Month: June 2013

Transitions

The blog has been on hiatus the last couple of weeks. We have been quite busy. I was recently accepted to the University of Queensland, in Brisbane, Australia, to work with Peter Harrison on my PhD. As a result, we have been busy with visa applications, selling, packing, and figuring out the logistics of leaving half of our belongings here in the USA and shipping the other half to Australia.

Once I have an extended break, I will return with some reviews of recent articles and books I’ve read.

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The European Commission and the Commemorative Euro Coin

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Cyril and Methodius with halos and crosses, and without

Andrew Higgins, in one of the cover stories of today’s New York Times, reports how the European Commission ordered the National Bank of Slovakia to remove halos and crosses from a commemorative euro coin to be minted this summer (“A More Secular Europe, Divided by the Cross“).

The coins are a celebration of Christianity’s arrival in Slovak lands by the evangelizing Byzantine Greek brothers, Cyril and Methodius, missionaries to the Slavic people. In the original design, the brothers are depicted with heads crowned by halos and a robe decorated with the cross. These items were removed in the new design. According to the Roman Catholic archbishop of the Slovak capital, Stanislav Zvolensky, “There is a movement in the European Union that wants total religious neutrality and can’t accept our Christian traditions.”

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The EU flag, with its circles of 12 yellow stars, inspired by iconography of the Virgin Mary wearing a crown with 12 stars

But according to Katharina von Schnurbein, the commission official responsible for outreach to both religious and “philosophical and non-confessional organizations,” the “European Commission is not the anti-Christ.” The report also notes that even the European Union’s flag has a coded Christian message. Indeed, the French Catholic, Arsène Heitz, who designed the flag in 1955, was inspired by Christian iconography of the Virgin Mary wearing a crown with 12 stars. These stars are also depicted on the to be minted coins.

The unification of Europe too has its origins in Christian ideals. A united Europe was first proposed in the ninth century by Charlemagne, the first ruler of the Holy Roman Empire.

But modern history tells a different story. The 1951 Treaty of Rome and other founding texts of the EU, makes no mention of God or Christianity.

But von Schnurbein dismisses accusations that the EU has a anti-Christian agenda. Rather, she says, “We deal with people of faith and also people of no faith.” Higgins emphasizes this point, writing that “assertive secularists and beleaguered believers battle to make their voices heard,” leaving the European Commission “under attack from both sides.”

The EU, Higgins admits, is generally uncomfortable with religion. He gives two reasons for this. First, well-organized secular groups that “pounce on any hint that Christians are being favored over other religions or nonbelievers” are increasing in number and campaign strategies.

The second reason, however, is somewhat contradictory. Higgins claims that “church attendance is falling across Europe as belief in God wanes and even cultural attachments wither.” But in the very next sentence he states that “the continent’s fastest-growing faith is now Islam.” He also states that in Britain more people believe in extraterrestrials than in God, and offers a statistical number—without reference—asserting that only half the population of the EU as a whole believe in God. But this is evidence not so much of religious decline as it is of religious transformation.

Ultimately, Higgins concludes, Slovakia’s national bank has decided to stick with its original coin design, with halos and crosses (which makes one wonder of the editorial wording of the title). The European Commission has also agreed to adhere to the original design, honoring the memory of Cyril and Methodius.

Progress and the Great Exhibition of 1851

1851-CrystalPalace0025Most of us know of the Great Exhibition of 1851 from our Western Civilization textbooks. It is generally interpreted as a thoroughly secular affair that celebrated progress in science, technology, and industry. For example, my “instructor’s edition” of Jackson J. Spielvogel’s Western Civilization (2006) states that it was a “symbol of the success of Great Britain…a tribute to British engineering skills…a visible symbol of how the Industrial Revolution had achieved human domination over nature.”

In contrast, according to Geoffrey Cantor in a recent Isis article, the exhibition was viewed by many contemporaries as a religious event of considerable importance. Indeed, he argues that the exhibition should be “set within a religious framework.” Cantor finds support for his argument in sermons, tracts, and the religious periodical press.

The Great Exhibition was housed in Kensington in London in the Crystal Palace. Organized by Prince Albert, husband of the reigning monarch, Queen Victoria, he played a major role in creating the image of a showcase for science, technology, and industry. Albert, however, rejected the secular  interpretation that has come to dominate our understanding of that mid-nineteenth-century affair. In his Mansion House speech, for example, he argued that these “[physical] laws of power, motion, and transformation,” displayed in the Palace are “the laws by which the Almighty governs His creation.” He also expressed the hope that visitors to the exhibition would feel a “deep thankfulness to the Almighty for the blessings He has [already] bestowed upon us.”

According to Cantor, other religious commentators assessed the panoply of material products and labor in the Palace “within the larger scheme of God’s creation and even set the exhibition within an eschatological framework.”

There were, of course, religious concerns. One recurrent concern among religious writers was that the Great Exhibition would be perceived as a celebration of material objects and of human ingenuity. It thus appeared to “court materialism.”

But a less extreme assessment was adopted by most other Christians. The first were mild supporters of the event, but who stressed that the exhibition was “merely temporary and temporal when compared with the eternal verities of Christianity.” Other religious writers were greatly impressed by the exhibition and strongly supported it, albeit with a warning against products and materials of physical comfort, prosperity, and pride. Still others strove to reconcile the manifest materiality of the exhibition with traditional Christian values. These Christian writers would render the exhibition safe by setting it within a religious framework.

In the following section of the essay Cantor provides how such writers achieved this goal. First, to counter any objections, these Christians portrayed the exhibition in providentialist terms. This interpretation, as we saw earlier, was promoted by Prince Albert, who construed the exhibition within the context of the first verse of Psalm 24: “The earth is the Lord’s, and all that therein is; the compass of the world and they that dwell therein.” The Archbishop of Canterbury likewise urged that in “surveying the works of art and industry which surround us, let not our hearts be lifted up that we forget the Lord our God, as if our own power and the might of our hands had gotten in this wealth.” Further still, the Anglican clergy advised prospective visitors to adopt a providentialist stance toward the exhibition. Even a Sunday school teacher expressed his wish “to see the works of God as shown in the productions of industry, skill, science, and art.” As Cantor puts it, appealing to notions of divine providence guided visitors to “appreciate how a secular experience could be transformed into a profoundly religious one.”

When it seemed that the exhibition focused attention on the artisans, sermons were preached that God is the author of all those gifts and qualifications by which men become skilled in the arts and sciences. “The activities of the scientist, the craftsmen, and the manufacturer are therefore manifestations of God’s providence” as well.

The exhibition, therefore, could provide a rich source for natural theological reflection. “While God’s word could be seen at the Bible Society’s stand, the rest of the exhibits proclaimed his works.”

This notion of providence was inextricably related to progress in the minds of these Christian writers. The famous Samuel Wilberforce, for example, argued that the exhibition not only demonstrates that science, when properly pursued, reveals the wonders of God’s creation, but also manifested God’s design and purpose, providing mankind with the necessary resources for progress. According to Cantor, England was for many the “flagship of Protestant Christianity,” thus granting the nation a crucial role in God plan, whereby the “exhibition became the epicenter from which Christianity would be disseminated throughout the world.”

Encouraged by Albert’s interventions, writers from across a wide section of the religious spectrum responded confidently to the exhibition and its contents. The strongest supporters of the exhibition, interestingly enough, were principally evangelicals, who conceived it within the context of a divinely ordained history. This evidence, concludes Cantor, demand reflection on the very notion of progress and how it was utilized in the context of the 1851 exhibition. “In contrast to our secularized understanding of progress, several of the writers discussed here conceived the development of science, technology, and even manufactures within a prophetic religious framework, one in which progress in these pursuits ultimately served higher ends.”

Thinking about Evolution – Early Evolutionism and Darwinism

A post in April discussed the connection between the “revolution” in biology and its often neglected metaphysical underpinnings. In this post I want to briefly discuss the development of early theories of evolutionism and the full implications of Darwinism.

Following on from the impact of geological and paleontological discoveries in the early nineteenth century, evolutionary theories challenged the story of human origins recounted in religious traditions and texts. Evolutionism broke down the barrier between humanity spirituality and the mentality of animals. Some of the more materialistic theories of evolution also undermined traditional belief that nature itself is divinely designed and constructed. In the Darwinian theory of natural selection, struggle and suffering are the driving forces of natural development and, hence, the root cause of our own origins.

Despite the ongoing sources of conflict, recent historians have shown that the conventional image of nineteenth-century Darwinism sweeping aside religious beliefs is an oversimplification. The materialistic implications of Charles Darwin’s (1809-1882) theory, for instance, were suppressed by many of supporters and first-generation evolutionists. In the so-called Darwinian “revolution,” evolutionism was popularized only by linking it to the claim that nature is progressing steadily toward higher mental and spiritual states and by making the human species both the goal and the cutting edge of that progressive drive. A sense of purpose was built into the operations of nature itself. This was not Darwin’s view, however.

Early Evolutionism

During the seventeenth century, naturalists believed that the world was created by God only a few thousand years ago. Books such as The Wisdom of God Manifested in the Works of Creation by John Ray (1627-1705) argued that each species was perfectly adapted to its environment because it had been created by a wise and benevolent God. This view was repeated in the Natural Theology of William Paley (1743-1805).

In the eighteenth century, however, the worldview of what would now be called simple creationism was challenged. In part, this was a product of the discoveries made by geologists and paleontologists. The world was clearly much older than a literal interpretation of the Genesis story would suggest. There was increasing evidence from the fossil record that some species had not only become extinct in the course of geological time, but had been replaced by others. Following the work of Georges Cuvier (1769-1832), these conclusions became inescapable.

Even before this, however, materialist thinkers such as Georges Leclerc, Comte de Buffon (1707-1788), and Denis Diderot (1713-1784) had begun to suggest that life could be created on the earth by natural processes and that the species thus produced might change in response to natural forces. By the end of the eighteenth century, Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802) and Jean Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829) were beginning to suggest comprehensive theories of transmutation in which life had advanced slowly from primitive origins to its present level of development. The adaptation of species to their environments was explained by supposing that individual animals modified their behavior in response to environmental change, and any resulting changes in their bodily structure were inherited.

Radical anatomists began using materialistic theories such as Lamarckian transformism to attack the image of a static, designed universe that sustained the traditional social structure. Thus evolutionism became firmly linked to materialism, atheism, and radical politics. In Britain, however, the anatomist Richard Owen (1804-1892) modernized the view that all species are divinely created by stressing the underlying unity of structure among all of the members of each animal group: The Creator has instituted a rational plan for his universe that could be deciphered by the comparative anatomist.

In 1844, an effort to make evolutionism acceptable to a middle-class audience was made in an anonymously published book, Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, actually written by Robert Chamber (1802-1871). The book proclaimed a message of progress through nature and human history but attempted to circumvent the charge that transmutationism was atheistic by arguing that progress represented the unfolding of a divine plan programmed into nature form the beginning.

By the 1850s, however, the possibility that the divine plan might unfold through the operation of natural law, rather than by a sequence of miracles, was being taken increasingly seriously even by conservative naturalists such as Owen

Darwinism

In 1859, the situation was changed dramatically by the publication of Darwin’s Origins of Species. Darwin proposed new lines of evidence to show how evolutionism could explain natural relationships, but he also suggested a new and potentially more materialistic mechanism of evolution.

Following the principle of population expansion suggested by the political economist Thomas Malthus (1766-1834), Darwin deduced that there must be a “struggle for existence,” in which any slight advantage would be crucial. Those individuals with variant characters that conferred such an advantage would survive and reproduce, passing the character on to their offspring. Those with harmful characters would be eliminated. This process of natural selection would, thus, gradually adapt the species to any changes in its environment. The philosopher Hertbert Spencer (1820-1903) called it the “survival of the fittest.” As understood by modern biologists, Darwin’s theory implied a branching model of relationships, in which there could be no single goal toward which life has tended to evolve and no inevitable trend toward higher levels of organization.

Conservative opponents to Darwin’s theory correctly pointed out that it not only were humans reduced to the status of animals, but also the natural world that produced us was reduced to a purposeless sequence of accidental changes.

By the 1870s, the vast majority of scientists and educated people had accepted the basic idea of evolution. But in what form did they accept the theory? Was it the radical materialism of the theory of natural selection,or was it a less threatening version of evolutionism, a compromise in which some form of purpose was retained by assuming that natural developments tended to progress toward higher states?

Recent historical work suggests that there was much compromise by all parties. There were, no doubt, conflict between conservatives and radicals. But, in the end, both sides came to accept evolution, and neither wanted a worldview based on nothing but chance and suffering. On the one hand, conservatives argued that evolution represented the unfolding of a divine plan. It was not some haphazard mechanism such as natural selection. On the other, radicals wanted a changing universe based on natural law but assumed that the changes would, in the end, be beneficial and moral. Thus they upheld a teleological evolutionism. In other words, neither side accepted the full implications of Darwin’s theory of natural selection.

Human Origins

One of the more hotly contested issues was the evolutionary origin of the human race. Darwin had been aware from the start of his theorizing that evolutionism would affect our ideas about human nature in a way that would undermine the traditional concept of the soul. His mature views on this issue were eventually presented in his Descent of Man (1871). He argued that many aspects of human behavior are controlled by instincts that have been shaped by natural selection. Our moral values are merely rationalizations of social instincts built into us because our ancestors lived in groups. Prior to Descent Spencer had already proposed an evolutionary psychology, and later evolutionists would build upon Darwin and Spencer’s work to propose a evolutionary sequence of mental faculties ultimately leading in the progress toward mankind. But unlike Darwin these later “evolutionary psychologists” retained some teleology of progress in their sequences.

A few evolutionists, including the co-discoverer of natural selection, Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913), were so concerned with the implications of Darwin’s claims that they refused to endorse such views, holding that some supernatural intervention was still required to explain the appearance of the human mind. The Roman Catholic anatomist St George Jackson Mivart (1827-1900) argued that, while the evolution of the human body might be explained naturally, the soul must be a divine creation.

But most stanch Darwinists believed that an ad hoc discontinuity marking the advent of the human spirit violated the “logic” of the evolutionary program, and the image of a distinct human spiritual character was readily abandoned. Those deeply religious evolutionists like Wallace and Mivart would make further concessions, arguing that traditional moral values were not at variance with nature but were built into nature in a way that ensured their emergence in the human mind. Henry Drummond’s (1851-1897) Ascent of Man (1894), for example, presented cooperation, not competition, as the driving force of progressive evolution and implied that the human race was the inevitable culmination of the development of life.

The implications of integrating humankind into nature became apparent only in the early twentieth century, when thinkers began exploring that possibility that the world might not, after all, be evolving toward higher states. Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), for example, built on the idea of evolution to argue that our subconscious thoughts are shaped by instincts from our animal past. The loss of faith in progress precipitated by World War I also helped usher in the fuller implications of Darwinism.

Design in Nature

Many continue to reject, explicitly or implicitly, the Darwinian theory of natural selection in favor of a more purposeful or morally acceptable process. Conservatives wanted to believe that nature still exhibits evidence of design by God, even if individual species were produced by natural law. Radicals too found natural selection hard to accept, arguing for non-Darwinian evolutionary mechanisms, which allowed everyone to believe that there was something more to natural development than mere trail and error. The Lamarckian theory seems to imply a more purposeful evolutionary process because it allowed individual self-improvement to be inherited and implied that purposeful changes in animals’ behavior was the directing agent of evolution.

It was, of course, the opponents of natural selection who first correctly identified its materialistic implications. They saw that in a universe governed solely by random variation and the survival of the fittest, the existing state of nature must be the outcome of trail and error, not of purposeful intention.

The most well-known and effective collection of antiselectionist arguments was Mivart’s Genesis of Species (1870). In this text Mivart’s strategy was to demonstrate that evolution was under divine control.

But for Darwin all aspects of evolutionary process was susceptible to natural explanations. The disparity between his theory and what has become known as theistic evolutionism became evident in a controversy with American botanist Asa Gray (1810-1888). Gray was a stanch defender of Darwin against those who rejected evolution. But in a series of paper collected in his Darwiniana (1876), Gray’s views on design forced him to express doubts about natural selection. He was forced to admit that selection based on random variation seemed to eliminate any real sense of design in nature. According to Darwin, all of the evidence from plants and animal breeders proved that variation was purposeless.

For many evolutionists wishing to retain the belief that nature is somehow the expression of the divine will, Lamarckism seemed to solve the problem highlighted by Gray. Novelist Samuel Butler (1835-1902) wrote that natural selection was a “nightmare of waste and death,” but Lamarckism made life self-creative in a way that fit a more general belief in the purposeful character of nature. Secular scientists also found Lamarckism more acceptable. Whereas the conservatives Lamarckists saw “design in nature,” radical Lamarckists saw the “laws of nature” as the creative force.

Modern Darwinism has now added genetics to its repertoire. In the 1930s, the “modern synthesis” of genetics and Darwinism was constructed, and remains the dominant view of scientific evolutionism. Some modern Darwinians continue to defend the view that evolution is progressive in a way that reflects human values. Julian Huxley (1887-1975), for example, endorsed the theistic evolutionism of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1902-1984), accordin to which the development of life is tending toward an “omega point” of spiritual unification. But others have called the human race to “grow up” and realize that the values it cherishes are not respected by nature. George Gaylord Simpson (1902-1984), for example, argued that Darwinism is essentially materialistic: there is no purpose in nature and no goal toward which evolution is striving. In such a view, we are, indeed, products of a cosmic accident.

As scientists began to insist that we must learn to live with the idea that we are products of a purposeless and, hence, morally neutral natural world, so the modern backlash began. Two very different stands of protest can be identified. The most well-known—and popularized by the media—is what is now called creationism. Less well-known is the current of anti-Darwinian thought emanating from both religious and philosophical critics of Darwinism who unite around the claim that the development of life cannot have been brought about by a process as purposeless as natural selection.

Modern religious opposition to Darwinism thus runs the whole gamut from creationism that rejects the traditional scientific explanation of the geological record through more sophisticated versions in which philosophical, moral, and even scientific arguments are ushered against Darwinism. Even the more liberal and radical thinkers who accept a completely evolutionary worldview do so as long as the Darwinian mechanism is marginalized in favor of something that allows for progress and purpose in nature.

Images of the Man of Science

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What images do we have of the man of science?

Historian and sociologist of science Steven Shapin is one of the leading practitioners of constructivist historiography. Constructivitism assumes that scientific knowledge is locally created, produced, and situated. The local in scientific knowledge and the processes by which it becomes universally accepted are the two central issues in constructivist historiography. Constructivists, moreover, view scientific knowledge not as revealed, but rather as “made” using methods, tools, and materials available in culture. In Constructivism, truth does not figure; perceptions of the strengths and weaknesses of the epistemic foundation of knowledge do.

Dominated by local studies, constructivist historiography marginalizes “big picture” studies of universally accepted and acquired scientific knowledge. Shapin, for instance, challenges prevailing traditions about a reigning grand narrative, that of the Scientific Revolution. In anticipating my review of Shapin’s The Scientific Revolution, I want to address some points he makes in another context, in writing about images of the early man of science.

According to Shapin, there was no such thing as the early man of science. He was not a “scientist,” for the English word did not exist until the nineteenth century. Nor did he define the social and cultural position in modern discussions. According to Shapin, “the man of science did not occupy a single distinct and coherent role in early modern culture. There was no one social basis for the support of his work.” Everywhere the social role of the man of science was heterogeneous, the pursuit of natural knowledge adventitiously attached in all sorts of ways to preexisting roles. The representations and expectations bearing on those who happened to pursue different sorts of natural knowledge within those roles were not those of the professional scientist—that social kind did not, of course, exist—but rather were predominately those of what Shapin calls the “host social role.”

In two different places, Shapin identifies these roles as either the university professor or scholar, the medical man, the gentlemen, the courtier, the crown or civil expert, the godly naturalist, or the moral philosopher, among many others. These roles, moreover, are always substantially constituted, sustained, and modified by what members of the culture think is, or should be, characteristic of those who occupy the roles. Thus the very notion of “social role” implicates a set of norms and representations—ideals, prescriptions, expectations, and conventions thought properly, or actually, to belong to someone performing an activity or a certain kind. Such images are part of social realities. The images of the early man of science were very significantly shaped by appreciations of what was involved in the host roles: what sorts of people occupied such roles, with what characteristics and capacities, doing what sorts of things, and acquitting what sorts of recognized social functions, with what sorts of value attached to such functions? What representations were attached to the person of the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century man of science? What virtues, vices, dispositions, and capacities was such a person thought to possess, and in what combinations?

Shapin argues that “to do science—as current sensibilities recognize it—was not necessarily the same thing as to be a man of science, to occupy that social role. What historians recognize as crucially important scientific research might be, in contemporary terms, only a moment or an element—among others—in a life fundamentally shaped by other concerns and lived out within other identities.”

Indeed, there were a whole range of roles important for acquiring natural knowledge. There was, for example, the clerical role. A number of key figures spent their whole lives, or very considerable portions, working within religious institutions or sustained by clerical positions: among them were Nicholas Copernicus (1473-1543) in his Ermland chapter house, Marin Mersenne (1588-1648) in the order of Minims in Paris, and Pierre Gassendi (1592-1655), whose canonry at Digne assured his financial independence. “The significance of the priestly role for contemporary appreciations of the proper relationship between natural knowledge and religion,” contends Shapin, “cannot be overemphasized.”

Other key figures spent much of their careers as amanuenses, clerks, tutors, or domestic servants of various kinds to members of the gentry and aristocracy. Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), for example, functioned in a variety of domestic service roles to the Cavendish family for almost the entirety of his adult life, and one of John Locke’s (1632-1704) first positions was a private physician, and later as general secretary, to the Earl of Shaftesbury.

Of course, the man of science represented a subset of the early modern learned class. But not all noteworthy early modern men of science were systematically shaped by university training. Among those who did not formally attend university at all were Blaise Pascal (1623-1662), Robert Boyle (1627-1691), and Rene Descartes (1596-1650). For others, university education was part of a background preparation for roles in civic life, and the acquisition of scientific expertise occurred elsewhere. The mathematician Pierre de Fermat (1601-1665) and the astronomer Johnannes Hevelius (1611-1687) studied law at a university; William Gilbert (1544-1603) and mathematician and physicist Isaac Beeckman (1588-1637) studied medicine; and Johnannes Kepler (1571-1630) studied mainly theology.

In their mature careers, however, many men of science in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were professionally engaged by universities or related institutions of higher learning. Andreas Vesalius (1514-1564), Galielo Galilei (1564-1642), and Isaac Newton (1642-1727) were professors. Others, however, never acquired any professional affiliation. For example, Copernicus, Kepler, Bacon, Descartes, Mersenne, Pascal, Boyle, Tycho Brahe (1546-1601), and Christiaan Huygens (1629-1695) were never professors. As Shapin puts it, “although for late twentieth-century scientists a permanent university appointment generally represents a natural career culmination, this was not necessarily the case for the early modern man of science.”

What’s more, professional affiliation with institutions of higher education included a variety of other social roles. First, the professorship was often consorted with organized forms of Christianity. Second, the university combined curatorial and culturally reproductive roles, and its professors’ activities and identities were primarily understood in that context: “universities signified both responsible custodianship of the knowledge inherited from the past and its reliable transmission to future generations.” Third, affiliation with the university associated the man of science with specific hierarchical social forms. Thus, as Shapin puts it, “the identification of scientific work with the professorial career was significant but tenuous and patchy during the early modern period.”

The profession of medicine also joined the pursuit of natural knowledge with recognized and authoritative early modern social roles, and many medical men pursued scientific investigations within the rubric of a professorial role, such as Vesalius (1514-1564) (at Padua) and Marcello Malpighi (1628-1694) (at Bologna). Unlike the role of the university scholar in general, however, the social role of the medical man strongly linked natural knowledge with practical interventions. Moreover, medical roles were centrally concerned with the description, explanation, and management of natural bodies. This naturally gave way toward the study of anatomy and physiology. The participation of medical men was not confined to subjects strictly related to medical practice, however. Physicians such as Gilbert, Nicholaus Steno, and Henry Power studied magnetism, geology, and experimental natural philosophy respectively. John Locke earned a medical degree prior establishing himself as a political philosopher. Nor was substantial interest in medical subjects restricted to those occupying the social role of physician or surgeon: Bacon, Descartes, and Bolye lacked professional qualifications but either theorized on medical subjects or dabbled in medical therapeutics and dietetics.

Often, both professorial and medical roles were sustained by the imperative role of the “pious naturalist” and, more specifically, of the parson-naturalist, especially in Protestant culture. The argument that God had written two books by which His existence, attributes, and intentions might be known was foundational for a “natural theology.” The “argument from design” seemed overwhelmingly persuasive to such English clerics such as John Ray in the 1690s, Stephen Hales in the 1720s, Gilbert White of Selborne in the 1780s, and of course William Paley in the 1800s. “The naturalist-parson,” writes Shapin, “belonged to the century’s inventory of recognized characters, and the scientific portion of his activities was understood to flow from some version of what it was to be a minister. And, in the parson’s self-understanding, doing science might not be a mere avocation; it might be counted as a legitimate and important part of his priestly vocation.” He continues, “The parson-naturalist’s scientific inquiries were surrounded by the aura shed by his priestly role.”

But natural theological justifications and motives were never confined to clerics alone. Both the virtues and capacities of the priest were available to those “godly investigators,” the “priests of nature.” These justifications and appreciations were a ubiquitous feature of eighteenth-century culture, again especially in Protestant culture, and they might be importantly expressed by the occupants of a great range of roles: the university professor, the medical man, the gentleman, the instrument-maker, and the popular lecturer, writer, and showman, as well as by those whose roles were contained within formal religious institutions. In England, the Unitarian chemist Joseph Priestley summed things up well when he wrote that “a [natural] Philosopher ought to be something greater, and better than another man.” If the man of science was not already virtuous, then the “contemplation of the works of God should give a sublimity to his virtue, should expand his benevolence, extinguish every thing mean, base, and selfish in [his] nature.”

A natural order bearing the sure evidence of divine creation and superintendence was understood to edify those who dedicated themselves to its study. “Godly subject matter made for godly scholars.” This was the major way in which the culture of natural theology sustained an image of the man of science as virtuous beyond the normal run of scholars. And eighteenth-century cultures that were not marked by natural theology borrowed such imagery to produce a man of science as specially or uniquely virtuous. The eloges presented in commemoration of recently deceased members of the Paris Academy of Sciences offer the most highly developed and influential portraits of the virtuous man of science. Composed by Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle (and his successors Jean-Jacques Dortous de Mairan, Jean-Paul Grandjean de Fouchy, and the Marquis de Condorcet) from 1699 to 1791, these eloges drew upon Stoic and Plutarchan tropes to establish both the special moral qualities possessed by those drawn to science and the additional virtues that a life dedicated to scientific truth encouraged in its devotees. By the 1770s these sentiments were supplemented by Condorcet’s Renaissance-humanist preferences for a life of action and civic benevolence. The man of science, in Condorcet’s image, had the capacity to benefit the public realm both materially and spiritually.

The same images of vocation, dedication, and detachment that testified to the virtue of the man of science also constituted a potential handicap to his membership in polite society. Scholars might in many cases be genuinely respected by polite society, but that society importantly distinguished the roles of the gentleman and the professional scholar. Particular targets of criticism were, for example, the scholar’s traditional isolation, his “morose” or “melancholic” complexion, his tendency toward  disputation, and his pedantry. On the other hand, the polite classes were widely literate, sometimes well educated, and often disposed to act as patrons to men of science—in the case of the mathematical sciences because of their acknowledged utility to the arts of war, wealth-getting, and political control, and, in the case of other scientific practices, such as astronomy or natural history, because they lent luster to the patron and sparkle to civil conversation. The gentry, aristocracy, and nobility therefore controlled an enormously important pool of resources for supporting the work of men of science.

Beginning in the late sixteenth century, Bacon, Descartes, Hobbes, Boyle and others all proposed to remedy scholarly wrangling by arguing for methodological, conceptual, and organizational reforms in natural knowledge that would at once make that knowledge an effective arm of state power and render it a pursuit suitable for civically engaged gentlemen. According to Shapin, “natural knowledge was to be hauled out of the privacy of the traditional scholar’s study—which made science disputatious, wordy, and barren—and into the bright light of real-world phenomena and practical civic concerns.” The reformed man of science was thus called to live vita activa, and science was to be done in public places.

This point of living vita activa will have tremendous ramifications for the pursuit of natural knowledge, up to our own day. To some extent, natural knowledge had always had a place in courtly and commercial society, and it continued to enjoy that place through the eighteenth century. Wonder, weapons, gadgets, glory, and natural legitimation had long been socially desirable, and these goods might be supplied at least as visibly and efficiently by eighteenth-century scientific practitioners as by their predecessors.

To varying extents each of the characters of the early modern man of science succumbed to this emerging civic role. When nature was no longer conceived as a divinely written book, the study of nature had diminished power to edify, and the credibility of ancient conceptions of philosophic disengagement and heroic selflessness was undermined by the professionalization and bureaucratization of scientific research and teaching. As Shapin writes, “both the receipt of government subvention and the institutionalization of scientific research in the professorial role made it harder to portray the man of science as fulfilling his calling through ascetic self-denial.”

With the advent of the eighteenth century we witness a vast expansion in the numbers of scientifically trained people employed as civic experts in commerce, the military, and the government settings. The character of the man of science as godly naturalist and moral philosopher buckled under the emerging identity of valued civic expert. Throughout eighteenth-century Europe and North America, governments increasingly drew on the services of scientifically skilled people and thus helped to constitute the character of the man of science as civic expert. Examples of civic expertise for hire in the context of trade, war, and imperialism could be multiplied indefinitely in a wide range of scientific disciplines: mathematics, astronomy, geography and cartography, geology and mineralogy, meteorology, medicine, chemistry, and physics. Although the role of the man of science as civic expert was not new in the eighteenth century, the numbers occupying that role were increased concomitantly with the expansion of trade, war, and imperialism. “Everywhere men of science were employed by governments to standardize weights and measures.” Governments became the paymasters for scientific inquiry.

A number of examples can be cited. Since the 1960s, many have identified modern universities with radicalism, sexual libertinism, and moral relativism. That is certainly part of the crisis of modern higher education. Less publicly, though, scientific and technical research has been coopted to a remarkable extent by the military-industrial complex. In America alone $277 million of Carnegie Mellon’s $315 2006 research budget came from the federal government, and 23% of that total is from the Department of Defense (DoD). In March, the Air Force granted University of Dayton Research Institute $45 million for research in the “Quick Reaction Evaluation of Materials and Processes Program.” Penn State received $149 million in defense grants in 2003. A 2002 study found that over three hundred colleges and universities engage in Pentagon-funded research, universities receive more than half of the DoD research funds, and over half of the funding for university research in electrical engineering and computer science comes from the DoD. The DoD funds Duke research in mathematics, engineering, and biology. According to the DoD, “expenditures at Duke University increased from $17.7 million in fiscal year 2008 to more than $30 million by 2011.” It is indeed disquieting, but perhaps inevitable, that the DoD holds the purse strings of American higher ed.

Although heterogeneous in his social roles, it is undeniable that the man of science was brought into being in a deeply religious context. Today, however, he is largely detached from those presuppositions and motivations that sustained his initial development. Today’s scientists are increasingly becoming the civic experts (servants?) of governments and corporations.

How Thinking Feels

The mind ranges to and fro, and spreads out, and advances forward with a quickness which has become a proverb, and a subtlety and versatility which baffle investigation. It passes on from point to point, gaining one by some indication; another on a probability; then availing itself of an association; then falling back on some received law; next seizing on testimony; then committing itself to some popular impression, or some inward instinct, or some obscure memory; and thus it makes progress not unlike a clamberer on a steep cliff, who, by quick eye, prompt hand, and firm foot, ascends how he knows not himself, by personal endowments and by practice, rather than by rule, leaving no track behind him, and unable to teach another. It is not too much to say that the stepping by which great geniuses scale the mountains of truth is as unsafe and precarious to men in general, as the ascent of a skillful mountaineer up a literal crag. It is a way which they alone can take; and its justification lies in their success. And such mainly is the way in which all men, gifted or not gifted, commonly reason,—not by rule, but by an inward faculty.

— John Henry Newman

Myths about Science and Religion: That the Scientific Revolution Liberated Science from Religion

the-enlightenment-1On May 12 of 2010, the general reading public witnessed a robust, if not at times acerbic, exchange between two prominent scholars of modern European history. It began with the publication of a review essay entitled “Mind the Enlightenment” in The Nation magazine by Samuel Moyn, professor of modern history at Columbia University. In that article he attacks Jonathan Israel’s massive multivolume history of the Enlightenment. Israel, professor of the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton University, is a recognized expert on early modern European history. Much of his work is concerned with European colonial history, with a particular emphasis on the history of ideas. He is an authority on the Dutch Golden Age (1590-1713), including the Dutch global trade system, seventeenth-century Dutch Jewry and Baruch Spinoza (1632-77), and the Glorious Revolution (1688-91) in Britain. In his article, however, Moyn’s primary concern is Israel’s recent multivolume series on the Enlightenment, beginning with his Radical Enlightenment (2001), Enlightenment Contested (2006), and his latest, which happens to be only an interlude, A Revolution of the Mind (2010).

Israel’s thesis in this series of writings is that the impetus for the “radical” Enlightenment was largely “Spinozist.” That is, a great number of eighteenth-century philosophes adopted Spinoza’s materialist monism and his critique of revelation and religion. For Israel, Spinoza acts as the progenitor of modern thought, who seemingly dismissed all authority grounded in tradition. In other words, Spinoza’s thought was the sui generis which propelled the “general process of rationalization and secularization” that produced “modernity.”  Other scholars, however, have recently not only pointed to the overall moderate nature of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, but have also demonstrated a preference for a “family” of Enlightenments, distinguished by geographical boundaries.

Israel, by contrast, dismisses both positions. It was the radical, monist, incredulous, and antireligious wing that emerged victorious from the intellectual crisis of the eighteenth century. In the Radical Enlightenment, Israel believes that the unity of the European Enlightenment can and should be defended, arguing that there was indeed a single, unified Enlightenment, a movement with a general intellectual integrity and unity, and one  which transcended national boundaries. And the prime mover of this Enlightenment was Spinoza. What was so radical about Spinoza’s philosophy? According to Israel, “the essence of the radical intellectual tradition from Spinoza to Diderot is the philosophical rejection of revealed religion, miracles, and divine Providence, replacing the idea of salvation in the hereafter with a highest good in the here and now.”  In Enlightenment Contested, Israel continues this narrative by accentuating the controversies and polemics between the radical and moderate wings of the Enlightenment. As thoroughly documented as the first volume, Israel attempts to demonstrate two central themes: first, that the radical positions were philosophically more consistent than those championed by the moderates; and, second, that the radicals were universalistic, egalitarian, and democratically minded, while their moderate opponents acceded various modes of exclusion along sexual, racial, religious, social, and political lines.  Indeed, in a lengthy Postscript Israel defends the radical wing unreservedly, not only in the historical context of the eighteenth century, but also in the intellectual debates of today. Israel concludes that the thinkers of the radical Enlightenment were the veritable trailblazers of modernity, freedom, and equality. Finally, Israel explicitly follows this thought in his A Revolution of the Mind, arguing that the

Radical Enlightenment is the system of ideas that, historically, has principally shaped the Western World’s most basic social and cultural values…democracy; racial and sexual equality; individual liberty of lifestyle; full freedom of thought, expression, and press; eradication of religious authority from the legislative process and education; and full separation of church and state.

In short, Israel’s work on the Enlightenment expresses the conviction that the revolution in thought, which seemingly received its impetus from the atheistic, deistic, or materialist philosophy of Spinoza, ultimately inspired a profound and deeply progressive advance in society and culture.

But “after a number of years of stunned silence,” Moyn proclaims in his article, “critics have begun to circle Israel’s colossus, even as he finishes the extraordinary task of raising it to completion.” Indeed, Moyn claims that his critics, like vultures, are “gnawing at the flesh of Israel’s creation.” Moyn begins by arguing that “Israel’s monomaniacal Spinoza worship…leaves him without a story of the Enlightenment’s intellectual or cultural origins.” Citing French historian Antoine Lilti,  one of Israel’s most outspoken critics, Moyn’s first contention is that “it strains credulity to organize what was a massive and century-long cultural phenomenon around the philosophical breakthrough of a single thinker.” While Spinoza did defend a more robust version of freedom of thought than that of Locke and others, Moyn objects to Spinoza and his followers as “chiefly responsible for the rise of wider toleration of speech and opinion.”

Further, Moyn finds Israel’s A Revolution of the Mind supported by a faulty premise: namely, “that a philosophy of naturalism and liberal-democratic politics are inextricably linked.” By arguing that the universe was only one substance, Spinoza, as it were, “knocked the legs out from under priests and kings alike.” But according to Moyn, this “leitmotif” is deeply flawed. Israel ignores the impact of other thinkers, for example, Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), who, a whole generation before Spinoza, declared a politics likewise based on a materialist metaphysics. On a methodological level then, Moyn contends that Israel selectively subordinates all thinkers under a categorical “Spinozism.” This has led another critic, Anthony J. La Vopa,  to argue that Israel’s central fallacy is a sort of “package logic.” As Moyn puts it, “the result of evaluating a century’s worth of thought according to how closely it conforms to a checklist is strange history, and arguably not history at all.” Constrained by his own constructed categories, Israel has evoked not only with a presentist, metahistory of the Enlightenment, but an oversimplified classification of the “radical” and “moderate” camps.

Indeed, it is this “package logic” that concerns Moyn most in his article. He sees Israel as working under presuppositions that are “dogmatic” and which act as “a profession of faith.” As a result, “Israel is tempted to cast those with alternative views as enemies not of his argument but of the Enlightenment itself.” Moyn again cites another critic for support, historian J.B. Shank,  who has said that “Israel’s works breathe the spirit of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens.” Moyn’s central complaint against Israel, therefore, is his belief that “the moral horizon of today’s partisans of Radical Enlightenment is crystal clear.” On the contrary, says Moyn, there was profound ambiguity of what counted as radicalism to seventeenth- and eighteenth-century thinkers. In saying this Moyn depends most exclusively on Dan Edelstein’s recent work, The Terror of Natural Right (2009),  which argues, contra Israel, that Enlightenment naturalism or materialism “turned out to be a recipe for terrible wrongs.” In short, Moyn wants readers to see that the “Enlightenment had many rival features from the outset, and could still have many possible versions to come.”

Israel, in turn, has directly responded to Moyn’s criticisms. His first response “Spinoza and Vultures and Gnats, Oh My!” was published in the “Exchange” column in The Nation’s 2010 July issue.  It is a biting rejoinder, calling Moyn’s interpretation of his argument “unbelievably inaccurate.” Israel responds first by saying that his work accounts for the Enlightenment’s origins and development by “setting out various social and cultural factors pivoting on the philosophical revolution of the late seventeenth century,” with contributions from Descartes, Hobbes, Spinoza, Locke, Bayle, and Leibniz. All shaped, Israel maintains, “the moderate and radical wings of the Enlightenment.” Yet he continues to uphold Spinoza, who “surpassed the others in contributing to the Radical Enlightenment.” He argues that there is no “faulty premise” in his connection of naturalism with liberal-democratic politics: “The only way to break the ancient régime system conceptually…was to destroy the notion that the existing order was divinely authorized, directed by divine providence and legitimately presided over by the clergy and monarchy.” He concludes by saying that Moyn’s understanding of the French Revolution is “absurdly wrong,” and accuses him of not having the “faintest clue” of the argument of the books under his review.

In the same “Exchange” column, Moyn tersely responds that Israel has missed the point of his original criticism. Israel not only continues to measure the thoughts of other philosophers “against the singular yardstick that Spinoza [allegedly] provided,” but fails to see the “Enlightenment’s multiple possible versions, and therefore its continually problematic character, now and in the future.”

But Israel was not quite finished with Moyn. The exchange continued—and still very publicly—on George Mason University’s online newsletter, History News Network.  In a piece as long as Moyn’s original review article, Israel provides an extended response to Moyn’s criticisms. And once more Moyn responds to it.  Rehearsing both responses here is unnecessary. What needs to be emphasized however is twofold. First is Israel’s continued espousal of Spinozism as the basis for not only the Enlightenment, but political revolution: “the radical encyclopedism that underlay their ideology [viz. Diderot, d’Holbach, Helevétius and Raynal] was what in the eighteenth century was called Spinozism.” Second, and related to it, is Israel’s unabashed “package logic,” which he maintains is simply the recurring “package logic” of the radical thinkers he studies. These thinkers, Israel argues, promoted equality, individual liberty, freedom of the press and expression, basic human rights, and democracy, whereas the more moderate thinkers quite often capitulated to aristocratic domination of society. Accordingly, Spinoza’s radical influence was undoubtedly subversive, politically as well as religiously, and thus lies as the foundation of modern democratic values. In his turn, Moyn facetiously claims that Israel is “one of the most Christian historians of the day.” He writes (perhaps unfairly, however) that “the point of writing church history is not to complicate the past but to show how it might inspire new victories, as Israel clearly wants his project to do,” and it is in this sense that Israel “fails entirely to reflect on the Christian template for his plot.”

Besides these many criticisms hurled at Israel’s multivolume work, Margaret J. Osler too, her entry in Galileo goes to Jail, takes a jab at Israel’s “package logic.”  She begins by quoting from his Radical Enlightenment: “It was unquestionably the rise of powerful new philosophical systems, rooted in the scientific advances of the early seventeenth century and especially the mechanistic views of Galileo, which chiefly generated that vast Kulturkampf between traditional, theologically sanctioned ideas about Man, God, and the universe and the secular, mechanistic conceptions which stood independently of any theological sanction.”

This amounts to the belief that the scientific revolution liberated science from religion. After the scientific revolution, the story goes, it was inevitable that God would eventually be pushed entirely out of nature and that science would deny the existence of God. But according to Osler, these are ultimately unsubstantiated claims. “A closer look at history,” she writes, “reveals an entirely different story.”

To begin with, science and religion as terms did not have the same meanings then that they do today. There was no such creature as the scientist (see forthcoming post on Steven Shapin’s Images of the Man of Science). Physics, and science in general, was called natural philosophy (as the title cover of Newton’s Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, translated Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, demonstrates), and its study included consideration of God’s creation of the world, the evidence of divine design in the world, and the immortality of the human soul. Indeed, “natural philosophy encompassed many topics now considered theological or metaphysical.”

The close relationship between natural philosophy and theology is evident in almost every area of inquiry about the natural world during the scientific revolution. The debates about the new heliocentric astronomy, the arguments for a new philosophy of nature to replace medieval Aristotelianism, the development of a new concept of the laws of nature, and discussions of the scope and limits of human knowledge were all infused with religious commitments and theological presuppositions.

For example, many seventeenth-century natural philosophers rejected Aristotelianism and adopted some version of the mechanical philosophy. But virtually all the mechanical philosopher claimed that God had created matter and had set it into motion. “God infused his purposes into the creation either by programming the motions of the particles or by creating particles with very particular properties.” As Osler puts it, “even a mechanical world had room for purpose and design.”

Another common theme in seventeenth-century discussions was expressed in the metaphor of God’s two books: the book of God word (the Bible) and the book of God’s work (the created world). Natural philosopher regarded both books as legitimate sources of knowledge.

Thus despite the claims of Israel and other modern commentators, that the seventeenth century witnessed the “rise of powerful new philosophical systems,” theology and natural philosophy were closely aligned. The entire enterprise of studying the natural world was embedded in a theological framework that emphasized divine creation, design, and providence. “Newton himself,” writes Osler, “took seriously both God’s work and God’s word, as he demonstrated by devoting even more effort to the understanding of Scripture than he did to the natural world.”

Natural philosopher undoubtedly disagreed about exactly how God related to the world. But to study the created world produced knowledge both of the phenomena and the laws of nature and revealed God’s relationship to his creation.

In the final analysis, seventeenth-century natural philosophers were not modern scientists. Reading the past from the standpoint of later developments, as Israel certainly does, leads to serious misunderstandings of not only the scientific revolution but these seminal historical figures as well. “For many of the natural philosophers of the seventeenth century, science and religion—or, better, natural philosophy and theology—were inseparable, part and parcel of the endeavor to understand our world.”

Graduate Study for the 21st Century

SemenzaDuring my down time I’ve been paging through Gregory Colón Semenza’s Graduate Study for the 21st Century: How to Build an Academic Career in the Humanities (2005). It is an ideal book for the graduate student. It covers topics such as the culture of graduate programs (teaching, research, and service), the politics of academic life (the “high priests” and “priestesses,” the “deadwood,” the “black sheep,” the “careerists,” the “service slaves,” the “curmudgeons,” the “young Turks,” the “hall-talkers,” the “theory boy or girl, “the “long-life learners,” and “everyman” and “everywoman”) organization and time management, outlook of the graduate seminar, the seminar paper, teaching, comprehensive exams, the dissertation, attending conferences, publishing strategies, service and participation, and prospects of the job market. Written with enthusiasm and much wisdom,  Semenza’s book should be the premier textbook for any graduate student in the humanities. What I found particularly insightful were his chapters on the dissertation and publishing. His recommendation that “you think of your dissertation as a book and that you write it in the form and style of a published scholarly monograph” was both enlightening and necessary.

Although amusing and entertaining in many places, Semenza’s book is not for the faint at heart. It is a heavy book, in the sense that it unabashedly reveals the intensity of the graduate program in the humanities. The onerousness and rigorousness of the graduate program is, however, made less burdensome thanks to the guidance and insights of this book.

Desecularizing the World

Christianity Judaism Islam Buddhism Hinduism symbolsContinuing the trend from the last post, in this post we will be looking at a different book, The Desecularization of the World: Resurgent Religion and World Politics (1999), edited by Peter L. Berger. Few scholars have contributed so much to our understanding of religion and modernity as Berger. Beginning in the 1960s, he advanced the argument that the collapse of “the sacred canopy” provided by religion has created a crisis for faith, forcing it into a position of “cognitive bargaining” but ultimately ends up bargaining away religious substance in order to survive in a relentlessly secular and secularizing modern world. These thoughts were first published in his widely popular book The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion (1967).

In this more recent book, however, Berger has changed his mind, reproves his earlier thoughts on the subject, and tells us why in the introductory essay. Indeed, what needs explanation, he tells us, is not the continued vitality of religion, a phenomenon that puzzles so many modern intellectuals, but why so many modern intellectuals are puzzled by it! The present collection of essays emerges from a conference sponsored by the Ethics and Public Policy Center, which includes a leading essay by Berger, along with other expert sociologists George Weigel, David Martin, Jonathan Sacks, Grace Davie, Tu Weiming, and Abdullahi A. an-Na’im.

What needs to be said at the outset is that this book is dated. Most of the essays, moreover, are unremarkable and thus most are not worth detailed exposition. To summarize its contents is a simple task. In the opening essay, Berger refutes the link between secularization and modernity; Weigel writes about Roman Catholicism, telling us that the Catholic Church “has reacquired a certain critical distance from the worlds of power, precisely in order to help those worlds accountable to universal moral norms;” Martin writes about the Evangelical upsurge, assigning its political implications to its individualistic approach and pragmatism; Sacks, who focuses on Jewish identity in the context of post-modernity and secularization, says that Jews live “in a condition of ambivalence about themselves and trauma about their relationship with the world”; while the rest of the world tends toward desecularization, Europe seems to be the exception to the rule, says Davie; in communist China Weiming writes that “as China is well on it sways to becoming an active member of the international society, the political significance of religion will continue to be obvious”; and writing about political Islam, an-Na’im says that the principle of pluralism and the protection of basic human rights, which is and always has been an Islamic imperative, should be followed.

Out of the seven essays, two stand out. Berger’s essay was the keynote lecture of the series, and of course, he is interested in doing more than just describing the current state of play of world politics. Berger begins by musing over the recent interest in the Fundamentalism Project. Sponsored by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the MacArthur Foundation, the Project was an international scholarly investigation of conservative religious movements throughout the world. The Project, which began in 1987 and concluded in 1995, was directed by Martin E. Marty and R. Scott Appleby. Why, Berger muses, exert resources to studying religious fundamentalism? The most obvious answer was that because “fundamentalism” is such a strange and hard-to-understand phenomena, the purpose of the Project was to delve into this alien world and make it more understandable.

But understandable to whom? This crucial questions leads Berger to an epiphany: the concern that must have led this Project was based on an upside-down perception of the world, according to which “fundamentalism” is a rare, hard-to-explain thing. But a look either at history or at the contemporary world reveals that what is rare is not the phenomenon itself but the knowledge of it. That is to say, it is this elite group of intellectuals that is a rare, and hard-to-explain thing. “The world today,” writes Berger, “is a furiously religious as it ever was, and in some places more so than ever.” Thus the assumption of secularism, and the secularization theory, is both mistaken and false. The key ideas of the theory, traced back to the Enlightenment, is that modernization necessarily leads to religious decline, both in society and in the minds of individuals. It is this key ideas, Berger maintains, that has turned out to be wrong. “To put it simply, experiments with secularized religion have generally failed: religious movements with beliefs and practices dripping with reactionary supernaturalism have widely succeeded.”

Turning to the global religious scene, Berger observes that, on the one hand “it is conservative or orthodox or tradtionalist movements that are on the rise almost everywhere,” and, on the other, that “religious movements and institutions that have made great efforts to conform to a perceived modernity are almost everywhere on the decline.” From the remarkable revival of the Orthodox Church in Russia following the collapse of the Soviet Union, to the rapidly growing orthodox Jewish groups in Israel and the Diaspora, to the vigorous upsurges of Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, “taken together they provide a massive falsification of the idea that modernization and secularization are cognate phenomena.”

While the world today is massively religious, there are, however, two exceptions, one somewhat unclear, the other very clear. The first apparent exception is of course Europe. In Western Europe, if nowhere else, the old secularization theory seems to hold true. There are indeed increased indications in secularization both in expressed belief and personal codes of behavior.  Yet there are a number of recent works, Berger notes, that make this exception deeply problematic. Notably in France, Britain, and even Scandinavia, there is a body of literature indicating strong survivals of religion. What’s more, it seems that there has only been a shift in the institutional location of religion, rather than secularization. That is, there has been a shift away from organized religion, to personal, “spiritual” religious attitudes. Thus Europe as secular is a rather ambiguous assertion, requiring much qualification, detailed and careful analysis.

The other, and definitely clearer, exception to the upsurge in religious movements is the existence of an international subculture composed of people with Western-style higher education, especially in the humanities and social sciences, that is indeed secularized. “This subculture is the principal carrier of progressive, Enlightened beliefs and values. Although relatively thin on the ground, they are widely influential, providing the ‘official’ definitions of reality, notably the educational system, the media of mass communication, and the higher reaches of the legal system.” Berger calls them the a “globalized elite culture,” and the plausibility of secularization theory owes much to this elite subculture, for when they travel they usually touch down in isolated, intellectual circles, i.e. among people much like themselves. But because of this, they easily fall into the misconception that these people reflect the overall society, which is, of course, a mistake.

What are the origins of this new religious upsurge? Berger hints at two possible answers: first, religion provides certainty when so much of our taken-for-granted certainties have been undermined by modernity, or it appeals to people who resent the social influence of that small, cultural elite. But the most satisfying answer, Berger says, and the most historically accurate, is that “strongly felt religion has always been around; what needs explanation is its absence rather than its presence.” Thus the so-called “religious upsurge” simply serves to demonstrate continuity in the place of religion in human experience.

What are the prospects of this new religious upsurge? Berger argues that there is no reason to think the world of the twenty-first century will be any less religious than the world of past generations. But it is also true that many of these religious movements are linked to non-religious forces of one sort or another, and thus the future course of the former will be at least partially determined by the course of the latter.

The “new” religious upsurge is, of course, particular, differing in their critique of modernity and secularity. But what most of these religious movements do seem to agree upon is the shallowness of a culture that tries to get along without any transcendent points of reference. “The religious impulse, the quest for meaning that transcends the restricted space of empirical existence in this world, has been a perennial feature of humanity” from time immemorial. The critique of secularity common to all the resurgent movements is that “human existence bereft of transcendence is an impoverished and finally untenable condition.”

The other essay worth noting in the collection is Davie’s “Europe: The Exception that Proves the Rule?” Davie takes secularization theory quite seriously, and it seems that data proves that in Europe the old secularization thesis hold true. But data, she points out, never explains anything. It is the interpretation of data that explains. The data from Europe, for instance, provides several interpretations, and that some explanations are more nuanced than others. Davie proposes that “might it not be the case that Europeans are not so much less religious than citizens in other parts of the world as differently religious?” Her emphasis.

Davie disentangles various meanings behind the term secularization, specifically as used by Steve Bruce, José Casanova, and Daniele Hervieu-Léger, evaluating them against recent data from the European Values System Study Group (EVSSG), survey findings of 1981 and 1990. In her estimation, it is not so much that there is less religion but that European religion is now expressed differently from how it used to be expressed: hence, Europe is less “secular” than it is “unchurched.” She writes, “while many Europeans have ceased to participate in religious institutions, they have not yet abandoned many of their deep-seated religious inclinations.”

In interpreting the data, Davie finds the approach of French sociologist Hervieu-Léger most promising. Hervieu-Léger argues that modern societies (especially modern European societies) are less religious, not because they are increasingly rational (they are not), but because they are less and less capable of maintaining the memory that lies at the heart of the religious existence. In other words, they are “amnesiac societies.”

While modern societies may well corrode their traditional religious base, they also open spaces that only religion can fill. Hervieu-Léger calls this “utopian” spaces. Modern individuals are encouraged to seek answers, find solutions, and make progress. Such aspirations become an increasingly normative part of human experience. But the image of utopia must always exceed reality, and the more successful the projects of modernity, the greater the mismatch becomes. “Hence the paradox of modernity, which in its historical forms removes the need for the sense of religion, but in its utopian forms must stay in touch with the religious.”

In the end, religion, and churches in Western Europe, still function as a kind of “vicarious memory.” Many Europeans remain grateful rather than resentful of their churches, recognizing that the churches perform a number of tasks on behalf of the population as a whole. One of the most obvious risks of operating vicariously, Davie notes, is the lack of direct contact between the churches and the population. This dramatically leads to a generation-by-generation drop in religious knowledge. Davie concludes that “an ignorance of even the basic understandings of Christian teaching is the norm in modern Europe, especially among young people; it is not a reassuring attribute.”