Debunking A Modern Myth: the Conflict of Religion & Science – Part One

A Word of Explanation

On Christmas Eve 2008 having reached 7,000 posts on Professor Richard Dawkin’s forum I publicly issued the Professor with a challenge to a debate on Religion & Science. My contention was that the supposed conflict between religion and science is a modern myth, and that furthering claims of this “inevitable conflict” is just a nonsense and a harmful one.  Sadly he never got back to me, unsurprisingly really as a busy chap, and I am now developing the discussion for a TV series – so my concerns, which actually represent the academic mainstream, will hopefully reach the public after all. 🙂  Here is the opening post of the debate, which finds me in a playful, whimsical mood…  I will post later installments over the next few days if anyone is interested…

On the Absurdity of the Conflict Myth

I believe the notion that science and myth are in conflict is not just a myth; I believe it is an absurdity. I think the fact the notion is so widely held is simply testimony to the fact it is so rarely considered; it appears hard to believe it can be held for long, in the weight of the evidence against it. Of course sometimes science and religion are in conflict; for that matter, so is poetry and science.

When the poet tells us he ‘wandered lonely as a cloud’, I feel it would be inappropriate to inform him nimbostratus have no feelings – we would miss the point. I recognize that science and religion both make claims to objective truth. So do science and history, science and philosophy, science and mathematics, science and cookery (– and I chose those carefully – if you think mathematics is part of science, is cooking? If not, why not?) So are science and history in conflict? Science and philosophy? Science and poetry? Science and cookery?

Science and Religion

Yet science and religion are seen as in conflict… or scientists and the religious, as ideas do not fight well unaided. Well, some scientists have been in conflict with some religious folks – so have some poets. That is to be expected. Some scientists also rode bicycles, and others drank vodka. Some do ride and drink. That cases can be found where scientists clashed with theologians should surprise no one, nor is it particularly interesting.

The real question is “is there a tendency for fights? is there an underlying reason demanding fights? what is the principle fought over?” I have been interested in these questions for years, and have examined the classic “stories” one finds in popular science books, and the claims of necessary conflict. I find them a silly fairy story, one of those “things everyone knows” which turn out to be a myth when examined.  Science and religion are not opposed, and conflict is uncommon. In fact modern science developed in a religious framework, and owes the great monotheisms much. After all there would be no scientists without an Anglican priest – the Reverend William Whewell coined the word ‘scientist’ in the 19th century.


The Genesis of a Myth

Two men created the conflict myth, writing within a few years of each other. The first John William Draper wrote the History of the Conflict Between Science and Religion (1874), the second Andrew Dickson White, with The Warfare of Science (1876) and A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896).

This according to historians of science is where the myth arose. and It was never established in the academic specialty of historians of science – the books were dismissed as flawed and filled with canards. They were an extreme form of Whig history, and a gross form of the historicist fallacy – history is seen as teleological, as man’s escape from ignorant superstition and theism to enlightenment and science, here categorized as scientific progress. By 1918, even more 1945, such books would never have the same appeal – but in what Wells categorized as the “age of whoosh!”, before his own despair and loss of faith in progress, they were immensely popular. Bad history often is – these are the Holy Blood, Holy Grail of their day – attacking the wicked conspiracy of clerics who hold back enlightened science.

Of course they were just spouting Enlightenment myths – for is there was one place where the Enlightenment failed, and throws us in to darkness, it was in the philosophes treatment of history.

A Myth Becomes Dogma

Draper was alarmed by the declaration of Papal Infallibility in 1875; White was responding to the criticism he received from conservative Christians on his secular appointment to a University position. Neither condemned all religion – Draper was concerned only with Roman Catholicism, White’s target was Protestant fundamentalists, but this is often overlooked.

The specifics were lost in the general argument – a myth had been born. And from thesis; antithesis – Burtt (1924), Whitehead (1926) and Butterfield (1949) reversed the argument, showing how religion provides the framework for the development of modern science. By Butterfield it was clear that science and religion have a complex relationship, a relationship which can not be simplified to conflict or support.

Yet as recent studies have shown, among the public, scientists and outside of professional historians, the “conflict hypothesis” persists. No one in the academic study of history of science takes it seriously – but outside those who study these things, “everyone knows” it’s true. In my experience when a fact is something “every one just knows”, we can usually be sure it’s a culturally constructed myth. Hegemony is not a sound way of knowing.

Definitions, Definitions

When I say science I might mean

i) the pursuit of understanding of natural laws

ii) the application of certain methodologies to research

iii) the social institutions and cultural milieu within which certain research is carried out

iv) as including both research and development, that is pure science and technology

v) as excluding technology, pure science, typically conducted in certain institutional forms, such as the university or basic research institute.

Not my definitions but after Rose and Rose, Science and Society, 1969

Religion is incredibly hard to define – the dictionary gives me


1. a. Belief in and reverence for a supernatural power or powers regarded as creator and governor of the universe. b. A personal or institutionalized system grounded in such belief and worship.

2. The life or condition of a person in a religious order.

3. A set of beliefs, values, and practices based on the teachings of a spiritual leader.

4. A cause, principle, or activity pursued with zeal or conscientious devotion.

Nothing here seems to suggest conflict?

The notion of “religion as primitive science”, as explanatory and superseded one finds in Frazer is a myth: I shall dedicate much of my second post to demonstrating why, and scholars refutations. For now flip through the Bible, Qu’ran, and Tanakh, and underline all the “science” passages you find… How much of these scriptures is “primitive explanatory science?”

There is more of this – continued here –


About Chris Jensen Romer

I am a profoundly dull, tedious and irritable individual. I have no friends apart from two equally ill mannered cats, and a lunatic kitten. I am a ghosthunter by profession, and professional cat herder. I write stuff and do TV things and play games. It's better than being real I find.
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4 Responses to Debunking A Modern Myth: the Conflict of Religion & Science – Part One

  1. David says:

    A very well argued essay CJ, to which I can only add that I take the same position as yourself, and have done since I became a Christian myself nearly 20 years ago.
    For me science and religion/theology have always been two aspects of the same reality, and I have never had any problems reconciling my interest in the natural world with my belief that God created it.
    BTW you may be interested to read my friend Fr Gregory Hallam’s new piece on his blog – he looks at the Christian understanding of the Fall within the light of evolutionary biology and hominid development.
    Looking forward to reading the second part!


  2. Miss F. Paint says:

    On the subject of science and cookery old bean, I have two words for you: Heston Blumenthal – nuff said!

    I guess what it boils down to is that it is the miasma of misunderstanding around the conflict, as opposed to the conflict itself, that is the myth because there will always be conflict (or difference) between religion and science – one demands that you believe, the other that you prove it; one demands that you don’t ask why, the other that you break it down until you know EXACTLY why.

  3. Murray66 says:

    A very interesting post CJ. I have mentioned before that the first time I heard a Unified Theory or Quantum Theory, the way the way the underlying force was described was very similar to biblical descriptions of God.

    How about Molecular Gastronomy for a Science/Cookery conflict?

  4. Pingback: Debunking A Modern Myth: the Conflict of Religion & Science - Part Two « Jerome23’s Weblog

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