In Defense of Science: Secular Intellectuals and the Failure of Nerve Thesis

Stephen Weldon

By all accounts, the "failure of nerve" thesis has had a wide hearing. It has struck a cord with many secular intellectuals and has provided humanists with an obvious moral lesson, one that sought to inspire educational, political, and, when necessary, legal action to counteract a perceived assault on science.

It has become commonplace these days to hear historians reiterate the demise of that old chestnut, the warfare thesis — the idea that science and religion are in an eternal battle with each other. The more one looks, the more one finds that this situation is too simplistic; science and religion have had much more complex interactions than that easy metaphor allows.1 This conclusion has been reached, curiously enough, often through studies of conservative religious views (fundamentalism, Catholicism, or the like). Very little of the science and religion literature treats religious liberalism, which is the focus of my research. By looking at the extreme liberal end of the religious spectrum, I have found a stronghold of believers in the warfare thesis. This research suggests that the warfare thesis itself, and its widespread popularity, has played a significant role in the history it purports to describe. A number of American secular intellectuals have found the warfare thesis an essentially useful description of events. Today, I will give you one illustration of this perspective as it has been expressed by a number of prominent scholars and scientists.

This topic has grown out of my dissertation research, which is a study of the history of secular humanism in the United States. 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.

Before I go on, I need to say one more word about the nature of the analysis I will be making. I have developed a perspective very similar to that of David Hollinger's in his distinguished lecture at last year's HSS meeting (which just appeared in the most recent Isis). In that lecture, he discusses the language of what he called "a scientific public culture." This language, he asserts, "teaches us less about how science works than about the cultural conflicts in society at large." Science, in this sense then, is a rich ideological term that connotes a variety of moral, political, emotional — and, I would add, religious — concepts.2 By exploring the religious dimensions of this scientific public culture, I hope to deepen our understanding of the relationship between religion and science in the twentieth century. It is a topic that needs to be developed further because neither Hollinger nor other recent writers on the ideology of science have given full attention to its religious aspects.3

The example I have chosen to use to illustrate the bellicose rhetoric of these humanists is the failure of nerve argument, a very vivid and telling explanation for the downfall of Hellenistic culture. In a nutshell, this argument contends that the reason that Greek philosophy and science declined when it did was because people lost the courage to face the world head on, to see themselves as the makers of their own destiny, and instead, began to relinquish their responsibilities and withdraw from life in this world. On a culture-wide scale people turned away from science and toward mystery religions.

This idea was first expressed by the well-known British classicist Gilbert Murray in 1910 and crossed the Atlantic two years later with Murray himself, appearing as part of his Columbia University lectures on Greek religion. Those lectures, published as The Four Stages of Greek Religion (which he later made into five stages), were written for a non-specialized audience. Murray's writing was colorful and accessible, and so it attracted a wide readership: Theodore Roosevelt and Oliver Wendell Holmes, for example, read and liked the book.4 As a result, the idea of a Hellenistic failure of nerve was quickly drawn into the general pool of ideas as a scholarly trope, and one finds it arising often in discussions of the history of civilization and the history of science. In many ways, the failure of nerve thesis was merely one version of an anticlerical view of history common during the Enlightenment period, a view that depicted the religionists as cowards and the rationalists as heroes. Murray's innovation was to encapsulate that attitude in a compelling argument, expressing historical causality in terms of individual psychology.

In 1943 Murray's thesis attained a new shape. It was enlarged to meet the requirements of a world in crisis. The truculent American philosopher and controversialist Sidney Hook initiated a symposium entitled "A New Failure of Nerve" in the Partisan Review, a popular journal of opinion. Hook saw civilization on the brink of a new dark age. Finding conditions of the modern world unsettlingly similar to those at the end of the Hellenistic era, he drew a parallel between the causes of the contemporary crises and the Hellenistic failure of nerve:

A survey of the cultural tendencies of our own times shows many signs pointing to a new failure of nerve in Western civilization. . . . [A]t bottom it betrays . . . the same flight from responsibility, both on the plane of action and on the plane of belief, that drove the ancient world into the shelters of pagan and Christian supernaturalism.5

Among the signs he found were "beliefs in the original depravity of human nature; …the mystical apotheosis of 'the leader' and elites; …posturing about the cultivation of spiritual purity; [and] …a concern with mystery rather than with problems."6 The stridency of Hook's prose reflects the conditions under which he was writing. The world was at war, and the future of democracy was in doubt. The question that troubled so many of the champions of democracy was, could a loosely structured democratic society withstand the assaults of the new centralized and regimented dictatorships? Posed in this way, the question expressed a fear of internal disunity and fragility that might be more dangerous than any external threat. It was the fear of erosion from within that Hook expressed when he announced a new failure of nerve.

The modern world, Hook asserted, placed men and women in trying circumstances. At one and the same time, it created disorienting living conditions (alienating people from one another), and it removed the metaphysical comforts that had given them strength in earlier crises (by discrediting beliefs in God and immortality). Modern knowledge, based on the discoveries of science, clearly could not honestly reconcile itself with the comforting but antiquated dogmas of the past. Yet Hook and others feared that people were beginning to flock to anodynes that promised to give them certainty in an uncertain world.

Naziism abroad and Protestant neo-orthodoxy at home were but two examples of this wrongheaded urge toward certainty. Contrasting religion and science, Hook associated religion with authoritarianism and "intellectual panic."7 The new failure of nerve, he contended, was evidenced in "a loss of confidence in scientific method."8 It was in science, he believed, that the salvation of civilization rested. Singling out the popular Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, Hook wrote, "Against Niebuhr's myth of a private and mysterious absolute, we counterpose the public and self-critical absolute of scientific method."9

Hook believed that the rejection of metaphysical absolutes was the key to creating a modern synthesis of life, and it was science that provided the method for doing this. Philosophically, Hook was a firm defender of John Dewey's type of pragmatism — Dewey was Hook's mentor at Columbia University — and Hook's embrace of uncertainty derives from the Deweyan tradition. This tradition is distinctive in its elevation of scientific method as a dominant epistemological component of philosophy. Dewey, himself, had much earlier argued for an understanding of science as a methodology devoted to uncovering tentative truths and for an understanding of life as an essentially experimental process.10

In the 1960s, America underwent another profound cultural transformation, witnessing the rise of such diverse religious impulses as Christian fundamentalism and New Age spirituality. On the whole, there was a deep questioning of the beneficence and efficacy of modern science. Against these diverse cultural movements, another Columbia-trained philosopher by the name of Paul Kurtz rebelled. In doing so, he implicitly resurrected the failure of nerve thesis. As editor of the magazine The Humanist and a devoted friend of Hook's, Kurtz spearheaded a movement attacking what he labeled as "a new assault on reason."

Earlier in this century we witnessed the emergence of fanatic ideological cults, such as Nazism and Stalinism. Today, Western democratic societies are being swept by other forms of irrationalism, often blatantly antiscientific and pseudoscientific in character.11

In a previous Humanist article Kurtz had specifically made the parallel between the mystery cults that emerged at the end of the Hellenistic period and the cults of unreason today. He concluded that "One lesson seems to be clear:"

We need, in the present age of confusion and turmoil, to provide meaningful options for those at sea, willing to follow any master who promises them peace and serenity, direction and hope.12

For Kurtz, those options included the promotion of scientific ways of thought in the broader culture. Out of these concerns about modern-day irrationalism, Kurtz and several others established the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP), a group whose main aim was publishing a journal now called The Skeptical Inquirer. In addition to debunking popular beliefs in such things as UFOs, psychic healing, and astrology, the Skeptical Inquirer also publishes articles on the scientific method, human psychology, and tricksterism. It contains some of the most explicit and entertaining rhetoric found in today's scientific public culture.13

Within a decade of the birth of CSICOP, two widely watched PBS science documentaries appeared that moralized using Murray's thesis: The Ascent of Man, by the Polish-born mathematician Jacob Bronowski, andCosmos, by Carl Sagan, the popular Cornell astronomer. These two shows issued warnings of a return to a dark age if present antiscientific attitudes continued. At the end of the final episode of Ascent of Man, Bronowski worried about finding himself "suddenly surrounded in the West by a sense of terrible loss of nerve, a retreat from knowledge."14 Behind his version of the history of science lurks an occasional glimpse into the depths of human cruelty, images generated by the experience of World War II; Bronowski ended one episode in Auschwitz, standing in a pond of ashes left by mass cremations. Sagan, too, referred to the horrors of which human beings are capable. He focused on the weapons of mass destruction and the possibility of total annihilation of life on earth in a nuclear war. Echoing the other men I've discussed here, Sagan spoke of "a resurgent interest in vague, anecdotal and often demonstrably erroneous doctrines," of "intellectual carelessness," and of "an absence of toughmindedness."15

Isaac Asimov, the prolific writer and late president of the American Humanist Association, wrote a short story in 1941 entitled "Nightfall," a story that has now become a classic in science fiction circles. The story tells of a planet with six suns where civilization is destroyed once every two thousand years when all the suns line up on one side to create a brief period of night. The resulting psychological trauma sends everyone into a frenzy of destruction, and they burn down the whole civilization.16 In the story, we find the same opposition between science and religion as in Murray's description of the fall of Greek civilization. The cause of the madness is hinted at the end of the story: "Thirty thousand [stars] shown down in a soul-searching splendor that was more frighteningly cold in its awful indifference than the bitter wind that shivered across the cold, horribly bleak world."17 Nature's indifference to the human condition, Asimov seems to be telling us, like uncertainty, drives people to religion and irrationality.

By all accounts the failure of nerve thesis has had a wide hearing. It has struck a cord with many secular intellectuals and has provided humanists with an obvious moral lesson, one that sought to inspire educational, political, and, when necessary, legal action to counteract a perceived assault on science. At this point, I wish to step back and discuss the rhetorical form of this popular motif, its significance to the warfare thesis, and its relation to the scientific public culture.

The failure of nerve argument gains much of its popular appeal through its apocalyptic imagery. Like apocalyptic visions that give their believers a feeling of importance as they witness and participate in the approach of the final days, so too the loss of nerve provides a sense of significance in living through the tumultuous present. Kurtz, as you remember, explicitly called for a world view that "provided meaningful options for those at sea." At least part of that meaning arises from the realization that we are now possibly on the brink of disaster. However much these intellectuals have decried the apocalyptic visions of modern-day cults, they have created something quite similar.18 The failure of nerve argument contains some of the very elements which it sets out to attack, and yet precisely because it contains these elements, it becomes rhetorically a much more compelling argument and inspires action in a way that dispassionate analysis cannot.

But what does it say about the nature of history and the kinds of solutions we should strive for? It should be clear by now that the secularists believed that the problems of civilization can be traced to individual moral deficiencies. This too has strong rhetorical appeal: by locating the problems of civilization in the individual psyche, history becomes at once accessible and readily comprehended. The complexities of history are reduced to a relatively simple framework that provides a clear rationale for individual action. The notions of courage and cowardice are all important here. Individuals were the root cause of the downfall of civilization because of their inability to stand up to the hard truths that science and learning revealed.

I think it is enlightening to look more closely at the people who have used this motif. With the exception of Murray, all of the men I have discussed here were ethnically Jewish and religiously atheistic. Several historians have noted that Jewish intellectuals in a nominally Christian America have tended to espouse a spirit of cosmopolitanism, a characteristic that helps explain the urge toward a universal scientific culture dissociated from religious particularism.19 Hook's unreserved antagonism for all religious forms indicates a reaction against the religious discrimination he experienced in the American academy. More strikingly, Bronowski's reflection on the Jewish experience of World War II provided him with a powerful example of the very clear repercussions of individual human cowardice among people who should have known better. The point, of course, is not that these men were particularly self-interested in the fate of their own ethnic group, but rather that their heritage brought them close to experiences that resonated with a broad secular ideology.

Furthermore, there was a second cohort to which these men belonged. Hook and Kurtz were part of a circle of Columbia-trained philosophers dominated by the thought of John Dewey. His pragmatism retained a certain idealism regarding the place of philosophy in the world, an idealism that led away from ivory-tower academic philosophy and into a concern with broad social issues. This same Columbia-circle also had tight connections to the religious groups I have discussed. Most of them had ties to the American Humanist Association, which was initiated by several Unitarian clergymen, and to the New York Society for Ethical Culture, a nontheistic religious group originating in the Reform Jewish tradition.

Now, we must return to the warfare thesis. Time and again these secularists cast religion as dogmatic, authoritarian, obscurantist, and inherently undemocratic, and they did so with the aid of a compelling historical framework. The loss of nerve thesis reiterated a common Enlightenment position regarding the battle between religion and science. It was transformed into an admonition against irrational behavior by emphasizing the tenuousness of modern science-based civilization. At different times it was used to attack different perceived enemies of science: Hook worried about a mainstream religious revival, while Kurtz took the counterculture to task, and Sagan believed the international arms race was the most threatening evil. In all of these cases, the implied or explicit message was for individuals to internalize a scientific approach to life, an approach conceived as an honest confrontation with unpleasant facts and a courageous acceptance of the human condition in a universe at best disinterested in human welfare. This message, as I have shown, gets its strength from its ability to engage the human heart in the same way that religious rhetoric can and, thus, contains a certain irony in its own expression.

Recent attacks on widespread irrationality infecting academia by people such as Paul R. Gross and Norman Levitt in their book Higher Superstition, Gerald Holton in Science and Anti-Science, or the members of the New York Academy of Sciences in recent statements of theirs utilize this same perspective and conjure up similar fears. Whether or not these fears are justified and the thesis is sound, I do not address here, but it behooves us to understand this point of view clearly as it is so pervasive in the public culture of science.


Asimov, Isaac. Nightfall. In Science Fiction: The Science Fiction Research Anthology, edited by Patricia S. Warrick, Charles G. Waugh and Martin H. Greenberg, 127-153. New York: Harper and Row, 1988.

Bronowski, Jacob. The Ascent of Man. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1973.

Brooke, John Hedley. Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives. Edited by George Basalla,Cambridge History of Science. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Cooney, Terry A. The Rise of the New York Intellectuals: The Partisan Review and Its Circle. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1986.

Dewey, John. The Quest for Certainty: A Study of the Relation of Knowledge and Action. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1929.

Hess, David J. Science in the New Age: The Paranormal, Its Defenders and Debunkers, and American Culture.Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1993.

Hollinger, David A. Ethnic Diversity, Cosmopolitanism, and the Emergence of the American Liberal Intelligentisa. In In the American Province: Studies in the History and Historiography of Ideas, 56-73. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985.

Hollinger, David A. Free Enterprise and Free Inquiry: The Emergence of Laissez-Faire Communitarianism in the Ideology of Science in the United States. New Literary History 21 (1990): 897-919.

Hollinger, David A. Inquiry and Uplift: Late Nineteenth-Century American Academics and the Moral Efficacy of Scientific Practice. In Authority of Experts: Studies in History and Theory, edited by Thomas L. Haskell, 142-156. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984.

Hollinger, David A. Science as a Weapon in Kulturkampfe in the United States During and After World War II.Isis 86 (1995): 440-454.

Hook, Sidney. The New Failure of Nerve. Partisan Review 10, no. 1 (1943): 2-23.

Kurtz, Paul. Introduction [to The New Cults: A Critique]. The Humanist, Sept./Oct. 1974, 4-5.

Kurtz, Paul. The Scientific Attitude vs. Antiscience and Pseudoscience. The Humanist, July/Aug. 1976, 27-31.

Lessl, Thomas M. Science and the Sacred Cosmos: The Ideological Rhetoric of Carl Sagan. Quarterly Journal of Speech 71 (1985): 115.5-187.

Moyer, Albert E. A Scientists Voice in American Culture: Simon Newcomb and the Rhetoric of Scientific Method. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992.

Murray, Gilbert. Five Stages of Greek Religion. New York: Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1925.

Sagan, Carl. The Dragons of Eden: Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence. New York: Ballantine Books, 1977.

Tobey, Ronald C. The American Ideology of National Science, 1919-1930. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1971.

West, Francis. Gilbert Murray: A Life. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1984.


1 The most current comprehensive historical view of science-religion interactions is John Hedley Brooke,Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives, ed. George Basalla, Cambridge History of Science (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991). See especially Brooke's introduction for a discussion of the standard approaches to the topic.

2 David A. Hollinger, Science as a Weapon in Kulturkampfe in the United States During and After World War II, Isis 86 (1995): 441, 451.

3 Four works in particular have been influential in discussing the ideology of science in various eras: David A. Hollinger, Free Enterprise and Free Inquiry: The Emergence of Laissez Faire Communitarianism in the Ideology of Science in the United States, New Literary History 21 (1990): 897-919; David A. Hollinger, Inquiry and Uplift: Late Nineteenth-Century American Academics and the Moral Efficacy of Scientific Practice, inAuthority of Experts: Studies in History and Theory, ed. Thomas L. Haskell (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984), 142-156; Albert E. Moyer, A Scientists Voice in American Culture: Simon Newcomb and the Rhetoric of Scientific Method (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992); and Ronald C. Tobey, The American Ideology of National Science, 1919-1930 (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1971).

4 Gilbert Murray, Five Stages of Greek Religion (New York: Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1925). Francis West,Gilbert Murray: A Life (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1984), p. 139, notes Murray's popularity and the readership of Four Stages in 1912, and points out Murray's desire to reach ever broader audiences.

5 Sidney Hook, "The New Failure of Nerve," Partisan Review 10, no. 1 (1943): 2.

6 Hook, "New Failure of Nerve," 2-3.

7 Hook, "New Failure of Nerve," 2-3.

8 Hook, "New Failure of Nerve," 4.

9 Hook, "New Failure of Nerve," 17.

10 John Dewey, The Quest for Certainty: A Study of the Relation of Knowledge and Action (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1929), especially, Chapter 1.

11 Paul Kurtz, "The Scientific Attitude vs. Antiscience and Pseudoscience," The Humanist, July/Aug. 1976, 27.

12 Paul Kurtz, Introduction [to "The New Cults: A Critique"], The Humanist, Sept./Oct. 1974, 5.

13 David Hess in his Science in the New Age: The Paranormal, Its Defenders and Debunkers, and American Culture (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1993) has provided perhaps the most interesting examination of one segment of my subjects.

14 Jacob Bronowski, The Ascent of Man (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1973).

15 Carl Sagan, The Dragons of Eden: Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence (New York: Ballantine Books, 1977), 247.

16 Isaac Asimov, "Nightfall," in Science Fiction: The Science Fiction Research Anthology, ed. Patricia S. Warrick, Charles G. Waugh, and Martin H. Greenberg (New York: Harper and Row, 1988), 127-153. The story was originally published in 1941. The note about the story on pp. 152-153 by Donald M. Hassler states that it was voted best science fiction story of all time by the SF Writers of America poll. It comes from a quotation by Emerson: "If stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore, and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God!"

17 Asimov, "Nightfall," 152.

18 Thomas Lessl gives a nice discussion of Sagan's attempt to recreate a religious atmosphere around science, claiming that this is done mainly out of self-interest to boost the scientists's image at a time of wide-spread public concern about science. (Thomas M. Lessl, "Science and the Sacred Cosmos: The Ideological Rhetoric of Carl Sagan," Quarterly Journal of Speech 71 (1985): 115.5-187.)

19 David A. Hollinger, Ethnic Diversity, Cosmopolitanism, and the Emergence of the American Liberal Intelligentisa, in In the American Province: Studies in the History and Historiography of Ideas (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985), 56-73, and Terry A. Cooney, The Rise of the New York Intellectuals: The Partisan Review and Its Circle (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1986) are two of the most useful of these sources.


This paper was first published in Religious Humanism, vol. 30, nos. 1 & 2, winter/spring 1996, p. 30-39. Copyright © 1996 by the HUUmanists, Inc.