The Faith-Science "War" Debunked


The conflict or warfare model of science and religion says that scientific inquiry and religious faith, particularly the Catholic faith, have been intractably opposed to each other throughout history.  According to this model, there is no possibility of harmony between science and faith, because they are rival ways of explaining the universe, with the proponents of each fighting each other for supremacy.  This has become a deeply rooted assumption in the minds of many Americans, and recent research reveals that the perspective of many young Catholics in America today has been shaped by it --- indeed, as many as 70% of Catholic “emerging adults,” according to sociologist Christian Smith. 

In Part I of this article, I will examine the origins of the conflict model, including the historical context and the specific persons and events that gave rise to it.  This will give some insight into why these ideas, though false, were found so persuasive when first proposed and achieved the enormous influence that persists to this day. 

In Part II, I will show that the Catholic Church’s theological tradition, as embodied in a number of great thinkers, reveals a very different approach to the relation of science and faith than suggested by the conflict model, and that this tradition contains important principles that can guide us today in presenting the gospel to a culture that is increasingly shaped by science.

Part I. Origins of the Conflict Model

The conflict model of science and faith can be traced to the late 19th century and the work of two American authors, whose historical claims were discredited both then and repeatedly since by serious historians.  One of them was a scientist and popular history writer named John William Draper, and the other a historian named Andrew Dickson White.  It is no exaggeration to say that these two men together invented the model, which so many today still accept as unquestionable.  In fact, it is often simply called the Draper and White Conflict Thesis by historians.  To understand its origins, we have to go back several centuries and recognize three trends, two intellectual and one sociocultural, that set the stage for the success of Draper and White. 

The first intellectual development, which goes back to the 17th century, was a suspicion of any Christian doctrines other than moral teachings.  Terms such as “dogma,” “divine mystery,” and “articles of faith” began to be used pejoratively to imply foolishness and fear of progress --- and even religious deception.  This is best captured in a letter that Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1816 to his friend, the Dutch minister Adrian van der Kemp, about the dogma of the Trinity: “Ridicule,” he wrote, “is the only weapon which can be used against unintelligible propositions.  Ideas must be distinct before reason can act upon them; and no man ever had a distinct idea of the trinity.  It is the mere Abracadabra of the [tricksters] calling themselves the priests of Jesus.” 1

By the late nineteenth century, dogmas had begun to be seen by many as anti-rational, the products of blind, dangerous faith. Many thought that science should replace dogmas through a crusade to rescue religion from irrational ideas. Lost to view was the recognition that Christian dogmas can be rational, even though they relate to realities that are by their nature not fully comprehensible by the human mind, concerning as they do the self-revelation of God rather than facts about the physical universe and its laws.

The second intellectual trend took place in the 19th century and was much more positive.  The various fields which we now call “science,” such as physics, chemistry, biology, etc., were becoming professionalized, taking on a whole new level of respectability and exciting popular enthusiasm through the new knowledge and industrial and medical benefits they were producing.  For science, it was one of the best of times.  This was the age of Lyell’s geology giving the first glimpse of the ancient age of the earth, of Pasteur’s germ theory, and above all of Darwin’s Origin of Species.  As a result, science as we define it today began to stand out as a specific and separate pursuit. This even led to a change in vocabulary.  Before the nineteenth century, the word “science” (from Latin “scientia” meaning “knowledge”) referred to any knowledge demonstrated logically, including theological knowledge.  The words “philosophy” and “science” were often treated as synonyms, as in the title of a book published in 1821: Elements of the Philosophy of Plants Containing the Scientific Principles of Botany.  But by the late nineteenth century the terms “science” and “scientific method” began to be associated exclusively with the study of the physical universe through observation and experiment.  This change in perception added new words to the English vocabulary, terms such as “scientist” and “physicist,” which were coined in 1833 by the Anglican theologian and natural philosopher William Whewell (1794-1866).2  Sadly, the restriction of the science “word family” to one kind of human knowledge left open the possibility that other areas of knowledge such as philosophy, art, morality, poetry and theology could be considered as unfruitful, subjective flights of fancy by comparison.

The third trend, Anglo-American in its roots, was sociocultural: the rise of anti-Catholic prejudice, even mania, in the United States as a response to the large influx of Irish and other Catholic immigrants that began in the mid-1840’s.  From the perspective of the Catholic Church in America, the mid-to-late-19th century was one of the worst of times, and the decade of the 1870’s marked a high-point of anti-Catholic prejudice.  The American bishops were seeking tax exempt status for tuition at Catholic schools, and the battle was fierce.  In 1871, in Harper’s Weekly, the famous political cartoonist Thomas Nast published what many regard as one of his most powerful images, “The American River Ganges.”  The image shows a Protestant public school teacher, with a Bible tucked in his waistcoat, shielding a group of young children from menacing crocodiles, who are creeping up the shore in order to devour them.  When the crocodiles are viewed closely, one realizes that their jaws are ornate, jewel-encrusted miters, and that the predators are actually Irish Catholic bishops.  On the cliff, the New York politician William Tweed, aka Boss Tweed, and his cohorts are handing children down to be devoured.  Behind him there is a gallows and Lady Liberty is being led away to be hanged.  Across the water is what looks like St. Peter’s Basilica, but the name inscribed on it is Tammany Hall, the Democratic Party political machine run by Boss Tweed.  Over the colonnade of the basilica can be seen the words “The Political Roman Catholic School.”  The U.S. Public School in the foreground is crumbling.  

The majority of Catholic immigrants were poor and illiterate, which gave their religion an air of ignorance and superstition to non-Catholics.  A largely successful attempt to forbid public aid to Catholic schools drew upon these prejudices and upon fears that Catholics secretly wanted to bring the entire nation under the political control of the pope by corrupting education.  A bias against the possibility of Catholics being open to the progress of knowledge ruled the day.

Science was identified with Progress, and Catholicism with backwardness.  Science brought knowledge, whereas Catholicism with its dogmas and mysteries was seen as fostering ignorance.  This was the soil in which false claims about the history of the Church and science could take root and flourish, and such claims were not long in coming.

In 1874, John William Draper (1811-1882), a successful American chemist and early innovator of photography, published his book entitled History of the Conflict between Religion and Science.  He begins by making a generalized judgment: “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 [traditional] faith.” 3  Shortly after this declaration, he qualifies it by proclaiming the innocence of Protestant and Eastern Orthodox Christians, who he claims have never opposed the advancement of knowledge and have always had “a reverential attitude to truth, from whatever quarter it might come.” He later refers to Protestantism as the “twin-sister” of science. The true religious enemy of science is the Roman Catholic Church, which he indicts for rejecting science and using violent means to maintain power over its adherents with the long-term goal of gaining total political supremacy over all peoples:

In speaking of Christianity [in this book], reference is generally made to the Roman Church --- none of the Protestant Churches has ever occupied a position so imperious --- none has ever had such widespread political influence ... .  But in the Vatican --- we have only to recall the Inquisition --- the hands that are now raised in appeals to the Most Merciful are crimsoned.  They have been steeped in blood! 4

Throughout the rest of the book, Draper alleges conflict after conflict between the Catholic Church and science while offering little or no evidence.  He makes up details and presents them as facts. He rearranges sequences of events in order to support his position.  He selects quotes that seem to support his case and fails to give the context, even leaving out parts of quoted statements that call into question his interpretation of them. 

To take a typical instance, Draper condemns St. Augustine (354-430) for teaching that the sky is stretched out like a flat skin over a flat earth.  Actually, St. Augustine quotes Psalm 104:2 (“Lord my God, you are great indeed ... you stretched out the sky like a skin”) in order to demonstrate his principle that the Bible must be read figuratively, not literally, in its depictions of natural phenomena.  He actually affirms the very position Draper accuses him of rejecting: “rational arguments,”  St. Augustine concludes, “inform us that the sky has the shape of a hollow globe all round us.” 5

Draper ends the book with his own prophecy of doom for religion and victory for science:

As to the issue of the coming conflict, can anyone doubt?  Whatever is resting on fiction and fraud will be overthrown.  Institutions that organize impostures and spread delusions must show what right they have to exist.  Faith must render an account of herself to Reason. Mysteries must give place to facts.  Religion must relinquish that imperious, that domineering position which she has so long maintained against Science.6

Despite his fury and contempt for religion, especially Catholicism, or more likely because of it, Draper’s book was an instant success. The Conflict outsold every other book in the series in which it was included. Since then it has been reprinted 50 times and has been translated into ten languages.  Even today, it remains readily available.

Numerous critics emerged to respond to Draper’s work, including Orestes Brownson, the celebrated intellectual and Catholic convert.  A common theme of their criticisms was that The Conflict seemed to be written with the primary aim of achieving best-seller status rather than historical accuracy.  In the May 23, 1875 issue of the San Francisco newspaper The Daily Alta California, one reviewer put it this way: “He may be a rhapsodist, but he is no historian. He is neither unprejudiced nor painstaking.  If he investigate(d) authorities, he does not dare to cite them to sustain his ballooning [allegations].  His book is an immense pretension.”  The anonymous author of this review knew that the facts of history were often the opposite of what Draper claimed and he showed that Draper was not invincibly ignorant but could have known better had he done any serious research.  He corrected Draper on three claims.  First, he noted that the murder of the philosopher Hypatia by a mob in Alexandria, Egypt, in 413 AD was not animated by Christian fear and envy of her skill in mathematics and science but by politics.  Second, he noted that Giordano Bruno was executed by the Roman Inquisition not for his belief in a plurality of worlds and a heaven filled with “space and stars,” as Draper claimed,7 but for theological heresies.  And, third, he pointed out that Galileo’s condemnation had more to do with his recklessness and lack of discretion than an entrenched ecclesiastical or theological antagonism toward cosmologies that “threatened” the assertions of the Bible.  And these criticisms by Draper’s contemporaries were not wrong. Historians of science today dismiss Draper’s book as an exercise in propaganda rather than scholarship.8  

Andrew Dickson White (1832-1918) was an American historian, who in 1865 co-founded Cornell University, the first purely secular institution of higher learning in the United States.  This led to strong criticism of him for separating learning from religion --- criticism that came mostly from competitors at Protestant institutions of higher education.  In response, White decided to write a book showing that both religion and science would be better off once “dogmatic theology,” a subject not included in the curriculum at Cornell, was fully overcome.  “I will give them a lesson which they will remember,” he wrote to his friend Ezra Cornell in 1869.9

White delivered this “lesson” to his opponents over the next 27 years, during which he published 27 articles, which he finally brought together in in 1896 in a two-volume work called History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom.  He begins the book by praising Draper for “his work of great ability” and then goes on to repeat many of Draper’s errors, including one that is widely believed to this day: the flat-earth “dogma.”  White claims that until Christopher Columbus’s time the majority of Christian thinkers had insisted on biblical grounds that the earth was flat, and that the flatness of the earth was practically a dogma of the Church.  In reality, only two Christian authors of record, the early Christian writer Lactantius and the relatively obscure 6th-century Greek traveler and monk Cosmas Indicopleustes, had ever argued that the earth was flat. Whereas, by contrast, St. Augustine, St. Jerome, St. Ambrose, St. Albert the Great and many other ancient and medieval Christian theologians testified to the rotundity of the earth, as did such major popular writers as Dante and Chaucer.  In fact, St. Thomas Aquinas, in the very first article of the first question of the first book of his enormous Summa Theologiae says, “Sciences are differentiated according to the various means through which knowledge is obtained.  For the astronomer and the natural philosopher both may prove the same conclusion, for instance that the earth is round, [but they do so in different ways].” 10

Despite this mountain of evidence, White portrays the entire Christian tradition as committed to a flat earth and presents Lactantius and Cosmas as typical.  To add a touch of drama, he adopts Washington Irving’s fictional account of Christopher Columbus struggling unsuccessfully to convince Catholic priests and professors that the earth is spherical at the University of Salamanca in 1487:

The warfare of Columbus the world knows well, … how sundry wise men of Spain confronted him with the usual quotations from the Psalms, from St. Paul, and from St. Augustine; how, even after he was triumphant, and after his voyage had greatly strengthened the theory of the earth’s sphericity … the Church by its highest authority solemnly stumbled and persisted in going astray.11

Had White done his homework, he would have discovered that all parties at Salamanca agreed with Columbus that the earth is spherical. What they debated was not the shape of the earth but its size.  Columbus thought the earth small enough that he could reach Asia with sufficient supplies, while his opponents very well knew that it was much larger than that (and their estimates of the earth’s circumference were quite accurate).  What neither side could know was that between Europe and Asia lay the Americas --- luckily for Columbus,

The “one-two punch” of Draper’s and White’s books has had a remarkable, long-lasting effect on popular opinion.  Appealing to the prejudices of their day and riding the wave of enthusiasm for scientific progress, they created the very conflict they claimed to resolve.  The errors and misrepresentations they foisted upon their readers are now routinely repeated as historical facts by non-historians and have been given new life in the work of science popularizers such as Neil DeGrasse Tyson, who in his 2014 TV series Cosmos adopted Draper’s account of the execution of Giordano Bruno.  The flat-earth “dogma” idea is now so widespread that many have been taught it in elementary school.  In 2012, even U.S. President Barack Obama repeated it in a jibe against political opponents: “If some of these folks were around when Columbus set sail, they probably would have been founding members of the Flat Earth Society.  They would not have believed that the world was round.”

If Draper and White created the completely false story that Catholic Church has been hostile to science, what is the true story? How have the Church and her theologians understood the relation of science and faith?  That is the subject of Part II of this article. [Part II will appear here next month.]

[Prof. Christopher T. Baglow is a theologian at the University of Notre Dame and the author of the first textbook on science and religion for use in Catholic schools: Faith, Science and Reason: Theology on the Cutting Edge, 2nd edition  (Midwest Theological Forum, 2019).  He also serves as Liaison on the Executive Board of the Society of Catholic Scientists.]


1… Thomas Jefferson, “Letter to Francis Adrian Van der Kemp,” 30 July 1816,

2… Sydney Ross, “Scientist: the story of a word,” Annals of Science 18:2 (1962): 71-72.

3… John William Draper, History of the Conflict between Religion and Science, Vol. XII, The International Scientific Series (New York: D. Appleton, 1874), vi.

4… Ibid., x-xi.

5… St. Augustine, De Genesi ad Litteram, Book II.21.

6… Draper, 367.

7… Ibid., 179.

8… See Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths of Science and Religion, a collection of essays by noted experts published in 2009, which includes discussions of several of the historical myths invented by Draper.

9… Andrew Dickson White, “Letter to Ezra Cornell,” 3 August 1869, as quoted in James R. Moore, The Post-Darwinian Controversies: A Study of the Protestant Struggle to Come to Terms with Darwin in Great Britain and America (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979), 35.

10… St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae  I.1.1 ad 2.

11… Andrew Dickson White, History of the Warfare of Science with Religion, Vol. I (New York: D. Appleton, 1894), 48.