What Religion Has Lost To Science, Part One

With most “Science vs. Religion” harangues centered on the theory of evolution — did Adam really have a pet dinosaur? — it’s easy to miss the larger fact that even by a century ago, religion had already lost most of its territory to sciences.  American churches have not kept up with population growth in over a century (1). By 2005, church attendance was declining in all fifty states (2), with only about 18% of us attending any church regularly (3).


During the 19th century, at least a dozen of religion’s domains were taken over by our developing sciences.  Here are six of them:

1. Salvation was replaced by Progress. Christians work on earth to reach a future ideal state in heaven. Scientists work here to contribute to Progress which, they believe, will lead toward an ideal state here on earth in the future.

2. Revelation was replaced by Discovery. For centuries, the churches had been where you went to find revelations of God’s word, the ultimate Truth. Now revelation began losing intellectual respect, as we trusted the discoveries of sciences more than the revelations of priests. We still do. Yet if you look up those two words, revelation and discovery, you’ll discover that they mean the same thing. To reveal is to remove a veil. To discover is to remove a cover. During the 19th century, the job of removing that veil or cover was transferred from religion to science, where it remains today.

3. The priest’s black robe was replaced by the scientist’s white lab coat. Both are costumes, but for over a century we have regarded the people in the white costumes as more authoritative than those in the black costumes. Even if preachers dress up in academic gowns, they’re not likely to convince many people that they know more about facts than a scientist.

4. Reverence for the past was replaced by reverence for the future. To every traditional culture in the world, the phrase “the new improved model” is simply insane.

Cultures are grounded in the wisdom of their elders and their sacred past. With the myth of Progress, ancient truths (and the wisdom of old people) were and are shrugged off in the faith that “newer” means “better” and the future will be superior to the past.

5. Biblical criticism arose from within religion, presenting itself as a scientific study of the Bible. It began in Germany in the 1820’s and 1830s, and by 1840 students at Harvard were learning that the Bible had been written by many people over many centuries, rather than falling from the hand of God in a black leather binding in the King James translation (4). The conspiracy of silence among both preachers and teachers of religion has been duplicitous: for nearly two centuries, scholars have known basic facts about the bible that people in the pews and the streets still aren’t being told.

6. After all the advances made by the sciences, the church began losing its hold on colleges. Harvard had always had a minister as its president, and one had to have the church’s endorsement to get a college degree at both Oxford and Cambridge, as well as many American universities. But in 1855 the Reverend James Walker, president of Harvard, recalled nostalgically, “It is within the memory of some of us when professors and tutors were taken, almost as a matter of course, from among clergymen and students in divinity; now, as a general rule, a professor is as much a layman as a lawyer or a physician is.”  Fourteen years later, the president of Harvard was a chemist; Harvard has never again been led by a minister (5).

(Continued next Monday)


1.         David T. Olson, The American Church in Crisis [Zondervan, 2008], pp. 144-145.) 
2.         Olson, Ibid., p. 37.        
3.         Kirk Hadaway and Penny Long Marler, “How Many Americans Attend Worship Each Week? An Alternative Approach to Measurement”) in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 44, no. 3 (September 2005): 307-322. Also see David T. Olson’s The American Church in Crisis (Zondervan, 2008), p. 23)
4.         James Turner, Without God, Without Creed, [Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985] p. 147.
5.         Turner, Ibid., p. 121

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About the Author

Davidson Loehr is a former musician, combat photographer and press officer in Vietnam, owner of a photography studio in Ann Arbor, and a carpenter. He holds a Ph.D. in methods of studying religion, theology, the philosophy of religion and the philosophy of science, with an additional focus on language philosophy (The University of Chicago). From 1986 to 2009, he served as a Unitarian minister. He is the author of one book, America, Fascism & God: Sermons from a Heretical Preacher, (Chelsea Green, 2005). Now retired from the ministry, he is building a platform to become involved in national discussions of religion, science and culture. His book in progress is The Rise of Secular Religion in America.