Humanism and Science as a Window into the Culture Wars in America

America’s relationship to science is fraught with turmoil. Images of science have long held an ambiguous place in our collective psyche: from Frankenstein’s monster to the moon landing, people have characterized it in both nefarious and glowing terms. 

Our current moment, however, seems unusual. In America, where everything is now subject to political spin, science has become a partisan shibboleth. Consider that President-elect Joe Biden felt compelled to defend the authority of science more than once in his recent acceptance speech. 

Anyone who follows the news can see why: evolution, climate change, and even public health measures are strongly fought partisan battles. The reason for this conflict around science is clearly something that we need to understand better.

In my book, The Scientific Spirit of American Humanism, I look back at the historical roots of this culture war and show where it comes from and why it is so significant. I suggest that the conflict has roots in America’s religious past. While I’m not the first to suggest this, my explanation takes us into some new and revealing areas of American culture, which challenge the common conceptions that we have of both religion and science. In particular, it requires that we recognize that these terms are much more fluid than most of us are used to.

To start with, my book shows how science has been closely tied to broad, aspirational human values. I trace the origins and development of the humanist movement, a diverse group of liberal thinkers and religious dissenters. Their ideas were by no means monolithic, and they sometimes contradicted each other, but they shared a common thread—their valuation of science, which I call “the scientific spirit.” 

Many critics of science will argue that scientific authority is a cold and rigid methodology that can easily become a threat to freedom and morality. Humanists think just the reverse. They embrace science. For them, science is not merely a body of knowledge but rather a source of human values, an embodiment of the progressive human spirit. Indeed, they consider that science provides an essential component of our modern democratic way of life.


Humanists largely reject the idea of God and the supernatural, but they seldom characterize themselves as atheists, agnostics, or rationalists. Instead, they focus on the aspirational qualities of their beliefs. The scientific spirit exemplifies this optimistic and forward-looking attitude. Science, they believe, highlights some of the more noble qualities of our nature and goes hand-in-hand with democracy, freedom, and clear-headed moral judgement.

Just as with science, the relationship between humanism and religion is complicated. The history of humanism sheds light on the often forgotten, liberal and radical strands of our country’s intellectual heritage. The humanist movement is an outgrowth of liberal religion, having close ties to Unitarianism, Ethical Culture, and modernist theology, and having arisen at a time when liberal religiosity flourished more widely than it does today. 

The reason it is so hard to see humanism in this light is that politically conservative religiosity has become so loud and assertive over the last several decades. Fundamentalism obscures the more liberal, forward-looking religiosity that had such an influence on the American character of the twentieth century. 

In a couple of places in the book, I call attention to the popular astronomer Carl Sagan, a prominent humanist voice of last century, and I show how he used sometimes only barely disguised religious imagery and rhetoric to help convey his vision of science. We can see in Sagan’s case this idealism regarding science abetted his popularizing efforts. 

With this in mind, it becomes more clear how we got to where we are now. Creationists, climate deniers, anti-vaxxers, and mask refusers react to science in large part not because the science itself is upsetting, but because the worldview surrounding that science threatens their fundamental beliefs. In his anti-evolutionism speeches leading up to the Scopes trial in 1925, William Jennings Bryan attacked the theory of evolution as encouraging immorality. In different ways, his voice echoes across the decades in many of the current politicized debates about science and public health.

This is why the humanist story is so helpful in exploring American culture at this moment of intense political division. Humanists express a common type of American thought. Though humanists are outliers in terms of their rejection of God, they share many similarities with fellow liberals. In broad strokes, this rhetoric resonates across the liberal religious spectrum that welcomes science with open arms. In this tradition, science and faith work together as positive and progressive forces in the world.

The point is that the attacks on science are often less about science itself than they are about cultural and social values that have come to be associated with it. This is why the different sides seem to be at such odds, and why simply invoking scientific authority or extensive data will not cut through the divide.

Order The Scientific Spirit of American Humanism – published on October 6, 2020 – at the following link:

Stephen P. Weldon is an associate professor of the history of science at the University of Oklahoma. He is the author of The Scientific Spirit of American Humanism and the editor of the Isis Current Bibliography of the History of Science.


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