McCabe and the Land of Bunk

mccabeJoseph McCabe (1867-1955), a Roman Catholic monk who abandoned his religious beliefs around 1895, was a prolific author, writing over two hundred books on science, history, biography, and religion. Historians of science and religion have largely ignored McCabe, and it is unclear why. But if historians are looking for the intellectual forebears of the so-called “New Atheism,” McCabe serves a much better candidate than either John William Draper and Andrew Dickson White.

McCabe published mostly with Watts & Company in London, but he also found a home in Kansas, with Haldeman-Julius Publishing Company. Established by Emmanuel Haldeman-Julius, an atheist, socialist, and newspaper publisher, he began publishing a five-cent, papered-covered “Little Blue Books” series in 1919. Perhaps one of the most popular titles in the series was McCabe’s The Conflict Between Science and Religion (1927).

McCabe begins with an arresting vision of the future. “Somewhere about the year 2100 a work will be written,” he says, “on the entire history of religion.” This will necessarily be a history of its “dissolution.” This future historian will give an account of the priesthood and the fabrication of sacred books. He will recognize, moreover, that the “finer emotions of the new age were outraged by some of the most important doctrines of what were called the higher religions.” More importantly, this future historian will have to dedicate a large section to “The Conflict Between Religion and Science.” In this section, McCabe explains, this future historian will draw from sources mostly printed from 1850 to 1950. He will be amused, says McCabe, by distinguished men of science and theologians both protesting that there is no conflict:

“he will read the priests protesting that there is no conflict between true science and religion, and the professors plaintively chanting that there is no conflict between science and true religion. They suspend their fighting occasionally to recover their breath and affirm that they are not fighting” (6-7).

McCabe lays out his thesis thus: “Science has, ever since its birth, been in conflict with religion.” Science first emerged, he writes, in the Greek colonies on the coast of Asia Minor. They perceived at once that tradition was entirely wrong, and knowledge must be acquired by reason and senses. The liberty and spirit of inquiry in these colonies ushered in the decay of religion. But their religious neighbours were quick to “trim their sails.” The work of science was prohibited, until resumed in Alexandria a few centuries later. But the new religion of Christianity gained political power at the time, and “murdered the last brilliant representative of Greek thought, Hypatia, and completely extinguished scientific research.” Indeed, Christianity was the “most deadly opponent” of scientific progress.

During Christendom, science was extinct. Science reemerged in the Arab world, but “not on account of its Mohammedan religion, but very clearly in spite of it.” McCabe argued that a new skepticism was rising, and with it the revival of science. Wandering scholars encountered this renaissance, and brought back the “new” learning to England and France. But there was nothing new here, according to McCabe. “From [Roger] Bacon to Copernicus,” he writes, “they all merely repeated what Greeks or Moors had told them, and that, the moment they opened their mouths, the modern conflict between science and religion began.”  Imprisoned, extinguished, hounded, and burned, these followers of Greek science paid a hefty price.

But when Christendom found itself weakened by the “great schism,” men of science finally gained more liberty. The deists attacked the crudities and inconsistencies of the Old Testament, allowing scientific men to reconstruct the “real history of the earth and of man.”

The conflict rages to this day, says McCabe. There is no disputing the fact that “a mighty conflict of science and religion” occurred in the nineteenth century. American fundamentalists, McCabe argues, still maintain it.

Before moving forward, McCabe wants to address a couple of “fallacious or untruthful statements about this historical conflict.” First is the common statement that “there never was a conflict between religion and science” (11). McCabe directly targets Andrew Dickson White’s claim that the conflict was between theology, and not religion. “To talk of a few combative theologians sparring with a few combative scientists about these matters is utter historical untruth.” To our ancestors, theology was religion, according to McCabe.

Another fallacy, says McCabe, is to dismiss past conflicts because our ancestors simply did not know true “religion.” “Progressive religion,” McCabe declares, “is the veriest piece of bunk that Modernism ever invented” (12). By “modernism” McCabe means those liberal theologians who reinterpreted traditional religious beliefs. But to reject central doctrines of Christianity, such as the fall of man, is to maintain that the very “foundation of Christianity is an error.” To reject such doctrines, according to McCabe, is to reject the whole of Christianity.

Even the most “extreme modernist” position, one that believes in a religion that changes and grows, is wrong. In the end, McCabe claims that the nineteenth-century conflict “left a corrosive acid in what remains of religion.”

But what about today? In 1927, when this little pamphelt was published, does the conflict persist? According to McCabe, absolutely. He thinks its a terrible mistake that some American scientists have made a futile and inglorious attempt at reconciling “the dervishes by protesting that science is not inconsistent with religion” (15). He attacks E. Ray Lankester, Henry F. Osborne, Mihajlo I. Pupin, Robert A. Millikan, William B. Riley, Gary N. Calkins, and others for taking up this conciliatory approach. These attempts, according to McCabe, demonstrates a lack of understanding the true nature of religion. Science, according to McCabe, is unified. But religion has never been unified. Thus, if one seeks the reconciliation of science and religion, “we shall have to take three hundred different collections of religious beliefs and apply science to them” (19). But if we take a few leading types of religion and a few common doctrines, it will suffice to demonstrate that science is blatantly in conflict with them.

In this Little Blue Book, McCabe wants to concentrate on fundamentalist and modernist religious beliefs. Indeed, even the “ultra-Modernist” position is in conflict with the teachings of science.

McCabe dispenses with fundamentalists rather quickly, showing that they have all rejected evolution, that Genesis is irreconcilable with science, and that the “science” of comparative religion has shown that Christianity is a pagan accumulation of beliefs. The fundamentalist, like the Roman Catholic, according to McCabe, is “in flat and flagrant conflict with science.”

But like the fundamentalists, McCabe says, he has nothing but contempt for Christians who offer “new interpretations on the old doctrines” (23). He then offers a mock reinterpretation of the Apostles’ Creed based on the modernist position:

I believe in God—a God who is one with Nature,

The Father Almighty—but not all-powerful,

Creator of Heaven and Earth—which were not created, but are eternal.

And in Jesus Christ, His only son, our Lord—who is, however, a son of God only in the same sense as we, but more so,

Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost—as an artist conceives his work, not miraculously,

Born of the Virgin Mary—who was not a virgin

Suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried—not to atone for the sins of the world.

He descended into hell—which does not exist;

The third day he rose again from the dead—or his soul made a new body out of ether.

He ascended into heaven—or made a final phantasmal appearance,

Sittteth on the right hand [which doesn’t exist] of God the Father Almighty [who is not Almighty]—though there is no heaven to sit in.

From thence he shall come to judge the living and the dead—that is to say, he will persuade them to judge themselves.

I believe in the Holy Ghost—which is a figure of speech,

The Holy Catholic Church—certainly not the Roman, and the Anglo-Catholic only as long as it imposes no belief on me,

The communion of saints—by telepathy,

The forgiveness of sins—each man forgiving himself,

The resurrection of the body—which certainly won’t rise again,

And life everlasting—which may not last forever: we don’t know.

The modernist, according to McCabe, “are Christians who believe that Paul and the Christian Church have been wrong in nearly everything until science began to enlighten the world” (24).

In the following chapters, McCabe discusses the “twilight of the gods,” “science and the soul,” “the conflict about morals,” and concludes with a history of “religion as a phenomenon.” Throughout these chapters McCabe’s target is not the fundamentalism, but the modernism, the liberal Christian reinterpretation of Christianity. “The land which lies between straight Fundamentalism and straight Modernism,” he writes, “is the Land of Bunk.”

History has proven, according to McCabe, “fatal to the essential message of the Bible and the Christian religion.” Civilization slowly emerged from savages. The conflict between Christianity and evolution has never been the real issue. “The fundamental and essential Christian doctrine is not based upon the creation, but up the fall of man, upon a certain version of man’s early history” (27). The whole Christian message, says McCabe, hinges on man in Eden. But historical and comparative religious studies have shown that the fall was based on Babylonian legends; moreover, such views of primeval man are also completely discredited by what science tells us. A divine redeemer is thus “superfluous.”

But the modernist protests, says McCabe, that these “skirmishes” between science and religion are “between men who know very little about science and men who know very little about religion.” McCabe of course thinks this is nonsense. McCabe takes this quote from Nobel prize winning physicist Millikan, who believed in some “Power unknown to us,” perhaps taken from the agnostic doctrine of the Unknown by Hebert Spencer. But according to McCabe, theologians have taken this route for decades: “saying that science cannot (today) explain something, so God must (until tomorrow)” (33).  McCabe strongly condemns those “providential evolutionists,” those “light-headed chanticleers of the pulpit who crowed that evolution was ‘a more splendid revelation than ever of God’s power'” (36-37).

In discussing the immortality of the soul, McCabe claims that we “see at once the utter insincerity and frivolity of the claim that there is no conflict between science and religion” (39). Again, his attack is directed less at fundamentalists and more at modernists, who maintain a “tincture of religious belief.” While they have abandoned Genesis and Paul’s epistles, they mistakenly speak of “religion and science as independent truths, if not separate and equal revelations of the glory of God” (40). Central to religious belief, according McCabe, is the assumption that mind is not a function of the body, and that the human mind, being spiritual and immortal, is essentially distinct in its nature from the mind of animals. But cerebral physiology, psychology, and evolution are explicitly hostile to this fundamental religious belief (49). Those who claim there is no conflict here, according to McCabe, “must be totally ignorant.”

Turning to the conflict about morals, McCabe writes that “the semi-Fundamentalists or semi-Modernists,” are those educated Christians who, while accepting evolution, still “cling” to some reinterpretation of the fall of man and the atonement, and thus continue to oppose the teaching of science (50).

The Christian rationalist, the Unitarian or such, only make up a fraction of the whole of Christendom. But even these, according to McCabe, are still in conflict with science. Those Christian rationalists who have succumbed to scientific ways of thought have divested God of all personality, reducing traditional conceptions to abstractions of Power, Something, World-Energy, Cosmic Force, Soul of the Universe, Vital Principle, Urge, Creative Principle, Absolute, and so on.

But according to McCabe, once we understand the nature of the universe, what point is there going beyond it? Clearly, then, many continue to feel some “mystery of existence,” and thus are compelled to go beyond it. But this is wish fulfilment, says McCabe. The “highbrow religionists,” Emerson, Carlyle, Arnold, and others, defined religion as “morality touched with emotion” (52). This deracinated humanitarianism is bunk, according to McCabe. In its place he simply asks “Why?” Why must we be strictly honorable, temperate, modest, and chaste? “Half the civilized world,” McCabe writes, “is asking these questions, and it is waste of time to reply in the language of either metaphysics or esthetics” (54).

It is the business of science, according to McCabe, to “explain the meaning of the ethical ideals you want to recommend.” Evolution in particular has explained the origins and development of these ethical ideals.

In concluding his Little Blue Book, McCabe wants to be “quite reasonable with everybody about everything” (57). The modernist attempt to redefine religion so it could never come into conflict with science reminds McCabe of one final way religion most certainly comes into conflict with science. He relates the controversy that erupted after John Tydnall’s 1874 Belfast Address. But like the modernists, Tyndall saved a place for religion, to the “region of poetry and emotion.” But according to McCabe, religion has always been inextricably connected to cosmological theory. Once science entered that domain, religion had no choice but to shirk and relocate itself.

In discussing the phenomenon of religion, McCabe believes that science has demonstrated the evolution of religion, giving us “a scheme of natural development into which all the religions of the world are fitted” (58). Although this “science of religion” was originally founded by “liberal Christians,” McCabe explains, its tendency “seems on every side to provoke a disbelief in religion in any but the most liberal and creedless sense of the word!”

No comparative religious scholar can remain a Christian, McCabe argues. He simple “knows too much.” The evolutionary study of religion, he says, “is fatal to every claim to every claim made on behalf of Christianity: not merely to its claim of inspiration and revelation, but to every claim that there is something unique about its ethic or its doctrines” (59, 61). It is for this reason that McCabe closes his Little Blue Book with the claim that “science is only one of the dissolving agencies” of religion. Philosophy and history are just as fatal, if not more so. Our “higher standards of conduct and emotion” too reject doctrines of “eternal torment and vicarious atonement.” Indeed, every aspect of the “higher life of our our age is hostile to religion.

John William Draper and His Sources

It has often been said, by his contemporaries as well as modern scholars, that John William Draper made little reference to other authors. This is not entirely accurate. To be sure, there are no footnotes or endnotes in Draper’s books. But he does refer to a variety of authors and sometimes even quotes directly from their work. Below is a complied list of some of the more significant authors Draper specifically refers to in his publications. Draper mentions some of these authors merely in passing. Others are used to support his argument in various places. Still others serve more as guiding principles of his narrative. Draper was obviously influenced by other thinkers, ones he alludes to wittingly or unwittingly simply by the style of his rhetoric. His reasons for not including all his sources are presumably complex. At any rate, this list is not exhaustive. Moreover, I have selected authors that peak my own interests. But the important point here is that Drapers explicitly mentioned all of them in the body of his work.

A Treatise on the Forces which Produce the Organization of Plants (1844):

  • Isaac Newton (1643-1727)
  • Joseph Priestley (1733-1804)
  • William Herschel (1738-1822)
  • Benjamin Thompson, Count Rumford (1753-1814)
  • Nicéphore Niépce (1765-1833)
  • William Hyde Wollaston (1766-1828)
  • Charles Bell (1776-1842)
  • Henri Dutrochet (1776-1847)
  • Jöns Jacob Berzelius (1779-1848)
  • Siméon Denis Poisson (1781-1840)
  • David Brewster (1781-1868)
  • Joseph von Fraunhofer (1787-1826)
  • Louis Daguerre (1787-1851)
  • Michael Faraday (1791-1867)
  • John Herschel (1792-1871)
  • Charles Daubeny (1795-1867)
  • Macedonio Melloni (1798-1854)
  • John Lindley (1799-1865)
  • David Boswell Reid (1805-1863)
  • William Benjamin Carpenter (1813-1885)
  • Edmond Becquerel (1820-1891)

A Text-book on Chemistry (1846):

  • Robert Hare (1752-1811)
  • Jöns Jacob Berzelius (1779-1848)
  • Robert John Kane (1809-1890)
  • Thomas Graham (1805-1869)
  • Olinthus Gilbert Gregory (1774-1841)
  • George Fownes (1815-1849)
  • Jean Baptiste André Dumas (1800-1884)
  • […] Millon

A Text-book on Natural Philosophy (1847):

  • Thomas Dick (1774-1857)
  • François Arago (1786-1853)
  • John Herschel (1792-1871)
  • Gabriel Léon Jean Baptist Lamé (1795-1870)
  • Oscar Ferdinand Peschel (1826-1875)
  • Friedrich Eisenlohr (1831-1904)

Human Physiology (1856):

  • George-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon (1707-1788)
  • Louis-Jean-Marie Daubenton (1716-1800)
  • Johann Friedrich Blumenbach (1752-1840)
  • Franz Joseph Gall (1758-1828)
  • John Dalton (1766-1844)
  • George Cuvier (1769-1832)
  • Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859)
  • Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834)
  • Johann Gaspar Spurzheim (1776-1832)
  • Humphry Davy (1778-1829)
  • Jöns Jacob Berzelius (1779-1848)
  • James Cowles Prichard (1786-1848)
  • Karl Ernst von Baer (1792-1876)
  • Adolphe Quetelet (1796-1874)
  • Henri Milne-Edwards (1800-1885)
  • Jean-Baptiste Joseph Dieudonné Boussingault (1801-1887)
  • Alcide d’Orbigny (1802-1857)
  • Justus Freiherr von Liebig (1803-1873)
  • Ernst Freiherr von Bibra (1806-1878)
  • Louis Agassiz (1807-1873)
  • Robert Bentley Todd (1809-1860)
  • Georg Friedrich Karl Heinrich von Bidder (1810-1894)
  • William Benjamin Carpenter (1813-1885)
  • Claude Bernard (1813-1878)
  • James Paget (1814-1899)
  • William Bowman (1816-1892)
  • Charles-Édouard Brown-Séquard (1817-1894)
  • Hermann von Helmholtz (1821-1894)
  • Rudolf Virchow (1821-1902)
  • William Senhouse Kirkes (1822-1864)
  • Carl Schmidt (1822-1894)

A History of the Intellectual Development of Europe (1863):

  • Alhazen (965-1040)
  • Avicenna (d.1037)
  • Al-Ghazali (1058-1111)
  • Averroes (1126-1198)
  • Joachim of Fiore (1135-1202)
  • Roger Bacon (1214-1292)
  • Thomas à Kempis (1380-1471)
  • Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527)
  • Martin Luther (1483-1546)
  • Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531)
  • John Calvin (1509-1564)
  • Jean Bodin (1530-1596)
  • Francis Bacon (1561-1626)
  • Jan Baptist van Helmont (1580-1644)
  • John Milton (1608-1674)
  • Blaise Pascal (1623-1662)
  • John Locke (1632-1704)
  • Immanuel Kant (1724-1804)
  • Edward Gibbon (1737-1794)
  • Pierre-Simon Laplace (1749-1827)
  • George Cuvier (1769-1832)
  • Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859)
  • Christian Charles Josias von Bunsen (1791-1860)
  • Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800-1859)
  • James Anthony Froude (1818-1894)
  • Max Müller (1823-1900)

Thoughts on the Future Civil Policy of America (1865):

  • Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527)
  • Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859)
  • Karl Ernst von Baer (1792-1876)
  • Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800-1859)
  • Ernest Renan (1820-1892)

History of the Civil War (1867-1870):

  • Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527)
  • Jean Bodin (1530-1596)
  • Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790)
  • John Adams (1735-1826)
  • Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826)
  • Daniel Webster (1782-1852)
  • François Guizot (1787-1874)
  • Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865)
  • Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896)
  • Henry Ward Beecher (1813-1887)

History of the Conflict between Religion and Science (1874):

  • Alhazen (965-1040)
  • Avicenna (d.1037)
  • Al-Ghazali (1058-1111)
  • Averroes (1126-1198)
  • Dante Alighieri (1265-1321)
  • Petrarch (1304-1374)
  • Francis Bacon (1561-1626)
  • Jean-Félix Picard (1620-1682)
  • Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677)
  • Humphrey Prideaux (1648-1724)
  • John Toland (1670-1722)
  • Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu (1689-1755)
  • Johann Lorenz von Mosheim (1693-1755)
  • Samuel Shuckford (1693-1754)
  • Thomas Newton (1704-1782)
  • Jean-Baptiste le Rond d’Alembert (1717-1783)
  • Antoine Lavoisier (1743-1794)
  • William Jones (1746-1794)
  • Pierre-Simon Laplace (1749-1827)
  • Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859)
  • Henry Hallam (1777-1859)
  • Jean-Pierre Huber (1777-1840)
  • Benjamin Collins Brodie (1783-1862)
  • François Guizot (1787-1874)
  • Richard Whately (1787-1863)
  • Leopold von Ranke (1795-1886)
  • Hermann Hupfeld (1796-1866)
  • Ernst Wihelm Hengstenberg (1802-1869)
  • John Colenso (1814-1883)
  • Emil du Bois-Reymond (1818-1896)
  • Ernest Renan (1820-1892)
  • George John Douglas Campbell, 8th Duke of Argyll (1823-1900)
  • William Huggins (1824-1910)

“Dr. Draper’s Lecture on Evolution: Its Origin, Progress, and Consequences,” Popular Science Monthly (1877):

  • Benoît de Maillet (1656-1783)
  • Joseph Pitton de Tournefort (1656-1708)
  • George-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon (1707-1788)
  • Jean-Baptiste Lamacrk (1744-1829)
  • George Cuvier (1769-1832)
  • Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859)
  • Lorenz Oken (1779-1851)
  • Robert Chambers (1802-1871)

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.

Simon Newcomb and An Advertisement for a New Religion

The North American Review was established in Boston in 1815 by co-founder and first editor William Tudor (1779-1830). The first issue was in fact almost written entirely by Tudor.  Wanting to establish literary independence from Great Britain, Tudor designed the magazine to include strong literary intelligence, book reviews, reports of leading cultural societies, and inaugural addresses from elite universities, particularly from Harvard.

Changes to the structure of the Review came with new editors. Jared Sparks (1789-1866), appointed editor in 1817, introduced travel and history essays to the magazine. His editorship, however, lasted only a single year, as he resigned at the end of 1817 to take a pastorate of the Unitarian Church in Baltimore.

Under his successor, Edward T. Channing (1790-1856), brother of the famous Unitarian preacher William Ellery Channing (1780-1842), the Review discarded news notes, general essays, and poetry. Channing attempted to imitate more and more the literary reviews of England. But like Sparks, Channing’s editorship lasted only a year before he resigned. He was replaced with a young professor of Greek from Harvard, Edward Everett (1794-1865), who was also a popular Unitarian minister. Under his editorship the Review grew in circulation and popularity.

Sparks returned to the Review in 1824, when he purchased the magazine and thus became its chief editor and owner. Under his continued influence the magazine returned mostly to American topics. In 1830 Sparks sold the Review to Alexander H. Everett (1792-1847), brother of Edward Everett. Under his leadership the magazine reached new heights. He included articles and reviews on both American politics and European affairs.

In 1836 the magazine once again changed hands. Everett, immersed in politics during his editorship, sold his holdings in the Review to John Gorham Palfrey (1796-1881), yet another Unitarian minister. During his term, Palfrey introduced to the American public the writings of Emerson, Bowen, Holmes, Hawthorne, Whittier, Longfellow, Dana, Poe and others.

The next three decades several new editors came and went, including Francis Bowen, Andrew P. Peabody, James Russell Lowell, Henry Adams, and Charles Allen Thorndike Rice. With Rice (1851-1889) the Review reached a new turning point. When he was appointed editor in 1876, he brought the magazine (now a monthly) into a maelstrom of controversy.

It was during Rice’s editorship, for example, when Canadian-American astronomer Simon Newcomb (1835-1909) began writing regularly for the magazine. Newcomb had developed a reputation not unlike that of John Tyndall in Britain. In his 1878 presidential address to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), Newcomb related to his audience that the AAAS was the sister society of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS). The connection seems to have been intentional, for Newcomb, like Tyndall’s infamous Belfast Address in the BAAS 1874 meeting, addressed the alleged conflict between religion and science. “We hear much at the present time of a supposed conflict between science and religion,” he observed. But according to Newcomb, “it is rather a conflict between two sets of men, who view Nature from opposite and irreconcilable standpoints.”

Simon Newcomb Tombstone

Newcomb wants to address these different points of view. On the one hand, the theologian, he says, is too invested. He cannot weigh arguments on both sides of a debate. “His idea of truth is symbolized in the pure marble statue”: unmovable, fixed, stagnant. The scientific idea of truth, on the other hand, is symbolized by an iron-clad turret, “which cannot be accepted until it has proved its invulnerability.” Truth for the scientist requires testing, even demolition. There are no sacred cows in science. “A countless host of theories have thus been demolished and forgotten with the advance of knowledge,” Newcomb notes. Therefore those which remain “can show us a guarantee of their truthfulness which would not be possible under any other plan of dealing with them.” The scientific man, in short, “recognizes no such attribute as orthodoxy in his doctrines.”

His main concern in this address is to present his views on “the course of Nature.” The doctrine of the uniformity of nature, he says, “is generally acquiesced in by the mature thought of intelligent Christendom, yet objections are frequently made to it, because it seems to run counter to some of our most cherished ideas.” For his part, Newcomb claims to be the peacemaker. “My desire,” he asserts early in his speech, “is to act the part of the peacemaker, rather than that of a combatant.” At the same time, in his discussion of “the course of nature,” Newcomb pitted natural law against the doctrine of Providence. He attributed the great advance of civilization to the “development of the understanding of the course of Nature.”

The great progress which the last three centuries have witness [he says] has been wholly in the field of phenomena…The progress here alluded to has been rendered possible only by entirely rejecting the mode of thinking about Nature which was prevalent in former ages, and into which the untrained mind is almost sure to fall at the present day.

The new understanding of nature, for example, “tells us that the whole course of Nature takes place in accordance with certain laws, capable of expression in mathematical language; that these laws act with more than an iron rigor and without any regard to consequences; that they are deaf to prayer or entreaty; that, if we would succeed, we must study them, and so govern ourselves that their action shall inure to our benefit.”

During the same month that Newcomb delivered his AAAS address, the North American Review published his “An Advertisement for a New Religion,” under the signature of “An Evolutionist.” Most of this article was written with tongue in cheek; however, Newcomb does make a serious proposition. “Among our advanced thinkers,” he begins, “two points are now happily settled beyond the need of further inquiry.” First, that all traditional religions, including Christianity (“in one sense the best and in another the worst of them”) are “waxing old, and must soon die.” Revealed religion has been undermined, so has “natural religion.”

But Newcomb also stressed that these same “advanced thinkers” maintain that humanity has a capacity for religion, that man has “religious instincts.” Indeed, great men have all been “profoundly religious.” Since the old religions are “sick, dying, or dead,” and since man must have a religion, it follows, according to Newcomb, that we must found a “new-born religion.”

This new religion must have certain conditions, however. Dealing strictly with the negative, Newcomb writes that this new religion “cannot have a God living and personal.” The God of the new religion cannot be anthropomorphized or personified. Moreover, this new religion cannot “insist on a personal immortality to the soul.” Another condition for the new religion is that “there must be no terrors drawn from a day of judgement.” These terrors only “frighten children, and men and women weak as children.” Highly-developed men, he says, are beyond them. Furthermore, there can be no “ghostly sanctions or motives derived from a supernatural power, or a world to come.” Finally, what cannot be understood by the senses must be “represented as unknown and unknowable.”

What, then, will be the basis for this new religion? The new religion, Newcomb declares, will have “humanity as its god.” He sees contemporary men of science as the new prophets of the people, and organs such as the Contemporary Review and the Nineteenth Century as the new platforms (pulpits?) of the new religion. But the new religion will take time to fully emerge. It will evolve slowly. Thus Newcomb desired to “advertise” among “our scientific doctors all over the world” to help with the birth of the new religion.

“This new religion must come” and it “must all come by development.” There is an urgency in Newcomb’s words here. Although he understands that this new religion will require time to blossom, he hopes that it will come speedily. Why? “We are at present,” he says, “in a transition state, which is a critical state; we are in danger of being crushed in a collision between two trains, one of which has come upon the other before it has started.” Newcomb in particular sees a problem with the morality of the next generation. “Our sons claim that in prosecuting their rights they are just as much entitled to advance beyond their fathers as their fathers did beyond their sires.” Whereas Darwin, Huxley, Tyndall, and others saw the continued need of religion for moral reasons, this new generation, according to Newcomb, wants to do away with it altogether. “We honestly tell them to be honest, and obliging, and chaste—always according to our ideas, which are surely liberal enough. But they puzzle us with questions which we have difficulty enough in answering satisfactorily to them in their present unsettled temper.” What Newcomb seems to be saying here is that when religion was undermined, so was morality.

Thus the new religion must come, and come quickly. And when it does come, “it will collect around it a faith and attractive associations; and it will generate an artistic worship full of glow; and the hearts of our young men and women will be drawn toward it, and we shall have a joyous religion, with a free and generous morality, rejecting all asceticism, and attracting by its own charms.”

Over a century later, we are still waiting for this optimistic vision of the future.

Some Disjointed Thoughts on Democracy, Plato, and the Christian Roots of Liberalism

Yesterday I was inspired by someone dear to me to write out these thoughts. In a rather uncomfortable disagreement, this person, after I had complained about the direction society was moving (a common aghast of the postgraduate), they simply retorted, “that’s democracy.” My first impulse was to aggressively and disdainfully disagree. But I knew this person had a healthy, I think, ambiguity about their beliefs, in regards to society, politics, and even religion.  So I held my tongue. But the more I thought about this brief, impromptu, and somewhat trite conversation, the more I felt obliged to give it greater scrutiny.

Do we, in fact, live in a democracy? A related question, and perhaps more important, is whether democracy happens to be the best form of government? My interlocutor had made, at least in my mind, some uncomfortable assumptions.

This is the stuff of Philosophy 101. My immediate thoughts, upon reflection (and during a sleepless night), turned to Plato and his Republic. Plato, most of us fondly remember, had proposed that there were at least five forms of government: Aristocracy, Timocracy, Oligarchy, Democracy, and Tyranny. Now, it seems clear to me that we most certainly do not live in a democracy. Rather, our system of government, and what seems to me what most nations aspire to, wittingly or unwittingly, is a “multarchy”—a term coined by University of Notre Dame professor of philosophy Gary Gutting. And as Gutting himself put it in an article he published for the New York Times in 2011, America is a “complex interweaving of many forms of government.” That seems to me to be right. Emphatically, then, we do not and never have lived in a pure democracy. In fact, not only does this seem impossible, it also seems undesirable.

According Gutting, our bureaucracy corresponds to Plato’s aristocracy, our military to timocracy, the oligarchy to the super wealthy, and so on. In other words, America’s form of government, in some very particular and peculiar ways, corresponds to all five forms of Plato’s list. What Gutting leaves out in his analysis, however, is that Plato listed these five forms of government in his dialogue in descending order. Thus democracy is just shy of tyranny, and is ultimately a mob-like beast. According to Plato, it is only in an aristocracy, led by the unwilling philosopher-king (a constant theme, I was reminded the other day, in C.L. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, which recently aired on Australian television) that comprises the best form of government. Do we really need any reminders that so-called “democracy” has led to all kinds of atrocities?

But of course other systems of government have as well. But here I am reminded particularly by one of the Founding Fathers of American independence. In a long letter to John Taylor (1753-1824), John Adams (1735-1826) wrote:

Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide. It is in vain to say that democracy is less vain, less proud, less selfish, less ambitious, or less avaricious than aristocracy or monarchy. It is not true, in fact, and nowhere appears in history. Those passions are the same in all men, under all forms of simple government, and when unchecked, produce the same effects of fraud, violence, and cruelty. When clear prospects are opened before vanity, pride, avarice, or ambition, for their easy gratification, it is hard for the most considerate philosophers and the most conscientious moralists to resist the temptation. Individuals have conquered themselves. Nations and large bodies of men, never.

But suppose for a moment we do indeed live in a democracy, and that such a form of government is just—then it seems to me that we have to assume that people in general are good, and, in turn, that they make good decisions. That seems to me to be utterly false. We are a broken people. Angry, greedy and self-centered, ugly and spiteful, our politicians and polity alike constantly make poor decisions. Thus it seems that any idea of a successful democracy was built on the dream of a morally upright society, or, at least, on the idea of a morally upright governing body.

This has finally led me, curiously enough, to Samuel Moyn’s recent articles on Christianity and liberalism on the Immanent Frame. I have mentioned Moyn in another context, in his biting critique of Jonathan Israel’s radical Enlightenment project. But here, and in several other recent works, Moyn has taken up the task of tracing the origins of modern day conceptions of “human rights.” In an earlier post, Moyn argued that

…the original context of the European embrace of human rights—in which they were linked to the conservative defense of human dignity and attached to the figure of the human person—was in Christianity’s last golden age on the Continent…The ‘death of Christian Europe,’ as one might call it, forced…a complete reinvention of the meaning of the human rights embedded in European identity both formally and really since the war. The only serious thread of persistence was, ironically, in Eastern Europe, and especially in Poland, not coincidentally the main exception of Christian collapse…[in time, however,] Human rights had become a secular doctrine of the left; how that happened is another story.

More recently, Moyn argues that such notions as “human dignity” and “human rights” can be traced to Pope Pius XII in his Christmas Message of 1942. Pius XII’s “Five Points for Ordering Society” begins thus:

1. Dignity of the Human Person. He who would have the Star of Peace shine out and stand over society should cooperate, for his part, in giving back to the human person the dignity given to it by God from the very beginning; should oppose the excessive herding of men, as if they were a mass without a soul; their economic, social, political, intellectual and moral inconsistency; their dearth of solid principles and strong convictions, their surfeit of instinctive sensible excitement and their fickleness.

He should favor, by every lawful means, in every sphere of life, social institutions in which a full personal responsibility is assured and guaranteed both in the early and the eternal order of things. He should uphold respect for and the practical realization of the following fundamental personal rights; the right to maintain and develop one’s corporal, intellectual and moral life and especially the right to religious formation and education; the right to worship God in private and public and to carry on religious works of charity; the right to marry and to achieve the aim of married life; the right to conjugal and domestic society; the right to work, as the indispensable means towards the maintenance of family life; the right to free choice of state of life, and hence, too, of the priesthood or religious life; the right to the use of material goods; in keeping with his duties and social limitations.

According to Moyn, this formulation (or, perhaps, reformulation) of human rights and dignity was novel for the time. And although he does admit that others have claimed the fundamental Christian origins of human rights (here, e.g., he cites John Witte, Jr. and Nicholas Wolsterstorff), his concern is the “novel communion between Christianity and human rights, on the 1940s and shortly before.”

That’s all well and good. Moyn is certainly entitled to his delimitation. But what struck me most this morning, upon reading Moyn’s piece, was his supposedly radical claim that “without Christianity, our commitment to the moral equality of human beings is unlikely to have come about…”

To be sure, Moyn’s outlook, as far as I can tell, is entirely secular, in the sense that he is not offering some Christian apologia. Rather, he is simply trying to get the history right. Here his mention of John Witte, Jr.’s The Reformation of Rights: Law, Religion, and Human Rights in Early Modern Calvinism (2008) is particularly interesting. Witte argues that “Calvin and his followers developed a distinct theology and jurisprudence of human rights and gradually cast these rights teachings into enduring institutional and constitutional forms in early modern Europe and America.” This is essentially a counterargument against those who still claim that “human rights” was an offspring of Enlightenment thought (à la mode de Jonathan Israel). This argument is not entirely new. W. Stanford Reid back in 1986 published a short article in Christian History arguing that the Genevan reformer “not only set forth ideas which exercised a powerful influence for democracy in his own day, but also that his ideas had a broad influence on subsequent political thinking in the western world. Although the theological connection which he made between politics and Christianity has largely disappeared, he can still be regarded as one of the fathers of modern democracy.”

This emphasis on modern politics in continuity with traditional Christian ideas, and Calvinism in particular, is also seen in other areas of scholarship. Some have argued, for example, that Reformation theology played a particularly important role in the development of modern science. R. Hooykaas’ Religion and the Rise of Modern Science (1972), of course, is an oft-cited example. More recent work by Susan Schreiner in The Theater of His Glory: Nature and Natural Order in the Thought of John Calvin (1991), Peter Harrison in The Bible, Protestantism, and the Rise of Natural Science (1998), Kenneth J. Howell in God’s Two Books: Copernican and Biblical Interpretation in Early Modern Science (2002), L.S. Koetsier in Natural Law and Calvinist Political Theory (2003), and most recently Jason Foster in his essay, “The Ecology of John Calvin,” published in Reformed Perspectives Magazine (2005), also attest to this trend. Even a completely “secular” (or, at least, thought to be completely secular) and obscure concept like “transhumanism” turns out to have roots in the Apostle Paul (!), as Peter Harrison and Joseph Wolyniak have recently pointed out in the latest issue of Notes and Queries.

So where does that leave me? The idea of a pure democracy is, of course, an illusion. It is rooted, like most of our modern concepts, on particularly theological ideas. Plato had rejected democracy because he saw the masses as credulous and uninformed, subject to their emotions and generally blind to critical thought. In short, the masses cannot govern themselves. John Adams seems to have had a little more hope, but not much more. Democracy always ends up committing suicide. His hope, however, if Moyn, Witte, Reid, and others are correct, was rooted in a Christian theology (Calvinist or Thomist, depending on who you ask) of human dignity and rights.

The International Scientific Series and the Dissemination of Scientific Naturalism

ISSIn examining John William Draper’s History of the Conflict between Religion and Science (1874), it is important to recall that it belonged to D. Appleton and Co.’s popular International Scientific Series (ISS), which was, as Roy M. MacLeod put it in his seminal essay, “Evolutionism, Internationalism and Commercial Enterprise in Science: The International Scientific Series 1871-1910” (1980), the Victorian attempt at “codifying and popularizing scientific knowledge in a systematic fashion to a wide reading public.” Indeed, MacLeod’s essay was perhaps one of the earliest examples of what Adrian Johns would later call the “history of the book.” In MacLeod’s case, it was a series of books published under the entrepreneurial ambitions of American science popularizer Edward Livingstone Youmans.

Little work has been done on the ISS. MacLeod is a helpful starting point. In his essay he describes how Youmans traveled throughout Europe to secure authors and publishers for the series, including many of the leading scientific naturalists of England, John Tyndall, Thomas Henry Huxley, Herbert Spencer, and many others. It is also worth pointing out that Youmans was the first editor of Popular Science Monthly, which he used “as a vehicle for communicating the findings and ideas of scientists to the educated American public,” as William E, Leverette has aptly observed. Thus in order to ascertain the diffusion of scientific naturalism and, more important, Draper’s History of Conflict, Youmans’ publishing motivations and ambitions are critical. MacLeod also provides a useful Appendix at the end of his essay listing the English editions of the ISS, published by Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co.

A decade later Leslie Howsam published an essay on “Sustained Literary Ventures: The Series in Victorian Book Publishing” (1992), where she examines in some detail the publishing houses of Charles Kegan Paul, Henry S. King and his successors at Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co. More recently, Howsam focuses on the ISS itself, in “An Experiment with Science for the Nineteenth-century Book Trade: the International Scientific Series” (2000). Here she argues that a “close examination of the publishing history of scientific books can be particularly fruitful for the scholar interested in how text and physical object combined to constitute the reader’s experience at a given place and moment in time.” According to Howsam, “editorial decisions about what titles to include in the series are evidence of contemporary definitions of science, particularly the inclusion of the social science with the natural sciences.” Moreover, “production decisions about how to keep the series in print are evidence of how the contemporary culture of science interacted with the culture of publishing.”

But perhaps the most helpful introduction to the ISS is Bernie Lightman’s recent essay, “The International Scientific Series and the Communication of Darwinism” (2010). A common theme that often emerges in Lightman’s work is the loss of control. That is, Huxley loses control of his “agnosticism,” the “scientific naturalists” lose control of “evolutionary naturalism,” and so on. Here Lightman argues that by “the early 1880’s a new course had been set when the original founders of the series were no longer in control.”

According to Lightman, the ISS was “based on diffusing Spencerian evolution beyond America to the world at large.” Youmans was obsessed with Spencer’s work. Indeed, his Popular Science Monthly promoted the idea of evolution and evolutionary philosophy not of Darwin but of Spencer. As Leverette has pointed out, Spencer’s ideas were frequently defended in the Popular Science Monthly. Besides Spencer, however, Youmans had formed a “British Committee” for the ISS that included Huxley and Tyndall. With this trio secured, Youmans added Henry S. King as the British publisher of the series. The series enjoyed great success, particularly the works published by Spencer and Draper, which both through more than 20 editions.

Dramatic changes occurred in the series during the late 1870s, however. King became ill and eventually died in 1878. Youmans, whose health was also failing, left the series by 1880. Charles Kegan Paul had purchased H.S. King and Co. and took it over by 1877. According to Lightman, Kegan Paul was a Broad Churchman who later abandoned his faith in 1874 because he could no longer “adhere to the teachings of the Church of England.” He became attracted to Positivism, but by 1890 converted to Catholicism. His return to the Church is retold in a number of remarkable essays and books, in his Faith and Unfaith and Other Essays (1891), Confessio Viatoris (1891), and Memories (1899). In his confession, for example, Paul writes

Day by day the Mystery of the Altar seems greater, the unseen world nearer, God more a Father, our Lady more tender, the great company of the saints more friendly, if I dare use the word, my guardian angel close to my side. All human relationships become holier, all human friends dearer, because they are explained and sanctified by the relationships and friendships of another life. Sorrows have come to me in abundance since God gave me grace to enter His Church, but I can bear them better than of old, and the blessing He has given me outweighs them all. May He forgive me that I so long resisted Him, and lead those I love unto the fair land wherein He has brought me to dwell! It will be said, and said with truth, that I am very confident. My experience is like that of the blind man in the Gospel who also was sure. He was still ignorant of much, nor could he fully explain how Jesus opened his eyes, but this he could say with unfaltering certainty, “One thing I know, that whereas I was blind, now I see.

And as Lightman points out, when Kegan Paul took over the series, “he did not feel bound by the contract that Tyndall, Spencer, and Huxley had signed with King.” For one, he no longer selected authors who wished to disseminate evolutionary naturalism. All three would eventually resign from the Committee. In their absence, Kegan Paul would bring in new authors who embraced new versions of natural theology. However, the series was never as successful as it was with Huxley, Tyndall, and Spencer at the helm. By 1911, the series came to a close.

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.