The Surprising Truth of how Scientific Naturalism Triumphed over Biblical Creationism

    By Steve Peterson | 29 October 2014
    The Freethinker’s Distillery

    Eduardo Paolozzi’s Newton, after William Blake (1995), outside the British Library.

    Given the acrimony between creationism and science in our time, one might be excused for assuming that relations between science and religion have ever been thus. That dynamic has certainly been at work since the dawn of the modern scientific age, but in fact the great debates over ‘Genesis and geology’ in the nineteenth century occurred largely between men of the Christian faith, or at the very least men who were required to operate within the parameters of organised religion and a biblical worldview. As Bernard Lightman has observed, prior to Darwin even the most radical Enlightenment thinkers were restrained by the theistic structure established under Isaac Newton in the seventeenth century.[1]

    The Newtonian system survived as such into the first half of the nineteenth century, melding the study of natural philosophy (science) quite comfortably with the knowledge of God. Certainly William Paley’s Natural Theology; or, Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity (1802) was the most significant and influential expression of the practice. Yet, as will become clearer in this essay, the marriage between religion and science was torn asunder as the century wore on. How did it happen? And who was responsible for the transformation? The answers might be surprising. In this essay I trace the distinguishing characteristics of nineteenth-century relations between religion and science and examine the rise of methodological naturalism. The focus will be primarily on Great Britain, the period’s most fertile ground for science.

    The Union of Religion and Science

    From the time of Newton through the early decades of the nineteenth century, organised religion and natural philosophy in Britain were like conjoined twins. Indeed, most natural philosophers—as they were known before William Whewell in 1833 coined the word ‘scientist’—could also be considered theistic naturalists. That is to say, in various ways they conceived natural history in terms of a gradual progression that occurred under the reign of divine immutable laws.[2] Research was dominated by the parson-naturalist and the academic clergyman-scientist. Often he was a member of the Anglican establishment and the Royal Society of London.[3] The British aristocratic system of primogeniture sent many younger sons into the clergy where they found sufficient leisure time for other interests such as natural philosophy. Until the latter half of the century, amateurism was the status quo for natural philosophers and there were few opportunities for professional employment beyond academic posts at Oxford and Cambridge. Moreover, the roles of theologian and naturalist were somewhat interchangeable, so where clergymen took the lead in the study of natural history, biblical exegesis was also an acceptable avocation for a non-clerical naturalist like Isaac Newton.[4]

    Memorial to Francis Bacon, in the chapel of Trinity College, Cambridge.

    The relationship between biblical exegetes and natural philosophers of the period was guided by something of an unwritten code, which James R. Moore has called the ‘Baconian compromise’. The Newtonian system was based in part on an earlier compromise premised on Francis Bacon’s doctrine of the two books: that of God’s word and God’s works—or scripture and nature. For Bacon, the two were equally the revelations of divine truth. Thus, nature became a reliable guide for interpreting the Bible. Under this arrangement, naturalists were allowed a measure of intellectual freedom provided they validated their biblical orthodoxy by demonstrating evidence of the operation of God’s wisdom and power in nature.[5]

    The one non-negotiable of the Baconian compromise was strict adherence to divine teleology or natural theology, the view that natural history was providentially designed and purposive, especially for mankind. (It is noteworthy that the contemporary ‘intelligent design’ movement continues to rely heavily on teleology.) In his 1836 contribution to the Bridgewater Treatises, William Buckland, the prominent Oxford University geologist, reflected the guidelines of the compromise for harmonizing nature and scripture:

    I trust it may be shown not only that there is no inconsistency between our interpretation of the phenomena of nature and of the Mosaic narrative, but that the results of geological inquiry throw important light on parts of this history, which are otherwise involved in much obscurity. . . . If in this respect geology should seem to require some little concession from the literal interpreter of Scripture, it may fairly be held to afford ample compensation for this demand, by the large additions it has made to the evidences of natural religion, in a department where revelation was not designed to give us information.[6]

    Religion and science could maintain cozy relations under such an arrangement, unless one insisted upon literal interpretations of the Bible. That, however, became a distinct problem given the rapid pace of scientific discovery.

    Scientific Naturalism

    The roots of scientific naturalism—it may also be seen as a process of ‘de-supernaturalisation’—stretch back to the seventeenth-century mechanistic ideas of Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton. Scientific, or ‘methodological’ naturalism may be distinguished from metaphysical naturalism. The former is an empirical methodology that avoids the use of God talk in its scientific description of the secondary causes of natural history, but is not inherently hostile towards religious belief or teleology. The latter epistemology, which is sometimes called scientism or scientific naturalism, rejects natural theology, is agnostic or atheistic and uses empirical science the sole basis for all knowledge.[7]

    Methodological naturalism became a distinct trend in the eighteenth century. As early as the 1720s, diseases other than epidemics and those transmitted sexually were no longer seen exclusively as acts of divine judgment, due in part to the success of inoculations. In 1755 Professor John Winthrop IV of Harvard effectively turned opinion against God’s active role in a recent New England earthquake by pointing to secondary causation; and later in the century Benjamin Franklin’s lightning rod led to widespread acceptance of the natural causes of lightning strikes.[8]

    The ‘heavenly bodies’ of the night sky were naturalised by the French naturalist Pierre-Simon de Laplace. In his ‘nebular hypothesis’ (1796), Laplace theorised that the planets had formed as a result of a cooling and contracting proto-solar nebula which had shed Saturn-like rings that eventually collapsed to form the planets. The theory was remarkable for its time in that it rested on an entirely naturalistic cosmogony without reference to a creator. And as Ronald Numbers has demonstrated, the reception of Laplace in the United States helped pave the way for acceptance of Darwin.[9] Eighteenth-century developments in naturalism did little to upset the Baconian compromise, but they did make it increasingly possible to discuss natural philosophy without reference to God or the Bible.

    In Great Britain, the relationship between geologists and interpreters of Genesis had grown uneasy from the 1830s onwards due in large part to Charles Lyell’s landmark Principles of Geology (1830-33). Lyell, who was himself an orthodox Christian, revolutionized the field of geology with his theory of uniformitarianism. The seminal figure of the school was the Scottish geologist James Hutton who in 1785 proposed that past geological changes had been brought about by the slow agency of forces still in operation.[10] Lyell, however, had presented a more convincing and systematic explication of uniformity. This was in direct contradiction to the commonly held belief of catastrophism, the orthodox view of the period championed by Lyell’s Oxford mentor William Buckland. Catastrophism maintained that any appearance of a much older earth could be accounted for by the biblical story of Noah’s flood and by other acts of periodic divine intervention throughout the course of natural history. Yet if Lyell was correct the earth was at least millions of years older than Bishop Ussher’s bible-based 6,000-year-old model.

    Charles Lyell (1797-1875). Painting by Alexander Craig, 1840.

    Additionally, archaeologists of the period were unearthing proof in the fossil record for the later appearance of certain species. To account for it, Buckland and his fellow contributors to the Bridgewater Treatises speculated about periodic acts of divine creation. All the same, Buckland himself had later taken a significant step toward naturalism with the innovation that all such divine intrusions were performed according to the laws of nature.

    The most significant development in methodological naturalism was of course Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection. It allowed for the first time in history an entirely naturalistic explanation for all stages of organic development. Nevertheless—a topic that deserves its own essay—it was not so much that natural selection proved impossible for Christians to reconcile with the design arguments of natural theology, but rather that it emboldened the causes of agnosticism and metaphysical naturalism.

    By the latter half of the nineteenth century nearly all scientists, and growing numbers of theologians, were theistic naturalists for whom the scope and definition of science had narrowed so as to expunge miracles, and literal interpretations of the Bible, from the domain of proper scientific inquiry. Yet, perhaps surprisingly so for many today, the transformation had been brought about largely by confessing Christians who embraced the scientific tools of methodological naturalism.

    Reprinted with permission from the author.

    Steve Peterson has been a collegiate educator in the U.S. for over twenty years and holds a Ph.D. in History from the University of Stirling in Scotland. He blogs about history, religion, and politics in the context of contemporary culture.


    [1] See Bernard Lightman, ‘Unbelief’ in John Hedley Brook and Ronald Numbers, eds, Science and Religion Around the World (Oxford University Press, 2011)

    [2] James C., Livingston, Religious Thought in the Victorian Age: Challenges and Reconceptions (Continuum, 2007), p. 36.

    [3] See Frank Turner, ‘The Victorian Conflict Between Science and Religion: A Professional Dimension’, Isis (69), pp. 356-376.

    [4] Turner, ‘Victorian Conflict Between Science and Religion’, p. 360.

    [5] James R. Moore, ‘Geologists and Interpreters of Genesis in the Nineteenth Century’ in David C. Lindberg and Ronald L. Numbers, eds, God and Nature: Historical Essays on the Encounter between Christianity and Science (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986), pp. 322-350.

    [6] Cited by Mott T. Greene, ‘Genesis and Geology Revisted’, in David C. Lindberg and Ronald L. Numbers, eds, When Science and Christianity Meet (University of Chicago Press, 2003), p. 157.

    [7] David C. Lindberg and Ronald L. Numbers, eds, When Science and Christianity Meet (University of Chicago Press, 2003), p. 266.

    [8] David C. Lindberg, ‘Science without God’ in When Science and Christianity Meet, pp. 266-272.

    [9] See Ronald L. Numbers, Creation by Natural Law: Laplace’s Nebular Hypothesis in American Thought (University of Washington Press, 1977)

    [10] David N. Livingstone, Darwin’s Forgotten Defenders: The Encounter Between Evangelical Theology and Evolutionary Thought ( Regent College Publishing, 1984), p. 42.

    Jerry Coyne – Why Evolution is True

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