In a recent post, my SciBling Jason Rosenhouse with whom I usually agree on these matters, voices a strong disagreement with this quote (from Thomas Dixon’s book Science and Religion: A Very Short Introduction, published by Oxford University Press in 2008):
Historians have shown that the Galileo affair, remembered by some as a clash between science and religion, was primarily about the enduring political question of who was authorized to produce and disseminate knowledge.
Jason counters that Galileo affair, as well as the more modern Creationist wars, are primarily and perhaps entirely science vs. religion wars, not political. He writes:
Afficionados of science/religion disputes will recognize in this a standard gambit of the genre. Specifically, the attempt to recast situations that are obviously conflicts between science and religion into conflicts about something else.
Another SciBling, Mike Dunford, disagrees with Jason on the Creationism wars:
The conflict arises when creationists attempt to force their religious views onto the children of other people, who do not necessarily share those views. That’s not a dispute over what the most authoritative source of knowledge is; that’s a dispute over the exercise of secular authority. In other words, it’s a political conflict.
The commenters on both posts then lose the sight of forest for the trees and get bogged down in the historical minutiae about the Gallileo affair. Not very constructive. Let me cut through all that and come out strongly on the Thomas Dixon side. Step by step. This way:
1) Every conflict is about power. Ergo, every conflict is essentially a political conflict. Who gets to be the boss. Who gets the money. Who gets first dibs at the pretty peasant girls from the village that feeds the nobles in the castle. Who gets to kill whom. Who gets to invade whom. Who gets the territory.
2) Conflicts require troops. Better the troops are motivated, more likely the positive outcome will be for the power-hungry leader. In many conflicts, the leaders motivate the troops by recasting the conflict in terms of “You are wrong, we are right, thus you die”. Those are conflicts over facts: who has the better facts. If those facts relate to the way the world works, then those facts are amenable to empirical testing.
3) Throughout history, including today, the conflicts over facts have been conflicts over religious facts. While the core reason for the conflict is power for the ruling class, religion serves wonderfully to unite the troops around a common idea, common symbols, a shared destiny. Religion probably evolved to aid group cohesion in early human societies and can be wonderfully used to aid group cohesion when a battle needs to be waged, even today.
4) Most of these fact-based conflicts pit one set of religious “facts” with another set of religious “facts”. We call these conflicts “religious wars” despite religion being just an excuse for a power-grab or invasion or civil war. Both sides’ facts fail the empirical tests, but the “You are wrong, we are right, thus you die” is still the battle cry for both sides.
5) In some, more recent conflicts, facts of one side actually pass the empirical test. These are wars between reason and superstition. We like to call them wars between Science and Religion. Often they are not waged with real weapons, but with other political means: battles over control of the classrooms, the goverment, the military, etc. Clearly, religion is a troup-motivator for one side, but the goal is obviously political power. In the USA, the two sides have over the past three decades or so clearly aligned with the two major political parties. Democrats are generally realistic and ignore the pseudoscientific extremists from the far left who have zero influence on policy. Republicans are anti-scientific and anti-reality at the core – that is what defines their party, their platform and their conservative ideology – the most extreme anti-science forces from the far right ARE the party leaders, their members in Congress, and their most visible representatives in the public eye. It is them who write the policy, while the realistic conservatives are marginalized or kicked out of the party.
6) Creationism is just one of many weapons in a unified anti-reality political platform of the Right. Some Creationists are just indoctrinated, scared folks who provide ground troops in this conflict. Other Creationists are part of the power-hungry elite of the party who use Creationism as a motivator for a particular segments of their ground-troops (other populations are motivated in other ways, with other tools, e.g., greed, or fear of terrorists, etc.). The Science vs. Religion aspect of the conflict is just window-dressing – the essence of the conflict is political: it is all about Power.
Every conflict is a political conflict.
Some conflicts are also superficially about facts about the world.
Some of these conflicts happen to pit correct facts against incorrect facts.
Creationist wars, just like all Science vs. Religious wars, are thus a subset of a subset of a subset of all conflicts. And they are all essentially and profoundly political conflicts. Which is why I wrote this dissertation-long post the other day – read it.