Thoughts on BBC Radio 4’s ‘The Secret History of Science and Religion’ (Part 3)

Photograph of John T. Scopes, taken in 1925. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Photograph of John T. Scopes, taken in 1925. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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Guest writer Grace Dalton continues her four-part series of posts on BBC Radio 4’s The Secret History of Science and Religion, broadcast last year.

(Continued from Part 2)

The influential late 18th-century thinker Thomas Payne is described as somebody who consistently linked the fight for freedom from monarchy with that against religion. The French Revolution’s rejection of Church and monarchy served, in Britain, to strengthen contemporary pride in both. “Natural theology is the response to dangerous revolutionary ideas,” surmises Thomas Dixon.

“Dixon draws analogies between Christianity and the new religion of humanism, describing how the latter had ‘chapels’ with statues of thinkers they honoured like saints; how its members would gather and sing hymns; that Kant served as a high priest; and even that it was thought to even provide a moral value system.”

The philosopher Immanuel Kant is introduced, compared by Spencer to the French Revolution’s leaders but described as more radical; “he created a religion of humanity.” Will listeners recognise the irony in the rejection of Christianity becoming quasi-religious in the form of atheistic naturalism? Dixon draws analogies between Christianity and this new religion of humanism, describing how the latter had “chapels” with statues of thinkers they honoured like saints; how its members would gather and sing hymns; that Kant served as a high priest; and even that it was thought to even provide a moral value system. I would particularly have appreciated some quotations to explain this last point.

Spencer theorises that Kant’s timing was disadvantageous, since his efforts to develop a religion of humanity coincided with Darwin’s fundamental transformation of our perceptions of humanity. A logical problem with materialism, often highlighted by Christian apologists, is that if our brains are only evolved masses of molecules rather than created by a sentient Designer, then we have no reason to trust it; Darwin’s proposition that we have evolved from unintelligent organisms left little justification for deifying humanity.

Putting Darwin into his contemporary context, Spencer tells us that the period was one of turbulence (indeed it was). A book entitled “Essays and Reviews,” we are told by Honorary Research Fellow Ruth Barton, introduced liberal theology to the public, with ordained clergymen denying, in print, the Bible’s chronology and its miracles. We are told that this sparked widespread fury, with the clergy anxious about its loosening grip on power; and that a statement that religion and scripture were in agreement was signed by very few of the members of the British Association for the Advancement of Science who were asked for signatures.

“Putting Darwin into his contemporary context, Spencer tells us that the period was one of turbulence (indeed it was). A book entitled ‘Essays and Reviews,’ we are told by Honorary Research Fellow Ruth Barton, introduced liberal theology to the public, with ordained clergymen denying, in print, the Bible’s chronology and its miracles — something which sparked widespread fury.”

This prompted the establishment of “the X Club” by a small group of scientists concerned about potential future encroachment on intellectual freedom. Spencer emphasises the point that this club was exclusively male; the exclusion of women from it feels, to me, relatively insignificant, but it might serve to make some listeners aware that sexism is not specific to religion as is often presumed. That it was assumed that women were incapable of science demonstrates how erroneous scientific thinking was at the time.

A distinction is suggested in the way that X Club members viewed theology and religion: the former was considered to be a methodical academic field; the latter, something to be experienced by the senses in nature. In turn, despite the unpopularity of the aforementioned declaration, according to Professor Bernard Lightman, darlings of the ideological view that science and religion are in conflict — men such as John Tyndall and Thomas Huxley — in fact denied this notion, and regarded themselves as religious in that they experienced the joy of the natural world. Yet again, I wish the programme had provided a quotation to give some solidity to this assertion.

So: it was religious authority that was the point of contention, rather than religion itself or science. Transmutation — the idea that one form changes into another — was highly contentious, and this was, supposedly, the reason Darwin’s theory was so controversial. He sought to avert uproar by concluding his book with a disclaimer that stated: “We don’t know how life began… We know that, originally, life must have been breathed by a Creator.”

Even humble A-Level Science includes discussion of the work of Gregor Mendel, a monk who had been laying the foundations of genetics whilst Darwin was theorising under mistaken beliefs (Darwin thought that offspring acquire a mixture of parental traits due to the mixing of sexual fluids, in the way that paint colours mix). I have to question why this programme lacks any mention of Mendel, whose observations are highly valued within the history of science?

“Spencer declares that these works were academically unimpressive. Reviews of J.W. Draper’s book critiqued his inability as a historian. I’m reminded of certain popular atheists today who have successfully convinced swathes of the public that science defeats religion, but whose work is ultimately lacking intellectual credibility as they venture outside of their fields of expertise.”

John Hedley Brooke tells us that, whilst The Origin of Species was deeply offensive to some, others within the Church appreciated it as a rebuttal to overly rigid thinking. Meanwhile, theistic alternatives, such as a natural history book series by former Anglican minister John George Wood which outsold Darwin, demonstrated the public’s appetite for religious interpretations of science. Later books — History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science (John William Draper) and A History of the Warfare Between Science and Theology in Christendom (Andrew Dixon White) — inserted the conflict narrative into scientific history. Spencer declares that these works were academically unimpressive, Lightman noting that reviews of Draper’s book critiqued his inability as a historian (being a chemist). I’m reminded of certain popular atheists today who have successfully convinced swathes of the public that science defeats religion, but whose work is ultimately lacking intellectual credibility as they venture outside of their fields of expertise. Spencer and Lightman suggest that the books were primarily rebuking Catholicism, and the Church of England’s similarities to it; and that by 1900, it seemed that the battle between theism and science had largely fizzled out.

Episode 3 begins with a brief reference to James Clark Maxwell, drawing attention to Einstein’s commendation of him, and to his evangelical Presbyterianism. Spencer references an unnamed book, published in Maxwell’s lifetime, which he asserts was poor but popular, thus fortifying the notion within the culture’s mindset, of religion and science being in conflict. Whilst I don’t doubt his summary, it seems remiss not to even give the book’s name; he prevents the listener from researching and evaluating the book for him- or herself.

“The John T. Scopes ‘Monkey Trial’ of 1925 sparked a debate which touched on questions such as how the Bible should be read, and how human beings should be seen. Of particular concern was the ‘survival of the fittest’ concept underlying evolution.”

Next, mention is made of the Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925. Attention is drawn to the likelihood that this legendary battle by a teacher, John T. Scopes, against a Tennessee ban on the teaching of evolution, was partially a publicity stunt. Scopes was not a biology teacher, and had become embroiled in the case under instruction from the school board, in defiance of a law recently passed by the state. The trial received huge international attention, and was dramatised in a film “Inherit the Wind,” and Scopes was celebrated as a Galileo-esque hero. The prosecution couldn’t find any scientific authority who would testify that the teaching of evolution undermined Christianity; and, peculiarly, the lawyer for the defence called the lawyer for the prosecution as a witness.

The debate, which broadened beyond Scopes, touched on questions such as how the Bible should be read, and how human beings should be seen. Of particular concern was the “survival of the fittest” concept underlying evolution; Herbert Spencer had extrapolated Darwin’s ideas into writings on social Darwinism, and at a time when impoverished Americans were reeling from the worsening injustices that accompanied post-Civil War industrialisation, the notion that the wealthier and poorer classes might be compared to superior and inferior species caused considerable angst. Although Scopes was ultimately fired, having been found guilty, Spencer declares that the trial is today considered to have created — rather than uncovered — the conflict between science and religion, and that it had the effect of energising “fundamentalist” (according to historian Ed Larson) critics of Darwin.

The use of the word “fundamentalist” seems to me to be unnecessarily divisive, and potentially dangerous. Here in the UK it’s a word most often used to refer to Islamic extremists who enact oppression and violence, which is entirely inappropriate in this context. The word is of course more often used, in the US, to refer to strongly-minded Christians, but still, listeners to this programme might be given a misleading impression. Further, as a sceptic of Darwinism myself, I’m frustrated by the failure to consider other perspectives. In short, Darwin’s theory preceded the discovery of DNA, and arguably might be on potentially shaky ground in the realm of modern genetics, having been bolstered into acceptance in part by fossil specimens since revealed as hoaxes. None of this is to deny the reality of adaptation — micro-evolution — but it does cast doubt whether adaptation can be extrapolated to show that we ultimately evolved from bacteria.

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