One of the biggest accommodationists among historians of science has been the respected academic Ronald Numbers, now a professor of the history of science and medicine at the University of Wisconsin. He has been much honored, and specializes in the historical relationship between science and religion. Wikipedia notes that “Numbers is the son of a Seventh-day Adventist preacher, and was a Seventh-day Adventist in his youth, but now describes himself as agnostic.”
Numbers has done some excellent work, but I’ve found him very soft on science and religion, to the extent of leaning over backwards to maintain that the two do not conflict. In the book edited by James Miller I’ve been reading, Numbers was interviewed about his views on the relationship between science and faith. Here’s one of the questions asked him, along with his answer (reference at the bottom):
Does not all of the controversy surrounding evolution suggest that there is an inherent conflict between science and religion?
First, I should say that I do not believe that the image of ongoing warfare between science and religion accurate describes what has happened historically. Of course, there have been many battles—psychological, professional, disciplinary—involving scientific and religious claims. But rarely, if ever, have they simply pitted scientists against religionists. The battles have often erupted between scientists (remember, for example, Louis Agassiz and Asa Gray) or between members of the same church (Asa Gray and Charles Hodge were both Presbyterians). In some contexts you see groups struggling for cultural authority, with both sides appealing to science. Occasionally, you’ll even find poignant evidence of of struggles that go on in the individual minds of scientists or religionists, wrestling with the competing claims of science and religion. Although issues related to science and religion have generated a great deal of conflict and unrest, there has been no inevitable warfare between the two. And in many instance, science and religion have been mutually reinforcing.
Let’s take this answer sentence by sentence, starting with the second one:
Of course, there have been many battles—psychological, professional, disciplinary—involving scientific and religious claims. But rarely, if ever, have they simply pitted scientists against religionists.
“If ever?” Really? What about the biggest battle of all, at least in modern times: creation vs. evolution. If that doesn’t pit scientists against religionists, I don’t know what does. So did, for example, the Galileo affair. To make such a statement means completely ignoring history in favor of accommodationism.
The battles have often erupted between scientists (remember, for example, Louis Agassiz and Asa Gray) or between members of the same church (Asa Gray and Charles Hodge were both Presbyterians).
Louis Agassiz, a gegologist, was a staunch opponent of Darwin’s theory who nevertheless believed that Noah’s Flood was a local rather than a worldwide phenomenon, that Adam and Eve were the progenitors of Caucasians only, and that there were multiple centers of God’s creation throughout the world. Asa Gray, a botanist, was a big supporter of Darwin but claimed that evolution was theistic, with God creating the variations necessary to create humans and other species. Charles Hodge, a theologian and principal of the Princeton theological seminary, rejected most of Darwin’s theory outright, equating it to atheism. And he got into a famous kerfuffle with James McCosh (who became president of the nearby Princeton University), who accepted “Darwinism” based on evidence and said that Christians must accommodate their faith to the facts of science. Three of these men were indeed scientists, but so what?—the conflict was based on religious interpretations or rejections of evolution! To imply that these conflicts were not involving science versus faith is to ignore history again, an odd tactic for a historian of science!
In some contexts you see groups struggling for cultural authority, with both sides appealing to science.
Yeah, like “scientific creationists” versus evolutionists or “intelligent design advocates” versus evolutionists! These all appeal to science, but of course creationism (“scientific” or otherwise) and ID are not established science: they are attempts of religion to hijack science so that God can be snuck into public-school classrooms! This is certainly a fight for cultural authority, but again stems from the incompatibility of evolution with forms of Christianity. This is a weaselly tactic, appealing to “a cultural struggle” while ignoring its roots!
Occasionally, you’ll even find poignant evidence of of struggles that go on in the individual minds of scientists or religionists, wrestling with the competing claims of science and religion.
And is not that evidence of a conflict between science and religion? The implication here is that there is no “external” conflict because individual minds can experience such dissonance. But that’s simply dumb. Remember this: 64% of Americans forced to choose between their faith and a scientific fact that contravenes their faith will choose to reject the fact and embrace their faith. And remember, too, the sad story of Kurt Wise, Dawkins’s “honest creationist,” who was trained as a paleontologist (B. A. University of Chicago, Ph.D. Harvard!) but became a staunch young-earth creationists and jettisoned what he had learned—and believed, taking a job at fundamentalist Bryan College. Wise said this:
Although there are scientific reasons for accepting a young earth, I am a young-age creationist because that is my understanding of the Scripture. As I shared with my professors years ago when I was in college, if all the evidence in the universe turns against creationism, I would be the first to admit it, but I would still be a creationist because that is what the Word of God seems to indicate. Here I must stand.
Now, Dr. Numbers, is that not a conflict between science and religion?
Although issues related to science and religion have generated a great deal of conflict and unrest, there has been no inevitable warfare between the two. And in many instance, science and religion have been mutually reinforcing.
Indeed, warfare is not inevitable on all fronts because there are accommodationists like Numbers who simply proclaim harmony or even amiability. But where the claims of religion come into conflict with science—as they must when theistic religion (as it must) makes claims about what exists in the universe—there will be warfare. That is inevitable, and will persist until religion surrenders or retreats into a watery deism.
As for science and religion being “mutually reinforcing,” it means this: science tells religion that its claims are wrong, and the smart religionists accept the claims of science. Those determined to stay religious then engage in duplicitous forms of reconciliation.
Religion, on the other hand, has never reinforced science—except for the common claims that early scientists did their work to reveal God’s ways. But that doesn’t operate any longer, and science doesn’t need religion. In fact, we’d be much better off without it, especially the evolutionary biologists!
Quote is form p. 52 of Numbers, R. L. 2004. Darwin and Darwinism in America: an interview. In Miller, J. B. (ed), The Epic of Evolution: Science and Religion in Dialogue. Pearson/Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River, New Jersey.