Science-Religion Interface: The Warfare Model

What is beyond question is that ever since the Copernican revolution there have been confrontations between scientific theories and traditional Christian religious worldviews.  Galileo's trial by the Roman Catholic Church is only the most famous of them all.  Martin Luther’s opposition to Copernicus is not as well publicized.  Speaking about the author of the Copernican treatise, Luther wrote, ““This fool wishes to reverse the entire scheme of astronomy; but sacred Scripture tells us that Joshua commanded the sun to stand still, not the earth [2].”  In later centuries, the Galileo episode turned out to be an embarrassment for the Catholic Church and its defenders, and the Vatican admitted it had been a major blunder to have brought Galileo to trial [3].  In the twentieth century, the topic was raised once again by the Catholic Church [4].  However, enthusiastic defenders of orthodoxy of the ancient type have argued, with cleverness, scholarship, and critical analysis that it was Galileo's arrogance that is to be blamed for that sad drama in human history, and not the Church's dogmatic adherence to sacred texts.  In a very readable and much researched book, Wade Rowland gives further boost to the thesis that it was all Galileo's mistake to have interpreted the nature of physical reality the way he did [5].  Because, explains Rowland, echoing the post-modernist view of science, "scientists do not discover laws of nature, they invent them [6]."  Working scientists, and others who have benefited from the science of the past four hundred years may be grateful that many persisted in Galileo's mistake, which happily could not be silenced by ecclesiastical authorities who dictated which versions of Truth are to be propagated and which not, under penalty of the Inquisition.

Another public confrontation between science and religion occurred in the famous debate on Darwin's theory of evolution that took place in June 1860 at the University Museum of Natural History in Oxford, England[6].  Here, Thomas Huxley's intelligence is said to have sparkled and his merciless repartee to Bishop Wilberforce to the effect that “he would rather be related to an ape than to an intelligent man who would pervert the truth” has become an oft-quoted quip in the annals of science [7].  If Galileo had had the opportunity to debate the Copernican hypothesis with defenders of the faith rather than be subjected to the Inquisition, it would have been fairer.  However, his imaginary debate on this matter, in which the upholder of the geocentric view is all but ridiculed, is what led to his Inquisition [8].

Not surprisingly, the Huxley-Wilberforce debate provoked scientists and commentators on science to reflect and write profusely on the conflict between science and religion.  J. W. Draper wrote a work whose central thesis was that the science-religion debate was essentially the struggle between the mind-liberating force of science and the mind-constraining force of dogma [9].  In his view, science paid allegiance to eternal and inexorable laws of nature, while religion was subservient to a whimsical God.  Another influential work which exposed instance after instance the dogged obstinacy of the ecclesiastic establishment in upholding ancient doctrines in the face of mounting scientific evidence to the contrary was Andrew Dickson White’s erudite work, footnotes and all, which was imposingly entitled,  A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom [10].

Since the second half of the twentieth century, a number of scholars have argued persuasively that the warfare model to describe the science-religion relationship which was inspired by the likes of Drake and White is somewhat exaggerated, based on a simplistic understanding of science[11], and though White may have overdone his case by quoting from a good many not very bright clerics who had  rushed into print with their naïve statements, it is hard to deny that there have always been, as their continue to be, fundamental and some unbridgeable differences between scientific and religious worldviews. Not to recognize this would be doing disservice to both science and religion.

Furthermore, in situations where religion has held political power, as in certain nations of the modern world, there is generally great threat to freedom of thought which is a sine qua non for unfettered scientific enterprise, indeed for all healthy exercise of human intelligence.  But it is ironically true that science can also flourish in totalitarian states where scientists are generously subsidized, and are restricted only in their political expressions.  Both the Soviet Union and Communist China – models of ruthless dictatorship – have produced some great scientists.  But it must also be remembered that where atheists wield power, persecution of the faithful occurs [12].  It is only where secular enlightenment holds sway that the probability of ugly and bloody confrontations is considerably less.

Then again, as White himself pointed out, theology in the Western world has been evolving and becoming less dogmatic as a result of the advancement of the scientific outlook.  It is only in traditions where theology is no longer a static and unswerving allegiance to the literality of sacred texts, and where the monopoly for religious authority is not in the hands of clerics with medieval mindsets that there is hope and room for constructive and meaningful dialogue between science and religion.


[2] Luther, Table Talk, p. 69 in Fosdick, H.E. Great Voices of the Reformation, N.Y., 1952.

[3] In 1820, the Roman Catholic Church recanted its condemnation of the Copernican model of the solar system.

[4] In 1979, on the occasion of Einstein’s birth centennial, Pope John Paul delivered a speech at the Vaticanwhose title was, Deep Harmony Which Unites the Truths of Science With the Truths of Faith.

[5] Rowland, Wade, Galileo’s Mistake: A New Look at the Epic Confrontation between Galileo and the Church, 2003. NY:Arcade Publishing.

[6] For a scholarly review of the debate and its aftermath, see J.V. Jensen, ``Return to the Huxley--Wilberforce Debate'', British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, 21, 1988, pp.161-179.

[7] When the good Bishop fell to the ground from his horse at the age of 68, thirteen years after the famous debate Huxley is said to have said jokingly, but heartlessly, that Wilberforce’s brains finally came in contact with reality, little realizing that the fall would cause the bishop’s demise.

[8] Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, Florence, 1632. [English translation, S. Drake, Berkeley, CA, 1952.

[9] Draper’s treatise was published in 1874. It is strongly anti-Catholic in tenor.

[10] White, A.D., A History of the Warfare of Science and Theology in Christendom was first published in 1896. Since then there have been several re-prints and editions.1896

[11] Lindberg, D. C. and Numbers R. L., "Beyond War and Peace: A Reappraisal of the Encounter between Christianity and Science," Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 39 (1987):140-49.

[12] One has only to recall the stifling of freedom of thought and expression under the brutal atheist dictators Stalin in the Societ Union and Mao Zedong in Communist China.

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