The “War” of Science and Theology

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The War of Science and Theology


The Military Metaphor. Throughout the nineteenth century, particularly after the publication of Charles Darwins On the Origin of Species in 1859, the presumed contest between science and religion was characterized in terms of warfare. This military metaphor, as it has been called, fanned hostility on both sides, creating the impression that scientists and theologians were split into two warring camps with the general public choosing one side or the other. The truth was considerably more complex. At best the military metaphor characterized the viewpoints of pro- and anti-Darwinian extremists, but it failed to describe the views of the vast majority in the middle. At the center of the war between science and religion were two influential books purporting to provide its history: John William Drapers History of the Conflict between Religion and Science (1874), which went through fifty printings by 1930, and A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896), by Andrew Dickson White. Both authors attempted to present cautionary tales of religious obtuseness with respect to scientific ideas.

Drapers Attack on Roman Catholicism. Draper (1811-1882), a professor of chemistry at New York University, reached a wide audience because his book was published in a popular-science series directed by Edward Livingston Youmans, editor of Popular Science Monthly and the most influential popularizer of science in the English-speaking world. In spite of the title of his book Draper narrowed religion to just one, the Roman Catholic Church: Roman Christianity and science, he wrote, are recognized by their respective adherents as being absolutely incompatible; they cannot exist together; one must yield to the other; mankind must make its choiceit cannot have both. As much concerned by the presumed political power of the Pope as he was by Catholic dogma, Draper was writing in response to Pope Pius IXs Syllabus of Errors (1864), a broadside against liberalism and all its works. Although Draper wrote his book just as the Popes political power was being substantially reduced by the reunification of Italy under King Victor Emmanuel II, Drapers charge was accepted as fact by anticlerical forces around the world. Indeed, his viewpoint seemed to be confirmed when the Spanish translation of his book (1876) was placed on the Catholic Churchs Index of Prohibited Books, placing Draper in the select company of his heroes, including Copernicus and Galileo.

Whites History. Much more scholarly than Drapers book, Whites A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom is an important part of the late-nineteenth-century drive to legitimize secular higher education, as opposed to church-sponsored colleges. For White (1832-1918), who had served as the first president of Cornell University during the years 1867-1885, the warfare between science and theology was mainly the result of an out-of-date and authoritarian university system, which was overly dogmatic in regard to religion and shut offits students from access to scientific learning. With Charles W. Eliot, president of Harvard University, White had led the movement to include elective courses in the college curriculum, a reform that made it possible for undergraduates to study the natural sciences. Thus White viewed the war as less a political contest than an intellectual one in which those antagonistic to science had overreacted to a perceived threat and consequently overstepped their bounds. Rather than single out Catholicism as the enemy, White noted that the recent theological war against a scientific method in geology was waged more fiercely in Protestant countries than Catholic, suggesting that the Catholic Church had learned a lesson from the mistake it made when it found Galileo guilty of heresy in 1633 for writing that the Earth revolved around the Sun.


James R. Moore, The Post-Darwinian Controversies: A Study of the Protestant Struggle to Come to Terms with Darwin in Great Britain and America, 1870-1900 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979).