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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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In many languages other than English the word “sci-
ence,” when used in the phrase “Science and Religion,”
means all rational knowledge. The English language
uses the word science to mean the study of the natural
or physical sciences, and it is that which concerns us
in this article. The English use has caused a measure
of confusion. During the nineteenth century there was
a conflict between science and religion. At bottom this
conflict consisted of a contrast between the philos-
ophies dominant in that age and a religious view of
the world. But in England men often talked as though
the conflict between science and religion was a contrast
between the conclusions of the natural sciences and
the teaching of Christianity. Such a contrast existed;
but it was a smaller part of a far bigger contrast be-
tween philosophy and Christianity. Nevertheless the
advance of the physical sciences contributed to the
sense of contrast.

1. Geology proved the passage of an enormous span
of time before man evolved. Here was direct conflict
between the evidence of scientific enquiry and that
literal understanding of Genesis and the Old Testament
which many Christians still held. In England this con-
flict was particularly important because it gave the
English an impression that the natural scientists, rather
than the empirical or idealistic philosophers, tended
to hold views contrary to religion, and to hold those
views because of their scientific enquiry. This first
impinged on a wide public after the publication (1844)
of Vestiges of Creation, by the Scottish journalist R.
Chambers, which was not a scholarly book but
brilliantly popularized a crude Lamarckian doctrine
of evolution and a prehistory of the world as seen in
the record of the rocks.

Members of the churches were therefore compelled
to drop such theories as that the world was only six
thousand years old, or that the story of Noah was a
literal history of a universal flood. In Germany and
in England this was done easily between 1820 and
1860. But in the moment that parts of Genesis were
admitted to be not history, a great impetus was given
to the historical investigation already started of the
biblical books, their origins and dates and validity,
especially the early books of the Old Testament. Thus
the churches spent much time during the sixties and
seventies in internal tension over the historicity of the
biblical record; and conservatives were apt to blame
science for these tensions when properly speaking the
physical sciences gave only a subsidiary impetus to
historical enquiry.

2. The scientific method produced results of such
importance during the middle years of the century that,
especially in Germany and France, it looked as though
it might be the only road to truth, and therefore in
both Germany and France appeared an association
between the students of the natural scientists and a
philosophy of materialism; as though sooner or later
physical science might be able to bring the brain and
then the conscience and even the aesthetic sense under
its own laws of predictability. In England this was
never quite so strong as in Germany and France; but
in one form through Auguste Comte and in another
form through Herbert Spencer, similar associations of
ideas had a significant influence on English thought
between 1850 and 1880. The idea that the moral or
aesthetic judgments could be brought under scientific
laws never commended itself to a majority of the
educated in England or America. Nevertheless, it
combined with the historical investigation of the Bible
to cast doubt upon the miraculous element in
Christianity, so far at least as that element consisted
in miracles which appeared to be breaches in “the laws
of nature.” Christian thinkers of the mid-century, e.g.,
James B. Mozley and the Duke of Argyll, examined
the idea of laws of nature and showed its fallaciousness
if understood to mean anything but probabilities arising
from what had been in many instances observed. Intel-
ligent scientists saw that the natural sciences could
never disprove a miracle or miracles. But the habit
and method of scientific enquiry made them much
prefer the idea of “the not-yet-explained” to the idea
of the supernatural, and therefore caused many
educated people to become agnostic about the mirac-
ulous. In this way the development of the sciences
helped to compel the churches to consider how far
the faith which they taught was dependent upon a
belief in the miraculous, and whether they could admit
to membership, or (where that was answered in the
affirmative) to ministry, persons who claimed to be
faithful Christians but who could not profess a belief
in the miraculous.

3. The scientific method could not allow itself any
limit. It could not regard any area as exempt from its
enquiry. The worst of the conflict between science and
religion occurred between 1859 and 1877. The conflict
was then at its worst because some churches or
churchmen could not accept this unlimited possibility
of enquiry, and some scientists believed that their
freedom to be scientists was at stake. Moderate
churchmen were content to see appearance of dis-
harmony between the word of God and the works of
God, to accept gladly what the scientists discovered,
and to expect that in course of time they would be
able to move towards a reconciliation. Conservative
churchmen were inclined to put the truths derived


from dogmas as obstacles to what the scientist was
doing; and some scientists (in England, above all, T. H.
Huxley and John Tyndall) regarded themselves as
fighting for light and reason against the armies of
superstition and obscurantism. Nothing did more than
this to give the conflict of these years its peculiar
intensity. Such a view among scientists was encouraged
in the sixties and seventies, all over Europe and
America, by the attitude of the Roman Catholic
Church under Pope Pius IX, which seemed determined
to concede nothing to the developments of modern
science and historical criticism.

In England the famous and symbolic battle along
these lines was the debate between Bishop Samuel
Wilberforce and T. H. Huxley at the meeting in Oxford
of the British Association, July 1860; where Wilber-
force debated against Darwinism partly with real
arguments for the perpetuity of the species, and partly
by an appeal to the moral feeling that men are not
brutes; and Huxley's famous retort exposed this second
appeal as a rhetorical consideration which the scientist
could not (qua scientist) allow to influence the debate
on a purely physical question. Posterity saw the debate
through Huxley's eyes, as scientific enlightenment vs.
ecclesiastical obscurantism.

In the sixties therefore men began to write histories
of the conflict between science and religion. The first
important history was that by the American J. W.
Draper. In The Intellectual Development of Europe
(1864) and History of the Conflict between Science and
(1874) he described two mysterious entities,
one called Science and the other called Religion, one
light and one dark, struggling for mastery throughout
the history of man. Shortly afterwards a better scholar,
A. D. White, president of Cornell, formed the aim of
publishing a book on the same theme; its final form
was published in 1896, entitled A History of the War-
fare of Science with Theology in Christendom.
object of the book, which was pursued with a wealth
of learning and fascinating illustrations, was to show
that religious interference with scientific investigation
harms both religion and science; and that the freedom
of the scientist will in the end help religion as well
as science. The books of Draper and White did not
ultimately come to seem important as contributions
to the history of European ideas. But they were mo-
mentous as arising from the characteristic attitudes
generated by the arguments of the sixties and seventies,
and as themselves contributing to harden these atti-
tudes by seeking to give them a historical justification.

4. Among particular discoveries or theories nothing
did more to stimulate the conflict than Charles
Darwin's The Origin of Species (1859). This was not
because Darwin was a fighter. Though his own theism
slowly faded during the sixties into agnosticism, he
remained a modest and reverent enquirer with no
desire for conflict. But the book, by promulgating the
theory of natural selection, suddenly made the theory
of evolution more probable than any other theory; and
though in later editions of the Origin he substantially
modified his exclusive reliance on natural selection as
the cause of evolution, the theory of evolution was
found probable in most educated minds during the
seventies. The theory thus came in a form likely to
emphasize a large element of purposelessness or useless
suffering in the process by which man had come to
be. The theodicy of the churches was long familiar with
the problems of pain and determinism, but the theory
forced them to contemplate these problems in a new
context. In this way Darwin, without intending the
result, strengthened existing tendencies towards mate-
rialistic views, and in his Descent of Man (1871) seemed
himself to take a long step in the direction of such
a philosophy as that advocated by Herbert Spencer,
by whom indeed the book appeared to be influenced.
The doctrine of evolution in itself, however, perturbed
the churches little. It quickly became acceptable
among educated Christians, though for a time, espe-
cially in the Roman Catholic Church, some sought to
exclude man from the process. Darwin was buried
(1882) in Westminster Abbey with an excellent sermon
from a bishop afterwards. The final mark of accepta-
bility in England occurred in 1896 when Frederick
Temple, well known as one who accepted the theory
of evolution, was made archbishop of Canterbury.

5. The acceptance of evolution laid the foundation
for the science of anthropology, which began to make
rapid strides during the sixties. It became an axiom
that the primitive peoples still existing in various parts
of the world could afford evidence of earlier stages
of human development. Here was an additional ground
of conflict, though a minor ground. Christianity taught
that man was fallen, until recently connected this fall
with remote events, and believed that sin was no
integral part of human nature. The anthropologists
worked upon a doctrine that man had risen from the
savage and the savage from the brute, and therefore
the animal looked an integral element in human con-
stitution. Therefore the churches needed to free their
doctrine of original sin from any historical reference
(which in any case they were already doing, because
of historical enquiry into biblical texts) and see “origi-
nal sin” in terms of environment and heredity.

Thus the development of the natural sciences:

  • (a) encouraged the historical criticism of the Bible;
  • (b) strengthened already existing materialistic phi-
    losophies, especially in France and Germany;
  • (c) insisted that no dogma could be allowed to stand


    in its way, and therefore encouraged churches to allow
    reinterpretation of dogmas in the light of better infor-
  • (d) strengthened an already existing attitude hostile
    to miracle, and thereby encouraged the churches to
    adapt or restate their ideas of revelation;
  • (e) laid more stress upon the brute in human nature,
    because the scientific method could do no other than
    examine man as a physical object, not excluding the
    brain or psyche from that definition.

The natural scientists themselves, with certain
eminent exceptions (e.g., E. H. Haeckel, Karl Pearson,
Huxley), were not hostile to the Christian religion,
especially in England and America, where many of the
leading scientists continued throughout the nineteenth
century to be professing members of their churches:
men like Faraday, Asa Gray, Clerk Maxwell, Lister,
Kelvin, and Stokes. But because the public had a pic-
ture of “science” as antagonistic to “religion,” people
began to be surprised when an eminent scientist was
also found to be a religious man. It was noticeable that
godly men, as in America Asa Gray and in England
Clerk Maxwell, were treated as exhibits, when a gen-
eration before they would have been assumed to be
typical of scientists. The impact upon European reli-
gious thought was made less by the scientists them-
selves than by philosophers or theologians using the
physical results which they proposed.

The consequences for Christian theology were of the
first importance in two especial directions:

  • (a) the doctrine of God's immanence within the
    world received a greater emphasis than ever before
    in religious history. Since the theory of evolution
    worked against the notion that God created the world
    and each animal by a series of (miraculous) creative
    acts, God must be seen more as within the process than
    as wholly external to the process and interfering from
    time to time. Many writers laid more emphasis upon
    God as vital force, or as sustainer, and upon creation
    less as an act than as a continuous creativity. Some
    Christian thinkers (like Otto Pfleiderer in Germany or
    R. J. Campbell in England) carried the doctrine of im-
    manence so far as to provoke protests that the doc-
    trine of God as father, and therefore of his transcend-
    ence and independence of the world, was of the essence
    of Christianity and was being endangered by the
    weight placed upon divine immanence, as if an exclu-
    sive stress laid upon God within the world would lead
    to pantheism or some philosophy like that of Spinoza
    which could not be reconciled with a Christian view
    of the world.
  • (b) Under the impact of scientific development,
    Christianity showed a strong inclination to throw nat
    ural theology overboard; that is, to cease to claim that
    an argument could be made towards God from an
    examination of the physical world. This was not true
    of Roman Catholic divinity, which was then committed
    to some form of Thomist philosophy and claimed to
    use the old “proofs” of God's existence from the neces-
    sity of the idea of a creation, or the design evident
    in the universe. But much Protestant theology ceased
    to base the claim of revelation upon any argument
    derived from the observation of nature, and turned to
    lay the ultimate stress (in some form or other) on the
    inward properties of the human being, the nature of
    religious experience, the intimate connection between
    religious feeling and the sense of moral duty, the feel-
    ing of awe or wonder aroused by the world, or some-
    times the nature of the aesthetic judgment. This tend-
    ency existed already in the thought of Schleiermacher
    before the conflict proper between science and reli-
    gion. The development of the conflict gave great
    encouragement to the tendency, and in the later years
    of the century elevated Schleiermacher to be the
    seminal mind of liberal divinity.


For the relation to the philosophical background in
Germany: F. A. Lange, Geschichte des Materialismus...,
2 vols. (1865-66), trans. E. C. Thomas as The History of
..., 3rd ed. (London, 1925). For the pre-
Darwinians: Charles C. Gillispie, Genesis and Geology
(Cambridge, Mass., 1951); R. Hooykaas, Natural Law and
Divine Miracle: The Principle of Uniformity in Geology,
Biology and Theology
(Leyden, 1963); for Chambers: M.
Millhauser, Just Before Darwin (Middletown, Conn., 1959).
For Darwin and the Darwinians: Darwin's Autobiography,
ed. N. Barlow (London, 1958); A. Ellegård, Darwin and the
General Reader
(Göteborg, 1958); G. de Beer, Charles
(London, 1963); W. Irvine, Apes, Angels and
(London, 1955); G. Himmelfarb, Darwin and the
Darwinian Revolution
(London, 1959); A. H. Dupree, Asa
(Cambridge, Mass., 1959); H. C. Bibby, T. H. Huxley
(London, 1959); W. B. Turrill, J. D. Hooker (London, 1964);
A. S. Eve and C. H. Creasey, Life and Work of John Tyndall
(London, 1945); E. Lurie, Louis Agassiz: A Life in Science
(Chicago, 1960). For the historical aspect: D. H. Fleming,
J. W. Draper and the Religion of Science (Philadelphia,
1950); A. D. White, Autobiography (London, 1905). In gen-
eral: Owen Chadwick, The Victorian Church Part Two (Lon-
don and New York, 1970).


[See also Agnosticism; Christianity in History; Creation;
Evolutionism; Primitivism.]