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Science vs. Religion: West European Studies

Outline: The relationship between the two streams of thoughts and ideologies emerged in the early part of the sixteenth century. This relationship has been changing with changing years and there have been periods of rivalry, marked by some periods of friendship between the scientists and the Church. It was due to these events that the religion has declined in its popularity and science has taken its place. Modern literature, as opposed to the Conflict Thesis, shows that religion and science are very different and it’s impossible to combine or even compare them. In modern living, science is dominant however religion plays its part in more subtle realities of life like emotions and feelings like love.

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Science vs. Religion has been an important debate for many years now. It more often than not springs up in newspapers, magazines, internet and other forms of media. It was even touched upon in The Simpsons, when Lisa found a fossil and a court exclusion order was placed. In literature there are many views, some scholars think that the conflict between both religion and science is inherent and has existed since the birth of reason and scientific thought itself. However this paper deals with the relationship of these two branches during the period of 16th and 17th century and how certain events changed the disciplines of science and religion itself.

Science and religion are an important part of today’s society and they both add on to the existing society. The relationship between these two can help mankind progress and achieve excellence in both areas. These are two vital pillars of the society and cannot exist without each other. However both of them need environment where they can exist together in harmony and help make world a better place. Society as a whole can only benefit when each pillar plays its vital part; like Galileo stated; science tells us how the heavens go while religion tells us how to go there (Gruender, 1997). These two fields are not necessarily in conflict and they help society in their own capacities

The title of Harbinger Symposium was “Religion & Science: the Worst of Friends — the Best of Enemies” and this is perhaps the paramount way to summarize the relationship between religion and science and how they coexist today. This relationship has many folds; it has been a series of cooperation, betrayal, harmony among many other things, nonetheless it has been changing and has had many ups and downs. Lindberg and Numbers gave a very precise explanation, “The encounter between Christianity and science… is a complex and diverse interaction that defies reduction to simple ‘conflict’ or ‘harmony’… and the interaction varied with time, place, and person.” (Lindberg & Numbers, 1986, p.10).

Science and Religion have been part of this world for many centuries now. Religion has been here since antiquity and it was the dominant part of culture and it was the supreme power and exercised political power over the masses. This monopoly of power was harmed by the arrival of science in the 16th century after ‘fitful flickering existence among the Greeks and the Arabs (Ruse & Russel, 1997, p.7). The conflict between science and religion was more of a conflict for power than ideologies. This is not saying that their ideologies did not clash for they did but instead of solving the matter it was taken into a full-fledged war between the two aspects of the society. Galileo fought with the Church for seeking the truth and for logic and reason whereas the Church, without appeal to the forces of reason, aspired to in the earlier times started a rivalry with Galileo.

Before delving deeper in the Religion vs. Science debate, the immensity of words religion and science must be appreciated and implored further. In its very entirety, religion and science are very different and look at different aspects of the society. Religion deals with God, faith, piety while science deals with things like how the earth revolves and how humans evolve. It can be said that when on one hand religion deals with the non-material nature of the world, science is a study of all the physical matter in this world. There are however many overlapping regions and this is where the real conflicts arise. To say that religion and science have also been in conflict is like stretching facts and so this paper tends to discuss the relationship between these two disciplines, and as it will be shown this relationship is not necessarily the one of conflict like mentioned by Galileo and has been presented in the earlier part of the paper.

However for the purpose of this research paper science has been taken as a branch of philosophy and as it pertains to the logical and reasoning nature of a human being. Similarly Religion has been branches and although the relationship of science with Islam and Buddhism has been important the Christian aspect of religion is referred to as it relates to the church and played a significant part in the environment of Western Europe.

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Where science relies on observable facts and figures, religion is based on divine revelations. Some scientists believe that there is a conflict in the two fields like Draper and Gould but others like Thomas Berry, Brain Swimme, Ken Wilber think that they are connected in a special way. Many theories have been put forth by scholars. The Conflict Thesis was given in the nineteenth century by White and Draper but even later in was criticized by many scholars and they stressed on the fact that Religion and Science are not in conflict and never have been. However without delving into this debate, the events of sixteenth and the seventeenth century are outlined in the succeeding paragraphs. However some other events that can help in the understanding of this distinct relationship are also outlined.

Religion was an imperial power in that era. It was supreme authority, an authority to be reckoned with. It went through a major transformation with its amalgamation with paganism, which was the existing religion of the Roman Empire. However all of this was threatened by the many events that further deteriorated the position of the Church and they fought harder and act more cruelly to uphold their status. However it should be kept in mind that Christianity refers to the Christianity as it was practiced according to the dictates of roman church. The Protestants are kept out of this discussion largely because they had little or no political power as compared to the roman church (Draper, 1910).

As mentioned earlier, the most important book written in this regard was the work of Americans Andrew Dickson White and John William Draper in the nineteenth century. Although they have been criticized by many they succeeded nonetheless in setting the ‘terms of the debate’ in the words of Fleming (Fleming, 1950, p.131).

Before the publication of his book, White gave a lecture to a large audience at the Cooper Union in New York City, where he said that:

In all modern history, interference with science in the supposed interest of religion-no matter how conscientious such interference may have been-has resulted in the direst evils both to religion and science, and invariably. And on the other hand all untrammeled scientific investigation, no matter how dangerous to religion some of its stages may have seemed, temporarily to be, has invariably resulted in the highest good of religion and science (Numbers, 1985, p.59).

According to Draper, the first conflict was the South Reformation, when the nature of God was a point of conflict (Draper, 1910). However in this era, Arabians were progressing and they established colleges, schools, libraries and other areas for intellectual inquiry. Some of these scholars were completely philosophical and completely rejected the idea of God leading to the second conflict regarding the nature of one’s soul. This period was the time of growth of intellectual inquiry. New discoveries were made everyday and the exploitation of geography boundaries allowed ideas to travel free and this resulted in the famous geocentric theory. According to this theory, earth is central part of the universe and all the other planets including the sun revolves around it. This was the major point in the history of the science-religion relationship and third major conflict broke out (Draper, 1910). This conflict has also been called the Galileo Affair by many historians. Galileo the champion of science and the Roman Church upheld the views of the religious community. Another conflict arose around the same time regarding the age of the earth where Church insisted that is only six thousand years old, while the scientists of that time disagree (Draper, 1910).Roman Christianity’s standing was greatly diminished by its conflicts with the intellectual bodies. However at that time, the Science of Religion was introduced and it was found out the loss of identity of religion was due to its relationship with paganism of Rome. This gave birth to the fourth conflict, the Northern Reformation (Draper, 1910).

White explained the perennial conflict by giving further examples. He made a case of the reluctance of the church to fix lightning rod on top of their churches. The bell tower of St. Mark’s in Venice was struck by lightening in 1745 (Brooke, 1991). The idea was proposed by the scientists to put up a rod on the top to prevent further damage. However due to the opposition by the church, the lightening rods were not put up until 1766, while during this time St. Mark’s was hit twice in 1761 and 1762 by the lightening (Brooke, 1991).

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To start at the beginning, Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle were pious people but they were conspicuous of superstitious beliefs and supernatural powers. At that time many stories were told about the Gods, these stories were both fascinating and amazing and used to lie in the heart of Greek culture. According to Aristotle, although the belief about on the creator of first mover was in accordance with the dictates of reason, all the other stories were fabrications and figments of imagination. Socrates was all called an imposter and sentenced to death when he tried to question the veracity or accuracy of the stories told by the religious authorities of that time (Pecorino).

To list some of the injustices done to the scientists of that time, the famous mathematician and philosopher Hypatia is the starting point when the Christians martyred this budding scientist and a pagan in Alexandria in 415A.D (Health, 1921). Similarly Marco Antonio de Dominism, the first scientist to give an explanation of the rainbow was tortured and murdered by Rome in 1624. He was called a heretic due to his study regards the phenomenon of light (Ockenden, 1936, p.52). As mentioned earlier, the lightening of the rods was also vehemently opposed by the church.

In addition to this the injustices continued and in the middle of the 13th century Bishop of Paris objected to the university students reading Aristotle however Roger Bacon’s defended it but he was forbidden from teaching in 1257 and further he was imprisoned for 14 years (Wtizel, 1921).

However to understand better we must delve further into the issues of contention because of which this rivalry became one of historical importance. The bone of contention is this case was the problem pertaining to epistemology. Such issues were first raised by the displacement of the earth from being the centre of the universe. This theory of Copernicus (1473-1543) stirred the air as it questioned the fundamental belief of Christians of that time in the geocentric-ism of the earth. However even this caused little trouble in the scholarly circles until it became tangled with the conflict of Galileo (Ferngren, 2002, p.13). Copernicus gave the theory of Heliocentric-ism that stated that the Sun and not the earth in the centre of the universe. This theory was violently opposed by the church for three hundred years. Campanella also ascribed to the theory of Heliocentric-ism and he was tortured by the authorities. The Galileo Affair however can be termed as the turning point of this relationship.

Bologna professor and an astronomer Cecco d’Ascoli dared to suggest that the world is round (the phenomenon not so novel as the ancient Greek used to believe in the roundness of the earth) and people may live on the other side of the world and was burnt alive in 1327 by the church (Rice, 1938, p.149). However the church now believes that the earth is round. This is a supreme example of the how science has changed the world around us, including our belief systems to an extent.

Another name in this regard, Giordano Bruno must be mentioned. He was burnt at stake in Rome in 1600 for he suggested that the earth goes around the sun and not the other way round. This was a source of controversy for the Vatican Church and to put his voice to a quiet, this is injustice was done to him (Turner, 1908).

In view of all the above literature, the burning of libraries was also an important caveat in this relationship. All the Mayan literature was destroyed by the Spaniards in Mexico in 1520 as it was not in accordance with their own superstitions. Franciscans were part of these injustices and according to them, “We found a great number of books… and since they contained nothing but superstitions and falsehoods of the Devil we burned them all.” (Humphry).

Major work has been done to understand the relationship between religion and science. One famous historian, Margaret Jacobs has done substantial amount of work in this field and here thesis is based on three main premises: History of science, history and theology of church and philosophical thought (Holmes, 1978). She discussed the major ramifications of the study of Newton and Boyle, themselves pious people on the religious doctrine of that time and how their studies were derivations of the premises which were considered anti Christian by many (Holmes, 1978). It must be kept in mind here that the work of Newton and Boyle was rendered much easier now that Henry VIII separated his church out of the control of Rome (Henry VIII, Brittania).

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When Charles Darwin Origin of Species was published in 1859, people objected to the theory of evolution and stated that it was against their religious belief (Ruse, 1975). Although many scholars and academicians have tried to bring together religion and science and some have also succeeded, the general view of the public is still the same even so many years after the arrival of evolution theory. The efforts of many Christian scientists to bring together religion failed when Bishop Wilberforce attacked Darwin’s theory on religious grounds and the conflict was resumed (Dowe, 2005).

In 1684, Thomas Burnet wrote his Sacred Theory of Earth where he applauded St. Augustine for his warning that science and religion should not be interlocked and any attempt to understand one given the other can result in further problems for both the fields (Brooke, 1991). These are two different streams and should be treated as such.

Eighteenth century was the age of rationalism and it was in this age that the traditional ideas of the church were criticized openly. Many religious beliefs were termed as relics of childhood days (Pecorino). This was an age of discovery and ideas started floating from continents to continents. Many scholars put forth their ideas about religion and how it has evolved from the pagan religion of antiquity. Claude Levy-Bruhl termed religion as a form of a very primitive science and a way of explaining natural phenomena (Pecorino). However the 19th century dawned with positivism and science was given more importance with new stress on ways of verification and empirical means (Pecorino). It was 1870 that Max Muller explained that the religion can be better explained using scientific study (Swatos). E.B Tylor also hoped for the birth of ‘Science of Religion” but he differed from Muller in the possible outcomes of this scientific study and he believed that religious skepticism would be explained better by the science (Swatos).

Today, the world belongs to science while religion remains in the background. Religious leader Dietrich Bonhoeffer said:

As in the scientific field, so in human affairs generally, “God” is being pushed more and more out of life, losing more and more ground (Henderson, 1986).

One can prosper in this world both religion and science should be taken side by side and followed wisely. Religion helps a person gain insight in human nature, the emotions and feelings of human beings. It can help a person love another person while science can help make this world a better place to live and a better place to profuse one’s religion.


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