How could you attack the view that science and religion have always been at war

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Last updated: April 3, 2019

The view that science and religion have been in conflict throughout history is one that has prevailed for much of the last century. The notion of a `mysterious undefined ghost called Science against a mysterious indefinable ghost called Religion’2 has for many been a clear summary of the relationship between these two realms of authority.

Even today, in popular culture, the mention of science and its interactions with religion, is likely to conjure up images of antagonism, a relationship epitomised by the conflict between Galileo’s reason and unrelenting Papal authority.Before dismantling the warfare thesis, a question that the historian must ask is how this model of conflict has been constructed. The two key texts that first gave rise to the notion of an on-going struggle between science and religion, rather than a series of isolated conflicts, both emerge from the mid-1870s. John Draper’s History of the Conflict between Religion and Science, (1874) and Andrew White’s The Warfare of Science, (1876) were written in a highly significant period. The post-Darwinian era is a time widely regarded as that in which tensions between science and religion were greater than at any other stage in history.The warfare thesis is one that polarizes the notions of science and religion. The former is characterized by logic, reason and progression, the latter by faith trust and constant unmoving beliefs based on Biblical writings. F.

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M. Turner, in his article on the conflict, cites G.G.

Simpson, who attempts to account for what he sees as the continual struggle between science and religion:The conflict between science and religion has a single and simple cause….The religious canon…

.demands absolute acceptance not subject to test or revision. Science necessarily rejects certainty and predicates acceptance of objective testing and the possibility of continual revision.3Simpson’s statement is important for two reasons. Firstly, he highlights the key to the conflict model dichotomy between the fields of science and religion: science always looking to move forward, religion an immovable obstruction in its path. Perhaps more interesting, however, is Simpson’s remark that the root of the conflict `has a single and simple cause’. Here, Simpson inadvertently reveals possibly the chief shortcoming of the warfare thesis even as he expounds its very causes: the conflict thesis is an oversimplification.

A model that presents the relationship between history and science as one of antagonism throughout history is far too straightforward. While at some stages in history the two have undoubtedly been at loggerheads, there have in contrast, been periods in which religion has actually been a precondition for scientific advancement.4 In order to establish why such a generalized thesis achieved prominence it is perhaps necessary to look at the motives of the two authors whose texts propagated the notion that science and religion have been perpetually locked in struggle.John Draper’s History of the Conflict between Religion and Science has been read by most later historians as an attack on the Catholic Church of his day rather than the historical account its title suggests.

Owen Chadwick is particularly critical of Draper’s motives and describes him as `a Protestant controversialist’.5 Many have seen developments in the Catholic Church in the 1860s as Draper’s real stimulus for writing. Draper as a free-thinker, keen to see science remain unhindered by restrictive religious authority, believed Church decrees should not interfere with scientific progress and opposed the influence of the Church on public institutions. He was further angered by the affirmation of the Pope’s infallibility, five years before his Conflict was published. Here we can see the importance of looking at a text in its historical context. It is essential not to view Draper’s writing in isolation but to consider it in relation to the author’s own personal viewpoint and the society in which he writes.Similarly, White’s The Warfare of Science is a text that the historian must approach with caution.

Like Draper, White writes with something of a hidden agenda. As one of the founders of Cornell University, White was keen to see a high status given to the teaching of science and was strongly opposed to any religious instruction from a partisan standpoint. White too was in conflict with the clergy and as with Draper, his personal struggle against religious authority can be seen as a microcosm of the large-scale conflict he was to project onto the pages of The Warfare of Science.

In both cases Draper and White have personal reasons for painting such a black and white picture of the religion/science relationship. This is a point F.M. Turner is quick to pick up on. He argues that there is a subtle yet important difference between science in conflict with religion and scientists in conflict with religion.

6 Here we have an example of two individual warriors battling under the banner of science against their own personal religious foes. Their most dangerous form of attack is to transfer their conflicts onto a macrocosmic scale. The result is a Whiggish thesis, a far too simplistic model with scientists as the progressive `goodies’ and the Church the evil enemy.Though we can establish that the chief protagonists in the popularization of the warfare thesis had highly partisan motives, this is not sufficient grounds alone for dismissing the value of what their writings expound. It is perhaps worth noting Draper’s identification of the conflict as put forward in the Preface to his 1874 publication:The history of Science is not a mere record of isolated discoveries; it is anarrative of the conflict of two contending powers, the expansive force of the human intellect on one side, and the compression arising from traditionary faith and human interests on the other.7Even if Draper’s motives are put to one side, historians generally agree that his interpretation of `The History of Science’ is an inaccurate one. The conflict argument looks only at science and religion as positioned at opposite ends of a spectrum. It fails to take account of instances where the two have coexisted without friction, or in some cases, where science and religion operate in harmony, even complimenting each other.

One such polarization that the warfare thesis assumes, is that of Creation versus Evolution. It is an over simplification to describe these two processes as opposite, Evolution by its very nature is creative. As T.H. Huxley argues, 8 in this case there need not be a definite choice between the scientific evolution on one hand and the religious creation on the other: the two are compatible.Another respect in which the thesis in question loses much credibility is its evaluations of scientific discoveries.

Draper is guilty of assessing scientific improvements not in the contexts of their own time but in the light of there contribution to later knowledge. Brooke, writing in Science and Religion, is highly critical of this approach:The kind of history in which later knowledge is made the yardstick by which to judge earlier theories is now widely recognized as profoundly unhistorical.9This is a selective approach that fails to portray the complete historical picture. Turner points out that it is misleading to look only at the `hero figures’ throughout scientific history. He criticises the conflict model which:fails to account for the false starts on the part of the scientists, their adherence to incorrect theory [and] the overlooking of evidence that might have led to further discovery.10Just as the warfare thesis can be attacked for glorifying the achievements of scientific figures, it is also guilty of portraying religious figures in a purely villainous light. It is inaccurate to presume that because a new scientific idea failed to achieve popular acceptance that it was Church authority that choked the innovation. It has often been the case that a new idea fails to gain support purely because it goes against generally held, and not necessarily religious, beliefs.

To propose that the Earth is perpetually spinning about its axis is likely to meet with vehement opposition from a populace who are surrounded by a world that to them appears stationary. It is not their religious belief but their common sense that makes them hostile to the notion that the Earth upon which they stand is rapidly gyrating. They have logical, not theological reasons for challenging the idea.

A further factor that should be borne in mind when considering the conflict between science and religion is that in both fields internal disputes have played a significant part through history. During the period 1500 – 1800, a time of great scientific development across Europe, there was many clashes between Catholicism and Protestantism. It has been argued that the greatest threat to religion, during this period, came not from science but from religion itself. Robert Boyle, who as a devoutly religious scientist, himself a testimony to the fallibility of the warfare thesis, was more worried by divisions in religion than he was about harmonizing religion and science.Just as religion was threatened by internal wrangles, so science was weakened by disagreements from within. The conflict thesis fails to appreciate that clashes that appear to be between science and religion are often disputes between established, sanctified science and new emerging scientific ideas.

The Aristotelian philosophy, for example, was excepted and compatible with Christianity following the efforts of Thomas Aquinas to integrate the paradigm with the existing belief system. Once Aristotelianism becomes established, new scientific principles that challenge the Aristotelian system cannot be seen to fail because they meet with the impassable object of religion, it is as much the opposition of existing scientific authority that blocks their path. Brooke draws attention to this difference with regard to Galileo:Galileo seems to have felt that his difficulties with the Catholic Church had their origin in the resentment of academic philosophers who had put pressure on ecclesiastical authorities to denounce him.11Another feature of the science/religion relationship that the warfare thesis overlooks is that it fails to appreciate the difference between hostility and indifference.

Much of the time science would have been situated some way down the Church’s list of concerns. E.J. Dijksterhuis, in his book The Mechanization of the World Picture, posits the notion that to talk of science and religion as always being at war is inaccurate:In the pagan world of Antiquity, at least in the Hellenistic period, science had been able to develop practically independently of religious life.

12Greek religion, free from universally accepted dogma, reduced the likelihood of conflict with science. In the period of the Early Christian Church that followed, Draper is quick to point an accusatory finger at figures such as St. Augustine, claiming that `no one had done more than St. Augustine to bring science and religion into antagonism.`13 Draper is again guilty of naivity, assuming that just because Augustine held the belief that ultimate authority lies with God, that he is unwilling to tolerate reason.

David Lindberg, in his essay on Science and the Early Church, clarifies Augustine’s position:Augustine viewed faith not as a taskmaster to which reason must submit but as the condition that makes genuine rational activity possible.14To fit his argument, Draper exaggerates and distorts Augustine’s views. He implies that Augustine takes Biblical authority and uses it to attack secular learning.

In fact Augustine was not a crude literalist but a sophisticated writer whose understanding of some aspects of scripture drew upon Stoic philosophy, not precise literal interpretations of the Bible. Rather than viewing the Early Church Fathers as violently opposed to science it is perhaps more accurate to see them as figures who expressed the view that `the Study of Nature is a Christian’s duty.’15The fundamental weakness of the proposition that science and religion have always been at war is that it makes generalizations about key terms. To think in terms of science and religion as having fixed positions in society throughout history is impossible.

At times, for example, science and theology might be considered to have been one and the same. It is dangerous to lump together the neo-Platonic philosophy prevalent in Antiquity with Darwinianism of the late nineteenth century under the same heading of science. `Science’ merely becomes an arbitrary signifier. It is, after all, something of an anachronism to talk of scientists when the word was not employed until used by Reverend William Whewell in 1834. Likewise, religion cannot be considered a monolithic entity. The diversity of religious sects and the vast differences between liberal and conservative religious outlooks, make it impossible to talk simply of `religion` and identify from that term its precise meaning.

It would be wrong to dismiss the warfare thesis, as proposed by authors such as Draper and White, as a model completely devoid of foundations. Though the thesis can be attacked in a multitude of ways it would be equally inaccurate to put forward a `harmony thesis’ that posited the notion that science and religion have always enjoyed a mutually beneficial relationship. Science and religion have undoubtedly been in intense conflict over certain issues at certain times in history. Science has without doubt been restricted by religious authority and, likewise, religious ideas have been strongly challenged by advances in scientific knowledge. The error on the part of historians who support a thesis of conflict is a failure to recognise that the relationship is not always one of antagonism. Draper writes of a Conflict with a capital `C`.

Draper’s Conflict is perhaps the cumulative product of several individual conflicts in the lower-case sense. He takes specific incidents and from them, incorrectly formulates a general rule.

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