Religion and Science: A Brief Note

Although published more than twenty-years ago, the essays “Science and Religion” (1985) and “Beyond War and Peace: A Reappraisal of the Encounter between Christianity and Science” (1986), written by Ronald L. Numbers and David C. Lindberg respectively, still serve well as introductions to the science-religion debate; and particularly well in introducing to the reader the figures John William Draper (1811-1882) and Andrew Dickson White (1832-1918).

Both authors focus more on A.D. White, for “no work—not even John William Draper’s best-selling History of the Conflict between Religion and Science (1874)—has done more than White’s to instill in the public mind a sense of the adversarial relationship between science and religion.” Indeed, White’s two-volume History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896) not only remains in print today, but has been translated into German, French, Italian, Swedish, and Japanese.

In 1869, when A.D. White was president of Cornell University, he lectured to a large audience at the Cooper Union in New York city on “The Battle-Fields of Science.” The lecture would be published the very next day by the New-York Daily Tribune. In that lecture White argued that

In all modern history, interference with Science in the supposed interest of religion—no matter how conscientious such interference may have been—has resulted in the direst evils both to Religion and Science, and invariably. And on the other hand all untrammeled scientific investigation, no matter how dangerous to religion some of its stages may have seemed, temporarily to be, has invariably resulted in the highest good of Religion and Science.

In the years following the Cooper Union address, A.D. White published, in 1876, a brief survey entitled The Warfare of Science, and from time to time the Popular Science Monthly published several articles by him on the “New Chapters in the Warfare of Science.” In 1896, he published his “magnum opus,” the History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom. “Along the way,” write Numbers and Lindberg, “he narrowed the focus on his attack: from ‘religion’ in 1869, to ‘ecclesiasticism’ in 1876…and finally to ‘dogmatic theology’ in 1896.” But the distinction was merely a rhetorical strategy, and as Numbers and Lindberg point out in a footnote, “the focus on dogmatic theology in his 1896 volumes seems to have been more of an afterthought—a misleading effort to distance himself from [John] William Draper.”

There follows a brief excursion on some of A.D. White’s claims in History of Warfare. Numbers focusing on the years between the American Revolution and Civil War, contrasts A.D. White with more recent scholarship, from Samuel Eliot Morison, Theodore Hornberger, Perry Miller, Donald Fleming, Henry F. May, Conrad Wright, Morgan B. Sherwood, James R. Moore, Richard Hofstadter, Walter P. Metzger, and many others, ranging from topics such as “Science and Religion in the Colonies,” “Science and Scripture in the Early Republic,” “The Darwinian Debates,” to “Science and Religion in Modern America.” Numbers concludes his survey that the “polemically attractive warfare thesis…[is] historically bankrupt.” A.D. White’s History of Warfare

assumes the existence of two static entities, ‘science’ and ‘religion,’ thus ignoring the fact that many of the debates focused on the questions of what should be considered ‘science’ and ‘religion’ and who should be allowed to define them; it distorts a complex relationship that rarely, if ever, found scientists and theologians in simple opposition; it celebrates the triumphs of science in whiggish fashion; and, all too often, it fails to treat religious ideas and institutions with the respect accorded to the realm of science

In Lindberg’s survey (written with Numbers), the focus is on early Christianity, the Copernican Revolution, the Galileo affair, the Darwinian debates, and the Scopes “monkey” Trial. The Church Fathers used Greek scientific knowledge in their defense of the faith, and thus occipied a prominent place in Christian worldview. In this sense, “science was thus the handmaiden of theology.” Copernicus was a Catholic church administrator from northern Poland, and a group of young Lutheran mathematical astronomers who worked under Philipp Melanchthon, Martin Luther’s reforming successor, welcomed his heliocentric astronomy. The Galileo affair was a multifaceted event, filled with opposing theories of biblical interpretation, personal and political factors, and must be seen within the context of the Reformation and the Council of Trent.  What is more, “all participants called themselves Christians, and all acknowledged biblical authority.” During the Darwinian debates, the clergy were among the first to embrace and popularize Darwin’s theory. Following James R. Moore, Numbers and Lindberg write, “the Darwinian debates created conflict, not between scientists and theologians, but within individual minds experiencing a ‘crisis of faith’ as they struggled to come to terms with new historical and scientific discoveries.”

If we “fail to escape the trap of assigning credit and blame,” conclude Numbers and Lindberg, “we will never properly appreciated the roles of science and Christianity in the shaping of Western culture; and that will deeply impoverish our understanding.”

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