Several readers sent me a link to this post by Patrick Casey on the Heterodox Academy blogs because I’m mentioned in it (and in good company too!). It’s an example of what historians of religion (who are often religious) write about all the time. Casey, like other accommodationists, most notably Ronald Numbers, maintains that:
1.) Religion and science are not continually at war with one another (a view called the “conflict hypothesis”), and
2.) The Galileo affair was not an example of the conflict hypothesis. A “nuanced” and complete analysis shows, says Casey, that other factors were involved, including history and philosophy. This stance is often used to tout accommodationism: the view that science and religion are actually compatible. And it’s often held by people who want to make nice to religion.
I didn’t know of the author, Patrick J. Casey, but he is an assistant professor of philosophy at Holy Family University, a private Roman Catholic University in Philadelphia. I can’t find him in the faculty directory, but I won’t worry about that; and I have no idea whether, even though he teaches at a religious school, he’s religious. But I won’t psychologize his motivations, I’ll just mention his arguments.
Now I don’t embrace the “simplistic” conflict hypothesis, characterized as arguing that science is continuously at war with religion(see below). Some people like Andrew Dickson and William Draper at the turn of the 20th century did pretty much embrace the “conflict hypothesis,” and I discuss this in Chapter 1 of Faith Versus Fact (p. 5):
The truth lies between Draper and White on one hand and their critics on the other. While it’s undeniable that religion was important in opposing some scientific advances like the theory of evolution and the use of anesthesia, others, like smallpox vaccination, were both opposed and promoted on biblical grounds. On the other hand, it’s a self-serving distortion to say that religion was not an important issue in the persecutions of Galileo and John Scopes. Nevertheless, since not all religions are opposed to science, and much science is accepted by believers, the view that science and faith are perpetually locked in battle is untrue. If that’s how one sees the “conflict thesis,” then that hypothesis is wrong.
But my view is not that religion and science have always been implacable enemies, with the former always hindering the latter. Instead, I see them as making overlapping claims, each arguing that they can identify truths about the universe. As I’ll show in the next chapter, the incompatibility rests on differences in the methodology and philosophy used in determining those truths, and in the outcomes of their searches. In their eagerness to debunk the claims of Draper and White, their critics missed the underlying theme of both books: the failure of religion to find truth about anything—be it gods themselves or more worldly matters like the causes of disease.
My own view, which I’ll summarize in one sentence (read Faith Versus Fact if you want the whole megillah) is this: science and religion both claim that they involve “ways of knowing about the universe”, but while the methods of science really do enable us to understand the universe, the “ways of knowing” of religion (faith, authority, scripture, revelation, etc.) are not reliable guides to truth. If they were, all religions would converge on the same truth claims, which is palpably untrue.
Note that I do not claim that religion is the same thing as science, for it includes things like morality and worship and divinity. The Bible is not a “textbook of science.” But all religions do make firm claims about what’s true, and these truth claims, insofar as they’re not based on actual evidence, contravene the methods of science. That’s why science converges on what we think is real (and can use to make correct predictions), while religions haven’t converged one iota. (Compare the truth claims of Hinduism, Catholicism, Judaism, Islam, Scientology, cargo cults, and so on.) Nor do I claim that religion has always been opposed to science, is always in conflict with science, that religionists can’t accept modern science, or all all scientists are or must be atheists.
So when Casey says that I am one of the promulgators of the “conflict hypothesis”, as below, he’s just wrong. Is he familiar with my writings? I’ve put the statement in bold below because I’m chuffed to be lumped together with such thoughtful men.
But simplistic narratives like the conflict thesis aren’t innocuous — they can warp our understanding of history (for example, here and here the historians of science Stephen Snobelen and Seb Falk address the myth of the “Medieval Gap,” which is grounded in the conflict thesis, as promulgated by writers like Carl Sagan, Jerry Coyne, and A.C. Grayling).
Nor do I think that Sagan promulgated the simplistic narrative of the “conflict thesis”, and I’m not sure that Grayling ever did (he’s too smart to think that). For this is how Casey defines the “conflict thesis”:
Yet anecdotes about religion suppressing science are part of a broader cultural narrative of conflict where science and religion have been locked in a zero-sum struggle — when science advances, religion is forced to beat a hasty retreat. This view of the historical relationship between science and religion is called “the conflict thesis” (see here, here, here).
Note that all of these videos were made by believers, including the DoSER wing of the AAAS (Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion), headed by evangelical Christian Jennifer Wiseman and designed to “to facilitate communication between scientific and religious communities.”
Now, the argument by Casey is that the Galileo affair involves politics and philosophy and religion, and is not as simple as the Pope accepting a Biblically-based geocentric solar system, Galileo touting a heliocentric one, and Galileo going on trial for contradicting the Bible and then being sentenced to lifelong house arrest. Galileo was not tortured, but none of us believe that anyway; he was threatened with torture if he didn’t recant. And of course Galileo insulted the pope by putting the geocentric arguments in the mouth of a character called Simplicio, which surely pissed off the Pope.
Here’s the most important “nuance” that Casey adds to the argument
The Pope was a better scientist than Galileo, for he realized that there were arguments against Galileo’s hypothesis, and he just wanted Galileo to do good science and not assert he had “proof” of heliocentrism.
I quote Dr. Casey (my emphasis):
In addition to a reasonable desire to keep with the Church’s previous ruling, the pope had a fairly sophisticated philosophical justification for his instruction — one that foreshadows what is now called “the underdetermination thesis” in the philosophy of science. The pope argued that whatever evidence Galileo may have had for heliocentrism, it couldn’t amount to a demonstration or proof of its physical truth, since it is possible for God to bring about whatever was observed through means other than heliocentrism. At the time, an obvious example would have been Tycho Brahe’s geo-heliocentric system, which readily accounted for Galileo’s new observational evidence without needing the objectionable hypothesis of a moving Earth.
In taking this position, the pope was standing in a long tradition in natural philosophy that maintained that the job of astronomers was not to determine what the world was physically like but only to provide useful models for predicting the motions of planets. Stated charitably, the pope was instructing Galileo not to go beyond his evidence.
I love that last sentence: it’s more than charitable; it borders on dissimulation. And it’s FUNNY. And the tradition that astronomers are just supposed to make models and not find truth has long fallen by the wayside.
But Casey goes on.
Unfortunately, when Galileo published his Dialogue, he argued adamantly for the physical truth of heliocentrism, “clearly, though not explicitly” (in the words of Peter Machamer and David Marshall Miller), while sometimes making his opponents seem like idiots. To make matters worse, Galileo foolishly put the pope’s argument about the difficulty of ascertaining final scientific truth into the mouth of a character called Simplicio, which many have taken to be an insult to the pope. The pope was enraged by Galileo’s apparent deceit in defending the physical truth of heliocentrism as an established matter of fact, and Galileo was summoned to Rome to stand trial.
But Casey does admit that there was a conflict between Catholicism and Galileo’s arguments:
For better or worse, the trial of 1633 was not the site of a renewed debate about the status of heliocentrism. Rather, the trial focused on whether Galileo had violated the Church’s instruction not to argue for the physical truth of heliocentrism. In the end, Galileo was forced to recant and sentenced to house arrest at his villa in Florence for the rest of his life.
Is that not a conflict between science and religion? Galileo argued for a physical truth that the Pope didn’t want to hear, ergo he was found guilty.
Casey’s last resort is to deny that the conflict hypothesis predicts eternal enmity and war between religion and science. But that’s a straw man:
Third, and most important, even if this were a clear case of conflict, one incident wouldn’t by itself justify the grand cultural narrative of inexorable conflict between science and religion. Historians of the era have repeatedly pointed out that the Galileo affair was not representative of the norm.
But in the last 80 years or so, nobody said that this kind of conflict was the “norm”. Rather, people like Sagan and I argue that the method of finding truth in science is incompatible with the method of finding “truth” in religion, and this occasionally leads to clashes. The church doesn’t argue against the existence of electrons, or claim that benzene doesn’t have six carbon atoms, or argue against most of science in general, because most of science isn’t relevant to the Bible.
But there’s one important part that is: the story of creation. In particular, the first two chapters of Genesis, which 40% of Americans take literally—with another 33% thinking that God guided evolution. (Total percentage of those thinking God helped create life: 73%.) Only a measly 22% of Americans accept naturalistic evolution (including of humans) the way that we teach it in college. That’s about one in five.
And all modern creationism is, at bottom, rooted in religion: Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, as well as other creationist faiths, including Hindusim. There is no creationist or Intelligent Design organization that is not based on religion. And I know of only a single creationist who isn’t religious—David Berlinski (and I have my suspicions about him). Is this not, then, a palpable conflict between science and religion? Of course it is! I look forward to Dr. Casey’s explanation of why the battle between creationism and evolution in American is much more nuanced than the simplistic narrative that evolution contradicts the Qur’an or the Old Testament.
Why do people like Casey feel compelled to repeat the same old narrative about Galileo? Well, they’re partly right: more than science is involved and lots of misconceptions (e.g., the Church tortured Galileo) litter the field. But I also think that this kind of accommodationism often comes from religious people who admire science, and fear that the “conflict hypothesis” will drive people out of religion since they feel they’re being forced to choose between science and religion.
That’s not the way it works, though.
If you talk to former creationists who became atheists because of science, it’s not because a scientist told them that “they had to choose.” No, you hear that they were curious about science and evolution in particular (often because the subjects were banned), and learned about it. They finally realized that evolution is true and Genesis is false, and, like Samson, this brought down the edifice of their faith. Plus they realized that there’s simply no good evidence for God—far less evidence than we have for the existence of atoms or the fact that infectious diseases are caused by microbes.