Reason and Revelation
1. Is the triumph of Western science and technology mostly due to a tradition that emphasizes critical thinking, or rather an attitude of belligerence and conquest (Lynn White, among others)?
(a) I believe one of the serious conceptual confusions of the past two centuries (though based on justifiable historical appearances) is that science is “Western.” Science, I contend, is Western only in its origins, just as astrology is Babylonian, algebra is Arabic, Christianity is Jewish, gunpowder is Chinese, and the concept of the “zero” is Hindu. These are universal which, when adopted and absorbed for long enough periods by other cultures/civilizations, lose their geographical affiliation. I am quite certain that three centuries from now (if not earlier) no one will think of (practice, experience) science as Western, any more that we think of the decimal system today as Hindu. The triumph of science is appeal and successes, like the positive doctrines of Christianity (love thy neighbor, help the needy, there is a higher power that will save us from our perils) is precisely due to its universality.
(b) In every tradition, there have been some thinkers who have emphasized critical thinking. Generally, such people were (still are in some societies today) snubbed or extinguished. Such people managed to assert themselves for the first time (for various reasons) in a few European societies: giving rise to the Scientific Revolution. This has little to do with Christianity which had flourished for a thousand five hundred years in those same countries before the genesis of modern science.
(c) It is to be noted that Christianity was there (in its various branches) in the Middle East, in Greece, in Russia, in Eastern Europe, in Spain, in Portugal, and in Scandinavia: modern science did not emerge in any of these places. Furthermore, both the Roman Catholic Church and Martin Luther attacked rather than supported the Copernican thesis (both on the basis of scriptural assertions) which was the first major step in the Scientific Revolution.
(d) I say all this, not to belittle Christianity which has made stupendous positive contributions to human society and civilization, but to recognize that science as an intellectual and explanatory enterprise is very different from religion as cultural experience, ethical directive, and spiritual awakening: all of which are no less relevant to the human experience and far more necessary for human sanity, than the recognition that planets move in elliptical orbits or that genes determine our inherited nature.
2. Is our self-image as a society that fosters critical thinking correct, or is it mostly empty posture?
I do not think this is mostly empty posture. In today’s world, North American andEuropean societies tolerate and foster critical thinking more than any other. This is not due to Christianity, but due to the Enlightenment which was a child of the Scientific Revolution.
3. Are we (especiallyU.S. culture) perhaps much more conformist that we think we are, when we compare ourselves to other cultural traditions?
I think it is fair (correct) to say that scholars, thinkers, and society at large in North American and West European countries are far more tolerant of and receptive to other cultural traditions than ever before, or anywhere else in the world today. Such a state of affairs existed in a distant past inIndiaalso.