The End of the Soul: Scientific Modernity, Atheism, and Anthropology in France

The End of the Soul: Scientific Modernity, Atheism, and Anthropology in France

The End of the Soul: Scientific Modernity, Atheism, and Anthropology in France

The End of the Soul: Scientific Modernity, Atheism, and Anthropology in France

Synopsis

Imagine a dreamland on earth where roasted pigs toddle about with knives in their backs to make carving easy; where grilled geese fly directly into one's open mouth; where cooked fish jump out of the water at one's feet. The weather is always temperate, the wine flows freely, sex is readily available, and all stay forever young.

Excerpt

This book is about atheism and its relationship to science, especially the science of people—of race, gender, class, and nation—at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth. I started researching this topic about ten years ago because I read of the existence of a Society of Mutual Autopsy, and I wanted to know more. The French anthropologists that created it dominated the Society of Anthropology of Paris in the last decades of the century and championed an outspoken, overt mixture of science and anticlerical politics. The history of the Society of Anthropology of Paris in this period had been explored in several works, most notably, in French, in several articles by Claude Blanckaert and a book by Nélia Dias and, in English, in an article by Michael Hammond and the dissertations of Joy Harvey and Elizabeth Williams. These answered a lot of questions, and the present work is much indebted to them. But these studies were all primarily concerned with tracing the interaction between political ideology and the development of particular lines of scientific theory; most often, this had to do with more or less subtle assumptions of human hierarchy. I wanted to know more about some of these anthropologists’ outspoken defense of an entirely unsubtle, politicalized science and their zealous campaign against belief in God. I soon found that a distinct group had first come together as freethinkers—atheists—in the period of the conservative Second Empire and had then entered into anthropology as an intact group, with the explicit intention of using the young science against religion, God, and, specifically, the Catholic Church.

By the late nineteenth century, French culture was dominated by the notion that tradition, church, monarchy, and dogma were naturally and inextri-

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