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Reconciling Science and Religion: the Debate in Early-Twentieth-Century Britain.

by Peter J. Bowler. Chicago and London, University of Chicago Press, 2001. xiii, 479 pp. $40.00 U.S. (cloth).

Bowler's book shows that interest in the relationship between science and religion did not fade away after the Darwinian controversies of the nineteenth century. This will be of no surprise to those who have read the popular scientific and philosophical works of Alfred North Whitehead, Arthur Eddington, or James Jeans, the essays of Julian Huxley, the work of H. G. Wells with its strong materialist bias, or the anti-materialist writings of Hilaire Belloc and G. K. Chesterton. By placing these writers on a large canvas, alongside many others, Bowler has given us a picture of the interaction of science and religion in the early twentieth century. He has written an important though, at times, irritating book. The irritation is in part a consequence of the book's organization which has resulted in much repetition among the different sections. These deal, respectively, with ideas coming from within the scientific community, the churches, and the wider public--a division which can also be misleading. Whether religious or not, those scientists who made their positions known were attempting to influence the wider debate, as were the various churchmen whom Bowler examines. And, for the churches, science was only one factor in their coming to terms with modernity. It was not necessary to believe in evolution, or in other modern scientific theories, to doubt Biblical history, the various doctrines, creeds, sacraments, or miracles, or to question the establishment of the Anglican church. A further problem with the book is its failure to discriminate among some of the theological differences of the many protagonists who, when not agnostic or atheist, came from a wide range of religious, albeit largely Christian, sects.

Despite these shortcomings, the book provides a wealth of interesting detail on a wide range of opinion, and shows how that opinion shifted over time. As in some of his earlier books, Bowler is keen to point out that Darwinian materialism did not conquer all. With some borrowing from contemporary philosophy, idealist views were held by many scientists at the turn of the century, and allowed for the construction of world views that were conciliatory towards religion. But, by the 1930s, things changed. The economic depression, the growth of fascism, and the success of totalitarian regimes in different parts of the world, prodded religious thinkers, such as the highly influential Karl Barth, toward more existential theological positions, ones that took little note of science, even a science which had lost its materialist edge. At the same time, many scientists turned to the left and some, such as J.D. Bernal, embraced the secular religion of Marxism and joined the Communist Party. Joseph Needham adopted a mix of Marxism and Anglicanism, perhaps a noble and notable conciliatory exception, as scientific and religious thinking drifted apart.

While idealist philosophy survived and flourished in the early twentieth century, Victorian scientific naturalism was also alive and well. The views of Thomas Henry Huxley were still being publicly voiced, including by such as H.G. Wells, himself briefly a Huxley student, and the biologist E. Ray Lankester who had influence even after he was forced to retire as director of the Natural History Museum. No doubt there were many among the growing band of professional scientists who held similar views but remained silent. But many scientists, then as now, were religious and sought reconciliation between the scientific and religious establishments as well as consistency in their own world views. Bowler discusses some examples including the physical scientists Oliver Lodge, Joseph John Thomson, Arthur Stanley Eddington, William Bragg, and John Ambrose Fleming, the biological scientists Joseph Needham, J.B.S. Haldane, and Ernest William MacBride, and the mathematician Ronald Aylmer Fisher who made a major theoretical contribution to genetics and the new evolutionary synthesis. These scientists were not unusual; the clergyman C.L. Drawbridge conducted a survey in 1932 showing that elite scientists in the Royal Society were largely religious, even if some were against organized religion.

The theory of evolution and the physical theory of the ether were both sufficiently malleable to lend themselves to a range of interpretation, as were the newer ideas of relativity and quantum theory. Oliver Lodge, who held on to the ether theory longer than most of his physicist contemporaries, used the theory while playing a major role in the revival of spiritualism in the early twentieth century. Eddington, however, understood the new physics well, and interpreted Einstein's ideas for a large readership. He attacked the old materialism still being trumpeted by H.G. Wells, while giving support to the idea of a designing mind behind the universe. Bowler gives much space to Eddington, but not enough to the Quaker theology behind many of Eddington's ideas. Henri Bergson's Creative Evolution, translated in 1911 was very influential and encouraged people to see evolution theory as progressive, even after the new synthesis of the 1930s. Some like MacBride, still a Lamarckian on his retirement from the professorship of zoology at Imperial College, in 1934, believed that evolutionary progress could be aided by eugenics, a view held also by many Darwinians such as Fisher, indicating that ideas of progress, when tied to new genetic and evolutionary ideas, had social consequences.

In the early twentieth century church leaders, concerned with falling membership, were anxious to modernize. Many thought that this entailed keeping up with the sciences. The range of opinion within the churches is well canvassed by Bowler whose examples include the entertaining Bishop of Birmingham, Ernest William Barnes, who saw himself as fighting superstition on all fronts, and who became notorious for what the press called his "gorilla sermons"; and Charles Raven, a future Regius professor of divinity at Cambridge, who wanted a reconciliation with science but thought that science should, once and for all, turn its back on strict materialism. He believed materialism was a historical aberration, a view shared by Alfred North Whitehead who thought it an eighteenth-century idea that had run its course. Modernizers like Raven were able to join forces with scientists, such as Whitehead, in seeking conciliation, which they hoped would draw people closer to the church. But, during the 1930s, the reaction against the modernist turn within the church led to the isolation of people like Barnes and Raven. Natural theology was largely rejected and a profound scepticism towards science became the norm. Existentialist theologies influenced both Roman Catholic and Anglican thinkers, and the new ideas, alongside the traditional, were promoted also by popular writers such as C.S. Lewis, Hilaire Belloc, and Dorothy Sayers, all of whom claimed that revelation was a source of tree knowledge, personal salvation could come only through Christ, and naturalist accounts of human origin were suspect. Modernism within the church (not to be confused with modernism within the wider culture, which was against science in some of its important manifestations) was largely rejected.

The wider debate is given some attention in the third section of the book. A major expansion in popular writing, in which scientific and religious ideas were conveyed to a large readership, is discussed. Also noted are some important contributors to the wider modernist culture, such as Virginia Woolf, Bertrand Russell, and T.S. Eliot. When Eliot turned to Anglicanism in the late 1920s he horrified many of his literary contemporaries. While other famous conversions followed, many creative people, in a wide range of artistic fields, were seeking new ways of giving meaning to the modern world. In an epilogue, Bowler mentions Charles Coulson, a Methodist and professor of chemistry and mathematics at Oxford, who, in his book Science and Christian Belief(1955), claimed that science and religion were both efforts to understand the wider significance of our existence. His was an attempt at conciliation, but the dominant view, moving into the mid-twentieth century, was that science and religion had separate functions.

The shift from a Victorian confrontation, to an early-twentieth-century conciliation, and then to a mid-century separation of science and religion, is seen by Bowler as reflecting a fluctuating balance of power between secularizing and traditional forces in society. He also, rightly in my view, sees these events as being of exemplary interest in thinking about the discourse on science and religion in other periods including our own. Philosophically-minded scientists with religious interests are still seeking plausible natural theologies; and, as the recent international furore caused by Vancouver's Anglican bishop in allowing marriage blessings for gay couples, shows, the churches are still debating exactly how latitudinarian they want to be.

Simon Fraser University

Hannah Gay
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Author:Gay, Hannah
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book Review
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Apr 1, 2003
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