The Belief That Works Best

Review of Science and Religion in the Era of William James: The Eclipse of Certainty, 1820-1880 volume one
by Paul Jerome Croce (University of North Carolina Press, 1995)


Phillip E. Johnson

Charles Templeton, who preached the gospel with Billy Graham in the 1940s, went to Princeton Theological Seminary and urged Graham to join him there, to lay a firmer academic foundation for his theology. Seminary study started Templeton down the road to agnosticism, however, and in subsequent discussions he almost overwhelmed Graham with arguments for interpreting the Bible from a modernist standpoint. As the 1993 Time magazine cover story on Graham tells the story (following the William Martin biography), Graham eventually concluded after prayer that "I don't have the time, the inclination, or the set of mind to pursue [the intellectual questions]. I found that if I say 'The Bible says' and 'God says,' I get results. I have decided I'm not going to wrestle with these questions any longer."

Templeton charged Graham with having committed intellectual suicide, although he admitted that his friend would not have been so effective a preacher if he had allowed his message to be compromised by doubt. The modernist Episcopal Bishop John Spong, who had delivered newspapers to the Graham family farm as a boy in North Carolina, appears in the story as an example of what Billy Graham might have become. Spong commented to Time that "I would never seek to solve the ethical problems of the 20th century by quoting a passage of Holy Scripture, and I read the Bible every day. I wouldn't invest a book that was written between 1000 B.C. and A.D. 150 with that kind of moral authority." That message has never filled a stadium with sinners primed to walk up the aisle and accept Jesus.

The story of Graham and Templeton illustrates the difference between pragmatism and rationalism in philosophy. Even atheists might agree on pragmatic grounds that Graham made the right decision, if by closing his mind to Templeton's arguments he was able to become the revered figure he is today rather than another compromising liberal. To the rationalist Templeton, however, Graham performed the secular equivalent of gaining the whole world by losing his own soul. But did Templeton's rationalism amount to anything more that a willingness to be seduced by the prevailing academic fashion? Graham may have been wiser than his friend if he distrusted his own ability to evaluate an academic "higher criticism" that was nominally Christian but steeped in naturalistic philosophy. Odysseus did not commit intellectual suicide when he denied the Sirens the opportunity to lure his ship onto the rocks.

Pragmatism teaches that when absolute truth is elusive, we are justified in adopting as provisional truth those beliefs that seem to work best. Modern pragmatism, America's greatest contribution to philosophy, began with William James and his circle in the late nineteenth century. John Dewey carried pragmatism forward into the twentieth century, and Richard Rorty is its leading exponent today.

Paul Jerome Croce tells the first part of the story, beginning with the shattering impact of the Darwinian revolution upon an intellectual milieu in which religion and science had seemed to be united in a common enterprise. Croce's first volume deals mainly with the events and arguments of James' early life' It features not William James himself but the persons who most influenced his intellectual development: the Swedenborgian Henry James Sr., father of William the philosopher and Henry the novelist; the Darwinist botanist Asa Gray and the anti-Darwinist scientific icon Louis Agassiz; the positivist Chauncy Wright, the early pragmatist Charles Sanders Peirce, and the preeminent jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. A second volume, dealing with James' mature thought, is in preparation.

Croce gets off to a dreadful start by apologizing for writing about "yet another white male from the cultural canon," a man whose concern with the relationship between religion and science rather than with race and gender oppression might make him seem guilty of "barbarism." Once he gets past this possibly mandatory expression of piety towards the Goddess Who Rules Academia, however, Croce regains his sense of historical balance and provides an illuminating description of the state of intellectual affairs in the James circle in the aftermath of the breakdown of certainty caused by the Darwinian revolution. The main issue was not whether Darwinism was true or false, and it certainly was not whether the literal Genesis account was a viable alternative. Louis Agassiz argued against Darwinism at Harvard on scientific grounds but attracted little support despite his prestige. Whether all the objections could be answered or not, Darwinism was clearly the wave of the future in science. And whatever backwoods fundamentalists may have thought, the Genesis chonology was not the sticking point even at Princeton Theological Seminary, where Charles Hodge led such resistance as there was to the Darwinian juggernaut.

What was the main issue was whether, in the light of Darwinism, there was still a place for "religious belief" -- even in the very general sense of a belief that there is some sort of ultimate purpose or moral dimension to the physical universe revealed by science. Henry James Sr. had encouraged William to study science in the confidence that scientific investigation and natural theology were partners in showing that nature is a rational system ruled by a benevolent deity. Darwinism described a world in which chance variation was the creator, however, and in which apparent design in biology was the product of a cruel and wasteful struggle for existence. Was it possible to find a place for God, or a firm foundation for morality, in a world like that? After Darwin faith and reason seemed no longer to be allies, but rivals or even enemies.

Croce recounts that the triumph of Darwinism also raised an important question about the attainability of certainty in science itself. Although the theory was sufficiently appealing on logical grounds to gain overwhelming support, its crucial factual claims could not be proved. Scientists far more sympathetic to Darwinism than Agassiz conceded the existence of serious evidentiary problems. In The Origin of Species Darwin had to take a defensive stance toward the fossil record, which then as now showed a remarkable stability in species rather than a pattern of gradual change from one kind of thing to another. Even T.H. Huxley had substantial reservations, saying that Darwin ought to have allowed for evolution by sudden jumps and that the theory could not be considered confirmed until animal breeders had produced new species -- a modest condition which has still not been met. Asa Gray, who was Darwin's chief American advocate and the first theistic Darwinist, said that he accepted Darwinism only as an hypothesis and denied that the variations that powered change were random.

If this most important of scientific theories could only be defended on the ground that it was superior to any presently available alternative, then how could fallible human beings -- whose brains, after all, were presumably selected only for their success at leaving offspring -- be certain of anything at all? Even in science certainty seemed unattainable, and what was accepted as valid scientific knowledge in one generation might be overthrown or substantially modified in the future. As William James expressed the resulting problem, "Unless we find a way of conciliating the notion of truth and change, we must admit there is no truth anywhere."

We will have to wait for the second volume to see how Croce evaluates James's effort to deal with the problem that Darwinism had set for philosophy and religion. James argued that, in a world where we cannot be absolutely sure about anything, our wisest course may be to act confidently upon those beliefs that seem to produce the best consequences. Billy Graham did that in one way, and the nineteenth-century scientists, philosophers, and theologians who jumped aboard the Darwinian bandwagon did it another way. Whether Darwinism was true or not, the inability of giants like Louis Agassiz and Charles Hodge to impede its advance proved that it was irresistible. For anyone who did not want to be left behind and ignored, to believe wholeheartedly in Darwinism was the choice that produced the best consequences.