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April 22, 1997

A Brief History of Conflicts Between Science and Religion

[Editor's Note: The following is the abstract of Professor David Gruender's presentation on April 14 at The Harbinger symposium, "RELIGION & SCIENCE: The Best of Enemies - The Worse of Friends".]

by David Gruender, Ph.D.

As the concept of "science" as a field distinct from philosophy does not arise until about the middle of the nineteenth century, while most of our cases (for example, Galileo) arose before then, I treat science as a special case of philosophy or rational inquiry. And while there were conflicts with philosophy within the Judaic and Islamic traditions, I will focus on those within Christianity because of their great historical interest and current implications.

A natural place to start is in the middle of the thirteenth century within the objections of the Bishop of Paris to permitting university students to read Aristotle, and Roger Bacon's defense of that right. In the following century, the difficulties between the Pope and Nicholas of Autrecourt are mentioned. Late in the sixteenth century, Giordano Bruno got into worse trouble. This was followed in the seventeenth by Galileo, whose case is looked at in somewhat more detail, along with its fallout for Descartes, whose writings, in spite of his best efforts, remained on the Index until that institution was abolished in 1962. The decision of Henry VIII to take the Church of England out of the control of the Bishop of Rome made the work of Boyle and Newton easier, and, as pious men, they worked hard to move the Church of England out of a position of possible conflict with philosophy. That effort succeeded for the most part, until the latter part of the nineteenth century, when Bishop Wilberforce decided to attack Darwin's Origin of Species on religious grounds, thus providing the public excitement of the Wilberforce-Huxley debates.

But as the function of the study of history is to learn something from the past that we might use to our benefit in the present, I ask what morals we may draw from this philosophy, and rational inquiry generally, and its role in society at large. After a similar look at religious institutions, we may hazard a suggestion as to how humanity might benefit by each carrying out its most fundamental roles, remembering Galileo's wry comment that the task of astronomy is to help us understand how the heavens go, while the task of religion is to help us understand how to go to heaven.


Dr. David Gruender is Professor of Philosophy at Florida State University. His presentation at the The Harbinger symposium is made possible by a grant from the Alabama Humanities Foundation, a state program for the National Endowment for the Humanities.


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