Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Science v. religion?

In my post on Darwin, I have tried to indicate the culture war between religion and science that was deliberately inflamed by 'Darwin's bulldog', T. H. Huxley. Darwin's burial in Westminster Abbey might indicate that the story is more complex than a simple dichotomy between science (good) and religion (bad).

Here are some further thoughts:

The disquiet caused to some religious people by the fossil discoveries can be seen in two works of the 1850s, both a response to Chambers' Vestiges of Creation. In In Memoriam (1850) Alfred Tennyson agonized over the disappearance of whole species and the cruelty of nature. In Omphalos (1857) the evangelical naturalist, Philip Gosse (right), tried to argue that the problem of Adam’s navel could be solved by the law of ‘prochronism’: all organic nature moves in a circle of birth, life, death and rebirth, and at any stage in this process a creature would exhibit evidence of its earlier stages of existence; ‘creation’ is an ‘irruption’ into this ‘circle of nature’, at which point all life forms would possess evidence of their ‘previous but unreal existence’. The reaction to Gosse’s thesis was almost uniformly negative.

The battle between religion and science was not always straightforward. Darwin’s theories received confirmation in the work of the Moravian friar, Gregor Mendel who between 1856 and 1863 cultivated some 24,000 tea plants in the monastery garden at Brno. His results, published from 1856, established the laws of genetics, though it was only in the early 20th century that the importance of his work was recognized.

Although Pius IX’s Syllabus Errorum had condemned the claim that theological matters were subject to philosophy and science, Catholic scientists gradually made their peace with Darwin. A conference in Brussels in 1894 supported a motion which accepted scientists who researched evolution ‘under the supreme magistrature of the teaching church’. But this did not mean that the Church encouraged the ordinary people to study Darwinism.

In the 1860s Wallace broke with Darwin and the rest of the scientific establishment when he took up with spiritualism. In 1876 the meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science ruled spiritualism out of bounds and Wallace never attended another meeting. But he believed that he had demonstrated its reality through empirical scientific observation. He held to a less materialist view of evolution than Darwin: mind was a spiritual entity added to the body not evolved with it.

The relationship of mind and body also preoccupied those who investigated Lourdes. Were the cures objective and empirically verifiable or were they the result of hysteria? In 1883 the Medical Bureau was set up so that the cures could be investigated by professional men.

In the long-term science helped create a more secular world-view. Paley’s argument that the complexity of the human eye could only be explained by a creator was undermined by the doctrine of natural selection. Evolution is now the organizing principle of modern biology.

Many Christians reconciled themselves with the new science. Even those who held ‘irrational’ beliefs tried to validate them through the scientific method. Not all Christians wanted to be part of Huxley's culture war.