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Huxley’s Church and Maxwell’s Demon

From Theistic Science to Naturalistic Science

During the Victorian period, the practice of science shifted from a religious context to a naturalistic one. It is generally assumed that this shift occurred because naturalistic science was distinct from and superior to theistic science. Yet as Huxley’s Church and Maxwell’s Demon reveals, most of the methodological values underlying scientific practice were virtually identical for the theists and the naturalists: each agreed on the importance of the uniformity of natural laws, the use of hypothesis and theory, the moral value of science, and intellectual freedom. But if scientific naturalism did not rise to dominance because of its methodological superiority, then how did it triumph?
Matthew Stanley explores the overlap and shift between theistic and naturalistic science through a parallel study of two major scientific figures: James Clerk Maxwell, a devout Christian physicist, and Thomas Henry Huxley, the iconoclast biologist who coined the word agnostic. Both were deeply engaged in the methodological, institutional, and political issues that were crucial to the theistic-naturalistic transformation. What Stanley’s analysis of these figures reveals is that the scientific naturalists executed a number of strategies over a generation to gain control of the institutions of scientific education and to reimagine the history of their discipline. Rather than a sudden revolution, the similarity between theistic and naturalistic science allowed for a relatively smooth transition in practice from the old guard to the new.

An interview with the author on New Books Network.

336 pages | 2 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2014

History: History of Ideas

History of Science

Physical Sciences: History and Philosophy of Physical Sciences

Religion: Religion and Society


"Stanley has produced a book that will challenge the general reader, stimulate academic discussion, and contribute much to understanding the subtleties and diversities of past and present scientific practice and religious debate."


"The context of Victorian science swung smoothly from the theistic to the naturalistic, shedding supernatural causality along the way. Stanley attributes the relative amity between Christian and atheist scientists to shared ideals such as intellectual freedom."


"Matthew Stanley’s wonderful new book introduces us to Maxwell and Huxley as they embodied theistic and naturalistic science, respectively, in Victorian Britain. Moving well beyond the widespread assumption that modern science and religion are and always have been fundamentally antithetical to one another, Huxley’s Church & Maxwell’s Demon offers a history of scientific naturalism that illustrates the deep and fundamental commonalities between positions on the proper practice of science that began to diverge relatively late and in very particular historical circumstances."

New Books in Science, Technology, and Society

"Stanley’s new book addresses the 'science and religion' trope head-on and in a genuinely historical way. The style of the book is fundamentally that of intellectual history: the use of Huxley and Maxwell as its chief protagonists allows a close engagement with specific arguments and strategies, with appropriate contextual material provided to make sense of them. There is rich material in Huxley’s Church and Maxwell’s Demon and numerous avenues for further


"Today there is hardly a serious scientist who incorporates God into his/her scientific research or publication. This was not always so. If not explicitly, at least as a backdrop, God was always in the minds of a vast number of scientists until even the end of the 19th century. The shift from the worldview of a God-created universe to one that is completely naturalistic, with neither need for nor nurturing of divinity to formulate natural laws and endow humans with intelligence was a slow process. How this happened and the  major role played by key British thinkers (many more than the heroes in the title) is the theme of this fascinating book. This was a victory of philosophical reflection (symbolized by T. H. Huxley) over technical science (symbolized by J. C. Maxwell). With telling irony, the atheistic Huxley's school is described as a church, and the theistic Maxwell's physics is referred to in terms of his demon. Stanley presents an insightful narrative in this thorough, erudite work.  It will become a milestone in the history of science scholarship."


"A valuable addition to the flourishing historical scholarship on science and religion."

Science & Christian Belief

Nothing characterizes modern science more than its rejection of appeals to God in explaining the workings of nature. Nevertheless, historians have written relatively little about the development of this methodological practice. Stanley’s Huxley’s Church and Maxwell’s Demon vividly describes how nineteenth-century British naturalists won the victory over their theistic rivals. It stands as a major contribution to the literature on the history of science and religion.”

Ronald L. Numbers, University of Wisconsin–Madison

“Concentrating on two towering intellectual figures, James Clerk Maxwell and Thomas Henry Huxley, Stanley offers an innovative perspective on late nineteenth-century British science in which he deploys an original argument to challenge the controversial view that science and religion were—and still are—in conflict. Instead, through a careful reading of Maxwell, Huxley, and several of their contemporaries, Stanley shows that there were major areas of agreement between those who adopted a theistic approach to science and the rising band of naturalists, who viewed the natural world as governed by nothing other than a collection of laws. By emphasizing points of agreement—for example, over the uniformity of nature—Stanley also throws the differences between these two approaches into clearer relief. Moreover, he provides a nuanced, sensitive, and firmly grounded understanding of both Huxley and Maxwell, and one that not only undermines the conflict thesis but also provides the reader with a deeper understanding of the interrelations between science and religion. An impressive achievement!”

Geoffrey Cantor, University of Leeds

“In his penetrating study of the methodological values of Victorian scientists, Stanley has carefully traced the process whereby religious ideas and values were pushed out of scientific practice. He argues that science became naturalistic with relatively little bloodshed despite the heated controversies over evolutionary theory. Naturalistic scientists like Thomas Henry Huxley shrewdly adapted the methodological values of theistic science, which included such principles as the uniformity of nature, the limits of scientific knowledge, the moral value of science, and intellectual freedom. Then, through the use of institutional strategies, they gained control of science and thoroughly naturalized how research was conducted. They succeeded so well that today it is difficult to conceive of science as anything other than naturalistic. Stanley’s provocative book offers a fresh perspective on the complex relationship between naturalism and theism both now and in the nineteenth century.”

Bernard Lightman, editor of Victorian Science in Context

“Matthew Stanley has written an absorbing, meticulously researched book that usefully complicates our understanding of the exclusion of God as an explanatory agent from the sciences.  Using James Clerk Maxwell and Thomas H. Huxley as representative figures, he shows that for much of the nineteenth century proponents of theistic science and scientific naturalism in Great Britain worked side by side and shared similar views of the uniformity of nature, the limits of scientific investigation, and the values and goals of science education.  Stanley rejects the notion that the triumph of “methodological naturalism” in science was the result of a victory of enlightenment over obscurantism; it was rather the result of shrewd strategic decisions on the part of scientific naturalists.  A stimulating and persuasive account of Victorian scientific theory and practice.”

Jon H. Roberts, Boston University

Table of Contents


Chapter 1        Religious Lives

Chapter 2        The Uniformity of Natural Laws

Chapter 3        The Limits of Science

Chapter 4        The Goals of Science Education: The Working Men’s College

Chapter 5        Intellectual Freedom

Chapter 6        Free Will and Natural Laws

Chapter 7        How the Naturalists “Won”





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