I have recently been writing about R. H. Tawney’s ideas about topics such as religion, politics, social reform and socialism, Fascism and Communism, the threat of world war, and the human future.
These have just been sound-bites, more or less.
I am now posting here a fuller essay on Tawney’s thought in the early twentieth century. He is rated as probably the most influential Labour theorist in the last hundred years. His best known work is perhaps “Religion and The Rise of Capitalism”, which was required reading for history students when I was at University.
There were quite a lot of so-called “reconcilers” between religion and Darwinism in the 19th century. They used a range of arguments. Both Darwinism and liberal theology seemed (to some minds at least) to share a Victorian sense of “progress”, with natural laws and history propelling society forward towards certain goals (telos). Humans were at the apex of evolutionary change for many evolutionists, while some liberal theologians seemed to be moving towards a vague rational Christianity that eliminated the mysterious and emotional sides of religious belief (“Modernism” seemed a theological version of the Doctrine of Progress). The young Anglo-Catholic Aubrey Moore said: “Order, development, and law are the analogue of the Christian view of God”.
The great problem with all this was that “pure” Darwinian theory actually repudiated teleology (although Darwin himself flirted with it for some time). The unvarnished theory of natural selection pictured evolutionary change as random-based, violent and purposeless. God was regarded as either an unnecessary hypothesis or a remote first cause. This sense of clash intensified in the 20th century.
An American study some years ago looked at “psychological ageing”. In a large sample of people studied it found that those who had higher risk of heart disease and poorer physical health were those who, in long interviews over several years, were more self-focussed, talked more about themselves and their grievances, problems, etc., were in other words more egocentric. (The old Buddhist warning about “self”!).
Altruism on the other hand correlated higher with better health and longevity. The advice the psychologist doing the study concluded with was: “Listen with regard when others talk. Give your time and energy to others; let others have their way; do things for reasons other than furthering your own needs”.
How could you reconcile evolution, Darwin’s theory of natural selection, with religion? Many Victorians found solace in the idea that Darwinism was compatible with the eighteenth century school of “natural theology” or the argument for God’s existence based on Providential Design. Scholars have pointed out that Darwin’s theory itself owed much to William Paley’s concept of universal natural laws that were beneficial. As part of God’s great Design, animals and plants adapted themselves to their environment. Paley’s “teleology” pictured an evolving universe, but all heading to a Divine goal, with humanity at the centre of God’s creation. The world was purposeful and essentially benevolent.
For many traditional Christians, the idea that God worked through natural selection was abhorrent. There was disquiet from a range of thinkers that Darwinism had expelled Man from the centre of God’s creation, making him one with the animals, replacing a purposeful and benevolent world with a purposeless and violent one. Nature was simply the product of blind chance and struggle. Even non-Christian progressives like John Stuart Mill worried that Darwinism would have a disintegrative effect upon values and social stability.
In much popular comment Charles Darwin’s “Origin of Species” is viewed as almost immediately causing one of the greatest storms in intellectual history by directly threatening the old Biblical view of creation and challenging the whole existence of God. This was not quite how it actually happened at the time, as scholars have long pointed out, although Darwin’s long time impact proved to be great. He did indeed challenge the central issue of man’s place in nature, the whole question of Nature, Humanity and God. There was indeed some fierce squabbling, and there were emotional reactions at the time, but in hindsight what is surprising is how relatively calm was the immediate debate (especially in Britain).
There was no “war” between science and religion at this time. Not all clerics were anti-science, nor were all scientists anti-religious – far from it. There were outspoken sceptics such as T. H. Huxley, John Tyndall and Francis Galton. On the other side you could set devout Christian scientists such as Charles Lyell, Faraday, Lister, Asa Gray and Clerk Maxwell. There were a number of possible responses to the cultural shock of Darwinian evolution. One was a sort of existential acceptance of a Godless universe. Another was to find a reconciliation between religion and science. More on this soon.