The Religion and Science Conflict is Complex

John Hedley Brooke’s Complexity Thesis — that the historical relationship between science and religion has been complex, with times at which science challenged religion and times at which they supported each other — is the scholarly consensus about the relationship between science and religion amongst those scholars who study such things. However, I think that the Complexity Thesis, ironically, misses an important complexity. The Complexity Thesis is often brought out against the claim that science and religion necessarily conflict; it is pointed out that the Draper-White Thesis (that science and religion have historically been at war) is an overly simplistic view of history and that both Draper and White were more involved with polemics than they were with legitimate, historical scholarship. Nonetheless, historical warfare is not the only way in which science and religion can conflict. Showing that the relationship between science and religion has been historically complex misses the other ways in which science and religion might pose challenges for each other.

There are likely to be other ways in which science and religion can conflict, but here are at least three:

1. Historical conflict: There are periods of time during which science and religion, as authorities, have challenged each other. For example, the Scopes Trial, the Galileo Affair, the Dover Trial, etc. It is worth pointing out that most of these sort of cases involved infighting between those religious people eager to accept the products of Modernity (Modernists) and those wishing to turn back time to an ideal Golden Age in which everyone accepted the Fundamental tenets of the faith (Fundamentalists). It’s also worth pointing out that this is similar, but not exactly identical, to the Draper-White Thesis. It should be pointed out that many of these conflicts occurred precisely because science is often remarkably subversive and religion, at least in the West, is often remarkably conservative. Those who think that science can be done without having to give up key tenets of one faith apparently have not given a close enough examination of the history of science; although geocentrism may not presently be a central tenet of the Christian worldview, there was a time when it was. Importantly, while religious beliefs might adapt to new scientific developments, that does not mean that in doing so an older version of the faith needs to get discarded.

2. Conflicts between the norms and methods which motivate science on the one hand and religion on the other. John Worrall’s excellent paper Does Science Discredit Religion? deals with this issue. It might not be surprising that at least some religious doctrines can be reformulated in such a way that they do not logically contradict our best scientific theories. Nonetheless, if there really is only one world, then trying to explore that world using different methodologies and norms of inquiry might simply be an objectionable kind of relativism. Science has a significantly different methodology from religion, so if we are realists about our best scientific theories, then, says Worrall, we should reject religious claims. Moreover, non-methodological norms may conflict with religion as well; for example, the kind of motivations had by stem cell researchers directly conflict with the norms taught by some religious sects.

3. In a series of recent papers, Maarten Boudry and his co-authors have argued that while methodological naturalism (the view that only natural causes can be cited in scientific work) is distinct from metaphysical naturalism (the view that nature is all that exists), the latter is the best explanation for the former (see Boudry’s Here Be Dragons: Exploring the Hinterland of Science for a collection of his papers). Since the history of science has shown that supernatural hypotheses do not lead any where useful, the hypothesis of methodological naturalism is an empirically well confirmed hypothesis about which scientific methods are most useful. Furthermore, since methodological naturalism is best explained by metaphysical naturalism, metaphysical naturalism is empirically well confirmed. Notice that this almost diametrically opposed to the National Center for Science Education’s (NCSE) statements about methodological naturalism, who use the principle to try to accommodate certain religious attitudes towards theism (namely, theistic evolution). To many critics, however, the NCSE’s statements seem to imply that methodological naturalism is simply declared by fiat and therefore makes scientists appear dogmatic. Nonetheless, if the best explanation of methodological naturalism is metaphysical naturalism, then science would be incompatible with supernaturalism in that our best scientific theories simply rule out supernaturalism.


  • James
    March 31, 2015 - 1:01 am | Permalink

    Nice brief write up. However, I think you have fundamentally misunderstood Brooke’s argument. For one, he does not propose a “thesis.” Rather, he is being descriptive—that is, history itself reveals complexity. Perhaps more importantly, he argues that history reveals that there is no such thing as “science” or “religion,” and especially no such as thing as “science and religion.” These are historian’s categories. So when you argue that science and religion, as authorities, came into conflict, you are imposing modern categories on the past, particular in your example of Galileo. During Galileo’s day the best scientists (read: natural philosophers) were churchmen or devout lay religious believers. In short, you are clearly coming to the debate with unquestioned presumptions. I wish you the best on your future research.

    • Dan Linford
      March 31, 2015 - 1:27 am | Permalink

      James — Thank you for getting in touch with regards to this post!

      I wrote this post several years ago (as you may have noticed it was written in 2013) and have significantly revised my thinking since then. It is best to see this post as part of the evolving thinking of a young academic. (I wrote this post before I began my master’s degree. I have since graduated.)

      However, I think you are confusing Brooke’s argument — on which I agree with you (I think) — and the various uses people have made of Brooke’s argument in debates about the relationship between science and religion. The historical relationship between scientific and religious institutions may be complex, but history is not the only way of analyzing this issue. As I highlighted in the post, one may instead approach the relationship between science and religion philosophically.

  • James
    March 31, 2015 - 6:12 pm | Permalink

    Is it safe to say, then, that Brooke is not your main target? He himself denounces the appellation. That is, he did not propose a “thesis”; rather, he simply sought to describe reality. So when you say “Brooke’s complexity thesis,” alarm bells rang. At any rate, thanks for the clarification. Now, approaching the issue “philosophically,” you are still dealing with historical reality, with actual historical figures. My concern is that you are still approaching the debate abstractly, and, hence, constructing generalizations that simply do not correspond to concrete reality. You can no doubt approach the debate philosophically, but whose philosophy? Are we dealing with thoughts of particular individuals, at particular times and particular places, contextualized, or are we dealing with sweeping generalizations and caricatures?

    • linford86
      March 31, 2015 - 7:40 pm | Permalink

      James — Thank you for your response! This is helpful.

      I think one problem that might cause an impasse between us is that the words ‘science’ and ‘religion’ are equivocal.

      On the one hand, we can talk about scientific institutions and figures and ask how they saw themselves in relation to so-called “scientific” or “religious” concepts. For example, we can how how Galileo saw himself and how he saw himself in relationship both to Christianity and to the heliocentrism/geocentrism debate.

      On the other hand, we can ask not about scientific institutions or figures, but about how — abstractly — we should relate scientific ideas/concepts to religious ideas/concepts.

      Regardless of whatever it is that Brooke might say, there are those who take Brooke’s argument to entail that science and religion do not pose challenges for each other — that the death of Draper & White’s conflict thesis means that there need be no conflict between science and religion. But I think you would be right to question whether or not this appropriation of Brooke’s argument misunderstands both Brooke and Draper/White.

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