Jason Rosenhouse asks us if we think there’s anything wrong with the following sentence, taken from Thomas Dixon’s book Science and Religion: A Very Short Introduction:
Historians have shown that the Galileo affair, remembered by some as a clash between science and religion, was primarily about the enduring political question of who was authorized to produce and disseminate knowledge.
Personally, I’m not actually sure that there’s much wrong with that statement at all – at most, I’d question the use of the word “primarily”. Jason, however, disagrees a bit more strenuously:
Why was Pope Urban VIII so threatened by Galileo’s ideas? Why didn’t the church simply laugh at Galileo, and tell him condescendingly to go keep playing with his telescope while the grown-ups talked about more serious things? The reason was that the Pope’s authority was based entirely on the idea that he stood in a privileged relation to God, uniquely able to interpret scripture. If someone like Galileo could use science to challenge his claims, then the entire basis for the church’s power would be seriously weakened. Ironically, DIxon himself explains this very clearly in the sentence immediately following the one above:
In the world of Counter-Reformation Rome, in the midst of the Thirty Years War, which continued to pit the Protestant and Catholic powers of Europe against each other, Galileo’s claim to be able to settle questions about competing sources of knowledge through his own individual reading and reasoning seemed the height of presumption and a direct threat to the authority of the Church.
If that is not the description of a conflict between science and religion then I do not know what is.
That is, in fact, a good description of a conflict between science and religion, and I’d have to agree that Dixon’s characterization of the event as one that’s primarily political really doesn’t do justice to the episode. At the same time, though, I’m almost as inclined to question any attempt to characterize the event as being primarily a science/religion conflict.
When you get right down to it, the Galileo affair was almost irreducibly complex. The very real conflict between science and religion over who gets to declare what the physical world was certainly a major factor, but it was only one of many. The political context – particularly as it involved challenges to the secular power of the church – was also important. So were the many longstanding interpersonal conflicts between the participants. So were the religious and political disputes involving various factions within the church. I’m not sure you can point to any one of those factors as being clearly the most important one involved.
While I’m at least partially in agreement with Jason over the problem with Dixon’s view of the Galileo affair, I’m entirely on Dixon’s side when it comes to the more modern ID/creationism issue. Here’s Jason’s perspective:
Dixon plays this gambit again when talking about evolution and creationism:
The debate about evolution and ID is a conflict not primarily between science and religion but between different views about who should control education.
But why is the control of education such a contentious issue? It is because fundamental questions about sources of knowledge are at stake. Young-Earth creationists believe the Bible constitutes a source of evidence that trumps anything a scientist might discover. Furthermore, failure to recognize that fact places your eternal soul in danger. From the other side scientists believe (with considerable justice, I would add) that their methods are far more reliable than those of religion. Failure to recognize that fact assaults reason and rationality themselves. The ID folks are religiously more diverse than the YEC’s, but the source of the dispute is effectively the same.
How is that not primarily a dispute between science and religion?
If I thought that education was such a contentious issue because of the conflict over sources of knowledge, I’d have to agree with Jason. But I’m pretty sure it’s not. It is true that creationists have a very different view of what constitutes an appropriate source of knowledge about the physical world than most scientists do, but that is not the source of the education conflict. If the creationists were willing to teach their views only in their churches – something that nobody challenges their right to do – the conflict would not exist.
Look at the Amish, for example. I’m honestly not sure what their view of evolution is, but I strongly suspect that a group that is religiously opposed to automobiles, television, and electric lighting does not view science as a source of authoritative knowledge. Their views on these topics do not create controversy because they have no problem with keeping their beliefs within their own community. They do not ask to be allowed to require our children to be educated in accordance with their views; they educate their children themselves, and leave the rest of us alone. Their views may be incompatible with science, but they do not cause controversy the way that creationists do.
The conflict arises when creationists attempt to force their religious views onto the children of other people, who do not necessarily share those views. That’s not a dispute over what the most authoritative source of knowledge is; that’s a dispute over the exercise of secular authority. In other words, it’s a political conflict.