Darwin’s impact on religion in the US and Europe

Darwin’s impact on religion in the US and Europe

Without question, Darwinian science had a tremendous influence on religious development in the United States and across Europe. The complex relationship between science and religion is difficult to frame as the social and cultural influences peculiar to various regions generated a variety of responses across the globe and among different religious traditions. Following is just a few basic observations of Darwin’s impact in the United States and Europe.

First, in the United States, the devastating impact of the civil war and social upheaval accompanying urbanization seemed to break the promise of Darwinian evolution for a greater society. The intellectualism and dry faith of Enlightenment religion opened doors for the spiritual revivalism and experientialism of the late 19th century vivified the growth of Pentecostalism.[1]  Second, the ideal of “survival of the fittest” advanced by Herbert Spencer and Charles Darwin was used by some capitalists “to justify the notion that wealth is a sign of worth.”[2] Combined with the unique influence of Puritan theology, these concepts laid the foundation for the prosperity gospel latent in much of popular Protestant-Evangelical religion. Third, racists in the United States and Europe construed the polygenism of human origins as the source of distinct species, combined it with a unique hermeneutic for the genealogies of Genesis, and found a scientific-religious justification for discrimination against non-white races.

Second, in Europe, Darwin’s new teleology was combined with socialist-materialism in the theology of men like Charles Kingsley who saw in it the scientific justification for the religious impetus to demand social improvement through social engineering.[3] In the Americas, this would seem to be the precursor to the Social Gospel / Social Justice movement. Across Europe in places like Italy, Germany, and France, Roman Catholicism had been reduced to a political movement devoid of transcendent spiritual power. It is there that the Darwinian worldview provided an opportunity for secularists to propose a rational science capable of striking a death blow to the impotent political-religion which could not compete with the newly revealed power of nature’s glory.[4] In the 20th century, Darwin’s evolutionary concepts were foundational for the rise of Marxism, Communism, Nazism (National-Socialism) and the Eugenics movement.

In summary, secularists like Feuerbach and religionists like Charles Hodge in both Europe and in the US agreed that science and traditional Christianity could not be reconciled. This unfortunate area of agreement fostered the warfare model of science and religion that took root in the 19th century and blossomed in the 20th. This agreement helped marginalize Christianity in popular writing and academia today.

[1] J.R. Miller, Promise of the Father: Healing the Christian Legacy of Segregation and Denominationalism, vol. 1, 2 vols. (Puyallup, WA: Emerging Life Resources, 2008), 43-44.

[2] John Hedley Brooke, Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives, Canto classics edition. ed., Canto classics (United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 397.

[3] Ibid., 399.

[4] Ibid., 404.

The Reformation Influence on the Scientific Revolution

The Reformation Influence on the Scientific Revolution

The scientific revolution is a term that describes the period of upheaval in Europe beginning around the 16th century in which Aristotelian natural-science was supplanted by the Baconian method of science undergirded by a Neo-Platonist philosophy. Many pinpoint the publication of Polish scientist Nicholas Copernicus’ treatise on a moving earth and fixed sun, On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Bodies, as the seminal event leading to Newton’s work a century and a half later which was the capstone of this philosophic shift in Western thought.

The accompanying Protestant reformation was one of the key influencers in the scientific revolution. The Reformation solas emphasizing God’s sovereignty, the illuminating power of the Holy Spirit on individual believers, and biblical authority over Roman Catholic tradition, shaped scientific interpretation.[1] Reform theology helped moved science away from the Medieval view of an Aristotelian organic cosmos to a mechanistic philosophy of motion that could be understood through mathematical formulations.[2] The mechanical philosophy of the 17th century is represented by Pierre Gassendi, René Descartes, Robert Boyle, and Isaac Newton. Buoyed by the new astronomy and physics of the day, scientists rejected Aristotelian epistemology and metaphysics which endowed matter with innate qualities, dominant since the 13th century, and replaced it with an atomistic, historically epicurean, philosophy.[3]

Three Lutheran astronomers, Georg Joachim Rheticus (1514– 74), Michael Mästlin (1550– 1631), and his pupil Johannes Kepler (1571– 1630) were crucial to the spread of Copernican heliocentrism by giving theological validity to Augustine’s principle of accommodation.[4] Whereas the Roman Catholic Church rejected Kepler, Protestant scientists generally accepted his ideas. Reformed theology had two key impacts on 17th century science. First, the emphasis on God’s sovereignty over man’s salvation was mirrored in nature’s mechanistic or ontological passivity orchestrated by God’s direct working. Second, understanding God’s work for the rationalists was found in the human capacity to reason as a reflection of the imago Dei.

As empiricism grew the scientific revolution led to the overthrow of God who was slowly replaced by science. Scientists such as Boyle and Newton built upon these early ideas while taking seriously the theological implications of their work.[5] “For Boyle— and many other natural philosophers of his day— the practice of natural philosophy was an act of worship since it led to greater knowledge of the Creator by directly acquainting the careful observer with God’s wisdom and benevolence in designing the world.”[6] Eventually, the mechanistic philosophy opened the door for men like Locke accept the reasonableness of Christianity, yet deny the central doctrine of original sin. The rise of deism and atheism followed in the 18th century and led to Laplace’s exposition of a purely deterministic cosmology.

[1] Edward B. Davis and Michael P. Winship, “Early Modern Protestantism,” in Science and Religion: A Historical Introduction, ed. Gary B. Ferngren (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017), 118.

[2] Ibid., 119.

[3] Margaret J. Osler, “Mechanical Philosophy,” in Science and Religion: A Historical Introduction, ed. Gary B. Ferngren (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017), 142.

[4] Davis and Winship,  in Science and Religion: A Historical Introduction, 121.

[5] Osler,  in Science and Religion: A Historical Introduction, 148.

[6] Ibid., 149.

The Shortfall of David Hume’s Critique of Natural Philosophy

The Shortfall of David Hume’s Critique of Natural Philosophy

Natural Philosophy is a term which has various definitions. During the enlightenment era, the natural philosophy was a form of monism, espoused by men such as Joseph Priestly, which sought to purify Christianity of distortions that could not be substantiated by observation or reason so that in cooperation with science it could withstand superstition and political oppression.[1] Against this view, the skeptical agnosticism of David Hume posed the greatest threat.

Hume’s central premise was that it was impossible to obtain knowledge of God through observation of the natural world. The virtuous purists of humanity; justice morality politics and religion were conditioned by culture not reason.[2] Hume emphasized the limitations of the analogical logic which undergirded the teleological argument from natural theologians on the basis that an infinite God needs not be extrapolated as the necessary cause of the finite mechanistic creation. The limits of inductive logic meant, according to Hume, that while God might be possible, there was no empirical test to validate Him as the supernatural causal force. The greater the claim, the greater the evidence one must have to establish it and not such extraordinary evidence can be construed from science. Additionally, since our cosmos is a singularity unverifiable by observation of multiple worlds, there was no way to conclude it is a result of design. The illusion of design is a failed attempt to explain natural adaptation and which fails to account for suffering.

The strength of Hume’s thought was recognizing the limitations of the mechanistic analogs favored by natural theologians which were in no way superior to the older organic analogies. Hume’s rejection of the Deistic transcendent God unintentionally opened the door for God’s imminent work in creation. However, Hume’s skepticism fails on three grounds. First, his assumption that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence is itself a non-scientific assertion. Nothing in experimental science reinforces this claim that singularities require extra evidence. The claim itself becomes unique and extraordinary but lacks any extraordinary evidence. Thus, Hume’s first premise becomes self-refuting and invalid. Second, his claim that science disproves a supernatural cause for nature is flawed in that he assumes the conclusion in the premise. Hume’s argument is rooted in the assumption that miracles cannot occur and therefore no evidence of miracles can be found. Finally, Hume’s threshold for validating the teleological argument is absolute certainty, but this is not the test for any scientific truth. The philosophic and scientific threshold is one of high probability, not absolutism.

[1] John Hedley Brooke, Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives, Canto classics edition. ed., Canto classics (United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 240.

[2] Ibid., 246.

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