The Conflict of Science and Religion


If you are the kind of person who is interested in the historical relationship between science and religion then you will really enjoy this book. The only quibble I have is with the title of the book. It’s not really a book about the relationship between science and religion but rather a book about the relationship between science and Christianity in Europe and North America. There is one chapter on Islam (by Alnoor Dhanani) but other than that the essays are either directly or indirectly about Christianity.

The book is split into several parts:

1] Science and Religion: Conflict or Complexity

2] The Premodern Period

3] The Scientific Revolution

4] Transformations in Geology, Biology, and Cosmology, 1650-1900

5] The Response of Religious Traditions

6] The Theological Implications of Modern Science

7] Current Historiographical Issues

I hope that picking out some key quotes, from some of the key chapters, that you will be inspired to look the book up and study it for yourself. In this post I shall focus on the first chapter in the book.

Chapter One is written by Colin A. Russell who is emeritus professor of the history of science and technology at the Open University.

“For nearly a century, the notion of mutual hostility (the Draper-White thesis) has been routinely employed in popular-science writing, by the media, and in a few older histories of science. Deeply embedded in the culture of the West, it has proven extremely hard to dislodge. Only in the last thirty years of the twentieth century did historians of science mount a sustained attack on the thesis, and only gradually has a wider public begun to recognize its deficiencies.” [p.4]

“With hindsight, it is truly remarkable that, as early as the sixteenth century, Copernicus and his disciple Georg Joachim Rheticus (1514-74) resolved the issue [viz. the Copernican displacement of the earth with the geocentric interpretation of the Bible] to their satisfaction by invoking the patristic distinction between the Bible’s teaching on spiritual realities and its descriptions of the natural world in the language of ordinary people. Rheticus specifically appealed to Augustine’s doctrine of ‘accommodation,’ asserting that the Holy Spirit accommodated himself on the pages of Scripture to everyday language and terminology of appearances.” [p.4,5]


“The conflict thesis, at least in its simple form, is now widely perceived as a wholly inadequate intellectual framework within which to construct a sensitive and realistic historiography of Western science. Nor was it merely a case of British controversy. Ronald L. Numbers has suggested that “the war between science and theology in colonial America has existed primarily in the cliché-bound minds of historians.”” [p.7]

He then cites six reasons why the conflict thesis fails:

“First, the conflict thesis hinders the recognition of other relationships between science and religion… As a historical tool, the conflict thesis is so blunt that it is more damaging than serviceable. One has only to consider the “two books” of Francis Bacon (1561-1626) – nature and Scripture – each of which had a role complementary to that of the other. They were not to be at odds with each other because they dealt with different subjects. Again, for many scientific figures in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Christianity played a central role in fostering and even shaping their scientific endeavors: The instances of Kepler, Robert Boyle, Isaac Newton, and René Descartes are the most conspicuous. The historical relations between religion and science are certainly more rich and complex than a simple conflict thesis suggests.”

“Second, and more specific, the conflict thesis ignores the many documented examples of science and religion operating in close alliance.” [He cites such examples in support as: Boyle, Newton, Pascal, Mersenne, Gassendi, Beeckman, Faraday, Joule, Maxwell, Lord Kelvin and Stokes.]

“Third, the conflict thesis enshrines a flawed view of history in which “progress” or (in this case) “victory” has been portrayed as inevitable… This approach represents and embraces a long-demolished tradition of positivist, Whiggish historiography.”

“Fourth, the conflict thesis obscures the rich diversity of ideas in both science and religion… Thus, in the case of Galileo, it was the Roman Catholic, not the Protestant, wing of Christianity that appeared to be at odds with science.”

“Fifth, the conflict thesis engenders a distorted view of disputes resulting from causes other than those of religion verses science… A classic case is that of the alleged opposition to James Young Simpson (1811-70) for his introduction of chloroform anesthesia in midwifery. Despite repeated claims of clerical harassment, the evidence is almost nonexistent. Insofar as there was any conflict, it was between the London and Edinburgh medical establishments or between obstetricians and surgeons. The origins of that myth may be located in an inadequately documented footnote in White (1896, 2.63).”

“Finally, the conflict thesis exalts minor squabbles, or even differences of opinion, to the status of major conflicts. The confrontation between Samuel Wilberforce and Huxley in 1860 has been so frequently paraded as a one-sided battle on a vast scale that one is liable to forget that, in fact, it was nothing of the kind. Such exaggeration is an almost inevitable accompaniment to the exposition of a conflict theory. It is excellent drama but impoverished history, made credible only by a prior belief that such conflict is inevitable.”

Russell later concludes his piece by remarking:

“The remarkable thing about the whole conflict thesis is how readily the Victorian propaganda in all of its varied forms has become unconsciously assimilated as part of the received wisdom of our own day. However, it is salutary to note that serious scholarship has revealed the conflict thesis as, at best, an oversimplification and, at worst, a deception. As a rare example of the interface between contemporary public opinion and historical scholarship, it is high time for a robust exposure of its true character.”


Next time you are being presented with supposed evidence in support of a conflict thesis between science and religion make sure you ask for sources and research the information being given.

Gary Ferngren (the editor of the above book) also has some superb work on the history of medicine in relation to the Christian religion. Check out his ‘Medicine and Health in Early Christianity’ and ‘Medicine and Religion: A Historical Introduction’. This is another area worth reading up on in light of the fact that some atheists are perpetuating many myths about Christianity being against medicine throughout history.

Lohn Lennox talking about the conflict thesis:

About aRemonstrant'sRamblings

I graduated in philosophy of religion many years ago and have since acquired my PGCE and now teach religion, ethics and philosophy.
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