Science and Religion Friday: Origins of the Conflict model

Origins of the Conflict Model

Well I’m beginning this series by exploring the validity, or rather lack thereof, of the so-called conflict model. The conflict model of the relationship between science and religion has its origins in the late 19th century. During that time two books were put out. One, by John William Draper, was initially very popular, but it was primarily focused on a particular attitude of, as he saw it, Roman Catholic opposition to scientific advancement, and did not cite other sources for support. The other, which was initially very unpopular, was by Andrew Dickson White, the first president of Cornell University, likely had more lasting influence.

White’s position was that religion, though primarily Christianity, could only stifle religion. The book was entitled History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom, and was published in 1896. He cited numerous sources and this helped to give his position credibility. Throughout his later life he seemed to make this a priority, often giving speeches in support of religionless academic inquiry, often referring to Cornell as a “haven” away from such limitations.

Even though his book has had lasting influence, most modern historians of science do not take his position, nor the arguments made, seriously. In other words, those who are trained in this field do not believe there is, or ever really was, a conflict between science and religion

This conflict view became even more popularized following the infamous “Scopes Monkey Trial” where a teacher intentionally violated a ban on teaching Darwinian evolution to force a trial. Through the course of the trial the fundamentalist position of anti-evolution was portrayed as more and more ridiculous, but I’ll talk about that incident in detail later. Despite this, the question of religious interference was not actually considered serious by most Americans. It was the dramatic portrayal of the events, however, in Inherit the Wind that solidified this moment in some American consciousness.

It should also be noted that, at the turn of the 20th century, and well in to the middle part of the 20th century, there was a philosophical movement opposed to religion generally, not only on scientific grounds. This was known as logical positivism. Logical Positivism certainly produced a lot of interesting philosophy, but they believed that problems in the world could be solved if the correct language to address them was discovered. I’ll also say more about this later, but the positivists failed in the primary objective, and also failed to demonstrate the reasons why religion should be excluded from any conversation, in a rather famous self-critique that I will also reference later.

The Logical Positivist position has, unfortunately, experienced something of a revival among the highly vocal, and somewhat rude, group known as “the new atheists.” While their arguments are certainly not new, the type of combative, proselytizing, and arrogant attitude that most of their followers have is (it should be noted that the name “new atheists” was given to them in an article in slate by another atheist who sought to distance himself from what he recognized as a different movement. It was not intended to be a derogatory term put on them by Christians, despite what is sometimes given in forums). Unfortunately some scientific heavy weights are included in this group (most notably Richard Dawkins, pictured left). While they may be (or have been) good scientists, they are terrible philosophers and none of them seem to care much about the history of science or the philosophy science. Even though they would like to dismiss both of them, in a later post I’ll demonstrate why both the history of science and philosophy of science are not only valid, but quite useful.

In summary, the conflict model has had a long history that has managed to embed itself in many people’s cultural unconsciousness. Unfortunately, it is a highly flawed model that no serious academic of the subject takes seriously. Next week I’ll begin dismantling the conflict model in more detail by looking at the major historical episodes upon which it tends to focus, beginning with the Galileo Affair.

Question: Do you think the Conflict Model is Valid? Why or Why not? If you don’t, have you encountered it in your daily interaction?


4 thoughts on “Science and Religion Friday: Origins of the Conflict model”

  1. Trey, I am very excited about this series. I have not heard of the “Conflict Model” per se, but after you explanation of how it began and what it is I can see and understand the basis and background of many scientific and philosophical positions I have read and it really helps me to understand. Thank you. Deborah.

  2. Trey, glad to see you addressing this issue. As you know, this issue has once again taken a center in the church and in scholarship, everything from the firing of professors/scholars who said you can believe in evolution and be a Christian to the Christianity Today articles a few months back to the Answers in Genesis movement. This has been a topic Osvaldo and I have been discussing since last Christmas! Answers in Genesis came to our church (your former church) not long ago, and, as we expected, said things like, if you don’t hold to a young earth model you are a “compromising Christian” and “unfaithful to Scripture.” Of course, they don’t know what to do with people like B.B. Warfield, father of modern day inerrancy who was also a theistic evolutionist, or C.S. Lewis. The problem I have with people like Answers in Genesis is that they are too quick to label other Bible believing Christians if they do not agree to all they say and if they acknowledge that science is right about some things. Of course, I believe you can go too far to the right or to the left, but this idea that science and the Bible stand in opposition to each other is in many ways silly (the Bible isn’t a science book) and the idea that you are unfaithful to Scripture if you do not read the Creation account as “literal 7 days” is damaging to the Church (in my opinion). So I look forward to reading what you have to say as you delve into this big and hot topic. 🙂 Good luck!

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