The war that never happened

In the final chapter of Dawkins’ God (see previous posts: (1 | 2 | 3 | 4), Alister McGrath looks at Dawkins’ response to suggestions of an increasing “convergence” between science and religion. McGrath describes as “admirably robust” Dawkins’ response to such a notion:

“To an honest judge,” he writes – perhaps with himself modestly in mind? – “the alleged convergence between religion and science is a shallow, empty, hollow, spin-doctored sham”.

Actually, this is one area in which I find myself in a measure of agreement with Prof. Dawkins: I fear that any such convergence, “alleged” or otherwise, is likely to be as deadly for scriptural, orthodox Christianity as it was the last time such a convergence occurred, in the eighteenth century. The problem with Deism is that it is so easily mistaken for genuine Christianity – not a mistake anybody is likely to make with Richard Dawkins’ views.

But then, the prevailing notion that the natural relationship between science and religion is one of unceasing conflict has been equally damaging for the gospel, given the privileged status that scientific accounts of reality enjoy in our society. And McGrath goes on to argue very effectively that this received view of a “protracted war between church and science” is now seen as inaccurate and misleading:

In recent years, the scholarly understanding of the historical relationship of science and religion has undergone an intellectual revolution no less than that occasioned by Darwin’s Origin of Species

Individual, local conflicts – such as that between Galileo and the Roman church – reflected “institutional politics and personal agendas”, or simply “misunderstandings”, rather than being “typical or defining”. Dawkins’ views on this issue are, McGrath suggests, “firmly rooted in the social world of nineteenth-century England”. McGrath continues with a swift kick to Dawkins’ shins:

It is understandable that [such views] should linger in some works of popular science – after all, academic historical scholarship takes a long time to filter down.

He goes on to argue that:

[T]he notion of an endemic conflict between science and religion … is itself socially determined, created in the lengthening shadows of hostility towards individual clergy and church institutions.

One of the most significant developments in Victorian society was the emergence of a class of professional scientists, in growing competition with the amateur “scientific parsons” of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries:

With the appearance of the professional scientist … a struggle for supremacy began, to determine who would gain the cultural ascendancy within British culture in the second half of the nineteenth century…

The “conflict” model of science and religion thus came to prominence at a time when professional scientists wished to distance themselves from their amateur colleagues, and when changing patterns in academic culture necessitated demonstrating its independence from the church and other bastions of the establishment. Academic freedom demanded a break with the church; it was a small step towards depicting the church as the opponent of learning and scientific advance…

This “stereotype” of a war between science and religion lingers on today, and McGrath expresses regret that Dawkins has declined the opportunity to take a constructive role in the “positive and constructive dialogue and engagement” now taking place on this issue, preferring instead to “[fire] off inaccurate, wildly rheotorical salvoes, and lampooning those who disagree with him.”

We will turn to one of those “wildly rheotorical salvoes” in the final post in this series.

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One Response to The war that never happened

  1. Pingback: Confessing Evangelical » Blog Archive » A natural selection of creation and evolution posts

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