One of the most complex words in the English language, “nature” (sometimes personified as “Nature” or “Mother Nature”) has been central to developments in American religions. Despite their different origins, the three cosmologies present on the North American continent during the early modern “age of contact”—Native American, African American, and Euro-American—shared a number of similarities, including the belief in an enchanted or animate cosmos, the ambivalence of sacred presences manifested in nature, and the use of myth and ritual to manage these ambivalent presences in ways that secured material and spiritual benefits for individuals or communities. Through encounters on colonial borderlands and through developments in society and culture (in science, economics, politics, etc.), these cosmologies have been adapted, developed, and combined in creative ways to produce new forms of religious life. These developments have been characterized by a series of recurrent tensions, including the notion of divine or spiritual realities as being transcendent or immanent, organicism or mechanism, and of the natural world as including or excluding human beings. Organicist and animist cosmologies, severely challenged by the early modern scientific revolution, were resurgent in the antebellum period, fueling a series of new religious developments, from Transcendentalism and revivalism to Mormonism and the early environmentalist movement. These generative tensions continue to reverberate into the modern day, in part as an outworking of the environmental crisis of the 1960s, which saw a purported “greening” of established religions as well as the rise of new forms of nature spirituality.
Paul J. Croce
Science and religion provide alternative ways to understand the world. In American history, they have each commanded authority at different times and for different people and groups based on the varying appeal of knowledge and belief, of inquiry and conviction, and of liberal and traditionalist values. Science and religion have interacted with each other in many ways ranging from widespread harmony between them until the late 19th century to a spectrum of interactions that have included conflict, separation, integration of their insights, and spiritual kinship.
Colonial American science was dominated by religion, both in the concentration of ministers practicing what was then called natural philosophy and in the conviction that such inquiries would inevitably support religious truths. Common Sense philosophy articulated this calm confidence and buttressed the assurance of harmony between science and religion that dominated until the 1860s. However, even during this period, the tremendous growth in scientific information strained the harmonious relations of science and religion. Darwinism presented the most significant challenge to traditional religion by inaugurating a new approach to science: it was a theory supported by probabilistic plausibility rather than deterministic proof; Darwinian theory served as a synthetic framework for organizing natural facts and ongoing research, and its investigations did not require religious assumptions.
Since the late 19th century, science began to grow still more rapidly with greater professional organization and specialized investigations into a vast amount of information about the natural world, while religion became more pluralistic and more private on the American scene. With their distinct social and intellectual paths, science and religion could no longer operate with assumed harmony. Some advocates of each field took this as a reason to understand them in sharp conflict, however many more sought to renew their harmony, but on new, more intricate and diverse terms. The simplest ground for harmony, consideration of each domain in separate spheres, was suggested by their very distinct practices. However, when the very inquiries and reflections of these fields spilled beyond each of their own domains, other practitioners and observers in science and religion comprehended them in relation, with science adapting to religious questions or religion adopting scientific answers. For those who sought still deeper integration, inquiry about the relation of science and religion took them beyond the mainstreams in both fields for embrace of their spiritual kinship.
The varied methods and insights championed by science and religion have provided Americans with their deepest guideposts for being and doing: these fields supply varied paths of inquiry and conviction for comprehending the deepest character of the world and for choosing ways of living.