George Walford: Scientific Religion

IC 36 included (on page 12) a note on Sir Isaac Newton and his religion. It remarked that systematic ideology goes against the tendency, common among the more extreme left, to posit a necessary connection between sound science and atheism, finding the search for precision to be constant rather with the types of religion, known generically as non-conformism, in which individual believers are expected to work out the truth for themselves, rather than accept tradition or authority. Atheism does of course appear in the course of ideological development, but at a level of sophistication above anything called for by at least the physical sciences. S.i. deals mainly with socially significant groupings rather than individuals, but these two cannot be sharply separated; groups are comprised of individuals, and although idiosyncrasy plays a large part in their behaviour (together with the influence of ideologies they have formerly held) these do tend to exhibit the conduct characteristic of their ideological group. The piece in IC 36 noted that in his religious thinking Newton displayed the same desire for rigour and precision as in his scientific work.

The issue seemed worth pursuing more seriously. Richard Westfall’s Never at Rest, the standard biography, has not much to say about religion; what follows here is based on The Religion of Sir Isaac Newton; the Fremantle Lectures 1973 by Frank E. Manuel (Oxford: Clarendon Press 1974; all references are to this work).

Manuel’s results do not invalidate what was said, but he does reveal complications. Towards the text of the Scriptures Newton behaved as we should expect, scrutinising them “as closely as any Puritan;” for the Church Fathers, however, he showed an Angelican respect. The times in which he lived did not encourage free expression of unorthodox belief, but this does not account for all the difficulties; the presence of such discrepancies in a thinker of this calibre goes far to confirm the expectation that ideological consistency will be displayed less by individual people than by large social groups.

His choice of disciples and friends shows him to have stood well away from orthodoxy. Samuel Clark was charged with propagating antitrinitarianism, Whiston – his chosen successor to the Lucasin Chair – ejected from Cambridge as a flagrant heretic, his close friend Fat de Duillier sentenced to the pillory for helping the Huguenots, and Edmond Halley, David Gregory and John Locke all suspected of heresy. Newton himself, however, retained his reputation for straightforward Angelicanism throughout his life; only later did the complexities of his religious thinking begin to come to light.

After Newton’s death Whiston collected and published the writings on religion he had issued under his own name; they totalled 31 small pages. The Chronology of Ancient Kingdoms Amended Newton prepared for the press himself, but Observations Upon the Prophecies of Daniel and the Apocalypse of St. John was made up from the papers he left by his nephew Benjamin Smith, who may have been more interested in producing a saleable commodity than in presenting Newton’s views accurately. A more reliable source of information is proved by his “vast” legacy of manuscripts neither published nor intended for publication.

To a modern sensibility it comes as almost a shock to learn that Newton was, in the words of his friend John Craig, “much more solicitous in his inquiries into Religion than into Natural Philosophy”; Craig went on to say that Newton avoided publication of views not commonly received in order to avoid engagement in disputes. The suggestion originating with Biot, that his religious work was the fantasising of an old man who had been a scientist when young, does not stand up; some of his more vigorous commentaries on prophecy were prepared in his prime. Two letters on texts crucial for trinitarian beliefs, which he has submitted for anonymous publication, were withdrawn on second thought, Manuel saying this was done “in panic.”

His copy-books display “scrupulosity, punitiveness, austerity, discipline and industriousness”; Manuel ascribes these qualities to character and early training, but the contrast with the comfortable assurances provided by the Angelican religion and the close parallel between this approach and that required to meet the conditions of effective work in science suggests rather an ideological origin.

Much of the difficulty in grasping Newton’s religious attitude seems to arise from his having been himself not alert to the direction in which his thought was taking him. The trend of his thinking indicates antitrinitarianism, science tending to displace Christ and leave him (Newton) alone to interpret God, but he cannot be pigeonholed as Arian, Socinian, Unitarian or Deist. In common with all dissenters, religious or political, he had to decide whether to keep his beliefs to himself for the sake of unity or to speak out and let the consequences look after themselves. Without being fully aware of it he may have been preparing the way for that new religion fit for the scientific age – a religion of great power and knowledge and precious little love, upon which late-Eighteenth-Century Frenchmen were so eager to bestow his name. Berkeley, Hartsoecker and Liebig drew out the irreligious implications of his system while he himself was still proclaiming, for example in the General Scholium to the Principia, belief in a personal God and divine commandments.

Manuel stresses Newton’s lack of interest in divine love, grace or mercy. His interests lay in studying God’s commandments as set out in the sacred writings (Manuel calls his religion “Scripture-bound”) and His actions as they appeared in the physical world.

In his generation he was the vehicle of God’s eternal truth, for by using new mathematical notations and an experimental method he combined the knowledge of the priest-scientists of the earliest nations, of Israel’s prophets, of the Greek mathematicians, and of the medieval alchemists.

Thinkers in this circle, eager to reconcile the Book of Nature with that of Scripture, produced a scientific explanation of the Flood and outlines, with scientific precision, the whole future history of the earth. Thomas Burnet’s Telluris Theoria Sacra, in describing the final conflagration, even presented a solution to the problem of burning a solid mass of rock. Newton insisted on the need for keeping the two studies distinct, but failed to comply with his own precept, science and religion being intertwined throughout his life. In the 1706 Latin edition of the Optics he claimed that every step forward in what we would now call science comes a step closer to the first Cause, and in the second edition of the Principia that part of the task of “experimental philosophy” was to move from the phenomena to Deity. For Newton He was the God of order, not of confusion, and the two Books, of Nature and of Scripture, were of equal worth. Striving to maintain a sacred quality in science, and seeking scientific rationality in religion, it was none of his intention that, largely as a result of his work, the Book of Nature should devour the Book of Scripture.

Newton’s statement of fundamental religious principles, his interpretation of prophecy, his textual criticism of the historical works of scripture, his system of world chronology, his cosmological theories, and his euhemeristic reduction of pagan mythology all bespeak the same mentality and style of thought. If nature was consonant with itself, so was Isaac Newton’s mind. At the height of his powers there was in him a compelling drive to find order and design in what appeared to be chaos, to distill from a vast, inchoate mass of materials a few basic principles that would embrace the whole and define the relationships of its component parts.

That describes not only Newton’s work but also the aspirations, if not the achievements, of non-conformists generally. It also describes the scientific process.

Most of what has been said here comes from Manuel; let us conclude with a passage from one of Newton’s unpublished manuscripts:

Let me therefore beg of thee not to trust to the opinion of any man concerning these things, for so it is great odds but thou shalt be deceived. Much less oughtest thou to rely upon the judgement of the multitude, for so shalt certainly be deceived. But search the scriptures thy self and that by frequent reading and constant meditation upon what thou readest, and earnest prayer to God to enlighten thine understanding if thou desirest to find the truth. Which if thou shalt at length attain thou wilt value by reason of the assurance and vigour it will add to they faith, and steddy satisfaction to thy mind which he onely can know how to estimate who shall experience it.

Do not rely upon any man’s opinion but search the Scriptures for yourself. It is a clear repudiation of authority in religion, an assertion of the enquiring, critical, non-conformist approach. And substitution of, to use the old phrase, the Book of Nature for the Book of Scripture, turns it into a description of the scientific attitude.

from Ideological Commentary 37, September 1989.