By Steven Weinberg
In his celebrated 1837 Phi Beta Kappa Oration at Harvard, titled “The American Scholar,” Ralph Waldo Emerson predicted that a day would come when America would end what he called “our long apprenticeship to the learning of other lands.” His prediction came true in the twentieth century, and in no area of learning more so than in science. This surely would have pleased Emerson. When he listed his heroes he would generally include Copernicus and Galileo and Newton along with Socrates and Jesus and Swedenborg. But I think that Emerson would have had mixed feelings about one consequence of the advance of science here and abroad—that it has led to a widespread weakening of religious belief.
Emerson was hardly orthodox—according to Herman Melville, he felt “that had he lived in those days when the world was made, he might have offered some valuable suggestions”—but he was for a while a Unitarian minister, and he usually found it possible to speak favorably of the Almighty. Emerson grieved over what he saw in his own time as a weakening of belief, as opposed to mere piety and churchgoing, in America and even more so in England, though I can’t say that he attributed it to the advance of science.
The idea of a conflict between science and religion has a long pedigree. According to Edward Gibbon, it was the view of the Byzantine church that “the study of nature was the surest symptom of an unbelieving mind.” Perhaps the best-known portrayal of this conflict is a book published in 1896 by Cornell’s first president, Andrew Dickson White, with the titleA History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom.
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