When I was growing up there were many people who fervently believed that to be in any way religious was to be anti-scientific. I can remember that this was, broadly speaking, the rather simplistic view of teachers, family members, friends and the media. In short, religion (and especially Christian theology) was in a conflict with science… and religion was losing.
The reality, however, is quite the opposite.
The Warfare Thesis
The Warfare Thesis is the idea that religion and science are locked in a mortal combat; it is the belief that faith is in a battle with reason. This idea was loudly advanced in the late 19th century by two men – John William Draper and Andrew Dickson White. It has continued to remain strong in popular thought down to the present day.
Modern historian of science, Prof. Lawrence M. Principe, writes:
“(The Warfare Thesis) rests on very shaky (and sometimes fabricated) foundations and was contrived largely for quite specific political, professional, and racist purposes.”
“No serious historians of science or of the science-religion issue today maintain the warfare thesis.”
The Mythological Impact
Why is this an important issue? Well… its value is in debunking some very unscientific ideas that are bandied around, often by people claiming knowledge of the relationship between Christian theology and science.
Myths generated by Draper and White include:
- The medieval Church condemned all science as devilry.
- Before Columbus and Magellan, the world was thought to be flat and that the Earth’s sphericity was officially opposed by the Church.
- The Church forbade human dissection.
These are but three examples and if you find yourself believing such things then you have been duped by the Warfare Thesis.
- Pre-modern thinkers who have been later labelled as scientists, such as Isaac Newton, viewed theology and religious texts as relevant to their work and vice versa.
- The spherical nature of the world was broadly established by the 3rd Century BCE and the knowledge was not lost.
- The Church viewed human dissection as a means to discovering the wondrous majesty of the human form, a knowledge that would clarify the goodness of God in creation.
The problem, of course, is that the idea persists. In many cases, oddly enough, it is an idea perpetuated by extremists of both scientific and religious ilk. It seems to suit the polemic style of people polarised around such issues as the evolution/creationism debate or stem-cell research.
And the media persists in popularising the myth. Even such luminaries as Carl Sagan and Richard Dawkins have continued to perpetuate this most unhistorical of theories through until today.
The Reason vs. Faith Myth
Consider that both science and theology (for that is really what we are usually talking about when we use the word ‘religion‘ in this context) utilise both reason and faith.
As any philosopher of science knows, all empirical enquiry is predicated on assumptions which are themselves statements of faith. By faith, we mean ‘knowledge claims that are essentially based upon belief or the suspension of disbelief‘. The idea that the whole of nature is really there, as a separate entity from ourselves, and that this nature is itself uniform and predictable is a belief that is unprovable by reason alone. Scientists simply accept it as a core assumption and move on.
Theology is the ‘rational discourse about God‘. By definition, theology seeks to establish knowledge through the exercise of reason. If you’ve ever read any of the medieval theologians then you will know that some of the finest examples of reason and logic ever concocted exist within the halls of theological debate. Ideas about God are worked out into fine logical detail. Theologians simply assume the existence of God and move on.
Countering The Myth
In short, don’t accept the claims of polemic writers uncritically.
If you are serious about your ideas and beliefs then you owe it to yourself to delve into the rich and satisfying relationship that has generally continued to exist between science and religion. Both disciplines of science and theology have much to share and learn from one another. And that’s just with Christianity… add to the mix the learning of Islam, Judaism, Hindu thought, and Buddhist cosmology – you’ll get a bucket load of interesting stuff to think about.
There is very little for a theist to fear from science. There is much for a scientist to learn from theology.
Don’t accept the deception: there is no war. It’s just White’s lie and Draper’s folly.