Science as ‘Not Religion’: The History of the Conflict Construct (Part Two)


[credit: public domain,]

What is ‘science’? A major historical perspective says ‘science is what religion is not.’ The very formulation of the idea of ‘science’ is closely historically connected to religion, in negative correlation. In Part One, I introduced the conflict thesis and began to historically unpack the view that religion and science are in opposition. I left off with a discussion of the emerging idea of science as ‘not religion,’ that is ‘science’ as a term was explained in specific contrast to religion.

After the idea of science as ‘not religion’ really took hold around the Enlightenment period, it began to have real-world consequences. Framing science as the opposite of religion contributed to the power and cultural currency of the sciences. Science was heralded as the conduit of human progress, and religion — particularly the authoritarianism associated with the Church — was framed as the enemy of that progress and of human freedom, as seen in the anticlericalism that fueled hostility during the French Revolution (1789–1799). Interestingly, in France, Charles Darwin was not initially popular in biology, but gained support from the anticlerical movement. There in France, “[a]s in other countries where church authorities criticized Darwin, some scientists defend him partly to assert as a newly emerging professional group their independence from clerical interference.”[1]

The negative correlation of religion and science was not isolated to the philosophers, political activists, and the popular masses discussed over this two-part post. Many leading scientists also contributed to this conflict construct at the time of Darwin (and today), linking evolution with their own atheist beliefs and other “liaisons of scientific theory and attacks on religion”[2] occurred in England and America as well. Similarly, Thomas Henry Huxley, a high-profile publicist and defender of Darwin (known as “Darwin’s Bulldog”), criticized Christianity in part to “defend the independence of science as a new profession from the influence of the established church.”[3] This suggests that in some ways the success of science was related to its conflict with and independence from religion. Thus the idea of science as ‘not religion’ played a role in political views, in intellectual and academic differentiation, and in social movements towards a scientific episteme.

This intellectual trend of conceptualizing science as ‘not religion’ even impacted the scientific interpretation and presentation of the facts. For example, as Loren Eiseley puts it “Man, theologically, had for so long been accorded a special and supernatural place in creation that the evolutionists, in striving to carry their point that he was intimately related to the rest of life, sought to emphasise those characteristics which particularly revealed our humble origins.”[4] That is, the implications of evolution were framed in specific regard to religious understanding of the world and of human nature. How we have come to understand the scientific worldview was shaped in opposition to religion.

Draper's title page

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Did you know? Early use of the word ‘conflict’ was restricted to references of battles or collisions. It was not until around the time of John William Draper’s History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science was published in 1875 that ‘conflict’ came to refer to religious, philosophical, and political opposition.

These approaches continue among leading scientists today, particularly those who are popular and visible in the media and less so among those who are not.[5] This latter point should not come as a surprise I think, as we are no strangers to media sensationalism, which gives religion-science conflict a loud voice. Richard Dawkins exemplifies this positioning of scientific implications as in opposition to religion when he states “religion is, in a sense, science; it’s just bad science,”[6] and thus religious questions must be quelled in order for the ‘good science’ to win out. The idea of religion and science competing over knowledge was echoed by Stephan Hawking as well: “there is a fundamental difference between religion … and science … Science will win because it works.”[7] In a final example of the religion-science binary at the level of popular science, Sam Harris makes the extreme claim that “science must destroy religion,” describing the conflict as “inherent” and “(very nearly) zero-sum.”[8]

Thus far in this two-parter we have seen ideas of science as ‘not religion’ spread across history from the time of Galileo to today, from science, philosophy, politics and society, to popular thought. Eventually the Church came around to the idea as well. A commission appointed in 1984 by Pope John Paul II finally agreed with the popular notion of religion-science separation, stating “church officials erred in condemning Galileo” and the pope stating later in 1992 that religion and science are “two realms of knowledge.”[9] Although, it is worth mentioning that the Catholic Church also engages in religion-science dialogue to varying degrees.

religion science perspectives

[credit: public domain]

Reemphasizing my point, religion and science scholar Peter Harrison argues that for adherents of the “conflict myth” the lack of a unified notion of 
science is compensated by a negative 
definition in which “science is understood by what it is not or what it is in opposition to and that thing is … religion.” This has led some to conclude that “the advancement of science is served by an attack on its antitype … religion.”[10] But the conflict thesis does not only manifest in attacks on religion, but also runs as deep as method and theory, even when attempting to overcome that conflict. As in the case of Ian Barbour who sought this harmonious goal, assumptions of religion-science opposition are even laden in the questions he asks, such as “conflict or harmony?,”[11] either choice of which assumes a fundamental separation.[12] In another example, American biologist Steven Jay Gould suggests that religion and science constitute “non-overlapping magisteria.” Even though Gould argued for a lack of warfare-type conflict, his argument rested on the notion of inherent conflict: “the lack of conflict between science and religion arises from a lack of overlap between their respective domains of professional expertise: science in the empirical constitution of the universe, and religion in the search for proper ethical values and the spiritual meaning of our lives.”[13]

To sum up, in the Medieval worldview, religion and science were part of a unified system of knowledge. It was only through conceptual negotiation of ‘science’ that a polemical separation from ‘religion’ occurred. Barbour argues, “In an age dominated by religion, it was necessary to assert the independence of science.”[14] This set the stage for interpreting religion and science in negative relative perspective and even today “in an age dominated by science, it may sometimes be necessary to assert the independence of religion,”[15] and so ideas of conflict continue. While physical conflict has certainly occurred, the conflict thesis — the idea of inherent conflict — resides primarily in the realm of historical ideas of ‘science’ as ‘not religion.’ Because science was conceived of as ‘not religion,’ it comes as no surprise that when the term ‘conflict’ came to refer to a clash between views in the nineteenth century, discursively linking the term to conceptual opposition, it was readily applied to the religion-science relationship.[16]

In conclusion, inherent conflict is a rather limited view of both history and the use of analytical concepts, which cannot account for when ‘religion’ is identified as ‘rational’ and God is placed in the realm of ‘nature’; when ‘science’ is associated with metaphysical, even supernatural claims, and empiricism is problematized by subjectivity. What happens when what we know as ‘science’ and what we know as ‘religion’ cannot coherently be described in oppositional terms? As we will see more of in later posts, the concepts of ‘science’ and ‘religion’ vary at any given historical moment and change frequently and dramatically. If we recognize the conceptual nature of religion-science ‘conflict’ as I have outlined and admit the fluidity of concepts, we must question the conflict thesis and rethink the religion-science relationship. Efforts are underway, but the idea of conflict continues to pervade society. And yet as the story of ‘science’ (as ‘not religion’) has shown, religion-science conflict is just one thread of a much greater conceptual tapestry.

Next Post: “Conflict with the Conflict Thesis: Complicating the Religion-Science Dichotomy”



1. Barbour 54.
2. Paraphrase of Barbour 57.
3. Barbour 57.
4. Eiseley, 238. Quoted in Barbour 74.
5. See Ecklund regarding “what scientists really think” about the religion-science relationship.
6. Dawkins; also quoted in Harrison.
7. ABC News; also quoted in Harrison.
8. Harris; also quoted in Harrison.
9. Barbour 15.
10. Harrison.
11. Barbour 24 and passim.
12. Cantor and Kenny.
13. Gould.
14. Barbour 29.
15. Barbour 29.
16. Cantor and Kenny 766–767.


ABC News, “Stephen Hawking: ‘Science Will Win [Over Religion] Because It Works,” 7 June 2010. YouTube. (accessed 29 January 2014).

Barbour, Ian, Religion and Science: Historical and Contemporary Issues, revised and expanded ed. of Religion in an Age of Science (New York: HarperCollins, 1998).

Cantor, Geoffrey & Chris Kenny, “Barbour’s Fourfold Way: Problems with His Taxonomy of Science-Religion Relationships,” Zygon 36.4 (Dec. 2001), 765–781.

Dawkins, Richard, “Is Science a Religion,” The Humanist, January/February 1997. http:// (accessed 29 January 2014).

Ecklund, Elaine Howard, Science vs Religion: What Scientists Really Think (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).

Eiseley, Loren, Darwin’s Century: Evolution and the Men Who Discovered It (Garden City, N.Y.: Double Day, 1958).

Gould, Stephen Jay, “Nonoverlapping Magisteria,” Natural History 106 (March 1997): 16–22, reprinted from Leonardo’s Mountain of Clams and the Diet of Worms (New York: Harmony Books, 1998), 269–283, (accessed 6 December 2013).

Harris, Sam, “Science Must Destroy Religion,” Huffington Post, 2 January 2006. http:// (accessed 29 January 2014).

Harrison, Peter, “Religion and the Future of Science,” Gifford Lectures, University of Edinburgh, 16 March 2011. iTunes U.

Further Reading:*

Cosslett, Tess, ed., Science and Religion in the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984).

Huxley, Thomas H., Evolution and Ethics (New York: D. Appleton, 1896).

Russell, Bertrand, Religion and Science, intro. by Michael Ruse (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997 [1935]).

Stenmark, Mikael, “Contemporary Darwinism and Religion,” in Abigail Lustig et al (ed.), Darwinian Heresies (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 173–191.

Turner, Frank, Between Science and Religion: The Reaction to Scientific Naturalism in Late Victorian England (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1974).

*See also the “Further Reading” section in Part One.



3 thoughts on “Science as ‘Not Religion’: The History of the Conflict Construct (Part Two)

  1. Pingback: Science as ‘Not Religion’: The History of the Conflict Construct (Part One) | Knowledge Unbound: Religion, Science, & Philosophy

  2. Pingback: ‘Religion-and-Science’: Complicating the Pairing | Knowledge Unbound: Religion, Science, & Philosophy

  3. Pingback: God on the Brain: Part Three | Knowledge Unbound: Religion, Science, & Philosophy

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