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Has “science” supplanted “religion”?

A Deconstruction of the Warfare Hypothesis


Daniel J. Castellano


May 6, 2004




            At least since the late nineteenth century, it has been commonplace for Western intellectuals to characterize scientifically motivated modifications of Christian theology as successive defeats of Christian orthodoxy at the hands of a relentlessly ascendant secular science.  While such an attitude largely reflects the adoption of J.W. Draper’s warfare hypothesis[1] and its reification of “science” and “religion,” it also has a basis in the very nature of the cosmological truth claims of Christianity.  Christian orthodoxy, by virtue of its claim to divine inspiration, has its credibility bound up with notions of infallibility and immutability.  Thus any apparently substantial doctrinal change is a scandal to believer and unbeliever alike, whereas a change in scientific theories does not similarly erode confidence in natural sciences, which make no pretense of infallibility. Nevertheless, as Lewontin has observed, public esteem for the authority of science is disproportionate to the ability of scientists to deliver coherent, reliable theories, so something more is needed to account for this apparent double standard in judging the successes of “science” and “religion.”

            We may first observe that the metaphor of Christianity continually retreating before the onslaught of science is utterly anachronistic for the early modern period.  The Galileo controversy, which, since Draper and A.D. White,[2] has become paradigmatic of the battle between priestly superstition and modern reason, was not viewed as an attack on Christianity in its own time.  Galileo’s critics were protecting both scientific and exegetical orthodoxy, since his theory appeared to contradict much of what was then known about mechanics.  The gradual adoption of Copernicanism in Europe did not erode Christian orthodoxy, but caused many Christian thinkers to search for a non-Aristotelian means of explaining the Christian view of the cosmos.  Descartes attempted to derive everything afresh, and his conclusions about the nature of God and the soul were quite obviously informed by Catholic orthodoxy.  Newton saw his Arian God behind space itself, while others used Newtonian mechanics to corroborate Calvinist determinism.  The early nineteenth century may in some respects reflect a revival of Christian orthodoxy compared to the eighteenth, as scientists confidently asserted evidence of intelligent design as outlined by Paley, or used the geological discoveries of Cuvier and others as direct evidence of special creation.  We may note that scientific attitudes toward traditional Christianity are consistent with political and social changes that occurred over these centuries.

            In the late nineteenth century, Darwinist ideologues such as Huxley and Tyndall explicitly advocated a positivist vision of science that refuted Christian theology.  Even in this period, there remained many scientists who successfully synthesized the latest science with Christian faith, and as R.L. Numbers has noted, there is scant evidence that Darwinism caused spiritual crises for American scientists.[3]  Nonetheless, the aggressive metaphysical claims made by agnostic and atheist scientists helped to establish an influential model of conflict between science and Christianity.  Draper and White employed this model to ahistorically project contemporary polemics onto the early modern period.  Fundamentalist Christians who could not reconcile evolution with Christianity also adopted warfare rhetoric, though distinguishing false, atheistic science from “true” science.

            Most Christians have more or less successfully reconciled modern science with their theological beliefs throughout the supposed period of conflict between science and Christianity.  Yet we would be remiss if we did not note that this reconciliation is often, though not necessarily, achieved by substantially modifying Christian theology, either by abandoning special providence in favor of immanentism, as did Christian Darwinians [of the nineteenth century], or by showing little concern for the historicity of Christian revelation, as did the higher critics of the Bible.  If we could establish a causal relationship between scientific developments and major theological changes, perhaps scientific advancement could be understood as a “defeat” of Christianity on an intellectual level, even if self-professed “Christians” do not perceive this defeat.  To make such an argument, we would have to select a historical manifestation of Christian orthodoxy as normative, and define departures from that norm as concessions by orthodox Christians to advances of science.  This sort of analysis would further require us to make judgments as to which Christian doctrines are essential, and thus, in theory, divinely inspired and immutable.  Christian Darwinians such as Louis Agassiz and Asa Gray would regard the literalness of Genesis as inessential.  Fundamentalists and atheists ironically concur in assuming that the literalness of Genesis is an essential Christian doctrine when they make evolution a must-win battleground for Christianity.  All these groups, whether believers or unbelievers, implicitly make theological judgments about the essence of Christianity when they decide if a change in theological opinion constitutes a defeat for Christianity.

            More fundamentally, the notion of science advancing at Christianity’s expense makes sense only if we somehow reify Christianity and science as distinct entities.  As Western intellectual history repeatedly demonstrates from the medieval period into modernity, the practice of science and theology has not always been neatly distinguished, and influences between the two have often been so intimate that it is impossible to discern a single direction of causation.  Whether we are speaking of Cartesian mechanism or Paley’s natural theology, attempts to distinguish the scientific from the religious seem hopelessly anachronistic and contrived.  We might be better served if we spoke instead simply of cosmologies and epistemologies, following D.B. Wilson’s suggestion to eliminate “science” and “religion” as analytical constructs.[4]  With this analysis, we can identify trends such as a shift in emphasis toward empiricism and methodological naturalism in the study of the natural world, without contradicting the equally clear fact that modern intellectuals often use different epistemologies in discussions of God.  This method allows us to capture all the diverse cosmologies modern thinkers have constructed, including those that are difficult to categorize as religious, philosophical, or scientific, such as the pantheistic theology of Spinoza.

            Once we have dispensed with “religion” and “science” as tools of historical analysis, we can begin to address how the model of “science” encroaching upon the cosmological claims of “religion” has attained popularity.  Since this model is popular not only among unbelievers, but also among devout Christians, we should look for intellectual paradigms that are common to most modern Europeans and Americans, regardless of confession.  One possible candidate is methodological naturalism, which presumes a sharp distinction between natural and supernatural agency.  Another factor is the modern belief that efficient causation eliminates the need for teleology, in contrast with the Aristotelian view that different kinds of causation may operate in parallel.  These epistemological assumptions create distinctions and antagonisms that need not exist, and if we take them too seriously, we may place Christianity in tension with “science” when in fact no cognitive dissonance was experienced.  Thus the seventeenth-century French mechanists did not see their identification of mechanical efficient causes as encroaching upon God’s domain.  Intrinsically, modern theories of nature are not more difficult to harmonize with Christianity than those of Aristotle, yet our understanding of what constitutes a harmony has been radically restricted by self-imposed modern epistemological constraints.

[1] John William Draper. History of the Conflict between Religion and Science (1874).

[2] Andrew Dickson White (1832-1918), president of Cornell University, espoused the hypothesis of a warfare between “science” and “dogmatic theology.”

[3] Ronald L. Numbers. “Science without God,” When Science and Christianity Meet (Chicago: 2003), p. 281.

[4] David B. Wilson. “On the Importance of Eliminating Science and Religion from the History of Science and Religion,” in M. van der Meer, Facts of Faith and Science, Vol. 1 (Missouri: 1996), pp.27-47.

© 2005 Daniel J. Castellano. All rights reserved. http://www.arcaneknowledge.org