Prophets and Protons

Prophets and Protons: New Religious Movements and Science in Late Twentieth-Century America

Benjamin E. Zeller
Copyright Date: 2010
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 240
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  • Book Info
    Prophets and Protons
    Book Description:

    By the twentieth century, science had become so important that religious traditions had to respond to it. Emerging religions, still led by a living founder to guide them, responded with a clarity and focus that illuminates other larger, more established religions' understandings of science. The Hare Krishnas, the Unification Church, and Heaven's Gate each found distinct ways to incorporate major findings of modern American science, understanding it as central to their wider theological and social agendas. In tracing the development of these new religious movements' viewpoints on science during each movement's founding period, we can discern how their views on science were crafted over time. These NRMs shed light on how religious groups - new, old, alternative, or mainstream - could respond to the tremendous growth of power and prestige of science in late twentieth-century America.In this engrossing book, Zeller carefully shows that religious groups had several methods of creatively responding to science, and that the often-assumed conflict-based model of science vs. religion must be replaced by a more nuanced understanding of how religions operate in our modern scientific world.

    eISBN: 978-0-8147-9749-5
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-18)

    The year 1972 was a good one for the American scientific community. That year several groups of biologists across the nation created the first recombinant DNA molecules, artificial genetic chains that opened the door for research into human genetics and new medical treatments. In Batavia, Illinois, physicists activated the main accelerator ring of the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, inaugurating what would become one of the world’s most productive subatomic particle research centers. At Bell Laboratories in New Jersey, computer scientists invented a new programming language called “C” that allowed them to write more complex programs, reshaping the field of computer...

    • Introduction
      (pp. 21-24)

      Boston, Massachusetts, Thanksgiving Day, 1978. Eugene Wigner, emeritus professor of physics at Princeton, Manhattan Project veteran, and Nobel laureate, placed his notes on the podium and began his address. His brief speech opened a conference dedicated, in his words, to fostering unity between the natural sciences and the sciences of life—that is, the social sciences—and the discussion of “the effects of religion on human needs, on happiness.”¹ Wigner added that he hoped to stimulate a conversation on the psychology of animals, which would benefit the scientific study of human psychology as well. A long table of VIPs dominated...

    • 1 Science and the Foundation of Unificationism
      (pp. 25-45)

      Sun Myung Moon¹ was born on February 25, 1920, in a Korea that stood at the cusp of modernization. Ten years earlier the Japanese Empire had annexed Korea and begun a forced process of infrastructure and economic development. The young Moon encountered the same industrial and technological revolution that overtook the United States a few decades earlier: railroads, electricity, factories, and the advent of modern business and industry. The Korean historian Bruce Cumings places what he calls the “profound” transformation of Korea at “[t] he period from 1935 to 1945,” during which “Korea’s industrial revolution began, with most of the...

    • 2 Science and the American Unification Church
      (pp. 46-66)

      This chapter traces the major Unification positions on science though theDivine Principleand the Unification institutions that the group founded in the 1970s and 1980s. Through their texts and organizations, the Unification Church upheld several basic positions: respect for science as a positive force for humanity; consideration of religion as a parallel endeavor that ought to follow similar methods as science; valuation of religion generally and Unifi-cationism specifically as offering ultimate solutions that could serve as guides to both science and religion. These positions assumed the basic approach of envisioning religion and science as separate spheres, as well as...

    • Introduction
      (pp. 69-72)

      The merchant vessel pulled into Boston harbor to deposit its unusual passenger, an exotic charismatic public preacher hailing from foreign shores. Seventeenth- and eighteenth-century religious leaders John Winthrop and George Whitefield had tread the same ground, as had the native-born Cotton Mather and Henry David Thoreau. The Indianswami(religious leader) A. C. Bhaktivedanta Prabhupada, who arrived by steamboat from Calcutta at 5:30 a.m. on September 17, 1965, had a similar mission: to introduce to America a new religious perspective, and to create a model religious community. No less so than Winthrop, who so famously declared the Puritan intention of...

    • 3 Science and the Foundation of the Hare Krishnas
      (pp. 73-91)

      The Hare Krishna movement, known more formally as the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), developed out of a preexistent Hindu devotional sect transplanted to the West. Yet ISKCON represented something radically new: a Hindu devotional sect transplanted to, and transformed in, America, where it appealed primarily to Western converts and drew inspiration from—and simultaneously rejected—the postwar American, and subsequently Euro-American, counterculture.¹ Though equivalent in doctrine to the Gaudiya Vaishnava sect of Hinduism, ISKCON’s founder Bhaktivedanta innovated in how he introduced the religion to Americans and how he positioned it vis-à-vis the wider culture. The American Hare Krishna...

    • 4 Science and the Expansion of ISKCON
      (pp. 92-114)

      As the decade of the 1960s came to a close, the Hare Krishnas strengthened their foothold in North America and extended their reach to Britain, France, and Germany as well. With temples in New York, San Francisco, Berkeley, Los Angeles, Boston, Montreal, Seattle, and an agricultural commune in West Virginia, ISKCON had achieved a wide geographic spread. It had also become an establishment in the American counterculture, with its saffron-garbed devotees and its Hare Krishna mantra easily recognized by both the hippies and the commentators who remarked on this colorful countercultural new religious movement. During the 1970s, ISKCON would both...

    • Introduction
      (pp. 117-120)

      “The telescope must be defective,” the Heaven’s Gate member told the clerk, “and we want a refund.” So tells a oft-repeated Internet rumor that circulated after the mass suicides in 1997 that claimed the lives of the thirty-nine members of Heaven’s Gate. The story claimed that a few weeks before the suicides that effectively ended the group’s existence, several members of the movement had purchased a high-powered telescope so that they could search the heavens for the UFO that they hoped would transport them away from Earth. But being unable to find the UFO, they returned the telescope a few...

    • 5 Science and the Foundation of Heaven’s Gate
      (pp. 121-141)

      Heaven’s Gate grew from the nexus of two founders: Bonnie Lu Nettles (1928– 85) and Marshall Herff Applewhite (1932–97). A native of Houston, Nettles was a registered nurse, mother of four children, and partner in a failing marriage. A junior high school classmate of Nettles described her as not particularly religious, although she was raised Baptist, attending church “just because the gang [of friends and family] did.”¹ She had dropped out of Christian circles by the time she became an adult. In the years preceding her first meeting with Applewhite, she wrote occasional newspaper columns on astrology and spoke...

    • 6 Science and the End of Heaven’s Gate
      (pp. 142-162)

      In March 1997, police in the posh San Diego suburb of Rancho Santa Fe, California, burst into a sprawling mansion in a luxurious gated community to discover thirty-nine decomposing bodies.¹ In ritual precision, the members of the group had orchestrated a mass suicide, the ultimate terminus of a new religious movement founded two decades earlier. A media circus ensued, each new story describing an even more bizarre “religious cult.” Dubbed “Heaven’s Gate,” the name of the group’s webpage, the movement was none other than Human Individual Metamorphosis, still led by Marshall Herff Applewhite in its last earthly days and holding...

  8. Conclusion
    (pp. 163-172)

    This book has aimed to demonstrate that the three new religions considered—the Unification Church, ISKCON, and Heaven’s Gate—offered three distinct methods of understanding the nature of science and its relation to religion. In each case, the group’s approach to science existed in concert with wider religious perspectives. Yet far more than mere accretions onto broader belief systems, each group’s position on science functioned as a central component in its worldview. For Unificationists, guiding science and shepherding it toward its eventual millennial union with religion represented a core part of the movement’s self-understanding. Similarly, the Hare Krishna movement’s rejection...

  9. Notes
    (pp. 173-198)
  10. Works Cited
    (pp. 199-220)
  11. Index
    (pp. 221-226)
  12. About the Author
    (pp. 227-227)