Here’s a quote from the book Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths About Science and Religion:
In Augustine’s influential view, then, knowledge of the things of this world is not a legitimate end in itself, but as a means to other ends it is indispensable. The classical sciences must accept a subordinate position as the handmaiden of theology and religion — the temporal serving the eternal. The knowledge contained in classical sciences is not to be loved, but it may legitimately be used. This attitude toward scientific knowledge cam to prevail throughout the Middle Ages and survived well into the modern period. Augustine’s handmaiden science was defended explicitly and at great length, for example, by Roger Bacon in the thirteenth century, whose defense of useful knowledge contributed to notoriety as one of the founders of experimental science.
That’s historian David Lindberg. For the record, the “myth” he was addressing was, “That the Rise of Christianity was Responsible for the Demise of Ancient Science.” But that’s not really what interests me about this.
The first thing that struck me about Lindberg’s statement is that it is a near-perfect summary of the way modern young-Earth creationists view the relationship between science and religion. Their view is that science is a marvelous activity that can be used to glorify God, but only when carried out within the confines of the eternal truths of Scripture. YEC’s are far more in step with major trends in Christian history than many modern theologians would like to admit.
The other thing that struck me relates also to a common theme through many of the essays in the book. The contributors are keen to emphasize that the Roman Catholic Church did much to spread the advance of science, for example by establishing the first modern universities complete with science faculties, and by encouraging many scientists, including Galileo initially, in their work. There was no shortage of medieval scholastics arguing that a serious study of nature could only distract one from the important truths of theology, so this willingness to fund scientific research is not to be brushed aside lightly. I have no problem with that, though I would add that while the Church did much to promote the advance of science it also did much to stand in its way.
The handmaiden view might be a necessary step in the transition from a society in which knowledge is carefully policed by religious authorities to one where the spirit of free inquiry reigns, but anyone espousing it today would be considered profoundly anti-science. That science emerged from a religious backdrop, and in most cases was pioneered by people who held deep religious convictions is not controversial. Given the political and financial dominance of the Church in Europe during the relevant time period it is hard to imagine from where else science was supposed to emerge.
But science has now completely outgrown its handmaiden status, to the point where it is theology that must constantly fight, at least among educated people, to prove its relevance. Those medieval scholastics have been entirely vindicated in their fears. For several centuries now science has been producing reliable knowledge about the world at a clip that only seems to be increasing, to the point where there are so many avenues of investigation still left to explore that it just seems a bit silly to take time out for studying the Bible. During the same time period, theologians have mostly been reacting, trying to explain why the latest scientific advances have not completely relegated their holy texts to the dustbin.
That modern professional science is largely the offspring of religious men working for religious institutions is an amusing historical fact, and useful against some of the more extreme versions of the conflict thesis between science and religion. But it is of no value in deciding on the proper relationship between them today. Theology is today deservedly marginalized in academic life, while science is the gold standard for producing reliable knowledge.
People who speak of dialogue between them are little more than an endearing anachronism.