Nineteenth-Century British Secularism

Part of the series Histories of the Sacred and the Secular, 1700–2000 pp 107-134

Secularizing Science: Secularism and the Emergence of Scientific Naturalism

  • Michael RectenwaldAffiliated withLiberal Studies, New York University


The received notion regarding the relationship between science and secularism is that modern science is undoubtedly a secular and secularizing formation. As science advances, so this story goes, religion inevitably retreats and is eliminated from the domains of knowledge production, the public sphere, and even private belief. As we saw in Chapter 1, Richard Carlile’s hopes for a materialist science were leveraged on such a narrative. Assuming this article of positivist faith, at least until the last quarter of the twentieth century, Whiggish historians and positivist sociologists continued to work under the assumption that in order to understand secularization, one should begin with science (among other factors) and chart its impact on the broader public sphere.1 As I suggest in Chapter 2, this approach begs the question of just how science became secular in the first place — or moreover, how science came to be understood as secularizing per se. Matthew Stanley notes in a related context that scientific naturalism was not always the dominant philosophical framework for conducting science; its emergence and later prominence were by no means natural or inevitable.2 Similarly, science was not always ‘secular’, and there is nothing inevitably secularizing about its growth and development. It should be quite clear that the belief in an essentially secular and secularizing science is itself in need of explanation (although this chapter does not aim at such an explanation, at least not directly).