Religion and Science were seen as allies not too long ago

I remember when I was a graduate student in Physics. Somebody gave me a copy of the old Time-Life series on Science, and one day while I was babysitting an experiment, I started to read the volume on Physics. It was pretty standard stuff with lots of pictures of accelerators, lots of pictures of impressive looking equations and bearded, bespectacled men looking knowledgeable. After looking at all the pictures and quickly scanning the text, I remember being intrigued by the section on the History of Physics and had my attention drawn to the statement: “Physics was always regarded as the Queen of the Academy”.

“Well, that’s nice” I thought. “So if Physics is the Queen, who’s the King?”

My mind works that way.

A little digging around in the card catalog at the library (these were the days before Teh Googles knew all) and I found the answer. The King of Science, the King of the Academy was… theology!

Apparently, in the days of a classic education, having studied rhetoric, music, geometry, physics, etc, you were finally thought to be ready to study Theology.

Just that bit of knowledge that once upon a time, at least as recently as the 18th century, Science and Religion were still seen as allies, as different tools for describing the world around us, changed the way I started thinking about my own scientific and theological ideas. Granted, by the 18th century the bonds of affection were starting to fray, but things were nothing like were they are today. Today we have some scientists dismissing any religious thought as mere superstition and mocking the faith by talking about the “Flying Spaghetti Monster”, and we have religious leaders seeing conspiracy and deliberate falsehoods being spread by scientists as they argue for a Universe that’s 10’s of billions years old and human beings slowly destroying the environment.

But it turns out that even a hundred years ago, just as we were reaching the pinnacle of rational modernity, some folks were still seeing Science and Religion as allies.

Mark Pinsky, writing in USA Today about the controversy and suspicion that Francis Collins, the new head of the NIH is being viewed with by some in the biology community, reports:

“Collins’ supporters can look to an unlikely, artistic source for inspiration: American stained-glass master Louis Comfort Tiffany. In 1889-90, Tiffany executed a large window for Yale University’s library addition that had as its central motif the interdependence of science and religion. It was commissioned by Simeon Baldwin Chittenden, a rough-hewn, self-made Brooklyn businessman who spent some of his teenage years in New Haven, and went on to become a minor railroad magnate and U.S. congressman.

Titled Education, the window is spread over five panels but clustered around four elements: science, religion, art and music. Both ethereal and allegorical, the human figures are religious, winged and haloed, although they could as easily be muses as angels. What is most significant is that science and religion occupy the center of the work, facing each other and flanking a standing, female angel holding the ‘Book of Life.’ This panel appears as a thumbnail image on the BioLogos website. ‘Religion and science are not only central to the image, but also in dialogue with one another,’ says the Rev. Guy Pujol, adjunct professor of pastoral liturgy at Atlanta’s Interdenominational Theological Center.

In Tiffany’s mind — and/or Chittenden’s — science and religion were inextricably linked, in what Yale curators call a ‘visual sermon.’ At the time the window was installed, the tableau reflected academic attitudes on campus. For obvious reasons, the Chittenden window resonates among supporters of Collins’ views. ‘This personal integration of science and religion — and a belief that this well-balanced perspective may appease both sides of the stem-cell research debate — was a decisive factor for President Obama in appointing Collins,’ says Pujol.

Unfortunately, the relationship idealized in the Chittenden window was called into question within decades of its dedication. Darwinian evolution first became a flashpoint with fundamentalists in the rural South and Midwest heartland in the 1920s, immortalized in the play and film Inherit the Wind.”

Read the full article here.

I wonder sometimes if the conflict between Science and Religion is really about the conflict of the systems. As Pinsky points out, the situation devolved soon after the culture clash in the southern US during the 1930s. That clash wasn’t really about science or religion. It seems to me to be more about economics, debates over what defines “common good”, and rural vs industrial based society. I think the situation is similar today though the drivers behind the conflict now are probably different than they were then.

Either way, I wonder if lots of us aren’t inadvertently being played as useful idiots. There’s a lot of that going around these days don’t you think?

Author: Nick Knisely

Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...

1 thought on “Religion and Science were seen as allies not too long ago”

  1. There’s a reasonable historical theory that the wedge was started because in the 19th century Parsons were about the only “professionals”, and dabbled in science (having the leisure to do so)as much as in anything else. The new “professional” scientists drove a wedge between Religion and Science as much to make a land grab as anything else – i.e “this is our territory – you stick to God”.
    Personally I never see them as anything other than complimentary – but then my MA was in Chemistry, followed by a diploma in Theology, so I’ve never seen them as enemies.

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