Science and Religion, and the Big Lie embedded in our culture – by Iain Palin

-courtesy of Sam Harris and Jerry Coyne
Science and Religion, and the Big Lie embedded in our culture – by Iain Palin


When we talk to someone about the harmony of science and religion, a common response is that this is not likely or even possible, that science and religion are foes, and that down the centuries religion (by which people mean religious organisations) have worked hard to hold back science and persecuted those who strove to understand how our world really works. Galileo will be instanced, perhaps along with (in the case of the more widely read) Bruno and Hypatia.


And that is the Big Lie, firmly embedded in our culture, and exerting a baleful influence upon discussion of the subject as well as serving as a stick with which to beat religion.


The “Conflict Thesis” or “Warfare Thesis” as it is usually called dates from the 19th century, a time not only of material progress and huge social and intellectual development, but also of the creation of myths and ideologies with a fictitious back-story included to disguise their new construction.  These include religious fundamentalism (not just Christian, but also Jewish and Hindu), Young Earth Creationism and its notion that the Bible is a scientific handbook as well as a historical guide, Flat-Earthism, and, yes, the “Warfare Thesis”. These ideologies had significant overlaps in both their ideas and their followings. 


The “Warfare Thesis” is essentially the child of two 19th century writers, John W. Draper and Andrew D. White. Draper, an English scientist and emigrant to the USA, and White, an American historian, had their reasons for writing what they did, and those reasons were not worthy.


Draper’s hugely influential book “A History of the Conflict between Religion and Science” was, basically, an anti-Catholic tract in which historical facts were twisted or misrepresented and other “facts” were simply made up. His target was not so much religion as the Catholic Church, and he clearly felt that the end justified the means when it came to creating propaganda. White’s writing was more sophisticated, but hardly more accurate.  Citations that supposedly supported his case proved, if actually checked, to be unreliable. In one case he supported the notion that the church tried to tell Columbus his attempt to sail to the Indies would fail because he would fall off the edge by citing a Life of Columbus by Irving W. Yes, Washington Irving, the novelist, who invented that whole scene for his book. In another, he quoted St. Augustine as saying the Earth was flat when in fact Augustine was refuting the idea.


While on the subject of the invented notion that people in the past thought the Earth was flat and the Church taught this, it’s worth noting the church authorities who are cited to support this idea. Not Augustine, not any of the Church Fathers – the “authorities” who “prove” this was church teaching were Lactantius and Cosmas Indicopleustes. No, I hadn’t heard of them either before I started researching this subject. These minor sixth-century figures did hold the idea, but if they are the best you can come up with on behalf of the whole church, your case is very shaky.


White’s target, like Draper’s, was the Roman Catholic Church. Like many prominent and prosperous WASPs of his time, he was very worried at the way that the good Anglo-Saxon stock of “real” Americans was being diluted by waves of immigration from places like Ireland, Italy, and Poland. Not only were these people bringing new races (in 19th century terms) and languages into the USA, they were bringing what people like Draper and White believed strongly to be an alien, threatening, backward, superstitious creed, and one that fostered loyalty not to the nation but to an alien leader in far-off Europe. They were bringing Catholicism, and it had to be countered and discredited.  Parallels with more recent American attitudes to Muslims and Islam may well come to mind.


As a result we not only got the Flat-Earth story mentioned above (ironic since Flat-Earthism actually came into existence as a coherent belief system in 19th century England and America) but a totally bogus narrative about the trial of Galileo, still almost universally accepted as true though the whole affair wasn’t actually about science, fanciful tales about how and why figures such as Giordano Bruno and Hypatia of Alexandria died, and a host of other fictions to poison the discourse.


In fact, the relationship between the Christian churches and the development of science and the study of the natural world was more complicated, more varied, and more interesting than the Warfare version. There are some heroes and villains on both sides, though far more human beings with various shades of grey to their behaviour, and scenarios of politics and power struggles that serve as a backdrop throughout human history. It is actually much more interesting and relevant than the Big Lie that still sets the agenda for most discussions. And it shows that, whatever their relationship and its ups and downs, science and religion have not been enemies down the ages.



About the Author

Iain S. Palin studied at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland (his native city) where he gained an Honours B.Sc. before going on to complete his medical degree. He worked in Scotland and in Northern Ireland as a physician, medical educator, and forensic medical officer, and is now retired and living in Londonderry (Derry) NI. He became a Bahá’í in 1968 and has served in a number of positions in the Bahá’í community at local, regional, and national levels. His particular fields of interest are the history of science and medicine, and the relationship between science, reason, and religion, and he has delivered courses on “Science and Religion” at Bahá’í summer schools and residential events.



Mike Moum
Author: Mike Moum

No bio

Share a comment

Visit Us On TwitterVisit Us On FacebookVisit Us On PinterestVisit Us On YoutubeVisit Us On Instagram