A Flawed History
It is one thing to point out particular conflicts between religion and science, it is quite another to characterize broadly the relationship between religion and science as one of conflict. The former is simply recognizing realities, the latter is the failed view known as the Conflict or Warfare Thesis. Certainly there are some genuine conflicts that arise from certain religious sects or traditions, but historically the relationship between religion and science is far more complicated than simply an on-going conflict. The BioLogos organization is very much concerned with this conflict, but they point out that they are careful to avoid the Warfare Thesis. Unfortunately this claim depends on a carefully crafted definition of the Warfare Thesis.
What is the Warfare Thesis?
The Warfare Thesis is bad history, but ironically too often the Warfare Thesis itself is the victim of bad history. Proponents of the Warfare Thesis are not necessarily atheists as they are sometimes portrayed. Nor do proponents of the Warfare Thesis necessarily see religion and science as mortal enemies, locked in an inevitable and necessary conflict. Like any broad movement the Warfare Thesis occupies a spectrum of views. From Voltaire and Edward Gibbon, to Hume, Kant, Washington Irving, Antoine-Jean Letronne, Thomas H. Huxley, John William Draper, Andrew Dickson White, and the many twentieth century proponents, the Warfare Thesis has had a wide variety of inputs and influences. Within its ranks one can find theists, agnostics and atheists. A common thread, however, is not the identification of conflict between religion and science so much as between fundamentalist religion and science. The problem lies with those scriptural literalists who can’t, or won’t, understand poetry or nuance in God’s word. Religion, once loosened from the fundamentalist grip, can take on its proper role. One of the Warfare Thesis strongest exponents, Andrew Dickson White, made this quite clear:
My belief is that in the field left to them—their proper field—the clergy will more and more, as they cease to struggle against scientific methods and conclusions, do work even nobler and more beautiful than anything they have heretofore done. And this is saying much. My conviction is that Science, though it has evidently conquered Dogmatic Theology based on biblical texts and ancient modes of thought, will go hand in hand with Religion; and that, although theological control will continue to diminish, Religion, as seen in the recognition of “a Power in the universe, not ourselves, which makes for righteousness,” and in the love of God and of our neighbor, will steadily grow stronger and stronger, not only in the American institutions of learning but in the world at large.
This religious sentiment was nowhere better illustrated than in the final scene of Inherit the Wind (click video above) which has the fictional character Henry Drummond (based on Clarence Darrow and played by actor Spencer Tracy) paying respects to his now deceased courtroom opponent, Matthew Harrison Brady (based on William Jennings Bryan and played by actor Fredric March).
Such sentimentalism does not sit well with atheist journalist E. K. Hornbeck (based on H. L. Mencken and played by actor Gene Kelly). Drummond quotes Scripture from memory and laments that “A giant once lived in that body, but Matt Brady got lost because he looked for God too high up and too far away.”
Hornbeck cries foul: “You hypocrite. You fraud. The atheist who believes in God,” but he is easily vanquished by the wiser Drummond who excoriates Hornbeck and his shallow skepticism. Hornbeck retreats from the courtroom while Drummond thoughtfully weighs his law book in one hand and the Bible in the other hand. He places the Good Book on top and victoriously walks out the other door to the rising crescendo of the Battle Hymn of the Republic.
Inherit the Wind is a classic staging of the Warfare Thesis. The ultimate target of Jerome Lawrence’s and Robert Lee’s script was McCarthyism and its witch hunts, but it was its weapon of choice—the Warfare Thesis—that made the play, and its many stagings and screenings, so popular.
And just as the Warfare Thesis is constructed from a false history, so too is Inherit the Wind based on a fictional retelling of the famous 1925 Monkey Trial. The historical furniture is rearranged to convey a false message of conflict, and yet the script is routinely held up as a cogent and accurate message for today. Such is the power of the enduring Warfare Thesis mythology.
So the Warfare Thesis is not an atheistic mission. Nor is it an attack on all things religious. Rather it is a religious view that seeks a harmonization which avoids the pitfalls of literalism and recognizes the advances of science. That may sound good, but in its attack on fundamentalism it fails to appreciate the complex relationship between religion and science. Religion, for example, can provide useful ideas to science and it can guiding restraints. The influence may or may not be cooperative, but it often is subtle and complicated.
What is BioLogos?
BioLogos is many things, but regarding the religion and science, BioLogos is concerned about conflicts. And not just any conflicts. President Deborah Haarsma recently reiterated BioLogos’ long-standing concern with Christians who do not accept the fact of evolution. Meanwhile Senior Editor Jim Stump expresses concern that design advocates are misleading people in areas such as climate change and vaccines.
These are all classic Warfare Thesis topics. They are politically, economically and metaphysically laden areas where the science is easily influenced by non scientific factors. Consider vaccines, for example, a topic that comes right out of Andrew Dickson White’s work. The facts are that vaccines provide varying levels of immunity at the very remote risk of injury. The details vary with the vaccine but, in general, patients are faced with a risk-reward tradeoff for which there is no scientific formula. Unfortunately the whole area has become politically charged and accurate statistics can be difficult to obtain. Even the mention of risk, which is a scientific fact, is too often met with disdain. It is the height of scientism—a spin-off of the Warfare Thesis—to argue that science dictates the answer. This is a human decision.
One of BioLogos’ arguments for its position is that it is following in the tradition of Copernicus and Galileo who advocated heliocentrism against scriptural opposition. Is it not obvious that Christians were right to alter their interpretation of biblical verses suggesting geocentrism, such as Psalm 104:5, Joshua 10:12-13 and Ecclesiastes 1:5.
The answer, of course, is “yes.” And for most such a modification was not difficult since it was doctrinally inconsequential. Indeed, most of Galileo’s opposition had little or no problem with such modifications and the scriptural questions were not high on his list of disputes he had to deal with.
Furthermore, when the perspective of those verses is understood (or as we say in science, the “reference frame”), there is no contradiction with heliocentrism. Galileo had plenty of political opposition, and he created much of it with his overbearing personality, but in his favor he had empirical evidences that were fairly suggestive of heliocentrism.
This is not analogous to today’s Warfare Thesis situation. The science does not at all suggest that the species arose spontaneously. We can argue over how unlikely this is, but BioLogos argues it is a fact. And as with all evolutionists, their confidence comes from the metaphysics, not the science. There are many proofs of evolution, but there is no scientific argument that supports the evolutionist’s claim that evolution is a fact. That is not my opinion, that is a fact of the literature.
Likewise, to compare the politically-charged man-made global warming theory with Galileo and heliocentrism is an insult to the great scientist and the theory he championed. Thoughtful commentators such as Matt Ridley have explained the non scientific influences on AGW, but the myth of certainty persists. This is not to say AGW is not true, perhaps it is. But we are far from knowing what its proponents proclaim as undeniable truth, and that is the point. The truth claims reveal that it isn’t about the science.
I tried to explain these issues at the BioLogos website. The website’s rule is the comments are closed after four days of inactivity. In this case, however, the evolutionists suddenly changed the rule and closed the discussion after a criticism of my points.
BioLogos is certainly on target to argue that scientific findings need to be acknowledged and recognized. And BioLogos obviously rejects the over-the-top atheistic versions of the Warfare Thesis. But that doesn’t change the fact that BioLogos’ support for non scientific mandates falls right into the Warfare Thesis tradition.