The Western world today is embedded with the idea that scientific work should not discuss God and that science should base its methods of explanation on only natural explanations (this is called methodological naturalism), this means that scientific explanations cannot invoke supernatural entities such as God as an answer. Some people take this to means that science does not need God, or that science and religion are at war fundamentally. Whilst many people will probably assume that this is the way science has always been since the beginning, this is simply not the case when we look at the history of science and religion (in fact the word scientist wasn’t even invented until 1830s by William Whenwell).1
History reveals to us that science used to be the complete opposite, God was a natural part of scientific discussion. This was the case right from the onset of modern science (16th and 17 century) up until the 19th century (this was also the case before the onset of modern science right from Ancient Greeks thinkers such as Aristotle and Plato). It was completely normal to talk about God within the scientific framework, and well established names such as Newton, Copernicus, Galileo, Leibnitz, would frequently talk about God freely as part of their scientific endeavours (these men are also known as the fathers of modern science).2
This practice continued well into the 19th century with Christian scientists such as Maxwell, Faraday and Hershel; it was standard practice to mention God in scientific papers, but by the end of the 19th century this practice had almost completely stopped. The 19th century (Victorian era) was the period that set in stone the very idea we are so accustomed to today in which science should be purely naturalistic having nothing to do with religion or God. The looming question now becomes, what happened in the 19th century? what changed science from a theistic framework to a naturalistic one?3 4
How did science shift from a theistic to a naturalistic framework in the 19th century?
The shift from theistic science to naturalistic science is a long and complex history, however for the purposes of time we can focus our analysis on Charles Darwin, Thomas Huxley and the X Club. It is interesting to note that most people today assume that when Darwin wrote the Origin of Species, this was the first time that evolution as a theory was exposed. In reality however, the idea of evolution was already highly prominent in the 19th century, and many version had already been proposed.5 Darwin’s idea had the most impact because he developed a novel method i.e. natural selection, that could seemingly explain eloquently how biological features of organisms worked and developed without invoking God. (in fact, Alfred Russel Wallace also came up with pretty much the exact same theory around the same time as Darwin and they published their initial papers together; Darwin was able to publish his book first and that is largely why we are all familiar with Darwin, but almost no one is familiar with Wallace).
When the Origin of Species came out, a man named Thomas Huxley took the opportunity to utilize the book to his advantage. Huxley was a scientist who did not accept the theological framework of science in which the church had control over scientific education. Whilst he was not against the idea that there might be a God, he certainly didn’t want the idea of God infused within scientific practice in any way and so he formed a group called the X Club (1864 – 1892) which was a private informal dining club in London which included nine men in total, all in various and prominent positions within science, philosophy or the media.6 7 These men all shared similar ideals to Huxley in wanting to rid science of aristocracy and highly theological implications so that science could be based on purely naturalistic methods. This group came to be known as the leading figures of the scientific naturalists.8
How Huxley and the X Club successfully shifted theistic science to naturalistic science by the end of the 19th century
The X Club – headed by Huxley – were devoted to one central aim. Their motto was ‘science, pure and free untrammelled by religious dogma’9 and Huxley was not afraid to say exactly what his intentions were. The nine members of the X Club were men who were rising to scientific power in London during the latter part of the 19th century and this played a large part in their success as historian of science Matthew Stanley has revealed:
The X-Club worked very hard to place themselves in locales of scientific power. One easy measure of their success was the staggering number of leadership positions they occupied in scientific societies. But even beyond the personal achievements of its members, the group was able to have an enormous impact on the future of science by focusing on science education.10
As I mentioned above Huxley was not afraid to share his plans and he had already gathered much power within the community of scientific education. In a correspondence with a contemporary Huxley wrote that he wanted to create “a course of instruction in Biology which I am giving to Schoolmasters—with the view of converting them into scientific missionaries to convert the Christian Heathen of these islands to the true faith”.11 Huxley’s methods were very successful, and he was able to insert his naturalistic ideals into scientific practice very effectively. For example, he was heavily involved in the creation of biology professorships all over Britain, especially in the 1870s. He managed to place candidate that subscribed to his goal into many of these prominent positions in numerous universities around Britain such as University College London, Edinburgh and Leeds.12
Conclusion – science or politics?
As historian Ronald L. Numbers has made clear “virtually all scientists…whether Christians or non-Christians, came by the late nineteenth century to agree that God-talk lay beyond the boundaries of science”.13 It might be assumed that the push from theistic science to naturalistic science was an inevitable event, but as I have outlined here very briefly by assessing Huxley’s activities, this shift was certainly not inevitable but rather fully intentional. Darwin’s theory of evolution wasn’t the main factor that drove the direction of science. Huxley, the X Club and the scientific naturalists were (many Christians scientists at the time in fact actually embraced evolution and linked It to their belief in God), Huxley’s group just happened to utilize Darwin’s theory of evolution to their advantage because it proved to be the most useful out of the various other evolutionary accounts in riding science of theological underpinnings.
In fact, as Stanley has revealed, the shift to naturalistic science had almost nothing to do with the methods of scientific practice within a theistic framework at all. For the most part the scientific naturalists used exactly the same scientific methods in conducting their standard scientific research (e.g. the reliance on the laws and uniformity of nature). Stanley makes clear that “The victory of the scientific naturalists in removing theism from the expectations and parlance of the scientific community had little to do with how science was done (despite their claims to the contrary) and much more to do with attempting to secure better access to professional positions, resources, and cultural authority.”14 Essentially the shift in science that Huxley and his crew battled relentlessly for, was much more socio-political than scientific. Scientific practice barely changed, even when Huxley and his team won the battle; what changed was the metaphysical presupposition behind how science should be done. Whereas at the start of the 19th century, the metaphysical presupposition was based on theism and Christian theology, by the end of the 19th century the metaphysical presupposition was now naturalism.
As I have mentioned, the entire history of science within the 19th century is a very long and complicated one. In this short article, I have simply brought out some of the key elements to help us to understand that the way in which we view scientific practice today is not something that is fundamentally set. The fathers of modern (Western) science were all believers in God and invoked him in their work.15 In the 19th century a large majority of prominent scientists were also Christian and they did excellent work. My aim here is to draw these points out to help us to better think about the relationship between science, theism religion and theology so that we can see that it isn’t a simple conflict thesis but rather a complex story featuring a heavily complementary relationship between science and religion for the majority of scientific history.16
1) Numbers, R. L., 2007. Science and Christianity in Pulpit and Pew. Oxford: OUP. P46
2) Harrison, P., 2015. The Territories of Science and Religion. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press
3) Numbers, R. L., 2007. Science and Christianity in Pulpit and Pew. Oxford: OUP.
4) Stanley, M., 2014. Huxley’s Church and Maxwell’s demon: From theistic science to Naturalistic Science. Chicago: University of Chicago press
5) Graeme, F., 2014. Human Evolution, Genes, Genealogies and Phylogenies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Prologue
6) Barton, R., 2006. X Club. Oxford: OUP
7) Stanley, M., 2014. Huxley’s Church and Maxwell’s demon: From theistic science to Naturalistic Science. Chicago: University of Chicago press…
8) Lightman, B and Dawson, G. eds. 2014. Victorian Scientific Naturalism: Community, Identity, Continuity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
9) Barton, R., 2006. X Club. Oxford: OUP
10) Stanley, M. (2011), THE UNIFORMITY OF NATURAL LAWS IN VICTORIAN BRITAIN: NATURALISM, THEISM, AND SCIENTIFIC PRACTICE. Zygon®, 46: 536–560. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9744.2011.01198.x
11) Huxley, Thomas H. 1871. “Huxley to Dohrn.” In Life and Letters of Thomas Henry Huxley, ed. Leonard Huxley, 1, 389. New York : D. Appleton and Company.
12) Desmond, Adrian. 2001. “Redefining the X Axis: ‘Professionals, ’‘Amateurs’ and the Making of Mid-Victorian Biology: A Progress Report. Journal of the History of Biology 31(1):3–50.
13) Numbers, R. L., 2007. Science and Christianity in Pulpit and Pew. Oxford: OUP. P46
14) Stanley, M. (2011), THE UNIFORMITY OF NATURAL LAWS IN VICTORIAN BRITAIN: NATURALISM, THEISM, AND SCIENTIFIC PRACTICE. Zygon®, 46: 536–560. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9744.2011.01198.x
15) The Christian Roots of Science – how Modern Science Developed out of a Belief in God
16) Harrison, P., 2015. The Territories of Science and Religion. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. p194 – 198