The American Defense of Religion

Jeff Carreira Blog Posts 8 Comments

In an earlier post I characterized American Philosophy as an ever deeper embrace of the concept of evolution. Another way that I understand the general trajectory of American philosophy is as an ever more sophisticated defense of religion, or at least the religious impulse.

 

With “The Enlightenment” of Europe came the scientific revolution that relentlessly impressed itself in human consciousness. Religion, which had provided the dominant understanding of reality before that time, was under attack. A great deal of philosophy and theology over the past few hundred years has been a defense of religion in the face of the victories of science.

 

In America one of the defenses of religion came in the form of what was often called “New Thought.” Emerson was part of the “New Thought” of Unitarianism, William James called his ideas of pragmatism “The New Thought” as well, and in more recent times Andrew Cohen has described his work as “The New Enlightenment.” It can be seen that these different “New Thought” movements were all part of the same battle that was being fought on two fronts. On one side each defends spiritual truth from the dominance of scientific materialism. On the other side, each pushes against the religious and spiritual norms of the time and encourages a deeper embrace of spiritual ideas that does not reject the rationalism of science.

 

Emerson’s Transcendentalism, James’s Pragmatism, and Cohen’s Evolutionary Enlightenment, were all fending off scientific materialism and awaken a deeper and more authentic spirituality at the same time. Ralph Waldo Emerson took issue with empiricists, particularly the Scottish philosopher David Hume, who held the view that only knowledge arising from direct experience is real. William James had a similar quarrel with the English philosopher, Herbert Spencer and Andrew Cohen with contemporary neo-Darwinists like Richard Dawkins E.O. Wilson and Daniel Dennett.

 

Emerson was also badgering the Unitarian church of his day for its overly intellectual and uninspired preaching. James argued against any metaphysical view of reality on the grounds that they were scientifically unverifiable and offered his philosophy of Pragmatism to justify religious belief. Andrew Cohen today, among others, speaks against the pluralistic, “I have my truth, you have yours” contemporary spiritual atmosphere and calls for an awakening to the spiritual implications inherent in being part of an evolutionary process.

 

A tradition of American New Thought has grown over the centuries through the recognition of the validity of spiritual truth and the need for a deeply authentic relationship to that truth. It is a middle path between scientific materialism and religious orthodoxy.

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Brian Fleming
Brian Fleming
11 years ago

A hot topic of conversation at our Darwin Day Celebration in Nashville on Thursday was the compatibility between the theory of evolution and the God hypothesis. Some said there’s no conflict between the two, because evolution is seen as the creator’s method of implementation. Theologians who signed the Clergy Letter Project seem to endorse this approach along with a number of newspaper columnists of late. But there is a problem with this view. Evolution, as posed by Darwin, is an unguided process that doesn’t require the hand of God. Further, if God is involved, how do we square all the… Read more »

Brian Fleming
Brian Fleming
11 years ago

Dr. Michael Hodges, who is more eloquent than I, summed it up this way at our Darwin Day event: “None of this suggest that the processes that have created and sustain human existence do not deserve our awe. The natural order is just as wonderful and mysterious operating on its own as it was in the hands of God. Perhaps the natural order, at least in its creative and sustaining nature, is God. George Santayana certainly suggested as much when he recommended the religious attitude that he called ‘Piety toward the source.’ When we remember how fickle the processes of… Read more »

Charles Sumner
11 years ago

The adherents to most mainline religions seem to agree with the statements made in The Clergy Letter Project, which states that they see no conflict between their religious faith and evolution. I think this is chiefly because they do not take the Bible literally. In other words, they are not at odds with science; they believe in evolution. So I think we should allow them their beliefs (see Amendment One). I submit that most regard the Sermon on the Mount with very high regard and the laws of the Old Testament as the laws of a bronze-age people which they… Read more »

Brian Fleming
Brian Fleming
11 years ago

Thanks Charles for your thoughtful reminder to allow folks their beliefs. However, I do like to bring attention to beliefs that are not integrated with what we learn from science. While some seem to keep them in different compartments, I cannot. There’s an approach that Jeff can expand on that seeks to integrate old with new, east with west, and reason with faith. Its called “integral practice.”

Jeff Carreira
Jeff Carreira
11 years ago

Agreed, I think James was in many ways an Integral Pioneer in that he was trying to leave room for religious belief based on its pragmatic value. I am familiar with a number of Christians who are very devote and not only see no conflict with evolution, they acctually feel that what they see as the deepest elements of that faith are completely compatible and even enhanced by an evolutionary view. The “Integral Practce” that Brian refers to above will most definately be discussed in upcoming posts.

Frank Luke
Frank Luke
10 years ago

When we see American philosophy as linked to spirituality, I’d submit that evolution modifying species to enable more possibility of surviving is what spirituality is achieving. By this I mean that to allow humans to attain a commitment to peaceableness with fellow humans and the entire Web of Being is to be adapted evolutionarily to survival rather than to self-destructive behavior and the possible destruction of the planet’s natural resources and the use of weapons of mass destruction. Our external physical evolutionary modifications may not be so evident but I believe our internal modifications are going on, leading to humanity’s… Read more »

Jeff Carreira
Jeff Carreira
10 years ago

Hello Frank – What you have stated here is exactly why I have become so taken with American philosophy.

Brian
Brian
10 years ago

Spirituality is not prerequisite for cooperation. See Robert Axelrod’s “The Evolution of Cooperation” which uses game theory to show how cooperation emerges even among the self-serving.