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Science, Faith and Bank Holidays

The Revd Prof David Wilkinson

This post is from the Revd Prof David Wilkinson’s reflection on BBC Radio 4’s ‘Thought for the Day’ programme on 29th August 2023. A link to the show, with audio of the reflection, can be found here .

Good morning on this Bank Holiday – a now traditional day for lazy relaxation, barbecues and, as my wife has suggested, ‘a simplification of the contents of the garage’.

The relaxation and eating would be welcomed by Sir John Lubbock, who in 1871 introduced the Bank Holidays Act to Parliament. At the time, the 33 holidays of religious festivals had been reduced to just four. Sir John was passionate about additional holidays, and his Act was so popular that it was suggested they should be called ‘Saint Lubbock’s Days’. The News of the World was ecstatic: ‘Blessings on the head of Sir John Lubbock …… his great reputation as a man of science has been enhanced by the invention of Bank Holidays.’

That reference to ‘man of science’ highlights that Lubbock was a fascinating Victorian intellectual, combining his science with roles as banker and politician. He did significant scientific research on ants, bees and wasps. Alongside this scholarly work, he had a pet wasp and attempted to teach a black terrier puppy, named ‘Van’, to read, claiming in journals such as Nature that the dog could associate words with objects!

Much of his research was encouraged by friend and neighbour Charles Darwin, and in turn he was a great supporter of Darwin on evolution. With other leading Darwinian advocates, such as TH Huxley, he was one of the 9 members of The X-Club, founded in 1864 as a regular dining club at Brown’s Hotel.  Their agenda was to oppose the dominance of Church of England clergy over British intellectual life, particularly in science. Lubbock believed that the professionalisation of science through its own institutions was the only way it would thrive.

For some members of the X-Club this led to the development of a conflict model of science and religion where science has always been in opposition to religion and will eventually eradicate it. Now widespread in the west, it is interesting to note that this model comes from the 19th century and has often been imposed on earlier history.  However, Lubbock did not share this. For him, science was a gift to reform the church and join together in the moral and intellectual education of the nation. He saw, as I do, his science and his faith in fruitful dialogue. Science contributes insights to understand God better, and faith contributes insights which lie beyond the limits of science.

Lubbock debunks the myth that science and religion have always been in conflict. History shows that their relationship is much more complex and messy, but there is joy in the messiness – an insight that I might share with my wife as we clear the garage.

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Article By The Revd Prof David Wilkinson

David is a professor in the Department of Theology and Religion at Durham University and has PhDs in astrophysics and systematic theology.

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