Posts Tagged ‘Embryology’

18th Century Religious Scepticism Not Based on Science: Part 2 – Atheist Materialism

June 8, 2013

In the first part of this essay, I examined how most of the arguments against Christianity and revealed religion used by the Deists were philosophical, rather than scientific. Science did play a part in their attacks on Christianity, but it was a subordinate role. The same is true of 18th century atheism. Most of the arguments used by Jean Meslier in his Testament, for example are again, moral, philosophical and political, rather than scientific. Meslier was a former Roman Catholic priest, who attacked Christianity and particularly Roman Catholicism for its supposed immorality. He considered that religions were artificial creations of ruling elites, intended to justify and further their own power. He attacked Christian morality for supposedly preaching an acquiescent attitude towards tyranny, like monarchist rule in contemporary France. Like many later atheists, he also attacked the idea of an immortal soul and rewards in the hereafter for discouraging people from social reform here on Earth.

The Three Scientific Developments Used to Argue for Atheism in the 18th Century

Like some of the Deists, he also believed that matter had self-organising properties. The evidence for this came from three sources. These were John Turbeville Needham’s experiments into spontaneous generation, Haller’s discovery that muscles from recently deceased animals contracted when pricked, and the hydra’s ability to regenerate when cut. Needham was an English Roman Catholic priest. In his experiments he noted the appearance of microscopic organisms from the remains of vegetable matter and even the gravy from roast meat. Albrecht von Haller was a Swiss naturalist, who believed that there was an unknown force present in the heart. This indicated that matter had its was able to move itself independently of the soul. La Mettrie, the author of the materialist, L’homme machine (Man a Machine) of 1747 incorporated it into his own arguments against the existence of the soul. The dissection of polyps showed that this creature would become two or more when cut into pieces, and so apparently disproved the idea of indivisible animals. Finally, the great 18th century atheist, Denis Diderot argued living creatures may have evolved over millions of years to produce their present forms. He suggested a kind of natural selection, in which useless or defective physiological features had died out. This gave living creatures the appearance of design, even though they were simply the products of chance evolution.

These Experiments Do Not Necessarily Lead to Atheism

In fact all three of these scientific discoveries could be interpreted in other ways that did not support materialist atheism. Needham himself did not see any danger to religion in his results. Indeed, he was attacked by Voltaire as an Irish Jesuit monger of fraudulent miracles, despite the fact that he was English, not Irish, and not a Jesuit. As for the new force of motion supposedly inherent in muscle tissue, Haller believed it was similar to gravity. Both forces were known through their effects, but were ultimately instruments of a Creator God. He considered the presence of this so-called “irritability” in muscle tissue was much less important than contemporary debates in embryology in supporting or leading to atheism. At the time Haller was engaged in an argument with C.F. Wolff over the nature of the development of the embryo. The debate centred around two rival concepts, epigenesis and pre-formation. Epigenesis was the view that the embryo developed from the less organised material of the egg. Pref-formation, by contrast, was the view that creature already existed, pre-formed in the egg or sperm of the animal. Haller strongly supported pre-formation. He considered that the development of living beings from unorganised matter would indicate that similarly life itself had originated through these forces without the action of a creator God. Wolff believed that his observation of chick embryos had indeed shown that individual organisms develop from the primordial, undifferentiated matter of the egg. Unlike Haller, he did not see any theological difference whether one believed in either theory. He stated that ‘Nothing is demonstrated against the existence of divine power, even if bodies are produced by natural forces and causes, for these very forces and causes … claim an author for themselves just as much as organic bodies do.’ Thus immaterial forces and the matter they shaped were both grounded in God.

AS for Abraham Trembley’s experiments with the polyp, this was only felt to show that polyps did not have indivisible souls. It was not believed to be relevant to other animals and humans. Indeed, more conservative naturalists believed that the polyp was actually a missing link in God’s great chain of being between plants and animals.

Joseph Priestley: Scientist, Revolutionary and Unitarian, Rational Christianity

Some Unitarians, such as the Dissenting Minister Joseph Priestly, also managed to combine materialism with a form of Christianity. Priestly was an active scientific research. His experiments on the various gases included the production of what he termed ‘dephlogisticated air’, which was later called ‘oxygen’ by Lavoisier. Priestly attempted to show that materialist science would serve to purify Christianity of what he considered to be superstitious features derived from ancient Platonism, such as, he believed, the doctrine of the Trinity. Priestly was a philosophical monist, who believed that God worked through forces that were neither physical or immaterial as commonly understood. They could be identified with matter, but this was a matter that possessed active powers of motion and organisation. He did not believe in an immaterial soul, but did look forward to the Resurrection. He also accepted miracles, and argued as proof that without them, Christianity could not possibly have spread. He was also an egalitarian, who supported first the French, and then the American Revolutions. He finally moved to America after the War of Independence. In an 1802 letter to Thomas Jefferson, Priestly described how he was looking forward to living under the protection of the American Constitution. He praised this as ‘the most favourable to political liberty, and private happiness, of any in the world’. Despite his scientific scepticism of orthodox Christianity, he always denied that he was an atheist. When one of his French materialist friends at a dinner stated that he no more believed in Christianity than they did, he replied that he was indeed a Christian believer.

Science as Means for Purifying Christianity, Unitarians Active in Scientific Advances of Industrial Revolution

For Priestly, scientific progress was ‘the means under God of extirpating all error and prejudice, and of putting an end to all undue and usurped ahtority in the business of religion as well as science’. These views were shared by other Unitarians in the main British manufacturing towns. These Unitarians were active in scientific research and their practical application in industry. They were particularly prominent in the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society, but were also strongly present in most of scientific societies outside London. William Turner, another Unitarian, was the dominant figure behind the Newcastle Literary and Philosophical Society. Turner has been described as believing that the Industrial Revolution was not happening behind God’s back, but at His express command.

Conclusion: 18th Century Science Not Necessarily atheist, Could Lead instead to Rational, Unitarian Christianity

Thus, scientific developments also played only a small role in the atheist arguments that arose during the 18th century. Like the arguments of the Deists, these were also primarily moral, philosophical and political. The three major scientific observations that did seem to argue for atheism and materialism – Needham’s observation of spontaneous generation, the response of dissected muscle tissue to stimulation and the polyp were largely seen as having no relevance to the wider debate about the Almighty. In the case of the continued activity in muscle tissue, this was seen as like Newton’s force of gravity in being based in God, and as a force through which the Lord worked.
Finally, Joseph Priestly and his fellow Unitarian scientists showed how some Dissenters combined a belief in science to produce an unorthodox form of rational Christianity.

The Church and the British Government’s Human Embryology Research Bill

March 26, 2008

One of the big stories over this side of the Atlantic in Britain this week is the debate in parliament over the government’s human embryology research bill. This is, or should be, intensely controversial, not least because one of the possibilities being discussed is of allowing human and animal cells to be mixed. The Church criticised this suggestion on Monday, and was in turn criticised by the broadcaster and infertility expert, Lord Robert Winston. Winston stated that such research, using cells created from a mixture of human and animal genetic material, would lead to cures for disease, and that by opposing this the Church risked making itself look stupid.

Now I like Dr. Winston. He’s a great science presenter with a genial and avuncular manner. He did a fascinating programme on the development of the world religious faiths, The Story of God, on BBC television a few years ago. He’s a practising Jew, and managed to leave Richard Dawkins looking more than a little nonplussed on camera when he and Dawkins were discussing religion. Dawkins had made a statement, if I remember correctly, to the effect that he could see how many scientists took belief in God seriously, to which Winston quietly replied ‘I believe in God.’ Dawkins seemed to step back a bit, looked at him and questioned this. ‘Yes, I really do believe in God’, said Winston. I don’t think Dawkins really knew how to take this, as although Dawkins does recognise that many scientists are religious, it seems to me that he genuinely doesn’t understand how any scientifically educated person can still believe in God. Furthermore, Winstone gave a talk last year to the Edinburgh Association for the Advancement of Science criticising atheists like Dawkins for confusing atheism with science. I think he described such people as ‘deluded’.

However, I think he’s wrong on this point. Very wrong.

The opposition to such embryological research is based on very carefully reasoned positions on the dignity of human life. People aren’t just biochemical machines, but possessed of reason and the capacity for suffering. Human life has an innate dignity which extends also to its beginning in embryos and blastocytes, even though these may not be able to experience pain. The philosophical issues involving the treatment of human embryos, even if these are merely the few cells envisaged by the scientists engaged in this research, have implications for human dignity as a whole. Hence the opposition to such embryological research. For Jews and Christians, human dignity has its basis in the Biblical description of humanity made in the image of the Almighty, though this does not make it irrational. Philosophers have defended the innate dignity of human life against attitudes to reproduction that are felt to degrade this dignity through rational, logical argument. Now the Church’s attitude towards such research can be questioned, and arguments framed against it, but that does not mean that the Church’s attitude is stupid or wrong.

The statement that such experiments in creating human/animal hybrids would lead to cures for disease is also open to question. There is in fact no guarantee that this will occur. All that can be said is that those engaged in such research believe that it will lead to cures for disease. And the question remains that even if this were so, whether it would justify the moral danger of such research.

Parallels to Controversy over Embryonic Stem Cells

There are parallels here to the controversy in America a year ago about research into embryonic stem cells. The use of such material from embryos was being advocated as holding insights to any number of important biological questions, including the replacement of other cells damaged by disease or aging. It promised cures for a number of acutely debilitating conditions. Nevertheless, George Bush’s administration felt that federal funds could not be used to support this research, and it was believed that here Bush’s religious views and those of the Christian Right were important in blocking such funding. There was a storm of protest from the scientific community engaged in the research, and it was presented in parts of the science press as a case of retrogressive religion holding back the progress of science and medicine.

Other scientists involved in stem cell research, however, pointed out that there were major flaws in the supposed usefulness of embryonic stem cells and stated that adult stem cells were far more suitable for such research. I remember reading an article about it in a Right-wing American Christian website, which quoted the Christian head of a biotech company as stating that his company was not engaged in embryonic stem cell research because of the serious technical difficulties in manipulating such cells compared to those from adults. Nevertheless the suitability of adult stem cells was apparently rejected in favour of embryonic stem cells by the vast majority of those engaged in such research. It was claimed that the support of research using adult, but not embryonic stem cells was part of a ‘Republican war on science’, and that adult stem cells could not possibility be manipulated so that they fulfilled the scientific and medical claims made for their use. Such criticism was contradicted last November when two labs, one in Wisconsin and the other in Japan, independently showed that adult stem cells could be induced to perform the functions being claimed for them. There are, however, still immense practical difficulties for the manipulation of embryonic stem cells, or so I understand.

My own feeling is that something similar may be the case with the claims made by British biotech researchers here that creating cells from animal and human material will lead to greater insights and cures for diseases. The claim that such hybrid cells could lead to medical advances may be misplaced or overstated. As well as being morally dubious, the science also may be flawed.

Parallels to the Ethical Debate over Cloning

There is also a further danger that such research will lead to a return to eugenics, assisted by modern biotechnology. In 1970 the President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Bentley Glass, declared that humanity should take control of its nature and try to transcend itself by altering its genotype. 1 As for the ethical dimensions of such research, while the ethics of science are given far greater attention and discussion than they were in the 1950s some scientists have commented that scientists engaged in such research are rarely interested in its ethical dimension. Lee Silver, the director of a molecular biology lab at Princeton, commenting on the cloning of Dolly the sheep, remarked ‘The scientists who do the research never think about the implications’, concluding that they did so because it might affect their ability to do research’. 2  

Now clearly medical research should be encouraged and supported, and the immense potential of science to cure and treat disease explored and realised. But this does not mean that all such research that claims to lead to cures for disease should be followed. For this reason I strongly hope that attempts to mix human and animal material to create hybrid cells, even for the noblest reasons of curing disease, will be rejected because of the immense moral danger it presents to humanity. The rejection of this type of research by the Church is neither stupid nor irrational, but an entirely rational response to the immense human moral cost involved.


1. Gina Kolata, Clone (London, Penguin 1997), p. 65.

2. Kolata, Clone, p. 35.