Review of James Gilbert’s “Redeeming Culture”

Review of James Gilbert’s “Redeeming Culture”

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

 When Bryn Mawr psychologist James Leuba surveyed religious beliefs among American scientists more than eighty years ago, he found that about 42% affirmed their belief in a personal God who answers prayer, while the same percentage denied this; another 17% 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, the results were very nearly the same: although scientists are still markedly less religious than other Americans, no significant erosion of religious belief among scientists is evident. Furthermore, as other studies have shown, religion in America today seems suprisingly 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. Above all, what he tries to explain in Redeeming Culture is the persistence of religious belief in modern America, in spite of scientific progress. The answer that emerges from the twelve case studies in the book is that Americans have found an almost astonishing variety of creative, apparently satisfying, ways to integrate their religious beliefs with ideas coming from the sciences. 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 begins with a chapter on William Jennings Bryan that takes Bryan, a member of the AAAS, on his own terms as a certain type of scientist — as a representative of an older, less abstract, way of understanding scientific knowledge, a commonsense Baconianism that eschewed speculative hypotheses (such as evolution) and saw both science and religion as ways of glorifying God. Bryan’s “greatest mistake” was to assume that this view of science was still operative among professional scientists in 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.”

 The rest of the book deals mainly with movements along this fault line during and since the Second World War, which Gilbert sees as a crucial event because the atomic bomb greatly increased the public visibility of science and forced scientists to negotiate their political image. Both the bomb and the abuses of science in Germany and the Soviet Union, Gilbert argues, presented the American public with the image of a science as a highly secular and immoral enterprise. This caused problems as scientists represented science to a religious society as a secular, rational discourse; they also sought government funding not only for applied research, but also for pure science carried out by a cadre of elite scientists.

 The interplay of science, politics, and religion continues as Gilbert turns his attention to three groups that interpreted science differently from the scientific establishment. First he shows how Rabbi Louis Finkelstein (of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City) assembled an eclectic group, unified by their rejection of John Dewey’s pragmatic vision of a secular democracy underwritten by science (especially the social sciences), into the Conference on Science, Philosophy, and Religion in Their Relation to the Democratic Way of Life. In this he was joined by philosopher Mortimer Adler — a fellow Jew though a leading neo-Thomist — and astronomer Harlow Shapley, whom Gilbert describes as “a seeker, a joiner of conversations and organizations devoted to exploring the potential fusion of religion and science.” Their opponents, such as philosopher Sidney Hook, refused to concede that religion was a separate realm from science, contending instead that only a religion derived from science had intellectual respectability. Next Gilbert tells the fascinating story of how technically superb films and demonstrations about the unity of science and religion within a traditional Baconian framework, produced by the Moody Institute of Science (an arm of the Moody Bible Institute of Chicago), became widely used by the armed forces as part of officially sanctioned moral education for soldiers during the Cold War. Rounding out this triumverate is Gilbert’s account of the early years of the American Scientific Affilation, an organization devoted to reconciling science with traditional theology begun in 1941 by several evangelical scientists, some with ties to the MIS, although from the start they had an ambivalent relationship with that more clearly evangelistic group. They also had a more open attitude toward evolution, fueld by a growing professionalism which led Henry Morris and other creationists to exit the ASA in the early 1960s. (Recent ASA members include at least one former president of Sigma Xi and several other distinguished scientists.)

 The next few chapters illustrate other ways in which science has been popularized in America, beginning with the ideas of Immanuel Velikovsky, which were widely seen as supporting the historicity of certain Old Testament events, such as the miracles of the exodus and the long day of Joshua. Here Gilbert focuses on the bitter public dispute between Horace Kallen, a student of William James and a follower of Dewey who nevertheless supported Velikovsky’s efforts to get a serious scientific hearing, and Harlow Shapley, who declared public opinion to be irrelevant to scientific truth. Similar tensions are evident in Gilbert’s account of four television programs on science from the late 1950s, directed by Hollywood legend Frank Capra and sponsored by Bell Laboratories. A devout Roman Catholic who saw “the deep-seated American controversy between amateurism and scientific expertise … as the source of animosity between science and religion,” Capra argued with a board of scientists for control over the content of his films. In the end, Capra won, as his vision of science as “just another facet of man’s quest for God” (Capra’s words) came across clearly in several films, especially Our Mr. Sun — ironically, based on the book Our Sun by astronomer Donald Menzel, who sought “to steer public attitudes toward a favorable view of scientific research and away from religion and mystery.” Menzel was also involved in the postwar controversy over UFOs, which he interpreted as neither extraterrestrial nor supernatural in origin, going against public opinion on both counts. Here an alternative vision was provided by Wernher von Braun, who helped Walt Disney produce three television programs (shown in 1957) that delivered his message that God approved of human space travel.

 In the final section of the book, Gilbert considers three relatively recent examples of the interaction between religion and science. One involves social science, which Gilbert calls “a genetic carrier of both science and religion.” He compares the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion (founded 1949) with the Religious Research Association (founded 1951), organizations with substantially overlapping membership but quite different agendas, the former oriented toward academic sociology and the latter toward serving various churches. An influential member of both, Ralph Wendell Burhoe, joined Shapley in founding the Institute on Religion in an Age of Science (who publish the journal Zygon) in 1954. As Gilbert shows, IRAS sought to create a new, pantheistic religion based on modern cosmology and evolution, but their cosmology “lacked the immediacy and spiritualism of contemporary American religious culture,” thus their influence has been limited.

Edward B. Davis,
Professor of the History of Science,
Messiah College (Grantham, Pennsylvania).