Dear Concerned Citizen,

In the last installment of our series on Christian Smith’s The Secular Revolutionwe highlighted the top-down secular revolution as it occurred in American education. Again, Smith argues that American students studying at renowned German universities in the late 1800s and early 1900s received a thorough immersion in European secular thought. When they returned to our shores, they were ready to carry that revolution forward on our own academic soil.

Revolutionaries wore the guise of reformers, the assumption being that American education was horribly broken, and needed a radical overhaul.  As Smith points out, essential to understanding the historical secularization of American higher education

…was the crucial influence of leading educational reformers—such as Harvard’s President Charles Eliot, Johns Hopkins’s President Daniel Coit Gilman, and Cornell’s President Andrew Dickson White—who, while often publicly extolling the value of a nebulous version of “religion” for human civilization, actually worked with capitalist tycoons to orchestrate the institutionalization of a new system of higher education that intentionally marginalized religion from its central work (103).

A revealing example:  Cornell’s President White penned the infamous A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology (1896), which, Smith remarks, was “the culmination of twenty years of activist writing against religion,” where religion was always presented as “the dark enemy of science.”  White believed that the dark forces of religion were bound to lose, for the progress of enlightened science over superstition was inevitable.

In short, White and other reformers were Janus-faced, one face presenting a reassuring but patronizing smile to religious believers, and the other, marked by a scheming, we-know-better wink to fellow secularizers behind the scenes.  This kind of duplicity marked (and still marks) the entire secular revolution.

Such duplicity was not merely a supercilious pose, but a strategy of secularization, one that merits our closer inspection.  This strategy has several key components.  In this installment of the series, we examine the “two-spheres” doctrine.

Surely, you have heard something like the following.  Science and Religion deal with two separate spheres, the natural and the supernatural, the realm of fact and the realm of belief.  “Science teaches us about the heavens, and religion the way to get to heaven.” Therefore, there is no conflict, but a kind of division of labor corresponding to a division of reality.  As long as each stays within its own sphere, there can be no conflict, but only a happy and complementary harmony.

The problem, as Smith demonstrates in detail, is that those who soothingly cooed the formula from the secularist side, did not actually mean a one-for-you, one-for-me division of the spheres, but rather a two-for-me, none-for-you. Smith gives us a glimpse of this strategy in his own academic field, sociology.

Witness the words of the eminent sociologist, Lester Ward, one of the founding fathers of American academic sociology.  With one face, he stated:  “The religious explanation is the supernatural, the scientific explanation is natural.”  Ahhh, a truce. Mutual understanding.

The other face?  Ward asserted that “superstitious beliefs had hindered the progress of science,” but since “the scientific era began there has been no such faith in the supernatural as exists among savages”—at least among the truly enlightened. Thus, with “science marching relentless forward…there is scarcely room to doubt” that the “conquest” of science over superstitious supernaturalism “must ultimately become complete.”  To be blunt, “Among people acquainted with science, all supernatural beings have been dispensed with, and the belief in them is declared to be wholly false and to have always been false.”

Two separate spheres?  Or two-for-me, and none-for-you? As Smith states, while secularists publicly stated that “science and religion are different ways of knowing, concerned with different orders of reality,” in reality, they really meant that science and religion “are actually absolutely incompatible and antagonistic sources of knowledge.”

The knowledge that science provided was real, based on observation and hard facts.  Religion didn’t really provide knowledge. Since it was based on ignorance and superstition, the only thing it provided was an obstacle to science.  Hence, for secularists, “the two knowledge systems are perpetually engaged in a war that religion is always losing.”

In sum, American secular revolutionaries assumed exactly what they had received from European Enlightenment thinkers.  History is marked by an ongoing war between error and truth, superstition and science, religion and reason. History goes backwards when we embrace religion.  History goes forwards when we embrace science, and so we must do so with all the zeal of a religion.  American secular revolutionaries, especially those who had taken up academic positions in the early 20th century, were bent on pushing history forward in American academia—and that meant pushing religion out, and doing so with all the zealousness that was formerly channeled into religion.