The conflict between science and religion as an “invented tradition”


Jaume Navarro received his PhD in history of science from the Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona (1998). He has been a researcher at the universities of Cambridge, Imperial College (London) and the Max Planck Institut für Wissenschaftsgeschichte (Berlin). Currently he is an Ikerbasque Research Professor and a member of the Praxis Group at the Faculty of Philosophy, UPV/EHU.


Science-and-religion is a huge industry, especially in the Anglo-American world. From Richard Dawkin’s God Delusion1to some contemporary Creationist movements, the stage is set for a fight between modern reason and obscurantist superstition, or divinely revealed truth and pretentious scientism, depending on which side of the fence one chooses. But, should one necessarily take sides in this Cowboys-and-Indians warfare? Not really. Most scientists and philosophers, religious and secular alike, remain apathetic about the so-called “conflict thesis” and passively or actively support the other three possible relations between science and religion according to the classical typology put forward by Ian Barbour: indifference, dialogue or integration2. The conflict thesis is, however, popular in the public sphere, thus demanding some historization so as to better understand its past origins and deflate its current strength.

What needs to be historicised is the statement that “science and religion are always in conflict”, and not so much to try and find historical examples where such conflict may have (anachronistically) happened or not. An example of the latter is the recurring studies of the Galileo affair. Any interpretation of this episode of the early 17th century will fails to characterise the relations between science and religion since neither fully existed at the time, at least not in the way we understand them today. Peter Harrison, the former Andreas Idreos Professor of Science and Religion at the University of Oxford, argued rather convincingly that the conflict thesis was a by-product of the process of constructing the boundaries between modern science and other activities which took place in the nineteenth century3. In a nutshell, Harrison’s argument is the following: much current historiography of science agrees that one cannot speak about “science” proper before the nineteenth century. Prior to that, one can talk about natural philosophy, natural history, alchemy, etc., but these activities were not socially, institutionally, or personally distinct from philosophy, theology or politics. Similarly, “religion” is a category that, in its current meaning, can be traced back, first to the Wars of Religion in post-Reformation Christian Europe and, later, to the Imperial encounter and manipulation of political and spiritual realities in the colonies overseas. Moreover, the notion of religion, in which Christianity would dissolve as one among many other realities (on equal terms with Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, etc.), may also be understood as part of the secularising project of the Enlightenment. Based on these two elucidations, Harrison’s point is that the kind “science-and-religion” can only be a product emerging at the time of the consolidation of the categories of both “science” and “religion”.

Was the conflict thesis a necessary consequence of this process? Like everything else in history, the answer is no. Then, how did it gain momentum and how is it that it still holds legitimacy in the public sphere? One way to better understand the social and political origins of the conflict thesis would be to use Eric Hobsbawm’s notion of “invented tradition” with which the late historian characterised many of the identity-shaping traditions of nineteenth-century nationalisms. In his words, an invented tradition is “a set of practices, normally governed by overtly or tacitly accepted rules and of a ritual or symbolic nature, which seek to inculcate certain values and norms of behaviour by repetition, which automatically implies continuity with the past. In fact, where possible, they normally attempt to establish continuity with a suitable historic past”4. In close relationship with this idea, Benedict Anderson coined the notion of “imagined communities” to express the unity between unrelated people who share a common identity, a sense of belonging, like in the case of nationhood, religion or party politics5. Individuals of an imaginary community, thus, share in a number of invented traditions that help them coalesce in a common identity. My claim is that the process of increasing professionalization and specialization that led to the emergence of “the scientist” involved the creation of an imagined community (namely “science” or “the scientists”) and a number of traditions, one of which was that of being the victim of religious and clerical antagonism. Let me elaborate on that.

William Whewell coined the word “scientist” in 1833, a term to designate a new kind of person, unknown of in previous times: the man with a professional activity in physics, chemistry, astronomy, mechanics, etc., and who could no longer be called a philosopher. This professionalization of science, which was partly a product of the post-Enlightenment, took place first in professional guilds, industrial facilities and in the new centralised-State bureaus. The old universities were the last strongholds to resist scientific specialisation. The new scientist needed a sense of community as well as rhetorical and institutional instruments to reject potential interlopers like philosophers, amateur naturalists, and, also, clergymen. Thus, the latter became only one of the targets of those who advocated for the professionalization of science.

A now classical paper by the late historian of science Frank M. Turner examined the professional dimension of the conflict between science and religion in Victorian Britain6. Towards the middle of the nineteenth century a number of professional scientists started a public campaign to promote the social prestige of science as an activity both prestigious and necessary for a modern state. So far, academic natural philosophy was largely seen as an ally to theology. As a matter of fact, a generation of Christian polymaths, many of them clergymen of the Church of England, had developed a particular brand of natural theology in the early nineteenth century, one which saw in the findings of geology, biology and mechanics the material signs of a designer-god. The Bridgewater Treatises, bequeathed by the Reverend Francis Henry to enhance the study of “the Power, Wisdom, and Goodness of God, as manifested in the Creation”7 were just the tip of the iceberg of a marriage between natural science and theology that kept the former subservient to the latter, thus preventing the full and independent development of science among the intellectual elite. This tradition was, thus, one of the targets by those who argued for an independent, professional and socially prestigious science.

The X-Club was the most visible of such lobbies. Thomas H. Huxley, John Tyndall, Herbert Spencer and a few other young scientists regularly met and collectively schemed in order to occupy relevant positions in academia and professional bodies and, thus, to change the face of science in Britain. Part of the rhetoric they used was to show that the establishment, and with it the Church of England, was preventing the development of science and the welfare of the country. Members of the X-Club came predominantly from the academic fringes (educated, for instance, outside the traditional Oxford-Cambridge system) and also from the middle classes. Their sense of alienation was an element they used in their campaign to create an “imaginary community” of scientists with a collective identity and a common purpose. Thus, the global conflict thesis between science and religion evolved into an “invented tradition” the purpose of which was to amalgamate scientists in the institutional fringes in their battles for the professionalization and institutionalization of science.

Just to give an example. Francis Galton wrote, in 1872, a statistical study on English men of science. Part of his argument was to show that the clerical job was not congruous with science. To do so, he chose to select as “men of science” only those who held professional jobs in science, which, of course, were alien to clergymen. It came as no surprise that with this a priori “religion” became an obstacle to scientific work. Also in this context can we read the first book ever written explicitly on a supposed global conflict between science and religion: John William Draper’s 1874 book entitled History of the Conflict between Religion and Science. Presenting “religion” as a historically permanent obstacle to science, the author was providing with a global enemy, one intended to amalgamate scientists in a common identity.

Certainly, this does not mean that conflicts exist. Not only between some science and some religion, but also between some science and some ethics, politics, or even among different sciences. But the thesis of a global conflict between all science and all religion can be seen as a product of nineteenth-century rhetoric to consolidate the (not obvious) role of scientist in modern society.


  1. Dawkins, Richard. The God Delusion, Houghton Mifflin Haurcourt, Boston: 2006.
  2. Barbour, Ian. Religion in an Age of Science, Harpercollins, San Francisco: 2000.
  3. Harrison, Peter. ‘“Science” and “Religion”: Constructing the Boundaries’, The Journal of Religion 86 (2006), 81-106.
  4. Hobsbawm, Eric. “Introduction. Inventing Traditions”, in Hobsbawm, E. and Ranger, T., eds. The Invention of Tradition, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge: 1983, 1-14, p. 1.
  5. Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism, Verso, London: 1983.
  6. Turner, Frank M., “The Victorian Conflict between Science and Religion: A Professional Dimension”, ISIS 69 (1978), 356-376.

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  • I agree with the author about what he says, but I find issue with what he omits. The author is avoiding the largest and most significant issue at conflict between religion and science: that of religious claims as scientific hypotheses. In other words: as a scientist, I treat any religious claim as a hypothesis to be confronted with observation. Since there are no observations that support most of the religious claims I hear, I reject said claims as weak or even untrue. This is where religion clashes with science. I wonder what the author’s views on this are.

  • o sea, la fantasía de seres que vuelan, madres vírgenes, dimensiones desconocidas, dioses imaginarios, creencias copiadas de otras creencias despachadas por originales… ¿no contrastan con la ciencia?

  • ¿El texto de Lucrecio es una falsificacion posterior a Galileo?

    En serio, al señor Harrison le habran mencionado muchas veces “De Rerum Natura” como contraejemplo, y habria que ver como lo contraargumenta, si es que lo hace.

  • A very interesting post of a kind that is not usual to see in a scientific web.

    That conflict is now the standard truth in popular science and popular history (I have just saw yesterday the account of Galileo’s trial in the BBC history that is being broadcasted now on TVE2, and there you find all the topics again…). I think the “conflict” thesis is supported many by a whig vision of science history, which is also the standard one.

    I am very interested in this because I have written a divulgative account of (a part of) science history that tries explain how science work from a non-whiggish point of view. ¿Would you mind if I translate some part of your post to cite it in the blog of the book?

  • Valiant article against the mainstream. I agree. I am in the rare group of people who have no such a conflict between being a scientist and having faith. Thank you for reporting the lack of historicity of that “invented tradition”. In fact many top western academic environments today, including universities and hospitals, were promoted by clergyman and churches…

  • I think if there is one thing missing, it is the change in the underlying philosophy of studying nature which brought about, or perhaps was brought in to establish, the change from “natural philosophy” to “science.” As the work of Francis Bacon shows, the essential concepts of science were established long before the 19th century. It was a process for studying nature as it is, and as it works, and a program for turning that knowledge into practical applications: technology, medicine, improvements in agriculture, etc.

    It is enlightening to me to see the role that growing professionalism, creating an “imaginary community” in need of an “invented tradition” would have played a role. If scientific research were to be continued to be seen as “the handmaiden of theology,” then it would be limited in scope and social power. However, already the philosophical change had begun. Researchers were not content to show “how the heavens go” and how things on earth operated, they had begun to also describe how things had gotten to be as they are, long before any program of systematic observation had begun. Of course, using the principles of science for studying nature, only natural causes and processes could be considered.

    Just as Galton, nephew of Darwin and promoter of Eugenics, ruled out clergymen a priori from being scientists, so, too, any consideration that nature had its limits and supernatural powers at some point or points intervened, must be ruled out a priori in this new philosophy of science. In effect, the new (not-so-imaginary) community of scientists re-set its borders to become the new Authority on matters of the past — and thus, pretty much everything else! Certainly, clergymen have been allowed into this community since that time, but they have had to give up their faith that their religion provided a plain and straightforward account of the origins of the heavens and the Earth, the first humans, the history of the Earth before the rise of the great civilizations in their “cradle,” and God’s power to intervene with judgment upon the whole world. To be allowed into the community, one must drop all that behind and accept that if there is a God, he hides behind billions of years of purely natural processes.

    This is also why the scientific community, having now become such an Authority and powerful Establishment, cannot tolerate any movement that proposes to allow space for supernatural intervention in the past. What could it harm to allow this as an alternative? Consider the most extreme case, that bogeyman of “”scientific minded” people, Young Earth Creationism. It actually embraces the vast majority of science, including biology, and, if defined in a proper, precise formula, evolution, including speciation, resistance to antibiotics, etc. It does offer a stunningly different view of the origin and pre-history of the universe, the Earth, and life, but in accordance with the original concept of “natural philosophy,” it accepts everything which can be repeatedly observed and demonstrated to be true, so that everything of a strictly practical value is included. Why, then, is it so strongly denounced and portrayed as an attack upon “science,” rather than just an alternative to some parts of science with no practical application? Because it threatens the philosophical foundation of the scientific community’s expanded Authority and would allow Religion to be seen as at least a possible equal.

    I find it amusing that so many people who consider themselves “scientific minded” and claim they only believe things that stand the test of observation and experimentation, in contrast to “…the fantasy of flying beings, virgins mothers, unknown dimensions, imaginary gods…”

    It seems, however, that they are content to have faith in what they believe with very little observation or experimental observation. Show me something you can actually observe and demonstrate by experiment, and I will show you Young Earth Creationists (with PhDs and careers in scientific fields) who also believe that. The origin of the universe? Billions of years? The origin of life? Microbes evolving over billions of years into all other forms of life? Either acknowledge that you have faith in them, or admit that you can only hold them as possibilities under the assumption that only natural forces have ever existed.

    And why should flying beings be considered such an impossible fantasy? Doesn’t even naturalistic science allow for unknown beings with the power of flight? Is a virgin birth so strange, when we know that virgin births are the natural, normal case in certain animals? Unknown dimensions? Are there not many dimensions in string theory? Has science proven that the three spatial dimensions we experience are all that can be? Unknown gods? Even without considering the possibility of universes that existed long before ours, producing beings of unimaginable knowledge and power, doesn’t the current view of the natural universe allow for the evolution of life far earlier in its history, perhaps leading to alien life whose physical evolution and technology based on vast ages of study would make them as gods in comparison to us, according to Clarke’s dictum about sufficiently advanced technology?

    Believing things supported by experimentation? Pasteur’s experiments showed that life does not arise naturally from nutrient solutions. Many attempts to produce life in the laboratory from chemicals have shown many other conditions that do not produce life. Why insist that there must be some natural way for life to arise from non-living chemicals, when it has not been observed and no experiment has shown it might be possible? Who is living in a fantasy world now? Evolution of all life from microbes? What observations or experiments support that? A bunch of distinct fossil forms with just a tiny fraction of them claimed to show possible stepping stones from one to another? Variations in coloration, size, proportions, loss of parts, etc.? If evolution happens by natural mutations in DNA being selected by the conditions that happen to exist at the time, how hard should it be for an intelligent scientist to tinker with generation after rapid generation of bacteria under controlled conditions and produce, not merely a shift in ability to consume nutrients, but whole new systematically organized, dynamically complex additions? Is that asking too much? Then it is asking too much to grant “Science” the authority to tell us where we came from, without rival.

    That is the where the war truly lies, not between science and religion, but between a philosophy of naturalism vs religion that allows for supernatural intervention.

  • […] “invented tradition” “would be able to appoint, but choice had to be ratified” “The file for your culture compresses really well.” “his populist rhetoric“ […]

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