Thoughts on BBC Radio 4’s ‘The Secret History of Science and Religion’ (Part 1)

Detail from a portrait of Bishop of Lincoln Robert Grosseteste (c. 1175—1253), from a 14th-century manuscript in the British Library. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Detail from a portrait of Bishop of Lincoln Robert Grosseteste (c. 1175—1253), from a 14th-century manuscript in the British Library. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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In a four-part series of posts, guest writer Grace Dalton shares her thoughts on BBC Radio 4’s The Secret History of Science and Religion, broadcast last year.

In June, BBC Radio 4 aired The Secret History of Science and Religion: three half-hour episodes narrated by Nick Spencer, who wants to “challenge the simplistic warfare narrative” of science and religion being necessarily in conflict.

“Nick Spencer discusses with Professor John Holmes what he labels ‘The Great Debate.’ ‘Darwin’s Bulldog’ Thomas Henry Huxley and Bishop Samuel Wilberforce passionately feuded in front of the British Association for the Advancement of Science Society.”

Spencer begins with an explanation of his aim, and an analysis of the well-known incident in which academics quarrelled over Darwin’s then recent proposal. Depicting his setting, the Oxford Natural History library, to the listeners, Spencer discusses with Professor John Holmes what he labels “The Great Debate.” “Darwin’s Bulldog” Thomas Henry Huxley and Bishop Samuel Wilberforce passionately feuded in front of the British Association for the Advancement of Science Society, with the bishop mockingly asking Huxley, “Is it through your grandfather or your grandmother that you claim your descent from a monkey?”, to be rebuffed by Huxley proclaiming that he “would rather be the descendant of a humble monkey, rather than a man who obscures the truth.” Spencer suggests this “was a knockout blow for science over religion,” referring to the commonly-held perception of the event (indeed, the one I encountered during school history lessons). However, he then counters, “But this interpretation is a myth.”

Having outlined his aim for the programme, he then discusses with Holmes a recently discovered contemporary news report which gives a more detailed account of this dispute. According to this report, Wilberforce in fact asked Huxley “whether he would prefer an ape for his grandfather and a woman for his grandmother, or an ape for his grandmother and a man for his grandfather.” Spencer and Holmes agree that this was a particularly cutting remark, and that both men drew roars of laughter from their audience. However, it is not a dramatically different question, and Spencer’s keenness to argue that The Great Debate was so unlike the commonly believed simplification seems to me misplaced. Rather, I would suggest, the presumption that The Great Debate marked a victory for religion over science is a fallacy, either because Darwinian evolution may itself be directed by God, or because it may be false.

In what is an otherwise terrific mini-series, Spencer’s oversight of these three distinct possibilities — which go throughout the programme’s three parts without being directly addressed — seems its greatest flaw.

“Spencer asserts that, ‘The story of science and religion is much less to with the existence of God, or the age of the Earth, or even the origins of life, and much more to do with how we think of ourselves as human beings.’ Although I’m not convinced that the existence of God would not have been the primary concern of the theists he goes on to cite, particularly in the periods of history under discussion which were less egotistic than our own.”

He asserts that, “The story of science and religion is much less to with the existence of God, or the age of the Earth, or even the origins of life, and much more to do with how we think of ourselves as human beings.” Although I’m not convinced that the existence of God would not have been the primary concern of the theists he goes on to cite, particularly in the periods of history under discussion which were less egotistic than our own.

He next visits historian of science John Hedley Brooke. Hereupon we’re informed that it’s “certainly false” that The Great Debate was a great victory for science over religion, but that this idea “proved durable because it is subservient to a higher myth, which is that science and religion are intrinsically at war.” As Spencer then comments, this is a crucial observation. The belief that science and religion are opposed is glaringly evident in online public discourse, as well as statistics: but in part this notion arises via circular reasoning. Furthermore, as Professor Fern Elsdon-Baker proceeds to remark, conflict is a narrative that’s ubiquitous in the pop culture that surrounds us. She argues that the concept of antagonism between science and religion is a minority position within the scientific community, and implies that atheists have been unknowingly influenced by the culture to presume a conflict mistakenly.

Spencer then goes on to clarify the terms “religion” and “science” with reference to their original usage. He demonstrates that, according to their definitions, they aren’t antagonistic in the way many people today presume. The Latin word religio, he tells us, first referred to a personal devotion and acts such as prayer; it was only following the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century that a more doctrinal meaning developed. Australian Professor Peter Harrison then tells us that, prior to the nineteenth century when the modern scientific method developed, the word “science” referred loosely to knowledge.

“That Euclid’s Elements, Apollonius’ Conics, the works of Archimedes, and most of the Aristotelean corpus were translated and explored within ‘a Koranic context’ is an intriguing idea, though it would have been helpful to have an examination of what implications this ‘Koranic context’ had.”

With passing references to the Greek philosophers, to whom he attributes the beginning of science in the West, Spencer then travels East, accompanied by a snatch of background Islamic singing. Canadian professor Jamil Ragep tells us, “One of the great Oriental scholars, Franz Rosenthal, made the remarkable statement that Islam valued knowledge, perhaps more than any other civilisation.” But I find myself cynical about this use of this statement of opinion to make a somewhat tangential argument: even if Rosenthal’s opinion is correct, the comparing of civilisations is not the purpose of the programme. When Rosenthal refers to Islam as a civilisation, he is first and foremost regarding it as an ethnic/social grouping, not an ideology; and in particular, given that other civilisations of ancient history also had gods, his statement doesn’t address Spencer’s fundamental question. Of more relevance is Ragep’s subsequent claim that after Muhammad’s passing, his followers felt obliged to develop rational methods in order to master interpretation of the scriptures, and this precipitated the translation of “the great mathematical texts.” That Euclid’s Elements, Apollonius’ Conics, the works of Archimedes, and most of the Aristotelean corpus were translated and explored within “a Koranic context” is an intriguing idea, though it would have been helpful to have an examination of what implications this “Koranic context” had. Spencer describes the flourishing of religion in the Islamic empire of the 8th to 14th centuries as a “Golden Age,” and “where our story of the history of science and religion begins,” but I wonder why ancient Greece should not have been deemed the story’s beginning. I am also left wondering, when we’re told that the translating work was often carried out by Syrian Christians, how these Christians or others at the time perceived these texts.

“James Hannam describes the crusaders sent to Islamic Spain being awestruck by the writings they discovered. Hence it was that they preserved them, rather than obliterating them. Christian scholars, working with translators, had the texts translated into Latin, thereby to become the foundation texts of Western academia.”

The author James Hannam describes the crusaders sent to Islamic Spain being awestruck by the writings they discovered. Hence it was that they preserved them, rather than obliterating them as (he asserts) one might expect Christian crusaders to do of any Islamic creation. Ideally, I would have liked it if Spencer might have made at least passing mention of the militarism of Islam’s own previous territorial advances, not because I wish to denigrate Islam but simply because referring to the Crusades alone might give some listeners the impression that Christianity is uniquely destructive.

Far from destroying these texts, Christian scholars, working with translators, had the texts translated into Latin, thereby to become the foundation texts of Western academia.

The thirteenth-century bishop Robert Grosseteste is introduced as a figure emblematic of the intersection of religion and science. Spencer visits Lincolnshire Cathedral to observe stained glass windows illustrating Grosseteste’s life, which included substantive efforts to de-chaff his Church. He also had a notable career in science, and Professor Tom McLeish enforces this point by praising Grosseteste’s work, which “deeply impressed” him and surpassed his expectations. Acknowledging that the experimental method that underpins modern science had yet to be established, he notes the “constructive observation” in Grosseteste’s work, describing his astute writing on light and colour.

Having rebuffed the common misconception that science was non-existent prior to Newton, the conversation proceeds to Nick Spencer’s assertion that “rather than [science] being done in the teeth ecclesiastical opposition, the Church was effectively a massive research funding agency.” As welcome as this suggestion is, it feels unsubstantiated on the grounds of the evidence so far presented. But the following statement by James Hannam, that “the Church was responsible for the universities,” and that it insisted on education in maths and philosophy, is compelling. Still, more evidence and detail on precisely what is meant by this statement would be beneficial. The claim might be particularly poignant to the many non-Christians who deem the Church a cash-grabbing institution; a ubiquitous complaint about Christianity is that Churches collect monetary donations and escape taxation. Here the point is made that the Church’s expenditure includes the nourishing of academia.

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