The Natural History Museum: temple to science, God…or both?

Alain de Botton keeps coming up with new projects for his religion for atheists, and I admire his energy and willingness to put his ideas into practice. It’s refreshing. His latest plan takes very concrete form: he wants to build temples for atheists, and is starting off with a pillar in London to give people a sense of perspective: it will show the history of the universe, with a tiny gold band at the bottom showing how recently man came on the scene. Good stuff: though a Stoic or even some Christians would argue this was just as conformable to theist as atheist beliefs.

But naturally, the more ambitious and serious De Botton gets about his project, the more criticism he will encounter. Sure enough, Steve Rose wrote today in the Guardian that De Botton’s project sounds increasingly like a religion. Well, yes, that’s the point Steve. That’s why he called his book ‘A Religion for Atheists’. But we don’t need a new religion, says Steve. If atheists need monuments, they already have the Large Hadron Collider, the Natural History Museum, Wembley Stadium, even the Westfield Shopping Centre.

Not sure about that last one, though I guess it is certainly a monument to consumerism. Perhaps Steve is right – perhaps Las Vegas is a monument to atheism, a paradise city where everything is permitted and nothing is sinful. It’s where the Sceptics have their annual gathering, appropriately enough. Or is that the ‘wrong’ kind of atheism for Alain?

Anyway, of all Steve’s examples, it struck me that the Natural History Museum was closest to what Alain perhaps has in mind. The central hall of the museum really is very like a cathedral, with a sculpture of Darwin where the crucifix would be, and a giant (fake) skeleton of a diplodocus reminding us of the creation and destruction of nature, and the apparent absence of divine providence.

But is that really the message of the museum?

I looked into it today, and the real story is a little stranger. In fact, the founder of the museum, Sir Richard Owen, believed in transcendental morphology. He believed that a divine creative force moved through creation, and that God revealed itself through the evolution of nature. I quote from Nicholaas Ruupke’s Richard Owen: Biology without Darwin. Owen believed that:

The history of scientific discovery had been a process of gradual self-revelation by God, not accidental but guided by illumination of ‘His faithful servants and instruments’, the scientists. ‘No scientific discovery collides against any sentence of the divine Sermon on the Mount’ [Owen declared].

Owen believed God’s self-revelation has been a continuous progressive process, with new insights and information downloaded (as it were) in chunks, and accessed by prophets and scientists through history. He tried to combine belief in a transcendent creator with scientific optimism in evolution, and ended up falling out with both Darwin and the Church of England in the process. In one service of 1876, for example, the priest criticised those who tried to replace God with science. To the shock of the congregation, Owen harangued the priest, declaring: ‘My Christian brethren! I trust with God’s help, that science will continue to do for you what she has always done, return good for evil!’

When Owen successfully lobbied for the establishment of a Natural History Museum in London, it was designed by the architect Alfred Waterhouse specifically as a ‘Temple of Nature’ to embody Owen’s vision of a nature guided by God’s transcendent power. In the words of the journal Architectural History:

The Temple of Nature that Alfred Waterhouse built embodied Owen’s belief that the history of the natural world was not a matter of randomness and chance but the creation of a transcendent presence.

So the Natural History Museum is really a monument to a moment in science before it moved in the direction of reductive scientific fundamentalists like Dawkins or Hawking, a moment of broader thinking – represented today by a handful of thinkers working at the cutting edge of science like James Lovelock, Roger Penrose or Rupert Sheldrake, who challenge reductive Darwinism and are able to think outside its narrow functionalism. Owen was a champion not of atheism but of that rare optimistic belief that science and theism are not incompatible, that scientists are revealing the transcendent power that moves through creation, and that there is more in heaven and earth than is dreamt of in Darwin or Dawkins’ philosophy. His statue looked over the hall until 2009, when it was replaced by a statue of Darwin to mark his centenary. Time to bring the original founder back.

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