During the nineteenth century, the entities we refer to as 'science' and 'religion' both underwent dramatic changes. It would consequently be naïve to expect to be able to find one simple and unchanging relationship between the two. The relationship has varied across time and geography, and from one individual to another. In addition to the historical interest of the nineteenth century debates between science and religion, there is a great historiographical significance. The way in which science and religion have been perceived in the twentieth century was heavily influenced by the writings of late nineteenth-century historians of science and religion, whose influence we have only recently begun to move beyond.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century in Britain, religious faith and the sciences were generally seen to be in beautiful accordance. The study of God's Word, in the Bible, and His Works, in nature, were assumed to be twin facets of the same truth. One version of this belief had been manifested in William Paley's Natural Theology (1802), which repeated the argument that natural objects show evidences of design, thus showing the existence of a designing God. Paley's work was enormously influential for its emphasis on nature as God's creation, even though, by the 1830s, few Christians saw a need to prove God's existence, preferring to take this as an act of faith. The Bridgewater Treatises (1833-36) showed how natural theology could be reconfigured in various ways to meet new discoveries. Their sales figures also showed that there was a substantial market for non-technical works of science.

This harmony between science and faith, mediated by some form of theology of nature, continued to be the mainstream position for most men of science, and most interested individuals, right up to the 1860s, at least. But it did come under threat. In the 1820s and 1830s, some working-class radicals saw a chance of using certain versions of the sciences for political ends. Some forms of the sciences, especially those emanating from France, seemed to suggest a restricted (or even non-existent) role for God in the universe, and thus to undermine the Anglican politico-religious establishment. Such materialist forms of science were as abhorred by most respectable men of science, as they were championed by working-class radicals.

The threats were not only from France, however. British men of science, particularly geologists, were also making discoveries which threatened the literal meaning of Genesis. The effect of these discoveries on faith has, however, been oft-exaggerated. Clerical geologists were quite able to find ways to reinterpret Genesis in the light of their discoveries, with no harm done to their faith. Even the majority of evangelicals were, by the 1840s, willing to accept non-literal interpretations of Genesis which could be fitted with the latest accepted discoveries in geology or astronomy. The few people who stressed the threat to faith of these discoveries tended to be the working-class radicals, while the extreme evangelicals who promoted Scriptural Geology to retain a literal reading of Genesis were an equally vocal minority. The reaction to Darwin's Origin of the Species (1859) should also be seen in this light: while some people played up its radicalism, others were quite able to fit it into their religious worldview. It depended as much on the reader's existing beliefs and agenda as on anything intrinsic to the work itself.

By the middle of the century, there were increasingly two different arenas in which science and religion might be expected to interact: one was the preserve of the expert men of science; the other was society at large, whose members were benefiting from the increasing numbers of popular science publications appearing on the market. These two arenas did overlap, but it is worth considering them separately.

In the expert arena, would-be professionalisers such as Thomas H. Huxley and John Tyndall, were beginning to make their marks. Although neither of these men were opposed to faith per se, both were opposed to the authoritarianism of organised Christian religion. Both objected to the involvement of clergymen in the sciences, and argued that science should be carried out by specialist experts - clergymen should focus on being experts in their own, separate, fields of theology and pastoral care. The rhetoric of this group of professionalisers, and their growing prominence within the sciences meant that by the 1870s and 1880s, 'the sciences' and 'religion' were increasingly seen as utterly separate and distinct.

This view was exacerbated by the publication (originally in America) of two books claiming to show how theology and/or religion had repeatedly constricted the sciences throughout history: John Draper's History of the Conflict between Religion and Science (1875) and Andrew White's The Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1876, expanded as The History of the Warfare… in 1896). Although the myth of the conflict of science and religion was by now well established, and few clergy attempted to maintain a reputation as scientific experts, it should be noted that plenty of individuals continued to have a Christian faith and to participate in the sciences. James Clerk Maxwell is one of the most obvious examples.

Meanwhile, in the popular arena, there was far more variety in the relationship between science and religion. Although some writers and publishers did present the sciences in a secular manner, as Huxley and Tyndall would have liked, they did not have a monopoly. Publishers with explicit religious credentials continued to publish popular works on the sciences right up till the end of the century, and their works competed in the marketplace with the secular versions. Although much has been made of a mid-Victorian crisis of faith, perhaps triggered by the sciences, this seems to have been a feature of a certain class of intellectuals, and not an accurate description of the majority of society (especially middle-class society), which retained a religious faith long after most expert men of science.

Links to Related Material

Further reading

Desmond, Adrian, 'Artisan Resistance and Evolution in Britain, 1819-1848', Osiris, 2nd series, 1987, 3, pp.77-110.

Fyfe, Aileen. 'The reception of William Paley's Natural Theology in the University of Cambridge', British Journal for the History of Science, 1997, 30, 321-35.

Jacyna, L.S. 'Immanence or Transcendence: Theories of Life and Organization in Britain 1790-1835', Isis, 74, 1983, pp. 311-29.

Moore, Jim. The Post-Darwinian Controversies: A Study of the Protestant Struggles to Come to Terms with Darwin in Great Britain and America 1870-1900. Cambridge, 1979.

Turner, Frank. Between science and religion: the reaction to scientific naturalism in late Victorian England, 1974.

Townsend, L. T. The Bible and other ancient literature in the nineteenth century. 1889.

Paley, William. Natural Theology; or, Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity (1802). Internet Archive. Web. 17 January 2012.

Last modified 5 April 2024