What is the relationship between religion and science? Nowadays, it seems like the two are constantly at odds with each other. The religious arguments against evolution and the resulting debate over the teaching of evolution and intelligent design in schools in the United States has largely contributed to this view. One of the most infamous cases in recent years was in Kansas in 2005. The Kansas State School Board made changes to the state’s science education standards that permitted the teaching of intelligent design and other alternative explanations for the origin and development of life. After numerous hearings and debates over the next month about the inclusion of intelligent design in science education, the board upheld its decision but reversed it in 2007. The controversy over teaching intelligent design has only encouraged the belief that religion and science are antithetical. However, that has not always been the case.
Yes, religion has often historically been at odds with scientific development. The current evolution debate stems from the Scopes Trial in 1925, where a high school science teacher was brought to court for violating a Tennessee law that forbade teaching evolution in school. And there is the trial of Galileo Galilei in the early 1600s. However, Galileo’s trial is different from the evolution cases. The Catholic Church agreed with accepted scientific theory at the time which was Aristotle’s geocentric system. The trial was not the Catholic Church going against scientific consensus, but rather it was going against heliocentrism which at the time was an unproven conjecture. In fact, there were several signs of support from within the Church for Galileo and heliocentrism. The theories laid out by Copernicus, who Galileo’s work built on, were the basis for the Church’s calendar reform sixty years before the affair in 1582. Furthermore, Cardinal Bellarmine expressed some support for Galileo’s position. However, Bellarmine’s opinion was that the heliocentric theory should only be advocated once it was conclusively proven, which Galileo could not do with the instruments at the time. So while the trial of Galileo was on the surface a case of religion going against science, the situation was more complex than that.
Additionally, religious figures have often been integral in advancing scientific knowledge and innovation. After the fall of the Roman Empire, Christian monasteries often kept ancient Greek and Roman documents that would have otherwise been lost to history during the European Dark Ages. These monasteries were also some of the only places in northern Europe during this time that maintained relatively widespread literacy. Later on, many Christian priests and clergy members made scientific advancements of their own. In the 13th century, the Dominican friar Albert of Cologne was one of the most well-read scholars of his time and wrote extensively on numerous topics including on works ranging from the ancient Greeks to Islamic philosophers such as Ibn Rushd. Albert was later canonized and is the patron saint of scientists and the natural sciences. Two more Christian clerics have more recently contributed heavily to scientific progress. Gregor Mendel, a 19th century Austrian friar, is credited as the founder of genetics after his studies of pea plants. Mendel’s work was even rejected by the scientific community at the time and was only rediscovered decades later. At the time, biologists held firmly to the theory that inherited traits were averaged together, while Mendel’s experiments demonstrated dominant and recessive inheritance among certain genetic traits. The other priest to contribute to modern scientific thinking was Georges Lemeitre, a Belgian priest. Lemeitre, an astronomer, was the first person to propose a theory of an expanding universe as well as to postulate the Big Bang theory. In 1931 when Lemeitre published his work, Albert Einstein rejected it because Einstein still held to the steady-state theory of the universe. Since then, Lemeitre has been shown to be correct in his findings while the steady-state theory has been discarded.
With these examples it’s clear that religion does not always have to be at odds with scientific progress and advancement, and certainly has not for much of history. So then, why is there seemingly such a backlash against science and science education today? By all reason, there shouldn’t be. Many of the arguments against things like evolution (such as “it’s only a theory”) come from willful misinterpretation. In scientific terms, a theory is a hypothesis that has been demonstrated through careful observation, but that cannot be conclusively proven. Evolution certainly fits this description, but so does gravity. We still have not figured out precisely how gravity works due to its relation to quantum mechanics. This blind following of strict religious views is common in many of the evangelical Protestant sects that gained popularity in the 1970s and 1980s. This, combined with the increasing involvement of the religious right in American politics beginning in the 1980s is why there is such a disconnect between science and religion right now.