Conflict

A great deal of writing on modern science and religion has assumed that with regard to fact, explanation, method or metaphysics there are fundamental conflicts between them. For many decades the historiography of science and religion was dominated by 'the conflict thesis'. This thesis interpreted the history of the rise of modern natural science in Europe as the result of a war between Christianity (representing superstition, authority and prejudice) and science (representing freedom, reason and enlightenment). Superficial support for a conflict thesis is provided by initial reflection on such things as: the Catholic Church's opposition to Copernicanism, the refutation of biblical chronologies by early nineteenth-century geology, and the controversies over evolution and creation. Vivid evidence that some Christians find their theology in conflict with scientific teaching is provided by the bitter hostility of contemporary creationists to neo-Darwinism.

The interpretation of the history of modern science in terms of the conflict thesis has not stood up to test in recent historiography (see Brooke 1991 for a masterly survey and full bibliography). In part this is due to the weakness of the thesis when tested against the details of specific historical events, such as the Victorian reception of Darwinism. The conflict thesis reveals itself under close examination to be an ideologically motivated myth which was read back by late nineteenth-century rationalists and materialists into the history of science. Underlying the conflict thesis is the implausible picture of science and religion as monolithic systems of thought, which may then be thought of as in conflict, in harmony and so on. In fact, such clear cases of mutual interaction between science and religion that we find in history show us that science and religion are not unchanging entities and that it is in the context of the shaping influence of a whole range of intellectual and social concerns that they touch upon one another. This makes the thesis that there has been a conflict between religion and science in the abstract devoid of any clear sense (as contended in Brooke 1991).

Many writers endeavour to argue against the conflict thesis by supporting a counterproposal made famous by Michael Foster (Foster 1934, 1935, 1936). This asserts that the rise of natural science is due to the influence of the Christian doctrine of creation. The fundamental thought here is that only firm belief in a free, yet rational, creator enabled Western thought to develop a commitment to a lawful, contingent universe. Commitment to law and contingency is alleged to be necessary to ground a science that is both mathematical and experimental. There is contemporary apologetic mileage to be gained from the notion that the creation doctrine is at least a necessary condition for the conduct of natural science (see Jaki 1974). As a historical thesis the appeal to creation is meant to answer the question as to why natural science only developed fully (after initial starts in Muslim, Chinese and other cultures) in the Christian cultures of Western Europe. The time lag in Christendom's development of science is then put down to the need to purge the influence of a prioristic Greek conceptions of nature from the Christian world-view. The emergence of modern natural science is traced finally to the triumph of voluntaristic conceptions of creation and God associated with the influence of late-medieval nominalism and reformed thought.

How far this attempt to stand the conflict thesis on its head succeeds is open to question. For example, it asks us to associate the rise of early modern science particularly with intellectual circles influenced by Protestant, biblicist theology. While there have been efforts to link scientific advance with Puritanism, they have provoked endless and somewhat inconclusive debate among historians. Furthermore, these same strands of Christian thought typically taught a strong version of the Fall, which could and did produce denunciations of human reason's ability to operate independently of revelation and also led to downgradings of nature in the drama of human salvation. The 'Christian world-view' is clearly neither homogeneous nor a sufficient condition for the emergence of science—witness the failure of scientific enquiry to emerge in Christian countries dominated by Orthodoxy. Moreover, the scientific enterprise has proved perfectly capable of flourishing in the twentieth century in cultures not influenced by Christianity to any significant degree.

The problem of why modern science, initially characterized by its revolution in astronomy and mechanics, developed out of medieval Christian culture and not out of Islamic and Chinese culture of the same epoch has been exhaustively surveyed in Huff (1993). His answer is much more complex than the thesis passed down by Foster. Huff describes the rise of modern science as due to a fusion of three things in Christian culture of the Middle Ages:

1 A theology which gave great support to human rationality.

2 The impact of the re-discovery of Roman law.

3 The inheritance of Greek science.

The second of these factors allowed the emergence of autonomous, corporate institutions (such as the medieval universities) and gave further impetus to the flourishing of individual conscience and reason. There were no parallels to this in Islam or China, he asserts. Europe of the high and late Middle Ages was thus in a unique position to allow autonomous scientific enterprise, free of the control of religious or traditional dogma, to be born. Thus could a cosmology independent of close ecclesiastical control arise.

Nowadays Christian thinkers who perceive a conflict between their theology and science are likely to be ones who take their Bible 'straight' and cannot stomach neo-Darwinism. Little needs to be said about the folly of associating theology with creationism and 'creation science'. Suffice it to say that, though there are unsolved problems and intellectual difficulties in its application and development (as in all large-scale scientific paradigms—this is what makes them creative), neo-Darwinism is, on grounds of independent testability, fecundity and coherence, a well-confirmed scientific theory. There is no alternative paradigm for the integration of biological knowledge, indeed much biological discovery in the last 150 years is predicated on the truth of evolutionary theory. By contrast, 'creation science' reveals itself to be a mass of ad hoc hypotheses, reacting piecemeal to new facts and providing no paradigm for discovery (see Kitcher 1983 and Berra 1990).

Biology teachers might properly balk at the proposition that they should teach their subject on the basis of 2,500-year-old, near-Eastern religious texts. What is at stake here is the autonomy of biological science as an independent discipline of thought. A theological perspective on science has to hold in tension belief in the proper autonomy of human reason in the sciences in relation to various distinct subject matters with the need to integrate the various operations of reason in an overall view of reason as God-given. This need tells against a conflict view of the relation of science to theology that is advanced from a theological perspective.

The dangers in separating modes of reason in science and theology can be illustrated by reference to some of the consequences drawn from the collapse of foundationalism as an ideal of reason. Foundationalism is held to be wrong because it falsely claims that there are independent, universal and self-evident starting points for the operation of reason. Our data in fact are infected with and shaped by the theories and concepts we bring to bear upon them. 'That which a scientist takes as data he does so because of his acceptance of an enormously complicated web of theory' (Wolterstorff 1967:63). Wolterstorff draws the conclusion that the Christian theologian is as much entitled to take the credal formulae and biblical data of his or her faith as the starting points for, and touchstones of, right reason, as the scientist is his or her theories. Thus he laments the 'radical conformism' of modern theology with respect to science, the implication being that a healthy Christian thought would interpret scientific claims in the light of biblical truth, rather than the other way round. Anti-foundationalism of this kind appears to give the creationists' opposition to the clear testimony of biological and geological science the support of a Procrustean relativism.

The mistake in such reasoning lies in refusing to see that, though observational and experimental data in science are imbued with theory, theories—such as the component parts of neo-Darwinism—are laden with data. There is a range of facts about the natural world and its history which limit how many testable, fruitful and coherent theoretical paradigms can be produced to account for them. The poverty of 'creation science' in this regard is only too well documented. There is a high theological price to be paid for crying against 'radical conformism'. For the anti-foundationalist defender of 'biblical Christianity' must presume that the operation of human reason that is biologi—cal and geological science is deeply deluded. He or she then needs an account of how a God-given reason in a God-given world is led into such fantastic errors. Only a deeply pessimistic and ultimately schizophrenic account of the fallen intellect promises an explanation. Given the success, the reliability and the pervasiveness of the theories and discoveries of modern natural science, any credible theology must accept it as one of the expressions of a providence which cannot be in conflict with itself.

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