A Short History of the Science vs Religion Debate

The ‘Conflict Model’


The first work on the history of science and religion that utilized what came to be known as the ‘conflict model’ was written by an early American photographer, John William Draper, who had been invited to write a polemic for Popular Science magazine criticizing Roman Catholic doctrines. The conflict model is summed up by Draper in the following paragraph.

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 of Religion and Science, 1881

Not a historian himself, much less a historian of science, Draper drew liberally on legend and hearsay, and when published in book form included the first published version of the myth of ‘flat Earth’ theory, stating that prior to Columbus European scholastics believed the world was flat, notwithstanding that the circumference of the Earth was known to most European scholastics since the rediscovery of Greek texts, and had been discussed by both Duns Scotus and Thomas Aquinas in works written in the 10th and 12th centuries, respectively. Although it was rebutted even at the time by historians, it became a popular belief among those with little historical education, which included most scientists themselves.

Today most scientists understand the matter as a much more complex affair.

White’s and Draper’s accounts of the actual interaction between science and religion in Western history do not differ greatly. Both tell a tale of bright progress continually sparked by science. And both develop and use the same myths to support their narrative, the flat-earth legend prominently among them.

Gould, S.J. (1996). “The late birth of a flat earth”. Dinosaur in a Haystack: Reflections in Natural History. New York: Crown: 38–52.

The reference to White in the quotation is to a certain Andrew Dickson White, a former professor of literature at the University of Michigan. In the 1860s White became involved politically, travelling to Europe to lobby the governments there to not get involved in the American Civil War. Upon returning to the U.S. White was elected to the U.S. senate and became friends with a fellow senator, Ezra Cornell, a self taught Quaker who had made a modest fortune in the telegraph industry. White and Cornell were involved in the distribution of the funds made available to higher education in the U.S. by the Morill Land-Grant Colleges act. White opposed spending the funds available to New York State, approximately $2.5m, by spreading them across the numerous small state colleges, and secured Cornell’s agreement to spend it on one new facility. White’s initial choice of Syracuse was nixed by Cornell, though, who was deeply superstitious, and having been mugged as a youth in Syracuse considered it a modern Sodom and Gomorrah, and wanted it built instead on his family’s farmland in Ithaca, New York. The college was duly built and became known officially as Cornell University, on the American tradition of naming colleges after their largest benefactors.

In 1896, White published A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom, criticizing what he saw as restrictive, dogmatic forms of Christianity that he felt had made establishing a university without any official religious affiliation more difficult than necessary.

Much of White’s material was taken from Draper’s earlier book, but with a good dose of additional vitriol. His book initially didn’t create much impact, but eventually had more influence than Draper’s despite his not being a scientist, since Draper’s stridently anti-Catholic diatribes dated the work rather quickly. Although it was criticized in a far better researched work as early as 1908, White’s book continued to influence historians of science until the 1970s.

Draper takes such liberty with history, perpetuating legends as fact that he is rightly avoided today in serious historical study. The same is nearly as true of White, though his prominent apparatus of prolific footnotes may create a misleading impression of scholarship.

Russell, Colin A., “The Conflict of Science and Religion”, Encyclopedia of the History of Science and Religion, p. 15, New York 2000

. . . the story of the supposed opposition of the Church and the Popes and the ecclesiastical authorities to science in any of its branches, is founded entirely on mistaken notions. Most of it is quite imaginary. Only those who know nothing about the history of medicine and of science continue to harbor it. That Dr. White’s book, contradicted as it is so directly by all serious histories of medicine and of science, should have been read by so many thousands in this country, and should have been taken seriously by educated men, physicians, teachers, and even professors of science who want to know the history of their own sciences, only shows how easily even supposedly educated men may be led to follow their prejudices rather than their mental faculties, and emphasizes the fact that prejudice still dominates the intellects of many educated people who think that they are far from prejudice and have minds perfectly open to conviction. . .

Walsh, James Joseph, The History of the Papal Relations to Science During the Middle Ages and Down to Our Own Time, Fordam University Press, New York 1908, p. 19.

Despite the growing number of scholarly modifications and rejections of the conflict model from the 1950’s . . . in the 1970s leading historians of the nineteenth century still felt required to attack it. . . . Whatever the reason for the continued survival of the conflict thesis, two other books on the nineteenth century that were published in the 1970s hastened its final demise among historians of science. . . 1974. . . Frank Turner. . . Between Science and Religion . . . Even more decisive was the penetrating critique “Historians and Historiography” . . . [by] James Moore . . . at the beginning of his Post-Darwinian Controversies (1979).

Wilson, David B. The Historiography of Science and Religion in Ferngren, Gary B. (2002). Science & Religion: A Historical Introduction. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. ISBN 0-8018-7038-0. p. 21, 23

In the late Victorian period it was common to write about the ‘warfare between science and religion’ and to presume that the two bodies of culture must always have been in conflict. However, it is a very long time since these attitudes have been upheld by historians of science.

The Scientific Revolution. University of Chicago Press. p. 195.

While some historians had always regarded the Draper-White thesis as oversimplifying and distorting a complex relationship, in the late twentieth century it underwent a more systematic reevaluation. The result is the growing recognition among historians of science that the relationship of religion and science has been much more positive than is sometimes thought. Although popular images of controversy continue to exemplify the supposed hostility of Christianity to new scientific theories, studies have shown that Christianity has often nurtured and encouraged scientific endeavour, while at other times the two have co-existed without either tension or attempts at harmonization.

Gary Ferngren (editor). Science & Religion: A Historical Introduction. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002. ISBN 0-8018-7038-0. (Introduction, p. ix)

Along with the flat Earth myth, other myths arising from the conflict model that are widely believed b the public include “the Church prohibited autopsies and dissections during the Middle Ages”, “the rise of Christianity killed off ancient science”, and “the medieval Christian church suppressed the growth of the natural sciences”.

More recent scholars have noted that both Galileo’s and Kepler’s laws of motion, and the reformulation of physics in terms of energy (rather than motion) were primarily motivated by religious views. Even the most mentioned examples of religion’s apparent conflict with science, the Galileo affair (1614) and the Scopes trial (1925), were not pure instances of conflict between science and religion, but included personal and political issues in the development of each conflict, had religious figures on both sides of the argument, and did not involve ether side attempting to discredit the other in general.

David C. Lindberg and Ronald Numbers note that the belief in a longstanding conflict persists among the general populace, including many scientists and clerics themselves not well educated in history. It’s persistence in spite of the fact that the most religious of Western countries, the U.S. itself, simultaneously has the most favourable public view of science, appears to be perpetuated by political controversies surrounding a few issues such as stem cell research and abortion, and the attempt on both sides to blame a supposedly inherent conflict rather than deal with the real personal and political interests on both sides of each issue. Research on perceptions of science among the American public concludes that “most religious groups see no general epistemological conflict with science, and that they have no differences with nonreligious groups in propensity to seek out scientific knowledge”. “Even strict creationists tend to express very favorable views towards science.[31] A study of US college students concluded that the majority of undergraduates in both the natural and social sciences do not see conflict between science and religion. Another finding in the study was that it is more likely for students to move from a conflict perspective to an independence or collaboration perspective than vice versa.”

(Christopher P. Scheitle (2011). “U.S. College students’ perception of religion and science: Conflict, collaboration, or independence? A research note”. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion (Blackwell) 50 (1): 175–186. 2008.


The Rise of Fundamentalism

The originator of the term ‘fundamentalism’ was a midwestern preacher by the name of William B. Riley. Riley was funded primarily by the American retail magnate J. C. Penney, and was far more politically involved than proto-fundamentalist predecessors such as John Nelson Darby and Dwight L. Moody. Riley took his biblical literalism from Darby and Moody, who had been preachers in the mid and late 19th century. However he mixed with that literalism social activism and puritanical moralism. After lobbying for prohibition for years, with the declaration of prohibition Riley turned his attention to “modernism”. Initially his target was the theologians in Europe he considered ‘modernists’, such as G. K. Chesterton and Teilhard de Chardin (the Jesuit clergyman and paleontologist who provided the first actual paleontological evidence of the development of man from proto-human remains, and proposed Christ as the figure of an evolutionary theology – that Christ, as the ‘son of man’, was the first example of the next stage of man’s development, where being fully human would simultaneously mean being divine), and he soon turned his attention to the issue of evolution supported by de Chardin, a notion that by that time was also accepted by most of the ‘modern’ theologians Riley was itching to fight with. For Riley evolution was unscientific, since his notion of science was purely empirical and consisted of observable facts and demonstrable laws – “Real science is evidence, not speculation”. His more important motive though arose from his social activism. Riley was concerned that slogans such as ‘survival of the fittest’ (not coined by Darwin, but used by him) offered support for self-centered economic policies and insensitive treatment of the disabled and mentally infirm. The focus on evolution had the additional effect of allowing Riley, who had no significant academic training, to go after those he perceived as his enemies on their own turf in academic circles. By 1919 Riley was saving his worst vehemence for ‘academic experts’ than liberal theologians.

Riley founded the ‘fundamentalist movement’ in May of 1919, when he brought together in Philadelphia 6,000 conservative Christians for the first conference of the World Christian Fundamentals Association (WCFA). His debates with evolutionists soon made it onto radio, and within a few years he was suggesting taxpayers target public education as the political battleground for the debates. Riley attracted the support of many southern rural residents, not because they cared about evolution, but because control of public education was the last real area of state and local power, and the federal mandates for teaching evolution were the opportune place to challenge federal encroachment in that area.

Riley himself had challenged evolutionists to debate, promising to travel “any reasonable distance” to debate an evolutionist—so long as his opponent had credentials sufficiently worthy to justify the trip. Although he later claimed to have won all 28 debates that actually took place, newspaper reports at the time indicate that he narrowly lost one debate in Chicago.


Darwin and the Use of Evolution to Justify Racism and Eugenics

Although the situation Galileo found himself in is one flashpoint with those that consider science and religion to be fundamentally at odds, the distance time-wise, along with the difficulties in the story itself that arise when it’s looked at more closely, tends to make it less so the more those involved in the argument are aware of the actual incident and the real, as opposed to the mythical, ‘punishment’ awarded.

The other major flashpoint is, of course, evolutionary theory since Darwin.   I note ‘since Darwin’ because evolution itself is one of the oldest ideas in western science, well known since at least the 6th century B.C., and although the additions Darwin made were important, they were in fact little more than a clarification of the ideas of Empedocles 2600 years ago.  The question arises then as to why evolution would be the major flashpoint, rather than say inflationary universe theory or quantum mechanics, when the latter in particular has far more profound effects on our common sense understanding of reality than evolution.

Not that many people have much understanding or appreciation for the ontological difficulties presented by quantum mechanics, whether one is discussing fundamentalists or scientists,  which makes it difficult for it to become a particularly public flashpoint.  The inflationary universe idea, as I’ve argued elsewhere, is in significant ways far more in line with Christian belief than it is with actual evidence, making it easy to adopt as a shared belief of Christians, scientists who are also Christian (which still comprise the majority of western scientists), and scientific atheists.  The singularity at the supposed beginning mirrors all the necessary features of a creator-being as analysed throughout theology, and so the only real debate is whether the creator was intelligent or not, which is not a massive discrepancy.

Evolution though, particularly in its Darwinist form, has a few significant aspects that make it a the most common area of disagreement.  One of the first and continuing issues is that Darwin’s eventual focus on natural selection, to the point of completely obscuring the other part of his initial thinking (which admittedly he never got very far with) that concerned the likelihood of occurrence/recurrence of patterns of life, rather than just their survival.  Secondly the alliance of evolutionary thinking with some of the more controversial modern theology (de Chardin, Barth, Bultmann, etc.) made it a target initially for more conservative religious thinkers.  Third, as I have noted in an earlier post, there is a basic similarity between the extremes of evolutionary theorists and anti-evolutionist Christians, the latter oppose evolution itself as an idea, the former deny the evolutionary character of evolution.  This similarity and the shared assumptions on which it is based make their relative positions much closer than many presume, and the most heated arguments are often between those whose beliefs are fundamentally very similar. The last issue is the alliance forged between white conservative Christians and black Christians, two groups often with opposite agendas.  In this case Darwinism and its proponents leave both feeling threatened politically by extrapolations of Darwinism, extrapolations which as we shall see were fully endorsed by Darwin himself.

While the young Darwin was fairly open minded, and compiled a phenomenal amount of observation on his trips, culminating in his major work. As he got older he became much more conservative and indeed, despite the attempts by Darwinists to white wash the issue, was a virulent racist and social Darwinist himself. An example of such whitewashing is the work of Denis Alexander of Cambridge.

Alexander notes that while the biological theory of evolution is not itself an ideology, it has been used for ideological purposes since 1859 to defend everything from eugenics to capitalism to racism to atheism. The reason, he asserts, is not because of any true support, but rather because people often try to use the popular scientific theories of the day to support all sorts of ideologies.

He also notes that the phrase “survival of the fittest”, often tied to Darwin and stated as a core part of evolution, was in fact coined by science popularizer Herbert Spencer, and that the phrase is in fact a poor description of the complicated processes involved in evolution. Unfortunately, the phrase was picked up during the World War I-era as a way to support the “might makes right” mentality, and the misunderstanding was used to justify all sorts of failed ideologies.


While Alexander is correct that Spencer (himself one of the founders of “liberalism”) coined the phrase “survival of the fittest,” and that the idea was adopted by the Kaiser and by Hitler, he neglects to mention one other important figure from history who embraced the term: Charles Darwin himself. Darwin eventually described “survival of the fittest” as “more accurate” than his own term of “natural selection,” and he employed the phrase repeatedly in the fifth and sixth editions of On the Origin of Species as well as in other works.

Alexander also tries to protect Darwin from having misused science to promote racism. He provides a very selectively edited version of Darwin’s record on the subject. Although Darwin opposed slavery, he was a thoroughgoing racist who thought natural selection provided a scientific rationale for why we should expect to see races with different intellectual capacities. In his book The Descent of Man, Darwin disparaged blacks and observed that the break in evolutionary history between apes and humans fell “between the negro or Australian and the gorilla”, i.e. he not only considered Negroes inferior to whites, as he did the aboriginal peoples of Australia, but in fact a lower species than the higher apes.

Darwin also predicted that “[a]t some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilised races of man will almost certainly exterminate and replace throughout the world the savage races.” [Darwin, Descent of Man (1871), vol. I, p. 201] Darwin’s contribution to scientific racism is undeniable, no matter how much contemporary Darwinists try to rewrite history. Darwin not only promoted the use of evolutionary theory to justify racism, but also to justify eugenics, so the use of his work by Kaiser Wilhelm, Hitler and many American racists is hardly surprising.



That the vitriol on both sides of the debate, and the debate itself, are of such a recent and rather turgid history, should provide food for thought for those who believe without evidence that science and religion have always been at odds, or even that they are necessarily so today.

That the two men most responsible for the common perception of an inherent conflict were themselves neither scientists nor historians of science.  That the works involved were full of exaggeration at times to the point of pure fiction.  That the collaboration between religions and science, a collaboration still ongoing today, was studiously ignored by those promoting the conflict.  And finally that the majority of scientists, including those involved on the side of science on issues where a specific problem did arise, were themselves religious, and in a number of cases actually clergy, indicates that the continued presumption of an inherent conflict is intentional, and serves a purpose that has to do with neither science nor religion.

The coincidence of capital and anti-Catholicism on both sides indicates that at least to some degree the debates have in mind a target represented by neither side.  I would submit, particularly now that the scientific community has itself become a target, and no longer an ally, of capital, that the most basic target is community itself, since community can oppose the excesses of capital and its use in maintaining and extending power relations.


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