The Reconciliation of Science and Christianity
There have been many interpretations of Sir Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis, each detailing Bacon’s use of Christianity as a façade to cover up his ideas of science and materialism. While it is difficult to fully reconcile science and Christianity in Bacon's work, any claim that the theorist is choosing one over the other is made in haste. One critic, Jerry Weinberger, proposed that “Bacon’s utopia provide[s] a primary source for understanding the transitional phase from early modern political ideas to those of the modern age, and he maintains that Bacon manipulate[s] religious language and concepts to conceal his secular agenda.” Another critic, Marina Leslie, claimed “Bacon transform[s] spiritual salvation into material well-being accomplished by humans and not by God.” 1 Needless to say, the predominant theory of the New Atlantis is that it was a treatise advocating for the abandonment of religion and philosophical thought in favor of science and materialism above all else. Proponents of this view claim that Bacon makes this clear in the statement concerning the end of the House of Salomon: “The End of our Foundation is the knowledge of Causes, and secret motions of things; and the enlarging of the bounds of Human Empire, to the effecting of all things possible.” 2 Bacon was definitely a proprietor of the sciences, but he was also a professed Christian. The notable options, then, are that he was either a superficial “Christian” and rejected Christianity in favor of science and materialism in New Atlantis or that he was a sincere believer. If he was sincere, his purpose in New Atlantis was to reconcile the notion that science and Christianity were at odds.
Decades prior to Bacon’s struggle with Aristotelian physics, an astronomer named Nicolaus Copernicus “proposed that the sun was stationary in the center of the universe and the earth revolved around it”. 5 This idea became known as heliocentrism and was in stark contrast with Ptolemy’s claim that the earth was the center of all things. Having introduced his idea of heliocentrism in his Commentariolus around 1510, Copernicus elaborated his full thought later in his work, On the Revolutions, which was published in 1543. His ideas, however, conflicted with the Church’s interpretation of the Bible. In response to a book published in 1615 by Paolo Antonio Foscarini where he was “arguing that [heliocentrism] did not conflict with scripture,” 3 “[heliocentrism] was deemed heretical [by the Church] in 1616.” 4 Despite being a scientist during the 16th and 17th centuries, Bacon remained a staunch Christian—as seen throughout his other works—even to his death.
There are a couple of key points in New Atlantis worth discussing in order to clarify the overarching meaning of the book. The first key point is the conversion of the Bensalemites into Christians. In the text, it is revealed that a miracle occurred in Bensalem just twenty years after the resurrection of Christ. Off the coast, a giant pillar of light appeared, so citizens of Bensalem took their boats to investigate the light. When they were about 60 yards away, some force restrained them from getting any closer to the light. A wise man from the House of Solomon prayed to God declaring that this pillar of light was a miracle. After this recognition, his boat was able to approach the light while all of the others were still bound by a force. The pillar of light disappeared and an ark containing the canonical books of the Old and New Testaments and some that were not written yet (all of the books of the New Testament had not yet been written); it also contained a letter from the apostle Bartholomew blessing the people who were to read his letter for those people were brought salvation by God. One more important note here is that another miracle accompanied the arrival of this ark: the gift of tongues. The text notes that “. . . being at that time in this land Hebrews, Persians, and Indians, besides the natives, everyone read upon the Book and Letter, as if they had been written in his own language.” 2 From this conversion story, traditional interpreters of New Atlantis claimed that this “miracle” of the light was brought forth by science in order to control the people by way of Christianity. This view is haphazardly asserted since it does not take all of the points of the conversion story into account. For this fake miracle perspective to be logical, one would have to explain why everyone’s boats were stopped equidistant from the pillar of light, why - after praying - one man was able to approach the light while the others could not move, why the ark was dry while floating on the sea, and why—though the book and letter were written in only one language—all of the people of Bensalem who spoke different languages were able to read this book and letter. No science allows instant translation of texts within the mind. The interpretation that this conversion miracle was forged by scientific means holds no water. Furthermore, in this conversion story, Bacon is trying to convey that this land of Bensalem is not the same Christianity of the 16th and 17th centuries. Since Bacon was a Protestant, he clearly did not agree with the Catholic Church. Thus, by presenting the information that Bensalem miraculously received its Christianity from God about twenty years after the resurrection of Christ and that Bensalem has barely had any visitors since then, Bacon is conveying to the reader that this Christianity is a proposed pure form of Christianity, untouched by the corruption that Protestants argue the Catholic Church introduced an even more advanced in the understanding of scripture. Bacon’s presentation of this miracle is an attempt to legitimize the Protestant Reformation.
The second point is the king’s description of the House of Salomon. First, it is good to note the text’s reverence of King Solamona:
Here, Bacon brings up King Solamona’s nature and intent. Solamona was a good person. Bacon even identifies Solamona with King Solomon during the first years of his reign, when Solomon sought after God and was righteous, good, and wise (1 Kings 4:29). King Solamona also founded the institution in the text known as Salomon’s House. This institution was “dedicated to the study of the Works and Creatures of God.” 2 Since we know that King Solamona was of good nature (Christian), Bacon is conveying that this institution that he created was designed for good and not for bad. However, traditional interpretation of the previously mentioned statement of the end of the House of Salomon is that the institution is dedicated only to science, to the advancement of human learning of the nature of physical things with any means necessary. This interpretation is only partly true. Sure, the purpose of the institution is to further understand science, but why is this the purpose of Salomon’s House? The answer is given earlier in the text when discussing the introduction of Salomon’s House:
Bacon did not intend for the reader to view Salomon’s House as an institution for the unchecked, boundless exploration of the nature of things with no regard to a higher power. In fact, he intended that the reader see the House as an institution working for the glory of God.
It is obvious now why Bacon felt the need to resolve the issues of science and Christianity. Paolo Antonio Foscarini tried to reconcile the two directly with scripture, but his work was banned by the Church. 3 Bacon, then, needed to be more clever. Just as Thomas More set forth reforms for England in his Utopia, Bacon set forth reconciliation in his utopian society. This utopia of his was not only purely Christian with an advanced understanding of scripture, but also scientifically advanced. Salomon’s House, the institution for the understanding of the sciences, also housed the religious officials. By combining the house of science and the house of God, Bacon is saying that the two are not at odds: they are harmonious. As Francis Bacon said, "Knowledge . . . is the rich storehouse for the glory of the Creator and the relief of man's estate.”
1. McKnight, S. Francis Bacon's God. (n.d.). Retrieved April 19, 2018, from https://www.thenewatlantis.com/publications/francis-bacons-god
2. Francis Bacon. (n.d.). Retrieved April 19, 2018, from https://www.christianitytoday.com/history/people/scholarsandscientists/francis-bacon.html
3. Helden, A. V. (2018, February 14). Galileo. Retrieved April 19, 2018, from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Galileo-Galilei
4. Machamer, P. (2017, May 10). Galileo Galilei. Retrieved April 19, 2018, from https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/galileo/
5. Rabin, S. (2004, November 30). Nicolaus Copernicus. Retrieved April 19, 2018, from https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/copernicus/