August 2, 2020 | David F. Coppedge

John Tyndall’s Vision of Science Turned it to Atheism

British naturalist John Tyndall (1820-1893) actively sought to turn science away from God, and succeeded beyond his dreams.

If you are unfamiliar with John Tyndall, you should learn about him and his influence. This contemporary of Darwin got good press this week on The Conversation by his biographer, Roland Jackson, who is helping digitize 7,000 personal letters for the Tyndall Correspondence Project. On the project’s “About” page, he is introduced as a co-conspirator of Darwin:

John Tyndall (1820-1893) was one of the most influential scientists of the second half of the nineteenth century. The Anglo-Irish successor to Humphry Davy and Michael Faraday as Professor of Natural Philosophy at the Royal Institution (1853-1887), Tyndall was a prominent member of London scientific and social elites. His flamboyant lecturing style, honed by teaching science at private secondary schools, made him a highly sought-after public speaker both in the UK and abroad…. With biologist T. H. Huxley, philosopher Herbert Spencer, botanist J.D. Hooker, and five others, Tyndall was part of the “X-Club”, a group formed in 1864 that sought to direct the course of British science and which actively lobbied for increased government support.

Charles Darwin, without the help of his X-Clubbers, might not have been as influential as he became (see 22 June 2016). Tyndall is best remembered for his address to the British Association in 1874, where he made a sustained argument for materialistic science:

The impregnable position of science may be described in a few words. We claim, and we shall wrest from theology, the entire field of cosmological theory. All schemes and systems which thus infringe upon the domain of science must, in so far as they do this, submit to its control, and relinquish all thought of controlling it.

Heady with new discoveries by Maxwell, Faraday and Pasteur, this new breed of professional investigators saw no need for God in science any more. Using god-of-the-gaps arguments, Tyndall and his fellow X-Clubbers sought to make science a purely secular enterprise. In addition, they wanted no restrictions on the kinds of subjects scientists could investigate.

To promote this view, the X-Clubbers used journals like Norman Lockyer’s magazine Nature as primary ways to preach the new anti-theistic science (4 March 2004). We live today in Tyndallian science: mentions of God, a Creator, or even intelligent design are met with scorn if not horror. In Tyndall’s day, however, eminent scientists like James Clerk Maxwell were horrified at the prospect of science unleashed from its Christian heritage.

John Tyndall: the forgotten co-founder of climate science (The Conversation). Roland Jackson puts a fresh coat of paint on Tyndall by claiming he is the co-founder of climate science, making him seem trendy. (It would be anachronistic to portray Tyndall, however, as a believer in anthropogenic global warming.) Jackson says, “Climate science is now the future rather than the past, and it is therefore time to recognise and reinstate Tyndall as a major Irish scientist, mountaineer and public intellectual.” How those three traits qualify one man to speak for theology, however, is dubious.

As for Tyndall’s secular view of science, Jackson throws a dog biscuit to theists to keep them quiet.

But he was never one to belittle the role of religion. Science, for him, provided reliable knowledge of the world. Religion met people’s emotional needs, a role he thought might eventually to be replaced by poetry.

Well, here is a poem for you. In the commentary below, read James Clerk Maxwell’s insightful poem written in response to Tyndall’s 1874 address to the British Association. With raucous wit, Maxwell unmasks the pretentious foundations of materialism and predicts the downfall of all knowledge based on it.

If our reality is a video game, does that solve the problem of evil? (The Conversation). These days, after a century of Tyndall, all conversation, including The Conversation website which caters to scientists and readers of science, one can see the results of a science liberated from theism and launched into every subject. Even subjects like theodicy (the problem of evil) and the nature of God are fair game for scientific investigation. In this anti-Christian piece, Barry Dainton, a professor of philosophy at the University of Liverpool, presents the theory of a deistic god who relegated the creation of beings to lesser gods. This is not so much a theory of intelligent design as it is a neo-Gnostic heresy that presumes to distance God from evil corporeality. But Dainton can’t even get the Christian view of God right, and gives the job of explaining Him to an atheist philosopher, Galen Strawson:

We can, for example, know with certainty that the Christian God does not exist as standardly defined: a being who is omniscient, omnipotent and wholly benevolent. The proof lies in the world, which is full of extraordinary suffering…belief in such a God, however rare, is profoundly immoral. It shows contempt for the reality of human suffering, or indeed any intense suffering.

Dainton and Strawson make this outlandish claim by completely ignoring the vast corpus of Christian writing on the problem of evil, and ignoring the Biblical teaching of the fall into sin and the work of Jesus Christ (talk about intense suffering to solve the problem of evil). You can read Dainton’s weird idea that living in a simulation or in a world created by fallible deities might solve the problem of evil, but the point here, though, is What on earth is a “science” site doing usurping a theological topic? Thus we see what Tyndall and the X-Club have done to science. What should be to his own chagrin, Dainton does not even notice that imperialistic science has claimed hegemony over his own specialty, philosophy.

Exercise: See if you can explain why Dainton’s presentation is self-refuting. What would have to be true for Dainton to judge the truth or moral quality of his theodicy?

Here is James Clerk Maxwell‘s response to John Tyndall’s opinions in 1874. We think the father of electromagnetic theory, whose scientific work contributed hugely to human flourishing, is more perceptive than the atheist Tyndall. He wanted poetry to replace theology? OK, John, have some.

British Association, Notes of the President’s Address

James Clerk Maxwell, 1831 - 1879

James Clerk Maxwell, 1831 – 1879

In the very beginnings of science, the parsons, who managed things then,
Being handy with hammer and chisel, made gods in the likeness of men;
Till Commerce arose, and at length some men of exceptional power
Supplanted both demons and gods by the atoms, which last to this hour.
Yet they did not abolish the gods, but they sent them well out of the way,
With the rarest of nectar to drink, and blue fields of nothing to sway.
From nothing comes nothing, they told us, nought happens by chance, but by fate;
There is nothing but atoms and void, all else is mere whims out of date!
Then why should a man curry favour with beings who cannot exist,
To compass some petty promotion in nebulous kingdoms of mist?
But not by the rays of the sun, nor the glittering shafts of the day,
Must the fear of the gods be dispelled, but by words, and their wonderful play.
So treading a path all untrod, the poet-philosopher sings
Of the seeds of the mighty world—the first-beginnings of things;
How freely he scatters his atoms before the beginning of years;
How he clothes them with force as a garment, those small incompressible spheres!
Nor yet does he leave them hard-hearted—he dowers them with love and with hate,
Like spherical small British Asses in infinitesimal state;
Till just as that living Plato, whom foreigners nickname Plateau,
Drops oil in his whisky-and-water (for foreigners sweeten it so),
Each drop keeps apart from the other, enclosed in a flexible skin,
Till touched by the gentle emotion evolved by the prick of a pin:
Thus in atoms a simple collision excites a sensational thrill,
Evolved through all sorts of emotion, as sense, understanding, and will;
(For by laying their heads all together, the atoms, as councillors do,
May combine to express an opinion to every one of them new).
There is nobody here, I should say, has felt true indignation at all,
Till an indignation meeting is held in the Ulster Hall;
Then gathers the wave of emotion, then noble feelings arise,
Till you all pass a resolution which takes every man by surprise.
Thus the pure elementary atom, the unit of mass and of thought,
By force of mere juxtaposition to life and sensation is brought;
So, down through untold generations, transmission of structureless germs
Enables our race to inherit the thoughts of beasts, fishes, and worms.
We honour our fathers and mothers, grandfathers and grandmothers too;
But how shall we honour the vista of ancestors now in our view?
First, then, let us honour the atom, so lively, so wise, and so small;
The atomists next let us praise, Epicurus, Lucretius, and all;
Let us damn with faint praise Bishop Butler, in whom many atoms combined
To form that remarkable structure, it pleased him to call—his mind.
Last, praise we the noble body to which, for the time, we belong,
Ere yet the swift whirl of the atoms has hurried us, ruthless, along,
The British Association—like Leviathan worshipped by Hobbes,
The incarnation of wisdom, built up of our witless nobs,
Which will carry on endless discussions, when I, and probably you,
Have melted in infinite azure—in English, till all is blue.

James Clerk Maxwell, 1874


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