Early Christian writers (Augustine, Origen) made it a matter of Biblical faith to believe that celestial objects (eg moon, stars, etc) were perfect in form. However, this was just an artefact of the poor resolution of existing instruments. Ptolemy constructed a multi-layered model of the celestial universe in which the stars, sun etc circled the earth. This model was improved by Copernicus – though his observations were scarcely better, and by Keppel and by hard, local experimenters (experiments which can be performed at the purely local level with great success). Famous amongst these was the work of Galileo. Although forced to recant, he carried on with his teaching all the same and used his own home-made telescope to show that nearer celestial objects were far from pure in shape. Instead of relying on assertions by clerics, scientists only accepted as truth what could be clearly demonstrated; thus science was championed by people whose interest was upholding religious truth and speculation was discarded.

The legacy of Newton

There is nothing new under the sun – not even work place agreements! When Cambridge University sought to appoint the brilliant scholar Isaac Newton as professor of mathematics in 1669 it was first necessary to modify staffing conditions such that every academic employed by the university must subscribe to the each of the 39 Articles of the Church of England – except the holder of the Lucasian Chair of Mathematics! Newton’s genius lay in clarifying and making explicit the laws underlying natural phenomena. For example, in 1687 he described the laws of universal gravitation as well as the three physical laws which provide relationships between the forces acting on a body and the motion of the body. These latter laws form the basis for classical mechanics.

He also refused to consent to the doctrine of the trinity because it could not be understood! Through access to Newton’s collected writing, both published and private, we now know how far his religious views were at odds with those of the religious authorities of his day. Some of his views were illegal and unavailable to the public until after his death.

It is noteworthy that he wrote some 1,400,000 words on spiritual matters, compared to 1,000,000 on natural philosophy. (The Correspondence of Sir Isaac Newton, ed. HW Turnbull, Cambridge UP for the Royal Society, 1959–77). The works which most clearly define his beliefs are the General Scholium, Book 4 of the Principia from the second issue onwards (1713), and An Account of Two Notable Corruptions in Scripture (1754). His theological works concentrated on the Book of Daniel and the Revelation, both of which, to Newton, demonstrated that God was as much in control of an ordered spiritual universe as he is of the natural.

To quote from Newton: “This most beautiful system of the sun, planets and comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intellectual and powerful Being.”

“Atheism is so senseless and odious to mankind that it never had many professors.”

The Darwinian revolution

Darwin’s beginnings in theology

In most polls, scientists rate Newton as the greatest and most influential scientist who ever lived. What changed between his day and ours, when the majority of scientists bitterly oppose the most seriously held convictions of the incomparable Newton and the majority of scientific men of his day? The clue is to be found in the second-place runner in the polls – Charles Darwin.

Charles Darwin was as far apart from Newton as it is possible to be. A lazy and indifferent pupil, he was sent to Edinburgh University in the hope that he would qualify and settle down to the life of a medical practitioner. When it became obvious that his indolence would result in failure – and the loss of his father’s investment in his studies – the young Darwin, with many solemn promises, elected to study theology at Cambridge. There he devoted his time to consorting with wild companions, never doubting that his father would continue to pay for his existence for his lifetime.

At Cambridge his lukewarm faith became mere formality. The sole and notable exception being when he read and almost memorised Paley’s Natural Theology. This was a highly influential work at this time. Paley compares finding a watch on the seashore, in which he observed irrefutable evidence of a designing hand, with the similar evidence of design which would follow close anatomical observation of a shrimp, with its vastly increased complexity. Paley’s argument for intelligent design is a basis for the Intelligent Design debate of today, and has influenced many reasoning men and women over centuries.

Eventually Darwin’s debts threatened to overwhelm him. He had made a few sound friends at Cambridge, including Sedgwick, then Head of Animal Morphology at Cambridge, later Professor of Zoology at Imperial College. Sedgwick’s influence helped the untrained and so far unpromising young Darwin to gain the position of naturalist on FitzRoy’s voyage of discovery on HMS Beagle. On that voyage, Darwin was struck by evidences of evolution which nature seemed to provide, a theory he had heard enthusiastically embraced and propounded by his paternal grandfather Erasmus Darwin. On his return home his eroded faith prevented him from entering holy orders. There was just too much internal conflict between a dying faith, jealousy for personal reputation, and the turmoil of his emerging ideas. His natural laziness made it difficult for him to write out and publish his ideas, condemning him to a retired life of genteel semi-illness supported by the family’s means.

Darwin’s thinking evolves

During the 20 years that followed, nothing much changed. Darwin was influenced by reading Malthus’s Essay on Population (1798) with its emphasis on the “struggle for existence”, which provided the foundation for the doctrine of “survival of the fittest” or “Natural Selection” in Darwin’s take on biology. Another critical influence was the hostile reception given to the publication of the (initially anonymous) Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (1844) (later revealed to be the work of Robert Chambers, editor of Chambers’s Journal). The tone of this book was openly evolutionary, though devoutedly Christian. The chief reason for delay by Darwin was how he could present his similar ideas without undergoing the same tirade of criticism.

Eventually his worst fears were realised when he was sent a manuscript by A.R. Wallace for review. Imagine, after 20-odd years work, Darwin would appear as nothing more than a repeater of someone else’s ideas. Eventually a purportedly joint paper was presented to the Linnean Society in 1858. The die was cast: it would not be possible for Darwin to stand back and procrastinate any longer and his book, The Origin of Species was published towards the end of 1859. At first largely ignored, Darwin’s ideas might have lain fallow had they not been caught up as a ground of dispute between two notable scientific protagonists, Robert Owen and his expupil, Thomas Huxley. Owen was a self-conceived master of all knowledge, and Huxley a young firebrand with a considerable chip on his shoulder.

At the June 1860 meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, the two clashed, and further discussion of Darwin’s ideas was foreshadowed. On the following Saturday the debate was mainly between Huxley and Samuel Wilberforce, Bishop of Oxford. Wilberforce was warmly supported by the audience at the beginning, for there were few present who were convinced by the evolutionary argument. However, he made the mistake of using ridicule as his sole weapon, lacking any personal foundation in science. Huxley exposed his ignorance and the accompanying rhetoric for what they were, the audience cheered, and from that day the pendulum of belief began to swing inexorably towards the acceptance of evolution as a badge of the “scientific” view as opposed to the “religious” view.

Darwin’s personal doubts

Darwin had provided a theory, a flawed one, no doubt, to enable the study of biology to aspire to a place among the natural sciences, which were daily reporting spectacular progress. To the end of his days, Darwin was deeply and physiologically troubled by his doubts. He was well aware that Natural Selection did not provide a mechanism for the formation of favourable variations, but chose to ignore it. He placed great faith that further discoveries in the fossil record would provide examples of successful intermediary forms, but the research only revealed greater complexity and therefore greater vulnerability, that is, greater gaps.

Though acknowledging that a single example of a life form which could not have been formed by the chance accumulation and practical preservation of new features would serve to destroy his thesis, he chose to ignore the many examples of symbiosis (where two or more things live together in nature). Darwin is reported as saying that “the thought of the eye makes him sick”. At Darwin’s deathbed, the Duke of Argyll talked to him of how greatly his (Darwin’s) researches had increased the understanding of arguments for natural theology. He remarked on the fertilisation of orchids, the natural history of earthworms and other wonderful contrivances in nature. Surely it was impossible to look on these without seeing they were the effect and expression of mind? “I shall never forget Darwin’s answer,” he wrote. “He looked at me very hard and said: ‘Well, that often comes over me with overwhelming force, but at other times,’ and he shook his head vaguely, adding, ‘it seems to go away.’”

The never ending quest

So Darwin was never able to summon up the means to overthrow the intelligent design argument of Paley. Nor, for that matter, have his successors. The best they can do is resort to the old negative labels: “Religion and science have separate subject matter and methodologies,” “Science is the proven repository of unprejudiced and un-blinkered search for truth, and therefore is uniquely to be trusted on questions of fact,” and “If God made everything, who/what made God?”

Many scientists have since sought a deeper appreciation of the power and wisdom of our God by attempting to unravel the mysteries of existence, from the infinitely vast to the smallest dimensions. In doing so, they have become more and more convinced of the sheer improbability of unguided and purposeless chance forming the universe in which we dwell. Instead of squandering effort in trying to find that elusive disharmony which could remove God from the equation, true and profitable science would find richer goals in uncovering the wonderful harmony by which all things work together to the glory of God.

Future articles in this series

What is proposed in subsequent articles in this series is to discuss some of the facets of our home, the universe big and small, and how on examination they proclaim the wisdom and power and purpose of our God, and his desire to make himself known through the things which he has made:

“For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse; because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their own imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened” (Rom 1:19–21).

In the words of the hymn-writer: “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork” (Ps 19:1).

Thou [didst knit me together] in my mother’s womb… marvellous are thy works: and that my soul knoweth right well” (Psa 139:13,14).

Future articles will seek to reveal some of this wonderful complexity so we will be more attuned to it, and our appreciation, our enjoyment and our conviction will be stimulated accordingly.