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Religion and Science

Michael Bycroft

The idea that there is a constant and instrinsic conflict between science and religion--a view known as the 'conflict thesis'--has long been rejected by serious historians of science. But there is little agreement about what the historical relations between science and religion really were--the only consensus is that there is no general answer that holds for all times and places. Early modern Europe is an important time and place because it was home to dramatic changes in the theory and practice of both terms in the relation, ie. both in science ('natural history,' 'natural philosophy,' 'mixed mathematics', 'the mechanical arts', to use the contemporary terms) and in religion. There is a large literature on this topic, but the question of the role of the Protestant Reformation in promoting experimental science has been a recurring theme ever since the sociologist Robert Merton argued (in 1938) that science and Protestantism shared a set of values (an 'ethos') in seventeenth-century England. Merton's thesis has been heavily criticised ever since its publication, but even his critics are indebted to his basic insight that the pace and direction of scientific inquiry depends on the support of the surrounding culture. The readings for this seminar include a core chapter from Merton's article and three recent works that elaborate, extend or modify his thesis. Together they illustrate a range of possibilities for connecting religious cultures to scientific ones.


Read each of these texts with the following questions in mind:

What religious culture(s) is the author trying to connect to science, eg. if the answer is 'Puritanism', what does the author mean by this?

What kind of science is the author trying to connect to religion, eg. if the answer is 'natural history', what topics, methods and techniques does this domain cover?

What sort of connection are they trying to draw, eg. social or intellectual or economic, conscious or unconscious, individual or collective...

Is the author successful in making this connection?

Finally, what (if anything) can we learn about religious cultures by studying their relationship with science?

Essential readings

For the seminar, please read the Henry overview, the Merton chapter, and at least one of the three other readings (Harrison, Heilbron, Hunter).

John Henry, 'Religion and Science,' chapter in Henry's The Scientific Revolution and the Origins of Modern Science (Palgrave, 2008). This a good, short overview of science and religion in the seventeenth century. There are many copies of Henry's book in the library.

Robert Merton, 'Science, Technology and Society in Seventeenth Century England,' Osiris 4 (1938): 360-632, chapter 5 ('Motive forces of the new science').

Peter Harrison, The Bible, Protestantism, and the Rise of Natural Science. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Introduction (note the discussion of Merton's thesis) and chapter 4 (read up to page 147, further if you are keen) - note: please do a different reading if you have already read excerpts from Harrison's book as part of the module Themes in Early Modern History.

John Heilbron, ‘Science in the Church’, Science in Context, 3 (1989), 9–28.

Michael Hunter, ‘The Conscience of Robert Boyle: Functionalism, “Dysfunctionalism” and the Task of Historical Understanding’, in Renaissance and Revolution: Humanists, Scholars, Craftsmen and Natural Philosophers in Early Modern Europe, ed. by J. V. Field and Frank A. J. L. James (Cambridge University Press, 1997)

Further readings

The literature on early modern science and religion is vast. The first item below is a critical reply to Peter Harrison's book; the second is an audio recording featuring Harrison himself. The remaining items are recent, general works that map out the territory on early modern science and religion and suggest some points of entry into that territory.

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 - a critical reply to Peter Harrison's book

Peter Harrison on science and religion - 20-minute audio introduction to the historical relations between science and religion, from a leading scholar in the field:

Feldhay, Rivka. ‘Religion’, in The Cambridge History of Science, vol. 3: Early Modern Science, ed. Lorraine Daston and Katherine Park (Cambridge: CUP, 2008).

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.