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Pitting faith against science

When Charles Darwin discovered the laws of natural selection, he saw them as a deadly threat to his faith. In this extract from a new essay, Kirsty Birkett explores the growth of naturalism, which gave rise to the modern idea that science and faith are implacably opposed to each other

One of the most common beliefs currently expounded in public literature is naturalism. Naturalism is a belief that only natural laws and forces work in the world. The supernatural (anything beyond the natural world, whether spiritual, magical or otherwise) does not exist. The physical universe is all that exists. Moreover, the only way to explain anything within the universe is in terms of entirely natural events and forces within the universe.

Other terms which overlap with naturalism include materialism (the view that there is only matter, not souls, spirits, or deities) and atheism (the view that there is no God). Naturalism is not a new view but, until very recently in history, it was a view that had very little widespread popularity. It is only in the last century or so that there has been a dramatic shift in public discourse, so that in most of the Western world today public literature generally assumes naturalism rather than otherwise. It is an even more recent phenomenon that atheism is fought for with a thoroughly religious fervour.

We need to understand a little of the history of ideas to understand how the present situation came about. We pick up the story in the 17th century, where modern science has its roots.

Francis Bacon

Francis Bacon (15611626) was a philosopher. One of his most important achievements was arguing that the best way to gain knowledge of the world was by the empirical method that is, by making observations through experimentation. Bacon was highly influential in starting what is now known as the scientific revolution in England.

Among other concerns, Bacon wanted to reassure anyone who might have doubts that studying the natural world in no way suggested that God was being forgotten. God, he argued, was the first cause of everything. He is the ultimate reason that anything happens. God makes things happen, however, in certain natural ways. By separating out first and second causes, Bacon was able to discuss the value of studying second causes while contemplating the first one:

'For in the entrance of philosophy, when the second causes, which are next unto the senses, do offer themselves to the mind of man, if it dwell and stay there it may induce some oblivion of the highest cause; but when a man passeth on further, and seeth the dependence of causes, and the works of Providence, then, according to the allegory of the poets, he will easily believe that the highest link of nature's chain just needs be tied to the foot of Jupiter's chair. To conclude therefore, let no man upon a weak conceit of sobriety or an ill-applied moderation think or maintain, that a man can search too far, or be too well studied in the book of God's word, or in the book of God's works, divinity or philosophy.'

Science was to be a study of God's creation. In no way was it meant to replace belief in God. The study of second causes was just that: a study of second causes, not a study of the only causes.

The Royal Society

When the Royal Society of London was founded in 1660 to study the natural world (it remains one of the world's leading scientific institutions), its members consciously modelled their new society on Bacon's ideas. The aim was to search into the secondary causes of things, to discover the mechanisms of how things worked in the world. It was assumed that God worked in ways that did not involve frequent miracles, but by proceeding in an orderly and understandable fashion. The secondary causes, then, were the ones open to experimentation.

There is nothing in investigating God's secondary means of doing things that provides any rivalry to God as the origin of all action. Another writer from the 17th century, however, gave what amounted to a warning.

William Perkins

William Perkins (1558-1602) was a widely published author and popular preacher at Cambridge. He was not a scientist, nor did he write much on the natural world. However, Perkins was well aware of what might happen when enthusiastic students started thinking that understanding the natural world was all they needed to know:

'This thy dealing is like unto the folly of that man, who having a costly clock in his home, never extolleth or thinketh on the wit and invention of the clockmaker, but is continually in admiration of the spring or watch of the clocke.'

It was a timely warning. It is an excellent thing to study the works of God. Even non-scientists such as Perkins warmly recommended it. Nonetheless, he knew the tendency of human hearts. It is all too easy to become so enchanted with the means that God uses that we forget it is God who is using them.

William Paley

For many throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, Perkins' warning might have seemed utterly unnecessary when the workings of the natural world were taken as one of the most convincing reasons to believe in a creator God. This was the premise of a highly influential book, Natural Theology, written by the English theologian William Paley (1743-1805).

Paley's work might be seen as a grand argument for the reality of first causes. His argument was that God's hand was seen clearly in the design apparent in nature. Again, we find the example of clockwork: 'When we come to inspect the watch, we perceive... that its several parts are framed and put together for a purpose... This mechanism being observed... and understood the inference we think is inevitable, that the watch must have had a maker.'

This sounds a lot like Perkins's argument about the clock. However, there is a major difference. Perkins knew perfectly well that the natural world is God's creation. He did not need to study it in order to find out; he knew because the Bible had told him. Paley's work, on the other hand, is operating from a different premise. He argues in the opposite direction: we know that there is a creator by reason of the intricacy of creation. Instead of the creator explaining the creation, the argument is now being used the other way around.

The problem with an argument for God's existence based on the intricacy of the natural world is that it depends on a human evaluation of how good the secondary causes are. If a human viewer decides that, actually, the secondary causes look pretty convincing on their own, then that person may well decide that there is no need for a first cause. The 'first cause' becomes not a cause at all, but an unnecessary speculation.

Paley's argument set up God not as the known creator, but as an explanatory theory. This was not what Paley intended, but it was the way many people took the argument and the way many restate it now. In this sense, Paley set up the challenge that there is no other way to explain a world in which parts work together ingeniously, except by the deliberate design of a creator God.

Charles Darwin

The young Charles Darwin (1809-82) studied Paley's work at Cambridge when undertaking study for ordination in the Church of England. He found Paley's argument convincing. For Darwin himself and for countless others to follow, to find a mechanism by which nature could come to be organised to the benefit of living organisms was a deadly threat to his Christianity. That mechanism is precisely what Darwin is so famous for discovering the principle of preservation he termed 'natural selection'.

Darwin speculated that the reason living organisms seem to be so superbly adapted to their natural environments was not because this was the immediate work of a Designer. On the contrary, there was a natural explanation: it was a result of natural selection. Paley's challenge had been met. This, to Darwin, was the end of his belief in a creator God: 'The old argument from design in Nature, as given by Paley, which formerly seemed to me so conclusive, fails, now that the law of natural selection has been discovered.'

Having set up God in his mind as an explanatory theory, the discovery of what he saw as an alternative explanation crushed the only role he had for God.

Thomas Huxley

Thomas Huxley (1825-95) was a scientist with a passionate devotion to science as a philosophy. He wanted naturalistic philosophy to take the place of Christianity as the ruling philosophy of society. He wanted scientific thinking and scientific leaders to replace religious thinking and religious leaders. In particular, he hated the idea that religious leaders were regarded as having the right to comment on intellectual issues.

Huxley was ambitious and energetic, an excellent organiser and public speaker. He and a group of allies (who called themselves the X-club) set about changing British society by taking control of the scientific institutions and seeking to change the way both scientific education and scientific influence were organised. He aimed for an incredible achievement, and it is even more incredible that to a great extent he succeeded. From 1873 to 1885, every president of the Royal Society was a member of the X-club. All over Britain, prominent scientific societies came to be dominated by X-club members or their friends.

At the same time, Huxley was becoming more and more famous as a public commentator on science. This was another part of the battle. In his view, naturalism must take over the role of Christianity as the dominant philosophy. This was more than a battle of political influence; it was a battle over what was to be the public definition of truth. All the deference and respect previously given to religion in society was to come to science.

Huxley and his friends constantly publicised the successes of science and the improvements in industry that resulted. They managed to have this success attributed to the naturalistic philosophy in general. It was not a fair attribution. By far the majority of those actually working in science and industry probably thought of themselves as Christian and would have been appalled at the thought of atheism. That was irrelevant. Huxley, in the way he presented the successes of science, consistently allied them with a naturalistic worldview, giving the impression that it was only a non-theistic philosophy that could guarantee social progress.

Indeed, one of Huxley's favourite techniques was to set science and theology up as rivals, with science as the inevitable victor. Time after time he portrayed science in mythical terms as the hero who strives against adversity and is ultimately victorious, while he portrayed religion as the villain who tries to stop progress but fails to do so. He wrote: 'Extinguished theologians lie about the cradle of every science as the strangled snakes beside that of Hercules.'

Huxley managed to take society with him. People began to believe his message that science was necessarily anti-religious and was better than religion. People began to believe that Darwin had, indeed, provided the means to become, in the words of Richard Dawkins, an 'intellectually fulfilled atheist'.

Science and naturalism today

Science today is thoroughly naturalistic. Any movements to the contrary are fervently and noisily resisted. The supernatural, we are told most firmly, has no place in science.

For practical reasons, it may make sense for scientists to talk about natural causes only, for natural causes are what they are interested in. What does not make sense is to turn this into an argument that claims that science therefore proves that natural causes are the only ones.

In fact, it is almost tautological to say this. Science cannot incorporate supernatural phenomena, for whatever science can study and analyse is defined as natural. Whatever is supernatural, if it is genuinely supernatural (that is, beyond this world), is not able to be studied by the activity that studies this world. Science is unable to disprove the spiritual. This is not an argument. It is a matter of definition.


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This article is an extract from Kirsty Birkett's essay, 'I believe in nature', which was first published on the website of the Henry Center, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Deerfield, Illinois

Francis Bacon,
The Advancement of Learning and New Atlantis (London: Oxford University Press, 1960), p. 11

William Perkins,
Foure greate lyers, striuig who shall win the siluer Whetstone. Also, a resolvtion to the countri-man, prouing it vtterly unlawfull to buye or use our yeerly prognostications, 1608 (spelling updated)

William Paley,
Natural Theology, in the Miscellaneous Works of William Paley (London: Baldwyn, 1821), 3:911

Thomas Huxley, 'The Origin of Species', in
Collected Essays (1860), 2:52

kirsty birkett  
Kirsty Birkett is Academic Dean at Oak Hill  
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