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Science and Religion, Relations of


SCIENCE AND RELIGION, RELATIONS OF, have been a feature of American thought since colonial times. British settlers began colonizing North America in the 1600s just as the mechanical philosophy was transforming Western science. Earlier European natural philosophers accepted an organic view of matter in which spirits pervaded nature. In contrast, the mechanical philosophy stripped matter of intelligence and purpose. Except for God, human souls, and spiritual beings, the universe consisted of inanimate matter moving in accordance with natural law. For some, this pushed God back to the beginning—a perfect, divine clockmaker who created matter and set it moving in accord with his rational laws. Others, while seeing matter as utterly passive, maintained that God not only created the physical universe but also actively maintained it and could miraculously intervene in its workings. Both views carried profound theological implications. Colonists carried this debate with them to the New World.

To the extent that they participated in these debates, most colonists followed the prevailing British view, associated with the preeminent British scientists Isaac Newton (1642–1727) and Robert Boyle (1627–1691), that saw God actively intervening in nature. The Massachusetts divine Cotton Mather (1663–1728), noted in Europe for his scientific observations of New World phenomena, exemplified this viewpoint. Such scientists typically stressed the need for observation and experiment to discover how God actually designed and maintained nature. Seeing the creation in this way encouraged them to study it for proof of God's existence and evidence of his goodness. Second only to God's revealed word in the Bible, natural theology gave insight into the divine.

In contrast, deists like Benjamin Franklin (1709– 1790), whose analysis of electricity made him the best-known colonial scientist, followed the continental view most commonly associated with such French thinkers as René Descartes (1596–1650), Voltaire (1694–1778), and Pierre Laplace (1748–1827), who saw God as rationally creating the universe but no longer involved with its operation. For these scientists, reason tended to play a larger role than experiment in finding truth, and revelation typically played no part at all. Biblical miracles, including Christ's resurrection, became an object of scientific scorn for many deists, including Franklin and his younger revolutionary-era patriot colleagues Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826) and Thomas Paine (1737–1809). Among scientists, the Philadelphia physician Benjamin Rush (1746–1813) and the English émigré chemist Joseph Priestley (1733–1804) pushed the rational critique of revelation into the early national period.

Antebellum America

Cordial relations between science and religion generally prevailed through the first half of the nineteenth century. Excesses of the French Revolution undermined the appeal of continental thought in the United States, leaving the field open to British ideas. Rational deism, with its scientific assaults on revealed religion, gave way to a more emotional, and sometimes near pantheistic, romanticism among such American intellectuals as the Unitarian philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882). Science did not feature prominently in their critique of traditional religion. Indeed, they were more likely to criticize science and technology than to appeal to them.

During the early nineteenth century, science found an institutional home in the growing number of small colleges dotting the American landscape. These colleges, even state-supported ones, typically functioned as an intellectual arm of evangelical Protestantism. Science was stressed as a means to instruct students in natural theology. The Yale College president Timothy Dwight (1752– 1817), for example, used science to counter skepticism. The Bible was God's word, Dwight argued, and science studied God's creation: there could be no real conflict between them. Any apparent conflict must come from misinterpretations of scripture or science. Thus inspired, academic scientists took the lead in harmonizing new scientific theories with the Bible. America's two leading geologists, Yale's James Dwight Dana (1813–1895) and the Amherst College president Edward Hitchcock (1793– 1864), reconciled new scientific evidence of a long earth history with the Biblical account of creation by suggesting that the days of creation in Genesis symbolized geologic epochs or that a gap existed in the scriptural account. Other scientists made similar efforts to reconcile evidence of ancient and diverse human races with the Genesis account of Adam and Eve. Antebellum American Protestants, impressed by the Biblical orthodoxy of these scientists, generally accepted that good science supported sound religion.

The Advent of Darwinism

The theories of the British naturalist Charles Darwin (1809–1882) began splitting science from religion in the late nineteenth century. Darwin announced his theory of organic evolution by natural selection in 1858. The concept that biological species evolved from preexisting species by natural processes, rather than each being separately created, necessarily pushed God's role back in time. It also challenged conventional readings of Genesis. Nevertheless, most American scientists, including such traditional Christians as Dana and the Harvard botanist Asa Gray (1810–1888), quickly accepted it. The popular Congregational minister Henry Ward Beecher (1813–1887) soon hailed evolution as "God's way of doing things," a view widely shared by liberal Protestants. Roman Catholics and conservative Protestants were more guarded, but many of their leading theologians, including Prince-ton's Benjamin B. Warfield (1851–1921), ultimately conceded that Genesis could be reconciled with evolution so long as the human soul remained a supernatural creation.

The enthusiasm of late-nineteenth-century Americans for the theory of evolution was tempered by their doubts about the process of natural selection. Darwin postulated evolution operating through chance inborn variations selected by a survival-of-the-fittest process. For believers schooled in natural theology, in which nature exhibited God's character, a random, cruel process of creation all but damned the Creator—and the Princeton theologian Charles Hodge (1797–1878) said as much in his influential 1874 book, What Is Darwinism? Many American scientists devised evolutionary mechanisms more compatible with their concept of creation. Gray, for example, proposed a theory of theistic evolution in which a transcendent God guided evolution. The geologist Joseph LeConte (1823–1901) favored a form of theistic evolution driven by spiritual forces within nature. The paleontologist Edward D. Cope (1840–1897) revived notions of acquired variations and vital forces derived from the French naturalist Lamarck (1744–1829). Until the development of genetics early in the twentieth century, legitimate scientific problems with the Darwinian concept of natural selection left ample room for alternatives. During the late nineteenth century, these alternatives dominated American science, rendering it less threatening to religion. Gray, LeConte, and Cope authored popular books harmonizing their views of evolution with religious belief.

At least for LeConte and Cope, however, coming to terms with the theory of evolution proved corrosive of religious orthodoxy. Cope abandoned his Quaker roots for theistic Unitarianism. LeConte renounced all "anthropomorphic notions of Deity." Although other evolutionists retained traditional religious beliefs, they increasingly segregated them from their scientific pursuits. Evolution in biology, uniformitarianism in geology (which holds that present geological processes are sufficient to explain all past geological changes), and positivism in physics (which sees ultimate reality as unknowable) pointed scientists toward seeking immediate natural (rather than remote supernatural) causes for physical phenomena. "It is the aim of science to narrow the domain of the supernatural, by bringing all phenomena within the scope of natural laws and secondary causes," argued the Wesleyan University geologist William North Rice (1845–1928), a theist. The practical success of this approach in producing useful technology and new theories inevitably pushed God out of science and natural theology out of science education. The expansion and professionalization of science departments within American universities contributed to these trends. By the turn of the twentieth century, most American scientists had abandoned efforts to harmonize science with revelation and stopped talking professionally about their religious beliefs.

Twentieth-Century America

The divide between science and religion widened in the twentieth century, with both flourishing in their separate spheres. Housed in ever expanding research universities and fueled by unprecedented public funding, American science assumed intellectual leadership in virtually every field. The technological payoff transformed industry, agriculture, and warfare. During the same period, surveys found that a greater percentage of Americans regularly attended religious services and professed belief in God than the people of any other scientifically advanced nation. Yet surveys also suggested that these percentages dropped off for American scientists, particularly at the higher echelons of the profession. The Darwinian biologist Ernst Mayr (1904–), an atheist, attributed this to methodological naturalism. Science focused on finding naturalistic answers to physical phenomena and left supernatural issues to religion.

Mainline Protestantism disengaged from its historic dialogue with science and abandoned natural theology. The foremost Protestant theologians of the twentieth century, such as Karl Barth (1886–1968), Paul Tillich (1886–1965), and Reinhold Niebuhr (1892–1971), wrote virtually nothing about science in an era of triumphant scientism. Liberal and neoorthodox Protestants joined most Catholics in largely reserving their comment for ethical issues raised by technological applications of science, from biotechnology to nuclear weapons, and to general observations that modern science theories, like the big bang and quantum indeterminancy, leave room for God.

Conservative Christians generally accepted modern science too, though many maintained doubts about the theory of evolution, particularly Darwinian conceptions of natural selection gained general acceptance among biologists during the second quarter of the twentieth century. Periodically during the century, lay Christians stirred mass movements against Darwinism. The Presbyterian politician William Jennings Bryan (1860–1925) did so most effectively in the 1920s, resulting in widespread limits on the teaching of evolution in public schools and the 1925 trial of the high school teacher John Scopes (1900–1970) for violating one such law in Tennessee. Beginning in the 1960s, the Baptist engineering professor Henry M. Morris (1918–) helped revive a literal reading of the Genesis account of creation among fundamentalists, leading to widespread demands for the inclusion of so-called "creation science" in public school biology classes. In the 1990s, the Presbyterian law professor Phillip Johnson (1940–) rekindled widespread interest among conservative Protestants and Catholics for pre-Darwinian concepts of intelligent design in nature. America's rapidly expanding Pentecostal and Holiness denominations sympathized with these movements, though their members rarely took a lead in them. Antievolutionism also characterized Islam, with its sizable following among African Americans, and such Protestant offshoots as Mormonism, the Jehovah's Witnesses, and Seventh-Day Adventism. These popular faiths insure that America's long encounter between science and religion will continue.


Bozeman, Theodore Dwight. Protestants in an Age of Science: The Baconian Ideal and Ante-Bellum American Religious Thought. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1977.

Conkin, Paul K. When All the Gods Trembled: Darwinism, Scopes, and American Intellectuals. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1998.

Greene, John C. American Science in the Age of Jefferson. Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1984.

Hovenkamp, Herbert. Science and Religion in America, 1800– 1860. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1978.

Larson, Edward J. Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America's Continuing Debate over Science and Religion. New York: Basic Books, 1997.

Numbers, Ronald L. Darwinism Comes to America. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998.

Roberts, Jon H., and James Turner. The Sacred and Secular University. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2000.

Szasz, Ferenc M. The Divided Mind of Protestant America, 1880–1930. University: University of Alabama Press, 1982.

Edward J.Larson

See alsoBioethics ; Creationism ; Evolutionism ; Scopes Trial .

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