that of German sociologist, philosopher, and political economist Max Weber (1864-1920). According to Weber, the essence of modernity lies in the emergence of differentiated action spheres in the domain of society and differentiated value spheres in the domain of culture, and then the spread of rationalization within these spheres. “The characteristically modern person is the one who discards both tradition and affect as determiners of action, and instead engages in rational calculation of means and rational appraisal of values before acting.”

How did the modern person come about? He emerged when the world was treated as disenchanted. “Once upon a time,” writes Wolterstorff, “in the days of primitive religion, humanity lived in an ‘enchanted garden’—a magical garden.” No longer. Modern man has “left the magic garden.” A necessary condition of modern man, says Weber, is disenchantment. “This grand sweep, from the enchanted gardens of primitive religion, to the progressively disenchanting world religions, to the disenchanted world of our differentiated modernized societies and cultures, represents the disappearance of religion from the human scene.” Religion, therefore, and according to Weber, is civilization’s irrational remnant from a primitive past.

Wolterstorff argues that Weber reflects “the Enlightenment understanding of science and its relation to religion—an understanding which has come crashing down in the last quarter century.” Enlightenment thinkers perpetuated convictions first set out in the Middle Ages, where scientific knowledge must begin from “what is evident, either to oneself or to someone else, and then proceed to construct deductive arguments.” Science, in other words, is the conclusions of demonstrative arguments.

Thus “before entering the halls of science, we are to shed all our particularities—our particular social locations, our particular genders, our particular religions, our particular races, our particular nationalities—and enter those halls with just our humanity.” This is the foundationalist picture of science. In his Reason within the Bounds of Religion (1976, 1999), Wolterstorff sums up foundationalism in three principles:

(1) A person is warranted in accepting a theory at a certain time if and only if he is then warranted in believing that that theory belongs to genuine science (scientia).
(2) A theory belongs to genuine science if and only if it is justified by some foundational proposition and some human being could know with certitude that it is thus justified.
(3) A proposition is foundational if and only if it is true and some human being could know noninferentially and with certitude that it is true.

Foundationalism presupposes that there are some certitudes which form a foundation upon which a (scientific) theory can be built using methods of inference (demonstration) which are most certainly reliable. According to this view foundational certitudes can be known noninferentially (not inferred from other propositions). That is, these are things that can be known for certain without knowledge of this certainty being derived from something else. That is, the certainty of these things is self-evident.

Foundationalism holds that scientific theory is deducible from the foundation. Deductivism, however, has virtually collapsed because many theories that seemingly warrant acceptance are not deducible from any foundation. Given the untenability of deductivism, some foundationalists have resorted to probabilism. But probabilism assumes an uniformity of nature. The conclusion is only justified if nature is uniform. But it is impossible to say with any certainty that nature is uniform. One might argue that it is probably uniform, but then we are now using an inductive argument to justify the very principle which we need in order to justify an inductive argument. That is, we still lack a justification for induction. Which theory than belongs to genuine science? There are many acceptable theories, but few of them are provable with respect to foundationalism and none of them are probable with respect to foundation. In fact, Wolterstorff argues, there are no foundational propositions, that is, no propositions that we can know noninferentially and with certitude to be true.

Foundationalism has indeed failed, and has “all but disappeared from that part of the academy which is acquainted with developments in philosophy of science.” How are we then to view  science as nonfoundationalist in character?

When it comes to devising and weighing theories in science, Wolterstorff recommends a triple distinction between data, theory, and control beliefs. Data and theory are understood to be self-explanatory. Control beliefs, on the other hand, requires further explanation. “When engaging in science,” Wolterstorff explains, “we operate with certain convictions as to the sorts of theories that we will find acceptable. Control beliefs are of many different sorts. Sometimes they take the form of methodological convictions…sometimes they take the form of ontological convictions.” In other words, control beliefs are those beliefs which the scholar uses in weighing a theory and assessing whether it constitutes an acceptable sort of theory on the matter under consideration. Control beliefs will cause us to reject some theories because they are inconsistent with those beliefs. They will also lead us to devise theories, since we desire to have theories that are consistent with our control beliefs.

In cases of perceived conflict between data, theory, and control beliefs, the conflict is eliminated through a process of “equilibrium,” which is achieved by making revisions in one of the three—if not all of the three. “Most of the deep conflicts between science and religion,” writes Wolterstorff, “occur at the control-belief level.”

Wolterstorff concludes by emphasizing three important points. First, “the Christian faith is such and the theoretical disciplines are such that we must expect conflict—disequilibrium—to emerge repeatedly.”  This is because Christianity and Western theorizing constantly “overlap in their concerns.” The idea that religion and science operate in separate spheres is “just one proposal, and an extremely radical one at that, for the recovery of equilibrium.”

This ongoing struggle may require revisions either to Christian belief (which has been the case) or in how we understand science (which has been the case). The tendency to affirm scientific authority over religious authority in cases of conflict ignores the implicit—and indeed sometimes explicit—control beliefs within scientific theorizing.

And finally, the results of theorizing, and most unambiguously in the social sciences and humanities, are often militated against Christian conviction. But according to Wolterstorff, “theorizing in general is far indeed from being a religiously neutral endeavor.” We cannot leave our particular social locations, our particular genders, our particular religions, our particular races, or our particular nationalities, in the “narthex as we enter the halls of science.” Rather, with different particularities, we shall have to engage in the dialogue of theorizing, aiming for equilibrium as an outcome.

Myths about Science and Religion: That Christianity Gave Birth to Modern Science

In these posts I have often focused on the close interaction between science, or natural philosophy, and Christianity. But as Noah J. Efron helpfully reminds us in his entry in Galileo goes to Jail, “Christian ideas about nature were not exclusively Christian ideas.”

Efron admits that the claim that Christianity led to modern science captures something true and important. In this context he makes reference to Baylor University sociologist Rodney Stark, who in his recent book, For the Glory of God (2003), asserts:

Christianity created Western Civilization. Had the followers of Jesus remained an obscure Jewish sect, most of you would not have learned to read and the rest of you would be reading from hand-copied scrolls. Without a theology committed to reason, progress, and moral equality, today the entire world would be about where non-European societies were, say, 1800: A world with many astrologers and alchemists but no scientists. A world of despots, lacking universities, banks, factories, eyeglasses, chimneys, and pianos. A world where most infants do not live to the age of five and many women die in childbirth—a world truly in “dark ages.”

As Stark sees it, without Christianity, chimneys and pianos, and all the more so chemistry and physics, would not exist. Despite the implausibility of this passage, Stark makes a valid point. Numerous historians and sociologists have found that some forms of Christianity provided the motivation to study nature systematically. “Although they disagree about nuances,” writes Efron, “today most historians agree that Christianity (Catholicisim as well as Protestantism) moved many early-modern intellectuals to study nature systematically.”

Historians also note that many notions borrowed from Christian belief are found in scientific discourse. The very notion of “laws of nature,” for instance, is borrowed from Christian theology. There are laws because there is a Law Giver. Further, many historians point out that Christian convictions also affected how nature was studied. For example, Peter Harrison has argued that St. Augustine’s notion of original sin was embraced by sixteenth- and seventeenth-century advocates of experimental natural philosophy. Fallen man cannot understand the inner workings of the world through reason alone, and thus required painstaking experiment and observation to arrive at knowledge of how nature truly works. As Efron puts it, “Christian doctrine lent urgency to experiment.”

Historians have also found that changing Christian approaches to interpreting the Bible affected the way nature was studied in very important ways. The Reformers, for instance, rejected the allegorical reading of the biblical text, seeking  a more straightforward interpretation. This same straightforward approach was simultaneously applied to understanding nature. Many sixteenth- and seventeenth-century founders of modern science also found in Christianity legitimation of their pursuits. Seminal figures like Rene Descartes (1596-1650) and Isaac Newton (1642-1727) believed that their “new philosophy” was in agreement with the truths of faith, and that Christianity in fact bolstered their scientific discoveries—and that these discoveries in turn bolstered Christianity.

A final example Efron provides is that Christian churches, far from neglecting or oppressing approaches to understanding nature, were leading patrons of natural philosophy and science, “in that they supported theorizing, experimentation, observation, exploration, documentation, and publication.”

But despite all of this supporting evidence, it “does not mean that Christianity and Christianity alone produced modern science.” Indeed, Christian ideas about nature were clearly not exclusively Christian ideas. In the early centuries of Christianity, for instance, the views and sensibilities of Christian thinkers were shaped by the “classical tradition,” an intellectual heritage that included art, rhetoric, history, poetry, mathematics, and philosophy, including the philosophy of nature. For this reason Efron argues that “excluding the place of classical philosophers from an account of the history of modern science is an act of intellectual appropriation of breathtaking arrogance, and ones that the forefathers of modern science themselves would have never agree to.”

Christian philosophers of nature were also indebted, directly or indirectly, to Muslim and, to a lesser degree, Jewish philosophers of nature who used Arabic to describe their investigations. Indeed, it was in Muslim lands that natural philosophy received the most careful and creative attention from the seventh to the twelfth century. As Efron notes, “many of these Muslim achievements were, in time, eagerly adopted by Christian philosophers of nature.” (Although, I would contest Efron’s use of the word “Muslim,” for many were simply Arabs, whether pagan, Jew, or Christian, and not necessarily devotees of Islam.)

Borrowing a illustration from anthropologist Clifford Geertz, Efron posits that “modern science rests on early-modern, Renaissance, and medieval philosophers of nature, and these rested on Arabic natural philosophy, which rested on Greek, Egyptian, Indian, Persian, and Chinese texts, and these rested, in turn, on the wisdom generated by other, still earlier cultures.”

In his final comments on the subject, Efron narrows his view toward the so-called Scientific Revolution. Religion, he says, was only one part of that revolution. Commerce, voyages of discovery, technological developments, political organizations, new and revised legal systems, all spurred the development of modern science in complicated ways. “Yes, Christian belief, practice, and institutions left indelible marks on the history of modern science, but so too did many other factors, including other intellectual traditions and the magnificent wealth of natural knowledge they produced.”

This leads Efron to conclude with an absolutely crucial point, that all of us, believers, nonbelievers, scientists and non-scientists, ought to mull over: we must see science for what it really is: a marvelous human invention, a human institution. “For better and for worse, science is a human endeavor, and it always has been.”

Rethinking Secularism – Charles Taylor’s Western Secularity

Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age (2007) has generated a huge amount of discussion. In the first chapter of Rethinking Secularism, entitled “Western Secularity,” Taylor revisits central themes from A Secular Age as he charts the historical trajectory that led from the “axial religion” through Latin Christendom to the contemporary conditions of modern secularity.

While noting that the term “secular” is both complex and ambiguous and subject to alterations and distortions as it travels from one context to another, Taylor nonetheless argues that Western secularity should be understood as the result of a fundamental change in sensibility marked by “disenchantment,” or the systematic repression of the “magical” elements of religion, as well as by a concomitant historical movement toward the association or personal commitment with “true” religion.

“Almost everyone can agree that one of the big differences between us and our ancestors of five hundred years ago is that they lived in an “enchanted” world, and we do not; at the very least, we live in a much less “enchanted” world. We might think of this as our having “lost” a number of beliefs and the practices which they made possible. But more, the enchanted world was one in which these forces could cross a porous boundary and shape our lives, psychic and physical. One of the big differences between us and them is that we live with a much firmer sense of the boundary between self and other. We are “buffered” selves. We have changed.”

The broader historical context for these shifts was a “great disembedding” of social and collective life and a movement toward reform within Christianity, which, along with other historical developments, led not only to the rise of modern individualism but also to the possibility of conceiving of the world in purely immanent terms, shorn of all reference to the transcendent.

The separation of the immanent from the transcendent, worked from within Latin Christendom itself, thus laid the groundwork for the assertion of a self-sufficient secular order. And it was the development of this possibility that led, in Taylor’s account, to the existential condition he most closely associates with modern secularity, namely, the contemporary reality that belief in God, or in any transcendent reality, is considered just one option among many and therefore represents a fragile form of commitment. According to Taylor, it is this shared condition of belief and commitment that makes the current age a “secular” one.