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The Non Conflicting Conflict Thesis

Science and religion are often portrayed as the Mayweather v. McGregor of the intellectual world. As if fighting for the championship belt, religion and science have fought for dominance ever since the scientific revolution… Or have they?

Why is that science and religion always appear to be in petulant battle? It seems that for centuries,  historians of science, philosophers, theologians, and scientists observed that science and religion have been in conflict over secularity, faith, methodology, and fact. Science was viewed as the antipode of religion. However, modern historians disagree.  The idea that religion and science share a “complex” relationship is now assumed. Unlike prior assumption, the relationship between faith and science is more connected than conflicted. The true adversary to religion is social progress towards the sciences, as seen in the Industrial Revolution.

The birth of science was not born from a secular womb; rather, science was constructed on faith. Often, modern historians, such as Steven Shapin, describe science “…as Religion’s Handmaid.” Although natural philosophers changed the Aristotelian view of nature, there was no threat to religion. Instead, the new scientific method of observing the world was used to enhance humanity’s understanding of God. Science was a religious practice, and those who studied it, such as Boyle, considered themselves “priests of nature.” Science and religion, at that time, were united. Science was the new means to interpret God and His nature. The knowledge collected by the natural philosopher did not challenge religion; rather, scientific knowledge was humanity’s attempt to understand God. To the natural philosopher, nature was the clock, while God was the clockmaker. It was the duty of the natural philosopher to analyze the clock’s beauty in order to understand its designer. At its roots, science lived in harmony with religion.

Even the topic of “science and religion” was not discussed until the late 1800s. At that time, a confrontation between Huxley and Bishop Wilberforce over Darwinism sparked the divide between science and religion. Scientist John William Draper interpreted this incident as an example of conflict between the “…expansive force of the human intellect…and the compression arising from traditionary faith and human interest….” Draper’s writings, along with the writings of Andrew Dickinson White, created the Conflict Thesis: the idea that science and religion have always struggled for dominance. The Industrial Revolution strongly supported the Conflict Thesis as society progressed to use science to expand humankind’s opportunities. The clergy was usurped by the mass who used science for technological gains during the Industrial Revolution. It was the use of science by society, not science itself, that conflicts with religious authority. However, the idea of “science vs. religion” persisted.

Historians, such as Steven Shapin, acknowledge the “lack of necessary conflict between science and religion,” in reference to the scientific revolution. Science was a religious study, and science was dedicated to the clergy, theologians, and philosophers who could afford a higher education. From the scientific revolution to the industrial revolution, science was used to better understand God. A more secular application of science by society increased, and so society shifted from applying science to religion to applying science to profit. Despite exceptions such as the “Scopes Trial,” the Conflict thesis is not well supported by today’s modern historians. In the end, the conflict theory between science and religion lacks a conflict.

1 Comment

  1. Alexandria Fraize

    This is very well written! The introduction pulls the reader in and we stay captivated the whole time. You have great thoughts! Your last sentence is awesome, but I’m not sure if you meant the last “conflicts” to be singular…I could be misreading it though!

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