The War That Wasn't

A different Genesis: Fossils like this one found in Oregon's Wallowa Mountains show land and sea have shifted.
A different Genesis: Fossils like this one found in Oregon's Wallowa Mountains show land and sea have shifted. (By Gary Braasch -- Corbis)
By Alan Cutler
Sunday, January 8, 2006

As a science-minded kid in the '60s, I loved to read stories about the march of science against the unholy trinity of ignorance, superstition and dogma. Dogma was the worst, and so the early 17th-century drama of Galileo's persecution by the Roman Catholic Church for his heretical belief that the earth revolved around the sun particularly captured my imagination. Galileo was a martyr for scientific truth against religious dogma. In my pantheon of heroes, that put him right at the top.

After I grew up and became a scientist, Galileo's story stayed in my mind as the emblem of a long-standing conflict between religion and science. And I knew the struggle wasn't over. Here, in modern-day America, my own field of geology has been under constant attack by an increasingly vocal creationist movement. So imagine my surprise when I was researching a book on the history of geology and encountered the story of Danish geologist Nicolaus Steno. Just decades after Galileo, Steno sparked a major revolution in scientific thought, one that still reverberates in today's creationism/evolution controversies. His example demolishes the simplistic notion of an inherent hostility between science and the church.

Steno was primarily an anatomist, but he is best remembered for his pioneering studies in geology. In 1669 he published in Florence -- Galileo's old stomping grounds -- a startling proposal: that the fossils and rock layers of the earth, if studied scientifically, gave a chronicle of the earth's history at least as valid as the accepted version in the verses of Genesis. Memories of Galileo's transgression were still painfully fresh, and, if anything, Steno's ideas would seem to have been more provocative than Galileo's. How did the 17th-century Church react? Was Steno condemned? His work suppressed?

Not at all. There wasn't a peep of official complaint. Steno wasn't criticized, much less condemned. In fact, he was put on a fast track to priesthood and then a bishopric. To top it off, in 1988 he was beatified by Pope John Paul II. A treatment less like Galileo's is hard to imagine.

If this is difficult to accept, that's because the idea that conflict between science and religion is inevitable is deeply entrenched in our popular culture. Many journalists, as well as scientists, who write for the public take it as a given. They depict the religious orthodoxy as historically bent on squelching reason and scientific inquiry in a desperate effort to protect bankrupt dogmas. Partisans of religion have their own version, in which science is the aggressor.

But the case for this "warfare thesis," as historians call it, was discredited decades ago. It had already largely crumbled when I was reading my childhood science books. "I do not know one historian who believes that there is a history of warfare between science and Christianity," says William Ashworth, historian of science at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

The thesis was popularized in the 19th century by writers such as the first president of Cornell University, Andrew Dickson White, whose 1896 "History of the Warfare of Science With Theology in Christendom" is still in print and still accepted as gospel in some quarters.

But many of the clashes reported by White have turned out to be fiction. Those that did occur, such as the Galileo affair, were as much (if not more) about personalities and politics as they were about beliefs. "Most people learn about Galileo, and his problem with the Church, and don't learn about many other scientists," says Ashworth, "and so they assume that this is a typical case, and there have been lots of Galileo affairs. The truth is, there haven't."

Attempts to salvage the warfare thesis by narrowing it to authoritarian Catholics (vs. dissident Protestants) or, alternatively, Protestant biblical literalism (vs. the more allegorical Catholic tradition) have also fallen apart under scholarly scrutiny.

Similarly, religious alarmists are crying wolf when they blame science (usually in the form of "Darwinism") for the increasing secularization of society over the past century. Historians and sociologists have found that divisions within the Church have been typically more important than any conflict with science in estranging people from orthodoxy. As a case in point, Darwin's loss of faith was an emotional reaction to the cruelty of Church doctrine (especially regarding damnation), not an intellectual conclusion drawn from his scientific studies.

For most of history, the border between science and religion was fuzzy, to say the least. Scientist and priest were often the same person. Few outside the Church had the education or the inclination to pursue research. Those not in the clergy, such as Galileo and Newton, were nonetheless devoutly religious.

Even in our current secular age, some 40 percent of scientists say they believe in a God who answers prayers, according to a poll published in the journal Nature. This is significantly lower than the public at large, but it hardly qualifies as an army of atheists. And despite its reputation for astronomer-bashing in the age of Galileo, the Catholic Church was for centuries by far the biggest source of funding for scientific research and education.


CONTINUED     1        >

© 2006 The Washington Post Company