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Ron Numbers

Ronald Numbers is an historian of science and medicine at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. He is the author of "The Creationists", a definitive history of the creationist movement, and also the co-editor of "God and Nature", a seminal collection of essays on the historical relationship between science and religion.

Have Science and Religion Always Been in Conflict?
Background on Creationism
How was Evolution Perceived Historically?
On the Religious Reponse to Darwin's Theory
On 'The Two Books' of Nature and Scripture
On Galileo's Treatment by the Church
On the 'Warfare' between Science and Religion
On the notion of Conflict between Science and Religion

QUESTION: Could you tell us, have science and religion always been in conflict?

DR. NUMBERS: Throughout most of modern history science and religion have not been in a state of conflict. That has emerged, at least the perception of a conflict, has emerged roughly within the last 130 years or so. Certainly, this didn't occur during the so-called scientific revolution of the 17th Century, when by and large science and religion were fused in a common enterprise called natural philosophy.

In the 18th Century, especially towards the end of the 18th century, we see much more of a concerted effort to try to separate these two and to pit one against the other. This picks up speed in the 19th Century, and in the last third of the 19th Century especially, there was a great deal of publicity given to the notion or warfare or conflict between science and religion.

QUESTION: Could you explain how that warfare model arose?

DR. NUMBERS: In the early 19th Century, there was a sense among some parties that science and religion might be in conflict on certain issues. But the public, by and large, believed that science could be harmonized with religion. After all, one of the most prevailing models was called the "two books", that God had revealed himself in the Book of Nature as he had in the Scriptures. And that since God was the author of both books, it was impossible that the two should conflict. Only erroneous interpretations of one or the other would lead to conflict.

The notion of conflict between science and religion became especially prominent in the last third of the 19th Century with the appearance of two best selling books. One by John William Draper, a medical school professor in New York City, and the other by the president of Cornell University, Andrew Dixon White. Andrew Dixon White published the fullest treatment of this in 1896 in a two-volume work called "A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom". He tried in that work to identify the source of conflict as dogmatic theology. Whereas Draper really focused on the Catholic Church, and praised the Protestants for having been the good guys in the history of science and religion.

QUESTION: So, Draper and White painted a picture of science and religion in conflict. What effect did that have on the general public?

DR. NUMBERS: Well, these books were very widely read. Draper's was the most popular in Appleton's International Science Series. White's remains in print today in many, many languages. And so, many people just came to assume that science and religion were in perpetual conflict. Now, this aided certain people who wanted to see religion, especially organized religion, as an impediment to scientific progress. Needless to say, many Christians denounced such insidious works, and they rejected the argument that even organized theology had largely been in opposition to scientific development.

QUESTION: These books both came out after the publication of Darwin’s book on evolution. How did they treat that subject?

DR. NUMBERS: Although these books appeared in the wake of the publication of Charles Darwin's "Origin of Species", they devoted relatively little space to that topic. But they did coincide with the publication of a number of controversial works on evolution and religion specifically. It's a convention today to believe that evolution precipitated a major conflict with the religious community. But if you look at the participants at the time, it was a much murkier situation in which, in the United States at least, the leading advocates of Darwin's theory were, themselves, active religionists.

QUESTION: So was there a diversity of responses by religious people to Darwins theory of evolution?

DR. NUMBERS: The appearance of "The Origin of Species" - at least in the United States - elicited a great diversity of responses, and the responses did not conform to what we might expect looking back. For example, Darwin's foremost advocate in the United States, the Harvard botanist Asa Gray, was a Presbyterian. He accepted eveolution in general, but he made exceptions for the origin of humans, and for the origin of complex organs such as eyes, these he attributed to divine intervention. There was in fact a wide range of opinions.

QUESTION: So, it's not true then that there was just the scientific community on one side, and the religious community on the other?

DR. NUMBERS: Anything but. Most scientists in the United States in the late 19th Century were, themselves, believing Christians, and the ones who accepted evolution, and that would be the majority, simply took it as God's method of creation. So, although they may have wrestled with issues such as the mechanism of evolution, most of them didn't think it was necessary to reject evolution in order to salvage their Christian beliefs.

QUESTION: And what about the Christian community? Is it true that many Christians in the late 19th Century were radically opposed to evolution?

DR. NUMBERS: We know very little about the reaction of the masses of Americans to evolution in the late 19th Century. But I feel confident in saying that the overwhelming number rejected evolution, and especially any implication that humans were related to monkey ancestors.

QUESTION: What about theologians?

DR. NUMBERS: Within the community of theologians and ministers who spoke out publicly on this issue, opinion was rather divided, as one might expect, from conservatives who rejected evolution in any form to liberals who embraced evolution as an example of how God effected the creation. And for these people to embrace evolution necessitated a change in their very conception of God from a transcendent being out there to a notion of God as being imminant in the world.These liberals often went to great lengths to convince the public that evolution could be harmonized with traditional religious views and values.

QUESTION: I'd like to move on, to talk about the Galileo case. Many people have a mythology that during his trial there was somebody down in the basement stoking the pyre and oiling the rack - that he was in imminent danger of losing his life. Is this a true representation of the case?

DR. NUMBERS: Contrary to common myth, Galileo suffered very little abuse at the hands of the Catholic Church. He was never tortured, he never faced death. In fact, he was never imprisoned. His penalty was house arrest at a pleasant villa on the outskirts of Florence, Italy.

Galileo's problems with the church stemmed far less from his astronomical and physical views than from his lack of diplomacy, and from his impertinence in trying to instruct the church on how to interpret Scriptures, as some Protestants had attempted to do in the previous century. Furthermore, in writing his controversial book, Galileo had the impertinence to attribute the Pope's views to a simple-minded character named Simplicius. This Pope [Urban VIII] had once been a patron of Galileo's and had supported his scientific efforts, so such a lack of diplomacy turned even the Pope against his one-time friend.

QUESTION: When the trial actually happened, what could have been the result if Galileo had refused to recant his view that the earth revolved around the sun? Was he in danger of death?

DR. NUMBERS: Well, it's hard to write counter-factual history about what might have happened if, but there seems no reason to believe that Galileo at any point faced the threat of death. There was never any indication in the court records of death being a possible penalty, and no other scientists were put to death for their scientific views.

QUESTION: Is it the case then that there had been no scientists killed for their scientific views?

DR. NUMBERS: I can think of no scientist who ever lost his life for his scientific views.

QUESTION: Does the Galileo case represent a fundamental break in relations between science and religion?

DR. NUMBERS: Looking back on the Galileo affair, it's tempting to see it representing a fundamental break in the relations between science and religion, but I don't think it represented anything of the sort. In fact, at the time, it aroused relatively little interest. It was only in later decades and centuries that it came to be seen as a representation of what supposedly happens to scientific pioneers when they dare to try to correct the church's teachings.

QUESTION: Lets move back to the question of evolution. What do you think is the historical significance of the Pope's recent statement that evolution is more than a hypothesis?

DR. NUMBERS: I think the Pope's recent statement on evolution - that it is more than a hypothesis - is merely an historical footnote. I can't imagine that many Catholics were waiting to hear the Pope say this any more than they were waiting to hear the Vatican say that the church was wrong in the Galileo case hundreds of years ago.

QUESTION: Why is it just a footnote?

DR. NUMBERS: I think it's a footnote because I don't think it changes much. Catholic institutions of higher learning were already teaching evolution. Most educated Catholics I know have believed in evolution, and so it's difficult for me to imagine that this will represent a fundamental change of attitudes even within Catholicism. And outside Catholicism it's simply a curiosity that the leader of one of the worlds major religions would come out in the late 20th Century and feel it necessary to say that evolution is more than a hypothesis.

QUESTION: Do you think it has a value in terms of making religion seem more acceptable?

DR. NUMBERS: I don't think it even helps at a public relations level because it simply reminded people all around the world who read this announcement that the Roman Catholic Church, more than 100 years after the publication of Darwin's "Origin of Species", had still not gotten past the place of regarding evolution as a mere hypothesis.

QUESTION: One of the big fights in the United States is often over whether evolution should be taught in shcools or not. So it’s still clearly a problem with some religious believers. Why do you think that’s so?

DR. NUMBERS: In the United States, roughly one-half of Americans continue to believe in the special creation of the first human beings no more than 10,000 years ago. There are many reasons why they do this. But for most of them, they don't see their embracing of special creation as a rejection of science. They handle this by arguing that evolution is so speculative, so hypothetical that it doesn't deserve the good name of science, and they are told by fundamentalists - especially by "creation scientists" - that there is an alternative model of the history of life on Earth that is as scientific as the one that evolutionists have created. [[Editors note - for more on "creation science" see the Evolution section entry on Creationism]]

QUESTION: So, in a certain sense, doesn't this represent some sort of divide between religion and science?

DR. NUMBERS: To me, the struggle in the late 20th Century between creationists and evolutionists does not represent another battle between science and religion because rarely do creationists display hostility towards science. If you read their literature, you'll rarely come across an anti-scientific notion. They love science. They love what science can do. They hate the fact that science has been hijacked by agnostics and atheists to offer such speculative theories as organic evolution. So, they don't see themselves as being antagonistic to science any more than many of the advocates of evolution - those who see evolution as God's method of creation - view themselves as hostile to Christianity.

QUESTION: In fact, creation scientists are themselves very concerned to make their views scientific. Could you explain their idea of "flood geology"?

DR. NUMBERS: The primary theory underlying creation science is something called flood geology, which attributes virtually all of the geological fossil bearing strata to Noah's flood, a timsespan of about one year. Now, this means that all of the history of life on Earth can be telescoped down to a mere six, seven, or ten thousand years. The most vocal advocates of this position have been scientists themselves, especially in recent years, and they see this as an alternative scientific model, rather than as a refutation of science.

QUESTION: Are scientists in general atheistic?

DR. NUMBERS: The public often gets the impression that most scientists are non-believers. But, that's not true. Just within the past year the journal Nature published a study that revealed even today roughly the same proportion of scientists believe in God as did 75 years ago. [The figure is almost 40%]

QUESTION: So would you say it is a mythology that people have that science and religion are enemies?

DR. NUMBERS: I think there's a powerful mythology today suggesting that science and religion are enemies, and it is fueled by some of the most public and popular of scientists, such as Carl Sagan in the United States, or Richard Dawkins in Great Britain, who have gone out of their way on occasions to present that view.

QUESTION: How do you think that the current dialogs between scientists and religionists fit into the history we've had over the centuries between science and religion? Are we going to see a coming together again - possibly back to the happy days of the 17th Century?

DR. NUMBERS: In recent years there's been a lot of activity, focusing on the relationship between science and religion, often with an eye towards showing the harmony between science and religion. As a historian it's hard for me to say what fruit this effort will bear. But, I guess that I'm somewhat sceptical about much of importance coming out of it. I think most people are fairly entrenched in their opinions. Whether it's their dedication to fundamentalist Christianity, or atheistic science, and I think that it will be very hard for those who are advocating the harmony of science and religion to make the sort of progress that they want.

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