Science and religion in conflict? Maybe not so much.


The recent award of the Templeton Prize (which is given to a person who has made an “exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension“) to Lord Martin Rees, the former president of the Royal Society, was deemed controversial in that Lord Rees, an atheist, has never explicitly written about spiritual matters.

But James Hannam, a expert in the History of Science, points out that the controversy presumes that there’s a fundamental distinction between scientific and religious thought. According to Hannam that distinction doesn’t exist.

“The old story of an eternal conflict between science and religion is now universally rejected by historians. The conflict myth was a product of particular political disputes at particular historical moments. The claim that the Catholic Church had impeded scientific progress, for instance, was a way for Voltaire and his fellow philosophes in ancien régime France to attack the absolutist monarchy. The myth reached its final form with Andrew Dickson White’s A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896). It was, for White, a handy weapon in his struggle to curtail clerical influence at his new foundation of Cornell University.

Much of the evidence that White assembled to demonstrate that Christianity had held back science has turned out to be bogus. Contrary to popular belief, the Church has never taught that the Earth is flat. Indeed, everyone in the Middle Ages was well aware it is a sphere. Many other examples are alleged of religion holding back science. Popes, we are told, tried to ban human dissection, lightning rods, and even the number zero. We even still hear that Pope Callixtus III tried to excommunicate Halley’s Comet. It is hard to believe that anyone who considers themselves a rational skeptic could have believed that tale. And while there can be no justification for burning heretics, the deaths of Giordano Bruno and Michael Servetus had nothing to do with science. No one has ever been burnt at the stake for scientific views. In fact, the only important scientist ever to be executed was Antoine Lavoisier, the father of modern chemistry. He was guillotined during the French revolutionary terror by the avowedly anti-Christian Jacobins.

This leaves just two significant examples of a clash between science and religion: Galileo and Darwin. Galileo was put on trial in 1633 for claiming that the earth revolves around the sun. Although the trial is now recognized to have been caused by papal egotism as much as by science, the whole debacle remains a catastrophic mistake by the Church that it took far too long to correct. But it should not overshadow an otherwise harmonious association between Christianity and science. As for evolution, Francis Collins and, indeed, the current pope show you can perfectly well be a Christian and a Darwinist.

Christianity may even have had a positive role in the rise of science. Christians believe that God created the world and ordained the laws of nature. He is the guarantor of constant and rational laws, such that investigating the world can consequently be a religious duty. It’s easy to forget that, until the 19th century, science had almost no practical applications. A religious imperative to study nature provided almost the only reason to bother doing it. It’s no surprise that so many scientific pioneers were devout men: Johannes Kepler, Sir Isaac Newton, Joseph Priestley, Michael Faraday, Georg Mendel, and James Clerk Maxwell, to name just a few.”

Full article here.

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