To look at the past, present, and future of religion in the United States is to hear a narrative in which no generation ever arrives at a fixed relationship between these two cultural forces (or sets of forces), but one in which we continually negotiate how religion and science will relate. It’s less clear but, to my mind, more exciting. As 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."
To take this conversation up a notch intellectually then, in some ways this represents a way to grasp American cultural and intellectual history. And this brings me to a key definition.
By culture, I proceed with Webster’s first entry, “the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or together.”
Biology is nature, and when I speak of “human culture” it is what human beings cultivate in their various spheres of life. And when I talk of “American culture” I’m referring to the second definition primarily. Finally, it’s impossible to talk about this topic (at least for me) without referring to Clifford Geertz’s iconic definition of “culture,”
“historically transmitted patterns of meanings embodied in symbols, a system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic forms by means of which men communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about and attitudes toward life.” Clifford Geertz
In sum, I have become convinced that we have done best as a culture when we have held both religion and science together. And, as I’ve written elsewhere, what we today call “science” and “religion” doesn’t map exactly onto our history. It’s my related conviction that human beings are at their best with this same combination.