Books on Science and Religion #15: Great Britain, The Industrial Revolution and Capitalism

Books on Science and Religion #15: Great Britain, The Industrial Revolution and Capitalism

SRFRIBERG-4a-WbNature in its essence is the embodiment of My Name, the Maker, the Creator. Nature is God’s Will and is its expression in and through the contingent world.


Sept 14, 2014

Our last several blogs looked at 19th century developments in the relationship between science, scientism, materialism and religion in France and Germany as outlined in Richard Olson’s historical overview of the 19th century origins of modern scientism, Science and Scientism in Nineteenth-Century Europe.

France and Germany were transformed by the French revolution and the subsequent Napoleonic Wars, radically changing to focus on education, science and technology. Accompanying these changes in focus were the emergence of social and cultural movements that exalted science and claimed it to be a replacement for religion as the guiding light Polytechnique_seal.svgfor society. The influential French intellectual Auguste Comte, for example, argued that societies go through three stages of development with religion as the most primitive (the three stages are the religious or theological stages, the intermediary philosophical or metaphysical stage, and finally the advanced and mature scientific stage). Germany – or more specifically, Prussia – invented the modern research university and the compulsory modern education system. And then several of its philosophers and radical thinkers invented two of the most influential forms materialism – the “scientific” materialism of Büchner and Vogt, and the “historical” materialism of Marx and Engels.

England was spared direct attack during the Napoleonic wars where it emerged as the victor. As a consequence, it became the predominant world military power. A contributor to its victory and increasing influence was the British industrial revolution and the emergence of modern capitalism, which we review next. But before doing so, we review the Baha’i approach to material progress and capitalism.

Capitalism, Material Development, and the Baha’i Faith

Steam Engine and HorseThe Baha’i teachings emphasize the need for material progress, but condemn materialism. Material progress, Baha’is believe, does not bear fruit unless it is accompanied by spiritual progress.  In a tablet to a peace conference in the Hague in 1919, `Abdu’l-Baha spelled out this view in dramatic terms:

And among the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh is that although material civilization is one of the means for the progress of the world of mankind, yet until it becomes combined with Divine civilization, the desired result, which is the felicity of mankind, will not be attained.

Consider! These battleships that reduce a city to ruins within the space of an hour are the result of material civilization; likewise the Krup guns, the Mauser rifles, dynamite, submarines, torpedo boats, armed aircraft and bombing areoplanes — all these weapons of war are malignant fruits of material civilization. Had material civilization been combined with Divine civilization, these fiery weapons would never have been invented …

Material civilization is like the body. No matter how infinitely graceful, elegant and beautiful it may be, it is dead. … Without the spirit the world of mankind is lifeless, and without this light the world of mankind is in utter darkness. For the world of nature is an animal world. Until man is born again from the world of nature, that is to say, becomes detached from the world of nature, he is essentially an animal, and it is the teachings of God which convert this animal into a human soul.  (‘Abdu’l-Baha, Tablet to the Hague, p. 7)

With respect to capitalism, the Baha’i teachings are nuanced. Shoghi Effendi, the Guardian of the Baha’i Faith, wrote “There is nothing in the teachings against some kind of capitalism; its present form, though, would require adjustments to be made.”  At the same time, he warns against the “evil forces” that “unbridled capitalism” unleash.

united kingdom

Early 19th Century Developments in Science and Religion in Great Britain

As pointed out, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland was not substantially transformed by the Napoleonic Wars, in a large part because it was protected both by the ocean from invasion and by the Royal Navy, then the best in the world. Accordingly, it didn’t experience the radical reorganization of educational and scientific affairs that took place in France and Germany. However, it experienced a radical reorganization of its own in the industrial revolution and the subsequent rapid rate of social change. At the same time the industrial revolution was brewing in the midlands and north of England, Scottish universities were at the leading edge of enlightenment thought. British science, although about to be eclipsed by state-supported French and German science, was nonetheless strong.

The Industrial Revolution

The industrial revolution was initially a British affair, made possible by the invention of the steam engine, abundant coal and iron ore, and a transportation network of canals, shipping, and eventually railroads that reached around the world. And it soon spread out from Great Britain to change – and it continue to change – the world. The Wiki / Princeton website describes it as follows:

The Industrial Revolution was a period from the 18th to the 19th century where major changes in agriculture, manufacturing, mining, transport, and technology had a profound effect on the socioeconomic and cultural conditions starting in the United Kingdom, then subsequently spreading throughout Europe, North America, and eventually the world.

industryfactoryThe Industrial Revolution marks a major turning point in human history; almost every aspect of daily life was eventually influenced in some way. Most notably, average income and population began to exhibit unprecedented sustained growth. In the two centuries following 1800, the world’s average per capita income increased over 10-fold, while the world’s population increased over 6-fold

[T]here began a transition in parts of Great Britain’s previously manual labour and draft-animal–based economy towards machine-based manufacturing. It started with the mechanisation of the textile industries, the development of iron-making techniques and the increased use of refined coal. Trade expansion was enabled by the introduction of canals, improved roads and railways.

Before the industrial revolution, discussions about science, materialism, scientism and religion tended towards the theological or the political. They really didn’t have much impact on the way that the majority of people lived. When marauding revolutionaries killed thousands of Catholic priests and nuns in the dechristianisation of France during the French Revolution, it was a political act similar in spirit to hundreds of occurrences of similar nature before.

However, with industrialization and the rapid transformation of every aspects of the world that it promised, the impact of decisions based on scientific or religious grounds became much greater. It also meant that traditional religion, with its great store of ideas from the past about agrarian or mercantile societies, no longer had the relevance it once did. Religion showed itself clearly – in Great Britain and elsewhere – to lack the answers that society needed to address the impact of industrialization.

Capitalism and the Birth of Modern Economics

AdamSmithOne of the replacements for religion was economic theory. One of the consequences of the industrial revolution was the birth of modern capitalism. Its theoretical development was aided by the strong late 18th century university system in Scotland and what is now called the Scottish Enlightenment. The work of Adam Smith (1723-1790) and subsequent thinkers like David Ricardo (1772-1823), Jean-Baptiste Say (1767–1832), Thomas Malthus (1767–1832) and John Stuart Mill (1806–1873) challenged and helped overturn the then dominant mercantile theory of economics with its emphasis on trade for profit as the source of wealth and societal advancement. Capitalism became the preferred replacement. Wikipedia, in its article on capitalism, summarizes:

The classical school of economic thought emerged in Britain in the late 18th century. The classical political economists Adam Smith, David Ricardo, Jean-Baptiste Say, and John Stuart Mill published analyses of the production, distribution and exchange of goods in a market that have since formed the basis of study for most contemporary economists.

Smith’s attack on mercantilism and his reasoning for “the system of natural liberty” in The Wealth of Nations (1776) are usually taken as the beginning of classical political economy.

Smith devised a set of concepts that remain strongly associated with capitalism today. His theories regarding the “invisible hand” are commonly interpreted to mean individual pursuit of self-interest unintentionally producing collective good for society.

He criticized monopolies, tariffs, duties, and other state enforced restrictions of his time and believed that the market is the most fair and efficient arbitrator of resources. 

The values of classical political economy are strongly associated with the classical liberal doctrine of minimal government intervention in the economy, though it does not necessarily oppose the state’s provision of a few basic public goods. Classical liberal thought has generally assumed a clear division between the economy and other realms of social activity, such as the state.

The changes wrought by the industrial revolution, capitalism, modern science, technical development, and world empire were unprecedented and challenging, but also transformative and revolutionary.  Theories based on how change takes place based in organic systems – theories of growth and development – theories of what we know call evolution – were becoming more and more influential long before they became scientific.  We will discuss these next.

Next Blog

Next week, we discuss the emergence of organic theories of development – evolution – as an powerful and emerging source of scientism and materialism in 19th century England.


This is the 15th in a series of blogs on the modern science and religion literature. 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 in Japan for 10 years before joining the semiconductor industry in Silicon Valley.

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