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Debunking the Conflict Thesis

'Of Popes and Unicorns' unravels the nuanced relationship between science and religion. It's not what you might think.

Portrait of Galileo by Justus Sutermans, 1636. (Public domain/Wikimedia Commons)

Of Popes and Unicorns: Science, Christianity, and How the Conflict Thesis Fooled the World, by David Hutchings and James C. Ungureanu, (Oxford University Press: 2021), 280 pages plus 11 images.

There is a reason we are told to follow the science. After all, the scientific method is our most successful tool for establishing the truth. And it has been for centuries, a rationalist bulwark of unbiased observation and rigorous testing standing firm against mankind’s perennial susceptibility to personal bias, ideological motivation, and the blinkered dogmas of religion (and verily, those who thought otherwise were banished from the public sphere, and there was much lamentation amongst the people).

Yet the idea that science exemplifies some distinctive mode of reasoning in perpetual conflict with our more primitive superstitions is a surprisingly recent innovation. It barely stretches back to the late nineteenth century. Even more surprisingly, it goes back to two very specific individuals—John William Draper (1811-1882) and Andrew Dickson White (1832-1918)—whose now all-but-forgotten books on the history of science provide the sine qua non for almost every contemporary textbook, television series and talking head preaching the ages-old enmity between faith and reason.

Unravelling the nuanced relationship between science and religion is a considerable challenge, and one beset on all sides by the iniquities of the self-interested. Yet the focus upon these two particular polemicists allows Of Popes and Unicorns to trace an enjoyable and light-hearted route through the so-called Conflict Thesis. John William Draper was born in England, the son of a Wesleyan clergyman, but moved to Virginia to pursue a more promising career as a nineteenth-century scientific polymath (the Draper Point is the approximate temperature at which heated objects begin to glow). He also found time to be a historian and best-selling author, and his 1874 A History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science offers a very clear statement of a familiar trope:

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.

Andrew Dickson White is best known as the co-founder and first president of Cornell University. His 1896 book A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom was the exhaustively referenced, multi-volume accompaniment to Draper’s rather more readable work. Between them, they created ex nihilo a Dark Ages rife with Christian cancel-culture, the no-platforming of natural philosophy, and a medieval syllabus ruthlessly de-colonized of Graeco-Roman learning.

None of it is true of course. No one has believed the Earth was flat since the first time a ship disappeared beneath the horizon; the idea that Christopher Columbus faced theological opposition to his navigational plans derives entirely from Washington Irving’s heavily fictionalized A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus, who felt the story needed a little more drama. (As it happens, Flat-Earthism is also a relatively recent phenomena, only going back to around the 1850s.) The Church was largely a source of medical innovation rather than an obstacle, despite Draper’s insistence that curing the sick “interfered too much with the gifts and profits of the shrines.” The Library of Alexandria was not burnt to the ground by Christian fanatics. Pope Callixtus III did not attempt to excommunicate Halley’s comet. The Dark Ages were not very dark. Indeed, the Christian conviction that man was created in God’s image, and thus had the capacity to understand his divine creation, was a principal motivation behind early scientific investigation. Yet again and again, we are treated to some authoritative statement of faith from the usual scientific celebrities—Richard Dawkins, Neil deGrasse Tyson—whose pronouncements ex cathedra are contrasted with exasperated historians marveling at how anyone could still believe such manifest nonsense. Invariably, the only cited sources are Draper and White, whose books are still apparently taken as gospel.

There is a risk, however, of simply replacing one overly simplistic account with another. The history of astronomy is a case in point. Hutchings and Ungureanu are absolutely right that Copernicus’ De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (1543) was never banned by the Church. If the book failed to crack the top-ten bestsellers list, this was largely because it was impenetrably technical, riddled with pseudo-mystical references, and (more importantly) because it lacked any theory of inertial motion capable of explaining how the earth could move without us noticing. Similarly, Hutchings and Ungureanu note that Galileo actually enjoyed good relations with the Church throughout his career:

Many cardinals and bishops, for instance, exalted the physicist, and backed his science publicly. On one occasion, when an angry sermon was preached against his heliocentrism, the offending minister was forced to apologize to Galileo, in print, by Catholic superiors.

Indeed, the charges of heresy that appeared in print came from “secular philosophers committed to Aristotle, not members of the clergy.” Galileo was never tortured; he was never forced to recant; and he continued to publish long after he was “imprisoned” at his friend’s palatial villa.

Yet here things also become muddled. Galileo did fall afoul of academic colleagues desperately defending the scientific consensus, and willing to invoke public censorship in order to silence a dissenting voice; but then again, many of these “secular philosophers” were also active members of the clergy. It is often difficult to distinguish between the scientific and the religious, or to differentiate either from the all-too-human realities of everyday life. The Jesuit astronomer Christoph Scheiner, who spoke at Galileo’s trial, was also embroiled in a vicious priority dispute with him over the discovery of sun spots. The shift from a geocentric to a heliocentric universe posed very little conceptual friction with scripture. But it did challenge the broader sociopolitical framework of the time: a highly successful synthesis of Aristotelian physics and Christian ethics as exemplified in the poetry of Dante, one where natural laws neatly corresponded to moral imperatives, and where one always knew which way was up (figuratively and literally).

All of which raises the question as to how the Conflict Thesis got started, and why it remains so prominent today. The nineteenth-century saw the beginning of the professionalization of science as an independent discipline, with the attendant need to distance itself from its “less rational” rivals. Protestant revivalism in the U.S. encouraged an increasingly individualistic rejection of an outdated established Church. Both Draper and White nurtured personal grudges against organized religion. Yet as Hutchings and Ungureanu also stress, none of this at the time was seen as grounds for divorce. Draper wanted a return to a less dogmatic faith, one where the Church authorities confined themselves to saving souls rather than playing politics. White saw scientific progress as a means for modernizing the old myths of Christianity for a contemporary audience grown cynical of signs and wonders. They both thought that their books were contributing to the reconciliation of science and religion.

Yet today, social media campaigns attempt to strip eminent scientists of their awards for the sin of believing in God. Those in power once found it expedient to charge Galileo with denying scripture when he dared to challenge the status quo; now they would charge him for taking it too seriously. The problem, then, might have nothing to do with either science or religion. Indeed, many of the most prominent flash points in the contemporary “conflict” cut across denominational boundaries as much as they do social distinctions and political allegiances. When the teaching of creationism in public schools was first challenged as unconstitutional in the Arkansas courthouse in the 1980s, the plaintiffs were led by a coalition of church leaders from the local Methodist, Episcopal, Catholic, and Presbyterian congregations. Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical Laudato si’ explicitly acknowledged anthropogenic climate change and—perhaps more tellingly—the need for government solutions. Sometimes politics is a better guide to doctrine. Render unto Caesar, and all that.

These questions go far beyond the scope of the book; but it is testimony to an introductory work like Of Popes and Unicorns that one is immediately inspired to ask them. The history of science according to Draper and White is simply laughable, so why does it play such a prominent role in the self-perception of so many scientists? How do these foundation myths determine the role played by science in contemporary culture? And if Hutchings and Ungureanu only offer us a taster of the issues involved, they include enough references and citations to provide an extremely useful jumping-off point for further reading. Follow the science—you might be surprised by what you find.

Paul Dicken is a writer and philosopher. He is the author of Getting Science Wrong. Find him on Twitter @paul_dicken.

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