Ronald Numbers: There is no inevitable conflict between science and religion

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The historical and contemporary relationship between science and theology is more complicated than the persistent popular notion that they are at war with each other, says an expert on the history of creationism.

Ronald Numbers grew up in the Seventh-day Adventist Church and attended Seventh-day Adventist schools as a child. Then in the late 1960s, he went to the University of California, Berkeley.

What he learned there changed his mind and his life.

Numbers -- who now describes himself as an agnostic -- became a historian of science and has written or edited several books about the relationship between science and religion, many of which debunk popular ideas that the two are at war with each other.

He is one of the editors of the recent volume “The Warfare Between Science and Religion: The Idea That Wouldn’t Die.”

“Every historian of science I know -- including those who are not believers -- would hesitate to offer a sweeping generalization about the relationship,” he said. “Conflict has existed in various settings and over various times, but it doesn’t capture any essential relationship between science and religion.”

Numbers, Hilldale Professor of the History of Science and Medicine Emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is an expert on the history of creationism and creation science. He is also the author of “The Creationists: From Scientific Creationism to Intelligent Design,” a history of anti-evolutionism, and a book about Seventh-day Adventist co-founder Ellen White called “Prophetess of Health.”

He spoke to Faith & Leadership about the myths surrounding the relationship between science and faith. The following is an edited transcript.

Q: What is the perceived conflict between science and religion -- and why is the common perception actually not correct?

There is a fairly widespread view that science and religion are in conflict. It’s a perception fostered by some groups; the New Atheists are very active in promoting that idea.

Over the past centuries, some [religious] fundamentalists also have promoted the idea -- although fundamentalists in recent decades have worked more strenuously to promote their views of, say, creationism as scientific. Most of them don’t want to be seen as anti-science.

There’s an interesting new book by John Evans, who is a sociologist at the University of California, San Diego [“Morals Not Knowledge: Recasting the Contemporary U.S. Conflict Between Religion and Science”].

[Evans argues] that most conservative Christians value science and believe in most science except in the areas where there are moral implications. The origins of humans might be one, and issues dealing with birth and death and subjects such as that. It’s a fairly small subset of science that they might question when it conflicts with their moral values.

Q: Why does this matter? What’s at stake in this perceived conflict?

Over the last century, primarily what’s been at stake has been the education of young people. Would they be taught what their religious parents believed or what the scientific community is saying?

From the early debates over evolution in the United States, since the early 1920s, the schools have been the focus of the debates.

Q: The debate over Darwin, evolution and creationism is one of the main battlefields. Is this one of the tension points because it touches on people’s core values on both sides?

Yes. For fundamentalists, it’s in direct conflict with the Bible, which they regard as divinely inspired.

Other people are uneasy with a naturalistic explanation of human origins.

Then we have a more accommodating group, who accept theistic evolution -- that evolution is true and it’s the method by which God created things on earth -- [that’s the position of] BioLogos, founded by Francis Collins.

Q: What’s the history of the relationship between science and religion?

You have institutional support at times, and at times you have some conflict, so it really varies.

Every historian of science I know -- including those who are not believers -- would hesitate to offer a sweeping generalization about the relationship.

Conflict has existed in various settings and over various times, but it doesn’t capture any essential relationship between science and religion. Historians of science have fairly closely examined the interactions between science and religion, and they’ve interacted at many levels, sometimes providing inspiration to study nature. Religious views have done that for people.

One very prominent historian of science named John Heilbron wrote about early modern astronomy and said that no institution provided more support for solar astronomy for six centuries -- the 12th to 18th centuries -- than the Roman Catholic Church. Yet right in the middle of those centuries came the Galileo affair, which for many people symbolizes the conflictual relationship between science and religion.

A colleague of mine, a medievalist, Michael Shank, has said really we could expand that generalization of Heilbron’s to all study of nature; for 600 years, the Catholic Church provided the most support.

Then, to get down into the finer points, “science and religion” did not exist until the early 19th century. That’s when we first run across the phrase.

Before that, people who studied nature fell into three categories: natural philosophers, natural historians or physicians. Isaac Newton was not a scientist; he was a natural philosopher, because the very term “scientist” hadn’t been coined yet. And he did not feel the need to separate God from what he did.

“Science” had been equivalent to “knowledge” until the end of the 18th, early 19th century. Then students of nature captured it for the study of nature. The dominant notion associated with this new science that emerged in the 19th century was that in doing science, you could not appeal to the supernatural.

Now, it said nothing about one’s religious beliefs. You could be an active Christian or Jew or Muslim, but when doing science, it was sort of cheating to appeal to the supernatural. Most of that change was promoted by Christian practitioners.

Q: You mentioned Galileo earlier, and you have edited a book called “Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths About Science and Religion.” What are the myths about Galileo?

This image of a tortured man, a great man of science, is highly exaggerated. The popular story about Galileo is how he was persecuted by the Catholic Church, thrown into jail, treated very roughly and suppressed. Most of that is myth. It is wrong.

He had violated an order not to write about the issue of Copernicanism, and he went ahead and wrote a book in dialogue form to try to protect himself. He has these characters, and he had the bad judgment to put one of the pope’s favorite arguments into the mouth of the character Simplicio, which politically was not smart. He gets called down by the Inquisition.

When he arrives in Rome, he stays in the Tuscan embassy, and then shortly before the trial, he’s summoned to the palace of the Inquisition, where an employee clears out his own multiroom apartment for this honored guest.

A little-known fact is that a few years earlier, Galileo had become a Catholic cleric and was even tonsured.

Real scholars of Galileo, especially since the records of the Inquisition have become available, have dug into every hour of his time with the Inquisition.

He may have had some mental torture, but he was never physically tortured. After leaving Rome, he was the guest of the bishop of Siena, [under] house arrest, [and then stayed] in his own villa above the city of Florence.

There were Catholics who supported him, and as far as anyone knows, he remained a faithful Catholic. His daughters, who lived near him, were nuns.

Q: That’s interesting, because Galileo, in addition to Darwin, is a common example of this conflict.

And Darwin was buried in Westminster Abbey.

Q: You were raised as a Seventh-day Adventist, and your father was a pastor, correct?

That’s true, and my maternal grandfather was president of the church.

Q: How does it influence your work?

From first grade through college, I went to Seventh-day Adventist schools, before I landed in the late ’60s at the University of California, Berkeley.

Q: That must have been a shock.

Even then I was active in my local church, but I learned at Berkeley, in the history of science program, to read critically.

My dad always loved reading, but my dad would tell me, “Ronnie, we don’t learn to discover truth, because we know the truth. We study to learn how to propagate the truth more efficiently.”

Well, the name of the game in historical seminars is you rip the author apart -- detect the biases and the limited research and everything.

I started doing that to Ellen White, who was the Adventist prophet. When I was teaching at Loma Linda University, a Seventh-day Adventist medical school in Southern California, after getting my Ph.D., I wrote a book about her, “Prophetess of Health,” that led to my being fired.

That led, as you might guess, to a rupture with the church for me.

Q: How did that lead to your scientific professional interest in the history of creationism?

I’m sure it’s because of my background that later on I decided to do some surveys of how Adventists got involved in creationism. It turned into a big book eventually [“The Creationists: From Scientific Creationism to Intelligent Design”].

The whole creation science movement came out of Seventh-day Adventism.

Ellen White claims that God had taken her back in vision actually to witness the week of creation and she saw that it was in six literal days -- and elsewhere strongly suggested it was about 6,000 years ago.

Q: Aside from debunking the beliefs that you had been taught as a child, what was the intellectual heart of that study for you?

This sounds trite, perhaps, but in my own mind, it was to discover the truth. It was what motivated me to study Ellen White. I just wanted to know what really happened.

I didn’t see myself as a debunker. I know many other people have seen me as a debunker, but that’s not my self-image.

Q: And today do you consider yourself an Adventist? Do you consider yourself a Christian?

No. I came out in the introduction to my book on creationism as an agnostic. I just don’t think we’ll ever answer the big questions, so I think atheists have more confidence in their beliefs than I do.

Q: You’ve also criticized the New Atheists. You describe them as a kind of fundamentalist group -- would you talk a little about that?

You have on the one hand this community of historians of science who study science and religion and who have come up with this very complex relationship.

For “Galileo Goes to Jail,” there were different contributors. I polled them, and the majority were unbelievers. So this new consensus in the historical community about science and religion is not based on any desire to defend Christianity.

But the New Atheists ignore the historical scholarship of the past half-century and strongly promote the idea of warfare. There is no room for compromise among most of them, and they don’t want to even have civil relations with the enemy.

Q: You’d think that with people of faith on one side and people of science on the other side, they of all groups should be able to discuss things civilly. But that doesn’t seem to be the tone of a lot of these arguments. Why is that?

I think human nature comes into play there. In our day and age, there is a lot of rudeness, and a lot of divisions that make it hard.