Frequent references to a “post-secular” world remind us that the “secularisation thesis” of an irreversible displacement of religious belief and practice in cultures shaped by science and technology is overly simplistic and has not been realised in many contexts. In this paper, I shall revisit the secularisation thesis, taking as a test case the science that has arguably provided the most potent rhetorical resources for challenging spiritual interpretations of the natural world, namely chemistry. In striving to manipulate matter and transcend the constraints of a supposedly optimally-ordered world, chemists like Joseph Priestley shifted the focus of human attention from spirit to matter, aiding the construction of a secular rhetoric. Yet as Charles Taylor has argued, there are deeper causes of the secularisation of western societies than the social effects of such changes alone and there is a need to distinguish the secularisation of science from secularisation by science. There is, therefore, a mythology to be exposed along with its attendant falsehoods, not least among which would be the claim that an effective substitute for religious adherence, conferring meaning, identity and purpose for a human life, has been or ever could be rooted in the sciences alone.
THIS PUBLIC SEMINAR WILL BE HELD IN THE SUTRO ROOM OF TRINITY COLLEGE, OXFORD, AT 8:30PM ON THURSDAY 24th JANUARY 2013, WITH DRINKS AT 8:15PM.
JOHN HEDLEY BROOKE is a former Gifford Lecturer and was the first Andreas Idreos Professor of Science and Religion at Oxford University, having previously been Professor of the History of Science at Lancaster and holding fellowships at Cambridge and Sussex. He is a former Editor of the British Journal for the History of Science, President of the British Society for the History of Science, of the Historical Section of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, and of the International Society for Science & Religion. Among his books are Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives (Cambridge University Press, 1991), which won the Watson Davis Prize of the History of Science Society and a Templeton prize. Other major publications include Thinking About Matter: Studies in the History of Chemical Philosophy (Ashgate, 1995); and (with Geoffrey Cantor) Reconstructing Nature: The Engagement of Science & Religion (T & T Clark, 1998; Oxford University Press, 2000). He has made a special study of the interpenetration of scientific and religious discourse. His primary research interests continue to be the history of natural theology, the Darwinian revolution, and the place of science in contrasting religious cultures.