Counter-Revisionism in the History of American Science and Religion: Reviews of Paul K. Conkin and David A. Hollinger

Counter-Revisionism in the History of American Science and Religion: Reviews of Paul K. Conkin and David A. Hollinger

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Counter-Revisionism in the History of American Science and Religion


When All the Gods Trembled: Darwinism, Scopes and American Intellectuals  By Paul K. Conkin Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1998 Pp. xi + 185.  $24.95. ISBN: 0-8476-9063-6

Contents: Preface Introduction: Christian Cosmologies Chapter 1: What Darwin Wrought Chapter 2: Evangelicals, Fundamentalists, and Modernists Chapter 3: The Scopes Trial Chapter 4: A Dialogue Among Christian Intellectuals Chapter 5: Beyond Theism [Conclusion] The Gods Still Tremble: An Update

Science, Jews, and Secular Culture: Studies in Mid-Twentieth-Century American Intellectual History  By David A. Hollinger Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996 Pp. xi + 178.  Cloth, $29.95 ; paper $14.95. ISBN: 0-691-01143-5

Contents: Preface Chapter 1: Introduction Chapter 2: Jewish Intellectuals and the De-Christianization of American Public Culture in the Twentieth Century Chapter 3: The “Tough-Minded Justice Holmes, Jewish Intellectuals, and the Making of an American Icon Chapter 4: Two NYUs and “The Obligation of Universities to the Social Order” in the Great Depression Chapter 5: The Defense of Democracy and Robert K. Merton’s Formulation of the Scientific Ethos Chapter 6: Free Enterprise and Free Inquiry: The Emergence of Laissez-Faire Communitarianism in the Ideology of Science in the United States Chapter 7: Academic Culture at the University of Michigan, 1938-1988 Chapter 8: Science as a Weapon in Kulturkaempfe in the United States during and after World War II

         As increasing numbers of scientists and religious thinkers have been finding elements of harmony between their fields, most historians have supported this trend.  The majority of historical work of the last generation dealing with the impact of scientific theories on religion and culture have emphasized ways in which scientists did not lose their faith or religious believers were able to find accommodation with the latest scientific thinking.

        This, however, is only a recent trend.  Before the last generation of history writing, the conventional wisdom had been a tacit endorsement of John William Draper and Andrew Dickson White, whose late nineteenth-century histories exalted scientists to heroic status.  For example, writing in 1965, historian Bruce Mazlish wrote calmly that White’s argument stood “beyond reasonable doubt” (Mazlish, 13).  The revisionists of recent times, in contextualizing these claims, have shown the professionalizing drives behind these polemical works and have raised social history doubts about the rise of an intellectual culture of secularism with science triumphant. Moreover, revisionism has explored the ways in which this narrative of scientific discrediting of religion became established in the popular imagination as part of the folk wisdom of modern Western culture.

        In contextualizing the warfare motif, revisionists have suggested that the conventional storyline simplifies the history. James Moore’s study of British and American responses to Darwinism was an important early work along these lines because he criticized “the military metaphor” (Moore, 21) for being based more on polemics than actual historical trends; many Darwinists were actually avid religious believers.  Jon Roberts pointed out that, in response to The Origin of Species, almost a generation passed before American theologians began to split into camps for or against evolution. Walter Wilkins placed the anti-religious scientific perspective on a spectrum of responses to Darwinism, which included many forms of accommodation to the theory–in the tradition of previous patterns of widespread harmony between religious belief and scientific theory (see, for example, Walter Conser’s study of pre-Darwinians).  In scrutinizing the warfare motif, the revisionist impulse identified it as a polemical tool, and they turned historical attention to ways in which American science and religion intersected, reinforced each other, or otherwise coexisted in relative harmony (see Numbers, 1985).

        By contrast, these books by Conkin and Hollinger offer a redoubtable contingent of counter-revisionism dedicated to the importance of a continuing tension between science and religion. They defy the recent trend in their endorsement of significant splits between science and religion.  And they reclaim parts of the traditional argument about the conflict of science and religion, now updated for modern readers.

        Conkin’s book offers a counter-revisionist perspective not from a great admiration for science, but from a conviction of its deep difference from traditional worldviews.  As a consequence, this collection of essays with a focus on the years and issues surrounding the Scopes Trial, presents a crusty attack on recent revisionism: he is disgusted with the assertion, delivered “ad nauseam … that ‘science’ and ‘religion’ do not conflict” (ix).  He coins the phrase “Semitic cosmology” (viii) to refer to the traditional views of the world, which now have little support.  Conkin’s observation, that this change has left humans with “a world that exhibits no purpose” (xi), is a particularly tragic telling of widespread recognition that Western culture turned toward literalist and factual intellectual assumptions in the last half millennium.  With unblinking honesty, Conkin points out that wherever the modern scientific outlook came to dominate, it became incontestible that the “Genesis stories of creation were wonderful fables but misordered or incorrect in almost every detail” (18).

        The particular essays in Conkin’s book are less combative than its framing ideas would suggest.  In the essay on the theory of natural selection, he argues that Darwin’s generalizations were “unscientific and speculative,” and that his “tentative explanation of how new species could develop in nature did not add much to the already existing challenges to Christianity” (29 and 37).  There is a missed opportunity here to show how Darwinism contributed to the development of modern methods of science based on hypothesis formation and probabilistic thinking (See Hull 16 and Croce 101). Conkin’s deepest intention is to show that religious compromises with Darwinism or any other modern science have produced, in effect, the development of “a new religion” (45) essentially different from traditional cosmologies.

        Conkin’s Scopes essay offers an innovative angle on this newly well covered event.  Religion did not lose to science at Dayton; but provincialism lost to cosmopolitanism.  He presents a brief sketch of Tennessee House member John Washington Butler, who was a member of a Primitive Baptist church.  It was his name and his anti-Darwinist convictions that became attached to the bill that Scopes violated; but the wording of the Butler Act was so vague that most politicians–including supporters such as Bryan–thought it unenforceable.  Moreover, Conkin depicts Bryan himself, despite his fame and skills, as poorly prepared for the trial, with speeches that were often rambling.  The legacy of the case, Conkin suggests, is that the defense team presented a modern, cosmopolitan religion, which proposed, in defiance of the traditional cosmology, that “God is spirit” (93) and is to be understood according to the processes of nature as understood by science.  Conkin revives the conflict-of-science-and-religion theme by treating the trial as the latest chapter in the “developing clash between intellectuals and the larger public” (98) since the advent of modern times.

        The remaining chapters evaluate the religious and ideological camps of modern American culture, by offering helpful definitions and explanations of evangelical, fundamentalist, liberal, and modernist forms of religion.  Although modernists seek to compromise traditional religion with modern science, Conkin argues that they have simply moved “beyond theism” (141).  The words of the title, and their variation in the last section of the book, “The Gods Still Tremble,” refer to his bold proposition that substantial reconciliation is not really possible.  Conkin is uncomfortable with any middle ground: a scientific cosmology means the banishment of the traditional and the stark recognition that the world is only material.

         David Hollinger’s collection of essays is populated with intellectuals from the same early-to-middle twentieth century who stared into that wholly secular prospect and did not blink.  In fact, his ethnographic point is that they welcomed it because many of them were Jews eager to escape the stifling social power of Christian orthodoxy.  It is an unfortunate comment on the limits of the era’s tolerance that many of these intellectuals gave up their cultural identity in exchange for status on the American scene.  The point of view of the time, however, was not so tragic: they had a strong sense of the value of “the culture of science” (3) as an arena of tolerance, inquiry, social service, and the liberal spirit in general.  The scientists and scholars of this book are the twentieth-century keepers of the Enlightenment project.  Hollinger quotes J. Robert Oppenheimer as a representative figure: the “program” of universalist science should not be restricted to any one group, but instead promises to be “a Philosophy of Mankind” (15).

        Hollinger focuses on the prime social setting for the successful assault of the scientific culture on prevailing religious norms: religions became disestablished from most of American higher education, especially at elite institutions.  The intellectual analogue to that social change was that ways of thinking now freed from religious belief and fired with the energy of the warfare motif, became normative in American higher education.  He prefers the term “de-Christianization” rather than “secularization” because he is referring to the shift from the early twentieth-century dominance of the “Protestant Establishment” whose outlooks were “taken for granted” in nearly all positions of institutional leadership, to the late century “pluralism in which Christianity is acknowledged to be but one of several legitimate religious persuasions” (20).

        Hollinger argues that this drive to transform academia and American intellectual life in general was led by an alliance of liberal Protestants and “free-thinking Jews” (19).  This coalition was well represented by the circle around Oliver Wendell Holmes, Junior, whose friendships included Felix Frankfurter, Harold Laski, Louis Brandeis, and other important Jewish intellectuals.  In mentoring them, he encouraged their attraction to his pragmatism and to his “scientific way of looking at the world” (42).  In addition, the younger Jewish cohort worked to shape Holmes’s public reputation in their own secular image, by de-emphasizing “his pessimism, his fatalism, his respect for brute force, and indeed most of the traits that have given rise to the doubt that he was ‘liberal'” (52). Jewish-Americans had good reason to seek out a cosmopolitan ideology, because of the Anti-Semitic restrictions on university enrollment and in employment which persisted at least until the 1940s.

        While creationism and evangelicalism were the bastions of tradition that cosmopolitans faced in the cultural sphere, among intellectuals, the cosmopolitans’ adversary was the Catholic-inspired search for “‘values’ in a secular society” (158) as advocated by Jacques Maritain and Mortimer Adler.  By contrast, the cosmopolitans, modeling their thought on science, and framing questions in terms of facts rather than values, wanted to solve problems through “resolution by rational assessment of cause-and-effect relationships in the real world” (164).  Without the hope to “behave scientifically in social environments” (162-63), they feared the further strengthening of authoritarianism, which was springing up powerfully in the 1920s to 1940s throughout the world.

        Hollinger composed his essays to honor the cosmopolitan intellectuals of the mid-twentieth century.  He defends them against the New Left’s charge that their claim to universality is simply one more–and particularly arrogant–accent among the cacophony of voices in a diverse culture.  If we are ever to get beyond “the curse of Babel,” Hollinger asserts in one of the most passionate moments in the book, the way shall be through “the language of intersubjective reason, the language of science” (172).  Stepping beyond his careful historical arguments and adopting a role as cultural commentator, Hollinger believes that the universalist, scientific outlooks that emerged from the science-and-religion culture wars of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries can be an answer to the polarizations of contemporary culture wars which pit traditionalism against multiculturalism.  That scientific thinking, which had great public authority up to the mid-1960s in the United States, was part of “the continuum of Enlightenment purpose stretching back to the seventeenth century” (155).  In his eagerness to support the cosmopolitans, Hollinger pays little attention to the challenges that reinstalling their cultural program would entail.  Since 1965, for reasons that span the ideological spectrum, the public trust in science has been severely depleted.

        The distinctive differences between science and religion that Conkin and Hollinger highlight serve as checks on the general trend of the revisionists, with their insights about the interrelations between science and religion.  Conkin and Hollinger complement the contemporary science popularizers who offer a more combative picture of science in inevitable conflict with religion (see Dawkins) or who are at pains to segregate religion from science because of their incompatibility (see Gould).

        After a century of dominance by the conflict model, revisionists have been building bridges across the supposed divide and enriching our understanding by pointing out the cultural ambiguities, the theoretical parallels, and the personal struggles embedded in the relation of science and religion.  They capture the spirit of these times at the turn of the millennium in the dissatisfaction with any grand solution and in the widespread assumption that science and religion are each limited human quests to understand our place in the universe.  But the counter-revisionists offer sober reminders that there are significant difference between the naturalistic assumptions of modern science and spiritual ways of thinking.  There have been a myriad of ways in which people have embedded science and religion within their ideologies and behaviors. Americans of the last two centuries have struggled with the differ nces between science and religion, even as they have moved readily across the divide.


Conser, Walter H., Jr. 1993. God and the Natural World: Religion and Science in Antebellum America.  University of South Carolina Press.

Croce, Paul Jerome. 1995. Science and Religion in the Era of William James, Volume 1: Eclipse of Certainty, 1820-1880.  University of North Carolina Press.

Dawkins, Richard. 1998. Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion, and the Appetite for Wonder.  Penguin.

Draper, John William. 1874.History of the Conflict between Religion and Science.  Appleton.

Gould, Stephen Jay. 1999. Rock of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life.  Ballantine.

Hull, David L. 1973. Darwin and His Critics: The Reception of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution by the Scientific Community.  University of Chicago Press.

Mazlish, Bruce. 1965. “Preface,” Andrew Dickson White, A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom, abridged edition.  Free Press.

Moore, James R. 1979. The Post-Darwinian Controversies: A Study of the Protestant Struggle to Come to Terms with Darwin in Great Britain and America, 1870-1900.  Cambridge.

Numbers, Ronald. 1985. “Science and Religion,” in Osiris, second series, Sally Gregory Kohlstedt and Margaret W. Rossiter, eds., Vol. 1, 59-80.

Roberts, Jon. 1988. Darwinism and the Divine in America: Protestant Intellectuals and Oganic Evolution, 1859-1900.  University of Wisconsin Press.

White, Andrew Dickson. 1896. A History of the Warfare of Science and Religion within Christendom, 2 vols.  Appleton.

Wilkins, Walter J. 1987. Science and Religious Thought: A Darwinian Case Study.  UMI Research Press.