Here is what the distinguished historian, Geoffrey Elton, an expert on Tudor England, had to say about this:
“If knowledge of the past is to entitle the historian to speak to his own day, it must not be so organized as to satisfy that day’s whim; if it is to teach usefully about mankind and the human condition, it must be understood for itself and in all its variety, undetermined by the predilections of the present and unruled by it at a time when the present did not yet exist”
As early as the 1930s scientists were engaged in war industry research , well before they invented the atomic bomb. There were groups of ethical scientists who fought against this dangerous trend. They pointed out that the armaments industry was funding research in universities which would inevitably be used to disastrous effect in future wars. Chemists had already devised “mustard gas” used in trench warfare in World War I:
“At this point men of evil will stepped in, the military intelligence came into operation, and the forces of disunion, envy, hatred and malice” were unleashed. Like Pontius Pilate the scientists washed their hands of any guilt: “It is as if the house of the spirit, which was previously inhabited by the genius of religion, always preoccupied about God, Man, the Good, the Holy, the Right, were thoroughly spring-cleaned, swept and garnished, leaving nothing but the empty rooms and bare walls of scientific ethical neutrality, whereupon seven other demons, all worse than the first, including war and pestilence, enter in and take up permanent residence there”
In his book called The Great Leviathan (1931) Joseph Needham argued that history had been marked by great ideas systems struggling “like leviathans” against each other:
“No opposition has been more violent and long-continued in the past than that between the organised apprehension of the world’s ultimate mystery, which we call religion, and the organised investigation of the world’s apparent mechanism, which we call science”.
Much evil had been caused by this profoundly tragic strife. In the present age, one of obvious secularisation, the world was increasingly dominated by scientific thought.
The short answer is that he was influenced by Marxist theory and ideals but did not allow this to influence his scientific objectivity. He said that he had been an “equalitarian socialist” long before he read any Marxist classics, and reaffirmed that he had adhered to the Christian Socialism of his youth for the rest of his life.
He agreed that he had been influenced by colleagues who embraced a dialectical materialist philosophy, such as J. B. S.Haldane, J. D. Bernal and Roy Pascal. But Needham maintained an independent, “personal non-exclusive” style of thinking. He wrote of his “world view of faith… I combine Marxist thought with the revolutionary Christianity of Rudolph Otto and R. G. Collingwood, and the emergent evolutionism of Lloyd Morgan and Samuel Alexander. Teilhard de Chardin I came to know and admire only after the second world war” (Notes written in 1967).
Joseph Needham (1900-1995) was a world renowned scholar who helped put the history of Chinese science on the map. He is now, sadly, in danger of being forgotten. He was a ground-breaking bio-chemist at Cambridge whose life-long interest in Chinese civilisation resulted in a series of books on Chinese science, which was fostered by a research team at the Needham Research Institute from 1976. He was renowned for conducting informal seminars and get-togethers at his home off Grange Road in Cambridge. I was studying at Cambridge in 1992 and never learnt about these soirees after his death in 1995. They were open to all and I wish I had attended.
Needham has been described as a bridge builder between science, religion and Marxist socialism. He was one of a group of leftist scientists in the UK who wanted to popularise science for the masses, and to reform it away from its elitism. Needham was the son of a Harley Street speciialist and an artistically gifted mother.. His life has been seen as an attempt to bridge the gap between his creative mother and a more rationalist father who nevertheless had a deep interest in theology and the classics and was active in the Anglican Oxford Movement. Joseph himself became attached to a broad and tolerant Christianity, plus a deep interest in religions such as Buddhism, Islam, and Taoism. He had veered towards a religious vocation in his early years, trialling for two years as a novice in the Oratory of the Good Shepherd (an Anglo-Catholic order) and was also active in the Guild of St Luke, promoting Christian ethics in the medical profession.
I will look in future at how these influences turned out in his later efforts to reconcile science and religion, the Holy and Society. I have published my thoughts on Needham in my book Intellectuals and the Decline of Religion (Boolarong Press, 1917).
Geoffrey Gorer, in his Exploring English Character (1955) concluded from his studies that about a quarter of the British population had given up on conventional religion and had turned to pagan, mystical and other superstitious beliefs, nothing less “than a fully fledged magical universe”. Here as the social scientist Benjamin Seebohm Rowntree also confirmed “was a nation living outside the churches… but far from happy with its new existential lot”.