North American Review

Newcomb and the Religion of Today

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But according to evolutionary theory,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Newcomb and the Christian Evolutionists

The North American Review, it should be clear, was founded and fostered by an Unitarian spirit. Most of its editors and owners, as we have seen, embraced a liberal theology, and many were Unitarian ministers themselves. Thus it is unsurprising that many of its leading contributors during the late-nineteenth century were men like Simon Newcomb (1835-1909). Like many of the scientific naturalists in England, Newcomb advanced a reconciliation between science and religion only by segregating them into opposite—and thus opposing—camps. But as we saw in his 1878 address to the AAAS, and his subsequent “Advertisement” in the 1 July issue of the Review, Newcomb also went beyond the Huxleys, Tyndalls, and Spencers.

After delivering the AAAS address, Newcomb encountered opposition from a number of theologians. In a forum published in the Review on 1 January, 1879, Newcomb discussed with Noah Porter, Joseph Cook, James Freeman Clarke, and James McCosh the “Law and Design in Nature.” Newcomb begins by noting, as he did in his “Advertisement,” that there exists two conflicting schools of thought when addressing the course of nature. While both sides assume that there exists a uniform plan and method in the universe, they cannot agree what that plan and method are. But whereas the “scientific school” criticizes the fundamental position of the “theological school,” without directly denying its veracity, the theological school refuses to give any credence whatsoever to the scientific school. Newcomb admits that this is not a “fair statement of the position they [the theological school] mean to occupy, but only that it is the manner in which their position presents itself to the other school [my emphasis].”

In presenting the divergent views between the so-called scientific and theological schools, Newcomb repeats the main points from his presidential address at the AAAS. When men study the operations of the world around them, they find a regularity so constant that the only logical conclusion is that the course of nature is determined by law. What seems arbitrary or mystifying, man has historically attributed these operations to supernatural agents, or gods. In turn man anthropomorphized these divine agents, ascribing to them aims and designs. At which point some men then claimed to be able discern these aims and designs in nature. But as knowledge advanced, these arbitrary events were also revealed to be determined by law.

To make his distinction between the schools clearer, Newcomb gives the example of the destruction of a theater by fire. The theological school, he says, will likely claim the fire was the work of a Higher Being, perhaps as punishment for the wicked. Another explanation sometimes offered by the theological school is that the cause is inscrutable, and therefore beyond human investigation. The scientific school, however, will say that “it occurred on one of the many ways by which every one knows that fires may occur, and that the character of the theatre or the intentions of the wicked people had nothing at all to do with the matter.” Newcomb then takes this same reasoning and applies to how one understands the motions of the planets. The scientific school, and especially the astronomer, “assumes that these motions take place in accordance with the law of universal gravitation,” and thus are able to “predict, years of centuries in advance, that the moon’s shadow will pass over certain regions of the earth at certain stated times.”

In his concluding remarks, Newcomb says this same thinking can apply to the debate surrounding evolution, which is at present “raging with most bitterness.” If the theologians can agree that the scientific schools have provided better explanations for the theater fire and the motion of the planets, why not accept their explanations for the genesis of living beings? The postulate of “final causes,” which the theological schools hold so dear, are, in Newcomb’s view, completely irrelevant to explaining natural phenomena.

The first to respond to Newcomb is Porter. He argues that Newcomb has created a “fiction,” that Newcomb’s understanding of the so-called theological school is totally “imaginary.” His conception of the “course of Nature,” moreover, is far too narrow. According to Porter, the course of nature includes “phenomena and facts of spirit as truly as those of matter.” We encounter constant examples of matter and spirit in the course of nature. Subjective thought is manifested in objective action. Indeed the spirit has greater significance, for “phenomena and effects of the physical universe proceed in subservience to ends which concern rational and sentient beings.”

Furthermore, Porter claims that “a universe of law is, ipso facto, a universe of design.” When Newcomb says that both schools assume a uniform plan and method in the universe, this implies, and even at an inductive level, design—“or at the least are best explained by design.”  According to Porter, Newcomb ultimately goes half-way in his explanations. Merely attributing causes and effects to physical phenomena “overlooks the solution that the effect might be caused by physical agencies, and still be designed by God.” In Newcomb’s example of the motion of the planets, Porter says that “the constancy of the operations of Nature and the consequent possibility of foreseeing the minutest consequences are no more inconsistent with the belief in design in the future than an insight into these forces and operations of Nature is inconsistent with such belief at any present moment.” In concluding his response, Porter refers to German Emil Du Bois-Raymond (1818-1896), who had placed strict limits of our knowledge of nature. “After discoursing of what he calls the astronomical knowledge and  foreknowledge of Nature’s forces and laws and events,” Porter writes, Du Bois-Raymond “draws a sharp line between the field of this astronomical knowledge and the agencies and relations in the course of Nature which can never be thus mastered. In respect to some of these questions he is content to say, ignoramus—in respect to others, ignorabimus.”

Cook, in his reply, begins with a story about Kepler found in Joseph Bertrand’s (1822-1900) Les Fondateurs de l’Astronomie moderne (1865).

Kepler relates that one day, when he had long meditated on atoms and their combinations, he was called to dinner by his wife, who laid a salad on the table. “Dost thou think,” said he to her, “that if from the creation plates of tin, leaves of lettuce, grains of salt, drops of oil and vinegar, and fragments of hard-boiled eggs were floating in space in all direction and without order, chance could assemble them to-day to form a salad?” “Certainly not so good a one,” replied his fair spouse, “nor so well seasoned as this.”

The point of this anecdote and others like it, Cook explains, is that Newcomb and those who follow his line of thought have failed to distinguish between “the laws of matter and the collocations of matter.” Natural phenomena are conditioned by laws, no doubt. But what accounts for these laws? Newcomb answers the “how?” but does not address the “why?” How and Why are not mutually exclusive, according to Cook. “The combination of millions of forces so as to produce sight is intelligible only on the principle that they have been combined in order to produce sight.” There is a “chasm between the primordial star-dust and the solar system.” This “chasm” can only be bridged “by the teleological as distinct from the mechanical theory of force.”

Clarke responds by carefully scrutinizing Newcomb’s initial propositions. The so-called theological school, he says, “admit the truth of the law of universal causation.” However, Newcomb’s second proposition, that in the action of causes “no regard to consequences is traceable,” Clarke emphatically denies. Final causes and design are in fact observable in nature, he says. Clarke gives the example of evolution itself. “Man is certainly a part of Nature, and those who accept evolution must regard him as the highest development resulting from natural processes.” Furthermore, eliminating God’s interventions in nature does not rule our design. Clarke then cites philosophers (e.g., Leibniz and Descartes) who rejected teleological statements but nevertheless believed in final causes. “The phenomena of the universe,” he concludes, “can not be satisfactorily explained unless by the study both of efficient causes and of final causes.”

The final response comes from McCosh. As president of Princeton University and as one of the leading philosophers of nineteenth-century America, McCosh attempted to bring about reconciliation between Christianity and evolution. But in addressing Newcomb’s arguments, McCosh accused him of succumbing to the “fallacy of interrogation.” According to McCosh, Newcomb “has mixed up no fewer than three questions, which are not the same, with each other, which have no necessary connection, and are not to be satisfied with one reply.” In attempting to make sense of Newcomb’s position, McCosh breaks it down into three propositions:

(1) “The whole course of Nature considered as a succession of phenomena is conditioned solely by causes.”

(2) “In the action of which causes no regard to consequences is either traceable by human investigation or necessary for foresee the phenomena.”

and

(3) “Is the above postulate consistent with sound doctrine?”

McCosh holds that he too believed that in the course of nature “every occurrence is produced by antecedent causes.” The third proposition is marred with vagueness, he says. What is “sound doctrine”? Religious doctrine? Scientific doctrine or the method of induction? Newcomb, McCosh says, does not specify. Thus he declares that “it is sound doctrine in science and in nearly all religions that God is traceable in his works.”

McCosh’s main contention with Newcomb is his second proposition. McCosh agrees that “physical causes do not in themselves have any regard for consequences.” But according to McCosh, “law and design” are not incompatible. For McCosh, “there is design in law.”

In the end McCosh accuses some scientists (rather uncharitably) of “derangement of mental vision produced by their gazing exclusively on some one object.” He further accuses Newcomb of setting the two schools, the theological and the scientific, against each other. “He is a narrow man who in inquiring into Nature can discover only mechanical force—while he overlooks vital and psychical agencies.” At the same time, the “religious man is so far a narrow man who will not allow scientists to discover physical cause.” The “truly enlightened man,” McCosh concludes, will delight in discovering both.