Sunday, January 07, 2018

A Brief Meditation on Religion and Science in the United States (excerpt from a manuscript)

I'm currently working on a book about the past, present, and future of religion and science in the United States. The manuscript is due December 1. I thought I'd provide a peek into the book's current state.

America has always had a dialectical relationship with science and religion, that is to say, with rationality and order, as well as feeling and conversion. And since I begin this study with European settlements in the West and the East, it is even anachronistic to speak of “America” or “the United States.” Nonetheless, a dialectical—and sometimes contentious—relationship exists between these two forces, which of course, continues to the present day.

To use the scientist and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead’s categories, as Americans, we are often poised between “the force of our religious intuitions, and the force of our impulse to accurate observation and logical deduction” (Science and the Modern World, 181). From this citation, it sounds perhaps that religion is solely emotional. Whitehead does later comment in the chapter devoted to “Religion and Science” (from which this quote emerges) that 
“Religion is the vision of something which stands beyond, behind, and within, the passing flux of immediate things; something which is real, and yet waiting to be realised; something which is a remote possibility, and yet the greatest of present facts; something that gives meaning to all that passes, and yet eludes apprehension; something whose possession is the final good, and yet is beyond all reach; something which is the ultimate ideal, and the hopeless quest.” A. N. Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 191-2.
That is to say, religion seeks to put us in connection with a broader Reality behind the reality we see. It is not simply an emotion, but an intuition of Something or Someone greater than we are.
Some might say that science and religion sets up the contrast between “head” and “heart.” That idea is somewhat distorting—since, at least minimally, we know that emotions and rationality are intertwined and take place in the brain—and yet that contrast begins to bring us to the right position in understanding our heritage in the United States. Historically, we want either to be warmed in our feelings about the world around us—to see meaning and order and beauty—or to have our thinking kindled—to analyze the particulars of how things fit together. The eminent historian of American religion Claude Welch labels the three main threads in the eighteenth century “pietism, rationalism, and romanticism” (Protestant Thought in the Nineteenth Century I:22). In my view the former and latter are both cut from similar human cloth where Romanticism is often a secularized religion, and rationalism is the thread of science in our culture.
If we imagine science (or rationality) on one pole and religion (or feeling) on the another, some have fully given themselves to one pole or its other; many tend toward one as a major, and the other as a minor theme; and some have been able to bring the two together, or at least hold them in a dialectical tension. 
The story I’m telling to bring us to the present, and then the future, of religion in the United States, is one in which no generation ever arrives at fixed relationship between these two cultural forces (or sets of forces), but in which we continually negotiate how religion and science will relate. 
If I am convinced that we have done best as a country when we have held both religion and science together, it’s related to my conviction that human beings are at their best with this same combination. My intent in this book, however, is primarily to observe not to promote. 

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