March 10, 2009

Prof Calls 'Warfare' Between Science and Religion Non-existent

Print More

On Friday, believers and skeptics alike gathered in Call Auditorium of Kennedy Hall to listen to a voice of reason discuss the complicated and often strained relationship between science and religion, as well as Cornell’s own place in this historical dialogue.

Prof. Mark A. Noll, history at the University of Notre Dame, delivered the Frederick C. Wood lecture detailing what many consider the “warfare” between faith and empirical reasoning.

“I am sorry to disappoint many of you tonight, because there is no such thing as ‘warfare’ between theology and science; I came to lecture on that which does not exist,” Noll began. Rather, according to Noll, there is a “rich, thickly textured and complex history linking the two,” and “warfare” would be a misleading and inaccurate description.

The Frederick C. Wood lecture was established in 1984 to bring scholars dedicated to innovative religious thought to campus. During the lecture’s introduction, Prof. Nick Salvatore, industrial and labor relations and American studies, described Noll as an evangelical scholar renowned for his “interest in re-imagining the collective sense of the American past, exploring complexity of evangelical history and exploring the role of the Bible in American popular thought.”

Before his post at Notre Dame, Noll taught at Wheaton College of Illinois. He currently claims credit for more than 43 articles in his field.

Noll spent a considerable portion of the evening discussing the significance and impact of University co-founder Andrew Dickson
White’s work on science and religion’s contentious past. During his time as leader of the University, diplomat and public advocate, White irregularly produced publications examining the issue.

According to Noll, White was incorrect in his deduction of the relationship as warfare, but correct in his emphasis on the importance of Christendom — the intermingling of church and state through formal and informal ties — in the development of science and religion’s intertwined history.

“The metaphor of warfare grossly oversimplified relation between science and theology; it rarely amounted to warfare,” Noll asserted. “Some better metaphors would be dialogue, competition and isolated thunderstorms.”

The idea of warfare surfaced in history countless times by philosophers like Galileo and Aquinas, and presently manifests itself in the form of heated debate on issues such as evolution in biology curriculums and the use of embryonic stem cells.

According to Noll, these depictions have been reduced to black and white “cheerleader” shouting matches, where religion is equated to anti-scientific fanaticism and the belief in evolution is equated to atheism.

By re-examining these issues based on historical evidence and reasoning, Noll established two conclusions. First, the misinterpretation of science and religion being at war was often much more complicated, and second, a belief in scientifically rational empiricism is not incompatible with faith.

For example, Noll explained how Galileo’s persecution for scientific beliefs was more a matter of deeply contextualized “power struggles, internal movement in the Church and Papal politics” than a flat-out squashing of scientific light by religious barbarism. He asserted that history reveals a multitude of equally perplexing cases.

Noll also illustrated a number of philosophical arguments for the harmony between scientific inquiry and the Scripture. An evangelical believer himself, Noll claimed, “since the book of the Scripture and the book of nature were written by the same author, there is no reason why they should be incompatible.”

However, the end of the lecture saw a deluge of questions from the audience. Many were concerned that his arguments — especially concerning the compatibility of science and theology — were questionable.

“You talked about the book of nature and the book of Scripture; how should we go about reconciling the two when at times they clearly contradict?” asked John Sullivan ’09, a current Cornell United Religious Work chaplain.

Noll answered by asking those in doubt to “take their time and wait, as the readings of nature in the past have changed readily” and accept the fact that “the ability to understand the natural world is a created ability that will lead us in a pre-ordained direction.”

Karen Ketsche ’09 felt that “the presentation was fair and open to all who might have attended — whether Christian, Muslim, Hindu, atheist or any other religion. It seemed like he was very aware of these differing opinions and was open to the idea of being challenged.”

“He comes at the talk from a very academic standpoint and is as unbiased as possible in what he presents,” she added. “He shows a strong command of the subject from both a historical and philosophical perspective.”