Science, Religion, and the Rise and Fall of the “Conflict Thesis”

Copyright 2008 by Frederick M. Seiler


Sometime in the very-near future, your child may pick up his textbook to read about the famous scientist Galileo and his confrontation with the Church, and he may read:

The reason Galileo came into conflict with the Church was because of his arrogance and his bad luck, not because of any supposed conflict between science and religion. Science and religion cannot conflict, and they are both valid sources of knowledge.

This, of course, is not correct. Galileo’s confrontation with the Church, properly understood, is a symbol of a very fundamental conflict — the conflict between science and religion, between reason and faith. The idea that science and religion are fundamentally at odds has been called the “conflict thesis” by historians of science. This image of conflict has been generally accepted by many throughout the twentieth century and to the present day.

But a very different view has been accepted by the professionals responsible for understanding this event and others like it. According to today’s historians of science, there is no basic conflict between science and religion, and there is no evidence for such a conflict in history:

“A historical survey of the relationship between science and religion reveals that they cannot be seen either as natural allies or as natural enemies.”1
“Science and religion interactions in Europe … were extremely complex — sometimes mutually supportive, sometimes mutually antagonistic, and more often simultaneously supportive and antagonistic, depending on what particular place one occupied within the spectrum of both religious and scientific attitudes, ideas, and practices.”2
“At different phases of their history, science and religion were not so much at war as largely independent, mutually encouraging, or even symbiotic.”3
“The idea that scientific and religious camps have historically been separate and antagonistic is rejected by all modern historians of science.”4

As the views of today's historians become part of tomorrow's schoolbooks, the conventional Galileo story — a symbol of science/religion conflict — cannot survive long.

How did things get to this state? Where did the conflict thesis come from? And how did the historians come to reject it?

The Rise of the Conflict Thesis

Europe of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was witness to an explosion of discoveries about the natural world — an explosion known as the Scientific Revolution, in which modern science was born. During this period, men such as Copernicus, Galileo, Vesalius, Harvey, Newton and countless others made discoveries in fields such as astronomy, anatomy, kinematics, dynamics and physiology. New instruments were invented and perfected to achieve new and better observations; these included the telescope, microscope, thermometer, barometer, precision clock and air-pump. A new type of social organization was created — the scientific society. A sequence of discoveries in astronomy and physics led to the grand Newtonian synthesis — a set of laws of motion which implied a reconceiving of the universe itself. The official Christian cosmology was shattered. Perhaps most importantly, a new method of scientific discovery itself had been discovered — a method based on careful observation, experimentation, and mathematics — a method in which faith and obedience to religious authority played no role whatsoever.

This era was humbling for religion in other respects as well, as Christianity kept on splitting up into more separate sects, religious wars continued to scar Europe, and overseas expeditions revealed numerous pagan cultures. During the seventeenth century, religion was still strong, but it was getting uncomfortable, and it felt the need to change — a need which extended to the conception of God himself: “God as miracle-worker, supervisor of nature’s events, and wrathful source of natural disasters, was being displaced and repudiated.”5

What emerged from this intellectual transformation of Europe was the Enlightenment — an era marked by a supreme confidence in the power of the rational mind together with an antipathy for superstition and dogmatism. It became increasingly acceptable to criticize Christian dogmas such as the Trinity or the role of the sacraments. Many thinkers turned to deism — the view that God created the world and then withdrew from taking an active role in it. A few thinkers, such as the Baron D’Holbach and Denis Diderot, even advocated atheism.

Enlightenment thinkers like the Marquis de Condorcet had seen that modern science relied on a view of nature as being completely causal; and that the existence of miracles was a direct contradiction to this view of nature. This confidence in science led them to have scorn for the Biblical stories of miracles and to see a basic conflict between science and religion:

[Christianity] feared that spirit of doubt and inquiry, that confidence in one’s own reason, which is the bane of all religious beliefs. The natural sciences were odious and suspect, for they are very dangerous to the success of miracles; and there is no religion that does not force its devotees to swallow a few physical absurdities.6

This was the conflict thesis, in embryo form. The idea was not explicitly articulated or systematically developed, and most scientists continued to believe that science and religion could be reconciled. It would take more scientific advances (in geology and biology) before the conflict thesis could be fully born and see the light of day. Moreover, these scientific advances would need to be noted by thinkers of an Enlightenment persuasion.

The momentum of scientific discovery from the seventeenth century continued into the eighteenth. One relatively new science was geology. Observations of the Earth’s surface often revealed rock layers, which apparently had been sedimentary deposits at the bottoms of ancient seas. Plant and animal shapes embedded in the rocks led to questions about how there got there, especially the animal shapes which did not correspond to any existing animals. Many men worked on reconciling these observations with Biblical events such as the Flood. But as more and more of these observations were made, it started becoming obvious that the Earth was much older than the 6000 or so years that the Bible seemed to indicate. These observations tended to refute the literal Genesis story.

The most important figure in this regard was the Scottish geologist James Hutton. Hutton’s Theory of the Earth (1795) proposed that the Earth is vastly older than anyone had supposed — in fact, for all intents and purposes it was infinitely old. From the geological record he had concluded that the earth had gone through a virtually endless series of cycles of growth and decline. The growth was through sedimentary deposits and land being pushed up from underneath, and the decline was by erosion and other factors. Hutton’s geological ideas were not initially very popular, partly due to Hutton’s dense style of writing. It remained for another geologist, Charles Lyell, to effectively communicate them to a larger public, which he did in his Principles of Geology (1830-33). This was avidly read by Charles Darwin, among others.

The new geological conclusions alarmed some clerics, but in general these discoveries were not considered a major threat to religion. Biblical stories like Genesis could usually be reinterpreted to account for the new knowledge. The six days of creation were not necessarily six actual days; they may have been six eras of indeterminate length.

One more trigger was needed to fully make real the idea that science and religion really did conflict. This trigger was the publication in 1859 of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. Darwin’s theory of natural selection was far from the first theory of evolution, but it was the first that had no role for God to play. Natural selection showed how fully natural processes could, over vast periods of time, give rise to all the complexity we see today in the biological world, using just random natural forces in place of God’s directing hand. By showing how man evolved from lower animals, Darwin’s theory was a direct attack on the Biblical view of man’s origin. But perhaps more importantly, it was “an evolutionary mechanism that would cut the intellectual ground from under the feet of all the natural theologians.”7 Natural theology was the study of the natural world as a means to prove God’s existence and goodness. Many English clergymen had become naturalists on the side, and studied the details of items such as flowering plants in order to demonstrate the benevolent directing hand of God in the universe. But with Darwin’s theory, the value of all of this study was virtually wiped out overnight.

Among the early clashes between the theologians and the supporters of Darwin, one of the most minor but highly publicized occurred in 1860 at a meeting of the British Association in Oxford. After the keynote address of the meeting discussed Darwin’s theory of evolution, there was a confrontation between the Bishop Samuel Wilberforce and Thomas H. Huxley (also known as “Darwin’s bulldog”). According to reports, Wilberforce dismissed the idea of evolution and then asked Huxley if it was through his grandfather or his grandmother that he claimed his descent from a monkey. Huxley replied that he was not ashamed to have a monkey for his ancestor; but he would be ashamed to be connected with a man who used great gifts to obscure the truth. One of those who witnessed this exchange was the man who had delivered the keynote address itself; he was an American scientist and educator named John William Draper.

Draper would later write an enormously popular book titled History of the Conflict between Religion and Science, which was published in 1874. Draper’s theme was that “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 human intellect and the compression arising from traditionary faith.”8

After growing up in a Methodist household in England, Draper had been exposed in his college education to August Comte’s philosophy of “positivism.” Impressed by Comte’s high regard for science and denigration of religion, he turned away from his religious background and embraced an Enlightenment-style deism. After moving to America he studied and lectured on both medicine and chemistry, and he became the first president of the American Chemical Society. In later years he turned to the subject of history, writing books on European history, the American Civil War, and the conflict between science and religion.

Draper believed the fundamental problem with religious dogma (especially Roman Catholic dogma) was its being essentially static and frozen, and incapable of refinement in the light of new discoveries: “A divine revelation must necessarily be intolerant of contradiction; it must repudiate all improvement in itself, and view with disdain that arising from the progressive intellectual development of man. But our opinions on every subject are continually liable to modification, from the irresistible advance of human knowledge.”9

Draper’s book traced science and Christianity from their origins, and found numerous examples of clashes in subjects such as cosmology, geology, anthropology, and history:

The Church declared that the earth is the central and most important body in the universe; that the sun and moon and stars are tributary to it. On these points she was worsted by astronomy. She affirmed that a universal deluge had covered the earth; that the only surviving animals were such as had been saved in an ark. In this her error was established by geology. She taught that there was a first man, who, some six or eight thousand years ago, was suddenly created or called into existence in a condition of physical and moral perfection, and from that condition he fell. But anthropology has shown that human beings existed far back in geological time, and in a savage state but little better than that of the brute.10

Draper did claim allegiance to “religion,” but to him this meant a highly liberalized version of Christianity. He rejected the divine inspiration of the Bible and vigorously attacked Roman Catholicism, but he saw Protestantism as valuable when purged of its dogmatic “Catholic” components, and he accepted the Christian view of morality. But in spite of Draper’s claims of religiosity, his book was widely condemned as a vicious attack on religion as such. Perhaps because of the resulting notoriety, the book enjoyed great success in publication. By the 1930s it had gone through fifty printings, and had been translated into French, German, Italian, Dutch, Spanish, Polish, Japanese, Russian, Portuguese, and Serbian.

Draper’s book was not the only of its kind. In 1896 it was followed by a similar work by another American: Andrew Dickson White. White had grown up in an Episcopalian household in upstate New York. Like Draper he had been deeply influenced by Enlightenment ideals, and he later adopted the same type of deist religion. White saw religion (when appropriately purified) as the recognition of “a Power in the universe, not ourselves, which makes for righteousness.” To be religious, for White, was to love God and one’s neighbors, and little else was required. His career was divided between the realms of university education and government. As an educator, White was a professor of history and later became the first president of Cornell University, after working with Ezra Cornell to draw the charter of the new institution.

As one of the first completely secular universities, Cornell had no ties to any religious organizations. White had specified that “persons of every religious denomination, or of no religious denomination,” were to be “equally eligible to all offices and appointments.”11 Because of this policy of secularism the university was widely denounced as “godless” and White was attacked as an atheist and infidel.

In response, White began creating articles and lectures about the dangers that result when science and religion interfere with one another, and these gradually evolved into his major work: A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom. White’s book, in two volumes, was almost 900 pages long. Its twenty chapters addressed a wide range of subjects including cosmology, geography, comets, geology, evolution, anthropology, meteorology, medicine, philology, political economy, and biblical criticism. In every subject, when science had been interfered with by “dogmatic theology,” mankind was worse off because of it:

“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 to science, and invariably; and, on the other hand, all untrammeled scientific investigation, no matter how dangerous to religion some of its stages may have seemed for the time to be, has invariably resulted in the highest good both of religion and science.”12

White’s book never became a bestseller, but for a work of its size and scholarly content, it reached a wide audience. As one historian summarizes:

“No work — not even John William Draper’s best-selling History of the Conflict between Religion and Science (1874) — has done more than White’s to install in the public mind a sense of the adversarial relationship between science and religion. His Warfare remains in print to the present day, having appeared also in German, French, Italian, Swedish, and Japanese translations. His military rhetoric has captured the imagination of generations of readers.”13

Draper and White were without a doubt the most influential champions of the conflict thesis in history, and their names continue to be mentioned whenever the conflict thesis is discussed. Ironically both of them claimed to be religious and denied that they were attacking religion as such. But in essence they were attacking religion. Both of them rejected faith as a means to knowledge and moral guidance, both saw science as an unqualified good, and both wrote books clearly itemizing the countless clashes between religion and science throughout history.

The arguments of Draper and White, however, were weakened by their inconsistencies. For a consistent argument for the conflict thesis, they would have needed the courage to disavow religion entirely. And they would have needed to explicitly recognize two fundamental philosophic issues: 1) Reason — the faculty based on observation and logic, and the base of science — is the reality-oriented faculty, and cannot lead to belief in any supernatural entity such as God. 2) Faith — the reliance on the emotions as tools of cognition — is always invalid and subversive of reason.

The conflict thesis continued to be promoted well into the twentieth century, with titles such as James Y. Simpson’s Landmarks in the Struggle between Science and Religion (1925) and Bertrand Russell’s Religion and Science (1935). A new American cultural movement ended up further popularizing the conflict thesis, but from the opposite perspective. A series of 12 tracts, called The Fundamentals, was published between 1910 and 1915, edited by a Baptist leader named A. C. Dixon. These inspired the movement known as evangelical fundamentalism, which was in part a reaction against social changes, including industrialization and the shock of World War I. But the most significant factor in its rise was the growth of public education between 1900 and 1920. During this time, government-controlled secondary-level education quickly became widespread. In areas which had previously been extremely isolated, large numbers of people were suddenly exposed to modern science for the first time. The shock from the new ideas created the fundamentalist reaction. Laws were enacted to prevent the teaching of evolution. Publicity from the Scopes “Monkey” Trial of 1925 contributed to the awareness among Americans of fundamentalism and its conflict with science.

To this day, with stem-cell research and “intelligent design” in the news, clashes between science and religion are still widespread and obvious. It is no surprise that the conflict thesis is alive and well among non-intellectuals today. But this is not the case within the discipline of the History of Science.

The Fall of the Conflict Thesis

The History of Science as an academic discipline began early in the twentieth century, with its primary focus on understanding sequences of great scientific discoveries through history, and how these discoveries ended up changing man’s view of himself and of the universe in which he lives. Also important were biographies of the great scientists — the heroes who could inspire us with their achievements.

Early historians of science were impressed by the details and the comprehensiveness of White’s book. However, as the works of Draper and White came under closer scrutiny it became apparent that both had numerous historical inaccuracies. These inaccuracies would later become focal points and excuses for historians of science to dismiss the accounts completely.

One of these inaccuracies concerned the shape of the earth and the voyages of Columbus. Both Draper and White promoted the idea that before Columbus the earth was commonly believed to be flat, and that Columbus had proved them wrong. But in fact, among educated Europeans the idea of a spherical earth — promoted by the Ancient Greeks — had never been lost. The official Church cosmology followed the writings of Ptolemy, in which the earth was clearly spherical. There had been a few “flat-earthers,” but these men had no following and were rejected by the Church.14

Another historical inaccuracy concerned the legality of human dissections during the middle ages. White promoted the idea that human dissections were uniformly and explicitly forbidden by Church authorities throughout this period. Human dissections had been formally prohibited under Roman rule, and in the following centuries they were not very socially acceptable. But there were no widespread Church bans on such practices and they started becoming common in universities during the thirteenth century.

The historical errors of Draper and White were not enough by themselves to discredit the conflict thesis in the eyes of the historians. Something much more historically significant was needed. This was philosophy — specifically, the skepticism of modern post-Kantian philosophy.

The medieval philosophers, whatever their flaws, had clearly understood the difference between reason and faith. Reason could not answer all questions, they held, which is why they needed faith. But for those questions reason could answer, it did yield knowledge. The medieval philosophers were not skeptics.

Immanuel Kant, to the contrary, introduced the idea that man’s reason is a delusion. Man’s “reason,” claimed Kant, is structured in such a way that all men necessarily see the world through certain “categories,” which do not yield knowledge of reality “as it really is.” That is, man can know nothing, period.

“Faith” is considered to be needed for that which cannot be known through reason. But if man can know nothing through reason to begin with, there is no basis for the distinction. Put another way, whatever a man claims as “knowledge” through a delusional mental mechanism, his knowledge has no greater validity than the dogmas of faith.

Most historians (like most men) do not make such premises of their philosophy clear to themselves. But the premises operate nonetheless when they practice their craft. When a historian influenced by Kantian-based philosophy confronts an issue of reason and faith in history, he is bound to blur the difference between the two — the distinction between reason and faith, to him, is virtually meaningless.

Sir Karl Popper, the alleged defender of science, accepted the Kantian idea that reality is impossibly cut off from our ideas. Instead, he held, science must be based on inter-subjective “observation statements” that many men can agree on. A scientist’s own observations cannot put him in contact with reality; but if they are stated publicly and can be agreed on by others, then that is what counts. This view places the group’s belief, not reality, at the base of science. Based on a process of trial-and-error, with conjectures being proposed and then refuted by observation statements, Popper held that we arrive at theories that get closer and closer to the truth. However, Popper held that the current theory always has a near-zero probability of being true, since it will almost certainly be proven false by future observations. (And anyway, “true” here refers to Popper’s inter-subjective truth, not to correspondence with reality, which is unknowable, according to Popper.)15

The skepticism in Popper became more explicit with his student Paul Feyerabend, who concluded that there are no valid general methods of science. Feyerabend held that western science has been highly overrated — that it has been unjustly placed on a pedestal above non-western traditions such as Voodoo. Calling his view an “anarchistic theory of knowledge,” he rejected theories as such, and concluded that “anything goes.”

Feyerabend's extreme skepticism was too blatant for most historians of science. They were drawn instead to Thomas Kuhn, whose attack on reason was much more subtle. Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions was published in 1962. It was a landmark in the history and philosophy of science, and its impact on the field can hardly be overstated. Kuhn argued that science periodically undergoes “paradigm shifts,” in which one worldview is rejected and a new one takes its place. An obvious example of such a shift was the overthrow of the Ptolemaic geocentric cosmology in favor of the Copernican heliocentric cosmology. Kuhn held that competing paradigms are “incommensurable” — that is, they cannot be rationally compared. Ultimately there are no rational grounds for choosing one over another. Non-rational factors must always be examined to understand why, in history, a particular shift took place. One such factor is faith: “The man who embraces a new paradigm at an early stage must often do so in defiance of the evidence provided by problem-solving. He must, that is, have faith that the new paradigm will succeed… A decision of that kind can only be made on faith.”16

In Kuhn's book, the ideas of truth and objectivity were completely removed from the history of science. From this point onwards, historians of science would increasingly consider the “truth” of a scientific theory as completely irrelevant to any discussion of its place in history. When they examined a clash between two opposing views, they would look only at the immediate and obvious factors acting on the participants. The fact that one view might be based ultimately not on reason but on faith meant virtually nothing.

The post-Kantian skepticism, supported in part by Popper, Feyerabend, and Kuhn, also entailed a distrust of broad abstractions such as “science” and “religion,” which many historians of science claimed to be impossible to define. For example, does “religion” refer primarily to a set of beliefs, a method of coming to conclusions, a set of practices, or a type of institution? Questions such as these are often considered unanswerable.

Without a firm grasp of such broad abstractions, historians necessarily must be concrete-bound. They will observe a scientist who is a monk and conclude, without any reference to wider issues, that this demonstrates that science and religion are compatible. Draper and White, on the other hand, would have asked deeper questions.

An example of the concrete-bound approach can be seen in the reasoning of the prominent historian who noted that a large number of seventeenth-century Jesuits studied and taught about static electricity. He concluded that “The single most important contributor to the support of the study of physics in the seventeenth century was the Catholic Church.”17 This was the same century as the Church’s condemnation of Galileo!

As historians of science looked into the relationship between science and religion in history, they found evidence of a complex variety of different interactions. Sometimes religion seemed to hinder science, but often there seemed to be no conflict at all. Most scientists in history were religious, and many were more religious than average in their societies, yet their religion did not seem to impede their work. Much scientific work was done by clerics, such as the Polish canon Nicolaus Copernicus, the Augustinian abbot Gregor Mendel, and the numerous Jesuits who studied static electricity.

Another connection between science and religion can be seen in the discipline known as “natural theology” in which scientists seemed to intimately link their religion and their science. Figures such as the chemist Robert Boyle and the naturalist John Ray saw their scientific work as bringing them closer to God through knowledge of God’s creation. These are the kinds of examples that a concrete-bound historian will regard as conclusive evidence for the compatibility of science and religion.

The Case of Galileo

A concrete example of how modern historians of science approach their subject can be seen in their treatment of Galileo’s conflict with the Church. A brief review of the main events will provide some necessary background.

In 1609 Galileo started directing his telescope at the heavens, and he soon discovered problems with the Church’s earth-centered Ptolemaic view of the universe. First he discovered that the moon was not the perfect sphere it was supposed to be; it seemed to have a rugged surface similar to that of the earth. The following year Galileo discovered four moons of Jupiter as well as the phases of Venus, which conclusively disproved the Ptolemaic system and tended to support the Copernican system. (The other possible system, proposed by Tycho Brahe, was a hybrid one, with the earth unmoving at the center of the universe, the sun orbiting the earth, and the other planets all orbiting the sun.)

Galileo was convinced that the Copernican view was correct, and he had been informally promoting this idea to friends and associates. But when he went to Rome in 1616, he was warned by Holy Inquisitor Robert Bellarmine not to defend the Copernican hypothesis as literally true. Copernicus’s book was then placed on the Index of Prohibited Books until it had been “corrected” by Church censors.

The early 1620’s saw two events that gave Galileo hope for advancing his views: In 1621 Inquisitor Robert Bellarmine died, and in 1623 Galileo’s old friend and admirer Maffeo Barberini was elected Pope Urban VIII. Moreover, Galileo had come up with a new argument for the earth’s motion, which he believed was conclusive. According to this argument, the earth’s tides are caused by the moving of the earth. (It turns out that this was not a valid argument, but this was not fully recognized by anyone at the time.)

In 1624 Galileo met with the new pope and they discussed the earth’s motion. The pope allowed that Galileo could write about it as a hypothesis, providing he included a certain epistemological argument. The argument was that since God is omnipotent, the determination of ultimate causes can never be certain, and therefore we can never know with certainty the true structure of the cosmos.

Encouraged, Galileo wrote A Dialogue on the Two Chief World Systems, which was published in 1632. This dialogue contained three participants: Simplicio, Sagredo, and Salviati. The name Simplicio was a play on the word for simpleton, and Simplicio was the dialogue’s mouthpiece for the Church. In the dialogue, Salviati is the advocate of the Copernican system, Simplicio is the advocate of the Ptolemaic system, and Sagredo is the neutral character who asks questions, and is usually won over by Salviati.

Galileo did include the specific argument that the pope had wanted included, but it was in the mouth of the simpleminded Simplicio. When this fact was pointed out to the pope, he was furious. In 1633 Galileo was hauled before the Inquisition and convicted of “vehement suspicion of heresy.” He was forced to abjure the earth’s motion and was confined to house arrest for the rest of his life. For such an accomplished and highly respected public figure as Galileo, this was a humiliating defeat, and it served as a powerful lesson to others.

While historians generally get the facts right about the historical events of Galileo’s fall, they place great stress on a number of facts which have no real connection to the issue of science versus religion. These include:

What was the basic cause of Galileo’s fall? There were many causes, answer the historians, and they are almost impossible to rank. High on the list they place Galileo’s arrogance and the bad luck of the political situation. They do generally acknowledge that there was some conflict between science and religion here, but they deny the centrality of this conflict: “Ultimately it may turn out that … underlying the apparent conflict between science and religion the trial of Galileo exhibits the deep structure of nothing less, and nothing more, than the conflict between conservatism and innovation.”18

But the central conflict was between science and religion. Galileo may have been a Catholic and had faith in many matters of religious doctrine, but when it came to the Copernican view he was fundamentally focused on evidence and logical reasoning. The Church, in censoring the arguments for the Copernican system, was clearly not interested in the truth, but in maintaining its own authority. It is possible that if Galileo had played his cards more skillfully, he would not have been targeted by the Inquisition. But this does not change the basic facts: Galileo was fighting for a view he believed to be true based on evidence and reasoning, and the Church was blatantly suppressing debate in order to support a system of faith. Science was clashing with religion.

This example highlights the anti-conceptual mentality dominant among historians today. This mentality results in a complete inability to look for any broad patterns in history beyond the minutiae in focus at the moment. Together with the lack of a clear reason/faith distinction, this historical myopia explains the inability of today’s historians of science to make sense of the relationship between science and religion. Having decisively rejected the conflict thesis, historians looked for an alternate “thesis” to take its place, but they found nothing but complexity in the historical record, and finally settled on the intellectually bankrupt idea of a “complexity thesis.”


History as a discipline relies on views of the nature of reality, knowledge, and values — i.e. it relies on philosophy. But philosophers have been relentlessly attacking reason — which is the base of science. When philosophers can no longer tell the difference between reason and faith, it is not surprising that our historians cannot either, and that they cannot see any conflict between science and religion.

The conflict thesis was grounded in the Enlightenment’s confidence in reason and distrust of religion. While in Europe the Enlightenment faded quickly into the irrationalism of the romanticists, in America the Enlightenment ideals had a greater momentum, and so it was two nineteenth century Americans — John William Draper and Andrew Dickson White — who became the most powerful advocates of the conflict thesis. But since the conflict thesis never had a proper philosophic defense, it could not survive the twentieth century assault on reason.

The relationship between science and religion, as seen through history, is definitely complex. However this complexity can only be managed by means of principles. A proper understanding of the relationship between science and religion must be based on philosophic fundamentals — i.e. a proper understanding of reason as the reality-oriented faculty, faith as the reliance on emotions as tools of cognition, and the consequent incompatibility of reason and faith. Only when the issue is seen in these terms — only then will historians of science start truly contributing to our knowledge of this fascinating subject.


1 Peter J. Bowler and Iwan Rhys Morus, Making Modern Science (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), p. 364.
2 Richard G. Olson, Science and Religion: From Copernicus to Darwin (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004), p. 221.
3 Colin A. Russell, “The Conflict of Science and Religion” in Science and Religion, edited by Gary B. Ferngren (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002), pp. 7-8.
4 Lawrence M. Principe, Transcript book for lecture course Science and Religion (Chantilly, VA: The Teaching Company, 2006), p. 23.
5 John Ridpath, The Greatness of the 18th-Century Enlightenment, Taped lecture set (Irvine, CA: Ayn Rand Bookstore, 2000), lecture 2.
6 Antoine-Nicolas de Condorcet, Sketch for a Historical Picture of The Progress of the Human Mind, trans. from the French by June Barraclough (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1955), p. 72.
7 Keith Thomson, Before Darwin (New Haven: Yale University Press), p. 20.
8 John W. Draper, History of the Conflict between Religion and Science, 1874, Reprint. (New York: Appleton, 1912), p. vi.
9 Ibid.
10 Ibid., pp. 218-9.
11 George L. Burr,“Andrew Dickson White,” entry in the Dictionary of American Biography vol. X part 2 (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1964), p. 89.
12 Andrew D. White, A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (New York: Appleton, 1897), Preface.
13 David C. Lindberg and Ronald L. Numbers, “Beyond War and Peace: A Reappraisal of the Encounter between Christianity and Science,” Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 39 (1987), p. 141.
14 Cf. Jeffrey B. Russell, Inventing the Flat Earth (New York: Praeger, 1991).
15 Cf. Bo Dragsdahl, Karl Popper’s Assault on Science, taped lecture set (Irvine, CA: Ayn Rand Bookstore, 2003).
16 Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970), p. 158.
17 J. L. Heilbron, Elements of Early Modern Physics (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1982), p. viii.
18 Maurice A. Finocchiaro, “Science, Religion, and the Historiography of the Galileo Affair,” in Osiris 16 (2001), p. 128.