Folk Science and Dinosaur Religion: When Science Becomes Religion

| By on Reading the Book of Nature

Carl Sagan, undoubtedly the most famous American scientist of his generation, was a suave, sophisticated proponent of folk science with a melodious voice with a blunt quasi-pantheistic religious statement: The Cosmos is all that is or was or ever will be.

The final installment of this series shows how the debate between Rimmer and Schmucker is best understood not as an example of the “warfare” of science and religion. Rather it was a conflict between competing varieties of what has been called “folk science” by social philosopher Jerome Ravetz. Purely naturalistic forms of folk science, such as that offered byRichard Dawkins and other New Atheists, amount to what the late Conrad Hyers called “dinosaur religion,” namely, the transformation of science into a type of religion.

Getting Past the “Warfare” View of the History of Science and Religion

How should we understand the Rimmer-Schmucker debate? In earlier generations, historians would have been tempted to apply the “warfare” model to episodes of that sort, on the assumption that science and religion have always been locked in mortal combat, with religion constantly yielding to science. That way of thinking was widely received by historians and many other scholars—to say nothing of the ordinary person in the street—for most of the twentieth century. Aspects of this debate do seem to fit the warfare model, especially Rimmer’s condescending hostility toward evolution specifically and scientists generally and his elevation of a “literal” Bible (that is the word he often chose himself) over well supported scientific conclusions. Some people’s religious views do indeed conflict with some parts of science, and I could point to several good historical examples: why beat around the bush?

As an historian, however, I should also point out that the warfare view is dead among historians, though hardly among the scientists and science journalists who are far more influential in shaping popular opinion—even though they usually know far less about this topic than the relevant experts. Indeed, if we historians wrote about current scientific matters with the same blunt instruments that scientists typically employ when they write about past scientific matters, I dare say that no one would pay serious attention to us. But, since I’m an historian and the subject is history, please pay attention.

For more than thirty years, historians have been probing beneath the surface of apparent conflicts, searching for the underlying reasons why people with different beliefs have sometimes clashed over matters involving science. If there is just one take-away message, it is this: the warfare view grossly oversimplifies complex historical situations, to such an extent that it has to be laid to rest. Listen to the verdict from two of the best historians of science in the world, neither of whom is religious. According to David Lindberg and Ronald L. Numbers, “recent scholarship has shown the warfare metaphor to be neither useful nor tenable in describing the relationship between science and religion”. The key word here is “tenable.” The warfare view is not. “Any interpretation that begins to do justice to the complexity of the interaction between Christianity and science must be heavily qualified and subtly nuanced—clearly a disadvantage in the quest for public recognition, but a necessity nonetheless.” In other words, you can use sound bites and false “facts” if you want a big audience, but only if you are prepared to kiss historical accuracy goodbye.

In an effort to put some nuance into our analysis of the debate, I turn to social philosopher Jerome Ravetz, an astute critic of some of the excesses and shortcomings of modern science. Ravetz has defined a very helpful concept, “folk science,” as that “part of a general world-view, or ideology, which is given special articulation so that it may provide comfort and reassurance in the face of the crucial uncertainties of the world of experience.” This obviously maps quite well onto Rimmer’s creationism, but it can also map onto real science, especially when science is extrapolated into an all-encompassing world view. As Ravetz observes, “the functions performed by folk-sciences are necessary so long as the human condition exists; and it can be argued that the ‘new philosophy’ [of the Scientific Revolution] itself functioned as folk-science for its audience at the time.” This was because “it promised a solution to all problems, metaphysical and theological as well as natural.” That sort of thing still happens today. Indeed, “the basic folk-science of the educated sections of the advanced societies is ‘Science’ itself” (Scientific Knowledge and Its Social Problems, pp. 386-87).

Ken Ham with one of the animatronic dinosaurs from the Creation Museum
Ken Ham, the CEO of the Creation Museum. Ham’s version of natural history qualifies fully as “folk science.”

This means that professional scientists like Dawkins are perfectly capable of doing folk science; you don’t need to be a Harry Rimmer or a Ken Ham. The problem with the New Atheists isn’t their science, it’s the folk science that they pass off as science. In a book written many years ago, four faculty members from Calvin College pointed out that folk science “provides a standing invitation to the unwary to confuse science with religion”—something that still happens all too often. As they went on to say, “Naturalistic evolutionism is to be rejected because its materialist creed puts the material world in place of God, because it asserts that the cosmos is self-existent and self-governing, because it sees no value in anything beyond the material thing itself, [and] because it asserts that cosmic history has no purpose, that purpose is only an illusion. Naturalistic evolutionism views the cosmos as an independent, autonomous, material machine named NATURE—a singularly meaningless image compared with the rich biblical vision of the cosmos as God’s CREATION” (Portraits of Creation, pp. 188 and 121, their italics).

Shortly before most of the world had heard of Dawkins, theologian Conrad Hyers offered a similar analysis. His article about “dinosaur religion” was featured in my series on Science and the Bible, but I highlighted a different aspect of the article. Hyers called naturalistic evolutionism “dinosaur religion,” because it uses “an evolutionary way of structuring history … as a substitute for biblical and theological ways of interpreting existence.” In other words, “When certain scientists suggest that the religious accounts of creation are now outmoded and superseded by modern scientific accounts of things, this is ‘dinosaur religion.’ Or when scientists presume that evolutionary scenarios necessarily and logically lead to a rejection of religious belief as a superfluity, this is dinosaur religion.” Even though Dawkins vigorously denies being religious—for him, religion is a “virus” that needs to be eradicated, not something he wants to practice himself—he fits this description perfectly. Indeed, he’s the leading exponent of dinosaur religion today.

Rimmer’s antievolutionism and Schmucker’s evolutionary theism were nothing other than competing varieties of folk science. Of course, each type of folk science has its own particular audience, as Ravetz realized. “The external groups for which a subject functions as folk-science can vary enormously in their size, sophistication and influence,” necessitating different styles of communication. A “sub-literate audience,” he said, “needs fewer trappings of academic jargon and titles, while a sophisticated audience requires a reasonable facsimile of a leading branch of ‘Science’, such as physics” (pp 388-89). Either way, varieties of folk science, including dinosaur religion, will continue to appeal to anyone who wants to use the Bible as if it were an authoritative scientific text or to inflate science into a form of religion.

Looking Ahead

I’ll be back around Thanksgiving with an Advent homily, before starting a new series in December. In the meantime, please let us know what you think of this series.

References and Suggestions for Further Reading

This material is adapted from Edward B. Davis, “Fundamentalism and Folk Science Between the Wars,” Religion and American Culture 5 (1995): 217-48. The notion of folk science comes from Jerome R. Ravetz, Scientific Knowledge and Its Social Problems (Oxford University Press, 1971). I learned about it in two books that provide excellent analyses of both creationism and naturalistic evolutionism as examples of folk science; see Howard J. Van TillDavis A. Young, and Clarence MenningaScience Held Hostage: What’s Wrong with Creation Science AND Evolutionism (InterVarsity Press, 1988), pp. 39-43, 141-53, and 169-78; and Howard Van Till, Robert E. Snow, John H. Stek, and Davis A. Young, Portraits of Creation: Biblical and Scientific Perspectives on the World’s Formation (Eerdmans, 1990), pp, 147-51, and 186-202.

Going well beyond this discussion, I recommend a penetrating critique of religious aspects of naturalistic evolutionism by historian David N. Livingstone, “Evolution as Metaphor and Myth,” Christian Scholar’s Review 12 (1983): 111-25. Last winter, I was part of a symposium on religion and modern physics at the AAAS meeting in Chicago. The session summary report contains four examples of historians telling scientists about the new paradigm for historical studies of science and religion.




Davis, Ted. "Folk Science and Dinosaur Religion: When Science Becomes Religion" N.p., 23 Oct. 2014. Web. 18 January 2019.


Davis, T. (2014, October 23). Folk Science and Dinosaur Religion: When Science Becomes Religion
Retrieved January 18, 2019, from /blogs/ted-davis-reading-the-book-of-nature/folk-science-and-dinosaur-religion-when-science-becomes-religion

About the Author

Ted Davis

Ted Davis is Professor of the History of Science at Messiah College. A former high school science teacher, Ted studied history and philosophy of science at Indiana University, where his mentor was the late Richard S. Westfall, author of the definitive biography of Isaac Newton. With the English historian Michael Hunter, Ted edited The Works of Robert Boyle, 14 vols. (London: Pickering & Chatto, 1999-2000), but his interests include the whole 2000-year interaction of Christianity and science. Author of dozens of scholarly articles and essays, Ted is one of few historians who have written extensively about both the Scientific Revolution and modern America. He and his wife Kathy enjoy theater, music, and traveling to new places.

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