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The Warfare between Science and Religion: The idea that wouldn’t die

The Warfare between Science and Religion: The idea that wouldn’t die

Nick Spencer reviews ‘The Warfare between Science and Religion: The idea that wouldn’t die’, published by John Hopkins University Press. 29.04.2019

Over the last few months I have been working with the BBC Religion and Ethics department in recording a major new series on the history of science and religion, to be broadcast on Radio 4 in June. The idea for the series had been chasing me around for years. The popular view of science and religion is that they have long been in conflict, and in many ways still are. But from my reading round the subject, especially the work of Professors John Hedley Brooke and Peter Harrison, I knew that this view is now almost entirely rejected by the growing number of historians of science and religion. It needed a wider audience.

And then, last December, John Hopkins University Press published The Warfare between Science and Religion: The idea that wouldn’t die. In the first paragraph on page one it remarks (adapting a statement by the historian of science, Steven Shapin), that “there has never been systemic warfare between science and theology, and this is a book that explains why the notion nonetheless lives one.” And then in the following paragraph, it goes on to say “notwithstanding all the outstanding work by a generation of historians dismantling the ‘conflict model’, their revisionist accounts have scarcely made a dent on leading public intellectuals.” Others, it seemed, were thinking on similar lines.

Opinions vary as to the extent of the religion vs science rift and, as a forthcoming Theos report on the topic suggests, much of it may be down to the kind of questions we are asking in public opinion polls and the ways in which we are asking them. But that there is some perception of conflict is hard to doubt.

We scientists “do our best [to provide excellent education],” the biologist Steve Jones once opined, “but faced with schools or faith groups that get their ignorance in first, we seem to be fighting a losing battle.” Debates between science and religion, remarked the former MP Evan Harris, need to be had in public. “Science has nothing to fear from them. I don’t think we’re winning; we’ve won a few battles; but there’s a war to be fought.” “We gather Professor Reiss is a clergyman,” sneered the Nobel Prize winner Sir Richard Roberts in the wake of Michael Reiss’s dreadful treatment by the Royal Society a decade ago. “Who on earth thought that he would be an appropriate Director of Education,” he went, “who could be expected to answer questions about the differences between science and religion in a scientific, reasoned way?” (Presumably Sir Richard Roberts would have done a better job).

If there really isn’t a war, a few people still need to be told, and if that’s so, it’s because the narrative of warfare is so deeply entrenched. I might not be able to explain why there’s a war – beyond some airy references to crazy creationists, mentally–abusive faith schools, and unscientific, unreasoning clergymen – but I know there is a war. It’s a good example of a metaphor that thinks for you.

The reason for this war, or more accurately, the reason why the warfare metaphor developed and became as entrenched as it did, is laid out with admirable clarity, breadth, and rigour in this book. The idea of systematic warfare goes back primarily to the later decades of the 19th century, to William Draper’s History of the Conflict between Religion and Science (1874) and Andrew Dickson White’s A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896). These much–reprinted books popularised a story of conflict through a partial and selective reading of an enormously complex history. Their approach was emblematic of that old journalistic cliché – first simplify, then exaggerate – but it was also a consequence of a range of personal, professional and wider social, ecclesiastical and political circumstances, that Lawrence Principe explains in the opening chapter.

Other chapters explore equally iconic moments or figures from the conflict narrative. Maurice Finocchiaro unpacks what actually happened at the Galileo trial and how it was used and abused for the wider narrative. Bernard Lightman explores how John Tyndall and William Draper adapted the conflict for different ends. Ronald Numbers and Jeff Hardin look at how the New Atheists have shaped the story.

All three are excellent chapters but the volume goes a long way beyond the usual tropes of Galileo or the Victorians, to discuss areas that are usually peripheral to this whole debate. Thus, Efthymios Nicolaides looks at the conflict narrative within the Eastern Orthodox tradition, Noah Efron does the same for Judaism, and M. Alper Yalcinkaya looks at the narrative within Islam.

The book also brings the story up to today. John Hedley Brooke shows how historians of science and religion have changed the script over the last 35 years; Elaine Howard Ecklund and Christopher Schietle look at the latest research on the religious beliefs of scientists; and John Evans shows how the view from the street is much more preoccupied with attendant social and moral questions than those of epistemology or the scientific method.

The Warfare between Science and Religion, in other words, is an exceptionally wide–ranging and important contribution to an academic field that is as fresh and exciting as it is unknown to the wider public. Moreover, at no point does it fall into what would be a comparable error and claim that just because there has been no “systemic warfare” between science and religion, there have been no battles at all. There undoubtedly have, and we have as much to learn from them as we do from the wider historical harmony between the disciplines. The book is thoroughly at home with the idea that has, in academic circles, replaced warfare, namely John Hedley Brooke’s “complexity thesis”.

And this, ultimately, is the problem. One of the contributors to the volume writes that “Brooke’s complexifying history seems to have little to recommend it besides its truth.” Indeed. The history of science and religion is caught in a classic Catch–22. In order to break out of the lazy generalisation of the “warfare” metaphor that does do much thinking for us, we need a new, strong, clear, powerful controlling metaphor. But the very basis of that breaking out is premised on the idea not only that “warfare” is inadequate, but that single, strong, clear metaphors will always fail to do the job for anything that is as long–standing, varied and complex as the relationship between science and religion.

And so we are back to where we started: years of outstanding work by fine historians dismantling the ‘conflict model’, that have yet to make a dent on public opinion. This volume will help, but there is a long way to go.

The Warfare between Science and Religion: The idea that wouldn’t die edited by Jeff Hardin, Ronald Numbers, Ronald Binzley is published by John Hopkins University Press, 2018

Nick Spencer’s series on the history of science and religion will be broadcast on Radio 4 in June.

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Nick Spencer

Nick Spencer

Nick is Senior Fellow at Theos. He is the author of a number of books and reports, most recently ‘The Political Samaritan: how power hijacked a parable’ (Bloomsbury, 2017), ‘The Evolution of the West’ (SPCK, 2016) and ‘Atheists: The Origin of the Species’ (Bloomsbury, 2014).

Posted 29 April 2019

Belief, Evolution, Faith, Religion, Review, Science


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