The History of Science and Religion in the Western Tradition: An Encyclopedia

The History of Science and Religion in the Western Tradition: An Encyclopedia

The History of Science and Religion in the Western Tradition: An Encyclopedia

The History of Science and Religion in the Western Tradition: An Encyclopedia


Spanning from 5th century Greece to today, this volume describes the relationship of science and religion throughout history. From ancient cosmology to modern physics, every major intellectual movement and discipline is covered.


Andrew Dickson White's A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896) was published just over a century ago. In it White argued that Christianity had a long history of opposing scientific progress in the interest of dogmatic theology. White's thesis, supported by John William Draper in his History of the Conflict between Religion and Science (1874), struck a responsive chord in American thought, which was, at the turn of the twentieth century, increasingly committed to a secular outlook and to recognizing the central role that science played in modern society. The Draper-White thesis, as it has come to be known, was enormously influential among academics. During much of the twentieth century, it has dominated the historical interpretation of the relationship of science and religion. It wedded a triumphalist view of science with a dismissive view of religion. Science was seen to be progressing continually, overcoming the inveterate hostility of Christianity, which invariably retreated before its awesome advance. Popular misconceptions doubtless underlay the widespread presumption that religion was, by its very nature, opposed to science. Based on faith, religion seemed bound to suffer when confronted by science, which was, of course, based on fact.

While some historians had always regarded the Draper-White thesis as oversimplifying and distorting a complex relationship, in the late twentieth century it has undergone a more systematic reevaluation. The result has been the growing acknowledgment among professional historians that the relationship of religion and science has been a much more positive one than is usually thought. While popular images of controversy continue to exemplify the supposed hostility of Christianity to new scientific theories, a number of studies have shown that Christianity has sometimes nurtured and encouraged scientific endeavor, while at other times the two have coexisted without either tension or attempts at harmonization. If Galileo and the Scopes Trial come to mind as examples of conflict, they were exceptions rather than the rule. In the words of David C. Lindberg, writing on medieval science and religion for this volume:

There was no warfare between science and the church. The story of science and Christianity in the Middle Ages is not a story of suppression, nor one of its polar opposite, support and encouragement. What we find is an interaction exhibiting all of the variety and complexity that we are familiar with in other realms of human endeavor: conflict, compromise, understanding, misunderstanding, accommodation, dialogue, alienation, the making of common cause, and the going of separate ways (p. 266).

What Lindberg writes of medieval Europe can be said to describe much of Western history. The recognition that the relationship of science and religion has exhibited a multiplicity of attitudes, which have reflected local conditions and particular historical circumstances, has led John Hedley Brooke to speak of a “complexity thesis” as a more accurate model than the familiar “conflict thesis.” But old myths die hard. While Brooke's view has gained acceptance among professional historians of science, the traditional view remains strong elsewhere, not least in the popular mind.

The purpose of this volume is to provide a comprehensive survey of the historical relationship of the Western religious traditions to science from the time of the Greeks of the fifth century before Christ to the late twentieth century. The editors' decision to limit the volume's coverage to the West reflects both our own professional

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