Conflict thesis

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For a socio-historical theory with a similar name, see Conflict theory.
Galileo before the Holy Office by Joseph-Nicolas Robert-Fleury, a 19th-century depiction of the Galileo Affair: religion suppressing heliocentric science

The conflict thesis is the proposition that there is an intrinsic intellectual conflict between religion and science and that the relationship between religion and science inevitably leads to public hostility. Although the thesis in contemporary form remains generally popular, the original form of the thesis is no longer widely supported among historians.[1][2][3][4]

The historical conflict thesis[edit]

John William Draper
Andrew Dickson White

It was in the 1800s that relationship between science and religion became an actual formal topic of discourse, while before this no one had pitted science against religion or vice versa, though occasional interactions were expressed in the past. [5] The scientist John William Draper and the writer Andrew Dickson White were the most influential exponents of the Conflict Thesis between religion and science. Draper had been the speaker in the British Association meeting of 1860 which led to the famous confrontation between Bishop Wilberforce and Huxley over Darwinism and in America "the religious controversy over biological evolution reached its most critical stages in the late 1870s".[6] 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,[7] but also making criticisms of Islam and Protestantism.[8] 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.[9]

In 1874 White published his thesis in Popular Science Monthly and in book form as The Warfare of Science:

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 loth 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 of religion and of science.[10]

In 1896, White published A 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., the historian of medicine, criticized White's 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),[11] a book dedicated to Pope Pius X:

. . . 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. . . .[12]

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".[13] 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" . . . [by] James Moore . . . at the beginning of his Post-Darwinian Controversies (1979). [14]

Contemporary views[edit]

Academic[edit]

Contemporary scholarship does not support the Conflict Thesis in its original form. Most historians today have moved away from a conflict model, which is based mainly on two historical episodes (Galileo and Darwin) for a "complexity" model, because religious figures were on both sides of each dispute and there was no overall aim by any party involved in discrediting religion.[15] Biologist Stephen Jay Gould said: "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".[16] In a summary of the historiography of the Conflict Thesis, Colin Russell said that "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 meticulous scholarship".[17]

In Science & Religion, Gary Ferngren proposes a complex relationship between religion and science:

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. If Galileo and the Scopes trial come to mind as examples of conflict, they were the exceptions rather than the rule.[18]


Some contemporary historians of science, such as Peter Barker, Bernard R. Goldstein, and Crosbie Smith propose that scientific discoveries, such as Kepler's laws of planetary motion in the 17th century, and the reformulation of physics in terms of energy, in the 19th century, were driven by religion.[19] Religious organizations and clerics figure prominently in the broad histories of science, until the professionalization of the scientific enterprise, in the 19th century, led to tensions between scholars taking religious and secular approaches to nature.[20] Even the prominent 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 facts in the development of each conflict.[21]

Richard H. Jones has recently proposed a "control" model that incorporates elements of both the conflict thesis and also the idea that religion can support science.[22] Under the control model, religion will provide tacit or explicit support for scientific theories and research as long as scientific findings support religious doctrines. Religion can support science by making suggestions for research and by offering a cultural "legitimation" for a theory or for science in general. But religious institutions will attempt to assert religious "control beliefs" over any scientific theories that appear to conflict with a core religious doctrine. The Galileo affair and the conflict over evolution are used as examples.[23]

Popular, scientific, and religious views[edit]

Science historian Ronald Numbers suggests the conflict theory lingers in a popular belief, inclusive of scientists and clerics alike, that history reflects an intrinsic and inevitable anti-intellectual conflict between (Judeo-Christian) religion and science, a misconception perpetuated by the polemics surrounding controversies like creation–evolution, stem cells, and birth control.[24] Some scholars, such as Brian Stanley and Denis Alexander propose that mass media is partly responsible for popularizing conflict theory,[25] most notably the Flat-earth myth that prior to Columbus people believed the Earth was flat.[26] David C. Lindberg and Numbers point out that "there was scarcely a Christian scholar of the Middle Ages who did not acknowledge Earth's sphericity and even know its approximate circumference".[26][27] Numbers gives the following as mistakes arising from conflict theory that have gained widespread currency: "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".[24]

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, although there may be epistemic or moral conflicts when scientists make counterclaims to religious tenets.[28][29] The Pew Center made similar findings and also noted that the majority of Americans (80–90%) strongly support scientific research, agree that science makes society and individual's lives better, and 8 in 10 Americans would be happy if their children were to become scientists.[30] 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.[32]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Russel, C.A. (2002). Ferngren, G.B., ed. Science & Religion: A Historical Introduction. Johns Hopkins University Press. p. 7. ISBN 0-8018-7038-0. "The conflict thesis, at least in its simple form, is now widely perceived as a wholly inadequate intellectual framework within which to construct a sensible and realistic historiography of Western science" 
  2. ^ Shapin, S. (1996). The Scientific Revolution. University of Chicago Press. p. 195. "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 held by historians of science." 
  3. ^ Brooke, J. H. (1991). Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives. Cambridge University Press. p. 42. "In its traditional forms, the conflict thesis has been largely discredited." 
  4. ^ Ferngren, G.B. (2002). Ferngren, G.B., ed. Science & Religion: A Historical Introduction. Johns Hopkins University Press. p. x. ISBN 0-8018-7038-0. "... while [John] Brooke's view [of a complexity thesis rather than an historical conflict thesis] has gained widespread acceptance among professional historians of science, the traditional view remains strong elsewhere, not least in the popular mind." 
  5. ^ Ronald Numbers, ed. (2009). Galileo Goes To Jail and Other Myths About Science and Religion. p. 3. ISBN 9780674057418. 
  6. ^ Moore, James R. The Post-Darwinian Controversies. p. 10.  quoting Schlesinger.
  7. ^ Alexander, D (2001), Rebuilding the Matrix, Lion Publishing, ISBN 0-7459-5116-3 (pg. 217)
  8. ^ "Averroes, in his old age -- he died A. D. 1193 -- was expelled from Spain; the religious party had triumphed over the philosophical. He was denounced as a traitor to religion. An opposition to philosophy had been organized all over the Mussulman world. There was hardly a philosopher who was not punished." (p142) "The two rival divisions of the Christian Church -- Protestant and Catholic -- were thus in accord on one point: to tolerate no science except such as they considered to be agreeable to the Scriptures." (p218)
  9. ^ John William Draper, History of the Conflict Religion, D. Appleton and Co. (1881)
  10. ^ White, Andrew Dickson (1876). The Warfare of Science. p. 8. 
  11. ^ Fordam University Press, 1908, Kessinger Publishing, reprinted 2003. ISBN 0-7661-3646-9 Reviews: [1] [2]
  12. ^ Walsh, James Joseph, The Popes and Science; 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.
  13. ^ David C. Lindberg, Ronald L. Numbers, God & Nature: Historical Essays on the Encounter Between Christianity and Science, University of California Press (April 29, 1986)
  14. ^ 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
  15. ^ Jones, Richard H. (2011). For the Glory of God : The Role of Christianity in the Rise and Development of Modern Science. University Press of America. p. 139. ISBN 9780761855668. 
  16. ^ Gould, S.J. (1996). "The late birth of a flat earth". Dinosaur in a Haystack: Reflections in Natural History. New York: Crown: 38–52. 
  17. ^ Russell, Colin A., "The Conflict of Science and Religion", Encyclopedia of the History of Science and Religion, p. 15, New York 2000
  18. ^ Gary Ferngren (editor). Science & Religion: A Historical Introduction. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002. ISBN 0-8018-7038-0. (Introduction, p. ix)
  19. ^ Barker, Peter, and Goldstein, Bernard R. "Theological Foundations of Kepler's Astronomy". Osiris, Volume 16: Science in Theistic Contexts, University of Chicago Press, 2001, pp. 88–113; Smith, Crosbie. The Science of Energy: A Cultural History of Energy Physics in Victorian Britain. London: The Athlone PRess, 1998.
  20. ^ See, for example, the chapters on "Geology and Paleontology" (by Nicolaas A. Rupke), "Natural History" (by Peter M. Hess), and "Charles Darwin" (by James Moore) in Gary Ferngren (ed.), Science and Religion: A Historical Introduction.
  21. ^ Blackwell, Richard J., "Galileo Galilei", Science and Religion: A Historical Introduction; Larson, Edward J. Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America's Continuing Battle over Science and Religion. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1997.
  22. ^ Jones, Richard H., For the Glory of God: The Role of Christianity in the Rise and Development of Modern Science, vol. 1. Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America, 2011.
  23. ^ Jones, Richard H., For the Glory of God: The Role of Christianity in the Rise and Development of Modern Science, vol. 2. Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America, 2012.
  24. ^ a b Ronald Numbers (Lecturer) (May 11, 2006). Myths and Truths in Science and Religion: A historical perspective (Video Lecture). University of Cambridge (Howard Building, Downing College): The Faraday Institute for Science and Religion. 
  25. ^ "Templeton Foundation Post-dinner Discussion", after the Myths and Truths in Science and Religion: A historical perspective lecture Ronald Numbers, 11 May 2006, at St Edmunds College, Cambridge; the transcript is available at http://www.st-edmunds.cam.ac.uk/faraday/CIS/Numbers/
  26. ^ a b Jeffrey Russell. Inventing the Flat Earth: Columbus and Modern Historians. Praeger Paperback; New Ed edition (30 January 1997). ISBN 0-275-95904-X; ISBN 978-0-275-95904-3.
  27. ^ Lindberg, David C.; Numbers, Ronald L. (1986). "Beyond War and Peace: A Reappraisal of the Encounter between Christianity and Science". Church History (Cambridge University Press) 55 (3): 338–354. doi:10.2307/3166822. JSTOR 3166822. 
  28. ^ Evans, John (2011). "Epistemological and Moral Conflict Between Religion and Science". Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 50 (4): 707–727. doi:10.1111/j.1468-5906.2011.01603.x. 
  29. ^ Baker, Joseph O. (2012). "Public Perceptions of Incompatibility Between "Science and Religion"". Public Understanding of Science 21 (3): 340–353. doi:10.1177/0963662511434908. 
  30. ^ Scott Keeter, Gregory Smith, David Masci. "Religious Belief and Public Attitudes About Science in the US". Pew Research Center. pp. 1–2, 13. 
  31. ^ Keeter, Scott; Smith, Gregory; Masci, David (2011). "Religious Belief and Attitudes about Science in the United States". The Culture of science: How the Public Relates to Science Across the Globe. New York: Routledge. p. 336,345–346. ISBN 978-0415873697. "The United States is perhaps the most religious out of the advanced industrial democracies." ; "In fact, large majorities of the traditionally religious American nevertheless hold very positive views of science and scientists. Even people who accept a strict creationist view, regarding the origins of life are mostly favorable towards science." ; "According to the National Science Foundation, public attitudes about science are more favorable in the United States than in Europe, Russia, and Japan, despite great differences across these cultures in level of religiosity (National Science Foundation, 2008)." 
  32. ^ 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. doi:10.1111/j.1468-5906.2010.01558.x. ISSN 1468-5906. 

External links[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • Barbour, Ian G. When Science Meets Religion. HarperSanFrancisco, 2000.
  • Brooke, John H., Margaret Osler, and Jitse M. van der Meer, (editors). "Science in Theistic Contexts: Cognitive Dimensions," Osiris, 2nd ser., vol. 16 (2001), ISBN 0-226-07565-6.
  • Ferngren, Gary (editor). Science & Religion: A Historical Introduction. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002. ISBN 0-8018-7038-0
  • Jones, Richard H., For the Glory of God: The Role of Christianity in the Rise and Development of Modern Science. Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America, 2011. ISBN 978-0-7618-5566-8
  • Lindberg, David C. and Ronald L. Numbers, eds., God & Nature: Historical Essays on the Encounter Between Christianity and Science. University of California Press, 1986.
  • Lindberg and Numbers, "Beyond War and Peace: A Reappraisal of the Encounter between Christianity and Science," Church History 55 (1986): 338-354; reprinted with minor editorial correction and revision in Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 39 (1987):140-49. (Can be found online here)
  • Merton, Robert K. Science, Technology, and Society in Seventeenth Century England. Osiris 4 (1938): 360-632. Reprinted New York: Harper & Row, 1970. (Advances the thesis that Puritanism contributed to the rise of science.)
  • Westfall, Richard S. Science and Religion in Seventeenth-Century England. New Haven: Yale Univ. Pr. 1958. Reprinted Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Pr., 1973. ISBN 0-472-06190-9