Negotiating Science and Religion in America
Here's the current 930-word summary of my upcoming 70,000 word book, set to be published in early 2020.
In 1925 the Harvard philosopher-scientist Alfred North Whitehead stated that the future of our civilization depended, to some degree, on how effectively we were able to relate science and religion, which he described as
“the force of our religious intuitions, and the force of our impulse to accurate observation and logical deduction.”And thus the burden of this book: If indeed religion and science are central to the America, where is their future relationship? (This would be a worthwhile question without its centrality, but that fact intensifies the need for an answer.) What do we do with the fact that about seventy percent of Americans see ultimate conflict between the teachings of science and religion, but that same percentage of believers don’t see science conflicting with their faith? The past provides us with a guide to the present.
I begin with an introduction, which highlights Whitehead’s 1925 Challenge. I then outline the subsequent chapters. In chapter two, I define key words. For example, the definitions of science and religion don’t map exactly onto our usage. (The word scientist, for example, was not coined in 1830s.) I then adapt Ian Barbour’s iconic typology of how to relate the two: conflict, independence, and integration. Finally, despite challenges, I use the relation between science and religion as a way to understand American cultural life and the common good that we promote to define our country.
I sketch the answer out to how we've related science and religion in three phases: past, present, and future.
The past I define as approximately 1687 to 1966, with a division of 1859 in between, which comprise chapters three and four. I freely admit that every historical division is clunky, somewhat arbitrary, and therefore distorting; nonetheless, I am employing three publication dates, Isaac Newton’s Principia (1687), Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859), and Ian Barbour’s Issues in Science and Religion(1966). Between Newton and Darwin, the United States was officially founded, and in that time, it maintained a tensive relationship between rationality and religious affections, to use Jonathan Edwards’s term. It was a period marked by an Enlightenment rationality, featured prominently in our nation’s core documents, while at the same embodying a warmth of emotional life no less characteristic of America. In fact, I look at Edwards as an exemplary thinker who employed his impressive intellectual skills to hold together these two American cultural forces, even as the early eighteenth century First Great Awakening was booming. I contrast Edwards with Thomas Paine, who saw no way to combine rationalism with revealed religion, which marked our Revolutionary period. Grasping these two is an affective way to understand America culturally. In the early eighteenth century, though largely a time of cultural contentment with combing science and religion, especially through Baconian induction and Scottish Common Sense realism, one can discerns signs of a brewing discontent.
Then, in chapters five through seven, I note that the Civil War interrupted the early reception of Darwin, and then chart what happened post-Darwin through to the modern study of science and religion with characters such as Andrew Dickson White, John William Draper, Charles Hodge, and Asa Gray, as well as events like the rise of eugenics, modernism, the fundamentalist-modernist split, and the 1925 Scopes Trial. Here the United States was coming of age intellectually and culturally, and continued to find an uneasy relationship with a variety of impulses. Put another way, both religious expansion and scientific advances such as relativity and quantum theories—sometimes worked in alliance, sometimes in antagonism, and sometimes in contented independence—and this blend marked a period of about a hundred years from 1859 to 1966.
For the present, I begin in chapter eight with Barbour’s 1966 Issues because—at least for the academic study of religion and science—this book defined the field. It emerged in the massive splintering that characterizes the Sixties when the Christian church became increasingly disestablished, and a variety of religious traditions more mainstreamed. Barbour helped us understand a more nuanced and effective approach to religion and science (than, for example, White’s), even if scholar now see its significant limitations. During these years, we saw the emergence of ideas that broaden the dialogue, such as Capra’s The Tao of Physics and the Gaia Hypothesis. Chapter nine takes us to the new millennium (a term I like because it sounds so grand) and analyzes the early twenty-first century interaction of religion and science through three key voices, Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Dawkins, Francis Collins.
The final part peers into the future (which started somewhere around the second decade of the twenty-first century), by first—in chapter ten—analyzing research from key scholars on emerging adults’ attitudes about religion and science (seasoned with my own interviews and surveys), as signposts for the future. Chapter eleven analyzes these views as a way to discern the contours of these future directions of science and religion in the United States: first of all, a world of new topics in science and religion—in which evolution and creation will be present, but concerns about topics such as sexuality, climate change, AI, and transhumanism will rise in importance. I then note some trends: the decreasing influence of the Christianity and the further splintering of American religious life, a modest rise in atheism and agnosticism with a marked increase of the religious nones, and finally, a decreased antipathy in the interaction of science and religion.
I offer some final thoughts in an epilogue and include two appendices: this, a summary of the book; and my notes on the ten topics today and for the future of science and religion.