In the recent Cosmos series, as well as in some widely available science videos distributed by the Learning Company (and available on Netflix), noted physicist/cosmologist Neil deGrasse Tyson reviews, in a very entertaining yet informative way, the history of science through the ages, leading up to our latest attempts to understand physical laws and the multiverse. Tyson’s programs are highly recommended. The present author enjoys them very much.
One downside of Tyson’s programs is that he frequently paints science and religion at war with each other, or with religion as a prime impediment to scientific progress. Tyson does note that some early scientific pioneers, including Copernicus, Newton and Kepler, were themselves religious, but nonetheless emphasizes the war between the two disciplines.
In the Learning Series videos, for example, Tyson says that Copernicus dared not publish his magnum opus on the heliocentric theory until his death bed, out of fear he would be executed by the Inquisition. Tyson also recounts that Newton, when perplexed at his finding that questioned the stability of the solar system, suggested that God acted to stabilize the system. With this worldview, he failed to see the more advanced results later proved by Laplace, which established stability without recourse to God. Tyson quoted Laplace as saying, when Napoleon asked where the Creator was in his work on celestial mechanics, “Sir, I had no use for that hypothesis.”
In other videos, Tyson mentions the uproar in the 19th century over evolution, and the conflict between science and young-earth creationism that continues, in some quarters, even today.
So how accurate is this picture of science and religion, as given by Tyson (but certainly also given by numerous other writers)?
Religious roots of modern science
While many of the basic facts and explanations mentioned by Tyson and others are valid, there are some fundamental misconceptions. At the least, Tyson and others have omitted details that cast a decidedly different picture on the history.
To begin with, one must keep in mind that modern science had its roots in medieval Judeo-Christian religion, with its belief in universal, rational laws given a supreme lawgiver. Without this philosophical background, it is not clear that modern science as we know it would have ever developed in the West. British philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, for example, noted that modern science was based on “faith that at the base of things we shall not find mere arbitrary mystery.”
British-American physicist Paul Davies goes even further:
Without belief in a single omnipotent rational lawgiver, it is unlikely that anyone would have assumed that nature is intelligible in a systematic quantitative way, mirrored by eternal mathematical forms. … Without minds prepared by the cultural antecedents of Greek philosophy and monotheism (or something similar) — and in particular the abstract notion of a system of hidden mathematical laws — science as we know it may never have emerged.
Tyson, as mentioned above, says that Copernicus waited until his deathbed to publish his work, out of fear of death from the Inquisition. But this is not true. Copernicus was indeed reluctant to publish his work. He did write a 40-page “Commentariolus” (little commentary) in 1514, which he shared with a number of friends and colleagues. Later, in 1532, he essentially finished his magnum opus De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium, but resisted publishing it, because he did not wish to expose himself to scorn “on account of the novelty and incomprehensibility of his theses,” not out of fear of religious persecution.
In any event, a number of leading church scholars learned of his work and were very interested. In 1533, Johann Widmannstetter outlined Copernicus’ theory in a series of lectures attended by Pope Clement VII and several cardinals. In 1536, Cardinal Schonberg wrote to Copernicus,
Some years ago word reached me concerning your proficiency, of which everybody constantly spoke. At that time I began to have a very high regard for you… For I had learned that you had not merely mastered the discoveries of the ancient astronomers uncommonly well but had also formulated a new cosmology. In it you maintain that the earth moves; that the sun occupies the lowest, and thus the central, place in the universe… Therefore with the utmost earnestness I entreat you, most learned sir, unless I inconvenience you, to communicate this discovery of yours to scholars, and at the earliest possible moment to send me your writings on the sphere of the universe together with the tables and whatever else you have that is relevant to this subject.
This is hardly the picture of the Church or the Inquisition attempting to stamp out Copernicus’ work. According to some accounts, Copernicus received a printed copy of his work on his deathbed, but there is no indication that he was under any duress. Additional details of Copernicus’ life and work are given in a well-researched Wikipedia article.
Tyson and other writers have presumed that the “war” between science and religion erupted in full bloom with the dispute between Galileo and the Catholic Church in the 1600s. Again, while there is some truth to this, in reality the history is more complicated, as can be seen in any of numerous historical works, for example the Wikipedia article on Galileo.
Galileo himself was certainly not without fault in his dispute with the Catholic Church. For example, Pope Urban VII, who was a friend and admirer of Galileo, tried to intervene in the Inquisition process by asking Galileo to only give arguments for and against heliocentric in his writings, and to not forcefully advocate heliocentrism. In response, Galileo’s opus Dialogue on Two World Systems placed the traditional cosmology, as taught by Church officials, in the mouth of Simplicio (“simpleton”), who was often caught in his own errors and came across as rather foolish. Whatever Galileo’s intent here, the Pope did not take kindly to this portrayal, and thereafter did not offer Galileo any solid support. If Galileo had taken a somewhat more diplomatic approach, it is likely that the dispute would have ended peacefully.
It must also be kept in mind that the Galileo affair was the victim of very bad timing. The Reformation was in full flower, and the Catholic Church was struggling to retain its authority over not only over Italy but other states in Europe as well. If the Galileo controversy had occurred a few decades earlier or later, it is doubtful that it would have resulted in Galileo’s censure. Even so, his punishment (house arrest in Florence) at the hand of Church authorities was very mild for the times. Would that we all could spend our golden years in a Florentine villa!
In any event, in 1757 Pope Benedict XIV formally ended the ban on heliocentric cosmology, so it was thereafter not an issue.
When Charles Darwin published his theory of evolution in 1859, it caused some discomfort, but many of the key precepts of evolution had been around for some time. The fact that the earth was very old was widely accepted by the late 19th century. In 1779, Comte du Buffon estimated the age at 75,000 years. In 1830, geologist Charles Lyell popularized the notion that the features of the earth were in flux, the result of long-running processes. In 1862, British physicist William Thomson published calculations that the earth was between 20 million and 400 million years old.
Reactions varied to the publication of Origin of Species. Some clergy did not like it, but others saw in Darwin’s theory the mechanism by why God created living things. Charles Kingsley saw evolution as “just as noble a conception of Deity” as to believe in a “fresh act of intervention” for every new creation. Asa Gray published a pamphlet entitled “Natural Selection is not inconsistent with Natural Theology.”
By the end of the 19th century, most theologians of major denominations had largely made their peace with evolution, and, more generally, with the overall scientific picture of an old earth, evolution, and a world governed largely by natural law. Even William Jennings Bryan, who argued the case against Scopes in the Scopes trial of 1925, agreed that the days of creation “could have been millions of years” in duration.
In short, the prevailing picture, taught in many quarters, that science and religion have always been mortal enemies, doesn’t really fit very well with the historical facts. Yes, the Catholic Church’s opposition to Galileo was deplorable, and is held up even today as a premier example of religious opposition to science. But this episode is now nearly 400 years in the past, and the Church has long since moved on to a more modern approach to astronomy and cosmology. Yes, the widespread opposition to old-earth geology and evolution by certain religious groups, which persists to this day, is most unfortunate. But this is mostly mid-to-late-20th century development, mostly rooted in a few highly conservative evangelical sects. In other respects, and in other eras of history since the beginning of the modern era, science has depended on and interacted with the world of religion, often to mutual benefit.
Indeed, many of the specific scientific figures mentioned above themselves professed religious faith, although frequently of an unorthodox variety. Isaac Newton, as mentioned above, was deeply religious, devoting more time to scriptural analysis than to mathematics or physics. However, Newton became convinced that Christianity had departed from original precepts and refused last rights from the Church. Charles Darwin rejected organized religion, but he concluded his On the Origin of Species by exulting that “from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.” Gregor Mendel, who discovered the genetic basis for biology, was an Augustinian friar. Georges Lemaitre, who was the first to promulgate the expanding universe and big bang cosmology, was a Jesuit priest. And Albert Einstein, who rejected conventional Judeo-Christian monotheism, nonetheless declared that the “cosmic religious feeling” was the “strongest and noblest motive for scientific research.”
Thus while the overall tension between science and religion may extend back for centuries, the consensus of historians is that the present conflict only dates back to roughly the 1920s, partly in reaction to the Scopes trial and the publicity that ensued. Although civil libertarians celebrated victory, the trial and its outcome may have had the unintended consequence of re-invigorating the fundamentalist wing of modern Christianity, resulting in a deplorable (and quite unnecessary) division between science and religion that continues unabated today.