Science, Religion, and Saying Goodbye to the 19th Century

Friedrich Graetz's political cartoon (March 5, 1883): 'An appalling attempt to muzzle the watch-dog of science', from the cover of Puck magazine. (March 14, 1883) and see
“An appalling attempt to muzzle the watch-dog of science” on the cover of Puck. (March 5, 1883)

I think the notion that someone can either be a Christian or appreciate the cosmic scale and wonders of God’s creation is fading.

Sincerely believing in a conflict where champions of science and reason opposed the dark forces of religion didn’t, arguably, start in the 19th century.

But that’s when the idea got traction. In England and America, at any rate.

Even so, fallout from the 19th century could be worse. I could be living in a culture where religiously earnest folks insisted that diamagnetism is diabolical.

This week I’ll be talking about faith, reason, cultural baggage, and why using my brain is a good idea.

“The Watch-Dog of Science” and Cultural Baggage

Cover of Punch (March 14, 1883), with cartoon by Friedrich Graetz: 'An appalling attempt to muzzle the watch-dog of science'. (Caption dated March 5, 1883)That cartoon’s big watch-dog is Herbert “survival of the fittest” Spencer, English philosopher, biologist, anthropologist, and a big fan of Darwin.

The caption is a quote from “Tel. London”, which may or may not be the Daily Telegraph & Courier (London).

An appalling attempt to muzzle the watch-dog of science
Puck magazine (March 14, 1883)

“‘The Society for the Suppression of Blasphemous Literature proposes to get up cases against Professors Huxley and Tyndall, Herbert Spencer, and others who, by their writings, have sown widespread unbelief, and in some cases rank atheism.’ — Tel. London, March 5, 1883″
(via Public Domain Media, Library of Congress) [emphasis mine]

Agnosticism, Diamagnetism — and Levitating Frogs

The 'Flammarion Woodcut, from his 'L'Atmosphère: Météorologie Populaire.' (1888)Huxley, Tyndall, and Spencer, don’t have all that much name recognition these days, so here’s a quick introduction:

  • Thomas Huxley: English biologist, anthropologist; nicknamed “Darwin’s Bulldog”; coined “agnosticism”
  • Herbert Spencer: English philosopher, anthropologist, biologist, psychologist, sociologist; coined “survival of the fittest”; agnostic
  • John Tyndall: Irish physicist; often seen as agnostic

Agnosticism, very briefly, is the idea that we can’t know whether or not God exists. I can see how that might make sense in the late 19th century. Particularly in England.

All three — Huxley, Spencer, and Tyndall — had a reputation for being agnostic. Huxley and Spencer were pretty clear about being agnostic.

My guess is that John Tyndall got pegged as an agnostic because he was a physicist; and, despite being Irish, known for being pretty smart.

NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, Danny Milisavljevic (Purdue University), Ilse De Looze (UGent), Tea Temim (Princeton University)'s images: supernova remnant Cassiopeia A (Cas A) as captured by NASA's James Webb Space Telescope's (left) NIRCam (Near-Infrared Camera) and (right) MIRI (Mid-Infrared Instrument). (December 10, 2023)Tyndall probably realized that, smart as we humans are, God-level understanding is beyond us.

“…If you ask him [the materialist] whence is this ‘Matter’ of which we have been discoursing–who or what divided it into molecules, who or what impressed upon them this necessity of running into organic forms–he has no answer. Science is mute in reply to these questions. But if the materialist is confounded and science rendered dumb, who else is prepared with a solution? To whom has this arm of the Lord been revealed? Let us lower our heads, and acknowledge our ignorance, priest and philosopher, one and all….

“…I compare the mind of man to a musical instrument with a certain range of notes, beyond which in both directions exists infinite silence. The phenomena of matter and force come within our intellectual range; but behind, and above, and around us the real mystery of the universe lies unsolved, and, as far as we are concerned, is incapable of solution….”
(“Fragments of Science: A Series of Detached Essays, Addresses, and Reviews“, V. 1-2, John Tyndall (1879) via

Photo of Irish physicist John Tyndall, taken mid-career; from the Tucker Collection, New York Public Library Archives, via Wikipedia, used w/o permission.John Tyndall’s reputation as an agnostic may be due to his being one of the few high-profile British physicists of his day who weren’t insisting that science and religion were, if not on the same page, at least in same book.

I’m not sure what accounts for Tyndall’s lack of infamy these days.

Or why diamagnetism hasn’t been denounced something fierce. Not the way Darwin’s ideas about evolution were.

At any rate, Tyndall’s early research involved diamagnetism.

Diamagnetism is a bit of natural weirdness that’s been studied since 1778, when someone noticed that magnets repel bismuth.

Since Tyndall’s day, we’ve learned that it’s a quantum mechanical effect. And that, given enough power, we can use it to levitate frogs.1

It’s probably just as well that John Tyndale’s interest in diamagnetism remained mostly a nerdy science topic.

Checking Our Cultural Baggage

'Man is but a Worm' cartoon, caricaturing Darwin's theory, from the Punch almanac for 1882. (1881)I talked about Victorian politics, the Church of England, and England’s educational establishment last month.

Basically, folks who liked the status quo thought that Henry VIII’s national church should keep its tight grip on England’s education system. Folks who thought maybe they weren’t living in the best of all possible Englands — didn’t.

Vastly oversimplified? Yes.

Essentially accurate? I think so.

Among the reasons I am profoundly glad that “the good old days” are not returning? Definitely.

An example of how cultural baggage — beliefs, customs, folklore, laws, social behavior and norms; everything a person grows up with — can get in the way of common sense?

I think so.

But that doesn’t mean I see either Huxley and company or the Society for the Suppression of Blasphemous Literature (SSBL hereafter) as ‘good guys’ or ‘bad guys’.

I suspect Huxley, Spencer, and all, sincerely felt that they were struggling for truth and freedom of thought. And that the SSBL sincerely believed they were defending the British public against blasphemy and atheism.

Being calm and collected about the SSBL, Huxley, and political satire of the 1880s is easy.

results from 'Scopes trial' query in my Google News feed. (May 22, 2024)Particularly since we’ve had our own brouhahas: including analogs of the SSBL vs. Huxley embarrassment. Repetition reduces their shock value.

It’s been nearly a century since William Jennings “Cross of Gold” Bryan — unintentionally, I think — helped establish the idea that someone could either be scientifically literate, or be a Christian.2

The 1925 Scopes trial is now part of my country’s cultural baggage. I can’t change that, but I can suggest that unconscious assumptions aren’t necessarily a good match with current realities.

Remembering the Freethought Road

Watson Heston's illustration: 'Two Ways to Go', from 'The Freethinkers' Pictorial Text-book'. (1896) via Wikipedia, used w/o permission.
From “The Freethinkers’ Pictorial Text-book”, Watson Heston. (1896)

Detail, Watson Heston's illustration: 'Two Ways to Go', from 'The Freethinkers' Pictorial Text-book'. (1896) via Wikipedia, used w/o permission.Backing up a bit: sincerity is nice, but it won’t make something real.

For example, I could sincerely believe that anything I do is right: because I’m one of the ‘good guys’.

That would make me delusional, or a flaming hypocrite. Now I’ve probably insulted someone, and that’s another topic.

Presenting religion, particularly Christianity, as the cause of hypocrisy — “the Vale of Tears” leading to ignorance, cruelty, and superstition — was arguably an easy sell in 1896, when The Truth Seeker Company published “The Freethinkers’ Pictorial Text-book”.3

Back then, an American version of Christianity was widely accepted.

I’m reasonably sure that finding someone who identified as Christian, but didn’t act the part, was easy. Maybe even unavoidable. Contrasting that unpleasant reality with the unrealized promises of Watson Heston’s Freethought Road could feel good.

About waypoints on Freethought Road, and its ultimate goal: they sound good.

I have no problem with reason, education, humanity — good grief, I am human; of course I’m okay with humanity — justice, science, virtue, love, liberty, and truth.

That was true before I became a Catholic. What’s changed is that now using my brain, acting as if I love my neighbors, and seeking truth, are obligations.

Another obligation is keeping my priorities straight. Putting anything or anyone ahead of God is a bad idea and I shouldn’t do it. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2112-2114)

Valuing truth, though, isn’t a problem. Or shouldn’t be.

That’s because God is the source of all truth, and I’m expected to “live in truth”. (Catechism, 2464-2503)

Protecting Their Country From People Like Me

'The Freethinkers' Pictorial Text-book', p. 149: 'The Theologian's Conception of Clerical Privileges'. Designs by Watson Heston, The Truth Seeker Company (1896) via Internet Archive, used w/o permission.
A familiar assumption, from “The Freethinkers’ Pictorial Text-book”. (1896)

Excerpt from 'Allah Had No Son' and 'The Death Cookie,' Chick Publications. (retrieved September 9, 2021)“The Freethinkers’ Pictorial Text-book” reminded me of today’s Chick tracts. Mainly because of the book’s tone, and effective use of illustrations.

“…Pictorial Text-book” had more text, fewer pictures, the usual anti-Catholic attitude, plus noting that other Christians didn’t act like Christians either. With, of course, a Freethinker’s view of those religious people.

“The Church and Slavery”, for example, on pages 270-271, discusses “The Ghost in the Methodist Church-Yard”. And that’s yet another topic. Topics.

So: how can I reasonably be a Christian, and a Catholic, in a world where Christians and Catholics aren’t all perfectly perfect people?

Let’s put it this way. I’m not a perfectly perfect person. Complaining because the Church lets people like me be Catholics doesn’t make sense. Although a similar thought did make a good joke.

(Groucho Marx, Telegram to the Friar’s Club of Beverly Hills to which he belonged, as recounted in Groucho and Me (1959) via Wikiquote)

If that gag seems familiar, it should. I used it three weeks ago.4

Since I’m one of those “ignorant followers” of “privileged characters”, I could hardly blame freethinkers from wanting to protect their country from people like me.

But I do not think their fears were justified.

Partly because I know there’s more to Christianity than folks desperately trying to stop the publication of scientific research. Granted, folks like the 20th century Anti-Evolution League of America tend to get attention. I talked about them last month.5

Darwin, Divinity, and Letter From an English Priest

Photo by Lastenglishking: 'Newman's desk in the Birmingham Oratory'. (July 6, 1985)
His Eminence Saint John Henry Newman’s desk in the Birmingham Oratory.

St. John Henry Newman — the English John Newman, not the Bohemian-American St. John Neumann — was not your typical 19th century Catholic.

For one thing, he was a cardinal. And a convert to Catholicism.

Cardinals are next step down in the Church hierarchy from pope. I won’t try summarizing who does what, from laity like me up to the servant of the servants of God. Not this week. We’ve been around for two millennia and — it’s complicated.

The point of that ramble is that John Henry Newman was a Catholic priest when he wrote a letter to J. Walker of Scarborough, but wouldn’t be a cardinal for another 11 years. Here’s an excerpt from that letter:

“…If Mr Darwin in this or that point of his theory comes into collision with revealed truth, that is another matter — but I do not see that the principle of development, or what I have called construction, does. As to the Divine Design, is it not an instance of incomprehensibly and infinitely marvellous Wisdom and Design to have given certain laws to matter millions of ages ago, which have surely and precisely worked out, in the long course of those ages, those effects which He from the first proposed. Mr Darwin’s theory need not then to be atheistical, be it true or not; it may simply be suggesting a larger idea of Divine Prescience and Skill. Perhaps your friend has got a surer clue to guide him than I have, who have never studied the question, and I do not [see] that ‘the accidental evolution of organic beings’ is inconsistent with divine design — It is accidental to us, not to God….”
(John Henry Newman to J. Walker of Scarborough on Darwin’s Theory of Evolution (May 22, 1868) via Interdisciplinary Encyclopedia of Religion & Science [emphasis in original text])

Maybe St. John Henry Newman’s “accidental” in the last sentence has the word’s philosophical meaning: a property that doesn’t necessarily connect to an item’s essence.

A chair, for example, might “accidentally” be made of wood or plastic. But either way, it would would be “essentially” a chair.6

Or maybe he was playing with words and ideas, and meant that we don’t have a God’s-eye view of reality. Which is something I’m comfortable with.

I like knowing things and understanding stuff. But I’m okay with knowing that God’s God and I’m not.

That brings me to a counter-cultural idea.

Thinking is Not a Sin

'The Freethinkers' Pictorial Text-book', p. 133: 'The Bible and Geography'. Designs by Watson Heston, The Truth Seeker Company (1896) via Internet Archive, used w/o permission.
From “The Freethinkers’ Pictorial Text-book”, Watson Heston: old and new cosmologies. (1896)

Non Sequtur's Church of Danae and faith-based physics. From Wiley Miller, used w/o permission.Before talking about sin and thinking, a quick overview of how I should act.

I should love God, love my neighbor, and see everybody as my neighbor. Everybody. (Matthew 5:4344, 22:3640; Mark 12:2831; Luke 6:31, 10:2537; Catechism, 1789)

When I don’t love God and my neighbors: that’s sin. Sin gets in the way of healthy relationships. It’s an offense against reason, truth, “right conscience”, and God. (Catechism, 1849-1851)

Since I’m a Catholic, I think faith and reason get along. (Catechism, 35, 50, 154-159)

My faith is a willing and conscious decision to embrace God’s truth. All of God’s truth, including what we can see in this universe. Studying God’s work makes sense, since I think God creates everything. (Genesis 1:131, 2:425; Catechism, 31-35, 142-155, 325-349)

I also think each of us is made “in the image of God”, with body AND soul. And that because I’m human, I’m “an animal endowed with reason”. (Catechism, 355-373, 1951)

But I have free will. So using reason, thinking, is an option: not a hardwired response. It’s also an obligation, and vital when I’m deciding what I’ll do or not do. (Catechism, 1730, 1749ff)

Truth matters, both in science and in faith. (Catechism, 31, 159, and more)

God is the source of all truth. (Catechism, 2465)

Since all truth points toward God, both studying God’s creation and taking God seriously isn’t a problem. (Catechism, 27, 31-35, 41, 74, 282-289, 293-294, 341, 1723, 2294, 2500)

The question about the origins of the world and of man has been the object of many scientific studies which have splendidly enriched our knowledge of the age and dimensions of the cosmos, the development of life-forms and the appearance of man. These discoveries invite us to even greater admiration for the greatness of the Creator, prompting us to give him thanks for all his works and for the understanding and wisdom he gives to scholars and researchers. With Solomon they can say: ‘It is he who gave me unerring knowledge of what exists, to know the structure of the world and the activity of the elements. . . for wisdom, the fashioner of all things, taught me.'”
(Catechism of the Catholic Church, 283) [emphasis mine]

“…The order and harmony of the created world results from the diversity of beings and from the relationships which exist among them. Man discovers them progressively as the laws of nature. They call forth the admiration of scholars. The beauty of creation reflects the infinite beauty of the Creator and ought to inspire the respect and submission of man’s intellect and will.
(Catechism, 341) [emphasis mine]

Again: thinking is part of being human, or should be. It’s what I’m supposed to do.

I keep saying that. A lot. Mostly because the notion that science and religion can’t mix has been so deeply embedded in my culture.

Punctured Pride?

Unknown artist's 'The Lion of the Season' cartoon published in Punch issue 1036 (Th 'Alarmed flunky': 'MR. G G-G-O-O-O-RILLA!' (May 18, 1861)I don’t know why anti-evolution books often had their own section in “Christian” bookstores, while anti-physics tomes — now that I think about it, I can’t remember seeing any.

Maybe it’s because most proper English gentleman-physicists of a bygone era weren’t upsetting applecarts.

While, in sharp contrast, folks like Huxley were openly agnostic: and actually said that humans weren’t utterly separate and distinct from — shudderanimals. The very idea!!!

I suspect — strongly — that anti-evolution sentiments are at least partly rooted in punctured pride.

I’ve got my share of self-esteem above and beyond the call of reason. But I’ve looked in a mirror, and have seen apes in Como Zoo.

In any case, I don’t have a problem with thinking that we’re made “in the image of God” and from the stuff of this world. I’ve read Genesis 1:27 and 2:7, don’t think Sacred Scriptures were written by English-speaking literalists, and that’s yet again more topics.7


Nighttime photo of the 1939 World's Fair, New York City. (September 15, 1939.)
The “Dawn of a New Day” in “the world of tomorrow”. World’s Fair, 1939-1940 .

“Indeed, before you the whole universe is like a grain from a balance,
or a drop of morning dew come down upon the earth.
“But you have mercy on all, because you can do all things;
and you overlook sins for the sake of repentance.”
(Wisdom 11:2223)

Waldemar Kaempffert's 'Miracles You'll See in the Next Fifty Years', Popular Mechanics (February 1950) via David S. Zondy's Tales of Future Past do, at times, miss the old panegyrics of progress, proclaiming that science, technology, and electric hair clippers would lead us into a shining utopia.

We’ll be cleaning up the mess left by mass-produced kitsch and throwaway durables for generations — but at least the era’s attitude was occasionally cheerful.

I don’t miss the triumphalist tone of articles contrasting science and high ideals with superstition, ignorance, and other (alleged) manifestations of religious beliefs.

And I emphatically don’t miss loudly-religious folks who seemed determined to demonstrate that freethinkers and their successors were right about religious people.

That sort of thing seems to be going out of fashion.8

I don’t mind a bit.

I think it’s high time we acknowledge that the 19th century is over.

Hubble/ESA/D. A. Gouliermis (MPIA) image: LH 95 stellar nursery in the Large Magellanic Cloud. (2007) via Wikipedia, used w/o permission; see, a few of my favorite quotes about truth, science, not knowing everything — and studying God’s universe.

“…It’s something too many of us forget, that reality has layers. Occasionally people ask me how I can be Catholic and a science journalist. The answer is simple: Truth does not contradict truth. Both science and religion are pursuit of truth. They’re after different aspects of truth, different layers of reality, but they’re still both fundamentally about truth.…”
(Camille M. Carlisle, Sky and Telescope (June 2017)) [emphasis mine]

“…Religion and natural science are fighting a joint battle in an incessant, never relaxing crusade against scepticism and against dogmatism, against disbelief and against superstition, and the rallying cry in this crusade has always been, and always will be: ‘On to God!’
(Religion and Natural Science, a lecture delivered in May, 1937, originally titled Religion und Naturwissenschaft. Complete translation into English: “Scientific Autobiography and Other Papers“, Max Planck (1968); via [emphasis mine]

“…God, the Creator and Ruler of all things, is also the Author of the Scriptures — and that therefore nothing can be proved either by physical science or archaeology which can really contradict the Scriptures. … Even if the difficulty is after all not cleared up and the discrepancy seems to remain, the contest must not be abandoned; truth cannot contradict truth.…”
(“Providentissimus Deus“, Pope Leo XIII (November 18, 1893)) [emphasis mine]

“Question the beauty of the earth, question the beauty of the sea, question the beauty of the air…. They all answer you, ‘Here we are, look; we’re beautiful.’…
“…So in this way they arrived at a knowledge of the god who made things, through the things which he made”.
(Sermon 241, St. Augustine of Hippo (ca. 411))

More of my take on faith, reason, and using our brains:

1 Science, and a cultural context:

Grant Hamilton's cartoon comment on William Jennings Bryan's 1896 'Cross of Gold' speech at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.2 Cultural baggage —

3 Viewpoints:

4 Art, life, and a few good ideas:

5 Some Christians are alternatively-reasonable —

6 Three Catholics, and a little background:

7 Ideas, old and new:

8 Faith, reason, science, religion, and a bit of the 20th century American experience:

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About Brian H. Gill

I was born in 1951. I'm a husband, father and grandfather. One of the kids graduated from college in December, 2008, and is helping her husband run businesses and raise my granddaughter; another is a cartoonist and artist; #3 daughter is a writer; my son is developing a digital game with #3 and #1 daughters. I'm also a writer and artist.
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2 Responses to Science, Religion, and Saying Goodbye to the 19th Century

  1. Reading stuff like this has me further feeling the weight of being entrusted with just the art of words and other things the masses would more easily pay attention to. I mean, it’s easier to make playing all sides look like being impartial rather than to actually be impartial by pushing for all the good in all of us while fighting against all the evil in all of us. And assuming that being good is meant to be less profitable and such, I think that, instead of being proof that being good is pointless, it is evidence that we only need what we need, and what we need is, among others, not hoarding.

    • Yes, indeed. Deciding, wisely, how to use the kit each of us is issued – abilities, skills, a particular place in the larger society – that is not easy. Neither is deciding to act in a way that’s not expected, or demanded.
      :…pushing for the good in all of us while fighting against….” Always a good idea. But not, as you said, easy.
      As for “being good” necessarily being less profitable – – – in the short term, maybe that’s so. Very short term, sometimes. Longer term: as years pile into decades – – – – in the long run, as I said to my kids, altruism is impossible: given a certain perspective. That turned into a discussion, which is another topic. 😉

Thanks for taking time to comment!