Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Science & Religion: a second and historical look

Turns out, Christianity and science have walked further together than apart, at least that is the message of Profs. David Lindberg and Ronald Numbers. Taking on directly the popular and prevalent view that science and religion have always been at war with each other, Lindberg and Numbers maintain that historical investigation suggest otherwise. “Although it is not difficult,” they write, “to find instances of conflicts and controversy . . . recent scholarship has shown the warfare metaphor to be neither useful nor tenable.”[1]

The thread of antagonism they trace back to an American historian named Andrew Dickson White. White taught at the University of Michigan and served in the New York Senate before assuming the presidency of Cornell University, where he refused to impose any religious examination of students. He wanted to create an asylum for science, and some pious citizens did not approve. Therefore, in 1869, a thirty-seven year old White began a white-hot, lifelong anticrusade on behalf of science and against dogmatism, culminating in his two-volume History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom.

History of the Warfare has been amazingly successful in the intervening century. Translated into German, Italian, French, Swedish, and Japanese, it is still in print today. Not only, but modern historians still defend its conclusions. Bruce Mazlish, for example, has written in favor of White’s conclusions, saying that they are “beyond reasonable doubt,” a declaration to which the Harvard historian George Sarton would agree. Sarton went so far as believe that White’s thesis should be levied against non-Christian cultures.

Nevertheless, despite its dazzlingly dense references and “military rhetoric,” History of the Warfare is eisegetic in its interpretations. White was wrong, and Lindberg and Numbers are out to prove him so.

White claimed that Christianity “arrested the normal development of the physical sciences for over fifteen hundred years” crushing its appearance under the boot of superstition and ignorance. Is this true?

Lindberg and Numbers, beginning with the church fathers, find a more complicated truth. As it turns out, the church fathers took on the approach toward science that characterized the pagan cultures in which they lived. Some ignored science. Others believed that it had its place. Augustine, for example, believed that, though science could not dictate dogma, it should be respected in its sphere.[2]

It frequently happens that there is some question about the earth or the sky or the other elements of this world, the movement revolutions or even the size and distance of the stars, the regular eclipses of the sun and the moon, the course of the years and seasons; the nature of the animals, vegetables and minerals, and other things of the same kind, respecting which one who is not a Christian has knowledge derived from the most certain reasoning or observation. And it is highly deplorable and mischievous and a thing especially to be guarded against that he should hear a Christian speaking of such matters in accordance with Christian writings and uttering such nonsense that, knowing him to be as wide of the mark as . . . east is from west, the unbeliever can scarcely restrain himself from laughing.[3]

Christian apologists also found science useful—and their use of it helped preserve and extend what science was available in often tumultuous times. Science aided theology. Science was its handmaiden—a position far different from White, who would say they were enemies. As it is, “Christianity was not the enemy [of science], but a valued (if not entirely reliable) servant.” They worked in tandem with each other, and often the exchange was beneficial.[4]

One benefit of the relationship was that science gave Christianity categories which allowed it to dialogue with the world. “The notion that any serious Christian thinker would even have attempted to formulate a world view from the Bible alone is ludicrous.” Theologians could adapt parts of a worldview that are, well, worldly from the natural philosophy at their disposal. In the thirteen century, for example, theologians busily integrated Aristotelian categories, taking on it physical, metaphysical, and cosmological and integrating them with creedal fundamentum. This synthesizing process culminated in the condemnations of 1270 and 1277, whereby theologians and philosophers were forbidden to pursue certain Aristotelian positions, such as pure determinism.

Interestingly enough, Lindberg and Numbers deny that these condemnations prove intrinsic warfare. They maintain that the condemnations allowed thought to run outside the shadow of Aristotle. Fourteenth century attacks on Aristotelian dogma led to new questions, such as the rotation of the earth on its axis. Questions which otherwise may have languished. Further, the authors state the the condemnations also turned scientific questioning away from fruitless rationalism.

A central concern of the condemnation was the desire to preserve the sovereignty of God over creation. God is omnipotent over the material world, and this means that the physical laws that govern it are subject to the will of their creator and can be changed if necessary. And that meant that an investigation into underlying causes could very well be a fool’s errand.

The condemnations generated a certain skepticism about the ability of the human mind to penetrate with certainty to the underlying causes of observed events; this attitude encouraged the view that science should restrict its attention to empirical fact. . . . Four hundred years later, the idea of God’s absolute sovereignty and its corollary, the total passivity of matter, became central features of Isaac Newton’s mechanistic world view.”[5]

Lindberg and Numbers pursue their argument into the affairs of Copernicus and Galileo. In the case of Copernicus and the publication of his system in 1543, there was no reason for religion to attack Copernicus and every reason to hear his voice as one of many. The rotation of the earth had already been proposed by Nicole Oresme, a bishop of the fourteen century, and Nicholas of Cusa, a cardinal of the fifteenth. Various members of the church, including a bishop and a cardinal, urged Copernicus to publication, and his manuscript was dedicated to Pope Paul III. A young Lutheran mathematician, Georg Jachim Rheticus, saw it through the printing process. And the theologian Andreas Osiander wrote its preface. Organized Catholic opposition to Copernicus didn't appear until the seventeenth century. “The church,” they say, “had more important things to worry about than a new astronomical or cosmological system.” Up-and-coming mathematicians “adopted Copernicanism simply as a mathematical reform, offering a better way of predicting planetary positions, while overlooking or rejecting the radical thesis that the earth really moves.”

Where Galileo was concerned, the issue was not science versus religion but politics and the question of Scriptural interpretation. Galileo and his telescope came on the scene amidst the wagon-circling activities of the Roman Catholic church during the Counter-Reformation. The Protestant Reformation had waged a now seventy-year-old argument with Roman Catholicism on many fronts, one of the most divisive being biblical interpretation. The Council of Trent (1545-1563) forbid scriptural interpretation on any matter of faith or practice “contrary to the sense determined by the Holy Mother Church.” And Galileo’s teaching did just that. Galileo argued that nature and scripture were two organs of divine revelation, and that reason was their proper interpreter, not the Church. When questioned, his science was not unique enough to support his hermeneutics; other natural explanations, such as that provided by Tycho Brahe, served well enough and did not run afoul of orthodoxy. At best Galileo raised questions about the relationship between reason and revelation. At worst, he acted imprudently by mixing scientific observation and hermeneutical method. Nevertheless, as Lindberg and Numbers state, the Galileo affair is an ecclesial one. Everyone involved identified themselves as Christian and acknowledged the centrality of the Bible. The struggle was between opposing theories of biblical interpretation: Trent’s conservative position versus Galileo’s liberal one. Both positions could claim an intellectual tradition, but neither existed apart from militant politics in Galileo’s day; his flair for cultivating powerful enemies notwithstanding.

The story of Charles Darwin and The Origin of Species falls along similar lines to those of Copernicus. Once again, the publication of Darwin’s ideas finds a religious atmosphere eager to dialogue with or even absorb his views. “Clergy were among the first to embrace and popularize [Darwin’s] hypothesis.” Nevertheless, Andrew White brings up the matter of Samuel Wilberforce, the Bishop of Oxford, and so it is helpful to look closer at what Wilberforce actually said.

It is a bit of a history-of-science, isn’t-Darwinism-fantastic chestnut that, on June 30, 1860, in an address to the British Association for the Advancement of Science, Wilberforce condemned Darwinism for contradicting the Bible. He is reported to have said, “that he was not descended from a monkey.”

Upon hearing this remark, Darwin’s friend the zoologist Thomas Huxley shot back: “If I had to choose, I would prefer to be a descendant of a humble monkey rather than of a man who employs his knowledge and eloquence in misrepresenting those who are wearing out their lives in the search for the truth.”

As legend has it, the Bishop shot back and asked Huxley whether it was “on your grandfather or grandmother’s side that you claim descent from the apes.” To which Huxley rejoined, “I would rather be descended from an ape than a bishop.” (The authors note that J. R. Lucas and others have demonstrated this story to be apocryphal.)

What White fails to mention is that Bishop Wilberforce had earlier written that he would be willing to embrace the theory of natural selection if it proved correct.

If Mr. Darwin can with the same correctness of reasoning [as Newton] demonstrate to us our fungular descent, we shall dismiss our pride, and avow, with the characteristic humility of philosophy, our unsuspected cousinship with the mushrooms . . . only we shall ask leave to scrutinise carefully every step of the argument which has such an ending, and demur if at any point of it we are invited to substitute unlimited hypothesis for patient observation. . . . We have no sympathy with those who object to any fact or alleged facts in nature, or to any inference logically deduced from them, because they believe them to contradict what it appears is taught by Revelation.[6]

Darwin said the Bishop’s review was “uncommonly clever,” and said that Wilberforce “picks out with skill all the most conjectural parts [of the Origin], and brings forward well all the difficulties.” Wilberforce was no idiot.

Lindberg and Numbers outline several different theories that attempt to understand the subsequent conflict over Darwinism. I will list them here:

(1) James R. Moore says that the Darwinian debates occur not between scientists and theologians, but in individual minds struggling to come to terms with the new paradigm, a “conflict of minds steeped in Christian tradition with the ideas and implications of Darwinism.”

(2) Neil C. Gillespie argues that the conflict was between competing systems of science or “epistemes.” “Because the new episteme for science differed from the old in having within it no place for theology, serious questions were thereby raised that made the conflict” very real. The conflict rose from transformations within science, not as a result of a war between scientists and the religious.

(3) Frank M. Turner sees the conflict as a result of a change in priestly class. The authority and prestige of one group of intellectuals was passing to another, including political control of education and the social power of religious dogma and explanation. In Turner’s view, the conflict is as much a social and political as intellectual.

In the end, the picture Lindberg and Numbers paint between religion and science is a human one. People in the day-to-day struggle to come to terms with what they know and how they know it: religious ideas and scientific ones bleed, inform, and bump each other as a reflection of the minds of the people and the cultures that contain them. “Christianity and science alike,” they conclude, “have been profoundly shaped by their relations with each other.” What is needed is an ideological history that refuses the simple—and thus seductive—answers of White and warfare and commits itself to the difficult, nuanced, but worthwhile retelling of the story.


The above largely taken from the article by David C. Lindberg and Ronald L. Numbers. “Beyond War and Peace: A Reappraisal of the Encounter between Christianity and Science.” Church History 55 (1986): 338-54. A similar article appeared as the introduction to God and Nature: Historical Essays on the Encounter Between Christianity and Science. University of California Press, 1986.

[1] As a critique to the warfare metaphor, the authors also cite James R. Moore, The Post-Darwinian Controversies: A Study of the Protestant Struggle to Come to Terms with Darwin in Great Britain and America, 1870-1900 (Cambridge, 1979), 19-122. See also Ronald L. Numbers, “Science and Religion” in Historical Writings on American Science, ed. Sally Gregory Kohlstedt and Margaret W. Rossiter, Osiris 1, 2d ser. (1985): 59-80.

[2] Augustine, Enchiridion 3:9.

[3] Augustine. De genesi ad litteram 1.19; trans. Meyrick H. Carre, Realists and Nominalists (London, 1946), 19. For another translation, see Augustine, The Literal Meaning of Genesis, trans. John Hammond Taylor, S.J., 2 vols., Ancient Christian Writers 41-42 (New York, 1982), 1:42-43.

[4] See also David C. Lindberg, “Science and the Early Church” in God and Nature, 19-58.

[5] For a good account of the effects of the condemnation, see Edward Grant, “The Condemnations of 1277, God’s Absolute Power, and Physical Thought in the Late Middle Ages,” Viator 10 (1979): 211-44; reprinted in Edward Grant Studies in Medieval Science and Natural Philosophy (London, 1981), article 13.; Gary Deason, “Reformation Theology and the Mechanistic Conception of Nature,” in God and Nature, 181-85.

[6] J. R. Lucas, “Wilberforce and Huxley: A Legendary Encounter,” The Historical Journal 22 (1979): 313-30. See also Sheridan Gilley, “The Huxley-Wilberforce Debate: A Reconsideration,” in Religion and Humanism, ed. Keith Rommins, Studies in Church History 17 (Oxford, 1981), 325-40.

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