Enlightenment on Trial

Ugly debates about religion and science usually seem to be confined to the United States.  In recent months, however, such debates have begun to spread – first to Europe and then around the world. Science, it seems, is drifting into political dangers it has not faced since before the Enlightenment.

Europe began its own American-style debate on the origins of life when Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna cast doubt on the acceptability of Darwinism and evolutionary theory to people who see themselves as faithful Roman Catholics. The Cardinal argued that evolution is the work of God and that evolutionary theory should be interpreted in that light and no other.

With Cardinal Schönborn’s intervention, the peace between science and religion that in Old Europe had held almost since the Enlightenment – and at least since the historically hard-won eviction of the Church from politics in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries – seemed suddenly to have been broken. Revealed truth, the Cardinal seemed to say, must be accorded primacy over the truths science reveals through reason.

This is not to say that religious sentiment or, in the case of Germany, bitter historical experience stemming from the Nazi era, had not informed other European debates, say, on the ethics of stem-cell research. Indeed, the religious background of Europe’s nations clearly manifested itself in various European laws on such research, with the United Kingdom and Sweden being the most liberal and Italy, Austria, and Poland the most restrictive. But none of these debates directly challenged the role of science in society or posed, as Cardinal Schönborn did, the idea that religion and science are potentially incompatible.