Thursday, January 10, 2019

Science and Religion in the United States

More from the book on science and religion that I'm currently writing...

To some, religion is solely emotional. And that notion is worth problematizing, especially when we set “religion” (as diverse a category as that is) with “science” (not much more specific, really). Whitehead comments in a chapter devoted to “Religion and Science” in his book Science and the Modern World 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)

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.
As I noted a moment ago, some might say that science and religion set 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 various functions of our wonderfully complex and often chaotic brains—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.” 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 in the book I’m writing is this: To bring us to the present, and then the future, of religion in the United States, where 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.

As historian James Gilbert wrote in his study of religion and science in the United States,

The dialogue between science and religion in America expresses essential ideas and deep-seated structures of culture. It reveals a theological problem and a profound concern of philosophy; it also shapes a significant portion of everyday popular culture. It provides categories for thinking about modern existence: to structure the world as divided between science and religion, or to imagine it united with their convergence. (James Gilbert, Redeeming Culture: American Religion in the Age of Science)

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 interest, however, is to observe more than to promote. And a way of understanding this is to ask how these two cultural forces interrelate, as well as to chart them on this spectrum the key thinkers and movements. And yet, it almost immediately becomes more complicated because those who privilege science and rationality may seek to bring feeling under its aegis. 
To take in the intellectual history of the United States in this way necessarily means that “science” and “religion” are often symbols in wider cultural currents and not only what scientists and religious leaders practice and teach about. What we today call “science” and “religion” doesn’t map exactly onto our history. In the case of the eighteenth century, these two weren’t even separate disciplines and certainly “science” as a discrete field did not exist. It was often called “natural philosophy” or more simply “science” from the Latin word for knowledge, scientia. Not until 1834 did Cambridge University historian and philosopher of science William Whewell coin the term “scientist” to replace such terms as “cultivators of science.”

And this places us in an uneasy relationship with the two today.

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