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Redeeming Culture: American Religion in an Age of Science

Redeeming Culture: American Religion in an Age of Science

by James Gilbert


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In this intriguing history, James Gilbert examines the confrontation between modern science and religion as these disparate, sometimes hostile modes of thought clashed in the arena of American culture. Beginning in 1925 with the infamous Scopes trial, Gilbert traces nearly forty years of competing attitudes toward science and religion.

"Anyone seriously interested in the history of current controversies involving religion and science will find Gilbert's book invaluable."—Peter J. Causton, Boston Book Review

"Redeeming Culture provides some fascinating background for understanding the interactions of science and religion in the United States. . . . Intriguing pictures of some of the highlights in this cultural exchange."—George Marsden, Nature

"A solid and entertaining account of the obstacles to mutual understanding that science and religion are now warily overcoming."—Catholic News Service

"[An] always fascinating look at the conversation between religion and science in America."—Publishers Weekly

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226293219
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 11/01/1998
Edition description: 1
Pages: 418
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.90(d)
Lexile: 1420L (what's this?)

About the Author

James Gilbert is professor of history at the University of Maryland. He is the author of ten books, including Perfect Cities: Chicago’s Utopias of 1893 and Men in the Middle: Searching for Masculinity in the 1950s, also published by the University of Chicago Press.

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Redeeming Culture

American Religion in an Age of Science

By James Gilbert

University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2003

University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-226-29320-3

Chapter One

The energie of the universe is constant
while entropy [randomness] strives
toward maximization
.-Rudolf Clausius

William Jennings Bryan, Scientist

William Jennings Bryan never wrestled a lightweight. His opponents over the
decades had been organized business interests, the banks, the corrupt East,
the Republican Party, World War I, and German militarism. Now, at the end of
his life, he faced the most clever and subtle force of all: the science of
evolution. Never one to shirk a momentous encounter, he wrote, "In this fight
I have the most intolerant and vindictive enemies I have ever met and I have
the largest majority on my side I have ever had and I am discussing the
greatest issue I have ever discussed."

With the end of the war, Bryan had become a national voice for Fundamentalist
Protestants. Shortly before his death he had been engaged as a tour leader to
conduct a group of Protestant pilgrims on a trip to the Holy Land. Known
widely to his supporters as a political figure of high principles and to
detractors as a man ofquixotic faith in lost causes, Bryan had increasingly
moved, with the rural political laity he represented, from radical to
conservative populism. A critical element in tempering this change was the
rapid growth of Fundamentalism, based on a profound social and intellectual
split in American Protestantism just before World War I. A man of many causes,
Bryan articulated the anxiety of the legions he led into an aggressive
religious contest with modern American society. It is wrong to dismiss Bryan
or the larger causes he represented as the aftershocks of modernization. At
least two of his principal ideas recurred in a new form in the late 1930s and
then continued for the next three decades. They include the assumption that
one test of scientific theory is its intuitive clarity, its appeal to commonly
understood experience. The second is the democratic suspicion of elites. Both
issues almost invariably combined and reinforced each other, particularly in
popular culture.

The specific cause that most preoccupied Bryan was the crusade to exclude
Darwinian science from the public schools. Meeting with considerable success
in the South, Bryan helped convince the Florida legislature to pass a
resolution in 1923 against teaching evolution in the schools. His handiwork
showed in the antievolution law of Tennessee. But he was most comfortable
leading intrepid legions of Fundamentalists into battle in July 1925 at
Dayton, Tennessee, in the famous Scopes trial testing the validity of that
state's antievolution law. Almost immediately after its conclusion he died:
some said of a broken heart and the loss of a lost cause.

The traditional telling of this story is certainly the most dramatic. Bryan
mustered an army of believers who, to their anguish and outrage, listened with
horrified incredulity to his betrayal on the witness stand of their rock-hard,
literal interpretation of Genesis. Bryan's confusion before the bar was their
undoing too, and his sad defeat in death brought the decline of organized
resistance to evolution. The high-flying standards of parochialism were
lowered as most Americans subsequently accepted sophistication ... and
modern science.

A more recent version of this historical encounter at Dayton is less
conclusive. True, the Scopes trial was a journalistic disaster for
Fundamentalism and a triumph for lawyer Clarence Darrow of the defense and the
Baltimore pundit H. L. Mencken. But the cultural meaning was less certainly
clear. Fundamentalists continued to press, successfully in some cases, for the
passage and enforcement of antievolution laws. To a degree they went
underground or, better, stepped out of the public spotlight. They continued to
construct arguments and assemble constituencies against Darwinian science, and
they successfully discouraged the teaching of evolution science in the public
schools for two generations. When they resurfaced in the 1960s and 1970s as a
powerful force in education and politics, they surprised only the

Yet there is another story still to be told with William Jennings Bryan as its
leading player. Not only does this demand a reassessment of Bryan's role and
intentions, it requires a reexamination of the meaning of science and religion
in American culture-of how these words were used and what aspects of culture
they designated. Bryan's actions and writings at the penultimate moment before
the trial suggest that his greatest mistake was to take for granted an
unchanging and unchallenged compromise between science and religion
established in the nineteenth century. He wrongly assumed that the heart of
American culture was whole. Instead he revealed a fault line between popular
and professional science, ready to break open during times of stress in
American culture in the 1920s and again in the postwar period.

On 30 December 1924, William Jennings Bryan paid his five dollars to join the
American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). This old,
distinguished organization of scientists was the bedrock of respectability,
and Bryan's act proclaimed his assumptions about the relation of amateurs and
professionals. In effect, he affirmed the reputation of the organization as
hospitable to independent membership by men merely interested in science or
peripherally associated with research. The AAAS was an umbrella organization
of the American science establishment and devoted much of its energy to
popularizing modern scientific theories, yet it remained open to men like

Bryan designated Section D (Astronomy) as his chosen area of specialty.
Earlier, he had sent in his application but neglected to sign the check. Now
he "returned it with the season's greetings." As he told the amused men of the
press, he was "only one of several thousand members who harbors doubts on the
subject of evolution." The announcement of this surprising affiliation
interrupted the annual meeting of the AAAS in Washington, D.C. A highly
publicized feature of the gathering was a thorough and critical scientific
refutation of Bryan's position on evolution theory presented by Edward L.
Rice, a biologist from Ohio Wesleyan University. As Science magazine reported
shortly afterward, Rice's address had been a model of temperance and
toleration, calling for the judicious consideration of all theories. Rice
hoped that mutual respect between science and religion would enrich both,
provided Bryan and his followers and some strident proponents of Darwinism
would lower their shrill voices.

Rice's quiet accounting of Bryan's scientific errors was devastating. One
could only conclude that the "Great Commoner" did not understand scientific
method or Darwin's writings. His position against evolution theory came from
outside the normal standards of scientific debate. Bryan's charges constituted
a crude lawyer's brief, a scattered shower of rhetoric that rained
indiscriminate accusations on a theory that was in fact measured and
reasonable, the very model of a careful analysis. Perhaps because of Rice's
judicious warning, the AAAS was enough impressed with the threat that Bryan
represented to organize a committee to promote the teaching of science and
evolution in the public schools.

But the larger question is, Why did Bryan join the AAAS in 1924? What was his
motivation in pledging membership to the largest and most reputable scientific
organization in the United States and one known, incidentally, for its vocal
support of evolution theory? Quite clearly the answer has nothing to do with a
run-up to the Scopes trial. The Tennessee antievolution law that created the
case did not pass until the spring of 1925, well after he secured his
membership. Neither the American Civil Liberties Union nor John Scopes had yet
imagined initiating a test case for Darwinism. The explanation lies instead in
taking seriously Bryan's assumption that he was, on his own terms at least, a
scientist. Doing so reveals the sort of science to which he committed his soul
and how, perhaps, millions of other Americans understood science.

In the early 1920s Bryan pressed his case against modernism in religion and
science with the steady nerves and energy of a convert, addressing meetings of
antievolutionists, speaking from the pulpit, lobbying in the halls of state
legislatures, and even venturing at times into hostile universities. One of
the most pointed of his testimonies came when he addressed the state
legislature of West Virginia on 13 April 1923 as an expert witness on
evolution theory and modern science. He repaid the attentive legislators with
an extended lesson in chemistry. For his text Bryan took an interpretation of
the second law of thermodynamics that appeared to nullify any possible natural
evolution toward more complex life forms. Everyone knew that the world of
chemistry was constructed out of ninety-two elements, he noted. No force in
nature could make these elements evolve; they simply were what they were. So,
he continued, water consisted of its two constituent elements, separated or
combined. There was no prewater, no vestigial water, no evolution of something
into water. Between its constituent elements and water itself, there were no
missing links, no intermediate forms. Water was water. Hydrogen and oxygen
were hydrogen and oxygen. Thus, he concluded, chemistry "mocks the atheist and
brings confusion to the evolutionist." "Is it conceivable that two such gases
as oxygen and hydrogen should just happen?" he asked rhetorically. The implied
answer was that only God could create something as useful and perfect as water
from such base elements. Furthermore, as the second law of thermodynamics
seemed to demonstrate, the world left to itself would degenerate into chaos.

His second lesson from chemistry concerned the ideas of permanence and
pattern. "Chemistry has taught us the properties of matter and the way to use
them, but they are all stationary," he declared. If scientists could detect
any change in nature, its direction would necessarily be toward degeneration
and disintegration, never evolution into higher orders. Here he rested his
case: God had created a world in which species, like the elements, were stable
and unchanging. The essence of true science, he concluded, was the study of
"classified Knowledge" and its organization into patterns and hierarchies; all
else was speculation. All truth derived from God, "whether in the book of
nature or the Book of Books." Neither guesses or hypotheses (which he equated)
were themselves scientific. Only descriptive classification was.

Going through the vast inventory of God's patent office of elements,
creatures, and natural phenomena, the scientist would never find anything that
contradicted the Bible. He could not discover exceptions to design and pattern
in any of the splendid, sublime richness of creation. Nor could he ever find
anything irrational, anything that contradicted common sense, for science was
a universally legible revelation of God's purposes. The book of nature could
not contradict the Book of Revelation because both hewed to the same laws,
logic, and principles. Anything absurd to man's mind was just as surely absurd
to God. A world without an ultimate reason, based on evolution out of nothing
toward something, upon change from simple to complex, from plain to brilliant
and beautiful, from the inanimate to the quick, from instinctual to
intelligent, all conceived without larger purpose, was impossible.

Bryan affirmed this conception of science with every breath of culture he
inhaled. His understanding of science was firmly grounded in a popular view
that flourished from the early nineteenth century. At that time, under the
influence and challenge of the Enlightenment, American philosophers and
theologians, and especially the Scottish thinkers who influenced them,
developed a theory of science that enthralled the democratic, evangelical
fervor of the antebellum period. Based on Sir Francis Bacon's separation of
science and religion, this theory granted to each realm a place in the
glorification of God. Bacon's inductive methodology in science (that
observation leads to theory) provided a commonsense answer to the difficult
and complex problems stirred up by modern science and philosophy. Reasonable
men agreed that observation was the method for acquiring truth, and reasonable
men knew that what they observed was real and tangible.

The philosophies of the Scotsmen Thomas Reid and Dugald Stewart, based on this
commonsense view of religion, appealed to American Protestants who feared the
radical, antireligious fringe of the Enlightenment. Forever explained by the
compelling brilliance of William Paley's metaphor of the Watchmaker and the
watch, the Creator and the created, this unity of science and religion
inspired a generation of American scientists who emerged after the American
Revolution. What Paley did was to refashion an old argument that had long
been part of Christian eschatology into a modern demonstration of natural
theology. His philosophy of creation affirmed, in Aristotelian fashion, that
God created a world of separate species, each with its own essence. By this
formula (elaborated brilliantly by Saint Thomas Aquinas among others), human
essence was of the utmost importance and difference, defined as it was by
spirit, soul, and reason. Paley translated such notions into mechanical
metaphors, uniting technology and theory into a persuasive and easily
understood metaphor that was readily accessible to nineteenth-century

By Bryan's day the assumptions and language of this unity bore little direct
resemblance to contemporary European or American scientific theories or
philosophic systems such as pragmatism. But it persisted generally, even if
its visible roots had long since disappeared. Commonsense science had
dissolved into American culture until it had become simply common sense.

Although he repeated these ideas as his own, Bryan's reasoning was contained
within the essential outlines of the philosophy. The highest pillar of truth,
he wrote, was the agreement of science and religion on one essential
proposition: mankind was the center and purpose of the universe. Science and
religion were just complementary methods of understanding God's design. A
corollary that followed described science as democratic in character and
meaning. Just as every person could read and understand the Bible, so each
could understand and appreciate the workings of nature. To suppose otherwise
would undermine the democratic nature of Protestant culture and invite in a
priesthood of interpreters of science and maybe even religion. True science
would naturally affirm true religion. The common man understood this unity
that American society was based on. To deny it would undermine American
democracy itself.

Of course Bryan was not alone in defending the democratic foundations and
purposes of science, although he gave a special twist to these notions.


Excerpted from Redeeming Culture
by James Gilbert
Copyright © 2003
by University of Chicago.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

1: The Promise of Genesis
2: William Jennings Bryan, Scientist
3: The Republic of Science
4: A World without John Dewey
5: "A Magnificent Laboratory, a Magnificent Control Room"
6: Churching American Soldiers
7: Rendezvous at Rancho La Brea
8: Two Men of Science
9: "Almost of Message from God Himself"
10: Transgressing the Heavens
11: The Religious Possibilities of Social Science
12: The Religion of Science
13: Space Gothic in Seattle
14: Conclusion

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