Let’s begin by taking a look back. Science and religion have always been in conflict with one another, right? That’s what we’ve all been taught? The trial of Galileo was all about this conflict, right? In fact, this widely held view is a distortion of the historical truth. On the contrary, historians over the past fifty years or so have revealed that for most of history science and religion have been deeply connected to each other. Surprised?
Now, I’m not an expert on the relationship between science and religion, but I want to point out that for hundreds of years one of the most prevailing thoughts in Western culture was that known as the “two books”, these being the books of Scripture and the book of Nature. From the Middle Ages into the nineteenth century most people in the Western world believed that both books were the work of God.
When we look at the history of science, we see that in fact it owes an immense debt to the religious world. In the early Middle Ages, a time when Catholic Europe turned away from scientific thinking, the science, mathematics, and astronomy of the ancient Greeks was kept alive, further developed and enriched by the Moslems. In the thirteenth century when this scientific heritage began to find its way back into Western Europe, it was originally taken up by Catholic monks and theologians. Interesting?
Throughout the late Middle Ages and Renaissance, most scientific leaders were men of the church, They included the great medieval champion of mathematical science Bishop Robert Grosseteste (the man who reinvigorated the science of geometry); the champion of experimental science Roger Bacon (a Franciscan monk, sometimes known as the medieval Galileo); the fifteenth century physicist Nicholas of Cusa (a cardinal in the Roman Curia and the man who first championed the idea of an infinite universe); and Nicholas Copernicus (a canon at Freudenberg Cathedral, and the man who more than any other introduced the idea of a sun-centered universe.)
Up until the eighteenth century, most of those in Europe studying science were indeed men of deep religious faith, many of them formally schooled in theology. In part, that was because the church controlled the institutes of higher learning, particularly the universities, the Catholic Church founded the university system and established the scientific method, which had originally been set up as training grounds for the clergy and other church officials.
It is a common misconception that, the “scientific revolution” of the seventeenth century is when the fundamental break between science and religion was birthed. But nothing could be further from the truth. Almost all the great pioneers and founders of the new science were religious men who wanted a science that would be in harmony with their faith. All three founders of the new heliocentric cosmology, Nicholas Copernicus, Johannes Kepler, and Isaac Newton, saw their vision of the universe as an offshoot of their theology. Newton, in particular, was a religious fanatic whose whole life work can be seen as a search for God. Even the infamous Galileo was a Devout Catholic who wanted nothing more than for the Pope to support his work.
It wasn’t until the eighteenth century that we see a fundamental break between science and religion. In the new rationalistic climate of the Enlightenment philosophers such as Immanuel Kant and Jean-Jacques Rousseau argued that science and religion were two separate domains that must be kept apart. But even in the eighteenth century there was no idea of a conflict between the two disciplines. That idea only arose in the late nineteenth century, after the publication of Charles Darwin’s revolutionary book, “On the Evolution of Species by Means of Natural Selection.” In the wake of this book, some believers and theologians began to see science as a threat to their faith. On the other hand, some scientists also began to see religion as a threat to scientific freedom. Although, there have always been people on both sides who did not see a conflict between science and religion, nonetheless this “perceived conflict” has had a powerful influence on Western thinking.
So, the idea that science and religion are in conflict with one another is fairly recent, from a historical point of view. It really only arose in the last third of the nineteenth century, after the publication of Darwin’s book on evolution, as noted above. In the wake of the furor over Darwin’s idea that humans were descended from apes, some people on both sides tried to paint the other side as the enemy. (A little known fact is that Darwin actually recanted his claims in the last days of his life).
Regardless, some wanted to keep this “perceived conflict” alive. Some like John Draper, a medical school professor in New York City, whose book “History of the Conflict between Science and Religion” (1874) was very influential. According to Draper, the Roman Catholic Church in particular was the enemy of science, “ferociously suppressing by the sword and the stake every attempt at progress.”
Although at the time there were many people, both scientists and religious believers, who didn’t see a conflict between the two worlds, this “perceived conflict” has become deeply entrenched in many people’s minds, and it has continued to this day.
So, it’s true that the popular perception of a historical conflict remains strong. Yet, this hasn’t stopped historians from trying to condemn it. John Hedley Brooke and Peter Harrison at Oxford; David Lindberg and Ron Numbers at Wisconsin-Madison; and Simon Shapin in California have all tried to put the record straight. But as Numbers admits, “Despite a developing consensus among scholars that science and religion have not been in conflict, the notion has refused to die.”
A strange thing about this conflict is that much of the evidence for it is bogus. Not only are most people ignorant of the real history, but what they think they know about it is actually untrue. Let me give some examples.
- the myth that the church encouraged the view that the earth is flat has been debunked so many times that it seems pointless to do so again. But despite a hundred years of effort from historians of science, the perception continues and refuses to die.
- the myth that the church had Vesalius, author of a famous book on anatomy published in 1543, was dissected by the Spanish Inquisition, is also discounted by historians.
- the myth that Pope Callistus III had excommunicated Halley’s Comet in 1456 has also been proven false.
Finally, various martyrs for science have been canonized. It is a sad fact that both Catholics and Protestants were engaged in the despicable practice of burning heretics. But no one was ever executed for their scientific views. For a long time it was supposed that the Renaissance thinker Giordano Bruno had died for his science. But we now know he was an occultist whose support for Copernicus was not based on scientific grounds and neither was it a reason for his execution. Pretty much all his cosmological thought can be found in a book by the 15th-century Cardinal Nicolas of Cusa, previously noted. Not even the Catholic Church would burn you at the stake for repeating the published thoughts of a Cardinal.
The only basis for this perceived conflict goes back to the trial of Galileo, previously noted, put under house arrest for life for teaching that the earth goes around the sun. But even this was more about the pope’s self-esteem than science. The conflict between science and creationism is real enough, but it is the exception, not the rule. For most of history, science and religion have existed together just fine.
So, the question is: Are Science and Religion Really in Conflict?
The truth of the matter is that there is no real conflict because they operate in different areas and answer different questions. Science responds to a need to understand the world, and religion responds to a need for the world to have meaning. The fundamental difference is in the way each discipline arrives at their conclusions. The “how” for science and the “what” for religion. They are just different perceptions.
Pax et Bonum!
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