We often hear the claim (in the Western world) that science and religion are at odds with each other. Take the words of ardent atheist PZ Meyerz who asserts that “science and religion are incompatible. Simply completely irreconcilably incompatible.”1 It is easy to assume that these types of loud and proud statements are probably true and have always been throughout history. With groups like the New Atheists – Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, the late Christopher Hitchens – unapologetically promoting this narrative all over the media, it is no wonder the general public today have a rather skewed view of the relationship between science and religion.2
The very claim that science and religion are “at war” – contrary to belief – is a relatively new concept that would not have held much weight just some 2-300 year ago. It is the result of unique Western world circumstances that have taken place within the last few centuries. There are two main points I wish to make in this brief article, firstly the claim that science and religion are at constantly at war is simply not true. Secondly the idea that one could claim that science and religion have always been at war historically is a fallacy; the way we view science and religion today is not the same as how they were viewed in the past. (The term ‘scientist’ was coined only in the 1830s William Whewell).
I will start with my second point first because it deals with the history of science and religion. How was the term “religion” conceived of in the Medieval period? There is arguably no better person to consult than the Dominican priest Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 74), one of the leading thinkers of his day. His understanding was that religion (religio) was a moral virtue related to justice.3 When we turn to Aquinas’s understanding of science (Scientia) we find similar discord with our modern notion. For Aquinas science was a habit of the mind, or an “intellectual virtue” acquired through the rehearsal of logical demonstration (rather than an outward accumulation of knowledge built up by a community of scientists over the decades as we see it today).4 During the Medieval period there was an “amazing lack of strife between theology and science”.5 Theology was a scholarly discipline but religion itself had nothing to do with being a system of outward propositional beliefs, and there was no sense in which you could have different competing religions, or for that matter, a war between science and religion.
This all began to disintegrate by the early modern period (16th – 17th century) largely due to the breakdown of the synthesis between Aristotelian metaphysics and theology. Historian Peter Harrison has written that “religious reformers of the sixteenth century were insistent that religious faith be ‘explicit’”6 Reformers such as John Calvin thought that Christian doctrines could and should be articulated in propositional terms. This was in stark contrast to how Aquinas conceived of religion and Christian doctrine. When we turn to science, we find that the crumbling of Aristotelian metaphysics (of which dominated Medieval thinking) paved the way for a new conception of science.7 Instead of science being a personal habit of the mind (i.e. the development of reasoning ability), the reformers began to redefine it as being a body of knowledge derived through actively studying the world in order to understand it. These redefinitions opened the door that eventually enabled the possibility for the conception of a science-religion “conflict”.
Moving forward in time, although this was the case the “science-religion conflict” didn’t pick up real steam until the 19th century. It is now well known by historians of science that there were two main characters responsible for the popularization of the science-religion conflict narrative. Their names were Andrew Dickson White (1831 – 1918) and John William Draper (1811 – 82). Between these two men the idea of an ongoing historical conflict between science and religion developed through the writings of their hugely successful books – History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science (Draper -1875) and History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (White – 1897). They capitalized on major historical events and twisted their stories in order to promote a warfare model. For example, they argued that the Catholic church stood against the progress of science when they condemned Galileo in 1633 for suggesting that the planets revolved around the sun; similar again they argued that the church had stood against the progress of science when they didn’t accept Darwin’s theory of evolution. Both of these stories are false and you will be hard-pressed to find a historian of science who would be willing to agree with Draper or White today, however, these stories remain a pinnacle example for many as to why science and religion must have always been at war historically.
My second point to raise moves from history to sociology. Two recent studies have been very revealing in regards to the relationship between science and religion and the public perception of science and religion. In 2011 John Evans released a paper entitled Epistemological and Moral Conflict Between Religion and Science8 which describes a study he conducted in America in which he found that there was no “evidence of a general epistemological conflict between religious people and science that leads the religious not to seek out scientific knowledge.”9 Evans did find that there was conflict between science and religion but contrary to the new atheists overgeneralized claims, this conflict was only apparent when highly specific scientific claims explicitly contradicted religious claims (such as weather God created life, of life came about by naturalist processes). Lastly Evans found that when scientific claims entailed moral implications that went directly against religious moral claims this is when we could find other examples of conflict (e.g. abortion, euthanasia).10
A second sociological study released just this year by Will John Mason-Wilkes has suggested that the media is a root cause of why the general public still tend accept overgeneralized conflict models regarding science and religion.11 According to Mason-Wilkes “Public understanding of science is shaped by media representation.”12 In his research he shows that in many respects science today is 1) presented like a religion containing all of life’s answers, and on the other hand 2) treated like a mere political position of which you are free to pick and choose what you want from it. From this perspective science in the media today is seen as secondary, a tool to be used in order to promote subjective goals as opposed to it being a respected field of research on its own accord. These finds are clearly supported by the fact that within the scholarly field today ‘science and religion’ – as a study – receives very positive attention. Since the 1960s the integrated study of science and religion has taken off and large research programmes and institutions such as the Faraday Institute, CTNS and Science and Religion: Exploring the Spectrum have led the way with great success. Despite these hugely positive developments, it is still common to hear remarks akin to, “as science progresses religion will die out.”
Much more could be said on this topic however I write this just to bring to light a tiny snippet of the scholarly work that has been done within the fields of science and religion that starkly contradict the popular claims of the new atheists. The method of Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens is usually to take very small-scale negative religious event and to then blow it out of proportion. In regards to science and religion, they tend to claim that once we get rid of religion science will pave the way for human society.13 Unfortunately, they seem to completely neglect that it was religious commitments which gave rise to modern science; in fact a more literal approach to the Bible was directly responsible for advancements in science.14 Lastly, they seem to constantly overlook the fact that within the last 100 years scientific discoveries in cosmology and biology have provided some of the best evidences for – as opposed to against – the existence of God.
1) Agatan foundation, 2015, Best of PZ Myers Amazing Arguments And Clever Comebacks. available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y1Q43OHVK10 [Accessed 1st April 2018]
2) Taylor, J.E., The New Atheists. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, [online] Available at: < https://www.iep.utm.edu/n-atheis/> [Accessed 1st April 2018].
3) Harrison, P., 2015. The Territories of Science and Religion. Chicago: UCP. p7
4) Ibid., p11-12
5) Grant, E., 1996. The Foundations of modern Science in the Middle Ages: Their Religious, institutional, and intellectual contexts. Cambridge: CUP. p85
6) Harrison, P., 2015. The Territories of Science and Religion. Chicago: UCP. p92
7) Ibid., p85
8) Evans, J. H., 2011. Epistemological and Moral Conflict Between Religion and Science. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, [e-journal] 50(4). Available through: JSTOR website <http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.is.ed.ac.uk/stable/41349949> [Accessed 1st April 2018].
9) Ibid., p723
10) Ibid., p723
11) Mason-Wilkes, W. J., 2018. Science as Religion? Science Communication and Elective Modernism. Ph.D. Cardiff University
12) Mason-Wilkes, W. J., 2018. Science as Religion? Science Communication and Elective Modernism. Ph.D. Cardiff University. p305
13) Taylor, J.E., The New Atheists. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, [online] Available at: < https://www.iep.utm.edu/n-atheis/> [Accessed 1st April 2018].
14) Henry, J., 2010. Religion and the Scientific Revolution. In: Harrison, P, ed. 2010 The Cambridge Companion to Science and Religion. CUP. Ch.6. p.43