Thursday, June 27, 2019

My Upcoming Book on Science and Religion in America in Summary Form

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.

Thursday, June 20, 2019

From the Preeminence of Evangelicals to Liberals and Back Again

This is a raw excerpt from my next book (coming out in 2020) on negotiating religion and science in America.

An insight into America from Alexis de Tocqueville
In American history, the evangelical voice of the Puritans (i.e., evangelicalism in its original form, not the desiccated version we see today) had lost its preeminence in the late 19th century through the early 20th half century. Partly this was due to a retreat by fundamentalists after their inability to take over denominational leadership in the 1920s and the 1925 Scopes "Monkey Trial," which for many Americans, demonstrated conservative evangelical recalcitrant resistance to science (and in this case, evolution).

A side note for the purposes of this blog: The Puritan leaders, like Jonathan Edwards, were skilled commentators on integrating a robust biblical faith with emerging science, as I elaborated in a post for the Faraday Institute blog, "Doing Faith and Since Like it's 1718."

You could say this: The 1900s, or the “Christian Century” (embodied in the periodical of the same name), was substantially the liberal Protestant century until the rise of the Religious Right and the Moral Majority with Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980. 

You could say this, but the story of a simple shift from the ascendency of the evangelicals to liberals and then back is somewhat distorting. As A. N. Whitehead once commented, "Seek simplicity and distrust it."

In some ways, as we look back to these rises and falls of traditionalist and modernist religious ideas in light of the prominence in today of the evangelical voice (which now includes fundamentalism), we need to remember New York Times columnist Ross Douthat’s comments on liberal mainline churches
Some of what those congregations offer is already embodied in liberal politics and culture. As the sociologist N. J. Demerath argued in the 1990s, liberal churches have suffered institutional decline, but also enjoy a sort of cultural triumph, losing members even as their most distinctive commitments — ecumenical spirituality and a progressive social Gospel — permeate academia, the media, pop culture, the Democratic Party.
The victory of mainline Protestants meant their disappearance because their values became the wider culture’s. For this reason, in the ears of many Christians today, liberal Protestants sound too much like the world around us, and that leads some to resist both liberal theology and the science it embraces.

I'm afraid that strategy is both unnecessarily reactive and unhelpfully detrimental to a confident Christian faith. And so I ask: Do we need to listen to both evangelicals and mainliners to truly hear the Gospel again today? Could that strategy bring with it an effective way to bring our faith to mainstream science?

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Something Truly Inspirational from Marilynne Robinson (A Note)

The past few weeks, as I write, I've been reading extraordinarily talented practitioners of the craft of putting ideas into words. 

As a result, I came across this brief paragraph from Marilynne Robinson in The Death of
Adam, which I read and re-read and felt 
inspired each time I did:
I want to hear passionate arguments about what we are and what we are doing and what we ought to do. I want to feel that art is an utterance made in good faith by one human being to another. I want to believe there are geniuses scheming to astonish the rest of us, just for the pleasure of it. I miss civilization, and I want it back.
And so do I. I wondered to myself whether I'm willing to live so passionately that I might just find a few moments like this as well.

Thursday, June 06, 2019

A Note: Philip Clayton on Nones and the Future of Science and Religion

This week I'm traveling, and so, like my last entry, here I'll simply offer a brief note highlighting insights from a leading thinker in the field of science and religion, Philip Clayton.

In Religion and Science: The BasicsClayton has commented on the future of science and religion in America in light of the growth of the Nones (those who check "none of the above" when asked about their religious affiliation) and particularly their spiritual openness. Clayton recognizes that a minority of nones are actually atheistic. In addition, according to a 2015 Pew studyone-in-six religiously unaffiliated adults (16%) say their own religious beliefs conflict with science. He writes,
Interest in the spiritual approach to science has grown rapidly in recent years. It’s no coincidence that these same years have seen a rapid decrease in participation in organized religion. The no-longer-affiliated or “Nones” have described themselves as “spiritual but not religious” or “spiritual independents.” They may practice yoga or meditation without much attention to traditional Hindu or Buddhist teachings. They may find spirituality in different places: in nature or music, in being with friends or making love. They may tie together bits of sacred texts and practices without feeling that they have to be at home in just one. Philip Clayton, Religion and Science: The Basics 
This implies that the Nones will bring an openness that will defuse a conflict between science and religion so often brought by fundamentalisms, both religious and atheistic. 
Will this be at the level of intense systematic truth claims between these fields of knowledge? Note here that it is not critical for the emerging adults I’ve interviewed to achieve consistency in systems of knowledge or in epistemic claimsAlthough this is certainly possible, ethical and emotional concerns present more possibilities, more "felt needs." It seems the Nones want collaboration or independence on an emotional level.

Saturday, June 01, 2019

A note on Natural Philosophy and Science

This is a quick jotting on two key terms, science and natural philosophy.

“Science” as a discrete field did not exist for centuries and for most of American history. It was often called “natural philosophy” or more simply “science” from the Latin word for knowledge, scientia

Johns Hopkins philosophy of science Lawrence Principe has commented,

Natural philosophy is closely related to what we familiarly call science today, but is broader in scope and intent. The natural philosopher of the Middle Ages or the Scientific Revolution studied the natural world—as modern scientists do—but did so within a wider vision that included theology and metaphysics. The three components of God, man, and nature were never insulated from one another. Lawrence Principe, The Scientific Revolution

The change in nomenclature signaled a shift in scope. Not until 1834 did the Cambridge University historian and philosopher of science William Whewell coin the term “scientist” to replace such terms as “cultivators of science.”