We have become accustomed to thinking that science and religion are fundamentally at odds. Debates over school science curricula—to pick one recent example—play out in the mass media as if only two polar positions were possible. Without question, there are people—believers in the absolutely literal truth of the whole Bible on one end, and militantly atheistic rationalists on the other—for whom there can be no middle ground, but the vast majority of Americans do not seem to fall into either of these extreme camps. The statistics frequently quoted by both extreme camps suggest that a majority of Americans find some means to mix scientific and theological accounts in their worldviews.
One way to get at what’s going on in contemporary thinking is to compare the thought of our colonial predecessors. We’re fortunate to have accounts of comet activity from three generations of the descendents of our old friend John Cotton. Historians talk about a “Mather dynasty” in New England they’re hardly exaggerating. Increase and Cotton Mather were both prolific writers, active observers and sharp intellects. They were important citizens as well, shaping opinion and policy.
For some, the Mathers are a name useful for conjuring up a picture of a New England gothic of witch hunts and persecutions. Members of the Cotton-Mather line participated in all the major “moral panics” that Massachusetts endured. Having noted early on the puritan mistrust of the imagination, and the in many ways profoundly rationalist character of puritan beliefs, it’s a bit hard to account for the active participation of Cotton Mather, for example, in the witch trials. But even in those accounts we see a strangely “scientific” element, as when “experiments” are conducted on the bouyancy of witches.
The accounts of New England “wonders” may be opened up a bit for us by the comet accounts, in which fairly careful scientific observation, Biblical exegesis and theological speculation are mixed rather promiscuously (at least by contemporary standards.) When we read any of these accounts, we need to try to enter into a mindset which values the fruits of scientific observation, and believes that theological truths can be drawn from (or at least are intimated by) empirical study. God moves in the world according to his own principles, but those principles have something of the character of the laws of nature. They are at least partially explicable in the movements of comets, just as they are in Biblical accounts—and those accounts provide an early body of observations.
In order to shine a little more light on our current views, consider another moment in the history of the science-religion encounter. Darwin’s work on evolution by natural selection reached the U.S. just as the Civil War was beginning, and its popular reception in this county was simply not separable from other developments in the country at that time. Nor was its impact separable from the various impacts of the war, which had forced the United States to confront the nature of the union, and radically rethink its terms. With so many political, economic, technological, social and emotional transformations occuring so quickly, with devastating loss of life touching nearly everyone in the nation, it’s no big surprise that Darwin’s theory, particularly in the simplified form of “survival of the fittest,” became one of the great explanatory narratives of the post-war period. Think of the ways in which 9/11 has influenced a variety of kinds of public debate, or the ways that the Vietnam conflict shaped the ’60s and ’70s, and then think about how much more devastating a war at home must have been.
9/11 almost immediately led to a redefinition of “just wars,” and to multiple revolutions in the realm of “due process.” Consider that a “compromise” on our adherence to the Geneva Convention might be one of the more promising outcomes of the current debates on secret prisons, torture, enemy combatant status, imprisonment without charges and trials without the right to confront one’s accusers. In five years, we have all learned to get used to preemptive military action and targetting killings as part of our national policy. There is nothing necessarily wrong with any of this, depending on what we think the nation stands for, and what ideas like democracy and liberty mean, but it is in many ways a radical departure from what has come before. Radical in this context means getting down to the roots of our society. (Really. The root of the word is the same as in radish.) Looking around, it is sometimes as if we had a revolution without quite being aware of it. And that, you might agree, is a risky sort of business.
Looking back, it would be interesting, having now seen a good deal of the best and worst that our colonial ancestors had to offer, to make some estimations of where and when we resemble those who came before. Is it in our generosity? In our dispassionate observations or our wild enthusiasms? In our tolerance or our intolerance? Avoiding moralism or simple, partisan solutions, I think we can do some of that analysis of our relation to our roots and traditions. It seems like too important a set of questions not to at least try.