God has conferred upon and added to man a distinctive power — the faculty of intellectual investigation into the secrets of creation, the acquisition of higher knowledge — the greatest virtue of which is scientific enlightenment.
The laws of motion and the theory of gravity that Newton outlined in the Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica not only established the modern science of physics, but serve as the template for the modern mathematical sciences. The empirical methods he outlined in the Optiks are those of modern science, engineering, development, and business. His mathematical methodologies – especially the calculus – make modern engineering possible.
Newton was a devoutly religious man, like most of thinkers who created the scientific revolution. Also, like most of them, he was a rationalist who distrusted the vague and muddled explanations he saw in Christian dogma. Because of the clarity and power of his science, and because he embraced clear thinking and analysis with respect to religion, he bequethed a powerful vision of the unity of science and religion to the modern world.
In 18th century Britain, his perspectives were incorporated into liberal Anglicism and the views of the British entrepreneuers, businessmen, bankers and engineers who created modern capitalism, the industrial revolution, and business-oriented democracy. Modern thinkers that embrace both science and religion are heirs to his thinking. The Bahá’í vision of the unity of science and religion – the view that both true religion and true science are equally necessary if mankind is to advance – are presaged in his vision.
Newton’s Religious Views
For Newton, belief in God was central, and his studies of theology were as important to him as were his studies in science. In the last twenty years, scholars have re-evaluated Newton’s interest in religion, drawing on a vast, newly available database of previously unpublished work. Snobelen (see here) evaluates the new findings thus:
In addition to being the preeminent natural philosopher in the West in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, Newton was a theologian and prophetic exegete in his own right. It is also now known that he left behind one of the largest corpora of theological writings in the early modern period (totalling some four million words). In his zeal to plumb the depths of biblical theology and comb the records of the early church, Newton far out-stripped all but a few of his contemporaries, including those who are known as divines or religious figures in the first instance.
This most beautiful system of the sun, planets and comets could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being … He is eternal and infinite, omnipotent and omniscient; that is, his duration reaches from eternity to eternity; his presence from infinity to infinity; he governs all things, and knows all things that are or can be done …
To Newton, all things have a cause, and their cause is God. The proof of existence of God is to be found in the excellence of creation. For Newton, nature is proof that there is an Intelligent Designer. Again, the Scholium:
We know him only by most wise and excellent contrivances of things, and final causes; we admire him for his perfections; but we reverence and adore him on account of his dominion … . Blind metaphysical necessity which is certainly the same always and everywhere, could produce no variety of things. All that diversity of natural things which we find suited to different times and places could arise from nothing but the ideas and Will of a Being necessarily existing.
Newton, Snobelen writes, believed in “a God of absolute power and dominion who intervenes directly in the human and natural worlds.” It is God, according to Newton, who maintain the gravitational force that holds the planet and the earth in their orbits, rather than some property of inert matter.
Newton brought the same rational approach to belief in God that he brought to natural philosophy and science. Again, Snobelen:
Newton fashioned himself as a priest of nature and committed himself to the reformations of natural philosophy and religion. Both these reformations involved the rejection of vain hypothesizing and the a priori introduction of metaphysics. For Newton, God was to be found through the humble and inductive study of both God’s Word and His Works.
In late 17th and early 18th century England, Newton’s prestige as a scientist gave his theological views considerable power. He used them to buttress the then emerging liberal Anglicism of English protestantism. Margaret Jacob, a leading Newtonian scholar, sets the scene:
The interplay between science and religion in seventeenth-century England served to transform both. Far from being in conflict, as historians used to suppose, science and religion (as systems of ideas) modified each other in the course of the century. Mainstream English Protestants gradually embraced a version of the new science that supported traditional Christian metaphysics, while scientists responded to the necessity of protecting an established church and religiosity by significantly modifying the mechanical philosophy of nature and purging it of its materialistic tendencies.
Today we use words like capitalism and revolution to describe these forces; in the seventeenth century, men (and some women) spoke of nature and God, of laws spiritual and natural, of self-interest or greed, of business, and of the necessity for order and harmony.
Newton was an important contributor to this transformation of Anglicism, both directly as a member of parliament for Cambridge University, as Master of the Mint, as the first scientist to be knighted, and as head of the prestigious Royal Society, and indirectly as a behind-the-scenes player wielding influence and directing activities.
Newton’s Non-orthodox views of Christianity
In public, Newton was the epitome of a respectable progressive Christian. In private, he was radical, even heretical (although his “heresy” was along the lines of applying his famed powers of concentration to both Christian and Jewish scripture and coming up with his own conclusions).
Newton privately rejected Trinitarianism, the Christian dogma that God exists as three persons (God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit) and embraced Arianism. Both views, if widely known, would have led to Newton being branded a heretic, i.e., a non-believer. Arianism – widely and divisively persecuted 1600 years – held that Christ was created by God and therefore not God’s equal. Therefore, you should worship God, not Christ. To Newton, the illogic of Trinitarianism was evidence that Christianity had been corrupted by man-made doctrines and that it needed further reformation – the rise of protestantism was not enough. And he rejected evil spirits. They were just “distempers of the mind.” The Devil didn’t exist – he was merely “a symbol for human lust”.
Newton also thought that true and pure religion was of ancient vintage and not just a possession of Christianity. The role of Christ, he came to believe, was to restore the ancient belief in God to its true station. And because of the corruption of Christianity, the restoration of true belief would have to happen again. The Jews would return to Israel, the end of the world would come, and Christ would return. Snobelen characterizes this side of Newton’s religiousity thus:
He believed in the return of Christ, the restoration of the Jews to Israel, the rebuilding of the Jerusalem Temple and the coming Kingdom of God on earth—for which Newton believed one should pray every day….
Newton was unhappy with those who set prophetic dates and thereby brought discredit on Christianity when they failed. This did not stop Newton himself from making prophetic calculations, from which his own dates can be extrapolated. These show that he put the parousia [the second coming of Christ] off well beyond his own lifetime to the nineteenth or twentieth centuries at the earliest. Newton also believed that the final reformation of Christianity would not happen until around this time …
For Baha’is, of course, this means that Newton foresaw the playing out of prophecy that is fulfilled by the emergence of the Bahá’í Faith in the 19th and 20th centuries as the return of Christ in the person of Bahá’u'llah.
Newton in the Context of The Enlightenment and Collapse of Religious Certainty
Newton’s view of the unity of science and religion was extraordinarily powerful and held sway in Britain, in Germany, and in the Americas for more than a hundred years. It was also strongly influential in Catholic France where it was adopted, with Christianity subtracted off, by Voltaire as a kind of subversive weapon with which to attack Catholicism. It continues to be the view of many scientists and liberal religionists the world over.
But its picture of a universe maintained by God’s bounty rapidly fell away in influence, because of the attacks of the anti-Christian philosophes, because of the rise of deism and atheism, because of the rapid growth of highly technical and specialist disciplines in science, but mainly because it worked perfectly well as a description of the universe even without God.
Richard Westfall, one of the best known chroniclers of Newton’s life, summarizes his view of Enlightentment thought about religion, including Newton’s, in the folllowing way:
The new natural-philosophy found evidence of God in nature. … Inevitably, natural philosophers concentrated on what alone natural philosophy could reveal, God the Creator, and they did so increasingly as the scientific revolution progressed. Just as inevitably, given the thrust of the new conception of nature, they found a God who revealed Himself in immutable laws and not in the watchful care of personal providence or in miraculous acts. Rationalism, a probing of the grounds of assent, was a necessary aspect of a philosophical movement founded on the rejection of a tradition as old as Western man; such rationalism was bound in the end to question affirmations of Christianity once held to be above reason. …
During the seventeenth century, in the eyes of the leaders of thought, the enchanted world of the medieval church dissolved right away. Responsible thinkers could not ignore the fact. Newton tried to salvage Christianity by purging it of irrationalities.
We study the fate of Newton’s vision of the unity of science and religion – how it turned into the clockwork picture of the universe – in the next blog.
This is the 9th in a series of blogs on the Enlightenment Vision of Science. The author, Stephen Friberg, is a Bahá’í living in Mountain View, California. A research physicist by training, he wrote Religion and Evolution Reconciled: ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Comments on Evolution with Courosh Mehanian. He worked at NTT in Japan before joining the semiconductor industry in Silicon Valley.