The polemic against religion seems to depend on an assumption concerning the makeup of the world. A popular assumption seems to be that there are three basic realms the political, the religious and the scientific. Depending on one’s personal preference, one establishes an “if only.” For instance, those of us with a religious affiliation might say, “If only Constantine had never got involved with the Church, then Christianity would not be tarred with all this political corruption.” For any one of the supposed realms, one of the others can be used as a scapegoat for the evils of the world.
Herein lies the advantage for those who favor the notion of a pure scientific realm. Laying the blame for corruption and evil at the foot of religious or political institutions is easier than blaming scientists for the evil of the world. Nevertheless, in popular movies and fiction, there is the image of the mad scientist alone in his laboratory unleashing evil into the world through his unholy experimentation. (See Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or I Am Legend [Blu-ray] for a more recent version of this narrative and the interaction of the three realms.)
Yet, when the history of the world is told in a way that pits science against religion, the scientific realm has the advantage of having no living history, no tradition. That is, the anti-religion polemicist can divorce him- or herself (Or is it himself, for the scientific community has also been guilty of misogyny being slow to accept women into their fold due to their propensity for hysteria.) from the errors and atrocities of the past in a way that neither the politicians nor the religious adherents can. The scientist can forget the practice of bleeding as a cure for fever in a way that the Church cannot divorce herself from the Crusades, or the Spanish Inquisition. Since science is concerned with a certain type of knowledge and technological development, all mistakes of the past can be presented as “We now know…” or “If only, they had known…”
What if we wrote a history of science that focussed only on the “bad” science? Would science fair so well? If we focussed our attention on such things as bleeding, Thalidomide (or other modern birth related experiments — why is it that women were in stirrups and given, often unnecessary, episiotomies), the disparaging and persecution of midwives, DDT, the atomic bomb, machine guns, biological, and chemical weapons, racial profiling, etc. or focussed only on the evils done in the name of science like vivisection (see G.K. Chesterton’s prophetic book Eugenics and Other Evils : An Argument Against the Scientifically Organized State) or profiled only people like Joseph Mengele, then would science lose some of its shiny veneer.
Yet, scientific history has a way of dissociating itself from its errors (experiments, it calls them) and faulty assumptions because in many ways the ends justify the means. The discovery of insulin by Banting and Best (from my Alma Mater) through experimentation on dogs would be one sided if we only focussed on the rights of the animals without due attention to the incalculable benefits to diabetics. Why is it okay to count the hits and not the misses of science, but only the misses and not the hits of religion (and Christianity, in particular)? Attending to both the hits and misses is something I learned as a young man from Carl Sagan’s, in some respects, excellent book The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark.
Many people tend to accept that evils done in the name of science were “bad” science and so don’t really belong to the history of science. Yet, when Christians claim that evils done in the name of Christ are “bad” religion, the same acceptance is not so forthcoming. For Joseph Mengele was not doing science, he was doing Nazi politics and, of course, we all are supposed to know that Hitler was a Christian and his religion was the source of his anti-semitism. (See The Nazi Persecution of the Churches or Christianity On Trial: Arguments Against Anti-Religious Bigotry.) But Mengele was doing Nazi science, Nazi (neo-pagan) religion, and Nazi politics. The three were inseparable.
For those who are interested in reading about the relation of religion and science and the rise of the religion versus science myth, I would recommend either the short chapter in Christianity on Trial: Arguments Against Anti-Religious Bigotry by Vincent Carroll or for a more in depth academic treatment of this subject with lots of footnotes see Rodney Stark’s For the Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch-Hunts, and the End of Slavery. The book Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion edited by Ronald Numbers is also a good place to start. For a brief alternative account of the crusades see Thomas F. Madden’s 2009 article “Inventing the Crusades”.