Friday, May 28, 2004

While the idea of an inevitable conflict between science and religion is a myth there have undoubtedly been occasional issues between science and particular religious believers. However, these are down to historical continbency rather than out right epistomological opposition. To invent the eternal conflict, anti-Christians have been reduced to mischaracterising these events and sometimes just making stuff up.

An amusing way to demonstrate this is to show how their have also been occasional conflicts between science and particular atheists which are grounded in very similar circumstances to the science/religion episodes.

There is the famous example of Stalin and Lysenko to ponder, fulling discussed by Carl Sagan in Demon Haunted World (one of his better books). Atheists might claim that this was due to Stalin's communism rather than atheism, but that is precisely the point. In most alleged science/religion episodes the argument is about something else entirely.

There are some other examples too.

A well known case was the Cambridge Professor of Physics, Fred Hoyle, who refused to accept the Big Bang because of its uncomfortable theological implications. Internet Infidel, Richard Carrier, went through quite a journey before he could finally accept the Big Bang (a term coined by Hoyle as an insult) and there is little doubt that Hoyle's atheological objections sent a lot of his students on a wild goose chase for another theory.

Less well known is the case of Josiah Nott and George Gibbon (see G Blair Nelson, 'Men before Adam' in When Science and Christianity Meet referenced below). Both these men were anti-clerical nineteenth century polemicists along the lines of Thomas Huxley and John Tyndall, and had contempt for Christianity. In particular they objected to the idea that all men could be a single species, as Christians insisted, because they believed black people to be of a separate lower species. They went as far as to claim that whites and blacks did not breed true and based their polemic on rascism and attacking Genesis.

It is often claimed that the Church has put scientists to death. Oddly enough, it never did and the only important scientist to be executed who I am aware of was the great French chemist Antone Lavoisier who had his head chopped off by the anti-Christian Jacobins in the French Revolution. Not, I hasten to add, because of his science. But then that caveat did not stop the non-scientists Bruno and Servetus, executed for non scientific reasons, being held up as martyrs of science by the ignorant. All three men are covered by John Gribben's Science: A History 1453 - 2000 (Penguin, 2002).

The point of all this is empathically not to show atheism and anti-Christianity are opposed to science. Some people, at some times, have been opposed to some science due to beliefs they have. Atheism and anti-clericalism can be opposed to science, as can biblical literalism.

If you do a university course on science and religion you will probably be set the following reading as standard:

* David Lindberg and Ronald Numbers (eds.) God and Nature (1986) and When Science and Christianity Meet (2004) both by California University Press. These are both excellent essay collections by leading historians of science covering matters like the Scopes Trial, Galileo's Trial, Darwinism and the attitude of the church to science.

* John Hedley Brooke "Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives" Cambridge University Press (1991). A one man effort but still an excellent of summary of science and religion from Galileo onwards.

In fact these three books constitute the bare minimum you must have read to talk intelligently about this subject. They are available in cheap paperback editions and in most libraries.

No comments: