Few subjects elicit stronger responses than the relationship between science and religion. How best to characterize this relationship? According to recent historical work, “No generalization has proved more seductive and tenacious than that of ‘conflict.'” Such generalizations, or assumptions, are widely prevalent in contemporary culture. In popular press, in journalism, and even among some academic circles, science and religion are either portrayed as engaged in warfare, or that their relationship is one of mutual independence.
Historians for some time now have questioned this “conflict” or “warfare” metaphor. In its place many recent historians have promoted what has been called the “complexity thesis,” the idea that individuals of the past did not think of the relationship between science and religion as a simplistic matter of conflict or concord, but rather exhibited diverse patterns of understanding.
This message is reinforced in two books I have read this past week. The first is an earlier volume by David C. Lindberg and Ronald L. Numbers (eds.), God and Nature: Historical Essays on the Encounter between Christianity and Science (1986) and, more recently, and which has been quipped as the “Son of God and Nature,” their When Science and Christianity Meet (2003). Both books distance themselves from the warfare metaphor by providing case studies, ranging from “science and the early church” to “the Scopes Trial in history and legend,” that clearly demonstrate the complex—and often positive—interaction between science and religion. These studies are excellent history, correcting many past distortions, and can provide the basis for future scholarship.
Lindberg and Numbers begin their God and Nature with what has now become common parlance among historians of science. John William Draper’s History of Conflict between Religion and Science (1874) and Andrew Dickson White’s A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896) are accused of setting the “terms of the debate.” Draper had “abandoned the faith of his father for rational theism”; “Draper’s quarrel was almost exclusively with Roman Catholicism”; “Draper regarded the Protestant Reformation, with its insistence on the private interpretation of Scripture, as the ‘twin sister’ of modern science.” White, for his part, “began writing on science and religion as part of an effort to discredit religious critics envious of the funds given to his new university in Ithaca”; but he made a sharp distinction between religion and theology: “Religion…often fostered science; theology smothered it.”
While militaristic language continued unabated into the twentieth century, a number of scholars were beginning to downplay, or completely redefine, the conflict between science and Christianity. These included Alfred North Whitehead, Micheal B. Foster, Robert K. Merton, A. Hunter Dupree, Charles C. Gillispie, Paul H. Kocher, Giorgio de Santillana, Richard S. Westfall, John Dillenberger, Owen Chadwick, James R. Moore, Neal C. Gillespie, Frank M. Turner, Margaret C. Jacob, and numerous others. This recent work in the history science, according to Lindberg and Numbers, seeks “not only to describe the relationship between science and religion that prevailed at a given time but to ask, ‘Who put it forward, who used it, and what (and whose) interests did it serve?'” And the view most encountered throughout the chapters of God and Nature is that the relationship between science and religion “defies reduction to simple ‘conflict’ or ‘harmony.'”