Science And Religion Research Paper

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Understanding the present relationship between science and religion requires a recognition of broad historical trends. The subject has been most commonly treated in depth by historians of science, though scholars in both pure science and theology have also been active. Several posts in the UK, including a professorship at Oxford, and at least three major journals are devoted to the subject of science and religion (Zygon, Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, and Science and Christian Belief ), and numerous organizations have been formed to promote its study both in the US and UK.

Scholarship has become increasingly sophisticated, and frequent attacks on earlier ‘simplistic’ views have had the effect of excluding from the debate a great many ordinary people. This is quite unnecessary, though it is true that both ‘science’ and ‘religion’ are not eternally unchanging entities and do vary over time and space. In what follows, science is simply the study and systematic observation of the natural world, while religion may be seen generally as humanity’s quest after God, a quest taking a variety of different forms. The subject is, of course, an emotive issue for some, from vociferous antagonists of religion (like the geneticist Richard Dawkins) to equally uncompromising supporters (such as the American ‘creationists’).

In the following account the main emphasis will be on Christianity, not for partisan reasons but because, historically, that religion more than any other has related closely to the emerging sciences.

1. The Social Relations Of Science And Christianity

This topic has become the subject of a number of well-known statements or theses, five of which will now be considered. Some are about specific periods in history (as the seventeenth century) while others relate to allegedly more timeless issues. Some bear well-known names of their chief proponents.

1.1 The Merton Thesis

In 1938, the American sociologist Robert Merton argued that the emergence of science in the seventeenth century was promoted by the ascendancy of Protestant religion. Since then this contentious position has been revisited again and again, and it is hard to resist the conclusion that, in modified form, the thesis has more than an element of truth. Certainly, there is a correlation between visibility in science and religious allegiance. In the French Academie des Sciences from 1666 to 1885, the ratio of Protestants to Catholics was 80: 18, despite the preponderance of Catholics in the country. Others have shown a similarly high pro- portion of Puritans (not merely Protestants) in the membership of the early Royal Society in England, and Merton argued that Puritan attitudes did much to encourage its growth.

There have been objections to such ‘counting of heads,’ not least because of the difficulty of defining a Puritan. If such a person is considered theologically rather than politically some of the difficulties dis- appear. On this basis a Puritan is one who holds strongly to the teaching of the Bible as opposed to the church or tradition, not necessarily a supporter of the Parliamentary cause in revolutionary England. Yet it may still be argued that such correlations do not prove that Puritan theology encouraged science, for may not both have emerged from a common cause? Could not both have been an expression of new movements of social and economic change and of a libertarian philosophy? This may well be true, but a general correlation in the 1600s between promotion of science and a generally Protestant loyalty to the Bible seems inescapable.

1.2 The Hooykaas Thesis

This goes further than the Merton thesis might suggest, and argues that the origins of modern science do not merely correlate neatly with Protestant beliefs but are directly derived from them. It has been implied by many authors since the 1970s but is particularly associated with the Dutch historian of science Reijer Hooykaas (1906–94) in his epochal Religion and the Rise of Modern Science. To make such an assertion is to stand traditional views on their head. It was once customary to see science as a truly Greek inheritance, at last freed from religious shackles at the Renaissance. Hooykaas invites us to view it rather as a product of Biblical theology, freshly released at the Reformation, and subverting much of Greek philosophy which had for 1500 years inhibited any real rise of experimental science.

Serious evidence exists in support of this thesis. There are explicit declarations by many well-known scientific figures from Francis Bacon to Isaac Newton and beyond that their science was inspired theologically. Then there is a remarkable congruity between Biblical and scientific credos. At least five points of intersection can be identified. (a) Most profound of all, perhaps, was what Hooykaas called the ‘demythologization of nature,’ so that nature was no longer to be seen as divine or even animate, but more like a machine than anything else. It is not God but a creation by him, and therefore a proper object of study and experiment. Such was the theology of the Old and New Testaments, and it was eloquently proclaimed by statements from ‘the father of chemistry’ Robert Boyle and many others. (b) Moreover, the idea that nature worked by laws is at the very foundation of science, and is also Biblical. Amongst those who wrote of laws impressed by God on nature were Descartes, Boyle, and Newton. Men looked for laws when they recognized the law-giver. (c) But science can only discover these laws by experimentation. Manipulation of nature had been regarded by many Greeks as socially unacceptable (except for slaves) or even impious. Among the most urgent advocates of an experimental method, based on widespread Biblical approval of manual techniques for testing, was Francis Bacon who urged ‘men to sell their books, and to build furnaces.’ (d) Then again a further religious impetus to science came from the Biblical exhortations to see the heavens and earth as manifesting the glory of their Creator. The astronomer Kepler, it is said, asserted that in his researches he ‘was thinking God’s thoughts after him.’ This religious motivation became a strong emphasis in Calvinistic theology. (e) Finally, the Biblical mandate for humanity to exert ‘dominion’ over nature opened up possibilities of scientific work ‘for the glory of God and the relief of man’s estate’ (Bacon). As Hooykaas wrote:

The Biblical conception of nature liberated man from the naturalistic bonds of Greek religiosity and philosophy and gave a religious sanction to the development of technology [Hooykaas, Religion and the Rise of Modern Science, 1973, p. 67].

One cannot dismiss the burgeoning literature linking science to Protestantism in the seventeenth century as mere rhetoric. But it can be argued that Hooykaas underestimates the numbers of Roman Catholics who were eminent in science, though even here caution is needed. The oft-quoted counter example of the Catholic Copernicus must not obscure the astronomer’s indebtedness to both his Lutheran assistant Rheticus, and the liberal legacies of Erasmus within his own church. Attitudes towards nature varied widely within Catholicism, and there is always the danger of generalising too widely. But in its essence the Hooykaas thesis appears to be substantially correct.

1.3 The Lynn White Thesis

If Christian theology has been one of the formative influences on modern science it does not follow that this has always been in the best interests of the world and its inhabitants. That opinion has been forcibly expressed in a further thesis, first proposed by the American historian Lynn White in 1966 7. He argued that much of the damage to our environment springs from a misuse of science and technology for which ‘Christianity bears a huge burden of guilt.’ More specifically he locates the problem in the ‘realisation of the Christian dogma of man’s transcendence of, and rightful mastery over, nature’ (White 1967). He urges a return not to the primitive Christianity of the New Testament but to the animistic world of St Francis of Assisi which saw the earth and its inhabitants as brothers rather than instruments. In White’s view the Biblical call to ‘dominion’ must have been understood in terms of exploitation.

However, careful historical examination of the evidence suggests that few, if any, pioneers in science or theology held this particular view. John Calvin explicitly repudiated it, as did the noted eighteenth century writer William Derham. They, and many others, urged an interpretation of dominion as ‘responsible stewardship.’ In more recent times ideologically driven human conquest of nature has been on the Marxist rather than the Christian agendas. It is now widely acknowledged that, as a historical generalization, the Lynn White thesis stands largely discredited.

1.4 The Conflict Thesis

This thesis is much older than the others we have examined, and much better known. The thesis states that science and religion have been in perpetual conflict and that, eventually, science will vanquish religion. It was most notoriously promulgated by the Victorian naturalist T. H. Huxley, but has been advocated by many others in the late nineteenth century and is probably best not attributed to any one individual. Two books arguing the point are History of the Conflict between Religion and Science by J. W. Draper (first published in 1875), and A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom by A. D. White (1895). They achieved enormous circulation and are still in print.

The essence of the argument is that where scientific conclusions have been challenged by the church there has usually been an eventual retreat by the ecclesiastical authorities. Two classic cases were those of Galileo in the seventeenth century and of Darwin nearly 250 years later. It was in the aftermath of the latter imbroglio that the conflict thesis was formulated. Many more examples were unearthed by Draper and White and an impressive case assembled (especially by the latter).

Manifestly, it is hard to reconcile this thesis with the three previously considered. If science owed so much to religion how could they possibly be in conflict? The thesis flies in the face of massive evidence that points to a powerful alliance between science and Christianity since at least the seventeenth century. A noteworthy feature of the conflict thesis is that it was first proposed at a time when history of science hardly existed and historical scholarship had certainly not explored the nuances perceived by Merton, Hooykaas, and their colleagues. Detailed examination of the relatively minor cases urged by Draper and White reveals that many were badly documented, some plainly apocryphal and others greatly exaggerated. It seems that the authors sometimes saw what they were looking for and built their generalizations on a slender foundation. To be sure, Galileo and Darwin were assailed by organized religion but they seem to have been relatively isolated exceptions to the general rule that Christianity and science coexisted in harmony. Partial explanations for the persecution of Galileo lay in power struggles within the church, while Darwin’s problems arose in part from a deeply divided society in industrial Britain.

Today the books of Draper and White are rated not as serious works of historical scholarship but as highly polemical tracts reflecting the tensions existing in the social and cultural environment in which the authors lived. Draper wrote as a man deeply disenchanted with the Roman Catholic church, not least for its recent declaration of papal infallibility. White, on the other hand, was President of one of the first explicitly nonsectarian colleges in the US (Cornell) and had suffered badly at the hands of the religious establishment. Each had his own axe to grind in taunting the organized church. The result was not history but myth.

Yet a conflict thesis is commonly held in the world today, so one needs to asks how such a tendentious myth could have become so entrenched in Western culture. To understand the reason it is necessary to recall the plight of English science in the last 40 years of Victoria’s reign. Underfunded by government, inadequately supported by secondary education, unpopular with the general public for a variety of reasons and a poor relation in those citadels of the establishment, the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, English science was crying out for recognition and support. It was falling seriously behind in the race with Continental science (especially German) and had no chance of occupying a leading place in English culture. In search of a weapon with which to acquire some kind of hegemony Thomas Henry Huxley and some close allies determined on a course of action. They would seek by all means within their power to undermine the privileged position of the Anglican church and put science in its place. A detailed strategy was worked out, an important element being the propagation of a conflict thesis in which the church was always portrayed as the vanquished party in its perennial fights with science. The books of Draper and White were at their service, and so was evolution which, as Huxley said, was a good stick with which to beat the church. With all the discipline of a military campaign the attack was launched and the conflict thesis enshrined as a self-evident truth in English culture. It was a demonstrably wrong but it carried the day, at least with the general public (see Russell 1989).

1.5 The Complementarity Thesis

In the 1960s and 1970s the scientist philosopher Donald MacKay made much of the paradigm of complementarity. Derived from modern physics, where, for instance, wave and particle descriptions of light are complementary, the notion was applied to explanations from science and theology. It was the antithesis of a reductionist view where objects or events were nothing but phenomena of one kind (usually materialist). This view did not preclude traffic from one area to another, and did not deny their mutual influence. Indeed MacKay was committed strongly to the Hooykaas thesis. But it did mean that science and theology could co-exist as complementary enterprises.

We may call this the complementarity thesis. Its merits include the ability to account for several phenomena of modern and recent science. One of these is the large number of scientists who hold to Christian beliefs. In Huxley’s day they included many of the most eminent physical scientists as Faraday, Joule, Stokes, and Lord Kelvin. Statistical surveys undertaken since that day have confirmed the same general trend, which is quite the opposite of common expectation. In the early years of the twenty-first century the numbers appear to be increasing. The only reasonable explanation is that such people regard their scientific and religious activities as complementary and nonthreatening. Membership data and corporate activities of organisations like the American Scientific Affiliation and Christians in Science appear to bear this out.

In modern times an interesting tendency strengthens still further the case for a complementary approach. That is the rebirth of natural theology, in which the natural universe is seen to testify to the power and goodness of God. Such arguments go back to Biblical times, but were advocated with fresh vigour in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, reaching their peak with Natural Theology by William Paley, first appearing in 1802. The argument for a Designer from the apparent design of the natural world received hard blows from the philosophical critique of Hume and the evolutionary theories of Darwin. The proponents of the conflict thesis added their opposition. Yet over 100 years later the disclosures of modern science have caused some cynics to have second thoughts, and have encouraged scientist theologians like John Polkinghorne to revive a form of natural theology that does justice to a natural world infinitely more complex than that perceived by Paley or even Darwin.

2. Beyond Traditional Christianity

It remains to note that orthodox Christianity has no monopoly in engagement with science, though historically it happens to have been the most prominent faith to do so. Much literature on science and religion has focused, therefore, on the Christian faith. A modern variant of Christianity is sufficiently different to justify the term heterodox; that is the so-called process theology that denies omniscience to God and regards natural processes as contributing to his selffulfillment. It has been extensively used in discussions about indeterminacy in nature, about human free will and about the phenomenon of evil. Though favoured by some philosophers and theologians it cuts little ice with the majority of scientists.

The other great monotheistic religions of Judaism and, to a smaller extent, Islam have encouraged their followers in the study of nature though, operating in very different cultures and with different presuppositions, their effects have been rather unlike those of Christianity. The eastern mystical religions have arguably been less important for the growth of science, though some parallels between atomic physics and Buddhism have been emphasized by Franz Capra. The early promise of Chinese science was not fulfilled because the concept of scientific law was hardly present, reflecting, according to the historian Joseph Needham, the absence of any monotheistic law-giver in ancient Chinese culture.

Finally, the growth of environmental awareness has led some to espouse an almost pantheistic view of the universe as an alternative to the view of it as a machine which can be used or abused at whim. They have been encouraged by the Gaia hypothesis of James Lovelock which emphasizes the complexity of earth and its biosphere and its capacity for self-regulation. This had led several (including Lovelock) to posit the earth as in some sense ‘alive.’ From this it has been but a step to invoke the earth (Gaia) as a mother and even a goddess. If taken to extremes this view may lead to a greater sensitivity to the needs for sustainable development and other desirable attitudes to the earth. But it may also lead to a reversion to a prescientific animistic or even divine universe in which the benefits of a thriving science are rejected as minimal. If, however, the values of Christian monotheism are integrated with these views it may be possible for science to prosper, but always in a spirit of responsible stewardship. At present, we seem a long way from either of these positions.


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