Various aspects of the relationship between religion and science have been cited by modern historians of science and religion, philosophers, theologians, scientists, and others from various geographical regions and cultures.

Even though the ancient and medieval worlds did not have conceptions resembling the modern understandings of “science” and “religion“, certain elements of these modern ideas are found throughout history.

It was in the 19th century when the phrases “religion and science” or “science and religion” first emerged in the literature.

This coincided with the refining of “science“, from the studies of “natural philosophy“, and “religion” as distinct concepts in the last few centuries partly due to the professionalization of the sciences, the Protestant Reformation, colonization, and globalization.

Since then, many have characterized the relationship as either conflict, harmony, complexity, or mutual independence.

Both science and religion are complex social and cultural endeavors that vary across cultures and have changed over time.

Most scientific and technical innovations prior to the scientific revolution were achieved by societies organized by religious traditions.

Elements of the scientific method were pioneered by ancient pagan, Islamic, and Christian scholars. Roger Bacon, who is often credited with formalizing the scientific method, was a Franciscan friar.

Hinduism has historically embraced reason and empiricism, holding that science brings legitimate, but incomplete knowledge of the world and universe.

Confucian thought has held different views of science over time. Most Buddhists today view science as complementary to their beliefs.

While the classification of the material world by the ancient Indians and Greeks into air, earth, fire, and water was more philosophical, medieval Middle Easterns used practical and experimental observation to classify materials.

Events in Europe such as the Galileo affair, associated with the scientific revolution and the Age of Enlightenment, led scholars such as John William Draper to postulate a conflict thesis, holding that religion and science have been in conflict methodologically, factually and politically throughout history.

This thesis is held by some contemporary scientists such as Richard Dawkins, Lawrence Krauss, Peter Atkins, and Donald Prothero. The conflict thesis has lost favor among most contemporary historians of science.

Many scientists, philosophers, and theologians throughout history, such as Francisco Ayala, Kenneth R. Miller, and Francis Collins, have seen compatibility or independence between religion and science.

Biologist Stephen Jay Gould, other scientists, and some contemporary theologians hold that religion and science are non-overlapping magisteria, addressing fundamentally separate forms of knowledge and aspects of life.

Some theologians or historians of science, including John Lennox, Thomas Berry, Brian Swimme and Ken Wilber propose an interconnection between science and religion, while others such as Ian Barbour believe there are even parallels.

Public acceptance of scientific facts may be influenced by religion; many in the United States reject evolution by natural selection, especially regarding human beings.

Nevertheless, the American National Academy of Sciences has written that “the evidence for evolution can be fully compatible with religious faith“, a view officially endorsed by many religious denominations globally.

History of the concepts

The concepts of “science” and “religion” are a recent invention: “religion” emerged in the 17th century in the midst of colonization and globalization and the Protestant Reformation, “science” emerged in the 19th century in the midst of attempts to narrowly define those who studied nature.

Originally what is today known as “science” was pioneered as “natural philosophy“. Furthermore, the phrase “religion and science” or “science and religion” emerged in the 19th century, not before, due to the reification of both concepts.

It was in the 19th century that the terms “Buddhism“, “Hinduism“, “Taoism“, “Confucianism” and “World Religions” first emerged.

In the ancient and medieval world, the etymological Latin roots of both science (scientia) and religion (religio) were understood as inner qualities of the individual or virtues, never as doctrines, practices, or actual sources of knowledge.

It was in the 19th century that the concept of “science” received its modern shape with new titles emerging such as “biology” and “biologist“, “physics” and “physicist” among other technical fields and titles; institutions and communities were founded, and unprecedented applications to and interactions with other aspects of society and culture occurred.

The term scientist was first coined by the naturalist-theologian William Whewell in 1834 and it was applied to those who sought knowledge and understanding of nature.

From the ancient world, starting with Aristotle, to the 19th century, the term “natural philosophy” was the common term used to describe the practice of studying nature.

Isaac Newton’s book Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (1687), whose title translates to “Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy“, reflects the then-current use of the words “natural philosophy”, akin to “systematic study of nature”.

Even in the 19th century, a treatise by Lord Kelvin and Peter Guthrie Tait’s, which helped define much of modern physics, was titled Treatise on Natural Philosophy (1867).

It was in the 17th century that the concept of “religion” received its modern shape despite the fact that ancient texts like the Bible, the Quran, and other sacred texts did not have a concept of religion in the original languages and neither did the people or the cultures in which these sacred texts were written.

In the 19th century, Max Müller noted that what is called ancient religion today, would have been called “law” in antiquity.

For example, there is no precise equivalent of “religion” in Hebrew, and Judaism does not distinguish clearly between religious, national, racial, or ethnic identities.

The Sanskrit word “dharma“, sometimes translated as “religion“, also means law or duty. Throughout classical South Asia, the study of law consisted of concepts such as penance through piety and ceremonial as well as practical traditions.

Medieval Japan at first had a similar union between “imperial law” and universal or “Buddha law“, but these later became independent sources of power.

Throughout its long history, Japan had no concept of “religion” since there was no corresponding Japanese word, nor anything close to its meaning, but when American warships appeared off the coast of Japan in 1853 and forced the Japanese government to sign treaties demanding, among other things, freedom of religion, the country had to contend with this Western idea.

Middle Ages and Renaissance

The development of sciences (especially natural philosophy) in Western Europe during the Middle Ages, has a considerable foundation in the works of the Arabs who translated Greek and Latin compositions.

The works of Aristotle played a major role in the institutionalization, systematization, and expansion of reason. Christianity accepted reason within the ambit of faith.

In Christendom, the reason was considered subordinate to revelation, which contained the ultimate truth and this truth could not be challenged. Even though the medieval Christian had the urge to use their reason, they had little on which to exercise it.

In medieval universities, the faculty for natural philosophy and theology were separate, and discussions pertaining to theological issues were often not allowed to be undertaken by the faculty of philosophy.

Natural philosophy, as taught in the arts faculties of the universities, was seen as an essential area of study in its own right and was considered necessary for almost every area of study. It was an independent field, separated from theology, which enjoyed a good deal of intellectual freedom as long as it was restricted to the natural world.

In general, there was religious support for natural science by the late Middle Ages and a recognition that it was an important element of learning.

The extent to which medieval science led directly to the new philosophy of the scientific revolution remains a subject for debate, but it certainly had a significant influence.

The Middle Ages laid the ground for the developments that took place in science, during the Renaissance which immediately succeeded it. With significant developments taking place in science, mathematics, medicine, and philosophy, the relationship between science and religion became one of curiosity and questioning.

As humanism became more and more popular, people tried to understand the nature around them better, rather than turn to religious aspirations. Renaissance humanism looked to classical Greek and Roman texts to change contemporary thought, allowing for a new mindset after the Middle Ages.

Renaissance readers understood these classical texts as focusing on human decisions, actions, and creations, rather than blindly following the rules set forth by the Catholic Church as “God’s plan.”

Though many Renaissance humanists remained religious, they believed God gave humans opportunities and it was humanity’s duty to do the “best and most moral thing“.

Renaissance humanism was an “ethical theory and practice that emphasized reason, scientific inquiry and human fulfillment in the natural world,” said Abernethy.

By 1630, ancient authority from classical literature and philosophy, as well as their necessity, started eroding, although scientists were still expected to be fluent in Latin, the international language of Europe’s intellectuals. With the sheer success of science and the steady advance of rationalism, the individual scientist gained prestige.

Along with the inventions of this period, especially the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg, allowed for the dissemination of the Bible in languages of the common people (languages other than Latin).

This allowed more people to read and learn from the scripture, leading to the Evangelical movement. The people who spread this message concentrated more on the individual agency rather than the structures of the Church.


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