On my local PBS station, they are sporadically showing Jonathan Miller's new series A Brief History of Disbelief, wherein the famed British smart guy tells us a lot about how atheists and agnostics and other people who aren't completely on board with the whole religion thing first showed up. Miller also delves into what society thought of them and how their ideas spread despite widespread hatred of their views. That hatred including laws that could put a self-proclaimed atheist to death, not just in the Catholic countries like Italy and Spain, but also in England, where the first such law was passed in 1690. I've enjoyed it and recommend it to anyone who can find it on their PBS schedule between the cooking shows and 1960's oldies concerts.
On the show where Miller discusses the time period from about 1500 to 1900, of course he has to bring up Newton. Modern biographers of Newton all have to bring up the new information about how much time he spent studying alchemy and religion; from his letters, it seems clear that he spent more time studying each of these two topics than he spent on either mathematics or physics. Modern defenders of alchemy think this vindicates alchemy. Most biographers call Newton pious.
Matty Boy would politely like to tell these people to go soak their heads.
With both alchemy and religion, he spent massive amounts of time studying, but never published. He wrote about his research in letters to friends, but never a word saw the business end of printing press. With the alchemy, the reason he didn't publish was because he came up with squat. Nothing worked. It was hokum, but he didn't know it was hokum until he tried it himself. I believe he might have wanted alchemy to work, and was disappointed when it didn't, but he never considered writing a diatribe ripping the lid off the topic. That wasn't his style.
With the religion, he held some heretical views for his day. He didn't believe in the Trinity. Let me restate that. He came up with a mathematical proof that the Trinity was impossible. I don't know if he came up with this proof before or after the 1690 law that made heresy punishable by death, but in either case he knew it would be seen as heretical, and wanted to avoid the controversy. He didn't like controversy.
When he was a young man, it took a while before he was accepted into the Royal Academy of Science, and there he had his detractors, including a still famous pinhead named Robert Hooke, who said that Newton's masterwork Principia Mathematica wasn't very important and didn't really say much new, and all the new stuff Hooke had already said and figured out himself. Of the opinion that the Principia wasn't important, recall there was some goofball who turned down signing the Beatles to a recording contract because guitar groups were on the way out. It's just an opinion, but it's 100% dead wrong. As for Hooke coming up with all the important stuff himself, here he's just a fucking liar. (Idiot opinions and fucking lies... why am I reminded of someone?)
As much as Newton disliked controversy when he had the whole truth and nothing but the truth on his side, his proof against the existence of the Trinity would have created a firestorm if he had published. I think a lot of his undeniable piety may be a man trying to prove to himself that he wasn't the monster the public would have thought him to be had they known his true heart.
In some ways, I would make the present day analogy to a gay man who still strongly believes his every sexual thought is a sin, and does everything he can to hide his true nature. Along those lines, Newton famously wrote in a letter that he was proud and happy that he would die a virgin.
I'm not sayin'. I'm just sayin'.