The influential Catholic writer Ronald Knox saw that religion was dying out as early as 1931. He asked why. Here are some of his answers:
The facts, indeed, have been patent enough throughout this century. The ripples of that agnosticism which was fashionable among intellectual circles in the later Victorian period widened out slowly over the surface of the public mind…. Meanwhile, the growth of the Labour movement had neutralized the political appeal and sapped the political strength of Nonconformity. Increased facilities for worldly enjoyment had whetted the appetite for it, popular education had encouraged people to specialize over their hobbies; a general loss of simplicity began to tell upon the vitality of our insular religion, which had always depended upon a soil of unadventurous conservatism to fertilize its influence. The War [1914-18] at once intensified the action of these forces, and opened our eyes to the inroads they had already made on public feeling” (Caliban in Grub Street, 1931).
He went on to argue that people no longer believed in a literally true Bible (the result of new Biblical scholarly studies). This “bred in us an itch for private theologies.” The western world swarmed with amateur theologians, unauthorised prophets, mystics and charlatans. Other thinkers, such as G. K. Chesterton, Malcolm Muggeridge and T. S. Eliot, also detected this unsettling trend.
For Paul’s latest essay on Aldous Huxley see his website dpcrook.wordpress. com. Click on Aldous Huxley.
Aldous was an eminent novelist and commentator writing in the 1920s to 1960s on science, evolution, religion, art, literature, mysticism and the human condition generally. Much of what he wrote is relevant today. One question he asked was what do we put in the place of religion in a secular world? Are we facing a dangerous loss of ethical values in a world governed by technology, hedonism and self- centredness?
Aldous Huxley was appalled at the arrogance of many scientists, who made sweeping judgements on matters of value, aesthetics and meaning, when their natural sciences were basically quantitative. They also dodged responsibility for their research (which ultimately produced the atom bomb):
“They retire to their cloistered laboratories, and there amuse themselves by performing delightfully interesting researches. Science and art are only too often a superior kind of dope, possessing this advantage over booze and morphia: that they can be indulged in with a good conscience and with the conviction that, in the process of indulging, one id leading the ‘higher life’ ” [Ends and Means, 1937.]
Aldous Huxley (Brave New World, etc) admired the astonishing achievements of science (which he had studied assiduously) but emphasised its limits:
“The success was intoxicating and … many scientists and philosophers came to imagine that this useful abstraction from reality was reality itself. Reality as actually experienced contains intuitions of values and significance, contains love, beauty, mystical ecstasy, intimations of godhead. Science did not and still does not possess intellectual instruments with which to deal with these aspects of reality”
[End and Means, 1937.]
Good news! A copy edited proof of my book Intellectuals and the Decline of Religion has gone to Boolarong Press.
It is a collection’s of Paul’s essays and reviews, dealing with a range of intellectuals in Britain in the period from roughly 1918 to the 1960s. They include G. K Chesterton, J. B. Priestley, Arnold Toynbee, Malcolm Muggeridge, Alec Vidler, T. S. Eliot, C. S. Lewis and Joseph Needham.
The great biologist and public intellectual Julian Huxley insisted that human learning was of cosmic significance:
“It is thus part of man’s destiny to be the necessary agent of the cosmos in understanding more of itself, in bearing witness to its wonder, beauty, and interest, in creating new aids to and mechanisms for existence, in experiencing itself, and so introducing the cosmos to more new and more valuable experiences”
New Bottles for New Wine (1957).
Aldous Huxley wrote in 1956:
“Applied science is a conjurer, whose bottomless hat yields the softest Angora rabbits and the most petrifying of Medusas…. But I am still optimist enough.. to bet that the non-human otherness at the root of man’s being will ultimately triumph over the all too human selves who frame the ideologies and engineer the collective suicides.” (“The Desert”).
Aldous was fond of phrases such as “non-human otherness” and “transcendent consciousness”. His later romantic, spiritual and environmentalist ideas are expressed in his books such as The Perennial Philosophy (1945).