Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

“Science and Religion Wedded: A Progressive Alternative to the War between Science and Religion,” By Dennis L. Durst


In recent decades historians of the relationship between science and religion have systematically chipped away at Andrew Dickson White’s controlling thesis expressed in the title of his most influential book. A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom was published in two volumes in 1896.[1] In it White argued that enlightened science and benighted religion were implacable foes and that science must ultimately defeat religion.  Three decades later, the infamous 1925 Scopes trial in Dayton, Tennessee, gave some members of the press and of the scientific community further ammunition to seemingly buttress White’s warfare thesis. However, others in the Progressive Era were taking a dramatically different approach to the interaction of religion and science. This approach could be described as an effort to reshape religion in the mold of science for a modern age. This essay explores this alternative approach by examining two figures whose writings were influential in the period 1913–24. This melding approach to science and religion may have been as potent, if not more potent, for the long-term trajectory of relations between science, religion, and social policy, than the warfare model.


Newman Smyth Weds Science and Religion

In 1913, Andover-Newton Seminary theologian and ethicist Newman Smyth delivered a series of lectures under the auspices of the Taylor Foundation at the Yale University School of Religion. Smyth’s address to arguably the highest-educated seminarians of the era offers a vital window on science-religion relations in the Progressive Era. That a theologian should surrender significant ground and authority to the scientific method may surprise us, given that the warfare model still holds powerful sway in the media and in social consciousness generally. But the rethinking of theological verities in the light of science has seen multiple iterations over time.

In Constructive Natural Theology, the book that derived from Smyth’s Yale lectures, he opens with a poem by that late nineteenth-century scion of elite northeastern poets, James Russell Lowell:

Science was Faith once; Faith were Science now,

Would she but lay her bow and arrows by

And arm her with the weapons of the time.

And arm her with the weapons of the time.

Nothing that keeps thought out is safe from thought.

For there’s no virgin-fort but self-respect,

And Truth defensive hath lost hold on God.[2]

For Smyth, as for Lowell, the weapons of traditional apologetics or scripture must be laid aside and a peace treaty brokered with modern science. As Smyth’s argument proceeded, he called upon theologians to reconstruct their theology in light of scientific disciplines such as physics and biology, as well as history, biblical criticism, psychology and sociology—all cast within a modern scientific mold. Lamenting the dearth of natural theology in schools of divinity, Smyth called for “a theology of nature, constructed in accordance with known principles of evolution.” Anything less would render religion immature, “a child’s fancy thrown lightly out upon the mystery of the world.” Such a new natural theology had to be forged “from the ascertained data of natural science.”[3]

Smyth called upon his Yale divinity audience to approach reality with the virtue of humility, in rather maudlin terms: “I am thinking of the genuine man of science, of the man who will not deny his own intellectual devotion to truth by failing to keep a heart as reverent and as humble as that of the simplest believer who looks up with worshipful eyes to the Madonna and the Holy Child.”[4]

At the climax of Newman Smyth’s argument the metaphor of the wedding of science and religion seemed to pass beyond mere metaphoricity, as he rhapsodized: “Scientific devotion, kept unbroken until death, is the troth of a man’s being to God’s truth.”[5] The marriage he envisioned was more of an arranged than a companionate one, however. For the subtext of Smyth’s argument implied that theology should graciously and humbly submit to science within a union of unequals.


Albert E. Wiggam Weds Eugenics and Religion

Within a decade of Smyth’s encomium to science in the hallowed halls of theology, Albert E. Wiggam made the connections between religion, science, and social policy even more clear. In 1922, Wiggam set forth an important document bridging religion and the science of eugenics in as explicit a way as anyone among his contemporaries. The book that encapsulates this agenda was The New Decalogue of Science. Addressed to “His Excellency, the Statesman,” the political and social policy subtext of the tome is omnipresent and interwoven throughout. The book was designed as a proposal for changing society for the better, a Progressive Era project if there ever was one. For all its disdain for traditional religion, the ethos of the book is religious, if at times, one might argue, disingenuously so. Nevertheless, such a reshaping of religion constituted a discernible alternative to an outright frontal warfare against religion.

Replete with biblical allusions, but recast in the garb of 1920s biology, Wiggam offered five warnings that the new religion of science heralded, and then “The Ten Commandments of Science.”  The warnings were:  (1) That the advanced races are going backward; (2) That heredity is the chief maker of men; (3) That the Golden Rule without science will wreck the race that tries it; (4) That medicine, hygiene, and sanitation will weaken the human race; and (5) That morals, education, art, and religion will not improve the human race.  On this last point Wiggam sought to assuage the blow to religious folk by assuring them that science is the fruit of the wisdom of religious figures such as Moses and Jesus. For instance, Wiggam described Moses as “one of the most ardent evolutionists that ever lived.” By noting separate days in early Genesis for the creation of plants and animals, Wiggam asserted that Moses clearly set forth “the developmental process of creation.” This, for Wiggam, was tantamount to Moses having a basic early grasp of evolution.[6]

In the lengthy second section of this book, Wiggam introduced “The New Mount Sinai—The Laboratory.” For Wiggam, the entire scientific enterprise was a way of improving humanity, and the new humanism he was crafting was nothing short of a holy cause.  No lesser a goal than the salvation of the human race was in view. With “the instruments of science” Wiggam called for the writing of “a new scripture based upon the experimental and statistical use of intelligence which will enable the humblest man instantly to tell God from the Devil, and thus throw his cooperation on the side of God.”[7]

The ten commandments from this new Mount Sinai of the laboratory were: (1) The duty of eugenics; (2) The duty of scientific research; (3) The duty of the socialization of science; (4) The duty of measuring men; (5) The duty of humanizing industry; (6) The duty of preferential reproduction; (7) The duty of trusting intelligence; (8) The duty of art; (9) The duty of internationalism; and (10) The duty of philosophical reconstruction. Due to its pride of position as the first commandment, my remarks shall focus on “the duty of eugenics.”

Wiggam lumped together in the eugenics cause the Law of Moses, Plato’s political philosophy, the moral and religious sanctions of Jesus, Darwin’s natural law; Galton’s analytical approach to science; and the scientific insights of Weismann and Mendel.[8] Wiggam cited as the mission statement of eugenics the words of the Department of Eugenics of the Carnegie Institution, that eugenics “seeks to improve the natural physical, mental, and temperamental qualities of the human family.”[9]

For Wiggam, as for most eugenicists, nothing short of societal transformation could suffice as the goal of eugenics.  With an authoritative voice he intoned: “Now the science of eugenics means just this and nothing else—that all these agencies (i.e. economic, social, political, educational, moral, and religious) be turned about again and civilization be made to minister to man’s organic progress. . . In short, upon a grand scale eugenics is simply evolution taken out of the hands of brute nature and managed at least as well as, and if possible better than, nature managed it.” Indeed, for Wiggam, “eugenics means a new religion, new objects of religious endeavor, a new moral code. . . a change in the very purpose of civilization and the fundamental mores of man.”[10]

Wiggam’s enthusiasm for eugenics as a new religion was not limited to one book. In 1924, his Fruit of the Family Tree ran to 395 pages explaining heredity and the eugenic social policies necessary to harnessing it for the improvement of the human race. The rhetorical flourishes Wiggam employed were little short of utopian, and the religious dimension was central. In his chapter “Heredity or Environment,” Wiggam weighed in on the nature-nurture debate. While admitting the importance of environment, especially for the improvement of individuals, he emphasized the control of heredity as the key to overall improvement of the race. He admitted that “the Eden of eugenics can never be attained.” But nonetheless, “science and progress has at last stamped the picture of that Eden upon the imagination of mankind.” This picture Wiggam described as “the Eden of a perfect humanity dwelling in an environment of paradise.” While unattainable, Wiggam insisted such a vision was “not a mirage.” Then he invoked Francis Galton, the founder of the eugenics movement, and Charles Darwin’s cousin.  For it had been Galton who first suggested that eugenics must become a new religion:

Only science and progress have drawn it for us in clearer outlines, drawn it nearer, and made it the conscious goal of the world’s desire.  And while it can not be attained any more than Heaven can be here on earth attained, yet the passion for it, the going toward it, the belief in it, the training and education of men for it, constitute the “new religion” of a better humanity which Galton said would “sweep the world.”[11]



One persistent facet of the progressive mindset is indeed a religious attitude toward societal transformation. Whether that requires a hostile posture toward institutional religion (White) or a co-opting of religious sentiment for secular societal transformation (Smyth, Wiggam), the ethos often seems to have a religious cast to it. The fervor with which some people embrace environmental agendas, embryonic stem-cell research, human cloning, or global climate change may be historically contextualized as a kind of secular religiosity or religion substitute. Thus, when conservatives find themselves arguing with those who are ostensibly secular in orientation, they are at time surprised by the ferocity with which alternative views are held. Uncloaking this vein of science-as-religion thinking as the underpinning of the progressive mentalite may provide further insight into the way social discourse and public policy debates play out even today. You are not having just a dispassionate academic debate. You are probably messing with someone’s religion.


Dennis L. Durst, M.Div., Ph.D., teaches at Kentucky Christian University.




[1] Andrew Dickson White, A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom, 2 vols. (New York: Macmillan, 1896), passim.  A good introduction to the subject is John Hedley Brooke, Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives Cambridge Studies in the History of Science (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991), passim.

 [2] Newman Smyth, Constructive Natural Theology (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1913), vii.

[3] Ibid., 3.

[4] Ibid., 108.

[5] Ibid., 118.

[6] Albert E. Wiggam, The New Decalogue of Science (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1922), 71.

[7] Ibid., 80.

[8] Ibid., 99.

[9] Ibid., 101.

[10] Ibid., 104–05. Much has been written on the “managerial” approach to government birthed around this time; but the classic text is Robert H. Wiebe, The Search for Order, 1877–1920 (New York: Hill and Wang, 1966), passim.

[11] Albert E. Wiggam, The Fruit of the Family Tree (Indianapolis; Bobbs-Merrill, 1924), 351–2.

3 Responses to ““Science and Religion Wedded: A Progressive Alternative to the War between Science and Religion,” By Dennis L. Durst”

  1. gabe

    It seems to me that in these churchmen’s efforts to remain *relevant*, they have only succeeded in not only making themselves irrelevant but they have also rendered their religion vacuous.
    In effect, they have moved us beyond the age of the WASP into the age of the White Anglo Saxon POST-Protestant (apologies to Walker Percy).

  2. gabe

    Time was when you could count on the Catholic church to hold the line – apparently with the rise of the “self- beatified” and beatifying Pope Francis this is no longer the case as he seems to deem it proper to issue” pronunciamentos” on everything including global warming.

    How about sticking to religion and perhaps you may avoid the *irrelevance” inherent in trying to be relevant and pandering to leftist ideologues in the media and your own country of Argentina.

  3. John E. Jenkins

    “For Wiggam, as for most eugenicists, nothing short of societal transformation could suffice as the goal of eugenics… a new moral code. . . a change in the very purpose of civilization and the fundamental mores of man.” Sounds like a following of the Illuminati; which was very real at its time, before its exposure of a “secular societal transformation” goal.
    I am surprised that you did not make this comparison for the reader.
    In any case, you certainly received my attention to your well examined post of Wiggins and eugenics.
    Thank you,
    Respectfully, John
    (Facebook, author of The Tribute)


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