Revisiting the conflict thesis

I suppose everyone has an axe or two to grind. Among mine are the myriad ways in which people (scholars included), persist in their commitment to beliefs about conflict between religion and science. On the one hand, it annoys me when people feel like there is some certain conflict that cannot be reconciled or ignored (real people do both quite routinely); but it also annoys me when scholars misconstrue the conflict thesis as articulated by 19th century authors (which seems to happen all the time).

Inventor of Telescope Galileo Galilei, 1636 portrait by Justus Sustermans (snagged of Wikipedia)

As for that basic belief that religion and science are at war “since the time of Galileo”…well that’s just silly. Religion and science certainly weren’t at war in the trial of Galileo, and there is no clarity that they are right now. First off, religion and science are rather complex terms for a phenomenal array of human activities–and such things aren’t grammatically capable of being at war. Admittedly, however, people often are at war with other people (and also themselves) over scientific and religious notions. However, that wasn’t really the case during Galileo’s trial, at which time the real issue was more a conflict over old and new scientific models, not to mention a whole bunch of political intrigue. Certainly Galileo never saw the heliocentric model as a challenge to his Catholic faith! There’s a host of great scholarship on this, and I generally recommend that people look at the work of Feyerabend, Biagioli, and Brooke & Cantor; but there are other good books that cover the trial.

Here’s the title page of my copy, which is no. 452 out of 1000…I’d sure love to have the matching vol 2!

But scholars wishing to put away the conflict thesis (or at least offer alternatives) frequently lump together John Draper and Andrew White, both of whom articulated versions of the conflict thesis in the 19th century. While Draper did believe that science would irretrievably conquer religion, White’s position was far more nuanced. Indeed, his entire enterprise was predicated on someone else’s conflict thesis. But in turns out that White’s political perspective has been buried in newer versions of his famed History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom. New versions, like one I have sitting in my office, omit the original preface (fortunately I have a copy of volume one of the original 1896 publication). And it’s only in that preface that you learn about White’s struggle as the first president of Cornell University, the first private university founded in the United States without religious backing. He was under fire for the threat his university posed toward the Christian faith and sought to defend both the university and science itself. He did not, however, think that science would ultimately destroy religion. Indeed, if you bother to read the last chapters of the book (I suspect that few people get beyond his incorrect retelling of the Galileo affair), you learn that White’s position is far more refined. He believed that science would purify theology of problematic dogma. He worried that Christians would be considered backward and ignorant unless they used science to eliminate wrong beliefs and clarify their religion. White believed that “dogmatic theologians” waged war against science but that science’s triumphal march of progress would defeat such obscurantism time and time again. In the end, when theology adapted to scientific methods of knowledge creation, it would be better off.

So I cringe every time I see Draper and White thrown together as inveterate opponents of religion. Draper might have been, but White was a devout Christian. White, like so many other people in the world, had no particular problem reconciling his religious beliefs to his faith in the scientific method. It will be nice when that distinction is clear.

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