Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Historical origins of the science-religion "conflict thesis"

Last night I attended a really nice public lecture by Professor Peter Harrison  "Has science made religion obsolete?"  This was part of Research Week at the University of Queensland where I work.

I will just mention a few highlights. 

First, Peter briefly reviewed the wide range of conflicting views about religion held by different scientists including Stephen Hawking, Richard Dawkins, Francis Collins, Simon Conway Morris, and Stephen Jay Gould. This shows science has not made religion obsolete.

Key historical interactions between science and Christianity were discussed, including Galileo and Darwin. Contrary to popular perceptions, the conflict between Galileo and the Roman Catholic church was really just about science. Darwin was well received in many Christian circles.

So where did the idea of conflict come from? It was largely promoted in two books from the late 19th century. The first book was by Andrew Dickson White, the first President of Cornell University. Wikipedia states:
History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896), whose primary contention was the conflict thesis. Initially less popular than John William Draper's History of the Conflict between Religion and Science (1874), White's book became an extremely influential text on the relationship between religion and science. In this book, White argued that "the great majority of the early fathers of the Church, and especially Lactantius, had sought to crush it beneath the utterances attributed to Isaiah, David, and St. Paul"[33] White's conflict thesis has, however, been discredited by contemporary historians of science.[34][35][36] The warfare depiction nevertheless remains a popular view among the general public.[37]

What led to this approach to history, with its emphasis on "progress", which meant religion being supplanted by "science"?
The birth of social sciences.

Auguste Comte was the founder of sociology. He believed there was a continual progression and advancement or social evolution from the theological to the metaphysical to the scientific.
James George Frazer was the founder of anthropology.
He believed in a progression from magic to religion to science.
In this context White and Draper's books fit neatly into this new world view. The problem is they are don't accurately represent the actual historical interaction between science and Christianity. Rather they distort history to fit the progressive framework required by social scientists.

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