Conflict Thesis - The Historical Conflict Thesis

The Historical Conflict Thesis

The scientist John William Draper and the intellectual Andrew Dickson White were the most influential exponents of the Conflict Thesis between religion and science. In the early 1870s, Draper was invited to write a History of the Conflict between Religion and Science (1874), a book replying to contemporary issues in Roman Catholicism, such as the doctrine of papal infallibility, and mostly criticising what he claimed to be anti-intellectualism in the Catholic tradition, yet assessing that Islam and Protestantism had little conflict with science. Draper’s preface summarises the conflict thesis:

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.

In 1896, White published the History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom, the culmination of over thirty years of research and publication on the subject, criticizing what he saw as restrictive, dogmatic forms of Christianity. In the introduction, White emphasized he arrived at his position after the difficulties of assisting Ezra Cornell in establishing a university without any official religious affiliation.

James Joseph Walsh, M.D., criticized White’s scientific perspective as anti-historical in The Popes and Science; the History of the Papal Relations to Science During the Middle Ages and Down to Our Own Time (1908), a book dedicated to Pope Pius X, the historian of medicine:

. . . 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. Much of it is due to the exaggeration of the significance of the Galileo incident. 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 the tradition that there is no good that can possibly come out of the Nazareth of the times before the reformation, still dominates the intellects of many educated people who think that they are far from prejudice and have minds perfectly open to conviction. . . .

In God and Nature (1986), David Lindberg and Ronald Numbers report that "White's Warfare apparently did not sell as briskly as Draper's Conflict, but in the end it proved more influential, partly, it seems, because Draper's strident anti-Catholicism soon dated his work and because White's impressive documentation gave the appearance of sound scholarship". During the 20th century, historians’ acceptance of the Conflict Thesis declined until rejected in the 1970s, David B. Wilson notes:

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" . . . James Moore . . . at the beginning of his Post-Darwinian Controversies (1979).

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