(1st Things) Stephen Barr–On The Origins Of Specious Myths

Conventional wisdom has it that science and religion have perennially been at war. This “conflict thesis,” as historians call it, can be traced to the late nineteenth century and to two influential books in particular: John ­William Draper’s History of the Conflict between Religion and Science, published in 1874, and Andrew Dickson White’s two-volume History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom, published in 1896.

Draper stated the thesis this way:

The history of Science . . . 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.

What Draper meant by “traditionary faith” was Catholicism, a religion he detested. The eminent historian of ­science Lawrence Principe has characterized Draper’s book as “little more than a thinly disguised anti-Catholic rant.” For Andrew Dickson White, by contrast, the problem lay not with any particular religion, or with religion in general, but with “dogmatic theology.” “The theological method,” as he saw it, “consists largely in accepting tradition and in spinning arguments to fit it.” The history of science is “full of ­interferences” by theologians fearful of new ideas:

Religious men started, centuries ago, with the idea that purely scientific investigation is unsafe; that theology must intervene. So began this great modern war.

Of course, Draper and White did not invent the notion that scientific ideas and theological ideas can sometimes be in tension, even to the point of conflict. This had been ­obvious since at least the time of Galileo. What they did invent was the notion that there had existed two distinct and warring camps, Science and Religion (or Science and Theology), and that history was replete with clashes between them. This notion is belied, of course, by the fact that the great majority of scientists well into the nineteenth century were themselves religious. Draper and White, in addition to inventing the conflict thesis, amassed much of the evidence that has since been cited to support it. This they did by variously misconstruing, taking out of context, garbling, embellishing, distorting, and in some cases simply fabricating historical facts and events.

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Posted in Books, History, Religion & Culture, Science & Technology