Op-Ed: Shaking the Foundation of Faith
By Scott M. Liell, New York Times, November 18, 2005
An event that occurred 250 years ago today stands as a singular reminder that the war between faith and science in America did not start in Dover, Pa., where several school board members who promoted the teaching of intelligent design were voted out of office last week, or even in that Tennessee courthouse in 1925 where John Scopes was tried for teaching evolution. It has been a recurring theme in our history since the very seedtime of the republic.
In the early hours of Nov. 18, 1755, the most destructive earthquake ever recorded in the eastern United States struck at Cape Ann, about 30 miles north of Boston. "It continued near four minutes," wrote John Adams, then a recent Harvard graduate staying at his family home in Braintree, Mass. "The house seemed to rock and reel and crack as if it would fall in ruins about us."
The shock was felt as far away as Montreal and Chesapeake Bay. Throughout the New England countryside familiar springs stopped flowing and new ones appeared; stone walls were thrown down and cracks opened in the earth. Two hundred miles out to sea one ship was knocked about so violently that its crew believed it had run aground. In Boston, 100 chimneys toppled into the streets and more than 1,000 houses were damaged. A distiller's new cistern collapsed with such force that it brought down the entire building in which it was housed.
For Bostonians, the experience was unlike anything they had been through and their reactions varied widely. On the one side were a few who absorbed the experience with keen interest; as a natural phenomenon with natural causes. In this group were people like Adams and his favorite Harvard professor, John Winthrop, who gave a lecture on the science of earthquakes the following week.
To such people, the Cape Ann quake was an opportunity to learn something about a kind of event that was quite rare in their part of the world. While they knew nothing of plate tectonics and fault lines, the written accounts of these observers are replete with the sort of details that a modern seismologist would value. This was the reaction of men inspired by the still-new principles of natural philosophy, as science was called then, to believe that there were laws governing the operations of the world and that man could come to understand these laws through careful observation and reason.
The more typical mid-18th-century response to these kinds of events, however, was a desire to find supernatural explanations that while short on empirical detail, were usually long on ominous foreboding. To these folks earthquakes and hurricanes were simply just deserts for sins ranging from loose morals to having strayed from the true religion of their pilgrim forefathers.
The weeks after Nov. 18 saw an outpouring of sermons preached and articles published on the subject of the quake's divine origin. One strain of faith-based explanation, however, stands apart from the rest, not only for its popularity but also for its downright strangeness. According to a prominent Boston minister, the Rev. Thomas Prince of South Church, and his adherents, one novel practice in particular, together with its originator, was to blame for provoking this act of divine wrath; no, not that unlucky Boston distiller, but the lightning rod and its famous inventor, Benjamin Franklin.
It was a widespread belief in the 18th century that lightning was God's instrument of choice when manifesting his displeasure. In fact, it was a common practice to ring a town's church bells upon a storm's approach in an 11th-hour plea for mercy. To the grief of many a poor bell-ringer's widow, it was not a tactic that met with much success. But Franklin's idea of mounting pointed iron rods to the tops of tall buildings was so effective that their use quickly spread around the globe, making Franklin internationally famous two decades before he fixed his name to the Declaration of Independence.
And it was precisely the effectiveness of Franklin's invention that drew the blame of some in the city he had run away from at the age of 17. Lightning rods meddled with God's usual mode of reprimand, went this line of thinking, causing God to reach for another, more terrible weapon in his arsenal. "God shakes the earth because he is wroth," insisted Prince in a sermon he published soon after the quake. He warned his flock that the more lightning rods were erected around Boston, the more earthquakes would afflict the city as a result.
While not present at this sermon, Adams wrote that he heard idle talk of the "presumption of philosophers in erecting iron tods ... attempting to control the artillery of heaven," and dismissed it a drunken nonsense. For his part, Franklin was amused by the reaction. Why, he wryly asked, was it acceptable to build a roof to keep out the rain but blasphemy to place a rod upon the roof to keep out the lightning?
At the end of the day, it was never faith per se that stood in opposition to science; Franklin was ultimately as much a believer as Thomas Prince. Many people of faith - Unitarians, Quakers and those who, like most of the founding fathers, were deists - were prominent members of the scientific community. Rather, it was (and is) a specific type of belief that consistently finds itself at odds with science, one that is not found merely in America and is not limited to Christianity. It is the specific brand of faith that devalues reason and confers the mantle of infallible, absolute authority upon a leader or a book. It is only the priests of these sects, as Jefferson said, who "dread the advance of science as witches do the approach of daylight."
If people are dismayed to find fresh examples of the type of faith that blames victims of natural disasters - like Hurricane Katrina, the Asian tsunami and the Pakistan earthquake - for causing their own misery, it is comforting to see that the other kind of faith is also alive and well. For that, we need look no further than Franklin's adopted home state, Pennsylvania. No doubt many of those who voted for science on Election Day in Dover went to church the following Sunday.
For Franklin and his like-minded contemporaries, scientific pursuit was the ultimate act of faith; faith that there was an order to be discovered and faith in our ability to discover it.
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