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The X Club

4 August 2011

A semi-secret society in the 19th Century met to discuss science without fear of religious persecution. Would the same forces impact science today?

Writing in 1864, the mathematician Thomas Archer Hirst (shown here) recounted a recent meeting in London's Mayfair district:

On Thursday evening Nov. 3, an event, probably of some importance, occurred at the St George's Hotel, Albemarle Street. A new club was formed of eight members: viz: Tyndall, Hooker, Huxley, Busk, Frankland, Spencer, Lubbock and myself. Besides personal friendship, the bond that united us was devotion to science, pure and free, untrammelled by religious dogmas.

A ninth member, the mathematician and physicist William Spottiswoode, joined the December meeting of the club, which became known as the X Club.

Thomas_Archer_Hirst.jpg

The relationship between science and religion was severely strained in the mid 1800s. Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species came out in 1859. Three years later, the Anglican bishop of Natal John William Colenso published the first of his mathematical investigations into the society described in the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible. Based on population dynamics, food supply, transport, and other considerations, he concluded that information in the Pentateuch was unreliable.

Reacting to those and other encroachments of science and reason into religion, Pope Pius IX published a Syllabus of Errors. Its third article declared false the notion that

human reason, without any reference whatsoever to God, is the sole arbiter of truth and falsehood, and of good and evil; it is law to itself, and suffices, by its natural force, to secure the welfare of men and of nations.

The X Clubbers were not against religion. Like some of today's scientists who believe in God, they considered biblical miracles as allegories, rather than actual feats of divine intervention. Indeed, the X Club's position on science and religion could reasonably be described as mainstream now.

But that mainstream position rests on today's science. Could new discoveries prove as disrupting to religious belief as Darwin's theory of evolution was in the X Clubbers' day? I think so. Scientists could conceivably find purely mechanistic explanations for human consciousness and the origin of life. When they do, and if a religious backlash ensues, I hope they won't feel compelled, as the X Clubbers evidently did, to meet in private to talk about science "untrammelled by religious dogmas."

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