Among those who argue that science and religion are compatible, there is a standard script that goes like this:
In the late nineteenth century, John William Draper and Andrew Dickson White published, respectively, History of the Conflict Between Science and Religion and A History of the Warfare of Science With Theology in Christendom. In doing so they established the warfare thesis about the relationship between science and religion, a complete myth that sadly retains a hold on the popular imagination. Unlike the ignorant polemicists Draper and White, more serious historians recognize that the relationship between science and religion is terribly complex and nuanced. Did you know, for example, that the Catholic Church frequently funded scientific investigations during the Middle Ages? Even the much heralded Galileo affair was really all about politics and power struggles, and had nothing at all to do with religion. Galileo, after all, was an arrogant jerk, and his house arrest was very loosely enforced. Kind of puts a different spin on things, doesn’t it? And just look at all the scientists throughout history who were religious! What more evidence do you need that science and religion can be BFF’s?
Prior to reading any essay about science and religion, do a search. If the words “nuanced” or “complex” appear then don’t waste your time. You’re about to get the script.
As I’ve noted before, one problem in discussing conflicts between science and religion is that the term “religion” is very broad. It covers everything from, “The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it,” at one extreme, to “Gosh, that sunset sure is beautiful,” on the other. Moreover, many of the conflicts do not involve questions of fact that can be definitively resolved. Evolution poses serious challenges to major points of Christian doctrine, for example, but maybe those challenges can be overcome. There are lots of different arguments on offer, and everyone has to decide for themselves what they find plausible. That’s why I don’t generally say bluntly that science and religion must be in conflict. I think the challenges are sufficiently formidable that a reasonable person should reject all but the most liberal versions of Christianity, but many others disagree. Such is life.
But there is another way of framing the question that is much more clear cut. Science and religion are not necessarily in conflict, but science and religious authority certainly are. By “religious authority” I mean an attitude that says that there is a non-scientific source of knowledge about the natural world, such as divine revelation or the historical teachings of a church, that trumps all other claims to knowledge. When a governing body in thrall to such an attitude has a loyal police force at its disposal, look out! The best you can hope for is that they don’t do anything too sadistic to those who dissent from orthodoxy.
Let’s consider a case study. Nowadays, when we think of “anti-science,” the first thing that comes to mind is young-Earth creationism. If you do not accept YEC as an instance of anti-science, then I think you’re defining your terms in a way that makes it impossible to be anti-science. Now, what makes them anti-science? It can’t be simply that they get the wrong answer on the age of the Earth. Being wrong doesn’t make you anti-science. Nor can it be that they spend their days snarling at science and scientists, since, as it happens, they don’t. In fact, they get very insulted when you suggest they are anti-science.
No, what makes them anti-science is their attitude toward knowledge acquisition. Science is not just a set of facts and its not just a culture. It’s also an attitude, one that says that all theories must be tested against facts and that evidence must be followed wherever it leads. It’s that attitude that YEC’s reject, and that is what makes them deserving of the label “anti-science.” In fact, I recently came across a succinct, but perfect, description of how creationists view the world. It comes from David Lindberg, an historian of science of some prominence:
The classical sciences must accept a subordinate position as the handmaiden of science and religion–the temporal serving the eternal. The knowledge contained in classical sciences is not to be loved, but it may legitimately be used.
Perfect! That’s exactly how creationists think. It’s not that science is valueless, in their view, it just needs to know its place. God’s law is not to be gainsaid by the investigations of man.
But here’s the catch. Lindberg was not talking about modern creationists. He was talking about the attitude of the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages. And that attitude is practically the definition of anti-science, at least as we understand that term today. They did not believe that nature should be studied solely by natural means, or that we should follow evidence wherever it leads, or that we should test our beliefs against evidence. Rather, they believed that science was valuable only insofar as it served religious ends, and if it strayed into areas on which the Church had taken a stand that it had to be stopped. Ruthlessly, if need be.
When you keep that in mind you begin to understand why the script unravels. Yes, the Catholic Church funded excursions into science when such excursions furthered religious ends. But so what? Who ever thought that religion was just implacably imposed to any systematic study of nature? Yes, many of the great scientists, both historically and also today, have held religious views. Again, so what? Has anyone of any prominence argued that simply holding religious beliefs makes you incapable of doing good work in science? Certainly not Draper and White, and I doubt if anyone else has either.
The Script also founders by using far too narrow a definition of what constitutes a conflict between science and religion. The attitude seems to be that any proposed conflict can be debunked simply by noting that the religion side was in some way motivated by something other than religious belief, or that the science side was in some way not entirely admirable. This is why you get a lot of silly arguments about Galileo’s lack of political savvy, or about the political insecurity of the Catholic Church in the early seventeenth century, as though such considerations in any way cloud the standard narrative surrounding Galileo.
I’m all in favor of historians elucidating the minutiae surrounding an important moment in history, but the basic facts here are clear as day. There was no distinction between politics and religion at that time. Galileo was a threat to the Church because he suggested that science, and not scripture, should be how we learn about nature. The Church saw this as a threat to its power by challenging its claims to religious authority, so they came down on him. Hard. If you don’t see that as a conflict between science and religion, then you need to rethink your definitions.
If the political situation had been happier for the Church they might not have come down so hard on him. Had Galileo played the game a bit better he might have avoided what happened to him. So what and so what?
The occasion for this post is the minor fracas surrounding the discussion of Giordano Bruno in the revamped version of Cosmos. Host Neil deGrasse Tyson used Bruno’s story to illustrate the lack of freedom of thought that existed in his time. It was one part of a broader argument about the social forces that were once arrayed against the validity of scientific investigation. Tyson’s discussion was measured, relevant, and accurate in all of its major points.
But outraged script-wavers were having none of it. It was all just a primitive attempt to revive the conflict thesis and Bruno wasn’t a scientist and you have to consider the political situation and blah blah blah. Peter Hess and Josh Rosenau produced two especially silly examples of the genre here and here respectively.
Much of the criticism bears little relationship to what was actually shown. Tyson’s presentation made it perfectly clear that Bruno was not a scientist. Literally. He said this:
Bruno was no scientist. His vision of the cosmos was a lucky guess, because he had no evidence to support it.
The segment presenting the Bruno story makes it perfectly clear that his beliefs were based largely on religious visions and not scientific investigation. It could not have been clearer that his execution had far more to do with his heretical religious beliefs than it did with his scientific views. There was not the slightest implication that he was a scientist in any reasonable sense of that word.
So why was Bruno featured so prominently? Because he was a martyr to freedom of thought, and that’s a notion so closely allied with science that it’s pointless to make the distinction.
But such is the desperation of the script-wavers that they seek any excuse to launch into their act. Go read Josh’s post and look at the people he quotes favorably. Try to find a reasonable point in a single one of them. One simply dismisses Bruno as a “martyr for magic.” Another chastises Tyson for not mentioning that Bruno, apparently, was personally unpleasant. Still another accuses Tyson of presenting Bruno as a martyr to evidence-based knowledge, even though Tyson explicitly said the exact opposite of that.
But the first prize must surely go to Thomas McDonald, who is apparently a Church historian. In a post largely devoted to defending the intellectual bona fides of the seventeenth century Church, even to the point of partially defending the Inquisition (on the grounds that at least its motives were pure), he writes this
Bruno was no friend of science. He was a disturbed mystic. Stanley Jaki, who translated Bruno’s rambling, nonsensical The Ash Wednesday Supper, has suggested that if the Inquisition hadn’t burned him, the Copernicans would have. He did nothing but harm the progress being made by actual scholars and scientists, and arguably laid the ground for the harsh approach to Galileo.
The story is this. Bruno held heretical beliefs. He promoted those beliefs by speaking and writing about them. For this he was burned at the stake. It’s not a complicated story, and neither Bruno’s personal failings nor the precise motivations of the Inquisitors do anything to alter the essentials.
But McDonald thinks the point of the story is that it’s Bruno’s fault that the Church came down so hard on Galileo. Charming.
I have now watched the first two episodes of Cosmos. They were both excellent and I look forward to the rest of the series. The critics can shove it.