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Ronald Numbers, an Agnostic scholar who is one of the leading historians on the relationship of science and religion, writes:

The greatest myth in the history of science and religion holds that they have been in a state of constant conflict.

Timothy Larsen, a Christian historian who specializes in the nineteenth century, notes:

The so-called “war” between faith and learning, specifically between orthodox Christian theology and science, was manufactured during the second half of the nineteenth century. It is a construct that was created for polemical purposes.

No one deserves more blame for this stubborn myth than these two men:

  • Andrew Dickson White (1832-1918), the founding president of Cornell University, and
  • John William Draper (1811-1882), professor of chemistry at the University of New York.

AD_White_1865In December of 1869, Andrew White—the young and beleaguered Cornell president—delivered a lecture at Cooper Union in New York City entitled ”The Battle-Fields of Science.” He melodramatically painted a picture of a longstanding warfare between religion and science:

I propose, then, to present to you this evening an outline of the great sacred struggle for the liberty of Science—a struggle which has been going on for so many centuries. A tough contest this has been! A war continued longer—with battles fiercer, with sieges more persistent, with strategy more vigorous than in any of the comparatively petty warfares of Alexander, or Caesar, or Napoleon . . . In all modern history, interference with Science in the supposed interest of religion—no matter how conscientious such interference may have been—has resulted in the direst evils both to Religion and Science, and invariably.

His lecture was published in book form seven years later as The Warfare of Science (1876).

John_William_DraperIn 1874, Professor Draper published his History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science (New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1874). His thesis was as follows:

The antagonism we thus witness between Religion and Science is the continuation of a struggle that commenced when Christianity began to attain political power. . . . The history of Science is not a mere record of isolated discoveries; it is a narrative of the conflict of two contending powers, the expansive force of the human intellect on one side, and the compression arising from traditionary faith and human interests on the other.

Draper’s work was enormously popular, going through 50 editions in the next half century.

Larsen writes:

Draper and White were not simply describing an ongoing war between theology and science, but rather they were endeavoring to induce people into imagining that there was one. In order to do this, they repeatedly made false claims that the church had opposed various scientific breakthroughs and developments.

Here are a couple of urban legends that Draper and White perpetuated:

  1. The church believed for centuries that the earth is flat.
  2. The church opposed the use of anesthetics in childbirth since Genesis promised that childbirth would be painful.

On the first myth, Lesley B. Cormack, chair of the Department of History and Classics at the University of Alberta, writes that

there is virtually no historical evidence to support the myth of a medieval flat earth. Christian clerics neither suppressed the truth nor stifled debate on the subject.

On the second myth, Larsen responds:

No church has ever pronounced against anesthetics in childbirth. Moreover, there was no vocal group of ministers who opposed it. In fact, the inventor of chloroform received fan mail from ministers of the major denominations thanking him for helping to alleviate the suffering of women in labor. Rather, the opposition to anesthetics during childbirth came from medical professionals, not from ministers, and for scientific, not religious, reasons.

And on the legends go. (For treatment of these and other myths, see Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion, ed. Ronald L. Numbers).

So why exactly did men like Dickson and Draper—along with English biologist T. H. Huxley, who championed Darwinism and coined the term “agnostic”—manufacture these historical myths and this overall legend of perpetual conflict?

In the mid-nineteenth century there was no separate profession of science. Manufacturing a “war” between science and religion was part of their professionalization campaign. Larsen explains:

The purpose of the war was to discredit clergymen as suitable figures to undertake scientific work in order that the new breed of professionals would have an opportunity to fill in the gap for such work created by eliminating the current men of science. It was thus tendentiously asserted that the religious convictions of clergymen disqualified them from pursuing their scientific inquiries objectively.

More to the point, however, was the fact that clergymen were undertaking this work for the sheer love of science and thus hindering the expectation that it would be done for money by paid full-time scientists. Clergymen were branded amateurs in order to facilitate the creation of a new category of professionals.

Dickson and Draper won this debate, even if it was at the cost of truth itself.

The myth continues today, but it can be overturned as we study the history behind how the legend developed.

Sources Cited / For Further Reading

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13 thoughts on “The Two Guys to Blame for the Myth of Constant Warfare between Religion and Science”

  1. Mark Ward says:

    Another highly readable and interesting book which covers the broader topic of the history of science and religion is Lawrence Principe’s Scientific Revolution: A Very Short Introduction, part of the Oxford series. And he digs deeper into the particular topic of this post in his essay in Scientism: The New Orthodoxy.

  2. Curt Day says:

    Not sure about this post. It’s not like if you got rid of the two myths and the two guys mentioned that you would have no conflict between science and religion. They can complement each other, but the miracles themselves, around which Christianity revolves, is enough to drive a wedge between the two and has been for a while. Liberal theology is the result of the conflict. Neo-Orthodoxy is a flawed attempt to bring the two together. So I struggle with this post.

    1. jigawatt says:

      Miracles only upset science in the mind of one whose worldview precludes them a priori.

      1. Curt Day says:

        I’m sorry but I am afraid you don’t understand their perspective. If they could see the miracles themselves or repeat the miracles, then they would be satisfied. But we have to have some degree of understanding for the skepticism. Their discipline discourages them from taking our word for it. And in fact, we, ourselves, need the Holy Spirit to change us so we can believe.

        1. jigawatt says:

          “they’d be satisfied” <– does this mean they'd believe in God and honor him? What do you mean by satisfied? If miracles themselves were enough for people to change their minds about God, there wouldn't be an army of Egyptians under the waters of the Red Sea.

          You're right that we need the Holy Spirit to change us before we'll believe, but this also includes naturalistic scientists. "If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead." Luke 16:31 (ESV)

          1. Curt Day says:

            If you were talking about the Egyptians, you have a point. But you are talking about people who live thousands of years after the fact. And the question at hand is the warfare between religion and science.

  3. Gabriel Powell says:

    It is quite true that there is no conflict between true science and faith. But there is a conflict between naturalistic uniformitarian science that discards God’s revelation, and faith. Science is not objective. It is subjective to the worldview of the scientist. When we accept the conclusions of scientists without understanding their worldview, we make a serious mistake.

  4. Megan says:

    1. The church believed for centuries that the earth is flat.
    2. The church opposed the use of anesthetics in childbirth since Genesis promised that childbirth would be painful.

    It seems unlikely that two guys this obscure would have influenced public perception this much. The more likely influence was from Mark Twain, who was quoted as saying, “The Church has opposed every innovation and discovery from the day of Galileo down to our own time, when the use of anesthetics in childbirth was regarded as a sin because it avoided the biblical curse pronounced against Eve.”

    How much Twain was influenced by these guys is another issue. I do know he was friends with Nikola Tesla. He may have had other scientists as friends as well. Admittedly it would be much more difficult to take on a beloved American icon like Twain than two virtual nobodies.

  5. Jamin Dick says:

    Very informative Justin. I would love it if you would tackle the even tougher topic of unqualified Christians poisoning the science/faith discussion with misinformation. Ken Ham comes to mind as one who is neither a Bible scholar nor a scientist of any kind, yet millions of Christians see him as some kind of authority. So yes these men sowed the seeds of conflict a hundred years ago but modern day evangelical Christians keep it flourishing every day.

    (P.S. I’m an evangelical, reformed Christian who believes in the inerrancy of scripture too.)

  6. Daniel B Cooper says:

    Other people we have to blame for this include Henry M. Morris who invented the ridiculous idea that creation took place over 6 literal days (St Augustine would be appalled) and William Jennings Bryan for turning the evangelical/fundamentalist movement against evolution

    1. Justin Taylor says:

      Both of your suggestions here are actually far removed from the historical truth on these ideas. The Galileo Goes to Jail (edited by an agnostic and published by Harvard University Press) book might be a fruitful place to start on these issues.

      1. Jamin says:

        I’m confused my your reply. Your article rightly pointed out the 100 year old secular roots of the science vs faith conflict. My response was that the conflict is CURRENTLY perpetuated by many unqualified Christians (e.g. Ken Ham and Henry Morris et al) What exactly is “far removed from the historical facts” about that? I assume you’re informed about who these men are and what they stand for? Or should Christians only criticize non-Christians?

        1. Justin Taylor says:

          My reply was meant for “Daniel B Cooper” above.

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Justin Taylor, PhD

Justin Taylor is executive vice president of book publishing and book publisher for Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

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