Science and Religion: Some New Historical Perspectives: Ways Forward

Having forayed into the complexity of the history of reading and publishing, we now return to the remaining chapters in Thomas Dixon et al., Science and Religion: New Historical Perspectives (2010). Noah Efron’s essay, “Sciences and Religions: What it means to take historical perspective seriously,” pays personal tribute to the influence of John Hedley Brooke. Efron discovered Brooke as a young historian, forcing him to rethink what he understood then about science-religion relations, gleamed from the pages of Robert Merton, Ian Barbour, Andrew Dickson White, and others. From Brooke he learned that the real lesson from science-religion relations turns out to be “complexity,” and to abstract these categories from their historical contexts leads to “artificiality as well as anachronism.” What Brooke achieved, according to Efron, was a de-reified science and religion.

This was of lasting consequence for anyone seeking to understand the engagements of science and religion. First, it becomes impossible for the historian to sympathize with projects aimed at uncovering some essence of “science” or “religion,” and, therefore, some timeless, inherent relationship between them. Further, the engagements of science and religion can only be understood by attending to context, which includes the historical, cultural, social, political, economic, and more. Further still, a new emphasis on individuals, rather than ideas of individuals, takes precedence. More recent studies on Isaac Newton, for example, have demonstrated the complicated integration of his natural philosophy with the uniqueness, idiosyncratic, heterodox, and oddity of Newton’s theology.

To be mindful of context, furthermore, is to dislodge certain prejudices. In their Reconstructing Nature: The Engagement of Science and Religion (1998), John Brooke and Geoffrey Cantor put it this way: “It helps us to break out of the tired moulds in which treatments of science and religion are routinely cast. If we are used to thinking only in terms of harmony, it can deliver uncomfortable shocks. If we are used to thinking in terms of polarity between extreme position, it can be liberating to discover other options through the many thinkers who have occupied middle ground and sought conciliation.”

Sophisticated and sympathetic readings of published and unpublished historical documents; a palpable delight in the richness and intricacy of intellectual histories; a rhetorical style which manages to convey caution and modesty at the same time as a certain steely resolve: this is the impression Brooke’s writings have on a reader.

But Brooke’s emphasis on complexity can bring out a radically pluralistic historiography. If there is no single “relationship between science and religion,” if each faith tradition has encountered the sciences in very particular ways, and if neither “science” nor “religion” has even had a stable meaning across time, then it become extremely difficult for a discussion to take place about common experiences and shared concerns. After all, master-narratives allow some lessons or morals to be drawn from accounts of the past; by contrast, the sort of “complexity” advocated by Brooke, focusing on the historically specific, the contingent, the unique, the sui generis, does not encourage such easy moralizing. Indeed, it may “demoralize,” in the literal sense of removing the “moral of the story” from history. On the one hand, it may indeed invalidate polemical uses to which the history of science and religion has so often been put, namely by Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, but also by Rodney Stark and Chris Hedges, and others; but, on the other hand, by historicizing science-religion relations, it “provides neither aid nor solace” to religious believers as well.

But according to Efron, “it may be that the complexity Brooke seeks is not narrative complexity at all but moral complexity.” “The real lesson,” Efron continues, “turns out not be the complexity itself but the decency it demands of the historian dedicated to providing for the complexity an adequate account. The real lesson turns out to be a moral one.” Brooke’s method looks at the humanity of the individual. The moral behind Brooke’s method, says Efron, is that “it approaches its subjects with respect. It treats them with dignity. It applies compassion and empathy and sympathy and imagination painstakingly to understand the lives of its subjects. And it does this delicately and with humility.” It is a method that has the uncanny ability to uncover the humanity of individuals, discovering their “intentions, visions, memories, hopes, and moods, as well as their passions and judgements.”

Brooke’s method leaves little to the imagination, leaving many feeling emotionally and intellectually unsatisfied because “complexifying history seems to have little to recommend it besides its truth.” We need themes and patterns and Brooke’s method leaves us with neither.

Ron Numbers seeks to redress the balance in his essay, “Simplifying Complexity: patterns in the history of science and religion.” In this essay he identifies five mid-scale patterns, or mid-scale generalizations, that can be used to understand trends in the relationship between science and religion: naturalization, privatization, secularization, globalization, and radicalization.

Naturalization refers to the rise of methodological naturalism in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The supernatural could no longer have any part in science and no scientist today, religious believer or not, thinks “divine agency” in scientific practice is a good idea.

A second, and related, pattern is the increasing number of scientists who do have religious beliefs keep them private or at least completely separate from their scientific work. “By the 1880s,” writes Numbers, “references to God were seldom appearing in the increasingly specialized literature of science, and scientists were saying less about their religions convictions.”

A third pattern seems to be the increasing secularization and loss of faith among scientists. For example, the majority of leading scientists, up until the turn of the twentieth century, were religious believer, and many of them were Christians. But  today many scientists not only privatize their religious beliefs but abandoned them altogether. Interestingly enough, surveys of American men of science on the eve of the First World War show “belief was lower among biological scientists than among physical scientists and, as a subsequent survey showed, lowest of all among social scientists, such as psychologists and sociologists.” Some eighty years later, another survey shows virtually no additional loss of faith among ordinary scientists. But this time many traditional religious beliefs were being replaced with an amorphous “spirituality” among scientists. According to Numbers, “about 66 per cent of the natural scientists and 69 per cent of the social scientists consider themselves ‘spiritual’ people.”

Another pattern is that of globalization, and in particular the globalization of the anti-evolution movement. Anti-evolution has become “a global phenomenon, as distinctly American in its origins and yet also as readily exportable as hip-hop and blue jeans.” The movement’s most robust institution, Answers in Genesis (AiG), a Kentucky-based operation begun in 1994 by the Australian Ken Ham, has not only spawned other groups, such as Creation Science Foundation (CSF) and the Institute of Creation Research (ICR), but a network of organizations in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the United Kingdom, Japan, and South Africa, distributing books in Afrikaans, Albanian, Chinese, Czech, English, French, German, Hungarian (Magyar), Italian, Japanese, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Russian, and Spanish, and maintaining websites in Danish, Dutch, Greek, and Korean as well. “Contrary to almost all expectations, geographical, theological, and political barriers had failed to contain creationism.”

A final pattern Numbers addresses is the increased intensification of debates about science and religion, which stems from the latter half of the nineteenth century. These extreme views were elevated to positions of high visibility at the neglect of more moderate ones. Irish physicist John Tyndall and English naturalist Thomas Henry Huxley were given wide press while more measured and thoughtful writers were ignored. In the United States the zealous historical polemics of Andrew Dickson White and John William Draper drowned out the voices of moderate harmonizers. “In the Sermon on the Mount,” Numbers concludes, “Jesus blessed ‘the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.’ Perhaps some day they will, but they seem unlikely ever to inherit the celebrity that assertive ideologues do.”

In the final essay of this volume, Geoffrey Cantor’s “What shall we do with the Conflict Thesis?” shows how the conflict thesis can be reconceptualized if we concentrate on what happened within the minds of individual religious believers grappling with new scientific discoveries. Using the example of eighteenth-century Dublin Quaker, physician, and naturalist, John Rutty (1697-1775), we see a man “assailed by inner conflict as he was repeatedly pulled between the opposing poles of the pursuit of science and of the pure spiritual life.” The case of Rutty, Cantor explains, raises two important issues. First, looking at sources such as diaries and letters make visible certain aspects of science-religion relations that rarely find expression in published work. And second, such sources manifest one specific form of conflict between science and religion. Rather than some meta-narrative of conflict, the case of Rutty clearly shows an inner conflict in trying to be both religiously pious and a man or woman of science.

What is more, the old, tired conflict thesis has never been a homogenous category, and has never had a consensus over precisely the nature of “conflict” involved. Was the conflict between science and religion epistemological, in the sense of conflicts between the worldviews of science and religion? Or does it involve different methodologies? Is it a conflict over values and applied science? Or does it reflect social conflict between competing groups of authority, as was the case between scientific naturalists and the Established Church in Victorian Britain? The contingency of conflict, rather than the necessity, therefore, cannot be emphasized enough.

In marked contrast to recent research, the traditional conflict thesis posits a necessary conflict. It is a master narrative which portrays science as inevitably pitted against religion, because of some essential difference between the two. Classic versions are found in John William Draper’s History of the Conflict between religion and science (1875) and Andrew Dickson White’s A History of the Warfare of science with theology in Christendom (1896). According to Cantor, “throughout the ensuing century this thesis has become part of our general culture, and it continues to be repeated ad nauseam in the popular media and even on academic contexts.” Although recent researches of historians have demonstrated “the immense diversity and complexity of the issues and arguments used by historical actors when discussing matters of science and religion,” the conflict narrative continues to prosper.

Cantor returns to why this is the case in his conclusion, but first he wants to preserve conflict by reconceptualizing it as a “potentiality or a situation, as a structure or a manifestation, as an event or a process.” Cantor focuses conflict within an existential framework. From the Quaker Rutty to many others, individuals have encountered what we might call “tensions or conflict arising from their joint engagement with science and religion.” Using American social psychologist Leon Festinger’s (1919-1989) two-part theory of cognitive dissonance—i.e., the incompatibility between two cognitions, where “cognition” is understood as any element of knowledge—we may begin to understand how, for example, Charles Darwin, “exercised by the doctrine of eternal damnation following the death of his father in 1848,” struggled with such inner tensions or conflicts. “He could not accept,” Cantor continues, “that his father would be subjected to eternal torment—that ‘damnable doctrine’, as Darwin described it—just because his father was not a true believer. This dissonance played a significant role in Charles Darwin’s loss of faith.”

The second element in Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance involves the attempt to frame new thoughts or beliefs, or to modify existing beliefs, in order to reduce the dissonance between parts of knowledge. An example of this is found in what synthesist Ian Barbour has called, in his Religion and Science: Historical and Contemporary Issues (1997), the Independence model, which views science and religion as “two enterprises as totally independent and autonomous” from one another. Specific examples of particular individuals modifying their existing beliefs, found in James Moore’s Post-Darwinian Controversies (1979), reveal how many Protestants in the post-Darwinian controversies made sophisticated moves towards resolution, while at the same time retaining significant parts of both their religion and the challenging theory of evolution. Cantor puts it like this:

Individuals try to make sense of their experience, which for each individual includes knowledge or beliefs concerning many diverse aspects of both religion and science. Individuals may perceive tensions within religion…and also within their view of science. Moreover, conflicts, tensions, dissonances, or whatever you want to call them are likely to occur between a person’s understanding of science and of religion. Historical actors who recognize these tensions will often try to minimize them (especially if the tensions lead to distress), one strategy being to frame a relevant problem for which a solution can be sought.

Conflict, in the sense that Cantor is arguing for, is not solely negative or destructive. “In the context of science and religion,” he argues, “conflict has been the engine of change, even perhaps of what we might call progress.” Cantor goes on to argue that conflict is “necessary for any innovation in science, in religion, but also in the science-religion domain.”

In addressing how internal conflicts morph into public controversy, Cantor examines the case of John William Draper. Following Festinger once more, he argues that one way to reduce dissonances is to reject compromise and instead try to convince others of the correctness of one’s own system. An example of this is found in Draper’s historical writings. As one of the first books to be structured on the idea of a preordained and necessary conflict between two opposing worldviews, Draper’s three-volume History of the American Civil War (1868-70) attributed the war to two hostile groups of states, the North and the South, the former being committed to freedom, the latter to slavery. This book was published only a few years before the publication of his more well-known History of the conflict between religion and science, this time postulating a preordained and necessary conflict between science and religion. Furthermore, Draper History of conflict “appeared very shortly after John Tyndall’s famous presidential address before the British Association in Belfast, for which Tyndall was widely criticized for endorsing materialism and therefore atheism.” The close temporal connection between Tyndall’s address and Draper’s back-to-back narratives of conflict makes one wonder whether individual psychology as well as social history needs to be employed in an explanation of the origins of our ideas of a conflict between science and religion.

Developments in both science and religion during the third quarter of the nineteenth century conspired to give the discourse of conflict a far higher cultural profile, extensive popularity, and social legitimacy than all the David Humes, Baron d’Holbachs, and Thomas Paines of the previous century.

This is but one course of conflict. More commonly, as in the cases of Nicolas Copernicus (1473-1543), Tycho Brahe (1546-1601), Francis Bacon (1561-1626), Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), Rene Descartes (1596-1650), Robert Boyle (1627-1691), and Isaac Newton (1642-1727), conflict and tensions, far from undermining religion, is necessary for its intellectual development.

Cantor’s parting thoughts hits close to home, as it is relevant to my own research interests. If he is correct in suggesting that the conflict thesis gained prominence in the 1870s, “why were books like Draper’s and White’s so influential? And what has sustained this myth for the last century and a half? What functions does it perform? And, lastly, why has it proved so difficult for revisionist historians to eradicate?”

Answering these questions is the task I have chosen to pursue in my doctoral research, which I have already noted and will continue to discuss in forthcoming entries. But I stand on the shoulders of a giant. John Hedley Brooke’s project has emphasized the complexity of individuals and their intellectual commitments, cautioning historians against trying to group people or ideas into pigeon-holes labeled “science” or “religion,” or historiographical ones labeled “conflict” or “harmony.” In 1991, he wrote that “serious scholarship in the history of science has revealed so extraordinary rich and complex a relationship between science and religion in the past that general theses are difficult to sustain…Much of the writing on science and religion has been structured by a preoccupation either with conflict or with harmony. It is necessary to transcend these constraints if the interaction, in all its richness and fascination, is to be appreciated.” Addressing a group of scholars in his Presidential Address to the British Society for the History of Science in Leeds in 1997, Brooke maintained that “as scholars in the field we can map the multiple spaces in which the sciences have taken shape and we can relish the differentiation.”


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