Professor Huxley on Science and the Clergy

[anon. J. R. Green]
The Saturday Review November 1867

[691] There are some people who seem fated to live together in the world without ever gaining the least knowledge of one another. The surly but warm-hearted old uncle who cannot understand his nephew, and the dissolute, generous young nephew, who will not comprehend his uncle, are stock characters in every comedy. But this mutual misunderstanding is just as true of classes as of individuals, and it is curiously illustrated in the tone of men of science about the clergy, and of the clergy about men of science. The strange conceptions which these classes form of one another, the ridiculous opinions they attribute to each other, the utterly involuntary character of their mutual ignorance, and the amusing results which follow on a little common explanation, have been brought into strong light of late by a very entertaining conference between a large body of the London clergy and Professor Huxley. This very odd meeting was held in as odd a place. Our readers may perhaps remember that a short time ago the dulness of the Parliamentary recess wag broken, in ecclesiastical circles it least, by an attempt to utilize Sion College for the more general benefit of the clergy of London. Like most of the more curious relics of the metropolis, Sion College has the fortune of being utterly unknown to most Londoners; and so we may premise that it consists of a block of brick buildings, a hall, library, and almhouses, placed nearly opposite to the one fragment which, built into the churchyard of St. Alphage, still preserves the memory of London Wall. The primary object of its foundation in the reign of Charles 1 seems to have been the providing a home for a few poor bedesmen; a secondary and indirect aim was that of furnishing a centre, where the City clergy might meet together for conference, and find opportunities of study. With a view to these ends the beneficed clergy of London were formed into a College, of which each is by right it fellow; they elect a President and other officers, and act as trustees for the administration of the charity annexed to the foundation. With the one exception of the age of the Great Rebellion, when the conferences of the Puritan divines within its walls acquired for the hour a political interest, the annals of the College have, from its outset, been wholly uneventful. The past administration of its property, and the necessity of providing new buildings for the alms-folk, has left it destitute of resources, and but for its very large and curious library, the whole establishment might be pronounced perfectly useless. The proposal made for its reform consisted simply in its removal from its present site in the heart of the City, where it is practically inaccessible to all but the East-end clergy, and in the extension of its chartered rights to the incumbents of the West, who, by the accident of their being in no way connected with the City of [692] Elizabeth's day, are cut off from all share in its privileges. The proposal fell to the ground for the very clerical reason that after all sales and purchases of sites had been effected, it needed a balance of twenty (or, as some say, forty) thousand pounds, while a balance of ten pounds only was in file hands of the treasurer. But, abortive as it proved, the attempt seems to have spurred the College onward in the way of utility, and particularly to a series of lectures in its ball, the first of which, as we have said, was delivered about a week ago by Professor Huxley.

The subject which he chose was that of the attitude of the clergy towards science; and if the subject was not a new one, it had at any rate the advantage of clearly bringing to the front the amusing ignorance of each other which prevails among two of the most educated classes of the community. The clergy have their ideal conception of men of science, and men of science have an equally ideal notion of the clergy. The ordinary parson creates an imaginary being bent on destroying the fact of a revelation, the truths of religion, and the difference between a man and a brute. This imaginary being he christens Professor Huxley. On the other hand, the man of science constructs an equally imaginary being who resists every step of physical research, who is blind to the most obvious facts, who has no sense of truth, and who is labouring to make others as blind and as untruthful as himself. This imaginary being he styles the English Parson. The one dream of the clergyman is that some day he may get the Professor to listen to the simplest truths of religion. The one dream of the Professor is that some day he may have the chance of preaching just one sermon to the parsons in exchange for the thousand they have preached to him. Now it was just this chance which came to Professor Huxley about a week ago, and it is extremely interesting to see how he used it. There, in front of him, row after row, were the blind adherents to antiquated fallacies, the bigoted opponents of new truths. He had got his clerical audience at last; he could for once in his life preach them a sermon; and the sermon he preached them was this. He started by assuring them that nine-tenths of their number were blind to the existence of such a science as geology, and that they believed and thought that the world in which they lived had been created in six literal days. He took his text from the story of Joseph, and explained with elaborate lucidity to the dense intelligences before him that the Pyramids were older than Joseph, and that the Nile mud was older than the Pyramids. With the most careful desire not to make a single assumption which was not warranted by facts, he pointed out the priority of the nummultic limestone to the Nile mud which rests on it, and the priority of the chalk to the nummultic limestone. His courtesy became almost distressing as his sense of truth forced him to unroll the long series of geological formations which had preceded the chalk. Then, pointing significantly to that fatal "6,000" chalked on the slate beside him, he ended his argument and sat down. No one could deny that the glove had been fairly cast to that clergy; and the question was, how were they going to take it up? Science had spoken, and now what was the attitude of the clergy? We are sorry to say that the attitude of the clergy seemed principally to be one of extreme amusement. The lecture had been admirable, the illustrations perfect, the argument conclusive; but unluckily there was no one to argue with. Perhaps our last statement does injustice to two eccentric persons who started up, the one to denounce all physical sciences because they were "mixed," the other to suggest that through the ages of geologic time the earth had been given over to the devil. But with those two exceptions–and Professor Huxley himself felt that they were exceptions–there was not a single man among the lecturer’s audience who was conscious of either holding or teaching the theories which the Professor assumed that the bulk of the clergy held and taught, or who in fact believe in any wise differently from the Professor himself.

That such a unique event should end in such a commonplace result was curious enough; and the position of the two parties at the close recalled the last act of the light comedy where the miserly guardian arid the spendthrift ward suddenly discover one another's good qualities, and rush into each other's arms. But we are far from thinking that Professor Huxley's lecture was thrown away. If it threw little light on the attitude of the clergy toward science, it illustrated at any rate attitude of men of science towards the clergy and it did something to put an end to this attitudinizing altogether. For it is in the very phrase which Professor Huxley adopted as the subject of his lecture that the whole fallacy lurks. There is simply no such thing as any attitude of the clergy toward science. A parson, is such, has no more special relation to science than a lawyer or a tinker. He has no greater opportunities for acquiring knowledge on scientific subjects than the bulk of educated men have in other professions. He probably knows no more than his brother the attorney about the questions of natural selection or the origin of man, and he probably knows no less. On certain points of scientific research he feels a certain interest from a notion that they may in some way clash with the conception, usually entertained on certain religious subjects, and so throw difficulties in the way of his practical work. But his interest is simply practical and in no way intellectual, and the moment a conciliatory method is suggested by which the religious difficulty can in actual working be got over, he is quite content to let science go her own way, However ludicrous the readiness of the clerical mind to accept such conciliations may seem, however absurd may be in men to find rest now in a gap between two verses, not in the hypothesis of visions, and now in a theory of pure poetry, the readiness certainly does not prove any attitude of determined hostility towards science. Or rather, it proves the non-existence of "attitude" at all; the clergy in fact float along with the stream of general opinion, and, considering the necessary hitches, it is no discredit to them if now and then they float it little slower than other people. Professor Huxley, and Professor Tyndall after him, were exceedingly cogent in their demonstration that, if science and the clergy are to get on together, the clergy must take their scientific facts from science. The truth is that this is just what they are doing already. So long, indeed, as scientific men quarrel among themselves over some vexed theory, the clergy, in common with the rest of the educated world, indulge in the wild luxury of having in opinion of their own; but if once the theory is pronounced a fact, society, and the clergy in it, resigns itself to silent submission. When Professor Huxley holds one view about the number of centres of human origin, and rival Professors hold another, it is open to the general public to advance a third if it likes; but when all the Professors in the world announce a certain order of geological succession, the general public simply hears and believes.

That this is not the belief either of the clergy or of men of science as to their relative positions, merely shows the enormous influence of the past upon all of us. The clergy, though they restrict their teaching nowadays to strictly religious topics, have never been able entirely to free themselves from the feeling which ruled them in the past, of a right to teach everything. There is no reason, for instance, why the education of the poor over the whole country, should be supposed to devolve upon the clergy more than upon any other class of men. But the clergy seem to suppose that, because they are responsible for the teaching of spiritual truth, they are also responsible for the inculcation of subtraction and multiplication; and as this belief squares very well with the indolent reluctance of other classes to accept the burden of education, the guidance and support of our poor schools has passed almost entirely into clerical hands. And although the direct task of instructing the world on physical subjects has long ago passed to other teachers, there remained one or two topics, such as that of Creation, which seemed expressly reserved for the clergy. It gave a good man a certain importance in his own eyes, and an undefined weight with his parishioners, that he should be the authorized teacher on the subject of how the world was made. Now all this importance is gone, and although the parson acquiesces in the necessity of relinquishing, his pet topics, his feelings towards those who have robbed him of them are hardly warm-hearted. He is in fact a little irritable on the point, and the irritation is hardly lessened by the picture drawn of him by men of science. They, on their part, seem to live in a perpetual theory of martyrdom. As a matter of fact, no men live more comfortable lives, no men get greater honour or a more implicit submission to their dicta from the world; but, unfortunately, Galileo was persecuted, and so every Professor thinks he must–if he is to be a Professor at all–be persecuted too. And as it was the clergy who persecuted Galileo, it must of course be the clergy who persecute him. The result is that the parson, floating along tranquilly enough on the stream of general opinion, finds himself charged with a hatred of truth, and an adherence to antiquated errors. Sometimes he accepts the position, and joins the Victoria Institute. More generally he adds the change to his old grudge against men of science. Now and then, he is able, as the London clergy were able the other day, to meet a Professor face to face. In such a case there follows what followed then–a mutual explanation, and a pleasant half-hour over muffins and tea.


C. Blinderman & D. Joyce
Clark University