§ 17. Extremely Wonderful Events: Resurrection and Demons

In his examination of the history and credibility of Christianity, Huxley explored the general methodology supporting Christian belief and focused on two miracles: that of the resurrection and that of the exorcism of demons from Gadarene swine.

Conflict in Methods

He always saw the conflict as being not between science and religion, but between science and theology; he revealed this understanding early, in Science and Religion (1859). In this address, which appeared ten months before the Origin of Species, Huxley finds religion and science "twin sisters," but theology and science mortal enemies, and then often returned to this. A consistent advocate of the scientific method, which could be taken as a synonym of "agnosticism," he advised that skepticism about miracles means the withholding of a priori disbelief–perhaps Jesus did walk on water (some insects do), perhaps he did change water into wine (which chemists might some day be able to do). In this, Huxley agreed with Kant rather than with Hume. But evidence for violations of natural function has to be stronger than evidence for what we know does happen. Witnesses to all events, including miracles, are not always trustworthy. See the essays The Value of Witness to the Miraculous (1889) and Hume and items noted in § 13. Agnosticism, § 14. New Reformation, § 15. Verbal Delusions: The Bible, § 16. Miltonic Hypothesis: Genesis.

In February of 1887, an article by W. S. Lilly reported on a sermon delivered by Canon Liddon, who argued that catastrophes and other miracles could have happened through the suspension of a "lower law" by a divine "higher law." Huxley dissected this argument in Science and Pseudo-Science (February 1887), which was responded to by the Duke of Argyll in Professor Huxley on Canon Liddon (March 1887), and that called forth Huxley's Scientific and Pseudo-Scientific Realism (April 1887). (In April, Huxley also delivered a paper to the Linnean Society on the gentians.) The Duke of Argyll replied to Huxley's April article in A Great Lesson, which claims that scientists engage in hiding evidence that's contrary to their beliefs, as Huxley had tried to hide the Bathybius episode–§ 9. Medusa et al.–Huxley responding to that in An Episcopal Trilogy (November 1887). One review of this appeared in the Church Quarterly (October 1888): "Truthfulness in Science and Religion."

Gadarene Swine

In his essay Yeast (1871), Huxley discussed the etymology of the word "spirit," noting "As the 'spiritus,' or breath, of a man was thought to be the most refined and subtle part of him, the intelligent essence of man was also conceived as a sort of breath, or spirit; and, by analogy, the most refined essence of anything was called its 'spirit.' And thus it has come about that we use the same word for the soul of man and for a glass of gin." His own taste was better satisfied by spirits in a glass of gin than by those in the soul. The history of the horrors brought about by a belief in spirits and demons was never a joke to him.

Miracles such as Jesus walking on water or transmuting water into wine were fairly innocent compared to what Huxley focused on as guilty of much mayhem in the European Renaissance: that of Jesus exorcising demons in Gadara. Upon his retirement, he asked Michael Foster if he had ever read "that preposterous and immoral story carefully? It is one of the best attested of the miracles. When I have retired from the chair (which I must not scandalise) I shall write a lay sermon on the text. It will be impressive"–August 29, 1884. In January of 1885, from Rome he wrote to another friend, John Donnelly, about his disgust at seeing God made and then eaten. He was ready to rise and "slay the whole brood of idolators"– January 18, 1885.

The lay sermon, which appeared in February 1889 he entitled Agnosticism. The belief in demons and demoniacal possession is "a mere survival of a once universal superstition," its persistence "pretty much in the inverse ratio of the general instruction, intelligence, and sound judgment of the population among whom it prevails." Demonlogy gave rise "through the special influence of Christian ecclesiastics, to the most horrible persecutions and judicial murders of thousands upon thousands of innocent men, women, and children. . . .If the story is true, the mediæval theory of the invisible world may be and probably is, quite correct; and the witchfinders, from Sprenger to Hopkins and Mather, are much-maligned men.... For the question of the existence of demons and of possession by them, though it lies strictly within the province of science, is also of the deepest moral and religious significance. If physical and mental disorders are caused by demons, Gregory of Tours and his contemporaries rightly considered that relics and exorcists were more useful than doctors; the gravest questions arise as to the legal and moral responsibilities of persons inspired by demoniacal impulses; and our whole conception of the universe and of our relations to it becomes totally different from what it would be on the contrary hypothesis."

To Knowles, he wrote about an attack on his essay, "Wace has given me a lovely opening by his profession of belief in the devils going into the swine. I rather hoped I would get this out of him. I find people are watching the game with great interest, and if it should be possible for me to give a little shove to the 'New Reformation' I shall think the fag end of my life well spent"–February 28, 1889.

Huxley's observation that Christ had broken the law in destroying private property–by transferring demons from a man into a herd of 2000 pigs, who then committed pigicide– was repulsive to G. O. M. Gladstone, who returned as a defender of the faith in The Impregnable Rock of Holy Scritpure. Huxley's letter to Knowles of November 18, 1890, is graced with a doodle of Gladstone riding a Gadarene denizen–G. O. M. and pig. Huxley's low opinion of Gladstone as politician as well as historian was often given in his letters; in a letter to Tyndall, Huxley observed that there were enough demons in Gladstone to fill not two thousand but two million pigs: July 10, 1892.

Again the contest moves from the stimulus to Huxley's response to that to critical response to him, back and forth, Huxley always cajoling for attacks upon his position, and advising Knowles that he wanted the last word. A passage from Argyll's answer, "Professor Huxley on the Warpath," warns readers: "On all questions bearing on 'Christian Theology' he is not to be trusted for a moment. Loud and confident in matters on which both he and we re profoundly ignorant, we see him hardly less boisterous in asserting ignorance where the materials of knowledge lie abundant to our hands."

His notebooks of 1890 contain his aphoristic creations such as "Religions rise because they satisfy the many and fall because they cease to satisfy the few." An inventory of the 1890-1891 tournament would feature:

Huxley Agnosticism February 1889
Gladstone The Impregnable Rock of Holy Scripture 1889
Huxley The Value of Witness to the Miraculous 1889
Huxley The Lights of the Church and the Light of Science July 1890
Huxley The Keepers of the Herd of Swine December 1890
Argyll Professor Huxley on the Warpath January 1891
Gladstone   Professor Huxley and the Swine Miracle February 1891
Huxley Illustrations of Mr. Gladstone's Controversial Methods March 1891
Argyll Professor Huxley and the Duke of Argyll April 1891
Linnean Medal
Professor Huxley by M. K. Wright after photograph by A. Bassano,1891

The demons of the Gadarene swine episode were no more believable than the spirits conjured up by mediums–see section on Spiritualism in § 15. Verbal Delusions: The Bible. In his letters during these years, his comments on the tournament were less constrained than his published prose, for example, in the fall of 1890, he informed Joseph Hooker that Providence had "specially devolved on Gladstone, Gore, and Co. the function of keeping ' 'ome 'appy' for me. I really can't give up tormenting ces drôles "–September 29, 1890'; and in January of 1891, again to Hooker: "Why the fools go on giving me the opportunity of saying the most offensive things to their beloved 'Christianity', under the guise of justifiable self-defense it is hard to say–Except that they are fools–of the worst sort to wit, clever fools." On March 11, 1891, to John Simon, he remarks that he has much to interest him in his retirement, from Gadarene pigs to Gladstone psychology. Occasionally, he would refer in his letters to older interests, such as in a letter to a translator of his works into French, he commented on the weakness of natural selection: November 25, 1891.


He denied that he had ever called Christianity "sorry stuff": "to my knowledge I never so much as thought anything of the kind, let alone saying it"–February 28, 1889. But the evidence that Jesus actually existed was not persuasive, and, of course, "If there was no such person as Jesus of Nazareth, and if His biography given in the Gospels is a fiction, Christianity vanishes"–November 27, 1888. Though he never used the "sorry stuff" phrase, he struck at the heart of Christianity by questioning whether Jesus, if he did exist, had in fact risen from the dead–The Evidence of the Miracle of the Resurrection (Metaphysical Society, January 11, 1876). Though Huxley wanted this published, John Morley said no; Cardinal Newman wondered if Cardinal Manning had prompted this talk so that Huxley could be brought "into the clutches of the Inquisition." See also

A Modern Symposium II
"The Soul and Future Life" (1877).
Dean Huxley
Pencil drawing by T. B. Wirgman, 1882
THH Dean of Normal School of Science, 1881-95

In Hume, though he does not use the word "resurrection," he writes this of that cardinal event in Christian history: "It is probable that few persons who proclaim their belief in miracles have considered what would be necessary to justify that belief in the case of a professed modern miracle-worker. Suppose, for example, it is affirmed that A.B. died and that C.D. brought him to life again. Let it be granted that A.B. and C.D. are persons of unimpeachable honour and veracity; that C.D. is the next heir to A.B.'s estate, and therefore had a strong motive for not bringing him to life again; and that all A.B.'s relations, respectable persons who bore him a strong affection, or had otherwise an interest in his being alive, declared that they saw him die. Furthermore, let A.B. be seen after his recovery by all his friends and neighbours, and let his and their depositions, that he is now alive, be taken down before a magistrate of known integrity and acuteness: would all this constitute even presumptive evidence that C.D. had worked a miracle? Unquestionably not. For the most important link in the whole chain of evidence is wanting, and that is the proof that A.B. was really dead. The evidence of ordinary observers on such a point as this is absolutely worthless. And, even medical evidence, unless the physician is a person of unusual knowledge and skill, may have little more value. Unless careful thermometric observation proves that the temperature has sunk below a certain point; unless the cadaveric stiffening of the muscles has become well established; all the ordinary signs of death may be fallacious, and the intervention of C.D. may have had no more to do with A.B.'s restoration to life than any other fortuitously coincident event." He then goes on to compare this miracle with an Islamic event.

Sir Edmund Beckett, the Chancellor and Vicar-General of York, wrote for the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, a book analyzing Huxley's methodology and intelligence, concluding that Huxley on miracles was fairly useless. Because this book expresses clearly and cogently a believer's claim to the credibility of New Testament miraculous events, it is reproduced fully: A Review of Hume and Huxley on Miracles (1883).

Preface IV to Science and Hebrew Tradition, written from the comfort of his new home, Hodeslea (designed by his son-in-law F. W. Waller), is eminently quotable in passages destroying inspiration, infallibility, demonology, and scriptural mythology, all of which he found not just unscientific, but immoral. "It is becoming, if it has not become, impossible for men of clear intellect and adequate instruction to believe, and it has ceased, or is ceasing, to be possible for such men honestly to say they believe, that the universe came into being in the fashion described in the first chapter of Genesis; or to accept, as a literal truth, the story of the making of woman, with the account of the catastrophe which followed hard upon it, in the second chapter; or to admit that the earth was repeopled with terrestrial inhabitants by migration from Armenia or Kurdistan, little more than 4,000 years ago, which is implied in the eighth chapter; or finally, to shape their conduct in accordance with the conviction that the world is haunted by innumerable demons, who take possession of men and may be driven out of them by exorcistic adjurations, which pervades the Gospels....Wherever bibliolatry has prevailed, bigotry and cruelty have accompanied it. It lies at the root of the deep-seated, sometimes disguised, but never absent, antagonism of all the varieties of ecclesiasticism to the freedom of thought and to the spirit of scientific investigation. For those who look upon ignorance as one of the chief sources of evil; and hold veracity, not merely in act, but in thought, to be the one condition of true progress, whether moral or intellectual, it is clear that the biblical idol must go the way of all other idols."

On the idea of immortality, see the two other Metaphyical Society papers: Has a Frog a Soul (1870), Views of Hume, Kant, and Whately on the Immortality of the Soul (1870), and letter to Kingsley, September 23, 1860.

St. Marylebone Cemetary, its epitaph by Henrietta Huxley:

Be not afraid, ye waiting hearts that weep;
For still He giveth his beloved sleep,
And if an endless sleep He wills, so best.

§ 1. THH: His Mark
§ 2. Voyage of the Rattlesnake
§ 3. A Sort of Firm
§ 4. Darwin's Bulldog
§ 5. Hidden Bond: Evolution
§ 6. Frankensteinosaurus: Reptile to Bird
§ 7. Bobbing Angels: Human Evolution
§ 8. Matter of Life: Protoplasm
§ 9. Medusa et al.
§ 10. Liberal Education
§ 11. Scientific Education
§ 12. Unity in Diversity
§ 13. Agnosticism
§ 14. New Reformation
§ 15. Verbal Delusions: The Bible
§ 16. Miltonic Hypothesis: Genesis
§ 17. Extremely Wonderful Events
§ 18. Emancipation: Gender and Race
§ 19. Aryans et al.: Ethnology
§ 20. The Good of Mankind
§ 21. Jungle Versus Garden
C. Blinderman & D. Joyce
Clark University