New Atheists and the “Conflict” between Science and Religion

| By (guest author) on Reading the Book of Nature

ABOVE: Astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson (left), one of today’s most successful popularizers of science, has followed closely in the footsteps of the late Carl Sagan (right), whom he has long admired.  Both have used their enormous pulpits to advance an anti-religious view of science (image source).

Introduction by Ted Davis

Before Christmas we started a new series based on an article by historian Stephen Snobelen about New Atheist views of science and religion.  Dr. Snobelen enumerated “seven characteristic elements” of the New Atheism on which he would comment, starting (last time) with the attack on religion and philosophy.  Today and next time we present his analysis of some of the ways in which New Atheist authors use and misuse the infamous “Conflict Thesis” about the history of science and religion.

For readers who want more background for this column, BioLogos is a great place to start.  I especially recommend an essay by the distinguished historian Mark Noll and a series by James Hannam, a Catholic scholar whose book on medieval science was a finalist for a prize awarded by the Royal Society.  We also reviewed an inexpensive book (cited below) by a team of historians debunking 25 “myths” about the history of science and religion that is probably the best overall introduction for our readers to the Conflict Thesis and the reasons why virtually all modern historians reject it. Dr. Snobelen’s essay continues after the next heading. 

New Atheists and the Conflict Thesis (by Stephen Snobelen)

In March 2014 astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson’s much-anticipated thirteen-episode science documentary Cosmos premiered.  The series was a reboot of the classic 1980 series of the same name hosted and co-written by the late astronomer Carl Sagan—indeed, Tyson’s script was co-written by Sagan’s widow and collaborator Ann Druyan.  After some introductory sequences that included Tyson standing on the same California ocean-side cliffs from which Sagan opened his series, along with some impressive computer animations of the universe that emphasised its immense scope and our relative smallness, the new Cosmos began its first history of science vignette. On location in Rome, following an aerial shot of the Vatican, Tyson speaks of Copernicus and his revolutionary heliocentric theory. “Many,” Tyson interjects, “like the Protestant Reformer Martin Luther, took this idea as a scandalous affront to Scripture.”  Then, Tyson introduces the viewer to an early advocate of heliocentrism, the Italian monk Giordano Bruno, who, we are told, “was a natural born rebel.”

It is clear who is going to be the hero of the story. At this point, we are presented with a cartoon portraying Bruno’s free-spirited speculations about an infinite universe, his imprisonment by the Catholic Inquisition and his eventual death at the stake for heresy in Rome in 1600. Tyson’s narration includes these lines: “He dared to read the books banned by the Church. And that was his undoing. In one of them, an ancient Roman, a man dead for more than 1500 years, whispered to him of a universe far greater, one as boundless as his idea of God.”  During this narrative, we see Bruno sneak into a room and lift up some floorboards to reveal a hidden copy of De rerum natura (On the nature of things), a famous anti-religious work by the ancient Roman poet Lucretius.  It’s a dramatic scene, and like many good dramas it is full of conflict.  Although no explicit or overarching statements are made about science and religion, and while Tyson makes it clear that Bruno believed in God and that an infinite universe befitted an infinite deity, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the juxtapositions of carefully scripted commentary with images of dark-faced Inquisitors is meant to create the impression that there is a fundamental conflict between science and religion. As the first historical episode in the series, it also helps set the tone for the rest. The Conflict Thesis was given one of its highest profile pop culture moments.

 


Ted notes: Andrew Dickson White’s 2-volume screed, A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896), has profoundly influenced American thinking about religion and science right down to our own day—despite the fact that modern historians have thoroughly discredited both its overall attitude and many of the alleged “facts” it contains. As with this copy of the second printing (1897), it was handsomely bound in bright red cloth with gilt lettering, boldly proclaiming its author’s agenda. Photograph by Edward B. Davis.


 

Conceived in the French Enlightenment, the Conflict Thesis was born in the late Victorian period. Its classic expressions are found in scientist-turned-historian John William Draper’s History of the Conflict between Religion and Science (1875) and university administrator-cum-historian Andrew Dickson White’s A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896). As dramatic as their titles are, there is at least some nuance in the books’ contents. Despite his sweeping title, Draper’s main target was the Catholic Church, not Christianity as a whole, and White identified his target as “dogmatic theology” rather than Christianity per se. (See Jon H. Roberts, “‘The idea that wouldn’t die’: The warfare between science and Christianity,” and David C. Lindberg and Ronald L. Numbers, “Beyond War and Peace: A Reappraisal of the Encounter between Christianity and Science.”)  In the conclusion to his Introduction, White declares “that in the field left to them—their proper field—the clergy will more and more, as they cease to struggle against scientific methods and conclusions, do work even nobler and more beautiful than anything they have heretofore done.” Moreover, it was his “conviction ... that Science, though it has evidently conquered Dogmatic Theology ... will go hand in hand with Religion” (vol. 1, p. xii), by which he seems to mean a liberal Christianity of the social Gospel kind.

While a careful consideration of the context of these two books helps to explain their original motivations, it is nevertheless the case that collectively Draper and White’s biased, selective and tendentious accounts did much damage to relations between science and religion by introducing the metaphors of conflict and warfare to popular and even scholarly understandings of the history of science and religion. Both books are still regularly quote-mined and cited as authoritative almost as if no history of science has been done in the intervening one hundred and twenty years.

The Conflict Thesis—which claims that there is an essential conflict between science and religion—continues to be promoted by some intellectuals and scientists and is seemingly the default position of the media and popular culture.  It has long been left behind by most professional historians of science, irrespective of their own belief or non-belief.  Yet, the Conflict Thesis is a foundation stone of Stephen Hawking’s claim, “Science will win because it works,” because this claim implies that there is an ongoing conflict between science and religion that will end with religion being vanquished. Now, conflict does exist and can actually be a good thing in some instances—but it is hardly the only game in town. If there really were an essential conflict between science and religion, it would be hard to account for the large number of excellent scientists who are strongly religious.

Conflict as Coyne of the Realm

A territorial metaphor is often allied with the martial metaphor of the Conflict Thesis. Science, we are told, is constantly taking territory from religion. Thus, in a 2010 opinion piece entitled “Science and religion aren’t friends,” biologist Jerry A. Coyne wrote:

Science nibbles at religion ... relentlessly consuming divine explanations and replacing them with material ones. Evolution took a huge bite a while back, and recent work on the brain has shown no evidence for souls, spirits, or any part of our personality or behavior distinct from the lump of jelly in our head. We now know that the universe did not require a creator. Science is even studying the origin of morality. So religious claims retreat into the ever-shrinking gaps not yet filled by science. ... Science and faith are fundamentally incompatible, and for precisely the same reason that irrationality and rationality are incompatible. They are different forms of inquiry, with only one, science, equipped to find real truth. And while they may have a dialogue, it’s not a constructive one. Science helps religion only by disproving its claims, while religion has nothing to add to science.

Coyne comments in like fashion in his recent book Faith vs. Fact, the title of which inscribes (and actively promotes) conflict between science and religion: “Science and religion ... are competitors in the business of finding out what is true about our universe. In this goal religion has failed miserably, for its tools for discerning ‘truth’ are useless. These areas are incompatible in precisely the same way, and in the same sense, that rationality is incompatible with irrationality” (p. xvi).

Leaving aside the unpleasant triumphalism and arrogance of Coyne’s comments, the paradigm he is promoting is clear: science is on the march and religion is in retreat. This is a variant of the common idea that science is an agent of secularisation, driving back religion with every step. There is no doubt that in the western world traditional religious belief has declined, but the causes are multivariate. The main problem with the science and secularisation thesis is that it assumes that science is driving secularisation, rather than individual scientists and the culture of science being driven by secularisation (See the essays by Brooke and Martin, cited below).  For Coyne there is no possibility of a partnership, because there is an irreconcilable conflict between the two. What his account misses is a kind of tautology already hinted at in the previous column: the fact that science discovers and delivers material explanations is hardly surprising, as that is what science is designed to do. What is more, the large number of believing scientists in the U.S. (for example) is written out of his paradigm—and never mind that most historians of science (secular and religious) believe that Christianity played a largely positive role in the emergence of modern science.

Nor does the absence of theistic language in scientific discourse necessarily imply that science has eliminated religion. Thus, when The Royal Society of London was founded in the 1660s, they enshrined a policy of restricting religious language in their work. In his early account of the Society, Thomas Sprat noted that “the Royal Society is abundantly cautious not to intermeddle in Spiritual things.” While this bare fact may at first glance appear to support Coyne’s contention that “Science nibbles at religion,” one needs to look at both the motivation behind this policy and the big picture. It turns out that the motivation to avoid religious discussions was due in large part to the increasing religious pluralism in England at the time. By avoiding religious discussions, Royal Society Fellows of different religious dispositions could work together in amity—something that helped Isaac Newton when he became president of that august institution in 1703, since he was a heretic. Despite the restriction on religious discourse, virtually all the earliest members of the Society were pious Christians (some even churchmen) and the founding charter of the Society (1663) proclaimed that its work was dedicated “to the glory of God the Creator, and the advantage of the human race.” Sprat himself was an Anglican priest (later a bishop).

More than that, religion helped provide social legitimacy for the Society and its scientific work was seen as supporting natural theology (see Peter Harrison, “Religion and the Early Royal Society”). Thus, in this case, appearances can be deceiving. Similarly, the many religious scientists who practise science today abide by the customary policy of methodological naturalism and do not bring God or religion into their science or scientific publications. In these cases the lack of religious language or appeals to the divine do not reflect a lack of belief in God. In fact, something vaguely like methodological naturalism dates right back to the Middle Ages.

Part of Coyne’s secularisation argument hinges on what we mean by “secularisation.” For many, it describes a society becoming less religious. But in the West, it is also intertwined with a process in which the rise of religious pluralism brings with it a practical need for civil society, government, the education system and the public sphere to avoid prioritising one religion. This often results in a reduction in affirmations of religion in the public sphere, as in Canada. It does seem plausible, on the other hand, that the long-established methodological naturalism in science has for some tacitly reinforced a sense that science is not compatible with theism. If so, this was not universally the original intention for the policy—nor need it be the case even in the twenty-first century.

Looking Ahead

Snobelen’s analysis of the New Atheists and the Conflict Thesis continues next time, when he examines more closely the claim (stated above) “that there is an essential conflict between science and religion.”  Along the way, he critiques Richard Dawkins’ view that Christians foolishly rely on “God of the gaps” thinking.


Notes

Citations

MLA

Snobelen , Stephen. "New Atheists and the “Conflict” between Science and Religion "
http://biologos.org/. N.p., 5 Jan. 2017. Web. 28 April 2017.

APA

Snobelen , S. (2017, January 5). New Atheists and the “Conflict” between Science and Religion
Retrieved April 28, 2017, from http://biologos.org/blogs/ted-davis-reading-the-book-of-nature/new-atheists-and-the-conflict-between-science-and-religion

References & Credits

References and Suggestions for Further Reading

An earlier version of this essay was published as Stephen D. Snobelen, “Science, religion and the New Atheism,” in The New Atheism, ed. Susan Harris (Charlottetown: St. Peter Publications, 2013), pp. 109-44.  BioLogos and the author are grateful to St. Peter Publications (the only source for purchasing this book) for permission to publish this updated version online.

For incisive critiques of the science and secularisation thesis, see John Hedley Brooke, “Science and Secularization,” in The Cambridge Companion to Science and Religion, ed. Peter Harrison (2010), pp. 103–23, and David Martin, “Does the Advance of Science Mean Secularisation?” Science and Christian Belief 19 (2007): 3–14.

About the Author

Dr. Snobelen's research and teaching interests include history of science (early modern and nineteenth century), science and religion, science in popular culture, the popularization of science, radical theology in the early modern period, and millenarianism. His primary research efforts are currently devoted to interpreting Isaac Newton’s theological manuscripts and understanding the relationships between Newton’s science and his religion.

Dr. Snobelen has consulted for and appeared in television documentaries on Isaac Newton, including Newton: The Dark Heretic. His most popular course is on science fiction film, which he uses to introduce historical, philosophical, and ethical themes about science and technology to undergraduates in the humanities, sciences, and engineering. He and his wife Julia have four children who help keep them grounded in the more important things of life.

 

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