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Clarifying the issue of incompatibility

Saturday, 07 July 2012
by Mano Singham

A recent post about accommodationists and new atheists revolved around the question of whether science and religion were incompatible and if so, what one should do about it. The question of what constitutes religion and incompatibility perhaps needs to be clarified a bit.

It used to be the case that in the Christian world until roughly the period we know as the Renaissance, the Bible was taken as a book whose truth was largely unquestioned. It was simply a given and scientists saw their role as finding out how their god carried out his plan as revealed in the Bible. Hence there could be no incompatibility, because scientific findings were interpreted in ways that made them consistent with the Bible. Many of the early scientists were often priests or monks (Nicholas Steno, Gregor Mendel, Georges Lemaitre) or otherwise quite religious (Isaac Newton, Lord Kelvin) and they seemed to have no personal difficulty reconciling the two areas of their thought. Compatibilism in the early days involved largely taking the religious version as a given and interpreting scientific discoveries and advances in ways that were compatible with it.

For example, the very early days of modern geology in the 17th century involved developing theories such as catastrophism (in which the major geological features of the Earth were thought to be the products of major cataclysms and upheavals that threw up mountains and created ravines and so on) to try and explain how the Earth in its present form could have come about in just the few thousand years or so that the Bible said it had existed. This way of thinking was also evident in the early archaeological work done in the Middle East where discoveries were interpreted to conform to the Biblical versions of events.

But beginning with the 18th century, modern science became less and less tethered to the Biblical version of events and started going where the evidence led it, without too much concern as to whether it contradicted religious beliefs or not. They were aided in pursuing this new freedom because the political power of religious institutions had waned and there were no longer punishments for heresy, at least among the elites who were the ones who pursued science.

As a result, new scientific findings began to emerge that contradicted the Bible. So for example, when in 1778 the Comte de Buffon published his estimate for the age of the Earth as 75,000 years, the theologians at the powerful Sorbonne created a huge fuss and demanded that he publish an apology for publishing results that contradicted the biblical chronology but he was able to withstand their pressure and did not recant.

As time went by and the power and utility of science grew, the Bible and religious dogma became increasingly marginalized and irrelevant and scientists became more comfortable saying, for example, that there is little or no evidence from archeology for almost all of the events in the Old Testament, such as the captivity in Egypt, the exodus, the stories about the kingdoms of David and Solomon, and the like.