Science & Religion: Debunking the Conflict Thesis

In my junior year as an undergraduate, I took a collaborative class titled, “The Darwin Course.” It was put together and led by a science education professor, and we covered the science of evolutionary theory (via physics, anthropology, geology, and biology professors in two-week stints), Charles Darwin’s formation of it, its troublesome reception (although this discussion was largely confined to twentieth century America), and the philosophical and legal issues that surround it. By the end of the course, the lead professor had made his goals quite clear; we were all more than prepared, trained as soldiers to fight for the cause of secular scientific education, to argue against those — largely portrayed as religious zealots — who would be so dense and dogmatic as to stand in the way of the biological enlightenment of the adolescent masses.

The somewhat hyperbolic rendition of the class I have just presented is influenced by our discussion and readings this week. While I learned a good deal and would hardly take back my decision to enroll in the undergraduate course, the dichotomies and essentialist rhetoric employed by the authorities in the classroom embody the conflict thesis, an outdated and, as the readings suggest, inaccurate portrayal of how science and religion interact and intersect. I think that the professor’s position as a science educator played into his views of science and religion, and as the controversy surrounding the teaching of evolution in high schools shows few signs of being ultimately resolved, his position on the defensive is understandable. The consequences of coming out on the losing end of this conflict, in his eyes, are quite dire — an uninformed populace that defers important decisions to the authority of a book written thousands of years ago.

That is part of the reason why I find this perceived conflict so fascinating — it is incredibly intelligible, not only from the “science” side, but from the “religious” one. If someone understands a scientific theory as being ultimately incommensurable with their fundamentally-held, lived-by religious beliefs, they would naturally be upset that their children were being forced to learn it simply because someone somewhere has deemed it more intelligible. It would seem especially threatening if it was understood that these scientific beliefs undermined, and in some cases even directly contradicted, the very tenets on which religious belief was established.

It would appear from this perspective that the views of science and religion are completely incompatible. What these conflict narratives fail to address, however, and what the reading this week did, is that these essentialist distinctions between science and religion are historically contingent and socially constructed. One of the episodes highlighted in my undergraduate course was that of the Scopes Trial; it was presented as the ultimate showdown between scientific and religious understandings of the world, made more visible by differing opinions on what should be taught to impressionable youths. Shapiro’s piece confronts this interpretation, teasing out the complicated dynamics that, in the unique atmosphere of Dayton, Tennessee, led to the trial. The battle lines were largely drawn between urban and rural ideas about what high school curriculum should entail at a time when states were attempting to centralize their education systems, and textbook production and distribution played a major role in igniting the controversy when and where it occurred. The conflict was sensationalized and made into the universal example of science v. religion in the media firestorm that surrounded the trial, a narrative that continues to be told in undergraduate classrooms today.

Your introduction to “Science and Religion” discusses these issues further, elucidating how and why conflict narratives like the Scopes Trial are constructed and what pitfalls we can avoid falling into in order to avoid perpetuating them. Telling the story of the Scopes Trial in the format of a conflict narrative requires applying essentialist definitions of “science” and “religion” and juxtaposing them, when, as Shapiro has proven, neither one is simple or clear-cut, and they often are not even in direct conflict. Not all scientists hold the same set of beliefs, and similarly, not every religious person does either; this is compounded by the fact that these beliefs, different as they are from person to person, also change dramatically with time. Medieval Christianity is quite different from its modern equivalent, and scientific ideas that might have given one trouble might not seem problematic to the other. By applying definitions of science and religion that are over-simplistic and reductionist, historians and others engaged in the perpetuation of the conflict thesis impose terms that are usually anachronistic and presentist. This leads to an inaccurate portrait of the past relationship between science and religion and often results in pitting the two against one another in a way that those practicing either or both at the time would have found incomprehensible.

With his intellectual history of Maxwell and Huxley, Stanley provides a good point of departure for the last topic of discussion in this response. He presents a case study in which he looks at how naturalistic and religious scientific thinkers understood scientific endeavor, and he finds that they often had what he calls “valence values.” Both parties, committed as they were to their distinct worldviews, held similar ideas as to what constituted good science; the uniformity of natural laws, appropriate limits (set at what could be observed and tested), and intellectual freedom from dogma. Maxwell, a deeply religious individual, and Huxley, a self-proclaimed agnostic, participated in the same scientific community, which adhered to these rules. Both believed that the motivation behind a good scientist’s work was largely irrelevant to his practice as long as these rules were upheld. One chapter does highlight some clashing over science of the mind, but in most cases, religion and science for these nineteenth century men were not in conflict at all. This story stands in stark contrast to the one normally told about post-evolution nineteenth century scientists.

While my experience in the Darwin Course was instructive, I have come to the realization (which was already underway before class last Thursday, but has certainly accelerated by our discussion) that science and religion are not in a struggle for survival in the human quest for absolute truths; nor, as proponents of the conflict thesis would have you believe, are they monolithic, homogenous terms that can be applied unqualified to any set of beliefs or practices that might fall under their multi-faceted umbrellas. The relationship between science and religion is, like most things historians grapple with, more complex and dynamic than meets the eye.