If you ask many people today what they think about science’s relationship to religion, you are likely to be told that the two have been in conflict for a very long time.(1) There was the trial of Galileo by the Inquisition, for example, the debate between Wilberforce and Huxley, and there is still an on-going dispute over the teaching of evolution in American schools. These usual suspects may be trotted out whenever this topic is mentioned, but are events such as these really typical of the history of science as a whole?
Contrary to the impression given by some commentators, the conflict thesis between science and religion is one that has been discredited in academic circles for some time. The rise of science in the West was, of course, a very complicated affair in which many different factors played a part. There were certainly inevitable points of tension, but this does detract from the fact that Europe was a largely Christian continent in which religious individuals and institutions inevitably played a central role in the changes that occurred.
A number of the popular misconceptions about history are addressed in Ronald Numbers’ book, Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion.(2) One of the most famous examples is the “debate” between Bishop Samuel Wilberforce and T. H. Huxley (1860), which was actually an after-lecture discussion on the merits of Darwin’s work. The alleged clash was largely forgotten about until the 1890s, when it resurrected by those seeking to attack the power of the Anglican orthodoxy. By this point the scientific community had become more professionalized and some of its members realized the debate could be used to promote their already growing autonomy. The event was therefore portrayed as if it had been a portentous victory for science over religion, even though, at the time, neither side was said to have won and the discussion was held on purely scientific grounds.(3)
It is important, therefore, to be aware of how history is sometimes portrayed. Scholars no longer use the term “dark ages,” for example, because the description gives the false impression that this was a period of ignorance during which little development occurred. Rodney Stark suggests that there is a similar problem with the process known as the Enlightenment, because the term itself, coined by Voltaire, was appropriated by various militant atheists and humanists who sought to claim the credit for the rise of science. As Stark points out, “The falsehood that science required the defeat of religion was proclaimed by such self-appointed cheerleaders as Voltaire and Gibbon, who themselves played no part in the scientific enterprise.”(4) This depiction of the Enlightenment, as if it was some kind of clean secular break from the past, persists today, but, as John Coffey points out, it could be more accurately described as a religious process. This is because many of those at the vanguard of the movement were Protestants (though certainly not all orthodox) who sought to fuse religious and philosophical ideas together. This is not to deny the role of certain groups of atheist thinkers, but crucially these were not representative of the Enlightenment as a whole. Furthermore, Dominic Erdozain argues that you can trace a lot of the unbelief of the time back to expressly religious roots. It was a Christian conscience (rather than a secular or pagan one) that drove much of the Enlightenment thought and a poignant example of this was the way in which Voltaire often used Jesus—albeit his own interpretation of him—in order to attack the church.(5)
It is always helpful, therefore, to bear in mind John Hedley Brookes’ comments, when he reminds us that: “In many of the disputes that have been conventionally analyzed in terms of some notional relation between science and religion, the underlying issues were principally about neither science nor religion, nor the relationship between them, but were matters of social, ethical or political concern in which the authority of either science, religion or both was invoked (often on both sides) to defend a view held on other grounds…”(6)
As this suggests, simplistic ways of understanding history honor neither history nor the present.
Simon Wenham is research coordinator for Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Europe.
(1) Article adapted from Simon Wenham’s, “Making History: The ‘War’ Between Science and Religion,” Pulse, Issue 8 (Summer 2011), 2-4.
(2) R. Numbers, Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion (Boston: Harvard University Press, 2009).
(3) For further reading see J. R. Lucas Wilberforce and Huxley: A Legendary Encounter (available online).
(4) R. Stark, For the Glory of God (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003), 123.
(5) J. Coffey and D. Erdonzain, lectures given at The Dark Side of Christian History Conference, St Ebbe’s Church, Oxford, February 5, 2011.
(6) J. H. Brooke, Darwinism and Religion: A Revisionist View of the Wilberforce-Huxley Debate (lecture), at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, 26 February 2001 (available online).