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The Christianity of New Atlantis

Published on 1st January 2020

Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis, an incomplete novel published in 1624, tells the story of a fictional scientific utopia called Bensalem. Bacon outlines a vision of a scientific project that will achieve the betterment of humanity through the rational control of nature. However, despite the novel’s scientific focus, Christian symbolism adorns every facet of its fable. Bacon’s union of science and religion, two realms often thought to be mutually exclusive, has ignited fierce debate as to his intentions. In this paper, I argue against the popular reading of New Atlantis as a declaration of science’s triumph over religion, suggesting instead that it advances a vision of scientific and religious harmony even as I acknowledge that Christianity’s role in the fable remains essentially the same in either case: to glorify science.

Many readers have suggested that New Atlantis’s Christian symbolism is meant to be conspicuously heavy so as to arouse suspicion that it is but a deceptive exterior concealing a less religious truth. Consider the story of Bensalem’s Christian conversion: a pillar of light appeared in the sea, from which descended the Old and New Testament, and thus Christianity came to Bensalem. However, some suggest the miracle may not be what it seems, as we are told that Salomon’s House, Bensalem’s scientific research center, has “divers means…of producing of light” and can “represent… all delusions and deceits of the sight.” (Bacon 105) In other words, Bensalem’s scientists can produce pillars of light akin to the one that heralded Christianity’s arrival, which suggests that they perpetrated this fraudulent ‘miracle.’ That, in turn, implies that religion is false, and that science can expose and exploit that falsehood.

Advocates of this reading also point to the suggestive parallels between Salomon’s House and the Christian Church. Firstly, the scientists appear to be the foremost political authorities of Bensalem, because their discoveries they “do reveal sometime to the State, and some not.” (Bacon 110) In other words, just as the Church of medieval Europe often did, Salomon’s House claims extra-governmental authority. Secondly, just like priests of the Church, the scientists of Salomon’s House enjoy a special prestige among the lay inhabitants, who greet the arrival of one of the elders as a major event. Finally, Salomon’s House is “sometimes [called] the College of the Six Day’s Work,” an obvious reference to God’s act of Creation in six days as recounted in the Bible. (Bacon 85) This seems to suggest that the scientists do God’s work, or something comparable to it. Bacon, then, seems to present a utopic vision where a science research center plays the same societal role as the Church, which, when coupled with the possibility of scientists engineering Christianity’s arrival on Bensalem, seems to symbolize science’s ascension over religion. Bacon appears to co-opt Christian imagery to lend his scientific project an air of credibility and subvert religion’s societal authority. Under this interpretation, Christianity exists in New Atlantis simply as a tool through which to glorify science by establishing its supremacy to religion.

However, while this reading may appear compelling on a surface level, its failure to account for the scientist’s deep devotion to God renders it inadequate. In fact, in the world that Bacon portrays, it is the scientists that are closest to God. They invoke his name repeatedly and even engage in frequent prayer: “We have certain hymns and services, which we say daily, of Lord and thanks to God for His marvellous works.” (Bacon 110) If Bacon were indeed aiming to write a tale of science’s ascension over religion, it appears odd that he would make the principal agents of science so overtly religious.

In fact, Bacon suggests that the scientists’ intimacy with the divine is what grants them their extraordinary authority. Note that during the miraculous occasion that heralded the arrival of Christianity, only “one of the wise men, of the society of Salomon's House” could get near to the pillar of light, after all the other boats “found themselves all bound” once they neared it. (Bacon 74) In other words, only the scientist could access the site of this heavenly miracle. While one can argue that his ability to reach the pillar only constitutes further evidence that Salomon’s House engineered the ‘miracle,’ such a claim neglects to account for the scientist’s passionate prayer. The text explicitly links the scientist’s prayer to the admission he is granted, as Bacon writes, “When he had made his prayer, he presently found the boat he was in, moveable and unbound.” (74) Thus, it is the scientist’s piety that grants him with the privilege of receiving God’s revelation.

However, one can still argue for a more malevolent reading, where the scientists, having been responsible for the pillar of light, executed a show intended to convince the inhabitants of their righteousness in order to secure moral and political legitimacy. Again, though, this reading neglects to consider the contents of the scientist’s prayer, which crystallizes the novel’s reconciliatory view of the relationship between science and religion.

The scientist asks God to “give us the interpretation and use of [the revelation] in mercy,” which He “dost in some part secretly promise by sending it unto us.” (Bacon 74) In other words, God implicitly allows for the knowledge of and use of his revelation through the very act of sending it. Even though this instance refers specifically to religious guidance, it establishes a broader principle of knowing and utilizing whatever God has given to humanity. That principle seems to justify both the existence of Salomon’s House, whose purpose is “the finding out the true nature of all things,” and the end goal of science itself, which we are told is “knowledge of causes, and secret motions of things; and the enlarging of the bounds of human empire, to the effecting of all things possible,” which means that science aims to understand nature in order to control it for the benefit of humanity. Perhaps most importantly, though, is how the scientist frames the natural laws that he and his peers study so intently: “the laws of nature are thine [God’s] own laws.” (Bacon 74) This crucial idea, that the study of the natural is the study of the supernatural, is reinforced by the scientist’s declaration that God has “vouchsafed,” or granted, learned humans like those of Salomon’s House the right to “know [God’s] works of creation, and the secrets of them.” (Bacon 74) Thus, by first presenting scientific inquiry as a God-given right, and then defining it as the study of God’s laws, Bacon portrays science as a fundamentally religious pursuit. Scientists understand the laws of Creation and then derive benefits from that understanding. Bacon paints this as a noble pursuit that increases piety, hence why he parallels Salomon’s House with the Church, and why the former replaces the latter in his utopic vision: not because science is superior to religion, but because the scientists, who actually understand God’s Creation, are religiously superior to the priests. Bacon shatters the science-religion dichotomy by suggesting that science, far from leading people astray from God, actually beings them closer to Him.

In fact, Bacon suggests that science has brought the people of Bensalem so close to God that He exalted them over the remainder of humanity. Consider, again, the story of Bensalem’s religious conversion. Bensalem’s people received the Old and New Testament only twenty years after Christ, centuries before they were compiled in Europe, a privilege that immediately distinguishes them from the rest of humanity. More so, the fact that a scientist first accessed the revelation confirms that one, science preceded Christianity’s arrival on the island, and two, that the scientists had the greatest right to God’s Word. These facts seem to suggest that Bensalem was chosen by God in response to its righteous scientific pursuits. Thus, Bacon directly connects Bensalem’s privileged Christian status to its scientific order.

Bacon further emphasizes Bensalem’s special Christian status by contrasting its society’s moral rectitude with the moral decay of the Europeans. Bensalem’s inhabitants believe the Europeans have undermined the institution of marriage, an important part of the Christian faith, by allowing for the existence of prostitutes. Bensalem, in contrast, has protected the sacredness of marriage. More so, its society has preempted marital strife by assuring every person of the their spouse’s physical perfection before marriage, via the testament of a friend who examines the spouse nude in what are called the “Adam and Eve” pods. It is on the basis of Bensalem’s preservation of marriage that the story’s European narrator concedes that “the righteousness of Bensalem was greater than the righteousness of Europe.” (Bacon 95) This is a powerful point, as it suggests that Bensalem, a society that has instituted science as an integral part of its social order, is more authentically Christian than even Christian Europe, a society that had not done so at the time of Bacon’s writing.

Now, one can argue that Bensalem’s customs, far from establishing the society’s high religious character, actually confirm its materialistic obsessions. Such a reading would undermine the apparent piety of its inhabitants and suggest that Bacon really was advancing a vision of a secular scientific society under the cover of false religiosity. After all, the existence of the “Adam and Eve pools” seem to indicate a people heavily influenced by and concerned with physical beauty, as does the Feast of Families, which celebrates not spiritual but rather bodily health. However, this interpretation presumes a separation between the material and the spiritual that the text does not endorse. Recall that Bacon, by drawing no distinction between the laws of nature and the laws of God, defines the material world in terms of the metaphysical one. As such, the enjoyment of earthly goods does not represent worldly indulgence or spiritual decay, but simply the enjoyment of the natural pleasures that God has given to man. Note that this argument does not apply to the Europeans’ sexual escapades, because those are framed as ungodly pleasures due to their violations of Christian doctrine. Now, the custom of the “Adam and Eve pools” may strike some as odd, as it could cause more problems then it solves. For example, what is to stop friends from falsifying negative testimony about spouses in order to free those spouses for themselves? However, claims that such a possibility is meant to undermine the pious appearance of Bensalem’s residents, just like claims that the scientists’ ability to fake pillars of light must cast doubt on their intentions, miss the point. Bacon’s characters acknowledge the potential for wrongdoing, but are certain that religion will restrain people from fulfilling that potential. It is the fact that no one indulges in such misdeeds despite ample opportunity to do so that establishes Bensalem’s society as one of truly extraordinary moral caliber.

In light of the above evidence, we come to a very different conclusion about the intended message of New Atlantis. Far from presenting the ideal society as one where science has prevailed over religion, Bacon paints the hopeful vision of a fundamental reconciliation of religion and science. However, even with this interpretation Christianity’s essential role in the fable has not changed: it still functions as a tool through which to glorify science. However, the intended message of this function could not be more different. Instead of being used ironically to undercut religion, Christianity is presented as a valid system of belief. Bacon legitimizes science via Christianity, by presenting Bensalem as a society that has achieved the Christian ideal of pious character and devotion to God not in spite of, but because of its dedication to science. Christianity glorifies science not by suggesting the latter’s superiority, but by confirming its essential harmony with religion. Ultimately, Bacon’s scientific utopia is also a Christian one.