Inventing the conflict between science and religion

Inventing the conflict between science and religion

We have seen that neither Darwin himself nor the vast majority of Christian clergy at the time saw any conflict between science and religion, and that the preeminent nineteenth century British scientific association was dominated by Christians keen to promote science. We have also seen that neither the church, scientific bodies, nor the press found it unnatural or inappropriate for Darwin to be buried at the feet of Isaac Newton in St Paul’s Cathedral. Yet today popular opinion is that Darwin was a brave champion of atheism who disproved the religious world view. So how did this situation change so drastically?

The change in attitude can actually be traced rather precisely to the publication in 1874 of John William Draper’s History of the Conflict between Science and Religion – a popular science book which gave largely fictitious accounts of various historical events and was not taken seriously by either the scientific establishment or the church – but which achieved immense popularity with the general population.

Ever since then, the idea that science and religion are in conflict has stuck. Amongst the general public it has become so well engrained that it is also a baseline assumption of many of today’s scientists who grew up with the stories and are still unaware of the historical facts. Yet Draper’s thesis has been invalidated by several careful studies in the history of science:

  • It ignored, for example, the fact that the early Christian “church fathers” defended rational investigation, and that only one of the church fathers can be identified who took the Genesis story literally.
  • Ignored that the official Christian position on miracles since Augustine was that a miracle can never violate the laws of science but must operate on scientific principles as yet unknown to us.
  • Ignored that the flourishing of science took place initially under Islam, and then, more fully, in Christian countries.
  • Ignored that a principle of orthodox Christianity from earliest times has been to stress the rationality of the mind of God, and that Christianity has taken the facts that (a) the world is both rationally ordered and (b) that its order can become evident to our intellect, as evidence that both the world and we are the work of the mind of God (essentially an endorsement of scientific method).
  • Ignored that all modern physics and astronomy descends from the work of the Christian scholars Galileo and Copernicus.
  • Ignored that Galileo’s theory was initially rejected by the Roman Catholic church not because it contradicted scripture, but because Galileo could not defend it adequately from scientific criticism.
  • Ignored that science’s greatest figure Isaac Newton had been an obsessive Christian theist who spent far more time investigating the prophecies of Daniel and John than he did science.
  • Ignored that the most preeminent scientific society of Darwin’s day was both founded and organised by Anglican priests.
  • Ignored that evolution had already been proposed by many scholars prior to Darwin’s day, and that even before he was born philosophers had integrated more primitive evolutionary ideas about biology with spirituality.
  • And finally ignored that Darwin himself, as shown in his letters, was perfectly aware that his theory probably had no bearing on religious matters as it was merely a suggestion as to how one particular physical process may or may not have unfolded, and as far as it did bear on them it fitted very nicely with deist views of creation.

Nonetheless, the book made an impression on the general public’s mind that can still be felt to this day. A recent study conducted by the historian JB Russell has shown that by the end of the 1880s, nearly all children’s books and school text books were giving inaccurate accounts of historical events which had been altered to reflect badly on the church. The best known of these were the stories of Columbus and Galileo. This inaccurate reporting to children and adolescents is still going on. In other situations it would be called indoctrination.

This was followed by a second book, published in 1896 by the popular author Andrew Dickson White, titled A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom. The book did not initially sell as rapidly as Draper’s  but went on to become even more influential.

Together these books told how the liberating and egalitarian light of science had been continually dampened throughout history by the villainous and misguided church. The books were great reading, but completely inaccurate in their accounts of key historical events.

Russell’s study on the prevalence of the flat earth myth (the mistaken belief that the church taught that the earth was flat) found that very few school books taught that this was a widespread Christian belief before 1870 but after 1880 almost all school books taught the myth as fact. This has largely remained the case ever since. The fictional split between science and religion appears to have occurred following Draper’s 1874 publication, and to have become a part of accepted wisdom taught in schools from the 1880s onwards.

The widespread belief that there is fundamental disagreement between science and religion – to say nothing of the widely held opinion in the scientific community that the polarity is also a divide between the intelligent or educated and the stupid or uneducated – is the result of nothing more than conditioning. The conditioning is reinforced in many subtle ways throughout school. It is the reason for example, that those who hold religious views are said to be “stupid” by those who don’t in general conversation, while the same accusation is rarely heard the other way round. Science teachers in schools and universities typically react in condescending or ironic manner whenever religion is mentioned.

The books fathered a generation of literature which made gradually wilder and wilder claims until the very existence of Jesus Christ as a historical figure was not only doubted but dismissed altogether, despite the fact that no serious academic historian has ever tried to defend such a claim. Even world renown philosophers like Bertrand Russell absorbed the error, and propagated it in their popular books. Russell wrote in Why I am not a Christian, “it is quite doubtful whether Christ ever existed at all, and if he did we know nothing about him.” And such was the receptive atmosphere to statements like this that neither Russell nor the publisher thought that a single line of evidence or explanation need be added in support. In reality the facts that Jesus was born around 4 BC near the time of the death of Herod the Great, that he was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and that his followers founded churches across the world after his death, are regarded in history as bedrock  facts even if all Christian written sources are disregarded.

Two events are probably cited more than any other in popular science books as examples of how the “stupidity” of the church has repressed the shining and liberating light of science – those involving Columbus and Galileo. So it is worth explaining exactly what really happened in each case.

Christopher Columbus and the myth of the “flat earth”

One of the major focusses of books that criticise religion has been the flat earth myth: the claim that the church believed that the earth was flat. This is now indelibly related to the story of Christopher Columbus. Columbus, as every school child knows, set off to sail around the world and proved that the earth was round to the shock and astonishment of a Spanish church committee in 1492 who had tried to stop the mission, believing he would sail off the edge of the earth, taking good Spanish ships and sailors with him.

Or maybe not. The actual facts of the story are somewhat different: to begin with, almost no Christian scholars have ever believed the earth to be flat at any point in history. Aristotle’s cosmology assumed a spherical planet, and Eratosthenes even measured the circumference of the earth 300 years before Christ. Aristotle’s metaphysics was the default position of Christian scholars throughout the ancient and medieval ages. Although many ordinary people may have believed in it, at no point could a flat earth cosmology be considered to be the official position of the church.

It is true that King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain did refer Columbus’s plan to the royal commission which was headed by leading church figures, and it is true that this committee did oppose the mission. But the reason for this was simply that, in full knowledge not only that the earth was round but also of its approximate circumference, the commission knew Columbus could not sail around the world in the time he proposed. Their objection to the mission was entirely a practical one, based on mathematics, and their superior understanding of the spherical earth.

And they were right. Columbus had twisted the figures in an attempt to gain support for his mission.  But Columbus managed to sway Ferdinand and Isabella anyway: a Western route to Asia would have offered extremely lucrative access to the Asian spice trade.  As the church commission knew well, Columbus could never have reached Asia, and eventually he ran aground in the Bahamas – with the result that indigenous Americans are known as Indians to the present day.

By all historical accounts, Columbus cuts a calculating and ruthless figure. Modern assessors have found him guilty of genocide, enslavement and sex trafficking. He seems to have had no interest in Christianity other than as a means of uniting the people of the area and making them loyal to the Spanish crown. His correspondence shows he was keen for large numbers of natives not to be converted, as this would have prevented them being sold as slaves under Spanish law.

Neither did he become rich as result of the missions, despite promises beforehand. In fact he was eventually deposed of his position as governor of the island of Hispaniola by Ferdinand and Isabella, arrested, and spent his final years embroiled in a legal battle with the Spanish crown. He never acknowledged that the land he had reached was not Asia.

This then is the more prosaic, but true, story of Christopher Columbus. But all of this makes pretty poor reading in comparison to the tale of the dashing and brilliant young sea captain who challenged the established intellect of the world, risked his life to demonstrate scientific truth, and returned with fabulous wealth and glory.

The facts of the Galileo saga

Perhaps no event is used more frequently to highlight the contrast between progressive scientific thinking and church repression than the inquiry into Galileo’s heliocentric theory (the suggestion that the sun stands still and the earth moves around the sun). Once again the popular version of the story is riddled with misrepresentation.

The first and preliminary misrepresentation is that the church was antiscientific. In reality, much like the 19th century Church of England, the 15th century Roman Catholic church supported and funded scientific projects. The second misperception is that it was a conflict between Galileo (as a scientist) and the church. The conflict was between Galileo as a scientist, and other scientists. Most other scientists at the time were in agreement with one another and in agreement with the church: according to the best available data, the earth did not orbit the sun. This leads to the third misperception: that Galileo proved heliocentric theory, and the church refused to listen. In fact the astronomical data of the day showed that his theory had serious scientific flaws.

It should already be clear that the view that the matter was entirely the fault of the church is not accurate. In fact it is a saga which reflects badly on human nature in many ways, and few of the individuals involved, Galileo included, emerge with much credit.

Galileo had already published work on heliocentric theory in the early 1600s. There was nothing particularly unusual in this, and Galileo was by no means the first person to publish ideas on the possibility that the earth orbited the sun. Where Galileo differed was in his insistence that his theory was right. This insistence on his part, which it appears was never justified, is the reason that his work came to the attention of the Vatican. But even then, it may not have caused a stir, were it not that Galileo was challenging the reputation and intelligence of known university physicists, who held to Aristotle’s cosmological model, in which the sun orbited the earth. That the issue came to judgement was not directly caused by it being in conflict with literalist readings of scripture. It was caused by Galileo’s self-promotion, and the irritation that this caused in other established physicists, whom he was openly challenging. It was a clash between egos, and a clash between two different scientific theories, and not a clash between science as a discipline and the Roman Catholic church as an organisation.

Galileo was a difficult and confrontational character, and had been embroiled in many unpleasant and personal arguments over scientific matters in the past. Copernicus’s book On the Revolution of the Celestial Orbs, which also proposed a heliocentric theory, had been published and in fact dedicated to the Pope (Copernicus was a devout Christian) without objection. Ten years prior to Galileo, Kepler’s work on heliocentric theory also received no objection. The mistake that Galileo made was to assert that his theory was correct, when there was no evidence at the time to indicate any such thing. If he had merely proposed that the theory was a possibility, rather than proclaiming it as the truth, it would almost certainly have been left alone by the church. But this, it seems, was not Galileo’s character.

Other scientists gradually tired of Galileo’s extravagant claims and personal insults, and in 1615 Galileo’s writing was submitted to the Roman Catholic church for inspection by one of his scientific rivals Nicollo Lorini. Lorini used the pretence that, like the Protestants, Galileo was guilty of reinterpreting the Bible by proposing that the earth orbited the sun. Hence, the clash between egos, and between scientific perspectives, was made into a religious one.

The Vatican commission used Francesco Ingoli as an expert witness, who published a report which was sent to Galileo which detailed 18 arguments from physics and mathematics against heliocentric theory. It also mentioned four theological arguments, two of which were based around Biblical passages, but Ingoli stated that the theological arguments were secondary and the Galileo should focus on mathematics and physics in his defence.

Following the hearing the church commission ruled against Galileo. The reasons for this were purely scientific: the main one being that Galileo still could still not answer the problem posed by Aristotle, that if the earth was moving, that movement should be evident by observation of parallax shifts (subtle changes in position) of stars. To account for this the stars were required to be a very great distance from the earth, which they are, but at the time no astronomical evidence existed to suggest this. As a result, there was simply no definitive way of choosing between the theories of Galileo and Aristotle, and what evidence was at hand slightly favoured Aristotle. As a result Galileo was not banned from investigating heliocentric theory or from discussing it as a possibility, he was merely banned from continuing to aggressively assert that it was the truth.

The matter lay closed for 8 years until, when encouraged by the election of Maffeo Barberini as Pope Urban VIII in 1623, Galileo once more began to publish on heliocentric theory. Urban VIII had been a supporter of Galileo during the first inquiry. Galileo sought permission from the Vatican to publish a book on heliocentric theory, which he received with the requirements that the book must include arguments both for and against heliocentric theory, and that he did not take sides. Urban VIII, who had an interest in science, added the further requirement that his own thoughts on the issue be included in the book.

It appears that this was not the response Galileo had hoped for, and he was angered. The only request of the Vatican which Galileo obliged was to include Pope Urban’s own ideas. The book was published in 1632, titled Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems. As was the fashion at the time, the book was set out as a dialogue between opposing characters. Galileo represented, and may well have misrepresented, Urban VIII’s arguments through the mouthpiece of a character called Simplicus. In fact Galileo made the Pope appear completely stupid. The effect of this was twofold: firstly, the book appeared to be a one sided defence of heliocentricism, which was explicitly against Galileo’s instructions. Secondly, the public ridicule he received as a result of the book appears to have irritated the Pope considerably. Galileo was placed under house arrest for the rest of his life.

The Vatican could not be accused of not assessing Galileo’s claims both scientifically and fairly, but they don’t emerge blemish free in other respects. Urban VIII’s actions in imprisoning Galileo for the personal slight is hardly the behaviour expected from the leader of a religion whose founder preached forgiveness above almost anything else. The church, if anything, were guilty of not showing forgiveness. But they were not guilty of failing to be open minded or fair towards new ideas.

In 1990 Cardinal Ratzinger reviewed the incident and concluded that the church had nothing to apologise for, and its decision at the time had been based purely on evidence. Many modern thinkers who have studied the incident have come to similar conclusions. The secular philosopher Paul Feyerabend commented “the Church at the time of Galileo kept much more closely to reason than did Galileo himself,” and its “verdict against Galileo was rational and just.”