There is a persistent myth that science and religion are historical opponents — the Roman church pulls out big guns when a scientist appears. In fact, science itself wasn’t even a respectable “profession” until the 18th century — really, the 19th — and to this day scientists are just as likely to be religious as anybody else. Newton, Kepler, Boyle, Darwin, even Galileo — they all believed in God.
Yet I know at the Cranbrook Academy for Boys, where I misspent by youth, I was told that the Catholic Church martyred Galileo and the Scopes Monkey Trial was typical of the church-truth relationship.
“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.” — Gary Ferngren, “Science & Religion” (p.ix)
No, the myth of warfare is just that: a story, written by a person, that went viral and spun out of control until it found its way into textbooks (since revised). Unlike other myths, in the case of this so-called Conflict Thesis, we actually know the writer.
Hola, John William Draper! Draper was an English minister’s son — see trouble a-comin?! — who studied chemistry and emigrated to Virginia in the 1830s, and later became a chemistry professor at New York University. He claimed to have taken the first photograph of a person ever (his sister) and the first photo of the surface of the moon.
Draper wrote prolifically, and in the 1870s was asked to contribute a volume to a popular series published by Yeomans on the topic of Science & Religion. In 1874, he published his instant best-seller “History of the Conflict between Religion and Science.” Hugely popular, widely translated, it set the tone for mainstream understanding of the topic to this day.
In fact, the book is still in print, with great atheists like Richard Dawkins citing it as a credible witness to the evils of religion, and lowly Amazon reviewers crowing, “I found this to be an amazing book!” (Jake D, Louisiana)
Sadly, what its many New Atheist fans don’t know is that Draper’s book has been thoroughly, entirely and devastatingly dismissed as a credible work of historiography for decades now. Historian Colin Russell summarizes the verdict: “Draper takes such liberty with history, perpetuating legends as fact, that he is rightly avoided today in serious historical study” (from Encyclopedia of the History of Science and Religion, p. 15).
Draper’s book is basically anti-Catholic propaganda, the kind of polemic 21st century Americans have forgotten. (Draper’s sister — to whom he was, um, oddly close — converted to Catholicism and changed, as he saw it, not for the better.) In the mid-19th century, “Catholic” had many of the same connotations “Communist” would come to have a century later: anti-American, foreign, totalitarian, sneaky. There were violent anti-Catholic riots in Philadelphia in 1844, for example, and 20 people DIED. Yikes.
As a historian, Draper is a fine chemist. He’s sloppy, doesn’t cite sources, takes quotes wildly out of context, makes unsupported assertions, and radically distorts the facts. All leading up to “Chapter XII. THE IMPENDING CRISIS” — which is … you can guess, or wait till next time.