The best one-sentence summary of the Catholic position on the issue of science and religion is “If you see a conflict between science and religion, you’re either dealing with bad science or bad religion.”
But it seems to me that if we’re hyper-aware of the problem with the latter (bad religion), we are less well-aware of the problem with the former (bad science).
And it’s very easy to produce bad science. This is intrinsic to the scientific process. The scientific process produces contingent truths (even, I would argue, as Popper wrote, not even truths, but presumptions) through controlled experiment. This is fundamental, because once you elevate scientific findings to the status of capital-T Truth, you foreswear the possibility of falsifying the findings through experiment, which is the basis of the scientific method. Setting up science against religion may or may not be bad for some forms of religion, but it’s certainly bad for science.
There’s a further problem, which is that we call “science” things which are not, properly speaking, according to the previous definition (which is what the Scientific Revolution was about) science, and so erect even sub-scientific truth (scientific truth itself being a lower order of truth) against religion.
For example, today, much of economics, psychology, and so on is not based on experiment (or, in the case of psychology, repeatable experiment) and so is not, properly speaking, scientific.
Within this context, it stands to reason that we should expect that many science-religion conflicts are due to bad science, rather than bad religion.
To me, nothing makes this more obvious than Historical Jesus scholarship.
The first thing to note is that Historical Jesus scholarship, like all historical scholarship, is, properly speaking, not scientific. You can’t repeat Julius Cesar’s invasion of Gaul in a lab. It is sapiential, i.e. it involves the use of reason leading to wisdom. This is why an informed, scrupulous layman can have opinions on history as legitimate as any professional historian’s, while I wouldn’t trust your cousin Bob’s opinion on vaccination.
The second is that, as Albert Schweitzer noted more than a century ago, almost all Historical Jesus scholarship (down to Reza Aslan today) is basically a form of navel gazing. Somehow, the Jesus of history is always a better (better-looking?) version of the author (hi, Crossan!), or one who lines up with the author’s agenda (hi, Renan! Hi, Maccoby!).
But the third is that Historical Jesus scholarship is bad. I mean, bad. I loved N.T. Wright’s line of “endless epicycles of Religionsgeschichte” The almost universal assumption that the Gospels as we have them are based on disparate “traditions” coming from different “schools” accreted over decades responding to political factors is based on nothing at all. It is assumed, like a can-opener. Almost all Historical Jesus scholarship works according to the following principle: (1) decide on a hypothesis about Jesus; (2) pick out all the passages that support your hypothesis, junk the ones that don’t as later additions and corruptions from history; (3) hey, whaddaya know, the Jesus picture that emerges matches your hypothesis!
In fact, it turns out that good historical research vindicates the claims of orthodoxy. As Bauckham has shown (not proved, no, but shown), honest historical analysis compels us to agree that the Gospels are exactly what they purport to be: historical accounts based on eyewitness testimony. As Wright has shown, Jesus was not a Jewish rebel in a militaristic sense, or a flower child, or an aphoristic cynic philosopher, but a Jewish prophet, who believed himself to be the Mashiach, and not only the Mashiach, but to be acting as the very presence of the God of Israel; and the only plausible historical explanation for the fact of the early Church is the bodily Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth (or, at the very least, an unshakeable belief of such in purported eyewitnesses who had every cultural reason for disbelieving it).
And it turns out that the 19th century Catholic Church, stubbornly reaffirming every verity of faith against the repeated assaults of so-called scholars, was in fact acting as a redoubt of reason.
The problem of “the Jesus of History”, then, is not a problem of a conflict between science and religion, it is the much more pedestrian problem of junk science.
And we know of many other examples.
What of the so-called “scientific racism” of the 19th century? Those who held up the Biblical teaching of the unity of the human family were derided as know-nothing fundamentalists.
When Margaret Sanger wrote that “there is no doubt in the minds of all thinking people that the procreation of this group [i.e., poor, religious people] should be stopped,” she was not being too sophistic. In fact, for a very long time, eugenics was the position of all so-called “thinking people”, and in their mind it was modern science that, through the science of genetics, had made the case for that abominable practice.
It is also worth remembering the combination of insanity and purported scientificness–and the sheer extent–of the overpopulation fears of the ’60s and ’70s (which never really died). Within the day’s context, Humanae Vitae‘s reaffirmation of the historic Church teaching against contraception appeared not only fuddy-duddily conservative, but positively obscurantist: here was humanity, driving towards the brink, with “all thinking people” trying to hit the brakes, and here was religious obscurantism, pressing down on the accelerator. Now, of course, it appears that not only were such fears unwarranted, but that the main challenge facing humanity, particularly in the West and China, is underpopulation.
This is an aspect of the “science and religion” thing which is all-too-often obscured. Yes, science-religion conflicts can and do occur because of bad religion. But they also very often occur because of bad science. And this is something we should all keep in mind.