"The Belief That Works Best"
by Phillip E. Johnson
Science and Religion in the Era of William James:
The Eclipse of Certainty, 1820-1880
University of North Carolina Press, 1995
By Paul Jerome Croce
Charles Templeton, who preached the gospel with Billy Graham in the 1940s,
went to Princeton Theological Seminary and urged Graham to join him there,
to lay a firmer academic foundation for his theology. Seminary study started
Templeton down the road to agnosticism, however, and in subsequent discussions
he almost overwhelmed Graham with arguments for interpreting the Bible from
a modernist standpoint. As the 1993 Time magazine cover story on
Graham tells the story (following the William Martin biography), Graham
eventually concluded after prayer that "I don't have the time, the
inclination, or the set of mind to pursue [the intellectual questions].
I found that if I say 'The Bible says' and 'God says,' I get results. I
have decided I'm not going to wrestle with these questions any longer."
Templeton charged Graham with having committed intellectual suicide, although
he admitted that his friend would not have been so effective a preacher
if he had allowed his message to be compromised by doubt. The modernist
Episcopal Bishop John Spong, who had delivered newspapers to the Graham
family farm as a boy in North Carolina, appears in the story as an example
of what Billy Graham might have become. Spong commented to Time that
"I would never seek to solve the ethical problems of the 20th century
by quoting a passage of Holy Scripture, and I read the Bible every day.
I wouldn't invest a book that was written between 1000 B.C. and A.D. 150
with that kind of moral authority." That message has never filled a
stadium with sinners primed to walk up the aisle and accept Jesus.
The story of Graham and Templeton illustrates the difference between pragmatism
and rationalism in philosophy. Even atheists might agree on pragmatic grounds
that Graham made the right decision, if by closing his mind to Templeton's
arguments he was able to become the revered figure he is today rather than
another compromising liberal. To the rationalist Templeton, however, Graham
performed the secular equivalent of gaining the whole world by losing his
own soul. But did Templeton's rationalism amount to anything more that a
willingness to be seduced by the prevailing academic fashion? Graham may
have been wiser than his friend if he distrusted his own ability to evaluate
an academic "higher criticism" that was nominally Christian but
steeped in naturalistic philosophy. Odysseus did not commit intellectual
suicide when he denied the Sirens the opportunity to lure his ship onto
Pragmatism teaches that when absolute truth is elusive, we are justified
in adopting as provisional truth those beliefs that seem to work best. Modern
pragmatism, America's greatest contribution to philosophy, began with William
James and his circle in the late nineteenth century. John Dewey carried
pragmatism forward into the twentieth century, and Richard Rorty is its
leading exponent today.
Paul Jerome Croce tells the first part of the story, beginning with the
shattering impact of the Darwinian revolution upon an intellectual milieu
in which religion and science had seemed to be united in a common enterprise.
Croce's first volume deals mainly with the events and arguments of James'
early life' It features not William James himself but the persons who most
influenced his intellectual development: the Swedenborgian Henry James Sr.,
father of William the philosopher and Henry the novelist; the Darwinist
botanist Asa Gray and the anti-Darwinist scientific icon Louis Agassiz;
the positivist Chauncy Wright, the early pragmatist Charles Sanders Peirce,
and the preeminent jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. A second volume, dealing
with James' mature thought, is in preparation.
Croce gets off to a dreadful start by apologizing for writing about "yet
another white male from the cultural canon," a man whose concern with
the relationship between religion and science rather than with race and
gender oppression might make him seem guilty of "barbarism." Once
he gets past this possibly mandatory expression of piety towards the Goddess
Who Rules Academia, however, Croce regains his sense of historical balance
and provides an illuminating description of the state of intellectual affairs
in the James circle in the aftermath of the breakdown of certainty caused
by the Darwinian revolution. The main issue was not whether Darwinism was
true or false, and it certainly was not whether the literal Genesis account
was a viable alternative. Louis Agassiz argued against Darwinism at Harvard
on scientific grounds but attracted little support despite his prestige.
Whether all the objections could be answered or not, Darwinism was clearly
the wave of the future in science. And whatever backwoods fundamentalists
may have thought, the Genesis chonology was not the sticking point even
at Princeton Theological Seminary, where Charles Hodge led such resistance
as there was to the Darwinian juggernaut.
What was the main issue was whether, in the light of Darwinism, there
was still a place for "religious belief" -- even in the very general
sense of a belief that there is some sort of ultimate purpose or moral dimension
to the physical universe revealed by science. Henry James Sr. had encouraged
William to study science in the confidence that scientific investigation
and natural theology were partners in showing that nature is a rational
system ruled by a benevolent deity. Darwinism described a world in which
chance variation was the creator, however, and in which apparent design
in biology was the product of a cruel and wasteful struggle for existence.
Was it possible to find a place for God, or a firm foundation for morality,
in a world like that? After Darwin faith and reason seemed no longer to
be allies, but rivals or even enemies.
Croce recounts that the triumph of Darwinism also raised an important question
about the attainability of certainty in science itself. Although the theory
was sufficiently appealing on logical grounds to gain overwhelming support,
its crucial factual claims could not be proved. Scientists far more sympathetic
to Darwinism than Agassiz conceded the existence of serious evidentiary
problems. In The Origin of Species Darwin had to take a defensive
stance toward the fossil record, which then as now showed a remarkable stability
in species rather than a pattern of gradual change from one kind of thing
to another. Even T.H. Huxley had substantial reservations, saying that Darwin
ought to have allowed for evolution by sudden jumps and that the theory
could not be considered confirmed until animal breeders had produced new
species -- a modest condition which has still not been met. Asa Gray, who
was Darwin's chief American advocate and the first theistic Darwinist, said
that he accepted Darwinism only as an hypothesis and denied that the variations
that powered change were random.
If this most important of scientific theories could only be defended on
the ground that it was superior to any presently available alternative,
then how could fallible human beings -- whose brains, after all, were presumably
selected only for their success at leaving offspring -- be certain of anything
at all? Even in science certainty seemed unattainable, and what was accepted
as valid scientific knowledge in one generation might be overthrown or substantially
modified in the future. As William James expressed the resulting problem,
"Unless we find a way of conciliating the notion of truth and change,
we must admit there is no truth anywhere."
We will have to wait for the second volume to see how Croce evaluates James's
effort to deal with the problem that Darwinism had set for philosophy and
religion. James argued that, in a world where we cannot be absolutely sure
about anything, our wisest course may be to act confidently upon those beliefs
that seem to produce the best consequences. Billy Graham did that in one
way, and the nineteenth-century scientists, philosophers, and theologians
who jumped aboard the Darwinian bandwagon did it another way. Whether Darwinism
was true or not, the inability of giants like Louis Agassiz and Charles
Hodge to impede its advance proved that it was irresistible. For anyone
who did not want to be left behind and ignored, to believe wholeheartedly
in Darwinism was the choice that produced the best consequences.
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