Quakerism and modern science both arose from the maelstrom of 17th Century England. In that relatively short period many previously accepted paradigms changed. In politics, the Civil War ended for ever the doctrine of the Divine Right of Kings. From then on kings reigned only with the consent of the people. In religion, the Quakers and other nonconformists followed the advances of the Reformation, and showed that one can be a Christian outside the Established Church. And in science, acceptance of the classical teachings of Aristotle was replaced by the experimental method as championed by Gilbert and Bacon.
In 1652 George Fox climbed Pendle Hill. In 1660 the Royal Society, the world’s oldest scientific academy, was formed in London. George Fox said “Christ saith this, and the apostles say this; but what canst thou say?” The Royal Society took the motto Nullius in verba, which roughly translates as “take nobody’s word for it.” Fox encouraged his followers to “live experimentally.” Thomas Spratt, first historian of the Royal Society, reported “ . . . they have never affirm’d any thing, concerning the cause, till the trial [experiment] was past: whereas to do it before, is a most venomous thing in the making of Sciences . . .”.
From the beginnings Quakerism and modern science had in common a scepticism of authority, and a belief in the ability of the individual mind. So where do Quaker beliefs sit with modern science?
Religion and science have taken complementary pathways. The world studied by science has no moral values – it just is. If, for example, Species A preys on Species B, even if it leads to the extinction of Species B, science cannot make any moral judgement on the situation, even if either of the species happens to be Homo sapiens. Quaker ideals of peace and non-violence do not sit well with Darwinian evolution.
Consequently, science cannot make normative statements. Science can say that if you do X, it is highly likely that the result will be Y, but science cannot say that you should or should not do X. And that’s where other types of enquiry come in. Moral value judgements can be made by religion, philosophy, perhaps even politics, of often just by unthinking gut feelings.
Failure to make the distinction between these types of enquiry can lead to confusion. Environmentally sensitive people frequently make the point that mankind is part of nature. This is partly true – we have evolved from other life forms, we share most of our biology with them, and we interact with them. But in other ways we are unique. Mankind is the only life-form (at least on Earth) with a brain sufficiently developed to be capable of abstract thought, and it is only through this abstract thought that we have developed moral values – we have eaten the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
The social Darwinists argued (and I hope we can talk about them in the past tense) that because species become dominant in nature by “survival of the fittest”, human society should advance by competition that would promote the strong over the weak. This thinking was used to rationalise oppression of the poor, eugenics, racism, fascism and war. But what the social Darwinists failed to grasp was that modern humans, through evolution of our brains or by divine inspiration, or both, operate at social and ethical levels much different from all other life forms. “Natural” is not always “right”.
Scientists and Quakers share a belief that the world is rational. Scientists working in the physical world believe (by faith, if you like) that any question of that world is potentially soluble by the tools of science. Quakers believe that any aspects of society that they discern to be unethical can be put right by social actions of men and women, guided by the Spirit, but not by direct supernatural intervention.
Because Quakers are generally not bound by a literal reading of the Bible, and because most scientists concede that there are aspects of human life that are outside the domain of science, there should be little opportunity for conflict between the two disciplines. That does not mean, of course, that Quakers will not want to comment on the priorities of scientific research, or on the use of the findings of science. Scientists themselves are often the first to join this type of moral debate, because scientists, of course, are people; some are even Quakers.