The Historiography of Science and Religion in the Construction of Modern Europe

European Society for the History of Science
Biennial Conference 2018 | London, 14-17 September
in conjunction with the British Society for the History of Science

Session 13 | Saturday, 15 September

“Science and Religion” is a popular category in the Anglo-American world, both among academics and the public at large. In a 2006 seminal paper, Peter Harrison challenged the historical origin of this three-word category. In his work, Harrison historicises the modern origins of “science” and of “religion” as we understand them today and concludes that their relationship is a result of the evolution of both notions. But the story he tells, we would argue, is one that focuses mainly in the Anglo-American Protestant world. The separation between religion qua “virtue” and religion qua “the content of faith”, which he traces back to the conflicts between Catholics and Protestants in the Early Modern period, would be the seed of the long tradition of a specifically Protestant natural theology. In this session we suggest to explore the limits of this historiographical notion in other Christian and non-Christian traditions, and the ways in which “science-and-religion” has spread throughout different European contexts. The emphasis on mysticism in the Orthodox world, for instance, or the neo-Thomist notions of reason (not science) and faith (not religion) in some Catholic worlds, are but only two examples that may challenge the usual historiography and current relationships between science and religion. Papers in this session cover a broad geographical spectrum: from Turkey and Greece over to Italy, Germany and Spain and focus majorly in nineteenth and early twentieth case studies of Orthodox, Muslim and Catholic milieus, as well as non-denominational and alternative views on religion and knowledge.


Bloemer, Julia (LMU, Berlin)
Cantor, Geoffrey (University of Leeds)
Ceba, Agustín (University of Valencia)
Le Roux, Benjamin (University of Bordeaux)
March Noguera, Joan (Universidad de las Islas Baleares)
Navarro, Jaume (University of Basque Country) Organizer
Tampakis, Kostas
(National Hellenic Research Foundation)
Tarrant, Neil (University of York)
Yalcinkaya, M. Alper (Wesleyan University)


Tarrant, Neil (University of York)
Science, Religion and Italy’s Seventeenth-Century Decline: From De Sanctis to Croce

It is a widely accepted proposition that, from the mid-sixteenth century onwards, Italian science entered a period of decline. This development is often attributed to the actions of the so-called Counter-Reformation Church, which had grown increasingly intolerant of novel ideas. In this paper I argue that this interpretation of the history of science is derived from an Italian liberal historiographical tradition, which linked the history of Italian philosophy to that of the state. I suggest that historians of science have appropriated this distinctive narrative to underpin the argument that Italy underwent a scientific decline during the seventeenth century, but, more importantly, that they have not always fully understood it. In this paper I consider the manner in which science was considered within the liberal tradition, by focussing on the work of two of its most significant figures: Francesco de Sanctis and Benedetto Croce. Both explicitly suggested that the actions of the Church had caused Italy to enter into a period decline. Nevertheless, they argued that science represented one of the few areas in which Italian intellectual life actually continued to thrive. Croce acknowledged that examples of individuals practising science were not representative of the cultural life of the period as a whole, but he maintained that it was the historian’s duty to record them. These isolated cases represented the continuance of Italy’s traditions of free thought, which would be expressed once more during the Risorgimento.


Bloemer, Julia (LMU, Berlin)
Nature in Seclusion – Monastic Natural Scientists in the Catholic Enlightenment

The story seems to be clear: the underdevelopment of the scholarship and enlightenment of Southern Germany in the eighteenth century can be explained with restrictions of the Catholic Church and its conservative position on education, culture and erudition. Secularization then released suppressed potentials and cleared the way for a scientific rectification. However, there is a catch in this master-narrative: Examining Bavarian and Upper Austrian monasteries, one finds extensive libraries with the latest literature, astronomical observatories and large scientific collections. How can we fit this together? In the eighteenth century, scientific efforts found their realm in academies, universities and most notably in monasteries. Benedictines, Augustine Canons among others collected, observed, communicated, and demonstrated; they gave public lectures in experimental physics and published articles in the transactions of academies. This talk presents characters whose life closely combined both categories – science and religion. But monks did not see themselves as priests of nature, they did not practice natural theology. Nevertheless, their lifestyle did fundamentally influence their scientific practice, both through the structured daily schedule, their transregional network and their education possibilities. Astronomical and meteorological observations produced role conflicts as well as role interactions influencing communication channels and habitual behavior. Above all, scientific endeavors could legitimize a lifestyle that had already come under criticism. Within this talk I argue for looking at these yet unconsidered monastic natural scientists and to use their example for determining the relationship between science and religion, between science and Catholic Church in the eighteenth century anew.


Navarro, Jaume (University of Basque Country)
Draper in Spain. The conflicting circulation of the conflict thesis

In this paper I suggest to explore the appropriation of Draper’s book in the Spanish Restoration (1874-1931). The presentation of the translation of History of the Conflict between Science and Religion into Spanish was a major cultural event. With a preface by Nicolás Salmerón, a former president in the First Spanish Republic, the publication of the book triggered a very heated public discussion, but one that was mostly philosophical and political, not properly scientific. As a matter of fact, Salmerón criticised the book he was presenting on a number of fronts. In a way, Draper and Salmerón did not agree on what counted as religion, as knowledge and as science. And still, the book helped his reforming agenda in spite of these disagreements. This episode adds to the increasing scholarship on the way historiographical myths were appropriated for local political purposes. Draper’s book came in handy for Salmerón. On the official side, the Royal Academy of Moral and Political Sciences, set up a competition to choose the best essay against Draper, thus indirectly reinforcing the thesis of a conflict. Interestingly, the major actors in these arguments were mostly statesmen, clerics and philosophers, rather than scientists, which helps us question the role of the thesis of an overall conflict as a political tool.


March Noguera, Joan (Universidad de las Islas Baleares), and Ceba, Agustín (University of Valencia)
Reforming Seminaries in Majorca. Antoni M. Alcover (1862-1932), science, culture and politics

This paper will examine the teaching of science in the Catholic seminary in Majorca, particularly interesting case study because from 1842 to 1969 there was no university on the island and the curricula could differ among Spanish seminaries. It focuses mainly on Antoni Maria Alcover’s role (1862-1932), a multifaceted priest, philologist, folklorist, historian and cultural promoter. He was the closest collaborator of Antoni Campins, Bishop of Mallorca (1859-1915) who named Alcover General Vicar (the second most important position of the Diocese) the same year he was designated Bishop. Both implemented together a new curriculum (Ratio Studiorum) at Sant Pere Seminary of Mallorca the following course. This syllabus was consistent with Pope Leo XII encyclicals, especially Aeterni Patris (1879), which established how reason and science could be used to call people to faith, returning to scholastic thinkers, especially Thomas Aquinas. The changes and the influence of neothomism in the seminary will be compared with Institut Balear, the only State School in Majorca at that time. He firstly, introduced two new subjects –Astronomy and Physiology and Hygiene–, as well as an annual prize of science. These will allow us to analyse the vast readings of seminarians. Furthermore, they created an astronomic observatory which became a new pedagogical and research space. For instance, it was used in the total Solar eclipse of 1905, when Mallorca turned into a scientific centre of European astronomical expeditions.


Yalcinkaya, M. Alper (Wesleyan University)
Science, Religion, and “Science-and-Religion” in the Late Ottoman Empire

In this paper I discuss how “science and religion” acquired the status of a valid topic of debate in the late nineteenth century Ottoman Empire. I explore how Muslim Ottoman authors debated the nature of the new sciences of the Europeans and the meanings of civilization and progress, in the meantime developing ways of talking about Islam that rendered it a “religion” comparable to the religion European authors referred to in their texts on religion and science. These texts were commonly of an apologetic nature; Ottoman authors’ texts were in effect responses to European critics who portrayed Islam as a religion that hampered progress. I show that in many cases where Ottoman authors made the opposite argument, they were able to use as ammunition the works of other European authors who offered more positive views on the qualities of Islam. Yet this move itself further contributed to the representation of Islam as a “religion” with an identifiable essence and clear boundaries, as a cultural category that could and should be distinguished from the category “science,” and as an institution generating knowledge claims that may or may not conflict with those of science. I analyze the writings of the authors Ahmed Midhat, Namik Kemal, and Semseddin Sami, and illustrate how their representations of science, civilization and progress were simultaneously arguments about the nature of Islam as a religion. “Science and religion” became a valid and relevant topic of debate in the Ottoman Empire through such texts that reified “science” and “Islam.”


Tampakis, Kostas (National Hellenic Research Foundation)
Greek-speaking Orthodox apologists of the 19th and early 20th centuries

This paper proposes to analyze the relationship of science and religion qua categories in the discourse of a specific category of actors, that of Greek-speaking apologists. Many case studies within History of Science focus on science, and treat religious discourse as a reaction. What kind of narrative emerges if we reverse the historiographical point of view? Moreover, Orthodox apologetics in the Greek-speaking world preexisted the establishment of the University of Athens’ School of Theology in 1837. In fact, many of the most famous Orthodox apologists, like Panagiotis Trempelas and Ioannis Skaltsounis, were not in fact affiliated with the University, or the formal Church itself. This paper will look at the most prominent Greek-speaking apologists of the 19th and early 20th centuries to discover what issues they were addressing when they talked about Orthodoxy and science. Were the terms themselves unambiguous? What did they include and exclude, as actor categories? In fact, within Orthodoxy, theology itself as a category is still seen as problematic exactly because it came from the West, and in many cases, the academia was seen as suspicious for the same reason. How were then apologetic writings framed? Finally, the paper proposes to move away from discussion of Darwin and the calendar, whose powerful historiographical attraction in some cases obscures the existence of other themes. If we instead focus on the works of Greek-speaking apologists, treating them not as reactions against an advancing scientific practice, but as self-contained oeuvres of discourse, what themes may present themselves?


Cantor, Geoffrey (University of Leeds)
Personality: The missing link between Science and Religion?

Faraday’s attitudes to both science and religion can be understood within the larger framework of his personality. Put simply, he felt profoundly threatened by disorder of any form; for example, political revolution was an anathema to him. His scientific activities and his participation in the Sandemanian Church can both be understood as ways of guarding against incipient disorder. The laws or nature and the Bible provided the fonts of order that underpinned Faraday’s life. His drive to live in an orderly universe was central to his personality and his personality was both affected by and underpinned by his science and his religion. (Query: What is the psychological meaning of the “argument from design”?) Henry Cavendish had a very different personality. He was, as Russell McCormmach has argued, on the autistic spectrum. Like many high functioning autists, he was drawn to science as a domain where he could exercise his caution and his drive for accuracy. By turning to science he could also minimise contact with others. Unlike most of his contemporaries, however, Cavendish had virtually no contact with religion and seems to have rejected it outright. (Query: Are those (moderns) with autism likely to embrace scientism, reject religion and adopt the conflict thesis?). This paper, then, raises questions about whether and how the study of personality can play a role in helping us appreciate how individuals construct their understanding of both science and religion and the relationship between the two.


Le Roux, Benjamin (University of Bordeaux)
Science and Religion in the secular France of the early 20th century, the case of Henri Devaux (1862-1956)

In this study, our purpose is to describe how, in the secular France of the early 20th century, a figure of the scientific world could assume a public religious activism, even in a religious fundamentalist community. We will focus on the case of the French physiologist Henri Devaux (1862-1956), member of the Académie des sciences and professor at the Faculty of sciences of Bordeaux, like Pierre Duhem. Despite the fact that Devaux was openly involved in the activities of the local Evangelical community, he also became an exemplary figure in the French scientific world, even for some advocates of the laïcité à la française. Throughout his career, Devaux showed a willingness to transgress the classical disciplinary boundaries. Trained as a botanist, he achieved an international reputation thanks to his work on physicochemistry of surfaces and played a role in the molecularization of life sciences. Devaux extended this supradisciplinary logic to the religion itself. Following a “complementary” approach, he conceived science and religion as two components of a unique whole: the Science complète. Devaux made multiple religious references in his laboratory notebooks, he underlined his religious faith in scientific papers and he participated, through conferences and publications, to a popularization of sciences in service of Christian apologetics. Without neglecting the numerous conflicts between science and religion throughout the history, we intend to study the modalities of a dialogue that took place in Devaux’s work, as well as its reception in the scientific world and in his religious community.




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