Monday, 29 October 2012

Why proselytise?

After morning prayers, Henry and Edmund set off from Sandhurst [their home in St Marychurch, Torquay] for the meeting with Sir Anthony [Panizzi] and travelled First Class on the train to London, very expensive at the time, but always preferred by Henry. Was this another indication that he was a bit snobbish, or did it mean that he preferred his own thoughts during journeys, with the added bonus of being able to proselytise among those of elevated status? Henry must have been an uncomfortable travelling companion on occasions, as an elderly gentleman found when entering their carriage at Exeter. There was almost immediately an enquiry from Henry on whether their fellow traveller was a true believer. ‘The answer was curt. The elderly gentleman withdrew to his corner of the carriage, buried himself in a book and took no further notice of them.’ I think I know how he must have felt.

This quote from Walking with Gosse: Natural History, Creation and Religious Conflicts brings me to the question – why proselytise? There are several possible answers.

1. The excitement of religious belief is so endlessly exhilarating that we feel bound to talk about it to everyone we meet;

2. We feel it a duty that is expected of us in holding a particular religious belief. For example, And he said unto them, Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature (Mark 16:15 in The King James’ Bible);

3. We gain “bonus points” for the chance of an increased quality of life after death; or

4. Elders have dictated that this is a policy within a particular sect.

Whatever the reason for proselytising, there has to be a recipient and these may be receptive or hostile. Both types of response provide positive feedback to the proselytiser. The receptive listener brings a chance of conversion to our beliefs with its “feelgood factor”, and the hostile response convinces us even more strongly that we are right (although it may also generate temporary doubts). Proselytising is really an extension of advertising, which we know is used not only to sell material things but also politics and many other aspects of life. Religious proselytising seems to come with a much stronger message, however, and I’ve always been puzzled by it, unless it is meant to increase membership of a sect (which has various advantages, financial and otherwise). It is not an altruistic process, is it? Or maybe it is?

Friday, 19 October 2012

Writing “Walking with Gosse” [continued]

The third part of the subtitle of “Walking with Gosse” is “Religious Conflicts” and we saw in yesterday’s blog that Henry’s beliefs caused clashes. It was because he had an immovable faith and determinedly cut himself off from those who did not share his views. Even in worship he was the leader of his own congregation of Brethren who, quite rightly, looked up to him as an important figure.

Much the most significant religious conflict in Henry’s life was that which grew between himself and his son, Edmund. After the tragic death of his mother, Emily Gosse, in 1857, Edmund was very close to Henry and they were able to share their grief. Moving to Torquay brought a change in surroundings and a gradual recovery, as both worked on the seashore and at home, where Edmund’s sharp eyes were valued by Henry when sorting through the material they collected.

With the imminence of the Second Coming, Henry was concerned that Edmund must be saved and he proposed to the congregation that Edmund should be baptised as an adult. After discussion, it was agreed and Edmund was baptised as a professed believer just three weeks after his tenth birthday. Knowing that Edmund was a saint, and spurred by his work on the shore, Henry now entered a productive phase and one where he lightened up, although always with the religious straitjacket. He published “The Romance of Natural History”, an interesting book that shows his all-round enthusiasm and he met Eliza, who was to become his second wife.

Edmund liked Eliza and it was a warm household. However, Edmund was beginning to have doubts about his religious beliefs and these grew during his teenage years. After Henry somewhat uncharacteristically pulled strings with his contacts, Edmund succeeded in getting a job in London and he followed Henry's guidance less and less. While there were some sections of The Bible that he admired for their writing, there were so many other books to read (his choice of reading was very restricted at home in Torquay) and many new people to meet. Letters from Henry were now full of requests that Edmund must stick with the rigid practices which the father insisted should be followed by the son.

There were inevitable religious conflicts and the once-close relationship was strained. It’s all written up in Edmund’s “Father and Son” which he wrote long after his father’s death and which also contained some of Edmund’s well-known inaccuracies. Despite this, it became a best-seller and Edmund continued his upward march in the Establishment, culminating in his receiving both a knighthood and the Légion d’Honneur.

Most people’s impression of Henry Gosse is the one presented by Edmund in “Father and Son”. There is no doubt that he was oppressive in trying to force his son to follow his narrow Christian beliefs, although there were also other differences of view between them. Would these conflicts have been reduced if it was not for Henry trying to wrap Edmund in the same religious straightjacket?  Very probably it would, as they had been so close and shared so much.

The religious faith that meant everything to Henry, and which caused him to be cut off from the world, was clearly the most important aspect of his life, but the conflicts also brought pain. Why is it that religion does that to people? Why must they say “I am right, you are wrong”?

I thought the best way of telling the story of Henry and Edmund Gosse was to link biography with autobiography. As a Natural Historian, I share Henry’s enthusiasms but, as someone who was raised a Christian and is now an atheist, I have some affinities with Edmund.

Overall I feel most empathy with Henry, despite our clear differences. Although we could not be more different on our explanations of the unknown, he struck me as being a lovely man and would not compromise his beliefs, whereas Edmund seemed intent on promoting himself and loved his status. Being accurate was not as important as being respected. Having been brought up by the meticulous Henry, who was candid in everything, makes me think he was prepared to bend stories; it wasn’t just poor research.

“Walking with Gosse” is also a very contemporary story and it looks at current approaches in Biology, on the origins of life, on the use of media and many other fields. Henry Gosse would have had something to say on all of them. 

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Writing “Walking with Gosse” [continued]

“Walking with Gosse” has the subtitle “Natural History, Creation and Religious Conflicts”. Yesterday, I blogged about why I greatly admired Henry Gosse the Natural Historian and communicator but had reservations on how uncomfortable I felt with his many references to his deeply-held religious beliefs.

Henry was faced with a challenge when the idea of geological time was becoming accepted, together with the opinion that gradual changes in the Earth’s flora and fauna occurred through time. He had a very good knowledge of these developments and accepted their logic. However, how could they be squared with the account in Genesis, where God created the Earth and all its inhabitants in six days? In 1857 (two years before Darwin produced “On the Origin of Species”), Henry published “Omphalos”, his attempt to reconcile the Biblical account of Creation with the growing view of geological time and gradual changes. It contained his rather odd theory of Prochronism and, for more on that, see "Walking with Gosse".

Unfortunately, the responses to “Omphalos” were negative – from the scientific and religious communities and even from one member of his own family. Henry was hurt and, having just lost his wife to breast cancer, was at a low ebb. Of course, his faith sustained him, and he appreciated having moved to Torquay where he spent much time collecting marine animals, researching and writing. His young son, Edmund, accompanied him in collecting trips and they were very close at this time, both enjoying the wonders of the natural world.

There are echoes in “Omphalos” of the contemporary debate between those who believe in Creation and those who feel evolution provides the best explanation of the changes that have occurred on Earth. I’m firmly in the latter camp and find the Creation argument very difficult to accept. Many Christians also believe in evolution and feel that the words used in Genesis were not intended to be interpreted literally, as Henry had done.  

All of us face the question of what was the driving force behind the origins of the Earth and its inhabitants but, for sure, fights between the different viewpoints detract from our appreciation of the extraordinary forms and behaviours of all we see around us, from the smallest to the largest. Why can’t we all share that and leave the explanations to personal decisions?

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Writing “Walking with Gosse”

Why did I write “Walking with Gosse”? A fair question and one I’ve been asked several times.

One answer comes in the subtitle to the book, viz. “Natural History, Creation and Religious Conflicts”. I think that the natural world is fascinating to all of us, whatever our views on life and we’ve all been transfixed by watching animals like dragonflies or enjoyed the tranquillity and beauty of bluebell woods. These are just two of a myriad of examples.

Henry Gosse was a great Natural Historian and an acute observer who was able to convey what he saw in both spoken and written words. He was also a very able artist and illustrator, his father having been a professional painter. It was not difficult, when reading Gosse’s books, to feel that here was someone to admire and who was a kindred spirit.

Well, that was one part of the man. To Henry, the most significant aspect of his life was his belief in the literal truth of The Bible, coupled with his conviction of the imminence of the Second Coming. It permeated his writing and all that he did in Natural History and the wonder of it all enhanced his belief in God.

Although brought up as a Christian, and recognising the significance of the Christian religion in the development of Western Civilisation, I do not share Henry’s views. I would have been thrilled to be in his company and to learn from his knowledge but also recognise that I would soon have become intolerant of his constant references to God and the need for me to be saved.

So, I wanted to explore Henry and myself and what I could learn from him. There were also other reasons for writing the book – the Creation debate and the effects of religious belief in promoting conflicts - and I’ll cover these in future blogs.