Tom Flynn – The Science vs. Religion Warfare Thesis

February 22, 2008

Tom Flynn is editor of Free Inquiry Magazine and director of the Robert Green Ingersoll Birthplace Museum. He also directs traditional video operations at the Center for Inquiry. He is editor of The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief and author of three books: the science-fiction novels Galactic Rapture and Nothing Sacred and the polemic The Trouble With Christmas.

In this discussion with D.J. Grothe, Flynn details the history of the idea that science and religion are at war, including details about the founding exponents of the idea, John William Draper and Andrew Dickson White. He explains the unintended growth of the idea, and its consequences. He explores Stephen Jay Gould’s response to the Warfare Thesis, Gould’s NOMA theory, and reaction to it. Flynn also explains his own views on the conflict between science and religion, and how science may be continuous with social progress.

This is point of inquiry for Friday, February 22nd, 2008. 

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I’m pleased to have Tom Flynn back on point of inquiry. He’s editor of Free Inquiry magazine, the nation’s leading journal of secular humanist opinion and commentary. He’s appeared all over the media, traveled very widely, talking about Freethought, secularism, other kinds of issues that the Council for Secular Humanism promotes. Council for Secular Humanism is one of the organizations headquartered here at CFI. Tom is the author of a number of books, including The Trouble with Christmas, and he’s the editor of The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief. Tom Flynn, welcome back to a point of inquiry. 

Great to be with you, D.J.. Tom, we’ve had a number of shows over the past couple years about this supposed war between science and religion. And I was thinking it’d be interesting to explore with you the history of this idea rather than just debating that question. Again, we’ve had a lot of people on on one side or the other on that issue. It seems like the idea really got a foothold in the late 19th century, what we like to call the golden age of free thought. 

That’s right. In fact, there are an awful lot of cultural metaphors battering around that their origins are rather mysterious. That’s not the case with what we call the military metaphor for the idea that science and religion are necessarily locked in conflict. We know exactly where that idea arose and who the people were. And we know the circumstances. And there was an awful lot of coincidence and accident in the way it came about. 

Before we get into the specifics, a little more background. This golden age of free thought, it was the age of Robert Green Ingersoll. And also when famous Americans like Mark Twain, Thomas Edison, they openly proclaimed their religious skepticism first. What was it about this period that made it so friendly to unorthodox thinking, so friendly to kind of religious skepticism, fomented such popular free thinking? 

There were a couple of factors. One was, of course, the recent publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species, which really, really put forward in a way that educated people could not deny the fact that information was coming out of the sciences that were very erosive of the traditional worldview of Christianity and the other world religions. There was also in the U.S., there was the experience of the civil war, which had been a grotesque amount of carnage. 

Many, many families had lost young people. And this broadly distributed tragedy got people asking uncomfortable questions about religious teachings of the afterlife. We see a huge growth of spiritualism, people trying to get in contact with their sons who died on the battlefield. 

But that spiritualism was considered a kind of free thinking because it was nonetheless unorthodox. 

Exactly. In fact, they in the 19th century, spiritualists and agnostics and atheists frequently made common cause, attended one another’s meetings, lectured at one another’s meetings. They were partners side by side in the camp of orthodoxy, as opposed to today, where most humanist and atheist consider themselves skeptical and are critical of the claims of spiritualists. 

So to get to the warfare thesis, you’ve called it the military metaphor. We could trace it to at least two historians. There was John William Draper and Andrew Dickson. White, quick background on Draper than I have a question. Tom Draper was a scientist, a professor at NYU. Eventually, he was the first president of the American Chemical Society. So he had his scientific bona fide days. No one could question those. In 1874, he wrote this book, The History of the Conflict of Religion and Science, that outsold every other science title in the series. It was published and translated into like a dozen languages or something. It was this book that got the warfare thesis going. 

Exactly. Draper was English born. He was credentialed as a chemist and a historian and hits his personal religious views were rather muddled. He had a conventional Methodist background and it once considered training for the Methodist ministry. On the other hand, he was an early accept or evolution, and his personal philosophy was also colored by the logical positivism of August Combe, which was kind of a non supernatural religion of inevitable progress that was popular a time. 

It kind of argued positivism did that science was the crowning achievement of human development or in quotes, human evolution. And that really appealed to the science community of the day that was kind of going through a process of professionalizing and as opposed to being something people did on the side, even if they were clergy or or religious thinkers. 

Exactly. Now, this brings in a another not terribly often heard of figure Edward Livingston Yeomen’s, who was kind of the was kind of the P.T. Barnum. Of science literature in 19th century America. He published the bestselling science books, he published an influential magazine, Popular Science Monthly, and Yeomen’s approached John William Draper and ask him to write a book about the warfare between science and religion. 

Now, this was in 1873. And when we look at the background of that time, there’d been a lot of developments with the Catholic Church that had liberal thinkers up in arms. In 1864, Pope Pius the 9th published his syllabus of errors, that famous encyclical that condemned pretty much every fruit of secular modernity. In 1870, the First Vatican Council had proclaimed Pius infallible. So it’s in that context that Draper wrote his account of the history of the conflict between religion and science, which was primarily an indictment of the Roman Catholic Church. 

Right. You mentioned Vatican one. When I read Draper’s book, it seemed like a long tirade against Catholicism, not so much against religion in general, not really arguing religion and science are in conflict, but that Catholicism and science are in conflict. He calls Protestantism at one point in the book a twin sister of science. He seems also pretty pro Islam, oddly to my lights. He calls Islam the Southern Reformation, I think. 

Well, in his previous book, which was a very well-received historical work, Draper spent a good deal of time praising Islam. He was looking back at the Islamic leadership and the golden age of the caliphate. Yeah, the caliphate’s in the mortgage age in Spain and the respect for science and learning that pervaded that time. And he was really looking back at that time and saying in those days, Islam was a much better friend of science than anything Catholicism has ever been. 

So let me ask you about Draper’s book. Do you think, as something of an historian yourself? Was it a solid book or was it a book of its time? In other words, was it just kind of written for a hungry audience made popular by this popularizer you mentioned? Or was it a solid work of history? 

It was a fairly solid work of history. I mean, obviously, since 1874, we’ve learned, you know, developed new texts in the ancient world and found new documents. We know a few details. We didn’t know then. But by and large, Draper was right and it was pretty easy for him to be right, because since the fall of Rome, the track record of the Catholic hierarchy with regard to science had been pretty dreadful up to that time. 

Now, I don’t want to be unnecessarily argumentative with you, but there are a couple points in the book where he seems to quote, out of context. I’m just trying to remember he quotes Augustine as mentioning the firmament of the planet. But Augustine is actually quoting the Psalms and saying, here’s an example why we should read the Bible metaphorically and not literally. So there are a lot of little examples like that. But on the whole, you buy into Draper’s argument against Catholicism being against science. 

Oh, yes. Yes, very much so. I mean, there as I say, there are details. There are things that would probably be expressed differently today. There are some matters of interpretation. But generally, I think Draper did a tremendous service plowing through a lot of obscure historical material and bringing to the attention of thoughtful Victorians many of the things that would otherwise be lost that, you know, Catholicism had done that was detrimental to science during the previous centuries. 

Before we get into how this warfare thesis, this warfare idea spread. I want to touch on Andrew Dickson White. His book seems less angry to me than Drapers, but it pretty much makes the same argument. Background on whites. He was the first president of Cornell University. Should be said that that’s one of the first universities set up with a completely secular program of learning and out of that experience. He wrote his book, A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Crystal Them, right? 

That’s right. Cornell University was conspicuously founded without any relationship to a church, which was very unusual for American colleges and universities at that time. And White and co-founder as Rick Cornell took a great deal of abuse in the late 18th 60s from religious people who thought Cornell was an infidel university and what have you. 

And that kind of fueled his writing in the book. He was kind of responding to everybody, haranguing him for being president of a godless university. 

Very, very much so. And in some ways, this is where the whole military metaphor began. In 1869, five years before Draper wrote his book, White delivered a lecture at a scientific meeting where he lambasted religion as an obstacle to science. And who gets involved again? Our good friend Edward Livingston Yeomen’s, who reprinted White’s lecture in his science mag. And this was the same publisher who would a couple of years later commission Draper to write his book. So Yeomen’s, this kind of P.T. Barnum of scientific publishing winds up being kind of the midwife to the whole military metaphor. Interesting. 

Do you think it was Whites’ book More than Draper’s that cemented the idea into the thinking of educated Westerner’s? Or was it both their books in tandem that made most people believe there was this warfare? 

I think that Draper’s book, which came out in 1874, really got the concept on the stage of people’s thinking and when Whites’ book came out in 1896. Most historians who’ve treated this period say that White’s book really cemented the impression. And one of the things that White’s book did differently was where Draper had blamed principally Catholicism for being an obstacle to science. White made sure to be more equitable, and he found lots of things to accuse Protestants of also. So White gave a a more even portrayal of all of institutional Christianity acting as an obstacle to science. 

One of the reasons I wanted you on the show to talk about this is that you recently came out with this massive new encyclopedia of unbelief. It’s getting incredible reviews everywhere, and it has contributions from leading thinkers all over the world on all kinds of subjects, not just this battle between science and religion. You’ve written entries in the encyclopedia on Draper and White. Tell me what you mean. In your article. You say that there was a substantial dose of irony in the way their science and religion books were received by the educated public reading them at that day. 

Well, there was a certain amount of irony with Draper coming from the fact that his personal religious beliefs appeared to be so muddled. There were fragments of Methodism, fragments of scientific rationalism as we would term it, and a good deal of logical positivism. So when his personal views came out in his book, it sometimes added to a certain sense of confusion. Hard to tell where he was coming from. In the case of Andrew Dickson White. The irony is far more pronounced. What White intended to do with his book was he wanted to preserve what he considered pure religion against the excesses of theology. His book was titled A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology and Christian Domain by Theology. He meant religion used as a tool to try and develop truths about the physical world. And so when religion is treading on science’s turf, that got White’s hackles up. Exactly. So White was a great believer in what we would think of as a very liberal religion, sort of a Unitarian position. In fact, White worshiped at a Unitarian church in Ithaca while he was president of Cornell. So White wanted to defend this pure spiritual religion against the dangers to religion of getting involved in science, its turf. He wound up being hugely misinterpreted, which is pretty understandable when you read him for someone who wanted to protect religion from itself. He certainly wrote some ringing passages condemning religion in general terms. And the message that most thinking Victorians got from this book and from Draper’s before it was that religion was inherently at war with science and religion was on the side of darkness and science was on the side of light. White was so unhappy with the way his work was understood that he devoted most of the rest of his life, including a gigantic autobiography trying to clarify what he’d meant. So that was the irony. White wound up cementing in Victorian thought a view of religion as a monolith opposed to science that was never what he meant to convey. 

So neither of them were atheists out with an agenda, atheistic scientists trying to diminish the role of religion in society or culture. They had a far more limited agenda that was widely misunderstood. 

Oh, exactly. White, in particular, often contrasted himself to the scoffing stance. That was the word he used of Robert Green Ingersoll. One of the things that dismayed him about his book was how well it sold through atheist and freethinking booksellers. 

So, Tom, we’ve gotten a little into the history of this idea. I want to at least touch a tad on the merits of the argument before we continue our conversation about the history of the idea. Isn’t it true that religious ideas have actually fueled scientific discovery, kind of contre white and Draper’s argument? Religion has been good for science in the history of Western science. Look at Kepler’s laws or the development physics in the 19th century. It’s a historical fact also that many scientists. Before the profession developed in the 19th century, they were actually clergy or other religious thinkers. 

Well, that’s true, of course. If you go back a few hundred years, most people who had any sort of higher education were clergy. Isaac Newton had very strong religious ideas, which he viewed as going hand-in-hand with his science. Although when we look back at Newton’s work today, it’s difficult to see that his religious views actually contributed to the work he was doing in the sciences. There certainly have been times where religion has been helpful to the advance of science in individual cases. But I think it’s worked the other way more often than not. 

We’ve been talking mostly about these two historians in the late 19th century kind of scientist historians, but their arguments lived well into the present. Even so, Tom, in his 1999 book Rocks of Ages, the late great Stephen Jay Gould argued that religion and science properly understood, don’t conflict. He kind of argued contra the widespread impression of the arguments of Draper and White. He opened his book by treating the arguments of Andrew Dickson White right. 

The reason Gould felt he needed to write that book was that the ideas that Draper and White had cemented in the culture had become just so much a part of the ideological furniture that most thoughtful 20th century Westerners assumed that science and religion were at war. Now, Gould wanted to reverse that. He’d had a long history as an activist for evolution education and found that the military metaphor was often used by people on the Christian right who were trying to keep evolution education out of schools. And so Gould wanted to make peace between science and religion strategically or also philosophically. 

Do you think he was just motivated for the kind of strategic uses of finding a different metaphor? 

I think there was a strong element of that. And one of the reasons I think so is that his efforts to create a philosophical rapprochement between science and religion really weren’t very good. If you look back at the corpus of Gould’s work, probably his weakest work was where he was trying to proclaim this non overlapping magisterial item, which basically he was saying that if you understood science and religion properly, they never conflicted. But if you understood science, religion, the way Gould wanted us to understand them, that had very little in common with the way most scientists think of science and most religious people think of religion. Gould defined religion as having nothing to say about the real world, speaking only about issues of meaning and ethics. And he spoke of science as having absolutely no ethical implications and having nothing to say about the meaning of life. Well, I know a lot of religious people who think their faith tells them some very specific things about the real world and how you ought to interact in the real world and how the universe is made. And I know lots of thoughtful, educated scientific people who get very strong ethical guidance from the beliefs that they’ve formed about the real world through the application of scientific principles. So Gould tried very hard to create what I think was an artificial division and created a kind of caricature of religion and a caricature of science. And well, if you accepted those strangled definitions, they certainly didn’t conflict. Now, how did White come into this? Gould opened his book, Rocks of Ages. His first chapter was a meditation on white. And I have to say, in Gould’s defense, Gould read what White actually said, which most people didn’t. And Gould went out of his way to point out, Here’s poor Andrew Dickson White. He was trying to save pure religion, much like the kind of religion Gould wants to talk about from the people who would put religion on science’s turf. Nobody heard that message. Instead, they heard this message that science and religion generally are at war. That’s wrong. Gould did read quite accurately and it said one of relatively few people who have. But the argument that he produces, I think, is very troubled. And I think it’s it’s a modern day demonstration of why White was so misunderstood. White’s own argument about saving pure religion from theology made of pure religion, something so diffuse, so without substance that it couldn’t get a good anchor in people’s thinking, in people’s hearts. And so observers tended to drift over to reading his rather inflammatory rhetoric and saying, no, religion itself is the. 

Do you think that Gould’s theory, the Ngoma theory, is the consensus view among scientists today? I mean, you look at some scientists, some leading scientific thinkers now arguing almost on the side of Draper and White or at least the public’s reception, you know, their view of what Draper and White’s arguments were. You look at people like Richard Dawkins and others, their influence seems like Gould is on the way out. At least the Ngoma theory. 

It’s certainly at best a minority position. I think there are there are three principal positions that we can look at. One is Gould’s position in the non overlapping Major Styria. Probably most people in the scientific community find that a little bit too extreme. Eugenie Scott, the evolution education campaigner, has placed an emphasis on what she calls methodological naturalism rather than philosophical naturalism, which is to say, under methodological naturalism, we scientists are going to do our science as though there is no supernatural realm. But we don’t insist that that’s a fact. And as a method of procedure, there’s nothing wrong with that. And I think, a, I think you’d find a larger number of scientists to hold to a sort of methodological naturalism position rather than agreeing with Gould’s Ngoma thesis. I suspect you’d find a majority of scientists on the side of figures like Richard Dawkins, assuming that there is on some level a warfare between science and religion. Dawkins certainly paints it in very vivid terms. And I think among actual working scientists, you’d find a shared assumption that science has been an obstacle to religion. But. How bad a problem it is, how urgent a problem it is. There’s probably a good deal of, you know, a spectrum of different attitudes. 

So I hear you saying now it’s not just these two figures from the late 19th century who are wrapped up in this argument, but a lot of thinkers, a lot of scientists are invested in it and have a position one way or the other. I mentioned to Dawkins also there was recently a whole program devoted to the issue at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. One of their meetings, how to best navigate communicating these ideas of the warfare between science and religion to the public. But the issue is really complex. There are a lot of people in science and also people in the religious camp who work hard to show that there’s no conflict. I think of the Templeton Foundation. Now, there are also people in each camp who work hard to show that there is this real war between science and religion and have ideas about how to best wage that war. Let me finish by asking you where you come out. You seem to agree more with some fundamentalist Christians on this point than with some historians of science about whether or not there’s a war between science and religion. 

A lot depends on the kind of religion you have in mind for a believer in a sort of fundamentalist Christianity that holds that the earth is 10000 years old, was created in seven literal days, et cetera, et cetera. Obviously, there’s a huge amount of scientific evidence that directly undercuts that worldview. That kind of religion is assuredly at war with science on a broader level. And here probably war is too strong a term. But I think there’s just a basic philosophical mismatch between the scientific method, which is always open to change. Always open to new information from the outside world has all sorts of error catching systems built into it. I think there’s an inherent conflict between that and the typical religious viewpoint, which tends to be more authoritarian based on faith. It supports assigning high certainty to subjective impressions with very little opportunity for error checking. So when we look at it that way, I think there is definitely a strong contrast between the scientific impulse, if you will, and the religious impulse and viewed on that level. I don’t think there’s a great deal of question that the scientific impulses done a lot more good for the human community. 

You’re talking about it doing more good. You’re kind of equating the scientific impulse with progress. A lot of science types, listeners to point of inquiry, people who like what CFI does see science as continuous almost with progress, social progress and religion as something that kind of holds progress back. Like when you think about issues such as stem cell research, birth control, creationism versus evolution you mentioned. So that’s the sense that you see religion and science, if not being at war, at least being at conflict. But you’re saying that as an activist, as a social as a person with a social agenda, not as an historian of science. 

Oh, very much so. I think the principal issue here, when you really get down to it, has to do with the way that scientific methods help human beings overcome some of the natural shortcomings in their own ways of thinking and gathering information about the environment in this broad sense. Most traditional religions accept and celebrate some of the byproducts of human thinking that aren’t so great. Our tendency to anthropomorphized overgeneralize, to have very poor understanding of statistical issues and so on, to be xenophobic. All of these things and contrast the scientific myth that gives us this wonderful inter subjective technique where numbers of people can come together and as a group overcome these cognitive weaknesses that are part of our human heritage and call me an activist. I think that’s immensely powerful and I think that’s immensely good. Thanks so much for joining me again on point of Inquiry Tom Flynn. Thanks, T.J.. It was great. 

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DJ Grothe

D.J. Grothe is on the Board of Directors for the Institute for Science and Human Values, and is a speaker on various topics that touch on the intersection of education, science and belief. He was once the president of the James Randi Educational Foundation and was former Director of Outreach Programs for the Center for Inquiry and associate editor of Free Inquiry magazine. He previously hosted the weekly radio show and podcast Point of Inquiry, exploring the implications of the scientific outlook with leading thinkers.