Science & Religion: Eternal Enemies?

I’m nearing the completion of my reading of Stephen Jay Gould’s Rocks of Ages and have been thinking a lot about the compatibility of science and religion in our society.  It is Gould’s central thesis that there is no necessary conflict between the two realms of human experience as long as each stays within its boundaries in terms of what it tries to explain about the world.  Scholars both current and historical have disagreed with this view (for example, see works by Jerry Coyne, a prominent evolutionary biologist who wrote a book entitled Faith versus fact: why science and religion are incompatible).  Gould also points out that a common tendency in debate is to automatically lump a person into this simple dichotomy—either he/she is for religion or for science.

To illustrate this, Gould tells the story of the co-founder of Cornell University, Andrew Dickinson White.  White was a devoutly religious man who warned that dogmatic theology and overly literal interpretations of the Bible stymie the science that improves the lives of all humanity.  As a result, he wrote much on the subject and pushed hard that Cornell open as a secular (religiously unaffiliated) institution.  According to Gould, White’s works have been widely cited to show that there is a war between science and religion and that they cannot coexist, when White himself most certainly would have disagreed.

Gould further discusses the common myth that Christopher Columbus was the scientific hero that refused to accept the prevailing notion at the time that the world was flat.  The story goes that the religious influences among scholarly society during the Dark Ages had caused European thinkers to turn away from the scientific notions of the Earth’s sphericity and accept the concept of a flat stage for the Earth over which the Heavens watched.  Columbus heroically lifted us from this religious oppression by doing science (experimenting by sailing towards the supposed ends of the Earth).  The problem is, Gould points out, this legend simply isn’t true.  While a flat conception of the Earth existed among the uneducated during Columbus’s time (and ours!), the prevailing view among scholars was that the Earth was indeed round, as surmised already by the ancient Greeks.  Yet another example of the tendency to automatically make enemies of religion and science.

This notion that religion and science are necessarily at odds is a problematic one for science educators because students sometimes feel that their entire faith hinges on their intellectual participation in class.  When I teach biology students about evolution, some of them are dealing with this incredibly powerful tension in their minds and hearts.  This discussion needs to be addressed somewhere in our educational system.  When I think back on my own educational experience however, I am forced to admit that I cannot really remember a time ever that this was discussed!  Not in public school, not in my undergraduate science classes, maybe once or twice in my undergraduate general education courses, but not in my graduate training in biology either.  I’m not sure exactly how the topic of science and religion might be appropriately inserted, but I am a big proponent anyway of introducing more basic philosophy into a high school curriculum.  There is so much knowledge to be learned out there these days—it seems to me that we ought to be sending students off to college with some training in how to think for the sake of thinking.  This might be a good time to include some discussion on the nature of knowledge, and the different methods (science, religion, etc…) by which knowledge is derived.  Any thoughts?

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