Science and Religion: Some New Historical Perspectives: A Word on Narratives

Having discussed the implications of recent literature that categorizes both “science” and “religion” as nineteenth-century social constructs, the same argument is applied to the scientific revolution by Margaret J. Osler in “Religion and the Changing Historiography of the Scientific Revolution.”

The idea that there was a “Scientific Revolution” between 1500 and 1700 and that this marked a definitive moment of separation between science and religion was, Osler argues, the creation of nineteenth-century positivists and twentieth-century historians who read their own secularist aspiration and experiences back into the history of the sciences during a period when they were, in fact, pursued in a climate of diverse, serious, and vibrant theological concern.

Beginning in the eighteenth century, Denis Diderot (1713-1784) and Jean le Rond d’Alembert (1717-1783), in giving a historical account of the sciences, lauded thinkers of the seventeenth century for their scientific achievements while “scorning what they considered the irrationality and authoritarian attitude of religion.” During the nineteenth century, the ascendency of positivism, promoted by Auguete Comte (1798-1857) and Ernst Mach (1838-1916), predetermined how a retinue of historians of science would view the relationship between science and religion. Comte propounded a two laws. First was the “historical law” in which humanity passed through a theological, metaphysical and then culminating to a “positive” or scientific stage. The second was an “epistemological law,” which classified the sciences in a hierarchy determined by their sequence of arriving at the positive state and their increasing complexity. In all this “religion had to be eschewed before positive science could progress.” Mach rejected all metaphysical claims, arguing that such claims could not be proven empirically. He located the origin of modern science in Galileo. And like Comte, Mach accused religion of stifling the progress of science.

Osler argues that both Comte’s law of stages and Mach’s outline of history “profoundly influenced the formation of the history of science as an academic discipline in the twentieth century.” The other nineteenth-century influence came from American defenders of “secular” education in the sciences, namely John William Draper (1811-1882) and Andrew Dickson White (1832-1918). According to Osler, the “conflict” model of Draper and the “warfare” metaphor of White “dominated discussions of the relationship between science and religion” in the twentieth century.

Both the positivists and the Draper-White thesis influenced the work of, for example, George Sarton (1884-1956), who once wrote that “Auguste Comte must be considered as the founder of the history of science, or at least as the first who had a clear and precise, if not a complete, apprehension of it.” Sarton also referred to White’s warfare metaphor with approval. Other historians, including Edwin Arthur Burtt, Alexandre Koyré, Herbert Butterfield, Richard S. Westfall, and others agreed that the “scientific revolution” was a dramatic break with earlier ways of thinking and that it resulted in a profound change in the concept of nature and, indeed, in the relationship between science and religion. The end result, in short, is that “historians of science in the twentieth century tended to see what they considered a progressive separation of science from religion” and the gradual secularization of modernity.

According to Osler, these historians influenced others, further aggrandizing the unexamined assumptions formulated by the nineteenth-century positivists. In the late twentieth century, however, major challenges to this “classical” or “traditional” narrative emerged. Scholars began arguing that the “entire enterprise of studying the natural world was embedded in a theological framework that emphasized divine creation, design, and providence.” That is, seventeenth-century natural philosophers “believed that the study of the created world provided knowledge of the wisdom and intelligence of the Creator.” Many historians have contributed to what Osler characterizes as a major “sea-change” or “shifting tide,” including P.M. Rattansi, J.E. McGuire, B.J.T. Dobbs, Stephen D. Snobelen, Peter Harrison, and Jan W. Wojcik, only to give a small sample.

In her conclusion Osler asks what caused this sea-change? Osler suggests that the historiography of the scientific revolution of the middle decades of the twentieth century occurred within the optimistic environment of “big science” and “massive government funding.” However, fear of nuclear holocaust, awareness of environmental degradation, the revival of occult practices of New Age spirituality, a new emphasis on social history and feminist studies, and the growth of fundamentalist religion, in Christianity, Islam, and Judaism undermined unqualified faith in science in the late twentieth century. It was in this context, Osler suggests, that historians of science finally began recognizing the complex relationships between science and religion.

Nineteenth-century positivists and twentieth-century historians clearly read their own secularist aspirations and experiences back into the history of the sciences. Frank M. Turner, in the following essay, offers a closer analysis of the “conflict thesis” itself, with reference to its origins in the intellectual and cultural world of the late-nineteenth century.

According to Turner, the relationship of science and religion passed from “fruitful co-operation and modest tension to harsh public conflict, a situation that many observers have since come incorrectly to assume to be a permanent fact of modern cultural life.” Certain transformations occurred in the nineteenth century “within scientific and religious communities and changes in the structure of publication, education, and wider cultural discourse,” which more narrowly circumscribed “science” and “religion,” thus abstracting them from their historical context.

Between 1840 and 1890, Turner tells us, numerous controversies erupted between science and religion. Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, Spencer’s cosmic evolution narrative, Tyndall’s materialism, anthropological theories of human pre-history and religion, and the rise of textual criticism all issued much debate amongst nineteenth-century thinkers. But we must recognize, Turner warns, that there is no necessary or existential conflict: “modes of idealism, naturphilosophie, natural religion, theism, and ethical progressionism informed the work and personal values of numerous natural philosophers. These metaphysical, theological, and moral factors were not extrinsic to their pursuit of natural knowledge but part and parcel of it and for many scientists…remained so certainly to the end of the nineteenth century, if not well beyond.”

But during the nineteenth century various scientific communities arose  to compete with religious authority, defining “science” within a narrower professional and naturalistic framework. Likewise, social, institutional, devotional, and theological phenomena subsumed under the term “religion” experienced transformation, manifesting liberal, rational, or moderate associations, the rise of “bibliolatry” among evangelical Protestants, an aggressive Roman Catholicism asserting its theological and ecclesiastical authority, and a general hostility between and among Christian groups. “Thus by 1860,” writes Turner, “European churches were engaging with their cultures, asserting their authority, and championing the Bible much more intensely than their forebears had a century earlier.”

However, it is important to note that this hostility was not between “religion and science,” or more precisely Christianity and science; rather, it was between Christianity and materialism or atheism, skeptical rationalism, theological heterodoxy, ecclesiastical irregularity, or attacks by the secular state. This ideas eventually morphed into a new definition of science, for those who pushed for new notions of science also espoused materialistic or atheistic, skeptical rationalistic or theologically heterodox ideas. Harking back to the French Revolution, Turner reminds us that revolutionaries’ anthems for science were often simultaneously coupled with attacks on religion, which undeniably raised nineteenth-century apprehensions that “scientific thought or culture might endanger religion and the social status quo.” “Science could,” Turner suggests, “be socially, politically, and religiously dangerous, especially when it displayed connection or sympathy with French culture.”

Working within a propositional fallacy, many conservative religious figures of the nineteenth century argued that “if ideas bearing the whiff of French materialism, tranformationism, or religious heterodoxy were embraced, published, or advocated, then atheism, immorality, anti-clericalism, and social disruption might (or must) follow.”

From the 1840s to the 1860s, many thinkers abandoned religious and philosophical outlooks when they changed their view on the social status quo, for such outlooks were intimately intertwined with existing political and social structures. As Turner notes, British natural theology provided both a theological and a social theodicy. The Bridgewater Treatises (1833-1840), for example, combined “intricate theological explications of nature with arguments supporting the contemporary British social and political status quo.” But these theodicies were fragile indeed, and a younger generation of scientists, discontent or even disgusted with existing boundaries of thought and action, either abandoned or wholly rejected them.

Ironically, by the mid-nineteenth century works began appearing challenging the “morality of the churches, the elitism of the major scientific societies, and the idea that any elite could control the discourse of natural knowledge.” Turner summarizes this development with an extended quote from Martin Fichman’s An Elusive Victorian: The Evolution of Alfred Russel Wallace (2004), worth quoting at length here as well:

as advocates of a specific idea of science professionalization they were committed to constructing a definition of value-neutral and hence ‘objective’ science…The scientific naturalists recognized the professional gains to be had by proclaiming the ideological neutrality of science. Huxley and his camp could claim that they spoke as objective experts, not political or ideological partisans. This strategy involved erecting an epistemological divide between science and politics, ethics, religion, and other cultural forces. It also encouraged a distinction between elite and popular science…Such a strategy was brilliant but disingenuous. The scientific naturalists invoked an ‘ideologically pure’ science that concealed their own varied sociopolitical agenda behind the banner of rigorous professionalism.

New definitions of “science” were merely one side of the equation. The other side were new approaches to religion: “By about 1850 the contours of religious thought had undergone as much reconfiguration as science.” Protestant bibliolatry, with its growing emphasis on a literal reading of scripture, and an increased uncompromising attitude after the publication of Darwin’s Origins resulted in much sharper conflict over science. Roman Catholicism also underwent intellectual transformations that precipitated outright conflict with scientists. Pope Pius IX in 1864, for example, issued the Syllabus of Errors, putting the Roman Catholic Church in direct opposition not only to liberal politics but also science. In turn, the Tractarian Movement, led by John Henry Newman (1801-1890), argued that the authority of the Church should principally direct the faith of Christians, but in so doing he only cast further doubt on the historical authority on the Bible. The German philosophy of Friedrich Schleiermacher, with his emphasis on a “theology of feeling,” provided another context for men of science and others  to question older, traditional modes of religious life. Finally, voices of liberal biblical interpretation looked to advances in the physical sciences to aid them in their efforts to transform the reading of scripture and to challenge ecclesiastical authorities. “Just as the emerging generation of scientists sought to pursue new professional independence in thought and organization,” Turner writes, “various religious groups and theologians sought to establish their own intellectual and institutional independence.”

The medium in which this emerging conflict entered the public sphere were various. First was the unprecedented expansion of journals, scientific publications, religious papers and magazines, and Bible production. The learned periodical, according to Turner, “came to constitute a world of self-referential exchange and debate.” Second, the expansion of education, with the growth of government expenditures fostered conflict as different interest groups fought for resources and institutional authority. Finally, the prosperity and optimism of the mid-nineteenth century made the social dangers stemming from materialism no longer seemed necessary.

Turner thus reminds us that we should not discount the existence of real conflicts between science and religion in the nineteenth century. The fact that a strong public sense of a conflict between science and religion emerged when it did still itself needs to be explained. Particularly important for Turner is an appreciation of the history of religious life and thought during the nineteenth century, the emergence of a new sphere of state education, and the expanding literate sectors of transatlantic intellectual life.


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