Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Failure of Nerve

In Defense of Science: Secular Intellectuals and the Failure of Nerve Thesis
by Stephen Weldon
Religious Humanism, vol. 30, nos. 1 & 2, winter/spring 1996, p. 30-39.

On the history of the science-religion warfare thesis, with reference to Sidney Hook, Paul Kurtz, and intellectual historian David Hollinger.
Contemporary secular humanists are almost unanimous in their opposition to anything called a religion, yet that was not always the case; secular humanism arose out of an influential religious tradition. During the first part of this century, radical Unitarians, members of Ethical Culture societies, and Reform Jews attempted to create a world view that was consonant with modern scientific knowledge, and they explicitly characterized their view as "religious." It was only during and after World War II that a growing number of humanists began to disavow that label, reserving it for supernaturalistic views.
In 1943 Sidney Hook applied classicist Gilbert Murray's notion linking a failure of nerve to the decline of Hellenic civilization to a perceived irresponsible retreat to superstition at his own historical moment when the fate of democracy hung in the balance. Isaac Asimov's celebrated 1941 science fiction story "Nightfall" also expresses this fear. Paul Kurtz evinced a similar concern in the 1960s and '70s, alarmed at a rising tide of irrationalism, including occultism, pseudoscience, and New Age thought. He was followed by the popularizers Jacob Bronowski and Carl Sagan. It is no accident that the preponderance of these militant humanist intellectuals were Jewish.

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