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Distilling the conflict myth

Science, religion and the search for truth

IT IS OFTEN assumed that the history of the relations between science and religion is one of unremitting conflict.

The prime examples are Galileo’s condemnation by the Inquisition in 1633 and the religious opposition elicited by Darwin’s theory of evolution on its inception in 1859.

While this view continues to exercise a great hold on the public imagination, historians of science have long considered “the conflict myth” to be deeply misleading.

It is clear that modern science emerged within the Christian West and that various elements of Christian thought played a positive role in its development.

The scientific revolution of the seventeenth century, which laid the foundations for modern science, was underpinned by religious assumptions and given social legitimacy by religion.

Virtually all of the principal agents of this revolution cherished deep religious convictions.

Johannes Kepler, the brilliant mathematical astronomer who discovered the laws of planetary motion, had originally hoped to become a Lutheran pastor and regarded himself as a “priest of nature”.

Francis Bacon, who laid the foundations for modern scientific method, considered the whole scientific enterprise to be a kind of salvific activity, intended to recover some of the losses that accrued to the human race as a consequence of Adam’s fall.

Robert Boyle, the father of experimental science and a key figure in the early Royal Society, was a deeply committed Christian. He described scientific activity as reasonable worship of God (alluding to Romans 12:1).

Isaac Newton, best known of the pioneers of modern science, wrote many more works on religious topics than on scientific ones.

The study of nature, for Newton, led inevitably to God.

But what about the Galileo affair?

Does it challenge this picture of religious support for science?

First, it should be said that Galileo was a pious and committed Catholic.

It is also important to understand that at the time, his claims were not merely religiously controversial, they were scientifically problematic as well.

At the time there was significant evidence against them and the consensus among astronomers was that Galileo was mistaken.

His chief Catholic opponent, Cardinal Bellarmine, had conceded that if a proof for the motion of the earth could be offered, it would be necessary to reinterpret the Bible accordingly.

But Galileo did not have direct proof and one of his chief arguments (based on the tides) was simply wrong.

The Galileo affair was also, to some extent, a symptom of the Catholic Church’s reaction to challenges to its authority.

But this isolated episode was in no way typical of Catholic attitudes towards science.

From the late Middle Ages to the beginning of the eighteenth century no institution gave more support to the study of astronomy in Europe than the Catholic Church.

The Church had been the sponsor of the medieval universities — the chief sites of scientific activity in Europe.

The other supposed example of historical conflict between science and religion — the advent of the theory of evolution by natural selection — shares some features with the Galileo affair.

Significant initial resistance to Darwin’s On The Origin of Species (1859) came from scientific quarters.

It was thought, based on the estimates of the age of the earth given by the leading physicist of the day, Lord Kelvin, that there was insufficient time for evolution to have taken place. Neither was it clear, in the absence of a reliable genetic theory, how the mechanism of natural selection could operate.

If Darwin has scientific critics, he also had religious supporters.

The clergyman Charles Kingsley, best known as author of The Water Babies, wrote that Darwin’s theory offered a “loftier view of God’s work in the creation” than special creation.

That said, the nineteenth century did witness the birth of the conflict myth.

However, this was owing as much to the activities of such apologists for science as ‘Darwin’s bulldog’ T. H. Huxley as to religious opponents of Darwinism.

Huxley and others consciously promoted the myth of a perennial conflict between science and religion as part of a mission to establish the cultural authority of the sciences.

In the ensuing propaganda war, both the Galileo affair and Darwin’s Origin were presented as exemplifying a supposedly age-old conflict between the two great cultural forces of science and religion.

But Darwin himself never doubted the compatibility of his theory with belief in God.

In May 1879 he wrote to James Fordyce: “It seems to me absurd to doubt that a man may be an ardent theist and an evolutionist … I have never been an atheist in the sense of denying the existence of God.”

In the twenty-first century, both scientific and religious fundamentalists have perpetuated the myth that conflict between science and religion is inevitable.

History shows that this was not true of the past.

It need not be true of the present and future either.

Professor Peter Harrison is Andreas Idreos Professor of Science and Religion at the University of Oxford and a Fellow of Harris Manchester College.

His main research area is early modern intellectual and cultural history with a focus on philosophy, religion, and science.

He is also the author of The Fall of Man and the Foundations of Science (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), The Bible, Protestantism, and the Rise of Natural Science (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), and ‘Religion’ and the Religions in the English Enlightenment (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990)