Science Wars Myth


The idea of inevitable conflict between science and religion was decisively challenged by John Hedley Brooke in his classic Science and religion: Some historical perspectives (Cambridge, 1991). Almost two decades on, Science and religion: New Historical perspectives revisits this argument and asks how historians can now impose order on the complex and contingent histories of religious engagements with science.

Bringing together leading scholars, this new volume explores the history and changing meanings of the categories ‘science’ and ‘religion’; the role of publishing and education in forging and spreading ideas; the connection between knowledge, power, and intellectual imperialism; and the reasons for the confrontation between evolution and creationism among American Christians and in the Islamic world. A major contribution to the historiography of science and religion, this book makes the most recent scholarship on this much misunderstood debate widely accessible. (Dixon et. al. 2010, Front Material, in Science and Religion: New Historical Perspectives)

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 Cxsar, 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.
—Andrew Dickson White, “The Battle-Fields of Science” (1869)

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.
—John William Draper, History of the Conflict between Religion and Science (1874)

The greatest myth in the history of science and religion holds that they have been in a state of constant conflict. No one bears more responsibility for promoting this notion than two nineteenth-century American polemicists: Andrew Dickson White (1832-1918) and John William Draper (1811-1882). White, the young president of Cornell University, became a believer in the warfare between science and religion after religious critics branded him an infidel for, as he put it, trying to create in Ithaca “[a]n asylum for Science—where truth shall be sought for truth’s sake, not stretched or cut exactly to fit Revealed Religion.” On a winter’s evening in December 1869 he strode to the podium in the great hall of Cooper Union in New York City, ready to smite his enemies with history, to give them “a lesson which they will remember.” In a melodramatic lecture titled “The Battle-Fields of Science” the historian surveyed “some of the hardest-fought battle-fields” of the “great war” between science and religion. He told of Giordano Bruno’s being “burned alive as a monster of impiety,” of Galileo’s having been “tortured tured and humiliated as the worst of unbelievers,” and much more, ending with the latest scientific martyrs, Cornell University and its beleaguered president. As White must have anticipated, his lecture sparked even more controversy, prompting, according to one observer, “instantaneous outcry and opposition.” Over the next quarter century White expanded his talk into a huge two-volume work, A History of the Warfare of Science ence with Theology in Christendom (1896), widely translated and frequently reprinted down to the present. In it, as Elizabeth Cady Stanton gleefully noted, he showed “that the Bible has been the greatest block in the way of progress.”‘ (Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion (Kindle Locations 39-49). Kindle Edition.)

Draper was equally exercised when he wrote his History of the Conflict between Religion and Science (1874). An accomplished physician, chemist, and historian, Draper largely excused Protestantism and Eastern Orthodoxy of crimes against science while excoriating Roman Catholicism. He did so, he wrote, “partly because its adherents compose the majority of Christendom, partly because its demands are the most pretentious, and partly because it has commonly sought to enforce those demands by the civil power.” In addition to chronicling the church’s age-old opposition to scientific progress, he ridiculed the recently promulgated doctrine of papal infallibility, which he attributed to men “of sin and shame.” He never publicly mentioned, however, what may have agitated him the most: his antipathy toward his own sister, Elizabeth, who had converted to Catholicism and who for a time lived with the Drapers. When one of the Draper children, eight-year-old William, lay near death, Aunt Elizabeth hid his favorite book, a Protestant devotional tract-and did not return it until after the boy had passed away. The grieving father angrily kicked her out of his house, no doubt blaming the Vatican for her un-Christian and dogmatic behavior. Draper’s tale of “ferocious theologians” hounding the pioneers of science “with a Bible in one hand and a fiery fagot in the other,” as one critic characterized his account, understandably provoked numerous counterattacks. The American convert to Catholicism Orestes Brownson, who described the book as “a tissue of lies from beginning to end,” could scarcely contain his fury. “A thousand highway-robberies or a thousand cold-blooded murders,” he fumed, “would be but a light social offence in comparison with the publication of one such book as this before us..” (Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion (Kindle Locations 49-59). Kindle Edition.)

(….) Discussions of the relationship between “science” and “religion” originated in the early nineteenth century, when students of nature first began referring to their work as science rather than as natural philosophy (or natural history). Before that time there were occasional expressions of concern about the tension between faith and reason, but no one pitted religion against science or vice versa.’ By the 1820s, however, books and articles featuring the phrase “science and religion” in their titles were starting to appear. One of the first, if not the first, English-language books with the words in their titles came out in 1823: Thomas Dick’s popular The Christian Philosopher; or, The Connection of Science and Philosophy with Religion. By midcentury “science and religion” was becoming a literary trope, and during the 1850s and 1860s several American colleges and seminaries established professorships devoted to demonstrating (and preserving) the harmony of science and revealed religion.4 (Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion (Kindle Locations 59-64). Kindle Edition.)

Although a few freethinkers, most notoriously Thomas Cooper of South Carolina College, denounced religion as “the great enemy of Science,” antebellum Americans, especially the clergy, worried far more about the threat of science to orthodox Christianity than about religious barriers to science. By the middle third of the nineteenth century some observers were beginning to suspect that “every new conquest achieved by science, involved the loss of a domain to religion.” Especially disturbing were scientific challenges to the first chapters of the Bible. During the three decades between about 1810 and 1840 men of science pushed successfully to replace the supernatural creation of the solar system with the nebular hypothesis, to expand the history of life on earth from 6,000 to millions of years, and to shrink Noah’s flood to a regional event in the Near East. Many Christians readily adjusted their reading of the Bible to accommodate such findings, but some biblical literalists thought that the geologists of the day were taking too many liberties with God’s word. The Reverend Gardiner Spring, for example, resented scientific efforts to explain creation, which he regarded as “a great miracle,” incapable of being accounted for scientifically. “The collision is not between the Bible & Nature,” he declared, “but between the Bible & natural philosophers.”‘ (Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion (Kindle Locations 64-71). Kindle Edition.)

At the time it was not uncommon for men of science to engage in biblical exegesis while denying theologians and clergymen the right to monitor science. This practice, along with the increasing marginalization of theologians from the scientific enterprise, Charles Hodge, the most eminent Calvinist theologian in midcentury America. Although he continued to venerate men of science who disclosed “the wonderful works of God,” by the late 1850s he was growing increasingly frustrated by their tendency to treat theologians who expressed themselves on scientific subjects as “trespassers” who should mind their own business. He attributed the growing “alienation” between men of science and men of the cloth in part to the former’s “assumption of superiority” and their practice of stigmatizing their religious critics “as narrow-minded, bigots, old women, Bible worshippers, etc.” He resented the lack of respect frequently shown to religious men, who were instructed by their scientific colleagues to quit meddling in science, while they themselves belittled religious beliefs and values. At times Hodge worried that science, devoid of religion, was becoming downright “satanic.” He had no doubt that religion was in a “fight for its life against a large class of scientific men.”6 (Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion (Kindle Locations 71-78). Kindle Edition.)

The spread of “infidel” science—from geology and cosmogonies to biology and anthropology—caused many Christians, both conservatives and liberals, to feel under attack. According to the southern intellectual George Frederick Holmes, “The struggle between science and religion, between philosophy and faith, has been protracted through centuries; but it is only within recent years that the breach has become so open and avowed as to be declared by many to be irreconcilable.” Worse yet, even the working classes were joining the fray. As one British writer noted in 1852, “Science is no longer a lifeless abstraction floating above the heads of the multitude. It has descended to earth. It mingles with men. It penetrates our mines. It enters our workshops. It speeds along with the iron courser of the rail.”7 (Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion (Kindle Locations 78-82). Kindle Edition.)

The debates over Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859), in which the British naturalist sought “to overthrow the dogma of separate creations” and extend the domain of natural law throughout the organic world, signaled a shift in emphasis. Increasingly, scientists, as they were coming to be called, expressed pressed resentment at playing handmaiden to religion. One after another called not only for scientific freedom but also for the subordination of religion—and the rewriting of history with religion as the villain. The most infamous outburst came from the Irish physicist John Tyndall (1820-1893), who in his 1874 Belfast address as president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science thundered: (Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion (Kindle Locations 82-86). Kindle Edition.)

The impregnable position of science may be described in a few words. We claim, and we shall wrest from theology, the entire domain of cosmological theory. All schemes and systems which thus infringe upon the domain of science must, in so far as they do this, submit to its control, and relinquish all thought of controlling it. Acting otherwise proved disastrous in the past, and it is simply fatuous to-day. (Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion (Kindle Locations 86-89). Kindle Edition.)

Two years later Tyndall wrote a laudatory preface to a British edition of White’s The Warfare of Science. With such endorsements, the conflict thesis was well on its way toward becoming the historical dogma of the day, at least among intellectuals seeking freedom from religion.’ (Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion (Kindle Locations 89-90). Kindle Edition.)

Historians of science have known for years that White’s and Draper’s accounts are more propaganda than history.’ (An opposing ing myth, that Christianity alone gave birth to modern science, is disposed of in Myth 9.) Yet the message has rarely escaped the ivory tower. The secular public, if it thinks about such issues at all, knows that organized religion has always opposed scientific progress (witness the attacks on Galileo, Darwin, and Scopes). The religious public knows that science has taken the leading role in corroding faith (through naturalism and antibiblicism). As a first step toward correcting these misperceptions we must dispel the hoary myths that continue to pass as historical truths. No scientist, to our knowledge, ever lost his life because of his scientific views, though, as we shall see in Myth 7, the Italian Inquisition did incinerate the sixteenth-century Copernican Giordano Bruno for his heretical theological notions. (Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion (Kindle Locations 90-95). Kindle Edition.)

Unlike the master mythmakers White and Draper, the contributors to this volume have no obvious scientific or theological axes to grind. Nearly half, twelve of twenty-five, self-identify as agnostic or atheist (that is, unbelievers in religion). Among the remaining thirteen there are five mainstream Protestants, two evangelical Protestants, one Roman Catholic, one Jew, one Muslim, one Buddhist—and two whose beliefs fit no conventional category (including one pious Spinozist). Over half of the unbelievers, including me, grew up in devout Christian homes—some as fundamentalists or evangelicals—but subsequently lost their faith. I’m not sure exactly what to make of this fact, but I suspect it tells us something about why we care so much about setting the record straight. (Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion (Kindle Locations 95-99). Kindle Edition.)

A final word about our use of the word myth: Although some of the myths we puncture may have helped to give meaning to the lives of those embracing them, we do not employ the term in its sophisticated academic sense but rather use it as done in everyday conversation—to designate a claim that is false. (Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion (Kindle Locations 99-101). Kindle Edition.)

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