July Books 24) Mr Belloc Objects To “The Outline Of History”

24) Mr Belloc Objects To “The Outline Of History”, by H.G. Wells

Reading this is a bit like reading someone’s livejournal entry when you have only one person’s side of the story. H.G. Wells published his Outline of History in 1920; Hilaire Belloc published a series of articleds castigating it as anti-Christian and immoral over the next few years; and Wells published this 54-page riposte to Belloc in 1926. (Belloc followed up that same year with Mr Belloc Still Objects, but I haven’t seen that.)

Wells argues his case very well, pointing out Belloc’s rhetorical excesses, and giving numerous examples where Belloc has misinterpreted or twisted his words. He also, admirably (and entirely unlike the tiresome Richard Dawkins) rests his case completely on what science has to say about nature and invites the religious reader first, to accept that Wells’ views on science and natural history are entirely reasonable, and secondly that Belloc’s are absurd.

It wouldn’t surprise me at all. I would add, however, that I suspect Belloc’s views were unrepresentative of Catholic scientists of his time. My PhD was on the history of science in Ireland, and one of the hypotheses I was examining was the idea (proposed in particular by Gordon Herries Davies and Roy Johnston) that Irish nationalism in general and the Catholic Church in particular had had an ideologically chilling effect on scientific research in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

I was surprised to discover how little evidence there was for this. There was precisely one example of a Catholic scholar writing on science who was told to shut up by Church authorities: he was a theologian rather than a physicist, and his ideas were pretty absurd (and irrelevant to the contemporary scientific debate). Otherwise, there were as many Catholic scientists as one might have expected, given the general level of discrimination and gate-keeping, and some of them (like maths professor Eamon de Valera) went into Nationalist politics.

There was, of course, some controversy over evolution. I was very fortunate in that my supervisor is probably the world’s leading writer on the history of Darwinism, and thanks to him I realised that the articles about Darwinism and evolution in the Irish theological journals were more reflections of the wider debate in the English-speaking world than evidence of any particular local bias. (The real Irish story here was the Ulster Protestant reaction to John Tyndall’s address to the Belfast meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1874.)

But the evolution question, for Irish Catholics at least, had been closed a few years before the Belloc/Wells controversy, with the convincing arguments of a geological theologian from the University of Louvain (as it then was) that there was no contradiction between Darwinism and Catholic teaching. Belloc, at least judging by Wells’ account, had not got the message.

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1 Response to July Books 24) Mr Belloc Objects To “The Outline Of History”

  1. girfan says:

    I should print this out to show the people who ask me why I live in the UK instead of “that streets filled with gold mecca” that is the US.

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