Winter 2006, Vol. 8, No. 3

Symposium articles:

Barry A. Kosmin
Ariela Keysar:

A New Academic Enterprise

Susan Jacoby:
An American Tradition

Christopher Hitchens:
The View From the Beltway

Peter Steinfels:
Hard and Soft Secularism

Eileen Barker:
Mapping the Territory

David A. Hollinger:
An Alliance with Liberal Religion?

Michael Ruse:
Defusing the War Over Public Science


ISSSC website

Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture


Defusing the War Over Public Science
by Michael Ruse


What I want to do is say a little bit about science: science and the academy, and why science to a great extent is identified today with secularism. It does seem to me that we have a divide in American society today, and science is very much part of this.

We have seen this going on in Dover, Pennsylvania, where on the one hand you have the supporters of Intelligent Design - the president wasn't called to testify on their behalf, but sent a note of thanks and support - and on the other hand, of course, you have the evolutionists, the scientists. There is no question but that science is caught up in this debate today. My question is: Why is this so?

If you go back to the second half of the 19th century, and you talk about England and America, that is the time when science education comes into universities like gangbusters. You should understand that that didn't have to happen. People often say, well, Darwin didn't take a science degree, and the reason is that there were no science degrees for Darwin to take when he went to university in the 1820s. It wasn't until after the middle of the century that the British government forced Oxford and Cambridge to introduce science degrees. Then, of course, money was there to found a science university, the University of London, in South Kensington. And at the same time, after the Civil War, we see that the same things were happening in America, Johns Hopkins being the most famous example.

In many respects, these universities were being based on the German universities, where science had a big role. Why this was happening at this time is a complex question. Partly the answer has to do with internal factors: The United States was starting to develop as an industrial country; England, after the absolute balls-up (and that's the only word one can use) of the corrupt Crimean War, and then the Indian mutiny, was realizing that something had to be done.

But, in addition, there was intellectual competition with Europe, and particularly with Germany, and you find people going on non-stop about how Germany is stripping ahead of Britain and how we must introduce science education.

So this is the time when science comes into higher education. But it doesn't answer the question, "Why is science secular?" Go back to the Scientific Revolution. The people who built modern science did not think that they were making a secular phenomenon. Copernicus was not ordained, but he was a minor cleric; and Newton, 150 years afterwards, was deeply religious, and would have been shocked to think that he was contributing to the secularization of society.

Yet what happened in the Scientific Revolution was that people moved from an organic model of the world to an artifact, a machine, a clock. At the time, people were always referring to Strasbourg Cathedral's wonderful clock, which was built around 1570. This was the new model of the world.

Now, clocks require clockmakers, so inasmuch as scientists were introducing this clock metaphor, they were not therefore saying, "And God does not exist." But once you had the clock metaphor out on the table, it was easier and easier to push the maker further and further back.

And what happened, through the Enlightenment and into the 19th century, was religious people like the great naturalist Georges Cuvier saying, "We've got to understand organisms as they were, from a law-like perspective, and it's inappropriate to bring God into the discussion." This did not mean that Cuvier was not religious. It meant, "Now, folks, this is the way we do science."

Of course, the big counterexample was organic origins - how, for example, does the eye come about? Nobody could see how to get God out of that job. Of course, that is what Charles Darwin did. Towards the end of his life, Darwin did become something of an agnostic, but certainly right through the writing of The Origin of Species was much more of Deist and a believer in a God who worked at a distance. There are letters from Darwin to the American botanist Asa Gray that make this unambiguously clear.

The point is that Darwin did not push forward an atheistic or secular program as such, but he made it possible, as Richard Dawkins has said, to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist. Dawkins, of course, thinks that Darwin was making it necessary to be an atheist, but that's wrong. Darwin was making it possible to push the clockmaker, as it were, out of the discussion.

So, there's the second part of the story. The third part is that the people who picked up after Darwin and were building the new universities - people like Darwin's "bulldog," Thomas Henry Huxley, who was not only dean in South Kensington but also the inauguration speaker at Johns Hopkins - were absolutely putting their mark on education at the end of the 19th century. These people were aggressive secularists, aggressive agnostics, because they saw the churches as being part of the establishment that they were fighting.

And, I think, with some justification. We have that very famous story of Huxley and Bishop Samuel Wilberforce, squaring off over Origin at Oxford in 1860. And I take that as symbolic as much as anything: Huxley and his modern suit taking off after Wilberforce in the long robes of a medieval, or at least a Reformation, bishop.

So there's no question that people like Huxley and Andrew White, the president of Cornell (who wrote a rattling good book on the warfare between science and religion), were pushing a secular program, of which science was a central part. I don't see this as something that logically, necessarily, had to happen. I think it was more of a contingent phenomenon. But the fact of the matter is that it did happen.

Now, at the same time, after the Civil War, we're getting this increasing divide in American society. The North is looking forward: It's modernist, it's industrial, it's building. The South, of course, is depleted: It turns to the Bible, which, of course, gives fairly unambiguous support of slavery, and more than this, tells us that God often afflicts those He loves most. There are many more parts to the story than that, but the long and the short of it is that we're still living with that division today.

I'm not just a historian, I'm also a philosopher. So I don't just want to find out what happened, I want to know what we should do. And I've been worrying about what is the right thing to do. I think it's deplorable that we do have this division in American society today. I think it's deplorable that science is not seen as, if you like, the true mark that we are made in the image of God - that our ability to ferret out the nature of the world shows that we are not just grubby little primates.

Now, Susan Jacoby claims that the way to overcome this division is not by taking fire to fire, is not by trying to become religious and arguing, as it were, from the religious left to the religious right. I certainly do not want to say that everybody on the left, everybody who is in favor of science, should become religious. I mean, it's nice to think of Richard Dawkins having a conversion experience, but unless God's a lot more powerful than I think He is - maybe He is - I doubt it's going to happen.

So I'm certainly not saying that those of us who are not believers should become believers for the sake of the fight. But I do feel very strongly that the enemy of my enemy is my friend - that Roosevelt and Churchill didn't like what Stalin was doing, but in the Second World War, they joined up with him to fight against Hitler.

And so I personally would want to argue for not just a more tolerant, but a more politically savvy position. Simply put, those of us who deplore the rise - the continuation - of evangelical fundamentalism in American society, whatever our personal religious beliefs may be, should join together and respect each other in the fight against what I think is a moral and religious and social evil.


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