Conflict in History: Science and Religion

Conflict Between Science and Religion

With this post I transition from historicizing the “scientific revolution” and into my own particular area of research, namely, on the relationship between science and religion in Victorian Britain. The two are closely related, however. When popular narratives of the “revolutions in science” first emerged, during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, they were often in conjunction with new definitions of “science” and “religion” and their respective relationship.

Brooke - Science and Religion Some Historical PerspectivesOne of the books that first caught my attention regarding the relations between science and religion was John Hedley Brooke’s Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives (1991). I had initially dabbled with the “conflict thesis” of John William Draper (1811-1882) and Andrew Dickson White (1832-1918) from my reading of Owen Chadwick’s The Secularization of the European Mind in the Nineteenth Century (1975), but it was in Brooke’s Science and Religion where I first learned of the complexity of science and religion relations. It was as an undergraduate when I located his book in the university library, my curiosity exponentially increasing as I studied its portentously lime-on-black cover, seemingly calling out to me tolle lege, tolle lege. Not waiting to return to my study carrel, I began reading its introduction, inevitably settling on the floor there between the stacks, where I would remain all day mesmerized by its contents.

Brooke’s Science and Religion masterfully demolished the hackneyed “conflict thesis.” This new history of science replaced simplistic master-narratives with a richer sense of the complexity of past engagements between science and religion; it placed those intellectual engagements firmly in their proper social and political contexts; and it undermined the very idea that “science” or “religion” could be reified as entities with timeless essences. Once I had stepped foot into this stream of Brookean historiography, I was swept away, becoming a confirmed and irredeemable history of science addict.

“Conflicts allegedly between science and religion,” Brooke suggests in the introduction of Science and Religion, “may turn out to be between rival scientific interests, or conversely between rival theological factions.” In other words, alleged conflicts between science and religion often times turn out to be issues of political power, social prestige, or intellectual authority. More importantly, the shifting nature of the boundaries between “science” and “religion” makes it impossible to analyze their relationship according to any one simple thesis or conventional historical narrative. As such, Science and Religion offers “a historically-based commentary” on a series of topics, covering roughly the period between 1543 to 1900, with a postscript on the twentieth century.

Brooke’s aim in the following pages is to “display the diversity, the subtlety, and ingenuity of the method employed, both by apologists for science and for religion, as they wrestled with fundamental questions concerning their relationship with nature and with God.” Each of the chapters of Science and Religion tackles themes which have been important in previous attempts to analyze the relation of science and religion. As Brooke observes, historians have identified a great diversity of ways in which, at different times, religious beliefs constituted “a presupposition of the scientific enterprise,” a “sanction” or “motive” for engaging in it, or had a role in “regulating scientific methodology,” providing means of selecting between competing theories, and even serving a “constitutive role” in the formulation of such theories. The most fundamental weakness of the “conflict thesis,” writes Brooke, “is its tendency to portray science and religion as hypostatized forces, as entities in themselves.”

To view the history of science and religion using such crude a priori notions of both science and religion is to distort our understanding of the past. Context and place matter, contingency reigns, and historical complexity abounds. Thus Brooke begins with a chapter stressing the relatedness of science and religion throughout his period, and the inappropriateness of treating them as “separate spheres.” Statements about God and statements about nature are closely interrelated in the works of such seminal figures as Descartes, Kepler, Brahe, Bacon, Sprat, Ray, Priestley, and many others, and as such illustrates the artificiality of discussing the “relationship between science and religion,” as if the province of each had already been established. But in rejecting the conflict thesis Brooke also rejects a thesis of harmony between science and religion. The problem, of course, is “that claims for inherent harmony are vulnerable to the same kinds of objections as claims for an inherent conflict,” leading to positions of cultural chauvinism or general myopia.

He moves on in chapter two to address a specific historical problem: the question of whether the so-called scientific revolution in early modern Europe led to a separation of science from religion. “The common view is that by the end of the seventeenth century, a recognizably modern science had emerged, separated at last from a preoccupation with matters of philosophy and religion.” This is indeed a seductive view, and many have embraced it in streamlining their historical narrative. But it is also deceptive and, in the final analysis, unsustainable. Brooke shows that although developments during the scientific revolution may have led to a differentiation and reinterpretation of the relationships between science and religion, they did not lead to a separation of the two. Scientific innovations continued to be presented and proffered in theological terms and divine attributes continued to be given physical meanings.

In chapter three, Brooke considers the question of whether there might be a parallel between movements for scientific and religious reform. “Certain developments in seventeenth-century science did prove more difficult for Catholic authorities to assimilate,” writes Brooke. But “while there is circumstantial evidence to suggest that certain Protestant societies were more tolerant toward new scientific learning, difficulties that arise in testing such generalizations can be formidable.”

Brooke discusses in chapter four the irony that mechanical philosophy, which was used to uphold the sense of the sacred in nature and enrich conceptions of divine activity, could also be reinterpreted into a secular creed, “for, if nature ran like clockwork, what room was therefore God’s direct activity or special Providence?” But of course the issue turns out to be far more subtle. In the case of Boyle, for example, mechanical images of nature were enlisted in the defense of Christianity and to demonstrate God’s sovereignty. The role of Providence in the mechanical philosophies of Descartes, Boyle, and Newton are incontrovertible.

This mechanical model of the universe, which in the seventeenth century was used to affirm God’s sovereignty, was utilized by deists of the eighteenth century in their irrepressible attacks on established religion, so Brooke discusses in chapter five. During the period of enlightenment the sciences were hailed as instruments of progress and were used to vilify superstition and priestcraft. Brooke demonstrates how, in the enlightenment, cultural relativism rather than science was the main cause of the rethinking of the authority of the Bible by deists like Tindal, who, more often than not, had a social political ax to grind, wishing to transform the sciences into a secularizing force.

Brooke discusses in chapter six natural theology, stressing the utility of design arguments for both Christians and deists, which only became stronger with advances of scientific knowledge. Yet the eventual shortcomings of arguments from design arose from their tendency to overburden scientific discoveries with religious meanings. In this sense natural theology dug its own grave; degrading religious feeling, on the one hand, and, on the other, convincing only those with preexisting faith. Science did not naturally lead to religion.

In chapters seven and eight, Brooke provides a detailed account of the background to Darwin’s ideas in the development of the historical sciences, and the religious meanings of those ideas found in the later nineteenth century. “As evolutionary models came to the fore in astronomy, geology, and biology, traditional beliefs about humanity’s place in nature were increasingly difficult to defend,” writes Brooke. He concludes these chapters with a detailed chronological treatment of natural history, beginning with Buffon’s history of the earth, Laplace’s history of the solar system, Lamarck and Cuvier’s evolutionary history of life, Lyell’s uniformitarianism in geology, and culminating in Darwin’s theory of evolution. Brooke continues the discussion with an analysis of the post-Darwinian debates in chapter eight, noting the differing perceptions of Darwinism in Britain, France, Germany, and the United States. “The use of Darwin to justify the whole gamut of social and political creeds,” he writes, “was a remarkably pervasive and enduring phenomenon.” In both Britain and the United States, for example, Darwinism was enlisted to support interests in conservatism, racism, and even sexism. Studying the reception of Darwinism in different cultures indicates that popularizing evolutionary science was rarely, if ever, a straightforward process. Darwin’s science was “vulgarized in the promotion of particular political goals and these, in turn, often reflected local circumstances.”

Brooke concludes his book with a postscript on science and religion in the twentieth century. Displaying continued tolerance and balance, Brooke argues that despite a prevailing ethos, in which science and secularization are seen as linked together in the constitution of modern culture, the twentieth century witnessed certain developments in the sciences—namely, the revolution in subatomic physics, the emphasis that reductionist accounts of natural phenomena must always be complemented by holistic perspectives, and the reintegration of science with questions of value—that have given much solace to the religious apologist.

More Recent Work

Since 1991, Brooke’s Science and Religion has become the standard textbook for budding historians of science, teaching students the value of historical particulars over grand theories. Brooke was by no means the first to reject the conflict thesis, but he went further than anyone else, replacing it with what has been dubbed a “complexity thesis.”

More recently, with his retirement, Brooke’s students and colleagues have gathered together a collection of new historical perspectives in his honor in Science and Religion: New Historical Perspectives (2010), edited by Thomas Dixon, Geoffrey Cantor, and Stephen Pumfrey. Like many such collections of recent date (including J. H. Brooke and G. Cantor, Reconstructing Nature: The Engagement of Science and Religion [1998]; G. Ferngren, Science and Religion: A Historical Introduction [2002]; D. C. Lindberg and R. L. Numbers, When Science and Christianity Meet [2003]; R. L. Numbers, Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion [2009]; P. Harrison, The Cambridge Companion to Science and Religion [2010]; J. H. Brooke and R. L. Numbers, Science and Religion Around the World [2011]; and P. Harrison, R. L. Numbers, and M. H. Shank, Wrestling with Nature: From Omens to Science [2011]), the contents of this book are of varying usefulness and quality. In forthcoming posts, I will highlight certain chapters from Science and Religion: New Historical Perspectives, including some from other recent publications which are especially worth reading, namely J. H. Brooke and G. Cantor, Reconstructing Nature: The Engagement of Science and Religion, J. H. Brooke and R. L. Numbers, Science and Religion Around the World, and P. Harrison, R. L. Numbers, and M. H. Shank, Wrestling with Nature: From Omens to Science.


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