Science, Religion, and Historical Complexity
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10 Historically Speaking May/June 2007 Complexity and the History of Science and Religion: A Forum FT IS NO SURPRISE, AS THE DISHNGUISHED HISTORIAN OF scienceJohn Hedley Brooke notes, that in a time when historians are deeply suspicious of metanarratives, there has been a decidedemphasis on historicalcomplexity. Nowhere is this more evidentthan in the history of science andreligion, a subjectto which Brooke has made substantial contributions. Inplace of the warfare metaphor, historians of science andreligion have adoptedan anti-essentialist approach, dubbedthe "complexity thesis" and often associated with Brooke's work. Close examination ofparticular historicalcontexts does not reveal "some timeless inherent relationship" between science and religion. But, as Brooke and Geoffrey Cantor warned in their Gifford Fectures, preoccupation withparticular contexts might dissolve "thegreat issues that have been debated under the banner of 'science and religion' into thefragments of localhistory. " Behind the specific issues at stakefor historians of science and religion loom very important questions that cut to the core of contemporary historical inquiry. Does complexity, with its insistence on the localandtheparticular, necessarily run counterto efforts to synthesize and lookforpatterns? Can historiansfunction without master historical narratives, even though they necessarily blur contextual distinctives? In the followingforum, three prominent historians of science and religion consider these questions. Thisforum was supported by agrantfrom theJohn Templeton Foundation. Science, Religion, and Historical Complexity John Hedley Brooke Few discourses have been as riven with prejudice and polemical intentions as those concerning the mutual bearings of science and religion. The spectacular example of Richard Dawkins's anti-religious mission in The GodDelusion and the scathing reviews it has provoked in both the Fondón and New York Review of Books testify to ongoing battles and high public interest.' In the popular mind, science and religion are still engaged in a centuries-long war. Yet historians, drawing on longer perspectives and a rich diversity of interpretation, have contested the popular claim that science and religion are—and always have been—inevitably in conflict. Some of these historians, motivated by religious sympathies to "set the record straight," have perhaps gone too far in the other direction. In contrast to the conflict thesis, a metanarrative of peace (or at least the potential for peace) has repeatedly found expression, as in a recent essay of David Lindberg, one of our finest historians of science: In those not infrequent cases where Christianity and science have attempted to occupy the same intellectual ground, the historical actors have generally preferred peace to warfare, compromise to confrontation , and have found means—through compromise, accommodation, clarification, reinterpretation, revision and the identification of outright error—of negotiating a state of peaceful coexistence.2 Through the exposure of historical myths, inscribed for example in popular accounts of the Galileo affair or of the ignominious defeat of bishop Samuel Wilberforce at the hands of Darwin's disciple T. H. Huxley, more balanced views have become possible.' Particularly for early modern Europe, when the concerns of natural philosophy and theology were sometimes fused together, a fascinating picture emerges of scientific activity grounded in, and justiDoes the historian not have a duty to detect the patterns, however difficult their discernment might be? tied by, theological considerations.4 In many strands of natural theology, the scientific disclosure of beauty, harmony, and apparent design mediated between scientific and religious interests, as when Isaac Newton insisted that the beauty of the solar system could only have originated in the "counsel" of a divine being.' One consequence of serious historical research is a growing suspicion of metanarratives and an insistence on historical complexity. As one who must plead guilty to fueling such suspicion, I have myself been identified as a purveyor of what has come to be known as the "complexity thesis." I shall raise the question later whether this is a satisfactory appellation . But it may be helpful first to indicate some of the reasons why one cannot suppress reference to complexity. The meaning of the word "science" has changed over time. The word "scientist" was not coined until the 1830s. And the word "religion" draws its modern connotations from Enlightenment ambitions to impose comparative structures on the study of different societies and their rituals." Such facts might not be sufficient to torpedo a philosophical...