As a science-minded kid in the '60s, I loved to read stories about the march of science against the unholy trinity of ignorance, superstition and dogma. Dogma was the worst, and so the early 17th-century drama of Galileo's persecution by the Roman Catholic Church for his heretical belief that the earth revolved around the sun particularly captured my imagination. Galileo was a martyr for scientific truth against religious dogma. In my pantheon of heroes, that put him right at the top.
After I grew up and became a scientist, Galileo's story stayed in my mind as the emblem of a long-standing conflict between religion and science. And I knew the struggle wasn't over. Here, in modern-day America, my own field of geology has been under constant attack by an increasingly vocal creationist movement. So imagine my surprise when I was researching a book on the history of geology and encountered the story of Danish geologist Nicolaus Steno. Just decades after Galileo, Steno sparked a major revolution in scientific thought, one that still reverberates in today's creationism/evolution controversies. His example demolishes the simplistic notion of an inherent hostility between science and the church.
Steno was primarily an anatomist, but he is best remembered for his pioneering studies in geology. In 1669 he published a startling proposal: that the fossils and rock layers of the earth, if studied scientifically, gave a chronicle of the earth's history at least as valid as the accepted version in the verses of Genesis. Memories of Galileo's transgression were still painfully fresh, and, if anything, Steno's ideas would seem to have been more provocative than Galileo's. How did the 17th-century Church react? Was Steno condemned?
Not at all. There wasn't a peep of official complaint. Steno wasn't criticized. In fact, he was put on a fast track to priesthood and then a bishopric. To top it off, in 1988 he was beatified by Pope John Paul II. If this is difficult to accept, that's because the idea that conflict between science and religion is inevitable is deeply entrenched in our popular culture. Many journalists, as well as scientists, who write for the public take it as a given.
But the case for this “warfare thesis,” as historians call it, was discredited decades ago. The thesis was popularized in the 19th century by writers such as the first president of Cornell University, Andrew Dickson White, whose 1896 “History of the Warfare of Science With Theology in Christendom” is still in print and still accepted as gospel in some quarters. But many of the clashes reported by White have turned out to be fiction. Those that did occur, such as the Galileo affair, were as much about personalities and politics as they were about beliefs. “Most people learn about Galileo, and his problem with the Church, and don't learn about many other scientists,” says Ashworth, “and so they assume that this is a typical case, and there have been lots of Galileo affairs. The truth is, there haven't.”
For most of history, the border between science and religion was fuzzy, to say the least. Scientist and priest were often the same person. Even in our current secular age, some 40 percent of scientists say they believe in a God. And despite its reputation for astronomer-bashing in the age of Galileo, the Catholic Church was for centuries by far the biggest source of funding for scientific research and education. This is not to say that there haven't been power struggles. There have been plenty. It's just that the combatants―even in the iconic ones surrounding the likes of Copernicus and Darwin―typically don't sort neatly into science and religious camps.
When Steno proposed the geological investigation of the earth's strata, the loudest howls came from other scientists. One of the puzzles Steno addressed was that of fossilized seashells found high in mountains. Land and sea had shifted, he said. But there was already a “scientific” explanation: spontaneous growth within the rocks. So there was no need, as one contemporary put it, to “turn the world upside down for the sake of a shell.”
What about the most contentious of issues―Genesis? Biblical scholars had deduced from Scripture that the world was about 6,000 years old. However, William Bell Riley, one of the fundamentalist movement's founders, declared that there was not “an intelligent fundamentalist who claims that the earth was made six thousand years ago, and the Bible never taught any such thing.” The historical relationship between science and religion has been as complex as any human relationship. There is no reason to think that this will change. But it harms religion by portraying it as overly dogmatic and reactionary. It also harms science by portraying it as hostile or at least indifferent to the average persons spiritual needs.