Religion and Science in Christendom: A History of Intellectual Warfare and Accommodation

By Viney, Wayne | The Midwest Quarterly, Summer 2008 | Go to article overview

Religion and Science in Christendom: A History of Intellectual Warfare and Accommodation


Viney, Wayne, The Midwest Quarterly


RECENT YEARS HAVE WITNESSED sharply divergent accounts of the history of the relationship between science and religion. On one extreme there is the "warfare hypothesis" set forth in early works such as John William Draper's History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science (first published in 1874), Andrew Dickson White's A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (published in 1896), and Bertrand Russell's Religion and Science (1935). A radically different position is encountered in the claim by David Lindberg, a highly respected scholar in the history of science, that "there was never anything approaching intellectual warfare between theologians and scientists" (45). Rodney Stark, in his book, For the Glory of God, makes the claim that "there is no inherent conflict between religion and science [and makes the further claim] that Christian theology was essential for the rise of science" (123).

Conflicting accounts of the history of the relations between science and religion are important because they constitute unavoidable intellectual and pedagogical challenges for instructors who cover topics such as religious history, evolution, the historical development of scientific thought, the history of mental disorders, or the history of philosophy or of psychology. Those who cover history in any depth are inevitably called upon to adjudicate among conflicting claims that are increasingly prevalent in the literature. How credible is the warfare hypothesis and how credible are the claims of those who now question that hypothesis? Samuel Butler, in his critique of progress theories of history, noted that "God cannot alter the past; [but] historians can; it is perhaps because [historians] can be useful to [God] in this respect that [God] tolerates their existence" (151). But who is it that is altering history and what do we mean by intellectual warfare? Unfortunately, those who have written about intellectual warfare seldom define it.

The definition employed throughout this paper is that warfare, whether it is of a physical, economic, or intellectual nature, involves activities undertaken by adversaries designed to weaken, destroy, or control another. If it is the control of territory that is the goal in physical combat, it is the control of ideas or beliefs that is the goal in intellectual warfare. Warfare, whether physical or intellectual, includes organizational activities, plans, and strategies for engaging the enemy. It includes legal actions, legislative activities, lobbying efforts to influence legislation, and attempts to influence the flow of information through propaganda, demonstrations, surveys, petitions, control of the media, or outright censorship. Most of these activities cost money so economic considerations play prominently in the equation. The historical tools of intellectual warfare, according to those who embrace this hypothesis, also included censure, excommunication, forbidden books, torture or the threat of torture, withholding promotions, restrictions on the right to publish, and capital punishment.

In order to assess the conflicting claims of historians it is necessary to examine the arguments and the counterarguments. In the process we are likely to feel intimidated by specialists who have impressive acquaintance with details of specific historical periods. Nevertheless, some comfort can be found in the fact that experts disagree with each other and those on both sides seem to offer persuasive arguments in defense of their viewpoints. Further, the rest of us are not entirely unfamiliar with the terrain because the relations between science and religion are not just historical curiosities; such relations are contemporary. Intense debates over issues such as embryonic stem cell research, the teaching of evolution in public schools, population control, or the age of the earth are currently very topical. It is not irrelevant to our historical confusions to ask whether present conflicts between science and religion rise to the level of intellectual warfare. …

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