The Sciences

Science, Religion, and the Knowledge of History

The IntersectionBy Chris MooneyJun 29, 2009 3:42 PM


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I'm growing increasingly convinced that the lack of historical awareness is an important factor in fanning the flames of science-religion conflict. Indeed, over at Russell Blackford's blog, John Wilkins notes as much:

As you must know, religion has played a complex and often intimate role in actual science. The equivalence classes "science" and "religion" are either abstracted in some unrealistic purity, or treated as somehow the same, and so on. But the history is that science and religion are neither separate nor identical and their degree of engagement changes over time. If all we are doing here is defending some idealised science, then we defend nothing.

Whereupon a commenter named "Matt" writes this, something that really surprised me:

Religion might have played an important peripheral role in funding or supporting (or oppressing) scientific endeavors, but but I doubt very seriously it ever played a role in the actual science.

Let me just give one sense in which religion inspired science. The point is based on my reading of John Hedley Brooke's Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives (Cambridge Studies in the History of Science), which is one very important academic study of the subject. For reference see p. 192-225 in Brooke. Back in the days of natural theology--"intelligent design" before Darwin, back when it was actual "science"--many Christians thought that the natural world provided copious evidence of the brilliance of God's handiwork. Accordingly, parsons and priests were often inspired to become naturalists and study nature in order to provide evidence of the divine. Science was a means of finding and understanding one's Creator. Scientific inquiry was therefore substantially driven by faith, and much scientific progress resulted from this impulse--albeit progress in a pre-Darwinian paradigm. After Darwin much of it remained good data, though of course it had to be reordered and seen through a new lens. There are also, to be sure, ways in which religion thwarted science in the past. But the point is, you need to understand the rich historical picture, and if you do, you find that the Galileo case--although an incredibly important event--is hardly a skeleton key to the science-religion relationship over time.

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