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HOME > ON THE BOOKSHELF > July-August 1998 > Bookshelf Detail

BOOK REVIEW

The Odd Couple

Edward Davis

Redeeming Culture: American Religion in an Age of Science. James Gilbert. viii + 407 pp. University of Chicago Press, 1997. $28.95.

More than 80 years ago, Bryn Mawr psychologist James Leuba surveyed American scientists and found that about 42 percent believed in a God who answers prayer, whereas the same percentage did not; another 17 percent defined themselves as agnostics. Leuba predicted that unbelief would increase in all corners of American society as education became more widely available. Yet when his survey was repeated recently by Edward Larson and Larry Witham and reported in Nature, the results were nearly the same. Further, as other studies have shown, religion in America today seems surprisingly robust even after a century of scientific advances, a phenomenon that has many historians and social scientists searching for explanations.

James Gilbert is one such historian. In Redeeming Culture, he tries to explain the almost astonishing variety of creative, apparently satisfying ways religious beliefs have integrated with scientific ideas. This has been possible, he tells us, because "neither science nor religion has had a stable and permanent definition in American culture. They continually shift in meaning and in their relation to each other."

Gilbert starts with William Jennings Bryan, who representated an older way of understanding scientific knowledge that eschewed speculative hypotheses (such as evolution) and that saw science and religion as ways of glorifying God. Bryan's "greatest mistake" was to assume that scientists still held this view by the 1920s. Because it was still part of the popular conception of science, however, his actions leading up the Scopes trial "revealed a fault line between popular and professional science."

Gilbert explores movements along this fault during and since World War II, which he sees as a crucial event because the atomic bomb and the abuses of science in Germany and the Soviet Union greatly increased the public visibility of science and forced scientists to negotiate their political image. He also illustrates in detail ways that science has been popularized in America, reflecting the religious diversity of the citizenry. Some of the most interesting episodes include Rabbi Louis Finkelstein's eclectic Conference on Science, Philosophy, and Religion in Their Relation to the Democratic Way of Life, with which astronomer Harlow Shapley was heavily involved; the technically superb film series, Sermons from Science, produced by an arm of the Moody Bible Institute and widely used by the armed forces; the early history of the American Scientific Affiliation, an organization devoted to reconciling science with evangelical theology that has become a major player in contemporary discussions of religion and science; and four television programs produced for Bell Laboratories by Hollywood legend Frank Capra, a devout Catholic.

Providing recent examples of the interaction between religion and science, Gilbert compares the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion (founded 1949) with the Religious Research Association (1951), organizations with substantially overlapping membership but quite different agendas, the former oriented toward academic sociology and the latter toward serving churches. An influential member of both, Ralph Wendell Burhoe, joined with Shapley in 1954 to found the Institute on Religion in an Age of Science (publisher of the journal Zygon). As Gilbert shows, IRAS's efforts to create a pantheistic religion based on modern cosmology and evolution "lacked the immediacy and spiritualism of contemporary American religious culture."

In the end, Gilbert argues that "religion and science probably cannot be reconciled, if only because we do not really desire any such closure." The range of interpretations of religion and science by practitioners from both communities makes it difficult to disagree with his final statement, "that one of the most creative impulses of American culture is the continuing presence of religion at the heart of scientific civilization."—Edward B. Davis, History of Science, Messiah College

 

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