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Published by: Theophilus V Claridge on Apr 20, 2012
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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The 'War' Between Science and Religion
If you ask many people today what they think about science'srelationship to religion, you are likely to be told that the two have beenin conflict for a very long time.
There was the trial of Galileo by theInquisition, for example, the debate between Wilberforce and Huxley,and there is still an on-going dispute over the teaching of evolution inAmerican schools. These
usual suspects
may be trotted out wheneverthis topic is mentioned, but are events such as these really typical of the history of science as a whole?Contrary to the impression given by some commentators, the
conflict thesis
between science and religion is one that has been discredited inacademic circles for some time. The rise of science in the West was, of course, a very complicated affair in which many different factorsplayed a part. There were certainly inevitable points of tension, butthis does detract from the fact that Europe was a largely Christiancontinent in which religious individuals and institutions inevitablyplayed a central role in the changes that occurred.A number of the popular misconceptions about history are addressedin Ronald Numbers' book,
Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion
One of the most famous examples is the"debate" between Bishop Samuel Wilberforce and T. H. Huxley (1860),which was actually an after-lecture discussion on the merits of Darwin's work. The alleged clash was largely forgotten about until the1890s, when it resurrected by those seeking to attack the power of theAnglican orthodoxy. By this point the scientific community had becomemore professionalized and some of its members realized the debatecould be used to promote their already growing autonomy. The eventwas therefore portrayed as if it had been a portentous victory forscience over religion, even though, at the time, neither side was saidto have won and the discussion was held on purely scientific grounds.
It is important, therefore, to be aware of how history is sometimesportrayed. Scholars no longer use the term "dark ages," for example,because the description gives the false impression that this was aperiod of ignorance during which little development occurred. Rodney
Stark suggests that there is a similar problem with the process knownas
the Enlightenment 
, because the term itself, coined by Voltaire, wasappropriated by various militant atheists and humanists who sought toclaim the credit for the rise of science. As Stark points out, "Thefalsehood that science required the defeat of religion was proclaimedby such self-appointed cheerleaders as Voltaire and Gibbon, whothemselves played no part in the scientific enterprise."
This depictionof the Enlightenment, as if it was some kind of clean secular breakfrom the past, persists today, but, as John Coffey points out, it could bemore accurately described as a religious process. This is because manyof those at the vanguard of the movement were Protestants (thoughcertainly not all orthodox) who sought to fuse religious andphilosophical ideas together. This is not to deny the role of certaingroups of atheist thinkers, but crucially these were not representativeof the Enlightenment as a whole. Furthermore, DominicErdozain argues that you can trace a lot of the unbelief of the timeback to expressly religious roots. It was a Christian conscience (ratherthan a secular or pagan one) that drove much of the Enlightenmentthought and a poignant example of this was the way in which Voltaireoften used Jesus—albeit his own interpretation of him—in order toattack the church.
It is always helpful, therefore, to bear in mind John Hedley Brookes'comments, when he reminds us that: "In many of the disputes thathave been conventionally analyzed in terms of some notional relationbetween science and religion, the underlying issues were principallyabout neither science nor religion, nor the relationship between them,but were matters of social, ethical or political concern in which theauthority of either science, religion or both was invoked (often on bothsides) to defend a view held on other grounds…"
As this suggests, simplistic ways of understanding history honorneither history nor the present.
Simon Wenham is research coordinator for Ravi Zacharias International Ministries inEurope.
Article adapted from Simon Wenham's, "Making History: The 'War' Between Science andReligion,"
, Issue 8 (Summer 2011), pp. 2-4.
R. Numbers,
Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion
(Boston: Harvard

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