Faith no bar to hard facts

Quakers, Jews, and Science
January 13, 2006

The relationship between science and religion is frequently portrayed by some modern scientists and theologians as one of antagonism.

As evidence for this, an alleged history of conflict between the two is cited using examples such as the Galileo affair in the early 17th century, or the encounter between Thomas Huxley and Samuel Wilberforce in 1860. Over the past 20 years or so, historians of science such as James Moore, John Brooke, Aileen Fyfe and Geoffrey Cantor have shown that the characterisation of the relationship between science and religion as one simply of conflict is historically unsustainable.

The main way in which these and other historians have analysed the issues involved is through case studies. Fifteen years ago, Cantor produced an excellent study of Michael Faraday and his membership of the Sandemanian Church, a sect that existed explicitly in opposition to the Scottish and English state churches. In this book, Cantor continues this line of inquiry by examining two groups who also had severe problems with the Anglican establishment, Quakers and Jews, and how they interacted with science from the 17th century to the end of the 19th.

At first sight it might appear odd to compare a Christian with a non-Christian group, but Cantor uses the comparison to point up similarities, emphasise differences and, furthermore, to show how both groups changed, socially and ideologically, over time. The Quakers, founded by George Fox in the 17th century, originally concentrated on the concept of an Inner Light given to each individual. This could be interpreted as putting them in the monotheist category, clearly shared by Jews, but not by Trinitarian Christians. By the 19th century, Quakers had become more evangelical and Bible based, contributing to a schism in which the more Unitarian followers of the Inner Light reasserted this original defining feature of Quakerism.

It has long been a commonplace that Quakers were closely, and disproportionately, associated with industry, banking, confectionery-making and pharmaceuticals. As Quakers, Jews and other non-Anglican groups were, until various points in the 19th century, legally barred from universities, politics, the law and the armed services, they had to turn elsewhere for their careers. Science, as Cantor points out, was an area in which there were no discriminatory exclusion rules in its institutions - although it should also be noted that a number of Quakers appear to have pursued a scientific career in order to escape from the sect. Furthermore, both Quakers and Jews were involved in the founding, in the 1820s, of the explicitly non-Anglican University College in London, which had a marked scientific component.

One of the strengths of this study is that Cantor does not concentrate exclusively on scientific research, but discusses the ways in which individuals and religious institutions engage science. From this he draws out a comparison in approach towards natural phenomena in both communities.

Jews tended to work more on the physical and theoretical side of science, while Quakers concentrated more on natural history.

Cantor's book concludes with an extended discussion of the response of the two communities towards Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection, published in 1859. As Wilberforce logically and clearly pointed out in his review of On the Origin of Species , either one could accept that human beings were descended from non-human animals, which meant that there could have been no original sin, or one could accept the Christian doctrine of salvation formulated to atone for that sin, but one could not consistently do both. So far as Jews were concerned, there was little problem with this, and indeed some took considerable comfort from the way in which Huxley and John Tyndall used Darwin to torment Christianity, whose "conversion societies" had behaved intolerably towards the Jewish community for many decades. Likewise, many on the Unitarian wing of Quakers had few problems with Darwinism. Overall, both communities tended to opt for Darwin and modernity, opposing the conservatism of the Anglican Church and ignoring the profound (Christian) theological difficulties raised by Darwin, in an increasingly secular age.

This strategy of ignoring problems contributed to the enormous confusion that still exists about the relationship between science and religion.

These are not two monolithic unchanging systems, since both their content and practice have evolved over time. Such processes are rooted in historical contingency, and by exploring this in these two communities Cantor has provided an invaluable contribution towards achieving a proper historical understanding of science in its relationship to religion.

Frank A. J. L. James is professor of the history of science, Royal Institution.

Quakers, Jews, and Science: Religious Responses to Modernity and the Sciences in Britain, 1650-1900

Author - Geoffrey Cantor
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Pages - 420
Price - £50.00
ISBN - 0 19 9668 4

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