The Enlightenment and Joseph Priestley’s disenchantment with science and religion

The Enlightenment and Joseph Priestley’s disenchantment with science and religion
Kevin de Berg, June 2012



Kevin de Berg BSc DipEd BEd MAppSc PhD MRACI MACS MACE is A/Professor in Chemistry and Director for Interdisciplinary Studies in Science, Avondale College of Higher Education, Cooranbong, NSW 2265. Paper originally presented at COSAC2011, Launceston, Tasmania, 26 August 2011.



Joseph Priestley (1733-1804) is largely known for his discovery of oxygen or, as he called it, dephlogisticated air. He is less well-known as a minister, educator, and theologian. The established church of the day presented many challenges to Priestley because of its control functions in government, university education, and Christian belief. Priestley, influenced by the 18th century enlightenment principles of reason, justice and equity, made a significant contribution to the dissenting academies in England to the extent that an education in a dissenting academy was regarded by many as superior to that obtained at Oxford or Cambridge. France was the centre of 18th century chemistry but, for reasons to be outlined in the paper, Priestley resisted Lavoisier and his new chemistry. The paper demonstrates how Priestley’s disenchantment with religion revolved very much around the role of tradition in the orthodox church and its relationship to the sacred text of scripture; and his disenchantment with French science arose from what he saw as a kind of scientism. The paper finally draws some implications of these issues for today.


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