Albert Camus attempted to “transcend the nihilism” through literature, which he believed could more powerfully depict and analyze existence than any philosophical treatise. He had lived through the travesty of two Great Wars and, like many of the time, felt that such bloodshed was absurd and meaningless. The silence of God—which was a constant theme throughout his writings—was deafening. Indeed, it was only five years after his tragic death that Time magazine, on 22 October 1965, highlighted a small group of theologians who all agreed that “God is dead.” This “death of God theology” is essential background for understanding Camus’ Plague.
In the late nineteenth century Friedrich Nietzsche had already proclaimed that God was dead. Camus had in fact clarified that Nietzsche had not tried to “kill God,” but rather that he had “found him dead in the soul of his contemporaries.” By the turn of the century, God had simply fell out of fashion. As Nietzsche observed:
“What is now decisive against Christianity is our taste, no longer our reasons.”
Nietzsche recognized the simple fact that God had gradually been eliminated from modern Western culture. But what are the implications? In his Joyful Science (1882), where he first declared that God is dead, Nietzsche argued that humankind must learn to live without him. This meant the reevaluation of all values, particularly those association with the Christian religion. He writes:
“When one gives up the Christian faith, one pulls the right to Christian morality out from under one’s feet. This morality is by no means self-evident: this point has to be exhibited again and again, despite the English flatheads. Christianity is a system, a whole view of things thought out together. By breaking one main concept out of it, the faith in God, one breaks the whole: nothing necessary remains in one’s hands. Christianity presupposes that man does not know, cannot know, what is good for him, what evil: he believes in God, who alone knows it. Christian morality is a command; its origin is transcendent; it is beyond all criticism, all right to criticism; it has truth only if God is the truth—it stands and falls with faith in God.”
In place of Christianity, Nietzsche proclaimed the “superman” (Übermensch), someone without fear of others, self, or death. This Übermensch was compatible with scientific naturalism, but for Nietzsche he also transcended science, for life has no meaning other than what individuals give it. If one is ever to rise above meaningless existence, they must choose a way of life that has dignity for them, though it might bring suffering to themselves and others.
This revolt against God was also aptly described in the writings of Fyodor Dostoevsky, particularly in his The Brothers Karamazov (1880). Dostoevsky observed the Russian bourgeois liberals and their revolutionary optimism and argued that it could open the door to unprecedented brutality and oppression, precisely because it removes any divine limitation to human actions. Whereas Nietzsche claims scientific justification for his views, Dostoevsky attacked the pretensions of scientific humanism and urged the necessity of God as the basis of human freedom. He rejected the idea that humans were bound by scientific laws and thus totally determined by physical factors. He also rejected the idea that everything is governed by reason.
The rise of the naturalistic worldview and its consequent nihilism, in short, led many to become increasingly concerned with problems of human life in modern, secular mass societies. Many were beginning to question accepted values and philosophies and noted the absurdity of life and the quest for meaning in death. These questions are central to philosophical existentialism at the beginning of the twentieth century.
It should be noted that most scholars trace the origins of existentialism to Christian thinker Søren Kierkegaard, who responded to what he perceived as the dead orthodoxy of Danish Lutheranism. Kierkegaard presented faith as a purely personal endeavor, and that institutionalized Christianity had become confused and irrelevant. Underlying all his writings is the conviction that God exists, and that God had become incarnate in Christ. Yet for Kierkegaard God remained wholly other, and could never be identified with anything finite. Even in revelation God remains hidden. When people saw Jesus on earth, they saw only a man. The infinite cannot be changed into something finite. In the incarnation, God remained incognito. Only from faith can one get a true view of God. But this requires the commitment of one’s whole being to discipleship, for the truth of existence is grasped only in total faith, according to Kierkegaard.
By Camus’ day, belief in God seemed to many intellectuals simply impossible. This is somewhat surprisingly confirmed also in the writings of theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who, writing to a friend from his prison cell in 1944, that humanity is now accustomed to living with God. Bonhoeffer wrote:
“Man has learnt to deal with himself in all questions of importance without recourse to the ‘working hypothesis’ called ‘God.’ In questions of science, art, and ethics this has become an understood thing on which one now hardly dares touch. But for the last hundred years or so it has also become incresingly true of religious questions; it is becoming evident that everything also gets along without ‘God’—and, in fact, just as well as before. As in the scientific field, so in human affairs generally, ‘God’ is being pushed more and more out of life, losing more and more ground.”
Whatever our views of naturalism and modern science, to Camus and many others science had eliminated God. As an older contemporary of Camus puts it, historian Carl Becker,
“Edit and interpret the conclusions of modern science as tenderly as we like, it is still quite impossible for us to regard man as the child of God for whom the earth was created as a temporary habitation. Rather must we regard him as little more than a chance deposit on the surface of the world, carelessly thrown up between two ice ages by the same forces that rust iron and ripen corn, a sentient organism endowed by some happy or unhappy accident with intelligence indeed, but with an intelligence conditioned by the very forces that it seeks to understand and to control.”
So the only question that remains is what to do about it. Since naturalism leads to nihilism and the absurdity of life, how then should we live? Atheistic existentialism accepted most of the conclusions of philosophical naturalism. Matter exists and God does not. Death is extinction. History is linear, linked by cause and effect, but without an overarching purpose. Though human reason can understand the cosmos, what does that matter? This highly organized world stands over against humanity and appears absurd. The ultimate absurdity is death. But according to Camus, we must live in the face of the absurd. This is how existentialism goes beyond nihilism—how it attempts to transcend the absurdity of death. We must create value in a world where there is no objective value. According to Camus, the “authentic life” is the one recognizes fully the absurdity of the cosmos and yet rebels against it and creates her own meaning. That is, for Camus the most authentic person must revolt against the absurdity of death and create his own values.
In his Myth of Sisyphus (1942), for instance, Camus used the story of Sisyphus, the mythical king of Corinth, as a metaphor for the absurdity of human existence. Having insulted the gods, Sisyphus was condemned by them to spend eternity in the underworld repeatedly rolling a rock to the topic of a mountain, at which point the stone would roll back down and Sisyphus was then obliged to begin the endless and pointless cycle all over again.
But for Camus, Sisyphus was a hero—he was the hero in our absurd reality. Condemned by the contingencies of history to a futile and meaningless existence, he sets out to make the best of it. His situation cannot be changed. He must accept his lot. There is no ed in sight, no respite from the absurdity of existence. This is the metaphor Camus chooses to illuminate the human condition. When naturalism eliminated the notion of God, we are left with this meaningless struggle. Moreover, death is the ultimate absurdity. For Camus, any philosophy that believes it is possible to make sense of things is deluded, whether in the form of religion (vertical) or Marxism (horizontal). Indeed, in his The Rebel (1951), Camus completely rejects what he calls the “horizontal religions of our time.” Political systems such as Marxism, a sort of messianic utopianism, elevates humanity to the position of a deity, according to Camus.
“I don’t know whether this world has a meaning that transcends it. But I know that I cannot know that meaning and that it is impossible for me just now to know it. What can a meaning outside my condition mean to me? I can understand only in human terms . . . I do not want to found anything on the incomprehensible. I want to know whether I can live with what I know and with that alone.”
There is no God to give meaning to events. The only way to be happy is by acknowledging the absurdity of the situation. As Camus observes:
“You have already grasped that Sisyphus is the absurd hero. He is, as much through his passions as through his torture. His scorn of the gods, his hatred of death, and his passion for life won him that unspeakable penalty in which the whole being is exerted toward accomplishing nothing. This is the price that must be paid for the passions of this earth.”
At the conclusion of Myth of Sisyphus, Camus leaves the reader with these final thoughts:
“I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain! One always finds one’s burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile, nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy. Sisyphus is happy. I feel alive. I breathe in and out and I am happy.”
Camus and the Silence of God
Before WWII, Camus viewed Christianity as “absurd.” Belief in God amounted to a betrayal of reason, and Christians in particular are people who commit “philosophical suicide.” Camus does not know that God does not exist; he chooses to believe it. How could there be a God? If there is a God, he is silent, offering no justification of himself. For Camus, the idea of the death of God is best expressed in terms of his silence rather than his absence.
At the same time, those who have read Camus have often been struck by the essential role which Christianity plays in his novels and other writings. At some point elements of the Christian faith emerges. In fact, it readily becomes apparent that in all his literary pieces Camus is centrally concerned with religious-moral themes and that these constitute much of the force and attractiveness of his works. In this sense, Camus was a “religious thinker” who took a unique position in the battle of ideologies during his lifetime. As I will outline in another post, Camus’ most intense treatment of religion—and Christianity in particular—occurs in The Plague. Indeed, some commentators have even argued that Camus became more open to Christianity near the end of his life, and this transformation is apparent in this novel.
A colleague and friend has recently suggested starting a reading group on Albert Camus’ 1947 novel The Plague. Perhaps the timing is a little too obvious, but the Plague still speaks to us today.
I read the book a long time ago—probably in my early twenties. It was actually one of the first books I read when I switched from being an architectural drafter to enrolling in a philosophy program at the University of California-Davis. I remember reading it out loud to myself, perhaps because I was so captivated by it. The copy I owned was published by Vintage International, and it had this memorable cover illustration of a pool of blood draining in what appears to be a shower stall.
“Matter in Spontaneous Motion” : Naturalism
But before one reads Camus, there are several preliminary questions one must keep in mind. There are deep and complicated layers of naturalism and nihilism in Camus’ existential thought. Indeed, Camus was responding to the problems posed by naturalism and nihilism. In naturalism, for instance, the basic idea is that prime reality is nothing more than matter in motion. Matter is all there is. The cosmos exists as a uniformity of cause and effect. In this way the system is closed. An older version looked at humanity as “machines.” Today we might simply called ourselves complex “organisms,” subject to chemical and physical laws. While we are still learning about these laws, the “naturalist” is certain at least about one thing: death is extinction. The Humanist Manifesto, for example, states it plainly:
“As far as we know, the total personality is a function of the biological organism transacting in a social and cultural context. There is no credible evidence that life survives the death of the body.”
Similarly, British philosopher Bertrand Russell claimed that
“man is the produce of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving ; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labors of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins—all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand.”
Perhaps more positively, naturalism does encourage us examine the universe through the methods of science. We have indeed made great technological progress. But science, some naturalists maintain, can also help us better understand morality and the human experience. As French naturalist Baron D’Holbach put it in the eighteenth century,
“To discover the true principles of morality, men have no need of theology, of revelation, or of gods; they need only common sense. They have only to commune with themselves, to reflect upon their own nature, to consult their visible interests, to consider the objects of society and the individuals who compose it, and they will easily perceive that virtue is advantageous, and vice disadvantageous, to such beings as themselves. Let us persuade them to be just, beneficent, moderate, sociable, not because such conduct is demanded by the gods, but because it is a pleasure to men. Let us advise them to abstain from vice and crime, not because they will be punished in the other world, but because they will suffer for it in this.”
But with naturalism, history has no overarching purpose. There is no goal. There is no end.
“42” : Nihilism
As a consequence of these views, another view emerged that Camus was particularly concerned about. The rise of naturalism left many in despair and anxiety. If there is no overarching purpose, what is the point? Samuel Beckett’s play Breath perfectly illustrates the hopelessness of a life without purpose. Another example, perhaps more amusing (but not really) is Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The enormous computer “Deep Thought,” after seven and a half million years of calculation, provides an answer to the “Ultimate Question of Life.” The answer is 42. The most rational object in the universe has given an absurd answer to an absurd question.
Beckett, Adams, and others (like Franz Kafka, Joseph Heller, and Kurt Vonnegut Jr., e.g.) reveal (and perhaps revel in) a life without purpose and without meaning. For them, the rationalism of the enlightenment was a ruse. The results of reason did not bring assurance or comfort. The closed universe was confining, and the notion of death as extinction psychologically disturbing. We are but a mere speck in a seemingly endless and meaningless universe. Freedom was an illusion. As Friedrich Nietzsche put it, “the acting man is caught in his illusion of volition.” He adds, “the acting man’s delusion about himself, his assumption that free will exists, is also part of the calculating mechanism.” In short, all activity is predetermined. In such a closed system, freedom is simply a determinacy unrecognized. The notion of chance doesn’t help. In fact it may be even more terrifyingly absurd. Chance, after all, is causeless, purposeless, directionless. In this sense, consciousness itself is capricious. Charles Darwin himself once said:
“The horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would anyone trust the conviction of a monkey’s mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?”
The biologist J. B. S. Haldane similarly wondered:
“If my mental processes are determined wholly by the motion of atoms in my brain, I have no reason to suppose that my beliefs are true and hence I have no reason for supposing my brain to be composed of atoms”
In short, I cannot even trust my own thoughts. Thus morality itself is on shaky grounds. To quote Nietzsche again:
“Morality is only an interpretation of certain phenomena, more precisely a misinterpretation. Moral judgement belongs, as does religious judgement, to a level of ignorance at which even the concept of the real, the distinction between the real and the imaginary, is lacking: so that at such a level “truth” denotes nothing but things which we today call “imaginings.” To this extent moral judgement is never to be taken literally: as such it never contains anything but nonsense.”
There is a great scene in Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle (1963) in which he seems to parody religion. “In the beginning” he wrote,
God created the earth, and he looked upon it in His cosmic loneliness. And God said, “Let Us make creatures out of mud, so mud can see what We have done ” And God created every living creature that now moveth, and one was man Mud as man alone could speak God leaned close as mud as man sat up, looked around and spoke Man blinked “What is the purpose of all this?” he asked politely “Everything must have a purpose?” asked God “Certainly,” said man “Then I leave it to you to think of one for all this,” said God And he went away.
But this is not a parody on religion so much as a satirical account of naturalism. We have been thrown up by an impersonal universe. With a cosmos that has no meaning, we must manufacture it for ourselves.
And here is where Camus comes into play. In 1950 he wrote that “I have sought only for the means to transcend nihilism.” His novel, The Plague, is one such attempt to escape or transcend the absurd. His was an atheistic existentialism, though. There is a theistic variety which I will mention in a following post. As our reading group meets to discuss each part of The Plague, I will jot down the main ideas and share them here.
Humanity has forever been asking and defining what it means to be human. But today answering the “human question” crosses scientific, philosophical, theological, moral, and social (or a combination thereof) boundaries. Some have emphasized a theological anthropology “from below,” using human experience as the source and criterion to determine divine reality.
Christian anthropology, however, does not start with the phenomenon of being human as a societal, individual, or even a theological construct. It begins with God. So it seems like the best starting point for a “Christian” theological anthropology is the biblical narrative, then moving on to emphasizing certain doctrinal and ethical considerations. The biblical text, of course, in all its richness and variety, narrates this grand story of creation in relation to God: good, fallen, reconciled, and eschatologically restored in the New Creation. So from that biblical narrative, one needs to look at the human condition: the soul, freedom, rationality, and love. But one must also consider the hard issue of “original sin.” And then what comes next is the question of grace and regeneration as a consequence of the process of redemption. This “new life” is grounded in faith, hope, and love.
All of this has a long and complex history. In fact, I would argue that the whole history of science and religion has been dealing, directly or indirectly, with issues of theological anthropology. The interest lies in the possibility of deepening and/or “updating” some traditional Christian doctrine about human nature and meaning in light of the advances in science. But this comes at a cost. Edward Burnett Tylor (1832-1917), James George Frazer (1854-1941), Emile Durkheim (1858-1917), Bronislaw Malinowski (1884-1942), and others, of course, constructed an anthropology devoid of the faith of their fathers and mothers.
At the same time, as most ethnologists know, most everything has a prehistory. Tylor, for instance, the so-called “father” of anthropology, credited not himself but James Cowles Prichard (1768-1848) as the “founder of modern anthropology.” Interestingly enough, Prichard was raised as a devout Quaker and became a earnest evangelical Anglican in adulthood. Tylor himself was raised a Quaker before shedding his Christian faith later.
Chasing footnotes, I’ve come across several works that may serve as helpful guides to the topic, including Marc Cortez, Theological Anthropology: A Guide for the Perplexed (2010) and more recently the edited collection by Celia Deane-Drummon and Agustín Fuentes, Theology and Evolutionary Anthropology: Dialogues in Wisdom, Humility, and Grace (2020). I have also discovered the work of Joshua R. Farris, including his co-edited volume The Ashgate Research Companion to Theological Anthropology (2017) and his own An Introduction to Theological Anthropology (2020). As I read through these and other works, I will jot down some observations here.
William E. H. Lecky (1838-1903) at any early age published a survey of the Religious Tendencies of the Ages (1860), which examined the contending religious parties in England—Roman Catholic, High Church, Evangelical, and Latitudinarian or Broad Church. His aim was to “solve that great problem of theology, the legitimate province of private judgement.” In other words, he sought to test each party against what he believed was the founding principle of the Reformation. He believed that Catholicism had suppressed private judgement, whereas Protestantism had encouraged it. Lecky himself subscribed most closely to the latitudinarian position. As Jeffrey Paul von Arx puts it, for Lecky latitudinarianism “was the latest expression of the traditional Protestant revolt against spiritual authority,” the very “culmination of the development of religious thought,” and the “basis for social and political unity and progress.” The real religious force in England, according to Lecky, was latitudinarianism.
While Lecky did not deny the existence of God, he did argue that the contending religious strife brought Christianity into doubt. But skepticism was not the answer. He wrote, “Truly there is no credulity like the credulity of unbelief.” The solution was what he believed was the moderation displayed in the latitudinarian position. Latitudinarians offered the “spirit of charity and of tolerance towards those with whom they disagree.” He insisted that “Protestantism and dogmatism are logically incompatible.” Systematic theology had “been the parent of almost all the errors and of a very large proportion of the crimes that have disfigured the history of Christianity.” Such a system was both “pernicious and irrational,” and thus had corrupted the simple message of early Christianity. Indeed, Lecky strongly believed that “primitive Christianity” was the very essence of the latitudinarian position. Thus, according to Lecky, latitudinarianism was not only the fulfillment of the Reformation, but the continuation of the primitive Christianity.
These statements anticipated central features of Lecky’s more well-known work, History of the Rise and Influence of the Spirit of Rationalism in Europe (1865), which was an extended attack against dogmatic theology. For Lecky, a liberal and nondogmatic Protestantism was essential for moral and religious progress. Thus like so many of his contemporaries, Lecky did not wish to eradicate religion, or even “true Christianity,” as he put it. A “true and healthy Christianity,” he wrote, cultivates “a love of truth for its own sake,” and inculcates a “spirit of candour and of tolerance towards those with whom we differ.” In other words, the decline of dogmatic theology and clerical influence was not inimical to religion at all—rather, it called on people to return to the “days of the Apostles,” and thus is a “measure if not a cause of its advance.”
The history of rationalism, Lecky contended, revealed a general trend towards liberalism. In describing the triumphal advance of reason over superstition, rationalism had made extraordinary strides in Protestant countries. In short, by “rationalism” Lecky meant “Protestant Rationalism,” which was, he wrote:
the elevation of conscience into a position of supreme authority as the religious organ, a verifying faculty discriminating between truth and error. It regards Christianity as designed to preside over the moral development of mankind, as a conception which was to become more and more sublimated and spiritualised as the human mind passed into new phases, and was able to bear the splendour of a more unclouded light. Religion it believes to be no exception to the general law of progress, but rather the highest form of its manifestation, and its earlier systems but the necessary steps of an imperfect development.
Lecky believed that “religion in its proofs as in its essence is deemed a thing belonging rather to the moral than the intellectual portion of human nature. Faith and not reason is its basis; and this faith is a species of moral perception.” In the final analysis, Lecky believed that the decline of dogmatism and the waning of clerical influence was a measure of the advance of “true Christianity.”
 W. E. H. Lecky, The Religious Tendencies of the Age (London: Saunders, Otley, and Co., 1860).
 Ibid., 1.
 Von Arx, Progress and Pessimism, 71, 78.
 Lecky, The Religious Tendencies of the Age, 137-38.
 Ibid., 27, 148, 192-93, 196-97.
 W. E. H. Lecky, History of the Rise and Influence of the Spirit of Rationalism in Europe, 2 vols. (New York: Appleton and Co., 1872).
 Ibid., 1.200-01.
 Ibid., 1.181-82.
 Ibid., 1.191.
Tuesday is Reformation Day. It is a particularly important day as it also marks the commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. Readers have been inundated with books, essays, articles, and surveys on the Reformation this year. Below is some I have particularly enjoyed reading. Hope you enjoy them too. And don’t forget to do the Reformation Polka!
Michael Reeves and Tim Chester write on Why the Reformation Still Matters.
Eamon Duffy examines the Reformation Divided: Catholics, Protestants, and the Conversion of England.
Geographically, Tim Dowley’s Atlas of the European Reformations provides good orientation.
Matthew Levering and Kevin J. Vanhoozer ask the provocative question, Was the Reformation a Mistake?: Why Catholic Doctrine is Not Unbiblical. Of course you have Brad S. Gregory writing about Luther as the Rebel in the Ranks. Similarly, Lyndal Roper refers to Luther as Renegade and Prophet. Another controversial book is Alec Ryrie’s Protestants: The Faith that Made the Modern World.
Reformation historian Peter Marshall has published a number of interesting books on the Reformation. Older but still enjoyable is his The Reformation: A Very Short Introduction. More recent is his Heretics and Believers: A History of the English Reformation and 1517: Martin Luther and the Invention of the Reformation. See also his excellent edited collection of essays in The Oxford Illustrated History of the Reformation.
Thomas Albert Howard and Mark A. Noll have made a significant mark in Reformation studies with their edited collection Protestant after 500 Years. See also Tal Howard’s own Remembering the Reformation: An Inquiry into the Meanings of Protestantism.
Carlos M. N. Eire has produced a definitive work on the Reformations: The Early Modern World, 1450-1650.
Sociologist Rodney Stark is at it again with his Reformation Myths: Five Centuries of Misconceptions and (Some) Misfortunes.
Diarmaid MacCulloch discusses All Things Made New: The Reformation and Its Legacy.
As a student at TEDS, I read Roland H. Bainton’s classic Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther, which I still recommend to students. More controversial but still essential reading, one should add Heiko A. Oberman’s Luther: Man Between God and the Devil and Erik H. Erikson’s Young Man Luther: A Study in Psychoanalysis and History.
I also read Calros Eire’s excellent book on the War against the Idols: The Reformation of Worship from Erasmus to Calvin.
More recently, there is the terrific series by Fortress Press on the Annotated Luther. It is truly a beautiful collection of books.
There are a few other books on Calvin that I can recommend. William J. Bouwsma’s John Calvin: A Sixteenth Century Portrait made for some heavy reading. Also important is Francois Wendel’s classic Calvin: Origins and Development of His Religious Thought. A helpful collection of essays on Calvin can be found in Herman J. Selderhuis’s (et. al.) The Calvin Handbook. Two other books on Calvin’s thinking worth checking out is Charles Partee’s Calvin and Classic Philosophy and T. H. L. Parker’s Calvin: An Introduction to His Thought.
Essays and Articles
Historian of science and religion Peter Harrison writes about the relationship between the Reformation and the Rise of Science.
Church historian Mark Noll follows this line in his post at BioLogos on How Did the Reformation Reform the Study of Nature?
Fred Sanders at the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University gives us reasons Why the Reformation Should Make You More catholic.
Another recent entry at ABC: Religion & Ethics blog is John Milbank’s excellent question, The Reformation at 500: Is There Any Cause for Celebration?
Theologian Alister McGrath has written several pieces on the importance of the Reformation. See here for his discussion on The State of the Church Before the Reformation.
See also McGrath’s short essay on Protestantism’s Dangerous Idea: How the Reformation Redefined the Church.
The White Horse Inn has a few pieces on the topic as well at Reformation 500.
Steve Fuller thinks it’s time for a New Reformation? This Time, the University is the Target.
The Conversation discusses Martin Luther’s spiritual practice was key to the success of the Reformation, with other pieces here, here, and here.
Over at the “Anxious Bench,” one of the many good columns at Patheos, Philip Jenkins discusses Stealing Luther, and Chris Gehrz uses a Reformation board game to discuss Sola Fide. Tal Howard also gives a brief statement about forgetting the Reformation in The Upside of Historical Amnesia as the Reformation turns 500.
Emma Green at the Atlantic wonders Why can’t Christian Get Along, 500 years After the Reformation.
Here is a short post by the “Benedict Option’s” Rod Dreher The Reformation & An Ecumenism of Indifference.
Over at CNN, Alec Ryrie talks about Three surprising ways the Protestant Reformation shaped our world.
Candida Moss at the Daily Beast also discusses the Biggest Myth about the Protestant Reformation.
Then there is Peter J. Leithart at Fox News boldly proclaiming that The Reformation, led by Luther, failed. Here’s how we could finally reunite the Christian church.
Even the National Geographic has something to say about the Reformation, particularly by Joseph Loconte on Martin Luther and the Long March to Freedom of Conscience.
A great review essay by Ingrid D. Rowland appeared in the New Yorker earlier this year as Martin Luther’s Burning Questions.
Nina Martyris over at NPR provides a very insightful article on The Other Reformation: How Martin Luther Changed Our Beer, Too. Amen!
Over at the Hedgehog Review, Eugene McCarraher discusses the “most compelling and revolutionary legacy of the Protestant Reformation” in The People Republic of Heaven: From the Protestant Reformation to the Russian Revolution, 1517-1917.
Ross Douthat at the New York Times wonders Who Won the Reformation?
Yet another good piece from ABC, this one by Stanley Hauerwas on After the Reformation: How to be Neither Catholic Nor Protestant.
Dominic Erdozain also discusses The Cult of Certitude: Martin Luther and the Myth of ‘Sola Scriptura.’
Earlier this year Charlotte Methuen considered whether the Reformation was A Reformation by Martin Luther alone?
Peter J. Leithart has another interesting article at First Things where he corrects Reformation “What Might Have Beens.”
Over at Marginalia, some really good articles have appeared in their The Protestant Reformation: A Forum.
A number of other bloggers have provided surveys of books and required reading.
Earlier this year Christianity Today dedicated a whole issue to Martin Luther.
Historian Chris Gehrz also has some good suggestions in The Best Book to Read for Reformation 500.
Emily McFarlan Miller and Kimberly Winston at Religion News Service give us a nice collection at Study-Up: A Reformation Anniversary Reading List.
Reading Religion, a publication of the American Academy of Religion, has published a Cornucopia of Quincentennial Books on the Reformation.
Charlotte Metheun at TLS reviews a number of books on Luther in Defender of the faith?
Oxford University Press is offering 30% off selected books related to the Reformation in Remembering the Reformation.
I have, no doubt, missed many other good books and articles on the Reformation. Please share in the comments so others can add to their wish-lists!
And without further ado, The Reformation Polka.
The History of Science Society will meet this year in Toronto, Canada. A preliminary program was recently published with some really fascinating panels and papers. I’m particularly excited about attending a panel on “Astronomical Phenomena in the Nineteenth Century: From the Global to the Provincial,” which includes papers by Jim Secord and Bernie Lightman. That same day, in the evening, Adam Shapiro will be presenting recent work on “Voices of Science Activism in the Age of Trump,” which is based on interviews he conducted during the March for Science rallies back in April. Participants, as Shapiro interestingly points out, reveal a “wide range of answers and anxieties concerning whether the Science March has a unifying message, whether science itself can (or should) avoid being ‘political,’ and whether ‘science’ can serve as a basis for organizing and resisting the knowledge politics of the Trumpian state and its allies.”
I also organized a panel for this conference on the “The Production and Reception of Science and Religion Narratives in the Anglo-American Periodical Press, 1860 – 1900,” which will take place on Friday, November 10, starting at 3:45 PM. Distinguished historian of science, Australian Laureate Fellow and Director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities (IASH), Peter Harrison, will chair the session. Most historians of science agree that stories about the “conflict” or “warfare” between religion and science were first fully articulated in the late-nineteenth century, specifically among Anglo-American writers. But since the late 1970s, scholars from various disciplines have systematically dismantled almost every facet of these narratives, many now labeling them “myths about science and religion.” Yet for all this work in “demythologizing” the relationship between science and religion, there is still much work to be done in charting the production, diffusion, and reception of such narratives. Historians have been so concerned with debunking myths about science and religion, that they have perhaps ignored the important task of uncovering and scrutinizing the cultural functions such narratives performed. My panel seeks to address this problem by exploring the production and reception of science and religion narratives in the late-nineteenth century periodical press. Indeed, the question of science-and-religion relations science permeated the content of most nineteenth-century Anglo-American periodicals, appearing not only in dedicated scientific journals, but also in other forms, including fiction, poetry, political reports, and comical allusions. My panel will examine science and religion narratives across a range of periodical genres, and consider the way readers responded to those narratives. This approach will shed further light on how such narratives were produced and diffused, and how readers reacted to those narratives that later historians of science have so strongly condemned.
The first paper will be presented by Sylvia M. Nickerson, a postdoctoral research fellow at the York University and currently co-writing a book with Bernie Lightman on Science, Religion and Victorian Print Culture: Constructing New Public Spaces, 1860-1890. Sylvia’s conference paper, entitled “A Seat at the Table: Publishers, Periodicals, and the Agendas of Science and Religion,” will examine how two British publishers—Alexander Macmillan (1818-96) and John Murray (1808-92)—either opened up or closed down debates on topics intersecting science and religion in the periodicals they published. In both the politically conservative Quarterly Review (1809) as well as the liberal monthly The Academy (1869), publisher John Murray attempted to limit debate on the question of Christianity, evolution and their reconciliation. While the Quarterly negatively reviewed authors whose science challenged traditional Christian world-views, The Academy aspired to cover both science and theology while representing “no party in Religion or Politics”. Edited by Charles Appleton, The Academy broke convention from the Quarterly in several ways, and the diversity of views Appleton sought to represent proved too controversial for Murray, who dumped it in 1870 after refusing to publish a review of the anonymous book, The Jesus of History (1869). Alexander Macmillan, by contrast, encouraged heterogeneous perspectives within his periodicals Macmillan’s Magazine (1859) and later, Nature (1869). Developed out of Macmillan’s social scene in London, Macmillan’s Magazine, edited by Charles Masson (and closely managed by Macmillan), translated the debate and discussion around the publisher’s table into print. On the pressing topics of liberalizing Anglicanism and modernizing British society, Macmillan gave science a seat at the table, with Macmillan’s Magazine and Nature representing a range of perspectives from scientific authors who advocated atheistic to religious views of evolution in book and periodical form.
My own paper follows, which will discuss the Failed Reconciliation: J. W. Draper, A. D. White, and the Reception of their Historical Narratives in the Periodical Press. Historians of science usually trace the origins of the “conflict thesis,” the notion that science and religion have been in a constant state of “conflict” or “warfare,” to two nineteenth-century works—John William Draper’s History of the Conflict between Religion and Science (1874) and Andrew Dickson White’s A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896). While these two works have been designated by historians as founding the conflict thesis, there has been little research on how contemporaries responded to these historical narratives. My paper examines the early reception of these narratives by considering the extensive commentary they received in British and American periodicals from 1875 to 1900. Examining a selection of this material reveals three key aspects of this reception. First, more religiously liberal readers welcomed these narratives as genuine attempts at reconciling science and religion. Second, the more religiously orthodox, while also recognizing their conciliatory intentions, nevertheless accused Draper and White of instigating conflict. Finally, a younger generation, who were further removed from the kind of religious upbringing Draper and White enjoyed, appropriated their narratives to demonstrate that religion had always been in conflict with science. In short, I aim to show that while Draper and White had more nuanced views about the history of science and religion than has been contended by the secondary literature, their religiously liberal views had the unintended consequence of creating in the minds of their contemporaries and later generations the belief that science and religion have been and are at war.
The third paper will be delivered by IASH Senior Research Fellow Ian Hesketh, on Debating the Deeper Harmonies of Science and Religion in the Victorian Periodical Press: The Reception of J. R. Seeley’s Natural Religion (1882). Ian contends that while much has been written about late nineteenth-century narratives that promoted an inevitable clash between science and religion, less well known is the fact that these narratives competed directly with studies that promoted a theme of harmony and reconciliation. One such narrative was the anonymous Natural Religion (1882), the long-awaited sequel to the sensational Ecce Homo (1865), written by the Cambridge historian John Robert Seeley. Whereas in the earlier controversial study, Seeley sought to modernize Christianity through an historical analysis of Jesus Christ’s humanity, in Natural Religion he sought to make apparent what he called the “deeper harmonies of science and religion.” He did so by situating Christianity within a larger history of religious and scientific thought, one that presented a naturalized Christianity as the necessary next stage in the progressive development of English civilization. Natural Religion is, therefore, a wonderful illustration of how some liberal religious thinkers sought to engender a reconciliation between science and religion at a time when the conflict thesis was just emerging. At the same time, the reception of the book in the periodical press shows just how difficult it was to establish any sort of consensus concerning the construction of a modernized and scientific Christianity. Moreover, while Natural Religion gained a large readership because it was written “by the author of Ecce Homo,” its connection to its much more enthusiastic and orthodox predecessor meant that it could only fail to meet the high expectations of its many readers.
The panel will close with a fascinating paper by Anne DeWitt, Clinical Assistant Professor at the Gallatin School of Individualized Study of New York University, on Religion and Evolution in Victorian Periodical Poetry. According to Anne, in recent years scholars seeking to understand the reception of evolutionary theory in the nineteenth century have turned to the study of popular forms. Work by Janet Browne and Constance Areson Clark on cartoons, by Vassiliki Betty Smocovitis on music, and by Bernard Lightman on popular science have shown that evolutionary ideas were taken up and transformed in the widest reaches of Victorian culture. In her paper, Anne builds on this work by analyzing a form that has received relatively little attention: poetry about evolution that circulated in Victorian periodicals. She focuses in particular on poems from the 1880s that deal with evolution in relation to religion. Their treatment tends to be open-ended and unresolved: for instance, Robert Buchanan’s long narrative poem “Justinian,” from the Contemporary Review of 1880, explores, but does not reconcile, the conflict between religious faith and materialism. Charles F. Johnson’s “Evolution,” from the May 1889 number of Temple Bar, modifies the usual sonnet form with a sestet that, instead of providing resolution, presents a series of unanswered questions. The open-ended quality of these poems should, she argues, be understood in relation to the dialogism of the Victorian periodical. This quality, moreover, challenges the thesis of a conflict between Victorian science and religion, revealing a more nuanced and complicated relationship.
For those of you attending the conference, please join us for what will no doubt be a very interesting discussion.
In 1914, at the beginning of World War I, Belgian historian of science, founder of the review journal Isis, and secular humanist George Sarton (1884-1956), emigrated to the United States. One of his earliest publications on the discipline of history of science appeared in the philosophical journal Monist, which was an English translation of his opening article in Isis. Sarton openly admitted that his work adhered to the positivist school of Auguste Comte. Indeed, he considered Comte to be the “founder of the history of science.” Unsurprisingly, then, he argued that “the interaction between science and religion have often had an aggressive character,” and that “most of the time a real warfare” had existed between them. Sarton found much heuristic value in his conception of the historical relationship between science and religion. The history of science, he argued, revealed not only the “progress” of the human mind, but also its “regressions,” “sudden halts,” “mishaps,” and “superstitions,” thus providing us with a “history of errors.” The “progress of mankind,” Sarton asserted, was an “intellectual unfolding.”
In the English translation of this article, Sarton recommends to his readers Andrew Dickson White’s (1832-1918) two-volume masterpiece, A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1894). White, who Sarton called a “very godly man,” was indeed an important source for his understanding of science and religion. Sarton would later recommend White to his students at Harvard University.
In 16 January, 1918, White wrote Sarton to praise him for his work in the history of science. Sarton replied on 31 March, telling White that his word of praise “is as precious to me as an honorary degree!” He also informed him that he was giving two courses at Harvard on the “History of Physics” and on “Science and Civilization in the XVth and XVIth Centuries,” and that for both of these courses “I have been repeatedly obliged to refer to your admirable ‘Warfare between Science and Theology.’” But in addition to thanking White for his work, Sarton reported to him his difficulty in finding a professorship in the history of science. It is an interesting and curious exchange of letters, from a young historian pleading his case to an older, established scholar. It reveals something of the hardships of emigrant scholars during the war, and the early formative beginnings of what is still a much contested scholarly discipline. The remainder of the letter follows thus:
But I do not write this letter simply to thank you,—rather to appeal to you, being now—for no fault of mine, in the most critical position. I was appointed “lecturer on the history and philosophy of science” at Harvard in 1916 for two years. I have done well and worked considerably but war conditions make it impossible to appoint me (This appointment was an artificial one anyhow—the necessary funds having been provided by a special subscription. I did not wish such a subscription to be started again in these times). As all the universities are now husbanding their resources to the limit, and as there is not a single university president having a genuine interest in the history of science. I have absolutely no chance of being appointed anywhere.
Now you likely know my position: I have but, at best temporarily, all my belongings through the German invasion of Belgium. When I came to this country in April 1915, I had—all counted—a hundred dollars. During the last two years, I have worked every day from 9 A.M. to 10 P.M., often on Sundays as well. I have not taken a real holiday since 1914. I have prepared and delivered more than 250 different lectures on all possible topics in my own field—from Babylonia to Henri Poincaré, and from the history of medicine to the history of calculus. I lecture are the Lowell Institute in Boston, and gave five long courses on the history of mathematics, physics, general science…in Harvard, Columbia, Illinois… (No wonder I could not publish much!)—Besides, my Harvard salary being only a nominal one, I lectured in about twenty other universities. You perhaps remember that I once lectured at Cornell University; I then had the honour and pleasure of being your guest.
I have set in foot a very intense movement towards the recognition of the history of science as an essential part of higher education, and but for the war, it is likely that something would have been started in at least one university. Of course, now it is out of question until the war is over.
I have tried to show that the history of science—i.e. the history of the real foundations of human progress—is not simply of immense interest in itself, but is even of greater importance in that it affords the best means of humanizing science and reconciling positive knowledge and idealism. I firmly believe that there is no other way to solve the great education problem: “science vs. the humanities” than to introduce a little of the disinterested and historical spirit of the humanities into the scientific studies. Moreover, I have shown that to be true, the history of civilization should be focused on the history of science. As a result of my work since 1911, I now am a recognized leader and authority in the history of science not simply in America, but abroad.
Yet all this labour is in danger of being lost. I have been paid so little for all that I have done—that I now am just at the same point as I was when I landed here in 1915. As soon as my appointment in Harvard ceases I will have to choose between stopping my life’s work or starving. Both alternatives are equally miserable.
My only hope is in the “Carnegie Institution,” whose very purpose is to make disinterested studies possible. I have just written to Dr. [Richard Simpson] Woodward, explaining the whole case and asking him to intervene. The “Carnegie Institution” could help me either directly by paying me a salary for the work I am doing or indirectly by giving a subsidy to a university to employ me.
I do not forget that this is war-time, but the war will not last for ever [Sarton includes a footnote: “The University of Berlin was founded in the year 1809—the year of Prussia’s greatest misery—after the defeat of Wagram. Should we have less faith than the Germans?…”], and it would be a stupid waste—to now make me lose all the benefits of my propaganda and stop studies for which I have gathered more material than anybody else.
There are thousands of people in this country earning this living by studying and teaching general history, or the history of philosophy, in fact the history of everything except the history of science. Would it be an extravagance to give one man the possibility of earning his by such research work?…There is not a single college that has not at least a professorship for the history of philosophy or the history of education…Is it believable that there is not in America a single chair devoted to the history of science? This in the XXth century?
I appeal to you as to one who did pioneer work in the same field long time ago. I think that if you would have the kindness to write a word in my behalf to Dr. R. S. Woodward, or to Mr. Andrew Carnegie, or to both—it would do a great deal of good. No man can speak to them with more authority than you, and in this case your recommendation would carry the more weight in that you would be speaking for a fellow-worker in your own line.
From all that I know of him, I am convinced that Mr. Carnegie himself would have been deeply interested in the history of science, and would have approved my way of understanding the history of civilization, if it had been possible to place the matter before him. He might even have been interested to the extent of endeavoring the “Institute for the history of science and civilization” which I planned and which was in endorsed by the elite of the American philosophers, scientists and historians,—or at least of funding a chair devoted to the these studies.
I beg to apologize, my dear Dr. White, for intruding upon you and interrupting the peace which you have so richly deserved, with the recital of my sad plight. I will only say for my defense that I would not have disturbed you if I had not been actually driven to it—this being almost my last step and last hope.
If I do not succeed now, I will simply have to give up these studies and to try to make a living for my wife and daughter by struggle in another field. This would mean an enormous waste of human energy, of course.
If you would help me by writing to Dr. Wooward and Mr. Carnegie in my behalf or in any other way, I would be grateful to you, and you would have rendered a new service to the history of science.
Believe me, my dear Dr. White,
P.S. It is necessary to add, that if I had been given any opportunity of military service, I would have been only too glad to take it? I even tried to be employed by the U.S. government, being personally recommended by Mr. Woodrow Wilson.
While White’s reply is missing, we do now that he tried to offer Sarton some aid. Sarton subsequently reported to White that he was able to secure a meeting with the Executive Committee of the Carnegie Institution on 18 April. In 15 May, Sarton told White that his “troubles are at an end,” for he was appointed “Research associate of the Carnegie Institution” for two years to pursue his own studies. “This is splendid,” he wrote, “I feel as a free man again as before the war.”
 George Sarton, “The History of Science,” Monist, vol. 26, no. 3 (1916): 321-65; George Sarton, “L’Histoire de la Science,” Isis, vol. 1, no. 1 (1913): 3-46.
 George Sarton to Andrew Dickson White, Mar 31, 1918, Andrew Dickson White Papers, Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections at Cornell University Library (hereafter cited as: White Collection, and reel number), reel 124.
 George Sarton to Andrew Dickson White, Apr 5, 1918, White Collection, reel 124.
 George Sarton to Andrew Dickson White, Apr 10, 1918, White Collection, reel 124.
 George Sarton to Andrew Dickson White, May 15, 1918, White Collection, reel 124.
In 1884 Hebert Spencer published his “Religious Retrospect and Prospect” in the Popular Science Monthly, which appeared simultaneously in the Nineteenth Century. In this article Spencer offered an evolutionary account of the “religious consciousness.” By looking at its evolutionary history, Spencer believed he could infer the religious ideas and sentiments of the future. Importantly, he contested the notion that science had replaced religion. Science does not destroy religion, but “transfigures it.” According to Spencer, science had enlarged the sphere of wonder and “religious sentiment.” Primitive man had only a limited understanding of that wonder. The cosmogony of the “savage” is incomparable to the wonder established by the modern astronomer. This deeper insight, wonder, or feeling “is not likely to be decreased but increased by that analysis of knowledge which, while forcing him to agnosticism, yet continually prompts him to imagine some solution of the Great Enigma which he knows can not be solved.” But amid all this mystery, Spencer argued, there remains “the one absolute certainty, that he is ever in the presence of an Infinite and Eternal Energy, from which all things proceed.”
Spencer’s article elicited strong reactions. Canon George H. Curteis defended Spencer for his “courageous” position. No religious man, he said, should shrink from calling himself a “Christian agnostic.” Indeed, by proclaiming his agnosticism, the Christian follows an esteemed pedigree, one which Curteis traced to the Old Testament prophets. Although Spencer was not a “Christian” philosopher, his “guidance is none the less valuable to those who are approaching the same subject from a different side.” According to Curteis, Spencer had “purified” the idea of God for the believer, “pruned away all kinds of anthropomorphic accretions,” “reminded the country parson of a good many scientific facts,” and “schooled them into the reflection that a power present in innumerable worlds hardly needs our flattery, or indeed any kind of service from us at all.”
Others were not so congenial. Frederic Harrison, for instance, launched a blisteringly attack against Spencer’s ideas. He argued that Spencer’s conception of the Unknowable was really only a “ghost of religion.” “In spite of the capital letters, and the use of theological terms as old as Isaiah or Athanasius,” he wrote, “Mr. Spencer’s Energy has no analogy with God. It is Eternal, Infinite, and Incomprehensible; but still it is not He, but It.” Harrison emphatically declared that “neither goodness, nor wisdom, nor justice, nor consciousness, nor will, nor life, can be ascribed, even by analogy, to this Force.” Spencer’s own attempt to “put a little unction into the Unknowable” by describing it in theological terms, Harrison protested, is, in the final analysis, a “philosophical inaccuracy.”
Spencer responded with his “Retrogressive Religion,” where he charged Harrison with attacking an imaginary doctrine, “demolishing a simulacrum and walking off in triumph as though the reality had been demolished.” He then attacked Harrison’s “alternative doctrine,” his “Religion of Humanity,” as an “incongruity.” Indeed, papal assumptions, he argued, were more modest in comparison to the assumptions of “the founder of the religion of Humanity.” A pope may canonize a saint or two, but Comte, Spencer quipped, “undertook the canonization of all those men recorded in history whom he thought specially worthy of worship.” The new religion should not be a “rehabilitation of the religion with which mankind commenced, and from which they have been insensibly diverging.” Harrison’s Religion of Humanity was, therefore, according to Spencer, “retrogressive.”
The controversy rolled on into the following year with Harrison’s “Agnostic Metaphysics.” In this article Harrison wrote that he had warned Spencer a decade ago that his “Religion of the Unknowable” would find adherents among dubious theologians. He argued that the “Infinite and Eternal Energy,” the “Ultimate Cause,” the “All-Being,” and the “Creative Power,” have all been co-opted by the “Christian World,” renewing all the mystification of the old theology. Moreover, Harrison inveighed that Spencer knew too much about the Unknowable—“If his Unknowable be unknowable, then it is idle to talk of Infinite and Eternal Energy, sole Reality, All-Being, and Creative Power.” This is, at best, “slip-slop” theology and nothing more.
These two agnostics, arguing so passionately about the future of religion, were condemned by believers and unbelievers alike. For instance, James Fitzjames Stephen (1829-94), older brother of Leslie Stephen, thought the liberal attempt at reconciling science and religion was impossible. He found the creeds of both men palpably fantastic pretensions. He argued that Spencer’s theory of religious development was weak, and that his game with words reminded him of “Isaiah’s description of the manufacture of idols.” “Effort and force and energy,” he wrote, “are to Mr. Spencer what the cypress and the oak and the ash were to the artifices described by the prophet. He works his words about this way and that, he accounts with part for ghosts and dreams, and the residue thereof he maketh a god, and saith Aha, I am wise, I have seen the truth.” Spencer’s Unknown was “a castle in the air, uninhabitable and destitute of foundations.” More pointedly, he declared that the Unknowable appeared “to have absolutely no meaning at all. It is so abstract that it asserts nothing. It is like a gigantic soap-bubble not burst but blown thinner and thinner till it has become absolutely imperceptible.” Harrison, according to Stephen, fared no better. “Humanity with a capital H […] is neither better nor worse fitted to be a god than the Unknowable with a capital U.” We cannot worship an “indefinite number of dead people,” and we certainly do not feel “awe and gratitude” to the multitude, “most of whom are utterly unknown to us even by name or reputation.” The men of history are, in the final analysis, “dead and done with.” Harrison’s language of awe and gratitude toward humanity “represents nothing at all, except a yearning after some object of affection, like a childless woman’s love for a lapdog.”
Stephen concluded that “if this is the prospect before religion, it would surely be simply to say that the prospect before it is that of extinction, that men will soon come to see that nothing can be ascertained, or even regarded as moderately probable, about the various questions which are generally described collectively as religious.” Interestingly enough, Stephen argued that the only religion capable of doing what both Spencer and Harrison want their respective new religions to do, “must be founded on a supernatural basis.” But though the “great leading doctrines of theology are noble and glorious,” it now must be acknowledged that their foundations were untrue. Theology, Stephen contended, is essential to religion, “and that to destroy the one is to destroy the other.”
From the other side of the spectrum, essayist and historian Wilfrid Philip Ward (1856-1916) also offered a witty condemnation of both Spencer and Harrison. Ward accused both men of suffering from “monomania.” He agreed with Harrison’s critique of Spencer, calling it “quite unanswerable common sense.” Spencer has no right, logical or otherwise, “to have his cake after he has eaten it.” An otherwise serious and cautious thinker, Spencer could not see that “if the death-knell of the old Theology be indeed sounded, all reasonable religious worship must die with it.” When looking at Harrison’s substitute religion, Ward was “startled beyond description.” Thus, like the starving man who eats a pair of boots, Spencer and Harrison, desperate to satisfy their religious cravings, have each taken a boot. Their religious language is mere dressing. “The truth seems to be,” Ward declared, “that these philosophers having conspired together to kill all real religion—the very essence of which is a really existing personal God, known to exist, and accessible to the prayers of His creatures—and having, as they suppose, accomplished their work of destruction and put religion to death, have proceeded to divide its clothes between them.”
Joseph McCabe (1867-1955), a Roman Catholic monk who abandoned his religious beliefs around 1895, was a prolific author, writing over two hundred books on science, history, biography, and religion. Historians of science and religion have largely ignored McCabe, and it is unclear why. But if historians are looking for the intellectual forebears of the so-called “New Atheism,” McCabe serves a much better candidate than either John William Draper and Andrew Dickson White.
McCabe published mostly with Watts & Company in London, but he also found a home in Kansas, with Haldeman-Julius Publishing Company. Established by Emmanuel Haldeman-Julius, an atheist, socialist, and newspaper publisher, he began publishing a five-cent, papered-covered “Little Blue Books” series in 1919. Perhaps one of the most popular titles in the series was McCabe’s The Conflict Between Science and Religion (1927).
McCabe begins with an arresting vision of the future. “Somewhere about the year 2100 a work will be written,” he says, “on the entire history of religion.” This will necessarily be a history of its “dissolution.” This future historian will give an account of the priesthood and the fabrication of sacred books. He will recognize, moreover, that the “finer emotions of the new age were outraged by some of the most important doctrines of what were called the higher religions.” More importantly, this future historian will have to dedicate a large section to “The Conflict Between Religion and Science.” In this section, McCabe explains, this future historian will draw from sources mostly printed from 1850 to 1950. He will be amused, says McCabe, by distinguished men of science and theologians both protesting that there is no conflict:
“he will read the priests protesting that there is no conflict between true science and religion, and the professors plaintively chanting that there is no conflict between science and true religion. They suspend their fighting occasionally to recover their breath and affirm that they are not fighting” (6-7).
McCabe lays out his thesis thus: “Science has, ever since its birth, been in conflict with religion.” Science first emerged, he writes, in the Greek colonies on the coast of Asia Minor. They perceived at once that tradition was entirely wrong, and knowledge must be acquired by reason and senses. The liberty and spirit of inquiry in these colonies ushered in the decay of religion. But their religious neighbours were quick to “trim their sails.” The work of science was prohibited, until resumed in Alexandria a few centuries later. But the new religion of Christianity gained political power at the time, and “murdered the last brilliant representative of Greek thought, Hypatia, and completely extinguished scientific research.” Indeed, Christianity was the “most deadly opponent” of scientific progress.
During Christendom, science was extinct. Science reemerged in the Arab world, but “not on account of its Mohammedan religion, but very clearly in spite of it.” McCabe argued that a new skepticism was rising, and with it the revival of science. Wandering scholars encountered this renaissance, and brought back the “new” learning to England and France. But there was nothing new here, according to McCabe. “From [Roger] Bacon to Copernicus,” he writes, “they all merely repeated what Greeks or Moors had told them, and that, the moment they opened their mouths, the modern conflict between science and religion began.” Imprisoned, extinguished, hounded, and burned, these followers of Greek science paid a hefty price.
But when Christendom found itself weakened by the “great schism,” men of science finally gained more liberty. The deists attacked the crudities and inconsistencies of the Old Testament, allowing scientific men to reconstruct the “real history of the earth and of man.”
The conflict rages to this day, says McCabe. There is no disputing the fact that “a mighty conflict of science and religion” occurred in the nineteenth century. American fundamentalists, McCabe argues, still maintain it.
Before moving forward, McCabe wants to address a couple of “fallacious or untruthful statements about this historical conflict.” First is the common statement that “there never was a conflict between religion and science” (11). McCabe directly targets Andrew Dickson White’s claim that the conflict was between theology, and not religion. “To talk of a few combative theologians sparring with a few combative scientists about these matters is utter historical untruth.” To our ancestors, theology was religion, according to McCabe.
Another fallacy, says McCabe, is to dismiss past conflicts because our ancestors simply did not know true “religion.” “Progressive religion,” McCabe declares, “is the veriest piece of bunk that Modernism ever invented” (12). By “modernism” McCabe means those liberal theologians who reinterpreted traditional religious beliefs. But to reject central doctrines of Christianity, such as the fall of man, is to maintain that the very “foundation of Christianity is an error.” To reject such doctrines, according to McCabe, is to reject the whole of Christianity.
Even the most “extreme modernist” position, one that believes in a religion that changes and grows, is wrong. In the end, McCabe claims that the nineteenth-century conflict “left a corrosive acid in what remains of religion.”
But what about today? In 1927, when this little pamphelt was published, does the conflict persist? According to McCabe, absolutely. He thinks its a terrible mistake that some American scientists have made a futile and inglorious attempt at reconciling “the dervishes by protesting that science is not inconsistent with religion” (15). He attacks E. Ray Lankester, Henry F. Osborne, Mihajlo I. Pupin, Robert A. Millikan, William B. Riley, Gary N. Calkins, and others for taking up this conciliatory approach. These attempts, according to McCabe, demonstrates a lack of understanding the true nature of religion. Science, according to McCabe, is unified. But religion has never been unified. Thus, if one seeks the reconciliation of science and religion, “we shall have to take three hundred different collections of religious beliefs and apply science to them” (19). But if we take a few leading types of religion and a few common doctrines, it will suffice to demonstrate that science is blatantly in conflict with them.
In this Little Blue Book, McCabe wants to concentrate on fundamentalist and modernist religious beliefs. Indeed, even the “ultra-Modernist” position is in conflict with the teachings of science.
McCabe dispenses with fundamentalists rather quickly, showing that they have all rejected evolution, that Genesis is irreconcilable with science, and that the “science” of comparative religion has shown that Christianity is a pagan accumulation of beliefs. The fundamentalist, like the Roman Catholic, according to McCabe, is “in flat and flagrant conflict with science.”
But like the fundamentalists, McCabe says, he has nothing but contempt for Christians who offer “new interpretations on the old doctrines” (23). He then offers a mock reinterpretation of the Apostles’ Creed based on the modernist position:
I believe in God—a God who is one with Nature,
The Father Almighty—but not all-powerful,
Creator of Heaven and Earth—which were not created, but are eternal.
And in Jesus Christ, His only son, our Lord—who is, however, a son of God only in the same sense as we, but more so,
Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost—as an artist conceives his work, not miraculously,
Born of the Virgin Mary—who was not a virgin
Suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried—not to atone for the sins of the world.
He descended into hell—which does not exist;
The third day he rose again from the dead—or his soul made a new body out of ether.
He ascended into heaven—or made a final phantasmal appearance,
Sittteth on the right hand [which doesn’t exist] of God the Father Almighty [who is not Almighty]—though there is no heaven to sit in.
From thence he shall come to judge the living and the dead—that is to say, he will persuade them to judge themselves.
I believe in the Holy Ghost—which is a figure of speech,
The Holy Catholic Church—certainly not the Roman, and the Anglo-Catholic only as long as it imposes no belief on me,
The communion of saints—by telepathy,
The forgiveness of sins—each man forgiving himself,
The resurrection of the body—which certainly won’t rise again,
And life everlasting—which may not last forever: we don’t know.
The modernist, according to McCabe, “are Christians who believe that Paul and the Christian Church have been wrong in nearly everything until science began to enlighten the world” (24).
In the following chapters, McCabe discusses the “twilight of the gods,” “science and the soul,” “the conflict about morals,” and concludes with a history of “religion as a phenomenon.” Throughout these chapters McCabe’s target is not the fundamentalism, but the modernism, the liberal Christian reinterpretation of Christianity. “The land which lies between straight Fundamentalism and straight Modernism,” he writes, “is the Land of Bunk.”
History has proven, according to McCabe, “fatal to the essential message of the Bible and the Christian religion.” Civilization slowly emerged from savages. The conflict between Christianity and evolution has never been the real issue. “The fundamental and essential Christian doctrine is not based upon the creation, but up the fall of man, upon a certain version of man’s early history” (27). The whole Christian message, says McCabe, hinges on man in Eden. But historical and comparative religious studies have shown that the fall was based on Babylonian legends; moreover, such views of primeval man are also completely discredited by what science tells us. A divine redeemer is thus “superfluous.”
But the modernist protests, says McCabe, that these “skirmishes” between science and religion are “between men who know very little about science and men who know very little about religion.” McCabe of course thinks this is nonsense. McCabe takes this quote from Nobel prize winning physicist Millikan, who believed in some “Power unknown to us,” perhaps taken from the agnostic doctrine of the Unknown by Hebert Spencer. But according to McCabe, theologians have taken this route for decades: “saying that science cannot (today) explain something, so God must (until tomorrow)” (33). McCabe strongly condemns those “providential evolutionists,” those “light-headed chanticleers of the pulpit who crowed that evolution was ‘a more splendid revelation than ever of God’s power'” (36-37).
In discussing the immortality of the soul, McCabe claims that we “see at once the utter insincerity and frivolity of the claim that there is no conflict between science and religion” (39). Again, his attack is directed less at fundamentalists and more at modernists, who maintain a “tincture of religious belief.” While they have abandoned Genesis and Paul’s epistles, they mistakenly speak of “religion and science as independent truths, if not separate and equal revelations of the glory of God” (40). Central to religious belief, according McCabe, is the assumption that mind is not a function of the body, and that the human mind, being spiritual and immortal, is essentially distinct in its nature from the mind of animals. But cerebral physiology, psychology, and evolution are explicitly hostile to this fundamental religious belief (49). Those who claim there is no conflict here, according to McCabe, “must be totally ignorant.”
Turning to the conflict about morals, McCabe writes that “the semi-Fundamentalists or semi-Modernists,” are those educated Christians who, while accepting evolution, still “cling” to some reinterpretation of the fall of man and the atonement, and thus continue to oppose the teaching of science (50).
The Christian rationalist, the Unitarian or such, only make up a fraction of the whole of Christendom. But even these, according to McCabe, are still in conflict with science. Those Christian rationalists who have succumbed to scientific ways of thought have divested God of all personality, reducing traditional conceptions to abstractions of Power, Something, World-Energy, Cosmic Force, Soul of the Universe, Vital Principle, Urge, Creative Principle, Absolute, and so on.
But according to McCabe, once we understand the nature of the universe, what point is there going beyond it? Clearly, then, many continue to feel some “mystery of existence,” and thus are compelled to go beyond it. But this is wish fulfilment, says McCabe. The “highbrow religionists,” Emerson, Carlyle, Arnold, and others, defined religion as “morality touched with emotion” (52). This deracinated humanitarianism is bunk, according to McCabe. In its place he simply asks “Why?” Why must we be strictly honorable, temperate, modest, and chaste? “Half the civilized world,” McCabe writes, “is asking these questions, and it is waste of time to reply in the language of either metaphysics or esthetics” (54).
It is the business of science, according to McCabe, to “explain the meaning of the ethical ideals you want to recommend.” Evolution in particular has explained the origins and development of these ethical ideals.
In concluding his Little Blue Book, McCabe wants to be “quite reasonable with everybody about everything” (57). The modernist attempt to redefine religion so it could never come into conflict with science reminds McCabe of one final way religion most certainly comes into conflict with science. He relates the controversy that erupted after John Tydnall’s 1874 Belfast Address. But like the modernists, Tyndall saved a place for religion, to the “region of poetry and emotion.” But according to McCabe, religion has always been inextricably connected to cosmological theory. Once science entered that domain, religion had no choice but to shirk and relocate itself.
In discussing the phenomenon of religion, McCabe believes that science has demonstrated the evolution of religion, giving us “a scheme of natural development into which all the religions of the world are fitted” (58). Although this “science of religion” was originally founded by “liberal Christians,” McCabe explains, its tendency “seems on every side to provoke a disbelief in religion in any but the most liberal and creedless sense of the word!”
No comparative religious scholar can remain a Christian, McCabe argues. He simple “knows too much.” The evolutionary study of religion, he says, “is fatal to every claim to every claim made on behalf of Christianity: not merely to its claim of inspiration and revelation, but to every claim that there is something unique about its ethic or its doctrines” (59, 61). It is for this reason that McCabe closes his Little Blue Book with the claim that “science is only one of the dissolving agencies” of religion. Philosophy and history are just as fatal, if not more so. Our “higher standards of conduct and emotion” too reject doctrines of “eternal torment and vicarious atonement.” Indeed, every aspect of the “higher life of our our age is hostile to religion.