Does anything strike you as odd about the following sentence:
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.
It comes from Thomas Dixon’s book Science and Religion: A Very Short Introduction, published by Oxford University Press in 2008.
Afficionados of science/religion disputes will recognize in this a standard gambit of the genre. Specifically, the attempt to recast situations that are obviously conflicts between science and religion into conflicts about something else.
In the present case the second part of the sentence does not contradict the first. The Galileo affair was a science/religion dispute that played out in the political arena of rival claims to knowledge and authority.
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.
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 dsipute between science and religion?
If the Galileo affair, and battles over science curricula, do not count as disputes between science and religion, I can not imagine what Dixon would consider an example of such a dispute.