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The Scientific Spirit of American Humanism

Stephen P. Weldon

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The story of how prominent liberal intellectuals reshaped American religious and secular institutions to promote a more democratic, science-centered society.

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…

The story of how prominent liberal intellectuals reshaped American religious and secular institutions to promote a more democratic, science-centered society.

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.

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The Scientific Spirit of American Humanism

Stephen P. Weldon

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Reviews

Reviews

This book is an important read. Weldon carefully describes the development of humanism—key characters, publications, and organizations, as well as the philosophical struggles... To gain a fuller understanding of 'the scientific spirit' that imbues the humanist movement, it is well worth it to read Stephen Weldon's book.

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.

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!

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.

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.

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Book Details

Publication Date
Status
Available
Trim Size
6
x
9
Pages
320
ISBN
9781421438580
Illustration Description
28 halftones, 4 line drawings
Table of Contents

Preface
Introduction. The Scientific Spirit of American Humanism
Chapter 1. Liberal Christianity and the Frontiers of American Belief
Chapter 2. The Birth of Religious Humanism
Chapter 3. Manifesto for

Preface
Introduction. The Scientific Spirit of American Humanism
Chapter 1. Liberal Christianity and the Frontiers of American Belief
Chapter 2. The Birth of Religious Humanism
Chapter 3. Manifesto for an Age of Science
Chapter 4. Philosophers in the Pulpit
Chapter 5. Humanists at War
Chapter 6. Scientists on the World Stage
Chapter 7. Eugenics and the Question of Race
Chapter 8. Inside the Humanist Counterculture
Chapter 9. Skeptics in the Age of Aquarius
Chapter 10. The Fundamentalist Challenge
Chapter 11. Battling Creationism and Christian Pseudoscience
Chapter 12. The Humanist Ethos of Science in Modern America
Epilogue. Science and Millennial Humanism
Notes
Archival Sources and Personal Papers
Index
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Author Bio
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Stephen P. Weldon

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.