The Catholic Historical Review 88.4 (2002) 793-794
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Reconciling Science and Religion: The Debate in Early-Twentieth-Century Britain. By Peter J. Bowler. [Science and Its Conceptual Foundations.] (Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 2001. Pp. xiii, 479. $40.00.)
A common perception of the relationship between representatives of natural science and religion in Europe during the first half of the twentieth century is that, compared to the preceding half-century, the interaction was minimal. Of course, in America the Scopes Trial reinforced the impression of continuing warfare that many later historians too quickly accepted as a defining feature of the waning decades of the nineteenth century. Those same historians tended to characterize the situation in Europe in the early decades of the new century as the calm following the storm. They depicted scientists and people of faith as going their separate paths, each acknowledging the other's independence and each manifesting a certain respect for the other.
Peter Bowler does not challenge this characterization of things where the continent is concerned, but he has made it clear that it simply misrepresents the debates of early-twentieth-century Britain. With the same encyclopedic flavor he gave to his classic study of evolution back in 1984, Bowler has unearthed a wealth of material that historians have either neglected or skimmed over. The thoroughness with which he discusses the many positions that appeared during the first four decades of the new century is both the strength and weakness of the volume. We learn a great deal about the host of major and minor figures he has brought to light, but there is a tendency to repeat the treatment of some of them at more than one point. The author concedes that there will be repetition [End Page 793] among the three major sections of the work that deal with the sciences, the churches, and the wider debate, because the same disputes occurred in all three areas, but in fact there is occasional repetition even within individual sections. The result is a volume that comes across as much as a reference work as a synthetic interpretation.
To Bowler's credit he has succeeded admirably in his wish to represent the beliefs he encountered both thoroughly and empathetically, whether the beliefs were sympathetic or hostile to religion or natural science. The title of the book is somewhat misleading since not all of those discussed wished to attempt a reconciliation between science and religion. Although the critics of religion are represented, Bowler's interest lies with those who wished to construct a reconciliation based on a new liberal ("modernist") theology of progress that fed on various nonmaterialistic developments flourishing in both the physical and biological sciences beginning in the late nineteenth century. His central assertion is that the reconciliation was so tied to a belief in the purposefulness of the universe and the progress of civilization that it could not survive once natural science began to loose itself from nature's inherent purpose and British society lost its naive confidence in the progress of civilization.
Along the way Bowler depicts how complex the landscape of views was. Conservatives might applaud nonmaterialistic criticisms of Darwinism while rejecting the new liberal theologians of reconciliation that made them. The commitment to progress of socialists could result either in an attitude sympathetic to the new theology or, in hard-line Marxists, one critical of it. Readers of this journal will particularly appreciate the nuances Bowler uncovers in the spectrum of Roman Catholic and Anglo-Catholic thought.
This is an important contribution to the historical study of science and religion. It is thoroughly researched, setting in context the works of a large number of writings only a portion of which are well known. I mention but two omissions in the analysis that would have made it an even more valuable work. First, although Bowler mentions World War I at numerous points, his treatment of the impact of the Great War is much too brief. He argues that the despair it produced was countered by a continued...