The English Deists

In addition to reading Cunningham, I have spent the last several days reading works on the Cambridge Platonists and seventeenth-century latitudinarian theologians: Benjamin Whichcote (1609-83), Peter Sterry (1613-72), George Rust (d.1670), John Wilkins (1614-72), Henry More (1614-87), Ralph Cudworth (1617-88), John Smith (1618-52), John Worthington (1618-71), Nathaniel Culverwel (1619-51), Simon Patrick (1626-1707), John Tilloston (1630-94), Edward Stillingfleet (1635-99), Joseph Glanvill (1636-80), John Norris (1657-1711), and Richard Cumberland (1631-1718). Peter Harrison has provided extensive comments on these figures in his Religion and the Religions in the English Enlightenment (1990),  The Bible, Protestantism and the Rise of Natural Science (1998), and The Fall of Man and the Foundations of Science (2007). The Cambridge Platonists attempted to “establish some final court of appeal on matters of religious doctrine” against the rising religious pluralism in the aftermath of the English Reformation. They did this by grounding religious belief not in institutional authority but in the “certitude of the mind itself.” Their religion was a “rational religion.” Although each held a strong view of “reason,” the Cambridge Platonists continued to take the doctrine of the Fall quite seriously.

In addition to Harrison, I have found Jackson I. Cope’s Joseph Glanvill: Anglican Apologist (1956), C.A. Patrides’ The Cambridge Platonists (1969), Richard S. Westfall’s Science and Religion in Seventeenth-Century England (1970), and Jon Parkin’s Science, Religion and Politics in Restoration England (1999) helpful in contextualizing the lives and thought of these men.

Hudson - The English DeistsStudying the Cambridge Plantonists has quite naturally led me to the so-called English deists: Charles Blount (1654-93), Matthew Tindal (1656-1733), Thomas Woolston (1669-1733), John Toland (1670-1722), Anthony Collins (1679-1729), Thomas Morgan (d.1743), Thomas Chubb (1679-1747), Conyers Middleton (1683-1750), and Peter Annet (1693-1769). This is how I came across Wayne Hudson‘s insightful two volume work, The English Deists: Studies in Early Enlightenment (2009) and Enlightenment and Modernity: The English Deists and Reform (2009).

Hudson points out that eighteenth- and nineteenth-century historians looked back on this group of thinkers as attempting to “undermine belief in revealed religion, while claiming to believe in natural religion.” We see this, for example, in John Leland’s A View of the Principal Deistical Writers (1754-6) and Leslie Stephen’s History of English Thought in the Eighteenth century (1876). This pattern of interpretation, a paradigm of belief and unbelief, has now become common parlance. Hudson, however, seeks to challenge this interpretation.

According to Hudson, “the writers known as English deists were not atheists or deists in an exclusive or final sense, but controversialists working with various publics for a range of purposes in a period in which ‘the public’ was being constructed.” There were “multiple deisms” and multiple social roles in which each figure was active. Most of the so-called English deists in fact denied that sobriquet. As Hudson writes: “Blount used the term ‘deist,’ but not of himself. Toland denied all his life that he was a deist. Collins used it only once in print, and then of others. Tindal never claimed in print to be a deist, although he outlined the stance of a ‘Christian deist,’ a position also adopted by Morgan. Chubb admitted that he was trying to promote deism, but refused to call himself a deist in a sense exclusive of Christianity, while Woolston and Middleton claimed to be trying to defend Christianity against ‘the deists.'” This is consistent with the fact that most of the English deists were “constrained by livelihood or social role to be Christians, and some of them were obliged to maintain a level of involvement with the established Church.”

The claim that the English deists were religious rationalists is also challenged. Religious rationalism begins with Richard Hooker’s (1554-1600) Of Lawes of Ecclesiastical Politie (1593), in which he insisted that reason could know the law of God without revelation. The Cambridge Platonists supported another form of religious rationalism, one informed by patristic and scholastic sources, as well as Renaissance Platonism. But like Hooker, they were all supernaturalists who found salvation only in revelation. And finally the latitudinarians articulated a “reasonable version of Christianity in plain language,” yet continued to hold a high Christology.

Although these writers certainly impacted the English deists, and many of them quoted the Cambridge Platonists consistently in their own writings, it is “misleading,” writes Hudson, to suggest that the deists “simply took the latitudinarians’ principles one step further.” Indeed, the English deists “almost all rejected Athanasian Christianity, in so far as it treated God as a person to whom human beings had obligations.”

Although the English deists are often associated with the Enlightenment, Hudson claims this association also needs revision. There are three forms of Enlightenment that must be distinguished: the Protestant Enlightenment, Radical Enlightenment, and Early Enlightenment. As Hudson argues, “if these writers had really been the outright enemies of Christianity they were accused of being, they would have lost their jobs and ended in prison.” Moreover, “they were not free citizens of an international secular republic of letters, but writers dependent on Christian acceptance and toleration, without which it was difficult for them to pay their bills and buy books.”

In his first chapter, Hudson provides the “genealogies of deism,” concluding that “whereas in Catholic countries deism was more clandestine and sometimes aggressively anti-Christian, in Protestant countries thinkers might interest themselves in various deisms without abandoning Christianity or their social and political identities as Protestants.”

In the following chapter on Edward, Lord Herbert of Cherbury (1583-1648), often referred to as the “father of English deism,” Hudson argues that Herbert was a “Renaissance eclectic influenced by Platonism, Stoicism and Hermeticism.” He was likely influenced by the theistic naturalism of Jean Bodin (c.1529-96), and many of his contemplates viewed his work on religion as ecumenical, particularly his De Veritate (1624), De Religione Gentilium (1663), and De Religione Laici (1645). Indeed, his work was sympathetically read by Rust, Whichcote, More, Culverwell, and Cudworth. But Herbert’s work was undoubtedly more radical than the Cambridge Platonists, for his “natural theology was more extensive and more certain than the modest conclusions of Christian natural theology.” And as Hudson explains, Herbert also “rejected any idea of original sin and believed in a compassionate God and in the goodness of human beings.”

Hebert was also apparently interested in magic, medicine, and occult philosophy. Hudson bases these claims on two untranslated Latin poems Herbert supposedly composed, A Philosophical Disquisition on Human Life and On the Heavenly Life. Hudson includes these poems in an Appendix.

The remaining chapters of The English Deists discuss the standard list of English deists, but with much qualification. Blount, for example, is said to have combined classicism, multiple deisms, and borrowed heavily from free-thought and Protestantism alike. Toland promoted enlightenment attitudes and practices but retained some version of classical theistic naturalism. Collins, who called for toleration of a great diversity of views, included rational Christianity in his new social epistemology. Tindal, a lawyer and civil philosopher, promoted the theology of Protestant liberal thought, and did not challenge orthodoxy directly until the end of his life. As Hudson remarks in his conclusion, “until at least the 1720s, the main task [of the deists] was to attack ‘priestcraft’ and the High Church party and to argue for the liberty of belief and opinion.” The English deists were constrained in thought and activity by the Early Enlightenment, and therefore must be read in the context of the Protestant Enlightenment in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century England.

Visions of Science: Charles Lyell

Charles Lyell
Charles Lyell (1797-1875)

James Secord opens his fifth chapter, which focuses on Charles Lyell’s (1797-1875) Principles of Geology (1830-33), by stating that geology had become the most contentious of the new sciences. But this requires some qualification. In Britain, where knowledge of the natural world was used to prove the existence, power, and wisdom of God, many leading geologists were clergymen. The situation was rather different in France, however, where leading intellectuals were anti-clerical.

The history of geology is complex and full of interesting characters. Hexamera, or commentaries on the creation account in the book of Genesis, have been part of the Christian tradition since the second century. “Sacred chronology,” as it was called, attempted to calculate the age of the earth based on the genealogies of the patriarchs recorded in Genesis, Jewish lunar calenders, and pagan histories. There was no consensus among chronologists, however. The most famous (or infamous) of course was the date offered by James Ussher (1581-1656) in his Annals of the Old and New Testament (1650).

With the advent of mechanical philosophy, many thinkers attempted to give a new and more refined account of the earth. René Descartes (1596-1650), John Ray (1627-1705), Thomas Burnet (1635-1715), William Whiston (1667-1752), and John Woodward (1667-1728) had used prevailing mechanical theories to explain the formation and changes of the earth, now called geomorphology. Yet these thinkers proposed mechanical theories that accorded with the biblical account.

The presence of organic fossils, however, had always presented a challenge to the traditional biblical narrative. At the dawn of the eighteenth century, the discoveries and theories of Carolus Linnaeus (1707-78), George Louis Leclarc, Comte de Buffon (1707-88), Pierre Simon Laplace (1749-1827) and others had made it increasingly difficult to reconcile a literal reading of “days” in Genesis with observations from nature. Despite these difficulties, biblically focused geology continued throughout the eighteenth century, in the work of, for instance, Jean-André Deluc (1727-1817), John Townsend (1739-1816), John Macculloch (1773-1835) and others.

What has been called “naturalistic” or “secular” theories of the earth arose from seventeenth century deism. Perhaps the most successful was Scottish gentlemen farmer James Hutton (1726-97). In his Theory of the Earth (1795), Hutton proposed an immensely old earth to explain its changes, completely circumventing the “biblical” time scale. Independent of Hutton, French deist Jean-Baptiste de Lamarck (1744-1829), a protégé of Buffon, likewise proposed an immense age to the earth. And George Cuvier (1769-1832), a devout Protestant, viewed the flood as one of a series of dramatic natural events, but like Hutton and Lamarck, he understood the earth to be extremely old. In 1813, Cuvier explained that there had been a series of great geological “catastrophes” in earth history. These, he supposed, wiped out species in restricted regions. John Playfair (1748-1819) popularized Hutton’s work in his Illustrations of the Huttonian Theory of the Earth (1802) the following century, and in 1822, English geologist William Daniel Conybeare (1787-1857) accepted the Huttonian theory to explain the elevation of mountains and continents. Indeed, Hutton’s ideas—as conveyed by Playfair—would serve as the foundation of Lyell’s Principle of Geology. As Secord writes, “Playfair’s Illustrations presented geology as a science which dealt with stable systems operating under unvarying laws. Lyell never seems to have read Hutton’s original publications, but he used Playfair’s works extensively.”

Secord claims that the Principles of Geology was used “to come to terms with the consequences of scientific findings in relation to the biblical accounts of the Creation and the Flood.” He nicely sums up the central argument of these book thus: “Those studying the history of the earth should carry out their investigations under the assumption that causes now visible (volcanoes, rivers, tidal currents, earthquakes, storms) are of the same kind that have acted in the past, and have done so with the same degree of intensity as in the present.” In a well-known aphorism, Lyell held that “the present is the key to the past.”

Lyell was born and raised in a moderate Tory environment. By the time he began writing his Principles, however, his sympathies were becoming ever more Whiggish. At Oxford he encountered a geology of a particularly devout kind. For example, he attended the lectures of Rev. William Buckland (1784-1844), his first teacher in geology, and who also spoke of the earth as “millions of millions of years” in age in his Reliquiae diluvianae (1823). His interpretation was sanctioned by many leading Anglican theologians, including John Bird Sumner (1780-1862) and E.B. Pusey (1800-82). In Buckland’s scheme, the Bible covered only the history of mankind, not the rest of creation. According to Secord, Buckland offered his students a “romantic vision of the progress of life through countless ages, populated by strange animals perfectly adapted to even stranger physical conditions, and culminating in the creation of the human race.”

By the mid-1820s, Lyell was an ardent liberal Protestant. Although trained as a barrister, he saw in science a “refuge from political and religious strife.” Lyell abandoned the attempt to harmonize Genesis and geology in detail, finding in Genesis religious truths, such as God’s creation of all things, but no science. Like many others, Lyell argued for a greatly expanded time frame for Creation.

Lyell published his first edition of the Principles through John Murray. But this was intended for a limited audience. He “targeted a conservative and respectable readership,” writes Secord. He wanted to convince gentlemen and ladies that geology was not anti-Bible and anti-Christian, and that it had nothing to do with materialism. He wrote for “an enlightened clerisy of truth-seekers,” and “saw no need for ordinary readers to master all the research and reasoning that had gone into the making of knowledge.”

Lyell challenged Cuvier’s “catastrophist” perspective, arguing that all earth movements were slow and gradual on the same scale as modern volcanoes, rivers, tidal currents, earthquakes, and storms. According to Lyell, a scientific, vera causa geology did not admit the existence of catastrophes, especially the like of which had never been observed. Lyell claimed that the laws of nature have not changed over time, that the kind of causes operating now have not changed, and that the intensity of these causes have always remained the same. Catastrophist speculations were not science and therefore had no place in geology.

As a science, moreover, geology should have nothing to do with providential interventions. Lyell’s theory was similar to Hutton’s. William Whewell (1794-1866), Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, had coined the terms “uniformitarianism” and “catastrophism” in 1832 in his review of Lyell’s Principles, and firmly assigned Lyell to the uniformitarian camp. Lyell, it has been said, envisaged a “steady-state” earth, and as far as he was concerned, there was no overall change in any particular direction—that is, no “progress.”

But as Secord observes, Lyell did see progress in the history of mankind. Nature was static, to be sure; but humanity was progressive. While he “rejected the possibility of constructing any narrative ‘story of the earth,'” Lyell nevertheless saw the history of mankind as “militantly Whiggish, developmental, and progressive.” Interestingly, many of his contemporaries claimed that the stratigraphic record did show progress in nature. Clerical geologists, such as Buckland and Adam Sedgwick (1785-1873) gladly connected their geological findings with biblical history and Christian eschatology.

Whewell’s label for Lyell was not entirely fair. In public statements, Lyell “no more advocated a steady-state, cyclical, or non-progressionist cosmology than he did progression itself.” Indeed, no narrative was possible, for “too much of the record had been lost.” Nevertheless, he saw uniformity as the guiding principle of geologists, and science in general.

Lyell’s Principles were well-received, even among religious reviewers. But this should come as no surprise. By the mid-nineteenth century, most clergy geologists acknowledged that the earth was a great deal older than the 6,000 years of Ussher’s “biblical” chronology. Nevertheless, Lyell’s attempt to completely free geology from Moses remained controversial. Indeed, in his polemical “historical sketch of the progress of geology,” Lyell considered the clergy as the chief obstacle of geology. He writes, “the progress of geology is the history of a constant and violent struggle between new opinions and ancient doctrines, sanctioned by the implicit faith of many generations, and supposed to rest on scriptural authority.”

Temple of Serapis
The Temple of Serapis, frontispiece to Lyell’s Principles of Geology (London: Murray, 1830)

At the same time, Lyell was not trying to undermine the clergy. In fact, he wanted to show that change did not mean complete destruction, as the frontispiece of the Principles demonstrates. All of this appealed to more liberal-minded clergy and readers. Lyell felt confident that his book “will be thought quite orthodox and would only offend the ultras.”

But as Secord points out, the new geology had unintended consequences. Both atheists and deists used geology to “give the stamp of authority to unbelief.” There were particularly dangers in questions of human species. In his Philosophie zoologique (1809), for instance, Lamarck had argued for the evolution of one species to another, that is, “transmutation.” When Lyell visited Paris, Secord tells us, he was “shocked to discover that transmutation has met with some degree of favor from many naturalists.” But in his Principles, Lyell argued transmutations as “untenable.” This rejection was part and parcel of his uniformity principle. Since there is no progressive history of life, no progress was possible, and therefore no evolutionary transmutation. Moreover, his readers “needed to be shown that geology was safe,” and thus French ideas of transmutation needed to be crushed. But more than this, Lyell himself was religiously appalled by the doctrine of transmutation. As Secord notes, his private notebooks revealed a deep-seated contempt for transmutation. Secord writes:

If transmutation was true, these notebook entries suggested, no divinely implanted reason, spirit, or soul would set human beings apart; they would be nothing but an improved form of apes that he watched, fascinated, at the newly opened London Zoo. Transmutation was a dirty, disgusting doctrine, which raised fears of miscegenation and sexual corruption. Not only did transmutation repel Lyell’s refined aesthetic sense, it undermined his lofty conception of science as the search for laws governing a perfectly adapted divine creation. With humans no more than better beasts and religion exposed as a fable, the foundations of civil society would crumble, just as they had done in revolutionary France.

It was his reading of Lamarck’s Philosophie zoologique in 1827 that motivated Lyell to deny all grand narratives of progress.

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.


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.

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.