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'The Doors of Perception': Science, Religion, and Literature in Britain's Long-Nineteenth Century, 1789-1914

In Britain’s long-nineteenth century (1789-1914), religious explanations of the world were challenged with the rise of science, leading to the question of how religion survived. Both fiction and non-fiction explored this issue, offering ‘thought experiments’ regarding religion’s role in society; where texts implicitly or explicitly raise a question, and test it through a hypothetical scenario or scenarios. In accordance with the Linguistic Turn, these thought experiments can be viewed as linguistic constructs, where language itself is held to construct the outcomes of these thought experiments. Yet at the same time, language is limited in how can describe the world; from the vastness of time and space to the quality of feelings and emotions. Thus it is not just language, but the limits of language – characterised here as the ‘doors of perception’ – that have effects on worldviews; effects that throw light on the capacities in which religion survived the rise of science, and which are the subject of this thesis. Each chapter juxtaposes predominantly science-oriented non-fiction with religion-oriented creative works, dividing the thesis into the six scientific contexts that were the most important to the long-nineteenth century: natural theology, utilitarianism, geology, biology, anthropology, and psychology. Key figures investigated include Thomas Paine, William Paley, David Hume, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, William Blake, William Wordsworth, Mary Shelley, John Keats, Jeremy Bentham, Thomas Carlyle, Charles Dickens, Charles Lyell, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Charles Darwin, Matthew Arnold, David Friedrich Strauss, Ludwig Feuerbach, George Eliot, Walter Pater, and Oscar Wilde. One effect of the limits of language was on religious belief itself, specifically as pertains to intelligent design (independently of questions of whether the belief is correct). Here, because people found it difficult, if not impossible, to describe the vastness of time, they also found it difficult to describe the rise of complex natural phenomena in any terms that require the vastness of time. Instead, they described the rise of complexity in the comfortable terms in which it could rise within the timescale of a human life; i.e., a process analogous to human design. This was aided by the fact that fixed, essentialist distinctions, as given by words, names, and labels, were applied to natural phenomena on timescales that language can describe, and this influenced a belief that these phenomena actually were fixed, essentialist, and unchanging; phenomena which could only have come into existence fully formed, rendering intelligent design the only explanation. Another effect of the limits of language was that they assisted religious experience. Here, when people found it difficult to adequately describe time, space, emotions, beauty, etc., there was a sense that experience was transcending the essentialist words, names, and labels that otherwise differentiate and atomise the world into separate phenomena, including those differentiating ‘subject’ from ‘object’, ‘self’ from ‘other’ and ‘us’ from ‘them’. This characterised the religious experience of self-transcendent awe. Sometimes, this experience was itself described in terms of divine design; sometimes it was not. Sometimes, it also had the effect of making people believe that to reduce a phenomenon to the level of rational linguistic description was to, in some way, devalue it. Both effects recurred consistently in scientific and religious literature of the long-nineteenth century, and explain how religion’s survival was effected.
Type of thesis
Speedy, S. W. (2013). ‘The Doors of Perception’: Science, Religion, and Literature in Britain’s Long-Nineteenth Century, 1789-1914 (Thesis, Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)). University of Waikato, Hamilton, New Zealand. Retrieved from http://hdl.handle.net/10289/8328
University of Waikato
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