Galileo once wrote that ‘the Bible tells us how to go to Heaven, but not how the heavens go’. From the Greeks to the present day, thoughtful people have struggled to reconcile the discoveries of science with religious belief and authority.
In the age before Darwin many powerful clerics were also notable scientific scholars and leading scientists were often at least conventionally pious. Observing life ever more closely, an extraordinary generation of English geologists, fossil hunters and naturalists were compelled to accept that their planet was older, more complicated, diverse and cruel than they had previously imagined. Questions about God and the Bible inevitably began to arise. But for these men, unlike for Darwin, science and religion could share a philosophical basis: a careful, rational study of nature, instead of denying God, would confirm that life is, after all, the product of God’s unique creation. This belief became known as natural theology.
Its greatest exponent was William Paley but the work of others such as John Ray, Robert Plot, William Whiston, Thomas Burnet, John Woodward, Erasmus Darwin and countless more writing between 1665 and 1800 gives us an extraordinary glimpse into minds at the forefront of an epic enquiry. Taking his title from Paley’s famous analogy that as a watch requiried a maker, so nature in all its intricacy had to be the creation of a supreme designer, Keith Thomson’s wonderful book brings to life their dilemmas, and is a winning portrayal of intellectuals struggling with their belief systems in an age of revolutionary science.