I’ve watched with interest (and a little consternation) the recent debate in the “Letters to the Editor” section of this newspaper on the topic of creation versus evolution. The sense I get from the letters is that each writer is taking a stance for or against science or the Bible. I suspect that the underlying assumption behind this is that there has been and probably always will be a war between science and religion. Some are on the side of science and some on the side of Scripture but all acknowledge the war.
Without getting into the creation versus evolution debate, I want to challenge this view that for centuries there has been a war between science and religion. “What?” some of you are saying, “How can you deny it? Don’t you know your history?” Well, let’s look at some of that history.
Perhaps the most influential and frequently cited book ever written on the relation between science and religion is John William Draper’s History of the Conflict between Religion and Science (1874). Despite the fact that numerous “facts” contained in this book have been completely discredited by modern historians, this book continues to be cited today and many of its claims have become “common knowledge” for many people. It is largely through the influence of this book that a lot of people continue to believe that, for centuries, the Church has opposed scientific progress.
In contrast to this view, many historians today are taking a fresh look at the evidence and coming to vastly different conclusions. While it is true that one could cite numerous historical instances of conflicts between religious people and scientists, over the centuries religion has been much more of a friend to science than a foe. In relation to Roman Catholicism, for instance, historian Lawrence Principe has argued that “it is clear from the historical record that the Catholic church has been probably the largest single and longest-term patron of science in history . . . and that several Catholic institutions and perspectives were key influences upon the rise of modern science.”
Further, there is no question that, historically speaking, many prominent scientists were also committed Christians. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries particularly, science was buttressed by the strong conviction held by many scientists that the study of the world and its processes is an inherently religious activity. Johannes Kepler, the famous German mathematician and astronomer, was a devout Lutheran who claimed that all he was doing was “thinking God’s thoughts after Him.” The father of modern science, Isaac Newton, was a committed Christian who is said to have devoted even more time to the study of Scripture than he did to the scientific enterprise. Physicist Robert Boyle claimed he studied the natural world in order to gain insight into the wisdom of its Creator. The father of modern philosophy, René Descartes, believed that his philosophy was in agreement with the truths of his faith. Countless other scientists also had no problem integrating their scientific beliefs into their religious worldview.
Perhaps the greatest single piece of fiction that has fueled the myth of the war between science and religion is that around the great astronomer, Galileo Galilei. The popular view of Galileo is that due to his advocacy of the theory of the earth’s motion, he was persecuted and tried by the Inquisition and then imprisoned and tortured. Contemporary historians, however, have challenged this view, arguing that Galileo was probably neither tortured nor imprisoned for his beliefs and, indeed, was free to believe what he wanted. To quote historian Jole Shackelford: “The Catholic church did not impose thought control on astronomers, and even Galileo was free to believe what he wanted about the position and mobility of the earth, so long as he did not teach the Copernican hypothesis as a truth on which Holy Scripture had no bearing.”
To listen to some so-called scholars today, one would get the impression that the history of science and religion is nothing more than a story of continual conflict. Let’s not fall for this myth. Let’s contribute to dialogue not division. Whether the issue is creation versus evolution, stem cell research, environmental issues, or homosexuality let’s allow all sides to have a seat around the table and see if, together, their voices can give us a fuller, richer understanding of the issues.
For those interested in delving deeper into the relationship between science and religion, I recommend reading a wonderful little book edited by Ronald L. Numbers, entitled, Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion. This book was a source for much of this article and treats the issue of science and religion in a balanced and mature manner.