Religion In America Essay

2002 words - 8 pages

Religion in America


The history of religion in America is fascinating, both on its own terms and also with respect to what it teaches us about other aspects of American culture. The period we are studying is especially interesting, because it was during this era that many developments and changes within American society occurred; in some cases these effects challenged the development of religion in general, while other effects promoted it, or at least specific varieties of it.

I shall proceed to examine several of these changes; while this list is by no means comprehensive, it hopes to capture the overall texture of religion in America during the modern era, or roughly the period between the Civil War and World War II.


Richard Dawkins, a contemporary British biologist, says that "Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist" (qtd. Haught 50). Before Darwin, those who rejected the idea that a Supreme Being of some kind was responsible for the position in which humans now found themselves lacked a serious alternative explanation for life. Furthermore, religion has always provided answers to important questions such as, Where did we come from?, Why are we here?, and Where are we going?. Science before Darwin was largely unable to answer these questions.

Darwin's publication of his theory of evolution through natural selection had broad ramifications in the scientific world, and not merely for biology. Many people, scientists and non-scientists alike, saw Darwinian theory as the ultimate disproof of the existence of God. On this view, because Darwinism offers an explanation for the development of human beings from lower forms of life, a believer in evolution is automatically a non-believer in a personal, caring God responsible for the creation of life. For example, philosopher Daniel Dennett asserts that evolutionary theory has destroyed theology, and that Darwinism's metaphysical implication is that life has no purpose, and certainly no divine direction (cf. Haught 77).

Some theologians and philosophers see kind of conclusion as problematic. It is widely thought that the kind of assertion Dennett makes, for example, is an example of "scientism"-the metaphysical claim that truth can only be found through science (cf. Smith 59-60). Its cousins are materialism, the belief that the material world constitutes the whole of reality, and reductionism, which asserts that explanations of the most fundamental units are the most accurate. It is undeniable that the reductionist and materialist perspectives are invaluable to progress through the scientific method. Whether they can be logically extended to the metaphysical realm is a contentious subject, but the philosophical adoption of Darwinism's implications is seen by many to this day as a major advance in human thought. Teleological systems of thought, and most especially those citing the authority of a...

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