Two weeks ago, I began a series about how Robert Boyle’s Christian faith interacted with his scientific work. This second installment shows how his early encounter with religious doubt drove him to reflect deeply on his faith for the rest of his life.
The Role of Doubt in a Life of Faith
Bombarded by deafening claps of thunder in the dead of night, an adolescent boy awoke suddenly from a deep sleep, terrified by the loud darkness, punctuated by staccato flashes of light so frequent and dazzling that he imagined himself amidst the fire that would someday consume the world on the day of judgment. Trembling at the hideous thought of being unprepared to face the awesome finality of that dreadful day, he solemnly resolved to live more piously henceforth. Not long afterward, in calmer circumstances, Robert Boyle repeated the vow made in fear with another, made “so solemnly that from that Day he dated his Conversion,” according to an autobiographical memoir written in his early twenties.
Boyle’s conversion took place at Geneva, in the home of his tutor, Isaac Marcombes, a Huguenot who had left France for Geneva owing to religious persecution. Marcombes’ wife was a niece of a famous Genevan preacher and Calvinist theologian, Giovanni Diodati, who translated the Bible into Italian and French. Marcombes took the adolescent Boyle to church twice weekly and read to him daily from the Bible and Calvin’s Catechism. Altogether young “Robyn,” as his family called him, spent five years on the Continent with Marcombes, studying rhetoric, logic, mathematics, and the art of fortification. Becoming fluent in French, he travelled extensively in France, Switzerland and Italy—he was in Florence when Galileo died.
Left: Boyle used this notebook (Royal Society MS 44) in his studies with Marcombes from 1642 to 1644. Starting in the next decade, Boyle employed various amanuenses to write things down for him. Consequently, almost everything we have from the second half of his life is not in his own hand. (Source)
Within months of his conversion, however, his new-found faith came under attack. His autobiography records how he became deeply depressed while visiting the original Carthusian abbey of Grande Chartreuse, located in what Boyle described as “those Wild Mountaines” near Grenoble. Although I’ve never been to the place myself, the pictures are simply spectacular, far more likely to produce rapture than dismay. Do you agree? If so, then what was Boyle’s problem?
The problem is actually ours—or perhaps mine alone, since I’ve led you down this path. As L. P. Hartley so aptly said, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” Here’s what we’ve forgotten: many Europeans in Boyle’s day were distressed by mountains, which they regarded as ugly, postlapsarian blobs marring the surface of on an otherwise perfectly spherical Earth. Marjorie Hope Nicolson pointed this out many years ago. I like Jack Macintosh’s suggestion that this may have contributed to the dark mood that overcame Boyle on this occasion.
Whether or not Macintosh is correct, Boyle had a particularly bad experience there, which he saw in the following terms: “the Devil taking advantage of that deepe, raving Melancholy, [and] so sad a Place, his humour, and the st[r]ange storys & Pictures he found there of [Saint] Bruno the Father Patriark of that order; suggested such strange & hideous thoughts, & such distracting Doubts of some of the Fundamentals of Christianity,” that Boyle even contemplated suicide. Only “the Forbiddenesse of Selfe-dispatch” prevented him from taking that fatal step. “But after a tedious languishment of many months in this tedious perplexity,” he reflected, “at last it pleas’d God one Day [when] he had receiv’d the Sacrament, to restore unto him the withdrawne sence of his Favor.”
We do not know precisely which “Fundamentals of Christianity” Boyle questioned at that moment. We do know that, henceforth, wrestling with doubt was part and parcel of his profoundly religious life, such that “never after did these fleeting Clouds, cease now & then to darken the clearest serenity of his quiet.” As he wrote just a few years later, “Of my own Private, & generally unheeded doubts, I could exhibit no short Catalogue” (Essay of the Holy Scriptures, in The Works of Robert Boyle, vol. 13, p. 180). Ironically, doubt drove Boyle diligently to ferret out the rational foundations and implications of his faith, such that he “deriv’d from this Anxiety the Advantage of Groundednesse in his Religion: for the Perplexity his doubts created oblig’d him to remove them to be seriously inquisitive of the Truth of the very fundamentals of Christianyty.” Although “we cannot often give a Reason for What we beleeve; we shud be ever able to give a Reason Why we beleeve it.” It’s not hard to see why Boyle believed that “there is nothing worse taken up upon Trust then Religion.”
Religious doubt remained a defining characteristic of Boyle’s personality. Many of his mature works, dealing with various aspects of faith and reason, can be seen as parts of a lifelong conversation with his own soul. The constructive role that doubt played in Boyle’s life has often been overlooked. For example, the late Richard S. Westfall, one of the most influential scholars of the Scientific Revolution (and my own doctoral mentor), observed more than fifty years ago that the extensive attention Boyle and some of his contemporaries gave to “answering hypothetical atheists” in their writings was really more of an effort “to satisfy their own doubts” about the religious implications of the new science (Science and Religion in Seventeenth-Century England, p. 145). Although Boyle often engaged unidentified “atheists” in his writings—a topic I will come back to in a future column—there was more going on than Westfall apparently realized. Doubt is the other side of the coin of faith, and Boyle’s approach to it was frankly precocious. Not long after his twentieth birthday, in a notebook entitled “Diurnall Observations, Thoughts, & Collections,” Boyle recorded the following aphorism: “He whose Faith never Doubted, may justly doubt of his Faith.” Immediately before this, he had written, “The Dialect of Faith runs much upon the First Person[;] or True Faith speakes always in the First Persen.” Boyle understood both intuitively and cognitively a crucial fact about religious faith: it is a highly personal matter, and only those who take steps to examine their own beliefs can really lay claim to them and live accordingly. Needless to say, the conceptual box in which Richard Dawkins places religious faith will never hold Boyle’s.
Boyle’s faith was indeed his own, a product of thoughtful reflection as well as religious experience. “I am not a Christian, because it is the Religion of my Countrey, and my Friends,” he confessed at one point. “I admit no mans Opinions in the whole lump, and have not scrupled, on occasion, to own dissents from the generality of learned men, whether Philosophers or Divines: And when I choose to travel in the beaten Road, ’tis not because I find ’tis the Road, but because I judge ’tis the Way” (Reason and Religion, in The Works of Robert Boyle, vol. 8, p. 241). Precisely what Boyle meant by this, is best seen in a highly interesting unpublished treatise “On the Diversity of Religions” that survives among his papers. “[N]ot only do far fewer religions differ fundamentally than men perceive,” he observed,
but far fewer men follow any of those religions of their own choice than some believe. For it is one thing for a man to profess this or that religion, but another thing entirely for him to choose the best. For the latter cannot be done save by one who has seriously and carefully examined the religion he has embraced in preference to others, and has compared it with them. But unless this serious and deliberate choice has taken place, one cannot legitimately conclude from the number of men adhering to that religion that it is the best. ... Thus, when all things are duly considered, we may readily note that there are few who choose a given religion, even though there are many who follow it, for the rest all behave passively, so to speak, each man professing his religion more by chance than by judicious choice.
His overall conclusion was, “That a wise Christian should not be disturbed by the number and diversity of religions” (The Works of Robert Boyle, vol. 14, pp. 255-6 and 237).
Perhaps we might expect a 17th-century English author to hold just such a view, informed more by ignorance than by objectivity. However, Boyle actually knew more than most of his contemporaries about religions other than Christianity, just as he was well read in the doctrinal controversies among Christians–especially those related to Socinianism, which he regarded as a dangerous heresy. He knew and respected the eminent rabbi Manasseh ben Israel, discussed the Hebrew language and Jewish beliefs with a Jewish scholar in London (whose name we don’t know), and even tried learning Arabic before weakening eyesight forced him to abandon the project. Actively seeking conversation with Jewish scholars, he regarded such “Fundamentall Controversys” as “both more Necessary & more Worthy a Wise mans Study, then most of those, comparatively Trifling ones, that at present so miserably (not to say so Causelessly) distract Christendome” (Essay of the Holy Scriptures, p. 217). Overall, Boyle’s encounter with doubt was undoubtedly positive.
The next column moves from doubt to piety—perhaps a surprising transition, but both were omnipresent in Boyle’s life. We have plenty to discuss in the meantime.
References and Suggestions for Further Reading
Adapted from Edward B. Davis, “Robert Boyle’s Religious Life, Attitudes, and Vocation,” Science & Christian Belief 19 (2007): 117-38.
Boyle’s unfinished youthful autobiography, “An account of Philaretus during his minority,” is found in vol. 37, fols. 170-184, of the Boyle Papers at the Royal Society in London. It remained unpublished until 1744, when Thomas Birch printed it in the first volume of The works of the Honourable Robert Boyle; to which is prefixed the life of the author, 5 vols. Michael Hunter’s complete transcription of the original manuscript is included in Robert Boyle: By Himself and His Friends (1994). Beatrix Färber prepared an electronic edition of Birch’s version. “Philaretus” was the name Boyle gave himself in the document, which is written in the third person.
Several other quotations are from The Works of Robert Boyle, ed. Michael Hunter and Edward B. Davis.
In addition to the sources listed at the end of part one, I also recommend a web article by philosophers J. J. Macintosh and Peter Anstey, “Robert Boyle,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2010 Edition), ed. Edward N. Zalta.