"The Idea that Wouldn't Die": The Warfare between Science and Christianity
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February 2003 · Historically Speaking2 1 M The Idea that Wouldn't Die":The Warfare between Science and Christianity Jon H. Roberts The idea diat die history of die relationship between science and Christian thought can best be characterized in terms ofconflict, even "warfare," has enjoyed amazing resilience.1 The origin of diis idea can be traced to die 19di century, when Europeans and Americans alike became acutely aware ofthe difficulty ofreconciling prevailing formulations of Christian dieology with a number of the ideas stemming from scientific inquiry. In 1874John William Draper, a scientist whose interests turned to the writing ofhistory, instantiated the "warfare " thesis in his History ofthe Conflictbetween Religion and Science. The specific object of Draper's animus was the Roman Catholic church, but in his preface to die volume, he made a broader claim: that die history ofscience yielded "a narrative of die conflict of two contending powers, the expansive force of the human intellect on one side, and die compression arising from traditionary faidi and human interests on die other." This claim was given a somewhat different twist and added credibility in 1896, when Andrew Dickson White, a historian who claimed to have encountered scathingcriticism from sectarian clerics while serving as die president ofCornell University, publishedA History of the Warfare ofScience with Theology in Christendom . In this extensively documented work White developed ideas that he had broached as early as 1869. Unlike Draper, who centered his attack on Roman Catholicism, White identified "Dogmatic Theology" as the causa belli. Aldiough a number ofreviewers sympathetic to Christian theologymade itclearthat dieyresented beingcastas the heaviesin these accounts, they did little to undermine the widespread perception that die claims ofscience and religion were disparate and even in some cases antagonistic. Moreover, a growing rift had emerged between conservative and liberal Protestants—and to a lesser extent Catholics—over the stance that believers should adopttoward modernity. Thisrift contributed to the sense that Christianity—or at leasta significantbranch ofit—wasnotentirely sympathetic to die scientific enterprise. Meanwhile, historians and philosophers proved to be somewhat less inclined to leave things with Draper and White. During the firsthalfofdie 20di centurya number ofhistorians called attention to die considerable role thatreligion had played in shapingmodern science. But their works did little to shake die perception diat conflict best described the historical relationship between science and religion. As Frank M. Turner has suggested , many intellectuals, in the process of Galileo Galilei. trying to detach diemselves from die religious communities oftheir childhoods, found die vision ofscience progressivelyvanquishing religious error beguiling. In addition, many of diose intellectuals worked in institutions —colleges and universities—indifferent , ifnot actively hostile, to religious faidi. Given such considerations, it is little wonder that historians often interpreted statements from scientists thatsuggested die salience of religion in dieir diought as begrudging concessions to political necessity.2 During die late 20di century, however, a growing body ofwork began to appear that challenged die legitimacyofdie conflictnarrative . The first sustained assault on diat narrative appeared in 1979, when James R. Moore prefaced his assessment of The PostDarwinian Controversieswith an extended, historiographically oriented review of the "dreadful toll" that die militarymetaphor had taken on die interpretation of die past. "In each ofits major implications," Moore concluded , "die military metaphor perverts historical understandingwithviolence and inhumanity , by teaching one to diink ofpolarity where diere was confusing plurality, to see monolidiic solidarity where diere was division anduncertainty, to expecthostilitywhere there was conciliation and concord." Aldiough Moore focused his analysis on controversies surrounding Darwinism, he clearly rejected the idea diat die larger historyofscience and Christianitycould be adequately comprehended within die rubric of conflict. Thatidea was also die target ofseveral influential essays written in the mid1980s by David C. Lindberg and Ronald L. Numbers. Although diose scholars acknowledged that scientific inquiry and Christian thoughthad not been "perennial allies," diey insisted that "the historical relationship between science and Christianity—or, more properly, scientists and theologians—cannot be reduced simply to conflict or warfare." If scholars were ever going to arrive at accurate views ofdie historical relationship between science and religion, they concluded, itwould be necessary for them to abandon scientific triumphalism in favor of "a more neutral starting point."' Practicing what they preached, Lindberg and Numbers edited God and Nature...