Science and Religion: The Draper-White Conflict Thesis

There is a popular conception that the historical relationship between science and religion has always been one of conflict or even all-out warfare. Historians of science call this the “conflict thesis.” In this short film, historians of science Dr. Lawrence Principe and Dr. Edward Davis examine the roots and social context of the conflict thesis. They explain that the conflict thesis can be traced primarily to the popular works of two 19th century Americans: John William Draper and Andrew Dickson White.

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Featured Scholars:

Dr. Lawrence M. Principe is the Drew Professor of the Humanities at Johns Hopkins University in the Department of History of Science and Technology and the Department of Chemistry. He is author of The Scientific Revolution: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2011).
Dr. Edward (Ted) Davis is Professor of the History of Science at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, PA. He is co-editor (with Michael Hunter) of The Works of Robert Boyle (Taylor & Francis, 2000).


Dr. Lawrence Principe: To find the origin of the conflict or warfare thesis for science and religion, we have to go to the late 19th century, particularly to two men. John William Draper, an English immigrant to the United States in the 1830’s, first president of the American Chemical Society, and an amateur historian; and Andrew Dixon White, a senator in the New York State Legislature and first president of Cornell University. Each of them wrote a book on the conflict, in the case of Draper, or the warfare of science and religion, in the case of White. They gave this historical view that science and religion have always been at odds. The impetus behind both of these is not particularly historical. It’s rooted in political and social events of the time. The real reason that White was writing, he says he was reacting against sectarian, that is, denominational Christian attacks, on the founding of Cornell University as a non-sectarian institution. The problem is that these attacks are actually rather difficult to identify what exactly they were, and if we scratch the surface, what we see is, in fact, political maneuvering and fighting over federal dollars.

Dr. Edward B. Davis: He tells Cornell at the time that he’s going to give his opponents a lesson which they will remember, so he goes on a crusade to paint the existing scholars and attitudes of the old liberal arts colleges, the denominational colleges, as backward and his own ideas as progressive. Draper has a somewhat different agenda. He does use the word “conflict” in the title of his book, but he’s not as focused on refuting traditional Christian theology. He simply wants to indict the Catholic Church for abuses of power.

Dr. Lawrence Principe: The problem with the books is that they’re terrible history. The historical facts – that’s very generous to call them facts – are cherry-picked or contorted, taken out of context in order to promote the authors’ main ideas about this perpetual warfare between science and religion. The word “scientist” is only created in the 1830’s. Draper and White are a part of this professionalization of the sciences, and so they’re carving out a niche, a social niche, a political niche, for the scientist, the person who does the sciences.

Dr. Edward B. Davis: The idea that science and religion have been always involved in this inevitable conflict is not true.

Dr. Lawrence Principe: Yet, the legacies of these two books, of these two men, are foundational. Journalists tend to take the Draper and White theses of conflict or warfare
between science and religion as the fundamental starting point for everything else. So even 150 years after these books were published, and after a time when people no longer actually read them, they have given the stage directions, so to speak, for scientists and religionists to attack each other. The struggles are not really with each other, but with the difficulty of understanding. Once we realize that, I think we’ll have a much more positive alliance rather than warfare between the two. Without the detriment to either but the benefit to both.

  • Course Categories: Church History, General Theology
  • Science Topics: History & Philosophy of Science
  • Tags:
    conflict thesis, science and religion, the draper-white conflict thesis, John William Draper, Andrew Dixon White, Cornell Univeristy, Dr. Lawrence M. Principe, Dr. Edward Davis

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