‘Warfare Between Faith and Science’: One Myth to Rule Them All

Andrew Dickson White, first president of Cornell University, chief instigator of the false "conflict thesis" of warfare between science and Christianity.

By Tom Gilson Published on October 28, 2021

They call it the “conflict thesis” or even the “warfare thesis,” and of all the myths about religion vs. science, this is the one to rule them all. “Religion is opposed to science,” it says. “It’s always been opposed to science. Faith is the domain of ignorance. It must guard its gates against real knowledge; else it would surely fall.”

That’s the myth, and wow, does it have staying power. It may be so well lodged even in your own mind, you can hardly imagine anything prying it out of there. But it’s time to get out the crowbar, because I hate to have to say it, but you’ve been duped.

This last myth will take two final articles in my series on science/faith fables to dispel. I want to begin by backtracking, taking you back to the flat earth myth. One reason I wrote that was to show how powerful a fable can be, even for us in these advanced days. Read it again and ask yourself, if we can let Washington Irving mislead us that badly, is it not also possible we’ve been misled about the war between science and faith?

Turns out it’s not just possible, it really happened, and in almost the same way. Unlike Washington Irving, though the inventors of this tall tale wanted people to believe it. It worked: they bought it, and we have, too, most of us, but it’s time now to return to real facts. Historians of science have long since debunked the conflict thesis, and the debunking was so easy, they shake their heads and say, “Why do people still believe that fable?”

Fertile Soil for an Anti-Faith Fable

The story goes back at least to the Enlightenment, but the really significant turn came in the 19th century, when the time was ripe for a good, tasty anti-religious lie. These were the days of German “Higher Criticism,” the first truly influential movement among Europeans to deny the truth of the Bible. It was around that time that Karl Marx pronounced religion “the opiate of the masses.” Darwin took up the business of booting God out of biology, and Feuerbach and Freud dismissed religion as wish-fulfillment. In short, academics were ready to equate religion with ignorance.

“While we can look today with astonishment upon the shoddy character of Draper and White’s writings, their books have had enormous impact, and we can’t deny that.”

Inside this mix we have Andrew Dickson White and John William Draper. White’s story is the more interesting of the two. As the first president of Cornell University, he declared the school “an asylum for Science – where truth shall be sought for truth’s sake, not stretched or cut exactly to fit Revealed Religion.”

Taking Up Arms

If you think that seems antagonistic to religion, you’re right. It came across that way to a lot of people around the school’s Ithaca, New York campus. They took up against White, and White took up against them in return — not that he wasn’t already predisposed to do battle over belief.

He did it by charging them with persecuting science, just as Christians had always persecuted it. The accusation had one big problem, though: It wasn’t true. There never had been any such persecution.

Never mind that, though; White had academic influence on his side, so he could deal with that. He wrote a two-volume History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom, and in it he supplied the data he needed. That’s “supplied,” as in “invented.” What he didn’t make up, he twisted, including only what fit his plainly political purposes. He set out to make Christians look stupid, and he succeeded.

Who’s Ignorant Now?

Today, though, it takes ignorance to think he was right. I intend ill will to no one by calling it that. It’s all of us. He and others did such a great job of it, we all grew up ignorant this way. So what do the historians actually say?

James Hannam says of White’s book, “The hordes of footnotes that mill around at the bottom of each page … give the illusion of meticulous scholarship.” *Illusion. * Elsewhere he dispenses with White even more emphatically.

One would like to take the charitable view that White really believed his theory and was not making up evidence to support a position he knew to be false. Instead, he skews the evidence by accepting what agrees with his hypothesis while being sceptical of what does not. This means that he has included falsehoods that he would have noticed if he had taken a properly objective attitude towards all his evidence. The points given above together with Numbers’s and Lindberg’’s criticisms noted in their article are sufficient, however, to prove White’’s work as utterly worthless as history.

And while I shy from using Wikipedia as a source, this quote from historian Lawrence Principe nails it so thoroughly it’s worth including:

While we can look today with astonishment upon the shoddy character of Draper and White’s writings, their books have had enormous impact, and we can’t deny that. Much of this is due to their great success in their creating a myth for science as a religion. Their myth of science as a religion is replete with battles, and martyrdoms, and saints, and creeds. And as we know, or should know, myths are often much more powerful than historical realities.

Oversimplified and Unreal

The myth is strong. Principe said it, but you and I knew it anyway. Its grip is strong, even though — let’s be honest — we should have known we were being taken for a ride. The story is too black-and-white to be real. Indeed, David C. Lindberg and Ronald Numbers – both of them historians, not Christian apologists – highlight that fact, saying, “one of the great attractions of White’s view” as being “its simplicity; few qualifications and nuances detract from the clarity of his picture.”

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White pictures Christianity as evil religionists, stubbornly grasping their power and their ignorance, vainly seeking to stave off science, for centuries on end. How likely is this? It doesn’t take that much contact with real Christians to realize we’re not that opposed to understanding the world we live in.

Atheists may say (and they do) that anyone who believes in the supernatural is by definition ignorant, but that’s prejudice speaking, not reason. The facts aren’t on their side. Next time I’ll write on Christians’ actual involvement in science, and you’ll see they’re so wrong it’s laughable.

The True Story …

Even if you knew nothing of that, though, it should only take a moment’s thought to realize nothing is ever so simple as White made it out to be. Christians built the great cathedrals. They produced great art and incredible music. They were even responsible for both the first and second scientific revolutions. The first — the one that doesn’t get near enough press — was centuries ahead of the second, and centered at the Cathedral of Chartres, of all places!

These men of faith didn’t do that by ignorance, or by blind submission to authority. Reality is more complex than that. It always is. More interesting, too – especially when we come to the next and final article in this faith/science myth series. I’ll show then that not only did Christianity not oppose the rise of science; without Christianity, there’s very good reason to believe modern science never would have happened at all.


Tom Gilson (@TomGilsonAuthor) is a senior editor with The Stream and the author or editor of six books, including the recently released Too Good To Be False: How Jesus’ Incomparable Character Reveals His Reality.

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