New book explores intersection of science and religion


CORVALLIS - Science and religion have had a long and sometimes contentious relationship, but a growing number of scholars are beginning to embrace a middle ground, pointing to a coexistence that not only is more complex, but often harmonious.

The relationship between science and religion - and how perspectives on that relationship are changing - is the subject of a new book of essays.

Titled "The History of Science and Religion in the Western Tradition: An Encyclopedia," the book was edited by Gary B. Ferngren, a professor of history at Oregon State University. It contains more than 100 essays, many written by leading scholars in the field.

"The relationship between religion and science is a widely discussed issue right now," Ferngren said. "Since the late 19th century, the prevailing thought has been that religion in general and Christianity in particular had a long history of opposing scientific progress in the interest of preserving dogmatic theology. But scholarship of the past 20 years or so has challenged that thesis.

"Many scholars are now saying that the historical relationship between religion and science has been much more complex," he added. "Sometimes they have been in harmony, sometimes in conflict, and sometimes they have merely operated in different spheres."

In the late 19th century, the writings of Andrew Dickson White and John William Draper shaped American thought on the relationship between science and religion, Ferngren said. The Draper-White thesis, which argued that Christianity had frequently opposed science, dominated the historical interpretation of the relationship for decades.

When 20th century writers spoke of the historical intersection of science and religion, they spoke most often of the clashes - the trial of Galileo, the theological reaction to Darwinism, and the impact of the Scopes Monkey Trial.

That perspective was misleading, Ferngren says.

"A number of scholars writing today argue that these signposts were exceptions rather than the rule," Ferngren said.

In fact, Ferngren argues, science and religion are not necessarily conflictive in examining even the most potentially divisive issues, including the origin of humans.

"People can choose to look at the conflicts, and they can choose to pit creationism against evolution," said Ferngren. "But there are a growing number of people who believe there is room for both."

Published by Garland of New York, "The History of Science and Religion in the Western Tradition" covers a broad spectrum of issues. Different sections look at the historical relationship between science and religion, and how that relationship is reflected in philosophy, religious traditions, astronomy and cosmology, the physical sciences, the earth sciences, the biological sciences, medicine and psychology, and the occult sciences. A section explores leading scientists whose work had an impact on religion, such as Isaac Newton, Blaise Pascal, and Charles Darwin.

The entries cover such areas as Genesis and science, miracles, evolutionary ethics, the Copernican revolution, chaos theory, meteorology, evolution and creationism, genetics, magic, psychology, and natural history. There are also articles on flat earthism, geocentricity, gender and science, and astrology.

Ferngren and his co-editors were assisted in selecting contributors by a distinguished advisory board that included John Hedley Brooke, director of the Ian Ramsey Centre at Oxford University in England; Owen Gingerich, professor of astronomy and the history of science at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics; John Henry, senior lecturer in science studies at the University of Edinburgh; David C. Lindberg, Hillsdale Professor of the History of Science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison; and Ronald L. Numbers, Hillsdale and William Coleman Professor of the History of Science and Medicine at Wisconsin-Madison.

The more than 85 contributors were drawn from Europe, North America, Australia, and New Zealand.

An OSU faculty member since 1970, Ferngren recently received a grant from the Templeton Foundation to develop and teach a course on the relationship between science and religion. He has also received the university's Elizabeth Ritchie Award for Outstanding Teaching.