Tag Archives: Evolution

Hampton, “Storm of Words: Science, Religion, and Evolution in the Civil War Era”

In August, University of Alabama Press will publish Storm of Words: Science, Religion, and Evolution in the Civil War Era by Monte Hampton (North Carolina State University). The publisher’s description follows.

Storm of Words is a study of the ways that southern Presbyterians in the wake of the Civil War contended with a host of cultural and theological questions, chief among them developments in natural history and evolution.

Southern Presbyterian theologians enjoyed a prominent position in antebellum southern culture. Respected for both their erudition and elite constituency, these theologians identified the southern society as representing a divine, Biblically ordained order. Beginning in the 1840s, however, this facile identification became more difficult to maintain, colliding first with antislavery polemics, then with Confederate defeat and reconstruction, and later with women’s rights, philosophical empiricism, literary criticisms of the Bible, and that most salient symbol of modernity, natural science.

As Monte Harrell Hampton shows in Storm of Words, modern science seemed most explicitly to express the rationalistic spirit of the age and threaten the Protestant conviction that science was the faithful “handmaid” of theology. Southern Presbyterians disposed of some of these threats with ease. Contemporary geology, however, posed thornier problems. Ambivalence over how to respond to geology led to the establishment in 1859 of the Perkins Professorship of Natural Science in Connexion with Revealed Religion at the seminary in Columbia, South Carolina. Installing scientist-theologian James Woodrow in this position, southern Presbyterians expected him to defend their positions.

Within twenty-five years, however, their anointed expert held that evolution did not contradict scripture. Indeed, he declared that it was in fact God’s method of creating. The resulting debate was the first extended evolution controversy in American history. It drove a wedge between those tolerant of new exegetical and scientific developments and the majority who opposed such openness. Hampton argues that Woodrow believed he was shoring up the alliance between science and scripture—that a circumscribed form of evolution did no violence to scriptural infallibility. The traditionalists’ view, however, remained interwoven with their identity as defenders of the Lost Cause and guardians of southern culture.

The ensuing debate triggered Woodrow’s dismissal. It also capped a modernity crisis experienced by an influential group of southern intellectuals who were grappling with the nature of knowledge, both scientific and religious, and its relationship to culture—a culture attempting to define itself in the shadow of the Civil War and Reconstruction.

Shapiro, “Trying Biology: The Scopes Trial, Textbooks, and the Antievolution Movement in American Schools”

This past May, the University of Chicago Press published Trying Biology: The Scopes Trial, Textbooks, and the Antievolution Movement in American Schools, written Printby Adam R. Shapiro (Birbeck-University of London).  The publisher’s description follows.

In Trying Biology, Adam R. Shapiro convincingly dispels many conventional assumptions about the 1925 Scopes “monkey” trial.  Most view it as an event driven primarily by a conflict between science and religion.  Countering this, Shapiro shows the importance of timing: the Scopes trial occurred at a crucial moment in the history of biology textbook publishing, education reform in Tennessee, and progressive school reform across the country.  He places the trial in this broad context- alongside American Protestant antievolution sentiment- and in doing so sheds new light on the trial and the historical relationship of science and religion in America.

For the first time we see how religious objections to evolution became a prevailing concern to the American textbook industry even before the Scopes trial began.  Shapiro explores both the development of biology textbooks leading up to the trial and the ways in which the textbook industry created new books and presented them as “responses” to the trial.  Today, the controversy continues over textbook warning labels, making Shapiro’s study- particularly as it is plays out in one of America’s most famous trials- an original contribution to a timely discussion.

Moran, “American Genesis”

Here is an interesting looking book about the issue of evolution and public schooling, American Genesis: The Evolution Controversy From Scopes to Creation Science (OUP 2012), by historian Jeffrey P. Moran (U. Kansas).  The publisher’s description follows.

The question of teaching evolution in the public schools is a continuing and frequently heated political issue in America. From Tennessee’s Scopes Trial in 1925 to recent battles that have erupted in Louisiana, Kansas, Ohio, and countless other localities, the critics and supporters of evolution have fought nonstop over the role of science and religion in American public life.

In American Genesis, Jeffrey P. Moran explores the ways in which the evolution debate has reverberated beyond the confines of state legislatures and courthouses. Using extensive research in newspapers, periodicals, and archives, Moran shows that social forces such as gender, regionalism, and race have intersected with the debate over evolution in ways that shed light on modern American culture. He investigates, for instance, how antievolutionism deepened the cultural divisions between North and South–northerners embraced evolution as a sign of sectional enlightenment, while southerners defined themselves as the standard bearers of true Christianity. Evolution debates also exposed a deep gulf between conservative Black Christians and secular intellectuals such as W. E. B. DuBois. Moran also explores the ways in which the struggle has played out in the universities, on the internet, and even within the evangelical community. Throughout, he shows that evolution has served as a weapon, as an enforcer of identity, and as a polarizing force both within and without the churches.

America has both the most advanced scientific infrastructure as well as the highest rate of church adherence among developed nations, and the issues raised in the evolution controversies touch the heart of our national identity. American Genesis makes an important contribution to our understanding of the impact of this contentious issue, revealing how its tendrils have stretched out to touch virtually every corner of our lives.

The New York Times on Richard Dawkins’ [Dangerous?] Evangelical Atheism, Post Two

Last week, I commented on the New York Timesprofile of evolutionary biologist and vociferous atheist, Richard Dawkins.  Post One of this two-part series described (1) Dawkins’ views and (2) how the overheated antipathy and rhetoric of The God Delusion (2006) may reflect atheists’ marginalization in contemporary society—in itself a legitimate concern.  (See additionally my Scholarship Roundup post—Faith no More: the Moral Atheist—where I suggest that religion’s record of immorality, for many, makes atheism a moral choice, not a nihilistic one.)

In this post, I criticize Dawkins’ position as described in his NYT profile: first, for its logical inconsistency and stubborn ignorance of its subject matter; and second, for its divisive rhetoric that fails to recognize the commonalities between his chosen source of meaning and his targets’.

I. Dawkins: The Uninquisitive Critic

Dawkins’ ignorance of the faiths he dismisses is alarming.  As Terry Eagleton says in his marvelously scathing 2006 review of The God Delusion, Dawkins illustrates and purports to challenge no more than “vulgar caricatures of religio[n].”  Eagleton responds to this facile exercise by speculating, “What . . . are Dawkins’s views on the epistemological differences between Aquinas and Duns Scotus?  . . . Rahner on grace or Moltmann on hope?  Has he even heard of them?”

Yet Dawkins readily, proudly, admits that the answer is no.  He scoffs at the suggestion that he study the history and intricacies of the faiths he rejects—study tantamount, in his view, to researching fairy tales.  In this way, Dawkins simply refuses to engage in his critics’ conversation.

Continue reading

Among the Creationists: What’s so Funny ‘Bout Peace, Love, and Understanding?

Early next year, Jason Rosenhouse, associate professor of Mathematics at James Madison University, will publish Among the Creationists: Dispatches from the Anti-Evolutionist Front Line with Oxford University Press.

Rosenhouse, a believer in evolutionary theory, was puzzled—as am I, admittedly—that so many Americans still insisted that God created the world and human beings 10,000 years ago precisely as described in Genesis (in December 2010, Gallup reported that a staggering 40% did).  In the hopes of understanding why, Rosenhouse began attending Creationist events around the country.  In fact, Rosenhouse did so for ten years.

What he discovered challenges the conventional characterizations of Creationists as uninquisitive Bible-thumpers; rather, Rosenhouse encountered Creationists of many stripes and, through congenial discussion, learned their views could enrich his own, even if his belief in evolution remained intact.

Rosenhouse’s approach exemplifies the laudable objective of mutual respect that figures like Richard Dawkins sorely lack (see my Commentary posts on Dawkins here and here).  Rosenhouse did not become a Creationist in his journeys, and I speculate that he did not convince any Creationists that evolution was valid.  But I admire Rosenhouse’s genuine attempt to understand and treat with respect views different from his own.

Read OUP’s description of the book after the jump.  Also, read Rosenhouse’s brief description of his book here. Continue reading

Polkinghorne, “Science and Religion in Quest of Truth”

In America, one of the recurring controversies over the place of religion in public life has to do with the teaching of evolution in public schools. The extremes are defined by those people who reject any explanation for life other than a materialistic, “scientific” one and those who reject any explanation other than a literal interpretation of Genesis. But those are not the only possible positions. One could accept evolution as a  fact demonstrated by the fossil evidence, but still believe in a divine Creator who, somehow, in ways humans do not understand, guides the process. This position would not be “unscientific,” because science, understood as empirically-verifiable knowledge, does not deal in metaphysics.

Sir John Polkinghorne, a theoretical physicist, theologian, and Anglican priest, and winner of the 2002 Templeton Prize, addresses evolution and other issues in his new book, Science and Religion in Quest of Truth (Yale University Press 2011). A description follows.  — MLM

 John Polkinghorne, an international figure known both for his contributions to the field of theoretical elementary particle physics and for his work as a theologian, has over the years filled a bookshelf with writings devoted to specific topics in science and religion. In this new book, he undertakes for the first time a survey of all the major issues at the intersection of science and religion, concentrating on what he considers the essential insights for each. Clearly and without assuming prior knowledge, he addresses causality, cosmology, evolution, consciousness, natural theology, divine providence, revelation, and scripture. Each chapter also provides references to his other books in which more detailed treatments of specific issues can be found.

For those who are new to what Polkinghorne calls “one of the most significant interdisciplinary interactions of our time,” this volume serves as an excellent introduction. For readers already familiar with John Polkinghorne’s books, this latest is a welcome reminder of the breadth of his thought and the subtlety of his approach in the quest for truthful understanding.