Karl Alois Kneller.

Christianity and the leaders of modern science; a contribution to the history of culture in the nineteenth century online

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To that question a resolute "No!" must be returned
by any honest enquirer. It is perfectly true that in
many of our Universities, professors can be found to
support the interpretation of science which we have com-
bated; and that this temper of mind forces itself from
time to time on public notice. But how many of these
University Professors are likely to live in the history
of research for as long even as a hundred years, or to be
called up as witnesses to the religious or the irreligious
import of science? Not very many, we should imagine;
but we are content to leave them, in common with other
living scientists, to the appraisement of posterity. One
thing is certain. If in our survey of the nineteenth
century we have regard only to the pioneers and torch-
bearers of physical research, the result of our enquiry
will be far from inimical to religion.



We have not in these pages adopted a merely statistical
point of view. In other words, we have not made out a list
of great scientists who died between 1800 and 1900, as-
certained whether each was a believer or an unbeliever,
and then counted up the numbers on both sides. Such
a proceeding was both impossible, for lack of adequate
data, and unnecessary.

The scientists to whom we have made appeal may
be divided into two classes. In the first are to be
ranked those who accepted at least the existence of
God, and of a spiritual principle in man, whatever further
development they gave to their religious views. We
are warranted in calling these as witnesses favourable
to Christianity. For if the assault of science is to be
successful, the points of attack must be those natural
truths which form the basis of Christian belief. How
else could the two be brought into conflict? The possibi-
lity of miracles, the question as to whether God, for
the purpose of a special revelation, is able to suspend
the uniform course of natural laws, must be decided by
a study of the nature of God and not by physical
science. For physical science has as its sole purpose
and province the study of the uniform course of natural
laws. The historical fact that, in Christ, God gave a
Revelation to the human race, can by no possibility con-
flict with the laws of Chemistry and Zoology. The con-
tent of that Revelation can in no way clash with Astro-
nomy and Geology. The theologian concerns himself
only with the primal source and cause of things, and
leaves an absolutely free hand to the scientist in deter-
mining their established qualities and uniformities. The
points of contact of science and theology, therefore,
are confined to the two problems specified. As to the


bearing of the one department of knowledge on the
other we have appealed to a great number of authori-
tative names, and we might without much trouble, have
largely increased the list 1 .

The second group comprises those who were in the
fullest sense Christians, very many of them being Catho-
lics. Our list is very far from complete, but we have
been able to adduce a goodly number, and every
name is a name of the first importance. To put in
concrete form the result of our investigation, let us

1 Among geologists may be mentioned, as representing S. America,
Ignatius Domeyko, Professor of Mineralogy and Geology at Santiago;
he was a Pole by birth and died in 1889; as representing S. Australia
J. E. Tennison Woods, died at Sydney 1889, Vicar General of the
Bishop of Adelaide , an authority on the geology of the southern
Continent. Most of these sections, which we have purposely not
treated in detail, can naturally be further developed, e. g. the section
on Zoology. Henri-Marie Ducrotay deBlainville (f 1850),
a zoologist of high merit, made no secret of his belief in Chris-
tianity, laid great stress on the activity of final causes, and wrote
a work on the relations between religion and science. J. F. B 1 u m e n-
bach (f 1840) speaks in his works of God as the Creator of
nature. Henry Milne-Edwards (f 1885), one of the most
celebrated of modern zoologists, declared openly that he could not
understand the wonders of nature as being the result of mere chance.
The botanist T u 1 a s n e , whose name has been mentioned above be-
queathed his botanic library to the Catholic Institute in Paris, and
wished to further the honour and glory of God by his works. Of
the celebrated surgeon Joh. Nep. Nufibaum (f 1890) even the
Miinchener Allgemeine Zeitung writes (1890, Beil. 260): "NuCbaum
war ein glaubensstarkes Glied seiner Kirch e ; ohne diese Kraft des
Glaubens, ohne das Positive desselben ware seine ganze Personlich-
keit gar nicht zu denken und zu verstehen." His last words were :
"Gelobt sei Jesus Christus" (Germania, 4. November 1890, Nr. 254,
2. Blatt; cf. Nr. 253, I. Blatt). Among those who have recently
died may be mentioned Adolfo Cancani Montani (f 29. May
1904), an excellent seismologist and a Catholic of child-like piety.


imagine a Samaritan of unbelief, a man so passionately
hostile to Christianity as to reject in science and in
practical life all aid or help that comes from a Christian
hand. In what a sorry plight would he not find him-
self! If he turns to Chemistry he will have to go his
way without Berzelius, Dumas, Liebig, Sainte-Claire
Deville, Chevreul; in other words, he will have to re-
discover practically the whole of modern Chemistry.
If he fixes on Electricity he will have to put aside the
work of Galvani, Volta, Ampere, and Faraday; if on
Optics, he must step back over the despised discoveries
of Fresnel, Fraunhofer, and Fizeau to the old theories
of emission; if on the Theory of Heat he must reject
Mayer and Joule. As for Astronomy, when he has
shorn away the discoveries made possible by Fraun-
hofer's telescope, and the work of Leverrier and Laplace,
there will be very little left. So much for speculative
science. And what of practical life, of trade and com-
merce, art and industry?

Our consistent unbeliever will have to light his house
with tallow candles, for stearine comes to him from the
Catholic hands of Chevreul ; and he cannot use electri-
city without tribute, in the very quantitative termino-
logy in which his bill is calculated, to the Catholic names
Ampere and Volta. Aluminium he must refuse and
abandon, for he owes it to the Catholic Sainte-Claire
Deville. He cannot continue to pasteurize his wine; he
cannot use Schonbein's collodium in photography, nor
can he use water-glass or cement. His medicine will
have to manage without Pelletier's quinine, Laennec's
auscultation, and Pasteur's whole fabric of bacteriology.
The list of necessary abnegations might be continued
almost at pleasure. It has been pushed far enough to


show the retrogression and utter bankruptcy in which
science would be plunged by the rejection of the work
of Christian, or even merely of Catholic, pioneers.

It is to be hoped that nobody will raise the objection
that many scientists of the first eminence, such asVirchow,
Du Bois-Reymond, Tyndall or Berthelot, can be called
up on the side of unbelief. That we have made no
attempt to deny. We set out simply to show that
there is no justification for writing of * 'Science" as in-
trinsically and necessarily hostile to religion, and that
the alleged unanimity of scientists on the matter simply
does not exist. It does not in the least weaken our
contention to show that many of the admitted leaders
of science were unbelievers, and enemies of religious
belief. We have been concerned simply to exhibit the
spectacle of men of genius in the full glory of their
renown as scientists, accepting the teachings of Christia-
nity with fervour and simplicity of mind. When a dis-
ciple of the school of Elea, had proved conclusively to
another Greek philosopher that the idea of motion is
self-contradictory, and that, consequently, motion is im-
possible, his hearer replied, not by argument, but by
simply walking up and down. He adduced the fact of
motion as a proof of the possibility of it. We have
ventured to follow the same tactics in reply to the asser-
tion that religion and science are irreconcilable. There
are in this case other methods of reply, but the one
which we have chosen is perhaps the simplest.

Nobody has, so far as we know, attempted to show
that the majority of scientists of the first order have
thrown the weight of their authority against religion,
nor would such a project have much hope of success.
On the contrary the greater minds of science have ever


shown warmer friendship and reverence for religion than
the lesser, and the more they meditated on the funda-
mental problems of life the more friendly they became.
Men like Ampere, Volta, Cauchy, and Maxwell found
in science not a confutation but a confirmation of Christia-
nity. There never was a more earnest and passionate
opponent of materialism than G. A. Hirn. At the meet-
ing of the British Association at Belfast in 1874, Tyndall
used the presidential chair as a pulpit of materialism,
but one had to go no further than his audience to find
a man like Maxwell, at least his equal in science, who
absolutely rejected his manifesto and dismissed it in a
set of doggerel verses. In the writings of the French
Positivists we find all speculation as to the ultimate
nature of things brusquely dismissed as ''metaphysical"
and unscientific. But against this sentence of death on
metaphysics we can appeal to the declaration of Heinrich
Hertz ! (f 1 894). "No idea that forces itself on the in-
tellect is in any way weakened by being called meta-
physical. The intellect, as such, has its needs which
certain scientists are pleased to call metaphysical."

We find also a great many scientists who began with
Monism, but diverged further and further from it with
the progress of their researches. We may appeal for
instances to Haeckel who is certainly not a prejudiced
witness in this regard. He cites as examples of this
"psychological metamorphosis" the two most famous
scientists of our time, Virchow and Du Bois-Reymond,
and later Wundt, and Von Baer 2 . Virchow was at first
a convinced materialist, and in 1856 he declared his

1 Die Prinzipien der Mechanik, Leipzig 1894, 28.

2 Die Weltratsel, Bonn 1899, 108 f n6f 118 207 f.


firm conviction that he would never waver from that
position. "Unfortunately this 'conviction' proved a grave
delusion; for 28 years later, he put forward principles
completely at variance with those which he had formerly
advocated." 1 Wundt came to regard the first edition
of his "Lectures on Comparative Psychology" as a "sin
of his youth", and in the second edition he expressed
radically different opinions. The first edition was "purely
monistic and materialistic", the second "purely dualistic
and spiritualistic" 2 . Haeckel's statement of the change
in Wundt's position is somewhat exaggerated, but he
is quite right in signalising the fact that the scientists,
whom he quotes, came in process of time and thought
to a more and more complete recantation of their ori-
ginal declarations 3 .

1 Ib. 109. 2 Ib. 117.

3 In one of his last essays (on Neo -Vitalism) printed in the
Deutsche Rundschau 81, Berlin 1894, 384 401) Du Bois-Reymond
(f 1896) recognises the statement, that the world derives its existence
from an act of divine omnipotence, as a conclusion confirmed by
science. One can only think with Leibniz that divine omnipotence
"vor unvordenklicher Zeit durch Einen Schopfungsakt die ganze
Materie so geschaffen habe , daO nach den ihr mitgegebenen unver-
briichlichen Gesetzen da, wo die Bedingungen ftir Entstehen und
Fortbestehen von Lebewesen vorhanden waren . . . einfachste Lebe-
wesen entstanden , aus denen ohne weitere Nachhilfe die heutige
organische Natur, von einer Urbazille bis zum Palmenwalde . . . ward"
(p. 400). This is almost identical with St. Augustine's view of creation
by a single act of God, and his theory of rationes seminales. Du Bois-
Reymond is in complete accord with these sentiments, because Dar-
winism has not justified the hopes which were placed in it. "Nach-
dem die Darwinsche Lehre den oben geschilderten Triumphzug ge-
halten hatte, verflog nach einiger Zeit der Rausch. Von verschiedenen
Seiten her erhoben sich lauter und immer lauter Zweifel an der
Strenge von Darwins Beweisfiihrungen" etc. (p. 397).



Lichtenberg says somewhere that in society he often
professed to be an atheist, exercitii gratia. Sebastian
Brunner, a man of great insight and experience, relates
that while in his youth, he was wont to scoff at those
of his comrades who were openly pious, he none the
less never failed to say the prayers "in his little prayer-
book", morning and evening, and he adds that on en-
quiry he found this to be a very common "psychological
phenomenon" 1 . If this was the case in Brunner's day,
still more is it so in ours; unbelief is the ruling fashion,
and to confess one's faith in Jesus Christ and his Church
is to ensure bitter criticism and contempt. It needs
courage to stand out against so strong a current of
opinion. But in spite of this "psychological pheno-
menon", it is a fact as firmly established as any obser-
vation of science, that mankind in general has ever been
on the side of belief, and that religion has its root deep
in the core of the human heart. The mass of huma-
nity gives way very readily to superstition, but not to
scepticism. The Cagliostros, Saint-Germains, and Mes-
mers of the eighteenth' century, the table-turners and
spiritists of the nineteenth are a conclusive proof of
this. Man is naturally religious in mind and heart; and
the blatant unbelief of the newspapers and the popu-
larizers springs from no profound and ingrained conviction.
A great part of it, at least, must be regarded as a mere
current fashion, a phenomenon not of philosophy but
of "good tone".

It will perhaps be said in reply to our contention
that if science is not hostile, yet it certainly is not

1 G. Chr. Lichtenbergs Vermischte Schriften I, Gottingen
1867, 15. S. Brunner, Woher und Wohin III 94.


actively favourable to Christian belief. That, at all events,
is its general reputation ; and how could this reputation
be acquired without some adequate cause ? To this
latter question we cannot undertake to reply in detail.
We have shown that it rests on no defensible basis.
Its origin is probably to be sought in the fact that the
scientific apostles of unbelief possess, in a much fuller
measure than their Christian colleagues, the faculty of
getting themselves talked about. Everybody in Ger-
many knows the names of Haeckel and Karl Vogt, and
everybody in England knows the names of Tyndall and
Huxley. Men who count for very much more in the
progress of general research are not known beyond an
extremely limited circle. One meets many and many
an educated man, who has only the vaguest acquaintance
with such names as Fresnel and Fizeau, Dumas and
Chevreul, or perhaps no acquaintance at all. It is not
hard to understand how this state of affairs has arisen.
Scientists are no more than human ; and in the nine-
teenth century many of them, growing weary of the
stern and solitary business of research , strayed into
easier paths, and put their imaginations at the service
of unestablished but fascinating hypotheses. Some of
them set up as wandering missionaries of the new "scien-
tific" gospel, and went from town to town drawing
all the world to their lectures; others, in brilliantly in-
accurate manuals and treatises, "brought the new philo-
sophy within the range of everybody of average edu-
cation". The newspapers were filled with their names;
they became the storm-centres of controversy, the staple
of conversation. They were the only scientists known
to the great public, and every word that fell from their
lips was accepted as the authoritative pronouncement


of "science". The appeal made in their writings to the
conquests of science never failed of sympathetic listeners;
and they, the spokesmen of science, must they not have
her authentic word ? But all the while the true masters
of science were busy at something other than lecture
tours; they spoke, indeed, but not in halls given over
as a rule to concerts and dances. They were labouring
with a fierce zeal in their laboratories, lecturing and
writing to audiences of trained scientists, and in a
learned idiom. They shrank from publicity, partly per-
haps because they lacked the facile fluency of the popu-
larizers, partly because they had no desire to be drawn
into newspaper controversies. They remained silent,
and the impression produced by their silence recalls a
homely image. In a pond while the fishes hold their
peace the frogs do not fail to croak with raucous vehe-
mence; and common speech, ignoring the fishes, des-
cribes the whole as a frog-pond !

We find something of the same state of affairs in
popular biographies of the great scientists. Full details
are given of the personal life and political convictions of
the subject of the biography, but we often seek in vain
for so much as a hint of his attitude towards the funda-
mental questions of philosophy and religion. It will
have been observed throughout our quotations that, as
a rule, the commemorative notices of great scientists -
though one or two exceptions are to be noted con-
tain appreciations of the religious convictions of the de-
ceased only when the author of the notice chances to
be himself on the side of religion. One may read, for
instance, the memorial speech of Arago on Volta, from
the first syllable to the last without finding a single
hint that Volta was a fervent believer. Gumbel's notices


of famous geologists in the "Compendium of German
National Biography" exhibit the same extraordinary omis-
sion. When a statue of Ampere was, in 1888, erected
in his native town of Lyons none of the orators ad-
verted to the fact that he was a loyal and ardent Catholic.
Moreover the statue exhibits him standing with a pile of
books behind him, and on one of them is carved in large
capitals, Encyclopedic ! 1 The natural inference of the
uninformed must be that Ampere was an adherent of
the Encyclopaedists, whereas his sole relation to them
was that he read them in his youth, and rejected them
in his maturity. In an issue of "Die Natur" (1883,
Nr. 2, p. 1 8) we came upon a memoir of Joule, in which
the passages which we have quoted on an earlier page
were embodied. Joule's references to the Creator were,
however, excised without a word of explanation or com-
ment 2 . We also call to mind reading, in another popular
review, an article on Schwann in which the great disco-
verer of the animal cell was represented as a thorough
materialist. We, on the Catholic side, display a culpable
indifference with regard to such matters as these. It is
true that we rest on the authority of Christ, and not
on that of this or the other scientist. But our in-
difference, combined with active concealment or mis-
representation on the part of our opponents, casts a
veil of obscurity over the true state of things in science.
Still another cause may have contributed to bring
science into ill repute. It was not assuredly in our day

1 V. sketch in La Nature II, Paris 1888, 337.

2 Joule, according to the translator, was born in 1818 at Salford in
Christmas-Eve. Christmas-Eve is, in German, Weihnachtsabend, and Sal-
ford is not situated in "Weihnachtsabend", but is a large town ad-
joining Manchester.


that controversialists, friendly and hostile, began to re-
present science as essentially irreligious. In the seven-
teenth century the English Royal Society incurred the
denunciation of religious opinion in London as ten-
ding to belittle the Holy Scriptures, and to draw people
away from the Christian belief. Critics of to-day form
a very different estimate of the seventeenth century;
they hold up the firmness and fervour of its belief as a
reproach to our "godless" age. In a newspaper of the
year 1841, which came casually into our hands, we read
an article defending the scientists of that day against
the imputation cast on them of atheism and revolutio-
nary ideas. To-day some of us are willing to cast the
same imputation on our contemporaries, but we speak
of 1841 as the "good, old time" of unshaken belief.
How is this puzzling phenomenon to be explained?

If we are not mistaken, it results from the fact that
we judge past epochs by the names which have sur-
vived the sifting process of time. English science of
the seventheenth century means for us Newton and
Boyle. Newton and Boyle were both deeply religious
men, and we transfer the attribute to their age in general,
being content to pass over those of their less distin-
guished contemporaries, who were also, perhaps, less
pious. At the end of the eighteenth century the Pro-
fessors of the University of Pavia were very far from
being all Christians, and some of them made the life
of their colleague Volta sufficiently miserable. But the
twentieth has found no reason for remembering any of
them except Volta, and Volta alone.

St. Thomas Aquinas says somewhere that a true know-
ledge of nature fashions the mind of man more fully
to the image of God, for such knowledge is not too


low for the Divine Reason. St. Thomas goes on to
praise the useful function of science which delivers men
from fantastic superstitions such, for example, as astro-
logy 1 . The attitude of the Church towards science is,
then, very far from hostile; and if we have seemed in
these pages to take up a position of distrust and de-
fence, it is not of true science that we are distrustful,
but of the misuse of it, attempted by many popular
writers. Our first object has been the vindication of
religion, but our second has been the vindication of science
itself as against extravagant fantasies.

Mathias Claudius writes at the end of a passage in
which he makes appeal to Bacon, Boyle, and Newton 2 :

"I do not deny, Andres, that I find great joy in the words
of Francis Bacon, of Robert Boyle, of Isaac Newton. Not
indeed, for the sake of religion ; religion can neither gain
nor lose at the hands of scientists, be they great or small.
But I feel cheered by this spectacle of men of much industry
and resolution, men who have grown grey in the service of
science, and who know more of nature and the ways of
nature than all the world beside. ... I feel cheered to see
men of such character and genius, not priding themselves
on their wisdom, but, hat in hand, humble and eager to
learn, drawing close to the altar of the sublime mysteries
of God. I feel cheered, Andres, and I recover all my old
enthusiasm for learning, which crowns her servants with the
richest gifts without allowing their reason to be clouded by
pride, and themselves to be degraded to foolish scoffers and
mockers. And it has an amazingly different effect, Andres,
to see, on the other side, the crowds of light sciolists defiling
by, their hats on their heads, their noses contemptuously in
the air. . . ."

More than one savant has bitterly lamented the ill
repute into which science has been brought by "scientists"

1 Contra Gentiles lib. 2, cap. 23. 2 Werke VI, Wien 1844, 161.


of this stamp. We have quoted Joseph Hyrtl to this
effect. We may well conclude with the words of another
Austrian master who regards science, not as some-
thing to be excused and defended, but as the most
effective of all weapons for the overthrow of materialism.
Andreas Von Baumgartner says 1 :

"Natural science is able, above all, to expose the
contradictions of materialism, and to show its untenable-
ness, whether it has sprung from the soil of history,
or from that of philosophy, or some other science.
This consideration should suffice to dissipate the anxiety
of those who regard the study of nature as fraught
with peril to the young. In point of fact, science,
rightly directed, is the best and most stable barrier
against error; and, more than any other branch of
learning, it leads us to recognise the universe as the
temple of the Almighty."

We agree; but the "right direction" is to be found
only in a solid discipline in philosophy.

* V. P . 295.



Abbadie, D' 227.
Agardh 359.
Agassiz 342.
Ahum 347.
Ampere 119 370.
Arago 232.
Asa Gray see Gray.
Avogadro 179, note.


Babinet 169.
Baer, Von 341.
Barrande 258.
Baum 333.
Baumgartner , Von

Online LibraryKarl Alois KnellerChristianity and the leaders of modern science; a contribution to the history of culture in the nineteenth century → online text (page 31 of 32)