“There is a fundamental difference between religion – which is based on authority – and science – which is based on observation and reason,” said the world-renowned physicist Stephen Hawking in 2010. “Science will win because it works.” Earlier this year, the famous evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins declared that religion is “a pernicious charlatan”, obscuring scientific fact. Science and religion are increasingly portrayed as competing world views, pitched against one another for ownership of the truth.
But it has not always been this way. “The very word ‘science’ means knowledge [from scire, to know] and, in the Middle Ages, theology was regarded as the queen of the sciences, the highest form of knowledge,” says Maurice Crosland, emeritus professor of science history at the University of Kent and author of the recently published book, Science Under Suspicion. In the Abrahamic traditions, scientific work was often driven by a desire to study God’s Creation. The Church was a major sponsor of science and significant discoveries were made by monks and members of the clergy. The Jesuits in particular contributed heavily to the fields of astronomy and seismology, the latter to such an extent that it is sometimes referred to as “the Jesuit science”.
The relationship between science and religion is not an easy one, however, and by the 17th century cracks had begun to show. The astronomer Galileo is popularly regarded as marking one of the major breaking points, forced to recant his views on the heliocentric universe by the Inquisition, which considered them heretical – although his story is often misunderstood, says Professor Crosland.
“Most people think that Galileo was obviously right and that the Catholic Church was excessively authoritarian in not allowing him to publish what he thought he had evidence for,” he says. “The problem is that his evidence was faulty. His favourite theory in favour of the movement of the earth was the tides. But only after Galileo’s death was Newton able to demonstrate that tides are related to gravity”, rather than the earth’s movement.
Copernicus first introduced the idea of the heliocentric universe two decades before Galileo was born. His reasoning had partly been based on mathematics, and partly on aesthetics. He wrote: “For who could set this luminary in another or better place in this most glorious temple than whence he can at one and the same time brighten the whole.” This was a quasi-religious sentiment and, indeed, Copernicus was a canon at the cathedral in Frombork, Poland. The Vatican did not oppose Copernicus’s work and even used it to help reform the Julian calendar, ensuring that Easter would be celebrated on the correct day. Cathedrals across Europe were also used as solar observatories for this purpose. (Reluctant to accept a Catholic victory, many Protestant states refused to adopt the new calendar and continued to use one that was at least 10 days out for the next century or more.)
But when Galileo continued work on Copernicus’s theories, he was hauled up before the Inquisition. The suggestion that the earth revolved around the sun was said to contradict Scripture, which states that “it can never be moved”. He was forced to abandon his views and spent the last nine years of his life under house arrest. “The Church was wrong in using their authority unnecessarily,” says Professor Crosland, a practising Catholic himself. “But Galileo was wrong in some very key senses. Copernicus was a modest man, whereas Galileo was a very combative person and his character has to be taken into account in this dispute.” His treatment by the Inquisition can be put down as much to his political overreaching as to the nature of his scientific claims.
Despite the significance of the Galileo affair in raising tensions, it was not until the 19th century that the idea of science and religion as conflicting world views took hold. The word “scientist” – hitherto unheard of – was introduced and understood in distinctly secular terms. The great chemist Michael Faraday, who discovered electromagnetic induction and saw Christian faith as integral to his work, insisted on referring to himself as a “natural philosopher” instead. But the key schism came in 1859, with the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species, which conflicted with the biblical Creation story. Soon afterwards, the biologist Thomas Huxley and Bishop Samuel Wilberforce famously collided over the veracity of Darwin’s claims during a debate hosted by the British Association for the Advancement of Science, where Wilberforce is said to have asked Huxley whether it was through his grandmother or his grandfather that he claimed descent from a monkey. (Interestingly, the British Association had been set up partly by Anglican clergymen in 1831, but it was seen by some as pushing for a secular redefinition of science and became associated with science-religion controversies.)
“A lot of religious people were anti-Darwinian,” says Professor Crosland. “It seemed that you couldn’t have both science – when represented by this new science of evolution – and religion, when represented by the literal interpretation of the Bible.”
It is this literal interpretation that caused – and continues to cause – the real incompatibility between the two systems, he believes. “Because the Reformation had rejected the authority of the Catholic Church, Protestants relied entirely on the Bible and for many people this meant taking what they read literally.”
But the Creation story should not be taken as physical fact, he says. St Augustine specifically warns his readers against this in On the Literal Meaning of Genesis, where he writes that the six days of Creation should be understood in an allegorical sense. The Catholic and Anglican communions now accept evolution, but it remains a major point of controversy for fundamentalist Christians who insist on the teaching of Creationism in its place, most vocally in parts of the US. The problem with that, says Professor Crosland, is that “people like Richard Dawkins can look at the [fundamentalists] and say that all religion is dogmatism.”
Dawkins’s view of religion is built on a theory known as “the God of the gaps”. This holds that historically religion was used to fill in the holes in our knowledge and that, as scientific discoveries progress, religion will become redundant. The Creation story is taken as a prime example of this: we believed what we read in the Bible until science was able to explain our existence, the theory suggests. But as Augustine’s writings show, long before Darwin produced his theory of evolution Christian scholars were already taking the Creation story to have a spiritual or symbolic, rather than a scientific, meaning.
Nonetheless, Dawkins has described religion as “redundant and irrelevant” in the 21st century. If this view is now common within the scientific community, does Professor Crosland, who has had a distinguished career in science history, lecturing at universities in Britain and US, and editing the British Journal for the History of Science for many years, think that science and religion can be drawn back together? “Prophecy isn’t my line,” he says firmly. But he does contend that there is not such a great schism between the two systems as thinkers like Dawkins make out. “I’d like to take Dawkins up on some things. For example, the ‘Christian’ view of evolution,” he says. “The majority of Christians now accept it, so in that area there is hardly the great gap that once existed.”
The term “scientism” is used to describe the belief – increasingly widespread – that the scientific method is the sole path to knowledge. The reason for this, Professor Crosland suggests, is that science has made such great strides in recent centuries that some people assume it will eventually be able to answer all our questions. But it has achieved such progress because it tends to reduce everything to measurement, he says. Through this, we have “discovered an awful lot… Science has made enormous progress, if you want an example of human achievement, but sometimes it comes at a price – it’s so successful that you might think [measurement] is the only thing to do.”
Measurement is, however, “the least important element of any human being,” he argues. Unlike science, philosophy and religion “deal with what ought to be the case, not what is the case. Now those are much harder questions on which very little progress has been made over 2,000 years… Christianity talks about love and so on, and that can’t be dealt with by measurement.”
Maurice Crosland’s latest book, Science Under Suspicion, examining whether we can trust what science teaches us, is published by Grosvenor House, priced £10.99
By Jessica Abrahams. Originally published by The Catholic Herald, 9th June 2013