Wednesday’s Book Review: “Science and Religion: A Historical Introduction”

scienceandreligionScience & Religion: A Historical Introduction. Edited by Gary B. Ferngren. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002.

This is a fascinating edited collection of essays on several episodes of the confluence of science and religion in Western Civilization. Intended as an introductory text, Gary B. Ferngren obtained contributions from a broad assortment of historians and other social scientists on all manner of episodes in the debates between science and religion. While there is some information on very early conflicts between science and religion—the relationship between Atistolelianism and mystery religions and Medieval Christianity and science area are two such essays—but the book is most interesting and contributes the most when considering the scientific revolution and religious conceptions.

Essays by leading historians such as Owen Gingerich, Richard S. Westfall, Ronald L. Numbers, and others illuminate a range of difficulties. Predictably, these more modern controversies begin with the Copernican Revolution, the papal edicts against Galileo, and various philosophical schools running counter to the conceived wisdom of Christianity. The 17th and 18th centuries were hotbeds of debate of the relationship of science and religion, some of it hamhanded as in the insistence of Catholic leaders that the Ptolemaic system be maintained by fiat when observation clearly showed it no longer worked. They fought a losing battle of evidence, and in a more appropriate manner, altered their perspective.

The leading debate in the 19th century was over Darwin, biological evolution, and the age of the Earth. Again, religious ideas eventually found accommodation among most mainstream religious groups. But of course, this is not a debate that is completed by any stretch of the imagination. The landscape of the evolution/creationism debate is filled with polemics attacking evolution and advancing the cause of creationism/intelligent design, or vice versa. The manner in which scientists hesitantly accepted the theory over its first 50-75 years has been told and retold. The reaction to the evolutionary idea from the religious community has also been documented, whether it be rejection, accommodation, or otherwise. Many people of faith observed that scientific findings in geology, biology, astronomy, and other disciplines seemed to assault the traditional ideas of Christianity.

For centuries most people a part of Western Civilization had believed that the Earth had been created by God about four thousand years before Christ, often applying the dating system developed by Bishop Usher to record biblical generations. Aside from a few cataclysms, some of which were divinely induced such as the “Great Flood,” the Earth had remained pretty much the same from the time of that creation. Humanity, as well as all of the other creatures on the planet, had been specifically created by God and that humankind held a special place in this creation as being in the image of God.

The wisest of the people of faith sought to rationalize and accommodate the two conceptions. In reality, while there were some noted naysayers and opponents that engaged in debate and denunciation, most American religionists in the first three-quarters of a century after the publication of Darwin’s On the Origins of Species in 1859 sought to rationalize the two belief systems. They argued that there was no legitimate conflict between science and religion; it only appeared that way because of the incomplete understandings of humanity on both the subjects of science and religion. Or they asserted that the Bible might be more of an allegory that helped to explain how humanity came to be, essentially a form of poetry, than anything that might be viewed as an actual statement of actual events. Several of the essays in this volume address these questions head on.

The same is true of 20th century debates over physics, ecology and the environment, genetics versus psychology, and associated issues. There are even essays relating to recent trends in the history of science that some will find interesting. This is a superb introductory text, easy to understand and filled with a wealth of ideas.

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