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The Scientific Spirit of American Humanism

Recent polls show that a quarter of Americans claim to have no religious affiliation, identifying instead as atheists, agnostics, or "nothing in particular." A century ago, a small group of American intellectuals who dubbed themselves humanists tread this same path, turning to science as a major source of spiritual sustenance. In The Scientific Spirit of American Humanism, Stephen P. Weldon tells the fascinating story of this group as it developed over the twentieth century, following the fortunes of a few generations of radical ministers, academic philosophers, and prominent scientists who sought to replace traditional religion with a modern, liberal, scientific outlook.

Weldon explores humanism through the networks of friendships and institutional relationships that underlay it, from philosophers preaching in synagogues and ministers editing articles of Nobel laureates to magicians invoking the scientific method. Examining the development of an increasingly antagonistic engagement between religious conservatives and the secular culture of the academy, Weldon explains how this conflict has shaped the discussion of science and religion in American culture. He also uncovers a less known—but equally influential—story about the conflict within humanism itself between two very different visions of science: an aspirational, democratic outlook held by the followers of John Dewey on the one hand, and a skeptical, combative view influenced by logical positivism on the other.

Putting America's distinctive science talk into historical perspective, Weldon shows how events such as the Pugwash movement for nuclear disarmament, the ongoing evolution controversies, the debunking of pseudo-science, and the selection of scientists and popularizers like Carl Sagan and Isaac Asimov as humanist figureheads all fit a distinctly American ethos. Weldon maintains that this secular ethos gained much of its influence by tapping into the idealism found in the American radical religious tradition that includes the deism of Thomas Paine, nineteenth-century rationalism and free thought, Protestant modernism, and most important, Unitarianism. Drawing on archival research, interviews, and a thorough study of the main humanist publications, The Scientific Spirit of American Humanism reveals a new level of detail about the personal and institutional forces that have shaped major trends in American secular culture. Significantly, the book shows why special attention to American liberal religiosity remains critical to a clear understanding of the scientific spirit in American culture.

About the Author

Stephen P. Weldon is an associate professor of the history of science at the University of Oklahoma. He is the editor of the Isis Current Bibliography of the History of Science.

Endorsements

"Weldon traces the history and evolution of the concept of humanism and the people who identified with it, and demonstrates how a new dimension is added to the received view of science and religion in America and its peculiar history. This is a history that both humanists and their antagonists often overlook or distort with mythologies. This book will be an important corrective."

- Adam R. Shapiro, author of Trying Biology: The Scopes Trial, Textbooks, and the Antievolution Movement in American Schools

"This is a terrific book, based on massive research, covering American humanism from the past to the present. It is a story that needed telling, and Stephen P. Weldon tells it so well. Above all, it is tremendously interesting. It is a perfect exemplar of its subject: human intelligence applied to important problems, yielding great understanding. Five-star rating!"

- Michael Ruse, Florida State University, author of Darwinism as Religion: What Literature Tells Us about Evolution

"Weldon provides a much-needed comprehensive history of American humanism that explodes the myth of a sharp dichotomy between science and religion. This admirable, deeply researched study reveals a complex social movement and a series of sometimes forgotten thinkers who creatively employed democratic ideals and moral values to address some of the most contentious issues in American life."

- Paul V. Murphy, Grand Valley State University, author of The New Era: American Thought and Culture in the 1920s

"The ever-growing historical literature on science and religion has tended to focus on the problems and challenges that modern science creates for Christians. In contrast, Weldon's engaging study shows how religious liberals, from Unitarians to atheists—especially secular humanists—have enthusiastically embraced the methods and ethos of science in the twentieth century."

- Ronald L. Numbers, Professor Emeritus, University of Wisconsin–Madison, coeditor of The Warfare between Science and Religion: The Idea That Wouldn't Die
Johns Hopkins University Press
Medicine, Science, and Religion in Historical Context
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