International Society for Science & Religion - Library Project

Quakers, Jews and Science: Religious Responses to Modernity and the Sciences in Britain, 1650-1900

by Geoffrey Cantor

Introductory Essay by Matthew Stanley

This book examines how two minority religious communities in Britain, Quakers and Jews, engaged with science and modernity. It continues a trend within the study of science and religion of rejecting “warfare” approaches or essentialist narratives in favor of careful historical study. It also brings a number of important methodologies from the recent history of science: attention to local culture; the diversity of meanings of “science” and “religion” between and within groups; the roles of marginalized groups; and scientific practice (as opposed to sole focus on beliefs and ideas). A review of the historical background, beliefs, and general practices of each community is provided, but most of the book is structured around a series of thematic chapters that present the Jewish and Quaker communities in parallel. Cantor examines how each engaged with the science of the day, including scientific institutions, education in science, scientific careers, and concrete aspects of scientific practice. The book ends with the reactions of both communities to Darwinian evolution.

A major issue discussed is how Quaker and Jewish communities functioned as minorities constrained by Anglican dominance. Temporally the book begins with the emergence of the Quakers and the legalization of open Jewish practice in the 17th century and ends with the significant transformations of both communities at the close of the 19th century. The contrast of Quakers and Jews is fruitful: they share enough traits to allow comparison (e.g., insular, sectarian mindsets) while being different enough to demonstrate the importance of local factors (e.g., the role of scripture). This comparison helps show the danger of talking about “religion” in general instead of about individual communities with precise beliefs and practices dependent on their local context. Religious minorities in Britain of this period had complex relationships to science because the university system was virtually closed to them by the Test Acts. This forced individuals who hoped to pursue scientific education or employment into unusual career paths, often drawing on the resources of their communities to forge distinctive, idiosyncratic, approaches to science. Scientific institutions such as the BAAS were among the few sites where Quakers and Jews could interact on equal terms with Anglicans. This emphasis on minority religious communities also sheds new light on the thoroughly-explored territory of the reception of Darwinian evolution. Cantor shows not only how the Quaker and Jewish responses differed from the Anglican reaction and each other, but also that the reception varied within these communities as well. This sensitivity to ultra-local context is extremely useful for showing the importance of historically contingent factors in the reception of Darwinism.

A crucial part of the book shows the effects of Quaker and Jewish attitudes and practices on the pursuit of science and “ways of knowing.” Cantor provides detailed, careful arguments for how the distinct social location of, and cultural resources available to, each group affected not only their attitudes toward science but also the proper way of doing science. Establishing such links between religious life and scientific practice is an important tool for complexifying and enriching our understanding of science and religion.