North Western Winds

Contemplating it all from the great Pacific Northwest

Science, religion and ER

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The Washington Post is carrying a good piece on science and religion this morning:

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.

This is not to say that there haven’t been power struggles. There have been plenty. It’s just that the combatants – even in the iconic ones surrounding the likes of Copernicus and Darwin – typically don’t sort neatly into science and religious camps.

What about that most contentious of issues – Genesis? Biblical scholars such as the 17th-century Anglican archbishop James Ussher had deduced from Scripture that the world was about 6,000 years old. Some observers at the time were indeed nervous that the earth’s layers might reveal a much longer history. Young Earth creationists today refuse to countenance any deviation from Ussher’s figure. But for mainstream 17th-century Christians, it was a non-issue. Allegorical interpretations of Genesis had been relatively uncontroversial at least since the time of Saint Augustine.

What was controversial was not the numerical date of creation, but whether there had been creation at all – or if the earth and its inhabitants were eternal, as some radical philosophers asserted. For orthodox Christians, the eternalist heresy was scary indeed: No creation, no Creator; no Creator, no religion.


We are seekers after the truth, mixing and matching methods in an effort to advance in knowledge. The National Catholic Reporter writes of the Pope that:

The emerging heart of Benedict’s papacy is about truth – his belief that modern men and women must find their way back to objective truths about human life, imprinted in nature by the Creator. Even if the fallen human mind needs the “purification” of faith to perceive this truth, Benedict believes that it nonetheless responds to something deep in the human heart.

How else to explain this? I read once that one of the important but less discussed differences in our scholarly squabbles is the motive to study. Do we seek knowledge in order to increase our power over matter or to grow our souls?


Did anyone else happen to catch ER this week? Amy Wellborn has a synopsis here, as well as a lengthy comment thread. It is a well done program but the Catholic side is not well represented by Dr. Luka Kovac. This guy is the “faithful” one yet he has relations with another doctor and does not mention marriage or speak up about his reluctance to see the unplanned baby aborted. Thankfully his other is able to choose well – even without his support. More controversially (!), he advises a teen pregnant by rape that he can administer something that will allow God to “reconsider.” Now he may be obliged to discuss all options, despite her family’s support for her baby, given the nature of his workplace (why work in such a hellhole?).

Kovacs’ little theological discussion with her was thoroughly silly.

1) One of the texts he quotes is Genesis, where God “breathes” life into Adam after his body was made. Why is this silly? This is a literal reading by a man who cannot be said to be in any way a Biblical literalist. Can you see the irony of this intelligent, sophisticated man turning into a Bible thumper in order to teach this doe eyed girl that God’s “infallible” Word shows that the child is not yet human life? How does one reconcile this with doing this procedure in order to “allow” God to fix his “mistake”? Tip to Dr. Kovacs: God is THE criterion of truth, so that if you are judging him your conception of God is not big enough.

2) The second objection is that Adam, if we must be literal about it, is a form of special creation, not biological creation after the fall. The cases are not similar.

3) He also suggests to her that neither he or she is culpable in the event that the treatment does result in a miscarriage. By this logic the people who fired into the boxing day crowds and killed a teenage girl in Toronto are also not culpable, which is nonsense. We are culpable for things that can reasonably be expected to result from our actions.

4) Let’s say that the “treatment” fails. Now our young mother is faced with either trying again, using more “direct” methods, or carrying child she knows she tried to kill. She might even find herself trying to raise it. How will the health of the baby be affected by surviving this effort to destroy it?

5) Kovacs also counsels her to deceive her parents on what she has chosen to do, telling her that they don’t need to know the miscarriage was not natural. Does this not contradict 3 above?

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Written by Curt

January 8, 2006 at 11:49 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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