Religion and Scientific Change: The Case of the New Natural Theologies between the World Wars (1/2)

Earlier this spring I gave an Illustre School lecture at Spui25 in Amsterdam, on the lofty topic of the relationship between science and religion in the early 20th century. A significant part of my PhD dissertation concerns this topic, and I hope that the lecture provides a relatively accessible  (=popularized) account of some of the questions I grapple with there. There is also a methodological concern in this lecture. As the abstract stated:

Since the European Enlightenment, the relation between science and religion has been a topic of much public interest. Usually, however, it has been a debate formed by heavily vested interests: in the 19th century, scientists attacked organized religion as a part of their emancipation from the church; vice versa, religious spokespersons have been eager to claim compatibility between doctrines of faith and emerging new authoritative views on nature. Even today, it remains the case that most academic research on relations between science and religion are driven either by the current “new atheism” vogue, or funded by religiously motivated organizations, such as the massively influential Templeton Foundation. The result has been a loss of nuance and critical perspective. In order to remedy this situation, one needs, on the one hand, to broaden the scope and look at the wider social contexts of scientific knowledge production and interaction with religious institutions, and, on the other, to be more precise by looking at particular instances of such interaction.

Continuing my practice from an earlier talk on a similar topic, I will make the manuscript of the lecture available here, in two installments. You’ll find the first part below.

Religion and Scientific Change:

The Case of the New Natural Theologies between the World Wars


The relation between science and religion has typically been cast in three different ways. There is the notion of conflict, an irreconcilable difference between the two that makes it necessary to take a stand and fight the fight. Then there is the notion of independence; that science and religion are different, but that they do not get in each other’s way. They are rather complementary and deal with different aspects of life – “non-overlapping magisteria”, as Stephen Jay Gould once put it . Finally, there is the notion of unity: whatever differences there appear to be between science and religion, these are illusory. In reality, science and religion do, or have to, coincide.

Conflict: Cartoon from the Scopes trial

These three models, of conflict, independence, and unity, are all found in the public debate on religion, and have been around at least since the Enlightenment. One curiosity, however, is that once one has chosen to favour one model over the others, it is generally quite easy to confirm it with examples from history. Thus, the new atheists can emphasise conflict, and point to the Galileo trial, the “Stokes trial” over evolution, or to contemporary creationism. Theologians or philosophers interested in stressing unity, however, could point to the interconnection of science and religion in most of early modern natural philosophy. If one picks up the works of Copernicus or Newton, one will find religious references side by side with scientific arguments. The tradition to merge religion with natural science continued right up to the early nineteenth century: it was called natural theology.

In short, all three models share the problem that historical reality only fits when sources are picked selectively. From a historical perspective, we have to admit that the relationship between science and religion is messy, complex, and ambiguous, and that simple solutions just won’t do. Preaching unity, conflict, or peaceful coexistence must ultimately rest on ideological, theological and philosophical biases.

Our problems, then, are these: no neutral frameworks are available; vested interests are everywhere. A good deal of “science and religion” scholarship is being funded by organisations that have explicit agendas to vindicate religion. As a response, we need to shift our focus: What needs to be explained is not primarily how science and religion interact “as such”, but why certain people have been claiming this or that about their interaction. How can we do this?

Your lecturer advocates suspicion. (Photo: Maia Daw)

First of all, we need to generalise less, and contextualise more. We even need to contextualise the generalisers. It leads to a rather neurotic obsession with historical details, and an almost paranoid suspicion of social and personal agendas. But it can be done.

A good start would be to remember a few basic things: first, that even the greatest scientists are ordinary persons; they live in ordinary societies, in which they seek to satisfy all too human needs and motivations. Secondly, “science” has become a commodity in the modern age that most people want to possess; hence, we must distinguish claims of being in accordance with science, from actually being so, and we need to situate these in the cultural climate where “science” gets its specific meaning. Thirdly, the identity of science and its relation to other cultural spheres, are not set in stone. They are constantly co-produced by a number of vested interests.

I will continue to show how we can apply these insights in practice. I will present some snapshots of religion/science discussions during a particular period, namely the first four decades of the 20th century, and especially the period between the two world wars.

Scientific developments

Alea iacta est.

This was a phase characterised by intense scientific change. It was the period that the quantum and relativity theories were developed, leading to radically new pictures of fundamental categories, such as time, space, and matter. Modern cosmology was founded, exploring the origin, size, and destiny of the universe. All of this gave new perspective on the place and significance of humanity in the cosmos. It was altogether a strange world that was uncovered: as the astrophysicist James Jeans put it, physics was becoming ‘a progressive emancipation from the purely human angle of vision’.[1]

While the revolutions in physics typically get a lot of attention, highly significant developments were simultaneously going on in the biological sciences. Here, three interlinked topics were the question of evolution – what was driving it? – the question of heredity – how much is inherited, and how does it happen? – and the troubling question of the relation between the parts and wholes of organisms. Up until about the 1940s, a number of alternative evolutionary mechanisms, theories of heredity, and non-reductionist views of organisms were seriously considered by biologists.

Religion and Scientific Change

In the middle of massive scientific changes, we see an upsurge of attempts to relate science and religion in terms of unity. Indeed, if you go to the American Book Centre across the street, step up to the “spirituality” section, and pick up any book that seems to be about science somehow, you are likely to read that quantum mechanics proves mysticism, of one sort or the other. The notion that the revolutions in physics somehow provided new room for magic and mysticism has become incredibly widespread in contemporary spirituality. Typically, the claim will be that these revolutions disbanded classical causality, collapsed the distinction between the observer and the observed, and somehow gave a new and exalted role to “consciousness” – the holy grail of late-modern spirituality.

These claims are not entirely unwarranted, in the sense that we do find all of them propounded in various degrees by scientists who were responsible for the scientific innovations in the twenties and thirties. However, remembering our principles for how to approach these matters, we cannot take such claims at face value, but must ask suspiciously: why were these claims made, in which contexts, and to what ends?

There are at least three angles from which we can approach these questions: the institutional, the socio-cultural, and the individual. I will give examples of all three, to cover at least most of the surface of this complex picture.

… Stay tuned for part two!

[1] Jeans, The New Background of Science, 5.

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This lecture by Egil Asprem was first published as a blog post on Heterodoxology. It is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Religion and Scientific Change: The Case of the New Natural Theologies between the World Wars


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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. […] Last installment of my lecture on “Religion and Scientific Change” closed by introducing three levels on which claims about relationships between religion and science should be analysed: the institutional, the socio-cultural, and the individual. I was going to wait a couple of days with releasing the rest, but since news headlines today have been all about the discovery of the “God particle” in the bowels of the Large Hydron Collider at Cern, it  seemed highly appropriate to continue. Why is it that such a (truth be told, rather ridiculous) religious pet-name has been put on the elusive boson? Read on, and you might find out. (And: happy Higgs boson day!) […]

  2. […] In the unlikely case that you are exceptionally eager to know what I might have to say about this, why not check out some previous posts on disenchantment, psychical research, or the relation between science and religion? […]

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