Behind the Book: Science and Religion

Each year I teach an upper-division course on the History of Science and Religion. The course draws students from a variety of religious and nonreligious backgrounds, most of whom are studying science. Year after year I find that my students hold the same outdated misconceptions about the alleged conflict of science and religion. In lecturing recently on the monastic preservation and transmission of natural philosophy (science) during the so-called Dark Ages, for example, I mentioned Gerbert of Aurillac (c. 940-1003), a brilliant French polymath who combined considerable classical knowledge with theological learning. He was the first European in that unlearned age to use Aristotle’s works of logic, which later became an important part of medieval education, and he wrote extensively in several fields, especially on music and his special field of mathematics. I asked the class what they thought would happen to a man like that. One student immediately raised a hand and confidently surmised that he was burned at the stake! I surprised the student by saying that in fact he became Pope Sylvester II.     

The first edition of my Science and Religion: A Historical Introduction appeared in 2002. The volume has enjoyed wide use as a text in courses on science and religion in North America and abroad. But some of the issues that it explores are no longer at the forefront of contemporary discussion, while several new issues have entered the conversation. The second edition, just published by Johns Hopkins, addresses these matters in an extensive revision. Several chapters from the first edition have been retired, replaced by new chapters (e.g., on anthropology, American psychology, neuroscience, and the modern synthesis in evolution). The subjects treated are more diverse, including, for example, the social sciences, and reflecting recent cultural and religious developments. The revision incorporates additional chapters on non-Christian traditions, particularly Judaism, Islam, Asiatic religions, and atheism. Finally, every chapter that has been retained from the first edition has been updated in content and bibliography and in some cases completely rewritten to reflect current scholarship. I have been fortunate in securing some of the most distinguished historians of science and religion to undertake the revision of earlier chapters, while several new chapters have been written by younger scholars who have a particular expertise in the fields in which they write.

The distinguished historian of science and religion Ronald Numbers once remarked that the alleged conflict of science and religion is a myth that will not go away. In editing a second edition I hope to dispel that myth.


Gary B. Ferngren is a professor of history at Oregon State University and a professor of the history of medicine at First Moscow State Medical University. He is the author of Medicine and Religion: A Historical Introduction and Medicine and Health Care in Early Christianity. The second edition of Science and Religion is available now.