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Making History: The “war” between Science and Religion

29 July, 2011

If you ask many people today what they think about science’s relationship to religion, you are likely to be told that the two have been in conflict for a very long time. There was the trial of Galileo by the Inquisition, for example, the debate between Wilberforce and Huxley, and there is still an on-going dispute over the teaching of evolution in American schools. These usual suspects may be trotted out whenever this topic is mentioned, but are events such as these really typical of the history of science as a whole?

Contrary to the impression given by some commentators, the conflict thesis between science and religion is one that has been discredited in academic circles for some time. The rise of science in the West was, of course, a very complicated affair in which many different factors played a part. There were certainly inevitable points of tension, but this does detract from the fact that Europe was a largely Christian continent in which religious individuals and institutions inevitably played a central role in the changes that occurred.

A number of the popular misconceptions about history are addressed in Ronald Numbers’ book, Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion.1 One of the most famous examples is the “debate” between Bishop Samuel Wilberforce and T. H. Huxley (1860), which was actually an after-lecture discussion on the merits of Darwin’s work. The alleged clash was largely forgotten about until the 1890s, when it resurrected by those seeking to attack the power of the Anglican orthodoxy. By this point the scientific community had become more professionalised and some of its members realised the debate could be used to promote their already growing autonomy. The event was therefore portrayed as if it had been a portentous victory for science over religion, even though, at the time, neither side was said to have won and the discussion was held on purely scientific grounds.2

It is important, therefore, to be aware of how history is sometimes portrayed. Scholars no longer use the term “dark ages”, for example, because the description gives the false impression that this was a period of ignorance during which little development occurred. Rodney Stark suggests that there is a similar problem with the process known as the Enlightenment, because the term itself, coined by Voltaire, was part of a propaganda plot, initially conceived by militant atheists and humanists, who sought to claim the credit for the rise of science. As Stark points out, “The falsehood that science required the defeat of religion was proclaimed by such self-appointed cheerleaders as Voltaire and Gibbon, who themselves played no part in the scientific enterprise.”3 This depiction of the Enlightenment, as if it was some kind of clean secular break from the past, persists today, but, as John Coffey points out, it could be more accurately described as a religious process. This is because many of those at the vanguard of the movement were Protestants (though certainly not all orthodox) who sought to fuse religious and philosophical ideas together. This is not to deny the role of certain groups of atheist thinkers, but crucially these were not representative of the Enlightenment as a whole. Furthermore, Dominic Erdozain argues that you can trace a lot of the unbelief of the time back to expressly religious roots. It was a Christian conscience (rather than a secular or pagan one) that drove much of the Enlightenment thought and a poignant example of this was the way in which Voltaire often used Jesus – albeit his own interpretation of him – in order to attack the church.4

It is always helpful, therefore, to bear in mind John Hedley Brookes’ comments, when he reminds us that:

…in many of the disputes that have been conventionally analysed in terms of some notional relation between science and religion, the underlying issues were principally about neither science nor religion, nor the relationship between them, but were matters of social, ethical or political concern in which the authority of either science, religion or both was invoked (often on both sides) to defend a view held on other grounds…5

Why, then, do simplistic ways of understanding history, such as the conflict thesis, become so prevalent? One theory is advanced by Christian Smith in his book Moral Believing Animals. He argues that one of the central, fundamental motivations for human action is the locating of life within a larger external moral order, which in turn dictates a person’s sense of identity and the way in which they act. He claims that, whether or not they realise it, “all human persons, no matter how well educated, how scientific, how knowledgeable, are, at bottom, believers.”6 He suggests this is because “human knowledge has no common, indubitable foundation,”7 and therefore the way people choose to live and the knowledge they accumulate is all founded upon basic assumptions and beliefs that cannot themselves be empirically verified. This includes the Enlightenment ideas of foundationalist knowledge, the autonomously choosing individual and even universal rationality itself, which he argues “always and only operates in the context of the particular moral orders that define and orient reason in particular directions.”8

In order to make sense of life, he suggests that all individuals perceive the world according to an all-embracing narrative, in which factual information about different events and people is woven into a storyline that makes an overall point. The Scientific Enlightenment Narrative, for example, is one that has been popularised by the new atheists:

For most of human history, people have lived in the darkness of ignorance and tradition, driven by fear, believing in superstitions. Priest and Lords preyed on such ignorance, and life was wearisome and short. Ever so gradually, however, and often at great cost, inventive men have endeavoured better to understand the natural world around them. Centuries of such enquiry eventually led to a marvellous Scientific Revolution that radically transformed our methods of understanding nature. What we know now as a result is based on objective observation, empirical fact, and rational analysis. With each passing decade, science reveals increasingly more about the earth, our bodies, our minds. We have come to possess the power to transform nature and ourselves. We can fortify health, relieve suffering, and prolong life. Science is close to understanding the secret of life and maybe eternal life itself. Of course, forces of ignorance, fear, irrationality and blind faith still threaten the progress of science. But they must be resisted at all costs. For unfettered science is our only hope for true Enlightenment and happiness.9

Although this narrative may seem to be the very opposite of a religious worldview, Smith makes the interesting observation that “what is striking about these major Western narrative traditions is how closely their plots parallel and sometimes mimic the Christian narrative”.10 They all include a period of darkness followed by redemption, as well as a promise for the future and the identification of potential threats to the desired utopia. He explains that:

So deep did Christianity’s wagon wheels wear into the ground of Western culture and consciousness that nearly every secular wagon that has followed – no matter how determined to travel a different road – has found it nearly impossible not to ride in the same tracks of the faith of old. Such is the power of the moral order in deeply forming culture and story.11

This is a fascinating observation, because it suggests that the Christian way of perceiving the world still informs the worldview of many of those who think they have jettisoned all the remnants of it. He argues that this pervasiveness is not surprising though, as “the human condition and the character of religion quite naturally fit, cohere, complement and reinforce each other,” because they link the narratives with the historical and personal significances at both the individual and collective level.

The fact that the message is so compelling will come as no surprise to Christians, but, above all, Smith’s work illustrates the problem faced by those who insist that they live by science, logic and empirical evidence, rather than relying on any belief. It also highlights that there is a considerable blind spot in the thinking of many people today, when it comes to appreciating the role religion has played not only in shaping their own ideas, but also in underpinning core aspects of western society. It may be fashionable to dismiss this foundation, but the final word should perhaps be left to the influential German thinker, Jürgen Habermas, who explains that the Judeao-Christian legacy is neither insignificant, nor should it be forgotten:

For the normative self-understanding of modernity, Christianity has functioned as more than just a precursor or catalyst. Universalistic egalitarianism, from which sprang the ideals of freedom and a collective life in solidarity, the autonomous conduct of life and emancipation, the individual morality of conscience, human rights and democracy, is the direct legacy of the Judaic ethic of justice and the Christian ethic of love. This legacy, substantially unchanged, has been the object of a continual critical reappropriation and reinterpretation. Up to this very day there is no alternative to it. And in light of the current challenges of a post-national constellation, we must draw sustenance now, as in the past, from this substance. Everything else is idle postmodern talk.12

  1. R. Numbers, Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion (Harvard University, 2009).
  2. For further reading see J. R. Lucas Wilberforce and Huxley: A Legendary Encounter (available online).
  3. J. Coffey, Thinking Christianly about Early Modern Religious Violence (lecture), at The Dark Side of Christian History Conference, St Ebbe’s Church, Oxford, 5 February 2011.
  4. R. Stark, For the Glory of God (Princeton, 2003), p. 123.
  5. J. H. Brooke, Darwinism and Religion: A Revisionist View of the Wilberforce-Huxley Debate (lecture), at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, 26 February 2001 (available online).
  6. C. Smith, Moral Believing Animals (Oxford, 2003), p. 54.
  7. Ibid., p. 154.
  8. Idem.
  9. Ibid., p. 69.
  10. Ibid., p. 72.
  11. Idem.
  12. Ibid., p. 153.


Author Biography:


Simon Wenham

Simon Wenham works primarily as a Research Coordinator for John Lennox. He also oversees the Zacharias Trust’s Pulse magazine and is currently studying part-time for a history DPhil at the University of Oxford.


Read more posts by Author: Simon Wenham

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