Without God

In his celebrated 1837 Phi Beta Kappa Oration at Harvard, titled “The American Scholar,” Ralph Waldo Emerson predicted that a day would come when America would end what he called “our long apprenticeship to the learning of other lands.” His prediction came true in the twentieth century, and in no area of learning more so than in science. This surely would have pleased Emerson. When he listed his heroes he would generally include Copernicus and Galileo and Newton along with Socrates and Jesus and Swedenborg. But I think that Emerson would have had mixed feelings about one consequence of the advance of science here and abroad—that it has led to a widespread weakening of religious belief.

Emerson was hardly orthodox—according to Herman Melville, he felt “that had he lived in those days when the world was made, he might have offered some valuable suggestions”—but he was for a while a Unitarian minister, and he usually found it possible to speak favorably of the Almighty. Emerson grieved over what he saw in his own time as a weakening of belief, as opposed to mere piety and churchgoing, in America and even more so in England, though I can’t say that he attributed it to the advance of science.

The idea of a conflict between science and religion has a long pedigree. According to Edward Gibbon, it was the view of the Byzantine church that “the study of nature was the surest symptom of an unbelieving mind.” Perhaps the best-known portrayal of this conflict is a book published in 1896 by Cornell’s first president, Andrew Dickson White, with the titleA History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom.

In recent times there has been a reaction against talk of warfare between science and religion. White’s “conflict thesis” was attacked in a 1986 paper by Bruce Lindberg and Ronald Numbers, both well-known historians of science, who pointed out many flaws in White’s scholarship. The Templeton Foundation offers a large prize to those who argue that there is no conflict between science and religion. Some scientists take this line because they want to protect science education from religious fundamentalists. Stephen Jay Gould argued that there could be no conflict between science and religion, because science deals only with facts and religion only with values. This certainly was not the view held in the past by most adherents of religion, and it is a sign of the decay of belief in the supernatural that many today who call themselves religious would agree with Gould.

Let’s grant that science and religion are not incompatible—there are after all some (though not many) excellent scientists, like Charles Townes and Francis Collins, who have strong religious beliefs. Still, I think that between science and religion there is, if not an incompatibility, at least what the philosopher Susan Haack has called a tension, that has been gradually weakening serious religious belief, especially in the West, where science …

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Without God’: An Exchange November 20, 2008