Science and Faith: The Industrial Revolution

The late 18th and 19th Century is a time often described as the Industrial Revolution.  Technological innovation made possible by scientific discoveries led to rapid technological, economic, and social changes.  Technological changes included improved efficiency of water power, the development of steam power, the use of machine tools, new iron production and chemical manufacturing processes, and the construction of canal and railway networks.  Industrialization did spur scientific innovation and experimentation.

While the technological and social changes encouraged scientific inquiry and invention, they also led to the development of economic capitalism, widespread urbanization, growth of factory labour (including child labour), changes to the role of women, issues with public health, food, and nutrition, and social welfare challenges.  Increasingly society changed from rural, home-based hand production to urban, factory-based, machine production.  Cities grew, creating social and environmental challenges.   Some of the social benefits that accrued over times included new labour laws ( outlawing slavery and child labour), increased access to education, health and safety legislation, and eventually higher standards of living for many people.

With the upheaval in the economic and social order, a variety of intellectual paradigms and criticisms emerged.  Romantic authors like Blake, Keats, Wordsworth, Byron, Coleridge and Shelley (including Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein) and artists like Constable and Turner yearned for a pre-industrial utopia.  More revolutionary rhetoric came from thinkers like Karl Marx.  Marx, like his contemporaries Emile Durkheim and Max Weber,  challenged the emerging social, political, and industrial culture and with it,  the legitimacy of religious thought, experience, and authority.  A growing “agnosticism” (a term coined by biologist Thomas Huxley in 1869), challenged the accepted and unquestioned tenets of Christianity and authority of the church.  Sara Maitland, however, notes that “interestingly, in the nineteenth century it was more likely to be the poets rather than the scientists who did not believe in God.” (Joyful Theology, p.79-80).

In the midst of this rapid industrial, scientific, and social change, Christian clerics, scholars, and lay people wrestled with the relationship of their faith to the upheavals. Some struggled to reconcile their theological understandings with the new social and industrial order. Some theologians, echoing the romantic poets and artists, pined for the old order and explored Christianity as more of an inner reality, emphasizing personal experience (Friedrich Schleiermacher and Albrecht Ritschl). Throughout Europe and North America, a series of “Great Awakenings” characterized by an emphasis on personal religious experience and emotion, challenged the rationalism that had become associated with Christianity during the Enlightenment era.  New Protestant denominations were formed, missionary organizations began, Bible Societies were established, social action ministries were founded, and new religious movements within and outside Christianity emerged – Pentecostalism, Seventh Day Adventists, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormonism), Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Christian Science.

Often these movements were characterized by an emphasis on the supremacy of a particular interpretation of the Bible.  Reading the Bible in a personal, literal way – uncluttered by further study or consideration of issues like context o original meaning – was paramount.  Even within Roman Catholicism, neo-scholasticism – a revival of the theology of Thomas Aquinas and other medieval theologians, rejecting modernism and scientific thought – came to dominate.

Other Christians, in contrast with the emphasis on individualism, personal experience, emotion, and anti-intellectualism associated these revival movements, emphasized natural theology, the premise that God can be known through reason and through observing His works in nature. Continuing in the traditions of Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment thinkers, these Christians believed that God – as the creator of a rational, ordered universe – could be known and worshiped in part through scientific study. And they believed that the universe, as the creation of this God, had an inherent order that could be known through careful observation and experimentation.

It is significant that many scientists during this era, however, did integrate their faith with their scientific endeavours:

William Paley (1743-1805)

William Paley, a philosopher and cleric, was an advocate for natural theology, the premise that God created the universe in logical, rational ways, and that His handiwork could be seen in the physical and social order of things. His Natural Theology, or Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity collected from the Appearances of Nature includes a number of teleological and cosmological arguments for the existence of God.  He writes that no argument other than “the necessity of an intelligent Creator” can explain the eye (or any other elaborate living structure).  He is most famous for his watchmaker analogy: if you were to find a pocket watch on the ground, it is most reasonable to assume that someone dropped it and that it was made by one or more watchmakers, and not by natural forces.

John James Audubon (born Jean Rabin, 1785–1851)

John James Audobon emigrated from France to the United States in 1803.   He was notable for his extensive studies documenting all types of American birds and for his detailed illustrations that depicted the birds in their natural habitats. His major work, a color-plate book entitled The Birds of America (1827–1839), is considered one of the finest ornithological works ever completed.

  • When challenged about the love he believed mother pigeons have for their young, he wrote, “I presume the love of the mothers for their young is much the same as the love of woman for her offspring. There is but one kind of love; God is love, and all his creatures derive theirs from his; only it is modified by the different degrees of intelligence in different beings and creatures.”
  • About a meeting with a young artist, he said, “I took down my portfolio, to select a drawing to copy in oil. He had never seen my works before, and appeared astonished as his eyes ranged over the sheets. He expressed the warmest admiration, and said, “How hopeless must be the task of my giving any instruction to one who can draw like this?” I pointed out to him that nature is the great study for the artist, and assured him that the reason why my works pleased him was because they are all exact copies of the works of God, — who is the great Architect and perfect Artist; and impressed on his mind this fact, that nature indifferently copied is far superior to the best idealities.”
  • “Thank God it has rained all day. I say thank God, though rain is no rarity, because it is the duty of every man to be thankful for whatever happens by the will of the Omnipotent Creator; yet it was not so agreeable to any of my party as a fine day would have been.”
Michael Faraday (1791-1867)

Michael Faraday, a physicist and chemist, did foundational experimentation and research on electromagnetism and electrochemistry, laying the groundwork for electric motors. He was the architect of classical field theory, discoverer of numerous chemical compounds such as benzene and fully chlorinated hydrocarbons, invented an early form of the Bunsen burner, and popularized terms associated with electromagnetism such as anode, cathode, electrode, and ion. Faraday was a devout Christian, serving as a deacon and elder in his congregations. Summarizing Faraday’s science and faith, Colin Russell writes, “In his synthesis of science and Christianity, in his strong confidence in the authority of Scripture, and in his simple faith in Christ, Faraday was typical of a great many gifted scientists, both before and since. For them, and for him, the task of scientific exploration was not only exciting and satisfying. In a very real sense it was a Christian vocation.” (See Science and Faith in the Life of Michael Faraday).

In 1858, in his lecture notes, he wrote, “The beauty of electricity or of any other force is not that the power is mysterious, and unexpected, touching every sense at unawares in turn, but that it is under law, and that the taught intellect can even now govern it largely. The human mind is placed above, and not beneath it, and it is in such a point of view that the mental education afforded by science is rendered super-eminent in dignity, in practical application and utility; for by enabling the mind to apply the natural power through law, it conveys the gifts of God to man.”

Charles Lyell (1797-1875)

Charles Lyell, a devout Christian, was a geologist who popularized James Hutton’s theory of uniformitarianism, the concept that geographic processes are consistent over time. Like Hutton, Lyell therefore believed the Earth was hundred of billions or billions of years old.  He did the first large scale study of mechanisms of earthquakes and volcanoes, study glaciers and glacial deposits, and refined the geologic time scale.

  • “As geologists, we learn that it is not only the present condition of the globe that has been suited to the accommodation of myriads of living creatures, but that many former states also have been equally adapted to the organization and habits of prior races of beings. The disposition of the seas, continents, and islands, and the climates have varied; so it appears that the species have been changed, and yet they have all been so modelled, on types analogous to those of existing plants and animals, as to indicate throughout a perfect harmony of design and unity of purpose. To assume that the evidence of the beginning or end of so vast a scheme lies within the reach of our philosophical inquiries, or even of our speculations, appears to us inconsistent with a just estimate of the relations which subsist between the finite powers of man and the attributes of an Infinite and Eternal Being.”
  • “I may conclude this chapter (in The Antiquity of Man, 1863) by quoting a saying of Professor Agassiz, that whenever a new and startling fact is brought to light in science, people first say, ‘it is not true,’ then that ‘it is contrary to religion,’ and lastly, ‘that everybody knew it before.’ “
Hugh Miller (1802-1856)

“self-made man, wide-ranging essayist, occasional poet, and crusading evangelical editor, Miller was a brilliant geologist and paleontologist and among the most engaging popularizers of science in mid-nineteenth century Britain” (David N. Livingstone, Darwin’s Forgotten Defenders, p.9).  Miller held that the Earth was of great age, and that it had been inhabited by many species which had come into being and gone extinct; although he believed the succession of species showed progress over time, he did not believe that later species were descended from earlier ones.  The Genesis flood, he argued, was a localized event in the Middle East.  Recognizing some theological opposition, Miller argued that the evidence from God’s creation was overwhelming, and that, as theologians from the past had been wrong about using Scripture to deny the Earth is spherical and that the sun in the centre of the solar system, they were wrong to contest the age of the Earth.  Miller argued that Genesis 1 was written in the language of “optical appearances” – by how things appear to look to people, not how they actually came to be.  He contended that Scripture was not intended t provide a scientific account of creation nor to teach scientific principles.

Asa Gray (1810-1888)

Asa Gray, one of the most respected American biologists, was a committed Christian, a regular churchgoer, and a professor of botany at Harvard University for decades. Gray believed science was neutral in matters of religion and metaphysics. Regarding the theological implications of evolution, Gray believed that Darwin’s theory was not atheistic, although he recognized that some would use it as an “excuse” for unbelief.

He argued we need “to reshape” the argument from design “in such wise as to harmonize our ineradicable belief in design with the fundamental scientific belief of continuity in nature, now extended to organic as well as inorganic forms, to living beings as well as inanimate things.” Gray saw nature as filled with “unmistakable and irresistible indications of design” and argued that “God himself is the very last, irreducible causal factor and, hence, the source of all evolutionary change.”

Charles Darwin (1809-1882)

Biologist and geologist Charles Darwin is best known for his work on the theories of evolution. He proposed that all species of living organisms have descended from common ancestors over time. One of the mechanisms he suggested for this was natural selection, in which species with specific traits are more likely to reproduce and survive than others. By the time his famous The Origin of Species was published, the idea of evolution in many natural processes was already popular, and the term development was used in its place for discussions of society’s change or the history of the solar system. Darwin’s great contribution was to popularize these notions and, through rigorous empirical observations, give the first really functional account of how evolution could happen through the process of natural selection.

Darwin began his university education to be an Anglican clergyman before switching to biology. As Darwin developed his theories, he struggled with his Christian faith, but remained active in his local parish church, was good friends with the vicar, and never repudiated his faith, unlike his most ardent defender and proponent, Thomas Huxley.

In the decades after Origin of Species was published, theologians began to ponder the compatibility of Darwin’s theory and Christian doctrine. Some of them adopted Gray’s view that evolution was God’s method of creation:  natural selection was a divinely guided process and consistent with natural theology.  Others argued that since Darwin explained away the apparent design in nature, it was compatible only with atheism. Some scholars accepted Darwin’s argument for common ancestry, but rejected the idea of natural selection, either for scientific, philosophical, or theological reasons. Others resisted evolution specifically for the human species, partly due to concerns that evolution could conflict with Christian claims that human beings are created in the image of God.

With time, however, even some of the more conservative theologians became comfortable with evolution.

B.B. Warfield (1851-1921), one of the strongest proponents for Biblical inspiration, innerancy,  and authority of the nineteenth century, was also a cautious proponent of the possibility that God could have brought about life through evolution. His basic stance was a doctrine of providence that saw God working in and with the processes of nature, rather than completely replacing them. In Warfield’s mind, a high view of biblical authority was fully compatible with a divinely guided process of evolution. He wrote, “… There is no necessary antagonism of Christianity to evolution, provided that we do not hold to too extreme a form of evolution. To adopt any form that does not permit God freely to work apart from law and which does not allow miraculous intervention (in the giving of the soul, in creating Eve, etc.) will entail a great reconstruction of Christian doctrine, and a very great lowering of the detailed authority of the Bible. But if we condition the theory by allowing the constant oversight of God in the whole process, and his occasional supernatural interference for the production of new beginnings by an actual output of creative force, producing something new, i.e., something not included even in posse in the preceding conditions, we may hold to the modified theory of evolution and be Christians in the ordinary orthodox sense.”

British theologian, Aubrey Moore (1848-1890), argued evolution “as a theory is infinitely more Christian than the theory of ‘Special Creation.’ For it implies the immanence of God in nature, and the omnipresence of his creative power. Those who opposed the doctrine of evolution in defence of ‘a continued intervention’ of God seem to have failed to notice that a theory of occasional intervention implies as its correlative a theory of ordinary absence.”

Roman Catholic theologian, George Jackson Mivart (1827-1900) wrote in 1871, “In this way we find a perfect harmony in the double nature of man … his soul arising from direct and immediate creation, and his body being formed at first (as now in each separate individual) by derivative or secondary creation, through natural laws … We have thus a true reconciliation of science and religion, in which each gains and neither loses, one being complementary to the other” (On the Genesis of the Species).

I am thankful for sabbatical time from my congregation and a Pastoral Study Project Grant from the Louisville Institute to support my research.