The Conflict between Science and Religion in the later half of the 19th century of the Victorian period
England during the reign of Queen Victoria developed strange features, some of which were quite contradictory. In the latter half of the 19th century while at home England had absorbed the essential features of Industrial Revolution, she had established herself as the greatest colonizing nation along with her unquestionable supremacy in overseas trade abroad. Again quite paradoxically, under the impact of the liberal humanist ideology of the Enlightenment, ‘progress’ became the buzzword of the day. Under the smooth surface of British culture lay the inevitable ferment of religious and scientific ideas. A few decades ago the poet-naturalist, Erasmus Darwin, who was interestingly the grandfather of Charles Darwin, almost shocked Englishmen when he argued against the concept of the Scale of Being or Ladder of Life, a concept derived from the Genesis, in favour of the spontaneous origin of life in minute forms in the ocean. A few years later Lamarck came out with his theory that altered wants through changes in environment lead to altered habits, hence to the formation of new organ and the modification or disappearance of those already existing. Opposition to science came ironically from a scientist. Cuvier, a Catholic and creationist, opposed transmutationism. He inherited and enlarged upon the “Theory of Catastrophe” or doctrine discontinuity, that is, of cataclysmic changes in the earth’s history necessitating supernatural intervention. Sir Charles Lyell effectively refuted the doctrine of discontinuity and, by inference, of special creation. Interestingly, when Charles Darwin set out on ‘Beagle’, he took along with other things Lyell’s book and thoroughly studied it. While Darwin had been on his voyage, England was feeling the heat of religious controversies at home.
The 19th century had inherited the 18th century structure of large family with enough Puritanism in ethical ideas. The Queen had put the example of her court on the stricter code. To the powerful persons of the period, like Gladstone, Shaftsbury, General Gordon, life was the service of God. People with older religious beliefs and ideas were being systematically attacked ironically by agnostics like Carlyle and Matthew Arnold who had been puritan in feeling and outlook. The puritan attitude to life was inculcated not only by the Bible religion of the mass of the Victorians, but also by the Anglo-Catholic religion, which was an outcome of the Oxford Movement of the thirties. English religion ha a demanding presence in the middle of the 19th century among the people, but it stood on a fragile ground as the rapid movement of scientific discoveries was increasingly questioning the very foundations of those religious ideas.
Even before the publication of The Origin of the Species, Herbert Spencer systematically tried to spread the theory of evolution, though on a speculative basis. In 1859 appeared the epoch-making volume on The Origin of Species, in which Darwin denied the Lamarckian principle that there is a “necessary progression”. But above all, Darwin denied the Bible the history of the creation, as told in the ‘Genesis’, and put forward his thesis that human beings originated in the process of evolution and survived in the process of “Struggle for Existence”. The older generation came vigorously to defend positions of the Bible. But the younger generation, on the other hand, came forward to defend and advance the new ideas put forward by these men. The young men were not afraid of upsetting the religious ideas, even at the cost of offending the church. Thus the religious controversies raged throughout the sixties, seventies and eighties.
The Victorians saw phenomenal development in the formulations of new scientific laws and the application of science to life. The latter helped to transform the material basis of life, and had thereby affected growth of human mind in subtle and unperceived ways of thinking. Those who accepted a society based on individualism, interpreted the Darwinian theory of “struggle for existence” and survival of the fittest” as sanctioning the fierce and ruthless competitive basis of the capitalistic society. Non-scientific thinkers leaned towards various forms of agnosticism that ranged from skeptical unbelief to complete atheism. It sometimes led to a glorification of man, as in Swinburne’s Hymn to Man, or to a denunciation of God as in Atlanta in Calydon. On the general level, there was a pervasive recognition of the reign of law over every aspect of human life, upon which orderly progress depends. Scientific scepticism was helpful in discrediting the various types of Utopian socialism that Owen, Sainte-Simon and others had offered as the inevitable alternative of a society based on individualism. The most far-reaching application of scientific thought to human life was made by Karl Marx whose interpretation of the historical evolution of human society gradually developed into the most serious challenge to the theory of individualism.