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Are Science and Religion in Conflict?

We can divide this question into three components. First, do people generally believe that science and religion are in conflict? Second, does the historical record suggest an enduring or inevitable clash between science and religion? Third, ought science and religion be in conflict?

Note that the first two questions concern matters of fact that, in principle at least, should admit of relatively straightforward answers. Sociology can help us with the first question; history with the second. The third question is trickier, since it takes us from the sphere of empirical fact to that of norms and values — from what is the case to what ought to be the case. In this essay, I will take up these three questions in turn, devoting most attention to the last two.

Conflict in the Present
There’s an abundance of sociological data that can help us answer the first question. Here on Big Questions Online, Jonathan Hill provides an excellent survey of American attitudes toward science and religion in his essay “Do Americans Believe Science and Religion Are in Conflict?” According to Hill, while the data suggest that a slight majority of Americans believe that science and religion are in conflict, they do so for different reasons.

Some think that science and religion deal with different questions, and that conflict arises only when one or the other steps outside of its proper domain. So while conflicts do sometimes occur, they are not inevitable and do not signal an inherent incompatibility between science and religion. Another subgroup of Americans worries about conflicts between religion and specific aspects of science. According to the latest Pew survey, from October 2015, the primary issue for these people is evolution, with general concerns about belief in God and miracles in second place, and abortion and beginning-of-life issues in third place. Here the perceived conflict is genuine, though it doesn’t concern science in general, but only the knowledge generated by a particular field of science, or certain interpretations of the scientific outlook, or the moral and social implications of particular biomedical and reproductive technologies. The third subgroup, by contrast, perceives a genuine and inherent conflict between religion and science in general. They believe, in diametric opposition to the first subgroup, that science and religion compete directly to answer the same kinds of questions and that conflicts are therefore inevitable. About half of this subgroup plumps for science, half for religion.

In sum, very few Americans — seventeen percent of the total sample — believe in a genuine conflict between science and religion. And those who do believe that science and religion have overlapping explanatory domains, making such conflict inevitable.

Conflict in the Past
If it is true that conflict between science and religion is inevitable, it seems likely that the historical record will reveal an enduring pattern of this conflict. History, in other words, has the potential to corroborate or to challenge the beliefs held by those in the third subgroup identified above.

The history of the relationship between science and religion has enjoyed considerable scrutiny over the past thirty years, and the overwhelming verdict of historians of science is that there is no enduring pattern of conflict. Following the pioneering work of British historian John Hedley Brooke and American historians David C. Lindberg and Ronald L. Numbers, most now believe that what we see in the past is a complex range of relations between science and religion — some negative, many more positive, and others more or less neutral.

One reason for this is that the relevant disciplines were arranged very differently in the past. For medieval thinkers — and indeed for many thinkers up until the nineteenth century — theology itself was classified among the sciences. If theology is a science, the idea of a conflict between theology and “science” makes a lot less sense. In fact, our modern, Anglophone understanding of science as the specialized, formal study of nature arguably arose only in the nineteenth century. Before that, natural philosophy and natural history were considered to be exemplary sciences — roughly equivalent to what today we would call “science.”

However, a key difference was that past disciplines such as natural philosophy and natural history were not naturalistic in the same way as modern science today. Indeed, they often included references to God and were directed towards the discovery of God’s design of the natural world. Religion, in short, was to some extent integrated into both natural history and natural philosophy. (My recent book, The Territories of Science and Religion, deals in detail with this aspect of the history of science and religion.)

Yet another reason why the historical interactions between science and religion are complex is that religious considerations can impact the scientific study of nature in a number of different ways. For instance, many scientific innovators throughout history were explicitly motivated in their scientific endeavors by religious considerations. To name just two, Johannes Kepler regarded his astronomy as a form of divine praise, while Robert Boyle characterized scientists as “priests of nature.” Other scientists saw their work as having religious goals, including Isaac Newton, who hoped the principles outlined in his famous Principia Mathematica might promote “belief of a Deity.”

Religion also provided social legitimation for science throughout history by demonstrating how scientific practices can be religiously useful. Francis Bacon, for example, maintained that modern science could help the human race re-establish its God-given dominion over nature — a gift that had been lost in the primeval Fall. Bacon also insisted that because scientific advances promoted human welfare, science was itself a form of Christian charity.

Finally, religion could furnish the presuppositions upon which science itself is based. At the time of the seventeenth-century scientific revolution, the new conception of laws of nature was a thoroughly theological idea which relied on the assumption that God was always and everywhere exerting a causal influence on the world in a regular and lawful way.

Of course, there were negative interactions, too. Here the famous Galileo affair is hard to ignore. But, in fact, this was not a straightforward case of science-religion conflict at all. At the time, there was compelling scientific evidence against the Copernican view defended by Galileo. Moreover, the condemnation of Galileo was quite atypical of the Catholic Church, which had for centuries been the most prominent supporter of astronomical research in Europe.

Another place where scientific discoveries led to genuine tensions between science and religion is, of course, the advent of Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. But here we should remember that Darwin had both religious supporters and scientific detractors, suggesting that there was more going on that just straightforward “conflict.”

This survey, however brief, suggests that the historical record does not support the view that science and religion are in enduring conflict. If anything, the preponderance of the evidence suggests more positive relations.

Ought Science and Religion Be in Conflict?
One of the puzzles facing historians of science is where the idea of an enduring conflict between science and religion — “the conflict myth,” as it is known — comes from, and why it remains so prevalent today. A brief analysis of the origins and persistence of this myth will help shed light on our third question, “Ought science and religion be in conflict?”

Historians of science typically locate the origins of the conflict myth in the late nineteenth century. The key texts here are John William Draper’s History of the Conflict between Religion and Science (1874) and Andrew Dickson White’s History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896). Together these books project back into the historical record a narrative of ongoing conflict. (To these works we could add John Tyndall’s “Belfast Address” (1874) and various writings of “Darwin’s Bulldog,” Thomas Henry Huxley.)

Draper and White offer extensive and influential catalogues of putative instances of conflict. The Galileo affair figures prominently in both, along with historical examples now discredited (or complicated) by historical research: Hypatia’s death at the hands of a Christian mob; medieval belief in a flat earth; papal excommunication of a comet; the Church’s ban on dissection; Copernicus’s dethroning of humanity; and Bruno’s execution as a martyr to science. (For a dispatching of many of these myths, see Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion, edited by Ronald L. Numbers.)

The motivations of the progenitors of the conflict myth varied. Draper’s book is less about science and religion than science and Catholicism. It was stimulated in part by contemporary issues concerning Catholicism, not least the promulgation of the controversial and conservative Syllabus of Errors (1864) and the declaration of papal infallibility at the first Vatican Council (1869–70). White had been wounded by staunch clerical opposition to the founding of Cornell University, one of the first American institutions of higher learning to lack a religious affiliation. In England, a key element of the motivations of Huxley and Tyndall was their desire to professionalize science, advance its social status, and liberate it from the domination of the Anglican clergy.

But irrespective of the motivations of these historical actors, in the background of all these works lay an influential nineteenth-century understanding of historical progress. In essence, this was the view, made famous by Auguste Comte, that human societies naturally evolve through defined stages — beginning, for example, with magic and superstition, progressing through religion and philosophy, and ending with modern science. Viewed through this historiographical lens, local tensions between science and religion could be viewed as skirmishes in a long, historical battle that science was destined to win. The conflict myth, then, was more than a long catalogue of purported instances of conflict; it exemplified a particular vision of history as it related to contemporary circumstances.

The motivations of contemporary advocates of the conflict myth can be understood in a similar way. Specific events — such as parochial controversies concerning the teaching of evolution in schools or, on a larger scale, the tragic events of 9/11 — are supposed to exemplify this larger clash between science and religion. However, while the originators of the conflict myth could comfort themselves with the conceit that they were witnessing the final stages of a struggle that science was destined to win, that cherished narrative of inevitable progress has now lost some of its luster.

The persistence of religion and the apparent inadequacy of the secularization thesis — whether celebrated or lamented — represent a serious challenge to the nineteenth-century conviction that all human societies are destined to divest themselves of the trappings of religion and smoothly transition to science-friendly, secular modernity. This has generated a new urgency among the more extreme advocates of conflict, for whom science remains our best chance to crush religion and facilitate the emergence of a brave new scientific society. Thus “Science Must Destroy Religion” is the mantra of Sam Harris and the new atheists. This is a moral imperative: Harris urges scientists to relinquish their sentimental religious tolerance and devote themselves to “blasting the hideous fantasies of a prior age.” This view is both naïve in its understanding of the historical process and sinister in its vision of the future.

On the other side, there are those who maintain that science and religion ought to be in conflict because they reject the theory of evolution on religious grounds. At one level, this battle is not between science and religion but between evolution and (some types of) Christianity. In fact, creationists and intelligent-design proponents are, in a sense, quite science-friendly, insofar as they seek to invest their religious beliefs with scientific prestige and believe that evolution is not genuinely scientific. But here, too, there is a larger ideological picture.

These critics of evolutionary theory think that it is to be resisted not simply because it is incompatible with certain religious beliefs but because it brings with it an amalgam of undesirable moral values. Evolution is regarded as a de-humanizing ideology that erases the distinction between humans and animals and, by so doing, undermines the foundation of moral morality and social order. This suggests an interesting symmetry between the two sides of the debate, with each holding that “science” is the bearer of a larger set of normative commitments.

Also relevant in this context is the belief, discussed above, that conflict arises when either science or religion strays beyond its legitimate boundaries. In the case of religion, this typically occurs when the doctrine of creation — which traditionally concerned the world’s metaphysical dependence upon God and posited a special relationship between God and creatures — is conflated with scientific arguments about temporal beginnings. This can lead to a contamination of science by religion as well as of religion by science.

In the case of science, the danger is that of scientism, the claim that science provides a unique and privileged source of truth on all matters. There are many reasons to resist this tendency. As philosopher Ray Monk reminds us, there are many questions that do not have scientific answers because they were not legitimate scientific questions to begin with. Many of these questions concern the things that are most important of all: faith, hope, love, truth, beauty, and goodness — these do not lie in the territory of science. All of us — including scientists — have an interest in resisting the barren intellectual monoculture of scientism.

In conclusion, most people do not believe in an inherent conflict between science and religion, and the historical evidence suggests that they are correct. If we look beneath the surface when tensions do arise, we typically find deep-seated conflicts between values that have only tenuous connections to science and religion.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What are the legitimate boundaries of science and religion, and who gets to determine what they are?
  1. Is conflict between science and religion ever a good thing? If so, in what circumstances?
  1. Are the patterns of belief about the science-religion conflict in the United States typical of other Western countries, or is the U.S. a special case? What about elsewhere in the world?
  1. Why has the conflict myth persisted despite convincing refutations by historians of science?

Discussion Summary

My essay suggested that there are three ways of approaching the question “Are Science in Religion in Conflict?” (1) Do people generally believe that science-religion conflict exists, and if so, is it inevitable? (2) Does history bear witness to a repeated pattern of science-religion conflict? (3) Should there be conflict between science and religion?

On the first point, the sociological evidence suggests that only a small minority believe that conflict between science and religion is inevitable, or inherent in the very nature of science and religion. That said, significantly more people — in the US context at least — see conflicts over specific issues, particularly around evolution and potential applications of the biomedical sciences. Regarding the issue of historical conflict, I pointed out that the almost unanimous verdict of historians of science is that there is no consistent pattern of opposition between science and religion. The third question takes us into the realm of normative judgments. My own view is that if science and religion remain within their proper spheres, conflict is very unlikely. Conflict, then, is justified when one or the other steps beyond its legitimate domain.

Many of the comments, in various ways, focused on this last issue, which concerns the legitimate bounds of science and religion, and whether it’s possible to provide clear definitions that delimit the scope and methods of these two activities. One common, if somewhat misleading characterization is that science relies on reason and/or evidence, while religion relies upon faith. A more formal version of this distinction, proposed by a number of discussants, was that science makes claims that are in principle falsifiable, while religion does not. If true, this would suggest that scientific claims have an evidential basis that religious beliefs lack. On this view, conflict arises because of a clash between warranted (i.e. scientific) beliefs and unwarranted (i.e. religious) beliefs.

My response to this was to point out a number of known difficulties with the criterion of falsification — not least of which is that science simply doesn’t work that way, never has, and never should. In fact, the knowledge claims advanced within the spheres of science and religion are both made on the basis of experiences of various kinds, and these experiences are typically not publically available. Thus, being subject to the relevant experience requires participation in a community of one kind or another, or access to a particular tradition regarded as authoritative. This is not to say that the knowledge claims of science and religion are essentially of the same kind — rather that the question of justification of beliefs is relevant to both spheres, and that the justification of scientific theories is not necessarily any more straightforward than the justification of religious beliefs. Both occur within particular contexts. In the case of science these are experimental setups, research programs or paradigms, and a scientific literature. In the case of religion, these are communities engaged in religious practices of various kinds, and (often) canonical documents produced within such communities.

More broadly, this discussion leads us to two further sets of exploratory questions. One has to do with the nature of science, how scientific theories change over time, and the justification of scientific theories. The other concerns the more general question of the foundation of and warrant for beliefs: how is it that beliefs are justified in the first place? And how do we know when this process of justification comes to an end?

New Big Questions: 

  1. Is there a single scientific method and, if so, how does it guarantee the reliability of scientific knowledge?
  1. What does the history of science which, pessimistically viewed, could be regarded as a record of the successive failure of scientific theories, tell us about the nature of science?
  1. How are beliefs (religious and scientific) justified? Is there an end to justification?