‘Religion-and-Science’: Complicating the Pairing

Based on my previous post, it may appear that I am supporting the pairing of religion and science. However, this is not so, as my intent is to be neutral. As such, I provide this post as a balance. Here, it is my aim to historicize and contextualize the pairing, integrating, unifying, etc. of religion-and-science[1] and demonstrate that the grouping is also problematic for theorizing the religion-science relationship.

The pairing cannot be said to have appeared until after the emergence of the academic field[2] of religion-and-science—which assumes that there is some connection between religion and science, otherwise there would be no specialized field to speak of—and thus I will turn to historicizing this professional enterprise.

It was once debated whether religion-and-science could be regarded as a specialized field of its own;[3] today, however, this is undeniable. There are thousands of references, including monographs and articles, dozens of conferences, an increasing number of peer-reviewed journals,[4] both domestic and international societies for the study of religion-and-science,[5] and, more recently, there has been a growing presence of religion-science dialogue on the Internet.[6]

When did this field arise? Putting periodization problems to the side,[7] we can instead trace a red thread, gaining momentum, and nuclei of development. Many of the issues discussed in what we today consider the field of religion-and-science have been analyzed since antiquity and on into the Middle Ages,[8] but during this time period these ideas were not considered in a specifically religion-and-science context.

What might be called the ‘beginnings’ of the field did not arise until the end of the nineteenth century, with the work of John William Draper, History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science (1874).[9] According to Draper:


Draper in Translation [credit: Wikimedia Commons]

“The history of Science […] is a narrative of the conflict of two contending powers, the expansive force of the human intellect on one side, and the compression arising from traditionary [sic] faith and human interests on the other.”[10]

Draper supported the theses of Andrew Dickson White[11]—his main work being A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896)[12]—who also created quite a stir in academia.[13]

The time of the influential ‘Draper-White thesis,’[14] also known as the ‘warfare thesis,’ was one in which the religion-and-science relationship was in the public eye across many countries, partly due to the Ecumenical Council convened in 1869–1870 under Pius IX. In these sessions, the assertion of papal infallibility and the definition of the relations of religion to science were major topics of discussion.[15] The discussion led to dispute, disagreement, and dissension within the Church, the restriction of Catholic publications in some societies, the accusation of the pope being a heretic, and even war between Italy and Rome.[16] This was in a larger context of wide-sweeping changes that were occurring across the West regarding the place of religion in politics and governance, academia and education, and in science.[17] Also during this time was when the debates surrounding Charles Darwin, evolution, and creationism came into force, echoing through the years to this very day.

Darwin Chart [credit: Wikimedia Commons]

Darwin Chart [credit: Wikimedia Commons]

Ad [credit: Wikimedia Commons]

Ad [credit: Wikimedia Commons]

The words of John Tyndall in his famous Belfast Address in 1874 sums up the tensions of this time:

“We [representing science] claim, and we shall wrest from theology, the entire domain of cosmological theory.”[18]

Since the Draper-White thesis, there has been a growing movement to systematically reevaluate the religion-science relationship and increasing acknowledgement of entangled histories, as well as positive, cooperative, and integrative relations. E. A. Burtt in Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Physical Science (1924), for example, argued that science often rests on theological foundations and Alfred North Whitehead in Science and the Modern World (1926) suggests that the origins of modern science lie in the medieval theological idea of God’s rationality and rational creation. This growing approach was lost amongst the noise of the Scopes Monkey Trial[19] in the 1920s however, and thus religion-science conflict remained the more prominent model in the public eye for decades to come.

With the work of general historian Herbert Butterfield, a contextualist approach came to be more widely applied to the history of science, including the religion-and-science relationship, as can be found in his Origins of Modern Science (1949). With this shift of focus is an implicit rejection of the Draper-White thesis, but this rejection remained a view beneath the surface so to speak.

The movement towards a more cooperative stance and an explicit rejection of conflict was finally popularized by Ian Barbour—some sources even claiming that the emergence of the field did not occur until his book Issues in Science and Religion (1966) was published.[20] Although he critiqued the warfare thesis, he was later criticized as falling prey to the very thing he was challenging, since his perspective assumes inherent conflict[21] and ignores the historical contingency of how the terms ‘religion’ and ‘science’ have been used.[22] Thus Barbour became the scholar associated with the ‘conflict thesis,’ although he opposed the warfare thesis.

Besides Barbour, we see some authors in the early 1970s who not only rejected the warfare thesis, but turned it upside-down, claiming Christianity was the central causal factor in the rise of modern science, including Reijer Hooykaas in Religion and the Rise of Modern Science (1972) and Stanley L. Jaki in Science and Creation (1974). And, yet, since science and the history of science was largely popularized by Stephen Jay Gould[23]—who argued that religion and science constitute “non-overlapping magisteria”[24] and claimed the two “are natural antagonists”[25]—the warfare thesis continued to characterize the religion-and-science of the public eye.

It was also around this time from the 1960s to the 1980s that centers, societies, and academic journals for the study of religion-and-science were established across the world.[26]

With the field in full bloom, alternative religion-science theses emerged, such as the ‘complexity thesis,’ largely associated with John Hedley Brooke’s seminal work Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives (1991), in which it is pointed out that the terms ‘religion’ and ‘science’ have been used in different ways and moreover, “not only have the boundaries between them shifted with time, but to abstract them form their historical contexts can lead to artificiality as well as anachronism.”[27] For example, it would be misleading to refer to Isaac Newton’s ‘science’ when he understood his activity as ‘natural philosophy.’ Brooke’s view is widely accepted in the field of the history of science.[28] Nonetheless, the view of conflict prevails almost everywhere else, from academia to the popular masses,[29] despite the fact that some have suggested that “the periods during which it was unfashionable to discuss the mutual bearing of scientific and religious beliefs have been the exception, not the rule.”[30]

The 1980s and 1990s saw an explosion of publications suggesting that modern scientific thinking—especially cosmology and physics, although more recently the cognitive sciences—“is consonant with, if not actually supportive of, a religious position.”[31] A notable work that popularized this movement is mathematical physicist Paul Davies’ God and the New Physics (1984), which was unintentionally further popularized by the hugely successful A Brief History of Time (1988) by Stephen Hawking.[32] Hawking’s work concludes with the statement:

“If we find the answer [a complete theory of the universe] […] it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason—for then we would truly know the mind of God.”[33]

Thus, Hawking plants the idea into the minds of a wide audience that physics might be the method for gaining knowledge of and even contact with the divine.

Michelangelo's The Creation of Adam [credit: Wikimedia Commons]

Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam [credit: Wikimedia Commons]

This time period also saw the establishment of many institutions whose aims and actions evidence integrative movements, including the Mind and Life Institute (f. 1987) “pairing the oldest wisdom traditions [Buddhism] with cutting-edge scientific research.”[34]

This movement to “incorporate scientific cosmology into a religious worldview”[35] and other integrations gave rise to a counter-movement asserting atheistic science, such as can be found in the works of the infamous Richard Dawkins—one of the so-called ‘four horsemen of atheism’—in his The Blind Watchmaker (1986), The Selfish Gene (1989), and The God Delusion (2006). Once again the question of conflict became prominent. Yet, this time around, although the popular perception seems to be that this question is still in need of an answer, the answer proposed is much more often that there is no conflict in contrast to earlier times.[36]

Empirical data is somewhat lacking however, with contradictory results that are full of rhetoric, and the empirical branch of this field remains underdeveloped.[37] There are disputes on whether some of those surveyed can be considered scientists, in addition to missing citations in the data, factual mistakes, taking quotes out of context, and other examples of poor scholarship.[38] While there have been exceptions, older empirical work supports the notion that religion-and-science conflict, either via their principles or knowledge systems or via the ‘secularizing force’ of scientific education.[39] Yet, other researchers have found that scientists are not necessarily irreligious.[40] And in contrast to earlier studies, a newer study, the largest of its kind, found very different results, in which nearly fifty percent of scientists surveyed identified as religious and, of the remainder, twenty percent identified as spiritual.[41]

Today, the field has grown into several subfields, including method and theory covering a wide range of typologies of the relationships; specialized literature relating specific religious and scientific traditions, like Daoism and physics, for example; interdisciplinary fields looking to religious answers to scientific questions and vice versa; and there is rather new tendencies to examine science in the context of specific religions and societies, like general science in the context of medieval Islamic society, for instance. Courses in religion-and-science are now available worldwide at many educational institutions,[42] not only within the social sciences, but also for medical professionals and for those in the hard sciences.[43] It is also relevant to note here that mention of religion is ubiquitous in science textbooks, scientific journals, and in popular scientific publications.[44]

So now that I’ve historicized religion-and-science as a specialized field, I will now turn to the theoretical issues of applying the pairing construct. First, we have seen in this post that even the religion-and-science of this field has had many different meanings, depending on the historical time period and contexts at hand. Moreover, the grouping is not representative of all views in circulation, as my previous posts have shown, where mutual exclusion and the idea of ‘science’ as ‘not religion’ are also prominent.

Second, since the construct has a history, it becomes difficult to justify examining periods before its emergence, as this would be an anachronistic application. For example, Stoic theology was conceived of as the culmination of the study of physics.[45] Due to this, it does not make sense to talk about theology and physics as a grouping of religion-and-science, since there was no pair; this was simply not a concept nor was this vocabulary available. In the mind of a Stoic, this is not theology-and-physics, it is something else entirely: a non-differentiated idea, a different compartmentalization of concepts altogether that our terminology fails to capture. To illustrate, think of the color spectrum: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet. WhereRainbowRisesReally, these are arbitrary lines when we look at the smooth transition of color in a rainbow. In another world, the divisions may have been roarnge, orangellow, yelleen, grue, blindigo, indigolet, and violed. By stating that roargne is ‘red-and-orange,’ we are superimposing our own conceptual compartments that were not present in this world, thereby creating conceptual distortion.

A third issue with the grouping is that even after the historical emergence of the field, what might be thought of as religion-and-science by one person, say an academic analyzing yoga and physiology, another person, like a practitioner, may participate in yoga without any reference to religion-and-science. Instead yoga and physiology might be associated through ideas of health, fitness, and well being, sometimes with a total lack of awareness that yoga is also a religious practice.

Neither the pairing nor the dichotomy construct are a given and neither can tell us anything fundamental about the religion-science relationship. So where does that leave us? What can we say about the religion-science relationship? Contextualism is at present winning out, however, as David B. Wilson notes:

“[this approach] has the potential of leading historians astray. Pursuit of complexity could produce ever narrower studies that are void of generalization. Moreover, awareness of the great variation of views in different times and places could lead to the mistaken conclusion that those ideas were nothing but reflections of their own ‘cultures.’”[46]

I couldn’t agree more. What the field needs is a dynamic model of relationship that can capture the range of possible constructs, encompassing various perspectives, but at the same time has the analytical tools to maintain stability across diverse contexts, allowing for historical comparison.

Over these first several posts, I have covered the historiography, method and theory, and the state of the art of the field of religion-and-science. The next overarching theme will be my proposed methodology that I believe will answer these challenges I have highlighted. This will include a discussion of discourse analysis, the sociology of knowledge, and relational models of concepts generally and of religion specifically, before I conclude with some of my own tweaking of these methods, which I refer to as ‘relationality analysis.’ Until next time!



[1] I use the hyphens to avoid the confusion that I am contextualizing ‘religion’ and contextualizing ‘science,’ rather than referring to the grouping, as is my intention.

[2] By ‘field,’ I mean a community or network of people, including institutions, research projects, and areas of academic study, involving a specific and specialized topic.

[3] Philip Clayton, “Introduction,” in Clayton, ed., The Oxford Handbook of Religion and Science (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 1.

[4] Clayton, 2.

[5] J. Wentzel Vrede van Huyssteen, “Preface,” in van Huyssteen, ed. Encyclopedia of Science and Religion, vii–viii, here vii.

[6] van Huyssteen, vii.

[7] Although I will be historicizing the field, it is good to keep in mind that my definition of its ‘beginnings’ is a pragmatic one, necessitating vagueness. Periodization is always arguable and the literature supports the ‘beginnings’ ranging over a century. Discourse builds momentum and thus I will discuss periods where there was little discussion of the academic field of religion-and-science to demonstrate the building blocks and growth of the discussion.

[8] John Hedley Brooke, “Science and Religion, History of the Field,” in van Huyssteen, ed. Encyclopedia of Science and Religion, 748–755, here 749.

[9] Distribution may not have been until 1875, however I could not confirm this date as the original publishing year, as the primary source states publication in 1875, but that it entered in the Library of Congress in 1874.

[10] John William Draper, History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science, The International Scientific Series, vol. xii (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1875), vi–vii.

[11] Gary B. Ferngren, “Preface,” in Ferngren, et al, eds., The History of Science and Religion in the Western Tradition: An Encyclopedia (New York & London: Garland Publishing, 2000), xiii–xiv, here xiii.

[12] I could not confirm this date, as the text is elsewhere listed as published in 1895, 1897, and 1898. Consultation of the text itself could not clarify the publication year, as later editions do not state the original publication date.

[13] Andrew Dixon White, A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1896), ix.

[14] The Draper-White thesis is sometimes referred to as the ‘conflict thesis,’ but better differentiated as the ‘warfare thesis,’ another common epithet, since the ‘conflict thesis’ is now used to refer to the notion of ‘inherent conflict,’ according to Geoffrey Cantor & Chris Kenny, “Barbour’s Fourfold Way: Problems with His Taxonomy of Science-Religion Relationships,” Zygon 36.4 (Dec. 2001), 765–781.

[15] Draper 330.

[16] After which Rome was annexed by the state. Draper 330–339.

[17] Draper 330–340; David B. Wilson “The Historiography of Science and Religion,” in Ferngren, et al, eds., The History of Science and Religion in the Western Tradition: An Encyclopedia (New York & London: Garland Publishing, 2000), 3–11, here 4.

[18] John Tyndall, Address Delivered Before The British Association Assembled at Belfast (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1874), 61, available at https://archive.org/details/addressdelivere03tyndgoog (accessed 2 July 2014).

[19] The Scopes Monkey Trial (The State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes) is a famous American legal case regarding the teaching of evolution in schools. See, for instance, Edward J. Larson, Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion (New York: Basic Books, 1997).

[20] Ted Peters, “Science and Religion,” in Lindsay Jones, ed., Encyclopedia of Religion, 2nd ed. (New York: MacMillan Reference, 2004), 8180–8192, here 8191.

[21] See my past blog posts, “Science as ‘Not Religion'” Part One and Part Two, on the difference between inherent conflict and external conflict.

[22] Cantor and Kenny 777 and passim.

[23] Wilson 8.

[24] Stephen Jay Gould, Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life (New York: Ballantine Books, 1999), passim.

[25] Stephen Jay Gould, Ever Since Darwin: Reflections in Natural History (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1977), 141.

[26] Peters 8185 states that this occurred in the 1970s, but the major institutions were founded across a larger time span.

[27] John Hedley Brooke, Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 16.

[28] Ferngern xiii.

[29] Wilson 4; Peter Harrison claims that the conflict thesis is generally rejected by all historians alike, not just historians of science and characterizes it as a “myth” that was “invented” by Draper and White. See Harrison, “Introduction,” in Harrison ed., The Cambridge Companion to Science and Religion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 1–18, here 4. However, this overlooks the fact that religion-and-science have and continue to conflict in some circumstances. Harrison later offhandedly states there are atypical occurrences of conflict, but claims this is not representative of a larger historical picture (4–5). However, if conflict does occur, it would not be appropriate to refer to this model as a “myth.” It seems to me that what he wants to deny is inherent conflict, while recognizing the presence of external conflict, but he does not make this explicit.

[30] Brooke, “Science and Religion, History of the Field,” 749.

[31] Colin Campbell, “Science and Religion,” in William H. Swatos, Jr., ed., Encyclopedia of Religion and Society (Walnut Creek: AltaMira Press, 1998), 449–450, here 450.

[32] Campbell 450.

[33] Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time (New York: Bantam Books, 1988), 191.

[34] Mind and Life Institute, “Overview,” http://www.mindandlife.org/about/mission/ (accessed 25 June 2014).

[35] Campbell 450.

[36] This claim is based on daily readings of internet news on “religion and science” and “spirituality and science” that I have been doing for several years now. A search on Google News will show the validity of this statement.

[37] It was not until 2010 that an empirical study was completed of how scientists at the top research universities in the United States view religion and spirituality and these individuals’ views are particularly important as they shape the future leaders of this society. See Elaine Howard Ecklund, Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010). Although, the works of James Henry Leuba did notably include sampling of some elite scientists, many of which were affiliated with universities. See Leuba, The Belief in God and Immortality: A Psychological, Anthropological, and Statistical Study (Chicago: Open Court, 1921 [1916]) and Leuba, “Religious Beliefs of American Scientists,” Harper’s Magazine 169 (1934), 291–300. This is discussed in Ecklund & Christopher P. Sheitle, “Religion Among Academic Scientists: Distinctions, Disciplines, and Demographics,” Social Problems 54.2 (2007), 287–307, here 290, fn. 2, http://www.owlnet.rice.edu/~ehe/doc/Ecklund_SocialProblems_54_2.pdf (accessed 25 June 2014).

[38] Joseph McCabe, “Science and Religion,” in A Rationalist Encyclopedia: A Book of Reference, On Religion, Philosophy, Ethics, and Science (London: Watts & Co., 1948), 530.

[39] Ecklund & Sheitle, “Religion Among Academic Scientists,” 291. See also Leuba, Belief in God and Immortality. This study was later replicated, using Leuba’s exact questions, surveying 1,000 scientists from the academy as well as the general public, randomly selected from the contemporary edition of American Men and Women of Science. See Edward J. Larson & Larry Witham, “Scientists Are Still Keeping the Faith,” Nature 386 (1997), 435–436 and Larson & Witham, “Leading Scientists Still Reject God,” Nature 394 (1998), 313. For further empirical studies, see Leuba, “Religious Beliefs of American Scientists.” Leuba’s work includes a survey of the National Academy of Sciences, the most elite scientific organization in the US. See also Rodney Stark, “On the Incompatibility of Religion and Science,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 3 (1963), 3–20. However, Stark recanted this earlier work and conceded that religion, at least in some forms, has been supportive of science. See Stark, For the Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch-hunts, and the End of Slavery (Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 2003).

[40] Robert Wuthnow, “Science and the Sacred,” in Phillip E. Hammond, ed., The Sacred in a Secular Age (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), 187–203.

[41] This study was undertaken in the US. See Ecklund for her earlier study. For her later study, see Ecklund & Sheitle, “Religious Communities, Science, Scientists, and Perceptions: A Comprehensive Survey,” paper presented at the Annual Meetings of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (2014), http://rplp.rice.edu/uploadedFiles/RPLP/RU_AAASPresentationNotes_2014_0220.pdf (accessed 25 June 2014).

[42] van Huyssteen vii.

[43] Ninety percent of medical schools in the US offer courses on various aspects of spirituality and health, for example. See James Lake, “Spirituality and Religion in Mental Health: A Concise Review of the Evidence,” Psychiatric Times, 20 March 2012, 34–38.

[44] For example, a search for “religion” in the largest (paid) circulating scientific journal, Science, from the years 1880 to 2014 gave 4,654 results and that does not even include searches for specific religious traditions, spirituality, or religious elements of belief, like “God.” The search was conducted by the author at http://www.sciencemag.org (accessed 25 June 2014). Science is a peer-reviewed journal with an estimated readership of one million, as of 2011. See “Press Release,” http://www.sciencemag.org/site/help/librarians/TEMIS_PressRelease_2011-Apr.pdf (accessed 25 June 2014).

[45] See William B. Irvine, A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, 6th ptg ed. (Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 2008) and Christoph Jedan, Stoic Virtues: Chrysippus and the Religious Character of Stoic Ethics (London: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2009).

[46] Wilson 10.


Further Reading:

Arri Eisen and Gary Laderman, eds., Science, Religion, and Society: An Encyclopedia of History, Culture, and Controversy, 2 vols. (Armonk: M. E. Sharpe, 2006).


One thought on “‘Religion-and-Science’: Complicating the Pairing

  1. Pingback: Conflict with the Conflict Thesis: Complicating the Religion-Science Dichotomy | Knowledge Unbound: Religion, Science, & Philosophy

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