"Science is the Antichrist": Popular Science, Radicalism, and Irreligion in Early Nineteenth-Century Britain

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Abstract Summary
In 1820 the radical journalist Richard Carlile declared in the pages of his 'Republican' that science had for centuries been "continually at war" with religion. While historians have tended to locate the conflict thesis as the product of debates much later in the nineteenth century, in this paper I show how a militant, scientifically-inflected irreligion was a recurrent feature of radical agitation in Britain as early as the 1820s and '30s. What marked Carlilean radicalism out as novel was his recruitment of science as the key vehicle for his proposed programme for the popular overthrow of Old Corruption. As well as science providing the intellectual ground for his materialist doctrines, scientific education would also, through new organisations like the Mechanics' Institutes, act as the means of liberation of the working-class mind. Carlile was joined in his struggle by his 'moral wife' Eliza Sharples (whose short-lived 'Isis' made her the first woman to edit a radical paper in Britain), as well as a cadre of itinerant lecturers, including the 'infidel astronomy' of his friend the Reverend Robert Taylor. Meanwhile, new Zetetic Societies emerged as a freethinking rival to elite provincial literary and philosophical societies. In other words, Carlilean science offered an active intellectual programme to the disaffected artisans of Britain. As well as deserving attention in its own right, greater awareness of this radical counterprogramme is essential in assessing the knowledge politics of other, more familar modes of popular science in this period.
Abstract ID :
HSS884
Submission Type
Contributed Paper
Abstract Topic
Thematic Approaches to the Study of Science
Chronological Classification :
19th century
Self-Designated Keywords :
Politics of Science, Science and Religion, Popular Science

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