When the people of Dayton, Tennessee, welcomed the world’s attention to their community for the 1925 Scopes trial, municipal leaders printed an informational brochure on whose cover was the question: “Why Dayton of all places?” Their answer was not that their town was a unique place in the American landscape, but rather the opposite. With an epigraph from Sinclair Lewis’s novel Main Street, U.S.A., they depicted Dayton as archetypical America. And the clash between Darwin and the Bible had come to their courthouse precisely because the question of science’s relationship to religion was so quintessentially American.
That brochure is not among the artifacts included in “Discovery and Revelation: Religion, Science, and Making Sense of Things,” which opened in March at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. But the Scopes trial and the debate over evolution is one of many topics represented in the new exhibition. The objects on display range from the visually striking (a quilted map of the solar system from the late nineteenth century and Kadir Nelson’s stunning portrait of Henrietta Lacks) to the easily overlooked but historically important (Benjamin Franklin’s lightning rod and Thomas Jefferson’s self-edited version of the Bible.)
Regardless of which of the two ways you enter the exhibit, you are immediately confronted by objects that speak to the integration of religion and science, not their conflict. At one end is a large-scale reproduction of a portrait of Buddhist monk Dru-gu Choegyal Rinpoche with his shaven head covered with electrodes. This picture was featured on the cover of National Geographic magazine in 2005. The actual brain monitoring device depicted in the image, used by University of Wisconsin neuroscientist Richard Davidson, is also exhibited. Welcoming you at the other entry is a looped video of the three Apollo 8 astronauts reading from the opening lines of the biblical book of Genesis as their camera shows grainy footage of the lunar surface on Christmas Eve, 1968.
This proportional emphasis on instances of science and religion working together is a conscious one that seeks to complicate the prevailing perception that the two ways of viewing the world are fundamentally at odds with each other. This perspective aligns with most historians’ interpretation of this relationship. For more than three decades, scholars of science and religion have largely rejected the “conflict” thesis in favor of a “complexity principle” that emphasizes the contextual and variegated nature of science and religion’s relationship. There are instances of harmony and instances of discord. The way that specific science-religion episodes play out may depend on the particular theories or doctrines involved, and the contexts and concerns of the people who make use of those ideas.
These demonstrations of complexity give the lie to the idea that there’s a single simple history of science and religion and that incompatibilities between different ideas about the world can provide a sufficient explanation for why people act on those ideas in the ways that they do. But the complexity principle has been limited by its inability to provide an alternative explanation for what forces shape science and religion, leading some scholars to ask: “What’s next?” They do so even as they acknowledge that the popular understanding of religion and science is still overwhelmingly caught up in stories of conflict.
Discovery and Revelation is intended to speak to an audience more versed in that popular understanding rather than the esoteric methodology questions of academics—which is one of its strengths. Yet despite this, by juxtaposing these objects, images, and texts in the display cases, and by siting this topic within a museum that self-consciously tells a national narrative, the exhibition suggests new ways to interpret science and religion in the United States.
One of the ways that it does this is by demonstrating that the American story of science and religion is not exclusively Christian. In addition to the portrait of the Buddhist Rinpoche, there are objects on display such as a Muslim iPrayer mat, which has a built-in GPS to help the locate the direction towards Mecca; a T-shirt promoting a message of environmentalism with the Jewish concept of Tikkun Olam, or fixing the world; and an Apache peyote tray. Objects and images of scientists including biologist Barbara McClintock and physicist Charles Townes were presented along with accounts of their “spiritual lives,” making clear that for some scientists, their professions were inspired by their personal religious experiences. There are other examples of technology that were inspired by or interpreted in terms of religious language, such as the nineteenth-century battery branded “Samson” after the powerful biblical character. The battery in question was used to operate a telegraph key, a nineteenth-century communication technology whose creator, Samuel Morse, demonstrated its use in 1844 by transmitting a phrase taken from the Hebrew Bible—“What hath God wrought?”—to Baltimore from the U.S. Capitol building, not far from where the Smithsonian’s history museum now stands.
More importantly, the exhibit gives voice to some people who were not scientists themselves but to whom science happened. Perhaps most notable in this category is Nelson’s portrait of Henrietta Lacks. Lacks was a Black woman who died of cancer in 1951. After her death, cells taken from her body were cultured, distributed, and used by biological researchers, leading not only to medical breakthroughs, but billions of dollars of patented technology. All this was done without her or her family’s knowledge or consent. In Nelson’s portrait, Lacks is holding a Bible and her hat is stylized in a manner that evokes the iconography of a halo. Lacks’s story is not one that is typically thought of in terms of “science and religion,” but both the portrait itself and its prominent display near the center of the exhibition suggest that there are multiple ways in which we could—and should—do so. As the exhibition’s description itself suggests, religious worldviews can inform the ethical conversations that inform how we do science, and who we do it to. More specifically, Lacks’s story, and the way her body was exploited after her death, illustrates a secular and naturalistic reinterpretation of a variety of religious tropes familiar in Christian history, from the notion of immortality and life after death, to the healing power of the bodily remains of martyrs. The iconography of Henrietta Lacks as a biomedical saint, adjacent to the relics of the “spiritual lives” of scientists, suggest that even in a register where causes and effects are naturalistic, tropes of power and social relations persist.
Objects like Lacks’s portrait not only encourage visitors to expand their understanding of science and religion beyond simple conflict narratives in favor of complexity, but also suggest widening one’s view of what counts as science and religion. To some extent, though, this choice to emphasize the vast chronological, geographical, and intellectual diversity of science and religion that takes place in the U.S. makes it harder to answer the question posed at the Scopes trial. This time the question is not just about Dayton; it is, “Why America of all places?” Is there truly something in the American psyche, in our national institutions, in our laws and cultures, that makes the story of science and religion a distinctly American one? Does the complexity of science-religion relationships in this country, with all its diverse history, have a unique expression in the United States, and how would an exhibition on the subject look different elsewhere in the world? Do science and religion help us understand the meaning of American exceptionalism?
Discovery and Revelation sits in a building with some of the most cherished icons of the American national identity, from the “Star-Spangled Banner” to Dorothy’s ruby slippers from the Wizard of Oz. In such a space, questions like these are naturally suggested in ways that they might not be in another museum. The exhibition does not try to answer them. There are places where it might have, though. The commentary on the Apollo 8 video mentions that the mission took place at the end of 1968, a “message of hope” after a tumultuous year marked by political violence and cultural divisions. But the Christmas Eve Bible reading from lunar orbit also came at the height of the space race against the explicit atheism of the Soviet space program. The biology textbook used in Tennessee in 1925 was deeply controversial for a number of reasons, not always having to do with evolution, though political battles over local control of schools, which continue to this day, have as much to do with the Scopes trial as any particular understanding of “Darwinism” did.
As I left the museum on the day the exhibit was first open to the public, I immediately witnessed a convoy of vehicles adorned with Christian nationalist symbolism: a flag with a cross superimposed upon the stars and stripes, political banners and slogans, messages greasepainted on windows opposing vaccination and mask-wearing. The sight of these protesters in their cars and trucks, processing around the National Mall, gives credence to the conflict theory of religion and science. It also clashes with the symbiotic vision of science, religion, and Americanness that Discovery and Revelation suggests has been a key part of the nation’s history since before its founding. Any answer to the question—“What’s next for science and religion?”—must take this reality into account.
Adam R. Shapiro is a historian of science and co-author of the Oxford Very Short Introduction to Science and Religion.