The Persistence of the Conflict Narrative in the Academy

In the latest issue of Zygon, Thomas Aechtner, Lecturer in History of Religious Thought at the University of Queensland, decisively demonstrates the historical bankruptcy of postsecondary textbooks and reference materials in anthropology publications. He argues that these publications continue to “present the conflict model’s narrative as the historical account of religion and science interactions.” Thus it continues to thrive not “merely as a popular artifact, but also as a conspicuous historical narrative in modern university-level pedagogical and reference materials.”

Publishers such as AltMira, McGraw-Hill, Peason, Routledge, Sage, and Wadsworth (and surely others), persist in publishing textbooks and reference guides that use the “conflict thesis” as an organizing narrative. Aechtner lists several recent textbooks, including Social and Cultural Anthropology: The Key Concepts (2000), Encyclopedia of Anthropology (2006, 2008), The Tapestry of Culture: An Introduction to Cultural Anthropology (2009), 21st Century Anthropology: A Reference Handbook (2010), Anthropology: A Global Perspective (2012), and others still, which all continue to reduce the complex interactions between science and religion into caricatures. Discussions of the Scientific Revolution and the Age of the Enlightenment, Heliocentrism, Copernicus, Bruno, and Galileo, Darwin and evolutionary theory, science and secularization, merely preserve the narratives of Draper and White without ever questioning their accuracy or legitimacy. As Aechtner writes, “the cumulative picture of historical science-religion interactions sketched by many introductory anthropology materials is unquestionably one of conflict.”

Aechtner wonders why, despite the abundance of revisionist historiography, do these textbooks continue to use the conflict model for history. Perhaps, he muses, it is “due to genre constraints and publication limitations associated with such works.” That may indeed be true. However, as he goes on to point out, there are cases where authors of these textbooks deliberately misrepresent science-religion relations. For example, both Anthropology: A Global Perspective and Cultural Anthropology: A Global Perspective cite John Henry’s excellent work, The Scientific Revolution and the Origins of Modern Science (2002). But whereas Henry is careful to note that conflict between science and religion is not inevitable, the authors of these textbooks completely ignore such measured and important qualifications. “This demonstrates,” writes Aechtner, that such textbooks “seem to disregard and even contradict a fundamental message about science and religion contained so forcefully within the very pages of their cited source.” In short, the conflict narrative “persists within university-level pedagogical and reference books used to teach the uninitiated on contemporary postsecondary campuses.”

Students beware.

7 Comments on “The Persistence of the Conflict Narrative in the Academy”

  1. In 2006, anthrophologist Joel Robbins

    [recently appointed to a chair a Cambridge] wrote a paper in the Anthropological Quarterly

    Anthropology and Theology: An Awkward Relationship?

    Earlier last year the journal Current Anthropology included an article

    Engaging the Religiously Committed Other: Anthropologists and Theologians in Dialogue

    I wonder if these shifts will eventually end up in the textbooks.

  2. James, with respect to the Conflict Thesis, is there any indication as to the percentage of Historians of Science who accept the Conflict Thesis as true narrative of the relationship between Science and Religion today? Is it a fringe idea, or does it have a reasonable amount of adherents?

    • Ian,

      The vast majority of historians of science reject what has been called the “strong” version of the Conflict Thesis, which posits a necessary conflict between science and religion. We recognize, however, that there may be “weaker” conflicts, when it comes to, for instance, epistemology, methodology, values, or social issues. Unfortunately the strong version of the conflict thesis is not a fringe idea. But those who do support it don’t bother to consult history. For a good book on this topic see the one edited by Thomas Dixon and others, Science and Religion: New Historical Perspectives (2010).

      • ” Unfortunately the strong version of the conflict thesis is not a fringe idea. But those who do support it don’t bother to consult history”

        Are those same people who support the “strong version of the conflict thesis” and “don’t bother to consult history” also Historians of Science? Or are they simply Historians who do not specialize in the history of science?

        I would expect professional Historians of Science to consult history with some vigor.

      • Good point. But as said, most historians of science reject any kind of essentialism. Other historians, however, tend to accept the trope. Why is that? I dunno. Laziness? Bias? Ignorance? Take your pick. But in my opinion it is usually a combination of all three.

  3. ” For a good book on this topic see the one edited by Thomas Dixon and others, Science and Religion: New Historical Perspectives (2010).”

    Thanks for the recommendation James. I have that on my book lust list.

    I recently read John Hedley Brooke’s Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives (Cambridge, 1991). So “Science and Religion: New Historical Perspectives” looks like a good book to follow up the topic. Cheers.

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