Blind Spots of Disenchantment (3/3)

The third and last part of my paper on the “Blind Spots of Disenchantment” focuses on the somewhat neglected concept of Weber’s 1918 “Wissenschaft als Beruf” paper: “the intellectual sacrifice”. It looks particularly at the Scottish Gifford Lectures’ attempt to promote a new “natural theology”, and suggests that this whole attempt defies Weber’s emphasis that science and religion are being/ought to be kept apart in a disenchanted modern world. It also includes the complete bibliography for all three parts.

“Blind Spots of Disenchantment: Science, Religion, and Natural Theology in the Early 20th Century” – part 3/3.

(previous: 1/32/3)

New Natural Theologies: The Gifford Lectures

After this cursory overview of disenchantment in science, I will now finally turn attention to the other aspect of Weber’s thesis: the ‘intellectual sacrifice’ and religion. Questioning disenchantment as such does not necessitate any specific views on religion. This was indeed the case with most of the figures we have met so far: while they opened up for ‘incalculable forces’ they did not generally extrapolate new theologies from these scientific views. But attempts to do this did certainly exist, not only on the lay level of popular occultism and spiritualism, but also among the intellectual classes. The best example of this is the explicit attempt to create a new ‘natural theology’, a project which was particularly strong in Britain but which has had repercussions for Western religious thought in general.

One institution which has been particularly influential in this systematic contestation of the intellectual sacrifice is the Gifford Lectures in Scotland.[1] This lecture series was initiated by the will of Adam Lord Gifford, a Scottish judge and advocate, who wanted to create a ‘Lectureship or Popular Chair’ in the Scottish universities, ‘“Promoting, Advancing, Teaching, and Diffusing the study of Natural Theology,”   in the widest sense of that term’.[2] Traditionally, natural theology had been a part of natural philosophy, focused on harmonising theology with reason and empirical knowledge. In the will of Lord Gifford, natural theology was described in ornamented ways as

The Knowledge of God, the Infinite, the All, the First and Only Cause, the One and the Sole Substance, the Sole Being, the Sole Reality, and the Sole Existence, the Knowledge of His Nature and Attributes, the Knowledge of the Relations which men and the whole universe bear to Him, the Knowledge of the Nature and Foundation of Ethics or Morals, and of all Obligations and Duties thence arising.[3]

A number of extremely influential essays and books on the relation between religion, science and metaphysics started their career as Gifford Lectures in the period between 1900 and 1940. Among them we may list William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience (1900-1902), Hans Driesch’s The Science and Philosophy of Organism (1906-1908), Conway Lloyd Morgan’s Emergent Evolution (1921-1922), Arthur Eddington’s The Nature of the Physical World (1926-1927), and Alfred North Whitehead’s Process and Reality (1927-1928). All these lecture series became highly influential publications on their own, and we already recognise several names which were mentioned in the context of the problems with disenchantment in the natural sciences. We could also mention Henri Bergson, whose lecture series were disturbed by the outbreak of war in 1914, and never published. Nevertheless, it is significant that two of the biggest heroes of the neo-vitalism movement – Bergson and Driesch – were invited to lecture.

Some new natural theologians: William James, Hans Driesch, Conway Lloyd Morgan, Arthur Eddington, and Alfred North Whitehead.

While a few of these works have had some scientific significance (e.g.,  James’ book for the psychology of religion), others have mainly made their impact felt in theology, the philosophy of religion, and in the writings of a great number of spokespersons for various types of non-denominational, ‘alternative spiritualities’, which, at least on the surface, are respectful of science.[4] A notable common feature of the Gifford lectures of this period is what might be called a ‘romantic’, non-mechanistic, ‘enchanted’ refashioning of evolutionary thinking. Whitehead’s lectures resulted, for example, in the creation of a ‘process theology’.[5] Morgan’s concept of emergence would make an impact on increasingly esoteric negotiations of theism and evolution, and the same may be said for Bergson’s ‘creative evolution’, propelled by the mysterious élan vital.[6] Enchanted evolutionary perspectives are indeed common in esoteric forms of religion, both in the post-war varieties and in a broader historical perspective going back to Enlightenment and Romanticism.[7] Intellectuals of the early 20th century played a central role in shaping this type of interpretation of evolution, through channels such as the Gifford Lectures.

I will round off this discussion with one final example from physics. Sir Arthur Eddingtion may have set a standard for later speculations when his Gifford lectures took the problems posed for disenchantment by quantum mechanics to bear directly on religion. In one of his oft quoted overstatements, Eddington held that ‘religion first became possible for a reasonable scientific man about the year 1927’, referring to Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle which was published that year.[8] The notion that quantum mechanics provides a way to some vague, ‘mystical’ religion became wide-spread with parts of the post-war counterculture and the New Age movement. However, this particular refusal of the Weberian ‘intellectual sacrifice’ also seems to have been prefigured by professional physicists of the interwar period.[9]

While it should be made clear that far from all speakers used the Gifford Lectures to proselytise a hope for ‘scientific religion’, the role of this platform in providing new intellectual support for, and shape to, religious beliefs does deserve more attention than it has received. This and related intellectual arenas too often remain hidden behind the blind spot created by the assumption that 20th century scientific culture perpetuated the disenchantment of the world.


[1]For historical overviews, see Stanley L. Jaki, Lord Gifford and His Lectures; Larry Witham, The Measure of God. For the wider context, see Peter J. Bowler, Reconciling Science and Religion.

[2] Lord Gifford’s will, dated 21 August 1885, has been made available on the Gifford Lectures’ website: (accessed 10 March, 2011).

[3] Gifford, ‘Lord Adam Gifford’s Will’, unpaginated.

[4] For this latter development, see especially Hanegraaff, New Age Religion and Western Culture, 62-76, 113-181. Cf. Hammer, Claiming Knowledge, 201-302.

[5] Sixty years later Whitehead’s thinking would become one of the major influences on semi-academic attempts to ‘re-enchant science’. See David Ray Griffin (ed.), The Reenchantment of Science.

[6] See for example the affinities with Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s ideas on the emergence of consciousness and the ‘noosphere’, and the final teleological end-point of evolution in the convergence between mankind and the ‘Omega Point’, in, e.g., The Phenomenon of Man. These emergentist and ‘process’ focused speculations have later had a quite tremendous influence on contemporary esoteric spokespersons.

[7] See Hanegraaff, New Age Religion and Western Culture, 158-168, 462-481.

[8] Eddington, The Nature of the Physical World, 350.

[9] In addition to Eddington, both Niels Bohr (1948-1950) and Werner Heisenberg (1955-1956) would later travel to Scotland to give lectures in ‘natural theology’.


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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. […] While the occult is thus interesting on its own terms, I wish to say something more about how it was linked up with the more reputable discourse of the life and mind sciences.[23] McDougall provides my link, because, in addition to being one of the most visible opponents of behaviourism within the psychological profession, he also made his point based on a very explicit and clear theoretical understanding of life, mind, the organism and its evolution, which used psychical research as part of its evidential support. Recognising that the behaviourist programme rested on the Darwinian conception of evolution through blind mechanistic selection processes, McDougall built his position on the interdependent theories of Lamarckian, purpose-driven evolution, and a theory of irreducible and autonomous mind – a position he termed ‘animism’.[24] This cluster of ideas was easily connected with vitalism.[25] Furthermore, McDougall referred to some of the data produced by the Society for Psychical Research as particularly good indications that some kind of an autonomous, non-mechanistic conception of mind had to take precedence.[26] Referencing one of the supposedly strongest cases of spiritualism, the so-called ‘cross-correspondences’, McDougall insisted that whichever interpretation one preferred, whether the outright spiritualistic or the ‘psychical’ where extreme ‘supernormal’ cognitive powers were at play, one had now strong evidence against a purely mechanistic concept of mind.[27]In his view, the occult provided empirical support for a re-enchantment of biology and psychology. (end of part 2/3; view 1/3; view 3/3 […]

  2. Might be of interest for you, if you understand german:

    Kind thougts from Bavaria


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