The War That Wasn't: Science and Religion Have Often Stood Together

The War That Wasn't: Science and Religion Have Often Stood Together
By Alan Cutler, Washington Post, Jan 8, 2006
As a science-minded kid in the '60s, I loved to read stories about the march of science against the unholy trinity of ignorance, superstition and dogma. Dogma was the worst, and so the early 17th-century drama of Galileo's persecution by the Roman Catholic Church for his heretical belief that the earth revolved around the sun particularly captured my imagination. Galileo was a martyr for scientific truth against religious dogma. In my pantheon of heroes, that put him right at the top.

After I grew up and became a scientist, Galileo's story stayed in my mind as the emblem of a long-standing conflict between religion and science. And I knew the struggle wasn't over. Here, in modern-day America, my own field of geology has been under constant attack by an increasingly vocal creationist movement. So imagine my surprise when I was researching a book on the history of geology and encountered the story of Danish geologist Nicolaus Steno. Just decades after Galileo, Steno sparked a major revolution in scientific thought, one that still reverberates in today's creationism/evolution controversies. His example demolishes the simplistic notion of an inherent hostility between science and the church.

Steno was primarily an anatomist, but he is best remembered for his pioneering studies in geology. In 1669 he published in Florence -- Galileo's old stomping grounds -- a startling proposal: that the fossils and rock layers of the earth, if studied scientifically, gave a chronicle of the earth's history at least as valid as the accepted version in the verses of Genesis. Memories of Galileo's transgression were still painfully fresh, and, if anything, Steno's ideas would seem to have been more provocative than Galileo's. How did the 17th-century Church react? Was Steno condemned? His work suppressed?

Not at all. There wasn't a peep of official complaint. Steno wasn't criticized, much less condemned. In fact, he was put on a fast track to priesthood and then a bishopric. To top it off, in 1988 he was beatified by Pope John Paul II. A treatment less like Galileo's is hard to imagine.

If this is difficult to accept, that's because the idea that conflict between science and religion is inevitable is deeply entrenched in our popular culture. Many journalists, as well as scientists, who write for the public take it as a given. They depict the religious orthodoxy as historically bent on squelching reason and scientific inquiry in a desperate effort to protect bankrupt dogmas. Partisans of religion have their own version, in which science is the aggressor.

But the case for this "warfare thesis," as historians call it, was discredited decades ago. It had already largely crumbled when I was reading my childhood science books. "I do not know one historian who believes that there is a history of warfare between science and Christianity," says William Ashworth, historian of science at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

The thesis was popularized in the 19th century by writers such as the first president of Cornell University, Andrew Dickson White, whose 1896 "History of the Warfare of Science With Theology in Christendom" is still in print and still accepted as gospel in some quarters.

But many of the clashes reported by White have turned out to be fiction. Those that did occur, such as the Galileo affair, were as much (if not more) about personalities and politics as they were about beliefs. "Most people learn about Galileo, and his problem with the Church, and don't learn about many other scientists," says Ashworth, "and so they assume that this is a typical case, and there have been lots of Galileo affairs. The truth is, there haven't."

Attempts to salvage the warfare thesis by narrowing it to authoritarian Catholics (vs. dissident Protestants) or, alternatively, Protestant biblical literalism (vs. the more allegorical Catholic tradition) have also fallen apart under scholarly scrutiny.

Similarly, religious alarmists are crying wolf when they blame science (usually in the form of "Darwinism") for the increasing secularization of society over the past century. Historians and sociologists have found that divisions within the Church have been typically more important than any conflict with science in estranging people from orthodoxy. As a case in point, Darwin's loss of faith was an emotional reaction to the cruelty of Church doctrine (especially regarding damnation), not an intellectual conclusion drawn from his scientific studies.

For most of history, the border between science and religion was fuzzy, to say the least. Scientist and priest were often the same person. Few outside the Church had the education or the inclination to pursue research. Those not in the clergy, such as Galileo and Newton, were nonetheless devoutly religious.

Even in our current secular age, some 40 percent of scientists say they believe in a God who answers prayers, according to a poll published in the journal Nature. This is significantly lower than the public at large, but it hardly qualifies as an army of atheists. And despite its reputation for astronomer-bashing in the age of Galileo, the Catholic Church was for centuries by far the biggest source of funding for scientific research and education.

This is not to say that there haven't been power struggles. There have been plenty. It's just that the combatants -- even in the iconic ones surrounding the likes of Copernicus and Darwin -- typically don't sort neatly into science and religious camps.

When Steno proposed the geological investigation of the earth's strata, the loudest howls came from other scientists. One of the puzzles Steno addressed was that of fossilized seashells found high in mountains. Land and sea had shifted, he said. But there was already a "scientific" explanation: spontaneous growth within the rocks. So there was no need, as one contemporary put it, to "turn the world upside down for the sake of a shell." Ironically, the idea seemed to be more palatable among some theological conservatives than among rationalists: God could do whatever he wanted.

What about that most contentious of issues -- Genesis? Biblical scholars such as the 17th-century Anglican archbishop James Ussher had deduced from Scripture that the world was about 6,000 years old. Some observers at the time were indeed nervous that the earth's layers might reveal a much longer history. Young Earth creationists today refuse to countenance any deviation from Ussher's figure. But for mainstream 17th-century Christians, it was a non-issue. Allegorical interpretations of Genesis had been relatively uncontroversial at least since the time of Saint Augustine.

What was controversial was not the numerical date of creation, but whether there had been creation at all -- or if the earth and its inhabitants were eternal, as some radical philosophers asserted. For orthodox Christians, the eternalist heresy was scary indeed: No creation, no Creator; no Creator, no religion.

But geology, even if it stretched time, seemed to show a progression of fossils and rock types, not endless cycles of the same things. This meshed well enough with Christian doctrine to keep most believers from getting too upset as scientists rewrote the earth's history. Even fundamentalists in the early 20th century were unperturbed about the demise of biblical chronology. William Bell Riley, one of the fundamentalist movement's founders, declared that there was not "an intelligent fundamentalist who claims that the earth was made six thousand years ago, and the Bible never taught any such thing."

Of course, the story doesn't end here. Ultraconservative believers and scientists did not all live together happily ever after. Some on each side have declared war. Others, such as intelligent design advocates, use the misunderstandings and general confusion as a cover to push their own mishmash of science and religion. In 1925, the mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead wrote that the future course of civilization depended on the decision his generation in the 20th century made as to the relations between science and religion. We face the same decision, with even more urgency, in the 21st century.

The historical relationship between science and religion has been as complex as any human relationship. There is no reason to think that this will change. The warfare thesis suits the polemical purposes of partisans in certain social and political debates. But it harms religion by portraying it as overly dogmatic and reactionary. It also harms science by portraying it as hostile or at least indifferent to the average person's spiritual needs.

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Alan Cutler, a geologist who lives in Gaithersburg, is the author of a book about Nicolaus Steno and his era titled "The Seashell on the Mountaintop" (Dutton).