The Great Clashes between Science and Religion Have Often Been about Something Else

September 27, 2023 | Jamie Boulding
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In Magisteria: The Entangled Histories of Science and Religion, Nicholas Spencer examines the interactions between these two realms in the West since the 15th century, highlighting cooperation well as conflict. Jamie Boulding writes in his review:

The book’s [last] three sections are framed by three major incidents in the history of science and religion, which Spencer sees as central to sustaining the popular myth of endless conflict: the Galileo affair, which seemed to pit Copernicus’s heliocentrism against the Catholic Church; the Huxley–Wilberforce debate, which seemed to pit Darwin’s new theory of evolution against Christian belief in Victorian England; and the Scopes “monkey trial,” which seemed to perform a similar role in Tennessee 65 years later.

In each case, Spencer complicates the familiar narrative of scientific advancement sweeping away religious superstition. Galileo’s trial was as much about personality clashes, political considerations, and broader religious upheaval as it was about heliocentrism, which senior Church figures initially received warmly. The Huxley–Wilberforce debate had little public impact until decades later, and it wasn’t narrowly focused on evolution, which Darwin did not in any event view as incompatible with theism. The Scopes trial, according to one of the defense lawyers, was not just about science and religion, but about science and the idiosyncratic populism of William Jennings Bryan, who led the prosecution.

In this sense, Spencer’s book suggests that the supposedly epic clashes between science and religion tell us more about ourselves and our cultural and political battles than they do about scientific inquiry or religious belief. It’s no coincidence that the narrative of conflict between science and religion emerged in the late 19th century just as science was establishing, professionalizing, and seeking cultural territory for itself in Victorian society.

Then and now, the conflict narrative is a function of society’s need to legitimize the status and significance of science. In America today, science (or some version of it) has displaced religion as the approved elite ideology: “In this house, we believe science is real . . . ”.

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