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Science and religion

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Nowadays it is easy to believe that science and religion are two conflicting approaches to nature - one driven by faith and Scripture, the other by reason and experience. The clash between evolutionists (who believe that natural selection can explain the fit between organisms and their environments) and Creationists (who believe that some adaptations are best explained by God's direct intervention) is a vivid example of this clash.

If science and religion are indeed in conflict, it is natural to think that the conflict began when modern science began, ie. some time in the early modern period. On this view, Galileo was the Richard Dawkins of the seventeenth century and Pope Urban VIII (who presided over Galileo's trial in 1633) was a precursor to today's head-in-the-sand Creationists.

Is this right? Does the 'conflict thesis' stand up to historical scrutiny? As usual in history, there is no clear-cut answer that applies in all cases. One way that historians have challenged the thesis is by arguing that -- at least in some ways, and for some nations and individuals -- religion promoted the new science rather than holding it back. There is a whole family of such arguments that connect Protestantism with the new science. The most recent member of this family is Peter Harrison's thesis about the shift from the 'allegorical' mentality of the Medieval Church to the 'literal mentality' of Protestant reformers.

Essential reading

Henry, John. The Scientific Revolution and the Origins of Modern Science, chapter 6.

Harrison, Peter. The Bible, Protestantism, and the Rise of Natural Science. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Introduction and chapter 4 (read up to page 147, further if you are keen).


According to Harrrison, what is the difference between reading the Bible allegorically and reading it literally?

According to Harrison, how did the literal reading of the Bible pave the way for modern science?

How does the example of the history of the earth illustrate Harrison's thesis?

Is Harrison's argument convincing? Hint: if you are stuck, consider the counter-arguments in the following:

Oosterhoff, Richard, and Jitse van der Meer. ‘The Bible, Protestantism and the Rise of Natural Science: A Response to Harrison’s Thesis’. Science and Christian Belief 21, no. 2 (2009): 133–54.

Further reading

The literature on this topic is vast. The following list is limited mainly to recent, general works that map out the territory and suggest some points of entry into it.

Feldhay, Rivka. ‘Religion’. In CHS3.

Funkenstein, Amos. Theology and the Scientific Imagination: From the Middle Ages to the Seventeenth Century. Princeton University Press, 1986.

Grant, Edward. God and Reason in the Middle Ages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Harrison, Peter, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Science and Religion. Cambridge Companions to Religion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

———. The Fall of Man and the Foundations of Science. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Lindberg, David C., and Ronald L. Numbers, eds. God and Nature: Historical Essays on the Encounter Between Christianity and Science. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986.

Machamer, Peter, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Galileo. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998, chapters 8, 9 and 10

Westfall, Richard. Science and Religion in Seventeenth-Century England. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1958.