Encyclopedia Entry on Nineteenth-century Science and Religion
Paul Jerome Croce
SCIENCE AND RELIGION
essay in the Encyclopedia of American Cultural and Intellectual History (Scribner's, 1999) for the section on Antebellum, Civil War, and Reconstruction: 1838-1877
The strained relationship between science and religion in the middle of the nineteenth century presented Americans with one of their first challenges in diversity. During the first half of the century, all human knowledge was widely regarded as comfortably integrated, and the social overlap of scientists and religious thinkers along with the harmony of reflections about nature and the divine were powerful glues at the core of this synthesis. However, by the end of the century, scientific inquiry developed theoretical justifications and institutional structures separate from religious realms. The bloom of intellectual and cultural diversity that emerged in the wake of these independent inquiries (both to support science and then in reaction to it), and that have exploded in the twentieth century, began with the breakup of harmony between science and religion from the 1830s to the 1870s. This fissure was the modern precursor of the contemporary split between the "two cultures," as C. P. Snow famously called the humanities and the sciences in the twentieth century, and the motherload of our modern pluralism.
The introduction of Darwinism and the widespread influence of evolutionary theories after the 1859 publication of The Origin of Species set the terms of debate about science and religion in the ensuing decades. Despite a widespread perception of the warfare of science and religion generated by the theory of species development based on natural selection, the conflict motif was actually only one major view among many in the 1860s and 1870s. At least as important as the irreligious scientific naturalism of Darwinism was the probabilistic nature of his hypothesis and his method of inquiry. And on both fronts--the content and the methods of Darwinism--its revolutionary impact developed force because of gradual changes in science as practiced over the preceding decades.
There have been two major interpretations of the relation of science and religion in the nineteenth century. The traditional view, emerging even at the time, was that the two fields were at war with each other, with enlightened, rational science vanquishing obscurantist religion. The dramatic clarity of John William Draper, History of the Conflict between Religion and Science (1874) and Andrew Dickson White, A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896) was so forceful that it still shapes popular views as the folk wisdom of our culture concerning science and religion. A recent revisionist trend, however, emphasizes that many scientists retained their religious beliefs and that many religious believers welcomed new scientific theories; this more recent view expands the separation between science and religion into a spectrum. Although there were a fair number of scientific boosters and religious traditionalists on either end who hoped--or we might even say, hoped and prayed--for the warfare motif to justify their own polarized position, the conventional wisdom now maintains that a general harmony prevailed between science and religion at least until the early twentieth century. And yet that harmony was often hard won, and it went through two major phases.
Until about 1860, science and religion were widely perceived to be in harmony, although the increasingly separate practices of science and religion made reconciliation of their insights more and more difficult. After 1860, tensions between science and religion increased, with a few intellectuals trumpeting the change and most striving mightily to retain the harmony. Meanwhile, changes in the methods of science suggested new paths to reconciliation of science and religion through their mutual uncertainty. These remained as hints, unrecognized by most, but gathering force for further development in the twentieth century.
The nineteenth-century emphasis on harmony between science and religion was in some ways a response to the Enlightenment. The most radical, anti-clerical phases of the intellectual movement to expand the influence of human reason never gained much of a foothold in
The religious enthusiasm for science coincided with more secular attitudes because science was also welcomed as a source of patriotic pride and a tool for economic growth. New knowledge of the natural world flooded in with the reports of travel and settlement in the west, and technological innovations helped to spark
With the growth of scientific knowledge and the first pressures toward specialization, the local societies proved inadequate by the 1840s. National organizations, including the Smithsonian Institution and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, established professional standards, encouraged research presentations and publications, and in general promoted the "increase and diffusion" of scientific knowledge as the Smithsonian charter put it. The government, most notably the Coast Survey (whose name changed to the Coast and Geodetic Survey in 1878) employed one third of ante-bellum scientists. In addition, colleges added prominent scientists to their faculty. For example, Harvard hired the prolific and influential botanist Asa Gray in 1842 and persuaded the Swiss geologist and zoologist Louis Agassiz to move across the
Meanwhile, evangelical religion of the time did not resist science, but instead was either indifferent or quietly supportive of the design argument. Charles Grandison Finney, for example, said flatly that "studying science is studying the works of God." Nature understood by science provided evidence for Christianity, which contributed to the public authority of Christian churches. And non-scientific intellectuals, such as the Transcendentalists, the diverse followers of Emanuel Swedenborg's spiritual philosophy, and other romantic thinkers, following Ralph Waldo Emerson's maxim that "every natural fact is a symbol of some spiritual fact," assumed that investigation of the natural world would support religious insight. These romantic thinkers were in the vanguard of a revolution against Baconian science, and its complement in religion, natural theology, which looked to the orderly empirical facts of nature for proof of the divine. But while their German-inspired idealism was philosophically opposite to empiricism, it reinforced the same theme of harmony between science and religion, albeit on different terms. In place of emphasizing factual evidence, romantic thinking effectively domesticated the harsh proofs of science by proposing that the complicated results of scientific pursuit were actually part of the wonders of the natural world and the awesome workings of the divine. Henry David Thoreau represented another stream of romanticism in his blending empiricism and idealism, which linked science and religion through his spiritual but factual natural history investigations, conducted in the spirit of German polymath scientist Alexander von Humboldt's empirical naturalism.
For all their disagreements, practitioners of science and religious adherents, empiricists and idealists shared the conviction that scientific work would not conflict with the essential truths of religion. Aware that some still "kept distrustful eyes on science," mineralogist and geologist James Dwight Dana was confident that it would bring "new revelations of profound truths direct from God's works." Theologian James Henley Thornwell said, "Geology and the Bible must kiss and embrace each other, and ... [t]he earth can never turn traitor to its God."
Religious leaders were generally even more enthusiastic than scientists about science's support of religion. For scientists, religious connections were becoming more like rhetorical ornaments placed at the introduction and conclusion of scientific addresses. Their religious beliefs, while personally welcome, were becoming increasingly irrelevant to the actual work of scientific research. For example, Gray heard Agassiz lecture on his triumphal visit to the United States the year before he was hired at Harvard, and noted that the pious zoologist's "references to the Creator were so natural and unconstrained as to show that they were never brought in for effect." Although he was a strong religious believer, he could not accept religious references applied just for pious show.
The ebbing away from religion came gradually, and when antireligious conclusions were made explicit in the 1840s, most scientists readily defended religion's harmony with their fields of inquiry. In 1844, Englishman Robert Chambers argued for the evolutionary change of species in The Vestiges of Creation. He published it anonymously in rightful expectation of hostility for its purely material explanations. The book's reception gave Darwin himself caution about publishing his more thorough and persuasive account of species development.
Just as scientific investigations were conducted without reference to science, so too did religious believers become more distant from science. The increasingly privatized religion of the heart in the early to middle nineteenth century was the culmination of the Reformation assault on the institutional church, the eighteenth-century evangelical impulse, and the special challenges of churches in the
Although average believers were moved by private feelings and religious sentiments, religious intellectuals and church leaders worried more about their connection to science. They noticed the growth of scientific knowledge, recalled the more radical phases of the Enlightenment, and felt moved to reconcile science with traditional doctrine. Intellectuals at Princeton or
In the context of the earlier generation's commitment to certainty,
Although Darwinism was greeted with some spirited scientific resistance, most notably from Louis Agassiz, and was honored more in general as evolutionism than for its particular arguments, its success coincided with a great upsurge of institution-building in higher education. By the 1870s, some of the leading colleges took the first steps along these lines: chemist Charles Eliot became president of Harvard in 1869 and emphasized scientific training as part of the buildup of a strong masculine character in preparation for cultural leadership; and after training at Yale's Scientific School and serving as president of the University of California, Daniel Coit Gilman in 1876 became president of the Johns Hopkins University, which pioneered by prioritizing research, especially in science, instead of undergraduate education. Even outside universities, science became a point of widespread public curiosity and respect by the 1870s, as evidenced by the publication of Appleton's Journal "for scientific news" (from 1867) and Popular Science Monthly (from 1872), the creation of scientific columns in Harper's (from 1869) and Galaxy (from 1871), and the addition of the word "science" to the subtitle of the Atlantic.
Religious figures were slower to respond to Darwinism. Taking heart from the scientific opponents to Darwinism during the 1860s, many religious leaders treated it as a tempest in a scientific teapot. Applying the logic of the previous generation in reverse, they assumed that any theory that did not reinforce religious belief must not be good science. In addition, although the Civil War promoted institution building in science, it inhibited serious reflection on science and its implications.
By 1870, with evolutionism entrenched in scientific circles, religious thinkers finally turned their attention to the theological implications of the "transmutation hypothesis." Only at this point did religions even begin to separate in response to Darwinism, on paths that have become the polarized mainstays of twentieth-century American religion. Comparing
Asa Gray took the lead for a blending of Darwinism and religion. Not concerned with the naturalistic displacement of God from Providential action and primary causes, he retained a picture of the divine as a mysterious reclusive force, like a hidden, forceful wind behind all worldly action; "natural selection is not the wind," Gray argued, "but the rudder which ... shapes the course." These religious words from a scientist supported liberal theologians such as Henry Ward Beecher and James Woodrow who presented evolution as God's approach to the creation and governance of the world. This religious school of thought aligned with late nineteenth-century professional scientists who, while geology and physics provided no clear evidence for the fabulous time spans required for the operation of natural selection, and before the reinforcement of the theory of natural selection with genetic science in the twentieth century, were more likely to endorse evolutionism without Darwinism. For scientists and liberal theologians, evolution was a way of comprehending progress in nature and society, and it was often construed as a form of Lamarckian inheritance of acquired characteristics. American Neo-Lamarckians depicted evolution on a shorter time span and with more optimistic opportunities for voluntary improvement than were allowed with the chance mutation and inheritance mechanisms of Darwinism.
Most supporters of evolution treated innovations in science, including Darwinism, as fully authoritative or even certain. After all, science had the prestige of professional status, and it was associated with the marvelous technological innovations that thrilled the average citizen. But scientists themselves increasingly treated their theories as
Two young students of science at Harvard in the 1860s, Charles Sanders Peirce and William James, noticed this core of uncertainty beneath the social confidence of science. As early as 1868, James wrote that
In the early nineteenth century, scientific and religious truths were usually presented in terms of proof and certainty. However, by the end of the century, propositions in these fields had fewer universal assurances: hypotheses qualified the expression of scientific theories; liberal religious commentators used the language of metaphor and ambiguity; and conservatives held on to the methods of the earlier generation. During the middle of the century, not only did the practice of science and religion reach a fundamental separation, but also the seeds were planted for the liberal-conservative split in religious views of science over the question of how much certainty was required to sustain belief. And so, the warfare of science and religion was not wholly inaccurate, but rather it was a polemical, popularized exaggeration of a very real trend. Meanwhile, professional students of science and religion embraced the uncertainty of steady inquiry and ambivalence in each field, while most of the public was still eager for scientific proof and religious assurance. This fraying of the culture over fundamental truths broke the edifice of consensus in nineteenth-century American culture and cracked the expectation of uniformities in thought and culture. And into breach created by the changing relations of science and religion, countless other intellectual and cultural diversities followed.
Sidebar on Louis Agassiz (1807-1873)
Louis Agassiz was a professor of natural history at Neuchâtel in
Sidebar on Cholera Epidemics: Divine Punishment or Natural Disaster?
After 1817, cholera became a global disease, spreading from local pockets in the Far East, first to
In 1832, 1849, and 1866, the
The argument about natural laws controlling even God's will gained still more adherents by 1849. Spiritual and physical concerns about the spread of the disease mingled, for example, in a New Bedford newspaper editorial: "Prayer, without at the same time forsaking sin and doing right, is an utter mockery, and deserves a curse. We must now cleanse and purify ourselves." There was growing concern, as the president of the Wisconsin State Medical Society lamented, about human "ignorance of the nature and the character of the pestilence." Distinct impressions were forming that concentrations of filth and unwashed food contributed to the spread of cholera, but efforts to combat the disease, whether from religious or scientific circles, were utterly powerless. This contributed not only to secularization, but also to skepticism about the medical profession and to the growth of nonmainstream medical systems, especially hydropathy and homeopathy, which were gererally more successful than "regular practitioners" in combatting the disease.
When the scourge returned in 1866, there was still no cure, but there was some hope for prevention of its spread. The medical profession, bolstered by the organization of the Sanitary Commission during the Civil War and reinforced by scientific studies of contamination in food and water supplies, set up Boards of Health, first in
In thirty-four years, cholera had shifted in the public imagination from a spiritual crisis to a social problem.
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