Magazine article History Today

'Our Mr. Sun': Religion and Science in 50s America

Magazine article History Today

'Our Mr. Sun': Religion and Science in 50s America

Article excerpt

Despite the romp of preposterous, computer-generated dinosaurs, the most contrived part of the recent film Jurassic Park by Stephen Spielberg, may well be the jarring juxtaposition of science and sentimentality. With prehistoric beasts roaring about and immensely complex scientific concepts required to explain their presence, the plot devolves into a cardboard romance. Two scientists appear about to fall in love when the cold and distracted male paleontologist discovers that he wants nothing so much as children. Granted, the target of this denouement is an anticipated audience of pre-teens. Certainly the scientific theories relating to cloning and chaos are difficult to understand. But Spielberg is only doing what many film producers and authors of popular fiction have done before him by casting scientific curiosity into a melodrama designed to reinforce traditional concepts of family, gender and -- most important -- an anthropocentric universe.

Throughout the twentieth century, popular culture has provided Americans with countless fictional heroes and heroines who command modern science and technology for such mundane purposes. To cite two wellknown examples: the remarkable science fiction-evolutionary tales of Edgar Rice Burroughs written after the First World War and the endless monster-movie explorations of atomic energy in the 1950s. This peculiar discourse is certainly not uniquely American, but its persistence suggests something significant in the United States. That, it seems to me, is the continually problematic relationship of science and theology, technology and practical religion. From the debates of philosophers, scientists, and theologians, to popular squabbles over creation science, Americans have dealt uneasily with the competition between the explanatory systems of religion and science. More than once during the twentieth century there have been moments when the apparent quarrel between science and religion has deeply preoccupied intellectuals and heavily tinted the productions of popular culture.

Post-war America has been such an instance of extraordinary concern about the implications of modern science in a world still very much committed to traditional religious explanations of nature and society. While measures of public opinion and private adherence in religious matters is notoriously inexact and incomplete, all indications suggest a heightened concern for religious matters in the US during the 1940s and 1950s.

In the last fifty years, only the United States has resisted the scientific secularisation sweeping through other industrialised nations. Gallup polls reveal belief in God, life after death, and religious affiliation to be remarkably high and stable. Higher income and education levels correspond to a slightly greater weekly attendance at church services, but all classes and groups have a very high level of participation and belief. No other nation confesses such a degree of doubt about scientific theories such as evolution.

Yet within this sea of faith, there have been obvious eddies of heightened religiosity. The 1950s is one of these and even the crudest tests of public adherence reveal increased religious conversation and concern. From the early 1950s to the mid-1960s, regular church attendance increased. So too did the significant opinion that religion was an increasingly powerful force in American society. As to why, the Gallup poll found that the largest response cited fear, unrest, and uncertainty about the future. This suggested a 'culture of anxiety' as one historian described it: a hesitation in the face of social and cultural change, as well as the possibility of nuclear annihilation. Much of this anxiety centred around science and technology.

The production and use of the atomic bomb was an unmatched challenge to the older order: a mysterious, counter-intuitive science and a secret technology that threatened human existence itself. But there were other disquieting mysteries in science such as the Uncertainty Principle of Heisenberg and Einstein's relativity. …

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